To some, there seems to be an irreconcilable difference between science and faith. There are, however, Mormon’s that have embraced both science and faith and did not see any conflict. This is how James Talmage, a scientist and a Mormon Apostle, found peace where others found discontent.
Simply put, James E. Talmage, a prominant Mormon, looked for the similarities between science and faith rather than focusing on the differences. Without ignoring differences, Elder Talmage found the places where science and faith aligned. He believed that all truth emanated from God and that eventually, science and faith will tell the same story.
Mormon View on Secular Education
The teachings of the Church not only encourage, but require Latter-day Saints to search for knowledge out of the “best books” (D&C 88:118) and then “study it out in your mind” (D&C 9:8). It is not a theology of “sit back and wait for the prophets to tell you.” James Talmage employed this methodology of sorts in his approach to science. He felt free to swim in the waters of secular inquiry and discovery in search of truth. He would then weigh what he found against the teachings of the scriptures and the words of the prophets.
It was ultimately, James’ choice to focus on the similarities that allowed him to maintain the balance between scientific discovery and his faith in God. I believe that James Talmage expected discrepancies. There always seems to be discrepancies when we utilize two different approaches to the same experience. The discrepancies, however, do not necessitate abandoning one of the two approaches. Instead, the variety in methods strengthen the validity of the parallels, while suggesting that there is more to learn, observe and study regarding the differences.
This approach allowed James Talmage to keep a foot in the world of science as well as the kingdom of faith. This was not easy, as it is common for the extremely devoted in fields of science and religion to demand that newcomers give up their allegiance to one or the other. Throughout his life, however, James kept dual-citizenship so to speak, and from that unique position, he would serve as an ambassador for both throughout his life as an educator and as an Apostle.
Talmage’s Background in Education
James Talmage immigrated to Utah with his family in the 1870’s. When they arrived in Provo, James almost immediately enrolled at the Brigham Young Academy. The principal at the Academy was Karl G. Maeser, the most influential educator in Utah’s history.
The Deseret Evening News explained Karl Maeser’s approach to education at the Brigham Young Academy in January 1878.
“Prof. Maeser… has made theology the foundation of every branch taught in this institution… The good results arising from such a course, plainly prove that science and religion can be successfully taught in our public schools, and that, too, without jar or discord.”[i]
This model set the stage for Talmage’s approach to balancing science and faith.
In his school notes, James recorded that a sincere study of science had the potential to bring men to an understanding of the “wisdom and goodness of the Creator.”[ii]
As a young teacher, James once delivered a lecture titled “The History of the Earth.” James showed that by looking at the biblical creative stages as undetermined lengths of time rather than the literal twenty-four hour periods, one might match up the scriptural and scientific records for even geologists believe in the same order of events in so much that plant life preceded the animals, and the formation of the earth preceded both. Talmage avowed that a close geological study of the earth would bring one “nearer the platform of God” rather than further from it.”[iii]
Science and Religion Are Just Different Sides of the Same Mountain
He believed that science and religion were not separate subjects, but rather, different perspectives of the same whole; like viewing a mountain from different sides of the peak. Each side offered a different view, but not necessarily a wrong one. Once the mountain had been completely encompassed a true, or complete, the image could be seen.
Overconfidence in Error
From personal experiences in college, James knew the dangers of being overly confident in false ideas. He called it “overconfidence in an error.” He recounted an experience where a young man stated with absolute certainty that the salt manufacturers turned blue sea water into salt. Another individual in their group tried to help the man see that they were not actually “making” the salt.
“But the young man who first spoke was very boisterous in his assurances that he had seen it done, and consequently ought to know: he had seen the blue water after boiling actually turn into salt; and no amount of reasoning could induce him to that such was not literally the case.”[iv]
This kind of “overconfidence in error” becomes a stumbling block in every walk of life or profession. In James’ experience, when it came to the debate between science and religion both sides were guilty of this flaw. He listened to one minister blast science with inaccurate facts and James surmised, “Ministers have bred the disgust they get from scientists. No wonder scientists refuse to belong to a church that won’t ever get to facts. Everything is figurative.”[v]
Seeing the Whole Mountain
Elder James E. Talmage gave a great talk in August 1931, titled: “The Earth and Man.” In the talk, Elder Talmage emphasized that eventually science and faith would come together. Because all truth—even scientific truths—come from God, eventually the two sides will come together.
He believed that the record in the rocks were revelations from God—like the scriptures. These geological revelations were intended to teach man about God’s works and purposes.
Elder Talmage taught:
Concerning this all-important event we are told that scientists and theologians are at hopeless and irreconcilable variance. I regard the assumption or claim, whichever it be, as an exaggeration. Discrepancies that trouble us now will diminish as our knowledge of pertinent facts is extended. The creator has made record in the rocks for man to decipher; but He has also spoken directly regarding the main stages of progress by which the earth has been brought to be what it is. The accounts cannot be fundamentally opposed; one cannot contradict the other; though man’s interpretation of either may be seriously at fault.[vi]
Even his headstone depicts James’ belief regarding man’s search for truth. Etched into the granite headstone is the following saying:
“Within the gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man or yet to be made known.”
James’ approach to science and religion kept him open to ideas from both groups. He believed that absolute rejection of one or the other left him vulnerable to “overconfidence in error.” He recognized that neither side held all truth and that God intended to reveal more truth with time. It was man’s responsibility to exercise his faculties to learn everything possible through inquiry and discovery and still stay open to what God might reveal through his prophets and apostles.
[i] “Brigham Young Academy of Provo,” Deseret Evening News, January 30, 1878, 13.
[ii] James E. Talmage, “Theory of Teaching,” Talmage Collection, Box 10 Folder 6.
[iii] James E. Talmage, “The History of the Earth,” Talmage Collection, Box 10, Folder 5.
[iv] James E. Talmage, Journals, December 30, 1883, emphasis in original.
[v] James E. Talmage, Journals, May 4, 1884.
[vi] James E. Talmage, “The Earth and Man,” 3.