Creation as Sacrament

Reflections on Ecology and Spirituality

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John Chryssavgis
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     2019.
     232 pages.
     $25.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780567680709.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Despite the undeniable impact of Orthodox Christians on ecological discourse and the influence of “green” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Christian ecotheological conversations often woefully neglect Eastern Orthodox theology. Such omissions may surprise, especially given that the historian Lynn White Jr. suggested that Orthodox approaches largely appeared to have escaped the dominological and wasteful patterns endemic to Catholic and Protestant theologies. In Creation as Sacrament: Reflections on Ecology and Spirituality, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the United States John Chryssavgis invites readers to remedy that neglect by lifting rich concepts and practices in Orthodox theology and spirituality to frame human context in creation. In doing so, Chryssavgis offers a welcome and teachable text in ecospirituality and sacramental imagination.

Throughout this book, Chryssavgis notes that Orthodox theology may not have escaped ecologically destructive habits as much as White intimated. “It would be naïve,” Creation as Sacrament states, “to suppose that classical theology and Orthodox spirituality somehow automatically or perhaps magically hold the key to answers where others have failed” (10). In supplement to White’s narrower thesis specifically indicting Western theology’s anthropocentrism, Chryssavgis offers a broader suggestion that a pervasive way of viewing human context in creation may be at issue. He writes that correcting ecologically destructive habits, “is a matter of contemplation, of seeing things differently. Progress is not just a matter of moving without stopping; it is slowing down, even stopping, in order to consider proper direction and appropriate action” (133). A turn to slower contemplative practice may seem to run counterintuitive to the urgency of climate crises, but also may serve to redirect extractive imaginations.

For Chryssavgis,“seeing” is a thorny theological task of contemplating the divine image in the whole of a complicated creation. He argues, “The image of God in creation has been shattered; the face of God on the world has been distorted; the integrity of natural life has been fragmented. Yet, it is precisely in this shattered world that we are called to discern the caring nature of the Creator and discover the sacramental nature of creation” (2). Appropriate to its title, Chryssavgis’ book here joins a larger existing bibliographical chorus of ecologically oriented sacramental ethics.

Unique to Chryssavgis’ approach is that a sacramental view of creation takes on certain contours in an Orthodox frame, inviting readers to consider a key distinction in Orthodox theology between God’s “essence” and “energies.”  He clarifies, “The distinction between divine essence and energies defines the relationship—both intimate and separate—between Creator and creation” (44). God in God’s essence is infinite, unknowable, and different from created reality, while God’s energies enliven, charge, and dwell in created reality with glory.

Considering these energies with multiple modes of contemplative sight, humans may encounter and appreciate a profoundly glorified creation.  In “cosmic transfiguration” one sees a “world imbued by God and God involved in the whole world” (3). In “cosmic interconnection” with the rest of creation, a human being acknowledges that, “if the earth is our very flesh, then it is inseparable from our story, our destiny, and our God” (5). And finally “[cosmic] reconciliation includes reconciling in humility our relationship to God and others” recognizing that creaturely ends in the Divine exceed human grasp (6, emphasis original).

One might ask what practical difference this approach makes, but Chryssavgis precisely attempts to think about theory and practice in an integrated way. The book divides itself into two mutually-implicated sections: “Section I” engages “Theory and Theology” for a wider frame for the theology of creation while “Section II” addresses “Principles and Practices” for conversations around values, religion, and science. One origin of the term theoria (theory) is not a philosophical blueprint or construct, but a practice of seeing in a contemplation of reality. That definition of theory fits Chryssavgis’ text well as he considers across these sections the value of asceticism.  Asceticism is simultaneously a practical resource and potential consequence of the humility of the sacramental seeing of theoria and theology. A ascetic practice of humility and justice encourages people to step away from greed-based consumption or acquisition. “Respect for the natural beauty of the world,” Chryssavgis writes, “leads to reverence before the divine beauty of God” (51). And, “Letting go of consumption habits and destructive lifestyle choices involves the ascetic principle of detachment” (178). As one humbly approaches God and God in creation, “seeing” might chasten and redirect possessive desire running rampant in capitalist extractivism.

Creation as Sacrament’s genealogy of ancient Orthodox theology, attentiveness to practice, and scope of contemporary reflection (with a culminating chapter on the work of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew) makes for a compelling and current ecotheological offering. Still, one of the more surprising offerings emergent in this text is Chryssavgis’ ongoing sense of resonance between theologies of divine energies and contemporary process theology. Process theology’s concept of divine “becoming” in creatures becomes an repeated point of reference for Chryssavgis, and Chryssavgis’ book here may invite further conversations between process and Orthodox traditions (33, 36, 38, 46).

Disappointing in this book is its lack of engagement with women’s voices, especially when the leadership of women in theology and ecology is undeniable and vital. Citations of Naomi Klein and Elizabeth Theokritoff’s writings stand out as exceptions, but the larger politics of citation and tradition need attending to here. Even so, a reader may also complicatedly sense that Chryssavgis is attempting to consider gender in Orthodox theology in a more capacious way: one chapter focuses on the contributions of Desert Fathers and Mothers. Another chapter, “Creation as Sacrament,” focuses on the role of Divine Sophia, of eternal Wisdom, in shaping Orthodox theologies of created beauty. I’m not satisfied with the theological gestures here for a number of reasons, but they may serve to expand certain Orthodox conversations.

Despite my above reservations, I do look forward to teaching parts of this book in my undergraduate and graduate ecotheology classes. Chryssavgis offers both substantial theological archives for ecological imagination as well as contemporary ecospiritual possibilities. As he helpfully observes, “It may be argued that Orthodox theology and spirituality ultimately propose no theoretical solution with regard to the problems of the world...what they provide is the potential or capacity to perceive the same world in a different light” (20). In a world of so many ends and crises, potential and possibility is a fiercely needed grace.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jacob J. Erickson is assistant professor of theological ethics in the School of Religion at Trinity College Dublin.

Date of Review: 
August 3, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Chryssavgis is Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and theological advisor to the “green patriarch” Bartholomew. He studied in Athens and Oxford, and taught in Sydney and Boston. He lives in Harpswell, Maine, USA.

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