Category: General Doctrine

Review Essay: “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology”: Materiality and Performance

Like a paring knife to a grapefruit, Jonathan Stapley’s new book on the history of Mormon cosmology is slim, sharp, and swift to carve through pith, serving up elegant wedges of history. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford, 2018) traces the evolution of ritual practice in Mormonism, including priesthood ordination, sealing rites, healing practices, baby blessings, and folk divination. The author’s reticence to extract neat diagrams from his findings is a virtue of the book, and any summary should be offered advisedly. Taken together, however, the chapters show a gradual migration from civic- to kinship- to church-centered forms of ritual soteriology, occurring alongside processes of codification and consolidation that, by the late 20th century, concentrate Mormon liturgical discourse and practice within the male ecclesiastical priesthood. I am no historian, and I leave it to the experts to adjudicate Stapley’s stimulating historical claims. Several points struck my picture of Mormon history–incomplete and idiosyncratic as it is–with particular explanatory power. As I understand them: Early notions of sealing and its connection to the doctrine of perseverance evolved rapidly. Initially, the Saints were “sealed up” in the soteriological sense that their salvation was permanently assured; it would “persevere” all future threats and sweep safely them to heaven. Later in the Kirtland and especially Nauvoo periods, the Saints were “sealed to” one another in a relational bond that was the vehicle of salvation, and the perseverance implied was that of the…

A Credible Case for Universalism — A Review of Givens and Givens’s The Christ Who Heals

In their new book, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saves Us, Fiona and Terryl Givens make the case for how “the doctrines and scriptures of the Restoration have enriched our knowledge of the rock and foundation of our faith — Jesus Christ.” The book is a delight: The Givenses draw on a rich cast of characters — from spiritual leaders in the second century after Christ to General Authorities in the present — to map out the evolution of our understanding of the Savior. Each chapter explores a distinct aspect of our restored understanding of the Savior, and I was inspired again and again as I read (okay, listened to) this book. The final chapter, “The Saving Christ,” expounds one of the boldest themes of the book. The Givenses make a credible case that every soul will have an eternity to work their way to exaltation. They suggest that “no loving parent would propose a plan that shuts the door of happiness to any of his or her children” and that “heaven isn’t a place we enjoy with other people; heaven is eternal companionship with other people.” But how then can we have both a “familial heaven” where all our loved ones are with us and “the freedom to reject heaven?” They reject the false dichotomy of either God as a “sovereign deity of vengeance and wrath” who condemns most souls OR God as a permissive being…

Review of Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics

After a few warm-up posts last month (here, here, and here), it’s time to get serious about apologetics. Greg Kofford Books just published Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, edited by Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson. The book is a collection of essays by a variety of LDS scholars giving their informed view of the development and current state of Mormon apologetics. Some defend it, some critique it, others offer proposals for a new and improved approach. Three chapters at the center of the volume look at the neglected issue of the role of women in LDS apologetics and its impact on female readers — I hope to have a separate post on those essays next week. In this review I will look at six of the fifteen essays in the book that I find most interesting, then offer some general comments on the volume as a whole. [Note: At the publisher’s site, you can see the table of contents and preview a couple of the essays, as well as read a Q&A with the two editors.]

Mormon Doctrine for Grown-ups: A Review of Terryl Givens’s Wrestling the Angel

When I was young, I discovered C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and enjoyed every volume. Then one day, at my neighborhood library, I discovered Paul Ford’s Companion to Narnia, essentially an encyclopedia of Narnia, and I fell in love. The entries were arranged alphabetically, and there were more topics than I had ever imagined. It was well-ordered and — at least to my child’s mind — exhaustive. Encyclopedias hold that promise. Around the same time, I discovered Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine. With short, clear entries, Mormon Doctrine provided definitive answers to a wide range of gospel questions. Only later in life did I learn that Mormon doctrine is not so simple. Enter Terryl L. Givens’s book, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity. In some ways, Wrestling the Angel (WTA) seems similar to Mormon Doctrine. Although not alphabetical, it has entries such as “The Godhead,” “Holy Ghost,” “The Fall,” and “Salvation.” But rather than a short, definitive declaration, Givens takes the opposite approach. For each topic, he first situates Mormon thought within a brief history of religious thought on the topic, and he then goes on to give a history of Mormon thinking on the topic. Consider the Holy Ghost. Givens begins with the early Christian church: “Christian doctrine on the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit, was relatively late in developing. One of the earliest Christian creeds, perhaps dating to the second century, is…

The Book of the Weeping God

One of the most striking features of the Bible is its division into Old and New Testaments, which present not only substantially different sets of religious beliefs and practices, but very different portrayals of God. The God of the Old Testament is a judgmental, jealous, and vengeful God, who destroys sinners without remorse, whether of his own people, the Hebrews, or even entire nations such as those of Canaan. God’s love and compassion are also visible in the Old Testament, but the harsher side is displayed quite dramatically. This judgmental conception of God is reflected not only in descriptions of God himself and his behavior, but also in the attitudes and behavior of his prophets and of his chosen people. There is quite a contrast with Christ in the New Testament, who is gentle with sinners and teaches that we should love our enemies, bless those that curse us, and turn the other cheek when others treat us badly. Christians explain the major differences between the Old and New Testaments as partly a reflection of the fact that the Law of Moses was offered to prepare the Hebrews for the new law, which was delivered by Christ. This account explains the differences in worship practices and in behavioral commandments, but it does not explain the different portrayals of God. I suggest that part of the difference we are seeing is precisely the difference in perspective between a people who are…

Future Mormon Reading Club

The person who probably comes closest to my own views on many matters is Adam Miller. Back in the heyday of LDS-Herm we had tons of fantastic discussions on theology and philosophy. Ever since Adam’s last book came out I’ve wanted to do a reading club on it but just hadn’t had the time. One nice thing about this book is that it engages with a lot of the core theological topics where we disagreed. I’ve found I learn the most from disagreements. In agreements I’m usually just either confirming my biases or else I don’t read as closely as I should since I already agree. With disagreement I pay much closer attention. It forces me to rethink why I think the things I do think. Sometimes I find more reasons for my beliefs, but at other times I find myself reconsidering them.

A Food Storage Wimp Ponders the End of the World

It’s good to ponder the end of the world from time to time. Now I’m not really a food storage guy. That has never troubled me much. Until lately. My new approach: Every time North Korea fires a missile, I buy another flat of drinking water and put it in the garage, along with one of those big 2.5 gallon water containers. If the Koreans plunk one in the ocean near Hawaii, I’ll double it. Anyone else feeling a little less secure these days?

Let’s Talk About Sorcery

Borrowing the title from my good friends at BCC, let’s talk about sorcery, another interesting topic that is discussed in the April 2017 Ensign article “The War Goes On.” The central claim of the article is that gay marriage is Satan’s counterfeit version of “marriage between a man and a woman” that is “ordained of God,” because gay marriage “brings neither posterity nor exaltation.” But the article also addresses counterfeit faith, counterfeit love, counterfeit priesthood, and counterfeit miracles: One of Satan’s counterfeits for faith is superstition. His counterfeit for love is lust. He counterfeits the priesthood by introducing priestcraft, and he imitates God’s miracles by means of sorcery.

“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 R. Holland: “You must tread with caution on the hallowed ground of another’s suffering.”[1] I intend to tread carefully on this rather sensitive subject. The problem of evil can be boiled down to the question, “If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?” Evil is often divided into two categories:[2] Moral evil: the evil committed by people. Natural evil: natural disasters, disease, etc. I’ve mentioned in class before that I have…

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.

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 more controversial. Primarily because he’s arguing for a more coherent and consistent philosophy behind scripture. Many, best exemplified in Jon Levenson’s review, see Hazony as not giving enough attention to the different authors making up even a single book of scripture let alone the Bible as a whole. That is by focusing on the unity of scripture he misses the competing and different views in the texts that make up scripture. All that said though, I think how Hazony reads…

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 had been transformed by the exile, the Hellenistic and then Roman conquests, it’s hardly surprising for there to be differences. There are six centuries of divergent evolution. We need to remember that the Nephites had most likely been heavily assimilated into mesoAmerican culture much as the Palestinian Jews had assimilated a lot of Hellenistic and Babylonian culture. There’s also the effect of Joseph’s translation which regardless of the method of translation strongly suggest a fairly loose translation in terms of…

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 BCC post on Nehor and Universalism. It was that best kind of post: one that made me think for several days about the mentioned passages.

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?


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 with the right attitude. “Don’t be whiners” does not mean “never speak up”. It means speak up with humility and charity and for the right reasons. Keeping all this in mind would probably help ease a lot of the friction for people who feel that leaders don’t listen to them. Or for those leaders who (incorrectly) think they should not be ever told about their potential mistakes. And nobody should feel entitled. Because that makes you act like a jerk.

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 our governments do. But I take “sustain” in that case to mean we support the general framework, share its common purposes, and work for its betterment. To sustain the elected leaders of a government would similarly mean to recognize their legitimately derived authority, and not work to undermine that authority, even if we voted for the other guy (or woman).  So adapting this scriptural usage to the sustaining of our own leaders, I take the same cues. We recognize their legitimately derived authority. (This is made…