Sunday, February 26, 2017

Answering Letter to A CES Director- #2

Since beginning this series, I have gotten praise from certain people such as historian Daniel C. Peterson, as well as criticism from people who don't feel the need to use their real names when attempting to refute my claims in comments. I even made a new friend with a textual critic who studied under New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (a scholar I highly recommend). I thank all for reading my posts, and hopefully if nothing else my writing is interesting and entertaining. Perhaps not, but one can always hope.

Before beginning this post, I would like to share an experience I had this week with some friends online. I shared an article on Facebook where biologist Richard Dawkins said that in certain circumstances he did not blame pedophiles for their practice, and even said it was not always harmful. My friend Taylor then pointed out that Joseph Smith, Jr. was married to very young women in his thirties, although I and others pointed out that such was not illegal in his time, even if it was not the most common, and we have no evidence of offspring from these marriages. One thing that stuck out to me was something my friend Egyptologist Stephen Smoot said:
Ultimately though, you are correct that in most cases it really does come down to who you are going to believe: Joseph Smith or his antagonists (both, of course, having their own respective motives and biases for making the claims they did). I cannot decide for you or anyone else who to believe. What I can do is merely emphasize that this is the situation we presently find ourselves in.
Close quote. This statement is similar to the one philosopher of science Michael Ruse makes at the end of his book Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know (which I reviewed here ), that what we choose to believe in the end is a moral decision as much as it is an evidence decision. Do we want to live in a world where God exists, where he sent his Son to make an atonement for our sins, and where he speaks through flawed and imperfect men, or do we want to live in some other kind of world? I myself, after looking at the evidence, choose the former world. Some, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, who famously said he wanted atheism to be true because he didn't want there to be a god in the universe, choose the latter. What we choose to believe in is a choice, and has consequences. When it comes to these issues, I hope that my readers carefully examine the evidence, from sophisticated believers and unbelievers alike, and make a prayerful decision about what to do from there. If nothing else, I hope I can help facilitate that process.

Without any further ado, lets move on to the next claims in Letter to a CES Director.  Claims 2-3 have to do with King James version verses being in the Book of Mormon, which I addressed in the first post, so I will not go through that again in detail. I will note that Runnells does not engage the fact that there are significant differences between the Isaiah text in the Book of Mormon versus the Isaiah text in the Bible; there are significant differences there. Also, the Sermon on the Mount has significant differences between the two texts as well. None of this is addressed in the CES Letter. 

Claim 4: DNA analysis has concluded that Native American Indians do not originate from the Middle East or from Israelite's but rather from Asia.  Why did the Church change the following section of the introduction page in the 2006 edition Book of Mormon shortly after the DNA results were released? 
“…the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians”  to  “…the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians

This is a popular claim that is made against the Book of Mormon, and it is one of the most easily refuted. Some, even perhaps the Prophet Joseph Smith, believed that the Lamanites were the ancestors of those we incorrectly call the American Indians. However, a careful reading of the text shows that there are no claims that that is the case. Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni nowhere state that their people are the only people who are on the continent, or thatall those on the continent are there offspring. This is a folklore belief, not a textual admission. The narrative states that a two small colonies came this continent after being directed here, and that they built cities and civilizations,that is all. As a convert, I was shocked that many Mormons believed (and many still do) that the Lamanites were the principle ancestors of the American Indians because that claim is not made in the text.

As for the introduction page, that was authored by Bruce R. McConkie, and represents his opinions on the matter. But others, such as Anthony W. Ivins, have pointed out before that introduction was penned that the text does not say that Lehi and his descendants were the only persons on this continent. So, while Elder McConkie was right on other things, he was wrong on that issue and the Church edited the introduction. I know this is hard for some to believe, but not all our beliefs are made because of scientific data. Folklore rubs off on even the best of us.

Claim 5: Anachronisms:  Horses, cattle, oxen, sheep, swine, goats, elephants, wheels, chariots, wheat, silk, steel, and iron did not exist in pre-Columbian America during Book of Mormon times.  Why are these things mentioned in the Book of Mormon as being made available in the Americas between 2200 BC - 421 AD?

An anachronism, for those unfamiliar with the term is, is something being in a text before it would have been known to the people in the text. For example, if a book before the 1800's has cars in it, we can conclude that the text is either fictional or non-historical because there were no cars at that time. Similarly, some claim that things like horses being in the Book of Mormon are anachronistic because these things were not introduced to Indians until Columbus and others came to the American continent.

Brant A. Gardner, an anthropologist, states:
LDS scholars have approached the issue of anachronisms in multiple ways, and the verse with both horses and chariots provides a convenient way to describe the two major approaches. One explanation has been to search for reasons the anachronism wasn't actually anachronistic. For example, contrasted to the common knowledge that there were no horses in the Americas prior to the Spanish Conquest, some scholars have argued that there were pre-Columbian horses...... The use of words that have no counterpart in ancient culture is a larger category of potential anachronisms than the mention of plants and animals that are presently unknown to have been on the American continents before its European discovery in the late fifteenth century. These items a better explanation in the fact that the Book of Mormon is a translation rather than an original document. It is entirely possible to have an anachronism in a translation that was not present in the original. (A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and History pg. 34-35)
Close quote. So, some things we consider anachronistic simply are not. There is evidence that horses were on this continent, though not in abundance, before the arrival of Columbus, and the idea I mentioned in the first post also applies. The Book of Mormon is an expansion of a text that is written for our day, not a word for word translation. It is written in our language and understanding, not the language of the ancients. It is written in a way that makes sense to us, as we are familiar with certain things. Had it been a word for word translation, things would have been different. Also, it should be kept in mind that the Book of Mormon is not a text to tell us about ancient American civilization; it is not a history book, although it is historical. It is a testament of Jesus Christ that is supposed to lead us to a further understanding of his doctrines and teachings.

Further Reading: A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History edited by Laura Harris Hales, The Handbook of Mormonism edited by Terryl Givens & Phillip L. Barlow, Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins by John E. Clark, Science and the Book of Mormon: Cureloms, Cumoms, Horses & More by Wade E. Miller

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review of "The Pursuits of Philosophy: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of David Hume"

As a Hume scholar in training, I often wonder what is the best introductory text to those unfamiliar with his work. Hume: A Very Short Introduction by A.J. Ayer is too lecture oriented for most people and doesn't get at Hume's distinctive doctrines enough, though it is well written. How to Read Hume by Simon Blackburn is a good place to start, but Blackburn's personal agenda does get in the way from time to time. Don Garrett's book Hume is a wonderful book, but too scholarly for the layman. What is a potential Hume reader to do?

If Hume is God's gift to the infidel, then Annette C. Baier is God's gift to the potential Hume reader and scholar alike. Her book The Pursuits of Philosophy: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of David Hume is, and this is not propaganda, the best introductory text to Hume that is currently available. Hume himself would love it.

Baier approaches Hume through his own autobiography, My Own Life, which he wrote shortly before his death.  In it, Hume mentions his early childhood, his unhappiness with anything besides studying philosophy, the failure of his A Treatise of Human Nature to have the revolution in philosophy he had hoped it would, the writing of his first and second Enquiries, and finally an evaluation of himself that is fair to the man he was throughout his life. What I find fascinating about Hume's autobiography is the fact that he considers himself just a simple man rather than one of the great philosophers of all time. A man to whom the word humble can honestly be applied.

The book is divided into 7 chapters, each of which begins by quoting heavily from My Own Life, and then giving more background than Hume gives in his short piece. One of the things that is repeatedly mentioned are Hume's religious beliefs, or his lack thereof. As I mentioned earlier, Hume is known within philosophy as "God's gift to the infidel", and I am not sure that the title is warranted. While pointing out that Hume was obviously not a Christian, Baier seems to try to make the case that Hume was a sort of Richard Dawkins of his time, but then at the end pulls back and says that Hume was not an atheist. She never points out that when talking about religion, Hume never takes a firm position, and also that he often is asking why we believe in certain things, not if they are true or not.

Aside from that, Baier's book is very thorough, simple, and a joy to read. Her chapter on Hume's Treatise is better than the introduction given in the Oxford edition of the book, because she makes Hume's main points and leaves one hungry for more. You see in each chapter that Hume's doctrines are rich and deep, and that reading her book alone will not really bring you to a knowledge of Hume. You have only just gotten started, but you feel anxious to go out and buy Hume's books. That is perhaps this books selling point: If you want to know if Hume is worth a read, you will probably know by the end of the book.

At 144 pages, Baier's book is accessible to even the casual reader and should be on the shelf of all those who call themselves disciples of Hume. A lovely work which I cannot recommend highly enough.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Belief and Behavior: The Ontological Non-Existence of Persecuted Mormons

John Dehlin, Mormon Stories Podcast host, and Patrick Q. Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, have re-started their joint blog on Patheos after a hiatus, which can be found here. This time their discussion centered around if someone could stay in the Church if they did not believe central LDS doctrinal tenets, and also whether there was unfair persecution of those who had discovered things about the Church and posted them online, and if they had been treated unfairly. Mason commented that in Europe and other places, people do not care about doctrine as much, so the Church could emphasize other things, although he did recognize that most members of the LDS Church were in the Church because they affirmed the doctrine taught.

After he had his say, Dehlin said:
Patrick — Your thoughtful response fills me with many mixed and strong emotions.
On the one hand, it also seems true to me that the importance of religious doctrine is in decline in many regions worldwide — including within Mormonism.  Personally, I remember how important and/or exciting many Mormon teachings were to me when I was a believer, including:
That my friends and ancestors who died without a Mormon baptism could be baptized after their death in a Mormon temple,
That my family would persist into the next life, and
That I could become a God some day.
Those teachings were thrilling to me (at the time).
But I also remember feeling deeply conflicted by other Mormon doctrines:
That the Mormon church was the only legitimate church on earth (D&C 1:30),
That Native and African-Americans were cursed by God with dark skin (2 Nephi, 5:21),
That God did not want women to lead the church,
That I would be required to be a polygamist in heaven (D&C 132:61), and
That same-sex marriage is an act of apostasy, and that the children of same-sex married couples are not welcome in the Mormon church.
These latter doctrines seem(ed) actually harmful to me, and became untenable over time. Consequently, it has brought me a small amount of comfort over the past decade to see the Mormon church backpedal away from some of these doctrines, likely due to the influence of the Internet. (For a great read on how many Mormon doctrines have changed over the years, I highly recommend Charles Harrell’s book, This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology.)
And while this doctrinal backpedaling seems to be positive in some respects, I believe you are correct that within Mormonism, many distinctive Mormon doctrines continue to matter — a lot.
That was my own experience when I became public about my doubts regarding an anthropomorphic God, the literal resurrection of Jesus, or the historicity of the Book of Mormon — or when I became publicly supportive of same-sex marriage and of female ordination. Within a very short time of sharing these views publicly, I was hauled into my bishop and stake president’s offices, grilled about my unorthodox position on each of these teachings — and ultimately was told, very explicitly, that I could not remain a member in good standing with these doubts and doctrinal positions. I was told that I either had to stay silent about them, or I would be excommunicated (which was my fate in 2015).
In addition to my own experience, I have many friends who have received similarly harsh and punitive treatment by Mormon leaders for expressing doubts or disbelief about the very issues you claim are acceptable under the Mormon “Big Tent,” including Jake and Amy Malouf who were harassed and disciplined for supporting same-sex marriage, Kirk and Lindsay Van Allen who were harassed and disciplined for openly expressing disbelief regarding the doctrine of Mormon polygamy (yes, many active Mormons still believe in polygamy, and it remains doctrinal), and Marisa and Carson Calderwood were excommunicated for doubting that Joseph Smith was God’s prophet, that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record, and that the Mormon church is God’s “one true church.”
And these cases are not isolated. I have personally spoken over the years with hundreds of Mormons who have been threatened with excommunication or officially disciplined for posting doubts and concerns regarding central Mormon doctrine on Facebook, or on other social media.
How do we square these experiences of coercion, control, and rejection with your experience of tolerance and acceptance?
Perhaps the most troubling part of what you wrote (for me) was this excerpt, “Generally the issue is less what you think than what you say.” To this point, I would say that this is an incredibly sad reality for many to face. Yes, modern Mormons are “allowed” to have doubts or alternative views, but for the most part they are forced to remain silent about these views or face the risk of punishment, public shaming, and possibly excommunication from the church.
To me, a Christian church that silences people with fear and intimidation does not exhibit the virtues of Christ.
You are correct that occasionally a local liberal leader will emerge who shows flexibility on these points, and is willing to turn their head at unorthodoxy (so to speak), but the inconsistency of enforcement is also deeply troubling for many….and is unjust at a fundamental level.
As I close this part of the discussion, I also cannot help but wonder what the purpose of Joseph Smith’s ministry and martyrdom was — if so many of his distinctive teachings are to be slowly whittled away from the church’s modern doctrinal canon. Whether it be the central narrative of the Book of Mormon (that Native Americans descend from a cursed people), or Joseph’s canonized teachings regarding the “new and everlasting covenant” of plural marriage (a doctrine for which he ultimately died), or the doctrine that men and women ultimately become Gods — my formerly-orthodox-brain can’t help but wonder what Joseph Smith lived and died for — if so much of his central doctrines are to be whittled away from the church he founded.  Would Joseph Smith even recognize the church that he founded (in a doctrinal sense)?
As you can see, your response struck me in very personal way. I apologize for the heat. I hope we can explore these matters more in depth over the coming weeks and months, and I sincerely appreciate you providing a place for us to acknowledge and work through these issues.
Close quote. Several things need clarification here. First of all, while religion is in decline in many areas in the west (religion is growing in Africa, and many parts of Asia), the religions that emphasize doctrine tend to hold steady while those who embrace the Bishop Shelby Spong idea of moving away from doctrine tend to decline even more rapidly. Simply put, doctrine is why religion matters to begin with. If a person does not believe in the Book of Mormon as a historical, inspired text, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the keys of the priesthood reside in the LDS Church, why would you want to stay? You would be giving hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to an organization in which you do not believe. The Church is not a social group, and staying for social reasons will end in leaving anyway, because relations change while truth does not.

Second, John is infamous for being the poster boy of the so-called "Persecuted Mormons", those who are disfellowshipped or excommunicated due to their beliefs. There is just one little problem with Persecuted Mormons: They do not ontologically exist; they are fictional.

All members know that openly attacking priesthood leaders or attempting to make the Church look bad in print or online constitutes apostasy; it is not a secret of which these people are unaware. You can be true to history and not be attacking the Church as Leonard Arrington, Richard L. Bushman, and W. Paul Reeve have shown in their books.

Third, no one is brought to a trial because of their beliefs because that is simply impossible. Beliefs reside within a person's brain and are inaccessible to others because they are subjective. The only way I know about your beliefs is if you tell me about them. John knows as much because as he said, he was only talked to by priesthood leaders after making the beliefs public. See the difference? John talked about his beliefs in a public forum and tried to convince others that he was right and the Church was in error, and then claimed he was persecuted. There is a difference between belief and action. Except when interviewed for a specific purpose (temple recommend, calling, etc), you are free to believe what you want. Most, if not all members have questions and or doubts at some point in their life; that is part of being a primate that has not evolved to understanding all things (the author includes himself in that category.) The Church gets involved when person's beliefs become behaviors that include trying to convince others that Church teachings are in error, as John and those he mentioned all did. The Church has the privilege to sever people from the organization when they are becoming toxic to it, just as in any other healthy relationship. There are no "Persecuted Mormons".

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Answering Letter To A CES Director- # 1

A few weeks ago, my friend and former missionary companion Jaxon Munns messaged me on Facebook saying that he and a colleague planned to respond to the infamous Letter to A CES Director in BYU Studies, and asked if I would help, which I am of course happy to do. For those not familiar with it, Letter to A CES Director (also commonly called the CES Letter) is a pdf/book by Jeremy T. Runnells outlining things related to church history and doctrine that he found concerning, and that eventually led to the loss of his testimony. He eventually sent the text to an Institute  Director, who told him the points were valid and that he would be responded to, but the director never got back to him. Since its publication, hundreds if not thousands of people have read the CES Letter and many have lost their faith in the Lord and in the Church over it (I have at least one friend who has). The text of the book can be read for free here. Since writing the book, the author has resigned from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after a disciplinary council which he recorded and published on YouTube, which can be found here.

As a person with knowledge of church doctrine and history and as a convert to the Church who has read a plethora of anti-Mormon material, I feel I have a duty to not only help Jaxon with his project, but also to go claim by claim through Runnells' text and respond to them. Runnells' claims are not new; anyone familiar with Church history will be aware of them, or ought to be. These posts are not against the man himself; I have talked to Runnells a few times over Facebook, and I came away feeling that he was a sincere skeptic and overall a nice man, although I thought it was inappropriate for him to post his disciplinary council online.

Before I get started with the rebuttal, I would like to point out two lessons I have learned that I think will be helpful to my readers and those struggling with the claims that Runnells and others have made through their books, videos, and memes. The first comes from philosopher Edward Feser, author of the books The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, Aquinas, and Locke among many others. In an interview with Catholic Answers Live, Feser mentioned to a caller that although there are questions that one can reasonably raise against the Roman Catholic Church (Feser is a devout Catholic), it does not follow that the questions cannot be answered. The same goes for the LDS Church, it is true that there are good questions that can be asked, but it does not mean that the questions cannot be answered, or that if one person does not know the answer, that no one knows the answer. Members who have questions now and in the future should realize this before they leave over a question or concern they have.

The second lesson comes from my friend historian W. Paul Reeve, author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. Over lunch one day he mentioned that he often had students ask him questions, but that they often wanted quick responses while some questions required lengthy responses. While we all at some point or another want our questions answered quickly, many times we will need to do some reading (or occasionally, quite a bit of reading) before we get an answer. At the end of each of my posts, I will post some material that engages with the question in mind that has been written by a scholar on that issue so one does not have to take my word as the definitive answer.

Because Runnells makes multiple claims under a single issue, I will address each claim in the book, but I will only do one at a time so my readers will have time to digest each issue. Without further delay, let's begin.

Claim one: What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon?  An ancient text?  Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?

The claim here is that because the Book of Mormon is supposed to be an ancient text, there should not be any similarities in the text to the King James Version of the Bible, and if there are any, there should not be any errors in the text that is mentioned.

While the Book of Mormon was said by the Prophet Joseph Smith to be "the most correct of any book on Earth" (Book of Mormon Introduction), it does not follow that there are no errors in the book, or that the book cannot be better than it is. Anticipating this problem, Moroni states in the Book of Mormon Title Page:
And now if there are any faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore condemn not the things of God, that ye be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ
Close quote. Before one even gets to First Nephi, Moroni tells us that there are errors in the text. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who understands human nature. We all make mistakes, and prophets and historians are no different. In other words, it would be a shock to read a religious text or any other kind of text that did not have errors in it. The Book of Mormon was not written by God, who is a perfected being, but by men who were inspired by Him, who are far from perfect even in their best state.

Now, the substance of the question is not whether there are errors in the text, but why this particular error. The most common explanation is that translation is interpretation, meaning that when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, he probably saw that some of the text was different than what he was accustomed to and made changes to it that brought it in accordance with what he was familiar with and what those of his era were also familiar with. None of his scribes mention the Prophet having a Bible out during the translation process, so the corrections were more than likely done during the editing process. The Book of Mormon itself was not in King James English; remember that translations are interpretations relative to the translators language and culture, so it is no surprise that some of the text has a familiar spirit if you will.

Additional reading: A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and History edited by Laura Harris Hales (Chapter 3), Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman (Chapter 3), An Other Testament: On Typology by Joseph M. Spencer, Book of Mormon Translation Gospel Topics Essay, The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Document by Blake T. Ostler

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review of "The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion"

In an interview with Blake Ostler, Mormon theologian Sterling McMurrin mentioned that he thought that the texts that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used in its Sunday School were of a childish nature, this being the case because they did not focus on theology or argument for what the adherents believed. This interview took place in 1981, but in 1965 he had published a groundbreaking book that could serve as an excellent Sunday school text: The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

It is common for Mormons to connect their religious beliefs to the ancient Christian Church of the 1st and 2nd century before the so called "Great Apostasy." Following along with this line of thinking, McMurrin connects Mormonism to the 4th century monk Pelagius, showing how their approach to religion, unlike most modern Christianity, is more naturalistic, finitistic, and humanistic. Furthermore, McMurrin points out that Mormonism is like a melting pot (though he does not use that phrase) in that in borrows much of the language of traditional Christianity and then turning them upside down by redefining them so much that most other Christian sects will refer to Mormons as heretical Christians at best.

The book itself is only 140 pages, so while it is not very long it has more depth than what is covered in an average Sunday school class. The text is a compilation of prior essays McMurrin had given and they are somewhat philosophically technical, but he often clarifies by giving definitions, so whether one is a trained philosopher or a novice, the book is enjoyable. McMurrin can be a bit dry at times, but he is clear and you come away with a greater appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of Mormon theology.

Divided into 5 parts, McMurrin starts with metaphysics, or study of prime reality. McMurrin contrasts and explains monism (reality as one substance, a view held by Spinoza) with pluralism (a view held by William James), showing how Mormonism, due to its dualistic belief in the soul, falls in the pluralism category. The priesthood, which McMurrin points out exists independently of God, also shows that strictly speaking Mormons cannot be monists. McMurrin sums up this distinction aptly when he states:
It is perhaps not entirely inaccurate to describe Mormonism as a kind of naturalistic, humanistic, theism. (The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion pg.3)
Close quote. For this reason, though McMurrin does not state this outright, Mormonism has more in common with scientific naturalists than it does with traditional Christians at times, maybe even most of the time.

Part two moves from prime reality to God himself and his nature within Mormonism. In contrast to an infinite and eternal God as in classical theology, Mormonism embraces a finite conception of God, which means that he came to be God rather than always being God, as within traditional Christianity. A major theme that runs through this book is that Mormonism is simply much different than traditional Chrisitianity, even if Mormonism uses the same vocabulary. The words mean different things.

Part three discusses the doctrine of man is Mormonism, pointing out that while in traditional Christianity man is a contingent being (he could not exist), in Mormonism is a necessary being; he has always existed and it would impossible for him not to exist, although not always in an embodied corporeal form. This is a radical departure from traditional Christianity because what Christianity classically attributes to God (necessary existence) Mormonism attributes to man and to God, which shows how fundamentally different Mormons are from their Christian counterparts.

One of the most common arguments against theism, and Mormonism is not exempt, is the problem of evil. This problem states if there is a God who is perfect, all-knowing, and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world? Traditional Christianity has its answers to the problem, but Mormonism has its own unique answer to it. Because Mormonism affirms free will in a libertarian or compatibilist sense, humans are morally responsible for the moral evils they create, God is not. Second, because God is contingent and powerful but not all powerful, and nature is eternal, natural evil is simply intrinsic to the universe, and is not evil at all. So, in Mormonism the problem of evil is really not much of a problem.

The final section is about whether or not God is a person, and if so whether or not he, she , or it is a person worthy of worship. This is a supplemental essay, since the question of whether God is a person is obvious in both traditional Christianity and Mormonism, but is a purely philosophical argument about the problem. One could finish the book without reading this essay, but I recommend it.

Mormonism, as John Dehlin pointed out, is in its infancy. Traditional Christianity is over 2000 years old, Mormonism is less than 200 years old. It's theology is not as well developed as its historical counterpart; there is no equivalent of Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas in Mormonism (although Blake Ostler may be close). However, there are many strengths to Mormonism, and it has a theology that once developed can be as strong as any of the three great monotheism's.

Not only should The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion be in every Mormon household, it should be a text for Sunday school. Too many Mormons do not understand their own theology, and how it differs from traditional Christianity, and this short, powerful text is the place to start. A wonderful book.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Advice for Ethics and Values Students

When I took Ethics and Values last spring, I thought the course was extremely easy; I had taken upper division courses in philosophy as well as early modern and Ancient Greek philosophy, so many of things that were taught were repetitive and redundant. However, I noticed then, and certainly as a teaching assistant, that many of these ideas and concepts are difficult and very new to the uninitiated. So, here are a few things that may make this class easier for you. Some will seem obvious, but sometimes the obvious things are the ones we do not realize until later (For example, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley taking the enchanted car rather than sending an owl to Hogwarts in The Chamber of Secrets).

First, understand that philosophy is hard and requires great effort. Even very bright people struggle with it. A good example of this is Avicenna, a medieval Islamic philosopher who made great contributions to medicine as well as to philosophy. However, even this great intellect had to read Aristotle's Metaphysics 40 times, and he was still unable to understand it until he read Al-Farabi's commentary on it.
Avicenna, a model student

Avicenna, like you, was a student. This means you may need to read and re-read materials several times to understand them, and if that doesn't work then seek additional help. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great resource. Take advantage of it. It is written for the lay-person as well as the scholar. In addition to this resource, make sure to remember a lesson that Socrates taught us: ask questions. Chances are that if you have a question, the rest of the class has it to. Don't be afraid to ask a question because it may sound stupid and obvious to others; you will be stupid for sure if you do not ask a question and your grade suffers as a result.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom the instructor often quotes, said that "Philosophy is not a set of doctrines, rather it is an activity." For you, this means that you will have to be actively engaged in the class by taking notes and making comments. You do not learn if you do not do something. Be something that acts rather than something that is acted upon.

When the essay questions come around, remember that there is an outline in the syllabus about what we are looking for in your work. Do not feel that you must create a philosophical masterpiece like A Treatise of Human Nature in order to be successful, just answer the question to the best of your ability. We understand that much of this information is new and we are looking for a basic grasp of the material rather than a rigid understanding of it.

If you have any additional questions, remember that you may e-mail the instructor or myself and we will be happy to assist you in any way that we can; we will not do the assignment for you however, that is for you to do.

Hopefully this information was somewhat helpful, and as I mentioned earlier do not hesitate to e-mail me or ask questions before class. If I do not know the answer, I will at least hopefully be able to direct you to someone who does.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Last Advice As A Single Man

On Saturday I will be getting married. This in and of itself should convince those who know me either in person or just as a reader that there is hope for anyone. As sports radio host Colin Cowherd put it a few years ago "If two women took a chance on me, there has got to be hope for you." I concur with Colin; if a woman is willing to marry a man obsessed with philosophy, science, economics, Star Wars, and video games, there has to be hope for all the rest of you. I am not being sarcastic when saying that, I do mean it. However, having done alot of dating and observation of dating culture within the LDS community, I thought I would leave a few comments that may be helpful to those who have not yet found someone.

First, the one thing I have noticed is that single Mormons often believe in what are known as "soulmates." Perhaps because this generation grew up watching Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, and other films that invoke the idea that love stories are always magical, they then take the leap that therefore their love story should be that way. Beware of this idea, there is a reason why these movies are fictional. Simply put, there are no such things as "soulmates" or "the one." There are many people in the world and the Church with whom you could be compatible; compatibility is the key. Life is not magical, it is a struggle for survival as Charles  Darwin puts it and relationships are also a struggle. Even with people you love, you will have differences of opinion, sometimes vast, and there will be arguments, debates, not talking for a little while, etc. Life is hard, so are relationships.

In speaking about soul mates, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated in his talk The Reflection in the Water:

I know this may be a disappointment for some of you, but I don't believe there's only one right person for you. I think I fell in love with my wife, Harriet, who is here with me tonight the first moment I saw her. Nevertheless, had she decided to marry someone else, I believe I would have met and fallen in love with someone else. I'm eternally grateful that this didn't happen.
But I don't believe she was my one chance of happiness, in this life, nor was I hers.
Another error you might easily make in dating is expecting to find perfection in the person you are with. The truth is the only perfect people you might know are those you don't know very well.
Everyone has imperfections. Now, I'm not suggesting you lower your standards and marry someone with whom you can't be happy, but one of the things I've realized as I've matured in life, is that if someone is willing to accept me, imperfect as I am, then I should be willing to be patient with others' imperfections, as well.
Close quote. This quote from President Uchtdorf  shows a discerning wisdom about this issue. There are no perfect people, but you can make a perfect effort to be the best you can with the person you choose. Notice President Uchtdorf does not state that the Lord will choose your partner; that is because that is your job. Expecting the Lord to pick someone for you is going to leave you disappointed as well because it will not happen.

My second bit of advice is that you do not have to be in a rush to get married. When you focus solely on one goal, you become myopic and fail to enjoy the time you have being single. One thing to remember is that when you are single, you have all the time you will ever have to do things that you want to do without restriction, such as traveling, hanging out with friends, and being somewhat carefree. Once you are in a relationship and a marriage, you will not have as much time to focus solely on your interests. Enjoy the time that you have as a single person because you may not have it again.

Thirdly and lastly, finding someone itself is a struggle and requires great effort. You are going to need to put as much effort into finding someone as you would into any other difficult task. This means that you will have to date quite a bit, most likely, before you find a suitable partner. Use Tinder, talk to the person you find attractive at Church, and don't be afraid to state what you are looking for early on. I stated to Eliza from the very beginning that I was looking for something serious, and because of that we knew it would be worth our time to get to know each other because we were looking for the same thing. Honesty is the best policy in relationships. If you are not looking for a relationship, it may be best to just defer from dating until you are.

There are many other things I could talk about, but I think the best advice I could give would be the things I mentioned: 1) There is no such thing as soul mates 2) Enjoy the time you have as a single person 3)Dating, like any serious endeavor, requires great effort.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review of "Letters to a Young Mormon"

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, "Philosophy is not a theory but an activity", meaning that while philosophy does help us try to solve puzzles and answer questions, it fundamentally is our position to the world and to others, and what we do with what we have. The same can be true of life; life is not a question to be answered but an experience that is supposed to make us better as we go along.

In religion, perhaps even more so in Mormonism, we tend to think of what we are doing is learning about certain principles rather than doing things, and by doing so we are profoundly missing the point. In his book Letters to A Young Mormon, philosopher Adam S. Miller tries to help us refocus our views, and show that what we must be faithful to is not so much a set of ideas (although he does point out that these are important), but life itself and what it gives us.

While the book, as its title implies, is directed  to a younger audience, what Miller has to say is beneficial to both young and old, because whether we are in our youth, middle age, or even old age we are still alive, and must be faithful to the life that we are given and grateful for it.

The book is less than 100 pages so it can be read in one sitting, and it is written as a series of letters, which while not directly addressed to the reader (Miller mentions in a podcast with John Dehlin that he started thinking of the book as his daughter became a teenager), Miller does seem very approachable and caring with his writing, and is also gifted with his use of language.

The book covers various topics, such as prayer, sex, and other issues related to being an Latter-day Saint youth. Perhaps Miller's best chapter is on faith, which youth of my generation often struggle with. In a novel rethinking of this issue, Miller writes:
Faith is a willingness, story or no, to care for what's right in front of you. Faith doesn't wish these difficulties away. It invites them in, breaks bread with them, and washes their feet. Faith is what you need to persist in truth as your sweet story, regardless of its content, gets overwritten by the real. (Letters to A Young Mormon, pg. 27)
As a philosopher myself, I usually think of faith and religion in terms of ideas rather than just what I do in my day-to-day life, although I always have thought the ideas I believed in would show up in my life if I really believed them. Thanks to Miller, I see that knowing without doing is not really knowing, rather it is just assent. I have learned that I must care for life now, rather than waiting for a future time, and also that the story I have about my life is irrelevant; what is relevant is my care for the life that exists in the here and now.

Whether one is a philosopher, theologian, or just likes LDS books, Letters to A Young Mormon is a worthwhile addition to any library. When I have children, I will make sure that they all have a copy and read it carefully.