Saturday, December 05, 2009

Mormonism, Myths, and the Old Testament

Students of religion are aware that the religions differ on their understanding of the creation, and related to it, their views on the nature of the transcendent or the divine. This is certainly the case with evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. Both groups view the cosmos as the creation of God, but differ dramatically on their understanding of both the nature of the cosmos and the creator. Interestingly, they move conceptually in very different ways on this topic.

For evangelicals the cosmos is finite and dependent upon God for its origins and continuing existence. They differ on the degree of evolutionary development possible or actual within the cosmos on a number of levels (as evident in the debates between theistic evolutionists, progressive creationists, and young-earth creationists). Evangelicals also conceive of God as distinct, transcendent, and "other" in relation to the cosmos, existing as eternal and possessing "aseity," or non-contingency in relation to the cosmos or anything else for his existence.

By contrast Latter-day Saints move in very different conceptual circules in regards to the cosmos and the divine. For them matter is eternal and God is viewed as the creator in the sense of organizing matter into the shape of the cosmos. God himself is related to the cosmos not only as organizer, but also as a contingent and material being who has gone through a process of evolution and development, just as all human beings may experience.

Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints have debated these differing views of creation and creator for quite some time, both on philosophical and theological levels. While this level of discussion is important, in my view an even more significant aspect is missed in these discussions, that of myth. Robert Ellwood discusses the importance of myth:
[Myth] encodes in story the fundamental principles: its social organization and way of life; its essential rituals, taboos, and other institutions; its dreams and its fears. We need to always remember that a myth is not just a story; it is also architecture, music, ritual, art, people's names, the organization of society. More than '"ordinary" stories, however good or profound, real myths sets up a whole network of associations that may deeply dye many area of one's life.
Every religion has its myths, its powerful stories that include those of origins. These are important not only for the doctrines and theology that are developed out of them, but also for there explanatory power, and perhaps even more importantly, for the emotional impact they have on the individual, and by extension, their religious culture. The creation stories of Genesis represent the Hebrew creation myth that told them how their covenant-making God was also the creator of the cosmos and the people of the surrounding nations. This creation myth was later shared by the Christians as they became a separate and distinct subculture arising out of Judaism, and similarly, it became the foundation for the creation myth of the Mormon people as they arose out of more traditional forms of Christianity.

The point to be taken away from this post is that we must recognize the underlying significance of the creation myths to our respective religious cultures, and it is the power of these myths and not merely the doctrines derived from them that result in our strong convictions and disagreements on these matters. For example, because of their creation myth, evangelicals are scandalized by any suggestion that God might be material and evolve like the cosmos. For Latter-day Saints this is the most natural of perspectives because it flows from their creation myth. By focusing our discussions between our religious communities on the doctrines of creation and creator without connecting them to their respective myths we miss an essential element of understanding the emotive and intellectual power of our creation stories.

I'd like to make a suggestion that might provide some important tools for equipping evangelicals to be better prepared for addressing this issue. In 2010 Latter-day Saints will be studying the Old Testament. Evangelicals can pursue the same focus of study in order to better understand this portion of their Scriptures, and to better prepare them for discussion with Latter-day Saints. As a resource I recommend a resource to help with this in the form of John Walton's Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Baker Academic, 2006). This book is helpful in that it paints a picture of the ancient near eastern context of the Old Testament as a corrective to evangelical assumptions that may color our (mis)interpretations formed by modernity in the West, and the creation-evolution and inerrancy debates. Among other topics Walton discusses the concepts of the world, the heavens, temples, and even magic and omens. A companion volume that connects the Hebrew creation story to the mythic is Robert Ellwood's fine introductory overview of the topic in his book Myth: Key Concepts in Religion (Continuum, 2008).

I hope a consideration of myth, and fresh perspectives on the Old Testament might help add new dimensions to our dialogue and understanding in the new year.


Howard Burgoyne said...

John Walton also has a commentary on the creation story of Gen 1 where he argues that the core meaning of the Hebrew word for "created" really means "functionally organized", which would concur with the LDS idea in that respect "The Lost World of Genesis One" is the title.

John W. Morehead said...

Howard, I appreciate your thoughts, but after reading Walton it appears that he is arguing for a different cosmology and cosmogony from the text than LDS or evangelicals typically hold to. In his comparative exploration of the Hebrew word "bara" he states: "Thus instead of suggesting manufacture out of nothing (as many have inferred in the past), that materials are not mentioned suggests that manufacture is not the issue....The interpretation the above analysis suggests is that in the seven-day initial period God brought the cosmos into operation (a condition that defines existence in the ancient worldview) by assigning roles and functions." Walton moves beyond this textual and comparative analysis to engage in theological commentary to note that theological belief involves the idea of creatio ex nihilo, but that this is not part of cultural concern of the author of Genesis. Perhaps evangelicals and Latter-day Saints have something to think about in fresh ways when it comes to creation, Genesis, and the ancient near eastern world of the Old Testament.