I talked last time about the problems of a too literal reading of many scriptural stories. The only straightforward way to read this chapter is that the anonymous authors disagree with my take. We are treated in chapter 5 to an account of an actual historical Adam and Eve who had premortal counterparts. I’m not sure why we insist on so much literalism.
I’ve made the case for a less literal reading several times before in the short while I’ve been blogging this manual, but as often as they make these silly assumptions, I feel compelled to point them out. Let’s see where a truly literal reading of the Garden story gets us (or at least where it got one preeminent Mormon thinker, and perennial straw-man-of-the-blog).
In his famous “Seven Deadly Heresies” talk delivered at BYU, Bruce McConkie said the following in connection with Heresy #2 (evolution):
My reasoning causes me to conclude that if death has always prevailed in the world [a necessary precondition for evolution], then there was no fall of Adam that brought death to all forms of life; that if Adam did not fall, there is no need for an atonement; that if there was no atonement, there is no salvation, no resurrection, and no eternal life; and that if there was no atonement, there is nothing in all of the glorious promises that the Lord has given us. I believe that the Fall affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself, and that the Atonement affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself.
There is so much that I see wrong with this statement that I don’t really know where to begin. In McConkie’s highly literal reading of the text, we cannot accept the evolution of life because it would lead us inevitably to abandon the rest of the gospel message. He has reasoned himself into a corner that forces him to ignore the overwhelming weight of evidence against his case. This is a classic example of the problem of building “up” rather than “out” with respect to religious “knowledge” (for more, see this post specifically and the whole “Mormon in the Cheap Seats” series over at Doves and Serpents). McConkie has constructed for himself a towering edifice of religious knowledge, but it comes at the cost of rigidity and (if my own flirtation with McConkie-ism is any guide) fragility.
Again, I do not want to be seen as ragging too much on McConkie-ite Mormonism. It is powerful stuff, and I think it really works for some people. McConkie was not a “bad guy” from anything that I have seen. Although I do believe his teachings have done some real harm, he seemed very willing to apologize for and recant some of his more damaging ideas. I really do believe he was (even if seemingly chronically misguided) a well-intentioned person.
Back to the story
Leaving aside my annoyance with the literal reading of the story, Mormons seem to have dodged a theological bullet in their more generous interpretation of the events in the Garden. Thankfully, we do not subscribe to the ugly doctrine of original sin. Our more enlightened reading also allows us to avoid some of the more misogynist implications of Eve’s part in the story.
That is all to the good, but do we really have to believe that there was an actual person named Adam? And, more incredibly, that he was the first person to walk the earth? I think Mormons are fine with a symbolic reading of Satan as the serpent, and I don’t think most Mormons would really believe that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib, but I’m really not sure (it turns out to be a difficult question to ask without sparking some defensiveness on the part of the ask-ee). What would we lose by letting go of the overly literal readings of these old myths?