In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis attempts something Wendell Berry in his fiction, Annie Dillard in her essays, and even Christian Wiman in his poetry have all attempted in the past decades: to recover the y-axis within ecological thought.
Over a month out from the encyclical’s publication it’s clear that it was not the progressive eco-manifesto that some had feared and for which others had hoped. Certainly Pope Francis demands—with an unmistakable urgency—that we take anthropogenic global warming seriously, and he minces no words about the looming ecological crisis should we refuse to change our ways. But these warnings are embedded in the much more ambitious project of making some elbow room for Christian thought at the environmentalists’ table.
Before we can appreciate—or rail against—Pope Francis’s ecological vision, we need to hear the radically countercultural refrain echoing throughout Laudato Si’: that our love for the earth needs to be deeply connected to our love for others and, ultimately, to our love for the Creator. In one of my favourite passages from the encyclical, Pope Francis brings this refrain to a crescendo: “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence.” In other words, care for the earth is only part of the much broader call to shalom, the recovery of true harmony among God, humanity, and the earth. It is the call to move in rhythm with the intended music of the spheres that sin disrupted.
For Pope Francis, shalom (though he doesn’t use the word) is the interdependence and interconnection of natural ecosystems, the built world, social relations, and God. He calls this integral ecology, a move that drastically expands—actually, recovers—the full, premodern scope of “nature’s oeconomy.” While there are questionable elements within Laudato Si’—for example, reductionist depictions of free markets, Luddite views of technology—the encyclical’s biggest (and often overlooked) success is right here, in nudging us toward a social imaginary—the one that has cut God from the picture—to consider how the transcendent releases us from our “stifling immanence.”
Because what animates Pope Francis’s environmental vision is not merely saving the world—non-Christians already do this quite well. He doesn’t counteract the problematic otherworldly tendencies of dualist, gnostic versions of Christianity only to subscribe to the (equally) problematic tendencies of monist, naturalizing versions. Rather, his vision of a world in harmony in all its dimensions rests on recovering the paradox that God is both immanent and transcendent. He is at work in the impossible complexity of this-worldly relationships, yet also exists outside them, wholly other.
In a way, the intensified flattening of ecology in the secular age has been helpful. It’s helped us understand our deep connections to the earth and our interdependence with all life forms. It’s also helped us recover a humbling sense that we are mere dust, embodied creatures who were made to depend on the material world. So we pollute rivers and soil and air at our own peril. We develop technologies and consume material without considering future implications at our own risk. We forget that in a free universe, we don’t necessarily have to, but we very well could self-destruct.
Again: one doesn’t need to believe in God in order to care for the world. But if saving the world is only a matter of clean air and good food and reduced carbon emissions—that is, if it’s only about human survival—it can quickly be untethered from a deeper wisdom that teaches us how to live and be fully human. Pope Francis helps us remember this wisdom. He calls us to meditate on the world in order that we might find out more about the one who made it and us; to be humbled and awed by the mysteries we have yet to grasp; to care for nature as we’d care for the least among us; to restrain our desires and insatiable appetites that are capable of consuming the whole world; to realize that true possession is often in giving, not taking; to think about how our acts reverberate to others in different places and future times. In other words, we need to mute the dominant cultural refrain that we are autonomous, and to listen to what the creation tells us from birth to death: we are creatures made for dependence and relation.
In other words, we are ecological creatures meant to look out on the world around us on the x-axis in ways in ways we’ve perhaps forgotten. But in the process, Pope Francis encourages, we also can’t forget to look up, like Dante looking at the stars, and strain to hear the harmonious music—the creative logos—of the heavens by which and for which the whole ecological order hangs together, and attune ourselves to this music in small individual acts and larger institutional acts that bring the health—a word connected to healing, wholeness, and holiness—of shalom into this world, our common home.