The answer is: not much, except they were the subjects of two different talks by apostles at General Conference during the morning session April 1.
To sum up, Elder Nelson called into question completely materialistic, non-theistic explanations for the existence of the world, and said that relying only on the Big Bang theory (the actual theory, not the TV show) is a bit short-sighted. In a later talk, Elder Christofferson reminded people that the Church is a church of revelation and that spending your time on hermeneutics and exegesis was to spend some time speaking and reading about God but to ignore the power thereof.
The reaction of some of my more intellectual friends to these talks was interesting. One friend who has a PhD in biology said Elder Nelson’s comments were “anti-science.” There was widespread concern that the apostles are encouraging anti-intellectualism.
I found these talks completely uncontroversial and in line with many, many other things said by apostles over the years. But let’s take a look.
First, what exactly did Elder Nelson say? To quote the Church News:
Elder Nelson said a loving God has provided His children with physical and spiritual gifts. Each organ of the body is a wondrous gift from God — from the eyes to the heart and to the body’s remarkable ability to heal and renew itself.
“Yet some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?’ The likelihood is most remote. But if so, it could never heal its own torn pages or reproduce its own newer editions.”
And what exactly did Elder Christofferson say? You can watch it here.
In some faith traditions, theologians claim equal teaching authority with the ecclasiastical hierarchy, and doctrinal matters may become a contest of opinions between them…others place primary emphasis on the reasoning of post-apostologic theologians or on biblical hermeneutics and exegesis…we value scholarship that enhances understanding, but in the church today just as anciently, establishing the doctrine of Christ…is a matter of divine revelation to those the Lord endows with apostolic authority.”
To sum up Elder Nelson: we did not come here by accident. We were created by a marvelous Creator.
To sum up Elder Christofferson: This is a church of revelation from God, not a church whose doctrines are created by men.
As I say, these are statements that have been made hundreds of times by apostles in the past in many different ways.
I think the “anti-science” claim must be addressed. I will admit this is a bit of a sore spot for me and pushes some buttons.
Here is why: “anti-science” is a code phrase used by the politically correct intellectual elite to put down anybody who does not accept the current consensus on controversial scientific matters. If you don’t accept everything the atheist Richard Dawkins says about evolution, you are “anti-science.” If you do not accept everything the clown Al Gore says about global warming, I mean climate change, you are “anti-science.”
By this logic, Elder Nelson, who by the way is a medical doctor and spent many years doing plenty of science, is therefore “anti-science” because of a few comments at General Conference. (Elder Nelson helped develop the first heart-lung machine and was the first doctor in Utah to perform open-heart surgery, but of course that must because he is “anti-science.”).
We must be as clear as possible: if we read Elder Nelson in context, he was not attacking people who believe in evolution. There are plenty of very smart people, including many of my best personal friends, who believe in evolution and also believe in God. He was simply saying that if you believe that we came here by chance (ie, with no role for a Creator), you are taking a stand that creates logical difficulties.
It also must be disappointing for many intellectual Mormons out there that when they hear the word “hermeneutics” used by an Apostle it is to warn people not to rely too much on hermeneutics. From a purely emotional standpoint, it must hurt a bit to hear your field downplayed in this way. But again, once you read and/or hear the comment in context, what Elder Christofferson said becomes completely uncontroversial. What he is saying is: we are a religion of revelation and divine authority, and it is revelation that drives doctrine, not endless study and endless arguing. If you listen to the entire talk, his point is that our doctrine is actually quite simple and can even be understood by children.
The concern among some of my intellectual friends seems to be that they will have quotes thrown at them saying, “see, the apostles have said the big bang never happened,” and “why do we have to study all these old texts — we only need to rely on revelation!” And it is likely these things will be said. My advice is: print out a copy of the entire talk and show the skeptic what the apostles actually said in context. The truth will set them free.