Guarding the Temple: Our Procession to a Better Understanding; a Response to David L.

David L., who recently joined M*, and I have been having a really wonderful conversation about methodologies of interpretation and comparison. My response got too long, and so I thought it would be better to put up as a full post of its own. At issue, I believe, is how LDS should understand themselves and their relationship to the ancient world, David and I representing two different approaches that are currently wrestling for primacy in LDS scholarship more generally. Let me summarize the main outline of the methodogical issues at stake.
Continue reading “Guarding the Temple: Our Procession to a Better Understanding; a Response to David L.”

Ten Tidbits About Prophets and Prophecy in the Old Testament

1. The biblical, or so-called “canonical,” prophets–those whom we tend to consider the prophets–in many instances (e.g., Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Hosea) are not called prophets (Hebrew nabi’) in the superscriptions to their books, or elsewhere, and indeed probably would have rejected this label for themselves. For instance, in a third person biographical narrative about Amos, he rejects the Bethel priest Amaziah’s suggestion that he is a nabi’ (See Amos 7:10-17; cf. Hosea 9:7; Micah 3). This is because… Continue reading “Ten Tidbits About Prophets and Prophecy in the Old Testament”

The Blessings of an Unknown God

This post could be called anti-Areopagean, since in a reversal of the Acts 17 narrative, I write to those who inherited a supremely certain God and extol the virtues of a God unknown. I propose that agnostic theism actually results in a win-win situation, yielding rich rewards in return for handing over so-called certainty. I am not advocating that everyone adopt this philosophy, but I would like to lay out the advantages as I have experienced them.

This approach not only takes seriously the limitations of our knowledge, it could, if implemented widely, diminish religious conflict both interpersonal and national, and contribute to a healthier worldview overall. Agnosticism built around a theistic framework encourages resilient faith that easily assimilates new knowledge and allows for tolerance and appreciation for differing beliefs.

One of my goals in life is to model and champion religiosity that maximizes the benefits of spirituality while minimizing the harm that comes from most, if not all, forms of religion. I believe that an open agnostic theism that appreciates the value of spirituality allows one to enjoy a religious life while also becoming a better, more understanding and effective member of society. So in a Mormon context, I pray, enjoy Church, the scriptures, the temple, and the other details of religion, but my openness leads me to reject or at the very least complicate the idea of the “One and Only True Church” that I find divisive and spiritually stunting. (I am ok with a “most true” approach but that is a different post.) With a humility and caring that comes in part from my open agnosticism, I can engage with those around me without the automatic value judgments of traditional Mormonism kicking in. I very much respect those who understand God and religion more concretely, and I have had my own spiritual experiences that keep me in the category of believer. At the same time, I find an open, even agnostic approach to religion to be very beneficial and affirming.

My definition of the divine remains fluid. I live presupposing a caring and engaged superior Being, but I would classify that worldview somewhere between hope and belief. I am open to the idea that God represents some quantum connection between all things we do not understand, or a collective unconsciousness. Whatever created the world, whatever makes humans so different that we can have philosophical questions such as these, I call that God. God could be the name for natural laws that make choice and consciousness and love possible. God could be these attributes themselves–anything that increases consciousness, love, freedom, growth, peace, and joy–these are Divine. Perhaps we humans are the greatest gods within our grasp. I challenge you to find anyone who could not accept at least one of these definitions of “God”. I find this open characterization of the Divine useful.

My agnostic theism stems from several factors:

1) If there really is a supreme Creator of the Universe who interacts with all things, it is logical that He/She/They would be far beyond our comprehension.

2) Study of the religions of the world and human history demonstrates that humans conceptualize gods and the divine in their own image.

3) Mormon theology (and I would say theology in general) supports the idea that whatever God’s form or nature, God adapts Himself (I use the pronoun flexibly) to our understandings, expectations, and limitations (see 2 Ne. 31:3, Ether 12:39; D&C 29:33; 50:12; 88:46, which all imply that God speaks to us in a way we will understand more than the way “things really are”).

Throughout human history, groups have brandished the sword of certainty to compel and even destroy others. Though religion provides many answers that are satisfying on an emotional and spiritual level, theological ideas if taken to literally obstruct the increase of knowledge and compromise relationships. We all know what it is like to debate with the dogmatic and converse with the thoroughly convinced.

Mormonism enjoys a God defined to a striking degree. We not only know what God looks like, his job description (Moses 1:39); his family situation (including the elusive but tremendously beneficial theology of a Heavenly Mother); we know where he lives and where he comes from! I delight in the idea of a Heavenly Father and Mother to whom I can pray (well, the latter if I admit it only selectively) and with whom I can imagine a loving reunion in the afterlife. I love imagining embracing my Heavenly Parents when this life is done. Equally potent is the idea that humans and God differ only in degree, not nature. We are Gods in embryo, literally children of God and can become like Him/Her/Them. Since on a practical level religion is a symbolic system to conceptualize and interact with ourselves, each other, and the environment, I find these ideas powerful and productive. I would submit, however, that little is lost if we allow that such conceptions might not perfectly correspond to Absolute Reality, while simultaneously appreciating the benefit of such ideas in our lives.

Relaxing our cultural conditioning allows us to hear other ideas with more sympathetic ears and hearts. Paradoxically, agnosticism can lead to better understanding of truth. If we open our minds, we can be given new myths, corresponding more closely to Reality. If we are humble like children, ever seeking to learn how things are instead of projecting our desires of how we would like them to be, we can grow in light and knowledge and allow God to reveal truth and himself to us as it and he is, instead of constraining him to lovingly and patiently humor our prejudices until we are mature enough to surrender them. Again, this is win-win: if God and reality conform to our expectations, we will be pleased, but neither will we be shattered if life or learning lead us to doubt our conceptions.

A final and one of the greatest benefits of agnosticism would emerge from accepting the responsibility for our own divinity. As far as we can tell, humans are the most developed and influential beings of which we are aware. Our consciousness spreads across the planet and beyond. We can restore and even replace organs and limbs, even bring back the dead to a degree. We have the power to destroy or (hopefully) heal entire ecosystems.

Though belief in God can be heartening and helpful, it can be equally disempowering and destructive. We can wait around, shaking our hands at heaven, impatiently waiting for God to fix all our problems. I certainly don’t want political leaders to factor the Second Coming into environmental policy!

I suggest we accept this power and responsibility and turn the accusations of theodicy back on ourselves. Why does God allow so much suffering? Why doesn’t He DO something about it? Well, why do we? Why do WE allow so much suffering? Why do we perpetuate it? Why do we humans, godlike in our ability to do good and literally answer prayers, instead squander that potential by sacrificing others and even the planet upon the altars of apathy, greed, and selfishness?

With this conception and acceptance, the goals of religious and humanist align. We are either the most advanced beings around or share a special relationship with a God who is greater. In both cases, we should emulate and adopt the characteristics of Divinity and care for the people and world around us. Several of the world’s scriptures teach us that we are Gods*, His children, or at least servants. It is time for us to put aside differences in our symbolic conceptions and start acting like it.

*I was going to reference John 10:34 where Jesus says “ye are gods”, but that passage takes Psalm 82:1, 6-7 so radically out of context that I could not include it. This post is dedicated to TJ and the conversation that started it.

1 Enoch in Jude’s “Bible”: Issues of Canonicity and Scriptural Inspiration

Jude 1:5-7 (NRSV):  Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgement of the great day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

In the passage quoted above the author of Jude draws on past examples to show that God punishes sinners in order to demonstrate that God will eventually condemn his own contemporary opponents too: v.5 relies on Exodus and Numbers concerning Israelite rebellion and punishment in the wilderness; v.6 draws on 1 Enoch 6-16 about the “angels” who left their appointed sphere and who were thus condemned (cf. Gen. 6:1-4); and v.7 speaks of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis.[1] Continue reading “1 Enoch in Jude’s “Bible”: Issues of Canonicity and Scriptural Inspiration”

Isaiah 7:14 and Scriptural Hermeneutics

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa 7:14, KJV)

Isaiah 7.14 is one of three prophetic sign-acts in Isaiah chapters 7-8 in which Isaiah of Jerusalem associates or gives an ambiguous or multivalent ominous name to a child as a means of sharing the divine message to his contemporaries.  The historical context of these chapters is the Syrio-Ephraimite War. At this time Israel (the northern kingdom), Aram, and others, joined in an alliance  to combat the rising Assyrian threat headed by king Tiglath-pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE).  The kingdom of Judah (the southern kingdom) would not join the alliance and so Israel and Aram sought to remove the new Judean king, Ahaz (r. ca. 734-715), from power in order to install a more politically favorable king (referred to by Isaiah as the son of Tabeel; Isa. 7.6) who would join the alliance to stop Assyria.  Ahaz, however, appealed to Tiglath-pileser III for help against Israel and Aram and submitted to Assyria as vassal to suzerain, stripping the temple in the process in order to pay the necessary tribute (2 Kgs. 16:17-18). Assyria would go on to conquer Aram and reduce Israel to vassal status before Israel’s final destruction in 722/721 BCE by Sargon II. Continue reading “Isaiah 7:14 and Scriptural Hermeneutics”

The Dumbing Down of Mormon Books, Made Easy!

A recent book review of Eric Shuster and Charles Sale’s The Biblical Roots of Mormonism describes the book as “a 258-page overview of about 350 Latter-day Saint beliefs referenced in the Old and New Testament.” On the face of it, the book sounds like an extended exercise in proof-texting. I’ve talked about a few potential problems with such easy “likening” elsewhere but I haven’t read this particular book myself, so I can’t comment on its quality. Instead, I want to focus on the rhetorical approach of the book as described in the review. The book is an example of a larger trend in the marketing of recent LDS books generally: the marketing of stuff “made easier.”

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Scriptural Authority, Normativity, and Hermeneutics: Women and the Priesthood

Introduction [1]

The Bible often privileges men as normative for what it means to be human, frequently considers women as inferior to men, and presents God in overwhelmingly male terms. For the contemporary believer who is committed to the full equality of men and women the problem is not simply one of reconciling isolated patriarchal, sexist, or misogynistic biblical passages with an egalitarian or feminist perspective, but the revelatory nature of the biblical text itself.  “How can a text that contains so much that is damaging to women function authoritatively in the Christian community as normative of faith and life?” (36). A theology of Scripture that takes this problem seriously must reject the traditional understanding of Scripture as divinely revealed in verbal form to its ancient authors lest the pervasive androcentrism, patriarchalism, and sexism of the biblical text be understood as divinely revealed.  1) What then does it mean for Scripture to be the “Word of God”? 2) How can the Bible function authoritatively for the Church? 3) And is the Bible materially normative for modern faith and practice? Continue reading “Scriptural Authority, Normativity, and Hermeneutics: Women and the Priesthood”

Dawkins versus the ‘ultimate ground of all being’

In God and the New Atheism, John F. Haught describes what he sees as the big question facing Richard Dawkins and Intelligent Design (ID) theists, respectively: “how to explain the incredible complexity and diversity in living organisms and cells” (88).

ID proponents see the hand of a “master intelligence” making order from chaos, or complexity of simplicity. Dawkins cuts out the theological middle man by sticking to a naturalistic, Darwinian account summed up by Haught:

Continue reading “Dawkins versus the ‘ultimate ground of all being’”