Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mormon Monism

A few weeks ago I received an email from someone I love who has been troubled by a doctrine central to the restored gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When Joseph Smith received the first vision that called him as a prophet, he saw "two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other--This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" (Joseph Smith History 1:17). Through this experience Joseph learned that God the "Father has a body of flesh and bone as tangible as man's; the Son also" (D&C 130:22). While most Christians I know imagine an anthropomorphic God (ie, one that looks like us), the God they imagine is incompatible with the deity described by the Westminster Confession and other important Christian creeds, "a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions." By insisting that God possesses a physical body, the Mormon doctrine of divine embodiment diverges radically from Christian precedent.

[Note: for the rest of this post, I'll be contrasting "Mormon" and "Christian" views as though those two positions were incompatible. I do this for convenience to highlight one doctrinal divergence, NOT to imply that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ or that Mormons are not Christians.]

This disagreement over the doctrine of divine embodiment is only one manifestation of a larger doctrinal difference between Mormons and the broader Christian community. Almost every Christian sect with which I am familiar subscribes to the notion of dualism--a belief that there is an irreconcilable divide between the physical and spiritual world. Mainstream Christian theology posits that flesh and spirit are mutually incompatible, drawing on Paul's teachings that "they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you" (Romans 8:8-9). This Pauline (mainstream Christian) reading of the New Testament actually rejects the notion that Jesus Christ possessed a physical body, replacing John's insistence that "the Word was made flesh" (John 1:14) with Paul's claim that God sent "his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3; my emphasis). Mainstream Christianity posits that flesh--and the physical world more generally--is inherently corrupt and sinful, incompatible with the pure spirit of God, that Jesus Christ only seemed to possess a body of flesh and bones.

Mormons, on the other hand, subscribe to monism--a belief that the physical and spiritual exist side by side on a single continuum.  Whereas dualism posits a great divide (think the Grand Canyon) between physical matter and spirit, Mormon monism views matter and spirit as two possible points on the same scale. The best metaphor may be that of a ladder where physical matter exists at the ladder's base and spirit exists at the ladder's apex: from bottom to top, matter becomes more and more refined until it becomes what we think of as spirit, but there is no fundamental divide between these two positions, no categorical difference between the two concepts. Illustrative of this belief is the inspired "translation" Joseph Smith made of the verses from Romans that I quoted earlier (Joseph's changes in bold): "they that are after the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you" (JST Romans 8:8-9). This alteration of the Pauline position shifts from an irrevocable disjunction between deity and flesh--anything "in the flesh cannot please God"--to God's displeasure when we lean to the wrong side of the flesh/spirit continuum--yearning "after the flesh cannot please God."

Whereas mainstream Christianity often figures the resurrection as a raising of the spirit, Mormon doctrine insists on the raising of the body and a reunion of (perfected) flesh and spirit. We believe that the possession of a body is central to happiness and, ultimately, exaltation: "spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy" (D&C 93:33-34). According to Mormon theology, the absence of a body is, in fact, one of the central sources of Satan's misery and hate towards men; he, with his angels, looks upon the "absence of your spirits from bodies to be a bondage" (D&C 45:17), and Mormons read New Testament accounts of demonic possession as indicative of devils' eagerness to possess bodies, even those of swine (Matthew 8:31).

Although this distinction between spirit and element, with an accompanying insistence that spirit and element must be joined by the resurrection in order to make eternal happiness possible seems to highlight the difference between flesh (element) and spirit, Mormon scripture insists that this difference is one of degrees rather than one of kind. Joseph Smith revealed, "There is no such thing as immaterial matter"--or, I would add immaterial spirit. "All spirit is matter but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by pure eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter" (D&C 131:7-8).

While this insistence on the materiality of immaterial things--spirit--would have been seen as heretical by mainstream Christians in the nineteenth century, it actually accords rather well with modern understandings of the universe. For example, light seems to be an "immaterial" manifestation of the sun's power and one strongly associated with the Christian concept of God; Jesus Christ proclaimed, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). In the nineteenth century, this association with light might have seemed to bolster the Pauline teaching that Jesus Christ is an immaterial being, but scientific understandings of light confirm that light behaves as a particle (possesses materiality) even as it simultaneously behaves as a wave (in an immaterial way). My understanding of physics--limited though that may be--reaffirms my testimony in the doctrine of monism as revealed to Joseph Smith.

When we say that God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, have bodies, we do not mean that they have bodies of exactly the same type as our own; I firmly believe that the matter comprising their bodies is "more fine or pure" and may allow their material bodies to behave in what we think of as immaterial processes, just as light retains the properties of both material (particle) and "immaterial" (wave) substances. I'm excited (someday) to learn more about the science behind these teachings, but for now I am content to declare that I believe in a resurrected, embodied Savior and His perfect, embodied Father. They live!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Two Stories About Money

Regular readers may know that I'm sympathetic to Hugh Nibley's description of money as "congealed wickedness," so I couldn't help but laugh--and think deeply--when a couple of stories recently caught my attention in which money became an important substitute for something like faith or love. Consider, for example, the recent example of an entire town in Cambodia which converted to Christianity in order to save money

It's tempting to celebrate these conversions and the capitalist logic that inspired them, but I suspect that such a celebration would risk placing the end (conversion!) before the means (capitalism)--and I very much believe in a God of MEANS, who is more concerned with how we enter the waters of baptism than with the fact that we made it in. And as long as we're talking about money, it's worth noting that while converting to Christianity might save Cambodians money, that saved money likely won't improve the quality of their marriages. 

According to researchers at Brigham Young University, a strong interest in wealth bodes poorly for prospects of marital happiness: 

I'm not quite sure how to synthesize these two stories about money and its impact on our prospects for happiness or heaven, but I feel confident in saying that money is a more complex phenomenon than Nibley's snarkily glib quote suggests. What say ye readers--anyone willing to take a vow of poverty in exchange for improved prospects of marital bliss? Interested in shopping for a church that will save you tithing money?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Site Shift

All entries in my recurring series, "Great Are the Words of Isaiah" will now be hosted at a content-specific site: Check out the inaugural post now--and I'll be migrating previous Isaiah essays from this blog soon.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why Did Nephi Kill Laban? Joseph Smith on Scale Confusion and Chauvinism

When I served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I frequently distributed copies of the Book of Mormon to individuals who wanted to learn more about the Church. Many of those individuals eventually began to read the book from cover-to-cover, and when they did, they invariably had questions about the exact same passage in 1 Nephi 4:9-18. This is the point at which Nephi--seeking to recover the brass plates (which contain much of the Old Testament and his family's genealogy)--is confronted with the opportunity to kill Laban and take the plates by force. In a development that surprises almost every modern reader who is familiar with the Old Testament command "Thou shalt not kill," Nephi is "constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him" (1 Nephi 4:10).

Nephi's dilemma--whether to obey the Decalogue or God's present, seemingly contradictory commandment to kill Laban--always troubled first-time readers of the book, as well it should. Because while few (probably none) of us will have to make the Abrahamic choice between "Thou shalt not kill" and obeying another, seemingly more immediate commandment, all of us will be faced at some point with competing religious priorities. To offer a rather banal example, each of us must choose how to spend our free time, whether to use it in service of others or to spend it seeking self-education and improvement. The choice between reading the scriptures and doing family history work is a simplified, low-stakes version of Nephi's dilemma, where we must decide which of two competing commandments to obey at any given time. 

The heartening lesson of Nephi's experience is that God intervened to instruct him as to what he should do in that specific instance, and Joseph Smith promises that personal revelation is always available to help us know which of God's commandments is most important in a given situation with multiple "right" options:

"we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.  God said, 'Thou shalt not kill;' at another time He said, 'Thou shalt utterly destroy.' This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted--by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire" (Teachings 201-3; my emphasis).

Once revelation has come, Smith reinforces the need to obey (obedience is the first law of heaven) even if we cannot fully understand God's purposes. In Nephi's case, the Lord offers him an interesting explanation that sheds light on just why an immutable God's commandments might seem contradictoryGod explains: "Behold, the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief" (1 Nephi 4:13). 

There are two important points here: First, it is God's "righteous purposes"--not necessarily the means by which he achieves those purposes--that are immutable. Everything he asks us to do contributes to those purposes, which he describes to Moses as "my work and my glory--to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). Second, this explanation highlights the differing size scales on which God and Nephi are considering the question of Laban's death. Nephi is concerned primarily--singularly--with his own actions: "I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him." In other words, Nephi is considering the question from the perspective of a single individual. God, on the other hand, is thinking in much more expansive terms: "It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief." The Lord is projecting Laban's death across a thousand years and weighing it in opposition to all of Nephi's numerous descendants during that time frame. The scale at which they are considering the problem is fundamentally different. 

On the one hand, this example simply confirms something that God told Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). On the other hand, this recurring reminder that we think through problems and commandments on a much smaller scale than God also helps to explain why God's commandments occasionally seem contradictory. 

In their (fascinating and excellent) Bible for Atheists, Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams argue that humans inevitably suffer from something they call "Scale Confusion": "There is no single physical phenomenon that occurs on all size scales. There are not galaxies the size of atoms. Different kinds of things happen on different size-scales, and to talk about something in the context of a size scale in which it cannot occur creates a mental muddle we call Scale Confusion. Scale Confusion is applying laws and understandings appropriate to one size scale to phenomena on another scale where those laws and understandings don't apply" (168). In other words, scientific laws (and, I would argue here, God's laws) are relative, not universal. 

To offer one example: We think of gravity as a universal law--but that is only because we live at a size scale in which gravity is the dominant force! Everything around us is subject to the law of gravity; the computer I'm using right now is sitting on a desk because gravity is holding it there. But at a different size scale--say inside an individual atom--gravity is meaningless. It's not that gravity has ceased to operate; it's just that within the tiny confines of an atom the other three fundamental forces (electric, strong, weak) are so much more powerful that gravity effectively stops functioning. It's not that gravity doesn't exist--it's just that different laws govern behavior at that size scale. 

Primack and Abrams "propose the name Scale Chauvinism for the natural assumption that the way things look on some particular size scale is fundamental, and everything else can more profitably be viewed from this fundamental point of view. The most common chauvinism, of course, is chauvinism of the human scale" (171-72). Scale Chauvinism is Nephi's fundamental problem when confronted with the prospect of killing Laban. Familiar with the laws dominant at an individual level ("Thou shalt not kill!") he balked at obeying the laws operative at a national level ("Thou shalt preserve a knowledge of my commandments!").

As individuals we tend to assume that God's immutability--"the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever" (Heb. 13:8; Malachi 3:6)--means that he always acts according to the laws operative on our individual, immediate scale. That is one of the reasons I admire Joseph Smith; his declarations that "That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another" and "Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire" speak to an understanding of scales other than the immediate and individual. Like Moses and other prophets, Smith had acquired a prophetic perspective on the cosmos and saw "that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed" (Moses 1:10); that perspective cured him of Scale Chauvinism, the assumption that everything else should be considered from our individual, immediate, human point of view.

God and his laws--like the law of gravity--are immutable, even if we suffer from the malady of Scale Chauvinism (yet another form of pride!), which prevents us from recognizing that fact. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Mechanics of Belief

I was happy to hear from a reader last week (really, I'm just happy to know I have readers) who asked for my (unofficial) perspective on a few questions in preparation for an article he's writing on "The Mechanics of Belief." Here's my shot at answering his questions--and please, readers, jump in on the comments if you feel I misrepresent the perspective of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!

1. On a scale of 1-10, how important do you think allegory is, in our religious doctrines, for bolstering or maintaining strong adherence to a belief system? For instance: Joseph Smith learning through a revelation from God that the Garden of Eden had been in Jackson County, Missouri, and it is where he will return; that mormon souls begin as pre-human on a crystal orb in outer space; and that after humans die they have a chance to become Gods themselves and live on their own planet.

For starters, let's be clear: Mormons believe in allegorical interpretations of the scriptures. As an example, the Church has canonized an allegorical interpretation of the book of Revelation, especially chapter four. John's vision of four beasts, recorded in Revelations 4:7-8, is fairly opaque: "And the first beast was like a lion and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within"  Joseph Smith, seeking an understanding of the text, received revelation now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, which reads in part: "Q. What are we to understand by the eyes and wings, which the beasts had? A. Their eyes are a representation of light and knowledge, that is, they are full of knowledge; and their wings area  representation of power, to move, to act" (77:4). 

Now--how important is it that we emphasize such allegorical interpretations? I suspect that most Mormons tend to focus less on abstract matters which may or may not require allegorical interpretation and more on the core doctrines of the gospel: faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, and receipt of the Holy Ghost. 

As a side note, I'm not familiar with either of the last two "doctrines" you describe; I have never been taught of a pre-existence on a crystalline orb or that exaltation involves living on your own planet. 

2. What percentage, if any, of Mormons do you think see this part of doctrine as incredulous, yet look the other way in order to be part of a lifestyle that they admire?

The simple answer is: I don't know. To quote one of my favorite poems, by Herman Melville, "Betwixt rejection and belief, / Shadings there are--degrees, in brief." In order to enter temples, which Mormons regard as the holiest places on earth, Church members must indicate a belief in core doctrines on the Godhead and the prophetic calling of Church leaders; beliefs on fringe doctrines--such as the geographic location of Eden or the nature of the pre-existence--have little if any bearing on the worship or everyday life of Church members. 

I am quite sure that if you walked into any congregation and asked members to express their understandings of the pre-existence, you would receive a series of diverging, potentially conflicting answers. However, these beliefs do not determine temple-worthiness.

3. At what age, or at what level of a new Mormon members' education, are these doctrinal beliefs taught?

At the risk of sounding repetitive, non-core doctrines are, to the best of my knowledge, never intentionally taught within Chuch-sponsored classes. In-Church instruction revolves around cultivating faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and implementing core gospel principles--such as repentance, honesty, chastity, and obedience--into everyday life. Individual members of the church may seek guidance on fringe doctrines within the scriptures or from Church leaders, but the Church does not actively or systematically instruct members on matters immaterial to salvation.

4. Do you belief that what is taught in the Book of Mormon has left the rest of Christianity in a state of apostasy?

The word apostasy signifies the abandonment of religious beliefs. Accordingly, it seems appropriate to distinguish between the individuals who DO the abandoning and those who inherit a culture of disbelief. Mormons, together with Protestants, believe that important elements of the gospel taught by Jesus Christ and his apostles--such as baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29)--were discontinued or altered. The sixteenth-century Reformation instigated by Luther, Calvin, and others sought to recover those truths and practices through the study of biblical texts in their original languages, Hebrew and Greek. Mormons claim to have recovered those truths and practices through divine intervention and the restoration of priesthood power held by Peter, James, John, and Christ's other apostles. 

While Protestants and Mormons would agree that apostasy occurred at some point between the first and sixteenth century CE, Mormons would never accuse Protestants of living in a state of apostasy--abandoning belief in a true church--any more than Protestants would accuse Catholics of living in a state of apostasy. Rather, Mormons would suggest that modern Protestants, like modern Catholics, have inherited an incomplete or corrupted belief system. We invite all people to read the Book of Mormon and to learn the doctrines of the restored gospel; if, after having come to a knowledge of the Church's truthfulness, these individuals then reject its precepts, then and only then will they be living in a state of apostasy. 

5. In light of the various "revelations" from God received by various prophets, does this conflict with the Biblical teachings that God is immutable, or are these simply adjustments to the societal changes and pressures of our times? 

Christians who accept both the Old and New Testaments as scripture will recognize that God issues different--even conflicting--instructions to his covenant peoples at different historical moments. For instance, the law of Moses forbade the consumption of various "unclean" animals, but Peter's vision in Acts 10 was one of many divine communications to prophets indicating that God expected members of his first century church to follow a different moral code than that given to the Children of Israel. Belief in an immutable God does not necessarily equate to belief in an immutable application of gospel principles; as Jesus taught, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28). The principle underlying both commandments--chastity--was the same, yet the application of that principle and the expectation of disciples changed. 

6. Do you believe in the adage that power corrupts, but that the wealth of the Mormon church, estimated by some to be between $30 billion to $80 billion, will not cause it to succumb because of its moral base?

I believe that God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, direct the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through revelation given to a living prophet. As yet, I have not noticed that the omnipotent God described in the Bible and other holy writ has been accused of corruption, so I do not fear that the financial resources of the Church will be misused on a large scale. I recognize, of course, that Mormons, like all people, are fallible and may make mistakes or even intentionally misuse sacred funds, but I do not believe that God will allow those who govern the affairs of His Church to misdirect its resources. 

The best explanation of Church finances can be found here.

As always, these are imperfect answers by an unofficial voice; I hope, dear reader, that you will find them useful in thinking through the mechanics of Mormon belief.

Friday, July 27, 2012

"A God there Is, the Whole Creation Tells"

Since I've been thinking about the relationship between divinity and creation recently, I thought I'd share a gem of my recent reading in old newspapers. I found this anonymously authored poem in the August 6, 1747 edition of Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette:

The Deity

A God there is, the whole Creation tells,
Th' imprest Idea on our Reason dwells.
In vain the Atheist, with his florid Lines,
Dazzles the Crowd, and with th' Unthinking shines:
His Proofs, like Bubbles on a rainy Day,
That o'er the Waters trembling Surface play,
On the least Touch their Emptiness explose,
And shew'd on Air their slender Convex rose.

Avaunt, ye Slaves, vile lumber of the Land,
Offspring of Night, an inauspicious Band,
Fly far from us, and there your Rites maintain,
Where Darkness, Chance, and Elder Chaos reign:
Reverse of Sense, and to Religion Foes,
Let these for you a Trinity compose;
With Hymns infernal let your Altars ring,
And to these darling Gods loud Hallelujahs sing.

Shou'd you demand evincing Proofs below
That God's Existence manifestly show?
Earth, Sea, and Air, his greatest Work in Man
View well---then doubt a Godhead if you can.

His Pow'r gives Life, leads on the rolling Years,
And, in each Act, each Object plain appears,
Gleams in the Colours of the wat'ry Bow,
Falls in soft Fleeces of descending Snow;
With hoary Honours silvers o'er the Woods,
And, freezing, chains the Current of the Floods.
His Power when low'ring Winter creeps away,
Joys in the Fields, and bids the World be gay;
Dispenses Verdure to the blooming Bow'rs,
Decks all the Meads; and paints the springing Flow'rs.

From his Command, one universal Soul
Breathes in each Reptile, animates the Whole;
Smiles in the Morning, blushes in the Noon,
Swells in the Waves, and glitters in the Moon;
Flies on the Winds , and in the Light'ning plays,
Glows in the Sun, and lights the Comet's Blaze.

From him comes Friendship, Concord, Peace, and Love;
All comes from Him, in Him all Beings move.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An Atheist's Bible

The great trouble with atheism is that it is, by definition, a lack of belief. Individual atheists may believe a great number of things, but the one thing that binds them together as a group is a lack of belief in God. The problem in trying to unite such a group lies in the fact that human beings, on the whole, are much better at rallying around positive beliefs than they are in coalescing around the absence of belief.

Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams have done a wonderful job of trying to fill that void, to provide those who do not believe in God with what you might call a scientific theology--a set of common beliefs for atheists to rally around. Their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, is truly fascinating and, more importantly for me, provides lots of food for the Mormon thought that swirls around in my brain.

Abrams and Primack (AP) begin by noting both the virtues and the potential shortcomings of religion and science: "Traditional cultures' cosmologies were not factually correct, but they offered guidance about how to live with a sense of belonging in the world. Modern scientific cosmology says nothing about human beings or how we should live. It aims to provide scientific accuracy, not meaning. This book seeks to connect these two different understandings of cosmology by offering a science-based explanation of our human place in the universe" (16). Essentially, they are seeking to create a new, factually accurate explanation of how we got here and, based on that knowledge, guidelines for how we should live. AP are trying to create a new religion for atheists--and this is their Bible. (Incidentally, if for no other reason, this is a worthwhile read because it prompts all sorts of questions about how one might go about intentionally creating a religion from scratch--it's fascinating to watch them try to work through religion systematically.) I'm also grateful that they're frank about the fact that science--like religion--requires faith: "a theory is like a house: you can rarely find its problems and limitations--or its promising secret passageways--unless you're willing to move in with all your furniture" (180). In other words, belief precedes the aha! moment of confirmation, in science and religion; first you believe, THEN you find the secret passageway.

The book is filled with insights and new perspectives, but I'll cut to their three most important (and most interesting) findings, all of which emphasize humanity's unique place in the universe:

  1. "Human beings are made of the rarest material in the universe: stardust. Except for hydrogen, which makes up about a tenth of your weight, the rest of your body is stardust" (89). This should not, honestly, be all that surprising--but it's worth pondering. Heavy atoms (everything other than hydrogen) are formed by nuclear fusion at the center of stars and then dispersed throughout the universe when dying stars explode. Our bodies--our entire earth!--is a collection of stardust. If nothing else, it gives a more literal meaning to God's query of Job regarding the creation: "Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (38:7) Or how about Moses' prophecy that "there shall come a Star out of Jacob" (Num. 24:17)? At the beginning of creation, every bit of our bodies were--quite literally--being formed within those morning stars. Just how special are we, how rare is it to have enough stardust clumped together in one place for life to be possible? AP explain that we "live in an unusually dense region of the universe. Out on our Galaxy's disk where the sun orbits, the density is about a million times the cosmic average. In the solar system it is about a billion billion times the cosmic average. On Earth, the densest planet in the solar system, the density is a trillion times higher still!" (182) So our planet is one in a million times a billion times a billion times a trillion. That's a LOT of zeroes. Of course, while science can tell us just how unlikely our stardust bodies are, and can explain how stardust was formed, it's still not very good at explaining the why questions traditionally handled by religions: "What could have caused these differences in density? The old Big Bang theory was silent on this question." The primum mobile or "first mover," is still a source of scientific mystery. 
  2. If we are central because our bodies are made out of the rarest material in the universe, AP suggest that we are also living at a midpoint in terms of cosmic and terrestrial time. Basically, we are living in a unique period, late enough that stardust has been able to clump together and make intelligent life possible but also early enough that our ever-expanding universe is still small enough that we can observe all of the other galaxies and other phenomena of our universe. In another few billion years (after the universe has roughly doubled its present age and way more than doubled in size), "space, where with our telescopes we can see hundreds of billions of galaxies, will look very different to our distant descendants; few galaxies will be visible then from any point of view in the universe" (117). Or here's another, more grounded (earth-based) model: "it took Earth almost the entire 4.5 billion years of its existence to produce our kind of intelligent life. Since the sun will become a red giant star in another six billion years, that marks the end of Earth as a habitat for our kind of biology. If so, we intelligent creatures have appeared at approximately the midpoint of Earth's lifetime" (130). Modern scripture teaches that Jesus Christ "came in the meridian of time, in the flesh," and I suspect that most people understand that doctrine either in terms of recorded, historical time or in terms of a 7,000 year timeline from creation to final judgment (D&C 20:26). But AP suggest that we are currently living in--and that Jesus Christ also lived in--the meridian of COSMIC and TERRESTRIAL time, offering a different way (potentially) in which to think about scriptural verses describing stars falling from heaven at the end of (cosmic? terrestrial?) time. 
  3. If we are at the midpoint of cosmic time and made of the rarest stuff in the universe, we are also at the center of the universe in terms of size: "The size of a human being is at the center of all possible sizes in the universe" (156). The smallest measurable distance, the Planck length, is 10 to the -33 centimeters; the largest size we can see is about 10 to the 28 centimeters, "which is the distance to our cosmic horizon" (159). Human beings, on the order of 10 to the 2 centimeters, are exactly in the center of that range, midway between the largest and smallest sizes. A neat way of visualizing this is to imagein "a single cell on the tip of your finger. That cell is as tiny compared to you as you are compared to Planet Earth. A single atom in that cell is as tiny compared to you as you are compared to the sun" (177). Our Goldilocks-just right size is fortuitous, because "creatures much smaller than we are could not have sufficient complexity for our kind of intelligence, because they would not be made of a large enough number of atoms. But intelligent creatures could not be much larger than we are, either, because the speed of nerve impulses--and ultimately the speed of light--becomes a serious internal limitation" (174). 
AP write with the intent of replacing religion with science, but the more I learn about the unique place we occupy in the universe the more I am constrained, with Alma, to testify that "all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator" (Alma 30:44). 

My perfectly sized clump of animated stardust, the rarest material in the universe, did not arrive at this central moment in cosmic and terrestrial time by accident. I am here, and so are you, because God's work--and his glory--is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39). 

And, as a special treat for those of you who slogged to the end, here's a promo video AP did for their book.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Invention of Church

As I was reading in Mosiah a few weeks ago, I did a double take at these verses:

"And he commanded them that they should observe the sabbath day, and keep it holy, and also every day they should give thanks to the Lord their God. . . . And there was one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the peple, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themelves together" (Mosiah 18:23, 25).

Do you see what's so odd about these two verses? First Alma commands them to keep the Sabbath day holy, and then he sets apart one day in the week on which the people of God are to gather together and worship. From our modern perspective, these two verses seem redundant because we honor the Sabbath by attending church, gathering together to worship. In fact, I initially tried to rationalize this apparent redundancy in three ways: 1) Perhaps, because of King Noah's wickedness, Alma and his people had lost track of which day was actually the Sabbath and they were just designating a new Sabbath. 2) Perhaps they're meeting on another day of the week because congregating on the Sabbath would draw Noah's attention. 3) Perhaps the command to "gather themselves together" refers to meetings in addition to those normally held on the Sabbath.

Now, of course, I can see just how silly these thoughts were because the truth is that my modern perspective--and not Alma's directives--was the source of the problem. You see, before Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament (John 20:19, Acts 20:7), the command to honor the Sabbath did not obligate or even encourage individual Jews to meet together. Jehovah commands his people to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy by resting from their labors (Ex. 20:8-11); he does not say anything about meeting together on the Sabbath.

For Jews before the time of Christ (and certainly in 600 BCE, when Lehi and his family left Jerusalem), communal worship centered around the temple and was a semiannual event, not a weekly one. Individuals and families would have traveled to the temple at Jerusalem (or the nearest smaller, regional temple) three times a year, for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. In addition, individuals and families may have made additional visits throughout the year in order to make sacrifices (generally either a sin/trespass offering or a thank/peace offering). The temple was used for national (day of Atonement) and individual (purification from uncleanness) worship; so far as we know, there was no locus of community worship during this time period, a place where ten or twenty families would gather together on a regular basis to worship.

By the time of Jesus Christ, Jews clearly seem to have moved toward their current, community- and synagogue-based model of worship. In Luke we read that the Savior "went up to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read" (Luke 4:16). This account--and the narrative that follows, in which we learn that a group of people is gathered to listen to Christ read--clearly indicates that communal Sabbath observance--church!--had been established in the Holy Land by the first century CE. The Essenes at Qumran (who produced and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls) also seem to have worshiped together weekly during their self-imposed isolation from the temple in Jerusalem (which they believed corrupted by an impure priesthood), starting in the first century BCE. But Alma's instructions to his people, delivered in the second century BCE are the earliest recorded commandment in the Judeo-Christian tradition to observe a weekly meeting for congregational worship. In other words, Alma invented what we now think of as "church."

Of course, when Alma and his people returned to Zarahemla, they seem to have abandoned this congregational model of worship. Hence the surprise of his son, Alma the Younger, when he found the Zoramites at "church" seventy-odd years later: "behold to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship" (Alma 31:12). Why was Alma the Younger surprised? Because he found a congregation gathered for a weekly worship service--because the Zoramites had revived, institutionalized, and altered his father's idea of church. So when you're sitting in sacrament meeting this week, think of Alma--because it was his idea in the first place.*

*There is circumstantial evidence in the Book of Mormon suggesting that synagogues (which biblical scholars associate with post-Babylonian captivity Jewry) were present prior to the time of Lehi's exodus. Nephi mentions synagogues in 2 Ne. 26:26, well before Alma or the Zoramites instituted weekly worship services, and Mormon records in Alma 16:13 that the Nephites built synagogues "after the manner of the Jews." These verses imply that the synagogue tradition is older than scholars have supposed; scholarship holds that "only one generation after the destruction of the Temple [in 70 CE] . . . the synagogue emerged as the focal point of community life and prayer replaced sacrifice in the Temple. Hence the importance of local institutions grew steadily--new forms of social organization which would eventual fashion the patterns of medieval Jewry." If synagogues pre-date Lehi, weekly congregational meetings (Church!) may also pre-date Lehi. Of course, the other option is that the word "synagogue" may be a product of translation prejudices (e.g. Joseph Smith knows Jews go to synagogues, so that is the word which comes to mind when the Lord helps him understand the concept of not being cast out from a pre-Christian congregation).

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ammon and the Lamanites: Book of Mormon Narratives in Columbus' Voyages

Last summer I mentioned that accounts from Columbus's journeys to the New World consistently mention gold plates so thin that they resemble the leaves of a book. Then, as I was listening to Elder Quentin L. Cook's talk at General Conference in April, I couldn't help but remember another link between Columbus's journeys and the Book of Mormon. Elder Cook taught:

"The Book of Mormon is of seminal importance. There will, of course, always be those who underestimate the significance of or even disparage this sacred book. Some have used humor. Before I served a mission, a university professor quoted Mark twain's statement that if you took 'And it came to pass' out of the Book of Mormon, it 'would have been only a pamphlet.'

"A few months later, while I was serving a mission in London, England, a distinguished Oxford-educated teacher at London University, an Egyptian expert in Semitic languages [Ebeid Sarofim], read the Book of Mormon, corresponded with President David O. McKay, and met with missionaries. He informed them he was convinced the Book of Mormon was indeed a translation of 'the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians' for the periods described in the Book of Mormon. One example among many he used was the conjunctive phrase 'And it came to pass,' which he said mirrored how he would translate phraseology used in ancient Semitic writings. . . . So what one famous humorist saw as an object of ridicule, a scholar recognized as profound evidence of the truth of the Book of Mormon, which was confirmed to him by the Spirit."

Individuals other than Mark Twain mocked the Book of Mormon; one of the earliest critiques came in 1834, from E. D. Howe. In Mormonism Unveiled, Howe lampooned the account of Ammon's confrontation with Lamanite warriors at the waters of Sebus. The Book of Mormon records that after Lamanite robbers had scattered the flock of sheep which Ammon was tending,

"Ammon stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling; yea, with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them insomuch that they began to be astonished at his power; nevertheless they were angry because of the slaing of their brethren, and they were determined that he should fall; therefore, seeing that they could not hit him with their stones, they came forth with clubs to slay him. But behold, every man that lifted his club to smite Ammon, he smote off their arms with his sword; for he did withstand their blows by smiting their arms with the edge of his sword, insomuch that they began to be astonished, and began to flee before him; yea, and they were not few in number; and he caused them to flee by the strength of his arm. Now six of them had fallen by the sling, but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword; and he smote off as many of their arms as were lifted against him, and they were not a few" (Alma 17:36-38).

Bruce Yerman, John Lundquist, and John Welch have demonstrated that the custom of cutting arms off dead bodies as trophies was common practice in both the ancient Near East and in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. But Howe objects to the Book of Mormon account of Ammon's battle on other grounds:

"In this Don Quixote adventure, there are two important circumstances worthy of our consideration and investigation, to wit: that this horde of Lamanites should be astonished twice, inasmuch as Ammon only killed six and cut off the arms of, perhaps, not more than twenty!! And the other is, that they got angry because Ammon slew a few of them. Ammon certainly showed great forbearance, for he only killed their captains and leaders, and punished the rest by simply loping off a few of their arms. The result shows us that the battle was very unequal, much more so than the conflict between Sampson and the Philistines; for Sampson had no sword, (which afterwards fell into the hands of Guy of Warwick,) but he doubtless understood the scientific use of it. Missionaries in those days wore swords, and for aught we know the chapeaux des bras" (76).

Howe challenges the Book of Mormon narrative on at least four counts:

1. Ammon possessed a sword and knew how to use it;
2. The Lamanites only attacked in anger after a long distance attack with slings had failed;
3. Ammon successfully defended himself against an attacking force at least twenty times more numerous than he; and
4. Ammon was able to use his sword "scientifically" to chop off Lamanite arms as they attacked him (and not after his assailants were already dead, as in the examples from Yerman, Lundquist, and Welch).

William Hamblin and Brent Merrill, together with other contributors to a volume on Warfare in the Book of Mormon, have addressed Howe's first concern as to why Ammon carried a sword and how he might have acquired one, and a brief account of the interactions between Columbus's crew and Mesoamerican peoples might address Howe's other concerns. When Columbus landed in Central America on his fourth voyage, a man named Diego Mendez took command of a small group on men on shore. After Mendez and his men provoked the local Indians, hundreds of them gathered to attack the band of Europeans. Mendez remembered the incident in his will, some years later:

"We remained on the shore among the huts we had built and they on the wooded mountain an arrow's flight away. They began to shoot their arrows and hurl their darts as if attacking a bull. The arrows and darts fell as thick as hail, and some warriors left the woods to come and attack us with club, but none of them returned, for all lost an arm or a leg or were killed outright by our swords" (Penguin Christopher Columbus, 308-9).

Mendez's account parallels the Book of Mormon account of Ammon's stand at Sebus in ways that address each of Howe's remaining concerns. Indian attackers advanced only after a long distance assault had failed. Mendez and his small force successfully defended themselves against an attacking force that outnumbered them at least 20 to 1 (Mendez estimates that 400 Indians attacked his force of 20 men). Mendez and his men used their swords to cut off the limbs of their assailants in the moment. In fact, the accounts of Mendez and Ammon are close enough that Howe, if he had been familiar with both, might have accused Joseph Smith of plagiarizing Mendez (instead of Solomon Spaulding) when he translated the account of Ammon's battle at the waters of Sebus.

The only problem with that theory is that Mendez's account wasn't discovered until 1825, when it was published by Martin Fernandez de Navarrette . . . in Spanish. Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus significantly altered details that link the accounts of Mendez and Ammon, and the letter first appeared in English in 1847, translated by Richard Major. In other words, no one associated with the Book of Mormon could have read Mendez's account in English until 17 years after the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.

I don't have the Near Eastern expertise that Ebeid Sarofim had, but then--E. D. Howe didn't have the sense of humor Mark Twain possessed, either. And yet, as Elder Cook taught, Book of Mormon features that made one humorist mock have strengthened this scholar's testimony.

Still here? You deserve a bonus bit of scholarship on Ammon's encounter at the waters of Sebus!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Coffee, Not Caffeine; Tea, Not Tannins

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ adhere to a code of health first outlined in an 1833 revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith. He taught the saints that "hot drinks are not for the body or belly" (Doctrine and Covenants 89:9). Subsequent revelations have clarified this injunction by identifying coffee and tea as the "hot drinks" referenced. Some well-meaning members have interpreted this focus on coffee and tea as a condemnation of caffeine because that is one compound which both drinks share, but coffee, not caffeine, is the banned substance--and with good reason.

While caffeine may be harmful, studies have shown that coffee contains other substances which impair human health. According to a 1997 article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

"the polyphenols (tannins) in coffee bind to iron in the intestinal lumen, forming an insoluble complex and thereby inhibiting iron absorption" (168). 

A second article, published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition during the year 2000, confirms that tea likewise inhibits iron absorption and that these two drinks are associated with anemia and other related nutritional disorders. I note this not to add identify other potentially harmful substances (tannins!) in these two beverages but to note that, diverting as it might be to uncover the "reason" for a given commandment, the most important principle is obedience. Focusing on our own interpretations of the law (caffeine is bad!) might lead us to rationalize disobedience (decaffeinated coffee can't be bad . . .) and suffer the consequences (decreased iron absorption) we don't always forsee. 

Latter-day Saints don't abstain from coffee and tea because those drinks contain caffeine or tannins; we abstain because God commanded us to. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Green Toothbrush

Yesterday I read "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams with my class: 

so much depends 

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

One of my students observed that an excellent analog to the poem might be titled "The Green Toothbrush," an idea I liked so much that I couldn't help but compose the poem:

iridescent orb, like

so obviously pained

one indomitable grain

that it quivers, sits

the stiff
unbending bristles

my son’s
green Peanuts toothbrush.

Get it? 

Like it?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

American Grace: The Mormon Moment

Let's start with an exercise. Can you rank the following countries in order, from "highest percentage of the population attending church services" to lowest? (Answer at the bottom of the post)

Brazil, China, France, India, Iran, Italy, Jordan, Sweden, US.

The ordered list will, I suspect, surprise you and cause you to think deeply about your assumptions regarding the religiosity of various countries. This answer is just one of the fascinating nuggets I gleaned recently from a groundbreaking study of religion in the United States during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: American Grace, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. One year ago--in April 2011--Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cited American Grace as evidence that "Latter-day Saint women are unique in being overwhelmingly satisfied with their role in Church leadership. Furthermore, Latter-day Saints as a whole, men and women, have the strongest attachment to their faith of any of the religions studied." I loved Elder Cook's talk, not least because it highlighted the relationship between LDS women and the priesthood--something I've been thinking about myself.

But I was disappointed that his talk didn't elaborate further on the ways in which this book illuminates what has come to be called "the Mormon moment" in American religion (even if that is a phrase the Church wants to move past). American Grace provides all sorts of interesting insights on what it means to be Mormon in the United States today. For instance:

  • Most American religions have a strong positive correlation with race. Italians and Poles tend to be Catholic; Swedes are generally Lutheran; and African Americans are overwhelmingly associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church or other denominations referred to collectively as Black Protestants by Putnam and Campbell. But the LDS church is what Putnam and Campbell describe as a "post-ethnic religion" (273), an interesting observation given all the recent hullaballoo about allegations of Mormon racism (on which more someday soon). 
  • Religious Americans are more charitable and volunteer more of their time than secular Americans, but "Mormons are strikingly more active [even compared to other religious Americans] in giving and volunteering of all sorts" (452). 
  • Despite their active engagement in the community, Mormons are disliked by a majority of the nation: “Three groups stand out for their unpopularity—Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. All three are below the overall mean and also below the neutral point of 50 degrees" (507) Others rated Mormons a 48 on a 100 points scale, compared to  Jews (59), Catholics (58), Protestants (58), Evangelicals (53), Buddhists (47), and Muslims (45). The most interesting aspect of this study, however, was the fact that Mormons are generally disliked--despite the fact that they rated every other religion more highly than other religions rated one another! In other words,“Mormons like everyone else, while almost everyone else dislikes Mormons. Jews are the exception, as they give Mormons a net positive rating”--perhaps because of a shared history of persecution, and in spite of some controversy over proxy baptisms for Holocaust victims (509).
  • Mormons may have such positive feelings for members of other religions because they almost universally believe that individuals of other faiths are eligible for heaven. 98% of Mormons surveyed agreed that “People not of my faith, including non-Christians, can go to heaven,” as compared to 83% of Catholics, 79% of Mainline Protestants, 62% of Black Protestants, and 54% of Evangelicals (539). The Mormon heavens are open to individuals of other faiths despite the fact that they believe--more strongly than any other group--that "one religion is true and others are not" (539). 

American Grace deserves the attention of anyone interested in better understanding the current "Mormon moment," but it is also filled with observations about more general topics, such as current trends in religious conversion as well as the relationships between religion and politics or religion and race. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in American religion, and if you read this blog regularly--that might be you.

Jordan—92%; Brazil 48%; India—44%; US—37%; Iran—36%; Italy—31%; China—16%; France—8%; Sweden—4%.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Patriarchal Patience

I’ve been thinking, recently, about the importance of patience—and those of you who have been eagerly awaiting my next post must have been thinking about this topic too. (Sorry--job interviews and the arrival of a new child have kept me running.)

We typically trot out Job as a model of patience because of the manner in which he patiently suffered the loss of his family, wealth, health, and friends. Indeed, the patience of Job has become proverbial; James writes that, that we should “Take . . . the prophets . . . for an example . . . of patience” and reminds us that we “have heard of the patience of Job” (5:10-11). But Job’s patience is, perhaps, too exemplary—so perfect that it is difficult to relate to. After all, when Joseph Smith was learning patience at the hands of his enemies, he cried out to God for judgment and the Lord replied, “Thou art not yet as Job” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:10). Like Joseph Smith, you and I will never be “as Job.” But there are plenty of other scriptural models of patience who practiced patience in circumstances much more like our own—most notably the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

You and I will never suffer like Job, but chances are good that you or someone you know will struggle with the challenge of infertility. Abraham was seventy-five (Gen. 12:4) when the Lord first promised him that “I will make of thee a great nation” (Gen. 12:2) and that “I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13:16). Abraham lived with this promise for ten years (16:3) before complaining to the Lord that “I go childless” (Gen. 15:2), at which point God renewed the promise that his seed should be numerous as the stars (15:5). At the end of ten years Abraham took Hagar as a wife, and Hagar bore him Ishmael—but the Lord indicated that this was not the child he had promised Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:19-21). That promised child, Isaac, did not arrive until Abraham was one hundred years old, twenty-five years after Abraham expected him to!  There was a “time appointed” for Isaac’s birth, and the Lord, in his wisdom, did not fulfill his promise until that opportune moment had arrived (18:14). If Isaac had been born earlier, might Abimelech have slain Abraham, instead of allowing Sarah’s “brother” to live (Genesis 20)? I can’t answer such a hypothetical question, but the examples of Sarah and Abraham remind us that the Lord has a “time appointed” for all blessings and that the passage of time—even twenty-five years!—may be necessary before we can claim promised blessings, such as posterity.

You and I will never suffer like Job, but chances are good that you or someone you know will struggle with the challenge of children who make suboptimal choices. Isaac, like Abraham, had two sons who were born only after twenty years of patient waiting (Gen. 25:20-26). Isaac and Rebekah, his wife, clearly knew the importance of marrying a spouse who worshipped Jehovah, who would covenant with God—that is, after all, the reason that Abraham’s servant traveled across miles of desert to woo Rebekah on Isaac’s behalf in the first place (Gen. 24:2-3). But when their eldest son, Esau, grew to maturity, he disregarded parental counsel that he marry within the covenant and “took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite: which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and Rebekah” (Gen. 26:34-35). Rebekah, fearing that Jacob would, like Esau, marry outside the covenant, lamented: “if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth . . . what good shall my life do me?” (27:46). Of course, Jacob did marry in the covenant, but Isaac and Rebekah may not have known about his choice for twenty years! Their patience (and good parenting) was rewarded. The Lord’s promise of a righteous posterity was fulfilled, but not until after the (long) trial of their faith.

You and I will never suffer like Job, but chances are good that you or someone you know will struggle with employment challenges. You might be under appreciated, unfairly compensated, or an entrepreneur struggling to make good. Modern custom allows employees to leave their job for greener pastures, but a new job is no guarantee of a good job. Whatever your employment circumstance, you may have to exercise the patience of Jacob. Why is it that news of Jacob’s marriages to Leah and Rachel might have required twenty years to reach Isaac and Rebekah? Because Jacob worked for one of the worst employers in history: his uncle Laban. In exchange for seven year of Jacob’s labor Laban agreed to give him Rachel’s hand in marriage. But on the wedding night Laban married Jacob to Leah instead! Jacob had to work an additional seven years—while living in the household of his in-laws—to receive the compensation he deserved. However, his patience in this less-than-ideal housing and employment situation was eventually rewarded. At the end of fourteen years Jacob bargained with Laban for an additional six years labor, at which time Jacob would be free to leave, with all of the speckled livestock. By the twentieth year, this long-suffering worker, whose employer “changed my wages ten times” had finally reaped the rewards of his patience (Gen. 31:41). The Lord caused the speckled livestock to reproduce quickly, and Jacob left Laban’s household a wealthy man.

We often speak, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of seeking the blessings given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We speak much less frequently of enduring well the trials of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the blessings and the trials are, all too frequently, inseparable. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord warns that everyone “must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified” (101:4-5). If we would receive the blessings and sanctification of the patriarchs, we must also endure the chastening and acquire the patience of the patriarchs. Their promised prosperity came only after long periods of patient waiting for posterity to be born, for children to repent, for hard work to be recognized and rewarded. You and I might have to live in Laban’s household for a time. We might have to pass through Abimelech’s court or see a child stray. The Lord’s promises cannot be expedited. There is a “time appointed” for all blessings, and we must wait patiently for their fulfillment even as we work faithfully toward in His service. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Latter-day Doctrine

In General Conference this past October (2011), Elder M. Russell Ballard spoke on "The Importance of a Name," stressing the Lord's desire that we use His divinely appointed name for His church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see D&C 115:4). Elder Ballard then explained that each "word [of that name] is clarifying and indispensable" and elucidated on the meaning of all nine words. Regarding the phrase, "of Latter-day," Elder Ballard declared that "Of Latter-day explains that it is the same Church as the Church that Jesus Christ established during His mortal ministry but restored in these latter days. We know there was a falling away, or an apostasy, necessitating the Restoration of His true and complete Church in our time."

As a man slightly obsessed with words and their meanings, I love Elder Ballard's approach to thinking about and using the Church's name. But this phrase, in particular, deserves a more thorough explication. Of Latter-day signifies much more than the relative temporal position of the restored Church to its primitive precedent. The words latter days or, occasionally, latter times, are associated with a number of significant events and promises throughout the scripture, and when we describe ourselves as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or simply as Latter-day Saints), we implicitly recommit ourselves to following the doctrines and participating in the works associated with that phrase.

When we describe ourselves as Latter-day Saints, we reaffirm our belief in an expanded canon of scripture that includes both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Lehi taught that the writings of Joseph's descendants "and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants" (see also JST Gen. 50:31). This restoration of plain gospel truths lost to or corrupted in the Bible through centuries of translation and transmission helps to explain Jeremiah's promise that "in the latter days [we] shall fully understand" his teachings (a footnote in the LDS version of the Bible offers this alternative translation; see also Jer. 23:20). A Latter-day Saint studies from the sticks of Judah and Joseph to obtain a more full or complete understanding of the gospel.

When we describe ourselves as Latter-day Saints, we declare our commitment to preach the gospel as  missionaries and to extend the blessings of its ordinances as patrons of the temple. Nephi taught his brothers regarding "the covenant which should be fulfilled in the latter days; which covenant the Lord made to our father Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed" (1 Ne. 15:18). Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:29) and are responsible for bringing the blessings of gospel ordinances to all peoples. A Latter-day Saint fulfills this covenantal obligation by performing work for the dead in temples and by opening their mouths to share the gospel so that the Lord's promises to the Jews, Gentiles, and Lamanites can be fulfilled in these last days (see 3 Ne. 16:7; JST Gen. 50:25; 1 Ne. 15:13; Hel. 15:12; Hosea 3:5)

When we describe ourselves as Latter-day Saints, we confirm our faith in the promised Second Coming of the Savior and in the events He has prophesied will precede that day. The tenth article of faith affirms that "[w]e believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will receive its paradisiacal glory" (AF 10). Each one of these events is associated with the latter days in scripture (see 1 Ne. 15:19; Daniel 10:14; Deut. 4:30; JST Gen. 14:34; and Ezek. 38:8, 16). Paul warned that during the run up to these events, "in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to false doctrines" (1 Tim. 4:1; see also Deut. 31:29). But Daniel's promise regarding "the latter days" is also sure: in those days "shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever" (Dan. 2:28, 45). A Latter-day Saint prepares for the spiritual and physical perils to come while exercising faith in the divine destiny of God's earthly kingdom.

When you or I self-identify as a Latter-day Saint, we are doing more than describing our position relative to members of Christ's primitive church. We are also affirming our belief in the doctrine of the latter days, as revealed in scripture.

  • I believe in and study from the Book of Mormon and the Bible. 
  • I seek to fulfill my obligations to bless all the kindreds of the earth through temple and missionary work. 
  • I look forward with faith to Christ's Second Coming and associated events.

I am a Latter-day Saint.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Prophetic Promises Regarding the Book of Mormon

Most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will begin a year-long study of the Book of Mormon this year. As President Ezra Taft Benson famously noted, study of that book is associated with a number of inspiring promises:

“Let us not remain under condemnation [see D&C 84:85], with its scourge and judgment, by treating lightly this great and marvelous gift the Lord has given to us. Rather, let us win the promises associated with treasuring it up in our hearts.”[1]

“Concerning this record the Prophet Joseph Smith said . . . ‘a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other book.’” (BoM Introduction)

“Parents who [read and talk about the Book of Mormon with their children] faithfully will be blessed to recognize early signals of spiritual growth in or challenges with their children and be better prepared to receive inspiration to strengthen and help those children.”[2]

“Regular reading of and talking about the Book of Mormon invite the power to resist temptation and to produce feelings of love within our families.”[3]

“Youth of all ages, even infants, can and do respond to the distinctive spirit of the Book of Mormon. Children may not understand all of the words and stories, but they certainly can feel the ‘familiar spirit’ described by Isaiah.”[4]

“I bear witness that parents who consistently read and talk about the Book of Mormon with their children, who share testimony spontaneously, and who invite children as gospel learners to act and not merely to be acted upon will be blessed with eyes that can see afar off (Moses 6:27) and with ears that can hear the sound of the trumpet (Ezekiel 33:2-16). The spiritual discernment and inspiration you will receive from the combination of these three holy habits will enable you to stand as watchmen on the tower for your families—‘watching . . . with all perserverance” (Ephesians 6:18)—to the blessing of your immediate family and your future posterity. I so promise and testify in the sacred name of the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.”[5]

“I offer a challenge to members of the Church throughout the world and to our friends everywhere to read or reread the Book of Mormon. . . . Without reservation I promise you that if each of you will observe this simple program, regardless of how many times you previously may have read the Book of Mormon, there will come into your lives and your homes an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to His commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God.”[6]

“The effect of the Book of Mormon on your character, power, and courage to be a witness for God is certain. The doctrine and the valiant examples in that book will lift, guide, and embolden you.”[7]

“Every missionary who is proclaiming the name and gospel of Jesus Christ will be blessed by daily feasting from the Book of Mormon.”[8]

“Parents who struggle to get a witness of the Savior into the heart of a child will be helped as they seek for a way to bring the words and the spirit of the Book of Mormon into the home and all the lives in their family. That has proven true for us.”[9]

“Prayerful study of the Book of Mormon will build faith in God the Father, in His Beloved Son, and in His gospel. It will build your faith in God’s prophets, ancient and modern. It can draw you closer to God than any other book. It can change a life for the better.”[10]

“[The Book of Mormon] can help with personal problems in a very real way. Do you want to get rid of a bad habit? Do you want to improve relationships in your family? Do you want to increase your spiritual capacity? Read the Book of Mormon!”[11]

“It is not just that the Book of Mormon teaches us truth, though it indeed does that. It is not just that the Book of Mormon bears testimony of Christ, though it indeed does that. But there is something more. There is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives the moment you begin a serious study of the book. You will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find the power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path. The scriptures are called ‘the words of life’ (D&C 84:85), and nowhere is that more true than it is of the Book of Mormon. When you begin to hunger and thirst after those words, you will find life in greater and greater abundance.”[12]

“There is another reason why we should read the Book of Mormon: By doing so we will fill and refresh our minds with a constant flow of that ‘water’ which Jesus said would be in us ‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life’ (John 4:14).”[13]

“If we would avoid adopting the evils of the world, we must pursue a course which will daily feed our minds with and call them back to the things of the Spirit. I know of no better way to do this than by daily reading the Book of Mormon.”[14]

“I am persuaded, my brothers and sisters, that it is irrational to hope to escape the lusts of the world without substituting for them as the subjects of our thoughts the things of the Spirit, and I know that the things of the Spirit are taught with mighty power in the Book of Mormon. I believe with all my heart, for example, that if our young people could come out of our homes thoroughly acquainted with the life of Nephi, imbued with the spirit of his courage and love of truth, they would choose the right when the choice is placed before them.”[15]

“If our young folks become familiar with the teachings of the Book of Mormon, they will not only be inspired by the examples of Nephi, the 2,000 sons of Helaman (see Alma 53), and other great Book of Mormon characters to choose the right, they will also be so schooled in the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ that they will be able to know and understand what is right.”[16]

“I feel certain that if, in our homes, parents will read from the Book of Mormon prayerfully and regularly, both by themselves and with their children, the spirit of that great book will come to permeate our homes and all who dwell therein. The spirit of reverence will increase; mutual respect and consideration for each other will grow. The spirit of contention will depart. Parents will counsel their children in greater love and wisdom. Children will be more responsive and submissive to the counsel of their parents. Righteousness will increase. Faith, hope, and charity—the pure love of Christ—will abound in our homes and lives, bringing in their wake peace, joy, and happiness.”[17]

If you know of other prophetic promises regarding the Book of Mormon, please share in the comments, and I will add your contribution to the list (as I update it periodically).

[1] President Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign 16.11 (November 1986): 5-7.
[2] Elder David A. Bednar, “Watching with All Perseverance,” Ensign 40.5 (May 2010): 41.
[3] Elder David A. Bednar, “Watching with All Perseverance,” Ensign 40.5 (May 2010): 41.
[4] Elder David A. Bednar, “Watching with All Perseverance,” Ensign 40.5 (May 2010): 42.
[5] Elder David A. Bednar, “Watching with All Perseverance,” Ensign 40.5 (May 2010): 43.
[6] President Gordon B. Hinckley, “A Testimony Vibrant and True,” Ensign 35.8 (August 2005). 
[7] President Henry B. Eyring, “A Witness,” Ensign 41.11 (November 2011), 69.
[8] President Henory B. Eyring, “A Witness,” Ensign 41.11 (November 2011), 69.
[9] President Henry B. Eyring, “A Witness,” Ensign 41.11 (November 2011), 69.
[10] President Henry B. Eyring, “A Witness,” Ensign 41.11 (November 2011), 70.
[11] Elder Russell M. Nelson, “A Testimony of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign 29.11 (November 1999), 71.
[12] President Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign 16.11 (November 1986): 5-7.
[13] President Marion G. Romney, “The Book of Mormon,” Ensign 10.5 (May 1980): 65.
[14] President Marion G. Romney, “The Book of Mormon,” Ensign 10.5 (May 1980): 65.
[15] President Marion G. Romney, “The Book of Mormon,” Ensign 10.5 (May 1980): 66.
[16] President Marion G. Romney, “The Book of Mormon,” Ensign 10.5 (May 1980): 66.
[17] President Marion G. Romney, “The Book of Mormon,” Ensign 10.5 (May 1980): 67.