Creation and Science for Mormons
Posted by robf on January 14, 2010
What are we to make of the creation accounts given to us in Genesis and Latter-day scripture? Do they call us to reject scientific findings about our 4.54 billion year old planet and 3.8 billion year evolutionary history of life on earth?
I was raised in a conservative LDS home and was taught that the scriptures were true and evolution was false. This appears to be a very common view in the Church (see for example the latest Pew Forum findings). Over at BCC, JohnF has argued that we need to be more open to the facts revealed by science. However nice that may sound, many Latter-day Saints just aren’t willing to give up the creation account in the scriptures.
The good news for Latter-day Saints is that we don’t have to.
Thanks to the revelations given to Joseph Smith, we can easily see how science and the scriptures both provide important and eternal truths. We can accept both the scientific facts of evolution and the eternal and saving truths found in the scriptural creation accounts.
1) Accept the divine and revealed context of the scriptural creation account. The most important thing revealed to Latter-day prophets about the creation account is that they can only be understood in their original temple context. It was shown to Joseph Smith that the creation account we have was revealed to Moses on a mountain (temple). It is a story God told Moses “concerning this heaven, and this earth” (Moses 2:1). Once we understand this, we can begin to see it for what it is—not a scientific or modern historic account of the origins of our planet or life on earth, but introductory remarks given to provide context for a ritual drama whereby we are all invited to see ourselves as participants, and to enter into the covenants of saving temple ordinances.
2) Understand the limitations of the scriptural account. As a story given to Moses and other prophets, the temple creation account was most likely delivered or at least understood by them according to the traditional knowledge of their day. For Moses and his generation, that may have included things which may seem strange to us—like there being a big ocean above the earth that is kept away from the land by a big metal bowl of sky (“the firmament”). We wouldn’t take that literally, and we don’t have to. In providing this story, God and his prophets are not giving us a science text book, but merely culturally understandable (at least when originally revealed) context for the temple drama involving Adam and Eve.
3) Recognize that the Garden of Eden/Paradise story is a temple story. The original word for garden in Hebrew indicated a growing place surrounded by a wall. The ancient Iranian word from which we get our word paradise means the same thing—and in fact originally was the word for the wall itself, not the enclosed space. As Latter-day Saints, it is revealed to us that the Adam and Eve story taking place within the enclosed garden/paradise of Eden is to be taken figuratively—or more exactly, as a revealed temple drama of which we are each invited to participate. It is more a history of each of us and our relationship to God than something written by a modern historian.
4) Focus on the temple covenants and truths, not the physical stage settings. The temple ordinances reveal our relationship to God and how we can become like Him and return to his presence. That is what is important in this drama—not the precise physical setting. The purpose of the temple drama is to bring us to God, not to give us a detailed historic and evolutionary account of the earthly stage on which our personal and collective dramas are taking place. That said, the temple and scriptural accounts of creation do provide some fascinating insights into the history of life on earth—such as a) God (or more precisely “the Gods”) organized it, b) creation involved the Gods commanding elements and eternal intelligences and watching, presumably over a long period of time, until they were obeyed (see Abraham 4:18).
5) Accept and appreciate whatever truths we can scientifically determine about the evolutionary history of life on our planet. Through the eyes of faith, we can learn to see what these truths reveal about God and our relationship to him—including God’s patience and love for all organized beings (not just people) that have lived on the planet for billions of years before humans showed up. As Hugh Nibley used to tell us in his Pearl of Great Price classes at BYU, this is a multi-purpose earth. You can get closer to God by studying some of the other purposes revealed by science in the evolutionary history of millions of species spanning billions of years. Again, when we realize that all truth may be circumscribed into one great whole, we should celebrate the complementary nature of truths revealed by science and through temples, scriptures, and inspired priesthood leaders.
6) Be humble. Believe that “no man can behold all [God’s] works” (Moses 1:5). Our understanding of scriptures and the temple blessings may be incomplete, as is our scientific understanding of the origins and history of life on our planet. We need to be careful about rejecting truth, be it from science or true heavenly messengers, because of disobedience or the traditions—especially apostate Christian traditions—of our fathers (D&C 93:29). We should take God at his word and believe that since 1839 the Lord has been “pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints” (D&C 121:33). Much of this outpouring of knowledge has come through modern science. Perhaps we should be more humble, grateful, and accepting of this knowledge, rather than figuratively stretching forth our “puny arm” to stop the flood of knowledge being poured down on us like the flowing of the Missouri river! (D&C 121:33).
I am a scientist. I was raised in a conservative LDS home to doubt the scientific findings relating to the history of life on earth. But as I have studied evolutionary theory, ecology, and genetics, I have come to accept the broad sweep of evolutionary history revealed by science. As I have dug up and pondered dinosaur bones in Montana, I have come closer a Heavenly Father that oversaw billions of years of life on earth, and not just a 6,000 year old road show pageant of human history. As I have attended the temple and read the scriptures, I have seen purpose in the physical creation, but also come to see myself as a participant in a sacred drama revealed most clearly in the temple, hinted at strongly in the Latter-day scriptures, and glimpsed only dimly through the fragments left to us in the biblical creation account.
While there are surely other ways to see the harmony between the scriptures and the findings of modern science, these six points have been helpful to me in my own journey. With the temple and modern revelation as my key, I don’t have to reject either the scriptures or modern scientific findings. I love them both. My prayer is that you will too!