Category Archives: World Religions

Carter: missing the point?

Consider the following two quotes. Here’s the first one:

“…But you never asked me what my paper is about! I’m taking the text about growing up to the stature of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you’ll be interested in. I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus…was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. I’m going to ask my audience to consider what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the the first time what a disaster it was; what a tragic waste…so much promise cut short.”

I’m sure many of you recognize this quote; it’s from C. S. Lewis’s classic work The Great Divorce; in this particular passage (found in Chapter 5), a ‘Christian intellectual’ refuses to go to heaven so that (among other reasons) he can go back down to his ‘Theological Society’ in purgatory to read this paper.

And now here’s the second quote, in which former US President Jimmy Carter speculates on how better things might have been if Christ had accepted Satan’s temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the earth and thus — one has to conclude logically — pass up His own crucifixion (from an article by Shawn Macomber at The American Spectator):

What a wonderful and benevolent government Jesus could have set up. How exemplary justice would have been. Maybe there would have been Habitat projects all over Israel for anyone who needed a home. And the proud, the rich, and the powerful could not have dominated their fellow citizens! As a twentieth-century governor and president I would have had a perfect pattern to follow. I could have pointed to the Bible and told other government leaders, “This is what Jesus did 2000 years ago in government. Why don’t we do the same?”

Anyone else see some eerie parallels here? Beyond that, I’m not sure Carter realizes why Satan’s offer was a temptation and why it was a good thing for Christ to refuse it. [UPDATE, based on personal communications from Shawn Macomber] Or maybe he does: Ed Morrisey over at Captain’s Quarters defends Carter and cites the subsequent paragraph from Carter’s book to indicate that the above paragraph has satiric overtones:

But the devil stipulated fatal provisos: an abandonment of God, and an acknowledgment of earthly things as dominant. … Anyone who accepts kingship based on serving the devil rather than God will end up a tyrant, not a benevolent leader.

On the third hand, Carter in this paragraph seems to still consider the idea a great one — he just rejects the “fatal provisos.” Macomber has his own doubts about Carter’s meaning and intent, as does Micah Tilman, a philosophy lecturer at Catholic University. Here’s a full, continuous extract from Carter’s book, so that you can make your own decision:

The devil’s third and final temptation was his offer to allow Jesus to replace Caesar and other leaders as ruler of the entire world. What a wonderful and benevolent government Jesus could have set up! How exemplary the justice would have been! Maybe there would have been Habitat projects all over Israel for anyone who needed a home. And the proud, the rich, and the powerful could not have dominated their fellow citizens.

It is easy to see the attractive nature of this offer. It would have not just exalted Jesus but also set an example for centuries of later rules. As a twentieth-century governor and president, I would have had a perfect patterns to follow. I could have pointed to the Bible and told other government leaders, “This is what Jesus did 2,000 years ago in government. Why don’t we do the same?”

But the devil stipulated fatal provisos: an abandonment of God, and an acknowledgment of earthly things as dominant. Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matthew 4:10). Anyone who accepts kingship based on serving the devil rather than God will end up a tyrant, not a benevolent leader.

Hat tip to Jonah Goldberg at National Review Online for pointing me to the whole brouhaha. ..bruce..

Parallels: Catholic Mass and LDS endowment ceremony

Ben Huff over at Times and Seasons has an outstanding post drawing parallels between the LDS temple ceremony and the Catholic Mass (while also noting the key differences) in order to help those outside the LDS Church understand what goes on in the temple:

In a Catholic Mass, a congregation sits facing a priest, in a symbolic space, with an altar at the front, and participates in a standardized ceremony in which their spiritual relationships with one another and with God are symbolically represented and (re)affirmed. The priest leads the ceremony, with others assisting at various points. There are things the priest says, and responses by the congregation. The congregation stands and sits at various points, as part of this response, corresponding to whether they are praying or listening or reciting a creed or what have you. The Gospel is taught, and actively received. At the climax of the ceremony, each member of the congregation goes forward for a symbolic reunion with God, in this case represented by the priest and the Eucharist, in which God is said to be present.

The same basic format applies to the Mormon endowment. A congregation sits facing an officiator, in a symbolic space, with an altar at the front, and participates in a standardized ceremony in which their spiritual relationships with one another and with God are symbolically represented and (re)affirmed. The officiator leads the ceremony, with others assisting at various points. There are things the officiator says, and responses by the congregation. The congregation stands and sits at various points, as part of these responses. God’s plan of salvation is taught, and the teaching is actively received. At the climax of the ceremony, each member of the congregation goes forward for a symbolic reunion with God, in this case represented by entry into the Celestial Room, representing the presence of God.

Be sure to read not just the whole post, but also the comments, which are not only thoughtful but contain some links to additional analysis.

[UPDATED 01/25/08 – 1512 MST] You might also want to read this article (“Knocking Three Times on the Holy Door“) over at the excellent Temple Study blog. ..bruce..

Why the divide?

Morehead’s Musings has an extended interview with Armand Mauss, an LDS sociologist who has done extensive research and writing on sociological aspects of the LDS Church. Mauss concisely states my core question about the Evangelical rejection of the LDS Church as ‘Christian’:

I recognize that there are some serious theological issues that make Mormons seem especially scary to many Evangelicals. In one way or another, most of those issues seem to shake down to doctrines of deity. Mormonism will never be able to accommodate the traditional Trinitarian theology, and that theology, in turn, seems to be the “litmus test” of “true” Christianity for Evangelicals. When Mormons, in all sincerity, claim to believe in the divinity of Jesus, and in His indispensible salvific role in human history, Evangelicals tend to dismiss such claims because they are not made within the context of Trinitarian theology. There is some irony in this Evangelical dismissal of the “Mormon Jesus,” since many surveys in recent decades have shown that many, if not most, of the modern clergy of the “Protestant mainline” do not believe in the literal divinity of Jesus or in His literal resurrection. Yet no one would claim that these denominations –- or even their clergy — are “not Christians.” Evangelicals also object to Mormon doctrines about the role of Jesus in the pre-existence, and/or the Mormon conception of God as once mortal – even though such ideas are strictly theoretical and play no part whatever in modern Mormon worship, or in the de facto Mormon focus exclusively on the God of Abraham as the only God ever encountered in Mormon scriptures and discourse. For some reason, these theoretical Mormon “embellishments” on doctrines about deity disqualify them from the “Christian” label, but Roman Catholics are not disqualified by the elaborate cult of Mary, or by such doctrines as the immaculate conception or transubstantiation, none of which are strictly biblical. It seems that for mainline Catholics and Protestants, all extra-biblical ideas are forgivable as long as they embrace a Trinitarian deity, but Mormons can’t be permitted their extra-biblical ideas and still be part of the Christian “family.”

I am no theologian, and I must confess that I find theological disputes generally tedious; as a social scientist, my main interest in theology is pretty much limited to its implications for behavior. I guess that’s why I find it difficult to understand why the “divide” has to be so “wide” between Mormons and Evangelicals.

Read the whole thing. ..bruce w..

Current votes for the Anti-Christ

OK, so I’m finishing my preparations this morning for teaching my Sunday School lesson (on the book of Revelation), and the thought strikes me: how many folks out there (and by “folks”, I mean evangelical Christians) believe, fear, or suspect that Mitt Romney may be the ‘Anti-Christ’ alluded to in Revelation by John?

Well, a very simple Google search (Mitt Romney AntiChrist) turns up about 26,000 hits. But, as it turns out, Romney is dead last on the list of major presidential contenders. Here are some searches for the other candidates as well as the current and immediate past Presidents and Vice-Presidents:

  • Mike Huckabee: 156,000 hits
  • Fred Thompson: 108,000 hits
  • Bill Clinton: 84,900 hits
  • Rudi Giuliani: 84,800 hits
  • Ron Paul: 82,700 hits
  • George W. Bush: 64,800 hits
  • Hillary Clinton: 63,500 hits
  • Al Gore: 62,500 hits
  • John Edwards: 61,200 hits
  • Dick Cheney: 40,800
  • Barack Obama: 31,700 hits
  • John McCain: 28,500 hits
  • Mitt Romney: 26,000 hits

Admittedly, this is a crude and inaccurate measure — all I’m checking for is the presence of the word ‘AntiChrist’ along with the candidate’s first and last name. But the results certainly are counter-intuitive: not only is Mitt Romney the lowest on the list, but almost all the other major Republican candidates are ahead of all the major Democratic candidates, John McCain being the exception — but he’s still ahead of Romney.

I may do more refined searches later. ..bruce..

Angels and demons

Some weeks back, I happened to see the last few minutes of the movie “End of Days“, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger ends up taking on Satan himself. It highlighted for me how differently the LDS Church and most other Christians religion view angels and devils (or demons). I think it explains in part why Evangelicals are so obsessed with the LDS doctrine that both Christ and Lucifer are — just like the rest of us — eternal, uncreated intelligences with agency who each received spirit bodies from God and thus — just like the rest of us — are ‘spirit children’ of Heavenly Father. Their usual way of framing this is that “Do Mormons really believe that Christ and Satan are brothers?”, an issue that presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has now apparently raised.

The short answer is, yes, an answer that (in my opinion) makes as much or more sense than traditional Christian theology while defusing the whole sticky issue of why (and how) did God create evil (theodicy). Let me explain.

Continue reading Angels and demons

The continuing debate: are Mormons Christian?

Michael Otterson, director of media relations for the LDS Church, has a lengthy and thoughtful discussion on this issue over at the Washington Post. Key paragraphs:

When someone says Mormons aren’t Christian – and I’m trying not to break Stendahl’s first rule here by interpreting conservative Christian thought incorrectly – he or she usually means that Mormons don’t embrace the traditional interpretation of the Bible that includes the Trinity. “Our Jesus” is somehow different from “their Jesus.” Further, they mean that some Mormon teachings are so far outside Christian orthodoxy of past centuries that they constitute almost a new religion.

The irony is that most Latter-day Saints wouldn’t argue with those statements. When a Mormon says he or she is Christian, they are not trying to minimize differences or fudge the issues. Mormons are well aware of the many deep doctrinal differences with other Christians. For instance, Mormons reject the Trinity as non-biblical, and believe the concept to be the product of the creeds that emerged from the 4th and 5th centuries. Further, while embracing the Bible (the King James version is preferred), they don’t interpret it the same way as some Protestants – for instance, that the earth was literally created in six days of 24 hours. Neither do they believe that the scriptural canon was closed with a period and an exclamation mark after the death of the apostles, but that God is perfectly able to talk to prophets today as He did in ancient times.

But for Mormons, these belief differences have nothing to do with whether or not they are Christian in the true meaning of the word. Mormons believe in the Jesus of the Bible, the same that was born at Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, preached His gospel in Galilee and Judea, healed the sick, raised the dead, and finally offered Himself as a sinless ransom for the sins of the world. They believe that Jesus Christ was literally resurrected, that He lives today, and that He is the only name under heaven by which mankind can be saved. This is the Jesus whose name is depicted on the front of every Mormon place of worship. This is the Jesus in whose name every Mormon prays and every sermon is preached. This is the Jesus whose body and blood are commemorated in weekly worship services by Latter-day Saints from Nigeria to New Zealand, from Michigan to Mongolia. For Latter-day Saints who try to live their lives as they believe Jesus taught, assertions that they aren’t Christian are as bewildering as they are wounding.

Mormons have no argument with assertions that they are not “creedal Christians,” or not “orthodox” Christians or “Trinitarian Christians.” Frankly, the whole point of Mormonism is that it is different. Just how different is best explained not by pastors of other faiths, or by secular journalists or by those whose self-interest lies in marginalizing a growing religion, but by Mormons themselves.

Amen. ..bruce..

P.S. And if you missed it, note the rejection of strict creationism in the 2nd paragraph quoted above.

Highly recommended: The Year of Living Biblically

Last week, I received (via Amazon) and read The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. Jacobs, a self-described Jewish agnostic and an editor at Esquire, had previously written The Know-It-All (in which he described reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover). In this case, however, he was not only reading the Bible, he was attempting to follow all the commandments and injunctions found in it.

The book is a delight. I admired Jacobs’ honesty, particularly about his own failings and struggles, his empathy with the various religious groups he encounters even (especially!) when he strongly disagrees with their beliefs and practices, his willingness to introduce great upheaval in his personal and family life just to find out what this Bible stuff is all about, and his courage to adhere to his lists of commandments — the bulk of which come from the Mosaic law — even at the risk of social awkwardness.

Plus the book is really, really funny.

Day 124. January 2. We’re back in New York. I’m not supposed to make New Year’s resolutions — probably a pagan ritual — but if I did, here’s what mine would be: I have to start thickening my skin. It’s right there in Ecclesiastes: Don’t pay attention to everything everyone says about you; you know you’ve talked trash about other people.

Today I was reading the reviews for my encyclopedia book (I know, not biblical), and I ran across one that was very strange. The reviewer said she looked at my author photo and discovered that I’m not really that ugly. In fact, I’m kind of “normal looking.” Which I guess is sort of flattering. Normal looking.

But she didn’t mean it as flattery. She said that I’m normal-looking enough that I have no excuse to be socially awkward, neurotic, or best with an inferiority complex. So I should shut my normal-looking trap and stop complaining. This is the most backhanded compliment I’ve ever received. It sank me into a bad mood for three hours. The Bible is right; I have to toughen up.

And I must, absolutely must, stop self-Googling. It’s a horrible habit that I still haven’t kicked in my biblical year. …This is alll very unrighteous, very vain. I should think instead of the well-being of my family and my neighbors — and on God.

I should be more like Noah. It took Noah decades to build his ark. Can you imagine the mockery he must have received from doubting neighbors? If Noah were alive today, he wouldn’t be wasting his time checking out what blogs said about him. He’d be down at Home Depot buying more lumber. Starting today, I’m going to be more like Noah. Toughen up. (pp. 151-152)

Read it. ..bruce..

Rethinking the Flood from an LDS perspective

[UPDATED 01/24/11 — 1857 MST] Found out that most links in the article pointed at the Web Archives versions of the links (as part of my restoration 18 months ago); have updated them all (I believe). Also note that the Younger Dryan impact theory has not found a lot of acceptance due to evidence issues.

[UPDATED 08/31/09 — 1850 MDT] Somehow, the text of this post vanished, probably during one of my efforts to save and restore the entire website due to security issues. I found this text at the Internet Wayback Machine and have restored it.]

[UPDATED 11/11/07 – 1804 MST] Added the actual Hugh Nibley quote below, which I moved to the start of the posting, and made a few additional edits for clarification and to reflect some of the information presented at the Younger Dryas Impact press conference.

[UPDATED 11/01/07 – 1027 MDT] Here is a link to YouTube videos of the Younger Dryas Impact AGU Press Conference. Based on what’s presented here, it would suggest (contra some of my initial speculation below) that the ‘Flood party’ left before the impact, given the scientists’ postulation of a large firestorm on the North American continent. More as I work through the videos. ..bfw..

The stories of the garden of Eden and the Flood have always furnished unbelievers with their best ammunition against believers, because they are the easiest to visualize, popularize, and satirize of any Bible accounts. Everyone has seen a garden and been caught in a pouring rain. It requires no effort of imagination for a six-year-old to cover concise and straightforward Sunday-school recitals into the vivid images that will stay with him the rest of his life. These stories retain the form of the nursery tales they assume in the imaginations of small children, to be defended by grownups who refuse to distinguish between childlike faith and thinking as a child when it is time to “put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

– Hugh Nibley, “Before Adam”, talk given to BYU students in 1980, reprinted in Old Testament and Related Studies — The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 1 (Deseret Book/FARMS, 1986), p. 63.

This article in Dialogue by Clayton White and Mark Thomas addresses in an LDS setting what numerous other articles and postings have in more generic Christian and Jewish settings: the inconsistencies between classic Christian/Jewish interpretations of the Genesis Flood story and, well, pretty much every bit of geological, archaeological, and biological evidence we have for the time period in question (typically set around 2350 BCE). White and Thomas address the problems just from a biological point of view, but their endnotes indicate some of the other problems as well.

I have no real problems with the idea that a global flood could occur — in my opinion, a God Who created, perceives and runs the entire universe could probably come up with some easy (for Him) mechanism to schlep the required 1.4 billion cubic miles or so of H2O onto the earth and then drain it off again. Indeed, such a task would be no more difficult for Him than rinsing and mopping a floor is for us (and probably a lot easier). But, as many folks have pointed out, most recently White and Thomas, such an event would leave, well, catastrophic evidences worldwide.


Every single civilization in existence at that time — indeed, the population of every single city, town, and village — would cease to exist, leaving behind water-logged ruins. Repopulation would occur, but it would be from a relatively small source and a single location, and it should follow some reasonable population and cultural diffusion model. White and Thomas detail all the biological impacts, which are profound and global. (Those who defend the Genesis Flood story are usually those who argue against any form of evolution — yet as White and Thomas point out, they would have to posit a hyper-evolutionary mechanism to explain the extreme diversity of species, post-Flood.) Geological evidence would abound as well. Yet there is no evidence in any of these areas — archaeological, biological (including DNA), or geological — for the classic Flood. Quite the contrary: all such evidence, and there is plenty, points to no such Flood happening in the presumed timeframe.

There are four typical responses to this dilemma:

  • All the evidence (or lack thereof) is wrong
  • God wiped away all evidence of the Flood — which strikes me as sort of defeating the whole purpose, and which also requires so many other special acts (hyperevolution, instant repopulation of destroyed civilizations, etc.) as to run afoul of Occam’s Razor
  • The Flood was actually a localized event (such as the flooding of the Black Sea — though many dispute the suitability of this particular event)
  • The Flood is just a myth

My own opinion is that we’re caught in a double trap: justifying the details of the Flood as recorded in Genesis and adopting the 4004 BC’ chronology likewise derived from Genesis. The root cause of that dilemma is that early LDS Church leaders accepted the ‘4004 BC’ chronology without realizing they had already refuted it. Joseph Smith famously said that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on Earth and the keystone of our religion.” And what does the Book of Mormon have to say on the chronology of the human race? Just one thing:

Yea, and behold I say unto you, that Abraham not only knew of these things, but there were many before the days of Abraham who were called by the order of God; yea, even after the order of his Son; and this that it should be shown unto the people, a great many thousand years before his coming, that even redemption should come unto them. (Helaman 8:18; emphasis mine)

The setting of this comment by the prophet Nephi2 (son of Helaman) is just a few decades before the birth of Christ. And he states that God had revealed the coming of Christ and established the priesthood “a great many thousand years” before Christ’s coming. Any way I look at that phrase, it appears to be a lot more than just four (4) thousand years before Christ’s coming.

(To be fair, there is always the chance that “a great many thousand” was a peculiar language idiom where “a great many” was an intensifier rather than a count value. But I know of no basis for that assumption, since the Book of Mormon authors have no problems at all counting many thousands of people, and all other Book of Mormon uses of the phrase “a great many” appear to indicate just that: a great many.)

And if you interpret “a great many” to be at least greater than twelve (12), that pushes us back into the last glaciation period — during which, throughout much of the world, “water” (ice) covered the tops of the mountains and at the end of which great floods occurred due to breaking ice dams and glacial melting.

Most notably, it appears that at least one massive flood occurred about 13,400 years ago on this (the American) continent — where LDS doctrine places the antediluvian patriarchs — when on-going warming caused the release of a massive body of water into the North Atlantic oceaqn — which in turn may have triggered the last cold period (the Younger Dryas), with the corresponding climate change and rapid glaciation. There are indications that another major flood occurred during the last ice age but into the North Pacific ocean instead.

On the other hand, there is also speculation (with significant and widespread geological evidence) that an extraterrestrial impact may have triggered the Younger Dryas and a massive (North American) extinction, with a Tunguska-like airburst occurring over the North American glacial sheet:

The associated blast wave and thermal pulse would have contributed to the megafaunal extinctions and destabilized the Laurentide Ice Sheet, loading the atmosphere with dust, soot, NOx, and water vapor and triggered the YD cooling. (from the abstract for Evidence for a Massive Extraterrestrial Airburst over North America 12.9 ka Ago; emphasis mine)

So what we have in North America is a period of warming, accompanied by a period of floods. That is intensified by a firestorm resulting from a possible extraterrestrial impact, which in turn is followed by the Younger Dryas rapid cooling period — with increased rain, snow and glaciation around most of the world (though an overall drying trend as water gets locked up into ice) — quite literally with water (albeit frozen) covering the tops of the mountains. All of this leads to massive fauna and flora extinction, including possible “widespread, abrupt human mortality” at least on the North American continent and possibly on a global basis.

The Flood, as recorded in Genesis, could then represent a local record of a catastrophic event with global impact. Noah, being warned (much as Lehi), would have started off from North America ahead of the impact and — reversing the travels of Jared and Lehi — carried his family, along with sufficient livestock for their travel purposes, across the ocean (most likely the Atlantic) to somewhere in and around the Mediterranean. During that transit, Noah and his family spend months crossing the ocean — which would have left them with the impression that the entire earth had been covered with water. Wherever they landed in the Old World may have been deserted and depopulated (due to the ice ages) when they arrived, adding to the impression of all human life being wiped out. In any case, the Middle Eastern climate may well have been the best place to weather the Younger Dryas cold period (~1200 years) and may indeed have been quite temperate and lush in contrast to the hot, dry climate that exists today.

Food for thought. ..bruce..

P.S. Just so everyone’s clear, I wrote the original post in one sitting, so I reserve the right to continue to edit and revise it as things occur to me or I run across items that support or modify my thesis.

Ah, those troublesome Buddhas

It’s hard at times to distinguish between real news and The Onion:

Tibet’s living Buddhas have been banned from reincarnation without permission from China’s atheist leaders. The ban is included in new rules intended to assert Beijing’s authority over Tibet’s restive and deeply Buddhist people.

“The so-called reincarnated living Buddha without government approval is illegal and invalid,” according to the order, which comes into effect on September 1.

Talking about King Canute commanding the tides…I can hardly wait to see what the ChiComs decree regarding Catholic sacramental services. Hat tip to the Drudge Report.

Speaking of The Onion, I thought this was a delightful article:

NEW YORK—An emergency coalition of deities from several major world religions is still sorting through the wreckage of a tragic bus accident that claimed 67 lives Friday in the culturally diverse Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens….

More than half a dozen gods reportedly responded to the scene within moments of the crash. Because the victims hailed from 14 countries and professed an as-yet-undetermined number of religious faiths, however, the soul-placement process has been laborious, and fewer than a third of the deceased have so far been escorted to their appropriate afterlives.

“What a mess this is,” said Ganesha, the Hindu lord of success and obstacles. “Assuming we ever manage to figure out who worships our particular pantheon, there’s still the problem of divvying up the Buddhists, Jains, and other non-Hindus who worship me, Lakshmi, Vishnu, and about 1,000 other gods.”…

One god, who asked that His name not be spoken aloud, said the theological muddle was a rarity, and that He and the other deities usually have no trouble operating without an official post-disaster protocol.

“We don’t normally have to deal with these kinds of details,” the god said. “If there’s a rocket attack in the Middle East, it’s pretty easy to figure out who goes in to mop up.”

Further complicating matters is the presence of the devil, Beelzebub, who has demanded that the coalition relinquish all souls to him.

“These are all vile, vile sinners, and I’m not leaving until I get them,” the dark lord said, though other gods appeared unreceptive. “Look, my numbers have been way down this month. I’m sure everyone here did something damning at some point, right? Come on.”…

The only thing that would have made the article better would have been for them to refer to Mormons instead of Catholics at the very end, but given the on-going controversy around Mitt Romney, they probably thought it was too obvious a move. ..bruce..