Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring by Henry J. Eyring, A Synopsis and Review - by Lewis Steven Campbell

I remember listening to Elder Henry B. Eyring during General Conference years ago. During the talk he spoke of how his father, a career scientist, showed him through example that there is no conflict between science and religion. I remember being overwhelmed on that day with the feeling that this man, despite his status as the most junior apostle at that time, would one day be President of the Church.

Now, of course, President Eyring is First Councilor to the President. Long since the day I heard him speak I have wanted to find out more about the father whom he alluded to. So when Mormon Scientist was published, I hastened to get myself a copy.

Mormon Scientist is about, as the subtitle says, the life and faith of Henry Eyring, President Eyring’s father. It’s not a typical biography; it doesn’t cover his life from beginning to end in chronological order.

On one level, Mormon Scientist is about the issue of science and faith, and whether they conflict or mesh an issue that was at the core of Brother Eyring’s life. But Mormon Scientist on a deeper level is about the life of a progressive Latter-day Saint. In many ways, Henry Eyring was a pioneer who, in his day, chose a very spiritually progressive path, but a path that clashed with the general mood and consensus of the majority of people in the Church. The wonderful thing about his story, however, is that it shows that such a man - a man who even tangled with one of the apostles of the Church – could still remain solidly faithful.

The key was that Henry Eyring stood firm on what he knew to be the truth, but did so with such grace and with such a foundation of pure and absolute strong faith, that not only did he avoid repercussions from the brethren of the church, but in fact enjoyed their wholehearted support. To me, that is a testimony that the Church really is true and that the Brethren that lead the church really do put aside their own personal feelings and their own personal opinions of these things, and really do follow the voice of God.

Of course, Henry’s most famous progressive stance was on the issue of organic evolution. But, as the book exposes, he had some very interesting views on other things as well, from the appropriateness of sharing the more unflattering aspects of Joseph Smith’s life to dangers of an overly literal interpretation of scripture. We’ll cover some of these in this synopsis.

Organic Evolution

Being a scientist in the middle part of the 1900s, Henry was naturally asked very often about evolution, both from people who supported evolution as a science and wanted to pressure him into arguing against religion, and people who wanted him to argue against evolution. The interesting thing about Henry Eyring was that he could do neither. He knew deeply in his heard that the Church was true yet he also believed that evolution offered the best scientific explanation of the origin of man and he didn’t see that as a conflict.

He once said, when replying to a letter:
“We are not told who Adam's father was. To me the important thing is that Adam is the spirit child of God. He came into this world when he received a mortal body. The Fall consisted of becoming subject to death, and everyone born into the world is subject to death and so partakes of this fallen state with Adam. Finally, through the atonement we will all receive a resurrected body.”

“Whether Adam's father lived on this earth or somewhere else would seem of secondary importance to me. Adam was the one whom God recognized as presiding over the first dispensation and as such, with Eve his wife, became our first parents. …if God did or did not use organic evolution to prepare the bodies to house his spirit children I remain unconcerned. I think the scientific evidence on organic evolution like anything else should stand or fall on its merits. Being trained as a geologist it answers many otherwise difficult problems for me, and I find no conflict with it and the gospel.”
The book also contains an interesting quote from someone surprising to me – President Brigham Young:
“…our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular. You may take geology, for instance, and it is a true science; not that I would say for a moment that all the conclusions and deductions of its professors are true, but its leading principles are; they are facts-they are eternal; and to assert that the Lord made this earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible. God never made something out of nothing; it is not in the economy or law by which the worlds were, are, or will exist. There is an eternity before us, and it is full of matter; and if we but understand enough of the Lord and his ways, we would say that he took of this matter and organized this earth from it. How long it has been organized it is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it. As for the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses, or rather Moses obtained the history and traditions of the fathers, and from these picked out what he considered necessary, and that account has been handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not, and whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject. If we understood the process of creation there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant.”
Henry’s life was based on this idea of chasing after the truth; that the church is ultimately interested in the truth, and because of that there is no conflict between science and religion. Henry’s attitude about truth started when he was a young man, when his father told him:
“…in this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true. You go over to the University of Arizona and learn everything you can, and whatever is true is part of the gospel. The Lord is actually running this universe. … If you go to the university and are not profane, if you live in such a way that you’ll feel comfortable in the company of good people, and if you go to church and do the other things we’ve always done, I don’t worry about your getting away from the Lord.”
According to Henry himself, that was the jumping point that launched him on his lifelong quest and belief in the truth.

Exemplifying this, Henry once said “We learned from the Prophet Joseph Smith that man lived before he was born; that life is a school where man is sent to learn the things the Lord intends; and that he continues on into life after death. Death is not the end; it is but one more step in a great forward march made possible by the redemption wrought by the Savior. This is the spirit of true science— constant and eternal seeking.” When he talked about the church he said:
“I am happy to represent a people who throughout their history have encouraged learning and scholarship in all fields of honorable endeavor, a people who have among their scriptural teachings such lofty concepts as these: ’The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.’ ’A man cannot be saved in ignorance.’ ’Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.’”
He also said:
“I am now going to venture to say that science has rendered a service to religion. The scientific spirit is a spirit of inquiry, a spirit of reaching out for truth. In the final analysis, this spirit is likewise of the essence of religion. The Savior said: ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.’ The scientist has in effect reaffirmed this great fundamental laid down by the Master, and in doing so has given a new impetus to religion.”
Henry Eyring was expected and asked by the Brethren of the church multiple times to serve as the spokesman for the church on matters of science and religion. At one time, Brother Eyring was asked to respond to a supposedly Biblically-based chronology dating the Earth at about 4000 years old. Brother Eyring said this:
“Accurate dating of events by radioactive elements decaying in the rocks and in textile fibers and elsewhere makes possible an accuracy in chronology which was undreamed of a generation ago. In effect, clocks are set going whenever these materials are laid down. These clocks can often be read with great accuracy. Such data, with many kinds of cross- checks, leads to an antiquity for life on this earth of at least some six hundred million years and an age of the Earth of upwards of two billion years. These conclusions are well known and will surprise no one.”
Because he had these beliefs and opinions, it is a mistake to believe that he thought that evolution was definitely the truth. What he believed was that we have the right to pursue science and find truth in all its forms. What he believed was that the gospel is about finding truth. What he believed was that it was wrong to discount something that seemed to be a strong argument for many of the things discovered in science.

But when people tried to nail him down to actually saying that Adam was created through evolution or something similar, he wouldn’t go there. It was like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree.

One his friends once wrote, “When I was in Salt Lake one time, I was discussing some problems of early man with you in your office. I then asked ‘how do you believe it was?’ You replied, ‘I believe whichever way it turns out to have actually been.’”

He saw the God as being a pure intelligence that understood everything. And he saw our intelligence and our abilities as miniscule in comparison. We don’t know everything yet, and God does, so how can we be so arrogant as to assume that what we know is right, when we don’t know the full scope? He believed that all these truths would eventually be revealed to us at some point if we are faithful.

Literal Truth of the Scriptures

Henry always argued for a synthesis between science and religion, and didn’t understand people who couldn’t do that. It led him to a belief in scripture that was definitely more metaphorical than literal. But, as with everything else, he struck a balance:
“To be understood, the Lord must reveal Himself in a language His Children can understand. Of necessity, many things not necessary for their immediate progress are omitted, to be revealed later, and to be discovered by man’s own enterprise. There are some people who throw away the scriptures and restrict themselves to science and related fields. Others use the scriptures to the exclusion of other truth. Both are wrong. Latter-day Saints should seek after truth by all avenues with earnest humility. There is, of course, no conflict in the gospel since it embraces all truth. Undoubtedly, however, science is continually challenging us to think through again our conceptions of the gospel. This should work both ways, of course.”
One of the most well known things about Henry Eyring was his perceived conflict with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith. In 1954 Elder Smith published a book called Man, His Origin and Destiny. This was a direct challenge to Charles Darwin’s book of a similar name. In the book, Elder Smith reiterated the position that scripture should be read literally as it pertained to the creation. Henry didn’t exactly agree with this, but he was a faithful member of the church and believed in kindness, mutual respect, and the value of coming to consensus.

In one exchange with Elder Smith, he said:
“I am convinced that if the Lord required that His children understand His works before they could be saved that no one would be saved. It seems to me that to struggle for agreement on scientific matters in view of the disparity in background which the members of the Church have is to put emphasis on the wrong place. In my judgment there is room in the Church for people who think that the periods of creation were (a) 24 hours, (b) 1000 years, or (c) millions of years. I think it is fine to discuss these questions and for each individual to try to convert the other to what he thinks is right, but in matters where apparently equally reliable authorities disagree, I prefer to make haste slowly.”
Now I’d like to pause for a minute and think about that quote in relation to current conflicts; in relation to political disagreements, in relation to some of the questions we discuss today about politics and religion, about the left and the right and the in between in relation to the church. If this wasn’t evolution we were talking about, if we substituted some words, for instance: “I’m convinced that if the Lord required that his children be [liberal or conservative] before they could be saved, no one would be saved. It seems to me that to struggle for agreement on [political] matters in view of the disparity in background which the members of the Church have is to put emphasis on the wrong place. In my judgment there is room in the Church for people who think that the [Lord guides us towards equanimity in economics as well as people who emphasize the concept of individual responsibility.] I think it is fine to discuss these questions and for each individual to try to convert the other to what he thinks is right, but in matters where apparently equally reliable authorities disagree, I prefer to make haste slowly.” (Words in brackets are mine.)

Now, to be sure, I don’t want to insert words into Brother Eyring’s mouth. It’s clear from the record that, politically, he was a product of the Cold War era – he passionately opposed communism and everything associated with it, and was most likely of a flavor that we would call conservative today. But his stance on science and religion makes him at the very least a distant cousin, philosophically, to those of us in the small but growing minority of faithful LDS people who do not agree with the current politically conservative LDS majority.

Humanity of Leaders

In another example of kinship with many modern LDS progressives, Henry Eyring says some refreshing things about the practice of emphasizing the positive and negative traits of Church leaders:
“I like a little bit of a mess, and I am glad when one of the brethren says something that I think is a little bit foolish, because I think if the Lord can stand him, maybe He can stand me. So that’s it, and I think that maybe there’s a certain stumbling block that some of us have: we expect other people to be a kind of perfection that we don’t even attempt to approach ourselves. We expect the Lord to just open and shut their mouths, but He doesn’t do that – they are human beings; but they’re wonderful, and they do better than they would if it weren’t for the Lord helping them. … So that’s my answer to this remark – somebody says that a student is down here at BYU and he’s a member of the Church, but he’s a mess. And I say, ‘Yes, I agree. But you ought to see what the fellow would be like if it weren’t for the Church.‘ And that’s what the gospel does. It takes all of us with our faults and makes us better.”
Interesting, isn’t it? But what is more interesting is that his son, President Eyring, First Counselor in the Church, appears to share his views. This quote is from a half-hour BYU documentary about Mormon Scientist (with the same title):
“Dad had the most interesting view of the prophet Joseph. You could bring – and I’m thinking of it – when you read the journals – I mean, what a tumultuous life , I mean, just incredible and most folks would want to just dress it up and – you know – because that wouldn’t be ‘faith promoting.’ Dad loved it when people would talk about the humanity of Joseph. He said it just makes me feel so terrific to know the Lord could do what he did through a person that wasn’t perfect. It gives me hope.”
What’s really interesting when you watch the interview is the disdain in President Eyring’s voice when he talks about how some people believe sharing the unflattering points of the Prophet’s life would not be “faith promoting.” It give me hope that we might just see a reversal in recent trends to “clean up” Church materials and other facets of Church life as President Eyring becomes more and more of an influence in the Church.

Intellectual Honesty

Something particularly admirable was Henry Eyring’s recognition that people who feign intellectual prowess with poor arguments or with a background that’s not complete enough to put together a good argument actually do a disservice to the thing they are trying to defend – even if that thing is the true Church.

“There are few ways in which good people do more harm to those who take them seriously than to defend the gospel with arguments that won't hold water,” he says. “Many of the difficulties encountered by young people going to college would be avoided if parents and teachers were more careful to distinguish between what they know to be true and what they think may be true. Impetuous youth, upon finding the authority it trusts crumbling, even on unimportant details, is apt to lump everything together and throw the baby out with the bath.”

The quote is certainly applicable today. I am heartened by President Eyring’s apparent agreement with his father on such matters. Like his father, he appears to be a man who absolutely does believe that the truth shall set you free and isn’t afraid to put that in front of people and have them make their own decisions. And I think that’s what his father says in this quote, that that’s what we have to do, that we have to not be afraid of the truth, and we have to not be afraid to grasp it.

Another thing that Henry Eyring does in here that’s so beautiful to me is that he explains with such clarity and such good examples why it is important to embrace the truth. And he does that by using scientific history as a backdrop and a context:
“With each new discovery, the skeptic finds less need for God, while the devout Latter-day Saint sees in it one more evidence of His overruling hand. It was ever so. The Bible speaks of the four corners of the earth. In the time of Columbus, there were those who thought a flat earth was a religious necessity. When it turned out to be round, Christ’s teachings were found to be just as consistent with the new view as with the old. Later, when Galileo verified the theories of Copernicus and said the earth moved about the sun and so could no longer be considered the center of creation, there were bigots ready to burn him at the stake. When the smoke of battle cleared away and men looked at matters calmly, it became apparent that nothing essential had been lost. A lot of human philosophy disappeared, but it turned out to be unnecessary.”
A Complete Life

There are many other things this book covers that are interesting about this man that can’t be covered in detail here. He was the son of a polygamist father, a man who was married to two women who both happened to be sisters. In fact, Henry was known to have said that it took him “until the age of sixteen to realize that a man is not well advised to marry two sisters.” He was an acquaintance of Albert Einstein, whom he spoke to on several occasions about the Church (although, to Henry’s discouragement, Mr. Einstein never gained an interest). He started a crazy tradition of running annual footraces with his graduate students at the University of Utah, footraces that eventually culminated with national news coverage by none other than Charles Kuralt, who astutely observed, “Everyone’s here to watch Henry Eyring – the favorite. Not the favorite to win, just the favorite.”

Perhaps it would be fitting to end this synopsis with the scripture on the back of the dust jacket and the book itself:
“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” (D&C 130:18-19)
That, more than anything, is a brilliant summary of the life of this great man.


Paul said...

Great post. Maybe the scripture should read, “FAITH covereth a multitude of sins.” It still behooves me to think that “prophets, seers and revelators” could be so errant in their thinking and even devious in their comportment at times and still claim that they are THE officials in all of God’s great domain here on earth. I think if Henry had been born into a Catholic tradition he might very well have remained a Catholic and would have had the same quality of "faith" in God. There must be great Catholic and other religious scientists (Christian and non-Christian) in the world today as well as in Henry's day. What I am feebly attempting to say is that I don't think Henry's faith in God established by way of the Mormon tradition leads to the conclusion that the Mormon church is the "one and only."

Anonymous said...

Excellent writing. I enjoyed the post. I will add the book to my goodreads "to-read" list.

OneVoiceAmongMany said...

If the things written in that article about Henry Eyring's beliefs make him a progressive leftist, then I am a far leftist and everyone who knows me knows that isn't true. It's a far reach to try and claim Henry Eyring as a leftist just because he had more trust in skillful science bringing us truth than did many of his peers in the church of that time. Many in the left believe science is the answer for everything mysterious or uncertain in the universe and in life and leave no place for faith in God. As this article described, Henry Eyring believed in the harmony of the two and he was in no means a leftist because of this belief or because he clashed with an apostle decades ago over matters involving seeking truth through science. Cut out much of the introduction in this article, which is a ridiculous slant on a great man's life, and you've got an informative, edifying article.

BSeeg said...

I think it important to understand Henry Eyring as the man and the saint that he was. Having known him personally, I don't think identifying him as "progressive" in this manner (politically?) does him justice, and actually is a wrest of who he was and what he believed. Both knowledgeable conviction and a remarkable humility were his hallmarks. In no way was he rebellious (had a spirit of rebellion -- i.e., anger, or a spirit of contention) towards those he disagreed with in the church hierarchy. The leaders Eyring would talk with could tell that he had no spirit of contention. That is an important point I believe is missed when comparing him with others who disagree with church leaders. Unfortunately for those in the political sphere of disagreement, there is often anger and resentment accompanying the differences. Also, there is no knowledge base for "progressive" agendas when compared with the knowledge base for the issues Dr. Eyring spoke from, nor are there likely to be.

Whenever President Eyring speaks of his father, the memory of that sweet man who was his father comes to me, and it is a gift I cherish.