Mormon Ways of Knowing

Years ago I got a call from someone from one of the major LDS book publishers. (It’s been so long I can’t remember which – although it definitely wasn’t Deseret Books) They were planning on publishing a kind of Mormon dictionary that addressed many of the topics within Mormonism using short scholarly entries. The main emphasis was less the summation than to have a pretty thorough bibliography for each entry. They were calling me because several people had suggested that I was the best source for the topic of Mormon epistemology. Now I have to confess this never made much sense to me as I know there were many people better qualified. (It had already been years since I’d been in academia) I loved the idea of the project though so I agreed.

I spent several days at the library going through every book on Mormonism and all the articles from journals like Dialog, Sunstone, BYU Studies and others. Quite to my surprise there was a paucity of articles to select from. What was available (books like McMurrin’s The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion) were in my view pretty poor.

The project ended up coming to nothing but ever since then I’ve wondered why there was so little carefully written about Mormon ways of knowing. Now in recent years there has been a real blossoming of LDS Studies with theological and philosophy journals like Element not to mention interesting studies in other sources. Still despite a few papers (such as Dennis Potter’s work on reformed epistemology and LDS or Alexander Struk’s “The Hermeneutics of Testimony”) the question of Mormon ways of knowing hasn’t received the attention I think it deserves. (There are undoubtedly recent papers I’ve not read — I’ve been so busy I’ve not made it to the library in a few years to check sources I don’t read regularly)

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“Have You Been Saved?”

To oversimplify things a bit, Mormon notions of salvation are more consistent with Paul, while Evangelical notions of salvation are more consistent with deutero-Pauline ideas.  In essence, Mormons, like Paul, believe that salvation is a future event; while Evangelicals, like deutero-Pauline authors, believe that salvation is a present event.

The deutero-Pauline letter Ephesians claims, “by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:5, NRSV).  The deutero-Pauline text Colossians agrees, and goes even further, explaining that you have died and have been raised already (Col 3:1-3).  Saved in the past tense?  Already raised?  Yes, these texts consider that it is at baptism or some other event that has already brought about salvation.

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Mormons and Wild Geese

The first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” seems as at odds with Mormonism as anything can be. “You do not have to be good,” she states.

What’s that? It sounds an awfully lot like sacrilege. Of course we have to be good. Jesus admonished us to become perfect, and not only do we have the 10 commandments of other Bible-believers, we have a strict health code, a tithing requirement, and obligatory church attendance. A Latter-day Saint’s entire identity can be wrapped up in the necessity of being good. From choosing baptism and choosing the right in Primary, to serving a mission and serving our fellow man as a young adult, to marrying the right person at the right time in the right place — doing good is in our genes, and necessary for our salvation. [Read more...]

On Biblical Scripture

The Problem

What makes Biblical Scripture, Scripture for LDS Christians?*

Historically one prominent model for the authority of Biblical Scripture in Christian history (including for some Latter-day Saint thinkers) is the Prophetic-Inspiration Model: the person who writes the text is divinely inspired by God to write the very words that are recorded.  This model entails that the human being is a puppet of sorts for the divine will, a tool that can be used for the divine purpose, namely composing Sacred Scripture.  In this view, any text so authored is worthy of the category Scripture because, in the end, its wording is really determined by God (even while still partaking in human language).  This model therefore equates the words of the prophet figure with Revelation. However, although the prophet figure ultimately cannot be held responsible for the final text, the fact that it is composed, even if only instrumentally, by a prominent religious leader otherwise considered to have been commissioned of God, gives credence to the view that the text’s authority rests in the divine. [Read more...]

I Know The Church Is True

As I have reflected from time to time on this oft-repeated phrase I must admit that it has puzzled me.  What does it mean for the “church” to be “true”?

I usually think of the word church in the sense of the Greek word ekklesia, or Hebrew qahal, the “assembly.”  That is, the church is us, its members collectively, in all our imperfect glory.  What does it mean to call a community of believers, each of whom is sinful and weak, true?

Others, however, may think of the LDS church in terms of a divinely inspired organizational pattern.  Yet clearly both anciently and modernly the organizational schema of the church has changed at times due to (from a believer’s perspective) divine revelation and/or human choices.  If one adopts this position, is the phrase that is the topic of this post just another way of saying, “I know the church is guided by God/revelation”?

Others yet may see the LDS church primarily as God’s kingdom on earth. However, I would argue for scriptural and theological reasons (e.g., 1 Nephi 11-14) that there others who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that too are a part of God’s kingdom/church on earth (not to mention that there are members of the LDS faith who are no doubt opposed to this kingdom/church).  Is one affirming, then, by the phrase in question God’s support for this larger body of believers?  I would say in most cases the answer is probably “no”; the testifiers usually mean the LDS Church specifically.

I think the answer that has most satisfied me is more sociological in nature: By saying, “I know the Church is true,” one is self-identifying with a specific community of believers and affirming one’s solidarity with that community.  It is a way of saying, “my loyalties ultimately lay here.” I also think that it may be another way of saying that one believes, for non-empirical or purely rational reasons, that God is purposefully active in the world in unique ways through the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  If that is the case though, then it does seem that the phrase, as mentioned above, may just be another (perhaps less clear) way of declaring one’s belief that the LDS Church is guided by God/revelation. Could not someone who is not a member of the LDS Church affirm this though too?  And what about the inverse question?  I, for instance, think that God is active in unique ways in many other churches and organizations.  Is it ever proper to declare that they are “true”?

Finally, there is the question of the usage of the word “know.” Faith, hope, and belief to me often seem more impressive than knowledge, so I am not entirely sure why the word “believe” has come to be used less frequently in testimonies or looked on by some as less meaningful or powerful than the verb “know.” Moreover, using the word “know” can be confusing for outsiders who use this word rather differently than the way most Mormons seem to mean it in a confessional religious context.  Again, then, it seems that this word is a way of declaring that one is an insider, that one belongs to the community, as well as that one’s belief in the LDS Church is grounded in divine revelation and not empirical data or rational proofs.

What do you think?

The Flood: Global or Localized?

I would argue neither.

With the rising tide of modern science, historical criticism, and other scholarly disciplines, those committed to a strict literalist interpretation of the Flood stories in Gen 6-9 have had to retreat farther and farther up the metaphorical beach in order to maintain their belief in the historical reality of the Biblical tale.  For instance, basic problems with a literal reading of the narrative include the fact that there is no geological evidence for a global flood, and that the Biblical Flood narrative in large part is derivative of an older Mesopotamian Flood story from the myth Atrahasis (among many other reasons).  Sometimes, though, more liberal readers of the text suggest that the Flood was a historical event but that it was localized in a specific area, and that from the shortsighted view of the ancient author the whole land (including the mountains) indeed was covered with water. Thus we shouldn’t expect there to be evidence in the geological record for a global flood. However, there is, in my view, a more adequate understanding of the text, one that takes it on its own terms.

Israelite cosmology as it is reflected in the Bible basically consisted of a three-tiered world with the heavens/sky above, the earth below the sky, and the waters below the earth.  In the heavens (which, for some authors, had multiple levels) the gods resided, while humans lived on the earth. Moreover, Israelites believed that there was water above the earth, presumably because the sky, like the sea, is blue and, moreover, rain would often come down from the sky. In this pre-scientific worldview there was a solid, clear (perhaps ice or crystal?) dome-like structure that prevented the waters above the earth from crashing down onto the earth. This material object is translated as “firmament” in the KJV in Gen 1. The so-called “windows” of heaven were, in their view, sluices cut into the dome through which YHWH would send down rain according to his providence.  The sun and the stars were underneath this solid dome.  Furthermore, pillars were sunk into the subterranean waters to support the earth, and below the earth was also She’ol, the underworld.  Mountains, on the other hand, were thought by some to support the dome.  For more visual readers, see HERE for a basic representation of this cosmological worldview.

Gen 1 describes creation as a divine process of organizing the world from the chaotic primeval waters by separating different elements so as to provide order.  The Israelite God separates the waters using the dome in order to create the sky and then, within this “bubble,” proceeds to organize the rest of the world through separation and demarcation.  Just as, on the social level, God separated the Israelites from the other nations and gave them his covenant and its attendant laws in order to organize their lives and provide them with well-being, so too, on the cosmological level, proceeded the creation of the world.  The formation of the world, in a sense, mirrored the creation of Israel, and vice versa.

Thus it would seem somewhat unfair either to criticize or to validate – on scientific grounds – the author(s) of the Flood stories by measuring their texts against the ruler of modern scientific cosmology.  The Flood stories do not comment upon whether the Flood was local or global in scientific terms; indeed, their view was pre-scientific.  Rather, for the Israelites who authored these stories the Flood primarily represents “uncreation”: that is, the disorder and chaos that existed before God’s mastery over creation brought order. When sin filled the world the God of Israel unleashed the subterranean and heavenly waters to fill the bubble. So too if Israel transgressed its covenant and failed to keep the laws of YHWH their society would fall into chaos and ruin.

Were Eve and Adam Created Immortal?

Genesis 2–3 recounts the famous creation story, dubbed by modern scholars the J account, of the human (adam), his wife, and their interactions with the Israelite deity YHWH god.  To summarize: YHWH god forms the man from clay (adamah) and then places him in a garden that contains, apparently, two special trees, among others, one called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the other the tree of life.  He then fashions a woman.  The humans are commanded by the deity not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (actually, if you read the story carefully, only the man is given this command), although they are free to eat from the other trees in the garden.  If they should eat from the forbidden tree’s fruit, however, they will surely die, for reasons left unexplained.  However, the wise serpent is also resident in this divine garden sanctuary and he informs the woman that should she eat from the forbidden tree she will not die but become wise like the gods.  She eats some of the fruit and gives it to the man, her husband.  The serpent, as it turns out, was right–the fruit of said tree does bring divine wisdom.  However, YHWH god is none to pleased with the humans’ actions and banishes them from the garden.  The text then states that YHWH god put a heavenly guardian to block access to the tree of life so as to prevent the humans from eating of it and living forever.

This fascinating text has elicited numerous interpretations by readers over the centuries.  I briefly want to highlight one interpretational possibility, and then I invite your comments and your own personal views on the text.

It is commonly assumed that the man and the woman were created immortal or became so when they resided in the garden. However, the text never states that they are immortal.  Indeed, they can certainly die, as YHWH god informs them when he tells the man not to eat from the tree.  Additionally, it never says that they ate from the tree of life; in fact, it says just the opposite–YHWH god prevented them from doing so. Further, it is particularly striking that this account, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, connects the failure of humanity to obtain immortality by means of a life-giving plant with the actions of a serpent (serpents shed their skin and thus were considered by some in the ancient world to be a symbol for immortality; cf. the story of Moses raising a serpent image before the Israelites to heal any who should look upon it).  This parallel may suggest that the humans, like the mortal hero Gilgamesh, were never supposed to acquire immortality like the gods.  Further, the J source is very interested in maintaining strict boundaries between the divine and human worlds (cf. the Tower of Babel story).  It might make sense, therefore, that YHWH god doesn’t want them to have immortality via the tree of life, just as he did not want them to be wise by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Indeed, it was commonly understood in the ancient world, including among the ancient Israelites, that a primary difference between humans and gods was mortality versus eternal life.  According to Gen 2–3, then, the humans bridged one gap but could not close the other.  Finally, we know that these two characters do in fact die later on.  For more on this way of looking at the text, see John Day, “The Development of Belief in Life after Death in Ancient Israel,” in After the Exile, 1996, pgs. 236–237.

Although this story is clearly a myth (in the scholarly sense of the term, not in the popular sense that it is the opposite of what is “true”) and simply cannot be taken as an actual accounting of how God made the cosmos and humanity, I don’t believe that makes it a religiously or spiritually useless text.  Many insightful and creative spiritual and theological readings of the text have been produced by scholars, theologians, and religious persons since the text’s composition.  2 Nephi 2 is a particularly good example for the Mormon audience. Of course, there are views in the text that are scientifically, ethically, or historically wrong or incorrect.  However, I do think there is value in this text for Mormon theologizing and that it still has more “fruit” to yield in that endeavor if read with new eyes.  Hence I am not claiming that any one  particular reading of the text is the only “right” one.  Indeed, its ability to be read in a multitude of ways is at least one reason, in my opinion, that it is such an engaging and timeless story.

So do you see any benefits from reading the text in this manner?  How do you like to read this story, and why?



The Value of Mormon Liturgical Theology

Liturgy is prescribed or ritualized forms of public worship.  For instance, the LDS Sacrament (= the Eucharist) is a Mormon liturgical practice.  The question I pose is as follows: to what extent is Mormon liturgical practice appreciated in the development of Mormon theology?  That is, how does the Sacrament ritual, hymn singing, the standardized Sacrament Meeting routine, traditional baptismal services, normative forms of public prayer, etc., reflect and inform the creative efforts of (modern) Mormon theologians?  Since public worship of deity is of central religious importance to Mormonism, it would seem that such living communal practices among the body of believers could be as useful for theological creativity (as well as spiritual formation) as are, for instance, the Scriptures, the sermons or writings of modern General Authorities, or statements from Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. But what are the limitations of Mormon liturgical practice for informing its theology, since, for example, Mormon liturgical practice has been, and still is, subject to modification, and much of it has not been “canonized” (if I may be allowed to borrow the term) like the Standard Works have been?  Further, the non-public rituals of the Temple cannot be fully incorporated. Nevertheless, it still seems strange to ignore this body of public religious practice in Mormon theologizing since it is so pervasive and seems so essential for individual spiritual formation, as well as for both individual and collective religious identity.  Moreover, an emphasis on Mormon liturgical practice in the creation of theology could be beneficial for clarifying LDS beliefs and attitudes on certain subjects vis-a-vis the teachings or doctrines of other social or religious groups when traditional methods of engagement (Scripture, philosophy, etc.) have proved inconclusive or fruitless. How, then, do you understand the value of liturgical practice in Mormon theologizing, and how do you think it could be incorporated more effectively into that project?

Mormon Christology/ies?

The New Testament writings and other LDS Scriptural texts present a variety of Christologies (i.e., understandings about who Jesus was and the purpose of his life, teachings, and mission).  For instance, the Gospel of John presents Jesus as the pre-existent divine Word (logos) that was with the Father in the beginning and who created the world only to become flesh in it in order to redeem those who should believe on his name.  The Gospel of Matthew, however, presents Jesus as the inspired Law-Interpreter whose teachings reveal the true understanding of the Law of Moses and whose life and actions fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures.  In Matthew, Jesus is born of  virgin; he is half-human, half-god.  Likewise, Luke has an infancy narrative that attributes divine sonship to Jesus, but Luke’s Gospel portrays Jesus as the greatest of the prophets ultimately destined for rejection. Interestingly, Luke does not seem to understand Jesus’ death as a substitutionary sacrifice for sins. Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, like John’s, lacks an infancy narrative; yet, in contrast to the Gospel of John, there is no mystical reflection in this text regarding Jesus’ pre-existent divine state. Moreover, unlike Luke’s account, Mark does appear to understand Jesus’ death as substitutionary (Mark 10:45).  Suffice it to say, there are many other differences between the Gospels, and the other New Testament writings likewise portray Jesus’ life, teachings, and mission (if indeed they even directly touch on these issues) in different ways.  The Epistle to the Hebrews says that Jesus was made perfect through his sufferings (Heb 2:10) and became in every respect like humanity (Heb 2:17), and therefore he is able to sympathize with humanity precisely because he suffered temptation/testing in the same manner, although he never capitulated to sin (Heb 4:15) (Hebrews does not refer to a birth narrative, although it does appear to understand Jesus as pre-existent in some sense; see Heb 1:1–6).  (These statements, in turn, ask us to consider what exactly “sin” and “testing/temptation” is/are.)  Finally, D&C 93:1–17 states that Jesus divested himself of the pre-existent divine glory which he shared with the Father and dwelt on earth as fully human (confer also, e.g., Jn 1:1–18; Jn 17:1–21; Phil 2:6–11). He received not a fullness at first in mortality but continued moving from “grace to grace” until he received a fullness. [Read more...]

Book Review: Schweizer, “Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism”

Title: Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism
Author: Bernard Schweizer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Religion
Year: 2010
Pages: 246
ISBN13: 978-0-19-975138-9
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $29.95

In the face of inexplicable and extreme personal suffering, the biblical Job refuses to turn on the God who gave him life: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). His property and children are destroyed, his body is inflicted with sores. Job’s wife appears and insists that Job ought to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). She isn’t given a name and she’s never mentioned in the Bible again, but she’s the prototypical adherent of what author and associate professor of English Bernard Schweizer calls “misotheism.” She is “ready to curse God in open defiance and willing to be damned rather than acquiesce in divine caprice” (29). She believes in God yet denounces him. [Read more...]