God Has Not Abandoned the World

Declaration on Environment Signed by Pope and Patriarch of Constantinople

St. Andrei Rublev’s Trinity

St. Andrei Rublev’s Trinity

Here is the text of the joint declaration signed 10 June 2002 by Patriarch Bartholomeos and Pope John Paul II on the shared Christian responsibility to safeguard the environment.

We are gathered here today in the spirit of peace for the good of all human beings and for the care of creation. At this moment in history, at the beginning of the third millennium, we are saddened to see the daily suffering of a great number of people from violence, starvation, poverty, and disease. We are also concerned about the negative consequences for humanity and for all creation resulting from the degradation of some basic natural resources such as water, air and land, brought about by an economic and technological progress which does not recognize and take into account its limits.

Almighty God envisioned a world of beauty and harmony, and He created it, making every part an expression of His freedom, wisdom and love (cf. Gen 1:1-25).

At the center of the whole of creation, He placed us, human beings, with our inalienable human dignity. Although we share many features with the rest of the living beings, Almighty God went further with us and gave us an immortal soul, the source of self-awareness and freedom, endowments that make us in His image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-31; 2:7). Marked with that resemblance, we have been placed by God in the world in order to cooperate with Him in realizing more and more fully the divine purpose for creation.

At the beginning of history, man and woman sinned by disobeying God and rejecting His design for creation. Among the results of this first sin was the destruction of the original harmony of creation. If we examine carefully the social and environmental crisis which the world community is facing, we must conclude that we are still betraying the mandate God has given us: to be stewards called to collaborate with God in watching over creation in holiness and wisdom.

God has not abandoned the world. It is His will that His design and our hope for it will be realized through our cooperation in restoring its original harmony. In our own time we are witnessing a growth of an ecological awareness which needs to be encouraged, so that it will lead to practical programs and initiatives. An awareness of the relationship between God and humankind brings a fuller sense of the importance of the relationship between human beings and the natural environment, which is God's creation and which God entrusted to us to guard with wisdom and love (cf. Gen 1:28).

Respect for creation stems from respect for human life and dignity. It is on the basis of our recognition that the world is created by God that we can discern an objective moral order within which to articulate a code of environmental ethics. In this perspective, Christians and all other believers have a specific role to play in proclaiming moral values and in educating people in ecological awareness, which is none other than responsibility towards self, towards others, towards creation.

What is required is an act of repentance on our part and a renewed attempt to view ourselves, one another, and the world around us within the perspective of the divine design for creation. The problem is not simply economic and technological; it is moral and spiritual. A solution at the economic and technological level can be found only if we undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart, which can lead to a change in lifestyle and of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. A genuine conversion in Christ will enable us to change the way we think and act.

First, we must regain humility and recognize the limits of our powers, and most importantly, the limits of our knowledge and judgment. We have been making decisions, taking actions, and assigning values that are leading us away from the world as it should be, away from the design of God for creation, away from all that is essential for a healthy planet and a healthy commonwealth of people. A new approach and a new culture are needed, based on the centrality of the human person within creation and inspired by environmentally ethical behavior stemming from our triple relationship to God, to self, and to creation. Such an ethics fosters interdependence and stresses the principles of universal solidarity, social justice, and responsibility, in order to promote a true culture of life.

Secondly, we must frankly admit that humankind is entitled to something better than what we see around us. We and, much more, our children and future generations are entitled to a better world, a world free from degradation, violence and bloodshed, a world of generosity and love.

Thirdly, aware of the value of prayer, we must implore God the Creator to enlighten people everywhere regarding the duty to respect and carefully guard creation.

We therefore invite all men and women of good will to ponder the importance of the following ethical goals:

1. To think of the world's children when we reflect on and evaluate our options for action.

2. To be open to study the true values based on the natural law that sustain every human culture.

3. To use science and technology in a full and constructive way, while recognizing that the findings of science have always to be evaluated in the light of the centrality of the human person, of the common good, and of the inner purpose of creation. Science may help us to correct the mistakes of the past, in order to enhance the spiritual and material well-being of the present and future generations. It is love for our children that will show us the path that we must follow into the future.

4. To be humble regarding the idea of ownership and to be open to the demands of solidarity. Our mortality and our weakness of judgment together warn us not to take irreversible actions with what we choose to regard as our property during our brief stay on this earth. We have not been entrusted with unlimited power over creation, we are only stewards of the common heritage.

5. To acknowledge the diversity of situations and responsibilities in the work for a better world environment. We do not expect every person and every institution to assume the same burden. Everyone has a part to play, but for the demands of justice and charity to be respected the most affluent societies must carry the greater burden, and from them is demanded a sacrifice greater than can be offered by the poor. Religions, governments, and institutions are faced by many different situations; but on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity all of them can take on some tasks, some part of the shared effort.

6. To promote a peaceful approach to disagreement about how to live on this earth, about how to share it and use it, about what to change and what to leave unchanged. It is not our desire to evade controversy about the environment, for we trust in the capacity of human reason and the path of dialogue to reach agreement. We commit ourselves to respect the views of all who disagree with us, seeking solutions through open exchange, without resorting to oppression and domination.

It is not too late. God's world has incredible healing powers. Within a single generation, we could steer the earth toward our children's future. Let that generation start now, with God's help and blessing.

John Paul II

Bartholomeos I

10 June 2002

* * *

"Each of us is called to make the crucial distinction between what we want and what we need"

Patriarch of Constantinople's Address on Environmental Ethics

Here is the address delivered in the Ducal Palace in Venice by Patriarch Bartholomeos prior to signing the joint declaration with John Paul on protection of the environment.

Beloved and learned participants,

As we come to the close of our Fourth Symposium on Religion, Science, and the Environment, we offer thanks to God for the fruitful proceedings as well as for your invaluable contribution. We recall the prophetic words of our predecessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I of blessed memory. In his historic encyclical letter of 1989, urging Christians to observe September 1st as a day of prayer for the protection of the environment, he emphasized the need for all of us to display a "eucharistic and ascetic spirit."

Let us reflect on these two words "eucharistic" and "ascetic." The implications of the first word are easy to appreciate. In calling for a "eucharistic spirit," Patriarch Dimitrios was reminding us that the created world is not simply our possession but it is a gift -- a gift from God the Creator, a healing gift, a gift of wonder and beauty -- and that our proper response, on receiving such a gift, is to accept it with gratitude and thanksgiving. This is surely the distinctive characteristic of ourselves as human beings: humankind is not merely a logical or a political animal, but above all a eucharistic animal, capable of gratitude, and endowed with the power to bless God for the gift of creation. Other animals express their gratefulness simply by being themselves, by living in the world in their own instinctive manner; but we human beings possess self awareness, and so consciously and by deliberate choice we can thank God with eucharistic joy. Without such thanksgiving we ! are not truly human.

But what does Patriarch Dimitrios mean by the second word, "ascetic"? When we speak of asceticism, we think of such things as fasting, vigils, and rigorous practices. That is indeed part of what is involved; but askesis signifies much more than this. It means that, in relation to the environment, we are to display what the Philokalia and other spiritual texts of the Orthodox Church call enkrateia, "self-restraint."

That is to say, we are to practice a voluntary self-limitation in our consumption of food and natural resources. Each of us is called to make the crucial distinction between what we want and what we need. Only through such self-denial, through our willingness sometimes to forgo and to say, "no" or "enough" will we rediscover our true human place in the universe.

The fundamental criterion for an environmental ethic is not individualistic or commercial. The acquisition of material goods cannot justify the self-centered desire to control the natural resources of the world. Greed and avarice render the world opaque, turning all things to dust and ashes. Generosity and unselfishness render the world transparent, turning all things into a sacrament of loving communion -- communion between human beings with one another, communion between human beings and God.

This need for an ascetic spirit can be summed up in a single key word: sacrifice. This exactly is the missing dimension in our environmental ethos and ecological action.

We are all painfully aware of the fundamental obstacle that confronts us in our work for the environment. It is precisely this: how are we to move from theory to action, from words to deeds? We do not lack technical scientific information about the nature of the present ecological crisis. We know, not simply what needs to be done, but also how to do it. Yet, despite all this information, unfortunately little is actually done. It is a long journey from the head to the heart, and an even longer journey from the heart to the hands.

How shall we bridge this tragic gap between theory and practice, between ideas and actuality? There is only one way: through the missing dimension of sacrifice. We are thinking here of a sacrifice that is not cheap but costly: "I will not offer to the Lord my God that which costs me nothing" (2 Samuel 24:24). There will be an effective, transforming change in the environment if, and only if, we are prepared to make sacrifices that are radical, painful, and genuinely unselfish. If we sacrifice nothing, we shall achieve nothing. Needless to say, as regards both nations and individuals, so much more is demanded from the rich than from the poor. Nevertheless, all are asked to sacrifice something for the sake of their fellow humans.

Sacrifice is primarily a spiritual issue and less an economic one. In speaking about sacrifice, we are talking about an issue that is not technological but ethical. Indeed, environmental ethics is specifically a central theme of this present symposium. We often refer to an environmental crisis; but the real crisis lies not in the environment but in the human heart. The fundamental problem is to be found not outside but inside ourselves, not in the ecosystem but in the way we think.

The root cause of all our difficulties consists in human selfishness and human sin. What is asked of us is not greater technological skill but deeper repentance, metanoia, in the literal sense of the Greek word, which signifies "change of mind." The root cause of our environmental sin lies in our self-centeredness and in the mistaken order of values, which we inherit and accept without any critical evaluation. We need a new way of thinking about our own selves, about our relationship with the world and with God. Without this revolutionary "change of mind," all our conservation projects, however well-intentioned, will remain ultimately ineffective. For, we shall be dealing only with the symptoms, not with their cause. Lectures and international conferences may help to awaken our conscience, but what is truly required is a baptism of tears.

Speaking about sacrifice is unfashionable, and even unpopular in the modern world. But, if the idea of sacrifice is unpopular, this is primarily because many people have a false notion of what sacrifice actually means. They imagine that sacrifice involves loss or death; they see sacrifice as somber or gloomy. Perhaps this is because, throughout the centuries, religious concepts have been used to introduce distinctions between those who have and those who have not, as well as to justify avarice, abuse and arrogance.

But if we consider how sacrifice was understood in the Old Testament, we find that the Israelites had a totally different view of its significance. To them, sacrifice meant not loss but gain, not death but life. Sacrifice was costly, but it brought about not diminution but fulfillment; it was a change not for the worse but for the better. Above all, for the Israelites, sacrifice signified not primarily giving up but simply giving. In its basic essence, a sacrifice is a gift -- a voluntary offering in worship by humanity to God.

Thus in the Old Testament, although sacrifice often involved the slaying of an animal, the whole point was not the taking but the giving of life; not the death of the animal but the offering of the animal's life to God. Through this sacrificial offering, a bond was established between the human worshiper and God. The gift, once accepted by God, was consecrated, acting as a means of communion between Him and His people. For the Israelites, the fasts -- and the sacrifices that went with them -- were "seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals" (Zechariah 8:19).

An essential element of any sacrifice is that it should be willing and voluntary. That which is extracted from us by force and violence, against our will, is not a sacrifice. Only what we offer in freedom and in love is truly a sacrifice. There is no sacrifice without love. When we surrender something unwillingly, we suffer loss; but when we offer something voluntarily, out of love, we only gain.

When, on the fortieth day after Christ's birth, His mother the Virgin Mary, accompanied by Joseph, came to the temple and offered her child to God, her act of sacrifice brought her not sorrow but joy; for, it was an act of love. She did not lose her child, but He became her own in a way that He could never otherwise have been.

Christ proclaimed this seemingly contradictory mystery when He taught: "Whosoever wishes to save his life must lose it" (Matt. 10:39 and 16:25). When we sacrifice our life and share our wealth, we gain life in abundance and enrich the entire world. Such is the experience of humankind over the ages: Kenosis means plerosis; voluntary self-emptying brings self-fulfillment.

All this we need to apply to our work for the environment. There can be no salvation for the world, no healing, no hope of a better future, without the missing dimension of sacrifice. Without a sacrifice that is costly and uncompromising, we shall never be able to act as priests of the creation in order to reverse the descending spiral of ecological degradation.

The path that lies before us, as we continue on our spiritual voyage of ecological exploration, is strikingly indicated in the ceremony of the Great Blessing of the Waters, performed in the Orthodox Church on January 6th, the Feast of Theophany, when we commemorate Christ's Baptism in the Jordan River. The Great Blessing begins with a hymn of praise to God for the beauty and harmony of creation:

"Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works: no words suffice to sing the praise of Thy wonders. ... The sun sings Thy praises; the moon glorifies Thee; the stars supplicate before Thee; the light obeys Thee; the deeps are afraid at Thy presence; the fountains are Thy servants; Thou hast stretched out the heavens like a curtain; Thou hast established the earth upon the waters; Thou hast walled about the sea with sand; Thou hast poured forth the air that living things may breathe...."

Then, after this all-embracing cosmic doxology, there comes the culminating moment in the ceremony of blessing. The celebrant takes a Cross and plunges it into the vessel of water (if the service is being performed indoors in church) or into the river or the sea (if the service takes place out of doors).

The Cross is our guiding symbol in the supreme sacrifice to which we are all called. It sanctifies the waters and, through them, transforms the entire world. Who can forget the imposing symbol of the Cross in the splendid mosaic of the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe? As we celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Ravenna, our attention was focused on the Cross, which stood at the center of our heavenly vision, at the center of the natural beauty that surrounded it, and at the center of our celebration of heaven on earth.

Such is the model of our ecological endeavors. Such is the foundation of any environmental ethic. The Cross must be plunged into the waters. The Cross must be at the very center of our vision. Without the Cross, without sacrifice, there can be no blessing and no cosmic transfiguration. Amen.

Featured Image: markus spiske