What is Zion and how do we get there? 31 Mormons weigh in: You’ll definitely find your Zion somewhere in here

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A review of A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saints on a Modern-Day Zion In this useful collection of brief essays, an impressively wide array of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints describe what Zion means to them. As the editors write in their introduction, “Forget about glossy Mormon-produced documentaries. Forget about funny Broadway musicals. … Here you will find a potent mixture of everyday and extraordinary Mormons speaking in their own voice about tough issues and hard-won testimonies.” The range of approaches is wonderfully expansive. Some of the authors speak of how Zion means better inclusion of groups that have historically been under-empowered. Neylan McBain, whose book Women at Church I can’t say enough good things about, writes, “As we stretch toward a new identity of Mormon womanhood, our community craves a vision of how we can honor our priorities without being slaves to their former trappings.” Julie Smith explores the question “does Mormonism oppress women–or…

Forthcoming Battles Over Religious Liberty

I know many think the focus on religious liberty is misplaced. To my eyes it seems we have more religious liberty now than at any time in American history. I recognize not all feel that way although often it is due to the majority religion being constrained in some ways from acting as the de facto religion. But in terms of individuals practicing their religion in general rather than limited practices of the majority in government contexts, we seem to be doing great. Why then the worry of the brethren over religious liberty? Robert Couch sent me a link today that may highlight the problem. It’s Rod Dreher talking about famous Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne giving a paper at the Midwest Meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. Note that this is a philosophy conference that is supposed to be discussing Christian philosophy. Swinburne is speaking about traditional Christian sexual ethics and arguing for homosexuality being extrinsically wrong.

Maxwell Institute 2017 Summer Seminar Announced

The Maxwell Institute just posted a call for applicants for its next summer seminar. The topic is Mormonism Confronts the World: How the LDS Church has Responded to Developments in Science, Culture, and Religion. The seminar runs June 26 through August 3, 2017. Plenty of time to find a topic and clear out six weeks of your schedule. Anyone with a topic to suggest is free to share it in the comments.

Call to Repentance

It is rather presumptuous to call someone to repentance, don’t you think? The act implies at least two things: that the caller knows better than the called, and that the caller has the authority to issue the call to repent. In a world of increasing moral relativism, many of us are uncomfortable with the idea that one person can or ought to impose his or her standards on another. This discomfort illegitimizes the call for repentance by not only undercutting the moral authority of the caller, but the very standards by which a call may be justified. But the call for repentance has always been a call away from the world. It is a beacon that returns us to the Lord’s standard, a corrective guide. In our church today, we accept that our leaders, especially the prophet and apostles, have the authority to call us (and the rest of the world) to repentance. And in part because of the cultural…

Issues in Epistemology: A Response to Inside/Out

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I didn’t really touch on it in depth in my theology post last week but my view of theology entails being able to give reasons for why one asserts what one asserts. The emphasis then was in how we read. Underneath it all really was Eco’s view of the ideal reader who pays close attention to the process of interpretation. That reader is an ideal reader because they can explain why they read the way they do. It was with some interest then that I read the inaugural post at Patheos’ new blog, Mormonism Inside and Out with Patrick Mason and John Dehlin.[1] They started out with the whole topic of epistemology or how we know. It turns out one of the several half finished posts I have planned engaged deeply on these issues. Rather than going through my thoughts on epistemology I thought I’d respond to a few of the issues they brought up in their discussion.

Forgiving our leaders

Redefining hierarchy: Escher's waterfall

It is about ten months ago now, that Sad Sunday when the ‘Exclusion Policy’ was upon us, the one that created a lot of problems, while solving probably none. In our ward we lost our bishop through it, and he still has not returned. Also, some of the Primary kids still have not been baptized, as some still wait for the exclusion policy to be revoked. There is ample reason for such a repeal; after all, as I analysed last year, the policy of excluding children of same sex parents from a normal entrance into our community does not really address anyone in practice, whereas it does send a signal of exclusion into the world. And into the Church. It is the wrong arena, the wrong battle, the wrong fight. Yet, a retraction is unlikely to happen for several reasons. In any formal organization, not just the Church, reversing a decision is much harder than taking one, as it erodes…

Future Mormons?

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This is a review of and a response to Adam Miller’s recent book, Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2016). This book and others like it are part of the solution to one of the biggest problems facing 21st-century Mormonism: it’s shallow. It’s boring. It’s too programmed. There’s no meat in the sandwich. Miller puts some postmodern philosophical meat in the Mormon sandwich.

The Nova Effect – Secular Age, round 7

This third section of Taylor’s book is, to me, the most redundant, so I’m going to make up for lost time by condensing these four chapters into one blog post. In fact, I’ll leave Ch. 11 off entirely because it’s mostly an exploration of the section’s themes through case studies in Britain and France. In the last post, we saw the effects of the new “Providential Deism” (and the accompanying sociopolitical and economic trends) on the nature of belief in the eighteenth century. Religion among intellectual elites was naturalized (i.e. seen as non-mysterious, accessible by reason or observation) and circumscribed entirely to the flourishing of human beings and society in the here and now. In this post, we’ll see how Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reacted against the perceived stifling effects of this anthropocentric order, and what new modes of belief and unbelief (and countless hybrids) their reactions first spawned. In chapter 8, “The Malaises of Modernity,”…

The Open and Closed Texts of Theology

Foucault's Pendulum

One of my all time favor books is Foucalt’s Pendulum by the great Italian author Umberto Eco. It’s a fantastic book about the problems of interpretation all wrapped up in a conspiracy theory. Despite having several famous books Eco’s greatest works are actually as a philosopher and semiotician. A constant theme of both his fiction and scholarly works are the limits of interpretation. He often explains this in terms of the “open text” and “closed text.” The closed text is a text (or any collection of signs like paintings or clothing) that has a very limited number of valid interpretations. The open text by contrast seems to have unlimited interpretations. Within his books his characters often face ambiguous texts out of which they attempt to gain understanding and meaning. The question always remains though: are all interpretations equally valid? Back in 1990 he gave the O. C. Tanner Lectures on this very topic.[1] It was reprinted in the book Interpretation and Overinterpretation.  His goal…

For Dutch-speaking readers

Erasmus_Hans Holbein de Jonge

I apologize for not having contributed much to Times and Seasons lately, but since last year I have chosen to concentrate on our Dutch-speaking members and friends. So much is available in English, so little in many other languages. Our site Mormoneninfo.be is geared to information that can enrich the understanding of Mormonism. This year the site is mainly devoted to the Book of Mormon curriculum. Wherever possible it integrates intellectual, cultural and artistic contributions from the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Flanders).Even if you don’t read Dutch, you’re welcome to browse through one of the lessons under “Evangelieleer 2016”, like this one with 16th and 17th century paintings of old men (to celebrate patriarchal record keepers) or this one on language and Bible history.Enjoy the art and like us on Facebook if you feel so! But in particular: thanks for passing this information to Dutch-speaking people, including former missionaries from Holland and from Dutch-speaking Belgium.

Why the Nones are Rising

One of the most interesting demographic shifts of the last era is the rise of the Nones. These are people who don’t self-identify with any particular religion at all. I’ve written about them several times in the past. My own view is that the rise of the Nones has primarily been a shift among people with loose commitment to religion. In the past they’d have named a religious tradition they were a part of. Now they say “none.” To my eyes the primary shift has been less a shift in their behavior than a shift in how they name themselves. But of course that’s not the whole story. While that’s probably what’s going on it doesn’t explain everything. Demographically the primary part of the population driving the rise of the Nones has been millennials. Fully 36% self-identify as part of the Nones. Older groups, like my Gen-X generation, have become slightly less religious but the primary driver of the social shift are…

Sacrament Prayers: A Close Reading

A while ago my dad had pointed out some features of the sacrament that somehow I’d missed in all the years I’d been partaking. A few of these were examples of something that’s right before you the whole time yet somehow you still miss. I thought I’d share them with you. We get our sacrament rite largely from the Nephites rather than the Palestinian Christians. Many have argued that the evolution of the sacrament amongst the Nephites takes the form it does going back to King Benjamin’s famous speech. (See for example John Welch’s argument in King Benjamin’s Speech: That Ye May Learn Wisdom where he argues for a close connection to Mosiah 5) The Palestinian version of the sacrament is most likely that found in the Didiche, an early 1st century document that deals with rituals and other such matters. It differs a fair amount although there are points of similarity. Given how the near eastern form of Judaism…

American Mormons Aren’t Leaving the GOP, the GOP is Leaving Us

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Believe me, no one wants to write about the Trump campaign (yet again) less than I do. However, events last week might have long-term consequences for the position of Mormonism in American society, and I thought it was worth a little bit of a look. The story starts with a major shake-up in the Trump campaign. As the NYT reported last week: Paul Manafort is out; Stephen K. Bannon is in. So, who are these two folks, and what do they have to do with Mormons? Paul Manafort is famous for, among other things, working to rehabilitate the image and career of Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych is the authoritarian, pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who was ousted in that country’s Orange Revolution. Manafort is the guy who was hired to get Yanukovych back in power. He overhauled Yanukovych’s image from clothes and haircut to people-skills, as this Slate article details. Surely, the idea went, if Manafort  could sell Yanukovych, he could also sell…

Eschatology or How it’s Always the End of Days

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Eschatology is the study of the end times. It’s hard to read much of the New Testament, Book of Mormon or even Doctrine and Covenants without noticing how much is focused on the end of the world. As some have recently noted a common refrain in the Church since it’s early days is how the end times are always nigh. In the 19th century many Mormons thought the Jesus would come before the 20th century. When I was a kid, we were constantly told we were a generation prepared for the last days. Most people thought a conflict between the USSR and America was inevitable. While all the apocalyptic movies from the 80’s now seem quaint (despite a resurgent Mad Max last year) it really was a time when people fully expected the end of the world. Is this pessimism though? I’m not sure it is. 

Musement and Alma 30

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One of the more controversial arguments in the Book of Mormon is found within Alma’s response to Korihor in Alma 30. Korihor asks Alma to “show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea show unto me that he hath power….” (43) Alma responds that “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (44) Most people cast this debate as between the humanist skeptic of religion and the believer. Alma’s response is thus seen as a variation on Paley’s argument from design for the existence of God. Paley argued that if we found a watch on the ground we’d assume an engineer had designed it. In the same way creation makes us assume a creator. Now the argument…

Classroom Discussion: Productive or Not?

The LDS Sunday School General President posted this short article at LDS.org (in the Church News section). Here is his observation about LDS classroom discussion: [W]e hear of many inspired classroom discussions. Occasionally, however, we hear of discussions that are open and lively, but at the conclusion there has been little, if any, doctrinal focus or emphasis. In essence, there have been some therapeutic conversations or a sharing of experiences, but little connection to doctrine.

How is the Church True?

I regularly see people complain about common LDS phrases such as “I know the Church is True” or “I know the Book of Mormon is True.” People often think these sentences are meaningless. Now I’ll be the first to admit that the way we speak in this context is alien to our fellow Christians. Pedagogically it’s perhaps not the best terminology to use in trying to help people gain a testimony. I do think the sentences are completely sensical though and that most people have a reasonable grasp on what they mean. Usually if you ask someone who’s used the sentence, they’ll rephrase it as “this is really God’s Church on earth.” Part of the problem is that culturally we’ve largely adopted a way of speaking that comes out of philosophy. This largely starts with Aristotle. Truth is a property of propositions (the meaning of sentences) and not entities like churches, books or the like. Remnants of earlier ways of…

Reminder: SMPT Submissions due August 15

Paper proposals for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology’s 2016 Annual Meeting are due soon—Monday, August 15. Proposals are particularly invited on the theme, “Christ, Our Forerunner,” but proposals on any aspect of LDS belief will receive full consideration. For full details on the conference and the call for papers, see the original announcement.

Book Review: Through the Valley of Shadows

Through the Valley of Shadows Cover

Although Samuel Brown’s new book, Through the Valley of Shadows, is not a book that focuses on Mormonism, I jumped at the chance to review it for Times and Seasons simply because the subject matter fascinated me. Death, after all, is something that we all face, and I was already tangentially aware that technological advances are creating thickets of ethical and emotional—not to mention economic—concerns around this final encounter. I didn’t really have any preconceived opinions about the topic, however, just a curiosity that made me eager to read Brown’s book. I was not disappointed. The book covers an impressively wide range of territory. Of course there is a lot about medical care in modern ICUs—both from the standpoint of academic research as well as from first-hand accounts from Brown’s own career—but aside from that the book also delves into social history, cognitive psychology, and legal theory. Brown’s central argument is that two sea changes in modern society have left…

Book Review: The Mormon Jesus

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I remain fundamentally unconvinced of the book’s central claim and argument, and am personally ambivalent about it—though in that I’m surely in the minority amongst Mormons (rank-and-file and all the rest) whom I suspect will heartily cheer the book’s primary claim: Mormonism, taken as a whole in it’s historic trajectory, is patently Christian.

What Was the Nephite Law of Moses?

Most scholars assume that the type of Judaism Jesus encountered had its main development during and after the Babylonian exile. When we read the Old Testament, especially the books of Moses, it appears as if they were written as a single text. However there are compelling reasons to believe they were composed out of multiple texts and traditions by groups with competing religious views. The Book of Mormon itself suggests problems with the editing and redacting of these texts. Speaking of the Bible held by the gentiles, Nephi is told it “containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many.” (1 Ne 13:23) So at a minimum the brass plates held many writings not in the Bible, such as Zenos quoted by Jacob. Obviously many texts like Ezekiel weren’t written until after Lehi had left Jerusalem.

Accidental Institutional Skills, Like Genealogy

Strange thing: Simply by working to accomplish their primary mission, large institutions develop skills and capacities somewhat or even entirely unrelated to that primary mission. So, for example, the US Army is very good at education, because it has to teach thousands of average (or less) students how to do complicated tasks like repairing a tank or hitting the right sequence of buttons to fire an advanced weapons system. Now the LDS Church is a very large and well-funded organization that has developed a number of institutional skills or capacities largely unrelated to its primary religious mission. The more you think about that, the longer the list becomes. But first, some background.

Korihor the Witch

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Ex. 22:18) I recently read Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History (Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997). How could a bunch of dedicated Christians become convinced that their neighbors, some of whom were acknowledged to be fine citizens and exemplary Christians, were actually in active league with the devil to inflict harm on others? How could trials conducted by leading men of the colony solemnly conclude that dozens of men and women were in fact witches, then haul them a mile or two out of town and hang them? Right here in America? These remain troubling yet fascinating questions for most Americans, with new books on the topic coming out every year. Mormons in particular can learn something from Salem.

The Anthropocentric Shift: Secular Age, round 6

Links to posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 In the last several posts, we’ve covered how the enchanted, hierarchical world of pre-modern Europe slowly shifted in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries to a “disciplinary” society, where human beings began to perceive themselves as rational agents and masters of their own will and destiny, and increasingly related to each other in terms of mutual benefit, exchange, and equality. This shift corresponded with the changes in scientific views (with the “mechanized” universe), sociopolitical views (i.e. government as an instrument for mutual benefit), and economic developments (the rise of the “invisible hand” free market) . In this post covering chapters 6 and 7, we’ll see corresponding religious changes during the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resulting in what Taylor calls “Providential Deism” — the bridge between the transcendence of pre-modern Christianity and the immanence of secular humanism and atheism. Providential Deism encapsulated what Taylor calls the anthropocentric shift, or the reduction of…

Don’t free BYU

Michaelsberg Abbey

Brigham Young University requires LDS students who leave the church to withdraw from the university. While some people have lobbied for change, this policy is in the best interest of the students – both those who stay and those who leave – and should stay in place.

“Come Back” — with some thoughts on why they left in the first place

A couple of weeks ago I taught Lesson #12 in the Howard W. Hunter manual, titled Come Back and Feast at the Table of the Lord. The title comes from Pres. Hunter’s remarks at the press conference given the day after he became President of the Church in 1994. I want to point out that he was well ahead of his time. He gave these remarks years before “faith crisis” became a thing in the Church and years before Pres. Monson’s theme of The Rescue became emphasized. As he is quoted in the manual: To those who have transgressed or been offended, we say, come back. To those who are hurt and struggling and afraid, we say, let us stand with you and dry your tears. To those who are confused and assailed by error on every side, we say, come to the God of all truth and the Church of continuing revelation. Come back. Stand with us. Carry on.…