In speaking at the April 2015 General Conference about the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland boldly stated that “the simple truth is that we cannot fully comprehend the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ and we will not adequately appreciate the unique purpose of His birth or His death–in other words, there is no way to truly celebrate Christmas or Easter–without understanding that there was an actual Adam and Eve who fell from an actual Eden, with all the consequences that fall carried with it” (“Where Justice, Love, and Mercy Meet”; lds.org; italics in original). In making such a strong claim about the importance of a literal understanding of the Garden story, he caught many Latter-day Saints off guard. Does genuine, transformative faith in and appreciation for the Atonement, Resurrection, and the many other gifts that we can experience through the gospel of Jesus Christ require literal understandings of the Fall exactly as described in scripture? Can one still attain and sustain transcendent faith if one understands these as powerful, even if not literal, stories?
In this episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon along with three good friends–David Bokovoy, Stephen Carter, and Bill Turnbull–discuss their reactions to the direction taken in Elder Holland’s remarks, as well as their own journeys with the issue of whether or not scriptural accounts should be seen primarily through literal vs. figurative lenses? How would one know which is appropriate, and in which instances? What is gained and what is lost when we view scripture literally? Can we find ways to value both ways of reading and exploring scriptural texts? And what about when we teach scriptural stories in LDS devotional settings? Is it possible that within these contexts our teaching scriptural characters and stories as real people and literal events can be very helpful in eliciting potentially transformative spiritual experiences, and we can therefore feel un-conflicted about doing so, whereas when speaking in more academic settings it would be more appropriate, yet still not being unfair to the accounts, to teach more metaphorical and figurative readings?
These are just a few of many questions and issues the panelists address in this podcast. Please listen and then share your reactions and ideas in the comments section below!
Having gone from a highly literal to only modestly literal point of veiw during my life, I have observed that the more literal believers are the more gung-ho. I am grateful for those literal believers because their zeal and active devotion provides a powerful, driving energy for the church and I think the church (and all churches) would be a Unitarian pile of goo without them.
On the other hand, I don’t see the highly literal perspective as sustainable in an educated and well informed society. The dichotomy is that literal interpretations are easier for the poorly informed, while those with the privilege of deeply study, are inevitably less literal.
My only personal elixir is devotion to service. I can be zealous about serving the sick, poor, and widowed, even if I don’t fully embrace the historicity of talking donkey’s, divinely-approved genocide, and Jews crossing the Atlantic in dish-shaped boats.
“My only personal elixir is devotion to service.”
I agree. I care little for any belief that doesn’t stress improvement through service to others. So Kolob might have 9 moons. Who cares? Adam and Eve were actually mythical constructs? Who cares? I think the phrase “first world problem” might be used here somewhat. It’s quite the luxury that we have the time to sit around and bandy thoughts back and forth. I don’t knock that. But where the rubber meets the road is most important, IMO.
🙂 That made me smile, Mike. Is “Unitarian pile of goo” your own wordsmithing here, or is that common parlance in some circles? Liked your post – the humour and the rest of the content too. 🙂
Mike Maxwell – ‘well informed society’? Well, in the Church, they have the scriptures, but when they get to the verses, they don’t know what they’re talking about. What verses?
2Nephi 2: 22-25
22 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
In 22 – Why did God, the Father, need an act of transgression to commence a plan of salvation wherewith we would learn the importance of obedience to His commandments?
23 – Why the conflicting commandments? They were commanded to have children by eating a fruit they were commanded not to eat.
24 – What is the wisdom of God?
25 – Yes, Adam fell that men might be – that’s obvious. But should he have? It was against the Fathers’ commandment.
Moses 5:10-11 10 And in that day Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.
11 And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.
10 – So that’s it. You get your eyes opened by transgressing the commandments of God?
11 – Here we go again – through transgression we gain access to eternal life which God gives to the obedient. Things just aren’t going well.
The only reason people prefer to go figurative is that they can’t figure out the answers to these questions? Even among the literals, they cower away from them.
If you find the answers to them, you will have a much better comprehension of the gospel. At least, that’s what happened in my case.
” I don’t fully embrace the historicity of talking donkey’s, divinely-approved genocide, and Jews crossing the Atlantic in dish-shaped boats.”
If God wants me to understand something and he has to get a donkey to help me with getting that understanding, well, I guess I would know that neither the donkey nor God are the stupid ones and about the ‘divinely-approved genocide’, why don’t you talk to God about why He would do that, and when it deals with dish-shaped boats and the Person who created the world (or do you have problems with that, too?), what’s so unbelievable about that?
I think you’re making problems for yourself.
By the way- keep up the devotion to service.
I’m confused by Bill Turnbull’s notion that a young man should be discouraged from reading Rough Stone Rolling so that he may fully enjoy a stage of naive faith … This milk before meat attitude is not appropriate for a 19-year-old; when this young man comes to discover the more difficult points in early Church history, he will quite credibly be able to charge his elders with deceiving him — then he’ll dive into the ex-Mormon message boards.
Hear hear, Adrian. I couldn’t agree with you more. From personal experience as a missionary of just that sort (not knowing much of the historical “tidbits” outside of mainstream church correlation before serving) I can say that is almost exactly what happens.
My view is that a 18/19yo is plenty old enough to make up his/her mind on these issues. If they aren’t then are they truly ready to be a missionary and teach others? If the young man struggles with what he learns in the book then give it time. No one has to leave at age 18. Better to let the young man approach the two years with truth than with error.
Good comment. And anyone who is up at 5:30 am writing comments (or doing anything else for that matter) deserves a response!
In my experience it is a rare 18-year-old Mormon who is capable of the nuanced thinking required to process everything in Bushman’s book. That probably says something about the education they have received–both secular and church education. We have to do better on that front.
But mostly I think it’s a natural developmental issue. I think Fowler got it right in his stages of faith development. A gradual transition to less literal constructs naturally occurs a little later–usually beginning in the early to mid-20’s. That’s pretty much my own personal experience. Most eventually survive the “dive into the ex-Mormon message boards” with their faith intact and their understanding deepened IF they have developed a vibrant spiritual life–the kind of spiritual life that commonly develops while serving a mission. At least, that’s what I have observed.
i understand where you’re coming from, bill, and i would agree—most 18yos raised in the church won’t have that ability to critically process bushman’s book having gone through years of seminary and sunday school being told how to interpret scripture and what to think. conference talks like holland’s is a great example. “the simple truth is that we cannot fully comprehend the Atonement and Resurrection”? what a slap to one’s intelligence to think that we can’t find our own meaning for those stories. oh yeah that rights, we’re to feel for our answers. in other words, answers that are given to us from the top. if anything, reading bushman’s book for an 18yo will only make him(her) drop everything and run. not even most adults are capable of the nuanced thinking, that’s because it’s not even nuanced thinking, it’s disinformation and spin. i was very disappointed with his book. i would suggest 18yos read grant palmer’s book, an insider’s view of mormon origins.
I’m very disappointed in your opinion of Rough Stone Rolling.
Thanks for the response. I do have some insomnia issues. 🙂
As the sister of Bill and the Mother to said missionary, I will report that my son had the book RSR in his possession up to the time he entered the MTC (even in the car on the way there) and he chose not to read it. My other children have always questioned the literal stories and so we have had these conversations. I grew up believing the stories literally myself (even when my brother Bill challenged me in my literal belief in the Noah’s Ark story). I think I felt rather a fool when, as an adult, I realized the truth. I have also heard many stories from returned missionaries who are so angry at the Church and parents for allowing them to teach falsehoods. This is what I wanted to prevent – and I felt that it was my job, as a mother, to prepare my missionary son for what he might confront in the field. With the release of the church essays, there will be even more questions and confrontations for our missionaries and I don’t think that it is fair to send them out so unprepared and naive. That said, I also agree that there is something wonderful about the ability to believe literally and I miss it myself. I loved this discussion and thought all panelists did a great job.
Here’s an ex-Mormon father’s recent experience with Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) and a believing teenage daughter.
RSR was the only “problematic” Mormon history book I left out in the open at home while reading. This was just a bit strategic, since I guessed my daughter, then home from BYU for the summer, would likely see it and express interest. She did, and started reading it that July.
I never commented or asked her questions about it, though I admit to the temptation. The thought of doing so just made me feel like even more of a manipulative prick than I was already feeling.
When my daughter returned to BYU she left RSR in her room with a bookmark less than 1/3 the way through. I don’t know what she thought about that 1/3, or what she thought she was avoiding or dismissing in the rest. I was only mildly disappointed, and that passed quickly. Shortly thereafter she got caught up in the excitement of the lower age requirement for women missionaries and was off to South America to preach the Gospel on her father’s dime, buoyed by loads of emotional affirmation from the rest of the family, immediate and extended. I continued to quietly refrain from prickishness.
Why did I respond in this way? Perhaps because I remember not seeking my non-member parents input or permission when I was driven by the need to gamble my faith on Mormonism as a 19-year old. What were they thinking? What fears or concerns were they holding back out of love and respect. Were they too intuiting how fragile and vulnerable a person wrapped in religious conviction can be? Were they afraid of damaging their relationship with me to no good effect?
I doubt they could have said anything to change my mind – they didn’t even have a Rough Stone Rolling to lay out on an end table. And what would I have done with it if they did? Likely I would have read less than 1/3 before going ahead with baptism, which at that point had become the easiest thing to do.
Years later I was still able to do a harder thing, which was to resign from the LDS Church. And I’m thankful my wife and kids handled that with the similar generous (and tacit) acceptance. That is, without being pricks about it. I think we’ve all discovered that we are more important to each other than the Church is to any of us, individually or as a family. None of us need to be playing advocates for or against the church. There are plenty of others around to do that when we are ready.
It might be worth noting that while Bushman is a good writer and a fine historian, RSR is not exactly a breeze to get through – even for a college-level reader. Whatever it’s flaws, Brodie’s NMKMH is a very lively book.
She’s a reader – e.g. Melville, Jane Austin, etc. – so that wasn’t the issue. But I agree with you about Brodie. On the other hand, baiting her with NMKMH would have felt a bit too prickish.
Talk to God and ask Him what He thought of Joseph Smith. Would you have dismissed John, the Baptist, as some kind of wild desert freak? Did God talk to Joseph Smith or not? Never mind the screw ups? All that stuff is none of your business. Did God call him to do a work? Did He give him the keys of the priesthood?
Stop this associating God with things you call ‘unhealthy’. There’s nothing unhealthy about God. The only thing that’s unhealthy is how you view God. Talk to Him! Get to know Him.
At times, when I’ve heard you talk, my estimation of you is that you are a converted person and God has brought about that conversion. I believe God has put you where you are for a reason. If you get the idea that part of that reason is to please audiences then try to dismiss it. God did appear to Joseph Smith and he did do the work he was supposed to have done. Nothing else matters.
I’m completely on board with Bill’s take (as probably became clear in the podcast itself). For most Latter-day Saints, I think it’s rare to really learn how the Spirit really works with us before a mission. Mission service fueled by faith that God is a real (even dramatic) actor in our lives and those of others is what led me, more than anything else, to the surety of my own spiritual nature, that there were energies and vistas available to me when approaching through something other than purely my senses and mind. With that grounding, I was then able to carefully and patiently find a way through the fog of disappointment as clean narratives about LDS (and biblical and pretty much any) history fell one by one. I worry that without this grounding in Spirit, I wouldn’t have made it through. I’d have continued to worship my own mind and mental constructs about life and God and how things “should” be (always wanting them to be easy and clear) and lived out of a much less rich frame of reference. For these reasons, to push too much complexity too early is a disservice to our children and teens.
Fine points all around but I think there are two things going on here that explain why Mormons will never adopt the ‘inoculation’ approach: 1) The unspoiled missionary experience is so culturally treasured that it is deemed to be worth it to forgo inoculation, even if this means setting the stage for a mid-twenties spiritual crisis later on; 2) The missionaries are burdened with functioning as repositories of an earnest, innocent faith for the benefit of grownups who are themselves full of doubts but can experience the old time religion vicariously through a fresh-faced 19 year old. I just don’t think this is very fair to the missionaries — it’s certainly not fair to investigators the missionaries are seeking to baptize.
Good stuff, Adrian!
Inoculation is wonderful because of its gentle introduction of complexity, whereas I see reading RSR without at least a pretty good dose of expansive framing ahead of time as unnecessarily destructive to the person who’d encounter it. On the larger stage, you may be right that the church will never fully embrace inoculation (though I’m not persuaded; my thinking is that many church leaders are only barely going through it themselves). If you think that I’m arguing against inoculation (by my agreeing that not requiring RSR before a missionary goes out), that’s not correct. I’m only against going from zero to sixty all at once.
On your second point, I tend to see the vast majority of investigators as seeking “something more” or some kind of change in their life, a sort of “stepping up” in the realm of their spiritual lives. So, in many ways, the cognitive content of the teachings is not nearly as important to them (nor should it be) as is encounters with earnestness and people living lives committed to engagement with Spirit, being kind and compassionate, service-oriented, etc. Complexity and moving into more nuanced beliefs (rightly) come later for both missionary and investigator. And i guess I don’t see the need to transition to more complex views as “not fair” so much as I see it as normal and healthy development (but aided now by having had experience with Spirit).
I loved this panel over all, and I’d almost been convinced by Bill and Dan’s arguments re: waiting until a more age-appropriate age for reading RSR. But I worry that their proposed time-frame for Fowler’s stages would have the first encounter with difficult history occur well after many Mormons have made the decision to get married, which is a very grownup thing to do, and should be undertaken in a state of spiritual sobriety and maturity — not a childlike state of religious naivete or rapturous religious zeal. Moreover, aren’t Fowler’s stages supposed to be descriptive rather than normative? I don’t think they necessarily represent an “ideal” progression. I also think the internet has accelerated this process a great deal, especially for young Americans. I really can’t imagine a single spiritual or psychological benefit that a 10 year old would derive from a literal understanding of the Old Testament. Yes, a 10 year old really can understand the beauty of poetry, mystery, and myth. A 10 year old doesn’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) taught about what I would deem to be Joseph’s pattern of sexual misconduct and spiritual abuse of his followers in any detail. But a 10 year old should certainly know that Joseph was a flawed man whom God used as His instrument, despite Joseph’s very human weaknesses. A 10 year old can handle that. An 18 year old can handle that and a great deal more.
I appreciated the discussion a great deal. I will say that I disagree with the belief that Stage 3 is a necessary stage, but more that it’s ony the reality of the lived experience for many. But that doesn’t make it necessary. Dan, I know you and Bill both believe that the literal belief is a needed one to build up the testimony and commitment in a person before moving to a non-literal belief, but I disagree. My own experience was that I was a good kid growing up, but had an unhealthy view of God due to the literal belief I had in these religious stories. My love and devotion and obedience came more out of fear than true understanding. Also, my sense of self, both as a woman and as a person, was quite unhealthy as I tried to understand how God felt about women in general (in large part to the Eve story, the story of biblical women in general, and, more importantly, the establishment of His church being such a patriarchal one where men “preside” over women both in church and in the home.)
So now, almost all of my personal experiences with God in my adult life have been about God helping me to “unlearn” these unhealthy beliefs that grew out of literal belief, and I can honestly say I do NOT feel better off for having lived with them before. They only delayed the truer, healthier relationship I have with God now.
My 11 yr old daughter is a sensitive soul too and I see her already struggling with the bible stories she hears in primary. The difference between her experience and mine, however, is that I’ve already been able to have more than one conversation with her about literal vs nonliteral approaches to these stories, and I can see it has already given her some peace and objectivity as we talk about what teachings the stories might hold outside of the narrative itself.
Last of all, you talked about how the biggest goal you have is to teach that we all are not junk. We are all light and truth and love and it’s important to see ourselves in this bigger way (I’m paraphrasing your end remarks). I have to tell you though, that not only have these bible stories NOT taught me that to any real degree, but neither have the LDS teachings WHEN COMPARED to the Buddhist teachings I’m learning currently. It’s not that the effort hasn’t been made in our teachings, but there’s so many other paradoxical teachings we teach along with them (and the bible stories don’t help any, esp when taught literally like most LDS do). So if I’m being completely honest, the pure, uncomplicated, straight forward understanding I am gaining about myself and my true nature and the true nature of others as taught in Buddhist philosophy is proving to be a truer source to realizing that light and truth and love and bigger self you want taught than I think our Christian theology currently gives (even if you don’t take the stories literally, but if you do then it’s practically impossible).
None of these points in which I differ in my opinion from yours or Bill’s means I didn’t truly enjoy the discussion and loudly applaud you for taking on this topic. It’s a needed conversation to be had for sure, esp after Holland’s talk. So thank you.
Always enjoy it when you engage here, SLSDM! Thanks!
It’s always very helpful to be reminded of the many unhealthy elements of certain stories, and also about the methods through which they are conveyed. So I certainly acknowledge your experience. I do feel misunderstood a bit, though, especially when you said this: “Dan, I know you and Bill both believe that the literal belief is a needed one to build up the testimony and commitment in a person before moving to a non-literal belief.” What I say is not so much about literal beliefs (especially in stories) but that it is helpful to be grounded in experiences with God and to have a healthy sense of your own spirit and of being loved and valued. (That way, we can combat bad tellings of and spins on stories by comparing it to one’s own elevated experience.) For many, including me, my upbringing and mission aided in this dynamic tremendously. I gained confidence that I could go to God myself, then eventually tried it in sustained ways, and then learned for myself things about God and myself in that direct way you speak of with what’s happening with you through Buddhism. I had touchstones that I could use in making my comparisons and in deciding which matched my experience best.) So, if you’re going to use the word “testimony” as something I think is important ahead of faith transition, be sure to limit that to “testimony gained via direct experience” (at least as much as possible) and not as testimony “in” the Church or in the literalness of stories, etc. What seems to have happened with you, and being male I know I have had it so much easier, is that the literality of how certain stories were told to you growing up caused distortions in your soul that you’ve fought to undo. And I’m so sorry that your “un-learning” has been so much more painful than mine was. In many ways, though, this line of thinking here feeds into the discussions at the end of the episode, which was about “How do we mine and teach these stories in healthy ways?” Rather than abandon them or de-bunk them and claim they have no positive value, how do we find the gists and angles on them that are healthy and ennobling? (And, with you, I’m aided very much in doing this via my own immersions in eastern traditions.)
Dan I went through and re-listened to that part we’re referring to (around 1:19 – 1:25ish) and I do hear you talk more about that Stages 1-3 period with experiences being the emphasized part. Thanks for the clarification. In your comment to me about it you say “it is helpful to be grounded in experiences with God and to have a healthy sense of your own spirit and of being loved and valued. (That way, we can combat bad tellings of and spins on stories by comparing it to one’s own elevated experience.)” I assume you’re referring to those experiences being the ones you had in Stages 1-3 so that when you shifted away from literal belief it was gradual & a natural unfolding BECAUSE you were grounded?
What I notice in my own experiences that differ from yours is that those grounding experiences for me have come only AFTER I’ve shifted away from literal belief and only DURING my questioning phase of traditional belief. When I held to literal and traditional belief, my experiences were very much perceived through the paradigm I had and fed an ungrounded relationship with God because I had a clear idea (due to my more literal beliefs) about what kept me “worthy” to have access to “Him” and “The Spirit” and what didn’t. And my perceived relationship with God was very much tied to how well or how poorly I thought I was doing at it. So, at least in my case, Stages 1-3 kept me from those grounding experiences you speak of because there was no grounding, trusting foundation for me to find rest in when my perception was so tied to my literal belief. It was only when I had to shed those beliefs that I feel God has been better able to show me deeper truths about the both of us.
As for mining out of the stories healthy teachings, I acknowledge that it can and should be done. However, what I mean to say when talking about Buddhism philosophy in comparison is that with biblical and LDS stories there seems to be a lot of mining to do to get to the gem inside, and cutting away at the hard parts to get to it is not something the majority of members like us to do because it’s cutting away at a literal understanding much of the time. Whereas with Buddhism teachings, there hasn’t seemed to be a lot of mining necessary because the teachings are such gems in their entirety already. That, in turn, has made me wonder if it’s worth holding onto the biblical stories for reasons beyond simple academic understanding of the people the stories came from. We’ll see, I guess.
“This milk before meat attitude is not appropriate for a 19-year-old; when this young man comes to discover the more difficult points in…” ANYTHING.
Start the milk with God and continue, with God, all the way through the meat and it will be all right.
In response to the title question of this podcast, the answer is simply ‘no’. Elder Hollland’s statement is unfortunate, judgemental, reactionary, and untenable. It’s just confusing and contradictory for church leaders at this level to be telling members they are welcome and have a place in the church no matter where they are on the spectrum of faith, and be telling them they cannot possibly exercise authentic faith or Christian discipleship unless they are literalist believers. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. I wish they’d make up their minds. Besides, scriptural literalism of this order is symptomatic of the modern secularism and scientific world view Holland, in the face of reason and his own education, wants to oppose. It’s an extraordinary statement, full of hubris. It makes me angry and sad.
Elder Holland simply did not answer the questions the literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden incident brings up. It seems that, for the LDS literalist, the Church authorities will not consider such answers within a non-apostate mode. It may be that the safest approach is the figurative interpretation.
I just will not do that. A member, some years ago, told me that, if I lived in Utah, I would be in trouble. There have been times when I, actually, wanted to move there.
Well, this question can be answered easily enough.
Let us find those for whom this description is true.
30 For God having sworn unto Enoch and unto his seed with an oath by himself; that every one being ordained after this order and calling should have power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course;
31 To put at defiance the armies of nations, to divide the earth, to break every band, to stand in the presence of God; to do all things according to his will, according to his command, subdue principalities and powers; and this by the will of the Son of God which was from before the foundation of the world.
32 And men having this faith, coming up unto this order of God, were translated and taken up into heaven.
And let us ask each one of them whether they are scriptural literalists.
We may, I think, profitably ignore anyone else as being unworthy of the time it takes to examine their opinions.
“And let us ask each one of them whether they are scriptural literalists.”
I believe they would, each say, “Yes, I am.”
Thanks to all the panelists … interesting discussion. I’d like to comment on this kernel of Holland’s talk.
“In our increasingly secular society, it is as uncommon as it is unfashionable to speak of Adam and Eve or the Garden of Eden or of a “fortunate fall” into mortality. … Nevertheless, the simple truth is that we cannot fully comprehend the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ, and we will not adequately appreciate the unique purpose of His birth or His death … without understanding that there was an actual Adam and Eve who fell from an actual Eden, with all the consequences that fall carried with it.”
This part of Holland’s sermon strikes me as a dialing up of the GAs’ ongoing efforts to delineate and tighten the church’s in-group/out-group boundary. By “dialing up” I mean implicitly marginalizing liberal/progressive members by associating them with the “secularist society” out-group 
Notice how Holland describes secularist society’s non-literal Bible beliefs as merely fashionable (i.e. shallow and transient), as opposed to LDS orthodox beliefs, which he describes as “uncommon” (i.e. divinely peculiar) truths. Then, by connecting the particular metaphorical understanding of Adam and Eve to diminished comprehension and appreciation of the Atonement, he essentially pronounces liberal in-group members of the same stripe. Guilty by association – pushed out to the boundary (if not yet outside of it).
The panelists might have more deeply examined the possibility that Holland perceives Mormon liberals as a greater threat to in-group commitment than secularists, whose demonization perennially yields positive returns. Perhaps in his mind the liberal’s belief that “all (non-literal) stories are sacred” leaves the church’s metaphorical front door too wide open, which is a hair’s breadth from pointing others to the exits. And, as a panelist mentioned, non-literalism can take a toll on one’s level of exclusive commitment, which is a hair’s breath from becoming a drain on institutional resources. 
Almost 80% of LDS members reject evolution on some level, so Holland understands what he can leverage to optimize future resources for his institution, at least in the near future. . The fact that evolution is taught at BYU is a purely pragmatic concession designed to maintain institutional prestige (ironically by the metrics of a secular society). This all combines to generate a strategic manipulation of both theology and science to serve an institution’s reproductive fitness 
Of course, there was more to Holland’s talk – like emotion-jerking rhetoric aimed at driving members further into learned helplessness by pounding them with manufactured metaphysical “weaknesses” and “penalties” with one hand and offering a manufactured metaphysical antidote (but, alas, contingent) with the other. But this too is about securing in-group boundaries, which is about securing an institution’s reproductive fitness 
(Sorry Dan, I did it again … I’m heading over to PayPal now)
 I am reminded of Elder Oak’s “A Witness to God” speech
 Securing commitment of a person’s human and material capital is a major function of the endowment.
 see http://religions.pewforum.org/).
 An interesting treatment of the evolution of religious belief and religious ethics is found in John Teehan’s book, In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence.
 … from which it does not logically follow that God isn’t on board with such a strategy.
JT, always great to have you weigh in! (And thanks for donating again!)
I think you’re right that these ideas might also be working in Elder Holland’s talk, but I’d put them more into the background. I think the stronger reason for that paragraph (and much of the dramatic prose of the rest), as I suggested on the podcast, is his saying to himself, “It’s Easter morning. How can I help those listening who may not have ever felt powerfully the experience of Atonement or let the idea of Resurrection hold its full sway get a strong invitation from me to go experience that.” And with that in mind, he was in full “devotional’ mode (as talked about by David Bokovoy in the episode) vs worrying in particular about overstating what might be actual in the universe and earth’s history. And I can’t fully dismiss his method. I have come more and more to push “the experience of dramatic love and belonging and your own powerful spirit” as a key to negotiating life’s difficult terrain. Because of those experiences, I’ve felt empowered and patient and even excited as I have gone through the important (and very normal) questioning of all the shaping stories of my life and moving into a far more solid sense of what is kernal and what is husk–in these stories but in all other things, as well.
That’s the “skillful means” interpretation, right? Yes, I can see them targeting both ends at once. Cheers.
I can, too.
A side note based on the BYU professors I’ve known and talked with:
BYU biologists (probably universally) sincerely believe in evolution and find no conflict with their religion (for those who are LDS). Decisions about hiring biologists and selecting curriculum, while influenced by religious authority to a degree, are primarily made by the biologists. Evolution isn’t taught because religious authorities pragmatically approve it to satisfy “the world”, but because LDS biologists believe it to be essential and essentially true.
(This isn’t a response to your post as a whole, which has much merit, I think.)
Thanks for your response. Let me share some additional related thoughts and opinions – which are open to criticism, even from my tommorow-self.
I could take a BYU professor’s belief in evolution on face value since I understand the objective basis for that belief. However, I’d have a hard time accepting his (or her) claim of there being no conflict between evolution and their religion without finding out precisely what they mean by “no conflict” and “their religion.”
For instance, Dr. Steven Peck’s approach is to patiently wait for new revelation to correct past prophets who were, “children of their culture.”  Since Peck also admits that his own harmonizing conjectures are “wildly broad-brushed and cartoonish,” then “his religion” seems to depend on a yet unfulfilled update to resolve this conflict.  Therefore, his “no conflict” is better described as being subjectively comfortable with putting problem on a shelf indefinitely.
I can imagine some BYU professors found Holland’s remarks frustrating, disheartening, and even marginalizing given how he connected a disbelief in an “actual” Adam, Eve, and paradisiacal garden with fashionable secularists (if not merely his breach of the “no-official” position on evolution). These remarks could also have a chilling effect on how they respond to student questions. The power of literalism resides in the power of in-group authorities to demand it as a marker of loyalty and status, or as a requirement of in-group membership and benefits. My understanding is that BYU professors’ jobs require the ecclesiastical endorsement of their local leaders – so contradicting an Apostle has its risks.
 Peck’s “cartoonish” conjecture imagines Jehovah waiting 600,000 years after evolution generated a fully human stone-tool wielding “grandmother” to finally start injecting souls of spirit children into her offspring, presumably starting with Adam and Eve. Since he sees “the Fall” as an “essential” doctrine, this implies this injection must have been accompanied by a temporary local immortalization process. Of course, the problem is to account for all these other human civilizations made up of humans without souls living in their midst once Adam and Eve were expelled.
 I find it remarkable how easily members are comforted by the assurances of professional LDS historians and scientists when they offer no substantive arguments to back them up. This is symptomatic of culture’s authoritarian mindset (and how strenuous critical thinking can be). It’s ironic that Peck points to this same problem (culture-constrained past prophets) even as he speaks as an expert without offering no expert analysis.
… even as he speaks as an expert without offering expert analysis.
(I caN’T get NO … na na na … satisfaction” from my proof-reading)
Your points are well taken. I know of many stories of discomfort (e.g. Bill Bradshaw being removed from teaching intro bio because he focused on evolution too much), stories of ecclesiastical acceptance (a biologist interviewed by JFS who, when pressed, said he would have to teach evolution to have integrity, and JFS telling him, then you will have to teach evolution), and I’ve also read and discussed LDS biologists’ analyses of evolution and theology (for example those provided in the BYU evolution packet, but not those alone). It was a subject that involved me for nearly two decades in struggle with what it means to be a faithful LDS and what it means to be a prophet. I eventually found the best response for approaching the general membership a certain kind of scriptural literalism–taking the Book of Abraham and the temple ceremony at their words. The Book of Abraham, on a careful chronological reading, places the entirety of the creation story in the first estate–the premortal realm. However else it has been interpreted, that is how the Book of Abraham reads. The temple places Adam and Eve as types for each of us, showing the Garden story to be one we each lived. Thus, it is either all figurative, or it is literally not relevant to the question of evolution on this mortal world. It applies to a premortal condition, and the fall was an entering of the mortal world. I linked to a more complete discussion I have made of this, in a comment below, but I’ve tried to summarize what I think you would find the relevant points.
I only took issue with the teaching of evolution being a pragmatic choice at BYU. It isn’t pragmatism, but deep belief that leads many of the biologists to teach evolution. It may be pragmatism that makes the board of trustees allow it, but that is at best speculation as I have seen no evidence of their interference with the selection of biology curriculum.
I do use the teaching of evolution at BYU as a rhetorical tool for responding to those who claim authoritative pronouncement as evidence for their position on evolution. But mostly I say, go read about it. Evolution is a beautiful idea.
Putting the creation story in a pre-mortal realm is interesting. I’m curious to re-read BoA with that in mind.
I’d be interested in reading the “BYU evolution packet” – is it available on-line?
I would be interested in other LDS attempts to harmonize evolution and LDS theology (besides Steven Peck). Any standout recommendations would be appreciated – but I can do my own research easy enough.
I never intended to imply that BYU professors were motivated by institution-serving pragmatism. And now I’ll leave my suspicion of the Board of Trustees as simply that, since I have no evidence.
I have been struck by earlier claims of stark differences in what is taught in the Life Sciences departments and the religion departments vis-a-vis evolution. Is that still the case?
This article links to three components of the packet. The fourth is the evolution article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
This Deseret News article is a little about the creation of the packet:
This Dialogue article, by one of the creators of the evolution packet, is one of the most extensive treatments of the topic by an LDS biologist.
There is a fun book written by James Talmadge’s son, Stirling, called _Can Science Be Faith Promoting?_ It includes interesting correspondence from the early 20th century debates on evolution, as well as a text that Stirling Talmadge wrote to be a Sunday School manual.
My understanding and willingness to argue changed a lot when it was pointed out to me (for unrelated reasons) that the Book of Abraham account never actually makes the shift from the first estate to the second estate–at least not before the first creation account in it, and I can’t find it before the second account, either. That’s when I stopped looking for physical correspondences and only retained literal agency and a literal fall.
Hope these help some. I have a more recent article from a BYU biologist, but I don’t know if I can find it online. It’s in my collection of papers at home, and I haven’t read it for years, but I can try to look.
Thanks for the conversation JT.
Thank you very much! For the references (below) and conversation as well.
I was listening to Elder Holland’s talk while driving with my wife and kids to a park. When I heard him talk about a literal Adam and a literal Eve, my stomach sank. It sank in part because his message is entirely consistent with previous statements from prophets and apostles, and I simply can’t swallow it. I am unaware of *any* statement form a prophet or apostle who preach latitude on Adam and Eve’s existence. Yes, there are quotes to say the elements of their narrative are not literal (such as the rib), but the real existence of Adam and Eve is reinforced over and over. It’s in the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants, and dozens of conference talks. As far as the literal existence of Adam and Eve, LDS church leadership hasn’t just drawn the line in the sand, they have carefully carved that line in granite.
For me personally, I can find a way to find value in the narratives without believing in their literalness. I’m not sure if I can consider myself a believing member.
Good thoughts, Jim. Agree that we in our official teachings are committed to certain claims/events/persons as realities. The question is if that is behavior meeting needs of organizations and keeping a majority of members motivated, or if it goes far beyond that. When members begin their faith journeys into greater complexity, can the church also support that? I think it can, but it is a very delicate balancing act. I’ve come to make decent peace (patience anyway) with the church not being able to speak super overtly to this transition and deepening, as it would confuse those who feel the need to engage the church for “answers” and other reasons than why I do. What I wish, however, is that they’d cut out things like “it’s either all true or all false” kinds of false dilemmas, as well as things like what Elder Holland asserted. I can understand the rhetorical value of things like this when speaking in devotional settings and when trying to strengthen or rally the base, but I don’t think they fully understand the potential harm it can do for others who are exploring wider knowledge. So we keep doing shows like this one! Some day no need, I hope!
” I’ve come to make decent peace (patience anyway) with the church not being able to speak super overtly to this transition and deepening, as it would confuse those who feel the need to engage the church for “answers” and other reasons than why I do.”
The members have the gift of the Holy Ghost. Why don’t they engage that instead of the Church for answers to their questions. That way, when the Church finally gets those answers, those member who have been talking to God will greet the Church at the door. Till then, they won’t be able to proclaim it as Church doctrine but they will be able to state their beliefs. It will be a lonely road but, in the end, company will come.
No conceit here.
Hi Dan, I’ve just recently started listening to the Mormon Matters podcasts and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience so far. Some of my favorite lectures were the Genesis series and others dealing with the variety of beneficial ways that we can approach scripture. However, as yet these conversations have dealt almost exclusively with scholarly approaches to the Bible. Of course I appreciate that this is a much more comfortable, perhaps safer, place to start a transition in scriptural understanding. And I DO appreciate that. That being said, my struggle has been how to confront a scripture like D&C 107:39-52 and fit it into a healthy perspective of modern revelation and scholarship. This is a modern revelation that clearly identifies Adam and the patriarchs down to Noah as historical figures who lived extraordinarily long lives. I note happily that the phrase “saith the Lord of Hosts” does not appear until after this mythic history is completed, but why tell the story with so much specificity in the first place if it is not meant to be revelation (Mahalaleel’s age at ordination is given to the day)?
As a somewhat related side note, do you have any plans to lead a discussion about various approaches to the Book of Mormon, in particular addressing its nature as a translation vs a revelation, a detailed historical record vs inspired fiction or historical fiction (e.g. Richard III as mentioned in one of your Biblical lectures)?
Thanks so much for the work you do and the spirit/energy you bring to each of these discussions!
Much to contemplate and ponder here.
A few random thoughts:
I share concern that Elder Holland’s talk can/will be used as “boundary” line to sort the “faithful from the unfaithful” not just by members but by local leaders as well. I often wonder what events/associations influence or inspire some messages we hear from leaders at different times and do they come across as the speaker intends?
I hearkened back to long past college days–my chemistry teacher was Ted Eyring, son of the great chemist Henry Eyring (and brother of 1st Counselor Henry B. Eyring). I vaguely recall, hearing a talk by Henry Eyring Sr. about his belief in the compatibility between science and religion and came across an article in Dialogue, “The Reconciliation of Faith and Science: Henry Eyring’s Achievement” by Steven H. Heath.
Thanks again Dan for putting together this panel!
More on the article about Henry Eyring:
Steven Heath provides correspondence–letters–between Joseph Fielding Smith, who was then the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Henry Eyring (Sr.) who served for a time on the General Sunday School Board. Pres. Smith had written a book, apparently asserting a literal biblical view of the age of the earth, man’s origins and Eyring was asked by a member of the Twelve, his view on Smith’s book. It is quite an interesting exchange between Pres. Smith and Henry Eyring, including this by Henry Eyring:
“Probably one of the most difficult problems in reading the scriptures is to decide what is to be taken literally and what is figurative. In this connection it seems to me that the Creator must operate with facts and with an understanding which goes en- tirely outside our understanding and of our experience. Because of this, when some- one builds up a system of logic, however careful and painstaking, which gives a posi- tive answer to this difficult question, I can’t help but wonder about it, particularly if it seems to run counter to the Creator’s revelations written in the rocks. At least can’t we move slowly in such matters?”
And in another letter this:
“It will be a sad day for the Church and its members when the degree of disagree- ment you brethren expressed is not allowed.
I am convinced that if the Lord required that His children understand His works before they could be saved that no one would be saved. It seems to me that to strug- gle for agreement on scientific matters in view of the disparity in background which the members of the Church have is to put emphasis in the wrong place. In my judg- ment there is room in the Church for people who think that the periods of creation were (a) 24 hours, (b) 1000 years, or (c) millions of years. I think it is fine to dis- cuss these questions and for each individual to try to convert the other to what he thinks is right, but in matters where apparently equally reliable authorities disagree, I prefer to make haste slowly.”
The first quote/excerpt I provided is from the letter Eyring wrote to Adam Bennion, the member of the Twelve who had asked Eyring’s opinion of Pres. Smith’s book. The 2nd excerpt is from a letter written by Eyring to Pres. Smith.
Thanks for referencing these, Maddy!
Thanks, Dan, for this panel. It was interesting on so many levels.
I will say, however, that I was a bit discouraged to hear so many indirect statements of belief or stance by the panelists. I would have loved to hear the panelists speak more plainly overall. Lately – since Dehlin’s excommunication perhaps? – it has seemed to me that you’re attempting to tread more carefully than usual, seeking to share potentially “edgy” topics but always pointing back to orthodoxy so as to not stray too far.
Either way, I very much appreciate your continued contributions!
Interesting, Anachron. I certainly have not consciously tried to tread more carefully and avoid edginess (and move toward orthodoxy) than in the past. I think most every show is animated in large part by critique, but where we differ from Mormon Stories and many other shows is that I think we also allow more often and easily for critique of liberal and progressive ideas (at least self-awareness of the dangers of the echo chambers these can also be) along those of institutional actions and Mormon cultural trends, etc. I like that we’ve always tried to hold open space for compassionate understanding of why the church and its leaders and many members often act in the way they do without demonizing them.
You write: “I was a bit discouraged to hear so many indirect statements of belief or stance by the panelists.” If I have any particular trend going on in my own thinking right now, it might best be named as downplaying “beliefs” in particular teachings and claims and emphasizing instead experiences that are much deeper than the level at which “belief” operates. Moving from “belief” to “faith”–but it is faith as “trust” in God/Spirit and larger realities rather than faith in statements and whether they match historical facts or past a coherence test. My sense is when experience grounds us and we live in active communion with God/Spirit and the after-effects of those engagements, we naturally hold our “beliefs” differently, just as the panelists here hold “stories” (in general, as well as the specifics of Adam/Eve/Eden) differently. So if you’re hearing “so many” statements of belief or stance, and it is discouraging to you, I’d love you to re-listen to see at which level they are operating at. Were our statements sounding unexamined? If so, I don’t think that is the case. I don’t want you to stay discouraged!
Just as a random thought here, it’s my experience that it’s the business of literalist believers everywhere to tell others who is and is not a genuine believer / genuine Christian / genuine whatever. The divine power invested in them to make such a call can be clearly seen by the haloes floating above their heads… 😉
I’m with Maddy, much to ponder here. Thanks Dan for the panel.
great podcast, dan.
to david bokovoy, i wish it were the case that mormon thinking was cerebral. do you really believe that?
That’s my vision of Mormonism. And the one I see articulated in both scripture and the best of Joseph Smith’s teachings But our community and institution are rough stones rolling. I address this topic quite frequently on my Patheos blog. Here is a good introduction to my thoughts…
Thanks so much for the question.
Thank you David. I enjoyed reading your blog post (and blog!). I think what you have illustrated is the ideal. It’s exactly how I wish learning in the church would be. Or maybe I live in a ward (or have lived in wards) that just don’t reflect that. Or maybe the ideal kind of learning only happens in areas where families and individuals have that luxury.
I recently served in the Relief Society presidency responsible for the Sunday lessons. We are instructed that the aim of our lessons is to edify the sisters and making them feel good. My last lesson I taught was on Preparedness. I used my sourdough culture to illustrate how to grow bread and then related it to the parable of the bread and fish, using Christ as our example. The first comment I get is how one sister is unable to keep her kitchen sink tidy let alone cook a loaf of bread–sigh. The lesson went down hill from there, haha. Too often though, our sisters are just too overwhelmed to come to class prepared or to learn anything new. At least in that setting.
I agree we do a lot of learning in the church. We have the weekly Sunday school lesson, Relief Society lesson, Ensign readings, personal scripture study, FHE. . . And then there are our church callings including Visiting Teaching, etc. In our stake there is a huge push for individuals and families to do family history work. Usually though that falls on the mothers who still have children at home. Once upon a time genealogy was something the elderly did because they had the time. Now our mothers especially mothers with young children are feeling the pinch on top of just being a parent. And then there’s the huge push for weekly or fortnightly temple worship–our closest temple is two hours away. I don’t share that to complain but that is the reality of where our learning begins and ends.
When you’re busy fulfilling callings and working to put food on the table to feed your family, there isn’t much else a person has the brain strength to do. Sometimes I wonder if our leaders don’t put all this on us just to make us too busy to do any outside learning. Last year I made the goal to read the OT from cover to cover and not read anything else church related. I didn’t give myself a time limit in which to finish it by and allowed my reading to take me where it wanted to go. It was very good for me. I wish I could say the same thing for studying the Book of Mormon and church history but we are always walking on tiptoes there. I like what B.H. Roberts writes but it seems a distant dream.
I think Elder Holland’s talk requiring a single-vision or literal meaning to understand the stories in the bible actually are soothing to people that are just too overwhelmed by life to think critically about them.
I initially recoiled at the idea of not giving a prospective missionary Rough Stone Rolling. But I look at my mission and I’m glad I went, even as an unorthodox believer now. I can accept the idea that people can migrate away from orthodoxy and that it may not be the best idea to thrust someone into unorthodoxy at a young age.
That said, my concerns are this: what if my children (both under 8 now) become indoctrinated into orthodoxy? Either (1) they’ll stay there, creating a tension between my beliefs and theirs or (2) they’ll eventually find the truth and might be angry that I kept it from them. I’m quite concerned about this.
Anyway, episodes like this make me proud to be a monthly subscriber/supporter. Well done!
J. Ruben… I would suggest that it requires faith to believe that a story is literally true and it requires faith to believe that a story is true as allegory or metaphor. Worrying that your version of faith will not be subscribed by your children misses the point. I have a 20 year old daughter who is an iron rod literal believer and a 21 year old that is very much a non-literalist. They were raised believing that both positions represented faith but that it is where that faith leads them that really matters.
Personally, I’ll be pretty surprised if I learn in the afterlife that a snake actually did talk to Adam and Eve but I don’t think I’ll be angry at the church for not representing it that way in the temple. I’m not sure why Elder Holland felt it important to represent the characters of Adam and Eve as two literal historical beings but even if I decide to accept that on faith, there is still an awful lot of room in his words for what we understand scientifically about the origins of man what we believe about grace and salvation.
I think the crux of the problem with Mr. Holland’s speech is his attempt to push belief in the unbelievable in order to create faith. But faith in dead works is ultimately problematic. Faith in myth as literal occurrences is ultimately not healthy and frankly is the root cause of a lot of members’ faith “crises” today. I can see why he does so because the time and money required by the church necessarily needs this false belief in order to justify the sacrifice. However, I think failure to embrace truth regardless of the implications on church truth claims, could ultimately be the cause of the church’s downfall.
What is “unbelievable”? And who get to decide?
Once one believes that a man resurrected from the dead to life again and that his friends swore that they saw him alive again, what’s the big deal about believing anything else? Seems like a pretty high bar to me.
I really don’t get all this hand-wringing and quibbling among allegedly believing “Christians”.
I had been thinking about this very topic quite a bit this last year. I tried really hard through high school and after to accommodate a literal understanding of the creation accounts and a scientific understanding of human origins. For me, the literalism was gradually stripped away, but never completely. I arrived at an encapsulation of literalism that matches fairly closely the paragraph from Elder Holland’s talk that I think Steven referred to: a literal garden that we don’t know much about–for me it can’t even have been on this world, so it could equally be metaphor. A literal Adam and Eve that made the choice to enter mortality, but they also represent the choice each of us made, so its importance is largely metaphorical, again. A literal council in heaven with competing plans because I can’t imagine a heaven that didn’t allow choice or have debate, but a council that is an ongoing process rather than a solitary event. A literal choice to fall, encompassing a need for atonement, although I can’t arrive at the supreme uniqueness of Christ’s role. I’ll admit I can only trust in that. So I like keeping some of the literal, even though I’m not sure how completely essential it is.
(I told my story in the form of a myth just a couple of months ago. I expressed some of my views on exactly this topic of literal vs. figurative:
Excuse the self-promotion or not, but I think it’s better to give a couple of links than go on and on, here. Enjoy or ignore freely.)
My view on there being a specific literal Adam and Eve is similar to my view of Noah’s Ark. Either there was or there wasn’t a literal Ark, and my opinion about it doesn’t make a bit of difference as to its literal reality, so what’s the point of worrying about what my opinion is? I think that the spirit of Elder Holland’s talk is that we shouldn’t let secular thinking cause us to throw out the important significance of the Adam and Eve story, and in this I agree with Elder Holland. Also, it is interesting that the temple endowment makes very clear reference to the symbolic meaning of Adam and Eve, while still allowing for a literal meaning.
Love this discussion and much thanks to the concept that there is a paradox within the LDS experience (i.e. secular education and seminary/institute) and one can have room to come to a personal understanding of scripture and the myths contained within. Furthermore, could the Adam and Eve story also be nuanced to a plural myth for us today? Adam, being many, and Eve, the mother of all living to represent humanity in the entirety. Thus, the story could be an macro view of a pre-mortal world and the introduction of mortality and our relationship to GOD?
I loved this podcast. This really hits the meat of the issues with “Big Tent Mormonism” and how individuals can navigate through living a Mormon lifestyle while having a more expansive, and less literal, view of not only scripture but life in general.
In the discussion I found myself wondering what each of the participants would say is that line of literalism that must be walked. Clearly, Noah and the Adam and Eve stories do not require literal belief by the panel here but how far can we take that? Do we need to have a literal acceptance of Nephi? How about the first vision, the golden plates, the restoration of the Priesthoods, etc.? The interesting difference between ancient scripture and modern “revelation” or dialogue is that it is much more difficult to argue that angelic visits or visions are solely metaphoric, even if that is the only real benefit we can get from these stories in our lived experiences, for some of us at least.
David’s closing comments that “the goal is not to believe a specific viewpoint, it’s to become a specific individual” is very powerful to me. Unfortunately, and Dan points this out in the podcast, we often have people trying to shackle us with this literalness and squeeze out room for reliance on stories as metaphor.
Responding to SLSDM (April 24th, 1:37pm comment) since the threaded replies don’t allow it to get as narrow as it might.
I do think Fowler’s Stages 1 to 3 are descriptive, but at the same time represent a healthy progression. But what many commenters miss is that those stages are NOT about the content of beliefs but how one orients to the beliefs one holds (his stages apply to atheists just as easily as theists). How do we relate to our beliefs and values? In what are they grounded? Did we inherit them mostly unconsciously or go through a process of careful sifting and deciding for ourselves? Given this, whether our beliefs were helpful or toxic (worthiness to be in God’s presence is such an awful one of these) is not a critique of Fowler’s stage theory. But let’s keep talking Fowler a bit longer anyway.
In my year of coming to myself and then going on a mission at age 24, I was still in Stage 3. As I mentioned in the episode, for me the Book of Mormon characters were real individuals, nor had I really thought too hard about the literality of Adam and Eve, the Fall, the Flood, etc. But because I thought they were real, thinking “inside” the story gave me a lot of confidence that I could have direct access to God. So I went for it, and I was richly rewarded with strong manifestations and a continued confidence in my own worth despite my stubbornness, arrogance, and many misadventures.
Moving into Stage 4 in the years past my mission was still very difficult, and I log it at taking twelve years to finally feel like I had settled into the kind of peace and perspectives (beginnings of them, anyway) that I have now. So when I talk about it being “easier” because of my spiritual experiences, please never think that I feel any of this is easy. I often speak about this stuff as THE journey, THE key transition for all human beings. Of course it’s going to be hard. Think of Joseph Campbell and his descriptions: we must end up in the inmost cave and kill our former selves. Big time stuff.
I’m really pleased that Buddhism is helping you shed the toxicity of the “not worthy to approach God” paradigm that somehow came to be a major component of the teachings you inherited. They certainly aren’t Christian, and they really aren’t Mormon either, but I know many who end up injured and hindered by bad versions like this (even if by well-intentioned teachers). And I’m glad for Buddhism’s emphasis on experiential knowing. Again, I find that also to be all over Christianity and Mormonism, but I know it’s often buried by “to do” lists and other things that distract from this being clearly seen. If all things are equal in your life and you can bring your eastern training to the Christian and LDS scriptures again, and even into Mormonism’s classrooms, I know you’d be a huge boon to our tradition. But I certainly understand your skittishness at this time!
loved this podcast! just shared this on facebook and thought i should join the discussion here – though a bit late:
such a great podcast. while listening i was wondering if there is a way to disrupt the dichotomy of literal vs. non-literal interpretations. that can be a helpful distinction but i think that this distinction (like so much of our discourse) is imbedded in a western-logical-binary paradigm. i’m wondering about a third way that sees myth as more literal and factual truth as more loose and phenomenological.
I think that Stephen Carter was heading in this direction with his exploration of the idea of an always out of grasp truth and the inborn errors in our stories/conceptualizations.
perhaps the pitfall for the non-literal believer can be the same for the literal believer – clinging to closely to the question of whether or not something is literal or not. i think David said something about the point being not to believe a specific viewpoint but to become a specific individual. in my experience, the literalness or non-literalness is not the determining factor of what can lead us in that becoming. for me it’s charity. any time that i relate to my own, or other’s beliefs in a way that blocks me from being filled with charity – i hope to be aware enough to recalibrate.
I was impressed with Stephen Carter’s description of the daunting epistemic challenges posed by the frailties of individual human perception, memory, biases, and confabulation. There is plenty of evidence to support it. But we shouldn’t discount the critical methods that humans have collectively developed and now apply to compensate – such as formal logic, science, recording technologies, and statistics. In other words, individuals can tap into a robust distributed intelligence to get closer to reality, especially as it is driven by the freedom and competition afforded by secular democratic societies.
In other words, our best modern understanding of the world rises well above what Holland poo-pooed as merely “fashionable.” We don’t have to settle for extreme agnosticism (or even skeptical theism) in the face of these frailties of the mind. That needn’t be the way we get along with the biblical literalism preached by LDS Apostles. Indeed, “fashionable” better characterizes the manner in which LDS dogma have gotten altered over time as various authorities expediently responded to the evolving Zeitgeist that has delivered us from faith in such things as a genocidal tribal warlord god, demonic possession (but not yet Satan), peep-stones, glossolalia, slavery, polygamy, racism, homophobia (partly),and institutional sexism (someday).
Let me suggest that an intellectually honest response to personal epistemic hurdles in the context of a religious tradition would be to unabashedly look beyond socially-proved dogma and acknowledge that a literalistic belief in axial age myths is a poor substitute for a “common faith” centered on a simple commitment to an ethical life. This is because creation myths, when taken literally, feed an underlying human disposition to create moral boundaries by rationalizing the privileging of one’s own correct-believing in-group over wrong-believing out-groups. This has wrought a history of religious violence, both physical and psychological, or at least has provided the rationale. The sooner humanity can organize its social institutions – both religious and secular – to stop promoting this relic of our ignorant and barbaric past, the better off we’ll be moving forward.
Thanks for continuing this important discussion with so many thoughtful contributions. Evangelical biblical scholar Peter Enns just shared some interesting thoughts on the topic on a “historical Adam” on his Patheos blog that are worth reading…
In my opinion we can accept the literalness of Adam and Eve’s existence and fall if we alter the way we understand it a little.
I see the Garden of Eden as representing the pre-mortal realm for all us (aren’t we supposed to consider ourselves as Adam and Eve?).
Adam and Eve were naked = their (our) spirits were naked. They did not yet have physical bodies.
They were unable to procreate = Impossible to have children without a body.
Forbidden fruit = knowledge of good and evil through mortal life.
Eating the fruit = choosing to come to earth to gain a body and experience.
Coats of skins = physical bodies.
Cast out of the garden = leave the spirit world and descend to the earth
So, we can accept that Adam and Eve really did exist and there was a fall, but the fall was merely their leaving the pre-mortal spiritual realm and coming to the earth where mortal life already existed and had for millions of years.
There very clearly were humans before Adam and Eve who evolved into humans but it’s possible that Adam and Eve were either the first spirit children of God to come to earth or their coming to earth marked a new dispensation of some kind.
So, that’s how I reconcile it all. I accept evolution as described by science. I accept that there has been human life on the earth for a couple hundred thousand years and I accept, on faith, that there really were two people named Adam and Eve whose lives marked some kind of pivotal turning point in God’s relationship with humankind, and that the conflict between religion and science is artificial and doesn’t truly exist.
Bill’s comments about Rough Stone Rolling not being something he would recommend for a missionary age member extremely angered me. When I went on a mission at age 19 the book did not exist, however I was fully read up on 20+ years of Dialogue, 15+ years of Sunstone, BYU Studies, etc.. I had not been a literalist since about the age of 12, however I was very devout and committed and did go on a mission. After all this time I still don’t know how to make the church work for me or my family and still have nightmares about the mission. Although my bishop explained to me a few years ago how not believing in a literal Adam was a moral failing, I still just don’t get it. I also don’t get why it has to be that those with a different opinion are treated as the enemy. To Bill I want to say that the mormon church is much more than a religion, it is also a great culture. It is a culture I want to be a part of and the incoherence of your statement makes me so angry because it implies there is no problem in missionary intolerance of non literal belief. There is a huge problem when people don’t respect each other, it really hurts people.
If anyone is interested on the latest scientific evidence for historical claims in Genesis, I recommend “Navigating Genesis” by Dr. Hugh Ross. Released last year, he covers evolution, mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA and the insights on the timing of humanity’s origin, the cultural big bang cluster, satellite imagery and two archaeological studies pointing to the possible location of Eden, and on and on.
If I remember correctly, Mormons hold to the view that the universe/earth is approx. 6,000 years old. If so, you may not like this book after all since a 13.8 billion old universe is proposed between its covers.
“If I remember correctly, Mormons hold to the view that the universe/earth is approx. 6,000 years old.”
That is incorrect. While some theologically conservative Mormons may believe that, the church has not, as far as I know, taken an official position on the matter. Most Mormons I have come in contact with (including myself) do not accept the notion that the Universe and Earth are only 6,000 years old, rather they accept the scientific consensus that the Universe is about 14 billion years old and the earth is about 4.5 billions years old.
So, what does Paul mean when he says the following? I should say — what do you believe he means? Is everything in scripture then a metaphor? Even the resurrection? Was it easier for people 2,000 years ago to believe in a man coming back to life after being killed? Why? Because they didn’t have modern science? Nonsense. As we know, some believed, some didn’t, exactly the same as today. I think Paul meant what he said…literally. I see no appeal whatsoever in Christianity without faith in a literal resurrection. What’s the point? Very strange, all this strained polemic. To whom is Paul referring when he uses the term “False witnesses of God”?
1 Corinthians 15: 12–
“Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
***If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.***
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
…and what of the Articles of Faith, specifically the first three? What’s the point?
As I’ve said elsewhere — Once you claim a belief in God and an eternal soul and some hope of salvation, why quibble over all these, in my view, minor trappings? Our current “evolving” scientific knowledge can’t explain the things of the spirit (again as Paul says) and never will. Get over it.