Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Zebras and Donkeys

There have been two articles that have really given me pause recently. The first one seems to be very popular on Facebook from the Washington Post. I have chosen not to read it, as it seems to be very hate filled. The other article seems a little less biased from Reuters, though in my opinion taping people without their knowledge, which is what it seems, is wrong. I will not say too much specific about the articles. One good response to the Post is found here.

My take on it is a bit different. Shouldn’t we expect these things to happen? I mean are we not told all the time that people will ridicule us for our beliefs? I am of course referring to Lehi’s dream. People will come to the tree of life (love of God; sacrifice of Jesus Christ) and some even partake of the fruit (gift of eternal life), but are later shamed and walk away (1 Ne 8:24-28). I personally have seen this happen with friends and family; it is one of the hardest parts of living the gospel. Some whom we love and trust will reject the gospel and some will go a step farther by turning, pointing, and mocking those that have remained. The great and spacious building is active in our time. We must never give up on loving them and doing our best to help them.

One issue I want to specifically address is the comment in the Post’s article that says Church leaders say: “to quit reading historical and scientific materials because they were ‘worse than pornography.’” That has not been my experience, which of course is anecdotal. I was once in a church meeting and speaking with a sister who started to berate someone as ignorant because they believed in evolution. She found it surprising when I said that not only do I study evolution I believe it to be true. Her response, “How are you a member of the Church?!”

I didn’t know what to say, and was a little surprised. It had only been a few years since I had left BYU, where I associated with many in the Department of Biology where evolution is taught, researched, and advocated. It bothered me, and as I was the Elders Quorum President (a local ministerial position in the Church) I had regular interviews with my Stake President (he is over about 6-9 congregations). I told him of my experience and during the initial interview; he supported me saying that I need not worry about those who question my church status because of my profession. Later he had some questions about evolution news items and during the course of this email conversation, he asked me to participate in a multistake youth conference and teach the youth ages 14-18 about “Evolution and the Church”. So not only had my Stake president been supportive, he wanted me to share what I knew with the youth. It turned into a very spiritual experience for me both as I prepared and shared my testimony of things important to me and I deem the event a success as some of the youth had been struggling with these issues and my talk was a help.

Further, an Area Authority Seventy (a member of the council that oversees many stakes) was in attendance at the conference and in my class. He was not only supportive of what I had to say; he had specific questions about the science. He wanted to know about the then current news of Ida, a primate fossil that may or may not be a part of human evolutionary history (I believe not, but that is a different story). It gave me a chance to teach a little phylogenetics of primates including how humans fit in.

When I have told others of this and other similar experiences, I have heard the response that the openness was a result of where I live, near universities. There may be some truth and I expect to have “run-ins”, just as I have had positive experiences. This expectation comes because I have already had unsympathetic interaction with some members. Since we are a lay, theologically untrained, organization we do not always see the connections between different beliefs. Some do not know what the church's position is on a myriad of topics, myself included. When confronted with this situation I have found that a principle of humility and love is essential.

I once worried I needed to "convert" those who question my faith because of my profession, but I now realize they are what I like to call zebras. Everything is black and white and since the important stuff, namely the gospel principles, and faith in following the prophet are usually in correct order for these people, I do not need to worry about their acceptance/rejection of the theory of evolution. It is something important to me, but I find most people do not think about it anywhere near as often as I do and in the grand scheme of things it is not that important to our salvation. If how God created the earth and all biodiversity were important to salvation it would be explicitly spelled out like the essential aspects of the gospel, namely the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, the atonement, and the importance of the temple (here is great video of the temple).

Many in the Church are not zebras. I for instance feel more like a donkey, grey all over with a white or black splotch here and there. Zebras are incredibly important because they can move forward and protect what is truly important in the gospel and testify unflinchingly about the truth God has given us. They can be a great source of strength, as we look to their testimonies to build our own. I think donkeys like me are also important as we can help other donkeys and even some zebras in their search for truth. Donkeys, as pack animals, have to work hard because we are constantly seeking, answering, or identifying things we don’t understand. Those that say questions are discouraged in the Church forget where the Doctrine and Covenants came from: answers to doctrinal questions. We should seek after constructive questions. That is how we learn.

The difficulty is not allowing an answer to a question become more important than living the “simple” aspects of the gospel. It can be difficult at times especially when people answer a long pondered question in a flippant way or state an answer like it is obvious. These types of response can come from zebras where the answer is black or white, with nothing unresolved. For me, three things help when dealing with question: 1) realize there are others out there who also have questions, maybe even the same question; 2) learn and keep reading, not fixating, but open to more information as it becomes available; and 3) remember that by being open to new information we will eventually receive answers to everything as the information becomes more pertinent to our development and once it becomes the next line/precept and not many steps ahead, which are usually what I want.

Likely we are all really a mixture of zebras and donkeys, depending on the topic. We need both zebras and donkeys in the Church and when we band together to serve our Heavenly Father all are strengthened as we resist the mocking sounds from the great and spacious building, to mix metaphors. 

We should probably not respond like real zebras, though they do get along with real donkeys: