MIConversations #1—George Handley and Terryl Givens, “Can creation heal us?”
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Maxwell Institute Conversations are special episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation. You can also watch this episode on YouTube.
In the beginning, God said “let there be light,” and there was light. God created this extraordinary world, the scriptures tell us, through the power of his word. It makes all the more sense, then, that a professor of comparative arts and letters like George Handley would spend so much time thinking about and enjoying creation.
In this conversation, LDS author and Humanities professor George Handley speaks with Terryl Givens about connecting with the divine through nature; about being a good steward of the earth; about the tragic death of his brother and the history of a river. He’s consecrated his life and talents to discovering and sharing what is good and beautiful.
George Handley is the associate dean in Brigham Young University’s College of Humanities. He is the author of several books, including Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River and the brand new novel, American Fork.
BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to Maxwell Institute Conversations—special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation. You can watch this episode in your podcast app, or if you’re on the run, listen to the audio version.
In the beginning, God said “let there be light” and there was light. God created this extraordinary world, the scriptures tell us, through the power of his word. It makes all the more sense, then, that a professor of comparative arts and letters like George Handley would spend so much time thinking about and enjoying creation. Handley is the associate dean in Brigham Young University’s College of Humanities and he’s also the author of several books, including Home Waters and the brand new novel, American Fork.
In this conversation, George Handley speaks with Terryl Givens about connecting with the divine through nature, about being a good steward of the earth, and about the tragic death of his brother and the history of a river. He’s consecrated his life and talents to discovering and sharing what is good and beautiful.
GEORGE HANDLEY: We actually have made fun of the idea of preserving species in our culture as if that’s a silly thing to worry about. Now there are political reasons why people resent the Endangered Species Act and the EPA and all these other things, but those shouldn’t get in the way of the principles. That’s what I find mystifying, is that we’ve allowed political arguments that typically come from a conservative political philosophy to completely block our view of the issue and our view of the responsibility, that we do actually have a mandate in our scriptures that tells us to care for life. These are ideas that can get mocked and turned into cartoons, but they’re deeply, deeply sacred and important principles in Mormonism, and I think they’re part of the restoration. I think that’s part of what Christianity lost.
HODGES: It’s Terryl Givens speaking with George Handley on this episode of Maxwell Institute Conversations, part of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
TERRYL GIVENS: Hello and welcome to another conversation. My name is Terryl Givens and my guest today is George Handley, an old friend and colleague in the area of Mormon studies and literature, literary studies. Happy to have you with us today, George.
GEORGE HANDLEY: Thanks, Terryl. I’m honored.
GIVENS: Okay. So today we’re going to talk a little about your life as a disciple. I want to talk a little about your fiction. Your newest book, which hasn’t quite been released yet.
GIVENS: Which is American Fork, which is a work of real beauty and power. It’s a magnificent work. So I’m happy to have had a chance to see that in advance. You also wrote a kind of memoir, would you call it? Not a memoir so much, but Home Waters. What genre would you put that into?
HANDLEY: That’s a good question. Probably I’d qualify it by saying it’s an environment memoir, which I actually first intended it to be an environmental history and then sort of inevitably found myself reflecting on some of my own history in life, and then it kind of melded.
GIVENS: Yeah, I’ve read that as well. It’s a beautiful, it’s a magnificent interweaving of the memoir genre, with a kind of contemporary appreciation for the Provo—what do you call it? The watershed?
HANDLEY: The watershed.
GIVENS: Which in fact I found so appealing in many ways that I asked you to take me fishing so I could experience what you describe firsthand. We had a great day.
HANDLEY: It was an honor to go fishing with you, yeah.
GIVENS: That was delightful. So in this tapestry of your multi-colored life you refer to these divergent threads and interests, but they all seem to converge on one or several preoccupations that have largely to do with love of the earth, of creation. Where were the seeds of that first planted?
HANDLEY: Well I spent some very formative summers in Idaho at the Lowell Bennion’s boy’s ranch. My parents sent me there as a camper the summer, I believe, of 19—
GIVENS: Now that wasn’t a home for troubled youth.
HANDLEY: Well, no. At least that’s what he always said. I mean, all of us there wondered why our parents sent us there. Lowell did take in kids who probably shouldn’t have been there. I mean I remember every year, and then I was later a counselor for him, we always had a handful of kids who were real trouble. But I, being in the wilderness in the west, I was raised in Connecticut, even if I left Salt Lake City as a young boy. Going for a three day backpacking trip in the Tetons at age twelve or thirteen just was remarkable.
But honestly I don’t, the whole environmental stewardship feeling in me, I mean I had probably everyone’s love of nature; I don’t think I had any sort of inordinate feeling for it other than the fact that it made me feel holy when I was in a wild place like that. I grew up on the Long Island Sound and I liked to go swim and fish and sail and all that was great, but I wasn’t an extraordinary outdoors kid. My dad didn’t take us camping all the time or anything, but there were a couple of experiences that kind of connected the dots for me over time.
Kind of to fast forward a little bit, when I was writing Home Waters and I was drafting it and I was showing it to people to get their feedback, I showed… it was pretty much the penultimate draft of the book to a very good friend and respected writer, Stephen Trimble, and he said he felt that the chapter that was about my brother’s death came too late in the book and that I kind of surprised the reader with it and it kind of assaulted him and he said, “You’ve gotta put that right in the front of the book,” and I said, “Well I can’t do that.” It’s a house of cards, you know? I had organized it according to seasons and it was too complicated to extract it and move it. But I thought what I’d do is try to put more references to his death earlier. So in the first couple of chapters I talked about him and there’s a scene where I’m telling a good friend of mine, John, about the death of my brother, and then he tells me about the suicide of his mother.
When I was writing that book, and this is such a thing that I did not anticipate learning about myself, I was describing looking out at the river and it was one of the last sentences that I wrote in my last draft of the book, but it was right at the beginning of the book, and I said something to the effect of, I can’t quote it exactly, but the hole he put through his head is the reason I love this river. It was such a strange revelation for me. I remember it just rocked me. I was very emotional as I wrote it and I thought “I understand why I wrote this book now.”
What’s sort of an interesting side story to that is that I was early on just wanting to write a history of the river and I had kept a nature journal, and I showed some passages of my nature journal to a poet, Derek Walcott, who I had been working on as a scholar and he had come out to BYU for a visit and we became good friends and he wanted to see my writing and so I shared some nature journal writing with him. The first thing he said was “There’s pain in your writing.” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And he said, “Why is there so much pain in your writing?” And I was describing hiking on trails and looking at the river and fishing and I wasn’t saying anything about myself. I thought he was just romanticizing something, and I actually got really defensive and said there’s nothing in there, I don’t know what you’re talking about. He said, “Well has anything traumatic ever happened to you?” I said, “Yeah, I lost my brother to suicide when I was eighteen years old.” Of course he jumps all over this and says, “You’ve got to write about this,” and blah blah blah. I had no interest in writing about this.
So early on I think he, and of course I did, but early on I think he sensed that there was something about the way in which nature heals us, and I think it’s directly connected to the atonement of Christ. I think it’s directly connected to what we read in D&C 88 about Christ is in the light of the sun, the light of the moon, he’s the light that quickens our understanding. There’s something about the physical exchange of the senses, and this is very William Blake and Wordsworth, and all that too.
GIVENS: It’s also very Parley Pratt, right? Because Pratt writes about the atonement as transforming creation as well as man.
HANDLEY: I think if you just treat nature as scenery and you treat it as background story to what your particular human interest and human drama is and what the social setting is, you’re missing the cosmological context in which our human existence gains meaning. So for me it started this journey of self discovery of, and not just in a narrow sense of how do I understand my brother’s death, it got much, much bigger than that and it was healing for that reason, because loving nature on a profound level helps you to feel connected to the universe, I guess, and connected to God.
GIVENS: You know, there are a couple of those questions in theology that Mormonism hasn’t even begun to address yet. One of them I think is the theology of embodiment. We talk about we had to come to earth to acquire a physical body, but we’re not really sure why. We had spirit bodies. I’m just wondering, what you said is suggestive to me that there are forces and potencies and kinds of interactions with a natural physical environment that are somehow essential to our healing, our growth, development in ways that we might not know.
HANDLEY: Well, yeah. That concept that Joseph Smith taught has been taught in Mormon thought for a long time of this idea that there’s something unique about the combination of the spirit and the body that allows us to progress differently than if we’re just in the spirit has always intrigued me. I think early on because of my brother Kenny’s experience, of his body betraying him, I mean I believe he died of a disease—
GIVENS: He was depressed.
HANDLEY: He was mentally ill. He was depressed, but he was suffering from mental illness of a pretty serious kind. This was before medication was really known or understood very well about such matters. I think in my own early teenage struggle with my own appetites, I think the body… when I would read later in college sort of Calvinist or St. Augustine’s views about the body, to a certain degree that made sense to me. My body is an enemy and I need to defeat it and strangle it and hide it or whatever, but then Mormonism was always telling me something different. Mormonism was telling me these appetites have to be reigned in, they’re good, or they can be. They can be used for good if you can learn to repurpose and redirect them and shape them. That’s the part that I was trying to get at in my book Learning to Like Life, inspired by Lowell Bennion because I think he taught me you can shape your desires and use them—
GIVENS: That’s what I love about your book. You’re talking about a collection of essays that you’ve done on Lowell Bennion’s teachings. Many people listening will never have heard the name Lowell Bennion. Like Gene England he’s one of the greats of our kind of spiritual heritage that are kind of fading from Mormon consciousness. So say just a little bit about what you loved and admired about Lowell Bennion and what you’re trying to recuperate in this collection of essays you’ve done.
HANDLEY: Well Lowell Bennion was a wonderful combination of somebody who was fully intellectually engaged and fully spiritually consecrated.
GIVENS: That’s a hard combination to find.
HANDLEY: He was a humanitarian to the bone, and he was humble, and would serve gladly any person, the most intellectually destitute. I mean he had no arrogance at all about him as an intellect. He was thoroughly Christian. But it was clear to me that part of being a Christian was thinking well and educating yourself and informing yourself about issues. Being civically, politically engaged, being interested in and committed to building your character and serving others and gaining selfless orientation to others, and I came under his influence during this rather tumultuous time so it was really helpful to me.
GIVENS: I love the way you boil Christianity down to, in some ways at least, the shaping of the desires in conformity with this model of Christ. I was just reading today, I think it was John Meyer, who was reading a translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart and he says he repairs the damage done by centuries of mistranslation. He says because with the introduction of the doctrine of impudic grace and impudic righteousness he said we begin to read Christ as rescuing us from the burden of Christianity. Mormonism has this emphasis on self-transformation, aided by Christ’s atonement and that grace. I really love this notion of shaping, schooling, tutoring the desires.
HANDLEY: It was a seemingly meaningless aside, but I remember once Lowell Bennion kind of being dismissive of the idea of journal keeping. I was a little surprised by that. What’s wrong with keeping a journal? He said well there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but your life should not be self-focused. You shouldn’t be so self focused that you feel the need to narrate and tell yourself everything over and over again. For him the goal was to lose oneself, and of course that’s straight out of Christ’s mouth that that’s where our objective is, so I think that was especially as an adolescent coming into adulthood, that was really important for me to hear.
I tell this anecdote in the book, but he wrote me at the end of the summer after I worked for him as a counselor, he sent me my paycheck and he just wrote a note on a piece of paper. He didn’t say “Hey George, how ya doing?” He didn’t write a long letter. He just said, “Keep up your lust for the fine things of life.” That’s all he said. I don’t know. Lust had always been a bad word to me, and one that caused plenty of shame to me because I had plenty of it, and I thought, “Oh, my energy, my hunger, is a good thing.” I just need to make sure it’s directed in the right way and it can be fruitful for me.
GIVENS: Well let’s talk a little bit about how you’ve channeled your passion. I see in some ways your life is going through a series of stages, where you’re first sensitized through your exposure to the wilderness in a critical vulnerable moment, conditions your love of nature, the tragedy, even though it wasn’t working on you in the way you recognized, it was creating a kind of dependency upon or need for the healing effects of nature. Professionally, then you acquire a degree in literature but you pretty soon move towards eco-criticism, would that be correct to say?
GIVENS: So now you’re engaged intellectually with the world around us as a scholar, and then you move into the stage of the novelist, engaging, celebrating, exploring the world around us in very specific concrete ways, not just in some kind of detached literary treatment, but kind of firsthand encounter with the world. Now you’ve moved on to yet another phase, which is I have to actually engage in the world of politics if we’re going to bring all of this to any kind of real fruition.
So I wanted you to talk a little about what motivated you to run for city council. I want you to talk a little about how you see the way in which environmentalism is situated in Mormon culture and in Mormon doctrine, and what the tension might be between those two.
HANDLEY: Two very different things. I want to be careful. I don’t think environmentalism, with the “ism” being the key part of that word, I don’t think environmentalism is always desirable.
GIVENS: Good. So give us some definitions here.
HANDLEY: I think there are discourses within environmentalism like any large-scale global cultural phenomenon. I mean it’s incredibly diverse. There are people writing in environmentalist thought today who have no interest in or commitment to spiritual ideas. On the other hand we have Pope Francis and lots of other religious leaders who really do have a keen interest in spirituality and Christian doctrine and so on, and of course figures from other religions outside of Christianity who have articulated some really powerful spiritual reasons for caring about the physical world and attending to its health.
So I mean I’ve encountered over the years thought that I find inspiring and then other thought I find kind of contradictory to what I believe, but I think because of some of those issues that there has been a polarization within Mormon culture and most particularly along the intermountain west. A lot of the environmental attitudes you find in the intermountain west are common among non-Mormons as much as they are among Mormons, so it’s not a religious phenomenon so much as it is a regional one. It just so happens that Mormonism emerges out of this region. Of course it’s increasingly a global and international church and community, and that is shaping it in different ways as a result, but there’s a certain ethos about our relationship to the natural world that you can historicize.
You can look at how the Mormons arrive here. They see a desert, they have an impulse to protect themselves from persecution, to build a civilization apart from the country of the United States, and sort of have their own independence. There is this, and Parley P. Pratt’s part of that, this kind of relishing of their freedom and the opportunity to settle this area. It turns into this kind of impulse to see themselves fulfilling Isaiah’s idea of the desert blossoming as a rose and that by working the land, developing the land, they are fulfilling God’s purposes. I don’t reject that narrative, at least not wholesale, but I do think—
GIVENS: Although your main character in your most recent novel does. Harker, right?
GIVENS: There’s this sense that we’re going to make this desert blossom as the rose, whether it wants to or not, right?
HANDLEY: Right. Yeah, and we’re going to turn it all into golf courses and so on. But he’s got his finger on something that’s a problem. If we can’t appreciate the way in which the natural world is already blossoming as a rose, or it’s already providing us with bounty, it’s already giving us sufficient reason to glory in existence, if we’re always looking at it as something like the poor thing needs improvement, it needs our fixing, then I think we’ve got an ideological impulse that’s dangerous because we’ve forgotten what seems to me to be a consistent theme throughout the Book of Mormon and a consistent theme throughout the Old Testament that foundational to our spiritual conversion is understanding ourselves as creatures, as created beings who have dependency on God and who need to always, you know you listen to King Benjamin and Isaiah’s really emphatic—
GIVENS: There’s a tension there right? Because there’s such a struggle for independence, not just cultural independence in the Utah period, but I mean Joseph Smith saying there are three independent principles in the universe, God, Satan, and man. Brigham Young said repeatedly that God’s project is to make us as independent in our sphere as he is in his. So how do you bring these together?
HANDLEY: I don’t know. I’m still working on that. I think that’s one of the great paradoxes. You can see it. I’m actually as a church leader right now involved in developing the self-reliance services initiative in our stake and enjoying it thoroughly and seeing how it’s blessing the lives of many people who have needed to cultivate a greater sense of self-reliance and independence. It’s tricky how they’ve used the language there. I’m sure there must have been some debate over whether self-reliance was the right term because of its implications, but if you look at doctrinally what they’re doing, they’re also teaching a dependence on God and a sense of spiritual reliance is actually an act of acknowledging that you are insufficient and that you can’t do it alone, that you don’t need to feel it’s all on your shoulders. Go ahead.
GIVENS: So do you think the emphasis on independence, self-reliance, agency is partly to blame for our reluctance to accept the givenness of our environment as a gift and as integral to our spiritual health?
HANDLEY: Yeah, I think there’s some truth to that. I think it’s nuanced, it’s complicated, but I think when people become… I think it’s just a matter of going back again to maybe King Benjamin or Isaiah, if I’m in the practice of reminding myself of my dependence on God and my creativeness, my physicality, I mean this is why the embodiment is so important, is it teaches interconnection, interdependence, my body is made up of stuff that isn’t me—
GIVENS: See that was what I was looking for. That’s moving in the direction of the theology of embodiment—
HANDLEY: But I think if you look at the sort of American individualist ethos there’s no room for that connection to interconnection—
GIVENS: So where do you see the serpent first entering the garden here? At what phase in our history, talking about regional Mormons, do you think we began to go maybe in the wrong direction? Where we could have been better stewards.
HANDLEY: Well I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that America as a whole really got a little bit drunk with technology and the possibility of progress after World War II. Suddenly finding itself at the lead of the world as a democracy and developing the television and the airplane and family recreation and air conditioning and so on and so forth, computers and iPhones. There’s this great sense that all of this actually liberates us to be more autonomous, more independent, and ultimately disconnected from nature, disconnected from the weather. My great-grandmother’s journal mentions the weather every single day.
GIVENS: We can go days without even noticing what it is.
HANDLEY: Yeah, we don’t care anymore. We don’t have to. To the degree that my body gets sick and I have to go to the doctor, then there’s concern, and obviously mortality in the end will not let us forget that we’re mortal but nature is a reminder of our mortality so there actually is a reason we keep it at bay so we don’t actually like it a whole lot.
GIVENS: You’re speaking in terms of generalities and national technological trends. Are you reluctant to point an accusing finger at Mormonism in particular and say no, (a) we should know better or (b) we have a particular proclivity to disregard the creation as a sacred thing? Is neither of those true?
HANDLEY: I don’t know. I don’t know. Yes, I think it probably is likely we have a particular proclivity that is—
GIVENS: I think the problem is you have a tendency to be too nice.
HANDLEY: Well the thing that I think is misleading, and I’ve heard this in Mormon circles, is that we’re not unique in this regard. Our culture is devastatingly detached from the natural world. Modern society is a disaster in that regard, so we’re stuck in that culture and we’re victims of it just as much as anybody else is. I think what’s disappointing is that we have in the process of sort of drinking from that particular fountain of so-called wisdom about individualism and autonomy and so on is that we’ve neglected our own doctrine which is so extraordinarily exceptional in the Judeo-Christian—
GIVENS: Okay, so that’s what I’m asking. So where’s the exception? Give us a good example.
HANDLEY: Well the thing that jumps out first and always for me is the idea of a spiritual creation before a physical one. There’s nothing in the Judeo-Christian tradition, certainly not that explicit. There have been theologians who have argued that this is kind of what we ought to think of when we think of the natural world, but there’s nothing that states it so explicitly as we have in Moses that says this is in fact the reality of the creation, which means plants and animals are living souls, the same phrase “living soul” that is used to describe human beings. That’s doesn’t mean we’re exactly the same, we’re uniquely created in God’s image, but the old debate in Judeo-Christian tradition that environmentalists have engaged in now for forty years is is Christianity suited to an environmental ethic? If you guys walk around thinking that you’re created in the image of God and you’re totally unique and separate from the rest of the physical world and you were given dominion over it then why do you—
GIVENS: It gives you license.
HANDLEY: Why should you feel that it’s your concern to preserve a species that might go extinct? But if you say well everything has spiritual matter, everything has a spiritual identity, everything has a spiritual body, and that body is therefore in some sense eternal and it has inherent value and God’s pronunciation of inherent value in Genesis over and over again, “it is good,” or “it is very good,” I think implies that there is a kind of deference that is required of us when engaging with our use of the natural world.
You see that so clearly spelled out in Moses where Adam and Eve are beholding the tree and it is good and beautiful to look at this tree, and then man saw that it was good for food and for raiment and then we end up using the natural world but there’s always this implication clearly spelled out in D&C 59 that we are supposed to use the natural world first and foremost aesthetically. I mean God wants us to take pleasure in it. He wants us to notice its beauty and wonder. He wants us to be displaced, disoriented by that.
GIVENS: What I love about that scripture in fifty-nine is that it points in both directions. It points to us, and as you said, the primacy of the aesthetic, what we should experience. But also talks about it giveth God joy to watch us delight in his creation.
HANDLEY: And that, going back to our earlier conversation, that’s what I have felt instinctively when I have been in the natural world and had those powerful spiritual experiences or spots of time where I felt connected to God and I felt his joy, I felt his pleasure in his creations and that’s what’s so moving to me about the temple as well is that it reminds me that I am a witness to this creation and I am a part of it. I was invited to be a participant in this unfolding of God’s glories.
GIVENS: Like one of the sons of the stars shouted for joy at the creation.
HANDLEY: Yeah. Nowhere else in Judeo-Christian tradition do you find something like D&C 59 that explicitly states the principles or stewardship: not to excess, neither by extortion, but with judgment you’re to use the natural resources of the earth. Don’t waste flesh, right? From D&C 49. There’s a certain efficiency and modesty that we’re called upon to have in our consumption of earth’s resources. Then the whole Law of Consecration spells out the reason for that because my goal as the creator of the world is to feed my children and feed them physically and spiritually, allow them to flourish, and so as a mandate take care of the human family I have to be worried about the sources of life that make human life possible, and I have to make that part of my ethic. As much as all the social issues that circle in our society right now that matter a great deal, I find it disheartening that we spend so little time in political context or in church context talking about this.
GIVENS: Okay, let me ask you this question. You say there’s an exceptionalism to Mormonism insofar as we have it laid out more explicitly, God’s program, the principles of stewardship, theological foundation for a different kind of relationship due to creation. Is there anything on the positive side of the leger that you can point to where you can say as a result Mormons have been a little bit ahead of the curve here or here?
HANDLEY: With regard to the environment?
HANDLEY: Well the church has been very quiet about it, but the church has been a very good steward of its own resources. I mean the Church Office Building is fueled by geothermal energy and has been since it was built. I didn’t discover this until a few years ago. Its ranching operations are very sustainable and very carefully, intentionally done in that way. Church architecture is getting more and more green. The Conference Center has native plants on its roof. These aren’t silver bullets, but they’re indications that we have a rich legacy—
GIVENS: There’s a consciousness there.
HANDLEY: And I think that comes out of our pioneer tradition. You can point fingers at the pioneers and say they over engineered their natural environment and the desert blossoming as a rose got out of control, but on the other hand Mormons have always had a strong ethic of self-reliance as a community. I think we’ve lost some of the communitarian aspects of self-reliance and that’s maybe where we’ve gone a little bit wrong.
I mean the reason to be self-reliant is to be giving. The reason to store food, I didn’t know this when I was young. I never heard this when I was young. The reason to have food storage when I was young was because nuclear war was going to happen and that was the only way we were going to survive. Now here as I’ve got older I hear people saying the real reason you want food storage is because other people are going to need it when things go really badly, and I thought well that motivates me actually. I don’t want to be a survivalist. I want to be a healer. I want to be the one who’s offering my home to people who have been abandoned by civilization because it’s broken. That’s my objective.
I think if you think of our use of natural resources as an ethic that is motivated towards helping people then it motivates a kind of modesty in consumption and care in use of resources, and concern for future generations. I guess the reason I was hesitant to point fingers of blame is because I think in Utah in particular it’s a really polarized culture. The environmentalists are all pointing fingers at the Mormons for ruining everything, and the Mormons are all pointing fingers at the environmentalists for not believing in freedom and not caring about people. I’m creating stereotypes, but those stereotypes are created every day. Name-calling and so on and so forth, it’s really ugly and I don’t want to be a part of that. So I don’t want to say, “Oh yeah, the Mormons have all the responsibility.” Mormons don’t work one day out of the week. Show me another community that stops on the whole driving and consuming as much on Sunday as we do. That’s a pretty major environmental benefit. Now we didn’t necessarily do so with that intention, and I wish we would.
I wish we would talk about the Sabbath day as a day to remember the creation. That the reason we’re resting is because we’re recognizing our creativeness, the gift of the creation, and that we’re stewards of that creation in a beautiful way. Instead of just thinking about a kind of spiritualized spirituality, I want an embodied spirituality that’s much more connected to… and we do that sometimes really well, it’s connected to my wife and to my children, it’s connected to family meals. But isn’t it connected too to where I get my water, where my waste goes, how much pollution I’m emitting from my automobiles or how much I’m not emitting if I choose to walk or bike? I mean, why are these not regular staples of our ethic that we talk about comfortably?
I’ve been mocked for gathering soda cans at a ward event because I didn’t want to throw them away. I wanted to bring them home and recycle them. I know there are plenty of people in the church that wouldn’t have mocked me for that, but that’s silly that that even happens. It should be a normal daily practice, and the only way that things become daily practices to us is when, sociology will tell us, when they’re reinforced at multiple levels.
You and I both know, and no Mormon in the church doesn’t know, that smoking is not good for you and we probably shouldn’t smoke. That’s because that message was sent to you a hundred different ways. If someone says, “Oh, by the way, don’t pollute,” because it’s the same principle. I’m polluting my body and I’m polluting your air if I’m smoking near you, so what in the world is wrong with saying we shouldn’t pollute with our businesses, our business practices, or our modes of transportation? The problem is that becomes political.
This gets to your question. At some point there’s only so much I can do as a personal ethic to reduce my impact on the earth and maybe kindly invite and motivate other individuals to do the same. But ultimately policy has to play a role here too. We have to decide as a society that we can act together collectively in the interest of the collective whole. Air quality and its effect on public health is a great example of that. I mean we’re killing people with our air pollution. That’s not even negotiable or debatable. It’s fact. People are going to the hospital at higher rates during periods of inversion and they’re dying at higher rates. They’re having heart and lung problems at higher rates. People are having asthma at higher rates. We would never justify that on an individual level, but collectively we just turn a blind eye to it. That’s not unique to Mormons. That’s my point. But we do have the resources and the doctrinal principles and values to guide us through that and say there’s a better way than just live and let live or live and let die I guess, and survive on my own. There’s a way to say my heart has to be turned toward my children, my heart has to be turned toward the community, and I’ve got to make sure that human flourishing isn’t just my thing, that God isn’t just answering my prayers to help me have a job and help me feed my family, but that we’re praying and working as a society to feed all families, to feed all individuals.
GIVENS: So you refer to the fact that we really have to have multiple levels of reinforcement to effect significant change in these areas. Can you think of a time in your memory when you have heard that kind of reinforcement from higher levels of church leadership?
HANDLEY: Yes I can. Not nearly as many as I would like. Elder Ballard and Elder Nelson have both given talks in General Conference in which they’ve talked about the creation and mentioned the importance of stewardship. That wasn’t the focus of their talks, but they did reference that. Elder Oaks recently mentioned, I think for the very first time, climate change in a talk he gave in Hawaii. Again his talk wasn’t about climate change, it wasn’t about environmental stewardship, but he acknowledged the reality of the problem, the threat it poses to poor people in developing countries who live at or below sea level. I thought that was wonderful.
GIVENS: So encouraging signs.
HANDLEY: Yes. The most significant event was Elder Marcus Nash’s talk that he gave, not in General Conference, but at a symposium at the University of Utah in 2013 or 2014, I can’t remember, in which he was asked to deliver a talk representing the church formally to talk about the Mormon view of environmental stewardship. I had been writing about this subject for close to fifteen years and I was quite nervous sitting in the audience wondering if I was going to discover in the course of his talk that I had been off base or that I was going to get corrected. I was very moved and emotional listening to it because of how beautiful it was. It’s now in the Mormon Newsroom and on LDS.org and they do now have a page on Gospel Topics devoted to conservation and stewardship. It’s marvelous, it’s wonderful.
GIVENS: That’s good to hear.
HANDLEY: But it’s not nearly enough. The problem is that you can go through the manuals and you can read lessons on the creation, you can read lessons about Adam and Eve, you can read lessons about the Law of Consecration in Doctrine and Covenants, and you won’t get a lesson with the topic “Environmental Stewardship.” I mean stewardship… if you quickly polled people in the church what they think the word “stewardship” refers to, typically people think of it as a stewardship over money, and a stewardship over talents, but typically it’s not actually about I’m responsible for water, air—
GIVENS: Do you think part of the problem is the feminism problem? That “feminism” is a label that has been co-opted in some cases by an extreme element that colors the whole in such a way?
HANDLEY: Oh absolutely.
GIVENS: “Environmentalism” is the same kind of word.
HANDLEY: Absolutely. This is the real irony, that there has been a movement over the past forty years with increasing momentum where churches across the world have been arguing for stewardship. They might not necessarily use that word, but it is often used. It’s certainly used in Evangelical and Catholic circles and other Christian circles. So there’s a strong religious environmentalism that’s out there. It’s global. It’s arguably one of the most important developments in religion in the last several decades. You have the patriarch Bartholomew, you have Pope Francis and before him Benedict and John Paul II, speaking about this. So there’s that.
Then at the same time environmentalism is more secular manifestations, I’m more familiar with those because of my career and my training. They’re not at all interested in religion. In fact, they see religion as the problem. So that’s really where a lot of that comes from. I was at Stanford University as an undergraduate during the 1980s when the whole population scare was going on and as far as I knew, I mean this was kind of a naive superficial understanding of environmentalism at age twenty-two, but I looked around and thought environmentalism was about having fewer children. That was as much as I could gather. I wasn’t intent on having twelve kids, I have four, I didn’t feel like it was anybody’s right to tell me how many kids I should have. Yet I was told almost daily, “Oh you’re Mormon? I hope you’re not going to have more than 2.7 children” or whatever it was. So there was a stigma attached to environmentalism as population control and it was imagined in the worst possible terms. It was about draconian tyrannical government telling you and me what our reproductive rights were or weren’t. I, like a lot of Mormons, didn’t feel invited in to that. That was not very encouraging.
I was struck later in life when I got interested in this and started writing about Mormonism just how many religious thinkers were thinking in terms of the protection of life is consistent with the protection of the natural world. A sexual ethic itself, which is about guarding reproductive powers because they’re sacred and because of what they can make possible, seems to me the same principle that ought to guide a sense of what the reproductive powers of the world are. The reproductive powers of the earth are evolutionary, and they’re in deep time, and they’re incredibly important to everything that we appreciate about the physical world.
Everything from the diversity of animals and the beauty of sunsets and the shape of mountains, it’s all extraordinarily connected in that way, and so if I don’t see that I have a similar responsibility to guard the capacity of the earth to give birth to life I’ve completely missed the boat. I just feel like that does not… then what I’ve done is I’ve conserved a certain ethic and salvation philosophy that is entirely self-centered. Self-centered in the human-centered sense. I might care about other people but I don’t care one bit about the June sucker in Utah Lake or I don’t care about… We actually have made fun of the idea of preserving species in our culture as if that’s a silly thing to worry about.
There are political reasons why people resent the Endangered Species Act and EPA and all these other things, but those shouldn’t get in the way of the principles. That’s what I find mystifying, is that we’ve allowed political arguments that typically come from a conservative political philosophy to completely block our view of the issue and our view of the responsibility, that we do actually have a mandate in our scriptures that tells us to care for life. In Genesis God commands the fowls of the air and the fishes in the sea to multiply and replenish and to fill the earth. They got the same deal we got.
GIVENS: We better not get in the way of that.
HANDLEY: Exactly. So what that implies then is that we’ve got to collaborate. That’s what dominion and stewardship imply, is a kind of collaboration on behalf of the home that we’re sharing with the rest of the physical creation, which is also our spiritual family. That sounds, I know, very tree-huggery, and these are ideas that can get mocked and turned into cartoons, but they’re deeply, deeply sacred and important principles in Mormonism. I think they’re part of the restoration. I think that’s part of what Christianity lost. I think we’ve got it; we just haven’t taken advantage of it yet.
GIVENS: Isn’t it true as well, going over the Joseph Smith Translation recently, I was looking to find what differences are there in the early chapters of Genesis especially, and I note that after the flood, in the aftermath of the flood, Joseph Smith adds that verse about an account will need to be made for all flesh that is killed, of the animals. So it’s a striking addition that in the context of this mass destruction that has been described that in trying to renew creation God is specifically pointing to the natural world and saying we have a stewardship and responsibility and will be accountable for the needless shedding of blood. So as you said that’s a unique restoration contribution.
HANDLEY: Right. And it’s incredibly uncomfortable to think about. There is no innocent person anywhere. I’m part of this system. I’m part of this society. I pollute. I waste. I consume more than I need. We all have to look inward and try to figure out some solutions to this. For me the solution seemed to be writing and talking about it, and then I kind of got tired of writing and talking only. I should say writing first as a scholar and then as a creative writer. This creative writing reaches more people, stories reach people differently than essay or scholarship does so I thought I’d experiment with that.
Then too just getting civically engaged and for me it’s such an extraordinary blessing that I felt drawn to caring about the environment and that brought me into the civic sphere and that has broadened my sense of my community and deepened my sense of responsibility as a citizen of the democracy. It’s very, very inspiring and it’s very exciting to get engaged, and it’s easy on the alternative is cynicism and bitterness. There’s so much of that right now in our society it’s toxic. All that does is give more room for people to abuse power. I think a lot of young people in the church right now, my experience in teaching at BYU is this is—
GIVENS: They’re receptive to this.
HANDLEY: This is an issue that they care a lot about. They should care about it and they shouldn’t be shamed for thinking this is an issue that worries them.
GIVENS: My daughter lets us know if we’re not doing our recycling properly.
This has been good. Let me wrap this up with a couple of quick questions. What are we as a Latter-day Saint people doing well? It could be within this realm or it could be more generally. When you think of where we are at this moment in our cultural history what makes you proud of the Latter-day Saint people?
HANDLEY: I think the sense of community that a ward family can produce is extraordinary and exceedingly beautiful and important to our society. That sense of being connected and belonging. We do berate ourselves a lot about not doing it as well as we should, and there certainly is room for improvement, but precisely because we’re trying it and we’re also seeing how we fail at it, and I think some perspective on that is helpful to say we are failing at it often because that’s the nature of the experiment, but thank goodness we’re in it, we’re trying to build community. Manifestations of that are pretty concrete.
Those are the things that most Mormons know about. The comforting of those who are sick and the visiting of those who are afflicted, and uplifting of the feeble knees and the strengthening of people through friendship and visits and kindnesses. There’s a decency and a goodness to Mormon people that I think is really, really beautiful and I think it’s grounded in our covenants and our commitment to Christ and I’m very happy to see that manifested everywhere I turn in a mostly Mormon community where I live. I don’t think it’s in short supply.
GIVENS: If we had another hour I would pursue this theme as it’s developed in your most recent work on American Fork, which I think you do in some very subtle and sophisticated ways where you talk about adoption, community, and weave that into a magnificent account of stewardship and love of the earth. But I’ll just leave that as a teaser at this point. What work can we be doing better? Have we covered that sufficiently?
HANDLEY: No, it’s something to do with something you were just putting you finger on. I think sometimes we’re a little too clannish. That’s sometimes a natural byproduct of, say, a strong extended family culture, which is a beautiful thing, caring about my cousins and my grandparents and having that larger sense of family is really important, but I think scripturally we are kind of warned about biological pride or genealogical pride and that—
GIVENS: Primary ancestor syndrome.
HANDLEY: Yeah. God is always willing to disrupt our sense of what is ours and who we belong to by saying that’s actually the stranger I want you to pay particular attention to. So I don’t know if we’re more phobic about illegal immigrants or about homosexuals or about single people or any other thing that doesn’t fit a particular mold that we think is sort of the natural and normal way of being in our community than other people would be or other religious communities. I haven’t lived in those communities so I don’t really know. I just know it’s very disappointing when we are unable to not only expressly confess our obligation to those who are marginalized, but actually live it and show through our actions that all people regardless of their faith, regardless of their circumstances in life, they are our brothers and sisters and they need to be to the degree they want to be in our church and sitting by our side that we have our arms around them and tell them that we love them even if they never want to make any changes in their life at all.
I know that’s utopian in a sense. I won’t use that word. It’s our ideal. I think it’s achievable, but I think it is also something with which I feel some patience knowing that it’s hard to grow out of comfort that we’ve established for ourselves. Living in Provo is an extraordinarily comfortable place to be and yet when I travel I notice my own laziness about how I even look at people who look differently than I do just because I’ve been in a community where everything is so easy and like-minded. I think there’s great value in having some disruption to that in productive ways so that we’re a little more careful about making sure we’re not doing what… when Jesus said it’s really the least among you that I’m going to use as my measure of how well you understand who I am. How you treat those people is really the key. How you think about the enemy. I wish we prayed for our enemies in church more. I’ve rarely heard a prayer in sacrament meeting for our enemies. I just think that was the pinnacle of what he said a prayer should be. It should be that outwardly directed.
GIVENS: Last question. Holy envy. Do you have holy envy with any other religious tradition or practice?
HANDLEY: I like that question. We took my son last year to the Cathedral of the Madeleine up in Salt Lake to hear the Madeleine Choir sing and he’s a musician and he’s a lover of great music. Sixteen-years old. He turns to me and my wife and he says, “I’m so disappointed in our church right now.” So he experienced just a tad of envy. He loves church, he loves it, he’s got a great attitude about it. But what he meant was they really… and actually where we live we are gifted with a lot of really great musicians in my ward and in my stake, but nevertheless the attention that had been given to the music in that moment was so beautiful.
I kind of pushed back a little bit and said we should be very proud of our musical traditions and what happens in our church, but I’ve been in those kinds of settings. I’ve been in Evensong in England and listened to the long drawn out beautiful meditation on the word of God and I feel like we’re consumers of scripture, we’re very utilitarian about the way we read. That really bothers me. I love the way that some other Christian traditions allow the word of God to be a sound and to be a little more of a mystical experience.
GIVENS: Yeah that prayer you hear so often, “help us to use these things in our daily life.” I’ve always thought no, not necessarily. We need things to just dwell in us sometimes.
HANDLEY: I’ve drunk heavily from the writers that I love that write about the natural world. They have shown me how to be holy, how to experience holiness. I think you’ve put it earlier as a sort of the givenness of things. I learn a lot from poets and great writers about how to open my eyes and realize that if nothing else, if everything were taken from me existence is a gift and I should be grateful for it. I envy that because I think sometimes we think of holiness as a kind of accumulation of things, an accumulation of blessings or something, and it’s the givenness of existence that is the most holy thing I think.
GIVENS: Well I’m grateful for you coming and joining us today, George. I’m grateful for the passion of your commitments and for the way in which you’ve so visibly consecrated your life to what is good and beautiful. So thank you for being with us today.
HANDLEY: Thank you. I’m grateful to you for who you are and what you do. I think you are a great gift and I appreciate it.
GIVENS: Thank you, George.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)