Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Answering the CES Letter # 10

This post was written by Neal Rappleye

The CES Letter features a single page on the Kinderhook plates, which consists of a quote from Richard Bushman, ripped from context, and then an infographic which contains: (1) a picture of the one surviving Kinderhook plate; (2) the facsimiles of the plates originally published in the Nauvoo Neighbor in June 1843; (3) a map of Illinois with information about the discovery of the plates; (4) the entry from the History of the Church on the Kinderhook plates, wherein Joseph Smith declares “I have translated a portion of them”; (5) a report of metallurgical tests determining the remaining Kinderhook plate was a 19th century hoax. At the bottom of the Infographic is the conclusion:

Joseph couldn’t discern the fraud. The LDS Church now concedes it’s a hoax. What does this tell us about Joseph Smith’s gift of translation?
Pretty damning, huh? The clear and intended implication is that Joseph’s “gift of translation” was as much a hoax as the Kinderhook plates. There is just one problem: the infographic isn’t telling the full story. All one needs to do to realize that there is more to the story is look up the full context of the Richard Bushman quote at the top of the page. Bushman’s conclusion about this episode is considerably different:
After the first meeting, no further mention was made of translation, and the Kinderhook plates dropped out of sight. Joseph may not have detected the fraud, but he did not swing into a full-fledged translation as he had with the Egyptian scrolls. The trap did not quite spring shut, which foiled the conspirators’ original plan. Instead of exposing the plot immediately, as they had probably intended to do, they said nothing until 1879, when one of them signed an affidavit describing the fabrication.[1]
Why is Bushman’s conclusion so different from that provided in the CES Letter inforgraphic? Let’s review what we know from the primary sources.

The Kinderhook Plates in Nauvoo
In the first week of May 1843, news spread rapidly throughout Nauvoo of six bell shaped brass plates with engravings on them, which had arrived in the city and been examined by Joseph Smith. The plates had been dug up a week or so earlier in Kinderhook, Illinois, about 60 miles south of Nauvoo.[2] They were brought to Nauvoo in the hopes that Joseph Smith would translate them, and the Times and Seasons, then under the editorship of John Taylor, proclaimed confidently, “We have no doubt, however, but Mr. Smith will be able to translate.”[3]
Anticipation of a forth coming translation was indeed very high. Charlotte Haven, a non-Mormon in Nauvoo at the time, heard from a friend that Joseph “said that the figures or writing on them was similar to that in which the Book of Mormon was written” and “thought that by the help of revelation he would be able to translate them. So a sequel to that holy book may soon be expected.”[4] In a letter to John Van Cott, Parley P. Pratt gave a brief report of the plates and said, “you will hear more soon on this subject.”[5] A non-Mormon who was there when Joseph Smith examined the plates noted that Joseph believed he would “be able to decipher them,” and told the editor of the New York Herald, “You may expect something very remarkable pretty soon.”[6]
Even the editor of the Quincy Whig evidently tried to stoke the fires, albeit with somewhat of a sarcastic tone, practically daring Joseph to translate them. “Some pretend to say, that Smith the Mormon leader, has the ability to read them. … if Smith can decipher the hieroglyphics on the plates, he will do more towards throwing light on the early history of this continent, than any man now living.”[7]
Over a month later, however, the expected translation was nowhere to be seen.[8] Ultimately, no translation was ever published, nor has any manuscripts purporting to the Kinderhook translation ever turned up. With so much anticipation, from Mormons and non-Mormons alike, why didn’t Joseph ever deliver a Book of Kinderhook?

Joseph Smith’s Translation Effort
Multiple sources indicate that when he was shown the plates, Joseph called for various linguistic resources to decipher the text. Joseph Smith’s journal (in the handwriting of Willard Richards) indicates that when Joseph was shown the plates, he sent “for Hebrew Bible & Lexicon.”[9] According to a non-Mormon eyewitness, “He compared them in my presence with his Egyptian alphabet, which he took from the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and they are evidently the same characters.”[10] Apparently, Joseph Smith made an effort at translating them by non-revelatory means.
Even though the non-Mormon associated the “Egyptian alphabet” with the Book of Mormon, Parley P. Pratt indicated that the engravings on the Kinderhook plates were being “compared [to] the characters with those on the Egyptian papyrus which is now in this city.”[11] It therefore seems likely that it was the bound volume labeled “Egyptian Alphabet” on the spine, found among the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which contains some of the Egyptian characters from the Joseph Smith Papyri copied over with “interpretations” written next to them.[12] These documents are somewhat controversial in Mormon history, but for our purposes it is enough to say that they seem to reflect an effort to decipher the Egyptian papyri.[13]

The Results of Joseph’s Translation
The outcome of this comparative effort is likely what lies behind William Clayton’s declaration, “President Joseph has translated a portion of them.”[14] Historians Mark Ashurst-McGee and Don Bradley pointed out that a sort of “boat-shaped” character in the “Egyptian Alphabet” is defined as:
Honor by birth; kingly power by the line of Pharaoh; possession by birth; one who reigns upon his throne universally—possessor of heaven and earth, and of the blessings of the earth.[15]
A similarly-shaped character, with a few extra markings, appears on one of the Kinderhook plates.[16] Thus, Ashurst-McGee and Bradley reason that Joseph saw the two similar characters and reasoned that the plates “contain the history of the person with whom they were found; and he was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom through the ruler of heaven and earth.”[17]
From here, Joseph may have further attempted to make sense of the plates using translation tools like his “Egyptian Alphabet,” but ultimately failed to make heads or tails of the rest of markings. He may have even sought out revelation as to their meaning, but if he did, it appears none ever came.[18] After the plates were in Nauvoo for only a few days, Joseph let them go and never bothered with them again.[19]

Whatever one thinks of Bradley and Ashurst-McGee’s theory about the correlation of the boat-shaped figures, the fact remains that no full-blown translation of the Kinderhook plates exists today, there is no evidence that Joseph ever attempted to permanently procure the plates (unlike the Book of Abraham papyri), or that scribes were ever commissioned to write for Joseph as he translated. Other than a couple short paraphrases, no translation of the Kinderhook plates exists. Furthermore, multiple sources, including Joseph Smith’s own journal entry, indicate that the attempt at translating them was made using translation tools, not revelation.[20]
So, returning to the question asked in the CES Letter, what does the Kinderhook plates incident tell us about Joseph’s gift of translation? It tells me that it was a gift that only came to him when it was given by God. As such, this story actually strengthens my testimony. If Joseph just made up all his translations, and if he didn’t detect the forgery of the Kinderhook plates, then there is no reason we shouldn’t have a Book of Kinderhook right now. But we don’t. Here was the perfect opportunity for Joseph Smith to flub up, but as Bushman put it, “the trap did not quite spring shut.”

Recommended Reading
Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2016), 93–115.
Mark Alan Wright, “Joseph Smith and Native American Artifacts,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Bluemell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2015), 131–133.
Brian M. Hauglid, “Did Joseph Smith Translate the Kinderhook Plates?” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2011), 93–103.
Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 489–490.

[1] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 490, emphasis added.
[2] W. P. Harris, Letter to the Editor, Times and Seasons 4, no. 12, May 1, 1843, 186.
[3] “Ancient Records,” Times and Seasons 4, no. 12, May 1, 1843, 186.
[4] Charlotte Haven, “A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo,” Overland Monthly 16, no. 96, December 1890, 630; letter written May 2, 1843.
[5] Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt to John Van Cott, May 7, 1843; in Brian M. Hauglid, “‘Come & Help Build the Temple & City’: Parley P. and Orson Pratt’s Letter to John Van Cott,” Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 155.
[6]  “A Gentile,” letter to James Gordon Bennett, May 7, 1843, in “Late and Interesting from the Mormon Empire on the Upper Mississippi,” New York Herald, May 30, 1843.
[7] “Singular Discovery—Material for Another Mormon Book,” Times and Seasons 4, no. 12, May 1, 1843, 186–187; originally published in the Quincy Whig 6, no. 2, May 3, 1843.
[8] “A Brief Account of the Discovery of the Brass Plates Recently Taken from a Mound near Kinderhook, Pike County, Illinois,” (Taylor & Woodruff, June 24, 1843), a broadside published by John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, still promised, “The contents of the Plates, together with a Fac-simile of the same, will be published in the ‘Times & Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed.”
[9] JS Journal, May 7, 1843. See Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Brent M. Rodgers, eds., Journals, Volume 3: May 1843–June 1844, The Joseph Smith Papers (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historians Press, 2015), 13.
[10] “A Gentile,” letter to Bennett, May 7, 1843.
[11] Pratt to Van Cott, May 7, 1843; in Hauglid, “Come & Help Build,” 155.
[12] Non-Mormons, like the “Gentile” and Charlotte Haven would understandably be more familiar with the Book of Mormon than the Book of Abraham, and thus conflate the Egyptian documents which copied characters from the papyri with Egyptian characters copied from the Book of Mormon plates.
[13] Critics argue that these of Joseph Smith’s working “translation” documents for the Book of Abraham, but it seems more likely (to me, anyway) that they were created after the Book of Abraham was translated. Thus, one possibility is that they are an effort to use the already translated Book of Abraham as a sort of “Rosetta Stone” to work out the meaning of the Egyptian characters.
[14] An Intimate Chronicle: The Journal of William Clayton, ed. George D. Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1995), 100. Contrary to the impression one might get from only reading the CES Letter, no firsthand declaration of translation from Joseph Smith survives. The History of the Church entry was taken from this journal entry by William Clayton and transformed into a firstperson statement after Joseph Smith’s death.
[15] Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2016), 107.
[16] See Brandley and Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” 108 for side-by-side pictures of each character. Some might protest that the two are not the same and that the symbol on the Kinderhook plate must be “deconstructed” for this theory to work, but such “deconstruction” of single characters is exactly what we see in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. So while this might seem odd to us, it was perfectly natural to Joseph Smith and his colleagues. Brandley and Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” 107.
[17] An Intimate Chronicle, 100. Parley P. Pratt similarly said, “contain the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah.” Hauglid, “Come & Help Build,” 155.
[18] See Brian M. Hauglid, “Did Joseph Smith Translate the Kinderhook Plates?” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2011), 93–103.
[19] Hedges, et al., eds., Journals 3, 13 n. 28: “Evidence suggests that they arrived in Nauvoo by 29 April and that they remained there at least through 3 May; whether or not JS had them when this 7 May journal entry was recorded is unknown. They may also have been in Nauvoo for a time in June 1843, when the Nauvoo Neighbor published a broadside featuring facsimiles of the plates. … No further mention of the plates is made in JS’s journal after this 7 May entry, and no translation endorsed by JS has been located, suggesting that whatever JS initially thought about the plates, he soon lost interest in them.”
[20] See Bradley and Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” 110 for a similar conclusion.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Theistic Evolution: Is it a position?

Yesterday in the Facebook group, Millennial Mormonism, I started a poll that asked for positions on the question of the origin of life. The three options were as follows :1) Darwinian evolution 2) Intelligent Design 3) Creationism. My friend, Jaxon Washburn, who is one the groups administrators, asked what the differences were among the positions, so I answered as follows:
Sure. Darwinism is the belief that humans evolved from a common ancestor shared with other primates. It is seen as an unguided process, due to natural selection acting on random mutation. Darwinism does not mean that you don't believe in a God. Intelligent Design says that natural selection is not a satisfactory explanation because life looks designed. They use the idea of irreducible complexity to back this up, which states that certain organisms (such as the bacterial flagellum) likely came about by design. Creationism states that a God created the world through fiat creation. All three views are compatible with belief in a deity. Does that help?

Later on, my good friend Stephen Smoot (the group's other administrator) added a fourth option: Theistic evolution (this position would eventually be the one with the most votes). For those unfamiliar with the term, theistic evolution is the belief that evolution has occurred but was overseen by a deity. It differs from Intelligent Design theory because while both agree that a deity is behind the origin of life, theistic evolution does not think this can be shown scientifically while Intelligent Design theory does believe it can.

However, as a person who is sympathetic to the deflationary theory of truth, I see theistic evolution as a non-position for the following reason: It is adding a word without adding a difference. It is the equivalent of going from the statement "Roses are red" to "It is true that roses are red." It is the same statement, but words are added that do not make the statement any different.

As I mentioned in my definitions to Jaxon, evolution does not affirm or deny the existence or providence of a deity; it is neutral. Darwin himself said this in the conclusion of On the Origin of Species:
I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed by the Creator. (pg. 428)
While some people like Richard Dawkins believe that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, Darwin had no such intention in mind. He remained a believer in God until the end of his life (though he was an agnostic in the sense that he did not believe you could conclusively show that God existed) and also wrote letters to friends telling them that his theory was not incompatible with belief in a deity.

If you accept what Darwin and modern biology show us, you are an evolutionist. Evolution does not ask for a theological commitment or non-commitment, so it is unnecessary to label oneself a theistic evolutionist when being an evolutionist is sufficent.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Traditio: William Dembski and Michael Shermer

Many who read this blog will know that I am a ardent critic of the pseudo-scientific theory known as Intelligent Design. However, my friend Dan Peterson recently posted on his blog some quotes from leading proponents of the theory, so I though a traditio talking about the subject might be helpful.

William Dembski is a philosopher and theologian and a former senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, the organization that researches and promotes Intelligent Design. He is the author of several books, including Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology.

Michael Shermer is a historian of science and founder of The Skeptics Society. He is the author of many books, including Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (which I review here) and The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People.

Here is the link to their debate.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Friday Traditio: Thomas S. Monson

As most people by now know, President Thomas S. Monson will not be in attendance at the upcoming General Conference. In addition to President Monson, Robert D. Hales of the Council of the Twelve Apostles will also be absent. I hope that both know that while they will not be present, they still have our sustaining vote and prayers.

President Monson has been the only president of the Church since I have been a member (September 6, 2009) and I will be very sad when he passes. He cannot be replaced, he is one of a kind.

This talk, given in 2011 (while I was serving a full-time mission in Alabama) is one that has touched me greatly. Hope that you all enjoy it.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Traditio: Donald J. Trump

For those who do not know, President Donald J. Trump addressed the United Nations for the first time this week. Among the things he discussed was North Korea, calling North Korea premier Kim Jong-un "Rocket Man", and saying that if North Korea attacked the United States he might have no choice but to completely destroy North Korea. While I do agree with the sentiment that if North Korea attacks the United States, the latter will have no choice but to counter-strike. It was inappropriate for the president to express ideas of violence to a community dedicated to peace. It is not wrong for a president to look out for his country's best interest, but the United Nations is about looking beyond yourself and thinking about the world-wide community.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mormonism and Humanism

My last article received a lot of comments on Facebook, and a recurring theme of the comments was that it is not coherent to be both a Mormon and a humanist. I plan to show why a person can be both, and perhaps, more importantly, that they should be both.

A good place to start would be in defining what is meant by the term humanism. A working definition would be that humans have intrinsic moral value by virtue of their being human. So, humanists see humans as important by nature and see their flourishing as an essential component of morality.

The idea of humanism was first developed in the Renaissance. However, in our modern era, most people who identify as humanists are secular humanists and say that a person can have moral worth and value even though they reject the existence of a God.

Since many early humanists were Roman Catholic, it is simply false to claim that humanism and religion are incompatible ideas. As far as Mormonism is concerned, Mormons take the humanistic ideal to an extreme, stating that not only do humans have intrinsic worth, but that divinity itself involves being human rather than being abstract, as in classical theism. Mormonism requires humanism, and it was no mistake that Mormon theologian, Sterling McMurrin, points this out in his book, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, when he states:
It is perhaps not entirely inaccurate to describe Mormonism as a kind of naturalistic, humanistic, theism. (The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion pg.3)
Mormonism and humanism have the same end goal: human flourishing and human happiness. Not only are they compatible ideas, they are complementary ideas.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Calm Down John

Yesterday, Mormon Stories Podcast host and psychologist, John Dehlin, said the following on Facebook:
To critics of the work I/we do with Mormon Stories Podcast and the Open Stories Foundation:
You can disagree with me. You can question my effectiveness. I love and welcome those types of discussions.
Two things that aren't negotiable between us are:
1) My worth.
2) My motives.
You are not welcome to discuss those things with me. And I will do my best to extend you the same courtesy.
John Dehlin, Mormon Stories Podcast Host

I have criticized John Dehlin several times on this blog, and one of the recurring themes of those posts is that John is very good at attacking straw-men, but takes little to no interest in refuting arguments that scholars give, instead choosing to call his opponents apologists (which he is for the other side as I explain here.)

I have not, and neither have many of John's prominent critics (Stephen Smoot, Robert Boylan, Daniel C. Peterson, etc) criticized John's worth as a person, and his motives are irrelevant. As a Latter-day Saint and a humanist, I believe that all people (which includes John and other people with whom I disagree) have moral worth and significance by virtue of their being human; John certainly fits that category. That does not mean that I cannot question John's arguments (or lack thereof) or his hasty generalizations of Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice.

As for John's motives, those are known only to him and are not for me to judge. He has, contrary to popular belief, done some good in the world and he should be applauded for that. Overall, I agree with John's statement, but the problem is that it is a red herring since John's critics are not attacking what he is claiming they are; they are attacking his rhetoric and specious arguments.

John, you have worth and your motives are known only to you. I give you my word that I will not criticize what you deem off limits, though I would caution you to do the same to Latter-day Saint scholars and apologists.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review of "Philosophy of Mind (A Beginner's Guide)

As I say in all reviews of a book by an author of whom I am a fan, I admit that I am a fan of Edward Feser. Feser is perhaps one of the best living writers in the field of philosophy, and his writing is so clear and refreshing that even if you do not agree with his conclusions, your thinking on the subject will be more lucid and you will wish that you could write the way that Feser does.

The philosophy of mind is perhaps one of the most interesting areas of philosophy; it is also one of the most difficult because it entails having a considerable understanding of the fields of epistemology (theory of knowledge), metaphysics (study of the nature of reality), philosophy of science, neuroscience, and physics (as you can tell, that is a lot of ground to cover). Luckily, Feser's book is so clear, with well-defined terms, that even if you have little to no experience with those disciplines, you will still like and understand his book.

At the outset, Feser points out that materialism (the view that the world and things in it can be explained in scientific terms) is the dominant view in philosophy generally and in the philosophy of mind, and that there are good reasons and arguments for thinking this is the case. However, materialism is relatively new in the philosophy of mind (starting at around the early 20th century) and most philosophers, even with materialistic or naturalistic conceptions of the world, have thought of the mind in non-materialistic terms (Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell, C.D. Broad, etc). So, Feser points out the arguments for materialism and those against it but tries to be neutral about which way he leans (though it is relatively clear he favors the non-materialist versions of the mind).

The book is broken down into eight categories: Perception, Dualism, Materialism, Qualia, Consciousness, Thought, Intentionality, and Persons. Since explaining all of the different positions expressed in the book would alleviate anyone from reading the book itself, allow me to focus on two of the areas that Feser mentions: dualism and materialism.

For those unfamiliar with philosophy, dualism is the position that there are two different types of things in the world: physical things (such as atoms, quarks, persons, etc.) and mental things (such as thoughts, desires, etc.). These two things are not reducible to each other. Similar to comparing apples and oranges, they are fundamentally different types of things. This view is usually attributed to Rene Descartes, but it goes back at least to Plato and his theory of forms. There are different types of dualism as well, such as substance dualism (which is formulated by Descartes, stating that the mind and body are separate substances), property dualism (which states that mind and body are connected but have different properties and functions; John Searle is an advocate of this view), and hylomorphism (a view similar to property dualism, but not as clear; this is Feser's view). Fundamentally, dualism rests on a sort of common sense that since it seems that the mind and body are different things (the mind is a thinking thing whereas the body is an extended, acting thing), that they must in fact be different things. The main problem with dualism (which Feser admits but does not solve), is that it seems impossible for non-material things to interact with material things. This is known as the interaction problem. The problem has not been solved in the hundreds of years since Descartes, and it seems that this is a good reason to move away from any sort of dualism.

Materialism, like dualism, has different forms such as behaviorism (that mental states are reducible to behavior), functionalism (which is that mental states should be understood in terms of functional roles; this is the view I endorse) and identity theory (the mind is the same as the brain). The reason materialism is superior to dualism is not because materialism has answered all the questions (nearly all materialists would admit that there are many unresolved questions), but because in principle we see how the problems can be solved through the medium of natural science. Dualism faces problems that are in principle irresolvable, and Occam's razor will lead us to a materialist view of the mind rather than a non-materialist view of the mind.

These are just two of the issues that Feser deals with in the book, but the best thing about the book (besides from Feser's writing) is that he is fair to all sides. When he makes the arguments for materialistic views of the mind, he does so in a way that materialists will think that he is supportive of their position. When he switches and talks about non-materialist approaches, materialists in turn will think, "You know, maybe there is something to this after all."

As mentioned before, the philosophy of mind is a challenging field, but I can think of no better place to start than with Edward Feser's Philosophy of Mind (A Beginner's Guide). A truly wonderful book.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday Traditio: Hilary Putnam

One of the most fascinating areas of philosophy is the philosophy of science. While this will strike scientists such as Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson as being impossible, the modern scientific method was invented by philosophers (Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes), and many famous scientists have noted that philosophy has a role to play in science (Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, etc). In recent years, the philosophy of science has become one of the most interesting sub-disciplines within the field, and most philosophers of science understand the science as well as the scientists do.

But what exactly is the philosophy of science? Hilary Putnam, one of my philosophical idols, explains in this interview with Bryan Magee.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review of "The Book of Mormon: A Biography"

After reading Terryl Givens' masterpiece, By the Hand of MormonI thought to myself "What would this book look like if written by a non Latter-day Saint?" Not that Givens' work was not objective, but critics could still point to his being a believer in the book as clouding his judgement. Luckily, my friend directed me to The Book of Mormon: A Biography by Paul C. Gutjahr, who is not a Latter-day Saint, but gives a fair-handed review of what the Book of Mormon is, how it has been used in the past, and what it could mean in the future.

Any book about the Book of Mormon cannot fail to be an introduction to Mormonism in general, since the book is the keystone of the Mormon religion, according to the religion's founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. Gutjahr begins the book with the story of how Smith allegedly got the Golden Plates that contained the Book of Mormon text from the Angel Moroni, then talks about the details (as much as are available) of how the book was translated; by means of a seer stone. He then evaluates those who were involved with the translation, especially Emma Hale Smith and the 3 witnesses, pointing out that while all of them were angry or disaffected from Joseph Smith, Jr., none of them lost their testimony of the authenticity of the book.

As I mentioned in the opening that Gutjahr is fair-minded, he also recounts various theories of the Book of Mormon's origin that have been offered by critics, such as Dan Vogel. He does however state that many of the theories are not very strong, but more may be available in the future.

Next, he moves to how the Book of Mormon was not often mentioned in sermons in the early days of the Church; the primary text used was the Bible. In fact, Joseph Smith never gave a sermon from the Book of Mormon (which I find shocking). The book was however used (and still is) as the primary missionary evangelizing tool. But, early on this was seen as a modern miracle; the text of the Book of Mormon itself was not as important to the early saints as was the book's coming forth.

The subject of the book's historicity is also broached, but Gutjahr is not as even in this regard as he is with other subjects. He points out that most outside the Church do not see the Book of Mormon as historical (which is not surprising since they would have to join the Church if they did), but gives only passing reference to the arguments in favor of the book being historical, though he does mention John Sorenson's and Hugh Nibley's contributions to the field.

The book ends with how the Book of Mormon has been used in media, from the pictures made by Arnold Frieberg to the The Book of Mormon musical by South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. He concludes with stating that the Book of Mormon, regardless of what one thinks of its origins, doctrine, or historicity is an important American book of scripture and will continue to be looked at carefully as time goes on.

I have several criticisms of the book. First, since the book calls itself a biography, more attention should be payed to the doctrines of the book; they only are referenced in passing. Second, Gutjahr paints Mormon apologists as amateurs when in fact they are first-rate scholars (especially Nibley and Sorenson). Finally, as mentioned before, not enough attention is given to why one could hold the belief that the Book of Mormon is historical; the book mostly ignores that view or seems to think one can only believe the Book of Mormon is historical through mental gymnastics.

Overall, this is a good introduction to the history of the Book of Mormon, and I recommend it to both Mormon and non-Mormon; the former so they can know what an outside scholar who is not an anti-Mormon thinks of the book, and the latter so that even if one does not see the Book of Mormon as useful, you will find there is value in the book whether one joins the LDS Church or not.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday Traditio: Sue Klebold

It has been over 17 years since the Columbine High School Massacre. On that day, April 20, 1999, seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School armed with bombs and multiple types of firearms, killing 12 students and 1 teacher before killing themselves. Sadly, the killing did not end there. Since Columbine, multiple school shooters (including the shooters at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook) have cited the two as inspiration; the Virginia Tech shooter in particular referred to the two as martyrs.

The parents of the gunman have been silent during this time, but Sue Klebold recently released a book about her son titled A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. In this weeks traditio, she recounts her memories of Dylan, things that she missed, and things she wished she had done differently. Be warned: I am a very stoic person and got very emotional watching this.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Friday Traditio: Stephen H. Webb

Stephen H. Webb, who tragically died last year, was a person that I wish would have joined the LDS Church. The Church needs theologians and philosophers who can systematically defend Mormon theology; Webb did that as well as anyone in his books Mormon Christianity: What Non-Mormon Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints and Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter. If these two books are not currently in your library, get them as soon as you can.

In this weeks traditio Webb talks about the gospel of Luke and how Joseph Smith, Jr. restores some important insight into the text.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Snufferites- The New Reactionaries

When looking at any religious movement, a useful construct is to look at them as a reaction against another group. Take Christianity for example. Christianity's premise was that the Messiah had come and that Judaism as then practiced was not sufficient and needed to change. (Similar things can be said of Buddhism reacting against Hinduism and Islam reacting against Judaism and Christianity.)

Mormonism certainly is a reactionary religion in this sense, and perhaps because that is what distinguishes it, it is not all that surprising that it has as many offshoots as it does. Offshoot groups derive their appeal from this fundamental idea: That there is something missing in the current group and we need to restore things back to the way they were.

Enter Denver C. Snuffer, Jr., one of the most polarizing figures in the Latter-day Saint movement in the last decade. Snuffer started off very conservative, writing a book called The Second Comforter: Conversing with the Lord Through the Veil, where he outlines a process that he claims will allow any practicing Latter-day Saint to have a visitation from the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. In the book he makes a claim that he seems to have gone back on: That while all Latter-day Saints can have visitations from heavenly beings, this does not give the recipient the right to direct or criticize the Church. Snuffer clearly states that priesthood leaders have the keys of the priesthood, and therefore they alone can direct the Church.

Fast forward to August 30, 2011 when Snuffer released his eighth book Passing the Heavenly Gift. The premise of this book is that the LDS Church has gone through four phases since the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith: 1) The phase where Joseph Smith lived, an era where there was continuous revelation and not much formal structure in the Church, a more open environment 2) Dominated by the plural marriage issue, the Church begins to clearly define key doctrines and practices, less emphasis on revelation and more on obedience to authority 3) This period is defined by renunciations of key doctrines, such as plural marriage. The Church is unanchored theologically at this point. 4)This is the modern, correlated church. No real emphasis on doctrine, focused solely on authority (If I have evaluated Mr. Snuffer's view unfairly, please let me know.)

Snuffer was excommunicated for refusing to withdraw this book after being asked to do so by his stake president. When the book was first written, Snuffer claimed that this was just an opinion, not doctrine. His blog from October 23, 2013 states:
If you are going to read PtHG, then read the words in the text rather than overlaying your own fears and conclusions. Your reaction to the book is not indicative of what I wrote.

There is very little of me in the book. Nor does the book represent all of what I think or know about the topics covered. It is an overview, not a comprehensive treatment.

The book assumes it is competing with another tradition taught to us by the church, and only suggests there may be another way to view events. It does not claim to be right. That is left to the reader to decide. In many specific topics the material reaches a “tie” and leaves it to the reader to choose the result.

Careful readers have claimed I am “wishy-washy” because I refrain from making conclusions. Others who read carelessly have instead damned me for their own conclusions, using “Snuffer claims” or “Snuffer views” and “Snuffer wrongly assumes” to substitute their internal reactions for what I have written.

It is not until Chapter 15 that I move from recounting what scripture and church leaders wrote or said to assume the proposed new view is true. That chapter opens with this explanation: “For purposes of this chapter, I am going to assume the church never obtained the fullness offered by the Lord in Nauvoo.” Then I give all the reasons why I would choose to believe, and remain faithful to the church. That is the point at which my voice emerges into the narrative. It comes to quiet alarm, reassure belief and to muster support for the church.

Eventually the furor will calm down and the book will have a dispassionate reading. When we finally get there, people will wonder why the reactions were so overwrought. I hope the many things now written by the pseudo-defenders of Mormonism remain available, so they can inform future saints on how to react with less fear toward unwelcome ideas.

The purpose of Passing the Heavenly Gift it to awaken all of us to how delicate a proposition it is to live faithfully. Perhaps the most offensive character treatment is given to Heber J. Grant. The offense is taken from his own hand, recorded in his own diary, preserving his own mother’s criticism of him. But those are his words and the words of his mother. I defend him and praise his candor and honest introspection. My voice praises the man; his condemns. The distinction between these two voices is altogether lost on at least one of the most harshest reviewers of PtHG. His quarrel is not with me. It is with others.

I would suggest that it is better to take a look at the source material and consider that, and leave me out of the equation.

The Nauvoo Temple was not complete. Ever. Nor did they perform any endowment in a completed structure. When they left Nauvoo after shutting down the rites, they prayed to be allowed to complete the Temple so they might be able to dedicate it. The next day the attic caught fire and the area where the endowment had been performed was badly damaged. While they re-covered the roof, the attic was not repaired. Finally they abandoned work and “considered it complete enough to dedicate.” These events are chronicled and the sources quoted. In light of Section 124, those events matter. I was hoping to provoke some effort to examine those facts. Instead all I see are personal attacks directed at me borne out of ignorance and insecurity. Your insecurities do not belong to me. When you react to the book by attacking me, you expose your own doubts.

We should confidently state the case for Mormonism. I’ve done that in PtHG, even with historical lacunas in our story lines. If a reviewer wants to react to the events, then it would be a better service to everybody, myself included, to fill in the missing connections.
So, if we takes his post to be sincere, then he is saying this is not even necessarily his opinion, just one possibility among many. However, in his post on November 22, 2013 he states:
Passing the Heavenly Gift is not an historic analysis of Mormonism. It is primarily a doctrinal analysis and only incidentally related to history. The many different historic sources allow different stories to be told and supported by selecting from among them. There are some undeniable events foretold by prophecy. It is prophecy which should allow us to make a correct choice between a false and a true narrative. In Passing the Heavenly Gift, I tried to see if there was another possible narrative conforming to the prophecies to replace the traditions we all know. The book explored this possibility.

In the January 1841 revelation to Joseph Smith the Lord stated “the fulness of the priesthood” had been “lost unto you, or which [The Lord] hath taken away.” (D&C 124: 28.) To “restore” it the Lord needed to personally come to a Temple that He was required to be built within a limited time frame. The length of the time given to accomplish the building was not specified by a date certain. Instead the Lord said He would give to the Saints “sufficient time to build a house unto me.” (D&C 124: 31.) In the time between January 1841 and the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in June 1844, the Nauvoo Temple was not completed. The walls were only complete to the second floor.

The absence of any date for “sufficient time” to build the Temple leaves that an open question. Traditionally, we believe that extended until sometime following the departure of the Saints in February 1846. A small group remained behind and eventually the Temple was dedicated. But these are undisputed facts:

1. When the endowments were performed between November 1845 and February 1846, the attic was used, but even it was not finished. Canvas was used to separate different areas.

2. At the time the endowments were performed, the rest of the Temple was incomplete.

3. When the endowments were performed, the attic was the only place temporarily dedicated for that limited purpose.

4. The day before departing Nauvoo, the Apostles prayed they would be able to finish the incomplete Temple.

5. The next day, the attic caught fire and the area used for the endowments was badly damaged. Although it was subsequently re-shingled, the charred attic space, which had not been finished before the endowments were performed, was never re-finished to the condition it was in with the canvas dividers. They re-roofed the outside top and left the charred interior alone.

6. When it was finally dedicated, it was only “considered complete enough to dedicate” and not actually a finished structure.

It does not matter which historic source you use there is no diary, letter, journal or talk which says that Christ came to the Nauvoo Temple and “restored again the fulness of the priesthood” which He had previously taken away from the church. Most importantly, there are no claims made by any of the leaders of the church that the “fulness of the priesthood” was bestowed upon them by Christ in the Nauvoo Temple. There are multiple explanations of how “the keys” (which the typical LDS apologist claims to be the same as “the fulness”) were passed to the church’s leaders. None of these involve Christ coming to the Nauvoo Temple to restore again that which was lost. These accounts of “passing the keys” to the Apostles include the following:

1. By virtue of the Apostleship, which is the highest office in the church, keys are automatically passed.

2. By the rituals Joseph performed in the Red Brick Store.

3. By Joseph’s declaration about the “keys of the kingdom” made in a meeting of the Council of Fifty in May 1844.

4. By reason of the equivalencies (Twelve “equal in authority” to the First Presidency, etc.) set out in D&C 107 (an argument never raised during the election in August 1844).

Never has there been a claim that the “fulness” was “restored” to the church by the visit of Christ in the Nauvoo Temple after it had been completed.

The argument that the Lord didn’t need to come because the “fulness” was dispensed by the Apostles in the Nauvoo Endowments in November 1845-February 1846 ignores the language of the revelation. The language of the revelation required the Lord to come and restore again what was lost: “For there is not a place found on earth that he [Christ, personally as I read it] may come to and restore again that which was lost unto you.” (D&C 124: 28, emphasis added.) I take these words at their plain meaning. Therefore. I view the complete absence of any record or claim that the Lord came to the Nauvoo Temple and restored again the “fulness of the priesthood” as an important point to be accepted. The traditional narrative is that the endowments were sufficient to restore the removed “fulness” to the Saints.

History also reflects the Saints were chased out of Nauvoo by an armed mob. They left with considerable hardship in the dead of winter, leaving for the most part in February 1846.

The January 1841 revelation states: “ye shall build [the required Temple] on the place where you have contemplated building it, for that is the spot which I have chosen for you to build [the Temple which Christ was to visit to restore again the fulness]. If ye labor with all your might, I will consecrate that spot that it shall be made holy. And if my people will hearken unto my voice, and unto the voice of my servants whom I have appointed to lead my people, behold, verily I say unto you, they shall not be moved out of their place. But if they will not hearken to my voice, nor unto the voice of these men whom I have appointed, they shall not be blest, because they pollute mine holy grounds, and mine holy ordinances, and charters, and my holy words which I give unto them. And it shall come to pass that if you build a house unto my name, and do not do the things that I say, I will not perform the oath which I make unto you, neither fulfil the promises which ye expect at my hands, saith the Lord. For instead of blessings, ye, by your own works, bring cursings, wrath, indignation, and judgments upon your own heads, by your follies, and by all your abominations, which you practise before me, saith the Lord.” (D&C 124: 43-48.) If you accept these words as a guide to knowing the truth, then answer for yourself the following questions about what happened:

Was the Nauvoo Temple consecrated by the Lord?

Was the Nauvoo Temple made holy by the Lord?

Did the Lord visit it?

Did the Lord restore the fulness to the church within it by coming to bestow it again? How? To whom? When? What was involved?

Did the Saints hearken to the voices of their leaders, Joseph and Hyrum, who had been called by the Lord?

Why did Joseph complain that the church failed to listen to Hyrum? Was there some greater risk to the church if it did not hearken to Hyrum?

Were the Saints moved out of Nauvoo?

Did the “sufficient time” begin in January 1841and last until a date we can now deduce?

What date did the Lord take Joseph and Hyrum from us?

Was three-and-a-half years sufficient to complete the Nauvoo Temple construction?

Were there other projects completed in that time frame, including houses for the church leaders, and Seventies’ Hall, the Masonic Lodge?

If the effort given to these other building projects had instead been spent on completing the Nauvoo Temple, could it have been finished earlier?

Could it have been completed by June 1844?

Was the Nauvoo Temple ever completed?

Were there “blessings” or “cursings” suffered by the Saints immediately following the three-and-a-half years between January 1841 and June 1844?

The effort to build the traditional narrative taught by the LDS church using other source material than I have used can only persuade me I am in error if:

1. There is proof the Lord came to the Nauvoo Temple. (Never claimed by anyone.)

2. There is proof that while in the Nauvoo Temple the Lord restored again the fulness of the priesthood. (Never claimed other than to say the Nauvoo Endowments were the same thing as. But if this were true why did the Lord say He needed to come? I assume the Lord said what He meant and therefore we could only reobtain “the fulness” if He gave it to us, personally, as the revelation promised.)

3. There is proof the Saints were not moved out of their place in Nauvoo because it had become “holy” to the Lord and He defended it. (Which cannot be proven because the opposite happened.)

4. There must be proof the Saints were not cursed, did not suffer wrath, and did not have the judgments of God poured down upon their heads following Nauvoo. (The suffering and wrath of God is apparent from all the contemporaneous accounts of the terrible suffering, privation and death suffered by the Saints in the western trek.)

I have allowed the prophecies to inform the story. I readily admit anyone can build another story that ignores the prophecies, and  tells us “all is (and was) well.” But there is no source you can appeal to that conforms to the prophesied events as well as the story proposed in Passing the Heavenly Gift.

The book was written to explore and introduce an idea. That idea is to let the prophecies, instead of our pride, speak to us about us. I want to see our failures, if we have any. I do not want to substitute a happy account based on arrogance to deprive me of the truth. If the warnings are talking to me about me, then I want to face up to that no matter how painful it might be. In the book, in addition to the January 1841 revelation to Joseph Smith, I also use Christ’s prophecies, and Nephi’s warnings to us from the Book of Mormon to inform my effort to reconstruct what has happened in this dispensation. In the end I think it is faith promoting to see ourselves stripped of our vanity and fulfilling the prophetic warnings by our failure. It it a false faith, only pseudo-faith, to ignore the truth and substitute a false narrative about unmitigated success. It was foretold by Christ that we would reject the fullness.

So far the most critical review of the book assumes I am writing history and it proceeds to gather other historic sources to contradict me and to reinforce the traditional narrative. It damns my book and proclaims again that “all is well.” My book isn’t history. It is doctrine. It focuses on prophecy to see if the subsequent events can be shown to fulfill the prophecy. This is how we should always try to understand our condition. Not through the tools of the apologist historian, but instead through the lens of prophecy. What God has said matters a good deal more than what we think of ourselves.
So, we can see from this post that Snuffer's original defense of himself was false; he thinks the Church has taught false history and did not receive the keys it claims to have received. This is apostasy; it is openly stating (and charging for it) that the Church is in error (after being asked to stop). Snuffer is a lawyer and will try to wiggle his way out of this, but the Church had good reason to excommunicate him.

However, up until this point, Snuffer was somewhat defensible. He was not unlike other members of the Church who have thought that the Church has made mistakes and could do better (though he did so in a way that others would not have done.)

The breaking point for Snuffer (the point where we would have to choose between him and the Church) came on September 9, 2014, when he gave the final talk of on a ten stop tour:
At the time I was excommunicated, I was in good standing with the Lord. I had nothing amiss in my personal life. There was no sin warranting church discipline. As a former member of the High Council for years, every church disciplinary proceeding I attended that resulted in excommunication, always involved serious moral transgression, betrayal of marriage covenants, and in some cases criminal wrongdoing. In contrast, the reason for my discipline was a book I had written about church history, in which I attempted to align the events of the Restoration to the prophecies of the Book of Mormon and the  Doctrine and Covenants. The stake president admitted to me and my wife before the Council began, that I was then worthy of a temple recommend.19 By any standard of moral conduct, I was an innocent man, whose only offense was believing the scriptures revealed our condition before God. On the evening of May 1, 2014, the Lord gave me further light and knowledge about His work in His vineyard. The Lord is in control over the church, men, and all things. When He undertakes to accomplish something, “there is nothing that the Lord God shall take in His heart to do, but what He will do it.” (Abr. 3: 17.) Often the means used by the Lord to accomplish His “strange act,” and to perform His “strange work”(D&C 101: 95), are very small indeed. "Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise. And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls." (Alma 37: 6-7.) It is almost always the case that the Lord uses simple things to confound the mighty. I can think of nothing smaller or simpler or less important than myself. Inside the great church to which I once belonged, I was obscure. However, I lived my religion, attended faithfully, served to the best of my ability, upheld church leaders with my prayers, paid tithes, fasted, observed the Word of Wisdom, and helped answer questions for those needing assistance with troubling issues. There was no reason to regard me as a rebel who should be singled out for discipline. Nevertheless, the Lord chose to use a faithful and believing member to accomplish His design. Only someone who is devoted to His will could accomplish what the Lord had in His heart. Now He has accomplished it. The Church has Doctrine and Covenants 121, verses 36 to 40, to warn it about abusing His authority. There is an "amen" or end to authority when control, compulsion, and dominion are exercised in any degree of unrighteousness. Therefore, when using authority, great care must be taken. In any case, the church was careless. Therefore, those involved, are now left to kick against the pricks, to persecute the Saints and to fight against God. Section 121 is a warning to church leaders. It is addressing the powerful, not the powerless. It is addressing those who occupy the seats of authority over others. Only those who claim the right to control, compel, and exercise dominion, are warned against persecuting the saints, who believe the religion and practice it as I did from the time of my conversion. My excommunication was an abuse of authority. Therefore, as soon as the decision was made, the Lord terminated the priesthood authority of the stake presidency and every member of the High Council who sustained this decision, which was unanimous. Thereafter, I appealed to the First Presidency, outlining the involvement of the 12 and the 70. The appeal gave notice to them all.20 The appeal was summarily denied. Last general conference, the entire First Presidency, the 12, the 70, and all other general authorities and auxiliaries, voted to sustain those who abused their authority in casting me out of the church. At that moment, the Lord ended all claims of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to claim it is led by the priesthood. They have not practiced what He requires. The Lord has brought about His purposes. This has been in His heart all along. He has chosen to use small means to accomplish it, but He always uses the smallest of means to fulfill His purposes. None of this was my doing. The Lord's strange act, was not, could not, be planned by me. Was not, could not, have been controlled by me. It was not anticipated by me, or even understood by me, until after the Lord had accomplished His will, and made it apparent to me on the evening of May 1, 2014. He alone has done this. He is the author of all of this. (Preserving the Restoration, pg. 6-8)
So, Denver seems to have a few dilemmas here. First, he is suggesting that his excommunication was enough to cause all the general authorities to lose their priesthood. Besides being a very arrogant claim (I am sure other people have been excommunicated unfairly), why would his excommunication result in all authority being taken from the Church? It is highly unlikely most general authorities (even apostles) knew about Snuffer or his case prior to his tour and subsequent Remnant ideas. So this claim has very little evidence behind it.

Second, Snuffer has claimed that he is not a prophet and not organizing a Church. However, in this same talk he states:
I have never said this publicly, but because of what I think will ensue after this talk I am going to say it, not for my sake, and certainly not for the sake of anyone who believes the truth or who has the Spirit, but I say it only to benefit those who may view things completely otherwise. 9 The Lord has said to me in His own voice, "I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you." Therefore, I want to caution those who disagree with me, to feel free, to feel absolutely free to make the case against what I say. Feel free to disagree, and make your contrary arguments. If you believe I err, then expose the error and denounce it. But take care; take care about what you say concerning me for your sake, not for mine. I live with constant criticism. I can take it. But I do not want you provoking Divine ire by unfortunately chosen words if I can persuade you against it. (Preserving the Restoration, pg. 4) 
It seems that Snuffer is applying the story of the Prophet Joseph Smith to himself, since those are the exact words that Moroni spoke to the Prophet when they first visited on September 21, 1823. Factor in the fact that this new "Remnant" movement will soon canonize his teachings, that they defer to him in all things, that they are organizing a temple as he suggested, it seems that it would be appropriate to say that these people see Denver as a prophet, and if Denver is allowing this that he also sees himself as such. Why not just come out as a prophet? I will leave that to Denver to answer.

As I mentioned in the beginning, many religious movements are reactionary, meaning that they see that something is missing in a faith and what to turn back. But in the case of the Remnant, what are they turning back to? Back to pre-1978? Back to pre-correlation? I see no reason to think, if that is the goal, that they will not run back into the same problem as the Church did. Also, where is the evidence that God has called Denver as a prophet? Denver has not given (so far at least) any new revelation; he is just repeating what past prophets have said. He has not brought forth new scripture. He has alleged to have experiences, but that in and of itself is not evidence we can access.

Denver Snuffer is in a long line of people (Ervil LeBaron, Joseph Musser, Brian Mitchell)  who feel that the Church has gone into apostasy and feels he can restore it back to its former glory (whatever that means). Just like them, the fire in his movement will cool off and he will be left in the ashes of history. As Joseph Smith said: "I will give you a key that will never rust, if you will stay with the majority of the Twelve Apostles, and the records of the Church, you will never be led astray.” (Young Woman’s Journal, Dec. 1906, p. 543) Considering that Snuffer is neither, it is best to simply ignore him, especially after seeing that his ideas are inconsistent and false.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday Traditio: Steven L. Peck

The question of the relationship between science and religion is one that has fascinated me since I was a toddler. My first love was science, especially biology and astronomy. I remember thinking "If science explains the physical world, what is God necessary for?" This continued throughout my teen years, until I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A person who was very influential on my conversion was Bruce R. McConkie, and he was very strident in his opposition to Darwinian evolution; stating boldly in his near-canonical book Mormon Doctrine: "There is no harmony between the truths of revealed religion and the theories of organic evolution." (pg 256, 2nd edition). Thinking that McConkie spoke for the Lord (which was wrong, the Church has no official position on this issue), I decided that my faith was more important than my scientific commitments, and I ceased believing in evolution for a time. (Thankfully this phase did not last long)

After my mission, I saw that Mormonism should not only embrace evolution, but that evolution was built into its theology. Mormonism teaches that humanity begins as spirit beings, then become humans, and will eventually become as God is, who is himself an evolved being. Darwinian theory has much in common with that view, and the two are clearly not incompatible. Darwin himself said so in a letter to a friend "It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist." (Letter to John Fordyce)

This weeks traditio features one of my personal idols, Steven L. Peck. Steve is a philosopher of science and ecologist at BYU. He is also the author of many books, including Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist. More than anything, Steve is a great example of how a brilliant scholar can not only reconcile science and faith, but also be a great person who is approachable and helpful. I am proud to call Steve my friend.

I hope you all enjoy this podcast, where he sits down with Laura Harris Hales and discusses science and religion.