From the Cradle of Creation:
The Beliefs of a Young Botanist
Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved plants. Some of my first memories are of rough juniper seeds, the damp smell of lilac in the morning, and the glory of purple irises along a ditch bank. Theodore Roethke wrote that “morning’s a motion in a happy mind,” and just as surely plants were a joyous presence in my earliest thoughts. As I grew older my enthusiasm for plants continued unabated. While other boys joined Little League, I planted dahlias and built greenhouses. There is an ineffable aesthetic about plants that I have always found astonishingly beautiful. Some of my happiest hours have been spent studying plants.
My father was a park ranger and my mother was a fisheries biologist. They were very supportive of my interests in plants. When I was ten, I received permission from Gasquet forest to collect several rare cobra lilies (Darlingtonia californica), so my parents drove me one weekend from Provo to Crescent City, California, to collect tha plants. I spent the first several nights home in my greenhouse with the cobra lilies, trying my best to recreate with extension cords and humidifiers the early morning and afternoon coastal fogs that characterizes their native habitat.
As a tropical rain forest biologist, I have spent the last two decades of my life studying plants in South and Central America, Africa, the Far East, Australia and the Pacific and Caribbean islands. I usually work alone in the forest and spend my nights in small villages. Many people ask me if my work is frightening. They do not understand that the rain forest is not at all like the “jungle” portrayed in the movies: the rain forest is serene and gentle, very much like the Sacred Grove. When I walk through the rain forest, I feel as though I am walking through a living masterpiece painted by the Creator. When I see the sun streaming through the rain forest canopy like light pouring through the stained glass windows of a cathedral, I feel very close to Heavenly Father. I always feel his Spirit in the rain forest. It is abundantly clear to me that plants and animals are spiritual entities worthy of our care and respect. We demonstrate respect for the Creator when we show respect for his handiwork. I have devoted my life to conservation because I believe the rain forests, oceans, mountains, and deserts are the very handiwork of God.
My Life as a Scientist
I have both a deep testimony of the gospel and a deep appreciation of science. I see no contradictions between the truths of the gospel and the truths of science. I do not wish to belittle the struggles of those who wrestle with contradictionsthey perceive, but merely to indicate that I detect no essential contradictions.
There are a few teachers on both sides of the question who promulgate the belief that science is irreconcilable with religion. I fear that this stance can be damaging to the spirituality of our youth. When I hear of such controversies, I think on the words of the Savior to the Nephites:
And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. (3 Nephi 11:28–29)
For this reason I have been fairly reluctant to discuss my views about science and conservation within Church settings, and indeed I was hesitant to accept the invitation to write this chapter. I realize that my own views on these matters might be objectionable to some, and I do not wish to inadvertently offend any fellow member of the Church.
I think Paul had a similar issue in mind when he wrote:
For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.
Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. . . .
Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way. . . .
But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:2–3, 13, 15)
Because I believe so deeply in the Church, I do not wish my views on science or conservation to become a “stumblingblock” that might anger or destroy a fellow member “for whom Christ died.” The price paid for each of us was so great that we cannot afford to endanger the salvation of another. Besides, it behooves all of us to speak meekly about these issues. As scientists we must be humble about our conclusions, because new information can radically change our understanding of the world. And as Latter-day Saints we should be modest about our personal interpretations of the scriptures because new revelation can profoundly change our understanding of the gospel.
My personal views about the compatibility of the gospel and science were deeply influenced by interactions I had, as a student, with two remarkable individuals. The famous Latter-day Saint chemist Henry Eyring taught that “the Church only requires you to believe what is true,” an expansive vision of the compatibility of all truth that defuses many potential contradictions between science and religion. President Harold B. Lee told a group of us “never to accept any single-scripture theology. If the Lord wants this people to know something, he will not bury it in some obscure verse, but will make it abundantly apparent throughout the scriptures.”
Both of these sentiments, one by a prominent Latter-day Saint scientist and the other by a prophet of God, led me to focus on the weightier matters of the gospel, such as faith in Christ, repentance, and baptism, rather than on tangential areas of possible conflict. It is now clear to me that religion and science speak to very different questions. Science has very little to offer on important “why” questions: Why was the world created? Why are we here? Why does God love us? However, the scriptures offer little information on mechanisms that are sought in “how” questions: How old is the earth? How were plants and animals created? What are the laws governing the origin and expansion of the visible universe?
Not only do science and religion address different realms of truth, but they also have very different consequences. The truths of science can be known to any diligent investigator regardless of personal worthiness. These truths can be useful for building aircraft or devising new medicines. But the treasures of eternity are available only to those who humbly seek the Lord through faith, repentance, and obedience to the commandments. The truths of the gospel, if followed, can lead one to Christ and salvation. One can be saved without a knowledge of population genetics or quantum mechanics, but little eternal progress is possible without a knowledge of the principles of repentance or the power of prayer. There is also a certainty about the gospel truths that is unparalleled in science. The divinity of Jesus and the power of his atonement will never change, while it is possible that many of our scientific understandings will change as further information becomes available.
My Life as a Scholar
Perhaps because I am a botanist, spending my life in peaceful forests, working with organisms that are silent and gentle, I tend to shun debate and controversy, particularly concerning religious issues. The weightier matters of the gospel, the doctrines that unite rather than divide us as brothers and sisters in Christ, are the parts of the gospel that I find most compelling. In short, I seek “the peaceable things of the kingdom” (D&C 39:6) rather than the areas of controversy.
I do not feel that I fit comfortably into either camp of scholars who have led much of the recent discussion on “Mormon scholarship,” camps that have been termed by some “the Mormon liberals” and “the Neo-orthodoxy.” As a scholar, I do not see my employment as any better or worse than that of a park ranger, a plumber, a farmer, a fisherman, or any other honorable occupation that Latter-day Saints pursue. Whatever our endeavors, we should strive for excellence, serving our employers and our communities with our best efforts. The true Saints have never been artificially divided by status, wealth, or opportunities for education. We are told that when such divisions did occur, the Church suffered:
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.
Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God.
And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land save it were among a few of the Lamanites who were converted unto the true faith; and they would not depart from it, for they were firm, and steadfast, and immovable, willing with all diligence to keep the commandments of the Lord.
Now the cause of this iniquity of the people was this—Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity, and to the puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world. (3 Nephi 6:12–15)
I am uncomfortable with recent discussions about the role and import of “Mormon intellectuals,” and I really do not have much to contribute to that dialogue. One extreme seems to argue that the Lord’s servants, particularly those who are not “scholars,” should somehow be limited in their ministry and utterances, or even distrusted. The other extreme suggests that those who pursue scholarly careers may damage themselves and the Church—unless they disengage themselves from traditional scholarship and pursue a unique form of “Mormon scholarship.”
Imagine if Mormon plumbers had a similar controversy, one side arguing that the Lord’s servants should not be followed if they lacked a detailed knowledge of plumbing, and the other side arguing that we must abandon plumbing altogether and invent a unique “Mormon” method of sending water coursing through pipes.
I am grateful that I can spend my days in enjoyable professional pursuits, but I do not believe that my scholarly endeavors give me any special advantage in discerning the mysteries of godliness, an undertaking that will depend solely on my willingness to humbly follow the Savior. Yet as a scholar, I do not believe that my Church affiliation excuses me in doing poor-quality work or allows me to invent a unique “Mormon” method of sending water coursing through pipes.
I am grateful that I can spend my days in enjoyable professional pursuits, but I do not believe that my scholarly endeavors give me any special advantage in discerning the mysteries of godliness, an undertaking that will depend solely on my willingness to humbly follow the Savior. Yet as a scholar, I do not believe that my Church affiliation excuses me in doing poor-quality work or allows me to invent some unique “Mormon” formulation of my discipline. My work as a rain forest biologist should be accessible to my academic peers regardless of their religious affiliation.
My Life as a Latter-day Saint
The most precious thing to me in the world is my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I will be eternally grateful that I was able to be baptized at the age of eight into the Church and receive the wonderful blessings of the atonement.
When I was a twelve year-old, I read the Gospels, which record the earthly ministry of Jesus. I found his teachings to be both vivid and compelling. He taught us to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us badly, to pray in secret, and to do our alms in a quiet and unobtrusive way. As I read, I knew inside that his doctrine was true. If, of all the scriptural texts, only the Sermon on the Mount survived, I would find it to be compelling evidence that Jesus is who he said he was, the Son of God. A mere man could not invent such beautiful but deeply radical doctrines. If the entire world lived the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, nearly all our problems would disappear. Reading that sermon, I believed with my entire being that Jesus is the Christ and that because of his sacrifice, each of us will be resurrected and can receive a remission of our sins if we repent and are baptized.
Later I read The Book of Mormon, cover to cover, many times. I have a deep testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. I cannot read a single page without feeling power and righteousness flowing from the book. I have the same feeling of peace when I read the Book of Mormon as when I read the New Testament. I know that both are true.
I believe with my whole heart that our church is led by inspired servants of God. They are good men and women, but more compelling to me than their own personal merits is the fact that they were called by the Lord. It hurts me when people speak unkindly or sarcastically of our leaders, because I know that when I listen carefully, I can hear the voice of the Lord speaking to me through them. I am so grateful that the Lord left us with a solid tripod on which to ground our faith: the scriptures, the living prophets, and most importantly, the Spirit. All are united in testifying of the divinity of the Savior and the reality of his love for us.
Jesus offers us such a bargain. He allows us to repent of our sins. Through him, we can approach the Father in prayer. He makes possible a remission of sins, so that the Father can send his Spirit to be with us. And he offers us the saving ordinances of the priesthood that are precious beyond price. I am so grateful that I have been sealed for time and all eternity to my wife, children, parents, and other family members. No matter what happens to us, if we are faithful, we will again be together. Those seals are real. I testify of the reality of the “good tidings” of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As a botanist, I find it poignant that the prophet Isaiah referred to the Savior as a plant: “For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).
Isaiah’s metaphor is apt. Rather than being defined like so many animals (and many of us!) by what he consumed, Jesus, like a plant, is characterized by what he produced. Like many plants, he healed wounds. Like many seeds that fall and grow in untoward places, Jesus was born and reared in a humble place. As his mortal life unfolded, he always grew toward the light. Like a small forest herb, he was meek and gentle, silent in the face of oppression. Like plants that use dirt, earth, and other common things to produce beautiful flowers, Jesus took simple things, common experiences, and lowly people, and produced great teachings, beautiful proverbs, and magnificent servants. Jesus Christ is the master botanist, the creator not only of the rain forest flowers and architect of Eden, but creator of the entire earth. I love Him. I care deeply about protecting his creation. I sustain and honor his chosen servants. I hope to prove worthy in whatever corner of his vineyard I am called upon to tend.