Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Do all things denote there is a God?

Suggesting a resonance with the Intelligent Design approach to biology, Matt Evans mentions Alma’s teleological argument to Korihor in Alma 30: the observed order, or “regular form,” of “all things” shows there is a God. There are questions, however, as to whether Alma’s argument is consistent with Joseph Smith’s mature views on the nature of God, and also with the ancient Hebrew worldview from which Nephite culture sprang.

Is God (a) somehow outside the universe and responsible for its laws and its order, or (b) a finite and embodied being within the universe, the nature of whose existence depends on laws and order bigger than him and beyond his control?

I think most Mormons would say Joseph believed (b) during the Nauvoo era. But an early (I think the 1832) account of the First Vision, in which he marveled at the heavens in language somewhat like Alma’s—and also language in D&C 88—may suggest he believed something more like (a) in his earlier years. It would not be surprising if Joseph had been exposed to teleological arguments in, for example, the youth debating club he participated in, mentioned by Richard Bushman in his books on Joseph.

To the extent Alma’s statement represents (a) (this may be debatable—I leave it for commenters to explain why), how to account for its difference from and possible incompatibility, or at least tension, with (b)? One possibility is that Alma did not know as much as Joseph Smith about the nature of God and eternity. This seems plausible; we know from Alma’s teachings to Corianton that Alma did not know as much about the afterlife as Joseph came to know. But a second possibility is that Joseph is the true author of Alma’s argument, and that it therefore reflects Joseph’s early beliefs rather than those of ancient prophet. (Similarly, in this scenario Alma’s hazy picture of the afterlife could be a reflection of Joseph’s haziness on the matter prior to the reception of D&C 76.)

A reason to prefer the theory that Joseph is the source of the Alma’s teleological argument can be derived from a recent post by Jim F. by way of background on the Old Testament. (The responsibility for this use of Jim’s post is mine; he may well not endorse the argument I make here.) Jim describes the very different way ancient Hebrews wrote history: the existence of God and his action in the world was a universal assumption brought to both the writing and the reading of literature, to the extent that to write a meaningful history was to describe God’s involvement in the events of the world. An argument like Alma’s seems completely out of place in such a narrative tradition, in which God’s existence is not something to be argued for, but instead is an unconscicous necessity before a text can even be meaningful. Alma’s argument is much more comfortably situated as a typical believing response, characteristic of Joseph Smith’s era, to issues raised by the Enlightenment.

As a parting comment, I note that Joseph’s mature Mormonism, embracing (b), seems in important ways to be philosophically much closer to atheism than traditional Christianity, which embraces (a). This may be a reason why Mormons imbued with (b) who leave Mormonism tend to become atheist or agnostic rather than active in a denomination of traditional Christianity.


It is important for me to believe that the BOM was a translation and that Joseph was not being an author or creating editorials. Perhaps the only reason Alma presented an argument for the existance of God is because this nut named Korihor kept insisting that there was no God.

It is however interesting to think about whether God is in control of the Universe or is part of it and understands it well enough to use its laws to meet his purposes. I recently read Rational Theology and it seems that Widtsoe was a b type believer. 

Comment by Eric | 1/04/2006 12:44:00 PM  

Bushman notes (sorry don't have the book here at work to give the page#) that the early Joseph also bought into these design arguments. Of course he also bought into using stones and divining rods to find hidden treasure. So he definitely had a lot of maturing to do...


Comment by clark | 1/04/2006 01:16:00 PM  

Christian: Joseph's and Alma's wonder over the heaven and how they testify of God is common stock from Hebrew thought as evidenced in the Psalms. E.g., Psalms 8:3; 19:1. Moreover, I doubt that JS had any view at all about whether God was inside the natural universe defined by initial conditions giving rise to a certain set of natural laws or regularities at all. He just believed that the order and wonder testified of God's existence. I disagree that Alma's argument is even an argument -- it is more like an observation that he takes for granted as obvious and that God exists. The more common proof for God's existence in the Book of Mormon is that there must be a law that is moral in nature and if not then God would cease to be God (see e.g., 2 Ne. 9 and Alma 42). In this limited sense, it seems to me that Lehi was more of a thinker than earlier Hebrews (perhaps he had a broader education based on contacts with Egypt?) Further, the advent of atheists and doubters like Sherem and Korihor seems to have been something new and surprising to the writers of the BofM -- and there don't seem to have been any such atheists or agnostics in the OT tho the Book of Job does call into question whether there is a God or everything is just random fate. In any event, it seems that the historicity of the BofM is an open question for you and one that isn't essential or important to faith?

I am of course open to the possibility that JS added his own commentary to an ancient text of the Book of Mormon and that some of the teachings may express his opinions or misjudgments.

In any event, I reject that JS embraced (b) because I don't think that he ever addressed the issue. However, I also argue that JS didn't believe that God was subject to all laws but that he instituted them --the laws instituted from the foundation of the world in his parlance, that seem to be referring to the world as all that is. So there is a lot in JS's earlier and later thought that would be contrary to your supposition if I were to read him to address this issue. But know this, God's wrath is kindled against those who don't acknowledge his hand in all things. My primary concern is that you and Jeff seem to want to reduce LDS thought to a form of naturalism -- and at a certain point reduces to atheism. Why so? Because you believe in a very powerful and wise being, but not the kind of being that could save or be the focus of our ultimate faith and devotion of the kind demanded by God in scripture. Perhaps the naturalistic strain of your thought has overwhelmed the view that God actually exists as a being who can achieve his purposes.  

Comment by Blake | 1/04/2006 01:29:00 PM  

Just to add, Alma himself often invokes the history of God's dealings with His people while preaching. How many times are people exhorted to remeber the captivity of their fathers? If  Alma's argument contrasts with general Hebrew thinking, it also contrasts with much of Alma's preaching which invokes the history of the people, the testimony of the scriptures and prophets, and his own revelations. 

Comment by Jared | 1/04/2006 04:10:00 PM  

Eric , I'm not sure the argument that Alma was just responding to Korihor really works; I perhaps should have framed the argument in the original post a little differently. The point to make from Jim's post on the Hebrew worldview is not just that Alma's argument seems out of place, but the Korihor's questioning God's existence in the first place seems out of place. In Semitic worldviews arguments about whose gods or which gods are more powerful or worthy of worship are natural and common; but to extrapolate from Jim's post, it may not even be possible to question whether there might be no  god from within an ancient Semitic worldview. Such a question could not have been conceptualized. The idea would be that such questions could only arise in the Enlightenment context, or perhaps Greek thought. I suppose the argument could be made that Korihor (or a predecessor) independently invented the lines of Greek or Enlightenment thought that allowed such questions to be asked, but I don't know that there's any evidence of such a tradition among native Americans.

Blake, according to Jim's description of the Hebrew worldview I take it such expressions in the Psalms would have been made as descriptions of what Jehovah had done that made him worthy of worship as opposed to other gods, and not as arguments for his existence. Seeing them as arguments for the existence of a God as opposed to no God would be something we modern readers read back into it. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/04/2006 04:18:00 PM  

Clark,  thanks for reminding of that. I would have gone and looked for more detail on that too, but I didn't have the book with me either at work when I responded here quickly this morning to Matt's post.

Blake, I'm not settled on either Book of Mormon historicity or the existence and nature of God. I do have what to me are serious questions and doubts. As I try to think these issues though I appreciate the concern and engagement of thoughtful people like yourself.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/04/2006 04:28:00 PM  

Blake,  I haven't thought or read carefully on the question, so I acknowledge it may be debatable as to whether Joseph believed (b). It seems to be a relatively common Mormon understanding of God, though. Also it seems intuitive that if God is embodied, that body's physical existence must be governed by some sort of physical law. Would his own physical existence be governed by physical laws of his own decree? That seems a little weird.

Jared, could you explain the contradiction a little further? In any case, I suppose the Korihor episode, or this aspect of it, could be taken as an example of Blake's theory of modern expansions on an ancient text.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/04/2006 04:38:00 PM  

Christian: I appreciate the candor. I wasn't aware that the basic faith commitments for LDS were not foundational for your thought. So now I see things in our discussion a bit differently. I have been addressing these issues as if LDS commitments were a given, and I take it that you haven't. In any event, I think that the Book of Mormon treats the advent of those who question God's existence as a surprising anomoly. When both Lehi and Alma argue for God, they use the non-existence of God as the terminus in a reductio -- that is, God's non-existence is so inconceivable that if the position suggests there is no God it is unthinkable. However, I believe that the Book of Job raises the issue of whether there is really a God or just some impersonal fate that results in Job's afflications -- so the notion that there is no God is no entirely foreign to the Hebrew tradition (tho Job isn't written by a Hebrew). Further, the Proverbs say: "The fool saith in his heart that there is no God." So God's non-existence isn't inconceivable in principal for Hebrews -- and I don't think that Jim says anything that suggests otherwise.

As far as God's body goes, I have discussed this issue at length in my response to Parrish at the FAIR website. I don't believe that God is essentially embodied in LDS thought and until we know about what an uncreated intelligence is, I'm quite sure that we don't know whether intelligences are material or not. The fact that God has a property of being embodied (nonessentially) doesn't mean that God is confined to a material universe any more than I am confined to my house. I know that there are deep issues about whether communication between pocket universes is possible and whether God could be backwardly eternal if he were stuck within a finite material universe that began with the Big Bang -- but that is exactly what I address in my response to Parrish. If you are really interested (it's long and complicated) it can be found here:  

Comment by Blake | 1/04/2006 05:15:00 PM  

Wow. Lots of good comments and I haven't even caught up to your prior posts Christian.

As Blake notes, unless we know the status of intelligence, it's hard to say that God is essentially material, although typically intelligence as immaterial has been tied to a kind of dualism or something that to me sure sounds like neoPlatonism. (Quinn notes that as well) I think when talking about what God essentially  is  in terms of substance ends up being unhelpful - especially if this essence never can be separated from material. It's akin to discussing Aristotilean forms without matter.

It seems to me that the real issue is less essence in the way I think Blake is using it than the nature of resurrected bodies. That is can a being not be resurrected once resurrected. The scriptures certainly strongly suggest that.

I'll read Blake's post over at FAIR. I think I read it once before.

With respect to Alma, I think LGT would entail that there were lots of non-Hebrews around Alma. One can't help but wonder how many of his words were for that audience. But I came up with a great post topic for my blog when I first read your post Christian. I'd simply note the distinction between whether something signifies something to a person naturally versus whether it entails it physically. For instance when we see smoke we instinctively think fire, even though there may be no fire. I think there is a similar distinction with the significance of order in the universe. I want to touch upon some of the cognitive issues there. 

Comment by clark | 1/04/2006 08:52:00 PM  

I guess I didn't fully understand your point--your clarification to Eric helps.

I don't find it hard to believe that in all of BofM history somebody would doubt the existence of God and argue it persuasively (to some). There are odd balls in every culture. 

Comment by Jared | 1/04/2006 10:04:00 PM  

I'm trying to remember, was it not Satan that put the question of the existance of God into Korihors heart? I guess I could look it up, but the point could still be made regardless. Does his question have to arise naturally out of his culture, or could Satan have inspired this? 

Comment by Eric | 1/04/2006 10:34:00 PM  

I looked it up, and verse 53 says that he was deceived by the devil who appeared to him as an angel and taught him what he was to say. In fact verse 52 says that Korihor always new that there was a God. 

Comment by Eric | 1/05/2006 08:36:00 AM  

This verse (Alma 30:44) has always been difficult for me, too, in part simply because Alma makes what to me feel like lousy responses to Korihor (requiring him to prove a negative, and so on)---frankly, I've always found Korihor's cynical revision of Nephite religion disturbingly plausible---and in part because yeah, there's something that feels a little out of joint, historically, in the exchange. I imagine that for Joseph, untrained in historiography---indeed, feeling daily the exhilarating collapse of dispensations into the present as he recognizes himself in the document he's rendering---it would have been very difficult, indeed positively unnatural, not to read present-day debates into the material he encountered, in whatever way he encountered it. It's not hard for me to accept, while maintaining my confidence in the basic historicity of the BoM, that some of that present-day perspective crept in. (Yes, this causes problems for the tight-translation model, and no, I'm not sure what to do about that.)

The naturalistic presumption exerts a very, very strong gravitational pull on the mind (or at least on my mind)---and perhaps it should: if we're going to claim that the plates were real objects, and that the BoM represents even a qualified kind of real translation, maybe we ought to require some degree of naturalism in our explanations of their properties. But note how easy it is (for me, at least) to consider nineteenth-century environmental parallels while getting hung up on ancient Semitic anachronisms, whereas skepticism of ancient Semitic parallels and dismissal of nineteenth-century anachronisms comes just as easily. I think occasionally the pull of the naturalistic presumption allows sloppy reading and permissive historicism.

That said, I think you're drastically underestimating the extent to which radical doubt was thinkable in pre-Enlightenment cultures; indeed, in Western civilization, I'd argue, it wasn't the maturing of rational science that germinated such doubts (as I'm guessing you'd posit), but rather the proliferation of religious truth claims during the Reformation, which inevitably produced relativism and resulting radical skepticism. Furthermore, I think there's good reason to believe that that sort of doubt could have become thinkable---if certainly not widespread---in Nephite culture.

Note that Korihor begins not by questioning God's existence, but by questioning the reality of Christ. This is a very different proposition: Christ was not a competing tribal god embodied in a rival tribe whose priests battled Jehovah in fiery showdowns. Christ was a supplementary God, bringing with him an entire theological superstructure of truth claims---but without the rival tribe, the fiery signs. In this crucial way Nephite religious culture had diverged permanently from the Semitic context it had left five centuries earlier. And it is precisely this kind of competing truth claim---*within a unified tribal identity*---that, based on other historical parallels, I'd suggest could produce radical doubt of the sort we see Korihor purvey and Alma reject.  

Comment by Rosalynde | 1/05/2006 11:54:00 AM  

Rosalynde: Good post. I have a suggestion what to do about the tight translation theory: give it up. Adopt a view that could actually be responsive to the way the language works in the text -- an English text that uses KJV phrases at every turn and uses phraseology common in the 19th century. That doesn't surprise me because that is what Joseph spoke. Any translation has to reflect the vocabulary and diction and conceptualization of its translator. Hence, the expansion theory!  

Comment by Blake | 1/05/2006 02:21:00 PM  

Blake,  I briefly mentioned  having two tracks of my thought in our conversation, and have also discussed my general perspective in my blog's opening manifesto. I do not mean to hide my doubts per se, but I'm not all that comfortable trumpeting them either; whether that's because I'm still profoundly embedded in Mormon culture (attending Church every week, for example) and don't want to antagonize anyone unnecessarily, or still have the Spirit striving within me, I cannot say. Whatever the reasons, I find the company of believers much more enjoyable than the spirit I sense from bitter detractors; and while I may feel a need to discuss heretical ideas, I try to be as sensitive to believing sensibilities as possible in doing so. I may in the end be a heretic but I would rather not be an apostate, if there's a meaningful difference.

I'm not sure I see Alma's argument as a reductio; and as for Lehi, the terminus is our  non-existence, not God's, with perhaps something like a teleological argument being assumed for the last step. This entire argument seems like either a theodicy or anti-Universalist, which perhaps also Joseph heard in debating club, or in arguments raging within his own extended family. Jim F. has also written that theodicy is an issue that never even arises when reading the scriptures through the lens of an ancient worldview.

The Psalms 14 (not Proverbs) and Job examples are interesting. I don't remember exactly how that plays out in Job, but I wonder if some of that wisdom literature post-dates Hellenic influence on Judaism. Some commentaries on Psalm 14 (e.g. Adam Clarke) say it's not about theoretical atheism (denying God's existence) but practical atheism (living with indifference to him and his laws), related to the fact that in the Hebrew tradition being a "fool" was not a matter of intellectual inferiority but instead behavioral lapse. I might go further, and suggest that while I realize our text is now "There is no elohim", a polytheistic rather than theoretical or practical atheistic reading is called for: 'there is no Jehovah, I can safely ignore all that law of Moses crap and go have fun worhipping more convenient gods in the groves,' etc.

I only glanced at your FAIR paper. Obviously you've thought a lot more about the implications of divine embodiment than I have. I don't think I'll get into it deeply in the immediate future---I already have overdue homework from you, for one thing---but one thing to mention briefly is that your "house" argument sounds something like traditional Christians would use in connection with the incarnation, and I'm not sure how good a fit it is to the Mormon idea that a fullness of joy consists of a spirit and body inseparably connected. When it comes to the multiverse or pocket universe theories, I agree there are some tough problems (and also sexy reasons to completely give up the need for God, not just for Earth's creation, but that of our universe), but also some nice potential resonances, with Mormonism.

More on subsequent comments later... 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/05/2006 02:49:00 PM  

Clark,  I would have similar questions about Blake's approach. Perhaps I'm lacking philosophical sophistication, what it would mean for something to be "immaterial." If it interacts with normal "matter" at all, then one simply enlarges one's definition of "matter" to include it. If it doesn't interact with matter at all, for all practical purposes it doesn't even exist.

I don't know that a limited geography helps---mesoamerica seems to have polytheism rather than something like a Greek or Enlightenment worldview that allows one to question God. (Of course maybe I'm making too much of this worldview business, and need some adult supervision from Jim F.)

I commented over at Clark's site on his related post . 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/05/2006 04:34:00 PM  

Jared,  who knows, maybe so. As I said in the last comment, maybe I'm making too much of the power of a worldview.

Eric, that's an interesting point, the Book of Mormon has a self-contained answer to the question of where Korihor's ideas came from. I guess the question is how convincing it is... But still it's an interesting feature of the BoM that it's so fastidious about accounting for itself in terms of describing its sources, and this may be another manifestation of that tendency (one that may seem a little too convenient in this case).  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/05/2006 04:46:00 PM  

Rosalynde,  bless your naturalistic heart. There may be few better equipped to Show Empathy and Build on Common Beliefs. (Somehow I don't think you needed study and practice with the Missionary Guide to get these skills; I know you're not doing any of that on purpose here, I'm just teasing by way of expressing delight in the natural resonance.) I have to leave the computer now, and I cannot do your astute comment justice at the moment; I'll take it up later this evening.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/05/2006 05:43:00 PM  

Rosalynde,  I agree Korihor's critiques of organized religion have the potential for traction---not in our church specifically, which I have always felt to be run by what would be sincerely well-meaning people even in the worst case scenario---but speaking of religion generally. If they were directed at, say, the Great and Abominable Church, or Bin Laden, we'd probably cheer. Also, there are a couple things that make Korihor seem like too much of a straw man. First, does he really have to be such a complete jerk? A much more insidious atheist (and a more difficult one on whom to build a morality tale) would be a loving humanist just as repulsed by Korihor's frontal assault on basic human decency as everyone else. Second, does he really have to ask for the sign and thus so conveniently seal his doom? Didn't he learn anything from Sherem? I suppose one of the lessons these recurring characters are supposed to teach us is that disbelief in Christ automatically brings about these unfortunate characteristics. That seems to be an unfair stereotype; on the other hand, perhaps it's a truth I should take to heart.

You're right about there being a tendency for those with naturalistic tendencies to maintain an uneven playing field when it comes to the evidence, but I'm not sure that's entirely improper. It's the idea of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. That a new (taken-to-be) sacred book, responding to crises of its times, begins an influential religion doesn't happen every day, but it has happened enough across the centuries that it's not completely unheard of. That it's an ancient work translated from physical plates using physical instruments delivered by a resurrected being: this is unprecedented. The former is sensational, but the latter is cataclysmic. Hence the bias, the perhaps-not-unjustified tendency to more readily accept plausible stories that render the Book of Mormon the former rather than the latter. But I agree none of this is an excuse for sloppy reading and historiography! Lack of time, the informal nature of blog posts, amateur status, and general ignorance may be suitable excuses, however. Forgive me. ;->

You're right, it was the rise of modern science I had in mind making doubt possible during the Enlightenment. (Though I have a vague sense that there was some atheism among the Greeks too, which I would have supposed was also made possible by their rationalism.) The alternate story you tell of competing factions within one society generating radical doubt in a way neither the rise of rationalism nor differences between different societies could: it's a completely new argument to me. I'm too ignorant of the history of the Reformation era to judge if its social upheavals were more important to doubt than the rise of science. I confess it would be a little surprising to me. (Perhaps we all have a tendency to see nails as amenable to our respective hammers?)

In any case I don't see what the mechanics of the argument would be: why would intracultural religious diversity spawn more radical religious doubt than intercultural diversity? It doesn't seem to have done so among American Christians or among the major factions of Islam in the Middle East, for example---which makes me question whether this was in fact the mechanism in Europe, or at least whether it's a general phenomenon.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/05/2006 11:06:00 PM  

Rosalynde,  one more point... You say Christ was not a God involved in fiery showdowns between the Nephites and other tribes, but the three confrontations with anti-Christs did in fact end in demonstrations of raw power to their destruction---divine power in the cases of Sherem and Korihor, and the power of the Christian establishment in the case of Nehor. Moreover, as I recall Sorenson argues that Sherem at least (don't remember if he included Nehor and Korihor) was an "other," not a Nephite or Lamanite (which is a little odd since he argues on behalf of the Law of Moses). 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/06/2006 09:41:00 AM  

Right, Christian, I remembered the signs---and of course the fire that accompanied Christ's personal visit---after I posted. The point is that the ideological resources of Nephite xenophobia weren't recruited to discredit anti-Christian thought. It's actually quite a perplexing complexity in BoM structure: the social narrative so emphatically bifurcates between Nephite and Lamanite, as does the religious narrative between Christian and anti-Christian---and yet the two double-branched structures don't coincide. In this sense, and in several others, the BoM seems to me quite different from other instances of nineteenth-century missionary literature. (Though I'm not an expert in this material.)

Listen, I don't want to overstate my point about the Reformation, and I'm certainly not elevating it to the status of historical "mechanism". It was the Enlightenment, certainly, that produced the atheist on the philosophical stage as a fully theorized subject position. That true atheism was not available as a widespread or culturally viable discourse in early modern Europe, however, does not mean that it was unthinkable or unknown to individuals and groups of individuals, or that it was not among these individuals and groups that the seeds of mature atheism germinated.

I assume you're not interested in a reading list on early modern doubt, but I could produce it, if you like: it's something of a commonplace that the religious crisis in Europe coincided with the rise of religious tolerance (read: relativism) and philosophical skepticism---though this coincidence was not, I think, inevitable or uniform across Europe. It's a tricky thing to work with, because skeptical thinkers of necessity had to veil their activities and thought, and because the term "atheist" worked primarily as a political smear without much content. Still, it's possible to trace the intellectual history with some assurance. My point is that previous European encounters with Mohammedans, heathens and jews did not provoke such a religo-philosophical crisis, precisely because an engrained xenophobia neutralized the ideological thread of competing truth claims: because an Englishman could never become an Ethiopian, it was absurd seriously to consider the Ethiopian's religious claims. It wasn't until competing claims arose and asserted themselves domestically---when individuals had a real opportunity, indeed the perilous necessity, of arbitrating between such claims---that attacks on sectarian truth claims could damage faith in all religious truth. This is the parallel I'm suggesting with the Nephite situation, wherein the rise of Christian teaching provided the opportunity for similar arbitration and affiliation, and consequently, the possibility for skepticism.  

Comment by Rosalynde | 1/07/2006 10:51:00 AM  

Christian: While I'm sympathetic to your move of the definition of "matter" being enlarged; yet if you englarge it in the way you suggest, then the conventional view of an immaterial God will be a material state since this immaterial God interacts with matter -- like us! Same goes for Cartesian minds that interact with matter. So it doesn't seem workable to me -- unless you want to beg the question against those views as being conceptually or logically impossible. As far as I know, no one has ever had the gall to suggest such a conceptual impossibility (except Orson Pratt who misunderstood what immaterial things are supposed to be). 

Comment by Blake | 1/07/2006 01:24:00 PM  

Blake,  yes, I would tend to challenge traditional Christians by saying their claim of an immaterial God is nonsense, and that he really ought to be considered material if he can interact with matter. I may be simply showing what a philosophical philistine I am; I have no idea how 'material' and 'immaterial' have been traditionally defined, but I suspect I would find the distinction unconvincing.

But I have never seen a need to transcend this 'panmaterialist' perspective, since the only two views I've ever thought viable are either a Mormon perspective embracing a God with a body of flesh and bone, spirits made of 'spirit matter' rather than immaterial souls, no such thing as immaterial matter, etc.; or an atheistic, naturalistic materialism.

Rosalynde, thanks for another fine comment---I'm stealing moments between chores and won't be able to do it justice until this evening. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/07/2006 04:06:00 PM  

Rosalynde,  I thought you must be getting at something like that. To take an example on a smaller scale, I suppose it's like how an anti-gay person, confronted for the first time with a friend or loved one they identify with and find to be a generally 'good person'---but who turns out to be gay---might become more skeptical of anti-gay absolutism?

I'm probably taking the 'brotherly love' aspect of this too far, when all that's needed is some degree of shared culture, common identity, political ties... But one thing that might make the parallel fail is that it sounds like your story of the European rise of tolerance and skepticism has these arising to some degree out of a filial sort of instinct; in contrast, Korihor's atheism is explained in the narrative by his selfish, carnal misanthropism---in the end, self-admittedly so. (Though I suppose the parallel might be rehabilitated by arguing that the BoM account is rather slanted, an ancient (and surprisingly prescient) example of the unfair "atheist" smear! The term is still a potent political smear today, BTW---I doubt an "atheist" could be elected to any office in the US. Perhaps I should start advocating a return of the venerable term "freethinker" instead...) Anyway, didn't this tolerance business arise sort of out of sheer exhaustion, after Europe was in shambles after decades of religious warfare? It doesn't seem there was religiously based internecine warfare on that scale among the Nephites at the time.

The misalignment between Nephite xenophobia towards Lamanites and Nephite confrontation with fellow Nephite anti-Christs is interesting, not something I had noticed previously. It sounds like you think this doesn't have a nineteenth century parallel, but there might be nice one if the BoM represented a working out of Joseph's religious and historical concerns. The Nephite stance towards the Lamanites shares remarkable features with what Joseph's attitudes towards the American Indians might have been: mild bigotry arising from the Indians' perceived degradation, violent conflict over territory rather than religious ideology, concern about American culture being overtaken in the end as the Nephites were (cf. prophecies about Lamanite descendents treading and tearing the Gentiles), tempered by an underlying and ultimately overriding filial concern due to a deep history of shared brotherhood (shared Lehite ancestry being parallel with assumed shared Israelite ancestry with the Indians)... but no  concern that the Indians' religiosity is any sort of ideological threat. The ideological threats all come from within Nephite culture, just as for Joseph personally they came from within his own Christian culture: Calvinists, deists/atheists, Universalists, masons, infant baptizers all receive attention, personified as various Nephite dissenters.

Related to this, consider expected Nephite xenophobia, not just against Lamanites (who after all are consistently referred to as "our brethren"), but against the supposed larger pre-existing culture allegedly implied by the text... I've always thought it a major (perhaps devastating?) strike against the existence of 'others in the land' that they're not explicitly mentioned in a manner parallel to the way pre-existing inhabitants of ancient Israel's lands are spoken of in the Bible. As I recall, the apologetic answer is that the BoM is a 'lineage history', ignoring anything and anyone not important to them. But I wonder how tenable this remains in the current apologetic zeitgeist, which I gather shrinks the Lehites into insignificant drops in the larger Mesoamerican genetic and cultural seas... In this context would one not expect significant xenophobic warnings against the strange gods of the non-Lehite Mesoamerican culture, analogous to what we have in the Bible? But it just ain't there. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/07/2006 09:33:00 PM  

Christian: I think that you are making mountains out of molehills and trumpeting speculation as fact, e.g., you asssert:. "The ideological threats all come from within Nephite culture, just as for Joseph personally they came from within his own Christian culture: Calvinists, deists/atheists, Universalists, masons, infant baptizers all receive attention, personified as various Nephite dissenters." I'm challenging you to at least suggest where you believe that these things are found in the BofM.

Where are the Calvinists? Either you don't know what a Calvinist is or you are reading a great deal into the text that isn't there. Where are the deists? Where are the masons? Of course there were infant baptizers (long after Christ came), but why is that evidence that JS had the concern rather than Mormon? It appears to me that you have uncritically bought into arguments of critics that, upon closer examination, won't hold water (tho I am open to being corrected if I have assumed too much). For example, Nate Oman has a long article about whether Masons are referred to in the Book of Mormon and shows rather decisively that they aren't there. Deists? Where? You have bought Vogel's argument and it won't withstand scrutiny in my view.

I believe that the Nephites had conflicting views of others already present because there were others among them but they viewed intermarriage with them as a breach of covenant. When the Nephites address others who are among the Lamanites, they don't distinguish between Lamanite and others because the term "Lamanite" includes indigenous others with whom they intermarried because the Lamanites had breached the covenant by intermarrying with them. So the others are in fact included in the Lamanite identity because Lamanite included the others. The Lamanites are just considered lost and deluded; and there is no need to warn against their beliefs because there is no evidence that they tried to proselytize the rather culturally insulated Nephites. "Lamanites" are not all descendants of Laman and Lemuel. Further, just how heavily populated do you think that Americas were? The population density was sparse at best. Of course I have addressed all of these issues (at least somewhat) in my articles and exchanges in Sunstone. Have you read these articles and responses (just FMI)?

While you're assessing a naturalistic explanation for the BofM, just as you have strong naturalistic leanings for free will positions, consider these thoughts. The human brain is a bit of matter, remarkable as it is, that has a beginning and an end. It will never grasp the things of eternity. (Of course if deteminism is true there isn't much we can do since you were determined to either believe or not long before this discussion or ever you or I had any thoughts about it).

While you are working thru BofM issues, I can empathize because I came back to a more traditional view of BofM historicity after having had a view somewhat like yours. However, it was clear to me that those who wrote the BofM knew about the prophetic call Gattung (form) in 1 Ne. 1 and Alma 36, knew in detail about Pre-exilic covenant renewal fesitivals found in Mosiah 2-5; 7 and 27 and clearly hinted at elsewhere. It is clear to me that whoever wrote the book had a much more profound understanding of Israelite legal procedures (for common legal accusations) than anyone had in the 19th century. The problem I then had was to account for the fact that the underlying ritual and literary forms demonstrated a profound knowledge of Israelite culture that I am certain JS did not possess. So how do we account for the fact that the language of the book is clearly 19th century and many of the theological constructs assume a developed Christian view but the book is also ancient? That is why I came up with the expansion theory and it seems to me still to be the best explanation of the broad range of evidence.

At this point in my life these issues are no longer issues. The BofM is like water to a parched throat and manna to a hungry stomach for me. But this latter experience is only possible (at least in my case) because I was willing to account for all of the evidence that I saw and do my best to honestly and objectively account for it.

Finally, isn't it clear that the anti-Christ's in the BofM are seen as almost ridiculously silly anomolies that are self-defeating because God's existence is so overwhelmingly obvious that anyone with eyes can see it? Isn't that precisely the response that a person in an ancient culture that had never encountered an atheist would have?

Finally, the real issue isn't about the evidence so much as about the heart -- at least it was with me. But I don't know how to address that issue with you. 

Comment by Blake | 1/08/2006 12:02:00 AM  

Blake,  I appreciate you sharing your experience and perspective.

The opening of the third paragraph of my last long comment labeled the ideas of said paragraph as speculative: "might  be [a] nice [parallel]... if the BoM represented a working out of Joseph's...concerns". I wasn't so much interested in arguing strenuously that this is what the BoM is, or proving beyond reasonable doubt the presence of the individual modern elements mentioned; mostly I was just tossing out a possible solution to address Rosalynde's puzzlement as to why Nephite xenophobia is never deployed in the service of religious argumentation. (You've given an alternative reason---the all-inclusive Lamanites never proselytized---but neither did Israel's neighbors, and they were still railed against in the Bible, weren't they?)

I'm not heavily read in the historicity arguments, I've just checked in on (or skimmed) FARMS articles from time to time, and read a little Nibley. Dialogue and Sunstone are still essentially terra incognita for me. I'm certain you know the alleged connections better than me. The Calvinists would be the Zoramites. (Sure there may be discrepancies from "real" Calvinists, but the point is that a even a caricature might serve as sufficient inspiration for someone like Joseph; it wouldn't have to be an academically precise description.) Korihor is the atheist. Okay, there aren't deists per se, but there's some resonance there with other anti-Christs who acknowledge God exists in some form but doesn't participate in direct saving, prophetic, or providential action. (Anyway my point in mentioning deists and others was as another example to remind Rosalynde that not all missionary discourse would have been aimed at non-Christians; I gather there were tracts against the various types of ideas I mentioned.) I suppose examples of anti-universalist rhetoric could be found in 2 Ne. 28, 2 Ne. 2, and Alma's teachings to Corianton (this was a hot topic in Joseph's family). The masons (controversial in Joseph's area) would be the secret combinations with their murders, signs, etc.

Speaking of masons, Nate's article is one I happened to have read, since I recognized his name. My (perhaps faulty) recollection is that it is indeed long, but that it boils down the fact that he found some uses of the term "secret combination" that referred to conspiracies other than masons. As I recall he concludes this somehow invalidates Vogel's thesis, that for some reason Vogel can only be right if "secret combinations" were never used except in reference to masons. If the argument is as I portray it here, I find it sorely lacking: exclusive reference is not needed at all, only that it be a familiar usage to Joseph.

Maybe this all vanishes under inspection like the hoar frost before the sun; if so, great! I haven't looked into it enough to be firmly decided either way. (According to Bushman's own words , it doesn't seem he has either, though his loyalties seem completely firm to the point that he would be more inclined than I would to accept the Church even if the BoM were not historical.)

If the anti-Christs were ridiculously silly I don't know that space would have been taken to address them in the BoM. I think they were included out of a recognition that their arguments are persuasive, and therefore need to be addressed---ultimately by demonstrations of divine power rather than by argument, however.

Look, I don't feel that great after tossing out something overly lopsided on the doubting side. But honestly I don't know what that feeling means. That the doubtful ideas are not true, and that their pursuit should be stopped? Or fear that if I become convinced the doubtful ideas are true it may have uncomfortable social and familial ramifications because of the background of belief in which I was raised? Are the feelings a guide to turn away from something, or a temporary discouragement to be pressed through with courage on the way to something better? I don't know. For now I feel compelled to turn over all stones that strike me as plausible, but who knows, at some point I may simply give in to the hope and become more settled in a view like yours. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/08/2006 08:04:00 PM  



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