Category: Philosophy and Theology

[Languages of the Spirit] Doubt

My husband frequently says of our team dynamic that he is the historian and I am the theologian, and that before I talk about anything I lay a theological framework for it. This is clearly interesting and endearing of me. The last couple of posts have been me laying the theological framework for this series, and now we get to get into actual examples of spiritual divergence. Just one last thing, though. A few comments in a previous post pointed out that I have not clarified what exactly I mean by spirit. This is a really good point because, frankly, the concept of spirit isn’t always clear. There is the Holy Ghost (which is talked about as a power by which our mind is connected with God[1] but is also described as a person). There is the Light of Christ which sometimes is the conscience with which everyone is born and is secondary to the holy spirit which is the source of greater truth[2], but other times is the source of all light and truth and makes the role of the Holy Ghost a little more ambiguous[3]. There is the spirit that is inside our bodies and the spiritual creation inside everything and the spirit of different powers and principles. So what does “the spirit” mean? Firstly, I think this is a really important question and I am grateful for the comments that brought it to my attention. Secondly, I…

A Lake of Fire and the Problem of Evil

I remember talking to an atheist on the riverfront walk in Dubuque, Iowa one day while serving my mission.  He told my companion and me that he couldn’t believe in God after some of the things he had seen, and went on to describe (in a fair amount of gruesome detail) visiting a Catholic church in South America in the aftermath of an attack by a militant group of some sort and seeing the mutilated bodies of the Christians laying scattered about.  If God existed, he reasoned, God would have not allowed such horrific act to take place.  I was taken aback and was uncertain how to respond to his expression of disbelief rooted in such deep trauma.  We talked with the man for a little while longer and moved on in with the day.  His comments got at one of the most difficult and complex philosophical issues of Christian religion—the theodicy, the question of why evil exists if God exists, is good, and is all-powerful.  That evening, I remember talking about the incident with my companion and thinking (somewhat naïvely): “I should have just opened up the Book of Mormon to Alma 14, where Alma and Amulek watch their converts burn and discuss why they can’t do anything about it.  That would have shown him how we have all the answers.”  Looking back, however, I’m grateful we didn’t turn to that section of the Book of Mormon during our…

The Author and the Congressman

The Author In my childhood, I watched my evangelical classmates devour the Left Behind series, curious what a Mormon analogue would look like. Lo and behold, in 2003 Deseret Book published a novel titled The Brothers. Befitting his history as a military pilot, the author had previously focused on military techno-thrillers, and the book series to which The Brothers was a prologue — The Great and Terrible — was mostly of that genre.  While it turned out that The Great and Terrible was not exactly comparable to Left Behind — it wasn’t about the end of days — The Brothers did not disappoint. I unironically love the book as a ingenuous crystallization of a certain moment in Mormon political theology, projected back into a narrative set in the premortal, pre-Earth life. The author prefaces the book with an Author’s Note, in which he admits that he “was forced to take author’s license in many of the details presented in this book. The simple fact is that we know very little of what life was like for us in the premortal world, and the war in heaven is a mystery we know even less about. Yet any literary work, especially fiction, requires some sense of time, location, conflict, and description in order for readers to allow themselves to be pulled into the story.” Without these, he says, “the story turns out to be little more than a series of conversations.” He…

Quodlibet: Vaccination

Whereas disease, as now with COVID-19, causes death to many and harm to many more, and worsens poverty and hunger even among those it does not strike directly, and causes fear in those who await infection and its consequences, and inflicts sorrow and grief on those who lose family and beloved friends; while Jesus, in His atoning mercy

How Should LDS Christians Give to Charity?

It’s a heart wrenching decision.  A beggar asks you for money.  You remember the words of King Benjamin: “Ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain.”[1]  You also remember Christ’s commandment to feed the hungry, take in the stranger, and clothe the naked.[2] At the same time, you have practical concerns about how the money would be used.  A 2002 questionnaire of 54 panhandlers in Toronto found that the median monthly budget of panhandlers was $200 for food, $112 for tobacco, $80 for alcohol and other illicit drugs and $120 for all other items.[3]  In the last twelve months, 93% reported tobacco use, 37% reporting cocaine use, 9% reporting heroin use, and 80% reporting alcohol use.[4]  Of those that reported alcohol use, 26% reporting daily alcohol consumption, 28% reporting alcohol consumption 1-6 times per week.[5] When you see these statistics, you may feel justified if you refuse a beggar.  You might say, “there are better ways to help the less fortunate.”  That may be true, but that excuse only works if you find and a better alternative.  If not, you are simply justifying yourself in sin (unless you do not have the means).[6]  So what are the alternatives?  Should you ever give to panhandlers?  How well are LDS Christians fulfilling their obligations to the poor? Fast Offerings and Humanitarian Aid For LDS Christians, the obvious place to start is by donating a generous…

Is it a Sin to Binge Watch Netflix?

We all know that the defining sin of the Nephites was pride.  But what about the defining sin of the Lamanites?  From the very beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi focuses on one particular vice.  “[A]fter they had dwindled in unbelief” the Lamanites became “full of idleness and all manner of abominations.”[1] He later calls them an “idle people.”[2]  When the Anti-Nephi-Lehies famously buried their weapons of war, they also made a covenant that “rather than their days in idleness they would labor abundantly with their hands.”[3] The Lamanites’ sin of idleness is, in fact, the mirror image of the Nephites’ sin of pride.  The Nephites successfully overcame the sin of idleness, but then used their surplus “despising others, turning their backs upon the needy, and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted.”[4] What is worse: spending the days of your probation pursuing “treasures on earth”[5] or idling it away?[6]  It doesn’t really make a difference to the people you could have helped.  The sheep don’t care if you forgot to feed them because you were too selfish or because you were too lazy; either way they don’t get fed.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of choosing your Mammon in the form of extra vacation days or a cash payment. What’s the 21st century equivalent to spending our days in idleness?  It’s allowing the “next episode” timer to…

Review: Foundational Texts of Mormonism

Here’s the shortest review possible. If you’re even moderately interested in Church history or theology or even just in close reading of scripture you should get Foundational Texts of Mormonism. If it’s not already in your library, ask for it for Christmas.

Trials, Tribulations, and a Movie: An LDS-themed Discussion of the Coen Brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN

A well-known axiom in both life and storytelling states that the matters we find most personal are also the most universal. Whether it’s film, literature, or some other medium, stories with the most specific and distinctive settings and points of view are usually those an audience will find most relatable. In the words of Robert McKee: “An archetypal story creates settings and characters so rare that our eyes feast on every detail, while its telling illuminates conflicts so true to humankind that it journeys from culture to culture.” A Serious Man, the 2009 masterpiece from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a darkly comic film exploring the nature of God, religious inquiry, and human suffering. Set among a community of Jews living in Minnesota in the 1960s, the film mirrors the Coen’s formative years, arguably making it their most personal film to date. That level specificity brings with it a familiarity and universality that just isn’t present in most of their work, or anyone else’s for that matter. Mormons can have a hard time grappling with the same issues explored in A Serious Man. We seem to define periods of our lives by the struggles we face. Dealing with trials is the focus of countless conference talks, priesthood and Relief Society Lessons, and Mormon.org videos. Within Mormon doctrine and culture, there are recurring themes about the source and meaning of our mortal struggles. And, let’s be honest, quite often, they are…

Review Essay: “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology”: Materiality and Performance

Like a paring knife to a grapefruit, Jonathan Stapley’s new book on the history of Mormon cosmology is slim, sharp, and swift to carve through pith, serving up elegant wedges of history. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford, 2018) traces the evolution of ritual practice in Mormonism, including priesthood ordination, sealing rites, healing practices, baby blessings, and folk divination. The author’s reticence to extract neat diagrams from his findings is a virtue of the book, and any summary should be offered advisedly. Taken together, however, the chapters show a gradual migration from civic- to kinship- to church-centered forms of ritual soteriology, occurring alongside processes of codification and consolidation that, by the late 20th century, concentrate Mormon liturgical discourse and practice within the male ecclesiastical priesthood. I am no historian, and I leave it to the experts to adjudicate Stapley’s stimulating historical claims. Several points struck my picture of Mormon history–incomplete and idiosyncratic as it is–with particular explanatory power. As I understand them: Early notions of sealing and its connection to the doctrine of perseverance evolved rapidly. Initially, the Saints were “sealed up” in the soteriological sense that their salvation was permanently assured; it would “persevere” all future threats and sweep safely them to heaven. Later in the Kirtland and especially Nauvoo periods, the Saints were “sealed to” one another in a relational bond that was the vehicle of salvation, and the perseverance implied was that of the…

Defiantly Turning the Other Cheek

On Twitter last week in the aftermath of the whole Porter situation someone mentioned the issue of turning the other cheek. Now first off I don’t think in any legitimate interpretation of turning the cheek it means submitting to abuse particularly spousal abuse. I know there is sadly a strong thread in the Jewish, Christian, & Islamic tradition that doesn’t see this as horrific as it is. That is men who justify running a home like a corrupt totalitarian government on the basis of a few scriptures. However that’s clearly not what Christ taught and certainly isn’t what turning the cheek means. Fortunately I got into an interesting discussion on the issue with Zina Peterson. She brought up an interpretation I’d honestly never seen before.[1]

Future Mormon Reading Chapter 1

This is the inaugural reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. For general links related to the book along with links to each reading chapter please go to our overview page.  We’ll try roughly each week to deal with a new chapter. The first part will be a brief summary of the arguments and assumptions. The second part will be a critical engagement with an emphasis of bringing out the issues of the chapter. Please don’t take the criticism as my treating the text as bad. It’s much more intended to be productive criticism to try and bring into clarity the issues. Hopefully people will push back on the criticism and also offer different criticisms. Future Mormon Chapter 1: A General Theory of Grace Grace is primal and sin is a suppression of what has already been given. We don’t have to work our way into grace; we have to stop working so hard to pretend we aren’t already in it

Future Mormon Reading Club

The person who probably comes closest to my own views on many matters is Adam Miller. Back in the heyday of LDS-Herm we had tons of fantastic discussions on theology and philosophy. Ever since Adam’s last book came out I’ve wanted to do a reading club on it but just hadn’t had the time. One nice thing about this book is that it engages with a lot of the core theological topics where we disagreed. I’ve found I learn the most from disagreements. In agreements I’m usually just either confirming my biases or else I don’t read as closely as I should since I already agree. With disagreement I pay much closer attention. It forces me to rethink why I think the things I do think. Sometimes I find more reasons for my beliefs, but at other times I find myself reconsidering them.

Mormon Knowing

When I first got invited to blog I had several topics I was really excited about. Then life came at me fast and most of those projects fell between the cracks. What I want to do is return to them but cut to the chase a little more swiftly. I’ve talked about knowledge quite a bit. Especially with posts like Pragmatism as Mormon Epistemology Part 1 and Part 2. Here’s my theory about a way of Mormon knowing that can deal both with the typical lay member as well as explain how an informed member can claim to know religious truths.

“Neither Shall There Be Any More Pain”: Trials and Their Purpose

This is a talk I gave in sacrament meeting on March 12, 2017. The topic was “Trials and Their Purpose.” I appreciate the thoughts and words of [the previous speakers]. I hope that you all can find some solace in our various messages, even if the answers are a bit incomplete. The purpose of trials—or what is more commonly known in philosophical circles as the problem of evil—is a question that has plagued philosophers and theologians for centuries and I don’t pretend that I’m going to resolve it in a 15-minute sacrament talk. The evolving and at times contradicting theologies found within the scriptures make it difficult to pin down a coherent, all-encompassing explanation of suffering. However, my goal at the very least is to provide a couple perspectives that might be helpful to you in processing your own trials while being sufficiently sensitive to the different experiences you all have. Neal A. Maxwell once offered this advice to Jeffrey R. Holland: “You must tread with caution on the hallowed ground of another’s suffering.”[1] I intend to tread carefully on this rather sensitive subject. The problem of evil can be boiled down to the question, “If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?” Evil is often divided into two categories:[2] Moral evil: the evil committed by people. Natural evil: natural disasters, disease, etc. I’ve mentioned in class before that I have…

Can Mercy Rob Justice?

We’re all familiar with Alma 42 and the notion that mercy can’t rob justice. I was reading this today at church and was struck by a context that often doesn’t get mentioned. In the ancient world relationships often determined actions. This meant special treatment for friends and especially relations. In Greek philosophy and plays you often see the key tension being between familial relationships and justice. The idea is that justice is what one should do if one wasn’t related. It’s the idea of being no respecter of persons. The very notion of justice in the middle east starting during this era is this more objective treatment.

Can Private Experience Ground Knowledge?

I’ve neglected my posts on epistemology the past couple of months due to being busy. While I want to get back to them let me first take a bit of a side trip. Fundamentally more than anything else the big divide within the question of religious knowing is to what degree private experiences can ground knowledge. Typically when critics engage with Mormons they want the playing field to only be public evidence. Now it’s not that Mormons aren’t willing to play that game. By and large apologetics (at least the good kinds) are willing to discuss plausibility in terms of public evidence. But when it comes to knowledge, the critics want to make an appeal to belief in the strongest argument. That is we should believe what has the most weight of public evidence, even if perhaps the arguments are themselves circumstantial or somewhat weak. Most importantly they often want to only admit entities that have already been established scientifically. Thus no angels, miracles or the like.

Promoting vs. Honoring

If I might be allowed an overly broad generalization, it often seems like political action is locked between two main views. In the past I’ve often called it the Kantian versus the Utilitarian.[1] That’s not entirely fair. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that we have a tension between promoting values versus honoring them. Consider abortion. Many people think it wrong. Some people might go to protests over the issue and do things to signal their opposition to abortion. But some of the same people might oppose actions that would actually reduce the rate of abortion (say free contraceptives) for other reasons. They may not even focus on policies that actually reduce the rate of abortion.[2] Likewise someone might want peace but consider honoring that value so important that they wouldn’t condone war even if it brought peace.[3] On the other side people might get into the situation of the ends justifying the means so killing is fine if it leads to an end to killing.