Category Archives: Belief systems

Archaeological find in Israel: Jehovah’s wife?

I always treat articles like this — heck, just about any article (or, for that matter, paper) on Bible-related archaeological “findings” — with a spoonful of salt. That said, this is interesting:

Archaeologists Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily and Shua Kisilevitz, said, “The ritual building at Tel Motza is an unusual and striking find, in light of the fact that there are hardly any remains of ritual buildings of the period in Judaea at the time of the First Temple. Among other finds, the site has yielded pottery figurines of men, one of them bearded, whose significance is still unknown.”

“The iconography points to a pantheon of deities, as some scholars believe, or to two main deities, something of a duality,” says archaeology writer Julia Fridman, writing in Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Interestingly, there are vastly more female figurines and representations found on shrines than there are male ones. The evidence points to the worship of at least two deities. . . .

Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou of the University of Exeter said, “There is increasing evidence that the ancient Israelites worshipped a number of gods alongside their ‘national’ patron deity, Yahweh. The goddess Asherah was among these deities.

“Not only is she mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), but inscriptions dating to the eighth and seventh centuries BCE attest to her worship alongside Yahweh in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Taken together, the biblical and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Asherah was worshipped by some Israelites as the wife of Yahweh. They were likely a divine couple at the head of the local pantheon.””

Go read the whole thing, then read Daniel Peterson’s classic, “Nephi and His Asherah“.  ..bruce..

“Judaism as a native language” — lessons for Mormons?

Thanks to a link from a Jewish friend (whose wife published an article there), I have become a devotee of the on-line version of Tablet Magazine (subtitle: “A New Read on Jewish Life”). The level of writing (and journalism) is excellent, and there are at least a few articles every week or so that I end up reading.

I was struck by one today, “Learning Judaism as a Native Language Requires More Than Synagogue Once a Year” by Mark Oppenheimer. He starts:

It’s the High Holiday season, the time of year when synagogues double or triple or quadruple in attendance, as barely affiliated Jews stream back through the sanctuary doors, looking for their yearly connection. Some are scared, others disdainful, many bored. And confused—lots of confusion. As someone who writes about religion for a living, I have conversations throughout the year with these “High Holiday Jews,” but also with other Jews, some of them regular worshippers, others infrequent, who are trying to figure out why Judaism is so hard for them. I’m not a rabbi and I don’t have any good answers, but I do have some reflections, which I hope will put some people’s minds at ease, maybe even help them.

His answer: practice:

Religious practice, like musical or athletic practice, is easier for some than for others. For some people, it is so difficult that they probably should not even bother. I have no ear for music, and if I wanted to learn guitar even reasonably well it would take so many hours, at the cost of so much frustration, that I should probably just skip it. For some people, religion is like that: They don’t get it, they don’t see why it is meaningful, their not-getting-it makes them angry or resentful or sad or bored, and they would always rather be doing something else. Such people should, I think, stop trying. Don’t worry that your bubbe is looking down from heaven ashamed of you; after all, you don’t believe in heaven anyway. On Yom Kippur this year, do something that brings you joy, that takes you out of yourself, that helps you reflect, but don’t come to synagogue.

For everyone else, however, those of you who feel that maybe religion holds something for you, some mystery you just haven’t unlocked yet, or connection to a tradition you value, think about those things you have mastered, maybe in arts or sports, that came in time, with some regular practice. Think how rewarding those things are now. Maybe religion is like that. And maybe the next time you go to synagogue, you should take a bucket of balls, and not worry if you double-fault.

I think this touches on the reason why so many Latter-day Saints, having stopped attending church for a period of time, find it hard to start up again even when they want to.

My own brush with inactivity happened, of all places, at BYU, during my senior year of college. My (former) wife and I were head residents at Heritage Halls (back when it was all-girls); I had the responsibility of going around every Saturday night starting at 1:30 am to (a) kick all guys out of the dorms and (b) make sure all the outside doors were locked. Since we’re talking about 48 apartments in two halls (Snow and Smith), it meant that I usually didn’t get to bed until 2:30 am or later, while the student ward we attended (I was executive secretary) met relatively early on Sunday morning. We had a year-old toddler, and it was easy to decide to sleep in instead of getting up and getting ourselves ready.

Then one Saturday night, we realized it had been several weeks since we had been to church. And here’s the interesting part: my first reaction was, “We need to get up in the morning and go to church”, while my second reaction was a fear of embarrassment — that when we walked in, everyone was going to ask us where we had been or make other related comments. The impulse not to go at all startled me, since I had always been and still considered myself a staunch, faithful member. We did get up, we did go, and I’ve never gone through a period of inactivity again, but since then, I have always had sympathy for those who would like to start going to church again, but find it hard to do so.

I think Oppenheimer summed up that challenge with this passage:

But the religion is not native to you anymore, so if you do want a greater ease with it, it will take some time. Just as with guitar, or basketball. Or French or Swahili. If they aren’t native, they take a little work.

Food for thought; go read the whole thing.  ..bruce w..

Mormons and hell, revisited

godandhell

Doug Gibson, the opinion editor at the [Ogden, UT] Standard Examiner, regularly touches on religious issues, usually dealing with the LDS Church. His latest post examines the concept of hell as found in much of mainstream Christianity; as usual, he pulls no punches:

The absoluteness of this doctrine is evil. If one does not accept Christ in the same manner of someone else, that individual is consigned to an eternal punishment in hell. Taken to its absurd conclusions, the vengeful God that hell-believers worship would consign to eternal torture an infinite amount of devout Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists, Buddhists, and so on, who reject the entreaties of those who see only a narrow passage to heaven and a vengeful God punishing those who don’t “dot their i’s or cross their t’s.”

Doug has more to say, offering links to four films that actually depict the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” theology. Go read the whole thing.

As I wrote six years ago, back in the early days of this blog, Mormons actually believe in three types of hell, all successive, with almost everyone who somehow ends up there getting out after the first or second (and ending up in a kingdom of glory). The LDS doctrine of hell is both just and merciful, and it gets back to a point I made in another post over at Mormon Mentality:

[God’s] grace is not only greater than we imagine, it is greater than we can imagine. And however long or short our lives, God always has enough time to love us home.

The message of LDS doctrine is that it takes a very deliberate, determined effort to fend off God’s grace eternally; our salvation (after Christ’s atonement) results from informed choices we make, not upon chance, situation, or God’s arbitrary decisions. ..bruce..

Radical life extension and the LDS Church

Interesting article in the Atlantic on the prospects of extending human life and the religious implications thereof, based on a Pew Research Center poll. The Pew Center asked sought comments from several major religions; for the LDS Church, they ended up talking with Steven Peck at BYU:

“The church believes that the human body is sacred, which is why it even discourages body piercing and tattoos,” says Steven Peck, a bioethicist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “So, as long as the body remained the same, as long as you were only giving people more of what they already have without big alterations, I think it would be fine.” On the other hand, “if there was a sense that [life-extension therapy] was desecrating the body, that would be a problem,” Peck says.

Peck, obviously, is not a General Authority or (to my knowledge) an official Church spokesperson. Also, his answer as given — and he may well have had more to say — doesn’t really address advancing technology in artificial prosthetics and organ transplants. I doubt Church leaders or most Church members have problems with organ transplants, artificial limbs, artificial hearts, and so on. But what happens when we can transplant, say, the human head of a quadriplegic  on top of a mobile prothetic torso (with heart/lung machine, etc?). Does that count as ‘desecration’ or merely another logical step in transplant/prosthetic technology? Suppose the side effect of such an action is a significantly greater human lifespan and/or greater functionality for the person involved — would elderly people who were not quadriplegics then be justified in such a procedure, assuming they could afford it?

Interesting questions. Lincoln Cannon, where are you? :-)  ..bruce..

 

One of my favorite quotes ever

As a teenaged convert in the late 1960s, I found that the book “Eternal Man” by Truman Madsen had a tremendous impact on me, as did Madsen himself (he came to San Diego a few times with BYU Education Week, and also came down for one of our stake youth conferences). I gave away my copy of “Eternal Man” a few years ago to a new member, but found a paperback version at Deseret Book this past week and picked up two copies.

I opened it up today and ran across this quote in the book just before the preface. This observation impacted me greatly when I read it some 45 years ago — because it spoke to my own conversion, testimony, and baptism at age 14 — and still moves me greatly:

 

Sometimes during solitude I hear truth spoken with clarity and freshness; uncolored and untranslated, it speaks from within myself in a language original but inarticulate, heard only with the soul, and I realize I brought it with me, was never taught it, nor can I effectively teach it to another. — Pres. Hugh B. Brown

Clinton (Bill) plays the anti-Mormon card

Buzzfeed reports on a Bill Clinton stump speech in which the former President gives a false representation of LDS theology:

Clinton also recalled a moment from his youth in Arkansas being approached by two or three Mormon missionaries in Hot Springs, where they explained the Mormon view.
Clinton spoke highly of their effort, recounting the different degrees of heaven as was explained to him 50 years ago, describing it as a pyramid with many levels that put Hitler and Stalin at the very bottom, faithful Mormons on top, and everyone else in between.

Clinton, a Baptist, said the sticking point for him was leaving his friends and family out of the top level of heaven.

“I didn’t want to leave all these other people behind,” he said.

I can’t speak to what those missionaries told Clinton — assuming this ever actually happened — but the representation of LDS beliefs is false. Unlike much of Christianity, LDS doctrine is nearly Universalist as to who gets saved. As I wrote five years ago on this site when Gary South at Politico tried to play the same card:

This posting — indeed, my starting this entire blog [Adventures in Mormonism] — is prompted by Hugh Hewett’s blasting of a piece by Gary South on Politico.com talking about “Mormon Intolerance”. South’s big concern: the LDS Church’s claim that “no other Christian church…is valid” and that only those who receive proxy baptism will be saved. He sees this as intolerance, being apparently unaware of that the LDS belief (and practice) actually is vastly more inclusive than the “problem of the unevangelized” that has plagued Christianity for most of the last 2000 years, viz., eternal condemnation to hell for anyone who doesn’t accept Christ (and, for some churches such as the Catholic Church, the appropriate sacraments/ordinances) in this life. Didn’t South ever read Dante’s Inferno, if not St. Augustine? In fact, by Augustinian doctrine, even Christians, however sincere, who never received an acceptable baptism, are damned to hell forever. Does South consider that religious intolerance?

The irony is that LDS theology is possible the most inclusive and diverse in terms of salvation of any major Christian denomination.

To wit:

  • Honest-to-goodness Mormons (by which I mean — and will always mean on this blog — individuals who in this life have been baptized into the LDS Church since its founding in 1830) will make up a very tiny fraction (<0.01%) of those who who inherit the highest (celestial) kingdom of glory.
  • Virtually everyone (>99.9% and probably >99.9999…%) who has ever lived upon this earth will end up in a kingdom of glory (celestial, terrestrial, telestial — glory likened to sun, moon, stars), in service to God — and the glory of the lowest (telestial) kingdom “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89). Mormons will be scattered throughout all three kingdoms, based on how they’ve lived their lives.
  • Mormons, on the other hand, will likely dominate among those in this life who end up as the “sons of perdition” (D&C 76:26-32, 43), the only group that will not ultimately be saved in a kingdom of glory.

Let me explain.

Read the whole thing. Also, if you’re interested on how LDS concepts of “hell” (a term actually not used much within the LDS Church — instead, we tend to talk about “spirit prison” and “outer darkness”) differ from the rest of Christianity — no actual fire and brimstone and (with a very few exceptions) only of limited duration — here is this post as well.

UPDATE: The irony is that Bill Clinton gave this speech the same day that his wife Hilary, our SecState, tweeted, “The U.S. deplores the intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”

 

 

Some perspective on the “Mormon Moment” from early Christian history

I recently bought Pocket History of the Church by D. Jeffrey Bingham, a brief summary of the history of the Christian church, starting after the death of the Apostles. While reading it this afternoon, I ran across the following passage, which made me quietly chuckle. If you substitute “Modern Christianity” and/or “Modern Secularism” for “Romans” and “Mormons” for “Christians”, there are some remarkable parallels:

Roman religion also was intimately related to the past. Greco-Roman society held that the rites of the ancients were more harmonious with the gods than the newer rites. That is, the past was closer to the ancient gods. For Roman society, only one ancient religious doctrine existed, and it was expressed and maintained in a variety of traditional forms by various nations. Abandonment of these variant but traditional forms and customs was wicked. Novelty in religions, they thought, was irreligious. Therefore, because Christians were seen as antisocial and “new”, they were viewed as a danger to Rome. The gods were unhappy and had to be pacified.

When Christians worshiped only one God, their polytheistic Roman neighbors viewed them as atheistic. When Christians gathered in worship, separate from Roman life, they were seen as destructive to the social structure of the empire. In their refusal to confess the emperor’s deity they were viewed as wicked. Their refusal to engage in civic religion led the Christian apologist Tertullian to write that the Romans considered Christians “public enemies” and “enemies of Rome.”

But the Romans did not end their criticism of Christianity with reference to what they viewed as irreligion. They also criticized Christianity for being irrational. Christians seemed to receive their teachings by faith rather than by rational examination of the evidence or critical thinking. According to the Christian theologian Origen, one Roman, Celsus, wrote that some Christians said, “Do not ask questions, only believe.”

Also, the Romans interpreted some Christian practices as deplorable, because of what seemed to be a secretiveness, a ridiculous perspective of life, death and future judgment, an arrogant haughtiness towards Roman religion and a lifestyle of perversity. Minucius Felix, a Latin Christian apologist of the third century, recorded some early Roman understandings of Christian rites and beliefs. Many unbelievers thought that Christians were “a people skulking and shunning the light, silent in public but garrulous in corners. They despise the [Roman] temples as dead houses, they reject the gods, they laugh at sacred things. . . . They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another. Everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters.”

The belief that Christians were clandestine in their gatherings because of their shameful “incest” (because they married those they called “brother” and “sister”) was common, as was the charge that they were cannibalistic (they ate the body of Christ and drank his blood). Because of the secret nature of their rites, and also because some groups claiming association with Christianity were reported to have engaged in acts of perversity, the rumors grew to absurd proportions. Christians were even accused of eating infants. The Christian apologist Athenagoras was accurate when he said, “Three charges are brought against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts [cannibalistic banquets] and Oedipean intercourse [incestuous unions].”

As strange as it may sound to modern Christian ears, the Romans were appalled at the supposed wickedness, social rebellion, irrationality and impiety of the Christians. The “popular and uncritical” rumor about the Christians, to use the language of Athenagoras, set the tone for how the Romans responded. Of course, we ought not to think that early Christianity was perfect or without blame. Many Christians did not balance their faith in the one true God through Jesus Christ with a biblical call to morality and state loyalty. In addition, some non-Christians who associated with believers were said to have practiced their Roman religion in feasts that did involve promiscuous rites. On the whole, though, the charges of rampant perversity in Christ’s body within the Roman Empire were false. (pp. 31-33)

Sounds kind of familiar, huh?  ..bruce..

A secular General Conference talk (sort of)

From time to time, I hear members of the Church (particularly within the Bloggernacle) grumble about the ‘simplistic, standard’ answers given time and again over the pulpit and particularly in General Conference. You know: pray, go to church, hold family home evening, pay your tithing, stay out of debt, keep the commandments, etc. Of course, the same talks also point out how easy it is to stop doing these things, and how life doesn’t function quite as well.

Which is why I found this article by James Altucher, entitled “How to be THE LUCKIEST GUY ON THE PLANET in 4 Easy Steps”, so interesting. Altucher is a “hedge fund manager and author” (quoting from Wikipedia); I know nothing about his professional success or his writings, and just happened to stumble upon his post from a link I found elsewhere. First, he sets up his problem statement:

My ONLY Three Goals in Life

A)     I want to be happy.

B)      I want to eradicate unhappiness in my life.

C)      I want every day to be as smooth as possible. No hassles.

That’s it. I’m not asking for much. I need simple goals else I can’t achieve them.

There’s been at least ten times in my life that everything seemed so low I felt like I would never achieve the above three things and the world would be better off without me. Other times I felt like I was stuck at a crossroads and would never figure out which road to take. Each time I bounced back.

When I look back at these times now I realize there was a common thread. Each time there were four things, and only four things, that were always in place in order for me to bounce back. Now I try to incorporate these four things into a daily practice so I never dip low again.

And then he talks about the four elements of that daily practice: physical; emotional; mental; and spiritual. Go read the article to find out his details of each. There’s nothing breathtaking about the advice, and I might have a few disagreements with some of his suggestions under ‘emotional’ — but then again, I might not; I might just say it a little more nicely. ;-)

He then describes the results:

The Results

A)     Within about one month, I’d notice coincidences start to happen. I’d start to feel lucky. People would smile at me more.

B)      Within three months the ideas would really start flowing, to the point where I felt overwhelming urges to execute the ideas.

C)      Within six months, good ideas would start flowing, I’d begin executing them, and everyone around me would help me put everything together.

D)     Within a year my life was always completely different. 100% upside down from the year before. More money, more luck, more health, etc. And then I’d get lazy and stop doing the practice. And everything falls apart again. But now I’m trying to do it every day.

Its hard to do all of this every day. Nobody is perfect. I don’t know if I’ll do all of these things today. But I know when I do it, it works.

Familiar sounding pattern, isn’t it? Much of life is expecting or hoping for shortcuts and good fortune. As Altucher points out, as scores of LDS leaders have pointed out, what really works is daily consistency in doing the right things. When we do that, doors open — maybe not right away, and maybe not in the way we expect, but nevertheless they open.

Food for thought.  ..bruce..

Deacons and the sacrament

Not having a teaching assignment myself during Sunday School, I tend to bounce between Gospel Essentials and Gospel Doctrine, while occasionally going to neither and instead hanging out in the chapel with my iPad. A few weeks back, I happened to attend Gospel Essentials, where Phil[*], a lifelong (and still staunch) Catholic who has been attending our ward since early this year with an LDS friend, asked a very good question. He noted that in the Catholic Mass, it is the priest, the father, a man dedicated to full-time church service and who has been through extensive training (his words, not mine), who prepares and administers the Blessed Host. He questioned, then, why it is that we let kids prepare, bless, and pass the sacrament in our own church.

I am (rightly or not) considered the “go-to” person for tough or obscure questions in that class, so the instructor turned and looked at me. I started to give a fairly standard answer about the Aaronic Priesthood being a preparatory priesthood, but stopped before I got very far into that, because something entirely different came to me, something I’m not sure I had ever considered before. What I ended up saying was something like this:

The Savior, through His ministry, emphasized time and again themes such as “except ye be as a little child”, “the last shall be first”, and “the least of these my brethren”. It is perhaps in that spirit that He selects the youngest and least “qualified” of His priesthood bearers to perform one of the most sacred duties, to carry and give His body and blood to the congregation.

I can’t remember if I said much more beyond that, but I have looked at the sacrament with fresh eyes since then. I know that having deacons pass the sacrament is a relatively recent innovation (end of 19th century/early 20th century); nevertheless, it can serve as a powerful reminder that the Lord calls upon “the weak and simple” (always a favorite missionary scripture) to do most of the work of proclaiming His gospel. It is also a reminder that, from where the Lord sits, there isn’t that much difference between the “highest” and “lowest” of us. As I said in the post I just linked to, “[God’s] grace is not only greater than we imagine, it is greater than we can imagine.” The Savior on the last night of His life stooped to wash the dirty and calloused feet of his disciples; we should not scorn to take His body and blood from a 12-year-old boy.  ..bruce..

[*] Name changed to protect privacy.