A distinctive Mormon doctrine related to creation and stewardship is the idea that embodiment is a necessary prerequisite for god-like exaltation. This doctrine includes within it the ideas we can be exalted to become like God, and that God himself has a physical body.
The soul of man is the spirit and the body. Although we believe we had a premortal existence as spirit children of God, we were not completely created until we were born into our physical bodies. Our mortal parents acted as co-creators with God in having us. Our bodies are the temples in which our spirits dwell, and which the Holy Ghost may visit. So in a Mormon view, having a body is necessary for the development of our spirits. The traditional Christian view that holds that God embodied himself as Christ in order to make himself approachable to us. While we believe in the condescension of God, we believe our embodiment has the potential to bring us closer to God, to make us more like Him.
There are great pleasures to be experienced through our bodies. The body is our vehicle for experiencing the whole of creation, our means of developing an aesthetic sense which God already has. He wants us to find that things please our eyes and gladden our hearts. We are meant to experience the pleasures of the flesh, within the bounds that the Lord has set. Those lines of moderation and restraint serve to increase our enjoyment and protect us from the misery of excess.
Although we have positive doctrines about embodiment, we are often deeply ambivalent about our bodies. The natural man is an enemy to God. Temptations and base impulses, the sins of the flesh, must be overcome. We repeat the phrase “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” All of these things may cause us to despise our bodies from a religious point of view. When we despise our bodies and seek only to overcome them, we are more likely to neglect and manipulate them. We fail to cultivate a sense of moderation, and feel guilty in enjoying the natural pleasures of embodiment. That guilt itself may become a perverse pleasure, and so we fall into an unnatural, unhappy state, far removed from God.
We do well to remember our own mortality. We believe we have these bodies only temporarily, and our bodies are not our own. We must give them up at the end of our lives, retaining only the memory of our freedom and pleasure and pain until the day of our resurrection in a glorified, perfected body like that which God has. But for now, our bodies are our first and most intimate stewardship assignment, inescapable while in this life. How we care for these bodies of ours, and what we choose to do with them and through them determines our future relationship to our Heavenly Father, the degree to which we will be like Him, and our eternal proximity to Him.
This body is not the end: it is a means. As such, may be despised or disregarded, seen in this unattractive light as at best a tool to do God’s work and at worst as an ineffective tool: a hinderance, a source of temptation and embarrassment. How often have we heard, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak?” To develop a purely utilitarian view of the body, or to loathe it for being what it is, is to deny the good of it that God saw at the moment of its creation. It is to be ungrateful to God, perhaps the greatest sin there is.
Every attitude and belief discussed above about the body can be applied to the larger earth we inhabit.
Just as the body is our personal vehicle for experiencing mortality, the earth is our collective vehicle. It it the setting in which our bodies exist. It provides every stimulus; it is the primary source material for all of our sensations. As we need our bodies as a means to approach and become like God, so we need the earth. We are able to experience pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, delight and beauty because we are embodied in this world. As we are made to enjoy our bodies, we are made to enjoy the wonders of the world. But as with our bodies, we must temper our use of the earth with moderation, observing the bounds the Lord has set. Excesses of consumption and privation are sinful, the first because it imposes the second on others, and the second, when chosen, because it ungratefully refuses to partake of the goodness of creation. Both vices have the effect of denying the blessings of God and the good He has created.
The problem with seeing the body and the earth as temporary things we occupy as means to an ends is that they may become nothing more than something to be used and disposed of when their purpose is fulfilled. Planning to discard something will result in its being treated more shabbily while it is in use. It can be wasted completely, so long as the job gets done. This ignores the fact that the purpose of life is not to survive it, it is to develop certain attributes within life, to cultivate good things within ourselves and the world around us. Our body and the earth are not only tools to be used; they must be cherished and protected, preserved so they can be restored to full glory. That act of restoration will take place because of the care we show now. If we do not exercise care, we cannot have a part in that restoration. For we believe that good will be restored to good, and evil to evil. If we use our means to be wasteful and condemn creation, we will be wasted at the second coming, and find ourselves condemned.
Just as our soul is made of the body and the spirit, the earth and all things that are upon her have spiritual and physical form. The trees have souls. As we learn to live within the bounds the Lord has set for us, we fulfill the measure of our creation; we become like Him and are happy. The rest of the created world already obeys God; their measure of creation will be filled unless we hinder them and pervert them from their natural course of glorying God. For there is no doubt but that we can derail all of creation, and cause corruption to fall on everything. When we do so, when we exercise unrighteous dominion, all things suffer. The earth weeps in her defiled and polluted state. We neglect the poor among us, and cause God to sorrow. We find our proud little selves alone and miserable in the impoverished world we constructed for ourselves, cut off from the presence of God and the joys of this life and the next. Our bodies, the vehicles that would carry us to exaltation if we but use them humbly and gratefully, relying on in Christ to overcome our shortcomings and forgive us our misdeeds, become the means of our damnation.
In the end, LDS doctrines of embodiment and the creation are only as useful or as harmful as how we choose to interpret and apply them in our lives. We will always fail to live up to our ideals, but striving to attain those ideals will keep us from complete failure. Through our embodiment, we have the opportunity to become like God, the creator and preserver of all things. Each moment of grateful pleasure, each act of cultivation and restoration brings us and creation closer to Him.
This piece is cross-posted at ldsearthstewardship.org.