MIConversations #2—Steven Peck and Terryl Givens, “The God Who Marvels”
Maxwell Institute Conversations are special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.In this episode Terryl Givens sits down with Steven L. Peck, an award-winning author and scientist; one of the most bright and interesting Latter-day Saints you’ll ever meet. For Peck, as for Givens, Mormons need not fear scientific research because it can be a wonderful avenue for getting more acquainted with God.
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BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to Maxwell Institute Conversations—special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.
In this episode Terryl Givens sits down with Steven L. Peck, an award-winning author and scientist, one of the most bright and interesting Latter-day Saints you’ll ever meet. For Peck, as for Givens, Mormons need not fear scientific research because it can be a wonderful avenue for getting more acquainted with God.
GIVENS: … I just wanted to point this out because I think that’s so often the case that we miss opportunities to see that what we think are stumbling blocks or challenges to our belief, if we would get out of the defensive mode and instead enter a more creative engagement with some of these realities as they exist and are made manifest in the world that they lead upward and onward in really fruitful way. I’m sorry. Go ahead.
PECK: No. That’s a really important point because it’s so true. In my life it’s the beauty and wonder of the universe that actually makes me excited about Mormonism because it embraces that. It embraces this idea of eternal growth.
It’s Terryl Givens speaking with BYU professor Steven Peck on this episode of Maxwell Institute Conversations.
TERRYL GIVENS: Hello and welcome to another Conversation. My name is Terryl Givens and my guest today with me in the studio is associate professor of biology at Brigham Young University Steven Peck, a fellow Tar Heel—
STEVEN PECK: Yes.
GIVENS: We go back a long, long ways.
PECK: We do. We were in graduate school together.
GIVENS: That’s right. That’s right. Good to have you with us today, Steve.
PECK: Thank you.
GIVENS: Steve, you’re an ecologist, a philosopher of science, a novelist, an essayist. What am I leaving out?
PECK: [laughs] I watch a lot of TV.
GIVENS: We’d like to start by exploring a little bit your background, your intellectual as well as spiritual formation. Take us back to what you think were some of the seminal moments in your life that might explain how you got to where you are today.
PECK: As far back as I can remember I have sort of been interested in life. When I was five my parents got me this giant set of plastic dinosaurs and they had little cavemen and then we had a thing called brontosaurus. They’ve been reclassified—
GIVENS: Kind of like Pluto.
PECK: Right. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Which it was both hard on me but then I grew to accept the changes. So I’ve always had this interest in that. My mom would always brag that I knew the names of all the dinosaurs. But there were only like ten so it’s not as big a deal as it sounds today when there are literally hundreds.
And for some reason I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. Partly I think because we didn’t have media—
GIVENS: Didn’t have a screen.
PECK: We didn’t have a screen. My mom would immediately shoo us out and we would explore the world and we spent a lot of time camping. My dad was a social worker and he ran this camp way up in the Rockies in the summer called Dead Horse Point in Wyoming and we’d go up there. I can remember floating on rafts and looking down at the bottom of the pond and seeing things—I had no idea, no one could tell me what they were, but there were dragons down there climbing on branches. I know now that they were dragonfly larvae, but I had no idea at the time, but it just captured me. I wondered what are these? How do they work? Why are they in the pond? I’d see little fish and frogs; the pond was full of leopard frogs that we’d catch and let loose and do all kinds of things with.
And I think at some moment my parents bought me these Time-Life books and there were things like, you know, life on Earth, early man, and then “the scientist.” And between that and the professor on Gilligan’s Island I was completely sold on the idea of being a professor.
GIVENS: [laughs] So is it a pretty straight-line trajectory from early childhood dreams to—
PECK: No, not very straight. I went in the army and was in Germany for two and a half years. In fact I knew Fiona there.
GIVENS: Did you really?
PECK: Yes. She was part of the Young Women’s group there.
GIVENS: She never told me that.
PECK: Oh yeah, ask her. I probably wasn’t very memorable. I was one of the GIs that that hung out in the Frankfurt youth group. But I actually sat next to her on a bus from Frankfurt to Berchtesgaden. We had a great talk. I learned she was from Kenya. So you and I have connections that go way back.
So at the time I joined the army I wasn’t active in the church. I spent a lot of time in Moab kind of wandering around the landscape that’s where I was—
GIVENS: A scholar of Moab. [Referring to Peck’s novel of that name.]
PECK: Yeah, a scholar of Moab. There are some parallels. [laughs] I joined the army but it was shortly after I joined the army that I came back to the church. We had a wonderful chaplain. He sort of steered me back on the course, and as he steered me back on the course the idea of being a scientist kind of entered into me and I was a long ways from that at the time. I served a mission in—
GIVENS: Now it’s interesting. These two things seem to happen simultaneously, because of course one of the distinctive features of your work both as a scientist and as a novelist is the interweaving of those two things.
PECK: Yes, yes.
GIVENS: But we’ll come to that in a minute.
PECK: Yeah, exactly. In my writing they’re not exactly autobiographical but they are out of my experience. I use my imagination a lot, but it was—
GIVENS: So no pivotal moment? No particular episode that stands out; just a kind of gradual return back to your home faith?
PECK: No, it actually was—
I was having a hard time in the army. I mean at the time I was hanging out with some rough characters. A guy on NPR said that when I was in the army it was the worst condition of the U.S. Army in U.S. Army history. It was right after the Vietnam War. Everybody was kind of discouraged and depressed in the upper echelons. It’s very low morale, a lot of drug use, a lot of alcoholism, and I started to remember the good things about the church.
And there was kind of a pivotal moment. Bless my mom; she wrote a letter to the company commander at the church and said, “My son’s there somewhere. Could you go find him?” And he sought me out, invited me to church, I don’t think he expected me to come—
GIVENS: But you did.
PECK: But I did. The interesting thing was, though, I’d do my laundry on Sundays and the base chapel was on my way and I would pass people and I said, “those are Mormons.” I knew they were Mormons. I could just tell. They were all standing out there with their white shirts and ties. There was also an affinity there that I recognized and I recognized they were Mormons and every Sunday I would pass them out.
Just before he contacted me—this is my faith-promoting story—just before he contacted me I would see the missionaries walking down the street, everywhere. I’d peak out of a window just randomly and there would be the elders walking by. Or I’d step outside the barracks to go to the PX and there would be the elders walking by. It just played on my mind all the time and when he contacted me I was ready. I thought yes, yes, I want to come back, and I did, and that’s when I decided to serve a mission.
GIVENS: Which was where?
PECK: I didn’t quite learn the language. [laughs]
GIVENS: And then you went to college and graduate school, where?
PECK: I went to BYU. I majored first in zoology. I was in a horrific car wreck on my honeymoon. My wife and I were—
GIVENS: Were you distracted? Is that what happened, Steve?
PECK: I was distracted but think the drunk driver is what did us in. [laughs] Middle of nowhere in Oregon, we’d come over a rise and there’s a guy that’s lost his control of his car. We spent the first six months recovering from that. We spent a long time in the hospital and then recovered at her parent’s house.
And I got really afraid of—I had a couple of friends who had graduated in biology and they had not really found jobs or anything. I thought, well I better do something safe. And right before this I’d gone on a biology field camp and one of the professors—who’s one of my colleagues now, he probably wouldn’t mind if I named him. Dennis Shiozawa—I was a joint philosophy biology major and he said, “You know what? What you need to do is study math. If you really want to be an ecologist you’re going to need math.” I thought, ugh math. He said you’ve got to get at least through calculus. So I started taking the preliminary classes and I fell in love with math; I mean just became completely enamored with it and ended up majoring in statistics and went to UNC for a master’s in biostatistics, and then did my doctorate in biomathematics. It served me well for becoming an ecologist. He was absolutely right. But I never lost my love of philosophy.
GIVENS: That’s evident in your writing.
PECK: Yeah. That was always my sort of mistress, my discipline on the side while I…[laughs].
GIVENS: So most people probably who know you, know you through your fictional work rather than your scientific. You know, when I’m approaching an author or a novel, and I usually encourage my students to take the same approach, I think one of the most fruitful ways to get into it is to ask the question, “What question kept this author awake at night that eventually led them to write this work as a therapy or as a resolution of that question?”
I’m just going to take a guess that the question that motivates so much of your work, theologically as well as fictionally, is “what the heck am I going to do for eternity?” [laughs]
PECK: Yes, yes.
GIVENS: So I want you to talk a little bit about that. Was A Short Stay in Hell your first work?
PECK: It actually was a children’s novel called The Rifts of Rime that really didn’t do well. [laughs]
GIVENS: Okay. But A Short Stay is one of your bestselling works—
PECK: It is.
GIVENS: It’s a deeply disturbing work in which you’re trying to come to terms with an experiential kind of picture of what eternity might look like. So talk a little bit about what motivated that, and did it resolve anything for you?
PECK: I think what it did was it made it more important for me to envision an eternity of adventure—intellectual adventure—rather than an eternity of doing the same thing over and over and over again. I think a lot of times growing up I had the impression that eternity was pretty much just kind of running this “soul business,” where me and my eternal spouse would make thousands and millions and billions of humans that we’d run through this earth life and get them up into heaven so they could do the same thing—
GIVENS: A factory for exaltation.
PECK: Yeah, right, right, right. Almost a pyramid scheme of, you know, getting more and more—
GIVENS: I’m going to interrupt you right there, because you’ve got a passage that speaks to this in your most recent book, Gilda Trillim, and one of the characters says, “You’ll remember how crazy I used to get at my father’s ridiculous view that God and the eternities were just an accumulation of more stuff; more family, more children, more and more acquisitions of worlds, an eternal game of Monopoly with more and more squares on the board, and more and more houses and hotels piling up on the spaces. Agh! How boring that seemed, an eternity of the same game forever? You’d have to have some sort of heavenly opium to keep you happy.”
PECK: [laughs] Yeah, and that exactly was this deep existential angst in me—
GIVENS: And I don’t think it’s just particular to you, right? I mean I think this is really something that a lot of us grapple with. Kant talked about a whole series of antinomies, right? A whole series of these either/ors, both of which are equally unpalatable, right? That space has an end—that doesn’t make any sense. Space doesn’t have an end—we don’t want to think of that either. Eternity is the same kind of thing. We don’t want to think our existence comes to an end. But oh my gosh, the spectacle of an endingness can be horrifying! My son, my oldest son, for example, says he’s not afraid of death, he’s afraid of eternity.
PECK: Yeah, yeah. And I resonate with that. I think A Short Stay in Hell was actually sort of a stripping down and exposing the length of eternity. I think that’s…I have to say this carefully, because it’s not like that’s what I tried to do. What I tried to do is to work through my feelings about eternity.
I had just read Jorge Borges’s The Library of Babel. It plays a specific role, I mean there’s a sign on the wall of Hell that says “this is modeled on his library.”
GIVENS: Borge’s library, right.
PECK: As I work through that—and the Hell’s not that bad, I mean your first impression of it is, “Well this is a doable project.” You get out of Hell if you find the story of your life in a library that contains every possible book. But as it unfolds, the dimensions of that library start to become more and more apparent and the impossibility of the task becomes—
GIVENS: So there’s a metaphysical question here. There’s a theological interest. There’s also kind of scientific, insofar as cosmologists for example grapple with, how do we convey to the layperson the immensity of space?
GIVENS: So you’re dealing with all of those kinds of problems as they intersect it seems.
PECK: When they come together it is disturbing. All of a sudden you realize eternity is really, really long. The odd thing is that one of the first claims that the book presents is that we’re going to be looking at a finite—it’s not even eternity—there’s a finite limit to the number of books but you can’t ever get there. It’s too big.
And for me what it does is exposes—and it exposed it to me too, it wasn’t like this was my intention, it was like when I finished I realized, “Oh my. Oh my. This is a terrible, terrible thing to have to go through an eternity, because there’s too much.” And this played into my thinking about novelty because I realized—
GIVENS: Okay, I don’t want to interrupt you but I want to transition—I want to segue now into novelty as it operates in your scientific thinking and scientific apprehension. One of the things I’d like you to talk to us about is, to what extent does science, your experience, your view of science, solve this problem? And to what extent does your theological apprehension give you particular insights that you think have been useful in your scientific understanding? So how do they interact?
PECK: Okay. Let me start with the science part because it was evolution that actually sort of helped me rethink what eternity might mean…
PECK: …and gave me kind of an escape from the horrors presented in A Short Stay in Hell.
GIVENS: I’m going to interrupt you again—
PECK: Please, anytime.
GIVENS: Because I want to draw some attention to what you’re saying here. You take a concept like evolution, that for many people is a stumbling block to the faith.
PECK: Yes [laughs].
GIVENS: And for you it becomes a catalyst to a richer and deeper engagement with the faith.
GIVENS: I like that. I just wanted to point this out because I think that’s so often the case, that we miss opportunities to see that what we think are stumbling blocks or challenges to our belief, if we would get out of the defensive mode and instead enter a more creative engagement with some of these realities as they exist and are made manifest in the world that they lead upward and onward in really fruitful way.
But I’m sorry. Go ahead.
PECK: No. That’s a really important point because it’s so true. In my life it’s the beauty and wonder of the universe that actually makes me excited about Mormonism; because it embraces that. It embraces this idea of eternal growth.
GIVENS: So talk a little bit in specifics about evolution and how you see evolution fitting this model.
PECK: Okay. So the wonderful thing about evolution is that it’s wildly creative.
PECK: Non-teleological. Completely non-teleological; and yet, all this diversity of things starts to bubble up. And it’s actually in the nature of the universe. If you go back to, for example, the first generations of stars you see a whole bunch of stars made of helium and hydrogen just kind of burning in the sky. And if you were a scientist that arrived there somehow—you know scientists are complex things so how would they would arrive in the early universe, but we can imagine this, we could imagine Doctor Who for example traveling back to the early universe. But if you didn’t really know where it was going you’d look at the stars and you’d calculate how much fuel these stars had and you would say, “In so many years these stars will all burn out and we’ll have a dark grey universe. Everything will go cold.” Not knowing that when too much of the stuff gets together that the massive gravitational forces will force fusion of these helium atoms and hydrogen atoms you create heavy metals, and you create massive explosions.
GIVENS: So you’re kindling new processes.
PECK: Right. So something new arrives in the universe that, you know, beyond these simple structures. All of a sudden you get added complexity in the universe. You get rocky planets. You get all in these—second generations of sun you have the opportunity for carbon and oxygen, two of these elements that get created in these massive explosions, to begin to recombine in really strange and wonderful ways.
And once life shows up in the universe it’s off to the races, because life provides a mechanism for memory so that structures that are created can have a structure that can be remembered by the next generation. People criticize, “Oh science doesn’t know how life got started.” But they’re making real progress and there’s things that… and it may come in in my lifetime. I’m not worried about it because unanswered questions in science are what feeds science so I don’t worry too much about “how did it get started” because they’re making headway and there are lots of good reasons to think— But once that happened all of a sudden you see the formation of cells, you see the formation of these single-cell organisms of bacteria and Achaea, these two things that existed.
I was just reading a book where they gave the figures, but for almost a billion years there was just these two bacteria-like things, and then all of a sudden for some reason one of these bacteria climbed inside one of these Achaea and created a cell. The bacteria is still there, it’s our mitochondria. It provides the energy for all the rest of our cells. Eukaryotic organisms begin to appear. And then what happens is life itself changes the conditions of life, which allows life to change into something new. And this process continues and you get more complex structures, as energy begins to be competed for and some grab it from the sun and others grab it from the ones that grab it from the sun. You develop these predator-prey relationships which adds to this complexity and all the sudden diversity of life is just bubbling all over the place and it’s open-ended. You just don’t know—
GIVENS: Okay, it’s at this point that your particular variety of Mormonism responds to this with celebration rather than angst.
GIVENS: Because it’s at this point that the creationists and another say “well, wait a minute, we have to make sure God is always in control of this, God has to be in control of the process.” And if I read you correctly what you’re saying is, “Well God’s actually part of the process. He’s in the universe. This is a universe that is characterized by the radical intrusion of novelty at every moment and that is our salvation from an eternity of ennui.” Right?
PECK: Yes. Exactly.
GIVENS: I think now in light of what you’ve said I’m coming to understand the phrase that you use in one of your writings. You refer to the “sanctity of complexity.” So talk a little bit about that. How is the complexity itself sacred for you then?
PECK: It’s sacred because it’s kind of the opportunity for something truly unique and wonderful to come into the universe that’s never been there before.
The appearance of, say, a giraffe. I like to see—and I don’t know, this is my own theology that that comes out of my evolutionary leanings, but I get hints of this in Job where Job’s complaining about things aren’t going… you know, “If you were just you’d be taking care of me better than this,” kind of, and God comes to hear complaints but God doesn’t really address the issue. He just says, “Have you seen these whales? Whoa! They are great, these whales. They’re wonderful!”
GIVENS: Kind of like the first days of creation too where he discovers… you were saying this earlier to me, “It’s good.”
PECK: Yeah, it’s good. It’s good. This is marvelous you know you couldn’t even catch one of these, let alone make one! Try to get a hook in this baby. It’s too big. I kind of see in that my own delight and wonder, and I’d like that to be an attribute of God; the discovery of what’s unfolding, and when God saw a giraffe he had the same reaction: “Would you look at that weird thing? That is just wonderful!”
GIVENS: I’m going to quote you again. You wrote, “If God cannot be surprised then he cannot laugh and if he cannot laugh then he cannot weep and if he cannot weep then we are nothing but reel after reel of a motion picture.”
To my mind—Fiona and I have written about this—God’s capacity to weep is not what reduces him; it’s what magnifies him as a being worthy of our worship and adoration. And if I thought I couldn’t do anything to surprise God, then what’s the use of any of it?
PECK: To me that kind of God is so much more awe-inspiring. The fact that God can experience awe is marvelous to me. It, as you described, it’s what makes him worship-worthy. If God is just a part of a grand machine that’s tick-tocking through repeated bouts of things it’s not very interesting.
GIVENS: It’s never occurred to me until this moment but doesn’t that always also suggest that if we want to worship a God who only exists outside of space and time and history and temporality, then aren’t we diminishing creation? Aren’t we saying, “Oh this is all just window dressing that we’re going to pass through in order to get to the real stuff”?
GIVENS: So it seems that by making God a part of the universe we’re also sanctifying all of the material universe and saying “no this is sufficient for us.”
PECK: I think that’s exactly right.
GIVENS: How can you have a theology of environmentalism or ecology that’s predicated any other way?
PECK: And that’s exactly what I was going to say. When you realize that creation isn’t a wave of the hand, that it required deep time—and to me this makes creation even more valuable. This idea that creation took several million years to unfold to where it is, to where it was ready for the presence of his children. This, to me, means that earth itself is sacred in a way. This is our home. And I find this to be a wonderful idea because we know that our eventual home, if we go the Celestial Kingdom, will be the earth. This will be our home and the fact that our bodies are constructed and evolved to be ready here is marvelous to me.
GIVENS: Now is it your belief, your experience as a scientist, that emerging sciences of complexity, of chaos theory, science of emergence, that these all corroborate this picture of an unpredictable universe?
PECK: Yes, I think it does. I think determinism—Determinism was always an assumption. There’s no way to prove determination. It was always a metaphysical assumption that everything’s determined. We get Laplace’s demon who if he knew that the position and velocity of every particle could predict the entire future of the universe. But that’s not what we see when we actually start looking at things.
We see random mutations appearing and those random mutations can be the grist of the novelty that comes into the universe and this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing predictable, that it’s random. I hear this complaint a lot about evolution, that everything’s random. But it’s not random because there are selective forces. It means something to want to swim in the water. If you’re an organism and you’re going to evolve to swim in water you have to have certain features. You have to have a way of balancing your direction, powering your motion; all these things. And swimming things have evolved multiple times on earth in lots of forms. There’s things that swim like squids or fish, but for vertebrates a swimming thing has evolved three times. We see it in the fish, we see a dinosaur fish-like thing, if you saw an ichthyosaur swimming it would look very much like a porpoise. It evolved the same kinds of fins, the same kinds of tail movements except… oh no, mammals, and then mammals did it. So all three of these groups came up out of land and then into the water, except fish started in the water—
GIVENS: So it’s as if they all find their own solutions.
PECK: Right. But they all have this similar variety. There’s an extreme example of that. There’s a British biologist who’s written this interesting book called Life’s Solution and he points out these kinds of convergences. One of the most amazing is saber-toothed tigers. You have a marsupial saber-toothed tiger and a placental saber-toothed tiger and they look very, very similar. Now marsupials are things like kangaroos. The entire marsupial line evolves from something very rat-like. It’s a little opossum that, you know, superficially you think, “oh that’s a rat.” Then genuinely placental mammals were very rat-like too. So both of these things are moving through this solution space. Things that survive are those things that are—
GIVENS: So it’s not utterly random. It’s not utterly contingent. There’s certain constraints that kind of direct the general course which would explain, for example, how something humanoid might have been virtually inevitable, although the particular—
PECK: And that’s Simon Conway’s claim actually. The subtitle of his book is “Inevitable Humans In a—”
GIVENS: Contrary to what Dawkins has claimed that if you replayed the tape it would be utterly different.
PECK: Yeah. Now it’s possible but if you’re solving things that are similar, if you want to swim in water you have to do certain things. If you want to fly you have to do certain things. And insects and fish and pterosaurs and mammals, whales and things all solve it differently but there are certain solutions that—we were talking about flight. So insect flight, bird flight, mammal flight, pterosaur flight, the big dinosaurs, they all have wings. They all have to do the same thing. So there are constraints imposed on what it means to be a biological organism on earth because you can’t get around. If you want to survive you’re going to be the one that does those things best.
So evolution refines them towards those things but even within there there are things though that there’s nothing necessary about a blue whale or there’s nothing necessary about a giraffe. I think that’s why the Lord in Job is so delighted with it. Look at that! That’s wonderful!
And to your point, it does give us reasons why we should preserve this unique thing that’s come about. It’s like a canvas where this beautiful work of art has taken place that’s filled with uniqueness and that kind of value that comes through rarity. All the things that we see are rare and special and were produced over a long, long time and I think the Lord values it highly. I think he loves it. I think he loves creation and I think it bothers him when we can’t appreciate what went into creating these marvelous creatures.
GIVENS: So let me back you up a little bit, because you were talking about radical novelty, unpredictability, complexity, and you actually find an intersection between how these words operate in the realm of science and how they might operate in the realm of the sacred. If I can quote you again. You write in Gilda Trillim, “Christ’s atonement is so powerful and important it became necessary because of the situation that arose. It’s a response to the emergence of a new smashing strike to which one must respond or lose the game.”
And when I read that I was struck by its similarity to something that Dorothy Sayers quotes in one of her works but I think it’s just one of the most beautiful insights into the nature of divine morality, to use that term. She says, “In this in this morality of grace the situation says ‘here is a mess, a crying evil or a need. What can you do about it?’ We are not asked to say yes or no, I will or I won’t, but to be inventive, to create, to discover something new.” And then this, “The difference between ordinary people and saints is not that saints fulfill the plain duties which ordinary men neglect. The things saints do have not usually occurred to ordinary people at all. It needs imagination and spontaneity that is not a choice between presented alternatives, but the creation of something new.”
So are you saying the same thing that Dorothy Sayers is quoted as saying there?
PECK: I am, because I really believe that, I really think that our situation on earth requires our response, as she describes. It requires our imagination; it requires us to rethink things, to deal with the response. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s exactly what the atonement is. It’s a response to a need that’s arisen in existence to take care of us.
And that gives me hope that these tools and characteristics that I’ve been given, as she describes, of imagination. I love that because what she says is we often feel like there’s a right thing and a wrong thing to do—and there is, I’m not I’m not saying this like categorically either, there are wrong things to do and there are right things to do—but so much of life, in dealing with our kids, in trying to navigate the difficulties of relationships, of jobs, of everything, require us to act immersed in a situation that’s utterly unique and utterly in need of our best thinking, our best imagination, and our freedom.
A lot of times we try to line it up and say “okay I’ve got to choose between two evils,” when in reality, as she describes, we need to navigate these waters. It’s not when we’re on a ship that, you know, these waves are evil and this wind is evil or good. There’s benefits and non-benefits, but we have to steer. And there are directions, there are places we want to go there, are places we want to get to—
GIVENS: But there isn’t a script.
PECK: There’s not a script, yes, yes, yes.
GIVENS: That’s what I like about you’re saying. I think you’re trying to endow Mormon conceptions of agency with more heft by saying it’s not about choosing the right; it’s about creating the right.
PECK: Yes. Exactly.
GIVENS: We’re here to paint a portrait, not to memorize a script and act out a role.
PECK: Right. Our lives are works of art. They’re not a monopoly game to try to get to the end and make the right moves. It’s, “what am I going to creative of myself, what am I going to try to create to glorify God?”
GIVENS: Yeah. I think this is one of the most beautiful things that Marilynne Robinson says in her novel Gilead. She has the preachers say, “I believe in a God who will judge us maybe in terms of how beautiful our life was.”
There are certain people, you know, that sometimes they strike you that—it isn’t that they’re necessarily a righteous good, they’re that too—but somehow they’re living a beautiful life. I mean I happen to think my wife is one of those people, that I look at the way she lives from day to day and there’s just a beauty, a loveliness to that and I think aesthetic comes close to describing what that is.
I want to change gears now if we can.
GIVENS: Given the nature of the interconnectedness of everything you do it’s not really changing gears too much. But I want to talk about your fiction. I’m going to begin with a passage from one of my very, very favorite poems. It’s by John Ciardi and it’s called “The Gift.” It’s a poem about a man who survives Auschwitz, or a concentration camp, and comes home and relives his life but the poem ends with these words: “In the spent of one night he wrote three propositions. That hell is the denial of the ordinary, that nothing lasts, and that a clean sheet of white paper waiting under a pen is a gift beyond history and hurt and heaven.”
PECK: Yes. I love that.
GIVENS: I’m moved by those words because I think what he is talking about is writing, the craft of fiction, is a simulacrum of sacred creation. This is an idea that also in some ways goes all the way back to Descartes and it weaves through Wordsworth, that at no moment in our existence are we more fully alive and fully free than when we conjure up worlds out of language.
Some authors I read and I’m really struck by the profundity of their ideas or the lyricism of their style, but I have to say when I read you, when I read work like Gilda Trillim, I’m struck by the sheer joyfulness of the exercise of writing. In some books like Gilead I read that and I think, “man, I would like to have written that work.” But when I read you I think, “man I want to go and write a novel too.” [laughs] Because there’s a joyfulness, a playfulness in your writing. That’s not to say that it isn’t laden with beautiful, beautiful moments of insight and inspiration. But your writing is very deceptive. It’s very weird.
PECK: It is. [laughs]
GIVENS: A Scholar of Moab or Gilda Trillim especially, because it masquerades as a kind of flippant, whimsical, almost surrealistic exercise in linguistic play, and yet it’s full of theological and metaphysical insight and probing.
So talk to me a little bit about your writing and have I got it right, do you think, in some ways?
PECK: I think it’s a reflection of the joy that I take in writing. To me it’s kind of a necessary thing. It’s a joy to me to get to know these characters. I don’t do an outline and then map out where everything’s going—
GIVENS: No, I had the sense you don’t.
PECK: Yeah, no. I don’t. I absolutely don’t. A lot of times what happens in my books, they’re very organic. I am as surprised as the reader. I’ll be literally writing going, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” because it’s very organic and evolutionary. All of the sudden new structures appear that I didn’t see coming.
GIVENS: If you were an artist, like Brian Kershisnik, I’d have some canvases here that the audience could look at. It’s hard to kind of summarize. So give us a 30-second overview of what Gilda Trillim, your most recent book, is so they can have some sense.
PECK: So Gilda Trillim… It’s kind of contrived, and says that it’s a master’s thesis by a guy and he’s following the life of a Mormon—
GIVENS: Badminton champion.
PECK: Badminton champion, poet, and there are some playful things, like it says she’s a minimalist author which means she gives you the words… [laughs]
GIVENS: And you have to put it together.
PECK: You have to put it together. Then I go into these academic debates about what it means—
GIVENS: I have to say I felt a little bit that I was the target of some parody here when it came to the English profession and literature. [laughing]
PECK: The English professors were—
GIVENS: The plot is really irrelevant, right? The plot is an excuse. It’s like Byron and Dongju. It’s an excuse to go off in any number of tangents and directions.
I’m going to read a paragraph—
PECK: I was just going to say, she’s exploring the world and she’s trying to find “what is existence? What is the existence of things? What is the existence of me?” And ultimately it’s a question of what happens when new things come into the world? Or, I find new revelatory experiences that change the very foundation of who I am, and what does that mean? How do I handle that? What role do they play in my life and what role do they play in other people’s lives? It is a sort of joyful look at all those questions.
GIVENS: Okay, I’m going to read one passage. We don’t want to spend too much time, because many won’t have read this. But this passage I’m going to read I take as typical of many passages that when you read it your first inclination is, “Well that was kind of a fun whimsical thing,” but then you go, “Wait a minute. Is there something serious going on here?”
PECK: [laughs] I hope so.
GIVENS: So don’t ruin it for us but talk a little bit about this. You have a section in there where Gilda is writing on “the ecology of the junk drawer.” Is that right?
PECK: Uh huh. Yep.
GIVENS: Ecology of the junk drawer. Immediately everybody will conjure up, oh I know exactly what that is! We all have one. Here’s a partial description. “The wallet is huddled in the upper left corner and its height has prohibited the pencils from mounting its leather covering, and it sits alone almost. A daring bottle top has secured a purchase on top of the billfold. Anchored by its rough corrugated sides, the caps hold on the wallet has also allowed two rubber bands in a pipe cleaner to negotiate an agreement to keep them topside and secures them from falling.”
And it goes on and on and on. But now one way of reading this is a kind of parody of academics who couldn’t write—Because famously, for example, Jacques Derrida did a whole reading of a designer jean label at a conference and that was his talk. So you can make a mountain out of a molehill if you’re intellectual enough. Tell us what else is going on in a passage like that?
PECK: There’s a couple of things that I kind of want to point out. One is, it is certainly a parody of an academic discourse on things, but it’s also removed from anything alive. These are all objects but I’m using terminology as if these were—
PECK: Agents. They’re the—
GIVENS: Are there shades of Orson Pratt here in the background?
PECK: Yeah. There may be, there may be. And kind of the idea that that objects themselves are interacting in really interesting ways and it’s producing results and conditions and it’s trying to get at this idea that—So this is a little bit different than I was talking about before, but it’s the idea that randomness itself can create a landscape on which things can play that’s very different than deterministic forces. So it’s going to play into a later novel as the appearance of agential action, but these aren’t really agents but they’re setting up a landscape where you can see how, if they were, this is how you’d describe it.
GIVENS: Right. So it’s a totally fresh lens through which to look at the photo here. All great writing to some extent gives us that defamiliarized view.
PECK: And the limits of what can be known about a system.
GIVENS: I think it’s brilliant work and it’s a lot of fun.
PECK: Thanks. [laughs]
GIVENS: Okay, I want to turn to one final general subject and it may be something we want to explore in half a dozen subsequent conversations.
PECK: Oh I’d love that. These are my favorite.
GIVENS: But I want you to talk to us a little bit about what you think are some of—and maybe just kind of sketch some general thoughts—but what are some of the opportunities and challenges, exciting possibilities that current and recent developments in science pose for people committed to a Mormon theological foundation.
PECK: So to me—This will sound maybe presumptuous, I’m not sure, but to me Mormonism is the perfect vehicle for a scientific viewpoint. It’s very material. It’s very attuned to agential action. I honestly think Mormonism is the religion best suited to an evolutionary viewpoint of the world and of existence and everything else—
GIVENS: That was pointed out by Widtsoe and others way back in the 20s or 30s. There wasn’t this kind of fear, but rather they saw a perfect conformity of the evolutionary model, generally speaking, to Joseph Smith’s King Follett kind of picture.
PECK: And I think that’s right. We talk about the attributes of God being intelligence and the importance of learning and wisdom and an investigation of exploring things under the earth and above the earth, and kingdoms and things. All these things are science. That’s what science is; it’s discovery, it’s curiosity, it’s being struck with the awe and wonder of the world. To me that’s always been a part of my Mormonism. That’s what Mormonism lends itself to. Brigham Young University itself was established early on when pioneers are planting crops and doing things; we need an educational vehicle because the glory of God is intelligence and learning and knowledge and—
GIVENS: My favorite statement in that regard, in some ways because it’s almost so absurd, but it demands to be taken seriously, is what Brigham Young said about the earth being transformed into a glorified Urim and Thummim. He said how will that happen and he said by the angels who are best instructed in chemistry.
PECK: [laughs] I hadn’t heard that; that’s wonderful!
GIVENS: It’s this wonderful moment where he collapses what other people want to make non-overlapping magisteria. And he’s saying no, no, the sacred and the creaturely participate in the same realm and the skills acquired in one are going to transfer to the other. I love that.
PECK: I do too. I do too. This is why I think Mormonism appeals to me so much is that it just lends itself to being a scientist. I think that the things that I discover about the universe, the things that I’ve learned, the things that I study and look at, fill me with wonder and I get that attitude of God when he looks at whales and says, “Look at that. That is so cool!” This is just the stuff you want to talk about; no, we’re going to look at whales.
GIVENS: Steve, this has been fascinating. Are there any concluding thoughts you want to leave us with on the nature of science in this relationship to Mormon and Latter-day Saint discipleship?
PECK: One thing I’d like to add is there tends to be some fear about science. There seems to be some suspicions about science. Because science is disruptive. It’s going to take comfortable paradigms and maybe turn them on their heads. For example, the discovery of the Big Bang seemed to be a troubling notion; that life evolved, when the reigning paradigm was that God kind of created it all at once in a day or two.
So that aspect of science—Though I think Mormonism can embrace better than any other religion and also in a sense because it’s part of the Restoration. We’re used to the idea of continuing revelation. We’re used to the idea that we need to change our minds from time to time as new information comes in. This is what scientists do. If we’re flooded with new information there’s always a few holdouts, it’s a complex process. For example, that the continents slide around on earth. For a long time that was an absurd notion by current understanding. There was no mechanism that could move continents, and the old geologists—
GIVENS: Resisted that tooth and nail.
PECK: Resisted that tooth and nail. And even though they’d see things that were perplexing, like you go down to a certain level in this strata of Africa and South America start to match up really nicely. But there was no mechanism to get them together, or apart and so you can imagine well maybe there was some big thing there that eroded away, but all of a sudden people began to realize there is a mechanism. When we drill in to see cores we see that it’s spreading, or collapsing and all of a sudden we have a conveyor belt that’s moving continents around.
Scientists have to change their minds sometimes. It’s really hard for scientists to change their minds and they’ll hold onto these old paradigms. But when science really starts to hone in on something that’s being supported by multiple data sets and being sort of our best thinking, it’s time to pay attention and sometimes this can be—
GIVENS: Yeah, and I love what you say about that the Restoration should suit us particularly well to an openness, a disposition to expect continually evolving shifting paradigms of greater light and knowledge and understanding.
GIVENS: My two favorite expressions in this regard from Latter-day Saints, one is from, I think, Henry Eyring the senior, “The Lord will never require you to believe anything that isn’t true.” If we would just remember that. And the second, deep and profound wisdom from Elder Holland, “just take a deep breath.” He said this to people who get so worried about challenges to traditional models. Just relax. We’re not going to have to accept anything that isn’t true.
PECK: And let things unfold. We get in a hurry. I think we want all our truth all at once. Sometimes in science we don’t find the answer for a long, long time.
GIVENS: Well the Restoration wasn’t an event. It’s ongoing.
PECK: Yeah. It’s part of science. [laughs]
GIVENS: Okay. Final three questions. What do you think as a people we’re doing well at this particular moment?
PECK: What I see, that I’m excited about, is the openness to investigation and exploration in things like the Gospel Topics essays—
GIVENS: This is a series of I think twelve or fifteen essays written by scholars linked on lds.org where they address some of the most pressing issues and questions about Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the priesthood ban, these other issues.
PECK: Exactly. I think that’s been very healthy. That actually models how science works. You open the investigation and—
GIVENS: Ask “what have we learned over the last years that shed new light on this problem.”
PECK: Right. And it may be that those will be ongoing document as we learn more, as we understand more, and they should be. Science itself, in a way, is a living text that’s never really settled. It’s not something that, “oh we’ve arrived at the truth.” It’s constantly in motion and refining and asymptotically approaching things that are settled enough that they’re not going to change. The probabilities get so low.
I always tell my students that science teaches us how to bet. And so for certain things like evolution, you know, you’re betting six trillion to one against it. Now, you know, one in a trillion events do happen but that’s not the way to bet. You don’t go to Las Vegas and think “okay that’s good odds.”
That kind of transparency science—one thing about science is you have to put out your data. You have to show what your analyses are, and I think that is why science has been so strong. It’s got mechanisms to correct itself. It’s got people who are looking over your shoulder. When I submit a scientific paper it has to be peer-reviewed. People point out mistakes or bad thinking and that makes me write a better paper, and then it still can be openly discussed and argued about once it’s in the literature. Nothing ever becomes a set text. I see that in Joseph Smith as well. I see that in our—
GIVENS: “In proving contraries truth is made manifest.” So this is kind of experimental.
PECK: Yeah. Exactly.
GIVENS: So what can we do better? Just one thing.
PECK: One thing we could do better. I think one of the things, and this is related to science—and this is members of the church; I’m not talking about a direction the leaders need to go or anything, but I think too often members of the church hold onto an anti-science viewpoint. They become enamored with kind of evangelical approaches to young earth creationism or Intelligent Design, these things that actually subvert science itself, and they subvert religion in a way. I think it’s both bad science and religion.
And to be less afraid when science is disturbing, not to dismiss it as a body of evidence, and say “where are they in the process of elucidating this problem? Can I be patient and see what they say and not react?”
GIVENS: Be more scientifically literate.
PECK: Yeah. Exactly.
GIVENS: And be more open to seeing it as an ally in the quest for truth.
PECK: Yeah. Because I think it is.
GIVENS: Steve, thanks for being with us.
PECK: Thank you! What a fun conversation.
GIVENS: And please, keep writing.
PECK: I will.
GIVENS: Good to have you with us. Thank you so much.
PECK: Thank you.
GIVENS: Thanks for joining us.
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