Elizabeth Theokritoff is a very interesting author, and in this recent book (published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood New York, 2009; ISBN 978-0-88141-338-0) she evaluates the ecological stance of the Orthodox tradition. The material is laid out in a series of chapters, each dealing with a different class of evidence: the Church Fathers (the longest and most difficult chapter), the ascetic tradition, the Saints, Orthodox worship, sacramental life and living, and contemporary Orthodox theology. Some may be surprised that there is no chapter explicitly on the Bible, but as she points out ‘what really counts is the way [biblical] texts have been understood and used. An idea may be found in Scripture, but actually have played little part in shaping the Christian world view.’ Hence her reliance on patristic, ascetic and liturgical data, which are found to speak with one voice and offer a view of remarkable relevance to the contemporary ecological situation.
In brief, she holds, making use of the traditional Orthodox distinction between God’s essence and energies, that the latter are present everywhere in the creation. Moreover, man (this word is used throughout) stands at the centre of the creation, with the function of relating all else to God. Ascetic practice, the bedrock of Christian living, can operate to the benefit of the environment; intriguingly, Theokritoff tells us that ‘[m]onks and nuns often seem to grasp swiftly and intuitively the environmental implications of Orthodox theology.’ The lives of the saints, in particular the delightful stories of their dealings with animals, show what can be achieved. Perhaps not all these tales are to be taken literally, but ‘ when a story is not strictly historical, it may still graphically express the values and aspirations of the community that has transmitted and received it.’ Turning to worship, she begins with the psalms used in liturgy and goes on to examine liturgical texts more generally. Words from a familiar prayer, ‘all creation praises you for ever’, express what she finds in these texts. Sacramental life gives insight into the way things are meant to be used, pointing as it does to the original beauty of the world. There is a note of caution to be sounded, one that Orthodox may find uncomfortable: ‘Orthodox countries are hardly distinguished for environmental protection, or for widespread resistance to environmentally destructive elements of the modern lifestyle. And Orthodox communities in the West largely reflect the environmental attitudes of the surrounding culture.’ Clearly there is work to be done, and Theokritoff leaves her readers with a challenge: the familiar motto ‘think globally, act locally’ is both too broad and too narrow, for we should think not just globally but cosmically, and act not just locally but personally.
This is a very powerful and compelling set of ideas. I’d like to explore one aspect of it, that which deals with animals. Discussing relations between man and other creatures, Theokritoff states that the ‘dominion’ humans were originally given over other creatures, which would have involved them offering spontaneous and instinctive obedience, was not revoked at the fall, but seriously modified. The attitudes they take towards various people now depends on the relation those people have with Christ, to which in some manner they respond. The authority man was originally given over them is restored in a saint, so that animals willingly submit their nature to his, while nevertheless retaining the nature that is proper to them in the world of the fall. Various stories tell of animals in the service of man, and ‘[t]he ultimate service rendered by animals to man is to become food for him’ . But is this conclusion necessary? It is supported by two pieces of evidence, one from St Gregory the Theologian and the other from a contemporary subsistence hunting culture, but against it can be set the obvious fact that in almost all cases when animals are confronted by the possibility of suffering harm, to say nothing of death, they seek to avoid it. Animals are not keen to render us service by voluntarily entering the slaughter house.
Theokritoff goes on to describe how man sometimes acts in service of the animals by providing them with food and healing, exercising an all-embracing compassion. But surely someone who feels compassion for any difficulties animals experience in their lives would avoid ending those lives? She beautifully demonstrates that the interactions of the saints with animals show a compassion largely lost in modern urban societies. These interactions are well expressed in words of Fr Paisios, an Elder on Mount Athos in recent times, quoted elsewhere by Nikolaos Hatzinikolaou: ‘[W]hen God visits the heart, man becomes so delicate and gentle with nature that he neither disturbs it nor becomes defensive against it…When you encounter a beast or a snake and you love it, it will not hurt you, for it loves you too. You become a friend of creation which loves and trusts you in return…the environment is transformed into a temple and laws are replaced by miracle and divine intervention. This is ascetic theology.’ Similarly, ‘Fr Maximos’, as quoted by Kyriacos Markides, asserts: ‘When human beings are at a stage where they become a repository of God’s Grace, then animals instinctively recognize that as the state of the first humans prior to the Fall. Friendship is reestablished between humans and the rest of nature.’ Why end such friendship by eating your friend?
For most of us, all too familiar with such realities as being attacked by magpies, such words can only be an expression of distant aspiration rather than a description of what we experience in our daily lives. But I think that an intention of relating to the world around us so that we do not exploit it for our own purposes, superbly argued for in this book, is fittingly expressed by a diet that avoids the flesh of animals, and that such a diet may even nudge us a little further along in that direction.