What I’m Doing Here, and What I Hope Others Will Do

I am not an “evolution apologist.” Although I suspect I have more scientific training than your average historian, I’m not a scientist. And more likely than not, neither is my average reader. For that reason, and because I don’t follow the specialized and technical literature, I don’t engage in scientific debate about evolution. Rather, in keeping with my own training and expertise, my approach is historical, scriptural, and theological.  And historically, I understand how and why evolution has come to be the dominant way to make sense of mountains of data across multiple fields, and why 98% of scientists accept evolution as the best explanation of all that data.

One of my goals here is simply that of the historian, i.e. making sense of the past: what happened and why, who knew what and when, and why people thought a certain way, especially when that mode of thinking is offensive, opaque, or puzzling to us today who do not share it. And then I use the past to explain the present.

But another of my goals is quite pastoral and theological. That is, I think the broad and specific issues raised by evolution — if true, why have prophets/scripture not known that truth, or even opposed it?— are central to loss of faith by many people, and I want to mitigate that. This essay is one of the best I’ve done on prophets, and an updated version is likely to appear in our special BYU Studies issue.

Change happens, even unpredictable change, and being a historian helps make sense of that. Craig Harline’s article is a great one on that; no surprise that he is a historian.

But change can be very jarring, even traumatic; think of the confusion and cultural inertia around the end of the Law of Moses in the New Testament (used as an example here), or D&C 76, or both the initiation and termination of LDS polygamy. Change that happens too fast, without seeming justification, can lead to serious problems, because it is perceived as too sharp a break with the past. I recall some time in a graduate history class looking at the Community of Christ (former RLDS Church), and this was one of the lenses. Change that happened too fast seemed like an unjustified break from the past, and resulted in some turmoil.

I think often about a passage about change from the Introduction to a book I recommended a few years agoEvolution and the Fall. I regret abridging here, but the full quote is extremely long. My italics.

A tradition will sometimes have to confront its own limitations, such as its own failure to articulate a coherent response to new scientific evidence and theories. The tradition “lives on” just insofar as the community of practice reappropriates the tradition creatively but also faithfully, and those two dynamics are not mutually exclusive….

Although a tradition must always be ready humbly to learn from those outside the tradition, it is the tradition that yields its own internal criteria for what counts as a “faithful” extension of the tradition. In other words, what “counts” as a reason or warrant or evidence or a “good move” in this game is tethered to the heritage of the tradition. This doesn’t mean there is no room for innovation or creative extension, but it does mean that in order for a “move” to count as an extension it will have to be judged as faithful to the tradition…. From the point of view of a tradition like the Christian tradition, “reasons” and “advances” are understood differently because there is a weight granted to the tradition as tradition; there is a requirement that any advance be seen as an extension, not a supersession, of the tradition. There are no prizes for novelty in a tradition….

Extension, revision, expansion, and development are intrinsic to a tradition qua tradition. We should expect some “modifications” across the heritage of a tradition and should not be surprised if some doctrines are “reformulated.”…. On the other hand, this account helps us to see that any modifications, revisions, and reformulations will (a) need to provide an account of how they are faithful extensions of the tradition and (b) have to concede that the discernment of what counts as faithful extension is determined by the community of practice, and not just the realm of “expertise.” So we will indeed have to determine whether reformulations violate the “core” or “essential” markers of the tradition; and we will have to concede that the determination of this is entrusted to the people of God, which is wider than the realm of academics, scholars, and scientists (though scholars and scientists who are part of this community of practice also get to participate in this discernment process).

The author there is writing within the Protestant tradition, where one of the mottos is semper reformanda, “always reforming.” The actors in tension within Protestantism are scripture, tradition, reason, experience, expertise; LDS add to that list a prophetic hierarchy, which complicates the tradition with assumptions that past statements, policies, etc. were inspired. LDS often take revelation as revealing static and eternal ideals, timeless truths. So how can there be change? Doesn’t that suggest the past wasn’t inspired? Of course, we ALSO have the central idea of progressive revelation, line upon line, and living prophets, but we sometimes lose sight of that when engaging in polemical rhetoric about how other religions change, but we don’t. Our rhetorical lack of change somehow proves our correctness and their falseness, in that myopic line of thinking.

Regardless, that long paragraph in Evolution and the Fall has helped me find expression for one of my purposes in writing here. I am trying to demonstrate how acceptance of evolution, whether personally or institutionally, constitutes a “good move,” a “faithful extension of the tradition,” that it does not entail a “violation of core or essential markers of the tradition.” I am trying to provide an intellectual mechanism to bridge the apparent gap between what people perceive as required and orthodox (between scripture and teachings of Church leaders), and our best current understandings of demonstrable reality (i.e. evolution is a reality, death has existed for billions of years, etc.)

I do this in terms of both scriptural and historical analysis, that acceptance of evolution in no way entails rejection of scripture, revelation, prophets, Jesus, atonement, resurrection, etc. This does not mean there are no residual questions, of course. But that’s what books are for, and the community of experts, researchers, thinkers, and consumers who provide feedback of various kinds.

I take great satisfaction from feedback, which both makes me aware of holes and lack of clarity in my thinking, but also indicates some degree of success. These are people who were struggling with prophets and scripture in some way, and came across my material. I keep a file of these as motivation.

#1

Wow! What a great article! My own faith has recently been shaken by these questions and this article has really helped me. I’ve still got more to ponder and pray about, but this article has really helped!

#2

I was basically a [young-earth creationist] until finding your work. I grew up on a heavy dose of JFS/BRM and while I understood that there were scientific problems with YEC, I figured at some point we’d get more info that showed the scriptures were “correct” while also validating science generally. I was basically the person you described in your post about how science is basically powerless against YEC. It wasn’t until you (and others but mostly you) pointed out that I was bringing a lot of assumptions to scripture and interpreting it that I realized there were other (better options).

#3

I discovered your blog a few months ago and you’ve completely shaped my understanding of Scripture, revelation, etc., and my faith is the strongest it has ever been.

I don’t post those to boast, but to put forth a call. To the extent that I am successful, Latter-day Saints need more people like me (I can sometimes feel quite alone in my work) and like you, dear reader. We need more readers of good books, not merely warm fluff or fatally flawed and even harmful “scriptural analysis” like The Kolob Theorem (see here for why this is generally a problem and here for background/review by a scientist) or “history” like Timothy Ballard writes (see historian comments here and here), even if it’s put out by Deseret Book; indeed, “Deseret Book is to blame,” as they seem content to put out garbage as long as it makes lots of money.

We need LDS consumers to demand a higher quality from Deseret Book and to read broadly outside the tradition. We need more scholars and thinkers and writers to look at LDS understandings of the nature of revelation, prophets, scripture, and interpretation. And as regards this topic, we need more people reading the historical, theological, and scriptural literature around evolution and creation.

We need, in other words, people who are willing to commit both their hearts and their minds to building Zion.


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11 thoughts on “What I’m Doing Here, and What I Hope Others Will Do

  1. Thanks Ben for all you do! I always look forward to the every email or facebook post notifying me that you have a new blog post up. I am like those you quoted above. Your work has been monumental in helping address my own incorrect assumptions and worldviews about scripture, but specifically evolution and creation. It has also ignited a renewed desire to study the Old Testament and share what I have learned. I want to help others understand these issues and others so that their faith will not be shaken. Thank you for all you do and the resources you share. I now have a mountain of books to go through and that is exciting!

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    1. And sorry if I ever email or comment on your stuff too much! I just love your work and it really has helped me a ton. I typically don’t unless I really feel the need to since I am pretty introverted. Thanks again Ben!

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  2. I wrote a comment on another blog that it saddens me that, when offered additional light and knowledge, so many retreat into comfortable shadow and ignorance. A line from a favorite poem states it better:

    “For thus such reverence is lent,
    To well-established precedent.”

    (The Calf-Path, Sam Walter Foss)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “98% of scientists accept evolution as the best explanation of all that data.”

    Personally, when you incorporate quantum physics as part of “all that data”, the Simulation Theory explains much more, despite how unsettling it is. Just sayin’…

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  4. Ben, please add me to the chorus of voices who are grateful for your work. I first heard you speak at a FAIR conference, and it was thrilling to finally discover a thinker and writer who could help me navigate the divide between what seemed like painfully incompatible truths. Your teachings about “literal” (not literal) scriptural interpretation and “accommodation” have brought me tremendous relief. I now feel more empowered in my approach to scripture and in my relationship to both correlated church curriculum and scientific inquiry. I regularly benefit from the cornucopia of blog posts and recommended sources that you generously provide. Please keep up the great work. It matters deeply to some of us, and I hope it will eventually spread far and wide!

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  5. My brother referred me to your blog, and this is the first post I have read. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading more.

    The most recent issue of National Geographic summarizes the genomic analysis of viruses, and points to serious scientific evidence that viruses and humans coevolved, even that viruses contributed (and continue to contribute) to the success of humans. The human genome includes numerous snippets of virus DNA, snippets that can given rise to critical biological functions in humans, such as, membrane construction and the development and adhesion of a placental organ which makes pregnancy and live birth possible. A bold hypothesis: no virus, no us.

    I don’t find evolution and religion to conflict at all. To me it is both serious and amusing to think of the Creator masterfully manipulating multitudinous CRSPR molecular mechanisms to point DNA in particular evolutionary directions, including our own. Why not? It makes perfect sense to me.

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  6. Thanks, Ben. I suppose in reality the conflict we often see is not between science and religion, but between science and biblical inerrancy, which sometimes afflicts Latter-day Saints, although it shouldn’t. We need to recognize that even the Book of Mormon and D&C and PoGP are not inerrant either.

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  7. I don’t think it would be real hard to make the transition to official church recognition of organic evolution. We already teach that the entire temple endowment ceremony is symbolic, which implies that the Genesis creation story is likewise symbolic. I think we can teach a middle ground position where we claim Adam as a “the first prophet”, while letting go of the “first human” claim. We can also drop the worldwide flood story, and go with a localized great flood or purely symbolic stake there as well. Looking at BoM references to Genesis, we can interpret those as how those ancient people understood the writings, and that God has revealed a greater understanding in these latter days. Heck, that’s already the official stance on why the three kingdoms is completely missing from the BoM. Again, we are already more than half way there. We just need to officially let go of the incorrect traditions of our fathers.

    BTW, Ben. Nauvoo is missing it’s Monk.

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    1. “Nauvoo is missing it’s Monk.” Alas, I can’t be everywhere. I try to speak and write where I can maximize my impact for good.

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  8. Along the lines of what you mention about Deseret Book, it reminded me of a conversation an older friend of mine (who worked as a farmer in northern Utah) had with Gordon B. Hinckley back in the early 1980s. At one point, after my friend had brought up a lot of questions he had from reading and studying literature about the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley (who was suffering from jet lag and was being a bit curt) told him something along the lines of: “I don’t derive my testimony from those sources. I prefer to get my inspiration from the purer sources of truth—the scriptures.” President Hinckley then got up, walked over to the window, and pointed to Deseret Book across the street, and said: “That store is full of books that are absolute sawdust. Absolute sawdust. Maybe you can use them to bed your cows.”

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