As I mentioned, this is part II of a brief investigation. I have spent a great deal of energy and writing on this particular question, so I make mention of some of these points at the risk of repeating myself. But perhaps now, stated in direct dialogue with perspectives within LDS culture that are decidedly anti-environmental that I described in my previous post, we can gain some clarity about how these positions might better understand one another.
In David Kinsley’s companion essays that I mentioned in my last post (these essays were published in the indispensable collection This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature and Environment, edited by Roger Gottlieb), Kinsley pays particular attention to the environmental implications of Christianity’s rejection of animism. To see nature as dead matter makes the question of ethics a rather easy one. If nature has no intrinsic value, then there doesn’t seem to be much of a point in worrying ourselves about what we do to it, especially if we also consider the notion that all things were made for the “benefit and use of man,” as it states in D&C 59. He argues that those Christian thinkers, such as Francis of Assisi, who focused on the spiritual dimensions of the physical world, rescued an ethical tradition within Christianity that almost went extinct with the rise of the scientific and industrial ages.
Mormonism has had a deep romance with capitalism and technology; it has often wanted to see all advances of technology, all economic growth, and all improvements in human quality of life as necessary, providential, and sanctioned steps of progress in humanity’s march toward perfection and in the quest to build the kingdom of God on the earth. But there are several important strains of Mormon belief that run counter to these notions that I wish to highlight here.
LDS Belief as Ecologically Responsible:
1) The Spiritual Creation: All living things—plants, animals, and human beings alike—are “living souls” and are dignified with the opportunity of mortal experience and its chances for happiness. Happiness comes in the fulfillment of purpose, in the flourishing and reproduction of all life. This is unmistakably taught in the restored account of the creation. Everything, therefore, also has intrinsic worth and has a right to enjoy posterity.
2) Law of Consecration: Yes, LDS doctrine teaches that “there is enough and to spare” and that marriage and childbearing should be encouraged, but there is no mandate to have as many children as possible but only as many as a husband and wife decide together they want to have. Evidence shows that when women receive more education and are in relationships of greater equality, the average size of families decreases. More importantly, the verse from D&C 104 from which this phrase is excerpted does not guarantee there is enough for the world’s population as long as there is inequality and disparity of wealth. This is an important condition to the promise that many Mormons fail to notice. Indeed, it seems that the promise is what then creates the conditions of our accountability before God. It is what then makes us stewards. If we are to protect the sacred nature of family and the central importance of reproduction in marriage, we must be serious about the call to live modestly and to seek to redress poverty.
3) We are nothing: This is a companion doctrine to the notion that we are children of God. Moses, when he has a vision of the creation not only of this world but of the many worlds under God’s care, is overwhelmed by what he has seen. He collapses and says, “now for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). What does this mean? It seems related to the lecture the Lord gives Job in order to teach Job perspective. Both men learn and have faith in the fact that they are sons of God, of divine parentage, but they also must learn requisite humility, lest this idea become an excuse to see their own importance out of proportion with all of life. To do so leads to unrighteous dominion and is what must be tempered by the radical humility that comes from a true apprehension and appreciation for the wide and expansive diversity of God’s creations. Anthropocentrism, in other words, is no excuse for selfishness or disregard for God’s love of his creations. Our divine parentage is a call to service, as Hugh Nibley once said, not a license to exterminate.4) Freedom: For some, the need to protect our freedoms is a reason to be suspicion of environmentalism. For others, it is a reason to be concerned about environmental degradation. We are not free when we can’t choose the quality of the air we breathe or the water or food we ingest. Pollution, waste, toxins, and other symptoms of environmental degradation and their impact on human health make us increasingly less free to live our lives without undue restraints. We are often not in a truly free market, able to choose sources of energy, methods of transportation, clothing and food that are calculated to be gentler on the earth. We are seduced by a commercial society, slaves to our own greed. Good modest gospel living and stewardship of the air, water, and earth are ways to fight our way back to greater freedom.
5) Aesthetic and Spiritual Pleasure: All things are made for our benefit, but chief among those benefits appears to be aesthetic and spiritual pleasure. Nature is not intended to clothe us and feed us alone. It is also to “please the eye and to gladden the heart… to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul” (D&C 59: 18, 19). Adam and Eve were commanded to “dress” the garden but also to “keep” it. In short, the world is a test of our ability to distinguish between needs and wants, to find the deeper and more sustainable pleasures in accepting the bounties of the world independent of what we might need or want to do with the earth’s resources. We are not to be wasteful or excessive, nor to be content to live at a material level above others.
6) The End is Near: Precisely because the end is near, for some this seems to be an excuse to bypass environmental concerns, but for others, this is precisely what motivates stewardship. Showing gratitude to our Creator by taking care of what we have and living with our hearts and minds turned to future generations, for many, is precisely what an awareness of mortality inspires. Knowing that our time here is limited only makes what we experience here all the more sweet and knowing that providence provides assurance of an end that will not be tragic but redemptive inspires a desire to be worthy of such a magnificent gift. Worthiness can only come by working to make this world, here and now, more like the world to come.
This is not a complete list. There is also the Word of Wisdom and its mandate to eat meat sparingly and fruits and vegetables in season. There is the great notion of a sacred grove, of the need for spiritual refuge in nature. And many more ideas.
One theme emerges as we contemplate the differences between this list and the list from my previous post. We are faced with some interesting and challenging paradoxes. Mormonism asks us to live with a deep appreciation of our central human significance but with profound humility; it asks us to accept the earth’s bounty as God’s gift to us for our well being and to work hard for our own provision but to live in such a way to provide for all of life’s flourishing; it asks us to understand the importance of family and children without losing sight of the right of all living things to posterity; its asks us to be creative engineers of our constructed world but to appreciate the beauties of an untouched “unimproved” nature; it asks us to protect our agency but to learn to work together with others so that freedom is never merely individual but also social; it asks us to keep our eye on the eternities while seeing the life we make here and now as the most important manifestation of our spirituality.
Paradoxes are not easy to live with and there is no shortage of packaged ideologies offered to us that seduce us into thinking we can do without them, but they are the crosses or contradictions we must bear and suffer in order to generate more creative, more compassionate, and more acceptable responses to life.