Book Review: Evolving Faith by Steven L. Peck
Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist is a collection of essays by Steven L. Peck, published by the Maxwell Institute. Evolving Faith is an apt title, and this becomes apparent after reading all of the essays. They are a reconciliation between Darwinism and faith, but much more than that. Peck also looks at materialism, consciousness, subjectivity, creation, and stewardship of the environment, and challenges LDS theology to engage with these things in serious ways. I see this book as a call for LDS theology to evolve by adapting to the landscape of modern science and philosophy.
In the first essay, “Embracing Science, Resisting Literalism, and Shifting Paradigms,” Peck tells a story that I think is at the heart of the book. Plenty Coups was a Crow chief whose “life straddled the division between the traditional Crow way of life and the takeover of all Indian affairs by the United States government.” After joining forces with the US government to fight the Sioux, the Crow found that everything had changed: the buffalo and beaver were all but gone, and other tribes had been divided and destroyed. Though the Crow nation continued to exist in the form of related people living together in a shared space, Plenty Coups said that after the US government took control, “nothing happened.” Nothing could happen because “the ground for meaning itself had been destroyed.” However, unlike other chiefs who continued to hope that Europeans could be defeated through an Indian messiah or other spiritual helps, Plenty Coups saw that the buffalo and beaver were indeed gone and taught his people to farm, promoted education, and represented Native rights in Washington D.C. He knew that facing reality is the best way. Peck writes,
“For people who must adjust to a world where evolution is a reality they must grapple with rather than dismiss, things are not so bad compared to the wrenching cultural disolcations faced by Plenty Coups and his people. Still, there are considerable adjustments that are necessary in order to view the world through both scientific and religious lenses. But when we learn to see the world through both lenses, much depth is added to our perspective. Plenty Coups’s experience suggests that the way to handle this adjustment is through courage in the face of risk.”
In the chapters that follow Peck takes the reader through some puzzling and discomfiting questions. For example,
- Darwinian evolution is sufficient to explain the emergence of biological complexity; what does this say about divine design?
- If God’s embodiment implies some sort of biology, what does that tell us about design? Did God design his own body?
- Is subjective truth real, and how can it be accessed?
- What explains our spirit’s connection to the brain? How do we receive subjective truth?
- Why is materialism insufficient as a basis for ways of knowing?
- Why is nature sacred? What is lost when we see it as existing simply to serve human development?
- What is consciousness?
- Why does the universe demand violence? (Or, why is it so inexorable in our experience?)
Some of those questions are explicitly in the book and some are my formulations of questions I see implied in Peck’s essays. There are many others. Though he is unfailingly generous and humble in his treatment of existing LDS thinking on these questions, I think his essays reveal the need for LDS theology to grow up and grapple with them as mature Catholic, Protestant, and secular philosophic thinkers have done. We Mormons take too much comfort in the belief that all things will eventually be revealed and it hampers our willingness to wrestle with the hard questions. Rilke loved the God “who ripened us as we wrestled with you.” [Ref. 1] It seems to me that our Mormon forebears were more willing to grasp at new truth and risk getting things wrong than later generations are, and that we need that kind of struggle to mature as a faith.
I will not review all 12 of the essays in the book, but I’d like to share my thoughts on a few of them. The essays are organized into two parts – the first is academic and the second part contains more personal essays. The former is dense and assumes a pretty sophisticated reader, using words like Cartesian, qualia, escatological, Plotinean, and ontology – words I didn’t learn in college, and some of which I had to look up! The second set of essays are lovely, arresting, and entertaining reflections on some of the same themes present in the first set, and other themes as well.
The second essay, “Randomness, Contingency, and Faith: Is There a Science of Subjectivity,” explores the limits of a materialistic view of the universe. As an evolutionary biologist, Peck explains that his work involves computer simulations of evolutionary processes, and that while he acknowledges the stochastic and contingent nature of the universe, this doesn’t have to imply the “empty and ontologically purposeless universe,” that atheist writers Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett promote. He introduces Kierkegaard’s idea that science can only ever approximate reality, and the ingtriguing conjecture from Gödel’s proof that “scientific materalism can never find even all scientific truths,” therefore we cannot answer some questions about the universe from inside the system. Finally, Peck provides philosophical justification for the notion that truths exist which can only be accessed through subjective experience. The idea that subjective truth is not available through scientific investigation is not new to me, but this essay lifted me out of my despairing suspicion that materialism holds the superior epistemology. He writes,
“Faith is not a matter of belief despite evidence or lack of evidence; faith is the subjective experiment of coming to find nonscientifically available subjective truths. Just as we suspect that others have consciousness despite the complete lack of any objective measure, we may assume that the subjective truths are universal but can be appropriated only by the individual. Objectively they are invisible, like other people’s individual consciousness.”
As the book title promises, the third essay, “Crawling out of the Primoridal Soup: A Step Toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution,” engages directly with the question of evolution. I studied biology at BYU and in graduate school (though unfortunately I never had a class with Dr. Peck), and evolution is what brought me to BYU. My high school biology teacher entirely skipped the chapters on evolution, mumbling that there were problems with them, and I knew that wasn’t right. I believed that if ideas made it into a textbook there must be something worthy about them, and I wanted to hear LDS biologists tell me what was true about evolution. Bill Bradshaw, John Bell, James Farmer, and Duane Jeffrey were brilliant teachers who allayed any concerns I had about evolution before they ever had a chance to really develop. My only frustration around evolution has come when Church leaders treat it with suspicion or contempt. Peck takes seriously the challenge believers have in reconciling Darwinism with their faith, and takes the reader through various theological responses to evolution, followed by LDS theological responses that emerged prior to the conflict between Joseph Fielding Smith and leaders who were relatively friendly to evolution — James E. Talmage and B.H. Roberts. Peck notes that after that conflict “engagement between Mormon theology and evolutionary theory slowed to a standstill,” and that “it may be time to take some steps in this direction again.” Particularly in light of the unique perspective LDS theology has on the problems of natural evil, design, and teleology. The essay uncovers many interesting questions about these problems, and it’s clear that as a whole, the LDS response to evolutionary thought is really underdevelopped.
The final essay I’ll comment on is “The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit.” My 5 year old daughter recently told me, “I wonder what it’s like to be you.” She also wonders what it’s like to be various kinds of animals. It turns out she’s asking about phenomenal consciousness – “the hard problem in consciousness studies. Phenomenal consciousness is the aspect of consciousness identified by that ‘what it is to be like’ feeling that we associate with personal subjectivity.” Consciousness is hard to define, and harder still to study. Peck offers us a fascinating overview of consciousness studies, with the tantalizing promise that “the LDS doctrine idea that spirit and body constitute the substance of consciousness is, I will argue, a philosophically valid and coherent approach to consciousness.” He reviews LDS thought on consciousness, referring to the works of B.H. Roberts, Orson Pratt, and John A. Widstoe. All conspicuously a century or more old. LDS theology has some fertile ground for thinking about the problem of consciousness, and we need more LDS writers to take up this topic. Incidentally, and finally, it seems clear to me that if a) subjective truth is real and b) it can only be accessed by individual consciousness, then individuals must share their truth with one another that “all may be edified of all.” [Ref 2] Our lack of diversity among individuals in leadership of the Church (namely women and people of color) is a serious impediment to accessing the kind of truth we care about most because it denies hearing the subjective truth of certain kinds of consciousnesses.
In summary, Evolving Faith is a thought-provoking book on subjects I care about very much: faith, science, and their unique epistemologies. If I’d been able to give one suggestion to the author and editor it would have been this: change “wanderings” to “wonderings” in the title. There is so much to wonder about in the universe, and Steven Peck gives the impression we humans have only scratched the surface.
Reference 1: From Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke:
I love you, gentlest of Ways,
who ripened us as we wrestled with you.
You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,
you, the forest that always surrounded us.
You began yourself so greatly
on that day when you began us —
and we have so ripened in your sunlight,
spreading far and firmly planted —
that now in all people, angels, madonnas,
you can decide: the work is done.
Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now
and mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.
Reference 2: D&C 88:122
Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege.