You’ve probably heard that BCC has embarked on a publishing venture: the BCC Press. You may also know that our first book is Steven L. Peck’s remarkable work of scientific theology (or was that theological science) Science the Key to Theology. But if you haven’t read the book, you don’t yet know how thoroughly Peck’s work, if taken seriously, could change the way that Latter-day Saints interact with science.
So, how do Latter-day Saints interact with science now? Keeping in mind that a non-trivial number of Mormons are also excellent scientists, who are capable of seeing the world through scientific eyes while still remaining grounded in their faith tradition, most of the rest of us tend to incorporate science into our worldviews in one of two ways, which are not at all mutually exclusive.
First, we judge science by what we perceive as the standards of modern revelation. Revelation tells us what is true, and scientific claims must fit into that truth. All too often, this is the view encouraged, or directly promulgated by official Church outlets, which have, in the claimed that the earth can be no more than a few thousand years old, or that all Native Americans were descendants of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon, or that homosexuality had to be a chosen behavior because God makes all people straight.
The Church no longer insists on any of these points and has taken steps to distance itself from them. But they were all pronounced with the force of doctrine long after the point that they were refuted by overwhelming scientific evidence. And those pronouncements had serious consequences for actual people. Even today, I would guess that a majority or substantial plurality of Mormons accepts all three claims.
A second way that Latter-day Saints (and many other people of faith) interact with science is through the deity that Steve Peck has himself describes as “The God of the Gaps.” According to this model, religious people accept everything that can be convincingly supported by modern science: evolution, the big bang, quantum mechanics, the whole shebang. And when all of these things are accepted, whatever is still a mystery is taken to be evidence of God.
Religion basically evolved in a God-of-the-gaps world at a time when there were a whole lot of gaps. Thunder and lightening? Thor is ticked off. Tidal waves? Poseidon is having a bad day. Winter? Persephone is in Hades for a while. As scientific understanding increased, the gaps got farther away, and so did God. But the core purpose of deity remained to explain whatever science hasn’t figured out yet.
As Peck demonstrates (pp. 155-164), the modern pseudoscience of “Intelligent Design” is nothing more than the formalization of some of these gaps from around 15 years ago repackaged as “irreducible complexity” and, therefore, proof of God. The big problem here is that science is advancing at a pretty rapid pace, so the gaps are a moving target. It is hard to have a long-term relationship with a God whose character and responsibilities have to be constantly changing as people figure out other reasons that stuff happens.
What if, Peck says, we don’t try to figure out what can’t be explained and call it God. Instead, what if we look at all of the wonderful things that CAN be explained and see what kind of divine being that makes possible. This (at least to the mind of a nonscientific, three-time English major like me) is the purpose of Science the Key to Theology. “If we can understand something about the underlying fabric of the universe,” he writes in the introduction, “perhaps there are relevant theological insights to be gained about encountering God in the world” (14).
I can’t emphasize enough how different this is from the ways I have been taught to try to reconcile science and religion. Rather than taking cosmological notions from the scriptures and attempting to build a scientific model around them (yeah, Kolob, I’m talking to you!), or marking off everything we don’t understand through science and calling it “God,” Peck invites is to learn a lot of incredible things. He teaches us about chaos and randomness (which aren’t the same things), and the emergence of complex systems in an evolutionary environment.
These are things that we can understand, and they are things that make an entirely new kind of theology possible—and they make God a more interesting proposition than He has been, at least in my world, for a very long time.