In God’s Image and Likeness: Part 5, The Intriguing Conclusion to My Interview with Author Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

This is the conclusion (you can judge whether its intriguing or not) to my question and answer session with Dr. Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, author of the recently published In God’s Image and Likeness: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Book of Moses.

As those who are LDS are studying the Old Testament this year in our Sunday School curriculum, this book is an amazing resource for studying the Book of Moses — this sometimes neglected, but so important book of Latter-day scripture. To learn more about the book, visit the official website at: www.imageandlikeness.net

And now for part 5 (the exciting conclusion) of this series. We delve into Dr. Bradshaw’s background as a scientist, and his ideas on the topics of Mormonism and Science, the Origin of Man, the literalness of the Bible, Scripture reading techniques, and other poignant topics. Dr. Bradshaw’s answers are simply fascinating.

[David] You have some interesting excurses on Mormonism and Science and also on the Origin of Man. Can you tell us about some of your background and experience that led you to want to comment on these topics?

[Dr. Jeff Bradshaw] During my daily work at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, I’m caught up in thinking about and implementing new science and technology ideas that can complement and augment human physical, cognitive, and social capabilities. It’s a dream job, and I wouldn’t want to trade places with anyone I know. However, it’s a challenge in the sense that I can’t stand still. Although it’s true that every innovation builds to a degree on the past, the pace of change is so rapid that I find myself constantly throwing away the results of recent ideas and developments that can now be replaced with better approaches.

In addition to the obvious spiritual enrichment that I find in studying the scriptures and other ancient documents, it is wonderful and satisfying to work on something where knowledge is much more cumulative than in my daily work. Though, of course, there are exciting new findings that appear every day in the world of scripture exegesis and ancient studies, I can have the sense over time of continually building up a deeper understanding of the diverse puzzle pieces that constitute major keys to understanding the world of religious history and teachings over the centuries. Complementing the keys that come from study are those that come from faith, as I try to discern the hand of God in such things, and as I relate the spiritual experiences of the past to divine guidance and teachings in the immediate context of my own life.

I like what Donald Knuth, a well-known computer scientist when I was younger, wrote in the preface to his book of Bible commentary: “I can’t say that my scientific background makes me a better Bible student, but I don’t think it’s a handicap either” (D. E. Knuth, 3:16, p. 2). The apostle Paul advocated a very empirical approach to spiritual things: “Prove [i.e., examine, put to the test] all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). I feel greatly blessed to have been raised in a community of faith that values truth and goodness, and in a church that, because of its unique status in being led by modern revelation, does not have any reason to fear the bright light of close examination. I feel fortunate to be able to say with conviction that the moorings of my own faith are as deeply grounded in my daily experience as is my knowledge of everyday things.

[David] How would you evaluate the compatibility or relationship between Mormonism and Science? Are they mutually exclusive?

[Dr. Jeff Bradshaw] Science and Mormonism have nearly always been on very friendly terms, with Church members sharing the deep conviction that, as expressed by former scientist and apostle Elder James E. Talmage, “within the gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man, or yet to be made known” (J. E. Talmage, Earth and Man, p. 252). With respect to the idea that the Church is required to welcome religious and moral truth from all sources, President Brigham Young stated:

“Mormonism”… embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation… no matter who has it. If the [unbeliever] has got truth, it belongs to “Mormonism.” The truth and sound doctrine possessed by [other churches], and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church… All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church… “Mormonism” includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel (B. Young, 8 April 1867, p. 375; B. Young, Discourses, p. 3).

With specific regard to scientific truth, President Young’s approach was no less open and all-embracing. As Barlow summarizes:

Brigham Young’s position was in one sense more “liberal” even than that of [many contemporaries]. Not a scholar himself and easily put off by what he saw as scholars’… pretentious ways, Young still wished to distance the Mormon response to science from what he took to be the common Christian reaction. Widespread infidelity in the world did not surprise him, he said, because religious teachers often advanced notions “in opposition to… facts demonstrated by science,” making it difficult for honest, informed people to embrace the claims of religion. Geology, to take a specific instance, “is a true science; not that I would say for a moment that all the conclusions and deductions of its professors are true, but its leading principles are; they are facts.…” “[Our] geologists… tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years… [and Mormonism] differ[s] from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with the facts of science” (P. L. Barlow, Bible, pp. 90-91. See B. Young, 14 May 1871, pp. 115-117).

Moreover, President Young said:

The idea that the religion of Christ is one thing, and science is another, is a mistaken idea, for there is no true religion without true science, and consequently there is no true science without true religion (B. Young, 3 May 1874, p. 52).

Subsequent Presidents and General Authorities of the Church have advanced similar views about the ultimate compatibility of religious and scientific truths and, with notably few exceptions, have maintained markedly positive attitudes toward both the methods and conclusions of mainstream science and the advance of modern technology. A barometer for the positive attitude toward science among the membership of the Church has been a series of studies over the last several decades documenting numbers of scientists with backgrounds in different faith groups (see, e.g., the summary in J. M. Bradshaw, Image and Likeness, pp. 526-527, 707-708). In nearly every scientific meeting that I attend, Mormons are overrepresented when compared with our percentage of the general population.

With respect to the creation accounts in scripture, the Latter-day Saints have avoided some of the serious clashes with science that have troubled other religious traditions. For example, we have no serious quarrel with the concept of a very old earth whose “days” of creation seem to have been of very long, overlapping, and varying duration (Alma 40:8; B. R. McConkie, Christ and the Creation, p. 11; B. Young, 17 September 1876, p. 23). Joseph Smith is remembered as having taught that the heavenly bodies were created long prior to the earth: “… the starry hosts were worlds and suns and universes, some of which had being millions of ages before the earth had physical form” (E. W. Tullidge, Women, p. 178). Consistent with this stance, LDS scientist David Bailey has very competently summarized scientific inadequacies and theological incompatibilities of the creationist movement in both its “young earth” and “intelligent design” forms (e.g., D. H. Bailey, Mormonism; D. H. Bailey, Deceiver; D. H. Bailey, Latter-day; D. H. Bailey, Church and Evolution; D. H. Bailey, What’s Wrong). Despite what some advocates of a creationist agenda would have people believe, to question specific features of the theories they have advanced is not tantamount to rejecting the concept of a Divine Creator. Many devout scientists have found different ways to reconcile their scientific views on the origin of the universe with their belief in God.

With respect to beliefs about the origin of man, the relevant article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism emphasizes the point that acceptance of essential doctrinal claims rather than belief in a particular modus operandi for the creation of man is ultimately the determinant of Mormon orthodoxy (J. L. Sorenson, Origin, p. 1053). As evidence of current LDS openness to the study of the latest scientific advances in relevant fields, note that the first formal class in evolution was instituted at BYU in the fall of 1971 with the First Presidency’s approval, and is currently a required part of the core curriculum of all BYU students in the biological sciences. Evolutionary biology has since become “one of the largest and most successful graduate programs at BYU” (M. R. Ash, Myth, pp. 32-33), with professors publishing in major evolutionary conferences and journals. Givens provides a brief summary of efforts of Mormon scientists that “not only incorporate evolutionary science, but break new ground in the field” (T. L. Givens, Paradox, pp. 209-210, 378-379 nn. 59-64). While differences of opinions exist among members of the Church on such matters, the key point is that such differences are not used as an ecclesiastical measure of orthodoxy.

[David] What are the principal lessons from the Book of Moses that you have tried to share with readers through this book?

[Dr. Jeff Bradshaw] While most of the world looks on the story of Adam and Eve as a simple collection of childish myths, it is my hope that Latter-day Saints will increasingly appreciate the spiritual sophistication and doctrinal depth of this unique book of scripture. In light of the importance in of these stories in our temple worship, we might say that no book of scripture is more important for us to study and understand. Elder David A. Bednar has emphasized that mere reading is not enough—to be most effective, our scriptural regimen should include prayer, work, consistency, pondering, looking for patterns and connections, and writing down our impressions (http://www.byui.edu/Presentations/Transcripts/Devotionals/1998_01_06_Bednar.htm ).

I was fortunate to have taken a course on reading the scriptures from BYU Professor Arthur Henry King that changed my life in important ways (for a collection of his essays, see Arthur Henry King, Arm the Children: Faith’s Response to a Violent World, ed. Daryl Hague. Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1998). Brother King’s approach emphasized slow and careful reading, with frequent pauses to raise questions in a spirit of humility and to ponder one’s personal response to the text (see Dennis and Sandra Packard, Feasting Upon the Word. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981).

By way of contrast, Kugel notes the “subtle shift in tone” that has come with “the emphasis on reading the Bible [solely] in human terms and in its historical context” without the counterbalance provided by traditional forms of scripture reading:

As modern biblical scholarship gained momentum, studying the Bible itself was joined with, and eventually overshadowed by, studying the historical reality behind the text (including how the text itself came to be). In the process, learning from the Bible gradually turned into learning about it. Such a shift might seem slight at first, but ultimately it changed a great deal. The person who seeks to learn from the Bible is smaller than the text; he crouches at its feet, waiting for its instruction or insights. Learning about the text generates the opposite posture. The text moves from subject to object; it no longer speaks but is spoken about, analyzed, and acted upon. The insights are now all the reader’s, not the text’s, and anyone can see the results. This difference in tone, as much as any specific insight or theory, is what has created the great gap between the Bible of ancient interpreters and that of modern scholars. (J. L. Kugel, How to Read, p. 666).

Latter-day Saints recognize, of course, that the Bible is not inerrant. Indeed, our people have always tried to avoid both the extremes of literalism and liberalism with respect to the historicity of the Bible (See Reverence for the Bible at http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/reverence-for-the-bible ). Although the belief that the characters mentioned in Genesis are actual historical figures who underwent something that was somehow like the events described in the biblical account has always been held firmly by the Saints, Nibley observes that we also bring ridicule and disillusionment upon ourselves when we fail to pursue scriptural understanding beyond the initial level of vivid picture images inculcated upon the minds of young children:

The stories of the Garden of Eden and the Flood have always furnished unbelievers with their best ammunition against believers, because they are the easiest to visualize, popularize, and satirize of any Bible accounts. Everyone has seen a garden and been caught in a pouring rain. It requires no effort of imagination for a six-year-old to convert concise and straightforward Sunday-school recitals into the vivid images that will stay with him for the rest of his life. These stories retain the form of the nursery tales they assume in the imaginations of small children, to be defended by grown-ups who refuse to distinguish between childlike faith and thinking as a child when it is time to “put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). It is equally easy and deceptive to fall into adolescent disillusionment and with one’s emancipated teachers to smile tolerantly at the simple gullibility of bygone days, while passing stern moral judgment on the savage old God who damns Adam for eating the fruit He put in his way and, overreacting with impetuous violence, wipes out Noah’s neighbors simply for making fun of his boat-building on a fine summer’s day. (H. W. Nibley, Before Adam, p. 63)

As an antidote to these Sunday morning cartoon perspectives on scripture, the Prophet Joseph Smith cautioned against the products of a “fanciful and flowery and heated imagination” and explained that:

… the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God. (J. Smith, Jr., Teachings, 25 March 1839, p. 137)

It has been my prayer that what I have written, despite its insufficiencies, may be in its own way a worthy addition to the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) of the truthfulness of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and an encouragement to deeper study and appreciation of the book of Moses—and of the divine reality behind it that awaits our discovery.

Jeff Bradshaw and I at the Atlanta Airport

This photo was taken at the Atlanta Airport in November 2009, after Jeff and I met up “by chance” when we sat across from each other at a table there.  This was totally unplanned! I didn’t even know that he was going to be at that airport on that day. When I saw someone who looked like Jeff (I had never met him in person, but had seen photos), I quickly sent him an email, asking where he was, because there was someone sitting right in front of me that kind of looked like him!  We had a wonderful conversation until it was time for my flight to leave, and I am grateful to have met this wonderful scholar and gentleman in person.

I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts. I, personally, have learned so much from Jeff Bradshaw through our many email conversations and collaborations on projects. For an example of some of the material I’ve had the privilege of working on with him, please see his recent article about “The Vision of Moses as a Heavenly Ascent” at the Meridian Magazine website:http://www.ldsmag.com/articles/100106heavenly.html. From what I’ve come to know of him, he is a meticulous scholar, loyal family man, faithful Latter-day Saint, helpful mentor and great friend.

If you like what you’ve read here about Dr. Bradshaw and his new book on the Book of Moses (and so many more topics), the book is available now at all Eborn Bookstores (Utah: Valley Fair Mall, South Towne Centre, Provo Town Centre, and Ogden) and the BYU Bookstore. It can also be ordered directly from the publisher, Eborn Books, at Amazon.com (link), at the BYU Bookstore (link), or for a discount at the FAIR bookstore (link). The retail price is $49.99.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 14, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I love this post and the contents therein. I am thoroughly enjoying the book, and I love the intersections with science. If I can get some of my LDS neighbors to buy the book, I would love to form a study group. The text is at a graduate level, and it requires much to think about.

    Your meeting up with Bradshaw hardly seems to be a coincidence.

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