Lynn White on Francis of Assisi

In my previous post, I referred to Lynn White’s 1967 essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Here is an extended quote from the end of the article regarding Francis of Assisi:

Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is the fact that he did not end at the stake, as many of his left-wing followers did. He was so clearly heretical that a general of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonaventura, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility — not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his.

Later commentators have said that Francis preached to the birds as a rebuke to men who would not listen. The records do not read so: he urged the little birds to praise God, and in spiritual ecstasy they flapped their wings and chirped rejoicing. Legends of saints, especially the Irish saints, had long told of their dealings with animals but always, I believe, to show their human dominance over creatures. With Francis it is different. The land around Gubbio in the Apennines was being ravaged by a fierce wolf. Saint Francis, says the legend, talked to the wolf and persuaded him of the error of his ways. The wolf repented, died in the odor of sanctity, and was buried in consecrated ground.

What Sir Steven Ruciman calls “the Franciscan doctrine of the animal soul” was quickly stamped out. Quite possibly it was in part inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the belief in reincarnation held by the Cathar heretics who at that time teemed in Italy and southern France, and who presumably had got it originally from India. It is significant that at just the same moment, about 1200, traces of metempsychosis are found also in western Judaism, in the Provencal Cabbala. But Francis held neither to transmigration of souls nor to pantheism. His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all thing animate and inanimate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator, who, in the ultimate gesture of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, lay helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold.

I am not suggesting that many contemporary Americans who are concerned about our ecologic crisis will be either able or willing to counsel with wolves or exhort birds. However, the present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. Their growth cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitude toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.

The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it: he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation. He failed. Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.

I certainly don’t agree with everything either Francis or White says—I don’t agree that there is a “Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man”—but it is all worth thinking about.

Grace and Peace

3 thoughts on “Lynn White on Francis of Assisi

  1. Sim

    I totally agree with you and what Francis tried to do is so very important to our understanding of and appreciation of the world in which we live.

    There is no spiritual hierarchy. People are not more spiritually advanced than the birds, the cows, the fish or the trees. We are all on equal terms with the creator. Just because the animal kingdom doesn’t celebrate the creator the same way humans do, doesn’t mean in their own world they aren’t doing exactly what we are doing. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

    The most important lesson Francis taught me is there is no difference between me and the world around me. I breathe with the same soul as the animals, the trees, the oceans and the stars. We are all of the same family and share the same spiritual energy and as such walk on equal ground with me and deserve my respect and compassion. They are no different to my human family.

    God takes as much pleasure form the bird song as he does from the prayers of a good Xtian.

    Least Francis has me believing that.


  2. Janneke Kathryn

    Francis did argue for the compassion and care of animals. He also agreed that all of creation glorifies God. (not ignoring the Fall). But, he was NOT ANIMISTIC AUGHhhhhhhhhhhh

    He turns in his grave


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