Month: December 2009
Ecology was never particularly a subject I thought I would find myself thinking too much about, much less writing about, but it seems to keep coming to the fore for me, especially as I’ve begun to apprehend more of its theological, rather than secular/political, significance. Framing this theological vision in terms of “the story of home” (which is one literal rendering of oikologia, from which we get ecology) makes a good deal more sense than putting it in the rarefied categories of “environmentalism.”
As Master Bueller once put it, “A person shouldn’t believe in an ism.” I don’t agree with him, of course, that a person should instead “believe in himself.” Our confidence and spiritual center as Christians is in Christ, not in ourselves. Ferris’s substitution of self-worship for ideology—and boldly explored in what is still one of the most entertaining films to come out in the past 30 years—is not really much better, but at least he got it half right. Ideology is not the answer. As an Orthodox Christian, I assert that communion is the answer. And that brings us to James Cameron’s Avatar.
This past Sunday afternoon, I went with my father-in-law to one of the local big cinemas (alas, not to the Emmaus Theatre, which, not surprisingly, is probably not going to be showing Avatar; Update: Actually, it looks like it is!), and we took in a matinée of Avatar. I’ll be honest: I like big, action-packed sci-fi flicks, and that is precisely what I expected to see in Avatar. I’ve read some reviews from some of my fellow Orthodox which criticize the film’s lack of character development and serious dialogue, as well as its theological unidimensionality, but I wasn’t expecting any of that kind of depth in Avatar and wasn’t disappointed when it wasn’t there. I still judge these kinds of movies like I do Star Wars, which particularly in its 1977 first installment also didn’t have that kind of depth. What it and Avatar do have are archetypal characters dealing with fairly predictable situations in fairly standard ways. All that means is that I still try to watch these movies like I watched Star Wars through the early ’80s—like a kid hoping for a good time. I see nothing wrong with that sort of homely fun. I also admit to some amusement at the film’s humans’ quest for a mineral called unobtainium. Some critics, it seems, took this to be a sign of uninventiveness on the filmmakers’ part rather than the sci-fi in-joke that it is. But no matter.
Anyway, for an intriguing, if brief, comment on the soteriological problems of the film, see these remarks. But perhaps my favorite weblog review is this one from the Front Porch Republic, which takes a localist/conservative look at the film, rather than a neo-conservative/globalist look (the worldview for much of the right-ish punditry on this flick).
That being said, I do think that there are some fascinating questions being explored by Avatar which go a bit beyond the standard cinematic explosions-in-space fare that I was raised on. Given the basic Idyllic-Noble-Savages-in-Tune-with-their-Planet set upon by the Bad-Mean-Military-Industrial-Civilized-Types narrative of the film, there are some writers who have taken Avatar to be “environmentalist” propaganda, and it may well be and may even have been intended that way. But I still think there are some elements of the film worth thinking about and worth comparing with Orthodox ecological and cosmological vision.
One of the basic assumptions of much of modern secular environmentalism seems to be summed up in this question: How do we take mankind out of the picture? Man is typically conceived of as an alien on Earth, and thus the environmental project is to remove man’s presence as much as possible from the planet. The only permissible sentient life is the “noble savage,” who are writ quite large (literally) in Avatar. The Na’vi people are essentially sinless and innocent.
It is a common notion in pagan cosmology and anthropology that there is an identification between mankind, the planet and the creator—in most ancient myths, mankind is birthed from an earth-goddess, and the planet Pandora in Avatar is no exception. The Na’vi’s goddess Eywa is essentially a sort of consciousness for the planet itself, which the scientists there tell us is host to a bioneurological network more complex and conscious than the human brain, via bioelectric connections that run through all the flora of the planet. The fauna, including the Na’vi, are able to interface with other animals and even with plants, thus allowing memories to be stored in the shared network. “Memory eternal” for each person is entirely possible in the mind of their goddess, and there seems to be some kind of communion which can be attained between persons by means of the connection to Eywa.
What I think is worth noting in this pagan/pantheistic view of god, man and nature is its similarity to Orthodox Christianity. With most heterodox, anti-sacramental forms of Christianity, matter and spirit are so disconnected from one another that the environment is looked upon as something wholly “other” from man—thus, one is either an environmentalist seeking to remove man from nature or one is an exploitationist seeking to use nature for all it’s worth. Either way, the human intuition underneath paganism and still present within Orthodoxy is lost—that man is not apart from the rest of creation, but rather is its pinnacle, and also that he is meant to serve as the creation’s priest, making sacred use of materiality as an offering to god/God, to be returned back to him as a means of sanctification. The most bloody pagan knew this as he killed bulls on his altar, and the Christian knew this as he received the Body and Blood in the unbloody sacrifice of the God-man on his own altar.
The Na’vi form a coherent culture, one which is deeply concerned with Place. This goes a bit beyond the devotion to “the forest” or somesuch that we have seen in other kind of environmentalist films (e.g., Fern Gully). The Na’vi not only have their Hometree, but they also have what amount to temples and cemeteries. It is finally the threat to their holiest shrine that is the greatest potential catastrophe in the film. This, too, is an indication of a sense of the holiness of Place, that materiality not only has a functional purpose but a spiritual significance, that any given place is irreplaceable and unrepeatable.
One thing that is a bit different about Eywa, the planet goddess of the Na’vi, is that she apparently hears prayer. This is why I regard the theological vision of this film as more pagan than truly pantheistic. In this, I regard the film as more advanced than most modern environmentalist theologies, which usually want nothing at all to do with a deity with any sort of personal existence. But when we see swarms of native creatures begin a coordinated assault on the mechanistic military of the invading humans, narrated by the deep-chested declaration of Neytiri—”Eywa has heard you!”—then we are clearly being told that this is a deity with self-awareness and with potency. Eywa is concerned only with “maintaining the balance” of life and does not take sides, much like the Holy Trinity Who is not partial and only acts according to the divine plan. But both, nevertheless, in some way interact with the persons in their care in a way that can only be understood as answering prayer.
Another intriguing element in the film is that all energy is “borrowed.” On Pandora, what that seems to mean is that, when anything dies, it returns back to the planet and ceases to exist. Yet its being is somehow remembered by Eywa, such that sentient voices can be heard by those who tap into Eywa’s neural network. Again, this is a more advanced vision than modern secularism, which has no idea whatsoever how to deal with death (other than coming up with new ways to hasten it). That humans (and Na’vi) have always put their dead into the ground is an indication of our understanding of the connection between that ground and the flesh which is made from it. Thus, even in death, the Na’vi’s communion is in and through Eywa. Further, even basic communication seems to carry with it the notion of communion and interpenetration, as with their repeated phrase, “I see you,” meaning “I am looking deeply into you.”
Yet while the Na’vi can only hope for the storage of their memories in Eywa, perhaps in a modified form of the personal oblivion of Hindu and Buddhist Nirvana, the Christian knows that “Memory eternal” in God’s memory means that He continues to give us His energy so that we may live forever, whether we are righteous or wicked. The Fathers teach us that we are not naturally immortal, but God does sustain us forever, such that we are effectively immortal.
This leads me to my final question, one which I have not yet seen any writing on at all: Why is it that the scientist leading the Avatar Project, played by Sigourney Weaver, is named “Dr. Grace Augustine”? It’s possible, to be sure, that the juxtaposition of Grace and Augustine is purely coincidental. But could it perhaps be an anti-Pelagian comment, that salvation for a people (whether the Na’vi or the humans who are exploiting them) can only come through divine intervention?
So, yes, I am looking forward to a sequel.
Update Dec. 26, 2009: One bit that could probably do with some fleshing out in the above is the major difference between pagan and Orthodox Christian theology—the utter dissimilarity between the Creator and Creation. We have no idea whether Eywa is the creator of Pandora (indeed, she seems to function on the purely created level), but the identification of Eywa with the Na’vi and other life puts this theology firmly in the pagan camp. Persons are quite literally children of their deity.
For Orthodox Christianity (and Judaism before it), the Creator is utterly different from the Creation. Creation is not birthed from the Creator, but rather created ex nihilo. This is probably a major reason why the traditional Jewish and Christian image of God is as Father and not as mother, to preserve the critical theological affirmation of the total difference between the created and the uncreated. Indeed, it is this difference which makes the Incarnation of the Son of God such an astounding miracle. It is honestly nothing terribly special if a deity which is already identified with her worshipers chooses to make herself known as one of them. It is something else entirely if the eternal, changeless, infinite, invisible and uncreated God becomes temporal, subject to change, finite and visible, while yet simultaneously retaining all the fullness of His deity.
Pagan philosophy had begun to head in this direction by the time of Christ (that is, to profess a total disjunction between uncreated and created, as the Unmoved Mover and the Moved), which is why the Incarnation took the world by storm. This is also why the big theological problem of the early centuries of Christianity was not how this man could be God, but rather how God could possibly have become man.
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
If you follow the news, you know that this past week and in this coming week, the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, is hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference. During this conference, representatives of dozens of world nations are gathering to discuss Earth’s climate and to propose potentially sweeping changes in reaction to claims that the world’s climate is negatively changing, and especially that these changes are the result of human behavior. And of course you may also be aware of the recent leaking of a series of emails from a climate change study facility which has been the source of some controversy, the so-called “Climategate” scandal.
What you won’t find at the UN’s conference is discussion of the theology of the ecosystem. It is an altogether secular conference, focused on data analysis and deeply entwined with the interests of politicians, competing nation-states, great corporate powers and environmental celebrities.
Whatever your opinion might be on the veracity of the claims of anthropogenic global warming made by some scientists or the counter-claims of others, we should note that the Orthodox Church actually does have something to say about the environment, or, as we might more properly say, God’s creation. As it says in the Psalms, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 23 (24):1).
From this basic theological affirmation, that God created this world and that it still belongs to Him, we can say a number of things. First, despite what you may read on some bumper stickers, we do not belong to the world. Of course, it does not belong to us, either. Rather, the world and all of us belong to God. We are His children, and He created us, this planet and everything in it as an expression of His love, along with the whole of the glorious cosmos that surrounds the Earth.
Some Christians take this affirmation and conclude from it that the Earth has been given into our hands by a model we might call “stewardship,” that we are to use the Earth wisely, managing it like we would our money or other possessions, but still with a sense that God has handed it over to us and that negative things we might do to the Earth should be understood only as mismanagement or simply as inefficiency. If we couple this model with a sense that the end of the world is imminent, we can see how a rather reckless approach to the natural world might result. The Earth is ours to do with as we please, but since Jesus is coming soon, we don’t have to worry too much about tomorrow.
Yet we Orthodox Christians do not see the Earth in this manner. Rather, we have experienced and continue to experience the incarnation of Jesus Christ, that the Son of God took on material, physical form. From this experience we know that the created world does not constitute a grand utility building, whose contents are just tools to be used “wisely.” This creation is not a toolshed. No, it is a temple. And, as a temple, it is holy.
The Psalms also tell us that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 18 (19):1). The same Psalm says “in the sun He set His tabernacle.” The same is true for all elements in creation, including mankind, for even our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Where we as mankind sin is when we use either our own bodies or the body of this Earth as something other than a temple.
And if this world is a temple, a church, then the cathedral of the cosmos presupposes certain kinds of behaviors, and it also says something about what man is. Man is not simply a “steward” of creation. Rather, he is its priest. And what priest would desecrate his own church? Rather, mankind as creation’s priest offers up the created world to God, Who in turn blesses it and uses it for man’s healing and sanctification. This is the Orthodox Christian image for a true ecological vision.
Thus we can see that this world is not merely something to be “used,” as the “stewards” would have it. Nor, however, is it something to be worshiped, as certain environmentalists seem to prefer. A priest does not worship the temple. Rather, he worships the one true God within the temple.
When someone enters into a church, he understands that the church building, with its architecture, ornamentation, and beauty, is not an absolute in itself. That is, we who worship here do not do so in order to serve the temple. Rather, we serve God, in Whose temple we are. Those who say that Earth is our mother are thus encouraging us to idolatry, to turn our worship away from God Who is our Father to serve another purpose. The ancient Jews and the Christians who followed them quite deliberately did not cast the Earth as our mother. Rather, if we have God as our Father, it is the Church who is our mother, to echo the words of St. Cyprian of Carthage.
Throughout all the ages of mankind, the temptation to idolatry has always been present. In our own time, this idolatry manifests itself in a number of ways. There are two forms that are most prominent in our culture. The first is the idolatry of material possessions, which has been highlighted for us in many Gospel readings lately and is so visible before us at this time of year. The second is the idolatry of ideology, and it is this idolatry which we see so prominent in all our political culture, including the ongoing climate conference, and also in much of our religious culture.
Make no mistake that ideology is a kind of idolatry. It is not the same as philosophy or faith, which are guides and motivations for living in certain ways. Rather, ideology is a thought system which makes itself prevalent over all. Ideology demands obedience, not through freedom and persuasion as faith or philosophy do, but rather through force. Worst of all, ideology places the freedom and wellbeing of human persons beneath its own concerns.
With the ideologies of Communism and Nazism, the 20th century saw horrifyingly how absolute systems of thought—even based on ideas which are in themselves good, such as patriotism or economic well-being—necessitated the slaughter of many millions. What was important for Stalin, Hitler and others was that people served the ideology, not that they were loved or free. In the name of creating utopian paradises, millions were murdered. The depth of the irony would be laughable if it weren’t so tragically awful.
We can see this same dedication to ideology when certain environmental activists put spikes in trees, which can easily kill someone trying to cut them down with a chainsaw. These people have put their thought system ahead of human life. And though usually not as deadly, we can see this same approach even in religion, when people tear each other apart in service of their preferences and ideas. But of course there have been the Roman religious persecutions, the excesses of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms against Jews, the Jihads, and the regular fist-fights between clergy and monks in the very Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
If we are to live as Orthodox Christians, our service should be to God and to His children, not to any thought system. We worship the one true God within this temple, His creation, the cosmic cathedral. And what is worship? It is to give ourselves freely and fully to Him, and in so doing, commune with Him. And as we commune with Him, we commune with each other.
We do not serve an ideology, whether political or otherwise. We do not worship a thought system, and we have no absolute, rigidly-defined, systematic theology. We have the revelation of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul tears down these walls between us when he says today, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” When you approach this creation and the persons in it, consider that each place and each person has Christ mystically present within.
So as we see the news unfolding and wars of blood, rhetoric and economics being fought over ideology, let us remember the God Whom we worship. And in so doing, let us remember that this world and all of us are pillars in God’s holy temple. And not one of them should be desecrated.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
A fascinating event held recently at St. Paul’s was this seminar and discussion led by Prof. Alfred Siewers of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (referenced in this previous post). You can now listen to both parts of the recording made of the seminar via Ancient Faith Radio:
- Part One—the bulk of the seminar, introduced by your host, in which I warble on a bit about my 2001 pilgrimage in the British Isles. Prof. Siewers gives a fascinating talk about Irish Christian monasticism and how it lived in terms of ecology (“the story of home”).
- Part Two—the question and answer session, featuring both Prof. Siewers and your humble servant.
Interested parties can also download Prof. Siewers’s handout here.
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 29, 2009
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
On November 29th, 1877, a 30-year-old inventor in New Jersey handed a sketch to Swiss-born machinist John Kruesi and instructed him to build a new machine. Over the course of the next week, Kruesi assembled it according to the instructions, completing it on December 6th. The magazine The Scientific American later printed these words: “In December, 1877, a young man came into the office of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered. The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: ‘Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?’ The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph.”
Though no one probably realized it at the time, with the phonograph’s introduction by Thomas Edison in 1877, something quite fundamental in the world began to change. Prior to 1877, in order to experience the spoken word, you had to be in the speaker’s presence. Likewise, to hear music, you had to be present with the musician. But as sounds began to be recorded and other methods were developed of transmitting sounds and other information without the necessity of being present, a universal means of connection and community in world culture was permanently weakened and, in many cases, severed entirely.
There are now jobs that can be worked without ever meeting one’s co-workers. People like Kanye West and Taylor Swift have careers precisely because their music can be recorded. We can become acquainted with the style and mannerisms of world politicians whom we will never meet. And we can boast of hundreds of “friends” whose only presence for us is a profile photo on Facebook. It is now possible to “attend church” from the comfort of one’s living room while still wearing pajamas. And yet most of us in our culture do not know the people who live right next to us.
What our astonishing advances in technology have allowed us to do is to objectify other people. In general, we no longer can have a relationship with our favorite musicians. Nor do we have any experiential knowledge of the people at the other end of the wires that connect us via the Internet. All of these people and what they do have been turned into products for us to buy and acquire, or, in the case of cable television and the Internet, to rent. Almost all of us are, to one extent or another, immersed in this disincarnate, disconnected world.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this technology. They have Internet access even on the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece. But what this technology does afford us is another means of turning away from what we were created to be: human persons in communion with our God and with our fellow persons. Where this technology becomes diabolical is when we allow it to undermine this communion. The sin is not in the circuit boards and fiber optic cable; it’s in the objectification.
Today’s encounter with Jesus as told by St. Luke in his Gospel describes a man with just such a dedication to objects over communion. This man approaches Jesus and asks Him what it takes to be saved, or, in his words, “to inherit eternal life.” Jesus’ response is a short description of the classic commandments from the Old Testament, and the man responds that he has kept them all even since he was a child. But then the Lord says to him that he still lacks one thing: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” And then Luke tells us that “when the man heard this he became sad, for he was very rich.”
The basic error which is at the root of all sin is a dedication to the creation apart from the Creator. In classic terms, this is idolatry, the worship of anything other than the One True God. Many of us probably saw this idolatry on bold display this past Friday if we went Christmas shopping, when so many people become focused on acquisition of objects that they are rude or even violent toward their fellow human persons. And there have been times when people were trampled to death in the frenzy to take advantage of holiday sales. In this we see a deep dedication to objects rather than mindfulness of our fellow men and women, children of the Father created according to Christ, the image of the invisible God.
The Lord does not condemn the riches of the man who asked Him about eternal life, nor does He condemn our giving gifts to one another to mark holidays. But in this season of frenetic consumerism, we turn our ears to this holy Gospel reading and remember that we are not consumers. We are not machines whose purpose is to acquire and use up objects and one another in a never-ending quest for more.
God’s creation is “very good,” as we read in the Book of Genesis. Its purpose is not to satisfy our urges, however. Rather, this world and everything in it is meant for the purpose of communion. Ultimately, this communion is perfectly realized when bread and wine are offered up on the altar and become the vehicle for divine grace, the means by which we physically touch God and through which He takes up His dwelling within us. This is true for all the holy mysteries, but it is also true in other ways. We can pursue communion through giving sacrificially to those around us in need. We can pursue communion by giving up possessions and food that we do not need in order to free ourselves of distractions from the one thing needful, salvation in Christ.
Creation becomes dangerous for us is when we dedicate it to something other than communion. If we make use of the Internet to avoid real contact with people in the flesh, then it has become a vehicle for our degradation. If we are interested only in music performed by people we will never meet, then we have lost something profound about music’s deep possibilities for humanizing us and binding us together. If we shove other people aside and compete for objects on sale for gift-giving, then we are not only failing to pursue communion, we are launching an outright attack on it.
In all of these images, we see the degradation and isolation of the human person—whether sitting in front of his computer screen or TV, or cut off from the world with the earbuds on his iPod, or vigorously and even viciously on a quest for the latest shopping fad. This is not the image of the person as created by God, enjoying warmth and union with his Creator and his fellow creatures, but rather of the distressed, lonely, and fragmented humanity which we see more and more in our world.
The good news of the Gospel is that Christ has come to offer us the possibility of reconnection. His incarnation as a little Child which we will celebrate in a few weeks is the means by which we may emerge from our isolation and be restored and renewed by the God Whose energy is the only true means of sustaining and satisfying us.
Yet while the Lord offers us the possibility for true communion with Him and with each other, He will not force it upon us against our will. Indeed, what kind of communion would it be if our free will were violated in the process? How could love do that?
So it is incumbent upon us to respond to His invitation, to take His outstretched hand in our own and be drawn into His warm, powerful and loving embrace. We cannot do that so long as we are dedicated to loving the creation more than the Creator. If we wish to know true communion, then it takes setting aside the earthly cares that, especially at this time of year, so define us and threaten to overwhelm us.
While the world parties its way to a holiday it calls “Christmas” but is unrecognizable as such to Christians, finally exhausted sometime on Dec. 26th, Orthodox Christians are quietly and mindfully fasting, almsgiving, praying and preparing to receive Him Who, while a little Child, holds all creation in the palm of His hand. Will you place yourself there, too?
To the incarnate God-man, our Lord Jesus Christ, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
Thou stockdove whose echo resounds thro’ the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing thy screaming forbear,
I charge you, disturb not my slumbering Fair.
How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark’d with the courses of clear, winding rills;
There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary’s sweet cot in my eye.
How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where, wild in the woodlands, the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev’ning weeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.
Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides;
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As, gathering sweet flowerets, she stems thy clear wave.
Flow gently, sweet Afton, amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
Robert Burns, 1791
I’m not entirely sure why, but this poem’s been on my mind ever since my son Elias was born on Sunday. I must admit to first being introduced to it by Nickel Creek, who included a musical version of it on their debut album, framed by a melody which is so clear and appropriate that one feels that it could not have had any author.
There is something about the anchoring of and in place that comes forward at the birth of a child, particularly (if I may) a son. Since the days of Adam, men have as part of their vocation on this earth to provide stability, unity and name. (And women provide civilization and a motivation for men to undertake their calling.)
Both of my children have so far been born in Pennsylvania, while both their parents are native Virginians. This seems right to me, in a way I cannot quite explain but which is particularly informed by the reality that, in my own immediate family, between five members are five native states. That’s just how things turned out for us, but it’s not something I’d like to perpetuate.
With a new man comes a new grounding in the ecology (per Prof. Alfred Siewers, “the story of home”), a new generation to be ordered among the fathers and grandfathers. Here in 21st century America, the fathers and grandfathers rarely call the same place home.
My prayer is that my generation may be among the last to be so scattered across this world. It seems to me that the Incarnation almost expects it.
Rev. Damick: Look! Snow!
Evangelia: Yes! We can play in it! It’s on the ground!
Rev. Damick: Probably not tonight, youngun.
Evangelia: Oh, well. Maybe later.
Rev. Damick: Yes, maybe later.
Evangelia: When you get small!
Rev. Damick: What?
Evangelia: When you get small!
Rev. Damick: I don’t think I’m going to get any smaller, sweetie.
Evangelia: Yes, you will! Turn small!