Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lightning Round: Evolution, Book of Mormon Translation, Women and the Priesthood, Polygamy, Archaeology, and More!

      Someone posted an anonymous comment on my last post suggesting some very good ideas for blog posts. I'm going to answer all those questions very quickly in one post (leaving open the possibility that I might expound on some of these later). First up: evolution.

Viewpoints on evolution
      The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official doctrine on evolution. We believe that God works through "natural means" to accomplish his work. We also believe that he created the world and the life in it, and we believe the Genesis account. But do we believe it literally or figuratively? No clear doctrine on that. Some church leaders have expressed their feelings that evolution is a false notion; others believe in it but not that human beings evolved; others believe in it all. I personally believe that we have no reason to doubt anything that science has discovered; science cannot say whether or not God was behind it all. How does it fit with Genesis? There are lots of possibilities. I'm not the first to think that "days" probably indicates periods of time of unspecified length, possibly billions of years, or to point out that the order in which life appears in Genesis generally tracks with what biologists claim. What about humans? Perhaps God directed the evolution of human bodies and then at some point started sending his spirit children, human spirits, to inhabit the bodies created in that way. Boyd K. Packer, one of the current Twelve Apostles, disagrees with that view, but bottom line: The LDS Church has no official doctrine on this; opinions differ.

Viewpoints on Noah and the Ark (how literally should we take this story?)
      Short answer: No official doctrine, although we believe that after Noah died he became known as Gabriel, and is the same person as the angel Gabriel that plays a prominent role in some later Biblical stories. So Noah was a real person. Beyond that, I'm not sure we have any binding doctrines that authoritatively establish how literal it is. A very conventional view would be that it happened as described in Genesis, but was regional in extent, not literally covering the whole earth. Compare Luke 2:1, which says that Caesar Augustus decreed that "all the world" should be taxed (actually, it was a census). Not even the staunchest Bible literalist would claim that Caesar intended the census to include China and South America. It was "all the world" from a Roman perspective, and likewise, the flood may have been "all the world" from the perspective of people living in Noah's area.
      One further complication is Joseph Smith's claim that the Garden of Eden was located in present-day Missouri and that the Genesis account up until the time of Noah takes place in North America. Noah's ark must have therefore traveled across the ocean and landed in the Middle East during the flood. The traditional Mormon view would be to take this literally. Another view would be to regard the specific geographical placement of the Garden of Eden in Missouri as an assumption on Joseph Smith's part; probably an extrapolation from D&C 116. Are there two Adam-Ondi-Ahmans, similar to the theory that there are two Hills Cumorah? Was Joseph just enthusiastic to attach religious significance to the places around him? Was it literally true, and perhaps we can account for evidence of far more ancient human civilizations in other parts of the world by regarding Adam as the first man in a spiritual sense? At any rate, the church today doesn't spend much time speculating about this sort of thing, leaving it, again, open to a range of individual interpretations.

The facsimiles in the Book of Abraham (discrepancy between the given explanations versus the actual translations)
      My thoughts on this are basically that Joseph Smith's translation of the papyri should really be regarded as a revelation rather than a translation, since he didn't read Egyptian hieroglyphs before or after (although he tried to study them and figure out an alphabet). He was wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit to reveal the Book of Abraham to him, and the papyri really just served as a point of inspiration. The same point could be raised about the Book of Mormon: Why was it necessary to have a binder-like set of metal plates if Joseph relied on God to reveal the translation to him? Answer: Because physical, visible objects make more sense to us humans, and serve as focal points for our spiritual efforts.
      After discussing that idea with my brother, however, he sent me a link to this article published by the BYU Religious Studies Center highlighting some very compelling aspects of the papyri and the facsimiles that make it hard to regard them as merely some random hypocephalus and other standard funerary texts. They date from far after the time of Abraham, but then, no one ever said they were an original copy. Perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to write off the idea that the contents of the Book of Abraham are directly related to the contents of the papyri.

What is the second anointing?
      In his 1912 book "The House of the Lord," apostle James E. Talmage noted that a room in the temple known as the Holy of Holies is the modern equivalent of the Most Holy Place in the ancient temple at Jerusalem, and is reserved for the "higher ordinances in the Priesthood," without going into more detail (page 194). I assume that the second anointing is what he's talking about. I would guess that it's related to the washing of feet--that's one ordinance that the Savior instituted among his original apostles that we otherwise don't account for. But whatever it is, it's regarded as supremely sacred, and those who have participated in it don't discuss it.

Is the earth really 6000 years old? (explanation of D&C 77)
      D&C 77 says that the seven seals in the Book of Revelation correspond to seven thousand-year periods. The section heading goes further, stating that "This earth has a temporal existence of 7,000 years," but the canonized text itself doesn't actually say that the 7,000 years in question comprise the whole of earth's history. It's also possible, of course, that "a thousand years" is a figurative way to say "a really long time." There is Biblical precedent for that kind of numerological, non-literal description of time.

What's the story with polygamy during Joseph Smith's time?
      One of my earlier posts, "Polygamy," addresses this.

How was the Book of Mormon translated? (something about a rock in a hat?)
      According to the title page, "by the gift of God." It's a little murky exactly what method Joseph Smith used to receive the text, but it seems like he used several methods, including a seer stone, a pair of seer stones called the Urim and Thummim, later translating straight off the plates without the assistance of any device, and sometimes translating without the plates even being present. See my earlier point about these physical objects mainly serving as focal points for fallible humans to use when trying to focus their spiritual efforts. That is to say, all of the above seems to have served to train Joseph Smith to receive revelation from God, and once he got better at it, he didn't need the spiritual crutches so much. The use of seer stones and the Urim and Thummim sometimes scandalize other Christians who regard them as occult, but the Bible describes revelation from God being received through the Urim and Thummim*, the casting of lots, and other methods that seem strange to modern sensibilities. The "Gospel Topics" section on has recently expanded the articles on select topics and made them much more thorough, and "Book of Mormon Translation" is one of them and worth the read. From the text of the Book of Mormon, it seems to me that some of it may have been word-for-word revealed to Joseph Smith, and some of it may have been left up to him to express in his own words.

Why does the Book of Mormon have nearly exact wording with the KJV Bible in some places?
      Picking up from my last sentence, Joseph Smith was probably expressing some impressions of the Spirit in his own words, and the wording he and his readers were most familiar with was the phrasing from the King James Version.

What's up with women and the priesthood?
      Here's one I definitely can't answer adequately in a few sentences. There is no systematic, exhaustive theology in Mormonism the way there is in Catholicism. If we were to define every point of doctrine in detail, that would eliminate the opportunity for personal spiritual growth as a person ponders and studies and prays to discover truth. Further, it would encourage too much attention toward the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin-type questions, instead of things we should really be focusing on, like repentance, obtaining forgiveness through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, learning to love and serve our fellow humans, and developing a personal relationship with God.
      However, this creates a situation in which some things are not spelled out in authoritative, canonized doctrinal declarations, and leaves some space for disagreement. The question of whether to ordain women to the priesthood is one of these. An organization called Ordain Women has recently drawn a lot of media attention to the issue, but the vast majority of Mormon women are not interested in priesthood ordination. It's one of those things that seemed so clearly established that until recently, very few would have even thought it open to question. However, from the 1850s until 1978, blacks were not ordained to the priesthood, and church leaders taught that the racial ban on ordination was a God-given doctrine. Yet that was rescinded by revelation in 1978, and careful historical inquiry showed that 1) we have no record of any revelation given to Joseph Smith or any other prophet declaring such a race-based policy, and 2) Joseph Smith actually did ordain a few black men to the priesthood. Members of the Ordain Women movement feel like their cause is analogous. In some ways it is, and in some ways it isn't. Scriptural arguments go both ways: the scriptures don't provide any examples of women holding the priesthood (although some think there are insinuations of it), but on the other hand, the scriptures also don't clearly forbid such a thing (although they do say that women should not establish a new dispensation of the gospel, and that they should not usurp authority nor speak in church)(but then, no one should usurp authority, and we regard Paul's statement about women not speaking in church as just his own opinion, given in a different cultural context and not as a binding doctrinal statement). So back and forth it goes. For now, the LDS Church has made clear that it does not regard the ordination of women as a possibility (see Elder Dallin H. Oaks's talk from the priesthood session of the April 2014 General Conference)...but has not cited any explicit revelations in support of that claim. Personally, I think I can see some good reasons for things to be as they currently are. So there will probably continue to be difference of opinion about this until the Church clears it up in a more authoritative manner than those other statements (such as on blacks being banned from the priesthood) that were later shown to be mistaken opinions and flawed interpretations of doctrine. And maybe some continued difference of opinion isn't a bad thing.

What is the law of consecration?
      This is the law that says that you must be willing to put God first, above all material and earthly connections. See Matthew 19:21; Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14:26. In the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there was an effort to implement this very literally. Church members gave all their material possessions to the church, which then redistributed and returned property according to individual needs. It was a radical way to eliminate poverty, and something also practiced in the New Testament church. See Acts 2:44-45; Acts 5:1-11 and D&C 42:30-36. It is often compared to communism, but there are major differences, such as the voluntary nature of the arrangement and the fact that after redistribution, people continue to own personal property. Today, the church does not ask us to give up all our possessions. Instead, we pay a tithing, and we must continue to be willing to give up anything for the sake of the kingdom of God.

What distinctions do play-goers need to know between The Book of Mormon play and actual church teachings?
      Way too much to list here. First of all, the musical hardly even mentions anything in the Book of Mormon. There's a song called "I Believe" that was apparently created by sifting through Mormonism in search of weird, obscure doctrines, exaggerating them to make them funnier, and then presenting them as if they were the central focus of the whole religion. In my post "Do Mormons believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob?" I discuss some of the distortions, and link a few articles that talk more about it. Here is a very concise article clearing up some questions about the musical's accuracy.

What distinctions do viewers of South Park need to know between Mormonism as put forth by their episode, "All about the Mormons," and actual church teachings?
      Lots of distinctions. The episode seems to take the same basic approach as the "I Believe" song, namely, don't worry too much about accuracy; the point is to paint Mormonism as ridiculous. It's made by the same guys, who have a strange obsession with Mormonism, so it's not too surprising. One example: the South Park episode claims that nobody besides Joseph Smith ever saw the metal plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated--implying, of course, that there never were any such plates. Actually, at least 11 other people saw them, and signed sworn statements to that effect. Many of them later had fallings-out with Smith and disavowed the religion, but not one ever retracted his affirmation that he had seen and held the plates. Now if they were all making it up, and were in a conspiracy, then once one of them left the faith and held a deep grudge against Smith, wouldn't you expect him to go public with a statement to the effect of, "It was all a hoax; we meant it as a prank but then it got out of hand"? Yet even the people who found themselves in that situation vehemently defended their testimonies.

What is the church view of other Christian and world religions? Do they have anything to do with the great and abominable church as mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
      Our attitude toward other faiths is that they all contain varying degrees of truth, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contains the most complete conception of religious truth, and is the only church that God has authorized with priesthood authority. The more we learn about other religions, the more we find we have in common--and the more we can learn from things other religions do better than us. People who aren't Mormons can be saved in the afterlife, so long as they accept Jesus Christ and the correct version of his gospel. Mormonism is unique in declaring that people who didn't have a fair chance to understand the gospel in this life will have the chance to convert in the hereafter.
      Several passages of scripture bluntly condemn preachers whose true motivation is money and power as practicing "priestcraft," while other scriptures speak admiringly of members of other religions, recognizing their virtues despite having points of difference. In the first edition of "Mormon Doctrine," an unofficial encylopedia written by the late Bruce R. McConkie, who was an apostle at the time, McConkie identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the "great and abominable church," the "whore of all the earth," etc. The prophet demanded that he remove the statement and release a new edition without it, which he did. Church teaching is not that the Catholic or any other church is the "great and abominable church," but rather that said church consists of anyone who follows the temptations of Satan, regardless of religious affiliation. That means that Mormons may also belong to the great and abominable church, if they are failing to follow Christ and reject evil.

What is the Mormon view of the Fall? Is there such a thing as original sin?
      From the Book of Mormon: "And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall." (2 Nephi 2:22-26)
      Our second Article of Faith states, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression." In other words, the Fall of Adam caused Adam and Eve to become mortal and subject to temptation. Inevitably, it means we all will sin due to our mortal human nature. But we are only responsible for sins we commit of our own volition; we are not held responsible for "original sin." Babies and little children are therefore innocent.

What do we know regarding the location of Book of Mormon events, and what insights do DNA tests reveal about the nature of the Book of Mormon peoples in the Americas?
      Lehi's family traveled south from Jerusalem through the Arabian peninsula before building a boat and setting sail for the Americas. The text correlates very closely with identifiable locations in Arabia. 1 Nephi 16:34 describes a place called Nahom, located at the point where the group turned east and headed into the desert. Based on ancient trade routes, LDS scholars hypothesized a certain location in Yemen. Sure enough, in the mid-1990s a series of altars were discovered at the exact spot, inscribed with characters that read "NHM," and would be pronounced "Nahom."
      Archaeology becomes more difficult in the New World. Mesoamerican civilizations tended to build right on top of the civilizations they conquered. Vast areas are still unexcavated. The major ruins date from civilizations much later than the Book of Mormon era, such as the Aztec and Maya. And the Spanish conquistadors destroyed everything they could of the civilizations they conquered. Yet LDS scholars have found parallels to the Book of Mormon, in culture, language, geography, and so on. The most common hypothesis is that the events in the Book of Mormon occurred in a relatively small geographical area, probably centered either around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico or perhaps slightly further south in Central America. Others propose alternate locations, such as in the Great Lakes region near where Joseph Smith discovered the plates (I find this much less plausible).
      DNA studies show that the DNA of most Native American populations is predominantly Asian in origin. The significance of such studies shouldn't be overstated; DNA can only tell us about the genetics of current Indian populations, which are genetically much different from Indian populations in 1491, much less 600 B.C. But there does seem to be good evidence to indicate the predominantly Asian ancestry of Native Americans, which has led the church to rephrase part of the Introduction to the Book of Mormon (which is an editorial comment and not part of the text): "they [Book of Mormon peoples] are the principal ancestors of the American Indians" now reads, "they are among the ancestors of the American Indians." A close textual reading actually supports quite nicely the theory that Lehi, Mulek, and other immigrant groups from Jerusalem arrived at an already-populated American continent, and intermixed with the local populations. And scientific understanding of Indian origins is a rapidly evolving field. Note, for instance, this article from National Geographic reporting that Native American DNA reveals West Eurasian origins!

      See, even when I try to be brief it ends up being too long! I thought I would answer in sentence fragments; one or two lines per question. Now you know why it takes me so long to get around to updating this blog.

In summary
No summary for this one. The whole thing is a summary.

*The NIV Study Bible says this in its footnote to 1 Sam 2:28: "The Urim and Thummim were a divinely ordained means of obtaining guidance from God, placed in the custody of the high priest."


Austin Smith said...

Very nice. I agree with pretty much everything. However, I think you might have typed a bit too quickly when you said "But until we sin of our own volition, we are not held responsible for 'original sin.'" That makes it sound (to me) like once we sin on our own, *then* we are held responsible for Adam and Eve's sin, which is not what Mormon doctrine teaches (as far as I understand it). We're only ever responsible for our own sins.

All in all, though, a very good write-up!

Travis Brinton said...

Thanks, Austin--good point. I corrected that sentence to make it clearer.