Faith in the Land | George Handley

My Mormon faith has some of the most earth-friendly doctrines of any religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Among other things, it teaches that plants and animals are “living souls” and that the Creation is intended to “please the eye and to gladden the heart… to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul... for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:18-21).

As a practicing Mormon, I can’t understand how Utah’s recent efforts to seize public lands are consistent with such judgment. I say this because the politicians who push for state control of public lands emphatically deny that climate change is real and human-caused. They support massive fossil fuel extraction and neglect alternative energy sources. They reject legislation that we desperately need to improve Utah’s poor air quality.

In 2010, I participated in an initiative called Faith and the Land. Dozens of Utah citizens gathered in small communities of faith—Quakers, Episcopalians, Jews, Mormons, and others—to discuss the value of wilderness in our spiritual lives. A remarkable consensus emerged that articulated our need for these lands as sources of spiritual renewal. Representatives from each faith group went to the Utah state capitol building to speak directly to our legislators. What I said six years ago needs to be repeated today.

In this remarkable interfaith effort of over 250 people from 11 different faith communities, our beliefs might differ, but our values harmonize on this essential point: wilderness teaches us humility, wonder, respect, and gratitude for the Creator. Wild beauty has a special quality: its joys are spiritually meaningful because they are unexpected, like grace. Wild beauty teaches us about our small but important place in a diverse, complex, and interdependent world and inspires the moral value of self-restraint. We are on a clear path to privatize, develop, and ruin every last wild and beautiful place in America.

As the great Mormon thinker, Hugh Nibley, once said, “the appreciation of beauty is nothing less than the key to survival.” When we get to the point where beauty is dispensable, we are in trouble. Wild beauty is a gift that requires our best stewardship.

It is human arrogance, however, to assume that stewardship gives us unbridled license to do as we please to nature or to act in short-term interest only. It is wrong to assume that nature always needs human development and improvement in order to have value or that only fossil fuels are God-given but not wind or sun. As we read in the Bible, the world is “very good” all on its own. God commanded Adam and Eve to “dress” the garden but also to “keep” it and “take good care” of it. Of course, there is a place for gardening, extracting needed resources, and developing land. But if we assume we can use up nature without limitations or without having to use our judgment, we will not only ruin its remaining wild beauty, but we will degrade ourselves.

Deserts, mountains, and sacred groves are vital for our spiritual and physical health; they strengthen the bonds of family and community. To get serious about preserving wilderness is to get serious about living a more reverent and gentle life and honoring an indigenous past we have tragically ignored.

I don’t pretend to be above ideologies of my own. I don’t know anyone whose theology is pure. Religion assists us by inspiring self-questioning, not unquestioned self-confidence.

The good judgment my religion calls for requires respect for the Creation, a spirit of service, commitment to listen to others, and concern for future generations. We are not owners. Land is not an instrument we should use or own to shore up power and identity over and against others. It is, instead, good in and of itself, and we are merely its stewards. While we use the land every day, when we do so with deeper deference and reverence, we are filled with greater humility and dependence and wonder. We confront the fact of our own creatureliness.

Whatever the merits of increasing state rights and extracting local oil reserves, if those who make these demands are motivated by a desire to be less answerable to the nation, to its indigenous past, to the planet, or especially to the Creator, then I want nothing to do with their demands. I call upon all our elected leaders to protect Utah’s public and shared heritage of extraordinary wild lands.