Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Being an Agnostic Mormon

Love the title, but I wouldn't immediately say that about myself, because I hate labels...

Being agnostic is formally the very most honest way to be a Latter Day Saint.  I say this with all sincerity and accuracy.  Consider the following quote:
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
(Paul to the Corinthians, first Epistle 13:9-12)
The most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained thereinLatter Day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles existing, as they are made manifest from time to time.
(Joseph Smith, History of the Church, v5 p215)
Joseph Smith started his journey with the First Vision, condemning creeds and their professors, not because they said wrong things -- they did not, not really -- but because the creeds declared an orthodoxy, and that orthodoxy would get in the way of honest investigation of truth.  The professors were corrupt by virtue of the fact that they claimed to know that which was not knowable.  To say that you know something when you don't know it is both dishonest and corrupt, because it contaminates one's ability to see truth when it comes along 'from time to time'.

To say "I don't know" can be the best and is often the most honest answer.  To say "I know" and then to say either "...the church is true" or "...the church is not true", is not an accurate statement.  While some might defend the statement 'the church is not true' because the church says things it knows to be false (justified by the "milk before meat" idea), the reality is that the church addresses, through prophecy, the vast unknown.  Paul's use of the word "prophecy" is interesting -- it's a method of filling in the gap between what we "know in part" and that vast unknown.  Prophecy, as applied in scripture, is that which is given by inspiration, to the mind and heart of the prophets -- it's not a perfect, flawless process -- it's the ability to accept in faith our best, inspired guess.  It is not to know a thing. -- and in recognizing our 'not knowing', one can best sort out the truth of things.

Alma defined faith in this way: "Faith is not a perfect knowledge of things, therefore if ye have faith, ye hope for things that are not seen, but are true."  What makes faith different from belief is the explicit aknowledgement that I do not know, but am willing to trust and try something out (act on it).

Alma lays out a speciic test of any given principle: either it grows or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, and you've given it a chance, you can, appropriately, throw the seed out.  What's important about the Alma 32 experiment is that it is specific to a given principle -- "In that thing" -- and not the entire garden.  Too often, the idea to test an unknowable belief, or an entire belief structure, is not a valid test, because it goes beyond what one can know with a simple "yes, it grows" or "no, it does not grow" answer. 

For example, to test the question, "Is the church true", by Alma 32 is fraught with problems.  Being a vast set of beliefs, it is an untestable proposition by Alma 32 -- it's not specific to a specific thing, because the truth of the church is mixed with human judgment and sometimes profound errors.  So, in exercising the experiment, one can either feel good about it -- it grows, or feel nothing -- it doesn't.  If I feel good, and then conclude 'the church is true', then there is a danger of accepting a blanket orthodoxy containing both truth and the human judgment and profound errors in the church as being 'true' as well -- not wise to do.  If I don't feel good about it, the I might conclude 'the church is not true', and then reject things that really are in fact useful, helpful, and uplifting.

Instead, Alma suggests testing a specific thing:  I can test to see if a specific teaching or practice has value to me, and in so doing, I get a comfort with that principle or practice.  I can ask the question, in faith, "Does the Book of Mormon contain truth and relevant teachings for me and my family?".  It's a specific question, and in reading the book, discovering the value, and then praying about what I've read, I can come to a knowledge that the Book of Mormon has significant value to me, and teaches truths relevant to my life.  I exercised faith by reading the book because I recognized that I did not know if it had value.  I did not cast out the book because of my unbelief, in whatever form that may have taken, but I gave it a legitimate test in faith.  As a result of my test, I came to a specific piece of knowledge -- the book contains valuable, relevant truths for me.  Test complete.  Faith exercised.  Knowledge gained.  Alma 32 works in the specific. 

Alma asks, is this all there is to know?  And he says "no, you've only exercised faith in that specific thing".  You don't know at this point, whether the book is historically true.  You can ask that question, but if you don't put it to a test, including both mind and heart, acting in faith on that thing.

What does that mean when it comes to whether the book is historical?   It means openly and honestly probing whether the book indeed has that history.  If it turns out that my test in faith does not result in mind and heart agreeing that it's history -- then I have to recognize that I do not know (unprovable), or I know it doesn't (be careful here -- requires proving a negative absolute).   As long as something is not proven to be false, I can still hope, I can still have faith, but I need to recognize that I still don't know.  So many of the Church's teachings are in this category.  Faith continues, because we recognize we don't know -- and that's just fine.

This process of defining what we believe through our own experience is actually at the core of both Joseph Smith's teachings (as noted above), and as well, in the temple endowment, in both the creation as well as garden of eden dramatization -- man was to learn through his own experience to distinguish good and evil -- and not partake of the predefined tree of orthodox knowledge of good and evil.

Unfortunately, the church through "correlation" has managed to create the appearance of an orthodoxy, enforced by things like the 14 fundamentals and other social pressure. Nothing could be further from the original purpose of the church -- I hold hard on the idea that there are no creeds -- no orthodoxy -- and only the challenge to discover "all true principles existing." In my humble opinion, suspending naive belief that too early asserts knowledge, and recognizing that we truly don't know, is the very best way to discover truth

As Lao Tzu said, "Not knowing is true knowledge".

So...perhaps being a Mormon Agnostic is not such a bad thing, when we really, honestly, don't know.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Baal Shem Tov and Joseph Smith

Baal Shem Tov, "Besht" for short, was the founder of the Hasidic movements, and was an 18th century mystic in what is now Ukraine.  Besht was to Judaism what Joseph Smith was to Christianity: he had mystical experiences, and turned Judaism upsidedown, fighting against the moribund rabbinical talmudic scholars as Joseph Smith fought against the creeds and orthodoxy.

Of all things last night, his name kept coming up in my dreams.  So, reading this morning the wikipedia entry about Baal Shem Tov this morning, I read about his teachings about god and man.  Here are some excerpts:
He declared the whole universe, mind and matter, to be a manifestation of the Divine Being; that this manifestation is not an emanation from God, as is the conception of the Kabbalah by Mitnagdim, for nothing can be separated from God: all things are rather forms in which God reveals Himself. When man speaks, said Besht, he should remember that his speech is an element of life, and that life itself is a manifestation of God 
Whoever does not believe that God resides in all things, but separates God and them in his thoughts, has not the right conception of God.
In Doctrine and Covenants 88, Joseph Smith states the same thing: that god, or at least the power of god is everywhere.  Joseph Smith thought of god as being everywhere in the beginning of his teachings, but towards the end said unequivocally, that god is a man, with material flesh and body.  Besht is panentheistic in a way that LDS might not accept, yet if we accept that the Holy Ghost dwells within us, then at least the HG is physically resident in us.  As for panentheism, consider these two verses:
D&C 88:13 The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.
Moses 6:63 And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.
My feeling is that Joseph Smith was a mystic, and did not fully comprehend his own thoughts and revelations about the integral nature of god and man.  He came as close as any Christian had done until that time, and by bringing god out of the ex-nihilo idealism of plato, Joseph Smith did much to move the needle.   Perhaps JS did understand, fully, this mystical vision, but at the time, the Saints were only ready for a conventional definition of god.  Milk before meat.
It is equally fallacious to think of a creation in time: creation, that is, God’s activity, has no end. God is ever active in the changes of nature: in fact, it is in these changes that God’s continuous creativeness consists.
Again, in section 88, the idea that the power of god is god and that it is the laws of nature within its respective kingdom.  Besht had identified three dimensions of reality similar to three kingdoms of glory.

Besht's concept of eternal creation is a marvellous concept.  Getting away from a physical point-in-time creation narrative, this idea that the act of creation, the garden of eden story as taught in temples, is not merely an historical event, but the ongoing creation narrative as humans deal with god and the world here and now.
The first result of his principles was a remarkable optimism. Since God is immanent in all things, all things must possess something good in which God manifests Himself as the source of good. (wikipedia)
This as well characterizes LDS thinking: Rather than the totally depraved world of the Calvinists and Catholics, LDS believe in the divine nature of creation, the world, and humans.  We are inherently optimistic (or at least should be).

For this reason, the Besht taught, every man must be considered good, and his sins must be explained, not condemned. One of his favorite sayings was that no man has sunk too low to be able to raise himself to God. Naturally, then, it was his chief endeavor to convince sinners that God stood as near to them as to the righteous, and that their misdeeds were chiefly the consequences of their folly.
This is a lesson many of us should realize in the church, especially on the topic of church discipline, and on how to treat those who don't share the TBM point of view.
From the very beginning Besht fought against that contempt for the world which, through the influence of Isaac Luria’s Kabbalah, had almost become a dogma among the Jews.
Again, back to the idea of the sacredness of creation.  This concept of the world's inherent goodness puts perspective on the hasidic concept of tikkum olam/repair of the world into context -- we should be caring for the world, treating it with utmost respect -- an inherently green viewpoint so needed today.  Not sure I see that attitude, politically, in LDS thinking, although many prophetic teachings speak of caring for the land.
He considered care of the body as necessary as care of the soul; since matter is also a manifestation of God, and must not be considered as hostile or opposed to Him.
This is doctrinally identical to LDS thinking.  All spirit is matter.  And it adds life to the idea that the Word of Wisdom, in its original intent and not current interpretation, is to care for the body.

...he fought the rigidity and sanctimony that had accreted to strict Talmudic viewpoints while not abrogating a single religious ceremony or observance. His target was the great importance which the Talmudic view attaches to the fulfillment of a law, while almost entirely disregarding sentiment or the growth of man’s inner life.
I sense that Besht was a bit of a Middle Way Jew.
While the rabbis of his day considered the study of the Talmud as the most important religious activity, Besht laid all the stress on prayer. “All that I have achieved,” he once remarked, “I have achieved not through study, but through prayer”. Prayer, however, is not merely petitioning God to grant a request, nor even necessarily speaking to God, but rather (“cleaving”, dvekut)— the glorious feeling of ’Oneness with God Almighty’, the state of the soul wherein a man or woman gives up their consciousness of separate existence, and join their own selves to the Eternal Being of God Supreme. Such a state produces indescribable bliss, which is the foremost fruit of the true worship of God.
This.  I cannot say more or better than the above.  This is the essence of the mystical experience -- that which is achieved through revelation.  Joseph Smith said that all members "who receive the holy ghost receive revelation, for the holy ghost is a revelator" -- thus to 'receive the holy ghost' upon confirmation, is to seek revelation daily in one's life as befitting one who has received the gift of the holy ghost.  Sometimes revelation comes in words, but only rarely.  The mystical experience is a oneness with god that cannot be described in words.

I believe Joseph Smith was a mystic like Baal Shem Tov.  Besht lived a longer life, and his followers picked up much more of the mystical message than Joseph's successors, who were more inclined to create the more traditional Christian LDS church that we have today.  I, for one, love to embrace Joseph's original mysticism as a pattern for my own spiritual journey.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Mormon Truth Heuristic

This is a work in process -- I'm posting to save it and get initial thoughts.

Mormons often state in their testimony, "I know the Church is true".  It's a remarkable claim, full of hope, passion, and certainty.  To those outside the culture, particularly from other, competing faiths, it seems to be arrogant as well.  It isn't intended to be, but rather, it intends to be a confession of faith (not knowledge) that the Church (what Mormons call their religious organization, culture, and everything else with it) is true and relevant to testifier, personally.  Those may not be their words, but that is the intent. 

Those of us trained in critical thinking and in epistemology find the statement also to be deeply problematic.  To know something is to have justified true belief in it -- proof from evidence that the thing being testified to is indeed 'true' and not in any way false.  Yet the statement of 'knowing' something to be true when there is no proof has deep precedent:

Examine Job's claim:
 For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.
Job 19:25-27
This powerful witness is Job's prophetic utterance: he 'knows' by some means that an unseen being exists, will stand on the earth, and that after death, in the flesh, Job will see his redeemer.  This "I know" (hebrew "yada", and in the Septuiguint "oida") is quite certainly "knowledge".  From the point of view of evidence, of epistemological validity, Job has no basis, not justification for this belief, therefore he has no "knowledge" of it, yet he says he "knows".

Moving forward to the Gospels, both Peter and Martha are found to testify that about something that is not apparent from the evidence.  They do not use the term "know" but it is quite certain language:
Jesus saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
Matthew 16:15-17
Although Peter isn't saying he knows, he makes a propositional, definitive truth cliam, "Thou art the Christ".  How can he make this claim?  He makes it not through tangible evidence, but through exclusively a spiritual kind -- the witness of the "Father which is in heaven."  Again, the critical thinking epistemologist may not be satisfied, because such an intangible witness might as well be a personal feeling of certainty.  While valid and important to Peter, it does not provide evidence except to the Peter himself. 
In the case of Martha, she states unequivocally the following to Jesus upon the death of Lazarus:
Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.
John 11:27
The critical thinking epistemologist might approve of the term 'believe' in this case.  Even moreso, the writer of John uses the verb "πιστεύω"/pisteuo, which means more of "faith" rather than belief.  This expression is quite distinct from Job's "yada"/"oida" of certain knowledge, but it is also not "belief".  Pisteuo involves a working trust in something: more like "I trust (accept, agree, hope) that thou art the Christ".  As evidence of that trust, she was finished with the conversation expressing her concerns about Lazarus' death, and went back to her business.  She acted on her faith by turning over her concerns to Jesus and moving on, trusting that he had things under control.
These three ways of expressing faith-based knowledge -- Job in saying "I know", Peter in making a certainty proposition, and Martha in expressing faith -- all are part of the way religious people confess their faith.  It should be no surprise that Mormons make similar claims about their own faith.  But how do Mormons form their truth claims?  

The Mormon Truth Heuristic -- Short Form

There are two terms in this that need to be defined: Truth, and Heuristic.  First, from Joseph Smith:
Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.
Doctrine and Covenants 93:24
A remarkable statement: simple, precise.  It is controversial in using the term 'knowledge' in it, but whatever is that truth of things as they are, were, and are to come is ineffectual unless we know about them.  Truth is simply things as they are.  Truth in history is things as they were.  Truth in the future?  if we say with certainty that X will happen, and we have justified belief that it will happen, and it happens, then for purpose of this discussion, it is true.
The second term, heuristic, literally means the means to find something out.  In modern use, especially in the field of computability, a heuristic solves problems with a short-cut, a trial-and error method, when a finite, deterministic algorithm is impractical.  By using the term "truth heuristic", I mean how LDS explore truth through a specific trial and error testing process, and the tendency to use that method to short-cut an exhaustive investigation of truth.
The first version of the truth heuristic is encountered in the very first missionary discussion, where missionaries present the Book of Mormon, and encourage investigators to ready, ponder, and pray.  Here is the "Moroni Challenge" universally accepted as the means to test the truth of the Book of Mormon:
I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, ... and ponder it in your hearts.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
Moroni 10:3-5
So the investigator is to read, ponder 'it', and pray, and the outcome is that teh truth of 'it' will be manifest by a feeling of certainty that Mormons call, "the Holy Ghost".  I have emphasized 'it', because the term is non-specific.  'it' could refer to what is read, or the entire book.  'it' could refer to the spiritual 'truth', symbolic in nature of what is read, or that the events in the book literally happened as reflected.
Reading, pondering, and praying about something to assess whether it has spiritual value to you as a reader is certainly a valid test.  But as for whether the events in the book literally happened, or whether the book as a whole can be proposed as 'true', meaning without material flaw, accurate, god-given, etc., 'it' becomes a bit problematic.
This is where the heuristic becomes a short-cut.  When missionaries return for a second visit, they ask about the experience the investigator had about the verses they were asked to read.  These verses are spiritually powerful in the text, and many investigators, if open minded, will have a positive, comforting experience with the text.  Because many who grew up believing the Bible to be the word of God tend to relate to King James English as being 'scriptural', they may even have had a very powerful emotional and spiritual experience with the material.  At that point, the missionaries describe these feelings as the "Holy Ghost" telling them that the Book of Mormon is true.  Without being specific, they have taken spiritual value associated with specific verses and generalized that evidence to the entire book and by implication, its history and divinity. 
Now that the heuristic has determined that the Book of Mormon is true and divine, then the means whereby the Book of Mormon came about must also be true and divine.  After all, it is impossible for a thing of God to come out of anything other than a true Prophet.  In glowing terms, the story of Joseph Smith and his position of Prophet of the Restoration is laid out.  The investigator learns of the miracle of a farm-boy with very little formal education translating this divine book by the gift and power of god.  The investigator is asked, "Could any man have written this book?", and the the investigator remembers the spiritual feelings and believes that Joseph could not have been a normal man, but indeed a true Prophet.  And from there, a True Church -- the ONLY true and living church -- because that was the content of the First Vision.
So from a very basic and essential spiritual test of whether the Book of Mormon has spiritually valid content, the investigator inductively concludes that the Church as presented by the missionaries is "true".  Having had a spiritual awakening, the associated bond to the missionaries, the Book, and to the Church is complete, and the investigator becomes a member.
Conversion is an emotional/spiritual process.  Seldom does anyone become converted by virtue of logic and reason.  Yet, the disturbing part of this short-cut heuristic is that the conclusion of truth of the whole is inductively derived from a specifc test of a specific reading of the Book.  In making the inductive leap from that specific test to the truth of the whole is glossed over. 
The heuristic itself is valid, when it applies to investigating a specific issue, to working it through in one's mind, and then to seek spiritual guidance as to whether that specific issue has merit, is true, or is relevant.  The outcome of this is a type of experiential knowledge -- a justification that the belief is true.  What is invalid is the movement from specifc to the general, from a subject claim of value to an objective claim of truth.

What really happens with the short-cut heuristic

Before going in to what is happening in the mind with conversion, it is important to recognize that to LDS thinking, all spiritual reality is material as well.  Thus, the spiritual processes of conversion are coupled with physical processes in the brain.  To investigate what is happening physically with conversion does not minimize the spiritual reality thereof, but it does help us understand why it happens, and what it means to be converted.
When the missionary asks the investigator to ready, ponder, and pray, the reading creates a set of mental pictures from the narrative, as we would get from any book with a narraative story.  As we form these mental images in our short-term memory, our mental processes need to stop input and process the information in order to commit it, place it, into our long term memory.  Moroni's promise asks us to ponder, not just what is read, but also, a deeply embedded narrative in Western culture:
Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.
Moroni 10:3
The narrative of the mercy of God to the children of men is deeply embedded in every active Christian from early childhood.  These stories have a parallel emotional context in the child's brain -- emotions of security and how god protects them from fear.  The "emotional context" is found in another part of the brain than logic: it forms the limbic system of the brain, where primal fears and desires are located.  By bringing into the Book of Mormon context the emotional context from a Christian's childhood, the investigator is planting a seed of associations between the visual images of the Book of Mormon narrative and the emotional context of scripture stories.  Even the use of King James English re-enforces this religious/emotional context.
By pondering these things together, the investigator is triggering an event within the nonconscious part of the mind -- that which helps us implant long-term memories through dreams and other mechanisms.  After pondering, and perhaps stepping away from the Book and sleeping on it, the nonconscious mind makes neural associations between the act of reading the Book, the visual images, and the positive experiences from the investigators' youth about biblical stories.  As the investigator prays about this, particularly after some time for the non-conscious mind to extend the neural associations, the investigator feels a spiritual comfort about the Book of Mormon.  That comfort is located in the limbic mind, in the amygdala, right in the same general location as "love", "comfort", "happiness": it is a feeling of knowing that something is true -- an emotion, not a logical construct. 
It's as if the investigator has fallen in love with the Book of Mormon, and all things associated with it.  And quite similar to falling in love, the objectivity of the cerebral cortext -- the locus of conscious, rational thought, takes a secondary seat to the feeling of knowing and love for all things Mormon.  This feeling of knowing, of comfort, can be extraordinarily powerful.  It creates a strong dependency of all things mormon to and through the primary emotional chain that started with an emotional/spiritual experience after reading, pondering, and praying, to the core truth claims of the church, to the existence and relevance of the entire church structure and teachings.  By falling in love, and making a deep, personal commitment, the limbic mind creates a bond between the investigator and the church -- one that is very hard to break.
While this may sound illogical to make such a life choice based upon an emotional bond, the origin of this bond in evolution is quite critical to the survival of species.  Humans are social animals out of necessity: the survival of individuals is greatly enhanced in the extent to which humans are part of a tribe, flock, or group of people.  The emotional bonding of the investigator to the Church is by no means a bad thing -- the Church is a very suitable tribal structure, with extensive support for the survival of the individual who fully commits to it.  The need to be part of such an organization is vital to any human, as it has been for millions of years. 
So there is benefit to joining the Church, tremendous benefit.  But maintaining the same type of short-cut truth heuristic for all decisions within the Church is deeply problematic.

The problem with the Short-Cut Truth Heuristic

In a sense, the idea of converting to the church through a single experience with the spirit is a bit like falling in love with a person, and the moment

In sorting out truth of things, it is helpful to have a testable proposition.  Take the statement "The Book of Mormon is true": This is a testable proposition, provided we first define what the word "true" means.  One definition would be absolute truth: every word, statement, claim, history, origin in the book is exactly what it says it is - an accurate history of the Native American people, translated from golden plates written a language called "reformed egyptian", etc.   Every claim about the book needs to be true in order for the claim of absolute truth applies.

Proving an absolute claim is difficult, because it requires that all aspects of the book be shown to not have any flaws or falsehoods.  In a book with 500 pages, with a history that cannot be fully verified, the ability to prove it to be true in an absolute sense is impossible.  However, it is quite easy to prove it is not true.  A single fact that is not possible would bring down the claim.  For example, if it is not possible for a beheaded individual to sit up, struggle, then expire, then the book at least has some things in it that aren't strictly 'true'.

But most LDS will be satisfied with a feeling that it is true. 
truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come
D&C 93:24


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Second Coming...?

There is a mainstream thinking in Christianity that the events of revelation, and all the prophecies of the New Testament respecting the Second Coming already happened with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. This concept is called "Preterism", and is widely held by the Roman Catholic church, but completely rejected by dispensational millienialist evangelicals and, of course, LDS.

There are very good reasons for preterism. Matthew 24 starts with a foretelling of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, then talks of the fulfilling of Daniel's abomination of desolation. Importantly, the biblical version of Matthew states explicitly:
Matthew 24:34: Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
Pretty clear stuff. Presuming this is intoned about 30 CE with a life expectancy at the time generally not to exceed 70 years old (average much younger due to infant mortality), indeed 70 AD would be about the time that most of that generation of adults would be passing away. And the events of the destruction of Jerusalem were as catastrophic to the Jewish people -- the ones who made up the first Christians -- as anything you could possibly imagine. Preterists say, "Timing is everything", because you can't get by this first century timing in context.

But then again, LDS are not constrained to keep to the bible texts. If a given verse didn't fit his dispensational millenial view, the Joseph could 'translate' it correctly, and so he did:
Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 24:34:Verily, I say unto you, this generation, in which these things shall be shown forth, shall not pass away until all I have told you shall be fulfilled.
This changes the meaning from the idea that the generation to which Jesus spoke ("this") to the generation in which "these things shall be shown forth" -- meaning that the entire elapsed time of the cataclysmic events of the second coming would happen in one generations typical lifetime -- and I guess this would be about 100 years in today's numbers.

But we also have earlier in Matthew, to my knowledge untouched by JST:
Mattthew 16:27-28: For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.
Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.
"Some" is not just "one" as might be the case with John. Some equals more than one. And what was the Kingdom? The Pharisees specifically wanted to know when this kingdom would come, and in Luke we have Christ's answer:
Luke 17:20-21:And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:  Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
Oops.  Uhhh. Is that really saying that there is no physical kingdom of God coming, that it's right here...within me?   Now we can deal all day long with the idea that the bible is full of contradictions (as is the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, Journal of Discourses, conference talks, Ensigns....). But when it comes right down to it, Christ taught that the "Kingdom" would come during the lifetime of those he was teaching to in the flesh, right there, that cataclysmic events would befall them, including explicitly the destruction of Jerusalem, and that to look for the Kingdom out there is futile...because at some point, you might find it within you.

This message was held by those who first preached the gospel. Paul believed he was in the end generation:
Romans 16:20: And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.
1 Cor 10:11: Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
As did James:
James 5:7-8: Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.
The 'brethren' to which James spoke were those in the Jerusalem church over which he was bishop. He, the brother of the Lord, had a pretty good understanding of the meaning of Christ's mission.

Now, whether James and others interpreted that the cataclysmic events -- accurately prophesied to happen shortly after James' death -- were also going to have a vindication of the coming of the Christ in glory, they did not have a great handle on this. Had they read the Matthew and Luke gospels, they might have seen that somehow Christ really meant a 'symbolic' coming -- the coming of the holy ghost.  But of course they didn't exist yet.

Or...perhaps since the gospels were written AFTER the destruction of Jerusalem, with no attendant second coming of Christ in glory, someone decided to revise Christ's words to say that it was all symbolic.

We may never know.  Pascal's wager, anyone?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Message of the First Vision

Within the Middle of the First Vision, one of the personages gives Joseph Smith the core message of the first vision, found in the following:
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.
That’s the entire Message of the First Vision, as stated in the 1838 account and part of the official History of the Church. LDS consider this statement scripture. The Personage is accepted by LDS as Jesus Christ. For simplicity, we’ll refer to the Personage as Christ and the text above as the Message.
The Message makes a number of important claims.

1. Join none of them, for they were all wrong. This is a tough statement, and very polemic. Perhaps for this reason, alone, Christians have such a vitriolic reaction to the LDS church: it starts out in its first, founding statement that the Churches are all wrong. By itself, it’s not helpful, for we have to explore the reasons for which the Personage said they’re all wrong.

2. All their creeds are an abomination in his sight. This is very tough language as well. When we look at the creeds, some of them are quite difficult to understand, but most are straightforward and uncontroversial. In fact, the first two, below, are relatively similar to the Articles of Faith. Gradually, the principles are expanded to include doctrine not consistent with LDS teaching (listed as “false doctrine”, below). Evenutally the creeds depart significantly from the original beliefs of the church as taught by Jesus. But the Message says “all their creeds”, not just the latter one. Here are the creeds:
  • The Old Roman Creed (2nd Century). No false doctrine.
  • The Apostles’ Creed (3rd Century). No false doctrine. A mention is made of the “Holy Catholic Church”, but this is meant to mean that there is a universal church of Jesus Christ — that the worldly organization was established by Christ.
  • The Nicene Creed (325 CE). A single word of false doctrine is introduced, “ὁμοούσιον”/”homoousion”, meaning “single substance”, implementing the dogma of the trinity that there is one god in substance/essence who exists in three persons. Homoousion is never found in scripture or in the earliest writings, it is an invention to fix in dogma the relationship between God the Father and Jesus.
  • Latin version of the Nicene Creed (?) This adds terms such as “God of Gods” and that the Holy Ghost proceeds from both the Father and the Son (Filioque). There are a couple polemic versions batting this concept back and forth between Catholic traditions.
  • The Chalcedonian Creed (451 CE). This continues to expand on the homoousion/Consubstantial dogma.
  • The Athanasian Creed (late Fifth Century, 100 years after Athanasius). This is the most complex creed of all, containing a lot of illogical language about one in three but not three…, as James E Talmage would say, "It would be difficult to conceive of a greater number of inconsistencies and contradictions expressed in words as few."
Aside from the Athanasian Creed, why should they ALL be an abomination? Two of them, the most common used by the Protestant Churches, are nothing but a statement of belief, entirely consistent with the LDS Articles of Faith.

Could it be that the mere idea of a creed – a required statement of belief on the part of a Christian is an abomination?  We have Joseph Smith's actual words to interpret why creeds were an abomination:
The most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein. Latter Day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles existing, as they are made manifest from time to time.  (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, v5 p215)
One of the truly amazing things about the LDS church is that ‘doctrine’ is extraordinarily hard to fix. I propose that this is intentional. From the very beginning, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young innovated on doctrinal topics, exploring possibilities, and in some cases, saying some pretty outrageous things. Critics of the church sieze upon these speculative explorations and declare that “This is what the Church believes”, when in fact we do not. We must recognize that when ‘orthodoxy’ is set aside, then it is possible, even encouraged, to explore what might be meant by the message of the gospel.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, Church leaders standardized the teachings of the church and set aside a lot of the speculative theology espoused by earlier generations. This may have been necessary to allow for consistent teachings, but should not be construed as ‘orthodoxy’ — a mandated set of beliefs that must be strictly adhered to. “What is taught” is equivalent to “Church Doctrine”. It is distinct from what is believed by the member is his or her own testimony — a personal witness constructed from personal learning, prayer, and spiritual experience. The fact that we teach a standard church doctrine does not absolve us from the responsibility to learn from our own experience to distinguish good and evil — this is a most important principle: We must think for ourselves: the Church provides guidelines in “What is taught”, it does not mandate thought or belief.

This lack of ‘orthodoxy’ was the hallmark of the restored church: man was not to pluck of the fruit of a tree of predefined dogma, but rather, to learn for himself to distinguish good and evil. The original definition of “heretic” from the greek means “to think for oneself”. Joseph Smith was an original, authentic heretic. To Joseph Smith, knowledge was the fruit of seeking truth — for “all truth” was meant to be part of the Gospel. “Truth is knowledge of things as the are, as they were, and as they are to come.”

If the Gospel is “all truth”, and mankind is to discover it line upon line and precept upon precept, then the core teachings of the Church must include a means to discern truth from all things. And the good news of the Book of Mormon is that this means to discern truth is through the Holy Ghost, and from the Doctrine and Covenants, the Holy Ghost witnesses after we study it out in our minds. Here is the truth paradigm of the church: To seek out of the best books learning, and by experience in faith, to study out these things in our minds, and to seek confirmation by the Spirit that each thing is true.
What works against this truth paradigm is a declaration that “THIS is what you are to BELEIVE (credo, creed)”, and you are to accept this dogma without question or doubt. If a loving God wants us to learn, the learning is best done by experience and emotional bonding with the truth — best done through experience and not through rote dogma. For this loving God/Parent, the fixed answerbook of a “Creed” is a cheat — an abomination to the type of learning designed from the beginning to be “The Plan of Salvation”.

3. Those professors were all corrupt. Again, a very polemic statement — insulting in the extreme to the preachers of other faiths. But it doesn’t say ‘preachers’, but rather, ‘professors’. A professor is a teacher, one who is supposed to know the truth, and provide as accurate of a truth to the students. A ‘corrupt professor’ is one who violates the profession of a professor – that is, either doesn’t teach, or teaches falsehood as if it were truth.

I’m going to suggest that Christ was extraordinarily precise in his statement: those who then were preaching from the creeds as if that was the thing all people must accept on faith without doubt were corrupt in promoting such dogma. Professors who fail to help their students think critically and bond their learnings with personal experience are a menace to learning. Rote learning can do nothing but indoctrinate. It cannot teach — it prevents critical thinking, so necessary for an objective determination of truth. Those who profess and teach dogma as if it were truth, and then base all ‘knowledge’ on the dogma, are creating a type of tyranny over the mind of man that prevents real knowledge of truth. Such practice is corrupt indeed.

4. They teach for doctrine the commandments of men. Christ then quotes Isaiah 29:13 linked to 2 Timothy 3 with an important conjunction between the two. Isaiah 29:13 says:
Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:
2 Timothy 3:5 says:
Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
The quote in the Message blends these two with the highlighted conjunction:
they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.
The term ‘doctrine’ means either “what is taught” or “dogma”. Since the expression “they teach for [what is taught] the commandments of men” doesn’t make a lot of sense, the meaning “They teach for [dogma] the commandments of men” fits much better within this context.

According to the Message, Christ condemned the creeds and professors, and then explicitly states that the practice to be condemned is the teaching of doctrine (dogma) constructed from the commandments of men. Elsewhere, multiple times, Christ states explicitly that the only ‘doctrine’ or ‘dogma’ that rises to the level of “Doctrine of Christ” is as stated in 2 Nephi chapters 31-32, 3 Nephi 11, and here in Doctrine and Covenants Section 10:
67 Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. 68 Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church. 69 And now, behold, whosoever is of my church, and endureth of my church to the end, him will I establish upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
In other words, the core Doctrine of Christ is quite simple: it comprises of the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel as stated in the Articles of Faith, without the explicit definition of things one must know or declare as dogma. Note clearly that Christ’s “Church” consists of those who keep to these core principles and those who declare more or less as core principles is not of Christ’s church.

While this seems like an extreme statement, the point is clear: the only ‘dogma’ — that which is to be accepted without doubt — is the need to repent and come to Christ, and endure to the end with him. All other things are either to be learned from experience, or are not required as core beliefs. We declare a set of beliefs in the Articles of Faith, but there is no absolute requirement to accept these things without determining for ourselves that they are true.

It is absolutely essential to understand that “commandments of men” are not forbidden, but they must not be construed as the “Doctrine of Christ”. They are not to be taught as if they must be accepted without doubt or personal testimony. Teaching commandments of men as if they are doctrine is explicitly forbidden by scripture, therefore as a responsible member of Christ’s church, one must recognize the difference between the Doctrine of Christ, and that which must be tested, as Alma proposes in Alma 32.

5. Join none of them. This is stated at the very beginning and end of the Message. Joseph had come asking which one to join, and Christ gave him his answer: do not join up with an organization that subjects the mind to the tyranny of dogma.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does not use the term “Dogma” in explaining what the Church believes. There is no Westminster Confession, a long statement of belief intended to be taught and professed verbatim by members. There are no creeds recited each sunday and required as a declaration of belief by the member. Each and every principle in the Church is intended to be witnessed by the individual member through his or her own testimony: not a rote version to be memorized, but rather, through one’s own personal experience with the Spirit.

To be sure, there is a cultural tendency, reinforced by some unfortunate statements from the pulpit at BYU devotionals and General Conference, that members are to observe with exactness every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of the prophet and servants of the Lord, without question or doubt. Such observation in faith should never violate one’s responsibility to learn from experience and by spiritual confirmation the truth of all things.

To me, the Message of the First Vision is extremely important and clear: we are to be very wary of things that appear like ‘dogma’ — that which is to be accepted without doubt or question. With the singular exception of repenting and coming to Christ, all things are subject to question and spiritual confirmation.