OREM, Utah – A black box.
That was Ben Spackman's description of the device that scriptural text enters.
"And out comes interpretation," he remarked.
That yields "face-value readings," Spackman added, which are "problematic, especially if you are father removed from where they came from."
"So if the interpretation is inevitable and contingent upon the assumptions of the interpreters, then we need to look at interpretive assumptions," Spackman said.
Spackman's remarks figured into his description as to how developments in world history for the past five centuries indicate that the Creation story in the Book of Genesis is divine, suggesting that he thinks it is one of the "revolutions" in history.
"Revolutions in ways of thinking are in many ways the most influential and far-reaching of all revolutions," Spackman said last week at the 2018 Mormon Studies Conference at Utah Valley University, where he and biology professors, all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were peppered with questions about Mormonism and science.
Spackman, who is working on a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity at Claremont Graduate University, made that remark after citing Alan Kors, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Then he said, "One of the hardest of the hardest things to convince students of in general is that ideas and ways of thinking and ways of understanding the world have a history."
"Although most generations and cultures view their own ways of thinking about the world as somehow 'natural,' ideas, including our most fundamental ways of thinking, change over time and have a particular history," Spackman said.
An example he used is reproduction.
"Up until 1875, they had some very strange ideas," Spackman said. "This is why I love what's called intellectual history … you realize that things you take for granted are really not all that obvious."
Spackman also mentioned those who say that the solar system is in Genesis and that that's based on "Concordist assumptions." Concordism "refers to the position that the teaching of the Bible on the natural world, properly interpreted, will agree with the teaching of science … and may, in fact, supplement science," according to the Dictionary of Christianity and Science.
That line of thinking emerged five centuries ago.
"The 1500s were really interesting," Spackman said to giggles from professor Jana Riess.
As for the fight regarding Charles Darwin, who evolution folks have interpreted as a threat to their faith for centuries?
"The problem is the assumptions you bring to the data," Spackman said.
Spackman then used the example of Isaac La Pierre's proposal that the people in Genesis were the ancestors of the Chinese and Native Americans.
"These ideas that are still discussed today go back to 500 years of these new discoveries of new data," Spackman remarked.
Spackman then presented one of his conclusions on the matter.
"If science has reformed our readings of Genesis … by super-concordance assumptions … science also fixes it," Spackman said. "How so? [Genesis] is entirely believable … as a believer and not a concordist."
Also, to the question, "Do you think the Israelites were stupid?" given Spackman's Genesis takeaway, Spackman said, "that's really ignorant of history." Israelites composed what we now know as the Book of Genesis. He also talked about the Protestant Reformation, the scientific revolution, and Enlightenment, each of which happened within the last 500 years as having "contributed" to the understanding of Genesis.
"The empirical, the rational, the basis for justification of belief … changed," Spackman added. "Since knowledge had to be scientific and historical, religion had to require scientific and historical shoring-up to be accurate."
So, in the 18th century, "the Bible's apologists changed the basis of belief (from) … the Holy Ghost … to empirical evidence," Spackman said, following that remark by saying that Ken Ham, a "young-Earth Creationist" who built the Creation Museum in Kentucky, has "rearranged (his) beliefs" to "literal readings."
Attendees Fire Questions At Spackman, Biology Professors
Attendees of the conference asked questions of Spackman; Heath Ogden, a UVU biology professor; and Brigham Young University biology professors Jamie Jensen and Stephen Peck.
"As recently as 2012, Russell M. Nelson denounced evolution in a (General) Conference talk," said Loyd Ericson, referencing biannual events where leaders of the Mormon church address adherents.
"Yet some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere," Nelson said in the April 2012 conference. "Ask yourself, 'Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?' The likelihood is most remote. But if so, it could never heal its own torn pages or reproduce its own newer editions."
As the prophet of the church, Nelson is regarded by believers as God's mouthpiece on Earth.
"What do you say to your BYU student (with) the prophet saying … evolution is a joke?" Ericson asked.
"He was not the prophet at the time," Jensen replied. "It's not a new quote, by the way."
"You can watch the oral talk and read what was printed and they are different," Ogden replied. "Maybe they make mistakes. … and prophets get quiet when they become prophets."
"It's because they get old," Ericson said.
"When they say evolution is false, that's hard," Peck said. "It's clear (Mormonism founder) Joseph Smith said a prophet is a prophet when they spoke with the Holy Ghost."
If Nelson were to discount evolution as the prophet, Peck remarked, "it would cause a lot of confusion in students' minds."
"It would cause a lot of confusion in a lot of people's minds," Peck added. "I know the prophets get very circumspect."
Peck added that he does not think that Nelson will speak against evolution as the prophet.
"When you are sitting in meetings on Sunday, how do you navigate these things?" another attendee asked.
"It's easy for me because I'm the bishop," Ogden said.
"I first got to my ward [a Mormon congregation] and people said anti-evolutionary things – a high priest bore testimony with his heart, in tears, that evolution wasn't true," Peck said. "At times, I felt really alienated."
Peck would be "confrontational," he added, and he said he wished people knew him before he became that way.
"Let them know who you are," he said. "I get to know people, but they get to know me. They say 'he says satanic things sometimes, but he's not really that bad of a fellow.'"
"I don't know everything," Jensen said. "What drives people away from science is a scientist's approach … and so in my ward, I mostly keep my mouth shut."
Jensen's ward did hold a "career night" where Jensen taught a lesson on evolution, she added.
"I take my opportunities where I can," she said.
Spackman remarked that Mormon First Presidency member Dallin Oaks wrote against "alternative voices" in the church and that Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss replied by writing how to "survive" as a "liberal in the church."
"Let people know you are a faithful Latter-day Saint," Spackman reported Mauss writing.
Spackman gets asked in the hallway in church why he holds his Genesis view but says he can't explain it in 30 seconds and points them to his book and podcast.
Blaire Ostler asked about Mormonism regarding the present and future, specifically mentioning "post-humans" and expressing concern that God in Mormonism has become "static." She blamed a church program that streamlines doctrine.
"Correlation tends to thwart this kind of discourse," she said.
"Sometimes we are embarrassed by our theology and like to talk to other Christians appropriately and maybe say 'look how much we agree,'" Peck said. "I think we do agree on most things; for me, I think Mormonism has such beautiful doctrines."
Then Peck remarked that he loves that the god of Mormonism "is not the magic God, the Harry Potter god and that the church need[s] some theological rigor."
"We need to really refine and develop our Mormon doctrine as Mormon doctrine," Peck added. "I love our Mormon doctrine, that it looks at deep time and evolution."
On accepting evolution, Jensen said that "(God) allows natural processes that allow for the diversity of life."
Jensen has an undergraduate student who has interviewed other students about how much they accepted evolution. At the start of a semester in Jensen's "biology 1010 class," 64 percent accept it at the start of the semester, but it's at 94 percent by semester's end, she said.
"Maybe people who are wanting to be interviewed are more willing to accept it," Jensen acknowledged.
On human evolution, the number jumps from 26 to 68 percent from one end of the semester to the other, Jensen then said.
Among students who are going to study biology in college, the number of those who believe in evolution increased from 32 to 83 percent, with a 100 percent acceptance rate after they complete their capstone course.
On human evolution among the long-term biology learners, the number jumped from 29 to 61 percent, with a 100 percent acceptance after their capstone.
"They have accepted it by the end because of data, but first, through a role model," Jensen said. "Here in this Mormon-dominated community, role model" is most important.
Utah County, where UVU and BYU are located, is 84.7 Mormon, according to data from the church.