KJV in the BOM, vs. JST of the KJV

I find it somewhat odd that the Book of Mormon contains many passages from the King James Translation of the Bible, recited verbatim. Years later, Joseph Smith “translated” the Bible, fixing the errors that he perceived therein. During this translation process, many of the passages quoted in the Book of Mormon were changed. Shouldn’t the Book of Mormon be updated to reflect this further light and knowledge?

For your convenience, I have the passages from the JST, KJV, and BoM, side-by-side for comparison:

JST / BOM Comparison

14 And suffer us not to be led into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.. (JST Matt 6:14).

12 And alead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

13 For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen. (3 Ne. 13:12-13)

13 aAnd blead us not into ctemptationdbut deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the eglory, for ever. Amen. (Matt. 6:13)

22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single to the glory of God, thy whole body shall be full of light. (JST Matt. 6:22)

22 The alight of the body is the beye; if, therefore, thine eye be csingle, thy whole body shall be full of light. (3 Ne. 13:22)

22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine aeye be bsingle, thy whole body shall be full of clight. (Matt. 6:22)

25 And, again, I say unto you, go ye into the world, and care not for the world; for the world will hate you, and will persecute you, and will turn you out of their synagogues.
26 Nevertheless, ye shall go forth from house to house, teaching the people; and I will go before you.

27 And your heavenly Father will provide for you, whatsoever things ye need for food, what ye shall eat; and for raiment, what ye shall wear or put on. (JST Matt: 6:25-27)

Does not appear in 3 Nephi 13

Does not appear in Matthew 6

38 Wherefore, seek not the things of this world but seek ye first to build up the kingdom of God, and to establish his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (JST Matt. 6:33)

33 But aseek ye first the bkingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. (3 Ne. 13:33)

33 aBut bseek ye first the ckingdom of God, and his drighteousness; and all these ethings shall be fadded unto you. (Matt. 6:33)

Now these are the words which Jesus taught his disciples that they should say unto the people.

2 Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment. (JST Matt. 7:1-2)

aAnd now it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words he turned again to the multitude, and did open his mouth unto them again, saying: Verily, verily, I say unto you, Judge not, that ye be not judged.

aFor with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (3 Ne. 14:1-2)

aJudge not, that ye be not bjudged.

2 For with what ajudgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what bmeasure ye mete, it shall be cmeasured to you again. (Matt. 7:1-2)

And again, ye shall say unto them, Why is it that thou beholdest the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

5 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and canst not behold a beam in thine own eye?

And Jesus said unto his disciples, Beholdest thou the Scribes, and the Pharisees, and the Priests, and the Levites? They teach in their synagogues, but do not observe the law, nor the commandments; and all have gone out of the way, and are under sin.

Go thou and say unto them, Why teach ye men the law and the commandments, when ye yourselves are the children of corruption?

Say unto them, Ye hypocrites, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (JST Matt. 7:4-8)

4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother: Let me pull the mote out of thine eye—and behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

5 Thou ahypocrite, first cast the bbeam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (3 Ne. 14:4-5)

4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

5 Thou ahypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:4-5)

Go ye into the world, saying unto all, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come nigh unto you.

10 And the mysteries of the kingdom ye shall keep within yourselves; for it is not meet to give that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls unto swine, lest they trample them under their feet.

11 For the world cannot receive that which ye, yourselves, are not able to bear; wherefore ye shall not give your pearls unto them, lest they turn again and rend you. (JST Matt. 7:9-11)

6 Give not that which is aholy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. (3 Ne. 14:6)

6 ¶ aGive not that which is bholy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your cpearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. (Matt. 7:6)

12 Say unto them, Ask of God; ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

13 For every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and unto him that knocketh, it shall be opened.

14 And then said his disciples unto him, they will say unto us, We ourselves are righteous, and need not that any man should teach us. God, we know, heard Moses and some of the prophets; but us he will not hear.

15 And they will say, We have the law for our salvation, and that is sufficient for us.

16 Then Jesus answered, and said unto his disciples, thus shall ye say unto them,

17 What man among you, having a son, and he shall be standing out, and shall say, Father, open thy house that I may come in and sup with thee, will not say, Come in, my son; for mine is thine, and thine is mine? (JST Matt. 7:12-17)

aAsk, and it shall be given unto you; bseek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

8 For every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened. (3 Ne. 14:7-8)

7 ¶ aAsk, and it shall be bgiven you; cseek, and ye shall find; dknock, and it shall be opened unto you:

8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that aseeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (Matt. 7:7-8)

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An Infinite God and The Inevitability of Idolatry

3. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
5. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

The Old Testament is riddled with examples of idolatry. In fact, it may be reasonable to say that the principle sin of the Israelites was idolatry. Often in Sunday school classes I used to asked myself with amazement how the Israelites, who had been extracted from Egypt and installed in the promised land of Canaan, could so quickly and easily forget their God and turn to idols. It seemed so silly to worship a statue and the practice was so foreign to me, that I assumed that idolatry was no longer an issue. Sure, I understood the Sunday school answer — that anything that we value more than God is an idol — but I also understood that there are some important differences between coveting money and worshiping it in the place of God. I have since come to favor a less literal interpretation of scripture, so I’m more inclined to understand the Old Testament stories as parables or spiritual allegories than as reliable history. When viewed from a figurative perspective, it seems to me that idolatry may be a far more common practice than I once believed.

It seems to me that a certain amount of idolatry is inevitable. God, if he exists, is clearly very different from us. Especially when we talk about a god that exists outside of time and who is totally omniscient it appears likely that there are things about God that we don’t understand. When we worship God, we are actually worshiping an idea of God which we create in our own minds. Try this little thought experiment: make a list of every single attribute and characteristic of God that you can think of. Now ask yourself, does this list represent a complete and accurate description of God? Are there things that you may have left off? Are there things about God that you might not know? Are there things on the list that might represent your assumptions about God, and not necessarily the true nature of God? Any time we try to worship God, no matter how sincere our intention, we worship a graven image, an incomplete idea, a creation of our own mind.

There are some unique risks facing the LDS church regarding idolatry. For instance, the tremendous importance we place on the living prophets, treating their words as if they were the literal words of God, can veer perilously close to idolatry if we aren’t careful. Likewise, the aphorism, originally by Thomas S. Monson but later repeated by Elder Gary E. Stevenson that “as we touch the temple, the temple will touch us,” attributes spiritual powers to a man-made structure. Obviously, this is not the same as asking us to worship the temple, but it is a step in a dangerous direction, in my opinion.

The problem, essentially, is that we are finite beings trying to understand and make sense of a God that is vastly beyond our ability to comprehend. It is inevitable that, in trying to understand God, we will employ the terms and ideas with which we are comfortable and familiar. For instance, by equating God with a king, we employ an earthly metaphor to invoke the power of God. When we talk about God as our father, we use an earthly metaphor to describe the respect and affection that we feel towards God. Jesus understood the importance of using familiar metaphors and imagery when communicating spiritual messages; he used parables about seeds, vineyards, wheat, and bread to convey deep spiritual concepts. There is nothing wrong with this in my opinion, as long as we remember that the symbol is not the thing being symbolized. The spiritual feelings that one experiences in the temple do not come from the temple or even the rituals performed therein. The joy that a convert feels after his baptism does not come from the water or the white clothing. The sacramental emblems are just bread and water; the sacramental prayers are only words. If there is power or significance in these things, it is not because there is anything special about the bricks that make the temple or the water that fills the baptismal font. The meaning comes from God, and it is our duty to recognize and remember this.

I know that many Mormons would strongly disagree with me on this, but I feel that the mysteriousness of God is a fundamental part of worship. To venerate something that we fully understand is idolatry. To think that we are capable of fully understanding God is to bind and limit God within the strictures of our own minds. It seems to me that a god that we are able to fully understand almost certainly doesn’t exist. I am still trying to figure out exactly what I believe, and why I believe it. although I can’t help but wonder if idolatry played a role in my disaffection and loss of faith. Did I lose my faith because my faith had actually been placed in an idolatrous version of God all along?

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How Central Is The Atonement Of Jesus Christ In Mormon Doctrine?

For a church that takes the name of Jesus Christ, lessons and talks about Jesus can sometimes be scarce in LDS worship services. During the past two LDS general conferences I have made some informal textual analysis and the results have been surprising. In the fall general conference of 2009, references to Jesus: {‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘Savior’, ‘redeemer’, ‘atonement’, ‘resurrection’, ‘crucifixion’}, modern-day prophets: {‘president’, ‘prophet’}, and the LDS church were all equally common. For every mention of the atonement, there were three references to Joseph Smith. There were mentions of pornography than of the resurrection! This is, of course, not a rigorous study and we shouldn’t make too much of it, but it does generally mirror what I have observed in my own wards in the LDS church. During talks and lessons, the words of the LDS general authorities are cited with far greater frequency than the words of Jesus are. During testimony meetings The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, Jesus Christ, and the LDS church, usually seem to share equal weight in the (perceived) testimony that is being shared. The one major exception to this trend can be found in the hymns of the church which, in my opinion, are predominantly Christ-centric.

I think I understand why this phenomenon occurs. When Mormons share their religious beliefs with their friends, there is often a fairly large amount of presumed common ground. When a Mormon speaks to a Lutheran about the church, he doesn’t have to start from the very beginning and explain who Jesus was. This is common ground on which the Lutheran and the Mormon agree. Since this is the case, the Mormon might be more inclined to begin the conversation by discussing modern prophets — not because the topic is more important than Jesus, but because it is the most important topic about which the two sects disagree. Eventually, the two — most important and most important difference — start to seep and blend together. Because the centrality of Jesus Christ is assumed common ground, the concept begins to be taken for granted, and subsequently recedes from the forum of religious discourse.

But there is another way to think about the centrality of the doctrine of the atonement is in a particular religious tradition. We can form a ratio between the atonement on one side, and the total number of necessary conditions for salvation on the other.

  1. Atonement — The belief that the atonement of Jesus Christ is a sufficient and a necessary condition for salvation is called universalism. In this view, the atonement is the only requirement for salvation, and therefore, everyone will inherit salvation. Centrality ratio: 1/1 = 100%
  2. Atonement + Faith — The second option is the belief that the atonement of Jesus Christ is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for salvation. The idea, fairly common among born-again Christians, that they have been saved while they’re still alive, stems from this doctrine. In order to obtain salvation, we must also have faith in Jesus. In this view, there will be people who are not saved by the atonement. Faith and the atonement are equally important to salvation because without either, salvation would be impossible. Centrality ratio: 1/2 = 50%
  3. Atonement + Faith + Works — In this view, pious actions must accompany faith in Jesus in order for salvation to be achieved. These pious actions could include things like baptism, service to others, the donation or sacrifice of offerings, etc.This seems to be a fairly common view among liberal protestant churches. Without good works, the atonement and faith cannot save someone. Centrality ratio: 1/3 – 33.3%
  4. Atonement + Faith + Works + Doctrine — In this view, a righteous believer cannot be saved until he or she accepts and believes the correct doctrine. In my younger years, I encountered this attitude in a lot of my Christian friends, who tried to convince me that I should leave the Mormon church because — even though I had faith and good works — my belief in The Book of Mormon was placing my prospects for salvation in jeopardy. Centrality ratio: 1/4 = 25%
  5. Atonement + Faith + Works + Doctrine + Authority — In my opinion, the LDS church falls into this category. Imagine a situation in which some person (we’ll call him Jeb) starts a church that is exactly like the LDS church in every respect. Imagine that Jeb’s church has the exact same doctrines as the LDS church, the same teachings, the same scriptures, the same ordinances, etc. According to LDS doctrine, would the members of Jeb’s church qualify for salvation? No. Before they could be admitted into heaven, they would have to join the church with the proper authority, or receive ordinances from the proper authority. One slightly troubling effect of requiring authority for salvation is that, since the authority always resides in an individual or an organization, then our salvation depends — at least in part — on other people. Centrality ratio: 1/5 = 20%

Let me point out that I left out many doctrinal permutations. For instance, I didn’t mention the doctrine that the atonement is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for salvation, or that the atonement plus good works are sufficient for salvation without faith, etc. The main intent of the exercise was to point out that by adding more conditions for salvation, the atonement gets displaced.

The argument could be made that in LDS doctrine, it is the atonement alone that saves us, but that it is our faith, works, correct doctrine, and authority that allow us to participate in the atonement and receive salvation. This response is ultimately nothing more than a little definitional sleight of hand. It basically redefines the atonement so that it is synonymous with salvation.

In fairness, there is a compelling case to be made that my observation that the atonement is not central to LDS theology is misleading because it confuses LDS church culture, policy, and tradition with LDS theology. The Book of Mormon states explicitly on more than one occasion that individuals will be judged by God based on their level of knowledge and understanding (Moroni 8:22, 2 Nephi 9:25). In other words, those individuals who have died without ever hearing of Jesus Christ will be saved by the atonement alone; they are not required to have faith in order to be saved. We intuit this in the LDS doctrine that little children and individuals with severe mental handicaps are not accountable for their sins and that they do not require baptism (or any other ordinance) in order to be saved. Perhaps the LDS church has adopted traditions and policies which ignore its best theology. Perhaps the current emphasis on ordinances and vicarious temple work — a practice which is expressly forbidden in 3 Nephi, chapter 11 and Moroni, chapter 8 — has shifted our doctrinal focus away from Jesus Christ and towards other ideas.

One other thought which is worth mentioning is that the concept of salvation in LDS doctrine is rather different than the mainstream view. Technically, in Mormon theology, almost everyone is saved, but only faithful Mormons receive ‘exaltation’ and live in the presence of God. When talking about LDS theology, I have treated the terms ‘salvation’ and ‘exaltation’ as being roughly synonymous since the LDS doctrine of exaltation is most analogous to the concept of salvation in mainstream Christianity.

Now, I am not trying to argue that the centrality of the atonement in a theological system is the only criterion that matters. If the Mormon theology is actually true, then my little ‘centrality ratio’ doesn’t prove anything. What is important, for the success and continued growth of the LDS church, is that the members of the church have the opportunity to experience meaningful worship in church. Faith, works, doctrine, authority, etc. may very well be important, but they do not inspire reverence in the same way that the worship of God or Jesus Christ do. Even if there is no God (the possibility of which every honest theist has to admit), surely the ideas of God, of Jesus Christ, of forgiveness and mercy are more inspiring than the ideas of home teaching, or priesthood authority, or obedience.

By focusing on the most important doctrines, the LDS church can have a more vibrant and meaningful worship experience for its members.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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What Is Faith?

There is no concept which is more important than faith for the 21st century believer. In the past, believers were able to point to the unexplained physical phenomena that they observed as evidence for the existence of God. But, as the methods of science matured, we have discovered natural explanations for many of the occurrences that once ‘proved’ the existence of God. Now we know that ignorance is not a window to God, and the fact that there may be things about the universe that we don’t understand does not mean that there is no natural explanation for them. In short, the testimony of a modern believer relies on faith almost exclusively for its existence.

But what is faith? For a concept of such importance, faith is not very well understood. Perhaps the difficulty inherent in defining faith stems from the fact that faith is a subjective experience. It is easy for two people to look through the same telescope and see the same star. If those same two people were to watch each others wedding videos, on the other hand, they might have a hard time saying exactly what the depicted events mean. This is precisely because meaning, like faith, is a subjective experience, something that we construct to make sense of our lives. Despite this difficulty in pinning down what faith actually means, I think that it is worth discussing some of the different interpretations of faith, in the hope of understanding what sorts of faith are actually worth possessing.

In discussions about religion, I frequently encounter the notion that faith is “belief without evidence.” This definition is a convenient straw-man, because if this is really what faith is, then it is trivially easy to discredit and summarily dismiss faith altogether. In reality, I don’t think that this definition is too far off the mark, but it fails to make a subtle distinction between cases where a belief is held without evidence because the evidence is not known, and cases where a belief is held without evidence because no evidence is possible. According to this definition, when someone believes that the Loch Ness Monster exists, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that individual has the same sort of faith that a theist does. For someone trying to argue that it is unreasonable to have faith in God, this is a desirable conclusion; however, it is also a fairly poor reflection of what most theists mean when they talk about faith. Believing something contrary to abundant evidence is delusional, and for faith to be worth having, it cannot be centered in something which is demonstrably false.

Next (since this is a blog about philosophical Mormonism) let’s turn to The Book of Mormon, which describes faith this way: “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). As far as scriptural definitions of faith go (and I realize that any non-Mormons reading this will probably not consider a verse from The Book of Mormon to be scriptural) I can think of none better than this one. Hebrews 11:1 is also a very popular verse about faith, but to me, it is very vague, and by introducing the notion of evidence, it comes dangerously close to the belief-without-evidence definition of faith which we have already shown to be seriously inadequate. Technically, this verse in Alma is not a definition in the strict sense. First, it is an explanation of what faith is not: faith is not a perfect knowledge. Second, it describes the outcome of faith: those who have faith will have hope in things which are not seen, but which are true. Expressed with logical operators, it looks like this: Faith → (¬Seen & True). So, by the application of basic logical principles, we can conclude that, according to The Book of Mormon, we may have hope in things that are seen and in things that are not true, but such a hope does not come from faith. So a belief that the world is only 6,000 years old is not a demonstration of faith, because the age of the earth is not “not seen” (pardon the grammatical mangling!) but is a matter of fact that can be investigated with empirical means, and because it is not true that the Earth is 6,000 years old. Such a belief fails the B.o.M. criteria of faith. One difficulty with this view is the fact that while it is easy to recognize when we have hope in something unseen, in some cases it can be difficult (or impossible) to know if our hope is in something that is true. If we knew whether a certain proposition were true (for instance, the proposition ‘God exists’) then we wouldn’t have to have faith in it.

There are probably as many different definitions of faith as there are human beings on the planet, so any attempt at a definitive explanation is probably doomed from the start. Nevertheless, I’ll hazard an attempt. The word ‘faith’ derives from the Latin ‘fidere’ which means ‘to trust.’ The etymology of the word is not, in itself, significant, but it happens that in this case, it is useful to think of ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ as being roughly synonymous. To have faith is to trust in the untestable assumptions that we make about the world. This sort of faith affects every aspect of our lives, whether we believe in God or not. Before I get into specific examples of this kind of faith, I need to make a minor digression to talk about two of the most influential skeptical philosophers in the history of the world: Rene Descartes and David Hume (from whom I have borrowed my nom de plume).

Descartes set for himself the task of discovering a set of fundamental principles that can be known to be true without any possibility of doubt. He thought that by doing so, he would be able to establish a completely reliable base upon which to construct the edifice of knowledge. So, he began a process of methodological skepticism in which he stripped away any assumption which could possibly be doubted. First, he points out that it is possible to doubt the reliability of the senses; the existence of mirages and other optical illusions suggest this. Next, he points out that we can doubt the existence of the physical world; perhaps I am dreaming or hallucinating, and nothing that I experience is real. Finally, Descartes presents his ‘evil genius’ argument, that it is possible to doubt a priori analytic propositions like ‘2+2=4’; it could be that there is some evil genius (genie) who likes nothing more than to delude human beings and every time we come close to thinking the truth, that 2+2=5, he meddles with our minds and forces us to the erroneous conclusion that 2+2=4. Ultimately, Descartes came to the most basic principle, which he believed was impossible to doubt (although Hume will eventually cast doubt even on this), namely, the famous cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. From this one unassailable foundation, Descartes tries to deduce a set of axioms and true principles; however, it is far from clear that he succeeds in doing so. It is important to point out that Descartes was not a skeptic. In fact, he undertook his project to try to protect science from unreasonable skepticism, but in the end, he was not able to counter the skeptical case that he had made until he concluded (with questionable justification) that if he existed, then God had to exist as well.

David Hume, unlike Descartes, was a genuine skeptic. Hume is particularly well known for posing the problem of induction. An inductive inference occurs when we make a general conclusion from a finite set of examples. Hume argues that such an inference is not logically valid. Consider this example:

  1. The sun has always risen in the past.
  2. The future resembles the past.
  3. Therefore, the sun will rise tomorrow.

Most people would probably feel very comfortable with this argument, in fact, we depend on it. We naturally assume that the sun will rise tomorrow just as it always has. We understand the principles of momentum that keep the planet revolving and the forces of gravity that keep the Earth tethered to the Sun. It is not Hume’s intent to argue that the sun won’t rise tomorrow. He merely points out that our belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is not based on valid logic. The problem is with the second premise, that the future resembles the past. Our only reason for thinking that the future will resemble the past is that so far, the future always has resembled the past. This is circular reasoning, because it relies on induction to justify induction itself. Hume’s critique of induction is so devastating and thorough that for the most part, philosophers have ceded the issue and admitted that inductive reasoning is not valid, but that it is something which we cannot help but use. Without induction, we lose the notions of causation, of a self in which thoughts inhere, of predictable laws of physics, and so on.

To this day, no scientist, philosopher, or theologian has been able (in my opinion) to adequately resolve the skeptical concerns that Descartes and Hume raised. This doesn’t mean that I believe that the sun won’t rise tomorrow or that there is no material world or that it is not the case that 2+2=4 or that the laws of physics may suddenly change. In fact, I believe the opposite: that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the world is real and that we know things about it. But my belief in these things is essentially a matter of faith. By believing these things, I am trusting in an untestable assumption that I have made about the world. There is no way for me to ever test the assumption that the laws of physics that I observe today will also be observable tomorrow, nevertheless, I trust my assumption that they will not.

Now, let me point out that having faith in the existence of God is not identical to having faith that laws of physics will still apply in the future. We can seriously doubt the existence of God but we really can only doubt that the laws of physics will continue to hold in an academic sense. No one (that I know of) organizes his or her life around the possibility that gravity will suddenly stop holding us to the ground. No one who jumps off a bridge does so with the expectation that he or she will not eventually hit the water below. Even though the assumption is untestable, we cannot help but trust that the laws of physics are consistent. Faith in God is not so automatic.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this (lengthier than I initially hoped) article, I mentioned that there is a considerable amount of subjectivity involved in our conception of God. In fact, some critics (Freud, most famously, but plenty of people before and after him have made similar arguments) have suggested that God is simply a projection, a construction of the human mind, a way to impose meaning on a meaningless world. I believe that any honest theist has to admit that this is at least possible. But ultimately, our assumptions about God are not assumptions about the objective world (if objectivity is even possible) but deal with the subjectivity of being and meaning. Faith in God, or trust in the untestable assumption that God exists, is more closely related to faith that life has meaning or that living a moral life is important — non-empirical principles which we nevertheless assume to be true. Of the famous atheist philosophers, Nietzsche alone has really come to grips with what faith in God actually is, and what it would mean to abolish it. If it is unreasonable to believe that the universe has meaning due to God’s existence, then what good alternative is there to give meaning to the universe? Darwinian natural selection is inadequate; it may explain why we think that our lives have meaning, or why we think that certain behaviors are more ethical than others, but it provides no basis for believing that our lives really do have meaning or that we actually are constrained by moral conventions.

As I have mentioned, I am in the middle of a serious re-evaluation of my beliefs, but after more than a year of leaning towards atheism, I am beginning to realize that the world described by Richard Dawkins and cohort is a fantasy. Without God, we get the world that Nietzsche describes, not the world as it currently is minus suicide bombers as the new crop of atheists seem to think. And while I recognize that perhaps I feel this way simply because I have stood at the precipice and flinched, I choose to trust my untestable assumption that my life, and the lives of others have meaning and value. In other words, I have faith that meaning exists, and although this is a far cry from the concept of God that gets discussed in Sunday schools, I call this meaning ‘God.’ If this is a fabrication of my own mind, then surely it is one which I am entitled to make.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.

Posted in Apologetics, Doctrine, Important Questions | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Thomas Aquinas’ Cosmological Proof

The influence of Thomas Aquinas on modern Christian theology cannot be overstated. Besides Augustine and the Apostle Paul, no other individual has been as influential in the development of Christian thought. The cosmological argument, which Aquinas borrowed from Aristotle and applied to Christian metaphysics is one of the most famous ‘proofs’ for the existence of God. Roughly, it states:

  1. Every finite event has a cause.
  2. No finite event causes itself.
  3. An infinite causal regress is not possible.
  4. Therefore, a First Cause exists, which is not a finite event.

Aquinas thought that this First Cause was God. Now, it doesn’t take a brilliant theologian like Aquinas to recognize that going from a First Cause to a personal God is a pretty big leap. A deist God (who sets the universe in motion and then ignores it forever after) could fill the role of a First Cause just as well as a personal God, but I won’t get into Aquinas’ reasons for making this leap. Suffice it to say, that if you find the cosmological argument convincing, then at the very least, it opens the door for you to have faith that some sort of God exists.

I recently encountered Richard Dawkins’ response to the cosmological argument when I read his best-selling book, The God Delusion. Dawkins essentially repeats the argument made by Bertrand Russell in his landmark essay, “Why I Am Not A Christian,” that if every event must have a cause, then God must have a cause as well. If every event has a cause, then why is God an exception? Can we just say that God is infinite and thereby escape the problem? Russell and Dawkins say no. They basically accept the three premises of the argument without accepting that the conclusion follows necessarily from those premises. In other words, the argument is not valid.

Even though a formal proof of this argument might not be possible, for many people, it is very convincing. Just because an argument doesn’t follow a known valid form, does not mean that the argument automatically fails. But even if the argument is valid, one or more of the premises might not be true, causing the argument to be unsound. There are good reasons for doubting each of the three premises of the argument (which I will discuss), although I will argue that ultimately the success or failure of the cosmological argument is irrelevant.

  1. Every finite event has a cause. David Hume pointed out that the problem of induction also applies to causality. We assume that every event has a cause, because every event that we observe has a cause. Until 1697, any European scientist would tell you that all swans were white, a conclusion reached by virtue of the fact that every swan that they had ever seen was white. But then, in 1697, black swans were discovered in Australia. The use of inductive reasoning had led these scientists to an erroneous conclusion about the color of swans. Making a universal generalization based on a finite set of examples is intellectually risky. Recently, quantum theory has also (slightly) undermined the notion that every finite event has a cause. But what if this really is true? One of the basic tenets of scientific inquiry is that the universe is predictable and homogeneous; that the gravitational effects that we observe here and now will persist into the future and everywhere in the universe. If we reject the claim that every finite event has a cause, then those basic scientific assumptions (that the universe is predictable and homogeneous) are also in danger.
  2. No finite event causes itself. This premise is vulnerable to the same sort of criticism as the first premise. The fact that we have never observed a self-caused event does not preclude the possibility that it could happen. In fact, some physicist speculate that under certain unique conditions backwards time-travel could be possible, allowing causal loops. Imagine an astronaut in a rocket ship, with the button to launch the rocket located outside of the ship. The rocket takes off, reaches a velocity very close to the speed of light, approaches a super-string, travels backwards through time until the astronaut arrives back at the launch pad, pressing the button to launch his past self into space. I know that this example is sort of a stretch, but the point is just that we accept this assumption only because we have so far been unable to observe anything to the contrary.
  3. An infinite causal regress is not possible. This is a premise which many of us are inclined to believe, simply because we cannot imagine the contrary. The rationale which probably exists behind this belief looks like this: 1) I can’t conceive of an infinite regress 2) Anything that I can’t conceive of cannot exist 3) Therefore, an infinite regress is not possible. This second sub-premise is extremely suspect. The human mind uses five senses to perceive three dimensions and intuit time. Physicist suspect that there are several other dimensions which we are not able to perceive. Why should we assume that anything which we cannot fathom with our minds should not exist? A horse probably can’t conceive of an electron, does that prove anything about the existence of electrons? Our minds may be more powerful than the mind of a horse, but there is no reason to think that the limitations of our own mind should have any bearing on what is actually possible in the universe.

Even if the cosmological argument does not convince you that God exists, it does raise some important questions that ought to be considered by theists and atheists alike. The Big Bang Theory currently represents our best scientific model of the beginning of the universe. While the Big Bang theory is useful for understanding the events that occurred very early in the history of the universe, it does not resolve the problems presented in the cosmological argument, namely, the fact that self-caused (or uncaused) events and infinite causal regressions both seem impossible to the human mind. To believe that the universe began to exist without cause, or to believe that the big bang occurred as the result of an endless process of expansion and contraction of earlier universes is to accept the existence of an uncaused cause or an infinite causal regression, both of which are absurdities to the human mind. Perhaps a belief in God is absurd, but based on our experience with the world, isn’t a belief in an uncaused universe also absurd? Some might invoke Occam’s razor to trim God out of the picture, but as I have discussed previously, Occam’s razor might not be nearly as effective an epistemological tool as we’d like to believe.

God, uncaused or self-caused events, infinite causal regressions: all seem impossible and absurd. When choosing between absurdities, is there any useful heuristic? Is it more reasonable to believe in Peter Pan than in Tinkerbell on the grounds that a magical immortal human is impossible only for two reasons, while a magical immortal fairy is impossible for three?

My personal opinion is that the cosmological argument fails as a proof of the existence of God. But, I think it succeeds in opening the door for faith in God. On some other occasion, I will explain what I mean by my use of the term ‘faith,’ but for now, suffice it to say that the cosmological argument reminds me that our ability as human beings to understand the universe is limited and that at some deep level, many of our beliefs about the world are based on unwarranted assumptions and even absurdities. I still have a long way to go in my explorations; however, after almost a year of thinking about (and on some level accepting) atheism, I am now beginning to see room for some belief in God. Perhaps after my realization that I couldn’t rely on the LDS church to be my one and only source for spiritual truth I needed to tear everything down and build anew on a more stable foundation.

What do you think? Are you convinced by the cosmological argument?

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Occam’s Razor: How Deep Does It Cut?

Occam’s razor, the idea that when competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question is preferable, is a favorite tool of many of today’s prominent atheist writers (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc.). Their argument is that, since the hypothesis that God exists is basically just the hypothesis that the universe exists plus an additional entity (God), it follows that we ought to choose the simpler theory: that there is no god.

About the question of whether or not God exists, I can shed very little light on the issue, so I won’t address that here. However, Occam’s razor is a principle based on the shakiest of logical foundations, and is not a good criteria regarding the existence of God. There are two problems with Occam’s razor itself, and one more regarding the particular use of Occam’s razor in the context of God.

First, it is worth pointing out that Occam’s razor is a principle of applied skepticism, designed to strip away unfounded or unprovable beliefs. Any student of philosophy could point out that many of the things that we believe about the world are assumptions that we have accepted without much proof, and that in the hands of a true academic skeptic Occam’s razor quickly turns into a chainsaw! If it is preferable to believe in a universe without God because this belief posits one fewer entities (God again), then would it not be be better to believe that the material world is an illusion? Everyone who has taken a biology course (or seen The Matrix) is familiar with the idea that our sensations are electrical events that occur within the brain, based on the input it receives from the sensory organs. In other words, since all of our sensations ultimately occur in the brain as ideas, why would we postulate that there is anything else besides ideas? To do so, is to multiply entities necessarily.

Furthermore, why would we assume that there are other minds? Solipsism is the belief that nothing exists outside of one’s own mind. Surely that hypothesis posits still fewer assumptions and entities. Of course, the response to this issue would be, “But the hypothesis that nothing exists except my own mind doesn’t explain the world as well as the hypothesis that the material world and other minds do exist. Therefore because the principle only applies to two theories with equal explanatory power, Occam’s razor does not apply.” The problem with this response is that it reveals other assumptions, which are equally debatable: namely, that the world behaves predictably and that our minds are capable of understanding it. We make these assumptions naturally, but to invoke them in an application of Occam’s razor is to beg the question. It is essentially claiming that since the universe behaves consistently and that our minds are capable of understanding it, Occam’s razor is a good logical principle, and since we’ve now established that Occam’s razor is a good principle, we can use it to confirm that the universe behaves predictably and our minds can understand it. We know that cats think, and that they know some things about the world, but we wouldn’t say that they really understand the universe. We think the same thing about progressively smarter animals — dogs, dolphins, chimpanzees — but we assume that once a brain reaches human intelligence, it is suddenly equipped to understand everything about the universe. It doesn’t seem implausible that human minds might not be sufficient to understand the universe. If you are truly committed to Occam’s razor, I don’t see how you could honestly escape the ultimate skeptical destination: solipsism. Perhaps some philosophical hand-waving could disguise the problem, but ultimately, it would be difficult to justify why some beliefs should be cut away by Occam’s razor while others are spared.

The first problem hints at the second. For any hypothesis, there are numerous auxiliary assumptions which are not explicitly stated, but which are necessary conditions for the hypothesis. In some cases, it may be difficult to distinguish between a negative assumption and the lack of a positive assumption. For instance, let’s say person A believes that millions of light-years away, a certain new planet X has water on its surface, while person B believes that there is no water on the surface. Since the planet is new and also very far away, we won’t be able to find out if it currently has water on its surface until many years in the future. Perhaps A and B both have good reason for their opinions and that each hypothesis is equally plausible. Then it must come down to which has the fewest assumptions, but it is not immediately obvious which one that is. Does person A hold the assumption that there is water on planet X while person B lacks that assumption, or does person B assume that there is no water on planet X while person A lacks that assumption? Both hypotheses are equally plausible, both involve the same number of entities, and the number of assumptions can be manipulated to achieve whatever answer is desired. In the end, by tweaking the auxiliary assumptions and calling them either negative assumptions or the absence of a positive assumption, Occam’s razor can be used to ‘prove’ almost anything. Does solipsism depend on the assumption that the material world does not exist, or on a lack of the assumption that it does?

Finally, Occam’s razor is completely misapplied in debates about the existence of God due to the fact that neither the hypothesis that God exists nor the hypothesis that God does not exist is a completely adequate explanatory hypothesis. For all that we have been able to discover about the world through scientific research, we still don’t have a grand unifying theory of everything. We understand certain things, but it is a gross over-representation to say that the hypothesis that the universe exists without God is in any way a complete explanatory hypothesis. There is still a great deal about the universe that we are not able to explain. Some theists might get this far and conclude that this means that the “universe + God” hypothesis is better because it is more thoroughly explanatory; God plugs the gaps. But the problem is that (in my opinion) we don’t really understand God any better than we understand the universe. If Copernicus has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t assume that ignorance is a window to God. Mysteries about the world that were once attributed to God are now explained in simple and natural ways. With these advances in science, our understanding of God changes. Ask a liberal Christian in the year 2010 to describe God, and then read the accounts of the ancient Hebrew prophets and you will see that ideas about God can change dramatically from one cultural era to another. What reason do we have to think that now, for the first time in history, we have a perfect understanding of God’s interaction with the universe? The claim that the “universe + God” hypothesis has greater explanatory power than the “universe alone” hypothesis is dubious at best, since if God does exist, we have no reason for claiming to know very much about him/her/it. In essence, using Occam’s razor to determine whether or not God exists relies on circular reasoning. Whichever hypothesis you find convincing will be the one that appears to have the greatest explanatory power, and will therefore be the one that you accept.

The underlying reason for the difficulty with Occam’s razor is the fact that we don’t form our beliefs individually and we don’t create a list of assumptions before forming these beliefs. Rather, I would say that out of our individual experiences we create a world-view which accommodates our experiences and upon which our beliefs are formed. In a sense, our hypotheses are based on only one assumption: that our individual world-views are correct. To objectively judge between the explanatory power of two or more hypotheses is a doomed enterprise because we will naturally select the hypothesis which is most readily accommodated by our specific world-views. This is why an atheist may invoke Occam’s razor to ‘disprove’ the existence of God, but stop short of ‘disproving’ the existence of the material world, or other minds, or the capacity of the human brain to understand the world: because Occam’s razor isn’t doing any real work. Occam’s razor can only be properly used in cases where two theories are equal in their explanatory strength, and since there is an element of subjectivity involved in determining the explanatory strength of a hypothesis, in practice Occam’s razor merely leads us to accept whatever hypothesis we already find convincing.

To err towards simplicity may be a useful rule of thumb for designing experiments of for formulating new hypotheses, but it is certainly not a reliable logical process. If Willaim of Ockham has given us a razor, then it is in our hands to use. If it cuts, we use it to carve the world into whatever shape we choose.

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Time To Pay The Preacher?

It is a considerable point of pride among members of the LDS church that the majority of church leaders do not receive a salary for their services. Bishops (in charge of a single congregation), stake presidents (supervising a group that typically consists of 6-8 congregations), area authorities (who supervise groups of ‘stakes’), and mission presidents (who oversee the missionary efforts in territories that usually consist of many stakes) all fulfill their responsibilities without pay. Some of the upper leaders of the church do receive some form of financial remuneration for their work, although the question of who is getting paid and how much they are earning is impossible to confirm because the LDS church currently keeps all of its financial information secret from its members as well as from the public at large.

This attitude — that no one should receive payment for preaching — likely stems from several Book of Mormon verses which roundly condemn the practice of ‘priestcraft,’ a term which has a rather unique meaning when used by Mormons. Ordinarily, the pejorative sense of ‘priestcraft’ refers to a religious leader who uses his or her influence to control secular or political affairs. When Mormons use this term, they generally refer to any religious leader who receives a salary from his or her church. The Book of Mormon definition is this:

Priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion … But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money, they shall perish. (2 Nephi 26:29,31)

To me, this passage seems to refer more to the intent of the preacher, and less to the actual exchange of money. The general authorities of the church often publish books which they sell for a profit. Full time seminary teachers, institute directors, and religion professors at BYU all receive payment in exchange for the religious instruction they provide. Mormon speakers like John Bytheway and Troy Dunn are paid to talk at conferences for Mormon Youth. And we don’t have a problem with these money-making endeavors because we trust that the intent of these individuals is not solely to make money. We believe that on some level, these individuals are not trying to ‘set themselves up for a light unto the world’ but are merely trying to share their faith with others. We trust that they seek the welfare of Zion and are trying to do something that is good.

It is almost axiomatic that money and power corrupt; therefore, it is reasonable to be slightly skeptical of people who are trying to make money from us. Whether preacher, advertiser, employer, etc. it is not difficult to find people who will tell us anything that we want to hear if they think it will make us give them our money. A perfect example of this (and an example of true priestcraft, in my opinion) may be found in the teachings of mega-pastors like Joel Osteen, who teaches his congregation (7 million people attend or watch his sermons remotely) that wealth and prosperity come as a result of Christian piety, and that by dedicating our lives to God, we will prosper like Abraham of old. It is worth mentioning that Osteen himself seems to be a perfect example of this; while I could not find an exact figure for his net worth, estimates seem to be in the $40 million range. In any case, he has enough money that he was recently able to stop drawing his $200,000 annual salary, living instead off of the proceeds from his books. The notion that wealth follows righteousness is entirely antithetical to the teachings of Jesus Christ and an egregious affront to the millions of devout Christians in the third world who struggle with inescapable poverty. But if Osteen represents one extreme, what about the many other priests and preachers who work in relative obscurity and middle-class conditions to enhance the spiritual lives of the members of their congregations? Many of them passed on more lucrative careers to pursue their calling to the ministry. If we condemn these individuals as practitioners of priestcrafts, then by the same logic, we must condemn our own leaders in the LDS church for the same things.

I believe that it is time to reverse the policy of unpaid ministry in the Mormon church. I will attempt to describe some of the major problems facing the church and (hopefully) illustrate how a transition to a professional clergy could alleviate some of these problems.

  1. The Church is run like a business. Since Mormon bishops do not receive any sort of formal training before taking over their office, they must rely on the skills and techniques that they have used from their professional and personal lives. Some of these individuals progress up through the ranks of church leadership and eventually become general authorities, who continue to draw on their professional experiences to guide the church. A quick glance at the biographies of the current twelve apostles reveals a high concentration of business executives and attorneys. Now, this is not a problem in itself, but it does create a very corporate-like environment within the church. Anyone who has served a mission has first hand experience with this. For the missionaries, conversion is broken down into a series of steps, with ‘key indicators’ to mark progress towards baptism. Key indicators include: number of individuals contacted, new investigators, lessons taught to investigators, lessons taught to inactive members, number of investigators progressing towards baptism, number of investigators at church on a particular week, baptisms, etc. Missionaries were assigned quotas for some of these key indicators and those who produced the highest numbers were moved into positions of leadership. This idea — that spiritual progress could be tracked with numbers and ‘key indicators’ was always rather grating to me as a missionary. I was usually able to produce good numbers, so I quickly advanced through the mission hierarchy, but remained uneasy about the consequences of my work. In order to meet my quotas, I sometimes had to baptize individuals who were probably not adequately prepared for baptism. I don’t doubt that many of these individuals have left the church, if not formally, then in practice. In the Elder’s Quorum presidency in which I currently serve, I have noticed a similar obsession with numbers and key indicators. We have lots of reports to turn in each month. Numbers, numbers, numbers. But ultimately, this corporate climate is not the most spiritually nurturing. I believe that a trained, professional clergy would be able to move out of this business-like mindset. I think that we would find that more converts remained in the church after baptism, and our damaging obsession with numbers would subside.
  2. Our doctrine doesn’t come from our leaders. Prima facie, this statement seems rather heretical, although this is not my intent. What I wish to convey is the dilemma that arises when our leaders are selected for their success in the business-like climate of the church, not necessarily for their spiritual sensitivity. I had a bishop once who was an institute director; he studied and taught from the scriptures professionally. He was a wonderful bishop to have because I always knew that if I came to him with a problem or a question, that he would appreciate the nuance and intricacy of the situation. He had thought deeply about the scriptures and understood what they said, so when we spoke, I was able to learn a great deal. My current bishop is a wonderful man, for whom I have a great deal of respect, but in a recent meeting with him, he had trouble locating even the most commonly used scriptures. After failing to find Hebrews 11:1 in his scriptures, he began to paraphrase it (in a way that was only partially accurate). He also had problems finding 1 Nephi 3:7 (a very popular one for Mormons). I wish to repeat that I still have a great deal of respect for my bishop, but I also don’t think that I can rely on him to help resolve my questions about the doctrine in the same way that I could rely on my earlier bishop. The simple fact is that anyone who is trying to balance a family, a full-time job, and thirty or forty hours of volunteer work as a bishop or stake president just doesn’t have much time to really study the scriptures in great depth. Some are able to do so, but others simply can’t, even though they might really want to. Even in the address of the general authorities of the church there seems to be little interest in the subtleties of the gospel. Most talks in the semi-annual General Conferences are good, but don’t represent any sort of special insight or spiritual wisdom. I often hear talks in my own ward or stake conferences that are much more valuable for me spiritually than the ones from our apostles. This should not be the case, although I wonder if it isn’t the inevitable end result of a church run by businessmen. Sadly, when a member of the church faces a really difficult question, there is usually no help from the church leadership. As a result our doctrines arise from BYU professors, untrained LDS apologists, and social conventions, not from the men who claim to be prophets of God. Consequently, when a member of the LDS church encounters a problem with the history of the church or one of its doctrinal claims, the response of this individual is often complete disillusionment with the church. The silence of their leaders on the important issues leads them to believe that the church doesn’t have answers, and so they leave. On matters such as global warming, genetic engineering, etc. priests and pastors all over the world are helping their congregations navigate the twenty-first century; the LDS church is conspicuously silent on this new theological territory. Perhaps a professional well-trained ministry, intimately familiar with the scriptures, and with years of deep religious reflection would be better equipped to guide us doctrinally than businessmen, promoted through a business-like hierarchy.
  3. Leaders don’t always feel ‘called’ to their positions. The notion of duty is a very important one in any normative moral theory, religious or secular. Sometimes, we must do things which are morally correct, even if they are unpleasant for us personally. Without diminishing the importance of duty, I think it is also safe to say that we usually achieve our greatest potential when we are doing things which we feel passionately about. Unfortunately, in the church we are not able to choose the way in which we will serve our congregations. Personally, I enjoy teaching, but have been called to serve in the Elder’s Quorum presidency, a calling which I accepted out of a sense of duty, but about which I feel virtually no excitement. I can’t help but think that I would be able to contribute with more energy in a calling for which I felt passionate. Bishops and stake presidents don’t choose to serve in those capacities. They are assigned these positions by their leaders and out of a sense of duty, they accept the responsibilities of the office. Paul explains that just as a body needs all of its organs, a church needs all of the diverse talents and experiences of its members; however in the LDS church, an eye might find itself in the uncomfortable position of being called to serve as a liver. If the church had a paid clergy, it would allow leaders to self-select by studying in divinity school and applying for a job in the church. Those who occupied these important leadership callings would be those who truly felt called, not by duty, but by God.
  4. Leadership is inconsistent. In my ward, there are at least fifteen people who would make excellent bishops. On my mission, however, there were many branches that were unable to provide even one qualified individual to be the branch president. Frequently, twenty-year-old missionaries were called to be the leaders of fairly large congregations. For all of their energy and enthusiasm, it can’t be said that a teenage missionary has the experience, wisdom, and knowledge necessary to effectively run a church congregation. They are, at best, a stop-gap solution. With a paid clergy, it would be possible to send qualified church leaders to these remote areas. The distribution of leadership talent could be normalized, so that every ward, branch, and stake could have competent leadership.

A paid clergy is not a miracle cure. There would be difficulties associated with the transition to a professional clergy. Careerism and professional ambition could, if we weren’t careful, sneak its way into the church (although some might argue that it’s already here). But with care, I believe that these problems could be largely avoided. It would be important to set the salaries at a level where they will not be prohibitively low, thereby deterring qualified individuals who need to earn a livable wage to support their families, and not so high that they will attract individuals who do not feel a spiritual calling to the ministry. A salary comparable to an institute director’s might be a good place to start.

The LDS church, in my observation, is usually very averse to change, and I do not expect a change this drastic to happen anytime soon. However, I do believe that it is time to have an honest conversation about the possibility of a paid clergy.

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