I love my adopted country; after all I've lived here nearly twenty years. However, by no stretch of the imagination can love for the environment be called a characteristic Greek trait. Although things are changing slowly, especially among the young, there is still illegal burning of forests for building land; boats still carelessly flush out their bilges, polluting the sea with petrol; many people still throw litter wherever they feel like it; in most municipalities, recycling is still a joke. This is astonishing, given the regard for the environment implicit in Orthodoxy from the earliest times.
As early as the fourth century, St. Basil the Great was writing, “In the beginning, God created a wonderful order …. A most desirable beauty. … You are now able to conceive the invisible through what is visible in the world … so that the earth, the air, the skies, the rains, the night and the day – in fact, everything that you can see – may be traces of the Creator … I want the created order to penetrate you with so much admiration that everywhere, wherever you may be, the least plant may bring to you the clear remembrance of the Creator.” This theme of the created world being an image of God has continued through the ensuing seventeen centuries. For example, in the nineteenth century, St. Silouan the Athonite wrote succinctly that “The heart that has learnt to love, has pity for all creation,” while Dostoyevsky had his character Zossima, based on St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, say, “Love all God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light! Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. And once you have perceived it, you will at last come to love the whole world with an abiding, universal love.”
In recent years, however, concern for the way we treat God's work has been expressed more explicitly by Orthodox theologians. Fr. John Chryssavgis, for example writes in “Beyond The Shattered Image”, “Every single thing on the face of the earth tells of the love of the Creator: it speaks aloud of the unity of God and of the at-one-ment between heaven and earth. That is, if it is allowed, if it is heard …. Indeed, there is a very vital sense in which everything in this world not only reveals but even fulfils the Kingdom of God. ….. This world, in spite of its shattered image, remains a completion of the heavenly kingdom. For, just as we are incomplete without the rest of animal and material creation, so too the kingdom of God remains incomplete without the world around us.” (By the way, I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in a much more detailed study of the topic than these brief notes.)
In 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios designated 1st September, the beginning of the Orthodox ecclesiastical year, as a “day for the protection of the environment,” confirming once and for all the deep respect for the environment that is central to Orthodox belief. Orthodox theology has never interpreted man’s ‘dominion’ over the created world as an excuse for tyranny or pillage. Rather, since the world was given to us by God, it is our duty to protect and enhance it. We are the custodians of the world, not its rulers and Patriarch Dimitrios makes this crystal clear: “Let us consider ourselves, each according to his or her position, to be personally responsible for the world, entrusted into our hands by God. Whatever the Son of God has assumed and made His body by His Incarnation should not perish. But it should become a eucharistic offering to the Creator, a life-giving bread, partaken in justice and love with the others, a hymn of peace for all creatures of God.”
His All Holiness Bartholomaios has continued the environmental work of the Patriarchate and, in 1997, summed up the Orthodox view of environmentalism succinctly: “To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for humans to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands; for humans to contaminate the earth’s waters, its lands, its air and its life with poisonous substances – these are sins.” Never one for words rather than action, the patriarch has been deeply involved in many environmental projects, details of which can be found on the Patriarchate website http://www.patriarchate.org/environment .
It's an uphill struggle, however, and maybe we'll just have to wait for the “new Heaven and new earth” foretold in the Bible to see a clean, unpolluted, sanctified world where “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” C. S. Lewis, in his wonderful Christian fable ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, describes the new creation charmingly: “Every rock and flower and blade of grass looked the same but as if it meant more.” In the meantime, we need to accept that care for the environment is not just a matter of self-preservation, important though this may be, but our Christian duty. To quote John Chryssavgis again, “I know that I should not treat people like things; but I need also to learn not to treat things like things. My presence in this world must enhance and embrace nature, not threaten or destroy it. … With regard to the environment, we are not the ‘good Samaritan’ but the ‘highway robbers.’” Fr. Amphilochius, one of the most outstanding monks of the 20th century was even more blunt: “Whoever does not love trees, does not love Christ.” Could this be the battle cry for a new movement of ‘Green Orthodox’?