The implications of evolution for key LDS Doctrines: My SMPT paper part II

The relationship between Science and Theology

I begin with a controversial claim from Haught,

“For its part, theology can become reputable in an age of science only if it abandons any attempt to provide information of a scientific sort. It must allow that the Bible and other religious teaching cannot add anything to our store of scientific knowledge. However, scientists for their part must concede that evolutionary theory, or any other set of scientific ideas, cannot provide answers to religious or theological questions either.”

At first blush he may seem to be saying something along the lines of what Harvard Paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould tried clumsily to argue, i.e., that religion and science are part of separate ‘Magisteria’ in which science speaks about the facts of the world and religion provids values and the basis for ethics. Ultimately, such a separation forces each into boxes that they will not go. Haught means something more than just giving each discipline different domains of influence. He means that it must be recognized that each provide overlapping information on the complexity of the human situation, but each has strengths and weaknesses that must be recognized, acknowledged and accepted.

In his essay, ‘Must there be a bottom line?’ New York Times Opinionator January 19, 2010], Stanley Fish writes:

“if religion and science are not thought of as rival candidates for the title ‘Ultimate Arbiter,’ they can be examined, in more or less evolutionary terms, as highly developed, successful and different (though not totally different, as the history of their previous union shows) ways of coping with the situations and challenges human existence presents.”

He adds further,

“. . . while science and religion exhibit different models, offer different resources, display different limitations and enter into different relationships of support and (historically specific) antagonism, they are not, and should not be seen as, battle-to-the-death opponents in a cosmic struggle.”

This is a productive way to look at the relationship between evolutionary science and Mormon Theology. It acknowledges that each kind of knowledge is valuable and embedded in complex ways that support the project of framing our beliefs about the world. However, we cannot draw the boundary too sharply and there are some areas where competing interests seem to cause the two stories to elbow and nudge each other and in some ways jockey for position. This is probably less true in academic LDS Theology, but it is true in the way that many members of the church see the relationship between science and their faith. In fact, the language of struggle is deeply embedded in Mormon discourse and creates a problematic relationship with science on several points. The historical roots of this conflict have been well-established so I will not go into it deeply here, but to give a flavor for this type of discourse I offer the following example from then Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith (who was not speaking for the Church, which takes no official stance on evolution):

“This brings us to the discussion of what I believe to be the most pernicious doctrine ever entering the mind of man: The theory that man evolved from the lower forms of life. For its source we must go beyond the activities and research of mortal man to the author of evil, who has been an enemy of truth from the beginning before the Earth was formed.” [Smith, Joseph Fielding, Man–His Origin an Destiny, 1954 Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, p. 133

In seminary, as a young man in Moab, I was taught that there were no such things as dinosaurs and that evolution was authored by the devil through Darwin. I taught this on my mission to investigators. It was not until I came to BYU to study biology that I found, to my surprise; I had been mistaken (among a long list of other things).

It is easy now to dismiss such views as I once believed true and understand how they leaked into our church from Evangelical and Seventh-day creationist sources. Even so, there is much that remains to be sorted out before a full reconciliation between evolutionary science and LDS thought can be achieved, for remnants of such sentiments are yet widespread. I find them often in the internet blogging community on my faith/science blog, Mormon Organon, and at Even a cursory examination of places like Meridian Magazine (an LDS online Magazine) will reveal deep suspicions about science. I think the effort to correct these harmful and unnecessary attitudes is an important project.

In searching for this reconciliation, and before I go on to the pivot points, I want to suggest that one thing that needs to be paramount in this effort is that our scriptures be taken seriously. While. as Haught points out, theology must be very modest in this claims about the ontological and nomological facts about the structure of the laws that frame and support our universe, science must not, as it has been prone to do, dismiss the scriptural narratives that provide context and meaning to our religious beliefs. I like Augustine’s take on the scriptures, which he called literalism (and which bears little relationship to current Evangelical biblical literalism). Augustine’s translator and interpreter, Edmund Hill, explains it this way:

“What did Augustine understand by “The literal Meaning?” As distinguished from the figurative sense, which looks at the Old Testament in the light of the New, an exegesis of the literal sense means interpreting historical facts, not in their future dimension, but as they were. There was no question in Augustine’s mind but that on its first pages Genesis was reporting real events . . . But the act of creation is completely unique and incomparable event that does not take place within history but instead is the basis of time and history. for this reason, the act of creation and the coming into existence of the universe can be described only inadequately in human language. Augustine stressed the metaphysical and analogical character of biblical language: “The transference . . . of words from human matters to express things divine is common form with the divine scripture. In order to express what took place outside of space and time God used language adapted to the capacity of the human understanding and this necessarily meant using the categories of space and time. . . . A literal interpretation required, therefore, that the exegete not stop short at the surface, at the letter of what was said, but rather penetrate to the real intention of the biblical narrator, that is God himself. The word by which God called things into existence, the repose he took after the act of creation, the temporal sequence of his actions, the change from morning to evening–all these must not be understood in the sense suggested by direct human experience. Instead, words and concepts must be so interpreted as to reflect the mystery of God and this creative action . . . even in passages in which Augustine interpreted the scriptures in the literal sense, he also look for the realities (res) to which words (verba) pointed as signs.” [Hill, Edmund, Introduction:The Literal Meaning of Genesis , In, On Genesis: The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century; 2002, New City Press, Hyde Park, NY; p. 159-160]

So that while the scriptures are to be taken literally in the sense that they are what God wanted to say to imperfect humans, we acknowledge that our interpretation is grounded in events that do not translate into a straightforward scientific view of what God did in space and time (or I might add, contain cultural embeddings, metaphorical reinterpretations, etc.). In fact, Augustine was insistent that we give science (to use a slight anachronism) its due. He starts out by pointing out that there are facts about the world about which we can grain knowledge:

There is knowledge to be had, after all about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude and distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones and everything else of this kind. And it frequently happens that even non-Christians will have knowledge of this sort in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now it is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one’s guard against at all costs, that they should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian literature has to say on these topics, and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be toto caelo, as the saying goes wide of the mark. And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that our authors should be assumed by outsiders to have such views and to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are so concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses.

He then points out the harm that such misguided efforts do to spreading the gospel:

Whenever, you see, they catch out some members of the Christian community making mistakes on a subject which they know inside out, and defending their hollow opinions on the authority of our books, on what grounds are they going to trust those books on the resurrection of the dead and the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, when they suppose they include any number of mistakes and fallacies on matters which they themselves have been able to master either by experiment or by the surest of calculations? It is impossible to say what trouble and grief such rash, self-assured know-alls cause the more cautious and experienced brothers and sisters. Whenever they find themselves challenged and taken to task for some shaky and false theory of theirs by people who do not recognize the authority of our books, they try to defend what they have aired with the most frivolous temerity and patent falsehood by bringing forward these same sacred books to justify it. Or they even quote from memory many things said in them which they imagine will provide them with valid evidence, not understanding either what they are saying, or the matters on which they are asserting themselves (1 Tm 1:7) [Italics in Original]. [Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Hill, Edmund, Translator, In, On Genesis: The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century; 2002, New City Press, Hyde Park, NY; p. 186-187]

This passage resonates with me because as I see it in some of the Mormon discourse on science among members of the Church. I often find there is much work to do in educating people about science. There are many concerns, not the least of which is there are abundant and misguided anti-science statements, especially in regard to evolution among members of the Church. Some this concern is centered pivot points where the language of science and theology, in particular, the language of scripture seem to be talking about the same thing, albeit in potentially different ways.

To be continued . . .

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21 Responses to The implications of evolution for key LDS Doctrines: My SMPT paper part II

  1. Tod Robbins says:

    Lucid points. Thanks Steve. Sorry I missed it in person. I even attend school there!

  2. Rob Osborn says:

    So I am curios here Steve, where exactly does the creator fit into your view of creation? Specifically speaking, “what physical acts did the creator do in the creation?” Please explain, I am all too curious.

  3. Ben says:

    Thanks for this, Steve.

  4. SteveP says:

    Roy, more detail is coming, but my view’s on your question are more fully laid out in my recent Dialogue article, ‘Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution’ available here:

  5. Mrs.Andy says:

    I find the quotes from Augustine are resonating for me but I can’t help but wonder if this is the same Augustine that was the least favorite early Christian theologian of my religion professor last semester. My professor was not happy about how much Neo-Platonism Augustine infused into the Christian church and he was equally distressed at the amount of new doctrine Augustine extrapolated from the information he had available.
    Perhaps my concern about accepting Augustine’s impressions about scripture reflects a Mormon phenomenon that plays into the whole issue you’re taking on. That is, we are conditioned to build on a foundation: Book of Mormon = true, Joseph Smith= real prophet, Modern Prophet = God’s chosen mouthpiece, The Church = true! If one is true, we must accept that it is all true. But all truth isn’t uncovered that way. We have to find it in bits and pieces and then hold up those precious fragments to the light one by one. Even the most deceitful person is capable of telling the truth sometimes. What a great responsibility it becomes to have to evaluate every bit of information and not just accept or reject the whole works based on a cursory evaluation of the source.
    But, if that is how it works, I can happily disregard Augustine’s opinions about original sin and the origin of evil and just cling to his profound insights on how to understand scripture.
    Sorry I missed your talk. Thanks for posting it here!

  6. SteveP says:

    Hi Mrs. Andy!

    Thanks for weighing in. You always bring a lot of insight to the discussion. 🙂

    It’s true Augustine goes awry on Original Sin. It’s too bad your prof holds the rest of his thought in disrepute. I was introduced to his ‘Confessions’ in an Honors class as an undergraduate at BYU and the teacher loved Augustine and passed that on to me. I suspect he’s actually rarely read by critics who look only at his mistakes.

    My readings of his four ‘works’ on creation have given me some things to think about and to appreciate the ways his concerns overlap those we have today. I’m rapping-up my second biography on his life and I can’t see him as anything but a sincere seeker of truth and someone who was trying to do the best he could with the light he had. He was writing about 400 years after the close of the New Testament so lots was lost by then. But as you know, I believe in truths wherever we find them and Augustine got lots right. That’s the Augustine I like to remember.

    Thanks for bringing this up. I keep forgetting there are those who know only his ‘dark’ side.

  7. Jared* says:

    I remain a fan! Keep it coming.

  8. Rob Osborn says:

    Steve, not to be a thorn in your side or anything but i read the paper you wrote and while it is a good read explaining many philisophical opinions regarding the mixing of religion with Darwinian evolution, I thought you did a great job of actually stating that God needs to just stay out of Darwinian evolution.

    You see, i am of the belief that you don’t think Jesus or the Father did anything as far as creating the world and life upon it. You seem content with their purpose in them only allowing it to take place. As you do so you do a great diservice to the creator and his ability. All I can see you doing is allowing God to come to the big show “evolution” and give him the honor of getting his name in the credits for merely doing nothing.

    Am I wrong?

  9. The fun thing is that you can put the Augustine quotes together with things Brigham Young said that are similar on these points.

    I’d also note that we are all children of Abraham. It is quite possible that we are all children of Adam in the same way.

  10. steveP says:

    Stephen M, good point!

    Rob, you are wrong and obviously haven’t read anything I’ve written.

  11. Rob Osborn says:

    Steve, help me out here then. Sometimes I am kind of slow upstairs.

    In your paper you said-

    “Currently, we know
    that the natural law of evolution through natural selection can
    fully explain the complexity of life on Earth”

    This to me means that you are saying that life- its very complexity can fully be explained without any need for a creator- a divine being. Am I wrong? If so please explain it to me.

    You also mentioned-

    “If God, of necessity, used evolution to achieve His purposes,
    what does that say about His being able to act in the world? I need
    to add a cautionary note here. When I say God “uses” evolution, I
    recognize that, in talking about a “Creator,” it is possible that words
    like “allows” or “provides a space for” may be more appropriate.”

    Again it seems to me that you are stating that when we use the words “creator” and such in general reference to the Creators role, you are stating that it means that they “allow” it and/or provide a space for it to happen. So, what do you mean by “allow”? Do you mean it in that the Gods allow “nature” to do its thing independent of their input? Are you stating that nature, by itself, naturally creates the complexity of life in the universe?

  12. steveP says:

    “Currently, we know
    that the natural law of evolution through natural selection can
    fully explain the complexity of life on Earth”

    means the same thing I mean by:

    “Currently, we know
    that the law of gravity can
    fully explain the motions of the planets”

    By ‘allow’ I mean the same thing as I would mean here:

    “God allows the planets to follow their courses allowing the universe to proceed without his tampering with the orbits.’

    The universe has laws. Evolution by natural selection is one of them.

  13. Rob Osborn says:

    Thanks Steve for making that more clear to me. It was hard for me to know exactly what you were meaning.

    So do you believe the Gods came into existance from natural laws in the universe that were already there? Also, what are your thoughts on how long the universe has been around?

  14. steveP says:

    That’s an interesting question! There is a lot of speculation. Things like the King Follett discourse would suggest the laws were first, but I don’t think we have enough revelation to make a clear call. I’ll just join Pres. Hinckley’s view and say I’m not sure.

    The age of the universe we know to be about 13.75 (+- .2) billion years old.

  15. Rob Osborn says:

    Steve, just wondering here but how can we measure something like the age of the universe when we can’t see the end of it with our most powerful telescopes?

    Also, having an age on the universe creates a lot of paradoxes, especially in LDS theology. Like- how is matter supposed to be eternal if it is only 13.5 billion years old? And what about spirit matter?

  16. Stan says:

    “Also, what are your thoughts on how long the universe has been around?”

    My question of the day deals with the converse of Rob’s question. What about Entropy? How long will the Universe be around in a usable, or complex state? What does that mean for an eternal God and his children? Sorry, that seems a bit off topic.

    Rob, I’ll weigh in with some speculation on your question. If God created the Universe, then he must exist outside of the Universe and its time. The tantalizing ideas dealing with a multi-verse and how it relates the the King Follett discourse gives muchas fodder to the imagination. There are obviously rules and laws that exist outside of our own Universe (assuming of course that our theology/quasi doctrine is correct) and thus our God. This is implied by statements that include “or God would cease to be God”

  17. raedyohed says:

    I lately have viewed science and theology, or faith and reason as two chains in a Bayesian MCMC search algorithm. They can climb and skip across the landscape of truth independent of each other, but you can’t estimate the posterior distribution until there is convergence and stationarity.

  18. Rob Osborn says:

    I just find it interesting that we can place a date on something we cannot even comprehend with our best scientific instruments. Is this how science is supposed to work?

  19. SteveP says:

    Stan, great opening to my next section!

    Rob, you really need to read a book on modern physics and modern cosmology-I suggest Stephen Hawking’s. There is little dispute on the age of the universe. It’s pretty well understood. Not my area so I’m not going to post on it.

  20. raedyohed says:


    Since Rob and your comments #14 & 15 kinda sorta are going down the road of Gregersen’s theological responses I hope it’s OK that I reiterate a related question I posted earlier, but which probably got missed since the thread had ‘run dry’. Re: your statement regarding Evolving Theistic Naturalism (ETN), that “Mormonism does not accommodate this view very well,” 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 became God as a natural consequence of acting 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 an emergent property of the universe itself?

    While I would agree with your following statement that “seeing God as just an emergent property of the natural universe does not seem to fit,” I think it is beside the point since seeing God ‘just’ through the lens of any one of the five theological responses would be equally insufficient. Why so down on ETN? Am I missing something?

  21. Stan says:

    Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh is also very good.

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