A great deal of ink has been devoted to the question of how, or whether, the creation story of Genesis 1-3 can be reconciled with the discoveries of modern science — or even, in some circles, to whether it foreshadows or overrules them.
I myself have a higher-than-average interest in such questions. But I see them as fun for speculation, not essential to my faith. I’m confident that our understanding of both scripture and science will need to have improved a very great deal before we can say fully and precisely how they relate to each other.
One principle to be derived from the first chapters of Genesis, however, seems to me absolutely clear: The creation of our world and the origins of life on our planet didn’t occur by random chance but resulted from deliberate divine action. God was in charge.
If true, its implications for our understanding of the significance of humanity and of our personal place in the universe are enormous. I’m not surprised, therefore, that essentially the same story is repeated, beyond Genesis, in the books of Moses and Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, and that it is central to the ordinances of the temple. God wants us to get the point.
It strikes me as significant, too, that Genesis and the book of Revelation form the bookends of the Christian Bible: Just as the former declares that God superintended the beginning of our world, John’s Revelation — another often perplexing book about which much has been written and argued — testifies that he will supervise its end. Above and beyond all the obscure and controversial details, Revelation assures us that, no matter how bad things become, God is in charge.
Such assurance is essential to faith. A famous and somewhat enigmatic fragment from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Both the creation stories and John’s Revelation bear witness to at least one very big and enormously important thing. The 19th-century zoologist Ernst Haeckel is reported to have said that, if he could have just one question definitively answered, it would be, “Is the universe friendly?” They concur in testifying that it is.
Galileo and other early scientists famously spoke of two “books” that revealed God: the scriptures and “the book of nature” (which Galileo believed to be written in the language of mathematics). That notion fell out of favor for a number of generations but, at least in some circles, is making a comeback. And perhaps nowhere is it doing so more clearly and dramatically than in connection with the sciences of origins.
The “strong anthropic principle” is controversial, but there are more than a few highly reputable, even renowned, scientists and philosophers who advocate it. According to this principle, the universe is in some sense compelled — and some will frankly say “designed” — to bring forth conscious life. Advocates point to a large number of impressive “coincidences” in the laws and numerical values that govern the universe as evidence of what they call cosmic “fine-tuning.”
“A common sense interpretation of the facts,” declared the great British physicist Sir Fred Hoyle (d. 2001), who found the “interpretation” troubling to his atheism, “suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
“As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit,” said physicist Freeman Dyson, of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, “it almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.”
“This is an exceedingly strange development,” wrote the late NASA astronomer Robert Jastrow, “unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth ... (But) for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; (and) as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs mormonscholarstestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.