Adam as Symbolic Myth in Evolution

In my last post we saw that the doctrine of Adam and Eve being the first man and woman not only makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective, but is completely incompatible with it. There was no first man and woman, especially ones that lived a mere 6,000 years ago on the American continent.

There are, however, alternative roles which we can assign to Adam and Eve in Mormon theology without scrapping the whole thing. This post will deal with the second option: considering Adam and Eve to be a symbolic myth.

This is becoming a fairly popular step for educated Christians, but we should not consider it a new step. For millennia now philosophers have tried to uncover the symbolic "more real" meaning behind scriptural accounts while considering the literal version to be a bit crass. They insisted that those who take the stories at face value are not enlightened at best. Is that all we are doing now?

I don't think so. Those of old came to their conclusions in spite of evidence, whereas we are letting the evidence at hand take us where it will. It has been shown rather conclusively that there never was an Adam and Eve who were the first humans to walk the earth. We are not merely trying to look past this for a deeper meaning. We are trying to take stock of what is important in this particular story and seeing if we can salvage the most important parts, whatever they may be. We are not seeking a more spiritual meaning. We are seeking a more accurate meaning.

As we have mentioned before, the ceremonial usage of the Garden story has always made the symbolic myth version rather appealling. How many rituals do we participate in where we are explicitly named "Lehi and Sariah"? How often are we instructed to consider ourselves as if we were "Abraham and Sarah"? Never. We only use the story of Adam and Eve in our rituals for the very reason that their story is so symbolic. The symbolism of Adam and Eve is what gives the rituals meaning, not their historical content.

When this perspective is adopted, other things fall into place as well. The confusion of trying to figure out when the word "Adam" refers to the person or to "mankind" essentially vanishes. The context of the story, which seems extraordinarily removed from reality as we know it, no longer presents a problem. After all, how often do we have meaningful dialogues with serpents? The seemingly conflicting account which are scattered not only through out the Bible, but through modern revelation as well, is not so bothersome either.

We need no longer be disturbed by the obvious similarities between our Biblical account and the accounts which were written earlier by neighboring cultures. After all, the supposed author of the Genesis story grew up in the Egyptian religion. Should we be all that surprised that Moses' account resembles theirs?

Also removed is the disturbing distance from which the authors are removed from those whom the story concerns. Nobody claims to have known this Adam person, at least nobody who wrote anything themselves. Nobody seemed to know where this Garden was either. The Genesis version of the garden occured more than 2,000 years after the fact! It is no wonder that the account seems more like myth and history. It had 2,000 years (again, at least) to be improved upon.

Thus such a version has it's up sides. We are no longer forced to answer the smart-aleck questions which young atheists try to stump believers with. We don't need to be side-tracked in reading the account by trying to provide a legitimate historical context. We can use the story as it was meant to be used, to describe us.

This is all well and good for non-LDS, but we have a unique problem. Our account of Adam goes well beyond Genesis 1-3. Doctine and Covenants traces priesthood through Adam. We speak of Adam-ondi-Ahman. Joseph Smith and Joseph F. Smith both saw Adam in vision. Are we willing to simply say that (the person, the places, the priesthood and the stories) are all myth too?

I'm not sure many Mormons will be comfortable with that. While this version of Adam stands up to scientific scrutiny, I'm not sure that it is worth wanting. Perhaps it would be better if we moved on to another version of Adam and see if we can find a better one.

Summary: Interpreting the story of Adam and Eve as a symbolic myth has become rather popular as of late. While this version of Adam does have its benefits, Mormons have commited themselves to a historical Adam in their modern revelations.


I should clarify a bit. I believe that this version of Adam is worth wanting to a very large extent. As I mentioned in the post, there a numerous benefits which come from accepting this version of Adam. But I can also see that most Mormons will not be satisfied with such an Adam. Thus, while this version is worth wanting, there might be another worth wanting even more. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/25/2005 11:22:00 PM  

I have a lot of sympathy for the symbolic myth interpretation. The ritual use of the account that Jeffrey mentioned is a key point. Here the use of the story is obviously symbolic. (At least once upon a time the rib aspect of the story was explicitly pointed out as being symbolic, a toehold of legitimacy for viewing the entire thing symbolically.)

As a character in a Rushdie novel says, "We can start taking the stories seriously once we stop taking them literally." 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

4/26/2005 06:32:00 AM  

The problem with that Rushdie story is always the problem about historicity. For instance the Abraham Lincoln or George Washington stories are very mythic, with a few fictions (such as the cherry tree) thrown in for impact. Would we be better off simply discounting history entirely and descending into a sollipsistic world where it is all figurative?

I'm quite sympathetic to those who argue the figurative/literalistic divide is problematic and that we can't really draw a diving line. I'm quite unsympathetic to the idea that it is all figurative.


Posted by clark

4/26/2005 12:43:00 PM  



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