Mormon scientist Henry Eyring and compartmentalization

I was at first hestitant to accept Deseret Book’s offer of a review copy of Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring. I don’t usually review non-fiction titles. And it looked to me like the book would be a fairly mundane biography that prizes devotional discourse over literary value.

I was right.

And yet I was also right to indulge my curiosity about how Eyring managed to have the achievements in science that he did while maintaining a good relationship with the LDS Church. As Jared notes in his review at LDS Science Review:

“If you are looking for a reconciliation of science and religion you will be disappointed. Henry did not attempt reconciliation; he accepted contradiction and couched his views on science in terms of the genius of God while shunning dogmatism. Although it is portrayed as genuine, I have to think that his vagueness was also strategic.”

This is what I found most interesting and most of value to the issues at hand here at AMV.

But before getting to that, even though I’m not going to do a proper review (e.g. summary, strong points, weak points, summation), a few comments on the book:

Yes, it was an easy enough read. Some of the anecdotes fell flat (the telling of the humor of those that were meant to be humorous usually didn’t quite work). I was annoyed by the repetition of some anecdotes and evidences. You’ve already told me that — do you really think I wouldn’t remember? And not all the parodoxes that are explored in the third section quite work. I also found it a bit weird that there was no information about the author — Eyring’s grandson Henry J. Eyring. According to this Deseret Morning News article, Henry J. didn’t even want his name to be on the book, but he was convinced. I understand that he wanted to but since his authorial presence is so strong in the book, I think he should have just gone the whole way. It also seems strange that the book seems to be written to appear to Mormons as if it is written for a non-Mormon audience in order to make it seem like it’s more of a big deal than perhaps it is. Considering that Eyring died in 1981, I find it unlikely that it will gain traction outside of the world of Deseret Book customers. I could be wrong. In fact, I’d be happy to be wrong as at the very least the book shows that one can have a difference of opinion with some general authorities (Eyring with Joseph Fielding Smith over evolution) and yet do so civilly. Erying was a great ambassador for Mormonism and Mormon thought and accomplishment.

I say that the paradoxes don’t quite work. I think they are interesting way of exploring Eyring’s life, but there doesn’t seem to be quite enough tension there. In the first section of the book, Henry J. Eyring explores his grandfather’s legacy. In the section, he discusses his heritage. And in the third, he discusses paradoxical attributes that his grandfather possessed, such as “Confidence and Humility,” “Discipline and Creativity,” “Freedom and Obedience” and “Fundamentals, Not Conventions.”

I think the difficulty I have with these paradoxes is that it’s easy to see how they’re resolved, and it isn’t always clear exactly how they are in tension with each other. Henry J. Eyring writes that his grandfather “had no difficulty with apparently contradictory ideas, so long as both were founded in truth” (164). He goes on to claim, “Those less patient with ambiguity were inclined to see him as compartmentalized in his thinking or even blind to obvious contradictions. they couldn’t understand, in particular, how he could believe so firmly in faith while at the same time ardently advocating logic. However, for Henry the so-called contradictions were just paradoxes — truths seemingly in opposition, but true nonetheless” (165).

And I think here’s where it gets very interesting for those engaged in narrative art. Eyring seems to be a great, even inspiring, example of how to be an accomplished scientifically-minded yet believing, faithful and serving Latter-day Saint. And yet he does come across as a bit compartamentalized and, more importantly, his success can be compartmentalized in a way that success as an artist can never be because scientific discourse by definition has nothing to do with faith and (some) believers are willing to give science its due so long as it doesn’t try to deny faith. Artistic discourse, on the other hand, digs right into the messy issues of representation and ontology and faith and limits. Everything is up for grabs and negotiation. The only limits are the limits of medium — words, sounds, shapes, colors. Art can’t be quite as easily compartmentalized as science because art is trying to do what faith also does — explain all (or more likely a portion of) the human condition and experience.

However, that doesn’t mean that artists can’t learn from Eyring. His life is an example of discipline and hard work. But even more importantly, he is an example of a member of the Church who took great pride in his work but still had many moments of true humility. And I think that’s something all of us should think about as we approach our work.

Finally, although the biography has its faults, it really shines when it allows Eyring to speak for himself:

I always feel a little bit unhappy when someone tells me that they’ll give me a beautiful picture that reconciles everything. Baloney. I mean, I can’t reconcile chemistry, and they’re going to take the whole world and reconcile it and religion and science and everything in it? I can’t do that. I like contradictions. I like a little bit of a mess, and I am glad when one of the brethren says something that I think is a little bit foolish, because I think if the Lord can stand him, maybe He can stand me. So that’s it, and I think that maybe there’s a certain stumbling block that some of us have: we expect other people to be a kind of perfection that we don’t even attempt to approach ourselves (302-303).

With art, science and religion there’s a tendency to latch on to beautiful (or comforting) pictures. The beauty of art, especially narrative art, is that it can give us a little bit of mess, a little bit of foolishness and a kind of perfection. Not one picture, but many pictures all of which can help to remove our stumbling blocks, our expectations of perfection. The mote, the beam, the splinter, the illusion. And if artists can do so while maintaining humility then they just may also save themselves.

4 thoughts on “Mormon scientist Henry Eyring and compartmentalization”

  1. One thing to keep in mind is that Eyring came up around the time of the rise of physics. In those days string theory wasn’t even a pipe dream. The two new formulations of physics that had overthrown the centuries long established dogma of Newtonian physics were themselves incompatible with each other.

    I’d suggest that all Eyring was doing was treating the ‘conflict’ between science and religion in a fashion akin to what he had to do with Quantum Mechanics. (Which, as a chemist, I’m sure he had exposure to)

  2. “….for Henry the so-called contradictions were just paradoxes — truths seemingly in opposition, but true nonetheless”

    I find it interesting that art, science and religion are all striving for the same result, perfection. Off course it will never be found in this world. Maybe the key to perfection is accepting our imperfections.

  3. Thanks for the review! I’ve been looking forward to reading this. Just out of curiousity, Wm, have you read Eyring’s own The Faith of a Scientist? From what it sounds, the tones of the two works are similar – generally optimistic, delving a little bit into conflicts but nothing faith-shakingly deep. And this coming from Eyring himself.

    I am a bit biased, quite a fan of the Eyring dynasty’s canon. 🙂 Elder Henry B. Eyring came and spoke to the Tokyo North and South missions while I was serving there – Henry J. was at the time the mission president in Tokyo North. It was a timely address, and answered many of the deep-seated internal conflicts I was facing as a young missionary. One of the most monumental things that Elder Eyring told us was “it’s OK to disagree with your leaders. But there’s a difference between disagreeing and harboring the spirit of contention. You can disagree without letting that spirit take hold.”

    I think of all the advice given by “The Eyrings,” this may be one of the more relevant for our time. Whether disagreement be with church leaders, church culture, science, or popular art sentiments, the most important thing is to learn how to respond to them as befits a follower of Christ.

  4. I have not read The Faith of a Scientist.

    But I too am quite fond of the Eyrings. Henry B. spoke at an Oakland Stake conference shortly before being called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was one of the best talks I have ever heard. One of the things I enjoyed most (and it is very difficult to summarize because he hit on a lot of topics) was how we *should* feel a sense of yearning for the Second Coming. That, yes, we should value the experiences we have and the communities we live in, but that we should acknowledge that part of us knows that this society is not something that we are every 100% part of. And that that’s okay. But that on other hand, we should also appreciate living in a diverse area and engage with it.

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