More on Creation Myths

After thinking a little more about my post yesterday, I think I may have been too dismissive of the value of shared stories.

To the extent that engaging with the biblical stories allows Mormons to participate in some larger conversation with other Jews, Christians, and Muslims, I think there can be value in retaining the old stories. Sometimes it takes a real, serious engagement with the stories on their own terms that lays a solid foundation from which we can build, and something valuable might be lost by too quickly or cavalierly dismissing the ancient myths of our tradition.

In my quasi-professional life, I spend most of my time studying and thinking about the deep differences between people in terms of their political beliefs. I am convinced that these differences are profoundly irreconcilable. No amount of philosophizing or argumentation will settle the deep divides in human societies that erupt when considering questions about individual freedom versus collective cohesion or different conceptions on human nature. There will always be (at least) two sides to these issues, and cleverly fashioned laws or institutions will never do away with the recurring debates that have always characterized politics.

Normatively, I am committed to the idea that the tensions that rise inevitably from the different perspectives that different individuals bring to the table is both necessary and healthy. Human societies that bend too far toward any ideology seem forced to learn the error of their thinking in time, and history has a way of teaching these lessons in painful ways.

As with politics, so also religion. Although the categorization is crude and obscures a lot of interesting diversity, it is sometimes helpful to think of conservative and liberal religious adherents. Us liberals (and I proudly number myself among them) are eager to move forward and cast off what we see as superstitions or just unhelpful beliefs, while our conservative coreligionists are more cautious and tend to be more enthusiastic about preserving the tradition warts and all. A religious institution that is overtaken by liberals risks coming apart at the seems, and a religious body that is dominated by conservatives might stagnate and die. Liberals will always be impatient and frustrated by the pace of change, while conservatives will often be nostalgic for an idealized past.

There is an important asymmetry (at least in the Mormon church as I have experienced it). The conservative’s perspective on the tradition generally inclines him or her to be more confident in his or her position. They seem to have the backing of the institution, and their voices tend to be louder and more welcome. Liberals are often targeted by conservatives who feel threatened by different approaches to the faith, and they have often been marginalized in popular discourse. This can lead to an unhealthy spiral of silence, as liberal voices are pushed further and further to the edges of the conversation that should be happening.

So what does all of this have to do with the creation myth?

Well first, I understand that by labeling it as “myth” (which is certainly not intended in any kind of pejorative way) I risk being misunderstood by conservative believers who are perhaps more inclined toward a literal reading.

I think there is an important function that is served by having these two competing perspectives on the nature of scripture and myth. The literal reading serves to preserve the story. Literalists are good with detail, and there might be something important lost in the integrity of the story if we were to abandon the literal reading altogether. By preserving the story through generations, the literal preservation effort enables us liberals (with a little bit of work) to try to see something beyond the literal reading, and (in an ideal world) at the end of the day, we are all engaged with the same source text.

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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

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