In this Faith Matters Big Questions conversation, Faith Matters team members Kate H. and Bill Turnbull speak with BYU humanities professor George Handley and planetary scientist and BYU professor Jani Radebaugh.
They discuss, among other things, the integration of faith and science as pertaining to the earth and its creation, as well as our relationship to the earth and the responsibilities that we have to it as its stewards and as God’s children. We hope you enjoy this conversation!
Kate H.: Hi, everyone. I’m Kate from Faith Matters, and I’ve got Bill Turnbull with me. He’s one of the founders of Faith Matters, and we’re doing a really cool series called The Big Questions Project, and the name kind of speaks for itself, but, essentially, we’re exploring some of the really big burning questions relating to our faith that I think a lot of us have in various forms. So, today, we are lucky to have with us, two pretty legendary professors, Jani Radebaugh. Did I say that right?
Jani Radebaugh: Yes, you did.
Kate: Jani Radebaugh and George Handley. So, thank you guys for being with us, today.
Jani Radebaugh: Thanks for having us.
George Handley: Yeah.
Kate: So, Bill, do you want to introduce Jani to us?
Bill Turnbull: Oh, sure. Yeah, Jani’s like this most interesting woman in the world figure [crosstalk 00:01:09] she’s always found in these really remote, stark, but fascinating corners of the earth if she’s out studying moons of Saturn or something like that, but she’s a professor of geological sciences at BYU and really kind of a renowned planetary scientist working on a really cool project to explore Titan, right?
Jani Radebaugh: Yes.
Bill Turnbull: Yes. Give us like, 30 second on that.
Jani Radebaugh: Yeah, we just submitted the Dragonfly mission concept and it’s a proposal to send, basically, kind of like a quadcopter to the surface of Titan, a really distant moon of Saturn. It’s got a thick atmosphere like Earth’s and a landscape a lot like Earth’s, but, everything is utterly different and there are lots of really strange but very interesting materials on the surface, and, in fact, materials that could lead to the start of life, and so, we’re very interested to go put something there and actually taste the material on the surface, so we’ll see what happens. It’s under review for the next six months.
Kate: By “Put something there,” we mean Jani’s trying to move to Titan, so, we don’t know when we’ll see her next, but-
Jani Radebaugh: It’s an easy place to explore as a human, it turns out, ’cause the atmosphere is like Earth’s but it’s just very, very cold and you can’t breathe it, so, I don’t know.
Bill Turnbull: You gotta do well with methane.
Jani Radebaugh: Yeah, and there’s lots of methane, yep.
Bill Turnbull: But it’s about Earth size, right?
Jani Radebaugh: The atmosphere is about the same pressure as Earth’s surface, so you don’t need a pressure suit, which is very cool. The body’s a little smaller than Earth, but lots of really cool landscapes to explore.
Bill Turnbull: Yeah. And, your dad … I took international business from your dad.
Jani Radebaugh: Yeah, yeah, it’s so funny ’cause people are always like, “Gosh, you travel so much.” I honestly do not travel as much as my dad did in the middle of when he was a dean or something, you know what I mean, so, yeah, I guess that’s part of the field is that they need to travel if it’s International business, but, between he and my mom who did this curtain time sort of like young ambassadors world tour when she was at BYU, I got a big love for travel.
Bill Turnbull: Yeah, good, good.
Kate: Well, ill introduce George a little bit. George happens to be one of my favorite human beings. I went to his office one time and I just felt like my mind was utterly blown, so, I think George brings a really unique perspective with his writing, weaving together environmentalism and religion and literature, which is really cool. Some of George’s more LinkedIn facts, I guess: born and raised in Connecticut. You can correct me if any of this is wrong, but, born and raised in Connecticut, bachelors degree at Stanford and then masters and PhD at Berkeley, and I think you worked at a … you were a professor at a university in Arizona, if I’m correct.
George Handley: Yeah.
Kate: And then, yeah, and then, now teach at BYU, a professor of humanities, and, I think some of your work that I find really fascinating and unique is this work on environmental stewardship within the scope of Mormonism, which, at least from what I know, seems to be a big focus for you, and so I think you bring … George brings a unique voice to that, and then, on a personal note, I think, as a former student at BYU and one who knows a lot of your students, George, I think your thoughtful curiosity and informed faith and who you are as a mentor to a lot of students is really powerful. I think your relational approach, at least from what I know from a lot of your students, you’re a really influential mentor, so we’re really excited to have you here to talk to us about all this.
George Handley: Thank you, Kate. I don’t live a life nearly as interesting as Jani, but-
Kate: Well, Jani’s fine on coffee tables to other planets, so-
George Handley: I might have to [crosstalk 00:05:23] with her. She’s not a good Facebook friend because she posts photos of exotic places that make you exceedingly jealous, but-
Jani Radebaugh: You keep doing the same thing, though, too, so-
Bill Turnbull: George is at the top of some peak, here.
Jani Radebaugh: Yeah, exactly. I’m sitting here grading papers. He’s on some snowy peak.
Bill Turnbull: Yeah. By the way, George wrote a couple of books that I love. Home Waters, which is kind of an environmental memoir, Live on the Provo River, your Recompense on the Provo River, I think it was called.
George Handley: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Bill Turnbull: Is that right? Something like that, but I loved it. He’s become a little bit like Mormonisms Thoreau, so that’s … but, the Provo River is your Walden Pond, maybe.
Kate: So, I wanna setup this conversation a little bit by reading a challenge issued by Carl Sagan, who, famous astronomer, astrophysicist. I’m sure you’re both familiar with him from several decades ago, and he says, “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought? The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grand and more subtle, more elegant.’ Instead, they say, ‘No, no, no, my God is a little God and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion old or new that stressed the magnificence of the modern universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.” So, Jani, Carl Sagan was obviously fascinated by the Cosmos, and I know you are, too. So, what does he mean when he says, “This is better than we thought?” Give us some cosmic context. Talk to us a little bit about that.
Jani Radebaugh: Yeah, first, I really love this quote. I think there’s so much to it and we could spend almost the whole time on it really, so, I think something that is really special about being a scientist is that you get to see a lot of these things unfold in front of you, and the numbers getting bigger or smaller sometimes, whatever it is, and we’re required to approach that with a really open mind, and, for example, in just the last couple of years, there’s been a discovery of an object in our solar system.
Jani Radebaugh: And, our solar system is really big and there’s a vast amount of empty space and it’s hard to kind of understand this, but, for example, there’s a spacecraft that’s flying past another object kind of almost as we speak way out beyond the orbit of Pluto. Pluto, itself is 30 times as far from the sun as the Earth. It took a spacecraft ten years flying really fast to get there, and so, for us to even imagine, “Oh, let’s go explore Pluto,” well, it’ll take ten years, you know? That’s 30 times as far from the sun as the Earth, but we think we’ve discovered another object that’s the size of Neptune, and it is 800 times as far away from the sun as the Earth. And, for us to even … why didn’t we even know about this thing before, a whole Neptune that’s out there? Well, it’s really far away and we don’t know exactly where it is, but everything is lining up in just the right way that everyone has agreed, “Okay, yeah, this object is out there.”
Bill Turnbull: Wait, is it orbiting our sun?
Jani Radebaugh: Yeah, it’s part of our solar system, so we think it got ejected from its original orbit at some point in the past during the really violent stages of the early solar system, so we have to be sure to keep an open mind as those things come, and rely on evidence in front of us that those things are there. Now, if we wanna go outside our solar system to the next object, it’s Proxima Centauri, and that’s four light years away. That’s the distance that light can travel in a year. That’s a light year, and so it would take four of those for light alone to get there.
Jani Radebaugh: So, if we can imagine going as fast as we possibly can in a spacecraft, it would take us 200 years to get to Proxima Centauri. That’s four light years away. Now, if we wanna just go to our galaxy, which is really big, and that’s basically all the stars you can see in the sky with the exception of one or two little objects, that is 100,000 light years across and there are 500 billion stars in our galaxy. Now, we’re starting to think that every star has a planet around it or more than one planet, so that’s 500 billion just in our Milky Way galaxy.
Jani Radebaugh: But then, our Milky Way is part of a big galaxy cluster, and then that cluster’s part of a super cluster, and that extends all the way out to the edge of the universe, and as far as we know, there are trillions of galaxies in our universe, and our universe is 14 billion light years across. So, it’s really hard for us to kind of even comprehend this and to understand what’s going on and understand the vastness of time and space. And then, to actually come back from that and say, “Well, but, there is an edge to space and there is a beginning to time.” Actually, it’s not 14 billion light years across. That’s if everything were expanding at light speed, and it can’t.
Jani Radebaugh: So, at any rate, the universe is 14 billion years old, and so there’s a beginning, and so we have to say, “Well, what happened before?” There’s no before, ’cause that’s where time started. There’s no outside of because that’s where space ends. So, that starts feeling confining despite being so big, and that’s where we run into these problems. “Well, how can you confine God to having this start at 14 billion years ago and not having it extend outside of space, but we forget that these numbers are so big, we can’t ever really comprehend them to begin with, and now we’re worried about a constraint on them, so it’s a very interesting kind of conundrum that we run into.
Bill Turnbull: Isn’t is also true that the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate, so that is-
Jani Radebaugh: It depends. Sometimes, it’s accelerating. Sometimes, it’s not accelerating. It depends on how much dark energy and matter you wanna put in there, so either it’s gonna continue expanding infinitely, or it’s not expanding quite fast enough and it’ll all collapse back on itself, back into this singularly, infinite matter into no space, which is what we started from, and we’re not sure yet what the ending is gonna be, or if there’s an ending. We don’t know.
Kate: It’s fascinating even to listen to that and to hear this scope because I’m like, “Oh, yeah, let’s get some scope [inaudible 00:11:56] and then I’m hearing it and I’m like, “Oh, my.” It’s so incredibly, in some senses, overwhelming of even being to able to, I think, like you said, comprehend that massive existence of our universe, and I think it begs the question for me, and not only with our Earth: so, take our Earth’s existence and our little planet and all that is entailed on our little planet and how I think, in the scope of that, that can feel slightly insignificant or disorienting. And also, not only that, but our personal lives and our personal thoughts and struggles and relationships, and, I think, in contrast, that can be, like I said, pretty disorienting, so, I guess for George and for you, Janie, what are your thoughts about that contrast that happens as a human being living on planet earth, feeling insignificant?
George Handley: I think a couple of things. I find there’s great value in that kind of disorientation. I mean, I think it’s therapeutic. There’s like an early childhood version of that that’s terrifying. A lot of kids sometimes feel terrified by the thought of eternity or they get terrified by the thought of infinite space or something like that, so I do think it’s chastening. I think it is certainly humbling when we think about those numbers and we try to contemplate that kind of space. But, in the scriptures, we have at least two accounts of cosmological encounters that are intended to be spiritually edifying.
George Handley: One is the story of Moses, right, who’s given a vision of the creation, and one of the many unique understandings that are given to us in that restored account of the creation is the fact that there are worlds without number, right, and that this is a much vaster and awesome universe than Moses had certainly contemplated, and his reaction is he collapses and he says, “Now, I know that Man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed,” so he’s overcome by awe and wonder. And, a similar scriptural episode is in the book of Job when Job is experiencing a very self-centering … going through a very self-centering experience of suffering. Suffering is, in many ways, by definition, a self-centering experience. I don’t mean that in the negative sense, but when we’re suffering the loss of a loved one, we’re not thinking about other people as readily as we might, and after days and days of consultation with his friends and trying to figure out why all these terrible things have happened to him, the Lord gives him, in a very long speech: as far as I can tell, the longest speech that God the father ever gives in scripture.
George Handley: And, it’s all about … it’s more of a Planet Earth lecture than it is a cosmological one, although he does talk about, “Where were you when the foundations of the universe began?” And he says, “What do you know about all these things in the world, in the Earth that I am the caretaker of?” And he’s talking about whales in the sea and animals on the land and weather and climate and oceans and clouds and so on, and all of this is a kind of chastisement, but it’s a loving chastisement. It’s to say, “You are not the center of the universe and your problems are not the most important thing, and you might actually gain some spiritual value from appreciating the grandeur of my creations.”
George Handley: There’s a wonderful book that I love to recommend by a guy named William Brown called the Seven Pillars of Creation, and he reads the Bible side by side with contemporary science, and one of his conclusions in that book is that we may have misnamed our species. We’re called homo sapiens, which means knowing man, and he says we probably should be more properly identified as homo admirans, which means wondering man, and what his argument is is that what makes us uniquely human is our capacity for awe and wonder, so the fact that we don’t have answers to some of the questions that Janie was just posing, and yet we feel hunger for them and we keep gaining more information, and yet, every time we gain more information, new questions arise, I mean, that’s disorienting and it’s de-centering, but it’s wonder-full it’s full of wonder, right, and it’s glorious, and it’s an experience that’s uniquely human to be able to contemplate even our limited understanding of the universe.
George Handley: To be able to contemplate it at all is a uniquely human privilege, and so, I find that very spiritually edifying. In fact, I’m constantly … and I know Janie feels similarly and my wanna speak to that, but I find myself drawn to those experiences and to those places that will put me completely out of place and that will completely reorient me so that I’m more aware of what I’m doing on this planet, what it means to be in a body, what a gift it is to be alive and so on.
Kate: Well, I think what I love about what you said and what you shared is this idea that … and, at least, for me, I think of the Universe and I think of the Earth as something that, however much we feel like we do mentally, we can’t escape it. We can’t escape that we live and exist on this earth and that our earth sits in a universe and that that universe is vast and massive, and I think the fact that we can’t kind of escape that provides us a constant opportunity to learn from it and to have it kind of place us in someplace, whether that’s just a place of awe or a place of feeling disoriented, like you said, is not necessarily a bad thing, and I think, in a way that wakes us up, which is hard as a human being. It’s hard to stay awake to your human experience in a lot of ways. I find that is one of the biggest challenges we face, and I think the Universe and the Earth provides that waking.
George Handley: Yeah, no, that’s beautifully-
Bill Turnbull: If we could just go back to George’s comment about … you mentioned Moses and the experience that he had. He had this profoundly disorienting experience and his conclusion was what? “Oh, wow, Man is really nothing, which thing I had never supposed.” In other words, he felt very small, and I think in that moment, he’s admitting that his story about God, his story about the world had been inadequate, ’cause God showed him something that he’d just never imagined before, and so our stories do kind of matter, don’t they?
Bill Turnbull: I remember an experience I had when I came … not long after I’d come home of my mission, we’d had this very interesting … we had a somewhat enlightened state president, I guess, who invited Jim Jensen … you know dinosaur Jim Jensen? Yeah, he was at BYU and he discovered more dinosaurs, I think, than anybody, maybe any American ever, had one named after him, I think, and he’d come to our state and he had … he was putting on this fireside, and he was showing us pictures of his dinosaurs and how he discovered them and how old they were, and I was experiencing all kinds of cognitive dissonance because I was like, “This does not fit my story,” and I actually stood up in the audience with all the zeal of a returned missionary and said, “Now, wait. How can this be true? How can your timelines be … how can these things exist?”
Bill Turnbull: And, I sat there, and I looked at him, and he just paused. He didn’t really say anything, and I looked at what was on the screen behind him, which was this skeleton of this amazing thing that he’d unearthed, and I just came to this realization right there and I sat down and I thought, “You know, my God’s too small. I’ve gotta make room in my world for things like dinosaurs and a very old Earth,” so, maybe that was Moses’ experience, like, “Wow, my story is inadequate.” And so I think it gets back to that first thing Kate, your quote by Carl Sagan. It does matter. Is there a religion that can tell a story that draws forth those reserves. How does that … can you reread that last-
Kate: “A religion old or new that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
Bill Turnbull: I imagine Moses might have yearned to have the kind of tools that the Janie Radebaughs are bringing us to help him make sense of what he experienced or what God showed him, but he didn’t, of course. He just had the experience and it was enough to take his breath away, but, so what is … part of this discussion is, “How can we enrich our story of the world, of Creation?”
Jani Radebaugh: Yeah, I feel like a lot of that is happening for us because we’re learning so much about the world in general, the deep corners of the Earth and then also just the solar system and the Universe and everything, so we almost can’t avoid having that happen for us, and I think that’s where we can kind of say, “Well, we’re suddenly just exploding in our understanding of what’s going on in contrast to what maybe Moses understood before, which not only was a lack of understanding of the whole Earth, probably the whole size of the Earth and extent of Earth, but even all the people on the Earth at the time. I mean, their story was, as far as he understood, their kind of little group of people, and that’s probably all the people he thought there were on the earth because that’s how scriptures are put forward to us is like, well, “Scripture’s here to help you in a spiritual sense, and there will be some hints here and there about the vastness of the universe, but they’re just hints, right?”
Jani Radebaugh: And so, you can get stuck in this very, “Oh, the entire Universe exists just for me and for my age and so it doesn’t need to be any more than 6,000 years old or any bigger than this or that or whatever to encompass this story,” and so, I think as we start bringing in the truths of the physical world, because, I think, often, scripture will deal almost more with spiritual, right, and we kind of forget that, but, as we’re sitting here in this physical world and we start to understand, “No, there are places that have never seen a human before, but they exist, and, in fact, a human has never even set eyes on them before, but they have been created,” that’s just really powerful to me, I think. There’s vast beauty out there that’s never even been observed by human eyes.
George Handley: Well, and I think Janie’s point about the human community is really important because the same problem that we’ve had to be able to imagine a world that’s as big as this or a universe that’s as big as the one that we apparently are in, it has its corollary in our inability or our struggle to understand the limits of human community, so I do think there’s an ethical dimension to this that’s really important.
George Handley: I love the idea, for example, in the Book of Mormon, that Jesus, as he’s explaining the other sheep that are not of this fold and why the disciples in Jerusalem didn’t ask about them, he actually describes it as a form of inequity or stiff-neckedness that they didn’t have the imagination to contemplate the possibility that the world was much larger than they thought it was, the human world, let alone … and, we’re also talking about the planet itself.
George Handley: I mean, part of the struggle historically that we’ve had in understanding the human family is that we thought the earth was actually much smaller and then it was certainly less diverse, that there weren’t as many continents. There couldn’t have been as many people, so the whole western hemisphere was left out of the understanding of, at least, the European nations at the time. So-
Jani Radebaugh: Even though they had the tools there to understand it, right? The hints where there, but they refused to see that.
George Handley: Right, and that’s one thing that’s wonderful about what you’re saying, Bill, about enlarging your idea of God. I mean, the William Brown book that I mentioned, he doesn’t try to prove that the Bible is scientifically in harmony with science, but he is trying to say, “Can it withstand the interrogation of contemporary science?” And he shows that it can. He just says, you know … his basic point is, “This really depends on how we read and what kinds of questions we ask, so, to really make our world more marvelous, we have to be asking better questions and we have to be inquisitive. We have to be curious, and we have to have enough self-doubt.”
George Handley: I mean, belief in God is not the same thing as unshakeable belief in one’s self and that’s sometimes the mistake we make. We sort of think that faith in God means that, “I now have reason to be utterly confident in all of my opinions,” when that’s almost the opposite, right? His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways, so, belief in him is, as it’s explained by King Benjamin so beautifully is to say, “I believe in God and I also believe that he comprehends things that I can’t comprehend, so that means I operate with a certain degree of self doubt.”
Kate: Which, I think that idea of learning and growth is often preceded with a foundation, and so, I mean, in some ways crumbling or being kind of [inaudible 00:27:05] … I guess for me, my journey of faith and my journey of growth has come when what I thought I knew was questioned and was broken apart and was confusing, and that kind of … that sense of disorientation and confusion is what perpetuated such deep growth, and I think that idea that our earth and our universe is always more expansive than we are currently at in our understanding of it perpetuates this deep spiritual growth for us that I find really valuable. I think-
George Handley: Yeah.
Kate: Go ahead.
George Handley: Sorry. Well, I just wanted to add one thought to that, and I do think it’s important to recognize: in the story of Moses, before he collapses, he is actually told, “Thou art my son.” God identifies him as a child of heavenly parents. He says, “You are spiritually begotten of heavenly parents, so you have a certain role, here. It’s not like you’re …” when he says, “Now I know that Man is nothing,” it’s not the same thing as saying, “And, now I know that Man is insignificant,” and I think that’s important for growth to happen, just to add to what you’re saying, because otherwise, it can be overwhelming to the point where it’s debilitating, right? But, I think we grow when we have hope and we have hope because we have some fundamental understanding that all of this matters and, “I have a role,” and I think that’s really crucial.
Kate: And, I think that God telling me that I am loved by Him within the scope of a massive, expansive universe that I don’t even comprehend, and that my struggles and my day-to-day pain and joy and curiosity is of deep significance to God, within that scope, I think, provides a relationship with God that’s much more meaningful to me, that in that scope of Moses having the realization that man is nothing or Job realizing that he’s not the center of the Universe, but that his relationship with God exists personally, and that those two truths together, I think, actually elevates both of them in their own right.
Bill Turnbull: Maybe it was owed to the realization of those two truths together that blew his mind, the vastness.
Kate: And made him fall down.
Bill Turnbull: And he can still be involved.
George Handley: Oh, absolutely.
Jani Radebaugh: Yeah, still be held valuable, yeah.
Kate: Well, I think a question that I have for both of you that goes along with this is how your personal relationship with God had been enriched, not only by these perspectives, but by nature, by … I know George, for you, and for you, too, Janie, being in nature and communing with our earth in whatever context, whether you’re on the top of a mountain doing something or, for me, skiing, or all these different things: how is your personal relationship with God been enriched by nature?
Jani Radebaugh: It’s interesting. I always have, since I was young, loved being outside and been very lucky to have a family that’s gotten me outside, and I think that’s probably seems like it’s been true for all of us, and, there’s no question that you really feel something when you’re outside, and I see that in students and in people who haven’t spent a lot of time among nature: there is something that is very deeply spiritual about being out in nature and I think that’s by design. I think that God wants us to experience his creations and understand them and feel that connection, and, for me, I find it’s very interesting that, the more I think about these things, about the really hidden places of the Earth and the Universe and the more I try to go and find them, the more I feel like that’s sort of my home in many ways, or my calling.
Jani Radebaugh: I don’t know. I think I’ve had a lot of people say, “Well, you haven’t been to Alaska, yet? How is that possible? And yet, you’re gonna go back to Antarctica for the fourth time?” And, I’ve been thinking about that lately and I think, “Well, yeah, I would love to go to Alaska one day, and I’ll get there some time,” but it’s really hard to go to Antarctica, and so, if I’m able to do that, I feel really drawn to doing that and feel like I can set my feet on this place that’s so interesting and unique and so kind of forsaken, and that’s where I can go and say, “Hey, this is also Creation, and this is beauty, and maybe this is the first time someone’s set foot on this peak,” and I can go and be there and say, “This is beautiful and this is a place of God.”
Jani Radebaugh: And so, I also sort of do that virtually, but with a bigger group out in the Universe. We wanna go to these places and to the far side of the moon and the foot of a dune on Titan or whatever it is and stand there and, again, kind of witness that, “Look at this beauty.” This is where life started, too, if we’re lucky enough, or whatever it is that we’re observing, and I feel very compelled to do that and to return to those places that I understand and know and find somewhere like them on the Earth and go there because I feel an ownership and I feel a love for those places and a love of God through those places.
George Handley: That’s why I envy Jani so much. I think if I had the training … I’ve offered, Jani, to just go. Like, if you just need a literature person to read poems at night to your crew, I’m there. Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot to say about this and I wanna share a brief story, but I think, for me … I mean, I had a pretty typical but not unusual exposure to nature growing up. I don’t think I ever considered myself a real nature boy, but I … and this is part of what ended up being sort of my epiphany in writing my environmental memoir.
George Handley: I lost a brother to suicide when I was 18 years old and he was 22, and, much later in my life, after 20+ years after his death, I started … I was challenged by a writer to write about him, and I really didn’t want to. I was very uncomfortable with the suggestion, but I was trying to learn how to write poetry and I had been advised that I should write a journal, a nature journal or something so that I could quiet my voice down. I think my tone in my poems was a little too high pitched, like, “I’m writing a poem! Can everyone see that I’m writing a poem?”
George Handley: And, I was advised to try to find a voice that was more anonymous or more quiet. And, the way I decided to do that was to write about the outdoors. I was enjoying … mostly for exercise, I was going for hikes in snow shoe in the winter and fly fishing and so on, and I was … so, I started keeping a nature journal, and I showed this nature journal to a writer who said there’s pain in my writing, and he told me to understand what that pain was, and I said, “Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” ’cause I was just writing about trails and trees and rocks.
George Handley: But, when he probed more deeply, I told him, “Well, yeah, I did lose a brother to suicide when I was young,” and he said, “Well, I think that pain is still there in your writing whether you recognize it or not, and in fact, when you write about nature, it’s even more evident even though you’re not even talking about it,” and so this kind of forced me into the possibility of writing about him, which I did, and I ended up writing Home Waters, but there was an epiphany at the very end of the book, at the end of the writing process. I actually wrote this early in the book. It was one of the last sentences that I added to the manuscript, was a moment of realization that the reason I loved nature so much was because of the loss of my brother, that there was a relationship between suffering and sorrow and loss and the healing that nature provided, and the kind of feeling of searching and wanting to be connected to something deeper, bigger, and something that would de-center me was a real thriving passion inside me that I didn’t recognize was directly related to the loss that I had suffered.
George Handley: So, I find myself very much … I mean, I have the same experience I think the average person does who likes a little bit of outdoor experience. I’m not a … I don’t go to extreme places and I don’t do extreme kinds of things. I just hike, you know, and I trail run or I mountain bike, and I do it with friends, and the conversations we have are always the most soulful experiences, and with my family and my conversations with my family are always better on a trail than anywhere else, and for members of my family and extended friends who are not religious or are not associated with the church, I still see the influence of the spirit come over them when they’re in the outdoors, and that’s because of what it says in D&C 88. I think Christ is in the like of the moon, in the light of the sun and the light of the stars. I think it’s the light by which we comprehend all things and I think we’re connected to one another and to God in ways that we don’t fully understand, and it’s in the natural world where we’re most able to experience that.
Bill Turnbull: Does part of that connection come from the fact that we biologically share … we’re sort of cousins, biological cousins to everything that dwells on this earth, or I assume that you [crosstalk 00:37:35]
George Handley: But we’re also spiritual cousins. Everything has spiritual matter, right, so, we’re both, yeah.
Kate: When I think that, considering your thoughts … both of you, thank you, for sharing them, and I think I agree and I think many people would if they reflected on their experiences with the natural world that they have felt, in whatever vocabulary they use, a deeper connection to themselves or to the people around them or to the earth, and maybe that’s, for me, a question of why, like, “Why is that? Is it because we’re made of the same material or is God, our heavenly parents, are they somehow more present to us, or is the earth … does the patterns in the earth teach us something whether or not we’re cognizant that we’re learning? Is the process of seeing a tree die and then wilt into the ground and then be reborn: is there something in that process that enters us even in a way that we don’t realize?” I think there’s a lot of questions that I have surrounding that of, “Well, why is it that way? Why is it that we feel this deep connection?” And then, I guess, a secondary question of, “Then, why aren’t we better at taking care of it?” Which gets us into stewardship. I think that’s something I would like to hear from both of you about as well.
Jani Radebaugh: One thing I think I feel when you finally sort of escape everything, and that’s leaving your house, leaving the city, leaving whatever is … everything around you before that has been a human construct, and so, we’ve done the best we can to make it a great house to live in, or a great city for everybody to live in, or whatever it is, but that’s been or decision and it’s going to be imperfect, and you could maybe argue, “What is perfection?” And, immediately, as you walk out into nature, “Is that perfect?”
Jani Radebaugh: But, I think that what it is is it’s a place where … I mean, we haven’t made the tree and we haven’t made the forest and the meadow and whatever else, and so that’s been uniquely the creation of God, and so for us to have gone out into that place means that we’ve left behind everything that we have done and now we’re just relying on the earth as it exists and nature and so, that is really the creation of God and makes us feel like … well, it should make us feel like we have a connection to our heavenly fathers who are out there.
Jani Radebaugh: And, actually, I think that is why I like to go and find these places that are utterly untouched if that’s possible because they’ve just been sitting there doing their thing without anybody doing anything to them, and, of course, the minute you run into, “Oh, hey, here’s some roads and a mine,” everything changes where if you’re just in that perfect untouched nature that has just been eroding or the volcano’s been erupting or whatever it is that’s happening, we haven’t done anything to it and there’s a real precious existence in that, and it’s a way for us to understand natural processes and the action of God on the face of the Earth.
Bill Turnbull: You know, it strikes me that one of the things that’s maybe unique to our faith is that we believe that we’ve always existed. We can just pop into existence. And when you think about how long this earth has existed, what, some four billion years, part of a second-generation kind of solar system. So, as Janie referenced before, the Universe itself is some 14 billion years old, but if we have existed, it puts us in this deep time, and it makes us sort of witnesses: if not participants, at least witnesses.
Bill Turnbull: And, I remember, decades ago, watching this. You just probably saw it, too. There was this submarine that went to the bottom of the ocean, right at this rift where these sulfuric gasses were coming up out of the … it’s where the earth’s crust is being formed, and you have all these strange lifeforms that exist down there and they’ve existed … just bizarre. They’re not even in our biosphere. They’re disconnected from our biosphere. They have their own little biosphere down there, not oxygen-based, not light-based photosynthesis-based organisms and they’re weird and bizarre, and they’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years. And you think … and yet … I’m assuming that God and maybe we were fascinated by that as witnesses.
George Handley: Well, if I could build on that, I think that’s really, really true. I think we don’t know to what degree we were participants, but we do have some suggestion that we were and we are participants now in the ongoing creation of the world. For better or for worse, we’re affecting everything across the globe. Even the reality of something like climate change means that the untouched places of the planet are touched, still, in some way by the fact that we’re affecting the climate system in the way that we are.
George Handley: So, we are very much involved and so that does imply a certain sense of responsibility and responsiveness to new information as we gain it, as we begin to understand what kind of an impact we’re having, and I think the reason that we … I mean, there are lots of reasons why we ignore what we’re doing to the natural world, but, certainly, our lives are so automated and so mediated by technology today that it’s like this rare thing that we engage all of the senses and that we experience wonder, right?
George Handley: But, that’s actually how we were designed, right? We were designed with sense and we were designed to experience wonder, and if you look at the book of Moses in section 59, the Doctrine & Covenants, there’s an emphases on aesthetic appreciation. God takes pleasure in our pleasure. He wants us to experience the glory and the wonder of the world with him, and to the degree that we’re cut off from that because of the modern lives that we lead, then we’re much less likely to even be aware of the impact that we’re having.
George Handley: But, I think there’s also a deeper level, deeper problem that we have, and that is that nature reminds us that we’re mortal. Going back to sort of the more terrifying aspects of it: it’s not all pretty sunsets and beautiful ski lifts. It’s also avalanches and hurricanes and cancer, right? It’s things that kill us and that take away things that we care about, and our attempt to try to make our lives permanent and perpetual is threatened by the natural world and always has been. It’s just that, anciently, human cultures understood that more clearly than we do and they learned reverence and they learned humility in the face of nature. They also learned how … the wilyness to survive.
George Handley: But, we’ve sort of given ourselves over to this idea that we’ve conquered nature and that it’s no longer something to be afraid of, and then when it does still bite us in the end, we’re surprised, you know? We act as if, “This isn’t how it was supposed to be. We were supposed to be able to live forever. We were supposed to be able to recreate in comfort and safety for decades,” right? So, I think we actually need, again, going back to our conversation earlier, we need some of that chastening, some of that humility to help remind us that there are limitations, and that’s part of what nature reminds us of.
George Handley: And, that was kind of what I was getting at earlier about my story about my brother is that I didn’t realize … it took me a couple of decades to recognize that the feeling I had in nature wasn’t just aesthetic appreciation. It was mourning and it was the loss of my brother. Nature reminded me that he was gone. Nature takes. Going back to that image of the dead tree that Kate mentioned, the famous line from Walt Whitman is that, “Maybe death is different than what anyone supposed and luckier because there really is no end to anything. Everything recycles,” right? But, we don’t like that. There’s certain beauty to that, but it means we have to let go of a lot of things that we are holding onto with a lot of fear.
Bill Turnbull: You know, George, I love that idea, and I think the other piece of what our faith brings to this story is that, since we look at this life as one snapshot in a very long existence, but one very unique opportunity to learn, and it’s an opportunity in which we are embodied in the elements. We had a lot of things die for us to come here. Our memory of whatever happened before dies, and then we deal constantly throughout this life with the possibility, of course, of death, but in doing that, we develop new awarenesses. We develop … I think the whole idea of the restored gospel about this life as an opportunity to develop new capabilities that we could never have imagined disconnected from a world like this. We could not have developed any other way. That in itself should connect us to this world, the natural world. You know, is there a thread there that seems-
George Handley: Well, even eating, right, is taking life, right, in order to nourish ourselves, so I do think you’re right that there’s a really profound connection to death that makes life possible, so you can’t have one without the other. It’s just that I think our contemporary secular life, which has infected our religious experience to a really alarming degree, makes us scared of death and it makes us scared of our bodies and it makes us scared of the Earth, and I think that’s part of the reason why we’re making such ruin of things.
Kate: Well, I think that Earth and nature uniquely … kind of like we were talking about earlier, that idea of being awake to our human existence and awake to what’s happening and not running from it, that idea, that suffering that you experienced with your brother, and I think that sometimes response that we have as human beings to run from things that are painful or things that are really joyful out of this fear of fully engaging in our experience, and I think nature, there’s something so … or, our earth is so unique in its sense that it doesn’t run from any of that, that all trees go through this process of rebirth and wildfires happen and rivers flow and the ocean has really massive, powerful, dangerous waves, and it has times of complete stillness.
Kate: And, this idea that the Earth doesn’t run from any of those processes, that it engages fully in powerful and sometimes destructive behavior and engages fully in nourishing stillness, and how I think that what you said really made me think about this idea of how nature pushes us to not run from those, but rather to be present in it, to be present in the suffering of loss or be present in the joy of new life, and I think in a way that we disconnect from when we disconnect from nature and run away from it.
George Handley: I think I would add that, going back to your question about stewardship, Kate, I think that that happiness that we’ve been discussing and the spirituality that we feel, that comes with a set of responsibilities, and I think it can’t go without saying that the restored gospel has what I believe to be the most fully developed ethic of stewardship in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s really remarkably and explicitly stated in our restored scriptures, in the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine & Covenants in particular, there are more clearly laid out principles of stewardship and mandates not to be wasteful, to be resourceful and to be considerate of the poor, considerate of future generations, to use natural resources with judgment, not to excess and neither by extortion, that these are clearly stated principles in our scriptures that we are not paying nearly enough attention to because we’re facing a global crisis and that is a function of this indifference or this ignorance, and some of it is understandable ignorance, but some of it’s willed ignorance kind of like what Jani was saying earlier.
George Handley: Like, we have the resources. If you look at the speech God gives to Job, there’s virtually nothing in that speech that we don’t now have answers to. I mean, he talks about all of the stuff that Job doesn’t understand about the planet, and you think, “Well, contemporary science can answer a lot of those questions. We know a lot more than even what God is saying to Job,” but we don’t pay any attention to it. We leave it to specialists, and then specialists like Jani have the difficulty of having to translate that information into the common understanding of people, and most people either don’t wanna know or have too much … they’re too distracted to even care. And then, meanwhile, our lifestyle is sort of driving things into the ground, so we’re at a point where we have to, as you were putting it, really wake up.
Bill Turnbull: We’re the first species that has the ability to destroy its own environment, right? All species until now have just had to deal with what’s given them, but we have … we’re the first species that can actually destroy its own environment and we’re well on the way to doing that, possibly.
Kate: Well, I think that’s interesting in the idea in our faith that God has allowed us choice, deep, deep agency in our experience of what we do, and that this is an example of that, of giving us that capacity, the capacity to nourish or to not, the earth that we’ve been given, and I think a question maybe, in conclusion, I guess, of all these thoughts in the conversation of stewardship, in the conversation of how we interact with the Earth, I hear that, George, what you said about leaving it to the experts and those who understand anything about the universe, and I’ve found myself in that trap of, “Okay, fossil fuels or hairspray: what’s making it bad? How do I … what is my role in this?” And so, I guess my question is, for both of you, what are tangible, whether it’s mental shifts or behavioral changes, kind of as a takeaway for all of us to kind of recenter ourselves in how we interact with our natural world? What would you suggest?
Jani Radebaugh: I think, for me, I feel like you’re right: it can be so overwhelming to try to understand, “What exactly should we be doing? Should we use our plastic straws? Should we do the …” whatever it is. “Can I continue to drive my gas car?” What is it that we do? And, [crosstalk 00:54:18] as a group and so I do rely on my groups and what are my groups? It’s my neighborhood, my family, my city, my country, my world, and we continue to have those conversations to figure out what to do; what are the next steps? And, of course, you can’t hide behind that necessarily. You wanna also be out in front and having the conversation.
Jani Radebaugh: But, meanwhile, if we get everybody outside and have some kind of connection in some way, and we do that in different ways, you know, I think, for me, I, again, just love to get really, really outside into the depths, and then try to share that with everybody like, “Here’s what it’s like in these places that are way off the beaten path,” and show the beauty and show the … try to instill some sort of amazement in people, and if everyone can feel that, I think that’s where we start from. There’s an ownership that comes from feeling that and from understanding what it is to … it’s empowering like, “Oh, I love this tiny corner of the earth and so I wanna do what it takes to try to help it in some way,” and approach it from that sort of positive stance that’s like, “Okay, we’re gonna save it. We wanna love it and love each other and so let’s figure out how to do it.”
Kate: Thank you for sharing that. I think that’s so true that even being in Utah and being in the mountains and saying, “Oh, I love this mountain. This is my mountain. I ski on this mountain. I hike on this mountain. I’m nourished by this mountain. I’m a part of it. It’s not separate from me anymore,” and I think you’re right that that instills ownership and then responsibility and action. Thank you for sharing that.
George Handley: Yeah, I would just add to that that, yeah, when you focus it on the local scale like you’re describing, that’s really where you can start to measure your impact. The word I use sometimes is reconnaissance. You sort of have to spend some time figuring out where you are, orient yourself to where you live, and that involves getting some sort of basic ecological literacy. I’m not a scientist, so I can say this with authority. It’s one of the few times I can say something with authority. I’m not a scientist. You can educate yourself quite a bit, right? It’s not hard to learn about local native plants and animals, and it’s not hard to learn about your local ecosystem and understand what its vulnerabilities are and what kind of limitations exist where you live that you have to be aware of.
George Handley: And then, you have to take some time to measure your impact. You’ve gotta look at your consumption of goods. You’ve gotta look at your lifestyle and ask yourself, “Where and how can I lessen my impact?” And that gets into the nitty gritty and we don’t have the time or space to do that, but I think … and, they may be very different answers for different people, but I think the important thing is to take some small steps. A lot of people might feel like, “Look, it doesn’t …” I walk to work. I live a mile-and-a-half from campus. That’s not a big deal. I’m not saving tons of fossil fuels by walking to work, but, for me, it’s ritual. It’s like, “No, it’s important that I either bike or walk to work and not drive whenever possible,” because that just feels like a simple commitment I can make.
George Handley: And, there are many other simple commitments that I’ve built into my lifestyle that helped to keep reminding me that I have a responsibility, ’cause I think when you do little things, even if you make a decision about plastic bags or about recycling or about the heat and energy you’re using in your home or how many day trips in your car you’re gonna take and you start taking some efforts, making some efforts to reduce your impact, it’s empowering.
George Handley: And, the last thing is that eventually, you have to start looking at politics, and this is why environmentalism is so fractious in our society because it’s so polarized by party right now, and that’s deeply unfortunate. Conservatives should be conservationists. It has the same root word for crying out loud, so there should be a connection there, and it shouldn’t be something that just one party concerns itself with. There might be different solutions to problems, but we have to agree on the problems, and I think to the degree that we start paying attention to policy and that policy can start locally and it can move to the state and national level, but we inform ourselves.
George Handley: And, I would say all of this is a lifelong endeavor. It’s not like tomorrow afternoon, you’re gonna suddenly have it all clear in your head. You just have to make up your mind that you’re gonna take seriously your responsibility and do the best you can to educate yourself, inform yourself, ask questions, talk to people, engage in debate, learn more and you probably will make some mistakes along the way. You’ll change your mind about some things, but if you’re committed to say, “This is an obligation on my part to be as informed as I can and to be as ethical as I can,” over time, that is an extraordinarily spiritually edifying and fulfilling experience. That’s been my experience, just learning more about the Earth, learning more about where I live as a non-scientist, has just tripled the pleasure I have in living where I live and the sense of responsibility I have.
George Handley: And, that, I think, going to Jani’s great expression of feeling called, right: I think feeling called to life is really, really important, and it’s a different niche for each of us, but we all are called to live responsibly and deliberately, and I think that has to be something that we make as a priority.
Bill Turnbull: And, Georgie put your money where your mouth is or your time where your mouth is by entering public life and so we also tip our cap to you for that.
George Handley: Thank you, yeah. I’m just a city council member, but it feels good. It really does. It feels very fulfilling and satisfying.
Bill Turnbull: I wanna circle back just for maybe in this last couple minutes. I think the story that we tell about our world is important, and, what story are we going to tell our children about the Earth? I think we grew up with a story where we’re just kind of passing through. That’s the story that I grew up with when I was a kid: we’re here to … we’re just kind of passing through this mortal experience, but then I learned that our faith actually teaches us that, no, actually, we’re very connected to this world and are to be eternally. This is our eternal home.
Bill Turnbull: So, that gives us an additional reason to care for it and to get to know it better, right, and to maybe not destroy it, and I think one of the things that Jani, both you and George have done is try to help create a new story because the stories that we inherited did not have the benefit of the perspectives that you bring, planetary cosmic perspectives, you know, the kind of things that science … so, our story has to take the best and draw on the resources of our tradition, of our faith tradition, and draw on the resources that science is bringing us, and I think those two together, if we can bring them together and create a new story of our world, I think that’s our challenge as a people and that’s how we started this show. That’s what Kate read is, if a religion can do that … and I think our religion is uniquely positioned to do that for some of the reasons we brought about here and more. I think we can draw on the awe, on deep resources of awe and wonder that will connect us, connect us to each other, connect us to this earth in ways that we haven’t realized. So, I thank you for the work that you’re doing and have done in that regard.
Kate: Yeah, thank you for this conversation, as well. I think not only creating a cultural and a societal new story, but, I think, what you said, both of you, Jani and George, creating personal stories, a different personal story of our connection to and responsibility for not only nature but each other. We’re all a part of that. We’re all a part of our natural world, so, yeah, thank you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ve loved this conversation, so if there’s anything else you guys would like to share, feel free to.
Jani Radebaugh: I’ve appreciated being here, actually. It always helps me to think through what I’m doing and why I love what I’m doing, actually, and, in the context of my faith, I’ve appreciated it very much, thank you.
George Handley: Yeah, I’m really grateful for this chance. I wish if I had more than one life to lead, I would have done something scientific in another life, so I do have great respect and admiration for what Jani does and many other scientists in our faith community who, I think, model this integration of faith in science and faith in rationality in a really beautiful way. The only thing I realized a long time ago: if I didn’t have science in my background, maybe I could at least lend words since I’m a literature person, and I’ve just tried to write and tell different stories, and tell them in as many different styles and genres as I could come up with so that we could hopefully be more aware of the tradition that we’ve inherited.
George Handley: I mean, it is a new story, but it doesn’t … if that idea of a new story makes anybody nervous, what needs to happen is we need to throw out what we’ve inherited as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. That’s not at all the point. The point is that we have inherited something that can be made more alive and more relevant and more exciting precisely because we bring new questions to it. In that sense, it’s new, but it’s also renewed, I guess, or made new again for us for new purposes. But, thanks so much for this conversation. I’m really grateful that you guys are doing this wonderful project, and thanks for having me.
Kate: Yup, thank you.well, I think we’re good.
Jani Radebaugh: Yeah.
Kate: That was wonderful. Thank you, guys.
Bill Turnbull: [crosstalk 01:05:38] guys
Jani Radebaugh: [crosstalk 01:05:39] thanks
Kate: Sorry for the bird chirping. He got really excited about halfway through. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, nature. We’re all connected.”
Jani Radebaugh: It was perfect.
For more resources and information on the Earth’s creation and our relationship with the Earth, check out our Big Question page: Does our faith have a unique story to tell about creation, human origins and humanity’s relationship with the earth?