Monday, May 31, 2010

Transparency and sacredness

It can be difficult to maintain boundaries of sacredness without being accused of a lack of transparency. The LDS Church has come up with a very smart solution: a scale model replica of the Salt Lake temple, showing the interior rooms in detail and accompanied by video and narration explaining the purposes of the various rooms, much like an open house:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mitigating technology risks

The New York Times published an insightful article by Elizabeth Rosenthal a couple of days ago entitled "Our Fix-It Faith and the Oil Spill." The thrust of the article is that we place an inordinate amount of faith in the ability of technology to fix problems and have a too-rosy picture of the benefits of technology compared with its risks. I think this is frequently true.

The question is, how can we mitigate this problem? The article seems to suggest (implicitly, not overtly) that we should give up the idea that technology can resolve natural problems — that perhaps the natural world is too complex and unpredictable to be dealt with by technology. I would disagree with such an assessment. It may be (in fact, I hope it is so) that the world will always exceed our understanding at any given point in time. But this does not imply that we should lose faith in the benefits of technology or imagine that its risks always outweigh its benefits. Rather, it suggests (as does the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) that we should invest more heavily in mitigation strategies and technologies and perhaps proceed more cautiously with certain types of exploratory technologies, with the realization that there will always be unforeseen risks.

We need two things: the willingness to pay the price to develop mitigation strategies and technologies and the benevolence to work together to mitigate unforeseen problems when they arise.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Blogging again

Wow. Over five years since I last blogged. Hopefully I have accumulated some worthwhile things to contribute. Here goes...

Friday, February 04, 2005

What not to do for your next youth activity

What does this lady do at Halloween?

New blog: Mormon Doctrine

Over at The Millennial Star, the new group blog I participate in, Jeffrey Giliam has commented on the thread on evolution. I followed his link to his blog -- a newcomer to the Bloggernacle: (Issues in) Mormon Doctrine. His blog looks promising; welcome, Jeffrey!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Not in my state

Man, this guy is lucky he doesn’t live in Utah.

Signs of the times

Justin Butterfield had an interesting Book of Mormon Stories post at Mormon Wasp, with a discussion of the hand motions associated with that Primary song. Through those hand motions, Primary children are taught to associate “Lamanites” with “American Indians” -- something that limited geography theories dispute.

Reading his post, I was reminded that there is another audience that receives a similar teaching, but in a much more official way: American Deaf. The Church recently completed the translation of the Book of Mormon into American Sign Language (it takes up fifteen videocassettes). Some years ago, the Church established a committee to develop and standardize ASL signs for uniquely or distinctively LDS terms. One of my ASL teachers at BYU, Jack Rose, was on that committee. He explained to us a little bit about the process. For example, the sign for “baptism” in other faiths indicates a sprinkling motion. But since we believe in baptism by immersion, a different standard sign was chosen -- one that indicates the motion of immersion and coming back up out of the water. It expresses the symbolism we teach very nicely, too, since aspects of the sign are easily connected with the idea of death and resurrection.

Other signs that differ from other faiths include signs for priesthood offices, such as deacon, priest, or bishop. And then there are signs that are uniquely LDS, such as the idea of a “stake.” And, of course, there are unique things like Book of Mormon names.

In ASL, while there is a representation of the English alphabet, name signs are more often used to indicate people, rather than spelling out their name. The name sign typically reflects some characteristic of the person. For example, my name sign uses the letter “C” (my first initial) and then mimics the sign for “blond” -- the color of (what’s left of) my hair. This also helps to distinguish individuals who have the same first name, as one person named Christopher would have a different name sign than another person named Christopher.

The official LDS sign for “Nephite” and “Lamanite” use the first initial of the name and then mimic the sign for “Indian”: a feather shape with the hand, formed by making an “Okay” sign with the thumb and forefinger closed and the last three fingers up, reminiscent of feathers. The tip of forefinger and thumb are then placed near the corner of the mouth, then moved up and back to touch near the ear, reflecting the American Indian use of feathered headdresses. This standard ASL sign for “Indian” is modified in the official LDS ASL lexicon by changing the shape of the hand to an “N” shape for “Nephi(te)” and an “L” shape for “Laman(ite).” These signs are used in the ASL translation of the Book of Mormon.

By using these signs, the Church establishes a connection for the Deaf between Nephites and Lamanites and American Indians. If limited geography theories of the Book of Mormon are correct, this connection may be unfortunate, particularly as it comes from a more official source than the hand motions that go along with “Book of Mormon Stories.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Useless foreknowledge

Let us assume that some person (let’s say, my next-door neighbor) has infallible foreknowledge of the entire future. He knows everything that is going to happen, down to the tiniest detail -- and his knowledge is infallible: it is impossible that he could be wrong.

What use would this knowledge be? It’s easy to think that he could become rich by betting on winning horses at the track or investing in the right stocks. But that is true only if it is compatible with what he already knows about the future. That is to say, he could only do those things if he already knows he is going to do them. If he knows that I am going to wear mismatched socks tomorrow morning, then no matter what anyone tries to do to change that, I am going to wear mismatched socks tomorrow morning. He could tell me about it in the vain hope that the warning might get me to pay attention and wear matching socks, but he already knows that I won't. He could break into my house and burn the contents of my sock drawer, but no matter what he does, if his knowledge is infallible, it will not alter the fact that I will wear mismatched socks.

Even worse, if he knows that a terrible calamity will happen without warning, he will be powerless to warn anyone of it. If he knows that his child will be killed in a hit-and-run accident, it is impossible for him to prevent that from happening -- after all, his knowledge is infallible.

So if my neighbor had this kind of infallible foreknowledge, what good would it do him? And should it make him somehow more admirable than me, with my limited foreknowledge? Would it make his praiseworthy, or worthy of worship? I see no reason why it should, in and of itself. It gives him no power whatever; indeed, it seems to me that it only illustrates his powerlessness to himself.

So why should the idea of infallible foreknowledge be ascribed to God? Its value seems to be limited to a sort of trick or circus act, where we can ooh and aah that he gets it right every time we flip a coin. It seems to me that another view of God has far greater value: the view that God knows what is most likely to happen, given current circumstances, but has the power to influence current circumstances to make something else more likely -- in other words, to prevent something from happening.

Of course, God could only do this if my next-door neighbor infallibly foreknows that he will -- which is why I choose to believe that no one has infallible foreknowledge.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Guest posts at T&S

I have been invited to guest blog at Times & Seasons. You can find my posts here.

Idealization and correcting falsehoods

One of the most famous incidents from Joseph Smith's boyhood is the leg operation he underwent when he was seven years old. He refused to take brandy as an anesthetic, insisting instead that his father hold him while his leg was cut open and pieces of bone broken off.

This incident was brought up by our Gospel Doctrine teacher yesterday as an example of how Joseph Smith was prepared for his prophetic mission. He noted that the Word of Wisdom hadn’t been revealed yet, but that “that was just how Joseph was raised -- that his family didn’t do that sort of thing.”

I’m sure the teacher had good intentions. The problem is that, as noted by Kaimi and commenters over at Times & Seasons, it’s simply not true. Joseph and his family drank alcohol up through Joseph's death (he had wine just before he was killed; see History of the Church 6:616). I’m inclined to agree with Marc D. that the most likely reason Joseph refused alcohol was that his father had problems with alcoholism.

This seems like a minor issue, but it highlights one of the things that bothers me when I see it in the Church: the idealization of prophets. This can cause problems in a couple of ways: First, the specifics. When someone who has been taught in Sunday School that Joseph never drank alcohol finds out (most likely from an unfriendly source) that he actually did, there is a sense of betrayal -- why was I taught falsely in church? Second, the general expectation that prophets should be superhuman. The comment was made in a context that was pretty much saying, “See how prepared Joseph was? Even at seven years old, the Holy Ghost revealed to him that he shouldn't drink alcohol, even though he wouldn't have the Word of Wisdom revealed to him for many years.” And this sets up incorrect expectations that run up against reality and can cause a lot of confusion later on. It seems to me that this type of approach generally tends to lead people to discount their belief in a prophet instead of critically examining their own assumptions of what a prophet is.

So, did I speak up in Sunday School to correct the teacher? No, I bit my tongue for a couple of reasons: 1) there wasn't time to address all of these issues; 2) even if there had been, I'm not sure it was the proper venue; 3) I don't know the teacher well enough or how my comments might have been received -- after all, it might have been more difficult for people to discover through my comment that Joseph Smith drank alcohol. I was quite frustrated. What would you have done, or what would you do from here, if anything?

Friday, January 14, 2005

Distinctive Doctrine & Covenants

In Gospel Doctrine two Sundays ago, the teacher asked what makes the Doctrine & Covenants different from other scriptures we have. The answers centered on the fact that the Doctrine & Covenants is not a translation, that it is revelation specifically for our day, and that it is an open book of canon -- all very fine answers.

But for me, the most distinctive thing about the Doctrine & Covenants in contrast to other scriptures is that because it is so recent, we have a pretty good close-up look at the revelation and evolution of scripture. We have many primary textual sources for the Doctrine & Covenants, unlike any other book of scripture, for which we have only copies of copies. This can give us insight into the nature and process of scriptural revelation. We get some of this in Biblical scholarship, as more manuscripts are found and compared, but it is all at a much greater distance.

And it seems to me that what we find is that scriptural revelation isn't a very tidy process. A fair number of things that we have in the Doctrine & Covenants come from letters or comments made in a conversation and recorded later on. Expansions, changes, drafts, editing, etc. all contribute to something that challenges the simplistic views of scripture I grew up with, in which God dictated the revelation word for word and the prophet just wrote it down.

The implications of this are fairly significant, I think, and give us some insight into the relationship between God and man and our own need for humility.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Alternate priesthood lines

6And the sons of Moses, according to the Holy Priesthood which he received under the hand of his father-in-law, Jethro; 7And Jethro received it under the hand of Caleb; 8And Caleb received it under the hand of Elihu; 9And Elihu under the hand of Jeremy; 10And Jeremy under the hand of Gad; 11 And Gad under the hand of Esaias; 12And Esaias received it under the hand of God. 13Esaias also lived in the days of Abraham, and was blessed of him— 14Which Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek, who received it through the lineage of his fathers, even till Noah; 15And from Noah till Enoch, through the lineage of their fathers; 16And from Enoch to Abel, who was slain by the conspiracy of his brother, who received the priesthood by the commandments of God, by the hand of his father Adam, who was the first man— 17Which priesthood continueth in the church of God in all generations, and is without beginning of days or end of years. 18And the Lord confirmed a priesthood also upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations, which priesthood also continueth and abideth forever with the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God. (D&C 84:6-18)

As the last verse indicates, the priesthood being spoken of in verses 6-17 is the Melchizedek priesthood. We learn in Section 84 (verses 23-27) that the Melchizedek priesthood was taken from the children of Israel. But it apparently continued on the earth in an alternate line. In fact, Moses did not receive it through the lineal passing of priesthood from father to son (since obviously he didn't grow up with his natural father). Interestingly, he didn't receive it from anyone of the birthright lineage. Moses, though presumably a descendant of Abraham, did not receive the Melchizedek priesthood from a descendant of Abraham. He received it from his father-in-law -- Jethro, the high priest of Midian, who also is known in the Bible as Hobab or Reuel or Raguel, meaning “friend of God.”

When Moses continued on his journey, he invited Jethro to come with him, but Jethro turned down his invitation and remained with his own people (Numbers 10:29-30). As far as I can tell from the passage in the Doctrine & Covenants about Moses’ line of authority, it is completely independent of Abraham. Esaias received it directly from God, as (presumably) Abraham did. [Thanks to Nathan for the correction.]

So what happened to the Melchizedek priesthood that Jacob and Joseph held? Was it not passed from father to son among the Israelites? What of the birthright of Joseph? Was it not something having to do with the Melchizedek priesthood? What are we to make of a completely separate group’s line of authority? Did Jethro's descendants continue the Melchizedek priesthood after it had been taken away from the children of Israel? Could there also have been another line of Melchizedek priesthood authority in, say, China, at the same time? Does this have any implications for us today? (If not, why include it in the Doctrine & Covenants?)

And if there were alternate lines of Melchizedek priesthood authority, why do we emphasize Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so much? Did God make covenants with them, but not with others to whom he directly gave the priesthood? Doesn't the Melchizedek priesthood hold all the keys of the Abrahamic covenant? Do we emphasize Abraham primarily because we happen to have records passed down to us in the Bible that figure him as a prominent figure? If we had received the records of the Midianites instead of the Israelites, would we speak of the Esaian covenant or the Raguelic covenant instead of the Abrahamic covenant? Does this influence our understanding of Israel as a chosen people or lineage?