Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Gone fishing

Wow. Where did the time go? It's been a while since I posted anything. I haven't even been able to read much online lately. But I have been reading some good stuff offline. One of my recent favorites is Most Moved Mover, a decent (though somewhat repetitive) assertion of the value of the open view of God. The repetitiveness is probably due to the fact that it's a compilation of lectures, which probably required some degree of repetition.

So, while I'm gone on my two-week vacation to Disneyworld, read the book. Talk amongst yourselves. Discuss. I'll catch up with you at the end of the month.

Unless I just decide to move to Florida...

Friday, October 15, 2004


Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19)

Last night I accompanied the youth on a temple trip to do baptisms for the dead. The temple president spoke with them briefly before we got started. He compared baptism with a naturalization ceremony for those who desire to become U.S. citizens. I immediately thought of the scripture above from Ephesians. I think it's a good analogy. He talked about how the naturalization ceremony requires that we know certain things and commit to certain things, and that we are then accepted as members of the community -- the celestial community, for baptism. (And, of course, there is the implication of necessary authority.)

As I look at the Ephesians verse, I note also that it includes both "fellowcitizens with the saints" and "of the household of God". I believe "of the household" means "part of the family". I think these are both similar and distinct concepts. We become "the seed of Christ" at baptism, but we are not sealed into the family until we have received the temple covenants, and had them sealed upon us by the Holy Spirit of promise. This is a process of progression indicated in the scriptures by various relational terms describing us as slaves or servants to God, or children, or friends.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Grace to grace

11And I, John, bear record that I beheld his glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us. 12And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace. 13And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; 14And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first. 15And I, John, bear record, and lo, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove, and sat upon him, and there came a voice out of heaven saying: This is my beloved Son. 16And I, John, bear record that he received a fulness of the glory of the Father

(D&C 93:11-16)

What did Jesus know about himself and his mission, and when did he know it? Did it take time for the realization of his role to sink in? I had always assumed that by the time of Jesus' baptism, he had a full understanding of his mission and role and his relation to the Father. But recently, as I have been reading the New Testament in German, I wonder if that is really the case.

We have the account of the Holy Ghost descending upon Jesus in all four gospels, with some slight differences that may be a little more pronounced in German. In Matthew, we read that when Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the Holy Ghost descending upon himself, with a voice declaring, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In Mark, we read that the heavens were open to Jesus, who saw the Holy Ghost descending upon himself, and the voice spoke directly to him: “Thou art my beloved Son, and I am well pleased with thee.” In Luke, “the Holy Ghost descended visibly in the form of a dove,” implying that this was visible to everyone, not just Jesus, but the voice spoke directly to him, as in Mark. In John, Jesus' baptism is not mentioned, and John the Baptist testifies that he saw the Holy Ghost descend like a dove upon Jesus and remain upon him. He doesn't mention a voice, but he states that the one who sent him to baptize with water (God) had already told him how to recognize the one who would baptize with the Holy Ghost.

So, to summarize, we have these features of the accounts:

 BaptismWho saw the sign of the Holy GhostWho heard the voice
MatthewYesJesus onlyEveryone present (ambiguous)
MarkYesJesus onlyJesus only
LukeYesEveryone present (implied)Jesus only
JohnNoJohn onlyNo one

Why should these differences be interesting? It seems to me they may give some insight into what the various gospel authors thought Jesus' understanding of himself was at the time of his baptism, as well as the kind of witness that was given to the people around.

For example, only in the account of Luke do we have the implication that the sign of the Holy Ghost was public. The voice from heaven may have been more public, but is not mentioned in John (instead, John had a private prior revelation) and was directed to Jesus in two of the other three accounts.

This makes me think that the sign of the Holy Ghost and the voice from heaven were signs intended primarily for Jesus, giving him a greater understanding of his role and mission. It was followed immediately (according to the synoptic gospels) by his forty days in the wilderness, in which he is tempted with “if thou art the Son of God...” -- perhaps especially targeted at a Jesus just coming to terms with a fuller understanding of his role and mission.

And even then, I wonder if it took some time for it to sink in. In Matthew, John preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” After his forty days in the wilderness, Jesus heard that John had been imprisoned, and he returned to Galilee, perhaps fearing that the same might happen to him. He began preaching the same message as John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It seems that early on, he is in a similar role as John was. Luke has him, shortly thereafter, reading in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me... this day is this scripture fulfilled.” It seems that he may have been coming to realize the full import of what God had revealed to him since his baptism.

I think there are good reasons why modern revelation includes the teaching that Jesus “received not of the fulness at first.” Primarily, it is to allow us to identify more fully with him, as he states further in D&C 93:19-20:

19I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness. 20For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.

We should not be discouraged that we do not receive full understanding in short order. Jesus himself also needed to proceed bit by bit until he had a full understanding.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Jacques Derrida dead at 74

This isn't exactly a Mormon-specific topic, but since Derrida comes up frequently in conversations on LDS-PHIL, I thought it would be interesting to many in the Bloggernacle. He died today, at age 74, of pancreatic cancer.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Blog updates

After some prodding, I've installed Ebenezer Orthodoxy's Blogger Comment Hack and Recent Comments Hack. I've also updated the template a little bit to tighten up the sidebar. The Blog Club seems to have gone the way of the dodo, so I've removed it. I plan to update my Bloggernacle links any day now... really...

Thursday, October 07, 2004

New blog: By Study and Also By Faith

A shout-out to new Bloggernacker Tyro, who has started up By Study and Also By Faith. Tyro has been an active participant on the forums for some time. Welcome to the Bloggernacle, Tyro!

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

New book on the JST

Scott Faulring, Kent Jackson, and Robert Matthews have edited a new book on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible: Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts. From the description on the site I linked to:

This volume – the work of a lifetime – brings together all the Joseph Smith Translation manuscripts in a remarkable and useful way. Now, for the first time, readers can take a careful look at the complete text, along with photos of several actual manuscript pages. The book contains a typographic transcription of all the original manuscripts, unedited and preserved exactly as dictated by the prophet Joseph and recorded by his scribes. In addition, this volume features essays on the background, doctrinal contributions, and editorial procedures involved in the Joseph Smith Translation, as well as the history of the manuscripts since Joseph Smith’s day.

The page I linked to above also includes a transcript of an interview with two of the editors, who describe the process of getting access to, and preserving, the original manuscripts, which belong to the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS Church).

It sounds like an excellent project, and they reportedly plan to release a CD next year with digital images of the original manuscripts.

UPDATE: The book, which was originally estimated to be available toward the end of the year, is now available.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Bottom-up, again

No, this is not a post about drinking games.

Back in April, I asked about whether a bottom-up approach to things in the Church fits with our model of revelation. My recent reading has led me to consider this topic again.

I'm reading The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis, and enjoying it quite a bit. One of the principles discussed is Budgeting for Outcomes, or, in other words, determining what the desired results are (and what their priorities are), what the available budget is, and then allocating budget toward achieving those results. The authors emphasize that the desired results are not those desired by the governor or political parties, but by the public at large.

So I started to wonder to what extent we can and should take this kind of approach in the context of Church government. I asked my wife, who is on the ward activities committee, if the committee has a good sense of what the ward members want from ward activities. She answered, “No, but we have a good idea of what the bishopric wants.” Apparently, the bishopric has given fairly specific direction about what ward activities should accomplish and how they should do so (as well as what not to do).

Given our model of revelatory stewardship, I think we have to have room for this kind of top-down direction to some extent. But if the ward members aren't getting what they want from ward activities, they simply won't come. Then, no matter how inspired the bishopric's counsel is, very few people will benefit from it. So I thought perhaps the activities committee could come up with a survey of ward members, asking them what they wanted out of ward activities. The question is, even given decent feedback, how is this best meshed with the bishopric's stewardship?

It seems to me that this approach is modeled at the highest levels of the Church, who have done surveys for many years. In fact, the Church has an official online survey website at (apparently an invitation “coupon” is required to register for the site). The Welfare Plan was developed after the Church conducted a survey of members. The changes to the temple ceremony in 1990 may have been influenced by the results of a 1988 survey that included questions about the temple. More recently, in May, 2001, the Church surveyed women members about their experience in the Church.

The Church seems to be setting an example of “studying it out in your mind” as an essential part of the revelatory process. Can we effectively do the same at the local level?

And, of course, this applies to far more than the activities committee. One of the biggest struggles we had in our “Perfect the Saints” priesthood committee was figuring out what we were supposed to do. While I thought we came up with some pretty decent ideas, and had some direction from the bishopric, I think we could have been much more effective if we had been able to know from ward members how they felt we could best help them. And the same goes for Relief Society (imagine Enrichment nights based on a survey of what sisters want Enrichment nights to be like!), youth organizations, and so forth.

So don't delay; find out how you can be more effective by getting your organization to do a survey of your ward (or stake) members. Oh, and let me know how it goes...

Friday, September 24, 2004

As far as it is translated

Adam Greenwood started an interesting discussion over at Times & Seasons about how different approaches to “close reading” of the scriptures affect the conclusions we may reach from our reading. This brought up the question whether close reading is helpful, especially given the limitations of language to express revelation.

On that thread, I commented:

Perhaps the great value in close reading is not so much what we conclude, but the process of questioning, exploring, learning, pondering, and asking God for further light and knowledge. In the meantime, we can make tentative conclusions, as long as we recognize that we may be wrong.

Last night, I did some reading in the scriptures in German. I had to concentrate more than I do when reading in English (which I think is a value in itself). I found that as I read with concentration and focus, certain points of the text struck me differently than they do in English, and I learned some new things. I'm sure those of you who know multiple languages have had similar experiences. I think this is an excellent illustration of the principle I outlined above.

We don't claim that the Church's translation of the Doctrine & Covenants into German is divinely inspired. Yet a close reading of the German text may influence me to understand the scriptures differently than the English text does. I don't think this is because one is necessarily more “correct” than the other; I think it's just the natural consequence of different languages, with all the associated history, connotations, linguistic connections, and so forth.

We can ask whether the German text is faithful to the English, but that breaks down at a certain point. As Clark noted in his post on Umberto Eco on translation, being overly “faithful” to the source text may be a negative thing. Inevitably, what is said in German, no matter how much effort is made to express the same ideas as the English text, will be different. And I think this is a very positive thing, not a negative one.

The idea of an open canon applies as much on the level of a verse as it does on the level of an entire book. There are a couple of quotes on this subject that I like very much, from Dallin H. Oaks' article, Scripture Reading and Revelation:

Our belief in an open canon also includes private revelations to individual seekers of the meaning of existing scriptures. Such revelations are necessary because, as Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve observed, “Each pronouncement in the holy scriptures ... is so written as to reveal little or much, depending on the spiritual capacity of the student” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985, p. 71)...

The Lord promised Nephi: “Unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have” (2 Ne. 28:30; see also Matt. 13:12). That verse capsulizes the Latter-day Saint belief in the importance of continuing revelation as we read and interpret the scriptures. Even if there were no additional revelations to be added to the published canon, an open canon would still be an essential part of our belief and practice in scripture reading...

The idea that scripture reading can lead to inspiration and revelation opens the door to the truth that a scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today. Even more, scripture reading may also lead to current revelation on whatever else the Lord wishes to communicate to the reader at that time. We do not overstate the point when we say that the scriptures can be a Urim and Thummim to assist each of us to receive personal revelation.

The problem with not valuing close reading is that we close off a great avenue for further revelation and understanding. When we read closely, we recognize that we don't have all the answers, and we begin to ask questions of the scriptures, and to allow them to raise questions for us. Different translations (such as the JST, modern Bible translations into English or any other language, etc.) can encourage this process, not necessarily because they necessarily bring us to more correct conclusions of themselves, but because they get us asking questions.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Model of prophetic authority

What good are prophets if they're not infallible? This is a question I have been asked many times, and a variant of this question has come up on Times & Seasons.

Nate has challenged John H.: “The trick is to come up with some theory that doesn’t reduce the prophets to well meaning old men; some theory that still concedes to them some meaningful special access to the divine.” And his definition of “meaningful special access” of prophetic authority has these three points: “(1) we are given substantive counsel; (2) that we should follow; (3) that differs from our own substantive views.”

It seems to me that such a model is actually quite simple, though I'm not sure “special access to the divine” is quite the right phrase. I'd like to lay out some groundwork underlying my model, then propose my model of prophetic authority.

The prophets are the only ones who can receive revelation for the whole Church. While (as in an example given in the comments on the T&S thread) Church members can receive exactly the same revelations, their revelations are not for the Church as a whole. Perhaps we can call this “revelatory scope.” This is strongly emphasized by the Brethren, and, as far as I can tell, it is the only difference between revelations of prophets, seers, and revelators and the general membership of the Church. Many prophets (especially President Hinckley) have taught that they receive revelation in the same way the rest of us do, and that even the rarer, more unusual manifestations are available to every one of us as we are prepared to receive them.

This brings up the question of preparation. It seems to me that we tend to describe the men called as prophets, seers, and revelators as especially righteous. While it is likely generally the case that these men are very righteous, I'm not sure that we can say that they are necessarily the most prepared of anyone in the Church to receive revelation. There may very well be many other people in the Church who are better prepared to receive revelation, but may not have the other qualities that led to the calling of the Brethren to their positions. But it does seem that, for the most part, the Brethren must have a minimum of preparation to receive divine guidance for their duties. Someone unprepared to receive revelation is not a likely candidate for such a high position of responsibility. (That said, it seems probable that some of them may struggle with this more than others. For example, see some of the accounts of Heber J. Grant's call to become a stake president and, later, an apostle.)

From the foregoing, then, it seems that we have a couple of items: 1. The revelatory scope of prophets, seers, and revelators is greater than that of the general membership. 2. Prophets, seers, and revelators are generally very righteous men, who qualify to receive revelation. This does not make them infallible, however. In fact, they have specifically denied any claim of infallibility.

A third item (in connection with revelatory scope) is that the pronouncements of unified prophets, seers, and revelators can be binding on the Church. Whether something is binding on the Church is not the same thing as whether it is correct, however. A binding pronouncement is one that, if violated, results in consequences such as loss of a temple recommend or excommunication from the Church. For example: the Word of Wisdom (including a prohibition on wine) is binding on the Church, even though the Lord drank wine and has stated his intention to do so again with his prophets. The rule is binding on the Church, even if it may not be correct in all its particulars.

I recognize that my example above is one of practice, rather than doctrine. However, the decanonization of the Lectures on Faith seems to indicate that the same principle applies to doctrinally binding statements. The Lectures on Faith, as part of the Doctrine & Covenants, were doctrinally binding on the Church, as are all the standard works. And our acknowledgment of possible errors in the Bible and the Book of Mormon does not prevent those from being doctrinally binding on the Church.

Given this groundwork, I would propose the following model of prophetic authority:

Sometimes the prophets receive true revelation that I should follow that differs from my substantive views: I am not infallible. And sometimes I receive true revelation that leads me to differ with the substantive views of the prophets: they are not infallible.

Messy, huh? Yes, but the order comes in the authority: in what is applicable to and binding on the Church as a whole. What this means, unfortunately, is that sometimes we have to make hard decisions: are we confident enough in our own revelation (and is it substantive enough) to continue to differ with the prophets, seers, and revelators, or do we defer to their authority because we value order? We are just as fallible as they are.

What good are prophets if they're not infallible? I would reply with similar questions: What good are teachers if they're not infallible? What good is peer review in the academic world if it is not infallible? What good are the scriptures if they're not infallible? Here's the good: They challenge us; they teach us; they remind us; they prompt us to seek further, not to be satisfied with where we are; they prod us Godward.

And they do this for the community as a whole, which is a value in itself. Mormonism is strongly focused on community. We are not, despite the high value we place on agency, a religion that is all about our individual relationship with God. Mormonism is a religion that is all about our communal relationship with God and each other. That is why questions are raised about the "Mormonness" of someone who questions the prophets -- because we place a very high emphasis on community.

The trick, as Nate might put it, is in finding the balance between the community and the individual, between prophetic authority and personal revelation, between continuity of doctrine and continuing revelation.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Oath and covenant

D&C 84:33-42 is often called “the oath and covenant of the priesthood.” But I don't think it is. It makes reference to the oath and covenant, and gives a description of the blessings associated with them, but I do not think they are contained in this section. Rather, I think they are administered in the temple. I think this section points us in that direction. Let's take a close look at portions of the section:

4Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation. 5For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord, and a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house. 6And the sons of Moses, according to the Holy Priesthood which he received under the hand of his father-in-law, Jethro;

This is followed by Moses' line of authority (which itself is interesting enough for another post). But the key here is the “And the sons of Moses” beginning verse 6. The whole discussion that follows about the descent of the priesthood and the different orders of the priesthood are all parenthetical, up to verse 31, where we pick up again:

31Therefore, as I said concerning the sons of Moses—for the sons of Moses and also the sons of Aaron shall offer an acceptable offering and sacrifice in the house of the Lord, which house shall be built unto the Lord in this generation, upon the consecrated spot as I have appointed— 32And the sons of Moses and of Aaron shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, upon Mount Zion in the Lord's house, whose sons are ye; and also many whom I have called and sent forth to build up my church.

Note again that this is talking about the temple. The temple is where the keys of the priesthood are administered, and where the fulness of the priesthood may be obtained. The next verses parallel aspects of the temple endowment. While I will not go into great detail, I hope that my allusions to the endowment ceremony will be familiar to those who have been through the temple.

33For whoso is faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods of which I have spoken, and the magnifying their calling, are sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies.

Two things to note about verse 33: obtaining the “two priesthoods:” the endowment ceremony is divided into Aaronic and Melchizedek portions. Brigham Young considered splitting up the temple ceremony so that one could receive the Aaronic portion first, and then, after a time of proving, prepare to receive the Melchizedek portion:

The reason of this is that when we give the brethren their endowments, we are obliged to confer upon them the Melchizedek Priesthood; but I expect to see the day when we shall be so situated that we can say to a company of brethren you can go and receive the ordinances pertaining to the Aaronic order of Priesthood, and then you can go into the world and preach the Gospel, or do something that will prove whether you will honor that Priesthood before you receive more. Now we pass them through the ordinances of both Priesthoods in one day, but this is not as it should be and would if we had a Temple wherein to administer these ordinances. But this is all right at present; we should not be satisfied in any other way, and consequently we do according to the circumstances we are placed in.

(Journal of Discourses, 10:309)

The second thing to note is that those who receive these priesthoods are “sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies.” This may have reference to the resurrection of the just, which is figured in the veil ceremony in the temple. Continuing with D&C 84:

34They become the sons of Moses and of Aaron and the seed of Abraham, and the church and kingdom, and the elect of God.

This deals with the progressions of priesthood: Aaron (Aaronic priesthood), Moses (Melchizedek priesthood), and Abraham (Patriarchal priesthood). Becoming the seed of these men occurs through the Abrahamic covenant administered in the temple, and the sealing into the Patriarchal Order.

35And also all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord; 36For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me; 37And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father; 38And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father's kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.

This also follows the pattern of the endowment in two ways: first, the way the gospel and the keys are administered from Father to Son to servants to us; second, the progression of names and references through the endowment. Receiving the Father's kingdom is symbolized by entrance into the celestial room.

39And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood.

Where are oaths and covenants belonging to the priesthood administered? In the temple. There are many references in the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets to this effect. The fulness of the priesthood can only be obtained by oath in the temple.

40Therefore, all those who receive the priesthood, receive this oath and covenant of my Father, which he cannot break, neither can it be moved. 41But whoso breaketh this covenant after he hath received it, and altogether turneth therefrom, shall not have forgiveness of sins in this world nor in the world to come.

All covenants we make with God are conditional, and we can repent if we break those covenants -- except for the “unconditional” covenant that is the culminating ordinance of the temple: the sealing up unto eternal life. This is not the same as eternal marriage, though eternal marriage is a prerequisite. This is the sealing up that we are informed early in the endowment may be ours if we are faithful to our covenants. It is the sealing up that accompanies the receipt of the fulness of the priesthood as husband and wife: the second anointings. With reference to this, D&C 132 further explains (emphasis mine):

27The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood, and assent unto my death, after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant, saith the Lord God; and he that abideth not this law can in nowise enter into my glory, but shall be damned, saith the Lord.

After we have received the fulness of the new and everlasting covenant of the priesthood, if we turn from it altogether, we have committed the unpardonable sin.

So, to sum up: I have tried to show that the oath and covenant of the priesthood is not contained in Doctrine & Covenants 84; rather, it is referred to there, and administered in the temple. It is there that the keys of the priesthood are administered; it is there that we become the seed of Aaron, Moses, and Abraham; it is there that we take upon ourselves the names of the Son and the Father; it is there that we enter into the Patriarchal Order and the fulness of the priesthood.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The gospel of risk

I like to preach the gospel of risk. Not foolish risk, mind you, but simply the recognition of the adage, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I believe the teachings of the scriptures and the Church advocate thoughtful risk-taking, and condemn an attitude of fear that drives the “better safe than sorry” approach. For example:

  • We hear that, in the pre-mortal world, we were offered a sort of “risk-free” plan by Lucifer, in contrast to the plan put forth by Father, which involved real risk. But we recognized that, without taking the risk, we could not develop to become like our Parents.
  • We honor Eve for her wisdom in choosing to partake of the forbidden fruit. She understood that it was better to pass through sorrow, to risk pain from wrong choices, than to stagnate in eternal Paradise.
  • We commend those who convert to the Church despite the resistance of family and friends, who are disowned or whose lives are even threatened. We admire their willingness to risk for the gospel.
  • We have Jesus' parable of the talents, in which the servant who feared hid his talent, unwilling to risk. He was condemned for this unwillingness, and his talent given to the one who had risked, and gained, the most.

I could go on listing numerous examples from the scriptures and from Church teachings to support this point. But these examples include foundational teachings that underlie so much of Mormonism that I don't think it's necessary. It seems abundantly clear to me that we are supposed to have the faith to take risks. Indeed, it seems that risk is an inherent aspect of faith. And God has provided us with a means to overcome the evils and pains that may result from this risk: atonement. His desire for us to grow, even when it means that we risk being wrong and foolish and wicked, is so great that he was willing to suffer more than we can describe. By being unwilling to take thoughtful risks, we spurn his gift.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Dutiful happiness

We've all heard the stories of people who approach a member of the Church saying something like, “You're always so happy. Why is that? I want to have what you have.” -- a golden opportunity to share the gospel.

Well, that's never happened to me. I consider myself a pretty happy person; my life is going fairly well, I generally enjoy my ward and my job and love my family. I am excited by many aspects of the gospel and love to study and ponder it. I'm relatively outgoing. And I think much of that has roots in the Church and the gospel.

But I'm not sure I'm significantly happier than many of my (non-Mormon) neighbors seem to be. Should I be? After all, the scriptures instruct us to “be of good cheer” and to “lift up your hearts and rejoice.” Is this intended to be an inward rejoicing and cheer, or something the world is to see and desire? Do I have a duty to be happier?

On a related note, to what extent is the gospel intended to make us happier in this life? Does it have a more significant effect on our happiness than, say, sufficient food, a roof over our heads, adequate transportation, a family who loves us, a fulfilling job, enjoyable hobbies, etc.? Do you think that you are happier than your neighbors because of the gospel?

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Liberating the Gospels

I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.

(2 Nephi 25:5)

Our church meetings switched from the 11:00 schedule to the 9:00 schedule this year. While, for practical reasons (I have five small boys), I prefer the 9:00 start time, there is one aspect of starting at 9:00 that I don't like: I miss the Sunday morning radio broadcast of the sermon from St. Olaf College, and pastor Bruce Benson's Sing For Joy, a program of sacred choral music.

One thing these two radio programs have in common is that they are centered around the Lutheran liturgical year. Though I have never experienced a liturgical year in a church, it is an area where I feel holy envy. Perhaps this is due in part to the influence of my mother, who was raised Lutheran, and who instilled in her children a love of certain liturgical ritual, such as the Advent season.

The liturgical calendar offers a structure for spiritual reflection, and returning to the same themes and scriptural readings again and again offers the opportunity to remember that we can learn much more than a single thing from a given scriptural passage. In addition, I think the liturgy can have a real unifying effect -- it can bring a community of diverse views together.

And so I really enjoyed Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, by Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong is well-known for his very liberal views on just about every theological issue, from sexuality to gender issues to historicity, resurrection, exclusivity of Christianity, and so forth. While I do not share many of his conclusions, I find his writing very thought-provoking.

The thesis of Liberating the Gospels is that the four New Testament gospels are structured around the Jewish liturgical year. Spong credits his associate, Michael Goulder, for the ideas that form the basis of the book, and describes the book as “my attempt to make accessible to the general public the insights of Michael Goulder.” The bulk of the book consists of examples from the gospels and the Old Testament parallels connected with the Jewish liturgical year.

There were prescribed readings throughout the Jewish year, with its various feasts and holy days (such as Passover). It was in the context of these prescribed readings that Jesus

went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

(Luke 4:16-21)

This scripture illustrates what Spong claims the gospel writers were trying to do: to show how the Jewish liturgy was fulfilled in Jesus. They wrote their accounts to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, so that stories of Jesus would parallel the Old Testament accounts already used in the synagogues.

Spong provides many convincing examples of how the structure of the gospels reflects the Jewish liturgical year. Different gospels started at different points of the year, and covered different portions of it. He argues that later gospels built on what was provided by earlier ones to fill in the gaps or to provide a different emphasis to a particular account (which is why we may find the same account in different places in two or three different gospels). (On a more technical note, he rejects the “Q” hypothesis, and argues that this liturgical hypothesis obviates the need for a “Q” document.) As with nearly all parallelistic studies, some of the parallels may be a stretch, but for the most part, I found them very reasonable. More importantly, I found them very enlightening, providing connections back to Jewish stories that add richness and layers of meaning to both Old and New Testament accounts.

Spong tends to conclude that this means most of the gospel accounts are not historical -- that they were constructed as a midrashic commentary on the Jewish liturgy to place Jesus' mission in the context of Jewish worship. While there are a few instances where such an interpretation may be warranted, for the most part, I don't see why the accounts couldn't be historical, but recounted and structured in such a way as to fit with the Jewish liturgical year.

I highly recommend this book, not so much for Spong's conclusions about Biblical historicity (though I think he has some good points in his discussion about Biblical fundamentalism) as for a really eye-opening new way to read the scriptures.

And, to tie this back into the Book of Mormon quote that started this post: Some studies of the Book of Mormon have noted that Nephi's account of his family's journey is constructed in terms of the Exodus. There are other Book of Mormon stories that seem to parallel Old Testament accounts. Spong argues that we cannot truly understand the gospels for what they are unless we read them through Jewish eyes. Given Nephi's statement and his own use of Old Testament accounts as a structural framework for his own writings, it seems that the same may be true for the Book of Mormon.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

GrasshopperMuse resurrected

My personal blog, GrasshopperMuse, is active again. Check out the first of a new feature: game reviews.

Church activity

There has been some discussion in the Bloggernacle about orthopraxy and orthodoxy, with some claiming that right practice is more important in the Church than is right belief, and some claiming the opposite. I ran across some interesting facts in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, in the entry titled “Activity in the Church” that seem relevant:

When Latter-day Saints speak of being "active in the Church," they have reference to observing a full religious lifestyle of attendance, devotion, service, and learning. As one measure of their rate of activity, 48 percent of adult Latter-day Saints in the United States in 1989 reported that they attended church services weekly, compared to 38 percent of adult members in other denominations.

As far as I know, this figure hasn't changed much since 1989. The last figure I recall hearing was either 45% or 50%. Outside the United States, that measure of activity tends to be lower. I've heard that in South America it ranges around 25%; during my mission in Italy I would estimate it at around 30% or so.

General surveys show that even though private religious practice is strongly encouraged by the Church, only 67 percent of active adult Latter-day Saints pray daily, compared to 83 percent in other denominations; and 41 percent reported reading the scriptures daily or several times a week, compared to 52 percent in other denominations (Research Division; cf. National Opinion Research Center; Princeton Religion Research Center).

Note that this paragraph is comparing active Latter-day Saints with active members of other denominations. These are private practices, rather than public ones, which could make for some interesting speculation about how we, as a church, differ in our approach to private vs. public practices.

Anecdotally, I would guess that maybe half of “active” Latter-day Saints are full tithe payers, and fewer are temple recommend holders. So, out of a Church membership of 11 million people, I would guess that, once we count out all the baptized children who are not old enough for a temple recommend yet, as well as single sisters who are typically not encouraged to get a temple recommend until marriage or mission, there are perhaps 500,000 temple recommend holders.

My guess is that most of the active participants in the Bloggernacle fall into this category, and I think this affects our perception of the question of whether orthodoxy or orthopraxy is more important in the Church. The statistics on Church activity are low enough that I'm sure general Church leaders are more concerned about that than about orthodoxy outside of very basic doctrines. However, among members who are already highly active in the Church, orthodoxy may rise in importance. This might help explain why John H.'s experience with the (active) members of the Church may be different from the emphasis of the Brethren.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Sick, sick, sick

I'm finally on the mend after two weeks of the worst sinus infection I've ever had. Not only did it wipe me out physically, but made it difficult to think very clearly, too. The physical and the mental are closely tied. With my improving health, I'll be back to regular blogging soon.

Monday, August 09, 2004

As Sisters In Zion

Our congregational rest hymn in sacrament meeting yesterday was As Sisters In Zion. I was up front, interpreting for a Deaf member, so I got a great view of the congregation. Quite a few people, especially men, were having really hard time keeping a straight face. (This included the bishopric, who seemed to be surprised that we were singing it for a rest hymn.)

It made me wonder whether the women feel as awkward singing hymns that use exclusively male language.

American vs. Mormon religious identity

I just finished reading Kathleen Flake's The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle. It is an excellent, insightful discussion of the importance of the Reed Smoot hearings for the development of the limits of American religious pluralism, as well as the redefinition of Mormon identity within those limits. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the clear shift from 19th- to 20th-century Mormonism.

I would sum up Flake's argument this way: The real threat of 19th-century Mormonism was not polgyamy per se; polygamy was only the prime indicator of a rival governmental system (the Kingdom of God) set above the government of the nation. The resolution of this threat was the capitulation of Mormonism, which subordinated itself to the U.S. government in order to preserve its existence. The vehicle for this change was the 1903-1907 Reed Smoot hearings. Flake persuasively argues that the LDS Church, forced to give up the Kingdom and its marriage system, had to redefine itself, and did so by emphasizing Joseph Smith's First Vision and pre-Nauvoo Mormonism.

(Of course, the Church never distanced itself from Nauvoo Mormonism to the extent that the RLDS (now Community of Christ) did; I think the perpetuation of the temple ceremonies would have made such a significant shift impossible.)

Flake records that President Joseph F. Smith (sans plural wives) took a group of Church leaders back east and raised the obelisk monument to Joseph Smith at his birthplace of Sharon, Vermont. According to Flake, this was the first Church historical monument outside Utah. The group then followed some of the trail of Church history. Flake notes that while the group detoured somewhat to take in Kirtland-era sites, they did not visit any post-Kirtland sites. She sees this as an indication of the de-emphasis of Nauvoo Mormonism. I wonder, having just noticed some discussion of the Church's return to Nauvoo in the Bloggernacle (see also here), whether this return has theological significance. It doesn't seem so, given President Hinckley's apparent desire to emphasize commonalities with other Christian denominations, but I wonder...

Has Mormonism abandoned the establishment of the Kingdom of God for good, or is it just in abeyance, waiting for the time to be ripe?

Friday, August 06, 2004


The Mormon grapevine is alive and well. I have heard a rumor that a new BYU campus is being started in Keokuk, Iowa, not far from Nauvoo. BYU has a Semester at Nauvoo program at the Joseph Smith Academy, but my rumor source says that construction has already started on a very large campus -- large enough for a full-size university.

Take it for what it's worth, as it is just a rumor. But if it turns out to be true, remember you saw it here first.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Harder to repent?

We believe in repentance in the spirit world, but, so as not to give people motivation to procrastinate their repentance, we teach that it's a lot harder to repent there than it is here. So you'd better take advantage of the easier opportunity now.

On the other hand, I often hear sentiments to the effect of “We'll be so different in the next life, so we won't struggle so much with envy or all the things that our fallen condition make so hard for us.”

So, which is it? Easier or harder to change now? Is there going to be a miraculous change wrought upon us that will erase our weakness, or are we going to have to keep working on our character, even after this life?

Twenty points for guessing which way I lean. ;-)

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Meaning of death?

Well, since we have the meaning of life nailed down, let's talk about the meaning of death.

In the Western world, death was, until recently (and still is in the developing world) a very common thing for people to experience -- not themselves, but the death of loved ones. Many pioneers lost children, spouses, siblings -- and far more frequently than I or most of the people I know do today.

I wonder how this affects the meaning of death for us. Is it more feared when experienced more frequently, or less? Does one become more callous toward it when experienced more frequently, or more sensitive to it? Does it have a different moral standing; for example, is capital punishment viewed differently when death is more prevalent than when it is less prevalent? War? Other killing (cf. Nephi and Laban, or Old Testament accounts)? Is there a difference in whether death is regarded as “natural?”

I suspect that there are differences between the meaning of death for me and its meaning for my pioneer ancestors, and I wonder how this affects our views on the restoration of the gospel.

Mormonism and America

This past weekend, we took a trip to Nauvoo for a “mini family reunion.” While we weren't able to spend a lot of time in Nauvoo itself, there were a few things that made a significant impression on me.

The Nauvoo temple is, by far, my favorite temple. I love the rich architectural symbolism and wish it were more prevalent in the newer temples. The effort and craftsmanship that went into the rebuilding is remarkable. One interesting tidbit:

The murals in the ordinance rooms are strikingly North American in character. Animals include deer, elk, beavers, cougars, and bison. I was reminded of Joseph Smith's teaching that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. However global the Church may be today, it certainly started out very America-centered, and retains much of that America-centeredness. As the City of Joseph pageant pointed out, we believe that America is a chosen land.

This explicit North America-centeredness (the New Jerusalem to be built on the American continent) seems to me to raise some questions with regard to the limited Mesoamerican interpretation of the location of Book of Mormon events. I'm not sure these ideas are mutually exclusive, but there may be some conflicts, at least with historic interpretations of events.

As noted in the many Bloggernacle discussions of Zelph (here, here, and here), Joseph Smith apparently believed that the Book of Mormon events took place on the North American continent.

It appears that Joseph was equally willing to make connections to Biblical events, as he located the Garden of Eden and the places where Adam offered sacrifices in Missouri, at and near Adam-Ondi-Ahman. This is also where Doctrine & Covenants 116 indicates Adam will return.

While the Mesoamerican placement of the Book of Mormon reduces the central place of North America in Mormonism, the Doctrine & Covenants and other teachings of Joseph Smith broaden it. Even apart from its American “character” in terms of thematic emphasis, Mormonism is clearly an American religion.

Friday, July 23, 2004

More on Dennett on Freedom

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had recently finished reading Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves. The philosophy blog “Papers on Agency and Related Issues” has a collection of papers given at an APA symposium on Dennett's book, including critiques of Dennett and his response.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Good from evil

In Dialogue 36:3, Janice Allred argues that punishment is evil (and therefore the scriptures attributing punishment to God are incorrect). She discusses common defenses of punishment:

Defenses of punishment argue that although inflicting pain is generally wrong, punishment serves a higher purpose which justifies this infliction of pain. This argument is a form of the argument that the end justifies the means. Is it possible to do something good by doing evil? Do not the means determine the end? Can evil be overcome by evil? If defenders of punishment maintain that the good ends accomplished by punishment can be accomplished in no other way, they are defending a view of reality which holds that evil is necessary to bring about good.

(Dialogue 36:3, p. 14)

Setting aside the issue of punishment itself, I've been thinking about this question: Is it possible to do something good by doing evil? Some of the classic scenarios may call this into question; e.g., do you lie to the Gestapo about hiding Jews in your attic? If lying is unequivocally evil, then it seems that we would say that we can bring about good (saving a life) by doing evil (lying).

And Allred herself actually gives an example just three pages later (p. 17):

We act from desire. Our desire seems good to us. Sometimes a person needs to sin in order to manifest desire that is not good -- in order to learn, to have the possibility of repentance. Only the agent can decide what he should do, which is not to say that whatever he chooses is good or right, but it may be necessary for his growth.

I think there are two things at work here. First, there is the question of whether something evil (sinning) can bring about good (learning and repentance). But I think these examples may also challenge our views of whether something is good or evil. Going back to the classic example of lying to the Gestapo, sometimes I think this example leads us to say that lying is not unequivocally evil, but that in certain situations is actually good.

If this is correct, then it seems that to some extent, “a view of reality which holds that evil is necessary to bring about good” seems very defensible. These situations lead me to believe that sometimes the ends do justify the means.

Those who share Allred's view may not agree that the ends justify the means, even in this kind of scenario. But it seems to me that the alternative is to say that evil can bring about good (even if the evil is not justified by the good end).

And so, in the end, it seems very reasonable to me to say that something we might generally (or even universally) consider evil may be either justified by, or even necessary for, good ends. (And, if necessary, the question of justification seems moot.)

And so it does not seem unreasonable to me that we should be able to accept the attribution of punishment to God.

Friday, July 16, 2004

The arm of flesh

O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. (2 Nephi 4:34)

What is “the arm of flesh?” I have often heard people equate it with human reasoning. But in the context of most of the scriptures decrying the arm of flesh, it seems more closely aligned with depending on someone else rather than on God. For example (emphasis mine):

Thus saith the LORD; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the LORD. (Jeremiah 17:5)

But how far does this extend? Surely not to those whom God has appointed as our leaders, right? I mean, if God has chosen them, surely we can trust them? Not according to JST Mark 9:40-48. Italics represent material that is added to or changed from the KJV:

[Editor's comment: Cutting off an offending hand or foot is compared to eliminating associations which may lead one astray. (compare Mark 9: 43-48)]

40 Therefore, if thy hand offend thee, cut it off; or if thy brother offend thee and confess not and forsake not, he shall be cut off. It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands, to go into hell.

41 For it is better for thee to enter into life without thy brother, than for thee and thy brother to be cast into hell; into the fire that never shall be quenched, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

42 And again, if thy foot offend thee, cut it off; for he that is thy standard, by whom thou walkest, if he become a transgressor, he shall be cut off.

43 It is better for thee, to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell; into the fire that never shall be quenched.

44 Therefore, let every man stand or fall, by himself, and not for another; or not trusting another.

45 Seek unto my Father, and it shall be done in that very moment what ye shall ask, if ye ask in faith, believing that ye shall receive.

46 And if thine eye which seeth for thee, him that is appointed to watch over thee to show thee light, become a transgressor and offend thee, pluck him out.

47 It is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God, with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.

48 For it is better that thyself should be saved, than to be cast into hell with thy brother, where their worm dieth not, and where the fire is not quenched.

This is a fascinating reworking of this passage that can be difficult to understand literally. And it is especially interesting that these verses caution against undue dependence upon those who are “appointed to watch over” us and those who are our standards. Strong language, spoken to the Twelve, who had already separated themselves from the Jewish leadership of the time.

This emphasizes the fallibilism inherent in Mormonism -- a fallibilism that many critics, as well as many members of the Church, do not acknowledge. And this isn't a trivial fallibilism, either; this is a fallibilism that has, potentially, very serious spiritual consequences: the danger of hell fire.

On the other hand, we do have those who are “appointed to ... show [us] light,” and have an obligation to “give heed” to their words (cf. D&C 21:4-5). How do we reconcile these things? Nephi instructs us (emphasis mine):

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost. (2 Nephi 28:31)

Or, as J. Reuben Clark explained in his excellent talk, When Are the Writings and Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?:

The question is, how shall we know when the things they have spoken were said as they were “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”? I have given some thought to this question, and the answer thereto, so far as I can determine, is: We can tell when the speakers are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” only when we, ourselves, are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.

In the introduction to the Doctrine & Covenants (D&C 1), the Lord explains some of the purposes of the Restoration. In verses 19-20, we read:

The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world; (D&C 1:19-20)

I believe this is made possible by the exercise of the gift of the Holy Ghost, which derives from the restored Melchizedek Priesthood. In this way, we can “let every man stand or fall, by himself, and not for another.”

Okay, break's over...

After a long hiatus, I'm back to blogging. I've updated my sidebar with new Bloggernacle links and an updated RPT Blog Club list. I've got a bunch of half-finished draft posts, so hopefully things will be back to normal -- well, as normal as I get, anyway...

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Not so omnipotent?

With all the discussion about war and peace that's going on lately, I turned to Doctrine & Covenants 98 to review its teachings on the subject. I was struck by verse 28:

And now, verily I say unto you, if that enemy shall escape my vengeance, that he be not brought into judgment before me, then ye shall see to it that ye warn him in my name, that he come no more upon you...

This suggests the possibility that someone could actually (for a time, at least) escape God's intended consequences. This seems awfully close to an admission by God that he is not omnipotent, even considering the logical redefinitions of “omnipotent” to take into account logical impossibility, God's character, free will, etc. This is an actual lack of power, not just a definitional one, as far as I can tell. Or is there another way to interpret this scripture that preserves God's omnipotence?

Participatory atonement

Thanks to Parablemania for the link to an interesting paper on models of atonement (PDF), arguing for the value of a participatory model. This is the kind of model I favor, as should be evident from my earlier post on Atonement analogies.

Restoration timeframe

One of the questions I have been asked by those learning about the Church is, “Why did God wait so long to restore the Church after the ‘primitive church’ was lost?” And the “standard” answer is that God underwent a long period of preparatory work, including the Reformation and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion, before restoring the Church. This made it possible to ensure that this would be the dispensation in which the kingdom could be established that would never be destroyed.

However, in looking back at the history of the Church, especially the persecution of the early Saints, it seems that the environment wasn't as ideal as the standard answer makes it appear. And I strongly suspect that there was more that Joseph Smith could have done if he had lived longer; I'm not sure he accomplished everything he set out to do.

This makes me wonder: could God have waited to restore the Church until today? There seems to be a greater tolerance for varying religious views than was evident in the Missouri days of the Church. On the other hand, we sometimes note a general sentiment of skepticism in our secular society, which would seem to work against the establishment of the Church. On the other other hand, the growth of the Church today, compared with its early growth, seems to belie that skepticism.

I don't think the Restoration is complete yet. Joseph's work is not yet done, and there are yet “many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” to be revealed. The Restoration is still in process. But is the environment we live in any more prepared for the completion of this work than the world was during the Dark Ages? I wonder... If not, what, if anything, can we do about it?

I give my word

In a discussion at Times & Seasons about the moral responsibility of a soldier following immoral orders, Lyle Stamps commented:

It isn't about loyalty to commanders. It is about loyalty to your own integrity, your own word...when you affirmed your allegiance to your country & promised to serve as a soldier.

This reminds me of the famous statement by Karl G. Maeser:

I have been asked what I mean by word of honor. I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls—walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground—there is a possibility that in some way or another I may be able to escape, but stand me on that floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of that circle? No, never! I’d die first!

(Alma P. Burton, Karl G. Maeser: Mormon Educator, p. 71)

As a general principle, of course I agree that keeping your word is proper, right, and important. But in exceptional circumstances (such as deciding whether, as a soldier, to follow an immoral order, when you have sworn an oath to obey your superiors), it seems to me that it may be immoral to keep your word.

For example, if I had given my word that I would remain within a chalk circle, and then someone stood just outside the chalk circle and began to molest my child, I would not hesitate to break my word and step out of that circle. Honesty, important as it is, is not the highest moral value.

Of course, there are ways of attempting to avoid this dilemma, such as being extremely careful about giving our word that we will do something. Or we could add all kinds of contingency clauses to any promise: “I won't step out of this circle, unless X or Y or Z happens.” But I doubt that it is possible to avoid this kind of dilemma altogether. In a more benign example, suppose I have promised my son that I will take him out for ice cream this evening, and then another son falls and breaks his arm. Is it immoral for me to renege on my promise to my son so I can take the other to the hospital? I don't think so.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Goodbye, Haloscan; Hello, RPT Club

It seems that most people have chosen to use the Blogger comments here, rather than Haloscan, so I'm eliminating Haloscan comments. I'm going to go back and copy the existing Haloscan comments into Blogger; in the meantime, the existing Haloscan comments can be read, but new ones can't be posted.

I've also updated the sidebar, as the Blog Club has split. I'm now a member of the RPT Blog Club (RPT stands for Religion, Philosophy, and Theology -- essentially those blogs focused on Mormon themes).

My blogging has been a little slow lately because work has been busier than usual and my wife and two oldest boys are in a community theater production of Brigadoon, which cuts into my blogging time... ;-)

Monday, June 14, 2004

Virgin birth

I was reading Romans 1 yesterday and noted this passage:

Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: (Romans 1:3-4)

Biblical scholars have pointed out that Paul never mentions the virgin birth of Jesus in his writings. I've done some looking, and it appears to me that every reference (with one possible exception: Alma 7:10) to the virgin birth in the LDS standard works can be traced back to this famous prophesy of Isaiah:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

Interestingly, the Hebrew word Isaiah uses here (translated “virgin” in the KJV) is almah, which means “young woman,” and may be a married or an unmarried woman. It essentially means “maiden” and has no necessary connotation of our modern sense of virginity: never having had sexual intercourse. But the KJV translators relied on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which mistranslated the Hebrew almah into the Greek parthenos, which does have the connotation of virginity as we understand it today.

And it is this same Septuagint that the author of the gospel of Matthew would have been familiar with as he gave the account of its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. Given his affinity for the words of Isaiah, I suspect Nephi would have used the same word or its equivalent in recording his vision of Mary, since he apparently understood this prophecy of Isaiah's also to refer to the Savior (he cites it in 2 Nephi 17:14). (And in the arguable exception in Alma, I suspect Alma is alluding back to Nephi's words, so his own account may have the same origin.) Joseph Smith, then, in keeping with his translation of the Book of Mormon in KJV language, followed the example of the KJV translators in rendering this word as “virgin” in English.

This teaching of the virgin birth of Christ has become very important for traditional Christianity. It allows Jesus Christ to be separated from the fallenness and ungodliness they associate with the natural process of conception. Catholicism takes this a step further with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which creates a further remove. Thus Christ does not participate in the fallenness of mankind, because his physical creation had nothing to do with sexual intercourse.

It is interesting to note that for Paul, this did not seem to be an issue at all. He was content to view Christ as physically descended from David (as in the Romans quote above), and declared to be the Son of God at the resurrection. Liberal Biblical scholars have noted that there are several different points in the New Testament at which Jesus is said to be (or to have become) the Son of God, including: prior to his birth, at his birth, at his baptism, on the Mount of Transfiguration, and at his resurrection.

It seems that for early Christians, including the writers of the New Testament, the doctrine of the virgin birth was not central. Is it for Latter-day Saints? After all, our scriptures (the Book of Mormon) refer to his mother as a “virgin.” But in what sense is this term meant?

Doctrinally speaking, we have no need for a virgin birth of the Savior. We do not hold to the concept of original sin as understood in most of traditional Christianity. We do not view sexual intercourse as something ungodly; in fact, we teach that it is among the gifts that are the most godly. We have a clear doctrine of Jesus Christ's premortal status as God. We also have a clear doctrine of the embodied nature of the Father as an exalted Man. When we take these together, there is no doctrinal need for a virgin birth, as there is in traditional Christianity.

Linguistically speaking, we have no need for a virgin birth. All references to Mary as a virgin can be traced back to the mistranslation of Isaiah. And to further illustrate that it is a mistranslation, the prophecy has another fulfillment recorded in the next chapter of Isaiah: Isaiah goes in unto “the prophetess” (his wife), who conceives the prophesied son, in whose youth the promises of the Lord are to be fulfilled. Clearly, the term almah in this fulfillment is not understood as “virgin” in the sense that traditional Christians understand Jesus' “virgin birth.”

So is the virgin birth important at all for Latter-day Saints? Well, we do have prophetic statements affirming the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism cites Bruce R. McConkie's The Promised Messiah in this regard. But, as in other areas, there is ambiguity in this term. Elder McConkie specifically intends that Mary had never known (had intercourse with) mortal man.

When I was at BYU, I took a religion course from Elder McConkie's son, Joseph Fielding McConkie, who taught that the conception of Jesus Christ came about in the same way that you and I were conceived: by sexual intercourse. The father of Jesus Christ was God the Father, who was married to Mary for eternity, while Joseph was married to her for time. In support of this, he cited the following from Joseph F. Smith, who spoke as President of the Church at a conference in Box Elder in December of 1914. My quote is from Messages of the First Presidency, included in the GospeLink 2001 collection:

We are all sons and daughters of God, and I want the little folks to hear what I am going to tell you. I am going to tell you a simple truth, yet it is one of the greatest truths and one of the most simple facts ever revealed to the children of men. Yet it is one that has been mystified and philosophized by men, more perhaps, than any other truth ever uttered by the mouths of the prophets. If I talk to the little folks so they understand the parents and teachers will be able to understand.

Now in the first book in the Bible and the Bible has been the standard of the Christian faith for nineteen centuries, yet nearly all the Christian believers and advocates of the Bible throughout the world have seemed to ignore one of the great truths that is taken from this book we read: "In the beginning God created man in his own image, and in his own likeness male and female." Right on the face of this great and yet simple truth that is revealed in Genesis, the Christian world has formulated a God that is incomprehensible. One of the greatest syndicates of learned men known in history were once chosen to determine and define the Being called God, and after deliberating over it for months rendered the decision that "God was incomprehensible," and that "to comprehend God would be to destroy Him." Yet he said he created man in his own image and likeness, male and female. If God made man in the likeness of God then he is like God and God is like man. The Saviour, Jesus Christ, begotten of God, was in the likeness of his Father, resembling him so nearly that He said on one occasion that "He that hath seen me has seen the Father." I see a little boy. He has hair, he has eyes and he has a face which resembles his father's, and when he grows up we say that we cannot tell him from his father, so perfect is resemblance between the boy and his father. The boy looks like the father and the father looks like the boy; he looks a little older; of course you can tell the father from the boy because he is a little older than his son. Jesus Christ was created just like his Father; had the same features; same frame, same kind of body and was so like Him when you saw him you saw an exact likeness or similitude of His Father.

You all know that your fathers are indeed your fathers and that your mothers are indeed your mothers you all know that don't you? You cannot deny it. Now, we are told in scriptures that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God in the flesh. Well, now for the benefit of the older ones, how are children begotten? I answer just as Jesus Christ was begotten of his father. The Christian denominations believe that Christ was begotten not of God but of the spirit that overshadowed his mother. This is nonsense. Why will not the world receive the truth? Why will they not believe the Father when he says that Jesus Christ is His only begotten Son? Why will they try to explain this truth away and make mystery of it?

Now if God is a man, a glorious perfected man-that is, perfect in all his glorious attributes, and infinite in power, there never will come a time when God the Father will not have power to extend His dominion and His Glory. He is the maker of Heaven and the Earth, on which we dwell, for He made this earth by his word and by his power. How did he make it? He called the elements that are invisible to our eyes. He formed the earth on which we dwell, and has formed millions of worlds, and they are peopled with his children, for there is no end to his dominions and the worlds he has created cannot be numbered unto man.

Now, little boys and girls, when you are confronted by infidels in the world who know nothing of how Christ was begotten, you can say he was born just as the infidel was begotten and born, so was Christ begotten by his Father, who is also our Father-the Father of our spirits-and he was born of his mother Mary.

The difference between Jesus Christ and other men is this: Our fathers in the flesh are mortal men, who are subject unto death; but the Father of Jesus Christ in the flesh is the God of Heaven. Therefore Jesus, as he declared, received the power of life from his Father and was never subject unto death but had life in himself as his father had life in himself. Because of this power he overcame death and the grave and became master of the resurrection and the means of salvation to us all.

Shall we as Latter-day Saints deny the truth and then claim that God made man in his likeness in the beginning? Shall we come under the impression that God possesses the power of creation, and yet did not literally create? He is not without his companion any more than I am without my companion, the mother of my children.

These are truths and I wish they could be instilled into the hearts of these little children so that they will not be tossed about by every wind of doctrine and be confused by the teachers of atheism. Now, by and by you will be able to understand this far better than you can today. Some of us grandparents find it difficult to conceive the truth we want to think of something marvelous. We want to try to make it appear that God does not do things in the right way, or that he has another way of doing things than what we know, we must come down to the simple fact that God Almighty was the Father of His Son Jesus Christ. Mary, the virgin girl, who had never known mortal man, was his mother. God by her begot His son Jesus Christ, and He was born into the world with power and intelligence like that of His Father.


Now, my little friends, I will repeat again in words as simple as I can, and you talk to your parents about it, that God, the Eternal Father is literally the father of Jesus Christ.

Mary was married to Joseph for time. No man could take her for eternity because she belonged to the Father of her divine Son. In the revelation that has come thru Joseph Smith, we learn that it is the eternal purpose of God that man and woman should be joined together by the power of God here on earth for time and eternity.

(Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4:329.)

Joseph F. Smith was not the only one to teach this. Brigham Young taught similarly. But today, we distance ourselves very much from these ideas. I the the primary reason for this is that critics of the Church have used this as a point against the Church, claiming that it denigrates God. And we have, strangely enough, been inclined to agree with them, despite our doctrines that physical embodiment and sexual intercourse are godly attributes, not negative ones.

I make no pretension to know for certain how the physical body of Jesus Christ was conceived. But it does seem strange to me that we feel uncomfortable with this teaching, given the contrast between the doctrinal context of the virgin birth as taught in traditional Christianity and our own doctrine regarding the nature of God. We have no reason that I can see to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Am I a meme?

I recently finished my first reading of Daniel C. Dennett's Freedom Evolves, so a few of my posts will deal with some of the topics he addresses.

One of the theories he discusses is the idea of memetics: the idea that ideas or information (memes) evolve along the same lines as biological evolution: the fittest memes are replicated and survive. It's an intriguing area that I've heard mention of before, but don't know a lot about. But it seems to introduce some interesting things. It almost feels like a new kind of dualism: material biology and immaterial memes. But I think this dualism cannot posit the independent existence of memes, because they always require a material substrate for their existence.

Dennett's book talks about memes as something separate from “us” -- as a symbiotic element that requires our bodies to survive and that enhances our existence. But I wonder: what if the “me” of me (my spirit?) is a meme? What if the notion of identity itself is a meme, and the preservation of that meme is my existence (self-awareness). Dennett uses a model early in the book, in discussing computer models of evolution (the Game of Life), in which “preservation of identity” constitutes survival. In terms of the computer model, any shape unit that can maintain (or regain) and preserve its shape is a survivor.

As soon as I read that, I was reminded of Brigham Young's interesting statements about eternal life. For example:

The intelligence that is in me to cease to exist is a horrid thought; it is past enduring. This intelligence must exist; it must dwell somewhere. If I take the right course and preserve it in its organization, I will preserve to myself eternal life. This is the greatest gift that ever was bestowed on mankind, to know how to preserve their identity... The principles of life and salvation are the only principles of freedom; for every principle that is opposed to God—that is opposed to the principles of eternal life, whether it is in heaven, on the earth, or in hell, the time will be when it will cease to exist, cease to preserve, manifest, and exhibit its identity; for it will be returned to its native element. (JD 5:54)

It has also been decreed by the Almighty that spirits, upon taking bodies, shall forget all they had known previously, or they could not have a day of trial—could not have an opportunity for proving themselves in darkness and temptation, in unbelief and wickedness, to prove themselves worthy of eternal existence. The greatest gift that God can bestow upon the children of men is the gift of eternal life; that is, to give mankind power to preserve their identity—to preserve themselves before the Lord... Cleave to light and intelligence with all your hearts, my brethren, that you may be prepared to preserve your identity, which is the greatest gift of God. (JD 6:333)

[The sons of perdition] will be decomposed, both soul and body, and return to their native element. I do not say that they will be annihilated; but they will be disorganized, and will be as though they never had been, while we will live and retain our identity, and contend against those principles which tend to death or dissolution. I am after life; I want to preserve my identity, so that you can see Brigham in the eternal worlds just as you see him now. I want to see that eternal principle of life dwelling within us which will exalt us eternally in the presence of our Father and God. If you wish to retain your present identity in the morn of the resurrection, you must so live that the principle of life will be within you as a well of water springing up unto eternal life. (JD 7:57-58)

There are many more, but these illustrate the principle he was expressing. Now, if I may speculate (and I may, since this is my blog), it seems to me that memes can persist (with various characteristics) in a number of substrates. They can be represented in print on paper, in the vibrations of air, on a computer screen or in ones and zeroes, in mental representations, and so forth. If my identity is a meme, it may be possible that it can persist in a number of substrates, my physical body being one of those substrates. Granted, each variety of representation modifies the meme to some extent, but in a very real sense, representations of a meme can be considered identical, whether written or spoken, for example.

There seem to be some interesting aspects of this relevant to Mormonism. If I am a meme, then it's very feasible that I existed in a different substrate (and with more limited capabilities) prior to “inhabiting” my physical body, and it's possible that I may persist when this substrate no longer does. Because the substrate alters the meme to varying degrees, a physical body can provide power and persistence that are superior to other substrates; hence, the advantage of physical embodiment. It may provide a way to think of “spirit” as requiring some sort of substrate, but not necessarily a gross physical one.

And if people are memes, then a meme that can persuade others to mimic and transform themselves into a replica of itself can be especially successful. Thus the devil seeks to make us devils, while God and Christ seek to make us Gods and Christs. Eternal progression could be understood quite differently...

Friday, June 04, 2004

Intentional ambiguity

Over at Times & Seasons, Kevin Barney suggested that one could take advantage of ambiguity in official statements to one's advantage, and Melissa asked about whether this ambiguity might be intentional. I think one of the things Church leaders have learned by experience over the years is to make use of ambiguity. Compare, for example, recent Church statements on birth control, the quick retraction during the Kimball presidency of a policy statement on oral sex, teachings about mothers staying at home, and so forth, with earlier statements on those same subjects.

Ambiguity has a number of advantages: it allows Church leaders to maintain a continuity between their teachings and earlier teachings even while modifying the official position of the Church, without having to repudiate earlier teachings. It also allows for leeway in exceptional cases while still maintaining a general rule of thumb (and I think for most of the above, there is a general rule of thumb). It likely better reflects the (lack of) clarity of revelation. Of course, there is risk involved in ambiguity, but I think it is not coincidental that scripture is frequently ambiguous.

So, from the perspective of being on the receiving end, what's not to like about ambiguity? Are we hard-wired to want clarity and certainty? (I know I often have an inclination in that direction.) Or do we dislike having to be responsible for our own choices?

Maybe ambiguity is also “built in” to reality. Maybe when we try to define things clearly, we cannot avoid misrepresenting to some degree, as we generalize. Maybe a thorough and precise account of reality can only be reality -- and maybe reality itself is ambiguous (deliberately so)? Are there evolutionary advantages to ambiguity?

Friday, May 28, 2004

Historicity and faith, part 2

When questions of historicity come up in Mormonism, the conversation often changes direction, from focusing on the historicity of the textual accounts to focusing on the historicity of the provenance of the text. The Semiotician quickly made that move in the comments on my earlier post on historicity.

Terryl Givens does very much the same thing in By the Hand of Mormon. He claims that, contra my contention that scriptural historicity may be an unimportant issue, historicity plays a vital role in our approach to the Book of Mormon. But he quickly shifts from a discussion of the state of debate about the historicity of the Book of Mormon account itself to the historicity of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the role this has historically played in the growth of the Church and the role of the Book of Mormon. This is where his argument is the strongest, in my view, but I don't think he does a very good job of tying this argument back to the value of the historicity of the text itself.

Why do these shifts occur in our dialogues on this issue? Givens points out that the divine intervention claimed in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon poses a challenge to the listener -- a challenge that must be resolved by what Givens calls “dialogic revelation:” essentially, revelation in which one can ask questions and receive answers in an essentially propositional way. (And he rightly notes that this is a strong theme throughout the Book of Mormon text, too.) The reason that this poses such a challenge is precisely because the claim is made that God intervenes in the affairs of men today.

And here, I think, is where we see the value of textual historicity. While the historicity of any given account may not be terribly important to the primary purposes of the account, if we lose the idea of historicity altogether, we lose the claim that God actually intervenes in the world -- that we can interact with him.

And I think this idea of historicity is an important step in our progression of faith. We begin to trust that God can affect our lives because we believe that he has done so for other people. But if those interactions were not historical, then they are just “nice stories.” Stories have their place and their value (and I value them very highly), but if we regard them as nothing more than “just stories,” they lose much of their power to inspire faith and emulation.

I imagine that it might be possible for someone to have a faith that can say, “Despite the utter lack of evidence that God has ever intervened in the affairs of men, I still have faith that he can and will intervene in my life, for my benefit.” But I doubt that most of us could claim such a faith. It may be possible that some could have enough personal experience with divine intervention that they can have confidence in it, even if there is no one else who has ever experienced it. But it seems that such people would be more, not less, inclined to regard scriptural accounts of divine intervention as historical, because of their own experience with such things.

And so it seems to me that, while challenging the historicity of specific scriptural accounts may have benefits, challenging the idea of scriptural historicity generally really serves only to deter faith, not to encourage it.

Mormon naturalism

I think one of the great strengths of Mormonism is its naturalism, FARMS criticism of “naturalistic” approaches to the Book of Mormon notwithstanding. The problem is one of equivocation. gives (among others) these definitions of “naturalism:”

Philosophy. The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.

Theology. The doctrine that all religious truths are derived from nature and natural causes and not from revelation.

The assumption in the latter definition seems to be that God is “supernatural.” While this may be definitionally true (one of the definitions of “supernatural” is anything having to do with deity), there is a lot of baggage here. In Western religious and philosophical tradition, God has been understood to be outside or beyond the universe. But this is not the case in Mormon theology, in great part because of our denial of creation ex nihilo and our interpretation of scriptural creation accounts as pertaining to this earth only, and not to the entire universe.

This is both an advantage and a disadvantage in seeking to reconcile Mormonism with scientific thought. The advantage is that our conception of God allows him to be involved in whatever natural processes exist; in fact, we often assert that God always works by natural means. For example, Brigham Young taught:

Yet I will say with regard to miracles, there is no such thing save to the ignorant—that is, there never was a result wrought out by God or by any of His creatures without there being a cause for it. There may be results, the causes of which we do not see or understand, and what we call miracles are no more than this—they are the results or effects of causes hidden from our understandings. (JD 13:140)

Brother Carrington was telling us about the way in which money turned up to clear the ship after sending off more Saints than he had means to pay for. Was this a miracle any more than many other things in our lives and in the work of God? No, the providences of God are all a miracle to the human family until they understand them. There are no miracles only to those who are ignorant. A miracle is supposed to be a result without a cause, but there is no such thing. There is a cause for every result we see; and if we see a result without understanding the cause we call it a miracle. This is what we have been taught; but there is no miracle to those who understand. (JD 14:79)

George Q. Cannon was more explicit:

It was no suspension of law on the part of our Savior, that caused Him to gather from the elements the bread and the fishes necessary to feed the multitude. It was no suspension of law that caused Him to open the eyes of the blind, or to cause the sick to be healed. It was no suspension of law that caused Him to ascend in the sight of His disciples after His resurrection when He visited them. I know that miracles are said to be suspension of law; but instead of their being a suspension of law, they are due to a knowledge of a higher law, to a comprehension of greater laws, by the knowledge of which, what are called miracles are wrought. To a person who never saw the effect of electricity, if he were in this Tabernacle and were to see these lights kindled instantaneously by the touch of electricity—a person who did not understand the laws of electricity, would say, “Why this is miraculous.” Or to an ignorant person, a person who knew nothing of the law of electricity, it would seem marvelous that one standing at the end of a wire, stretched under the ocean could, by touching that wire, communicate a distance of nearly 3,000 miles, and could talk to a person at the other end of the wire. Had this been mentioned in the days of our forefathers, they would have declared it was an impossibility. Such a power would have been miraculous in their eyes, and they would have said that such a thing was contrary to all known laws concerning the transmission of sound and thought; but to us who understand this law—or if we do not understand it, who see the operations of electricity; who know that we can go to the telegraph office and send a message to Europe from this city, and get a reply within a few hours; in fact, receive it here at a time of the day earlier than it was transmitted from there, which is frequently done. We, who witness this, no longer look upon it as a miracle, or as a suspension of law, or a violation of the laws which govern the transmission of sound or thought. We accept it because we have become familiar with it. And so, if we understood the law by which Jesus operated when He fed the multitude, it would be as simple to us as the law of electricity is today. If we understood the law by which the sick were healed, and sight restored to the blind, or by which He counteracted the laws of gravitation, and ascended in the sight of His disciples into heaven—if we understood these laws, they would be simple to us, as all laws are when they are understood. (JD 25:149-150)

But there are disadvantages to this approach, too. When we claim that everything follows from natural law, then we should expect “miraculous” events to be subject to criticisms in a naturalistic vein. There is a disadvantage also in claiming that an effect flows from natural law without being able to provide a naturalistic account for it. We may rightly profess ignorance of these laws, but we cannot be content with ignorance, particularly when we claim to be able to receive all the knowledge God has. And the more we fall back on ignorance, the more our naturalism begins to look like supernaturalism, which I think has significant theological as well as philosophical drawbacks.

Following the definitions given above, Mormonism is philosophically naturalistic, but theologically revelatory, and we consider the latter definition (“derived from nature and natural causes and not from revelation”) to be a false dichotomy.

Coming soon: Combining naturalism and materialism...