Earth Stewardship: Doctrine, Principle, or Heritage?

I was recently told that earth stewardship is not a doctrine nor a principle of the gospel; rather, it is a heritage. I was shocked. Injunctions to exercise stewardship and the related idea of accountability for our stewardship abound in the scriptures. From the command to keep and care for the garden of Eden to exercising righteous dominion, the Mosaic laws regarding harvest and gleaning and allowing the land to lie fallow, the order of jubilee, to the laws of tithing and consecration and the parables of fields, vineyards, and talents, we are told, over and over, in many ways, that the earth and all things created thereon are God’s, that we are to both enjoy it and use it well, for our benefit and the benefit of others.

I was raised in Primary on the Plan of Salvation where I learned that we have come to live on this earth to become like our Heavenly Father. In Young Women I learned about the values of choice and accountability, good works, and integrity follow faith, divine nature, individual worth, and knowledge. Once we know who we are in relationship to our Heavenly Father, we have the obligation to learn what is best to do, and to make our actions consistent with our knowledge of right and wrong. The idea of stewardship fits seamlessly into this worldview.

I did a quick dictionary (WordBook app) search of the words “doctrine,” “principle,” and “heritage.” When I was told that stewardship of the earth is not a doctrine, I asked what a doctrine was. The definition I received was that doctrines are things save souls, and I was then referred to conference talks and Ensign articles. The key point in my dictionary definition is that a doctrine is a belief that is accepted as authoritative. With those two sources, I have to conclude that the idea of stewardship for the earth lacks authoritative support within our church, and our church respects authority. In our hierarchy of authority, we give precedence to the words of the current prophet, the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and then to the other general authorities and general auxiliary leaders. The words of current leaders weigh more than those of past leaders, especially if that past leader never became prophet. If these leaders are not speaking about this concept, then it lacks doctrinal weight, despite the attention that latter-day prophets paid to it in the past. (On the other hand I appreciate the narrowing of the the definition of doctrine in this post-McConkie age.) The talk by Elder Nash made many people, latter-day saints and gentiles alike, hopeful that earth stewardship was being given the authoritative attention necessary to raise it to the level of doctrine in the collective awareness of church members. Being told it is not doctrinal is a step back.

On to “principle.” A principle is a basic generalization, accepted as true, used as a basis for reasoning and conduct, a rule or standard of good behavior, and so forth. This definition actually fits very well with the ideas of stewardship described by Elder Nash, George Handley, and many other faithful latter-day saints. It fits so perfectly, in fact, that I must conclude that stewardship is a principle through all commonly accepted uses of the word, if not within specialized church jargon.

As for the idea of earth stewardship being a heritage, I think that is wonderful. We do have very clear statements from past leaders about our responsibilities to care for the land we live on, and to use its abundance to care for each other. We have a history of self-sufficiency and community reliance. We attempted to live the law of consecration. We have been taught to live providently, to plant gardens, to learn to grow and make and preserve our food. The insight from my dictionary app is that heritage are those practices handed down from the past by tradition. I would love to call earth stewardship a heritage of the latter-day saints, but a heritage that has been neglected or forgotten is no heritage at all. We need to revive these aspects of our heritage. This definition will fit well only if we actively recognize earth stewardship as a part of our heritage and choose to live by those principles and practices so that they will be part of the heritage that we pass on to our children. And as much as some saints may do in their individual lives, this will not be an active part of the common heritage of the church unless our leaders and those in authority bring it to our remembrance and make it so.

The real problem with saying that stewardship of the earth is not doctrinal is that it makes stewardship seem relatively unimportant to the work of salvation, and as a result, may be regarded as absolutely unimportant in the daily lives of latter-day saints. It reinforces the false either/or dichotomy that we must either care for creation or for the salvation of humanity. But modern revelation has told us that the spirit of man is the union of the soul and the body, and the body and spirit both require this earth for experience and development so that we may become like our Heavenly Father. We must care for the earth, not for the earth’s sake, but for our own, because it is setting of this temporal phase of the plan of salvation.

And now I open the subject to you. Which words would you use to describe the ideas of stewardship?


12 comments for “Earth Stewardship: Doctrine, Principle, or Heritage?

  1. Psalm 19: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. If our air is too full of particulates, and our night skies filled with the pollution of countless, pointless street lights to even notice, we do no honor to God, whom we are first commanded to love. Less than 1% of the earth’s biodiversity has been studied for possible cures for what ails us. God reveals, but requires our efforts to discern. If we callously allow species to go extinct, in whose DNA lies the secrets to our health and survival, we show disdain, not love, for our great God. Oh, Jesus is coming all right, but not to clean up our calamitous mess. He’s undoubtedly coming with brooms and buckets and mops, and after he beats the living crap out of us for our thoughtless and feckless disregard for his beautiful creation, will no doubt set our first task to undo as much damage as possible; this is the Celestial Kingdom after all, and his house is a house of order.

  2. I immediately think of Psalm 127:3 “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord.” We inherit our offspring from God. Using the word heritage in connection with our stewardship confuses subject, object, and the fundamental relation here. The heritage is not an idea or ideology … the heritage is the thing you receive as a trust. The heritage is children, or it is the tangible home I have received, or it is a tree someone else planted but which I now have in my keeping, or it is the earth, not the mere idea of the earth or the idea that I should be a caretaker. The heritage is the thing entrusted to us. The righteous shall inherit the earth, not an abstract notion of responsibility for the earth. I like the tangibility of a heritage, and not just the abstract received wisdom that gets passed down. I wonder if the earth is “an heritage of the Lord” as much as are our children — something entrusted to us.

  3. One person’s stewardship is (or could be) another’s unrighteous dominion. When the particulates that Rich decries are the byproduct of one person’s stewardship (when, for example, plowing his land stirs up dust, or smelting ore creates pollution), does out adherence to principle (or doctrine) impel us to shut down that polluting activity? Or just make it uneconomical? And who decides which streetlights are “pointless”? The person who lives in a neighborhood made safer because the streets are well-lit, or another who lives in a safer area across town who wishes to see more stars.

    There are not simple answers, and there are serious (and complex) issues of individual freedom which need to be considered.

  4. Consideration is most urgently needed when an individual’s freedoms impact the health and well-being of others and the planet they inhabit.

    As to claims of public safety regarding street lights, I refer you to those that have studied it at length. There is much that can and should be done to make improvements:

  5. We often times like many industrialists ignore the Earth we live on and take for granted that we are actually part of the ecosystem and what we do effects the planet in many ways. I appreciate you essay very much and am of the opinion that whether it is a doctrine, a principle or a heritage it is important beyond our understanding to take care of this Earth the Lord has given us. As the Hopi prophecies explain, if we do not care for the the Earth eventually it will not be able to sustain us. For those interested here are a fe websites that discuss stewardship.

  6. All I meant was that there are costs and benefits on both sides of the issue. The “save the planet at all costs” crowd hasn’t won the sole rights to wear the white hats.

    And I’m all for less light pollution. I haven’t seen a decent starry night in years, it seems–New York City can do that to one. Still, the “much that can be done” costs money, and municipalities might have to decide between spending money on changing street lighting or on spending more on education or health care for the poor or any number of other goods. If dark skies take second place to better schools, I’m afraid that I’d say that’s the right order.

  7. I confess that as a (rather passionate) amateur astronomer I have a vested interest in this, but thankfully it turns out that in pretty much every case, improved outdoor lighting invariably saves money (usually lots of it), improves safety, reduces glare, mitigates waste, and makes the sky darker. It really is a win/win situation; we just need to get more city planners educated as to the benefits.

  8. Mark B. (#6)–you are certainly right that there are complex trade-offs on any discussion of environmental policy (or any matter of public policy, for that matter). The way I interpret stewardship, the notion of trade-offs is implicit: we are given both the opportunity to use the earth’s resources and the responsibility to take care of them. Just what the right balance is is something we have to work through as a society. Unfortunately, I fear that we have strayed much too far in the direction of exploiting our resources. As Clay Cook points out (#5), this just is not sustainable. If we want to be able to live on the earth, and pass along a livable planet to future generations, we have some work to do.

    Rachel–great discussion of stewardship, and how it fits into our LDS vocabulary. I like the idea of stewardship as a principle, because to me, “principle” seems more foundational–a general guideline from which we can derive many other ideas and practices. I think of care of our planet one of my ideals. I like the way having an ideal gives me something to strive for, rather than beat myself up for not being perfect about.

    And yes, we certainly do have a rich heritage of stewardship in our faith tradition, as well as in our cultural traditions. Hopefully, as you say, we can collectively step up to the plate to make sure the heritage continues with future generations.

  9. I might not be able to speak for the entire planning profession, but as a professional planner I would suggest that light pollution issues are likely driven more by historic public safety and public works requirements/standards than a lack of understanding by city planners, who largely “get it” when it comes to light pollution.

  10. So who told you that? The scriptures speak of the creation of the earth as a home that feeds our spirits as well as our bodies. Joseph Smith taught Zions Camp to have respect even for rattlesnakes, because we need to learn to live with the animal kingdom in order to restore Zion. Hugh Nibley compiled teachings by Brigham Young on the accountability we have to God for our use of the earth. In his new book Mormon Christianity, Catholic theologian Stephen Webb speaks of how revolutionary the Mormon concept of an embodied God really is, and how it unites us with the earth we live in. The celestial kingdom will include THIS EARTH. The doctrine that Abraham and other preexistent spirits were among the “gods” who helped organize the earth opens the possibility that all of us participated in that program in some way. The “stewardship” we exercise for this earth is not just in mortality, it was also when we were spirits, and will continue eternally as exalted beings dwelling here.

  11. I would argue that stewardship of the earth is all three: heritage, principle and doctrine. Of course, it is a doctrine which is sadly somewhat neglected in modern LDS discourse, but it’s still there in our authoritative sources of doctrine. In fact, it can be found abundantly in our most authoritative source: the Standard Works themselves. The Scriptures are full of Divine injunctions to care for the earth, first set forth in the Old Testament but also abundantly clear in modern revelation and the scriptures of the Restoration. We have been placed on the earth “to dress it and to keep it,” as Genesis 2 explains. The original Hebrew is sometimes translated here as “to till it and to care for it.” This is just one example. The Scriptures are our most authoritative source of doctrine, and the commandment to care for the earth as wise stewards is clearly and consistently found throughout all the Standard Works. Therefore, it is a doctrine – and one which is actually rather important to saving souls, seeing as it is a commandment from the Lord. You wouldn’t say that the Law of Chastity was not a doctrine because it has nothing to do with saving souls. Our responsibility to care for the earth is really no different.

    So yes, stewardship is a heritage, a principle, and most certainly a doctrine – one which we, as a people, need to do better at observing.

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