Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Mormonism and Evolution Debate

According to a recent Pew research poll about Evolution and Religion, Mormons are among the least likely to believe in Evolution as the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth. Just like any poll, there are serious problems. How the question is asked doesn't leave much room for alternatives and the elusive nuances to the answers. The word "best" automatically contradicts core Mormon theology about human origins. It doesn't give the respondents a way to explain themselves. As a self-described "Theo-Evolutionist" I can think of other better explanations without denying the huge discoveries of the fossil record. Another problem pointed out was, "The dotted line puts the US population at 48%, yet only five groups, which make up perhaps a third of the US population, are shown below 48%. Some piece of the puzzle is missing." The "science" of poll taking has always been suspicious. Who is giving, who is responding, and how to interpret can be troubling no matter how careful the research. Mormons who are anti-Evolutionists do exist in large numbers, but that doesn't have to be and probably is shrinking.

Probably the biggest hurdle for Evolution is the position held by leadership of the LDS Church who are more likely to be negative. The LDS Church might have “no official” position on Evolution, but the more I study the issue the more ambiguous such a statement comes across. What does it mean to have “no official” position in the LDS Church? That isn’t to say I disagree with that fact, but it is a very slim non-position. It is true that there have been LDS leaders, like Pres. David O. McKay and Stephen L. Richards, who spoke positively in public. In General Conference where it does count theologically and officially, statements about Evolution have been overwhelmingly negative. That translates to members who believe what is spoken there is scripture into an official position; and rightly so for the significant value of General Conference talks. Only slight room for disagreement remains.

There is a reason anti-Evolution remains in Mormonism even if Creationism is seen as unattainable. Despite all the witnesses (evidence) to Evolution, many Mormons hold on to anti-Evolution positions because there isn’t anything to fill the void. The unsaid argument for Mormon Creationists is “if there is no position on Evolution, than what exactly are modern Prophets and Scriptures saying?” I have my own answers to that, but there has been little discussion on the theological implications. Keeping the questions of Evolution vs. The Creation on “a shelf to ask when I am dead” might be a good personal approach, but it will fail to convince other LDS members. And that means more than dismissing McConkie, Smith, Benson, et el. as wrong. It means the very difficult, but I believe possible, work of explaining how they are correct in their own message (such as explaining what they are really going against is the atheist use of the theory). Then, moving past that, explaining how Evolution fits into Mormon theology and Scriptures.

Religious Evolutionists must confront theological concerns to make any lasting headway. To simply say that science and religion ask and answer two different questions is the real “God in the gaps.” Exactly what questions do they ask and what kind of answers are to be found? Scientists should understand there has to be interpretive frameworks to make sense of desperate evidence. The “don’t take it literally” is still NOT an answer or even a discussion. There has to be interpretive discussion of even non-literal meanings. You don’t read a book if you can’t understand the words.

I have my own tentative theory of the relationship between Evolution and the Garden of Eden, the sticking point. Many questions remain such as the idea of pre-Adam-ites and no death before the fall. Still, it is better than leaving it alone or dismissing one or the other. Even Elder McConkie didn’t believe in the Young Earth theory. That is a starting point.

I believe Mormonism is a "literalist" religion. After all, there were angels, miracles, gold plates and visions that are at the center of its founding. Joseph Smith did more than talk about Biblical events, but proclaimed that he conversed with many of the participants - including Adam. There just isn’t room enough in Mormon doctrine (if you take its divine founding and founder seriously) to make the scriptural stories just metaphor or symbolic. Yet, there is plenty of room for a re-interpretation of the scriptural stories. Because Mormons believe in the Scriptures as spiritually inspired, but human produced, the written word isn’t set in perfection. Just as Mormon acted as editor and Joseph Smith made editorial changes to the Book of Mormon, other writers wrote from their prospective. That means that the Scriptures are malleable to both new revelations and new understandings. I think the idea that we have to believe all the stories as written or none of them is spiritually harmful. The Scriptures, like history, are multi-faceted and full of missing pieces or even hyperbole.

Joseph Smith said that by two contraries we come to the truth. When it comes to Evolution and the Creation that has been my guiding principle. Puzzles can be fun. Puzzles can be frustrating. Some can fall apart, but that doesn't mean we should not try to put them together and see if we can see a bigger picture.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Mormon Nature of Symbols

Recently over at "Mormon Matters" there has been some discussion about Mormon usage of symbols, particularly about Jesus Christ. Most recently it has been about images of Christ and the lack of realism. This seems to tie into an earlier discussion about the lack of cross use by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have discussed the cross topic before and would like to add some thoughts on symbols in general.

From my other entry I said:

I believe, from my research, that the absents of a Cross is an "accident" of history. Not that I don't think there were deliberate reasons - as the LDS Church has been using other symbols since almost the start. The Angel Moroni seemed to have replaced the Cross as a symbol because it represented many of the key teachings of the Church. It carries the Book of Mormon in one hand and a trumpet in another. This represents Restoration of the Gospel, calling of the Elect, Resurrection and Judgment, and etc. The Cross did not get added to the plethora of other symbols available for iconography.

To continue, what is missing is a discussion on the nature of “symbols” in Mormonism. When a symbol is used, what symbol and what kind? Mormons might not use the cross out of historical accidents and might make excuses to keep from starting, but why? I think it has to do with the sacred nature of symbol in Mormonism that is seen in few religions.

How has the Mormon use of symbols started? More often then not any significant symbol is associated with the Temple. There are only two “official” symbols used by the Church that are not tied to the Temple in a direct way and that is the Sacrament and the CTR ring. The Sacrament has a very specific purpose used at a very specific time. It is an extension of our baptismal oaths and covenants. One could argue that makes it partly Temple related. As for the CTR ring, it really started more as a primary gimmick that seems to have slipped from official usage and became consumerist. Paintings commissioned or displayed by the Church are actually rather generic and serving the purpose mostly of garnishing. There are still very few chapels that have any art (symbols) of any kind displayed - not even in the way of Islamic geometric patterns.

The reason Mormonism has not “taken up the cross” is because it already has a symbol that the cross fills in for; and that would be the Temple. Pictures of the Temple in homes are often placed where other religions would put their own symbols. When a prophet says that the symbol of Christ should be our own lives rather than a cross, that means something more than a cute expression of examples to others. That is precisely what the Temple is commanding us to do as members. Not saying that is what the prophets mean by that, but who knows? I have come to the conclusion that crosses are not bad (I prefer and keep, but don’t actually wear, an Ankh), but they are superfluous for Mormon tradition. I might even go so far as to say that Mormons who have gone to the Temple should put it aside. There might be several reasons a Mormon wants to wear a cross, but the only ones I feel that have a legitimate reason are converts and out of friendly gestures.

What I am about to say will have to suffice so that I don't step over sacred boundaries. When a person goes to the Temple they take on themselves more than the name of Christ, but make promises that they will become symbolically Christ in their lives. The life, death, and resurrection narratives are now part of our own narratives. Ultimately, Mormon usage of symbols is more than for memorial, but for transformation. Nothing in Mormonism is more important in that transformation than Temples where salvation is solidified by symbolic actions. The one piece of physical symbol taken out is not even to be shown. It is for this reason that I feel the cross and any other "Christ symbol" will remain outside of Mormon religious culture. There is no official need. If it was ever to be included it would be for political purposes.