President McKay was an educator before he was called to be an apostle and future church president. Was he more open to evolution than other LDS leaders? Ben Spackman will answer that question.
Ben: When people bring up Mormon Doctrine, orMan, His Origin and Destiny, I tend to point to President McKay because President McKay on several occasions was very friendly to evolution….Then in 1965, in general conference, David O. McKay quotes him on that point. Now he doesn’t read him at all, but he says, “Here’s a scientist I’ve been reading who talks about a man’s conscience.” So, if you follow that thread, if you get below the tip of that iceberg, that’s a very pro-evolution interpretation of Genesis. David O. McKay clearly doesn’t think that Genesis in any way prohibits evolution. … There was an article that was published in the official Church magazine by a BYU (I think) botany professor, someone who dealt with DNA and other things….This article as it was printed in the Church magazine, has a little black box at the front that says, “This article was read and approved by the editor of the magazine.” If you flip back to the front, the editor is President David O. McKay. Now we have data from his son who was on one of the church committees or something. This article got taken to President McKay by his son to say, “We’re going to run this. Do you want to read it first?” He read the whole thing word for word and said, “This is fantastic work. Run it. I want this box in front.” The box also said, “It is not presented as a position of church doctrine.” So, David O. McKay was very comfortable saying, “Here’s evolution. We’re going to put this in the Church magazine. We’re going to respond to these questions. We’re going to address Genesis. I don’t want to impose it on people as some kind of official doctrine, because it’s not.” But, he was certainly enthusiastic about it.
Many fundamentalist Christians insist on a literal reading of Genesis. Ben Spackman says that the meaning of the word “literal” has literally changed over the centuries!
Ben: The idea of a literal reading goes way, way back to Augustine, actually. He wrote a two-volume commentary on Genesis that he called a literal commentary….When he says, “I want a literal [interpretation].” What he is saying is, “I want to read this according to the author’s intent. What did the author intend this to be?” Augustine’s already a thousand years removed from this Babylonian context. Ben: He has no way of providing an actual, literal interpretation because he can’t get into the mind of the author. He doesn’t have access to the Babylonian material. He doesn’t have access to any of that stuff. A literal reading, and you can find this in the Catholic catechism as well–a literally reading is a reading that gets at what the author intended. It’s a deeply contextual reading. It requires some expertise. It means reading poetry as poetry, reading fiction as fiction, reading history as history. It doesn’t mean a surface reading without context. It doesn’t mean a scientific reading. It means reading according to the authors intent. So, if I have a poem and I try to read that poem as history, that’s not a literal reading. If I have a history that I try to read as metaphor, that’s not a literal reading. If I have a non-natural philosophy creation account, but I try to read as scientific history, that’s not a literal reading. That’s a misreading.
He also talks about religious populism. What is that, and how does it relate to a literal reading?
Ben: our modern idea of literal reading–that I can read it, I can understand it, I don’t need a priest or a pastor, an academic to tell me what it means. It’s part of the populist 19th century, anti-clerical stuff that carries over. It’s not helpful to us. The idea that person “A” reading in English 3000 years removed from these things with no context will understand it the way the author intended, the way the first people heard it is implausible, let’s say kindly.
So how does this fit into LDS history? Joseph Smith had two competing instincts. On the one hand, he was very populist. That’s evident in a couple of places. On the other hand, he studied Hebrew. He did a tiny bit of Greek. He did a little German. He gets asked once, how do you interpret this? And he says, “Well, read it in context.” This is how I would paraphrase. He says, “Well, look at the question, how do you interpret this parable? Look at the question that drew it out, look to context to interpret and understand.” The impulse to context, to Hebrew, to all that kind of thing, I think that kind of died with Joseph Smith. The populism continued. There’s a lot of distrust of experts, of academics, especially academics who have things to say about the Bible, right?
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The Book of Genesis describes the creation of the earth in 7 days. Can that be interpreted through a scientific viewpoint? Ben Spackman will answer that question.
Ben: So Genesis 1 is supposed to be set against this contextual background that the Israelites knew because they were living through it. Once you remove that background, fast forward 2,500 years, generate all kinds of questions about the age of the earth in Darwin and evolution and things like that–the questions we are asking Genesis 1 to answer are not within its scope whatsoever. The cosmology we find there is an ancient cosmology that God used and adapted to teach these other things that were far, far more impressive and important to them. So, in some ways we are deeply misreading Genesis when we read it through a scientific lens, whether that is saying it matches science and young-earth creationist way or it’s really talking about like solar system formation and the long period. Both of those are deep misreadings regardless of the way you try to reconcile them.
We also talk about various theories about the creation of man.
Ben: You go back to 1656 and you’ve got a guy named Isaac La Peyrère who is the one who says Genesis is about the Jewish people and non-Jewish people existed before Adam. This is 1656. He’s not talking about fossils. He’s not talking about evolution. He’s just trying to figure out how do we make sense of where all these different groups of people all over the world come from?
GT: Where do Chinese and blacks and Native Americans come from?
Ben: Yeah, all this stuff. That idea has been given the term polygenism that is–you’re generated from multiple places as opposed to monogenism, that is Adam and Eve, and everyone comes from this one prototypical couple. Polygenism solved certain problems, it created others.
So in the 1800’s, you start seeing science settling into distinct fields and it is professionalizing. You also start seeing what is called scientific racism. That is, you have people who are actual scientists as we would think of them, start thinking scientifically about what accounts for different races and polygenism meant that if these people were created by God, but those people evolved, well then maybe those people aren’t fully human, and we can totally justified treating them as slaves. It led to scientific racism. I don’t know how much it played into the German stuff in the 1930’s. That’s, that’s something that is often overplayed by young-earth creationists that Darwin leads directly to the Holocaust and Nazis.
He mentions another theory too.
Ben: …at first it was called the Babylonian Genesis, the Babylonian creation account. The idea that they were really concerned about, “Where did matter come from, how did it get created?” led to transposing our view of Genesis as a creation account focused on materiality, onto the Babylonian creation account, focused on materiality. But more study of that led to understanding that it wasn’t really concerned with creation per se at all. You can see this in the titles of papers analyzing it over the last hundred years. Today, people don’t call it the Babylonian creation account or the Babylonian Genesis. Rather, it’s become known as the, oh gosh, I’m blanking.
There’s a young god in it who becomes the king of the gods name Marduk. The whole thing from beginning to end is about how Marduk becomes king. It’s the elevation of Marduk. It’s the story of Marduk’s rise to power. The creation stuff in it is a very subsequent to that. It’s part of the story. It’s not the thrust of the story, it’s not even a secondary aspect of the story. It’s just a necessary part of the story to tell, to explain and justify how Marduk came to power.