Friday, July 15, 2011

"Master, Who Did Sin?"

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
(John 9:1-2)

This set of verses raises the intriguing question, "How could the man sin before he was born in order to cause his own blindness?" Based on my studies, I have found three plausible perspectives by which one may interpret this question: (1) the Restoration perspective, (2) the Second Temple Jewish perspective, or (3) the rabbinic perspective.[1]

(1) The Restoration Perspective

When one views the 9:2a footnote (footnotes are often taken as authoritative), we see a reference to the Topical Guide's "Man, Antemortal Existence of." According to the Church's missionary manual Preach My Gospel, "God is the Father of our spirits. We are literally His children...We lived as spirit children of our Father in Heaven before we were born on this earth." Given the common LDS belief that the Prophet Joseph Smith restored ancient Christianity via revelation, many assume this Johannine phrasing to be implicit evidence of Christ's teachings of pre-mortal existence (Jesus was quite explicit about His own pre-mortal existence, while Paul makes reference to Israel and the Church as a whole). This mentality was likely solidified by the writings of Bruce R. McConkie, who stated,

Jesus' disciples—probably as a direct result of his teachings—knew and believed that men were the spirit children of God in pre-existence and that in such prior estate they were subject to law and endowed with agency. Otherwise they never would have asked nor would there have been any sense or reason to a question which is predicated upon the assumption that men can sin before they are born into mortality.

The Savior responded to his disciples, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (John 9:3). This could be taken by some to be a reference to foreordination; another prominent LDS doctrine. 

The Restoration perspective is plausible and understandable, but only given the presupposition regarding the truthfulness of the Restoration itself. Relying solely on the text, it is near impossible to pin down vs. 1-3 as a reference to an early teaching by Christ Himself.[2]

(2) The Second Temple Jewish Perspective

This view is based on the pseudepigraphic and apocalyptic literature of Second Temple Judaism. References to the pre-mortal existence of human beings are scattered throughout various documents:

  • 2 Enoch has been dated to around the first century BCE and was most likely translated from Hebrew to Greek to Slavonic. In this text, the prophet Enoch is commanded to "write--all the souls of men, whatever of them are not yet born, and their places, prepared for eternity."
  • Prayer of Joseph, a fragment of the first or second century CE, speaks of the patriarchs being "created before any work." Jacob in particular is described as "an angel of God," a "ruling spirit," and "the firstborn of every creature." The Church Father Origen quoted favorably from the text, understanding Jacob to be a chief captain among the angels prior to his birth. Though not widespread, it was not an uncommon Jewish claim that the patriarchs were pre-existent. 
  • The Assumption or Testament of Moses (1st century CE), Moses is said to have been prepared "from/before the foundation of the world, to be the mediator of the covenant."
  • Another first or second century CE text known as the Apocalypse of Abraham has Abraham witnessing a group of men, women, and children prior to the creation.
  • Fourth Book of Ezra (2nd century CE) presents the world as being created for the pre-existent "righteous" to experience the "contest" of earth life. Ezra notes that the spirit "return[s] again to him who gave it."
  • The authoritative Wisdom of Solomon (first or second century BCE) has the author describing his quest for sophia ("wisdom") and makes mention of how he "entered an undefiled body."[3]
Given the apocalyptic flavor of some of the New Testament authors (particularly John), it is conceivable that a similar strain of pre-existence theology existed among Jesus' disciples apart from Christ's personal teachings.

(3) The Rabbinic Perspective

Another highly plausible context is the Jewish belief in prenatal sin. According to the NET Bible commentary, prenatal sin "was a common belief in Judaism;"

the rabbis used Ezek 18:20 to prove there was no death without sin, and Ps 89:33 to prove there was no punishment without guilt (the Babylonian Talmud, b. Shabbat 55a, although later than the NT, illustrates this). Thus in this case the sin must have been on the part of the man’s parents, or during his own prenatal existence. Song Rabbah 1:41 (another later rabbinic work) stated that when a pregnant woman worshiped in a heathen temple the unborn child also committed idolatry. This is only one example of how, in rabbinic Jewish thought, an unborn child was capable of sinning.

This rabbinic view continues the notion of collective sin that was prevalent in Israelite theology.

1. To clarify, this is not to say the disciples' view that the blindness required a causation beyond a naturalistic explanation is correct. This is merely an analysis of the possible contexts that would provide them with the concept that a man could sin prior to being born.

2. Caution should be taken when assessing the LDS belief of pre-mortal existence given the concept's historical development.

3. This list of sources and their descriptions are provided by Terryl L. Givens in his When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pgs. 46-49. For an overview of the book's research and themes, see his 2007 FAIR Conference presentation. It should be noted that these concepts continued to have influence in rabbinic writings: “This idea is also found in the early Jewish Midrash Rabbah Genesis 8:7, in which God says of the creation of Adam, "We took counsel with the souls of the righteous" and adds that "the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, sat the souls of the righteous with whom He took counsel before creating the world." The same idea is repeated in Midrash Rabbah Ruth 2:3: "the souls of the righteous with whom the Holy One, blessed be He, decided to create the world... With the Almighty King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, dwelt the souls of the righteous with whom He decided to create the world.” (John A. Tvedtnes, “The King Follett Discourse in the Light of Ancient and Medieval Jewish and Christian Beliefs,” Presentation at the 2004 FAIR Conference)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Scientism and Etymological Evolutions

*I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups.

So lamented the British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture titled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” The separate camps he spoke of were the humanities and the physical sciences. It is often toted today that we live in the Age of Science, resting on the erroneous assumption that science was not practiced before the Renaissance or perhaps even the Enlightenment. The narrow confinement of the word science to the biological or physical realms is a relatively recent English development that began in the late-1800s.[1] Yet, in Dutch today we can still speak of kunstwetenschap (“art science”): an unthinkable English combination. Or in German die Geisteswissenschaften (literally “spirit sciences”). Before the mid-19th century, science could be equated with or encompassed by natural philosophy. Science was, in the words of Nobel laureate Percy W. Bridgman, “nothing more than doing one's damnedest with one's mind, no holds barred.”

The physical sciences are often seen as the standard by which all ideas and philosophies are to be measured — the ultimate epistemic and moral authority. This brand of thinking infected the elite and intelligentsia of the early-20th century, blossoming into a popular acceptance of (among other things) eugenics. This love affair with scientific efficiency manifested itself in my own field of study in the form of Taylor’s scientific management: a heavily centralized, mechanistic and dehumanizing approach to labor.[2]

Over the course of the past century, however, the tide has slowly turned. Intelligence is no longer defined merely by problem-solving or task-oriented faculties, but also by one’s emotional capabilities. Human motivation does not rest solely on external, carrot-and-stick incentives, but intrinsic rewards as well. The most important philosophical event of the 20th century was the collapse of logical positivism and its verification principle, which ushered in an academic revival of metaphysics.[3] Quantum mechanics has forever changed the face of materialism and the meaning of space, time and matter.

Reductionist theories eventually give way to what philosopher Tyler Burge calls “neurobabble,” which “produces the illusion of understanding,” yet does little to “aid, much less provide, psychological explanation.” In attempts to be objective, many forget that scientific theories are laced with concepts, vocabularies and interpretations saturated with subjective meaning.

This shift in paradigm recognizes religion and science are not necessarily exclusive, reason and emotion actually complete each other, and the objective and subjective always overlap. In other words, it recognizes that humans (along with their biases) are the ones doing the experiments. As the physicist and philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn explained,

The more carefully [historians of science] study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given these alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded. That choice, however, makes it difficult to see scientific development as a process of accretion.[4]

As previously mentioned, one of the unfortunate side effects of modernity's scientistic mindset is the unstable moral foundation it seems to leave us with. Even secularist authors such as Sam Harris have taken note of the moral ambiguity among contemporary intellectuals.[5] What's worse is that this has infected modern theological and philosophical discussions. Having already provided a brief etymological history of the word science, I will provide the same for four more: religion, faith, agency and freedom.

Religion in our day is commonly understood as a set of supernatural propositions or an institution/denomination one belongs to. However, when we explore the meaning of religion in medieval Christianity, a different picture emerges. St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Western philosopher of the Middle Ages, understood religion (Latin religio) as a moral virtue. In his Summa Theologiae, he explained that the primary acts of religion are internal, while the secondary ones are external. Internal religious acts are identified as devotion and prayer, while external acts include reverence, offerings, sacrifices, etc. Religion was not objectified as an institute of beliefs and practices related to the supernatural until the Protestant Reformation, particularly John Calvin.[6]

While religion came to mean the institute of particular beliefs and practices, faith came to be associated with the intellectual assent to the beliefs themselves.[7] However, this is a distorted view of the original usage. Placing the term within the context of the Greco-Roman world, New Testament scholar David DeSilva explains,

Faith (Lat. fides; Gk pistis) is a term also very much at home in patron-client and friendship relations...In one sense, faith meant “dependability.” The patron needed to prove reliable in providing the assistance he or she promised to grant. The client needed to “keep faith” as well, in the sense of showing loyalty or commitment to the patron and to his or her obligations of gratitude. A second meaning in the more familiar sense is “trust”: the client had to trust the goodwill and ability of the patron...while the benefactor would also have to trust the recipients to act nobly and make a grateful response.[8]

In his commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews, DeSilva touches on Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen":

In philosophical language [the Greek hupostasis] can signify the “substance” or “underlying essence” of something...The same term, however, carries the everyday legal or business connotation of “title deed” or “guarantee,” attested by numerous papyri as well as classical texts...Given this immediate context, ['substance'] should be heard in the sense of title deed in 11:1, linking the discussion of faith more closely with 10:32-36 and the Christians’ loss of property...In this reading, ['faith'] in Hebrews is being understood very much within the context of patronage or friendship. After a client receives the patron’s promise that a certain benefaction will be given to him or her..."trust" is all the client has. If the patron is honorable and reliable, however, having “trust” is a good as having the promised item itself. Conversely, showing “distrust” toward the patron means letting go of the grasp on the promised item not only psychologically (because distrust produces anxiety) but in reality (as “distrust” manifested itself in “disobedience,” which caused the wilderness generation to lose their possession of the promised land; 3:7-19).[9]

Instead of the childish wish fulfillment and blind obedience many critics purport it to be, faith is a mature sense of trust, commitment, and engagement.

A term well-known to Mormons is that of free agency or simply agency.[10] Most interpretations understand this simply as the power to choose. Once again, when we turn back time a couple centuries, we realize that this understanding is incomplete. Given Joseph Smith's early leanings to Methodism and the 19th century Methodist culture that Mormonism shared, it is worth noting that Methodists from this time "defined agency not as freedom to do what one wants but as the freedom to do what is right." It carried with it the notion of "obedience and ethical responsibility as well as freedom to make choices and act upon them." As historian Phyllis Mack explains, "The goal of the individual's religious discipline was to shape her personal desires and narrow self-interest until they became identical with God's desire, with absolute goodness. The sanctified Christian wants what God wants; she is God's agent in the world."[11] Agency seems closely related to stewardship; the handling of which we will ultimately be judged for.

Finally, the concept of freedom (a favorite among Americans in particular) has changed over time. Its evolution is similar to that of the word agency. While ancient pagan and Christian philosophers recognized freedom as the ability to realize and embrace "the Good" (understood as God: the ultimate end to which we are driven by nature), modern notions tend to twist the definition of freedom to mean free from all moral constraints without consequence (a form of liberationism). As Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart writes,

True the freedom of a thing to flourish, to become ever more fully what it is...To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures were originally framed, and for which — in the deepest reaches of our souls — we ceaselessly yearn. And whatever separates us from that end — even if it be our own power of choice within us — is a form of bondage. We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.[12]

In his book The Infinite Atonement, Tad Callister declares that "the lives of gods are driven internally, rather than externally...Gods do not live oblivious of laws, but through obedience have mastered the laws so that they might use them to accomplish their purposes. Freedom is achieved through a step-by-step process of obedient compliance to God's will. Consequently the more we become like God, the freer we become. Freedom and godhood are parallel paths; in fact the are the same road."[13] As Nephi wrote, "Because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever" (2 Nephi 2:26). Callister's concept falls in line with the classical understanding: "Some might contend that freedom comes when there are no laws or restraints. They contend that freedom in its purest form is the right to do anything, anytime, anywhere, without consequence...[This freedom] is illusory."[14] In summary, Callister writes, "Obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel brings increased knowledge, a multiplicity of choices, and an enhanced power to execute, all of which result in added freedom."[15]

The scientistic framework has robbed our culture of many beautiful truths: religion is not just about making supernatural claims, but interacting with the supernatural by means of a virtuous life. Having faith is not believing and obeying blindly, but developing trust and remaining committed to that which one trusts in. Agency is not simply about choice, but choice with consequences and the knowledge of whose agent one is. Freedom is not just about doing what one wants, but doing what one ought as well. The whole of life is not solely about what you think and why you think it (as important as those are). It is about who you are and what you do.

*This is an expanded version of my April 28 column in the North Texas Daily.


1. See Daniel Patrick Thurs, Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Popular Culture (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007).

2. See Thomas C. Leonard, "American Economic Reform in the Progressive Era: Its Foundational Beliefs and Their Relation to Eugenics," History of Political Economy 41:1 (2009).

3. See Tyler Burge, "Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990," The Philosophical Review 101:1 (Jan. 1992).

4. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [1962]), 2-3.

5. For example, listen to the story that prompted his writing of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010) at the beginning of a 2010 Texas Book Festival lecture found here.

6. Peter Harrison, "Lecture 1 - The Territories of Science and Religion," 2011 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, 14 Feb. 2011.

7. For a helpful overview of the word's history, see Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009), Ch. 4 - "Faith."

8. David A. DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 115.

9. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle ‘to the Hebrews’ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 383-384.

10. See Kevin Barney's recent discussion of these terms.

11. As quoted in Christopher C. Jones, "Mormonism and Agency: A Historical Inquiry," Juvenile Instructor (May 16, 2011).

12. For a more extensive discussion of this subject, see Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

13. Tad R. Callister, The Infinite Atonement (Provo, UT: Deseret Book, 2000), 251.

14. Ibid., 257.

15. Ibid., 261.