Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of "Eternal Man"

One of the most famous passages from in the LDS book of scripture known as the Doctrine and Covenants is found in section 93 of said book "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be." (D&C 93:29) What is meant by this verse is unclear, but we can at least grasp this from it: In some way, we are as eternal as God himself and in that sense we are not ontologically distinct from him. While this may not seem like a radical view, it should be kept in mind that this is the exact opposite of the rest of Christendom, who view God as a being that transcends space and time and creates everything out of nothing.

Building on this theme of man being eternal and on his path to godhood, Truman G. Madsen writes his short philosophical-theological work called Eternal Man. In it he addresses many of the major questions of both philosophy and theology, namely the nature of personal identity, who and what human beings are, and the problem of evil.

His best contribution is undoubtedly his dealing with the problem of evil; the question of asking if God is all powerful and all good then why does evil exist. This is likely the main objection that nonbelievers bring up when presented with reasons for faith, and it is hard to blame them. It is difficult to imagine how the death of child, war, famine, and disease are compatible with a God who loves and cares for the world, yet Latter-day Saints side with Terryl and Fiona Givens in saying that when we suffer, God himself weeps. This seems a most unreasonable fancy to some, and a delusion to others.

Madsen brings up the idea of the pre-mortal existence, which is a key component in LDS theology. He reminds us that while we were there, we were presented with a plan that we accepted and ratified of our own free will. Because we agreed to this, we can't really cite the problem of evil as a justification for not believing in God because we accepted the reality of evil before we came to this life. It is a powerful idea that we often overlook when we think about this issue.

This book is a perfect guide for those who have had no real training in either philosophy or theology. It is very accessible to beginners, and those who are more advanced in there thinking will still gain from it. There is a kind warmth that comes from these pages, and I recommend it to all Latter-day Saints.

Review of "Letter to a Christian Nation"

I confess at the outset that I was hesitant to read any of Sam Harris' books about religion after being unimpressed with his performance in a debate on ethics with William Lane Craig. However, after listening to his podcasts and interviews, he began to grow on me. So, I gave his book Lying a try and was impressed with it for the most part. I committed to myself that I would read all of Harris' books, so I purchased them and then had to decide whether I would start with The End of Faith or Letter to a Christian Nation. A friend of mine recommend the latter, so that is what I started with.

Within the first few pages, I was instantly reminded why I initially disliked Sam Harris; he refuses to seriously engage the major intellects of world religions and prefers to go after the low hanging fruit. Consequentially, he is unlikely to achieve his goal, which is to have a rational conversation about how to conquer the trials we face both as a nation and as a world community. If Harris is really interested in ridding the world of religion (which he does not explicitly state, but it is more than implied), perhaps he should get in the ring with the heavyweights such as St. Thomas Aquinas rather than picking on those who are Christians in name only.

His book goes off the rails right from the beginning. The title of his book is a mistake in itself; America is a secular republic where one may believe in Christianity or not; in no way are we a Christian nation. He then goes on to say that the type of Christian he is going after is those who identify themselves with the Christian Right, who have played far too much of a role in public policy. The problem, of course, is that the Christian Right does not voice the views of all or even most Christians, so if this was his target audience perhaps the book should be called Letter to the Christian Right. However, this shows exactly the problem with Harris' writings; he never seems capable of grasping that religion is nuanced and complex. He seems to think that religion is as simple as a virus, which even prominent atheists would disagree with (Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Daniel Dennett, Bart Ehrman, etc).

A perfect illustration of this point comes at the beginning of the book where Harris gives his definition of what it means to be a Christian:
You believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true.....The Bible is either the word of God , or it isn't. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not. We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so. (Letter to a Christian Nation, pg. 3)
Harris goes on to say that these beliefs mean that a Christian must believe that the Bible is the best book ever written, free of error, a guidebook to ethics, and has more wisdom than any other book. If one does not accept these terms, then one is not a Christian in Harris' view.

There are numerous problems here. First, what is meant by "word of God?" For Harris, this means that it is a book brought into being by the creator of the universe. However, this is not how Christians anciently or modernly understand the Bible. The Bible is not a book; it is a collection of books of different genres. Some are historical, some are poetic, some are mythological, some are direct revelations. In short, it is a collection of books that touch on different themes, but the Bible never claims to be a complete revelation of all the facts that a person will ever need. Neither does it claim to be a book that is just about ethics. Nor does it claim to be the best of all books. If that is the case, then we need not accept Harris' definition because it is fallacious.

As far as the doctrine of hell is concerned, the view that hell is a place of fire and torment is actually a minority view. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (the two churches that account for more than half of Christians), reject that view of hell explicitly. This is the view of hell according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell." Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather... all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire," and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!" The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, which is described (in quotes) as "eternal fire."

It is unclear if Harris considers members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) Christian, but on the off chance that he does he will be relieved to know that they also do not believe that unbelievers will be punished by burning eternally. So, the view that Harris is criticizing is a very minor view, although he makes it seem as though that is what most Christians believe.  This again goes back to my main contention: Harris is very unfamiliar with theology, but instead of learning about it he writes books about it that reveal his ignorance.

Let's turn to the question of ethics. Harris is a utilitarian, as he points out in this book and in his doctoral dissertation The Moral Landscape. So, he thinks that ethics is about relieving suffering and achieving happiness, which he argues will improve human well-being. He then says that Christians think that the ten commandments are the foundation of ethics (odd that neither Moses or Jesus of Nazareth mentioned that), and that these commandments are outdated and not a good compass for guiding our morality. He seems unaware that Christians can be utilitarians (Bishop George Berkeley, one of the founding fathers of British empiricism supported this view, as do I), and that very few if any Christians think that the ten commandments are merely ethical statements. If Harris had studied elementary theology before he wrote his book, he would realize that the ten commandments were what God gave to the children of Israel as a reminder of the covenant that he had made with them; there is no statement in scripture that the ten commandments are the foundation of morality or that they are the best guide to morality.

Harris moves on by saying, and he is largely right in saying so, that Christians cause harm to medical research and that they cause others to suffer because they won't change their beliefs.  He uses the issue of stem cell research as an example. Again, Harris fails to do his homework. The Roman Catholic Church does not oppose stem cell research, it opposes it on embryos. Stem cell research can be conducted on adult tissue, since this poses no moral problem. And other Christian churches are fine with embryonic stem cell research, or take no position like the LDS Church. So, looks like there is no problem after all, or not a large one. Sure, there may be Christian groups who are vocally opposed to this research, but that is their right in a free and open society.

The last thing that Harris mentions is the conflict between science and religion and the problem of the Intelligent Design movement. Some of the latter movements most vocal critics have been Christians, such as theologian John F. Haught, philosopher Edward Feser, and biologist Steven L. Peck, to name only a few. Science is a method of inquiry, religion (in the Abrahamic sense) is about the discovery of the divine and our relationship to him. So, there is no reason one cannot be a committed disciple of the scientific method (which cannot disprove religion) and a person of faith. Harris seems to have forgotten that the people who gave him the scientific method were men of faith (Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, etc).

In short, this letter is not about Christianity because the author does not understand what Christianity is. It is a list of problems he has with certain people in Washington who push their agenda in the name of Christianity. I am happy to join the fight to keep church and state separate, but there is nothing in Harris' book worth taking seriously, considering he does not take his subject matter seriously enough to represent it correctly.

Answering Letter to A CES Director #7

[This portion of my response to the Letter to a CES Director was written by my friend Stephen O. Smoot, who is currently pursuing graduate studies in Egyptology]

The Letter to a CES Director is a monument to the follies of the Internet Age. Its author and proprietor, Jeremy Runnells, has accomplished little more than to uncritically rearrange a pastiche of Internet memes and damning but simplistic soundbites. The issues raised in the Letter to a CES Director (popularly called the CES Letter) are real enough, true. But Runnells both presents and addresses these concerns so ineptly and with such facile reductionism that it is difficult to find anything commendable in his treatment.

This is clearly evident in how Runnells discusses the controversy surrounding the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham. Having followed the debate very closely for almost a decade now, and having even contributed a few thoughts on the topic,[1] I can attest that what Hugh Nibley famously called “a great fuss . . . being made about a scrap of papyrus”[2] is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. It is a problem that crosses interdisciplinary boundaries and involves not only Egyptology, and its various branches, but also Mormon history and theology, textual criticism, archaeology of the ancient Near East, comparative literary analysis, and other disciplines. Nibley perfectly articulated the crux of the matter.

Consider for a moment the scope and complexity of the materials with which the student must cope if he would undertake a serious study of the Book of Abraham's authenticity. At the very least he must be thoroughly familiar with (1) the texts of the “Joseph Smith Papyri” identified as belonging to the Book of the Dead, (2) the content and nature of mysterious “Sen-sen” fragment, (3) the so-called “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar” attributed to Joseph Smith, (4) statements by and about Joseph Smith concerning the nature of the Book of Abraham and its origin, (5) the original document of Facsimile 1 with its accompanying hieroglyphic inscriptions, (6) the text of the Book of Abraham itself in its various editions, (7) the three facsimiles as reproduced in various editions of the Pearl of Great Price, (8) Joseph Smith's explanation of the facsimiles, (9) the large and growing literature of ancient traditions and legends about Abraham in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Slavonic, etc., and (10) the studies and opinions of modern scholars on all aspects of the Book of Abraham.[3]

Suffice it to say that the treatment offered by Runnells does not nearly account for this complexity, and so readers are left either lacking important information that balances the matter at best or outright misled about the issue at worst.

Take the proposed reconstruction of the vignette in P. Joseph Smith I (Facsimile 1) offered by Runnells on page 24 of the CES Letter. Here Runnells contrasts Joseph Smith’s rendering of the vignette, which Runnells asserts is in error, with a reconstruction he claims is “based on Egyptology.” What Runnells doesn’t inform his readers, however, is that this reconstruction was proposed by an Egyptology grad student (Ed Ashment) in the 1970s.[4] Since then other Egyptologists, including at least one prominent non-Mormon Egyptologist, have disputed Ashment’s reconstruction.[5]

Then there is Runnells’ criticism of Joseph Smith’s explanations of the Facsimiles. Rather than contributing any original critical analysis (because, I am certain, Runnells is not capable of doing so) of this iconography, he lazily copies and pastes three memes from an anti-Mormon infographics website. What Runnells does not do, however, is provide any justification for his methodology. Indeed, he doesn’t even raise the question of which interpretative methodology should be used at all in approaching the Facsimiles. He merely assumes the methodology he employs without considering why he’s using it.

Why is this significant? Consider these remarks by one Egyptologist who has look carefully at this question:

We do not know to what we really should compare the facsimiles. Was Joseph Smith giving us an interpretation that ancient Egyptians would have held, or one that only a small group of priests interested in Abraham would have held, or one that a group of ancient Jews in Egypt would have held, or something another group altogether would have held, or was he giving us an interpretation we needed to receive for our spiritual benefit regardless of how any ancient groups would have seen these? We do not know. While I can make a pretty good case for the idea that some Egyptians could have viewed Facsimile 1 the way Joseph Smith presents it, I am not sure that is the methodology we should be employing. We just don’t know enough about what Joseph Smith was doing to be sure about any possible comparisons, or lack thereof.

Similar points have been raised by other scholars, which Runnells (of course) ignores.[6]

In a number of instances Runnells levels criticisms against the Book of Abraham that really say more about himself than they do about the authenticity of the text. Take, for instance, Runnells’ “disturbing fact” he uncovered about Figure 7 in Facsimile 2. “It’s actually Min, the pagan Egyptian god of fertility or sex,” Runnells explains (but only partially correctly). “Min is sitting on a throne with an erect penis (which can be seen in the figure). In other words, Joseph Smith is saying that this figure with an erect penis is Heavenly Father sitting on His throne.”

Whether it’s my training in Egyptian art and religion or the fact that Game of Thrones has completely desensitized me from these things, for reasons I have explained on my blog this actually isn’t nearly as big a deal as Runnells makes it out to be, and, frankly, only reveals Runnells’ own discomfort with sexual imagery. 

Runnells’ sloppiness can also be seen in his totalizing claim that “nothing in each and every facsimile is correct to what Joseph Smith claimed they said.” This is simply not true. Off the top of my head I can think of Figure 9 in Facsimile 1, which Joseph Smith identified as “the idolatrous god of Pharaoh.” This finds striking vindication from an ancient Egyptian perspective.[7] So too does Joseph Smith’s identifying Figure 6 in Facsimile 2 as “represent[ing] this earth in its four quarters.”[8] And Joseph Smith’s identification of (presumably) the figure Osiris in Facsimiles 1 and 3 (Figures 2 and 1, respectively) as Abraham has tantalizing parallels to known syncretistic practices by ancient Jews and Egyptians.[9]

To be sure, several of Joseph Smith’s explanations in the facsimiles do not currently have support from a modern Egyptological perspective. But is this because Joseph simply botched the entire affair, as Runnells would have us believe, or because we are not asking the right methodological questions, or because of the limited nature of the available evidence? These are crucial questions that Runnells never raises. The fact that we have a few instances (the three above are not the only ones, by the way) where Joseph Smith got something, anything right should urge caution before we abandon confidence in the Prophet’s inspiration.

Continuing on, after dismissively waving away the Facsimiles, Runnells makes a number of assertions about the text of the Book of Abraham itself. For instance, he claims “the Book of Abraham teaches a Newtonian view of the universe,” and that this model of the cosmos has been “discredited by 20th century Einsteinian physics.” The only citation Runnells gives to bolster this claim is to an article written 30 years ago in a popular magazine.[10] Once again, though, Runnells is out of date with his scholarship, as subsequent researchers have disputed whether the Book of Abraham’s cosmology is even Newtonian at all.[11] In fact, I personally have argued that the cosmology of the Book of Abraham nicely fits an ancient Near Eastern context.[12]

But thinking more broadly, what Runnells fails to provide is any rationale for why the Book of Abraham needs to have a scientific cosmology in the first place. If it is indeed an ancient text, then why would we assume it must have a scientific cosmology at all? In fact, wouldn’t it be rather suspicious if a purported ancient text feature modern scientific concepts? These and other questions about what assumptions we should bring to the text go unaddressed by Runnells.

Other unaddressed assumptions by Runnells includes the significance of supposed anachronisms in the text of the Book of Abraham. Runnells specifically points to “Chaldeans,” “Pharaoh,” and “Egyptus” in the Book of Abraham as anachronisms. The significance of these specific purported anachronisms for the book’s historicity is debatable, and while they are challenging to the Book of Abraham’s historicity, in my estimation they are not fatal to it. I have a forthcoming article that touches on the presence of the Chaldeans in the Abraham narratives in Genesis and the Book of Abraham. (Suffice it to say for now that the matter is too complex for me to summarize in a few short sentences.) On the issue of “Pharaoh” in the Book of Abraham, it is important to note that while the Egyptian pr-ˁȝ (from whence we derive the word pharaoh; “great house”) appears to have come around as a widely-used title for the monarch during the New Kingdom, use of the term as a catch-all for the estate or government of the monarch, as well as “on rare occasions refer[ing] to the king himself,” is documented as early as the Old Kingdom.[13] Similarly, recalling that the Joseph Smith Papyri can be safely dated to the Ptolemaic period, Egyptus could plausibly be explained as a Greek-Ptolemaic gloss (Αἴγυπτος) on the name Zeptah (perhaps Egyptian sȝt ptḥ; “daughter of Ptah”), as it appears in the earliest manuscripts of the Book of Abraham.[14] "Or it could be Joseph Smith providing the gloss for his modern readers who were more familiar with the name Egypt (Egyptus) than the heretofore unknown Zeptah.

Besides all of this, there is, again, the larger issue to consider. The appearance of anachronisms in a text may indeed indicate pseudepigraphical authorship, or it may alternatively indicate a complex transmission history of the text. Which conclusion should we arrive at in this instance? Runnells merely asserts that we should consider the Book of Abraham as being pseudepigraphical. The specific anachronisms raised by Runnells, however, can just as easily be explained as the result of transmission glosses or scribal updating of the language of the text, a well-known phenomenon of ancient Near Eastern scribal culture, and something Joseph Smith himself was clearly not averse to doing.[15]

Other claims made by Runnells, such as the alleged influence of Thomas Dick on the worldview of the Book of Abraham, are likewise disputable.[16] So too is how Runnells describes what he thinks is the Church’s official position on the Book of Abraham.[17] His fallacious appeal to authority by perfunctorily citing a few statements critical of Joseph Smith made by turn of the century (!) Egyptologists is also unpersuasive.[18]

I could go on, but for now the picture should be clear enough. Runnells repeatedly exhibits the annoying habit of simply asserting something must be true, maybe citing an outdated source to back him up (if he’s feeling generous), and then moving along as if the issue has been definitively settled. This might make for good ideology or polemics, but it is not responsible scholarship.

I really can’t blame Runnells too much, though. As a product of the Internet Age, his CES Letter is marked by the worst of what happens when an unqualified amateur armed with Wikipedia and some memes thinks he or she can authoritatively weigh in on a complex issue with a few computer keystrokes (mostly Ctrl + c and Ctrl + v). If it’s any consolation to Runnells, he is not the only one guilty of this, as modern Internet culture broadly has fallen prey to this sort of unfortunate behavior.[19]

My own recommendation to the reader is thus to bypass Runnells’ shabby treatment of the Book of Abraham entirely and focus on the academic work pertaining thereto that has been produced by both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars for nearly half a century.

[1]: Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, & Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39, online here; Stephen O. Smoot and Quinten Barney, “The Book of the Dead as a Temple Text and the Implications for the Book of Abraham,” in The Temple: Ancient and Restored, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and Donald W. Parry, The Temple on Mount Zion 3 (Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2016), 183–209.

[2]: Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 16 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2005), xxv.

[3]: Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 14 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000), 154–155.

[4]: Edward H. Ashment, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham: A Reappraisal,” Sunstone 4 (December 1979): 39, pl. 3, online here. Ashment’s reconstruction was made popular by the non-Egyptologist counter-cult author Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1992). For reviews of Ashment and Larson, see Hugh Nibley, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham: A Response,” Sunstone 49–51, online here; reproduced in Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 18 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2009), 493–501; John Gee, “A Tragedy of Errors,” FARMS Review 4, no. 1 (1992), 93–119, online here; Michael D. Rhodes, “The Book of Abraham: Divinely Inspired Scripture,” FARMS Review 4, no. 1 (1992), 120–126, online here.

[5]: See John Gee, “Abracadabra, Isaac and Jacob,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7, no. 1 (1995): 79–82; A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 38; Lanny Bell, “The Ancient Egyptian ‘Books of Breathing,’ the Mormon ‘Book of Abraham,’ andthe Development of Egyptology in America,” in Egypt and Beyond: Essays Presented to Leonard H. Lesko upon his Retirement from the Wilbour Chair of Egyptology at Brown University June 2005, ed. Stephen E. Thompson and Peter Der Manuelian (Providence, RI: Department of Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies, Brown University, 2008), 25–30.

[6]: See for example Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 107–130, online here; John Gee, “A Method for Studying the Facsimiles,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 347–53, online here.

[7]: Quinten Barney, “Sobek: The Idolatrous God of Pharaoh Amenemhet III,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 22–27, online here.

[8]: Michael D. Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus . . . Seventeen Years Later,” FARMS Preliminary Reports (1994): 11; Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 19 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2010), 299–304.

[9]: Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” 119–121.

[10]: Keith E. Norman, “Mormon Cosmology: Can it Survive the Big Bang?” Sunstone 53 (December 1985) 19–23, online here.

[11]: See John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, 1–16; Michael D. Rhodes and J. Ward Moody, “Astronomy and the Creation in the Book of Abraham,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, 17–36.

[12]: Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, & Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39, online here.

[13]: Ogden Goelet, “The Nature of the Term pr-ˁȝ During the Old Kingdom,” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 10 (1989/1990): 77–90, quote at 90.

[14]: Brent Lee Metcalfe, “The Curious Textual History of ‘Egyptus’ the Wife of Ham,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 34, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2014): 1–11.

[15]: Joseph made multiple editorial redactions and glosses in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon and printed revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, for example.

[16]: See the commentary offered by Edward T. Jones, The Theology of Thomas Dick and its Possible Relationship to that of Joseph Smith, Master's Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1969, online here; Erich Robert Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 89–92.

[17]: See my blog post “Admission and Omission: What Is the Church's Position on the Book of Abraham?” online here.

[18]: Concerning these earlier scholars, the non-Mormon Egyptologist John A. Wilson disapproved of their attitude as “several off-hand and hostile opinions” that were little more than “a lot of indignant snorts.” John A. Wilson, Thousands of Years: An Archaeologist’s Search for Ancient Egypt (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 175–176. Klaus Baer, Hugh Nibley’s non-Mormon Egyptology professor, likewise felt the scholars quoted by Runnells “behaved like pompous asses with a claim to infallibility [and] restricted themselves to ill-considered snap judgments in dealing with Mormons that they never would have ventured to produce if there had been a risk of critical examination by their colleagues, evaded problems, and insisted that the layman accept their opinions without qualifications.” Klaus Baer to Jerald Tanner, 3 August 1968, as quoted in Boyd Jay Peterson, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2002), 322.

[19]: See the illuminating commentary recently offered by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), esp. 105–133.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Friday Traditio: Can There Be Morality Without God?

When asked why they are religious, many people will say that without a God who is a transcendent lawgiver, there can be no objective morality. On the other side are those who say that the God of the Old Testament and the Koran does not seem to be moral, rather he is seen as a narcissistic ethnic cleanser and bully, as Richard Dawkins states in his book The God Delusion.

For this weeks traditio, I decided to share a debate on this topic. Defending the premise that God is necessary for morality is Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza. On the opposite side is philosopher Peter Singer. Enjoy.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Answering Letter to A CES Director #6

I am a bit behind in my rebuttal to Letter to A CES Director. Sorry to have gotten behind, I had finals and term papers to attend to. But, that is all over now and I can now focus on the arguments made by Mr. Runnells.

By way of announcement, the next topic that will be dealt with after today will be about the Book of Abraham. While I am well-read in philosophy and theology, I have no training in Egyptology (though neither does Mr. Runnells). So, the next post in this series will be a guest post by good friend Stephen Smoot. Smoot is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Egyptology and has published several articles on the Book of Abraham, so he is well equipped to address the issue in ways that I cannot. Beware however: Smoot is a bit different than I, he tends to be a bit cynical from time to time, while I have a more stoic approach. But, even when his cynicism is at its worst, he is still very objective and proportions his belief to the evidence, so I am sure you will enjoy what he has to say. I know I will.

Now, on to Mr. Runnells. His next argument deals with the first vision, where he correctly points out that there are four known versions of it. He also mentions that he never knew about these stories before he went into the missionary training center, and therefore he feels deceived.

Like I said before in a previous post, the Church is not responsible for your ignorance of an issue, especially when these issues have been addressed multiple times. If Runnells didn't know about these matters, I would ask whether he had ever bothered to look before going to the MTC.

The Church has not, contrary to what some people have said, hid this issue from view. The four versions of the first vision were published together in 1969 in BYU Studies by Dean Jesse, which can be read here. This was decades before Runnells was born, so he cannot say this is a new phenomena. Philosopher and theologian, Truman G. Madsen, discussed this matter thoroughly in his book Joseph Smith the Prophet, published in 1989. Richard L. Bushman also discusses the accounts in his landmark book Rough Stone RollingThe Church has also published an essay on this matter, and Elder Richard J. Maynes recently gave a fireside on the issue. It appears that Runnells had many places to look, but chose not to and now casts blame on the Church for deceiving him. If there were no Church sources available to investigate, Runnells would have a point. But since there are many, he does not.

However, Runnells' main argument is not so much that there was no information available, it is that the versions contradict each other and therefore cannot be valid. So, let's compare each version of the first vision and see if there is validity in this charge.

1832 Version

This version of the first vision was found in an unpublished biography the Prophet wrote in 1832; it is the only version that we have that was written by him. In it, the Prophet mentions that he was weighed down by his sins, and that he could not find a church that conformed to what he read about in the New Testament. He states that he prayed, the Lord (meaning Jesus of Nazareth) appeared to him and forgave him of his sins, telling him to walk uprightly before him. The Prophet states (or rather Fredrick G. Williams clarifies in the text) that he was in his sixteenth year (so he was 15) when this occurred. There is no mention of the Father appearing in this version of the theophany. This version can be read here.

1835 Version

This version comes to us via Warren Parrish, one of the Prophet's scribes, who took it down as the Prophet told his story to a visitor in Kirtland. In this version, the Prophet is 14 years old. He goes to a grove of trees again in this version, and he see two personages. The personages are unidentified in this version, but it can be interpreted that one was the Savior because the Prophet's sins were forgiven. In addition to the two personages, angels are also mentioned as being present. The Prophet mentions for a time he was overcome by an unseen force and was not able to pray for a time. The Prophet also mentions that one of the personages told him that his sins were forgiven, and the account states that the Prophet had another visitation of angels when he was 17 years old. This version can be read here.

1838 Version

This is the version that most people have heard. Published in the Church's periodical Times and Seasons, the Prophet, at age 14, wants to find the correct Church, mentions that he thought the Methodist Church may be the correct one, reads James 1:5, goes into the woods, prays, sees the Father and the Son, and is told to join no Church. This version does not mention forgiveness of sins, and is the one that the Prophet published after there were various accounts about how the Church got started. This version can be read here.

1842 Version

This version was printed in the Chicago Democrat after the Prophet was asked to retell the things that had happened to him. The first vision is mentioned, among other things (the Articles of Faith, information about the characters in the Book of Mormon, etc). Known as the Wentworth Letter, this version of the first vision is identical to the 1838 version and can be read here.

So, there seems to be a common thread through all of these versions. Jesus of Nazareth appears in all of them, the Prophet is in his early teen years, an important message was given, and while there are some minor variations, none of them are major.

The Father is not mentioned in the 1832 account, and this has caused some people to state that the Prophet embellished his story from one of personal forgiveness to a divine commission to be the St. Peter of our age. It should be remembered that the 1832 account is one that was written in the Prophet's journal and was not meant for publication, neither was the 1835 account. The 1838 account and 1842 accounts had to deal with how the Church got founded, and thus were different than the journalistic accounts.

Also, it is very possible that even in 1832 the Prophet did not understand the full implications of the vision. The early message of the Church was about gathering and building Zion, which was a different message than what missionaries are now teaching. The prophet, as Bushman points out, grew in his calling and his understanding of his visions grew also.

Suffice it to say, after reading all four of the versions, there is no reason to make as much of a fuss about them as Runnells is. But, I will allow the reader to make up their own mind about the matter.

Suggested readings: First Vision Accounts, Joseph Smith the Prophet by Truman G. Madsen, Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman, The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision by Dean C. Jesse

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Review of "What Does it All Mean: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy"

After reading Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig and feeling not all that impressed or introduced to the subject properly, I looked at the suggested readings at the end of the book. The first book listed was What Does it All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel. Since I was still looking for the best introduction book to philosophy to recommend to friends and students, I bought it.

True to its title, the book is very short, only slightly over 100 pages, so it can be read in a day or two. However, the book is not so much an introduction to philosophy as it is an intro to Nagel's opinions about various philosophical problems. For example, a good introduction to philosophy would talk about the five main branches of philosophy (aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, logic, metaphysics) and give a definition of each, but Nagel fails to do so. Instead, he starts off with the question of whether or not we exist, similar to Rene Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy. While that question is of course an important one, it is too advanced for a person who has no idea what philosophy is about. It would not be a shock if a novice to philosophy closed the book after the first few pages and thought that philosophers were strange people who asked ridiculous questions.

Also, Nagel has a very annoying habit of only criticizing views that he is against, but not the view he stands for. For example, when he talks about ethics, he criticizes divine command theory, but deontology, the view that Nagel espouses, gets no criticism at all. Likewise, on the mind-body problem, Nagel disagrees with materialism (the belief that everything is composed of matter, so the mind is as well), so he criticizes it. But again, he offers no criticism of his own belief. This is not philosophy, it is special pleading.

I had begun this book with high hopes, but was left disappointed. As I said before, The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell remains at this point the best introductory text to philosophy. But, I will keep looking at others and evaluating them.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday Traditio: Can Science Tell Us Right From Wrong?

Science is one of the greatest of all human achievements. Through it we have discovered our place in the universe, the cause and cures for diseases, how to improve life through technology, and so forth. This is not to say that science has figured out everything; there are numerous question remaining to be solved, and to be perfectly candid, we may never answer all of the questions. But, that in part is what makes science a wonderful and beautiful thing; you can always keep asking questions and a perfectly acceptable answer is "I do not know yet, but I will keep investigating."

While science can answer many questions, an important question to ask is whether or not science can help us answer moral questions. Some say yes, some say no. Entire books have been written on the subject, and it appears that this question will be one of the big questions in moral philosophy for the time being. Personally, since science tells us how things are but not how they ought to be, it seems to me science cannot answer moral questions because they are beyond the scope of the scientific method.

But, don't take my word for it. In this weeks traditio a panel of great thinkers discuss this question with different answers and reasons for there answer. The panel includes philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, philosopher Patricia Churchland, philosopher Peter Singer, physicist Lawrence Krauss, philosopher Simon Blackburn, and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. I hope you enjoy their discussion of this very important question.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of "Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction"

As a philosopher who is often asked about what philosophy is, what its practical uses are, where should a person start if they want to study philosophy carefully, etc, I was genuinely excited to pick up Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. I had figured that I would read and then recommend it as the best starting point for the philosophy novice. I was not totally wrong, but neither was I totally right.

The books merits are that it introduces the general reader to some of the big branches of philosophy (epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc), some of the big names in philosophy (Socrates, David Hume, Epicurus, John Stuart Mill), and some of the various schools of philosophy (idealism, empiricism, rationalism, etc). However, it does so in a very scattered manner and the terms are not as clearly defined as one would like, especially since the book is marketed toward those who are beginners in philosophy. The author on one page is talking about ethics, then miracles, then idealism... but it is scattered rather than connected. It helps, however, that the author is good with words, because while it is scattered it is not boring.

I would recommend this book to beginners, but books like Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy are better introductions to the field.

Review of "For the Plane Ride: A Father's Counsel to a Departing Missionary"

Writing this review, like the one I wrote for my friend Steven L. Peck, is personal. The author, Mark E. McKell, has truly been a father and mentor to me since I was 16. While I am not his biological son, he has certainly treated me as such, and to be completely objective I should admit that upfront before I review his book. Put simply, I am a fan of both the man and the book.

In his book For the Plane Ride: A Father's Counsel to a Departing Missionary, McKell provides in 188 pages a final epistle to his second son Aaron. As the title suggests, the epistle contains counsel of things he should know just prior to serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He admits in the opening chapter that he had wanted to have this advice in writing before his eldest son had left, but other things prevented that from happening. Luckily, he had more than one son and was able to complete the project before Aaron left for his mission in Spokane, Washington.

The book is comprised of short chapters which deal with various subjects, the most important of which include missionary psychology, the "why" of missionary work, having a vision, understanding that you are not in charge, and various other things (it is amazing that so much could be covered in so short of a book). Since these were the most important themes in the book (according to me anyway), let me touch on psychology and the why of missionary work, offer my several criticisms of the book, and then conclude with why I recommend the book.

Missionary psychology has to deal with the everyday life of a missionary. When you first arrive in the field, even the most confident person will be overwhelmed. You are doing a job that in many ways you can prepare for and in many ways you cannot, you may be in a different culture, and you have much expected of you. As time goes on, you get into a routine and then have a sense that you can do this on your own.

If you have thought that, take a step back and understand that you are applying a business attitude to something that you are not in charge of. McKell mentions that he had two episodes where he learned this lesson, but the first one struck me as particularly significant. To set the scene up a bit, McKell mentions that had been in a new ward for several weeks, but because he had come from an area of the world where the church ran rather smoothly, he saw many imperfections in how the ward he was serving in was being run, and when he was assigned to speak in church he thought he would tell everyone howto run a ward correctly. Now, this may seem brash (and it is), but I can see many people having the same reaction early on in there mission, even if they wouldn't have the courage to tell everyone in an open setting. Unfortunately and fortunately, things did not go as planned:

I took my place at the podium, looked out at the congregation, looked down at my notes, but the words wouldn't come. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.... I looked at my notes and looked at the congregation, but still nothing. I was like I has peanut butter in my mouth and couldn't formulate any words.......What was happening to me? This was nothing like my sacrament meeting farewell talk back in the States, or the countless times I spoke in church back home.... The reality was that the Holy Ghost had completely left me. In my arrogance and pride, it had left me naked on the stand. My Heavenly Father was trying to teach me a lesson, and teach me He did. (pgs. 56-57)
If you knew McKell personally, you would know he is a gifted speaker, so this experience seems almost like it may be made up or exaggerated. But, the principle comes through clearly that the Holy Ghost will not stay with us when we are not worthy of His presence, even if we are the Lord's full-time servants. You may have a right to the constant companionship of the Spirit, but on his terms, not your own. In short, you need to always remember that you are on the Lord's errand, not yours.

While this was perhaps the most memorable story told in the book, the most important part is the last chapter, where McKell talks about the "why" of missionary work, something that missionaries and members cannot afford to forget. The why is the testimony of the Jesus Christ, the restoration of his gospel on the Earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and the reality of living prophets and priesthood keys. Because you have a knowledge of these things, you serve a mission and remain in the Church. There are, of course, other things that are important. But the why of missionary work is fundamental to everything else we do.

I enjoyed reading this book very much, but I have two criticisms of it. First, McKell, like other Mormons, paints a very optimistic version of missionary service (which is not surprising, he mentions early on that he is a glass half-full kind of guy). The reality is that missionary service has very beautiful moments, but for the most part it is mental anguish. Someone once said that the two years a person serves in the mission field are the closest humans will come to being like the Savior in Gethsemane. If I recall the story correctly, that was not a pretty sight, even if the outcome was.  A mission is a grueling task that regardless of your attitude will test you to your limit. You need to be emotionally and spiritually prepared or it can be a damaging rather than a lifting experience.

The other criticism I have is that McKell seems to think (maybe this comes across this way because he is writing to Aaron who earnestly wanted so serve), that everyone will want to serve or that they should serve. A mission is not a commandment; I know of no church president saying that a revelation had been received saying otherwise. The simple fact is, missions are not for everyone. If you have no desire to serve a mission, have a shaky testimony or none at all, have a philosophical mind, or are a generally questioning person, the mission field may not be for you. We sometimes want people to share in our experience because of what they meant to us, but it should be remebered that your experience will not necessarily mirror everyone elses. It might have been your best two years, it might be another persons worst two. Missions are a good option, but they are one good option among many good.

In closing, I recommend that every young man read this book before he decides to serve or not to serve. For one, you will not be bored; McKell is able to make you laugh, smile, feel the spirit, and bring you to tears, sometimes in one chapter. In addition, this book is not just about the two years that you will have in the field; it is about the life you will life after it as well. As Eldon McKell (the author's father) told him "You have two years to serve and a lifetime to think about it" The lessons you learn in the field (if you care to learn them), will change and alter the course of your life. If I had read this book prior to departing for my mission, I would have been a much better missionary than I was. I encourage all who can to read McKell's book from cover to cover. It will make you a better missionary, spouse, and disciple of Christ; what is there not to like about that?