Friday, March 26, 2010

LDS: Postmen and Border Guards

A random tidbit of what I am told (by the missionaries) is insider info on the LDS missionary lifestyle:

Mormon missonaries love postmen. They are very disconnected from their families during the two years of missionary service, and so they are always looking forward to that contact with loved ones that may come with the mail. I guess they normally get to know the postmen pretty well, since they're always waiting excitedly when the mail arrives.

They also get to know all the border guards, if they're posted near the US/Canada border like ours are. Since they often have temporary postings, and the locations of these vary a fair bit (within a cross-border region), they tend to travel to and fro over the borders a lot.

Sounds pretty exciting to me.

For something a bit more relevant: My wife and I have been invited to attend a baptism, and some of the upcoming general conference sessions (where everybody gets together at the local Mormon church to hear the current Prophet, Apostles and some others speak). I'm looking forward to this, and hoping we can at least make it to one of the sessions. It's on Easter weekend, and I'm secretly hoping that we can go to a session and follow it up with attending a passion play at a church just across the street. Because I like mixing my inputs.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

JWs and Space-time

I've been noticing lately in my discussions with the JWs that their conceptions of the Godhead depend largely on how they incorporate space and time into their theology. For example, take an argument like this:

1. Jesus is God's son. (e.g. Mark 1:1)
2. This mean Jesus was born of God. (as stated in e.g., Col. 1:15, which JWs also understand to mean that Jesus was the first thing created)
3. Sons don't exist until they are born.
4. Therefore God existed before Jesus.
5. Therefore God and Jesus cannot be the same person.

What is interesting about this argument is how it changes depending on how we imagine that God and Jesus exist with respect to time.

Since shortly before I became a Christian, I have understood that God and Jesus exist outside of time. That is, they transcend it. They are present within the space-time complex that is our universe, and they are also present beyond it, and are not contained by it.

If I conceive God and Jesus as transcending time in that manner, then I will understand the phrase "son of God" to be referring to a relationship between two beings. Of course it won't occur to me (at least, it hasn't occurred to me) that the phrase implies that Jesus' existence started after His Father's existence started. I considered the term figurative, and never would have thought that they precedence aspect of birth was meant by it. In fact, thinking of "son of God" in that manner didn't occur to me until talking with the JWs about this last Tuesday.

On the other hand, if I take the far more concrete view that the JWs have, where Jesus (and perhaps God – I've yet to check on that) exist only in space-time like we do, then a phrase like "son of God" will imply the material creation of a child after their parent as we are familiar with, and will thus imply that point 3 is valid in the sense we usually understand "born" and likewise that the rest of the argument follows from it.

My point: depending on our preconceptions about God/Jesus and how they exist in time, from the same scriptures we will come to different understandings of God. And, on the basis of the Bible, I don't know how to distinguish which perception of God is correct. (This may well just be a limitation of my knowledge of the Bible – I welcome correction, if that is the case.)

Another interesting example is the JW's beliefs about the afterlife. Since they do not believe that any part of a human is exists outside of time, their conceptions of death and resurrection are a little different from the orthodox Christian views. The idea is that humans did not exist before they were born, exist for their lives on Earth (in the material world), entirely cease to exist when they die, and then are recreated eventually on an Earth with all of is problems fixed. The nifty thing is that they are recreated based on God's memory of them. Since He's God, He can remember and recreate them exactly as they were when they died.

If the material world of space-time is the only place for humans to exist, then this seems to me like a pretty reasonable way to understand life, death and resurrection. Where would people be between death and resurrection? They must simply not exist. And what could resurrection then mean? It must me recreating them in the material world. But again, if we are willing to allow that humans can exist (partly or wholly) outside of space-time, things change and we can arrive at an alternative understanding.

My understanding, given that I believe there is a material and non-material part to humans (the non-material part not existing in space-time – and maybe but not necessarily in some kind of time?), gives me no reason to think that the non-material part dies when the material part does. So it is quite possible for that part of a human to exist between their bodily death and resurrection.

Again, it has to do with weather we begin trying to work through things assuming it is all bound by space-time, or whether we do not assume that. In other words, whether we assume there is a supernatural, or whether we do not. I think JW doctrine, though it may place God in the supernatural, could be otherwise compatible with materialism.

So what are we left with? To me, it is obvious that there are non-material things. To the JWs – and I'm sure I'll discuss this with them at more length – it may not be evident. I doubt I will convince them otherwise, or that they will convince me otherwise. I've never been able to convince anyone that non-material things exist in the past, and don't expect that I'll start now. But there may be some benefit to showing them how things seem to me, and seeing how things look to them, in these matters. Perhaps we can recognize some truth in each others' worldviews.

A quick side note: To me, the JW beliefs are almost like a sci-fi story, with God as the great benevolent alien who creates a creature Jesus to help the people of Earth, and who through his great power and memory can recreate us frail and unenlightened humans after our deaths and allow us to live forever. It's a neat concept, although I'm not really sure what I think of such a God (he seems a short step away from the evil God in the His Dark Materials trilogy).

Friday, March 12, 2010

JW: Getting inside the JW view of resurrection

After several weeks of not meeting, due to the Mormon guys being stuck at a meeting in Halifax, and one of the JW missionaries getting the Norwalk virus, I finally met with both again this past Tuesday.

In this entry, I will focus on one particular aspect of the JW mindset that I've been grappling with. And by grappling, I mean something like "trying to understand from the inside". This is my default mode of trying to understand anything, trying to see if from the inside – in anthropological terms, to come to the most emic account possible of a worldview. For me, the etic account it forced, but I inherently seek the emic one. The benefits of my default approach are many: it promotes empathy and allows closer relationships with others. The risks are that I may lose too much of my own identity, and that I lose the benefit I would otherwise have as an objective observer.

The JW's believe that, in the afterlife, everyone will be resurrected to an earthly paradise. All of the things that make Earth bad, such as disease, natural disasters, crime, and so on, will be destroyed, and the New Earth will be a cleansed version of the current one.

I think the JW doctrine I have most often heard (and heard misrepresented) is that the New Earth is to be ruled by 144,000 "anointed" followers of Christ, who will be with Christ in Heaven. I have yet to investigate just how the "anointed" are chosen, how they are known on Earth right now, etc. However, I can say that it is clear to me that they do not believe that only 144,000 humans will be saved. Also, their doctrine makes a bit more sense if you interpret, as the JW's do, Biblical references to the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven as references to a government God wishes to institute over the Earth. It is questionable exegesis, and requires a more figurative interpretation of passages such as Luke 11:14-20. But then "Kingdom of God" is a figurative term to start with.

The Greek is not helpful either. βασιλεια, the Greek word for Kingdom used in the phrase "Kingdom of God" and elsewhere, was most commonly used in the same sense as the English word Kingdom, to mean a dominion. However, sources contemporary to the writing of the New Testament also used the term to mean a reign, or a governmental office.

I personally believe it makes more sense to take the terms "Kingdom of God" or "Kingdom of Heaven" to mean God's dominion, rather than a governing body He will appoint, but as B— once pointed out the JW's have taken their equation of "kingdom" and "government" and incorporated into a self-consistent system of belief and hermeneutics, which is more than I've accomplished for myself so far.

Returning to the main topic, the argument for a restoration of the current Earth, as presented to me by the JWs, is as follows:

1. God created Earth, animals, plants, etc (Genesis 1:1-25).
2. When God created Earth, it was good (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31).
3. God created humans and told them to live on the Earth, and said that was good (Genesis 1:26-31).
4. The above, combined with a handful of additional verses, demonstrate that God meant for the humans to live in Paradise on Earth (e.g. Psalm 37:29).
5. God always achieves His purposes (e.g. Isaiah 46:9-11, Isaiah 55:11).
6. Therefore, in this case, God must in the end achieve His purpose of having all the humans live in a Paradise on Earth.

(The above essentially summarizes the first section of Chapter 3 in the JW book What Does the Bible Really Teach?)

This bothers me because I have been hoping for a unity with God in heaven that I cannot even imagine right now, and certainly not one contained within the normal workings of our physical universe.

There could be many counterarguments to the above JW claims (the abuse of scripture, or so it appears to me, is disturbing), and you can find them easily enough at sites like this. But my goal here has been to try to see their worldview from within, and to understand why they find their concept of Heaven not only tolerable, but preferable.

From the way they talk about it (I've got them being far more sincere than when I first talked with them), JWs really do feel their idea of Heaven is better. And I'm starting to understand some of the reasons why they like it.

First, and most substantially, JWs believe that (just about) everyone gets to live forever. We all die (they don't believe in an immortal soul, so all of us dies), God remembers us, and from His memory God re-creates us on the Paradise Earth, with the same mental state as when we died. That means that if your Mother wasn't a believer, and has passed away, you have comfort. She will be resurrected, and into a perfectly governed world where she can learn to be a perfect person.

When I heard this from one of the JW's, I first connected with why they love their afterlife so much. To me, this sounds nice, and I want to believe that something like it is true – that this life isn't the only test, and that there's a more "fair" one later. Not for my sake, because I can tell that I'm free to choose almost everything I do, and for me the test seems as fair as I could ask for. But people I love who have died, I don't want them to be condemned to some kind of torment based on their actions in a fallen world. The JWs think that it's ridiculous to call a God who condemns people to eternal torment loving. I think that it only makes sense if those people knowingly choose not to be with God. But how are we, who haven't died yet, to know about such things?

The second appeal of the JW's heaven is that it's very concrete. It can be grasped and imagined. We know what Earth is like, and it's not so hard to imagine Earth minus the bad stuff, plus a good government. It's graspable.

I get that to some extent, since I know that people are often comfortable with concepts they can grasp. I've never been much like that myself, so I can't internalize this reason very well, but I do think it makes sense and is powerful. That said, when my heart is pierced upon seeing a beautiful tree, smile or sunbeam, the experience is far more meaningful knowing that it transcends the physical reality, and I find it impossible not to long to know as fully as possible that transcendent beauty. I mean, I think the beauty comes from God, and if experiencing it directly all the time isn't what the afterlife is about, well, the afterlife sounds better than death, but still unbearably disappointing.

I think after all my thoughts on this, my conclusion is that I ought to choose the unimaginably good afterlife over the imaginably good one, lacking substantial evidence to do otherwise, and in this case, I will.  (Yes, I did just casually discount Occam's Razor. Deal with it :) ) So unless something convincing comes along, I personally will anticipate a heaven better than I can imagine. If I set myself up for disappointment, so be it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

LDS: Book of Abraham Analysis

An interesting article on the Book of Abraham, part of the Pearl of Great Price accepted as scripture by the LDS church and ostensibly translated from the Egyptian by Joseph Smith Junior. I think this bears much more investigation, as a relatively concrete way of testing Joseph Smith Junior's authenticity.

I've been thinking a bit about Joseph Smith Junior lately. Maybe those thoughts will sometime coalesce into a full entry. Basically, the Mormons claim that even under threat of death he maintained that the Book of Mormon was authentic. This, to me, parallels the claim sometimes used to support Christianity that those who just made something up will not die for it.

However, it seems to me that we often cling to lies most strongly. Furthermore, if someone comes up with a lie and promulgates it because the believe very strongly that it will help people, I can very easily imagine them dying for it. That could have been the case with Joseph Smith Junior, but it also (any other evidence aside) could have been the case with Jesus or the Apostles. So, to me, the "people don't die for things that aren't true" argument doesn't make sense, because people will die for something they consider more important than their own lives, whether true or not.

This is just one way that LDS claims about the reliability of Joseph Smith Junior parallel orthodox Christian claims about Christ or the Apostles. The only difference is that there are many more contemporary sources about Joseph Smith Junior. Maybe if I get to a point where his reliability is a burning question, I will dig into those sources more and see what I find out.

Friday, December 18, 2009

LDS: Testify!

I'm afraid I've been negligent. I've had three meetings with the Mormons since I last posted about one. This is largely because of a paper I was writing in my academic life, but is also a result of my rampant procrastination.

Despite my generally vague memory, there are some things about the recent meetings that have really stuck in my mind; and I will try to relate those as well as I can, though I warn you that what I still remember is not deeply theological. If that is what you are after, I am sure it will come up in later posts.

Also, I must mention that B— has been with me at two of these meetings (and would have been all of them if I had asked), and has greatly helped the conversation along, especially by adding some inductive questions to my largely deductive approach.

And now on to the report.

First off, there has been a reorganization of the LDS mission areas. As a result, I am no longer meeting with Elder M. and Elder C., who have been transferred to Nova Scotia. Elder C., sadly, had to leave before I could say goodbye – I understand they are often transferred with little notice, as was the case here. Of the three meetings I have referred to, the first was with Elder M. and Elder V.

Elder V. was in Fredericton during the summer, before being replaced by Elder C., and so was an old friend. He had been transferred to Woodstock, but was passing through Fredericton on his way to his own new posting in Nova Scotia, and so he accompanied Elder M. to meet with us.

The second meeting with with the new elders, both from Utah, Elder Mo. and Elder R.

Elder Mo. is an extremely tall guy who seems to have thought about his beliefs quite a bit. He is 18 months into his mission, and seems to genuinely enjoy answering questions about his beliefs. Elder R. is a quiet guy near the end of his mission (they last 2 years), who pipes up occasionally with a solid or helpful comment. Though shy, he is bold to speak what he thinks is important, and I appreciate that.

The third meeting was with Elder Mo. and Elder J., who was visiting from St. Stephen. Elder J. was visiting a different mission area, as missionaries often do, so that they aren't just working with the same person constantly for months on end, and so they can have some experience in different environments and with different partners.

In our last meeting with them, Elders M. and V. told us the stories of how they became Mormons. I had already told them the story of how I became a Christian, so this seemed fair. I was intrigued by Elder V.'s testimony especially, since in some ways it paralleled my own. In particular, he wasn't interested in God for a long time, his older sister became a believer before he did, and he did a fair bit of investigating before his conversion.

Elder M. became a Mormon largely because of a prayer for a relative who had an eye condition that he had been told was incurable. The condition was repaired very rapidly, and Elder M. attributes this to prayer from some members of the LDS. It got him investigating the faith, until he also had a moment when he felt that he knew with certainty that it was true.

Testimonies are one of the key elements of the Mormon experience. Every missionary I've met so far has had at least one particular experience that has confirmed to them the truth of some important aspect of their beliefs. These experiences often, but not always, have included a feeling called by Mormons "the burning in the bosom", that is recognized as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
 Elder Mo. felt it when, after a long time of questioning whether his beliefs were authentic or not, he read Moroni 7:16. For him, since he grew up in Utah where (according to Wikipedia) between 58 and 72% of the population are Mormon, it was hard to distinguish between responses to social/psychological pressures and true belief. He even admitted to us that he suspects that a great many of the Mormons there only see their religion as a social thing – just like many Christians do. For him, the burning his his chest and accompanying conviction that he felt when reading that passage demonstrated to him unequivocally that the book of Mormon is true, and furthermore that he could know it was true by its "fruits" (cf. Matthew 7:15-20), the good things that came of following it.

I have so say, this "burning in the bosom" thing sounds all too familiar to me. I have for years described the first time I experienced what I identify as God's presence as "feeling like my chest was about to explode," among other things. In fact, the first time any Mormons told me about the "burning in the bosom" was a few years ago when I was meeting with Sister C. and Sister K. (also missionaries), and they asked me about my experience with religion. After I described that part of the story, I remember them looking at each other a little surprised, and then one of them saying something along the lines of, "well, we talk about that sort of thing all the time!" and going on to discuss the experience of Joseph Smith (who also felt it), etc. In the end they decided that I have experience the presence of the Holy Spirit but not its fullness.

To wrap up the testimonies, something a little different from Elder J. His testimony comes from a time when he was confronted by a non-Mormon friend, about whether or not he believed non-Mormons would go to Hell since they were not part of the church. Elder J. reports that he was very unsure how to answer, since he didn't know much of the details of LDS doctrine at that time, but thet he started talking about it and words came to him – reminds me of Mark 13:11. He was more fully convinced later, when he discovered that LDS doctrine was consistent with the answer he had been given.

Elder J. was testifying in response to a question about the afterlife. B—, as he has several times in the past, was complaining to the Mormons that by revealing powerful truths to him now they are – if their beliefs are correct – heaping more condemnation on his head for not accepting the beliefs now when he is most able. (The LDS believe that we will still be able to change our fate after we die, during a time when they believe we will live as spirits, before the final separation into the three heavens and the outer darkness. It's a bit like purgatory, but only a bit. I have been told by some Mormons that it will be more difficult to change our beliefs as spirits.) Elder J. has, as a result of his testimony experience, thought a lot about the afterlife, and what the fate will be of those who are not Mormons in this life, and impressed me in a way that I think emphasizes the dedication of the missionaries to LDS orthodoxy, as well as their honesty.

Elder J. started to talk about some of his ideas about the afterlife, and then hesitated for a moment. He said, "Okay, now this is me speaking," and took off his name tag. He then went on to tell us that, in his opinion, we will all be given ample opportunity in the spirit world to change our ways, since God really does want everyone to reach the highest heaven possible (called the Celestial Kingdom in LDS parlance). It was important to him on one hand to answer B—'s concern as well as he could, and on the other, not to represent his own personal ideas as LDS doctrine. I was similarly impressed before with Elder C., who would stumble very awkwardly over explanations because accuracy was more important to him than elegance, and who would refuse to teach as doctrine anything not scriptural, even beliefs common among LDS members.

That is almost all for this entry, although I do want to mention a bit of flattery given by the LDS missionaries at our last meeting. I hope I do this not just out of pride (no doubt it is one of my motivations, given who I am), but also because I think it is an important commentary on how dialogues between faiths can fruitfully take place.

As Elder Mo. and Elder J. were leaving, Elder Mo. told me that, even though we had only met twice, of all of his meetings in the 18 months of his mission he thinks that these have been the most useful. I said I was glad, and asked why, and he said that it's because nobody there really has a hidden agenda, but that everyone seems to be trying as honestly as possible to find out what is true. Given the nature of the contributions of the missionaries to our conversations, I think that although they certainly do have an agenda – one that they are thankfully very open about – they also are willing to investigate their beliefs with a sizeable dose of intellectual honesty. I think that is why these talks work so well.

Stay tuned for a brief theological discussion relating to my latest talks with the Mormons, and a report of my latest interactions with those other door-knockers, the JW's. Soon it I will be on Christmas break and will have time for a great outpouring of blog posts.

Friday, November 27, 2009

LDS: Ravi and the Godhead

This will be the conclusion of my report of B. and my meeting with the Mormons this past Wednesday. But first, following up from my recent post regarding the Most Improbable Dialogue article, here is the video of Ravi Zacharias' 2004 visit to the Tabernacle.

What struck me most was the following statement by Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw, who played a significant role in organizing the event:

"I know that I have learned much in this continuing dialogue, and I am now convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. Indeed, let me state it bluntly to the LDS folks here this evening: we have sinned against you. The God of the Scriptures makes it clear that it is a terrible thing to bear false witness against our neighbors, and we have been guilty of that sort of transgression in things we have said about you. We have told you what you believe without making a sincere effort first of all to ask you what you believe."
When we were speaking with the Mormons, the topic of Mormon-evangelical dialogue also came up. B. and my friend J. attends Bethany Bible College, and apparently a Mormon was invited there to explain his beliefs some time ago. The missionaries, after asking some questions about the fellow, thought that they knew him. Asked how he felt about speaking at the Bible College Elder C., who in my mind is often the most forthright of the two, thought for a second and replied, "He said he was pretty scared." I know I would be scared if I were heading to BYU to defend my beliefs.

And now, regarding the Godhead:

Of the differences I have identified to date between LDS and mainstream Christian belief, two stand out as especially important: (1) the legitimacy of the restored priesthood (including the authenticity of the Book of Mormon), and (2) the nature of the Godhead. B. and I had already discussed (1) to some extent, as detailed in my previous post. We thereafter turned to some discussion of (2).

I asked the missionaries if they could reiterate briefly for B., and for my remembrance, some of what they had told me previously about the Godhead. They were quite willing to do so, and put forth the following points:

  1. God is identified as Elohim of the Old Testament. They often call him "Heavenly Father."
  2. Jesus, who is the son of Heavenly Father, is Jehovah/Yahweh of the Old Testament (the JW's would have a heyday with this).
  3. Jehovah (the tetragrammaton, YHWH, usually translated nowadays as "LORD" in all caps)  in the OT was the spirit of Jesus before being born into a body. The LDS believe that everybody existed as a spirit before having a body, including Jesus and God.
  4. The person of the Holy Ghost is the third part of the Godhead. (I have read that the Holy Ghost, the person, is also considered by the LDS as different from the Holy Spirit, that is the spirit of God. I did not detect this distinction in our discussion, but I expect I will ask about it sooner or later.)
  5. These three distinct parts are "United in Purpose".
I think it is evident from these points that the LDS belief on the Godhead departs significantly from traditional Christian doctrine. Interestingly, I think the above is compatible with the wording – though perhaps not the intent – of the Apostle's Creed.  In the time we had left, B. and I questioned the Elders on some of these points.

Our first question was about the unity of the Godhead. The LDS and Christian doctrines have in common that God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost are divided, and unified to some extent, but from point (5) above we see that theirs is a slightly different concept of unity. Elder C. expressed the LDS concept of unity clearly (I think he was quoting but I forget), saying it means that "Whatever circumstances in whatever time, they will all come to the same conclusion."

Both B. and I were surprised about the whole Jehovah = Jesus thing. The Mormons substantiated the belief with verses such as Psalm 3:8, that says, "Salvation belongs to the LORD; your blessings be on your people" (ESV). Since salvation belongs to YHWH, and we know it was Jesus who ultimately saves mankind, the only way this verse (and others like it) makes sense is if YHWH is the same person as Jesus. This requires, by the Mormon understanding that Jesus isn't God, that Jesus still be YHWH and YHWH not be God. (Convoluted, no?) After they brought up and explained this example, I quietly looked up and said, "But you can see why a passage like this would cause absolutely no problem for us and our Trinity thing, right?" They laughed and agreed.

As I suspected above, the JW's have complained about the YHWH = Jesus thing. The Elders told us a few stories about this, and took particular delight in the story of one JW woman who repeatedly criticised the LDS leaders about the YHWY = Jesus belief, and eventually went to Salt Lake City to harangue them about it. One of the Apostles wrote to her and said that if she continued he would speak out publicly and "break" her beliefs. (Elder M. said "crush" her beliefs originally, but Elder. C corrected him to what I think is a more poetic wording anyway.) From what they told us, he did just that. (I may have some details of the story wrong, but the gist of it should be right.) Apparently there is a document detailing the LDS arguments for the YHWH = Jesus belief, written specifically against the beliefs of JW's, called the "Jehovah's Witness Shuffle". I had to ask why it was called that, but the missionaries had no idea.

We went through a few passages regarding the separateness of God and Jesus. I think the most convincing of these to me was the vision of Stephen while he was being stoned (Acts 7:55-56), where he sees God and Jesus in heaven as two separate people. This parallels the experience reported by Joseph Smith, Jr. of seeing God and Jesus as separate beings in Doctrine and Covenants 76:19-24.

By contrast,  B. brought us to John 1:1, which is a very clear statement of the unity of God and Jesus given that Jesus is the Logos (translated "the Word"). B., the Mormons and I all believe that "the Word" refers to Jesus, and so the passage seemed clearly to indicate their identity despite the separateness:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (ESV)
B. impressed the Mormons by having me recite it in Greek, on which count I lucked out because this is the only verse I can recite in Greek. the Mormons attempted to reconcile the verse with their beliefs by suggesting that the Logos was only being called a god in the sense that they believe all humans will become gods, and not that He was being equated with Heavenly Father. At the time, I thought I remembered that the language reinforced the identity of God and the Logos, related to the Greek word for God, "theos", lacking a definite article in the phrase "the Word was God."

It turns out, I don't know what I'm talking about. After examining the Greek and some online searching, it seems that many scholars entirely unconnected with the LDS church support the translation "a God" rather than "God" because of the lacking definite article. The wikipedia article on John 1:1 is well referenced regarding the dispute. I need to look further into the issue, but a-priori I think there is a basis for a translation of John 1:1 that is compatible with the LDS belief, and so we will have to turn to other verses to support the identity in substance of God and Jesus.

That is where we ended our discussion for the evening, with an agreement to meet again at my apartment the following Wednesday.

I have asked the missionaries if we can, at our next meeting, go over the Apostles' Creed, and see where exactly they disagree with Christian orthodoxy. Also, the missionaries left me with a list of scriptures supporting their beliefs in the Godhead that I will read through before next week. It seems to me, right now, that we are engaged in two fruitful discussions about the very differences between our beliefs and theirs, and I look forward to more of the same.

I am kind of thinking that I would like to hang out with the missionaries a little more. We played baseball, did yardwork, and went out to lunch together one day in September, and I think Elder M. in particular enjoyed it greatly. They have plenty of fellowship within their own church, but I think there is great value not only in interfaith dialogue but also in interfaith fellowship, and I will be looking for such opportunities in the future.

Also, FYI, there is an article by the past LDS President Gordon B. Hinkley that details the Mormon conceptions of the Godhead quite well.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

LDS: A leaky roof, pork, and skepticism about the restored priesthood

I was about half an hour late to meet with the Mormons, Elder C. and Elder M. (they told me their first names, but I forget them since I usually use their proper titles), on account of a leak in my apartment's roof. Unfortunately, the leak was right over the desk in my study, and since my desk was messy that meant a ton of papers scattered about on it became drenched. They are mostly dry now, but I take it as a handy reminder that I should tidy my study soon.

Upon arrival I was greeted by B. and a glass of whiskey. I was a bit hesitant to take the glass, since I was worried about making the Mormon's uncomfortable, but B. has told me before that they have said they are okay with it.

The missionaries have suggested to B. before that he try abstaining from alcohol. This is part of what the LDS commonly refer to as the Word of Wisdom, a prophecy given to Joseph Smith, Jr. and recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 89, that instructs Mormons to abstain from alcohol except for Communion. It also discourages tobacco use, and drinking of coffee and tea.

In our meeting with them last Saturday, they told B. with some contrition that they had been speaking with a fellow on their rounds who challenged them to obey the Levitical instruction not to eat pork. Realizing that now they were being asked to do what they had been asking of B., they (impressively, in my books) decided that they had better take the challenge to abstain from pork. And they have been, as of last night. Say what you will about their beliefs; I can't help but admire their willingness to put their actions where their mouths are, even with something so relatively trivial.

So much for context.

When I arrived, the discussion was on the 1978 revelation to LDS President Spencer Kimball that blacks should be allowed priesthood authority in the church. Due to my possible absence, the discussion on the Godhead and Faith had been postponed. Though we would speak a bit about the Godhead later that night, I will report on that part in a later posting.

There are a great many things that could be said about the past racist policies of the LDS church, but many of those things could also be said of any Christian denomination that has been around for a while, and even more about those denominations claiming guidance by a divine representative. I do not wish to deal with that discussion now, and it was not the purpose of the discussion last night. We instead considered a question more fundamental to LDS belief: can we trust that the restored priesthood is authentic if its revelations appear to follow cultural trends? The same question could be asked, for example, about the 1890 manifesto prohibiting polygamy in the LDS church.

B.'s contention was along these lines (if I remember correctly):

"Let's be honest. If factions within and without a church are pressuring it to change its practice, and after a few years of this it changes its practice, most of us would at least suspect mere conformity rather than revelation. It all seems too convenient."
B. undeniably had a point. The most evident motive for the change is the cultural pressure, I know that culture is a powerful agent of change, and the sequence sure looks like cause-and-effect. The missionaries admitted as much a few times as we continued discussion along these lines. Their explanations, as I remember them, are:
  1. God couldn't work until the leaders of the Mormon church, the black members of the church, and the black people outside the church reached a certain point in their development as a culture,
  2. the LDS leadership fluctuated throughout the Civil Rights movement, rather than immediately changing their rule to fit with cultural pressures,
  3. the LDS church historically has not had a uniform view about the status of blacks, and
  4. the LDS scriptures make no clear statement about blacks entering the priesthood.
Some of these arguments are better than others, and I'll address them individually.

Regarding No. 1, to some extent this makes sense to me. It is true that God sometimes waits until people are ready before giving a certain revelation or acting in a certain way (the stories in Matthew 17:1-13, Acts 16:6-10 or Exodus 3:7-10 come to mind, though none explicitly says why God was waiting). God has even withheld things (like tons of revelation) from the Gentiles (that's right, it was restricted on the basis of race) until shortly after Jesus' arrival, and withheld explicit knowledge of Christ even from almost all the Jews. So it wouldn't be without precedent. That said, what was the readiness here? If there was a lack of readiness, it must have been on the part of the leaders. Blacks had always been welcome in the Mormon church, and had been appointed as Elders (a priesthood position) under Joseph Smith, Jr., although I didn't know that at the time of meeting with the Mormons. But if it was a lack of readiness of the leaders, were they really very spiritual men? They may have been spiritual by the standards of their time, but if I am to count them as Apostles and Prophets I have to hold them to a much higher standard. This, to me, is a weak point in the case for a restored priesthood.

No. 2 seemed to me at the time to be at best inconclusive. I mean, fluctuations are a bad sign aren't they, if you're supposed to be guided by an unchanging God? Reading a bit about it on Wikipedia, I can see a bit better where they're coming from. For example, in 1969, Harold Lee, an apostle, blocked the Quorum of the 12 from allowing blacks into the priesthood on the basis that the decision should only be reversed as a result of revelation. Thus, there was resistance initially to the cultural trend. It was during intense deliberation as a result of the expansion of the church into South America that the 1978 revelation is said to have come. So, at least according to a superficial investigation, it seems that the primary influence leading to the 1978 revelation was not the North American civil rights movement, but rather the LDS church's ambition to expand into other countries. This does not really solve the problem, but it specifies the question we should be asking. Was the 1978 revelation (a) a real revelation given when the church asked for leadership concerning their expansion, or (b) an expedient fake revelation meant to permit greater expansion of the church?

No. 3 seems historically accurate. Joseph Smith, Jr. and many of the early Mormons spoke against slavery, and blacks were admitted into the priesthood before Bingham Young's time. (Bingham Young was Joseph Smith, Jr.'s successor, and probably the Mormon I like least of those I've met or read about. There was some controversy about his selection, which makes me wonder...) Even after blacks were not supposed to be admitted into the priesthood, some were; and there were movements within the Mormon church at various times that wished blacks to be admitted into the priesthood.

One of the most surprising discoveries of my investigations is that Bringham Young, during the very pronouncement restricting the priesthood to non-blacks, said that there would come a time when blacks could again be admitted to the priesthood. This can be seen as looking forward to the 1978 revelation that overruled Young's proclamation. While I still find the idea that God wanted to change the church's policy on this for a hundred years or so unpalatable, that is a pretty impressive prophecy (and more testable than most in the LDS church) coming from a man like Young. Maybe God was working in him in some way, even if that work was far more corrupted than it should have been for anyone acting as God's primary representative on Earth. After all, God can make a donkey talk, and making Bingham Young qualify his prophecy accordingly is far easier than that (especially if we assume that Young was, in some measure, seeking to follow God and aware of His guidance).

As to no. 4, notwithstanding interpretations of the curse of Cain, which is a whole other kettle of fish, Mormon scripture is clearly against institutions such as slavery. This is most obvious in the statement by Joseph Smith, Jr. in Doctrine and Covenants 101:79 that "It is not right that any man be in bondage to another." There are also instances of leaders being opposed to slavery, but the above quotation alone is a more direct statement on slavery than exists in the Christian scriptures alone. Regarding priesthood, there is no racial restriction in the Mormon scriptures that I am aware of, and apparently none was advanced to support the racial restriction of the priesthood. All in all, the LDS scriptures seem ambivalent on the issue of blacks in the priesthood.

At the meeting itself we essentially reached a point where we all had to confess we knew too little about the situation to continue. As far as I am concerned, it is still an open topic (as is the whole debate about the validity of the restored priesthood). But both the meeting and the subsequent research were a good learning experience, and I hope to delve further into the question of the restored prophecy in the future. It is annoying that very little of the revelation given in the Mormon church is falsifiable, beyond testing it against commandments of scripture, because it is usually in the form of imperatives or doctrine rather than predictions. I suppose, and the Mormons agree with me about this, that the only sure indicator I may be left with is the testimony of the Holy Spirit – and the only direction it has ever given me regarding my interactions with Mormons is that I ought to keep talking with them.

In any event, at that point in the evening, we transitioned into a discussion on the Godhead, which I will present in a later entry.