Looking for God in All the Cool Places

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.

 

Comments

  1. Applause. For Steve Peck’s book and for this review. It seems like just the right tease for the non-scientist potential audience. One thing I’d add is that the book moves so fast and playfully, and science itself moves so fast, that there is no closed-form solution. (Just one morsel–“in the real world it is always one particular moment . . . The universe happens.”) If you’re looking for possibilities, great fun. If you’re looking for answers, you’ll be disappointed. (Maybe in volume II, but I doubt it.)

  2. John Mansfield says:

    Does this book expound at any length on how the scientific theist’s contemplation of the universe’s beauty and wonder differs from the scientific atheist’s?

  3. Agreed. This book is old-time Mormonism, where all truth is part of a great whole and where science brings God to the forefront. It’s just so fun.

  4. John, yes that topic is touched on.

  5. Michael, from what you have described, I’m wondering what this book contributes that is new. It sounds pretty much like a retelling of Ken Miller’s books (Finding Darwin’s God, Only a Theory). Both of which are excellent books and both of which I think Steve Peck has recommended on many occasions.

  6. Dave, very little overlap with Miller who does not cover metaphysics, chaos theory, emergence, ecology, randomness, determinism, apoietic systems or time. Or Mormon theology. Nor Philip K Dick. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nor the Mission to the Wyoming Robots. Nor Ant poetry. Or Capt. Picard’s Christmas joy. There is a chapter on evolution. Probably overlap there. But nothing in Miller on the joys and perils of suburban beekeeping. We both have an index so there is also that in common.

  7. My 6-year-old asked me this week in a very serious tone if Heavenly Father liked science. This is a big deal to him because he likes science. I said He most certainly does because our knowledge (like about science) is one of the few things we take with us to the next life. He thought this was amazing. I’m glad to see there are others who think so too.

  8. Thanks, Michael. I’ve started the book and am filled with anticipation. I’m ready for a God who didn’t create the world in 6 days, who loves dinosaurs, and who is splendidly difficult to decipher most of the time.

  9. Is this book going to appeal to a person like me, LDS, who is not a scientist, but can “ski the blue runs and slog down the black diamonds” in science and finds evolution to be at once the most logical method of creation and also filled with awe and inspiration?

  10. I mean, I loved it, but it does tackle some tricky science. It’s worth it.

  11. It’s a fantastic book – unless it goes significantly downhill in the last 25 pages, which is how far I am from the end. :) (I’ll bet that it doesn’t.) As Steve Evans says above, ” This book is old-time Mormonism, where all truth is part of a great whole and where science brings God to the forefront.” That’s the church I was so attracted to 30-some years ago, when all of the nutcase young-earth creationists were still hiding in the bushes, before the church tried to strike its Faustian cultural deal with the American evangelical devil.

    If I have a complaint, it’s that the editing is depressingly substandard. It’s not horrible, unless you’re a nitpicky reader like me, but there are a number of spelling and punctuation errors and other little things that should have been caught by an attentive editor. (Ex: an epigraph, “a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme,” is referred to as an “epitaph” in one chapter and a “paragraph” in another.) Stuff like this is the product of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic author cranking it out at full speed (and perhaps his spell check!), but it should be caught by an editor. Please don’t let BCC Press become one of those marginal publishers whose works never quite measure up because the little details aren’t seen to.

  12. Yes, I think so, if you read attentively. I’m that guy too, and I’m having a blast with it.

  13. Iconoclast: sent you an email.

  14. How do I get it in my store? Donnie Morris, Confetti antiques and Books

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