Saturday, February 23, 2013


Aaron Shafovaloff of Mormon Research Ministry has a recent blog post on his pet project: Did God the Father ever sin? In it, he posts an online exchange he had with a Mormon:

I do not typically engage the kind of counter-cult evangelicalism that MRM represents, mainly because I find it tiresome and boring, especially when it comes to biblical scholarship.[1] But this is an interesting subject that is obviously worth exploring in an interfaith context. There are an incredible amount of presuppositions in the reading above; presuppositions that the ancients did not share.

To Shafovaloff, the Thrice Holy in John's Revelation defines God's unique, unchanging, transcendent nature. In Shafovaloff's mind, being a god and possibly being worshipped in the afterlife is a big no-no. Unfortunately for him, the rabbis disagree:

Indeed, the rabbinic tradition sometimes went to the extreme of anthropomorphism: Not only did it make the notion of man's likeness to God as physical and detailed as possible (it included circumcision among the distinguishing marks of the Deity), but it took the likeness as proof of the potential perfection of man and taught that Adam before the fall and the righteous in the world to come realized this perfection and were rightly, therefore, to be worshiped by the angels: We read in Baba Batra 75b, "Rabba said R. Johanan, 'The righteous are destined to be called by the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, for it is said, "Everyone who is called by my name, him have I created, formed and made that he should also share my glory.""...R. Elazar said, 'The trishagion [i.e. Holy, Holy, Holy] will be said before the righteous as it is said before the Holy One, blessed be He.' In a later passage in the Tanhuma and in the condensation of Bereshit Rabbati this potential divinity and predicted worship are presented as the direct consequences of man's being in the image of God. So it is in the Latin life of Adam (13ff.), where, after Adam's creation, the angels are ordered to "worship the image of God."[2]

In D&C 76:21, we read, "And saw the holy angels, and them who are sanctified before his throne, worshiping God, and the Lamb, who worship him forever and ever" (italics mine). Notice that both God and the Lamb are the continual objects of worship among deified men and women. Furthermore, the Sifre to Leviticus 26:12 ("I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people") states,

It is to be expressed by means of parable; to what may this be likened? To a king who went out to stroll in his orchard (pardes) with his tenant farmer, and [out of respect] that tenant kept hiding himself from the presence of the king. So the king said to that tenant, “Why do you hide from me? Behold, I, you- we’re alike!” Similarly in the Age to Come the Holy One, blessed be He, will stroll with the righteous in the Garden of Eden, but when the righteous see Him they will tremble before Him; and the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to them, “Why is it that you tremble before me? Behold, I, you- we’re alike!” ...“Is this to say that you will no longer have fear/reverence of Me? The verse [ibid.] reads, ‘I will [still] be your God, and you shall be my people.”[3]

Even so, would worship of another being besides the High God destroy monotheism? The late Yehezkel Kaufmann didn't think so:

Even the worship of other supernatural beings...cannot be considered in necessary contradiction to monotheism...The One is not necessarily “jealous” in a cultic sense. There is room in monotheism for the worship of lower divine beings—with the understanding that they belong to the suit of the One. Thus Christianity knows the worship of saints and intercessors, as does Islam...Israelite monotheism tended toward cultic exclusivism and was crystallized in this form in the Bible. But during the pre-exilic period Israel was still moving from the basic monotheistic idea to its extreme cultic consequence.[4]

This is not news to biblical scholars and historians. As religious scholar Paula Fredriksen put it, "No ancient monotheist was a modern monotheist. Divinity expressed itself along a gradient, and the High God...hardly stood alone." This is because "lesser divinities filled in the gap, cosmic and metaphysical, between humans and God" and "antiquity's universe, by comparison, was filled with gods." Granted, "not every ancient polytheist was a monotheist," but "all ancient monotheists were, by our measure, polytheists."[5]

Shafovaloff's use of Psalms and Isaiah does not help his position, but in fact undermines it. The Hebrew 'olam ("everlasting") in Ps. 90:2 carries no notion of the philosopher's "timelessness." The word denotes a distant age or ancient time.[6] This is why Frank Moore Cross translates 'El 'olam as "the god of eternity" or "the ancient one." He also notes that 'olam is applied to the "ancient Earth" in the Arslan Tash incantation (Christians who accept creatio ex nihilo certainly wouldn't consider the earth to be "everlasting" as God is).[7] It is also applied to the "might men which were of old" in Genesis 6:4. Furthermore, the context of the psalm praises Yahweh "through all generations" and "before the mountains were brought forth" and before God "had formed the earth" (Ps. 90:1-2, NRSV). This links "everlasting to everlasting" specifically to the primordial era, not a state of eternal existence.[8] As Bill Murray quipped in one of his most popular films, "Maybe [God's] not omnipotent. He's just been around so long, He just knows everything!" Hence, Joseph Smith's revelations borrow from the Psalms to describe man's progression to godhood: "Then shall they be gods...therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue...Then shall they be gods, because they have all power..." (D&C 132:20; italics mine).

The opening of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) begins with "an unusual series of active imperatives, plural..."comfort ye," "speak ye," "proclaim ye."" The "setting is the heavenly council in which Yahweh addresses his heralds[.]"[9] In other words, the passage Shafovaloff cites is one working under the assumption of a divine council and, thus, the plurality of gods. Isaiah's denial of other gods in various chapters should be understood as statements of comparability, much like Babylon's claim that there is "none else beside me" (Isa. 47:8,10).[10]

Now, I don't pretend to have full-fledged theory of the afterlife (let alone deification) or God's pre-creation activities. I am willing to bet most do not. But I do know that Shafovaloff's form of fundamentalist proof-texting is misplaced and ignores the relevant scholarship. This in no way proves that Mormonism's concepts of God and man are correct. However, it does show that there is more wiggle room in the "blasphemy" department within the biblical texts and culture than some Christians would have you believe.

1. "Anti-Mormonism of the evangelical kind has come, with a few exceptions, to bore me intensely. It is not only that it tends to be repetitious and uninteresting. (My friend and colleague William Hamblin and I have laughed about doing an autobiographical film entitled Bill and Dan's Excellent Adventure in Anti-Mormon Zombie Hell.) It is not merely that the same arguments reappear ad nauseam, no matter how often they have been refuted, and that reviewing essentially the same book for the thirty-second time grows tiresome. (One definition of insanity is that the insane one keeps doing the same thing over and over and over again and expects to get different results.) It is also the deep streak of intellectual dishonesty that runs through much of the countercult industry, the triumphalism that exaggerates and even invents problems on the Mormon side while effectively pretending that no problems remain to be addressed on the so-called "Christian" side" (Daniel Peterson, "Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism," FARMS Review 17:2. 2005: 423). This is not to say that MRM and other groups do not have some worthwhile material or criticisms (e.g. changes in Gospel Principles manuals, Bruce McConkie's letter to Eugene England, questionable history).

2. Morton Smith, "The Image of God: Notes on the Hellenization of Judaism, with Especial Reference to Goodenough's Work on Jewish Symbols," Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, Vol. 1: Studies in Historical Method, Ancient Israel, Ancient Judaism, ed. Shaye J.D. Cohen (The Netherlands: Brill, 1996), 120-121.

3. Cited in Judah Goldin, "Of Midrash and the Messianic Theme," Studies in Midrash and Related Literature, eds. B.L. Eichler, J.H. Tigay (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1988), 369-370. Thanks to Allen at Calba Savua's Orchard for providing the reference.

4. Quoted in Baruch Halpern, "'Brisker Pipes than Poetry': The Development of Israelite Monotheism," in From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies (Germany: Mohr Siebeck Tubingen, 2009), 19. ""How do we differ from pagans?" "We have only one God." "Do Catholics believe in saints, Jews and Muslims in angels, Protestants in devils?" "That is different," comes the response! "Do angels not live forever, enjoy supernatural powers, exist in a dimension different from that inhabited by mortals?" "Still different!" ...[T]he difference between monotheism and polytheism in the student's mind is the difference between God and god - between two ways of spelling the same word..." (Ibid., 16).

5. Paula Fredriksen, "Gods and the One God," Bible Review (Feb. 2003): 49. See Daniel Boyarin's discussion of the worship of Metatron (the deified Enoch) and other Logos-like entities in his Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). For more on the subject of Metatron, see Daniel Abrams, "The Boundaries of Divine Ontology: The Inclusion and Exclusion of Metatron in the Godhead," Harvard Theological Review 87:3 (1994).

6. "Its most basic meaning is "far" or "distant time," which allows the word to be used (sometimes within construct forms) in the sense of "ancient" or "long ago" and, more commonly (over 260x in the OT), in the sense of the (distant) "future" or "forever"...The term cannot be used as equivalent for philosophical notions about God, such as purely timeless eternity or even unbounded time ("everlasting")" (Todd Pokrifka, "Time," Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, eds. Tremper Longman III, Peter Enns. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, 825).

7. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 50.

8. I'm indebted to David Bokovoy for these insights.

9. Frank Moore Cross, Jr., "The Council of Yahweh in Second Isaiah," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12:4 (1953): 275.

10. See Michael S. Heiser, "Divine Council," Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, eds. Tremper Longman III, Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"I Will Make You Hurt"

Warning: Many videos and plenty of music ahead

Over at Times & Seasons, Nathaniel Givens shared this little memory (familiar to many Mormons, I'm sure) in a wonderful piece titled "Why I Listen to Screamo":

On one particular day I remember being in the backseat of a minivan full of my fellow teenage Mormons as we drove to or from some weekday church activity. We were listening to the radio when "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" by The Smashing Pumpkins came on and I started to sing along...[M]y enthusiasm was met by unanimous horror from the rest of the van. This, it seemed, was not what good Mormons listened to. While someone gave me a mini-lecture on musical standards, the radio dial was hastily changed from alternative rock to top-40. My own misgivings–was I bringing the devil into this vehicle?–were laid to rest as Christina Aguilera instructed us all on how to "rub her the right way" in order to convince her to “give it away”. I was pretty sure that, next to that, Billy Corgan singing  ”And I still believe that I cannot be saved,” wasn’t any worse.


Elsewhere, Nathaniel explains that "the reason I can’t abide most overtly religious music is that–to me–it starts from a false place. It tries to emulate or imagine or envision the divine, and in the process it repudiates the mundane." In order "to be authentic, you have to start from where and who you are. So pretending you’re already there won’t work." The difference is between two temples: the Tower of Babel and the House of the Lord where you offer sacrifices upon the altar. "An altar doesn’t actually get you very far off the ground, but at least it’s starting where you are and pointing in the right direction," says Nathaniel. "It’s a failure, but it’s an authentic one and so it means something." What a shame that Smashing Pumpkins was so hastily dismissed, especially since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is an incredible album with a wide range of feelings (brought on by songs such as the one above, "Tonight Tonight," "To Forgive," "1979," "Zero," and "In the Arms of Sleep"). In the lyrics and raw emotion, one encounters that authentic failing in which the divine is so often found. How does one not hear this in songs like the ever-haunting "Disarm"?

Luckily, my YM/Scout leader for the longest time was also my best friend's dad. While I was listening to Blink 182 (even their old-school demo material like Buddha), my friend (due to his dad's influence) was listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and even the chainsaw-wielding Jackal. One Wednesday night, as I caught a ride with my friend, his dad popped in one of his many CDs. Suddenly, a chugging, metal chord progression filled the car, along a with a jolting scream and eerie harmonies.[1] I was caught off guard, but thoroughly entranced. About halfway through, the guitarist ripped into a headbanging solo. Having played guitar for a couple years, my ears perked up. The song, unfortunately, came to an end after only a couple minutes. When I asked what this was, my friend's dad answered (with a smile), "Alice in Chains." The album was Dirt and the song was "Them Bones."

I borrowed the album, copied it, and became an AIC (and Jerry Cantrell) fan from then on. I now own all their studio albums, Facelift through Black Gives Way to Blue (their newest, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, comes out in a couple months), along with their live MTV Unplugged. I even have Jerry Cantrell's solo albums Boggy Depot and Degradation Trip. One reviewer called the latter "The Album to Slit Your Wrists By." Yet, they also described it as "an extremely mature, deeply thoughtful, spiritually riveting trip up [Cantrell's] spine, down his throat to the pit of his stomach and through his mangled soul." The same could be said of much of AIC's work. Reflect on the lyrics of "Nutshell," in which singer Layne Staley croons with despair and loneliness:

We chase misprinted lies
We face the path of time
And yet I fight
And yet I fight
This battle all alone
No one to cry to
No place to call home 

My gift of self is raped
My privacy is raked
And yet I find
And yet I find
Repeating in my head
If I can't be my own
I'd feel better dead

Could there be a better example of one needing redemption, especially since he never found it (Staley struggled with a heroin addiction, which eventually claimed his life in April 2002)? Some may say this fails the test of "uplifting music" (however that is actually defined). But "if having the answer isn’t as important as striving to find it," as Nathaniel puts it, "then a process laden with struggle and tension and discord becomes imbued with nobility rather than some kind of harbinger of spiritual ruin...Sublime humility or frustrated sincerity: there is no reason for me to have to choose one or the other." I remember songs like Blink 182's "Adam's Song" or 3 Doors Down's "Loser" being called "inappropriate" because of their dark subject matter, which would supposedly encourage one to act out the feelings of the song. Far from calling anyone a "loser," 3DD singer Brad Arnold is actually singing about the self-doubt and isolation associated with his friend's cocaine addiction. Despite the highly publicized suicide accompanied by "Adam's Song,"[2] the song was an ode to the loneliness on tour, the prior suicide of a teen, and the struggles of life generally (bass player Mark Hoppus even called it an "anti-suicide song"). For a band with album titles like Enema of the State (with porn star cover girl) and Take Off Your Pants & Jacket, song names "Dick Lips," "Dysentery Gary," or "What's My Age Again?", and lyrics like that of "Family Reunion" or "Happy Holidays, You Bastard," we should hope for something as serious as "Adam's Song." 

While these songs from Blink 182 or 3 Doors Down are hardly high-quality examples, the idea is nonetheless the same: in some sense, their music and lyrics redeem these tragedies. When asked about his inspiration for the song "Jeremy," Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder said he felt "the need to take that small [news] article [about 15-year-old suicide victim Jeremy Delle of Richardson, TX] and make something of it – to give that action, to give it reaction, to give it more importance." Before, it was nothing more than a paragraph in the newspaper. Few would know about it. Now, it has a life and history that touches millions in the form of a song.

Even better, these songs can take on different forms and meanings with various musical interpretations. For example, what's great about the unplugged version of "Nutshell" above is that the original guitar fills have been stripped down, instead playing a quiet, supporting role to Staley's desperate "ooohs" between verses (rather than the other way around). However, the electric ending seems to embody and expand the soul of the song by contrasting with the majority of it. The distorted, muddy leads maintain the lyrics' hurt and almost bring the fragile song to a breaking point. The acoustic ending to some degree lacks this. But it is fully captured in several live, extended versions (especially with Staley no longer able to offer his passionate vocals):

Feelings of inadequacy pervade songs such as Radiohead's "Creep" (or should it be The Hollie's "The Air I Breathe"?). In fact, singer Thom Yorke regretted the radio recut that sang "so very special" rather than "so f**king special" because much of the song's sentiment and anger were lost. The song, in Yorke's words, acknowledged that "there's the beautiful people and then there's the rest of us." Wanting to be "special" with a "perfect body" and "perfect soul" is the desire to feel that "the worth of [one's soul] is great" (D&C 18:10). Yorke's tortured vocals along with the heavy crunch and distorted chaos of guitars captures the essence of love and loss: both of another and one's self. 

Yet, when singer Carrie Manolakos (formerly of Wicked) covered the song at the Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, she carried the pain even further than Yorke. As one commentator put it, "There are covers of songs, and then there are covers of songs. This is the second one" (much like dinner jackets apparently). And it deservedly went viral. As she crescendos in the bridge with "She's running out/She's running/She's run run run/Run," you feel a new sting; one different from that of Yorke. This is especially true as she returns to a soft, self-depreciating style in the following verse and chorus. The sense of longing and inadequacy is brought to an overwhelming head and all the singer and listener can do afterwards is smile and sadly laugh at themselves for thinking they deserve anything better. Longing for love is truly human. Desire (not lust), in the minds of some philosophers, ultimately leads to God.

Trent Reznor's (Nine Inch Nails) "Hurt" is quite obviously a song of self-harm and addiction: "I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel/I focus on the pain/The only thing that's real/The needle tears a hole/The old familiar sting/Try to kill it all away/But I remember everything." It is wallowing in pain and remorse at rock bottom. Reznor asks, "What have I become?" and answers "My sweetest friend." Why? Because "everyone I know, goes away in the end." He has cut himself off from friends, family, and the outside world. He is utterly alone. To those close him, he says, "I will make you hurt." If he "could start again, a million miles away," he would "keep [him]self." He'd "find a way." But what Reznor's version implies is that, in the midst of his loneliness and darkness, he cannot "find a way." It is not even a hope, but an impossible, futile dream. 

Johnny Cash, a deeply committed Christian, turned that impossible dream into a repentant hope. Changing the lyrics "I wear this crown of shit" to "crown of thorns" and incorporating images of the Crucifixion in the music video, Cash provides redemption for Reznor's original protagonist. The words "You could have it all, my empire of dirt" reminds me of King Lamoni's father crying, "O God...I will give away all my sins to know thee" (Alma 22:18). He is building the altar Nathaniel spoke of. The glories and tragedies of the world are laid upon it. The human condition is fully captured in the video. Shots of Cash's glamorous days as a rock star are contrasted with his abandoned museum, a deteriorating home, and an old, weary Cash. This gives life and meaning to Cash's interpretation of the song. Trent Reznor originally felt the cover "sounded...wrong, something alien." But after he saw the video, he concluded that "it wasn't my song anymore" and it had become an "unbelievably powerful piece of work." The song becomes a recognition of one's sins, a plea for help, and a commitment to change. "If I could start again" becomes the beginning of a promise. The way he would find would be, if the video is any indication, "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6).

Suffering, as I noted in my last post, is an intrinsic part of reality. We are expected to mourn with those who mourn. Confronting suffering, pain, and sin head-on is the life of Christian. If our example is Jesus Christ, a man who "loved people in great misery who were taken from Him and did not understand Him" and was then "beaten and executed for espionage and treason,"[3] how then can we as disciples not look misery in the face? We can shy away from music that is filled with angst, despair, and sadness. We can look at it as "unworthy." But we might miss out on something beautiful. As philosopher Roger Scruton noted, "Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways...[I]t speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend."[4]

Much like Meyer Music Markets slapped an "Explicit Lyrics" warning sticker on Frank Zappa's instrumental album Jazz from Hell, many Mormons slap labels on music they too are unfamiliar with. Before lecturing the youth (or anyone for that matter) on musical standards, try to become acquainted with it first.

1. The screams were improvised by Staley. See David De Sola, "How Alice in Chains Found the Most Memorable Voice in Grunge," The Atlantic (April 5, 2012).

2. It should be pointed out that the suicide victim was a survivor of Columbine. While the song was obviously used to stir negative emotions, those emotions would likely have spawned from his traumatizing experience with the school massacre.  

3. Samuel Brown, "The Work of Faith and the Weight of Glory," Fireside at the Arlington Stake Center (Texas), 27 January 2013.

4. Roger Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Kindle edition. "Preface" (Italics mine). To be clear, Scruton is actually a critic of rock. In many ways, I think he is correct. In others, however, I find myself agreeing more with RealClearReligion columnist Mark Judge.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

WWE - Mourn With Those Who Mourn: The Weeping God and Me

My latest Worlds Without End post is "Mourn With Those Who Mourn: The Weeping God and Me." It is, by far, one of the most personal blog posts I have ever written. In the past, I have said very little about how my sister's death affected me. In this post, I try to summarize my feelings and thoughts on my loss in light of the problem of evil and Mormonism's weeping God.

I end the post with a reference to the scene below from Good Will Hunting. Reflect on what it means to love and the vulnerability connected with it. Then, give the post a read.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hearing, Knowing, and the Sound of Silence

Hearing only what you want to hear
And knowing only what you've heard
You, you're smothered in tragedy
And you're out to save the world
...There's much more to life than what you see

- Metallica, "My Friend of Misery," Metallica (Elektra/Vertigo/Universal, 1991).

A lack of epistemic humility, Nathaniel Givens notes, leads us to "adopt epistemic closure around our irrationally chosen beliefs" and "to “call evil good, and good evil” and to “put darkness for light, and light for darkness” (as Isaiah would say) or to “exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage” (as Roger Waters would say)." The personal uncovering of capital-T "Truth" is usually in some form of intellectual/spiritual enlightenment, leading to a renewed paradigm. However, we must be careful when fully accepting our personal moments of enlightenment, especially when others have similar experiences that lead to opposite conclusions. For example, a 2012 presentation by doctoral candidate Rosemary Avance of the Annenberg School for Communication explored the parallels between Mormon conversion and de-conversion stories. Avance explains that "there is no such thing as “Mormonism” as an empirically homogeneous or monolithic experience," but various Mormonisms. The narratives of orthodox, heterodox, and former Mormons all contain "a moment when they learn an incendiary piece of information that threatens to upend their current worldview." They all "tell next of seeking out more information confirming or denying the initial information. Both groups often describe this as a time of uncharacteristic fervor and focus as they single-mindedly seek the truth and the liberation they are sure it will bring...After both...engage in some kind of socially interactive, intellectual exercise to further their information, phenomenological experience ensues...Both ultimately experience peace and surety that their newfound knowledge is exclusively true or right, and both rely on affective elements to fill in where intellect leaves off."

Hearing only what we want to hear (and knowing only what we've heard) may lead to different conclusions, though the reasoning and justification will be surprisingly similar. Philosopher Denys Turner shared the following anecdote that demonstrates this point:

Some years ago, and in younger, more foolhardy, days, finding myself in a tight spot in a public debate with a philosopher atheist at Bristol University, I made a wager with my audience: I would give anyone present five minutes to explain his or her reasons for atheism and if, after that, I could not guess correctly the Christian denomination in which that person had been brought up, I would buy her a pint of beer. As luck would have it I was not broke at the subsequent revels, though in taking the risk I was backing the mere hunch that most philosophical, principled, not merely casual atheisms are the mirror-images of a theism; that they are recognisable from one another, because atheisms fall roughly into the same categories as the theisms they deny; that they are about as interesting as each other; and that since narrowly Catholic or Methodist or Anglican atheisms are no more absorbing than narrowly Catholic, Methodist or Anglican theisms, they do not exactly amount to an over-rich diet for the theologian.[1]

This is why Terryl and Fiona Givens find that "militant atheism" and "fervent theism" are "both just as likely to serve as a dogmatic point of departure, as they are to be a thoughtful and considered end point in one's journey toward understanding...[N]either the new believer nor the new doubter has necessarily progressed or reached enlightenment."[2] They've just reconstructed the existing and often conflicting evidence. Even though certainty paradoxically exists alongside the concept of eternal progression within Mormon theology,[3] the focus on "knowing" often overtakes the learning process. In the famous King Follett Discourse, Joseph Smith taught, 

These ideas are incomprehensible to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Chris Himself did...
This "first principle" seems to inherently reject apophatic (negative) theology: describing God in terms of what He is not, rather than what He is. His attributes are so beyond our full comprehension that our language and concepts eventually break down. Yet, this apophatic approach seems to be upheld by other revelations received by Smith: "Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (D&C 1:24). It must also be remembered that the revelatory message is then filtered through a human medium. While often used in connection with a metaphysically simple, transcendent deity, Mormons would do well to appropriately apply a perhaps liberal form of apophatic methodology to their own faith. Despite Smith's anthropomorphization of God (or the theomorphization of humans), his various methods of revelation, and priesthood authority, the Restoration still leaves us with surprisingly little knowledge and provokes even more questions. How much do we really "know" about the pre-mortal life?[4] Intelligences?[5] The spirit world? God's body?[6] Perhaps we should approach not merely God, but gospel doctrine altogether in terms of what they are not and/or of what we do not know (let alone the things we don't know we don't know). By hearing only what we want to hear (and knowing only what we've heard), we cut ourselves off from further light and knowledge. If we allow, our language, explanations, and limited knowledge will break down into silence.[7] It is in this state of humility and silence that we will be ready for the revelations of certainty and clarity we seek. This is the sound of silence.

Terryl Givens (once again) wisely observes,

Mormons can be too quick to see all texts written previous to 1830 as potential proof texts, to see Jesus' ministrations to Mary and Martha as foreshadowing the home teaching program, every sunken Mesoamerican hole in the ground as a baptismal font, and so on. We are too quick, in other words, to see these other systems and phenomena as deriving their value in proportion to their capacity to anticipate a Restoration that we treat as full and complete. It's not, as prophets from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to President Kimball have reminded us.

...If the restoration is not yet complete, then other traditions have much to teach us. Not by way of confirming, corroborating, or verifying the truths we already have. But by way of actually adding to the body of revealed doctrine we call precious and true. The Restoration is neither full nor complete...It takes real humility and generosity of spirit to be taught. Our contemporary condescension in this regard was clearly foreign to a prophet who showed the world he could translate gold plates written in Reformed Egyptian, then hired a Jewish schoolmaster to teach him Hebrew.

1. Denys Turner, "Apophaticism, Idolatry and the Claims of Reason," Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation, eds. Oliver Davies, Denys Turner (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 14-15.

2. Terryl & Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City, UT: Ensign Peak, 2012), Kindle edition. Ch. 1 - "His Heart Is Set Upon Us."

3. See Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

4. See Blake T. Ostler, "The Idea of Pre-Existence in the Development of Mormon Thought," Dialogue - A Journal of Mormon Thought 15:1 (1982); Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

5. See James Faulconer, "The Mormon Understanding of Persons...and God," Patheos (Aug. 17, 2011); Faulconer, Martin Pulido, "A History of the Mormon Idea of Intelligence," revised draft in possession of the author.

6. James Faulconer, "Divine Embodiment and Transcendence: Propaedeutic Thoughts and Questions," Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy & Theology 1:1 (2005); Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints," BYU Studies 50:3 (2011); Webb, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

7. Blair Hodges, "The Silent "and..."," By Common Consent (Jan. 5, 2012); Blake T. Ostler, "The Silence That Is Not Silence," Element 1:2 (2005). Karen Armstrong presents an apophatic theology in her book The Case for God (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009).

Friday, February 1, 2013

"I'm Intervening!"

The environment exceeding on the level of our unconsciousness
For example, what does the billboard say?
"Come and play, come and play
Forget about the movement"
Your anger is a gift.

- Rage Against the Machine, "Freedom," Rage Against the Machine (Epic, 1992).*

Outrage, I believe, is also a drug.

So says Nathaniel Givens over at Difficult Run. This is in relation to his multiple posts on epistemic humility at Times & Seasons, in which he does a fabulous job of introducing behavioral economics as a framework for understanding our approach to truth. Nathaniel's thoughts are well-articulated and unique and deserve to be read in full. In fact, readers may recognize similar themes in my very first post. Humility breeds innovation and progress (whether spiritual, economic, social, etc.). Prideful polarization, to say the least, does not. And given the way we cognitively develop beliefs (biases and all), we could all do with a little humility.[1] But humility goes far beyond "tolerance" or "open-mindedness" (two concepts I am personally not fond of due to their constant misuse and corruption). Some of the most "tolerant" and "open-minded" individuals are far from humble. They take great pride in being tolerant and open-minded toward View X,  while, ironically, being very intolerant (downright hostile) and closed off to View Y. This unfortunately crosses all religious, social, and political spectrums. And it stifles the development of what Steven Johnson calls "the slow hunch" (notice the blog title).

Nathaniel points to research that shows "people are willing to pay for non-instrumental information that will increase their probability of being right without actually influencing their decision." In other words, "we seek to feel certain rather than to be correct." Plenty of psychological research demonstrates this to be the case. People develop beliefs based largely on presupposed values rather than any sense of objectivity. More often than not we suffer from the "backfire effect" when introduced to evidence that contradicts our beliefs. What this artificial certainty leads to is what Nathaniel calls "a perpetual feedback loop of outrage."

And the extremists love it.

Being high on pride is an enjoyable experience. An analysis by social scientist Arthur C. Brooks found that political extremists tend to be some of the happiest people in America.[2] Ideologues "believe with perfect certainty in the correctness of their political dogmas. People want to hold the truth; questioning is uncomfortable." What's worse, extremists intend to upset people: both those who agree with their view (in order to rally them) and those who disagree (simply to piss them off). Political opposites in their mind "are not just mistaken, but bad people, who are also stupid and selfish." On public surveys, extreme liberals and conservatives rated their opposites with a feeling thermometer reading of 20 and below (50 being neutral). This may not be surprising until you realize that the average American gave the likes of Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Cuba, and Iran higher ratings. One-fifth of extreme liberals went as far as to give conservatives a score of zero. "In 2002, even Saddam Hussein received an average score of 8 from Americans across the political spectrum."

You mad yet? Good.

These extremists (both conservative and liberal) also have a self-inflated opinion of their compassion toward others according to the collected data. Yet, they fall below moderates in categories such as being willing to "endure all things for the one I love" or small acts of honesty (e.g. returning change mistakenly given by a cashier). As Nate Oman noted elsewhere on T&S, "[O]ften the passionate hatred of injustice is simply a manifestation of a talent for passionate hatred." It is easy to be outraged. Actually doing something useful takes a bit more work. In many ways, it is similar to the mentality of "raising awareness," which earned the #18 spot on the list "Stuff White People Like":

An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.” Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.

This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges. Because, the only challenge of raising awareness is people not being aware. In a worst case scenario, if you fail someone doesn’t know about the problem. End of story.

What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets. In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference.

Raising awareness is also awesome because once you raise awareness to an acceptable, aribtrary level, you can just back off and say “Bam! did my part. Now it’s your turn. Fix it.”

So to summarize – you get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?). Once again, white people find a way to score that sweet double victory.

Just like Live 8’s Bob Geldof said, "Something must be done, even if it doesn't work." True morality apparently means being outraged and then making others aware you're outraged via Facebook. In essence, the moral high road takes Mr. Incredible's approach to intervention.

*Despite their outrage, I like Rage Against the Machine. I own Rage Against the Machine, Evil Empire, and The Battle of Los Angeles, not to mention every Audioslave album. Even though Tom Morello may chastise me (as he did Paul Ryan) for not "understanding" his music because I do not ascribe to his leftist extremism, I nonetheless think their brand of funk-driven rap metal rocks.

1. To accompany Nathaniel's posts, see Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies--How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (New York: Times Books, 2011); Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011); Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Revised and Expanded Version (New York: HarperCollins, 2009); Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012); David Tayman, "Of Prophets, Elephants, Truth and Charity," Worlds Without End (Jan. 24, 2013).

2. Arthur C. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--and How We Can Get More of It (New York: Basic Books, 2008), Kindle edition. All quotes and information from Ch. 1: "The Politics of Happiness."

3. The New Republic explains the list quite well: ""Stuff White People Like" isn’t about white people in general, but rather about a very specific demographic sliver of left-leaning, city-dwelling white folk...These people have previously been trapped and tagged alternately as yuppies, or Bobos, or...grups. Basically, they embody the uneasy marriage of urban affluence and liberal (and/or progressive, and/or alternative, and/or “indie”) ideals. For example, there are plenty of white people in America who fairly obviously don’t like (#15) yoga or (#46) The Sunday New York Times or (#28) not having a TV."