Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why I don't like apologetics

The Greek term "ἀπολογία"/"apologia" means "speaking in defense", or more specifically, "to defend something by making an excuse for it." The idea of speaking in defense of something suggests that the thing is right and true to start with, and the counter-proposition is false.

Thus, "apologetics", by very definition, starts with a position that a received religious position is true, and everything is as it should be. There is no quest for truth here, there is only a combative stance: to defend the received position with whatever means possible.  "Good" apologetics, if there is such a thing, tries to defend with logic and reason.  However, most apologetics, especially that practiced by Mormons in their attempt to defend the indefensible, are not characterized by reason or logic.

Good apologetics start with a thorough investigation of the facts, with an eye to defend, but not to deny facts that that are reasonably justified. In Mormon spheres, Brian Hales comes to mind, whose work on polygamy is very good. He still betrays huge confirmation bias in his conclusions, but at least he seeks honesty as to his facts.  In the Mormon world, he represents the best of apologetics, and is rare.

However, facts get in the way of defense, especially when facts are inconvenient.  I don't think there are many apologists anywhere that try to defend a "young earth" theory of creation, although the Bible is pretty clear on that.  One can always say that the Bible was written so long ago, that the ideas of time and space may not have been fully understood; so such things can be set aside as, well, not literally the case.  Defending biblical texts, and the historicity of biblical accounts has become as well a bit difficult, but then again, these events happened long ago, so any evidence to the contrary of the existence of Abraham or Moses, or what exactly Jesus said, is anyone's guess.  Apologists can defend, because there aren't many facts to the contrary.

Mormonism suffers from a different problem.  The founding events of Mormonism are very recent compared to events in the Bible.  What people said and did is much more accessible in historical accounts -- there are many "facts" about how Mormonism started -- many more facts than exist for Christianity in general.  And, not all these facts favor the received accounts.

Mormons grow up with a sanitized view of Mormon history -- very much made "holy" so as to promote "faith".  This might work well if the person lived 2000 years or so ago, but when modern history is sanitized, there are enough contemporaneous accounts to reveal the unsantized account to somebody.  And today, with the availability of the Internet and wide dissemination of information, the sordid facts of Mormon history, the origin of its doctrines, and the nature of its practices and rules are readily available to anyone who wants to look.

But Mormons are told not to look -- this is Rule #1 of Mormon apologetics.  Don't read that "anti-Mormon" literature -- it's all lies.  Except, that now that real live historians have had a chance to discover the inconvenient facts, Mormon apologists, the self-appointed defenders and interpreters of Mormon scripture, can avoid the bullet of the facts.

So they changed their strategy.  Today, a number of LDS apologists no longer attempt to create mind-numbing propositions to defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  Instead, they seek to discredit and smear anyone the temerity to point out these facts to believing members.  They poison the well of anyone who attempted critical investigation into church claims, by attempting to demonstrate that the person who is pointing out the facts is an anti-Mormon apostate, a "Wolf in sheep's clothing", or an Antichrist.. This tactic to label and smear their perceived enemies taints the entire Mormon apologetic profession.

Once a critic or historian has been labeled as "unworthy", then Rule #1 kicks in.

Oh this should not be so.  I grew up in the LDS church, in what was called the "Mission Field" where our LDS faith was something we cherished against a very non-LDS society.  We valued the idea that Joseph Smith and others who founded this religion were about restoring the "truth" of the gospel.  I learned from my LDS parents that should not be afraid of truth in the least.  J Reuben Clark, a prominent LDS Apostle and leader, said, "If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed."

To me, the Gospel of Jesus Christ starts with a quest for truth Alma called "Faith", then moves quickly to an open and inclusive understanding and relationship with Christ as the very "I AM", the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

What does "Faith" have to do with "Truth"?  To me, Faith is the epistemic Middle Way between knowing something is true and knowing something is false.  Faith is "not knowing".  Paul speaks of Faith as being the evidence of things not seen.  In our LDS scripture, we have a prophet Alma speaking about faith as being this:
Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.  (Alma 32:21)

This begins a discourse by Alma about faith, where he presents faith as an "epistemic" -- or a way of figuring out how to "know" something.  This realm of "epistemology" is critical to belief, and as Joseph Smith once said that the very first principle of the Gospel was faith, so also does all learning and philosophy begin with the "First Principle" of epistemology.  And well should it be the First Principle: "Epistemology" -- the study of "knowledge" comes directly from the Greek "πίστις", pistis, which means "Faith", and not "knowledge".  Hence, the first principle of all of our investigations should be to understand how we come to know things, reject things, and maintain an open mound about that which is in the Middle.  The epistemic Middle Way is thus "Faith".

Hence, according to Alma, faith does not start from a position of confidence or certainty. It starts with a desire to believe in something, and then to practice and experiment to explore that thing with an open mind (do not cast out for unbelief). Action is involved. And the outcome could to cast the seed away, not because of disbelief, but because the seed is not good. This negative aspect of Faith is never discussed in apologetics or in the church. yet it is right there in the Book of Mormon: "Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away." (Alma 32:32)

But let's say that the seed is good, and it bears good fruit. The typical missionary response is that this means that the entire belief structure is good and true. I read the book of Mormon, i ponder it, i pray about it, and voila! i feel good about it. This means, according to our "all or nothing, all true or all fraud" proposition, that every aspect of the book of Mormon is also true, that it is authentic history (why would god lie?), that Joseph Smith never committed fraud and was a true prophet (why would god pick a con-man for a prophet), and the Salt Lake church is true (god promised that this restoration would never be taken from the earth).

I don't think that I am exaggerating to say that this inductive method of asserting the truth of the church is based and dependent on a spiritual experience -- a good feeling -- about the Book of Mormon.

This position of asserted certainty is at the heart of Mormon apologetics. The credibility of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's integrity must be defended at all costs, lest the entire assertive truth of the church falls.

The problem is the inductive leap from a good feeling to an acceptance of the aggregate factuality of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and the Church is a horrifying example of fallacy by induction. Ironically, the Book of Mormon itself warns against such a leap:

"And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good. And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; ... now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge (of the whole tree) perfect? ... Nay, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good." (Alma 32:33-36)

If I read the Book of Mormon and have a spiritual experience with it, what does that mean? What seed am I planting? What does the plant I planted look like? Does my spiritual experience prove historical factuality? I have read Les Miserables, the Lord of the Rings, and many ancient Chinese myths, I have felt powerful experiences with them. My most powerful experience was reading Chapter 17 of Lao Tzu. Should I assert that Victor Hugo, JRR Tolkien, or Lao Tzu were prophets of God because I am inspired by them? (actually, I think they were, in a way) Did there have to be a real person named Jean Valjean? Bilbo Baggins? Do I have to accept the legend of Lao Tzu reciting his 5,000 characters of the Dao De Jing to the keeper at the Gate?

Of course not. Who would ever claim that I need to believe some prophetic calling of Hugo and Tolkien or some bogus origin story of Lao Tzu to realize that divine words are everywhere.

Yet to up the stakes, Mormon apologists have demanded that the only acceptable interpretation of the book of Mormon is a literal one. Those who leave the church accurately say that the church, writ large, insists on a literal interpretation of the Book of Mormon. The time has come that the evidence against the Book of Mormon as authentic history is conclusive -- it is only a matter of time before every LDS will learn of the facts. Many LDS will stubbornly ignore the evidence, being justified by the mental gymnastics and complete disregard for logic embodied by FAIR's apologists.

Yet for an entire rising generation of people entering adulthood, for those who are willing to look on the internet, and even read the LDS gospel topics, the facts are inescapable, and the literalized methods of FAIR do far more harm than good. At this point, there are no good tools, acceptable by the church, that helps people embrace the spiritual value of the Book of Mormon, divorced from its literalism.

By purporting to providing the answers to the factual issues in the Church, and only being able to discredit logically reasonable explanations, FAIR does much more harm than good.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The First Principle of the Gospel

It occurs to me this morning that the "First Principle" of the Gospel is "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ". In my LDS experience, however, faith is not of any primacy, and while we speak of Jesus Christ, it seems that we are stuck in the literal and supernatural things he represents.
In Church. the first principle we teach is obedience, that we are here to be tested to see if we will obey, and we must do all we can do to be saved. Then, and only then, after all we can do, we are saved by grace. This obedience is not to the teachings of Jesus Christ, but rather, to the words and will of the Prophets, who speak in the Lord's name. Obedience to each and every pronouncement of the prophets is, by LDS definition, following Christ, because the Prophets are the Lord's representative. "By mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same." (D&C 1)
Exploring a bit, I searched on "first principles of the gospel" in Google, just to see what came up. The first four links direct me to LDS . org, number 5 is the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and number six is a speech given by a college professor at BYU on the topic.
While I do think that the LDS church employs a bit of "Search Engine Optimization" on key themes important to Mormonism, it's interesting that our Mormon thought starts with a term "First Principles". One would and should think that such concepts are important. More importantly, if "Faith" is truly the first principle, then where does "obedience" actually fit in?
To read the BYU professor's talk, he starts with the topic in Preach My Gospel about Faith in Jesus Christ, but takes it a step further. To him, "Faith exists when absolute confidence in that which we cannot see combines with action that is in absolute conformity to the will of our Heavenly Father. Without all three—first, absolute confidence; second, action; and third, absolute conformity—without these three all we have is a counterfeit, a weak and watered-down faith."
"Absolute confidence"..."absolute conformity"...without these, we have "counterfeit faith".
I wonder. I truly wonder.
When we speak of "First Principles" in the quest for truth, usually we mean that there is something upon which our entire quest depends--something so important that we must embrace this before everything else. My fundamental question is whether "Absolute Confidence" is an appropriate beginning to any quest for truth -- I do not believe it is.
This, to me, is the heart of faith crisis: the idea that we think of faith as something it is not, and we have not created the right "First Principles" in our faith journey to properly navigate our Way.
We have been told, repeatedly, that our Church and gospel are an all-or-nothing proposition: "Each of us has to face the matter—either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing." (Hinckley, 2003) While the term "true" could be an indicator of "direction" or "allegiance", the more common interpretation of "true" has a more epistemic (how we know things) meaning: that which is without material error or subterfuge.
As a result, we embrace a testimony in the church that makes epistemic claims about the truth of the church and gospel: I know that the book of mormon is an ancient record, translated by the gift and power of god, I know that we have a living prophet on the earth, I know that if we follow the prophets we cannot go astray. Such claims of "I know" do not allow for the humility of "I believe", or the recognition that something may be false. It is an expression of certainty, of knowledge. A "pure testimony" makes these claims.
Yet we come to a realization that within our realm of "Absolute Confidence" that there are things for which we realize do not justify such certainty. Perhaps, by doing a little digging among the LDS . org site, we find that the Book of Mormon wasn't actually "translated" at all, but rather, was somehow expressed through "scrying" -- peering into a seerstone in a hat. Perhaps we find that the Book of Abraham -- what it says it is in the Pearl of Great Price, and authentic translation of writings of Abraham by his own hand -- has absolutely nothing to do with the actual characters in papyrus or especially in the facsimiles in the book itself. There are dozens of things for which we discover that the Church and gospel are in some ways "not true".
What, then, happens to our "Absolute Confidence" in the Church when we discover there is a profound flaw? Is "Absolute Conformity" justified if we come to know that there are some things in the Church's teachings that are false?
Rene Descartes was faced with much this same problem. He had discovered as he matured in life that there were a number of things he held to be absolutely true in his youth that are no longer true. This profoundly disturbed him, so he set aside some time from his work and teaching to meditate on first principles.
Importantly, his first meditation was to discover that his entire schema of knowledge was potentially flawed, and being such, the only way to really build the proper foundation was a complete "destruction" of his schema of knowledge. He not only had doubts, but embraced them fully, realizing that only by doubting everything could he build the proper foundation.
Many who read Descartes' first meditation call this kind of doubt "hyperbolic doubt". The reality is much deeper. Descartes was suggesting a methodical approach to determining truth, and part of that method was to recognize, in humility, that we don't know. Methodical doubt is the first step on a journey towards truth.
But in this process of methodical doubt, the idea of completely discarding our schema of what we know is so profoundly unintuitive to members of the Church, it's never a good idea to muse in public. I frequently say, here, that I do not *believe* a single truth claim of the church. I do not *believe* in prevailing omni-whatever definition of god (although Descartes most certainly did). Such statements rapidly escalate into an emotional issue for members of the church, immediately labeling me as a "nonbeliever" or an "atheist", which, while technically accurate terms, do not mean the same thing for me than for those who are labeling me.
But the First Principle of the gospel is not doubt by itself. Doubt simply is the beginning of refining faith. To be clear, the First Principle of the Gospel is "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ". I'm going to suggest that when we refer to this as a "First Principle", we need to fully understand what "Faith" and "the Lord Jesus Christ" mean, not in a dogmatic sense of "doctrinal" answers, but rather, in terms of how these two things, together, constitute a "First Principle".
When we think of First Principles in the pursuit of truth, it's important that we start with some basics:
1. We need to address how we can "know" things. This area of concern is formally called "Epistemology". Curiously, the greek term for "faith" is "pistis" as a noun, and "epistomai" as a verb. In short, "Epistemology" is entirely about "Faith": how we come to know truth.
2. We need to understand the nature of the how things are, how they exist. This area of concern, discovering the nature of being, is formally called "ontology". The identity of things, how we label them, is all part of this exploration of ontology. Ontology asks questions like "Who am I?" "Who or what is god?" "What is the nature of existence?"
These two disciplines are essential to our quest for truth.
With respect to Epistemology, we need to understand how we can make the claim "I know that X is true" or "I know that X is not true", and what our approach shall be for that which is between these two poles of "knowledge". We will discover that "Faith" is the epistemic Middle Way between these two poles: the idea that Faith is not certainty, it is the humble recognition that we don't know, but given that we hope for things, we are willing to try them and to discover the truth of them.
With respect to Ontology, we will come to embrace an understanding what it means to say "I AM", and realizing this, we will come to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as a being who was fully god and fully man, who marked the path and led the Way to an integrative oneness with all that is.
As LDS, we will discover along this journey that we have unique approaches to both epistemology as well as ontology. Alma 32 will express an epistemology that redefines "faith" away from assertive belief into an experiential reconstruction of both knowledge and faith. As we embrace the LDS view of the plurality and unity of gods, we will come to a unique ontology: we exist as eternal beings in an emergent progression toward godliness, as does the being we call "Heavenly Father". To realize the intimate name of God is "I AM", and eternal constants of the universe are its matter and laws, give unique ontological insight into our divine nature. Jesus revealed this nature in John as he spoke of us being in the present gods, and that he was "I AM".
Let us therefore explore the First Principle of the Gospel in a unique light. To embrace "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ" is to recognize that I need to understand how I know things and what those things are in the first place. Such exploration cannot occur when the cup of our minds are full of preconceived dogma. We must cast aside everything we think we know, and come to a methodical deconstruction and reconstruction of faith.
This is the Journey of a lifetime.
Shall we walk upon this Way?

Friday, February 13, 2015

A non-literal testimony of the Book of Mormon

My testimony of the Book of Mormon is this:

  1. I know that it is inspired scripture, useful for the LDS people to discuss spiritual values. I have experienced its scriptural power while reading it, in teaching from it, and I have felt its power changing my life.  I know the Book of Mormon inspires and uplifts me, and is very effective at laying out a number of extremely important gospel principles, including how to survive our trial of faith and improve the truthfulness of our faith.
  2. I know the Book of Mormon testifies of Christ, because the influence I feel in the book is the same as that of the Christ I have come to know throughout my life.  As circular as a reason as this seems to be, it is about a personal relationship, not any degree of epistemology.  I experience the Christ through the writings as well as in my personal meditations and supplications.
  3. I completely reject the book as any kind of history.  The proofs of this are too numerous to list here, and have been listed by others for years.  It's not important to me.  At best, it was created through a process that might be called "automatic writing", but by Joseph Smith's own account, he did not translate it in any way that scholars would consider translation.  He expressed explicitly about the Book of Mormon itself, that it was revealed through the mind and heart (see D&C 8:1-3):

This is probably not the normal Mormon testimony (no surprise there), but it may leave a bit of a dilemma: how can the Book of Mormon be "true" scripture" while it is distinctly not historical?

To me, the answer is simple and clear: it never claimed to be a literal history.

Scriptural Basis of the Book of Mormon being non-historical

The title page of the Book of Mormon says nothing about being historical.  It expresses a specific purpose:
"Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations"
Throughout the book, it refers to the idea that Nephi created two sets of plates, a larger set containing history, and a smaller set containing sacred teachings.  The smaller plates ran out of space after Omni, and Mormon created a set of plates that were an abridgment of the larger plates.  From the description of the plates, it seems that the abridgment was on the same, smaller format plates as the "small plates" of Nephi.  Al though the source material for the larger plates, containing the record from Mosiah to the end of the book, was from the larger plates containing history, Mormon's abridgment was not intended to capture the history, but rather, the sacred content.  Mormon's intent was not to give an "account" (history), but rather to a pastoral purpose.

Here are the key scriptures within the book, and apart from the "title page" above, describing the purpose and nature of the Book of Mormon, demonstrating that the book had no intent of being a history, but rather, a witness of Christ:

1.  Nephi is commanded to make the larger plates of Nephi as a record (history) of his people 1 Nephi 19:1
And it came to pass that the Lord commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore that I might engraven upon them the record of my people. And upon the plates which I made I did engraven the record of my father, and also our journeyings in the wilderness, and the prophecies of my father; and also many of mine own prophecies have I engraven upon them.
2. Nephi was commanded to create a set of small plates that would NOT contain a history of his people.  2 Nephi 5:29-33:
And I, Nephi, had kept the records upon my plates, which I had made, of my people thus far.
And it came to pass that the Lord God said unto me: Make other plates; and thou shalt engraven many things upon them which are good in my sight, for the profit of thy people.
Wherefore, I, Nephi, to be obedient to the commandments of the Lord, went and made these plates upon which I have engraven these things.
And I engraved that which is pleasing unto God. And if my people are pleased with the things of God they will be pleased with mine engravings which are upon these plates.
And if my people desire to know the more particular part of the history of my people they must search mine other plates.
3.  Nephi explains the non-historical purpose of the small plates 1 Nephi 19:3, 6
And after I had made these plates by way of commandment, I, Nephi, received a commandment that the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them, should be written upon these plates; and that the things which were written should be kept for the instruction of my people, who should possess the land, and also for other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord.
Nevertheless, I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. 
4.  Nephi again confirms that he is not to write a history of his people on the small plates, stating that it is to be an account of the ministry of the people.  2 Nephi 9:2-4
And now, as I have spoken concerning these plates, behold they are not the plates upon which I make a full account of the history of my people; for the plates upon which I make a full account of my people I have given the name of Nephi; wherefore, they are called the plates of Nephi, after mine own name; and these plates also are called the plates of Nephi.
Nevertheless, I have received a commandment of the Lord that I should make these plates, for the special purpose that there should be an account engraven of the ministry of my people.
Upon the other plates should be engraven an account of the reign of the kings, and the wars and contentions of my people; wherefore these plates are for the more part of the ministry; and the other plates are for the more part of the reign of the kings and the wars and contentions of my people.
5.  Jacob confirms that the history of his people should be written upon the "other plates".
Specifically, "these plates" were to hold the "heads of" (summary of) the sacred, the revelations, the prophesying; for "Christ's sake, and for the sake of our people."  Jacob 1:3-4
For he said that the history of his people should be engraven upon his other plates, and that I should preserve these plates and hand them down unto my seed, from generation to generation.
And if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, that I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates, and touch upon them as much as it were possible, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of our people.
6.  The other plates are described to be larger -- that is, not the same structure or format as the "smaller plates" of Nephi.  Jacob 3:13
And a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, which now began to be numerous, cannot be written upon these plates; but many of their proceedings are written upon the larger plates, and their wars, and their contentions, and the reigns of their kings.
7.  Mormon expresses that he would make a "small abridgment" of the records of the people without a full account (history) of what he had seen (in his life or among the records).  Mormon 5:9
And also that a knowledge of these things must come unto the remnant of these people, and also unto the Gentiles, who the Lord hath said should scatter this people, and this people should be counted as naught among them—therefore I write a small abridgment, daring not to give a full account of the things which I have seen, because of the commandment which I have received, and also that ye might not have too great sorrow because of the wickedness of this people.
8.  Mormon expresses the intent of his abridgment and writings, none of which is historical: Mormon 5:10-15
And now behold, this I speak unto their seed, and also to the Gentiles who have care for the house of Israel, that realize and know from whence their blessings come.
For I know that such will sorrow for the calamity of the house of Israel; yea, they will sorrow for the destruction of this people; they will sorrow that this people had not repented that they might have been clasped in the arms of Jesus.
Now these things are written unto the remnant of the house of Jacob; and they are written after this manner, because it is known of God that wickedness will not bring them forth unto them; and they are to be hid up unto the Lord that they may come forth in his own due time.
And this is the commandment which I have received; and behold, they shall come forth according to the commandment of the Lord, when he shall see fit, in his wisdom.
And behold, they shall go unto the unbelieving of the Jews; and for this intent shall they go—that they may be persuaded that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; that the Father may bring about, through his most Beloved, his great and eternal purpose, in restoring the Jews, or all the house of Israel, to the land of their inheritance, which the Lord their God hath given them, unto the fulfilling of his covenant;  And also that the seed of this people may more fully believe his gospel...


My bishop once told a story about three people having an interview for getting into heaven, where each was asked a question, "Tell me about Jesus Christ".  The first said he was a prophet, a very good man.  The second said he was the Son of God and redeemer of the world.  The third, upon entering the room, bowed down and exclaimed, "Oh Lord, my God".  We can believe all we want about Jesus Christ, and say the right things, but the type of knowledge that actually saves is not that, but rather, the personal relationship with God.

In my wayfaring, I have had encounters with a Presence that has relieved my addictions, pulled me out of the gutter of guilt and shame, and has embraced me over and over again with unconditional love and grace.  This is the Christ, to me.  Having had them, undeniably so, I can say with equal confidence that whatever I thought I knew about Jesus Christ is immaterial.  Words cannot contain or describe an encounter with god, at least in my experience.

When I am told by defenders of Christianity that I must accept the bible as the literal, inerrant and infallible Word of God, lest I be not saved; when I am told by defenders of Mormonism that I must accept the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon, lest I be not "worthy" of being a Mormon, I simply realize that those who insist on such have not met the same Source of unconditional Love as I have experienced.  Perhaps they have met the "True God", but I think it more likely that we have differing gifts and means to approach deity.  I know only this, that whatever is divine, is to me a matter of experience and faith, and not of empirical knowledge.  Such faith cannot be defended, it can only be realized, experienced, and encountered.

I have had that encounter with the Book of Mormon.  I don't need it to be literal or historical.