Ecological asceticism: a cultural revolution
METROPOLITAN JOHN OF PERGAMON
calls for a new concept of quality of life in a finite
The ecological problem is, at root, a spiritual issue.
Many people dealing with it tend to overlook its spiritual aspects. And
yet both historically and from the practical point of view it is
impossible to address it without reference to religion and ethics.
The American historian Lynn White was right to attribute the causes of the
problem to Christian theology, particularly of the Western Church, which
exploited the verses of Genesis containing God's order to the first human
beings to 'dominate the earth' in order to encourage them, as Descartes
bluntly put it, to be 'masters and possessors of nature'. This attitude
drew further support and inspiration from a theology that stressed the
superiority of humans because of their 'rationality', which it regarded as
'God's image' in Man. Such a rationalistic approach detached human beings
from the rest of creation and encouraged them to look down with contempt
on whatever is not rational, not human.
Along with this, an understanding arose of the human person as a thinking
individual whose happiness and prosperity acquired the status of the
highest good in ethics. Sin became limited to whatever contradicts or
prevents these. A Christian could, therefore, destroy nature with a clear
and good conscience, as long as this contributed to the fulfilment of
Now, human beings are beginning to realize that such an attitude towards
nature actually threatens human happiness, even human existence itself. In
doing so, they are not departing from the principle of promoting human
happiness. Indeed, they are deeply and almost exclusively motivated by it.
The ecological crisis is thus still viewed and approached from the angle
of human self-interest and not from those of love for the rest of God's
creation or of a feeling of responsibility for the survival and welfare of
whatever is not human on our planet.
This complicates matters, for it is difficult to arrive at a common mind
on the sacrifices that ought to be demanded of us in order to face the
ecological problem in our consumerist society. Politicians find it
extremely difficult to establish a scale of values that would satisfy
humanity's self-interests. If, for example, a government decides to close
down a certain factory on account of its pollution, unemployment will
almost inevitably emerge as the main problem in the area, replacing damage
to the environment. Even the most competent politicians or technocrats
will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to cope with such a
situation as long as peoples' motivation remains governed by
self-interest. So motivation plays a decisive role in how the ecological
problem is faced, and it is clear that human self-interest must give way
to other motives, or be strongly conditioned by them. This gives the
spiritual and religious dimension decisive importance for the ecological
issue, from the practical point of view.
What kind of motivation can religion offer people facing the ecological
crisis? Here are some suggestions:
Stressing and promoting the idea of the sacredness of creation in
all its aspects, spiritual as well as material. This may be easier in
cultures and societies where oriental religions are predominant, but could
prove to be much more difficult where the Judeo-Christian tradition is the
main religious force either historically or actually. The fear of paganism
and a strong tradition of rationalism will make it difficult to promote
the idea of the sacredness of nature - or even of sacredness in general -
in Western culture.
In the Orthodox Church - behind whose tradition lie long battles against
ancient Greco-Roman paganism - a spirituality involving a deep respect for
nature is strongly conditioned by the view that nature acquires sacredness
only in and through the human person. This gives humanity decisive
importance and responsibility. A human is the Priest of creation as he or
she freely turns it into a vehicle of communion with God and fellow human
beings. This means that material creation is not treated as a means of
obtaining pleasure and happiness for the individual, but as a sacred gift
from God which is meant to foster and promote communion with God and with
others. Such a 'liturgical' use of nature by human beings leads to forms
of culture which are deeply respectful of the material world while keeping
the human person at the centre.
A drastic revision of the concept of sin. Sin has been normally
understood, by Christian ethics at least, in anthropological and
sociological terms alone, because nature came to be understood as a
'servant' of humanity's self-interest and happiness. Sin became only what
caused harm to oneself or to other human beings. Obviously, damage to
nature does not fall within this category of 'sin'.
This changes if nature ceases to be the slave of human interests and
becomes an indispensable link of communion between human beings and with
God. Since humans cannot operate as agents of relationship and communion
without nature (our bodies are both indispensable to our identity and
inconceivable without the rest of creation), any harm inflicted upon
nature would render it incapable of performing its function as a vehicle
of communion between us and with God. Sin against nature, therefore, is
serious not only because it involves disrespect towards a divine gift, but
also - and mainly - because it renders the human being incapable of
fulfilling its relational nature. Human individualism goes hand-in-hand
with sin against nature: the ecological crisis bears eloquent witness to
A spirit of asceticism. Asceticism has been associated in our minds
with a devaluation of matter for the sake of 'higher' and more 'spiritual'
things. This implies a Platonic view of matter and the body, which is not
compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition where the material world is
an indispensable part of the human identity itself. True, a Platonic
influence can be easily observed in the history of Christian tradition,
and perhaps in other religions too. But this does not concern us here.
Such types of asceticism, involving as they do a devaluation or contempt
of the material world, aggravate instead of solving the ecological crisis.
An 'ecological asceticism' - if we may coin such a term - always begins
with deep respect for the material creation, including the human body, and
builds upon the view that we are not masters and possessors of this
creation, but are called to turn it into a vehicle of communion, always
taking into account and respecting its possibilities as well as its
This last point is of paramount importance. Human beings must realize that
natural resources are not unlimited. Creation as a whole is finite and so
are the resources that nature can provide for our needs. The consumerist
philosophy of life, which prevails in our time, seems to ignore this
truth. We encourage growth and consumption by making 'necessary' things
which previous generations could easily live without.
We need to reconsider our concept of quality of life. Quality does not
need quantity in order to exist. A restriction in our use of natural
resources can lead to a life that is happier than the endless competition
of spending and acquiring more and more. Qualitative growth must replace
the prevailing conception of economic development which is dominated by
quantitative statistics. Asceticism must cease to be a notion referring to
a class of religious eccentrics and become synonymous with qualitative -
instead of quantitative - progress in human societies.
All this would inevitably involve major shifts of emphasis and basic
revisions and redefinitions in political, economic and scientific and
social institutions of all kinds. It would probably amount to no less than
a cultural revolution. Such a reorientation of our culture would require
the involvement and cooperation of all the factors responsible for forming
it. It could not be simply a matter of technocratic planning; it would
require a change in people's deeper convictions and motivations, since no
human being can sacrifice anything without a reason or motive.
Such reasons and motives can be characterized by either fear or love.
Religions have employed both of these. The ecological crisis we are facing
seems to suggest fear - the fear of the destruction of our planet - as the
prevailing motive for a change of direction. We must insist, however, on
more positive motives. Love of God's creation and our fellow human beings
would lead us naturally to restrict the consumption of natural resources
and share them more justly with other people. This can be done through
education from the primary to the higher level, but perhaps nothing can be
more effective for such a purpose than religion and the spirituality that
stems from it. Every effort must be made to involve the religious
communities in the environmental challenges of our time. The ecological
problem is to a great extent a spiritual one.
Metropolitan John of Pergamon is a senior bishop of the Patriarchate of
Constantinople and is Co-Chairman of the Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue. He is
Professor of Theology at the University of Thessaloniki and Visiting
Professor of Theology at King's College, London, United Kingdom.