“Good night, Grandpa,” Jake mumbled to the silhouette at his bedroom door.
“Good night, Jake. See you in the morning,” came the low voice. With a shrug of his shoulder, the man pushed off from the door frame and began to turn.
“Grandpa, do you believe in the Great Turtle?”
Pausing, grandpa realized the import of this question, and casually turned back to the doorway, walked through the darkened bedroom, and sat on the edge of the bed.
Jake was a curious boy. At 14 years old, he had demonstrated a keen mind and often asked insightful questions when the two of them were working or hiking. He enjoyed school. Well, except for the bullying. While he loved to learn and his grades were above average, his curiosity often distracted him from the pedantic chores.
Grandpa Druck was accustomed to Jakes questions. Jake had a way of asking a teasing question that represented much deeper thoughts and he trusted his grandfather to provide honest answers.
“Oh, yes,” grandpa drawled, “the Great Turtle question.”
“Yeah, does he really exist?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t think he does,” came the flippant reply from a voice that had lost it’s sleepy tempo. “I think its all a … lie, or at least it is just made up.”
“Why do you say that?” grandpa asked with sincere curiosity.
“Well, in science class, we are studying astronomy, planets, stars, and stuff. Our book has pictures of the earth, Mars, Venus, Saturn, and all of them and there aren’t any turtles. It’s just a stupid idea.”
“Hold on there,” Grandpa retorted. “don’t be calling things stupid. The Great Turtle has his place, and, as you rightly notice, it isn’t in science class.”
Jake quickly moved to sit against the head board. “But, it’s impossible for a turtle to carry the earth or the sun or any planet, grandpa. They’d just be floating in space, even it there could be a turtle that big. There’s no air to breath and they’d just get pulled into the sun and burn up. It’s just … just … stupid.”
Grandpa spun around to rest against the headboard next to Jake. He could tell that this was going to be a long conversation. No quick answer would satisfy Jake when he was this worked up and postponing the discussion would only frustrate him.
“Jake, do you learn poetry in science class?”
“No, but we do in English.”
“How about sit-ups or running or basketball? Do you do those activities in science class?” grandpa asked.
“No, that would be … stupid,” Jake giggled, teasing grandpa with that label again.
“You are right, it would be stupid,” grandpa stated and then paused to let Jake think.
Giving a straight answer was not Druck’s way. He preferred to let his grandson figure things out on his own, giving lessons and guidance only when necessary. Druck was fond of saying, “A person lead to a stream to drink may never explore its source.”
After a few quiet moments Jake tentatively asked, “Are you saying that The Great Turtle is a different subject from astronomy?”
“Yes, that is one way to think about it.”
“But, what subject is it? They don’t teach the turtle story at school. Everybody thinks it’s stupid.”
“You like that word, don’t you?” grandpa chuckled.
They both sat quietly for a minute. Jake was trying to figure out into which subject to put the turtle story and grandpa Druck was considering how to navigate the subject.
“So,… what subject would teach The Great Turtle story?” grandpa asked pensively. “It wouldn’t be science, obviously. It wouldn’t be English, or PE, or math.” Grandpa sighed and took a few deep breaths.
“Jake, why do we study science?”
“I don’t know. To learn about everything around us, I guess.”
“So, science helps us understand our world, how things work. Is that correct?
“Yes,” Jake sent tentatively.
Grandpa Druck continued: “What if we didn’t have telescopes, satellites, and microscopes? What if we didn’t know about genes and bacteria and viruses? What if all we could know was what we could see by walking around?”
“That would be stupid,” Jake replied. Recognizing that he had over used that label, he quickly added, “We wouldn’t be able to know very much.”
“But,” grandpa jumped in, “we are curious creatures by nature. We want to have meaning in life. We want to be in control and want to know that what we can’t control is at least understood.” Grandpa paused for that to sink in and then continued. “When we can’t know something, we still try to find a reason or story that helps us find meaning. It brings us comfort. In science, we might call the story a theory or a working hypothesis.”
With a quizzical expression, Jake turned to look at his grandfather and asked, “So, The Great Turtle story was made up to help people a long, long time ago to understand the world?”
“Yes, that is one way to look at it. But, let me give you another way to think about it.” Grandpa shifted his sore back, trying to find a comfortable position on the tiny bed.
“I want you to think about our camping trip last weekend. As we were sitting around the campfire Saturday night, which story would you think would be most meaningful, The Great Turtle or a discussion of Newtonian mechanics?”
“Newt what?” Jake replied.
“Newtonian mechanics, the math about how things move; physics, astronomy, gravity. In other words, would you rather hear stories like The Great Turtle around the campfire or lessons from science class?”
Jake cocked his head and thought for a minute. “Stories, I guess.”
“Yes, our stories bind us together in ways that science cannot. Religion and stories are ways that we find meaning in life. They let us build a foundation as a community, culture, and family. In many ways, science, history, and a concern for facts have displaced our stories and, I think, our communities have suffered. In the contest between religion and science, science will always win because it can communicate more effectively, it can be tested and observed by others.”
Druck continued: “Stories like The Great Turtle may have lost their value for explaining the dance between the earth, moon, sun, and stars, but it may still communicate the mystery and magnitude of the world in a way that is meaningful in a practical way. In other words, our stories, myths, and religious experience may be meaningful in a way that helps us navigate this world without a calculator.”
Jake chuckled as he thought about everyone walking around with a calculator, trying to make decisions with numbers. He thought about the big numbers for the distances between the planets and the speed of light. While he knew, or at least trusted, that these were correct, they were too big to understand.
“So, grandpa, are you saying that the answer to my first question is: No? Or, at least, sort of no?”
“You might say that,” Druck responded. “I have never personally observed the earth from space, but the logical picture created by the physical knowledge, the science, that I have leads me to accept that gravity is a better explanation for the movement of the planets than turtles. But,” grandpa continued, “I still find meaning in The Great Turtle story because it gives me a tangible perspective on the movement of the earth. It also ties me to my past, my culture, and allows me to reflect on what I don’t know and continue life in a meaningful way.”
“Okay, I think I get it,” Jake said as he slid down from the headboard, rolled to face the wall, and pulled the covers up to his chin. “The Great Turtle helps us know who we are and science helps us know what we are.”
Druck looked at his grandson and shook his head in dismay. He couldn’t argue with that. Jake often had a way of distilling their conversations into a tight summary.
“Thanks, grandpa,” Jake mumbled.
What do we do when scientific knowledge or scholarly information robs us of our sacred stories?
In the LDS community, physical science is often welcomed. The contribution of “soft sciences” may be less respected, but sociology, history, psychology, philosophy, and theology have also advanced and affect our view of the world. All of these feed into our world view and the relationship we have with our faith tradition, some more directly than others.
Developments in archeology, linguistics, and history have worked together to create a basis for critical Biblical analysis. This has resulted in the excising of non-historical elements from sacred scripture, a painful processes that leaves many unmoored. We want scripture to give us facts not myth or allegory. We want answers and certainty, not more questions. Genesis as myth seems to be less valuable when it is no longer factual cosmology.
While the LDS view of the Bible allows for its errancy, LDS modern scripture is typically held to a higher standard, even the “most correct.” Consequently, when the same tools of Biblical criticism are applied to LDS scripture and church history, the effort is greeted as an attack on the faith when the results are not affirming.
For many, if not most of our current generation, folklore and myth are poor substitutes when verifiable facts were expected.
So what is to be done? How can we incorporate modern understanding and sensibilities with religion? Does scripture and tradition have to be factual in order to be valuable?
First, I think that we may often miss the point when we focus on certainty of religious claims. We may end up substituting the proposition for the purpose. Our emphasis on being right may prevent us from becoming right.
When helping to lead a Baptist group on a tour of an LDS church building, we settled in the chapel for a Q and A period. Several questions pointedly addressed the need to assent to ultimate Truth. My response was something like this: Too often our certainty blocks our view of truth. Humility is required in order to free us to learn and explore in search of truth.
We may have wonderful view from a window, but taking a step back may reveal a door to a grander experience, one exposes us to danger and uncertainty. Finding value in a new environment is challenging, but facing raw facts, navigating uncertainty, and appreciating diversity may be the only way for a new generation to continue to participate in the church.
Can our churches reconstruct in a way that allows for more uncertainty, more mystery, messy (and damaging) history, and the range of human experience? Can we even build an effective community without definitive propositions? (More on this subject.)
I think that we will be sitting with questions like this for a long time.