Dinosaurs and Domino Rally

Last week I eagerly digested everything I could find about a thought provoking debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, the curator of a creationist museum in Kentucky. (God bless both of these men for willingly submitting themselves to the criticism that will follow for months and years to come!) The premise of the debate is a simple one—could the Earth, and all of the living organisms that have ever lived on it, have existed only within the last 6,000 years, in accordance with the historical account of the Bible?

As a Mormon, this was my first real exposure to the evangelical doctrine of creationism, and I am completely fascinated! (Mormons by and large accept the account of the creation in Genesis as allegorical—even mythic, and have no problem with the science of evolution.) It was refreshing to watch a religious community other than the Mormons make their very best attempts to defend a position that the secular world views as nothing less than absurd.

The debate, and everything I have read about it since then, has led me to think about why we defend our beliefs so vehemently. Why is it so important that our children believe that our first parents ate spinach salads with dinosaurs at the Eden Country Club? Why is it so important that they believe that the Book of Mormon was translated using a purposefully crafted urim and thummim, as opposed to a peepstone in the bottom of a hat? I suspect that if all of us Mormons and evangelicals were honest with ourselves, we would accept that the answers to these questions are really quite trivial, even irrelevant, when it comes to the important questions. But, perhaps because it is human nature, we (I) tend to harbor an uneasy feeling that these outlying questions are the first dominoes in a really, really important game of Domino Rally that absolutely must not ever, ever, ever come crashing down. In other words, we tend to have this fear that if what we always believed about the creation or the translation of the BOM is wrong, then we must also call into question the existence of God himself or at least our understanding of God. And this simply cannot happen.

It is not my intention to (re)debate the veracity of creationism here. I think it’s perfectly fine to believe in something that from a secular view is unbelievable. After all, any believer must ultimately accept that with God all things are possible. But I think it is very important for us to continually evaluate whether our beliefs are worth the energy it takes to believe in them (much less defend them). Is believing that the world was created by God in six days important to my understanding of God and my relationship with Him? If the answer points more toward no than toward yes, perhaps I can be satisfied with simply hoping that it is true or expecting it to be true, knowing that it is not a dealbreaker either way.

As you can imagine, this belief-assessment test is quite helpful as a Mormon.  Most of the time, these inquiries lead to my taking a step or two back.  Instead of insiting that God created the Earth in just six 24-hour days, I can preserve my belief system by settling with a simple belief that God is the creator of all things, which requires no evidence other than a sunset or a perfect day of fishing on the Provo River.   Basically, this process helps me to identify which dominoes must remain a part of the Domino Rally game, and which ones I can throw back into the box. It frees me to move on and redirect my focus toward the really important questions.

Some may call this my own negotiated version of cognitive dissonance, but I disagree.  I have found that by changing the lens and broadening my focus, I get a much clearer picture of the truth, as opposed to trying to make sense of each pixel in a photograph, one at a time.  Take, for example, Wordsworth’s popular description of the origin of the human spirit:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I love these stanzas, notwithstanding their overuse in high school English and Mormon Sunday School classes. As the lines above demonstrate, Wordsworth was a content-focused poet who emphasized the importance of the message of a poem over adherence to formalistic rules. His effective synthesis of a simple truth is the product of his careful “Goldilocks” focus—not too close, but not too far. To summarize it more crudely, the human spirit came from God and existed before birth and will continue after death. Perhaps to say anything more or less than this only takes away from the truth.

It is also important to point out that, at least for me, the truths that are really worth knowing tend to lack a sufficient amount of evidence to make them undeniably true (i.e., everyone must accept it). This creates a space where faith and doubt each make their case, like electrons constantly orbiting the nucleus of an atom. Their mere presence proves the existence of some truth—in fact, faith and doubt are in many ways a physical part of the truth. But their constant motion makes it difficult or impossible to identify the truth precisely.  The presence of doubt essentially forces us to maintain that wide focus, as if God were directing us toward the most meaningful viewpoint.  Yes, ironically, it requires faith to throw those little pixel-dominoes back into the box, but the idea that God is guiding my spiritual evolution gives me courage.

We tend to reject the truth (or at least become dissatisfied with it) because we want the factory tour. We want to fill in the gaps by unnecessarily adding a dangerous number of dominoes to our Domino Rally game. Like the math teacher, we want God to show his work. I look forward to seeing that worksheet someday. But for purposes of living a worthwhile life here on earth, from day to day and from moment to moment, I suspect that it would just be a distraction.

JN

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2 thoughts on “Dinosaurs and Domino Rally

  1. Are you familiar with the “God of the gaps” argument? How would you have made this observation 200 years ago? 2000 years ago? It seems that as human knowledge has increased, it has pressed cherished metaphysical explanations further out to the margins. Is it only a matter of time when a “God” explanation is not even needed? Are we there now?

    I too am interested in our creationist doctrine that seems to have no doubt if you read D&C 77. However before you explain it away, I think our doctrine hinges on, and has to have a young earth, or at least a young species. I am not sure if first half hour of the temple ceremony gives us the option of an allegorical interpretation, and the reason I say that is because the a literal garden story is so critical to our doctrine. If there wasn’t a “fall”, there would be no need for a redeemer. So if Adam and Eve were allegorical, is the mission of Christ a metaphor as well?

    I know you believe in evolution, but evolution takes Adam and Eve off of the table. Or do you believe the science is still out on that? There are those that try and get around “death before the fall” by employing quite frankly racist and offensive terms of “Pre-Adamites” which are closely associated with sub humans, or soulless beings. I don’t know how you explain it, but if you’re going to insist somehow, somewhere God had a hand in it, then won’t it just be a matter of time for our increasing understanding to push even that understanding to the margins? It sounds like you may belong to a large group in the “Deistic Evolution” camp. People smart enough to realize that answers in Genesis is an insult, but can’t quite let go of the God the Creator notion, which in the modern synthesis, does not have room for its metaphysical claims, and insults the hard work that evolutionary science actually does. Like a bunch of pilot fish that follows the shark for a scraps, the Deistic Evolutionaries follow the science, then turn with smug hubris to give God the credit. You’d think with all of the prophets, seers, revelating that has gone on, it would be the religions of Abraham that would have a leg up on the basics, like man’s origins.

    I think you were on to something profound. That it is okay to believe something that to the secular world is unbelievable. I find it admirable. One thing to note, doubt and faith are not dyadic concepts. I believe the more appropriate antonym for faith is “knowing”. However if people are going to call themselves faithful, then be that, a person of faith. Don’t walk over to the evidentiary shelves and take what you like, leave what you don’t, and claim to your friends how smart and faithful you are when half of the theory that might say otherwise is still on the shelf.

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    • Thanks for your input, RD. I am not attempting to romanticize my personal retreat from faith as contradictions emerge. Nor am I attempting to preserve my faith in God by reconstructing my approach to Mormonism or retrofitting my understanding of the creation. To me, the existence of God is self-evident. That personal knowledge exists indpendent of scripture and science. In fact, my understanding of God and my relationship with Him has grown as I have let go of certain beliefs that I previously held only because they were part of a belief system that I inherited.

      I think we misunderstand each other because we have a different idea of what it means to have faith or to be a believer. It sounds like your idea of faith means to remain true to Mormonism’s view of God as it was presented in the 1830s and 1840s. My view of faith is to remain true to my understanding of God as it is revealed to me. Much of my understanding (perhaps 95%?) has come from Joseph Smith and the LDS Scriptures. But I do not feel bound by these sources. I freely admit that some of my beliefs contradict the teachings of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. But no more than they are contradicted by the words of our modern-day prohpets and apostles.

      I understand why you might be hung up diagnosing me as a confused Mormon trying to salvage my own testimony. But I’d rather discuss the point of my post, which is that perhaps by having the courage to take an introspective look at our own beliefs, we might just find a more enlightening perspective. The truth is that I do not believe in evolution any more than I believe in six-day (or six-1,000-year-day)creationism. Like I explained in my blog entry, my position is that by refusing to fully commit to either of these views, God is able to reveal other, more important things to us.

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