Author’s note: this is simply an attempt to lay out an “eco-theology” using concepts from Joseph Smith. This is totally informal–no footnotes etc. Looking for feedback. I might want to expand to a larger essay or book. I am a soil scientist, and this little essay attempts to capture long-brewing thoughts on the intersection of science and spirit.
The Gospel of Restoration as laid out by Joseph Smith and his early followers potentially has a well-defined eco-theology at its heart that puts humanity at the same level as every other creature on this earth, at least in terms of rights to resources. It is a theology that expressly recognizes the sanctity of the earth. The earth and all its flora and fauna form a “great community” that includes humans and everything from baboons to bacteria and even fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains. All life and landscapes are endowed with a spiritual essence of one form or another.
The Restoration conception of the creation is the initial foundation for a unique environmental ethos. In contrast to an ex-nihilo or creation out of nothing espoused by most of Christianity, the Restoration posits a creatio ex materia, or an organizing or reframing of existing material. But importantly, the Restoration does not posit an all-powerful God who just makes things up out of whole cloth. Rather, all matter, as well as God, is bound by the laws of nature. E=mc2 is not an arbitrary relationship. It is a law of nature as much as F=ma is. If God were not to abide by these laws, according to the Restoration, they would cease to be God, just as God is bound by justice and mercy. Now this does not mean that God does not know infinitely more than we do, and might, therefore, seemingly be able to circumvent laws that we see as limitations.
What this means, at least to a scientist, is that when we study nature, we are studying the warp and woof of nature itself, whether that be a soil food web or the formation of vast nebulae many light years away. It is not so much, then, that we are studying God’s handiwork; we are, rather, looking at the natural workings of the universe. And our Father and Mother are part of those natural workings. The earth and life on it continue to evolve. Nature has its way, and every valley is eventually exalted, and the rough places made plain. The water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the rock cycle, and indeed all cycles carry on without divine intervention.
The Restoration, however, does posit some form of divine intervention in the workings of this planet. Just how detailed an intervention we cannot comprehend. But we can know that our heavenly parents intend for this earth to serve as a home for their spiritual children, as well as for all life that has evolved on this planet. Anything at all, then, that reduces the capacity of this earth to provide for life is a desecration of the Lords’ purposes. If top soil is eroded way, that means less fertility and reduced carrying capacity of the Earth. If rivers and lakes are polluted, less life can be supported. It is not just the carrying capacity of humans that are of divine concern. All life must be supported. All life can only be supported if sufficient habitat is provided for each life form. Ecological integrity must be maintained, which means that preserving only small patches of particular biomes is not sufficient to maintain coherent biotic communities.
The Restoration teaches us that matter is eternal, and that matter can neither be destroyed nor created. Brother Joseph in fact taught that matter is really all there is. According to Joseph, even spirit is matter, just a much more refined kind of matter. But Joseph took it yet one step further, by declaring that all matter is, in one form or another, endowed with this refined matter or spirit. We are told that trees have sprits, as do all plants and even rocks.
Our planet, and all that is on it, then, is in some sense alive. We live and walk on an enchanted landscape. We might even say it is a magic world that we live in. A magic not borne of superstition but of awe. What is magic but that which we do not understand? How much do we think we really understand the workings of our planet, much less the universe? Wilford Gardener, a 20th Century soil scientist with deep Mormon roots, once said that not only is soil more complex than we imagine to be, it is more complex than we can imagine it to be. That is an awe borne of a humility that recognizes just how feeble our ability is to understand nature. And he was talking about soil, that seemingly most mundane component of the landscape, that which the uninspired might refer to as dirt.
To hold in your hand sweet, fertile soil, and to catch a glimpse of its complexity is to hold infinity, said Blake, in the palm of your hand. The poet often sees more clearly than the scientist – the world in a grain, and heaven in a wild flower. The poet perhaps senses the beauty that is the spirit that infuses all creation.
Knowing that nature is alive, and more complex and wonderful than we can ever imagine it to be, endows with a sense of awe, whether we be scientists or amateurs. So what does it mean to live on an “enchanted” planet? Does it mean leprechauns are hiding in the bushes and that fairies dance around us? Not hardly! There is a big difference between awe and superstition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines awe as being in a state of reverential wonder. Superstition is holding on to meaningless and perhaps irrelevant concepts. The more you know what lies behind superstitions, the less superstitious you become. Awe, on the other hand, only increases the more you know about the real workings of nature.
Living in an enchanted environment means it is all sacred and must be treated with care. It means that we tread lightly. It means that we take only what we need, and we honor what we take.
Some anthropological studies have documented rituals that the Kekchi Maya in Guatemala perform when planting corn. Part of that ritual involves a prayer to the earth asking forgiveness for having to cut down trees and disturb the soil to be able to plant corn. Perhaps we should be asking forgiveness ourselves for what we do to the earth. The Kekchi ask for forgiveness for what they cannot avoid doing. We ask for no forgiveness for desecrations that we most certainly can avoid. A sacred and alive landscape calls out for us to minimize our disturbance and to tread lightly.
Given that we must take from a sacred and enchanted earth, it follows that we should honor what we take from this very special planet. To honor what we take means first that we take with care. We minimize soil erosion and we ensure that creeks and rivers run clear and free of pollutants. Honoring the earth that sustains us also might have something to do with producing healthy, restorative food versus low quality foods like corn chips and high fructose corn syrup.
Honoring what we take extends to higher spheres. We must take not only for food, but for places to live as well. Do we build places of enchantment that foment community interaction? Or do we build habitat-eating sprawl that foments isolation within gated communities? The Plat of the City of Zion should inspire us here.
Near the end of his life, Joseph laid out what he viewed as the two grand fundamentals of the Restoration. One of the grand fundamentals was to receive truth, come from where it may. The other was friendship. Joseph declared in fact that friendship was the grand fundamental principle of the Restoration.
These fundamentals were tied up to a large degree in Joseph’s participation with Masonry, but like many things in his life, he appropriated liberally from any number of ideas, and then remolded those ideas to fit his evolving perspective, which was becoming quite expansive indeed in the last few years of his life.
Following that remolding approach, I propose expanding the grand fundamental of friendship to extend beyond humans to humans to between humans and all of creation: all flora and fauna to include the entire biota, all rivers and lakes, watersheds, as well as soil and rocks. This would situate us in a “great community”, where we are stewards, but not merely stewards. We are of one spirit with all that there is, albeit with some special responsibilities for insuring habitat for all.
The Great Community is at the heart of what a Restoration eco-theology should be all about. A community informed by reverential awe. A community that asks us to be intimate with all of creation. To be intimate with nature is to know it profoundly. Just as a lover knows the quirks and caprices of their beloved, as well as their character and disposition, so too must we, as the top feeder/steward in any ecosystem, know how to woo nature not only to our ends but to the ends of every living thing on the earth. This wooing requires not only detailed scientific knowledge, but perhaps more importantly an imagination grounded in wonder and awe.
Photo by the author. Volcan de Agua as seen from author’s house.
I can think of two reasons why my upbringing in the Church lead me away from caring more about the planet. First, we have been told there will be a great deal of death and destruction leading up to the 2nd Coming and then during the Millennium we’ll have 1000 years of peace. I always figured we can simply fix everything during those 1000 years. Second, growing up in a conservative family and conservative Church more or less trained me that environmentalists are on the Left and they are to be treated with suspicion.
I’ve changed quite a bit in recent years and hopefully I now care more about the planet. If you want to call that an eco-theology, that’s OK with me. But I find that the people who care the most about the planet hold religion at a distance and they are rather liberal in their orientation. Just telling it like I see it.
It’s amazing just how complex our doctrine is, drawing on the values and traditions and stories of cultures spanning continents and millennia. Within Mormonism there are the raw materials to support the beautiful eco-conscious theology you’ve described as well as a dangerous “man has dominion over the earth” patriarchal/supremacist worldview. There are the raw materials to inspire incredible compassion as well as incredible cruelty, incredible egalitarianism as well as extreme authoritarianism, intellectual rigor and curiosity as well as head-in-the-sand fundamentalism. It’s this pluralism that gives me hope that as the more toxic elements of the church continue to lose value in the marketplace of ideas, we will find our positions are not as rigid as we claim them to be.
Who is man to think he can control the climate? Who is man to think he can command the seas to rise and fall? Who is man to think he can command the rains to fall or dry up? That sort of thinking is arrogance personified.
Man is but a little creature, and it is the Divine who controls the forces of nature. One need look only at the dystopian hellscape that California has become through man’s arrogant belief that he could control the environment.
Petroleum, wood, and coal are gifts from the Divine for the benefit of human advancement. We should not forbid use of these gifts and thereby condemn our fellow citizens of the world to life in a New Stone Age. Scrounging for acorns to fill one’s belly does not lead to growth of the intellect or spirit.
To be clear, we should not waste these gifts by using resources to create frivolous items such as sweatpants, crocs, or compact discs full of Bon Jovi songs. We should use these gifts to create useful items that advance human capacity for learning an productivity.
You’re hitting your stride, Brother Spring. I had no clue who you were channeling earlier, but now it seems like you’re the reincarnation of BRM, Moses, Billy Graham and Ned Ludd all rolled together. The addition of Bon Jovi is a nice touch, which I hope you will retain in your repertoire moving forward. Cheers.
JCS may be a little behind the times when it comes to technology and culture, but he does make a good point about one thing. Many people rail against using gas, coal, and plastic. But if you ask for volunteers to give up the modern conveniences they enjoy, the only response you get is the sound of crickets.
John Charity Spring must be channeling John Charity Spring, a pulp fiction villain who is a pious Bible-quoting nineteenth century slave trader. Having learned that, I genuinely can’t tell if the comments from John Charity Spring are meant unironically most of the time. Do I downvote them because I disagree, or upvote them because they’re satire and I get the joke? On the whole, I think I’m gonna downvote, just so I’m not agreeing with, you know, a slave trader. That commenting name wasn’t chosen by accident.
When not scrounging for acorns, I’ve thought some about Mormon ecological, environmental theology. I’ve come to appreciate the idea of Process Theology, the idea that everything is in a state of flux. So instead of a Creation, there is an ongoing creating. Humans are participating with God in creating of the Earth. As such, we need to take our responsibility seriously. As Bon Jovi sings: “It’s my life, It’s now or never, I ain’t gonna live forever.” So now would be a good time to start taking our creating seriously.
Nice post and yes I agree that our theology allows or even encourages responsible stewardship of the Earth. Many members seem to have a deep respect for the environment but where I live it seems to be the minority. Just like the Book of Mormon explicitly rejects the Prosperity Gospel, many LDS seem to have adopted that from other churches along with a near contempt for nature. I think / hope that the church as a whole will eventually more openly promote better care of our planet.
I love these ideas! Wonderful! Thanks for sharing.
I really like what you say about awe and honour. Sometimes when I read Joseph Smiths descriptions of God speaking and looking in His eyes, his language reminds me of my awe of nature; the sense of wonder you feel when you hear a waterfall, or the mesmerising feeling of watching a fire. I wonder JS is saying that’s what it’s like to meet God.
A couple of years ago, When I had a calling in young men, in an effort to have the young men guide what we taught, I asked what they thought the biggest problems in the world were. Environmental issues were one of them, and I was surprised to actually find some scant resources on the church website. We used the “Environmental Stewardship and Conservation” gospel topics page and it went well. I was released shortly after, then there was a pandemic, and I moved out of the country, so I don’t know what became of it. They left an impression on me though, because even though I care about the Earth, I wouldn’t have thought about teaching it in church if they hadn’t shared their thoughts with me. Finding ways to address environmental issues in church is an important work that will resonate with youth who care about it. Good on you and thanks.
Really enjoyed this post, Buddhist Bishop. Thank you. In particular, the Kekchi Maya example was new to me. Seems like an approach with a healthy humility built in. Looking back on my time growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I remember the following scripture reference, and I remember it being quoted specifically to justify disregarding environmentalism:
“For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.” (D&C 104: 17).
As I remember it, the above reference was used to downplay concerns about water shortages. Still, as you say, the expansive theology of Mormonism creates room for holding the planet in reverence. The earth is even a character with dialogue who cries out for relief in the Book of Moses (7:48). I would love to see us prizing things like sustainability and cooperation. I wish that such approaches were as inherently invigorating as end-times theology has been historically. I think that awe, as you have defined it, is a key.
Hey folks–thanks for the great comments and feedback!
Kirkstall –it is amazing the complexity that one finds in Restoration sources, if we dig just a bit. It is also amazing how little is recognized amongst the membership. Maybe these ideas of spirit imbuing all of creation are “hidden treasures” mentioned elsewhere!
John Charity Spring — cant figure you out quite yet
vajra2: Laudato si –si pues! Where is our equivalent? More than enough Restoration scriptures that could inform a Super Laudato!
rogerdhansen –I very much like the idea of ongoing co-creation, humans with God. This would definitely imply some deep knowledge of earth processes. Not that we have to know everything –just that we have enough awe of these processes.
Josiah Reckons –we should not be afraid to have lessons on this in church. Check out the folks over at LDS Earth Stewardship (https://ldsearthstewardship.org/), a group of largely faithful LDS very much interested in environmental stewardship. They have a zoom meeting once a month I think, and this next week they talking about cultivating earth stewardship in their wards and branches. Some of these folks have managed to get callings such as “environmental specialist”. WHo’d have thought something like that were possible??
And finally Jake. Thanks for the the kind comment and thoughtful remarks. So D&C 104:17 has always been a key scripture for me –but one that points the way to sustainability, and not profligacy. Your teachers likely did not focus much on the preceding verses:
15 And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.
16 But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.
It must be done in mine way –the poor shall be exalted, and the rich made low. How much more radical can you get that that? This “way” is mentioned in several other scriptures. This is definitely part of what a Restoration economics would look like, IMHO.
I definitely view this kind of economy as central to a Mormon ecological theology. Not likely to be pushed by any of our leaders, but there it is nonetheless. I think I just ran out of time and space –this is a way long blog anyway! Maybe the “enough and to spare” will be enough and to spare for another blog…
So some great hidden treasures. Brother Joseph definitely very much inspired, I think, in this area. Now if only he hadn’t messed with polygamy. Maybe we can leave that one buried and hidden!
I wish some kind of eco-theology still featured in the modern Church as it did in earlier times. Brigham Young, despite all his well-documented faults, was very suspicious of mining industries getting a foothold in the Utah territory, as he believed the saints needed to build their economy by what they grew on top of the earth, not what they could dig out from under it. He understood that one approach was sustainable and one was not. He banished non-Mormon immigrant settlers to Price, who then developed the coal mining operations there that Brigham loathed. Since that time, Utahns seemed to drift further and further away from the early warnings of Brother Brigham, and allowed extraction industries to flourish there while destroying and polluting the ecosystems. To this day, Utah has a strong anti-environmental culture that is manifest in number of ways, such as federal land use disputes (see also The Bundys), toxic waste management, widespread use of ATVs, and general distrust of the federal government and its motives. And sadly, it seems Mormons are the ones leading the charge. I know more than a few Church members who believe climate change is simply God’s mechanism for bringing about the inevitable destruction of the earth in preparation for Christ’s return, and no Church leader has directly refuted this as far as I know.
I enjoyed the post, and particularly the respect/awe for the earth. An inspiring vision, thankyou.
When there is a thunder storm do you check it is not your volcano erupting?
Caroline, it is not expected that caring for the earth will reduce your standard of living, just that less poluting ways of doing things can be found if that is your priority.
A number of car manufacturers will not be producing fossil fuel fed cars in the next 10 years, and most now produce electric cars already. Will it be struggle to drive a tesla rather than a fossil fuel car? I don’t know about American cars but for example a Mercedes GLE (which are made in USA), can come with engines that do 20mpg, 30, 40,50,60, and 90mpg and there is a similar mercedes that is all electric. You still have all the same comfort. Just depends on your priorities.
My state has banned disposable plastic items, but there are alternatives. Cardboard straws for example.
One of the major iron ore miners/exporters in Australia is Twiggy Forest he is now developing the technology to process his iron ore into green steel. He will also have his mining operation run on hydrogen created by solar and wind power. He has a contract to supply Singapores electricity from his solar plant in Australia.
We have another mining billionaire who wants to build a coal mine right beside the great barrier reef, with a coal port in the reef. Different vision, or lack of it.
The reason people dont volunteer to give up their modern conveniences is because that is the wrong question. As with the car examples above, their standard of living will continue to improve, just using green technology, and saving the world for our children and grandchildren.
This has been politicized, because the fossil fuel industries will have to be replaced, and they will lie, and buy influence just like the tobacco industry did. But if you believe the science, and want to pass on a healthy world to the next generation, action is required now. Luckily Biden won the election.
Global climate change is already causing problems.
Jake & Buddhist Bishop
Re: “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.” (D&C 104: 17).
I knew that particular verse, but hadn’t noted the leading verses. Nice. Even so, I deduced that as long as we have people who work for for subsistence wages, people who are hungry, people who are unable to access healthcare, people who are unable to obtain education, people who are unhoused … the list goes on; contrasted with those who have an excess (often a gross excess), then the verse is patently false:
There is not enough. There is no spare.
I believe the verse is about charity and equity.
I always thought dominion over the earth was more of a stewardship. Like the parables about tending the olive orchard or grape vineyard.
Raping and plundering the earth is contrary to its meaning.
p.s. I referred to “Laudato si’…” to show that, in fact, some religions who maintain creation ex-nihilo have a sophisticated theology and/or attitudes which support environmental stewardship. Francis of Assisi, who inspired this encyclical lived in the 12 c. Meanwhile, the COCJOCLDS…crickets. 😉
Vajra2 –well of course! You dont have to be a Christian to love nature. Many atheists are way ahead of us! The point is that we have some powerful scriptures that should foment rampant environmentalism amongst the Mormons! So whats the deal there!
Sasso: there most definitely is enough, and there is to spare. This has to do with the carrying capacity of the earth. If the whole of humanity were to consume as Utah Mormons do, then yeah–we will run out sooner than later.
But frugality is not about putting on the environmental hair shirt. Frugality means to live “fruitfully”. See D&C 59. No consumerism based on extorsion allowed!
Now might there come a point when there really is not enough, even using much less stuff? Of course! But we have not plumbed the depths of which we are capable.