In a brief article in an unassuming 1967 edition of Science, a medieval historian from the University of California argued a now infamous thesis in my own field of religion and ecology.
“Christianity, “ Lynn White wrote, “is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” The notion of “dominion,” he argued, allowed human beings to exploit the ecological world in unprecedented ways.
White’s argument set off a decades-long firestorm, engaging activists, environmental ethicists, and Christian theologians alike.
But what most people generally forget about that now-canonical article is in the final eight paragraphs. After charging the cultural influence of Western Christian thought, White then argues for an equally religious response. “Possibly,” he offers, “we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi.” The 13th century saint, who preached to birds and wolves, who referred to cosmic and elemental entities like fire as “Sister” might serve as a model, White argued, for a different kind of Christianity, a kind that can care for the earth seriously, in humility.
Like many scholars in my own field of religion and ecology, I woke up yesterday morning with another Francis—this one a Pope—on my mind. The Vatican had just officially released Laudato si, Praise Be to You—the first official papal encyclical to address the reality of climate change.
Pope Francis’ letter, of course, appears in the midst of a great cloud of witnesses on religiously-motivated ecological justice. The Patriarch of Constantinople, spiritual head of the Orthodox Church, known by many as the “Green Patriarch,” appears several times in the encyclical. Catholic liberation theologians like Ivone Gebara and Leonardo Boff’s work is unparalleled. Many leaders from other Christian denominations and world religions are discussing global warming and now the encyclical in earnest. Lutheran theologians like myself are using this letter in acts of ecclesial and planetary solidarity to prepare for the 500thAnniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
Scholars and environmental activists speculated for months (and not wildly) about the contents of the letter: its portrayal of climate change, its reflection on the human causes of climate change, its reflection on planetary science, its depiction of human life and sexuality, its understanding of everything from fossil fuels to water to biodiversity. (Yale’s Forum for Religion and Ecology assembles some of the best of that content here.)
As I read through Laudato si I saw much of the speculation confirmed. Pope Francis reflects on our various ecological ills. He reflects on anthropogenic/human-caused global warming, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, the dangers of unlimited consumerism, the dangers of unlimited and overused technology, “a misguided anthropocentrism,” economic growth, and the list goes on. (For an excellent summary of the chapters, check out Christiana Z. Peppard’s piece at The Washington Post.)
We hear those litanies of devastation often these days and simple reflection on global warming can send anyone into a spiral of ethical helplessness and moral ambiguity. But there’s something in the rhetorical feel, the affective language of this letter that might help pull a reader through.
The letter’s laments are couched in the language of praise. Francis the pope lures the reader in with the poetry of Francis the saint. The encyclical reads,
Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us… This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.
The gendering of language in this letter deserves its own extended reflection. But as I woke yesterday and read these opening words, Lynn White’s article came tumbling back into my imaginative world. And White’s argument for Saint Francis appears oddly, historically prescient (or at least influential) when a Pope takes the name of that ecological saint and creates one of the most influential texts on religious environmentalism to date. Even if, we might say, the encyclical isn’t perhaps as environmentally radical as White (or even I) might have wanted.
Still, what I’m haunted by most in reading this letter is its poetic genius in connecting seemingly disparate realms of life. Not a few have remarked to me about the encyclical’s balance of tragedy and human sin alongside love, hopefulness, joy, and possibility. It seems that the letter is nothing less than a love letter, an invitation to love God and the creation in which human beings live out their lives in ecological interaction. The rhetoric and prose itself lends Pope Francis’ vision to that very human context of learning appropriate loving communion, joy, and beauty.
Beauty carries a lot of ethical weight in this encyclical. Despite the vast ecological devastations, the letter evokes the beauty of our ecological contexts in its descriptions, and its logic argues that seeing that beauty urges respect of other creatures. Learning to see beauty in the everyday is an intrinsic part of an ecological conversion to the earth. (Think of it this way: by my count the word “ecology” occurs thirty-three times in the encyclical. The word “beauty” occurs twenty-seven times).
Another point of connection is the theme of integral ecology. In a nod to liberation theology and Leonardo Boff in particular it seems, Laudato si refuses to make the choice between human and ecological life a zero-sum game. Pope Francis writes,
Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
The letter is concerned throughout with poverty. The Pope goes so far as to say that the earth is one of those marginalized and demanding moral attention: “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”
Many popular dialogues about social justice and ecological justice pit these concerns against each other, this letter argues them to be of mutual, related concern.
Finally, as a constructive practice of hope, the encyclical argues time and time again for earth as a kind of “commons”—the encyclical itself is subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home.” The letter urges disparate communities—geographical, intellectual, and religious—to dialogue together for the sake of planetary action. The common home theme incorporates all of creaturely life—animal, plant, human, elemental. And such a perspective urges intergenerational ethical reflection on all who will compose the planet before and after us—how do we work together, planetarily, for the sake of our commons?
I’m bringing out these themes quickly because of a kind of moral and desire these connections tease out. When folks in the United States aren’t mired in distracting debates on climate change denial and politically-motivated refusals of science, we tend to talk about ecological crisis in terms that are hard to assimilate. We talk about the vast structural powers of atmosphere and anthropogenic change. We talk about the complicated ocean acidification that dissolves away at livable ecologies. We talk about the swirls of energy from fossil fuels and various structural oppressions that energize climatological change.
The problems overwhelm our imaginative creativity to respond. Nothing can be done, the earth is doomed. Or, even, “the earth will go on without us, so what?”
I think what a message like Pope Francis’ does is remind us of the deeply ordinary human and moral dimensions of ecology and climate change.
The words remind us of our responsibility. By connecting the affective themes of love or beauty, the integrally human and ecological, and passion for our common home, powerful ecological treatises like this one remind us that global warming is just as much about the abstract oppressive and climatological power as it is about the intimate oppressive and climatological powers that shape our everyday lives. And that working within everyday structures can help in creating justice and navigating the future.
I’ve come to believe that our climate crises are crises of planetary intimacy. I don’t mean that we’ve lost a romantic relationship with nature that we need to recover. (That kind of imagination is just another anthropocentric misconstrual of creaturely life.) What I do mean is that everything of our contemporary crises also occurs in the intimate and risky relations of everyday life. Learning to address that intimate enfolding of life and creatureliness is one of our best hopes. Learning how to love the earth, how to build homes together in precarious climates, how to reconsider daily lives, how to daily protest structural economic systems, how to consider our animal interactions—all that is what creating a planetary resilience is about. This encyclical, as I read it, is simultaneously an act of love, an act of protest, and a hope for resilience.
Perhaps in bringing our crises of climate down to earth, to the very intimacies, desires, and relations of our bodies, Pope Francis’ encyclical offers a way forward. Perhaps when we feel earth, affectively, lovingly in the everyday—in all of its vibrancy and tragic beauty—we’ll be better able to do the work we so desperately need to do.