As a Mormon, I participate each week in a one hour adult Sunday School class. This is pretty much expected of active adult members. Honestly, Sunday School has sometimes felt like a drag, and I have not always been mentally or spiritually engaged in the class.
But something has been happening in our ward, which is Mormon for congregation. I have noticed a growing depth and purpose to our Sunday School classes. Perhaps I am the one who has changed. The current Sunday School
teachers are diligent and effective, but no more so than teachers in
years past. In the Mormon church, teachers are unpaid amateurs. They
usually only hold the position for a year or two, and they aren't
selected on the basis of scriptural expertise. They facilitate discussion. They ask questions. They usually aren't Biblical scholars, and they don't have all the answers.
Whatever the reason, my feeling is that all of us, teacher and students, seem to be reading the scriptures deeply, asking searching questions, and looking for answers with both our hearts and minds, to a greater extent than I have experienced in the past. Class participation is high; a majority of members make substantial contributions to the discussion. Men and women of different ages, races, and backgrounds are sharing insights, speculations, opinions, experiences, and firm convictions. As we express our occasionally divergent views, I feel united with members of the class in our search for a better understanding of God. As we seek God together, I am coming to know my ward members better. This is a new way for me to feel like I am part of a community of saints. For me, this is what Sunday School should be.
It has been years since I have read the lesson (the text to be studied that week) ahead of class. But after a particularly meaty lesson yesterday, I decided to look in the student manual and prepare myself for next week's lesson by reading the text.
And . . . it's a Noah lesson. As in Noah and the Ark.
For years, I agonized over the Noah story. There was just no possible way that I could believe that he managed to collect representatives of every species of animal and put them on his ark. Nor could I believe that the entire planet - up to the mountaintops - was literally covered with water. It seemed to be one of the stories that kept me from being a fully believing Latter-day Saint.
Official church publications talk of a literal, global flood. Here is an article from the Ensign (the monthly magazine for adults that is published by the church) that leaves no room for anything other than a strictly literal interpretation of the Genesis account. That issue of the Ensign was published when I was a student at Brigham Young University. I distinctly remember reading the article with a sinking feeling. I even wrote a short paper for one of my university classes on my inability to reconcile the scriptural account of the flood with my understanding of science.
Noah and his ark have bothered me so much that for a long time I avoided Noah's ark themed books, toys, and puzzles for my children. It always amazed me when parents would blithely teach their children the story of the animals boarding the ark two-by-two. Inside I was screaming, "But there are tens of thousands of animal species on Earth. And that's not counting the invertebrates!"
Gradually, I have moved on from my all-or-nothing fundamentalism. I never could believe in the "all," and I didn't want to be left with nothing. I gave myself permission to believe in a local flood and in the incompleteness, fallibility, and sometimes figurative nature of scripture (including the account in Moses), and still be a good Mormon. This approach, of course, has implications beyond Noah and the ark. Some Mormons would probably consider my views on scripture to be unorthodox at best and heretical at worst. But for now, this is where I am, and I don't know where else to be.
If you're interested, here is a collection of statements made by church leaders about the flood. Included are references to the theory, which I do not discuss here, that the flood was a kind of baptism of the earth.
UPDATE: This post from Times and Seasons discusses ways in which the Biblical text itself might prefer a non-literal reading and cautions against arguing from a scientific standpoint. I got there by following a link I found on this interesting blog which is devoted to commentary on the Gospel Doctrine Old Testament lessons.