So far, we’ve talked mostly about the conservative version of the creation story. God created a literal man from the dust, a woman was thrown in as a bonus, they ate the fruit, the human race continues to spend its days toiling for food and etc.
There are also alternative visions. When I was talking yesterday about the ways in which more liberal thinkers can expand upon the traditional myths, I had a couple of examples in mind.
First is a short novel I read a few years back called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The novel is a strange dialog between a teacher and his pupil (who also happens to be a telepathic ape). The text explores some different interpretations of the Garden Myth. It is a quick read, and I found it pretty good — thought provoking at least. I read it during a time when I was first coming to grips with the idea that I didn’t really believe a literal telling of the early biblical stories (the Garden, the Flood, etc.). It helped me through that rather unsettling time.
Second is a play that I just recently read called “The Plan” by Eric Samuelson (which I found through this blog). The play begins as a conversation between Lucifer (who has not yet become Satan) and Gaia (who has not yet become Eve). They talk through the nature of choice and the purpose of the Plan (themes I’ve talked about before).
This particular genre (mythic fan-fiction? allusive fiction?) makes the most sense when both the author and the reader share some common point of reference. I think both of the works I mention above can stand on their own, but to really engage with them requires a lot of common ground. Without a sense of rootedness in the tradition, the twists and spins that the most talented of the authors in this genre cast on seemingly familiar tales and characters lose some of their punch. The stories borrow much of their power from the effect of shocking the reader out of their usual ways of thinking.
Now for something completely different
Apart from elaborating upon our own tradition, I think it is useful to try to see the value in the myths and creation stories of other peoples and cultures.
I haven’t talked about mysticism for a while, so maybe my few readers will forgive a quick return. In The History of God, Karen Armstrong spends a lot of time on the mystic tradition in Islam. She relates a creation myth from the Sufi tradition that I find absolutely beautiful:
Ibn al-Arabi imagined the solitary God sighing with longing, but this sigh (nafas rahmani) was not an expression of maudlin self-pity. It had an active, creative force which brought the whole of our cosmos into existence; it also exhaled human beings, who became logoi, words that express God to himself. It follows that each human being is a unique epiphany of the Hidden God, manifesting him in a particular and unrepeatable manner.
Each one of these divine logoi are the names that God has called himself, making himself totally present in each one of his epiphanies. God cannot be summed up in one human expression since the divine reality is inexhaustible. It also follows that the revelation that God has made in each one of us is unique, different from the God known by the other innumerable men and women who are also his logoi. We will only know our own ‘God’ since we cannot experience him objectively; it is impossible to know him in the same way as other people. As Ibn al-Arabi says: ‘Each being has as his god only his particular Lord; he cannot possibly have the whole.’ He liked to quote the hadith: ‘Meditate upon God’s blessings, but not upon his essence (al-Dhat}.’ The whole reality of God is unknowable; we must concentrate on the particular Word spoken in our own being. Ibn al-Arabi also liked to call God al-Ama, ‘the Cloud’ or ‘The Blindness’ to emphasise his inaccessibility. But these human logoi also reveal the Hidden God to himself. It is a two-way process: God sighs to become known and is delivered from his solitude by the people in whom he reveals himself. The sorrow of the Unknown God is assuaged by the Revealed God in each human being who makes him known to himself; it is also true that the Revealed God in every individual yearns to return to its source with a divine nostalgia that inspires our own longing.
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.
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?
Origin myths play a central role in all societies and organizations. They are often highly idealized, and their main function is to provide a people with a sense of community, common identity, and purpose.
Mormons have an abundance of origin myths. As I talked about in the last three posts, Mormons have an origin myth that extends back to into the eternities. We have also fully embraced (perhaps even co-opted) the creation myth of Genesis. Moses and Abraham have been recast in Mormon roles as preservers of the “New and Everlasting Covenant.” Fast-forwarding a bit, we talk about Jesus as if one of his main to-do items during his mortal ministry was to set up an institutional church (complete with a First Presidency [Peter, James, John], Quorum of the Twelve [apparently the ancient church didn’t get the memo that the First Presidency is separate from the Twelve… but still], Seventies, Bishops, and Deacons [although these deacons were nothing like their modern-day 12-year old counterparts]). Then of course there are the legends and myths surrounding the beginnings of the Mormon Church and the trek to Utah.
As with so many things, the Mormon tendency towards revisionism leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I love the idea of an expansive Mormonism that embraces truth wherever it finds it. We can retell these old myths in new ways and fit them into a contemporary understanding, and we can use them to connect the Mormon project into a much older set of human traditions and ideas.
On the other hand, there is an arrogance — a sort of theological imperialism — that can result from co-opting these old narratives and trying to make them our own or, to be less charitable about it, distorting them to fit our own agenda. The resulting product is often simultaneously unfaithful to the original intent of the story and an act of cultural violence against those who would rather retain possession of their own traditions.
A completely different sort of objection to this practice of retelling past stories is that it locks us into some rather weird and outmoded ideas (I touched on this earlier in an aside on the Book of Revelation). No matter how we try to retell the original story, we often are forced to buy into a set of assumptions that come with it. For example, the manual describes the creation as unfolding in two stages. Joseph’s re-imagining of the creation story, tells us that God “created all things … spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth” (Moses 3:5). This seems to be, at least in part, a creative attempt to reconcile the two somewhat contradictory creation accounts that are recorded in the first chapters of Genesis. It is also unnecessary. A far simpler explanation reveals itself when we understand a little more about how the Torah was composed (see this for a more complete account). Essentially, the compiler — or maybe more appropriately the redactor — of the Torah was combining competing accounts of the same events. We have two accounts of the creation because the redactor included two different accounts in the text. I imagine that if Joseph were equipped with the tools of modern biblical scholarship, he might have arrived at a different understanding of the creation myth.
The Creation in Mormon Thought
For better or worse, Mormons have fully bought into the Creation narrative as it is outlined in Genesis. Indeed, the creation plays a central role (inexplicably in my mind) in the highest rites of Mormonism.
A few years ago, the Pew Research Center released a report on beliefs about evolution among different religious groups in the US, and Mormons ranked embarrassingly low. Only 22 percent of Mormons agreed that “Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth” — less than Evangelical Christians and second to last of all groups reported (Jehovah’s Witnesses earned their spot on the very bottom with only 8 percent agreeing). This speaks to a weirdly literal reading of the myth (especially compared to the 77 percent of American Jews — the original purveyors of the myth — that endorse the idea of human evolution).
I am at a loss to pull out anything really useful from the Genesis creation story. As I mentioned before, I find naturalistic and materialist accounts of the creation more beautiful, compelling, and credible than the biblical story.
Mormons claim to have an open canon — perhaps we should be as willing to excise unhelpful stories as we are in expanding on the scriptural library.