Of all the passages from all the novels I’ve read in my forty-seven years, Margret Schlegel’s brilliant call in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End for the uniting of the seemingly disparate parts of human existence continues with me most strongly whenever I am faced with a problem that could be easily solved if the opposing forces could “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
I have also long thought that such an idea could lead to the solution to a number of modern social, political, and ecological problems – if the opposing sides could “only connect” the things they had in common perhaps the single problem that plagued them most could in itself be solved. As one raised religious and with a strong affinity for the natural world, I have long been particularly curious why so many of the world’s religious and so many of the world’s conservationists have so long seemed to be at odds. After all, despite both groups generally wanting to take good care of the world, the details in their respective ways of looking at it seem to keep them apart. The religious often place too much emphasis on human morality while the conservationists often place too much emphasis on earthly physicality. What would it look like if they could “only connect?”
For my part, it would look very much like what Pope Francis outlines in his Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality; On Care for Our Common Home. Early on he cites Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”
“Sins.” These are no conventional conceptions of sins. When I was growing up, stealing was a sin. Cheating on your spouse was a sin. But contaminating a stream? Not to be desired of course, but it was certainly not perceived as a sin – except by the more radical of the deep ecologists, if they phrased their thoughts in religious terminology, that is. Some people I have known, Chuck Bowden for example, would have called the pollution of the planet’s waters “murder,” which in many ways it is – and as all of us who were raised in any of the world’s major religions know very well, murder is a sin. Once again, only connect.
Of course, there may be some who will flinch at the Pope’s use of such words as “creation” when writing about nature. Immediately images of such inanities as creationist museums and self-aggrandizing televangelists will spring to mind. Myself, I rather like the term creation when thinking of the natural world. Does it mean that I believe that it was all created ex nihilo roughly 6,000 years ago? Absolutely not; I simply like the poetry inherent in the word. Like it or not, the world was created. It came into existence billions of years ago as the result of an event – the event created it. What caused the event? I haven’t the slightest idea. A divine being? A cosmic force? Random chance? All of these together? From there it changed – evolved – slowly over a long period of time into what it is today. It is not static and continues to evolve. As I said, I simply like my science mixed with a little spiritually inspired poetry. Only connect.
And I’m not the only one. Charles Darwin seemed to as well, as shown by his Palm Sunday entry in his The Voyage of the Beagle, “”In Bahia, Brazil, April 1832. Sublime devotion the prevalent feeling. Started early in the morning. Pleasant ride and much enjoyed the glorious woods. Bamboos 12 inches in circumference. Several sorts of tree ferns. Twiners entwining twiners — tresses like hair — beautiful lepidoptera — Silence — hosannah.”
Hosannah – a shout of worshipful praise common throughout the Hebrew and Greek testaments of the Bible. Not that we should be surprised; Darwin was a well-read man who prior to his adventures studied to by a clergyman. Contrary to what many of his detractors say, Darwin succeeded quite well in connecting an intellectually inquisitive and scientific mind with the feelings of awe and wonder brought forth in him by the things he observed.
Another who achieved this, many years before Darwin, was Saint Francis of Assisi, the carefully chosen namesake of Pope Francis. Of Saint Francis he writes, “[Saint Francis’] disciple Saint Bonaventure [who] tells us that, ‘from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’’.” On this he builds “Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” Saint Francis most certainly connected his faith in God with a deeply felt respect for nature.
It is the challenge of not objectifying the world that Pope Francis returns to all through this Encyclical. Objectify nature and it becomes mere raw material to satisfy our insatiable desire to consume. Objectify our fellow human beings and they become mere means to our own desired ends. The connection between the abuse of the environment and the abuse of people is connected – they both occur when we fail to acknowledge in them their own inherent dignity. In acknowledging the dignity of the environment we learn not to waste what it provides to all the uncountable creatures living upon it. In acknowledging the dignity of our fellow human beings we begin to see their needs, hopes, and dreams as just like our own. Through the acknowledgement of inherent dignity, we connect.
The problem – especially for those of us living in affluent societies – is that we are surrounded by not only an excess of things gained through the objectification of the planet but also from the objectification of other people, generally other people living in less than affluent societies. Not surprisingly, the systems of social guidance that have evolved in affluent societies have evolved – in the majority of their manifestations – to look not to how we are treating the planet or the other people with whom we share it but to focus rather on the intangibles of non-directional personal morality. Writing as one at least raised a Christian, I have seen this extensively.
When Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, becomes one of intangible prohibitions – “do nots” – all one must do to consider oneself in the good graces of one’s religion is to follow the rules. Do what you want, just obey the letter of the law. Pope Francis is hearkening back to a much earlier type of religious practice – one that emphasizes tangible actions – “do.” Do think twice about buying that new iPhone when the one you have works perfectly well. Do make the effort to talk to people rather than simply leaving messages on Facebook. Do install water-saving shower heads. To many, such calls to positive actions are unfamiliar, even irritating – particularly when they inconvenience the one hearing them and go against the established societal codes of “acquire” and “advance.” A favorite passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew comes to mind:
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
He saith unto him, Which?
Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. [The Gospel of St. Matthew (King James Version), Chapter 19, verses 16-24]
To those of us living in societies where we have “great possessions,” Pope Francis’ criticisms of having far more than we need and even wasting more than most others have leave us sorrowful indeed. To some of us, the sorrow turns to resentment. “Why doesn’t he stick to traditional teachings?” rings out the cry. To others, such exhortations to rethink our lives and do with less for the good of all humanity and the planet are also received initially with sorrow but then, with contemplation, are understood as worthwhile challenges that if met will bring improvement not only to our own souls but to the lives of those around the globe and to the world itself.
What Pope Francis has set down in this Encyclical is not perfect; as some have already pointed out it leaves out the idea that an ever-expanding global population is ecologically unsustainable even with greater care of the planet. However it is a a more far-reaching statement about the connection between the health of the planet and the health of humanity than I have ever known to have be written by any religious leader of comparable authority. Yes, it is a religious treatise but it is also an environmental one and even – as he draws heavily upon biology, chemistry, ecology, and climatology – a scientific one. It connects all these things into one beautifully profound statement of what we need to do to begin to make the world a better place. It is a foundation upon which much can and should be built, but to do so we must be willing to work upon ourselves as well as together – to connect – in order for something greater to be created.
Author: Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio), introduction by Naomi Oreskes
Publisher: Melville House Press
Pages: 165 pp.
Published: August 2015
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.