On “personal relationships” with God

Today I defended my masters thesis. I am so happy to finally have school behind me as I move on to the next chapter of my life. My preoccupation with schoolwork explains my dearth of posts around here lately. Perhaps I’ll find more time to post in the coming weeks and months, although I will be pretty busy in the short term relocating my family and starting a new job.

In the meantime, I want to post some slightly modified comments I made in a recent thread at MADD (here and here) about how Latter-day Saints tend to approach Jesus Christ. Specifically, I am commenting on our tendency to avoid talking about a “personal relationship” with Christ while simultaneously emphasizing that he is our “elder brother”.


This is one of those areas where I have “holy envy” for our Evangelical friends’ passion for Christ. I think that expressing one’s status before God and Christ as a “personal relationship” is not only fitting but desirable. Our scriptures in several places describe various individuals as being the “friend(s)” of God. To me, exaltation (theosis) is nothing more nor less than becoming a close friend to God and thus sharing in the fulness of his glory.

I have absolutely no qualms, as a faithful Latter-day Saint, saying that I worship Jesus Christ. I don’t find it the least bit blasphemous and I am greatly puzzled by the LDS majority that is hesitant to see things that way. Jesus Christ is our God, as expressed numerous times throughout the Book of Mormon and D&C, and if we don’t worship our God I don’t know what we are doing with him.

I also want to make a comment about our tendency to refer to Christ as our “elder brother”. This phrase usually, though not explicitly, assumes a literal “spiritual offspring” model for our relationship to God and to each other. This is surely the most widespread view among North American Mormons (I can’t confidently comment on the rest of the LDS world). There are other models that are viable.

At any rate, referring to Jesus Christ as our “elder brother” is perhaps the closest thing we’ve got to expressing our love for Christ as a “personal relationship.” The phrase “elder brother” in reference to Christ signifies a closeness and love that is found in an immediate family. We can all appreciate the tender relationship that exists in a proper brother/sister brother/brother relationship. It is personal. It certainly is not a vision of Christ as a cosmic creator too busy and important to dedicate time and effort to a personal relationship with us, his “younger siblings”.

And it is this implied personalization of Christ that introduces tension into the way we think about Christ. On the one hand we do in fact have a cosmic creator, a warrior God marching against evil and dishing out justice, and on the other hand we have a very personal and intimate “elder brother” who is willing and wanting to go out of his way to make “the one” feel loved. He leaves the 99 to go after the lost 1 (an interesting twist on the Occupy Wall Street movement!).

I personally cringe just a little when I hear Christ referred to as our “elder brother”. After all, Satan (and many other cruel and evil people) could theoretically be our spiritual “elder brother”. It is a technicality that threatens to blur the important distinctions that exist between Christ, Satan, and us. It is this exact technicality that our critics exploit when they assail us for believing that Jesus and Satan are brothers. We should give a mental nod to the technical fact that yes, Jesus, Satan, and all men are siblings, but perhaps we should not let that be the defining parameter for how we approach Christ or Satan. After all, we don’t reverence Jesus just because he is our elder brother. It just happens to be so, and is not grounds for holding him in high esteem. Many older brothers can be unworthy of our devotion.

Let us instead approach Christ through a different set of parameters: his qualities and achievements. He is our Creator, Redeemer, Shepherd, Rock, Advocate, and Savior. We devote ourselves to him because of the things he has done for us and the love he has shown for us; not because he is our elder brother.

You may be wondering how these comments square with my previous comments about desiring a “personal relationship” with Christ. I think it is desirable to have a personal relationship with Christ, but not one based solely on the fact that he is our elder brother. That is merely a tangential coincidence. It is not why we want a relationship with him, or to be his “friends” (as the scriptures say). We want a personal relationship with Christ because he is our Savior.

Pastor Robert Jefress: Mormonism is a “cult”

Things are beginning to heat up in the Republican presidential primary. Mitt Romney’s status as a frontrunner in the race has kept Mormonism in the spotlight, although his faith has not been a major factor until very recently. Yesterday afternoon one of Rick Perry’s supporters referred to Mormonism as a “cult” and suggested that Mormonism is not a “Christian” faith. He tried to distinguish between what he calls a “sociological cult” and a “theological cult”, which is perhaps a step in the right direction from the norm (most Evangelicals don’t seem to make that distinction).

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve discussed the meanings of those two words (“cult” and “Christian”) with both Mormons and non-Mormons, and with LDS sympathizers and critics. Suffice to say, I think it is utterly meaningless to divide religious groups into “cults” and “non-cults”. It is merely arbitrary boundary maintenance with no meaningful or consistent definitions. And, of course, Mormons are clearly Christians. I’m not going to rehash my views on those discussions now, but I would like to plug a few resources.

“Offenders for a Word” by Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks is perhaps the very best treatment of this topic. You can read it for free here: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=58

The LDS Newsroom has an excellent discussion of this issue: http://newsroom.lds.org/blog/are-mormons-christian

Here is another relevant Newsroom article: http://newsroom.lds.org/article/real-differences,-real-similarities-and-biblical-christianity

And here is a recent talk by Elder Ballard in last week’s General Conference that is relevant to this discussion: http://lds.org/general-conference/2011/10/the-importance-of-a-name?lang=eng

Elder Perry’s advice for talking about the Church

Last weekend’s General Conference was, as usual, a spiritual feast. I always look forward to and love General Conference. I want to share a few quotes from Elder Perry’s talk that I think are very relevant to modern LDS apologetics. While this talk is probably a few years late, it is especially relevant in this time when Mormonism seems to be a common topic of conversation in the American media. Some have called this the “Mormon moment”, but whatever it is we need more and more Latter-day Saints to pay attention and to participate in the conversations. Elder Perry provides some advice for how to go about engaging with non-LDS:

Next, speak up about the Church. In the course of our everyday lives, we are blessed with many opportunities to share our beliefs with others. When our professional and personal associates inquire about our religious beliefs, they are inviting us to share who we are and what we believe. They may or may not be interested in the Church, but they are interested in getting to know us at a deeper level.

My recommendation to you is to accept their invitations. Your associates are not inviting you to teach, preach, expound, or exhort. Engage them in a two-way conversation—share something about your religious beliefs but also ask them about their beliefs. Gauge the level of interest by the questions they ask. If they are asking a lot of questions, focus the conversation on answering those questions. Always remember that it is better for them to ask than for you to tell.

And this:

We should appreciate and approach such conversations with Christlike love. Our tone, whether speaking or writing, should be respectful and civil, regardless of the response of others. We should be honest and open and try to be clear in what we say. We want to avoid arguing or becoming defensive in any way.

And this:

Today’s “manner of conversation” seems to involve the Internet more and more. We encourage people, young and old, to use the Internet and the social media to reach out and share their religious beliefs.

As you utilize the Internet, you may come across ongoing conversations about the Church. When directed by the Spirit, do not hesitate to add your voice to these conversations.

And this:

In speaking about the Church, we do not try to make it sound better than it is. We do not need to put a spin on our message. We need to communicate the message honestly and directly. If we will open communication channels, the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ will prove itself to those who are prepared to receive it.

And finally, this:

There is sometimes a wide difference—a gulf of understanding—between the way we experience the Church from the inside and the way others look at it from the outside. This is the principal reason we hold open houses for temples before each dedication is taken care of. The member volunteers at the temple open houses are simply trying to help others see the Church as they see it from the inside. They recognize the Church is a marvelous work, even a wonder, and they want others to know it too. I ask you to do the same.

Monty Python and the Trinity

Analogies for the Trinity often fall short. At some level, of course, all analogies fall short. Recently I heard the Trinity derogatorily referred to as a “three-headed monster”. My first reaction was that this was uncalled for and offensive, but upon further reflection I wondered if, behind the insult, there was some kernel of truth.

In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” one of the knights of Camelot stumbles upon a three-headed knight. All sorts of ontological questions could be asked about this entity. Is it three persons or one person? Is it one ousia or three different ousia?

It seems to me that we could describe this three-headed knight as being three persons. They have three separate centers of consciousness and (unlike the Trinity) have different wills (they get into a disagreement amongst themselves while “brave” Sir Robin escapes).

But do they share the same ousia? I may not be qualified to say, but I tend to think that they do. Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) describes the Eastern Orthodox view of ousia to mean “all that subsist by itself and which has not its being in another.” The three persons appear to not subsist on their own, and it could be argued that since they are one organic entity they have their being in each other. It is doubtful that two of them would continue living if one of them died.

It may be just another imperfect analogy to the Trinity, but perhaps it will be useful in helping non-Trinitarians (and millions of Trinitarians who don’t understand their own doctrine) what the Trinity is.

Comments from Trinitarians are welcome.

James E. Talmage and April 6th

There is a tradition among Latter-day Saints that Jesus Christ was born on April 6th. Everyone seems to believe it, but nobody seems to know why. In my super humble opinion it is complete bunk, and hopefully over time the tradition will fade. For more on this Mormon myth see here.

Elder James E. Talmage* was very influential in the establishment of this tradition. In this blog post, though, I’m going to suggest that Talmage later changed his mind about Christ’s birthday. In 1915 he wrote the following in his enormously popular book “Jesus the Christ”:

As to the season of the year in which Christ was born, there is among the learned as great a diversity of opinion as that relating to the year itself. It is claimed by many Biblical scholars that December 25th, the day celebrated in Christendom as Christmas, cannot be the correct date. We believe April 6th to be the birthday of Jesus Christ as indicated in a revelation of the present dispensation already cited [D&C 20:1], in which that day is made without qualification the completion of the one thousand eight hundred and thirtieth year since the coming of the Lord in the flesh. This acceptance is admittedly based on faith in modern revelation, and in no wise is set forth as the result of chronological research or analysis. We believe that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, April 6, B.C. 1. (Talmage, “Jesus the Christ”, 1915, pp. 98)

As you can see, Talmage dates Christ’s birth to April 6th. The occasion for this blog post is a quote that I recently discovered while researching an unrelated topic. In 1931 Elder James E. Talmage delivered an address entitled “The Earth and Man” which was later published as a pamphlet under the authorization and direction of the First Presidency (a fascinating story in itself). Here is the relevant quote from that talk:

If the Usher chronology be correct, or even approximately so, then the beginning of Adamic history as recorded in scripture dates back about 4000 years before the birth of Christ. We as a Church believe that the current reckoning of time from the birth of Christ to the present is correct, namely 1931 years — not from last New Year’s day, January 1, but from the month that came to be known among the Hebrews as Nisan or Ahib, corresponding with our late March and early April. So we believe that we are now living in the 1931st year since the birth of Christ, and therefore 5931 years since the beginning of the Adamic record.

In case you didn’t catch it, Talmage places Christ’s birth somewhere in “late March [or] early April” based on those months’ correlation with the Hebrew calendar. No longer is Talmage assertively stating that “we believe” in a specific birthdate for Christ. I believe that if Talmage still thought Christ was born on April 6th he would have said as much on this occasion. This isn’t a silver bullet, but it would appear that sixteen years after writing “Jesus the Christ” Elder Talmage was no longer so sure about the exact date of Christ’s birth.

The implications? It might not be possible for proponents of the April 6th myth to appeal to James Talmage anymore.

*By the way, Elder James E. Talmage is one of my very favorite historical Latter-day Saints. Being a geologist myself (as was Talmage), and following his legacy in regard to science and Mormonism, I have great respect for that Apostle.

Brigham Young on Polygamy

If we could make every man upon the earth get him a wife, live righteously and serve God, we would not be under the necessity, perhaps, of taking more than one wife. But they will not do this; the people of God, therefore, have been commanded to take more wives.

The above quote is from Brigham Young in an address he gave in 1873 (JoD 16, pp. 166). Polygamy really isn’t a topic I’ve dedicated very much time to, but I thought this quote was interesting in light of the fact that many of the early saints believed that polygamy, not monogamy, was the “default” marriage system for mankind.

Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man that he should lie”

A common criticism of Mormonism, especially from the Evangelical crowd, is to quote Numbers 23:19:

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?

The focus of course is on the phrase “God is not a man”, because it appears to contradict the fundamental LDS notion that God is in fact, in some way, a man. Joseph Smith taught that God is an “exalted man” who “sits enthroned in yonder heavens”. Some Evangelical critics of Mormonism think that in Numbers 23:19 they have found indisputable proof that Mormonism is not biblical.

Of course, the actual focus of Num 23:19 is not on God’s nature as a non-man, but rather on God’s nature as a non-liar. The point being made is that God does not lie the way that men do. It is quite obvious that the author has in mind mortal, fallible men. He does not have in mind every single homo sapien or every single person who is a descendant of Adam and Eve. There are at least three obvious exceptions to the assumption that all “men” lie.

The first are little infants. Infants are “men” yet they do not lie.

The second exception are resurrected, saved, men. It is not conceivable that the “men” who are saved in the Kingdom of Heaven, who dwell in the presence of God (our critics presumably believe that this includes themselves), are going to be liars. They will have been cleansed and sanctified; purified of the desire to do evil. It is possible that one might argue that this type of “man” is not really any longer a “man” because their nature has been changed in some way. Latter-day Saints would respond that this is precisely what has taken place with God the Father. He is a “man” only in the most basic sense, but his nature is not like ours. He is an immortal, sinless, exalted “man”.

The third obvious exception is Jesus Christ. By decree of the Council of Chalcedon, Jesus Christ is “perfect in manhood” and “truly man” and yet he is also “without sin”. This is a creed that all mainstream Christians have accepted. Jesus Christ is a “man” who does not lie (in direct contradiction to the underlying premise of our critic’s interpretation of Num 23:19).

In my recent reading of Galatians (in preparation for the Sunday School class that I teach) I came across these passages:

Gal 1:1 Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father

Gal 1:11-12 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

From these passages it can reasonably be concluded that Jesus Christ is not a man. Yet, our mainstream Christian friends confess that Jesus Christ is a man! The reason I point this particular issue out should be clear. This is the same tactic employed by our critics when they argue that Numbers 23:19 contradicts Mormonism. The key here is to carefully consider what the writer has in mind when he uses the term “man”.

Sorenson’s Map on Google Earth

I figured out a way to present John Sorenson’s geography in an effective and simple way by using Google Earth. It is based on Sorenson’s best guesses from his 1985 book “An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon” in which he correlates Nephite/Lamanite cities with presently known archaeological sites. I found as many of those sites as I could through Google Earth, and I labeled them with the Nephite/Lamanite title that Sorenson suggests. I couldn’t get it to properly work through WordPress, so I did it on Blogspot. Check it out here, or click on the picture below.


I also realize that Sorenson’s work might be considered a little out dated (specifically regarding his interpretation of the cardinal directions), but as far as I know it is still the most comprehensive attempt to correlate Book of Mormon places to real world locations. Perhaps he will have some new information in his forthcoming book (which I hear will be called “Mormon’s Codex”).


Defining “scripture”

A recent discussion with an anti-Mormon has provided me with an opportunity to explore the meaning of the word “scripture” as it is used in LDS discourse. I’ve encountered LDS who have a very broad definition of scripture, considering anything published by the Church’s imprimatur to be “scripture”. I’ve met others with a more narrow definition of scripture, who consider only the four canonized books to be “scripture”. I admit that not that long ago I strongly agreed with the more narrow definition. I’ve seen some contentious debates between faithful Latter-day Saints about whether a particular item (such as an Ensign article or General Conference talk) is “scripture”.

But we don’t need to choose between the two. There can different senses of the word “scripture”. As an analog, it is universally understood by Latter-day Saints that the word “prophet” has both a narrow and a broad definition. The narrow definition includes the prophet of the Church, and perhaps the twelve apostles. These are individuals who have the authority to speak for God in a manner that is binding on the Church as a whole. Their words can potentially be added to the Doctrine and Covenants, or in some other canonized form. The broad definition of “prophet” includes all people who speak under the direction of the Holy Spirit. This can include local priesthood leaders, mothers, fathers, and other individuals with a more limited scope of authority.

We can use this same model in our discussion about “scripture”. Scripture, in the narrow and probably more common sense, refers to the four canonized books that comprise the LDS “standard works”. But in a broader sense “scripture” may refer to any text that is inspired by the Holy Ghost, which can range from the Book of Mormon to patriarchal blessings, from recorded father’s blessings to inspired personal journal entries. This two-fold model of defining “scripture” is recognized by Kent P. Jackson in his article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

For Latter-day Saints, the concept of scripture entails two complementary definitions-a broad definition that embraces all revelation from God as “scripture,” and a narrower view that includes only the standard works as “the scriptures.” Both categories are authoritative, since both are viewed as coming from God.

Because we have a broad and a narrow definition of the word “prophet”, and because “scripture” is the written form of prophecy, it stands to reason that a narrow and a broad definition of “scripture” should exist. When determining whether a thing is “scripture” or not, and what sense of scripture it is, two questions should be asked, and in this order:

1. Was the author acting under the influence of the Holy Ghost? If yes, then the author was prophesying, and it is scripture.

2. For whom was the prophecy authoritative? This will determine what type of scripture it is.

Perhaps in another post someday we should explore what exactly it means for something to be “scripture” in terms of its authority or purity.

A Moral Definition of Monotheism

I don’t normally like to pilfer from blog posts at other sites, but this quote is great and fits well with a major theme of my blog:

The affirmation of monotheism – that there is only one God – is a moral statement, not a mathematical deduction. If there is only one God and He demands moral behavior, then there can be such a thing as good and evil. (Technically speaking, right and wrong are matters of fact: Who stole the money? Good and bad are matters of morality: Should I take the money?) When there are many gods, as in pagan legends, the issue is not: What is good? The issue is: Which God shall I serve? Which one has the power to protect and reward me? Think, for example, of the conflicts of Homer’s Illiad, where the gods take sides. What pleases one displease another. A person offends one of the gods but is under the protection of another, stronger one. The issue is not what is right but who has the might.

The assertion that there is only one God is the assertion that issues of moral behavior are not matters of personal taste. We cannot decide by majority vote that it is all right to steal and lie, any more than we can decide that winters should be mild or cookies more nourishing than vegetables.

Harold Kushner, “Who Needs God?”