Sunday, July 23, 2017

Understanding Apologetics

A week ago today I posted the ninth installment in the CES Letter series. After sharing it on Facebook, the author of the CES Letter, Jeremy Runnells, commented that LDS Apologists were making his point in the CES Letter and that we should keep it up since we were leading more people out of the Church than we were keeping in (he gave no statistical data to give evidence for the point he was making, so take that with a grain of salt).

The terms "apologetics" and "apologist" are often thrown around by anti-Mormons as a sort of pejorative term, one that deems those who write about LDS issues as apologizing or explaining away objections that are seen as substansial.

This is a misunderstanding of the term. The term "apologetics" comes from the Greek word "apologia" which means "to give a defense." So, an apologist is anyone who defends a particular point of view; since all people have beliefs and opinions they will defend occasionally we are by definition all apologists. Thus, characters like Runnells and John Dehlin are apologists just like their alleged enemies Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen Smoot.

Further, it is worth pointing out that many LDS apologists point out both sides of the story and are trained in the area that they write about  (John Gee is a trained Egyptologist and John Sorenson is a trained anthropologist for example). Runnells simply dismisses these people rather than engaging with them, and so he shows himself to be a bad apologist for anti-Mormonism.
In short, the next time someone calls you an apologist,  flash them a smile and say "So are you."

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Answering Letter to A CES Director #9

Before I start my counterargument in this edition, I would like to thank Stephen Smoot and Brian C. Hales for their help during this series (Smoot wrote #7 and Hales wrote #8). Both are men of great understanding and great faith. In respect to Smoot, few people know as much about the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and early Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture, while still having faith that the two former books are of ancient date and point to the authenticity of the Prophet Joseph Smith's divine mission. I am also convinced that no one knows as much about Joseph Smith's plural marriages as does Brian Hales, and few people have as strong a testimony of the Prophet as he does. His Joseph Smith Polygamy series is one that should be in all Mormon homes so we can have a better understanding of what plural marriage was, what it was not, and how to move forward from there.

After discussing plural marriage for several pages, Letter to A CES Director moves on to pinning the words of past prophets against living prophets, something Ezra Taft Benson warns about in his landmark talk Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet. He uses the examples of the Adam-God theory, blood atonement, plural marriage, blacks and the priesthood, and Mark Hoffman to bolster his thesis that prophets cannot be trusted because they have contradicted each other.

Before getting into the particulars of what Runnells has mentioned, a quote from the Prophet Joseph Smith would be very helpful here:
This morning I read German and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that "a prophet is always a prophet;" but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when acting as such. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 286)

This quote is often used but sadly often forgotten. Everything that comes out of a Prophet's mouth is not the mind and will of the Lord. Prophets are humans, and humans have opinions on things that may be wrong; we all do. If a prophet does not say "Thus saith the Lord" or take up an idea for a sustaining vote, then he is offering his opinion which is not binding on the Church. That is not to say that the prophet cannot give advice that is useful that is non-binding on the church; often he and those sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators will. However, not everything that a prophet says has scriptural stature. B.H. Roberts, a former member of the Presidency of the Seventy, made this point when he said:
"Relative to these sermons [Journal of Discourses] I must tell you they represent the individual views of the speakers, and the Church is not responsible for their teachings. Our authorized Church works are the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. In the Church very wide latitude is given to individual belief and opinion, each man being responsible for his views and not the Church; the Church is only responsible for that which she sanctions and approves through the formal actions of her councils. So it may be that errors will be found in the sermons of men, and that in their over zeal unwise expressions will escape them, for all of which the Church is not responsible.” (Letter written November 4, 1887, London, Millennial Star 49. 48 (November 28, 1887)
There are many wise things in the Journal of Discourses, Conference Sermons, BYU addresses and the like; I and others are often uplifted by what we hear and read in these speeches. But, there is no doctrine of infallibility in this Church, errors can and do happen. We would do well to remember that if an idea is not in scripture or sustained as binding on the Church, then it is an opinion and nothing more.

Brigham Young, Lion of the Lord

The Adam-God theory is an idea that reoccurs often in Anti-Mormon literature; the only thing that occurs more are the ideas of eternal progression and plural marriage. In several sermons, Brigham Young talks about the station of Adam, who we know from modern revelation was also Michael, the Archangel. In one sermon he states that Adam is "our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do." President Young also incorporated this idea into the temple endowment ceremony, but it was removed soon after his death. This view was controversial in President Young's administration, as apostles Orson Pratt and John Taylor repeatedly said that there was no evidence for the idea (Pratt had to be censured by Young before he would stop denying it), and the idea was never sustained as binding on the Church by common consent. Thus, there is and never was an "Adam-God doctrine" only an "Adam-God theory". The idea was also rejected by President Spencer W. Kimball and Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who labeled the theory a "deadly heresy".

It is not clear entirely what President Young meant by this theory. He only spoke of it a few times, and at other times he seemed to contradict the view that Runnells is accrediting him. Even if Brigham Young did believe the doctrine as Runnells is describing, this would only prove what the Prophet Joseph Smith and B.H. Roberts stated previously; that men who lead this Church at times have erroneous ideas and that a prophet is not infallible. So, whether President Young believed the theory or not is of little consequence or interest.

Blood atonement is next mentioned IN short, blood atonement is the teaching that certain sins go beyond the atonement of Christ and a persons blood should be shed if they commit them and to have any chance at redemption. Brigham Young did teach this idea and the idea capital punishment; there is no question in my mind about that. And once again, the teaching was never sustained by common consent. President Young's ideas are not much different from the ones enunciated by Christ himself when he said that some sins were beyond forgiveness (Matt 12:31-32). Considering that Brigham Young claimed to be a special witness of the said Christ, it only makes sense that he would be in agreement with his teachings. Runnells' real problem seems to be with the principle of the atonement itself rather than Brigham Young's teachings on the issue. There are many different theories on the atonement (Compassion, Moral, Penal Substitution, Ransom for example) of which Brigham Young's is only one.

As mentioned previously, Brian Hales did a post on plural marriage in this series which can be found here. I would like to address a quote that Runnells borrows from Brigham Young that is popular in anti-Mormon tracts: "The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter
into polygamy." It would seem based on this quote that men must be polygamists in order to receive exaltation, a belief still held by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, this is not the entire quote. Here is the full quote in context:
Now, we as Christians desire to be saved in the kingdom of God. We desire to attain to the possession of all the blessings there are for the most faithful man or people that ever lived upon the face of the earth, even him who is said to be the father of the faithful, Abraham of old. We wish to obtain all that father Abraham obtained. I wish here to say to the Elders of Israel, and to all the members of this Church and kingdom, that it is in the hearts of many of them to wish that the doctrine of polygamy was not taught and practiced by us. It may be hard for many, and especially for the ladies, yet it is no harder for them than it is for the gentlemen. It is the word of the Lord, and I wish to say to you, and all the world, that if you desire with all your hearts to obtain the blessings which Abraham obtained, you will be polygamists at least in your faith, or you will come short of enjoying the salvation and the glory which Abraham has obtained. This is as true as that God lives. You who wish that there were no such thing in existence, if you have in your hearts to say: “We will pass along in the Church without obeying or submitting to it in our faith or believing this order, because, for aught that we know, this community may be broken up yet, and we may have lucrative offices offered to us; we will not, therefore, be polygamists lest we should fail in obtaining some earthly honor, character, and office, etc.” The man that has that in his heart, and will continue to persist in pursuing that policy, will come short of dwelling in the presence of the Father and the Son, in celestial glory. The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy. Others attain unto a glory and may even be permitted to come into the presence of the Father and the Son; but they cannot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessings offered unto them, and they refused to accept them. (Journal Of Discourses 11: 268-269)
We can see from the quote in its entirety that Brigham Young was not saying that plural marriage had to be entered into in order to go the celestial kingdom, but rather that you had to accept that principle and any other principle the Lord revealed in order to be admitted to that kingdom. Runnells' representation of the quote is plainly dishonest.

The issue of Blacks and the Priesthood is of course near and dear to my heart (I have written on it recently here) as a black Latter-day Saint, and suffice it to say that there is no evidence that the policy came by revelation, though it was ended by revelation. Having said that, I have come to believe that this line of argument is a red herring. The policy is of no interest unless a person affirms that the LDS Church has unique priesthood authority and that the president of the Church holds the keys of that priesthood. Otherwise, who cares if the Church does not give its non-existent power to men of color or anyone else? It is a non-issue because there is no such power.

The case of Mark Hoffman has to do with artifacts, not revelation. The Church, like any other organization, wants to own artifacts related to its history, and assuming that Hoffman had such artifacts they would of course want them. Not being linguists or archaeologists, they were fooled by forgeries. It was an honest mistake, which could happen to anyone. Ancient prophets were also fooled, such as Joshua when the Gibeonites fooled him and escaped being slain in battle (Joshua 9:3-15)

Finally, Runnells mentions to the term "Follow the Prophet." I refer the reader to President Benson's talk mentioned earlier, but with a caution. The term "Follow the Prophet" is a catchy slogan, but it is incomplete. The term should be "Follow the Prophet as he follows and points to Christ." We do not literally follow the prophet around the Earth, or believe his every opinion is binding on us. However, we recognize that he is the only person who can speak for the Lord in everything, has the keys of the priesthood, and the person who has the right to direct the affairs of the Church. We would do well to pray for him and listen to his counsel, but also be aware that everyone can make mistakes and that we will have to revise our view of things (even on major issues) from time to time.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday Traditio: Sharon Eubank

When I took the class Philosophical Issues in Feminism taught by my friend Shannon Mussett, it gave me alot to think about. In fact, not a day goes by now that I do not think of issues relating to women and how they are treated. Unfortunately, we did not talk much about women and religion during the class, although the issue did show up on the periphery.

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that all are equal in the eyes of God (2 Nephi 26:33). However, some have felt that this is untrue since the LDS Church does not ordain women to its lay priesthood. Some, such as Margaret Toscano, have argued that the early Church did ordain women to the priesthood and it is a sign of apostasy that the Church no longer does this.

From my examination of the evidence, I don't think a case can be made that Joseph Smith, Jr. ordained women to the priesthood, and I also believe that priesthood is not something that can be demanded (Numbers 16). That being said, if the president of the Church had a revelation to extend the priesthood to women as well as men, then I would sustain the revelation. But, as the lead-up to the 1978 priesthood revelation showed us, that can only happen when the Lord commands it to. No amount of rallying and screaming will make a revelation come faster. I would also like to be clear that I am not advocating for a revelation of this sort. I am merely saying that I would not oppose a revelation if it did come. I am prepared to go to my grave with situation as it is.

You do not have to have the priesthood to receive the blessings of the restored gospel or to make a difference in the Church. Sharon Eubank, now 1st counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, makes the case for his plainly. Enjoy.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday Traditio: Stephen C. Meyer

This past week, I was discussing the concept of Intelligent Design (I.D.) with my wife. Knowing that I am an ardent Darwinian, she asked whether I thought that evolution was a guided process or a purely random, naturalistic one. This sort of question highlights how many people do not understand what evolutionists are arguing. Mutation is random, evolution is not. Mutation is random because when it happens there is no guarantee it will aid in an organisms survival. However, evolution is not random; it is what organisms must do in order to survive. Also, evolution does not rule out design or belief in God. As Charles Darwin himself said "It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist." (Letter to John Fordyce)

The theory of Intelligent Design argues that purely natural forces are not enough to explain the complexity of biology and cosmology, so there must be some sort of intelligence behind it. Problem is, that takes I.D. out of the realm of science. This intelligence is not falsifiable, so it cannot be considered scientific.

However, as a theist, I do believe in intelligent design (it is lower-cased on purpose). I believe that God created the universe (or more particularly, formed it out of pre-existing material), and thus I believe life is intelligently designed. But, that cannot be proven scientifically; it is a matter of faith and non-scientific reasoning.

That being said, I also believe in allowing others to speak for themselves. One of Intelligent Design's strongest advocates and most eloquent spokesmen is Stephen C. Meyer, head of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. He is the author of two best-selling books about Intelligent Design, Signature in the Cell and Darwin's Doubt. In this lecture, he outlines the arguments of the latter book and why he thinks Neo-Darwinism is a defective theory. I leave it to the listener to decide if he is successful.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Traditio: W. Paul Reeve

Mormonism has had a very uncomfortable relationship with race, especially with African-Americans. They are not unique in this regard; most religions in America have had some sort of problem with a race, sex, or nationality. Religion may (sometimes) come from heaven, but its adherents will deal with the same problems as its non-adherents.

We may sometimes think that we know all about an issue, but then come to find that what we thought we knew was just a small portion of the information that was available. On the issue of race and the priesthood, no one is more knowledgeable on the issue than my friend W. Paul Reeve, professor at history at the University of Utah and author of the landmark book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. In this video he shares his findings, and you are in for more than a few surprises.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

John, really?

I have long ceased to be impressed with John Dehlin, if I was ever impressed in the first place. Why so many people follow him and support him is beyond me. But, who am I to tell John or his followers what to do with their time? Moving on.

John looking like he is doing something

Yesterday, John wrote a new post on his blog discussing how certain core doctrines have been abandoned in the modern LDS Church. I will respond to each.

First, John mentions that the gift of tongues is no longer practiced in the LDS Church. It is true to say that certain aspects of the gift are not openly practiced (I would not go so far to say it is not practiced at all, beyond my observational scope), but to say it is not practiced at all is silly. Part of the gift of tongues is the ability to comprehend and speak other languages; thousands of missionaries show every day that this gift is still alive and well.

Next, John mentions that the Church does not talk about the Second Coming and the millennium and both are not emphasized as much as they were in the early days. However, this is not really as new as John makes it out to be. In the early days, Saints lived in a millenialist culture where most Christians believed the end was near. But, after that generation passed the emphasis calmed down. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, according to his son Joseph F. McConkie, often said the Second Coming would not happen in his lifetime. No one knows when the Lord's return will happen, and it is not wise to be focused solely on it when God wants us to live for the future.

The concept "Zion" means multiple things in the scriptures, but John wants to redact it simply to mean living the law of consecration here and now. Had John taken his temple covenants seriously, he would know that in some ways we still live the law of consecration (although not fully). Also, John seems to think that the Church has renounced the belief that Zion will be built on this continent (that would be news to me). Zion will be built when we are ready, sadly we are not yet. Hugh Nibley reminded us vividly of that.

John goes on to attack the Book of Mormon, stating that the early Saints thought it talked about the Indians, and the Church recently changed its stance on that. Problem is, the text does not say the book is written to Indians; that was an interpretation that Saints of the time gave of the text, a metatext as anthropologist, Daymon Smith, writes in his first volume of A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon. The cover page of the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the book is written to all people, not just the remnant of the house of Israel:

Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations—And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ. (Book of Mormon Title Page)
The topic of becoming like God has not been abandoned at all; the Church recently released an essay on the topic and the concept is also taught in the temple. So, this claim is patently false.

Dehlin concludes by saying that prophet, seers, and revealtors, do not manifest any of the gifts. How he knows that, he doesn't say. True, the church has not canonized a revelation since 1978 (Dehlin says 1918, 60 years out of date), but John is guilty of equivocation to assume that because a revelation is not canonized that revelation does not exist.

Many of these claims are made in anti-Mormon tracts that you find on street corners when you attend General Conference. With a PhD in psychology, you would think Dehlin would be better than a street preacher. But, as always, Dehlin disappoints and shows that in the third year of being an excommunicant he still has not grown up. Get over yourself John.

Review of "More than the Tattooed Mormon"

I had been interested in the story of Al Carraway ever since I saw her on the cover of LDS Living ( a magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). She stood out because of her many tattoos (although after reading her book she would not care to hear that), and I knew that something was different about her. So, when I saw her book More than the Tattooed Mormon on Amazon, I jumped at the chance to read it, and I am glad that I did.

The book is divided into two sections and starts off with Al telling her story, which outlines her childhood and growing up in upstate New York, meeting LDS missionaries, her journey to the state of Utah, trying to fit in as a new convert, and her marriage to her husband Ben. The second section is a quasi-coaching section, one that is focused more on the reader than on Al's story, though her story is mixed into showing how a principle works.

Several things stand out about this book. First, Al is a thorough-going optimist, and that comes through every page of the book. Even when she describes some of her darker moments, such as being rejected by her family and friends after her conversion to the LDS Church (thankfully not forever), you can still tell that she is smiling through the tears.

While Al is an optimist, she is still a very real person, admitting her weaknesses and fears to her readers. For example, she mentions that she often yelled at God when she was frustrated with how things were going in her life (she is much braver than I am, I couldn't yell at God). Also, she talks openly about being a sort of social outcast after coming to Utah due to her tattoos. As a black member of the LDS Church, I too know that some members (luckily not most) can be insensitive and make you question whether joining the Church or moving to Utah were big mistakes. Luckily, she knew what she wanted and was able to push through it.

There is one flaw in her book, and that flaw is ironically the strength of the book. As I mentioned, Al is an optimist, and we can see why through reading her book; while she had many struggles, in the end it all worked out. Her family has become friendly with her, people began to accept her, she got married, and she is now somewhat of a celebrity. I am glad that this happened, but I would remind her that this does not happen for everyone. Some families turn their backs forever, some are eternal outcasts, and some die alone. While optimism has a place and is a virtue, so are skepticism and pessimism, because reality lies there most of the time. However, Al does point this out in the end, but it is done very briefly and it could have been discussed more.

Overall, Al's book is worth the read and your spirit will be uplifted. You will find yourself laughing, crying, smiling, and having more hope in the future by the time you finish the book. I look forward to Al's next book which will be released in the fall, Cheers to Eternity.