Scholars & Saints

Latter-day Saint Ecotheology (feat. George Handley)

March 09, 2023 Stephen Betts Episode 32
Scholars & Saints
Latter-day Saint Ecotheology (feat. George Handley)
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. George Handley, Latter-day Saint ecocritic, activist, and professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University joins me to chat about what Latter-day Saint theology says about environmental stewardship. Handley says he hopes he is "planting a tree on the last day of the world."

Latter-day Saint Ecotheology
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I hope I'm planting trees on the last day of the world. I hope I’m planning for my great-great-great grandchildren's lives on the last day of the world, because otherwise I don't deserve whatever gifts might be coming."
                                                                                                                —George Handley
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Stephen Betts: Welcome back to Scholars and Saints. I'm your host, Stephen Betts.

Stephen Betts: I’m joined today by Dr. George Handley, professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University. Dr. Handley describes himself as “a literary scholar and eco-critic whose work is characterized by its comparative reach across the cultures and landscapes of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. He's also known for his creative writing that uniquely blends nature, writing, theology, and family history. He's a leading advocate for in scholar of environmental stewardship within the Latter-day Saint tradition, and a passionate believer in the public humanities.” Dr. Handley is the author of numerous books ranging from post-colonial literary ecocriticism to novels and personal meditations on religious belief and the humanities.

We're talking today about Latter-day Saint environmental thought. Thanks for being here today, George. 

George Handley: Thanks so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Stephen Betts: So, George, can you give us a sense for what Latter-day scripture and official teachings have to say about the environment and environmental stewardship? 

George Handley: Yeah, there's quite a bit, but several of the main features of the theology that I think are most relevant are, first of all, in what's known as the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Moses, which is Joseph Smith's restored account of sort of a fuller version, as it were, of what the Book of Genesis contains especially regarding the Creation. And one of the most remarkable or notable doctrines that emerges from that account is that of the spiritual creation. That is, that the physical creation was preceded by a spiritual one in which the spirit and matter ended up joining and making of all living things, living souls.

There's a sort of a hint of this in the book of Genesis, but it's more explicitly laid out in the book of Moses. So, plants and animals are described as living souls, and that's pretty significant doctrine, and there are many ancillary doctrines that relate to this idea. But what one of the things that that means is that this physical life is inspirited. It is holy, right? We know this again from the Genesis account. In the days of the Creation, we see that God is blessing the earth and he constantly remarks that it is good, right? So, there's a kind of inherent value to the physical world that's already established in the Genesis account, but because it's more explicitly pronounced this idea of a spiritual being of the natural world, I think really opens us up to the possibility that the physical world is a conduit or a portal to the spiritual realm, and that we're not, you know, in some sort of way station or worse condemned to a fallen world that is you know, utterly and totally removed from the presence of God and the presence of spiritual things, which relates to the Latter-day Saint notion of a fortunate fall, right? The scripture from the Book of Mormon that says, “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy” suggests that the fall was not so much a curse, but an opportunity. And that opportunity is one of personal growth and development through the testing of experience, the tasting right of experience in the mortal body on the physical earth. And that it is through childbearing and working the land and learning how to feed ourselves as a species, as it's described as Adam and Eve, that we reconnect with the spiritual in a new way rather than in the, you know, the Garden of Eden. And so that this is, you know, part of a divine purpose to be here.

George Handley: Moreover, in other revelations that came to Joseph Smith and to Brigham Young, the earth is the site of the celestial kingdom. So, in Mormon theology, Latter-day Saints are not aspiring to go to some other place for a heavenly abode. The ambition is to stay put. That's actually quite extraordinary because there is a tendency within Christian thought to be focused on the spiritual and on the heavenly to such a degree that the physical and the earthly is maybe secondary or worse it's distracting, right? It's actually an illusion that draws us away from the life of the spirit and so Latter-day Saint theology is very much incarnational theology and embodied theology where this earth is our am ultimate ambition and God is an embodied God, also, you know, suggests more of the same, right? That this is a theology that takes the life of the body very seriously as an opportunity for spiritual experience. You know, the body or the earth aren't limits, but actually conduits. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, there's so much you said here that I want to touch on, and it's not , it's not all going to be in order, but you know, you talk about this idea of spiritual creation and this for people familiar with biblical studies, accounts of Genesis, the sort of multiple documentary strains or the different voices in Genesis, you have the, you know, classically it's called the “Elohist” creation story versus the “Yahwist” creation story. And yeah what Joseph Smith does is he says, look, these may well be, I mean, he's not familiar with, you know, biblical studies, but his revelatory sense is these may well be different voices, but they're different voices telling actually different stories that are theologically significant in that they're telling a story of spiritual creation and a physical creation.

But you also mentioned this “fortunate Fall,” and I think that's really critical for understanding the Latter-day Saint attitude towards the environment, but also in general to understand the Latter-day Saint theodicy. Latter-day Saints, as you noted, don't understand the world as a bad place to be. They understand the challenges of mortal human experience. A kind of refining experience that they go through in order to yeah, kind of create or participate in the creation of a better world. One of the ways that this manifests at the individual level, as you noted, is this attitude towards the body as something that's taken seriously as a divine entity.

So, Latter-day Saints, even in the 19th century talking about you need to eat meat sparingly. You need to, you know, eat grains and vegetables and really take care of the body because the body is indeed, in a kind of magnification of what Paul says about the body of the church. Your body is literally a kind of temple. So say more about the connection, say between the body, the embodiedness of God, things like health codes and how Latter-day Saints act towards the environment.

George Handley: Well, that last phrase, I mean, I know you wanna probably get into talking about contemporary attitudes and so on. So, you know, we're still in the realm of theory here. I mean, I am entirely persuaded that LDS theology is extraordinarily environmentally friendly and in the Christian tradition, maybe exceptionally environmentally friendly, but attitudes and behavior are a different conversation in many ways because I don't think a lot of these ideas have saturated the mindset of Latter-day Saints to the degree that they should.

But most people who know anything about Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, you know, know that they don't drink, they don't smoke. They have a dietary code that prohibits coffee and so on, and that's for spiritual reasons, right? The revelation known as The Word of Wisdom is where the dietary code is laid out. One aspect of that code that's not talked about frequently enough is that we are invited to eat meat sparingly. We're invited to eat fruits and vegetables in season. I take those to mean I should eat locally. I should try to reduce my meat consumption pretty significantly. I think the average American eats about eight ounces of meat a day. In Utah I think it's probably higher, in the Intermountain West it's probably higher. And the Word of Wisdom also describes a dietary code for all of the natural world actually. I mean, it doesn't go into detail, but it talks about the wild beasts and domestic animals and so on. So, it's not just a human code, right? It's a code for human beings that connects us to the natural world. That's how I read it, and I think it's very, very compelling. And of course, given the great amount of research that's been done over the many years now about the impact on the climate and on the environment generally of different consumption patterns and the transportation of food, you know, the Word of Wisdom seems uncannily, right in line with what we need right now. In fact, at the beginning there's this sort of famous phrase that Latter-day Saints mention of “conspiring men,” you know, in the, in the latter-days, creating a certain kind of regime of deceit and greed in the world and that this is sort of advocated as an answer to that. I think that's really fascinating. And you know, I mean, you can look at what the tobacco industry has done, but I mean, you go back in history to the plantation economies of, of the New World were essentially, I, I've told my students at Brigham Young University, It's like a Word of Wisdom, nightmare. You know, they were creating coffee, tea, and alcohol from the sugar to make rum, and these were proletarian hunger killers essentially used to exploit people.

And of course, I mean, there's some very strong benefits of coffee in the history of the world. I've read those those accounts too, you know about all the great intellects who may never have achieved their greatness without some coffee. But the point is that you look at the food industry today and what it does to animals and what it does to land, and the way in which we are disconnected from our own bodies by virtue of what we're consuming because we're disconnected from the body of the earth in the act of consumption. We know nothing about anything that goes in our mouths anymore, virtually. I mean, we know it's maybe we know like how many calories and how much protein, how many grams of protein or whatever else, but we don't know anything about its biological history. And that's by design, right? That's by design that we don't know.

We don't think of chicken meat as an animal anymore. And frankly, the way chickens are artificially developed to have larger breasts to the point where they can barely walk, we have essentially transformed animals into objects, into instruments of our consumption. So anyway, the main principle is that Latter-day Saint theology is very much an embodied theology that has implications not only for food, but also for the human economy generally. And one of the most important sources of inspiration about stewardship is actually in the revelations to Joseph Smith, known as the Law of Consecration, where it's made very clear that our ownership of things is really an ownership of natural resources, which are gifts of God given to us for our happiness and for our pleasure, but given to us to be consumed with gratitude and with humility and with modesty. You know the phrase in the scripture that I cite most often from section 59 of the Doctrine & Covenants. Is “be used with judgment not to access neither by extortion.”

Our relationship to what we consume has to be gentle. And if we combine that with the idea that there's a spiritual presence in the physical world, and that when I'm looking at a tree, I'm looking at a living soul. And when I contemplate a cat or when I contemplate a squirrel. Or last night my wife and I were walking just down my normal suburban street here in Provo, Utah, and I saw Cooper's Hawk and a great horned owl having a little bit of a spat between each other in a pine tree. I'm looking at living souls and that causes me a degree of modesty and humility in the face of the physical world that makes me want to receive more of it rather than take more of it, and there's a lot of emphasis placed on aesthetics. In section 59, it describes the pleasure that we should take in God's creations and the pleasure God takes in our pleasure, which I think is really, really profound.

And you know, we have a sense of this in the Genesis and in the Book of Moses, accounts of the creation that. Adam and Eve beholding, the creation is an act itself. You know, there's a big difference between seeing and beholding, right? And beholding is an experience of wonder. It is [an] experience of awe, and it is an experience of receiving a gift rather than taking, and when you receive a gift, you understand that it's not yours, and that's foundational to the Law of Consecration. Everything we own then becomes something that God is interested in asking for our help to redistribute and repurpose for the blessing of the human family. So, there's a deep interest in Latter-day Saint theology in economics, right? And how do we feed ourselves? How do we take care of the poor and the Lord says, “it has to be done in my way,” which is that the rich are made low by means of their dispersal of the resources that they have at their disposal to the blessing of others.

So anyway, I think that's also maybe a longer conversation, but I think fundamentally, environmental problems are economic problems. They're problems of distribution or poor distribution inequitable distribution of Earth's resources. And the Law of Consecration really says exactly that as well, that that's fundamentally a moral problem that needs religious attention from the point of view of believers.

Stephen Betts: I want to probe this more what you said about the connection between this, notion of consecration and the theological emphasis on avoiding, the word was extortion. But I take that to mean something like exploitation as well. Right? Exploitation of people. There's a deep concern in Latter-day Saint economic theology, we could call it, on avoiding the exploitation of people, on attending to the needs of the poor, on attending to the needs of the disadvantaged and to anyone in the community who has needs. Right? And that's not always something that has been fully met, of course, in Latter-day Saint communities. But there is, even today in Latter-day Saint congregations a very strong emphasis on having funds to take care of the poor and to have financial and spiritual needs [met] in the community. So I wonder if we can talk more about this. Certainly in the 19th century, Latter-day Saints are actively developing communitarian practices, living in communities where they're really trying to live this idea of consecration, the idea that you give over your, your surplus to the community and you receive back what you need. And in that way, everyone as producers and as consumers, exist in a kind of harmony where needs are met. So talk more about that. Talk more about 19th century practices of consecration. 

George Handley: Yeah, I like to think of it as a number of contemporary writers might call it a gift economy, right? Where you no longer see things as commodities, but you receive things as gifts, which means you also know that you are in a position to give in return.

Yeah. I, you know, those experiments with the Law of Consecration and the United Order were really, really beautiful. I think the vestiges of that are that Mormons today, Latter-day Saints today are, I think most wards in the Church feel communitarian in some cultural sense and in some economic sense, right? I mean, I've served as a bishop and as a counselor in a bishopric a number of times. And so, I've watched that economy work. You know, I've seen very wealthy people in the ward give extraordinarily generously to what's known as fast offerings every month, and then that money is used to help people in the ward.

It's very moving to me how invisible that is to a large degree, except to the people who open up the [donation] envelopes and deposit the checks on the end of every Sunday, you kind of see what's happening and how it's helping people. I think what's a little sad about it is that, I mean, what maybe hasn't translated from the 19th century to the 20th century is that since the economy in the 19th century wasn't really a cash economy, as it is today, it was goods and services and I think that lent itself to a greater sense of connectedness to the natural world in one respect. Certainly their lives itself were grounded in the earth much more than ours are, and in the weather patterns and in their vulnerabilities to the climate, whatever it was doing at the time. And so, there was a greater sense of humility, I think, with regard to what nature can and can't do for us and what that might mean about our reliance on one another and reliance on God.

So I think in the modern economy, you know, going back to what we were saying earlier about food, it's true of transportation, it's true of home construction, and virtually everything about our lives materially now has really divorced us from that sense of connection to the rhythms of the earth. We're virtually weather illiterate these days, climate illiterate, botanically illiterate. Our knowledge of local fauna is pretty much wiped out, you know, unless you have a little bit of a Boy Scout experience where you have to learn the names of ten wild animal species and ten native plants in the area, or something like that. So, you really have to work hard against the grain of our modern society to become more knowledgeable of the places that we live in. So, I guess there's a generosity of spirit and a communitarianism in the ward experience to this day that I think is increasingly rare in American society. So, I think that's a really fabulous thing and I love it as much as, as anybody else. It's one of the main sources of deep satisfaction as a Latter-day Saint, practicing my religion. 

But I wish for and hunger for more understanding of the fact that the economy that we're a part of is not a cash economy. It's actually a natural resource economy. It's a gift economy of the earth. And when we heat our homes, when we drive our cars, when we plug in our computers and when we watch Netflix, right, we are using energy or using the body of the earth to provide these experiences for us, and we are not taking proper account of that, and we are not thinking through how we could do so more modestly. Nor are we thinking through how we could do so in a way that repurposes and moves the excess of gifts that we have into an economy that blesses other people and blesses the planet.

Because these lifestyles that we're leading, of course, are famously doing tremendous damage right to the climate in particular, and that's going to undermine the economy as we know it. It already is doing so, and unless we, you know, get smart about, and cognizant of what's happening and really decide to put our considerable resources as a religious tradition who knows how to be communitarian, knows how to take care of the less advantaged and really put that to use in society and on behalf of the planet, I think it would be a real missed opportunity for, for us. 

I’ve been involved in academic ecotheological conversations for many years, but also as an activist and many, many people I know wish Latter-day Saints would get more involved because they know that we have tremendous resources. I mean, they see us when we respond to natural disasters, and they know we're really good at that kind of response. But I think we need a little more emphasis on the proactive preventative measures that would maybe mitigate against natural disasters and help communities be more resilient in the face of them by virtue of how we've learned to live. But unfortunately, I think we're kind of indistinguishable from most American lifestyles.

Despite our radically unique theology of environmental stewardship and creation, you know, we don't stand out as unique people in that regard. I will defend to the end of my life all the remarkable Mormon environmentalists I've known all my life. There are many, there's an army of them, but they do not get the sort of publicity and visibility that you see in those who are, you know, politicians or those who run businesses or those who are more prominent in society. You just, you know, if you sample the average American, what do you think of Latter-day Saints in their relationship to the environment? They wouldn't know anything about it. Right. And they certainly wouldn't say, oh, those, those Mormons, they're really good at taking care of the Earth. I, you know, I don't think that would even occur to anybody. So, we have to up our game. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah. As somebody who's lived in the Intermountain West for probably not as long as you have, but for a number of years, one thing that sticks out to me is that Latter-day Saints are really good at things like gardens. They're really good at, on a just sort of basic level of engaging with the earth in productive ways. And yet on the other hand, especially now with the kind of tech boom that's happening in Utah Valley and other places in Utah where you have all of these companies, there's a huge exploitation of natural resources that doesn't seem to have any accountability to things like the rapid deterioration of the Great Salt Lake or, you know, the drought conditions that have pertained in Utah for decades now. And the sorts of uses of water by industry that, that are, that are contributing to that it seems. And we, you know, now making national news, it seems like every day we have, you know, the Colorado River in Crisis and of course the Colorado River, running through Utah, right. I mean, how did we get to the place where Latter-day Saints are so aware of the environment to a place where they're so unaware? What kinds of changes happened over that, you know, hundred-year span between the late 19th century and now that changed that?

George Handley: Well, it's probably the American story more than it is a Latter-day Saint story, right? But it's certainly 19th century life in America was more connected to the earth. But, you know, I mean, not all of early 19th century practices in Latter-day Saint communities in Utah were as environmentally friendly as they ought to have been. I mean, it's notable because Brigham Young preached against a lot of environmental degradation that he saw happening. So, there was, there were problems with overgrazing. There were problems with abuse of water resources and other kinds of things. 

You know, we've learned a lot by mistakes. We've straightened all of our rivers and dammed them throughout much of the 20th century. And now we've realized that there probably needs to be a better way. There is a better way. Some of those dams may need to stay and they may be good for us, but we've had to restore a lot of rivers. We're restoring the delta of the Provo River as we speak To help the June Sucker recover, which will help Utah Lake recover. So, you know, I think actually in some ways we're in better shape now in terms of knowledge of our impact on the earth. So, we know a lot more about river ecology. We know all about climate science. We know a lot more now to guide us, but we're not using that information because we're an incredibly polarized society politically and the environment has become a political football that basically gets tossed around. But we don't see sort of shared ownership, bipartisan ownership over the problems that we face.

But that said, I think the trends are largely moving in the right direction in Utah and elsewhere in the Church. I mean, I can't speak globally necessarily because I don't have that much experience. But my sense is that Latter-day Saints are awakening, that Utah politically with regard to the environment has been slowly, much too slowly, but slowly taking steps in the right direction. We're seeing a lot more development of wind and solar energy in Utah, for example, there's more willingness to talk about the climate as a problem that is not denied as much as it used to be. I don't hear open mockery of the Environmental Protection Agency or Endangered Species Act as I used to when I first moved here 25 years ago. Air quality has been enough of a problem here in Utah to alert us to some of these issues in some positive ways. So, I'm cautiously optimistic that we're moving in the right direction and we may be able to make some corrections in time, but we may not. That's also very likely that we will not make some corrections in time. I think it's not only likely, I think it's inevitable that we will miss the boat on, on some things, but you know, I've been teaching at BYU for 25 years, and students are extraordinarily receptive to the message that as members of the Church, they have a serious and exciting responsibility to be good stewards of the earth's resources. And they take to it. I mean, they are fully energetic and it's not, despite their faith, it's because of it. And so, I think that's, that's a wonderful trend and I know that, you know, positive indicators for me are that BYU as an institution now has a sustainability officer and they're developing a plan, a sustainability plan for the university. The city of Provo is doing the same thing. I think the Church is moving in that direction as well. So, I think there's, you know, we just can't, we can't bury our heads in the sand any longer and not be a part of the global conversation that has to take place. We've gotta get involved, but I think it's slowly waking up in that direction.

Stephen Betts: So George, you've written several books exploring, you've talked about Provo and, and its environment, and you've done a lot of work exploring the intersection of your personal lived faith and your experiences with the local environment. So I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that work and what was the impetus for this particular style of engagement with the environment?

George Handley: Yeah, thank you for that question. You know, I was trained as a literary critic. My degree is in comparative literature. I was trained as a specialist in literature of the Americas. I wrote a first book about Caribbean and US literature about the history of slavery and Latin America was a great interest of mine. But as I moved to Utah, I mean, I had an experience at, I taught for three years at Northern Arizona University and Flagstaff, and they had a strong environmental focus on that campus. And that kind of started me on this path. I actually had sort of a pivotal conversation with a colleague who was a Jewish woman who was a scholar of the Judeo-Christian tradition in ecotheology. She had trained with John Cobb at Claremont, and she wanted to know what Mormons believed about the environment. So I shared a lot of the stuff we talked about it earlier and her jaw just hit the floor and she said, “I don't wanna offend you, but do Mormons know this? Because I don't know a single Mormon environmentalist and what you've just told me is extraordinary.” And she kind of looked me in the eye and said, “you have to write about this.” And I kind of took that to heart. And so when I arrived at BYU I decided to write an academic essay on the environmental ethics of Mormon belief that I published in BYU studies back in 2001, I think. And that kind of got me started. I started noticing that I also felt drawn to civic activity in some way. I didn't wanna run for office or anything, but I started getting involved with a lot of nonprofits and when they found out there was a Latter-day Saint who was upfront about his faith and about his environmentalism, I got conscripted by everybody. You know, they were like, we got a Mormon who cares about the environment? Let's, let's get him to speak. So I started doing a lot of public speaking, lobbying, and that changed my writing style and I realized that I started doing what, you know, was known as public humanities or sort of public intellectual work. Wrote a lot of op-eds, so I just developed a kind of writing style that I, that was based more on oral presentation, which of course I had learned as a Latter-day Saint giving talks in church, but also, you know, using the environment as my cause. But using the language of Latter-day Saint belief to try to help people, you know, stop paying attention to the political parties and what they were saying, and just think about what our own theology is saying.

And it just got more and more traction. So, I started writing more and more essays. They remained largely academic, but at a pivotal point, I had always wanted to be a creative writer and a friend said, “you should write a book about the Provo River, and it doesn't need to be an academic book. It should just be a beautiful account of what a beautiful river it is.” And my grandfather owned a cabin on the upper Provo River, and I had spent time there as a child. And when I moved to Utah, I started fly fishing up there religiously. I mean, it almost became an addiction. I curbed that addiction before it got outta control. But it was really hard to resist the temptation, just get in my car and go drive and go fish.

But I started keeping in a journal of all my encounters with a Provo River watershed. Whether they were up in the Uinta mountains or all the way down to the [Utah] lake, and then that turned into an environmental memoir that I published with the University of Utah Press called Home Waters. And that got a lot of positive attention. I had aspired to write something that would get national attention and that would help put sort of the Mormon experience into the national dialogue, but it just has remained largely a local book read by people mostly either in the LDS tradition or in Utah. But it kind of got me on a different set of radars, I guess, or a different it, it entered me into different kinds of conversations with creative writers and artists and other kinds of activists. So, my political activism continued. my creative writing started really blossoming. I wrote a novel American Fork that has very serious engagement with environmental themes. Both Home Waters and American Fork are, you know, Utah Valley. It's all about these canyons, these mountains, very, very detailed and hopefully loving and reverent descriptions of what I consider to be an extraordinary landscape that has not gotten its due attention in literature, in local literature. So I really felt, I still feel very strongly about that, that you know, all the great landscapes that have inspired great literature all over the world, the Lake District in England, or wherever else you might go, why in the world hasn't Utah Valley produced just an army of novelists and poets, but they're, you know, this is a beautiful artistic community to be a part of.

There are a lot of wonderful writers, a lot of incredible visual artists, poets and musicians, and photographers, and increasingly they're paying attention to environmental themes. So I think that kind of convergence is happening. I then wrote a, I sort of finally collected all the essays I had written about the environment and LDS theology and put it into one book with some new essays called The Hope of Nature that was published a couple years ago with the Maxwell Institute. And I'm working on a new novel, so I'll keep writing creatively, but I love sort of bouncing back and forth. I think it just, I felt the urgency of it so much that it felt like academic writing was only gonna get me a certain kind of audience and that I needed to adjust my style to reach different kinds of audiences. So that's been my ambition. I'm the most proud of my novel, but I never got a literary agent. I didn't have any marketing help whatsoever. So, it's barely sold copies, but people who read it tell me they really, really like it. And then I get really good reports from people. But it's, it's selling in a tiny trickle. So, I, you know, it didn't have the, I kind of thought, well, if you really want to impact people, you've impact them with stories. But we're not a big reading culture. We pay a lot of attention to the visual artists here in Utah Valley, I think, and the music culture here is in Utah Valley. I mean, I love music as much as anybody, but I don't think we pay as much attention to literature as we ought to. I mean, if I could make it into a film, maybe that would be the way to do it. But, you know, I just, I just wanna reach people. I wanna saturate the culture with the right kinds of stories and narratives that really help shape the moral imagination in a more productive way. 

Stephen Betts: I mean this what you're talking about and kind of the style of creative writing that you're talking about really reminds me of some discussions I've had recently with Terryl Givens and Kristine Haglund and Michael Austin and others about Mormon literature. The sort of formation of Mormon literature, but particularly I'm thinking of Eugene England and his approach to recovering a very culturally recognizable form of Mormon literature that's based in the kind of everyday experience of the landscape and of Latter-day Saint communal life that really shows up in the sorts of diaries and things like that of Mormon pioneers in the 19th century. And something you said reminded me of this, which was you tied your connection to the Provo River and the watershed and your experience with fly fishing and the journal you took that turned into this project with your experiences at your grandfather's cabin along the, the upper Provo River, and I wonder if you could talk more about connection between this genealogical or historical consciousness that Latter-day Saints, I think uniquely have in some ways, their emphasis on inserting themselves into just a really deep historical consciousness of who their ancestors are and how they're connected to this sort of deep history of humanity. Can you talk more. You noted that, that you, you use family history as part of this, as part of this creative style. Can you talk more about that? 

George Handley: Yeah, it's a really important topic. You know, I'm very influenced, a very important writer for me early in my life was Wallace Stegner in his essays and his novels. And, you know, he really championed this idea of a sense of place, right? Which he said you couldn't, we needed an American society in order to take care of the land. We needed to have a sense of place. And that a sense of place comes from a sense of history. What was interesting to me when I moved to Utah was that I immediately felt connected to that sense of place and sense of history, but I didn't see the byproduct that he had anticipated it would provide. And that was a really intense care for the land, and I couldn't figure out why the formula didn't work. Because I thought, well, Latter-day Saints in Utah have a strong sense of place, you know, an enviable one. But a lot of people had adopted very anti-environmental views. And I thought this was a very interesting problem.

And I think I concluded that the reason for that is that maybe Stegner had the formula a little bit wrong in that a sense of history. History is very selective. Right. What we remember is a function also of what we choose to forget, and we have a strong sense of Mormon history, but we don't have a strong sense of Native American history in Utah, for example, we don't have a sense of the genealogy of other religious communities in Utah, we being Latter-day Saints. So our genealogical sense of history is maybe sometimes too constrictive and it's too grounded in identity. We do our genealogy where we take pride in our ancestry because it's about a certain kind of confident identity, and I found that when I was in the natural world by myself, my identity was undone. You know, I found that nature challenged my sense of autonomy and my sense of a sure, certain, bounded self. But that wasn't a threatening thing. It was actually spiritually enriching and something I actually craved. So, I wrote Home Waters with this idea of a sense of place maybe should be reformulated as a sense of ecology. That's why I used the word “home waters” instead of “homeland” that I thought if I'm relating to a river system and I'm relating to an ecosystem, a moving dynamic, fluid, constantly changing body, then it's challenging me to keep my own sense of history a little bit, uh, loose. And so I actually went into some of the gaps. I played with the idea that there were a whole bunch of things I didn't know about my ancestors. I mean, I descend from one of the first irrigators of the Provo River and I thought, well, gee, what a great thing to write a book about the Provo River and claim that I descend from the first guy. I have five pages on the guy's life. That's it! I know virtually nothing about him. So I invented stuff and I purposely told, I tell my reader I'm, you know, I have to imagine things about him, and I also have to imagine that there's stories that I don't know, right? The Native stories. The inhabitants here before Mormon settlers came.

So, I think we have to be really careful with a sense of place. I mean, the one thing I think is important, you know, you're alluding to what's known as the, you know, the prophecy in the book of Malachi that's very important to Latter-day Saints. And that is that, “the hearts of the fathers will be turned to the children and in the hearts of the children will be turned to the fathers.” It's a two-way deal. and I think sometimes Latter-day Saints are thinking only in terms of, because we do so much genealogical work, we're only doing the looking backward. And mind you, we're only looking vertically. We're not, you know, we're not looking synchronically across family lines to realize that when you do a genealogy back through time, you're opening up these connections across time that actually make you related to thousands of people and it reduces your singularity of your unique claim to a genealogical past to meaninglessness. I mean, it doesn't mean anything that I descend from Mormon pioneers in that sense. I mean, it means something to my faith. It means something to what I owe certain legacies that have been passed on to me, but it doesn't give me any privileges that other people don't have. And if I act like it does, then I'm misusing it. So I was really worried about that kind of a sense of place that I thought wasn't intercultural enough. It wasn't, you know, fluid enough and it wasn't ecologically sensitive enough. And when we think about what it means to have our hearts turned toward our children, that's a way of looking deep into the future that really should mean, okay, if the climate is gonna be four degrees warmer by 2100, my grandson, who was born in 2020, my first grandchild, will be 80 years old that year. So that's very real to me. Now, 2100 is a very real year. It's not some fictional, you know, number thrown out into the far future. It's, you know, game on because I've got a grandson who needs a world to be livable when he's 80 years old when he has grandchildren. So I think, I think we could do better about thinking in both directions. 

Stephen Betts: I really love how you talk about how being in both a physical ecology and what you've really laid out as a kind of temporal ecology radically changes how you think about your own contingency in that ecology where you, like you said, your identity becomes much less important than your stewardship of your position within that ecology and how you think about both temporally, well, how is this gonna affect people in the future? How am I unaware of these gaps in historical knowledge? How am I unaware of the ways that I impact my environment? 

George Handley: Yeah. 

Stephen Betts: I really love how that's a kind of, it's holistic without being totalizing. 

George Handley: Yeah.

Stephen Betts:  You're rooted in that contingency and you're rooted in a network as opposed to in a sort of a tree. You become part of this network you can't see the end of, but you know it's there. 

George Handley: Yeah. No, that's beautifully said. “Holistic, but not totalizing” is spot on. It's very important that we feel connection, right. But connection also opens us up to what we don't know. Right. So I, that that's something I feel like creative writing is better suited to do than academic writing. And that's why an environmental memoir that's very poetic and a novel helped me explore those gaps of my own knowledge in richer ways than I think I could do otherwise. That continues to be very satisfying to me. 

Stephen Betts: So George, you've talked about your work as embracing ecotheology or a theological mode. What kind of a community is there? Are there other people doing theological work on environmental ethics in the Latter-day Saint tradition? And what are their names? What are they working on? What sort of a network are you a part of?

George Handley: I feel very fortunate because by virtue of being at BYU, I'm surrounded by brilliant people who are devout members of the Church who think about their faith in very interesting ways, inflected by their various disciplines. I'm very close with a network of environmentally minded academics at BYU, have been for two decades. And our conversations have been extraordinarily fruitful. You know, I've been friends with Steve Peck for almost the 25 years we've both been at BYU and we've had an ongoing, you know, multi-decade dialogue going about our faith and our environmental stewardship. I think his writing, his fiction, his essays are extraordinarily rich with theology. I think Charles Inouye’s a way's new memoir, Zion Earth Zen Sky it has a very interesting environmental turn right at the very end, and it's all grounded in that idea of spiritual creation and how spiritually valuable it is for us to be engaged in a physical way with the physical world. So I think it's a really profound articulation of our theology as a creative non-fiction piece. I just co-edited with two young, brilliant scholars, Anna Thurston and Kristen Blair, a special issue of Religions an online journal about LDS stewardship. There's David Gore, Sam Palfreyman, Aaron Kelson. They're really great essays. There was a special issue of Dialogue about ten years ago that still has some fantastic voices in it. Jason Brown's essay in that collection is one that I use often. And Adam Miller, you know, he doesn't write explicitly about the environment, but his most recent book on the Book of Mormon, the book within the book of Mormon known as  Mormon with the theological series on the Book of Mormon that the Maxwell Institute put out, he engaged in that book ecotheology, thinking about the end of the world, what it means to write at the end of the world, and what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. 

Increasingly as you know, younger, Latter-day Saints are getting degrees in divinity and theology. And I think we're in for quite a tidal wave. You know, I feel like it started about 15 years ago. There was just a turn at the Maxwell Institute. There was an ongoing explosion of interest in the ecotheology conversation, and I think it's just growing all the time. The last Mormon History Association meeting in Logan was all about the environment, so it was pretty exciting to hear people who don't normally talk about environmental issues talking about them. So, I think that's changing too. You know, I don't try to tell the Church what to do. I don't try to tell church leaders what they're doing right or wrong. That's not my purpose. I'm actually relatively uninterested in those questions. My job, as I see it, is to contribute to my culture, you know, to build it, right? That's what building the kingdom means to me. And so I'm, I'm just trying to put some bricks into the, into the construction of something that I think is beautiful and worthy of our theology.

And, you know, I've never felt actively discouraged bb BYU administration or Church leaders to stop doing what I'm doing. I've never felt anything but support and encouragement. So, so far it's been a really lovely experience and I feel like I get a stronger and stronger sense of receptivity to my writing. So, I hope that continues. I mean, I do know it can be fraught, you know, I was, I was mentored at a crucial point in my life by Gene England. I'm close friends with Terryl Givens, and you gotta watch the political landscape and make sure that you're remaining an effective voice in a community that can very quickly snuff somebody's voice out if it doesn't go right. But I feel very fortunate to be a part of a small army of really brilliant and wonderful people who inspire me every day. 

Stephen Betts: Thanks, George. Before we conclude, I feel like we have to kind of address , maybe the elephant in the room about sort of environmental consciousness and what that really means. And a lot of thinkers, especially when you get into the more theoretical literature, they're very pessimistic, right? They're very, like, you get into some of this stuff and it's very sensational and not wrongly sensational about coming catastrophic consequences of human activity on the environment. And when you start reading that stuff, I know I've had, you know, I've had experiences where it's just overwhelming where you read something by you know, the first thing for me was Bruno Latour. Getting into some of his stuff and thinking about what is the future for humanity? And it can be very hopeless, I think in a lot of ways. And what I'm hoping to get from you is hoping, here's a, that's a good word. Mm-hmm. What I'm wondering from you is what does your Latter-day Saint perspective, your theology offer you in terms of hope? We've talked about the kinds of responsibilities that places upon you but what kind of hope does it offer with respect to this kind of question of the future?

George Handley: That's a great question. I don't look to my theology to tell me that, you know, climate change is real or it isn't real, or these predictions about climate change are more accurate than those predictions about climate change. I actually think that's a little bit of a dangerous business to try to imagine that my theology tells me in every turn how to vote and how to think about, you know, debates or about statistics. You know, I try not to overthink it. I mean, I feel that if I want to stop myself in my tracks with despair, I can do that in a heartbeat. And that could be on environmental grounds, or it could be on other grounds. You know, I could, I can devise a narrative that tells me we're screwed and there's no point in doing anything. But the fact is, I wanna do something and doing something makes me feel fulfilled, and it gives my life meaning. So if it's a fool's errand to give my life meaning by doing something, then I'm actually pretty content with that. You know, I think it's an old Jewish story about planting a tree on the last day of the world[1]. You know, I hope I'm planting trees on the last day of the world. I hope I’m planning for my great-great-great grandchildren's lives on the last day of the world, because otherwise I don't deserve whatever gifts might be coming.

 I think when I am in the natural world, I am so profoundly moved by it. I find myself as I get older, more and more moved by it. I mean, you know, I'm prone to weeping quite easily in the natural world, and I think there's a deep reason why that's the case. I think it's because the creation bears witness of God's appreciation of beauty and his love for his creations that I share, that I'm being taught. And with that love, I feel just an urgency to, to show that care. Will it stop climate change? Make the world inhabitable for my grandson in 2100? I don't know. But I do know that I'm more hopeful when I'm doing good in the world. An gloom and doom doesn't motivate people to do stuff. It actually shuts people down. So, I do think that's actually counterproductive. A lot of environmentalists have really done it poorly.

And you can say, yeah, but we gotta tell the truth. I'm not saying let's tell lies, but let's give reasons for hope. I will say hope, of course, you know, there's a, there's a kind of false hope that Christianity sometimes inspires in people where it's, oh, things are not that bad, right? And I don't have to face these facts, and I can deny that these things are happening. I actually think that's a form of despair. Because God sees not just what we're doing to his creations. He sees what we're doing to each other. He knows the horrible history of tragedy better than any of us, and yet his gospel is a gospel of hope. So somehow I've gotta be as tough minded as and realistic as God is, but I also have to be hopeful, and I have to find that ground for hope in love, and in stewarding the creation to bless people and to bless and to praise God. And when I do that, I just, like I say, I just feel hope, whether or not it makes any rational sense at all. I will say that, you know, I don't think, like I say, I think all of the trends I've seen, there's some exceptions to this, but I do feel like the trends seem to be largely moving in the right direction. Where I am locally, I feel that very strongly, so that certainly gives me hope. 

Stephen Betts: That's George Handley talking about Latter-day Saint environmental thought. Thanks for chatting today, George.

George Handley: Thank you so much, Stephen. Great questions. That was a delight. 

Stephen Betts: Thanks for listening to Scholars and Saints. This podcast is made possible by the Mormon Studies Program at the University of Virginia.

To learn more, visit mormonstudies.as.virginia.edu. Music for this episode is used by permission of the artist Ben Howington. The track name is “Wayfaring Stranger.” To hear more, visit mormonguitar.com.

*Transcript edited for clarity. 

 



[1] Perhaps a quote attributed to Yohanan ben Zakkai which said, “If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the Messiah is here!’, first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the Messiah.” Avot D’Rabbi Natan, 31b.