Skip to content

Orthodox Christian Worldview Essay

Orthodox Ecology

Beyond the Shattered Image
by John Chryssavgis
Minneapolis, Minnesota: Light & Life Publishing, 1999
(192 pages; $12.95, paper)

reviewed by Vincent Rossi

For most environmentalists, theology remains a last resort, if they resort to it at all. This generalization stands, I believe, despite the new academic interest in religion and ecology. Even if secular environmentalists are now actively seeking theology’s support, it is not as the “queen of the sciences” that they turn to theology, but merely as a form of eco-ethics buttressed by the supposed moral support of “religion” in general.

For those, however, who are genuinely interested in the interface between religion and the environment as a first line of defense against the rape of nature, a restored theological vision capable of overcoming a disastrously individualistic and anthropocentric worldview and reintegrating God, man, and the natural world is a vision-quest worthy of every effort. Arguably, the deepest ecological thinking, the widest and most inclusive scope of environmental reconciliation, and the loftiest and most complete cosmic vision and spirituality are to be found in the riches of the Orthodox Christian theological tradition.

Beyond the Shattered Image, authored by Greek Orthodox theologian, teacher, and deacon John Chryssavgis, aims to present the full ecological significance of the Orthodox Christian worldview in its deepest, widest, and highest sense. It is a tribute to the maturity and clarity of the author’s thought that he is able to accomplish this task in a slim volume of less than 200 pages, and to present an essentially Eastern Orthodox perspective in such an attractive, irenic, and winsome way that it should appeal across the denominational board.

The heart of an Orthodox ecological worldview, according to Chryssavgis, consists of the vision, the conception, and, above all, the experience of the world as sacrament. To know and accept the sacramentality of the world in a truly effective way—that is, in a way that transforms the way we think, feel, and act toward the creation—requires, to begin with, a conceptual awareness of the Divine Presence in the world as reciprocal transcendence and immanence and, developing upon that conception, an experiential realization of that Presence in all created things. Now as God alone is sacred and the source of the sacred, a sense of God’s presence in and involvement with the created order is experienced by the believer as a sense of the sacred in creation. The creation as such is not considered sacred in the Orthodox tradition, but the creation as a sure sign of God’s will, providence, and purpose is a traditional teaching of the Church as ancient as St. Athanasius, as bold as St. Basil, as complete as Chrysostom, and as cosmically unifying as St. Maximus the Confessor. The creation is a revelation of the sacred—that is, the presence of Divine Providence, Justice, and Purpose—in and through the world. Furthermore, if every life-form, indeed, every created object reveals in its own way the presence and purpose of God, then every created thing is also a symbol—that is, a visible and material form that not only represents but literally re-presents the invisible and beyond-the-physical dimensions of reality. “All creation,” says Chryssavgis, “is a palpable mystery, an immense incarnation of cosmic proportions.”

The linchpin of Orthodox cosmology, according to Chryssavgis, is unquestionably the sacramental principle. The sacramental principle is the means by which “we understand the world around us as being sacred.” The world around us—which is, not coincidentally, the basic definition of environment—is not conceived in the Orthodox tradition as a conglomeration of objects, life-forms, and processes without intrinsic meaning, but a vast revelation of God, called by the Fathers of the Church the “Book of Nature,” composed of numberless logoi or “words of God.” All created beings, according to St. Maximus, are living symbols that reveal as well as conceal the presence and purpose of God in creation. The sacred, the sacrament, and the symbol: for Chryssavgis, these three elements form the basis of the sacramental ecology of the Orthodox tradition.

The sacred, sacramental, and symbolic dimensions of creation in the Orthodox worldview may be summed up in the saying of St. John of Damascus that “the whole world is a single icon of God.” The world is beautiful, and beauty, according to the Greek patristic tradition, is one of the names of God, and a sign of God’s presence in creation. Cosmos, as Dr. Chryssavgis reminds us, means the ordered harmony that is the very essence of beauty.

But what of the ugliness, disorder, disfiguration, and desecration of creation by mankind? Dr. Chryssavgis does not ignore the ugliness of evil and the evil of ugliness, but faces squarely the shattered image of the creation now being deformed in the image of human sinfulness. He does so with a note of optimism, the optimism of the Orthodox Christian tradition, which points us “beyond the shattered image” to the redeemed and reconciled creation that even now to the purified sensibilities of the saint reveals the true image behind, beyond, and within creation: the face of God. He writes,

the sacramental character of creation defies all sacrilege on our part, reminding us at all times that the world embodies the divine . . . it is as though the face of the earth were like the Image of God—seen and yet also unseen. And it is as though the face of the world were like a human face—sketched but not completed. Ugliness and destruction only and ultimately confirm the promise of beauty and integration. The deformation of the earth’s countenance calls for an involvement in the reconstruction of the world’s authentic vision and goal . . . desacralization must be the first step leading towards transfiguration; division must lead us back to reconciliation of all; consumerism demands a corresponding asceticism. (pp. 178–179)

Asceticism is an ever-present dimension in Orthodox Christian theology, and Dr. Chryssavgis faithfully represents that dimension in every aspect of his ecological theology. In the longest and pivotal chapter of this book, entitled “The World as Sacrament,” and in almost every other chapter in Beyond the Shattered Image, most notably, chapter four, “Divine Immanence and Divine Transcendence”; chapter five, “The Sacredness of Creation”; chapter six, “The Desert Is Alive”; chapter seven, “The World of the Icon”; and chapter nine, “The Privilege of Despair,” Chryssavgis is fully in line with the Orthodox tradition in prescribing ascetic practice as the key to transforming the effects of human activity upon the environment from estrangement to atonement, from disfiguration to transfiguration, from desecration and destruction to consecration and (in the best and most spiritual sense of the term) conservation.

Until his death in 1995, Philip Sherrard was perhaps the most potent and prophetic voice on behalf of the Church’s vocation to heal the earth in Orthodox theology. Sherrard saw this ecological vocation of the Church as grounded in the immanent presence of God in creation and especially in man as God’s image, viceroy, and priest. Because of God’s immanence in creation, revealed most decisively and completely in the Incarnation of the God-man, Jesus Christ, all nature has a “theological” dimension. Apropos this ecological dimension of theology, he observes: “If I speak of nature as theological, I mean precisely this: that its underlying reality is divine and that it participates in this divinity. If I speak of man’s existence as theological, I mean the same thing.”1 With the notable exception of the statements on behalf of environmental responsibility of the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew, of the writings on creation of Ignatius, patriarch of Antioch, and the lectures on the Orthodox theology of creation of Archbishop John Zizioulas and Bishop Kallistos Ware, recent Orthodox theology, environmentally speaking, has drifted in the absence of a voice that could speak on its behalf with Sherrard’s authority and passion.

With the publication of Beyond the Shattered Image, John Chryssavgis has established himself as the theological heir to Philip Sherrard in the field of Orthodox environmental theology. He writes with the same authority and passion, the same clarity and felicity of expression, but in a more irenic and open manner. Every pastor, every Christian, let alone every member of the Orthodox Church, who seeks to be faithful to the Church’s vocation “for the life of the world,” should read this book.

Note:

1. Philip Sherrard, The Sacred in Life and Art (Ipswich, Massachusetts: Golgonooza Press, 1990), p. 5.

Vincent Rossi is an Orthodox lay theologian, teacher, and author of numerous articles on Orthodox theology, asceticism, and cosmology. He has workd in recent years on establishing an Orthodox environmental society, and on ways to “open the Book of Nature” in the manner of the great cosmologists of the early Church.


29.1—Jan/Feb 2016

Wilberforce for Good

on Marriage, Moral Corruption & the Christian Duty of Witness by Regis Nicoll

24.6—Nov/Dec 2011

Liberty, Conscience & Autonomy

How the Culture War of the Roaring Twenties Set the Stage for Today’s Catholic & Evangelical Alliance by Barry Hankins

26.1—Jan/Feb 2013

The Destroyer of Peace

on Abortion as a Matter of National Welfare by W. Ross Blackburn

Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!

Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more from the online archives

The Eastern family of churches, today called the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches, go back to the very earliest days of Christianity. During the first four centuries of the Christian era, Christianity had spread not only into the Roman and Byzantine Empires, but also into the present-day Middle East, North Africa, and India. They were united through a pentarchy that revered patriarchal sees in Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. Following the Council of Chalcedon in 451, however, the Christological controversies led by Nestorius and Cyril influenced the first major fissure in the Church. The Oriental Orthodox Church rejected the decree that the nature of Christ is equally human and divine. Christians of Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, Armenia, India, Iraq, and Iran either formally followed these men into schism or quietly fell off the Greco-Roman radar due to vast distances and difficult terrain. Many of these communities would later become known as the Oriental Orthodox churches. Furthermore, in the centuries that followed, the growing estrangement between the Roman and Greek Christians eventually led to the second major schism of 1054, which led to a crisis point as the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other. The institutions headed by each became known respectively as the (Roman) Catholic Church and the (Eastern) Orthodox Churches.

The distinctive theologies and liturgies of the Orthodox churches has continued into the twenty-first century. One particularly characteristic theological stance of the Christ event, for example, is the emphasis upon the incarnation of Christ as a means to raise human nature to the Divine. As Athanasius put it in the fourth century, “the Son of God became man so that man might become God.” This emphasis on theosis, “becoming divine,” stands in contrast to the heavy emphasis on human sinfulness present in much of the theology of the Western churches.

Monasticism was an important part of the early church tradition, as devout men and women left urban life and the growing institutions of the church for a life of devotion to God in prayer and simplicity. Monastic life began as early as the fourth century, with St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers of Egypt, in whom both Eastern and Western traditions of monasticism find their source and inspiration. As Eastern monasticism developed, it included both communal and solitary religious life and emphasized physical austerity. From these early centuries onward, the Eastern traditions also developed practices of inner contemplative prayer called the “prayer of the heart” and the “Jesus prayer.” These forms of concentration and breath-centered prayer have been preserved in the spiritual treasury of the church to the present day.

As part of a rich spiritual and liturgical traditions, the Orthodox churches also developed the distinctive use of pictorial icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. These icons were understood to be windows into the sacred meaning and presence of these figures, not mere representations of them. The second council of Nicaea in 787 affirmed the role of icons in the face of virulent criticism from those who objected to any visual images in worship.

During the seventh century, Christianity encountered the challenge of Islam, a new religious tradition which gained ground in Palestine, Syria and Egypt, and from Anatolia to Spain. The great Dome of the Rock mosque was completed in Jerusalem in 692. Eight centuries later, the Byzantine Empire, centered at Constantinople, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The great centers of Orthodoxy, including Constantinople, became centers of Islamic rule, and its great churches became mosques. For hundreds of years, the encounter with Islam has been of significance and immediacy for Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Today, the Eastern Orthodox churches constitute a family of related churches, including the Greek, Russian, Bulgaria, Romanian, and Syrian churches, each with a rich history and distinctive liturgical forms. Oriental Orthodox churches include the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Eritrean Church, the Church of St. Thomas in India, and the Jacobite Syrian Church of Antioch. In 2001, a council of bishops representing both the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches declared their Christologies effectively consistent, citing linguistic and political factors for the historical disagreement. While the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental churches are not yet in full communion they, like the Eastern Catholic churches—those who are in communion with Rome but who follow Eastern traditions of worship—share very similar theology and practices. Reconciliation efforts continue today and the religious landscape of early twenty-first century America includes the presence of most of the churches of the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox family.