Gaia vs. The World

Today, in the intense political aftermath of the USA inauguration, seems like a good time to blog about “The World.”

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Scripture tells us a lot about how we, as residents of the Heavenly Kingdom, relate to ‘the World.’ Particularly that we must reject it, not conform to it, and not trust it. For nonbelievers in particular, these passages seem to indicate that Christians therefore do not value the Natural World, the Earth. If that were true, this blog would have no purpose.

But of course it isn’t true. The New Testament language does not confuse one for the other, and is much more clear about the difference between World and Earth and why rejecting The World is actually essential to valuing the Earth. But, like other essential Biblical concepts (including Love), there’s a subtlety in the original language that is more easily overlooked after translation. What we often read in English language bibles as “The World” is actually several different words. Let’s start with a tour of Greek synonyms…

Gaia

Gaia is a Greek term (favored by New Age circles) that refers to the actual stuff you’re standing on. The dirt, the landscape, a country’s boundaries. Gaia is not really used in any particularly sentimental or spiritual way in the New Testament. It’s natural material. Gaia is not the stuff that Christians are taught to reject, at any point.

Aeon

When Paul teaches “Be not conformed to The World” (Romans 12:2) he is not saying anything about the Earth, but uses the word Aeon. Aeon is a time, but not seconds or hours. As in The Times, like “the times, they are a changin’.” The age we are in, the momentary trends, what’s popular and fashionable for a group of people. We say “Generation X” or “The Millennial Generation” but the Greeks might have said “Aeon X” or “Aeon Millennial.”  Aeon is ‘the world’ of culture a generation has created, the social structure of the moment. That’s why in the parable of the sower, Christ tells us that the seed choked out by the thorns represents the soul overcome by the “worries of this aeon” (Mat 13:22). Being worldly, in the sense of aeon, is tantamount to being trendy. Worldly-ness is living up to the expectations of the current aeon, instead of the expectations of God. Rejecting the aeon is not rejecting any material or natural thing– like Earth; it is only rejecting a social fashion.

Kosmos

Other biblical teachings to reject The World use a similar concept represented by the Greek word kosmos. Personally, I have a hard time hearing “cosmos” without imagining planets, stars, and asteroids, but kosmos is more general, indicating any kind of structure or order of many parts. That can be the structure/kosmos of the planets, or the structure/kosmos of society. When we speak of ‘cosmetics’ or ‘cosmopolitan,’ we mean ‘orderliness’ of beauty or city. In the New Testament, kosmos is most often used in the context of a social order that is structured in a way that is separate from God. That is why James teaches us not to be polluted by this kosmos (James 1:27), and that friendship with this kosmos is hostility toward God (4:4). Similarly Paul says the wisdom of this kosmos is foolishness (1 Corinthians 3:19).  Christ came into this kosmos,  and it is this kosmos that did not recognize Him (John 1:10). The Gospel of John tells us that God chose us out of the kosmos, and so the kosmos hates us. But what’s more, while John makes it clear that Christians are not of this kosmos (John 15:19), it is significant that we still are of the earth, the dust (Ecclesiastes 3:20).

This social kosmos is created by humans; this aeon is created by humans. As such, they are fallen orders and deeply flawed. We are meant to reject the world, not participate, not put trust this aeon’s culture or its princes and kings (Psalm 146:3), or presidents, for that matter.

Kitsi

But, on the other hand, the New Testament also teaches us about Kitsi. Kitsi is the Creation of God. It is all that He made, all inclusive–Earth and sky, fire and water, ants and trees, angels and humans, visible and invisible, mortal and immortal. We are not to reject what God has created, what God called “Good” (Genesis 1). The kitsi, and its clods of gaia, are right alongside us, praising God, anticipating His return and waiting to be freed (Romans 8:22). We do not trust in Creation, but see it and are reminded of the Creator (Romans 1:20, Psalm 146:3-6), and so Christians and Creation reach together toward God, singing His glory (Luke 19:40).

The question on many Christian’s hearts is– how do we live in the aeon but not be of the aeon? How do we vote our Christian conscience and steward our wealth in Godly ways? Those are very important questions. But my question, for this blog, is to explore how do we relate to the Kitsi? How does God bless all Creation, how do we lift it back up to Him in gratitude and communion, and how do we interact with kitsi in Godly ways?

While New Testament authors understood the difference between “The World” (aeon/kosmos) and “The Earth” (gaia/Kitsi), but we find in our modern society that human society and the natural environment are often put at political odds. How did this aeon get into such a political hubub about gaia? The political heat of gaia vs this current human society, comes down to the question of what responsibility does “the world” (aeon; governmental structures, human society, collective imagination) have toward “the earth” (gaia; this particular piece of Creation God looked at and called ‘Good’).

Some social philosophies say ‘the world’ is responsible only for worldly things—finances and economy, roads, cars, banks, and protection of individuals’ property, and that “nature” can be taken care of by green hobbyists, or else take care of itself. Environmentalists on the other hand think the current governmental order / kosmos is responsible also to steward Kitsi –natural resources, ecosystem health, thriving wild animal populations, etc., and that the government is equally responsible to protect common ecosystems as it is private property. But whatever your opinion about what level of responsibility ‘the world’ owes the Earth, the living Christian person owes the Earth the responsibility that God designated for us—to be Creation’s priest.

This will be the topic of my next blog post: exploring God’s direct command to us regarding His Kitsi. We’ll switch from Greek to Hebrew, to talk about the book of Genesis and the what and why of His command to Avad and Shamar the Earth.

In the meantime, I offer you this line from Catholic poet GK Chesterton, which gives me great comfort in times when the world (aeon) is making me crazy:

 

…’neath no world terror’s wing,

apples forget to grow on apple trees.

– G.K. Chesterton, Ecclesiastes

 

So, amid the chaos of the current political kosmos, I insist on earth-based Christian practices and prayers even more. I will do my best to love my neighbors, whether or not I like them or their politics, and while I am caught up in the kosmetic wars of this aeon all around me, I will relentlessly participate in God’s original call to humans– to Shamar the Earth. For today, I’ll be outside mulching my apple trees.

 

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Day of Prayer for Creation 2016

An Orthodox friend and reader has asked me about Orthodox prayers specific for this day. September 1 is the official Orthodox day to pray for creation, so we have a distinct service or set of prayers for that purpose, right? We have prayers for all occasions, surely there is one for “the environment”?  No, not exactly. It’s better than that.

Our prayers for, and with, creation are embedded throughout our all of our regular prayers. Every liturgy we pray “for seasonable weather, abundance of the fruits of the earth, and peaceful times…” and often are inviting the very elements of creation to worship alongside us as we prepare for the Holy Gifts through Psalm 148: “Praise Him sun and moon, praise Him all you shining stars!…lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds…”

It is certain that our most profound traditional prayers significantly involve nature. In a sense we are everyday praying for creation. (There is an abundance of examples like this that I will discuss further in future posts). Praying for creation is seamlessly integrated into our understanding of Christ’s Transfiguration and our salvation. But does Orthodox “business as usual” count as a prayer for what this modern generation calls “the environment”? Do we need a different sort of prayer for the new and unique type of damage we do to creation in our current society?

A separate prayer for “the environment” or for “nature” is not a part of our tradition because that is not how we understand or relate to nature. We don’t view a dividing line between “man” and “the natural environment” in the same way a secular environmentalist does. The meaningful distinction is between God and His creation. We are created, too. We are God’s creation, as humble and mortal as an ant or manatee or oak tree. And while we have a special role among the whole creation, we must remember that it is not a fundamentally separate entity from us. Creation is not merely ‘our environment,’ an object we steward; it is our sibling, and co-worshiper of our Creator. This understanding is expressed by our more integrated approach to prayers for creation.

We don’t need to add new prayers onto our tradition in order to ‘adapt to modernity’ or ‘a new, unique situation.’ We only need to remember our ancient tradition fully, and see how eternal truths are played out for this particular moment. While many churches are also adopting September 1 as a day to pray for creation and writing new services for the occasion (particularly the Catholic Church, which has distributed excellent prayer “kits” such as this and this), and while I highly respect the value in that  project , Orthodoxy generally takes a more integrated approach. We are highlighting and following a particular embedded theme in our usual prayers, becoming more mindful of something that was there all along.

So what sorts of prayers will I offer tomorrow? I’m particularly fond of the Akathist of Thanksgiving, Psalm 148, and meditating on the Transfiguration iconography. The Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration also offers a thematically appropriate vespers and lovely Moleben here. In addition, my parish will be sifting blessed compost made from our post-liturgy meal scraps and spreading it at the base of memorial trees. Please comment below about your parish and your way of praying for creation!

 

Why Ecotheology?

Thank you to everyone who has followed this blog, and encouraged me to keep it up! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, partly due to travel (Germany has some really excellent sustainability public policies, by the way) but the posting delay is also partly due to rethinking the structure of what I write here. One primary goal of this blog is to provide an internet-based resource for those interested in the original Christian creation care theology and practices, but I’m realizing it is actually more personal than that.

While visiting  and reading the literature from the Rachel Carson Environmental Humanities Center in Munich, Germany, I came across the excellent writing of Markus Vogt in the RCC Perspectives publication. What he says here has clearly defined my mission in this blog:

“The rediscovery of the [original Christian] ethics of Creation [in the 1980’s] has, however, often been only superficial. Creation is misused as a convenient hook on which to hang sentimental ideas of ecology… serving merely to add weight to ecological imperatives and increase moral pressure.”

THAT is exactly why I focus on ancient Christian Earth-keeping. Creation ethics was an original part of  theology and Christian living. It faded to the background fairly recently as a reaction to the rise of a world-view shaped by Darwin, and so has been somewhat forgotten. Now creation theology and ethics is resurging as a tiny talking point meant to promote a modern environmentalist political policy or lifestyle among Christians. It is often an introduction before a promotion for a product or vote. I find that abhorrent — teaching about sacred practices should not serve as a promotion for a particular worldly agenda! (Even if the theological teachings will ultimately inspire worldly actions of some sort).

I am looking in my own life to live out the Christian calling to be a Priest of Creation, to raise up all of God’s creation to His glory, to be transfigured by His grace. In addition to essays of what I’ve learned, this blog is the chronicle of my journey into an authentic, original practice of ancient Christian Earth-keeping and shamar. Thank you for joining me. I look forward to hearing your comments.

Heart and Soil: 3 Reasons Compost is Christian Charity

When I compost, it is a joy to see the ways that God’s creation obeys Him, managing and cycling ‘waste’ and decay into new life. These disdained scraps become the essential tool of our Christian work: the means to feed the hungry. What a beautiful symbol compost is- to take the junk, the unwanted, the ‘trash’ and have it become a service in glory! Imagine if we could ‘compost’ our negative experiences this easily, if we allowed God to transform our sins and tragedies into fertile beauty! My compost bin is nature’s icon to remind me of Christ’s resurrection, that through death we are born again.

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Continue reading

Heart and Soil: Perseverance

If you found an icon, an object meant to teach you the faith like a wooden cross or a Holy Bible, broken and trampled and desecrated upon the ground, would you lift it up, respect it and restore it? would you brush off the dust from the bible and take care to make sure others could read this copy of the life-changing Word of God? Would you repaint the cross and hang it where others could see it and be reminded of Christ’s sacrifice?

In Part 1, we discussed that Christ has given us the soil as an icon of our hearts (Luke 8:15), and even that St. John of Damascus teaches indeed the whole creation is an icon. And yet, this “icon beneath our feet” is being devastated by industrial agriculture practices and climate change. So devastated that it is threatening our ability to produce sufficient food for people. Continue reading

Heart and Soil

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“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”… “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”      Luke 8:5-15 NIV

 

Christ gives us the very soil beneath our feet as an image of our own hearts. Next time you scrape mud off your boots, let it (as St Basil said) remind you of God and His lessons to us. Is this soil hard or soft? Rocky and dry? Fertile? Could it grow a mustard seed? Would it produce good fruit? And is your heart like it, able to grow in faith from God’s word? Continue reading

Covenant with the Earth

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As we are the priests of creation, holding the middle ground between earth and Heaven, the extent to which we fulfill our vocation has a rippling effect on the rest of nature. God has designed an ecology in which we are all creatures inextricably connected and interdependent, both biologically and spiritually. And according to our unique vocation as humans, we are the ones who administer and manage this interconnectedness, for good or evil. It is we who force creation to groan in its corruption, or give it voice in heavenly praise of God. When we sin, creation suffers. When we are reconciled to God, we take creation with us.

This can be seen from the very beginning, as the consequence for our first disobedience extends beyond ourselves: “cursed is the ground, because of you.”  (Genesis 3:17). Creation continues to be subjected to our moral consequences as time goes on. Because of human evil alone, the ground does not yield to our work (Genesis 4:12), the plants wither (Jeremiah 12:11), the sky refuses to provide rain for us (1 Kings 17), and the animals disappear (Jeremiah 12:4). “How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? Because those who live in it are wicked, the animals and birds have perished.” (Jeremiah 12:4) The very nature of nature is changed, because of us.

Paul refers to the original curse from Genesis: “the whole of creation has been groaning together” (Romans 8) since Adam’s sin. Yet, there is hope because it is also waiting with “eager longing” for redemption and Christ’s return. We are the reason the whole of creation is subjected to suffering and curse, but because we are the priests of creation we are also the medium through which it can be redeemed.

Noah demonstrates our liability for both creation’s suffering and its redemption in Genesis 9. Because of man’s wickedness and corruption, God sends a flood that is indiscriminately destructive. More than just those wicked men will be drowned; many other living creatures will be swept away with them. God chooses to save Noah and his family because they are righteous, but expects that they, in turn, fulfill their vocation by taking, and saving, all the animals alongside themselves. God wishes to save all creatures from the consequences of humankind’s wickedness.  His method to do this is by way of righteous, priestly humans.

After the flood, God makes a covenant, but not just with Noah. God’s promise is to “every beast, with all the earth”.  His covenant is equally for the ants and the sheep, giraffes and slugs, as it is for humans. That demonstrates a great esteem for the creatures, that we should imitate. What’s more, we are shown that  our spiritual redemption and our biological survival is connected with the survival of the whole Earth, by God’s design.

While we have been promised no all-destructive flood in the future, it is very easy to see how human wickedness causes other forms of environmental degradation that threaten us. The extinction of species, the destruction of forests, and the dumping of cancer-causing chemicals into our water and food, are the result of our selfish waste, overconsumption and greedy pursuit for ever-increasing levels of convenience and comfort. We are creating both physical and spiritual pollution through our self-indulgence. By far the greatest threat we’ve brought upon ourselves is the global climate change that is causing severe drought and desertification. God will not flood us, but our sins are parching the world.

And yet, while our immorality unleashes systemic corruption throughout all creation, so our return to God, our repentance and renewed hearts, heals the whole ecosphere. God tells Solomon the remedy for drought and pestilence in the earth: “If my people humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and forgive their sin, and heal their land.” (2 chronicles 7:12) The land, and God’s creatures in it, is an extension of our own hearts. The current state of our world, of pollution and ecological collapse, says much about our hearts.

The fulfillment of our vocation as priest of creation (shamar) is essential to healing all God’s creation. Many Christians are praying for creation (prayers will be posted soon), or engaging in environmental restoration. When we purify polluted rivers, restore forests and watersheds, grow healthy food, and reduce our consumption through ascesis and fasting, we are restoring the earth, replenishing it, even bringing it salvation. We are protecting our neighbors from the harm that comes from climate-related disasters, and other species from extinction. In short, we are building an ark. But not just for ourselves– on behalf of all and for all.

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Being a Priest of All Creation

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In the 7th ecumenical council of bishops in 787 AD that defined the Christian attitude toward material things, St. Leontes of Cyprus said this about our role in God’s creation:

“Through heaven and earth and the sea,

Through wood and stone,

Through all creation visible and invisible,

I offer veneration to the Creator and Master.

For the creation does not venerate the maker directly and by itself

But it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God.

Through me the moon worships God.

Through me the stars glorify Him.

Through me the waters, the showers of rain, and the dews of all creation

Venerate God and give Him glory.”

The thought of an inanimate material object such as the moon giving glory to and worshiping God strikes many of us as strange in itself. But the thought that not only do the forests praise Him and the stars sing of His glory, but that they do so somehow through *my* mediation might sound downright un-Christian. And yet, it is an essential aspect of our vocation as the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ Ancient Christianity taught that our relationship with the earth is more than a managerial stewardship; we are each the priests of creation. But what does it mean to be a priest of creation?

While a priest fulfills many roles, the primary duty is to celebrate the sacraments and lead others into sacramental living. A fundamental characteristic of the sacrament is that we (people created by God) take natural materials (some bread, water, wine, and oil created by God) and offer it back to Him in thanksgiving. In offering it, we also ask that it be blessed as a means of imparting His love and mercy to us, a means of two-way communion. In the great sacrament, the parish priest speaks the words Christians have spoken in worship service since before 370 AD: “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all.” We reach up; God reaches down. 

In sacramental worship, both creation and Creator are present and active, while the role of the priest is to be the intentional link between them, the mediator that holds the middle ground. The priest both lifts up created beings and brings down God’s blessing, creating unity and reconciliation. We are material beings made in the image of God, and are thus that link between physical creation and the uncreated God. This means our priestly responsibility to creation is not a calling to selfishly exploit it, nor even to merely take care of it, but to offer it back to God. When we do this, creation becomes far more than the means of our subsistence; it becomes the medium of our communion with Christ, our expression of thanksgiving, blessing, sanctification and salvation.

Paul explains to us in Ephesians 1:10 that it is God’s desire for all of creation to be reconciled to Him, saying the plan revealed is  “…to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on Earth.” We have an important role in God’s plan. As Jesus unified human and divine natures in himself, blazing a trail for us humans to be unified with God, so we as humans unite the dust and the Spirit. We become one with God as we are transformed by life in Christ; the rest of creation becomes one with God through our mediation.

As members of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, one element of our vocation is to participate in the sanctification of the earth through our daily sacramental living. Stewardship of resources may be one of the many responsibilities of a priest, but is not the whole end of it. As priests, we are called to sanctify the earth through our direct communion with God.

While in line to receive  communion in Orthodox parishes, it’s common to hear a hymn exhorting other creatures to participate in the worship. Often, at the very moment my lips receive Christ’s body and blood and I am mystically unified to Him, I am hearing from Psalm 148:

Praise the Lord from the earth,
  you great sea creatures and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and mist,
    stormy wind fulfilling his word!…

Mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock,
    creeping things and flying birds!…

Let them praise the name of the Lord!…”

Psalm 148’s lyrics reminds us of St. Leontes of Cyprus’ teaching and helps us practice it: “Praise Him, sun and moon! Praise Him all you shining stars!” Singing this psalm as we approach the chalice, we carry those inanimate and material, but beloved, creations of God’s back up to Him, so that through us, they may worship Him too.