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.