Integral Ecology, Wisdom, and Faith: Raya and the Last Dragon on Radical Solidarity

By David Armstrong 

Western society seems to be skeptical about our collective ability to find common cause just now. Yet this disbelief also comes at a time when a united human phronema is most needed to address global threats to our human flourishing and even existence. The coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and the devastating inequality of wealth and power that puts the labor and lives of the vastly many at the service and whimsy of the hilariously few are all jobs too large for single groups, much less solitary individuals, to resolve. Our noosphere is full, just now, of the unavoidable recognition that the postwar foundations of the liberal order are gone, that the delay of the countercultural and leftist protests of the late 60s can no longer be ignored, that our current way of relating to each other and the planet is long past its threshold of sustainability. These are problems increasingly beyond our ability to solve as individuals, singular countries, or even coalitions. We are increasingly reaching all or nothing territory.  

Religions, particularly Christian religions, are struggling to produce both a common message and practical response to these crises, but this is not for lack of trying. In the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, particularly in America, it seems, there is division between leadership and laity on the kind of social vision the Christian Churches should be articulating to the world right now. Generally, the more parochial the degree of oversight, the less urgency there is in such messaging, and the more expansive the pastoral responsibility, the more comprehensive and hard-hitting. It is thus not an accident that Pope Francis’ first two (fully original) encyclicals are on, respectively, ecology and human solidarity. 2013’s Laudato Si, articulating a thoroughgoing Catholic environmentalism, showcased the Pope’s shared interest with his fraternal Orthodox counterpart, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in “care for our common home.” Late last year, 2020’s Fratelli tutti, titled for a quote of the Pope’s namesake, signaled his equal concern for the restructuring of global society along the lines of radical political and economic solidarity, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus. Earlier that same year saw the publication of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Social Ethos document, For The Life of the World, offering a contemporary Orthodox counterpart to decades of Catholic Social Teaching from within the Greek ecclesial and theological tradition.  

The common holism of these documents is best phrased as an integral ecology: the natural and human worlds are one, not separate, and the afflictions of the one cannot be healed by the wounds of the other. The Earth can only find restoration with, in, through, and by human cooperation, or else not at all. Likewise, human society’s manifold ills will not be healed without a return to what Metropolitan John Zizioulas calls “being-as-communion,” a “eucharistic ontology” which repents of atomistic, individualist notions of human life and significance. An integral ecology comes hand in hand with a biblically grounded cosmology: the universe is God’s cosmic temple, and humanity is the divine eikon and priest, offering creation back to God in thanksgiving and praise. Human society is thus properly built around the foundational recognition of the infinite dignity of human life in the divine image and its capacity for assimilation to the divine likeness through the priestly vocation to deify the world in worship. The consequences for each particular sphere of human society are vast and severe. Human politics, economics, and public life all exist to serve human flourishing; and insofar as human flourishing is integrally related to the world’s flourishing, they also have a divine responsibility for the sake of the non-human community, too. The climate change crisis is thus both an issue of human dignity as well as profound human moral culpability, just like any other catastrophe generated or perpetuated by human immorality. The kaleidoscopic refraction of the whole in each part invests every member of the cosmic community with a moral significance for human life.  

Of course, Francis and Bartholomew are all drawing on a wide array of biblical, patristic, medieval, and modern theologies, and seeking to address contemporary concerns from within the common Christian Tradition and their unique tributaries thereof, in these documents. One tradent that they stand as the beneficiaries of, consciously (probably so in Bartholomew’s case) or unconsciously (probably so in Francis’), is Sergius Bulgakov. Bulgakov (1871-1944) is today regarded by many academic theologians as one of the most significant thinkers of their guild to have emerged in the 20th century, and certainly as the most important Orthodox thinker of the period (and possibly since). Bulgakov’s departure from and return to Russian Orthodoxy was generated by a number of complex personal experiences, conditioned by the times in which he lived. Bulgakov endured the communist transformation of Russia in the early 20th century, and ultimately lived out the later half of his life beyond the extent of Russia’s political reach as one of the emigré theologians in the West. Bulgakov’s intellectual life, however, was first invested not in theology directly but in politics and economics, and it is actually in one of his less-read monographs, Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household (1912), that Bulgakov first articulates a concept that would become definitive of his theological enterprise: Sophia, or “Wisdom.”  

Philosophy of Economy is, as is regularly remarked by Bulgakov scholars in the Russianist and theological fields, the work that encapsulates Bulgakov’s shift from Marxism to Idealism. This should not be confused with a wholesale rejection of Marxist critiques of capitalism, but merely a disillusionment with the sufficiency of Marxism as a system to resolve the problems of capitalist societies, both in the sense of being able to comprehensively explain them and in the sense of being able to lay the foundation of a coherent philosophical account of human worth. Philosophy of Economy argues for just such an account by leveraging the infinite value of the one (the individual human being) in relationship to the infinite value of the many (the wider human and non-human community), both of which are resolved in Sophia. In this work, Bulgakov’s Sophia is, as Kare Johan Mjor notes, really Vladimir Soloviev’s (1853-1900) and Friedrich Schelling’s (1775-1854) Sophia, not yet fully his own unique take on the figure of Wisdom that would dominate his later dogmatic works. This Sophia is the principle of humanity’s co-creative (what JRR Tolkien would have called sub-creative) capacity as cosmic priest, and a “Sophic Economy” is one where human interaction with nature, including with other humans, enables and depends on human synergy in quest of spiritual evolution. A sophianized economic sphere is one where the natural capacities of humans to participate in the cosmic progress of Geist form the basis of human political and monetary society, which is to say, where economics is simply the human dimension of ecology.  

It is only in his later, more explicitly Orthodox theological works that Bulgakov’s Sophia becomes more than this: nothing less, indeed, than the content of God’s divinity shared by Father, Son, and Spirit, eternally hypostatized as the Son but temporally extant as the creaturely world soul, drawing the world to the point of its hypostatization in the Theotokos, thus serving as the grounding principle of the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity (the microcosm) in Christ. But for both the younger and the later Bulgakov, the public ramifications of Sophia clearly demand a politics of radical human solidarity. The Wisdom in and with which God has created the world, which radiates from the face of Christ in both its divine and creaturely aspects, is the very principle of human flourishing which integral ecology promotes. Francis and Bartholomew’s vision(s) are, as was Bulgakov’s, about how human life can reconnect and reintegrate with the true nature of the world, and therefore with one another in a universally beneficent way.  

Raya and the Last Dragon, likewise, envisions a world where human greed and violence have ruptured the natural order and the place humans have within it, distorting human difference into grounds of division. Long ago, the dragons provided Kumandra with unity and peace through the life-giving gift of water, but the Drunn—soulless parasites of dark energy and death—turned the dragons, and many of Kumandra’s people, to stone. Only Sisu—the last dragon—was able to make use of a magical gem left behind by the other dragons to hold back the Drunn and enable Kumandra to live in peace; but humans, without the guidance of the dragons, quickly fell to their baser instincts of self-preservation, fear, and hatred. Five nations—Tail, Talon, Spine, Heart, and Fang—emerged, and for 500 years their distrust kept them in uneasy quiet, until the time of the titular heroine, Raya. Raya’s is a fairly traditional hero’s journey in the Joseph Campbell mode; not being an expert in Southeast Asian mythologies, and not being myself of a Southeast Asian culture, I can at best say that I enjoyed the film’s lore, but cannot claim competence to judge its cultural representations. What did strike me throughout, however, was the film’s dialogue about the nature and necessity of trust for human flourishing and cosmic salvation. Raya’s capacity to trust has been hurt by a childhood betrayal, and this distrust creates repeated problems for the hero and her friends as they pursue their quest. Only an act of radical faith atones for this mistake, in which Raya and her friends stake their lives on Namaari, whose own self-sacrifice activates the gem’s magic, defeats the Drunn, and restores both the petrified humans and the long-lost dragons. In this restored world, Chief Benja’s dream for the reunion of the five kingdoms as one Kumandra is at last realized. The message of Raya is fairly simple: integral ecology, rooted in Wisdom, does not finally work without trust in human goodness and belief in the potency of radical repentance.  

In this, the film touches on a signature point that is at the heart of both Bulgakov’s work and the teachings of Pope and Patriarch. Human capacity for deep sin is universally attested in our universal experience and cultural history, and part of the moral assimilation to Wisdom is recognition and vigilance with respect to human sinfulness by other humans. But the meaningfulness of human repentance is far more contested in our culture, which often finds the wicked irreparably damned by their deeds and habits. Certainly, cancellation is fully appropriate as a response to those persons, words, and actions which deserve our moral reprobation. And yet it is only faith in the power of human repentance—belief that people can indeed change, and turn around, and move towards the Good—that enables a society of radical solidarity. Radical solidarity means that it is my sin which damns the world, but also my mitzvah which repairs it; but it also means that my neighbor’s misdeed is my problem, and my neighbor’s triumph my celebration. To function in a world together where we belong to one universal oikos, one cosmic temple, as mutual eikons and priests, requires the charity of good faith on my part in her best inclinations, and she the same faith in me. This is certainly necessary to any economics of the resources of the commons, be they material or not, which understands their proper use as first and last for the common good. Trust is what binds not only the human to the human but the human to the cosmos. Trust in the maternal fecundity and sophianicity of the Earth is what guides environmental justice efforts, but faithless survivalism animates factory farming and man-made climate change; good faith says that the world is worth trying to save, while despair drives indifference. Trust is ultimately what binds humanity and cosmos alike to God in the worship that deifies.  

David Armstrong is a Byzantine Catholic who writes from the greater St. Louis area. 


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