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Darwinism and Balaam’s Ass

To many in the mid 19th century it would have been quite unremarkable to see the natural world as a sign and mark of the Creator’s hand. After all there was no other explanation. However, by the end of that century, the diversity of life would have an account that fully and surprisingly explained everything from the fossil record, to the geographical pattern of Earth’s organisms today, and even to the anatomical and embryological relationships between its parts. That explanation was evolution through natural selection. Religion was the traditional providence for explaining life’s processes and this new player created a tension that need resolving. Two responses to this tension between evolution and religion were present right from the beginning: that of accommodation; and the other of denial. Denial wasn’t such a bad response at the time. During the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century Darwinism was dying a slow death. There were several problems. First, Darwin’s explanation of inheritance was on shabby grounds. Theoretical work by Francis Galton (Darwin’s own cousin) showed that if things were inherited in the blending fashion that Darwin thought obtained, then the variation on which natural selection needed to work would fade to nothing and natural selection would grind to a halt. In addition, Darwin’s theory required vast amounts of time to work, Lord Kelvin had demonstrated that, based on the rate of planetary cooling, the Earth could not possibly be as old as Darwin needed. Two big blows to the theory looked to kill it.

But in a short time Mendel’s work would be rediscovered, and after a brief flirtation in which Mendel was thought to refute Darwinism, others such as R.A. Fisher turned this on its head showing that genetic inheritance worked just as Darwin needed. Advances in geology would push back the age of the earth to exactly what natural selection needed. By the thirties a landslide of quantitative theory, data from multiple disciplines, deeper understanding of genetics, pushed Darwin’s theory back into the limelight. Since the time of the modern synthesis, as Julian Huxley coined it in 1942, the landslide of scientific evidence supporting Darwin continues as molecular biology, embryology, and other areas are clarifying the Darwinian story in exciting and surprising ways. The theory is now on as solid a foundation as any science we have. Any.

However, the denial by theologians that was tenable 100 years ago, has ceased to be so. Nevertheless, Christian Fundamentalism continues as if the science was such as it was at the turn of the last Century. Christian Fundamentalism was a reaction against modernist biblical criticism, which was attempting to demythologize the scriptures, and Darwinism, which was perceived to be a move attempting to deny the role of a creator in life’s appearance on Earth. This religious response demanded a return to simplistic readings of the scripture in which statements about the age of the earth or the creation of humans was read from the surface of the text. This has morphed into the different creationisms we see today including a variety of responses: from the Young Earth Creationists who believe the Earth is on the order of 6000 years old, to those who allow for longer periods as some Evangelical Christians have advocated, to those who try and mask their relationship with creationism in order to make it more palatable to public perception such as the Intelligent Design movement. In all of these forms of creationism, however, science is held in inappropriate suspicion. And not the kinds of suspicion that are healthy and built into science itself.

Science, as a method, holds all its results in suspicion. Results and theories are held as tentative claims, but scientists express confidence as results continue to accrue, add coherence to the unfolding story, and as falsification fails. However, many of the Fundamentalist responses hold science something akin to a conspiracy to atheism. And its major findings are held in inappropriate suspicion, meaning that there is no criteria which would convince them that science’s findings were right because they hold that things like evolution are wrong in principle and therefore any findings that support it must be wrong. These kinds of suspicions spill over into anything that casts unfavorable light onto anything that threatens Fundamentalist-derived priorities (and their influence and suspicions have spread far beyond those who would self-identify as Fundamentalist Christians) as we’ve seen in the Climate Change debates (and no, Climate Change is not yet on as solid of a foundation as Evolution, but confidence is high that it is real and human caused—see BYU professor David G. Long’s recent Forum Address given to the BYU Student body–listen to it here).

Why should religion engage with science? This is a legitimate question and actually is playing out in some debates in theology. There are two common approaches to theology and depending on which one you focus on will inform the way you answer questions about evolution and religion.

One engagement with truth is to assume that your theology should, in some sense, get at the real world and be informed by way things really are. This approach assumes that questions about God and Creation are matters of fact with which we want our beliefs to line up. For example, some theologians debate whether Jesus Christ was resurrected, the answer to this is determined by whether Christ lived and was in fact resurrected. On this theological take, this is a matter of historical reality and happened regardless of anyone’s relation to it. It was a real event that any observer standing in the tomb would have seen.

The second theory of truth is on based on correspondence. The goal of this kind of truth is that all of the objects in your description of reality are consistent and work together. Some postmodernist theologies, for example, are less worried about lining up with reality, which reality they feel that we have very poor access to. So their project attempts to achieve coherence in theology, including things like not ignoring logical necessity and making sure all the pieces that go into the project don’t contradict. The advantage of this is they believe is that we can concentrate on theologies that work and development of which focuses the project on truths formed by believing communities, from the perspective taken from within those communities themselves. In other words, a theologian of this ilk might say, ‘God is without a physical body, so I don’t have to worry about what you are doing with yours, who has body, parts, and passion. I’ll work on sorting things out for my own theology in my own community.”

Now I’ve just laid out in a few sentence a very sketchy outline of theological approaches that barrels of ink have been spilled over, for which there are nuances thick and many, and for which my sketch will not please those working in the field. But the bottom line cartoon I’m offering is that one approach to theology wants to line up with an objective reality, and the other thinks this might not bear fruit and focus on creating a coherent story of God and our place in the Universe (not that they don’t believe in an objective reality, they just aren’t sure we are equipped to know much about it). There are good LDS thinkers in both these camps as a recent volume on Mormon Theology demonstrates.

Evolution slides easily into the second of these approaches. There are few arguments in most of these types of theologies about the place evolution. The scientific fact of evolution is just one of the things you have to add to your attempts at creating a coherent view of God and humans.

But most Mormons are generally of the first type. History matters. There were gold plates. I think one of the unique and wonderful things about our beliefs is the absolute and undeniable physicality of God. The resurrection is a real event that is a matter of fact that means the same thing to every observer. That the atonement has real effects in the universe. We demand that our beliefs correspond to the universe, as it is. This is what in fact what we mean by true: correspondence with the universe. Now I know some will disagree with this being a necessary LDS view, but even if you do, you have to admit that it is the majority opinion.

And this is why evolution is a hard problem for many LDS members. We have lots of things that require a kind of literalism. We view angles as real beings. We see water changed into wine—not that people in the way-back just believed or imagined that Christ changed water into wine—but there was real wine from real water. Fact.

But even so, we have also recognized non-literal readings. I still remember the stir that Pres. Kimball caused in my Moab ward when he wrote that Eve being taken from Adam’s rib was symbolic rather than literal. Holy cow, it was the talk of the ward for months. Our most sacred rites tell us that things are figurative as far as certain people are concerned. Obviously there was no snake talking in the Garden of Eden. The Earth as it turns out is not the center of the Solar System. Maybe even Balaam’s Ass didn’t speak. Did Satan and God really wager over Job?

So we are not above looking at things symbolically or moving away from literalist readings when necessary. We have to find balance as informed by revelation (Would the Adam’s-rib-as-symbolic have so entered the Church’s mainstream if President Kimball had not authorized it?), scripture, and dare I say it—science.

Next time: Responses of other religions with similar commitments to correspondence.

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16 comments to Darwinism and Balaam’s Ass

  • Are scientific truths symbolic as well as literal. We scientists certainly make use of metaphor in our explanations.

    No matter whether the truth is expressed in religious or scientific terms, we are stuck with the problem of human language which generates symbols on top of symbols.

    As such, our facts, whether scientific or religious, get changed and altered in the minds of readers or listeners.

    I am NOT saying there is no objective reality. There is. But, I am saying we should not be surprised by all the confusion that is “out there.”

    Evolution does teach a scary thought that we LDS evolutionists must come to grips with. It teaches that the human brain was not designed to perceive truth for its own sake.

    If so, then how can there be a plan of salvation and an associated judgment?

    These issues make me lay awake at night.

  • Rich

    Grapes change water into wine without even an afterthought. Spiders change bug juice into silken strands 9 times as strong as steel. Abalones rearrange calcium carbonate (chalk) into rock-hard shelters. Nature is full of miracles; are we paying attention?

    You ask why religion should engage with science. If one of the goals of religion is the acknowledgment of truth — all truth, then it has NOTHING to fear from science.

    Truth begs scrutiny. It invites inquiry. It welcomes examination. It loves debate. It encourages analysis. It laughs at controversy! It is not (nor ever has been) afraid of new discoveries.

    What, therefore, do we (as religious adherents) have to fear?

  • S. Faux, I agree. All our discourse and most of our thinking is conditioned by language and it does act as a buffer between us and world. It even masks the things we want to say when we have a clear idea we want to articulate.

    Rich, I agree. We have nothing to fear. (and thanks for bringing up spiders and other examples of nature–Full marks).

  • Jack

    I think LDS theology incorporates a larger “literal” construct of the universe than most other religions do. We believe in an upper world–and we talk of it in quasi-literal terms. We tend to believe that God dwells in a specific place and, perhaps, time. We believe that, among other things, God may be identified as a specific person. We believe the same will be true for ourselves. And along with these basic notions of a larger existence we believe that there’s a whole lot about it that we cannot comprehend at this time. And so, I think, we’re gonna be in for a few surprises–both theologically and scientifically.

    But until then, as we grow in our understanding of the natural world, we ought to keep in mind that we really have no idea to what degree we are uninformed by our lack of ability to grasp how this sphere of existence is influenced by larger spheres of existence. We need to keep an open mind in both directions–religion toward science and science toward religion (at least in the sense that each grants the other it’s own space wherein respective truth claims have some degree of protection). That said, in a perfect world perhaps Elder Oaks counsel would have more traction–and that is: Reason would have the first word and revelation that last.

  • b

    Simultaneously maintaining literal and figurative interpretations of scriptures is difficult and scary for most. Maintaining that balance you speak of is, I think, an integral part of what it means to be on the “strait and narrow path”; such balance gives that phrase new meaning.

  • struggling

    I think we have a lot to fear from science. Anybody who makes assertions which purport to come from God, and which are also open to scientific scrutiny, has much to fear from science, because it is possible that science might falsify those assertions. Science has in fact destroyed the faith of many, and has forced many others to radically alter their faith.

    Some of the religious claims made by Christianity in general and Mormonism in particular are also factual claims which, at least in principle, are falsifiable. For example, if science can demonstrate that there never was a Nephite civilisation as described in the Book of Mormon, then our very foundation is threatened. That is why there is such interest in apologetic circles to (i) develop scientific evidence which supports the Book of Mormon or refutes the contrary evidence, and (ii) reinterpret the Book of Mormon in a way which it removes it from the realm of scientific inquiry, wherever possible.

    Evolution poses the same kind of problem. The problem of evolution is not really a scientific issue. It is a theological question. Does our theology really accommodate evolution or not? There is no doubt that any accommodation of evolution requires us to jettison a number of assertions made by men whom we sustain as prophets, seers and revelators and who, when making those statements, believed themselves to affirming and revealing God’s truth. There are other doctrines which, although not directly contradicted by evolution, are indirectly challenged because they rely upon a pre-scientific interpretation of scripture and other doctrine. It is no small matter to reconstruct a coherent theology which leaves in tact certain core beliefs out of the wreckage caused by the accommodation of evolution.

    Most of the reconcilations of evolution with doctrine that I have heard include a healthy dose of “we just don’t know”. That is fair enough, but that subsitutes an incomplete and confusing theology for a coherent one. We should not be surprised by or dismissive of those who find that rather unsatisfactory.

  • @ struggling.

    “It is no small matter to reconstruct a coherent theology which leaves in tact certain core beliefs out of the wreckage caused by the accommodation of evolution.”

    But, I would add that it is an even larger matter to reconstruct a coherent science that leaves out evolution. Just look at the ID mess.

  • DB

    I disagree that science has destroyed the faith of many and forced many others to change their faith. Moroni taught that “faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” Those who have abandoned the gospel have done so not because the evidences of science proved their faith to be wrong, but because their faith was week, and when it was tried, it failed them.
    There are all kinds of people who have “lost” their faith to science. Some use science as an excuse because they are unwilling to maintain their faith. Some are afraid to maintain their faith and turn away using science as an excuse – think of Nehpi’s dream. Some, like I’ll mentioned below, seek to strengthen their faith by supplementing it with science and fail because faith cannot be strengthened by science. Others seek to foolishly try their own weak faith and regrettably fail. Still others simply want prove their superior intellect by rejecting the spiritual matters that they cannot understand and embracing the scientific knowledge that they attempt to understand.
    Faith is not based upon principals of science and is gained neither through reasoning nor through sensory perception. The gospel is based upon the word of God as revealed to man through the Holy Spirit and upon the priesthood, neither of which are subject to scientific scrutiny. Those who would seek to strengthen their faith through scientific inquiry are only fooling themselves because faith cannot be gained that way. Those who seek to prove the gospel through scientific evidence and those who seek to disprove scientific evidence through the gospel are more similar than they realize; their faith is weak and is still being tried. Unfortunately, they are fighting a loosing battle because the evidences of the spirit and the evidences of science can never prove or disprove the other. Faith is strengthened only by spiritual witnesses and scientific knowledge only by physical witnesses, never vice versa.
    I have faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have witnessed the power and miracles of the priesthood. I have received truth and knowledge from the Holy Spirit. I also have faith in science. I have witnessed the power and miracles of nature. I have seen and touched the geological and paleontological records contained within the Earth. Every day I witness evidence of the physical and the spiritual and neither is any less real than the other.
    Yes, there is a lot of “we just don’t know”. That goes for both faith and science. Prophets and scientists have never claimed otherwise. It is surprising that anyone would be unsatisfied with that. No one has all the answers and that’s ok; we really don’t need them. There is more unknown in science than there is known but what we have works for us. Our limited knowledge of science enables the technologies we have, provides modern medicine, enables the exploration of space and oceans, increases agricultural production, etc. The gospel is no different. We know very little about the pre-mortal existence, the post-mortal existence, the nature of spirits, etc., but that’s ok; we really don’t need to know. God has revealed to us what we need to know about the Plan of Salvation and has decided, according to His wisdom, to not reveal anymore until we need it and are ready to receive it. I’m not going to argue with that.

  • struggling

    L-D Sus: I agree completely. That is why I look forward to future posts on this topic.

    DB: You should not be so quick to blame the loss of faith experienced by some as a sign of spiritual or moral weakness. There are many reasons for a loss of faith, and those reasons may well sometimes include the factors you have identified. However, I have intimate knowledge of some people who do not fit so neatly into the categories you have defined. These people are just as sincere and moral as the faithful. But when confronted with demonstrated scientific facts which seemed to contradict their religion, they felt compelled to let go of the false dogma which they had been taught, and which had been a core part of their faith. This seldom happens overnight. Usually they try very hard to find a reconciliation between their faith and science. Those intellectual efforts are invariably accompanied with much prayer and soul searching. When that reconciliation does not come to their satisfaction, at least some core elements of their previous faith are lost. If you think that this represents a moral failing on their part, then you just don’t know as much as you think you know about them.

  • DB

    I apologize if my words have created any offense; that was never my intent. My intent was to make two points. The first is that spiritual matters can be neither proved nor disproved by scientific evidence and, likewise, scientific matters can be neither proved nor disproved by spiritual evidence. The second is that because scientific evidence cannot disprove spiritual matters, any loss of faith cannot be attributed to scientific evidence. Faith is gained and strengthened through the witness of the Holy Spirit, not through logic or scientific reasoning. If faith is not gained through logic or scientific reasoning, how can it be lost or weakened through logic or scientific reasoning? How can science disprove a witness of the Holy Spirit? For example, if someone believes in the Book of Mormon because of archeological evidence that the events in the Book of Mormon are true, that belief can be lost if subsequent archeological evidence disproves the original evidence. However, if someone believes in the Book of Mormon because of a witness from the Holy Spirit that it is true, that witness can never be disproved by any archeological evidence.

    When faith is lost in the presence of scientific evidence it is lost because of doubt, not because science disproved faith. When someone begins to doubt their faith, they begin to doubt the source of their faith which is the witness of the Holy Spirit. That doubt must be dealt with through spiritual inquiry alone because that is how it was gained. Any attempt to overcome that doubt through reconciliation between science and faith will fail because when the reconciliation does not come, the doubt will grow. Doubt of a scientific teaching can be reconciled through scientific inquiry, but doubt of spiritual matters cannot. This is the great warning here, when your faith begins to be weakened because of doubt, you cannot overcome that doubt through intellectual reconciliation – it just doesn’t work that way. That’s why the prophets and apostles don’t counsel us to strengthen our faith through intellectual inquiry. And no, faith is not lost because of spiritual or moral weakness; it is undermined by things like doubt until it is weakened to the point of non-existence. The sad thing is when the faithful, in an attempt to overcome their doubt, take actions that only feed and strengthen their doubt.

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