Death, the Fall, and Darwin: A More Harmonious Reading, Part 1 of 7

This is being posted semi-concurrently at BCC (Posted there about a week earlier than here).

DSCN1646‘There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!’ snarled Voldemort.
‘You are quite wrong.’ said Dumbledore . . .

—————– Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. p. 718
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One of the key challenges in defining a post-Darwinian LDS theology is that of the Fall. The Fall is considered one of the foundational pillars of Mormon doctrine (as Bruce R. McConkie has often argued). This because the Fall is what provides the backdrop for the necessity of the Atonement, another foundational LDS doctrinal pillar.

The received view of the Fall goes something like this. The Earth was created in a paradisiacal state in which Adam and Eve lived in a state of innocence. Satan temps Eve to partake of a forbidden fruit. She gets Adam to partake of the same. Sin and death enter the world. It ‘Falls’ into a new state where physical death reigns, where sin is possible, and unless a redeemer fixes the results of this event mankind must remain in this state. Christ provides the role as redeemer and through the atonement conquers both sin and death, providing the opportunity for repentance of individual sin and for a resurrection of all mankind. In this, the entire LDS plan of salvation pivots on the Atonement, which in turn is necessitated by the Fall.

A literalist reading of the Fall suggests that prior to the Fall physical death had no part in Earth life. While such literalisms are widespread within LDS membership, and in much of the unofficial rhetoric of some past church leaders, such a reading seems untenable in light of current understanding about the way that life has unfolded on Earth. Are literalist readings necessary? I don’t think so, but there has been little work in constructing a conception of the Fall that is both true to its doctrinal necessity and current understanding of how life on Earth has unfolded. There is a temptation to resist a scriptural reading informed by science, because science is by construction provisional. However, I would argue that all hermeneutical frameworks, of which science is just one, are provisional and must be renegotiated in light of information, perspectives, and facts that present themselves within the current horizon for interpretation. To not do this is lose vitality and introduce a kind of fragility that ultimately collapses the entire structure for some people.

My task today is to lay the framework for a reading of LDS scripture that is both true to the text and to the world we see unfolding through modern scientific enterprise. Why we should take any stock in the scientific worldview has been outlined in many of my previous posts and I invite you to look at those if you are uncomfortable granting science any relevance to theological interpretation. Here I take for granted that this is a worthy task to attempt to ground scripture in the physical realities that have been uncovered in the last two-hundred years and are robust enough, I argue, that to ignore them can only be called irrational.

Here is what I hope to do in outline. I will begin by exploring the use of the word death in Paul’s letter to the Romans, this will give context to the ways that the word ‘death’ can be used in the scriptures. This will set the stage for reading Book of Mormon Scriptures in 2 Nephi and Alma 12 that explicitly explore the Fall. A useful way to start is considering Badiou’s concept of an ‘event.’ I will then argue with Meillassoux that the typical view of God as absolute is incoherent. In fact I will argue here are no absolutes, including the common Plotinian readings of God as the ‘One,’ or as the ‘Uncaused Cause,’ which are inappropriate for Mormon views. Including the placeholder God in which God is envisioned as a position filled by persons who have acquired necessary attributes to instantiate what is essentially the same structure that plays the same role as the ‘One’ in Neo-Platonic conception of deity, except with holes that have to plugged in with physical persons.

Good Mormon Doctrine seems to be based more on a God that is much more contingent, much more temporal, and as I’ll argue much more emergent than the NeoPlotinic God that some keep trying to slip back into our theology. I will hear draw on Adam Miller’s important new book to show how an object oriented ontology seems more appropriate to Mormonism than classic borrowings from classic Trinitarianism. I will propose a conception of ontology that not only allows for an evolutionary history, but requires it, and which sees the Fall as the entry of the possibility for human agency into the universe and its attendant accidents and opportunities. This suggests a new understanding of Christ’s atonement as an unfolding of a kind of ecological niche construction of grace toward agential behavior.

This is pure Adam Milleresqe Goldberging. I do not offer this as a suggestion of what I believe, but as speculation on directions that might prove fruitful in Mormon Theology that more fully engages with what we’ve discovered about the world. I plan to post about every three days. Feel free to chime in as we go.

Part II: Roman Legions of Death!

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5 comments to Death, the Fall, and Darwin: A More Harmonious Reading, Part 1 of 7

  • I am very excited SteveP. I think this will be a great series. That said, I hear most Mormon intellectuals trying to explain what the “Mormon” God is. And though that’s all great and fine, at the end of the day I don’t care what the “Mormon” concept of God is, all I care about is what the actual God is. At the end of the day, saying the Book of Mormon suggests that we believe in a contingent God who weeps is just intellectual distraction is the actual God is neo-platonist.

    Now, I’m *not* trying to defend a neo-platonic God with this comment. All I am claiming is I am less interested in what “Mormon” God is than what the actual God is. Therefore, if it isn’t too much of a tangent, I would appreciate it if you could in your series argue that not only is this God a good Mormon God, but that we have every reason to believe this God is actual. Because again, to me the more interesting topic is: what God is actual and how can we know it? Not: which God is Mormon? (Though I hope it turns out they are they same.)

    But despite my one issue, I am *very* excited for this series.

  • Joseph, Thanks! I’ll be pointing in the direction you suggest, because it turns out that evolution and Mormonism put together conspire to give us an embodied, physical, God that fits very nicely LDS conceptions. We’ll see though and weigh in if you’re not satisfied at the end of this exercise.

  • Thanks SteveP. I am happy you will point in this direction. I’m sure this will be an awesome series.

  • Ken Reed

    I think of the creations story as what it is: a representation of the belief systems in Sumerian times a few thousand years BC. Earth as a saucer with a lid on it (firmament). The lid has lights in it. It has floodgates and sprinklers where rain and floodwater comes from. The Adam and Eve story was simply the ancient creation myth of Mesopotamia.

    OK, so why do we tell it now? I think the symbolism is relevant, in particular from the perspective of Mormon theology. Here goes:

    Humans evolved as evidenced by paleontology, archaeology, biochemistry, genetics, and common sense. We evolved from critters in Africa and disbursed over time. Previous migrations left Neanderthals in Europe, Homo Erectus in Asia, etc. A 2nd wave out of Africa seems apparent from DNA mapping and analysis. So, as Huntsman said, “… I believe in evolution and trust the scientists … So shoot me!” To me, with a PhD. in ecology, it is ludicrous to argue that man did not evolve. Homo Sapiens differed from Neanderthals in that they had a creative mindset. They had art, made clothing, had needles, and sculpture. That they interbred to some extent is evidenced by Neanderthal markers in our genome, but they certainly out-competed the Neanderthals and probably exterminated them. Likewise with any residual Homo Erectus groups still alive in Asia. To argue against human evolution is simply … ignorant.

    Now here is the argument for keeping the old story alive. Christ spoke in parables which have layers of meaning. Yet we’re expected by some to not ascribe layers of meaning to the creation myth. A key LDS tenant is that we do not consider the Bible to be inerrant. We also believe that those billions who have not received the law cannot sin (defined as violation of the law). So now, all we have to do is elevate the conceptual level of the parable.

    Adam and Eve in the Garden represent humanity before the law, living in a state of innocence. They cannot sin, not having the law. Eden is not a place, it is a STATE. A state of innocence. At some point, God ordains the first prophet, symbolized by Adam. The law, symbolized by the fruit, removes the innocence. “You shall not surely die, but have knowledge of good and evil … etc”. Now there can be sin on earth. But LDS doctrine claims that those billions who have never received the law cannot be held accountable for it. We do not require baptism of innocents (Down’s syndrome, etc). We do not condemn pagans to hell. Christ’s atonement covers them and they can make a choice in the next world.

    So two things: Eden is a state and the fruit is symbolic of the low. Simple. Uncomplicated, and certainly consistent with Mormon theology.

    But, since many people do not think logically, maybe some scriptural quotes will help. Personally, I don’t need them. That God exists and has modern prophets is merely common sense. I dont’ know what God does when he goes to work in the morning, but to paraphrase Givens and Givens (The God Who Weeps), a god who creates billions of humans and condemns 99.9999 percent of them to everlasting torture and suffering, is not a god worthy of worship. I reject the neo-Platonism of the Nicene creed as bilious Greek nonsense. I’ll stick with science and the LDS perspective. It simply fits the evidence better.

  • Tom Davies

    I look forward to seeing where you go with this. It is my belief that souls have been interacting with human life forms for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, nudging the evolution of these life forms to the current state of development. It makes sense to me that this interaction of souls with physical bodies is not a one-time thing, but over the course of human evolutionary development could have occurred hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Thus, through this repeated interaction between soul and physical body, there may be not only an evolution of the physical body but also of the soul, as it perfects itself. At my current level of understanding, I fail to see the relevance of the Fall and the Atonement as it relates to the evolutionary development of the soul. Hopefully you will be able to enlighten me, and perhaps others, on this.

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