History was made on Friday. Elder Marcus Nash, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ, spoke as a formal representative of the church at the recent Stegner Symposium on “Religion, Faith, and the Environment” and presented an official view of Mormon stewardship of the earth. The symposium was remarkable in many ways. We heard from ecclesiastical leaders and representatives of evangelical Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. We heard a variety of scholarly perspectives on the topic as well, but Elder Nash’s speech was an unprecedented opportunity to hear an official representative of the LDS church on the subject. You are unlikely to find anything by a church leader this thorough, comprehensive, and exclusively focused on the topic. You can read a careful summary of the talk here. You can also see the video of his presentation. I think we can all fully stand by these teachings. I know I do. As he spoke, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that the church leadership had sent him to represent the church at the symposium.
In 1999, I was involved in a panel discussion on LDS perspectives on stewardship, sponsored by Save Our Canyons and held on the campus of the University of Utah. Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone spoke, along with three other members of the church, Ted Wilson, Rich Ingrebretsen, and I. In our own ways, we expressed the reasons why we believed Mormonism was consistent with the idea of environmental stewardship. At the time, Elder Featherstone explained that he was not speaking as a formal representative of the church. He wanted to make that clear. Moreover, his comments were personal, reflective, and not systematically doctrinal.
Fourteen years later, this was, as far as I am aware, the only another opportunity to hear from a General Authority on the topic, and it was a very different experience. Elder Nash stated that he was here to formally represent the church. His speech systematically covered the basic doctrines of stewardship in the Mormon faith as found in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, The Book of Mormon, and in statements by church leaders. His presentation was impeccably well prepared, and he left no doctrinal stone unturned. He talked of the divine and human-centered purpose of the creation, the spiritual creation that made of plants and animals “living souls,” the mandate for human beings to have righteous and not greedy dominion over the earth, which he explains means to use the earth with judgment and modesty, with an interest in blessing the poor and future generations, and with a desire to preserve all of life. He made it clear that we will be judged by how we have treated the physical elements.
I have spent many years emphasizing the doctrines of the church that teach respect for all of life. I think the doctrines of the church are clear enough on the central importance of our creation and our purpose as spirit children of God. My concern has been that without properly understanding our importance in the context of the broad and diverse forms of life, the doctrine of our divine parentage becomes an excuse to use the earth however we want. So I have wanted to emphasize that we have an obligation to learn proper humility and respect for all of life. Indeed, I sometimes hear my fellow Mormons articulate our human importance in a way that strikes me as out of balance with the importance of all other living things, as if our divine parentage were an excuse to abuse or over-consume the earth’s resources and not a call to learn to love, honor, and serve God’s creations with humility. Mormon doctrine is pretty clear about the need to care for the poor, but I have heard many Mormons argue that we can’t care for the poor and care for creation at the same time. Elder Nash beautifully and convincingly stressed the central importance of human life while also emphasizing the need to use the earth’s resources with respect for life and with a desire to bless the poor and future generations. This, of course, is a delicate balancing act, but the doctrines suggest that we have no other choice but to learn how to walk this walk. All other uses seem to fall short of their divine purpose.
I was taught by his talk how to make these doctrinal connections more clear. I think environmentalism has often made the mistake of wanting to denigrate our humanity, let alone the divine spark within us, but it is precisely this spark that can motivate the best kind of behavior when we understand ourselves and our purpose in proper context. A philosophy that exalts human life at the expense of the planet will not do, of course, but neither will a philosophy that exalts all of life while denigrating humanity’s exceptional qualities, which include our capacity for deliberate moral action. If human activity is now affecting the globe as pervasively as it seems it is, making itself felt in the depths of the oceans, in the heights of the atmosphere, and in every corner of the globe, then surely it will not do to be ashamed of our special role as moral agents who can weigh and judge the evidence and make needed changes in our behavior. If we are exceptional in the creation because we are moral agents capable of repentance, we can prove our worth by redressing our now exceptional impact on the planet.
Elder Nash’s intention was not to talk about the application of these doctrines. When asked about such, he quoted from Joseph Smith that the LDS church teaches correct principles and lets members govern ourselves. This struck me as right, and I will say more about this in a subsequent post. But given how unprecedented his speech was in its doctrinal focus on and comprehensive coverage of stewardship, it seems reasonable to hope that the church will make this speech and these teachings more widely available to the church membership. Given how much confusion and disagreement there is in the church on our responsibilities as stewards of the earth and how many ideas I have heard that diverge from what Elder Nash taught, it seems that more teaching is needed if we are to hope that the desired self-governing happens in appropriate ways. In all of my years of writing and teaching about these wonderful doctrines, it is almost universally true that members of the church respond positively but also with a bit of surprise. They are excited and inspired by the doctrines and want to live up to them, but they are a bit perplexed why they haven’t seen them gathered together in speeches by church leaders devoted exclusively to the topic or in topical lessons in the manuals of the church, as they were by Elder Nash. You simply cannot find them organized in this way. The doctrines are all over the scriptures and isolated statements by church leaders are not hard to find, but you will be hard pressed to find such clear and comprehensive coverage as we heard from Elder Nash. I take his presence at the conference and the care with which he prepared his remarks as a positive and unambiguous sign of the church’s commitment to raise the profile of our stewardship doctrines. Given how aggressive the church has been in the greening of its architecture, it only seems appropriate then that we highlight the reason for the faith that is within us.