Following on the theme of scientific fundamentalism, let’s consider the Creation. Obviously, the Earth was not created either from the absence of matter or in six days. We do, however, believe that the Earth was “created” for us. So, where does that get us?
To some degree we have to treat the Creation story as a myth. Unless you are a strict fundamentalist, it seems clear that the story serves more to communicate the way God works than it provides a strictly literal account of how the Earth came to be. We have to remember that the prophets who were given the revelation of the Creation could not possibly have understood the complexities involved in plate tectonics or the movement within the solar system, for instance, let alone communicate that to their fellow believers.
Now, we don’t typically use the term ‘myth’ in the LDS Church when speaking of scriptures, even if some might argue that is the correct word in certain circumstances. The term used by the Church in these scenarios is “symbolic.” The key difference, at least in the common vernacular, is that myths are seen as misleading or uninformed, whereas symbolism is used specifically to teach. So, what is it that the story of the Creation is meant to teach? I’d like to approach this question in two ways. First, I’ll analyze how the story might be interpreted to apply to the actual formation of the world, then I will discuss the purpose behind the symbolism in the story.
Just so you know, I’ve thought about this a reasonable amount, but I will definitely be making some of this up as I go, so feel free to offer different interpretations or punch holes in my logic. 🙂
Members of the LDS Church are fortunate when it comes to the Creation, in that we have several accounts in our scripture, each of which emphasizes slightly different points. So for instance, although the Biblical account starts with, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” (Genesis 1:1) the account from the Book of Abraham uses the phrase, “And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth.” (Abraham 4:1)
Right off the bat, there are several key differences. Rather than “created,” we have “organized and formed.” We also have multiple actors in the account from Abraham. When something is organized or formed, it is accomplished with materials already existing. This is an important point for me, as we know from the principle of conservation of mass, that matter cannot be created or destroyed.
I also appreciate the multiple actors. It allows us a glimpse into what it means to have the power of God, in that it’s not necessarily about the power to cause wondrous things to happen with just your mind, but rather about providing a vision of something great and having the leadership to make it happen. What I would specifically like to de-emphasize here is the concept of multiple gods. Abraham came from a culture that believed in multiple gods with a complex hierarchy, and was merely using the language understood by those around him. A more accurate description would be, “heavenly beings.” In fact, there are places in Mormon doctrine that identify us – that is the pre-mortal spirits of the people who have inhabited this planet – as those beings who helped with the Creation. (I don’t have a source on this now, but I’ll look for it.) Despite this, it is right to still consider the Earth God’s creation. Do we not also give credit to great individuals for leading others to great accomplishments? (“He/She single-handedly turned around the company/won the war/brought peace/etc.”)
I don’t intend to belittle the power required for the Creation, as it is still, even with my proposed interpretation, far beyond anything mortal humans could hope to accomplish. However, to understand God is to know God, “and this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3) This is my search for understanding.
It’s too late, so I think I’ll post this in multiple parts… Next up the “days” of the Creation.
The term “fundamentalist” is not one used in the Mormon church. As a result of this and growing up in Utah, I never heard it applied to churches or believers until high school or college. In figuring out what it meant, I have felt that there are definitely ways in which it applies to the LDS Church, albeit with caveats.
We believe in miracles, angels, revelations, the Creation and that God the Father was the literal father of Christ. So, what is it that makes us different from other fundamentalist religions? In one word, science. We believe in all truth, whether revealed to prophets or discovered by scientists. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, generally refuses to acknowledge science unless it agrees with established belief.
So, I’ve come to think of our kind of beliefs as “enlightened fundamentalism.” Meaning that we believe in the power of God, but also believe that God is limited (as we all are) by reality — laws of physics. We do not pretend to understand HOW God does what he does, but we believe that he does it through a perfect understanding and ability to manipulate (as scientists do) an environment.
Here are some of the doctrines that enable this kind of enlightened fundamentalist view:
- “In the Church, we embrace all truth, whether it comes from the scientific laboratory or from the revealed word of the Lord. We accept all truth as being part of the gospel.” – Russell M. Nelson, Apostle
- God, angels and spirits are all composed of some form of matter. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter.” D&C 131:7
- We strongly support education. “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith.” D&C 109:7
- God can inspire us to help us learn non-religious truths. “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” Moroni 10:5
Now, the challenge is that no matter how much we learn (time machines excepted), we will never be able to go back in time and use whatever new-fangled scientific tools we might have to detect the actual processes whereby miracles were wrought. So, even if we get to the point where we can explain miracles or detect the presence of spirits scientifically, there will always be at least some amount of uncertainty that requires a leap of faith.
Therefore, for me, the purpose of science in enlightened fundamentalism is not to provide proof or repeatable results, but rather to link together enough information to be able to hypothesize a feasible process that meets our understanding of reality and religion, and that allows a glimpse of the power required to work miracles.
The simplest example is that of how God might cause a person to have a vision. We know from science that all perception is processed through electrical activity in the brain. Because spirits work in the physical world, and people are composed of a body and a spirit, it would be expected that spirits would have some way to affect the electrical signals in the brain. We also know from science that matter is mostly empty space, so there would be no reason why a second spirit could not manipulate the brain concurrently with another through direct contact, in order to “send a message.” (Hence the importance of Enmity, by the way.)
Do we know that this is how it works? Absolutely not. It is, however, a reasonable hypothesis in harmony with both science and the doctrines of the church. It also illustrates the point that science and religion can be used together in the search for truth. We need not assume (as seems to be the popular wisdom these days) that they are contradictory by nature.
When we believe miracles are impossible, its very hard to have faith. When we can imagine processes that would produce miracles, it allows our faith and our understanding to flourish.