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Saving souls and the planet go together

By Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Special to CNN
  • Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, focuses on environment
  • He says there's a natural connection between protecting the planet and honoring the divine
  • Global warming is greatest threat to those who can least afford it, he says
  • Bartholomew: "Let us offer the Earth an opportunity to heal"

Editor's note: His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, is 270th successor of St. Andrew the apostle who founded the 2,000-year-old church of Constantinople. His work for environmental protection has earned him the title "Green Patriarch." He was named by Time magazine as one of the world's most influential people and has been honored with the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal. The author of "Encountering the Mystery" and "In the World, Yet Not of the World," he is being honored October 19 by the interfaith organization The Temple of Understanding.

(CNN) -- Last October, the Ecumenical Patriarchate convened an international, interdisciplinary and interfaith symposium in New Orleans on the Mississippi River, the eighth in a series of high-level conferences exploring the impact of our lifestyle and consumption on our planet's major bodies of water.

Similar symposia have met in the Aegean and Black Seas, in the Adriatic and Baltic Seas, along the Danube and Amazon Rivers, and on the Arctic.

At first glance, it may appear strange for a religious institution concerned with "sacred" values to be so profoundly involved in "worldly" issues. After all, what does preserving the planet have to do with saving the soul?

It is commonly assumed that global climate change and the exploitation of our nature's resources are matters that concern politicians, scientists and technocrats. At best, perhaps, they are the preoccupation of special interest groups or naturalists.

So the preoccupation of the Orthodox Christian Church and, in particular, her highest spiritual authority, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with the environmental crisis will probably come as a surprise to many people.

Yet, there are no two ways of looking at either the world or God. There can be no double vision or worldview: one religious and the other profane; one spiritual and the other secular. In our worldview and understanding, there can be no distinction between concern for human welfare and concern for ecological preservation.

Nature is a book, opened wide for all to read and to learn, to savor and celebrate. It tells a unique story; it unfolds a profound mystery; it relates an extraordinary harmony and balance, which are interdependent and complementary. The way we relate to nature as creation directly reflects the way we relate to God as creator.

The sensitivity with which we handle the natural environment clearly mirrors the sacredness that we reserve for the divine. We must treat nature with the same awe and wonder that we reserve for human beings. And we do not need this insight in order to believe in God or to prove his existence. We need it to breathe; we need it for us simply to be.

We must treat nature with the same awe and wonder that we reserve for human beings.
--Patriarch Bartholomew

At stake is not just our ability to live in a sustainable way, but our very survival. Scientists estimate that those most hurt by global warming in years to come will be those who can least afford it. Therefore, the ecological problem of pollution is invariably connected to the social problem of poverty; and so all ecological activity is ultimately measured and properly judged by its impact upon people, and especially its effect upon the poor.

In our efforts, then, to contain global warming, we are admitting just how prepared we are to sacrifice some of our greedy lifestyles.

When will we learn to say: "Enough!"? When will we direct our focus away from what we want to what the world needs? When will we understand how important it is to leave as light a footprint as possible on this planet for the sake of future generations? We must choose to care. Otherwise, we do not really care at all.

We are all in this together. Indeed, the natural environment unites us in ways that transcend doctrinal differences. We may differ in our conception of the planet's origin, whether biblical or scientific. But we all agree on the necessity to protect its natural resources, which are neither limitless nor negotiable.

It is not too late to respond -- as a people and as a planet. We could steer the Earth toward our children's future. Yet we can no longer afford to wait; we can no longer afford not to act. People of faith must assume leadership in this effort; citizens of the world must clearly express their opinion; and political leaders must act accordingly. Deadlines can no longer be postponed; indecision and inaction are not options.

We are optimistic about turning the tide; quite simply because we are optimistic about humanity's potential. Let us not simply respond in principle; let us respond in practice. Let us listen to one another; let us work together; let us offer the earth an opportunity to heal so that it will continue to nurture us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patriarch Bartholomew.