The ‘Galileo affair’ is often replayed as a morality tale about irrational religion vs. enlightenment science. The truth is that it was a little more complex than that. Galileo was a firm believer in God. He was a good Catholic in fact. He believed the church was true. However, he ran afoul of the Pope in some, well, not to put too fine a point on it, ways that he should have seen coming. First, Galileo had come to the conclusion that the scriptures could not be taken literally on some things. For example, the implication, the Sun moves around the Earth, in Joshua’s big battle scene, our man Galileo felt like was an example of a doctrine he called ‘accommodation’. This was the idea that God spoke to people in a way that made sense to them during the age in which they lived. If they believed the Earth was the center of the universe, then the Lord just used that imagery and metaphor when he reveled truths about salvation to his children. Holy cow, Galileo, hought, how could the Lord explain anything about salvation if he had to catch them up on all the facts of the universe first (Ok, maybe he didn’t say ‘holy cow’)! Galileo felt that in matters of salvation the scriptures were to be interpreted literally, but in matters of fact they had to be reconciled to the findings of empirical observation. Thus, if the scriptures were out of line with the facts of the world the scripture had to be reinterpreted in that new light. Trouble was that this thinking was at the same time as the Protestants were claiming that scriptures were to be interpreted by the individual through the spirit. The Holy Roman Church, however, was defending their view that they had sole claim for interpretation of the written Word of God. Galileo was sliding a little close to the wrong side of the fence from the Church’s point of view. Then, to top it off, he wrote a book that was supposed to be a fair treatment of the Ptolemaic perspectives (Earth Centered) and the Copernican (Sun Centered) system. He had three interlocutors one from each view and a character who represented a common sense everyman. Trouble was his Ptolemaic actor was named Simplicio, and actually contained dialogue that the Pope had used in conversation with Galileo years before. Whoops. So the Pope is fighting those blasted Protestants about who gets to say what about scripture and Galileo is off saying the facts get to interpret it and then to top it off his Holiness get’s made fun of? Sheesh. Galileo was lucky to keep his head.
So the question at hand is ‘Who do we (LDS) say gets to interpret scripture?’ For example, some interpret this scripture from Alma 12:23:
23 And now behold, I say unto you that if it had been possible for Adam to have partaken of the fruit of the tree of life at that time, there would have been no death, and the word would have been void, making God a liar, for he said: If thou eat thou shalt surely die.
to mean that there is “no death before the fall” literally and that all of modern biology and geology are in error.
So who gets to say what that scripture means? Are we more like the Catholics, Protestants, or Galileo? I’ve written a dialogue to unpack this a bit:
Simplicio: I say it is the church alone.
Naivecio: I say it is the individual.
Virtues: I say it must be reconciled with the observations in the world and that the other two play an essential role.
For a small one-act play I think that was as fair and balanced as one can be. In any case, what is the opinion of the blog-world hoi polloi on this?
But first let me weigh in with a story: When I was in graduate school I had the most humble and wonderful bishop. He also happened to be a faculty member in a University Department of Poultry Science (and yes there are such things). We were all sitting in Sunday School and the women giving the lesson was laying out a rather strident literalist reading of the Word of Wisdom. He suddenly raised his hand (which was very rare) and said simply, “You can’t take it literally, rye is poisonous to fowl.” She was stunned (You know, because it says pretty straight up—‘rye for the fowl’). Now I suppose there are yet people out there who are going to say, “If you had faith you would feed your chickens rye and the Lord will fix it so they can digest it. It’s your lack of faith that your chickens are all scrawny little light-weights when fed on rye (Science note: When a poultry scientist says poisonous they mean ‘not good for’—what you mean by ‘poisonous’ is a matter of perspective when your goal is to get plump fryers). But the bottom line is, despite Section 89, feeding your fowls rye is a really bad idea if healthy chickens and turkeys are your goal. Here a literalist reading and empirical poultry science go head-to-head—with the literalists losing their Thanksgiving feast. I think the whole ‘death before the fall’ is another case of ‘feeding chickens rye’. There are important meanings in that scripture that get at deep spiritual truths, just like section 89 does, but they might not be the simple ones you grab in a superficial fast-pass literalist reading.
So my question again is who gets to interpret scripture? And please, don’t turn this into a long litany of examples of where the literalists get things wrong or an argument about evolution, this is strictly about who gets to interpret scripture. Bring examples up if they shed light on the question, but let’s not turn it into a comments fest just on the failings of literalist scripture readings (as abundant as those may be).