Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review of "Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist"

Before I start this review, I think I owe it to my readers to confess that I am a fan, admirer, and friend of Steven L. Peck. I consider him to be one of the clear-minded and most original thinkers in modern Mormonism. He is as brilliant an ecologist (his field of emphasis), as he is a philosopher, poet, and storyteller. In addition to this, I have found Steve to be a genuinely kind and engaging person, as nice to the esteemed scientist as he is to the lowly undergraduate student. He is truly worthy of the title polymath.

Peck's book Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist, as the title implies, has a lot to do with evolutionary biology and whether it is compatible with religion (spoiler, it is). But because it consists of a collection of twelve essays, there is far more to the book than just science. In the book Peck also engages with classical philosophical problems such as the problem of evil and suffering (Chapter 9 : Grace vis-avis Violence), modern conceptions of the mind and where Mormonism fits in (Chapter 4: The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape:Where Does LDS Thought Fit?), a theoretical envisioning of a conversation between Noah and his family if one takes a literal view of the great flood and the ark (Chapter 11: Noah's Lament), and a hauntingly scary story of Peck's dive into madness after being infected by bacteria (Chapter 10: My Madness). So, whether you like science, philosophy, or just enjoy a well-written story, Peck has something for you. He is as skillful a writer as he is a thinker, a very uncommon gift.

While I was attracted to the book because it did take on the problem of whether or not science and religion can be reconciled, the chapters that affected me most and caused me to have the deepest reflection were the chapters relating to Mormonism and nature, or more particularly our care for it (Chapter 7: An Ecologist's View of Latter-day Saint Culture and the Environment, Chapter 8: Reverencing Creation). As a person who engages with science, I have long been concerned about the climate and the environment. As a husband and potential father, I also care to leave the planet in better shape or in as good of shape as I found it in. However, I didn't see that as part of my doctrinal commitment until Peck opened my eyes to it. He states:
Hugh Nibley has often chided the Saints for this environmental attitude (a non-caring, licentious one). For example he writes: "Man's dominion is a call to service not a license to exterminate. It is precisely because men now prey upon each other and shed the blood and waste the flesh of other creatures without need that 'the world lieth in sin' (D&C 49:19-21) Such, at least, is the teaching of the ancient Jews and of modern revelation. (Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist pg. 147)
Close quote. This is a powerful statement that is in line with both God's command to Adam to reverence creation and our modern revelation to eat meat sparingly (I wonder if that was emphasized in the Word of Wisdom how many people would qualify for temple recommends; I know I would not and I need to do better.) But beyond that, it shows that Mormons should be on the front lines when it comes to preserving national parks, keeping land from being entirely privatized, and being pained when water is becoming so acidic that many creatures can no longer live in it (all of which are currently happening). This is not just a conservative-liberal dichotomy; it is a moral decision that if we get wrong, we alone will not suffer the consequences.

I have many books that I love, and this book is one of them. Too often we Mormons are ill-educated about science and the scientific method, our relationship with nature, and where we fit philosophically when asking the big questions of life. In just over 200 pages, Steven L. Peck covers much ground and gets you excited to learn more by doing your homework (as any good professor will). I cannot recommend this book enough, simply a marvelous work.

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