An Update

It’s been a while! My wife gave birth to a set of twins about 6 weeks ago, so you can excuse me for putting blogging and research on the back-burner for a while. It still is, really, for the foreseeable future.

However, I wanted to just make a few remarks about all the great research that is out there right now.

The 2012 FAIR Conference wrapped up about a week ago and this year they’ve made a special effort to get the texts of all the talks published on their website very quickly so we can read and digest their contents. This has never been done so quickly in years past. There are a lot of fascinating topics to read about:

http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2012-fair-conference

So far I’ve refrained from publicly commenting on my blog about the fallout at the Maxwell Institute that happened a few weeks ago. There isn’t much to say at this point except that it is a real shame the way Dan and the other editors were treated. Even more disappointing is the change in direction that the Maxwell Institute has decided to go. The good news is that Daniel Peterson has too much passion and zeal for apologetics to let it die so easily. His new journal has recently been launched and there are already two very interesting looking articles I need to read:

Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture

Finally, my studies lately have led me somewhat into the weeds of early Mormon polygamy. It is a topic I have so far avoided blogging about. Expect some notes on those topics in future posts.

“After All We Can Do” as a reference to the Law of Moses

 

“After All We Can Do”

One of the more controversial passages of scripture found in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 25:23.

 23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.

Evangelicals look to this passage as proof that Mormonism is a “works based” religion. Many Mormons, particularly of past generations, also look to this passage as evidence that Mormonism is a “works based” religion. However, in recent years many Mormon students and scholars have come to view this passage in a different light. If you are reading this post you are probably already aware of what I speak. Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet have been especially influential in changing the way we talk about this passage. They argue for a reading that looks something like this:

23 … for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, [in spite of/even after/apart from] all we can do.

In other words, they argue that Nephi’s use of the word “after all” should be understood in the sense of “after all that we’ve done, we still need God’s grace”.

I personally am a bit unsure as to whether this is what Nephi really means. I worry that, perhaps, Millet and Robinson are too influenced by the Evangelical scholars they love to dialogue with (to the benefit of us all). It certainly is a valid perspective, but is it right?

Rather than argue against their perspective I want to share an alternative one. Actually, it really isn’t an alternative one but perhaps it can be seen as a complimentary facet to their take. I’ve wondered whether it is best for us to remember that Nephi is speaking from the perspective of one bound to follow the Law of Moses.

This passage stands at the beginning of a short exposition by Nephi of the relationship between the Law of Moses and Christ’s grace. It may be appropriate to consider 2 Nephi 25:23-30 as one literary unit, or a small aside by Nephi in which he struggles to explain the relationship between the Law of Moses and the grace of Christ. Verse 23 stands at the beginning of this exposition, and serves as an introductory summary of what is coming next. I want to suggest that, perhaps, “all we can do” is a reference to the Law of Moses.

 23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God;

(A) for we know that it is by grace that we are saved,

(B) after all we can do.

(A) 24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ,

(B) we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.

I’m not a scholar of Book of Mormon parallelisms, but I wonder if my restructuring of the text above might be appropriate to illustrate what Nephi really means. It is quite easy to see how “all we can do” in verse 23 refers to “keep the law of Moses” in verse 24.

Nephi, speaking from the perspective of an ancient Israelite who is bound under the Law of Moses, is struggling to reconcile the need for the Law of Moses with the grace of Christ. He is wrestling with this issue long before Paul ever did. Nephi arrives at the conclusion that the Law of Moses is meant to help Israel look forward with steadfastness to the coming of Christ (vs 24).

If 2 Nephi 25:23-30 is taken as a literary unit, and if verse 23 is an introductory summary, then verses 29-30 can be read as a parallel final summary of Nephi’s point.

 29 And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out.

 30 And, inasmuch as it shall be expedient, ye must keep the performances and ordinances of God until the law shall be fulfilled which was given unto Moses.

What does it mean for us? It is tempting to see the phrase “after all we can do” to be specific only to Nephi’s doctrinal dilemma, not our own. Nephi is thinking specifically about the relationship between the Law of Moses and Christ’s grace. We don’t really grapple with that specific issue in this dispensation, and so this particular passage may not be totally applicable to us in the same way it was applicable to Nephi and his people. In other words, what I am suggesting is that when someone accuses the Latter-day Saints of having a “works based” soteriology because of this passage, we may be able to point out that this is Nephi speaking from a perspective that is mindful of the Law of Moses which has since been fulfilled in Christ. Our Evangelical friends should understand this, in theory, because Evangelicals very frequently talk about New Testament teachings superseding Old Testament teachings. They don’t consider themselves bound by Old Testament commandments that have no relevance in the New Covenant, and neither do we.

That isn’t to say there is nothing of relevance in 2 Nephi 25:23 for us. As Latter-day Saints we do grapple with the relationship between modern day commandments (ie. tithing, word of wisdom, sabbath day, chastity, etc.) and Christ’s grace. Nephi’s thoughts regarding the Law of Moses can be transferred to our modern day struggles, to a point. The commandments point us toward Christ, and we perform the ordinances and keep the commandments because they are manifestations of Christ’s grace, and they lead us to him.

Let us be careful to not  mistake Nephi for an ancient Latter-day Saint. He wasn’t. He was an Israelite. Latter-day Saints are sometimes prone to forget that Nephi’s concerns were not always the exact same concerns that we have in this dispensation.

Feel free to share your thoughts, and let me know if maybe my pain killers (from my surgery) are really the ones doing the talking.

(As a totally unrelated aside, I want to point out that Nephi urges us to worship Christ in verse 29. How does this jive with the tendency among LDS to emphasize that we worship God the Father, not Christ? I think we need to reevaluate what we mean by “worship”.)

The “Shotgun” Attack

Those who are involved in LDS apologetics know what I refer to when I mention the “shotgun” attack. It is a tactic employed by critics in which they will tick off a number of issues, sometimes related to each other and sometimes not, all the while providing no context for the unwitting reader. It is often a series of silly or outright false claims which, individually, would be simple enough to dispel but taken together would require an immense amount of work to address all at once. Like a shotgun it is an array of projectiles in the hope that one of them will hit. Other names and analogies for this type of thing exist also.

A “shotgun” attack might look something like this:

“Jesus of Mormonism is not a unique and the only Son of God, but he is the eldest of all spirit children  of God born to God and his multiple wives in the “pre-existence”. Mormon-Jesus is also a spirit-brother of Lucifer and all angels. When Jesus of Mormonism was born into mortality, He was not begotten by the Holy Ghost, but he was begotten by their “father in heaven”, an  exalted god-man…”

If this sounds Ed Decker-esque in nature that is because it is from Ed Decker. Not every critic talks that way, but many do. Each of the points mentioned are rooted in some kind of Mormon folklore, or are a perversion of an actual Mormon belief, and none of them is given the slightest bit of context or fair trial. The advantage is that nobody is going to be willing to work through every statement made and explain them properly because it would be an overwhelming task.

Daniel Peterson and Stephen Ricks, in their classic book “Offenders for a Word“, quote Catholic apologist Karl Keating who complains of this exact phenomenon:

“It must be admitted they enjoy a certain tactical (if short-term) advantage in that they can get away with presenting bare-bones claims such as these; they wear out Catholicism’s defenders by inundating them with short remarks that demand long explanations.”

Keating, Karl. “Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians.” San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988.

Next time a critic of the Church attacks our faith using the “shotgun” approach, you can commiserate with our Catholic friends. It is a shoddy, dishonest, but effective tactic.

The chicken or the egg: spiritual experience or mere brain activity?

Here is a quote that from time to time I need, but I always have to go searching for it. From Greg Smith in the FARMS Review of Books:

“A neuroimaging team might study a patient who reports that he is “seeing” an apple. The team could demonstrate that certain areas in the occipital cortex light up in a predictable pattern whenever the patient reports “seeing” an apple. The skeptics would have us believe that because this reported sensation can be detected on a PET scan, there is no such thing as literal vision and no literal apple! This is counterintuitive at best. Without knowing whether an apple was, in fact, in front of the patient’s open eyes during the scan, there would be no way to tell from the radiology data whether the apple existed or not. For spiritual matters, it is impossible to crack open the scanner and spot the apple (or its absence).

“Put simply, all cognition must cause brain level changes. Everything we think, feel, experience, or sense must induce a change at the level of the neurons. Is it any surprise that similar experiences will provoke similar areas of the brain to behave in similar ways, since we know that the brain is anatomically specialized for a variety of functions? Whether such brain changes are all that is happening is, of course, the intriguing question. Newberg makes this point repeatedly.[27]

“So the key question remains: Are brain changes the “phenomenon” (i.e., the whole of the experience, a “hallucination” of an apple), or are they an “epiphenomenon” (i.e., caused by something outside of the brain: light traveling from an apple, striking the retina, and influencing the neurons)? There’s no way to tell, by this—or any—set of experiments.[28] Newberg argues that the changes wrought by spiritual experiences are every bit as “real” as those from standard sensory phenomena.”

http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=20&num=1&id=701

 

The Titanic and the Book of Mormon: Implications for Spalding/Ethan Smith Conspiracy Theories

We all know about the never-tiring attempts by some critics to find parallels between The Book of Mormon and certain books which were published, and perhaps available, to Joseph Smith before the publication of the Book of Mormon. These especially include “View of the Hebrews” by Ethan Smith  and “Manuscript Found” by Solomon Spalding. (Click here for Elder Holland’s remarks on this topic.)

A friend recently brought to my attention the following video which features popular Christian scholar William Lane Craig discussing a novel written in 1898 about a giant ship called Titan that runs into an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sinks. What is interesting about this? This novel was written 14 years before the Titanic ran into an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. There are many more similarities between the novel and the actual event than just that. You can read more about this novel at Wikipedia.

William Lane Craig doesn’t have Mormonism in mind, but someone apparently saw this video and recognized the relevance his comments have for Book of Mormon debates. The slides that appear at the beginning and end of the video are obviously independent of Craig’s comments. I don’t know who made this video, but kudos to them (update: I know who made the video, but I’m not sure they want their name here).

The argument this video is making is that just because a fictional story has many similarities to an actual event, even if that fictional story was written before the actual event took place (or was revealed by God), doesn’t invalidate the actual event.

Book of Mormon scholars in recent years have been discussing the dangers of “parallelomania”, which is the tendency we have to see parallels everywhere and to draw  inappropriate conclusions based on them. This phenomenon happens on both sides of the aisle (among critics and faithful). LDS researcher and writer Ben McGuire discusses this problem here. Brant Gardner also discusses this problem in an interview (here).

Moroni 10:4 as a Hebraism

Ever heard this one?

Wait a second. Moroni 10:4 says to ask if these things are NOT true… That’s a negative. It tells the reader to to ask if these things are NOT true. So if the answer you got is, “yes” then by the wording of the scripture doesn’t that mean that the answer you got is that the Church isn’t true? (Yes, these things are not true).
This was posted in an anti-Mormon message board, but it is an argument that comes up from time to time. It is suggested that Moroni’s challenge, if followed, will lead to a “no” if the answer is “yes”. The argument is of course silly and untenable, but that hasn’t stopped anti-Mormons from using it (such reasons rarely do).
LDS scholar Ben Spackman addressed this issue in a scholarly manner through the pages of Insights, a publication of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Ben (an acquaintance who I greatly admire) points out that Moroni’s question is in fact a “negative rhetorical question”, a Hebraism that shows up not only in the Book of Mormon but also in the Bible.
This rhetorical device occurs in English, but it is stronger and more common in biblical Hebrew…In contrast to a “simple question, when the questioner is wholly uncertain as to the answer to be expected,” these negative questions, Hebrew scholars have pointed out, sometimes have an “exclamatory nuance” or “a special force of asseveration” (i.e., they are being used for rhetorical effect, conveying positive or even emphatic force)…
Some critics have charged that a positive response about the Book of Mormon as a result of prayer indicates that the Book of Mormon is not true, because of the phrasing of the passage. This argument is strained and untenable given the nature of rhetorical negative questions. Moroni asks that “when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true”—rather than “if these things are indeed true.” Though from a relatively late period in Nephite history, this example nevertheless seems valid since a form of “altered” Hebrew was still in use, at least for writing (see Mormon 9:33). Additional examples of negative questions may include 1 Nephi 15:12; 2 Nephi 31:7; Jacob 5:48; Mosiah 4:19; 7:23; 20:18; 27:15; and Alma 5:11; 27:18; 39:18; 39:19; 47:34.
So next time this funny little argument crops up you can point folks to the ancient Hebrew root of this question.

FAIR Study Aids

Since my last post here I’ve had my hands full with many other important projects, including defending my masters thesis, moving my family out of state, and starting a new job. It’s been a very busy winter for me.

I’ve also been busy working on a project for FAIR, namely the “FAIR Study Aids,” which correspond with each weekly Sunday School lesson on the Book of Mormon. It has been a lot of fun and a lot of work. I’ve had a number of ideas for posts here as I’ve worked on this project, and I’m archiving them in my mind for a later date. The FAIR Study Aids will provide summaries of (and links to) the best LDS scholarship related to that week’s Sunday School lesson about the Book of Mormon. We especially focus on apologetic issues and evidence for the Book of Mormon.

I also want to call attention to some other resources for Book of Mormon studies. Professor William Hamblin of BYU has been doing regular podcasts/videos about each chapter of the Book of Mormon at Mormon Scripture Explorations. It is top notch scholarship and you will learn something new every time. I always watch them. Another great resource is the hard work Kerry Shirts is doing with his Backyard Professor videos. Finally, my friends at Sunday School Apologetics are doing a project in tandem with our FAIR Study Aids. Excellent stuff all around.

Stay tuned for future posts here as life begins to slow down in the near future.

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”.

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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.