Category: Comparative religion

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…

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…

A Crazy Wild Reformation Day

martin-luther3

For some reason, kids in my neighborhood don’t celebrate Halloween: they do Reformation Day instead. Right around 5, the little tikes start pounding on doors, dressed as characters of the Reformation and absolutely clamoring for people to tell them more about the big event.

Two Churches, Two Gospels

As a Mormon, you belong to two churches: your local congregation, be it ward or branch (the Local Church), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Institutional Church). While something similar may be true for members of other denominations, it is more true for and has more effect on Latter-day Saints. You may draw strength from both your Local Church and from the Institutional Church; I do, and I think most Mormons do. But they are surprisingly distinct units, with rather different, if complementary, agendas.

A Mormon Holiday

conference

Sometimes I am a little envious of my friends whose religions involve a year full of meaningful religious holidays that strengthen and define them both culturally and spiritually. Ramadan, for instance, is a sort of month-long holiday for Muslims, complete with special foods and lots of family time. When we lived in Tunisia, I was amazed at the community cohesiveness produced by a holiday that disrupted people’s lives so much for so long. Not much work of any kind was accomplished during the month of Ramadan, but family ties were strengthened, religious convictions deepened, and there was a palpable feeling that everyone was in this whole fasting thing together, and would help each other make it through. When I was growing up, our next door neighbors were Jewish, and sometimes invited us over to share their holidays with them. One of the most fun times I remember was eating potato pancakes for Purim, and then listening to the story of Esther, and…

You and Your Righteous Religious Mind

righteous mind

Psychology has come a long way the last couple of decades. Instead of seeing us coming into the world with a mind like a blank slate, psychologists and cognitive scientists are discovering through cleverly designed empirical research that we are born with a preloaded mental operating system. It predisposes us to see the world like emotional, opinionated, tribal human beings rather than like rational, logical robots. You can get the whole story, with special emphasis on how moral systems and individual moral convictions are formed, in Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books, 2012; publisher’s page; official book page).

Mormons and Muslims

prayer

I had a university professor who lived in Iran and ran a television program dedicated to classical Persian music prior to the Islamic revolution. He spent a lot of time during the seventies crossing sketchy borders into various ‘Stans. One of his tools for successful border crossing (not to mention survival) was a pamphlet he wrote himself, highlighting similarities between Mormons and Muslims; things like a founding prophet, directly revealed scripture, fasting, and polygamy. I was intrigued by his comparisons, and this class was one of the many things that prompted me to study Arabic and learn more about Islam.  It’s sad to me that so many Mormons (like Americans in general) have negative and badly stereotyped views of Muslims. As adherents ourselves to a religion that often seems to get more than its share of unfair and unfounded criticism, we can afford a deeper look. During the time I’ve spent in Muslim countries (and with Muslims in this country), I have…

Bible, Church, and Mystic

On a recent trip, I took along as reading material Christianity: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2004) by Linda Woodhead. Like all of the books in the wildly successful VSI series, the book is short but informative. I want to focus on the author’s analysis of how views about divine power and earthly authority can be used to classify Christian churches and denominations, then try to place Mormonism and the LDS Church within that classification scheme.

Downgrading Doctrine

Here is a second post (see No. 1) drawn from Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One (HarperOne, 2010). In Chapter 7, titled Judaism: The Way of Exile and Return, Prothero comments on how ritual and ethics receive greater emphasis in Judaism and doctrine receives less emphasis than in, for example, Christianity. I wonder to what extent this is also true of Mormonism. Noting how narrative Exodus is followed immediately by the detailed legal and ethical recitations in Leviticus, Prothero notes that Judaism is “about both story and law,” and that Judaism stresses “doing over believing, orthopraxy over orthodoxy.” The word “orthopraxy” should set off your Bloggernacle word alert (see discussions here, here, here, and here, for example). If Prothero thinks Jews emphasize orthopraxy over orthodoxy, he is saying that correct practice or action is more important to Jews than correct opinion. He summarizes this by saying, “So Jews are knit together more by ritual and ethics than by doctrine.” Is…

Mormonism in God Is Not One

I’ve been reading Stephen Prothero’s new book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010). I’m rather enjoying it, which is a bit of a surprise given that I’m not generally a religions of the world kind of guy. Anyway, Prothero devoted a generous two pages in his 34-page chapter on Christianity to Mormonism and said some refreshingly pleasant things about us.

An Apostle on Muslims

00aaAziz_efendi-muhammad_alayhi_s-salam

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…

Claremont Conference: What Is Mormon Studies?

img_logo

The Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association is holding its Spring 2010 Conference on April 23 and 24 on the theme What Is Mormon Studies? Transdisciplinary Inquiries into an Emerging Field. The Conference line-up is as follows: Keynote Address Jan Shipps – Indiana University-Purdue University Critical Approaches to Mormon Studies Loyd Ericson – “Where is the Mormon in Mormon Studies?  Subject, Method, Object” Cheryl L. Bruno – “Mormon History from the Kitchen Window: White is the Field in Essentialist Feminism” Blair Van Dyke – “How Wide the Divide? The Absence of Conversation between Mormon Studies and Mormon Mainstream” Christopher C. Smith – “What Hath Oxford to do with Salt Lake?” Challenges Facing Mormon Studies Adam S. Miller – “A Manifesto for Mormon theology” Jacob Rennaker – “Through a Glass, Darkly? Biblical Studies, Mormon Studies, Parallels, and Problems” Greg Kofford – “Publishing Mormon Studies: Inside Looking Out” Scholar Panel Brian Birch  – Utah Valley University J. Spencer Fluhman – Brigham Young University…

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…

Putting the Sunday in the Super Bowl

Some time ago on T&S, I survived a discussion on the history of Sunday (got no t-shirt though). That knock-down drag-out event included some talk of sports, but overall was pretty general. In light of the upcoming Super Bowl I thought it might be fun(?) to look at the rise of Sunday sport more specifically. So get out the nachos and dip. Or lace up the gloves, or whatever.

Appreciating the Qur’an

Inscription 4

The several parallels between the Book of Mormon and the Qur’an have been noted before: the Qur’an serves as proof of Muhammad’s prophethood, an additional (although superseding) witness of the Bible’s God and salvation history, the source of devotional reading and instruction for believers. It is central to the piety of Muslims and commands their highest esteem. For non-believers to glibly dismiss it offends Muslims the same way we take umbrage when the Book of Mormon is described as something any nineteenth-century, Bible-literate yokel could have tossed off between lunch and dinner. In other ways, though, the Qur’an is simply sui generis, and to understand it only by comparing it with other sacred texts is to sell it short. For one thing, the Qur’an has long been considered the model of literary excellence in Arabic; the inimitability of its style is an article of faith. For all its other merits, the Book of Mormon hasn’t exactly been widely followed as…

Populism and the Early Church

I finally got my hands on a copy of The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan O. Hatch’s look at how the egalitarian democratic spirit that pervaded post-Revolutionary America influenced five early American religious movements: the Christians (such as the Disciples of Christ), the Methodists, the Baptists, black churches, and Mormonism.

What death can teach us about heaven and hell

People are always making assertions about what heaven must contain in order for it to qualify as heaven for them, some of these assertions being more jokes than anything else. “It’s not heaven without sex.” “It wouldn’t be heaven if [insert name of favorite pet dog] isn’t there.” “If heaven doesn’t have Egg McMuffins, I don’t want to go there.”

Why We’re Confused

An old adage among outsiders who study Mormonism states that determining what is and is not Mormon doctrine is a lot like trying to nail jello to a wall—except that the latter feat is entirely possible while the former remains a struggle to this day. Evangelicals who interact with Mormons often express frustration to that end. It seems that as soon as we think we’ve figured out what Mormons believe and how to respond to it, the next Mormon we meet will tell us “we don’t believe that,” “that’s not doctrine,” or “that’s just his opinion.” It would probably help if evangelicals spent more time genuinely trying to understand Mormonism and less time sizing it up for the best spot to throw a punch,1 but to some of us, the desire to understand is earnest and the frustration is genuine.

A New Mormon Gateway

A website with answers. That’s what Time Magazine calls the new religion website Patheos.com in “What Do Religions Believe? A Website with Answers.” The Time article describes the new site as one “that sets out to explain the differences among religions as well as illuminate the areas of common ground.” Just today the site unveiled its Mormon Gateway section, a menu of resources designed to complement the more detailed information presented in the Library section of the site.

Hey, Are Those Real Miracles?

It happens every year. I’m walking past the library, or some other building loaded with windows, and one of my students bursts out the door and runs toward me with eyes dilating, hair frazzling, nerves fraying, arms waving, and body quaking to ask, out of breath, did these things really happen? “Things” referring to the miracles and visions we have been reading about in the sixteenth-century autobiography assigned that week. What the student means is this: did the miracles or visions happen in an objective sense, so that if I or other witnesses would have been there we would have seen them too? Or was the author just Nuts? For how else to explain that she saw Jesus everywhere she went, including at the breakfast table?

Contemplating Missionary Work in Cuba

The Obama administration announced yesterday that it is easing a handful of restrictions imposed by the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Among other things, Cuban-Americans will now be allowed to travel to Cuba as much as they like and will be free to send money and gifts to friends and relatives without securing travel or export licenses from the Treasury or the Commerce Department.

What I Learned about Mormon Courts (and the Writing of Mormon History)

For those who are interested in Mormon legal history, my article “Preaching to the Court House and Judging in the Temple” was just published in the most recent issue of the BYU Law Review. (You can download a copy of the article here.) This article provides my own take on the rise and fall of civil cases in church courts in the nineteenth-century. Of course the story of how nineteenth-century Mormons took lawsuits over broken contracts, wandering cows, disputed property lines, and the like to their local bishops has been told before, most elaborately in Ed Firmage and Collin Mangrum’s book Zion in the Courts, which was published about twenty-years ago. Here is where my take differs from previous interpretations.

Your Easter Sermon: Food Storage

Every year on T&S there appears around Easter time a certain amount of Holy-Week envy. I haven’t seen any yet this year, and so I thought I’d take my turn to express a little. Or better, maybe this would be a good opportunity to get a sense of what is going on in Mormon Easter services nowadays. What happened in your ward this year?

Asking the Right Question

The news yesterday was that President Obama will hold a Passover Seder in the White House tonight, the first time a Seder has been held in the White House. So, who is going to ask him to hold Family Home Evening some Monday night?

The Double-Minded Essence of Mormonism

A while ago I was reading some sermons from the 1880s in the Journal of Discourses.  The 1880s, of course, is the decade when the anti-polygamy crusades were at their most intense.  Thousands of Mormons were incarcerated, the Brethren were in hiding from the law much of the time, and every time you turned around there was a new law confiscating Mormon property or disenfranchising Mormon voters.  Hence, I was surprised to come across a sermon in which George Q. Cannon spoke unironically of his admiration for George Edmunds.  Edmunds was a Republican Senator from Vermont, and the chief proponent of harsher anti-Mormon legislation in Congress.  Cannon noted that he disagreed with Edmunds and thought him mistaken.  Nevertheless, he said in effect that he thought Edmunds an admirable man of principle.  Cannon’s remarks reveal a deep double-mindedness in nineteenth-century Mormonism, a double-mindedness whose preservation surely counts as one of the triumphs of the modern Church.

For Those in the D.C. Area

Richard E. Turley will be speaking at the Wesley Theological Seminary this coming Sunday. Last year I posted a couple of notices about a great series of events that Greg Prince, co-author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, hosts every few months at his house in Potomac, Maryland.