Home / Testimonies / Bart J. Kowallis

Things of the Earth

bartkowalisThis testimony is a very slightly modified version of an article that appeared in Brigham Young Magazine (Winter 2000), which was, in turn, condensed from an essay published in David L. Clark, ed., Of Heaven and Earth: Reconciling Scientific Thought with LDS Theology (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998), which includes the complete text of this essay as well as ten other essays by Latter-day Saint scientists. It appears here by intent of the author. – ed.

“Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things. Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof; Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.” (D&C 101:32-34)

I wait anxiously for the day when these “things of the earth” will be revealed. But in the meantime, how can I, as a scientist, continue to practice and believe in my religion? Are science and religion “incompatible and mutally exclusive” as biologist Edward O. Wilson proposes?1 Or can they “live harmoniously together in the human soul” as suggested by physicist Freeman J. Dyson?2

My intent here is to provide some justification for why I continue to believe in God, in the Book of Mormon, in Joseph Smith, and in the modern hierarchy of the LDS Church when I have been trained in the fundamental tenets of science and accept them as being true. In my profession I teach and study geology. I have specialized in the study of Earth’s architecture (structural geology) and in understanding the ages of rocks and minerals (geochronology). Much of what I have learned from my studies and believe to be true is seemingly incompatible with the scriptures. I say “seemingly” because I believe that all apparent contradictions between religion and science will disappear as our understanding approaches God’s understanding.3

During the past few years, my research has focused on determining the ages of rocks and minerals. In 1983 I established a laboratory at Brigham Young University dedicated to geochronology, and during the past decade I have used isotopic dating techniques numerous times, such as to obtain more precise ages for dinosaur bones found in Utah and Colorado, to determine the rate of movement along the Wasatch Fault zone, and to help calibrate the geologic time scale. In all of my studies, I have found no reason to doubt the reliability of the methods used. I believe that the ages obtained by these methods, often registering in millions or hundreds of millions of years, reflect events that happened on this world since its creation. The principles that govern isotopic decay and the use of this decay for determining ages are as well established, accepted, and understood as are the laws of motion and the law of gravity. These ideas cannot be dismissed as mere scientific nonsense, unless we are willing to throw out the whole of science itself.

First Encounters

I write from the standpoint of a scientist who believes deeply in the truths and theories of science, yet sees no serious conflicts between science and religion. However, in order to understand the influence of different views of science and religion in my life, I need to travel back for a few moments to my youth, to the time of my introduction to life, science, and religion in the small Mormon town of Pleasant View.

Pleasant View, Utah, spreads out like a warm and careworn patchwork quilt along the foothills of a mountain called Ben Lomond. From almost anywhere in town you can see far out over the valley to the waters of the Great Salt Lake. It is indeed a pleasant view. To me, however, the best view was not out over the valley but straight up 900 West Street, past my home, and up into the towering Wasatch Mountains.

In the hills above Pleasant View, and in the narrow canyons cut back into Ben Lomond above these hills, I discovered something magnificent. I discovered rocks. I brought them home with me. They were my greatest treasures. Some, I was certain, were extremely valuable. Each one I collected had its own special personality and character. I still have many of those rocks on my shelves today. In fact, on a recent visit my father said he had discovered yet another box of rocks in a corner of the basement and suggested that I was now old enough to store them at my own home. Opening that box with two of my own children was like an early Christmas present. We talked and sorted and touched each rock while I told them what they were and where they came from.

At age fourteen, when I went to receive my patriarchal blessing, the patriarch asked me a number of questions before giving the blessing. The only question I still remember was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer was unequivocal: “I am going to be a geologist.” My faith in patriarchal blessings increased substantially that day, for when he gave the blessing, he told me that I would indeed be a geologist.

At the time of the blessing, I don’t suppose I really knew what geologists did or what they believed. If I had, I might have chosen a different career. All I really had in mind as a young boy was that geologists got to collect rocks for a living, and I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful than that. I knew nothing about controversies surrounding the age of Earth or evolution, concepts that are central to the science of geology. In fact, what little I did know of these topics came from my mother. I was taught that evolution was really “evil-ution” a doctrine of the devil used to mislead us and destroy our belief in God. I was also taught that the scriptures were plain in describing the age of Earth; it was at most a few thousand years old. I firmly believed that these were fundamental teachings of the Church. As I grew up, I heard them repeated in Sunday School classes, in sacrament meeting talks, and during seminary.

The first time I was confronted by someone with a different perspective was during my mission to Quebec. One missionary, Elder Clayton, was known missionwide because he and his companions always worked more hours and wasted less time than anyone else. He had no apparent fear of people and would stop and talk to anyone at any time even in the most unlikely settings. I always felt a little uncomfortable around Elder Clayton, as did many other missionaries. We referred to him as “Enoch”; we were certain he already had his application in for translation.

One day while I was working with Elder Clayton on an exchange, we tracted out some potential investigators in an apartment building. At one point in our conversation, one of them asked us what our church taught about evolution. I responded that we believed it to be a false theory. Elder Clayton, in his calm and pleasant manner, interjected that he believed I was wrong. His understanding was that the LDS Church took no official stand on evolution. I was completely astounded and distraught, and I felt the blood rushing to my head as I checked my anger, for this was heresy to me. We left, and on the way back to our apartment I let him know that the Church could not tolerate such doctrine. I pointed out the obvious implications that evolution had for fundamental tenets of the gospel like the Fall and Atonement, the Creation story, and our relationship to God. He said he understood what I was saying, but he stuck by his belief that the Church had not taken an official position. Although I felt vindicated that day, his comments had a profound effect on me: they opened a crack in my mind with thoughts that had not been there before; they helped me to be more open and willing to listen the next time a similar discussion occurred. I am indebted to Elder Clayton for the day we shared together.

The next encounter I had with these theories was on my return to BYU in the winter of 1974. I enrolled in a historical geology class taught by Dr. Lehi F. Hintze and was cruising along in the course, doing quite well and feeling only occasionally uncomfortable about the vast ages that were proposed for the periods of geologic time, when Dr. Hintze decided it was time to talk more pointedly about evolution and the age of Earth and to give us his view of the LDS Church’s position. It was a difficult week for me. During our discussions, I again felt flushed and uncomfortable, but I couldn’t simply ignore what Dr. Hintze was saying. Elder James E. Talmage, he pointed out, had written and talked about the creatures that “lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation.”4 Elder John A. Widtsoe had written about the “vast periods of time” required for each class of animals to arise, dominate the earth, and then become extinct.5 Many other quotes and articles were presented, but perhaps the most significant for me was the copy of a letter sent by President David O. McKay to William Lee Stokes, an LDS geology professor at the University of Utah. The letter, dated 15 February 1957, stated that “on the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position.”6

Elder Clayton, my one-day mission companion, had been correct! I felt embarrassed by what I had said to him, and yet I felt a great sense of relief to know that I could continue to study geology and to learn and believe its fundamental theories without throwing out my religion in the process.

And so I became a geologist, as my patriarchal blessing said I would. I have never regretted the decision. My study of science has sometimes forced me to challenge other long-held tenets of my faith. But I believe the outcome of this process has always been to eventually strengthen my testimony of the gospel, to make me a better person and a more understanding teacher, and to bring me a bit closer to the truth.

Worlds and Time without End

Geologists today believe that Earth is 4.5 to 4.6 billion years old.7 For most of us, including the scientists who determined these ages, this vast expanse of time is totally incomprehensible. But even numbers like a billion don’t seem so big when we begin to contemplate the numbers of stars, planets, and galaxies in the known universe. There are perhaps 400 billion stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy, with an estimated 300 billion planets that could support some type of life.8 The number of total galaxies is not known but has been estimated to be at least 100 billion, and in each galaxy, on average, there are 100 billion stars. This gives us a rough estimate of 10 billion trillion stars or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.9

In attempting to understand these numbers, I think I begin to understand something about God. I begin to understand what He means when He says that His works are “innumerable . . . unto man” (Moses 1:35), and that His name is “Endless,” for He is “without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?” (Moses 1:3).

In general, I am a firm believer in the idea propounded by Galileo, and reiterated more recently by Elder James E. Talmage, that the holy scriptures were never intended to teach scientific principles. In his letter to Castelli on 13 December 1613, Galileo observed that “scripture deals with natural matters in such a cursory and allusive way that it looks as though it wanted to remind us that its business . . . is about the soul and that, as concerns Nature, it is willing to adjust its language to the simple minds of the people.”10 Elder Talmage said, “The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a text- book of geology, archaeology, earth-science or man-science. . . . We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation.”11

Most misconceptions that arise between science and religion could be avoided if we kept these ideas in mind. Sometimes, however, I believe that we can gain useful insights by combining science and the scriptures. This is apparent in trying to understand how our belief in God is compatible with the vast stretches of geologic time, the huge numbers of stars and galaxies now known to exist, and the enormous reaches of space. The Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price describes one of the most glorious experiences that a mortal man could have and gives insights into these ideas of time, space, and very large numbers.

Moses was “caught up into an exceedingly high mountain” (Moses 1:1). (There could have been no better place for the vision Moses was about to have than up among the rocks that had probably been around during much of the history Moses was about to witness.) And Moses “saw God face to face, and he talked with him” (Moses 1:2). What he then saw was the world in intricate detail, from the beginning to the end. For God said to Moses: “I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end. . . . And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered.” (Moses 1:4,8) When the vision ended Moses was drained and did not recover his strength for several hours. In contemplating this experience, he stated, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10).

Man was nothing! This was Moses, a former prince in the Pharaoh’s court, who may justifiably have thought that he was something, that he was somebody, that he had accomplished quite a bit in his life. What a shock this vision must have been! For now Moses realized that man was nothing, something he had never supposed. I believe he was beginning to see the immensity of God’s creation, and it brought home to Moses the same feeling that I get when I stand outside on a clear night and contemplate the stars, or when I hike up into the mountains and look at rocks that were first formed billions of years ago.

Later in the Book of Moses, after Moses had been visited and tempted by Satan, his vision of God and the world reopened, and God showed him the “earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the spirit of God” (Moses 1:27). At this point Moses was bold enough to ask God a question. He asked Him why He had made all these planets and people and how they were made. It appears that God was not going to give Moses a complete response. I often take this approach with my children when they ask me a question that will take too long to explain. God said, and I paraphrase, that He did it “just because.” Yes, He had His reasons, but they were for His “own purpose” (Moses 1:31). However, God did explain, among other things, that the creative work had been accomplished by the “word of my power, . . . which is mine Only Begotten Son” (Moses 1:32).

Moses, like my children, wanted to learn more: “Tell me concerning this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, and also the heavens, and then thy servant will be content” (Moses 1:36). At this point God revealed to Moses the great plan, the reason behind all of creation: “The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine. And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words. For behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:37-39)

This vision of Moses is simply packed with ideas that were unknown or only in their infant stages in the scientific community at the time of Joseph Smith. For example, what did God mean by “the heavens, they are many”? The wording of this passage makes me believe that God was not just referring to the stars we see in our own heavens at night, but to other heavens as well. The heavens spoken of here may represent galaxies, and we certainly know today that “they are many.” However, it was not until the early part of the twentieth century that scientists were even certain that other galaxies existed.12 Will these galaxies “pass away?” Before the development of modern theories of cosmology, it was believed that the heavens were static and immutable. Today it is believed that galaxies have a finite lifetime: they are born, they live for several billion years, and then they will die in either a general collapse of our universe or in a slow burnout as the universe continues to expand.13

An alternative hypothesis is that the heavens spoken of in this passage represent different universes of which ours is only one of many. As strange as this idea may sound, it is today one of the prominent scientific theories for the origin and demise of the universe. Physicist Andrei D. Linde, one of the proponents of this theory, wrote: “Just a few years ago there was no doubt that the universe was born in a single Big Bang singularity. . . . Now it seems more likely that the universe is an eternally existing, self-producing entity that is divided into many mini-universes much larger than our observable portion.”14

Moses also learned in his vision that there are worlds without number that come and go on the eternal stage, and he learned that the inhabitants of Earth are “numberless as the sand upon the sea shore” (Moses 1:28). These were certainly not well-known facts in Moses’ time, nor even in Joseph Smith’s time, but they are beginning to be established today.

These concepts would make good items for further discussion, but I want to come back to the most important idea that Moses was taught during his vision — the purpose for all of creation, which was “the immortality and eternal life of man.” I believe that in his vision Moses glimpsed what eternity was like, and this glimpse was one of the main reasons he was left to exclaim that “man is nothing.” Eternity is a concept that is frequently talked about but seldom, if ever, comprehended. But what better way could God have found to impress upon Moses the idea of eternity and immortality than by showing him a small part of creation. Compared to eternity, a few billion years of Earth history are nothing. Compared to infinity, what are a few billion trillion stars and planets? They do not even scratch the surface of the totality of creation.

So do we as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a problem with an Earth that is 4.6 billion years old? Unequivocally no! How can we be concerned with a mere 4.6 billion years when we believe in an eternal God, when we believe in the immortality and eternal life of man?15 Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in a general conference address in 1982, suggested that the six days of creation were more properly thought of as periods of time. He said: “What is a day? It is a specified time period; it is an age, an eon, a division of eternity; it is the time between two identifiable events. And each day, of whatever length, has the duration needed for its purposes.”16

We should not, therefore, worry about accepting these concepts of science, concepts that deal with vast ages and very large numbers, for they help us to gain a small but important insight into one of the main characteristics of God and godhood: the concept of eternity. To me these discoveries of science add to the greatness of God, lift and inspire me, and help me to see I am indeed nothing compared to God and His creations. Carl Sagan, the eminent astronomer and unbeliever, had some interesting words of advice for those of us who are believers. He said:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.17

I don’t think we need to wait for that religion to emerge; it is here already. We do not believe in a “little god,” and our prophets have always emphasized the greatness and beauty of the universe God has created. For us, each new discovery of science should be as a new revelation; each discovery gives us a more complete understanding of how God works. Our god is not a god only of the supernatural, miraculous, or mysterious. He is a god of truth and knowledge; He encourages us and desires for us to learn and gain knowledge. Brigham Young said that Mormonism “embraces every true science and all true philosophy. . . . True science, true art, and true knowledge comprehend all that are in heaven or on the Earth, or in all the eternities. . . . All truth is ours.”18

We believe that “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection,” and that “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 130:1819). We have been taught to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books” (D&C 90:15), to “seek not for riches but for wisdom” (D&C 6:7), and to ponder and study things out in our own minds before we ask God (D&C 9:8). After all, God has challenged us to become like Him, to become gods, to gain His glory — and His glory is intelligence (D&C 93:36).

As science demonstrates the order and law of the universe, we should not feel threatened but should gain a greater reverence and awe for the marvelous work of the Creator,19 for “he comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever” (D&C 88:41).

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Notes:

1. Edward O. Wilson, “Evolutionary Biology and Religion,” lecture given at Catholic bishops’ meeting, 1987. See David M. Byers, ed., Religion, Science and the Search for Wisdom (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1987), pp. 82–90.

2. Freeman J. Dyson, Infinite in All Directions (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 11.

3. This statement is paraphrased from Henry Eyring, The Faith of a Scientist (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967), p. 99.

4. James E. Talmage, “The Earth and Man,” address delivered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle Sunday, Aug. 9, 1931, and printed in the Deseret News, Nov. 21, 1931.

5. John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith as Scientist, manual distributed by the General Board of the YMMIA (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1908), p. 52.

6. This letter and others like it have been widely distributed, but they have also been criticized as not being official Church documents. These letters are private correspondences signed only by President McKay, not by the entire First Presidency. For me, however, at the time I first read one of these letters, it carried a great deal of weight because it came from the prophet and President of the Church. I still find them to be useful and important documents today.

7. See G. Brent Dalrymple, The Age of the Earth (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 396. Some new data have appeared since the publication of the book, but the general conclusions have not changed.

8. See Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), pp. 298–301.

9. See ibid. pp. 5–7.

10. See Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1955), p. 39.

11. Talmage, “The Earth and Man.”

12. See George O. Abell, Exploration of the Universe, 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969), p. 608.

13. See Tony Rothman, “This Is the Way the World Ends,” Discover, July 1987, pp. 82–93.

14. Andrei D. Linde, “Particle Physics and Inflationary Cosmology,” Physics Today, September 1987, p. 68.

15. Brigham Young said, “How long it [the earth] has been organized is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it. . . . 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.” (in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1860], 14: 116.)

16. Bruce R. McConkie, Ensign, June 1982, p. 11.

17. Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (New York: Random House, 1994), p. 52.

18. Young, Journal of Discourses, 14:280–81.

19. See Richard H. Bube, Putting It All Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and the Christian Faith (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995), p. 66.

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Bart J. Kowallis, professor of geology at Brigham Young University, did his undergraduate degree at BYU and then went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. He teaches classes in Physical Geology, Structural Geology, Field Geology, and Physical Science at Brigham Young University, where he has worked for over 25 years. His research and publications focus on geochronology, stratigraphy, and structural geology, particularly of the Mesozoic rocks in Utah. Since 2001, Professor Kowallis and his students have mapped along the south and north flanks of the Uinta Mountains in cooperation with the Utah Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and was honored in 1986 with an Alcuin General Education Teaching Award and in 2003 with a Karl G. Maeser General Education Professorship, both from Brigham Young University.

Posted December 2009