Guest post by Nathan Waite. Nate got his MA in American studies and environmental humanities at the University of Utah. (Editor’s note: It is well worth reading the entire piece but as a bonus find a related Dialogue article by Craig D. Galli linked at the end).
Update: Watch Elder Nash’s full remarks here.
Elder Marcus B. Nash, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and assistant executive director of the Church History Department, today represented the LDS perspective on a panel titled, “Ecological Protection, Environmental Degradation—Perspectives of Faith.” Also represented were evangelical Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. The panel was part of the Wallace Stegner Center’s annual symposium, being held at the University of Utah today and tomorrow. The symposium’s theme is “Religion, Faith, and the Environment.”
In a way this was not a groundbreaking talk; Elder Nash hewed closely to scripture and to the words of modern prophets. But I think that’s exactly why it is groundbreaking—he showed how a strong environmental strand is right there in Mormonism’s most basic, central theology.
This talk was prepared and delivered in a way that would have fit in at General Conference last week, though as Elder Nash quipped, “They would never give me 30 minutes in General Conference.” None of the scriptures or doctrine he presented was new, but to my knowledge, it is the first time a General Authority has put the pieces together and laid out the case for a Mormon environmental ethics in a public speech. He made explicit what has always gone unsaid.
It was a moving experience for me and others in attendance. During the question and answer period, one man stood and with great emotion said that he had waited his whole life for this talk. We’re in a season when the church is grappling with some of the Big Issues, and none is bigger than our current environmental crisis. Elder Nash’s address today was a step in the right direction.
If you are interested, read on for my furiously typed notes of the talk.
Righteous Dominion and Compassion for the Earth
It’s an honor to participate with representatives of the many faiths of the world. We share a common concern for creation and a desire to draw others to the Creator.
Environmental issues are complicated. He represented a berry farmer near Mt. Washington—the farmer had to certify that his berries were free of nematodes, and the only way to ensure that was by using a fumigant. The company that made the fumigant claimed it all evaporated and had no effect on the ground or water, but neighbors began complaining about strange-tasting water, and it was found that the chemicals had actually leached into groundwater. So we have a farmer making an honest living and trying to do the right thing—fumigation was the only way to not have infected berries, but it harmed the earth and future generations who have to deal with the groundwater issue. The irony is that it’s likely the families that sued farmer probably enjoyed fresh berries from certified stock. (The farmer was later cleared in the lawsuit.) These are complicated issues.
Our [humanity’s] stance toward the environment is complex: it should be realistic, prudent, balanced. We should act in consistency with the needs of the earth and the needs of current and future generations. [Elder Nash drove home the idea of caring about future generations again and again.]
It is indisputable that we depend on the earth, and that our quality of life will depend on the quality of the environment. This truth is too often ignored, unappreciated, and seen as too costly. If we understand who we are and the purpose of creation, our conduct will rise to a higher, nobler level.
Elder Nash then said he was asked to represent the LDS position. He said the only unique thing he has to offer in a panel with various religions was to explain doctrine as he understands it. He laid out what he said was the foundational doctrine on the issue by sharing and commenting on a series of scriptures:
First, Psalm 8:4–5, the idea that God cares about and gives humans a dominant role because they have a special place in creation—they are “a little lower than the angels.” This can and should have a profound effect on how we choose to relate to all life.
He then turned to the Pearl of Great Price and offered an interesting interpretation of Moses’s “now I know that man is nothing” comment. He said Moses was humbled in the face of the majesty of the creation. Moses failed to understand the point the Lord was making, so the Lord showed him again and taught him that it was all made for His own purpose, which is Moses 1:39, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of us, His children. God desires our progress, improvement, and he wants us to receive eternal rewards—that is why the earth was created.
Then he turned to Abraham 3:24—we will prove them now herewith. Humans have agency and are to act for themselves. In the accounts of the creation, God was pleased with His work—it is all “very good”—because it would serve its purpose. Man and woman marry and have children and teach them to make good choices, “that the earth might answer the end of its creation; and that it might be filled with the measure of man” (D&C 49:16–17). 1 Nephi 17:36—“the Lord hath created the earth that it should be inhabited; and he hath created his children that they should possess it.” Men [and women] are not a sideshow, interlopers—they are central.
The next principle was introduced by Moses 3:5—God created things spiritually first. Not only did God create the beautiful world, but each form of plant and animal has a spirit. All living souls have the opportunity to feel happiness in filling the measure of their creation. Joseph Fielding Smith—it was intended that all creatures should be happy. “For all old things shall pass away, and all things shall become new, even the heaven and the earth, and all the fulness thereof, both men and beasts, the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea; and not one hair, neither mote, shall be lost, for it is the workmanship of mine hand” (D&C 29:24–25).
Next principle was D&C 49:19–21: all this was ordained for our use. God has commanded that the earth and all thereon be used responsibly, to abundantly sustain humankind. The doctrine is clear—we are stewards over the earth and not owners, and we will be accountable to God for its use. “Unbridled, voracious consumerism” is not in harmony with God’s will. We must have humility—gratefully make use, avoid wasting life and resources, use abundance to care for poor. “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.” [!!] God cares deeply for all life, especially His children, and will hold us accountable for what we choose to do or not to do with His creation.
On to D&C 59:20: “And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.” If we judiciously use with thanksgiving, the fulness of the earth is ours. Yes, we have been provided with the things of this world, and we are to use them joyfully. But carefully, with judgment, gratitude, prudence, with eye to bless our fellow humans and future generations, thereby helping all receive God’s blessing in time and eternity.
Moses 7:28—God wept. When we treat the earth with disdain, God and creation are pained. He explained Enoch’s vision, where he saw “suffocating selfishness.” In the latter days, there were to be tumults and wickedness. There is a corollary between materialism, selfishness, and pollution. Spencer W. Kimball quote on not littering, strip mining. Gordon B. Hinckley: “This earth is his creation. When we make it ugly, we offend him.” When man pollutes the world, spiritually or temporally, God and nature suffer. Moses 7:48 says the earth mourned (“maybe metaphorical,” E. Nash said) and Enoch asked, “Wilt thou not have compassion upon the earth?” Elder Nash: Well may we all chime in with Enoch.
Next to last scripture was D&C 82:19—“Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God.” Faith and religion should have capacity to stretch, enlarge capacity of human soul beyond self. The condition of the human soul will affect the quality of the environment. Neal A. Maxwell on “consistent environmentalists,” caring both about “spiritual health of marriages and of rain forests.” Ezra Taft Benson on “the world works from the outside in, the Lord works from the inside out.” “The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment”—for the better, added E. Nash.
The gospel of Jesus Christ allows us to think beyond ourselves—to the natural world and future generations. It will teach us to care for the earth. A despoiled earth is the effect of selfishness.
He said Brigham Young understood the doctrine he’s been speaking about, quoted him on keeping these valleys and canyons pure.
Time was running short, so he skipped a few pages. [No!] During Q&A he mentioned that part of what he cut out was talking about the church’s environmentally-minded initiatives, like “green” meetinghouses.
His final scripture laying out the doctrine was D&C 59:18–19: “Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.” Here he got personal and spoke of his love of hiking. He grew up in the Northwest and loves the woods and the mountains (“Utah is OK too,” he said). He’s also had opportunities to hike in places all around the world. The earth and life thereon are to be more than simply consumed and conserved; they are to be preserved. Nature in its pristine state brings us closer to seeing God in His majesty and power. It bears silent but eloquent witness of the Creator (Alma 30:44).
At such times, he said, I try, always unsuccessfully, to take in the eternity in my gaze. I marvel at the quiet knowledge that despite the vastness of the universe, God knows you and knows me. The better we care for this world the better it will care for us.
His parting doctrinal shot? “Latter-day Saints believe heaven will be this earth in a perfected state. May we care for this earth, our present and future home.”
I know this is already ridiculously long, but if you care enough to read this far, you’ll be interested in a couple further ideas that came up during the Q&A. Elder Nash was cautious, because he recognized he was officially representing the church, but he did well and gave candid answers. At one point he said, “My role is not to get to the application level. We have to sit down and think through the issues, not forget the principles but strive to apply them. The church is making effort to live responsibly—hopefully the church is speaking by example. There are solutions to this—as long as we don’t let go of the doctrines.” He also spoke of the global reach of the church and the international issues facing it.
The first question took an ecofeminist position, linking violence toward women and violence toward the land and asking how a religion can justify saying it is environmentally friendly when it is so steeped in patriarchy. [Not pulling punches, right?] Elder Nash’s response was to quote Joseph Smith on teaching correct principles, etc. Elder Nash said, “If we would just govern ourselves according to scripture we would be okay.”
Another question: “Does the LDS church have a position on wilderness preservation?” A: I don’t know. The central purpose of church is Moses 1:39. That will lead to a better environment.
One questioner very humbly but forcefully pleaded with Elder Nash to give his talk at General Conference or allow it to be published in the Ensign. He said it wasn’t his decision whether it would be published or not, but that the people who make those decisions would be made aware of his remarks.
Read more notes and analysis of the Stegner symposium at ldsearthstewardship.org and be sure to check out SteveP’s fabulously edited Dialogue issue dedicated to the environment (available for subscribers or each article is $1.99) including this fantastic piece by Craig D. Galli (and it’s free for BCC readers due to how it nicely complements Elder Nash’s lecture): “An LDS Perspective on Environmental Stewardship“.