Evolution, useful fictions and eternal progression

5.25.11 | | 5 comments

I have some more speculative, more specifically Mormon thoughts that follow up to my post about Michael Austin, useful fictions and anxiety.

Let’s assume, and I realize that not everyone is going to agree with all of the following assumptions, but assuming that the LDS worldview is correct and that God created the world as a mortal probation for his spirit children to become embodied and progress and assuming that evolution as currently understood is the mechanism by which physical creation was accomplished and assuming that most or some of the current thinking on cognitive science as it relates to narrative is correct, what does that tell us about the importance of narrative to the plan of salvation?

Okay now that I lay it all out like that, I’m not entirely sure that I have a tidy answer. But a few things occur to me:

1. Progression is bound up with narrative. Narrative is essentially translation so that we can make sense of things and then because we are human, we try to take that translation and make it operative in our lives so that we are better suited to exist in mortal, time-bound, physical life. I suspect that that act of translation is important not only in how we relate to the physical world and society but also how we relate to the Holy Spirit. In fact, I suspect that the difficulties of translation are both connected to and emblematic of the difficulties of translation between spirit and body (I use between, but it very well may be “among”). The mechanics of evolution both demonstrate and interfere with (hopefully productively interfere with — there must be resistance or there is no growth) that process. The fleshy tables of our hearts must be inscribed and such inscription somehow also inscribes our spirit, changing it (if we are doing it right) for the better.

2. No matter what form societies take, it seems like families and kingdoms (or at least parental figures and king figures) are always operative. If the Mormon conception of God is correct and these are all variations on an eternal, true theme then all these fallen versions of what it means to be a father or mother and a queen or king are very much meant to be instructive (they may also be how we naturally — using that word to mean both physical natural and spiritual natural [and spirit as matter more refined] — organize ourselves). This becomes even more true and important if a) God is both father and king, mother and queen and b) we’re supposed to become like them. To add another layer of complexity, our Father in Heaven then totally messes with our narratives of families and kingdoms. For evidence, read the parables in the New¬†Testament. Or Isaiah. Or the Book of Mormon.

3. To be both more specific and more general: the transmission of knowledge across time and space requires culture. Narrative is the primary method by which culture is transmitted. Time and again the scriptures show how God works with and against the culture(s) of his people(s). He does that through narrative. He then lets us translate that narrative. And, of course, it’s a double or even triple or quadruple translation because you have the translation that the original writer effectuates as he records what he is inspired to record; those records are then often translated in to another language; the translated record is interpreted across time and space and language by modern (for their time) prophets or other religious leaders; individuals then interpret/translate both the text (if they have access to it) and the text in relation to the current prophetic and religious discourse surrounding that text.

4. Yes, there are times when the mortal experience is pierced by heaven — by heavenly messengers, by visions and prophecies, but post-Adam, all such experiences are arrived at and understood within the context of previous narratives of heavenly contact (scripture). This is especially true in the New Testment, Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants.

5. Narratives change in the telling. What’s more, their ability to effectively operate in our lives is subject to the weaknesses of the flesh, the conflict with other narratives, the ability of humans to engage in self-delusion, not to mention genetics, brain chemistry, diet, landscape, family and social dynamics, etc. Is it any wonder then that the history of God’s relationship to humanity is one of apostasy and restoration?

6. If a major reason for narrative is to alleviate anxiety, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is tension between literary narratives and the doctrinal and folk narratives of LDS discourse. How stories are received relies on our ability to construct ways of reconciling those narratives. This may be why some LDS have a distinct dislike for Mormonism that appears with the trappings of realism in non-realism narratives. It’s colliding anxiety-alleviating narratives in such a way as to create more anxiety.

7. By that same token, we also may seek out conflicting narratives (or narrative conflict — really, both) so that we can experience the anxiety and then the resolution. Especially since culture (in the form of science and technology) has removed us somewhat from the need for narratives to explain natural phenomena and from the need to engage in dangerous activity simply in order to survive. This exposing of ourselves to danger can be productive or destructive or mixed.

8. Line upon line, precept upon precept; anxiety upon anxiety, narrative upon narrative.

5 comments: “Evolution, useful fictions and eternal progression

  1. Michael Knudsen

    That’s heavy thinking and expresses some ideas in a unique way. Truly, we see “through a glass darkly” in most of our interaction with the spirit due to our imperfections, and Joseph Smith spoke succinctly when he said that “the clearer are a man’s views” as he approaches perfection. Jesus wasn’t “dumbing down” the gospel with his parables as much as showing consideration for the power and importance of narrative as you describe it. These days, it seems the masses seek escape in narratives of increasingly violent action and stories stripped of human interaction and replaced with overpowering machine-generated spectacle. This stuff excites the guts but renders the still small voice inaudible. Thanks again for taking the time to lay these points out.

  2. Adam G.

    WmMorris,
    I don’t have any response that’s as elevated as the essay, but I did want you to know that I read it and appreciate it and will probably appreciate it more fully in time.

  3. Wm

    Thanks, Adam. I’ve begun to wonder if I trespassed in to crackpot territory, but you and Michael have made me feel better about my crackpottery.

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