A New Creation from the Old

A debate about the relationship between the Genesis Creation story and Science has been going for more than a century. It isn’t often a polite debate, with both sides accusing the other of ignorance and blasphemy. The end result is the two sides rejecting the methodology and presumptions of the other (usually the scientists wholehearted and the religious perfunctory). When the religious do take the side of the scientist it is often by mythologizing the Creation and by extension neutering its textual power. The scriptural narrative becomes a shadow of its formerly perceived importance.

To be fair, the original writers didn’t have the scientific understanding of the modern era. That is the approach of a new set of religious exegesis Genesis researchers. They postulate the theory that in order to truly understand the Creation account, and end the debates, it is necessary to study what the pre-science writers intended. And what they were doing in Genesis, according to the new paradigm that is considered the old, was “naming” and “ordering” the already existent material to form functional stability from chaos. This sounds perfectly Mormon, but there is a catch. Functional in this case means making what already has existed and formed of the material and making making it consecrated. still a very Mormon concept to be sure, but it throws out the whole of the material creation as a God involved process. A religious person must before the Genesis account assume God already created the material, was not involved with the material creation, or that what He did create was evil. The Genesis Creation account becomes a post-Creation account.

This leaves a big gap for the scientific modern understanding. Although there are strengths to the chaotic-order Creation paradigm, many of them Mormon supportable like the already existent matter, it still puts into question the “Truth” and “Historicity” of the Creation. For a modern people who associate mythologizing and allegory as lies for at best a better truth, the profound spiritual viewpoints are not enough. The material world is far more real and important than it ever was in the ancient past. There still must be some “concordance” (matching historical knowledge with scriptural events) to make it valuable beyond the original writer’s intent.

The key to having a modern interpretation of an ancient viewpoint is Nephi’s use of Isaiah. After having quoted Isaiah, he says in 2 Nephi 25:1, “For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” As a Jew from Jerusalem he states in 2 Nephi 25:5, “for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews” Knowing the way people think and their history helps in understanding what they write. For those who want to interpret Genesis according to the ancients, this is a powerful endorsement. Yet, it is only half the equation of Scriptural usage. Despite or even because of all that Nephi knew about the Jews, he says in 1 Nephi 19:23, ” I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” He related the past writings to his contemporary situation. Not only did he expound on the difficult words of Isaiah, but he made them relatable and significant to the readers. He saw a material manifestation of the spiritual teachings in his life.

Perhaps one of the most common criticisms of “concordance” or comparing science with the Genesis Creation account is that they are not the same. The formation of the Universe, the Earth, and Evolution does not follow the steps associated with Genesis. Not only that, but there are at least two accounts that are seen as in conflict with each other. Taken at face value this seems like a very tall wall to climb in order to shake hands with the other side. As the scientists insist, we are not dealing with an obervable account. To quote from an earlier take on this subject:

To come to some kind of conclusion about what the Scripture creation narratives are describing for the natural world, the text is best read in non-linear construction. Details are at most bare minimum and often describe the end products. Remember that all things are in front of God at all times while He communicates to us time locked mortals. The recorded narratives are going to be out of time and space alignment. Yet, there is organization in the various narratives.

Because all Scriptural Creation accounts are spiritual, there is not going to be a scientific explanation full of step by step processes. Different accounts have separate purposes. None of them are going to be a scientific treaties. This acknowledgement should not be taken too far. The “God of Mormonism” is also considered a material scientist who is all knowing and omniscient. Within the revelations about Creation will be found the core truths of scientific facts. They may be couched in incomprehensible to a modern reader language and metaphysics, but they can be found. For the sake of continued relevance, they must be found and incorporated with caution.

The issue at stake in the modern era is less what did the ancients mean by the Creation, as how does our current knowledge fit into the narrative? We can always separate the Creation account with the Universe and Evolution formation accounts. It might be satisfactory to some. That doesn’t sit well with an observational modern scientific worldview where literature and poetry are considered diversions. As stated before, materialism and history are seen as facts while metaphor and allegory are pretty lies. Perhaps it speaks more about the modern deficit of spirituality than the lack of ancient scientific knowledge. Imagination and higher consciousness has been usurped by notions of hard reality. All the more reason to find a way to bridge the ancient viewpoint and modern materialist perspectives. Those who cannot see themselves in the Scriptures will have a hard time finding God.

12 thoughts on “A New Creation from the Old

  1. I really don’t understand the desire to make the creation *STORY* make sense in terms of science. I think Brigham Young said it best when he acknowledged that the Creation Story was just that – a story God told humans because we couldn’t (and didn’t need to!) understand what actually happened.

    The critical points are:
    1. God presented a plan for our potential exaltation, and we accepted it.
    2. The plan required worlds for God’s spirit children to enter mortality, receive bodies, and be tested.
    3. God undertook some actions which caused worlds to be created.
    4. God put human spirits into bodies which had been prepared.
    5. God has to obey eternal law – so the entire above processes had to conform with both spiritual and physical law (i.e., “science” to use our terminology).

    The only points of disagreement between LDS and the “pure/hard core science” on the matter are: “Was God involved in the process, and if so how?” Those are precisely the points that can *never* be reconciled between the two view points regardless of how much either of the sides bends. LDS folks accept points 1 through 5, science folks focus on point 5.

    So *my* conclusion is that the whole debate doesn’t matter, just do one’s best to live the Gospel and wait to see the movie after this portion of our existence is over.

  2. “I really don’t understand the desire to make the creation *STORY* make sense in terms of science.”

    At the time that science wasn’t part of every day life and philosophy, there wouldn’t be a need. We are living in a time much different than Brigham Young were science is considered Truth and anything that doesn’t conform to that is false and lies. We are living in a very concrete thinking world where “myth” is seen as the opposite of valuable. If there is not at least a minimum argument that the Bible and Science can go together (even if the assumptions and literalness about the stories are toned down or re-interpreted) then faith for many will be hard to maintain.

    I personally think that the Creation, as my past posts have indicated, does make enough sense in scientific terms that we can re-story for a modern audience. Mormons through our Temple understanding of the Creation and Fall are well positioned to lead the way. We just need to explain how the Bible is a religious telling of material events.

    Consider this long, but well explained, presentation by an evangelical Christian. I doubt his audience or he himself realize it, but this is pretty much Joseph Smith Jr. if not Mormonism in approach. That it happens to apparently be the ancient viewpoint is an added bonus:

    https://youtu.be/8fn1ESgtNi4

    Now, we can take that information and then formulate a more science-centric interpretation of Genesis. All the ingredients of the Universe formation, Sun and Moon formation, Earth formation, and Evolution exist in the text in only a slightly jumbled order. If the ancients can mythologize the Creation, I don’t see why we can’t mythologize the science behind the Creation to have a modern interpretation of the accounts.

  3. How many of us understand the workings of the tools that we use every day such as cell phones? I can break one but I can’t make one. I can give a very simple explanation to a child, although several of my grandchildren could probably make one given time and material. I am fairly well informed on subjects like geology and biology and therefore I know that we are far from having complete understanding of almost all scientific subjects. Even more confusing is the recent popularity of fact denial, as in areas such as sex and race. With several young relatives who stoutly demand that I acknowledge them as what they want to be instead of what they are, I find the quibble over versions of creation rather quaint. It really boils down to whether things were planned and executed through the mediation of a beneficent and loving Being, or it was all an accident, or even worse, a joke. Truth is and cannot be changed by reason, wishes or opinions, but I find that my life is better when I believe in a loving creator who will help me understand it all eventually.

  4. Ben Spackman has given the best answer. We are confusing genres. For example, some of the Bible is poetry, and we would do violence to it by forcing it into another genre. The Creation does not fit within a modern history/science genre.
    Jesus’ parables are not history, but have great value within their genre. So it is with the Creation myth.

  5. This is a really interesting post. My dad always said that Isaiah 5:26-30 was Isaiah’s attempt to describe modern airplane travel using an ancient vocabulary. If you were a prophet living in 700 BC, how else could you describe this technology. The writers of the creation accounts did not have a modern scientific vocabulary. Also, their purpose in telling the creation story was not to describe God’s engineering, but to testify that he was the creator.

    You may be interested in a post I wrote a couple of years ago on the subject of science and religion: https://mormondoctor.com/2016/03/03/science-and-religion/

  6. Regarding the scientific matching of the creation I once ran across once a video of someone preporting to show how each of the 17 different creation accounts he had identified in the bible matched current scientific knowledge.

    Another thing that helps is making sure you are using the right frame of reference. Moses 1 tells us the story is only about the creation of this earth and if you are standing on the earth then light would be day one but stars and sun and moon wouldn’t “appear” till day three because the atmosphere would have been to thick.

    Regarding Purpose both Dr. Walton and Tom Wright make the cogent point that Genesis 1 is a narrative of Temple construction designed to show, in Wrights words, “A good God creating a good world to be his dwelling place.” i.e. material creation is worthy of respect. Because in many ancient views the position as “center” of the cosmos was not an honor but more like being the drain in the center of a shower .

  7. The material world is far more real and important than it ever was in the ancient past

    I try to compare this with the average person living in Old Testament times who likely built their own house of of rocks, ate food that they grew or raised themselves, wove clothing out of wool that they sheared from sheep, and drew water out of a well in the ground. It seems that a person in that era might be more in tune with the material world than ours.

    As for truth or historicity, I look at the creation accounts and take away a couple of nuggets of knowledge. One is that God was directing the work, and that he did this for our benefit. Genesis is not a How-to Guide. Same principles apply in the description of the cosmos in the book of Abraham, where God shows Abraham a model of the universe with the intent to teach that “I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.” [Abr 3:19] The account in the Pearl of Great Price is not meant to be a working model of the universe, any more than Genesis is meant to be a working model of the creation, beyond the basic spiritual messages that God is over all. That’s my take. And as so much of our theology and doctrine are not systematically codified, you are entitled to your own opinions.

  8. What I don’t know.
    I don’t know God’s limitations regarding his power.
    I believe, in defiance of many physical laws, Jesus walked on water, calmed the winds and the waves with a command, brought Lazarus three-days-dead body back to life; Moses parted the Red Sea, Zenos moved a mountain, Jehovah, with a spiritual finger, lit some inert stones with a perpetual light, and on and on. I totally believe it. Can’t explain it and know absolutely that there is no way to explain it with the physical laws we currently have.
    What I know.
    Something else is at work here. I have had experiences that are unexplainable by a simple reference to electrochemical sensory perception. These repeated and repeatable experiences give rise to my deep belief that something else is a work here. Physical laws are a lower order set of laws. Spiritual laws govern.
    My opinion
    As believers, until we can describe what power and interaction causes these physical laws to bow, we are, well, silly to think we can say–with our paltry understanding of the interactions of matter, even on the scale of a world let alone a universe—what methods God may or may not have used to create/organize a world. I am as equally prepared to accept the idea that he used a long process–one that would validate the apparent physical data–as I am to accept that he left us that data, perhaps only to learn about our physical world; all the while, with no deception on his part, simply bringing it into being along the lines of the methods described in the creation accounts. I dare not call it a myth lest I offend God. I just don’t know His limits and refuse to put a limit on it. I am okay with sounding the fool for believing it in the face of the currently apparent science, because I accept that spirit governs in the affairs of things to be acted upon, e.g., physical matter, no matter the size and scope. Yoda and Luke anyone?

  9. Joel,

    Thanks. I also am not willing to limit God with my own understandings and limitations. I see no need to reconcile Genesis and science. I accept each in its own sphere. I am happy with accepting the scriptural creation account as written, just as I am happy accepting the virgin birth and the resurrection. It’s a choice I make, and it makes everything work better for me.

  10. The higher dimensions of space and time spelled out in quantum-theory and string-theory open up a place where the miracles, mysteries, omni-presence, and omniscience of God fit in very well.

    Thinking of time as multi-dimensional, and God being able to transit along those dimensions, gave me a new understanding of the word “eternal” as used in scriptures, especially Section 19.

    We are limited to 3 dimensions of space, and 1 dimension of time. Take a mathematical/science view of higher dimensions of both space and time, and imagine an intelligent being existing, working, moving about those dimensions…. and you get something similar to what the scriptures say God can do.

    “Spirit” may be quantum particles and quantum waves/radiation that we haven’t discovered yet.

    Fer instance, we don’t know what makes gravity works. We have formulas for how it works. But we don’t know how or why gravity is an inherent property of mass.

  11. Alan Sanderson,

    “Isaiah 5:26-30 was Isaiah’s attempt to describe modern airplane travel using an ancient vocabulary.” I remember hearing this in seminary in the 90s, and it’s still in the current seminary manual as “Background Information” in the form of a 1954 quote from Elder LeGrand Richards. But Elder Richards doesn’t explain nor in my own reading could I come up with a plausible way to fit a prophecy of the airplane into the context of Isaiah 5. Isaiah 5 is a record of Judah’s sins (see e.g. verses 7-8, 11-12, 20-23) providing justification for why the Lord would allow Judah’s enemies to overrun its territory with their armies. This fits in the greater context of chapters 1-12 which relate Isaiah’s judgment and hope for Jerusalem, and based on Isaiah 7:15-17, this will all take place within ~10 years of Isaiah issuing the prophecy.

    Can we read a description of modern planes and trains into Isaiah 5? Sure, in a secondary way. But insisting that Isaiah’s primary message is a description of an invention some 2600 years in the future instead of the moral and ethical problems of Jerusalem’s leaders in Isaiah’s own lifetime does violence to the text. The same violence done by insisting Genesis 1 be a scientific explanation to satisfy a modern audience instead of a liturgical text to teach an ancient near eastern audience.

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