A peek at my paper attempting to reconcile evolution and LDS theology

Here to whet your appetite are the first few paragraphs of my Dialogue article in the Spring 43 (1) issue called “Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution.” If you want to read the rest, pick up the new issue! In this paper I try to take a stab at identifying the tensions that appear as one tries to reconcile LDS theology and Darwinian evolution and gesture toward some possible solutions to these quandaries. Also, I will speaking at the SMPT Conference on March 26 on “The Implications of Evolution and Consciousness for Key LDS Doctrines.”

From Peck (2010):

Wesley J. Wildman, a liberal evangelical Christian, contributed this issue’s sermon as part of the ongoing “From the Pulpit” series. Provocatively titled “Narnia’s Aslan, Earth’s Darwin, and Heaven’s God” (see pp. 210–17), it details some of the waste and brutality of natural selection that are inevitable accompaniments of evolution. “Surely such a loving, personal Deity would have created in another way,” he queries, “a way that involved less trial and error, fewer false starts, fewer mindless species extinctions, fewer pointless cruelties, and less reliance on predation to sort out the fit from the unfit” (214). In conclusion, he poses the far-from-rhetorical question: “What sort of God could, would, and did create the world through evolution?” (217). He shows that evolution has striking implications for theology—including LDS theology, I would add.

And in fact, what might it mean that God “used” evolution to create life’s diversity? Was this a choice for God among other alternatives? Do Wildman’s pessimistic conclusions hold for Mormonism? Does evolution imply a noninterventionist Deity? Are there more optimistic views possible, some of which may actually suggest that evolution enhances and expands our view of God? Are adjustments necessary to our key doctrines of the Creation, Fall, and Atonement to accommodate an evolutionary perspective? And why should we make this accommodation? What is lost and what is gained if our faith community fully and without compromise embraces evolution? There are deep and unavoidable theological implications for incorporating into our theology the belief that natural selection structured the way life evolved on our planet.

I would like to sketch some of these implications. By “sketch,” I mean that I intend to rough out some of the potential problems and perplexities that will need to be sorted through in embracing a fully compatible perspective between evolution through natural selection and our faith. In this conspectus, I hope to gesture to possible solutions to the perplexities that merging evolution and theology may bring to LDS thought. There are many sticking points, and I mean only to make a beginning and to seed conversation. I make no claims that the results are either complete or thorough, but I hope that making such a start will be useful.

Another potential difficulty is that some of the proposed solutions to the identified problems cannot be sorted out except through further revelation. Since we Mormons fully believe that further light and knowledge await bestowal, its current incompleteness should neither surprise nor disturb us. Ruminations such as these might serve as a catalyst for the kinds of questions that must be asked before revelation can be given. In scriptural and LDS history, questions are well known to have opened every major revelation from the First Vision to the 1978 revelation on priesthood ordination for worthy black men. Questions such as those orbiting a reconciliation of evolution and our faith are difficult and will sometimes remain without answers, yet that does not mean we should not ask them. Elie Wiesel captures this need nicely in a conversation with a friend:

“Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him, he liked to say. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies.
But we don’t understand His replies. We cannot understand them.
Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until
we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find only within yourself.”
“And why do you pray, Moishe?” I asked him.
“I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real
questions.”

For the purposes of this paper I will assume that evolution through natural selection is a true description of how life arose on this planet and that life on Earth has emerged through a completely Darwinian process; furthermore, throughout this paper, by “Darwinian,” I mean evolution through natural selection. Much has been written on the nature of the evidence supporting these claims, including the evidence found in the fossil record, comparative anatomy, geological stratigraphic analysis, DNA molecular studies, the physics of radiometric data, etc., and I will not here debate the nature of the evidence nor the conclusions drawn from inferences made from that evidence. Here, I accept them as accurate according to the current understandings in contemporary evolutionary science. The LDS tradition also has a rich history of attempts at legitimizing and reconciling evolutionary science to the faith and tracing views of evolution within Mormonism, historically and contemporaneously. This project is different in that I assume from the outset that evolution through natural selection has been established as true (and I use that word very deliberately) and that there is a legitimate, faithful response both to doctrine and to our best understanding of how life on Earth unfolds.

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23 comments to A peek at my paper attempting to reconcile evolution and LDS theology

  • If I subscribe now, will I get this issue? :)

  • Steve,

    Interesting post. I’ll look for it in Dialogue.

    The only critique I have about stuff like this is to me it is silly trying to go to so much effort to reconcile religion and evolution.

    Do we spend any time trying to reconcile the earth being round when the scriptures says it has four corners?

    I’m glad you’re carrying the “we can reconcile LDS religion and evolution” flag. But at the end of the day, religion better jive with evolution as much as it jives with the earth orbiting the sun. (Something else many religious people in the past had a hard time coming to terms with.)

    As Joseph would say, facts are stubborn things and the laws of the universe do need us to defend them.

    But, again, your article looks interesting.

  • I am very much looking forward to reading this, thanks for the heads up!

  • larryco_

    There is a story about a meeting held by the “swearing elders”, a group of LDS scholars like McMurrin and Bennion, held in the 1960′s. The meeting was discussing evolution and the LDS Church. Towards the end of the meeting a visitor, Bruce R. McConkie, stood up and addressed the group. He stated, in effect, that acceptance of evolution is contrary to the teachings of the Church. It detracts from the uniqueness of man, who is formed in God’s image. It throws out the “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” aspect of the Atonement. It goes contrary to the seven-thousand year existence of man on the earth as stated in the D&C.

    Ah…good luck with the reconciliation.

  • Stan

    Steve:

    I think this is great! You give thinking believers who see this conflict an example and hope that holding both beliefs can work.

    “But at the end of the day, religion better jive with evolution as much as it jives with the earth orbiting the sun.”

    JS:
    Precisely.

  • Excellent.

    We do our beloved religion NO favors by trying to argue that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans. The truth is that life has existed on this earth in some form for billions of years. Over that time life has dramatically changed. This is scientific fact.

    So, let’s celebrate that BYU has one of the best dinosaur collections in the world. Let’s do that collection justice by giving it the best scientific analysis our education can provide.

    Latter-day Saints should celebrate evolutionary creation. The Bible tells us there was a God that “created,” and the rocks tell us the history of of the evolution of life.

    I see no need to compromise the Darwinian story. But, the LDS may simply add a little religion to it, if they like.

    For me, the Genesis creation story is a wonderful ancient poem with wonderful religious lessons. Literalism subtracts from those lessons, in my opinion.

    Keep up the good work. I am watching from a distance.

  • Can’t wait to read the rest!

  • Congratulations, Steve. I just finished reading the entire article and right now I have just two thoughts.

    First, with respect to the words theology and speculation (both used repeatedly in your article): For me, speculation isn’t the best theology, although I recognize it works for you in this case. For me, as you already know, the best theology is the one that best fits the standard works and the words of living apostles and prophets.

    Second, I am predictably happy that you acknowledge, albeit in a very technical way, “no death before the Fall” (p.26).

    Good for you, Steve! This is your day in the spotlight.

  • Ben

    Wonderful, Steve. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole article.

  • Thanks so much everyone!

    And Gary, as much as we’ve disagreed, I can’t tell you how much it meant to me that you read my paper. That made my day.

  • [...] 12, 2010 by Jeff G David:  As of late, the bloggernacle seems to be teaming with posts concerning evolution.  What is most interesting is that none of these posts really have [...]

  • Dave C.

    SteveP,

    I applaud you for exploring the relationship between LDS theology and evolution. A discussion of the points of agreement or non-conflict, and problem areas and potential solutions is a healthy debate, don’t you think?
    An open discussion on this topic is better than just brushing off skeptics as scientific ignoramuses.

  • “An open discussion on this topic is better than just brushing off skeptics as scientific ignoramuses.”

    I don’t think we should brush off skeptics.

    My point is, it is silly to debate whether we can reconcile religion and evolution.

    If the universe has property X, no matter how sophisticated our arguments are, the universe still has property X.

    What *isn’t* silly to do is try to determine if the universe has property X. Here, skepticism is healthy to make sure we don’t come to the wrong conclusion. I can understand spending a lot of time and energy doing this.

    As for religion, if the universe has property X, religion better be consistant with it. And that is about all there is to say in my opinion.

    (What also would make sense to me is a debate on whether methods used by scientists are superior/inferior to methods used by, say someone who determined the universe doesn’t have property X from their reading of some scriptural passage.)

  • This should be the entire debate:

    1. Given: *true* LDS doctrine is consistant with all things that are true.
    2. And: the universe has property X.

    => LDS doctrine is consistnat with the universe having property X.

    End of proof. QED. Whatever.

    The only this that makes sense to debate is #1 and #2. The conclusion follows naturally, and there is nothing we can do about it.

  • Stan

    1. Given: *true* LDS doctrine is consistant with all things that are true.
    2. And: the universe has property X.

    Very true. I think the value of Steve’s paper is for those who believe 1 and 2 but don’t understand how LDS doctrine jives with the evolution property, which looks to be a true property of the Universe. I understand that we can’t currently close the gap of knowledge, but reading posts from you and Steve and S. Faux and Jared* has help narrow that gap for me.

  • Stan,

    Good point. I have underestimated the value these papers have on people’s personal lives.

    I apologize for *yet again* being out of line.

  • Sorry to take up all the comment space, but I’ll critique my own comment #14 in this way:

    Physicists always give mathematicians a hard time because they will take some problems in physics and write a proof showing a solution exists to the equations. (But that’s it.)

    It’s no more than an existence proof. They don’t know what the solution is, all they know is it exists.

    I guess I’m in the same boat as the mathematician. I’ve shown, assuming #1 and #2, such a reconciliation must existence, but have not provided the reconciliation.

    Steve P, I’ll let people like you and S. Faux to reconcile this. But for me, it’s enough to know such a reconciliation must exists, and move on.

  • Joseph, I think you are looking at this just as it should. For me the question of whether the universe has property X (evolution) is a settled scientific question and I’m not interested in debating with those who have rejected science as a way of knowing (like Dave C. above). I’m really interested in people trying to reconcile elements of science with their faith, like you Stan whose openness to new ideas is wonderfully refreshing and GaryR who has theological difficulties.

    Those who think that there is a scientific debate about evolution can go elsewhere. I have no interest in engaging with them. Just as I find no interest in defending against UFO promoters, the anti-moon landing gang and the astrology crowd. To them I say, “I have a great work and can not come down.”

  • Uh. Mmm. Did you mean theological difficulties “with evolution”?

  • Rich

    Steve, is the SMTP lecture free and/or open to the public?

  • Rich as far as I know I believe they are open. If it’s different I’ll post it here.

  • raedyohed

    Hi SteveP,

    I found and read your article today. Though it mainly dealt with the more abstract implications of evolution and chance in the universe and other boring stuff (I’m an evolutionary biologist, not a philosopher), I did enjoy the discussion of the five views of theism. I have a question regarding “evolving theistic naturalism” (ETN). I fail to see how ETN is incongruous with the LDS model of God.

    Doesn’t the LDS model open up room for the idea that God and all Gods before Him became God (all one God since there’s really no measurable difference between them…?) as a natural consequence of their having existed in accordance with certain laws? If the universe (nature, element, energy, intelligence, spirit, etc) is eternal, then its laws are as well. These laws describe the roles and interactions of elements in the universe. If God ‘became’ God at some point within that universe’s existence in accordance with its laws, then doesn’t that make God, or the existence of Gods an emergent property of the universe itself? How does that not square with ETN?

    It seems to me that the entire idea of the eternal progression of man towards godhood, and by extension, God’s own past progress to godhood, is embodied within ETN. Yet you state that “Mormonism does not accommodate this view very well.” Your assertion that a view of God as “just an emergent property” is insufficient and beside the point, since “just” any one of the five views alone does not really square with mormon theology. They are all insufficient in different ways.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood the premise of ETN. I would appreciate it if you could develop your argument a bit, since I think this area may provide some rich and interesting perspectives on Mormon views of the nature of God and evolution. Great stab at a virtually intractable, but incredibly interesting problem!

    raedyohed

  • [...] posts at The Mormon Organon makes admirably tentative forays into Integration territory, such as this post excerpting a few paragraphs from his Dialogue article titled “Crawling Out of the Primordial [...]

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