A Mormon’s Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the courage to question my leaders;

the humility to accept their answers;

and the prudence to know when courage becomes arrogance, and humility becomes complaisance.

Israel’s Past Without the Bible

It may come as a surprise to some that there are texts from ancient Israel, Judah, and its environs that are not found in the Bible. There are also a number of texts from (especially) ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia that make reference to Biblical persons, places, and events. Such epigraphic texts are important for many reasons. I want to discuss some aspects of why these texts are important in what follows, and to give some basic information with respect to some of the more prominent epigraphic discoveries that date to the period before Judah’s fall in 586/7 B.C.E. This latter task will be spread out over several posts, and I will proceed in roughly chronological order in my presentation of the material. [Read more...]

The Evolution of Faith: or is God Creating a Better Mormonism?

Not long after the Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christianity was published, I happened to encounter it on the shelf for new releases in my local library. I had been struggling for some time with feeling alienated from my religion of birth, having come to the realization that there was much in it that I could no longer accept as having a divine basis and aspects of its theology, culture, and spiritual practices that I believed were ultimately unproductive and harmful.

This was a difficult time for me, and in some sense the hurt still lingers. But I feel that my encounter with this book was somewhat providential, for it gave me a resource with which to work through my feelings. In Philip Gulley I found a kindred spirit, someone who saw in traditional Christianity many of the same problems that I had begun to recognize in Mormonism. He spoke with refreshing honesty and compassion, and in ways that resonated with the parts of my Mormon identity and belief system that I still held on to and valued.

For those unfamiliar with Gulley, he is a Quaker pastor living in Danville Ohio who has recently become well known as an advocate for a more progressive Christianity. As a former Catholic and then evangelical Quaker, his own religious beliefs have evolved over time, to the chagrin of some (he even admits to keeping a Book of Mormon on his shelf next to his Bibles and other religious texts). The life experiences that have propelled him on this spiritual journey are described at various points in the Evolution of Faith as exemplifications of the theological points he is trying to make. As a deeply personal and yet theologically vigorous narrative, he weaves his autobiographical storytelling with discussions of the major topics dealt with in traditional Christian theologies (Revelation, God, Jesus, Spirit etc).

Gulley begins in the first chapter by noting that Christianity has changed immensely since its origin two thousand years ago, that it has constantly evolved and is likely to continue to do so. And recently certain social, scientific, and technological developments have expedited the necessity for change. He mentions religious diversity (more people than ever are living with others of different religious or non-religious persuasions), scientific advancement, the expansion of communication possibilities, and the diminished role of the institutional church as the sole religious authority for interpreting spiritual matters. More people than ever are questioning prior orthodoxies, “making the next stage of Christianity not only possible, but inevitable” (5)

The rest of the book is his proposal for how Christianity could evolve to meet the challenges of our time. To summarize, his vision is not that of “a radical and unilateral overhaul of the faith,” but “a possible way forward that not only honors the ethos of Jesus but is conversant with our time and culture” (3).

I think that we as LDS members could learn much from Philp Gulley’s creative and brave exploration of the future of Christianity. It is not difficult to see that the LDS church faces many of the same challenges as other organized Christian religions. The information cocoon that so many of us were raised in has now started to crack, in some cases wide open, and an intellectual and religious ferment is now in full swing. Many are leaving the church because of this, while others are making direct requests for the church to change attitudes or policies. Still others have created alternative online communities to find support and to work out cognitive dissonance, communities which, as far as I can tell, often have a religious and cultural ethos distinctly different from what is regularly encountered in the institutional church and its local wards.

What struck me as I read through Evolution of Faith is how often I felt that I could replace his discussion of Christianity with Mormonism as the subject and that the sense of the passage would retain its relevance and applicability. In my own little world, it felt as though he were speaking prophetic words to the LDS tradition (ironic, I know), words that could help it better embody many of the humanistic principles it already claims to believe in.

Instead of reviewing the rest of the book, I thought that I would simply pull out a few highlight quotes and give readers a taste of his writing. They are some of my favorite from the first quarter of the book. But please, if you feel a temptation to dismiss the ideas contained in them as so much liberal nonsense, go read the Evolution of Faith itself and get the personal context to the quotes.


“Ironically, the more the church resists this evolution, the more it will hasten the change, for its efforts to preserve the status quo will only emphasize its more negative strategies of rigidity, control, and fear, thereby alienating the very people it wishes to influence” (5-6)


“The theology in which many of us were raised fit hand in glove with the prevailing understanding of the church. It was exclusive, rarely acknowledging the merits of other religions. It emphasized a God above and beyond us, mirroring the ecclesial structure of the day that elevated leadership and concentrated power in the hands of an exalted few. It was decidedly privileged in nature and view, reflecting the cultural mores of the richest nations. Its God took their side, blessed their priorities, and helped secure their wealth and status” (7)


“My hope is that an evolving Christianity will reflect the egalitarian spirit of Jesus, not the elitism of an entrenched church. It will no longer presume that having male genitalia uniquely equips someone for leadership. Nor will it assume heterosexuals are capable of ministry in a way homosexuals are not. It will listen carefully to its young people, letting their enthusiasm and yearning for authenticity inspire a passionate and relevant faith. It will console the brokenhearted, speak for the voiceless, befriend the weak, challenge the powerful, and call to leadership those who handle power well” (8)


“An evolving Christianity will not insist we believe the absurd, affirm the incredible, or support a theology that degrades humanity. It will be a friend of science, working joyfully alongside the best minds in the world on a common mission to embrace and enhance life. This Christianity will talk less and act more” (8)


“I’ve often thought revelations and insights about God ought to be handled [like a fragile and defenseless bird], loosely and softly so as not to smother or harm them. Unfortunately, this is usually the opposite of how divine truths are held. Our tendency is to grab them tightly, seizing them, squeezing out their vibrancy and vitality until life is gone from them. Indeed, one of the first things we do is codify and sanctify our encounters with the Divine… We freeze the moment, believe it represents the totality of the divine character, insist that our encounter is superior to our neighbor’s, and move quickly to define, and consequently limit, the manner in which God is encountered”  (21-22)


“For too long, the pastor’s function has been that of propagandist, perpetuating a party-line view of God that is not always helpful or sound. When the pastor is a mouthpiece for a settled view of God and rewarded for his or her adherence to that view, the incentive to expand our understanding of God is lost, the church becomes spiritually stagnant, and the cause of truth is not well served” (34)


“But what if exploration were the theme of one’s spiritual journey? What if “rightness” were of secondary importance and what was paramount was the freedom to investigate uncharted spiritual ground? What if God were not honored by our commitment to orthodoxy, but by our willingness to traverse the difficult terrain of wisdom and discernment? If that were the case, God would not be owed our fear and submission, but our most probing questions. True blasphemy would be ignoring our responsibility to engage the world and reality at the deepest level of which we are capable. It would be to meet creation with apathy, with no appetite for inquiry, knowledge, or enlightenment” (36)


“But when the chief aim of religion is indoctrination, then humility, enlightenment, and open-mindedness fall by the way. Instead, efforts are made to “cement” our thinking early in life, encouraging us to accept the settled doctrines of the church. Traditionally, this has been done by urging children to either confirm their faith in more mainstream churches or to “accept Jesus” in more evangelical churches. Though the method is different, the goal is the same — to establish early in one’s life a pattern of assent and obedience to religious beliefs the child can’t yet possibly know to be true” (39)


“Though I have rejected the salvific exclusivity of the Roman and evangelical churches, I do not dispute that there is but one way to follow God — the way of compassion, mercy, and love. Wherever those virtues are practiced, God is present, with no respect or regard for the religious boundaries we humans have devised. This is the sole test of godly religion: does this religion increase our capacity and ability to love? Whether God is called Elohim or Allah, whether the worship of God is centered in mosque, temple, shrine, or church, whether Jesus is honored as savior, prophet, or teacher, whether none or all of the religious dogma we value are met, if love is present, God is there” (46)


“If Christianity is to evolve, as it surely must if it is to thrive, we must first unchain ourselves from the weight of dead habit that has dulled our minds and stilled our spirits” (53)

Faith as a Relationship

I recently heard somebody refer to faith as a verb. While many verbs are involved in faith, I would say that faith is itself not a verb, but it is a noun.

Faith in Jesus Christ is not believing in Christ. Having faith in Christ is having a relationship with Him. A relationship is a noun. What then does this thing involve? That is a more complex issue.

What does any relationship require? We could probably come up with a long list, but I will note a few that stand out to me.

Trust. We must be able to trust that the people we have relationships will be there for us. Our relationships with colleagues and co-workers is rooted in a trust that we will see them at certain times and places. They will follow through with their duties and responsibilities. Often times my favorite colleagues are not the ones that I work with directly on specific tasks or committees, but the ones that are there to chat about a rough day, a rough class, pop culture, or maybe Foucault.

Our relationships with family are deeper, more intimate, and they usually are longer in duration. The longevity of family relationships often has to do with the fact that such relationships are not as contingent upon geography and situation as relationships with neighbors and co-workers. My relationship with my wife involves both the good times and the bad times. Landing the new job…and getting dismissed are things that I experience with her in ways that I do with nobody else. Part of what makes our relationship such a large part of my life is that what happens to one of us…happens to both of us.

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Faith, Scholarship, and Teaching at BYU Series

For the series announcement and the question to which I am replying, see here.

I believe that the dichotomy between the “intellectual” and the “spiritual” in religious education is a false one. Instead, I would prefer to appropriate for my approach to this important issue the German adjective geistlich (or Hebrew ruchi): a word that sees the spiritual and the intellectual as part of a synthetic whole that also includes an appreciation for the aesthetic. I believe that by adopting this perspective one may more fully comprehend, and so more successfully fulfill, the scriptural injunction to seek God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Mark 12:30). Moreover, this approach attempts to eliminate the dualistic impulse that tries to separate the spirit from the material, an impulse which I believe Mormonism confronts and rejects (D&C 88:15; 131:7).

Of course, one could easily recall numerous Mormon axioms for the importance of the life of the mind, including, “The glory of is intelligence” (D&C 93:36), and the divine command to obtain out of the “best books words of wisdom” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118; cf. D&C 90:15; 109:7, 14). But I believe that perhaps the best argument from a Mormon perspective for the organic integration of what is sometimes artificially conceptualized as a division between the “mind/intellect” and the “spirit/soul” is the Prophet Joseph Smith himself. Here Mormons have an authoritative religious example who valued and who aspired to combine truths of personal experience, divine revelation, and academic study. He was brave enough to question and to study things out in his mind (cf. D&C 9:8), while also being humble enough to seek out answers from both God and the collective wisdom and learning of other peoples, faiths, and traditions. He truly was an example of learning “by study and also by faith,” someone who fully believed that Mormonism could bravely accept all truth, whatever its source.

Although requiring methodological rigor and pedagogical sensitivity, I genuinely believe that Mormonism has nothing to fear in studying or honestly teaching the methods and results of modern academic disciplines. Indeed, I maintain that such geistliche Studien in fact are a divine obligation that will only enrich an already wealthy tradition that I deeply love and cherish. And, finally, I believe that such engagement is crucial if Mormonism wishes to retain and nourish its rising generations in this ever-increasingly globalized world, and also if it wishes to make an even greater contribution in the next century to that broader world it is called to serve.

TYD

Ten Tidbits About the Ten Commandments

1. Although commonly referred to as the “Ten Commandments,” in the Hebrew Bible itself they are not so called; rather, they are referred to as the “ten words/sayings” (Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4). Thus a better designation perhaps is that derived from the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint (LXX), from the 3rd or 2ndcentury B.C.E: the “Decalogue.”  The word “Decalogue” comes into English via French and Old Latin from the Greek, deka meaning “ten,” and logos (pl. logoi), meaning “word, saying.” There are at least two versions of the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible: Exod 20:2–17 and Deut 5:6–21. [Read more...]

Baptizing Vicariously and the Problems of Universalism

I haven’t posted for a while, so I was checking through some of my drafts this evening.  This was fully written, but I can’t remember why I didn’t post it at the time I wrote it.  It is a bit past the prime time on this issue, but might still be relevant.

 

The reemergence of the controversy about baptism for the dead, spearheaded by the issue of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims is frustrating for Mormons. Not only do Mormons feel misunderstood and suspicious of the motives of those who mischaracterize Mormon ritual and belief, but also frustrated that the Church has not adequately put in the safeguards to prevent these kinds of issues from happening (banned since the 1990′s), and embarrassing us all over again. At the same time, the practice of baptism for the dead and the controversy surrounding it reveal a deep philosophical issue about the place of difference in universalist understandings of salvation.

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Now Reading… Bad Religion

Published this AM, by Ross Douthout.  Amazing what Kindle can do, no?

So the “problem,” so far, is the loss the great orthodox Christian center.   And this means heretics, among whom Douthout places us.  He writes:

Heretics are often stereotyped as wild mystics, but they’re just as likely to be problem solvers and logic choppers, well-intentioned seekers after a more reasonable version of Christianity than orthodoxy supplies.  They tend to see themselves, not irrationally, as rescuers rather than enemies of Christianity–saving the faith from self-contradiction and cultural irrelevance” (335).

Looks like that shoe fits, no?  Makes me think about all the denunciations of Trinitarianism as a “mass of confusion.”   I wonder, though, did JS really produce a more rational or reasonable version of Christianity?

Well, we shall have to see where Douthout takes his ideas…

Mogs

 

 

Understanding the Scriptures and Apostasy Theologically From a Canonical Perspective (Part 1)

Canonical criticism, associated most closely with B. Childs, J. Barr, F. Thielman, and J. Sanders (among others) seeks to understand and apply the Bible as Scripture to the Church.  For Childs, the historical-critical method is useful in its own context, but is insufficient in itself to account for the theological questions that the Church places on the Bible as Scripture.  Canonical criticism, as its name implies, takes the canon (and the canon’s limits are based on ecclesial confession) as its starting point for theological reflection. [Read more...]

Knowing: Why Care?

Why do we care if we know rather than merely believe? Both in religion and life in general? I think that typically we appeal to an ethics. There are several ways this occurs.

The first is that we have a community notion that knowledge entails beliefs that are true and have a certain degree of justification. If I go into an employer and say I know how to program in C++ and Python and I’ve never programmed in my life then we recognize that is a lie and that it is wrong to tell that sort of lie. In a sense we recognize that in most cases to say we know when we don’t know is deceptive. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong to believe something we don’t have good reasons for or even to believe when we have reasons not to believe. It just means that when we claim knowledge we’re making a specific claim and we have a duty to make sure we’re being truthful about what we say. Given that it’s fair to ask when we actually do know something.

Most people think we have more of a duty beyond just being honest about how we use words though. It is better to know what is real than to merely believe based upon poor reasons. That is there is an intellectual duty to become informed. The reasons for this duty might vary. It may be based upon pragmatic reasoning –- an informed educated populace leads to a better society. (Certainly few of us would want to live in the ignorance of past cultures) It might be due to a duty we have towards others – either as a duty as citizens or a basic ethical duty towards our interactions with others which demands we become informed about them and our interactions with them. We could numerate numerous reasons. Ultimately though very few people think we are better ignorant than knowledgeable.

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