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)

Continue reading “Mormon Ways of Knowing”

“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. Continue reading “Mormons and Wild Geese”

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. Continue reading “On Biblical Scripture”

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.

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?

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

“Sounds like Satan’s plan!”

From the recent Newsweek coverage of us Mormons:

Congressman Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) sees an even deeper connection between his faith and his economic and political views. According to Mormon tradition, God and Satan fought a “war in heaven” over the question of moral agency, with God on the side of personal liberty and Satan seeking to enslave mankind. Flake acknowledges that the theme of freedom—and the threat of losing it—runs through much of Mormonism, and “that kind of fits my philosophy.” (Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has declared, “I am a Democrat because I’m a Mormon, not in spite of it,” his is a minority view among members of the faith.)

Continue reading ““Sounds like Satan’s plan!””

Would Jesus “Stick to the Manual”?

Recently I was asked to fill in as Gospel Doctrine teacher. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity/challenge of helping people gain another lens through which to view the scriptures (ancient and/or modern) since everytime I see people have that moment of enlightenment when they gain new insight into the scriptures, gospel, etc. (something that I would argue is an observable phenomenon), I feel that I get to re-live the moments of enlightenment in my own life. This process of learning, teaching, learning, teaching, etc. is by far and away the place where I feel my strongest personal connection to the gospel, the church, and God and thus rarely pass on such an opportunity. My lesson went very well and a great majority of the class were thrilled to gain some insight into the context of verses that are so often repeated that they have nearly become proverbial:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
Continue reading “Would Jesus “Stick to the Manual”?”

Edward Tullidge’s Miltonian “Gathering of the Grand Council of Hell”

In 1858 Edward Tullidge wrote to Brigham Young to volunteer himself as the epic chronicler of the Restoration. The off-and-on again British convert to Mormonism enthusiasticaly described his fifteen-thousand-line epic style biography of Joseph Smith, “The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century.” He compared his work to Homer and John Milton and promised more to come.1 Evidently, Tullidge never completed the project.2 Fortunately, however, one chapter was published in The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star in January 1858. I located a scanned image via Google Books,3 but since I couldn’t find a reliable transcription online I decided to furnish one for your reading, copying, and pasting enjoyment. I numbered the lines for easier reference. For this post I put together a quick comparison between Tullidge’s chapter and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Continue reading “Edward Tullidge’s Miltonian “Gathering of the Grand Council of Hell””