(adapted from a speech given at
Mormon Scholars in the Humanities
Southern Virginia University, May 19, 2012)
The LDS account of the creation makes several seemingly heretical claims. I wish to focus on one: that the world is made from pre-existing and unorganized matter. Of all the reasons to call LDS belief heretical, this has to be among the most obvious since both the notion of a pre-existing chaos was shared by pagan narratives of creation and was expelled from traditional Christianity in the first centuries after Christ.
Traditional Christian dogma chose the belief in creation ex nihilo for a variety of reasons, but the impulse appears to have been centrally concerned with protecting the notion of the providence, supremacy and omnipotence of one God. This was despite the fact that the very first verses of the Bible have led some ecotheologians today to speculate that there must have been more than one God and more than one gender among the creative beings that brought forth the universe. However, drawing a sharp distinction between a monotheistic account and neighboring polytheistic cultures was particularly important to establishing the legitimacy of patriarchal and monotheistic claims in both pre-Christian and early Christian history. This insistence on God’s singular and absolute omnipotence created a number of other problems. Perhaps most menacing was the problem of evil and suffering. A world brought entirely into being out of nothing by a single and all-powerful God meant that God was responsible for all natural events, all natural disasters, all suffering caused by biological processes of death and regeneration and the transformation of energy.
Nature can be beautiful, it can be reassuring, and it can provide a sense of communal belonging to our more-than-human kin, but it can also be ugly, destructive, and indifferent. When we accept the biblical declaration that God declared the world “good,” we can mistakenly assume that this means that nature will always behave itself, it will always help us to feel love and reassurance and that it will never be an independent cause for human suffering or create the conditions by which human significance is disrupted or fundamentally challenged.
So for the LDS account to quietly announce that a personal and intervening God nevertheless makes the world out of unorganized matter challenges us to seek ways to reconcile indeterminacy with the notion of an intervening and loving God because he is more of an artist than an inventor. But we have often preferred our theology tightly sealed, with a manufacturer’s guarantee of satisfaction, of operation without error, with a view of order as the opposite of chaos not as its partner. As a result we have often ignored science when it points to contingencies beyond our control and preferred the simple formula that if we just live the right way, the entire world will conform to our best interests. As a result, we either disregard empirical evidence to the contrary or blame others for our misfortunes.
We cannot underestimate the challenge a creation out of pre-existing unorganized matter poses to belief. This is a world subject to chaos, a world dynamically changing and morphing into new possibilities and realities, that requires a flexible theology, an adaptive ethics, and a commitment to the perpetual pursuit of scientific knowledge. Our ethics, in other words, must not be merely focused on God or even only on our fellow human beings, but also on all our living kin, the forces and conditions that foster life. This is not so romantic because these are the same forces and conditions that foster death and change and that create suffering. As some theologians have speculated, sometimes we mistreat nature out of revenge because it provides ubiquitous reminders of our impending death, our interchangeability with all physical forms, and its seeming indifference to our human significance. We want to trust in God’s providence but only with ample evidence that such a choice is obvious. If it were obvious, however, such trust would be meaningless. The structure of the physical world is such that it as if we must come to accept that God is only possible in a context in which he is neither inevitable nor patently necessary. It appears that His and our freedom can only exist within the context of a free and forbearing universe, one that is neither mechanistic nor deterministic.
So maybe we are destructive of nature because our theology, not just our understanding of science, is shallow. We cling to guarantees of an escape from contingency, interdependence, and the strange and ambiguous borders between who we are and what surrounds us. Ongoing creation generated by the persistence of chaos, of the presence of matter as yet unorganized, implies our ongoing answerability to the creation. Rather than living and acting within a context in which life remains statically and hermetically in discreet and independent forms pre-programmed to run their designated course, human beings find themselves part of a world that they have the responsibility and opportunity to affect, maybe even direct, positively or negatively. Since we can never be sure whether God or nature accounts for the outcome of physical events, we can also never be sure if we or God are more responsible for suffering. We can no more blame him than we can blame ourselves for the fact that events do not seem to be mechanistically and logically predetermined by law or by absolute will. Every attempt to point fingers of blame, in either a human, natural, or a divine direction, involves a shielding of the fact of mutually and shared accountability; the economy of a creation out of chaos means that blame will always be a failure of an imperfect but indispensable partnership between human agency, divine will, and natural process. Instead of learning the requisite charity, forbearance, patient longsuffering, love of God, love of the earth, and love of our human siblings, we opt for the pretense of radical autonomy, the pleasures of amassed and “private” property, and the continued abuse of the earth’s treasures all to sustain our individual will to power.
But the mandate of Christian living is different. According to LDS scriptures, we are promised that the earth is a sufficient cradle for all life, that “there is enough and to spare,” but only if we take of the abundance of the earth and “impart [our] portion to the poor” (D&C; 104); this appears not only to apply to human mouths but to the mouths of all animals, as we read in the Word of Wisdom, an echo of the creation account of Job, that it is providential intention that all life—“all wild animals that run or creep on the earth”— be sustained by the earth, just as we are. Have we so soon forgotten that God commanded the whales and fowls to “multiply and replenish,” to fill the seas and the skies? Or that we should take aesthetic pleasure in the contemplation of trees? In the Book of Mormon, Jacob announces that we should only seek the riches of the earth “ for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” Perhaps it would be unnecessary here to rehearse the extraordinary disproportion of the earth’s resources we use as Americans and the over one billion of God’s children who do not have access to clean drinking water. We are not to “waste flesh” when we have no need (D&C; 49) and to use resources “with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (D&C; 59).
A creation out of chaos means that we cannot master the earth or expect perfect managerial control; the dynamic and contingent world asks us to be artists, not inventors, taking the materials of the earth and repurposing them in a sacred economy of shared nourishment. If we understood physical resources as life, and all life and existence itself as a gift, creatively given, and if we understood that only the almighty powers of the atonement can render our violence acceptable in the economy of the Lord, we would live more creatively and determined to minimalize our violence on the world.