Sunday, April 17, 2005

A Redeeming Place at the Table

Why is the connection between evolution and God's existence so emotionally charged? In a previous post I argued that evolution is unpalatable to some believers because it seems to remove what is, for some, a primary evidence of God's existence: "the testimony of His creations." I pointed out that this is the zeroth-order answer the Church offers to outsiders in answer to the question, How can I know God exists? At the risk of pedantically elaborating the obvious, in this post and a subsequent one I will discuss two reasons why debates about evolution---and perceived implications for the existence of God---take on a stature much larger than our insignificant intramural Mormon debate, and rise to the level of culture war.

A reconciliation between believers and evolution must give God a place at the table, but it cannot be just any place: It must be a powerful one. Consider the following from Joseph Fielding Smith (with shouting subject heading provided by editor Bruce R. McConkie):
DILEMMA OF THE THEISTIC EVOLUTIONISTS. It is true that the school of evolutionists is divided into the two great classes, the Theistic and the Atheistic branches.

But the Theistic evolutionist is a weak-kneed and unbelieving religionist, who is constantly apologizing for the miracles of the scriptures, and who does not believe in the divine mission of Jesus Christ. (DS 1:142-143)
Does this summary judgment represent a devastating, dead-on double tap, or an ineffective would-be marksman's display of scattershot non-sequiturs? The whirlwind transition from evolution to miracles to the atonement may seem abrupt, but there is a connecting thread: authority, which derives from authorship. Following logically from God's authorship of creation is his control and dominion over creation, with attendant ability to intervene miraculously on our behalf. The power of the words Peace, be still to calm our souls derives from the fact that they were first uttered to Galilean winds and waves stilled in response to the Creator's fiat. This is the authority we rely upon to prosper, heal, and ultimately resurrect us.

The emotional depth of this dependence is on vivid display in the heart-wrenching account, in last week's Priesthood/Relief Society lesson, of the death of David O. McKay's very young son. So deep is President McKay's need that in a move tantamount to a denial of death's reality, he appropriates the scriptural conceptualization of Lazarus, a leap possible only because of his faith in the Creator's power: "‘He is not dead but sleepeth’ was never more applicable to any soul, for he truly went to sleep. He did not die."

Evolution is problematic in this connection because it raises the possibility that God's connection to creation is merely pseudepigraphic (a false attribution of authorship, in order to lend undeserved credibility). The skeptic's take on the connection between God and creation, mentioned in the previous post---that gods were invented to explain forces of nature beyond humanity's comprehension---then takes on a more ominous, personal, and taunting cast. Having invented the gods to explain forces of nature, says the skeptic, propitiations to the gods are first offered as a hedge against the arbitrary destructive force of what we still (even in legal insurance contracts) call Acts of God, and in hopes of being favored with bounteous hunts and harvests. As time goes by, the expectations from divine power are elaborated to individual healing, peace, and immortality---concepts missing from the earliest Biblical views, which focused on the temporal corporate prosperity of God's people. The skeptic likens such expectations to a patient remaining addicted to painkillers long after recovery from surgery is complete: Even after the forces of nature that motivated the invention of gods are understood scientifically, the habit of reliance upon a powerful God ready and willing to save you is hard to break.

Instinctively recoiling from this line of argument, some believers prefer that God's authorship of creation be complete, exclusive, and undisputed, in order that his power to save may also be considered reliably undisputed. In order to overcome this tendency, those interested in making evolution acceptable to such believers will need to provide demonstrations of God's power other than the generation of biodiversity.

[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]