The Word gave the command to create on the second day in the beginning…
Armenian hymns such as this song of St. Nersess sung on Tuesday mornings, stress the fundamental role of God as Creator of Heaven and Earth. The Bible begins with Genesis, the story of the creation of the world and all things in it. While Christian theology grapples with many of the most pressing and vexing questions of human existence—How should we act? Why is there evil in the world?—the question of Genesis, of where we come from, is the most fundamental. Yet if the Bible is explicit about God’s creation of the world, it is perhaps less clear about how humanity should act towards it. We know that humanity was created in God’s image and therefore has a unique place in Creation. In Genesis, Adam is assigned the ability to give names to animals and we are told that humanity is given “dominion over creation.” What does this entail? Throughout the Bible, there are hints of what this might look like. Over the centuries, however, there have been many different Christian understandings of humanity’s unique role as caretakers of God’s creation made in His own image.
At times, dominion has veered into domination and unfettered destructive use. This is the argument of a now-classic thesis by Lynn White JR., who suggested that Christianity, especially Western Christianity, is philosophically responsible for an attitude of exploitation that sees the natural world only as a resource for humanity. Such unbridled use, White argues, has led to environmental degradation and widespread destruction such as deforestation. White lays the blame for any ecological crisis squarely at the feet of Christianity.
Subsequent scholarship has questioned many aspects of White’s thesis. Yet the idea has taken hold among the broader public and in environmental circles. Moreover, there is clearly some truth to his argument: strains of Christianity have inherited from Neo-Platonism a valorization of the spiritual and heavenly over the earthly and material. Some ascetic movements and practices have veered toward the rejection of the material and physical aspects of God’s creation. While Christianity preaches the goodness of God’s creation, these movements and ideas have strongly influenced certain branches of Christian thinking.
His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople (the titular head of what we often call the “Eastern Orthodox Church”) has earned the epithet “the Green Patriarch” for his efforts to offer a counterbalance to those strands of Christianity and to emphasize the Orthodox Church’s commitment to the care for God’s creation. Through his own writings, as well as series of seminars, workshops, and summits over the past thirty years, Patriarch Bartholomew and the Ecumenical Patriarchate have developed a Christian ecological theology that stresses the place of humanity in God’s creation not as domineering creatures standing above the rest of creation, but as stewards and “priests of creation” called by God to tend His garden. Just this past week, the Third Halki Summit convened in Istanbul to discuss the role of Orthodox seminaries, monasteries, and other institutions of teaching and learning in the cultivation of Christian care for God’s creation.
|The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis||Lynn White Jr.’s now-classic essay was originally published in the journal Science. This is a link to the essay where White argues that Christian thought is at the heart of destructive Western thinking about the environment.|
|The Enneads||Plotinus was one of the most important Neo-Platonic philosophers. His texts were influential for early Christianity. Some of the stronger versions of anti-material thinking entered some strands of Christianity through Plotinus’ work.|
|Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation||This incredible volume collects some of the sophisticated eco-theological thinking of the Orthodox Church developed under the encouragement of “the Green Patriarch,” Patriarch Bartholomew I.|
At the Halki Summit, some of the work of the earlier summits and workshops, the kinds of practices and attitudes that seminaries and centers of learning will hopefully inculcate, were discussed. For instance, as we mentioned in our previous discussion of fasting, ascetic practices such as fasting are a concrete way to let the earth rest and to affirm the fragility of creation and our respect for it. As “priests of creation,” our participation in liturgy becomes part of the renewal of all God’s creation. The eucharist, Christ’s body and blood, is a loving sacrifice which we humans offer to God, His own creation of wheat and grapes tended and transformed by human hands offered back to Him. Liturgical practice and eucharistic participation are a way of thanking God for all creation. It can ever serve as a subtle commentary on the ways careful human tending of creation enriches our existence: our human stewardship of God’s creation, of the fields and vineyards, is required in order to produce the elements of bread and wine that become the body and blood of Christ during communion. Moreover, there is a strain of thought in Christianity that Jesus Christ’s coming into the world was not simply for the salvation of humanity but for the renewal of the entire world. All God’s creation is renewed and transformed through Christ’s sacrifice, which Armenian Christians celebrate every Sunday during Badarak.
These are some of the important insights developed by Orthodox thinkers over the past decades. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholew I’s support for conferences and academic work has been a major impetus for this sophisticated theological thinking. At this year’s Halki Summit, the goal was to explore the role of education in nurturing and inculcating attitudes of stewardship and care of all God’s creation. Representatives of seminaries, including St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, private secular universities, and monasteries were all present. Special attention was paid to the role of monasteries, with the ascetic practices mentioned above providing a source of potential Christian ecological action.
While the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church has led the charge in Christian environmental thinking, other Christian denominations have also explored ecological dimensions of Christianity. Pope Francis I squarely addressed these issues in his encyclical Laudato Si. Representatives of Lutheran seminaries and Catholic institutions were present at the Halki III summit.
What contribution might Armenian Christians make to this conversation? What does the Armenian Apostolic Church have to contribute to thinking about ecology, environment, and God’s creation? Little explicit work has been done on this topic, with a short essay by Vigen Guroian, “Cleaners of the Whole Earth,” the only piece in English dedicated to the ecological thought of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Yet our Armenian Christian tradition is rich with liturgical examples like the hymn during the Blessing of the Water at Theophany, or the Antasdan service which blesses all four corners of the world and makes special note of the fields of the earth, that speaks to ecological issues and the role of humanity in God’s creation. Likewise, the written theology of the Armenian Church includes commentaries on Genesis, such as one attributed to Ephrem the Syrian but found only in Armenian, are exciting sources for Armenian Christian thinking on this topic. It is our hope that in the near future, people will mine the rich Armenian Christian theological tradition for sources related to the care of God’s creation.
|The Armenian Commentary on Genesis Attributed to Ephrem the Syrian||St. Ephrem the Syrian, one of the great early Christian theologians, has had a major influence on the development of Armenian Christian thinking. His commentary on Genesis offers an important starting point for any Armenian Christian eco-theology.|
|The Greek Orthodox Theological Review||Vigen Guroian, whose essay “Cleansers of the Whole Earth” is one of the only attempts thus far to develop an explicitly Armenian Christian ecological theology, has written several books related to the practice of gardening. The idea of “tending God’s Creation” is one potential Christian contribution to the conversation about the environment. Guroian’s essay appeared in Volume 36(3-4). At St. Nersess.|
|Adamgirkʿ : the Adam book of Aṙakʿel of Siwnikʿ||Translated with an introduction by Michael E. Stone, this “Armenian Milton” provides insights to how Armenian Christians have thought about Creation and humanity’s existence in the Garden of Eden.|
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