The Snail, the Silkworm, and Jonathan Edwards
A transcontinental flight is a purgatorial place for a 10-year-old boy, and not all of my energy had been purged by the time we landed in San Diego. The rest of my allotted boyhood energy for the day was spent smashing acorns under foot during the two minute walk from car to hotel. My glee was uncontainable as I hopped along the concrete sidewalk, crunching acorns through the balmy darkness of the summer night.
But when I woke the next morning, the soul satisfying San Diego sunshine did little to quell my horror when I beheld a sidewalk littered with the crushed and mangled forms, not of acorns, but of colorful little snails. Dozens of geometrically perfect spirals lay destroyed on the ground, the result of my unwitting violence, which brought on a sense of guilt that has lasted for over a decade.
When I crushed those snails, I felt as though I had perpetrated not some boyish triviality but some cosmic misdeed that would require great penance to be rectified. I did not know why I suddenly cared so much about the snails. It was Jonathan Edwards who explained to me why I thought the destruction of those snails was a cosmic act.
For Edwards, the entirety of creation, from the grandest to the most trivial, is suffused with beauty: It is all the created expression of an infinitely beautiful God. In his Nature of True Virtue, Edwards writes, “For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.” Creation is not accidentally beautiful, but is beautiful precisely because God intends it to point to himself as the source of its beauty.
This was a troubling yet enticing thought to me, a low-church Protestant. It troubled me because where Edwards saw the beauty of nature, I saw the possibility of temptation and distraction. Yet it enticed me because I could recount memories of sunrises, birdsong, mountain peaks, freckles on the face of a lover – all these natural beauties that caused me, inexplicably, to love God more, though I could not explain why.
Jonathan Edwards explained to me my own experiences. He quelled my concerns that beauty necessarily meant idolatry, temptation, or distraction. Jonathan Edwards gave the world back to me. He showed me that every experience of beauty was God communicating to me a reflection of the divine beauty.
Therefore, to revel in the beauty of liturgy, or the natural world, the starry heavens, a holy soul, or even in the harmonious arrangement of human society is to enjoy – as in a mirror, dimly – the beauty of God. It is to hear faint echoes of the angelic chorus wafting down from the New Jerusalem. Like an artist desiring to delight her beloved by crafting beautiful works, so also God is, in the beauty of creation, wooing us to Himself. Nature, like scripture, is typological: It points beyond itself to Jesus, the lover of our souls – which brings me back to that snail.
For Edwards, this beauty is most fully realized when God unfolds it before our eyes through the infusion of grace. The result of that infusion, which Christians have traditionally called regeneration, is to see Christ and his beauty throughout all the world, even in the small things, like snails and worms.
Edwards’ notebook on Images of Divine Things contains my favorite passage in his entire corpus. The passage declares beauty, not tragedy, has the final word in God’s world, and even the tragedy of crushed snails shall finally give way to redemption: “The silkworm is a remarkable type of Christ, which, when it dies, yields us that of which we make such glorious clothing. Christ became a worm for our sakes, and by his death finished that righteousness with which believers are clothed, and thereby procured that we should be clothed with robes of glory.”
Edwards’ vision of the world is that of a love letter from the divine author, the lover of our souls, inviting us to enjoy his creation and calling us to see through the prism of created beauty the refulgent glory of a beautiful Jesus.
Justin Hawkins graduates from Yale Divinity School in May with an M.A.R., concentrating in philosophical theology. After graduation he plans to remain in New Haven doing research with the Rivendell Institute at Yale University, working in campus ministry through Trinity Baptist Church, where he is a member, and to continue tutoring and acting as headmaster of Grace Academy, a classical Christian school in New Haven. He has a B.A. in government from Georgetown University.