In May of this year, the enormously popular Pope Francis issued the Roman Catholic Church’s first authoritative document on the environment: “Laudato Si’.” The pope titled the encyclical (or teaching letter) after a prayer by Francis of Assisi (that patron saint of animals and the pope’s namesake), who proclaimed: “Laudato Si’ (or ‘Praised Be’) to you, Oh Lord, for our sister, Mother Earth, who sustains us and keeps us.” The encyclical is revolutionary for a number of reasons—not the least because of its controversial subject matter. For one, unlike past encyclicals, Pope Francis does not address this one to the bishops but to all humans, who share this planet, “our common home.” In doing so, Francis not only makes this message universal—one that crosses religious and cultural boundaries—but he highlights our human connectedness as well as our common dependence on this planet, our “home.”
In a particularly compelling paragraph, the pope illustrates humanity’s connection with non-human nature. He writes: “The created things of this world are not free of ownership: ‘For they are yours, O Lord, who love the living’… As part of the universe, called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.” 1 The pope’s words echo the sentiment of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Everything belongs to the Creator, the Psalmist reminds us. And all of creation is bound together by our common Creator. In other words, we humans belong to the same Creator as the dog who barks in the yard, the oak that grows in forest, and the bird that swoops overhead to protect her nest. We are, in Francis’s words, a “universal family, a sublime communion.”
Nearly five hundred years ago, the Reformed theologian John Calvin communicated a similar sentiment. He rooted his idea of the interconnection of the earth’s creatures in his theology of Creator Spirit. Contrary to what many of us think of when we hear his name, Calvin did not only champion the sovereignty of God; he also wrote illustratively about God’s intimacy with the natural world. In the first book of his Institutes, Calvin’s doctrine of creation is replete with the Spirit. 2 Following Augustine, he insists that the Spirit of God is not some distant, detached Lord but is as close to us as our breath is to our body. The Creator Spirit, Calvin says, is present to all creatures, being “spread abroad throughout all the parts of the world,” and giving “force, vigor… and motion to all living creatures that it may preserve them.” 3 Although nearly half a millennium separates us from this passage, I believe it has important consequences for us today. More specifically, Calvin’s affirmation of the Spirit indwelling, or “transfusing,” all of creation suggests that humans and non-human creation are bound together in the indwelling Spirit. 4 We really are a “universal family.”
According to Calvin, we draw the same life-breath as other creatures. 5 Yet, humans are inspired by the Spirit in a uniquely human way. As such, we have a distinctly human responsibility (or vocation, to use a term Calvin loved) to preserve the earth with God. Like many people concerned about the ecological crisis, I have taken a number of steps in my own life to be a better steward of the earth. But I am nevertheless challenged by Pope Francis’s exhortation to think and act “with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect” for the rest of creation. (This is a call to a new attitude, which bears profound consequences for my spiritual, ethical, social, and economic life!) Getting more specific, the pope implores his readers to integrate planetary concerns into their spirituality. He urges, “The ecological crisis is a summons to a profound interior conversion… an ecological conversion.” 6 The call to action, Pope Francis argues, begins with a conversion of the heart. Now, I know the language of “ecological conversion” might strike some as a bit New-Age-y or even idolatrous. But the appeal to a conversion to the earth does not imply the divinization of creation. Nor is it meant to detract from the worship of God. In fact, an ecological conversion is wholly theocentric when, following John Calvin, we direct our praise toward the Spirit dwelling within creation. The reformer reminds us that when we notice “that continued inspiration [he’s speaking here of the Spirit], by which all things are maintained in life and vigour,” we should be incited to praise our Creator. 7 Theocentrism does not preclude cosmocentricism. An ecological conversion is both; for, in addition to giving God due praise, it advocates for the value of the natural world as a place that is infused with the very Spirit of God.
You may be wondering what an ecological conversion might look like in practical terms. What might it mean for the life of the individual, and the church? Recently, my home congregation (Community Reformed Church in Manhasset, New York) joined a three-year certification program with GreenFaith toward the goal of becoming a certified “green” house of worship. 8 One of the requirements of the program is to integrate Eco-Sundays into the church’s worship calendar. On Eco-Sunday, the congregation adopts a creation-centered theme—such as water, land, biodiversity, or food. The chosen theme is woven into our liturgy and hymns. It is explicated in the preaching of the Word, which focuses on what Scripture has to say about the topic. Our communal prayers are also ecological: we lift up victims of ecocide—both human and non-human—and call for God to give us a heart, a will, and the creativity to preserve creation. After worship, we gather to pray over and plant a tree on church property. In that holy moment, we are reminded to take heed of the beauty of nature around us—to recognize “the goodness of God in his works” and to respond in gratitude and praise. 9
The communal act of honoring creation in worship and congregational activities may be the catalyst for individuals to experience an “ecological conversion.” This conversion can be expressed in a number of ways. During a devotional time or personal meditation, one might be inspired to offer prayers for endangered animals, polluted lands and sea, and the climate. An individual might be inspired to be more mindful of her dependence upon the “universal family” and act in ways that support the flourishing of creation. 10 To be sure, prayer, creativity, contemplation, humility, collaboration are integral to our uniquely human vocation of preserving the earth with the Spirit. The call to action on behalf of the earth is also intimately tied to a conversion of the heart—a conversion to God’s capacious and glorious creation, “our common home.”
Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (24 May 2015): 89, 65. ↩
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960). 1.13.14-15. ↩
John Calvin, Commentary on Acts 17:28. Emphasis added. Translations of Calvin’s commentaries are from the series of twenty-two volume set originally published by the Calvin Translation Society (1845-1856) and reprinted by Baker Book House in 1981. ↩
Calvin contends, “For it is the Spirit who, everywhere diffused, sustains all things, causes them to grow, and quickens them in heaven and in earth. Because he is circumscribed by no limits, he is excepted from the category of creature; but in transfusing into all things his energy, and breathing into them essence, life, and movement, he is indeed plainly divine.” Insitutes 1.13.14.
As Calvin says, “We enjoy the heaven and the air in common with the beasts, and draw the same vital breath.” Commentary on Genesis 9:10. ↩
Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (24 May 2015): 217, 158. ↩
John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 104:29. ↩
John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 104:31. ↩
Speaking of the importance of contemplating the value of non-human creation, Calvin urged his readers, “While we contemplate in creatures, as in mirrors, those immense riches of his wisdom, justice, goodness, and power, we should not merely run over them cursorily, and so to speak, with a fleeting glance; but we should ponder them at length, turn them over in our minds seriously and faithfully, and recollect them repeatedly.” Institutes 1.14.21. ↩