Whither Mormon Environmental Theology?

The Summer issue of Dialogue, ably guest-edited by BCC’s own Steven Peck, contains a nifty little piece by the only person I’ve ever heard of with a joint degree in Forestry and Divinity, Jason Brown. Jason has kindly agreed to talk about his article a little bit here. Being the aging curmudgeon that I am, I will encourage you to READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE before opining based on the synopsis below.
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‘Whither Mormon Environmental Theology?’ was written in its current form during the last few months before
I graduated from graduate school in May of this year. The piece is an attempt to organize my reflections on
approaches to Mormon ecological theology that I have observed in my cursory review of the steadily increasing
literature. While the article is guilty of classically academic simplifications of reality, I think the traditions I
delineate are a good way to think about the past, present and future of Mormon and Christian ecological theology.
The question remains: is Mormon theology equipped to provide a “deep” ecological theology that imbues non-
human life with intrinsic value? Or, is stewardship, while ecologically less accurate, the needed language to
communicate our duty toward the earth to lay members of the Mormon faith who might otherwise be turned off by
more eco-centric approaches?

Regardless of the framing paradigm through which we interpret Mormon earth-teachings, in the article I
challenge us to engage Mormon theology not only in acts of retrieval (collecting Mormon earth-teachings as
discrete ahistorical theological units) but also to engage in what Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim call acts
of reconstruction and reevaluation. These are big-ish words for asking the question, how can we go beyond
acknowledging our earth-teachings and weave them into our cosmology, ethics and practices?

This summer I will be working in Eastford, Connecticut as an Apprentice Forester. I am also trying to practice what
I preach by thinking through a single element of Mormon theology in a series of blog posts on Our Mothers Keeper
(Post 1, Post 2). Because I am working hands on in the forest as a manager, I have decided to think about Joseph
Smith’s Sacred Grove. The small forest parcel in upstate New York has become the Garden of Eden of Mormon
mythology. The place where our story begins and our founder faced his own fall from grace and redemption. I am
interested in the nature of sacredness and to what extent this founding place could be shaped into a meaningful
eco-theological archetype, applied to our own spiritual questions, our own sacred places. Another question that
guides my writing is whether or not sacredness in regards to forests implies separation in the classical definition of
sacredness as something set apart. Must humans be outsiders in order for the forest to be sacred? Must nature be a
separate domain for its sacredness to be apparent?

Personally I am optimistic about the future of Mormon ecological theology. The tradition has a rich store of
cosmology, theology and history that could help us contribute to the wider Christian approaches to solving the
ecological crises we face. With Thomas Berry I believe that human beings are an essential part of the cosmological
story and that it is through stories that we can begin to repair the damage that has been done, and move humanity
toward a more mutually beneficial relationship with our earth and our God.

Comments

  1. Wow! Personally, I do not believe there is any such thing as “Mormon Environmental Theology” or “Mormon ecological theology.” There are Mormons who have environmental or theological ideas, and there are statements in old sermons that can be used by those who want to develop their own ideas, but it would be presumptuous for one person to take these ideas and present them as “Mormon” theology with some implication that those ideas are or somehow should be normative among Latter-day Saints.

    From the original posting: The question remains: is Mormon theology equipped to provide a “deep” ecological theology that imbues non-human life with intrinsic value? Or, is stewardship, while ecologically less accurate, the needed language to communicate our duty toward the earth to lay members of the Mormon faith who might otherwise be turned off by more eco-centric approaches?

    My thought: I disagree that “stewardship” as a term describing our duty is “less accurate” — I think it is entirely correct. Mankind has dominion over and is steward for the whole earth and all things on it. There is plenty of room for individual persons to apply that theology in their daily lives.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    “Must nature be a separate domain for its sacredness to be apparent?”

    This is an interesting question, but I believe the answer is definitely yes. Sacredness is a human concept, attributed by humans (through God, one assumes). Nature does not think of itself as sacred or profane. This is a layer we add to reality in order to ascribe value to it.

  3. I agree with ji. As a professional ecologist and member of the Church, I have never really seen evidence of a “Mormon Environmental/Ecological Theology”. Guess I never really thought about it. But I do feel that we have been commanded to be stewards of the earth, however I have usually blamed that thought on my eco-conscious bias. Few members in my area give any thought to anything environmental or ecological in a gospel sense (and in fact are usually politically aligned to be *against* any environmental stewardship). It kind of makes me crazy, but I am just grateful that I get to work in a field that I love, show my appreciation for the gift that the earth is, and hopefully teach this respect and appreciation to others. I thank God daily for giving me this opportunity.

  4. I heart Jason Brown. So happy Dialogue is featuring his work.

  5. Kristine says:

    Kay, ji–what do you do with Enoch? If that’s not a theology of the earth, I’m not sure what could be. And it’s distinctly Mormon, not just the Christian notion of stewardship.

    Just because the contemporary church is ignoring it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  6. justkidding says:

    Kay (3):

    I find that most environmental or ecological discussions break down when the parties involved begin to assume that the other side has no nuanced view of the issue. I don’t know whether you really believe that your fellow congregants really are opposed to “any environmental stewardship,” but if you are, you would probably be well served to assume that they are in favor of environmental stewardship in some form, just not the same form as you. Figuring out what forms of stewardship they can accept might help you sway them to your side by increments, even if they don’t change their political persuasion. Likewise, those who share the views of your fellow congregants likely view you as an extremist, who doesn’t care about their livelihoods, but my guess (I hope I’m right) is that you do, in fact, care a great deal, and that you are simply considering certain variables that they are not. In the end, the two sides may never agree with the others’ assumptions, but if we could strive for a better understanding, there would be less rancor in environmental debates and some compromise might be possible.

  7. Matt W. says:

    “Must nature be a separate domain for its sacredness to be apparent?” Doesn’t the word Sacred mean to be set apart? Can anything be Sacred that is not “Other”?

  8. Kristine says:

    This is potentially a bit of a threadjack, but, ji, you said “it would be presumptuous for one person to take these ideas and present them as “Mormon” theology with some implication that those ideas are or somehow should be normative among Latter-day Saints.” Why presumptuous? How else does theology happen in our church? (And I mean this as an earnest question, although it sounds belligerent–I don’t mean to be, honest!)

  9. Thank you for this post. It’s such an important subject. What a beautiful metaphor: The Sacred Grove as Garden of Eden!

    Nature is perhaps our most tangible link to God, inasmuch as it is His personal creation, a perfect expression of God’s identity. Scriptures and temples tell us of God only through the veil of imperfect men, as righteous as they may be. But nature is an undiluted expression of the divine, in all of it’s terrifying glory. So of course it is sacred. As Kazanzakis says in The Last Temptation of Christ, “When I bend over the ant, inside his black, shiny eye, I see the face of God.”

    We are stewards of the divine, over the temple of God: both the temple of our body, and of the temple of the earth.

    Bravo, what Kristine says, “Just because the contemporary church is ignoring it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” For those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear, God speaks to us through his creation, as the Book of Mormon states, “all things denote there is a God, the earth”

    But Mormons can’t seem to convert any more than the tiniest percentage of humanity, let alone save the planet from environmental catastrophe. However, individually we can come to be good stewards and learn from what Nature can teach us. Eco-consciousness, is, at it’s essence, a type of personal revelation, like a testimony. When Nature speaks to us, when we feel empathy for the “groaning world” as Paul characterized it, we are having a divine experience, and being touched by God’s grace.

    How do we cultivate such experiences in our urban world? I don’t know, but I thought Jonathan Franzen had a great point in his recent commencement address: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/opinion/29franzen.html

    “Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific.” Franzen’s love for the environment came only after he became an avid bird-watcher. “Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again.”

    I owe my own environmental consciousness to my LDS scoutmaster, and the many hikes we took through the Tetons, where he taught me the names of all the plants, the constellations, the mountains, the geological formations.

  10. Well, I just read the whole Dialouge article, instead of just being lazy, and it is excellent! So anyway, I should clarify my above concepts on “stewardship.” I much prefer the “vitalistic” tradition to the “stewardship” as defined in the article.

    Maybe it’s my Mom’s influence. She joined the church because of the doctrine that “trees have spirits.”

  11. “My thought: I disagree that “stewardship” as a term describing our duty is “less accurate” — I think it is entirely correct. Mankind has dominion over and is steward for the whole earth and all things on it. There is plenty of room for individual persons to apply that theology in their daily lives.”

    ji, don’t look now, but you’re doing Mormon Environmental Theology.

  12. Ron Madson says:

    Wonderful article Jason. I would add that the creation portion of the temple endowment can/should contribute to not only to the retrieval of our “stewardship” teachings but also the “vitalistic” aspects of our restoring latter-day environmentalism.

  13. Thomas Parkin says:

    “a perfect expression of God’s identity.”

    I once watched a crow out my office window. It had brought a baby bird, of some other species, and had sat it on a gravel ledge. It left it there for a bit, off to do some other vital crow stuff. The baby bird was still alive, sort of helplessly bouncing its head up and down, its mouth gaping open and shut. When the crow returned, it thwacked the baby bird with its beak, ‘to the pineal gland’ (as Ted Hughes has it). Then it yanked the baby bird to pieces and ate it.

  14. Have to admit I really enjoyed a presentation by Robert Redford based almost entirely out of Brigham Young quotes and environmentalism. Later, Nibley did similar work.

  15. Thomas Parkin — you could have just posted about the habits of lions instead …

  16. Cannibalism and filicide in Nature is indeed, also part of the expression of God’s identity. Filicide: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son…” Cannibalism: “Unless ye eat of my flesh and drink of my blood, you shall have no part of me.”

    Violence in the animal kingdom is sacred violence, and our doctrine and scriptures are filled with blood, suffering, sacrifice and violence. I believe violence is a huge part of God’s identity.

    As Jesus said to Peter: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God…Follow thou me.”

    Where does our Lord lead us, his dearest children and animals? Into suffering and death, even if it be on a cross, that we might rise with Him in glory.

  17. Dear friends,

    I appreciate the comments so far.

    Here are a few responses that could guide further discussion:

    First of all, to whether or not there is a Mormon environmental theology I have always been curious about the claim that there is no such thing as Mormon Theology. Theology is making claims about the nature of God and religion. Therefore we all practice theology in a myriad ways each day. As I point out in the article, rather than a formal school of Mormon environmental theology, one way to think about it is that there are “traditions” or lose groups of somewhat consistent teachings. What I hope is that our LIVED theology will move in the directions I outline in the article. We do not need permission from an ecclesiastical authority to do theology. While I certainly take Mormon leaders words into account, I do not put them on any kind of pedestal; Lord knows they say some strange things. I believe that the spirit is available to everyone regardless of your position on the church hierarchy. That may be controversial, but it is what I believe.

    Second, as to whether or not sacredness is purely a human construct. The background of my series is about how we as humans delineate forest space specifically asking the question why the grove in Palmyra is considered sacred. The easy answer is because of WHAT happened there, not WHY it happened there, or what IS there. My challenge is to move us toward a non-dualistic approach to spirituality that is more in line with early Mormon agrarian ideas of sacred work, sacred world that are adapted to contemporary circumstances. This may be unabashedly pantheistic, but that is precisely where I think the Mormon notion of intelligences is pointing us: away from the spirit/body dualism and toward an immanent and non-dualist perception of spirit-matter. My problem is how to take a concept like sacredness which does imply a sort of separation (think temple) and expand it to the forest as a space where people can both pray and work.

    But now I want to ask: in what ways does the earth inform the lived theologies of the readers?

  18. Geoff - A says:

    I think our religious beliefs should help us to be environmentally aware. We believe we were involved in the creation, should that not make us want to defend the earth we helped the family of our God to create?

    Perhaps our political and cultural views are more powerful and override our religious beliefs.

    In my country it is accepted that global warming as a result of mans actions is real and we need to do something to stop the deteoriation. The left side of politics is proposing a carbon trading scheme, the right side is opposing it and claims it can solve the problem by fine tuning the economy. Most members are assumed to allign with the conservative side.

    I live in a solar designed house that is also superinsulated and earth sheltered, and is designed to be cyclone proof, it also has solar hot water and a solar voltaic system which were subsidised by the government. It makes financial sense as well as making us feel that we are being responsible citizens of the world by contributing as little as possible to the environmental problems of the world.

    Where do the members in the US stand on global warming and living in an environmentally responsible manner, and is this determined by culture, politics or religion?

  19. Geoff A (no. 18)–“Where do the members in the US stand on global warming and living in an environmentally responsible manner, and is this determined by culture, politics or religion?”

    US members are found all across the spectrum of ideas on this subject — there is likely no pattern or consistency that can be linked to their religious persuasion — any patterns that might be discernible will likely be attributable to secular cultural factors. On matters such as this that are at some distance from our small core of common beliefs, perhaps indeed “our political and cultural views are more powerful and override our religious beliefs.” If we use tree-hugger and industrialist as opposite ends of a continuum (we shouldn’t, I know, but just for illustration), you will find Latter-day Saints in good standing at both ends, and both sets of people will honestly believe they are doing right.

    Regarding my original posting — I do find it bothersome when someone speaks of a Mormon view of any particular matter, suggesting that that view is the only right view because all good Mormons should share it — in reality, many and maybe even most of what we call Mormon characteristics are really Rocky Mountain middle class characteristics. Mormons across the world to not share the same humor, death rituals, meal practices, thriftyness, work habits, dress habits, or environmental consciousness. Our cultures shape these matters far more than our religion. And that is good. Our religion can exist in many different cultural settings.

  20. Kristine says:

    ji–did you read the article? It’s decidedly lacking in prescriptive tone about what “all good Mormons” should think.

  21. “Joseph Smith chopped down the Sacred Grove”
    Wednesday, June 14, 2006
    By Patrick Mason (T & S)

  22. Brent C says:

    “In what ways does the earth inform the lived theologies of the readers?”
    1) The Mormon concept that the earth fulfills its own plan of salvation (for example, baptism = the Flood); 2) that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory; 3) that the earth will be resurrected in both matter and spirit, as opposed to the common view of purely spiritual resurrection reflected in other Christian faiths. These unique Mormon perspectives suggest that our global home is a temple as much as our brick-and-mortar homes and our individual corporeal homes in human bodies.

  23. Thomas Parkin says:

    “I believe violence is a huge part of God’s identity.”

    Nate,

    I may be willing to agree with you. I don’t know. I like to think that God has every possible aspect in his personality – a full repertoire, so to speak. But I do not think that He is predatory, and much of nature is.

    I only really mean to point out that if we are going to start saying that nature is a reflection, perfect or not, of God’s identity, or His personality, or whatever, then, especially since we are meant to become like Him, we should start measuring ourselves, in terms of being, against nature. Indeed, if, as you claim, nature is a more perfect expression of His person then what we might learn through the temple, or anything man-made or influenced), then we should be looking there for Him first and foremost. If we are going to measure ourselves against nature, we should look at what nature contains, what it is.

    I personally take nature to be neither moral nor immoral nor amoral, rather morally intensely neutral. I say ‘intensely’ because of its inexhaustible, overwhelming beauty. Actors in nature ‘fill the measure of their creation.’ That is, they are perfectly themselves through and through. The great beauty of an animal lies in its amazingly perfect expression of itself. The value of a pelican is not subsumed in its function in a web of life. The value of a pelican lies in its pelicanness. That it also serves a function doesn’t change the fact that it is a being for itself. I do not believe we are meant to love God by observing the pelican, or the tree, or even the sky – we are meant to love the pelican, the tree and the sky, and be grateful to God.

    Just some things to grind on. :)

  24. I found your Dialogue article well-written, engaging, and helpful, Jason. Thanks for writing it. Thanks to Dialogue for publishing it.

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