Category: Liberal Arts

Economics – Law – Philosophy – etc.

The Conflict of Theological Innovation

Theology has an odd place in LDS thought. Early on there was a rather positive view of theology. Lectures on Faith, then part of the Doctrine and Covenants, praised the idea of theology calling it: …that revealed science which treats of the being and attributes of God, his relations to us, the dispensations of his providence, his will with respect to our actions and his purposes with respect to our end. (Question 1 of Lectures on Faith)  Now this was just quoting from a well known theological dictionary of the time. It most likely reflected Sidney Rigdon’s view of theology which would have been shaped by the more systematic theology of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin along with various others.  Certainly Joseph Smith saw great value in learning and studying from theology and biblical studies. He studied multiple languages so he could read the scriptures in the original languages. By the time of Nauvoo many new theological ideas were introduced in part…

Jeremiah, Truth and Intelligence


A couple of months ago I had a post talking about how Hebrews talk about things being true. While my focus was on common Mormon expressions like “I know the Church is true” the basic principle applies to many scriptures. That includes famous Book of Mormon ones like Alma 32. The basis for most of the post was an interesting book by the philosopher Yoram Hazony. He argued in his book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture that there was an unique philosophy present in the Old Testament that had been largely neglected by western philosophy in preference to Greek notions. I only discussed the first less controversial part of the book. There he largely is just discussing the Hebrew notion of truth which is somewhat similar to the more Aristotilean notion of essence. Objects (not words or propositions) are true when they show themselves over time to be how they present themselves.[1] The majority of Hazony’s book is a tad…

Issues in Epistemology: A Response to Inside/Out


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.

Future Mormons?


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,”…

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…

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…

Some Thoughts on Trends in Apologetics

First let me say upfront that I simply don’t read that many apologetic papers anymore. That’s less about any problems with the genre so much as just a lack of time. I have to be a little pickier about what I read than I used to. One day when little kids aren’t waking up all hours of the night that may change. Second let me say I’m not really interested in doing apologetics in the below. I’ll do my best to refrain from answering tangents that head in that direction. Rather, what I’m more interested in is the theoretic scaffolding behind different eras and trends in Mormon apologetics. I’ve been thinking about this a lot primarily in reaction to some of Dave’s post and Brad L’s comments to it last week. Brad in particular justifiably called me out on staking out a stronger position than I could defend. That said, I’m not sure I agree with taxonomy of apologetics many…

Modern Sources of Belonging– Secular Age, round 5

The changes in construals of the self discussed in the last post were merely the flip side of new construals of sociality. This pairing helps correct narratives about the modern “rise of individualism” at the expense of community; individualism is learned, not natural, and “belonging” is an innate need that does not disappear with modernity. Rather, the sources of belonging become impersonal, direct, and “flattened.” We shift from a pre-modern social model where members are embedded within a hierarchical chain of being to one in which members of society perceive their fellow citizens and the political order as instruments to achieve common benefits— security and prosperity—from a position of (theoretical) equality among free individuals.  How did we get there? Not unlike how we got to the buffered, disengaged “individual” self in our last post: we develop objectified, instrumentalist ways of understanding the social and political order.  Changing notions of natural law and moral order, the emerging focus on the economy, and…

Hell Part 1: Close Readings of the Book of Mormon

I love doing close readings of scripture. The normal way to do this is reading linearly through the entire book of scripture. An other great way is to study by topic. Each helps you see things you might miss using only the other method. While I’m glad our gospel doctrine has encouraged reading all scripture, part of me kind of wishes there was something akin to the Gospel Principles class. Just with broader topics and focused on reading our key texts rather than simple answers. My goal here is to do that sort of thing with a particular focus on the Book of Mormon. It’ll take time and may follow a somewhat circuitous route. With luck I’ll make a post each week in this series. I’ll be mixing the two methods I mentioned slightly as I’ll typically pick a few texts related to the topic and then do a close reading of them. I was kind of encouraged by a recent…

Zion as Superorganism

Organisms in your Organism

Earlier this month, I visited Utah to give back-to-back presentations at conferences by Mormon Scholars in the Humanities and the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Today, I’m going to recap my presentation from the MTA conference, “Zion as Superorganism.” In subsequent blog posts, I’ll share some thoughts about Mormon transhumanism and the rest of the MTA conference (including some of the other talks I thought were particularly interesting), and then also my talk from the MSH. The most well-known description of Zion in our scriptures is of course Moses 7:18: And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. Another implicit description is found in D&C 38, although you have to pull from disparate verses to make the connection to Zion. Here, I start in vs 4 and then skip to 27: I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom……

New Construals of the Self: Secular Age round 4

(Links to Rounds 1 , 2, and 3)  In the previous chapter, Taylor outlined some of the main “bulwarks” of enchanted belief that had to give way for exclusive humanism to eventually emerge. In Chapter 2, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society,” Taylor examines some of the new construals of self and society that would help make that shift possible: the development of a “disciplined, disengaged stance to self and society” (136). In doing so, Taylor continually reminds us of the  “zigzag” nature of this trajectory; instead of an inevitable subtraction of enchanted beliefs or transcendent references that culminated in a purely immanent humanism—secularism’s irresistible march– new imaginaries were generated by initially religious motives. For example, the early modern devotional effort to bring the Incarnation’s sanctifying force to all the ordinary contexts of life “led people to invest these contexts with a new significance and solidity” (144) ; a significance that would eventually become self-sufficient and severed from transcendent roots. Taylor continually emphasizes the…

What if Belief isn’t Volitional?

Imagine you walk outside under a beautiful blue sky, the sun warm on your skin. Now someone comes up to you and tells you that you must believe the sky is orange and the air cold. Can you do it? If not, does that mean your beliefs are freely chosen? Can you choose to believe?

Enchantment and Disenchantment: Secular Age Round 3

sec age

(Links to Rounds 1 and 2) These next several posts will cover chapters in Parts I-III, which comprise Taylor’s account of the western historical trajectory towards secularity, from the enchanted world of 1500 AD to the disenchanted and pluralistic one of 2000 AD. Overall, Taylor’s historical account challenges the  “subtraction” stories that explain the road to modernity as one in which human beings have “lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” [1]. According to Taylor, this naive and selective view fails to account for the “positive” developments and changes in sensibility, meaning, and social imaginaries that made alternatives (like secular humanism) possible. The “subtraction” of God from the social and cosmic imaginary was merely one element, thought it was not linear or even, and certainly not inevitable. Taylor begins the historical trajectory in chapter 1, the “Bulwarks of Belief,” describing the major elements of the early modern imaginary that had…

Go the Distance

Migrants reach out for bread distributed by volunteers, at a border crossing between Croatia and Slovenia, in Trnovec, Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Hundreds of migrants have spent the night in rain and cold at Croatia's border after being refused entry into Slovenia.   (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

I was struck in yesterday’s morning conference session by the quotation Elder Renlund gave, “The greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement.” What gave me pause at this, since I agree with the statement, is a simple question: What do we do about the distance? This seems like a crucial question. Elder Renlund points out that this is the reason why the Church’s welfare system is designed for those in needs to seek help from family first, and then from their local leaders–i.e., from their ward and branch. But it doesn’t seem to me like this solves enough of the distance between givers and recievers; I see lots of distance within wards and branches, and sometimes even within families. Too often givers and receivers simply have completely different viewpoints and even different cultures. I have wrestled with understanding the issues and principles surrounding welfare and giving support to those…

“A Supreme Act of Love”

This past Sunday, we covered chapter 6 of the Howard W. Hunter manual titled “The Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The lesson quotes President Hunter as saying that the Atonement “was an act of love by our Heavenly Father to permit his Only Begotten to make an atoning sacrifice. And it was a supreme act of love by his beloved Son to carry out the Atonement.” We lingered on this section for a while, which prompted me to comment. I recalled how I had been asked before, “What does the Atonement mean to you personally?” (Or something along those lines.) This is obviously a deep and rather broad question, but for me, the Atonement sends at least one major message: I’m worth something. I rest this largely on the evangelical favorite John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In an ancient world full…

Utah Transcends Political Tribalism

This might be the last place you would expect to see it: a state where Republicans already prefer the inclusive message of Marco Rubio over the divisive messages of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz,* even before Rubio’s strong finish in South Carolina.** That is, if you didn’t know much about Utah. Utah is the reddest state in the Union, with a 36-point gap in party affiliation. Rubio is often called a moderate, so he should be the favorite in a place where the Republicans are tinted purple, like Massachusetts or Vermont, right? Nope! They prefer Trump, by 34 percentage points in Massachusetts and 15 in Vermont! Trump is leading nationally by around 14 points, and in nearly every state. Just look at the polls. Cruz won the Iowa caucus and leads in his home state of Texas and neighboring New Mexico. Otherwise, it is all about Trump right now—except in Utah. How is the reddest state in the Union coming…

Modern Christology

I recently read Alan Spence’s Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed, a short but very helpful discussion of the topic. I’m going to use it to reflect a bit on Mormon Christology, particularly as it relates to modern Christological commentary on and criticism of the doctrines that emerged from theological debates in the early Church. First, let’s define the problem.

“That They Might Have Joy”: Conquering Shame Through At-one-Ment

*Film spoilers* Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame is one of the most devastating movie experiences I’ve had in recent memory. I’m wading into potentially touchy Mormon territory given its NC-17 rating and subject matter, but I think it’s worth the risk. In short, the film follows Brandon (an incredible Michael Fassbender) as he struggles with his all-consuming sex addiction; one that includes frequent pornography viewing and masturbation at both work and home, casual sexual encounters (including one in a gay bar despite being quite straight), and multiple hired sex workers. In the midst of his nihilistic despair, we witness his withdrawal from those around him, including his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who is temporarily staying with him. Yet, the underlying theme of all this is–as the title makes clear–shame. The word shame may bring to mind a mixed set of meanings. For example, the word is obviously central to “ashamed” or even the phrase “have you no shame?” This understanding of the concept is very ancient…

A Mormon Minimalism

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915, 79.5 x 79.5 cm, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

I’ve been practicing a kind of theological minimalism for a long time now. This impulse toward minimalism is itself religious. And it’s aesthetic. It doesn’t have to do with whether particular things are true or false (though, rest assured, such judgments must also be made), it has to do with the feel (literally, the aesthesis) of Mormonism as it’s lived.

Mormonism at the Scopes Trial

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial

I read Edward J. Larson’s Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Harvard Univ. Press, 1997) earlier this month, and was surprised to see the Book of Mormon appear in one of Clarence Darrow’s arguments to the court. Funny how little mention there is of the Scopes Trial in LDS discourse, given how often evolution seems to come up. I have some ideas on that. But first the interesting arguments made to the court by Darrow.

Mormon Christianity: A Sympathetic View

mormon christianity

Stephen H. Webb’s Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (OUP, 2013) has a lot to offer both LDS and non-LDS readers. My acquaintance with Amazon titles on Mormonism makes me think it would have attracted a much larger non-LDS readership had it been titled How I Escaped From Mormon Christianity. Happily for mainstream LDS readers, the book is listed at Deseret Book, where an author search under “Webb” sorted by popularity puts the book just above Melodie Webb’s 250 Ways to Connect With Your Family and just below the ebook version of Isabelle Webb’s The Grecian Princess. I suppose a title like 12 Ways Mormon Christianity Can Make You Rich would have pushed it higher on the Deseret Book popularity list. All this to say I’m not sure how many from either potential audience will actually read this book. But you should.

Mormon Christianity: A Little Bit Catholic

I’m about a third of the way through Stephen W. Webb’s Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (OUP, 2013). Webb is a Catholic professor of philosophy and theology turned writer. His Catholic perspective on LDS doctrine and his evident sympathy for the LDS approach to Christianity make this insightful outsider treatment of LDS theology quite refreshing. I will no doubt post a longer discussion of the book in a week or two, but here is a quotation highlighting some similarities between Catholic and Mormon approaches to Christianity (apart from both traditions being the target of historical Protestant animus, of course):

Reasoning Together – Zion

We talk about Zion in a lot of different senses, but I think most of these share the general idea of communally gathering, developing, sharing, and partaking in everything that is lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy or of good report. How do we do this, both collectively and individually, on both a theological and political level? Once again (obviously) I can’t adequately answer that question here. But once again I’m bothered by a lot of the discussions I see flying around our virtual and ward-level worlds. I don’t like the divisive,  polemical way in which these discussions are framed – especially when the discussion revolves around whether all is well in Zion or whether Zion is in need of some serious, often non-contiguous reform. In what follows, this question is my main target and what I want you to consider. Is the good ship Zion sinking while the crew and passengers obliviously bask in what they take to be the sunlight?…

Same-Sex Marriage Bans and Tax


The District of Utah has had a busy week. As I’m sure you heard (and if you haven’t, you ought to read Kaimi’s post first), Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage has been struck down as unconstitutional. A week ago, in the wake of the decision that didn’t actually legalize polygamy, I looked at the potential tax consequences of that decision and, fairly anti-climatically, determined that there were none. Plenty of electrons will be spilled going over this decision but, again, I suspect that the tax consequences will be underexplored.

Gay Polygamy in Utah!

By now you’ve heard the news. A federal judge in Utah just ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. This follow on last week’s ruling, from a different judge, that portions of Utah’s polygamy statute were also unconstitutional. What does it mean? Obviously, it means the advent of gay polygamy!! It won’t stop until everyone is married to everyone else, in one giant gay-polygamous-mega-wedding. Let the festivities begin! Okay, maybe not. Let’s go through the rulings, piece by piece, to see what they say, and what their effects may be.