Thursday, October 4, 2007

Latter-Day Saints Grapple With the Noachian Flood--A Dialogue Review

LDS discussions of Noah and the Flood are fascinating. We are uniquely qualified among religions to debate this subject. On the one hand, acceptance of science as a means to discover truth has a long-standing tradition among Mormons. Brigham Young is quoted thus:

"How gladly would we understand every principle pertaining to science and art, and become thoroughly acquainted with every intricate operation of nature."
On the other hand, Latter-Day revelation confirms the existence of an historical Flood and the reality of the person Noah. As a faith tradition, we often receive mixed signals from our leaders, who are not unified on their interpretation of this Biblical story. Since there is no official and dogmatic position on the historical occurrence of a worldwide Flood, we see much variance among faithful members. Some of the discussions I have enjoyed on this topic are

Duane E. Jeffrey, Noah's Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions, Sunstone Oct 2004.

Donald W. Parry, The Flood and the Tower of Babel, Ensign, Jan 1998.

Julie M. Smith, SS Lesson #6, Times and Seasons, Jan 31, 2006.

GeoffJ, The Noah Version of the Creation Narrative (or, ark=uterus?), New Cool Thang, Feb 2, 2006.

lxxluthor, The Incoherence of the Flood, Faith Promoting Rumor, March 8, 2007

Ronan, Your Monday Poll #2, BCC, Sept 10, 2007

These discussions demonstrate just how much faithful Mormons can differ on their understanding of the Biblical narrative of the Flood. This month's Dialogue, which I have featured on my sidebar, contains yet another discussion on the topic of the Flood. "On Balancing Faith in Mormonism with Traditional Biblical Stories: The Noachian Flood Story" by Clayton M. White and Mark D. Thomas is available online at the Dialogue website. White and Thomas assert that there exist several groups of thought among Latter-Day Saints concerning the Noachian Flood:
1. Many members assume that their religion requires them to believe in the Flood as a world-wide occurrence.
2. A sizable group of LDS believe that the Flood story reports a local event.
3. A third group of believing Saints hold that the story is fictional, but valuable as symbolic and containing moral principles.

The bulk of this article seems dedicated to presenting the scientific evidence against a worldwide Flood. While giving lip service to "room for competent opposing opinions," it seems to me that the authors place their credence in an actual, yet localized Flood. The article does a creditable job presenting scientific evidence against a worldwide Flood in a nutshell. The article is readable and concise. It covers the following salient points:

Insufficient size of the Ark to contain sufficient species for the enormous global biodiversity we see today.

Insufficient time to acquire animals from all land masses on Earth

Impossibility of maintaining specialized conditions required for maintenance of fragile species

Lack of evidence that species on islands and continental land masses arrived there from a single point source.

Complications of requirements of marine vs. fresh-water aquatic species

Discussion of problems relating to parasites and microorganisms.

Fossil records of endemic species and/or groups.

Evidences of tree growth rings

Difficulties of transporting entire ecological systems.

Global distribution of life and it's incompatibiliy with repopulation from a single focal point.

Although these several points were well-presented, I felt the article lacked the balance called for by its thesis. There are many unique reasons that a large group of Latter-Day Saints believe in a literal worldwide flood. Some of these could include the reality of Noah in LDS doctrine, the necessity of the "baptism of the earth," and the location of the Garden of Eden in Missouri necessitating a means of transporting the covenant people to the Middle East. There are undoubtedly other strong reasons for a belief in an historical Deluge.

Lack of consideration of these points leads to the veiled condescension which I detected in this article toward those who reject the authors' conclusions. In spite of the authors' assertion that "our aim in this article is to assess the competing claims regarding the historical core of the biblical story of Noah's flood," in fact only one of the three competing claims was thoroughly treated.

Notwithstanding that I share the perspective presented by the authors, I regret that more space was not given to the exploration of the strong bases upon which proponents of other explanations of the Flood stand.

I can agree most wholeheartedly with the authors' conclusion that
"As we seriously explore the historical core of the story of Noah's ark and the flood, we are likely to encounter several possible temptations at odds with John Taylor's open quest for truth, cited in the opening of this paper. These temptations are to abandon either the text, science, or religion in our quest for truth about the story of Noah."
The article is worth reading for its concluding plea to abandon neither science nor religion in grappling with the ambiguity of this powerful Biblical piece of literature.

Additional reviews of this Dialogue article can be seen at T&S, NDBF, LDS Science Review, Adventures in Mormonism.


J G-W said...

I loved this article in Dialogue. Thanks for assembling here links to other thought-provoking articles on this subject. When I have time, I'll have to check them out.

I have my own theories about this which I generally choose to keep to myself. The one other person I've shared it with (also a faithful LDS) likes my theory very much. Maybe someday I'll post it. But for now, suffice it to say I do believe that the account in Genesis has reference to a real event.

Anonymous said...

There are no "strong bases" for the Noah fable, except irrational belief. To give credence to them in the article would create a false sense of balance: as though the science/real world view is merely one of two reasonable choices.

Bored in Vernal said...

Belief is an eminently rational choice. We have no reason to believe that evolution has always occurred at the same rate as it does today, or that God does not have power to supersede what seem to us to be natural laws, for example. Some people are able to put the evidence of their feelings and hearts above the evidence of their eyes. To say they are wrong is our own irrational belief. I have a hard time believing in a worldwide flood, but I prefer to think that it IS only one of several reasonable choices.

Anonymous said...

If, for example, I believe there are Quakers living on the moon, or at least that there were Quakers there in the 19th c., and I believe it with all my heart, do my emotions trump the science that states that no such life form exists or existed there? Or at least that my feelings should be considered reasonable? And on what do you base your statement that we "have no reason to believe that evolution has always occurred at the same rate as it does today?" I'm not sure what you mean by that. Is evolution supposed to continue at the same rate at all times and for all species? Is there any rational basis for that statement?

I prefer to stand with Galileo, "E pur si muove."