Blog down, 3/21/2005
We moved to a different host over the weekend. We're having some problems, and our new location suspended the page.
We're working on it. We may just point the DNS servers back to the old location. Or we may get things worked out at the new place. Hopefully, we'll have a resolution of some sort, relatively soon.
Sorry for the inconvenience.
Technical Status of the Main Blog
Everything is just fine.
If that changes enough to warrant use of this back-up site, a new message will be posted.
Times and Seasons: Disaster Compliant
This was the original location of the Times and Seasons blog, which is now available and thriving, at its web address, www.timesandseasons.org .
Since the move to the new address, we had not used this blogspot site for anything. (It did/does serve as an interesting archive, but that's about it). That site has had occasional technical difficulties, and it occurred to me that this location could be put to a good use.
So, as of today, this location, www.timesandseasons.blogspot.com , is a technical/disaster back-up site. Here's what this means (and what it does not mean).
This will not be a "mirror" site of the regular blog. It won't have all of the posts from the regular site (or any of them, really).
This will be a technical status site. If there's a technical problem with the regular blog, a problem big enough that it makes the regular blog inaccessible, then this site will serve as a back-up location.
How's that for disaster compliance?
Times and Seasons is now located at www.timesandseasons.org. You can click on the link, or wait to be redirected there shortly . . .
Just returned from the Turkey Bowl: Young Men v. Elder's Quorum. Fortunately, we had a missionary on our team who had played for Dixie JC prior to his mission. But the star of the show was ... my wife!!! She was the only woman in the game, and once the game was through, the other team was accusing us of bringing a ringer. She batted down several passes and snagged one of only three interceptions in the game. Favorite play: Elders have the ball on YM's one yard line. Yours truly is playing center. I hike the ball to our JC star, who feeds it back to me for a center sneak. Touchdown! The game ended in an tie after our JC player received a stitches-worthy cut over his eye. Other than my sore back, that was the only injury on the day. Now, on to the turkey!!!
I survived the Turkey Bowl: Young Men v. Elders. Fortunately, we old men had a missionary on our side who played football for Dixie JC prior to his mission. But the star of the show was ... my wife!!! The only woman in the game. She was an awesome defender, knocking down multiple passes and snagging one of only two interceptions in the game. Favorite play: Elders with the ball on the YM's one yard line. Yours truly is playing center. I snap it back to our JC ringer, who feeds it back to me for a "center sneak." Touchdown! The game ended in a tie when our JC hero earned a stitches-worthy cut over his eye. Now, on to the turkey!
The Conservative Case for Group and Sibling Marriage
I one-up David Brooks' attempt to spread the Power of Marriage at The Buck Stops Here.
He Forgets Not His Own
We Gather Together (Prayer of Thanksgiving)
We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His name; He forgets not His own.
Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we are winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side; all glory be Thine!
We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender wilt be.
Let they congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
(Text anonymous, 17th-century Dutch; trans. by Theodore Baker, 1851-1934)
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! May your day be filled with friends and family, gratitude, good food, and good cheer.
Gordon Smith writes, in comments to Nate's post on the Historian's letter: "While the Historian is right about the official Church position -- that the Biblical text is not inerrant -- you would never guess that this was the Church's position if you were an anthropologist visiting wards and seminaries. In my experience, many members of the Church have embraced the erroneous views of so-called Christians on this matter."
Mormonism differs from fundamentalist Christianity by embracing error.
It recognizes transmission error and biased editing in the Bible.
It recognizes that the Book of Mormon contains errors ("the mistakes of men").
It recognizes that prophets do not always speak with authority.
It recognizes that even authoritative prophetic pronouncements might be subject to revision as a people and a prophet outgrow cultural biases and the limitations of the natural man.
It recognizes that our own experience of the Spirit can be distorted by our emotional needs.
So, how do we escape differing from liberal Christianity, where we are blown about by every wind of modernity?
In practice, I think we do it by acting as if theses sources were presumptively inerrant. Even if a doctrine or a passage doesn't make sense to us, we treat it as true and try as best we can to reconcile it. If we can't reconcile it, we admit that it may be wrong, but also admit that our understanding might be flawed. Since some sort of reconciliation is usually possible, to an anthropologist we might well appear to to believe in inerrancy. Only in unusual circumstances do we have to resort to a hierarchy of authorities.
In my own experience, this presumptive inerrancy can be very fruitful. For instance, sections of the Old Testament may well be legendary or otherwise misconstrued (e.g., the Flood, Job). Other parts are parts that we would like to exclude (e.g., the massacres that God commanded on the enemies of the Israelites). But my understanding of the Gospel has been enriched by treating them all as true, so I will continue to act and think as if they were.
Nephites, Lamanites, and Native Americans
I admit it -- I started this whole mess, in part because I was quite surprised by some of the Historian's comments. (This post will include some text which is in the comments section of Nate's earlier post, for purposes of putting my discussion in one place).
The Historian wrote about:
"a supposed Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from Israelite origin. . . . Informed Mormons have shown for over sixty years on the basis of the Book of Mormon text itself that it does not teach that Native Americans are descended from Israelite origin (Mormon scholars argue that the Book of Mormon story took place a limited geographical space and that the DNA of one family could not have had any measurable impact on the DNA of an entire native population)."
As I mentioned in Nate's comments, I like to consider myself an "informed" Mormon, and I have always been under the impression that church members believe most Native Americans are descended from Lehites.
Nate's follow-up cites to Terryl Givens and Noel Reynolds. Fair enough -- there is some support among scholars for the non-Lehite descent theory. However, it's going to take a lot more than that to convince me either (a) that the authoritative evidence leads to that conclusion and rules out the idea of general Lehite ancestry of Native Americans, or (b) that the belief of general Lehite ancestry can accurately be characterized as a "supposed belief" of church members which is rejected by "informed" members.
As to (a), it seems to me that the evidence can be laid out as follows:
In support of non-Lehite descent:
1. Various FARMS articles
2. The possibility that this interpretation is necessary to make the Book of Mormon feasible.
In support of Lehite descent:
1. Numerous statements by general authorities,* including
a. many recent statements,
b. many rather detailed statements, and
c. many statements by early church leaders.
2. Lack of discussion of any other people in Book of Mormon.
3. Some statements within the Book of Mormon which most naturally imply Lehite descent (i.e. 1st Nephi 12-13) (I know, I'm being "superficial" -- otherwise known as the most natural reading of the text).
4. My perception that there is a widespread belief among church members of general Lehite descent; combined with a failure on the part of the church leaders (the ones who receive revelation) to correct this belief, which one might assume they would do if it were wrong.
5. As Dave points out in a comment, the Book of Mormon introduction also supports this view.
I will look into this issue more, however I remain dubious of the validity of proposition (a) (general non-Lehite descent).
As for proposition (b) (that such belief should be considered a "supposed" church belief not held by "informed" members), my own observation is that this belief is widely shared among church members and is endorsed by church leaders at every level. Dave's conclusion is, I think, probably correct; he suggests that:
When The Historian holds out theories of "Mormon scholars" (i.e., FARMS) as representing anything like actual Mormon beliefs or statements on the origin of Native Americans, I think he is being disingenuous.
I would, in fact, go further than Dave -- I think that disingenuous is the most charitable reading of the Historian's proposition, but it could also be fairly characterized as intellectually dishonest. For better or worse, church leaders have gone on the record in support of general Lehite descent. Why not dance with the one who brought us?
(Isn't it a bit ironic that the resident "liberal Mormon" is suddenly defending the more orthodox view here?)
(I apologize if this post is a little combative in tone -- but hey, nobody likes to be called "uninformed").
Below are two general authority references, as well as the Book of Mormon introduction:
Elder Ted E. Brewerton states:
"Many migratory groups came to the Americas, but none was as important as the three mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The blood of these people flows in the veins of the Blackfoot and the Blood Indians of Alberta, Canada; in the Navajo and the Apache of the American Southwest; the Inca of western South America; the Aztec of Mexico; the Maya of Guatemala; and in other native American groups in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific islands." (This is from the Ensign of Nov. 1995; his article contains numerous other references to Lehite descent.)
Joseph Smith's Wentworth Letter states:
"We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the Tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country."
The Book of Mormon introduction states:
The book was written by many ancient prophets by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Their words, written on gold plates, were quoted and abridged by a prophet-historian named Mormon. The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.
UPDATE (1:45 pm 11/26): I have gotten some interesting comments on this post, and the Historian has also responded on the Metaphysical Elders blog. I will respond to these responses later (and not in this post, which is already very long).
Reading the Book of Mormon
I have to confess that I am a bit surprised by the reaction of folks in the comments on the section from the Metaphysical Elders' Historian's remarks. However, I guess that I shouldn't be. It is probably an empirical fact that most Mormons think that virtually all Native Americans came from the Lamanites. I also think that this is the position taken by most early church leaders and has been the dominant understanding of the issue historically. However, one important thing to remember is that historically, Mormons have not read the Book of Mormon very carefully. Terryl Givens makes this point in his book By the Hand of Mormon, arguing that the Book of Mormon has been treated mainly as a sign rather than as a source of doctrine. Thus, historically most Mormons have been far more familiar with the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon than they have been with its content. Givens' point is buttressed by some impressive research by Noel Reynolds suggesting that for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a few exceptions, Mormons were not that informed about the contents of the Book of Mormon.
The question then becomes, how much weight should we give to uninformed opinion. I think that the fairest reading of the text suggests that (1) the events occurred in a limited geography; and, (2) the Lehite colony existed in larger non-Lehite population. Admittedly, this second issue may not get you too far toward the "revisionist" account offered by the Historian, since the pre-existing population may have all been Mulekites or Jaredites. However, I don't think that the text commits us to this position. This textually based reading is at odds with received opinion. Some of this opinion claims the status of revelation (for example the Zelph story), but most of it is simply recycling superficial readings of the text. Interestingly, Givens also demonstrates that even among some 19th century Mormons there were those who realized that the many common claims about the Book of Mormon could not be squared with its text.
So which way should we go? It seems that the institutional church has been quite clear, and I think that its position makes sense. The emphasis has been on the return to the text. The role and authority of commentary and tradition is down played and the emphasis is on actually reading the book itself. It is important to realize that this emphasis is barely a generation old. It will take several generations, I think, before the "facts" that everyone knows are all substantially based on the text itself.
In the post immediately below, Nate draws our attention to a letter written by the Historian at The Metaphysical Elders. The letter makes reference to the "supposed Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from Israelite origin," then states:
Informed Mormons have shown for over sixty years on the basis of the Book of Mormon text itself that it does not teach that Native Americans are descended from Israelite origin (Mormon scholars argue that the Book of Mormon story took place a limited geographical space and that the DNA of one family could not have had any measurable impact on the DNA of an entire native population).
In the Comments to Nate's post, Kaimi wonders if he missed the memo. Like Kaimi, I have never seen reference to this mistaken belief in any official source, but I came to the same conclusion myself several years ago while studying the Book of Mormon. The text of the Book of Mormon shows clearly that the family of Lehi did not arrive on an uninhabited continent. And the numbers at issue in the wars clearly cannot have been generated by two modest-sized families.
Strangely, the thing that first tipped me off to the existence of other peoples was the description of the "curse" that was visited upon Laman and Lemuel and their descendants. The common belief in the Church is that this curse was a "skin of blackness." I believe this to wholly false. The skin of blackness was a "sign of the curse." In my view -- and I have never seen this preached in General Conference, so take it for what it is worth -- the curse was the removal of the priesthood from Laman and Lemuel and their descendants. Why the connection between the curse and the skin of blackness? Because Nephi and his people segregated themselves from other people to keep their religion pure. Laman and Lemuel and their descendants, on the other hand, lost the rationale for segregation when they lost the priesthood, and their people integrated with darker skinned residents of the land. (Why else would the Lamanites so outnumber the Nephites?)
Here is the more detailed story:
Shortly after Lehi departed from Jerusalem into the wilderness, leaving behind "his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things," his faithful son Nephi prayed and received this revelation:
[I]nasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to the land of promise; yea, even the land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands. And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.
1 Nephi 2:20-21. The contrast between prosperity and being "cut off from the presence of the Lord" is repeated many times throughout the Book of Mormon. Their interconnection suggests that "prosperity" is not intended solely to convey an image of material well-being, but rather a sense of communion with God. Interestingly, Lehi abandoned all of his many material possessions in pursuit of this prosperity.
The Lord promised Nephi that he would be led to the "promised land," which is not only an actual place but also a metaphor for heaven. Nephi's brothers were led to the same geographical location, even though they were "cut off from the presence of the Lord." To be "cut off from the presence of God" is a status that true believers would view as miserable and frightening. Indeed it is considered a form of death, referred to by Mormons as "spiritual death." Both "physical death" (mortality) and "spiritual death" (separation from God) were the result of the Fall of Adam and Eve. The Atonement of Jesus Christ remedies the physical death through the resurrection of all people, who are then brought before the judgment bar of God, thus overcoming the spiritual death. At that point, those who have repented of their sins are allowed to remain in the presence of God, while "whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness."
Early in the Book of Mormon, the family of Lehi divides into two groups. Nephi separates himself, three of his brothers, his sisters, and "all those who would go with me" from Laman and Lemuel, the two eldest sons in the family. Shortly after the separation, Nephi builds a temple. Nephi explains that he built the temple "after the manner of the temple of Solomon." Under Mormon doctrine, the temple is the place where people are taught to return to the presence of God. The ordinances that are performed in modern temples are designed to teach the process by which people return.
Following his description of the temple, Nephi notes that his people want him to become their king, an honor that he declines. But he takes this opportunity to note that the Lord had fulfilled His promise to make Nephi a ruler over his brothers, which he was "until the time they sought to take away my life." More importantly for our purposes, the Lord had fulfilled His promise with respect to Laman and Lemuel, that if they would rebel against Nephi, they would be "cut off from the presence of the Lord." In other words, they were cut off from access to the temple.
In contrast to the people of Nephi, the people of Laman and Lemuel were "cursed." The curse upon the Lamanites was the loss of priesthood authority. The people of Nephi prosper when they have access to the presence of the Lord; they obtain access to the presence of the Lord through the temple; and they are authorized to conduct temple ordinances only when they hold the priesthood. Those who lose the priesthood, therefore, are literally "cut off from the presence of the Lord."
The passages in the Book of Mormon are not entirely clear in describing the curse as loss of priesthood authority. Indeed, later Book of Mormon writers appear to equate the curse with the darkened skin. I believe that the Nephites equated the lack of priesthood with those outside of their closed community. This also suggests an explanation for the "whitening" of skin: reintegration of Lamanite converts.
Finally, I should note that the Church has produced no end of fallacious statements about blacks and Native Americans that stem from a (in my view) misunderstanding of this curse. But this post is already too long for that discussion.
Mormons and the Bible
The Historian over at The Metaphysical Elders has posted an extremely interesting letter that he wrote at the request of a non-Mormon New Testament scholar asked to participate in the production of an anti-Mormon film on LDS beliefs about the Bible. The Historian writes:
- Beliefs about the Bible are as wide-ranging within Mormonism as any other church. The most that can be said officially is the Mormons do not believe that the biblical text is inerrant. Conservative Christians object to this. The common critique of the LDS view comes from one of the Articles of Faith, a set of informal doctrinal explanations written by Joseph Smith. It says: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly. We also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” There are two objections to this statement by critics. First, they object to the insinuation that the Bible is not “translated” correctly. Second, they object to the fact that the Book of Mormon does not have the same qualification, which seems to elevate its authority above that of the Bible.
These objections, however, misrepresent the issue. Word studies of 19th century usage of the word “translate” show that it was often used to mean, “transmit,” or “transform.” In this sense it does question the transmission history of the biblical text and its inerrancy. However, it would be strange to assert the opposite, e.g. “We believe the Bible to be true including transmission errors.” The LDS view here simply allows for the possibility of transmission errors, and claims that they are not binding. Yet frequently critics exaggerate this claim. Why then does this caveat not appear for the Book of Mormon? The primary reason why is that Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon from the autograph text. There were no “transmission” errors. Additionally, the Book of Mormon itself claims that it is subject to errors and imperfections. If one believes the Book of Mormon, one accepts prima facie that there are errors in it.
The entire letter is definitely worth reading.
This is an 1857 photograph of the Nauvoo Legion in Utah. The Mormon militia was known as the Nauvoo Legion until it was disbanded by the federal government in the 1870s (I think). 1857, of course, was the year that the United States sent Johnston's Army to invade Utah and put down the "Mormon rebellion." Thus, this is what the Utah resistance would have looked like.
What other American church had its own army? Isn't it fun to be a Mormon!
Utah, Mormons, and Bankruptcy
Utah has the dubious honor of leading the nation in personal bankruptcy rates. According to the Salt Lake Tribune 1 in 37 households in Utah is insolvent. I suspect that this high level of bankruptcy filings may be what has been behind some recent words on debt in general conference. In 1998, President Hinckley counseled:
- I urge you, brethren, to look to the condition of your finances. I urge you to be modest in your expenditures; discipline yourselves in your purchases to avoid debt to the extent possible. Pay off debt as quickly as you can, and free yourselves from bondage.
- We have been counseled again and again concerning self-reliance, concerning debt, concerning thrift. So many of our people are heavily in debt for things that are not entirely necessary. When I was a young man, my father counseled me to build a modest home, sufficient for the needs of my family, and make it beautiful and attractive and pleasant and secure. He counseled me to pay off the mortgage as quickly as I could so that, come what may, there would be a roof over the heads of my wife and children. I was reared on that kind of doctrine. I urge you as members of this Church to get free of debt where possible and to have a little laid aside against a rainy day.
Obviously, there is a great deal of truth to what President Hinckley says. One of the iron facts of consumer bankruptcy is that at as personal debt increases so do bankruptcy filings. However, I wonder if there might be a more benign explanation for Utah's personal bankruptcy rate.
Bankruptcy is correlated strongly with age. Younger people file bankruptcy more often than older people. This intuitively makes sense. Younger people often have less earning capacity than do people in the prime of their careers. In addition, young people have had less time to accumulate assets (like home equity) that can serve as a financial cushion in the face of economic shocks, like the loss of a job or major medical expenses. Utah has a much younger population than the nation as a whole. Thus, I wonder what happens to Utah's personal bankruptcy filing rate once you control for its demographic profile. Does its striking prominence disappear? In other words, maybe Utah's personal bankrtuptcy rate is not a product of rampant, Mormon consumerism, but rather is simply a matter of demographics.
Of course, what data we do have suggests that even if Utah's level of consumer debt is average, it is still probably too high. Thus, President Hinckley's stay-out-of-consumer-debt counsel is necessary even if their isn't anything special about Utah's insolvency rate.
I have put up a page introducing myself. (You can also access it via the link on the right). If folks like this format, I could put together similar pages for the other T&S correspondents.
A Whole Lot More on Natural Law
In a mad attempt to throw together Kaimi's post on the "Christian Right" and Nate's post on natural law, while also tossing in a bit about Catholic and Protestant theology...
A few years ago I dug a little into a group called the World Congress of Families. It, like United Families International, has its roots in a loose network of politically conservative churches that saw the United Nations as beholden to an anti-traditionalist agenda. This is hardly a new complaint; it dates back to the 1960s and 70s, where you can find old John Birch Society stuff warning against the "unisex" and collectivist designs of the U.N. But it really seems to have picked up steam in the 1990s, perhaps because the weight of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic hierarchy really began to be added to the agenda (especially in regards to the role of U.N. agencies in promoting birth control and "family planning" (i.e., abortion rights)). Whatever the reason, a lot of groups joined the bandwagon. At some point in there, some LDS lawyers began participating, setting up their own parallel organizations and writing and publishing a lot on the anti-traditionalism implicit in the evolving international law regime. (Bruce Hafen gave a big speech at one of their conferences in Europe on the "natural" role of mothers and how the main U.N. documents of women's rights is either oblivious or hostile to that role.) Of course, with the Proclamation on the Family, it was probably inevitable that legally and politically savvy Mormons would see the opportunity to make an LDS contribution to this debate. They've done it nationally (like through the "Defend Marriage" movement), and continuing to do it on the international scene.
As I wrote yesterday, I'm bothered by a lot of the rhetoric these organizations usually use. If you check out United Families International's website, you'll see they define the family as "the natural and fundamental group unit of society." Now, maybe that's just boilerplate. But I don't think so--I think a great many of these folks probably really do think of the family as "natural": that is, the family (the traditional family, mind you) is "of nature." Such natural law discourse--which is, of course, what we're talking about here, whether or not any of these folks ever discuss the "laws" of nature--assumes nature has an enduring, objective normative status; it assumes that history (to say nothing of the human will) is separate from and in fact subservient to nature; it assumes that human beings, by virtue of being part of God's natural creation, can in fact reason out God's will by observing the natural facts implicit in that creation. This is (partly) the philosophy of Aristotle, and (more specifically) the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and it is a powerful way of thinking. But doesn't Mormonism believe a God--or at least, didn't we at one time believe in a God--who can, and does, intervene into our lives without making any reference to nature whatsoever? Was polygamy "natural"? Who knows? Is monogamy "more natural"? Again, who can say? Our theology, such as it is, arises from a series of divine edicts and pronunciations which have played themselves out across our own history, and the history of the ancient peoples discussed in the Bible and the BoM: "nature" never seems to come into it. (Though the authoritarian priesthood structure of contemporary Mormonism is quite in tune with the magisterial assumptions of current Roman Catholic theology, I for one am basically convinced that the Augustinian-Protestant emphasis on a direct, "a-natural" submission to God better suits what I think we are supposed to believe the prophets to have told us.) Thus, I don't think it's at all helpful in terms of building Zion (which involves intellectual work as well as physical) to take the basically conservative sensibility of most American Mormons and align that with arguments--against homosexuality, or against abortion rights, or in favor traditional family and sexual roles--which are premised solely upon the "fact" that gay sex, killing fetuses, and letting husbands stay home with the kids is "against nature."
Of course, natural law thinking is more subtle, and supple, than all that. I respect its power. I've used in plenty of times. It is a strong and persuasive and in many ways correct thing to be able to talk about "natural" forms of life, about the ordained telos of a being or a community. And who is to say that such nature-based theological discourse isn't the future of Mormonism? Medieval Christianity (or at least a good portion of it) turned to such philosophy because it helped them answer important questions, it was a way of making sense of how to live a Christian life in the public, and political, world. Mormonism may yet become philosophical, in a particular Roman Catholic sense: certainly a great many conservative Protestant churches have done so without realizing it (which gives no end of amusement to conservative Catholics, who have watched, over the last ten or fifteen years or so, many otherwise totally Americanized evangelical Southern Baptists suddenly "discover" John Henry Newman or Pope John Paul II (who is a hero of mine, I should note)). That may be our arc, and it is not, by definition, a bad or "apostate" one. The whole reason so many conservative Christians have embraced the idea of our time being "a Catholic moment" is that their Thomist tradition truly presents an intellectual alternative to the individualized spirituality of modern America. To the extent that Mormonism has been Americanized, discovering a different ontological frame within which one might politically situate one's faith can provide socially conservative Mormons with a great deal of solace. But still, I believe it is a tradition that we should not embrace too easily; there is, in the history of our doctrine and our ecclesia, too many differences that should not be elided, and that is exactly what I feel many "Christian Right" groups like United Families International are asking us to do when I read their stuff.
Though he doesn't call it such, Nate points out that Mormonism could articulate and pursue a "Protestant" alternative as well, one in which we "redefine the Good in personal [which is not the same as individualistic] terms." The force that binds together and to commends us to certain forms of life, in this case, would not be the moral imperative of the goodness of nature, but rather our willed covenant with God. I think this is a powerful idea, one much closer to my heart and my understanding of the Gospel; in particular, I like how Nate linked this to "what the scriptures (especially the Book of Mormon) are getting at when they talk about being "enticed" by both God and the Devil...[it is a question of] our affections and who it is that we ultimately want to be friends with." The concepts of will, covenant, and friendship implied therein might take different forms in Mormon hands, but they are all classic Reformation conceptions: Luther's writings on both the "bondage" and the "freedom" of our will; the Puritan and Calvinist doctrine of covenant; the whole idea of the church being a Gemeinde, a community of friendship. There are some real possibilities there. Then again, considering the many, many ways in which mainline Protestant congregations in the U.S. have failed to withstand the libertarian imperatives of modernity, perhaps covenant, when push comes to shove, isn't all it's cracked up to be: after all, it is exactly those devout conservative Protestants, who are most anxious about social conservative causes and most active in "Christian Right" organizations, who have most frequently given up on their own theology, and turned to Catholic doctrines of natural law.
A Quick Addendum
Two qualifications to the above: 1) I shouldn't imply that Roman Catholicism and natural law thinking are synonymous. The Thomist tradition is not only not the only philosophical tradition in Catholicism, it hasn't even always been the primary one. However, I do think it's fair to suggest that Roman Catholicism is the most philosophically developed of all bodies of Christian thought (at least insofar as we're dealing with what has usually been called "philosophy" in the West), and hence that those Christians who come on their own, by whatever route, to the belief that certain behaviors or relationships are "unnatural" in God's eyes usually find themselves, at least in my experience, turning sooner or later to papal encyclicals. 2) I don't mean to imply that all Mormon talk about the "natural family" and so forth is wholly the creation of various recent intellectual endeavors; I'm sure any search of the Ensign could turn up dozens of sermons by General Authorities in which this, that or the other thing is defended as not "merely" scriptural but also "natural" (meaning: "good"). And some LDS academics have been flirting with natural law reasoning for a long time: years ago there was a professor in the BYU political science department years ago, Richard Vetterli, who would hand out this pamphlet on "Homosexuality and the Natural Law" by Harry Jaffa to his classes.
Noel Reynolds, Natural Law, and the Personalized Good
One of my favorite former professors, Noel Reynolds, dropped by and left some very interesting comments on natural law. He begins by faulting the Thomistic natural law tradition for beginning its analysis with Aristotelianism rather than the scriptures, noting that in the scriptures it is either God's command or our covenant with him that provides moral direction, not nature. Noel goes on to ask:
- And yet, the plan of salvation does presume the necessity of some disposition within us to seek after good or evil. And our salvation depends on the choice we will make. Or is that already a hellenized way of putting it? For other scriptures pose this alternative as choosing to obey the Father or the devil.
So is God pursuing the Good, or is he laboring to build a universe committed to doing what he believes is good? Whatever might lie behind it, the latter seems to be the view provided by him to mortals.
If I am right about this, then it suggests that Russell is right and that we cannot look to nature or naturalness as a way of deciding the question of gay marriage but must look instead to it impact of the particular kind of friendship to which God invites us.
Should Mormons consider the "Christian Right" as friends?
It seems to me that church members are becoming enamored of the political groups which are often identified "Christian Right" -- politically powerful, vocally conservative groups like the Family Research Council, American Family Association, and Focus on the Family. I receive many e-mail messages from family members, forwarding petitions or other communiques from such groups. Matt Evans, of our blog and other blogs' fame, has written about positive experiences he has had in communicating with one such group.
I can certainly see why Mormons are drawn to these groups. Such organizations are well-organized and able to wield political power. They appear to be "on our side" in the perceived culture wars. And if such groups disagree on doctrinal matters -- things like the nature of the Book of Mormon or of Joseph Smith -- well, those are little things which can be ignored for now. Right?
Despite these similarities, I am deeply doubtful that much good can come from these groups. It appears to me that, if such groups are prepared to send gays out of town on the first train -- a goal many church members would probably support -- that the groups are nevertheless also ready to send Mormons out on the second train.
For example, Professor Eric Rasmussen at Indiana caught a lot of flack for his suggestion that homosexuals not be permitted to teach. Christian groups weighed in supporting Rasmussen, and many Mormons may have felt that he was unfairly treated. However, in that very same discussion, Professor Rasmussen also suggested that Christians can rightly be opposed to "Hindus . . . atheists, Mormons, and so forth as teachers."
Similarly, I get frequent e-mails from church members (family and friends) urging me to support "school prayer." Yet a leading recent "school prayer" case was brought by a church member -- represented by the ACLU -- because LDS kids at school were being told their religion was wrong. (More on this in a future post).
I realize that these are anecdotal evidence. However, when combined with the inflammatory rhetoric of these groups, and the history of church persecution at the hands of other religious groups, I cannot help but feel suspicious. "Christian Right" groups may welcome our support now, but they are not our friends.
Perhaps church members are aware of these problems, but feel that, by supporting "Christian Right" groups, they can demonstrate to such groups that Mormons and fundamentalist Christians are not so different after all, and that our support now will lead to future support from these groups. I do not think that this is a realistic expectation. Most "Christian Right" groups appear from their rhetoric to be my-way-or-the-highway in outlook. We may be given a chance to join their inner circles -- provided we jettison the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, temples, and most of our other unique beliefs. If we do not do so -- and I suspect that most church members would not wish this type of transformation -- then the day will come that the "Christian Right" groups will turn on us. Our earlier support for these groups will mean nothing, and we will be attacked as vociferously as their other targets are today.
I do not know if there is a way to avoid this future. However, my intuition is that, if such a future can be avoided, one key will be Mormons forging political alliances elsewhere, and refusing to lend political support to such "Christian Right" groups.
Mormonism and Natural Law
Russell's post below implicitly raises the issue of natural law and Mormonism. I just wanted to point out an essay written by the mysterious Lawyer of the Metaphysical Elders, which discusses (and ultimately rejects) the possibility of Thomistic natural law within the context of Mormon theology. You can check it out here.
My (Mormon) Hang-up with (Opposition to) Gay Marriage
Hello all. My thanks for Nate for inviting me (if only for a while) to participate in this blog, and thanks for the introduction Kaimi. Speaking of such, I notice that Times and Seasons started off without any general explanations or identifying comments. Is that a policy, or just because it was assumed that most everyone who might read this blog would know who all the participants are? Either way, I feel foolish jumping into a conversation without doing a little of the usual sacrament-meeting-"let me tell you a little bit about myself"-routine. So anyway...my name's Russell Arben Fox; I'm married to Melissa Madsen Fox; we have two daughters, with a third due in about two weeks. I live in Jonesboro, AR, and teach political philosophy and other stuff at Arkansas State University. I'm originally from Spokane, WA; my wife is from Ann Arbor, MI; we met and married while students at BYU, which I attended from 1987-1994, with a break in there for a mission to South Korea. We've lived in the southern U.S. for either 2 1/2 or 8 1/2 years now, depending on if you include the Virginia suburbs of D.C. (where we lived while I worked on my Ph.D. at Catholic University of America) in "the South." Everything else you might want to know about me or my family can be found at either of the links Kaimi provided. Ok, that's enough.
Kaimi's post on gay marriage, and David Brooks's excellent conservative defense of such, puts me in mind of some long e-mail conservations I've had with many friends (both LDS and otherwise) over the last half-year or so. Looking back through my archives, it seems like there's been no single topic we've addressed more often than this one. And still my mind isn't made up. Put very simply, my dilemma is this: I consider myself to be a social conservative, and yet I am also Mormon, which is not entirely compatible with (or at least does not fit very well with, as far as I understand these things) social conservatism. Oh, it does match up very well in some ways, to be sure; but fundamentally, the sort of ontology necessary for a thorough social conservatism isn't--again, in my view--present in Mormon doctrine or Mormon history. For most moral issues, this needn't be a problem; but since the controversy over gay marriage has forced and/or encouraged both its supporters and its opponents to plumb the very depths of the social nature and/or construction of "traditional" or "natural" marriage, I can't help but feel, as a Mormon, somewhat on the spot.
Why? Because our history of polygamy prevents us, as far as I can tell, from speaking of heterosexual monogamy as either "traditional" or "natural," at least not in the same way many evangelicals, Catholics, and others have tended to talk about it. Mormons can adopt their language all they like, but until or unless church leaders announce (or at least tolerate the development of the idea) that 19th-century polygamy was wrong and/or a mistake and/or one of those crazy aberrant things, like God commanding Abraham to kill his son (except 19th-century Mormon men did, in fact, go through with marrying multiple women), I simply do not see how we can in good conscience defend a position which instantiates a particular definition of the family as intrinsically necessary or good or worthy. The reasoning, as far as I can tell, is pretty straightforward:
1. God is good.
2. God would not command His children to do something which did not partake of His goodness.
3. God commanded His church to practice plural marriage.
4. Therefore, polygamy must be something that, at least in some possible case, can result in goodness.
5. If polygamy can result in goodness, then the insistence that only "traditional" or "natural" forms of marriage--namely, heterosexual monogamy--can ever have good consequences is false.
6. Therefore, the moral argument for supporting heterosexual monogamy on the basis of its "traditional role" or its "naturalness" fails.
What does this necessarily have to do with gay marriage? Perhaps nothing. After all, as Gordon points out, the feelings of many Mormons towards the possibility of gay marriage may have more to do with a sense of its position on the "hierarchy of sins" than anything ontological. That is, maybe we can't theologically postulate a particular definition of marriage as "natural" (at least not without doing damage to our presumed belief that 19th-century prophets were, in fact, speaking as prophets when they defended plural marriage), but that doesn't mean we can't organize around especially heinous threats to its present form. But to my mind, such an argument would have to focus less on "marriage"--its qualities, history, civic role, legal context, cultural products, social benefits etc.--and more on the threat itself: that is, on (the sin of) same-sex relationships themselves. Which is why I tend to find it much easier to take seriously explicitly religious (either sectarian or phrased in natural religion/political theology-type terms) arguments about homosexuality and gay marriage--its ethical and spiritual dimensions, or lack thereof--than I do those arguments which follow along the predominant Christian/social conservative claims about "traditional marriage" on the basis of what one of my faithful LDS friends once called (perhaps unfairly) "post hoc secular rationales."
We are, for better or worse, a church committed to idea of revelation, an intervening God whose commands can, therefore, contravene our understanding of nature and tradition. (How many times did Joseph Smith essentially say, "If I told you everything God has told me, your world would shatter like glass"?) That being the case, it seems to me that the orthodox Mormon position is one which is open to the possibility that homosexuality poses a profoundly serious challenge to our moral condition, but which should be distrustful of anyone makes political arguments on the basis of defending any particular institutionalization of said moral condition. Of course, my use of the word "orthodox" is key there; as many have noted, orthodoxy is a moving target in Mormonism. It may well be that the revelatory worldview which I am attributing to Mormonism not only hasn't been strong for quite some time, but may be officially passing. Certainly the recent language of Elder Ballard and others in condemning same-sex marriage has been drenched with ideas of naturalness and tradition; when we have arrived at the point that Mormon judges can unironically cite Reynolds v. United States in convicting polygamists, then perhaps we have, as a church and as a people, gotten to the point where we feel comfortable understanding ourselves as defending a moral continuity, rather than as posing revelatory challenges to it. Whether this means that the legacy of plural marriage (to say nothing of Joseph Smith's involvement in polyandry) is going to be further marginalized in the church, or even be subject to more-or-less official revisionism (as has been the case in recent years regarding the at-one-time-prophetically-authenticated priesthood ban; consider how Armand Mauss, once considered a critic of the church, is now approvingly cited by those church defenders who want to put the "race issue" to rest), I can't say. But however things develop, if Mormon orthodoxy really is changing in this regard, then perhaps we can, as a faith, make a socially conservative argument for "traditional marriage" after all.
Ok, that's long enough. How's that for a first post?
Utah 3-BYU 0
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me and from the words of my roaring?" (Psalms 22:1)
We are happy to announce that Russell A. Fox will be coming aboard as a guest blogger for the next few weeks. Professor Fox teaches political philosophy, and posts at his own blog, Wäldchen vom Philosophenweg. He should be a welcome non-lawyer voice on the blog.
And remember -- statutes may prohibit one from rustling cattle (scroll down to 402(e)), but the common law may intervene* should one attempt to Rustle A Fox.
*Thanks to Nate Oman for reminding me of Pierson's potential applicability here.
Hierarchy of Sins?
Kaimi's post on gay marriage prompted some thoughts on the hierarchy of sin. Some Southern Baptist friends once told me that all sins were equal in God's eyes. Mormon theology has some similar strains. We are taught that no unclean thing can enter into the kingdom of God, and presumably any sin makes one unclean. Nevertheless, the scriptures indicate a hierarchy of sin. For example, Matthew 12:31 explains, "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men." Murder generally comes next in the hierarchy. D&C 132:27. Unchastity is next. Alma 39:3-5 (Alma speaking to Corianton):
And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel. Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted. Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?
Two thoughts about this:
(1) My sense is that this hierarchy explains widespread opposition to gay marriage among Mormons better than any other principle. Mormons do not generally believe that all sins should be illegal, but this sin seems particularly grievous. (That said, it doesn't explain anything about my views on the topic of gay marriage, but that is the subject for another post.)
(2) I wonder how far down this hierarchy goes? And what is the principle that determines where a sin falls in the hierarchy? Certainly, there are some actions that get harsher treatment than others in Church disciplinary proceedings, but this does not necessarily correspond to the seriousness of the sin to the individual's spirituality. For example, speaking against Church leaders is bad, bad, bad in the eyes of the Church and may subject the speaker to discipline, but being uncharitable or refusing to share with the poor is not punished by the Church at all.
Prohibition is Dead and the Mormons Killed It!
That was the headline in a British newspaper when Utah became the state that pushed the repeal of prohibition over the top. At the time, President Heber J. Grant was urging the Saints, via the Deseret News to keep prohibition in place. Grant had been a dry clear back into the 1890s, and was horrified that Utah would pound the final nail in the coffin of prohibition. (For a full discussion of Grant's views on prohibition, check out this master's thesis at BYU on his political activities.) Some seven decades on, it looks as though Mormons (or a Mormon) is once again set to strike a blow for booze. According to the Boston Globe:
After a 200-year ban based in Puritan tradition, Massachusetts liquor stores will gain the freedom to remain open seven days a week year-round starting next week, when Governor Mitt Romney plans to sign into law a measure ending the longtime state prohibition on Sunday alcohol sales.
Safe Site for Kids?
I was just at The Wiggles web site (The Wiggles is a television show that my children watch sometimes). The site has a prominently displayed Net Nanny approval sticker ("This Site is Safe for Kids"). It also has a prominently displayed link to the Australian Breastfeeding Association (careful: link includes breastfeeding pictures).
Huh? A Safe for Kids approved site which is a click away from topless women? I realize that breast-feeding is not the same as pornography, but I think many parents would prefer to control whether their children are viewing women's breasts.
And yes, I also realize that Net Nanny would probably block me (if I had it installed) if I tried to click the breastfeeding link. Still, a "kids site" which has a link button to a "boobies site" is a combination that strikes me as very puzzling.
Gay Marriage -- David Brooks and the Conservative Case
David Brooks recently laid out a conservative argument in favor of gay marriage. While Brooks echoes and expands on many arguments which have been floating through the blogosphere, his commentary is important for at least two reasons. First, Brooks is a well-known and identified conservative, with credentials including lengthy gigs at the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard. It would be difficult to accuse him of being a liberal in conservative's clothing, which in turn means conservatives may be less prone to dismiss his argument by attacking the messenger. Second, Brooks lays out a rather well-reasoned argument that appeals to conservative values (though it arrives at a result which conservatives have opposed).
At its core, Brooks' argument is that opposition to gay marriage runs counter to the conservative ideal of fidelity and monogamy. If a gay couple wishes to be faithful and monogamous, Brooks suggests that society should do everything in its power to facilitate that desire -- including sanctioning gay marriage.
Perhaps most significantly, Brooks recognizes and agrees with the (generally conservative) perception that marriage is currently in crisis, as large numbers of marriage end in divorce. Many conservatives have suggested that allowing gay marriage will further weaken the institution of marriage (See, e.g., FRC here and the Weekly Standard here). Brooks begins with the same premise, that marriage is in crisis, but arrives at an opposite conclusion:
Still, even in this time of crisis, every human being in the United States has the chance to move from the path of contingency to the path of marital fidelity -- except homosexuals. Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution. A gay or lesbian couple may love each other as deeply as any two people, but when you meet a member of such a couple at a party, he or she then introduces you to a "partner," a word that reeks of contingency.
You would think that faced with this marriage crisis, we conservatives would do everything in our power to move as many people as possible from the path of contingency to the path of fidelity.
Brooks' argument raises interesting questions which are not addressed that I am aware of in Mormon theology. Specifically, is gay fidelity less sinful than gay promiscuity? The church teaches that homosexual acts are sinful. Are all homosexual acts between consenting adults equally sinful? (After all, sins can vary by degree.) Is a gay person who has sex with 10 different partners equivalent, as far as the church is concerned, to a gay person in a committed relationship who has sex with his/her monogamous partner ten times? Given that the church equates gay sex with most other kinds of immoral activity, is a gay marriage the equivalent to a long-term adulterous affair? And, is a long-term adulterous affair better than a string of one-night stands? (After all, if it is the number of sex acts that the church wishes to limit, perhaps opposition to marriage is a good idea, since many studies suggest that married or committed couples have sex more often than singles).
I am not sure of the answers to these questions. I am continuing to think about this issue, and am curious as to what others think. From a purely societal point of view, I think a committed partner is better than a promiscuous single. If we are seeking the societal benefits which come from stability, then Brooks' argument sounds appealing --
The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.
I find Brooks' argument rather persuasive, and remain unconvinced that Mormons should oppose gay marriage. I am certainly a skeptic of political opposition to gay marriage (I have previously written suggesting that Mitt Romney could sign a gay marriage bill into law without violating his religious beliefs), and Brooks' argument makes me wonder to what extent we should be opposed to the practice at all.
UPDATE: See also an aside by David Horowitz that appears to concede the same point. ("Personally, I believe the family is an institution under attack and needs to be defended, but I also believe that all citizens are deserving basic respect and individual rights and that society has a vested interest in recognizing and supporting stable relationships between consenting adults who do no harm.")
Not quite, Nate
Nate's post on John Taylor is interesting, and he is certainly right that the Taylor sermon contains an "unfortunately racist passage." But let's not make it worse than it is. The passage did not say that “a negro, a Hottentot, or an Indian” had “nothing Godlike in them.” When Taylor said, "There is nothing Godlike in them," he appears to have been referring to swearing and drinking (identified as "these practices" in the prior sentence), not to the groups of people from the prior sentence. In other words, don't swear or drink, you Mormon men, if you aspire to be like God. Unfortunately, we didn't add "don't be a racist" to that list until later.