Religion and the Environment

Religion and the Environment

Religion and the Environment: A Campaign to Raise Awareness of the Environment and Discover Common Ground in the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist Communities

Monday, March 27, 2006

Religion in Refuge

Throughout the semester my examination of religion and the environment has mostly looked at what Christian scriptures and church doctrine teaches us about religion. It was nice that this week's reading, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams offered a glimpse of how an individual's personal religious beliefs can affect their connection with the environment. Her connection with the Utah landscape, and especially The Great Salt Lake, was influenced by a number of factors including her study of ornithology, her grandmother, Native American history and beliefs, and her Mormon upbringing.

Williams identifies her family as fifth generation Utah Mormons. Today the majority of Mormons do not live in Utah, they don't even live in the United States, but the LDS Church is still strongly tied to Utah. The church headquarters are located in Salt Lake City, but the connection goes much deeper than an administrative center. When Brigham Young and the settlers who had traveled from Missouri settled in Utah it was declared the Mormon Zion (for Church history see LDS webpage). Williams addresses the importance of history and genealogy for Utah Mormons. Throughout her story her detailed knowledge of her family history plays an important role in her understanding of her family's history with cancer, and it also connects her to the land as far back as 1850.

I do not think Williams' Mormon faith was the most important influence in her life, and she spoke of the Church in ways which were sometimes unflattering. However, I found her selective use of the Mormon story, and her ability to challenge aspects of LDS belief which she disagreed with really inspiring for our project. In my attempt to formulate what Christianity "says" about the environment I have been frustrated by the lack of direct references in the New Testament. Williams' narrative demonstrated that it's not necessarily so important what a religion "says" about an issue as how the religious beliefs are interpreted by individuals.

For instance, Williams' took great pleasure from the fact that Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the LDS faith, was involved in magical practices before he found the golden plates which he translated into The Book of Mormon. These practices included astrology, the use of divining rods and seer stones. Joseph Smith's ties to occult practice are not celebrated by the church, and have frequently been used by critics to attack the LDS Faith. For Williams, however, it "renders [her] religion human." (195) Williams' explains that she grew up in a faith which believes in personal revelation. She then describes how her mother survived breast cancer when the doctors declared she only had a 20% chance. Shortly after her diagnosis one of the twelve apostles received a revelation that Diane Tempest would be well for many years and her name was entered among those to be healed in the Temple. The Williams family was instructed to join in prayer that Thursday at home where Terry "felt the presence of angels." (196-7) Williams' clearly disagrees with certain aspects of church doctrine, but Mormon spirituality plays an important role in her life.

When we visited Patty Ackerman at the Garrison Institute I asked her how she responds to people who say the Judeo-Christian worldview is responsible for the environmental crisis we now face. She responded, much to my surprise, that she agrees that historically the Judeo-Christian worldview has affected the environment negatively, but through efforts such as the Hudson River Project religious individuals are attempting to interpret and use their religion in a new way. I felt Williams' had a similar philosophy toward her Mormon faith and her Utah upbringing. She used it selectively to make connections with the land and help her cope with the illness in her family.

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is interwoven throughout her narrative. Initially it is threatened by the rising water levels in the Great Salt Lake and eventually it is submerged. In the book someone estimates that the marsh will take 10 years before it will be a viable habitat again, and 20 years for it to clear its system of salt. When I read that I was encouraged by how a natural system could repair itself, but I worried that without the birds would the area would not be adequately protected. I was very pleased to read on their website that by 2000 the refuge was providing habitat for over a million birds and last year an education center opened.

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