This week was ward conference in our ward, so no teacher improvement this week. In lieu of that, I wanted to point out an old book on the atonement and some points it raises that I found interesting. The book is “The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences” by Bruce C. Hafen. (more…)
Laban’s execution ranks among the most troubling stories in Mormonism. It’s often used as a story to show that obeying God is more important than what we think is right. Alternatively, it’s used as an example to show how we should question commandments. It’s been explained away as a justifiable action under Jewish law. It’s been entertained as a possible example of Satan’s power to deceive (Nephi in this instance). Nephi and Laban have been compared to Abraham and Isaac, and David and Goliath. Critics cite it to discredit Mormonism, and apologists use it to bolster Mormonism. What makes Laban’s execution so interesting is not only what it tells us about Nephi, but what it tells us about God.
Laban’s execution takes us through three stages in Nephi’s mind. When Nephi discovers Laban stumbling through the dark Jerusalem streets, God prompts him to kill the defenseless drunk. Nephi refuses to obey God because killing, ironically enough, is against God’s commandments. God again commands Nephi to kill Laban. The second time, Nephi pauses to come up with a reason to justify what God has asked him to do. Nephi contemplates Laban’s offenses. Just earlier that night Laban took all of Nephi’s family’s possessions and tried to kill Nephi and his brothers; he had disobeyed God. The rationalization may be compelling for some, but Nephi evidently couldn’t convince himself. So God commands Nephi a third time to take Laban’s life. But this time, God explains why Nephi should obey his commandment. God points out “It is better that [Laban] should perish than that [the future Nephite civilization] should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” God has Nephi weigh the literal death of one man against the spiritual death of a whole nation. Put in modern parlance, God gives Nephi a utilitarian reason for executing Laban. Nephi then obeys.
It would be easy to draw some harmful lessons from this story. Presumably, Nephi did the right thing by refusing to obey until God gave him a reason to obey. Should we adopt Nephi’s unwillingness when we face tough commandments? Probably not. The Book of Mormon itself contains other stories where people took the leap of faith before knowing fully what would happen. Nephi had just declared, one chapter earlier, that he’d obey whatever God told him to do. Laban’s execution gives us the rare look at how a prophet, and how God, works through a situation where two commandments clearly contradict each other. And while Nephi tries to obey the more newest one, he waits for God’s approval before acting. There was simply no third way for Nephi, and I suspect that most people would rarely be put in Nephi’s position. But at least one modern prophet faced a similar situation.
Wilford Woodruff had a dilemma. God commanded the Saints to practice plural marriage. But had they continued, the United States would imprison church leaders, close the temples, and confiscate many of the Saints’ property; the church would, in effect, perish. Woodruff couldn’t obey one commandment (plural marriage) without failing on the other (preserving the church).
Woodruff’s decision is sometimes taken as evidence that Mormonism is not what it claims. If God really was in charge, He would have found a way to allow plural marriage to continue and the church to go on as it had. Instead, he didn’t intervene, and he made Woodruff and the Saints abandon an immensely important commandment. Clearly then, the argument goes, God doesn’t lead the Church.
The story of Laban’s execution offers an alternative conclusion.
|Choice 1: Kill Laban, save the church||End plural marriage, save the church|
|Choice 2: Not kill Laban, church perishes||Not end plural marriage, church suffers/perishes|
|Decision: Applies the greater good||Applies the greater good|
Laban’s execution shows that God will sometimes entertain a utilitarian judgment over directly intervening in some way to avoid the utilitarian solution. Why? The answer may be related to the answer to another, similar question: Why does God have imperfect people lead His church? Perhaps it’s because the greater good is served by having people work together to improve an imperfect church rather than by having God so directly involved. Sometimes God drops a Liahona in the sand, sometimes he commands his prophet to make do with the best of two bad choices.
 As an aside, some people have other problems with Laban’s execution. Why couldn’t Nephi have just knocked Laban out, or what about all of the blood on Laban’s clothes that Nephi had adorned? These aren’t criticisms of the story as it is told, but elements that Nephi didn’t explain. I imagine that if Nephi anticipated these criticisms, he might have offered more detail on how the events unfolded. For all we know, Nephi stole Laban’s clothes, Laban recognized him, and Nephi just recounted the order of events in reverse. Stranger things have happened.
 The same argument I’ve offered here might also apply to Eve’s choice in the Garden of Eden. However, it’s not entirely clear that Eve was thinking in utilitarian terms about her decision to eat the forbidden fruit and have children.
(P)recap. The purpose of this series on intellectuals within Mormonism is bring the analytic tools of intellectualism against itself so as to help Mormon intellectuals recognize and perhaps second guess the choices that they actively make when they unnecessarily place themselves at odds with the church leadership. To review, the first post identified the specific kind of intellectualism which the scriptures warn us against. Briefly, the intellectual will be the person who holds that:
Any speech act can legitimately be called into question by any person, at any time and that a legitimate answer to that question cannot invoke any person’s position within society.
In the second post I articulated the ways in which Mormon intellectuals will not only tolerate, but actively embrace prophecy within their worldview. In summary, the Mormon intellectual has no trouble negotiating a kind of compatibility between their intellectualism and their prophetic religion, since all doctrines can still be called into question and subsequently (dis)confirmed by God at any time. In this way, the position which priesthood leaders have taken on any given issue becomes largely irrelevant to the position which Mormon intellectuals will take on the same issue.
While the Mormon intellectual can fully embrace the first leg upon which Mormonism stands (prophecy), he will have serious difficulties embracing the other leg: priesthood authority. In this post I want to articulate the tensions that exist between intellectualism and priesthood authority, for I believe it is these that are the primary source of contention between the former and Mormonism. (more…)
I think we can all agree that within Mormonism there is a certain kind of ambivalence toward intellectualism, even if we aren’t quite able to put our finger on it. On the one hand, it seems clear that Mormonism embraces intelligence as such, going so far as to equate it with the Glory of God. Along these lines we are also told to seek truth and knowledge from the best books and counseled that to be learned is good so long as we don’t abandon the faith. On the other hand, there are at least as many passages which warn us of the learned and scholarly who preach the philosophies of men according to the understanding of the flesh. These tensions within the scriptures leave one wondering what place, if any, is to be found for intellectuals within the church. (more…)
Psychology Today’s latest issue discusses the double edged nature of virtues. Sometimes a virtue, either taken to excess or cherished too dearly, warps into a vice. The article gives several examples.
Fairness is a virtue. But it’s easy to become obsessive about fairness, especially when it plays in our favor. The article references a father who told his daughter he would miss her birthday because he had a business opportunity. “When she dried her tears, she told him it was OK—as long as he missed her sister’s birthday, too.” Of course, the daughter could have been thinking more selfishly than fairly, but even if the father had made this call himself, it’s hard to say he was acting virtuously. In fact, I imagine with some thought, we could come up with some other reasons why fairness should be tempered (the justice/mercy problem springs to mind).
Another example from the article is agreeableness or niceness, which in more religious terms we could call meekness. Being really nice is good, but when it overtakes being assertive, we can not only harm ourselves, but others as well. As the article points out, people who are agreeable tend to have lower salaries and get fewer promotions, and in some cases can strain romantic relationships because they’re too dependent and clingy.
While the virtues listed in the article serve mainly in the corporate context, Mormonism prizes several virtues that didn’t make this list, such as obedience, faith, and charity. Perhaps these virtues can also morph into vices. Can we become obsessively obedient? Does an excessive reliance on faith corrupt it? Can the compulsive pursuit of charity become a vice?
A lot of elders on my mission liked saying, “If you’re 99% obedient, you’re disobedient.” Not only do I worry about the psychological ramifications of this statement (as, apparently, does Elder Holland), but I wonder if the statement excuses obsessive obedience.
The pharisees are the classic example of over-obedient followers. Not only did they obey the law, but they hedged the law with non-divine rules just to be extra careful. Ironically, as Jesus pointed out, their law hedging made them disobedient, because they became so focused on superfluous details that they lost sight of the actual law itself. Furthermore, their obsessive obedience made them intensely judgmental. (more…)
Consider the following (and somewhat lengthy) sociological analysis of those tendencies toward dogmatism which we associate with correlation:
“The dogmatism which subsequently mushrooms among Mormons is thus already half-prepared by the stasis of critical thought inherent in doctrinal form; but this is only a potential for dogmatism which Mormonism shares even with conventional normal science. If Mormon dogmatism is not a development alien to science itself but a potential it shares with it, why does this potentiality blossom so fully in Mormonism?… (more…)
Is it too much of a stretch to say that any Mormon discussion of the atonement must answer the big three questions: Where are we going? Why are we here? Where did we come from?
One of the authors which has greatly influenced my present ambivalence toward intellectuals and academia is the sociologist Alvin Gouldner. In this post I would like to briefly summarize his critical perspective on academia and then use this perspective in order to reframe various points and episodes from the scriptures.
Before I proceed, I should clear up (muddle up would probably be more accurate) my use of some terms. I have and will continue to use the terms “academia”, “intellectuals”, “scientists”, “philosophers” and “those with a modern mindset” roughly interchangeably. I consider all of these (sub-)groups to be different manifestations of what Gouldner call the Culture of Critical Discourse (CCD). (more…)
Let me lay some cards on the table, if only to provide a bit of context for what I want to say. I am a strong and unequivocal evolutionist who places Darwin at the very core of my philosophical mindset. My relationship to religion, on the other had, is …. complicated. I don’t think any of the standard categories unambiguously matches up with what I think and feel, and I’m somewhat okay with that. I just hope that these confessions serve to clarify rather than obstruct the conversation I hope to have. (more…)
One of the salient contrasts in Lehi’s dream is that between those who cling to the iron rod and those who enter the great and spacious building. On the one hand, the former grope about in a blinding fog, doing their best to find their way along a path which they cannot see. The latter, on the other hand, are (somehow) able to see this path from their vantage point up in the building, but are thus unable to follow it. The question I wish to raise is this: which is more rational, to do without understanding or to understand without doing? Indeed, one can interpret the river which separates the rod from the building as the distance which is required for any kind of “objective” analysis. Obviously, Lehi thinks it better to follow the path rather than survey it from a distance. (more…)
Suppose that the office at which you and 99 other people work asks each of you to individually write down the directions from your respective houses to the office. Suppose further that from these accounts – and only from these accounts – somebody then tries to make a detailed map. How reliable should we expect such a map to be? What purpose should such a map serve that the directions themselves could not? What details should we expect to find in the written directions but not in the map (or vice versa)? Most importantly, which would you rather have if you were simply trying to get to the office from some person’s house? (more…)
One of Neal A. Maxwell’s most memorable themes was that we have nothing but our wills to give God that was not already his. As he put it, “The many other things we ‘give’ are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us” (Neal A. Maxwell, If Thou Endure It Well, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996, pg. 55.). He expounded on this theme frequently and his reasoning seemed to hinge on the idea that whatever thing we think is ours is really God’s because he enabled us to obtain it in one way or other. We could not have it without air to breath, or earth to live on, etc. etc. (more…)
In recent posts I have pointed to the existence of different and in some ways incompatible conceptions of truth. As a brief reminder, I suggested that, roughly speaking, (S)cience sees truth as an accurate picture of the world as it objectively is while (R)eligion sees truth as a path which leads to some destination, i.e. God. In this post I wish to further carve out this distinction and the implications that it has on our conception of divine foreknowledge. (more…)
Editor Note: This guest post was submitted by one of our oldest friends here at New Cool Thang, Jeffrey Gilliam.
For the past few months, I have been struggling with some issues which are very close and dear to my heart. Put bluntly, my faith has been called into question. I find myself overwhelmed with suspicion and doubt, unable to trust so many of the values and beliefs which have become almost second nature to me. I also bear a peculiar mix of pity and resentment for those who have led me astray. While I have concluded that many of the pursuits which I have dedicated myself to most passionately have largely been a waste of time, my feelings are not entirely negative. I do recognize that I will forever treasure the experiences and relationships I have cultivated within the fold from which I now wish to distance myself. More than anything, however, I now face the unknown future with an optimism unlike anything I’ve experienced before, an optimism born of knowing that I am making the right choice.
For those few bloggers who have been interacting with me for the better part of a decade now, this song should sound somewhat familiar to you. You see, this is not the first time that I have abandoned my faith. Roughly 6 years ago, I stunned my friends, family and (at the time) wife by announcing that I no longer believed in God and would no longer continue as a believing Mormon. Various considerations which I will lump together under the banner of “Liberal Science” had persuaded me that the religion of my upbringing was not true and, therefore, must be rejected. (more…)
“We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.”
-2nd Article of Faith
“All mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual”
It is a common claim (see for example Bhodge’s latest excellent post at BCC) the LDS church rejects “original sin”, and rightly so, due to our second article of faith, the belief that Adam and Eve took the fall as a progressive step, and due to our belief that small children are considered not accountable, and thus innocent.
However, one claim I am uncomfortable with, from Blair’s latest post (and I should add the claim is not his, but that of Peter J. Thuesen, is that this somehow allows our faith to escape the situation of an “inherently damnable humanity”, as Hodges quotes. It is, after all, our inherent damnability which is central to the Gospel.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ occurs to reconcile our sinful nature. We sin because we have free will and are weak creatures. The very plan of salvation (come to earth via birth, get a body, be apart from God, have faith, learn to repent, progress towards being heavenly creatures) is set up so that we can progress, and we would not be able to progress without God, we were selected by him to be his children, and he made it his “work and glory” to bring us up to a higher level of existence.
So if Mormonism does not teach the fall causing inherent damnability, it is only because we have removed it as our starting point, and thus moved our personal damnation back to our eternal selves. Our “original sin” truly becomes original to us, with the sin being our inability to achieve the loving nature required of us to live with God.
This does create for us a unique solution, in that our damnation is defined as our inability to attain a certain nature through our own ability, and God’s salvation is his giving us characteristics which we can use to attain to that nature. (A body, the light of Christ, the gift of the Holy Ghost, the power of faith, covenants, the atoning help of Christ).
It also raises questions. If we are eternal, and unable to change, how does it become possible for God to make this change? I don’t really know, but I do believe.