In the Preface to New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community, the editors cite an unidentified 1991 report that places each of the thirty largest Christian denominations in one of five categories based on their environmental stances. The categories were: 1) Programs Underwayâ€”denominations engaged actively in national environmental programs; 2) Beginning a Responseâ€”denominations beginning to engage in national environmental programs; 3) At the Brinkâ€”denominations preparing to take the plunge into action on the national environmental level; 4) No Actionâ€”denominations not taking any action as yet; and 5) Policies of Inactionâ€”denominations that, as the editors put it, are â€œformally committed to inaction.â€
Bet you canâ€™t guess where this unidentified report set The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: yep, firmly in the â€œformally committed to inactionâ€ category.
Shortly after, the N. G. Preface cites a Los Angeles Times quotation from a 1997 declaration by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide:
To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. . . . For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of Godâ€™s creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands. . . . For humans to contaminate the Earthâ€™s waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substancesâ€”these are sins.â€
New Genesis also opens with a quote (or two?) from LDS President Gordon B. Hinkley:
Here is declared the Creator of all that is good and beautiful. I have looked at majestic mountains rising against a blue sky and thought of Jesus, the creator of heaven and earth. I have stood on a spit of sand in the Pacific and watched the dawn rise like thunderâ€”a ball of gold surrounded by clouds of pink and
white and purpleâ€”and thought of Jesus, the Word by whom all things were made. . . .What then shall you do with Jesus that is called Christ?
This earth is his creation. When we make it ugly, we offend him.
Looking past this bonbons assortment of accusation and blame, we see that these quotes call for us to improve our behavior toward the plants, animals, and simple or complex elements and their arrangements upon this planet, and thus toward their Creator. (I think our responsibility extends to the sky, as wellâ€”to light and dark, to time and space, and to countless undiscovered conditions and relations we live oblivious to.) What I wonder is why, when religious or cultural discourse invites change, it often relies on blame and guilt to motivate: â€œWhen you do these bad things you commit sins and offend God.â€ New Genesis is not alone in trying to guilt Mormons (or anybody) into becoming better â€œstewards of the earthâ€ through finger-wagging rhetoric–the practice is widespread in environmentalism generally.
Lighting fires of guilt to prompt people to change their behavior toward the environment risks provoking them to light backfires of defensiveness and apathy: Many will assume fall back positions and dig in their heels; some will lose sight of the most shining of goals in the fogs of shame they feel already, rightfully or not, over other matters; some will tune out guilt-fretted language completely along with any worthwhile issue it promotes. Sure, people are responsible for their wrongful behavior. But admonishing them to change only by telling them what they’re doing wrong or by telling them what not to do can run even the most earnest soul aground.
To be fair, one reason people depend upon “Shalt not” language in rising tides of cultural or spiritual awareness might be that often, when folks start to awake to the the awefulness of their situation, they see something of what they’re doing wrong but are much less clear on what to do instead. So they compose a “Not-To-Do” list as a starting point, an Old Testament-style map of the new moral world. The New Testament lays matters out differently. Christ takes the big “Shalt Not” list and turns it into two compelling “Shalls.” The emphasis shifts from unproductive, selfish behaviors like envy, murder, adultry, stealing etc. to the much more the creative, community-and-divinely-oriented conduct of loving God and one’s fellow beings.
Well, I just think there’s a lovely and more advanced precedent there for writing about experience. And really, there’s a new kind of nature writing emerging that allows for the drift of love in its language. In his essay, â€œField Notes on My Daughter,â€ David Gessner, an award-winning nature writer and the editor of Ecotone, asks how it could be possible for him and his wife to write â€œobjectivelyâ€ about their young daughter, whom they love so much. He answers:
â€œIt is not, I suppose . . . We are pre-wired to love our offspring in outsized, outrageous ways. So does that render my observations of my daughter useless? I donâ€™t think so. As long as I take some caution about not writing in a â€˜Isnâ€™t that adorableâ€™ vein, then why should it matter if love infusesâ€”not to say contaminatesâ€”my sentences? My best writing about ospreys â€¦ was filled with not just admiration but love for the birds. It sounds hokey, but isnâ€™t it obvious that our best writing must be suffused with love?â€
Yes, isn’t it obvious? Could Mormons get behind movements to improve their behavior toward the Earthâ€”and toward their fellow human beingsâ€”that engaged in language â€œsuffused with loveâ€ rather than pickled in guilt? Or not?