III. The Orthodox Church’s Teachings on Man and the Creation
The Fathers of the Orthodox Church teach us to beware of anything that ties us more closely to the life of the fallen world rather than frees us to ascend to God our Creator, Savior, and Perfecter. St Ignatius Brianchaninov (reposed in 1867) ‘who had a thorough training in physics, mathematics and engineering’ (Vladimir Moss, ‘Quo Vadis, Science?’, Orthodox Christian Books) taught that the physical sciences and the knowledge they impart do these very things, entangling us deeply in the world marred by sin, opposing the work of the salvation of our souls.
You ask what is my opinion of the human sciences? After the fall men began to need clothing and numerous other things that accompany our earthly wanderings; in a word, they began to need material development, the striving for which has become the distinguishing feature of our age. The sciences are the fruit of our fall, the production of our damaged fallen reason. Scholarship is the acquisition and retention of impressions and knowledge that have been stored up by men during the time of the life of the fallen world. Scholarship is a lamp by which ‘the gloom of darkness is guarded to the ages’. The Redeemer returned to men that lamp which was given to them at creation by the Creator, of which they were deprived because of their sinfulness. This lamp is the Holy Spirit, He is the Spirit of Truth, who teaches every truth, searches out the deep things of God, opens and explains mysteries, and also bestows material knowledge when that is necessary for the spiritual benefit of man. Scholarship is not properly speaking wisdom, but an opinion about wisdom. The knowledge of the Truth that was revealed to men by the Lord, access to which is only by faith, which is inaccessible for the fallen mind of man, is replaced in scholarship by guesses and presuppositions. The wisdom of this world, in which many pagans and atheists occupy honoured positions, is directly contrary according to its very origins with spiritual, Divine wisdom: it is impossible to be a follower of the one and the other at the same time; one must unfailingly be renounced. The fallen man is ‘falsehood’, and from his reasonings ‘science falsely so-called’ is composed, that form and collection of false concepts and knowledge that has only the appearance of reasons, but is in essence vacillation, madness, the raving of the mind infected with the deadly plague of sin and the fall. This infirmity of the mind is revealed in special fullness in the philosophical sciences (‘Quo Vadis, Science?’).
Man’s relationship to the creation, then, is to be more than one of measurement, classification, and so on, of extracting her secrets by force for the sake of creating new gadgets and creature comforts or of re-creating the world anew in man’s fallen, corrupted image.
Over against these nightmarish visions is the grace-filled teaching of the Orthodox Church. The theologian Vladimir Lossky presented some of the Church's main doctrines on man and the creation in his book The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. He wrote,
Man is not a being isolated from the rest of creation; by his very nature he is bound up with the whole of the universe, and St. Paul bears witness that the whole creation awaits the future glory which will be revealed in the sons of God (Rom. viii, 18-22). . . . In his way to union with God, man in no way leaves creatures aside, but gathers together in his love the whole cosmos disordered by sin, that it may at last be transfigured by grace (pgs. 110, 111).
He explained further,
According to St. Maximus, the work of creation contains five divisions, from which are derived concentric spheres of being, at whose centre is man, virtually containing them all in himself. . . . It was the divinely appointed function of the first man, according to St. Maximus, to unite in himself the whole of created being; and at the same time to reach his perfect union with God and thus grant the state of deification to the whole creation. It was first necessary that he should suppress in his own nature the division into two sexes, in his following of the impassible life according to the divine archetype. He would then be in a position to reunite paradise with the rest of the earth, for, constantly bearing paradise within himself, being in ceaseless communion with God, he would be able to transform the whole earth into paradise. After this, he must overcome spatial conditions not only in his spirit but also in the body, by reuniting the heavens and the earth, the totality of the sensible universe. Having surpassed the limits of the sensible, it would then be for him to penetrate into the intelligible universe by knowledge equal to that of the angelic spirits, in order to unite in himself the intelligible and the sensible worlds. Finally, there remaining nothing outside himself but God alone, man had only to give himself to Him in a complete abandonment of love, and thus return to Him the whole created universe gathered together in his own being. God Himself would then in His turn have given Himself to man, who would then, in virtue of this gift, that is to say by grace, possess all that God possesses by nature. The deification of man and of the whole created universe would thus be accomplished. Since this task which was given to man was not fulfilled by Adam, it is in the work of Christ, the second Adam, that we can see what it was meant to be (pgs. 108-10).
. . .
Adam did not fulfil his vocation. He was unable to attain to union with God, and the deification of the created order. That which he failed to realize when he used the fullness of his liberty became impossible to him from the moment at which he willingly became the slave of an external power. From the fall until the day of Pentecost, the divine energy, deifying and uncreated grace, was foreign to our human nature, acting on it only from outside and producing created effects in the soul. The prophets and righteous men of the Old Testament were the instruments of grace. Grace acted by them, but did not become their own, as their personal strength. Deification, union with God by grace, had become impossible. But the plan of God was not destroyed by the sin of man; the vocation of the first Adam was fulfilled by Christ, the second Adam. God became man in order that man might become god, to use the words of Ireneus and Athanasius, echoed by the Fathers and theologians of every age (pgs. 133-4).
This attitude about God, man, and the created world belonged to our Southern forefathers in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales prior to the introduction of that regrettable amalgam of heathen Greek philosophy and Christianity known as Roman Catholicism by the Norman conquerors in 1066 that has made so many of the evils of modernity possible (Dr Joseph Farrell, ‘Prolegomena’, God, History, and Dialectic, AnthonyFlood.com). Enough of the Orthodox understanding has remained, however, in some men and women since then that they, together with those who lived before them during the Age of the Saints on the Irish and British Islands (~500 to ~700 A. D.), may be studied with great reward.
IV. Tolkien and Other Cousins
One of the great treasures of the 20th century is undoubtedly Prof J. R. R. Tolkien. In his own life, in his various writings, and especially in his sub-creation of Middle-earth we see how a Christian rightly responds to modern technology and how he ought to live with regard to nature. Bradley Birzer explained about the former in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth,
For Tolkien, modernity was committed to the denial of God as the author of man and the world. And once man denies God, he denies his true self. When Harvey Breit of the New York Times Book Review asked Tolkien in 1955 what made him tick, Tolkien responded: “I don’t tick. I am not a machine. (If I did tick, I should have no views on it, and you had better ask the winder.)” Tolkien was not just being flippant or curmudgeonly. The question, which reflected modernity’s tendency to mechanize man, deeply bothered him. Tolkien, on the whole, despised mechanization, arguing that it reflected modernity’s attack on nature, its attempt to dominate and subjugate all aspects of the given world. “There is a tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare,” he wrote, and human fallenness “makes our . . . devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil.” He referred to technology in general as “Mordor-gadgets,” and to fighter planes during World War II as “Nazgul-birds.” When Tolkien learned of the American dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he responded with horror. “The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world!” Allies of Mordor, he later noted mockingly, had created the atomic bomb, “to use the Ring for their own (of course most excellent) purposes.”
Though Tolkien especially disliked the machines of war, he frequently complained about the machines that were increasingly coming to be associated with everyday life in the twentieth century. He had once owned a car, but in his later life he refused to own one after he saw what the planners did to change the city of Oxford to accommodate automobiles. Once, when Clyde Kilby was visiting Tolkien, a motorcycle passed by. “That is an Orc,” Tolkien proclaimed. . . . Tolkien’s disdain for machines reveals itself throughout Middle-earth works. Along with the Orcs, Sauron and the corrupted Saruman design and employ machines frequently, a fact that for Tolkien adequately served to symbolize their corruption (pgs. 110-1).
We may learn of the latter by looking at how the peoples of Middle-earth lived in relation to the created world. Tolkien’s description of the forest-city of Lothlórien in The Two Towers serves as a good illustration:
Suddenly they came out into the open again and found themselves under a pale evening sky pricked by a few early stars. There was a wide treeless space before them, running in a great circle and bending away on either hand. Beyond it was a deep fosse lost in soft shadow, but the grass upon its brink was green, as if it glowed still in memory of the sun that had gone. Upon the further side there rose to a great height a green wall encircling a green hill thronged with mallorn-trees taller than any they had yet seen in all the land. Their height could not be guessed, but they stood up in the twilight like living towers. In their many-tiered branches and amid their ever-moving leaves countless lights were gleaming, green and gold and silver. Haldir turned towards the Company.
‘Welcome to Caras Galadhon!’ he said. . . .
They went along many paths and climbed many stairs, until they came to the high places and saw before them amid a wide lawn a fountain shimmering. It was lit by silver lamps that swung from the boughs of trees, and it fell into a basin of silver, from which a white stream spilled. Upon the south side of the lawn there stood the mightiest of all the trees; its great smooth bole gleamed like grey silk, and up it towered, until its first branches, far above, opened their huge limbs under shadowy clouds of leaves. Beside it a broad white ladder stood, and at its foot three Elves were seated. They sprang up as the travellers approached, and Frodo saw that they were tall and clad in grey mail, and from their shoulders hung long white cloaks.
‘Here dwell Celeborn and Galadriel,’ said Haldir. ‘It is their wish that you should ascend and speak with them.’
. . .
As he climbed slowly up Frodo passed many flets: some on one side, some on another, and some set about the bole of the tree, so that the ladder passed through them. At a great height above the ground he came to a wide talan, like the deck of a great ship. On it was built a house, so large that almost it would have served for a hall of Men upon the earth. He entered behind Haldir, and found that he was in a chamber of oval shape, in the midst of which grew the trunk of the great mallorn, now tapering towards its crown, and yet making still a pillar of wide girth.
The chamber was filled with a soft light; its walls were green and silver and its roof of gold. Many Elves were seated there. On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel (Chapter 7, ‘The Mirror of Galadriel’, The Lord of the Rings, pgs. 353-4).
Such a way of life was known to earlier generations in England. A great linguist in his own right, and master of other arts besides, who preceded Tolkien by nearly an hundred years, the Rev William Barnes, and his home, were once described in this way by Arthur Quiller-Couch in an 1881 letter:
The house straw-thatched - rioted over by creepers - was set around with trees. Swallows populated its eaves; bees hummed in its garden. I am painting you (however you suspect it) no nook of fancy, but the residence of an actual man, whom you will find at once idyllic, shrewd and solid. He is just past eighty, but hale yet, white bearded with an aspect which suggests what you can recollect of Saint Mark from any number of stained glass windows. His hair, too, is white and he wears it patriarchally long so that it touches his shoulders. He is dressed in a long black coat, knee-breeches, black stockings, stout buckled shoes . . . (Fr Andrew Phillips, The Rebirth of England and English, pgs. 20-1).
Unsurprisingly, he like Tolkien stood firmly against the Industrial Revolution and the mechanization of life that came with it (pgs. 69-74).
The South, inheritor of much of the English tradition exemplified in men like Rev Barnes and Tolkien, has carried forth such a regard for nature. John Crowe Ransom gave a classic statement of it in ‘Reconstructed but Unregenerate’ (1931). Remarking on the European conservatism present in the South, he wrote,
I have in mind here the core of unadulterated Europeanism, with its self-sufficient, backward-looking, intensely provincial communities. The human life of English provinces long ago came to terms with nature, fixed its roots somewhere in the spaces between the rocks and in the shade of the trees, founded its comfortable institutions, secured its modest prosperity—and then willed the whole in perpetuity to the generations which should come after, in the ingenuous confidence that it would afford them all the essential human satisfactions. For it is the character of a seasoned provincial life that it is realistic, or successfully adapted to its natural environment, and that as a consequence it is stable, or hereditable. But it is the character of our urbanized, anti-provincial, progressive, and mobile American life that it is in a condition of eternal flux. Affections, and long memories, attach to the ancient bowers of life in the provinces; but they will not attach to what is always changing (I’ll Take My Stand, p. 5).
Wendell Berry, another traditionalist Southern Agrarian writing some 50 years after Mr Ransom, expanded on his ideas in ‘Two Economies’ (1983):
Any little economy that sees itself as unlimited is obviously self-blinded. It does not see its real relation of dependence and obligation to the Great Economy; in fact, it does not see that there is a Great Economy. Instead, it calls the Great Economy “raw material” or “natural resources” or “nature” and proceeds with the business of putting it “under control.”
But “control” is a word more than ordinarily revealing here, for its root meaning is to roll against, in the sense of a little wheel turning in opposition. The principle of control, then, involves necessarily the principle of division: one thing may turn against another thing only by being divided from it. This mechanical division and turning in opposition William Blake understood as evil, and he spoke of “Satanic wheels” and “Satanic mills”: “wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic/Moving by compulsion each other.” By “wheel without wheel,” Blake meant wheel outside of wheel, one wheel communicating motion to the other in the manner of two cogwheels, the point being that one wheel can turn another wheel outside itself only in a direction opposite to its own. This, I suppose, is acceptable enough as a mechanism. It becomes “Satanic” when it becomes a ruling metaphor and is used to describe and to organize fundamental relationships. Against the Satanic “wheel without wheel,” Blake set the wheels of Eden, which “Wheel within wheel in freedom revolve, in harmony and peace.” This is the “wheel in the middle of a wheel” of Ezekiel’s vision, and it is an image of harmony. That the relation of these wheels is not mechanical we know from Ezekiel 1:21: “the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.” The wheels of opposition oppose the spirit of the living creature.
What had happened, as Blake saw accurately and feared justifiably, was a fundamental shift in the relation of humankind to the rest of creation. Sometime between, say, Pope’s verses on the Chain of Being in An Essay on Man and Blake’s “London,” the dominant minds had begun to see the human race, not as a part or a member of Creation, but as outside it and opposed to it. . . .
. . . As Blake foresaw, and as we now know, what we turn against must turn against us. Blake’s image of the cogwheels turning in relentless opposition is terrifyingly apt, for in our vaunted war against nature, nature fights back. . . . I do not mean to imply here that, by living in harmony with nature, we can be free of floods and storms and drouth and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; I am only pointing out, as many other have done, that, by living in opposition to nature, we can cause natural calamities of which we would otherwise be free (The Art of the Commonplace, pgs. 231-2).
That the things they wrote of have truly manifested in the South is borne out well in a description - found in Robert Beverley’s 1705 book The History and Present State of Virginia - of the summer house of Col William Byrd I of Virginia, a description which should now appear quite familiar:
Have you pleasures in a Garden? All things thrive in it, most surpriseingly [sic]; you can’t walk by a Bed of Flowers, but besides the entertainment of their Beauty, your Eyes will be saluted with the charming colours of the Humming Bird, which revels among the Flowers, and licks off the Dew and Honey from their tender Leaves, on which it only feeds. It’s size is not half so large as an English Wren, and its colour is a glorious shining mixture of Scarlet, Green, and Gold. Colonel Byrd, in his Garden, which is the finest in that Country, has a Summer-House set round with the Indian Honey-Suckle, which all the summer is continually full of sweet Flowers, in which these Birds delight exceedingly. Upon these Flowers, I have seen ten or a dozen of these beautiful Creatures together, which sported about me so familiarly, that with their little Wings they often fann’d my Face (Lewis P. Simpson, The Dispossessed Garden, pgs. 15, 16; quote at 16).
One also catches glimpses of this Orthodox spirit in the later life of the South: in Gen Robert E. Lee’s special relationship with his horse Traveller and in the concern shown by the Southern Army for their work animals during the War.
In a letter to his daughter Agnes, Gen Lee wrote on 6 Feb. 1863 of the latter. In the midst of so many woes and cares, see where his thoughts were dwelling:
Here you will have to take me with the three stools—the snow, the rain, and the mud. The storm of the last twenty-four hours has added to our stock of all, and we are now in a floating condition. But the sun and the wind will carry all off in time, and then we shall appreciate our relief. Our horses and mules suffer the most. They have to bear the cold and rain, tug through the mud, and suffer all the time with hunger (Capt R. E. Lee, Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee; bolding added).
Of Gen Lee and Traveller (and of Gen Lee’s appreciation of the beauty of the creation besides) we have this note from Lee’s son:
My father's affection for his horses was very deep and strong. In a letter written from the Springs one summer, to his clerk in Lexington, he says:
"How is Traveller? Tell him I miss him dreadfully, and have repented of our separation but once—and that is the whole time since we parted."
I think Traveller appreciated his love and sympathy, and returned it as much as was in a horse's nature to do. As illustrative of this bond between them, a very pretty story was told me by Mrs. S. P. Lee [Daughter of General W. N. Pendleton, Chief of Artillery of the A. N. Va., and widow of Colonel Edwin Grey Lee, C. S. A.]:
"One afternoon in July of this year, the General rode down to the canal-boat landing to put on board a young lady who had been visiting his daughters and was returning home. He dismounted, tied Traveller to a post, and was standing on the boat making his adieux, when some one called out that Traveller was loose. Sure enough, the gallant gray was making his way up the road, increasing his speed as a number of boys and men tried to stop him. My father immediately stepped ashore, called to the crowd to stand still, and advancing a few steps gave a peculiar low whistle. At the first sound, Traveller stopped and pricked up his ears. The General whistled a second time, and the horse with a glad whinny turned and trotted quietly back to his master, who patted and coaxed him before tying him up again. To a bystander expressing surprise at the creature's docility the General observed that he did not see how any man could ride a horse for any length of time without a perfect understanding being established between them. My sister Mildred, who rode with him constantly this summer, tells me of his enjoyment of their long rides out into the beautiful, restful country. Nothing seemed to delight him so much (Capt R. E. Lee, Recollections and Letters).
(Concluding sections to follow.)
Berry, Wendell. ‘Two Economies’. The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Wirzba, Norman, ed. Berkeley, Cal.: Counterpoint, 2002.
Birzer, Bradley J. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2009.
Farrell, Dr Joseph. ‘Prolegomena’. God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes and Their Cultural Consequences. AnthonyFlood.com. 9 Sept. 2009. http://www.anthonyflood.com/farrellghdprolegomena.htm Accessed 8 Dec. 2014.
Lee, Captain Robert Edward. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. Originally published 1904. EBook #2323 published Sept. 2000; updated 4 Feb. 2013. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2323/2323-h/2323-h.htm Accessed 4 Dec. 2014.
Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, trans. Crestwood, Ny.: SVS Press, 1976 .
Moss, Vladimir. ‘Quo Vadis, Science?’ Orthodox Christian Books. http://www.orthodoxchristianbooks.com/articles/322/quo-vadis,-science/ Accessed 25 Nov. 2014.
Phillips, Father Andrew. The Rebirth of England and English: The Vision of William Barnes. Norfolk, England: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996.
Ransom, John Crowe. ‘Reconstructed but Unregenerate’. I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Simpson, Lewis P. The Dispossessed Garden: Pastoral and History in Southern Literature. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1975.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
By Walt Garlington