“The reason why almost all people, even those that seem very miserable, love life is because they cannot bear to lose sight of such a beautiful and lovely world.”—Jonathan Edwards
In his climate Encyclical Pope Francis points to the looming possibility of environmental collapse. Our environment is in crisis, says Francis, because we have lost our conviction that the earth belongs to us all and to God rather than to those who act as though the earth belongs to them. We have lost our sense of the common good.
We have instead, says Francis, a culture of selfness—of self-centeredness, instant gratification, and rampant individualism. We have a cult of unlimited progress, competition and consumerism.
We need an ecological approach, the pope urges a sense that we are ecological citizens who have responsibilities to others. We need to make a new commitment to the common good rather than to our own individual interests.
Jonathan Edwards lived, preached and wrote three centuries before Pope Francis, and many generations before there was any sense of the ecosystem at risk. Before 1950 Pope Francis’s encyclical could not even have been imagined, let alone written. The science was not there, or the crescendo of environmental disasters, or the vocabulary of ecology. What could Jonathan Edwards possibly say to us that would matter?
Actually, quite a lot. For starters, Edwards was one of the great preachers of his or any time on the wonder, beauty, and significance of the natural world.
He was an avid student of nature. He observed how woodland spiders “fly” by floating through the air as they change the length of their filament, and how you can see their webs from a distance if the sun is behind them–an effect he understood from reading Isaac Newton. He studied rainbows, why bubbles burst, why lightning bolts zigzag, why sunlight is warmer at sea level, how light shifts during an eclipse. He urged people to study the Bible, but he also urged them to study the “Book of Nature.”
Above all, Edwards found in nature what he called “images or shadows of Things Divine.” The whole of nature was an image, shadow, or type of God. The “immense magnificence of the visible world,” he wrote, “its inconceivable vastness, the incomprehensible height of the heavens,” was a representation of the “infinite magnificence, height and glory of God’s work in the spiritual world; the most incomprehensible ex
pression of his power, wisdom, holiness and love, in what he has wrought and brought to pass.” To see nature was to see the Divine.
Would the prospect of climate change alarm Edwards? How could it not? Rising seas, the devastation of the land, nightmarish weather all pose a threat to the wonder and beauty of nature that he held dear, and, just as important, to our ability to glimpse God and the divine through nature.
Separated by three centuries and different creeds, Jonathan Edwards and Pope Francis do not use quite the same language or concepts or assume the same intellectual or spiritual tools or address identical problems. Yet they have much in common.
For both Edwards and Francis, all human beings are children of God and therefore brothers and sisters and hold the earth in common on behalf of its true owner, God.
Both urge us to remember the plight of the poor and do what we can to assist them, and to seek the common good rather than private interests.
Both believe the world is and must remain a place of beauty and renewal and spiritual discernment.
Both distrust mere economic or technological responses to the problems of human society. For both, complete economic freedom should be restrained, if necessary by governments.
Both are willing to speak truth to powerful interests. This, at least in part, cost Edwards his job. We do not yet know what it will cost Francis.
For both, reason and science are indispensable to understanding humanity and its troubles. For Edwards, reason is what separates us from beasts. The pope’s encyclical is crammed with climate science. Reason, for both Edwards and Francis, is a vital common trait of humanity, whether Christian or non-Christian, believers or non-believers. We need reason to help us transcend our differences, and to facilitate shared understanding and action.
For both men, faith and grace also matter. Faith and grace offer a time-tested means to transcend the sin of self and foster affection for God and God’s world and the people and creatures God has created. Politics and reason matter. But in the end what matter most are values. The crisis of the environment is a crisis of values. In this sense, what matters most in the end for Edwards and Francis is the Gospel of Love: to love God and God’s creation with all our hearts, and to love others as ourselves.
Ron Story is the author of Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love and co-editor with Gerald McDermott of The Other Jonathan Edwards: Selected Writings on Society, Love, and Justice