The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church can trace its roots back to A.D. 328, when the Kingdom of Axum received its first consecrated bishop. Axum was an African kingdom situated near the Red Sea in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Few today would know of its existence but it was a wealthy and powerful empire in its time, controlling vast territories stretching across modern-day northern Sudan, southern Egypt, Djibouti, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia.
Axum was the second state in the world to officially receive Christianity (the first being the Kingdom of Armenia). Despite the kingdom’s eventual collapse in the 10th century, Christianity remained, and today, the Tewahedo Church has the most adherents of all the Oriental Orthodox churches. Amongst Orthodox churches, its size is second only to the Russian Orthodox.
In Ethiopia, the Tewahedo Church has a peculiar practice of preserving a small orest around their church buildings. Today, if you locate a small forest in Ethiopia, it is likely you will find a church building at its centre. In the past, Ethiopia was completely forested, but due high demand for agricultural land, 90% of the forests were cleared. All that is left of the original forests in Ethiopia are mostly those preserved and tended by the Church.
The reason for the Tewahedo Church’s conservationism is more theological than environmental. In the Tewahedo tradition, a forest must surround a building for it to be a church building. To the Church, a forest is more than just a collection of trees: it is a natural symbol of heaven on earth. By surrounding a church building with a forest they are recreating the Garden of Eden.
This may seem odd (or even heterodox!) to those of us from a very different church tradition. Clearly, forests are not a factor in the architectural design of church buildings in Singapore, since not a single one of them are surrounded by trees! Neither do we think much about the concept of sacred space (we no longer preserve sacred space because it is a waste of space—practicality trumps sanctity). However, we do find a deep connection between sacred space and nature in Scripture that forms the basis of the Ethiopian Church’s relationship with their forests. Perhaps this is a concept we might wish to retrieve.
A fact which may escape most is the connection between the Solomonic Temple and the Garden of Eden in Scripture. Understandably, we give short shrift to the lengthy and dry architectural descriptions of the temple in 1 Kings 6-7. However, if we were to pay attention to the details, there are actually many references to elements from nature. Why such a biophilic design? That is because they are meant to recall the Garden of Eden which was the original temple of God on earth.
What does horticulture have to do with the worship of God? This connection may seem strange because there is nothing explicit about this in the second creation account of Genesis 2.4-25. However, the connection is found in the language used to describe the Garden. It alludes to the Garden being a temple and the first humans as its priestly functionaries (Gen 2:8-17).
Firstly, the Garden of Eden is described in a way which ancients Israelites will recognise as sacred space. The first clue lies in the river which flows from it and divides into four major distributaries: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates. Geographically, this means that Eden must be located on a mountain of sorts for that to be possible. Ezekiel 28.13-16 confirms this by explicitly referring to the Garden of Eden as God’s garden on God’s holy mountain. In the ancient Near East, mountains had a sacred character and were regarded as dwelling places for gods. This is why gods were worshipped on “high places.” Similarly, the Psalms and the prophetic literature speak of God dwelling on the cosmic mountain of Zion.
Then there is the image of the river from Eden watering the whole of the known ancient world through its four distributaries. The description in 2.11-14 not meant to have exact correspondence with real-world geography. It is meant to describe spiritual geography: the four major rivers allude to the four cardinal points of the compass, indicating that the waters flowing out of the cosmic mountain Eden are what gives life to the world. This motif of a cosmic life-giving river flowing out from sacred space is repeated in descriptions of God’s eschatological temple/city in Ezekiel 47.1-12 and Revelation 21.1-2.
Lastly, both the Hebrew verbs used in Genesis 2.15 for Adam’s duties (“to till it and keep it”) are also used for levitical duties in Israel’s tabernacle/temple. His gardening duties are regarded as priestly because the Garden of Eden is God’s abode on earth. In tending to the Garden, both Adam and Eve are priests tending to God’s sacred space.
It is interesting that the original temple God designed for himself was not some fancy building but a garden. It is even more interesting that the first vocation of humans in Scripture is to be gardeners. Humans were created to worship God in the midst of nature (albeit a cultivated one)! The place of nature and sacred space in our faith, and the relationship between them, is something we have largely lost sight of. It is therefore providential that the Tawahedo Church continues to preserve this aspect of the faith in its preservation of forests as sacred spaces.
For a long time, Western Christianity has been influenced by the Baconian Project (after Francis Bacon) that treats the natural world as mere resources to be exploited—nature must be forced to give up its secrets and scientific knowledge must be deployed to conquer nature for the sake of human affluence. Nature has thus been desacralized and has been given over to the greed of capitalists and consumerists alike, such that we find it hard to see how the created natural world itself gives glory to God by its very existence (Ps. 19.1-4). In fact, some Christians remain suspicious of efforts in environmentalism, either considering it to be pseudo-paganism or a secularist agenda.
Yet, before humans came to be, God was already dwelling in the praises of nature. Despite human sin and failure, nature never ceases to give glory to God (Ps. 96.11-13). The Ethiopian Tawahedo Orthodox Church reminds us that Christians are meant to live in harmony with the rest of God’s creation. We encounter God in and worship God with the natural world. Our voices are meant to give voice to the mute creation in praise of the Creator—we lead the natural world in the worship of God! Perhaps our worship is incomplete without the rest of creation joining in! Perhaps with a prayerful appreciation of nature, we can be drawn into a more exuberant praise of God along with it; and with a prayerful attention to nature, we can open ourselves to an encounter with God through it.
Preacher Png Eng Keat
December 18, 2022