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.
Trying to identify the core doctrines of Mormonism is a project doomed to failure, I think, because it sets up an unworkable categorical distinction between core and periphery, and makes the unsupported assumption that doctrine forms the core of Mormonism in the first place.
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.
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 feelings we associate with spiritual experiences are detectable by brain scans, and spiritual feelings can be generated by stimulating particular parts of our brains. That is not surprising. Without something happening in our brain, we would have no feelings and no experiences of any kind, spiritual or mundane. It’s not just that spiritual experiences are associated with particular emotions, but that everything we think and feel is a neurological event of some kind.
Media change is not bad. Each new medium has enabled us to do new and important things in the sphere of belief. Writing made it possible to extend the prophet’s voice beyond mortality and to establish a canon of scripture. Television made it possible to participate in a worldwide faith community. The Internet democratized religious discussion like nothing else before it. Technology extends our abilities to write, read, think and believe. But our cell phones are impoverishing us.
As is well known, the prophet Nephi was so beloved of the Lord that he was given power to command all things. If he called for famine, there would be famine. If he commanded Mount Nebo to be moved, it would be moved from its place. And in fact, one morning Nephi walked out of his house, looked at Mount Nebo, and commanded it to be moved thirty miles to the north. The mountain rose into the air, drifted north, and set itself down again in the place it stands today.
Without much fanfare, Utah has emerged as a per-capita standout in distance running. For a state with a population just under 3 million, Utah regularly produces strong teams and individual runners at the NXN and Footlocker national cross country championships at the high school level, competitive collegians, and a surprising number of postcollegiate standouts. This isn’t entirely surprising: if you give 3 million people the chance to live and train at altitude year-round, good things can happen.
Just before Christmas in 1522, an illiterate laborer from Strasbourg named Lienhard Jost lay in his bed at night and prayed. He had literally felt the ground shifting under his feet when an earthquake had struck while he was cutting wood in the forest that day, but he was even more unsettled by the ongoing religious controversies and by rumors that the world would be destroyed by a second Deluge in little more than a year.
My review of David Conley Nelson’s Moroni and the Swastika, a book about Mormons and the church in Nazi Germany, was just published in Dialogue. To summarize my review briefly: the book’s primary arguments are wrong, it distorts the facts and documents that it takes as evidence for those arguments, and the writing is imprecise and sensationalist in ways that are more typical of religious polemic than mainstream scholarship.
I don’t want to write about gay marriage. So let’s talk about linguistics first. We acquire language in childhood through a long process of listening to and eventually reading the language output of competent speakers of English (or whatever languages prevail in the communities where we grow up). As we are exposed to countless examples of language, we start to build up an internal model of English. We hypothesize about the rules of English and use our hypotheses to generate English statements unlike any we have heard before in response to new situations. Over time, as our hypotheses are confirmed or falsified, we modify the internal set of rules by which we determine what is and is not a well-formed English utterance. We can’t directly observe the mental structures of language. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that each of us has a somewhat different internal model of English. Even if we had the same set of grammar rules, we might…
In preparing people to face a skeptical world, we should not confuse inoculation with the administration of poison by degrees.
Jeder soll nach seiner Fasson selig werden—everyone may find sacred bliss in their own way, in Frederick the Great of Prussia’s formulation of enlightened commitment to religious tolerance. Nowhere is this sentiment more evident today than at a community health club.
In Understanding the Book of Mormon, Grant Hardy argues that an important part of the Book of Mormon’s meaning emerges from how it alludes to, comments on, or patterns itself after other stories, such as Joseph in Egypt, the Exodus, and the Fall. Another such story not discussed by Hardy but central to understanding the Book of Mormon is, I think, the end of the world.
When it comes to handcart reenactments, we spend too much time on all the wrong questions, questions like: How much physical suffering is needed for a youth-appropriate spiritual experience? Personally, I’d like to minimize the suffering in my spiritual experiences, thank you very much. Or anxious hand-wringing, like: Do handcart reenactments distort the historically authentic experiences of pioneers who traveled to Utah by various means and responded in individually determined ways to the contingent experience of physical exertion and deprivation over which a superstructure of religious Exodus narrative had been established amid a plethora of competing counter-narratives? Again, I’m not terribly interested; perfect authenticity is not only boring, it’s inauthentic. Instead, the question we should be asking ourselves is What kind of awesome ward activities can we justify thanks to the examples of pioneer ancestors and/or revered persons of non-direct ancestry?
To keep the rest of this post in context, let me repeat that I think Rexburg is a fantastic place, that BYU-Idaho has gotten the most important things right in its transformation from a junior college into a four-year university, and that its dress code is not a terribly important issue. The university’s path forward to becoming the kind of university it hopes to be, although not simple, is clear enough. Another tricky question for the future of the university is how to strike the right balance between local heritage versus consistency with the system flagship in Provo: How much BYU, and how much Idaho?
BYU-Idaho is much different today than it was in 2001, when it changed its name from Ricks College and started to offer bachelor’s degrees. It shouldn’t detract from the accomplishments of the last decade to say that the university is still a work in progress; institutional change takes a generation. There are more changes in store, challenges that soon need to be faced, and pitfalls that have to be avoided.
You might be surprised to learn that the church maintains not one but two large universities, including one about 280 miles north of Provo. The existence of BYU-Idaho is one of those things that seems to easily escape notice, even for Mormons in the middle of a vigorous debate about what must be done about BYU and LDS higher education. While the low level of scrutiny that BYU-Idaho receives is in general salutary for the university, it’s unfortunate for the discussions of higher education, as some of the most interesting experiments in the American university system today are being conducted in Rexburg, Idaho.