Dialogue Flood Article

September 9, 2007 | 103 comments
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I have a vague recollection of President Benson telling a story about how (not) to do missionary work: he compared it to trying to convince a young girl to replace the doll she had with the doll you were offering her. He pointed out that ripping the head off of her doll to reveal its inferior contents may not be the most successful approach; you would be far better off in extolling the virtues of the doll you wanted her to play with. Good advice. I wish White and Thomas had followed it in their recent Dialogue article.

Instead, they lay out the case for why a universal flood is scientifically impossible–a position for which the evidence is so overwhelming that it is akin to ripping the head off of a favored doll. My fear is that the naive reader of scripture will respond to this full frontal assault in one of two ways: they will either give up on the authority of the text (“well, if it is impossible, then I guess it is just another primitive folk tale”) or they will become entrenched in their opposition to science (if you have a strong stomach, click here to see where this attitude can lead). Neither of these is a good–or even necessary–outcome.

A better approach is to lay the groundwork for a non-traditional reading of the Bible in a way that a traditionalist can accept. This topic is on my mind as I did it this week as I taught the first session in a year-long Institute class on Genesis. I began with a statement (that, unfortunately, I can’t find the citation for) that the purpose of Genesis is to tell “not how it was, but why it is.” I used the story of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib as an example. President Kimball taught that “the story of the rib, of course, is figurative” (President Spencer W. Kimball, “The Blessings and Responsibilities of Womanhood,” Ensign, March 1976, page 70f.) In other words, this rib story is not “how it was.”

Elder Nelson taught, “I presume another bone could have been used, but the rib, coming as it does from the side, seems to denote partnership. The rib signifies neither dominion nor subservience, but a lateral relationship as partners, to work and to live, side by side.” (Elder Russell M. Nelson, “Lessons from Eve,” Ensign, Nov. 1987, page 86f.) In other words, the rib story is “why it is.” (Or, at least, “how it should be.” But that’s a topic for another post.)

With this gentle encouragement, my class was more than willing to set aside factual/historical/scientific questions and focus on the symbolic meaning and moral implications of the text. A woman who I regard as a staunch traditionalist pointed out that God taught Moses the same lesson when Moses asked, “Tell me, I pray thee, why these things [i.e., the earth and its inhabitants] are so, and by what thou madest them?” (Moses 1:30) and God responded, “For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me.” In other words: I’ll tell you why I created them, but not how. (Although we are promised in D & C 101: 33 that, at the Second Coming, we will learn “things of the earth, by which it was made.” Which, incidentally, implies that we currently don’t have revealed how the earth was made.)

This is a long way to make a short point: don’t burst anyone’s bubble unless you have a new balloon to offer in hand. Most people are more or less relieved to be offered a new and better balloon: they don’t have to read a dozen pages in Dialogue on the scientific impossibility of a worldwide flood to get that a worldwide flood defies the laws of nature. What they need are not facts but rather a framework for incorporating the facts that they already suspect.

One more point on that: the pages of scientific proof fall flat in the face of a very simple argument: “God could have altered (or perhaps: applied a better understanding than we currently have of) these laws and a universal flood could indeed have happened.” While I personally am not persuaded by this argument, I’m not sure how people who believe in a resurrection could easily dismiss it. It is hard to imagine that a faithful LDS reader would be persuaded by a Dialogue article on the scientific impossibility of bodily resurrection; similarly, a believer in the universal flood is likely to remain unconvinced by White and Thomas’ article.

What would have been more persuasive would have been to show how the story itself allows for the interpretation of the flood as geographically limited. White and Thomas do acknowledge this when they write:

For example, some recent commentators have argued that the Hebrew word ’eretz is translated in the King James Version both as “land” and as “earth,” but twice as often as “land,” as in such phrases as “the land of Canaan” (Exod. 6:4), “the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:33) or “the land which he promised them” (Deut. 9:28). Thus, they argue, the miraculous rainfall may have been localized to the whole face of a certain land or
lands and need not necessarily refer to the entire planet.

But they bury it as an aside instead of making it the centerpiece of their article. (They also miss the best example: unless you believe that Cain was removed from the planet [see Genesis 4:11], then you see the need to sometimes translate ‘eretz as ‘land’ instead of ‘earth.’) The idea that faithfulness to the story as written does not require belief in a universal flood (or six-24-hour-period creation, etc., etc.) is a huge and important idea. (Hugh Nibley suggested another option: that the [universal] flood story is literally true from Noah’s perspective. This seems reasonable to me, and sets us up for some interesting thoughts when, in the next chapter, Lot’s daughters {update: I had originally put “Noah” instead of “Lot;” what I meant to say was that there are numerous similarities between Noah drunk with his sons and Lot drunk with his daughters} interpret the local absence of males as a universal absence. But again I digress.)

Another flaw in White and Thomas’ approach is that, in their effort to show that the flood story is not scientifically accurate, they assume that it is scientifically accurate. An example:

Noah built an actual ark and took with him his family, seven each of every ritually clean “bird, beast, and creeping thing,” and two each of all ritually unclean birds, beasts, and creeping things (Gen. 7:2).

While this literalist reading is one possibility, a more compelling reading relies on ancient ideas of number symbolism: the Old Testament itself has already established, before the flood story, a strong inclination to treat numbers symbolically. For example, Genesis 2:1-3, a text that establishes the importance of the seventh day, repeats the word ‘seven’ three times, each time in a sentence with seven words. In this case, not just the content but also the form work to persuade the reader that the seventh day is a day of completion. In fact, “completion” or “perfection” are the best shorthand understandings of the symbolism of the number seven, and it is just as consonant (if not more) with the flood text itself to read the “seven” animals as a representation of a “complete” or “perfect” number of animals as it is to read it as being ‘one more than six.’

I applaud White and Thomas’ effort to follow the advice (which they quote) from Elder Widtsoe that “The scriptures must be read intelligently.” [I also admire their patience and fortitude; they note: "After some three years and about five major revisions to suit the editor, BYU Studies essentially accepted the article. After yet another review by another panel, the article was rejected."] But in addition to being read intelligently, the scriptures must also be taught intelligently. And in trying to disprove a universal flood by scientific means instead of by persuading the audience that the text itself doesn’t require (or even prefer) that reading, they have, so to speak, missed the boat.

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103 Responses to Dialogue Flood Article

  1. J. Stapley on September 9, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    I disagree Julie. You simply want this article to be something it isn’t. It seems to me that the authors simply wanted to outline some scientific reasons that the world-wide flood story shouldn’t be taken literally and show some ramifications of those facts. I don’t believe this article was intended to be the Great Mormon Instructor on the Limited Flood.

  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 9, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    The most direct reason for an alternative reading of the Bible is the fact that the Bible reports that Noah’s grandson divided the land with the gentiles they encountered, according to their languages — well before the Tower of Babel.

    That means that Noah’s family encountered others that were not part of their group and did not speak their language fairly soon after the flood (by the time the grandchildren were active).

  3. Julie M. Smith on September 9, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    I get that, J., but I think the point (“to outline some scientific reasons that the world-wide flood story shouldn’t be taken literally”) is pointless. Everybody–including staunch traditionalists such as Elder McConkie, who they quote in the article–already knows that there are abundant and persuasive scientific reasons for dismissing a worldwide flood. And yet literalists continue to believe in it despite the flood of evidence . . . what would lead us to think that one more iteration of the evidence would change their minds?

    No one has ever said, “I wouldn’t believe in a literal flood if only their were more scientific evidence against it.” Instead, they believe because they think faithfulness to the text requires it and they have already decided to value faithfulness to the text over (supposedly) competing scientific evidence. If the goal is to discourage belief in a world-wide flood, we don’t need (more, again) scientific facts–we need an interpretive framework for what to do with them.

  4. Julie M. Smith on September 9, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    Stephen M, interesting. Another possible reading is that the story is not told chronologically.

  5. Frank McIntyre on September 9, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    I agree with Julie. It is vastly more compelling to show that the text is consistent with a localized flood than to simply complain about scientific evidence. The resurrection example is right on. Mormons are already pre-committed to believing that events can happen even if they seem fantastically unlikely to the natural (aka purportedly scientific) world-view.

    It seems like the grand culmination of an article about the scientific implausibility of a global flood would be to show that the flood “would have taken a miracle”. Newsflash– we already knew it was a miracle, localized or global.

  6. J. Stapley on September 9, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    I don’t believe the resurrection is an applicable parallel. Let’s say, however impossible, there were indisputable scientific proof that the body of Jesus had been found (and I realize that such evidence is impossible, but let’s pretend). This information might drastically alter resurrection doctrine. It is still miraculous, He still lives, but it would indicate that bodies of resurrected folks stick around. Of course this is all absurd, but the consideration of scientific realities has the ability to mold belief. If folk want to believe in a second creation or super-evolution after the consideration of scientific evidence that is fine.

  7. Adam Greenwood on September 9, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    Not to really object to anything you say here, but I think figurative readings are valuable in themselves, not just as replacements for literal, historical readings. I don’t see *why* we should care if some believe in a literal, world-wide flood.

  8. Clair on September 9, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Which is the more persuasive evidence of Jesus’ resurrection – that his body was missing that morning, or that he appeared in physical form to Mary, the apostles, the Nephites, etc.? If it is the latter, then it should not matter if a remainder of his physical body is found. The remainders of bodies are spread throughout the landscape and incorporated into every worm and tree. Maybe the nonessential details of our resurrection doctrine are more sure than is justified.

    Oh, and the same for the flood.

  9. Ronan on September 9, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    I also don’t buy the resurrection parallel. The resurrection of one man is not verifiable — there is simply no way to prove or disprove it. But a worldwide 11,000m-high flood 5,000 years ago is verifiably rubbish.

  10. Ronan on September 9, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    Julie,
    I’m going to read the article tonight, but tell me quickly: do they mention the (demonstrably earlier) Mesopotamian Flood tales?

  11. Jacob J on September 9, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Ronan (#10), Yes.

  12. Ardis Parshall on September 9, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Julie, you are a marvelous teacher. You know your audience, you teach to the needs of that audience, and not to the natural desire of one-who-knows-more to show off how much more she knows. As a member of the class (although not in the classroom) you’re addressing, I can say you have hit on my needs exactly, with illustrations — like the resurrection — that are extremely effective for me.

    The scientists around here may have different requirements, but I think you were speaking to those of us who are not equipped to do the science ourselves, but have to trust what others say, and need a way to reconcile what we think they’re saying with everything else we believe or think we know. (Apologies for my twisted sentence — you’ve just turned on a couple of lights, and my brain is focusing on that rather than on good grammar.)

  13. Julie M. Smith on September 9, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Adam, I do agree with your position, especially in a teaching context: the less said about historicity and the more about moral teachings, the better.

    Ardis, thank you for your kind words.

    J. Stapley and Ronan, I don’t think you’ve adequately addressed the resurrection analogy. The position of Thomas and White is (if I am reading them correctly) is “if the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly against it, then you shouldn’t believe in it.” Well, that’s not a standard compatible with Mormonism: not only the Resurrection but everything from the LoC to the WoW to angels, priesthood power, Jesus’ miracles, and answers to prayers are in huge trouble if I can’t believe in them if the science doesn’t support them.

  14. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 9, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    “Another possible reading is that the story is not told chronologically.”

    True, but how do we get gentiles in the time of Noah’s grandson, when you read the other genealogies and such?

    I’ve seen the standard interpretations, have read more than I care to remember, but the easiest clean reading of the text, with the least number of assumptions and twists of logic … is consistent with the text itself relating to the “story of this earth [land]” only being given.

  15. Julie M. Smith on September 9, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Stephen, that approach would simply make ch11 the explanation for what happened in ch10. I’m not particularly convinced of that reading–yours seems equally reasonable, if not more so.

  16. mmiles on September 9, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    Julie,
    Ditto what Ardis said. I can’t say it better than she did, so I won’t try . You have such amazing insight! I will add though that I really hate sitting in GD when people are theorizing (people being literalists) about how all the animals fit on the ark. Drives me crazy–what does that have to do with anything?

  17. R. Gary on September 9, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    Julie, you no doubt already know this, but Guide to the Scriptures at LDS.org says:

    During Noah’s time the earth was completely covered with water. This was the baptism of the earth. (s.v. Flood at Noah’s Time.)

    Is it really your job as Institute instructor to teach that the student manual is wrong?

    “The earth was immersed. It was a period of baptism.” (Religion 301: Old Testament Student Manual, Genesis—2 Samuel [2003], p.55.)

  18. Silus Grok on September 9, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    The issue of planetary baptism has always been a sticky one with me, given that I don’t believe in a literal reading of the Noah story… as a local flood is much more akin to sprinkling.

    Thoughts anyone?

  19. Julie M. Smith on September 9, 2007 at 7:29 pm

    R. Gary asks, “Is it really your job as Institute instructor to teach that the student manual is wrong?”

    It is part of my job as an Institute instructor to help my students understand the difference between scripture and commentary on scripture. We don’t believe that the scriptures are without error; it boggles the mind that I would teach my students that commentary on the scriptures is without error.

    But more to the point, I don’t “teach” a limited flood. I review the evidence supporting the idea of a local flood (pros and cons) and the evidence supporting a universal flood (pros and cons) and tell my students that faithful LDS can believe either. (And I really do believe this. If you go back to the post I did for my SS lesson notes, you’ll see that I defend in theory those who believe in a universal flood.) I also tell them that focusing on the issue too much (on either side) is a distraction from what the scriptures are really about–namely, moral lessons and personal application thereof.

    Silus, Elder Talmage had a good solution to that (in the article). Also, I don’t know why the earth’s baptism would need to be by full immersion just because human baptism does.

  20. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 9, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    Well, is a planet like a child of less than eight years of age? Do either need baptism?

  21. Silus Grok on September 9, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks, Julie.

  22. Mike Parker on September 9, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    I was wondering when Gary was going to make an appearance. [g]

    The answer to your question, Gary, is that it is the right and responsibility of an instructor to bring up different faithful points of view about subjects that are difficult and on which we have not received definitive revealed answers.

    The alternative is to remain dogmatic to one particular interpretation and possibly damage the testimonies of those who do not agree with you.

    In this particular instance, the scale and scope of the Flood is one such subject that is difficult and on which we have not received a definitive revealed answer. The manual represents one particular viewpoint. Just because it is the one you agree with is not a reason to ignore others.

  23. Silus Grok on September 9, 2007 at 7:40 pm

    Julie: I’ve downloaded the article, but can’t find a reference to “talmage” any where… and a search on “baptism” only turns-up the comment on Elders McConkie. It’s probably just user error, but would you mind citing the page on which the reference to Elder Talmage’s alternate is mentioned?

    Stephen: the reading of the scriptures you raise when discussing Noah’s grandchildren raises the issue of whether Noah was, indeed, a second father to all man-kind…

  24. Julie M. Smith on September 9, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    Silus, my mistake. Sorry about that. It was Elder Widstoe. See the bottom of p88 and the top of p89.

  25. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 9, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    “the reading of the scriptures you raise when discussing Noah’s grandchildren raises the issue of whether Noah was, indeed, a second father to all man-kind…”

    Or was Abraham one for that matter? Or Israel?

    Or are we children of Christ as well?

  26. Silus Grok on September 9, 2007 at 8:07 pm

    Found it, thanks Julie!

    : )

    So… and I’m having a difficult time capturing my thoughts on this front as I would like, but there seems to be an underlying question with regards to the flood story — and any story for that matter: what value does it have in the greater scheme of things. If we reject the flood story as being less-than-perfectly-literal, what (if anything) of value do we loose? We loose the concept of planetary baptism, we loose the notion that Noah is our “second father” next to Adam (although, genetically, given the time that’s passed he’s most certainly in each of our gene pools)… what else do we loose?

    I know, growing up, that planetary baptism resonated to my adolescent mind as sure-proof that God was fair and not a respecter of spirits… that the doctrine of the church was inwardly consistent. And that was _really_ important to me. It’s still somewhat important to me, but I much more appreciate that God can be no respecter of persons and that his gospel can be inwardly consistent even if our understanding of it isn’t — but I wonder what else I might be loosing…

    I apologize for the rambling nature of the comment. I’m just thinking out-loud, here.

  27. Geoff J on September 9, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    it boggles the mind that I would teach my students that commentary on the scriptures is without error.

    Hehe. Nice retort, Julie. I may borrow that some time.

    Also, I don’t know why the earth’s baptism would need to be by full immersion just because human baptism does.

    Agreed. We don’t baptize non-humans (like, say, the family dog) for remission of so why should we assume non-living things like the earth would require it. It is a fun little bit of speculation and all but it doesn’t hold up under examination.

  28. R. Gary on September 9, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    Julie (19) and Mike (22),

    All of us may believe whatever we want. But we are not authorized to teach it in a Church setting unless it is grounded in the scriptures.

    “It is the business of those who are to teach His children to teach the principles of the gospel [not] notions or guesses at truth [not] philosophies or sciences of the world [but] the principles of the gospel as found in the four standard works.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p.59.)

    Click here to see how the Church says the standard works teach a worldwide flood. There are links to more than two dozen references in the standard works and the list concludes with this observation:

    “Taken altogether, these statements should convince every believer in the Bible that the great Deluge was a worldwide event.”

  29. Ray on September 9, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    fwiw, even in this day and age, *many* people take what they understand and assume it is applicable to all – or would be if only everyone else were as enlightened as they. Also, our scriptures are *full* of hyperbolic statements that either express the perspective of the utterer or are exaggerated to make a point. Perhaps the easiest example of this is the idea that Caesar sent out a proclamation that “all the world” should be taxed. I have to assume that he might have been egotistical enough to think that his decree was going out to all the world, but I doubt it; I believe he knew there were parts of the world that would not hear his decree. Nonetheless, he worded it as he worded it for practical and political reasons – probably to reinforce his official status of ruler of the entire world to his subjects who had no idea of the greater world around them.

    “All the world” can be interpreted consistently, IMO, as “all the known world” or “all the land” – as outlined by Julie. I know I’m beating my favorite life-support horse, but people who reject such an interpretation usually do so because of what they have been told the scriptures mean, not necessarily by what those scriptures actually might be saying – or have said in their original form. No matter what interpretation earlier prophets held, it is reasonable to me to allow for different interpretations in light of new scientific information – especially for a Church that believes the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly.” For us to insist that a literal reading of the Bible is the only option completely defeats the message of that Article of Faith, IMO – and that is coming from a hardcore parser in instances where we can be sure we have exactly what the person actually said.

    In summary, I agree completely that whenever we ask non-scientists to give us the “how” instead of the “why” and the “so what” we open ourselves up to the possibility of interpretation and error – even from those who are legitimate prophets and oracles for God. When we start from the supposition that we can’t be sure we have their actual words translated correctly . . .

  30. VeritasLiberat on September 9, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    “a local flood is much more akin to sprinkling.”

    I see it as more akin to baptism by proxy. If one person can be baptized on behalf of hundreds of people who never saw the inside of a font, then it seems logical that a portion of the earth could be baptized on behalf of the rest of it.

  31. Ben S on September 9, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    Since the idea of a planetary baptism was an interpretation of scripture, one cannot then use the idea of planetary baptism to argue FOR a world-wide flood. How do we know the earth was baptized? Because it was completely flooded. How do we know it was completely flooded? Because it was baptized. It’s utterly circular.

    My general argument is, why does the earth in particular need to be baptized? When was it confirmed? Who has its membership? Why don’t plants and animals need baptism?

  32. Ray on September 9, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    #29 – VL, I really like that interpretation, if we feel like we need to stick to a baptism of the earth justification. I think the limited flood belief does not necessitate retaining the baptism of the earth justification, but I like this explanation – since I like the symbolism of the baptism of the earth. My wife tends to be more of a literalist than I, but she was struck immediately by the idea of a proxy baptism of one land on behalf of the others. If nothing else, thank you for providing an alternative that will help her accept the scientific evidence she knows exists.

  33. Bob on September 9, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    If we are down to ‘ “a local flood is much more akin to sprinkling.”, why the ark in the first place? Why a need for the rescue of the animals? Rescue them.. from what?

  34. ed johnson on September 9, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    Frank says: It seems like the grand culmination of an article about the scientific implausibility of a global flood would be to show that the flood “would have taken a miracle”. Newsflash– we already knew it was a miracle, localized or global.

    I think the problem people have with some flood is not merely that it is a single violation of scientific theory, but that it would invalidate a whole system of scientific theory, ranging from biology through geology, anthropology, archeology, etc. Science has built up a whole system of understanding how the world came to be that for the most part seems to fit together pretty well. The only way for it to fit in a universal flood is if you believe in a trickster God who carefully arranged everything to look like there was no flood.

    Whether you are a biologist trying to understand the distribution of species, a geologist trying to guess where the oil is, or an archaeologist trying to understand patterns of early human migration, it’s close to impossible to believe in a universal flood. The flood washes away much of the basic ideas underlying these disciplines and takes us back to square one.

    The resurrection is a completely different case. Believing in the resurrection has no implications at all for studying medicine, for example. It was, as you say, simply a miracle.

  35. Adam Greenwood on September 9, 2007 at 10:29 pm

    Go it, Julie S.

    Ben S., is the planetary baptism and planetary baptism-by-fire not found in modern scripture? I thought it was, for some reason, but some quick noodling doesn’t reveal anything.

  36. Matt W. on September 9, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    The Earth is actually a member of the San Antonio Eden Ward, and is a regular tithe payer and comes to church every Sunday, if anyone is interested.

    Julie, your underlying points on how to teach items which some may consider controversial is very compelling. Makes me want to drive up to Austin for Institute sometime.

  37. Ray on September 9, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    I forgot to mention, Julie, that I also am very impressed by your approach. I would *love* to attend your classes.

  38. Rufus T. Cornpone on September 9, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    In regard to the animals on the Ark, why did Noah bring along two mosquitos and how did he determine which ones were male and female?

  39. Ben S on September 9, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    “Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructor’s certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church.”

    - From BYU Religion department guidelines to professors.

    I don’t see any “clearly revealed” answer on the flood Gary, as much as I see one dominant LDS tradition based on a surface reading of the text.

  40. Matt Evans on September 9, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    I agree with Julie and Frank. Yes, many Mormons believe in miracles, even when they appear to contravene the natural order. And?

  41. R. Gary on September 9, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    Ben S.

    Do the guidelines authorize teaching that the student manual is wrong?

  42. Ray on September 9, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    R. Gary, Julie answered that one already – very well and very clearly in #19.

  43. Aaron Brown on September 9, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    Well, I basically agree with Stapley at comment #1. Many of you want this article to be something other than what it was intended to be. Personally, I would have preferred an even stronger article that exhaustively documented all the scientific problems with the story. The article was weaker than it needed to be as a result of it’s failure to cover more terrain.

    Of course, I would like to read the article that Julie advocates as well. But it would be a very different piece, obviously.

    The notion that “everybody” knows about the scientific problems with a literal Great Flood story is utter nonsense. I’ve run into many, many LDS who had never given a moment’s thought to the “problems”, and upon confronting them, they’ve had to do some major reevaluations.

    Aaron B

  44. Aaron Brown on September 9, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    Frank,

    If the issue were merely that the Great Flood required “a miracle” you (and Matt) might have a point. The problem is that it requires 100s of different miracles (see this: http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/8619_issue_11_volume_4_number_1__3_12_2003.asp). And after a while, it’s fair to raise the question why one should believe in all this expending of mirific energy by God, just to salvage a literal reading of the Genesis story.

    Presumably, you won’t find this line of argument convincing. But there are many who will grant the possibility of miracles (resurrection, the First Vision, Gold Plates being carted back up to heaven by an angel, etc.), and yet find the Great Flood totally implausible, and for these very reasons (I was one such person, many years ago).

    Belief in Mormonism, as well as other branches of Christianity, requires that one accept the reality of certain miraculous events. When the Church makes these miracles central to its claims, and seems aware that it is teaching something clearly amazing and supernatural, many of us can develop faith that these claims are true. But when one learns that a Bible story requires all sorts of intellectual gymnastics for one to read it literally, when a literal reading of the story isn’t central to any core LDS doctrines, and when it doesn’t appear that many of the leaders who’ve advocated belief in it really understand how many scientific problems it raises, it’s not difficult to see why many will jettison belief in the story, based largely on the scientific evidence, and yet continue to belief in the other foundational “miracles” taught by the Church.

    I used to T.A. a Bioethics course at BYU where the subject of the Great Flood, and the scientific problems with it, were sometimes raised. Lots and lots of students, upon learning of the scientific problems with the story (most of which they were not previously aware of), jettisoned belief in it (or flirted with doing so), and few of these, if any, rejected the possibility of God performing miracles (particularly the founding miracles of Mormonism) per se.

    Aaron B

  45. Jeremy on September 10, 2007 at 12:04 am

    The notion that “everybody” knows about the scientific problems with a literal Great Flood story is utter nonsense. I’ve run into many, many LDS who had never given a moment’s thought to the “problems”, and upon confronting them, they’ve had to do some major reevaluations.

    Absolutely. I suspect, for example, that for the half a dozen people who, in the Sunday School class I attended this afternoon, said that the existence of dinosaurs (and, by extension, evolution and death before the fall) was one of those vexing doctrinal issues that they had to “put up on the shelf,” even as our ward meeting house is within a stone’s throw of a huge dinosaur museum, the idea of a merely “damp” flood would be a faith-challenging prospect.

  46. R. Gary on September 10, 2007 at 12:09 am
  47. Richard O. on September 10, 2007 at 12:48 am

    “And a decree went out from Cesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Roman power was fairly limited in America, China, and Australia 2000 years ago.

  48. Ray on September 10, 2007 at 1:39 am

    #45 – and Julie has made it clear that she does NOT teach that the manual is wrong. Again, as a hardcore parser, I don’t like it when someone accuses someone else of something they never said or aren’t doing. You did it once; Julie answered you; you did it again – in the exact same wording she already had answered. Giving me your perspective as written on your blog is fine; I respect that. Charging Julie twice with doing something she clearly did not do is not fine; I cannot respect that.

    I agree with Julie – that your view of the flood is consistent with the opinion of the prophets who have interpreted the OT presentation of the flood and might be correct. However, I repeat what I said in #28 – although I would amend it slightly to say:

    No matter what interpretation earlier prophets held, it is reasonable to allow for different interpretations in light of new scientific information – especially for a Church that believes the Bible to be the word of God “as far as it is translated correctly.” For us to insist that a literal reading of *an interpretation of a translation* the Bible (“world” vs. “land”) is the only option completely defeats the message of that Article of Faith, IMO .

  49. Skip on September 10, 2007 at 1:47 am

    As far as I’m concerned, what Aaron B said in number 43 is the “definitive word” on the subject.

  50. R. Gary on September 10, 2007 at 3:02 am

    Ray,

    This isn’t about whether the flood was universal or local. This is about what the manual says versus what Julie tells her students.

    In her original post above, Julie explains how “to lay the groundwork for a non-traditional reading of the Bible in a way that a traditionalist can accept … as I did it this week as I taught the first session in a year-long Institute class on Genesis.” This, she calls “a better approach” because “they don’t have to read a dozen pages in Dialogue on the scientific impossibility of a worldwide flood to get that a worldwide flood defies the laws of nature.”

    Julie then says (in #19) that she tells her students “faithful LDS can believe either … a limited flood [or] a universal flood.”

    Those are her words, not mine. So knock it off with your false accusations about false accusations. The manual doesn’t say we can “believe either.” The manual teaches a traditional reading and says the flood was universal.

    On the other hand, I believe it is in fact true that “faithful LDS can believe either” because all of us may believe whatever we want. But why does an Institute teacher lay the groundwork for a non-traditional reading of the Bible as preparation for a discussion of a local flood when the scriptures and the manual both teach a worldwide flood?

  51. Geoff J on September 10, 2007 at 3:11 am

    Gary: his is about what the manual says versus what Julie tells her students.

    So I take it you actually do believe church manuals are infallible, eh Gary?

    when the scriptures and the manual both teach a worldwide flood?

    Whether the scriptures actually teach this is one of the questions at hand so simply claiming it does not make it so.

  52. meems on September 10, 2007 at 3:32 am

    Thank you Julie, once again. Your wonderful commentaries on scriptures and various ways to look at things really inspire me.

  53. Ronan on September 10, 2007 at 3:52 am

    Re: the Mesopotamian Flood tales.

    I don’t even have to get started with geology when it is obvious that Genesis blatantly and specifically borrows from the Babylonian tradition. It’s not just that the idea of a flood is common to both traditions, it’s that specific details are directly used by the biblical writer who wrote demonstrably later. It get a chuckle out of the fact that literalists are in fact defending a story whose origins were intended to, among other things, decry the capriciousness of the (pagan) gods. Noah’s basic existence is one thing; the story as we currently have it and in which people seem to exercise so much faith, is something completely else. None of this shakes my belief in Christ crucified.

  54. R. Gary on September 10, 2007 at 4:01 am

    It is about what the Institute manual says, not whether the manual is infallible.

    You can’t teach what you don’t believe. If you don’t believe it, don’t teach it. But don’t use a Church soapbox to say the Church manual is wrong.

  55. Ronan on September 10, 2007 at 4:02 am

    Be sure to take the BCC Monday morning poll.

    Yes, I’m a poacher. So were J and P! : )

  56. Ardis Parshall on September 10, 2007 at 4:27 am

    Imagine being in a classroom with R. Gary and Ronan as lecturers. The one pounds his pulpit and threatens us with hell fire if we read Dialogue or watch a PBS documentary. The other isn’t as wild-eyed, but chuckles condescendingly over his lectern when we look puzzled and ask about the Sunday School lessons we grew up with.

    Adopting either view requires jettisoning valuable ideas for no reason other than that one or the other of you insists that we must. Why be so dismissive of a teacher who explains both dogmas and suggests tools for reconciling the two?

  57. Ardis Parshall on September 10, 2007 at 4:35 am

    R. Gary, Julie is probably asleep right now, the way any sane person in her time zone would be. I’m taking off my reader hat and putting on my admin hat for the moment, to request that you stop accusing her of wrongdoing until she is around to ignore you or answer you as she pleases.

  58. Ronan on September 10, 2007 at 7:17 am

    Ardis,

    I chuckle to myself, honest. I am fully aware of the parameters of good faith that should attend those who teach in the church. As a teacher, I understand that very well and show due respect to the material and the beliefs of my class.

    However, I am fully aware that I am otherwise a smug, condescending git. I’m working on it.

  59. Ronan on September 10, 2007 at 7:19 am

    And for the record: from what I gather, Julie is an excellent, faithful, thought-provoking teacher. I’d be delighted to sit in her class.

  60. Questions on September 10, 2007 at 8:40 am

    Someone named Justin, at BCC, referenced a January, 1998 Ensign article by Donald W. Parry, which is quite relevant to this discussion. Here is the link:

    http://lds.org/portal/site/LDSOrg/menuitem.b12f9d18fae655bb69095bd3e44916a0/?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=4a5557b60090c010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1

    While Ensign articles are not canonized scripture, I would say that at least part of the reason for their publication is to allow the General Authorities to communicate the “official” Church perspective on various issues. And while I don’t believe the author is a GA (please correct me if I’m wrong), the inclusion of his article gives it a “quasi-authoritative” stamp from them.

    This article seems to endorse a fairly literal, traditional view of both the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, and implies that this is the “accepted” LDS take on these issues. Personally, I find this very sad and embarassing.

  61. Ben S on September 10, 2007 at 8:45 am

    Gary, I don’t teach that the manual is wrong. In fact, I don’t say a thing about the manual. I’ve never been in an Institute class or BYU religion class in which the manual was used or even mentioned. In fact, one of my BYU religion profs, who was from the religion department, explicitly told us NOT to get it. I’ve had other experiences in which BYU teachers depart from the manual without explictly saying so. I have no compunctions following their example.

    My didactic loyalty is not to the manual, but to the scriptures.

    What will you do if new manuals come out reversing or allowing these heretical ideas of ours? Will you teach that a worldwide flood is an optional belief if that’s what the manual say?

  62. Ben S on September 10, 2007 at 8:47 am

    Questions, Parry has since rethought some of that article and would write it differently today, largely in response to feedback about that article, IIRC. It was discussed on another post somewhere, but I don’t personally know any of the details.

  63. Frank McIntyre on September 10, 2007 at 9:18 am

    Aaron and ed,

    I very much understand what you are saying. My personal view on the flood is that I really don’t care. I’m fine either way. My point is that if one wishes to convince Mormons that the flood was not universal, Julie is very correct about the best approach.

    The best approach is _not_ to point out that it would take a lot of energy to hide it. I know that “conservation of miracles” is a favorite belief among some people, but it is far from a universal holding among active members. It just makes you sound like you want to limit God’s power.

    Nor is it best to say that if the flood happened, a bunch of science has been suckered by a trickster God. To somebody who really wants to accept the scriptures and believes the scriptures say the flood was global, you are saying that God is tricking them _outright_ in the text. At which point, you’ve still got people being suckered by a trickster God, except now the lies are straight out stated instead of being the result of falling victim to a particular scientific notion about how the universe is “supposed” to work.

    I think the key is to make a local flood plausible scripturally, first. Even if the reading has to be a little strained, as long as its plausible, one can move to the other reasons later.

  64. Jothan on September 10, 2007 at 9:55 am

    I think these articles about a localized regional flood are grossly in error and fail to consider all the abundant physical evidences of a real world wide catastrophic flood event.

    I think that our good evangelical scientifc friends have done a great job in their research and presentation on this and many other biblical topics that support the word of God.

    See http://www.creationism.org/topbar/greatflood.htm

    and also http://www.creationism.org/

  65. Matt Evans on September 10, 2007 at 10:57 am

    Aaron, I like your analysis but think the circumstance most similar to the flood story is the Book of Mormon. Because Mormons are committed to believing the historicity of the Book of Mormon (Joseph Smith didn’t fabricate Angel Moroni, the witnesses of the gold plates weren’t liars or dupes), they already believe God covers his tracks. The key challenge, it would seem to me, would be to show Mormons or BYU students why it’s ridiculous (or any other descriptor) to believe in the historical flood but reasonable to believe in Moroni and his historical civilization. Some apologists have tried to shrink the claims (in both cases to a “limited geography”) but others believe God covers his tracks or that the failure to find Nephites and Lamanites simply highlights the limits of science and reason, proves the foolishness of men who think they are wise, etc.

    I think most Mormons believe the early world really _was_ wondrous and magical, and that God used wondrous and seemingly magical acts like the ark, ten plagues, destruction of Jericho, Joshua stopping the sun, and young David killing a 9-foot man, to affect the hard-hearted. My high school biology teacher (a Mormon) understood evolution, and understood all the evidence for evolution, but he still didn’t think it actually happened. He knows it looks like it happened, but he was more committed to an R. Gary interpretation of scripture, and chose to compartmentalize the two competing versions of biological history.

  66. R. Gary on September 10, 2007 at 11:06 am

    Ben S.

    Re manual reversals: Attempts to reconcile scripture with science in Church manuals goes back at least to 1928 when B. H. Roberts submitted The Truth, The Way, The Life. for use as a Melchizedek priesthood manual. His book was the focus of internal discussions for more than two years until, in 1931, the First Presidency ruled in favor of the apostles who recommended the book not be published by the Church. In the ensuing eighty years, little has changed in terms of Church published manuals. The traditional view is still dominant among the Twelve. What makes you think some huge reversal is suddenly on the horizon?

    Re pet doctrines: For two years in the sixties, I served as a full time missionary among the Lutheran Protestants in Germany. I like what the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (14831546) said more than four hundred years ago:

    “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

  67. Mike Parker on September 10, 2007 at 11:15 am

    May I just say, in passing, that my oldest son will be entering the seminary program in Utah in a few years, and I pray that he gets an Old Testament instructor like Julie.

    Gary writes on his blog that “Institute teachers are supposed to build faith.” I don’t see how teaching an unwavering requirement of a worldwide Flood builds faith in the face of the numerous logical and scientific implausibilities against it. If anything, it’s tearing down the faith of those who know better and still want to believe.

  68. Jeremy on September 10, 2007 at 11:42 am

    I don’t see how teaching an unwavering requirement of a worldwide Flood builds faith in the face of the numerous logical and scientific implausibilities against it. If anything, it’s tearing down the faith of those who know better and still want to believe.

    Amen. What a tragedy it would be if a bright young budding scientist among our ranks fell away from the church because of hostility towards those conclusion that s/he had arrived at through honest, skillful, even faithful scientific inquiry. How sad it would be for our smartest members to feel out of place among us because we left no room for the existence of less literal interpretations of scripture, even when those interpretations left intact everything necessary for salvation.

  69. Jeremy on September 10, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Let me say that last sentence in a less essentializing way: how sad it would be to lose some smart members simply because of cultural hostility towards their fields of study. (I didn’t mean in comment #66 to say that all our smartest members must be scriptural non-literalists, even though that’s how it came out.)

  70. Clark on September 10, 2007 at 11:54 am

    Isn’t there a new OT manual coming out this year? I’ve heard rumors to that effect for some time. Personally I think the OT manual and D&C manual (unless that has recently been revised) are an embarrassment. I can’t believe they’ve been in play this long. Even when I was at BYU no one used them. Even in the rather “traditional” CES based religion classes. And that was more than 15 years ago!

    Regarding teaching the flood. I like to quote Bill Hamblin’s oft quoted discussion on the local flood. Given Hamblin’s position in things, I find quoting it tends to placate even the most zealous literalist.

  71. Clark on September 10, 2007 at 11:54 am

    Isn’t there a new OT manual coming out this year? I’ve heard rumors to that effect for some time. Personally I think the OT manual and D&C manual (unless that has recently been revised) are an embarrassment. I can’t believe they’ve been in play this long. Even when I was at BYU no one used them. Even in the rather “traditional” CES based religion classes. And that was more than 15 years ago!

    Regarding teaching the flood. I like to quote Bill Hamblin’s oft quoted discussion on the local flood. Given Hamblin’s position in things, I find quoting it tends to placate even the most zealous literalist.

  72. Mike Parker on September 10, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    Clark: Could you provide a cite or link to Bill’s piece? I haven’t read it.

  73. Ben on September 10, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Gary: I don’t know about “huge” reversals, but I know there’s a paradigm shift of sorts. As to my sources, I know a person/people involved in the process, and these are the tidbits I’ve heard.

    Clark: Institute manuals are currently being rewritten. Some are done, others aren’t. OT is under construction, last I heard. I don’t know when they’ll appear or what’s left to be done.

    Could you quote the eminently-quotable Hamblin, Clark, or provide a link?

  74. Questions on September 10, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Ben S (#61) said:

    “Parry has since rethought some of that article and would write it differently today, largely in response to feedback about that article, IIRC. It was discussed on another post somewhere, but I don’t personally know any of the details.”

    Thanks for the comment. Along the lines of another post I made here (or BCC, I forget), this puts ‘revelation’ in a very curious light, where science seems to be leading the way toward not only understanding the natural world, but also the scriptures. I could elaborate, but don’t want to threadjack any further.

  75. Julie M. Smith on September 10, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    Questions, I don’t think that is a threadjack at all but is very germane to the concerns many people have.

    My answer: I think we have some folk rubbish mixed into our traditional interpretations of scripture. (Not the scriptures themselves, but the interpretations that we have heard for so long that we think that they *are* the scriptures themselves.) Where this folk rubbish interferes with salvation, I believe the prophets have spoken. Where it doesn’t, I think we are on our own. Why would God allow this? Because it presents us with a test: How will we treat those who disagree with us? Will we lose our faith when our favorite pets are slain on the altar of science? etc.

  76. Mike Parker on September 10, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Questions #72: I have no problem with science shedding light on the scriptures, any more than I have revelation shedding light on science. The two are complimentary, and we can learn from both. To reject one and embrace the other exclusively is to be a zealot.

    Richard Dawkins and the folks at the Creation Museum are simply two sides of the same extremist coin.

  77. Questions on September 10, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    I appreciate the comments in #73 and #74.

    With regard to #73, and the scriptures, I find myself seeing these writings as no more than the writings of men, with no “divine stamp” of approval. Various sections are either emphasized or disregarded, and the meaning of other sections changed, according to current knowledge and thinking. In my mind, we are just continually “reinventing” what the scriptures are and mean, as progress in both science and general human culture occurs, which for me challenges and undermines claims for these documents as the definitive “Word of God.”

    I do agree with #74’s viewing both extremes of the science/religion debate as close-minded and fanatical. Clearly we have a lot to learn about the universe, consciousness, etc. so it seems premature to close off discussion. That said, when I look at the various changes in Church policies, positions, practices (Polygamy, Blacks and the Priesthood, Temple Ceremonies & Garments, attitudes toward Birth Control, homosexuals, Book of Mormon geography, etc.) it seems to me that a combination of science and the forward progression of human culture have been the driving force, with revelation playing a game of ‘catch-up.’

    And I do ask this honestly, Mike, because I can’t think of any examples myself – what areas do you see where revelation has shed light on science in a proactive fashion? There are numerous examples of the opposite (religious thinking changing to accommodate scientific understanding), and I would genuinely be interested in pondering the possibility you suggest.

  78. Julie M. Smith on September 10, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    Questions, I think the key in #75 is that you call scripture “the definitive Word of God.” Of course if you believe that, then science, etc., are going to rock your boat. But starting with a more moderate claim (such as: the scriptures are inspired but imperfect writings that convey great truths), then the scientific and cultural progress that change our understandings of scriptures don’t need to completely undermine the authority of scriptures. In other words, I think “definitive Word of God” is a straw man waiting to be knocked over.

  79. Questions on September 10, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Julie (#76) – I can certainly appreciate the tolerant and open-minded position you take, and in fact l looked at things similarly for many years. It is possibly troubling, however, in that some of those sustained as Prophets, Seers and Revelators might disagree with this somewhat ‘liberal’ perspective.

    But to put a real fine point on it, the question I end up asking is that if we look to scientific and cultural progress to provide the correct way to understand the scriptures, then why do we need the scriptures at all?

  80. Ray on September 10, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Questions, I know you asked Ardis, but my answer is that the scripture provide the “why” and the “so what” – which is much more critical to me than simply knowing the “how” – and that comes from a history teacher at heart. If my life were totally void of scientific knowledge of the creation, the flood, and other such issues, I could handle that void without much pain; if my life were totally void of spiritual knowledge of the *meaning* of the creation, the flood, and other such issues, I would be miserable – absolutely miserable. My life would lose its very meaning.

    I love having the scriptures, but I don’t like trying to use them to answer scientific questions. I don’t like it when members assume the prophets who wrote them understood science better than modern scientists – or that the translators who propagated them were infallible – or any other argument that pits previous interpretations in less scientifically enlightened ages against the light of more recent discoveries. I don’t understand why we think that every word that got recorded in our scriptures came straight from the mouth of God, when our own Articles of Faith contradict that assertion. At heart, scriptures are religious texts built within an historical framework, not scientific texts that happen to include some religious beliefs – written by prophets, not scientists. I just don’t see the need *for Mormons* to assert otherwise – given how ready we are to accept “doctrinal” fluidity and change.

  81. Ray on September 10, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    Sorry, you asked Julie. I’m going senile – as perhaps my contributions to Kaimi’s most recent thread proved.

  82. Questions on September 10, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Ray,

    Thanks for your thoughts (and I’ve appreciated your approach in numerous posts on a wide variety of topics).

    I agree that science does not now help with ultimate meaning and purpose. Whether or not it can eventually provide insight on that, as it illuminates the nature of consciousness, and more completely unravels the mysteries of creation, is to me an intriguing question of extreme import. But I digress…

    I also agree that trying to derive scientific understanding of the physical universe from the scriptures is ill-advised, although there are many orthodox Mormons (likely including current and past members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) who will disagree with that position. As to the Articles of Faith reference, that deals with translation issues, which might be “interpreted” as asserting that the original scriptural writings are the definitive Word of God prior to that translation. (But in fairness, Mormon does provide another way out, in referring to the “mistakes of men.”)

    I end up concluding that I can find no reason to consider these writings “authoritative” in any sense. They certainly can be uplifting, inspiring, lead one toward becoming a better person, and provide comfort in what seems to be an uncaring universe. But in terms of providing factual knowledge about the world, its origin, man’s origin, or even the nature of ultimate truth, I find them lacking. And I do not make this statement lightly, having agonized over these issues for decades, and it would take a small book to summarize how I got here.

    I still search for ultimate meaning, purpose and truth. But I suspect that whatever that turns out to be will bear very little similarity to the various truths and doctrines preached by any current religions or denominations, LDS or otherwise.

  83. Ray on September 10, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Questions, and I cannot argue with that. We still “see through a glass darkly” – but I personally believe we see a lot more clearly because of “The Restoration” (of so many more things than most people realize) than if it had not occurred. I see “The Restoration” as much more the ability to continue to progress in our understanding than as a clear and comprehensive knowledge of all absolute truth – as a change from hardcore, creedal absolutism and dogmatism to an openness and willingness to learn from all inspired sources and embrace continuing revelation no matter the catalyst for that revelation. Then again, that’s me.

  84. Ugly Mahana on September 10, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    Questions,

    Your post prompted me to write an extended response that I decided was a little too much. I find it interesting that you say that scriptures and the writings of Church leaders “can be uplifting, inspiring, lead one toward becoming a better person, and provide comfort in what seems to be an uncaring universe.” The Doctrine and Covenants and the New Testament both use similar words to yours to describe the workings of the Spirit. In what sense, then, do you believe the scriptures are not inspired (if, in fact, you believe they are not)? On the other hand, the Doctrine and Covenants also teaches that only that which is spoken by the Holy Ghost is revelation and scripture. We are not bound by those things that are speculation. How do we know the difference between revelation and speculation? We ask God for ourselves. And we are not bound by someone else’s answer.

    So, what if we used to ask and get answers, but don’t anymore? Or what if we have yet to feel like we have heard God’s voice? Jesus said, if any man will do my will, he shall know of my doctrine. Moroni said to pray and ask. In the end, I think there is precious little we must believe to be saved. My salvation is between God and myself. And the person who teaches otherwise will not be able to keep me from God if God decrees that I am to come to Him. My job is to make sure that I don’t ignore that which is critical.

  85. David Clark on September 10, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Julie,

    Thank you very much for your article and for your suggestions on how you are teaching your institute class. I am teaching seminary this year in Dallas to mostly juniors and seniors in high school. I have been attempting to use a similar technique with my students as well. It seemed to go over pretty well with them when the topic of the location of the Garden of Eden came up.

    My concern is that this approach, that of looking at the scriptures symbolically only has grave shortcomings. Specifically to understand what the symbols in the Old Testament and how the stories work it usually necessary to situate them in their proper historical, cultural, and literary context. Genesis 38 is the best example I can think of where failing to do this renders the story completely strange and meaningless to our modern sensibilities. Yet, bringing in the context suggests that looking at scripture only symbolically is not adequate. Am I missing something? Am I misunderstanding your position? Do you have any suggestions about making this technique work well/better with high school students?

  86. Ryan Bell on September 10, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    So now I’m going to show some real naivete, but indulge me while I work out the implications of the various speculations on which I was raised as a child.

    My assumption, based on what I can recall being taught, is that Mormons HAVE to believe in a global flood, in order to get the Old Testament setting from the Garden of Eden in Missouri to the land of Canaan in the Middle East. If not for the flood doing that little change of scenery, how does it happen? I haven’t brushed up on my OT chronology for a while, but I’m under the impression that the continents had already been divided by the time of the flood, or am I wrong? I’m happy to give up the global flood if someone will just get Abraham out of the American midwest for me.

  87. David Clark on September 10, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Ryan,

    The best summary of the Garden of Eden in Missouri doctrine is here. As far as I can tell the garden’s location is widely held by Mormons to be in Missouri, but this is not found in the scriptures. The teaching is mostly recorded in personal journals and the Journal of Discourses, neither is official doctrine. I don’t believe anyone knows where it was, but I taught both sides to my seminary students.

  88. Questions on September 10, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Ugly Mahana (#84):

    “I find it interesting that you say that scriptures and the writings of Church leaders “can be uplifting, inspiring, lead one toward becoming a better person, and provide comfort in what seems to be an uncaring universe.” The Doctrine and Covenants and the New Testament both use similar words to yours to describe the workings of the Spirit. In what sense, then, do you believe the scriptures are not inspired (if, in fact, you believe they are not)?”

    First. I appreciate the question, as it challenges me to define and articulate my thinking.

    There are a few issues here. First, the fact that one can derive comfort from certain ideas is in no way dependent on whether or not those ideas are in fact true. The idea that we live on after death, are reunited with loved ones, and all injustices are redressed is tremendously comforting, but may or may not be actually true.

    Second, we need to reasonably define just what is meant when the word “inspired” is used. To one who believes in a personal God, it can refer to some type of influence received from that God (“breathing” into him, I’m guessing would be the meaning of the original word). An agnostic or atheist could have artistic ‘visions’, or sparks of intellectual creativity, or insights, which experiences they might also describe as a form of inspiration, which don’t require the belief in a personal God.

    I guess I would view the scriptures (ours and likely most others) as the creative attempts of people to try and comprehend the world around them, and find a source of meaning and purpose for their lives. They can be seen as “inspired” in the general sense used above, but I don’t view them as inherently containing accurate, factual information about man, the universe, or ultimate reality. Perhaps it’s simply the best they can come up with at that time, within the constraints of their culture and understanding of the universe, and worthy of study, but not to be looked to for truth with a capital T.

    “Jesus said, if any man will do my will, he shall know of my doctrine. Moroni said to pray and ask.”

    This is another important topic, which a thread at FMH concerning Mother Theresa touches on, and in which I posted a few comments. Suffice it to say that my experience has been similar to hers. These things just do not operate in a predictable, formulaic manner in the real world. Here is the link:

    http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=1339

    And one final thought concerns the very similar subjective experiences people have when they describe receiving answers to their prayers, while the “truths” they have confirmed to their minds can be radically different. Drawing conclusions about factual physical events or realities, based on personal, subjective experiences, is shaky at best. I actually did a guest post at Sunstone several months back on this subject, if you’re interested:

    http://sunstoneblog.com/?p=175

    Sorry for the length of the post, but these are complex matters.

  89. Julie M. Smith on September 10, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    Questions wrote, “But to put a real fine point on it, the question I end up asking is that if we look to scientific and cultural progress to provide the correct way to understand the scriptures, then why do we need the scriptures at all?”

    Well, I think you may be overstating the case: science and culture don’t, as near as I can tell, have anything to say about your bread-and-butter scriptures about faith, baptism, repentence, etc. It’s only some of the stories–creation, Noah, Jonah, whatever–where we might look to science to see if our traditional assumptions are warranted.

    As for #82, again, I think you are asking the scriptures to do something they were never designed to do–to be the definitive word, to be a history text, to be a science text, to be infallible.

    David, good thoughts. To be clear: I don’t think the scriptures should *only* be understood symbolically–I completely agree with you about background, culture, etc., esp. with something like Gen 38.

    The introduction to _Guns, Germs, and Steel_ has a great line about the common belief that history is just “one damn fact after another.” Well, maybe. But the scriptures aren’t. The stories range from 0% historically accurate (i.e., parable of the Good Samaritan, which doesn’t claim to be based on a historical event) to 100% historically accurate (I won’t make that claim for any story . . . but I’m willing to bet that some author somewhere got something exactly right at least once!) to everything in between. My approach is this: with the exception of the resurrection, I don’t particularly care about the % of history in any story because the scriptures aren’t (and don’t claim to be!) just one damn fact after another–they are stories selected by inspired writers to teach truths much, much greater than history facts. I’d try to convey this to high school students like this: “I can’t prove to you that this was historical. Maybe it wasn’t. But I do have a testimony of the greater truth that this story teaches, which is . . .”

    Ryan, one way around this: if we assume a New World Eden, then Noah takes off down a locally-flooded Mississippi River, winds up in the Atlantic, and then the Old World. So I don’t think the LDS belief Eden=Missouri need have any bearing on whether the flood was global or local.

  90. Julie M. Smith on September 10, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    All: there is a good discussion on this topic at BCC, where someone I don’t know named Loyd is offering up all sorts of interesting scriptural support for a limited flood.

  91. Clark on September 10, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    I’ll see if I can find the Hamblin article online. I’m kind of tight for time right now. (Story of the past few months unfortunately)

  92. Clark on September 10, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Julie there is evidence that Joseph Smith thought Noah lived in the Carolinas. So the localized flood might have been a hurricane of some sort.

  93. Questions on September 10, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    Julie (#89):

    “Well, I think you may be overstating the case: science and culture don’t, as near as I can tell, have anything to say about your bread-and-butter scriptures about faith, baptism, repentence, etc. It’s only some of the stories–creation, Noah, Jonah, whatever–where we might look to science to see if our traditional assumptions are warranted.”

    True, science and culture don’t have anything directly to say about faith, baptism, etc., but it is my opinion that the underlying basis and need for those religious concepts is gradually being eroded by the progression of science and culture.

    When we look at the beliefs and superstitions of ancient civilizations, their pantheon of Gods and such, we’re amazed at how they could believe things we now view as way off the mark. Simply fast forward a few hundred or thousand years from now (assuming we survive!), and I think our current thinking will also look quite naïve and ignorant. And the thinking I refer to includes our ideas about ultimate truth and reality, as well as the more mundane world of the natural sciences. Our current religions and creeds would then be seen as quite parochial, however well-intentioned they are.

    This is coming across a little more strident than I wish it to be, and I apologize for that. I’m just wanting to convey a minority opinion, and trying to do it in a respectful manner. It might also seem that I’ve already drawn my final conclusions, which is also not accurate – I’m simply trying to make the most sense out of the available information, and am always open to new information, ideas, etc.

  94. Jared* on September 10, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    In addition to his article on the topic, Duane Jeffery gave a presentation at a Sunstone Symposium that is now available to listen to for free. It think it very worth listening to.

    He claimed that nobody–even an unnamed (based on context, presumably Donald Parry) whole-earth-defender with whom he was discussing this–wants to defend the date of the flood suggested by KJV/JST Biblical chronology because of the evidence of civilizations that existed at the time (the Egyptian pyramids, for example).

  95. Julie M. Smith on September 10, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Questions, those are good points. But if we dismiss everything we currently think (religion, yes, but I think that would go for science as well–we mock ancient science [such as it was] at least as much as we mock ancient religion) on the grounds that future people will think it stupid, we’re left with being allowed to think nothing.

  96. Questions on September 10, 2007 at 6:32 pm

    Julie,

    “Questions, those are good points. But if we dismiss everything we currently think (religion, yes, but I think that would go for science as well–we mock ancient science [such as it was] at least as much as we mock ancient religion) on the grounds that future people will think it stupid, we’re left with being allowed to think nothing.”

    I’m glad you took my comments in the right spirit.

    Your point about mocking current thinking on science as well as religion is valid, but there is a big difference. Typically, Religions make dogmatic, absolute claims that they state are not subject to change, because they have been revealed by God.

    For the LDS Church, this might include the nature of God and the Godhead, Resurrection of Christ, the Atonement, and likely Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, and in some form or other, the actual historical nature of the Book of Mormon. Some or all of these things might eventually fall by the wayside, as science and culture progress, leaving those absolutist claims in the dust.

    Science, on the other hand, makes no absolute claims. It simply presents the best theories on the available information, and challenges upcoming generations of scientists to do better. This is a completely different scenario. So there will inevitably be errors in current scientific thought, but there is no need to mock them, because nobody states that this is the last word. (This is the way real science operates, even though there will also be individual scientists who lose perspective, and become as dogmatic as religious fanatics.)

    On a side note, I have always been impressed by a statement attributed to the Dalai Lama, along the lines that if science proved some particular belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism would have to change. Quite refreshing. And, I think you’d have to admit, very different from current attitudes in the Church.

  97. Eric Russell on September 10, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    Ryan, I took an Old Testament class once where the teacher brought in someone from the geology department who explained that every thousand years or so the Mississippi River will flood on a massive scale.

    As Julie mentions, if our ancestors had migrated over to the other side of the state, or even if they had been caught up in the flood that would have extended to the Missouri River that cuts through Jackson County, they could have been swept downriver and out through the gulf of Mexico, never seeing land the whole way.

  98. Julie M. Smith on September 10, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    Questions, again, good thoughts. I suppose it comes down to whether one believes that there actually _are_ some universal, unchanging truths that won’t be mocked in 10,000 years. I do believe in some–although a very small number. (Probably a significantly smaller number than most LDS, in fact. But I’m OK with that.) I don’t think science has much (or ever will have much) to say about the atonement. I think it likely that some of our explanations of the atonement (substitionary, adoptive, reconciliation, debt release, etc., etc.) could end up looking foolish. I’m OK with that, too. But the core stuff–I think there is truth there, with a capital T.

  99. Bob on September 10, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    #96: Sometimes, I get this ‘vision’ of a Mormon Covered Wagon, trying to get to Zion, and needing to throw some of the heaviest things out the back in order to keep going.

  100. Ray on September 10, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    #96 – echoing #99 – The Mormon Church has the ideological elasticity to handle such things. Individual members (on any scale and at any level) might struggle to do so, but the institutional flexibility is there. Just look at the changes in doctrine and practice over the last 170 years. It’s amazingly fluid.

  101. Julie M. Smith on September 10, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    Re #99–I love it. Perfect image.

  102. Questions on September 10, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    One last post here, as I don’t want to go too far astray from the original topic, delving into matters that occupy my thoughts.

    Bob definitely makes an apt analogy, which I appreciate. In my own life, I have a related, although different one, where I see my search for Truth as the peeling away of the layers of an onion, as more and more untruths or invalid claims are uncovered. My fear, though, is whether or not there will be anything left when I’m done. I like your analogy better, and will have to give that further thought.

    And I agree, Ray, that the institutional Church has exhibited great adaptability. But this is a double-edged sword. First, as I’ve indicated above, as I study these changes, it seems to me that what is driving the changes is not revelation from on high, but an attempt to keep up with the forward progress of science and culture.

    And secondly, in biological evolution, changes that accumulate over long periods of time can eventually produce a species no longer capable of breeding with the original stock. Similarly, the process you describe raises the possibility that the Church might eventually no longer be recognizable from the original. And to some extent, that is already the case.

    Many things to ponder, and I appreciate the discussion here.

  103. Julie M. Smith on September 10, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    All,

    Thanks for a good discussion–I’m pleased that for the most part there was no flaming here.

    I think everyone has said what they wanted to say, so I’ll close comments. There are several posts around the bloggernacle either responding to this post or the original Dialogue article. You can also email me if you absoposilutely have to say something on this thread.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.