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...

Monday, May 24, 2004

Pray always

This weekend we had stake conference. Elder Parmley of the Seventy presided. He spoke of the need to pray always in our hearts, and spoke of his own efforts to do so while practicing medicine. It's not clear to me that the kind of “prayer” we can have in our hearts continually is the same kind of prayer we utter vocally (or even silently, but formally). The latter seems to require a focus and mindfulness (discussed somewhat in my post on Vain Repetitions) that we cannot have while doing other things that require our attention.

Is the “prayer in our hearts” similar to driving a car: something that occupies a portion of our attention, but at a level that allows us to focus on other things until we need to focus back on what we are doing “automatically?” If so, is it really prayer? If I carry on a conversation without paying full attention to the other person (something I am, unfortunately, wont to do), it is impolite and perhaps unethical. Is this not the case with “auto-pilot” prayer?

Or is this kind of prayer more a “way-of-being-in-the-world:” an attitude and a tendency to think of God before other things? If so, how is it connected to formal prayer in which we are focused on a conversation with God?

Friday, May 21, 2004

Temporal rewards

And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual (Mosiah 2:41, emphasis added).

What are we to make of this scripture? There are many scriptures that teach that God will bless the obedient, but this is one that goes further: it claims that those blessings will be temporal as well as spiritual. So how do we think of those that are not temporally blessed? Are there people who keep the commandments but are not temporally blessed? I suspect so, but that doesn't fit with this verse.

Some attempts at resolving this might be:

Their blessings will come at some later point, possibly in the next life. There are a couple of problems with this: first, if the blessings don't come until the next life, then the term “temporal” means something different than what we typically think it means; and second, the verse loses its rhetorical impact if we can no longer “consider ... the blessed and happy state” now.

They are blessed, since everything we have comes from God. Or, a similar attempt: They are blessed, because their lives would have been much worse if they had not been obedient. The problem with both of these is that there is no reason to consider the obedient any more blessed than the disobedient. In response to the first, we point out that God “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” In response to the second, we point out that the lives of the disobedient could have been much worse. Why could we not equally say, “Consider the blessed and happy state of those that keep not the commandments of God...?”

Is there a good resolution of this verse that preserves its rhetorical value?

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Unpredictable God

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill,–at another time he said thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted–by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.

(The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee, 507-509.)

The above quotation suggests to me that we cannot predict, neither based on our previous experience nor based on our own reasoning, what God will require of us. We may appeal to scriptures regarding God's “unchanging nature,” but it seems that we cannot rule out much, if anything, based on such an assertion. How can we claim that any act of God would be inconsistent with his revealed nature, if we do not “see the reason thereof till long after?”

How, then, are we to distinguish between something that is inspired of God and something that is not?

It seems that our faith and trust in God cannot merely be based in our ideas about him. It cannot simply be based in the idea that he is omniscient or omnipotent or wise or loving, because these things alone are not adequate predictors of what he may inspire -- in fact, there may not be any such predictors. In other words, we cannot say, when confronted with an “inspiration:” “God would never require such a thing!”

How can we trust such an unpredictable God? I think we can only do so when we have a real, meaningful relationship with him: when we feel his love and learn to recognize it in the same way that a child recognizes his mother's voice: “I would that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts, that ye are not found on the left hand of God, but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called” (Mosiah 5:12). It is God's love and our relationship wih him that is the foundation of our trust, not our intellectual understanding of his character and attributes.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Convert zeal

A story on NPR's All Things Considered this afternoon focused on concerns about radical Islamist terrorism in the Phillippines. One of the concerns is that many of these extremists are recent converts from Christianity to Islam. The commentator noted that it is common, not just to Islam, but across all religions, that converts are more zealous than those born in the faith.

Is this true of Mormonism? If so, why is it the case? Is it something that we should consider good or bad?

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Enoch Train

If you like folk music with a real international flavor, you may want to check out Enoch Train (their new website isn't so hot, but their music is great). This group focuses on arrangements of LDS hymn tunes, but not like you've heard them before. From harmonica to Native American drums to Vietnamese dan tranh to accordion to mandolin -- well, you get the picture: it's not something you're likely to hear in sacrament meeting.

Often, two or more hymn tunes are blended together, along with other tunes, as in the track Mary Had a Shepherd, which melds “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with “Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd” and snatches of “He Shall Feed His Flock.” Styles range from New Orleans jazz to samba and a gorgeous four-recorder arrangement of “O Savior Thou Who Wearest a Crown.” Several original compositions, not based on hymn tunes, are also included.

Enoch Train has won numerous Pearl awards (LDS music awards) and there isn't another group like them that I'm aware of. Give them a listen -- it may change the way you think of our hymns.

Disclosure: Daron Bradford, who plays all of the woodwinds (yes, all of them) for Enoch Train, is my uncle. But I'm not biased, really I'm not!

Monday, May 17, 2004

God of the Old Testament

The Church teaches that Jesus is Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament. But I have a hard time understanding what this means. It seems to me, for example, that Old Testament peoples worshipped the God of the Old Testament. Seems pretty obvious, except for what Jacob has to say about it:

For, for this intent have we written these things, that they may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us. Behold, they believed in Christ and worshiped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name. (Jacob 4:4-5)

It seems to me also that Old Testament peoples prayed to the God of the Old Testament -- again, seems like a fairly obvious claim, except for what Nephi says about it: “Ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ” (2 Nephi 32:9). (Leaving aside for the moment the fact that there are plenty of Old Testament prayers addressed to Jehovah.)

It seems to me also that if God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”, then the God of the Old Testament would also be the God of the New Testament and the God of the Doctrine & Covenants. It seems to me that this would be the God we worship and pray to, except that we have also been taught to pray to the Father, rather than to Christ.

Call me confused, but it seems a little odd to me to say that someone we are not supposed to pray to or worship is God, or that someone the Old Testament peoples didn't worship or pray to was their God.

The only resolution I can come to is the idea that there are multiple Gods who have different roles. Margaret Barker's Old Testament studies suggest that pre-exilic Hebrews had such an understanding, closer to what Nephi teaches about the Father and the Son. But if this is correct, and the Hebrews recognized more than one God (and we do, too), then I'm not sure what we mean by our claim that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Loosed in heaven?

During today's commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the restoration of the priesthood, this well-known scripture was cited repeatedly:

And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19)

The part about sealing/binding I think I understand pretty well: it essentially means that ordinances, properly done and recorded, are considered valid and create ties that can continue beyond this life. But I don't have a good understanding of the part about loosing. When we seal something, we do so with an ordinance. Are there ordinances that serve a loosing function? When a sealing is cancelled, is there an ordinance of cancellation of sealing, or is the cancellation simply recorded? How is the priesthood involved in loosing?

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Vain repetitions

The scriptures counsel us to avoid “vain repetitions” when we pray. I understand the word “vain” in a manner consistent with its usage in the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain. I think this means something like what God condemned as generally true in Christianity: having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.

As a practical matter, we typically say this means not to use the same phrases in our prayers in a thoughtless manner. Repetition per se is not condemned, only vain repetition. It seems to me that we should have the same concern regarding our actions as regarding our prayers. It is easy to “go through the motions” of taking the sacrament, for example, without making it meaningful.

But one problem that arises for me, at least, and I suspect for some other people, is that repetition itself can tend to make the repeated activity routine. I suppose this can be a good thing; good habits are better than bad habits, and probably better than no habits at all. But when something is a habit, how do we avoid making it a “vain repetition?” How can we make sure that our (good) habits of scripture study, prayer, Family Home Evening, partaking of the sacrament, temple attendance, and so forth are really meaningful each time, and not vain repetitions?

Friday, May 14, 2004

LDS Infobases

Ryan Henrie has a great resource for LDS infobases. Folio Views Infobases are a full-text indexed data format for unstructured documents (like books). It's what all the LDS CD-ROM collections used before Deseret Book bought up the major players. Many CD-ROM collections use Folio Views, from Signature Books' New Mormon Studies CD-ROM to the Church's $3 LDS Church Magazines 1971-1999 CD. If you own a copy of such a CD, you can open the files offered for free download from LDSInfobase.Net.

Included in the LDS resources section are the 1830 Book of Mormon, General Conference addresses from 1897-1970, with a very handy index that allows you to search by speaker, the 26-volume Journal of Discourses, also with the ability to search by speaker, and the LDS Quad with Strong's Concordance of Biblical Greek and Hebrew. This last is what I use as my electronic scriptures.

In addition to other LDS infobases, there are numerous non-LDS infobases that are very useful, including the Apocrypha, writings of the Early Church Fathers, the complete works of Josephus, and other philosophical and religious resources. And all of this is offered free of charge. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 13, 2004

How to prepare a talk

One of the things I love about the participatory nature of the Church is that we are given the opportunity at a young age to learn public speaking by giving talks in Primary. (Oh, you thought this was going to be about sacrament meeting talks? Nope.) I think learning to give a talk in Primary can be one of the most beneficial aspects of the Primary program. Some kids are uninhibited: they'll march right up to the podium, yank the microphone halfway down their throat, and belt out a talk. Others will freeze unless prompted by their parents -- and in some cases, the parents end up giving the talk for them.

We have five young boys; two of them have given talks in Primary. One of them was very shy about speaking in front of people, but we used a great method to prepare him to give his talk and he got right up and got through it on his own. My mother came up with this method when I was in Primary, and I think it will work for most young children. Here's how it works:

Fold a piece of unlined paper in half so that the short edges of the paper meet. Fold in half again in the same direction. Now fold in half the other way. When you unfold the paper, you will have eight squares (okay, they're really rectangles, but close enough) defined by the folds. (For older children, you can fold it so you end up with 12 or 16 squares.) Sitting with the child, talk about what she wants to say and draw a picture in each square to represent that part of the talk. It shouldn't be anything fancy, just one or two iconic images that can help the child remember that part of the talk. Make them big enough to fill up most of the square. (For older children who are beginning to read, you might add a word or three.)

Now go through the talk with the child several times, pointing at the pictures as you go along. Have the child repeat what you say. Then have her do it on her own, with help from you as she needs it. It's amazing how quickly children pick up on this, and how much they will remember. It is not essential that she memorize it word for word (though this works better for some children); the key is that she knows the concepts associated with each picture and can express them. Then have her practice several times in front of the family. Set up a music stand or a stool or something as a stand-in for the podium, and have the family sit and listen (Family Home Evening is a great time to do this).

On the day of the talk, go over it a few times right before leaving for church (and if Primary is after sacrament meeting, maybe right before the end of sacrament meeting). Go to the Primary sharing time where she will be giving the talk and stand in the back of the room, where she can see you. You can silently prompt from there if she gets stuck, and she will be reassured by your presence and praise, but will be on her own in front of the group.

I think most children will succeed with this approach, and they will learn some great skills: memorization, public speaking, outlining; and they will develop greater self-confidence. Hey, it worked for me: I love to give talks!

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Contradictory revelations

A couple of years ago, President Faust and his wife separately made the same point during a Regional Conference in our area. They spoke of the fact that sometimes it is appropriate to turn down inspired callings. Sister Faust gave an example from her experience where she was inspired to call a sister to a position; this sister turned down the calling and was right to do so.

This seems to me to be yet another caution in how we interpret personal and institutional revelation (a theme that seems to pop up frequently in my posts), particularly with regard to their comprehensiveness and finality. In a case such as this, we have examples of apparently contradictory revelation to two different people, but both being inspired by God.

Are we willing and able to live with this kind of “messiness?” I must admit that it is difficult for me; I like to have things neatly resolved and reconciled. But maybe this “messiness” is inescapable, even in eternity, and that's part of what God is trying to teach me here...

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Historicity and faith

Why is the issue of scriptural historicity important? One answer I have heard is that it's a matter of truth: that it's important to know whether they are historical or not so that we don't believe something false. And yet, as a matter of truth, historicity generally seems pretty unimportant. For example, it doesn't much matter to me whether the story of the good Samaritan was just a story Jesus made up to teach a principle or a historical event. The point is not the history, it is the message of the story. And it seems to me that most scripture fits into this category.

But are there matters in the scriptures where the point is the history? The one that I think has the strongest case is the historicity of the atonement of Jesus Christ, including his death and resurrection. Why is the historicity of these events important? It seems to me that one primary reason is that belief in their historical reality encourages hope, faith, and repentance.

What makes this particularly interesting, though, is that in the Book of Mormon, we have the story of people who lived prior to Jesus, who were able to exercise faith and hope in him. Historicity was not the driving factor of their faith; it was a forward-looking faith. Their faith was efficacious even though Jesus had not yet gone through his suffering and resurrection. How was this possible?

Unless we are willing to posit some strange backwards causation to the atonement (which may not be so far-fetched?), it seems that their faith, even in the absence of an already-wrought atonement, was sufficient to secure their salvation -- with the exception of a physical resurrection. If they were able to exercise redemptive faith without the historical events having occurred, would the same be possible for us?

More on issues of historicity coming soon...

Monday, May 10, 2004

Local hierarchy

A few years ago, I had a question of doctrine & practice that I took to my bishop. He informed me that it wasn't important, and that if it were, we'd hear about it from President Hinckley in General Conference. I was very unsatisfied with that answer -- it was (and is) important to me, even if nobody else considered it important.

A few months later, I had a temple recommend interview with a member of our stake presidency. I took advantage of it to ask him my questions on the same matter. He told me that he wasn't sure and suggested that we consult various references, including the Church handbook and Joseph Fielding Smith's Answers to Gospel Questions. The next day, he called me at home, having done some research into my question, and gave me a very positive answer, quite different from the discouragement I had received from my bishop.

The bishop, who has since moved away, never knew that I had “gone over his head,” so to speak, to get my question answered (but the stake presidency member knew that I had spoken with the bishop and was not satisfied with his response).

Is this a good approach to such an issue? How far can one take this approach? What if the stake presidency member had given me a similarly unfavorable response?

Commenting change

Blogger has recently added free commenting that doesn't have the same comment size limitations as Haloscan. The main disadvantage, as far as I'm concerned, is that it requires commenters to register in order to display their names, email, etc. The reason for this is to discourage spam comments. I'm going to switch over to Blogger's commenting system and allow anonymous commenting for now, so you don't have to register if you don't want to. But I encourage you to register as a Blogger commenter. You can then use the same profile on all the Blogger blogs you comment on, and your name and other information will show up with your comments here.

I'm going to see what I can do about migrating the old comments over into the new system. During the migration, you'll see links for both Haloscan and Blogger comments. Feel free to read the Haloscan comments, but please post using the Blogger comments. Thanks.

[Update: I've been playing with the Blogger comment system a bit now, and it has a few more drawbacks than I initially thought. While it doesn't have the same size limitations as Haloscan, it doesn't do paragraph separation (!!) and deleting a comment leaves a deletion notice in its place. It doesn't have an RSS feed like Haloscan does, and doesn't offer comment editing. Please leave a comment on this thread to let me know which commenting system you prefer.]

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Mothers' Day talk

Mothers' Day can be very hard for some people. I had that in mind when I gave a talk in sacrament meeting for Mothers' Day last year; hopefully it's meaningful for those who struggle with Mothers' Day. It's too long to post here, so I'll provide a link instead.

Mothers' Day 2003

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Peripheral revelation

One of the misunderstandings some people have of revelation is that it should consistently reflect “the mind and will of the Lord.” After all, isn't the point of revelation that God reveals his mind and will to us? Yes, but sometimes that can only go so far because of our own situation and preparation. I use the analogy of peripheral vision to illustrate why the Lord might reveal something to us that isn't exactly right.

Imagine that God wants me to move in a particular direction, but I am currently facing 180ยบ away from where he wants me to go. God tries to get my attention focused in the direction that he wants me to go, but because I am so focused in my own direction, suggestions of the Spirit to that effect seem strange to me, to the point that I do not recognize them as being of divine origin. They are out of the range of my vision. So, instead, God inspires me to turn to something that is in my “peripheral vision”: something I am willing and able to consider. As I turn in the right direction, other things come into my peripheral vision. This process can continue until I have turned around to where God wanted me to be going in the first place.

I have had this kind of experience in my life, where I have felt led in one direction (toward schooling or a career path, for example), only to discover later that it was just a step in the right direction, eventually leading to a situation that I felt was where God wanted me to be.

It seems to me that this idea has significant implications for how we view revelation not only in our personal lives, but also to the Church. Things that we consider relatively stable may really just be a step in the right direction, eventually leading us to where God wants us to go. Perhaps if we think about things in this way, we may be able to get some inspired hints as to where these things may be leading...

Friday, May 07, 2004

Demographic homogeneity

Eugene England, in his book, Why the Church is as True as the Gospel, points out that the geographic organization of the Church puts us in contact with people we might not otherwise choose to serve or choose to serve with, and that this stretches and develops us. This practical aspect of the Church can transform us as much as the doctrinal beliefs can.

However, as the country has seen formal segregation change to informal segregation, with minorities concentrated in dense urban areas and the more affluent occuping the suburbs, it seems the Church feels the effects of this, and it lessens the potential England discusses. I lived just outside Baltimore, Maryland, for a couple of years, and the demographics of our suburban ward were very different from the demographics of the downtown Baltimore wards -- and the problems we had to solve were also very different. The impact of this kind of separation on the Church is likely strongest where there is a high concentration of Church members (and each ward is therefore geographically smaller). For example, my parents live in Lindon, Utah (about 20 minutes north of BYU). The few neighborhoods that comprise their ward are very homogenous, with a few minor exceptions as children inherit from their parents.

England's point still holds true to some extent. Unlike other churches, we generally don't choose the congregation we prefer to go to. (I say “generally,” but when we moved to Minnesota, the ward was a factor in our decision of which area of the city to move to.) This ensures that there will at least be some diversity in our approaches to the gospel. But we may miss out on other productive tensions as our wards reflect the relative homegeneity of the geographical area in which we live.

Should the Church try to find ways to mitigate this? Is the Church trying to do so? If so, how? What might be some good suggestions? Do we have an additional individual responsibility to step out of our comfort zone to serve those who are different from us?

Thursday, May 06, 2004


When I was on my mission, the idea of “covenanting” became popular for a while. The idea was that a companionship would set some goals and say, essentially, “Okay, Lord, this is what we're going to do, and in return we expect such-and-such results (usually a certain number of baptisms).” A member of the Area Presidency did a mission tour and forcefully put a stop to the practice. I have often heard it taught that, in a covenant, God sets the terms and our options are to accept or to reject them. We do not have the right to set the terms of the covenant.

The story of Jacob seems to put a little twist on this idea, though. In Genesis 28:20-22, we read:

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

This sure sounds like Jacob is setting the terms of a “deal” with God: “You do all these things for me and I'll worship you, build a house for you, and even pay tithing. How can you refuse?” There are other scriptural passages that run similarly, and we hear the same kind of language in war stories told by general authorities (“Lord, if I get out of this alive, I'll serve you for the rest of my life”).

Is this offensive to God? Does he get upset when his children try to make a deal with him? And if King Benjamin is right that “if [we] should serve him with all [our] whole souls yet [we] would be unprofitable servants,” then why would God honor such a request? Yet he appears to do so in the case of Jacob. Would he not do similarly today?

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Universalism and exclusivity

We seem to have an interesting tension in Mormonism (and traditional Christianity, too) between universalism and exclusivism. On the one hand, we have a very inclusivist soteriology, in which all except a very few sons of perdition will be saved in a kingdom of glory. On the other hand, there are exclusive ordinances that must be performed by an exclusive priesthood authority in order to receive the highest salvation.

This tendency manifests itself in a variety of ways, scripturally and in the practice and teachings of the Church. A brief list might include:


The story of the City of Enoch seems to epitomize this tension: The scriptures tell us that “there were no poor among them (emphasis mine). Does this mean there were no poor on the whole face of the earth? I don't think so. It seems that there was some exclusion going on, but that this did not prevent the city from being taken up to God. But we tend to view exclusion as a bad thing today. Are we justified in believing that?

This tension is also manifest in the seeming contradiction of Christ's words in the gospels: on the one hand, he is recorded as saying, “he that is not against us is on our part,” but on the other, he is recorded as saying, “He that is not with me is against me.”

What are we to make of this tension? How far should our desire to be inclusive go? When is exclusion desirable, necessary, ethical?

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Evolution: The Real Issue Revisited

Traditional Christian arguments against human evolution are unnecessary. As far as I can tell, human evolution poses no threat to traditional Christianity (except for literalistic and inerrantist scriptural interpretations, but there are plenty of other things that are at least as threatening to them as is evolution). The classic traditional Christian theological argument against human evolution, made popular in the Church by Joseph Fielding Smith, is “No Adam, no Fall; no Fall, no Atonement.” In other words, if there was no literal Adam as described by the Biblical account, who brought death into the world for the first time with the Fall, there is no need for Christ's atonement.

But I think this is a weak argument. All of us are mortal and all of us are sinners, regardless of whether this fact came about by a historical Fall or not. I need an atonement even if there was no historical Adam and Eve. This and other Christian arguments against human evolution have been thoroughly addressed and can be reconciled fairly easily, in my view. These are the kinds of questions that have been discussed in Mormon venues for the past few decades.

But what has not been addressed well at all, to my knowledge, is how human evolution seems to challenge uniquely Mormon doctrines. At Times & Seasons, Nate Oman correctly pointed out that the pinnacle of Mormon salvation is divine fecundity. Exaltation is fecundity: the “continuation of the seeds”. And this is where the really Mormon questions about human evolution arise.

Mormonism believes in an exalted human God, consisting of man and woman united in eternal marriage. As Erastus Snow put it:

There can be no God except he is composed of the man and woman united, and there is not in all the eternities that exist, nor ever will be, a God in any other way. I have another description: There never was a God, and there never will be in all eternities, except they are made of these two component parts; a man and a woman; the male and the female.

(Journal of Discourses, 19:270-271.)

If this is the case, and if these exalted beings are capable of procreation, then the uniquely Mormon question regarding human evolution seems to be: Why would a God capable of procreating to create bodies in his own likeness and image for his spirit children resort to the long, involved, and messy process of evolution to provide bodies? Why not give birth to their bodies?

I think it is no coincidence that Brigham Young, Joseph F. Smith, and others taught that Adam was literally the son of God. This fits perfectly with Mormon teachings about exaltation, but it seems difficult to reconcile with human evolution. Is there a good reconciliation of this question? I've never really even seen it addressed.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Final judgment?

Steve Evans asks a good set of questions about “second chances” over at By Common Consent. Underlying some of the comments there, and underlying much of our common understanding about receiving according to our works and desires in the next life is the assumption of a “final judgment.” This is a term we hear relatively frequently, but where did it come from? The scriptures never speak of the “final judgment.” The closest they get is referring to the judgment at “the great and last day.”

But in what sense is this judgment final? Are there really no more judgments after it? I doubt it. I think this is an interim judgment, just like the many interim judgments we have had prior to and during our earthly lives. And the “last day” referred to isn't really the last day -- there are other days that follow it; it's just “last” in a sense: in relation to a certain sphere. Similarly, I suspect that the “final judgment” is also only “final” with respect to a certain sphere, but that there are other spheres beyond.

What might these other spheres be? And isn't it just speculation that there even are other spheres beyond what we know about? I can't answer the former question, but it is not just speculation that there are spheres beyond those we know about -- it's scriptural. From Doctrine & Covenants 130:9-11 (emphasis added):

This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s. Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known; And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word.

Steve asks why it is that “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God,” if there really are “second chances.” I think the reason is that given in D&C 130:19: “If a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” I think it is also reflected in the parable of the prodigal son. And really, we're all the prodigals. We should be glad that there are second chances, because we all need them, and probably will for a good long time to come.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Bottom-up or top-down?

This may seem trivial, but as one of the priests was preparing to say the sacrament prayer today, he pulled too hard on the little pull-out microphone and it made a kind of popping sound. He was obviously embarrassed at not having pulled it out quietly enough. My wandering mind started to wonder: how did it come about that we have these little pull-out microphones at the sacrament table as standard features in chapels? Was this an idea that started somewhere local and spread popularly, was recognized higher up in the hierarchy as a good idea, and then adopted as standard? Or was it the idea of someone at the top that was propagated down to the local level?

I rather suspect it was the former. But so what, you ask? Well, there have been some programs that have been started on a local level and, when successful, became a standard part of the official Church program. This seems to be quite accepted, despite the perception of the Church as a very “top-down” organization. Does this say anything about how we should perceive the workings of revelation and the Spirit in the Church? Are there doctrinal or “theological” examples of “bottom-up” influence? If not, does this point to a distinction between doctrine & practice contra some suggestions in the relatively recent Belief and Practice thread at Times & Seasons?

Is either “bottom-up” or “top-down” influence preferable? Can both fit the model of revelation in the Church?

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Blessed business

Some years ago, my brother in law told me:

When I was younger, I thought that college students really knew what they were doing. When I became a college student, I thought that business people really knew what they were doing. When I became a business person, I realized that nobody knows what they're doing; we're all just making it up as we go along.

Recently, in the hall at church, I mentioned this to one of our high councilors, who does organizational development for a living. He told me that in his line of work, he's discovered how true it is. He mentioned that there are very high levels of incompetency in American business, and then said something interesting: he said that the economic success of the United States is not due to greater competency here than in other countries, but because the Lord has chosen to bless America.

A few questions that come to mind in thinking about this exchange: Does God alter the natural consequences of our actions when he blesses us? Should we view the economic success of America as evidence of divine favor? Is it true of spiritual matters as well as temporal that we're all just bumbling along?

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated--And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130:20-21)

If this high councilor is right, what might be the laws America is obeying to warrant God's blessings of economic prosperity? Does the United States fit the requirements outlined in the Book of Mormon?

Behold, do ye not remember the words which he spake unto Lehi, saying that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land? And again it is said that: Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. (Alma 9:13)