ORTHODOXY AND THE MATERIAL WORLD
By Sister Ioanna
St. Innocent of Alaska Religious Community, Redford MI
What is more basic to us in our daily lives than the material world — our own bodies and those of other people and animals, and the entire created world around us? How do we relate to these physical entities, starting with our own bodies? Is this material world good or bad? Does the material world play any role in salvation? Perhaps you have never thought much about these things, but these are extremely important questions to ask and to seek answers to, because the answers shape how we live our daily lives, whether or not we are aware of it, because our actions inevitably proceed from our beliefs. The Orthodox position on countless ethical issues are direct consequences of the Orthodox view of the material world, and therefore it is vital that we reflect about these things. Are our attitudes and how we act a result of our Orthodox Faith, or a result of the opposing secular ideas in the society around us that we have we absorbed without realizing it? We will briefly inquire about three aspects of some of these many and complex issues: (1) the reasons why the prevailing Western secular attitude is to exploit the material world; (2) the reasons why the Orthodox view of the material world is the exact opposite; and (3) how the Orthodox view of the material world should affect our behavior in our daily lives — in other words, putting into practice what Orthodoxy teaches.
(1) THE WESTERN SECULAR VIEW
Orthodoxy’s life-affirming and world-affirming view of the material world is in radical opposition to the prevailing Western secular attitude — that the material world is for us to subjugate, dominate and exploit, and its resulting lack of reverence for life. Where does this Western attitude towards the material world come from — what are its sources? We can readily identify three sources. The first source is the prevalence in the West of the many centuries-old belief that the material world is bad, as reflected in early Christian heresies, and reinforced in the 16th century by the Protestant Reformation’s doctrine of the total depravity of man. The second source is Humanism’s human-centered set of values and priorities (“Man is the measure of all things.”), with its accompanying profound alienation of persons from themselves, from God, and from the rest of creation. These ideas exploded into Western European culture during the Western Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, and have been spreading and expanding since then, down to our own day. The third source comes from the highly significant Western misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “dominion,” as when in Genesis (1:26 & 28) we are told that God gave “dominion” over the animals and the world of nature to Adam and Eve. Our modern western English meaning of the word “dominion” implies “dominating” and “subjugating,” which gives way to exploitation, pollution and abuse of the material world, and general lack of reverence for life. But the English word “dominion” is derived from the Latin word “Domine,” which means “Lord.” Therefore, for humans to have “dominion” over the animals, nature and the whole material world does not mean to subjugate them like a tyrant— it means to relate to them in the same way as the Lord relates to His creation. This attitude is the exact opposite of subjugation — it means to treat all of creation with the love, caring, respect and reverence for life that the Lord has towards His own creation, which is the Orthodox view.
To help us better understand the reasons for today’s proliferation of the lack of reverence for life, and the exploitation, subjugation, pollution and abuse of the created world, let us look a little closer at the first source mentioned above, that stems from the West’s inherited tendency of embracing various material-world-rejecting and denying beliefs. Upon reflection, we see that if the physical world is bad or evil, then one can respond in either of two different ways. (1) On the one hand, a religious person might seek to escape from the material world precisely because it is evil. This attitude reflects the Western tendency since the 4th century to accept Arianism and some of St. Augustine’s thoughts, which are further exalted in the Protestant Reformation’s concept of the “total depravity” of human nature and the Protestant rejection of the corrupt material world, which cannot participate in salvation precisely because it is hopelessly corrupt. (2) On the other hand, if the material world is evil, then one can readily reject any responsibility whatsoever to protect, preserve and respect the material world, and one can then do whatever one wants with it. We clearly see here that how we act is a direct consequence of what we believe. This distorted attitude has been growing for centuries.
The Protestant concept of the depravity of the material world of the 16th and 17th centuries, then combines with the 18th century Enlightenment’s religious concept of Deism. Deism denies the belief that God is involved in everyday life — God created the world, but like a great clock-maker in the sky, he winds up the world and it runs on its own without His involvement. The vitally significant consequences of these beliefs are that if God is not involved with man’s everyday life, then many evil practices can be justified — from the slave-trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, to today’s rampant abortion and destruction of the natural world for profit, convenience, or “fun.” Today we have inherited centuries of justifying that we can do whatever we feel like with the material world — people, animals, forests, water, air and the rest of creation — and it doesn’t make any difference. This is a powerful example of how bad theology results in bad behavior. And it is then a very tiny step to go from the belief that God is not involved with the world and daily life, to the belief that God does not exist at all, and that everything exists by accident. And then it is yet another tiny step to the belief that if a non-material God does not exist, then nothing non-material exists: reality consists only of material things — if it is real, it can be seen, touched, measured and comprehended by science and the human brain. Once the reality of God and the non-material spiritual realm is discarded, then the basis of morality is likewise eroded, and one can justify doing whatever one wants and believing whatever one wants — there is nothing absolute — moral or otherwise! Consequently, bad is good and good is bad; truth is false and falsehood is true. This certainly describes much of today’s society’s attitudes.
(2) THE ORTHODOX VIEW
In radical contrast with this prevailing Western secular attitude towards the material world that engulfs us today, the Orthodox Church offers very clear and to-the-point answers to the questions about the nature of the material world. It vigorously proclaims that the material world is good, (a) because God created it, and (b) because He incarnated in it. Yes, when mankind fell, all the material world also fell. However, Orthodoxy insists that while the physical world is fallen and tarnished, it can be and must be restored to its original beauty, along with humanity’s restoration. In other words, just as the material world participated in the fall, so likewise it participates in salvation. Therefore, we can affirm the Incarnation by protecting, preserving and transfiguring the material world, and we can manifest the goodness of the material world by working to restore it to its original beauty, as God created it.
That the physical world participates in our salvation is not some new, innovative idea — it is completely biblical and has always been an essential part of Orthodox theology. This is clear, for example, in Romans chapter 8, especially in verses 19-23, where St. Paul tells us that creation eagerly waits for the redemption of the body, and that all creation groans with us humans, waiting to be delivered from corruption. Therefore, we see that the Bible affirms that our salvation is intimately tied together with the rest of the created world. Consequently, our own salvation is dependent upon how we treat the created world — our bodies, other people, animals and all of nature: do we treat life with respect and reverence, protecting it from harm? Or do we treat the material world as an expendable commodity, to be used, subjugated, exploited and disposed of for our own profit, pleasure and convenience? Orthodoxy clearly affirms the former, while the prevailing Western consumer, secular, profit-driven society around us affirms the latter. This Orthodox view of the material world is also clearly shown in authentic Orthodox icons, where the material bodies of the saints, as well as the world of nature, are all shown as participating in the transfigured and resurrected state of the Kingdom of God. The transfiguration of the material world is an indispensable component of the Orthodox Faith and is an essential part of our own salvation. In other words, to put it bluntly, we cannot be saved apart from the rest of the created world. We are a part of the created material world, and if we destroy other living things in the natural world, we destroy ourselves (which we are very busy doing).
(3) PUTTING THE ORTHODOX VIEW INTO PRACTICE
As we have seen, the Orthodox view of the material world offers a radical alternative to the prevailing Western secular view that surrounds us — the secular view that endorses acting towards the created world in exploitative and abusive ways, using it for self-centered motives, self-aggrandizement, pleasure and profit, in contrast with the Orthodox view of treating life and the material world with respect and reverence, protecting it from harm, and recognizing that the material world participates in deification and salvation. This distinctive Eastern Christian view obviously is in sharp contrast with the Western view.
The next logical question, then, is — since our actions are a reflection of what we believe, how does or should our Orthodox theology affect our behavior? In other words, as Orthodox Christians, what are (or should be) the consequences of our Orthodox beliefs in our actions and behavior — what are our moral principles? How we treat ourselves, how we treat other people, and how we treat animals and the world of nature, are three aspects of the same thing: how we treat the one is the same as how we treat the others. And how we treat them are all a direct consequence of what we believe about the nature of the material world. Do our actions and attitudes truly reflect the Orthodox Faith, or have we unconsciously absorbed the surrounding secular attitudes, with their resulting actions, without realizing it?
Here are just a few of the numerous basic moral principles that proceed from our Orthodox view of the material world, that should be implemented by us personally in our daily lives, and be developed and expanded by us as individuals, families, parishes, dioceses and national churches:
- to do no harm to any living thing, insofar as is possible
- to treat all of life with love, courtesy, respect and reverence for life;
- to reject the culture of violence that engulfs us and glorifies weapons, fighting, killing, destruction;
- to view all people as our brothers and sisters, and treat them with love, courtesy and respect, without distinction for age, gender, race, handicap, appearance, or publicly-known sins — seeing the Image of God in everyone and in His handiwork throughout His creation;
- to vigorously oppose bullying, ridiculing and making fun of people, and physical or emotional abuse of any kind by anyone, as acts contrary to Christ’s commandment of respect & love for our neighbor;
- to live simply, humbly, modestly and with self-discipline, so we can use (rather than waste) our material and other resources to help others in need, and to keep our focus on transfiguring ourselves and our world, in preparation for the last judgment, resurrection of the body and life in the kingdom of heaven;
- to let our treasure — our chief priorities — be to love and serve God in harmony with His created world;
- to treat our bodies as temples of God, to be respected and not to be defiled or mutilated by any harmful or destructive substance, addiction, action or ‘risky’ behavior;
- to avoid all addictions: smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, eating, dieting, anorexia & bulimia, ‘fun’ & games, gambling, bars, violence, TV, computers, cell phones, social networking, blaring music, etc.;
- to reject being obsessed and preoccupied with our bodies and their appearance, with sexuality, and with our material comfort and security, and instead to focus on our eternal spiritual well-being, and to spend our time, money and efforts on helping others in need;
- to oppose abortion — protesting it as the murder of unborn babies, and part of our ‘disposable’ society of convenience, and to help women with problem pregnancies;
- to help people at the end of their lives to have a peaceful and blameless departing from this world;
- to help people endure sickness, pain and suffering of any kind—emotional or physical, and to reject suicide, hopelessness, despair, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide;
- to respect and love our bodies as God created them, with all their imperfections, including as male and female—to be joined together as one, as God instituted it;
- to protect marriages as a union of one man and one woman, as God created them to be;
- to protect families as being comprised of a father and mother and their children;
- to vigorously oppose abuse of any kind, by anyone, of people, animals (including killing animals for ‘fun’ or ‘sport’) and any part of God’s creation — forests, wildlife, earth, water, air, mineral resources, etc. — as acts contrary to Christ’s commandment of love for His created material world;
- to concern ourselves with ecological issues that seek to preserve and protect our environment and all its creatures, which must participate in salvation with us.
From the "Good Works" Newsletter, January-March 2014