The Seer at the Microscope

From time to time I’ve heard it delicately suggested that the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church curriculum is, not to put too fine a point on it, bland pablum, and stale, to boot. These pundits have not read last week’s lesson.

Tucked into the back pocket of Chapter 19 of the Wilford Woodruff manual is the following statement, primly astounding:

Now whatever I might have obtained in the shape of learning, by searching and study respecting the arts and sciences of men, whatever principles I may have imbibed during my scientific researches, yet if the prophet of God should tell me that a certain principle, or theory which I might have learned was not true, I do not care what my ideas might have been, I should consider it my duty, at the suggestion of my file leader to abandon that principle or theory.

At first glance, this statement appears to enlarge the borders of prophetic authority rather vastly, and forthwith: the prophet, Brother Woodruff contends, properly claims jurisdiction over the temporal matters of arts and sciences as well as over the spiritual matters of sin and virtue, checking without struggle the claims of conscience and reason. I would not be at all surprised to learn that this kind of epistemological coup is precisely what Brother Woodruff had in mind, although I note that the statement was made in 1857 from the office of Assistant Church Historian, and I wonder whether President Woodruff maintained the same ambitions for the office of the President that Brother Woodruff apparently did.

The Curriciulum Department’s artful use of lacunae, however, applies a different gloss to the passage as it is encountered in 2006. Two paragraphs later, we read the following:

The fact is there are a great many things taught in the building up of this kingdom which seem strange to us, being contrary to our traditions, and are calculated to try men. Brother Joseph used a great many methods of testing the integrity of men, and he taught a great many things which is consequence of tradition required prayer, faith and a testimony from the Lord before they could be believed by many of the Saints. (emphasis mine)

These sentences suggest that the nature of the prophetic claim over art and science is not epistemological but political, construed broadly. That is, when the prophet challenges the scientist, his primary struggle is not over scientific hypotheses, but over souls. This is a subtle distinction, perhaps, but nevertheless a significant concession to science: the prophet asks the Saints to fly the banner of the Kingdom when sides must be taken, but leaves the benchtop and the microscope—and the archives, libraries, and double-blind randomized trials—to others.

As it happens, the leading councils of the Church over the course of the twentieth century ceded or abandoned many of the old conflicts with the hard sciences, although significant conflicts with the social sciences and the humanities remain. Most Latter-day Saints do not presently find themselves in the acute position that Brother Woodruff sketches, required by duty to the file leader to abandon accepted scientific precepts. The larger context of the chapter suggests an unlikely source for this shift: namely, the living prophet. While prophetic authority, as we have seen, may occasionally constrain scientific inquiry, it also frees us from slavishly literal readings of the Bible : when “Follow the Prophet” replaces sola scriptura, we need not require that scientific truth conform to, say, a literal reading of a pre-scientific Semitic cosmogony. Latter-day Saints are thus spared, for instance, the endless and endlessly tiresome wrangles over creationism. The Seer, the Book, and the microscope share the benchtop, for now.

17 comments for “The Seer at the Microscope

  1. Jonathan Green
    October 17, 2006 at 3:26 pm

    “…although significant conflicts with the social sciences and the humanities remain.”

    Huh? I’m sure you have something in mind here, but I’m having a hard time figuring it out. Even in religious studes, does any issue surpass the level of residual anxiety about evolution? Maybe it does, but does anything outside of religious studies come close to that level? Help me out here.

  2. Rosalynde Welch
    October 17, 2006 at 3:41 pm

    Jonathan, I was thinking about issues like gay marriage and working mothers, where the social scientists tell us it’s all good and the Brethren tell us it’s not, and like patriarchal church governance, where the feminists tell us it’s all bad and the Brethren tell us it’s not. These seem to me to be the issues that pinch most now.

    I’m not saying that we’ve achieved anything like a reconciliation of organic evolution with the restored gospel—on the contrary, I’ve never seen an attempted harmony that fully succeeds in this. The epistemological conflicts remain, but the political conflicts are largely moot: in a ward chock full of physicians-in-training now, and in my previous ward chock full of scientists-in-training, I never met one who felt that he or she had to forswear evolution to be a good LDS, or who left the church because he or she was unwilling to do so.

  3. Ardis
    October 17, 2006 at 3:55 pm

    I don’t know if these examples are what Rosalynde had in mind, but I’m thinking that professional positions on the naturalness of some sex practices, or the benefits to society and marriage of premarital cohabitation, or the removal of some types of behavior from the catalog of psychiatric disorders, or the health benefits of limited consumption of alcohol, or the exploration of historical topics, or the search for archaeological support for the Book of Mormon, or the elevation of the capital-A Artist and his vision over prophetic counsel, or the granting of abortion access as a keystone of political freedom, or advocating leaving children free of religious “indoctrination” until they are adults, or the “inherent evil” (or at least irreverence) of modern or ethnic music, all might represent conflicts between the church and social sciences/humanities.

    When somebody is a psychiatrist, archaelogist, musician, architect, historian, therapist, social worker — even a lawyer who faces disapproval from church members because of his advocacy for a client — you do have to think about where you stand, and what to do when the leaders of your professional and the leaders of your church are in conflict.

  4. bbell
    October 17, 2006 at 4:02 pm


    Is exactly where my EQ Lesson taught by myself went.

    Consensus in my whitebread upper middle class degreed some PHD’s in hard science quorum went? That the Bretheren were right not the social scientists.

  5. October 17, 2006 at 4:59 pm

    I noticed and blogged on this passage a couple of months ago, but you say it better than I did.

  6. October 17, 2006 at 8:52 pm

    In The Matrix, for example, the Oracle tells Neo “exactly what he needs to hear,” which is not the truth, it turns out. A fascinating idea, and I’m tempted to believe god really works that way sometimes. But I have my resevations.

  7. greenfrog
    October 18, 2006 at 12:40 am


    …methods of testing the integrity of men…

    This phrase caught my attention. As I read it in such context as it is provided, it seems to suggest that integrity relates only to loyalty to the prophet. It seems to me in my own hopelessly conflicted life that the measure of my integrity is tested not solely by my willingness to obey, but also by my willingness to say, in my own small way, “Eppur si muove” when it comes to such things as the social science and legal issues you identified.

  8. Mark Butler
    October 18, 2006 at 2:09 am

    It is a doctrine of the Church that there is no irreconcilable conflict between the gospel and the true facts of science or any other field. However, problems arise in two areas: First, we are taught according to our weakness, language, and understanding [1], which typically means we are given scriptures that are intended to be read on more than one level, according to our degree of preparation.

    That causes a big problem when some are determined to effectively canonize a first level interpretation when a second or third level interpretation is a considerably more accurate representation of the truth. Then those who understand the problems with the first level interpretation, problems which a careful study of the scriptures is designed to reveal, are often made to feel like heretics who have lost the faith.

    The second problem is that much of what goes by the name of science is approximate and tenative as well, only gradually converging on the truth. According to the rules of evidence in scientific discovery, a group of scholars may arrive at a consensus opinion that is woefully ignorant or even contrary to the truth. Now much of that is good as far as it goes, but it is awfully hard to know the mind of God or the history of what really happened if one does not ask him any questions.

    The primary example I know of where a doctrine proved to be approximate was that of eternal punishment [2]. And in that case things proved to be better than we supposed, but the Lord is apparently concerned that people will use the full truth as an excuse to delay the day of their repentance, and thus be more rather than less likely to be condemned to suffer in hell for a considerable time. “Lest they perish”[3] is the phrase he uses.

    [1] D&C 1:24
    [2] D&C 19:10-11
    [3] D&C 19:22

  9. Tom
    October 18, 2006 at 8:43 am

    Jonathan, I was thinking about issues like gay marriage and working mothers, where the social scientists tell us it’s all good and the Brethren tell us it’s not, and like patriarchal church governance, where the feminists tell us it’s all bad and the Brethren tell us it’s not.

    I don’t see any of that as science conflicting with the Gospel because none of it is science. Those are value judgments. Science can’t say what’s good or bad.

  10. Rosalynde Welch
    October 18, 2006 at 1:16 pm

    Thanks for the additional comments, all.

    Ardis, yes, that’s exactly the sort of thing I’m thinking of. I’ve never found myself on the horns of the particular professional dilemma you describe and I probably never will, since, as a woman, I won’t have a future in church leadership nor, most likely, will I have a professional career. (Maybe stay-at-home Mormon mothers should be the ones at the front lines of the science-religion conflict, since we have so little to lose on either front and thus can tread fearlessly where others dare not!) But I have observed others gored on those horns, and I have to say that the ones I judged to exercise the most personal integrity have all, finally, submitted to ecclesiastical constraints on their professional activities. I can imagine scenarios in which integrity leads to the opposite outcome—sticking by one’s professional guns and defying Church authority—but I’ve never personally encountered one I could get behind.

    bbell: What do you think the members of your EQ make of instances in the past where the Brethren have eventually ceded to the scientific consensus? For instance, what do you make of the recent tacit acknowledgement that homosexual orientation is based partially in biology? I’m not asking confrontationally; I genuinely want to know how you and they deal with that. (But PLEASE let’s not make this conversation about the merits of that debate.)

    Jared*: An excellent discussion, thanks for pointing it out. I need to add your blog to my reader!

    greenfrog, thanks for the contribution. And thanks for introducing me to a new Italian phrase! I’m very sympathetic to your hopelessly conflicted position. I think there IS real conflict, and I don’t think there’s a principled way resolve it in favor of science or faith every time. One could resort to conscience, but conscience is a faulty instrument even at its best. Let me know if you figure things out. ;)

  11. Rosalynde Welch
    October 18, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    Mark, argh, wordpress just ate my lengthy reply to your comment, for which I curse it and thank you! In short: it’s hard to disagree with the proposition that what turns out to be true about God and what turns out to be true about the universe will not conflict. The trouble, as you suggest, is that both science and religion present moving targets. In my estimation, however, religion has moved more than science: it seems to me that modernity has forced to religion steadily to abandon far more territory than has been the case with science. You can try to cover for this by claiming that scripture never REALLY meant what we thought it did, but I’m not convinced. I don’t think scripture was DESIGNED for a layer-cake hermeneutic—that is, that it’s meant to accommodate decreasingly literal interpretations—I think we’ve had to adopt this kind of interpretive strategy in order to keep scripture relevant.

    Tom, thanks for your comment, I want to respond later in the day.

  12. bbell
    October 18, 2006 at 2:49 pm


    We did not get that far. Thats too in depth for a 30 minute lesson. Consensus was follow the bretheren and not get caught up in the small stuff. Any discussion of SSM same sex attraction is of a conservative nature in my ward. Of course there may have been some dissenters but they were as always quiet.

    I really do not make anything of Elder Oaks recent comments regarding SSA. There is probably a organic element to all sinful nature. The natural man is a big part of what makes us commit sin. Any heterosexual males desire to fornicate and have “Legal sex” largely comes from natural man tendencies and vice versa. The choice to commit sin is where the rubber hits the road.

  13. Ardis
    October 18, 2006 at 11:13 pm

    (responding to 10): “I’ve never found myself on the horns of the particular professional dilemma you describe and I probably never will, since, as a woman, I won’t have a future in church leadership nor, most likely, will I have a professional career.”

    Rosalynde, I think women like you have been impaled on EXACTLY the horns of that dilemma, unless you’re so personally committed to your course that it hasn’t been an especially difficult choice. How many experts tell you that there is no real benefit to your children for you to raise them yourself? or even that you’re damaging their social growth and education by not enrolling them in daycare? Don’t the same experts tell you that you’ll regret having locked yourself away at home instead of fulfilling your potential in the academy or marketplace? Anybody tried to guilt you by saying you’re cheating the world, that you’re wasting your education by not serving humanity in general? Yet the Church teaches otherwise without providing scientific studies to support its claims.

    I can easily imagine a woman with a tendency to accept apparently authoritative studies “in the acute position that Brother Woodruff sketches, required by duty to the file leader to abandon accepted scientific precepts.”

  14. Mark Butler
    October 19, 2006 at 1:39 am

    Rosalynde W.,

    I think that the greatest of the prophets have always understood the true meaning of the scriptures, more or less. And the others either did or should have recognized the limitations of their understanding. One does not have to understand every mystery to be a prophet it is clear.

    Mormonism did not start out on a hyper-literalist track, but it seems that as some of the more liberal Christian denominations were abandoning any sense of literal-ness in the scriptures, the Church was thrown in with the hyper-literalist counter-reaction which included such untenable precepts as young earth creationism, and an insistence on interpreting certain other doctrines in a way that the scriptures partly support, and partly contradict.

    I don’t see a serious problem with believing that way, as long as one does not try to make a creed out of it, i.e. to make it a binding requirement of the faith. Unfortunately that is what some people tried to do. I have no respect for creeds that contradict the scriptures or contradict sufficiently well established principles of geology, paleontology, archaelogy, etc.

  15. Jonathan Green
    October 19, 2006 at 2:56 am

    Ardis, you’re trying to give a real dilemma a level of drama that it just doesn’t have. While it’s true that LDS parents–all parents, actually–face difficult choices about career and family, no one imagines sanctions of any kind, and the Proclamation on the Family specifically allows for individual circumstances. Any good bookstore stocks shelves of contradictory parenting advice, and after a while you just ignore it all and do whatever works best for your own family. Even for Mormon sociologists studying childraising outcomes, I think fears of official sanction are pretty much fantasy. As long as one stops short of saying, “my longitudinal study of 12 toddlers in the Intermountain West shows that the Prophet is WRONG and the Church is FALSE!” I don’t think anybody is going to care all that much. Like I tried to say (in a comment the server seemed not to approve of), conflicts in the socials sciences arise over advocacy, not research.

  16. October 19, 2006 at 6:03 am

    Jonathan, I wasn’t thinking of official sanctions (although not being considered for a leadership position because of your career decisions might be considered a sanction — “she’s always flying off to speak at professional conferences so we’d better call a Relief Society president who is in town more often”).

    I think I understand your point, though. It bugs me whenever there’s a lot of hoopla over somebody’s claim that he was excommunicated because he dared to investigate Scientific or Sociological Question X. It is never the study that is the problem — it’s always the loud and incessant claim that he has now proved Doctrine Q to be false that causes the trouble.

  17. October 21, 2006 at 11:00 pm

    #11, Rosalynde: “I don’t think scripture was DESIGNED for a layer-cake hermeneutic—that is, that it’s meant to accommodate decreasingly literal interpretations—I think we’ve had to adopt this kind of interpretive strategy in order to keep scripture relevant.”

    Maybe it was. My father reminded me of this with the last conference with Elder Bednar’s talk, as I had written an article about Moroni and Pahoran that comes to the opposite conclusion that every writer I know of has come to (including a few presidents and apostles). And every time I read or hear about the BoM, this topic comes to mind. And when I bear my testimony or give a talk and get feedback, I wonder if they mixed me up with someone else, though they are adamant they didn’t…

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