In the contemporary era, we tend to slide between two extremes when it comes to our view of nature; we either view nature as pure resource to be used or as something to be worshiped. These extremes are actually damaging to both the human race and to the rest of the creation. Humankind was not created to be a consumer, nor to worship creation, rather, the calling of man was to become the priest of creation. His task is to bring transfiguration to the cosmos. The primary call of the priest is one of offering; it’s a calling to servanthood. For most of post-enlightenment history however, humans have tended towards consumerism, viewing nature as a commodity to be used. In response, many in the contemporary era have swung to the other extreme and made creation into a god.
Both extremes tend towards materialism in their end and neither offers viable solutions to the ecological crisis with which we are faced. Both extremes only look outward for solutions and are blind to the true disease. Consumers focus solely on the material resources that they can use, and the other extreme often sees human beings as the enemy, as the scourge of the planet, as a virus to be eradicated or at least culled and contained. Both extremes fail to see the greater picture and fail to comprehend the greater story.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich wrote, “As children learn the alphabet, they perceive letters merely as forms or ‘idols’ in that they represent only a material reality. Chattering along, a child concentrates all his or her thoughts and attention only upon the letters themselves. When the child has finished “reading” a word, letter by letter, you may ask what he or she has read, and the child does not know what to reply; for only the form, size and color of the written letters had made an impression upon the mind and that is all that the child momentarily knows about letters. Indeed, the child perceives letters as only a physical reality just as idols are to an idol worshiper. Similar to children are many grown-ups, even many who call themselves philosophers and scientists. With great pains and labor they scarcely go beyond their childlike repetition of the letters that comprise nature. Very seldom, if ever, do they reach and comprehend the actual meaning and significance of those letters, written in nature in the form of things that comprise the visible universe. A person well trained in reading, however, reads words without even thinking of the letters of which words themselves are composed, and consciously reads them quickly according to their meaning.” (1)
“The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (2).” Regardless of which end of the spectrum a contemporary man falls, he is blind to the greater story; he simply sees the letters and is unable to comprehend the greater meaning they form. How did humankind end up in such a place of ignorance? How did we forget our divine calling?
Armed with an incorrect understanding of the command in Genesis to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it, humans have utilized technology and science in an increasing attempt to control, transform, and use the earth. Yet, the tide seems to be shifting; many are being awakened to the flaws inherent in materialism and consumerism. The proposed solutions, however, have largely focused on technology or policy. The answers proposed to solve a materialist problem have primarily been materialist. People have been encouraged to simply consume differently, to consume so-called “green” products as opposed to traditional goods. We have been told that science, technology, and politics will solve the very problems they created, but the problem of consumerism is only a symptom of a deeper spiritual problem, and spiritual problems require spiritual solutions.
Like allopathic medicine, our contemporary ecologists largely focus on treating the symptoms rather than the imbalance, in other words, the disease. But the problem is deeper than the symptom and must be approached holistically. To make a lasting change, we must address the root causes of the sickness. We must get beyond the enlightenment views that spawned and accelerated our poor understanding of the cosmos and our place within it. We need to get beyond the mechanistic view of nature; we must become re-enchanted with the world and pray that we have the eyes to see the greater story that is unfolding in the world around us.
In order to find lasting solutions, we must begin with an understanding of what humans are by nature. When God created the earth and all the creatures in it, He said that they were good; when God fashioned man, He proclaimed Him very good. When creating the flora and beasts, God simply spoke then into existence with a word; yet when He fashioned the first humans, He pondered the magnitude of creation saying, “let us make man on our image (3).” God contemplated the creation of humanity prior to the act of creating; additionally, God got intimate with the creation of humans, forming them with His hands and breathing the Divine Breath into the nostrils of Adam. Humans are formed from the earth that God created, and yet into them, He also breathed His spirit. This makes humankind a bridge creation, made of both spirit and earth; man touches both worlds, the noetic and the material.
It’s important to understand however, that man isn’t simply part material and part spirit, but that he is a hypostatic union, fully material and fully spirit; the two cannot be separated. In this way we can understand that God is our Father and the earth our mother, for we were taken out of her and given life by the breath of God; like a child born to two parents, we can say that our “DNA” is both spirit and matter. With this status comes great responsibility. It is here that humans find their divine calling, to unite the creation to God through humanity; it is within us that the two truly meet. As Fr. George Florovsky eloquently states, “Man must unite everything in himself, and through himself unite it with God.”
Man as a Microcosm: Priest of Creation
Humankind is a microcosm of the universe, all of creation is contained within and as the priest of nature the human person offers to God the whole earth. How is this accomplished? To understand our priestly calling, it is important to understand what the command “to have dominion” really means. To rightly understand the commandment, it is important to view it within the full context of the scriptures. It must be remembered that humans were created in God’s image and likeness, therefore, to understand the proper scope of dominion, we must look at how God exercises authority.
The preeminent example of how God exercises authority is the life of Jesus, who being in very nature God, humbled Himself in the form of a servant. Jesus continually stressed and demonstrated the attitude of servanthood. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (4).” While Jesus had the authority and the power to dominate and subjugate, He instead exercised dominion by modeling love towards those whom He sought to subdue (to bring order to). Jesus was explicit about what it meant to have dominion when He commanded the apostles saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (5).”
Jesus, who had been called the King of kings, also had the title of suffering servant; This is evident even by the title which Mark gives to Jesus calling Him, “the Son of Man.” Jesus is not only the Son of God, He is also the Son of Man: fully God and fully man. Jesus united human nature with the Divine, and in doing so, brought everything that belongs properly to the human nature into the Godhead; this includes the material world. He became everything that we are so that we might become everything He is by grace. Or to put it in the words of St. Athanasius, “God became man so that man could become god.” Therefore, it is in the spirit of our adoptive Father that we must exercise dominion. We must adopt the very character of God.
Meekness is the character trait that best describes Jesus, yet meekness is also a word that is much misunderstood today. We tend to abhor the concept of meekness, associating it with weakness. Meekness however is not synonymous with submissiveness; rather, meekness is restrained power. The word meek was an ancient military term applied to war horses. It referred to a horse that had been trained to be powerful and fearless, yet able to demonstrate restraint and control. This is the type of authority that God exercises and the type of power that we are called to emulate.
It is in this manner, in the emulation of Jesus, that we are to have dominion over creation; being powerful, we are to exercise restraint. We are to act as a servant of creation. We are to give voice to the earth so that through us creation may sing its symphony of praise to God. Humanity is to bring order to creation by bringing the cacophony of sound into harmony and composing a hymn to the Creator in concert with creation.
To do this requires a partnership of mutual respect with the earth and all of it’s creatures; we are to serve one another. The earth sustains us physically and provides us with physical life, often at great expense. Our responsibility is to sustain and provide the creation with spiritual life. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (6).” God saved man so that man might save creation; He united divinity with humanity, in order that humanity might unite divinity with the rest of the creation.
We have a grave responsibility towards the earth, for the earth is the Lord’s and does not belong to us, we are merely its stewards and will have to give an account for our care of the earth. The charge that accompanies the command to have dominion over creation is to till and keep it, yet how do we keep the earth? Do we bring it greater order or disorder?
Jesus demonstrated His authority over creation by calming the storm and by multiplying the fruits of the earth. He didn’t destroy, He brought peace and abundance. The kingdom of God is about multiplication, not division. It is not in dividing and separating or isolating one thing from another that ushers in the kingdom of peace, but in multiplying. Humans are not separate from creation, nor are we separated from God. Jesus united us to God forever by becoming one of us; He multiplied the Divine family. Now we must multiply it as well by bringing all of creation into that Divine family.
How this is accomplished is primarily through a spirit of servanthood. We must realize how much we have been given both by God and the earth; both have sacrificed their own lives for ours and in gratitude we must submit in service. We must offer thanksgiving to God and to the earth and keep the place in which God has placed us. We are each given a holy garden, a patch of earth in which we dwell. It is our responsibility to keep that garden and cultivate it, bring it new life, and transfigure it with the light of God shining through us; this is our priestly task.
In the midst of the liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox Church, just prior to the epiclesis (the calling down of the Holy Spirit), the priest raises the gifts, bread and wine, and says, “Thine own of Thine own, offering unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” In the pivotal point of the liturgy, we acknowledge that all of creation is God’s, and that He has only given us stewardship over it, and that our proper relationship with creation is to offer it back to God, for the life of all.
In the words of St. Leontios of Cyprus, “Through heaven and earth and sea, through wood and stone, through relics and church buildings and the Cross, through angels and humankind, through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration and honor to the Creator and Master and Maker of all things, and to Him alone. 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 stars glorify Him, through me the waters and the showers of rain, the dew and all creation, venerate God and give Him glory.” This is a grave responsibility. One for which God will demand an account.
One practical way to accomplish this priestly calling is through asceticism. This doesn’t have to mean a voluntary poverty or the rejection of all earthly pleasures. There are many degrees of ascetic labor that are proper for the individual person. Nor do ascetics deny themselves pleasure because they see the material world as evil or bad. On the contrary, the ascetic fasts from earthly pleasure because of its goodness and beauty. Abstinence and fasting awaken a greater degree of appreciation. No longer does the person abstaining from food take it for granted, rather, the ascetic comes to a greater understanding of the great gift that nature provides in the form of food.
Fasting not only awakens our inner spirit and develops within us true thankfulness and gratitude, but it also gives the earth rest. When we fast, the earth no longer has to produce merely for our consumption. Israel was actually commanded to give the earth rest every seven years. “But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards (7).” In fact, one of the reasons God chastised Israel was because they ignored the land Sabbaths. Rather than give the earth rest every seven years, they continued to work her, demanding her fruits for their own consumption. Fasting gives the earth rest and assists us in gaining an appreciation for all that it offers:, its beauty, its provision, and its life.
From the very beginning, fasting was a discipline given to humans in order to teach restraint and appreciation towards the creation. God forbade Adam and Eve from eating of a certain tree as an object lesson; fasting was to teach them that earth was the Lord’s and not theirs. Not everything on earth was placed there for their own consumption. St. Basil of Caesarea writes, “Fasting was ordained in Paradise. The first injunction was delivered to Adam, ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’ ‘You shall not eat’ is a law of fasting and abstinence.” The general argument is rather against excess than in support of ceremonial abstinence.” The law of fasting was given not on religious grounds, but rather as a teacher against rampant consumption.
Fasting also teaches one to rely upon God who is truly the great provider of all good things. Fasting is an expression of love and devotion, in which one sacrifices earthly satisfaction to attain the heavenly. Altogether too much of one’s thoughts are taken up with care for sustenance and the enticements of the palate. Thus fasting is a step on the road of emancipation and an indispensable support in the struggle against selfish desires. Together with prayer, fasting is one of humanity’s greatest gifts, carefully cherished by those who have participated in it. Fasting is an outlet of compassion and the gate of Paradise (8).
All humans are called to be priests, nature’s priests, and to see the earth as the garden of God. Each element in creation is a sacrament, a meeting with Holiness; our hearts are the altar upon which we offer sacrifice. In communion with the earth and all its creatures, we compose and sing a hymn of Glory to God. This is the primary means by which we can stem the tide of abuse towards the earth. By changing ourselves, by repenting, which literally means to turn around, we turn away from our selfish consumer mindset and turn towards a heart of servanthood. Ours is a spiritual problem that requires a spiritual solution. Neither public policy nor market driven solutions can cure the disease, they only address the symptoms. What we require is a spiritual change of mind and heart. We must begin to truly see the interconnectedness of all things and embrace the communion of life that is before us. As God says though His prophet Moses, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live (9).”
1) Velimirovi, N. D. (195l). The niverse as symbols and signs: an essay on mysticism in the Eastern Church. Pittsburgh: Serb Natioanal Federation.
2) 2 Corinthians 3.6b
3) Genesis 1.26a
4) Mark 1l.45
5) Matthew 2l.25
6) Romans 8.19
7) Leviticus 25.4
8) Colliander, T., (2ll3). Way of the ascetics: the ancient tradition of discipline and inner growth. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
9) Deuteronomy 3l.19