Sunday, November 13, 2016

Mormonism as a Big Tent: A Response to Josh Valentine (Part Three)

In his third installment about how the LDS Church prepares it members for atheism, Josh Valentine focuses on the exclusive claims of Mormonism; how the Mormon faith claims that it alone is in full possesion of the Christianity preached by Jesus of Nazareth. Valentine writes:
"Mormonism teaches against any traditional form of Christianity with every unique teaching and claim it presents as superior to Christian teachings and claims. LDS authority, teachings, ordinances, organization, gospel, and Holy Spirit are, at best, supplemental to Christian ignorance or, worse, restoration of things lost in traditional Christianity. Or, worse still, the LDS Church is the only truth among corrupted Christianity. Christianity claims its teachings are true and other religions are false.  However, Mormonism does not just claim that it is true and Christianity is false, but that, as it is the restoration of Christianity, Christianity is not just false but corrupted."
Close quote. On one hand Valentine is right, Mormonism does claim that it alone holds the authority to act in the name of God (the priesthood), that it in possession of the pure doctrines of Christ, and that Jesus of Nazareth approves of the Church as his bride and representative (D&C 1:30). On the other hand, this is a short-sighted view. The LDS Church, while believing that it has the truth, does no condemn non-believers to hell. Rather, as Section 76 states, everyone will be rewarded according to the acts they have done and will be happy about it in the end.

Also, Valentine's first claim is false; there is overlap between traditional Christianity and Mormonism in several areas. Among them are the inspiration of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth (some Mormons, like myself do not believe in this), the atonement, and the resurrection. While it is true that Mormonism has a distinct way of teaching these doctrines, this is also true of Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. Even within these groups there is much division on things, such as whether or not Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist (communion).

Perhaps Valentine's best argument is this one:
"Here are two subtle dynamics in Mormonism that are related to the undermining of other theist options. First, the LDS Church does not give any reasons to believe in God outside of Mormonism.....Second, the prayer experience epistemology of Mormonism, its fideist basis for belief, like all fideism, implicitly denies that there is any good enough reason to believe in God."
Close quote. I wonder if Valentine has ever read the Book of Mormon, because if he had he would know that Alma confronts Korihor, an agnostic atheist, with arguments that appeal to natural theology (Alma 30). Second, prophets generally do not present arguments for God's existence; that is the job of philosophers and theologians. Prophets deliver messages from God, they presuppose that their audience believes in the being that that say spoke to them. Thirdly, how does praying to know about the Book of Mormon or to know that God exists undermine rational theism? I have both intellectual and spiritual reasons for believing as I do, and I am sure others do.
Thomas Aquinas, whose five ways work with Mormon theology

I would recommend that if anyone thinks that Mormons do not believe in arguments for the existence of God, that they consult the work of my friend and mentor Blake Ostler or his friend and mentor David Paulsen.

Well, we are through 3 posts of Valentine's and I am still a Mormon and a theist. Perhaps the good arguments come later....

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Fideism and Simplicity: Response to Joshua Valentine (Part Two)

In his second post about how Mormonism prepares its members to be atheists, Joshua Valentine moves from the realm of science to the realm of epistemology; the branch of philosophy that deals with how we obtain knowledge. He states:
"The LDS epistemology sets its members up to turn against faith and thus embrace atheistic rationalism.  While Mormonism is not strictly speaking a fideistic religion, it relies heavily upon some principles of fideism.  For members of the LDS Church, ultimate truth is not discovered, recognized, or even approached by study, evidence, logic, or history.  Moroni10 PrayerThese are only an optional means ultimately to lead a person to pray about the Book of Mormon and the current LDS prophet to learn that the LDS Church is true.  Once this testimony is gained by prayer, it is regarded as transcendent or invulnerable to any and all evidence against the object of faith – the LDS Church and its gospel.  LDS religious epistemology is fideistic in that this prayer-testimony experience, like faith received in fideism, is independent of the world as it actually is."

First of all, Mormonism does not have an official systematized epistemology, so the idea that it is fideistic rather than scientific or otherwise is an assertion without evidence. Also, there have been philosophers and theologians who have stressed that knowledge does not come just by faith in the LDS tradition (B.H. Roberts, Blake Ostler, James E. Talmage). However, it is true to say that Mormons believe that some truths can only come from God (knowledge of the Book of Mormon as a translated document, Joseph Smith being a prophet). Thus, the LDS tradition, like most religious traditions in the west, distinguish between truths of revelation and truths of reason. Revealed truth would be those talked about above, the latter would be truths like the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, the evidence of Jesus' existence, etc. As my friend Ron Poulton told me once, you need reason in your revelation and revelation in your reason. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Second, Valentine shows a very shallow awareness of how Mormons approach truth. In Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants it states:
"And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith."
So, it would appear based on their own scripture that Mormons do not believe that knowledge comes from faith alone. A person who looks at the temple ceremony would notice that it is a very logic-based ceremony with its teaching, repetition, and progression only after one is sure the former parts are understood.

On another note, and perhaps I should have mentioned this first, Valentine does not give a definition of faith, so how can he say that Mormonism is only faith-based when we have no way of checking whether his definition is correct? Many people think that faith is belief without evidence, but this is a very hollow and shallow definition. Faith is belief with evidence but not proof.

Valentine mentions that once a testimony is obtained, it cannot be attacked. Obviously that is not true, because he is doing that right now. But also, this sort of thing shows that religious experience, like the experience of sexual attraction, is subjective rather than objective. In the case of any counter evidence, why should a Mormon doubt their experience? Science can show us how things happen in the nervous system, but it cannot show us whether or not God was behind the experience. Valentine also fails to account that Christians, such as philosopher William Lane Craig, also state that it is the spiritual manifestation that will move a person to Christ, not just intellectual curiosity.

Valentine continues:
"Mormonism also shuns all mystery.  If a religious truth is mysterious, it is because of the ignorance of man.  If it is confusing, it is because it is of Satan.  Mormonism assumes that truth is simple and understandable to the mind of man."
Um, no.

There are many mysteries in Mormonism (is matter intelligent or does intelligence its own principle, how does Resurrection occur, how does God progress from one sphere to another). What Mormons do not believe however is what St. Augustine said about the divine "If you understand, that is not God." Mormons, unlike their Christian counterparts, do not believe that God is unknowable or beyond comprehension (which the Bible does not teach). So, while there are mysteries to be solved, the Trinity is not one of them. In fact, the Trinity is not a mystery; it is Platonism with a Christian face.

Valentine is taking on a very caricatured version of Mormonism, but most of his claims are fallacious in this post. Maybe he will do better next week.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Thank You President Barack Obama: From a Conservative

Next week we will participate in an election that it seems few are excited about but most agree is very important. Enough words have been said about the predicament we are in, so all I will say about it is research the candidates both local and national, and pick the person who would be the best out of what is available.

Today, however, I want to thank the man who will soon be leaving office and returning to private life: President Barack Obama. With all the pessimism that is going on in the current election, perhaps I can add a small dose of optimism (odd coming from a pessimist).
President Barack Obama

I was 17 and unable to vote when President Obama was elected November 4, 2008. That election was memorable for several reasons. While most of my friends were hoping that then Senator Obama would be elected, I was supporting Senator John McCain. Most of my black friends called me a disgrace to the black race for not supporting Senator Obama, even though I often pointed out that they had little knowledge of his policy proposals and had not done their homework. Further, even though I did not ideologically agree with most of what Senator Obama was proposing, I always remember being impressed with the good man he was and how he handled the press. He was always thoughtful and kind, even when he was not allowed to finish a sentence without being interrupted.

Finally November 4th came and while in church at Vine-Life Christian Fellowship, my former pastor Robert L. Wilks, Jr. announced to the congregation that Senator Obama was now President-elect. The congregation (entirely black) erupted with cheers as though Jesus of Nazareth had returned to Earth. I sat there and thought about what it all meant. Upon arriving home and watching President-elect Obama give his victory speech, I remember seeing the tears in my grandmother's eyes and being grateful that she and my grandfather who had lived through the Civil Rights movement were able to see this momentous occasion. Only four years earlier I had asked my grandfather if he thought the United States would ever have a black president. His response had been "Not in my lifetime." I am sure that he had never been so happy to have been wrong.

After his inauguration, I wondered if President Obama would be as idealistic as when he had been a candidate. To my surprise and relief, he was far more pragmatic than idealistic. Two incidents point out to me that President Obama is more center-right than the socialist ideologue that the right (and myself at times) had portrayed him as. First, his views on healthcare. I had thought that if elected he would try to enact a single-payer system. Instead, he enacted Bob Dole's healthcare bill from the 90's, which is a market-based system. Second, I had thought that it was impractical to withdraw all troops from Iraq. President Obama rethought this and kept a significant number of troops there as he moved more troops into Afghanistan. In fact, if there is one theme that has characterized his presidency, it has been pragmatism over idealism, a trait those on the right highly value (or we used to anyway).

Do not get the impression that I am with President Obama on all of his ideas because that is not the case. I am highly disappointed in his continued use of torture, and in his reckless spending and constitutional overreach (such as trying to executive order amnesty). His calling conservatives his enemies has also annoyed me, considering that I have wished him nothing but the best during his time in office. And finally, his lack of admitting mistakes or lying about them has also been disheartening (Benghazi). However, overall I would give him a B for his time in office.

As citizens of the United States, we often underestimate what a burden the commander in chief bears on their shoulders. This job is a mostly thankless one, your side of the aisle often thinks you are not doing enough, the other side wishes that you did not exist. When anything bad happens, you are responsible, even if there was nothing you could do about it. Working with Congress is often difficult if not impossible. In addition to all this, President Obama has had to deal with an unprecedented amount of disrespect because he happens to be black. Some may say he hasn't, but what other president has been interrupted as much as he has in interviews, had governors literally get in his face pointing their fingers, been called a non-Christian, while also being called the most radical president in history when their is no evidence to support that claim? In spite of all of this, President Obama has remained calm, cheerful, and approached the job with vigor and vision. If no one on the right will say it, this man has done a good job during these eight years.

From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank President Obama for the service he has given these past 8 years, and given the options we have next Tuesday it is a shame that a third term is not an option. More important than being a good president, President Obama is a good man. I wish him all the best as he finishes his term and then returns to private life. Well done, Mr. President.