Saturday, December 9, 2017

Daniel C. Peterson and the Book of Abraham

One of the books I am currently reading is An Introduction to the Book of Abraham by Egyptologist John Gee. It is, so far at least, a fascinating and thoughtful read and I recommend the book to everyone. As Gee mentions in the opening pages, there is more to life than papyri, so the book is to the crisp and to the point, and can be read in its entirety in a few days.

In addition to this, FairMormon just released a talk by Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies at Brigham Young University, discussing the Book of Abraham. While Peterson is not an Egyptologist like Gee, his background in Middle Eastern studies make him qualified to speak about the subject. As always, Dan manages to be insightful and humorous at the same time.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Friday Traditio: Laura Harris Hales

One of the main problems Mormons and non-Mormons have with the Prophet Joseph Smith was his practice or polygamy. (Yes Denver Snuffer and Rock Waterman, he did practice polygamy.) However, most of the research that has been done on this subject has been by men; women have rarely ever spoken out on this subject.

This weeks traditio has Laura Harris Hales, host of LDS Perspectives Podcast and co-author of Joseph Smith's Polygamy: Toward a Better Understandingtalking about the polygamy issue at the 2015 Fairmormon conference. As always, Laura leads with faith and understanding. Hope you all enjoy her talk.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Response to My Ninety-Five Theses (Part 2)

Image result for ordain women25) Women’s garments should be sleeveless, or at least without that little bunch under the armpit, which is unnecessary and uncomfortable.

Not being a woman myself, I am not really sure what she is talking about. However, garments come in many varieties, and there is no reason in principle that this type of garment could not be made available.

26) This one may be controversial, but get rid of the one-piece garments.  Just… no.

This is not controversial, just a matter of taste. I doubt many people wear these types of garments, I do not recall seeing them during the several times I have purchased garments.

27) Stop the worship/emphasis on The Family™.  If you’re going to talk about defending the family, you’d better be talking about all families, not just the ones with cis-gendered, heterosexual parents who are married and who have 3+ children born in the covenant.  Families, as a social unit of primary support and love, are worth defending.  “The Family™” is code for being homophobic and it’s antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.

The family is central to the plan on salvation; you cannot be exalted by yourself. So, the Church cannot stop emphasizing the family. That is not homophobic, which is hatred of homosexuals. Just because an organization disagrees with a certain type of lifestyle does not mean that therefore they hate the individuals who practice that kind of lifestyle. (Though I admit that the Church should be more welcoming of homosexuals, bi-sexuals, and transgender individuals). Having said that, homosexual couples are as capable of raising good families as are heterosexual couples, and I have personally wish the recent policy on forbidding children was not a thing. But, it is a policy and not a doctrine so hopefully it will change one day.

28) Relatedly, we have turned church leaders into idols that we worship.  Stop making a false equivalence between fallible humans who are called to positions of leadership/authority and Jesus.  They are not Jesus.  We worship Jesus, not them.  We are supposed to obey God and Jesus, not church leaders.  We have moved the center of our worship onto human beings who make mistakes and who see through a glass, darkly, and it belongs on God and Christ.  Full stop.

The only beings Latter-day Saints should worship are the Father and the Son, not priesthood leaders. And again, this is more of a cultural thing than a doctrinal thing. The Prophet Joseph Smith made it clear that a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such, so there is no reason for Latter-day Saints to lionize their leaders. They are ordinary people with problems and shortcomings like the rest of us. However, we should sustain and respect our leaders, and if we see problems it would be more useful to discuss it with them than to rant about it elsewhere. (To be clear, I do not think Liz is ranting.)

29) Women are not necks who turn heads.  We are people with our own necks and heads.  So are men.  We should work together in a collaborative and equal fashion.

I think what Liz is saying here (I may be wrong) is that women are equal to men. I agree, and we should value the input and opinions of women more than we currently do. We are making some strides in that regard, but there is still a long way to go.

30) Ordain women.

As most of my readers know, I am conservative both theologically and politically. Having said that, I see it as metaphysically possible for women to be ordained. There is no scripture or revelation that states it is impossible. However, Ordain Women probably made this much more difficult by making bad arguments in favor of ordination (such as comparing their position to blacks pre-1978.) So, I would be surprised to see this happen in my lifetime.

31) Change the temple language so that women are covenanting with God, not through their husbands.

Women are already covenant with the God, not their husbands. They only agree to listen to their husbands counsel if he is being Christlike. So, there is no need to change the wording.

32) Stop carpeting the walls.  Why do so many buildings have carpet running up the walls?  That carpet is itchy and scratchy and makes it very difficult for toddlers to walk against the walls, because it’s not pleasant to touch or hold on to.

My guess is because carpet is easier to take care of than hardwood floors, which have to be polished regularly.

33) I am all in favor of having ward members help clean the building, but if we could get professionals in to make sure that the bathrooms and kitchens are properly cleaned and sanitized every so often, that’d be great.

As a former janitor at the Church Office Building, this is certainly a possibility. But professional cleaners cost money, so you might want to give a little extra tithing if you want this type of change.

34) Please make the women’s session for women, and have it be either 12+ or 18+.  I feel like having the 8-12 year-olds really infantilizes the whole thing.  They’re children, and that’s ok. They don’t need to be there.

Considering the change for priesthood and women to meet annually rather than bi-annually, this is a legitimate possibility.

35) Let’s hear from more women in General Conference.  This would hopefully naturally happen should we ordain women (see Thesis 30) but black men have been ordained for almost 40 years and we still rarely hear from them. So, relatedly…

This is happening already, as more women are speaking in conference and offering prayers.

36) … make a concerted effort to have more diversity in leadership, and in talks during General Conference.  We should value the experiences of all people in this church from all demographic groups

Callings have to come by inspiration, not to appease a certain groups interest. Even if it did happen, it won't change things because the Church refuses to talk about the priesthood policy, and I frankly doubt a black leader would be allowed to without being censored, because that would look very ugly from a public relations standpoint.

37) Either pad the pews, or make church shorter.  Some of us have tailbones that haven’t fully healed from multiplying and replenishing the earth, if you catch my drift, and have a hard time sitting on hard surfaces for that long.

The idea of making church shorter was talked about in the previous post, so I won't rehash what I said about it. But that is a concern about people sitting so long in those conditions, so that would be a good practical reform.

38) Engage more with community groups and civic outreach.

I thought we already had too many meetings Liz? That's several more hours a week you are adding to a full schedule. And the Church already encourages members to be active in their community.

39) Do more interfaith service work.  I want to see more Mormons starting soup kitchens and doing anti-poverty work.


40) I may be biased, but every ward should call a Ward Social Worker to help both the Bishop and Relief Society connect people with resources in the broader community.

This is a great idea, but this person would need thick skin and training before a calling could be issued. Social work is not for the faint of heart.

41) More security for missionaries, especially those serving in high-crime communities, and especially women.  I know way too many women who have been sexually assaulted on their missions because they were asked to be places that were unsafe and known for being hostile to women.

I don't disagree, but what is the solution? Arming missionaries? Seems very risky. A better move may be that missionaries cannot proselyte in high-crime areas after dark, regardless of sex.

42) Increase the budgets for congregations outside the US.  Wards in Mexico shouldn’t be receiving less money-per-person than wards in the US.

I agree, they should be receiving more since they need more help.

43) Fund fewer shopping malls.

Here we go with the City Creek Mall again. It seems to have brought many jobs to the area and is thriving, so it was a good investment. Could it have gone to something else? Sure, but then Liz would find something else to complain about. Until we find out the Church is funding illegal and immoral projects (which they are not), lets give them a break. They spend plenty of money on humanitarian aid and other noble causes.

44) Make the mother’s lounge more than an afterthought when planning buildings.  Nursing mothers deserve more space than the broom closet, separate spaces to change diapers (without stinking up the whole mother’s lounge), and comfortable chairs.

This varies by building, some buildings have all those things in the mothers lounge.

45) Put changing tables in all of the men’s restrooms.  Women aren’t the only people who change diapers.


46) More global hymns.  Less songs about Zion in the mountains and more songs celebrating the cultural diversity of the church membership.

You might want to talk to Isaiah about the mountain thing. Different varieties of music is fine, but remember that meetings need to be reverent and you are not at Church to be entertained.

47) Take the Star-Spangled Banner out of the hymnbook.  Also My Country ‘Tis of Thee and America the Beautiful.  And God Save the King (even though it’s been a Queen since forever).  It’s fine to be patriotic, but having those songs in the hymnbook smacks of nationalism and colonialism in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Then don't sing them Liz. No one is forcing you too. Stop being offended over nothing.

48) Have a Gospel Essentials 2.0 Sunday School class.  Basically it would be a Sunday School class discussing the basic tenets of the gospel, but in a much deeper philosophical/theological way than in the normal class geared towards investigators.

On this Liz and I are in complete agreement. But this is a long-shot. The textbook would have to go through correlation, and there are not many philosophy/theology sympathizers there, so I would not hold my breath. Perhaps using Terryl Givens' Wrestling the Angel and Feeding the Flock would be a good start.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Friday Traditio: Jerry Fodor

Image result for jerry fodorOn November 29, 2017 philosopher and cognitive scientist Jerry A. Fodor passed away. He was 82, and was professor emeritus of philosophy at Rutgers. Prior to his death, he studied under Hilary Putnam (one of my idols) at Princeton, and wrote many influential books on the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. While I did not often agree with Fodor on many things (such as his belief that folk pyschology was a true theory), I loved Fodor's writing style, clarity, and bluntness. It is always refreshing to see a philosopher not mince words, and Fodor was a great exemplar of that. He will be greatly missed.

Here he discussed many important issues relating to the philosophy of mind. Enjoy.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Does reductionism eliminate the mind and consciousness?

Image result for quineBefore I start this post, I draw attention to the fact that I have changed my blog name from Realism with a Human Face to Word and Object. I chose this title to honor my second favorite philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine, who wrote a book by the same title. This book and other books and essays by Quine have had a profound effect on me as a philosopher and as a person, so I thought it proper to honor him with this small token of appreciation. More on Quine later this week as an interview by him will be this weeks traditio.

Earlier today my friend Daniel C. Peterson wrote a post titled The disappearance of mind on his blog, wherein he said the following:
The insistence of some militantly reductionist adherents of naturalism, that “mind” is merely a more or less illusory product of purely chemical/physical processes, that consciousness and free will are hallucinations, seems to me transparently self-refuting.  Why should I pay any more attention to the neurochemical events in an atheist’s brain than to his digestive process?  What significance would they have?  And, anyway, what, given such preconceptions, would it mean for “me” to “pay attention” to such things?  What on earth could it possibly mean to declare that the neurochemical events occurring at one GPS location are “about” the neurochemical events occurring at any other?
There are a few problems with this statement. First, it is not clear what Dan means by "reductionism" and "naturalism" since these describe a variety of positions in philosophy rather than one single position. But, based on conversations I have had with him on these matters in the past, I am assuming he means (and he can correct me if I am wrong) eliminative materialism, functionalism, and behaviorism (though there are few if any behaviorists anymore). Since I am both an eliminativist and a functionalist, I will clarify and defend both views in this post.

First on eliminativism. This position is a minority one in the philosophy of mind and its most prominent defenders are Daniel C. Dennett and Patricia and Paul Churchland. The position asserts that folk psychology (or common sense) is flawed and that modern science (especially neuroscience) will show us better ways to understand the brain and the mind. So, what is it that eliminativism eliminates? That depends on the individual. For Dennett, it eliminates qualia (the first person point of view) and for the Churchlands, it eliminates thoughts and beliefs.

But wait, the critics say. That is self-refuting! I am aware of my own perspective and my own consciousness! As Descartes says in the Meditations, I am as aware of these things as much as I could be aware of anything else! This point of reasoning shows how eliminativism is misunderstood in the philosophical world. It is not asserting that beliefs, qualia and thoughts do not exist. Rather, that what we believe about them are flawed and need to be redefined in light of modern science.

Take the geocentric view of the solar system, for example. From before Aristotle and until Copernicus and Galileo, it seemed that it was just obvious that the Sun and everything else in the cosmos revolved around the Earth; after all that is how it appears to the naked eye. However, modern science has shown that common sense notion to be very flawed. Similarly, the eliminativist is asserting that dualism and other metaphysical reasonings about the mind are flawed and need to be overturned in light of what the neuroscientific image shows us. In truth, eliminativism is neither radical nor a position; rather it is a posture towards certain questions and is a by-product of scientific realism (the view that science shows us how the universe really is.)

So, to be clear, eliminativism does not say that belief, consciousness, and thoughts do not exist. Rather, it states that they exist, but they are not what you think they are. These concepts need to be re-configured to fit the scientific image.

Functionalism is the view (and there are many different kinds of functionalism) that mental states are reducible to mental states. In layman terms, it means that the brain is a functional thing and what it produces (consciousness, thought, etc) can be reproduced in other non-brain systems; this is the view that shows that artificial intelligence is indeed very possible.

Dan's position seems to be similar to that of philosophers Frank Jackson and Thomas Nagel. Nagel asserts in his essay What's it like to be a bat? that even if we understood all the physiology of a bat, we would still not know what that bat's qualia is, or what it is like for the bat to be a bat. There is something beyond physiology that accounts for these things, so materialism must be wrong. Nagel recommends in his book, Mind and Cosmosthat we depart from modern science and return to a Neo-Aristotelian teleological view of the world, saying that if we did so we would be able to account for consciousness.

I see no reason to return to the past to understand the workings of the universe; the naturalistic picture seems just fine to me. I find it interesting that people like Nagel want to return to the past for this issue but have no problem with modern science in areas such as astronomy and medicine. Only in this area do they say the scientific method doesn't work. This is not an argument, but is special pleading.

Do not mistake me as saying that science can answer all questions because I do not believe that it can. The scientific method deals with things that are verifiable and falsifiable. Science depends on induction, logic, and mathematics, so it alone is not the arbiter of knowledge. However, it is the best method we have for discovering how the natural world works. We (and our minds and consciousness) are part of the physical world, so we should use the scientific method to understand the workings of the mind.

I will say this in defense of Dan's view. It is possible that when science is completed (and that day may never come) that we will still not have figured out how consciousness works. But we need to let scientists and philosophers do there job and then see if there is something we cannot account for naturalistically. But we should not start with the presumption that it can't be. If the universe can be accounted for naturalistically, then there is no reason to think that the mind cannot be.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Was Hume an atheist?

Image result for david humeMy wife, who is a nurse anesthetist, is often asked by her colleagues what I do for a living and what I study. When she responds that I am a teaching assistant and that I major in philosophy and plan to study it at the graduate level, a common follow up question is "Who is his favorite philosopher?" When she responds that David Hume is my favorite philosopher, she is then asked "So he is an atheist?"

The sentiment that Hume was an atheist is not one just shared by laypeople, but also by professional philosophers and historians. In his review of the book Hume: An Intellectual Biography, historian Anthony Gottlieb said the following:
"The principles of Hume's philosophy implied that the question of God's existence cannot be settled definitively either way, so he was in one sense an agnostic. However, since he does not seem to have entertained any belief in God, it is probably also fair to call him an atheist—just not a campaigning one." (Who Was David Hume)
Gottlieb is not alone. Richard Dawkins calls Hume an atheist several times in his book The God Delusion, and most non-Hume scholars in philosophy would agree with Gottlieb's sentiment about Hume. As far as Hume scholars are concerned, there are mixed opinions, but leading Hume scholar Paul Russell sees Hume's entire work as trying to undermine theistic claims and show religion and belief in God to be false, as he argues in his book The Riddle of Hume's Treatise.

Ever since Hume published A Treatise of Human Nature in 1738, he has been branded as an atheist and a dogmatic critic of religion. Why this is the case is hard to say, but it likely stems from the fact that God does not play a central role in Hume's philosophy. For example, because Hume is an empiricist (a person who believes sense data is how we obtain knowledge) and a naturalist (he only accounts for natural, testable causes in his philosophy), there is no way for God to play a role in epistemology, human nature, and morality because God cannot be known via sense experience.

To be fair, Hume certainly does criticize religion. In his classic essay Of Miracleshe states that while miracles are not logically impossible, we don't have any good reason to think that they are. Also, in the Treatise Hume criticizes the idea of immaterial soul, that God is the source of morality, and the continuation of selves through time. (Though it should be mentioned that Hume was never fully satisfied with his account of self identity.) Finally, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (assuming one takes the position that Philo is closest to Hume's position, which I dispute here) Hume examines several of the classical arguments for God's existence and finds them all to be defective.

Before we can examine the question of whether Hume was an atheist, we will have to have a working definition of what atheism is. Atheism is the belief that there is no God; it is not a lack of belief in God. Cats and dogs, as far as we know, do not have a belief in God but we do not call cats and dogs atheists. This position is more accurately called non-theism, and it includes those who lack a belief in God or are just not theists in any sense of the term (this is the view that the late Antony Flew championed in his work The Presumption of Atheism.) So, did Hume ever profess that he did not believe in God?

The answer to that question is that not only did he did not make such a proclamation, he was somewhat frightened by atheism. In his writings, Hume labels other people atheists (such as Baruch Spinoza in the Treatise), but he does not call himself one, though he is happy to call himself a moderate skeptic. After Hume released the Treatise, as I mentioned before, he was accused of being an atheist and had to write an anonymous Abstract in order to tell people that the main point he was trying to make was about causality, and had nothing or little to do with whether God existed or not. Despite these efforts, Hume continued to be labeled an atheist and an infidel.

When Hume served as an ambassador to France, he became acquainted with Baron D'Holbach, who was an outspoken atheist. While there, he once had dinner with D'Holbach and many of his friends. Hume mentioned that he had never seen an atheist and was not sure if they even existed. D'Holbach remarked that most of the people at the table were atheists, and the few that were not had not yet made up their minds. This did not seem to have impressed Hume very much, and a friend who knew about the story later wrote to another friend that while Hume did not have enough religion to be popular in Britain, it seemed in France that he had too much.

While many people will say "But Hume is clearly very critical of the idea of a God in his Dialogues," this shows that they have not read the text carefully. The question under consideration in the Dialogues is not whether or not God exists (even Philo says that question has an obvious answer:yes), but whether the nature and attributes of this God can be known through philosophical argument. Hume, like Philo, is skeptical of the latter claim, but not about whether or not God exists.

Hume's position is probably a best thought of as a kind of deism (though even that is questionable because Hume also criticized deists.) In several of his essays, he agreed with the Roman Stoic philosopher Cicero about the utility of religion, and when he talked about how he would set up a government, he mentioned that a national church would be a good, civilizing thing upon society. So, while Hume did criticize religion, he was not anti-religious. Furthermore, what Hume was critical about when it came to religion was not the existence of God so much as it was the attributes of God, which he claimed we could never know about for sure. In his final interview before his death with author James Boswell, Hume mentioned that the morality of religion was bad and that he had stopped being religious when he was a child, but he did not say that he didn't believe in a God. Clearly, for Hume at least, the question of religion and the existence of God were separate ideas. So Hume could believe in an Aristotelian prime mover sort of a God, but not an interventionist God.

While Hume was certainly a critic of religion, there is no reason to believe that he was an atheist. His writings show that he believed in some sort of providence, and atheism was too far of a position for him to take. As a skeptic, Hume was hesitant to make those sort of affirmations. But, the evidence from his essays and his posthumous Dialogues show that he was a theist in a limited sense.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Traditio: Grant Hardy

Image result for grant hardyOne of the books that I am currently reading (and very much enjoying) is Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics. It has a collection of essays from various Mormon (and now Non-Mormon) scholars on what apologetics is and how to do if effectively. While all the contributors are highly educated, do not get the idea that they all think the same thing, because that is not the case. This makes for a very rich and thoughtful discussion, and I recommend this book to all.

At a recent FairMormon conference, Grant Hardy gave a talk on how we can do apologetics more effectively, so I thought this would make a very good Friday traditio. For those who are unfamiliar with Grant, he is a historian at the University of North Carolina- Ashville and is the author of the book Understanding the Book of Mormon. Perhaps Grant's most important work however is his readers edition of the Book of Mormon, where he uses the 1920 edition of the text and reformats it into a very reader-friendly text, complete with footnotes and explanations in the back. (Thanks to him, the Isaiah chapters are not only bearable but very readable.)

I hope you all enjoy what Grant has to say.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

For Jaxon: Reflections on my Mission Experience

For those who do not know, I served as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from November 17, 2010, to November 15, 2012. I served in the Alabama Birmingham Mission, under the direction of Richard Neitzel Holzapfel. So, if you are decent at math, you will know that today marks five years since I have returned home.

This post will be different from most of my posts. Most of them are addressed to a general audience. This post is dedicated to my friend and future missionary, Jaxon Washburn. However, other future missionaries may gain some insight from what I have to say here. As always, I will be frank and will not mince words. However, no one (Jaxon included) should consider what I say here as definitive of what a mission is like and what utility it has in post-mission life.

Dear Jaxon,

As I told you before, it has been five years since I returned home from full-time missionary service. Since you are preparing to serve a mission, and like me are an aspiring intellectual, I thought I would give you some words of advice before you begin filling out your paperwork. I will give you a brief overview of my mission, and conclude with some advice. I hope that it is beneficial for you, and know that I am proud of you and your desire to serve. It is not an easy thing to do, but if you have the desire to serve, you are already ahead of where I was at your age.

When I joined the Church in September of 2009, I was unsure if I wanted to serve a mission. I did like sharing the Gospel with others, but many things about the mission field struck me as strange. The idea of knocking on doors, smiling at everyone, never being alone, and giving robotic answers to tough questions were against my human disposition. Further, I did not believe (and I still do not) that serving a mission is a commandment. I considered it a good thing if you wanted to go and knew what you were talking about, but since the former was not true of myself, I figured I would not serve.

However, I was close friends with the mission president where I lived (and still am) and he asked me to serve several mini-missions for him when he had openings. Due to my respect for him, I did so and overall enjoyed the time I served, but I still did not want to serve a mission. It just was not something that I wanted to do and I felt no spiritual prompting to go.

Nevertheless, due to pestering from members of my ward, I filled out my papers and reported to the Provo Missionary Training Center on November 17, 2010. The MTC was fun, and I actually started feeling excited about serving. After arriving in the mission field however, I remembered why I didn't want to serve in the first place; missions are not places to ask questions and think for yourself - they are about following orders. My mission president talked almost non-stop about obedience as if that were the only important thing. (If I were a mission president, I would prefer a clever, thinking missionary to a programmed robot.)

However, do not think that my mission experience on a whole was negative because it was not. While I disagreed with my mission president on certain things, I learned many valuable lessons from him (such as how to be a better husband, father, and church member), and he became and still is a father figure to me. I made many good friends on my mission, most of which continue to this day. My testimony of the restored gospel was strengthened and I understood more than I ever had until that point that God loves all people. And finally, I learned that teaching and explaining things was something that I was good at, and that I wanted to be an educator. Overall, my experience was positive.

So, there is my experience in a reduced form. Now, let's turn from my experience to the questions you asked. You asked the following: 1) What was studying the scriptures like on my mission? 2) What were the greatest challenges on my mission? 3) What is having a companion like? 4) Advice for the faithful informed scholar category type of missionary 5) What was the greatest benefit of serving? 6) How did my mind set change from the time I went in the mission to when I left? I will answer all these questions, and then conclude with some general advice.

Studying the scriptures while I was on my mission was one of my greatest sources of fun. I am an avid reader, and enjoyed personal study more than any other time of the day. (It was the one time of day no one could bother me.) I read the Standard Works several times throughout my mission, and gained a more nuanced perspective on them.

The greatest challenge of serving my mission was retaining the desire to serve. At the beginning I enjoyed serving, but certain events occurred in the mission that made me skeptical of mission leadership and whether staying was good for my mental health. (I contemplated suicide several times on my mission, though I never attempted it.) Thankfully, due to the influence of my mission president, my late friend Joseph Fielding McConkie, and friends back home, I got through the challenges and emerged stronger both as a person and as a Church member. (I never thought of suicide post-mission, and I have a stronger, though still skeptical, faith in Church leaders.)

Having a companion is like having a shadow - they are with you everywhere you go. Companions are people with thoughts and personalities, and the most important thing to remember is that while you did not choose each other, you do choose how you will react to being together. I had 27 companions on my mission (yes, you read correctly), and all of them were different. Some were obedient and robotic, some were obedient and thinking, some had no idea why they were there, and some were naive, but I liked all of them and learned from them. Several of them, such as Derek Gibson, Jaxon Munns, and Tyler Dunn, remain close friends to this day. If you are like me and prefer to be alone, you will struggle with companions at first, but as time goes on you will not think about it much.

The faithful/informed missionary are the only missionaries worth having. In today's world where information is at a finger's touch, missionaries are going to need to know all they can in order to be effective. Having said that, those who come in the field more knowledgeable than others should use their knowledge in service to others. (Hopefully in leadership positions where people will actually listen.)

The greatest benefit of serving a mission was learning that if I set my mind to something, no matter how difficult, it was possible to finish it successfully. I was never as good of a student as I should have been in high school, but post-mission I have been a mostly straight-A student. The other benefit was discipline. I have always been organized, but serving for two years helped me to see where I could improve as a person and gave me the tools to do so.

When I went into the mission field, as I mentioned before, my mindset was just to survive my mission. At the end of it, I was finally starting to see that a mission is an opportunity to learn how to consecrate. Had I started my mission this way, I would have been a radically different missionary.

Here are my closing words of advice: First, have a desire to serve. If you do not yet have that desire, do not begin filling out your paperwork. If you don't have the desire now, there is no telling whether it will come on your mission.

Second, make sure you have a strong testimony and have any doubts you have about the Church resolved before you serve. When you are on your mission, you will have little time to worry about your doubts; your purpose will be to focus on other people's questions and concerns.

Third, read all you can before you go into the MTC. As you know, missionaries can only read Jesus the Christ, True to the Faith, Our Search for Happiness, and Our Heritage while in the field. If you have not already, read the books listed here before entering the MTC.

Fourth, sustain your leaders. You will find this odd because I said earlier, I am skeptical of priesthood leaders, but hear me out. Once leaders are in their respective assignments, they have authority to make decisions and you need to respect that. This does not mean that the decisions they make will always be correct. Leaders are human and make many mistakes (ask Joseph Smith, Jr.). However, leadership is difficult and they need your support. Give them your full support until they prove unworthy of it, and at that point talk with your mission president, not other missionaries.

Fifth, love and testify of Joseph Smith. True, you are first and foremost a witness of Jesus Christ. But billions of people can offer that. What makes Mormonism unique (or one of the reasons) is that we believe God speaks to us now and that the Bible is not the end of the argument. When you bear testimony of Joseph Smith, you are bearing testimony of God's love for people today.

Finally, have fun. You will never have this opportunity again. Make the most of it.

Know that I proud of you and will be rooting for you everyday you are out there. If you have any other questions, don't hesitate to ask.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday Traditio: Terryl Givens

One of the things that attracted me to Mormonism was the belief that man can become like God. (In theology this belief is called theosis.) President Lorenzo Snow put it succinctly in his couplet "As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become." However, what it means to become like God has been an issue of debate among Mormons ever since the Prophet Joseph Smith gave his famous King Follett Discourse. Recently, the LDS Church released an essay on the topic, but many questions still remain.

Discussing this and other topics (such as whether or not Mormons are polytheists) on the LDS Perspectives Podcast is literary theorist and theologian Terryl Givens. Givens is the author of many books, among them are By the Hand of Mormon, Wrestling the Angel, Feeding the Flock, and Viper on the Hearth. In addition to being a first-rate scholar, Givens is also a fine gentleman, always respectful of questions and giving serious rather than flippant responses.

Nick Galieti interviews Givens here.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Response to My Ninety-Five Theses (Part 1)

In case you did not know, Halloween was a celebration of two things this year: Halloween and the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther sending his ninety-five theses to Archbishop Albert  of Brandenburg. These ninety-five theses were mostly about what Luther viewed as priestly corruption due to the sale of indulgences. For those unfamiliar with what an indulgence is, they are defined as follows by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."

"An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.
Being a professor, Luther wanted his theses debated in an academic form; he was not trying to start a Reformation or a break with a Catholic Church. Throughout his life many of his views remained very Catholic (though certainly not all) and he did not start his own Church. (He also greatly disliked the term "Lutheran.")

In an imitation of Luther, blogger Liz (I do not know her whole name) wrote her own ninety-five theses, but they are aimed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). I shared her post on Facebook with the caption "Here is an idea: Join another Church". My friend and mentor Brad Kramer said that I was being uncharitable to Liz (perhaps I was) since she wrote the blog in good faith. So, in this post I will go through all of Liz's theses and comment on them. Her words will be italicized, mine will not be.

1. Church is too long. We need a two-hour block, and we need it now.

As a person who brings books to meetings, I certainly agree that our meetings are boring and that many speakers come to Church unprepared. I have written elsewhere that we could learn from the Catholic Church by partaking of the Sacrament at the end of Sacrament meeting and having one speaker rather than several. This would reduce the meeting to about 30-45 minutes, and then priesthood and Sunday school could also be reduced to 45 minutes, which would equal a block of slightly over two hours. That would be a mere policy change, so there is nothing wrong with Liz proposing it.

2. We need more snacks. I don’t care if this takes the form of a between-the-hours snack break or a monthly break the fast fellowshipping meal, or something else, but there should be an opportunity to break bread with one another and informally chat

Lots of singles wards do this already (at least in Utah), so there is no reason in principle that family wards and branches cannot. I and others would welcome this.

3. The nursery toys should be cleaned more often.

Does anyone want their children around dirty toys? I certainly don't. But I have never served in the Primary, so perhaps there are dirty toys around. That should definitely stop if it is happening.

4. Relatedly, the nursery toys should be a budget priority. Our children need more than broken plastic cars and dolls that are missing arms.

The Bishops has control over ward budgets, but I will put money toward that fund.

5. Primary should be more active. Those kids have been (or will be) sitting through all of Sacrament meeting and possibly some class-time without moving. Let’s get those kids dancing and singing and moving their boogie-bodies.

Again, I have not served in Primary nor have I been in it as child, so I can't give a very constructive comment. But, I don't disagree. Children are active, and Primary needs to adapt to how kids are. (If they have not already.)

6. Primary & nursery teachers are a gift to the ward, and should be treated as such. They need reliable backup lists and team-teachers when at all possible.

No argument here, this is true of any organization.

7. To quote a new convert I spoke with recently, “y’all’s hymns sound like we’re at a funeral every damn time.”  Let’s get the tempo up to where it needs to be, and let’s try to add some gusto in our singing.

Having gone from a church that has a very music based service to the LDS Church, I actually like the music we have in Church. It shows a spirit of worship rather than entertainment, which is what Sacrament meeting is about. Still, we could have some more genres in the hymnbook as Gladys Knight has pointed out. But we need to remember the focus needs to be on Christ, not music or entertainment.

8. Also, can we get some hymns that are more active and sound like praise?  I wouldn’t mind some moving and some clapping, too. Let’s pretend that we’re happy to be singing at church.

This point is the same as the last, and I have the same answer. I prefer people not to clap however, loud noise is counterproductive to meditation.

9. Don’t just show up at somebody’s house without calling!  Missionaries and well-meaning church leaders, I’m looking at you.  This has been aptly named “well-intentioned social terrorism” by leading experts and makes people less likely to fellowship with us, not more.  If you keep making appointments with people and they don’t show up… maybe that’s a hint that they don’t want to hang out with you, and that’s ok.  Also, don’t show up at somebody’s place of employment, or wait for another tenant of a building to go through the door so that you can get to a person’s front door without ringing a bell.  Again, if they don’t want to talk to you, then they probably have  agrea good reason.  Don’t try all sorts of creative ways to trap them into a conversation.

Home teachers should certainly call and set up appointments, as should missionaries when they are visiting active members. I agree it is inappropriate to appear at a person's place of employment or to bother them if they make it clear that they are not interested in talking to you. (Missionaries often annotate these people as "do not contact.") However, missionaries have to tract and that means showing up on peoples doors unannounced; it is simply part of the job. So, this cannot be eliminated entirely unless tracting ends. (Which I hope one day it does.)

10. Relatedly, when somebody sets a boundary, respect it.  If they say, “I don’t want visiting teachers right now,” don’t assign them visiting teachers who are just extra sneaky about visiting teaching.

I fully agree with this, although given the fact that even in Utah home and visiting teaching percentages are not high, you won't have to worry about them showing up anyway, assigned or not. But, if someone doesn't want home or visiting teachers, they can simply e-mail their bishop and tell them that. If he assigns them anyway, then he is out of order.

11. Youth leaders should be trained in how to respond to and/or report issues of child abuse. Honestly, we all should, but especially youth leaders.


12. We have a proud cultural history of beards, and so any prohibition of beards on church-affiliated campuses or for temple workers needs to be abolished immediately.

Plenty of Mormon men wear beards, so they are not culturally unacceptable. As far as Church-owned schools are concerned, since the caffeine ban was recently lifted, it is not unreasonable to think that beards may be allowed in the near future. As far as temple workers, I am not sure what to make of that. The temple has certain standards, and if you want to work there you need to conform to the standards, not make the standards conform to you.

13. Neckties are the pantyhose of men and should be culturally optional.

Not sure what she means by that comment, but ties are already culturally optional. Many men come to Church without a tie. (If I were not married to whom I am married to I would not wear one) In my previous ward, young men passed and administered the sacrament without ties and in different colored shirts.

14. The Word of Wisdom is some good advice, and let’s get back to that.  A cup of coffee shouldn’t keep you out of the temple.

As the text of Section 89 says, the Word of Wisdom is not a commandment. But, temple covenants include sacrifice, and it is not unreasonable to require adherence to the Word of Wisdom in order to enter the temple.

15. For the love of Pete, please dump the Boy Scouts.  And Cub Scouts.

Not being a scout myself I have no attachment to these organizations and don't care if they stay or go. It seems likely the Church may end all attachments with them, but that is up to them. You don't have to enroll your children in scouts, so whether they keep it or not is irrelevant.

16. Less meetings.  PEC and Ward Council should be merged and all leadership should attend the one meeting.

President Packer himself said we have too many meetings, and recently lots of meetings have been merged. So this has been taken care of already.

17. Make the priests properly wash their hands before preparing the Sacrament.  And enforce it.  I’m talking surgery-level scrubbing.

Being a germaphobe myself, I thoroughly agree with this. Surgically scrubbing may be a bit over the top, but having hand sanitzer near the sacrament table would be beneficial.

18. “Follow the Prophet” sounds like it’s a theme song for a cult.  Get rid of it.  Being in a minor key makes it even more terrible.

The only person that members of the Church have to follow is Jesus Christ. The prophet is a servant of the Lord whom we listen to and take counsel from. The motto should be "Follow Christ, listen to the prophets."

19. Stop interviewing teenagers behind closed doors without another person present.

Bishops and stake presidents are required to maintain confidentiality when interviewing people, so it is inappropriate to have someone else present. And they don't ask pressing questions unless they need to know; such as if a person confesses to a sexual sin they need to know details before they pass judgement.

20. Stop talking to minors about masturbating.  Also, adults.  Don’t talk to anybody about masturbating.  Why are we talking about masturbating at church?!

I don't know Liz, maybe because the Church has standards in regard to sexual activity? Masturbating, though a natural activity, is deemed sinful by the Church and leaders must ask about it before certain things are allowed to happen, such as going to the temple and going on a mission. Missionaries ask people before they are baptized to live the law of chastity, which includes not masturbating. Is it really out of order for a bishop or stake president to make sure a perspective missionary or anyone else whether they are living Church standards? Get off your soapbox and grow up Liz.

21. Let’s make the temple clothes for baptisms for the dead a little less see-through.

Only temple garments are see-through, and they are covered by the temple jump suit. No one can tell you are even wearing the garment.

22. Have the girls help pass the Sacrament.  There is nothing in the scriptures that prohibits this, and passing the Sacrament tray around isn’t required to be a priesthood function.

It is true that women are not forbidden in scripture to help pass the sacrament, so there would be no problem with them doing so if those with proper keys authorized it.

23. Bring the Sacrament to the mother’s lounge.  If the Sacrament is the most important part of our Sunday service, it should be made available to all, including those feeding their babies.

This is done already. I have done it myself.

24. Relatedly, those wards that only provide the Sacrament to those who are seated in the chapel because the people in the lobby didn’t get to church on time??  Stop that right now.  Limiting access to the Sacrament based on arrival time is high-level Pharisee nonsense.

If you miss Sacrament, talk to your bishop or branch president and he can authorize that you are given it. I highly doubt he wouldn't do this if he understands the importance of that ordinance. However, I wouldn't make this a habit. The scriptures also admonish us to be timely, so make the arrangements to get to Church on time beforehand.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review of "Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints"

The question of whether or not Mormons are Christians is a question not likely to to be answered definitively by both sides. In a recent essay released by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they stated the following in the opening paragraph:
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unequivocally affirm themselves to be Christians. They worship God the Eternal Father in the name of Jesus Christ. When asked what the Latter-day Saints believe, Joseph Smith put Christ at the center: “The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.” (Are Mormons Christian?)
However, while Mormons state they are Christians, other Christians unequivocally state that they are not Christians. The Roman Catholic Church lists them as a heretical group and does not recognize Latter-day Saint baptisms as authentic. Furthermore, Evangelical Christian philosophers have in recent years dedicated an entire volume arguing that not only are Mormons not Christian, but they do not have a well developed theology (The New Mormon Challenge).

As a practicing Latter-day Saint who is trained in philosophy and theology, I think you can make a pretty good case that Mormons fall under the Christian umbrella, but I also believe Mormon theology can be better developed. We would do well to remember that Christians have had 2,000 years to develop their theology while Mormons have had less than 200 years; it is not logical to expect the same amount of content in 10% of the time. However, Mormons should do better at developing their theology and encouraging members to attend seminaries (not the LDS seminary) and learn how theology is done. We do have some good theologians in Mormonism (David Paulsen, Blake Ostler, Robert Boylan, Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer), but we will need more in years ahead.

Some Mormons will find that statement offensive or troubling. They consider their apostles to be theologians, so they do not see the need for them in the Church. (When I mentioned we needed more theologians in Mormonism on Facebook last week, I met with backlash.) However, this is a mistake. Apostles are special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world, that is not what theology is. Apostles are missionaries, theologians are philosophers who specialize in the nature of God, nature of Christ, our relationship to Christ, prime reality (metaphysics) and so forth. True, apostles can be theologians, but one is not automatically a theologian by holding the priesthood office of apostle.

While Mormons generally shy away from theology proper and other Christians see Mormon theology as defective, one man sees Mormonism as an answer to many theological questions and concerns. Stephen H. Webb, a Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian, makes that case in his book Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints.

In many ways, Webb's book is not only about Mormon theology, but an introduction to Mormonism written by an outsider, as well as an introduction to philosophy for the uninitiated. He begins by recounting a brief history of Christianity, pointing out that it was highly influenced by Plato and committed to a dualistic metaphysics. In contrast, he shows that Mormons are materialists, but that this is not a bad thing since science is showing more and more that the universe is materialistic, and we ought to update our theology as science advances. He sees Mormons as ahead of the curve in this way.

Webb shares my concern that Mormon theology is not as well developed as it should be, but he also points out that there have been people in the past who have worked to systematize Mormon theology (Orson Pratt), and that many of the problems that plague traditional Christianity are solved by Mormonism. (For example, Mormons deny original sin, and thus do not have to wonder where it came from or how it is passed from generation to generation.)

One thing that Webb is unequivocal about is that Mormons are Christians, and it is wrong for other Christians to exclude them. He does acknowledge that Mormonism is very different from traditional Christianity, but affirms that studying it has made him a better, more mature Christian.

In the last chapter of the book he gives two paths that Mormons can choose to follow as they engage with the rest of the Christian world. The first is to follow the example of the aforementioned David Paulsen and to develop a systematic theology built on metaphysics and answering the same questions other Christians ask from a Mormon perspective. The other is to follow Robert L. Millet and do more to reach out to Evangelicals and other Christians who think Mormonism is a cult and show that we are indeed Christians. While I see no reason that you can't do both, the path of David Paulsen seems to be the best approach.

Webb closes the book with a few challenges for Mormons to work on. First, he thinks that Mormons should know more about other Christians beliefs (especially their history and theology). Second, he sees certain questions as not effectively answered by current Mormon theologians (such as how can God have fully libertarian free will but at the same time be subject to law?)

As I mentioned earlier, this book is a great first start for those who are not Mormons but want to know more about what Mormons believe as compared to other Christians, and it is a great introductory book for Mormons who have not studied theology much, if at all. Webb is very fair to both sides, and more than complimentary of the Latter-day Saints. It is a shame that he passed away so young. I will thank him in the next life for writing this book.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Answering Letter to a CES Director # 11

This post was written by Jaxon Washburn

Before beginning, I wish to thank Tarik for the opportunity to contribute to this series of yet another round of responses to the widely circulated Letter to a CES Director. Personally, I first came across and read the letter during my early highschool years; to say that it phased me would be an overstatement. Given the amount of hype that it was receiving within the Reddit community -not to mention within members of my own family- I suppose I was disappointed when I found the majority of its claims and questions merely recycled from the critiques of ages and arguments past, both within and without the realm of Mormon Studies. Years have passed, I remain disappointed, though I am currently pursuing a Religious Studies major at Arizona State University, with hopes of serving a mission within the coming year. With that said, I, like others have done (most of them being far more qualified than myself), will offer my thoughts, concerns, answers, and gripes with a portion of the CES Letter, restricting myself to pages. 45-48, titled “Testimony/Spiritual Witness: Concerns & Questions”. I will be addressing the nine issues that Runnells raises therein, my views of course remaining my own. Segments original to the CES Letter will be cited in red.


  1. “Every major religion has members who claim the same thing: God or God’s spirit bore witness to them that their religion, prophet/pope/leaders, book(s), and teachings are true.”

This just may be the single most inaccurate and misguided claim of the section, and one that takes only an extremely limited exposure to the academic study of general comparative religions to refute. Allow me to demonstrate what I mean by this:

Pew Research Center in its massive demographic study ‘Global Religious Landscape’ found there to be approximately “2.2 billion Christians (32% of the world’s population), 1.6 billion Muslims (23%), 1 billion Hindus (15%), nearly 500 million Buddhists (7%) and 14 million Jews (0.2%) around the world as of 2010. In addition, more than 400 million people (6%) practice various folk or traditional religions, including African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian aboriginal religions. An estimated 58 million people – slightly less than 1% of the global population – belong to other religions, including the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca and Zoroastrianism. At the same time, the new study... also finds that roughly one-in-six people around the globe (1.1 billion, or 16%) have no religious affiliation. This makes the unaffiliated the third-largest religious group worldwide, behind Christians and Muslims, and about equal in size to the world’s Catholic population. Surveys indicate that many of the unaffiliated hold some religious or spiritual beliefs (such as belief in God or a universal spirit) even though they do not identify with a particular faith.” [1]

As to exactly what religions Runnells is referring to with his initial claim remains unspecified, and thereby misleading. If one chooses to categorize the major religions by terms of adherents, according this study such would apply to Christianity (consisting of the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Restorationist traditions), Islam (consisting of the Sunni, Shi’ite, and Sufi sects), the religiously unaffiliated (stemming from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds, and being highly relative to the individual in terms of personal worldview), Hinduism (which refers collectively to the various faiths indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and stemming from the Vedic tradition), Buddhism (consisting mainly of the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana schools of thought) and finally folk religionists (which refer collectively to the widely unrelated indigenous and tribal religions found throughout the globe) with less than 1% being left to include the remainder of the world’s faiths, such as Jainism, Shinto, Sikhism, Baha’i, Taoism, and hundreds more. To see if Runnells claim is truly valid, let us examine just how well it applies to these various traditions.

Christianity- Comprising about a third of the earth’s total population, Christianity has experienced approximately 2000 years of maturation, internal dispute and schism, and proliferation throughout its history. With this comes naturally a wide and deep heritage of Christian thinkers, philosophers, scientists, theologians, and academics exploring and expanding its presence, self-identity, and philosophical and metaphysical implications. In this, there has been little if any consensus among its adherents. Christian epistemology has traditionally been split between two words used to mean knowledge, “epistēmē and gnōsis, the former having the narrower and more scientific connotation in opposition to doxa (“belief”), the latter the wider one, covering also perception, memory, and experience. Plato and Aristotle relate these two conceptions to the terms noēsis (“thinking, intuition”) and sophia (“wisdom”). The Western Christian tradition, however, has paid more attention to epistemology than gnoseology; the latter plays a greater role in Eastern Christian philosophy and theology, and, it goes without saying, among the gnostics.” [2] In short, Christians from various stripes and denominations have grappled with the epistemological questions and controversies raised by such positions of nominalism, realism, voluntarism, and fideism- with only the latter relying exclusively on faith and revelation as a means of obtaining truth. “Christianity… cannot submit knowledge about God” for instance, “to ordinary epistemic criteria. Nor can it, without abjuring the biblical conception of faith, accept the pretensions of unrestrained gnosis or esoteric accretions.” [3] This does not necessitate that Christians rely solely on fideism as a means of obtaining knowledge, in fact, all too often have Protestant and Catholic Christians openly rejected and criticized the Latter-day Saint position of prayer and personal revelation as a means of obtaining knowledge. So Runnells, your claim can be applicable to many individuals within the Christian tradition(s) but for many, it is not.

Islam- Comprising another quarter of the world’s inhabitants, the religion of Islam was established circa 632 CE in the Arabian peninsula. Similar to Christianity, the Islamic faith offers a wealth of data in terms of its rich philosophical, theological, and literary tradition. Within the faith rests the concept of Yaqeen, commonly translated as “certainty” of which there are three degrees or types. The first is Ilm al-Yaqeen, which refers to conviction through inferential knowledge, which is limited in its capacity to give certainty to true reality. The second, ‘Ain al-Yaqeen, or conviction through seeing or direct empiricism. This can refer to both physical witnessing something, as well as spiritually witnessing something, and is a directly personal form of knowledge. Lastly is Haqq al-Yaqeen, or Conviction through Integral Spiritual Experience by the Complete Self of the Seeker. This is described as a complete and utter oneness with Ultimate Reality, a realization of Absolute Truth.[4] Rational thought and spiritual experience are largely held in direct complement of each other, thus Runnells claim would again not always apply to the plethora of experiences within the Islamic faith.

Unaffiliated- As there is no uniform identity comprising the religiously unaffiliated, Runnell’s claim cannot universally apply to this population, despite the fact that many in this category would still hold belief in a higher power, God, or form of spirituality. [5]

Hinduism- This is where Runnell’s claim becomes especially problematic as he relies on exclusively Western notions of the word “religion” which faces severe limitations in its ability to accurately describe and capture the identity of non-Abrahamic traditions and cultures. Hinduism is a great example of such, being known colloquially as Sanatana Dharma which is a term used to denote the “eternal” or absolute set of duties or religiously ordained practices incumbent upon all Hindus, regardless of class, caste, or sect. Different texts give different lists of the duties, but in general sanatana dharma consists of virtues such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings, purity, goodwill, mercy, patience, forbearance, self-restraint, generosity, and asceticism.” [6]Hinduism then according to its own self-identification is less a “religion” in the Western sense (being a set of creeds, doctrines, or beliefs), and is rather a way of life largely inseparable from one’s daily existence. Hinduism demands no specific beliefs from its adherents, such as a belief in god(s), and is very much an umbrella term for the native Vedic traditions and spiritualities of India. Runnell’s claim misses the mark here entirely, showing the narrowness of his use of “religion”.

Buddhism- The same of Hinduism can largely be said of Buddhism, with many instead debating whether Buddhism is more rightly described as a bona fide religious tradition or more an ethical philosophy. Many Buddhists have no concept or personal belief in God or deities (excluding a few forms of it such as Tibetan Buddhism) and at its essence, is largely an atheistic faith. Runnells, unfortunately your claim then just couldn’t apply out of its own conceptual limitations. Would Buddhism then still be considered a “major religion” according to your framework? The answer seems to be no. Regardless, it is interesting to hear you say on the Frequently Asked Questions page of that “if a gun was pointed to my head and I was forced to join a religion, I'd probably join Buddhism as I like some of their zen teachings.” So is Buddhism a religion or not, and perhaps more ironically, do you “like” some of their teaching based off of “feelings” or based off “evidence? You don’t seem to be very consistent here. [7]

Folk Religionists- As there is no uniform identity comprising the folk religionists, Runnell’s claim cannot universally apply to this population. See the entry on Hinduism for a generally accurate understanding of why the Western term “religion” as used by Runnells would largely fail to capture or apply to the world’s various indigenous traditions.

In essence, the very first claim made in this section of the CES Letter fails to apply to a majority of the earth’s population, much less “every major religion”. Ignoring the presence of atheistic religious traditions which have no concept of God or the Spirit, Runnells adheres to a generally superficial and Western understanding of the term “religion”, and for this, the strength of his claim and the respectability of his research suffers. Not claiming to be a professional though, I’ll extend to him the benefit of the doubt regarding the elementary mistakes present in his claim.

  1. “Just as it would be arrogant of a FLDS, Jehovah Witness, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, or Muslim to deny a Latter-day Saint’s spiritual experience and testimony of the truthfulness of Mormonism, it would likewise be arrogant of a Latter-day Saint to deny their spiritual experiences and testimonies of the truthfulness of their own religion. Yet, every religion cannot be right together.”

Correct, it would be spiritually presumptuous and arrogant to deny an individual the legitimacy of their own individual experience. Such can only be defined and interpreted by the individual in question. Each person is free to think, feel, believe and practice how they see fit, so long as it does not intrinsically deny individual rights to another. Religions, faith communities, and ideological groups can rightly perform boundary maintenance and are free to determine the conceptual framework and nuances of their own self-identification. Every worldview, religious or not, cannot be correct altogether. Absolute Truth exists, and many around the world claim to understand parts of it. I know of no individual who claims individual omniscience though. Luckily Latter-day Saints are not called en masse to oppose or deny the personal experiences or convictions of others worldviews. We maintain the ability to believe how we may and afford and defend the same rights of others to do so.

Though I cannot be certain, I can only wonder if Runnells considered the 11th Article of Faith when drafting this honest question?

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

  1. “If God’s method to revealing truth is through feelings, it’s a pretty ineffective method. We have thousands of religions and billions of members of those religions saying that their truth is God’s only truth and everyone else is wrong because they felt God or God’s spirit reveal the truth to them.”

It is not His sole method within the Latter-day Saint tradition, though for the second sentence in this claim I would suggest Runnells refer to my response given in claim #1 in why this sustained viewpoint is problematic. Latter-day Saint epistemology makes active use of both reason (rational inquiry) and revelation (personal spiritual experience) and holds both to be essential to the seeking out and obtaining of truth and knowledge. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, published by Macmillan Press, states that within the religion,

            “revelation is not understood as an impediment to rational inquiry but as the framework within which the natural human desire to know can most vigorously and fruitfully be exercised…. Revealed light and natural light are not completely distinct categories. Revelation engages natural reason and indeed may build upon it. It is sometimes described in LDS teaching as "a still voice of perfect mildness" able to "pierce unto the very soul" (
Hel. 5:21-31) or as a spirit that resonates with the mind to produce a feeling of "pure intelligence" or "sudden strokes of ideas" (TPJS, p. 151). It is thus appropriate to seek and prepare for revelation by the effort of reason: "You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right" (D&C 9:8).” [8]

The caricature of God’s method of revealing truth solely by “feelings” (which remains undefined by Runnells) is not only inaccurate, but incredibly misleading. Are “feelings” defined as direct sensory experience? As daily emotions such as anger or sadness? Or instead used in place of the personal experience of spiritual phenomena? He doesn’t specify, but in context one could infer that he has the latter in mind. Unfortunately as demonstrated earlier, exactly what spiritual experience religious individuals utilize in order to reach their own personal conclusions is not universal in nature, if they even do that at all.

Contrary to Runnells assumption that contradictory conviction of truth are inherently problematic, the Apostle Orson F. Whitney suggested the following:

...The Lord needs such men on the outside of his Church, to help it along. They are among its auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else. And the same is true of the priesthood and its auxiliaries inside the Church. Hence, some are drawn into the fold and receive a testimony of the Truth; while others remain unconverted—for the present; the beauties and glories of the gospel being veiled temporarily from their view, for a wise purpose. The Lord will open their eyes in his own due time.
God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of his great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous, for any one people…” [9]

One of the beautiful and highly appealing aspects of the Restored Gospel is the notion that God’s Plan of Salvation is entirely holistic and egalitarian in nature, affording each individual the same opportunity to accept or reject the Gospel. Mormonism has no monopoly on Absolute Truth, nor does it claim such, rather it is “established for the instruction of men; and is one of God’s instrumentalities for making known the truth yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place. God raises up wise men and prophets here and there among all the children of men, of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend; not always giving a fullness … of the gospel of Jesus Christ; but always giving that measure of truth that the people are prepared to receive.” [10]

  1. “Joseph Smith received a revelation, through the peep stone in his hat, to send Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery to Toronto, Canada for the sole purpose of selling the copyright of the Book of Mormon... [t]he mission failed and the prophet was asked why his revelation was wrong. Joseph decided to inquire of the Lord regarding the question. The following is a quote from Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer’s testimony:
     “…and behold the following revelation came through the stone: ‘Some revelations are of God; and some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.’ So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man.” – David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, p.31

    ...How are we supposed to know what revelations are from God, from the devil, or from the heart of man if even the Prophet Joseph Smith couldn’t tell? What kind of a god and method is this if Heavenly Father allows Satan to interfere with our direct line of communication to Him? Sincerely asking for answers?”

As to the historical claims made by Runnells here, he is simply wrong in his reliance of David Whitmer as an accurate source for the details of the trip. Not only was Whitmer not himself present on the trip to Kingston (not Toronto, as claimed by Whitmer and Runnells alike), his account also varies in important details from that of the first-hand accounts of those who were actually present. Whitmer makes this statement 57 years after the event took place, after having left the Church and with the express purpose of finding evidence to demonstrate Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet. None of the individuals actually present on the trip were still alive to refute his claims. On this subject, Runnells (once more extremely lacking and misleading) assessment of the relevant historical data and context is thoroughly defeated by FairMormon’s Debunking the CES Letter, which rather than reinventing the wheel, I invite all to go and read here. As Runnells is simply incorrect in his historical claims, I will forgo responding to the issues he raises from them

  1. “As a believing Mormon, I saw a testimony as more than just spiritual experiences and feelings. I saw that we had evidence and logic on our side based on the correlated narrative I was fed by the Church about its origins. I lost this confidence at 31-years-old when I discovered that the gap between what the Church teaches about its origins versus what the primary historical documents actually show happened, what history shows what happened, what science shows what happened…couldn’t be further apart.”

            I’m sorry that such was your personal experience Jeremy. I truly am. When I experienced my own crisis of faith, I didn’t gain a testimony until after examining these primary historical documents that you allude to. It wasn’t until I had studied a truly humanized and de-sanitized history of the Church, one that has not always been taught by the correlated curriculum, that I came to faith in the Restored Gospel. The conclusion that I reached regarding the truthfulness of Mormonism may be opposite yours, but I validate your experience and wish you the best in your journey. If I am to assume honesty on your end, and I do, I can readily echo that I too am just Jaxon,
 “A fellow human. A fellow seeker. A fellow wanderer and explorer in this vast and amazing universe we all find ourselves in.[11]

At another time I have written that “ far, our narrative has been that of a hagiography (and I use that term not as a pejorative) with larger than life stories of near-immaculate characters experiencing the Divine in simple and easily describable ways. While information dealing with some of the lesser emphasized or publicly known has not been completely hid or ignored in all cases -although perhaps handled in a less-than above board manner at times- the time is at hand that, for the sake of the Church’s own survival as an institution and body of believers in the secular age, an attitude and habit of complete and total transparency must be adhered to. This means depicting the Church and its history, warts and all, fully transparent with both the inspiration and mortal failings of its leaders and members.” [12]
Like Leonard Arrington, who, among many roles, was the only professional academic to serve as Church Historian (1972-1982) I completely agree that “the truth [of Church History] is palatable and basically, if not completely, faith promoting… I see no conflict between my integrity as a scholar and my faith as a Latter-day Saint.” [13]

  1. “Dunn was a General Authority of the Church for many years. He was a very popular speaker who told incredible faith-promoting war and baseball stories. Many times Dunn shared these stories in the presence of the prophet, apostles, and seventies. Stories like how God protected him as enemy machine-gun bullets ripped away his clothing, gear, and helmet without ever touching his skin and how he was preserved by the Lord. Members of the Church shared how they really felt the Spirit as they listened to Dunn’s testimony and stories. Unfortunately, Dunn was later caught lying about all his war and baseball stories and was forced to apologize to the members. He became the first General Authority to gain “emeritus” status and was removed from public Church life. What about the members who felt the Spirit from Dunn’s fabricated and false stories? What does this say about the Spirit and what the Spirit really is?”

Who says that the Spirit can’t testify of true principles from false, historically inaccurate, or stories that are not meant to be taken literally? Latter-day Saints certainly have no issue with holding four distinct creation accounts (Genesis, Abraham, Moses, and the Temple Endowment Ceremony) as sacred and inspired despite them all carrying different details, some of which cannot be simultaneously true in a literal sense. Truth goes beyond the literal. Go read the Book of Job, go read of Christ’s parables, go read some epic narrative genre such as the Book of Ether. The Spirit testifies of things that are true, whether these be principles or otherwise, its our job to work out. Perhaps in many cases, we simply cannot within the limited frame of our own mortal experience.  
  1. “The following are counsel from Elder Boyd K. Packer and Elder Dallin H. Oaks on how to gain a testimony:

     "It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’ Oh, if I could teach you this one principle: a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!” – Boyd K. Packer, The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge

    "Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them." – Dallin H. Oaks, Testimony

     In other words, repeat things over and over until you convince yourself that it’s true. Just keep telling yourself, “I know it’s true…I know it’s true…I know it’s true” until you believe it and voilà! You now have a testimony that the Church is true and Joseph Smith was a prophet. How is this honest? How is this ethical? What kind of advice are these Apostles giving when they’re telling you that if you don’t have a testimony, bear one anyway? How is this not lying? There’s a difference between saying you know something and you believe something. What about members and investigators who are on the other side listening to your “testimony”? How are they supposed to know whether you actually do have a testimony of Mormonism or if you’re just following Packer’s and Oaks’ advice and you’re lying your way into one?”

Let me speak for myself in saying that on my mission, I will not be testifying of things that I do not personally believe, hold to be true, or have a testimony of. If one assumes your summary of Packer and Oaks to be accurate to what they intended (which is open to debate) than this is yet another instance where I am quite at peace with disagreeing with Church leaders and still retaining my testimony and identity as a believing Latter-day Saint. The only thing that I will be bearing witness of on my mission is the Restored Gospel according to how I beleive it. Anything different than that would be inauthentic and personally impossible while maintaining my integrity.

  1. “There are many members who share their testimonies that the Spirit told them that they were to marry this person or go to this school or move to this location or start up this business or invest in this investment. They rely on this Spirit in making critical life decisions. When the decision turns out to be not only incorrect but disastrous, the fault lies on the individual and never on the Spirit. The individual didn’t have the discernment or it was the individual’s hormones talking or it was the individual’s greed that was talking or the individual wasn’t worthy at the time. This poses a profound flaw and dilemma: if individuals can be so convinced that they’re being led by the Spirit but yet be so wrong about what the Spirit tells them, how can they be sure of the reliability of this same exact process in telling them that Mormonism is true?”

Often, we do not know why we experience the Spirit like we do. As Latter-day Saints who believe in a God who wants to provide us with individuals opportunities to grow and develop, sometimes we can be intentionally lead through specific challenges so that we might be able to better grow and develop ourselves. Certainly the scriptures give us a plethora of examples of individuals who experience trials despite doing seemingly everything else right. The best we can do is live our lives in the best way we see fit, knowing that there are times where we may be prompted to go down a path that superficially leads to nowhere (as the Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland was in Wrong Roads) but ultimately leads to our benefit. Our best and only real option is to work with the rational and spiritual data we have in our possession, to the best of our ability, according to the circumstances that we find ourselves in. This is something that the Prophet Brigham Young understood and had a testimony of as exemplified with these three quotes:

“So far as mortality is concerned, millions of the inhabitants of the earth live according to the best light they have—according to the best knowledge they possess. I have told you frequently that they will receive according to their works; and all, who live according to the best principles in their possession, or that they can understand, will receive peace, glory, comfort, joy and a crown that will be far beyond what they are anticipating. They will not be lost.” (DBY, 384).

“If [people] have a law, no matter who made it, and do the best they know how, they will have a glory which is beyond your imagination, by any description I might give; you cannot conceive of the least portion of the glory of God prepared for his beings, the workmanship of his hands.” (DBY, 385).

“I say to every priest on the face of the earth, I do not care whether they be Christian, Pagan or [Muslim], you should live according to the best light you have; and if you do you will receive all the glory you ever anticipated.” (DBY, 384–85).

  1. “I felt the Spirit watching “Saving Private Ryan” and the “Schindler’s List.” Both R-rated and horribly violent movies. I also felt the Spirit watching “Forrest Gump” and the “Lion King.” After I lost my testimony, I attended a conference where former Mormons shared their stories. The same Spirit I felt telling me that Mormonism is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet is the same Spirit I felt in all of the above experiences. Does this mean that Lion King is true? That Mufasa is real and true? Does this mean that Forrest Gump is real and the story happened in real life? Why did I feel the Spirit as I listened to the stories of apostates sharing how they discovered for themselves that Mormonism is not true? Why is this Spirit so unreliable and inconsistent? How can I trust such an inconsistent and contradictory Source for knowing that Mormonism is worth betting my life, time, money, heart, mind, and obedience to?”

At this point all I can say to claim #9 is see the above. Your experiences are your own Jeremy. I can personally distinguish between those moments of incredibly intimate and life-changing encounters with the Spirit, and watching movies such as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, both of which I love and have seen (unedited of course!) The Spirit doesn't have to witness to the literal existence of something, see my response to claim #6 for examples in scripture where such is not the case. In the end, as I said earlier, each one of us should only operate according to the dictates of our conscience. If you ultimately came to the conclusion that Mormonism is not for you, I wholeheartedly support your agency in leaving. As Mormonism is wholly open to criticism, questioning, and disagreeing with, likewise the CES Letter is subject to the same. These are my thoughts regarding this particular section, my hope is that it won't prove a complete exercise in futility. I'm not looking to change your mind on the Church Jeremy, but for goodness sakes will you at least consider revising claim #1? It sets the bar just too low for the remainder of this section to conclude itself on a high note. If you really care about constructive criticism, the quality of your letter, and having your questions answered, then please consider studying religion a bit more in-depth; it will allow Religious Studies nerds like me to perhaps take your arguments more seriously. Perhaps too you'll consider unblocking me on Facebook someday, I mean that is if the both of us really believe like J. Reuben Clark that “if we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” I know I'm comfortable engaging in the wrestle, can you still say the same?

[2] Jones, Lindsay, and Mircea Eliade. “Epistemology.” The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 5, Macmillan Reference USA, Thomson Gale, 2005, pp. 133–134.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Laliwala, Jaferhusein I. “Islamic Philosophy of Religion: Synthesis of Science Religion and Philosophy.” Islamic Philosophy of Religion: Synthesis of Science Religion and Philosophy, Sarup & Sons, 2005, pp. 91–92.
[8] Hancock, Ralph C. “Reason and Revelation.” Reason and Revelation - The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Macmillan Press,
[9] -Apostle Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, April 1921, p.32-35
[10] Brigham H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints [Deseret News Press, 1907], 1:512–13.
[13] Letter from Leonard J. Arrington to Wallace R. Bennett, July 12, 1976, Leonard J. Arrington Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Merrill-Cazier Library, Utah State University