Category: Mormon Thought

Doctrine – Theology – Philosophy

“Neither Shall There Be Any More Pain”: Trials and Their Purpose

This is a talk I gave in sacrament meeting on March 12, 2017. The topic was “Trials and Their Purpose.” I appreciate the thoughts and words of [the previous speakers]. I hope that you all can find some solace in our various messages, even if the answers are a bit incomplete. The purpose of trials—or what is more commonly known in philosophical circles as the problem of evil—is a question that has plagued philosophers and theologians for centuries and I don’t pretend that I’m going to resolve it in a 15-minute sacrament talk. The evolving and at times contradicting theologies found within the scriptures make it difficult to pin down a coherent, all-encompassing explanation of suffering. However, my goal at the very least is to provide a couple perspectives that might be helpful to you in processing your own trials while being sufficiently sensitive to the different experiences you all have. Neal A. Maxwell once offered this advice to Jeffrey…

Loosening the iron grip of the King James Version of the Bible?

A couple of years ago, Elder Richard Maynes (of the Presidency of the Seventy) quoted Matthew 13:44 in his conference talk: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” But wait a second! The King James Version of that verse reads differently: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.” Elder Maynes has quoted, instead, the Revised Standard Version. This surprised me because the official version of the Bible used by the Church in English is the King James Version. From the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the KVJ has been preferred (despite Joseph Smith’s corrections). When the Revised Standard Version was released in 1952,…

Can Mercy Rob Justice?

We’re all familiar with Alma 42 and the notion that mercy can’t rob justice. I was reading this today at church and was struck by a context that often doesn’t get mentioned. In the ancient world relationships often determined actions. This meant special treatment for friends and especially relations. In Greek philosophy and plays you often see the key tension being between familial relationships and justice. The idea is that justice is what one should do if one wasn’t related. It’s the idea of being no respecter of persons. The very notion of justice in the middle east starting during this era is this more objective treatment.

Can Private Experience Ground Knowledge?

I’ve neglected my posts on epistemology the past couple of months due to being busy. While I want to get back to them let me first take a bit of a side trip. Fundamentally more than anything else the big divide within the question of religious knowing is to what degree private experiences can ground knowledge. Typically when critics engage with Mormons they want the playing field to only be public evidence. Now it’s not that Mormons aren’t willing to play that game. By and large apologetics (at least the good kinds) are willing to discuss plausibility in terms of public evidence. But when it comes to knowledge, the critics want to make an appeal to belief in the strongest argument. That is we should believe what has the most weight of public evidence, even if perhaps the arguments are themselves circumstantial or somewhat weak. Most importantly they often want to only admit entities that have already been established scientifically.…

Telling the stories of the Church’s history

A review of Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History, by Gregory A. Prince Telling the history of a church can be tricky. Which elements arose from the culture of the time? Which manifest the direct intervention of the divine? Is that even a sensible distinction? On the one hand, some Church leaders have historically seen the principal role of religious history as being to show “the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now” [1]. With this as one’s end, the appropriate means may be a partial telling of history: “Some things that are true are not very useful” [2]. On the other hand, some fear that this will leave believers vulnerable when uncomfortable truths come out: “I worry about the young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly Joseph and are shocked to discover his failings. The problem is that they may lose faith in the entire…

Scientists and Religious Belief

Exactly how religious are scientists? The typical assumption is that they aren’t terribly religious at all. Further I think most people assume this is a relatively recent change – say around the time of the second world war. It’s always a difficult question since there’s debate about who is or isn’t a scientist. Are doctors? Are people with computer science degrees? Are people with degrees in science but not practicing in the field? There’s also the question of significance. For instance I’m almost certainly insignificant and especially compared with a Nobel Prize winner. When making these studies do you give more weight to people who’ve published significant articles or who are in academia versus private facilities? It gets complex fast. Any study attempting to answer these questions should be taken with an eye of skepticism. It is interesting though that 100 years ago a survey was sent to 1000 scientists asking them about their belief in God. Around 30% of…

Scripture and Historical Context: A Contemporary Example

There’s a common assumption that historical accuracy and a spiritual orthodoxy compete against each other in a zero-sum game. Either you have to take the most recent finding or the dominant academic consensus as credible, or you have to take a literal reading of the scriptures as axiomatic, but you can’t have both. Well, that’s probably OK, because in my case I prefer neither. Reading the scriptures “literally” is a proposition that makes no more sense than trying to read Robert Frost “literally” since the scriptures contain poetry (and a host of other literary genres) that are supposed to be read in some fashion other than “literal.” On the other hand–much as I value and am interested in scholarship and research–I cannot take seriously the idea of handing the ultimate authority over any spiritual question to a committee of experts, which is about the most optimistic way you can look at the consensus of scholarship on any one particular issue at any particular…

The Policy: Year One

Happy birthday, Policy, you are one year old today. In January I posted “Policy or Revelation?” which outlined the public timeline of the messy initial release of the Policy, along with links to relevant documents. Time for an update on the Policy. Maybe I’ll do one every year until it dies.

Five Possible Wrong Turns

I’ve read several books and essays in the science versus religion genre, some by secular scientists or philosophers (such as Stephen Jay Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria essay) and some by Christian scientists (such as Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution). I recently found a refreshing new perspective within the genre: The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (Schocken Books, 2011) by Jonathan Sacks, a prominent Jewish scholar and rabbi. It offers a more relaxed, more pragmatic treatment of the topic than other books I have read. A one-sentence summary: Science and religion are complementary: science is about explanation and religion is about meaning, but individuals and societies that push religion aside and fully secularize are almost guaranteed to gradually adopt some form of nihilism and lose their way.

Conditional Love Is Back

The recently announced LDS doctrine of conditional divine love comes from President Nelson’s 2003 Ensign article “Divine Love,” in which he stated: “While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional.” No additional commentary was added until the October 2016 General Conference, when two apostles, citing President Nelson’s article, restated the doctrine. It is rather more nuanced than it first appears and I expect some local leaders and members will misconstrue and misapply this new doctrine in unfortunate ways. So pay attention. This is important.

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…

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,”…

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…

Korihor the Witch

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Ex. 22:18) I recently read Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History (Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997). How could a bunch of dedicated Christians become convinced that their neighbors, some of whom were acknowledged to be fine citizens and exemplary Christians, were actually in active league with the devil to inflict harm on others? How could trials conducted by leading men of the colony solemnly conclude that dozens of men and women were in fact witches, then haul them a mile or two out of town and hang them? Right here in America? These remain troubling yet fascinating questions for most Americans, with new books on the topic coming out every year. Mormons in particular can learn something from Salem.

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…

Going All Sorts of Gentile

It’s almost Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost went wild, which brings to fiery minds the thought of not only that particular world-turned-upside-down event but assorted others a whole lot like unto it, which other events alas never got their own red-letter day on the calendar, even though they probably deserved to, and so it occurred to me, why not just piggyback them all onto Pentecost, given their decidedly Pentecost-like qualities, and commemorate them all together, and not just as something dead and done and so last year, but as something with very possibly bone-shaking and world-rocking consequences right here and now? Especially my two very favorites: Peter’s dream, and Paul’s vision.

The New Harmonized First Vision Account

Sunday night, Elder Richard J. Maynes, of the Presidency of the Seventy, delivered a CES Devotional on the First Vision. In particular, he made explicit reference to the four first-person accounts of the First Vision authored by Joseph Smith that we have. [See the text of the four accounts at this handy page at the JSPP site.] He also referenced the Gospel Topics essay “First Vision Accounts.” It is encouraging to see senior LDS leaders incorporate the essays and the scholarship coming out of the Church History Department into their talks and recommend this material to the general membership. This post is about a very new resource that Elder Maynes referenced in his talk: A harmonized narrative of the First Vision posted at the Church History site (within LDS.org) incorporating details from all four primary sources. It was posted there only about a week ago. Wow. It’s not everyday that the Church restates the narrative of its founding event 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…

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

(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…

Entitled

I very much enjoyed Elder Renlund’s comments on entitlement. First, because he made clear one of the reasons why we should be very conscientious about how we give help. It affects the receiver’s spiritual progression. Second, the King Benjamin-esque tie-in to all of us who, like any Church welfare recipient, are beggars before God. Lastly, because while he laid into bad attitudes, whining, and murmuring, his central story was about someone missing the sacrament. A story whose happy ending relied upon a saint telling the Branch President, one hopes charitably, that a priesthood holder, a deacon in this case, made a mistake in performing his calling. And a Branch President who took care to see that mistake corrected. Because people do make mistakes. I think there was an implicit lesson, secondary to the main one about the Sacrament and the Savior, that we can and should give leaders information to help them correct mistakes. We just need to do it…

Review: Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings

I enjoyed reading Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (OUP, 2016), a 300-page collection of articles and essays on Mormon feminism spanning the 1970s to the present. That I enjoyed it says a lot, as feminism isn’t really my thing. The editors (Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright) did a great job not only selecting the articles and essays to include in the volume but also paring down the size of the excerpts of longer articles so more pieces could be included in the volume. They also penned very helpful introductions to each piece. Consequently, a reader like myself who has not really lived the LDS feminist drama of the last two generation or two can still appreciate the context and contribution of each of the 60 or so articles. Joanna’s 20-page introduction heading the volume also helps bring every reader up to speed. This is truly a volume that everyone should read — this issue is going to be…

Terryl Givens on What It Means to Sustain

Below is a letter Terryl Givens recently wrote on what it means to sustain Church leadership. It is an outgrowth of an actual correspondence between Brother Givens and a friend, and is posted with Givens’ permission. The friend holds strong feelings about recent changes made to the Church Handbook of Instruction and had asked Givens how someone could sustain a leadership that he or she believed had acted in error or unrighteously. Dear [Friend], I am glad you followed through with your question. [How can I sustain a leadership that I think has acted in error or unrighteously]. It is one that is on a lot of minds these days. The word sustain only appears in the scriptures once, so I think it is a pretty important moment to infer its exact meaning. D&C 134.5, admonishes us to “sustain and uphold” the respective governments in which we reside. Now notice that we don’t have to like or agree with a great deal that…

Policy or Revelation?

Facebook is ablaze with dismay over statements made by Elder Russell M. Nelson in Sunday night’s Worldwide Devotional, titled “Becoming True Millennials.” Initially, when the details of the new provisions were first disclosed and when Elder Christofferson publicly defended them, they were simply portrayed as a policy. Now, many are suggesting Elder Nelson has declared that the policy regarding Mormons in gay marriages and the status of their children (hereinafter, the “New Policy”) is more than a policy, it is a Revelation. The media is now picking up on this: here is a CBS News story titled “Mormon leader says policy against gay marriage was word from God.” If you go visit the home page at LDS.org, you will indeed find a box with a link to the Elder Nelson broadcast — just below “Youth: Ask Your Questions Here” and a couple of boxes to the right of “Meet the New Presiding Bishopric.” Somehow I kind of expected a new…

Guest Post: All Flesh

John Gustav-Wrathall is the newly-elected president of Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends, an international organization founded in 1977 to support LGBTQ/SSA Mormons and their families, friends and Church leaders. Following his election, I invited Gustav-Wrathall, a personal friend, to draft a post on his thoughts about the new policy, his interactions with Church leaders, and what he thought important that members know. The post below is the product of that invitation. For those who don’t know him, Gustav-Wrathall is an adjunct professor of American Religious History at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, where he teaches future Protestant ministers about Mormonism (and other religions). He is the author of Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (University of Chicago Press, 1998), has published articles in Sunstone and Dialogue on being gay and Mormon, and is the author of the Young Stranger blog, which he has maintained since 2007. Though excommunicated from the Church, John has a testimony, and has been active in his south…

Changing of the Guard at Dialogue

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought gets a new editor every five or six years, and that time is now upon us. As a subscriber and supporter, I wanted to get a sense of where the incoming editor, Boyd Jay Petersen, is going to take the journal, so I bought a copy of his Dead Wood and Rushing Water: Essays on Mormon Faith, Culture, and Family (Greg Kofford Books, 2013) to get the lowdown. After all, Kristine is a hard act to follow. After reading the book, I am optimistic. To offer a few comments, I will highlight one essay from each of the three sections in the book.

The Sabbath Day: Its Meaning and Observance

This was a talk I gave a month or so ago as part of High Council Sunday. In preparation for this talk, I read through Elder Nelson’s April Conference address on the Sabbath, in which he stated, “I am intrigued by the words of Isaiah, who called the Sabbath “a delight.” Yet,” he continued, “I wonder, is the Sabbath really a delight for you and for me?”[1] Well, Joseph Smith revealed that the Lord’s day should consist of “confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord” (D&C 59:12), so here’s my confession: the answer to Elder Nelson’s question, for me personally and on average, is a big No. My Sabbath experience has often been far from a delight. Maybe some of you can relate to this. For one, I work every other weekend. Half of my Sabbaths each year are typical workdays. But even those I have off don’t fend much better. I end up leaving church with…