Ecological Futility and the Incarnation

When I was younger I never wanted to hurt anything or for anything to be hurt. I tried to stop other boys from torturing bugs and shooting birds for amusement. As a young man I got into fights over another man’s treatment of his pets. My ignorance accounted for most of the harm I would do. I never realized what goes on in meat-processing plants, on large-scale production animal farms, and in laboratory tests. The gratuitous violence, the disregard for suffering; not pain that lasted just a moment like tearing off a bandage, not dumb oblivious deaths, but agonies which in human terms could only be called “torture” stretched out over days, months, years. I never saw what happens at the circus when the paying customers aren’t around. I never realized the incredible quantities in which animals are killed for only a fin, a claw, a hand, a head, a tail, their feet. I never knew what chemicals we’ve pumped into the animals on our farms and the grotesque distortions and mutations that result, and their resulting agonies. I hadn’t yet been abroad – in places where our slaughter methods look incredibly humane, where dogs are beaten severely to increase the adrenalin in the meat.

When I did learn about these things, I found myself in the position that so many of us do. I didn’t want to hurt anyone or anything. And like some of us, I stopped eating meat and eggs, stopped having processed dairy, quit wearing leather unless it was from a second-hand store, and tried to find a way to integrate my concern for ecology with my spirituality. Those who have been there can guess all of the paths I trod; they are the usual ones.

Having followed each such path to where it ends, and having come to find each of them inadequate, however well-intentioned, and having come at last to what I consider clarity on the possibility of at once loving the Creator and loving Creation, I am now faced with this dilemma: How do I describe to those who love the Creator as I do the genuine empathy and compassion of those who so love the Creation – those who have at times been viewed as alien, even as enemies; How do I describe to those who love the Creation as I do the depth of the presence of that love and the homecoming awaiting them among those who so love the Creator, and how do I show both the insufficiency of the usual paths and the fullness of the only viable one? This essay is my attempt.

I. The Dilemma

The vegetarian plate was once – and often still is – the most boring thing on the menu when going out to eat. Now it is not uncommon to see “veegan” restaurants in an arts district or a college town. A veegan is, of course, a strict vegetarian. There are also large-scale animal rights campaigns in these places, even if they are driven directly or indirectly from Washington.

There is a reason why one finds them congregated around so many arts districts and college towns: the young tend to have more information, albeit about fewer things, and tend along with the artist to have a passion for compassion, for understanding, and for championing a noble cause.

To some they appear like Don Quixotes – chivalrous but naïve – and certainly there is a kind of raised consciousness present that is incompatible with traditional culture and Christian religion. But this should not be a distraction from the good they are doing by asking difficult questions about what it means to be both civilized and loving. Among the young, the sensitive, and the creative, the pressures of conformity, precedent, and economic survival combine with the temptations to uniformity, legalism, and greed, often crushing the hope that the world is not futile, life is not a choice between “quiet desperation” or solipsistic narcissism, and peace in a general sense is possible. It is my conviction that their hope is the hope of each one of us, that their dilemma is the dilemma of all, and that a solution will require most of us to relinquish some cherished beliefs as well as intellectual taboos.

If one asks a vegetarian why he is what he is (sometimes one may have to press for the reason), he will usually talk about the pain and anguish of animals raised in small cages or in stalls – like food-machines, the torment of animals fed chemicals that morph their bodies, that are often subjected to slow and painful slaughter. It is easy to share their compassion when one knows enough about the large-scale farming and meatpacking industries.

Of course there is meat from free-ranged animals from small if expensive farms, and for that matter there is hunting. But the ecology-advocate often rejects these alternatives and seeks recourse to a “fundamental right to life” of animals [i] . If animals have “rights”, surely among the most basic of these is a right not to be eaten. Oddly, some are merely against use of animals in product testing, or “gratuitous” use, but from the right to exist all other rights derive. Rights presuppose existence. The “circle of life” propaganda among the “moderates” (How can one be moderate about the right to exist?) removes any possibility of real rights for animals, and suggests even that humans have no right not to be eaten or to punish with destruction animals who would eat us. Besides, given the notoriously high level of meat consumption in the U.S., grocery shopping is often gratuitous use.

It is easy to expose the weak underbelly of the “animal rights” idea. After all, the conception of “rights” is uniquely human, and so depends on humans to conceive of and apply to animals. It means that without humans, animals can have no rights, and so are subordinated to humans, having only the animal rights granted them by their human benefactors according to human interests and human concerns for self-preservation, enjoyment, etc. [ii] Ironically, the concept of “animal rights” accomplishes the opposite of what its advocates seem to be seeking. Rather than showing the innate value to ecology, it subordinates it (perhaps wholly) to man’s values and choices – ultimately to human utility.

It is then also ironic and certainly disconcerting that so many who assert a “fundamental right to life” for veal, reject any fundamental right to life for humans who have not yet emerged from their mothers’ wombs. The inconsistency begs the question: What is the source of rights? The tendency here is that rights derive from power, or might makes right. Some discerning animal rights activists note that from power comes responsibility, but this leaves the question unasked: Why does power demand responsibility rather than simple utilitarianism? From what ultimate power and benevolence does the principle derive?

[image ommitted]

One answer to this question has been the “Gaia” deity (Mother Earth) theology which (without going into the mythological and purely religious details) asserts that great damage has been done to the terran ecology by man. The earth is somehow suffering, as a result of man, from futility, and is somehow returning the favor. This is an easy theology to adopt when it compliments the widespread faith of nihilism – belief in the futility of absolutely everything. It begs the question though: What are intelligence and volition, and how are they measured? Cause and effect are one thing, but a soul is another. Deifying the earth that one holds as ultimate value is essentially totemism; that’s fine, but it is a far cry from a genuine answer. If, as pantheism suggests, it is creation that is divine, why the persistent futility? The question becomes also: what is divinity? The Gaia myth also, however, identifies key human concerns which it may be possible to address in other if similar terms.

First, let it be said that debunking “animal rights” and “Gaia” arguments has two pitfalls: 1) that of a merely reactionary mentality – casual about suffering and uncompassionate, 2) that of rejecting the arguments without getting at the basic problems being identified, however not solved, by these ideologies. Set over against the “animal rights” and “Gaia” thinking is the most powerful force in Western thought, Latin and Protestant Christianity.

So often there has been a failure on the part of this force to at once adequately explore the identity of man with the rest of nature, to posit an adequate basis for the unity of all of creation, and to preserve the unique identity of man with God, man’s singularity among creations in the image and potential likeness of the Creator. This dilemma, as Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer correctly observed [iii] , has led to a concentration on the identity of man and God at the expense of the rest of creation, and so to a theoretical ethical vacuum which must necessarily be filled with the ideas of Christianity’s nemesis, Monism and its practical expression in Gnostic Paganism [iv] , even if those ideas are not only inadequate but carry attendant faults every bit as dangerous as the Western Christian ideas have proved destructive. Certainly the risk of greater inhumanity results from the blurring of the distinction between man and animal and the alienation of man from the moral perfection of the Creator.

In addressing the inadequacies of ecological thinking, it is possible – hopefully – to avoid the pitfalls and address the basic concerns of ecology-advocates – concerns which are in fact widespread among carnivores, vegetarians, animal-rights advocates, Christians, and earth-worshippers alike.

The two primary concerns, then, of ecological thought are:

the suffering and death of animals

the futility to which the world is subjected

The second point actually includes the first, and is typified by it. The mythology of cataclysms directed by an intelligent planet aside, it is suffering and death which are most indicative of futility. It is, then, ecological/cosmic futility which must be the concern of this essay.

Universally, it is realized that human beings have somehow brought about this ecological futility. Even counter-arguments, for example:

that human beings reduce animal suffering from overpopulation (starvation, etc.) by hunting, culling the herds

that human beings preserve species (eg. in zoos) that might otherwise go extinct

merely underline the point that suffering and death – eg. starvation and extinction – are occurring, that the creation is indeed subject to futility, and that man is the responsible factor. Man is the fulcrum of ecological responsibility. Whether or not man is the cause of futility first engulfing the world, he is the active force in addressing the issue. The two points above are really but one argument – that man reduces and prevents suffering and death. Such arguments, however, do not eliminate man’s culpability in also causing suffering and death.

The ecological argument generally focuses on man’s direct and indirect involvement in bringing about suffering and death: directly, that is, through such things as the large-scale farming and meatpacking industries, laboratory tests, hunting, etc.; indirectly, through the byproducts of such industry, eg. pollution, disruption of ecological chains, destruction of habitat and resources, etc.

Together, these two lines of thinking indicate that man both causes and prevents, increases and decreases, suffering and death.

The similarity of these two types of thinking is in their united failure to provide a genuine analysis of and solution to ecological futility. After all, even if there were no more humans, or humans were somehow prevented from interfering at all in the ecology, animals would be killing each other, there would be slow painful deaths, prolonged anguish and suffering, extinctions, cataclysms, and so on.

Practically, ceasing to eat animals does not eliminate suffering and death. To suddenly do so, could actually dramatically increase that suffering and death in the short term for the surviving domesticated animals. Still, animals will go on killing each other, starving, becoming extinct, and suffering in various “natural” ways. Eliminating pollution and habitat destruction will also not halt suffering, death, and destruction. Sure, one may say, but that’s “natural suffering”, “natural death”, and “natural destruction” – it’s ”the circle of life” [v] . How is that better? How is it more desirable, or desirable at all? And there is a contradiction here: If it is really man that has subjected the creation to futility, is there or can there now be a suffering and death that is really “natural” in the sense that it is proper?

Also, in what sense is a cycle of continual suffering and death not futile? Some will argue that each animal that dies feeds another, or at the very least fertilizes nature. But it will not do to say that this cycle is not futile because it is death with a purpose. Certainly it is often a symbiotic relationship, but that is not the same thing as purpose. Purpose is the product of intelligence. The proximate purpose of one animal feeding another is only a purpose in the true sense if it serves an ultimate purpose, outside of the system itself. If purpose to a historical cycle exists, it must be the purpose of an intelligence that transcends the ecology. But if it transcends the ecology, how do we propose to know what such a purpose is, or to believe in it without knowing what it is? This is a teleology of convenience. And if the death has the purpose of serving life, what is the purpose of the suffering? It will not do here to appeal to Christian sources, either, since it is clearly the desire of the Creator, according to those sources, that all creatures live in harmony, free of death and suffering. [vi] The “circle of life” proposition raises more unsolvable questions than answers to the dilemma at hand.

Furthermore, our concern with the matter presupposes our existence. But even if we live in huts as vegetarians, cutting limbs and grasses and farming vegetables results in the wholesale slaughter of grubs, moths, beetles, mites, rodents, birds, and any number of other creatures. If we want to be consistent, we can only live in caves or the elements and eat what we gather. But even then, recall the religious sect whose members sweep the ground in front of them while walking, lest they trod on a bug. Shall we then live with hanging ticks and leeches, feed our bodies to the mosquitoes, let the scorpions and fire ants cohabitate with our kids, surrender our houses to the termites? And it will not do to say that a mosquito is less valuable than an owl; that is a mere aesthetic human judgment. If we live we kill, however we minimize the effects, and so we have not solved the problem of ecological futility. But even if we ceased to exist, the rhino would still trod the spider. It isn’t all self-defense, and killing only what a beast can eat. Many species of bird destroy the nests and eggs of their competitors in a kind of fowl genocide.

Futility continues, whether we kill anything or not, whether we interfere or not, whether we help or not. And none of the contemporary ideologies can adequately analyze or resolve that problem. I remember how I mulled it over for years, how I tried all “natural” diets, vegetarianism, animal rights activism, Western Christianity, and having seen how far each road goes, I never reached answers that way – not to the real questions on my mind. In fact, both of the two main ideological traditions tended to suppress the issue and refuse to reach their own logical conclusions. The futility of creation remained unredressed. The significance of suffering remained unexplained.

What then? If we accept futility and live with it, we deny both the ultimate virtue or value of ecology and any moral affinity with an absolute source of virtue or value which must necessarily be beyond futility; we deny anything our souls tell us concerning the impropriety of cruelty. At best we have our own survival as a standard and the utility of all else in the cosmos. While that forms the basis for an objective ethics, it leaves us lacking on any objective morality of ecology beyond utilitarianism.

II. What is Needed

We have observed an equal potential harm in a concentration on the identity of man and nature at the expense of his unique identity with God and vice versa.

Once again restated: If man is unique in his identification with God by being in the divine image he is thereby distinguished in some sense from nature; in the event of a conflict between man’s interests and nature’s, man is necessarily opposed to nature. Nature would seem to have value only in the sense of its utility to man – its value by human standards of survival. If, on the other hand, man is wholly identified with nature – whether in the sense of his “animalnous” or by virtue of a supposed divinity of all nature [vii] , man has no unique identification with his Creator by virtue of being uniquely in His image, and so is exempt from the moral standard of his likeness – the creative and sustaining benevolence of the prototype. He is, as animal, Lord of the Jungle, not only free but required by survival to use nature with his mind, will, and emotion to reach dominance if possible, at the expense of all else if necessary. Any conflict results in the same effect as before – man’s opposition to the rest of nature. Both premises oppose man to ecology and so either theoretical or practical estrangement from transcendent Creator (hypothetical or otherwise), either with no ultimate source of morality or with no way to include ecology in that morality.

What is needed is a reunification of man and ecology, without any corresponding estrangement from transcendent God. And while if there is a truly transcendent God, it is evidently not in man’s nature to be divinized, a divinization must occur [viii] that equips man for proper benevolence to ecology because man needs the Creator’s benevolence and creativity to be properly integrated with nature without opposition. So the fullness of unification between man and creator (theosis) must be made possible before unification of man with nature – or indeed creator with nature. But there must be no opposition between this unique identity and the identity of man and nature. There must be in this union a kind of recapitulation (summing up) of creation so that the harmony of all is achieved without destroying the uniqueness of any.

A necessary order is therefore discerned [ix] :




(Man ——- Nature) Creation

Once achieved, man necessarily forms a kind of liaison or priesthood of creation, having the union of creation and creator in himself through the synergy of God and man. “Our human vocation is to be microcosmos, microtheos — to be a mediator, to unify creation.” [x] Synergy involves man’s mind and will (in conjunction with transcendent God’s) which must be included in the divinization if man is to retain moral thinking and moral volition in regard to the rest of the cosmos. This requires, as well, the unique capacity of intelligent will accorded man, since ecology is not properly a machine operating toward a (utilitarian) goal as some Christian deists and ecology-advocates suppose, but rather ecology becomes one of the ends and one of the means of sanctification – of ongoing theosis or deification. The fulfillment or culmination of this is the complete harmony and “community” of Creator with divinized man and divinized creation. Creation and redemption are then inextricably linked, as the ancient Christian fathers taught, with creation being creation-toward-redemption. Nothing is then futile; hope is possible.

III. The Incarnation

In the end, it is the Holy Incarnation that redeems the dilemma. No other historical claim nor thought recorded by man has adequately answered all aspects of the problem. Difficult as it may be to accept, there is this path or nothing if one is to reconcile all of the exigencies.

Having said that, and the event being an innately religious [xi] and specifically Christian one, it no longer remains necessary to dispense with religious language, and may the sensitive reader pardon a few quotations from religious writers.

The historical event called the Incarnation is a central doctrine of Orthodox Christianity. In its Orthodox fullness, the Incarnation is understood to be the event wherein one of the Holy Trinity, the Logos, remaining fully God became fully man, completely identifying man with God by joining those two natures in one Person, and so making union of man and God possible in that one God-man. A corollary doctrine is that of Recapitulation: “The person of the God-man, in His Incarnation, possesses and is the fullness of all universals common to deity and to humanity.” [xii] “Recapitulation is … a taking up in Christ of all since the beginning.” [xiii]

“Since man is a creature and shares certain operational principles in common with other creatures: he is subject to the laws of space, time, quantity, quality, genus, species …and so on. Thus, we see an immediate implication of the Incarnation: by becoming man, God effects the redemption and deification not just of man, but through humanity, all the rest of creation as well.” [xiv]

No other idea has in recorded history ever entered the mind of man that makes this simultaneous identity of man and ecology and identity of man and God possible. It is the fullness of the ancient Christian understanding of the Holy Incarnation, found only in the Orthodox Church, that redeems the dilemma. And history is rightly the venue of discussion since the problem is ultimately an historical one. Whether at some point after man’s innocence, or as part of the end of his innocence as Christian history claims, we are agreed that man is the fulcrum of moral responsibility for the futility to which the world is subjected. It is the possibility of overcoming futility that orthodoxy has always defended to the last. Vladimir Lossy [xv] wrote, “Christian theology is always in the last resort a means: a unity of knowledge subserving an end which transcends all knowledge. This ultimate end is union with God or deification, the theosis of the Greek Fathers (p. 9.). He goes on to say:

All the development of the dogmatic battles which the Church has waged fown the centuries appears to us, if we regard it from the purely spiritual standpoint, as dominated by the constant preoccupation which the Church has had to safeguard, at each moment of her history, for all Christians, the possibility of attaining to the fullness of the mystical union. So the Church struggled against the Gnostics in defense of this same idea of deification as the universal end: `God became man that men might become gods’. She affirmed against the Arians, the dogma of the consubstantial Trinity’ for it is the Word, the Logos, who opens to us the way to union with the Godhead; and if the incarnate Word has not the same substance with the Father, if he be not truly God, our deification is impossible. The Church condemned the Nestorians that she might overthrow the middle wall of partition, whereby, in the person of the Christ himself, they would have separated God from man. She rose up against the Apollinarians and Monophysites to show that, since the fullness of true human nature has been assumed by the Word, it is our whole humanity that must enter into union with God. She warred with the Monothelites because, apart from the union of the two wills, divine and human, there could be no attaining to deification–`God created man by his will alone, but He cannot save him without the co-operation of the human will.’ The Church emerged triumphant from the iconoclastic controversy, affirming the possibility of the expression through a material medium of the divine realities–symbol and pledge of our sanctification. The main preoccupation, the issue at stake, in the questions which successively arise respecting the Holy Spirit (i.e. the filioque), grace, and the Church herself–this last the dogmatic question of our own time–is always the possibility, the manner, or the means of our union with God. (pp. 9-10)

And finally:

The theological doctrines which have been elaborated in the course of these struggles can be treated in the most direct relation to the vital end—that of union with God–to the attainment of which they are subservient. Thus they appear as the foundations of Christian spirituality. (pp. 10-11.).

It’s a hard thought, but suffering results from death, not vice versa. We’ve long rejected the enlightenment notion of the complete separation of body and mind; consider, after all, the history of psychosomatic illness. There is a futility at work in our bodies which comes from the futility at work in the soul. [xvi] Death spreads from soul to body. Ironically, this causes the fragmentation of personality – what psychologists call distintegration – the unnatural division of body and soul, with the attending cognitive dissonance or discontinuity between man’s thoughts and actions, theory and practice. Suffering in the world, derived from man, derives ultimately from his death, and death is that to which the world has been subjected on account of man’s death. Death, then, is not merely dying. Death is the principle of futility of creation that holds it captive. The whole of creation, which partakes of man, and of which man partakes, has fallen under death and its attendant futility. Through man futility entered the world and through one man (God-man incarnate) futility is overcome by the union of both natures [xvii] in one; the alienation (man v. God, and man v. ecology) is removed, integrity – again to use a term from psychology – is again possible. The alienation between man and ecology is a result of man but occurs precisely with a view to reconciliation. [xviii] No less an authority than the Apostle Paul was saying this on behalf of Orthodox Christianity when he uttered these words:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. [xix]

When God became man (the Incarnation), and so was called Immanuel (literally “God with us”), He recapitulated all categories proper to man, and so all categories proper to the ecology with which man has to do. [xx] In redeeming the one, he redeems the other. From then, the redemptive identity of man and ecology is restored. The guarantee of a restoration of all things and consummation of all things [xxi] is granted. The only possible redemptive event – the Incarnation – transcendent God becoming man, entering the creation, and drawing all to himself [xxii] resolves our dilemma by neither destroying man, nor absorbing man indistinctly into God but by perfect union in the God-man and the opportunity therefore for individual union (theosis). The consummation will be realized with the synergistic participation of man’s will with Incarnate God’s. Precisely because reconciliation requires of man that he act in a creative/redemptive manner toward man and ecology, man retains his free intellect and free volition and is required to use them in synergy with the Creator to bring about the fullness of reconciliation of man with God and ecology with man. The result for ecology is that ecology is taken up into the benevolence of God and man, sharing as it does in man’s operations, and being as it is the subject of God’s benevolence. Who will forget the utopian words:


And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him… The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion, and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed, their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek, and his rest shall be glorious. [xxiii]

And who is not moved by the Christian hope for an end of futility without an end of man:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. [xxiv]

By observing the moral blindness and obstinacy of man, his alienation from the creative and redemptive benevolence of the Creator – his abuse of ecology, it is realized that hope is possible only if God reach toward man by becoming tangible to him, and hope is possible for creation only if man responds by reunification with the Creator. The futility in creation can be redressed only by addressing the futility in man’s soul. That transcendent God should actually become tangible man is certainly not difficult for the Christian to believe since it is to his sources that we appeal, and the hope in that event is clear: God became man that man might become God [xxv] , most definitely not for the destructive obliteration of man by absorption of his uniqueness into God, but precisely by the redemptive preservation of his distinctiveness in perfect union with God. Nor should it be difficult for others, as strange as it may sound. As St. Athanasius wrote in his On the Incarnation:

The Greek philosophers say that the universe is a great body, and they say truly, for we perceive the universe and its parts with our senses. But if the Word of God is in the universe, which is a body, and has entered into it in its every part, what is there surprising or unfitting in our saying that He has entered also into human nature? If it were unfitting for Him to have embodied Himself at all, then it would be unfitting for Him to have entered into the universe, and to be giving light and movement by His providence to all things in it, because the universe, as we have seen, is itself a body. But if it is right and fitting for Him to enter into the universe and to reveal Himself through it, then, because humanity is part of the universe along with the rest, it is no less fitting for Him to appear in a human body, and to enlighten and to work through that. And surely if it were wrong for a part of the universe to have been used to reveal His Divinity to men, it would be much more wrong that He should be so revealed by the whole!

Take a parallel case. A man’s personality actuates and quickens his whole body. If anyone said it was unsuitable for the man’s power to be in the toe,

he would be thought silly, because, while granting that a man penetrates and actuates the whole of his body, he denied his presence in the part.

Similarly, no one who admits the presence of the Word of God in the universe as a whole should think it unsuitable for a single human body to be by

Him actuated and enlightened.

If one acknowledges that the hypothetical event is necessary, then the question that remains is whether the event has indeed happened. Let us be clear, it is Orthodox Christianity alone in the world that has ever made so audacious a claim. All similar claims are variations on monism – the absorption of man by God – the obliteration, as it were, of man’s distinctiveness. But this is but one more form of destruction encoded in religious philosophy, and it is precisely against destruction that we are holding out hope. This essay will not explore in any depth the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as a historical event, but a few comments are in order:

Suffice it to say that there can be no doubt for anyone honestly looking at the evidence that there was a man called Jesus Christ. The anti-Christian Roman and Jewish records make that quite clear. Nor is there any doubt that he claimed to be God incarnate. If he had claimed to be only a prophet or a religious teacher, there were many such men making those claims at the same time; neither the Jews nor the Romans could have objections. The Holy Scriptures, as good a history of the events of Jesus Christ’s life as any, is in agreement with non-Christian sources in recording that the Jews stoned Jesus. When asked why, they said they stoned him because he, being a man, claimed to be God. It was most clear not only to his followers but to those rejecting his ideas that this was his central claim. He constantly referred to himself with the Greek word which means YHWH – the name of God, so sacred among the Jews that it was not to be spoken, and in reverence even the vowels of it were not written down and so eventually were lost. Because of this, they called him a blasphemer, which means precisely that they rejected a single all-important premise – his claim to be God. Accompanied with this claim was the constant reference to himself as Son of Man. It was his point that the amazing thing was not that God is there, but that God should be man.

The classic point made by apologist C.S. Lewis remains so useful that I trust the reader will not find it trite: If Jesus Christ claimed to be God, he was either a liar, a delusional lunatic, or telling the truth. The most difficult of these options is lunacy. What lunatic offers us the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and all of the other calls for a love of man for mankind never before described, a love so unique and profound that a special word had to be appointed – agape? What lunatic lives his whole life caring for the sick, giving to the poor, and befriending those who are social castouts? If Jesus Christ is a lunatic, then what is sanity? On the other hand, if Jesus was a liar, lying in his claim to be God, he is in no wise a moral teacher of men, nor in any sense loving. After all, he asked thousands upon thousands then and down through history to give their lives in monstrous torture: eyes filled with molten lead, bodies hobbled and welded, and martyrdom: fed alive to the animals, tarred and lit as torches for Nero’s gardens, all for the sake of his claim to be the God to whom alone is due all worship, honor, and glory. He asked people to give their lives and pay the ultimate penulty for teaching as historical fact the whole of his Incarnation: his birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and eventual return for the consummation of all things. He asked them to consider the judgement over which he would preside and alter their whole lives accordingly. No such person and no such teaching can be called good, right, or true if the claim on which all of it is based is a lie. If he lied about this, he is nothing short of a monster, one that has with a single premise slain and condemned to suffering more people than Hitler, more than Stalin; he would be the worst genocidal demon in all of human history, far worse than those who put him to death. If then, one is willing to say that he was crazy or that he lied, let that one take the premise to its logical consequences. If not, the only remaining possibility deserves full and intellectually honest consideration. But certainly let there be no such foolishness as to claim either that there never was a man called Jesus Christ, or that he made no claim to be the Incarnate God of the Ages. That historical fact, at least, has more evidence than then there is to support the existence of a Homer or a Socrates, or to establish clearly what it was they said or did. Overturn that, and one’s argument is not with the Holy Incarnation but more or less with the possibility of knowing whether anything in particular has occurred.

IV. Vegetarian Fasting

The Orthodox Church fasts from animal products so frequently, constantly, and for such prolongued periods (i.e. months at a time) as to be shocking to those less accustomed to this religious discipline. Recognizing the close link between body and soul, and death’s tendency to fragment man and render the two in opposition, the reason for fasting from meats is that they are closely linked to the passions. The passions are futility within the man. According to St. Peter of Damascus, the passions are:

harshness, trickery, malice, perversity, mindlessness, licentiousness, enticement, dullness, lack of understanding, idleness, sluggishness, stupidity, flattery, silliness, idiocy, madness, derangement, coarseness, rashness, cowardice, lethargy, dearth of good actions, moral errors, greed, over-frugality, ignorance, folly, spurious knowledge, forgetfulness, lack of discrimination, obduracy, injustice, evil intention, a conscienceless soul, slothfulness, idle chatter, breaking of faith, wrongdoing, sinfulness, lawlessness, criminality, passion, seduction, assent to evil, mindless coupling, demonic provocation, dallying, bodily comfort beyond what is required, vice, stumbling, sickness of soul, enervation, weakness of intellect, negligence, laziness, a reprehensible despondency, disdain of God, aberration, transgression, unbelief, lack of faith, wrong belief, poverty of faith, heresy, fellowship in heresy, polytheism, idolatry, ignorance of God, impiety, magic, astrology, divination, sorcery, denial of God, the love of idols, dissipation, profligacy, loquacity, indolence, self-love, inattentiveness, lack of progress, deceit, delusion, audacity, witchcraft, defilement, the eating of unclean food, soft living, dissoluteness, voracity, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem, pride, presumption, self-elation, boastfulness, infatuation, foulness, satiety, doltishness, torpor, sensuality, over-eating, gluttony, insatiability, secret eating, hoggishness, solitary eating, indifference, fickleness, self-will, thoughtlessness, self-satisfaction, love of popularity, ignorance of beauty, uncouthness, gaucherie, lightmindedness, boorishness, rudeness, contentiousness, quarrelsomeness, abusiveness, shouting, brawling, fighting, rage, mindless desire, gall, exasperation, giving offence, enmity, meddlesomeness, chicanery, asperity, slander, censure, calumny, condemnation, accusation, hatred, railing, insolence, dishonour, ferocity, frenzy, severity, aggressiveness, forswearing oneself, oathtaking, lack of compassion, hatred of one’s brothers, partiality, patricide, matricide, breaking fasts, laxity, acceptance of bribes, theft, rapine, jealousy, strife, envy, indecency, jesting, vilification, mockery, derision, exploitation, oppression, disdain of one’s neighbour, flogging, making sport of others, hanging, throttling, heartlessness, implacability, covenant-breaking, bewitchment, harshness, shamelessness, impudence, obfuscation of thoughts, obtuseness, mental blindness, attraction to what is fleeting, impassionedness, frivolity, disobedience, dullwittedness, drowsiness of soul, excessive sleep, fantasy, heavy drinking, drunkenness, uselessness, slackness, mindless enjoyment, self-indulgence, venery, using foul language, effeminacy, unbridled desire, burning lust, masturbation, pimping, adultery, sodomy, bestiality, defilement, wantonness, a stained soul, incest, uncleanliness, pollution, sordidness, feigned affection, laughter, jokes, immodest dancing, clapping, improper songs, revelry, fluteplaying, license of tongue, excessive love of order, insubordination, disorderliness, reprehensible collusion, conspiracy, warfare, killing, brigandry, sacrilege, illicit gains, usury, wiliness, grave-robbing, hardness of heart, obloquy, complaining, blasphemy, fault-finding, ingratitude, malevolence, contemptuousness, pettiness, confusion, lying, verbosity, empty words, mindless joy, daydreaming, mindless friendship, bad habits, nonsensicality, silly talk, garrulity, niggardliness, depravity, intolerance, irritability, affluence, rancour, misuse, ill-temper, clinging to life, ostentation, affectation, pusillanimity, satanic love, curiosity, contumely, lack of the fear of God, unteachability, senselessness, haughtiness, self-vaunting, self-inflation, scorn for one’s neighbour, mercilessness, insensitivity, hopelessness, spiritual paralysis, hatred of God, despair, suicide, a falling away from God in all things, utter destruction —

In striving for dispassion or apatheia (and its resultant harmlessness), which is not stoic apathy but dynamic dispassion in keeping with the creative/redemptive role of man in creation, the body must be deprived of volatile chemical and moral influences. It is thought right to weaken the body in order to subordinate it to the spirit, bringing it under disciplined control just as a monk does when he regulates the body’s breathing in prayer. It is thought right not to feast when, in living through the Church’s calendar, the death and torments of her Lord and His saints and the futility of the world before the Incarnation [xxvi] are remembered in solidarity.

The Church, when it is not fasting is feasting, since it is so often remembering in solidarity the salvific events of Our Lord’s Incarnation [xxvii] and resulting triumphs of the Church over futility. At these times the fatted calf is slain, so to speak, and meat is permitted. This may seem ironic given what has been said; to the consideration of eating meat one final doctrine must be added – that of economia. Economia describes the operation of God toward all that is not God. It is economia in which we move and breathe, so to speak. Economia is known to us precisely because of the Holy Incarnation, which is a divine condescension – a reaching toward us in identification and redemption. Economia has always as its concern the salvation of each individual, and so it is also utterly unique to each individual as well as general in its application. Economia removes the unique barriers to the salvation of each individual and transforms them into means of salvation. By economia one may abstain from alcohol, if it is a barrier to his salvation; by economia another person may drink. In general, we are free. The principle is that union between man and God are paramount. All of life is drawn into it, whether in strictness or in permissiveness. To eat and to fast occur in the economy. That we continue to subsist at all is economy. Meat is certainly not required, but it is permitted as such a condescension, permitted for our salvation. Some Orthodox are vegetarians or veegans; others for many reasons eat meat; neither judges the other. In general, we are free, and salvation is the concern. For example, precisely because of the unnatural death at work in us, meat procured by death has medicinal benefits for some of us, and medicine is always permitted whether in the Fast or not, since medicine attends to our existence and salvation presupposes existence. We still, however, recognize that the opposition of man’s existence and animal’s is unnatural and is being redeemed with a view to the consummation of all things, and we remain concerned with the day when all suffering will end and all enmity will cease.

Related Links

St. Athanasius On the Incarnation




St. Irenaeus of Lyons Adversus Haereses


[i] We may not “need” to hunt animals, but we also don’t need to avoid hunting them, unless something else is the true concern.

[ii] Atlantic Monthly once ran an article arguing that the best we can hope for, if man is to rescue or preserve any endangered species with limited resources is a kind of triage. This implies that there needs to be an ethics of selection of which animals are rescued. We tend to emphasize the high visibility species while letting other species die. The journal admitted that since choices must be made, they will always be made according to human values. The question becomes “which values’?

[iii] Pollution and the Death of Man, The Christian View of Ecology. Francis Schaeffer.

[iv] eg. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trimegistus. True, without falsehood, certain, and most true: What is Below is as what is Above, and what is Above is as what is Below, in order to bring forth the Miracles of the One Thing. And as all things originate from One, by the self-contemplation of One (Mind), so all things are born in like manner by the modification of the One Thing. Its Father is the Sun; its Mother is the Moon; the Wind carries it within its Womb; Its Nurse is the Earth. Here is the Source of all things and Consummation of the whole World. Its virtue is perfected if it is turned into Earth.

[v] A romantic notion imposed on the chaos and oblivion typifying the created order.

[vi] See for example: The Holy Prophet Isaiah 11:1-2, 6-10 “The lion shall lie down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them.” “The lion will eat straw like an ox.” Etc.

[vii] And if nature is divine, why the futility?

[viii] A divinization by synergy is necessary, involving both God’s grace and man’s will, as we will show.

[ix] A point made in A course in Patristics. Most Rev. Bishop PHOTIOS (Joseph P.) Farrell

[x] In Communion 17 / Fall 1999. The Passions: Enemy or Friend? Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia.

[xi] Religion is not opposed to history, but rather – specifically because of the Incarnation – history is imbued with religion.

[xii] St. Irenaeus of Lyons (cited in Farrell)

[xiii] Quasten describing the writing of St. Irenaeus of Lyons (cited in Farrell)

[xiv] Farrell (ibid.)

[xv] (Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Cambridge: James Clark & Co. 1968.)

[xvi] To the most Rev. Nun Xenia. St. Gregory Palamas. “As the separation of the soul from the body is the death of the body, so the separation of God from the soul is the death of the soul. And this death of the soul is the true death. This is made clear by the commandment given in paradise, when God said to Adam, ‘On whatever day you eat from the forbidden tree you will certainly die’.”

[xvii] Just as through one man death entered the world….so through one Man…..

[xviii] Therefore He subjected the creation to futility….

[xix] Epistle to the Romans. The Holy Apostle Paul.

[xx] “For the Lord touched all parts of creation.” On the Incarnation. St. Athanasius.

[xxi] “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” – First Epistle to the Corinthians. The Holy Apostle Paul.

[xxii] That in the dispensation of the fullness of times, he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth, even in Him. Epistle to the Ephesians. The Holy Apostle Paul.

[xxiii] The Holy Prophet Isaiah 11:1-2, 6-10

[xxiv] The Revelation of Jesus Christ. St. John the Evangelist.

[xxv] On the Incarnation. St. Athanasius.

[xxvi] Precisely as in the Nativity Fast leading up to the Holy Incarnation

[xxvii] It is the whole Incarnation which saves – all the events of Our Lord’s life, including birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, but in fact every event.

2 thoughts on “Ecological Futility and the Incarnation”

  1. Have you seen Earthlings, available on Google Video? I would love to hear your remarks on it if you have. I do appreciate that someone is attempting to think through these issues.

  2. I haven’t, but it sounds interesting. I’m drawn by sci-fi like words like that. 🙂 So I’ll try to make time to check it out, but I can’t guarantee I’ll comment. After all, my remarks are just the ramblings of someone who has no greater claim to truth than anyone else, unless I happen to repeat in a correct context what the fathers are saying – at least, from the standpoint of our Faith.

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