Author: Ben Huff

I'm a dedicated NPR jazz listener and a philosophy teacher at a small liberal arts college in Virginia. I live in a log cabin outside of town and blog from my classic '99 G3 Mac. I did my PhD at Notre Dame with a dissertation on friendship and its role in the relationship of virtue and happiness, within a eudaimonistic virtue ethics. I was born here in Virginia, and it is becoming home again, though I spent a lot of my growing-up years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Carpinteria, CA. I was an undergraduate at BYU, and my immediate family have all ended up near there, so I visit Utah often.

Teaching Like The Prophets

I think the recently announced changes to the CES and BYU Religious Education requirements could be really great. Far from paying less attention to the scriptures, as some have worried, I suggest the new model pays more attention to the scriptures, in what might be the most important way. In the scriptures, Christ and the prophets focus their teaching on true doctrine above all, and refer to prior accounts to support this goal. The scriptures are designed to teach us spiritual truths, and these should be the primary focus of teaching today. The scriptural texts are one of the main ways we learn these truths, but they are the vehicle through which we learn, the lens through which we see, not the focus themselves. The point of the Book of Mormon, as described on its title page, is “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” D&C 1 and Luke 1 announce similar purposes. When we read the scriptures, understanding God and his plan for our salvation should be our primary concern. Think of the great passages we remember most from the scriptures. Alma 32 is a discourse on the nature of faith. 1 Corinthians 13 is a discourse on the pure love of Christ. Romans 6 explains the symbolism and the meaning of baptism. Matthew 5 is a set of simple and beautiful moral teachings, correcting false traditions to underscore the centrality of love in…

12 Questions for Miranda Wilcox and John Young, Editors of Standing Apart—Part II

Here are the six remaining questions in our series with Miranda Wilcox and John Young, continued from Part I. 7. How much of what you do in this book should we understand as theology, as opposed to, say, history? Miranda: Religious communities perform theological work when they tell historical narratives. Remembering and memorializing their divine origins is crucial for communities to maintain distinctive self-identities and to realize their divine mandate. We see examples of this process when Israel retells the story of their ancestors’ deliverance from captivity in Egypt or when Lehi’s descendants retell the story of their family’s deliverance from the destruction of Jerusalem. Telling origin narratives also offers communities ways of distinguishing themselves from other communities, and typically these stories develop a legacy of antagonistic relations between communities. Sometimes communities have opportunities to redirect these relationships. For example, the book of the Acts of the Apostles tells how the Jewish Christians struggled to revise their attitudes towards Gentiles, whom they had considered antagonists for generations, when they were commanded to preach the gospel of Christ to all nations. Standing Apart examines how the concept of a Great Apostasy and narratives about it have shaped LDS historical assumptions, contributed to the construction of LDS social and theological identity, and impacted the ability of the LDS church to develop ecumenical relationships. We suggest that the exclusivism and antagonism in these narratives may have contributed to the survival of LDS identity…

12 Questions for Miranda Wilcox and John Young, editors of Standing Apart—Part I

Miranda Wilcox (BYU) and John Young (Flagler College) have recently published Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, a collection of essays examining the Mormon narrative of apostasy and restoration in light of the history of Christianity. It is published by Oxford University Press, in both hardcover and paperback. They have kindly shared responses to 12 Questions about their project. I am including six in this post; the remaining six will follow soon in Part II. 1. What led you into this project, and how did it take shape? Miranda: Although John and I grew up listening to Sunday School lessons about the “Dark Ages,” we found the Middle Ages deeply compelling. We met as graduate students of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame, where I studied Anglo-Saxon England and he studied Jewish-Christian relations in the high Middle Ages. As I learned about the Christianization of early medieval Europe, I discovered much sincere devotion to Christ and the Bible; stories written by medieval Christians resonate with my own religious experiences and teach me spiritual insights. It makes me sad when I hear medieval people, whose lives I have come to love and admire, characterized as living in spiritual darkness, rebellious against God, or willfully perverting truth. (For more of my personal thoughts, see my entry at MormonScholarsTestify.org). When I began teaching medieval literature at BYU, I confronted the challenge of making the Middle Ages…

Raising an Ensign: Challenges of Scholarship on Mormonism at BYU

In his recent First Things article, Ralph Hancock argues that it is vital to the mission of BYU that it produce scholarship articulating a distinctively Mormon worldview, as a major part of its regular work. What would it take for BYU to respond seriously to Hancock’s call? Hancock notes that there is much more one would need to consider on the way to concrete action than what he is able to say in a five page article. As things stand, for such a large, well-funded, highly religious university, BYU is doing surprisingly little on this front. For the vast majority of BYU faculty, including in the humanities and social sciences, this is simply not included in their job description. Rather, what they will be recognized for professionally is scholarship done in the mode and according to the standards of the (secular) mainstream academic world. It should go without saying that the production of scholarship is a core purpose of a modern university. If BYU is not producing scholarship that develops a well-informed, distinctively Mormon worldview, as a large and routine portion of its work, then as a Mormon university it is as though BYU is missing a leg. Further, because scholarship is the primary basis of university teaching, and there is no other comparable source for academic work developing a Mormon worldview, it is as though BYU is also missing an arm. Why would BYU choose to go through life…

Lineage and the Book of Mormon’s Universal Audience

An excellent entry on “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” has just appeared in the Gospel Topics section at LDS.org. It explains why studies of New World genetics can neither prove nor disprove the historical claims represented in the Book of Mormon. In the process, it provides a delightfully clear and thorough explanation of some key principles of population genetics, and of how these would apply with regard to the Book of Mormon peoples and the genetic evidence they would (or would not) leave today. Along the way it also offers some helpful observations about what the Book of Mormon record does or does not imply about the demographics of the New World in the events it describes. It is exciting to see LDS.org offer material of this intellectual depth and complexity. Of course, it is ultimately an article for a popular audience (not for professional researchers), but they obviously aren’t afraid to make their audience think a bit with this article. Clearly, faith is not just about helping us feel good about what we already think, but also about expanding our vision and understanding in a way that reflects eternal truths. One risk of reading such an interesting and detailed article on genetics, though, is that we will find ourselves thinking so much about it that we overemphasize the role of genetics and lineage in the Book of Mormon and in its message. Indeed, the idea that genetic studies…

Orihah’s Uncle, Moriancumer

Why is the brother of Jared called the brother of Jared? He is far more important in the narrative of the Book of Ether than Jared, so why isn’t Jared called the brother of Moriancumer instead? Here’s my swipe at this much-pondered issue. One might think that Jared is more of a political leader, even though his brother is clearly the more spiritual one, and it is Jared’s political importance that makes him the one with the name recognition. At times, it looks like Jared is telling his brother what to do. Jared asks him to pray for them and their friends, so that their language will not be confounded. When the revelation comes, however, Moriancumer (for short?*) is told to gather Jared and his family and friends. Jared isn’t the one to do the gathering. In fact, the Lord says that Moriancumer is to go at the head of them all as they travel (Ether 1:42). When they come to the seashore, they name the place Moriancumer, presumably after their leader. When he is consulting with the Lord about building the barges, there is no indication that Moriancumer is taking orders from Jared. Rather, it looks like Jared and his brother have the kind of mutual, cooperative relationship one might expect of good-hearted brothers, so that Moriancumer talks to his brother, listens to him, and is happy to do what he asks or follow his advice sometimes, because he…

2014 Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture: The History of the Mormon Family

In the summer of 2014, the Neal A Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University, with support from the Mormon Scholars Foundation and the Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley Institution, will sponsor a summer seminar for graduate students and junior faculty on “The History of the Mormon Family.” The seminar will be held on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, from June 15 to July 26. Admitted participants will receive a stipend of $3000 with an accommodations subsidy if needed. The seminar continues the series of seminars on Mormon culture begun in the summer of 1997. In 2014, the seminar will be conducted by Richard and Claudia Bushman. The question we will address is: how did the Church move in the course of a century from the most unconventional marriage system in the nation to a model of family stability? Mormons were criticized in the nineteenth century for their assault on family values. By the mid-twentieth century, they were lauded for the strength of their families. What resources could Mormons draw on to accomplish this transformation? Despite the bad reputation of plural marriage, what principles of family life were established in the nineteenth century that could ultimately produce the strong families of the twentieth century? What teachings and programs shaped Mormon family life and brought about the change in public opinion? Each participant will be asked to prepare a paper on some aspect of this general subject area for presentation in…

SMPT at UVU: “The Atonement”

Abstracts are now available for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology conference this Thursday, October 31st-Saturday November 2nd. Almost two dozen presentations will directly address the theme of “The Atonement,” alongside related principles such as sin, repentance, freedom, and redemption. A number of other presentations by both Mormons and non-Mormons will address other aspects of Mormon belief including orthodoxy/heterodoxy, business ethics, and the theological importance of gender. Notable sessions include: “Works,” by Daniel W. Graham (Brigham Young University) “Mormonism and the Problem of Heterodoxy,” by Dennis Potter (Utah Valley University) “Rethinking Penal Substitution,” by Paul Owen (Montreat College) “The Structure of the Book of Mormon,” by J. Christopher Thomas, Clarence J. Abbott Professor of Biblical Studies (Pentecostal Theological Seminary) “Narrative Atonement Theology in the Gospel of Mark,” by Julie Smith (Independent Scholar) “The Gospel According to Mormon,” by Noel Reynolds (Emeritus, Brigham Young University) “Joseph Smith and the Restoration of the Atonement,” by Lynn Wardle, Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law (J. Reuben Clark Law School) “What Becoming Mortal Empowered God to Do,” by Blake Ostler (Attorney & Independent Scholar) Also this year, there are an unprecedented five T&S permabloggers and an emeritus on the program! Come join us at the UVU Student Center, rooms 206a-c, starting Thursday at 7:30pm. For a detailed conference schedule, consult the SMPT website.

“Hearing Cosmic Harmony Again”—Dan Peterson Delivers BYU Summerhays Lecture 2013

Thursday at 7pm in the JSB Auditorium at BYU, Dan Peterson will speak on how our understanding of the natural world through history has reinforced or weakened belief in God. His title for the 2013 Summerhays Lecture is “Hearing Cosmic Harmony Again.” Here is an introduction from the Summerhays Lecture web page: For many centuries, religious believers of all stripes have affirmed, in the words of the Psalmist, that “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handy work.” But, although the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins could still exclaim that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” scientific discoveries had seriously undermined that view–or, at least, were being claimed to have done so–by the time of his too-young death in 1889. The serious subversion had begun, or so the story is often told, with the Copernican “revolution’s” dethronement of earth and humans from their privileged place at the center of the universe. It continued, rather ironically, with Sir Isaac Newton’s portrayal of that universe as governed by a remorseless chain of cause-and-effect operating under mathematically rigorous physical laws, and it seemed to have been proven by Darwin’s apparent demonstration that life, in all its varieties, had emerged as a result, merely, of purposeless chance. I will attempt to show, with special emphasis on astronomy and cosmology, that this picture of the development of science and its implications–the picture with which I grew up–…

SMPT 2013 Reminder/Travel Funding

The August 23rd proposal submission deadline for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology’s 2013 Annual Meeting is approaching. The conference will be held at Utah Valley University, October 31-November 2, with the theme, “The Atonement.” For a fuller discussion of the theme and submission information, see the Call for Papers flyer (PDF), or the Call for Papers web page. Student Travel Funding: SMPT has some funding available, on a competitive basis, to defray travel costs for student presenters. Travel funding awards of a value up to $700 each will be made on the basis of (a) merit of the proposal and (b) distance of travel to Orem. Students interested in travel support should indicate their institution, degree sought, and subject at the time of paper/proposal submission, and should provide a brief statement of need, including their point of origin for travel to the conference, major mode of transportation (e.g. air, train, personal vehicle) to Orem, and availability of travel funding from other sources, such as their home department, if any.

On Faithful Puzzlement, Belief, and Choice

I thoroughly enjoyed Rosalynde’s FAIR talk, “Disenchanted Mormonism”! Thank you, Rosalynde! I really like the way she presents doubt as something that can be a productive and legitimate place to inhabit indefinitely, even while there is an active hope for greater knowledge and confidence in the future. I also really like how she embraces what we don’t choose, including the fact that we (at least many of us) are members of the body of Christ and of the church largely independent of personal choice. I have a question for Rosalynde, though: isn’t there still a pretty significant form of belief, and of choice, involved in the attention and observance you describe? It seems to me that while we sometimes talk about belief as though it involves a casting aside of doubt, belief can just as well, and perhaps even more legitimately should, be a form of trust exercised in the midst of doubt, trust precisely in the sense of embracing what is uncertain. This is the subtle combination I take to be reflected in “I believe; help thou my unbelief.” In this sense, by fasting, for instance, one exercises a belief that fasting is good and worthwhile, even without claiming any certainty about it. I would say that faith is active hope, hope that one invests in through the way one acts. And in this there is choice, is there not? I agree that to a great extent we are…

An Information-Rich Gospel: Correlation and the Growth and Maturation of the Church

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a rich, complex, and beautiful thing. It can’t be fully absorbed in one sitting, or one decade, or one lifetime. The gospel is information-rich. A recent New York Times article talks about Mormons who are led to question their faith by information about the church that they find, e.g., on the internet. The article seems to suggest that the gospel cannot survive in an information-rich environment. Mormons believe, however, that “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:6), and “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6). Information, learning, understanding, therefore are central to what Mormonism is about. The information age should be not only welcome, but ultimately a real strength to the church and the progress of the gospel. I’m convinced it is, though we haven’t grown into it yet. The NYT article, of course, can easily be read to suggest the opposite. Here is a simple narrative one might derive from it: The LDS church has embarrassing things in its history that it can’t give a good explanation of, which undermine its moral authority, and so in order to preserve its credibility and the faith of members, it has to suppress information about these things. In the internet age, of course, suppressing information doesn’t work any more, so . . . you can draw your own conclusions. There are probably a few people at the NYT who…

Separation of Marriage and State?

Mormons have this fascinating relationship with America and Americanness. On the one hand, we often seem to be among the most American of Americans. Mitt Romney’s problem as a presidential candidate was not that he was weird, but that he was too normal (in a white, 1950s kind of way). To the extent that people thought he seemed alien, it was more because of his money than his religion. American political principles seem to even be more or less written into the Book of Mormon (of course, some similar material is in the Bible, too, including a denunciation of monarchy colorful enough for even Jefferson to admire). Joseph Smith himself ran for President, and the primary reason for his assassination may have been the fact that as a candidate, he spoke eloquently against slavery. On the other hand, before the church was twenty years old, the main body of Mormons had been essentially driven out of the United States at least twice, and the Mormon homeland in the Rockies was a part of Mexico when the Saints chose to build their Zion there. We fought and won a carefully restrained guerilla war with the Federal Army to maintain our independence and perhaps even our existence as a people and a church (mainly just by disrupting their supply chain and transportation, and arranging for them to enjoy some nice winter weather outdoors). We then treated them very kindly during their visit…

Good News: I Was Wrong (Sort Of)

It looks like the people of California have not been disenfranchised nearly as much as I was concerned about in my post yesterday. They have been disenfranchised at the federal level, but not at the state level. In its decision yesterday, the Supreme Court nullified the ruling of the (federal) Ninth Circuit that Prop 8 is unconstitutional. Many onlookers assumed that meant that the holding of the trial court, from which the Ninth Circuit was hearing an appeal, would be decisive for California law, and since the trial court held Prop 8 unconstitutional, that would mean that Prop 8 was nullified. But apparently only an appellate court’s decision on unconstitutionality is decisive for California law. So the trial court’s decision may apply to the specific people involved in the case, but not to California generally. The dust has hardly settled from this event, and probably won’t settle for years, but it looks like Prop 8 still stands, as decided by the people of California. The ruling still says that the people of California may have the authority to make law themselves, but do not have the authority to defend it themselves at the federal level. It is upsetting to see a federal court refusing to recognize the fundamental principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (as Lincoln memorably put it). However, if the lack of a defender means federal appelate courts won’t make any decision…

Democracy at the Discretion of the State

The Supreme Court of the United States of America today informed us that the people are no longer in charge of this country. The Declaration of Independence states that governments derive “their just powers by the consent of the governed.” In the spirit of that principle, 26 states, and many city and local governments, allow citizens to approve legislation directly by popular vote in cases where their legislature does not address their concerns. However, we learned today that if citizens put in place a law that the people in public office don’t happen to like, it can be ignored. The Supreme Court today explained that citizens may have the authority to put a law in place, but they do not have the authority to defend it in court. When California’s officials chose not to defend Proposition 8 against a constitutionality challenge, citizens stepped up to defend it, but the Court declared that they lack “standing” to participate in the case. The citizens are dependent on their politicians to exercise authority, and if the politicians don’t care to see it exercised in that way, at the slightest breeze, the decision of the people can be waved away. This is a revolution. Before today, we believed that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed—that is, the people. Or to put it more personally, we believed that the authority of our government depended on us. Today we learned that, as…

SMPT at Utah Valley University, Oct. 31-Nov. 2

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology’s 2013 conference will be held at Utah Valley University, October 31-November 2, with the theme, “The Atonement.” Here is the theme description and submission instructions from the call for papers (PDF). Call for Papers: “The Atonement” The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology invites paper proposals on any aspect of Mormon belief, including its philosophical ramifications. We particularly encourage submissions on this year’s theme. “The fundamental principles of our religion,” said Joseph Smith, “are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” The atonement of Christ is at the very center of Mormonism, as, indeed, of virtually all forms of Christianity, ancient and modern. Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is commemorated every week as the central feature of congregational worship, and the crucial event that enables believers to overcome sin and live anew. The sacrament prayers—the only prayers that are prescribed and that must be repeated, verbatim, in the Church—commit those who partake of the bread and water to “always” remember the wounded body of Christ, and his blood, “which was shed for them,” and Latter-day Saints are urged to reflect upon his sacrifice, then and always. The key ordinances of baptism and the giving of the…

Joseph Smith and the Aufhebung of the Reformation (and of Catholicism)

How should Mormons feel about the Reformation? On the one hand, we tend to valorize figures like Tyndale and Luther who defied the religious authorities of their time, setting the stage in many ways for our own radical break with tradition. On the other hand, the need for a Restoration presupposes that the Reformation wasn’t good enough. Jonathan Green argues in a recent post that the Restoration represents a thorough rejection of the Reformation. He focuses on three of Luther’s distinctive teachings: salvation by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers (associated also with a rejection of sacred objects and spaces), and sola scriptura. At one level, there is no arguing with Jonathan. Mormons reject these beliefs in rather dramatic fashion. We are so set on the necessity of baptism and other priesthood ordinances for salvation that we hold it as our duty to perform these ordinances for every soul who ever lived, in case s/he should choose to convert in the next life. We believe a specific restoration of priesthood authority was so important that John the Baptist, the apostles Peter, James, and John, and even the prophet Elijah had to return in angelic form and visit Joseph Smith to restore their distinctive strains of authority. We believe in three different books beyond the Bible as scripture, in some ways superior to it, and believe such revelation will continue from time to time until Christ reigns on Earth. Yet…

Seeking New Gifts From God

“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Thus teaches Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:9. The things that God has planned for us are more wonderful than we can imagine. As wonderful as what we have received is, there is much more, and much greater, to come, both in this life and the next. How should we respond, then, when we are looking for something that God has not yet given us? Should we set aside our yearnings, telling ourselves to be content with what he has given us? Response round one: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we should make sure that we acknowledge the goodness of what he has already given us. It is “unto him that receiveth” that God “will give more” (2 Nephi 28:30). I take this to mean that we need to receive, appreciate, and hearken to what we have been given, in order to be deserving of more. This appreciation or gratitude implies seeing the good and finding satisfaction in it, not over-emphasizing what we may think is missing. We need to make sure that our longing for what we don’t have does not overshadow our gratitude for what we do have, (which is not to say I always manage it). On the other hand, also no: “from them that shall say, We have…

Al-Ghazali, Galileo, and Pope Benedict’s Critique of Secularism

A stunning amount of what I think is wrong with the world is poetically captured in a recent article in First Things, commenting on the relationship between faith and reason on the one hand, and Christianity and Islam on the other. Unfortunately, the author captures these problems unintentionally. The difference between his perspective and mine is both fascinating and discouraging. Hope remains, however, so hang on . . . In his article, “Benedict Face to Face with Islam,” Andrew Doran portrays Pope Benedict XVI as a rational Christian who has the (supposed) insight to see Islam as irrational, and who defends true religion as a harmonious blend of faith and reason. Doran then traces this supposed irrationalism of Islam to the Muslim thinker Al-Ghazali, who may be the most influential voice in Islam next to Mohammed the Prophet. Doran suggests that this irrationalism is a fundamental cause of the violent extremism we have seen flare up in the Muslim world in recent years. Based on this diagnosis, he argues that “the West’s secular approaches to end religiously based violence by means of war, democracy, foreign aid, or other policies are doomed to failure before they begin.” Rather than such efforts, “the true basis for peace,” he argues, is “philosophical reengagement.” Wow, where does one start with an article like this? What is most disturbing about it is that a perspective like this seems so natural for many Christians today, as…

Summer Seminar 2013: Workings of the Spirit and Works of the Priesthood

The Annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture “Workings of the Spirit and Works of the Priesthood: Gifts and Ordinances in LDS Thought and Practice.” Brigham Young University June 3 – July 12, 2013 In the summer of 2013, the Neal A Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University, with support from the Mormon Scholars Foundation and the Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley Institution, will sponsor a summer seminar for graduate students and junior faculty on “Workings of the Spirit and Works of the Priesthood: Gifts and Ordinances in LDS Thought and Practice.” The seminar will be held on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, from June 3 to July 12. Admitted participants will receive a stipend of $3000 with an accommodations subsidy if needed. The seminar continues the series of seminars on Mormon culture begun in the summer of 1997. The seminar will be conducted by Terryl Givens, Professor of Literature and Religion and James A. Bostwick Chair of English at the University of Richmond. This particular seminar will continue a series begun three years ago on the history of Mormon thought. A principal evidence appealed to by early Mormon writers and missionaries, on which they based their claim to authoritative restoration, was the abundance of spiritual gifts manifest among believers in the church founded by Joseph Smith. Closely allied to these gifts was the Latter-day Saint claim to genuine priesthood authority. We will study how early Saints understood the workings…