Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Importance of Faith vs Ordinances --

It’s interesting to contemplate the discussion of salvation in the Book of Mormon. You have these multiple consistent expositions of faith that are precursors to LDS temple work. Consider the people of Ammonihah, burned for their beliefs. Consider Nephi, Abinadi, Enos, and Jacob, their faith and their testimonies.

Here are some of my favorite selections from the Book of Mormon on salvation:

2 Ne 9 deserves to be read in its entirety, as it's a wonderful sermon.

Many verses in this point to the orthodox Christian trinity, original sin, and concepts of hell, but for my purposes the meat is here: 2 Ne 9:21 - 26.  I think this states pretty unambiguously that salvation comes through faith, repentance, baptism, and enduring to the end.  All because of the power of the atonement.

Here's another great one: 2 Ne 25:23-30

And how could we not mention the story of Enos? This is a story that warms the evangelical Christians heart.  He wrestles with his faith before God in prayer and receives a remission of his sins because of his faith.  Consider the elegant simplicity of this statement from God:  "wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole."

Compare that with a more modern alternative:  "wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole.  After, of course, you abstain from coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and tea, sustain the apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators, sustain all your other leaders, attend all your church meetings, magnify any and all responsibilities your leaders assign you, get a temple recommend from your bishop, and travel to the nearest temple to receive all the necessary priesthood ordinances".

Consider also the ancient original apostles of Jesus Christ in Israel, martyred for their faith. Consider Peter, Paul, James, their faith and their testimonies.

Consider all the wonderful examples of faith we have considered, from both the New Testament and Book of Mormon, locked outside the door of heaven until a 12 year-old is baptized for them by proxy and a distracted temple recommend holder sits through an endowment session for them, and a gang of temple workers does their sealings. Even Paul, despite his great faith, is locked outside the doors of eternal life without proxy ordinances done by teenagers and distracted adults.

What does that say about the importance of priesthood authority relative to the importance of faith? It essentially says that depth in faith is not that important relative to priesthood authority, considering that the faith of an eight year-old to be baptized and the worthiness of a 12 year-old to go through temple ordinances and the attention of a gang of temple workers doing mass sealings trumps the level of faith of those for whom the work will be done.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

11 August 2009 - Enthusiasm
 (This section was written when I was about a third of the way through and reflects a sense of youthful enthusiasm and rediscovery.  In many ways this is almost an allegory of most people's journey in the church, when it's still new and exciting and fresh)

Being reintroduced to the BoM after four years of studying other things, I find it to be a jewel. It’s an amazingly consistent exposition of the kind of “processed” evangelical thought not found in the Bible. What you get in the New Testament is the raw pieces. The commandments. Mosaic law including the sacrifices. Jesus’ ethical teachings. Paul’s teachings on the divinity of Christ and the doing away with the law by Christ’s coming, how we are no longer justified by the law, how we are saved by grace through Christ. Paul’s ethical teachings.

The Book of Mormon processes this doctrine and assembles it into a coherent outline, an “elevator speech” if you will, that sums it up. In many ways the Book of Mormon is almost like a series of setups for the speeches of the major characters. It begins with the speeches of Nephi, Jacob, Benjamin, and Abinadi on God coming to earth as a man and paying the price for our sins. The basic plan of salvation, repeated as a consistent theme by each speaker. It then moves on to Alma, who introduces the theme of revival and more fully lays out heaven and hell.

Then we have the opponents, like the horsemen of the apocalypse, each of whom represents a form of evil. Sherem, the anti-Christ. Nehor, priestcraft. Korihor, atheism. Amlici, political ambition.

I find tremendous truth in the Book of Mormon, because it’s the most coherent exposition of evangelical thought found in the scriptures. It most clearly lays out the orthodox trinity, which is not even mentioned in the Bible, and connects up God coming to earth in human form to accomplish our salvation.

One of the most difficult things to figure out in Christian thought is the balance between works and grace. On one hand the Bible talks about grace, and on the other hand it talks about works, but it’s never clear just how our thoughts on the toxicity of sin and the importance of ethical behavior impact our salvation by grace, because the subjects are never really dealt with together in the Bible.

We seem to get that in the Book of Mormon, which is repetitively clear that salvation is accomplished by faith and trust in Christ, repentance, which is a turning of our hearts toward God and away from sin, baptism for the remission of sins, and a process of enduring to the end. Keeping our focus on God and away from wickedness. Keeping the commandments to the best of our ability. Remaining strong in the faith and not returning to our self-centered ways. If your viewpoint is that we don’t have eternal security in our salvation, the Book of Mormon is the clearest, most concise, and most consistent summary of what you need to do to be saved and stay saved and to be a person of faith.

In addition to being a repository of some of the best preaching in the scriptures, outside the Sermon on the Mount, which is mostly concerned with ethical behavior, the Book of Mormon also has the best stories and the most inspiring characters.

Nephi and his persistent faith in the face of opposition by his brothers and the family of Ishmael. Enos and his coming to Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The martyrdom of Abinadi and his lecturing of the priests of Noah. The impact of Abinadi’s one convert, Alma. The radical turnaround of Alma the Younger, which is an inspiration for any father of a wayward son. The martyrdom of the Christians in Ammonihah and the conversion of Zeezrom. The servanthood of Ammon and his mission to the Lamanites, becoming a servant to a bloodthirsty people in order to bring them to Christ. The faith of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis as they are slaughtered by their brother Lamanites, and their example that brings even more of the Lamanites to faith in Christ.

And more will be added to this list as I finish the book. It would be much harder to be a Christian without these examples of faith to look to for inspiration.

As to the authorship of the Book of Mormon, I definitely believe it’s inspired of God. Even with notes in front of them and a reference library of evangelical preaching to draw from, it would be difficult to write a book like this. Imagine having to craft it and then repeat it back to a scribe while looking at a rock in a hat, never going back to correct words or to re-craft a story line. Think about J. K. Rowling having to dictate the Harry Potter books like this, and the Book of Mormon is much more carefully crafted in terms of the themes it teaches than those books. It’s clearly a masterpiece of some kind of revelation.

Is the Book of Mormon historical? I don’t think so. The story lines are too carefully crafted to represent real people. The characters are too perfect, and the crowds are too consistent. When anyone preaches, all are converted. All reform. To a man and woman they all respond, and human nature just isn’t like that. Just where are the women in the Book of Mormon also? The Old and New Testaments are from a very patriarchal Hebrew society, yet women have consistently important roles to play. In the Book of Mormon women are very much on the sidelines, yet personal experience tells us that women are always the first to respond in faith.

There is positively no Hebrew influence on Native American culture or language, nor is there any remnant of the Hebrew or “reformed Egyptian” language to be found, yet people could consistently read the writings on the plates for a thousand years, up until at least 400 A.D. The Nephites and Lamanites had very complex cultures based on trading, they had written language, they had records, and absolutely none of this survives. Not one artifact with Hebrew or Egyptian language survives. Not one word in any Native American language that can be traced to Hebrew.

Does that mean it’s not “true”? Just what is truth, anyway? Does something need to be historically true to be “true”? I think the truth of the Book of Mormon is in its content and the fact that we read the Book of Mormon and come to Christ and salvation as a result. The Book of Mormon is true in the sense that it’s another testament of Jesus Christ, perhaps the most consistent one found in the scriptures. It’s true in the sense that it leads us to greater faith and commitment. It leads us to greater faith and perseverance. It inspires us to endure to the end in the hopes of achieving the salvation that was the goal of the main characters in the Book of Mormon. That is the ultimate truth.

Intro to Book of Mormon summary --

Over the summer I re-read the Book of Mormon for the 17th time.  Typically what I did for times 1 - 15 was to try to read the Book of Mormon over a longer period of time.  Say, a year.  At least one time was in Spanish, and one time was over a multi-year period as part of our family scripture study, which gives you a window into how regular our family scripture study was at the time.

The 16th time was as part of Gordon B Hinckley's "Book of Mormon Challenge" in 2005, which was extremely appropriate for me because I was beginning my real crisis of LDS faith.

The last two times have probably been the best, because I think re-reading it in a shorter period of time allowed me a broader scope of it.  I can still remember the beginning while reading the end, and the themes show up better.

Periodically I wrote summaries of my thoughts at the time.

I wanted to put these down for awhile in order to filter them through more perspective.  (Of course involving no procrastination at all.  No, not any)  I have the time now at the end of the year, so this seemed like a good time to start to post them.

My initial idea was to post one large writeup, but in re-reading my entries they become less positive over the course of the book.  In retrospect I think it's better to post them as I wrote them, so my feelings about each section are a little less "processed".  So, over the next few days I'll put them up, as I get time to do a little editing.

As always, just my thoughts, worth what you paid for them.  I don't include specific citations for much of what I claim.  If that was useful I guess I could probably assemble that for the last entry, so as not to distract from the flow of the rest.  Let me know if somehow that would be useful.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Joseph Smith Manual and the Ellipses--

This is just too good not to post.

From p511 of the JS manual:

“I … hold the keys of the last kingdom, in which is the dispensation of the fullness of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy Prophets since the world began, under the sealing power of the Melchizedek Priesthood.”

I was intrigued by those ellipses and decided to look up the actual quote from "History of the Church". Now, here's the actual quote in context:

"Shall I, who have witnessed the visions of eternity, and beheld the glorious mansions of bliss, and the regions and the misery of the damned,--shall I turn to be a Judas? Shall I, who have heard the voice of God, and communed with angels, and spake as moved by the Holy Ghost for the renewal of the everlasting covenant, and for the gathering of Israel in the last days,--shall I worm myself into a political hypocrite? Shall I, who hold the keys of the last kingdom, in which is the dispensation of the fullness of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy Prophets since the world began, under the sealing power of the Melchizedek Priesthood,--shall I stoop from the sublime authority of Almighty God, to be handled as a monkey's cat-paw, and pettify myself into a clown to act the farce of political demagoguery? No--verily no! The whole earth shall bear me witness that I, like the towering rock in the midst of the ocean, which has withstood the mighty surges of the warring waves for centuries, am impregnable, and am a faithful friend to virtue, and a fearless foe to vice,--no odds whether the former was sold as a pearl in Asia or hid as a gem in America, and the latter dazzles in palaces or glimmers among the tombs.

"I combat the errors of ages; I meet the violence of mobs; I cope with illegal proceedings from executive authority; I cut the guardian knot of powers. and I solve mathematical problems of universities, with truth--diamond truth; and God is my 'right hand man.'"

Now, the LDS church is to be commended for providing the citation, but can you imagine the full quote ever showing up in a talk or lesson? I don't know that it's totally different in the actual facts communicated than the original, but the tone is totally different.

I love the phrase at the end: "God is my 'right hand man'". I believe JS needed to keep his ego in a little better check. I provided links to both originals for the curious.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Toxicity --

There are some combinations of scriptures and correlated LDS materials that are unpredictably toxic for me, like mixing ammonia and chlorine bleach. Unfortunately I happened to hit one this morning.

This is I believe the key sequence of verses in the John passage:

Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." . . . Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. . . . . For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."

This whole section in John should fill anyone who has come to faith in Christ with an exuberant hope. The law is dead, along with the hundreds of commandments required to be reconciled to God. What remains is faith in Christ and throwing ourselves on his mercy for salvation. Not just eternal life at the end of our earth lives, but some measure of relief from our burdens in this life as well, as we come to Christ and seek to lay our cares at his feet, as we trade our imperfections for his perfection and our brokenness for his grace.

Then I had to go and read two sections in the Joseph Smith lesson manual back to back. Big mistake.

The first is a paean to Joseph Smith. This statement naturally caught my attention:
“[The Prophet was] incomparably the most God-like man I ever saw. … I know that by nature he was incapable of lying and deceitfulness, possessing the greatest kindness and nobility of character.”

Of course we know that the entire “restoration” was steeped in deceit about polygamy and many other things such as the reprisals the Saints executed in Far West, the existence of the Council of Fifty, and other things too numerous to mention.

The second was a paean to the entire “restoration” that brought back so many memories of what I used to believe about the LDS church.

For about six years my mother was the smartest person I knew, and the one I relied on for guidance. I thought she was perfect. I wondered how I could ever live my life without her wisdom and guiding hand. That feeling passed in my teenage years. She died in 2002, and I went through those horrible experiences in nursing homes, and finally in an ICU with her head shaved and without her being able to recognize me or anyone else.

I went through that experience once.

By contrast I loved the vision of the LDS church I had for over twenty years, during the formative days of young adulthood. I likewise thought it was perfect and wondered how I could ever live without it. That feeling passed when I used google to refresh my memory on the temple recommend questions and began to learn the truth that had been kept from me for so long. My grief from the death of my innocence about the LDS church was much worse than my grief over my mother. She was old, and it was time to go. By contrast the LDS church was almost my second bride. At times maybe my first, as I knew it would never fail me or desert me. I never cried over my mother. I cried repeatedly over the LDS church.

And often when I read things out of the correlated lessons or the Ensign, that grief comes back. Those visions of a shining city on a hill, those memories of those people dressed in white in the temple that I knew would look just like that in the Celestial Kingdom. It all comes back. Over and over again.

Today was a two Starbucks morning. I needed that much of a caffeine jolt to snap out of the pit of depression I was thrown into.

That, and the lyrics to the following songs from the “Glory Revealed II” album. They were a reminder to me that the true gospel turns us toward Christ and His Father and not towards fallible men and their equally fallible institutions. Placing our faith in Joseph Smith and the deceptions we are told about him now will always cause the world to come crashing down at our feet at some point or another. Only by placing our complete trust in Christ can we have any hope of real peace in this life or in the world to come.

Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord, oh my soul
I will praise the Lord as long as I live
I will sing praises to my God
Even with my dying breath

He is the One who made Heaven and Earth
The sea and everything in it
He is the One who keeps every promise forever
He gives justice to the oppressed
And sets the prisoner free

He is the One who feeds the hungry
And opens the eyes of the blind
He lifts up the burdens of those beneath heavy loads
The stranger, He protects

And the righteous one He loves
The Lord will reign forever
Our God is King to all generations
The Lord will reign forever Our God

We will praise the Lord, oh my soul
We will praise the Lord as long as we live
We will sing praises to our God
Even with our dying breath

And this one:

To You Be The Glory
Who could hold the wealth of god?
Such treasure found in him
Who could comprehend his heart and mind?
His wisdom has no end
For from him, through him, to him are all things
From him, through him, to him are all things

To you be the glory, forever
To you be the glory, lord, amen
To you be the glory, forever
To you be the glory, lord, amen

Verse 2:
Who has known the mind of god?
Who has counseled him?
Who has given gifts to god
That he might be repaid?
For from him, through him, to him are all things
From him, through him, to him are all things

To you be the glory, forever
To you be the glory, lord, amen
To you be the glory, forever
To you be the glory, lord, amen

In dark and light, in death and life
When hard times enter in
In all things we will worship you
With you there is no end

To you be the glory, forever
To you be the glory, lord, amen
To you be the glory, forever
To you be the glory, lord, amen
For from him, through him, to him are all things
From him, through him, to him are all things

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

More of the same --

Lesson 38 in the Joseph Smith manual reprints the Wentworth letter.

There were some good things about this lesson.

As near as I can figure they reprint the letter in its entirety and include familiar (yet unfamiliar, if people really consider the words) stories about Book of Mormon translation methods and other things. The footnotes point out that there are multiple versions of the first vision, and that this is not the canonical one found in the Pearl of Great Price.

The unfortunate thing that struck me about it, though, was Joseph Smith's description of the Missouri persecutions. Again he gives the impression that they were peaceful people just trying to live in harmony with their neighbors, who rose up against them out of misunderstandings. All the persecutions are made out to be one-sided, when the historical reality is quite different.

This article IMHO is quite a good summary, based on information I have read before:

I don't believe that every church class, lesson, or handbook has to present absolutely all the historical details, but I do believe that they should reflect the general tone of what took place. Positioning the mobbings that took place in Missouri and other places as unprovoked persecution is simply not true. It's deceptive, and harmful to people's testimonies when they discover that the LDS church has not been honest with them about its orgins, and that its leaders have not told the complete truth.

As in my previous post I have to ask the question, "why must Mormonism be shrouded in such deception?"

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Why Must Mormonism Be Steeped in Such Deception? --

I was just not going to do this. I was having a relaxed Sunday today and was trying to enjoy a positive Sabbath devoted to the things I believe in, rather than some kind of death spiral with the issues that depress me and make me angry.

I was reading what seemed like such a positive article about evangelical dialogue with Mormons in Christianity Today:

And then I just had to come across this statement:

"The LDS scriptures teach a plurality of gods (in the Book of Abraham, though Mormons reject the label polytheistic) and the millennial prospect that human saints will be "made equal with" God.

Smith asserted other radical beliefs in an 1844 discourse shortly before he was assassinated while running for U.S. President. He revealed "the great secret" that God the Father "was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man," and that humans will progress to "become Gods … the same as all Gods have done before you." His discourse was transcribed by four aides, published by the church, later included in its compilation of his teachings, and officially reaffirmed thereafter.

Mouw believes such thinking "has no functioning place in present-day Mormon doctrine," based on statements from Millet and church leaders. He also noted that in How Wide the Divide?, Robinson said these controversial beliefs are not official doctrine and were never incorporated into Mormon scriptures. But LDS officialdom has never repudiated Smith's tenets."

Now, Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary, and I have no reason to believe that he's either an idiot or has a hearing problem, so I have to take this statement at face value and assume that it's an accurate reflection of what Robert Millet and other "church leaders" have probably told him.

Now, anybody who has read the latest Joseph Smith manual and keeps up on General Conference talks and reads the Ensign knows that the idea that we have abandoned either the doctrine of exaltation or of God having once been a man is pure fantasy. This is doctrine that we may dissemble about in public ("I don't know that we teach that anymore"), but both are central elements of LDS theology, as much as many might wish that they would go away.

I just have to think about Elder Ballard's commencement address at BYU suggesting we don't practice polygamy and that the question should just go away (we do practice it and it won't go away), and it makes me wonder why Mormonism must always be steeped in such deception about its doctrines, history, and practices. This deception just seems so endemic to everything we communicate, whether it's Joseph Smith and his wives, General Authorities and their "living allowances" (i.e. their salaries as paid ministers), polygamy, the First Vision, Thomas B Marsh and the cream strippings myth, and I could just go on and on. The LDS church was deceptive about polygamy from the very beginning, until the 1850s, and is still deceptive about the extent of post-manifesto polygamy, which continued into the mid 20th century.

Why can't we just tell the truth? Why is it invariably those who are closest to us that are the most deceived? If God is truly behind this work, what is it we are so afraid of?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Redemption for the Dead, Part II

Tied to the previous lesson from the Joseph Smith manual, which I blogged about before, is lesson 36, “Receiving the Ordinances and Blessings of the Temple”:

Spending most of my time around biblical Christians these days there are some nuances on this subject that are not necessarily that meaningful to most Latter-day Saints. In some ways I was looking for specific things to be offended about and didn’t necessarily find those things, mostly because the lesson wasn’t that specific about them. It tends to refer to “ordinances of salvation” with sort of a broad brush, without being specific about what ordinances might be involved in specific aspects of salvation.

For me, even when I was a believing Latter-day Saint, there were nuances to this subject because of all the various kingdoms involved. From the LDS view “salvation” could be a range of things from just being in “Heaven” to becoming a king and priest unto the most high God to achieving “exaltation”, i.e. godhood. My viewpoint was always that salvation was sort of a graded event with a number of different possible outcomes, depending on worthiness, ordinances, and ultimately what kind of place your faith would lead you to want to spend time and all eternity.

Well, the lesson doesn’t really get into that and just isn’t very specific in that way. Probably representative statements are these:

““The question is frequently asked, ‘Can we not be saved without going through with all those ordinances, etc.?’ I would answer, No, not the fullness of salvation. Jesus said, ‘There are many mansions in my Father’s house, and I will go and prepare a place for you.’ [See John 14:2.] House here named should have been translated kingdom; and any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a celestial law, and the whole law too.”15

“All men who become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ will have to receive the fulness of the ordinances of his kingdom; and those who will not receive all the ordinances will come short of the fulness of that glory.”16

So clearly to receive the fullness of salvation all the ordinances must be received, which I think we can reasonably assume to mean temple marriage.

So I think any cathartic goal I might have had to rip this lesson to shreds in that way is just going to be frustrated.

I will comment on a few things I found just plain wrong about this lesson, possibly more because of misleading impressions it might give than what it might actually say.

This statement would be my poster child:

“In March 1844, the Prophet met with the Twelve and the Nauvoo Temple committee to discuss how to allocate the Church’s meager resources. In this meeting, the Prophet said: “We need the temple more than anything else.” "

You can probably twist this statement different ways, but fundamentally what it says is not true.

We do not need the temple more than anything else. We need the blessings of the atonement more than anything else.

You might say that the temple is the place we go to get the fullness of those blessings, but this obsessive focus on the temple itself encourages an unhealthy idolatry. It causes us to think about the mechanics. The building, the hoops you have to jump through to get a temple recommend, your personal “worthiness”, the authority of the person who signs the recommend who functionally stands between you and eternal life if you can’t convince them you’re worthy, etc.

To the extent that temple ordinances have any actual impact on our eternal life, the miracle and power behind those ordinances is what Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, and there is simply no other responsible way to present this subject.

There was one quote from the lesson I thought verged on the bizarre:

“If a man gets a fulness of the priesthood of God, he has to get it in the same way that Jesus Christ obtained it, and that was by keeping all the commandments and obeying all the ordinances of the house of the Lord. … “

I find any number of things to be offensive about this statement. It’s odd in general to think of the great God who created heaven and earth, who spoke and brought the known universes into existence, having to be evaluated by some kind of scorecard, just like we are, and having to receive ordinances, I assume directly from the hand of God the Father, as there was nobody else to administer them. I’m somehow imagining God the Father dressed in a white polyester suit standing behind an altar and pushing buttons to roll the film, while Jesus Christ has a little slip of paper pinned to his robe with his name on it. Then I start to think about having to stand in the prayer circle, I assume with Heavenly Mother, and it goes downhill from there.

Probably the thing that is most offensive is that this idea, conceptually similar to the King Follett sermon, brings Christ down to our level. He has to follow the same rules and system we do, which at the same time diminishes the glory and authority of Christ and exalts the scorecard, the ordinances, and the “rules” we have to follow for eternal progression.

I reject both ideas.

Christ is incomparably holy. He defines holiness and perfection. And the “system” we have established for salvation in the LDS church in the latter days is a fraud. Man is created as an imperfect being for reasons we don’t totally understand, and we achieve eternal life through faith and the merits of the Christ and not primarily through our own efforts or ordinances administered by fallible human beings. The New Testament and Book of Mormon are crystal-clear on this. I don’t understand why the LDS church has chosen to twist the foundational scriptures in this way.

In general the problem with lessons like this is not the underlying doctrine or practice, with some obvious exceptions. I think it would be totally possible to present this subject in a balanced way that gave glory to God, reinforced the principles of salvation by faith through the merits of Christ, and helped people to appreciate the power of Joseph Smith’s words and the beauty of the ordinances. Instead the brains behind this lesson choose to reinforce the authority of LDS church leaders and to twist this doctrine and these practices into some kind of weird para-Christian cult, and I find this perpetually disappointing.
Why do I do this? --

As time goes on I find myself drifting out of the "evaluation" phase of my disaffection with the LDS church and into the advocacy phase. Before we were kind of studying all this out together to try and figure it out. Now I have basically made my decision and am trying to point out things to help clarify other people's thinking.


To destroy the church or something similar? Not at all. I have no hope whatsoever of influencing the institutional LDS church. I might, however, help alleviate some of the cognitive dissonance people unconsciously feel as they experience the disconnect between doctrine and practice. I think being able to see it for what it is helps people process it in healthier ways.

Another point my wife made is that there are a lot of people trying to deconstruct the LDS church based on historical or cultural issues. There aren't many people out there deconstructing it from the inside based on doctrinal issues, because most people who get to this point just hang up their cleats and leave. So maybe it's useful to approach the LDS church from the truly believing perspective of someone who has actually studied the scriptures, believes them to be generally true, and wants the LDS church to be consistent with what should be its own teachings.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Latter-day Saint Ethical Life

A link to this showed up in my inbox this morning.

I thought it was interesting that several LDS general authorities were quoted, and quotes like this:

"Latter-day Saint ethical life requires members to treat their neighbors with respect, regardless of the situation."

attempt to inspire behavior based on church membership.

Nowhere was Christ quoted, from either the Book of Mormon or the Bible. So, who is our authority in the LDS church? What is our primary allegiance? To the institutional church, or to Christ? Pointing people to Thomas Monson and "the Church" just doesn't have the power of pointing them to Christ and the cross.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Redemption for the Dead –

Having spent the summer re-reading the Book of Mormon and a loooong book on Systematic Theology from the Reformed viewpoint, I find myself getting caught up on lessons from the priesthood manual. Haven’t been to my ward since May, but I’m still committed to staying up on the priesthood lessons and the Ensign, so long as my name is still on the record books. Some apostate I am, but I digress.

This morning I made my second trip through lesson 35 in the Joseph Smith manual, entitled “Redemption for the Dead”:

This is an important subject for me. The arbitrariness of one person being saved forever in Heaven because they said a little prayer, while some equally good or evil person being damned because they failed to say a little prayer, is one of the things that drew me to the LDS church in the first place. I found the doctrine to be systematic, consistent, and fair (at least according to my logic).

This is going to be a yin/yang post, so don’t judge the content until you’ve read to the end. I both liked this lesson and hated it for various reasons, so I guess this will perpetuate both the love affair I’ve always had with the LDS church as well as the current road to apostasy, leading straight to Hell, that I’m currently on.

First the carrot.

In general the principles actually articulated in this lesson come closest to what I actually doctrinally believe. I’ve studied this subject and don’t believe that God will arbitrarily condemn some people to a fiery Hell, where the wicked are continually burning but never consumed, because of an accident of birth or circumstance. Joseph Smith says this much better than I do.

“The idea that some men form of the justice, judgment, and mercy of God, is too foolish for an intelligent man to think of: for instance, it is common for many of our orthodox preachers to suppose that if a man is not what they call converted, if he dies in that state he must remain eternally in Hell without any hope. Infinite years in torment must he spend, and never, never, never have an end; and yet this eternal misery is made frequently to rest upon the merest casualty [chance]. The breaking of a shoe-string, the tearing of a coat of those officiating, or the peculiar location in which a person lives, may be the means, indirectly, of his damnation, or the cause of his not being saved.

“I will suppose a case which is not extraordinary: Two men, who have been equally wicked, who have neglected religion, are both of them taken sick at the same time; one of them has the good fortune to be visited by a praying man, and he gets converted a few minutes before he dies; the other sends for three different praying men, a tailor, a shoemaker, and a tinman; the tinman has a handle to solder to a pan, the tailor has a button-hole to work on some coat that he needed in a hurry, and the shoemaker has a patch to put on somebody’s boot; they none of them can go in time, the man dies, and goes to hell: one of these is exalted to Abraham’s bosom, he sits down in the presence of God and enjoys eternal, uninterrupted happiness, while the other, equally as good as he, sinks to eternal damnation, irretrievable misery and hopeless despair, because a man had a boot to mend, the button-hole of a coat to work, or a handle to solder on to a saucepan.

“The plans of Jehovah are not so unjust, the statements of holy writ so [illusory], nor the plan of salvation for the human family so incompatible with common sense; at such proceedings God would frown with indignance, angels would hide their heads in shame, and every virtuous, intelligent man would recoil.

“If human laws award to each man his deserts, and punish all delinquents according to their several crimes, surely the Lord will not be more cruel than man, for He is a wise legislator, and His laws are more equitable, His enactments more just, and His decisions more perfect than those of man; and as man judges his fellow man by law, and punishes him according to the penalty of the law, so does God of Heaven judge ‘according to the deeds done in the body.’ [See Alma 5:15.] To say that the heathens would be damned because they did not believe the Gospel would be preposterous, and to say that the Jews would all be damned that do not believe in Jesus would be equally absurd; for ‘how can they believe on him of whom they have not heard, and how can they hear without a preacher, and how can he preach except he be sent’ [see Romans 10:14–15]; consequently neither Jew nor heathen can be culpable for rejecting the conflicting opinions of sectarianism, nor for rejecting any testimony but that which is sent of God, for as the preacher cannot preach except he be sent, so the hearer cannot believe [except] he hear a ‘sent’ preacher, and cannot be condemned for what he has not heard, and being without law, will have to be judged without law.”10

End quote.

Having studied 1 Peter several times, and also having read non-LDS analyses of it, I generally agree with his reading of it:

“Peter, also, in speaking concerning our Savior, says, that ‘He went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which sometimes were disobedient, when once the long suffering of God waited in the days of Noah’ (1 Peter 3:19, 20). Here then we have an account of our Savior preaching to the spirits in prison, to spirits that had been imprisoned from the days of Noah; and what did He preach to them? That they were to stay there? Certainly not! Let His own declaration testify. ‘He hath sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.’ (Luke 4:18.) Isaiah has it—‘To bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness from the prison house.’ (Isaiah 42:7.) It is very evident from this that He not only went to preach to them, but to deliver, or bring them out of the prison house. … “

Whether actually scripture or not, I’ve always found the answer to Joseph F. Smith’s heartfelt prayer to be extremely compelling:

When I think of the God who created the heavens and the wonderful earth we live on, with man as his crowning creation, I just can’t believe people would be arbitrarily condemned based on an accident of circumstance. That they happened to be born in China or Saudi Arabia, or in post-Christian Europe for that matter. I have to believe that, if people are really saved or condemned based on accepting Christ, they will get a fair chance to hear the gospel preached and either accept it or reject it, in this life or the next. If we can take John 3:3 – 5 literally and that the ordinance of baptism is really required to go to Heaven, that all will somehow get a fair chance to receive that ordinance.

OK, thus ends the carrot.

If you’re a true-believing Mormon and feel pretty good about Joseph Smith and what the institutional church is teaching, this would be a good time to brew up a cup of Postum and review the First Presidency message for this month and maybe skip the rest of this.

The stick.

Having read through this lesson in the Joseph Smith manual and feeling pretty good about what Joseph Smith taught, this is not what we currently teach as the doctrine of salvation. We do not teach that people are saved merely by baptism, as the Joseph Smith manual suggests.
See a previous blog post on this subject:

Current teaching of the LDS apostles is that salvation/exaltation is only achieved through the ordinance of temple marriage, which is not what this lesson from the Joseph Smith manual teaches.

There are a number of things that bother me about this.

First, I’m comfortable believing in baptism as the gateway to Heaven, because Jesus taught that and the Book of Mormon teaches it. This is a salvation based on faith, receiving a simple ordinance as the public expression of that faith.

I just can’t believe in salvation based on temple marriage, because there are too many hoops for people to jump through to qualify for it. Not only being able to pass a temple recommend interview, which is almost completely works-based, but having to pass an interview conducted by two fallible human beings who I will not accept as the gatekeepers to Heaven.

Possibly the main thing that specifically bothers me about this lesson in the Joseph Smith manual is that it does not teach doctrine that’s consistent with what the apostles are teaching. It teaches a warm fuzzy doctrine of inclusion that is at odds with the stark doctrine of salvation for the very few who can qualify for a temple marriage. At its best it’s inconsistent. At its worst its intentionally deceptive, again hiding the true doctrine we actually preach that is going to make many members of the LDS church uncomfortable and most non-LDS Christians angry.
If people are really going roast in Hell without a temple marriage, do us a favor and tell us that and don’t tell us heartwarming stories about Alvin Smith being baptized by proxy, as though baptism would actually do us any good.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Elder Ballard on Defensiveness --

I read a talk by Elder M. Russell Ballard lately that I wanted to comment on. Some of the turning points in my faith of late are coming not because of the historical details surrounding the LDS church’s founding, but because of things the current leaders are saying. In order to be a Latter-day Saint in good standing I’m supposed to believe these men are prophets, seers, and revelators. Often they fall far short of that mark.

The talk:

This talk is certainly not all bad, but I think there are elements of it that completely exemplify my “issues” with the LDS church and its leaders.

This is a BYU commencement address and not just one of the usual firesides. Of all the things he could have spoken about on such an important day, the thrust of this address is on telling the graduates how to promote the LDS church. Even on their special day, it’s not about them. It’s about how they can be of better use to the LDS church.

Although this talk is about not being defensive, the way he frames the discussion is incredibly defensive.

A quote: “First suggestion: Don’t let irrelevant issues drown out the more important subjects.”

Who gets to decide what issues are irrelevant? This is just an excuse for avoiding subjects we don’t want to talk about because they’re difficult.

On polygamy:

“An example is polygamy. This ended in the Church as an official practice in 1890. It’s now 2009. Why are we still talking about it? It was a practice. It ended. We moved on. If people ask you about polygamy, just acknowledge it was once a practice but not now, and that people shouldn’t confuse any polygamists with our Church.”

We’re still talking about it because it was an unusual practice that attracts people’s curiosity, and it’s relevant because it’s still part of our doctrine. It didn’t end in 1890. It hasn’t ended now.

Surely he knows that polygamy persisted unofficially within the church for decades after 1890. Even some of the apostles continued to practice it after that. What he says is factually correct because of the word "official", but it's intentionally misleading.

Polygamy is still officially practiced in the temple in the way sealings to deceased spouses are performed. Two apostles are eternally married to both deceased wives and current wives, and expect to be from now until the end of time. That’s polygamy. They’re polygamists. Perhaps not in the “here and now” legal definition, but from the eternal viewpoint and in their viewpoint they are polygamists. Otherwise why be sealed to a second wife? Marry her for time only instead.

In his discussion about why people might be defensive he places the blame on others outside the LDS church for their reaction to the church and its message, without acknowledging any possible responsibility or provocation on the part of the LDS church or its leaders. Or likewise anything unusual about the events themselves.

He promotes cognitive dissonance by suggesting that members of the LDS church are defensive out of an unreasonable fear of religious persecution, when really they’re defensive because the claims of the church are fantastic and many of its practices what many would consider extremely out of the ordinary. It’s not that the church is misunderstood. It’s very well understood. It’s that most people consider it weird and unusual and its actual practices and beliefs have been shrouded in deception from the beginning.

People are not defensive because they think we're outnumbered. They're defensive because we belong to a church that was restored through an angel presenting golden plates to a man who translated them by looking at a rock in a hat. 99% of the people on the planet are going to see that as just plain weird, and especially when you learn some of the actual history it's hard not to be defensive when all the historical facts just don't add up to what you have been taught. If they want people to quit being defensive the apostles themselves need to take on the issues and explain them satisfactorily and not just skirt around the difficult facts, while at the same time criticizing us for being "defensive".

Comparing the content of the Joseph Smith movie to even what was taught in the church in the 1990s shows that the apostles are just as defensive as we are. They're not going to talk about polygamy. They're not going to talk about Joseph Smith and Hyrum having pistols and firing back at the mob. They're not going to talk about the battle of Crooked River, where the saints fired on a unit of the Missouri State Militia, provoking the extermination order. They're not going to talk about the Salt Sermon, the Council of Fifty, Blood Atonement, the Adam-God doctrine, 20th century apostles' often outrageous statements on race, or dozens of other issues. And at the same time they are going to criticize us for being defensive.

Other examples of "defensiveness".

Gordon B Hinckley’s response to a question by Larry King some years ago, about the doctrine that God was once a man: "I don't know that we teach that anymore". That doctrine still shows up in lesson manuals and continues to show up in conference talks and in the Ensign. He knew perfectly well we still teach it, but didn’t want to discuss it.

The regret recently expressed by the First Presidency about the Mountain Meadows Massacre was not the apology some might have expected. Even though church leaders were at least involved in the cover up of the incident, if not in the planning itself, the LDS church continues to use lawyer talk to avoid any appearance of responsibility in it. They express “regret”, but stop short of anything that might be considered acceptance of responsibility in a courtroom.

The character assassination of Thomas B Marsh and others who left the early church over matters of principle, and not character flaws as we usually teach.

When was the last time a president of the church was interviewed by a journalist in a meaningful way where the issues were engaged? When was the last time you read a report of Thomas S Monson being interviewed the way Gordon B Hinckley was, or participating in any threatening event other than a temple dedication surrounded by the adoring masses? When do you see LDS apostles going out in public and speaking to crowds of non-members? Perhaps offering to address the Southern Baptist Convention with an explanation of why the LDS church is Christian? Renting an auditorium and opening it up to all comers for a discourse on why Joseph Smith can be considered a true prophet of God?

Somehow the Old Testament story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal comes to mind.

The apostles stick to safe situations like stake conferences and large gatherings of members and don’t expose themselves to hostile crowds, or in general to people with hard questions. They invite us to do that instead.

Another defensive quote from Elder Ballard’s talk:

“When all is said and done, the most important thing about you and your testimony is that you base your beliefs on what Jesus Christ taught, and you try to follow Him by living your life in a way acceptable to our Heavenly Father and to the Lord. “ . . . “They are His commandments, and no one is authorized to change them except by direct revelation to God’s chosen prophet.” . . . “We follow Jesus Christ’s doctrine of striving to live the Word of Wisdom,”

He doesn't get into other specifics, but you can already begin to follow this line of reasoning, that every teaching of the church is "following the teachings of Jesus" because the church is led by Christ and a prophet said it. Saying we "follow the teachings of Jesus" is tremendously deceptive, because probably four million people on Earth in total really believe that logic applies to the Word of Wisdom, or many of the other distinctive things we define as teachings of Christ not accepted by the rest of the Christian world. This is an example of deceptively using a term or concept that you have redefined, without expressing the fact that you have intentionally redefined it to mean something different than the person you are talking to understands it to mean. Like earnestly saying we support the marriage of one man and one woman, while at the same time we have two apostles sealed to multiple women. Of course the church still practices polygamy. We just twist the definition so it appears to mean we have renounced it, when really it is still an integral part of our doctrine.

Looking at his examples of “true doctrine”, an even worse problem is that he lists four examples of core teachings of the church, and nowhere is salvation through faith in Christ mentioned. What he talks about are behavioral practices that are part of Christian ethics and not the kind of saving faith required by the actual gospel of Jesus Christ. The most important doctrine is collected under item 5 as just one of the generic first principles of the gospel, which ironically he actually mentions last.

I initially read this talk a couple of weeks ago and found it to be infuriating, because I thought he was encouraging people to be deceptive in the way they presented the church to others. I felt this talk itself was deceptive and harmful because it “blamed the victims”. Us. The people who aren’t surrounded by faithful church members all the time and actually have to explain these things to people. Those of us who don’t have the luxury of hiding behind professional PR staff or speaking from a pulpit where we can carefully shade the meanings of our words and delicately step around things that are uncomfortable.

After some time I came to appreciate that his approach is less intentionally deceptive than it is a reflection of a mindset that infects the members of the LDS church from top to bottom. That mindset is an internal mental compass that steers the thoughts away from unpleasant subjects and towards more positive and uplifting ones. It’s an internal defense mechanism that allows people to be satisfied in the LDS church and to avoid the anger and frustration that plague many of the rest of us. I believe that people in his position don’t even see the issues that make the rest of us defensive. Their mental filtering mechanism tags them as unimportant and their thoughts just don’t even rest there. Plus having been an LDS church leader for so many years he has pre-programmed responses to thousands of questions and issues that no longer even require thought. Just push the appropriate mental button and roll the tape.

To be fair there were some good things about this talk.

The LDS Newsroom quotes about “Big Love” are good ones and promote a positive reaction to questions about the show.

His points about the Mountain Meadows movie itself were likewise good ones. However, the church’s response to the disaster itself has been defensive, as previously discussed.

This is a very nice talk. With some exceptions I think Elder Ballard is probably a nice person. I think he exemplifies the subject he is addressing, though, and causes harm by pushing the blame on a) people with serious and inconvenient questions about the church, and b) people who in my view are more objective and not able to block the serious flaws in the LDS church, its leaders, and its history out of their minds when trying to honestly discuss it with others. Much of the blame for this situation rests with him and his contemporaries, and he accepts none of it.
Explaining the Hiatus --

I have been on kind of a hiatus for awhile, because I wanted to spend the summer re-reading the Book of Mormon and trying to collect my thoughts about the LDS church. A Protestant church I've been attending quite often is having a membership class in October (was supposed to be in September, hence the summer "Book of Mormon Challenge") and I wanted to re-read the Book of Mormon and get my thoughts and emotions together in case this class turned into a decision point for me. Not so much on leaving the LDS church, because I don't intend to do that for various reasons I could elaborate on if anybody cared. The decision point would be formally affiliating with another church and actually joining it so I could be of more value and accept more responsibility.

Anyway, the summer is over, the BoM challenge is over, and as time goes on I'll begin to post my thoughts and conclusions on some things. Rather than just posting a lot of sarcastic comments about current events in the church I feel it's more useful to post my reactions to official material from the church itself that are not open to challenge. i.e. you can challenge the history behind the first vision accounts, but you can't challenge what Russell M Nelson said about marriage, what M. Russell Ballard said about defensiveness, or the text of the Book of Mormon itself. There are lots of people out there ranting about LDS church history, but few people directly critique the official sources themselves, either out of faith or apathy. Alas I have neither, and most of my issues are with the church leaders themselves and not with the major doctrines that have been taught in the past.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jacob and Enos: What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?--

This posting is a little out of order. Although I haven't blogged much lately it's because I've been reading and writing a lot. I want to collect and polish some of what I've written before I put it out here, because my understanding of a lot of things are still evolving and are still kind of unorganized.

I just had one thing I wanted to comment on, though.

This morning I was reading the tail end of Jacob and the Book of Enos in the Book of Mormon. Here they are for your convenience:

The Book of Enos especially is a wonderful story of faith.

In V3 he testifies of the preaching of his father that has sunk deeply into his soul, which is a concept that warms a father's heart. He agonizes because of his sins, is overcome, and prays all day long, and receives the witness that all people of faith long for, that his sins are forgiven because of his faith in Christ. "My guilt was swept away", as he says. The Lord tells him, "thy faith has made thee whole". Whole, as in complete, like a restored automobile where the damaged parts have been removed, repaired, and replaced. He's not just forgiven, he's completely restored.

He goes on to testify of his longing for the salvation of his estranged cousins the Lamanites. He almost shrugs off the complete destruction of his own people, but his heart aches for the lost Lamanites and prays that in some way the sad story of his own people might save his cousins.

His short story finishes with one of the most eloquent testimonies of Christ in all of scripture:

I just think these last two verses are the equal of anything Paul wrote.

Now for the point of this post.

I really want to read these passages from two entirely different mindsets.

On one hand, the depth of Jacob and Enos's understanding of the new covenant with Christ is truly astonishing. Their brethren in Jerusalem are still slaughtering bulls and goats and have no remote idea of the mission of Jesus Christ, yet Jacob and Enos might as well have Romans and Hebrews opened up right in front of them. They have already moved beyond the sacrificial law of Moses and understand salvation by faith through the atonement of Christ as well as any 19th century Baptist preacher standing in the pulpit.

It's tempting to wonder whether a) Jacob and Enos were that much more highly favored of the Lord, compared to the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and others whose published writings only give the barest hints of this, b) maybe these things were clearly taught among the Israelites and are among the plain and precious things lost from the scriptures, c) whether the Lord was clearly working through Joseph Smith to preserve and reinforce these critical teachings by including them in the Book of Mormon, or d) whether Joseph Smith was clearly restating the themes of contemporary evangelical preachers for motives we can only guess at in our day.

It's difficult to read these sections and not wonder why the theology seems several hundred years ahead of its time.

On the other hand . . . .

It's also tempting (at least for the evangelical Christian in me) to set aside all this logical analysis and to just read the words and glory in the story being told, to empathisize with Enos as he wrestles with his sinful nature, and to rejoice with him as the chains of sin fall away and the hope of new life enters in. What a blessing to share with him the feelings of peace and rest and complete faith in Christ, his Redeemer, as his only hope of salvation from the winds of earthly cares in this life and redemption in the life to come.

So I think I'll do that. Obviously today is the day for the analytical mind. Tomorrow I'll turn off the monitor, put away the notebook, and just share Enos's story with him.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Joseph Smith manual on persecution.

As usual the most damning writings about the church come from the official sources. The lesson manual talks about Liberty Jail and other “persecutions” coming because of the saints’ religious beliefs and ignores some of their own acts and statements, like Sidney Rigdon’s “Salt Sermon”, that contributed to their being attacked.

For example, a quote from Joseph Smith himself:

“Our religious principles are before the world ready for the investigation of all men, yet we are aware that all the persecution against our friends has arisen in consequence of calumnies [false charges] and misconstructions without foundation in truth and righteousness. This we have endured in common with all other religious societies at their first commencement.”

But, what about polygamy, which was practiced in secret until the 1850s, what about the attacks on non-Mormon settlers, etc? The thing that actually precipitated the Saints being run out of Far West is that in the Battle of Crooked River, where David Patten was killed, they actually engaged a unit of the Missouri State militia:

Regardless of what the facts might have been, the Missourians perceived the Mormons as a threat and reacted accordingly, for reasons having nothing to do with their religious beliefs.

These things in no way justify what was done to the Saints in Far West, but the actual history is not as black/white as the lesson manual says it is. And why do we need to devote an entire chapter to persecution? In what circumstances are members actually persecuted in this day and age, and why would we encourage people to view things that happen to them in this way, as black/white attacks on them because of their religion, as opposed to a more thoughtful analysis of the situation? Mormons are often singled out, but it has more to do with our strange and exclusive behavior than it does our religious beliefs. For example, I was told a story by a member who was invited out to a bar with co-workers and declined, but offered to bring his family to the inviter’s home instead. There is nothing in our religious beliefs that would prohibit going to a work function in a bar. Replying to a fairly non-threatening social engagement with an offer to bring your entire family to someone’s home, where you have to clean up, entertain, maybe have one on one conversation about subjects that are more personal than a work event, have the person’s large family ranging through a possibly childless home, etc, is just unusual.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

1 Ne 8 - 11
These are big chapters in the Book of Mormon. Lehi's vision (which is amazingly similar to a vision received by Joseph Smith Senior), and the Cliff's notes version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ revealed to Nephi.

I'm certainly not going to post about this every day, but it's interesting to consider the "feel" of the Book of Mormon, just starting out. It's a little jarring to ping between General Conference, which focuses so much on modern prophets and micro-organizing our personal behavior, and the Book of Mormon, which is ultimately about our personal relationship with God and how we respond to him. Do we turn towards God, repent, and keep the commandments, or do we go our own way?

These four chapters are vintage "restoration" chapters. Not about the restoration of priesthood authority, as we like to spin it today, but they center on God talking to man through the spirit and through the visitations and teaching of angels. The initial missionary message of the church was on God speaking to man again, the heavens being opened, and the advent of visions and angelic visitations, and we get all that here. God talks directly to Nephi and Lehi with a message of salvation and the big-picture themes of the gospel. He's not concerned with authority, empowering institutions, how many times a day we pray and what language we use, paying tithing, looking at pornography on the emerging metal plate technology, or the wearing of modest animal skins and tunics. The global scope of this whole thing are communicated, and then they can figure out the small stuff on their own.

It's also interesting to consider the clarity with which Nephi is instructed relative to John the Baptist, Mary, and the details of the life of Jesus. It's like, once again, the Cliff's Notes version of Matthew. We get bits and pieces of this in Isaiah and Jeremiah, but nothing like this.

Does that mean Joseph Smith made it up? Does that mean he was inspired to record this as confirmation of the biblical account? Does that mean there really was a guy named Nephi who really had these visions? If so, why don't we get this clarity in the Old Testament? Were the accounts really corrupted in transmission? Interesting to think about.

It's really enlightening to read the Book of Mormon this way, because these are themes I can relate to that I think really do work together with the Bible to increase faith. I still don't think the modern LDS church really presents the gospel this way anymore. Sad, because it's the one I want.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

1 Ne 4 - 7. More interesting themes. So far the message is basic. God commands, through dreams, visions, and the appearance of angels, and Lehi and his family, and by extension the rest of us are to obey. Cut and dried. Over and over again the text reinforces the importance of keeping the commandments, keeping the commandments, without being that specific what they are. In this situation it's specific things like leaving Jerusalem and returning to perform specific errands, like retrieving the plates and Ishmael and his family. Duties are performed that move the drama along. In this day and time, though, it's less specific. Angels didn't appear to us and direct us to go to some city and perform some function. It's more general day-to-day stuff related to our micro-behavior. Read your scriptures, pray, pay tithing, keep yourself morally clean, etc.

It's interesting how the drama of Laban and the plates plays out. Nephi and his brothers are basically commanded to go to Laban and get the plates, either through convincing or direct purchase, and when that doesn't work, to murder him, take the plates, and kidnap his servant. It plays out this way in the Old Testament sometimes, as in the conquest of Canaan, but as often as not the person is convinced to yield to what the Lord wants.

Again, people are given inspiration to perform specific things, but not as much to just set themselves up as authority figures and run institutions.

Friday, May 22, 2009

I sped read the 1st three chapters of the Book of Mormon this morning, and some things jumped out.

The Book of Mormon, at least this part, very much follows Old Testament themes of God speaking to a willing individual with a message of repentance for society at large. God has a message, people aren’t listening in general, and he finds someone who will to deliver a message of repentance and warning of the consequences if they don’t. There’s nothing special about Lehi, other than he’ll listen and obey. The importance of obedience to God is paramount. Nephi hears what he says and is obedient to both God and his father’s promptings.

Ultimately God has a big message to deliver through Lehi, and it has nothing to do with starting and running an institution. It’s wholly about the relationship of Lehi and those around him with God. Lehi is not empowered to administer anything or to tell people what to do at the micro level. God has already done that. It’s not as much about “follow the prophet” as it is about following what God has already said. If anyone is empowered to be a ruler, it’s Nephi, who is empowered to be a ruler over his brothers because he’s faithful in keeping the commandments.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"What must I do to be saved?";&version=31;

As the jailer asked this question above, so should we. Over the last couple of days I was confused by the apparent discrepancy in a couple of general conference talks, so I thought I would do a little research into what the LDS church teaches. Then we can compare the conference talks.

First the basics, from True to the Faith. This manual is ostensibly a youth publication, but it's the most accessible collection of doctrinal descriptions available. It doesn't provide links to the invidual topic headers, just to the entire manual:

I'll provide the topic header, followed by the entry.


"In the scriptures, the word heaven is used in two basic ways. First, it refers to the place where God lives, which is the ultimate home of the faithful (see Mosiah 2:41). Second, it refers to the expanse around the earth (see Genesis 1:1)."

Kingdoms of Glory (excerpts)

"The celestial kingdom is the highest of the three kingdoms
of glory. Those in this kingdom will dwell forever in
the presence of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
The celestial kingdom is the place prepared for those
who have “received the testimony of Jesus” and been “made
perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who
wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of
his own blood” (D&C 76:51, 69). To inherit this gift, we must
receive the ordinances of salvation, keep the commandments,
and repent of our sins."
"From another revelation to the Prophet Joseph, we learn
that there are three degrees within the celestial kingdom.
To be exalted in the highest degree and continue eternally in
family relationships, we must enter into “the new and everlasting
covenant of marriage” and be true to that covenant. In
other words, temple marriage is a requirement for obtaining
the highest degree of celestial glory."

From the descriptions above, it seems clear to me that what non-LDS Christians refer to as "heaven" is what LDS refer to as the "Celestial Kingdom", the place where God lives. The highest level is accessed as a result of exaltation through temple marriage.

How do we achieve this place? From the Kingdoms of Glory entry:

"The glory you inherit will depend on the depth of your conversion,
expressed by your obedience to the Lord’s commandments.
It will depend on the manner in which you have “received the
testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:51; see also verses 74, 79, 101)."

From the Salvation entry:

"Eternal Life, or Exaltation. In the scriptures, the words
saved and salvation often refer to eternal life, or exaltation (see
Abraham 2:11). Eternal life is to know Heavenly Father and
Jesus Christ and dwell with Them forever—to inherit a place
in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom (see John 17:3;
D&C 131:1–4; 132:21–24). To receive this great gift, we must
do more than repent of our sins and be baptized and
confirmed by appropriate priesthood authority. Men must
receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, and all Church members
must make and keep sacred covenants in the temple,
including eternal marriage."

OK, with all that background out of the way, let's get into the actual conference talks, the words of the living prophets.

The first talk is a classic, the one that finally convinced me that I could no longer be a fully believing member of the LDS church.,5232,23-1-947-28,00.html

It has so many issues it deserves a separate post, but let's just examine what Russell Nelson has to say about salvation:

"While salvation is an individual matter, exaltation is a family matter.5 Only those who are married in the temple and whose marriage is sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise will continue as spouses after death6 and receive the highest degree of celestial glory, or exaltation. A temple marriage is also called a celestial marriage. Within the celestial glory are three levels. To obtain the highest, a husband and wife must be sealed for time and all eternity and keep their covenants made in a holy temple.7"

“In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshipped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny as heirs of eternal life. [Heavenly Father’s great] plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.”

"Our Heavenly Father declared, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”
20 The Atonement of His Beloved Son enabled both of these objectives to be realized. Because of the Atonement, immortality—or resurrection from the dead—became a reality for all.21 And because of the Atonement, eternal life—which is living forever in God’s presence, the “greatest of all the gifts of God”22—became a possibility. To qualify for eternal life, we must make an eternal and everlasting covenant with our Heavenly Father.23 This means that a temple marriage is not only between husband and wife; it embraces a partnership with God.24"


Now, here's a talk by Elder D. Todd Christofferson,5232,23-1-1032-6,00.html

"We enter into covenants by priesthood ordinances, sacred rituals that God has ordained for us to manifest our commitment. Our foundational covenant, for example, the one in which we first pledge our willingness to take upon us the name of Christ, is confirmed by the ordinance of baptism. It is done individually, by name. By this ordinance, we become part of the covenant people of the Lord and heirs of the celestial kingdom of God."

"Other sacred ordinances are performed in temples built for that very purpose. If we are faithful to the covenants made there, we become inheritors not only of the celestial kingdom but of exaltation, the highest glory within the heavenly kingdom, and we obtain all the divine possibilities God can give (see
D&C 132:20)."

So, what do we actually need to do to return to the presence of God? After reading these sources I'll admit to still being confused.

Elder Christofferson and the True to the Faith entry on the celestial kingdom represent my traditional understanding and what I have been taught in church before, that baptism is the gateway to the celestial kingdom, which is the dwelling place of God. i.e. Heaven.

The "Salvation" entry in True to the Faith seems to agree with what Russell Nelson has to say, that really to return to God's presence, temple marriage is required.

Why does this really make a difference? I think it gives us some insight into the character of God. Bruce R McConkie gave a talk entitled "The Seven Deadly Heresies" that I won't attempt to excerpt:

in which he's pretty clear that you don't get a second chance to accept in the spirit world what you rejected in this world.

My take on this is that if you rejected the LDS missionaries in this world with a clear understanding of what they were preaching, the door to the "celestial kingdom" is forever closed to you.

Even worse, if you were a baptised member of the LDS church and either rejected initially or at some time accepted and then rejected the higher level of testimony and commitment required to qualify for a temple recommend, the higher level is closed to you as well.

So, if Russell Nelson is to be believed, in order actually live with God forever, i.e. to be "saved", I have to sustain him and the other apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators and accept what they describe as the "restored gospel", which is primarily the exclusive authority claims of the church. I have to do that in spite of all the contradictory evidence about the First Vision, priesthood restoration dates, conflicting claims from the witnesses to the gold plates, concerns about the abuses of polygamy, etc.

Based on these hurdles, heaven doesn't seem like it will contain many people, nor does it seem like a set of criteria put in place by a God who loves his children and wants as many as possible to come back. All in all I hope Paul is right instead.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail", or "How God and modern prophets teach us of his unfailing love and lesson manual writers take it away"--

Today I studied this lesson:

If I do say so myself it’s a letter perfect example of why I’m going through this, because what the lesson manual does to the scriptures is quite astounding.

Briefly, this is Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail, much of the record of which is contained in D&C 121 – 3. IMHO the writings in these sections display Joseph Smith at his finest. As a man he rages against the injustice he perceives to have been done to the Saints in Jackson County in Far West. The Lord immediately responds with soothing words reminding him that he is being shaped and tried, and that no experience he could suffer would be worse than what Jesus suffered on our behalf. The abrupt shift in tone from Joseph, the lion of the Lord, and Christ, the lamb of God, have always testified to me of some level of inspiration in Joseph Smith.

The lesson quotes from at least one letter written in Liberty Jail, some of which was later canonized in D & C 121 – 123.

There are some beautiful quotes in here about the love of God and our absolute reliance on Christ, after every other support system we hold dear is stripped away. Here is one of my favorite quotes:

“Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, we are the more ready and willing to lay claim to your fellowship and love. For our circumstances are calculated to awaken our spirits to a sacred remembrance of everything, and we think that yours are also, and that nothing therefore can separate us from the love of God and fellowship one with another [see Romans 8:39]; and that every species of wickedness and cruelty practiced upon us will only tend to bind our hearts together and seal them together in love.”

The text quite properly takes to Romans 8:38 - 39, which reminds us, “ For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

A beautiful lesson. Let’s take a minute and enjoy the chapter headings:

  • No affliction can separate us from the love of God and fellowship with one another.
  • Adversity lasts only a small moment; if we endure well, we will be exalted in the presence of God.
  • God’s power is greater than any evil, and the truths of the gospel will ultimately triumph.
  • The Savior understands all our suffering, and He will be with us forever and ever.
  • The still, small voice whispers consolation to our souls in the depths of sorrow and distress.

Certainly nothing to object to here.

Until of course we get to the suggested questions for the instructor, which contain this gem:

“Joseph Smith declared that nothing could separate him and his brethren from the love of God (page 361). What are your thoughts or feelings as you ponder this statement? In what ways can we become separated from God’s love? What are some things we must do to abide in God’s love?”

Now wait just a darn minute. We just had this beautiful lesson that included the words of Joseph Smith and of Paul consoling us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and then we are asked to list the ways we can become separated from the love of God. Is this a trick question? Of course you would want somebody to requote the lesson material and say “nothing can separate us from God’s love” and there are no “things we can do to abide (remain) in God’s love”, but this is the church, and we know better. The expected answers of sin and disobedience are going to come up, and we’re going to conclude this lesson with the idea that despite what Joseph Smith actually said, God only loves us when we keep the commandments and are obedient to God and our leaders, and rather than walking out of the lesson basking in the love of God as we should, we adjust the ever-present guilt load on our shoulders and trudge out of the room, determined to do better at making God love us.

Simply amazing.

The canon of scripture.

What should go in, and what should go out? Critical question. On one hand we have the bible as the inspired word of god, complete and sufficient. On the other we have the idea of modern revelation as the continually unfolding word of God, because God leads us along, step by step, line upon line, precept upon precept. We’re not led in a straight line, necessarily. We began with The Law, which was added onto and fulfilled by the words of Christ and his original apostles. People got about two thousand years to marinade in the law of Moses, and it was time for the next step. Likewise people got about two thousand years to marinade in the accounts of Christ’s ministry and in the writings of Paul and others, and then it was time for the next step, the Book of Mormon and the “restoration” of Christ’s true church. Or was it? Is the Bible really full and complete in our age, or should we expect something more?

In the interests of brevity I’m going to focus more on the New Testament and the Book of Mormon here rather than debating the apocrypha or whether Moses or Adam were real people or not, because either way the Old Testament is affirmed by Christ and was fulfilled and largely superseded. It’s not the rock of my faith.

Having read through Chapter 3 of Grudem’s book, here are my thoughts, as they emerge. They are not his thoughts.

There are several bases for the New Testament canon.

One is that the authors were either apostles themselves or trusted associates. They had at most one degree of separation from the eyewitnesses of the actual events of Christ’s ministry. i.e. they were either witnesses and apostles, like Matthew and John, they were apostles or other leaders whose authority was attested to by the other apostles, like Paul and James, or they were trusted associates like Mark and Luke. I think Jude and the author of Hebrews fit into this latter category, although more loosely than the others.

Another is that their theology and message are generally consistent with each other.

From a practical standpoint, probably the most influential characteristic is that the New Testament books are the set of books generally attested to by the emerging church through the 4th century. Over the years books were in and books were out, but this set was generally accepted by the church as authoritative. Whether through revelation or just personal opinion I’ll leave to others to decide.

The important thing is that these books represent the best testimony we have from the most reliable eyewitnesses we have that was generally agreed on as being accurate and authoritative. From that point on in history the works are by their very nature going to be derivative and based on something other than eyewitness testimony.

Now, how does the Book of Mormon fit into this?

For purposes of this discussion I’ll leave questions of content aside and pick those up later. I love the Book of Mormon, because I think that generally it’s a truer witness of the doctrines we have extracted from the Bible than the Bible is itself. I think the orthodox trinity is clearly taught in the Book of Mormon, as is the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith and many other things.

But, does that mean it’s deserving of a place in the canon alongside the Bible?

Whatever your opinions about the origins and truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, it’s a revealed document. We don’t have original manuscripts from the original authors, nor do we have the historical witness of those people. They and their original writings have vanished. The primary witness we have of the Book of Mormon is Joseph Smith. If any actual plates really did exist, the only person who knew what was on them was Joseph Smith. There is no historical evidence of anything contained in the book, nor any other independent witnesses. There are no other testaments of the same events for us to weigh and compare. We don’t have the original plates, and the testimony of those who claimed to have seen and handled them is extremely suspect. Basically what you are left with is to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it, and either you receive a spiritual witness that it is “true” in some sense or you don’t. That’s your only possible confirmation. The spirit either testifies to you of its truth, or he doesn’t.

What if Joseph Smith, with all his human frailties, got it wrong? What if parts of the Book of Mormon are either incorrect, made up, or some critical pieces are somehow missing? Again, we have no independent witnesses to the content or anything else about it, other than gold plates may have existed. We have no independent witnesses of the actual events or to the correctness of the “translation”, other than whatever we get from the Holy Spirit.

Subjectively I don’t think the Book of Mormon meets the same standard the New Testament does.

I think of the Bible as a whole being like the constitution, like the keel of a ship. There’s a huge interconnected depth of support for the New Testament, from its historical background to the consensus-building process involved in the actual development of the canon. Because of that there’s a lot of human frailty we just don’t have to worry about. Is there human frailty in the Bible? No doubt, but the circumstances surrounding its origin give us the best possible basis for it being an accurate reflection of the actual events that happened and the doctrine taught by the church from the beginning.

We just don’t have that with the Book of Mormon. Your only choice is to pray about it and either accept it or reject it based on your spiritual witness of it. It doesn’t have the history behind it, nor does it have the consensus of the community behind it. It’s like a stool with one leg, albeit a very strong and important one.

The sad fact is that the witness of the Holy Spirit is often subject to a lot of interpretation. It’s most useful for more general life questions and not for ferreting out specifics. In general what I think we get from the Holy Spirit is more confirmation than specific word-for-word direction, and given that it’s most useful to have a variety of witnesses that agree. I believe the New Testament meets that standard much better than the Book of Mormon does.
I haven't posted here in about a year, mainly because I had nothing new to say on the subject. I had generally been wandering back and forth around a faith kind of in the midpoint between orthodox mormonism and a more evangelical, biblically based Christianity.

Well, as a result of some experiences and reading I did early this year, the balance has shifted more towards a more biblically based faith, and it feels like it might just be for good this time. Maybe more on that later.

Welcome to a journal of a journey I plan to take this summer.

I’m not totally sure what to call this. I don’t know whether it’s a journal, a prayer journal, a book report, whatever.

I’m on a four month hiatus from BSF (Bible Study Fellowship,, a conservative bible study I've been involved with for about two years, and I’ve decided to use this time to study a systematic theology book written by a “Reformed” author in order to try to figure out what I believe. I’ve dabbled in a lot of different sources over the last four years, and maybe it’s time to try to clarify some things and bring this to closure.

I’ll be reading “Systematic Theology”, by Wayne Grudem, re-reading the Book of Mormon, reading the general conference talks that were given this past April, and getting caught up in the Ensign, and maybe other stuff. My deadline for finishing all of this is about the middle of September, when BSF starts up again.

Rather than writing this like a book report, my goal is try to make this compact, so I’m going to focus more on what I believe and the impressions I get rather than debating a lot of chapter and verse or waxing eloquent on the author’s style or anything like that.

An exception to this will probably be General Conference talks. I have a tendency to read those and shred the contents, so I’ll probably be a little more specific there.