Thursday, August 05, 2004

MY LAST TALK: I gave this in Sacrament after my wife's talk a few months ago. The themes are largely passe', but I am just getting around the posting it. This may be the last ME posting... Maybe we'll rise like the Phoenix someday!

Reflections on the ward…

In the past year, two major items of popular culture have brought the world of early Christianity to the watercoolers of the nation. We were shocked by both of these works at how wildly successful they were. I speak of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ and Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. No one quite expected that the nation would be fixated on religious figures and theological debates. Both of these works were wildly successful and sparked a fair amount of commentary. Months before anyone had seen the film the Passion, liberal reviewers vilified the movie as anti-Semitic and historically inaccurate. A few years ago, I remember hearing rumors that Gibson was thinking of making this movie, using the "original" languages. About 9 months before its release I read that the actor playing Jesus, Jim Caravezael had been struck by lightning, not once, but twice during the filming. The combination of the liberal reviews and God's disapproval made it difficult for Mel Gibson to find a distributor, a search which ultimately failed. He ended up producing and distributing the movie himself, and many theaters still wouldn't carry the film. Within days after its release, it was clear that the movie had not only broken nearly every financial record, buy that it would continue to do so. Church congregations rented out entire theaters. Adults brought their young children, despite the R rating.

When I attended the movie on opening-weekend with a group of young Bible scholars, the theater was packed. A priest sat next to us who had not been to the cinema in many years. The custom of not watching R rated films in Mormonism is actually quite tame compared to many evangelical homes, who abstain from radio, television and movies all-together. But these people went in droves to see the Passion, feeling like finally Hollywood had responded to their desire for uplifting entertainment. This massive support for the Passion quite frankly took Hollywood and the media by surprise. The attacks grew more vicious, and increasingly ridiculous. The same people who supported the distributors' decision not to carry the film now criticized Gibson for making money on the film!

Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code has received nearly as much attention as any book I can remember. It topped the NYT bestseller list for months. Every airport I've been for months, I have seen numerous people reading the book. The average time to complete the 450 pages for most readers is about 72 hours. My professor, who recently completed a book on the Gospel of Mary Magdelene, has been interviewed by CNN, NYT, Time Magazine, Newsweek, NPR, and countless other news outlets. The book's cliffhanger format and provocative thesis combine to make a truly exciting reading experience. The book reinterprets several familiar symbols, revealing their "true" meaning, unknown to the uninitiated.

Though the book is labeled, "A Novel" on the front cover, it is in the smallest font. Immediately after the title page, the reader encounters a bold statement of "FACT"- including the following: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." The ultimate secret of the book, that the Holy Grail is actually Mary Magdelene, wife of Jesus and mother to his children, who together stand at the head of a royal bloodline that survives clandestinely, has been quite attractive to readers everywhere. No doubt some of its appeal lies in the shock-value of the secret, but there is also a subtle critique of religion in the book itself, especially in the rather anti-climactic conclusion when we get a glimpse behind the wizard's curtain. Conservative evangelicals and some Catholics have objected strongly to many of the implications of the book, including its depiction of Jesus and the politics of theology and Christology attributed to Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor.

Both the Passion and the DaVinci code have elicited responses from Mormons as well. A conference was recently held at BYU to discuss the book. Many Mormons have very much liked the central theses of the DaVinci Code, namely that apostate leaders in early Christianity occluded the truth about Jesus. Additionally, the apocryphal Mormon belief that Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene found a voice in Dan Brown's book, and also an explanation for why this truth was suppressed.

Regarding the Passion, Dean of Religion at BYU Robert Millet came out in strong support for the film, encouraging all LDS to see it despite the R rating, calling it a "betrayal of the rating system."

Because I have been studying the NT and early Christianity, I often get asked about these two works by members of the church and by non-members as well. Sometimes they ask for the "Mormon response." I have thought that today, since this is our last week and most people have already left for the summer, to give my response, reserving the right to modify said response upon further reflection.

Of the many things that could be said, I wanted to emphasize two particular critiques of both of these works. The first is their depiction of history and historical reality as based in what they both call "fact", and the second is in their depiction of Jesus and the theological, or more precisely, Christological message in each of them.

Both works advertised themselves as based in "fact." Dan Brown asserts that his interpretation of art, history, and literature are factually correct. The Passion was marketed to conservative Christians by Gibson as "historically accurate" in every respect. The problem with this claim is two-fold. The first is that it is quite easy to demonstrate that many of the historical claims are verifiably false. To pick on the obvious examples, there is no historical evidence to suggest Mary and Jesus were married, or that they had children, there are no gospels in the DSS, nor do they talk about Jesus at all. They were written 150 years before he was born. Contrary to his claims, most of his descriptions of "artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals" are inaccurate.

For the Passion, the most notable historical falsehoods include the fact that Roman officials would have spoken Greek, not Latin while in the East. Additionally, many of the traditions depicted in the film were based on apocryphal literature that dates well after any of the events, including the compassion of Pilate's wife, the 12 Stations of the Cross as the plot-line, the names of the two thieves, etc. Let me be clear: I do not have anything against artistic license when it comes to writing novels or movies. In fact, I like it. I think it makes them more interesting. The problem is not that Brown and Gibson take artistic license; it is that they deny that they do so. They depict their work as "historically accurate" and "factual", thus shielding their interpretations from plain view. Every reproduction is always an interpretation- as musicians and actors will attest. Instead, Gibson and Brown portray truth as given, not made. They pretend to be subject to the historical record, rather than the other way around. They create it on every page and in every scene. They are making history, not representing it.

Their positivistic view of history is especially problematic for LDS given our belief in the revealed nature of truth, which we see as always subject to the historical conditions of those who receive the revelations. The LDS view of truth does not slide into complete relativism, but rather is eternally suspended to further "light and knowledge" which could reveal something entirely different from what we currently believe. If we follow Brown and Gibson in the belief that truth is represented outside of ourselves, we cut ourselves off from the divine, who can only reveal to us when we are open and accept our place in cooperative chain of making and revealing knowledge from on high.

My second concern with these two works is in their depiction of Jesus. In many ways these two works present radically opposed teachings about Jesus, neither of which can be ultimately accepted in LDS theology. They each represent extremes in a debate about the nature of Jesus that has existed since the first decades after his death. In my view, the DaVinci Code's discussion about godhood is utterly confused. It exalts Mary Magdelene to the status of a goddess, which for LDS theology is perfectly acceptable in some sense. However, in doing so, it almost goes unnoticed that Jesus is depicted as undivine, as simply a regular old Yeshua. Part of the secret story of Dan Brown that the ancient Church has suppressed is the teaching that "thousands of pages of unaltered, pre-Constantine documents, written by early followers of Jesus, revere[] Him as a wholly human teacher and prophet" (page 256). While Mary is a goddess, for no good reason Jesus is considered simply a human. The explanation is that Jesus was voted to be made divine in the Nicene creed, in part to suppress the fact that he had children. How Mary can be considered divine even though she had children is not explained. In any case, while exalting Mary to her status as a goddess, a perfectly acceptable theological move in Mormonism, Brown demotes Jesus.

On the opposite extreme, the Passion depicts Jesus as wholly other and unique. He avoids the heresy of docetism, which denied that Jesus suffered, but in doing so, he depicts Jesus' suffering on the cross and at the hands of the Romans as something entirely special, as if he were the first and last to suffer crucifixion and scourging at the hands of the Romans. The fact is, that Jesus died not in an extraordinary manner, but as a common criminal, in the same way that people all over the Roman empire were being killed. As LDS, we know that Jesus' sufferings were greatest in the Garden as acknowledged by Jesus himself in D&C 19. The sufferings on the cross were his solidarity with our sufferings. He suffered as humans suffer, we are taught by Alma 7, not in a way beyond humans. Gibson's film acts as if this suffering were qualitatively different from the suffering of humans, which obscures the humanity of Jesus. It makes him our god on earth, not our comrade in affliction.

Additionally, the depiction of Jesus in the Passion is only as "sufferer". It practically ignores Jesus as "teacher", or "miracle worker", and most importantly the exalted, resurrected Jesus. The Passion concludes with a 30 second resurrection scene of a militant Jesus, rising to deep drum beats. It is essentially an afterthought. Mormonism, on the other hand, focuses on the resurrected Jesus. The BoM story is about the resurrection, the Jesus who returns, as teacher and miracle worker, not as consummate sufferer. I object to Gibsons theological emphasis on the suffering of Jesus because it distorts the message into a theology of atonement as sadism and guilt, not of hope.

Mormonism instead offers a theology of Jesus that avoids these extremes of Brown and Gibson. Dan Brown makes Jesus simply another human being, and Mel Gibson makes Jesus a characature, a version of a God whose experiences are so different from our own that we cannot relate to him and he cannot relate to us. In the grand council in heaven Jesus took the lead as our brother. He is one of us. This revolutionary teaching of the Gospel of the Restoration puts into focus the true nature of Jesus, and the true nature of our relationship with him. We are like him and he is like us. He is not the metaphysical exception to humanity, but the supreme example of a human being. The ancient witness in 1 John 3:1-2 reports:
"Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: (this was told to us at King Follet's funeral) but we know when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is."


Wednesday, June 16, 2004

MY WIFE'S TALK: This was given a few weeks ago as we spoke for the last time in our ward, on our last Sunday there. (I will post my talk soon too.)

"As it is our last Sunday in the Cambridge First ward, I feel beholden to offer some reflection on what I have gained during my time here. I would like to frame musings in the context of womanhood in the global church.

My tenure in the Cambridge First ward has given me the opportunity to develop my relationships with other women on many levels. While most women’s sojourn in Cambridge brings with it an infant, my trespass has allowed me the opportunity to find common ground with the woman of our ward and to define my space is as a woman within the church as a whole.

When I entered this ward, a saw that the women here had many differences: age, marital status, stage of life, career progression, race and motherhood. At first I was overwhelmed: what is it that I could find in common with a mother of two? With a widow? With a refugee? I was lost for a solution and frustrated with my surroundings. What I needed was a paradigm shift: it was not our differences, but our similarity, that makes us sisters. What is consistent is the sacredness of what binds up together: womanhood.

The lexicon that the Church uses to describe this common bond begins with Young Women. For those of you of have had the opportunity to participate in the Yong Women’s program will be familiar with this theme:
We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us, and we love Him. We will “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9) as we strive to live the Young Women values, which are:

- Faith
- Divine Nature
- Individual Worth
- Knowledge
- Choice and Accountability
- Good Works and
- Integrity

We believe as we come to accept and act upon these values, we will be prepared to strengthen home and family, make and keep sacred covenants, receive the ordinances of the temple, and enjoy the blessings of exaltation.
It is at this pivotal time in a young woman’s life, the church begins introducing what is important for her to focus on. The church has defined common values that are applicable to all women globally:
- Faith
- Divine Nature
- Individual Worth
- Knowledge
- Choice and Accountability
- Good Works and
- Integrity
This is also the first time that the concept of a return on investment will occur (excuse the financial reference), which is that “if we come to accept and act upon these values” that the following items will occur:
• We will be prepared to:
o Strengthen home and family
o Make and keep sacred covenants
o Receive the ordnances of the temple
o Enjoy the blessings of exaltation.
This promise is repeated at the beginning of every young woman’s meeting. To this day, I am sure that the majority of the women here can say this theme by heart. My thought is how does this translate, literally, in a global context?
For me, Young Women’s had been a time of achievement. I meet each class with the goal to receive my medallions: Beehive, Miamaid and Laurel. Every “New Beginnings Meeting” was like heading the jewelry store. My senior year culminated with my Young Women’s Achievement medallion and my Seminary Diploma.

Ready to take on the world, I charged into Relief Society as a slightly naive, ambitious young woman in Upstate New York, I can remember wondering what this next phase would bring. I’ll never forget receiving my first Relief Society Manual, “Remember Me,” and reviewing the exhilarating topics, such as:
• Personal Grooming and Cleanliness
• Gardening in Small Spaces
• Preventing Accidents in the Home
• Mothers in Israel.
I promptly left for college.

I want to undergraduate school in Pennsylvania at a very large university with a very small Mormon population. This was nothing new to me as a native New Yorker, but what was new was the quality of my Institute. Our CES director was also our Bishop, so my ward customized lessons, took twists and turns and found it necessary (and ok) to “adapt” the manual to meet our demographic group.

Upon moving to Manhattan midst a career change, I was called to be in the Relief Society Presidency of our very large, very migratory singles ward. We had a number of outreach programs that we were managing as well as trying to maintain a semblance of order with the far reaching needs of our ward.

We found that many of our sisters who moved to NY were there to escape the church. It was typical to have phone calls from family members asking us to find these sisters and to reach out to them. In such a large city, it is easy to be lost and hard to be found. For those who were attending, we had a number of challenges within our diverse population: single motherhood, same sex attraction, drug addition, depression, loneliness, work/life pressures, school demands, the list goes on.

One of the ways we met that challenge was to divide our RS into two lesson groups and offer a large variety of teachers, some were a little edgier than others, but this “choose your own adventure” allowed women to find guidance that met their needs.

When I began traveling internationally on business, I had the opportunity to see the gospel in action in multiple countries around the world. I remember the first time I heard a lesson in modest dressing, where the manual talked about prudently purchasing your clothing and not coveting the dress of others, in a third world nation, where clothes were donated from aid agencies and then sold on the street by industrious people.

I remember a lesson in young women’s about food storage, in Manhattan, where space is premium and our number one goal was to keep the young women off the streets, in school and chaste.

I attended church in Hong Kong where women from Taiwan, Korea and other employment challenged countries attend the English speaking ward since it offered “more opportunities” than the Mandarin speaking ward. The ward was filled with women, women who had left their homes because of their multi-lingual capabilities to work in Hong Kong to support their families back home.

This juxtaposition: womanhood and its divine role v. there daily adversities. As the role of women change within the church, we see that women are waiting longer to be married or not finding the opportunity to marry at all. They are completing their educations and exploring the opportunity of promising, fulfilling careers. Women are bearing children later in life than ever before.

But wait, this woman exists where? What about the women of genocide in Africa? What about the employment opportunities in South America? What about the living circumstances of South East Asia? Do these locations and cultures change our construct of womanhood? Of the life choices available to women? And their behavioral patterns?

Womanhood: its divinity cannot be denied. As the global church begins to develop its lexicon and pedagogy, I think we will begin to see a paradigm shift in the woman they are addressing. The woman of the global church has basic needs/wants/desires that can be translated into language in any country. Basic values of:
- Faith
- Divine Nature
- Individual Worth
- Knowledge
- Choice and Accountability
- Good Works and
- Integrity
can be addressed and understood in all circumstances of life. Regardless of where I attend church, the love in Relief Society for sisters is always present. Sisters, I encourage us all to reach out to all of the sisters of our ward. We have such a rich diversity here, find common ground in the church and ourselves. I foresee the Church modeling after this concept and shifting our paradigm back to its basic values and principles.

For me, coming back to basics occurred in my backyard. I truly love the women of this ward and I have been blessed with deep, life-long friendships. I have also placated my role as a woman in this expanding global Church and hope to provide support, as it continues to evolve. I have been grateful for the opportunity to serve, to live and to love with you in the Cambridge First ward.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen."

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

“One of the hottest tickets in New York right now is just off Broadway: a tour of a new Mormon temple. It's a rare glimpse of the architecture of a unique, often-misunderstood religion, a sense of the sacred expressed in light and mirrors and enveloping silence.”

This is how USA Today introduced what I consider to be an unusually graceful and insightful article which attempted to explain to New Yorkers what the new LDS temple is, how it operates, and why it is worth it to come on down and experience it for yourself. In my view the article (on page 7D of today’s the Lifestyle section) is well worth checking out.

Topics covered include architectural discussions of the symbolism used in the design and color schemes, the reciprocal relationship between temple building and local membership rates, and a thumbnail sketch of Church history and current membership.

One of the most useful notes in the article clarified the meaning and use of “proxy baptism,” an issue that has generated some controversy with the surrounding community here is NY. While describing the first level of the temple the article noted that:

“The baptismal font is sunk into a platform supported by oxen statues representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The font will be chiefly used by teenagers who take on the honor of baptizing ancestors. Blessing by proxy is "a choice, a free-will offering to a (non-Mormon) ancestor whose consciousness as an individual continues in the next life," explains church spokesman Dale Bills. It's not an imposition, insult or posthumous conversion.”

Given some of the odd things I’ve been hearing about proxy baptism on the “gentile street” lately (do in no small part to careless reporting in other news outlets) I think this is a pretty useful clarification. The article also made efforts to be even handed and intellectually honest, and in doing so demonstrated that such exercises can result in an intriguing and enlightening portrait of our community and spiritual heritage.

Given the current thirst for the transcendent in society, expressed in cultural venues as diverse as the “Passion of Christ” and the “Da Vinci Code,” perhaps this building will call forth more who can feel the Divine presence expressed in “light and enveloping silence.”

Check out the link for the full text:

Thursday, April 15, 2004

TEMPLES AND ACADEMIC DIPLOMACY: Anyone in the NYC area around the first week of May might be interested in the following. Some of the more academically inclined members of the NY NY stake (spearheaded by the indomitable Dr. B.) decided to put together a conference on “sacred space in the modern city” to mark the opening of the new temple there. While we all enjoyed the Yale conference it was generally agreed that we wanted a more diverse set of speakers and presenters (i.e., speakers who weren’t all LDS), and so we turned to Auburn Theological Seminary (housed within Union Theological Seminary) and the Columbia University Religion Department as co-sponsors. They responded enthusiastically and put together exactly the sort of conference we were interested in. As I understand it BYU provided most of the funding for this venture (without making any demands for editorial input), and the highlight of this one-day event will be a VIP tour of the temple, attuned to the special interests of these scholars. (If this comes off the way we are hoping it should be something of a departure from the run-of-the-mill tour. I’m still waiting to see exactly what is going to happen though). See the information at the bottom of the announcement for registration information.

"Sacred Space in the Modern City"
Auburn Theological Seminary
May 4, 2004

10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. –
Multiple Religious Perspectives on Sacred Space

Keynote: The Topography of Sacred Space

Jonathan Z. Smith - University of Chicago – Divinity School
Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor of the Humanities in the College and the Committees on the Ancient Mediterranean World and on the History of Culture; Associate faculty in the Divinity School

Jonathan Z. Smith (Ph.D. Yale University) is a historian of religions whose research has focused on such wide-ranging subjects as ritual theory, Hellenistic religions, nineteenth-century Maori cults, and the notorious events of Jonestown, Guyana. Some of his works include Map is Not Territory; Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown; and To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. In his book Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, he demonstrates how four centuries of scholarship on early Christianities manifest a Catholic-Protestant polemic.

Followed by respondents representing multiple religious traditions.

12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Lunch
(Auburn will try to meet all dietary requests)

1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Making Space Sacred:
the Modern Latter-day Saint Temple

Paul Anderson Brigham Young University

Paul L. Anderson, Head of Design at the Brigham Young University Museum
of Art in Provo, Utah, is an architect, exhibition designer, and
architectural historian. He received his B.A. From Stanford University
and his Master of Architecture from Princeton University. He has
lectured and published articles about the history of Mormon buildings in
the context of American religious architectural traditions. He is
currently working on a book, Mormon Moderne: New Directions in
Latter-day Saint Architecture, 1890-1955, exploring the changing
Latter-day Saint architectural identity during a period of Mormon
assimilation in mainstream American society.

3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Visit to Manhattan Mormon Temple

7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sacred Space in the Modern City – Public Event

Featured panelists:

Karen Franck
Professor of Urban Environments
New Jersey School of Architecture

David Kraemer
Professor of Talmud
Jewish Theological Seminary


Kenneth T. Jackson
Professor of History
Columbia University

Kenneth T. Jackson, Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences, specializes in American social and urban history. He received his B.A. from the University of Memphis in 1961 and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1966. His publications include The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915–1930 (1967), Cities in American History (1972), Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1985), Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery, with Camilo Vergara (1990), and, as editor The Encyclopedia of New York City (1995). He is presently working on two books to be entitled Gentlemen's Agreement: Race, Class, and Differential Development in Newark, White Plains, and Darien, 1840–1990 and The Road to Hell: Transportation Policy and the Decline of the United States.

Please RSVP to Christian Martinez:
(212) 662-4315

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

LAW AND THE COMMANDMENTS: The Historians remarks below are interesting. The recourse to the ten commandments is interesting. In American history, attempts at "biblically based" law have been made, but they have always been eliminated in the end in favor of the common law. In part this is because the lawyers had a vested interest in maintaining the common law. In part it was because the authors of "biblical" legal codes tended not to be lawyers and the laws that they drafted were not really workable. Hence, Massachusetts experimented with a biblical-esque legal code in the 17th century but gave it up rather quickly. Mormon Deseret is an strange case because while there was an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to exclude the common law, Mormons don't seem to have written the Bible into the territorial laws the way that the early Puritans tried to do in Massachusetts.

However, the ten commandments have frequently been used by common law judges as a legal touchstone. There are a variety of common law rules that require judges to differentiate between acts that are malum in se (wrong in themselves) and merely malum prohibitum (wrong because they are forbidden). For example, at common law a woman who committed a crime in the presence of her husband was presumed to have been coerced by her husband into committing the crime, thus absolving her of criminal liability without any showing of actual coercion. However, if the crime was malum in se then the presumption no longer held, and the woman would have to make an actual showing of coercion in order to have a defense. In interpreting this rule, 19th century courts frequently used the prohibitions of the decalogue as a criteria for determining what was or was not malum in se. Also, the ten commandments were frequently invoked by 19th century courts as the reason for "blue laws" which required that businesses be closed on Sunday.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

THE LORD OF SHABBAT- I must admit that I do not understand the fascination with the 10 Commandments as some sort of list of requirements for good living. I agree that some of them are a nice place to start for creating a civilized society: don't steal, don't lie, don't kill people, etc. However, the one that strikes me as the most strange and completely out of place as the basis of a social contract is observance of the sabbath. I was definitely amused by the Judge in Alabama who wanted to display this commandment, especially since it is not obeyed by Christians. As everyone knows, the sabbath is on Saturday, but it has been so assimilated into Christian discourse that we don't even realize it anymore. We do not follow the 10 commandments! I have no problem if we want to follow the 9 commandments, or edit them to include observance of the Lord's Day, but let's not delude ourselves. The two reasons given for sabbath observance in the OT are remembrance of the Exodus and remembrence of the last day of creation. The Exodus is only vaguely part of our spiritual mythos (and not in the way relevent to the Sabbath) and since Sunday is the first day of the week the whole creation thing sort of loses meaning.
In Christian history the idea of a Christian Sabbath (on Sunday, of course) is relatively new. As I understand it, it wasn't until the 16th century when this idea was discussed. As part of the expirementalism of the age of the Reformation, several groups began to revive the Mosaic Law in various degrees. One that stuck was the notion of a Christian sabbath, especially in America, perhaps as a result of the Puritan roots of the idea. Before that, Sunday wasn't a time of "rest" or exclusive worship. It was the day that you went to church, but after you got back there was no reason that you couldn't dig a ditch or fight a war or even watch football.
As a LDS, I observe the Sabbath because I am commanded to. I think that we have in many ways a religion that reaches back to OT archetypes of religiousity and devotion (prophecy, temple, diet, etc.) and I rejoice in this. I am not sure that the particular brand of LDS observance of a Christian sabbath has any precedent, especially not in the 10 commandments...

Thursday, March 18, 2004

A Wrong-Headed Question: In one of my recent debates with a fellow science graduate student, I was asked to comment on the following experiment. If we took 1,000 people with some condition, say cancer, and had a group of religionists pray for them, and took a control 1,000 people with the same condition but ensured that no one prayed for them, could we find empirical proof that God answers prayers?

My immediate response is that this is a wrong-headed experiment. Not the right kind of question to ask. I am tempted to say that for the most part Mormons don't have faith or practice their religion because they want some kind of physical intervention by God. Scientists are obsessed with physical explanations and control to the point of ignoring other things like community, morality, inner peace, and so forth. Nevertheless I do not want to claim that God cannot intervene physically in the world (as long as he does so via natural forces, not some kind of trumping the laws of the universe).

So why is the question a poor one? How would you answer? A couple of responses I came up with:

1) There is no way of developing a sufficient methodology of prayer. You can always say, 'That prayer didn't count because you didn't invoke X or you didn't have faith in Y etc.' Since the methodology is suspicious the results can be challenged. Now a religious person who believes in prayer might have a theory of how it works, and what kind of events count as answers to that prayer. But such theories and assumptions cannot be used by the scientist. In a purely scientific context, then, a prayer methodology is ambiguous, and a religious person can object to the experiment. The two people talk past each other and neither can prove the other false.

2) There is no 1 to 1 correspondence between prayers and answers to prayers. God has his freedom and may choose to respond however he wishes. The actions of other rational agents are very hard to fit into conceptions of natural law; witness the difficulty of sociology etc in developing theories with predictive power.

You may or may not like my responses to this scenario, but it does raise a few interesting points. Should we expect or ask God to intervene to cure people of cancer? Should we instead pray that his Will be done and that everyone feel good about it, be at peace, etc--or is that showing a lack of faith an involved, caring, loving God? There is something problematic in accepting God's intervention on a personal anecdotal level and not being willing to test it at a broader level (though the above experiment is problematic).

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

I ENOCH AND ABRAHAM: I have to admit that I find the Historian’s arguments quite persuasive. I think that the current reading of the S&G story is rather late, and in many important respects misses the point of the original telling. The breaking of ritual norms of hospitality is really the key here. I believe that Nibley talks about this in ‘Abraham in Egypt’ and quite a few other places. And of course the story of S&G is really only one specific example drawn from a much larger literature on the ritual violation of foreigners or traveling heroes. Often that violation took the form of torture or murder rather than rape, but the details of what happens in each individual instance is incidental to the larger theme of the myth cycle. Recall that this story is introduced in the context of Abraham, who himself is often a stranger at the mercy of various kings, at least one of whom tries to do him in. I think Nibley argues quite persuasively that these are two variations on the same basic theme. Abraham also scrupulously keeps the rules of ritual hospitality, which provides the immediate counter-part to the sin of S&G, who do not. Lots daughters may well have been in danger (as implied in the story about the tribe of Benjamin later in the OT), but the reason they were not attacked was not that they were female. The critical factor was they were not foreigners. This sort of ritual violence was always directed against foreigners, often kings or princes when you get right down to it (once again, think Abraham).

What Nibley did not anticipate (to the best of my memory) is the role of the Angels with regards to sex. This is odd as he wrote practically an entire book on the subject (Enoch the Prophet). Yet it seems to me that the story and discussion in Jude really read quite well in light of I Enoch and some of its associated literature. Recall that Jude is the only other place in the NT where I Enoch is directly referenced, so we know those general topics were on the author’s mind.

Monday, March 01, 2004

THOU ALMOST PERSUADETH ME: I like the rape/hospitality interpretation that the Historian offers below, but I do have to take issue with the claim:

    The sin of S&G is that they want to transgress the laws of hospitality to strangers. In fact, this is the only sin that S&G are accused of committing in the Bible.

I think that if you look at the New Testament, the meaning of the sin of S&G has taken on a more expansive reading. For example, Jude warns a congregation in his epistle against "certain men crept in unawares" (Jude 1:4) and notes that they are "filthy dreamers" who are "Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the evengeance of eternal fire." (Jude 1:7) This passage seems to link S&G directly with "fornication" and "strange flesh" without any reference to hospitality or rape. Furthermore, even in earlier biblical sources, the S&G story may have a broader meaning. For example, Deut. 23:7 contains a prohibtion against "sodomites," although I confess that I do not know the underlying Hebrew word that is being translated here. It may have no connection to Sodom. An even weaker, but still arguable claim is the link that Jer. 23:14 makes between the adultery of Jerusalem and the sin of S&G, although admittedly the rhetoric of adultery in the prophetic literature is complicated.

Thus, while I agree with the Historian's basic textual reading of the Genesis narrative, I think that the broader biblical interpretation of this story is a bit more complicated that he makes it. However, he rightly points out that the biblical interpretation of the passage is also more multifaceted than the current rhetoric over SSM suggests.

SODOM AND GOMORRAH: Some recent discussions about Same-Sex Marriage have emphasized an apocalyptic disaster as a result of social wickedness. Many point to the promises in the Book of Mormon of a blessed land as long as the inhabitants are righteous. Others point to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. I do not think that S&G are useful for making sense out of our current situation. The reason is that this story has nothing to do with homosexuality. I do not intend to argue that the "biblical" view of sexuality allows for homosexual behavior or that church members cannot argue against SSM. I just don't think that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah are accurately understood as homosexual sins. A quick look at the text should demonstrate this: Two angels go to Lot's house. A crowd gathers and wants to have sex with them. Lot offers his virgin daughters, but they refuse. A couple of things should be noted. First, the visitors are angels, second, the visitors are strangers to the city, and third, the men intend to rape the visitors. Starting from the last point, it seems that the crime of S&G is rape, not homosexuality. Homosexuality is a behavior that is engaged in voluntarily, which is not the case here. The reason that S&G is destroyed in not because two consenting males are having sex. Which brings us to the second point. The visitors are strangers to the city. Lot offers his to allow his daughters to be raped. Why? This is a pretty disgusting gesture, but it can be understood in the context of ancient laws of hospitality. Lot knows that they men are going to rape someone, so he offers his daughters, not because they are homosexuals, but because they intend to violate the strangers to thier city. The sin of S&G is that they want to transgress the laws of hospitality to strangers. In fact, this is the only sin that S&G are accused of committing in the Bible. Ezekiel says, "'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy" (16:49). Finally, the visitors are not men, they are angels. Do you remember the last time that humans had sex with angels? God does. It was right before the flood (Gen 6:1-4). In fact, it was the reason for the flood. When humans and angels have sex, God destroys stuff. He destroyed the whole world with the flood, and he destroyed S&G for even thinking about it.
The lesson from S&G is: don't have sex with angels, don't break the laws of hospitality, and don't rape people. I don't see anything about consenting males having sex in this story.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

My answer to the Historian's query turned out to be too long for the comments section so I just decided to stick it up above. First off, thanks for the link to the article. I hadn't seen that yet. Not the best picture of President Belnap I've seen but overall a very favorable piece.

Secondly, I should point out that this Metaphysical Elder is only headed "behind the Zion the Curtain" because the academic job market put a metaphorical gun to my head and asked me if I was feeling lucky, punk. After having watched the fortunes of my class mates (some of whom have been of the job market for two, three or even four years) my answer was a resounding "no." I took my job at the U. despite the fact that it was in Utah, not because of it. I grew up in NY and have never really felt any great yearnings for the West or Zion or anything like that. Secretly I have always found the whole idea of the "gathering" kind of odd if not misguided (and it reminds me of the Highlander). Its probably just that I grew up among the gentiles and like their company.

All of that being said, I think the bonds of culture might be stronger than people normally suppose. Culture, among other things, changes your subjective views about what things are in your best interest. Thus if you ask any of the folks moving back to Utah why they are doing it I'm sure they will be able to tell you a very logical story (retiring from costly callings, seeing the family more often, going to the temple, going into business with an old friend from BYU, just like the people). Yet the choice would still seem odd (or perhaps under-determined) to the outside observer. I like the people I meet in Toronto, but I'm not moving there anytime soon. Whats the difference?

I would suspect that for a lot of people in our generation marriage is also always lurking in the background. People may come to NY for a short period of time (usually well under 5 years, 2 seems to be more the norm), and very few singles get married here. Nor is there much of an expectation among the transplants that that would be a normal "NY" thing to do. It wasn't the reason they came. I suspect heading back home to get married and raise the family forms a big part of peoples' subjective expectations for themselves. Yet they may not be conscious of all these motivations. The great thing about culture is that it works on autopilot. We don't even have to think about it, yet it informs our world view on almost every question or choice we make. Quite remarkable really.

In this regard my "shared culture" probably played a role in my choice as well. While I have never really cared for Utah, I don't dislike it intensely. Yet pronounced vocal dislike is the general reaction of students and professors in my department. They aren't anti-Mormon mind you (many finds Mormons quite interesting, from a distance). They just perceive Utah (rightly so) as out of their cultural sphere and therefore unthinkable and uncomfortable. Heck, I'm uncomfortable there. I can only imagine what its like for my Jewish friends and professors. In the immortal words of one of my advisors, "I know you are Mormon, and it's a great place to ski, but do you really want to live there!" For most people the answer is a resounding no.

My guess is that the University of Utah and BYU get a lot fewer job applications than say Georgetown or Ohio State for this very reason. In fact I know this to be the case for many departments at BYU and suspect quite strongly that it applies to the U. as well. Everyone in my department applied for the job at Penn., but I was the only one to apply for the job at the U.

When you think about it, this is really quite remarkable given how tight the academic job market is. All of my class mates applied for jobs in the east or south in departments that are not nearly as good as BYU or the U. After all BYU is crammed to gills with well liked, bright up-and-coming types. And the department at the U. is large, has light teaching requirements, and offers a full service PhD program (a great asset no matter where you are). So why didn't my friends and very tallented classmates Amy or Rob apply to these departments? It just never consciously occurred to them to apply to places in Utah, yet they read exactly the same job-listings I did. The possibility remained sub-rationally unthinkable. In the end the probability of me getting a job in Utah was marginally greater than all the other places I wanted to go, and I will be moving there even though I had absolutely no intention of doing so at the start of this process. The siren's song of the Zion is both more subtle and powerful than one might think, but cultural determination always is. Both for what it brings in, and what it keeps out.
ON COMING TO ZION: When I was in my early twenties, I never thought I would go back to Utah. I saw myself as a Mormon who was setting out on a reverse-pioneering mission. I was the only undergraduate at my college who was Mormon and I loved it. However, I was not alone as this NY Post article demonstrates. Perhaps we shouldn't be surpised at the surge in LDS populations in the East (mostly transplants from the Western states) since pioneering is so deeply ingrained in our mentality. However, I am noting a strange turn of events right now. It is nearing the 10 year mark from when I left Utah, and many of my friends from New York and Boston are now either returning to, or going to Utah. Two of the Metaphysical Elders will be there next year, and for the first time I am even thinking about returning, at least for a little while. Many diapora Mormons that I know see it as part of thier 5-10 year plan to return to Utah.
This is not just true of late-twenties/early thirties Mormons either. One of the problems in Boston is that the temple has too few patrons, depsite large stakes. I suspect that the problem is a lack of the right demographic (old people) to sustain hourly-sessions. My guess is that the NYC temple will have the exact same problem. The reason is that many of those who have spent thier adult lives here return to the West when they retire to be closer to family, to get more for their money, and to retire from demanding church callings.
Is this a new trend? Are the bold, community building Mormons from the ninetees going back home to Utah, or is it just a lot of my friends?

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The Antiquarian's post below is quite interesting. I hadn't realized that Quinn was being considered by the U. of U. I also hadn't realized that he had been hired there. Congratulations!

What makes the U. of U. interesting is that the normal town-and-gown tensions that you expect around a university get overlaid with a religious text. I never attended the U. of U. so I freely admitt that my understanding of the culture there is based almost exclusively on hearsay reports. As I understand it, however, it is less a problem of overt anti-Mormonism and more a feeling of being besieged by oddly intense yokels. I suspect that most of the non-Mormon professors at the U. of U. are too ignorant about Mormonism to be anti-Mormon in any meaningful sense.

I wonder to what extent there is a historical shift in the dynamic. Fifty years ago, I think that the U. of U. probably was a big of a magnet for disaffected Mormon intellectuals and anti-Mormon intellectuals. However, I get the feeling that in those days the U. largely drew its faculty from the surrounding community. Today, the academic market is basically national -- and in some fields international -- so that such local issues have less salience.

Of course I could be wrong. I have heard many reports of anti-Mormonism at the U., but I don't know how much to discount them as overly sensitive Mormons and how much to credit them as evidence of real hostility on the part of the faculty.

Friday, February 06, 2004

I recently saw something in the news that I thought might make for an interesting discussion. As some of you know I recently accepted an academic appointment at the University of Utah, so I have been following events on campus lately. The Salt Lake Tribune ran an article this morning which began with the following paragraph.

History teachers at the University of Utah see no "intellectual or cultural merit in Mormonism," says U. religious historian Colleen McDannell. As proof, she points to the recent rejection of a controversial Mormon studies scholar for a Utah history position. In a Feb. 3 letter to U. administrators, McDannell said her colleagues' refusal to hire D. Michael Quinn, a Yale-educated author and excommunicated Mormon, is "blatant discrimination" and might be "actionable." McDannell added: "The absence on this campus of scholarly attention to Mormon history, theology and practice is profound."

The rest of the department disagrees with this assessment of the situation. They go on to say:

"Not one of the votes against Michael had anything to do with denigrating Mormon history or the Mormon church," he said. "In my mind, it was just the opposite." Goldberg said he and the five others who voted against hiring Quinn are not looking for a Mormon apologist. But they don't want an avowed critic, either.

However the last line of the piece might be the most interesting.

Jim Clayton, a senior historian in the department, said the school has no mandate to teach Mormon history. "It presents all kinds of difficulties. Who could teach it without criticism from either side?" Clayton said. "Mormons who want the church's perspective can take a class at the LDS Institute across the street."

So what is the best way to teach LDS history? Do you really leave it to CES (wince)? What are the standards of ‘objectivity’ necessary to maintain good scholarship? Lastly, it is clear to me that there is growing divide between the LDS and non-LDS world in Utah. What role could academics in general, and the University of Utah in particular, play in bridging that divide?

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

I am probably the last to read it, but I am working my way through The Metaphysical Club. I'm at the part contrasting William James and Henry James, his father. The elder James was a Swedenborg follower (more or less) and was vehemently against individualism. The younger James of pragmatism fame reacted against his father's views to adopt an individualism that even Peirce and his other friends felt excessive.

It raises an interesting question regarding Mormons and the individual versus the community. We believe that the members of the godhead are one, that we are commanded to be one, yet we simultaneously adopt a staunchly American view of individuality. (Perhaps one whose modern nature owes a great deal to James) Often it seems that we are so individualistic that the very aspects of our religion demanding unity are overlooked.

We exactly is the place of community in Mormon ethics, social structure and metaphysics? Where might a Mormon find fault with William James?

Friday, January 23, 2004

I'm very excited about reading the Book of Mormon this year in sunday school. One thing I love about the BofM is the way it sets up certain expectations and then deconstructs them. Racial profiles are the first example to spring to mind; another one is the importance of bloodlines. Nephi reviews the promises and covenants made to Abraham's seed, and writes about how the seed of his father will be righteous again. There is much talk of grafting and olive trees. And yet in 1 Nephi 14 we read:

1 And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day that he shall manifest himself unto them in word, and also in power, in very deed, unto the taking away of their stumbling blocks—
2 And harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God, they shall be numbered among the seed of thy father; yea, they shall be numbered among the house of Israel . . .

In other words, the gentiles will be numbered as the seed of Lehi and of the house of Israel. This is similar to the situation at the coming of Christ to the Americas in 3 and 4 Nephi, where the Lamanites are more righteous than the Nephites, and after Christ comes they form a Zion society with no distinctions of heredity at all. When the "ites" divisions arise again it is along the lines of wickedness not genetics. Now we usually read "white northern europeans living in America" for gentiles in these verses of Ch 14, but perhaps we should also read "people of asiatic descent living in the americas beside the descendants of Lehi" in light of the limited geography model. Or better yet, maybe we should recognize that genetic bloodlines are not what the authors have in mind at all, and not try to read our modern understanding of "religion" onto the Nephite records.

In ancient times religion was a function of family, of tribe, or city. Walking up to someone in 600 bc and asking "what religion are you?" would only generate a confused shrug. You were a Jew--part of a family, a political kingdom, a cultic practice all wrapped into one. Now Lehi's family had lost their sense of place, and so naturally emphasize family ties, with the many olive tree allusions. But perhaps we don't need to read into this "genetics" as this reading is continually deconstructed by the narrative itself and verses like the above in 1 Nephi 14.

I also wonder about the use of the word "church" in Nephi's vision, especially relating to the great and abominable church. We have been too quick to assign this status to our Catholic friends. What on earth would "church" have meant to a Nephite? Almost certainly not what it meant to Joseph Smith, if indeed the term had any ancient meaning at all. It appears to boil down to those who support Satan vs the church of the Lamb who accept his atonement and are washed clean (white) in the blood of the Lamb. No relation to certain religious organizations that just didn't exist for the Nephites. (Note how much the "church" organization changes in the BofM, when it exists at all).

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

The Scientist and Clark Goble asked me to perhaps explain my apparently enigmatic comments of the previous week. Put succinctly the issue is that of information. Now we can view information statically, as the mere content of something's state. This might be for some particle its momentum, potential energy, spin, and so forth. For more complex entities we can have considerable more information. We might even say that the information about an entity is that entity's meaning.

Now information contains within it not just what the entity is but also by extension a lot of what the entity may become. For instance knowing the mass, size and momentum of a pool ball I can say what its future state will be. If I have several pool balls I can do the same.

DNA, so conceived, is information in the same fashion. It is quite complex, of course. Far more complex than simply knowing the types of sub-molecules in the DNA. Just like the pool balls I can describe the future of the DNA's effects only as I know the information of what else is around. Considered as a very complex molecule its information isn't simply the computer program like "code" that we hear about. It also is the information about its molecules and atoms and how they interact with other substances around it. The manifestation of that DNA molecule can, however, be perfectly described as information. Indeed we can think of it as pure information.

Now I recognize that is a rather unusual way to think about it these days. Well, perhaps not. After all the long printouts of A's, T's and so forth is information. We just assume that somehow those codes describe a person independent of the real information which is the molecule acting as a very, very complex set of pool balls indeed. So complex that we can on describe its possibilities in very vague terms. Those vague terms may sound very exciting and precise. But compared to the information we are talking about, it makes up only an extremely tiny fraction of the meaning of the DNA. When you consider all the things the DNA will encounter, both as one particular molecule or all the molecules like it, then things get inconceivably complex.

Now why do I suggest we think about it like information? Well think about these words coming to you right now. They contain information. You act on them. What I'm suggesting is that the way all these DNA molecules act is in a fashion much like this. There are differences, of course. But differences of degree, not kind. In the physics of the interactions the atoms in the DNA act far more precisely than the way we interpret words. But ultimately we can describe both as information. Just as reading these sentences produces an idea, so to do interactions in the DNA produce new states - new information.

Now once we start thinking of all this as interactions and modifications of information we can generalize. When I see an email message that says, "meet me at 9," some complex events take place and eventually we have all sorts of molecules moving throughout my body causing me to take up my coat and leave my office. Information of one sort - words - leads to an information change of an other sort - the signals causing my leg muscles to contract eventually moving me towards the door. But ultimately it is all information.

If the spirit can interact, we can thus describe that interaction as a kind of information that interacts with other information (whether that be ideas, words, or perhaps even DNA molecules). Now if we can consider a lead atom floating into a cell information then we can consider a spirit information. We can see how a spirit can interact in many fashions. Further we see that information of all sorts can interact. We are conditioned to think of the arena of words and the arena of chemistry as fundamentally different. But they really aren't. They are all information.

When I talk of an information function I mean nothing more than information that transforms itself in certain respects. For instance two pool balls colliding transform their information in accordance to the laws of Newton. (Or at least close enough for our discussion) Now that is clear enough for pool balls, and perhaps even molecules. (Although even a simple molecular interaction would require a supercomputer to work out) But consider words. When you read a particular word, say the word "blue," why do you react the way you do. Do you consciously think about what the letters b-l-u-e mean? No. There is an information-function that creates some chain of significations leading to your experience of reading that word. Consider that in that chain are many very complex molecular interactions. But fundamentally this is all information-functions. Put simply, it is a kind of code. But not a precise code, such as we have for pool balls. Rather a code that is somewhat ambiguous and certainly depends upon many factors. Perhaps when you read that you simultaneously think of the blue sky outside. Perhaps you think of how sad you are when you feel blue. Perhaps you think of B. B. King and the blues. All those are part of the information-function. Somewhere there are complex codes describing all this - in their way perhaps even more complex than what happens when a DNA molecule and and RNA molecule meet.

Why do I bring all this up? Am I simply being verbose for verbosity's sake? Perhaps Mr. Goble will accuse me of such. However I simply wish to point out that intelligence is a form of information. It is information with associated functions. A spirit consists of this information and these transforming functions. So does DNA. So does a lead atom. All these things are information and have associated functions. The universe is so filled. Not only is the universe filled with them but all of them transform your body. We can't limit our discussion of DNA to just the DNA and neglect the lead atoms. But we also can't neglect the words you hear. It is all one great continuum - each having an effect.

My point was not to disagree with the Scientist, but perhaps to radicalize what he said. You must excuse an old man rambling on somewhat. The danger in terseness is difficulty. Now I've pontificated far too much and will be thought the old man who talks far too much. My one defense is that I so responded only upon nudging. I hope the other elders here will forgive me. I do think that thinking reality as a collection of entities, information and functions is a rather helpful endeavor. Perhaps if someone asks kindly, I'll even mention briefly how this conception of reality and religion ties into our namesakes of the 19th century...

Thursday, January 08, 2004

THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS FOR THE SCIENTIST: I have been meaning to comment on the Scientist's posts below on genetics and theology. This is some of the more interesting stuff that I have read in a long time. I have just three points/questions.

First, you think that modern biology will not a more holistic approach to studying genetics, etc. in order to get beyond the misleading DNA-->RNA-->Us model. I wonder to what extent this is feasible. It seems to me that science has largely succeeded by eschewing such holistic approaches, and opting instead for narrower, more tractable problems. Might it be the case that scientific methodologies are not up to the problems that you put to it, and perhaps geneticists and biologists will simply have to give up on their claim that a reductionist, all-explaining theory is just around the corner? I am not making an argument one way or the other here, since I am too ignorant to do so. I am just curious as to your thoughts.

Second, once you move to studying multi-faceted systems, what happens to the nice causal model in science? I assume that this problem has come up before in scientific explanations, I am just curious as to how they deal with it. I am not a social scientist, but as a wanna-be legal theorist, I think of myself as a consumer of social science. It seems like this is a perennial problem in social science. We have theories that explain fairly simple phenomena under controlled conditions, but unlike a laboratory, we never really see social phenomena under tightly controlled conditions. One result is that sorting out causes becomes really difficult and most interesting forms of prediction become seemingly impossible.

Third, the link from misplaced biological paradigm to process based paradigm to process theology to Blake to Mormonism is intriguing, but I am curious as to what it might actually mean. It seems that at best what you have in an analogy: one emerging explanation of Mormon theology centers on some of the same concepts as one emerging explanation of biological phenomena. It seems that you can read the analogy in several ways. First, you can say that this is "a process moment" in intellectual history and both theories are simply reflecting the spirit of their times. Second, you can posit some deeper connection between the two. For example, you seem to be hinting at the idea that if process is a necessary component of a proper understanding of God it must also be a necessary component of a proper understanding of life and nature. Intriguing, but I would be interested in seeing you flesh out the connection. Is the process and holism of life a reflection of the process and holism of divine lives? Are we seeing the finger prints of God? Something else? Discuss.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

PHILO JUDAEUS AND ME- I have been rereading Armond Mauss' The Angel and the Behive. I am really quite enjoying it. The central sociological theory he employs is that religious groups oscillate between assimilation to the outside world and total rejection of it. At both ends of the spectrum the religious group in question risks annihilation, either by dissappearing into society or being crushed by it. Though Mauss' data is sometimes embarrisingly bad, for the most part he cannot be held to too high of a standard since the historical data just doesn't exist. Despite this shortcoming, the sociological theory's application to Mormonism is still quite interesting and cause for reflection. The argument is ultimately that some degree of assimilation is necessary for survival, but not too much. Finding this balance can be quite difficult, but it seems to me that Mormonism has successfuly done this, albeit differently at different times.

This reading has led me to reflect on my own degree of assimilation. In many ways I see myself as highly assimilated. Though I grew up in Utah, I never received any formal religious instruction (seminary drop-out...). I then attended college out of state where I was the only member. Now, I am at a prestigious university studying religion from non-Mormons. I see the boundaries between the world and the Gospel as pretty porous.

Judaism (Ancient and Modern) is an interesting point of comparison. Historically it has waxed and waned from exclusivity to assimilation. Groups such as Qumran were eventually wiped out while the disappearance of Diaspora Judaism is one of the greatest historical mysteries. Contemporary Judaism is literally fractured over this question. Philo and Josephus were two of the most enduring figures from antiquity, and both were highly assimilated, while remaining deeply committed to their Judaism. I have often looked to Philo as a sort of guide for how to balance one's peculiar religious identity with "outside" ideas. He did not shy away from them, but saw them through the lens of his religion (much like what Nibley has done with Mormonism). The problem with both Philo and Josephus is that they were preserved not by Jews, but by Christians. Perhaps this is no more than a historical accident that Judaism took one turn and Christianity took another, but it also may be instructive as to what levels of assimilation are viable in the long run. Even if Philo, or I, can master a certain level of assimilation, this does not demonstrate that such a level is desirable for the entire community. Later generations may judge me too close to the outside world for comfort and reject it. It seems that we are pretty solidly on an assimilation upswing these days, but no doubt this will begin to swing the other way. At the extreme ends, our exclusivism has breed fundamentalist offshoots, while at the other end we have bred apostate assimilationists. The swing back and forth is most likely necessary since the proper balance will constantly be in flux as the world around us changes. My self-indulgent reflections here are meant only to remind myself that I too must be flexible and not dogmatic about my level of assimilation.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

THE STRANGE CAREER OF MORMON STRUCTURALISM: Talk to any Mormon intellectual these days (especially a conservative one) about the temple and the concept of "sacred space" will almost immediately come up. The idea enters our intellectual vocabulary via Nibley and has its origins in the work of Marcea Eliade, a Romanian religious anthropologist who lived his professional life at the University of Chicago. (At times, Nibley seems to claim to have put forth the concept independently of Eliade while he was a graduate student at Berkley, but I will leave that issue to one side.)

As I understand it (a dubious proposition), Eliade was a structuralist. One might say that he was THE structuralist of religious studies. Structuralism is a theory that arose in linquistics and anthropology and is associated with the work of Levi-Strauss and Noam "I-usually-spout-off-about-stuff-that-I-have-no-particular-expertise-in" Chomsky. The basic idea is that there are certain archetypic structures that remain constant across different culture and times. Isolating and describing these structures provides us with an explanation of what is really going on in societies and cultures. (For those law geeks in the audience structuralism had its debut in legal thought – a decade or two late as usual – with Duncan Kennedey's "Form and Substance in Private Law Adjudication".) One way of thinking about structuralism is to see it as a modern reappearance of the old idea of human nature dressed up in a sociological suit.

Eliade took structuralism into the study of religion, and purported to find certain reappearing features that remained more or less constant across a huge swath of different religions. Sacred space was one of his discoveries, and he pushed the idea by showing that lots and lots of religions had sacred spaces that fulfilled lots of the same functions. Late monotheism actually presented something of a problem for Eliade, since Christianity, Judiaism, and Islam all seemed to lose something in their conception of sacred space as they "progressed" and formalize their theology. The Kabba is clearly an elemental sacred space, but a mosque is less so. The Temple of Herod was a sacred space, but synagogues less so. Christian churches are a real problem. Eliade attributed this anomaly to the influence of Greek philosophy of monotheistic religious thought and experience.

What is odd is to look at the way that Mormon intellectuals pick up on and change structuralist concepts. Nibley loves the cross-cultural aspect of Eliade's structuralist sacred space. However, unlike Eliade, Nibley doesn't construe this as being a reflection of some elemental social fact. Rather, he takes it as evidence of apostasy and diffusion. All of the sacred spaces are trying, like Pharoah in the Book of Abraham, to copy the true order of the priesthood, even though they have forgotten the primal Adamic source of the concept. Eliade's saving account of the apparently anomalous case of Christianity also dubs nicely into Nibley's apostasy narrative, going so far as to name his favorite villain: Greek philosophy.

Notice how this changes the basic meaning of Eliade's concept. Structuralism claims to be able to reduce particular human phenomena to deeper, more fundamental structures. Thus ancient shrines, Bhuddist temples, and the Kabba are all reduced to the fundamental idea of "sacred space." Nibley neatly side steps this reductionism, by shifting its emphasis. Rather than Mormonism being but another reflection of the fundamental human condition, the human condition becomes but a pale reflection of Mormonism! This is what one might call an intellectually ambitious move. This is the kind of chutzpah that makes Nibley so much fun, and which separates him from your run of the mill Mormon scholar. The problem is that the move is somewhat isolating. Most structuralists will not be persuaded by Nibley's move and most Mormons are not even aware that he made it. Furthermore, like all baptisms of non-religious theories, it runs the risk of wedding our self-conception to a contestable theory. I mean, what is a Mormon to do with post-structuralism?