26 November 2013

Science and the Book of Genesis Part 3

Lesson Three: It Is Profitable to Read These Chapters “Literally,” Though Not in the Way People Usually Think About the Word

The Prophet Joseph Smith held the view that scripture should be “understood precisely as it reads.” It must be realized, however, that what premoderns understood to be “literal” interpretations of scripture are not the same as what most people understand them to be in our day. Whereas modernists typically apply the term “literal” to accounts that provide clinical accuracy in the journalistic dimensions of who, what, when, and where, premoderns were more apt to understand “literal” in the sense of “what the letters, i.e., the words say.” These are two very different modes of interpretation. As James Faulconer observed: “‘What x says’ [i.e., the premodern idea of “literal”] and ‘what x describes accurately’ [i.e., the modernist idea of “literal”] do not mean the same, even if the first is a description.”

Consider, for example, Joseph Smith’s description of the Book of Mormon translation process. An emphasis consistent with modernist interests appears in the detailed descriptions given by some of the Prophet’s contemporaries of the size and appearance of the instruments used and the procedure by which the words of the ancient text were made known to him. These kinds of accounts appeal to us as modernists — the more physical details the better — because we want to know what “actually happened” as he translated. Note, however, that Joseph Smith declined to relate such specifics himself even in response to direct questioning in private company from believing friends. The only explicit statement he made about the translation process is his testimony that it occurred “by the gift and power of God,” a description that avoids reinforcing the misleading impression that we can come to an understanding of “what really happened” through “objective” accounts of external observers.


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Science and the Book of Genesis Part 2

Lesson Two: Scripture is a Product of a Particular Point of View

Lesson 2: scripture is a product of a particular point of view. Nibley illustrates this idea:
The Latter-day Saints, [like other Bible readers,] are constantly converting statements of limited application to universal or at least sweeping generalities. To illustrate, I was told as a child that the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians, and the Andes all came into existence overnight during the great upheavals of nature that took place at the time of the Crucifixion — an absurdity that plays into the hands of critics of the Book of Mormon. But what we find in the 3 Nephi account when we read it carefully is a few sober, factual, eyewitness reports describing an earthquake of 8-plus on the Richter scale in a very limited area. Things that appear unlikely, impossible, or paradoxical from one point of view often make perfectly good sense from another.

The Nautical Almanac gives the exact time of sunrise and sunset for every time of the year, yet astronauts know that the sun neither rises nor sets except from a particular point of view, the time of the event being strictly dependent on the exact location. From that point of view and that only, it is strictly correct and scientific to say that the sun does rise and set. Just so, the apparently strange and extravagant phenomena described in the scriptures are often correct descriptions of what would have appeared to a person in a particular situation...

So with Noah in the Ark. From where he was, “the whole earth” was covered with water as far as he could see … But what were conditions in other parts of the world? If Noah knew that, he would not have sent forth messenger birds to explore.
But doesn’t Genesis 7:19 say that “the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered”? Explaining his understanding of this verse, Walter Bradley observes:
The Hebrew word eretz used in Genesis 7:19 is usually translated “earth” or “world” but does not generally refer to the entire planet. Depending on the context, it is often translated “country” or “land” to make this clear … [For example,i]n Genesis 12:1, Abram was told to leave his eretz. He was obviously not told to leave the planet but rather to leave his country… [Another] comparison to obtain a proper interpretation of Genesis 7:19 involves Deuteronomy 2:25, which talks about all the nations “under the heavens” being fearful of the Israelites. Obviously, all nations “under the heavens” was not intended to mean all on planet Earth.

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25 November 2013

Science and the Book of Genesis

Note: This is the first of a six-part series in Meridian Magazine

Part One: Taking the Stories of Genesis Seriously

The book of Genesis has always been a favorite of mine. Since I was a small child, I have read it over and over, relishing its spiritual truths, its literary beauty, and its frank and vivid descriptions of the lives of the patriarchs — intimately entwined as in no other book of scripture with the lives of their immediate and extended families.

While fellow Latter-day Saints will have little problem comprehending my still-growing attachment to the early narratives of Genesis, some of my non-LDS scientific colleagues find it mystifying that I have devoted so much time and attention to a study of what may understandably seem to be no more than a fanciful collection of worn-out fables — one more shard among the dusty discards of the almost bygone religious passage of Western culture. In that regard, it must also be admitted that the central historical claims of Mormonism — and Christianity itself, for that matter — hardly appear any less fantastic to the modern mind than the stories of Adam and Eve. Even in the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens approved as Hannay charged the Mormons with “the absurdity of seeing visions in the age of railways” — simultaneously commending our “immense practical industry” while decrying our “pitiable superstitious delusion.” His conclusion at that time is one that would be met with understanding nods by many perplexed observers of Mormonism in our day: “What the Mormons do, seems to be excellent; what they say is mostly nonsense.”

Given their status as targets of humor and caricature, the well-worn stories of Adam, Eve, and Noah are sometimes difficult to take seriously, even for some Latter-day Saints. However, a thoughtful examination of the scriptural record of these characters will reveal not simply tales of “piety or … inspiring adventures” but rather carefully crafted narratives from a highly sophisticated culture that preserve “deep memories” of revealed understanding. We do an injustice both to these marvelous records and to ourselves when we fail to pursue an appreciation of scripture beyond the initial level of cartoon cut-outs inculcated upon the minds of young children. Hugh Nibley characterized the problem this way:


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In God's Image and Likeness 2 Now Available for Pre-order!

We're pleased to announce that you can now pre-order the forthcoming In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel at Amazon. Several years in the making, Jeff Bradshaw and David Larsen are excited to complete their commentary on the book of Moses.

Just visit this link to reserve one of the first copies. You can also go over to the IGIL2 excerpts page to see a sneak preview of the chapter on Genesis 11 here.

Please don't hesitate to contact Jeff to share your thoughts, as he loves hearing from his readers!

06 November 2013

Symposium on Science and Mormonism

For those who registered for this weekend's symposium, don't forget to come hear Jeff's presentation, "Science and Genesis: A Personal View". For those that weren't able to register, the symposium will be streamed live here.

A summary of the symposium is as follows:
Science and Mormonism have nearly always been on very friendly terms, with Church members sharing the deep conviction that, as expressed by former scientist and apostle Elder James E. Talmage, "within the gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man, or yet to be made known." Subsequent Presidents and General Authorities of the Church have advanced similar views about the ultimate compatibility of religious and scientific truths and, with notably few exceptions, have maintained markedly positive attitudes toward both the methods and conclusions of mainstream science and the advance of modern technology.

This symposium will feature the personal perspectives of prominent LDS scientists addressing the theme of "Cosmos, Earth, and Man." Through presentations, panels, and interactive discussions, attendees will hear concise and colorful summaries of the state-of-the-art in scientific research relating to these topics and will gain a deeper appreciation of the unique contributions of LDS doctrine to the ongoing conversation.
The full program of the day can be seen here, and, as always, the presentations will be available online afterwards on the official Interpreter site.