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?