This piece was co-written with Vanessa Gikas
Just days before Pope Francis is due to release his long-awaited and much-anticipated encyclical letter on climate change, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew organized the second Halki Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, from June 8-10, 2015. On Thursday (June 18, 2015), the Pope is expected to refer by name to the spiritual leader of the worldwide Orthodox Church, citing his long advocacy and prophetic stand against environmental degradation.
On the island of Heybeliada (Halki) off the coast of Istanbul, countless cackling gulls gathered in the sun-filled sky, relentless and unaware of deliberations and connections being forged on the ground below. At Halki Summit II, hosted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and co-sponsored by Southern New Hampshire University, a number of distinguished artists, academics, activists, theologians, and volunteer participants joined in an effort to foster dialogue on one of the most crucial challenges of our time. Entitled "Ecology, Theology, and the Arts," this summer's conference aimed to incorporate the artistic senses and spiritual dimension of environmental stewardship into the broader conversation on climate change. Three years after the first summit, the work of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew continues to bridge the divide between the disparate yet essentially interconnected ideas of nature, art, and spirit.
A sudden and sticky rain shower welcomed participants to the island on Monday afternoon where, shortly after arrival, groups of three or four traveled via horse and carriage to the historical Halki Theological School, forcibly closed by Turkish authorities over four decades ago, where the opening ceremony would take place. The keynote address by Patriarch Bartholomew served as a reminder not to undermine the sensory aspects of nature, but to embrace both the tangible and intangible experiences that shape values and actions. Heybeliada offered an ideal and unique environment for this exploration and dialogue, free of the bustle and commotion characteristic of Istanbul's inner-city traffic. Indeed, the Patriarch emphasized silence as necessary for such learning and openness. Even on this distant island, however, one could not escape the chatter of the seabirds or calls from the minarets. Still, there seemed to be an unspoken appreciation for this quasi-divine and organic soundtrack.
On the first day of the summit, poet-author Terry Tempest Williams and her student Alisha Anderson focused on the reality of grief experienced through connection to a lost land. The poetry of Williams mingled with the imagery of Anderson's film, instilling a sense of renewed place in the American west, a land ravaged by exploration and exploitation, as well as by mining and changing weather. Clearly, loss in nature involves personal loss, a piece of ourselves gone missing.
Renowned literary critic Terry Eagleton contrasted the initial lesson of "feeling nature" with the task of "reasoning with ourselves in nature," repeatedly referring to humans as "peculiar lumps of matter" but with a "peculiar relationship to nature." Eagleton continued to single out common views of nature and turn them on their head, presenting the binary conflict and philosophical dialectic of "the fall" of humanity from nature as a fall upward towards transformation, innovation, and awareness. For Eagleton, if we identify completely with nature, we run the risk of losing ourselves.
The following sessions oscillated between the ravage of nature reflected in the melting glaciers, the impact on humans reflected in the food crisis and attendant global malnutrition, but also the theological dimensions of art and nature in a world where beauty and brokenness coexist. Mountaineer and nature photographer James Balog powerfully captured the degradation and transformation of the world's glaciers and seas. Popular author and activist Raj Patel engaged participants with an inspirational address, where he related the importance of food in the global economy and ecological crisis, explaining how cheap labor produces cheap care and in turn results in cheap food. And theologian-apiculturist Timothy Gorringe underlined both the essential and marginal role of the arts in addressing the environmental crisis.
Following a pioneering and prophetic legacy of international and interfaith gatherings organized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate over two decades, this second summit built upon the success of the first event held in 2012, which featured primatologist Jane Goodall, activist Bill McKibben, and scientist Amory Lovins. The summits aim to bring together individuals and institutions from distinct backgrounds and varied disciplines, all of them focused and committed to curbing or ending the exploitation of nature and escalation of inequality by transforming the debate on climate change.
On June 18th, 2015, Pope Francis will issue Laudato Si' (Praised Be), an unprecedented decree on creation care. His long-standing friendship with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will no doubt inform his statement and affirm the ecumenical dedication of these two leaders to ecclesial unity and collaborative resolve to address issues of ecological concern and social justice. It will be a compelling sign of solidarity in an age of political partisanship and global division.