Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reading Recommendations for Anti-Mormon Counter-Cultist Critics (aka: the Fluffy Bunny Nice Nice Club)

Counter-cultist critics love to bring up quotes from the Journal of Discourses as if they're representative of official church doctrine, as if they represent essential doctrine, and are representative of general church membership belief. I recently came across one of these. For their sake, I'm re-recommending "What Is Official "Mormon" Doctrine?.

In re-reading the comments in that post of mine, a double standard appears even more obvious than before. Our critics insist that prophets must be held up to the standard of infallibility in every word they speak. Yet they concede that Christian theologians and reformers can disagree on non-essentials. After all they're just men. Apparently, however, the Latter-day Saints are not allowed to hold this same position.

I propose a level playing field. Latter-day Saints must be allowed this same rational, and without the double standard! When it comes down to it, most of the quotes of speculative nature that critics bring up are NOT essential, fundamental, or saving doctrine at all. (For the record, I personally reject the opinion that "God had sex with Mary"). Even prophets can have their own personal views. After all, these prophets are "just men" too.

David O. McKay wisely reminded us all that when the Lord calls a man to be a prophet, he does not unmake the man! (See "What Is Our Doctrine?").

The original post and quote by Stephen Robinson concerning what constitutes official Mormon doctrine is imperative to understand for Latter-day Saints and critics alike. To it I also recommend the article "What Is Our Doctrine?" by Professor Robert Millet.

Another thing counter-cultist critics love to do is hijack the general term "Christian" and monopolize it to mean a traditional, orthodox, nicene Christian who believes in the post-biblical dual natures of Christ and the post-biblical doctrine of the Trinity. According to them, anyone who does not believe this extra-biblical stuff cannot be considered a "biblical Christian" at all. To them I recommend reading Robinson's classic "Are Mormons Christians?".

I also recommend the following from a former counter-cultist critic who now respectfully disagrees with Mormon theology. She's an informed and engaging Evangelical Christian (and a BYU grad too!). She shares her wisdom and insight in answer to "infrequently asked questions", which I now quote from:

Question: Do you think Mormons are Christians?

I hate this question. The answer is, etymologically, Mormonism is a Christian religion. Its founder was raised in a Protestant tradition, so arguably Mormonism sprang from Protestant Christianity. If you don’t think it came from Christianity, where did it come from? Buddhism? Hinduism? No. It came from a branch of Christianity and everybody knows it.

Furthermore, Mormonism is in fact Christocentric. Like it or not, its doctrines and theology do derive from what Mormons regard as the gospel of Jesus Christ. They have as much claim to the title “Christian” as anyone. (BTW, don’t spout off to me about Mormons believing in a “different Jesus.” It means you’re probably too stupid to be reading this blog and should click away at your earliest convenience.)

What other Christians usually mean when they say Mormons are not Christians is that Mormons are not true Christians. The Christianity practiced by Mormonism is corrupt and incomplete, so Mormonism is a Christian heresy.

If you’re Mormon and what I just said offends you, it shouldn’t. You teach the exact same thing about non-LDS Christians. I say heresy, you say apostasy. It’s the exact same concept. Each of us thinks the other is not practicing full Christianity.

I think non-LDS Christians have very little to gain by igniting a semantics war over the word “Christian.” The issue should not be whether or not Latter-day Saints are Christian, it should be whether or not their theology is correct, which it isn’t. In general, I’m happy to grant the term “Christian” to Mormons as a courtesy so that we can move on to talking about things that actually matter.

Question: Is Mormonism a cult?

No. Only stupid people think this.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mormon Misgivings Concerning Calvinism

Latter-day Saints believe that all mankind may be saved through the atonement of Christ by responding appropriately to the gospel message (see Articles of Faith). Contrast that with Calvinist theology, where God supposedly predestines only an elect few for salvation, while a vast number of his children are eternally damned.

In my view, the Latter-day Saint/Mormon view of God is one of an all wise and all loving Father in Heaven whose plan of salvation is big enough for all his children. Yet the Calvinist view of God appears to me as unfair and stern, at best, and sadistic at worst.

Elder Quentin L. Cook diplomatically addressed this very issue in the last General Conference. He said that "for many of these people who are open to religious faith, one issue has been particularly troubling. They have had a difficult time reconciling the correct doctrine that we have a loving Father in Heaven and the incorrect doctrine that most of mankind would be doomed to eternal hell."

He goes on to quote from his own great-great-grandfathers experience: "Sometimes they found fault with me because I wanted a more liberal salvation for the family of man. I could not believe the Lord had made a part to be saved and a great part to be damned to all eternity.”

Many today fail to see just how revolutionary this is, but "at the time Joseph Smith received revelations and organized the Church, the vast majority of churches taught that the Savior’s Atonement would not bring about the salvation of most of mankind. The common precept was that a few would be saved and the overwhelming majority would be doomed to endless tortures of the most awful and unspeakable intensity. The marvelous doctrine revealed to the Prophet Joseph unveiled to us a plan of salvation that is applicable to all mankind, including those who do not hear of Christ in this life, children who die before the age of accountability, and those who have no understanding".

Elder Cook boldly teaches that "a loving Father has provided a comprehensive and compassionate plan for His children 'that saves the living, redeems the dead, rescues the damned, and glorifies all who repent.' Even though our journey may be fraught with tribulation, the destination is truly glorious. I rejoice in the great plan of salvation that is big enough for all of our Father in Heaven’s children. I express gratitude beyond my ability to articulate for the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I bear my witness of Him."

This provides me with the perfect backdrop on which to spotlight several landmark and eye-opening posts. They highlight the reasons why Calvinism is so unpalatable to Latter-day Saints:

A zealous anti-Mormon explains his motivations

“God made me do it” — On the motivation of the Fluffy Bunny Nice Nice Club

Aquinas also provides a summary of those exchanges and reminds us all that understanding the difference between Mormonism's emphasis on free will/agency and Calvinism's lack thereof is imperative for interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding: Explaining a Calvinist Worldview to a Latter-day Saint.

I'll share one quote which highlights an important difference/irony:
"The Grand a narrative of God siting in council with the Sons of God before the creation of the world, contemplating the creation and the salvation of man. In the narrative, Lucifer, a member of the council, proposes that he should be sent as the Savior and that he would redeem all mankind. Latter-day Saints understand Lucifer’s proposal to entail a complete destruction of human free will, or agency, in order to achieve the goal of saving all men, as all men would be coerced to do God’s will. Lucifer rebelled against God and was hurled from the council, thrust down, becoming the devil.

"The great irony here is that the God of Calvinism ends up even more horrific than Lucifer since at least Lucifer planned to save all mankind, whereas the God of Calvinism not only chooses to create a world where mankind ultimately cannot act contrary to God’s will, but then inexplicably chooses to redeem only a portion of mankind created."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My "Testimony" of Respectful Interfaith Dialogue

Interfaith dialogue, for me, is not about "seeking middle ground with Evangelicals", as one has put it. It's simply about seeking mutual understanding. The divide is the divide. It can't really be narrowed. However, some peoples' perceptions of that divide are extremely out of whack. Indeed, many might need to narrow the divide that exists only in their own understanding. In other words, interfaith dialogue has less to do with “bridging the divide” as it does with defining the divide accurately. A good place to start is understanding what actually constitutes (in descending order) "traditional Christianity", "Evangelicalism", and "Calvinism".

For me, interfaith dialogue is about better understanding the facts of what both "camps" do and do not believe. This is why "How Wide the Divide?" was a watershed. False witness is being born, whether intentionally or not. My initial motivation was to stop the perpetual dishonesty I sensed from the counter-cult movement in regards to Mormonism. That motivation gradually expanded as I learned that counter-cultists (most of whom happen to be Calvinists, by the way) do not represent well the larger Evangelical community (including many Calvinists), and I began to have a desire to truly seek mutual understanding with good Christians of similar mindset.

That's why I recommend all "camps" read "How Wide the Divide?", to better understand each other and to recognize where we actually ( and perhaps surprisingly) agree, and where we indeed have disagreements--some of which are very significant.

For too long, too many traditional Christians viewed Mormonism through the filter of the counter-cultists. Likewise, many Mormons have viewed many traditional Christians (especially the subset of "Evangelical Christians") as counter-cultists. No wonder there is so much misunderstanding!

I've since learned to become much more fair-minded. In the meantime, my own faith has been strengthened. Nothing has been compromised; much has been gained. That is the biggest reward here--my own faith has been strengthened. This is why I suppose I can say I have a "testimony" of respectful interfaith dialogue, as opposed to simply putting up walls and engaging in antagonistic debate. (For the record, I do believe there is an appropriate place for healthy "debate", but I see a difference between informed and respectful debate on the one hand and misinformed, open antagonism in pseudo-debate form on the other).

Frankly, one of the biggest obstacles in all of this is that sometimes what is understood by what we say isn't exactly what we mean, since we use different theological vocabularies. Seeking out mutual understanding through interfaith dialogue has, for me, been a step toward becoming theologically "bilingual".

The Roller Coaster is Up

Teaching, in general, isn't the most thankful job. But every once in awhile a note like this one just makes you grateful that what you do makes a difference. I received it just hours after awarding him with a significant school award at the 8th grade awards/graduation night. He isn't my "best" student and I don't know that he particularly has any extra-ordinary interest in U.S. History, but he does have extraordinary character. He's an absolute pleasure to teach, and he quietly and humbly excels in all that he does:

Dear Mr. [Clean Cut]

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to learn about our past. It has already helped me become a more rounded person. I cannot thank you enough for giving me the [special] award. It is such an honor and it made my parents and me very proud!

You have always said you remember your 8th grade U.S. History teacher. I wanted to tell you that I am always going to remember you as my favorite teacher through out all of my life no matter what career I take on. You make learning so much more fun!!! You have a passion for teaching more than any other teacher I have ever had, and you have made a difference not only in my life but in many others in just one school year!

I do not have a favorite subject, but I will say I look forward to waking up every morning and going to my first period class. You make my day start off well by making school fun and I greatly thank you for that.

your student and friend,
[his name]

Words for Hard Times

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On God, Intelligence, and Atonement

Whether interesting, important, or imperative, I believe that Christ has always been God (regardless of his state of progression). Although it really doesn't matter to me as much as it seems to matter to critics whether he was always God or whether at some distant time before my own personal “beginning” he became God. What matters most to me is His atoning sacrifice.

The atonement of Jesus Christ is the central tenet of my faith and upon which the entire Plan of Salvation hinges. What matters most is that that necessary sacrifice was made by a God. It was not a sacrifice of man or animal, it was a sacrifice of the Lamb of God—“God Himself” as the Book of Mormon teaches: “I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people” (Mosiah 15:1). He was God and is God.

Alma 34:9-10 states:
"For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made. For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice."

It was an "infinite and eternal" sacrifice. That's what matters to me. Nothing short of this would "suffice for the sins of the world" (verse 12). I don’t care so much for “proper theology”, “Christology”, or the history of God, as extreme as that probably sounds to some, because that’s not what saves. I care to learn more of and focus on the central foundation of all human history—Christ’s atonement. It has been said that Mormons generally care more about orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.

Thus, it doesn't even matter to me if some believe that aeons ago Christ somehow "became" a God, because the "crucial fact" and "central foundation" is my saving faith in the atonement that was made by Jesus Christ as the Son of God and God the Son--my Savior and Redeemer. I'll praise his name forever for his victory over death and hell. That atonement is also central to my life as a disciple of Christ, as I now seek to “become a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19).

One ex-Mormon critic I conversed with recently seemed to be under the impression that the Church had an official position on this, and that Jesus Christ is referred to as "Eternal" and "Everlasting" only “since His creations are of eternal quality He is very properly called the Eternal Father of heaven and earth.” That’s certainly one good reason why he can be called Eternal—one way of looking at it--but it’s also not the only way of looking at it. And the only "official position" is that which is found in the scriptures. The scriptures seem to me to be explicit that God is without "beginning" and "end". See, for example, Moses 1:3: "I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?"

I’m aware of other interpretations we're also at liberty to believe--because there is no “official" Church view on this. Some, for example, believe that “the Father became the Father at some time before ‘the beginning,’ as humans know it.” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism). I'm just not one of those who think that. I think Joseph Smith makes it very clear in the King Follet discourse that God the Father's mortality was experienced in a divine way; unlike mere mortals, but rather like Christ, who experienced mortality while divine.

However, I'm okay with letting people believe what they want to believe, even if I think that theirs is the weaker argument. After all, I understand that there are some issues with the original words in the biblical manuscripts which were translated into English as our “eternal”. For example, Stephen E. Robinson writes:
"The biblical concept of ‘eternity’ is problematic, and most constructions translated ‘forever’ or ‘eternal’ actually read ‘to the end of the age’ or just ‘to the age.’ Indeed, the words usually rendered ‘forever’ or ‘eternal’ are the Greek and Hebrew words for ‘age’ (aion and olam respectively). First-century Jews understood eternity to consist of successive ages or eons—all within the parameters of the beginning and the end.” ("How Wide The Divide?" p. 90)

The point is that there are various ways of interpreting this (some that seem more correct to me than others) but there will probably never be an “official” statement on this because for Latter-day Saints it’s not really an essential element of the gospel to understand. Thus it would be a caricature to say “Mormonism teaches…” only one stated position, when clearly there are multiple interpretations on some of these things even within Mormonism. As long as we’re all clear on what is actually in our scriptures and on those few things on which the Church actually has an official position, we’re okay. I’m sure one day we’ll find out what it really was like where the scriptures tend to be silent, but that day probably won’t come while we’re on this side of the veil. In the meantime, it would be helpful to understand that various interpretations exist without necessarily contradicting scripture.

Like Joseph Smith, “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” I suppose that as Mormons we can believe whatever we want about spirit "creation". Some believe that our spirits were created (or organized) from existing intelligence. Others believe that our spirits are uncreated, and refer back to the fact that “intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (D&C 93:29). (Spirit is used interchangeably with intelligence.) Furthermore, "man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy" (D&C 93:33). For a robust discussion on this very issue within Mormonism, I’ll include a link to a post at BCC entitled "Tripartite Existentialism".

Many Mormons (like J. Stapley and Blake Ostler), take a position that Jesus was uncreated, and to quote the introduction to the Book of Mormon, “is the Christ, the Eternal God.” This is where I tend to line up too. And if I believe that Jesus was always God (I do), than he would have been God even as “intelligence”. There really isn't much to go on in scripture about him being an “unformed” or “uncreated” intelligence—the scriptures don’t state that. Therefore, I don’t claim to know anything about Jesus as an “unformed”, “unorganized”, or “uncreated” intelligence. I thus go with what the scriptures actually say.

I believe that Jesus, as intelligence, was God, or as Abraham put it: “like unto God”. Why do I believe this? Because clearly in those passages (Abraham 3:22-24) there is a difference between all the rest of us “intelligences” and the One "like unto God”. I interpret that to mean that Christ was just like God the Father—who I also believe to have always been God. As I mentioned earlier, I think it's clear that Joseph Smith taught that when the Father experienced mortality, he did so just as Jesus (with divine power I clearly do not have)--not that the Father became God after never having been divine. Lastly, our scriptures teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost make up the Eternal “one God” (or Godhead) we worship.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Witness for the Book of Mormon: Elder Holland's “Christ and the New Covenant”

While on my mission several years ago, my mission president let me borrow Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's book "Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon". It was a autographed copy, as my mission president was Elder Holland's brother-in-law. I quickly realized I needed to have a copy of my own. The entire book is a classic, but particularly in the final chapter, Elder Holland bears powerful witness of the Book of Mormon. In light of a recent conversation with several critics, I decided to type out a significant portion of that witness and post it here. It's definitely worth reading:

"In my lifetime I have had a thousand spiritual witnesses—ten thousand of them?—that Jesus is the Christ, the Everlasting Son of the Everlasting God. In that lifetime I have also learned that the gospel of Jesus Christ, once lost to mankind through apostasy, has been restored to the earth and is found in its fullness in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is the one church on the face of the earth that Christ himself has restored, authorized, and empowered to act in his name. With a commission that could not have been imagined in the days of my youth, I myself am now called as a witness of these facts, a special witness ‘of the name of Christ in all the world.’

"In that role as witness I wish to declare that the spiritual experiences and holy affirmations I have had regarding the Savior and his restored church first came to me as a young man when I read the Book of Mormon. It was while reading this sacred record that I felt—again and again—the undeniable whispering of the Holy Ghost declaring to my soul the truthfulness of its message. To those first convictions have been added, one way or another, all of the other quickening moments and sanctifying manifestations that now give meaning to my days and purpose to my life.

"I know with undeniable, unshakable certainty that the Book of Mormon is a record of ancient origin, written by Israelites called of God to do so, protected and delivered by the angels of heaven and translated in our time by a modern prophet, seer, and revelator, Joseph Smith, Jr. I know that he translated it as he said he did—‘by the gift and power of God’—for such a book could not have been translated any other way.

"No other book has so affected my view of God and man, my view of mortality and eternity. No other book has stirred within me so many emotions. No other book has had such an impact upon my personal, family, educational, professional, and now apostolic life. Because I know that the Book of Mormon is a true witness—another testament and a new covenant—that Jesus is the Christ, I know that Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of God. As my great-great-great grandfather said of his own conversion in the earliest days of the Restoration, ‘No wicked man could write such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.’ That is emphatically my own assertion more than a century and a half later. And this magnificent book was translated when Joseph Smith was barely a boy, a lad still coming of age. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ‘Some boy. Some book.’…

"I am suggesting that one has to take something of a do-or-die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it. Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan of the first order, but no one should tolerate any ludicrous, even laughable middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take—morally, literarily, historically, or theologically.

"As the word of God has always been—and I testify again that is purely and precisely what the Book of Mormon is—this record is ‘quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of both joints and marrow’. The Book of Mormon is that quick and is that powerful. And it certainly is that sharp. Nothing in our history or our message cuts to the chase faster than our uncompromising declaration that Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son and that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. A recent critic said that our account of and devotion to the Book of Mormon and, by implication, Joseph Smith’s role in producing it, is ‘the most cherished and unique Mormon belief’. I could not agree more, so long as we are allowed to maintain that is so because the Book of Mormon affirms our yet higher and more sublime belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

"Consider the withering examination the Book of Mormon and its admittedly extraordinary claims have withstood. Has anyone presently reading these words ever tried to write anything of spiritual, redeeming, genuinely inspiring substance? With university degrees and libraries and computers and research assistants and decades of time, have you ever tried to write anything that anyone could read without tedium or apathy? And if one could produce even a few such inspiring pages, would that slim volume be anything anyone would want to read more than once, to say nothing of scores of times—marking it and pondering it, cross-referencing and quoting it, taking thousands of public sermons and a heart full of personal solace from it? Would it be good enough for people to weep over, to say it changed their lives, or saved their lives, or became something they were willing to give up fortune and future for—and then did just that?

"What if your literary piece created enemies for you? What if it were left in the public arena, open to the criticism of your most hostile and learned opponents, for more than 150 years? What if it were pulled apart and minutely examined and held up to the light of history, literature, anthropology, and religion with no other purpose than to discredit it and denounce you? Could what you have written be that good? Would you still be willing to say that it was an inspired piece of wok, let alone hold to your assertion that it was divinely revealed and that its contents were eternally important—that in a very real sense the whole future of the world was linked to your little volume? By this time would either you or your piece still be standing? Would anyone still be reading it?

"If Joseph Smith did not translate the Book of Mormon as a work of ancient origin, then I would move heaven and earth to meet the ‘real’ nineteenth-century author. After one hundred and fifty years, no one can come up with a credible alternative candidate, but if the book were false, surely there must be someone willing to step forward—if no one else, at least the descendents of the ‘real’ author—claiming credit for such a remarkable document and all that has transpired in its wake. After all, a writer that can move millions can make millions. Shouldn’t someone have come forth then or now to cashier the whole phenomenon?

"And what of the witnesses, the three and the eight, who forever affixed their signatures to the introductory pages of the Book of Mormon declaring they had, respectively, seen an angel and handled the plates of gold? Each of the three and several of eight had difficulty with the institutional Church during their lifetimes, including years of severe disaffection from Joseph Smith personally. Nevertheless, none of them—even in hours of emotional extremity or days of public pressure—ever disavowed his testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon.

"Late in his life David Whitmer said ‘as sure as there is a God in heaven,’ he had indeed seen the angel Moroni and did know the Book of Mormon was true. Fifty years after the experience, he could still readily identify the month, the year, even the time of day (“It was approximately 11 A.M.,” he said) when the angel appeared in ‘a dazzingly brilliant light’ and brought ‘a sensation of joy absolutely indescribable’.

"Martin Harris was asked in the last year of his life if he ‘believed the Book of Mormon was true.’ He answered ‘No,’ then reassured his initially surprised interrogator that he ‘knew’ the book was true, which was greater than belief. ‘I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen, and I have heard what I have heard,’ he said. ‘I saw the angel and the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated and heard the voice of God declare it was translated correctly.’

"Oliver Cowdery, who served as scribe as well as witness in this remarkable translation process and whose unique role in the early years of the Church is all the more poignant in light of his later fall from such sacred and significant responsibilities, said (while excommunicated from the Church), ‘I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet, as he translated it by the gift and power of God…I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was translated…That book is true.’ Thirty-seven years after Oliver called his family to his deathbed to yet once more bear his testimony of the Book of Mormon, his wife Elizabeth wrote, ‘From the hour when the glorious vision of the Holy Messenger revealed to mortal eyes the hidden prophecies which God had promised his faithful followers should come forth in due time, until the moment when he passed away from the earth, he always without one doubt or shadow of turning affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon.’

"No other origin for the Book of Mormon has ever come to light because no other account than the one Joseph Smith and these witnesses gave can truthfully be given. There is no other clandestine ‘author,’ no elusive ghostwriter still waiting in the wings after a century and a half for the chance to stride forward and startle the religious world. Indeed, that any writer—Joseph Smith or anyone else—could create the Book of Mormon out of whole cloth would be an infinitely greater miracle than that young Joseph translated it from an ancient record by ‘the gift and power of God.’

"On occasion this young prophet dictated his translation at white-hot speed, turning out as many as ten present-day pages in a sitting and ultimately producing the whole manuscript in something less than ninety working days. Those who have ever translated any text will understand what this means, especially when remembering it took fifty English scholars seven years (using generally superb and readily available translations for a starting point) to produce the King James Bible at the rate of one page per day.

"It is not insignificant that Joseph Smith did virtually all of this work in the midst of seemingly endless distractions and in the face of sometimes open hostility. Nevertheless, following those breaks in the translation effort he apparently never looked at the previously dictated material nor had any portion of it read back to him for context or continuity. Furthermore, he was never known to have consulted any reference book of any kind during the whole of the translation experience…

"I have read a reasonable number of books in my life, and I hope to read many more. I am not steeped in scholarship, but I can recognize profundity in print, especially when I see it page after page. In a lifetime of reading, the Book of Mormon stands preeminent in my intellectual and spiritual life, the classic of all classics, a reaffirmation of the Holy Bible, a voice from the dust, a witness for Christ, the word of the Lord unto salvation. I testify of that as surely as if I had, with the Three Witnesses, seen the angel Moroni or, with the Three and the Eight Witnesses, seen and handled the plates of gold.

"The Book of Mormon is the sacred expression of Christ’s great last covenant with mankind. It is a new covenant, a new testament from the New World to the entire world. Reading it was the beginning of my light. It was the source of my first spiritual certainly that God lives, that he is my Heavenly Father, and that a plan of happiness was outlined in eternity for me. It led me to love the Holy Bible and the rest of the Standard Works of the Church. It taught me to love the Lord Jesus Christ, to glimpse his merciful compassion, and to consider the grace and grandeur of his atoning sacrifice for my sins and the sins of all men, women, and children from Adam to the end of time. The light I walk by is his light. His mercy and magnificence lead me in my witness of him to the world.

"As Mormon said to Moroni in one of their most demanding times, so I say to the family of mankind, who must prepare for the coming of our King of Kings: ‘Be faithful in Christ; and may…[he] lift thee up…May his sufferings and death, and the showing his body unto our fathers, and his mercy and longsuffering, and the hope of his glory and of eternal life, rest in your mind forever. And may the grace of God the Father, whose throne is high in the heavens, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who sitteth on the right hand of his power…be, and abide with you forever.’”

Saturday, May 16, 2009

David McCullough: Why History?

My favorite historian just made a visit to the new Church History Library in downtown Salt Lake City. (See David McCullough, Award-Winning Historian and Author, Visits Church History Library).

In his speech there, McCullough expressed his appreciation for what he called the “epic” story of the Latter-day Saints. “You are caring for a national treasure here. The story of the Latter-day Saints, of Joseph Smith, of Brigham Young, and that incredible migration here is a great American story.”

I, of course, completely agree with him. It also seems to me to be a very nice gesture a la President Kennedy's Tabernacle speech. I have been a big fan of McCullough's for quite some time now. As a story-teller and advocate of history, he's just been phenomenal. His books John Adams and 1776 are among my all-time favorites. He gave a phenomenal speech at BYU in 2005 entitled "The Glorious Cause of America". I highly recommend it.

I also recommend the following as absolutely required reading:

Why History?
By David McCullough
Source: Reader's Digest December 2002

"The best way to know where the country is going is to know where we've been."
On a winter morning on the campus of one of our finest colleges, in a lovely Ivy League setting with snow falling outside, I sat with a seminar of 25 students, all seniors majoring in history, all honors students-supposedly the best of the best. "How many of you knew who George Marshall was?" I asked. No one knew. Not one. At a large university in the Midwest, a young undergraduate told me how glad she was to have attended my lectures, because until then, she said, she never realized that the original 13 Colonies were all on the Eastern Seaboard. This was said, in all seriousness, by a university student.

Who are we, we Americans? How did we get where we are? What is our story and what can it teach us? Our story is our history, and if ever we should be taking steps to see that we have the best prepared, most aware citizens ever, that time is now. Yet the truth is that we are raising a generation that is to an alarming degree historically illiterate. The problem has been coming on for a long time, like a disease, eating away at the national memory. While the popular cultures races loudly on, the American past is slipping away. We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it's taken to come this far.

Warnings of this development have been sounded again and again. In 1995, the Department of Education reported that more than half of all high school seniors hadn't even the most basic understanding of American history. Two years ago, a study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni showed that four out of five seniors from leading colleges and universities were unable to pass basic high school history test. To the question "Who was the American general at York town?" more of these students answered Ulysses S. Grant than George Washington. And there's been no improvement.

This year the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported that none of the nation's top 50 colleges and universities now require American history as part of the curriculum. In fact, one can go forth into the world today as the proud product of all but a handful of our 50 top institutions of higher learning without ever having taken a single course in history of any kind.

But why bother about history anyway? "That's history"-that's done with, junk for the trash heap. Why history? Because it shows up how to behave. History teaches and reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, stand up for. History is about life-human nature and the human condition and all its trails and fallings and noblest achievements. History is about cause and effect, about the simplest of everyday things-and the mysteries of chance and genius.

History shows us what choices there are. History teaches with specific examples the evils of injustice, ignorance or demagoguery, just as it shows how potent is plain courage, or one simple illuminating idea. History is-or should be-the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country.

At their core, the lessons of history are lessons of appreciation. Everything we have, all our great institutions, our laws, our music, art and poetry, our freedoms, everything is because somebody went before us and did the hard work, provided the creative energy, faced the storms, made the sacrifices, kept the faith.

Indifference to history isn't just ignorant; it's a form of ingratitude. And the scale of our ignorance seems especially shameful in the face of our unprecedented good fortune. What's so worrisome about the college student who doesn't know that George Washington was the commanding American general at York town is that he also, therefore, has no idea that it was Washington who commanded the Continental Army through eight long years in the struggle for independence. I'm convinced that history encourages, as nothing else does, a sense of proportion about life, gives us a sense of how brief is our time on earth and thus how valuable that time is.

We live in an era of momentous change, creating great pressures and tensions. But history shows that times of tumult are the times when we are most likely to learn. This nation was founded on change. We should embrace the possibilities inherent in such times and hold to a steady course, because we have a sense of what we've been through and who we are.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, history can be a source of strength and of renewed commitment to the ideals upon which the nation was founded. As unsettling as events may be, others before us have known worse. Think of what our predecessors endured and accomplished. Think of the dangerous times they knew! Churchill, in the darkest hours of World War II, reminded us that "we have not journeyed all this way because we are made of sugar candy."

I passionately believe that history isn't just good enough for you in a civic way. History, really, is an extension of life. It enlarges and intensifies the experience of being alive, like poetry and art or music. And there's no great secret to making history come alive. Historian Barbara Tuchman said it perfectly in two words, "Tell stories." Part of what that means is that history is ours to enjoy. If we deny our children that enjoyment, that adventure in the larger time among the greater part of the human experience, then we're cheating them out of a full life.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What would Jesus say to a Mormon?

Hat tip to Aquinas for spotlighting a fascinating and informative talk:
What would Jesus say to a Mormon?
. The talk is by evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg, and Aquinas highlights the introduction, believing it to be very significant. I have to say I agree:
“I’m not going to...preach some harsh or condemning message. I have often heard Christians, for example, turn to the Book of Galatians and read from the very first chapter where Paul is talking to that church in what today we would call central Turkey, and he writes “I’m astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different Gospel which is really no Gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the Gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a Gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be under God’s curse.”

"There is a time and a place particularly in speaking to God’s speak to warn them in strong language about what in a given place and time in the Church’s history is significant deviation from historic orthodox truth in those areas that are so central that someone’s salvation might be called into question.

"But it strikes me, as I read the whole sweep of the New Testament, that the times Jesus and Paul and the other apostles speak like this, and speak most harshly, is when they are talking, we might say, ‘in house’–Jesus to the religious leaders of his community, particularly certain Pharisees and scribes, Paul, here, to a group of individuals that he goes on to call Judaizers who are requiring, even as they confess Christ, people to obey the Jewish law as a requirement for salvation. And he is not directly addressing them so much as he is trying to convince those in churches he personally planted and founded, not to be let astray. There is a time and a place for these kinds of messages.

"But when Jesus is speaking to the one outside his community, when Paul is trying to win those not in his churches to the faith, we find a very gentle a very wooing spirit. We find Jesus criticized for intimate association with tax collectors and sinners. We see Paul saying in 1st Corinthians 9 that he tries to be “all things to all people, so that by all means, he might save some.” So in that spirit, I would like to hope, I don’t know if it’s true, that we might save some Latter-day Saint guests with us with us this morning. If we don’t, I have some friends that I’m imagining sitting in the audience from the LDS Church and I want to speak to them, in ways that I believe they would agree represent their convictions, and I simply invite the rest of you to listen in."

I have great respect for Craig Blomberg. You can listen to the whole talk, or download it here.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Embracing Grace

On the heels of "Grateful for Grace", I want to spotlight another fantastic post by Ray/Papa D: "Embracing Grace". He "gets it", and getting this makes all the difference. Some highlights:

We have been saved by the grace of God. That salvation started when Jesus voluntarily offered Himself as our Savior prior to the creation of the world, continued when He was born of Mary, deepened in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Golgatha when He hung on the cross, declared "It is finished," and "gave up the ghost" - and culminated on that Sunday morning when He rose from the tomb, appeared to Mary, ascended to His Father, and became the first fruits of the resurrection. The implications of that grace are enormous and too often misunderstood...

2 Nephi 25:23 is the most quoted verse about grace in Mormondom. It says, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Many people believe that this means we are only saved if we do all that we can do - if we obey every commandment to the best of our ability. That simply isn't in line with the rest of our scriptures and, more importantly, it leads to unnecessary stress and anxiety about whether or not "I am doing enough." I see this all the time in my discussions with [my wife] and as I listen to and read the blogs of many women, especially. Rather than seeing the grace of God as a freeing, enabling gift that already has been given, they often internalize it as a reward dangling enticingly in front of them, ready to be withdrawn if they screw up too badly and fail to repent immediately. That leads to guilt and pain and lack of self-confidence, instead of the rest that is promised so beautifully in Matthew 11:28-30.

When I read 2 Nephi 25:23, I explain it by employing a common linguistic technique - switching the phrases to reflect the proper emphasis. In this case, the sentence becomes, "(Even) after all we can do, it is (still) by grace that we are saved." Of course, we are to try to do all that we can do, but exactly what we can do pales in comparison to what He has done - saved us by His grace regardless of what we can do. It takes the pressure off of us and puts the focus where it should be - on His incomprehensible grace that so fully he proffers us.

I believe an understanding of grace is fully realized when one stops fighting God's grace - when he realizes that all God wants is his willing mind and heart - when he quits worrying about his individual worthiness and starts focusing on his contribution to communal unity - when he simply lays it all at His feet and says, in essence, "I know you understand my weakness; I know you know my struggles and pains; I know you know how I feel about myself; I know you love me and have bought me, anyway. From now on, I will trust your promise and, despite my continuing frustration and my continuing weakness and my continuing failures, I will bounce back each time and continue to grow. I will not despair; I will accept my weakness and imperfection and failure, knowing you don't care, because you love me, anyway. I will get back up each time I am knocked down and continue to walk toward you, until you embrace me and say, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant' - knowing I don't deserve it and being eternally grateful for the grace that so fully you proffered me."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Grateful For Grace

The other day I read an article titled "How to become a Christian" by Billy Graham. I was actually quite impressed. I thought it was good and I couldn't find a single thing I disagreed with. (This must mean I'm a Christian after all, despite the fact that some probably think Billy Graham should have inserted a disclaimer: "unless you're a Mormon, in which case this won't work for you").

I especially liked how he described Christ's free gift of salvation. Naturally, we don't pay anything when we receive a gift. The giver of the gift pays for it and we receive it joyfully, ever grateful for the giver of the gift. Graham writes:
"The word grace means 'undeserved favor'. It means God is offering you something you could never provide for yourself: forgiveness of sins and eternal life, God's gift to you is free. You do not have to work for a gift. All you have to do is joyfully receive it."
He then goes on to talk about how to demonstrate commitment back to Christ as a response to the free gift of grace. (We Latter-day Saints would also have more to say about how to appropriately respond to Christ's grace, namely, through covenant). But in short, I think it was simply an excellent article.

The next morning I was reading to my daughter. The book she chose was "You Are Priceless", a simplified version of the Parable of the Bicycle that Stephen Robinson teaches in his book "Believing Christ". The father in the story sees a broken-hearted daughter who realizes that her 61 cents isn't enough to purchase the bike she desires more than anything else. So he tells her to give him all that she has (in this case 61 cents), a hug and a kiss, and he'd buy the bike for her.

A empathetic light bulb went off in my head. I began to see why some Christians could have a problem with that analogy. They might mistakenly think that Mormons believe we help pay for or contribute to our salvation. I also realized that some Mormons do have the impression that we must somehow pay for part of the free gift of salvation--that our works somehow contribute to our salvation. But these folks misunderstand what the Parable of the Bicycle (not to mention our own Scriptures), actually teaches.

Those 61 cents should not be understood as a partial "payment", because salvation is a free gift. It should be understood as a representation of "giving our all"--our commitment--to the Savior (who does 100% of the saving). We give our hearts back to the Lord in gratitude.

For those who think I'm twisting what Stephen E. Robinson was teaching, he himself made a clarification in "How Wide the Divide?" when pressed on this issue by Craig Blomberg. He responds:
"In my parable of the bicycle, "sixty-one cents" is symbolic of our inability to earn our own salvation and also of the commitment in principle required of the saved. The believer who has only forty-one cents, or twenty-one, or eleven--or none--is still justified if he or she holds nothing back. It is not the quantity, but the commitment that matters. Without a commitment that translates into behavior, we are not saved. With such a commitment, be it ever so small at first, we are." (pp. 222-223)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

"That They May Be One As We Are One"

Perhaps one of the most significant and moving passages of scripture is that of Jesus' great intercessory prayer found in John 17. One obvious fact here is that Jesus is not praying to himself. There are two "persons" involved. All Christians, LDS and Traditional, agree with this. Of course, many from both camps confuse the Trinity for Modalism, the belief that God is a single person who manifests himself in three different persons or modes, when in fact we all believe (or ought to believe) that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons.

Some people I've talked with wrongly believe they're all the same person and thus mistakenly assume that Jesus is somehow praying to himself. Technically, this is a "heresy", and there are indeed two persons involved in this prayer--Father and Son. The obvious conclusion is that since there are two distinct "persons" there is (consequentially) more than "one".

Now contrary to LDS understanding, where each "person" is their own being (1 person per being!), Trinitarians believe that each of these three divine persons are actually one ontological substance, or one Being. (Or in other words, that God is one Being eternally existing in three persons, or that these three persons are ontologically one, meaning at the level of being.) This is their best explanation for the biblical data that God is three, but that God is also one. Although I don't subscribe to that particular solution, I'm not interested in mocking someone else for believing that way. "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may" (11th Article of Faith).

However, lately I've encountered several [Christian] folk who seem to have made it their personal ministry in life to convince the Mormons of the error of their ways and who have set up blogs in the sole hope that our "misguided" eyes will be opened. After all, we're all "blind" because we're being "lied" to! Convinced their interpretation is the right one, these friendly folks bring up scriptures in the Old Testament, like Isaiah 45:5 ("I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me"), Isaiah 44:6 ("I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God"), or Isaiah 43:10 ("before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me") which, they thus claim, somehow provides "evidence" that the Mormons are wrong.

However, I think it would be wise for them to recognize this is the same kind of reasoning that Jews would use against Christian belief. You see, Jews don't consider Trinitarians strict monotheists either. Jews only believe that God is one, without subscribing to the belief that God is three and one. In this sense, Trinitarian Christians and LDS Christians are in the same boat--we both desire to preserve the distinction among the three persons. (Trinity is Tri-Unity, meaning a unity and a plurality.)

Naturally, we come to different conclusions about how God is both one and three. Jews, on the other hand, don't believe in three divine persons (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)--just one God. Christians believe that there are three divine and distinct persons, each of whom is fully God. Joseph Smith referred to the three divine persons as three Gods, thus Joseph Smith offered a robust meaning of the word person, affirming the threeness of God. (Christians may feel Mormons somehow compromise the unity of God in believing God is three beings, but this is simply wrong just as it would be for Jews to accuse Christians of violating the Bible because of their beliefs.)

A Christian might say that God is one but merely manifesting himself as three different persons, but that is actually Modalism, when in fact they are three distinct persons. By any means, I don't see any biblical evidence that God is ontologically one. I think Jews might want to convince a Christian that there are not three divine persons--but only one--by using those same Hebrew Bible/Old Testament verses.

New Testament verses that clearly state that God is one do not say God is "ontologically" one. It's just stated that they are "one". The Bible also says that husband and wife are to be "one"--in fact "one flesh"--but we don't interpret that to mean that husband and wife are somehow supposed to be one being. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to over-emphasize the separateness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because I believe the Godhead to be infinitely more united as "one" than they are separate--one in every conceivable way except ontologically. But I don’t believe the only way to understand God’s oneness is to understand God is ontologically one. There are more ways to understand “oneness” than ontologically or numerically.

Christ prayed in John 17:11 for His disciples "so that they may be one as we are one" (New International Version). The King James version says "that they may be one, as we are." The New Living Translation puts it like this: "united just as we are". Obviously, this is not inferring that we are all supposed to become one substance or being--but one in terms of relationship, unity, and love. This is more in line with how I view the unity of the Godhead. Jesus wants us to be one with Him and Father--in exactly the same way--just as He and His Father are one.