#34—An ‘Evolving Faith’ panel discussion [MIPodcast]
On October 27, the third book in the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series was released—Steven L. Peck’s Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist. We celebrated by hosting a panel discussion at Writ & Vision in Provo, Utah. Three panelists shared their thoughts about the book, and about their own experiences navigating issues pertaining to theology and science.
The panel featured George Handley (BYU’s associate dean of Humanities), Jani Radebaugh (BYU associate professor of geological science), and Duane Jeffery (emeritus professor of biology, BYU). Although the recording isn’t the best quality, the conversation gets high marks.
Evolving Faith debuted as the #1 overall book in Mormonism on Amazon and spent more than a week in the #1 spot for New Release in Mormonism. In addition to Amazon, it’s available at local LDS bookstores in Utah and at Deseret Book.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
Before we get started, I wanted to take a second to thank you for listening to another episode. I put a lot of work into this show and I hope you get a lot out of it. If you do, all I ask is for you to help me share the show by spamming all of your friends, family, and perhaps even your mortal enemies. You can post a link to a favorite episode on Facebook, tweet about the show, you can talk directly to friends who you think might actually be interested in it, or you can rate and review the show in iTunes, you can leave comments on the Maxwell Institute’s YouTube channel. I read every review and every comment and I really appreciate everyone that comes in. So thank you.
This episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast differs from most. It’s a recording of a panel discussion that was held to celebrate the publication of Steven Peck’s new book Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist. Evolving Faith was released by the Maxwell Institute on October 27, and on that day three panelists discussed the book at Provo’s Writ and Vision Book and Art Gallery. Evolving Faith is available at local LDS bookstores in Utah. You can get copies at Deseret Book or on Amazon. You can read more about Evolving Faith online.
As always, you can send me questions, comments, and suggestions about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
BLAIR HODGES: First of all, I want to say thanks for everybody for coming tonight to this great release event for another one of Steven Peck’s books. How many of you have been to a Steven Peck event in the last couple of months? Getting to be quite regular.
I’m Blair Hodges. I’m with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. You may remember me from such podcasts as the Maxwell Institute Podcast. [laughing] This book is part of the Maxwell Institute’s “Living Faith” book series. Each book in the series is written by a Latter-day Saint scholar who models faithful and open scholarship, depending on what their background is. So far in the series we’ve had books by a philosopher, Adam Miller, by a physician/theologian, Sam Brown, and now we’re adding a biologist to this mix. The question they ask in these books is, how do faith and the academy interact with each other?
Before I describe the book I want to introduce the author, Steven Peck. He’s seated on the front row. He’s actually not going to speak tonight. So if you’ve been to a Steve Peck event before, you won’t have to listen to him this time. He’s a professor of biology at BYU. He teaches courses like the history and philosophy of biology and bio-ethics. His research is in theoretical mathematical ecology and insect population—I’m not sure what that is. It’s really important. It’s been recognized by the National Academy of Sciences. He’s done great work helping to fight insect-borne illness. So his work is more than just theoretical. It has real practical implications. He’s published over forty scientific articles in prominent publications like American Naturalists, Newsweek, and Zygon, I think is how you pronounce that. It’s one of the words you read but never say. He’s also an author of fiction in The Scholar of Moab, A Short Stay in Hell, and other poems and short stories. He’s a real renaissance man.
Like many of you, Steve is familiar with the fact that believers and scientists have wrestled over the relationship of science and faith for hundreds of years. His book is a challenging witness that both science and faith are indispensable tools we can use to navigate God’s strange and beautiful creation. Evolving Faith is a collection of essays. Some of them are very technical, some of them are more personal, some of them are funny, some of them I’m sure are offensive—
STEVEN PECK: I think they all were.
HODGES: Yes, depending on the reader. He touches on all sorts of issues—not just evolution, but the environment, sacred spaces, human consciousness, and other scientific issues. Steve has the mind of a scientist, the soul of a believer, and the heart of a wanderer. I’ve found that he provides welcome companionship for women and men who are still engaging in the unceasing quest for further light and knowledge. I’ve personally benefited from his work.
Again, instead of having Steve read tonight or talk tonight, we thought it would be really cool to give him a treat and give him a break, and invite a great panel of thoughtful distinguished scholars to talk a little about the book. Each of them have read it. George wrote the introduction and Jeff and Jani both provided endorsement blurbs. They’re going to talk a little bit about the book and about their own thoughts about faith and scholarship.
So we’re first going to hear from George Handley. He’s the associate dean of humanities at BYU. He’s also a professor in comparative literature. Right?
GEORGE HANDLEY: More or less.
HODGES: More or less! Which is exactly what you would expect someone who does comparative literature to say in answer to that question.
After that, Jani Radebaugh. She’s associate professor of geological sciences at BYU. I was speaking with her at dinner tonight about volcanoes and interesting alien life, I guess. Not the green Martian type. Then finally Duane Jeffery, but he goes by Jeff. He’s an emeritus professor of biology. He taught at BYU for years. It’s quite possible, and I say this without hyperbole, that without him it’s possible that we wouldn’t all be meeting here tonight. We’re really, really glad to have him with us.
Each panelist is going to take ten or fifteen minutes. Then when we’re through, we’ll open up the room for a couple of questions. Hopefully this will last about one hour. We’re not going to keep you too long. Steve’s available to sign copies of the book if you’ve picked up a copy.
I’d also like to say thanks for Brad Kramer and Writ and Vision for hosting the event . If you have cell phones go ahead and turn them on their loudest setting now. At events like this you always get a call from mom so that’ll be nice. We’ll go ahead and start with George Handley.
HANDLEY: Alright. Thank you, Blair. I just want to tout the “Living Faith” series by the Maxwell Institute. I think it’s one of the most important developments at the Maxwell Institute in a very long time. I strongly endorse not only the project, but the three books that have already been published and the many that I’m sure are to come. Thank you to Brad also for having this event.
I want to say a couple of things, esoteric and very mundane, about Steve’s book and about Steve. Steve’s a very close friend and a very, very valued colleague of mine at BYU. Both of us are not blessed with a good memory so we can’t really remember when we met, although I do have a very distinct memory of talking with Steve outside of the Kennedy Center. This probably was about fifteen years ago, so I’m thinking this might have been when we first met. I don’t remember why we were talking, but I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy is really fun to talk to and he knows so much and he’s so passionate.”
If you know Steve you know he’s not only gifted with this very wide-ranging intellect, but a real deep humility and a wonderful sense of humor. All of that makes working with Steve a great privilege. In fact, I think knowing Steve is one of the greatest privileges of my professional career. No, really. I mean that. I know it sounds insincere when people say “it’s one of the greatest privileges of my professional career,” but I really mean it. Sorry, that’s a paraphrase of—nevermind.
Working alongside him, writing, and thinking, and reading, and teaching with him as I’ve done has been just an incredible experience. He’s opened up my horizons on so many levels. I’m vaguely into comparative literature, as Blair already alluded to, and so I needed a lot of help to venture into the sciences and Steve has been my guide. He’s my Virgil, if you will. I really appreciate the friendship on so many levels.
On a much more broader issue, since this isn’t really just about a personal friendship, Steve is really—When you think about great minds in Mormonism that mean a lot to us as a people, as a whole, I’m confident in saying that Steve Peck will become increasingly important in the church. He already is very important, but he’s young, and he’s got lots of books still in his head and lots of thoughts to share. So I think there’s plenty more to come. So I really think he’s one of the rarest of individuals that the church has ever produced. I’m going to just make him embarrassed for just a little longer and then I’m going to say something esoteric about his book.
I wrote a letter about Steve a number of years ago for one of these bureaucratic institutional review things but it was a real pleasure to write, and this is part of what I said:
“What makes Steve even more impressive are his accomplishments as an essayist, poet, and fiction writer.” Keep in mind this is a review of him as a scientist. “I have read his creative work and as a literary critic I believe he has published some of the finest work ever to come out of BYU by any creative writer. His scientific background is everywhere evident in his writing, whether it is a poetic reflection on an aspect of the natural world, or in this brilliant novel The Scholar of Moab, for an integration of philosophy, theology, and forestry, you cannot find a mind like his anywhere on this campus, and perhaps anywhere in Mormondom. His writing has impressed literary scholars and passionate readers outside of the LDS community and at other universities. He would never want to brag about his accomplishments as a writer, nor would he wish to have his creative work substitute for the research which he was expected to do as a scientist. The significance of what he has done and will yet do as a creative writer and broad interdisciplinary thinker”—which I think includes these essays—”should not be treated lightly in the assessment of his contributions. He has blessed the life and built the faith of countless students, but also of countless others who have long since graduated who are simply part of the broader Mormon conversation. Through his many outreach efforts, many have come to see him as an indispensable example of passion for life, faith, and the gospel, intellectual curiosity, and maybe just as importantly, good and self-deprecating humor. He inspires other to learn and respect science and to reach out beyond the comfort of their own disciplines and worldviews, even as he allows us to see how wonderful and inclusive of truth the restored gospel is. Because of his unique and much needed abilities I don’t think it is hyperbolic to say that he is one of the most valuable professors to have ever worked at this institution.”
So there’s that. Now Steve is red, and that’s good.
I wrote a preface for this book. I thought I could just read it and then I wouldn’t have to do any extra prep work, but you can read it on your own free time. I wanted to say something about the connection between Steve’s philosophical writings and his fiction. One of the things I say in the forward has to do with the way in which these essays are really about speculation. They’re methods of experimentation, or methods of seeing the world “otherwise,” to tease out multiple possibilities out of an otherwise singular view of the world or a singular reality. That is both very artistic and very scientific, is the point I want to make.
If you’re lucky enough to be friends on Facebook with him—sorry, Steve, now you’re going to get like a hundred requests—Steve has written, he says, about twenty posts about Pleasant Grove. They are hysterically funny. I won’t elaborate on them, but they’re basically experiments on how to make Pleasant Grove an interesting place to live. Which is a bit like sort of doing a scientific experiment to see what the deeper reality behind the appearance of things might be.
You can certainly see this sort of experimentation in A Short Stay in Hell and in Scholar of Moab. When he first described to me the plot of Scholar of Moab I was really fearful for his future, and I was too embarrassed to admit to him at the time it sounded like a very, very bad idea to write this novel. But I absolutely loved it when I read it, precisely because of the way in which it convinced me of his veracity and its experimentations. So what it achieves is a kind of reentry into the ordinary and the known that makes the world come alive with possibility that otherwise might seem boring or mundane or even confining in some way.
This, of course, is the kind of experience that a scientist has the world, since science can unveil an otherwise hidden reality and distort the meaning of what we thought we knew or what was routinized or familiar to us. This isn’t, I should say, some sort of bad fantastical fiction. It really is a function of being impatient with the world, with what is real. It’s not that at all with Steve. There’s a kind of faithful wondering about what is, and faithful probing of what the present is in its full richness, in its wonderful complexity. What’s so wonderful about this is that science and religion and the humanities can all harden into very predictable and dogmatic certainties about reality. It’s exactly that dogmatism that he’s constantly fighting against and turning the soils of to reveal new realities, rather than conceal them, which is what dogmatism often tends to do.
Of course, this was iterated very beautifully by Elder Russell M. Nelson when he dedicated the Life Sciences Building at BYU, where he talked about where there are conflicts between science and religion, it’s usually because either science or religion or both need to rethink their assumptions, which I think is a really beautiful point of view. So what you get in Steve is a really powerful ethos that prizes wonder and surprise and openness and that wishes to always experiment on the word, or on reality. That seems to be, I think, both the scientific dimension to his fictional experiments and the fictional dimension to his science.
Of course, I’ve never actually watched him do his science so I can’t really speak to that, but I know that’s what he does. I think what’s fascinating is that for Steve he never takes science or religion or fiction too seriously, but he also takes them utterly seriously. They are always important and almost everything is at stake, and yet there is a sense in which, because it needs constant experimentation, there is a kind of joyful play in the process that I think is just wonderfully evident in everything he writes, whether it’s philosophy or fiction or poetry or children’s writing, which I haven’t read. Sorry, Steve.
I’m going to read two quotes I think I’ll end with that relate to this idea of surprise and wonder and openness. The first is from the Pope Francis from his recent encyclical on the climate and the environment.
He says, “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”
I love that. I’ll say that again.
“By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical, a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”
Again you can really sense that’s what all of Steve’s writing is really trying to do, is to resist that temptation to turn reality into an object.
The other thing I want to read is an interview that happened between the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, whose name is now escaping me. Is it Katherine Bateson? Krista Tippett on On Being, the wonderful radio program, Krista Tippett, and Bateson is a Catholic, and her father was a famous atheist, and Margaret Mead was of course a famous anthropologist, and so her own journey is very fascinating. I want to end with this because I think, again, this captures what you find in Steve’s essays. So Krista Tippett says this to her:
“Let me ask you this, this large question, what does it mean to be human? Which is a philosophical question, it’s a theological question, and it’s an anthropological question. It’s a question your mother, Margaret Mead, and your father, Gregory Bateson, were asking. I know it’s also a huge question. How would you start to talk about your sense of that as it is evolved in the course of this life you’ve lived? Perhaps in ways that have taken you by surprise or not.”
So this is a wonderful setting for her answer, which again I want to stress is echoed in Steve’s essays. She says the following:
“I was going to give you an excessively intellectual answer about having to do with consciousness. You made it a much more personal question. Consciousness is important, reflection is important, thinking about what you’re doing and what it means in the search for meaning. One of the things that I came to believe when I wrote that piece you referred to about my father’s death is that death is a very important part of life that we shouldn’t deny. That in spite of our terrible hubris in greed, in competitiveness, that we can learn to see ourselves in proportion and realize that we’re small and temporary, and don’t understand as much as we need to.”
Again, these are themes echoed throughout Steve’s essays.
“And we live in a time of real urgency where we have to mine the insides of the past. I guess one way of saying it is we have to learn to use the word ‘we’ to include all life on earth. We have to learn to experience that as a terrible and tender beauty and shape everything we do to protect it.”
So I just end with that quote, because I think encapsulates what you’ll find in Steve’s essays. There’s a great sense of ethical urgency that run throughout the essays at the same time that there’s this playful and joyous speculation and wonder in the face of what we’ve been given in this creation. Thank you.
JANI RADEBAUGH [Quoting a poem cited in Peck’s Evolving Faith]:
To all in the village I seemed, no doubt,
To go this way and that way, aimlessly.
But here by the river you can see at twilight
The soft-winged bats fly zig-zag here and there—
They must fly so to catch their food.
And if you have ever lost your way at night,
In the deep wood near Miller’s Ford,
And dodged this way and now that,
Wherever the light of the Milky Way shone through,
Trying to find the path,
You should understand I sought the way
With earnest zeal, and all my wanderings
Were wanderings in the quest.
I really enjoy this opening quote from the book. It’s from the Spoon River Anthology. I like the idea that it emphasizes wanderings. Immediately as I opened the book I felt a real kinship with Steve and the fact that he really identified with exploring.
It all began for him as wandering around in his natural environment as a boy and becoming introduced to all it had to offer him in the red rock canyons of Moab and the Canyonlands. He says in the introduction, I’m reading a fair amount from this, there’s so much good stuff—“We had the whole of Canyonlands to explore. The hills that surround Moab rise steeply from the valley floor and on the other side of those were endless canyons, caves, and roads waiting for youthful adventurers. My friends and I would regularly sling a sleeping bag over our shoulder and ramble into the cold desert without a map or compass and walk until dark. We’d throw our bedrolls onto the sand and call it a camp. In the morning we would continue wending our way up into unexplored canyons. From time to time we found Anasazi Petroglyphs scratched into the desert patina of rock walls, varnished by long action of wind and rain.”
Then he talks about running into boxes of dynamites and mines. I guess it didn’t end badly, so that’s good.
He mentions on those excursions, “our imaginations were fired with tales of alien abductions, Anasazi ghosts, and visits to distant stars.”
It’s just so compelling and beautiful to think about how these beginnings of being a wanderer, where they occurred, and his passion for them. I think it’s also interesting that he’s wandering his way through science, and this idea that we actually can be explorers through science, and to think about how we can approach new problems and go down unexplored paths and seek the road not traveled so we can better understand and shed light on the problems we have that we face.
I have felt a little bit, too, my own need to wander, and in my scientific pursuits I literally wander. Part of it is that I would really like to wander out into outer space, but it turns out to be very difficult to find yourself standing on the surface of the moon. Only twelve people have done this. So because it’s so hard to do that we’re kind of doing that virtually, aren’t we? We’re sending out spacecraft into the outer reaches of the solar system and in that way we all are able to explore other bodies and we’re finding that we can all be involved, we can all share some small part in this, and be very excited by all the new discoveries. I was really impressed by how motivated everyone was by the flybys of Pluto this last summer. Everybody was so excited to see us just screening past this tiny little body that we’d never seen before, and everybody kind of felt like they were there in some way or another. So that’s really exciting.
I still felt like there’s a real exciting part about actually physically wandering to someplace. So where could I wander and how could I learn about these places in some way? I’m actually becoming kind of obnoxious to some of my friends and saying, “You can go to Kauai on your own time, but I need you to go to the western desert of Australia with me now so that we can see this sand dune that nobody’s seen before and try to understand what’s going on.” They’re all telling me to back off a little bit and wait for a little while. So anyway, I’m trying to get to these places that are not very well understood, not very well explored, because in that way we can see something new that no one’s seen before and try to understand these processes in some way that is not understood yet.
I think the other interesting aspect of this book—not only the idea of exploring his way through science—is also letting this love of nature and wild places also inform his religious faith. He mentions this here:
“I’ve written about my wanderings through the strange and exciting canyons of science and faith.”
We can actually use exploration as a means to understand our own spirituality. It’s really interesting.
So now back to this idea of how we can explore. It feels like we kind of need a physical self to be able to do that, even spiritually, which is interesting. In that sense, Mormon theology really embraces that, because we’ve talked so much about the importance of embodiment in Mormon theology. He mentioned in chapter three:
“In Mormon though,t God is embodied. It’s not completely clear what that means, but it implies at least in some sense that God has a biology. What such a biology might entail is quite speculative, but indicates a human capacity for a bodily theosis, which recapitulates God’s developmental process, if not completely in scope at least in such a way that can be considered human being’s movement toward becoming god-like.”
So this idea that we have a body and that we’re able to at the same time embrace our spiritual selves, and in that way approach like becoming like God, is really special to our faith. He describes this really well in this book.
In fact, we place a lot of importance on the idea that we need to get a body. That means that we’re part of our material world. We’re part of all of our surroundings. Part of all those beings and creatures that came before us as well. He quotes Jim Faulconer who says, “Our experience of the body, the only standard we have for understanding embodiment suggests that God is affected by the world and by persons in the world.” So that’s a really fascinating idea. If God has a body, then he’s part of this universe. Once we start studying the universe we realize that it is quite small and has not been around very long and might seem like a complete contradiction of what we really do understand, but you can place a number on it. Fourteen billion years. We can see the edges of it. So maybe God is in that universe as well.
So that’s really interesting, that places us in this world, and in fact reminds us that we rose up from its darkest corners, some remote part of the earth was our origin. That’s where we came from. Or maybe another planet. That’s another thing we can talk about. So if we really desire to wander off into these undiscovered parts maybe that’s understandable. We’re kind of returning to our roots in some way, and maybe our desire for exploration outside the world is, again, someway a return to our origins as well. We’re trying to figure this out. Where did we come from? Where did life start? So maybe we were even brought here by some interplanetary wanderer, or by some stray asteroid. And maybe we want to go back out there and see where it is we came from.
So if we’re drawn to these places that are very remote—like the solar system, or a place like Antarctica, all places that are completely devoid of life—they might also kind of speak to us about our intelligence, because that must transcend any biological urge. Why would we want to go to a place that’s absolutely sterile? Unless it’s that we want to understand where we came from and what those places are like.
While Steve’s wanderings helped connect him to the biology and the origin of life, I think mine have connected me to the landscape and the origin of the planets. And we both seek truth, and we seek to be off the beaten path in some way. I’ve read this quote from Carl Sagan a lot recently, but I think it’s a really nice idea:
“We were wanderers from the beginning. Even though we generally abandon the nomadic life, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after four hundred generations and villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We are drawn by a craving we can hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands and new worlds.”
DUANE JEFFERY: Maybe I can clip this microphone on. Will that work alright for you folks upstairs in outer darkness?
I thought I would like to try to maybe explore, a little bit, the historical setting in which I think Steve’s book falls and fits, and why I find this important for society in general, religions in general, and Mormons specifically. I would like to start with some data from a number of years ago by a psychologist who wrote a paper on the social origins of American scientists and scholars. He asked himself the question, “how can we explore the cultural values that doth make for the production of science and scholars that are so critical in our everyday life?”
So he took the following the approach. He said, suppose I were to look at all the schools, the various churches to which people belong, the states from which they come, and ask the question of those who graduate from college what percentage of those go on to the terminal degree in their individual fields? To the doctorate level. The ones who do the moving and shaking for any given field. He broke this down by religions, by states, by characteristics of both of those, and ended up with a number of cultural values that he associated with high or low productivity of scientists and scholars.
Steve’s book really impinges on a lot of these. So let me say that he gives a chart of high productivity and of qualities associated with those, and low productivity of the culture and items associated with those. For high productivity, he says there must be a believe in naturalism, a belief that the world is a world of order and law and pattern and meaning. Low productivity, on the other hand, believes that the world is unknowable and incomprehensible, that events are capricious, they’re mysterious, they’re whimsical. Deity may understand, but humans never can.
Secondly, there’s an intrinsic value for high productivity of learning and a value of knowledge. Whereas on the other hand there’s a suspicion of learning and education, a constricted value of learning and anti-intellectualism.
I would like each of you to think as we’re reviewing these, where does your particular culture and faith happen to fit? My students in the past have felt like they were bouncing from high to low to low to high, and maybe that gives us something we ought to try to work on if we think we ought to be more productive.
High productivity respects the dignity of human beings. There’s optimism concerning man’s ability to discover truth and change his world. Low productivity disparages humanity and says that man is powerless, that the mercy of faith and destiny and luck and chance. He is evil, incompetent. You might say, “I haven’t heard of any of those.” Well, look around. They’re there.
There is a personal dedication for high productivity. A seriousness of purpose. Sense of mission. Responsibility beyond the family. Low productivity believes that there is a sense of indirection. You’ve got to take and enjoy what’s available now and there is high loyalty to family and kin. Play with that one a bit.
For high productivity there’s a sense of egalitarianism, active promotion of constancy to improve the status of the disadvantaged, high regard and status for women and children, and pacifism. Whereas low productivity is very authoritarian-based. Reliance on authority, power relationships are important, the patriarchal order gives males dominance, aggressiveness, and militarism. Those are low qualities.
There’s a sense of anti-traditionalism. High productivity is related with people not being satisfied with the established way of doing things. There’s the restless wandering spirit. For traditional, however, or for low productivity, the past is respected. You’re very traditional. You romanticize the group’s history. This leads to low productivity.
And lastly, high productivity is centered on the near future. Concerned with this world, orientation for the foreseeable future, whereas low productivity is centered on the present and the distant future. You hope for a better break in the distant future and in the next life.
If I were to ask you, can you think of specific religions that fall into the high category or the low category, could we do that? I think it would make an interesting discussion. But he breaks them down into five groups: highly productive, productive, fairly productive, low productivity, and very low productivity. Highly productive religions are Quakers, Unitarians, secularized Jews. Next level down, productive, are the Church of the Brethren, Mormons, reformed Christians, congregationalists. He says their qualities are moderately liberal. Their dissidence, anti-traditional Protestants, et cetera. Fair productivity are the northern congregations, particularly for Protestants, Methodists, and Baptists. He’s using data here from 1920-1961. So he’s restricting this only to white graduates of college, because it’d be rather unfair to mix in some of the other ethnic groups. Low productivity are the Southern Protestants, Disciples of Christ, and Lutherans, Fundamentalists, Conservative Protestants. Very low productivity, Roman Catholic. Now, I would suggest that if you were to repeat this you’d find Catholicism has moved up greatly because of the change in some of these characters that we review.
Well, he goes on to review states and which states were more productive. For the physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, arts and professions, and for education. Then it gives you the fields combined in which states were most productive. The most productive state, far and away, higher above number two than number two is above number twenty-six. What would you pick? 1920-1961. Utah. Utah had that incredible lead over everybody else!
But I have talked with that gentleman and asked him if he was going to update this work and he said well he had data through the 1970s, to about 1975 or so, but he could never publish it because you can no longer get religions of scholars anymore the way you could. You used to be able to poll the American men and women of science and they gave their religion. That’s not done anymore. So he said he can’t do that, but he said he did have enough data as to which states had moved and which had not. Utah had lost that incredible lead that it had through the sixties and seventies. Massachusetts had come from the top. In the 1920s it was about number twenty and then it moved to number six in the 1960s and so on. But it was at the top and Utah was still number one if you looked only at males. For females we were thirty-six. For males and females together that put us into second place.
Well why would Massachusetts move up? Why would Utah go down? I’ll let you play with those on your own. I had some good discussions with the gentleman who did these data. He said he thought that after the 1960s the Eastern snobby colleges, prestigious schools started recruiting the better students from all across the country. So they were robbing the other states of their better students. I said, “Well what would you say about the change toward science in Mormonism?” He didn’t want to go there. He was Mormon. I thought it might be well.
Steve reviews a bit of this in chapter three of his new book, that in the early 1900s BYU lost the first three PhDs it ever had, in the history of the Chamberlain brothers and the Peterson brothers—one of the Chamberlain brothers did not have a PhD, he had a master’s in philosophy, but he was very, very bright. We got into an argument over how to interpret scriptures and evolution, and we lost all three of those first PhDs and eventually went (inaudible) too. Steve reviews this in chapter three. I would leave that for your reading.
How are we doing on time here? We’re running out. I think the point needs to be made that religion is inherently conservative. You take the teachings of whoever founded the faith or whoever has given it articulation, guidance, and direction, and you defend those. Oftentimes with your very life. It’s far easier for writers who try to discuss any religion in light of their modern science or modern culture to defend the faith. That’s easy. It’s when you suggest changes that it gets hard. Those who are digging in their heels will question the other person’s commitment to the faith. In Mormonism we’d say “we worry about your testimonies.” I’ve heard one person that said, “Well, he’s going too far beyond his stewardship.” Nice phrase. So there’s always this suspicion of anyone who tries to suggest a new way to go. Steve deals with this, and does it very nicely.
But there’s a real irony here for Mormons, and that is, there’s the story of how Moroni came to Joseph Smith and he quoted whole bunch of scripture. The last one that was specifically identified was from Joel in the Old Testament. Remember that one? Sure. We all remember that one. No. We’ve all read it, but the Lord says, “In the last days my spirit will be poured out upon all flesh. Your old men shall dream dreams.” That fits. It happens. Believe me. As I get older I understand this. “Your young men shall see visions,” et cetera. He said this has not come to pass, but it shortly will.
What did he mean by that? How do I interpret Joel? Why don’t we have it in our lesson manuals today? For the first one hundred and twenty years of Mormonism that was interpreted as the rise of science. “Your young men shall see dreams,” and so on. I remember getting little cards, you know, “Be true to yourself,” when I was a kid. One of them featured a young man doing science experiments and it built the whole thing on Joel and Moroni. That changed. Didn’t it?
I often refer to Joel and Moroni as Mormonism’s forgotten scriptures. Beginning in the 1950s, fifty-four, fifty-eight to be precise, we had some very influential books published that were very anti-science. They swung the whole church to that point of view. Please read chapter three in Steve’s book and get a little bit of background and switch that plague. The point was that we had had very prominent scientists in the Quorum of the Twelve, James E. Talmage, John A. Widstoe come to mind, B.H. Roberts was the president of the Seventy, and very well-versed on—He’s a forerunner to Steve Peck, frankly.
All those were there and they were prominent and those scientists spoke out. In 1931 there was a big doctrinal debate of things and the First Presidency said to everybody, “Leave these issues alone. We don’t have these answers.” The scientists pretty well observed that dictum. The anti-science people did not. John A. Widstoe, the last scientist in the Twelve in those days, died in 1952 in November, and in the April conference of 1954 Marion G. Romney broke the agreement, and that’s where the anti-science stuff began in the church.
Why is this having so much trouble? It’s too close to me, that’s the problem [laughter].
Events in life are capricious and only God knows why they happen. Well, the story of Moroni and Joel gives a wonderful background for Mormons to work on, but we have forgotten that. I think it’s time to get back to that. Steve’s book is a major trend toward that. We’ve had a number of books that try to say, “Look, the church does not have the anti-evolution stance that everybody thinks it does.”
In 1992 Rex Lee, president of BYU, took a series of collections to the brethren in Salt Lake and said, “Do these summarize the church’s official position on evolution?” They said, “Yes, they do.” You can get the so-called BYU packet on evolution. It’s been published in a few places, not really like it should be, but it really leaves things pretty open. That’s the official church view.
Steve then does more than review that. Steve gives us new ways to approach the issues of trying to synthesize. He summarizes various ways that people have done it and then tries to turn that to a Mormon point of view as well. He ranges all the way from the emergence of human life to the meaning of death. It’s a wide-ranging book.
The evidence for evolution these days is absolutely overwhelming from every field of science you want to mention. As Henry Eyring the chemist used to say, “You can tell people the earth is flat for only so long and then they start to question everything you want to tell them.” It’s time we embrace that reality. You can no longer be taking the position of some of the evangelical Christians do. It’s just not defensible. Steve gives us new categories, new ways of trying to move toward that direction. I can only thank the Maxwell Institute for publishing his book and helping people to have these ideas more readily available. I’ll quit there.
HODGES: I wanted to give Steve a minute to give a couple of words, too. I should also say tomorrow Steve’s going to be on RadioWest with Doug Fabrizio on KUER 90.1. So looking forward to that too. We’ll let Steve take a couple of minutes.
STEVEN PECK: I just wanted to refute everything that’s been said. [laughter]
No, if I have any talent at all it’s because I surround myself with great people. I mean, seriously. These are all my friends. They’ve had a tremendous influence in my life and I’m not going to get mushy, so I’ll shut up. They really have. I’m so grateful that I can surround myself with people of this quality and thought and doing such amazing things in the world, and out of the world!
I wanted to say one thing. If you open the book you’ll see it’s dedicated to the Waters family, and they’ve blessed my own in so many ways. They’re here. I don’t know where. If they could stand up. Maybe they left. Oh, there they are. Stand up. They’ve been great friends from the time in graduate school. They helped all of my kids go on their missions. They’ve been really, really influential and everything. So this book was dedicated to them. Their helping with my kids’ missions meant I didn’t have to work as a Walmart greeter so I could write. So thank you.
Thanks for coming. I’m grateful that you’re here. I hope you find the book useful. Thanks for Blair, too. Blair edited this. I was on the phone with a bunch of other people, several of whom had acted as my editor and they began to talk about how impossible I am to edit. So give Blair a hand.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. You can learn more about Steven Peck’s new book on our website. We’ll be back next time with another interview on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)