Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Damage Control

On more than one occasion I've apologized to friends for fellow Mormons (and many of us would like to apologize to America for Harry Reid). This week is the first time I've found myself apologizing for two very misguided missionaries.

On Sunday a coworker and friend of mine (the one who built my computer) answered the door and found a couple of missionaries standing on his porch. They began (and effectively ended) their conversation with "Did you know you're being brainwashed with evolution?" Now, my friend is familiar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has had friendly conversations with Church missionaries in the past. I consider him to be a open-minded and thoughtful individual. However, this inept approach (and the flu he's been fighting off for a week) caused him to abruptly end the visit.

Unfortunately, these elders who were full of "zeal without knowledge" as Hugh Nibley would say, made several major mistakes:
   1) "Did you know you're being brainwashed with evolution" is an extremely confrontational question. The most natural way to answer it is defensively, whether one believes in evolution or not. Most responses would probably fall along the lines of "I don't believe in evolution at all; nobody's brainwashed me", or "evolution is well-established science, you're the one being brainwashed". Latter-day Saint elders are trained to teach with patience and the Spirit of the Lord, not shock and conflict.
   2) Evolution is not a topic that is discussed in any missionary lesson. Missionaries are supposed to discuss Jesus Christ and the restoration of the Gospel. They have books, pamphlets, and other material to guide their teaching. Particular emphasis is to be placed on elements unique to the Church. If these elders simply want to attack the theory of evolution, I have a snide, self-righteous pamphlet from the local baptist church that was left on my car windshield a few months ago.
   3) The elders' question implies a false dichotomy. A belief in the theory of evolution does not necessarily preclude religious belief (the baptist pamphlet makes this same mistake). There are many religious individuals who believe (and it has been stated by the Catholic Church) that the theory of evolution and faith in God are compatible.
   4) Contrary to the belief held by many Mormons, the idea that the theory of evolution is false is not official doctrine. In 1910 the First Presidency of the Church wrote this in the Church's official magazine, the Improvement Era:
"Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God."
 This statement has been reconfirmed several times. When Elder Joseph Fielding Smith published his book Man: His Origin and Destiny (which is often quoted by Mormons attacking the theory of evolution), Sterling Talmage (Elder James E. Talmage's son) wrote to President David O. McKay and asked if the book represented the Church's official position. President McKay's response was that the book represented Elder Smith's opinion alone and that the Church's position remained the same as before. In other words, any Latter-day Saint that declares that the theory of evolution is false is expressing an opinion; either his or her own or that of another, even if it is that of a particular apostle. Joseph Smith himself said that unless he spoke in the name of the Lord, he was speaking on his own authority. The elders that knocked on my friend's door were therefore attempting to teach a principle that is not a doctrine of the Church.

I have to wonder how many other people those elders approached that day, attempting to teach the Gospel but starting with a confrontational question and spreading ideas that are not official doctrine. My friend was kind enough to disregard the incident, knowing that you can't judge a whole religion based on a few individuals. I persisted in apologizing, however, since the elders are in fact official representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm afraid that those missionaries may have encountered less understanding people that day whose opinion of the Church may have been adversely affected.

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