Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Review: Evolving Faith, by Steven Peck

BYU biology professor Steven Peck is quite unlike most Mormons I know. For example, Peck:
—believes that evolution is the best way to view the history of biological life on Earth;
—believes that some of the stories in the scriptures (like the universal flood) should not be taken literally; and
—does not believe that “environmentalist” is a pejorative term.

Peck’s most recent book, Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist, was released last fall as part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. The title might suggest that this is a book about evolution, but it’s actually a collection of essays on a wide range of interesting topics. Some of the essays will strengthen your faith, while others will challenge it in productive ways. Nearly all of them will leave you asking questions.



My favorite essay in the book explores the basis for faith in God. Are the new atheists correct that faith is belief in spite of (or even perhaps because of) a lack of evidence? Peck doesn’t think so. He believes there is “evidence” for faith in God, although it comes from subjectivity — for example, feeling God’s presence while praying or reading the scriptures. Some dismiss the reliability of such subjective experiences, claiming that only objective evidence is reliable. But Peck challenges this assumption by pointing to one example where most people rely upon subjective experiences to shape their view of reality: human consciousness. Strictly speaking, there is no objective evidence for human consciousness (no one has access to anyone else’s consciousness), yet few would deny its existence. Peck calls the existence of human consciousness a “subjective truth” — a universal truth that is revealed only in subjective experience. If there is one such subjective truth, might there be others? Could knowledge of God be one of them?

Another essay examines LDS teachings about consciousness and compares them with current ideas in the philosophy and science of consciousness. Peck argues that materialism (the idea that matter is all that exists) has not been able to explain consciousness, and that LDS teachings about consciousness (that spirit and body constitute the substance of consciousness) are philosophically defensible.

Evolution is, as you might expect, featured prominently throughout the book. Peck believes that Mormons should fully embrace evolution through natural selection, but he also acknowledges the problems that will need to be sorted through in order to do so. For example: How do we reconcile the brutality of natural selection with the goodness of God? If we address that issue by saying that natural selection was a natural law necessary for the creation of a diverse and fully functioning universe, what does that imply about God’s ability to intervene in human affairs? (I have previously blogged about Peck’s answer to this question.) Can the story of Adam and Eve and the fall be integrated into an evolutionary perspective? What does it mean to be created in the “image of God” when, over long time periods, evolution is not aiming at any particular direction or purpose? Although Peck gestures to possible solutions to these and other problems, he seems to be more concerned with motivating Latter-day Saints to become informed about the issues than with providing definitive answers.

Actually, there aren’t too many definitive answers anywhere in Evolving Faith. Peck’s insatiable curiosity pervades nearly every essay. He doesn’t shy away from difficult issues, and he seems to be fully content with ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s an approach to faith for which Mormons do not have many models.

Peck is an extremely versatile writer. While a few of the essays are quite technical, some are deeply personal. One essay illustrates, through humor, some of the difficult questions that must be answered in order to persuasively uphold the literal historical reality of a worldwide flood. Another essay explores the relationship between violence and divine grace, and Peck recounts several painful (both literally and figuratively) experiences from his life. Why is violence written into the deep fabric of the universe? Again, don’t expect final answers; Peck freely acknowledges that he is perplexed by a universe that demands that its own God must suffer deep, unimaginable violence.

I found myself challenged in productive ways by Peck’s essays about the environment. Most Mormons I know don’t hold environmentalism in particularly high regard, so Peck’s calls for greater environmental awareness among Latter-day Saints are sorely needed. Peck believes that LDS theology is rich with ideas that prompt us to be engaged in stewardship of Earth’s resources, and he wants Mormons to start living up to our best doctrines.

Along those lines, it was interesting to see how evolution has affected Peck’s views about the environment. If evolution is true, then God’s act of creation required an immense amount of time — billions of years. This suggests that God cannot simply wave a magic wand to restore what we destroy through our carelessness. Peck believes that this should inspire us to greater reverence for the Earth and its natural resources and ecological cycles.

One deeply unsettling essay discusses a frightening experience Peck had, in which he literally went insane for about a week due to a malicious bacterial species that he picked up during a visit to Vietnam. Not only did Peck experience hallucinations, but his entire belief structure about the world was rewritten. The experience left Peck wondering how he can be sure that what he believes about the world reflects an objective reality. Merely reading about Peck’s experience left me asking the same question about myself.

I hope that Evolving Faith reaches a large audience within the LDS community. Mormons who tend to be suspicious of science and/or environmentalism will benefit from seeing the perspective of someone who fully embraces both while remaining deeply faithful to the gospel. And Mormons who are already sympathetic to Peck’s point of view will gain much from his incisive explanations of complex subjects. Peck is a great example of someone who (to borrow a phrase from Lowell Bennion) “carries water on both shoulders,” and Mormonism needs more people like him.

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