Author: Nathaniel Givens

Scriptural Meanderings

2014-06-16 Lehi Prophecies

Last week I started reading the Book of Mormon again from the beginning. The first day, I made it through 1 Nephi 1. The second day, I made it through 1 Nephi 2:1. For behold, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto my father, yea, even in a dream, and said unto him: Blessed art thou Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done; and because thou hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold, they seek to take away thy life (1 Nephi 2:1) “Behold,” says The Lord, “They seek to take away thy life.” This phrase really stuck out to me. It’s not like the Lord is likely telling Lehi anything that he doesn’t already know, is he? After all, this is how Nephi ended the last chapter: And when the Jews heard these things they were angry with him; yea, even as with the prophets of old,…

False Choices and Fence Holes

2014-06-02 The Good Shepherd

It is very common in the Bloggernaccle to talk about an exodus of members from the Church. These members are usually described as a cohesive demographic. The two examples I’ve seen most frequently are (1) young Millennials who are disillusioned by the discrepancy between real history and CES whitewashing and (2) good women whose contributions and perspectives are devalued and rejected by the institution at large. I don’t have any insider or objective data on these concerns, and so I couldn’t say where they fall on the spectrum from urban legend to imminent crisis, but I suspect the problem is genuine based purely on my own experiences. The question becomes: what should we do about it? Cynthia L proffered a twist on the usual tale of the lost sheep at By Common Consent on Saturday. In her parable, sheep wander away because there are holes in the fence. Disagreement arises among the shepherds. One group insists that we ought to…

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

2014-04-28 Dresdenfiles Quote

This post is a follow up to my two previous posts As Much As I Know Anything and What It Would Take To Not Believe. I have to start out by clarifying something that I didn’t define well enough in a previous post. I made the statement that we cannot not believe, but that depends on a definition of belief that isn’t universal and that I should have made more clear. Obviously we can choose to not believe in lots of things individually. But when I think about belief I have something more holistic and systemic in mind. Our really important beliefs tend to weave together in a web that makes it impossible for some strands to be pulled without having an effect on the entire fabric. At this point we’re not just talking about individual propositions. We’re talking about a world view, which is a cohesive whole that includes not just beliefs, but also values, emotions, and memories. I’m tempted…

What It Would Take to Not Believe

2014-04-14 Karl Popper

There was one question in response to my last post that I particularly wanted to answer, but wasn’t able to at the time. This is the question, which was posed by Sebastian Dick: “What would it take to convince you that (in as much as you know anything) propositions such as God exists or the BoM is historical are false? Or do you consider such propositions unfalsifiable?” This post is my answer. It is not a trite cliché that everyone has to believe in something. It is the literal truth. When your life has ended and you look back and see the decisions that you have made along the way, the pattern of choices will imply a corresponding constellation of beliefs. Those facts and principles that you affirm as relevant and true because they are made logically necessary by your actions are the things that you believe. This perspective is a generalization of the economic theory of revealed preferences, so…

As Much As I Know Anything

2014-03-31 Before the Pulpit

“Out of curiosity, what makes you believe in Mormonism? Or God for that matter?” This is a question I got from a close friend, more or less out of the blue, the Wednesday before last in a Facebook conversation that had been—up to that point—mostly about how much I love Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve been asked that, but it’s a question I’ve struggled unsuccessfully to answer in the past. I’ve tried on more than one occasion to sit down and write out my reasons, but I always failed. Eventually I gave up. And then, last week, I found that the answer had been there all along. And it was pretty simple. Looking back, I’d say that was the problem. For all I love to write about epistemic humility, doubt, and uncertainty I have just about the simplest and most conventional Mormon testimony that it is possible to have. And maybe, in the…

Human Evolution: Problems and Possibilities

2014-03-17 Sun Over Earth

I agree with Jonathan Green’s description of how most Mormons tend to think about evolution vs. creation. To recap, we tend to: Affirm an active role for God in the creation of human beings Accept basic science as it relates to genetics, natural selection, geology, etc. Reject attempts to force an either/or choice between points 1 and 2. As a general rule, Mormons are happy to embrace science and religion, and do not see a necessary conflict between the two. When it comes to the usual hullaballoo over religion vs. science, this is certainly correct. There just isn’t any particular reason to care very much whether God created Adam and Eve using natural selection or some other means. However, there is a more subtle conflict. It exists between the continuity of the evolution narrative and the way we talk about humanity as a discrete category. Here is one example of the problem from a typical statement of Brigham Young’s: The…

Fallibility, Trust, and Commercial Development

2014-03-10 Philly Dev Site

I’ve written about the fallibility of our leaders before (here, here, and here) because I think it’s important for us as members to develop greater spiritual independence and because the unrealistic expectations held for the leaders (as often by the critics as by the devout) set people up for unnecessary disappointment. But the concept of fallibility, like the even trendier concept of doubt, can be overplayed. Leaders are fallible, yes, but that doesn’t preclude room for trust. The proximate cause of my ruminations was the announcement of the Church’s addition of a chapel and a commercial apartment tower next to the Philadelphia temple site. Based on reporting in the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, local reception of the proposed projects is quite enthusiastic. From the NYT: [Philadelphia’s] deputy mayor for economic development… praised the church for taking a step that private developers were less likely to tackle, that is, committing to such a project without more evidence of economic…

Thanking God’s Advocates, the Promoters of the Cause

2014-02-23 John_Martin_-_Sodom_and_Gomorrah

Today in Gospel Doctrine I played the role of Devil’s advocate. I spent the last 10 or 15 minutes leading a discussion about the children who died when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, when God sent the Flood, when Christ died on the cross and Nephite cities were burned, buried, and sunk, and when Alma and Amulek watched as women and children were burned to death before their eyes. Several of the commenters sought to defend God’s justice using familiar arguments (like the idea that there are some things worse than death) or evasions (like the idea that maybe there were no children in Sodom who were not already engaged in or tainted by sin). Some of these arguments make more sense than others to me, but for me no combination makes the problem go away entirely. The whole idea of using modern reasoning to try and justify these stories seems futile given the existence of ancient explanations that are,…

UPDATED: The 1st Annual Wheatley “Faith Seeking Understanding” Summer Seminar

UPDATE: The deadlines and notification date have been pushed out an extra month to give additional time for people to submit. The new deadline is March 28, 2014. (Notifications will go out by April 15, 2014.) The 1st Annual Wheatley “Faith Seeking Understanding” summer seminar will run from July 14 through August 1, 2014.  It is being sponsored by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University and is under the direction of Professor Terryl Givens, Wheatley Fellow and Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond. From the announcement: What are the general contours of Christianity’s efforts to find a marriage of belief and intellect? Does Mormonism face the same challenges as the broader Christian tradition? What are the contributions of Mormon theology to current debates in the political and cultural realms? How reasonable are LDS positions on the family, marriage, pro-life and end of life issues? Is the Mormon theological tradition an asset or a handicap in the public sphere?…

What Are Gender Roles Good For?

2014-02-10 Grace Hopper Quote

The argument against perpetuating normative gender roles has two prongs. First, there is the argument that gender roles do not offer anything that is not available to human beings autonomously determining their own roles. Second, there is the observation that no set of gender roles applies universally. There will always be those who, because of individual nature or life circumstance, cannot conform to the prevailing gender roles. In practice, those who conform least are most marginalized. Taken together, gender roles appear to offer little substantial benefit but carry genuine cost. So what’s the case in favor of gender roles? The strength of the first prong of this argument rests on a misleading intuition. Generally, the more beneficial a thing is the easier it is to identify the way in which that things is beneficial. We all know penicillin is beneficial, and we can all state clearly exactly why. Therefore, the intuition goes, if gender roles are really all that important…

Are Prophets Superheroes?

2014-01-27 Superman

Superheroes are a different breed. For a lot of them, this is literal. Most of the well-known superheroes in the Marvel Universe (Fantastic Four, X-Men, Avengers, etc.) are mutants. One of the central themes is the tension between ordinary humans and those genetically gifted with extraordinary mutant powers.  Other superheroes start out as perfectly normal human beings before something happens to set them apart. Peter Parker is consecrated by the bite of a radioactive spider. The Green Lanterns are called and chosen by an ancient alien race at the center of the Universe and endowed with power rings that let them fulfill their duties as Guardians. It’s no coincident that one of the oldest superheroes, and perhaps the archetype of the entire genre, is defined in contrast to human beings: Superman. Quentin Tarantino, cribbing from earlier work by Jules Feiffer, included a monologue in Kill Bill that gets to the heart of this: Superman stands alone. Superman did not become…

I Believe in Gender Roles

2014-01-20 Gender Roles

It is an ancient and time-honored tradition of fathers to leap out from behind corners and startle their little kids. According to the venerable template, the little one will shriek in faux terror and scamper away in expectation of pursuit. My son has different ideas. If my son is startled by something truly unknown, like the low-flying medical helicopter that often passed over our apartment in Michigan, then he will get scared. But if he can identify the source of a perceived threat, then his instinctive reaction is immediate and unrestrained aggression. This has been the case at least as long as he’s been able to walk. If I, or anyone else, tries to startle the little dude, he lowers his head, defiantly bellows his war-cry, and charges. So when my wife realized that he was slated for several shots at his routine checkup on Friday, I took off work to go to the appointment with her. It’s a good…

Women and the Priesthood: What’s the Conservative Position?

2014-01-13 No Girls Allowed

Although general terms like “liberal” and “conservative” should always be handled with care, there’s a basic understanding that the movement to ordain women is predominantly a liberal movement and that the skeptics are predominantly conservative. Broadly speaking, this is correct. But some go farther and argue that the default conservative position is to defend the status quo. This is a grave error. The error arises from a misunderstanding of how conservatism operates in a Mormon context. That basic idea of conservatism is “retaining traditional social institutions.” This is always more complex than merely a reflex to defend the status quo. Conservatives exercise judgment in which principles and institutions from the past deserve to be preserved. They translate those principles and institutions into new forms to fit a modern context. And, when the present moment has moved sufficiently far from past principle and institutions, the status quo must be attacked in order to recover past traditions. In short: conservatism cannot be…

Varieties of Divine Eclecticism

Temples, and everything that goes with them, are at the heart of what Mormonism has to offer the world.

When I was a missionary from 2000-2002, we taught about the Restoration in the third discussion. We often drew a picture to convey the core concepts. There was a mirror (representing the Church) a string (representing the Apostles) and a nail (representing Christ). The Apostasy came about, we taught, because the Apostles died, and so the string was cut, and so the mirror fell, and so it was destroyed. If you want to see clearly, you cannot tape together the shattered shards of a mirror. So too, we taught, Christ had to abandon the broken remnants of His former Church and—with Joseph Smith—start all over again. Christ’s Church could not be “reformed” back into existence, it had to be restored. That’s fine as it pertains to the concept of priesthood authority, but unfortunately we specifically taught that the shards of the broken church corresponded to theological truths. Our message was clear: if you want all the truth, you have to…

Leaders are Fallible (No, Really)

Nephi saw the Tree of Life only because he believed, but was not satisfied.

The changes at the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org (which I wrote about two weeks ago) and especially the Church’s new Race and the Priesthood article have rekindled questions about the fallibility of Church leaders. After all, the Church’s current position completely disavows the past practice of denying the priesthood to blacks and all but explicitly states that the practice was an error from the start. Chalk it up with Adam-God and blood atonement and poor Brother Brigham seems to be batting 0.000 at theological innovation. It’s difficult to reconcile such grave errors with the statement, canonized in Official Declaration 1, that “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray.” It’s possible that President Woodruff had in mind an even more grave contravention of God’s plan when he spoke and so is still correct, baseless priesthood ban notwithstanding. But if institutionalized racism is not “astray”, then what is? The simpler solution…

This Is War Like You Ain’t Seen

dustinkensrue

I’m spending time moving my family into our new home and getting ready for Christmas, so here’s a song from Dustin Kensrue’s Christmas album This Good Night Is Still Everywhere. It’s not the usual sound, but that’s part of why I like it so much. (And now I’m going to get some Mannheim Steamroller going…)

Gospel Topics at LDS.org, A Change of Direction?

2013-12-16 Going Rogue

I told my Gospel Doctrine class yesterday afternoon that since we had run out of lesson manual for the year we were going to go rogue. Then I proceeded to give the first lesson I’ve ever given (I think) in which I exclusively used officially-approved Church materials[1].  I could pick anything I wanted to teach about, and I choose to cite three videos and four articles from the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org. And yet I did feel like there was something quietly revolutionary about the material we covered in the lesson. The article that has riveted the Bloggernaccle and even the world beyond this week is the article Race and the Priesthood [2], and that’s where I got started. I’d heard vague mentions about efforts on the part of the Church to revise the curriculum and/or to start addressing difficult issues head on. I even think I’d heard something about the article on the First Vision accounts, but I sort of figured that…

Zion, Mortal Loneliness, and The Hall of Records

2013-12-08 Antisocial Technology

In my imagination there is a hall of records in the future Celestial Zion where anyone can review the mortal life of any other person as seen from their perspective. It is an imposing structure in its own right, one part great library and one part museum, but it lies in the shadow of grander and more glorious edifices. The business of Zion will be eternal progression, and so the hall of records receives fewer visitors than the other communal spaces of learning. It is vast and solitary place. A person could enter and spend an entire day walking between the towering shelves on the buildings many levels. Outside the sun would roll across the sky, and inside that person would encounter only a couple of other souls, and those at a distance, as each quietly pursued answers to their own questions. The shelves are loaded with the weight of a hundred billion human lives. The impressions, the thoughts, the…

The Fourth Point: Caring for the Poor and Needy

2013-12-02 Pres Kimball

In 2009 the “threefold mission” of the Church was extended to include a fourth point: “to care for the poor and needy.” Obviously practical charity is not a new concept for Mormonism. The very same chapter that included the famous “If any of you lack wisdom…” verse that led ultimately to the First Vision also contains this emphatic assertion: Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27) This New Testament precedent was echoed in modern revelations. For example, Joseph Smith revealed the link between poverty and spiritual unity in the definition of Enoch’s Zion: And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heard and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. (Moses 7:18) Next year came an even more stark revelation: It is not given that one man…

Religious and Secular Authority: Frying Pans and Fires

Who cares if you're probably gonna sink? Get out of the boat anyway.

Dave Banack wrote just two weeks ago–here at Times And Seasons–about the atheological atonement. His two conclusions were first, that the Church doesn’t have a specific theory of the atonement and second, that this is  probably a good thing: The Church’s prior forays into theology have produced questionable results. Silence on the subject gives LDS thinkers leeway to publish their own helpful speculative discussions. In any case, it’s the atonement that will save you, not a theory of the atonement or even the one true theory of the atonement. I definitely agree with the general wariness of formal theology Dave espouses, and there’s no contesting that the track record thus far is mixed at best. In fact, I think there are lots of additional reasons to view the atheological nature of our faith as a feature rather than a bug. If we accept that final theological truths are most likely far beyond the understanding we will attain in this life,…

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Business and Theology

2013-11-18 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The study of management—of human beings going about their ordinary business of making a living—is one of the richest and most profound venues for the study of theology. Once you’ve considered the idea, it seems obvious. But of course, most of us don’t consider that idea. I never did, until very recently. What could be more antithetical to spiritual reality than the world of business? Even if I thought Hugh Nibley’s critiques on business were a disappointingly infantile digression from an otherwise heroic figure, the idea that the world of mammon could actually be a source of spiritual insight (other than as a temptation to be denied or a trial to be endured, of course) never entered my mind. But why shouldn’t it? If we are to take seriously the theology of the mundane, and that is something I believe we should take seriously, and locate insight and meaning in pedestrian and everyday human activities, then why would we except…

The Missing Mormon Literary Renaissance

2013-11-11 Kurt Vonnegut

Mark Oppenheimer wants to know why there are no great Mormon writers. More specifically: In the United States, Jews, blacks and South Asians, while they have produced no Milton or Shakespeare — who has, lately? — have all had literary renaissances. Mormons are more likely to produce work that gets shelved in niche sections of the bookstore. And as it turns out, Mormon authors themselves wonder if their culture militates against more highbrow writing. They have a range of possible explanations. Now, before we get to the question of why there are no great Mormon writers, I have to at least address the assumption that genre fiction cannot be great art. I don’t want to refight the whole high-brow vs. pop-art war, but I’m going to at least plant my flag and say that I believe that some popular works of “genre” fiction, whether we’re talking J. K. Rowling or Raymond Chandler, are great works of art without any qualification, caveat,…

Beware Instrumental Beliefs

2013-11-03 Evolution

Back in 2009, Pew Research released a research package on public opinions about evolution in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Just last month, a friend on Facebook posted the headlining chart from that package, and a lively debate ensued. The tone of the folks posting this chart (I saw it on several walls) was one of exaggerated dismay, e.g. “A depressing — but unsurprising — revelation about Mormons.” The fact that the result fit so neatly alongside myriad preexisting cultural skirmishes should have been a major indicator that the results were unreliable, however. Lots of people argued that the question was  poorly worded, primarily because it seemed to set up an unnecessary dichotomy between evolution-without-God and creationism-with-God, thus precluding the middle ground of evolution-with-God. This criticism is legitimate, but it also serves as another big, red, warning indicator. If the responses to a survey question ostensibly about a scientific theory fall neatly within established cultural narratives,…

Children Like Ender

Hailee Steinfeld as Petra and Asa Butterfield as Ender from the film.

As a friend of mine living in Germany informed me, Ender’s Game has already started to play in some markets, and the United States release is coming up this week. With that in mind, I thought I’d return to the novel once more. In the days before The Hunger Games and Battle Royale made the idea of children murdering each other part of mainstream entertainment, the combination of very young characters and serious violence was one of the more provocative and controversial elements of Ender’s Game. Young Ender Wiggin is only six years old when he beats another child to death, and he subsequently kills another kid with his bare hands while in Battle School. Orson Scott Card described one reader who criticized the book for unrealistic depiction of children by noting that “it was important to her, and to others, to believe that children don’t actually think or speak the way the children in Ender’s Game think and speak.” He went on to…

The Metaphysics of Sealing

2013-10-21 SLC Temple

As Mormons, we practice a faith full of ritual ordinances. We are taught in scripture that some of these ordinances, like baptism, are necessary for salvation. We are also given very specific instructions for performing these ordinances, and failure to execute them properly seems to nullify their efficacy. Taken together, the precise instructions for carrying out ordinances and their eternal significance seem dischordant. When we are immersed during baptism, does the water actually do something? If not, why is it so strictly required? I know of three three conventional attitudes to this problem. The most straight-forward is to believe that our actions in conducting ordinances actually work to bring about the effect of the ordinance. So, when the sacrament is blessed, the words themselves (in the presence of the proper priesthood as a catalyst) bring about the effect of sanctifying the bread and water. They are changed in some metaphysical sense. This, in all seriousness and gravity, is the magical view…

Does God Help Find Car Keys?

2013-10-13 Ensign

I remember reading a story in the Ensign while I was on my mission. The story was about a police officer who had been searching for a toddler who had been lost when his mother’s car was stolen while the child was still in the back. The mother was desperate to be reunited with her child, and time was running out. The police officer prayed, he followed a hunch, and the child was found and returned to his parents safe and sound. The story bothered me. It wasn’t the story itself. I have had miraculous experiences in my own life, and they are an important part of my faith. The problem is that emphasizing stories at all sets an impossible expectation. A narrative is a very artificial thing. They are human creations. A narrative is not what happens. A narrative is the result of a person processing what happens. It is what you get when a person is able to take a…

Peter Wiggin as Lucifer

2013-10-07 Some Family You Fight Against

(This post is the second in a series on Ender’s Game. Read the first here.) Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a Third. This means that he is the third child in a family which–in the strictly population controlled United States described in Ender’s Game violates both the law and social taboo. Ender’s oldest sibling is Peter, a sociopathic genius who takes to torturing small animals when his favorite target, Ender, is shipped to Battle School. Peter himself was rejected because the military concluded he “had the soul of a jackal.” After Peter, his parents had Valentine. Although just as intelligent as Peter, she was also rejected from the Battle School because “she was too pacific, too conciliatory, and above all too empathic.” And so Ender’s parents were granted a rare exception to the two-children policy and Ender was born. There’s no doubt from the earliest pages that Peter is an evil character. His maliciousness comes across not just in his physical abuse of his…

Ender as the Everyman

The cover art for the YA version of Ender's Game.

With very few exceptions, everyone loves the Harry Potter books. (The exceptions consist of people who cannot read and people who have no soul.) The appeal is fairly straightforward, with themes of magical escapism, coming-of-age, and friendship woven directly and beautifully throughout the narrative. Ender’s Game is also a very popular book. Although of course it’s not as widely read as Harry Potter (very little is, after all), it’s one of the best-selling and most-awarded science fiction novels of all time. The most interesting contrast between the two, however, is that whereas everyone seems to be on the same page as to the topics and themes of Harry Potter, Ender’s Game seems to be almost an entirely different book to a wide array of diverse audiences. For example, it’s been rebranded as a young adult story (complete with new cover art) based on the youthfulness of its central protagonists, but it’s also been listed on the United States Marine Corps…

Aspirational Obedience: Obedience is a Process

2013-09-23 Obedience

Our Mormon faith places a great deal of emphasis on obedience, and to great (and mostly positive) effect. It’s quite common, especially in the Bloggernaccle, to fault the Church and its members for being too conformist, and as I’ve written there is some legitimacy to those complaints. But I’ve also been struck in my life–more and more as I get older–that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it exists in practical reality does a pretty darn good job of making decent folk and/or making folk decent. There’s a culture of practical service that is easy to take for granted as it is pervasive. It also invariably fosters a perception of obedience as being defined by outward, practical behavior. So we’ve got ourselves a conundrum. There’s an intrinsic tension between an emphasis on obedience and an emphasis on the atonement. Between an emphasis on following the law and the reality that it’s a doomed endeavor from the start.…

Paradigms and Stumbling Blocks

2013-09-23 Tipping Point Graph

I started thinking about the phrase “stumbling block” recently. It’s such a common phrase that it’s easy to take its significance for granted. And maybe miss its meaning and current relevance. The literal meaning of the words is obvious, and “stumbling block” is in that sense basically the same phrase as “tripping rock”. But “tripping rock” is fresh and so it forces you to take a look at what the words actually mean: a stone that causes people who are walking somewhere to fall. Why should such an apparently innocuous concept be so deeply ingrained in scripture that it becomes an integrated part of our religious lexicon? I thought I’d consider another such phrase for comparison. If you used the phrase “tipping point” in the first half of the 20th century, the literal meaning would be clear. But as the graph below (created using a simple Google tool that searches a vast library of books and checks frequency of use),…