Category: Philosophy and Theology

An Apostle on Muslims

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Yesterday, I read the following comments on Muslims by an LDS Apostle: I am aware it is not without a great deal of prejudice that we as Europeans, and Americans, and Christians in religion and in our education, so called, have looked down upon the history of Muhammad, or even the name; and even now we may think that Islam, compared with Christianity as it exists in the world, is a kind of heathenism, or something dreadful…

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?

How to write a revelation

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I have been working on a paper looking at the Doctrine and Covenants, and my research has me thinking about how the texts of modern revelation were produced.  I think that there are a lot of Mormons who assume that the words of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were dictated word for word to Joseph.  On this model, the Doctrine and Covenants is rather like the Qua’ran, which also consists of a series of revelations given to a prophet over a period of years in response to concrete historial circumstances.  Pious Muslims affirm that the Qua’ran was dictated word for word in classical Arabic to the Prophet Muhammed and transmitted without error to the present.  Some Islamic theologians have gone farther, declaring that the Qua’ran is uncreated in time.  Rather, it is an eternal emanation of the Divine mind, the Word that was in the beginning with God incarnate in the world.  (There are problems with this story of 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…

Theological Anthropology at UVU this weekend

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology holds its 2010 conference at UVU this Thursday through Saturday (March 25-27) on the theme of theological anthropology. Invited speakers include: Terryl L. Givens (University of Richmond)—”Finding the Divine in Man: Romantic Angst and the Collapse of Transcendence”; Kevin Hart (University of Virginia)—”The Prodigal Son”; Laurence Hemming (Lancaster University)—”A Singular Humanity: The End of Anthropology”; David K. O’Connor (University of Notre Dame)—”Plato, Purity, and the Iconoclast Temptation: A Catholic Imaginarium” Other session themes include agency and grace, the natural man, human pre-existence, perfectability and theosis. The full conference schedule and abstracts of the presentations are listed on the SMPT website. All sessions are free and open to the public.

James Alison and the reconciled discourse of dissent

James Alison. Photo couresy of jamesalison.co.uk

Last week a friend invited me to attend a lecture sponsored by the  SLU Theology Club and featuring James Alison, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian.  Alison grew up in Britain, was raised in a low-church Protestant tradition, converted to Catholicism, and now resides in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, living as an openly gay Catholic and working with AIDS patients. That collision of proper nouns seemed provocative. The talk was to be titled “The Gift of the Spirit and the Shape of Belonging: Meditations on the Church as Ecclesial Sign.”  Even more promising: Catholic ecclesiology shares something in common with its LDS counterpart, inasmuch as both traditions revere an ecclesiastical hierarchy and value orthodoxy, and I hoped that Alison’s remarks might offer a wavy mirror on the shape of my own belonging. I was not disappointed.  Alison opened by observing that ecclesiology, or contemplation of the church as an institution, is always a “broken-hearted” discourse, informed by communal contrition and enlivened by…

Alienated in Zion

“I say unto you, be one; and if you are not one ye are not mine (D&C 38:27).” And then comes the uncomfortable experience of sitting in Sunday School (or in the midst of some other group of Mormons) with the persistent, anxious thought, “I really don’t fit in here…”

January 1 of the year 40

Happy Moonlanding Day! When I was a youth, I read a science fiction book in which dates in the future were figured from the day that Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, apparently because the date had such significance in the history of man.

Theology in the Wake of Evolution

It’s not easy being a theologian in the 21st century. One of the main reasons is that science provides credible, non-theistic explanations for many of those “where did we come from?” questions that religion once had all to itself. Evolution seems to pose a particular challenge. John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown, tries to tackle the problem head-on in his book God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Westview, 2000).

Conscience in the Obama Era

I linked yesterday on the sidebar to Stanley Fish’s latest editorial in the New York Times, which takes as its occasion the possibility that President Obama will revoke the “conscience clause” allowing health care providers the right to refuse to provide certain services. I thought I’d add a few thoughts here.*

Confronting Modernity

I recently finished up Hans Kung’s Great Christian Thinkers, which reviews the work of seven theologians (Paul, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, and Barth). From an LDS perspective, the most interesting of the bunch is Friedrich Schleiermacher, who Kung terms “the paradigmatic theologian of modernity.” The question he presents to LDS readers is how our approach to religion and doctrine deals with modernity. Is our approach premodern, modern, or postmodern (which in theology generally means some version of neo-orthodoxy)?

Theology and Conversation

It’s hard for Mormons to find an accessible doorway into theology. David F. Ford’s short book Theology: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 1999) is the first I’ve found to really give me some traction with this elusive subject.

A New Book for the Mormon Canon

There are a number of Mormon pamphlets and books that have achieved a kind of semi-canonical status within Mormon studies. Everyone agrees, for example, that Parley P. Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology or John Taylor’s Mediation and Atonement are key texts for understanding nineteenth Mormon thought. If any evidence is needed, both texts, I believe, are still in print. At the very least both have produced modern reprints. I have a proposed addition to the canon, George Q. Cannon’s A Review of the Decision of the Supreme Court in the Case of Geo. Reynolds v. the United States.

Intellectual Conversion

Seven Storey Mountain is Thomas Merton’s autobiographical account of his increasing restlessness with a worldly life. He converts to Catholicism and eventually enters one of the most strict (the strictest?) Catholic orders: a Trappist monastery. What has fascinated me

The Totality of Mortality

When I picked up my manual to prepare to teach Gospel Doctrine this Sunday, I figured it would be a lesson about the spirit of Elijah (second week = section 2 = turning hearts, etc). I was surprised and delighted to find that Lesson 2 is instead about the atonement, highlighting powerhouse passages in Doctrine & Covenants sections 19, 76, 88, and 93. While reading the material I was reminded of a favorite quote from Chieko Okazaki on the topic and had a hankering to share it.

Rhetoric, Ideology and Prop 8

In the run up to and in the wake of Prop 8, Latter-day Saint proponents of the measure have often tried to parse their words carefully when discussing their support for it in order to avoid charges of bigotry and hate for opposing the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. Echoing a refrain from the late Gordon B. Hinckley, Mormon Prop 8 supporters have often tried to explain that they are “not anti-gay, but pro-marriage.” This effort, however, has clearly failed to shield members from allegations of discrimination.

Teaching the Reformation

Just as I went to publish this post, I saw Ben’s post about the conference on Mormons and Evangelicals. It’s a nice coincidence. As are the recent posts by Kent and Marc on labeling and categorizing. I was already scheduled to attend another conference this week, an annual conference for historians of the Reformation (surely you knew about it), where I’ll be part of an ongoing panel devoted to issues in teaching. This year’s issue is “Defining Protestantism,” as everyone is rightly concerned about labels we impose on people. Five or six scholars make up the panel, and we all get about 10 minutes to reflect on our particular experience with that issue. I’m supposed to talk about teaching the Reformation to Mormon students, both in general and in regard to defining Protestantism, as some of the panelists are wondering how Mormons fit or not. I’m planning to touch on some of the following, but would be happy to hear…

The Difficulty of Theological Interpretations of Mormon History

Providing a theological interpretation of Mormon history is tricky. I’ve argued elsewhere that one of the reasons that Mormons care so much about history is that in some sense they regard it has having a normative force. Part of how we understand God’s will is by offering an interpretation of our past that sees in it the working out of God’s purposes. On this view, God is involved in the story of the Restoration and a careful parsing of that story will reveal something about God. This, of course, is the sort of thing that sets the teeth of professional historians on edge, and avoiding this sort of interpretative frame work was one of the central obsessions of the New Mormon History. For the record, I am sympathetic to the NMH and I think that we gained a tremendous amount of insight and understanding by bracketing theological questions and just trying to understand the nuts of bolts of past events…

Modern Responses to the Problem of Evil

In a previous post I summarized biblical explanations for the problem of evil or the existence of suffering in the world as presented in Bart Ehrman’s latest book, God’s Problem. In this post I’ll continue with additional explanations from modern and LDS sources.

Why We Suffer

I recently finished Bart D. Ehrman’s latest book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer (HarperCollins, 2008). Like all Ehrman’s books, it is both informative and troubling.

Religious Pragmatism

Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” [1] In various writings, he expanded that claim, contrasting a natural law approach to justifying legal and ethical rules of conduct with his own more modest approach rooted in history and experience and falling under the broad perspective labeled pragmatism. Since religion in general and Mormonism in particular have many rules of conduct for which a variety of justifications grounded in natural law, experience, and history are held out, Holmes’ approach may shed some light on how we do this.