The Search for Harmony
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg
Eternal Progression: The Higher Destiny
L. Mike Vause
[p.277]Thus it is provided in the economy of God, that to progression there is no end. As a necessary consequence, man may advance by effort and by obedience to higher and yet higher laws as he may learn them through the eternities to come, until he attains the rank and status of Godship. “Mormonism” is so bold as to declare that such is the possible destiny of the human soul. And why not? Is this possibility unreasonable? Would not the contrary be opposed to what we recognize as natural law? Man is of the lineage of the Gods. He is the spirit-offspring of the Eternal One, and by the inviolable law that living beings perpetuate after their kind, the children of God may become like unto their Parents in kind if not in degree. The human soul is a God in embryo; even as the crawling caterpillar of the corpse-like chrysalis embodies the potential possibilities of the matured and glorified imago. We assert that there was more than figurative simile, and instead thereof the assured possibility of actual attainment in the Master’s words: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).—James E. Talmage1
Mormonism has been called the “American religion” because of its unique theology. The beauty of early nineteenth-century [p.278]America was the open intellectual atmosphere, particularly of New England with its Emersons, Thoreaus, Neals, Hawthornes, Fullers, and others. The loosening of Puritanism’s strangle-hold allowed for more relaxed religions like Unitarianism and even more radical experiments connected to “transcendentalism” at Brook Farm and Fruitlands.
Much of Transcendentalism’s “Romantic theory” centered around the infinite and divine qualities of the human mind. The failure of the Puritan experiment led to a re-examination of religious philosophies, particularly those limiting potential like innate depravity and pre-destination. Emerson and others, influenced by the English and German Romantics, sought a more hopeful—even “divine”—position for the human family.
Mormonism took this search further with the idea that humans are not only the literal offspring of God but in fact can become gods themselves. In 1835, some eight years before the teaching of eternal progression was fully introduced by Joseph Smith, Lorenzo Snow had the idea of the god-like potential of the human family. He recorded this realization in the form of an aphorism in couplet: “As man is now God once was; As God now is, man may become.”2 Emerson once called humans “Gods in ruin.”3
The idea that humans can evolve, moving from, in Joseph Smith’s words, “one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace and from exaltation to exaltation,”4 is, for me, the greatest message of hope since the resurrection. The idea of an eternity of learning and progress seems the only logical end for a divinely directed creation.
In 1859, as Mormons were busy establishing Zion in the Rocky Mountains, the presses of John Murray of Albemarle Street, London, were producing the first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. After having spent five years as a naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin took the next twenty-three years to compile his data. Only when forced by the work of Alfred Wallace did he publish his findings. The role of iconoclast was not one Darwin sought, nor did he seek to destroy the God of Christianity. Darwin endured attacks by not only religionists of his homeland but from around the world.
Andrew Dickson White, in his 1896 essay “The Final Effort of Theology,” provides some examples of these attacks. Cardinal [p.279]Manning of the Anglican Church called the theory of evolution “a brutal philosophy—to wit, there is no God, and the ape is our Adam.” The American branch of the Anglican Church called Darwin’s views “infidelity,” and claimed they turned the Bible into “unbearable fiction.” Rev. Walter Mitchell of the Victoria Institute declared: “Darwinism endeavors to dethrone God.” His attackers fired at him from France, Germany, Australia, and the United States. Even Pope Pius IX called Darwin’s work “a system which is repugnant at once to history, to the tradition of all peoples, to exact science, to observed facts, and to Reason herself.”5
Sir Charles Lyell, a respected geologist, ascribed to the creation theory presented in Genesis, and Darwin himself believed that the diversity in living things could be explained by the Bible. It was during his time on the Beagle and after his many careful observations that he found a problem with a literalist reading of the Bible, as finally did Lyell as well.
It is easy to see why evolution posed a problem for theologians of Darwin’s day. With ideas like predestination, innate depravity, irresistible grace, and the several creeds that governed the Western religious world—evolution represented a major deviation. Evolution argued for a need for empirical evidence to explain earth’s foundations. Fossil evidence pointed to pre-historic animal and plant life. Clerics argued for a literal acceptance of the biblical six-day creation and an earth age of 6,000 years.
On the Origin of Species has been called one of the most important books ever written and has influenced almost every field of scientific and philosophical study—biology, literature, law, psychology, sociology, theology. Noted for its readability, Darwin’s work is the result of his five years aboard the Beagle, observing flora and fauna throughout the world and leading him to develop his idea that species are not immutable. In his introduction to the first edition, Darwin noted: “I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to throw some light on the origin of the species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.”6
Like all scientists, Darwin built his theory upon those of his [p.280]predecessors, and scientific opinion remains divided as to the precise contribution the Origin makes to the biological sciences, yet few books have had such far-reaching influence as Darwin’s. In his introduction, he admits the possibility of mistakes and need for further investigation: “No doubt error will have crept in, though I hope I have always been cautious in trusting to good authorities alone. I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration, but which, I hope, in most cases will suffice. No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which any conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this.”7
Throughout the work Darwin points out that the idea of evolution by natural selection is “one of long argument,” that all the evidence has not been gathered. A quick sampling of chapter headings in Origin indicates the ambitious scope of the book: “Variation under Domestication,” “Variation under Nature,” “Struggle for Existence,” “Divergence of Character,” “Laws of Variation,” “Organ of Extreme Perfection,” “Geological Record,” “Single Centers of Creation,” “Embryology,” and “Classification.” In Darwin’s later book, The Descent of Man, he wrote: “Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of an individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as lineal descendants of some few beings which have lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”8 The language and tone of Origin and Descent never suggest that God did not have a hand in creation, only that evolution by “Natural Selection” was the means by which life became what it is.
In Descent Darwin reinforces the idea that he is not attempting to destroy belief in God but is merely searching to understand the laws of creation. He hoped for the further growth and development of humanity:
“The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely that [p.281]man is descended from some lowly-organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many persons. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keep; or from that old baboon, who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs—as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
“Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason allows us to discover it. I have given the evidence to the best of my ability; and we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all of his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”9
Darwin, having been the target of criticism for more than twenty years, in these concluding lines of Descent recognizes and praises the progress of humanity and postulates “hopes for a still [p.282]higher destiny in the distant future.”
Joseph Smith, upon revealing the doctrine of “eternal progression,” explained that the human “higher destiny” is Godhood. The fact that God was once a man and that he progressed through life experiences to the station of God by gaining a knowledge of the truth is illustrated in the life of Jesus. The example set by the birth and life of the Savior, his being born in a natural fashion, his progression through life, learning by experience (Heb. 5:8), and his return to the Godhead established a model for humanity to follow. Such a model also provides the ultimate sense of hope and wellbeing for the human family when faced with struggles and trials, knowing that Christ “has descended below them all” (D&C 122:8).
Darwin’s tone of eternal hope for further development of humankind is not incompatible with Joseph Smith’s vision of human potential. Mormons, least of all among Christians, should be the last to oppose the postulates of Darwin and his intellectual descendants. Seen in the light of the doctrine of eternal progression, the theology of Mormonism and the theory of evolution are not mutually exclusive but could well blend together to form a harmony of faith and reason.