3/19/2005

A Place at the Table

Why is evolution unpalatable to many Mormons? Unlike more fundamentalist devotees of the Bible---who tend to lump an "old earth" and evolution together---most Mormons seem capable of swallowing the former, while still choking on the latter.

Of Elder McConkie's litany of traditional doctrines to which evolution might be noxious, the first item on the list---God's creative role---wields a particularly potent psychological impact, and has far-reaching implications.

One of these implications---the question of God's existence---will be explored here.

At the Church's electronic interface to the world, one of many questions answered is How can I know that God exists? The answer's opening sentence states that there are many such evidences, but only one is explicitly cited and discussed: "the testimony of His creations." References to Psalm 19:1 and Alma 30:44 buttress the argument.

God's relationship to nature is seen differently by the believer and the skeptic. As exemplified above, for the believer, the creation is prima facie evidence of the existence of God. The skeptic turns this argument on its head: gods were invented to explain forces of nature beyond humanity's comprehension.

Evolution is anathema to so many because in the context of this argument over the existence of God, it is perceived as a potent weapon in the skeptic's hands. By telling plausible stories of man's origin without reference to God, the believer's usual prima facie evidence for God's existence is invalidated. (An "old earth"---merely stretching out the time scale of creation---is not usually perceived by Mormons as having the same effect, though it could: If there is such a powerful god, why did he take 4.5 billion years to create the world instead of six days?)

Any reconciliation between Mormons and evolution must begin by giving God a place at the table. At its etymological roots, 'reconciliation' is 'to sit down together again.' Evolution's disposal of the prima facie case for God's existence is perceived by many as the equivalent of banishment of the King from his own banquet hall, a rebellious expulsion at the hands of the generously invited lowly subjects! Reconciliation requires that the King be explicitly invited back in. To gain widespread traction for evolution among believers, the shock of this rupture must be soothed, the apparent breach of protocol resolved: The first task must be to identify evidences for the existence of God other than the wonders of nature, and compellingly articulate why they should be given primacy.

As this post is sufficiently long, and this author insufficiently qualified, these tasks are left as exercises for the comments---and for other posts, and sermons, and articles, and books.

4 Comments:

It seems to me that Mormonism is in a unique position because we have heard from (or for the skeptic, claim to have heard from) God recently. We have the testimony of prophets and additional scripture as evidence. These scriptures tell us, explicitly, that God created the world and highly suggest that he played an active role, although from a scientific standpoint, we cannot identify what that active role was.

Jeffery and I discussed the issue a little bit at my blog in the comments. He rightly pointed out that the Lectures on Faith do not support the idea that God's creations are the starting point for faith.

3/20/2005 11:18:00 AM  

Jared, thanks for the pointer to the discussion on your blog. I'm fascinated that Lectures on Faith 2 took the point of view that human contact with God is the primary evidence, with recognition of God's responsibility for creation coming only after the fact.

You also had a great insight into the order of Alma's recitation of evidence in Alma 30, which also places the prophets' experience first.

(BTW, I'm glad to be introduced to it and expect to begin visiting there regularly.)

3/20/2005 01:27:00 PM  

There is not much in LDS belief surrounding the creation that has commonality with fundamentalist Christian belief on the subject. Abraham specifically describe additional players and a process more gradual (and perhaps more hands off) than "orthodox" Christianity believes (whatever born-again Christians mean by that; I have asked Ed Decker, but he didn't respond to my email).

Abraham 4:20-21 And the Gods said: Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly the moving creatures...And the Gods prepared the waters that they might bring forth [whales, etc.]

In v. 18: And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until the obeyed.

These concepts of time and allowing things to happen are consistant with evolution, but so foreign to the conventional Christian view of the creation, and to the view of many LDS of creation. I agree that there evolution should not be as difficult a pill for Mormons to swallow.

Possible reasons why it continues to be 1) There seems to be some remnant of puritanical Christianity in the early leadership of the church (some of the proposed reasons for blacks not having the priesthood have their origen in more fundamental Christian ideologies), 2) the codifying of doctines by Elders McConkie and Joseph F. and Joseph Fielding Smith (in books which had the appropriate yet rarely-read or -referenced disclaimers). Church-wide use of these books as absolute true doctrine makes it difficult to overcome the perception that Evolution is a heresy. 3) We want leaders to tell us what to think and do. It takes all of the hard work out of it. We want to be told precisely what we can or cannot do on the Sabbath.

I was a TA for Dr. Bill Bradshaw's Biology 100 class at BYU. He had all the students write two essays (beginning and end of semester) on evolution, yes or no and why. This was the first time many of them had been forced to consider the topic without being able to hide behind a parent or seminary teacher to tell them what to think and to deflect the evidence. The insight and realization that occurred during the semester was impressive for some, disappointing for others.

These are just some of the obstacles that exist to a sincere discussion about the topic

4/02/2005 08:38:00 PM  

Mike, welcome to the discussion. I know it might take a while but please review the material which we have already covered and comment as you see necessary. It sounds like your thoughts could bring some much appreciated insight to this blog.

As we have already seen, and as you pointed out, the issues between Mormon doctrine and evolution are hardly the same as those between the rest of Christianity and evolution. Yet while we are able to avoid some issues (such a literal readings of the biblical account of creation) we also have issues which are quite unique such as our belief in a premortal existence and our unmatched emphasis on the fall.

These differences are made all the worse by our lack of any attempt at reconciliation. Instead we tend to read Born-again attempts at reconciliation which really don't address what needs to be addressed. I haven't found any Mormon attempts at full reconciliation yet, which is an uncomfortable state of affairs to say the least. This, in my opinion, is what makes this blog so important, it seems to be the first attempt at total reconciliation.

4/03/2005 12:20:00 PM  

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