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Relating to theology or philosophy

Mormonism and God

Posted by nebula0 on July 15, 2011

To be perfectly honest I haven’t given Mormonism much thought lately. I did present at the Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium last August for the second time and enjoyed that, and the thought that I put into that paper was the last time I gave the religion serious thought.

I have been giving the concept of God a lot of attention however. As I have been learning more about philosophy I have been taken aback by the sheer force of many of the arguments for God’s existence. I was of the mindset that modernity, culminating with Kant, had done away with Aquinas’ arguments. I was wrong, they are alive and well, thriving even.

My current favorite is the various forms of the Leibnizian cosmological argument (argument from contingency). There are several ways to approach this one, but it goes something like this:

There is a possible explanation for every contingent thing. [a contingent thing is one which could have conceivably not existed]

The aggregate of all contingent things is a contingent thing, call it C.

There is a possible explanation for C. [via the premise]

Any contingent thing posed as an explanation for C will be a member of C [by definition].

Therefore, there possibly exists some necessary thing to explain C. [a necessary thing is one which must exist in every possible world]

If it is to stand in an explanatory relationship with C it will be a concrete thing. [a concrete thing as opposed to an abstract, can effect things in the world]

Therefore, a necessary concrete object exists [via S5, a rule in modal logic which states that a possible necessary is necessary]

There is a stage 2 of this argument which explicates what sorts of properties this necessary concrete object must have analytically. Stage 2 ends up arguing for an agent with unbounded power and knowledge. There are of course rejoinders to consider, but in general if one accepts some form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and possibly mereological universalism the argument seems to run.

I will pose this question, does Mormonism fulfill the requirements of these sorts of arguments? Historically obviously not, philosophy has been looked upon with suspicion and the corporal, finite nature of God the Father embraced as a positive distinctive element in the religion. But is there some room in Mormonism to integrate into it the insights that these kinds of arguments? After all, intelligence is the glory of God.

I have no immediate answers to this. It is clear that like any religious group Mormonism is changing, and as a young one is still defining itself. My hope is that as a group Mormons embrace all that reason reveals. Even if Mormonism as a theological system rejects what natural theology has to offer by engaging it it can only grow richer and deeper for its adherents.

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Offspring of God

Posted by nebula0 on March 26, 2009

Alright, so this is the last little apologetics related post for a while… at least let’s hope.  But, Mormon apologists, future missionaries everywhere, it’s better to be aware of these things from the outset.  I’m sure you know about that verse in Acts in which Paul is speaking to the Athenians and says  that we are the offspring of God.  I’m sure you also know that that is a popular Mormon prooftext (i.e. a verse often used by Mormons to bolster particular Mormon claims).  Please be aware that in that verse Paul is actually quoting a philosopher named Cleanthes who wrote a poem exalting Zeus.  Given the context of the quotation, you may want to proceed rather cautiously when trying to use that tidbit to make any broad theological claims.

Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

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Philosophies of Men in Mormon Theology

Posted by nebula0 on March 24, 2009

I wouldn’t take delight in pointing out striking similarities between Platonic and Mormon thought it if weren’t for the fact that a persistent tactic in Mormon apologetics is to accuse orthodox Christianity of being nearly hopelessly infused with these ‘philosophies of men’ corrupting the purity of the gospel.  As that is the case, I want to point out a couple of places in which Mormonism fits better with Platonic philosophy than does orthodox Christianity (see Plato’s Timaeus). 

First of all: creation ex nihilo.  In orthodox Christianity, God creates the cosmos out of nothing and according to his own rules, this is creation ex nihilo.  According to Mormonism God created the universe out of pre-existent materials and according to pre-existent laws of the cosmos, the creation was more of an organization or building.  Now your immediate inclination may be to suppose that the Mormon view is closer to an authentic ancient Hebrew belief and that the orthodox Christian creation is a Greek notion- and that would be wrong.  According to Platonism, the  universe was created by a being called the demiurge who created it out of pre-existing materials and according to pre-existing rules.  Sound familiar? 

Another thing that I would point out is the Platonic notion that as the universe was being put together, there was a sort of life force or soul present in the things created, that this life-ness was present in the things put together before they were materialized.  Now if you know Mormon theology, you know that God formed all things spiritually before they were formed physically.  Compare that to the Platonic concept I just described and now compare that to the orthodox Christian notion that God infused life into the world in a single instant after physical creation.

I’m just saying, maybe the pot shouldn’t call the kettle black too quickly here…

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Mormon Epistemology and Faith

Posted by nebula0 on November 29, 2008

Anyone who has encountered Mormon missionaries for any length of time is familiar with Mormon epistemology, that is, the Mormon way of knowing.  In one sense it is an advanced epistemology comparative to the conservative Christian world.  The core of it is simply this: it is not possible to prove empirically or analytically “spiritual truths” (theological claims), these can only be known by a witness through the Spirit and they can be known, not just believed.  One of the first things that Mormon missionaries are likely to do will be to attempt to teach you how to recognize the Spirit witnessing a truth to you.  This is accomplished by linking together a theological claim that they make to some kind of feeling of peace of comfort on your part.  Likewise, if you happen to feel unease they may teach you that Lucifer is active in the world and trying to keep you from the truth.

Through this means a Mormon convert receives their testimony, that is, their grounding belief that Mormon theological claims are true.  From there, it is through experimentation with these beliefs that leads to knowledge through obedience to the obligations that these beliefs carry.  For example, Mormon converts are taught that they are to tithe (give 10% of their income) as a commandment and they must accept this as a precondition to baptism into the Mormon church.  They are told that if they are unsure about this move, to try it out a few times as God promises to rain blessings down on those who are faithful to it.  From here follows stories about those barely scraping by who nonetheless make the sacrifice to tithe and find unexpected checks in the mail.  These sort of blessing experiences combined with many experiences with the Spirit testifying of truths leads to Mormon testimonies that begin “I know this church is true”.

I started out this post with the claim that Mormon epistemology is more advanced than that of the conservative Christian way.  Conservative Christians often think that the existence of God can be proven, as an example, through well worn philosophical arguments such as the Argument from Design.  Most of these amateur apologists (and here I do speak specifically of the non professional) are not aware of the devastating counter arguments to this argument.  They may also be creationists and argue against evolution only for you to find out through the conversation that the Christian in question doesn’t really understand the theory of evolution at all (for instance, how many times have you run into someone who argues that if evolution were true there should be no monkeys?).  The problem is that these conservative Christians have a naive faith in the provability of a myriad of empirical claims that are on very shakey empirical grounds.

Mormons, on the other hand, for the most part have realized long ago that their empirical claims are highly problematic and so have fully retreated into a subjective epistemology because there are so very many empirical Mormon claims that have little to no empirical evidence as a support.  For instance, what solid undeniable evidence is there to support the Book of Mormon claims?  If all you have is an inscription in Yemen and chiasm you aren’t exactly on the warpath to converting thousands.  Similarly, sometimes the empirical evidence is directly contrary, as in the case of the Book of Abraham.

For most Mormons this stuff isn’t a problem because most aren’t aware of the problems in part because they accept Mormon epistemology so don’t bother with things that might possibly disturb their witness of the Spirit.  For those who are familiar and indeed engage in apologetics a dangerous game is entered into.  Such an individual needs to carefully craft apologetic answers in such a way to neutralize the immediate dangers quickly.  Personally, I never could.  To some extent I bought Mormon epistemology knowing as I did that the existence of God, for one thing, could never be thoroughly proven.  I cast the problem as an either or issue- either the matter could be conclusively proven or there was nothing.  It was only later that I realized that exiling my intellect in the matters of faith lead to a tepid and stinking sort of faith, a rot which prevented my whole will from embracing God.

Now I would recommend to all the following thoughts: It is true, theological claims cannot be conclusively proven, however, unless you demonstrate the basic reasonableness of such a claim your religion and therefore commitment to God will be a facade.  If God didn’t want us to use our intellects, obviously we wouldn’t have them and God wouldn’t try to reason with us through scriptures and spokespeople.  If you aren’t sure if a theological claim makes sense, suspend it and investigate the matter.  Receiving a feeling of peace is not an answer since it has no content to show the intellect.  Feelings, emotions have a place in the religious life, yes, but when they are all that you rely on you have put to sleep that part of you which is especially made in the image of God.

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what I believe, what should I believe?

Posted by nebula0 on October 28, 2008

Posted in Reflections, Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Mormon Misconceptions about Traditional Ideas of Heaven

Posted by nebula0 on October 14, 2008

This isn’t meant to pick on anyone in particular, but it’s a widespread problem in Mormonism.  Mormons really don’t understand what normative Christian heaven is supposed to be about.  This is partly due to the fact that Mormonism is a religion which is in a way obsessed with the beyond mortal life realms.  Who hasn’t seen that elaborate diagram drawn which called a depiction of “The Plan of Salvation” which consists of demonstrating how a spirit child in the premortal realm moves through mortal earth to the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom?  And, think about this, Mormon temples are arranged around those same degrees of glory, and move participants through that same drama to the Celestial Kingdom.  There is talk about all the work that is to be done in the spirit world.  There is talk about all of the families sealed to be together for all eternity.  Yes, there is a lot of specific, embodied talk about the afterlife in Mormonism, which can make traditional Christian notions of heaven seem pale and thin. 

This is also partly due to the fact that traditional Christians aren’t very good about talking about heaven.  Many are so confused by their own theologies concerning the afterlife that they aren’t even sure if they are going to be resurrected.  All of this stems from the Western obsession with salvation from Sin and Death.  Once that is conquered, it is assumed all will be very good, but exactly what that means isn’t well explained.

These two items combine to in the unfortunate current state of affairs in which most Mormons assume traditional Christian heaven consists of disembodied spirits singing hymns to an invisible God- invisible even in heaven!  So here is misconception #1: traditional Christians deny the resurrection.  Not true.  Most orthodox Christian theologies affirm the resurrection.  Misconception #2: there will be no friends or family in heaven, just individual spirits praising for eternity an invisible God.  Why not?  Yes it’s true that the highest loyalty will go to God.  It should be to God right now on planet earth (remember, Jesus claims that one must ‘hate his mother, brother,’ and so on to be a disciple).  But that doesn’t then follow that we won’t recognize each other in heaven, I can’t imagine why not.  Misconception #3: it will be very boring.  What?  By definition heaven will be great, the greatest.  We will have fullness of joy. 

What this comes down to is faith.  Do you have faith that God knows you, better than you know you, and cares for you completely?  Children may not understand why their parents make them do boring things like learn to read or eat gross things like vegetables.  It isn’t until later that we find out what gifts they were preparing for us.  Similarly with God.  I imagine when we see face to face, with full reality before us, our God, that our relationships with those we knew will be richer and better than anything, literally, imaginable to us now.  Our existence will be the richest and fullest possible.  The real problem is that our finite imaginations are simply not capable of really understanding the joys that God has in store for us.

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A Look at Mormon Epistemology

Posted by nebula0 on October 14, 2008

In a way, this is The Discussion, because almost every debate I have gotten in here and elsewhere has come down to the question of epistemology (meaning, the way we come to claim we know anything).  It’s a fascinating experience for me, because I have realized these past few days that this is precisely what I used to do as a Mormon as well.  I feel as though I am debating with my past self. 

Here’s an example of what I mean.  You can start with any opening topic, it will always end up doing the same thing:

Me: Take the nature of deity.  Does it make sense to have an infinite regress of dependent beings such as classical Mormon theology teaches?

Mormon: The idea of an infinite, immutable God is a Platonic construct, therefore I don’t need to pay attention to it.  I will pay attention only to special revelation.

Me: Platonic or not, who cares?  If it’s a valid argument it’s a valid argument.  And how do you know what special revelation that you can trust as representing reality if you haven’t thought through what the nature of deity is like in the first place?

Mormon: None of those proofs are bulletproof so they are all really just mere speculation by the minds of men.  We have to learn to listen to the Spirit if we are going to learn truth, why not learn it right from the source?

Me: But how do you know what you are hearing is really the voice of the Spirit and not you- your own beliefs being encoded into an experience?

Mormon: If you can’t trust your experiences, and you can’t trust reasoning, what can you trust?

Me: That’s precisely why reasoning is important.  Whether we like it or not, we have no unfettered direct access to reality through experience.  We have to take the chance and do the best we can at reasoning.

and so on…

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Trinity and the Mormon Godhead

Posted by nebula0 on October 11, 2008

I’ll never forget the day when, as a new member baptized maybe three months ago, missionaries showed up at my apartment to ask me what the different was between the godhead as spelled out by the Articles of Faith and the trinity as believed by orthodox Christianity.  Part of the reason it’s an episode burned into my mind is that I was so shocked that these poor missionaries who had gone through the Missionary Training Center, one who was on the tail end of his mission, did not understand basic Mormon theology.  For all you orthodox Christians out there who read this, let this be a lesson for you when you speak to Mormons before you accuse them of lying or being brainwashed.  The reality of the situation is that many Mormons, maybe the majority, do not understand basic Mormon theology anymore.  For you Mormons, you may argue that the doctrine of the trinity just doesn’t make sense, it’s a contradiction in terms, and that’s why there is confusion.

Let’s start with the trinity.  The grounding assumption of any formulation of the trinity starts with the assumption that there is but One God.  By God here I mean the immutable, infinite, eternal, necessary being labeled God.  There are two ways to come to this conclusion, through philosophy and through exegesis of the Bible.   Through philosophy you can come to suspect that the God I stated above exists through classic arguments such as the argument from contingency or the ontological argument.  It follows from such arguments that there would be only one such being, as a truly infinite, necessary, immutable being would be a true unity.  From the Bible verses from especially deutero Isaiah and the New Testament, when monotheism was firmly established in Israel, reaffirm the notion that there is but one God.

With that established, the next thing integrated into the notion of the trinity is usually the Son, Christ.  Again, there are two ways of approaching this problem, through philosophy and exegesis of the Bible.  Through philosophy you may come to some notion of a finite creation separated from its infinite Creator and the question as to how to close that gap between two qualitatively different types of beings.  The incarnation is one particularly appealing solution, and since it is testified to in the New Testament, appears to many Christians to be particularly powerful.  From statements in the New Testament, most powerfully from John 1, it is understood that Christ is the expressed Logos, or spoken Word/reason/mind of God somehow enfleshed.  It follows from the notion that there is but One God, that there must be some kind of profound unity between the creator God and this enfleshed Logos.  There are a couple ways to do this, the easiest way mentally is through modalism/oneness theology, which states that God expresses himself through different modes of being- the father first, the son second and the holy ghost third.  Hence, Jesus IS the father IS the holy ghost.  That melding of persons into one person doesn’t prove satisfactory to all however, since through exegesis most Christians argue that Christ was a bonafide separate person from the Father (i.e. who was Jesus praying to when praying to the Father?  It seems reasonable to assert it was a different person). 

This is where it getes tricky and the doctrine of the trinity loses many well meaning people.  How can you possibly assert that two separate persons are the same Being?  Because recall, it was already established that there is only One God.  The notion of personhood is a tricky enough one to begin with.  What does it mean that youare a person when you are not made up of the same ‘stuff’ one year to the next as your cells are created and destroyed?  Is there a difference between a person and a being?  Usually when we talk about personhood we mean a rational agent, and when we talk about being we describe qualities.  To be a human being is to be a person with a mortal, finite body.  To be a human being is to be a a person and a particular being in unity.  But, what if there was a type of being which was unlimited, infinite, is it possible that multiple persons could share the exact same nature?  Think about this for a second, part of being a human being is being finite and imperfect- separate, distinct.  But if a rational agent has an infinite, immutable being, what’s to say that another rational agent, another person, could not share that exact same being of infinity?  There can only be one such being- multiple, perfect infinites would actually overlap and become the exact same beings, they would overlay each other or become contradictions in terms- but why not have multiple persons be that being?  From there comes the inclusion of the Holy Spirit as a third person to be the being of God.  From what I can tell, the inclusion of the Holy Spirit is primarily due to exegesis from scripture.

Whether or not you agree with the above, I hope you realize that it isn’t just silly, impossible nonsense.  It’s reasonable enough.  Now how does that compare to the Mormon notion of the Godhead?  Simple.  The Mormon Godhead supposes that there are three beings which compose it, not just three persons in one being.  This is made possible because deity in Mormonism is not infinite in the absolute sense.  It is infinite only in a relative sense- in the same way that a large sheet might as well be infinite to a speck of dust.  Therefore it is not contradiction in terms to assume that there can be multiple relatively infinite beings, it is only a problem if you suppose that there is an absolutely infinite being in existence.

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Mormon Theological Development

Posted by nebula0 on October 3, 2008

If you read nothing else but the Book of Mormon, what would you understand about Mormonism?  Not a whole lot.  You’d learn about the Nephites and Lamanitesand relate to Mormonism on that level of storytelling, but you would have no idea just how different Mormon theology is from mainstream/normative Christianity.  This is because at the time of the “translating” of the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith was at the very start of his prophetic career.  He still understood things in a fairly mundane fashion.  In fact, if you read the BoM closely, you’ll see Joseph resolve many of the burning theological questions that he faced through hearing preachers debate during the great revivals of his time in the first half of the 19th C: infant baptism (BoM answer = no), trinity (BoM theology  = modalism), masonry (BoM = bad), and so on.  The BoM religion is basically a blase Christianity plus extra warm and fuzzy stories.

Things didn’t get interesting until later in Joseph’s prophetic career and he developed out a notion of priesthood authority, continuing revelation allowing for the creation of the Doctrine and Covenants (originally The Book of Commandments) and the combination of those two ideas allowed for extensive theological innovation.  Through continuing revelation Joseph formed radical new ideas about the nature of the afterlife, premortal life and God while his priesthood authority paved the way for these ideas to be understood as binding and true for the whole earth.  In the short 14 years between the creation of the LDS church and Joseph’s killing in 1844, an entirely new religious system was developed from the framework of the Christianity he had been exposed to as a boy.

The fact of this great theological innovation has allowed for the modern day LDS church to draw upon different moments of Joseph’s career to fashion its current identity.  Right now there is a shift to the earlier moments, especially as President Benson emphasized reading the BoMnot just to get a testimony of Joseph as a prophet, but as a primary source for doctrine.  This allows for Mormons to think of themselves as “Christians plus…”, Christians plus the Book of Mormon and living prophets.  Many Mormons these days cannot begin to understand the depth of the theological difference between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity- they in all sincerity think any Christian who complains is simply being mean spirited for no good reason.  Remember, the BoM does not contain any real dramatic departure from Christian ideas, the notion of multiple gods and necessity of marriage to be exalted were later innovations.

The question becomes, is the focusing on one period of Joseph’s career to form an identity a legitimate activity?  Only if one is willing to acknowledge that the rest of the 14 years were a mistake and begin to reject parts of the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Abraham.  The fact of the matter is that these moves to emphasize one Joseph, the Joseph who translates the Book of Mormon, from the Joseph who took on two dozen wives and became a Mason, isn’t done with any kind of justification.  One is more easily swallowed than the other, and that is justification enough for the LDS leadership.

I leave it to the reader to decide if this is a legitimate decision.

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The Mormon Bible(s)

Posted by nebula0 on October 1, 2008

One term that inevitably rears its ugly head when talking about Mormonism is “Mormon Bible”.  Usually someone who doesn’t know the first thing about Mormonism hears about how Mormons have their own scriptures and so assume that Mormons go around using a Mormon Bible.  Now there is a half truth to this.  Joseph Smith did go about creating his own “translation” of the Bible, a product of what he felt to be inspiration of the Holy Ghost since he wasn’t fluent in the original languages of the Bible and wasn’t working from ancient manuscripts to translate anything into English as translators usually do.  This “translation” is known as the Joseph Smith Translation or JST and an example of this work, the recasting of Matthew, is found in the Pearl of Great Price and JST footnotes are found in Latter-day Saint church published Bibles.

With that caveat in mind, the translation of the Bible that English speaking Mormons use is the King James Version.  Given that Mormons in non English speaking parts of the world using more modern translations, why are Mormons stuck with the KJV?  Bearing in mind that the KJV is not the most accurate translation on the market (for example, the name Lucifer originated with a mistake when the Bible was translated into Latin and that mistake was carried into the KJV), and that it is difficult for modern ears to understand, especially when things get technical, some accuse the LDS church of choosing the KJV to keep Mormons purposefully in the dark.  That is, a Mormon could potentially read over Romans in the KJV five times and not quite get it because of the language barrier.  But if that were the case, why wouldn’t the LDS church choose a similarly difficult translation for use in non English speaking countries?  No, that doesn’t explain it.

The explanation is simple: the Book of Mormon appeared in English (whether you believe it was translation or not) and the Book of Mormon language is very KJV-esque.  More than that, the Isaiah portions of the BoM are largely a word for word match to the KJV.  So you can see the reasoning here, unless the LDS church wants to redo the BoM into a more modern sounding English perhaps using a modern translation of the Bible as a guide, the KJV will probably need to stay around- people will expect those Isaiah passaages (among other things, such as the numerous paraphrased KJV verses found in the BoM) to match up with their Bibles.  Since Joseph is believed to have been directly influenced by God in his translation of the BoM, messing with that (more than it already has been anyway) is unlikely to happen.  This isn’t a problem for non English speakers for whom the BoM has to be translated into a different language no matter, and is modernized in the process to begin with.

Posted in Basic Background, Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , | 9 Comments »