Big announcement on LDS.org: the Church is releasing a new version of the scriptures. The scriptures themselves won’t really change, but explanatory information–chapter headings, the Bible dictionary–are a bit altered. These changes are altogether welcome. For example, this introduction has been added to the official declaration in the Doctrine and Covenants, the revelation on Priesthood received by President Kimball in 1978:
During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball . .
A great clarification. A more or less straight-forward acknowledgement that the policy of priesthood exclusion had no historical or doctrinal basis.
Just browsing through the new explanatory materials on LDS.org, I went to the Bible Chronology. I was interested to see what dates might have been assigned to such events as the Creation, the Great Flood, and the Ministry of Enoch. Here’s the link. As you can see, it’s all a bit ambiguous. The first date listed is 4000 BC, and those three events are assigned to some time prior to that. The first event given a date is the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel, which comes just after the 4000 BC date.
I think it’s safe to say that for a great many members of the Church, the idea of a young Earth, a six thousand-year old Earth, is not particularly controversial. It’s certainly not something we talk about much. When, in Sunday School, we talk about something like the Creation, or Noah’s flood, it’s discussed as an historical event, as something that really happened. I taught Sunday School and I taught early morning Seminary classes, and our manuals never gave us much interpretive space. I never really questioned the historicity of those events, nor the time frame in which they’re supposed to have taken place. I just never saw a lot of point in introducing what might be seen as contentious arguments to what’s supposed to be an edifying lesson, especially over matters that have so little to do with conduct, with our obligation to live as Christians in the world.
But as a professor at BYU, although my main assignment was in Theatre, I also taught adjunct classes in the Religion department. And my Theatre students were bright kids, with interests beyond our field of study. And so students would come by my office from time to time, deeply troubled by precisely those sorts of chronological and scientific issues. There is a general scientific consensus that the world is around four and a half billion years old, and not six thousand. And there’s certainly no evidence to suggest that there was ever a universal flood. Nor evidence to support the idea that languages were spread across the earth from a single location, following a cataclysmic event. So what did I think? How did I reconcile these perceived conflicts between my religion and basic science?
A quick aside: this was not something that troubled me as a young man. Growing up in Indiana, I was fortunate enough to have two successive Stake Presidents who were also celebrated and successful scientists. One of those Stake Presidents was a man I was very close to. He was the father of my best friend (then and now), and would give firesides from time to time, in which he would bear testimony of both the gospel and the glories of science. So, a conflict between science and religion? I never really considered that there could be such a thing.
And I’m a theatre guy. My PhD is in Theatre history. I have an educated layman’s interest in science, but I certainly can’t speak on scientific subjects with any authority.
What I do know is that the very questions that even this revised Bible chronology renders marginally ambiguous are questions about which there has been, historically, debate in the Church, including among General Authorities. Take one issue: a universal Flood. Was there a Flood that covered the entire earth and drowned everyone on it except the inhabitants of this one football-stadium-sized boat? Every Sunday School class I’ve ever attended dealing with it has assumed that, yes, there was a universal flood. Our Sunday School manual doesn’t so much as allow for the possibility that there wasn’t a flood. But James E. Talmage (an apostle, and author of Jesus the Christ, one of the greatest books on the Savior by a General Authority) did not believe in it. He was a geologist, and he saw no evidence in the geological record for it. He thought someone had passed on an oral tradition of a real nasty local flood, which was eventually transmitted to later generations as a universal flood. David O. McKay did not believe in a universal flood, in large measure because of his conversations with Elder Talmage. Neither did John A. Widtsoe, a fine scientist in his own right. This is not something about which there was any particular consensus. It was, in previous eras, the subject of a robust debate.
It is true that those who argued for scriptural literalism on such questions as a flood (or the age of the earth, ect.) argued really strongly for their positions. Joseph Fielding Smith’s book Man, His Origin and Destiny is a powerful denunciation of evolution, and of scientific views on the age of the earth and the flood. President Smith’s son-in-law, the Apostle Bruce R. McConkie echoed President Smith’s views in Mormon Doctrine. Both of those books take the position that holding wrong-headed opinions on these and similar issues could lead someone to apostasy.
Science is always going to appear at a rhetorical disadvantage when compared to strong ideological advocates for contrary opinions. Take today’s debate over climate change. The position that states categorically that “there’s no such thing as man-caused global climate change” will always appear stronger than the statement “we’re fairly well convinced that the preponderance of evidence supports the theory that climate change is caused by human intervention.” Scientific conclusions are always somewhat tentative, and that can appear like weakness. Even when the position being argued for isn’t weak at all, even when the evidence is overwhelming.
So these provocatively strong statements arguing against science can seem convincing. But it’s always interested me that President Smith did not publish Man, His Origin and Destiny until the year after John A Widstoe’s death. He waited, that is, until the most prominent scientist in the Twelve, and a man who disagreed with him, was gone.
I should make it clear that I revere both President Smith and Elder McConkie. I well-remember Elder McConkie’s final testimony in 1985. It remains, for me, one of the truly transcendent talks in our history. I mean no disrespect to either of these great men.
My fear, however, is this: young people may look at a scripturally literal stance on such issues as the age of the earth or a universal flood, issues for which no scientific evidence has been found, and conclude that if that’s what Mormonism teaches, then there’s no place in Mormonism for them.
And it’s so unnecessary. There is no official LDS church position on these issues. The General Authorities today never talk about them, because I think today the consensus is that it would be unseemly and counter-productive to reprise the controversies of 70 years ago. But if the Brethren did talk about them, my guess is that they would still be divided. To take one example: Elder Henry Eyring’s father was one of the great LDS scientists of all time. His grandson’s book, Mormon Scientist, describes a remarkable man, a man of faith and a brilliant man of science. This blog post describes his disagreement with President Smith, and their mutually respectful exchange of views on these subjects. Isn’t it possible to imagine that our current President Eyring would share his father’s scientific views, or that he would conduct his own disagreements within the Twelve (assuming there were any), equally diplomatically?
So when we deal with these issues in a Sunday School class, I don’t speak up. But I do look around the class and wonder. That woman, shifting restlessly in her seat–is she as uncomfortable as I am with the tenor of the discussion? Are we genuinely tying faith and spirituality to long-ago debates over science? That good brother–I know he’s a science teacher–does he, like me, wish he felt comfortable speaking up? And of course, are there people here, in class, for whom cognitive dissonance over these issues is really proving destructive, who are wondering if there’s a place in the Church for them?