A Redeeming Place at the Table

Why is the connection between evolution and God's existence so emotionally charged? In a previous post I argued that evolution is unpalatable to some believers because it seems to remove what is, for some, a primary evidence of God's existence: "the testimony of His creations." I pointed out that this is the zeroth-order answer the Church offers to outsiders in answer to the question, How can I know God exists? At the risk of pedantically elaborating the obvious, in this post and a subsequent one I will discuss two reasons why debates about evolution---and perceived implications for the existence of God---take on a stature much larger than our insignificant intramural Mormon debate, and rise to the level of culture war.

A reconciliation between believers and evolution must give God a place at the table, but it cannot be just any place: It must be a powerful one. Consider the following from Joseph Fielding Smith (with shouting subject heading provided by editor Bruce R. McConkie):
DILEMMA OF THE THEISTIC EVOLUTIONISTS. It is true that the school of evolutionists is divided into the two great classes, the Theistic and the Atheistic branches.

But the Theistic evolutionist is a weak-kneed and unbelieving religionist, who is constantly apologizing for the miracles of the scriptures, and who does not believe in the divine mission of Jesus Christ. (DS 1:142-143)
Does this summary judgment represent a devastating, dead-on double tap, or an ineffective would-be marksman's display of scattershot non-sequiturs? The whirlwind transition from evolution to miracles to the atonement may seem abrupt, but there is a connecting thread: authority, which derives from authorship. Following logically from God's authorship of creation is his control and dominion over creation, with attendant ability to intervene miraculously on our behalf. The power of the words Peace, be still to calm our souls derives from the fact that they were first uttered to Galilean winds and waves stilled in response to the Creator's fiat. This is the authority we rely upon to prosper, heal, and ultimately resurrect us.

The emotional depth of this dependence is on vivid display in the heart-wrenching account, in last week's Priesthood/Relief Society lesson, of the death of David O. McKay's very young son. So deep is President McKay's need that in a move tantamount to a denial of death's reality, he appropriates the scriptural conceptualization of Lazarus, a leap possible only because of his faith in the Creator's power: "‘He is not dead but sleepeth’ was never more applicable to any soul, for he truly went to sleep. He did not die."

Evolution is problematic in this connection because it raises the possibility that God's connection to creation is merely pseudepigraphic (a false attribution of authorship, in order to lend undeserved credibility). The skeptic's take on the connection between God and creation, mentioned in the previous post---that gods were invented to explain forces of nature beyond humanity's comprehension---then takes on a more ominous, personal, and taunting cast. Having invented the gods to explain forces of nature, says the skeptic, propitiations to the gods are first offered as a hedge against the arbitrary destructive force of what we still (even in legal insurance contracts) call Acts of God, and in hopes of being favored with bounteous hunts and harvests. As time goes by, the expectations from divine power are elaborated to individual healing, peace, and immortality---concepts missing from the earliest Biblical views, which focused on the temporal corporate prosperity of God's people. The skeptic likens such expectations to a patient remaining addicted to painkillers long after recovery from surgery is complete: Even after the forces of nature that motivated the invention of gods are understood scientifically, the habit of reliance upon a powerful God ready and willing to save you is hard to break.

Instinctively recoiling from this line of argument, some believers prefer that God's authorship of creation be complete, exclusive, and undisputed, in order that his power to save may also be considered reliably undisputed. In order to overcome this tendency, those interested in making evolution acceptable to such believers will need to provide demonstrations of God's power other than the generation of biodiversity.


I think that there are some historical issues, stories even, that need to be remembered.

First , the original place of evolution was seen as a direct attack on religion and proof that there was no God. When something comes out of the box that way, it can color the debate.

Second, even with the warning that some things are "purely figurative" it is very tempting to take a very literalist approach.

But our theology does not require a "from nothing" creation, and once we take the approach that we are products of personal evolution, I don't see the need for the connection of God's power to the process or to the world having a single use and a single mission.

I think that a more balanced approach to and on the Spirit and testimony makes many issues, from the sources and authors of the Bible to any other topic of the day to evolution, much easier to deal with and less of an issue.

My two bits.

Posted by Stephen M (Ethesis)

4/17/2005 08:53:00 PM  

Stephen, I agree that Mormonism has a stronger case to make, both in terms of personal and historical religious experience, for the power of God than "apostate" Christianity, which is surely an important reason why on average Mormons are less exercised by and politically active with respect to evolution.

I know essesntially nothing about how evolution was initially received and interpreted culturally, in connection with religion. Do you know any good references?

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/18/2005 06:33:00 AM  

Gasp!!!! Christian has posted!!! 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/18/2005 10:21:00 AM  

I wish I could say that my two posts manifested a quality and value that corresponded with (and therefore justified) their rarity!


Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/18/2005 10:44:00 AM  


It is unfortunate that you do not post more often, for your posts are always well stated. I already posted on "what kind of God uses evolution" and "is evolution the best he could do" but your more in depth analysis of these topics is definitely warranted.

I especially liked the phrase: "God's connection to creation is merely pseudepigraphic" for it really bring home a lot of issues analogous to scriptural pseudepigraphy.

Pseudonymity (sp.?) doesn't mean that the text is necessarily false or less sacred. This brings to mind Ostler's modern expansion theory for the BoM, which the Encyclopedia considered a viable option for BoM historicity within the Church.

Just like we don't have to believe that Nephi wrote every single word which the BoM attributes to him, we don't have to believe that everything which we see around, above and beneath us came from God. Sometimes, in fact, most times thing just happen.

This is not to say that God did not pay close attention to the process, it simply means that it's wasn't all done exactly  as He ideally intended it. While we can say that this was because He couldn't have done it as He ideally intended, it would probably be more accurate and faith promoting to simply say that He allowed it do go otherwise within a somewhat large range of tolerance.

After all, when chemists are doing chain syntheses, they don't really do everything exactly as they want it. They allow for a moderate range of error and leway. There is a certain threshold where things are "good enough." 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/18/2005 11:50:00 AM  

Yes, I recognize I'm not plowing any new ground, and also not keeping up with where your series is at. I think in the end we'll all be covering the same territory at our own pace and with our own slant.

With apologies to the fallen sparrow, your description of a basic quasi-autonomous process working within tolerances, corrected as needed, is a description that feels more comfortable to me, too, than one in which every last detail is micromanaged.

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/18/2005 12:58:00 PM  

Just so you know, I wasn't critcizing any kind of lack of creativity. I think that you have gone sufficiently beyond my analysis to even consider it worth mentioning. Feel no obligation whatsoever to "keep up" with anything I do. By our venturing out on our own paths and seeing the differences and/or similarities in our end points we can more easily see the strengths and weaknesses of our approaches. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/18/2005 01:27:00 PM  

I was just wondering if there were any opinions on Elder George Hill's statements on Evolution as found here:

To paraphrase: The Second Law of Thermodynamics contradicts the concept of Evolution without Divine influence...

This was the most recent GA statement, outside of the first presidency's office letter and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article, that I could find.

4/19/2005 11:41:00 AM  

The second law of thermodyanimcs argument is one of the oldest in the book. I mean no disrespect to Elder Hill, nor to his apparent background in physical sciences, but it is not a serious argument. His framing of the argument it too narrow anyway--there is more to mutation than just radiation. 

Posted by Jared

4/19/2005 12:27:00 PM  

His challenge is not very impressive and will be addressed later. But briefly here is an overview:

The 2nd law of thermodynamics only holds for closed systems. The earth is not a closed system. This is what leads Stuart Kauffman to describe our universe as nonergodic in his book Investigations (highly recommended though a dense read).

Here is an example. Suppose we have lots of chemical A. 2 A's can make a B if there is enough energy. Eventually there will be an equilibrium reached where there are A's and B's scattered randomly throughout the closed system.

But wait, there is more. 2 B's can react to make a C or an A and a B can react to make a AB. Thus there will be a push toward equilibrium between not only A<->B, but between B<->C and A,B<->AB. Now we can imagine AB and C being reactive as well creating more and more letters in the alphabet, but if the system is closed, soon there will be no more material or extra energy to "push" the lower letters into higher letters and the system will be randomly distributed.

But if we open the system, adding more energy and/or A's (this need not be done by God, but by any source, say the Sun) there is no limit to how big the letter combinations and complexity can get.

Thus, Kauffman concludes, life is far more probable than many tend to think. This is his idea applied the the beginning of life on earth.

With regard to evolution from species to species the story is a little different. Michael Ruse in his book Taking Darwin Seriously uses a great analogy. Envision a man who wants to write a biography but is stranded on an island, but is able to recieve a Book of the Month every month. Based on his available his biography, no matter who it is about, will not be very impressive. But consider a man who is stranded in the Harvard library. Obviously his book, no matter what the subject, will turn out far better than our island cast away.

So it is in evolution. Not only are we talking about millions of parellel processors for every species, but each processor is different. There is a wide variety already available in any given species from which nature can select. At any given moment, natural selection has a mass of variety from which to draw surviving mutants. That is an important point in evolution, we are all mutants. Every organism, especially when sexual reproduction is involved.

The variation which evolution depends on is not always or even principally drawn from radiation, as Elder Hill's seems to think. Radiation mutates the species "too far" in almost all cases. It over shoots the target so to speak.

I don't want to diverge too far in this thread, so I'll leave it at this.

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/19/2005 12:39:00 PM  

Jeffrey said: This is not to say that God did not pay close attention to the process, it simply means that it's wasn't all done exactly as He ideally intended it. While we can say that this was because He couldn't have done it as He ideally intended, it would probably be more accurate and faith promoting to simply say that He allowed it do go otherwise within a somewhat large range of tolerance.

After all, when chemists are doing chain syntheses, they don't really do everything exactly as they want it. They allow for a moderate range of error and leway. There is a certain threshold where things are "good enough."

Christian and I have discussed this on his site and I think that there is a middle ground. I believe that God operates under all the natural laws and is limited by them; however this doesn't necessarily imply that something was done that "wasn't exactly as He ideally intended it." There is room enough for omniscience and natural laws. He can foresee everything without determining anything.

I agree the argument that Alma used to convince Korihor that God lives can be a weak one. To me there are many more evidences (spiritually individualistic in nature) besides the physicality of the earth for the existence of a loving, eternal, omniscient God.

(an aside: The other day, during a conversation, my 8 year-old son asked me whether Heavenly Father could take away his agency but didn't want to, or whether he wasn't able to take it away. I answered that he couldn't. Any comments, thoughts?)

Posted by Mike Wilson

4/21/2005 07:33:00 AM  

Mike, it's good to see your name on the contributor list. Welcome! We look forward to your posts.

On your son's question about agency: We know that those with power can, in technical terms, restrict agency; that is, peoples' behavior can be forcibly controlled under certain circumstances. But could God do this while simultaneously achieving his aim of bringing to pass our development? Apparently not. So technically, theoretically, he could restrict our behavior, but not without compromising his larger aims.

Perhaps also, if he restricted agency on a large scale he might "cease to be God", like Alma says would happen if he allowed mercy to rob justice. What the practical mechanics of this would be---who knows? Some sort of cosmic rebellion?  

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/21/2005 09:52:00 AM  

AHHHHHH!!!! Blogger did it to me again!

I had responded to Mike and when I hit post comment there was an error. So naturally I didn't want to lose my comment so I waited patiently until it came back online, checking occasionally by hitting post comment.

Of course when it did come back online there were now 7 copies of my comment. So, I deleted all but 1, or so I thought. IT DELETED ALL OF THEM! Arrrgh!

Here is basically what I said:

I agree with what you told your son to a certain extent. It really depends on how you define agency. Is it some kind of magical free will sort of thing? If so then I think you answer is correct. If it is the ability and freedom to make decision without being coerced or blackmailed by another agent (what Lehi calls being acted upon) then I would disagree.

We should also define omniscience. Ethical monotheists believe that God can do anything which is logically possible, which means that even they don't believe God to be fully omnipotent. Physical possibility is not an issue with them at all for God is free to create matter and/or energy ex nihilo whenever He wants.

Not so with Mormonism. We restrict our God to physical possibility. God is limited by the self existence of 1) element (which I take to be matter/energy) 2) intelligence (agents such as our selves) and 3) laws (both moral and physical for we reject objective miracles). These are no small limitations and allow plenty of room for bad things to happen even with God intervening to the best of His ability.

We should also mention that just because God can do A and He can do B doesn't mean that He can do both in all circustances. Also, just because God CAN do somehting, does not mean that He DOES do it. The samething can be said for His knowledge. Just because He can turn His attention to something and know all that can be known about it, does not mean that He does. This historical contingency is a further limitation.

Now Mike accepts my second statement which says that evolution and the like happen not because God can't do it a better way, but because He chooses not to intervene thus allowing a rather broad range of tolerance. This is fine, but we must insist on there being reasons for His deciding not to intervene. Is it not worth His time? Does He not mind all the suffering and waste? Is there some unknown greater good which is being accomplished?

My first statement is another answer to this question. Things don't go as He ideally intends them because He doesn't have the power. Or put less offensively though amounting to the same thing, He has to respect the autonomous existence of the elements, intelligences and laws involved.

This raises questions regarding God's worthiness of worship, accusations which Mormons should be used to by now. We believe that though God is limited in many ways, He is still vastly powerful. Powerful enough to bring to pass His purposes. Not only that but He is omnibenevolent. It is because of His boundless love and vast power that we should worship Him. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/21/2005 12:06:00 PM  


We must define also what is meant by what "He ideally intends." I believe that God is omniscient (in Maxwell's sense of the word) while not omnipotent (in the "apostate" Christian sense) but that He is totally all-powerful in all things requisite to our eternal salvation.

His intent is to save as many of us as will be saved. That things don't go as He ideally intended sounds a lot like the Jehovah's Witness doctrine of Satan tempting of Adam and Eve was able to screw up God's plan for a paradasiacal existence. His plan will go exactly as He ideally intended and foresaw. I don't see any wiggle room. I believe that the suffering and waste inherant in an evolution-like creation was a necessity, because that is the only way it could have happened. I don't believe that God has back-up plans just in case things don't go right. He just does things the way they have to be done.

That may be more hard-line than other things I've posted, but I believe this stance is critical to developing sufficient faith for salvation.

Posted by Mike Wilson

4/21/2005 01:00:00 PM  

I don't think that we differ all that much here. I assume that "ideally" God would like to save as many people as possible with as little suffering or waste as possible. Ideally, it would be all and none respectively, but this is not what happens. Once our differences in the definiton of "ideal" are taken into account, I don't think our beliefs differ very much. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/21/2005 01:12:00 PM  

Matt - here is a cite to another talk on evolution, by Elder Nelson:


This was a talk given at BYU in 1987 and subsequently published in both The Ensign and The New Era
"The Magnificence of Man" Jan 1988 in the Ensign

4/24/2005 06:27:00 PM  

THanks for the Link Greg, I'll check it out. 

Posted by Matt WItten

4/30/2005 01:15:00 PM  



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