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Saving the planet mixes well with religion, Yale scholar says

PROVO — The Jordan River may be sacred to millions of Christians and Jews, but that sacredness hasn't kept it from becoming a polluted waterway.

"What does it mean to have these places … so undermined by our human activity that they've lost their real vital value?" asked John Grim, senior lecturer and scholar at Yale and coordinator of the Forum on Religion and Ecology. "Yet the symbolic value, we claim it daily without a second thought, 'The River Jordan, it means something in my tradition.' But the reality is sad, bad news."

Grim, who teaches students from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies as well as the Yale Divinity School and department of religious studies, spoke to BYU students in a recent lecture about the emerging alliance of religion and ecology and how scientists and scholars are turning to religion for help protecting and preserving the planet.

"We have a number of laws with regard to environmental issues," Grim said. "But why have we not, as a nation or people, been able to make the turn to see past some of the constraints that hold us? We need larger and deeper motivations, a clearer understanding of these issues to make this turn."

And that's where religion comes in.

"Religions are ancient transmitters of values questions," he said. "Religions have been at ethical issues for so long."

And religious people already believe in the importance of altruism and compassion, community building, social justice with equal distribution of resources, asceticism and restraint, and long-term perspective, Grim said — all values that coincide with environmental protection.

Jason Brown is working on master's degrees from Yale in the joint forestry/divinity school program, and he said he easily applied Grim's ideas of reconstructing old concepts, retrieving old or neglected ideas and re-evaluating those ideas to his beliefs as a Latter-day Saint.

Rather than focus on dominion, Latter-day Saints should reconstruct the term to mean a compassionate relationship with the earth, like God's loving relationship with man, said Brown, a BYU graduate.

And retrieving the Mormon tenet of vitality of the earth would help church members see the earth as a living creature, rather than just a resource to have stewardship over.

"The notion that plants and animals have spirits, that they have a vital presence, seems to imply a different kind of ethical relationship than simply relating to the earth as a material blessing that is to be used with judgment," Brown said.

As far as re-evaluating, Brown wanted members of the church to change the way they view the earth, and to see it as sacred and important, more than just a collection of trees or plants.

"It's significant to me that Joseph Smith received a vision in a grove of trees, which to us is a Sacred Grove," Brown said. "As Mormons, we strive to live the restored gospel, and for me that includes a spiritual and vital planet," Brown said.

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