An odd thing happened in both religion and science on the way from the past to the present.
Historically speaking, it is well known and accepted that in the Middle Ages the Christian church was the principal sponsor of education in Western cultures. The church held a tight rein. If you wanted an education, you first became a cleric. Thus it was that most scientists and scholars, before the Renaissance, arose from among the clergy of the day. Their worldview was shaped almost entirely by church dogma.
When the Protestant reformation movement began, which eventually gave us the plethora of modern religious sects we see around us today, its earliest leaders came from among those same clerical ranks — Martin Luther, for example. They sought to reform the institutions and dogma of Roman Catholicism.
Ironically, at about the same time, the scholars and scientists as well sought to extricate themselves from the mother church and its orthodox religious dogma, which hindered real intellectual progress. Like their religious cousins, they sought a complete divorce from Roman Catholicism. So in a very real sense, science was simply another religion, a radical protesting faction born of the same milieu that gave rise to Protestantism.
The new religions turned to Bible fundamentals for their belief system, hence the term fundamentalism. The new sciences, however, had to invent their own catechism. Secular universities were founded to educate adherents in the new orthodoxy of science and scholasticism. Skepticism and empiricism replaced faith. Yet, not surprisingly, the two new offspring, science and breakaway religion, retained a considerable amount of dogma from the parent church. At the outset, they both shared the Creationist vision (Earth’s creation in seven days, Man’s creation from the dust, the Deluge shaped the world as we se it, etc.). They also shared a similar eschatology: The world would end in a new holocaust sent by the Creator. Thus, it can be said that both were catastrophist.
Over time, science further refined its liturgy and its curriculum with doctrines such as Gradualism and Natural Selection. The two institutions — science and religion — drifted further apart over time, becoming more antagonistic and confrontational. In the 19th century, science eventually became patently uniformitarian and evolutionist while religion remained dogmatically catastrophist and creationist.
Ironically, an evangelistic spirit arose in both religion and science, each seeking to win disciples through proselytism. Naturally, a dissension emerged between the two that had not existed as long as the parent church dominated. While they were both trolling the same waters for believers, religion and science each won their own following or ‘congregation,’ if you will. Religion primarily held the hearts of the laymen, while science largely captured the hearts of the intellectuals. To begin with, there were few with feet in both camps.
Furthermore, science divested itself of any eschatology, while religion embraced it more fervently than ever. “Hellfire and damnation” were the watchwords heard from the pulpits of Christendom. On the other hand, if there were to be an end to the world, the scholars declared, it would come not by a god, but by slow, prolonged entropy, Earth’s life failing only when the life-giving light of the sun finally flickered and died. The religionists, on the other hand, retained the fervent belief in the penultimate holocaust, the final, catastrophic destruction of the world and all in it at its creator’s hand.
A revolution in thought
Then the nuclear age dawned, bringing with it a revolution in thought and an astonishing meeting of the minds in both camps.
The first nuclear detonations at the end of World War II brought some agreement between science and religion about the world’s end. Increasingly, they both saw doomsday as a world-devastating nuclear holocaust. Science predicted that mankind would ultimately destroy himself with his own malevolent invention, detonating megatons of nuclear devices in a superpower showdown that would plunge the Earth into a “nuclear winter,” eradicating all life. Science had finally found its own eschatological ‘sacrament.’
Oddly, this also brought and about-face in religionists. They suddenly seemed to agree with the scientists. They saw the atomic bomb as fulfillment of the Bible’s prophesied “fire and brimstone” at world’s end. A revolutionary reversal in Biblical exegesis saw the religionists proclaim that mankind, not God, would be Apollyon, the destroyer. Man now had the power to single-handedly bring about Armageddon. God could sit on the sidelines, a celestial spectator to the end of the world!
A new catastrophism
In the midst of this atomic age rapture, an iconoclastic scholar resurrected Catastrophism, to the horror of both science and religion. Immanuel Velikovsky preached the catastrophic nature of the universe to an unbelieving audience in both camps. Science reacted violently, damning him at every opportunity. Religion, more tellingly, simply ignored him.
Given religion’s catastrophist roots, one might have expected it to embrace Velikovsky and the new Catastrophism to some degree. Instead (and this is the odd thing), religionists have largely ‘shunned’ the Neocatastrophism Velikovsky preached.
Make no mistake, though. When pressed on the issues and worth of Catastrophism, most religionists tend to become even more shrill and acrimonious in their denunciation of it and its proponents than do scientists. Otherwise, they ignore it as if it did not exist.
A view from catastrophe
Catastrophists will see that the new Catastrophism is a litmus test for religion as well as science. In the last century or so, religion has cast off its catastrophist ‘vestments’ to such a degree that it rejects catastrophists and their theories as readily as does science. Thus, in today’s world, catastrophists find themselves ‘excommunicated’ from both science and religion.
Catastrophists will attest that the symbolism of religious imagery and the simple truths of science are all enriched by Catastrophism. Without it, both institutions are awash in ‘strange doctrine’ and ‘strange science.’ Modern religion no longer comprehends the origins of its traditional and scriptural symbolism, iconography, rites and rituals. Modern science turns a blind eye to revelations of fact that would overturn its sacred orthodoxy.
None the wiser
Yet, it is also clear to some catastrophists that both institutions would profit immensely were they to seriously consider Catastrophism and all it implies for the world we live in. Religion could rediscover the richness of it planetary traditions without threatening its faith and humanitarianism. Science would discover a whole new universe out there without sacrificing its empiricism and objectivity. Imagine what might be accomplished.
Sadly, both science and religion have created their own, modern mythology: science to avoid that which it cannot explain, and religion to deny the “paganism” and ancient mythology from which most of its traditions sprang.
The Mormon catastrophist
Mormons are no exception to this rule. Joseph Smith and the early brethren were catastrophists. They lived during the heyday of 19th century Catastrophism, before the concepts of Uniformity and Gradualism were popularized. One need only read their expressions on creation, Earth’s early history and the last days to realize that they believed that the planetary powers, guided by their creator, were responsible for past catastrophes as well as those predicted in scripture for the future. Yet, it is also clear that the Prophet’s views in all things were not shaped by the times in which he lived, but by his exposure to revealed truth.
Given Joseph Smith’s position on the subject, it is rather strange that most modern Latter-day Saints are uncomfortable with Catastrophism. Perhaps it is because they have not taken the time to adequately school themselves in the beliefs and teachings of their founding prophet. In addition, it may be due to the fact that formal gospel training fails to touch on the subject, except in passing. Catastrophism and its attendant hypotheses are studiously avoided in church teaching manuals, and it is never addressed over the pulpit.
Mormons are Christians
It appears to this author that most Saints have been seduced by the same delusion that has afflicted our Christian cousins. We have abandoned our catastrophist roots because they make us uncomfortable when discussed in the context of religion. It all sounds too pagan, too naturalistic and too material; it seems to lack the spiritual element that religion should espouse. Instead, we have adopted the uniformitarian view of the world that science espouses, simply because it is popular. In addition, it gives our antagonists less ammunition to use against us in our struggle to assert our Christianity. That is to say, if all Christendom is uniformitarian, then we should be too in order to appear equally Christian.
Our loss is … our loss
Yet, so much is lost in our present approach. If our scriptures were written by prophets who experienced great catastrophes and celestial displays, if they related those experiences to the gospel and to their visions of the future by creating a unique lexicon of iconographic symbols and written imagery, if our founding prophet was, indeed, a catastrophist, then denying and ignoring that element in their teachings leaves us with a rather sanitized understanding of their pronouncements, prophetic and otherwise.
The rich imagery and symbolism of the scriptures and the gospel can only be truly fathomed by first obtaining the same mindset as those who wrote them. Relating the prophets’ imagery to the unique symbols left everywhere by the cultures they lived in brings a remarkable depth of understanding to prophetic pronouncements. How can we say we understand the gospel if we ignore this vital element?
Joseph Smith did not ignore it. He embraced it. He dedicated considerable time to understanding the Egyptian culture, religion and symbolism because it was closely related to those same elements employed by the Hebrew prophets. Like Abraham, Joseph, sought to restore the cosmological knowledge of our forefathers. That invaluable knowledge is composed of a discussion of planets, stars and the heavens.
Like the Joseph Smith, the creators of Egyptian documents were obsessed with a combination of gods and heavenly bodies, embellishing and re-illustrating them in countless repetitions and variations. The Pearl of Great Price is loaded with such stuff. What is more, the iconography of the ancient world has adorned every temple constructed in this dispensation. Its imagery may look and sound pagan, but the Prophet dedicated considerable time and effort to its exposition. That must mean that it has significant relevance to the restored gospel. If it were unimportant or unrelated to the gospel, why is it in the scriptures and the temples he left us? Is it not reasonable to assume that if Joseph Smith thought a study of these things important, we should as well?
Ignoring Joseph's approach to religious symbolism leaves us in an untenable position. We utterly fail to understand the significance of these things to our comprehension of the gospel.
Is that what we want?
© Anthony E. Larson, 2004