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From the December, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Of Trees & Tradition by John Oliver

Of Trees & Tradition

Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Wisdom on the Environment
edited by Michael B. Barkey, foreword by Fr. Robert A. Sirico
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Acton Institute, 2000
(125 pages; $10.00, paper)

reviewed by John Oliver

When the devil laughs these days, assuming he has an experience resembling mirth, it may be because of the success of one of his primary strategies—the politicization of everything. Politics is the pragmatic art of the possible, and hardly the ideal foundation on which a healthy society is built. And he must feel especially gleeful when the Christians of the world abandon our Tradition—the ideal foundation on which a healthy society is built—and instead choose to orient our lives around the axis of politics. We do it too easily and too often: We exchange the truth of God for a lie. Especially damaging is when a secular principle is dressed in religious clothing and displayed as representative of true religious tradition. Such is the malady of Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Wisdom on the Environment, published by the Acton Institute. It is economic determinism hiding behind the legitimacy of vestments.

It really is a question of tradition, isn’t it? That word is a double-edged sword and is often swung carelessly; as a result, people get hurt. So let’s define it and use it carefully. To do that, we’ll borrow from Touchstone’s masthead: Tradition can be defined as “the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church” (and, it may be added, “as articulated in the lives and writings of the saints”). One rhetorical device used to distinguish that Tradition from any number of non-Christian traditions, or sub-traditions within the Christian faith, is to use a capital T. We may debate the tradition of gnosticism, for example, without confusing it with the Tradition of Christianity. Or, we may discuss the tradition of red eggs within the greater Tradition of Pascha, or Easter. What we may not do, however, is say that Tradition proclaims true what, in fact, it has so clearly proclaimed a lie. Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition claims to represent “our common Judeo-Christian heritage” and “a two-thousand year history of reasoned reflection upon divine revelation,” when, in fact, the book preaches the very gospel that Judeo-Christian Tradition has declared a heresy—man is the measure of all things. While the Acton Institute writes here in the tradition of liberty, they take considerable liberty with the Tradition.

Trouble starts early. The first sentence of the first paragraph of the foreword sends a fiery red flag straight toward the Traditional mind. We are told that “the biblical starting point for any discussion of the nature of religious environmental stewardship must begin with the witness of the Book of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ (1:27–28).” That’s half-right: the witness of Genesis must be our starting point. But we must not start with man-as-subduer, rather, we must start at the beginning: “In the beginning, God . . .” Then, Genesis takes us to the next step: “. . . God created . . .” Notice the difference? Our book under review would have us start with the role of man, while the Scriptures immediately begin with the rule of God.

When a discussion of environmental stewardship is inspired by the opening sentence of Holy Scripture, its orientation is toward the relationship of Creator and creation, not man and creation. Any effort to place God and man on one side of the firmament, and “creation” on the other, has drawn the line in the wrong place. Mankind, for all our divine image and likeness, is part of creation, too. The Scriptures distinguish us in the created order as “high priests,” as having “dominion,” but it is a position of humility and sustainable engagement of the natural cycles, not of unsustainable manipulation of those cycles for economic gain. Consider this sentence from Environmental Stewardship: “While forests and swamps are certainly recognized to be part of God’s creation, merely leaving them in their original and pristine condition is ignoring God’s directive to harness the forces of nature for the benefit of the human race.” The tragic implication here is that forests and swamps in their original condition are not a benefit to the human race. That’s not only bad theology, it’s bad science.

Included in Environmental Stewardship are three essays that represent Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant perspectives on the topic. Much of this is engagingly written. Appeals are made to each tradition in support of a religious framework that would slam the brakes on efforts to resolve ecological issues that are “without foundation or greatly exaggerated.” To issues ranging from overpopulation to global warming, from economic growth to old-growth forest logging, Environmental Stewardship—and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, along with its newly formed Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship—attempts to articulate a vision “informed by sound theological reflection, honest scientific inquiry, and rigorous economic thinking.” It’s a noble goal. But since the paradigm of economic determinism in which Environmental Stewardship was written is severed from the true Judeo-Christian Tradition, the theology is shallow, the science is biased, and the economics have become enthroned.

The reader of this book will also find in its pages “The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship.” The declaration is divided into three categories—Concerns, Beliefs, and Aspirations. It is a document of pristine appearance to the religious man who wants to be an environmental steward without compromising his political principles, and to the political man who wants to soothe his environmental conscience without conforming to religious principles. As with so much in Environmental Stewardship, the Cornwall Declaration falls short of the authentic Judeo-Christian Tradition of sacrificial love for God, neighbor, and cosmos.

That’s the Tradition articulated for Jews by the Torah, the Talmud, Rabbi Ibn Ezra, Moses Maimonides, Nachmanides, and others; and for Christians by the Holy Scriptures, the Cappadocian and Desert Fathers, St. Athanasius, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. John of Damascus, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Seraphim of Sarov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others. We discover in this Tradition the authentic environmental movement: God steadily purifies the human being, sin falls from the eyes as vision is restored, and the heart burns with love for the Heavenly King “Who art everywhere present and fills all things.”

In one sense, the book represents a promising trend. The religions of the West are recognizing that secularists may not be completely insane when they stand in the courtyard and pray through the litany of ecological illnesses at the tops of their lungs. Christian churches, in particular—while polarizing on the issue—are at least confessing that there’s an issue to polarize over, and many are searching their heritages for clues on how to live and how to steward. But the modern religious engagement of ecology is also legitimizing some non-religious traditions: Each of the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant essays in Environmental Stewardship begins with promise—recognizing God as Creator and man as steward—but ends wide of the mark when filtered through the faulty assumptions of economic determinism. Right language, wrong conclusions.

Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition is a catalog of reactions. Many of the religious leaders who have signed the Cornwall Declaration and support the contents of this book can be found in a state of perpetual agitation over “liberal” efforts to apply a conscience to industry, or protect a forest from logging. The critical task for all religious folk is to quench the devil’s strategy of politicizing everything, and to see every tree, every stone, every wave, every animal—and especially every person—as alight with eternal rays. That clarity of vision is the true Judeo-Christian Tradition.   

John Oliver is in his first year of studies at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. In addition to writing on Christianity and ecology, he is the author of An Island for America: A Monastic Pilgrimage and a Journey Home, an account of a pilgrimage to Russia’s Valaam monastery. He and his wife Lara have two daughters, Anastasia and Genevieve.

“Of Trees & Tradition” first appeared in the December 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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