Comenius: When Humanity Becomes Nature’s Adversary; and the Cure
Comenius’s famous allegory, The Labyrinth of the World, exposes the ills of human society — including humanity’s disrespect for nature.
In Labyrinth, a young, honest pilgrim seeks to learn about the world before he starts out on life, so he might find a compatible occupation. At first our pilgrim is impressed by worldly (but superficially Christian) culture. But he is soon disillusioned by what he sees below the surface appearances—namely, a disordered human society that has abandoned Christ. People are driven by worldly ambition, selfishness, envy, passions and fear. In the professions, people strive only for personal advancement.
Driven by lust for wealth, men see nature only as a source of wealth to be exploited, or as an obstacle standing in the way of wealth, which needs to be overcome. For example, according to our pilgrim’s worldly, and generally misleading, guide, alchemists seek to transform “all kinds of metals into their highest state, that is, into gold” ( p.112*). Our sensible pilgrim notes that less valued minerals serve human uses far better than gold. However, common sense has no chance against the lust for wealth, which makes a nonsensical quest seem sensible.
In a variety of observations, Comenius implies that when humans are driven by greed, nature becomes their adversary—only because humans disregard the limits set by nature. Men engage carelessly in dangerous occupations, with the result that those “who worked with fire were burnt and blackened.” And miners of earth’s minerals “had darkness and horrors as companions,” and were threatened with being buried alive. Workers with wood and stone drove themselves so hard that they “grunted with fatigue” (p. 84-5). Teamsters, driving heavy wagons to distant markets, pushed themselves and their innocent animals beyond sensible limits, subjecting themselves to “rain, snow, storms, blizzards, cold and heat” during their travels (p. 88). Comenius implies that driving ourselves to work harder than our good Creator intended is at least as great an evil as laziness, if not a greater evil. In fact, throughout the worldly city, people seemed very busy—but always to ridiculous ends and by means that wounded self and community.
Sailors on merchant ships were even worse off. As a passenger aboard a merchant ship, Comenius’s pilgrim endures a harrowing storm, during which the ship and most of the sailors are lost. Despite this lesson, the lust for gain is not cured, and the survivors of the wreck quickly sign up as crew on another merchant ship. The pilgrim notes how foolhardy this seems, but his worldly-wise (but always wrong) “guide” explains that to obtain wealth “one must risk even one’s own life” (p. 94). Pilgrim again replies sensibly that “not even a beast does this” – for unlike humans, the animals are not blinded by the passion for material gain.
In disgust and bewilderment with what he has seen, our pilgrim retreats into the solitude of his heart where Christ reveals himself. And Christ gives him new eyes to see the truth about humanity and also the natural world. “I saw the glory of God, how the heavens, the earth, the abyss, and all that can be imagined… were filled with his power and his divinity. [God’s] omnipotence penetrated everything, for it was the foundation for all things” (p. 201). In sum, in ignoring Christ, humans are blind to the presence of God in the natural world.
The people of Christ are not driven to compete for more, more, and even more. For them, God’s providence is sufficient for their needs, writes Comenius. They “have God as their protector, always having in him a living supply for all their needs.” God “gives them what they need for expenses from his treasury—if not in extreme abundance, yet always what is appropriate to their needs; if not in accordance with their reason, yet in accordance with his providence…” (p. 210). Comenius leads the reader to see that contentment with God’s sufficiency produces harmony among people and with the natural creation. Conversely, without the assurance of Christ, the lust for more and more will never be satisfied in the quest for false security, and consequently nature will never be secured from human assault.
Much has changed from the time when Comenius wrote. But his fundamental insights remain. The love of Christ reconciles the divisions between people, and between humanity and the creation.
—Donald Frey, summer, 2014
*The quotations are from John Comenius: The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (trans. H. Louthan and A. Sterk, 1998).