Bartholomew and the Environment: Nature, Orthodoxy, and Global Leadership

As the 270th successor to the Apostle Andrew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew I is the first among equals among all Orthodox Patriarchs and Primates and the spiritual leader of approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.  According to the seminal work on Bartholomew and the environment, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew, by Rev. Fr. John Chryssavgis, from the moment of Bartholomew’s enthronement at the Patriarchal Cathedral in the Phanar on November 2, 1991, “Patriarch Bartholomew outlined the dimensions of his leadership and vision within the Orthodox Church: the vigilant education in matters of theology, liturgy, and spirituality; the strengthening of Orthodox unity and cooperation; the continuation of ecumenical engagements with other Christian churches and confessions; the intensification of interreligious dialogue for peaceful coexistence; and the initiation of discussion and action for the protection of the environment against pollution and destruction.  Perhaps no other church leader in history has emphasized ecumenical dialogue and communication as a primary intention of his tenure.  Certainly, no other church leader in history has brought environmental issues to the foreground, indeed to the very center of personal and ecclesiastical attention."

Capitalizing on the pan-Orthodox, interfaith, and international network of relationships and influence that Bartholomew had established for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople through his tireless work in the World Council of Churches in the 1970s and 1980s, the newly enthroned Patriarch put his ecological vision into practice.  In less than one month after assuming the Patriarchal throne, Bartholomew initiated and convened an international ecological summit on Crete.  Under the title “Living in the Creation of the Lord,” the gathering was opened by His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and International Chairman of the World Wiildlife Fund for Nature, who, despite his conversion to the Anglican Church as a condition of his marriage to the future Queen Elizabeth of England in 1947, has remained connected to the Orthodox Church in which he was originally baptized on Corfu as a member of the Greek royal family. 

The bond of Orthodoxy and a shared purpose helped seal a friendship between Patriarch Bartholomew and Prince Philip that soon led to active cooperation for the preservation of the environment and a higher European profile for the Patriarchate.  In the summer of 1992, Prince Philip accepted an invitation to visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and participate in an environmental seminar at Halki organized by Bartholomew.  In November 1993, Patriarch Bartholomew met with Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace at the latter’s official invitation.

Underscoring the growing influence of the Patriarch’s ecological message in government and other centers of secular power, in April 1994, Bartholomew was invited to speak before the European Commission in Brussels.  The Patriarch’s speech marked the first time that a figure who was not a state leader or politician had been asked to address the European Commission. 

Convinced that Orthodoxy’s efforts to respond to global environmental issues must take place within a corresponding global dialogue with other Christian churches, non-Christian religious traditions, government and non-governmental bodies, and scientific and other disciplines, Patriarch Bartholomew established the Patriarchate’s Religious and Scientific Committee in 1994.  Officially chaired by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, Greece's most prominent theologian, and coordinated by the Patriarchal advisor, Maria Becket, the Religious and Scientific Committee has convened eight international, interdisciplinary, and interreligious symposia since its founding.  In addition, His All Holiness has also hosted several innovative and distinguished summer seminars in Turkey, including the recently completed June 8-10, 2015, Halki Summit II, dedicated to “Theology, Ecology and the Word.”     

Patriarch Bartholomew’s symposia have gathered environmentalists, journalists, writers, intellectuals, policy-makers, representatives of the world’s main religious faiths, and scientists in an effort to draw global attention to the plight, in particular, of the world’s rivers and seas.  Symposium delegates generally meet in plenary sessions, workshops, and briefings that bring them into cooperative contact with prominent authorities on environmental, economic, social, ethical, and policy issues.  All symposia take place in the specific environmental sites under investigation, thereby placing participants directly into the field to see firsthand the reality of the problems confronting them.

The First Religion, Science and Environment Symposium, “Revelation and the Environment,” took place in September 1995, under the joint auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Prince Philip.  Establishing the model for future conclaves, Fr. Chryssavgis notes “travelling through the Aegean, the two hundred participants of this symposium identified the pollution of the world’s waters as a threat to the survival of the planet and recommended the creation of a common language for scientific and theological thought to overcome centuries of estrangement and misunderstanding between science and faith.”   

Two years later, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Second Symposium, “The Black Sea in Crisis,” was cosponsored by the European Commission.  It was also in 1997, during an official Patriarchal visit to the United States, that Bartholomew was admiringly dubbed the “Green Patriarch” by Vice President Al Gore, who would himself be famously inspired to new levels of environmental activism by the Patriarch’s example.  Vice-President Gore’s endearing appellation for Bartholomew was immediately popularized as a kind of shorthand in media and policy circles to identify Bartholomew as the world’s preeminent religious leader in the protection of the environment.  The label, “Green Patriarch,” is now ubiquitous when describing Bartholomew precisely because he has come to be seen by so many statesmen and other influential figures as the world’s moral conscience on the environment.

As a direct result of the 1997 Black Sea symposium, the Halki Ecological Institute was organized in 1999, “in order to promote and provide wider regional collaboration and education among some seventy-five clergy and theologians, educators and students, as well as scientists and journalists.  This educational initiative marked a new direction in the interdisciplinary vision and dialogue concerning the environment, seeking to implement the principles of the ecological vision determined by the Religious and Scientific Committee by turning theory into practice,” according to Fr. Chryssavgis.

Encouraged by Patriarch Bartholomew’s imaginative and constructive efforts, the European Commission cemented its collaborative relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate through subsequent symposia on the Danube River in 1999, the Adriatic Sea in 2002, and the Baltic Sea in 2003.  In July 2006, the Patriarch inaugurated the first New World symposium, “The Amazon: Source of Life,” which attracted the joint support of the United Nations.  The Seventh Religion, Science and Environment Symposium, “The Arctic—Mirror of Life,” saw both the European Commission and the United Nations lend their patronage to Bartholomew’s crucial case-study initiative. 

Held in Greenland, in September 2007, where the Ecumenical Patriarch was joined by Denmark’s Princess Irene and over 100 environmentalists, journalists, and scientists, as well as Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Shiite, Shinto, and Sunni religious leaders, Bartholomew directed the seventh symposium’s attention to the Arctic Sea and the imminent dangers of global warming.  Underscoring the depth and expanse, as well as the remarkable intersection of faith and science, characteristic of Bartholomew’s symposia, the Arctic conclave participants “considered the suffering of the indigenous populations, the fragility of the sea ice, and the encroachment of oil exploration in a region considered to be one of the first victims of human-induced climate change.  Delegates visited areas where the impact of melting ice is already clear… There, the assembled religious leaders of various faiths and disciplines joined in prayer for the protection and preservation of the planet,” notes Fr. Chryssavgis.              

The Ecumenical Patriarch’s Eighth Religion, Science and Environment Symposium, “The Great Mississippi River: Restoring Balance,” took place in New Orleans, in October 2009.  Returning to Louisiana for the first time since his January 2006 visit to witness the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Bartholomew led approximately 200 participants, including business, community, government, and religious leaders, environmentalists, journalists, and scientists, in discussions and workshops which explored solutions to the Mississippi River’s environmental problems.  

As in all past symposia, in New Orleans, Bartholomew conducted a blessing, the Aghiasmos, of the waters.  Symbolically sprinkling the Mississippi River with Holy Water, Bartholomew performed the Service of Sanctification as a sign of promise and hope in the future.  The purpose of such blessings is not limited to symbolism.  In fact, what has set Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew apart from other global leaders involved in ecology is his unprecedented and profound influence in recalibrating environmental awareness in ways that aim to restore spirituality and religion as centerpieces in the protection of the planet, the first major religious leader to do so on a global level.

Indeed, Bartholomew’s approach to ecology, like his recognition of the social injustices and inequities produced by environmental degradation, is predicated upon and proceeds from Orthodox theology.  For Bartholomew, the environment is not only an economic, political, social, or technological issue it is primarily a religious and spiritual matter.   

The binding unity and continuity that humans share with all of God’s creation is axiomatic of Orthodox beliefs and worldview.  According to its philosophy, expressed through the instructive narrative of cosmology, Orthodox Christianity views both the Fall into the imperfect state and redemption through Christ’s salvation as extending to all of creation, humanity and nature alike.  Consequently, Christ’s redemptive purpose was undertaken not just for the sake of mankind—it was undertaken for the renewal of all of creation, to reconcile heaven and earth and to restore and reunite God, humanity, and the universe, ending the estrangement and disintegration produced by the Fall of man.             

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s many encyclicals, as well as actual work, on the environment, beginning one quarter of a century ago, have expressed and brought to life the centrality of ancient, early Christian thought on ecology that is a fixture of Orthodoxy.  Such thought is inseparable from belief in a kind of knowledge that is contemplative and spiritual.  Such heuristic openness, in fact, enables Orthodoxy to value science and mystery as complementary.  Conversely, Western modernity’s dogmatism and faith in only the principles of inferential rationality, which characterize materialist science, reject the very possibility of contemplative, spiritual awareness and knowledge that is at the heart of Orthodoxy.  Yet, the origins of Western secular materialist thought can be traced directly to the intellectual consequences produced by medieval Roman Catholicism’s deviations from, and, Early Modern Protestantism’s distortions of, original Christian, i.e. Orthodox, theology. 

It is worth noting, after all, that rationalist, unbridled science-driven Western modernity has produced the ecological crisis that threatens the world’s extinction, while “environmentalism,” as a response to this crisis, did not begin with scientific study but with contemplative, creative reflections on the mystery and beauty of nature.  Indeed, the antecedents to environmentalism are to be found in the sympathetic, ethereal, non-materialist knowledge of nature expressed in the writings of nineteenth-century Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who, regardless of their sometimes contentious personal relationships with the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, were intrinsically and deeply influenced by Orthodoxy.  Equally instrumental were the works of the Russians’ Western European counterpart poets and painters of Romanticism, as well as their contemporaries in the New World, the American naturalists and writers such as Emerson and Thoreau, who, ironically and unwittingly, in their move away from the conventions of Western Christianity articulated select ideas associated with Eastern Orthodoxy.

In the final analysis, the West altered and distorted Christian theology to produce an alternative worldview and an essentially adversarial, rapacious approach to nature.   Western Christianity fostered a contemptuous and arrogant attitude toward the environment.  Indeed, the Western Christian traditions promoted the materialist notion that nature had been created by God to be conquered, ruled over, and exploited by man.  Once folded into the physical power of science and the unforeseeable, uncontrollable results of technology, this deeply embedded philosophical outlook and corresponding set of values unleashed the ravaging of the earth that has led to the world’s present environmental crisis.  Only very recently have some Western Christian churches acknowledged the folly of this thinking and begun to reevaluate their theological engagement with, and public positions on, the environment.

Conversely, Orthodoxy has always understood nature not as a commodity to be subdued and consumed, but as a sacred place and medium, or as Patriarch Bartholomew is well known for saying: “The world is not meant to be used by humans for their own purposes, but is the means whereby humans come into relationship with God.”  Indeed, in the Orthodox view, the sanctity of the earth is affirmed by its connection between our Creator and His creation.  Therefore, human beings are to act as the stewards of nature, to revere and protect the world.  This view, of course, rejects both Western extremes: the religious outlook that historically placed man above nature; and the current misanthropy of stridently secular environmentalist movements, which insist that humanity is merely an undistinguishable part of the environmental whole, ultimately no different than fauna or fish.  Orthodoxy, instead, asserts that humanity has both an integral and a central, pivotal role in nature.  In short, mankind’s presence should be in balance with the natural world while its unique role is as admirer and guardian of all of creation. 

In his initiatives to raise awareness and find solutions to ecological suffering, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has emphasized the importance of spiritualism and theology that is righteous in its harmony with the world.  In this sense, inasmuch as some religious currents in the past were instrumental in forming the roots underlying the environmental crisis in the present, spiritualism and theology should and can contribute to the resolution of those problems in the future.  By putting forward the relevance of Orthodox theology as a way of understanding nature and man’s responsibilities to the environment, as well as the Orthodox way of life as the practical spiritual means by which to protect the ecological order, Bartholomew has implicitly extended a humble but brilliant message of reconciliation and ecumenism between faiths.  Likewise, by explicitly calling on us to recognize and embrace the unity of nature and humanity, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew affirms the immutable beauty, harmony, and universal importance of Orthodox Christianity for the entire world.                

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.