Sunday, May 31, 2009
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
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
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
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
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.
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.”15
"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
"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
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.
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.
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, http://www.bsfinternational.org/), 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.