Sunday, March 24, 2013

WWE - St. Patrick and the Persecution Complex

Here is another post at Worlds Without End entitled "St. Patrick and the Persecution Complex." Borrowing from an older post of mine, I use St. Patrick as a catalyst (and example) for a discussion on the history of racism, 19th-century claims regarding the race of polygamous Mormons, and Mormonism's excellent position via past experience by which to build bridges. Check it out.

And with that, let's crank up St. Patrick's Day with some Dropkick Murphys.

Questionable Metaphysics

Behavioral scientist and economist Herbert Gintis has an extensive list of Amazon reviews (he even links to it on his personal website), all of which are highly informative. While browsing through them, I came across his review of A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing by physicist Lawrence Krauss (a subject Krauss has lectured about for the past several years). 

The review is quite positive (4 of 5 stars), but the conclusion really caught my attention:

Here is Krauss's main point: "Including the effects of gravity in thinking about the universe allows objects to have... "negative" as well as "positive" energy....gravity can start out with an empty universe---and end up with a filled one." (p.99) This is because the conservation of energy allows for offsetting positive and negative energy. This seems like nothing new to me, and hardly a revelation. Electron-positron pairs are created from nothing and can go their own ways, so matter can be created from nothing.

This is where Krauss's theology/metaphysics comes in. Because the universe could have been created from nothing (quantum fluctuation, empty space), there is no need to posit a Creator. But, the theologian will ask, who created the rules according to which the Big Bang was regulated? Krauss has no answer, except to say (a) there might be lots of different rules for different universes, and (b) if you are going to posit an eternal preexisting Creator, you are no better off than simply positing the eternal and preexisting laws of physics. But Krauss is wrong. When one posits a Creator, one is admitting that one's knowledge has limits, and there are higher orders of knowledge that are inaccessible to mere human intellect. We do not know anything about the realms of being of the Creator or Creators, but we believe they must exist beyond the limits of our understanding. Our reason for believing this is that we experience possessing forms of knowledge inaccessible to other species (amoebae, mushrooms, field mice, Capuchin monkeys, German Shepards, chimpanzees, and such). It would be completely arbitrary to claim there is no realm of intellect beyond ours. Simply positing the eternality of the laws of physics is, in comparison, an unsatisfying alternative.

Here is Krauss's faith: "Without science, everything is a miracle. With science, there remains the possibility that nothing is." (p. 183) I maintain that this is very likely incorrect, and hardly the basis for a firm metaphysics.

"You're more advanced than a cockroach. Have you ever tried explaining yourself to one of them?"*

Philosophers like Edward Feser have addressed Krauss' (and others) misunderstanding of classical theism and the metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas,[1] yet tripe like "who created the Creator?" or "I believe in one less god" still persist. The problem is not that these skeptics disagree with classical theism (Mormons do in notable ways and the skeptics' arguments probably have more power against a physical God),[2] but that they do not even understand the classical theist arguments. Unfortunately, the religious and non-religious alike often do not. With the recent controversy over distinguished philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel's criticism of neo-Darwinist reductionism, the above is a refreshing insight from one who studies the evolution of human cognition and behavior.[3] Human limitation is a great reason for intellectual humility.


*From The Mothman Prophecies (Lakeshore Entertainment, 2002).

1. See Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2008).

2. See Blake Ostler's work for details on classical vs. Mormon theism.

3. See Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Real Cool Hand

The grandfather of my good friend Sean passed away last week after struggling with cancer, including surgery. I had the privilege of meeting him only a handful of times (I was even invited to give him a priesthood blessing, despite the family not being Mormon). He led an fascinating life in broadcast television. The following is from his obituary:

[Wilbur] Earl [Goodrick II] was a pioneer in broadcast television. He directed the Jack LeLanne Show, the Porter Wagner Show, The Jimmy Dean Show, and many others. Earl set industry standards in "Lighting for Color," "Multiple Camera Switching," and incorporating music into television production. Earl won the Milwaukee Press Award for his inspirational documentary "Paul, a Day in the Life of" where he told the story of a small boy named Paul whose life was saved by a local surgeon who removed a giant brain aneurism from the boy's brain. This was a true tale of hope and inspiration for millions. 

When Earl's son Steve (my friend's dad) asked him how he felt about not winning an Emmy for his documentary Paul, a Day in the Life Of, he simply answered, "I've already got an Emmy" (the nickname for his wife Emma, whom he adored). He also was a key player in the creation of World Class Champion Wrestling. And let's not forget his role as Ranger #1 in the TV series Walker Texas Ranger.

The funeral had a beautiful eulogy and video by his son Steve. The preacher even came close to making a "weeping God" claim. What was perhaps most touching, however, was something that probably went somewhat unnoticed by most: the pre-funeral music. A few days prior to the funeral, Sean texted me about potential song candidates for a funeral playlist. We had a limited conversation about the taste, lyrics, and meaning that should be behind these songs. I provided what help I could, but ultimately it fell on Sean.

While at the funeral, I asked his girlfriend how he had been the past few days since I hadn't been able to see him. She made mention that she thought the making of the music list had been very helpful. In a sense, the music had been a partial healing process. His list included "Let It Be" by The Beatles, "Life Without You" by Stevie Ray Vaughn, and even "A Little Fall of Rain" from Les Miserables.

However, two songs really stood out to me. Soon after I arrived, Sean said to me, "I found that song from Cool Hand Luke." I smiled. He didn't have to explain what song he meant.

I find it interesting that after "mocking God" so to speak, Luke chooses the song "Plastic Jesus" to mourn his mother's death: a song that in turn mocks those who cheapen religion with kitsch and the like. In my view, Luke's song choice is somewhat repentant (he comes to an "understanding" with God later in an abandoned church house, in which Luke discovers that both of them are "hard cases"). The preacher at the funeral explained that the death of a loved one can be a time of reflection and an opportunity to re-prioritize our lives. Given Earl's successful, yet family-centered life (his son Steve opined that if Earl had not put family first, he would have been a household name), reflection, re-prioritization, and repentance may be the best way to remember him and follow his example.

The second song was more subtle, given that it was instrumental: Danny Elfman's "Finale" from the film Big Fish.

Big Fish holds sentimental value for Sean particularly, considering we are Tim Burton fans and this was by far his most touching work to date. But given that this music accompanied the funeral of a beloved, imaginative father and grandfather in the film, it was fitting. What made it even more so was the story shared later in the funeral by Sean's sister Katy. She chuckled as she remembered how her grandfather would tell her and the other grandkids elaborate stories. Being so extravagant, they often had to look to their grandmother for a sign as to whether the story was true or if Earl had taken some creative liberties. I laughed as she shared her memories, but was truly touched as I thought back to Sean's song choice and the parallels between real life and film.

Sean and I have shared a love of music and movies since we met at the tail end of sophomore year in high school. The majority of the concerts I’ve seen were seen with him, including Metallica w/Godsmack, Styx (twice, once with Peter Frampton), Megadeth & Dream Theater, Rush, and Paul McCartney. The majority of the movies I’ve seen in theaters over the past decade were with him as well (even the recent Django Unchained and Skyfall were seen with him). While we are music nerds (and guitar players to boot), we are probably bigger movie nerds. Senior year of high school consisted of skipping track (our last class) and seeing new movies or, at the very least, enjoying selected portions of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction at Sean’s house. The Oscars became a sacred ceremony; a media Sabbath if you will. Years ago, I bought two copies of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die: one for me and one for him. We even used to give movies letter grades, arguing and reasoning over them. Because of this history, I knew the kind of impact films had on Sean as I listened to the above songs. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz,[1] religious scholar John Lyden establishes the five aspects of religion: "1) a set of symbols which acts to 2) establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by 3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and 4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that 5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."[2] Films often provide narratives in which we can reflect both on how the world is and how it ought to be. The "escape" most moviegoers speak of is that sense of orderly existence provided by films. People discuss, praise, and criticize films, sometimes more than weightier subjects like religion or politics. Theaters can often act as quasi-temples, in which audience members are initiated into "a sense of reality in a darkened room with an enlarged screen that encompasses all attention." Here, they "laugh, cry, scream, or applaud enough to invite one to join in the communal experience of enjoying the film."[3] This participation begins to take on the form of more ancient ritualized dramas. Movie dialogue becomes a mode of communication (inside jokes) with the "initiated." In Lyden's view, a film becomes a kind of religious "text" and our viewing a type of ritual.

I identify strongly with this view, which is why I am skeptical of the stigma against R-rated movies in Mormon culture.[4] Film and music have been an integral part of my friend's life. Their importance came to light in his most vulnerable moment. While Mormons may be used to funerals accompanied by hymns and talks by bishops or stake presidents, there is always room for what Krister Stendahl called "holy envy." In this case, I had holy envy for the warmth and personality found in my friend's playlist. It turned out to be, to borrow from Newman's Luke, a real cool hand. The music became a shared experience of memories for me, Sean, and his grandfather. And in that shared experience, I hope my friend found some solace.

1. Particularly "Religion as a Cultural System," The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

2. John Lyden, Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 42.

3. Ibid., 46-47.

4. For more on this, see John Hatch, "Can "Good Mormons" Watch R-Rated Movies?" Sunstone (March 2003); Jana Riess, "Seek Ye Out the Best Flicks: R-Rated Movies That Have Helped Me Think About the Gospel," Sunstone (July 2003); Linda & Richard Eyre, "Why We Hate Movie Ratings," Deseret News (Jan. 14, 2011).

Monday, March 11, 2013

Suffering and Responsibility

D. Morgan Davis, the director of BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, had a guest post at By Common Consent titled "The Merits of Divine Responsibility." I'm not going to add to it, but I wanted to provide some of the most enlightening aspects of the post itself as well as some of the comments (which go along with my latest WWE post).


  • But what if there were more at work in the agonies of Christ than proxy suffering? Might our theology allow that Christ is actually a responsible party to human sin and suffering?

  • In Mormon teaching, God ordained the Fall. If we teach that the Godhead was involved in deliberately establishing conditions whereby Adam and Eve placed themselves and all their posterity in a state of moral and mortal jeopardy, then will our theology also allow that Christ (as a member of the Godhead) bears some responsibility for all sin and all death? I do not suggest, of course, that Christ is the author of sin or that he is responsible for having committed any sin; but if the Fall was God’s design, and Christ is God, then through his oneness with the Father he did bring about means whereby God’s children were placed in a position to sin and suffer sin’s consequences: Christ as God is responsible for the presence of sin and death in the world, because such was the divine plan.

  • working out the Atonement, Christ as God is taking full responsibility for the perils of the divine plan. He is taking upon himself the consequences of all sins committed and all pains endured by his fallen children—sins that he did not commit and sufferings that he did not directly inflict, but which were made possible through his agency as the author of the plan. He is doing the work necessary to see his plan through to its intended outcome, which was not the condemnation of people for sin, but the exaltation of his children through their becoming free to act for themselves and then freely choosing him, their God...He has authority to intervene where none other could because of his exclusive role in setting in motion the series of events that make the intervention necessary in the first place.

  • He suffers everything himself, asking no one to confront anything he is not willing to endure himself. In some way that we must still accept on faith, he opens himself to the full range of mortal hurts, enduring them all in fulness and without reservation, beyond what any mortal could endure, “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor His people” (Alma 7:12). He dismisses none of it; he is fluent in all the languages of suffering and need, and no one who suffers is beyond His compassionate reach or comprehension.

  • The comprehensiveness of his suffering is crucial. I submit that it is this comprehensiveness that Alma 34 refers to as “infinite and eternal.” Christ has the capacity to heal not just some victims from their wounds, but all victims. He can redeem not just this or that sinner from spiritual death, but any sinner, including me. This comprehensiveness means that no one is beyond redemption, but also that no one can insist on their own version of justice outside of Christ’s.


  • Jesus’ suffering may well have come about because of his realisation — and he had not yet fully realised it because he had, until that point, never really experienced it — that human life is pretty God-awful. As you say, he put in motion certain events that, although necessary on an eternal scale, also produced a world of loss, cruelty, and deep suffering. Having now experienced that, and knowing he is in some way responsible, Jesus’ agony is literally shocking. My own view is that this then readied him to be our judge — the empathy theory if you will.

  • In one of Lars Olsen’s West Oversea saga books, there’s a scene that sticks with you where Thor is trying to administer justice to the dead. But each of the dead has an excuse, each can point to a parent or a neighbor or a loved one or enemy who helped to drive them bad, and when he goes to that parent or nneighbor or loved one or enemy to administer the punishment, he in turn can point to someone else. The poor dumb ox of a god is completely stumped. One way of looking at the atonement is that by assuming all burdens, Christ tied himself into the endless net of causation and responsibility and provides it with a definite end. Here all fingerpointing must cease. This way of looking at the atonement also provides an explanation for the mystery of why there would need to be more than one Christ (the alternative is the absurdity that across infinite worlds and infinite creations, the Christ happened to be born in ours). Separate creations are separate causal tangles.

  • In our sacred history and cosmology, Christ is the individual most responsible for ensuring that we would have free will, that we would actually encounter competing or opposing choices be free to choose evil, to make mistakes, to commit sin. He did it by championing a plan that would not abrogate individual agency, and He did it in His capacity as Savior. Guaranteeing human free will ensured human evil and human suffering and human sin and human awfulness. But it was not a mistake. Still, it means that human suffering is something that He bears responsibility for, more so in its totality than any other individual. All four gospels go to great lengths to identify His death/sacrifice with the Pascal Lamb–a creature whose death does provide salvation to God’s people, both by sparing them from death/destruction and by providing them with a meal, nourishment empowering them on their journey out of bondage and into the promised land–and not as the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement. It is not a vicarious sacrifice for sins. Gethsemane was the moment when the ripcord was pulled and Jesus understood the fullness of what He had wrought, the full breadth and depth of human depravity and human suffering made possible by His mission. His being perfect only made the sense of responsibility for the consequences of human sin more real, more accute, and more profound. He suffered not because of some mystical process whereby someone totally outsife of and alien to and disconnected from human sin is forced to suffer for it, but as a natural consequence of the realization of the awfulness and horror that His mission enabled and in some sense forced upon humanity. Consider the torment you, as an imperfectly compassionate and empathetic and as a basically self-centered and self-involved creature would still feel if one day you found out that something you did had resulted in the horrible suffering of a small child. Now consider the scope and acuity of the torment Christ felt when He realized that His choices and actions had resulted in infinitely more suffering than any one of us could possibly comprehend. He suffered for our sins, not vicarously, but as the Being most singularly responsible for the totality of human evil (not even satan is as responsible ultimately, since his efforts would be useless and wasted were it not for Christ’s guarantee of full free agency).

Friday, March 1, 2013

She Took It Out

Even though the details are sketchy, Feminist Mormon Housewives posted a brief story about "a dear friend...being released from her YW calling...for breastfeeding at church." Not complying to the complaints of others in the various meetings could supposedly jeopardize her temple recommend, according to these local leaders. I imagine their bishopric discussion regarding the matter sounded a lot like Elaine Benes' recap of her date with Jerry's friend Phil.

I understand that public breastfeeding can potentially be a bit awkward for observers (or at the very least momentarily shocking). While this may be due to prudishness, it could also be attributed to the simple fact that one is not used to seeing it. I've been thrown off-guard before by those who are perfectly comfortable with breastfeeding in public, though I easily recovered. As others have pointed out, the LDS Church supports breastfeeding and encourages a mother to "breast-feed her baby if she can." Furthermore, the Church leadership recognizes that modesty is situational.[1] As the Feb. 1975 issue of the New Era reads, "Modesty in dress is at least partly dependent upon the appropriateness of a particular costume to the occasion or activity for which it is worn. What is appropriate and modest for one activity may not be for another. We have to exercise judgment and make every effort to obey the spirit of the law." One blogger provided this concluding sentence to the article: "You can have situational modesty during swimming, professional dancing and sports, doctor's visits, and birth." Unfortunately, the current online version does not include this sentence. I wonder if it was removed from the website, but can be found in the printed versions. Nonetheless, "situational modesty" is a perfect way of framing the topic of breastfeeding. Examining our history (even ancient history and art) is another way to address predicaments such as this. Just as leaders used to pass the sacrament during sermons and hymns (due to the size of the congregation), women used to breastfeed in the midst of the meeting.

Harpers Weekly, September 30, 1871

The reaction by this bishopric (if real) is certainly absurd. While nursing mothers should be sensitive to the feelings of those around them, they should receive the very same sensitivity (if not more) from the rest of us.

Update: Peggy Fletcher Stack just weighed in on the issue and Christianity Today demonstrates that this is not unique to Mormons.

1. For an interesting take on LDS modesty and gender roles, see Rosemary Avance, "Worthy "Gods" and "Goddesses": The Meaning of Modesty in the Normalization of Latter-day Saint Gender Roles," Journal of Religion & Society 12 (2010).