A couple of weeks ago UVU held its annual Mormon Studies Conference. The theme this year was Heaven and Earth: Mormonism and the Challenges of Science, Revelation and Faith. Here is a list of speakers and topics. I watched several of the livestreamed presentations (notes below), which may show up as online videos at some point. Several of the presenters have chapters covering some of the same material in the recently published book To Be Learned Is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman (Maxwell Institute, 2017), edited by J. Spencer Fluhman, Kathleen Flake, and Jed Woodworth. Maybe I’ll post on that book next week. For now, a few notes on selected presentations from the conference (in plain text) and my comments (in italics).
Ben Spackman – The Scientific Deformation and Reformation of Genesis: How Science Messed It Up But Also Fixes It
Ben argues that with the rise of modern science, sympathetic readers of Genesis began to ascribe scientific validity to the various assertions made in the text of Genesis. It was unthinkable to such readers that mere mortals peering through telescopes or microscopes could come up with knowledge not possessed by God and (they supposed) reflected in the text of Genesis. Concordism is the view that what is said in Genesis must agree with what is established by science. The key question is: What kind of thing (or genre) is Genesis? Only in the mid-19th century were key documents from the Ancient Near East, such as the Enuma Elish, discovered that triggered a better answer to that question. The early chapters of Genesis are cosmic creation myths resembling (with important differences) similar myths found in those more ancient documents. The concordist attempt to make early Genesis agree or be consistent with science is the wrong approach. Unfortunately, it was also the approach taken by the likes of Widtsoe, Talmage, and Roberts. Ben claims that more recently the Church has stepped back a bit from a concordist approach, citing a recent Deseret Book publication that discusses as relevant other ancient texts and a few promising hints in the Gospel Topics Essays.
This was more enlightening than I was expecting, as this is material that a lot of other authors have covered. His main point was that no one in 2018 can understand early Genesis without a thorough grounding in those Ancient Near East documents. Go read Bokovoy’s Kofford book on the Old Testament or any of several books by Peter Enns for a more detailed discussion.
Phil Barlow – Adam and Eve in the Twenty-First Century: LDS Faith and Biblical Scholarship
Barlow started his presentation by asking (channeling Tertullian) What hath Athens to do with Salt Lake City? Or more bluntly, who the hell needs higher criticism? The Mormon response to higher criticism was to largely ignore it, leaving Mormons in what Barlow termed “hermeneutical Eden.” That’s not a good place to be. He points out a couple of ideas that might help LDS have a positive engagement with higher criticism. First, the LDS view that God is a God of truth. Second, the book of Job, showing how Job’s friends were relentless but misguided in applying their view of God to judge Job and his difficult situation.
Barlow holds the Arrington Chair of Mormon Studies at USU and wrote Mormons and the Bible (OUP, 2013, updated edition). You should definitely read the book, which helps you understand the sad story of LDS biblical interpretation.
Molly Worthen – Faith Seeking Understanding: The Evangelical Experience, and Mormon Connections
Worthen was one of the keynote speakers. She is the author of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (OUP, 2016). There is a nice review of the book posted at Slate that covers the gist of the book, which parallels some of her remarks in her presentation. Read that for the details. She noted how Protestant scholasticism in the 16th and 17th century developed biblical inerrantism in response to criticism from both Catholics and humanists. Modernly, presuppositionalism is a form of inerrancy that posits a rational Christian worldview as against all other irrational worldviews (like science and secularism). But she observes that Evangelicals are good at self-sorting (they create their own ideological echo chamber) and struggle to distinguish doctrinal essentials from cultural accretions. Sound familiar?
If your library doesn’t have a copy of her book, try making a purchase suggestion to your friendly acquisitions librarian. My copy (well, my library’s copy) will arrive in a couple of weeks. I really enjoy reading critiques of Evangelical theology and doctrine. It helps a Mormon reader understand why they are so upset about Mormonism. They are upset about pretty much everything that has happened since about 1600.
Matt Bowman – Mormon Correlation and the Meanings of Religion in America
Bowman suggests Correlation as it emerged in mid-century was a response to several problems: (1) Fragmentation, with LDS auxiliaries running their own uncoordinated programs; (2) Polygamy, as stubbornly perpetuated by conservative Mormons who we now term fundamentalist Mormons; (3) Mexico, where the Third Convention schism presented a serious challenge; and (4) Nigeria, where there was no official LDS presence but thousands of Nigerians were nevertheless calling themselves Mormons and practicing it as best they could (in a not-quite-orthodox way). The achievement of Correlation (if orthodoxy is your guiding light) was to establish loyalty to the LDS hierarchy as “Mormonism” or “religion” and anything else as heresy or as not religion. Example: Elder McConkie attributed the continued practice of polygamy by Mormon fundamentalists to lust, not any religious motive. Priesthood Correlation naturally stressed Priesthood as super important and put male authority in charge. Of everything. Bowman said Priesthood Correlation is nothing less than the vision of an ideal patriarchal order.
Matt Bowman authored The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House, 2012), the most up-to-date one-volume history of the Church. Think of Correlation not as a program but as a model for church governance. It centralized decision making and budgetary control, curtailing a degree of autonomy that auxiliaries and local units once enjoyed. As an added bonus: patriarchy!
Last thoughts: These faith and science conferences are all the rage lately. I’m kind of over it. It’s not really worth the effort to try to rationalize or harmonize LDS doctrines and views with science. Easier just to accept the science unadulterated and wait for the Church to catch up. You’ll end up being right most of the time.