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.