Correspondence

A Mormon friend asked me to comment on a recent BBC series called Andrew Marr’s History of the World. He was a little put out by the first programme’s depiction of prehistory, with its account of the homo sapiens migrations from Africa c. 70,000 BP, Neanderthals, and the origins of civilisation, given its deviance from typical Mormon beliefs regarding the same. Given that British Mormonism’s chattering classes are currently scandalised by a high profile falling away over the issue of “no death before the fall,” I hastily bodged together the following reply:

Dear W___,

I work from three premises regarding all of this and then come to a conclusion:

1. There is good reason to believe that science is right: archaeology, the fossil record, DNA evidence, and common sense point to a long history of our species, our biological origins and population diffusion across the world.

2.  As seekers of truth — wherever it is found — there is no good reason for Mormons to reject science if it can reasonably be proven to be true.

3. Mormonism is not wedded to young earth creationism, anti-evolutionary thinking, or literal “no death before the fall” doctrines. For every prophet who has been suspicious of science (e.g. Fielding Smith) there is another who wasn’t (Talmage). Thus it is clear to me that the church is agnostic about these things, which means we should be free to hold to premise #1 given that we believe in premise #2.

Conclusion: Andrew Marr’s series is of good report!

You are probably going to wonder about Adam and Eve in all of this, but what place they have in human history is beyond me, I’m afraid. Mostly, I am happy to follow the temple’s advice and see myself as “an Adam,” a fallen man who needs redemption.

One thing that might help is that I think we expect too much from ancient histories. History as a genre is a modern idea. Nowadays we expect history to be factual to be of any use. Ancient writers (and some modern ones) interweave myth, ethics, theology, and polemics into their stories, not always intending for us to take them as literally true. There are other kinds of truth. I believe that Animal Farm is a true representation of the abuses of Soviet Russia and totalitarianism in general, but I do not believe that farmyard animals can talk. Some truth is literal, some is not.

A final thought about science: I sometimes hear Mormons express hostility to science, forgetting that the same science that underpins things like population genetics is also part of modern medicine. It’s not really fair to reject science when it challenges us but accept it when it’s useful.

The best thing, I think, is to keep an open mind about these things whilst going about our Christian duty. This seems to be the safest and happiest path available to Mormons in these sceptical times.

Yours,

Ronan

Comments

  1. For a counter-view, see here:

    http://ndbf.blogspot.co.uk/

  2. 4. Mormonism is also not wedded to every scientific theory of the observed evidence, even those very good, presently accepted theories with broad support. Eg. The resurrection is presumably more scientifically impossible than Adam and Eve. That doesn’t mean we can’t be comfortable with the presently accepted theories, and even study, learn, and apply them. By the same token we don’t throw out Adam and Eve, and the teachings of the prophets, etc. because we can’t understand them.

    It’s not just religion and science that has contradiction. Life is a contradiction. We live in the space of contradictions. We need look no further than Adam and Eve to see that…

  3. Paging R. Gary…

  4. I really like your letter.
    Please enlighten us on the falling away over NDBF that is causing such scandal among British Mormons.

  5. Given that British Mormonism’s chattering classes are currently scandalised by a high profile falling away over the issue of “no death before the fall […]

    So, is this the reason for or a result of R. Gary’s alternate .co.uk url?

  6. Romni,
    I’d rather not, although a clever search on the ex-Mo forums will find it.

    Orwell,
    I think that’s simply because I’m accessing Blogspot from the UK and it generates that URL.

    Kaphor,
    I disagree on resurrection. Such “miracles” are part of the metaphysics of a world beyond ours and are not verifiable; the claim that there is “no death before the fall” (c. 6,000 BP) belongs to the physics of this world and as such can be verified.

  7. Yeah, I was just being a smart aleck.

    In all seriousness, though, the thought of that blog’s influence spreading beyond Utah and SE Idaho is disheartening… at least Iran is safe.

  8. Well, Gary has one view, I have another. People will have to decide between the two, which is fair enough. This was a quick email to a concerned friend looking to salvage his rationality. I really can’t be bothered to argue it further as it’s all been said before AGAIN and AGAIN. It is what it is. The End.

  9. Good stuff, Ronan.

  10. I did not die before the Fall. I feel quite confident of that. I’m not sure I understand the confusion.

  11. When people get hung up emotionally on these specific difficulties between science and religion, I think it can sometimes help to remove the discussion to related issues.

    We can, for instance, generally talk rationally and without defensiveness about Biblical assertions that the earth is the center of the universe or that in Joshua’s day the sun stood still. The Restoration occurred after the science related to those assertions became generally understood, so nobody in our tradition mistakenly built any theological claims on them — but if the Restoration had come a few generations earlier, that might not have been the case.

    The Restoration occurring when it did, our issues with science have to do with the age of the earth and with biological change. Individual Mormons took stands on those issues before the science was well understood, without accepting that it is no more essential, no more in line with truth, to insist that the Bible be literally interpreted on those issues than that the Bible be literally interpreted with regard to the movements of celestial bodies. Once that happened, we had the double challenge of not only understanding the Bible in context, but also explaining the premature theology, the statements based on cultural assumptions rather than on revelation, by those individual Mormons, and doing it in a way that doesn’t detract from their authority and respect in areas where they did teach by inspiration and revelation.

    And, of course, we have the ongoing challenge of telling the difference between those situations, and situations where we might inappropriately dismiss inspired teachings because they don’t match up to premature scientific conclusions.

  12. Well said. Although, as an evolutionist, I think we sometimes exaggerated a little bit the amount of representation we have among the Church leadership. For every Robert and Talmage in the leadership, there seems to be way more (and way more vocal) McConkies and Fielding Smiths. Even the more moderate “we don’t know” brethren still seem to side against organic evolution. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_views_on_evolution#Gordon_B._Hinckley)

  13. Preach it, Ronan. Well done.

  14. Ronan, excellent response. Ardis, excellent thoughts, as well. Appreciate these points of view.

    I have written in a number of places that I’m uncomfortable assigning religious terms to scientific inquiry (like “believing in” organic evolution). Science observes and reports and draws conclusions. Those conclusions then inform other scientific studies, and we all benefit (as you point out in the medicine example). That there may or may not be scientific observations and conclusions in no way diminishes the need for or role of God in my life.

    R. Gary is certainly right when he reports that the church manuals continue to quote NDBF. It seems to me most of those quotations end up coming from one source which continues to be repeated. Whether that will always be so is doubtful to me, for the reasons Ardis cites.

  15. I just cannot wrap my head around why a tinkering magician God seems more powerful to people than a God with the computational power to cause specific outcomes across billions of years with a single stroke of his cosmic pool cue against a universe-massed singularity.

    Has anyone ever written an article about how evolution never requires any organism to do anything but reproduce after its own kind? That seems like one of the main stumbling blocks for a lot of people.

  16. Intro – I’m not looking for an argument on evolution, or saying nothing is to be gained from it, or even say it’s all a load of hooey. But I do see potential ramifications on both sides of the issue. The OP presents the fallout from no death before the fall as apparently being the result of a simple faith (or naive interpretation) being overwhelmed and destroyed by scientific evidence. I think that happens when faith is not sufficient, after all Peter walked momentarily on the water before starting to sink. On the flip side, I wonder if this approach has the benefit of not having ones faith overhwhelmed because it seeks to completely remove faith from those issues that are being contested (with plenty of evidence to support).

    For most certainly I tell you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’

    Faith in telling a mountain to move compared to faith in believing Adam and Eve were real. I actually don’t claim to know (or certainly refute) everything about evolution with this comment. But after reflecting a bit on this topic, I started thinking about what kinds of fruits come out of the approach suggested in the OP, which implies that we should seek after more things like the History of the World presentation (which presumably assigns Adam and Eve to the dustbin of History… examples of poetry and culture at best)

    The good fruit is that it hopes to build a robust outlook and approach to scientific evidence that could keep people in the church in the face of constant bombardment from aggressive atheists or simply frequent exposure to scientific trends and teaching.

    What is the negative fruit of such an approach? I feel it runs right up to the border of removing faith from these questions. What are the long terms affects of seceeding every potential scriptural contradiction to science under the weight of the evidence of the day? Yes, it’s that age old slippery slope argument, but that’s how things often…evolve — at the margins. So this generation moves on from Adam and Eve and sees it as merely allegory. Moses next? Jesus next? Resurrection next? Does anyone think science will ever agree with the resurrection let alone a priesthood blessing — I bet many already see a priesthood blessing as a mixed bag of good intentions and hope, and not much more.

    So while I’m comfortable with this teaching, I actually think President Hinckley’s reply, referenced above is truly the best approach. “People ask me every now and again if I believe in evolution. I tell them I am not concerned with organic evolution. I do not worry about it. I passed through that argument long ago.” and ‘Studied all about it. Didn’t worry me then. Doesn’t worry me now.’

    Study it, learn from it, but I don’t think we ought to supplant it with our faith in specific gospel teachings. We don’t know it all, so I worry about the affect on real faith the produces power when we just push things to the side and say they are quaint and insightful analogies, but not “how the world works”.

    The world also doesn’t work by parting the red sea, telling mountains to move, or walking on water.

  17. I just read one of the letters by the British church-leaver referenced above. It made me sad. Such a complete lack of imagination. Is it really so hard to understand that scriptures are not complete documentary evidence of anything and that sometimes things get written in passing (not being the main point of the text) that have not been the result of revelation or careful study but are just the way humans fill in blank spots with whatever they have at hand until something spurs them to take a closer look? (Cf DC 77:6-7). This is why leadership positions in the church terrify me–someone asks you a question, you give your best answer in an attempt to help, and all of a sudden people are worshiping a new golden calf–and it’s your fault.

    Friggin’ Book of Mormon says it on the friggin’ first page: “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men.” Bah!

  18. The most disturbing thing about the story of man is this: we have been killing our way to the top of the world for tens of thousands of years. Any account of God’s creation of humans has to take into account the fact that killing is not just an aberration but a fundamental and ancient fundamental of our nature.

  19. kaphor, I don’t disagree with your point of view. I just don’t understand the either-or nature of the discussion. I’m perfectly happy to carry two explanations in my head, one that is supported by my faith and the other that is supported by scientific observation. Will I be able to resolve the two? Certainly not I — I’m neither scientifically literate enough nor faithful enough. Can they coexist in my head? Absolutely. I can acknowledge that the two answers come from different disciplines.

    As for the efficacy of priesthood blessings, all one needs is evidence that such efficacy exists. Knowing (or knowing of) someone who has been healed may be enough, together with a confirmation of the spirit.

    The notion that spiritual things may also be explained biologically (like understanding what parts of the brain are activated in “spiritual” experiences) does not mean that they are not spiritual things. I think that is what is behind President Hinckley’s comment. He can acknowledge that such a thought as organic evolution exists and not worry about it. (And it may be that he has more spiritual information on the matter than I do.)

  20. Ah Ronan, pithy and right on. Thank you!

  21. I was thinking about a series similar in nature to the one described in the OP. It was called The Ascent of Man and was authored by Jacob Bronowski (I think that was his name). We watched it my freshman year (1976-77) at BYU as part of an honors colloquium. It included an episode of searching for that evolutionary moment at which man became man, and then followed through various developments of the human family into modernity. It was fascinating. Equally fascinating was the class discussion among a bunch of college freshman who were still pretty immature in their understanding of science and the gospel, but open minded enough to have the conversation. We were guided by professors of various disciplines, including die-hard evolutionary biologists and others, who also enjoyed the free-flowing discussion of the ideas presented. The professors taught no doctrine nor dogma on either side of the aisle. The open discussion has shaped my intellectual inquiry ever since. (Sadly, the colloquium program in that form ran only one more year and was scrapped.)

  22. Well I’ve just wasted an hour of my time trolling though ex mormon forums looking for info on this British leader that’s left. Not fun times. However my interest is piqued and I’d like to know more about this former leaders reasons for leaving, and clearly I’m not so good at searching, so ……..

  23. Nice response, Ronan. Thanks for sharing.

    I would add a little from the Newsroom commentary, Mormon and Modern:

    “Mormons welcome truth from whatever source and take the pragmatic view that where religion and science seem to clash, it is simply because there are insufficient data to reconcile the two. Latter-day Saints approach such tensions as challenges to learn, not contradictions to avoid.

    This productive tension can enrich both mind and heart. All understanding, whether spiritual or rational, is worked out in constant questioning and discovery. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”[3] Latter-day Saints do not expect God to simply hand down information. He expects us to wrestle with the complications of life through prayerful searching and sound thinking. “You must study it out in your mind,” Mormon scripture teaches, and then answers will come. This pattern of inquiry opens Mormons to expanding spiritual possibilities.”

  24. Succinct, but well put! As a medical student constantly studying the mechanisms of medicine that millions of hours of scientific research have elaborated, I have also thought it strange that we can accept science at one turn but be hostile to it at another.

    I have found that my medical education has forced me to look at our church’s issues in a new light. As I embrace science as part of my professional career, I have had to start answering or at least deal with some of the more difficult questions that science puts forth about our religion. It is not an easy process, and I expect it will take me a long time to make real progress.

    But I won’t be hostile.

  25. I admit that I am flummoxed when people start talking about Mormon creationists. I grew up with the church, seminary, fire sides, youth conference, etc. I have never heard church members tell me that the gospel conflict with science.

    The baptist church wanted to use the seminary building to start a “Creation Rally.” After the church says no, one of the big “anti Mormon” claims thrown by the baptist church was that Mormons believed in science, not Jesus.

    I grew up in Oregon, so maybe it is just cultural here, but why would there be a question about this? (Maybe having teachers and school board members who were LDS and scientists made my experience different.)

  26. I’ve had seminary teachers, institute teachers, sunday school teachers, and even BYU professors (outside of the science departments, of course) attack evolution. It’s a shame that their words contribute to people falling away from the gospel. I’ve also heard General Authorities, bishops, BYU science professors (mostly biology but also geology and chemistry), and others fight back against attacks on evolution. Lots of diversity of thought.

    I was recently in a ward where the Bishop, EQ Pres, and YW Pres all had degrees in Biology. Never heard a word against evolution in that ward, for some strange reason…

  27. We are children of Adam like we are Children of Abraham.

  28. Sharee Hughes says:

    When I listened to John Gee speak about the Book of Abraham at the FAIR Conference in August, I became intrigued and started looking into the subject. What I learned blew my mind. The Book of Abraham reconciles science and scripture, and confirms the existence of pre-Adamites (and therefore, also the existence of death before the fall). I asked in my neighborhood study group if we might discuss Abraham after concluding our study of Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. Our group leader decided we could take a break from Jesus the Christ, so for 4 Wednesday’s in September, I presented discussions on Abraham: 1) The history and provenance; 2) The Facsimiles, 3) Astronomy, and 4) he Creation. I read a lot about the subjects before each presentation. A lot of my reading was in the book edited by John Gee and Brain Hauglid, Astronomy, Papyrus and Covenant. Fascinating reading, with more than one point of view. Chapter 2 in that book, “Astronomy and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” is awesome. Brother Talmage stated in a talk given in August of 1931 (and later reprinted in The Instructor), “Discrepancies that trouble us now will diminish as our knowledge of pertinent facts is extended. The Creator has made record in the rocks for man to decipher; but He has also spoken directly regarding the main stages of progress by which the earth has been brought to be what it is. The accounts cannot be fundamentally opposed; one cannot contradict the other; though man’s interpretation of either may be at fault. . . . Let us not try to wrest the scriptures in an attempt to explain away what we cannot explain. The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a textbook of geology, archeology, earth-science or man-science. Holy Scripture will endure, while the conceptions of men change with new discoveries.” Regarding death before the fall, Bro. Talmage stated, in the same talk, “But this we know, for both revealed and discovered truth, that is to say, both scripture and science, so affirm—that plant life antedated animal existence, and that animals preceded man on earth. . . . These [plants and animals] lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation.”

    I like this scripture from Abraham 4:18: “the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.” That sounds to me like a description of guided evolution. I believe Adam and Eve were real and I believe that Adam was the first man. I believe that when the time came that those things which the Gods had ordered got to the point God wanted them, he then blew the breath of life into Adam, Then Michael’s spirit entered into him and he became the first man.

    Here is the link for the book, which you can find in the Neal A Maxwell Institute’s website: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=40.

  29. I really love this Ronan.

  30. I interpreted an Introductory Geology class at BYU years ago, and the instructor decidedly avoided any appearance of advocating young earth theory. When it was my colleague’s turn in the chair, he took the phrase “formation of the earth” from the lecture, and signed a well-known ASL translation found only in a very specific and frozen LDS text — depicting the Creator hand-fashioning a world from existing parts–not tectonics, sediment, or even meteors. I did a slow-motion mental lunge, and after class, pulled him aside: “Dude, you signed /this/. Maybe you drifted into autopilot as we all do, but the professor said /that/.” He seemed to take it well, but moreso as a standard-fare interpreter flub — I don’t think he examined or revised his personal interpretation of the concept. I’m confident the earth scientists at the BYUs operate under empirical assumptions, and do not teach Genesis, but I’m equally certain they regularly blow students’ minds straight into the firmament.

  31. By the way, obviously we’re of like mind on this:

    The atheism of some scientists (though by no means are all scientists in any given field atheists) might tempt Latter-day Saints to be defensive and gravitate toward fundamentalist creedal Christian bunkers in this artificial war between science and faith. The war is artificial because it need not exist in the first place. Instead of succumbing to such temptation, Mormons should resist the urge to bunker down and subsist, under siege by the evidence of science, on a diet of bibliolatry and scientific ignorance. This is one of the many strengths of the Latter-day Saint position — the Restored Gospel should give us a much broader vision of the wonders God has prepared and created for us and that he has in store for us as we live our lives in his service as disciples of Jesus Christ who are active in all fields of scientific inquiry and discovery. This position should actually allow us to hover above the fray in the contrived “culture wars” of our day rather than require us to be the foot soldiers for various questionable causes stemming from a fundamentalist creedal Christian interpretation of the Bible. As one example, we do not need to join fundamentalist creedal Christians in claiming that humans and dinosaurs co-existed or that the earth is 6,000 years old because we simply do not share the assumptions that have caused fundamentalist creedal Christians to need to believe those things in the first place. As such, our course as Mormons should be either to stand on the sidelines of fundamentalist creedal Christians’ ridiculous battles on this front or to try to broker a peace as objective observers, neither sharing the atheism and amorality nor the religious assumptions and inferences of either side in this unnecessary battle. Obviously, brokering a peace would be more consistent with Christ’s New Testament injunction for us to be peacemakers.

    Your friend might even be interested to see my previous post on the topic (http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/01/13/we-should-be-mormons/) or any number of Steve P.’s posts about this (http://bycommonconsent.com/author/stevepk/).

  32. Douglas Hunter says:

    “2. As seekers of truth — wherever it is found — there is no good reason for Mormons to reject science if it can reasonably be proven to be true.”

    So we have two different standards of rationality? Science needs to be reasonably proven to be true, but our claims about the nature of God, and human existence, the historical orgins of the BOM, the pre-existence, and a long list of things do not need to be reasonably proven to be true? The problem here is that the institutional church and individuals within it want to insist on the objective “truth” of their beliefs yet feel that its OK to hold themselves to a lower, or even no, standard of rationality. That is an example of how ideology creeps in and robs faith of its meaning, purpose and content.

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