(February 11th, 2014)
To preface this blog post, let me share a brief summary of the recent events that inspired it. I am currently a Sunday School teacher in my church (I teach every other Sunday). I put a lot of time and effort into making the lessons informative, spiritual, and pointing out moral lessons in the subject material that people may have missed. I do this because I believe that a call to teach is a sacred duty to do all in your power to assist those you teach. Have I always succeeded in this? I'm sure the answer is no. I am far from perfect (and I've never taught adult Sunday School before this calling). Nevertheless, I do my very best.
Last Sunday, we were doing Noah's Ark, a story with a wealth of morals to present. We covered a half dozen or so of these morals, and then I covered what I consider to be a central moral point of this story. We, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, make a bold claim to the world, a claim of greater spiritual truth than can be found in any other religion (and I would, of course, say that this is rightly so), but if we are making such a bold assertion, then we must be careful of what we espouse as truth. The simple fact is that if you teach stealing is wrong and then someone catches you stealing, they won't believe anything you say. If we claim to embrace "all truth" and proceed to categorically force unreasonable interpretations upon the scriptures, then how many will disbelieve the spiritual truths we present? This is essentially the point I made in class, that we must carefully study the scriptures, test our interpretations against the "Does this make sense?" test, and, if it fails, go back to the scriptures to see where we went wrong. The problem isn't with the Bible or with the scientists. The problem lies within us, and that's where the solution lies.
As I usually do, in my general lack of confidence with verbally conveyed information, while I'm recovering from Sunday's exertions, I go over the lesson and results in my mind. (I second-guess myself entirely too much, I must admit.) Last Sunday's lesson, especially the part about being careful with our interpretation of Noah's flood, seemed to annoy people. I admit that I thought there might be a few older people who didn't like this idea of reading the scriptures as though they are real. Statistically speaking, older people tend to have more trouble changing an interpretation they've held to all their life (even if it's shown to be ridiculous and unscriptural). Nevertheless, I didn't think it would be as controversial as it seemed to be. I certainly didn't set out to offend anyone, and I hope that I didn't. (If so, I apologize. Such was never my intent, nor will it ever be.) But I must say that I think it is a valuable lesson (if not one of the most valuable lessons we can ever teach to anyone). Furthermore, the rejection of this idea is literally the basis for all "Scriptural Controversy", if you ask me.
Here's how I think one should go about reading the scriptures. First, read the passage. What does it say, and what does it mean to you? Then, apply the "Does this make sense?" rule. Look up information about it (both sides). One side will often make more sense, and sadly, in our day and time, the side that does is all-too-often not the religious side. That shouldn't surprise us too much. Religion is being corrupted all over the planet, and has been corrupted for thousands of years. If facts contradict our original reading, then the problem isn't that "Scientists are out to indoctrinate us with their secular nonsense!" nor is it that "The Bible is just man-made nonsense!". The problem is that we have misunderstood. It happens. The Bible was written long ago and has been translated many times. As with any translation, some things are less clear in the new language than they were in the old. Still, as representatives of faith, we have a responsibility to search out and embrace truthful readings of the scriptures. The prophets were NOT cartoon characters, and if we stubbornly insist on forcing nonsense onto these sacred stories just because we don't want to reexamine our reading of them, then we are telling the world that we do not even respect the Bible (so why should they?).
During the "controversial" section of class, I first showed a few examples from the scriptures of the "the face of the whole earth" not referring to the entire planet (such as Exodus 10:15). I then pointed out that replacing the word "earth" with "planet" wasn't just uncalled for, scripturally speaking, but that it did not pass the "Does this make sense?" rule (by citing a few facts and figures, including the total volume of all the water on Earth), and we should beware of such pitfalls in the scriptures, most especially the Old Testament (our subject matter for the year). Yes, looking back, I think the segment was too long, but some might say that such a "controversial" topic shouldn't even be mentioned. (I didn't think it was *that* controversial... it only takes about 10 minutes of Googling and reading to figure out that the "planet-wide" flood myth is utter nonsense... unless you believe that Noah was thrown through some dimensional portal to a different planet with a totally different geological history than the one we are unnaturally forcing upon it.) I would point out that much of the Gospel is controversial. From Creation to the Atonement to the visions of Joseph Smith.
If we were teaching the Book of Mormon, and someone said that they were having trouble because of the old header to Alma 11 (which said "Nephite coinage" instead of the newer header which reads "Nephite monetary system"), if they said that they couldn't understand why some LDS scholars had, at one time, insisted that the Mayans used coins in ye olde time, I would respond that it was a misunderstanding. We use coins, so it's easy for us to assume, when they talked about money, that their money must have been coins. It was our mistake, but it's been corrected. One of the wonderful things about the LDS Church is that they are humble enough to say, "Whoops! The information from scholars shows that we were wrong in this header. Even prophets are mortal men who sometimes make mistakes. Let us fix the error." instead of saying, "That's what we declared, and therefore we will find some convoluted (and frankly ridiculous) way to explain it rather than admit that we might be fallible Human beings who made a simple (and understandable) error."
Ought we not to follow in their footsteps? If we reach a conclusion that 1) makes no sense in light of what practically every scientific discipline tells us and 2) isn't even necessarily what the passage of scripture was saying, then who are we going to emulate? The Prophets of the Church (who preach only for the benefit of others, not because they receive a dime for doing it) or the preachers of the Young Earth Society (who make a living off selling fallacial books to gullible people, books that practically any freshman scientist can shred without breaking a sweat)? Me? I'll side with the Prophets of God. They are good and humble men, filled with wisdom and inspiration. Are they perfect and infallible? Nothing, no matter how inspired, that passes through the hands of men is perfect or infallible. No matter how hard any of us try in this life, we will always fall short of perfection, but that's how we learn and grow.
So, what do I think Noah's flood was? Judging from the scriptures, the phrases "face of the ground", "face of the earth" and "face of the whole earth" do not, of necessity include the entire planet. (In scriptural terms, "earth" is synonymous with "land" and "ground".) It was likely a localized event that, so far as Noah could see, covered the "face of the whole earth" he'd lived upon. Everyone and everything he knew was washed away, except for his boat and it's residents. We are not told how many animal residents were present (though animals from Noah's immediate vicinity seem the most likely), nor are we told how much food they had. (Maybe even a year's supply? *wink*) When the boat ran aground, everything was still covered in water. We do not know what force propelled his boat. We do not know where it landed or even where it began. The scriptures just do not say. They say that the boat stopped, and then, a few months later, the mountaintops began to appear. When Noah sent out birds, however, they didn't land on the mountain tops (so, it's reasonable to assume that they were probably far away). Eventually, they plucked and returned with an olive leaf, and eventually the land dried out around the boat enough for Noah to release the animals. That seems to suggest that the boat was run aground by a tidal wave (but this is just a guess). A few months later, there was sufficient dry ground and food (both grazing and prey) for Noah to release all of the animals, which suggests that they ran aground near an area not completely overwhelmed by flooding and certainly not for an entire year. (Saltwater has a very deleterious effect upon plant growth, and over 96% of all the water on the entire planet is saltwater.)
From this concise and simple reading, admittedly far less dramatic than the version some would tell, many Christians have woven an elaborate fairy tale (and a persistent one, at that) of a comical Ark filled with Giraffes, Pandas, Jaguars, and Kangaroos. They insist that, to destroy the wicked society that had grown, God destroyed all life on the planet we (inconveniently, for scripture study) call "Earth", and all life forms left on the planet are descendants from the limited pool of animals on the Ark. Then, in true "corrupt religion" fashion, then declare this view infallible and start trying to find ways to twist one science or another to their purpose, using the most ridiculous contortions of logic and science that (I must imagine) practically any reader can see through rather quickly. What a terrible disservice they do to the scriptures and to all spiritual truth by the mere association! May my own people never be found among them!
So, what's wrong with the fairy tale version in terms of facts? A lot (in fact, far too much to cover in a blog post... or a whole book on the topic, for that matter). There's a reason why the Wikipedia article for Flood Geology (which is defined as "the interpretation of the geological history of the Earth in terms of the global flood described in Genesis 6–9") says this: "Flood geology contradicts the scientific consensus in geology and paleontology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, cosmology, biology, geophysics and stratigraphy, and the scientific community considers it to be pseudoscience." ("Pseudoscience" is a polite way of saying "nonsense".) Want an in-depth look at why they say that? Try this one (from Tufts University's Department of Chemistry) or this one (from the National Center for Science Education), and those are just from the first five results under a Google search for "Problems with Flood Geology" (though one might also try "Debunking Flood Geology"). There are over 4.2 million results (as of today), though many of the other results are apologists trying to declare that Noah's Flood was a miracle which left no evidence. Maybe they think it took place in an alternate dimension or that God used his "magic" to cover up the evidence just to deceive us, but, whatever they believe, it's not science. It's a great example of Confirmation Bias, but that still doesn't make it honest or true, let alone being mere science.
One of my Home Teachers (when they visited Sunday after Church) asked about this topic. I insisted that denying truth, any truth, was akin to killing the God of Truth (Jesus) ourselves. Perhaps this was a bit harsh, but I would make the case that it's defensible. I would imagine that God, His Son, and His Holy Spirit are patient with ignorance for a time, in the hopes that, with greater faith, the chains of ignorance will eventually fall away. Anyway, one of my Home Teachers asked about a proverbial phrase I use a lot, things "I've put on a shelf of unanswered questions" because I cannot currently reconcile them with my faith or simply do not have enough information to make sense of them. I pointed out that there is a fundamental and very important difference between deferring judgment on something because one lacks the needed information and outright rejecting something based on ancient traditions. The first is open to information and reason from both sides until a decision can finally be reached. The second is open to nothing and terribly limiting to our ability to learn, grow, and function in the world we live in today. All together now, what does the Biblical D-word mean? A) Burning forever in lava or B) Being stopped in our progression or learning. If you chose B, you're correct! :)
In short, maybe I have to admit that I'm unconventional because I insist that my reading of the scriptures must embrace "all truth... regardless of the ... superstitious notions of men" (Joseph Smith, Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53–54). Maybe some would even say it's wrong to highlight, as a moral of Noah's story, that the men around him didn't reject His message because they wanted to "eat, drink, and be merry"; they rejected him because they insisted that they were God's sons and therefore needed no truth from Noah. (Look at how well that worked for them!) People did the same when they were murdering Jesus. And when they tried to kill Lehi. And on and on and on. Are we to repeat those same mistakes? Should not a warning about such be part of a Sunday School lesson (especially when the topic is a story that illustrates this point)? Or do the morals we bring out in Sunday School have to be sanitized or approved first? Are there some moral lessons from Sacred Writ that we just do not want to see? If so, I'd imagine that is where we will be tested. This life is a test, and everything will be on it (taken from a quote by John Green, which occurs within the first minute of this video). I'd hate to think that this is a newsflash to anyone.
So, as my Stepdad Mark (a wonderful man who made my mother very happy over the course of the 16 or so years they were married before her death) pointed out, when I told him about the lukewarm reception my lesson garnered at church, I have to try not to worry about what other people think. They will make their own decisions about truth, and the important ones are the ones my lesson might have reached, the ones who might have heard and who might think about it and study it out for themselves, and, hopefully, apply the lesson in their lives. As with any lesson, those are the ones with whom a teacher must be primarily concerned. There will always be nay-sayers who refuse a point they can't fit into their world view, lacking the willingness and/or humility needed to expand said world view, but, if we let them drag us down, no one would ever grow or learn anything.
I suppose that controversy will always be a part of religion (not because it is particularly controversial, but because we can all be pridefully, arrogantly ignorant sometimes, no matter how hard we endeavor not to be). Maybe I did speak a couple of minutes too long on this moral topic or present too much information in the "Does this make sense?" test portion of the lesson, but, in the end, is that what a teacher is judged for? Is it wrong for a Sunday School teacher to encourage repentance (which means to change and grow, not just to be sorry)? Isn't the process of calling any group to repentance almost always controversial? People dislike change. If we are to remove all controversy, then we must remove any call to repent, and that would destroy the teaching of the gospel (see D&C 19:21). Sometimes, the best progress is made in the hardest lessons of our lives (though I hope that my Sunday School lesson did not qualify as such for anyone - if so, how I envy such a trouble-free life! ...Though, truth be told, I must ask myself, if my life was trouble-free, would I be the person I am today? Probably not. In that case, perhaps I don't envy such a charmed life...). In any event, I suppose the only one to whom I have to make the case for my lesson is the Great Teacher of us all, and, knowing my heart (i.e. "the figurative center of our... loyalties and our values" Source) as he does, I suppose he knows I'm still working on my patience with one my top pet peeves: arrogant ignorance. Nevertheless, I'm sure He knows how much time and effort I put into making every one of my lessons and that I always try my hardest to ensure that those in the class will find it to be both uplifting and edifying. (After all, the School of the Prophets included secular learning, and, while I would not presume to make entire lessons secular in nature, some secular information can be very helpful to some lessons, and, in fact, secular data is occasionally included in the very manual itself.)
Thus, I suppose I should stop worrying about it and second-guessing myself over the lesson. I have to accept that I will not always be perfect in balancing my lessons, and people will not always compliment me on my lesson afterward. Goodness, how much worse a reception the prophets have received throughout the years! (Noah being among them.) I already know that I'm not as strong as they were. Enduring outright ire and violent persecution is something that I know would break my heart (though probably not my resolve - I'm just stubborn like that), and this is a far cry from either of those extremes. As for giving offence, I suppose there will always be someone who takes offence (no matter the topic), and thus, such is just part of being a teacher. However, I've definitely gained a whole new level of respect for the difficulties the Prophets of God face when teaching a lesson or preparing a talk!