Recently two short texts have sparked an adventure of the mind. One came as the result of a determination to read a certain tomb that stands out upon my bookshelf, the other, one line of a hymn sang in church. From the picture below, can you guess the book? Yes, easy one, The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and the text is the beautiful final paragraphs.
‘It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms
crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence, to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’
What strikes me first is not the subject matter itself, we will come onto that later, but it is the language. The words, ‘contemplate’, ‘reflect’, ‘grandeur’, ‘breathed’, ‘beautiful and wonderful’, these are more the words of poetry or prose than they are of scientific objectivity. Therefore understanding the truth about creation, inspired by Darwin’s beautiful summary of his work, I believe will actually be a spiritual endeavour.
Another word for contemplate is ponder. From the hymn that opens with, ‘Praise to the Lord the King of Creation’; it is the last line of the third verse, ‘Ponder anew, what the Almighty can do,’ that has persistently gnawed away inside my mind. So let us ponder anew what the almighty can do or has done in relation to the creation and other scientific discoveries. But first, is there anything to be afraid of? Is it not better to avoid investigating scientific developments if they could seriously challenge our faith? The answer is no and I take courage from the words of Brigham Young?
'Be willing to receive the truth, let it come from whom it may; no difference, not a particle. Receive it from one man as soon as another.
“Mormonism” includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to
In a word,“Mormonism... embraces everything that comes within the range of the understanding of man. If it does not circumscribe every thing that is in heaven and on earth, it is not what it purports to be (DBY, 2).
It (the gospel) embraces every fact there is in the heavens and in the heaven of heavens—every fact there is upon the surface of the earth, in the bowels of the earth, and in the starry heavens; in fine, it embraces all truth there is in all the eternities of the Gods (DBY, 448).
Our religion measures, weighs, and circumscribes all the wisdom in the world—all that God has ever revealed to man. God has revealed all the truth that is now in the possession of the world, whether it be scientific or religious.’
Science and Religion
Only in recent centuries have the words ‘science’ and ‘religion’ come to be used as we understand them in modern English. The word scientist is generally attributed to the philosopher William Whewell in about 1833. Religion as a word began to be used as we do today in the 16th and 17th centuries. The idea of religious and scientific understanding being in conflict with each other would not have been considered a few centuries ago.
Natural science seeks to understand how things happen the way they do, or why things are the way they are. In Brigham Young’s words the scientific method ‘measures and weighs’ in order to prove or disprove a hypothesis. In the past however, much of what happens or the way things are was attributed solely to the hand of God. As our perspectives have changed through exploration, observation and measurement so for many the idea of God’s part in it all has diminished, although for some the grandeur of it all has increased their awe of God.
Conflicts between science and religion especially began to occur when religious dogma were proven to be false like when it was shown that this world is not the centre of things but is one of a number of planets that circle the sun. In the recent century and a half the biggest challenges to those who try to reconcile scientific discovery with the tenets of their faith has been the evolution of man and the use of various scientific dating methods that put the age of our planet into billions of years. Those who take the Bible and especially the book of Genesis as being the undisputed word of God have either denied the evidence for evolution and the age of this planet or invented elaborate explanations that might establish both views to be true. But since Darwin, evolution is no longer theory and many new dating methods support each other.
Whilst Darwin’s work was insightful, one body of knowledge he did not have that we have now is that of genetics. Today geneticists like professor Richard Dawkins have made life even more uncomfortable for believers in Genesis by declaring evolution is now fact and that those who deny it are like those who used to deny the truth that our world circled the sun or that the Holocaust ever happened.
So if we take Dawkins and others to be broadly right, where does that leave those of us who believe in a living, personal, God? Is atheism the logical conclusion? For me Brigham Young’s attitude is the right one, the Gospel embraces all truth no matter what the source.
Thankfully, unlike many Christians and Moslems my faith believes the canon of scripture was never closed and is not, or ever will be, infallible. Neither is scientific understanding ever static.
My view is that those who wrote what is called scripture did the best they could in their day and in their circumstances to record understanding that came from beyond their own minds, but that does not make it infallible. I believe the discovery of truth about the history of the universe and everything else comes to the minds of those qualified to comprehend it through scientific method and exploration but which is guided by a greater intelligence. Similarly I believe that truth regarding the meaning of life comes through revelation to those who are qualified spiritually. In actual fact both channels are spiritual even if the recipient does not acknowledge it. But fundamentally, neither body of understanding is flawless. Okay, we may find it hard to let go of past held beliefs and have to reason out the implications in our hearts and minds, but so long as we do so patiently and with faith, the answers will come. God, I do believe is the source of all truth, I can hang on to that, so if more and more understanding is coming through scientists then we need to understand science better.