Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

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.

Here’s how:

    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!

15 Responses to “Creation and Science for Mormons”

  1. Robert C. said

    Great post, Rob—I esp. like your citation of D&C 121:33.

    Any particular thoughts on various statements by Church leaders against evolution? This is the trickier issue, in my mind, though I think it’s hard to make an airtight case that any of these statements are really official or binding (at least now…).

  2. This is a very good essay on the Mormon myth of evil evolution, by Mike Ash: http://mormonfortress.com/evolution.pdf

  3. Peter said

    I read a book called “Earth in the Beginning” by the son of Cleon Skousen. Mixed in with some speculative stuff are some very interesting things. For one thing, there are quotes from various prophets and general authorities that indicate their belief in an earth that was created over a long period of time. There was also allot of analysis of the different creation accounts in Genesis, the Pearl of Great Price and the Endowment. If you read Moses and Genesis carefully, they appear to be the spiritual creation.

    After the creative periods are completed, the Lord says this:

    Moses 3:5 For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth. For I, the Lord God, had not caused it to rain upon the face of the earth. And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air.

  4. robf said

    Robert C, not sure what statements you might be thinking of. I’ve tried to carefully consider all the statements I have been able to find on this, but I have probably given greater attention to the scriptures themselves, the temple ceremony, and the impressions that have come to me as I have thought about this issue for more than 20 years.

    In weighing and studying out all of the information–scientific and revealed through the priesthood–I can find, I try to follow the spirit of Joseph Smith, when he said that “the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.”

    I think if we want to understand any seemingly contradictory statements from Church leaders or in the scriptures that we have to do the pondering that Joseph Smith recommended, to ask questions that will lead us to see the correct context for each statement, and how all truths can be comprehended into one great whole once we understand their proper context.

  5. robf said

    Peter, I know many people interpret the first creation account to be the spiritual, and the second to be the physical. That is one way to read it, but not required by the verse you mentioned. I also am not sure what it means to be created spiritually before being created physically. I don’t know that any of us has done the hard work and pondering required to really understand what “spiritual creation” means in light of the scriptural teaching that spirits are eternal (Abraham 3:18).

  6. Robert C. said

    Rob, Mike Ash’s paper that Skyler linked to nicely addresses most of the “official” statements that I had in mind. I’d seen Ash’s article, but never looked at it very closely—thanks Skyler! It is was a very informative for me and nicely debunked the strong sense of “officiality” associated with several of these statements by chruch leaders against evolution that I’ve heard….

  7. S.Faux said

    robf:

    Great post. Personally, I regard fossils as a kind of scripture in rock. I don’t think natural scientists need to apologize for the natural world as they find it. As LDS we are NOT required to believe in falsehoods.

    Incidentally, I find that Genesis and evolution match up pretty well, even if there are some minor contradictions. See my essay: Biblical Genesis Corresponds with Evolution.

  8. Jim F. said

    Robf: thanks for a brilliant post! The things you say are exactly the kinds of things we need to hear and then to think about when we think about the creation.

  9. BrianJ said

    Thanks for a great post. One way to think about what you’re saying is that the creation account in the scriptures is not actually a “creation” account at all—it’s a “this is how my covenant with you got started” account.

  10. robf said

    BrianJ, nicely put.

  11. Robert C. said

    I’m reading Walter Brueggemnn’s Introduction to the Old Testament (fantastic, by the way), and he says something similar to rob’s post and BrianJ’s comment #9. What I found striking, however, is that he argued against a creation ex nihilo reading.

    He’s ordained as a United Church of Christ minister. Perhaps I just don’t get out enough, but isn’t it unusual for other Christians to disavow creation ex nihilo? Can anyone better informed (or who has time to try and research this) give me a sense of how common it is for other Christians not to believe in creation ex nihilo?

  12. Tex said

    Thank you for this very intelligent post. It has changed the way I look at the creation story. I already believed in evolution but I had never thought of the creation as being a preface to the temple covenants.

  13. […] Creation and Science for Mormons « Feast upon the Word BlogUnder the direction of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ created the heavens and the earth (see Mosiah 3:8; Moses 2:1). From scripture revealed through the … […]

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