Mormonism and the challenges of Science, Revelation, and Faith at UVU

Molly Worthen, UNC-Chapel Hill
Molly Worthen, UNC-Chapel Hill

UVU’s annual Mormon Studies Conference will be held (and streamed!) February 22-23. The topic is Heaven & Earth: Mormonism and the Challenges of Science, Revelation, and Faith

Presentation titles are not available yet, but topics over the two days include

Day 1

  • Mormonism and Evolution (Steven Peck offering the Eugene England Memorial Lecture, Jamie Jensen, and me)
  • Science & the Critical Study of Scripture (David Bokovoy, Philip Barlow)

Day 2

Each presenter will also participate in a panel discussion, moderated by Blair van Dyke of UVU.

I look forward to what Worthen has to say about Mormonism, as she’s an astute historian of religion and intellectual history, which happen to be my interests as well.

I read her book last semester along with Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America,  The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular AgeWithout God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief (fantastic book about the changes in worldview that have made atheism possible), and The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America.

These all get into the same wrestle as the conference, and the last two in particular are provocative. Both argue that religious advocates contributed directly to the displacement of the Bible and made disbelief intellectually possible.  Turner (Without God) is particularly blunt about this. “Unbelief was not something that ‘happened to’ religion. On the contrary, religion caused unbelief. In trying to adapt their religious beliefs to [various scientific discoveries and intellectual shifts], the defenders of God slowly strangled him.” (xii)

Turner’s thesis is discernable in Lee’s book (Erosion of Biblical Certainty) in updated and narrower form. Explicitly writing against the prevailing view that belief in the Bible as a “supernaturally inspired and infallible text eventually crumbled under the relentless assault of secularizing forces,” Lee counters that “the Bible’s most able and vigorous defenders played a key role in the demise of its authority.” (1-2)

Turner offers this narrative of the intellectual changes from 1500-1890, briefly recounted. As the construction of knowledge shifted towards the factual, “mechanical,” empirical, and rational, the basis for justification of belief became one of intellectual propositions and amassed facts. The very nature of “belief” changed because the proponents of belief accepted the new intellectual frameworks around them. The natural and supernatural, previously undistinguished, were cleaved into two. Since knowledge had to be scientific and historical, religion required scientific and historical shoring up to remain legitimate knowledge (as Lee takes up). Once God, revelation, and the heart had been displaced from the their central role, they became, in essence, irrational and illegitimate. This was not lost on various observers, generating widespread fears of atheism, tracts against atheism, and so on. Turner concludes that “unbelief resulted from the decisions that influential church leaders… made about to confront the modern pressures upon religious belief….[Those decisions] boiled down to a decision to deal with modernity by embracing it—to defuse modern threats to the traditional bases of belief by bringing God into line with modernity.”(266)

My presentation (at least, as planned right now) will touch on this history, talking about the role of interpretation of scripture and the assumption of concordism in creating conflict between Genesis and evolution. I’ll also talk about how modern discoveries which led to new understanding of the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis have helped undermine concordism, preserving, ironically enough the authority of creation account in Genesis 1.

So, looks like a great conference, it’s free to the public, and will also stream online. If you’d like to put up a flier somewhere, there’s an official one here.

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