“The Environmental Crisis is Heresy”, Father John Chryssavgis

[A bit of context here. The University of Chicago students have “workshops” in which they discuss major issues of interest to their academic fields. Workshops can include student work, but apparently (as in this case) also include bringing fascinating people to speak at Swift Hall for their kick offs. So, the Theology Workshop this quarter is interested in Ecology and Theology, and brought Father John Chryssavgis to speak on Tuesday.]

“By disconnecting this world from heaven, we have effectively desacrilized both.”

On Tuesday I attended a lecture offered by the Theology Workshop in Swift Hall given by Father John Chryssavgis, a deacon in the Orthodox church, and the theological adviser to the Patriarch on environmental issues. He had some really intriguing things to say, especially about the very nature of our relationship with the earth–not just about how we “ought to treat it.” One of the things he stressed at the very beginning of the talk was that we, as humans, tend to stress the “Made in the Image of God” part of our creation rather than the “Made of the Earth” part of our creation. He went on to say then that there is no dual nature in human existence, no “natural” and “divine” aspects, no separate “heaven” and “earth”, and especially that when we desecreate this world, we desecrete heaven as well. Heaven is less than heaven without its connection to a healthy earth.

His premise was that we have broken our covenant with the earth (and heaven, and God) by bringing on this environmental crisis. That the crisis itself is heresy. His answer was asceticism: vigilance, silence, restraint, the discipline of the body to teach ourselves when to say enough is enough. Asceticism, in his eye, was bringing on the “nothingness” required to bring humility to our actions. But he did not stress action. Several years ago, when some family members attended a “How to Deal with Global Warming” talk at my church, they returned with ten easy things that you can do. But Father Chryssavgis was not arguing for action, but rather inaction. Stop what you are doing now, listen, be humble, and try to see, first, before you plow forward. It was an interesting premise. Not one that I’m sure I entirely agree with: the very immediacy of the word crisis strikes me. The terrible apocalyptic feeling that comes with such predictions–with such storms and weather–as if “the deep” itself is threatening to overtake the God we say has subdued it.

But his goal in this talk was not to scare us, but really to promote a re-imagining of how we view this problem, and at its core, re-imagine how we view this world. We must see it, he said, as an Icon, and that may not look like action–not like recycling your bottles looks like action. We must learn to value everything for itself not ourselves–everything as an icon, a symbol of divine imagination, rather than something that we can use for our own ends. His main premise was that the sickness that causes the crisis goes deep. It also extends much further than we imagine–the lack of water, the poverty, the disgusting living conditions and horrific wars that are occurring across this world–are they not related to ecological issues?

What I found interesting, in the way that he looked at it, was that it was not just an issue of action, but an issue of piety. I had not heard that argument before, and so it was an enlightening talk that I feel privileged to be able to attend. I scribbled down something he said at the end of the talk, and this is what I’ll conclude with:

“We cannot pray for a place in heaven if we cannot count on a place on Earth for our children.”

[The speaker has a Wikipedia entry. If you’re interested in his works, though, I think the Orthodox Wiki is a little bit more helpful by giving a book list. Geekout–Omg I’m cool enough to be in the same room with people who have wikipedia entries.]

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