Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Society and the Individual: Balance and Imbalance in Mormon Ecological Thought and Action

P1010916 

 

Society, the Self, and Ecology

Ecology in Latter-day Saint thinking has its greatest potential for good when ideals regarding the self and society are fully balanced and expressed. In this essay I will argue that Latter-day Saint doctrines of community include the natural world in profound ways, and elevate the more-than-human to much higher statuses than might otherwise be expected. However, anthropocentrism, or the viewpoint that places humans as the central concern, is a powerful reality, and has good reasons for taking center stage in Mormon ecological concerns. A more inclusive reading of the revelations helps temper the other-centered and human-centered approaches. (Satisfying exploration of the portion of our theology that emphasizes the self and, more importantly, self-rule as pertains to ecology will sadly have to wait.)

Latter-day Saint Scriptures and the Expanded Community

All creation exists in a web of relations. The Hindu-Buddhist allegory of Indra’s Net suggests that every point of existence can be imagined as a jewel set in a knot on an infinitely large fishing net. Each jewel reflects every other jewel as well as an infinite set of other reflections, and consequently has its identity—a jewel on its own, in the dark, is empty and meaningless. For Latter-day Saints, this web is cemented by our most sacred ordinances. Brigham Young used a related metaphor to describe the great work of our temples: “We will bring them up, and form the chain entire, back to Adam.”[1] However, temple work, as far as we now comprehend it, applies only to the human family. What of the other citizens of the universe? Where do they fit on the web or chain of existence?

D&C 77 is staggering in its sophistication and explicit animism. It describes “the spirit of man in the likeness of his person, as also the spirit of the beast, and every other creature which God has created.” The beasts that were shown to John “represent the glory of the classes of beings in their destined order or sphere of creation, in the enjoyment of their eternal felicity.” Finally, and strikingly, “their eyes are a representation of light and knowledge, that is, they are full of knowledge; and their wings are a representation of power, to move, to act, etc.” I have never been able to find the doctrinal foundation for the common assertion that denizens of the more-than-human kingdoms are, in fact, without agency — “the brute creature,” we often hear. In this revelation we have an inkling, a mere suggestion, by no means binding but provocative nonetheless, that seems to say human beings are one among many agentive beings in the universe that possess innate power “to move, to act, etc.” That is, they act based on a form of agency, and not simply because of mechanical programming. One has only to spend time around household dogs or horses to realize they possess knowledge, personality, and are capable of varying their choices based on mood and disposition. Organisms with more sophisticated neural structures, the octopuses, cetaceans, great apes, and so forth, make the argument for true agency more difficult to dismiss. I am not certain if there are animal versions of the tripartite kingdoms, or what kind of judgment befalls intelligent more-than-human creatures that behave badly with full knowledge of their obstinacy, but the notion that “they are full of knowledge” is enough to expand our conception of the role of other creatures within the spacious scope of creation, and to include them in our idea of community.

The Book of Moses further broadens our vision for what God includes in the community of souls: “And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally… And it became also a living soul” (3:9). Many cultures, including our own at times, include in their prayers a plea for forgiveness and an expression of gratitude toward the beasts whose flesh fills the dinner bowls; should we not join those Jains who also ask that the vegetables and grains forgive our need and accept our gratitude? And what of the microbes that occupy the spaces between animal and vegetable life? Do they not have souls and the right to life as fully as we? What of the Earth itself, which is personified as “herself” and given a voice in the Book of Moses? Whatever the literal truth regarding the soul of our little blue sphere, we are clearly intended to include her in our thoughts, feelings, and actions as regards the entire community of plant and animal (including human) life.

It seems, then, that the scriptures give ample support to the view that humans, though central to God’s plan, are but one of many classes of beings God holds dear and that have the capacity for “eternal felicity” in their respective idioms. Rather than degrading the importance of our place in the universe, it situates us as dependent on God alongside the daisy in the snowstorm. Humans are indeed caretakers but we are still, as King Benjamin teaches, “all beggars” (Mosiah 4:19). Kinship and unity with all of creation is herein possible, and a Latter-day Saint ecology of compassion, conservation, and respect naturally emerges.

Virtuous Anthropocentrism

However, the other side of the argument is persuasive. Immediately after the Lord proclaims the trees living souls, He states “all things… I prepared for the use of man; and man saw that it was good for food” (Moses 3:9). Jesus declares, regarding the lilies’ raiment, “shall he not much more clothe you?” (Matt. 6:28).[2] There is a clear hierarchy, and humankind is at the top of God’s concerns. If God’s goal is to take care of us and exalt us first and foremost, and if He has prepared all things explicitly for our use, should we not also place human concerns far above ecological concerns? Should we not stamp out hunger before we spend billions reducing greenhouse gas emission? And what about when ecology and doctrine directly clash – should we not multiply and replenish the earth, build our families, and live on faith that God will provide rather than restrict our reproduction? After all, in the same sermon Jesus commands “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things [food, drink, clothing] shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). If we do our missionary work and build our chapels and compassionately serve, surely the Lord will provide bounty from the earth, “and to spare” (D&C 104:17). There is simply too much to do to constantly worry about the earth and ecological matters, and the Lord will not only pardon us for using what He provided to its fullest capacity, but will reward us with a renewed earth and eternal glory. Anthropocentrism is not only an academic term: it is an unquestionable virtue.

Reconciliation

As is always the case, a judicious and thorough reading of scripture enables us to tease out the full three-dimensional shape of what God intends. For example, D&C 77 completes Moses 3: all things are surely prepared by God for the use of humankind, but these things are not prepared solely for the use of humankind. Souls of all classes will enjoy their own eternal felicities, whatever form that takes. This explicitly teaches that all of God’s creatures also exist for their own sakes (Aldo Leopold conveys this as “biotic right”), and we have the obligation to treat them as kin in the great work of salvation. We progress together, and always together. D&C 49:20-21 explains that a gospel-centered ecological mindset includes humans and others:  “It is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.” If God did not care for and respect His other creations, if He was not concerned for the longevity of the ecosystems He engineered, there would be no need for the second of these warnings. Lastly, there is no real contradiction in ecological and anthropocentric concerns. Solving world hunger in any permanent sense will involve greater prudence in utilizing the earth’s resources, fighting climate change, and encouraging biodiversity. A healthy planet makes more and better food. Earth’s concerns are not and never were either/or when contrasted with “human” concerns – these scriptures teach, and the science confirms and elucidates, that the clause has always been and.

In conclusion, perhaps the best way to begin morphing the way we look at and deal with ecological issues as Latter-day Saints is to more fully examine and feel the way modern and ancient revelation situate us within creation. We are powerful far beyond our ken, but we are also part of and kin to an incredible array of living souls toward whom we have responsibility, and toward whom we should extend the hand of friendship and respect in awe.[3] Taken as a whole, the scriptures suggest that, in God’s view, all of creation is related and precious. Perhaps the old saying (paraphrased for the current context), “salvation is personal, exaltation is communal” will take on greater depth when we begin to understand just who is involved in the grand community.

[1] J.D. 404

[2] Emphasis mine

[3] Read God’s exulting description of leviathan and behemoth, His great and terrible beloveds, in Job for more details on God’s insistence that we respect and fear (in both the biblical and the common senses of the word) His other creations.

  • Loran says:

    this is an excellent and disturbing instantiation of the what I call the idolatry of ideology combined with the ultimate Disneyfication of the natural world carried to extremes that are both inexcusable, in my view, for Latter-day Saints, as well as spiritually crippling:

    • BeauH says:

      Hi Loran!

      Thank you for your response. I would like more explanation of your criticisms, in particular, the “idolatry of ideology” (a catchy phrase – I think I’ll borrow it!), the “Disneyfication of the natural world,” and the “spiritually crippling” nature of the ideas in my post.

      The only one I feel equipped to partially respond to at this point is the “Disneyfication,” which, if taken to mean “cutesy anthropomorphizing,” I certainly hope I have avoided. God in Job refers to behemoth and leviathan in ways that firmly situate them as not human, and I try to keep that in mind. The “biotic right” Leopold refers to does not in any way lead us to think that other beings understand themselves in the same ways humans do, or “understand” themselves at all in the same way we use the word. However, extending a right to live to other beings and cultivating compassion for all life is something I firmly stand behind. This compassion includes understanding and respect, of the sort that gives us a lively knowledge of our limitations. It is grown through personal experience as well as scientific progress. I do not support anthropomorphizing the other inhabitants of our planet beyond obvious allegorical usage, such as what is found in the Jatakas, the Pancha Tantra, Aesop’s Fables, etc. To reduce other creatures (“Dogs are people too”), or attempt to contain them within human terms and subjectivities, to is to willfully misunderstand and perpetuate misunderstanding.