Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The earth is the Lord's

I linked to some podcasts yesterday but I didn't say what they were about.

These talks on "Divine Ecology" by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick have been very influential to my thinking about creation, community and dirt in the last year. In the first talk, he defines two common approaches to the environment. One is "liberal" misanthropic environmentalism, which sees man as a destroyer of the earth who should ultimately give way either to more enlightened people or simply to plants and animals. The other extreme is the generally conservative, Biblical-sounding "stewardship" model which is basically greed deferred- let's conserve this resource so that we can use it later. The misanthropic model sees man as inferior to the natural world, and the stewardship model sees the natural world as the possession of man. Both are incompatible with the Orthodox view of Creation, in which we, along with the natural world, are created and energized by God, intended for holiness. Yes, even the rocks and bugs are holy. God is in all. The attitude required by this view is reverence and love.

In the second talk, he gives suggestions for how we can fulfill our vocation as the priests in this temple of God, the earth. I won't go into the details but encourage you to listen to the podcast if you can. If you are dissatisfied by the dominant narratives about the environment, I suspect that you will be moved, as I was.

Here is one direction in which the ideas from these talks have taken me this year:

To my (simple) mind, the identity crisis of American Orthodox is based in complete confusion between the particular and the universal. We don't know which practices, attitudes, beliefs, traditions, etc. are Serbian or Greek and which are Orthodox. We often find ourselves asking "Is this Russian/Bulgarian/Arabic/etc, or is it Orthodox?" assuming that we need to clear away the particular local traditions to find some central nugget that is true for everybody. The ugliest product of this assumption, to me, is the bitter attempts on the part of American converts (who feel, perhaps rightly, excluded) to erase the cultural or linguistic heritage that they don't "get," because "we're Americans, not Greek." The other extreme (to which you have probably guessed that I list awkwardly) is posing as Greek or Russian when you aren't, evoking winces from both the target culture and concerned bystanders.

So unless you just want to give up and say that Americans can't be authentically Orthodox, there is a paradox to resolve, between the universal and the particular. We can't simply try to find the lowest common denominator, because the more universally accessible you try to make something, the less body, vitality, and meaning it has. It becomes thin, transparent. On the other hand, it's absolutely sickening and opposite to the whole project of salvation (the realization of our personhood!) to pretend to be somebody else.

 In the sacrament of Eucharist, materials that come from the earth (and in the old days, from the earth local to the community) are offered to God and made holy. In this I see an ascent from the particular to the universal, which does not at all demean the particular, but requires it as a hypostasis, and gives it meaning. Our salvation has the same shape. Union with God's energies does not mean disintegration into a boring soup of melted personalities, but rather that we become our true selves, in all our peculiar beauty.

Let me reiterate: in our ascent from the particular to the universal, we do not kick away the ladder once we've reached the top. The celebrant of the liturgy does not contemptuously toss away the leftover contents of the chalice, once all the communicants have been unified with Christ by means of the bread and the wine, as if the spiritual end were embarrassed by the physical means. The "leftovers" are revered because they were our means of communion with God. They are holy now.

Okay, how do environmentalism and American Orthodoxy relate to this "shape" of our salvation? Well, as with every other people, our culture, land and community are the particular material that we have to offer to God. Indeed as the priests of Creation this is our entire purpose. Unfortunately our culture is an incoherent whirlpool of frequent immigration from one city to another; we use and abuse our land as if there were no tomorrow; and many, many Americans never find a true community, but always live in a loose, chaotic association of individuals. Before we can decide on what our liturgies are going to be like as Americans, we need to have a coherent idea of what it even is to BE an American. And to do this, we need to know what it means to be from rural Kentucky, or Houston, or Seattle. We need to make the land holy by building a community and a culture of that place, and offering it to God. The music and the iconography and the translation will take care of themselves after that. The basic posture of reverence towards the earth as the temple of God, whose priests we are, is where we must begin.

Fr. Stephen Freeman happened to repost this article on Modern Loneliness and Staying Put on the day that I re-listened to the Divine Ecology podcasts. It is very timely and says, better than I have, much of what I mean. This is just a start.


  1. I spent all morning last Thursday reading Fr Stephen's "Modern Loneliness" post and ALL the comments....!! Way to go Fr Steven: serious and kind comment thread. That is, after I went to a catholic funeral mass for a woman I'd never met. It was kind of a strange day.

    1. I always enjoy his posts and the comments. I was eager to listen to his appearance on Ancient Faith Today on "The Crisis of Beauty," because I loved that post, but I was sadly sort of underwhelmed by the dialogue between him and Kevin Allen. I didn't listen to the whole thing though, and nonetheless I liked hearing his voice.

      What are catholic funeral masses like? Do they sing "Requiem?"

  2. Well, THIS catholic funeral mass was at a very "low church" college catholic center. If they say three words of latin in a year I'd be surprised. It was extremely like an ordinary mass there, with hymns chosen by the woman before she died and a few prayers with echoes of orthodox prayers for the departed in them.

    It was kind of nice to have a full mass with a funeral ("...as a promise of Thy kingdom and they life to come"), but I was surprised that there was not more funeral to it. Perhaps there is more of that in private when one dies, or when one is buried? Or perhaps this was the sort of woman who adjures folks to rejoice at her funeral and carries enough weight to be heeded.

    I wonder if it is still possible, anywhere in the world, to find the kind of mass conjured up by a Mozart requiem or a Schubert mass. But then maybe they were generally for concerts rather than for church, anyway.