MORMONISM DOES NOT accept the common religious belief that the earth is either mundane or evil, or that the realm of the sacred is far from the material world. On the contrary, Mormonism is a richly material religion investing a broad set of earthly objects with sacramental purpose. A sacrament presents us with an object that serves as a vehicle for the sacred. It gives us a regular means of participating in holiness. And any act or any object is ripe to embody this holiness.
For example, Mormons believe that temple garments serve as a symbol of protection, that during the last days Satan will have special power over bodies of the water, that mere stones can provide sacred sight for seers, and that divining rods—sticks from trees—served as media for revelation in early Mormonism. (It beats the selection on Comcast.) For Mormonism, anything on earth or in the heavens is a potential vehicle for the sacred. If we open our eyes, every bush is burning.
One way that we can gain this earth-bound sacramental vision is outlined in the Doctrine & Covenants. It states that God speaks in “the voice of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests, and the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds.” (D&C 88:90) In other words, the earth is a book of scripture, a medium for God’s voice.
What warning is the voice of God delivering through Hurricane Sandy, through the extinction of the Golden Toad and the Passenger Pigeon, through the threatened Sage Grouse in the Uintah Basin? What truth is God speaking through the dangerous levels of air pollution that Utahns breathe daily, a pollution that prematurely kills over 1,000 of them each year?
In Argentina, about 34 percent of all patients five years and older display symptoms of respiratory disease. A recent US study has concluded that more than 80 million people in China will die in the next 25 years from lung disease. How many cigarettes worth of pollution does one smoke simply by breathing the polluted air in the Salt Lake Temple during an endowment ceremony? Of what use is the Word of Wisdom if we kill ourselves with our own pollution?
Another way the earth speaks to us sacramentally can be seen in the Mormon version of pantheism. Church members will occasionally claim that environmentalism is only a political issue and is of marginal import to religion. Mormonism, they argue, is about the salvation of the human soul, not the earth. But revelation tells us otherwise. D&C 88 tells us that God resides within all nature—“in all things and through all things.” Anyone who sees the earth, the moon, the sun, or the stars “hath seen God.” This Mormon version of pantheism stands in stark contrast to the objectification and desacralization of the earth by many Western religions, and especially by science and capitalism. We don’t need to search for God’s throne near a distant Kolob; we can see it right in our own compost pile.
This Mormon pantheism helps us understand why we can actually measure a positive physiological impact on humans as they enter a forest. Humans experience the natural world with awe, reverence, and dread. This is because the earth is literally a sacred body. If (as the Prophet taught) I am divinity in embryo, then the Scrub Jay in my front yard also has a spark of divinity. Behind every number on the balance sheet, a mute spiritual value is hiding. To play with an ecosystem as if it were an economic toy is alien to the natural human experience of the world. If we are true to ourselves and to our own experience, we will see all nature with eyes of wonder; we will treat all life with respect and compassion.
The revelatory voice of the earth demands a response from us. All serious climate scientists agree that humans are causing global climate change that is dramatically affecting the planet. The 2013 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard on international climate science, concludes that we add roughly 3°C to global temperatures when we double atmospheric CO2 levels. Even if (as more optimistic Norwegian models predict) the mean expected level is closer to 2°C, the consequences of such a shift requires a response from our Mormon moral instincts. If we do not respond, our Mormonism is little more than a membership in a country club.
The third sacramental role the earth plays is as an agent in our quest for salvation. Most of us are in some condition of alienation, apostasy, and estrangement from a healthy and sustainable state. Rifts have opened between the individual and God, between members of a community, between a person and herself, or between the members of the Restored Church and the earth. We need salvation, or healing, from this separation. (The word salvation comes from the Latin word salvus, meaning healed.) The Restoration will not be complete until we heal the current alienation between Mormons and nature. The earth is a participatory and transformational symbol of our salvation process.
Indeed, the wilderness was where the great moments in spiritual history transpired. Consider Black Elk and Joseph Smith; consider Buddha and Francis of Assisi; consider Moses and Elijah, the many Nephite and Jaredite migrations, Lehi’s dream, the Mormon pioneers, John the Baptizer, the Essenes. Consider Jesus. So it is with us. Give us a temple of wilderness and we will be endowed with sacramental power from on high. Who can find in scripture a sacrament more potent than one that takes place in wilderness?
If the earth is a sacrament of revelation and salvation, we ignore it at our spiritual and physical peril. As Elder Maxwell taught,
True disciples [of Christ …] would be consistent environmentalists—caring both about maintaining the spiritual health of a marriage and preserving a rain forest; caring about preserving the nurturing capacity of a family as well as providing a healthy supply of air and water.1
Do you wish to follow Christ? Then awake from your slumber and lift your hand to calm the environmental storm gathering upon the waters.
We are not speaking abstractly here: we are speaking of salvation as physical survival—our own survival, the survival of our beloved church, survival of the many ecosystems and life forms that surround and sustain us, survival of our economy, survival of our children and their children. The great majority of competent scientists predict that if we continue to exploit carbon-based energy the way we have been for another hundred years, the ensuing global climate change will cause rising tides to inundate some of the most populous areas of the world, will cause over a third of all species on earth to become extinct, will cause vast tracts of farmland to become desert, will cause whole sections of our oceans to degenerate into dead zones. Try playing ward volleyball under those conditions.
A poet asked a prophet: “What should we be without the dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return?” If we do not solve pressing environmental problems, nothing else matters—not the preaching of the gospel, not sacrament meeting, not the temple, not social equality. Our Sunday School teachers will be gone; our Beehive classes will have vanished.
The connection between sin (as alienation) and societal collapse is a major theme in the Book of Mormon. Is there another time in which the body of Mormonism has been as alienated from its own survival on earth as it is now? We stand on Cumorah as the final armies converge.
We hear the repeated cry that the Mormon gospel is an anchor to the soul. But an anchor is now a false comfort. Those who anchor the winter in this environmental port will die. We must depart. But as we do, let us listen to the whisperings of the Sage: “All winds and all tides work to the favor of the ablest sailor.” Let the Mormon sacrament of the earth become the sail that draws us toward a new heaven and a new earth. One that we ourselves have worked to create.