Mormonism, Cosmology, and Environmental Stewardship

Mormonism, Cosmology, and Environmental Stewardship November 12, 2014

IMG_5958I just returned from a marvelous gathering at the Yale Divinity School where scholars and theologians met to discuss the story of the origins of the universe and of life on earth, as told by contemporary science, and its impact on and relevance to Christian belief. More specifically, it was a series of responses to the project called Journey of the Universe that includes a book, a documentary film, a DVD series of interviews, and a website. You can read more about the conference here. I have used both the book and the film in my “Humanities and the Environment” class and intend to continue to use it because it is remarkably accessible and because it tells the story of the origins of the universe and of life on earth in a way that is friendly to religious belief. I was asked to provide a Mormon response to the project, and I am summarizing my thoughts in this post.

The project was inspired by the writings of the Catholic theologian Thomas Berry who worried that Christian understandings of the origins of life were not resilient enough to adapt and make sense of the story as told by science. Given the tremendous problems we face across the globe related to environmental degradation, he felt the urgent need for a new story, one that would more directly connect religious belief to a scientific understanding of the universe and of this earth so that believers would be better equipped to respond in effective ways to the problems we face. I share his commitment to better stewardship and to the best scientific understandings available to us, and I also share his disappointment that Christians have too often been dismissive of the claims of science in an effort to protect their own understandings of life’s origins.

I think it is important to note, however, that science is what some philosophers have called an indicative rather than an imperative mode of thinking. In other words, its purpose is not to tell us what to do, nor even why we should do it. That would be something much closer to the role of religion; its mode of thinking is imperative. It teaches what we ought to do and often does so by offering insights into why. Science’s purpose is to tell us the nature of how things are, how they work, and what empirical reality might be. It is certainly not the final word on the nature of reality, and it is always growing and changing in its understandings. It is often guilty of extra-scientific overreach, as when scientists use science to try to disprove things science is not designed to demonstrate, such as the existence of God or the possibility of divine intervention in our lives or life after death. That some scientists abuse their own authority to make such claims is no excuse for believers to imagine that what science knows is therefore faulty. What we need are readings of scripture that are informed by contemporary understandings and problems.

Science is never merely facts. It is a contingent and humanly constructed understanding of reality and should never be believed to stand above or beyond our own cultural conditioning. And as a religious believer, I seek religious understanding of what science tells us, but I avoid trying to act as if my current understanding of science, let alone of theology, should trump all new information. I am guided by curiosity, faith, and a sense of responsibility to my earth community. To say that science is constructed knowledge is not to justify flippant dismissal or mockery of science’s claims whenever they appear to contradict religious belief. I find this kind of attitude toward science profoundly unchristian and lacking in faith. It seems to me that I owe the Creator every ounce of respect toward his creation and I show that respect by 1) seeking any way I can to understand its workings better than I currently do and 2) using that understanding to guide me in my decisions about how to make use of the earth. When Job was interrogated by the Lord and asked if he really understood the first thing about the “breadth of the earth,” the Lord further asks him, “Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?” He might have put it this way, “Are you going to continue to live with your small understandings and pretend as if you know anything at all about my earth and my universe just so that you can parade around in the appearance of being right? I don’t need you to defend me. I need your humility and openness to the grandeur of my creations.” There is great environmental wisdom in the story of Job.

In my presentation, I expressed gratitude that I was invited to give a Christian response, since Mormons are not universally regarded as Christians by some sects, even though we vehemently self-identify as such. And curiously those reasons of exclusion have to do with doctrinal squabbles that, as this gathering made very clear, we cannot afford to engage in any longer. The earth needs our attention and our collective and collaborative efforts. So I hoped, and was confirmed in that hope, that in an audience such as this, the revelations of Joseph Smith would not seem so heretical and would, in fact, be appreciated for their particular suitability for understanding and accepting the story of the universe.

I described Joseph Smith’s undertaking of an inspired retranslation of the Bible, which was an attempt to recover truths that were presumed to have been lost in translation. If poetry is what is lost in translation, as Robert Frost once said, we might consider, then, that his work is a kind of Theopoetics. It might not be an entirely new story, as Thomas Berry wanted, but it is certainly a version of what historian Lynn White famously called for on behalf of healing the earth—a new religion or at least a rethinking of an old one. Indeed, my bias is not toward a new story but toward what in Mormonism is the revelatory power of rereading and of continual revelation. This process doesn’t discard what has come before but manages to make earlier texts and interpretations take on new layers and dimensions that keep God’s word relevant for all times and circumstances. New stories, in other words, don’t emerge simply by being different from old ones; they are often powerful retellings of what we once heard.

I read briefly from the account of the Book of Moses where Moses receives a vision of the creation, and God tells him he won’t show him “all, for my works are without end” for “no man can behold all my works, except he behold all my glory, and no man can behold all my glory and afterwards remain in the flesh on the earth.” Moses sees the earth and all of its inhabitants and is overwhelmed by the grandeur of what he witnesses. He collapses and says, “for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.”

He is full of wonder and awe at his nothingness, but, paradoxically, he can only experience such wonder and awe because he already knows his significance as a child of God. This awe at the grandeur of God’s creation is his uniquely human opportunity, which only suggests what a tragedy it is that so many of us dismiss the opportunity science affords to increase our wonder and appreciation for the immensity of God’s creation and therefore the even more profound meaning of his love for us. In this moment of discovering his nothingness, Satan tempts him in this state of decentered disorientation to regroup and define himself by means of the power and material possessions he might gain from the creation, but Moses resists. He does not cave in to despair in light of the immensity of the creation because he know he is God’s son, that he is loved, and that therefore it is his unique and even exceptional opportunity to experience this awe, not to possess or control or to know the world. Moses is here homo admirans (wondering man), not homo sapiens (knowing man) to borrow from the theologian William Brown. His reward for his proper humility is that God grants him a window into his other creations: “And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose… there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power…. The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.” This doctrine was heretical at the time but certainly prescient, given what science is telling us about the immensity of the universe.

But there is far more to this new story—we learn that the world was created out of unorganized matter, not out of nothing, that God partnered with chaos to make new possibilities and that the creation and chaos alike are therefore ongoing. We learn too that we were with God as his spirit children before the creation of the world and even participated in its creation. We must therefore have an intimacy with the earth that we can only hope to recover. And we learn that even before we were born spiritually, we were “intelligences,” and that, like the physical matter of the creation itself, our capacity of judgment and agency could neither be created nor destroyed. God is an artist or a poet or an orchestra conductor but not necessarily the all controlling machine operator, since he must work with the laws and forces of matter as well as with human agency. We learn too that the world was created spiritually before it was created physically, that all plants, animals and humans alike are “living souls” inherently good and spiritual present.

This is rich doctrine. This is the kind of stuff that resonates well with the story contemporary science tells about this earth, and it has inspired many Mormons to embrace science and stewardship. But it raises an important question: if theology is as influential and important as we think it is, why are such inspirations not more common? With these doctrines, you would expect different attitudes than those we find in mainstream Mormonism. We are more environmentally and science friendly than most people realize, but sometimes it seems that pundits on Fox News have far more influence on Mormon attitudes about science and the environment than the implications of their own theology. Why is this?

It’s a complex problem, but I pose only one thought to provoke further conversation: the story of life’s origins in an ever expanding and unpredictable universe is a story rife with violence, chance, chaos, and tragedy. There is no reason to mince words about this. It is far easier to despair at this than I think most environmentalists want to admit. It is easier to deny the story altogether or, even worse, to express resentment for nature’s constant reminders of our death by degrading it. We are tempted by simpler theologies that would make us captains of our own destiny either through Ayn Randian self-determination or a theologically infused self-help underwritten by Divine power. We do not like to acknowledge that accidents happen in such a universe as ours.

But we must learn to resist such temptations, not the least because if we don’t like to admit chance or accident into the universe, we would deny one of the central purposes of Christ’s atonement. He did not suffer merely for the sorrows of sin but the sorrows of physical existence itself and our struggles with mortality, with biology itself. Moreover, he doesn’t appear to have suffered for human suffering alone, but for the suffering of all life. Love itself is a form of suffering, an affliction that carries the sorrows of others. Christ weeps with us, not just for us, and this is the most central purpose of his embodiment. This means that Moses’s awe does not need to become despair, nor that it should become oppressive dominion, but instead that it can inspire reverent care as a recognition of the free offering of God’s love. I believe God’s love is the contact with the imperishable in a dynamic and dying world; it is the hope with which we can confront and work through the meaning of the changing, complex, and estranging facts of our physical existence.



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