A COMPANION CALL ACROSS THE CENTURIES

Preached by Ron Story

September 27, 2015 (after visit of Pope Francis)


The recent climate Encyclical of Pope Francis is a blockbuster. He points to the looming possibility of environmental collapse. He summarizes what we know from science and experience about, for example, massive pollution, extreme weather, coastal damage, the shriveling of small farms, and the loss of human and animal habitat. He makes clear that the billions of the earth’s poor will especially suffer. He is equally clear that this is a threat to us all. It is hard to imagine a more thorough or persuasive summary of the world’s plight, or one that will ever reach as many eyes or ears.

But the Encyclical Is also a blockbuster because it points fingers. 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 conviction that we are all children of God, that we are brothers and sisters, and that we have a shared responsibility for the earth and for one another. 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 glorify unregulated markets and the maximization of profit. We worship technological fixes even if that technology is destructive or is used for evil ends or produces greater suffering. Free-market dogma, says Francis, has given us economics without politics, perverting a just economic order and weakening public action in the public interest. Global corporations have more power than many nation states, making the common good subservient to powerful private interests.

We need an ecological approach, urges Pope Francis, a sense that we are ecological citizens who have responsibilities to others. We need the capacity to love nature and the people who are a part of nature—to hear “the cry of the earth as well as the cry of the poor.” We need to foster unity, dialogue, good laws, wise and courageous leaders.   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 a 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.”

Edwards also found nature awesome and inspiring. He found woods and fields, the stars at night, thunderclouds by day, rainbows and flowers, vines and trees all filled with “the beauty called natural.” “I used to be uncommonly terrified of thunder,” he wrote, but came to “rejoice” in it. Walking in the meadows and fields of the Connecticut Valley, he felt a “special Season of uncommon Sweetness.”  Looking at clouds, he knew “a sweet Sense of glorious Majesty.” He observed in particular the “fittedness” of nature—“the wonderful suitableness of green for grass and plants, the blue of the sky, the white of the clouds, the colors of flowers, the gentle motions of trees and of lilies,” the smell of fields, the singing of birds—a “Delightful, astonishing God-bespangled” world perpetually and simultaneously feeding all our senses: “How joyful!”

Edwards loved nature because it was beautiful–the solar system, the moon, trees and clouds, the heat and pleasantness and brilliance of light, roses and lilies, even the “humble violet.” Violets were subtle, he argued. They possess “hidden, secret beauties” of great complexity.   Yet a violet delights us precisely because God has enabled us to admire and love its beauty.  Edwards once made this memorable statement: “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…. Every moment we live has a beauty that we take no special notice of but that brings such a pleasure that, when we come to the trial, we would rather live in pain and misery than lose it.” His treatise, The Nature of True Virtue, one of the great ethical works of the Age of Enlightenment, rested largely on humans’ capacity to love the sheer beauty of God and therefore love the sheer beauty of the world God created, including human beings.


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 and Christ and the Church: “I used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and in the daytime, spent much time viewing the clouds and sky to behold the sweet glory of God,” and “sang to myself in quiet contemplation.” 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 expression of his power, wisdom, holiness and love, in what he has wrought and brought to pass.” To see nature was to see the Divine.


He described the coming of John the Baptist to prophesy the coming of Christ in this way: “First the daystar rises; next follows the light of the sun itself, but only dimly reflected, in the dawning of the day. But this light increases and shines more and more, and the stars that served for light during the foregoing night gradually go out, and their light ceases, as being now needless. Till at length the sun rises and enlightens the world by his own direct light, which increases as he ascends higher above the horizon, till the daystar itself is gradually put out and disappears.”


He compared Christ’s work with spring coming to the Valley: “As the sun revives the plants and trees and fruits of the earth, so Christ Jesus by his spiritual light revives the soul and causes it to bring forth fruit. In the winter, the trees are stripped of their leaves and stand naked, cease growing and seem to be dead…. But when the sun returns, then all things have the appearance of a resurrection

[and] the fields, meadows, and woods seem to rejoice.”

And so the Church and its members. The rainbow that follows the rain, said Edwards, is light reflected through a multitude of drops like “God’s jewels.” The whole rainbow, “composed of innumerable, shining, beautiful drops, all united in one, ranged in such excellent order, some parts higher and others lower, the different colors, one above another in such exact order,” is the church of saints, “each with its peculiar beauty, each drop very beautiful in itself, but the whole as united together much more beautiful.”


And even the ministry, as in an ordination sermon in the tiny hamlet of Pelham: “When divine light and heat attend each other in ministers of the gospel, their light will be like the beams of the sun, that don’t only convey light but give life; and converts will…spring up under their ministry, as the grass and the plants of the field; and the souls of the saints will be likely to grow, and appear beautiful… and their light will be the light of Christ.” God has brought you here, he says, to make you “a burning and shining light … to cause this wilderness to bud and blossom as the rose … and to cause their souls to flourish, rejoice and bear fruit, like a garden under the beams of the sun.”


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 and to draw lessons about Christ and the church.


Would Edwards have shared the Pope’s concern with the plight of the poor?   Would he have listened to what Francis calls “the cries of the poor as well as the cries of nature”? Edwards was one of the great preachers of his day about charity to the poor and the Christian mission to the poor. His perspective was the down and out of the primitive economy of early New England rather than the billions of people touched by ecological destruction that Francis targets. But the values and commitment of Edwards and Francis are fundamentally the same.


God commands charity to the poor, said Edwards: “I know of scarce any duty that is so much insisted upon, so pressed and urged upon us, both in the Old Testament and New.”   We see the face of Christ in the face of the poor. The poor are Christ’s receivers, his stand-ins. Jesus himself was a working man who lived poor, as did Mary and Joseph and the Disciples. The poor were the prime focus of Christ’s ministry. Charity is the essence of faith, said Edwards—and not just the easy charity of tolerance and politeness but the hard charity of giving away goods and money until it hurts. No true Christian will tolerate “pinching want” in the community. If you do, you are by definition not a Christian. Help everyone who needs it, and help too many rather than leave one person in want. And don’t make people ask for help: “To be put upon begging in order to receive relief is a real difficulty.” Leave people with their dignity.

Pope Francis never blames the poor for their poverty. Neither did Edwards. He blamed those who fail to help. Governments must also help, just as they do in defense or building roads. Poor laws and welfare are essential, Edwards argued, because this is a fallen world, and “voluntary charity” is uncertain. Governments can bring coercive power to bear on a vital Christian duty.

Edwards, like Pope Francis, argued that we are all in this together. QUOTE

Francis insists on our “common human heritage” and need for “solidarity.”

Edwards preached that human beings are “of one blood,” of the same Creator and same mother and father, with like faculties, subject to the same feelings and “aversion to misery,” made to survive “by society and union.” Help to others therefore preserves human society and humanity itself. All of us are the better for it.  To do otherwise shows what was anathema for Edwards—a selfish “private” spirit suitable for “wolves and beasts of prey.”


For Edwards as for Francis, the tap root of our anguish and danger lies in our glorification of the self. Edwards was a powerful preacher on the wonders of nature and on helping the poor and, just as powerfully, on the importance of the “public interest.” He spent much of his life condemning the self-aggrandizement, self-centeredness, and self-promotion that shatter community. Some people are “all for themselves,” he warned. They grasp everything for themselves or their family or their cohorts. They cheat the church and their neighbors, and scramble for worldly riches and power like “dogs.” They obsess over “money and lands.” They are full of what God abhors: selfishness, worldliness, and pride.


Edwards was not a technophobe. He applauded improvements in navigation and communication because he knew perfectly well that people in early New England suffered privation. But he thought these improvements were too much infected “with covetousness and pride… by wicked, debauched men” acting for their “narrow, sordid private interest” rather than for the “public good.”   They “prefer self” rather than the “public weal.” And that is a sin.


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 common understanding and action.

For both, humans possess agency— a God-given capacity to act individually and collectively, including through government, to meet personal needs and confront social challenges.

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.


— AMEN —