By Belden C. Lane
Who would think to find a green theology, celebrating the earth’s startling beauty, in somber, Calvinist Geneva? Who would expect lusty commentaries on the Song of Songs, delighting in sex and natural beauty, in the austere meeting houses of Puritan New England? Who would imagine a vibrant nature mysticism in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, author of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God? These are surprises one discovers in the Reformed tradition, that branch of Protestant Christianity that includes Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed Christians and even some Baptists.
The work of retrieving lost traditions, or buried parts of continuing traditions, is more important than ever today in recovering religious foundations for an environmental ethic. Resources for ecological responsibility don’t have to be made up from scratch. They thrive in Celtic spirituality and mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, and even in traditions not usually associated with a deep sensitivity to the earth. We think of John Calvin, for instance, as a harsh proponent of predestination, focused on the next world far more than this one. Yet he enjoyed the natural world as a theater of God’s glory, saying we ought to be “ravished with wonder at the beauteous fabric of the universe.” The earth for him was a theater of desire (biologically and spiritually), where the display of God’s hunger for relationship is met by the thunderous applause (and yearning) of creation. He went on to describe nature as a book, second only to scripture. To mistreat creation, he insisted, is to “burn the book of nature” that God has given humankind.
Seventeenth-century Puritans, the inheritors of Calvin’s theology, have an equally sour reputation. H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.” J. B. Macauley, the English historian, said that Puritans hated bear baiting not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. Yet stereotypes are never entirely true. The first modern legislation against animal cruelty was passed in Puritan Massachusetts in the year 1641. Puritans quoted Calvin in their call for the just treatment of farm (and wild) animals alike, knowing that “God will not have us abuse the beasts beyond measure, but to nourish and care for them.” Puritans, furthermore, weren’t the ascetic, anti-sexual prudes they’re often depicted as being. Their spirituality, like Calvin’s, was anchored in a deep desire for mystical union with Christ. They relished the imagery of Christ as bridegroom, inviting the lover to his bedchamber. Sexual imagery could be very explicit in Puritan exhortations to “lust after” the beauty of Christ as Lord. They perceived the beauty of the natural world as leading them to God’s still greater splendor.
If Jonathan Edwards is most known for the vivid spider imagery of his Sinners sermon, a look at the rest of his writings will show how much more he was captivated by God’s sensuous beauty. He argued that “knowing” God wasn’t so much a matter of being terrorized by the divine power, as of tasting, relishing and delighting in God’s loveliness. To know God is to enjoy God, he said. Indeed, he looked on creation as a school of desire, teaching human beings an intimate sensory apprehension of God’s glory mirrored in the beauty of nature. Our highest human responsibility, as he saw it, isn’t to exercise dominion, but to practice delight, extolling beauty and nurturing relationships throughout creation. One of his great insights was that “God governs the world, not by the application of force or coercive determination, but by the creative and attractive power of God’s own beauty.”
All this suggests a new way of understanding the Reformed tradition. The older, more common view of the Swiss, Scots, Dutch and New England heritage emphasized its harsh Calvinism, focusing on divine transcendence, predestination, strict moral discipline and a distrust of beauty and ritual. Admittedly, that was part of the tradition. We know well the Puritan cautions against temptations of the flesh, vividly portrayed in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Through John Updike, we’re familiar with Reformed theologians like Karl Barth who emphasized a God of majesty who is “wholly other.” We don’t normally associate Reformed Protestantism, therefore, with a spirituality of desire or an attentiveness to creation.
A more careful consideration of the tradition requires our distinguishing two parallel strains of thought in Reformed Christianity. The one begins with a sense of awe at God’s majesty, the other with a delight in God’s beauty. Both, strangely enough, can be traced through Calvin, the Puritans and Edwards. The more passionate and earthy strain simply hasn’t been recognized enough. Once we attend to it, however, one begins to see curious ironies in the Reformed tradition. The Puritans had to set clear boundaries about sexual behavior because of their passionate spirituality. Otherwise their lusty sermons might lead them to carnal sin. They also had to caution themselves against the danger of pantheism because of the earthly spirituality they espoused. They faced the danger of confusing the world’s lesser beauty with God’s unique glory.
Consequently, we begin to see that Reformed Christians who seem so prudish and proper were actually a people of passionate desire. Calvinist believers who seem so focused on divine transcendence were closet nature mystics exulting in God’s beauty everywhere. This is the double irony of Reformed spirituality. The tradition has come to be known for its cautions against pantheism and passion far more than for its original emphases on the winsomeness of nature and desire.
The ecological implications of a Calvinist spirituality of desire are particularly important today. They suggest a delight in the earth’s reflection of God’s beauty as a foundation for environmental ethics. The world in the end will be saved by beauty. “We will not fight to save what we do not love,” says Stephen Jay Gould. Desire, therefore, is both the problem and the solution of our ecological crisis. The Reformed tradition, through its careful attention to desire and its distortions, has resources for criticizing the twisted desires of a consumer society. In its call for a reorientation of desire, delighting in the created world as a mirror of exquisite beauty, it offers a surprisingly green and passionate theology.
Belden C. Lane is Professor of Theological Studies, American Religion and History of Spirituality at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality and The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality.
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