Asceticism, Ethics, and the Renewal of the Earth: Orthodox Christian Contributions to an Ecumenical Ecology
By John Chryssavgis and Aaron Hollander
The Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, was born in Australia, studied theology in Athens, completed his doctorate in Oxford, and lived for a time on Mt. Athos. He has taught theology in Sydney and in Boston, and he currently serves as theological advisor to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, known worldwide as “the green patriarch.” His latest book is Creation as Sacrament: Reflections on Ecology and Spirituality (Bloomsbury, 2019). He lives in Maine.
Dr. Aaron Hollander is Associate Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute and Associate Editor of Ecumenical Trends, currently serving as Vice President of the North American Academy of Ecumenists. He is a scholar of theology and culture, whose current research concerns the dynamics of ecumenical/interreligious conflict and coexistence, the aesthetic textures and political functions of holiness (particularly in Orthodox Christianity), and the circulation of theological understanding beyond explicitly religious settings.
Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: Fr. John, we are so pleased to feature this conversation with you in Ecumenical Trends, as we reflect on some important ecumenical anniversaries and look with cautious optimism toward the future. We have had a lot to do with one another this year: GEII staff and our collaborators were delighted to have you join us for the “Ecology and Ecumenicity” webinar in September, and around the same time we featured a series of ecumenical responses to For the Life of the World, the new Orthodox social ethos document, in the composition of which you played an instrumental role. I was honored to participate in your interview series for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese on antisemitism in the contemporary church, and I’m grateful that we now have the opportunity to share a little more of your tireless work and influential perspective with our readers.
Your personal and professional histories are themselves fascinating, taking you from a childhood in Australia, by way of theological, historical, and musical studies (and professorships) at the world’s great universities, to your current role as Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and special advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on ecological issues. Would you talk us through a few of the key milestones of this trajectory, and their significance to you today?
John Chryssavgis: Aaron, I am so glad to reconnect with you after first meeting you in Chicago many years ago, and now after these several collaborations of the past months. Your question highlights transitions that may appear curious, but there are some very fundamental connecting threads that bind together the aspects you raise. Born into a cradle Greek Orthodox and clerical family, I always envisaged combining ministry and education. That is what I dreamed of; that is what I studied; and that is what I’m doing and enjoying. That’s what took me to Athens, New York, and Oxford for academic studies; that’s what led me to Mount Athos, Australia, and America for early formation; and that’s what attracted me to the innermost court of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in recent years. It has been a journey fraught with frustration for the tensions within the institutional church, but also filled with gratification for the potential of the global church.
AH: You are very well known for your work in ecological theology and ethics, not least in light of the extraordinary global leadership of Patriarch Bartholomew on these matters. We’ll return to ecological questions a little later, expanding on your remarks at our recent “Ecology and Ecumenicity” program (which will themselves be published in a later issue of Ecumenical Trends). Yet much of your scholarship concerns the ascetic thought and practice of the early church, for instance, in works on the desert fathers and on John Climacus. How would you describe the connection between these two fields of interest, the ecological and the ascetic?
JC: Once again, at least from the perspective of my own journey and vocation, there is a direct connection between the early desert fathers (who are the center of my research and my passion) and the concern for the environment (which is at the heart of my energy and attention). I recall very vividly flying back to Australia after my studies in England and Greece, wondering how I could possibly relate or reconcile my love for ascetic and monastic spirituality in my beloved homeland Australia, a country so markedly shaped by (at best) a-religious indifference or (at worst) anti-religious secularism. It was only as I flew over the vast arid desert, which constitutes two-thirds of that continent, that I recognized the immediate association between the geography and the spirituality. I quickly became aware that the landscape had more to teach me – whether through the truth of creation or the imagination of the “dreamtime” – than I could ever hope to bring to the table in any dialogue and discussion. From this consciousness and confession emerged my first publication: an anthology of theological, historical, and literary reflections on the role and place of the Australian terrain, entitled The Desert is Alive.
AH: It’s easy to associate the desert with an ecology of deprivation and barrenness, not least when we’re familiar with the Christian ascetic tradition’s figuration of the desert as “wasteland,” “abode of demons,” and the like. But you see more than this in the cosmological orientation of the desert fathers and mothers, don’t you? What is it about the desert that speaks to Orthodox Christian understandings of ecological integrity?
JC: Most definitely. The desert is multifaceted, and the dimension of deprivation or barrenness is only one aspect, which in itself is so variegated. In Australia, for instance, the fact that people have chosen to flee the desert and live on the margins – which is exactly the opposite of what ascetic men and women did in third- and fourth-century Egypt – is surely indicative of a different set of priorities and principles. The desert is a place where you are forced to face your demons, which can easily be avoided in the distraction of a city.
By contrast, for the desert fathers and mothers, the desert was the place where you strive to meet and live with God, where you come to know yourself and open up to others, where you become attuned to your environment. There are abundant stories about the desert-dwellers and their association with nature and animals. And this is an affinity that surpasses sentimentality or superficiality. It is an alliance that transcends time and place, centuries and cultures – and so we find the same spirituality in the seventh century with Isaac the Syrian, in the thirteenth century with Francis of Assisi, and in the nineteenth century with Seraphim of Sarov. It originates in the conviction that God created and loves the world – “and all the fullness thereof” (as Psalm 24 has it) – and aspires to a reorientation and reconciliation of all things with God. If the early desert ascetics were eccentric, it is because they reminded the world that we have relocated or removed the proper center of the world.
AH: How about in the present day? As we look around at the culture and at the institutions of our industrialized society here in the US, as well as around the world, we see deeply unsustainable patterns of consumption as well as callousness toward the well-being of future generations. You’ve written about how easily human beings can become trapped in patterns of wish-fulfillment and self-prioritization: do you suppose that this applies to our institutions as well? Are we unwilling, or are we unable, to reimagine and reinstitutionalize our world for sustainability? And in either case, what can be done about it?
JC: I have been criticized for my emphasis on the ascetic dimension in responding to climate change. And I seriously contemplated and considered just how vital and practical such a response really is. But I am convinced – more so than ever before – that it is the only way of addressing the problem. There is an intimate inter-connection and inter-dependence between conscience (as self-understanding) and compassion (as concern for the world).
First of all, we know that sustainability inevitably mandates consuming and wasting less – despite how much that goes against the grain of development and progress – so we must learn to embrace the notion of “detachment” if we are truly to appreciate the notion of “attachment.” Otherwise, if we are destroying the very resources we are hoping to enjoy, that in itself should raise a red flag. Second, we have become so unfamiliar and unaccustomed to doing with less – especially in a society where we are overwhelmed and overawed by cultural images of having more and more – that we literally experience “withdrawal symptoms” and profound denial whenever confronted by the need to have or waste less. As a result, travelling light or living simply appears unnatural and uncomfortable. And finally, frankly, if it seems challenging and inconvenient, perhaps we should consider that there might actually be something to breaking the patterns or contradicting the norms. That is, after all, exactly what the early desert-dwellers proved: that there is value in stepping back to reflect; that there is virtue in surrendering in order to share; and that there is validity in assessing the impact and consequence of our actions.
AH: Many would think of asceticism as something that individuals do; or at most, we might think of community structures where many individuals live together and support one another in their spiritual exercises. But can the lessons of the Orthodox ascetic tradition be scaled up, so to speak, or (dare I say it?) modernized? Can they intervene in the political order and our civic institutions, and if so, in what ways?
JC: I have already hinted at the correlation between the personal and the political, the spiritual and the social. Both poles need to be maintained: without the personal or spiritual, there may be no direction in the political or social; and without the political or social, there may be no purpose to the personal or spiritual. For centuries, the Orthodox Church has championed – indeed, even excelled in – the mystical and liturgical dimensions of social justice and responsibility. At the same time, Western Christianity and civilization have initiated – indeed, demonstrated leadership in – the societal and legal dimensions of the Christian response and vocation. But both of these aspects must be brought and held together if Christianity is to balance the tension in its mission and mandate of being “in the world” but “not of the world.”
The problem of course is that the term “asceticism” carries with it a long history and complicated baggage; people associate it with negative, even excessive behavior. But detachment and self-denial do not have imply self-pity or self-absorption; it is not ultimately about deprivation or disconnection. Asceticism is essentially about commitment and community; it is hardly about being consumed with oneself, but rather about being concerned about others. And that means that there is a direct line from the heart of the individual to the heart of the world.
AH: ACan we take up a concrete example here? In the United States, we have been living through a time shaped by political anger and avarice, a culture of despair and carelessness, a gluttony for material pleasures at the expense of the many worldwide who are crushed under the wheels of American consumption, and what might best be described as epistemological vainglory – the conviction that the information which supports our beliefs and practices must be true because we are satisfied by it and are able by way of it to maintain what we take to be a moral or cultural high ground over others. We have just undergone a presidential and congressional election that has been regularly described as a referendum on the “soul” of the nation. In this context, do I even need to mention those remaining two of the classic eight demonic thoughts – lust and pride?
The ascetic tradition (and not only in Orthodoxy) knows how to engage with anger, avarice, despair, carelessness, gluttony, vainglory, and so forth. What does it offer, on this larger scale, to a country deeply divided and disoriented by these same realities? What might it take to “talk back” to the demons of systemic racism, ravenous profit-seeking, or tribal epistemology (none of which can be addressed adequately by individuals)? Can the ascetic tradition speak to people and institutions that have not opted into a monastic environment?
JC: I have come to appreciate that it is so simple – and at the same time so tempting – to rationalize or spiritualize the fundamental response to and vital responsibility of creation care. Clergy and theologians are especially susceptible to this kind of justification or pretext. After all, we have all the bulwarks of inquiry and insight – from doctrines to heresies – at our fingertips.
But I have abandoned the notion that I have to convince people that living simply in order that others might simply live is a way of deconstructing the demonic systems that you mention. It would be like explaining to people that prayer can light up the whole world with fire or that silence can equal a thousand words of conversion and transformation. It is not persuasive to speak these things without demonstrating them in our lives. How then can we understand the spiritual struggle “against powers and principalities” as somehow different or detached from the struggle with outward systems of oppression and consumption?
When I surrender some of my indulgence in comfort, I learn to share with those who don’t have enough to survive. When I realize the discomfort of fasting, I recall the hunger of others. And when I consider the hunger of others, I begin to crave for God. Then I begin to suspect the sacred nature of food and that I “cannot live by bread alone.” Then I begin to affirm that material creation is not under my control and is not for my exploitation. Then I begin to break down barriers with my neighbor and my world, gradually moving away from what I want to what the world needs.
AH: In one way this strikes me as following in the model of the saints, as we are all invited to do: to represent the “beautiful struggle” (2 Timothy 4:7) for a healed heart and a renewed world not primarily by arguing about how to go about it (though there is surely a place for this too!), but by living this struggle in the presence of others, in ways that others will witness and from which they will, in John Chrysostom’s conventional metaphor, “catch fire.” I think we’ve just reinvented a modern aphorism by way of ascetic theology and hagiology: “be the change you wish to see in the world.” In this context, though, I’d say it feels less like a platitude and more like a genuine basis for hope.
Let me transition here to another matter of recent ecclesiological and ecumenical importance. You had a significant hand in the special commission that produced the groundbreaking Orthodox social ethos document published earlier this year, For the Life of the World – several responses to which we featured in the previous issue of Ecumenical Trends. Would you share your own perspective on the significance of this work, and on the rationale for producing the document in the way that it was written and disseminated?
JC: This groundbreaking document has special significance given the historical background of Orthodox Christianity that we spoke of earlier. In recent years, the Eastern Church has been allergic, even aversive to social statements. This is arguably the result of a struggle to understand its place in the world resulting from long periods of isolation or persecution within many traditional Orthodox homelands, particularly those behind the Iron Curtain. But, as I already pointed out, the church has always grappled with its place and role in the world. So, whether speaking of heaven in relation to earth, or of the world in relation to the kingdom, it has covered the full spectrum from identifying (and compromising) with the world to becoming estranged (and aloof) from it, frequently being reduced to an ethnic ghetto or to nationalistic triumphalism. In the last century, the church has been frequently viewed as responsible for handling otherworldly or sacred things, whereas the state was entrusted with worldly or secular things.
Yet it wasn’t always this way. The early and Byzantine church had a bold voice on questions of social justice. Even a cursory reading of fourth-century writers like Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom reveals the prominence of the social core of the gospel teaching in their minds and ministry. While there may be some merit to questioning whether Christianity should merely be a “useful” accessory in a world of competing promises for security, the alternative does not need to be a Christianity that is primarily a “useless” anachronism in an age of pluralistic choices.
AH: That’s a helpful way of describing the great diversity of social perspectives (and diversity of attitudes toward social intervention) that have animated the history of Orthodox Christianity – the same, of course, is true for other churches too, even as their specific contexts may have looked rather different. So then, what is particularly unusual or significant about how For the Life of the World addresses the contemporary (that is, globalized and pluralistic) world?
JC: While the crafting of this document was in some ways unparalleled in the transparency of its process, and it was unprecedented as a partnership between the official hierarchy and the world of theological scholarship, the readiness and openness of the church to involve and inform the laity in matters related to doctrine and polity still fall far short of the ideal. An ongoing chipping away at the hardened nucleus of clericalism and institutionalism is still required. Nonetheless, the fact that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew commissioned, entrusted, and endorsed this social document is in itself a welcome and refreshing shift in mentality and priority for a church that is normally associated with the past and alienated from the present.
But For the Life of the World should be received as a first step toward imperative reflection on the social ethos of the Orthodox Church as well as toward the consideration and articulation of a social role for the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world. It is intended to provide a roadmap for reconciling contemporary issues with the traditional wisdom and spiritual beauty of Orthodox Christianity, while initiating a conversation with parishes and congregations, schools and seminaries, as well as ecumenical circles and the broader community. So I am delighted that you are asking me about it and, more significantly, that you have published a series of critical responses in Ecumenical Trends.
AH: There is an important ecological message in the document, as well. Chapter VIII of For the Life of the World deals with “Science, Technology, and the Natural World.” The section draws on Maximus the Confessor’s notion of human being as a “cosmic priesthood,” and it suggests that all humans – not merely all Christians – are called to “bless, elevate, and transfigure” the earth. For our readers who are not steeped in Orthodox theology, can you unpack this claim somewhat? And to what extent does this way of thinking resonate with, push beyond, or stand in tension with Patriarch Bartholomew’s longstanding ecological vision and initiatives?
JC: In the seventh century, some of the more insightful mystics understood that they stood at a crossroads embracing the past and espousing the future with a more open worldview. Writers like Maximus the Confessor, John Climacus, and Isaac the Syrian integrated the positive traditional concepts related to the sacredness of the human body and the significance of all creation. Thus Maximus spoke of the divine incarnation as reaching “the last extremities of nature” and of the world as a “cosmic liturgy.” Maximus also described the human person as a microcosm and a mediator between Creator and creation. In such a worldview, everything acquires a sacramental seal, and everything enjoys a sacred significance.
This means that there is a dimension of art, music, and beauty in nature’s liturgy. And it further implies that, whenever we narrow life – even religious life – to ourselves and our own interests, we are inevitably neglecting our vocation to reconcile and transform all of creation. Our relationship with this world determines our relationship with heaven; we cannot conveniently or complacently separate the two. The way we treat the earth is reflected in the way that we pray to God. Walking on this planet and kneeling in church are tantamount to the same thing.
In this sense, some Orthodox theologians have spoken of human beings as “priests” of creation. And while such a definition carries with it another complex constraint of misconceptions and abuses – whether in terms of chauvinism, clericalism, or institutionalism – there is no doubt that we are called to challenge and criticize our relationship with the rest of creation, beyond that of master or proprietor, and even steward or custodian. The last designations are often championed by Christian or religious environmentalists, especially because of the long history of “stewardship” in Judeo-Christian scripture and literature. However, this too retains some of the vestiges of management, command, and even control over nature and creation.
AH: Part of what you’re suggesting, it seems to me, is that we need spiritual exercise: we need to deepen our own being through a process of ongoing conversion. Maybe we don’t give up our fundamental points of reference, but we have to recognize that we often clothe them in self-serving habits, or we mistake an ideal for a nonnegotiable course of action in the world –
JC: Yes, but even sometimes our prized moral or theological points of reference – I think sometimes we do have to give them up, or at least suspend them temporarily. Sometimes we need to acknowledge – all right, I hold my beliefs and values, but I don’t operate out of all of them all the time, and often I live them poorly. So for now, for the sake of the other’s conscience and their created dignity and the possibility of breaking free of legacies of antagonism, can I just take a step back humbly and dare to view the other’s faith and call as legitimate, offering some new insight? John Paul’s description of dialogue as “the exchange of gifts” is a good starting point. But commitment to ecumenism also involves a willingness to be changed, inviting us to the more radical “dialogue of conversion.”
AH: What does this tension between Orthodox theology and such controlling modes of human intervention in creation suggest with regard to the natural sciences, and the technological advances that they have generated? One of my favorite lines in For the Life of the World is its declaration, with no tiptoeing or ambiguity, that “the Orthodox Church has no interest in hostilities between simpleminded philosophies, much less in historically illiterate fables regarding some kind of perennial conflict between faith and scientific reason” (§71). The language of the document is crisp and clear throughout, but this struck me as a statement that is given particular emphasis. Why is this rejection of a “science-versus-religion” mentality so important? And should a distinction be drawn, then, between an embrace of science and an embrace of the technological domination of creation?
JC: For the Life of the World was actually conceived and composed well before the appearance of COVID-19. However, much of its content – particularly the section you are referring to on religion and science – is certainly pertinent and timely. For a long time, faith and science were falsely understood to be in search of different sorts of truth, as if there was more than one truth. This resulted in a dangerous dichotomy of truth as transcendent on the one hand (in the case of the church) and immanent on the other (in the case of science). In terms of creation theology, this manifested as an emphasis by science on the “book of nature” and the response (sometimes reaction, and even retaliation) of the church with an emphasis on the “book of scripture.”
However, during the current pandemic, the entire debate has emerged as a bone of contention as churches and faith communities have been compelled to address their role and responsibility toward their parishioners and constituents. It isn’t a coincidence that the pandemic is described as a crisis; and “crisis” is a Greek word that indicates judgment. We will be judged by our response to this defining moment in our lives. In the Orthodox Church – both here in the US and globally – this has culminated in a heated conversation about the way Holy Communion is distributed and received.
And what was painfully apparent during this crisis was the absence of an articulate Orthodox social ethos – capable alike of guiding the behavior of Orthodox leaders and Orthodox believers – in matters of public concern regarding the role of religion in the public space, the relationship between church and state, and the tension between faith and science. With the recent “lockdown” restrictions, and particularly with the closure of churches and temples, it has sometimes been difficult to discern whether religious leaders (in Greece and other “native” Orthodox countries) were sometimes more interested in protecting medieval treasures from imaginary enemies or in promoting conspiracy theories or global “plots” against Christianity. One exception has been the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (but also some metropolitan dioceses of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Europe), where the intense debate resulted in creative decisions. But for the most part, our churches are not always prepared (and in many cases are sinfully incompetent or at least reluctant) to respond appropriately to the most fundamental and crucial problems of their faithful in the modern world.
As for the strain between the Orthodox sense of “cosmic liturgy” and the modern drive to “master nature,” it should always stem from and lead to a creative tension that reveals a sense of humility and partnership between religious thought and the natural sciences, instead of reflecting a sense of conceit and condescension toward one another.
AH: We are living through a time that – while it may be a stretch to claim that it is somehow more ethically contentious than times gone by – can leave no doubt that the great challenges we face are exacerbated by profound ethical divisions among us. Ecological ethics, not least, can be a society-dividing issue, as well as a church-dividing issue (as was a key topic of conversation at our “Ecology and Ecumenicity” event). Have you found this to be the case in the Orthodox Church, that ecology is polarizing? What have you found most challenging and most rewarding with regard to engaging ecumenically on ecological matters – whether within your church or between churches?
JC: There is no question that adopting an ecological ethos is fraught with challenges of denial and resistance. Some of these we have already touched upon in our discussion about asceticism. But there is also no doubt that engaging individuals – whether believers or not, whether Christian or not, and even whether Orthodox or not – on environmental ethics is very often polarizing. I have watched as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has patiently and pastorally encouraged his peers in other autocephalous Orthodox Churches to recognize that creation care is part and parcel of their ministry and mission as Orthodox leaders, especially since many of them are so often preoccupied with nationalistic interests and political survival. But I have also witnessed Orthodox clergy and laity struggle to embrace the spiritual vocation required by climate change or, worse, vigorously dismiss climate change as a partisan hoax and leftist construct.
I was, in the past, inclined to contend or contest such arguments, particularly where I perceived a willingness and openness to frank conversation and sincere exchange. But when politics and ideology remain deadlocked and convoluted – when, for example, the “culture wars” in the US deliberately brand any association with protecting the environment as a boutique ideology that implies certain positions on abortion, gun control, gender and sexuality issues, and so forth – then I have to wonder if we are all reading the same Scripture. Because creation is not a partisan reality. And the libertarian ideology and mercenary selfishness of dismissing the need to subordinate our own pleasures to the well-being of creation is diametrically opposed to the Christian gospel. It is, moreover, definitely incompatible with the ascetic imperative, which we discussed earlier and which aims at restraining the crude and irrational passions of greed, envy, and lust, which are drivers behind the market economy and free trade. The jungle ethic of survival of the fittest is fundamentally irreconcilable with the liturgical ethos; the former suggests a “dog eats dog society,” while the latter resonates with the scriptural admonition to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” For deniers, environmentalism has become a conspiracy against commerce and the freedom to consume whatever we want whenever we want. Whereas I perceive the spiritual approach as emphasizing compassion instead of consumption.
AH: I think that many of us look to the Orthodox Church as containing a wellspring of ecological insight, as it is reasonable to do with the Franciscan tradition as well. But are there aspects of your eco-theological understanding in which you have been particularly informed ecumenically, by listening to and learning from the witness of other churches? And in what ways have you learned from encounters with other religious traditions, beyond Christianity?
JC: I am so glad that you ask this question. Because it would be a sign of temptation and conceitedness to somehow imagine that, as Orthodox, we somehow hold the answer to the urgent crisis of climate change. If we did, then Athens and Moscow wouldn’t be the polluted cities they are, while the Mediterranean and the Black Seas wouldn’t be wastelands of plastic and hazards for biodiversity. As His All-Holiness “the green patriarch” Bartholomew likes to say: “We’re all in the same boat.” Nothing will happen without humility and sensitivity, without accountability and responsibility, as well as without sacrifice and compromise in order to learn the how the cry of the poor is reflected in the cry of the earth.
And in this vein, all of us must be willing to learn from and work with one another. So, yes, I have been informed by other religions and traditions, by other churches and communities, by other theologian and thinkers – from my time in Australia through my time in America. I have learned from indigenous peoples – the Aborigines and the Native Americans. Perhaps most importantly, I have collaborated with scientists and activists, establishing close friendships and networks, which have shaped many of the initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the last two decades and longer. Orthodox clergy and theologians often forget the vital importance of “translating” basic scriptural and religious concepts into a living tradition and language that relates and responds to contemporary world. The sort of questions that are foremost in my mind – indeed, the questions addressed in For the Life of the World – are: What happens when Christians want to interpret the phrase “on earth as in heaven”? In other words, how is God manifested among us? Or what does God’s kingdom look like in human society?
AH: Again, to take a concrete example: 2020 marks the fifth anniversary of the promulgation of Pope Francis’ influential encyclical, Laudato Si’, “on care for our common home.” Can we reflect briefly on the ecumenical significance of this encyclical, which is so widely known for its ecological teachings? Have you found Laudato Si’ to be of any particular significance in your thinking about the integrity (or disintegrity) of creation as an existing unity that precedes and exceeds any division between Christians or between religions?
JC: What has become immediately apparent to me from the encyclical is not so much the specific contents or diverse interpretations of the text, but the ecumenical mandate that it represents. The integrity of the natural environment is the shared responsibility of all inhabitants of the earth. I have come to believe that, in our relationship with the earth, we are called to evoke and affirm our interconnectedness with the rest of the world, because this sense of interconnectedness reminds us that the earth unites us all – indeed, before and beyond any doctrinal, political, racial, or confessional differences. We may or may not share religious principles, ethnic backgrounds, or political convictions. But we most definitely share an experience of the earth: the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the ground that we tread – although this sharing is not always equitable or just. By some mysterious connection that we do not always understand, the earth reminds us of our interconnectedness.
As for the ecumenical importance of Laudato Si’, it is also important to note that, when Pope Francis began preparing the encyclical, he reached out to Patriarch Bartholomew in order to express recognition and admiration for the work achieved by the Ecumenical Patriarchate since the late 1980s. In fact, he included a prominent reference to the Patriarch and his environmental leadership in the papal encyclical, highlighting the patriarchal activities and pronouncements in an unprecedented manner. It was the first time that an Orthodox leader was spotlighted in a formal pontifical statement – this is an act of profound ecumenical significance. Prior to this, moreover, Patriarch Bartholomew had spontaneously decided to attend the inaugural mass of Pope Francis in March 2013. This, too, was an extraordinary move, the first time ever that an Orthodox patriarch was present at the installation of a Roman pontiff.
To an outsider, such events may appear insignificant and inconsequential. However, their impact on such issues as climate change is paramount and momentous. I believe that the papal encyclical letter on creation care was long anticipated not only from an ecological perspective, but also in the context of inter-Christian openness between these two contemporary religious leaders, who are personally and distinctly marked by a close friendship, while at the same time profoundly and steadfastly committed to restoring communion between their churches. There is no doubt in my mind that the favorable reception – in fact, I would venture to add also the adverse reaction to and harsh criticism – of their advocacy for God’s creation is arguably the greatest testimony and promising evidence that they are most definitely on the right track.
AH: The relationship you describe between patriarch and pope is doubtless a meaningful fruit of ecumenical friendship and love for the church universal, even in the midst of our political and ecclesial fragmentation. And that’s a fitting place to conclude, I think, as we are looking forward to the new year and to the 2021 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, with its theme: “Abide in my love… and you shall bear much fruit.” There’s a resonantly and relevantly ecological valance of this theme, isn’t there? “Fruitfulness” requires being rooted, requires being sustained and sustainable where one is; God’s love, so to speak, functions in the metaphor as fertilizer to nourish and uphold our own ways of pouring love into the world, for its transfiguration.
Any last word you would like to offer on this sense of fruitfulness as an interpretive or prophetic category for Christian life, theology, or ecumenism?
JC: It’s true. By this [fruit] shall people know us – namely, if we have love for one another (cf. John 13:35). We know that we are on the right track, if and when we are establishing communication, building community, and affirming communion.
This is the power of ecumenical commitment and collaboration, which lies in beginning to open up beyond ourselves and our own, our communities and our churches. It is learning to speak the language of care and compassion. It is giving priority to solidarity and service. And in this respect, creation care has a vital ecumenical dimension in that it brings divided Christians and insulated believers before a common task that we must inevitably face together.
This interview originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Ecumenical Trends, a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.