Author: Dave Banack

A Writer on Science and Religion

In this final installment of this month’s series of posts on religion and science, I will present a different take on things from the perspective of a celebrated writer. Marilynne Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her novel Gilead. She also delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale in 2009, resulting in the book Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Yale Univ. Press, 2010), from which I draw the following quotations and summaries.

Science and Religion: Enemies or Partners?

For the next installment in this set of posts, let’s consider the relation between science and religion. In a mildly tedious but well-organized book, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (HarperCollins, 2000), Ian Barbour lays out four basic forms that the relation between science and religion can take: Conflict (either science or religion is correct, but not both); Independence (science and religion refer to different domains or aspects of reality); Dialogue (where discussions about method, metaphysics, and metaphor can enlighten both scientists and theologians); and Integration (natural theology or theology of nature approaches try to unite some or all aspects of science and theology). Which of these views or models correspond to the LDS approach?

Correlation is Killing Sunday School

Once upon a time, there was Sunday School, an independent auxiliary whose officers were appointed by senior LDS leaders and whose primary task was to develop a Sunday School curriculum, and commission and supervise the writing of lesson manuals. They did a nice job. Then came Correlation.

Jonah, overboard.

If you haven’t heard the story in Sunday School yet, you will shortly (Jonah 1). Surprisingly, the combination of God and bad weather is still a potent force in the modern era — my stake was praying for rain earlier this year. But here is a more colorful Jonah-like account with sailors, storms, and witches from the 17th century.

An LDS View on Science and Religion

Continuing the conversation begun in my earlier post (God and Science), let’s look at the Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry titled “Science and Religion.” It provides a good summary of what might be termed the conservative LDS position on the topic. The article opens on a positive note: “Because of belief in the ultimate compatibility of all truth and in the eternal character of human knowledge, Latter-day Saints tend to take a more positive approach to science than do some people in other religious traditions who also claim a strong foundation in scripture.” While it is true that “Latter-day Saints” (you and me) take a positive view of science, the rise of Correlation has seemingly pushed most pro-science commentary out of LDS curriculum materials and periodicals. That, plus the striking absence of General Authorities with a scientific as opposed to a business or professional background, means there is very little LDS institutional support for pro-science views. Only the legacy of apostles…

God and Science

The conflict between science and religion is generally overstated. But it is certainly true that science is the matrix that most people of our day — believers or not — use as the basis for understanding the natural world we live in. Atheists and agnostics stop there; believers add a supplemental layer of faith to their view of the universe that includes a doctrine or idea of God and that reflects a view or theory of how God acts (or doesn’t act) in the natural world. So does science strengthen our faith or threaten it? Is it easier or tougher to be a believer in the age of modern science than, say, the time of Hellenistic philosophy and paganism or the early modern era of demonology and witch-hunts? This general question of achieving faith while living in the age of modern science is the subject of physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne’s book Belief in God in the Age of Science.…

Myth and Ritual

Like some of you, I’ve been reading a book or two on the Old Testament, this year’s Sunday School course of study. Most recently I read Susan Niditch’s Ancient Israelite Religion (OUP, 1997), described in the jacket blurb as “a perceptive, accessible account of the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Israelites.” Too often our approach to the Old Testament is essentially cherrypicking — highlighting passages that affirm our own beliefs and understanding while skimming over or simply ignoring everything else. We can do better. Niditch takes a worldview approach, suggesting we ought to strive to see how the Israelites saw the world as a way to understand Israelite religion. Myth and ritual are two aspects of this “worldview analysis,” which, along with experience and ethics, form the template Niditch uses to examine the Israelite worldview revealed by the texts of the Hebrew Bible and by surviving archeological artifacts. I’ll touch on a few of the points Niditch makes…

Where Is Mormonism Headed?

That theme is addressed from many different angles in The Future of Mormonism series at Patheos. It might be the best online event on Mormonism I’ve seen, with contributors drawn from across the Mormon spectrum. Here are a few highlights. Mormonism in the New Century by Armand Mauss — Mauss sees the retrenchment-assimilation pendulum swinging back toward assimilation as the Church moves into the 21st century. He lists several signs of this “new posture of diplomatic outreach by the church leadership.” Mormon Publishing, the Internet, and the Democratization of Information by Kristine Haglund — Dialogue’s editor weighs in on “the challenges facing Mormon publishing.” Like blogs, which Haglund rather coyly describes as showing “that people really like to hear themselves talk.” I like her suggestion that the bottom-up efforts of independent journals and blogs may help Mormonism develop a “framework for engaging the ever-broadening discourse about Mormonism in the new media world.” Partnering with our Friends from Other Faiths by…

Perceptions of Mormonism

The Deseret News posted an article (“Mormons need to work to increase favor“) summarizing remarks by Gary Lawrence at the recent FAIR Conference held last week in Sandy. He addressed perceptions of Mormonism, based on data gathered by his polling firm. We’ve got some problems, it seems.

Ripples in History

I recently finished Victor Davis Hanson’s Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), with the give-it-all-away subtitle How wars of the past still determine how we fight, how we live, and how we think. Generalizing a bit, not just wars but many major events and some small, unnoticed ones send ripples into the future, silently influencing future generations. Could the present, our present, have turned out differently?

What Did We Lose?

smith-carthage-martyrdom

In 70 AD, the Romans capped their extended campaign to crush a Jewish revolt by destroying the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. The Jews lost their temple. Earlier, they had lost political autonomy and the kingship; later, in 132 AD, another Jewish revolt was suppressed and Jews were barred from living in or even entering Jerusalem. Despite this loss of temple, king, and land, the Jews adapted and Judaism endured. In the 19th century, Mormons had their own sharp if somewhat less dramatic struggle with American government and culture. What did we Mormons lose?

The End of the World

Yellowstone geyser

I took a stroll through the End of the World last week. Brought the wife and kids and a picnic lunch. It was beautiful, as always. But one of these days (and it won’t be long) it will be gone. Maybe us too.

New Mormon Blog at Beliefnet

Jana Reiss, former T&S guest blogger and author of Mormonism for Dummies, is running a new Mormon blog at Beliefnet: Flunking Sainthood. Put a link in your blogroll (do people still do blogrolls?) and visit often. Having myself previously hosted a Mormon blog at Beliefnet, I have some idea of the challenge the new blog is facing. The problem can be put very simply: (1) few people who aren’t Mormon have much to say about Mormonism, and (2) there aren’t too many Mormons hanging around the Beliefnet site. But it just seems wrong that one of the most popular Internet religion sites doesn’t host a Mormon blog (they host just about everything else), so I’m happy Jana is taking on this project. I hope she is the surprise hit of the year at Beliefnet. As the author of What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide, I’m sure she has a few tricks up her sleeve. You can…

Inoculation Works

I finally picked up and read a copy of Simon Southerton’s Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church (Signature, 2004) a couple of weeks ago. Yet I still attended church last week and have not drafted a resignation letter. Inoculation works. There’s nothing particularly new in the book — it summarizes mainstream academic views about the origins of the native inhabitants of the Americas, reviews more recent DNA evidence that confirms the mainstream view, then critiques mainstream LDS beliefs about the Book of Mormon and the peopling of the Americas. It is not a book that should have stirred up much controversy. That it did suggests we LDS have a problem, but it’s not a DNA problem. Our problem can be described in two words: Correlation and inoculation. Problems With Correlation What is Correlation? It is an organizational unit within the LDS bureaucracy with a staff and a budget. What does it do? It reviews most…

A Peek Inside the Temple

Temple model 1

On May 28, a press conference was held in the South Visitors’ Center on Temple Square to unveil a new public exhibit: a cut-away scale model showing the interior architecture and layout of the Salt Lake Temple. The LDS Newsroom and Deseret News posted detailed stories with additional images; in this post I just want to toss out a few ideas for discussion.

Review: Losing My Religion

I admit that when approaching William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace (HarperCollins, 2009), I expected the standard debunking treatment that is so familiar in news and entertainment media these days. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find a balanced and engaging narrative that mixes accounts of the stories Lobell covered while a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times with details of his own journey into, then out of, faith. Lobdell’s journey and reporting Lobdell’s journey began in his late twenties, when he first attended the Mariners Church, a nondenominational megachurch in Orange County. Ironically, that church is located just a couple of blocks away from the Newport Beach Temple. [The Mariners Church very kindly allowed their parking lot to be used for overflow parking during the public open house tours provided prior to the dedication of the temple in 2005.] Lobdell slowly grew in the…

Beliefs and Causes

Beliefs are complicated and sometimes strangely resistant to facts. I don’t mean religious beliefs in particular, but everyday beliefs about how the world works and how it is that we come to hold them. That’s what I took away from a recent reading of Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (W. W. Norton, 2006). Here’s an example from the chapter on paranormal beliefs. A stage magician performed fake psychic phenomena in front of two groups of university students. One group was told that he was a magician, while the other group was told he was a genuine psychic. When asked afterwards whether or not they believed he had genuine psychic powers, about two thirds of the students in both groups thought that he did. Even when the groups who were initially told that he was psychic were told that he was a fake, half still believed he had special psychic powers. (p. 157.) What’s…

Priesthood Session in a Nutshell

President Eyring conducted, with music by a BYU priesthood choir (with an expressive and energetic conductor) and talks by Elder Oaks, Elder Rasband, YM President Beck, and the First Presidency. This was an amazingly upbeat meeting. President Monson called this one of the best priesthood meetings he ever attended.

Sleep, Success, and Seminary

Sleep: it’s more important than you think, especially for teenagers. Here’s from George Will’s latest column, “How to ruin a child“: Only 5 percent of high school seniors get eight hours of sleep a night. Children get an hour less than they did 30 years ago, which subtracts IQ points and adds body weight.

Genesis and Genre

When we read Genesis, what exactly are we reading? The distinctions and categories we modern readers bring to books and narratives (fiction or nonfiction; science or folk tale; history or literature; poetry or prose; author’s original text or quoted source) may not serve us well when we read the Old Testament, a collection of ancient literature. Its writers used different conventions. What were they? What exactly are we reading when we read Genesis?

Lineage: A Troubling Concept

Here’s a quote from Lesson 7, “The Abrahamic Covenant,” that caught my attention in Sunday School: The great majority of those who become members of the Church are literal descendants of Abraham through Ephraim, son of Joseph. Those who are not literal descendants of Abraham and Israel must become such, and when they are baptized and confirmed they are grafted into the tree and are entitled to all the rights and privileges as heirs.

Mormons and Prosperity

What the scriptures teach us about prosperity

The Prosperity Gospel (which the linked Wikipedia article defines as “the notion that God provides material prosperity for those he favors”) is often associated with Evangelical megapreachers. [Note 1.] But we all know there is a Mormon variation of the Prosperity Gospel lurking behind the ubiquitous references to blessings and how to earn them that populate LDS books, sermons, and discourse. So when I started reading my review copy of What the Scriptures Teach Us About Prosperity (Deseret Book, 2010) by S. Michael Wilcox, I was hoping that at some point the author would distinguish the Mormon view of prosperity from the Evangelical version of the Prosperity Gospel. The Mormon View of Prosperity Alas, no. The book contains no explicit discussion of the Prosperity Gospel and no direct comparison of Evangelical and LDS views. The index offers no entries under Propserity Gospel, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Evangelical, or even Protestant. The best I can find is an entry for John…

Underwhelming Thoughts on Correlation

gospel principles manual

I confess that I am not a regular reader of the Church News, but I did happen to run across this recent piece, “Using proper sources.” I will note a couple of quibbles I have with the piece (which, as an unsigned post in the “Viewpoints” section, I take to be essentially a staff editorial), but in the end I think I agree on the need to avoid the use of “uncorrelated” supplementary sources or materials in class.

Calling All Introverts

There’s hope! At least that’s the message of a couple of posts I read through lately (here and here) presenting an interview with Adam McHugh, the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. By “Church” he means Evangelicals, not the LDS Church, but the discussion is still relevant to us.

Do We Need A Fifth Mission?

Samuel, proclaiming.

The news is out that LDS leaders are adding a fourth mission for the Church: caring for the poor and needy. According to an official LDS spokesman cited in the Salt Lake Tribune article, the new mission (or purpose or emphasis) will be included in the new edition of the Handbook of Instructions to be issued next year. With a publishing deadline looming, I propose that we put our collective heads together and see whether we need a fifth mission as well. Perhaps adding a fourth mission alone is not enough to fill in the gaps apparently missed by the first three missions.

December: Preparing for the Annual Sunday School Curriculum Reboot

OT manual cover

In the Church, December means different things to different people. If you’re three, you will soon be exiled from that zone of energetic irreverence known as Nursery to your first real class, Sunbeams. If you’re a bishop, holiday cheer is tempered by the month-long grind of tithing settlement. But one change we all look forward to every year is the annual Sunday School curriculum reboot. The anticipation is palpable. Yes, even this year, with the Old Testament waiting in the wings. Any course of study gets old after twelve months. Universities run on quick 10-week quarters or endless 16-week semesters. Gospel Doctrine is like a 52-week BYU religion class. We’re ready for a change. December is your month to prepare. And prepare you must. The LDS Bible offers an archaic English translation based on scholarship and original manuscripts five centuries behind the times. Moreover, the narrative is cut up into little snippets (enumerated verses), poetry and prose are made indistinguishable,…

Your View of Mormons in the Media

I recently had a short discussion with a journalism student about how Mormons and Mormonism get covered in the mainstream media and whether new online media, including blogs, do any better. I’ll summarize my responses below, but I invite readers to offer their own responses in the comments. 1. How do Mormons feel about increased coverage of Mormonism in the mainstream media that accompanied Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy? I don’t know any Mormon who resents the increased coverage or wishes the media would stop talking about Mormonism. Of course, it is nice when journalists who include references to Mormonism in their stories get the details right. I think the LDS Newsroom has had some success helping journalists get some of the details right, such as distinguishing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from other churches or splinter groups that still come under the larger umbrella of “Mormonism,” some of which continue to practice polygamy. 2. Do you feel…

What Happened in Nauvoo, Part 3: Polygamy

[See Part 1: Founding and Part 2: Flourishing] Any history of Nauvoo needs to give an account of the secret practice of polygamy between 1841 and 1846. In Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise, Glen Leonard does this in about twenty pages as part of Chapter 13, “Foes Within: The Church of the Seceders.”

Hope and Children

Faith and charity get plenty of attention, but hope not so much. Pessimism, it seems, has become one of the guiding principles of modernity, reflected in the media, popular culture, and even academia. So I was surprised to find a philospher making the suggestion that children anchor our hope for progress and our conviction that life will be better for the next generation.