Category: Philosophy and Theology

Betting with Blaise

Clark mentioned Pascal’s wager in a comment, and that reminded me of a thought I’ve had for some time: Pascal’s wager seems like a bad deal for Mormons. In case anyone is unfamiliar with Pascal’s wager, the basic idea is that God can either exist or not. If he does exist, then believers go to heaven. If he doesn’t, then it really doesn’t matter whether one believes. The smart money says to believe in God and take the x% chance of infinite happiness. How does this apply to Mormonism? Well, we have the added wrinkle of some pretty good second-best destinations. Thus, if one’s options are to either be a believing Mormon or a believing Catholic, and the two possibilities are that either Mormonism or Catholicism is true, the resulting chart of possibilities would look like this: —- Mormonism Correct Catholicism Correct Believing Mormon Celestial Kingdom Hell Believing Catholic Terrestrial Kingdom Heaven


In the thread on suicide below, several comments have raised this idea from 1 Cor. 10:13: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” What does this mean? When BRM states, “Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts,” isn’t that an example of being tempted beyond one’s ability? Is Paul’s statement just “rah! rah!” talk?

The Oddity of Comfort

Comfort is a concept that holds pride of place in the gospel. We learn that an important part of our baptismal covenants is the promise to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” Elsewhere, we learn that one of the reasons for Christ’s suffering and atonement was so that he could “know how to succor his people.” This leads to the question: Why is comfort important?

Evans-Pritchard: Mormonism and Theories of Religion VI

E. E. Evans-Pritchard is one of the most important anthropologists of the last century. Unlike many of his predecessors (and contemporaries), he actually went to live with the people he studied and meticulously detailed their beliefs and practices. If he teaches us nothing else, it is that close research is vital to understanding religion.

Eliade: Mormonism and Theories of Religion V

Unlike the other thinkers we have reviewed so far, Mircea Eliade was a religious person himself. Perhaps for this reason his sympathetic approach to religion has been extremely well accepted by Mormon scholars. When reading his books for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel a strong kinship with him, as if his interpretation of religion was written about Mormonism itself. I once advocated in an EQ lesson that Eliade was essential reading for all Mormons.

Marx: Mormonism and Theories of Religion IV

My titles were too long and hard to distinguish in the “Recent Comments” section, so I have switched the order around. The next theory in this series is that of Marx, just in time for the lifting of the ban on socialism! Like the others, Marx’s theory is reductionist. As a former Marxist myself, I find this particular kind of reductionism unpersuasive. However, this theory of religion became more than just a theory. For a good part of the 20th century a huge portion of the earth’s population subscribed to this theory. For this reason alone it derserves to be seriously considered.

Mormonism and Theories of Religion III: Durkheim

This follows up on the previous entries in this series here and here. Emile Durkheim is one of the most important founders of modern sociology. He is also one of the most important figures in the study of religion. Like Tylor, Frazer, and Freud, his theory of religion is also reductionist. It seeks to explain religion by pointing to something other than religion itself.

Mormonism and Theories of Religion II: Freud

This is the second installment in this series, begun here. Freud has had a huge impact on thought in the 20th century. He was a truly revolutionary thinker, to such an extent that the statement “We are all Freudians now” certainly rings true. Among the many subjects he treated, religion was a particular interest for him. He dealt with it in three books, Totem and Taboo, Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism.

Mormonism and Theories of Religion: Tylor and Frazer

As Nate mentioned, I am starting my doctorate in Religious Studies this fall. In my first semester I will take a required seminar for new doctoral students Contemporary Issues in the Theory of Religion. We were given some summer reading as a preparation for this course, which included the introductory book on the subject, Seven Theories of Religion, by Daniel L. Pals. He recognizes, and I concur, that these are not all of the theories, and some important thinkers are overlooked, but seven does sound like a nice round(ish) number.

Spirituality & Fundamenatlism II

Hi, sorry to have dropped out for a few days (what do you call a guest blogger who doesn’t blog?). A friend from the philosophy department has been helping me (actually, I’ve been helping him) work on a home construction project that is taking longer than expected (proving, I suppose, that between the two of them, law and philosophy can confuse pretty much anything). I enjoyed the comments. Some thematic responses.

Individual responsibility?

Frank McIntyre says “I am only responsible for that part of me that is eternally me.” Adam Greenwood agrees and wonders how to makes sense of that claim in light of the teaching that God oversees everything and brings about his purposes. Kristine Haglund implicitly assumes, I think, that despair, acedia, etc. are really individual psychological disorders because, like Frank and Adam, she assumes that individuals are the basic units, the units at which responsibility occurs. Of course that assumption is the norm. But why should we believe it is true?

Spirituality & Fundamentalism

Hello all, and thanks for Jim’s warm introduction and Lyle’s and Gordon’s welcomes. To get started, let me summarize some recent research I’ve done on current trends in the sociology of religion, and then pose some questions.

The Anti-Nephi-Lehite Puzzle

In the rather endless recent comments on war, torture, and politics, both Rob and Dan have made variations on the claim that it is better to suffer death rather than commit certain sorts of moral wrongs. Rob’s claim to me is more interesting, because as a pacifist he seems to claim that it is better to be killed rather than kill another. Dan and Rob, are of course, free to object that I am putting words in their mouths (which is probably correct), however, the basic proposition raises an interesting question: Why might killing be worse than death?

The Hipness of Divine Society

The idea of “social construction” is really hip in the social sciences and the humanities, or at least it was really hip a decade or two ago. Generally the concept gets invoked with another idea, namely “essentialism.” Here is how the game works. We take some quality – say race – and then we argue about its nature. If we are essentialists (and it is pretty unhip to be essentialist about anything), then we would argue that race is somehow an inherent, natural, biological quality. If we are social constructivists (and being the hip, smart people that we are, we are, of course, social constructionists), then we argue that there is nothing inherent about race. All of the characteristics we associate with this concept are actually social creations that are not contingent on nature, essence, or anything else. The distinction gets deployed in normative discussions as well. That which is essential supposedly provides us with a sure foundation for ethical…

Benevolent Theodicy: the Logical Necessity of Eternal Progression

Few Mormon doctrines cause traditional Christians more consternation than the belief in mankind’s potential to become like God. This is of course the reason the authors of the most famous anti-Mormon work chose for their title The God Makers. But hacks who deliberately produce fraudulent anti-Mormon screeds aren’t the only ones to be offended by our unique doctrine. Without exception, every thoughtful Christian with whom I’ve discussed the issue similarly believes our doctrine to be blasphemous (though they are circumspect in telling me so). But the Benevolent Theodicy, as I have called it, shows that they are wrong.

A Partial Response: Philosophy

I want to thank the many people who took the time to comment on my initial post. You’ve showed me that this guest-blogging stint will be both more stimulating and more time-consuming than I anticipated. I hope it is understood that I cannot possibly respond to all, or most, or even more than a very few of these comments. I’ll try to write two posts today, the first (this one) addressing the philosophical questions raised by Jim F and others; the second post will bring things back to Mormonism. I think the latter is important because this could easily develop into a debate about theory. I’d enjoy that, but I’m unsure if it would be a good use of the Times and & Seasons website. So, on to philosophy, postmodernism, Heidegger, etc. . . .

Mormonism: The Postmodern Faith

First off, let me thank Russell, both for inviting me to contribute to Times & Seasons and for his flattering comments about me. After that introduction, I fear I may disappoint. As Russell notes, I spent two years teaching at BYU, and have enjoyed dozens of email exchanges about LDS-related matters with the handful of good friends I made during my time on campus. Since I don’t have An Agenda for the following two weeks, I think I’ll start by sharing a few thoughts that have grown out of those exchanges.

Mormonism, Liberalism, and Social Epistemology

In the most recent issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, Allen Buchanan, a philosopher at Duke, has a very interesting article entitled “Liberalism and Social Epistemology.” He starts his argument with the observation that our knowledge of the world is inescapably dependent on social institutions. It is social institutions that allow for specialization, which in turn carried great advantages in terms of knowing the world. These advantages, however, come at a price. We must cede a certain amount of epistemic independence to authorities. This, he argues, creates great dangers. Certain authorities can be badly – horribly – wrong. He points to the examples of teachers and scientists in the Third Reich who lent authority to Nazi ideology, leading many people to accept its truth. His other example is teachers, parents, and ministers in the segregated South, who inculcated ideas of racial superiority etc. The danger, according to Buchannan, is two fold. First, there is the moral danger that we will…

A Mormon Theogony

Theogony is not a topic that comes up a great deal in discussions of Mormon theology. We tend to take the eternity of God for granted and as often as not end up affirming the eternity of man as well. The closest we generally get to discussion of the birth of the gods is when we ask the peculiarly Mormon question of how God progressed to become God. Orson Pratt, however, did get down to more fundamental questions of origins.

The Epistemological Tensions of Mormonism

Now how is that for a pretentious blog-post title? What the [explitive deleted] am I talking about? In a nutshell, I am talking about the way in which Mormonism deals with how we gain knowledge and how that ability is socially situated. Here is my basic idea: Mormonism has a radically decentralized and democratic epistemology which is balanced by a highly centralized institutional structure.

Theology on the Model of Kuhnian Science

Many LDS thinkers are skeptical of “systematic” theology (e.g. Richard Bushman, whose posts we so enjoyed recently). Here’s a stab at a compromise. Thomas Kuhn presented a powerful way of understanding the development of scientific theories a few decades back in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; here’s a first pass at appropriating his work to think about how our knowledge of God and his ways might develop, in a way that is friendly to continuing revelation and eternal progression.

A Contract Theodicy

A theodicy is a justification of the ways of God to man. Most frequently, the term is used in discussions of the problem of evil. Succinctly stated this problem goes like this: 1. God is all powerful 2. God is Good 3. Evil things happen 4. God can and should prevent these evil things (from 1 & 2) I don’t want to get into all of the intricacies of this debate. Generally speaking, Mormons “solve” the problem by in effect denying (1), claiming that there are metaphysical as opposed to merely logical limitations on God’s power. It strikes me, however, that there is another possible Mormon theodicy: An argument from consent.

The Value of Liberal Education

Between Julie’s post and this week’s challenge of composing the syllabus for the Introduction to Philosophy course I am teaching this fall, I am haunted by the question: Is knowledge good in itself? I have set myself up to be an educator, but many of the criticisms of public education we delivered in response to Julie’s post seem disturbingly relevant to most college education as well; do you agree? And even if knowledge is good in itself, how far should knowledge for its own sake be the goal of a philosophy course required of every student at a given University? (That would be Notre Dame) In your experience, do college students in general hunger to learn? if so, when and how? if not, how do we explain those few freaks who do crave knowledge?

The Case Against (Temporal) Perfection

In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Michael J. Sandel makes the case against perfection. Last month we had a vigorous discussion about “Enhancing Nature,” which focused on the use of medical technology (or herbal remedies) to enhance physical appearance. Sandel talks about similar issues (muscle enhancement, memory enhancement, growth-hormone treatment, and reproductive technologies that enable parents to choose the sex and some genetic traits of their children), but focuses on gene therapy. Interestingly, he connects these debates to the topic of human agency.

Belief and Practice

I said, “I don’t think that belief is central to LDS religion: it is important only as part of the practice of religion, not in itself,” and Susan asked, “Are you saying that LDS religion helps you to practice religion better and live better than you would otherwise?” Good question.

The Real Issue

What follows is a post on homosexuality. I am deeply sorry about this, because by and large I think that this is a very stale topic. Accordingly, I hope that any discussion that follows this post will focus on the particular questions that I pose, rather than spinning off into another SSM free for all.

The Quandry of the Sugar Beets

I think that I have finally isolated the great symbol of a recent set of intellectual and spiritual quandaries that I have found myself working through of late. I am not talking about polygamy, Adam-God, or blood atonement. I have in mind an even more challenging remnant of our past: sugar beets.

The Mormon Jesus

I tried to ask this question earlier, in the context of The Passion, but it pretty quickly got lost in another round of beating the moribund R-rated movies horse. So I’ll ask again, without the attempt at pop-culture referentiality. How has Mormon Christology changed in the last half-century or so? And why?