Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

LDS Belief as Ecologically Harmful

I once read an excellent essay by David Kinsley entitled “Christianity as Ecologically Harmful” with a companion essay entited “Christianity as Ecologically Responsible.” These two essays explore two sides of the same coin. I think this was an excellent exercise in helping readers to understand that a religious tradition provides many principles and doctrines that are important guideposts in life but there is nothing deterministic about a belief system that dictates certain attitudinal or behavioral outcomes. I don’t pretend to know all of the reasons why two members of the same religion could come to very different political conclusions, for example, about the proper role of government or about health care. I suppose that if we were to take two such devout people and stage a dialogue, each might strive to persuade the other of the ways in which their political beliefs have stepped out of bounds religiously. Of course, not everyone brings their religion to bear directly on all of their political, social, or environmental beliefs, but that too is a function of a certain way of thinking about one’s religion and may be the result of an individual interpretation of theology.

As much as many of us might want to believe that our religion, if deeply believed and lived, should produce certain inevitable and tangible goods in terms of the behavior of the adherents, I am also aware that devotion to the religion is not the only ingredient that determines such outcomes. After all, leaders at the highest levels of the church disagree often. If it were not the case, councils would not be necessary. The principle seems to be that we need to listen and engage in more dialogue in order to arrive at a deeper level of understanding of the truth. A human truth is that we are selective and willful readers of texts. We miss as much as we gain, which is another reason why we need to listen to one another, so that we might be corrected and edified together.

I am fully aware that for many LDS, environmental concerns are very low on their list of priorities. I am also aware of another phenomenon, which is perhaps even more perplexing than indifference: it is that for many LDS, stewardship simply means very different things to people. Many fellow Mormons have told me that stewardship means that we should care for the environmental but never at the expense of our eternal quest for spiritual development. For such believers, their strong opposition to the environmental causes of the day—whether it be climate change, wilderness preservation, or species protection—stems directly from this definition of stewardship as informed by LDS belief. Their anti-environmentalism does not stem from indifference to nature, in other words. They might find respite and spiritual renewal in the outdoors as easily as I do, but they find the urgency of environmentalism off-putting because it isn’t necessary. Our attitudes and behavior might be harmful to nature, but for many LDS that is the cost of focusing on the eternities, a cost many believers feel we should be willing to pay. Indeed, some go so far as to see this as a kind of virtue, since it demonstrates fortitude in light of strong opposition and perspective on the things that matter most.

I would like to briefly explore this reasoning a little further. LDSES is devoted to understanding how Mormonism is environmentally friendly, but perhaps it will be useful to pose the two philosophies together so as to understand the grounds for the differences we sometimes find in the church about environmentalism. There is no doubt that one chief obstacle for many Mormons is that environmentalism seems to be the purview of liberals, and since the majority of Mormons identify as conservatives, LDS anti-environmentalism may simply stem more from political ideology than from theology. I have addressed this question earlier, and there is more to say about it (not the least of which is that environmentalism is conservative by definition—it wants conservation, caution, and caretaking—and that much of our most important environmental legislation has come from Republican presidents), but my focus here is on theology itself. What follows are ideas I hear and are not offered with any criticism or claim to objectivity. I simply think it is useful to hear the reasoning. My intention is to follow up with a second post that explores LDS Doctrine as Ecologically Responsible. You can read a taste of my own views on this here.

LDS Doctrine as Ecologically Harmful:

1)    The parable of the talents:  I often hear this parable cited as evidence that the Lord is never pleased when we are given resources and choose only to preserve or protect them from harm. To worry unduly about conservation is to adopt fear and exhibit mistrust in ourselves and in God. This fear is not warranted by the gospel of hope and eternal progression in which we believe. True stewardship, then, means that we should make full and creative use of God-given resources and make improvements on a fallen world; we should, in short, develop or “dress the Garden.” What we can make of the world is a test of our creativity and our trust in the spark of divinity within us. To bypass the use of such things as fossil fuels is to ignore that they are what have provided for the improvement of the human condition under modernity and the meteoric rise of the church in the last days. They were God-given, in other words. It would be ingratitude to God to imagine the use of such resources as a mistake. Besides, the scriptures promise that there “is enough and to spare,” so we needn’t worry ourselves about diminishing resources (D&C 104).

2)    We are God’s children: LDS belief is arguably one of the most anthropocentric, or human-centered, theologies in Christianity because it elevates human significance to the status of being gods in embryo. We are offspring of divinity and this alone makes us stand in stark contrast to every living thing around us. This stands in opposition, it seems, to virtually every environmental philosophy out there, all of which imply if not directly state that the roots of our environmental indifference and poor caretaking of the natural world stems from an inflated and overstated sense of human significance. Indeed, for many LDS, worry about the environment is a symptom of a failure to understand the spark of divinity with us. LDS scriptures seem to imply that all of creation is for us, and we are expected to make use of the earth’s resources for our ends alone. This is what is understood by the idea of having been given dominion over the whole earth.

3)    Eternal Perspective: Because LDS theology stares so deeply into eternity, we should expect to live with a keen sense of the temporary nature of earthly conditions. If we understand our bodies, this earth, and all of creation as the rhetorical stage upon which we are learning to work out our eternal progression, then what happens to the earth in the process of doing such work is merely part of the plan and is certainly accounted for by divine providence. We will make mistakes, to be sure, but we ought not to panic and stay focused in our trust in God’s purposes. What is lasting and eternal is what becomes of us, not the conditions of this earth.

4)    Family comes first: We are a pro-family religion, one that believes that procreation is itself divinely mandated. We are to multiply and replenish the earth, and philosophies that denigrate well-intended parental desires to have a family or erode the freedom of parents to decide the size of their own family are to be avoided. Moreover, the family is the locus of our most important moral and ethical considerations. If we adopt philosophies that point us beyond the home and beyond concerns for human well-being, we might run the risk of compromising our ability to sustain family life.

5)    Freedom: Free will is central to LDS theology. We have seen a gradual erosion of freedoms over the course of the last century, particularly as a result of secularism. Environmentalism often requires large-scale solutions that impinge upon the freedoms of individuals and communities and is therefore to be treated with suspicion.

6)    The End is Near: A Church that has “Latter-day Saints” in its title is unapologetically focused on the final preparations for the Second Coming. To worry ourselves about sustainability or long-term environmental effects of our actions is to miss the point. We should not only be focused on eternity but also on the relatively brief future ahead of us before we enter into the millennium where much of these concerns will be taken care of. What is the point of worrying ourselves about the planet when it is destined to die and ressurrect anyway?

This is not a complete list, and perhaps my readers will have more ideas on this. Given these positions, it might be debatable whether or not ecological harm even matters in an LDS worldview, but there is no doubt that these attitudes–as important as they may be– are not conducive to careful consideration of environmental harm we might cause as a result of the myriad of choices we make individually and as a society on a daily basis. There is, of course, another side to the coin.

To be continued…

 

[Cross posted at

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/homewaters/2013/03/lds-belief-as-ecologically-harmful.html]

  • nextgenlibrarian

    Another doctrine that is ecologically harmul: Theological promises of becoming “kings and queens” having endless “dominions, principalities, powers,” etc. has psychological effect of focusing on doing what kings do best: amassing greater and greater wealth into centralized locations, a trend toward “civilization” but also all the negative consequences of 1) entitlement, where these kings and queens begin to feel like their possessions are their due as a result of their hard work and divine right; 2) inefficient use and management of resources that focus on maximizing production with little attention paid to the by-products created through manufacturing and refining; 3) conversion of high-volume, low value resources (ex.: grains, oil) into lower-volume, high value ones (ex.: alcohol, gasoline) facilitate hoarding and encourage injustice and selfishness; and 4) the construction of a means of protecting the wealth from those who would take it from them, thereby creating weapons that threaten the health and well-being of all people.

    IOW, if you’re told you are royalty and you believe it, you’ll start to behave like royalty in your own little kingdom of dominion, however small. Sadly, kings and queens have a poor track record in terms of care for the environment.

    This may seem related to the “children of God” doctrine, but is more focused on the function of identity as co-heritors with Christ of God’s kingdom and even further in LDS theology as anointed as royalty, more than merely looking like God or recognizing a divine difference from the rest of Nature.

    • GeorgeH

      Both strong contenders for a doctrine that will not lead to ethical treatment of nature. The latter seems more the result of a distortion of a principle, since it also does not follow that being given all that God implies using unrighteous dominion. But your point is very well taken. It is an easy mistake to make. The former doctrine is fascinating and challenging to overcome, except maybe by means of thinking about sacred spaces in nature that are complimentary rather than oppositional to temples. The sacred grove across from the Palmyra temple, for example, or Provo Temple framed by Rock Canyon. And the reminders within the temple of the centrality of the creation and the divine purpose that all life should have the right to enjoy posterity.

  • nextgenlibrarian

    Another one: Doctrine of temples as sacred refuge spaces in a fallen world send negative message about the world. Theologically speaking, the world is redeemed only through a parousia, a dramatic upheaval and re-righting of the world that can only be accomplished by God through Jesus’ return. We build a kingdom in anticipation, but this is about making “stakes” and temples, enclaves of holiness amid a growing darkness and chaos, and not about healing the world and realizing God’s dream for the world largely through our own salvific collective effort. Temple building and temple worship become the means by which Mormons “clean up” the fallen world, and since these efforts take tons and tons of time, there’s not much time left to find ways of healing the world and nature in other ways.

  • nextgenlibrarian

    Another one: Nature is under Satan’s powers. D&C 61

    “14 Behold, I, the Lord, in the beginning blessed the waters; but in the last days, by the mouth of my servant John, I cursed the waters.
    15 Wherefore, the days will come that no flesh shall be safe upon the waters.
    19 I, the Lord, have decreed, and the destroyer rideth upon the face thereof, and I revoke not the decree.”

    Nature is a mysterious, unbridled force that has always put Christians and other monotheistic religions ill at ease. Nature often seems to act above or outside the influence or intent of God, and humans are wont to respect and recognize its awesome, sublime power. Joseph Smith seemed to be aware of this as well, and the revelation recorded above seems to indicate that in fact God has at least let the “destroyer” have power and dominion over at least the waters (which also has to be an ancient archetype for chaos). LDS people who take these statements literally see certain aspects of nature under Satan’s influence and power, and therefore something to be distrusted, controlled, or overcome in order to follow God more closely. Even LDS who do not interpret these scriptures literally may nevertheless absorb the subtext of distrust in the natural world as a precondition for following God. The fallen earth is Satan’s dominion, and should not be worshiped in place of God. Undue attention on protecting the environment gives undue respect for Nature as a substitute deity, or alternatively in LDS folk theology unwitting worship of Satan, who has dominion over it for the time being.

    • GeorgeH

      Great points. I think the dark side of nature has to be reckoned with. We can’t argue that loving nature is simply a matter of paying more attention to beautiful sunsets. It means at least appreciating that part of its fabric is the mute indifference and danger that the world often poses to us. If we attribute this to Satan, as you imply, that is pretty problematic, but it also isn’t an aspect we can afford to ignore.

    • http://www.facebook.com/alicia.peckham Alicia Peckham

      Yes. I haven’t engaged in much talk about this topic but have only heard the equation of environmentalism and liberalism (therefore avoid) and this, that nature is under Satan’s power and so our actions are not responsible for it’s outcomes.

  • Peter

    “The principle seems to be that we need to listen and engage in more dialogue in order to arrive at a deeper level of understanding of the truth.”

    Amen. Thank you George for a very articulate and courageous examination of the ecological implications of LDS belief. It’s easy to surround ourselves with those of like minds – environmentalists with environmentalists, conservatives with conservatives, etc., but that is a path that leads nowhere. That’s a path that leads to segregated communities with no comprehension of each other, and a dysfunctionally polarized Congress. Real personal growth and the possibility of political solutions to societal problems come from engaging in honest dialogue with those who view the world differently than you do. There is a desperate need for such engagement, and LDS Earth Stewardship has the potential to facilitate it.