Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Alternative Lifestyles

One of the constraining aspects of Mormonism is that it seems to shut down alternative modes of living life. By "alternative lifestyles" I don't mean to refer to experimental sexual/social relationships like hippie compounds or anything. Rather, I am interested in the way that a true Mormon cannot choose to live a nomadic or solitary life. We must exist within communities. But our communities are not just any kind of community, they are local communities.

The reason that I have been thinking about this topic lately is because I have recently been interested in sailing. I had the chance to sail competitively on a modest yacht this summer and now dreams of owning a boat have taken over my life. Fortunately my spouse has caught the bug too and we have set a goal to some day sail around the world (or at least to Europe and back). But in the back of my mind I keep worrying about my callings at church as well as the lack of contact with LDS communities for potentially months at a time.

I imagine that cattle ranchers, corporate road warriors, and people who dream to live in a cabin deep in the wilderness face the similar problem of connecting their dreams or work obligations with the constraints of LDS community life. I suspect that sun-birds share a set of these problems since they can't hold a calling for more than 6 months. I know that I would be frustrated if I were staffing a ward full of sunbirds. Part of the problem is that one's membership in an LDS community is necessarily local. Even if I were to go to church every week in my travels around the world, I still wouldn't fully "belong" at any of the congregations I visited. Conceivably the internet may one day de-localize LDS community life, at least for a certain mobile portion of the membership, but I don't suspect this will happen anytime soon. Besides, half the reason for sailing around the world is to get away from any consistent set of surroundings, including ward members.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Pious Pumpkins

This time of year always gets me thinking about how I can express what I feel about the gospel on a pumpkin. I mean, what better way to show your testimony that through the medium of a pumpkin? I can't think of any. The pumpkin is a symbol of Christ because it grows from a tiny seed. Fortunately, someone else shares my desire to make a Christ pumpkin, and even a Gordon B. Hinkley pumpkin. Thank goodness!


Sunday, October 29, 2006

Comments Contest! Real Prizes!!

Dear Readers,
We have been having a good number of visitors to our site since our humble beginnings. We are grateful that people have continued to come and hopefully enjoy our musings. However, our comment/vistor ratio seems rather small. Our view is that we haven't yet had the critical mass of comments to really get the conversation going, even though we have plenty of people visiting! So we have devised a solution: a contest. From now until Nov 12, we will be keeping track of the most and the best comments (judged from our secret, strict formula). All are eligible, including Mark Butler, DKL, and the snarkers.

The prize will be:
1) One movie ticket gift certificate to a theater near you.
2) The highest public praise.
3) A guest blogger spot at Urban Mormonism!

As part of our drive to increase the conversations at our site, we, the Urban Bloggers also plan to have a new post every 36 hours over the next two weeks. Start your comments now!


On Being Disturbed

The Gospel of Thomas preserves a version of Jesus's familiar saying about searching and finding, but with a twist: "Jesus said, 'Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be disturbed. When one is disturbed, one will marvel, and will reign over all." (Logion 3). The emphasis here is that the divine mysteries, the secrets of the Kingdom, are unexpected, troubling, even disturbing. As Latter-day Saints, is the divine fundamentally disturbing?

The injunction to search and find is foundational to Mormonism. The prophet Joseph's reading of James 1:5 is essentially a version of this common theme. Joseph's great visions were certainly "disturbing" both to him and to the world.
This is often set into contrast with the radical teachings and practices of the early LDS church. Mormons today seem to see the divine as essentially benign, benevolent, and which confirms our basic values. The radical is something which is unthinkable, but in both early Christianity and early Mormonism, the radical was precisely what defined God.

Is there still room for being disturbed? Where the spiritual tradition of being distrubed remains a powerful force is actually in the study of LDS history or the study of Christian history in general. LDS seekers often find what is distrubing, though it is not God, but the church which disturbs. Can we revive this practice of being disturbed as a central aspect of spiritual practice? Can the process of doubt and disturbance not be seen as antitheses to faithful existence, but its very foundation?


Friday, October 27, 2006

Mormonism is a Humanism

Readers may recognize that this title riffs off of Jean-Paul Sartre's influential essay "Existentialism is a Humanism." Though the German existentialists might have rejected this association, Sartre's desire to locate Existentialism within the humanist tradition shows the powerful impact that humanism has in the imagination of the West. It's influence is so profound that for Sartre, humanism is the genus and existentialism is a species. Can the same be said about Mormonism? Is Mormonism simply an expression of the backbone of the Modern West's philosophical framework?

What got me thinking about this topic was a recent performance I attended by Julia Sweeney called "Letting Go of God." Julia was the SNL comedian that is famous for playing the lovable androgynous "Pat." In it she recounts her failed search for religion and belief in God. (As a side note, there was a long discussion of her encounter with the Mormon missionaries and her reactions to the first discussion. But I'll save this for another post). Now she considers herself a secular humanist and has even been given awards by humanist societies.

Humanism really traces its roots to modernity and the turn to ethics of and concerning the individual subject. The concept of rights, democracy, the intrinsic worth of humans, and universal rationality are all the products of humanism. Humanism is the philosophical framework behind feminism, civil rights, the end of torture, invasion into Iraq, public schools, and universal health care. There is no one humanist ideology since humanists claim all sorts of competing positions within the same issue. For example, pro-choice and pro-life movements might be suprised to learn that they are both rooted in humanism, though they are configuring its constitutive elements differently.

Mormonism seems to sit squarely in the humanist tradition with its emphasis on the sacred character of each individual, its positive view of the nature of human beings (the rejection of Original Sin was a halmark of modern humanism), and its focus on human progress. Indeed, the Mormon doctrine of God can in some ways be seen as the theological zenith of humanism.

Secular humanists (and religious one's as well) locate the basis of ethical behavior outside of revealed religion. "Thou shalt not kill" doesn't really take a revelation to figure out. In fact, one of the most important developments in modernity (esp. Hume and Kant) was to separate ethics from theology. Even most Mormons accept that being a good person can be determined without reference to theological criteria.

All of this is a round about way of asking what Mormonism's value add is to humanism, even in its secular form. Do we learn anything more about ethics that cannot already be argued from within the humanist tradition? Or, is Mormonism just another expression of the ways in which humanism has already framed our view of the individual subject? If not, then why be a Mormon and not just a humanist?


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Is Every Nation the Gathering Place for its Own People?

The concept of gathering is a central feature of Mormonism. We often talk of the physical gathering of the early saints—a literal move together to establish a Zion-like society. And we talk of the shift, in later Mormon history, where "[e]very nation is the gathering place for its own people" (spoken by Bruce R. McConkie in 1972 and reiterated by Russell M. Nelson in Oct. Conference). But how literally are we to take this? Given recent global trends making “trans-nationalism” more possible, the Chinese Saint (for instance) could very well be born, raised, and die in America without even returning “home” to China. In this light is it still an injunction for the Mexican saint to gather to Mexico? The Nigerian saint to Nigeria? Etc.?

Should we still hold to the notion of "Every nation [as] the gathering place for its own people"? The larger question is how does globalization impact our conception of “gathering”?.]


Monday, October 23, 2006

Mormonism's Greek Inheritance: Pre-existence

DMI Dave, one of my favorite bloggers, has recently added a post about how early Christianity wasn't influenced much by Greek religion. I like Dave, but I disagree with nearly every characterization of Greek religion here, especially the comparison to "fortune cookies," as well as the thesis that Jews and Christians didn't participate in Greek culture like drama or the gymnasium (um...Ezekiel the Tragedian? Ps. Phocylides? Theodotus? Philo's constant references to the gymnasium as well as Paul's discussion of "shadow boxing" and "crowns" in athletic contests?). Ultimately the only space that he leaves for meaningful contact was in the realm of philosophy. Anyway, my protests in this regard will have to be saved for future posts. For now I want to follow up on my suggestion that Mormonism has inherited several Greek ideas. I recently argued that the Holy Ghost resembles Greek daimons. This is but one aspect.

One of the most interesting overlaps between Mormonism and Greek religio-philosophy is the pre-existence of the soul. Of all of the early Christian writers, only the Platonist Origen is known to have taught the pre-existence of the soul, and he was branded a heretic for it. The reason is that this doctrine is clearly taught by Plato, but one must strain to find evidence of it in either to Old or New Testaments. However, for Mormons we have accepted fully this Platonic doctrine as our own. How do we deal with this inheritance of Greek and not Hebrew or Christian ideas in Mormonism? Does this point to evidence of our willingness to incorporate truth wherever we see it, or does it disrupt the narrative of truth as located solely within the Judeo-Christian heritage?


Friday, October 20, 2006

Do We Really Have a Fullness of Truth? : Dealing with Difference Part III

If you know any Latter-day Saint that has an understanding of religions other than Mormonism (or more often ‘Christianity’ broadly conceived), one of the first questions they are usually asked by other members of the Church, are what “parallels” there are between the other religion and Mormonism.

I have to admit, I’m somewhat bothered by this question. Personally I know I need to accept that for the most part this question is conceived with little ill intent on the part of the questioner; but I can’t help but interpret the question in this respect, “I’m only interested in other religions in as much as they can support what I already believe to be true, could you please tell me how [insert religion here] does that?”

On the bright side, at least the questioner implies that this “other” religion has something resembling the “truth” within it. However, even this admission seems to be tied to the other religion having “fallen away” in some pre-Modern past, yet fortunately holding on to some small vestige of truth while acquiring other “false doctrines”.

I am wrong to feel this way?


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Demonic Holy Ghost

When did the Holy Ghost become a demon (aka, daimon, daemon)? By "demon" I don't mean to refer to the malignant spirits that tempt or haunt human beings in Christian mythology. Rather, I mean to refer to the Greek and Roman meaning of the term, a mythical creature that could be either good or evil, but who whispered to the mind of its patron what they should or shouldn't do. Our term 'demon' dervies from this Greek word, though Christians argued that these pagan creatures were by nature wicked since they did not come from God. The most famous daimon belonged to Socrates and told him what he should do. He claimed in his Apology that he only followed what this divine creature had told him to do.

It strikes me that for Mormons at least, the Holy Ghost functions as a sort of daimon. Testimony meetings are replete with accounts of the Holy Ghost telling someone not to go somewhere or to give someone a call. The basis of these testimonies is that they don't know why they are doing these things other than that they heeded the call of the still small voice. Sometimes they find out why, sometimes they don't.

But this is not the only way that the Holy Ghost has been depicted in the history of Christianity, nor is it the uniform picture of the Holy Ghost in Mormonism. Most famously, the Lectures on Faith say that the Holy Ghost is the communal mind of God and Jesus Christ. Moroni 10:5 says that the Holy Ghost bears truth to all things, but this seems a bit weightier than whether I should go to a sleepover or where my keys are. Many New Testament books don't even mention the Holy Ghost and others speak of the Spirit as a more abstract principle. So, where does this idea that the Holy Ghost is a daimon who whispers into our ears what we should do come from?


The Power of Symbols

A few recent posts in various blogs has got my thinking about symbols. Wade at The Straight and Narrow Blog and Mark Bulter at M* have both identified symbols in their posts. The issue here is how we are supposed to know a symbol when we see it, how we are supposed to know the correct interpretation of that symbol, and how we are supposed to act both mentally and materially in response to it. These issues have been debated at lenght among anthropologists.

From the 1960's to the end of the 1980's, symbolic anthropology ruled the academic roost. Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner and others argued that culture and religion were a system of symbols, "webs of signification" and members of a culture (or religion) interpreted these symbols in order to act and navigate the world. Geertz, who looked quite a bit at religion, described it primarily as a symbolic system that induced beliefs, dispositions, and behaviors in its interpretors. The attractiveness of symbolic anthropology in the academy at large is that it brought a wide variety of disciplines such as history, literature, anthroplogy, and linguistics under one common methodological umbrella, namely, the art of interpretation. However, it saw symobls (and rituals) as a stimulus and human behaviors as a response, without much to mediate that relationship.

Beginning in the 1990's scholars of religion began to be increasingly skeptical of symbolic anthropology, precisely because it couldn't explain the relationship between symbols and practices. How exactly does a symbol inculcate certain values, dispositions, beleifs, etc? Instead, scholars began to turn to "practice theory", a particular anthroplogical approach developed mostly in France. Foucault, Bourdieu, Certeau and others focused on the relationship between cultural symbols (discourses) and practices. Anthropologists of religion such as Talal Asad picked up on these insights and showed how a wide variety of practices are involved in inculcating religious beleif from symbols. He argued that symbols themselves were inneffective at bringing about religious dispositions and behaviors without power that ensured the proper interpretation of symbols. He looks at how St. Augustine authorized the use of violent force against heretics who misunderstood the scriptures as a way of showing that the texts themselves could not be properly interpreted without the sword.

The cumulative effect of both anthropological approaches was to show that symbols are not natural. They are the products of traditions and that a variety of interpretations exist within and between religious cultures about the meanings of symbols. What practice theory also showed is that these symbols required power to ensure their proper interpretation and to give them to ability to have meaning.

As Mormons, we really don't have a very deep reflective tradition on the power and nature of symbols. We seem to be stuck in a particular moment that sees symbols as naturally occuring or as self evident to astute observers, rather than the product of our own interpretation. As such, we are unwilling to see how our interpretations of symbols are produced within a superimposed ideology. Further, we tend to see symbols in a stimulus-response model and don't consider how interpretations are authorized by our culture.

I guess the question that I have is what sorts of practices, disciplines, sanctions, etc are at work in the production of Mormon identity and the relationship between Mormon symbols (temple, scriptures, hierarchy, etc) and behavior? Note, these words sometimes have a negative valence, but for anthropologists, they are simply descriptive terms for how societies work. I want to know how Mormon society works, how its symbols are produced and how they produce Mormons.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Newest Urban Blogger!

Jupiter's Child has just joined the team! He is a relative newcomer to the blogging world, but I expect great things from him. Basically, he knows a lot of stuff, a lot of interesting people, and has thought and lived through lots of great intellectual experiences.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Resurrection of Flesh and Bone?

In 1 Cor 15, Paul declares that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God." This text appears in the larger context of a defense of the resurrection, which seems to create a problem. How can Paul defend the resurrection, but in the very same passage declare that flesh and blood cannot go to heaven?

The difficulty of this passage was debated strenuously in antiquity. Those who defended the "resurrection of the flesh" wrestled mightily with this problem, while those who argued for a more spiritual resurrection relied heavily on this text to prove their point.

Mormons have been bothered by this passage as well
not only because we are defenders of a resurrection of the flesh, but also because we have a notion of an embodied God. To my knowledge, our exegetical solution to this problem is unique. We argue that is true that flesh and blood together cannot inherit the KoG, but that the combination of "flesh and bone" can. We simply drop blood out of the equation. In antiquity they wondered about the blood of resurrected beings. Origen argued that Jesus' blood was not Ichor, the sacred blood of the gods. He never said what it was instead.

So what then do resurrected beings have in thier veins? Is blood the only thing that is missing from the resurrected body? Can a body really be a body without it, or is it something else?


Friday, October 13, 2006

No Mormon Love for Paul?

There is an aversion to Paul in Mormon thought and culture. A recent comment by Julie Smith at T&S gives some of the reasons for this phenomenon. I must insist, however, that we are completely missing out. For starters, Paul is hot right now. Yeah, he had some bad times at the hands of feminists in previous decades, but he is back with a vengeance now. Jewish scholars like Daniel Boyarin have embraced Paul. Not to mention some of the most cutting edge contemporary atheist philosophers like Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, and Taubes have all published books on Paul's contributions to and resources for contemporary philosophical problems. If Jews and atheists can embrace and praise Paul, why can't we Mormons get it together?

I suspect that one of the reasons that we have ignored Paul is because we are so caught up in a provincial debate with Evangelicals about whether we are saved by grace or saved by works. Neither we nor Evangelicals seem to be aware of recent developments in Pauline scholarship that more or less resolve this quesiton. Well, to be more accurate, recent scholars have shown that this question is not what Paul is answering. He is not dealing with the Grace vs. Works as two polar opposites. Rather, he is dealing with a specific set of "works of the Law", namely, circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance. In my view, this "New Perspective," as it is called, opens up a great deal of space for Mormon thinking with Paul.

Unfortunately, the results of our discomfort with Paul is that we literally ignored him. Even though his writings (or those attributed to him) make up 1/2 of the books of the New Testament, we devote hardly any time to him in the Sunday School curriculum. As a culture, we simply have not paid any attention to him, hoping in vain that the problems we thought he created for us will dissappear. We can no longer continue to do this.

I suspect that one of the other difficulties that we have with Paul is that we try to read him in the KJV, with the odd page layout of the Standard Works. I admit that I never really understood Paul until I read him in modern translation. The particular translation that we have in the KJV is rooted in a Protestant reading of him, which contributes to the misunderstanding and discomfort we have.

So, what can Paul do for us? We can start with the problems that he is dealing with himself. He is deeply concerned about the problems of universalism and particularism. How can God and Truth be universal, yet have a particular relationship with a particular people? We can also think about how he deals with immanent eschatology and time, which we share with him. We can also pinpoint areas where we might disagree, perhaps on questions of gender. Finally, we can look at how he is dealing with diversity and difference within the church, the kind of ethics between the "strong" and the "weak," as well as ethnic differences between Jew and Gentile. All of these are analogous problems that we are dealing with in LDS thought as well. Paul can help!


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Can Mormons see Grey? Dealing with Difference Part II

Roughly speaking we can talk of two different ways of conceptualizing a world imbued with morality—as black-and-white or as shades of grey. In regards to our religion, I see faithful members of the Church in both camps. Those that see in black-and-white, view the Spirit as a power that is either present, or is not. Any given thing is either of God or of the devil. A church is either the church of the Lamb or the church of the devil (1Ne. 14:10). Those that see in grey emphasize parts of the gospel that talk about the good in all things—growth line upon line, and improvement grace by grace. And sometimes of course we fluctuate back and forth between these positions.

To give a more practical example:
The black-and-whites would say that one scene in a movie (be it sexually explicit, violent, or otherwise) warrants not seeing the movie altogether. The greys on the other hand, would say that the one scene, while not good, does not ruin the other enlightening parts of it.

The questions that I’m interested in are as follows:

Is it really the case that Mormonism allows for two different world views? If so, then how should the black-and-whites relate to the greys? Is there something else that holds us together as Mormons besides a common world view (or other parts of a world view larger than what I’ve described)?

Is there a progression involved? In other words, have those that see in grey “evolved” beyond seeing in black-and-white? Or have they simply made a choice to use a different lens with which to view the world—a different, yet equally valid lens?

I certainly have a lot to say, but I’d like to know that there are others out there who are interested in discussing the issue. So please provide some of your preliminary thoughts.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Sex, Reproductive Technology, and Mormon Doctrine

This is not a post about whether birth control should be permitted, or about stem-cell research, test-tube babies or even about the ethics of in-vitro fertilization. Rather, this post is about what these technologies do to and for Mormon doctrines about sex and reproduction.

One of the results of modern reproductive technology is to completely separate sex and reproduction. They are no longer necessarily related. This must leave an impact on the way that we theologize about both. Sex without reproduction and reproduction without heterosexual intercourse have become realities. The thing that we must reconsider is the close connection between them that Mormon theological reflection has often taken for granted.

The first major institution that we must reconsider is nothing less than the heterosexual reproductive marriage. This institution is the foundation of LDS afterlife theology and is seen as the primal unit of creation. Often, the post-mortem continuation of reproductive sexual relations has been a celebrated tenent of Mormonism. However, reproductive technologies seriously challenge the assumptions of "natural" reproduction. Can we imagine a kind of reproduction in our future lives that is in fact not connected to sexual intercourse? If this kind of "technology" exists in this world, then why not the next? How do we rethink reproductive gender roles, eternal child birth, and heterosexual partnerships once technology (and possibly the nature of resurrected bodies) displaces a necessary father/mother binary?

The second case for reevaluation is the relationship between sex and marriage. In our larger cultural envirnoment, the connection between sex and marriage has virtually disappeared precisely because the sex/reproduction nexus has been dissolved. Does an LDS theology of sex adequately account for sex without reproduction? On what basis is sex prohibited if the production of children outside of wedlock is no longer an issue? Given that the history of heterosexual marriage is deeply intertwined with the regulation of reproductive sex, how does the institution of marriage change when its very logic has been rearranged?

The technologies also offer potential benefits for LDS theology. Through them, we can think about reproduction in our next life without having to biologize the production of spirit children. Additionally, sex without reproduction becomes a powerful symbol of union between husband and wife. However, for the most part I don't think that these new technologies have been adequately addressed theologically.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Mandatory Repentence Periods?

It appears that a new instruction manual to bishops requires certain "waiting periods" for prospective missionaries who commit certain sins, which are specifically enumerated. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The only reason that I can think that it is a good thing is that it standardizes the waiting period. This way, bishop A who is more strict than bishop B is required to follow the same guidelines.
However, this very process of standardization also strikes me as creating a whole new set of problems. First, it doesn't distinguish between various degrees and types of sin. If a pre-missionary "pets" once with his girlfriend of three years, there is no difference in the waiting period from the pre-missionary who had sex numerous times with several partners.

Second, these waiting periods don't deter sins. They aren't public, so no one knows. But even when they become public, they are seen as standards which can be worked around. On a pre-missionary's 18th birthday, he can have sex for the last time. These waiting periods seem to encourage teenagers to miss the message.

Third, this whole process of standarizing repentence periods strikes me as belonging to a Christian tradition of proscribed penitence, which I thought we Mormons didn't beleive in. Say your "Hail Mary's", wait a year, and viola, you're now forgiven. This seems to me to profoundly miss the point of the atonement. We don't do this for others who sin in similar ways, why do we single out these pre-missionaries? This practice seems completely non-scriptural.

Fourth, from all accounts, many pre-missionaries simply choose to lie about their past transgressions because they don't want to face the public shame. These policies turn private repentence into a public spectacle in such a way that can only encourage pre-missionaries to hide the truth and lose out on the benefits of a full repentence process.

Finally, these policies function to publically shame prospective missionaries in such a way as to actually discourage repentence and the desire to serve a mission. They make teenagers who have sinned feel unworthy and frustrated by a beaurocratic requirement that they feel is contrary to the principles of the gospel. Rather than have to admit that they have to "wait a year" and let family and friends express dissapointment, speculate about the nature of the sins, and constantly check-up on them, many prospective missionaries find that it is easier and more accepted if they simply say that they don't want to go.

Perhaps I am missing something?


Sunday, October 08, 2006

New Blog Team Member: diahman

We've just added the newest member to team Urban Mormonism. Diahman is an anonymous bloggernacle veteran and an amazing conversation partner. I look forward to working more closely with this amazing contributor!


Dealing with Difference: A Taxonomy

How do we as Latter-day Saints reconcile differences? At this point I would like to keep the definition of “differences” purposefully broad. It could refer to opposing opinions of faithful members within the church, historical and scriptural discrepancies, inter-faith relations (hostile or non-hostile), or a host of other scenarios where we are faced with the challenge of dealing intellectually, socially, or culturally with something that stretches our current system of beliefs. In short this is a post about confronting the “other”.

I would like to put forth a few possibilities, and then to discuss the possibility of more possibilities; but more importantly, I would like to hear your thoughts on the ramifications of each option:

Eclecticism: The selective adoption or rejection of specific concepts to the de-emphasis and overemphasis of others. E.g., We have become the “Book of Mormon generation” where the BoM is employed much more frequently than the Bible. In the Bible we emphasis certain portions and downplay others. The Gospels compared with the epistles, for instance.

Ecumenicism: An exercise of faith where God’s omniscience is trusted to somehow tie the differences together into “one great whole”. E.g., Different Mormons can have differing opinions as to God’s relationship with the world he has created. How much does he intervene? How do we explain evil? The scripture mastery verse in Isaiah is usually implied with Ecumenicism: “His ways are greater than our ways.” (pardon my paraphrasing)

Compartmentalism: Different circumstances call for different responses. E.g., In Polynesia, many males wear the traditional lavalava to church rather than slacks. Comparmentalism is also used to explain how early members of the church (or even individuals in the scriptures) did things differently because they were of a different time (drinking of wine for instance). We often employ Compartmentalism with the phrase, “It’s the Spirit that matters.”

Inclusivism: The reworking of the concepts of the “other” in a shared terminology (or often purely in our own terminology). E.g., Most people believe in a supreme being, but we call him by different names.

This list of course may not be comprehensive. It is also somewhat oversimplified, because in reality many of these theories overlap, and may even be used by the same person for the same explanation. Allowing for this leeway, here are some questions on my mind:

What are the inherent strengths and weakness of each approach? For instance, the ecumenical approach opens our religion to all individuals—you do not need any philosophical/theological training to be a Mormon. A garbage man could be a bishop. On the other hand does this lead us to be too dismissive of intellectual endeavors? Does this contribute to the anti-intellectual undercurrent some people feel?

Are there other approaches you can think of? Or some that should be eliminated?

Is the attempt to create a taxonomy built on a false assumption of “systemization” which is antithetical to Mormonism from the get go? In other words is our religion not susceptible to these types of attempts to systematize? Am I missing something by trying this?


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Jesus in History

The "Quest for the Historical Jesus" has emerged in various stages. With the emergence of critical historical tools in the Enlightenment, it wasn't long before these were turned to the sacred history of the Bible. Very briefly, the First Quest argued about what kind of a figure Jesus was, culminating with Albert Schweitzer's convincing argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic teacher who preached the end of the world and the end of the present order. Not long after this, Bultmann argued that in fact there was hardly any access to what Jesus might have said because it was all filtered through the memories of the church which altered Jesus's sayings for its own purposes. Besides, he argued, the positivist history was the wrong kind of question to be asking of the Bible. Instead, we should be seeking to experience the message of the gospel. This remained virtually the dominant opinion for thirty years when finally someone broke the silence on Jesus in 1953. Bultmann's student Ernst Kasemann argued that actually we can know a little about who Jesus really was, and that it is important to match history with our theological beleifs. Where they don't match up, we should be willing to change our theology.

Is Kasemann's theological demand a reasonable one? What effect should history have on our beleifs? If we know that Jesus didn't actually teach something that is attributed to him, must we discard it, or does it have some other kind of validity? What kind of authority does history have over our construction of faith?


A Crisis in the Church

No, this post is not about low baptism numbers, low retention numbers, or low commandment observance. Rather, I see a major crisis of a different kind, a crisis of rhetoric.

Once upon a time, Mormons used to preach. The talks that were delivered had content and spunk. Sadly, I don't think that I have been alive to ever have seen this past tradition, but it is long dead. Now, talks consist mostly of quotes from general authroities and banal observations about whatever the topic happens to be. I think that some of the responsibility for this comes from the models of the general authorities, very few of whom know how to really preach. I am sure that these well-rehearsed talks that are given in front of millions of people somehow get transformed into dull, monotone speeches upon delivery, so I don't fault them. You have to work hard to listen to them. They rarely captivate. Like the GA's, no one who speaks in church wants to stand out, so we just get a whole lot of mediocrity. It's not that we don't know how to give talks, it is just that we don't know how to give sermons, something which really inspires, motivates, teaches, and exhorts.

Contrast this to a former generation of real orators in the church. Apostles like Matthew Cowley, and even Bruce R. McConkie knew how to give a talk. You couldn't help to listen to them. Even casually leafing through the Journal of Discourses reveals a whole range of Mormon speech that is now lost.

Now, I don't think that we should follow some stereotype of preaching, like pounding on the pulpit or mimiking televangelists, but we should definitely do more than bore each other. Sacrament meeting should be interesting.


Monday, October 02, 2006

What is the Priesthood?

Having not been to Relief Society in a long time, I don't know if this is how every lesson about the priesthood starts there. I can assure you that every lesson I have ever been to in EQ about the priesthood starts with this question. A few answers get tossed around until the teacher settles on the one that they like the most. Having been to dozens of these lessons in my life, I still am not really sure of the answer. I don't mean to imply that the priesthood is nothing, only that it seems to be so many things which overlap each other, I have a hard time giving any definition that is comprehensive enough. As I see it, there are several options:

1. The priesthood is an organized body of individuals whose job is to perform the administrative duties of the church, like passing the sacrament, starting meetings on-time, etc.

2. The priesthood is the procedural authorization to perform ordinances and administer spiritual blessings.

3. The priesthood is a covenant between the individual and God.

4. The priesthood is a body of esoteric knowledge and teachings.

5. The priesthood is another name for the mysterious power that God holds to perform such tasks as creation and the resurrection, or, the power over the elements.

6. The priesthood is a temporal tool for socializing men to obtain more Christ-like attributes.

7. The priesthood is the ordering principle of the universe and the church and our families that we should model in our own lives (I have never quite understood what this meant).

Are there others that you can think of? I am trying to figure out what relationship all of these definitions have to one another. Then, I would like to know the history of these ideas, how they developed in Joseph Smith's life and experience, and how they have continued to develop in the history of the church. Is it something which we have, or that we acquire throughout our lives? What is the relationship between the priesthood as a power to effectuate and the priesthood as an authority to perform (does that make sense)? Seriously, how do we make sense of these overlapping definitions? What work is the priesthood doing?


Sunday, October 01, 2006


I firmly believe that Latter-day Saints not only have nothing to fear from the academic world, but have a divine obligation to learn from and take seriously "secular scholarship." I believe the Lord when he instructs his people to learn from the best books. However, there seems to be a profound mistrust of scholarship by many members of the church. Two recent episodes:

1. Recently in my elders quorum, a newly married convert of the church asked what resources for studying the scriptures members of the quorum had found useful, including other translations. My EQ president hastily insisted that members only read those publications which have been produced by the church because of the risk of learning "false doctrine" from other books. He seemed utterly alergic to the idea that members of the church might be interested to know something more than what the manuals supply.

2. In a recent post by eccentric blogger Mark Bulter, he matter-of-factly stated: " The ivory tower is a better approximation to the great and abominable church than any other organization ever was." Here, the dismissal of research that might cause him to modify his reading of scripture was justified as a righteous, pious act. Meanwhile, those who belong to the "ivory tower", his slur towards academics in the "humanities and social 'sciences'", you know, the ones in the "cult of the natural man", are depicted as being in league with Satan himself. I am sure that he would like to see BYU get rid of all of its professors in these fields. Basically, the only things he things we need to learn can be taught in a training camp somewhere in the mountains, which will prevent us from being infected by these so-called scholars.

Basically, I want to know where this impulse comes from in the church. Does this have to do with our isolated and isolatinist history in the 19th c.? Does this have to do with a demonstrable number of people going innactive who have actually learned something outside of Mormonism? Personally, I remain optimistic about Mormons and Mormonism in relationship to "secular scholarship", but why do so many of my brothers and sisters disagree?


Taking Applications

I am taking applications for people who want to join a group blog.

The point of view of this blog will be that of educated, urban, cosmopolitan Mormons who seek to integrate faithfully these experiences into Mormon life, thought, and experiences.

If you think that this fits you, email your application to urbanmormon AT gmail DOT com!


Why another Mormon blog?

Look, I know that there is a glut of blogs on Mormonism. However, I have also grown bored by most of them, and I have thoughts too! Why should I have to wait for someone to say what is on my mind so that I can comment when I can just post something myself!