At home on Earth, in any corner of the garden

April 23, 2010 | 7 comments
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Delicate Arch. Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Delicate Arch. Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.

I posted this on Civil Religion as an introduction to Earth and environmentalism in Mormon teaching and experience. Thought it might be of interest here, as well.

Earth played a prominent role in Joseph Smith’s vision of the cosmos, beginning with the importance of Creation in what we call “the plan of salvation”.  The Genesis creation account is central to LDS temple liturgy, and our latter-day scriptures reiterate and elaborate that account in several key theological passages.  In Joseph’s understanding, the creation of the earth was collaborative and artisanal: Earth was not created ex nihilo, but organized from existing elements with an inherent spiritual dimension and destiny of their own. God the Father, the Supreme Creator, was magnanimous in his creative process and gave his spirit children a role in the spiritual labor.  For Joseph, this was no compromise of God’s sovereignty or denial of human creaturliness; on the contrary, it gave humans an eternal stake in God’s ongoing work of creation, which is to say salvation, just as it gave us an eternal stake in the welfare and destiny of the earth.

Earth was created as a paradise, but with the Fall of Adam and Eve the earth too fell, susceptible now to corruption and death.  But through Christ, the earth’s eternal destiny, like Adam’s and Eve’s,  is a glorious one.  Earth held a central place in Joseph’s eschatology: he taught that at the last day “the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.”  John’s “sea of glass,” Joseph taught, “is the earth, in its sanctified, immortal, and eternal state.”   And in that glorious state, Earth will once again be home to God’s children, saved through Christ for an exalted eternal life.

In Mormon teaching, then, Earth is more than an inert stage for the cosmic drama of human sin and salvation. Rather, the earth itself has a spiritual life, a life marked by sin and requiring salvation; Earth itself thus recognizes Christ as its Savior. And our relationship to Earth is more profound and urgent than the “dominion” spoken of in Genesis: our spiritual destinies are inherently bound together, and bound for a glorious future.

Given this rich theological backdrop, it’s a bit curious that Mormonism doesn’t really offer a unique environmentalism in those terms. Instead, Mormon discourse on environmentalism tends to use the same language of “stewardship” that is prevalent in other faith traditions—-that’s a fine vocabulary, I hasten to add, and certainly native to Mormonism as well, but not really informed by Joseph’s biblical teaching. And as in other faiths, LDS members are split on their environmental views; both sides will find ample post hoc justification for their political positions someplace in scripture.

To the extent that Mormon culture has developed its own environmentalism, it has done so on the basis of its history more than its theology—specifically, on its deep historical connection with a particular geographical place in the intermountain West.  There’s an theory out there that the Abrahamic monotheisms developed in the desert not by happenstance, but that the desert ecology directly shaped an emergent theology of absolute sovereignty. As my colleague Nate Oman puts it:

The God of monotheism is unimaginably huge, and correspondingly humanity becomes puny and small. I think that deserts facilitate the spiritual attitude necessary to make this kind of leap. In the desert the human scale is small. Huge cities are not possible. The margins of survival are small. … and one lives one’s life balanced on a knife edge between survival and eternity. In other words, it is an environment that makes one acutely aware of humanity as a pawn to much vaster and more powerful forces.

A similar connection between ecology and spirituality operates in Mormon experience.  The early Latter-day Saints traveled to a particular place, a promised land, in what they understood to be a modern enactment of Israel’s exodus. Their Great Basin home, first in the Salt Lake valley, and then expanding through a Mormon corridor in Idaho, Utah and Arizona, was also a desert, an arid, forbidding landscape of massive scale and strangeness.  From Nate, again:

The day to day world in which Mormons practiced their spirituality was the marginal world of the desert. It was a world dominated by fear of floods, droughts, and the narrow band of half-arable land at the edge of a howling waste. Half a century or more of such experience at a key point in the history of Mormon spirituality has left its mark.

We find traces of that physical geography in our hymnody, in titles like “High on the Mountaintop” and “For the Strength of the Hills,” in our scripture, in our folklore.  And the early Saints’ sojourn in Deseret, their deep identification with that particular corner of the earth, their infusing the landscape with sacred myth and their ecology brimming with spiritual significance—that has been the seedbed of a native Mormon environmentalism, to the extent that it has germinated at all. The most notable example of this tradition is the work of Terry Tempest Williams, in particular her fine memoir Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place .

The gospel, like the Israelites’ ark of the covenant, must be portable; it must be separable from a particular context, legible not only in the red deserts and gray mountains of the Great Basin, but also in the green hills, the frozen tundra, the rain forest, the great plains, the islands of the sea.  As the church has grown—now numbering more members outside of the United States than within—its connection to the physical places of its early history has been somewhat attenuated.  But it will always, I hope, carry with it that sense of place, that connection to and stake in the welfare of a particular corner of the garden, whichever corner it may be.

7 Responses to At home on Earth, in any corner of the garden

  1. William on April 23, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    “Earth was created as a paradise, but with the Fall of Adam and Eve the earth too fell, susceptible now to corruption and death. ”

    A few weeks ago, I was discussing with a friend about whether or not there was death in nature prior to the fall. (FWIW, both of us were raised Baptist and have converted to Catholicism). She was undecided, but many of her friends and family members (Protestants) insisted to her that there was no death whatsoever prior to the fall. I, on the other hand, have always taken the stand that the Scriptures allow for non-human death prior to the fall, but not human death, which is the consequence of sin.

    My argument was that 1) certain animals’ natures (eg. spiders) are such that they depend on death, and 2) that man was given permission to eat plants, which results in the death of a plant. To the first point, she responded that though a spider’s nature entails killing other animals, provided that death occurs, it would not be absolutely necessary in a pre-mortal environment. She had no response to my second point.

    You seem to take the position that there was no death in all of nature prior to the fall. Can you expound upon your position a bit more?

  2. Adam Greenwood on April 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    “But it will always, I hope, carry with it that sense of place, that connection to and stake in the welfare of a particular corner of the garden, whichever corner it may be.

    A lovely sentiment, but probably an impossible one. Its liking falling in love with love.

  3. NJensen on April 23, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    William-

    Not to sound trite, but the Genesis account reads “of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.” If we take this literally, then no plant has to die. It merely shares its creation with Man, who is then commanded to “dress [the Garden] and keep it.” More symbiotic than predatory.

    I could go into a lot of other observations like whether root and lettuce crops grow well in a climate that has “a cool of the day,” but I’ll stop while I’m ahead.

  4. Robert Hagedorn on April 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Eden garden sex?
    The lyrics stink.
    But the scandal’s about evidence.
    So forget about lyrics that stink.

  5. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 23, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, in his book “Surprised by Hope”, discusses the Bible’s actual teaching about the Resurrection and the ultimate destiny of mankind and the earth, and concludes, like Joseph Smith, that the earth will be heaven for the righteous resurrected. He argues that this realization should make us feel responsible for caring for the earth as our eternal home, rather than something we plan to desert forever after death, which is the basic understanding of most traditional Christians these days.

    May I suggest a corollary to the LDS understanding of creation that bears on this issue? It is one that derives from doctrines that are heretical to many denominations, and so are not avaiable to them as resources for creating a theology of natural stewardship. It is virtually unique to Mormonism.

    In the Book of Abraham, it seems pretty clear that not only Christ but also the many “noble and great ones” anbd perhaps may others of us in the pre-mortal world participated in the planning for and actual execution of the creation of the earth. In other words, the earth is not just something we have been entrusted with by God, it is also literally OUR creation too! It is something we discussed in the Grand Council in Heaven, planned, and sweated over, in whatever way spirit children can sweat, in order to get it right.

    It is clearly a complex system, the most complex part of which is the life on its surface. My guess is that when there was such a complex and big activity going on here, we were not just sitting on our clouds in the pre-mortal realm and dreaming about what earth life would be like. I think that, just as we expect to be fully occupied in the Spirit World, and in the Celestial Kingdom, we were also fully occupied helping Christ with the execution of the great plan in heaven. After we all “shouted for joy,” Jesus probably told us it was time to put our shoulders to the wheel and make it a reality. To help build the home that would be ours for eternity, and not be slothful servants.

    If we think of this earth as something WE helped to bring into being, we should feel upset that anyone wants to mess it up, abuse it, and disrespect it.

    At the very least, we certainly witnessed the creation, and participated in that way. When we are resurrected and recover our pre-mortal memories, will we feel guilty that we treated so poorly what Christ and our brothers and sisters created with so much care?

    Shouldn’t we learn to understand this world and the amazing things that were done in order to bring it to fruition? And if we actually aspire to become like Christ and the Father, and participate in world building ourselves, shouldn’t we learn to have the proper care for the world we know since that will be a big part of what we will be spending eternity doing? Isn’t such learning part of the “principle of intelligence” that will rise with us in the resurrection?

    The planned programs of the Church, especially scouting, and Girls Camp, have the potential to teach us appreciation for the earth, in ways that our increasingly suburbanized lives don’t. Scouting needs to be much more involved in real education of our youth, not just in camping skills but also in understanding and care for the natural world as it was created by God–and ourselves.

  6. Cameron Nielsen on April 23, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    I think an additional aspect of environmentalism found in the scriptures, but not necessarily discussed frequently, is the concept of sin as pollution. Thus, individuals and societies conquering sin through the Atonement is another way in which we ‘save’ or keep clean the planet.

  7. JennyW on April 30, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Rosalynde, this is lovely. I think you highlight an interesting tension behind a Mormon environmental project, namely the contrast between nomadism and rootedness. There are certain ways in which Mormonism requires a constant journeying (at times physical, at times spiritual) and yet there are certainly doctrinal and theological elements that also promote a connection to place, even celebrating this connection.