The Shape of Agency Part 1

Agency is one of the most fundamental concepts in LDS thought. Often people confuse agency and free will. They are not necessarily the same thing. I’m going to avoid all those sorts of nuanced discussions here. What is interesting to me are the more social, literary and especially political implications of Mormon notions of agency. Often a notion of agency is taken for granted when Mormons make a political point. I think this puts the cart before the horse. Agency gets used in such arguments without there ever being an consideration of what agency is. Thus agency because the ultimate trump card. Not surprisingly, it always tends to validate the conclusions and assumptions of whomever is invoking it. To me the key factor in discussions of agency is the “what” and “where” of the discussion. Yet this notion of what is the “self” of the discussion is often lost. Why is this important? Well, let’s first look at the basic…

“Neither Shall There Be Any More Pain”: Trials and Their Purpose

This is a talk I gave in sacrament meeting on March 12, 2017. The topic was “Trials and Their Purpose.” I appreciate the thoughts and words of [the previous speakers]. I hope that you all can find some solace in our various messages, even if the answers are a bit incomplete. The purpose of trials—or what is more commonly known in philosophical circles as the problem of evil—is a question that has plagued philosophers and theologians for centuries and I don’t pretend that I’m going to resolve it in a 15-minute sacrament talk. The evolving and at times contradicting theologies found within the scriptures make it difficult to pin down a coherent, all-encompassing explanation of suffering. However, my goal at the very least is to provide a couple perspectives that might be helpful to you in processing your own trials while being sufficiently sensitive to the different experiences you all have. Neal A. Maxwell once offered this advice to Jeffrey…

Loosening the iron grip of the King James Version of the Bible?

A couple of years ago, Elder Richard Maynes (of the Presidency of the Seventy) quoted Matthew 13:44 in his conference talk: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” But wait a second! The King James Version of that verse reads differently: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.” Elder Maynes has quoted, instead, the Revised Standard Version. This surprised me because the official version of the Bible used by the Church in English is the King James Version. From the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the KVJ has been preferred (despite Joseph Smith’s corrections). When the Revised Standard Version was released in 1952,…

Can Mercy Rob Justice?

We’re all familiar with Alma 42 and the notion that mercy can’t rob justice. I was reading this today at church and was struck by a context that often doesn’t get mentioned. In the ancient world relationships often determined actions. This meant special treatment for friends and especially relations. In Greek philosophy and plays you often see the key tension being between familial relationships and justice. The idea is that justice is what one should do if one wasn’t related. It’s the idea of being no respecter of persons. The very notion of justice in the middle east starting during this era is this more objective treatment.

Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

Several parts of the Book of Mormon are highly influenced by the text of deutero-Isaiah. The traditional problem here is that deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) are usually considered to be written fairly late – usually dated to during the exile in Babylon. Contrary to what some members say, the dating isn’t just assuming that prophecy is impossible. Rather the text makes assumptions of the audience that just don’t work earlier. A good example is the presumption that Jerusalem has already been destroyed. While there are some figures who support an unified Isaiah[1] I confess I just don’t find persuasive their answers to the critics argument regarding a later date. Even if one buys some of the literary claims, that’s typically possible for a later editor bringing the various works together. How then do we deal with this problem of a significant set of texts quoted by Nephi and others after they left Jerusalem?

Children at the Pulpit?

Yesterday was testimony meeting (for some of you, fast and testimony meeting). By good fortune, I have never had much anxiety about the “ward crazies” who say such interesting things on open mic Sunday — by good fortune, the wards I have attended have not had this challenge. But I do see the standard mix of young children, probably three or four per testimony meeting, some who manage on their own, some who manage with parental prompts, some who require a word-for-word script whispered into their ear. It’s cute if it’s your own kid; it’s not a big deal if it’s someone else’s; it must be a bizarre experience for non-LDS visitors. Why do we do this?

Benedict Option

Rod Dreher at The American Conservative in response to significant losses on cultural issues in the US suggested that social conservatives should adopt what he calls the Benedict Option. More or less it means those who cease trying to make the public sphere what they consider moral and instead create more local and self-contained communities. Last week Hal Boyd at the Deseret News talked of this option for Latter-day Saint communities.

Translating the Book of Mormon and the Priesthood Restoration

One of the interesting facets of Mormon history is that a few key events are not exactly clear. An example is the Melchezedek Priesthood restoration. Ben at the Juvenile Instructor did a nice overview of the issues a few years back. The Millennial Star did a nice post discussing how Addison Everett’s account bears on all this. Basically though we don’t know for sure when it was restored. A common, perhaps dominant view, is that rather than being a single event it was a process. I don’t claim to be an expert in all this. I’ve read the same books as most of you likely have.[1] What I’ve noticed in what I’ve read though is how little the Book of Mormon text plays into these discussions beyond Oliver Cowdery’s later mention that he and Joseph were translating 3 Nephi. That led them to seek baptism with authority. In turn that led the way to the Aaronic Priesthood restoration.

SMPT at Claremont March 2-4: “Poured Out Upon Us: The Holy Spirit”

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will hold its 2017 Annual Meeting at Claremont Graduate University on March 2-4th, on the theme, “Poured Out Upon Us: The Holy Spirit.” Over two dozen presenters, including several T&Sers, will speak on a wide range of aspects of Mormon belief, including: “Deny Not the Manifestations of the Holy Spirit” —John W. Welch, Brigham Young University “‘The Spirit Said unto Me Again: Slay Him’: Latter-day Saint Reflections on Divine Violence” —Patrick Q. Mason, Claremont Graduate University “Toward a Nephite Pneumatology” —Joseph M. Spencer, Brigham Young University “The Family: A Performance of the World” —Rosalynde Welch, Independent Scholar “The Transcendence of Flesh” —James E. Faulconer, Brigham Young University “‘The Spirit Speaketh the Truth and Lieth Not’: The Complex Theological Intersection of Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics” —Benjamin Spackman, Claremont Graduate University “Grace and the Baptism of Fire” —Benjamin Huff, Randolph Macon College For the full schedule and other information, visit the conference page.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

There’s something memorable about the phrase, “wars and rumors of wars.” It certainly occurs in the scriptures often enough. Two prominent examples are in Nephi’s vision of the future of his people (and his brothers’) on the American continents (1 Nephi 12:21, 1 Nephi 14:16) and the Savior’s own discussion of the end (Mark 13:7 and Mattew 24:6). The latter usage–echoed as well by Moroni (Mormon 8:30)–always struck me as anachronistic. These were opinions I formed as a kid, back when we all watched the First Gulf War on television. War was a different thing, then. The whole world was on our side, we were rescuing a small country from a larger one led by an evil dictator, and of course nobody could mount a credible resistance to the military might of the United States. Most importantly, however, we could watch the war on our televisions, as reported by correspondents on the ground who were connected almost in real time via satellite…

Truth, Knowledge and Confidence

A few months back we were at Seven Peaks in Provo and my son was staring down the long drop of one of the slides. He knew that it was safe yet ultimately that knowledge wasn’t what was in question. He thought it too big a risk. He didn’t have confidence in the safety of the slide despite having intellectual knowledge that it was safe. I raise this to illustrate a principle. Often when people talk about religion and religious knowledge the issue really isn’t knowledge despite all appearances. What people really are after is confidence.

Mormon apocalypticism

Apocalypticism has become virtually synonymous with the disreputable side of religion, the stall in the religious marketplace where respectable people don’t want to be seen rummaging through the close-out racks. This is unfortunate, as you can’t understand the New Testament without reference to apocalypticism, and (to get to the point of this post) apocalypticism is an inextricable part of the inner logic of Mormonism.

Can Private Experience Ground Knowledge?

I’ve neglected my posts on epistemology the past couple of months due to being busy. While I want to get back to them let me first take a bit of a side trip. Fundamentally more than anything else the big divide within the question of religious knowing is to what degree private experiences can ground knowledge. Typically when critics engage with Mormons they want the playing field to only be public evidence. Now it’s not that Mormons aren’t willing to play that game. By and large apologetics (at least the good kinds) are willing to discuss plausibility in terms of public evidence. But when it comes to knowledge, the critics want to make an appeal to belief in the strongest argument. That is we should believe what has the most weight of public evidence, even if perhaps the arguments are themselves circumstantial or somewhat weak. Most importantly they often want to only admit entities that have already been established scientifically.…

Guest Post: Before We Make Up Our Minds

Charlie Fuller has a BS in Sociology and an MPA from BYU and works as a management analyst in the public sector. She and her husband live in Utah County. Before we make up our minds about whether or not to allow Middle Eastern refugees into Utah, we need to take a long hard look at the blood-soaked history of these desert-dwelling religious extremists.

What we must not do

Although none of these assumptions can be taken for granted, let’s assume that Trump’s presidency will feature more or less what his campaign promised, that his term in office will be limited to 1260 1460 days, and that it will come to be widely derided as a disaster for the country. If we look back at the Church’s dealings with governments around the world during the last hundred years, we can see things in retrospect that the Church and its members should have avoided in the past that suggest things that we should avoid now.

Telling the stories of the Church’s history

A review of Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History, by Gregory A. Prince Telling the history of a church can be tricky. Which elements arose from the culture of the time? Which manifest the direct intervention of the divine? Is that even a sensible distinction? On the one hand, some Church leaders have historically seen the principal role of religious history as being to show “the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now” [1]. With this as one’s end, the appropriate means may be a partial telling of history: “Some things that are true are not very useful” [2]. On the other hand, some fear that this will leave believers vulnerable when uncomfortable truths come out: “I worry about the young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly Joseph and are shocked to discover his failings. The problem is that they may lose faith in the entire…

Promoting vs. Honoring

If I might be allowed an overly broad generalization, it often seems like political action is locked between two main views. In the past I’ve often called it the Kantian versus the Utilitarian.[1] That’s not entirely fair. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that we have a tension between promoting values versus honoring them. Consider abortion. Many people think it wrong. Some people might go to protests over the issue and do things to signal their opposition to abortion. But some of the same people might oppose actions that would actually reduce the rate of abortion (say free contraceptives) for other reasons. They may not even focus on policies that actually reduce the rate of abortion.[2] Likewise someone might want peace but consider honoring that value so important that they wouldn’t condone war even if it brought peace.[3] On the other side people might get into the situation of the ends justifying the means so killing is fine…

On Punching Nazis

One of the big debates over the weekend surprisingly was whether it’s ethical to punch Nazis. I know people already have an endless supply of thought pieces on the topic. So I’ll be brief. The issue isn’t whether it’s justifiable to punch a particular Nazi. It’s what gets normalized when many people tend to apply the Nazi label broadly. When Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and many others have regularly been called Nazis it makes one a little worried about just who people think are OK to punch.

Scientists and Religious Belief

Exactly how religious are scientists? The typical assumption is that they aren’t terribly religious at all. Further I think most people assume this is a relatively recent change – say around the time of the second world war. It’s always a difficult question since there’s debate about who is or isn’t a scientist. Are doctors? Are people with computer science degrees? Are people with degrees in science but not practicing in the field? There’s also the question of significance. For instance I’m almost certainly insignificant and especially compared with a Nobel Prize winner. When making these studies do you give more weight to people who’ve published significant articles or who are in academia versus private facilities? It gets complex fast. Any study attempting to answer these questions should be taken with an eye of skepticism. It is interesting though that 100 years ago a survey was sent to 1000 scientists asking them about their belief in God. Around 30% of…

Being subject to Voldemort

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Donald Trump is likely to destroy American democracy while leaving the nation in ruins and the world in flames, and let’s further assume that all of these are bad things. (I don’ t think the situation is quite as hopeful as that, but I’m not particularly interested in arguing about any of these assumptions in this post.) What should the Church do about it? What should you do about it?

The Evolution of Adam

That’s a book by Christian scholar Peter Enns: The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (BrazosPress, 2012). The arguments in the book are directed at Evangelicals, but Mormons can quite profitably read along as well. Given that the LDS Church has “no official position on the theory of evolution” and that evolution is taught as part of the biology curriculum at BYU, you would think evolution is a non-issue with Mormons compared to the trouble it seems to cause Evangelicals. But prior statements of some LDS leaders and certain passages in LDS scripture create difficulties for Mormons that Evangelicals don’t face, so it sort of balances out. For Evangelicals and Mormons alike, the Enns book is an excellent discussion from a believing Christian perspective that attempts to reconcile the apparent tension between biblical and scientific accounts of humankind’s origin, as well as the place of the historical Adam in that account.

Aaronic Priesthood and Apostasy

The common way the apostasy is understood is in terms of the loss of priesthood authority. Priesthood seems the key thing that needed to be restored by Joseph Smith. Much of our conception of restoration is tied to rites and ordinances revealed by Joseph Smith and administered by the priesthood.[1] To my eye the most interesting question relative to the apostasy concerns the Aaronic priesthood. Was it removed from the earth?

Pragmatism as Mormon Epistemology Part 2

Last time I discussed how the American philosopher C. S. Peirce’s pragmatism saw meanings in terms of how we’d verify a predicate. So “hardness” is wrapped up in all the measurement practices of determining if something was hard. Peirce saw this literally as following Jesus’ adage to judge things by their fruits. An other important aspect of knowledge for Peirce was recognizing that belief was something that happens but isn’t chosen. All we can choose is where we inquire.  The reason for thinking belief is non-volitional[1] is simple. Imagine you’re outside looking up into the sky. It’s a deep blue you can’t miss. Now make yourself believe it is pink. You can’t do it. When we analyze carefully the types of control we have over belief it’s always seems to be indirect. This isn’t to say we can’t delude ourselves but the way we do this is by avoiding thinking about certain things. Non-volitional belief is also quite in keeping…

Co-opting Secular Religion

It has often been noted that, in the United States, politics is our national religion. This is something my co-blogger Walker Wright covered at Difficult Run back in 2013, citing Eran Shalev: Through pseudo-biblicism the Bible became a living text, an ongoing scriptural venture which complemented and foritified notions of national chosenness and mission. This transformation occurred within a poisoned political culture which created “two parallel imagined communities,” namely the two political parties—the Federalists and the Republicans—that denied each other’s legitimacy. This disposition…created a political culture governed by a grammar of combat, which entailed a “politics of anxious extremes.” It fostered the intense employment and further construction of biblical politics, each side depicting the other as wrong-doing “Adamites” or “Jeffersonites.” …The pseudo-biblical language thus wove the Bible into American life and sanctified the young nation. American politics were transformed, in texts largely devoid of references to God, into the new religion of the republic. I came across another example of…

Scripture and Historical Context: A Contemporary Example

There’s a common assumption that historical accuracy and a spiritual orthodoxy compete against each other in a zero-sum game. Either you have to take the most recent finding or the dominant academic consensus as credible, or you have to take a literal reading of the scriptures as axiomatic, but you can’t have both. Well, that’s probably OK, because in my case I prefer neither. Reading the scriptures “literally” is a proposition that makes no more sense than trying to read Robert Frost “literally” since the scriptures contain poetry (and a host of other literary genres) that are supposed to be read in some fashion other than “literal.” On the other hand–much as I value and am interested in scholarship and research–I cannot take seriously the idea of handing the ultimate authority over any spiritual question to a committee of experts, which is about the most optimistic way you can look at the consensus of scholarship on any one particular issue at any particular…