Beliefs and Causes

April 23, 2010 | 32 comments
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Beliefs are complicated and sometimes strangely resistant to facts. I don’t mean religious beliefs in particular, but everyday beliefs about how the world works and how it is that we come to hold them. That’s what I took away from a recent reading of Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (W. W. Norton, 2006).

Here’s an example from the chapter on paranormal beliefs.

A stage magician performed fake psychic phenomena in front of two groups of university students. One group was told that he was a magician, while the other group was told he was a genuine psychic. When asked afterwards whether or not they believed he had genuine psychic powers, about two thirds of the students in both groups thought that he did. Even when the groups who were initially told that he was psychic were told that he was a fake, half still believed he had special psychic powers. (p. 157.)

What’s surprising is not just that two-thirds of these university students held or formed a belief in the supposed-psychic’s powers, but how few changed their position when “told that he was a fake.” Updating is hard.

Another example, from the chapter on health. Most people will habitually warn their kids against going outside in chilly air: “Put on a jacket or you’ll catch a cold!” Or this variation on what is believed about colds: “Another belief is that once a cold is acquired, it can migrate from the head to the nose and then down to the chest and bladder” (p. 176). We know that it is viruses that cause colds and that colds don’t really jump around the body, yet we can’t help repeating folk wisdom linking colds to exposure to cold air or other irrelevant things.

I won’t multiply examples — I’m sure you could add a few. The point is that when it comes to explaining things, the explanations we carry around in our heads or whip up on demand (“Why is the sky blue?” is the classic query demanding an immediate and convincing response) are often unreliable. The book covers several topics on that general theme, pointing out how counterintuitive and nonobvious most true explanations are. [The author makes that claim for "scientific explanations," but I think it applies to science, history, philosophy, theology, or any careful, peer-reviewed approach to explanation.]

The Religious Angle

I might be skating on thin ice here, but let’s take these ideas and see how they carry over to our religious beliefs (my discussion now, not the author’s). First, if we sometimes find ourselves or find others embracing folk doctrine which, on further examination, is not supported by logic, scripture, or reliable statements of present-day leaders, this is not some special weakness of religious thinking or even LDS thinking. The book makes it quite clear how susceptible all human thinking is to false belief or unreliable causal thinking. But if our religious beliefs are not uniquely questionable, they are also not uniquely reliable. They merit careful examination to sift the good from the bad.

Take earthquakes. Plate tectonics explains how chunks of continent and seafloor very slowly move, how stress builds at plate boundaries, then eventually releases in earthquakes at faults. We now have a good understanding of the natural processes involved, and seismographs show that for every earthquake felt by human observers there are thousands of tiny quakes and tremors that we would never notice but for these instruments. At the same time, many feel God must somehow be part of the process, at least for big earthquakes that make the news. But if you let your belief in God become mixed up with your sense of what causes earthquakes, you might end up sounding like this recent AP story. First line: “A senior Iranian cleric says women who wear immodest clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes.” Or this LA Times opinion piece, which notes, “The evangelical Christian Pat Robertson suggested that … that this year’s earthquake in Haiti was part of a curse on that island stemming from an 18th century pact with the devil that Haitians allegedly made in exchange for liberty from French slave owners.” [Mormons leaders are more circumspect -- we just send food and shelter.]

Take Sundays. Four months a year, I walk out my chapel doors after meetings and see skiers coming down the mountain. Yes, the natural thought crosses my mind, but I know that I would just never hear the end of it if I got injured skiing on Sunday. Because I would deserve it, wouldn’t I? Or is that just our view of morality bleeding over into our sense of causation? If I twisted a knee on Saturday, you wouldn’t say I deserved it. If someone has a great Sunday on the slopes (or even a whole season of great Sundays), you would likely not view that outcome as a reward for carving turns rather than singing hymns. I’m guessing that, given some time to reflect, most of us would deny that God or a properly assigned angel plays any role in Sunday skiing mishaps — that’s not really what we think is going on. Yet if someone we know gets injured on Sunday, the first thought that leaps to mind (though hopefully not our lips) might still be, “Well, that’s what you get for skiing on Sunday …”

Conclusion

I don’t have a cut and dried conclusion to this complex relationship between belief and causation. Scriptures can be cited at both ends of the spectrum. Matthew 10:29 says that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing and tacitly approving, suggesting a skier or an earthquake must certainly be noticed. But Matthew 5:45 says that God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” suggesting God does not intervene in natural processes on moral grounds.

Getting back to the book, perhaps this statement rings truer now than it would have earlier: “How we arrive at beliefs is far from clear; it is a mixture of experience, cognition, intuition and emotion” (p. 84). Each of these — emotion, intuition, experience, reason — can lead us astray, so at the very least caution is in order when we use our beliefs as a springboard for making pronouncements about the world.

32 Responses to Beliefs and Causes

  1. Course Correction on April 23, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Great post! It’s too bad human logic hasn’t evolved to the point that we rationally examine the sense of the statements we hear–and repeat.

  2. matt b on April 23, 2010 at 10:09 am

    “If you let your belief in God become mixed up with your sense of what causes earthquakes”

    To play devil’s advocate a bit, why on earth wouldn’t one do this? To lump this claim in with “folk doctrine” or “unreliable casual thinking” seems to me a mischaracterization. After all, the Bible claims precisely what Robertson and the Muslim cleric do in Hosea 4 and elsewhere; the Bible and the Book of Mormon present it actually happening at the death of Christ. In Articles of Faith, Talmage makes the same connection between human righteousness and natural phenomena. Assuming that the two things _shouldn’t_ be connected seems a more atypical religious position, historically speaking, than assuming that they are, a product of science/rationality/the Enlightenment’s destruction of the holistic religious worldview. So, this is far from the wacky, perverse, and entirely silly claim that various facebook groups seem to be making it out to be.

    Even if one accepts plate tectonics, why can we believe that God works his will through evolution but not continental drift?

  3. Geoff J on April 23, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Updating is hard.

    True dat Dave.

    Like Matt though I am not thrilled with your examples in the post. God and naturally occurring earthquakes are certainly not mutually exclusive. I mean if there is a God why shouldn’t one believe that God could prevent or allow earthquakes at his discretion?

  4. Mike S on April 23, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Several thoughts:

    1) For the Hosea 4 example as well as the Book of Mormon, these were authored several thousand years ago and should likely be looked at in context. Mankind at that time ascribed almost everything to various Gods. The Jews to Jehovah. The Nephites to God / Christ. The Greeks and Romans to various members of a larger pantheon. It would only be natural that many of the natural happenings of the earth were attributed to a deity of some sort.

    2) Re: Geoff’s comment, about God being able to cause or prevent earthquakes – this raises a whole other set of issues far behind earthquakes and into the philosophical realm. If we have a truly omnipotent God and a loving God, why do earthquakes kill thousands? Why was Hitler allowed to do what he did? Etc. Does God not care? Or is He powerless to stop them? Or did he specifically cause them? Why are some people miraculously healed with a blessing while others are promised great things and then die? I don’t know.

    My own personal feelings: life just is. Many things are just an inherent part of life. Sickness, death, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. I don’t know that whether they happen or not is really that important. We’re all going to die at some point. Sometimes it’s “prematurely”. Othertimes it’s not. All that really matters is our mindset and attitude.

  5. Paul on April 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Matt B, I’d say you’re being God’s advocate, not the devils.

    Seriously, Matt B and Geoff J’s questions are reasonable — does a natural explanation preclude divine involvement? I don’t think so. If God is all knowing, he also knows the timetable by which natural events are set to occur.

    To Mike S’s restating of the common philosphical problem, I suppose if suffering in this life were all there was, then the conclusion might be a problem, but since we believe in an Eternal God and life after death, then although suffering in this life IS suffering, and we should do all we can to mitigate it for ourselves and others, it is not the end-all of our existence. Hence a father’s love which may allow suffering for a season may ultimately provide the promised peace.

    In demanding that God remove all suffering, we operate with our own point of view, and without His broader view of the eternities.

  6. Bob on April 23, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Dave,
    I have always liked a story of Malinowski when he was doing an on site culture study on the Trobriand Islands. He tried to tell the men where babies came from. They laughed. They took him to another village and showed him the homeliest woman he had ever seen. Again, laughing and pointing, they said “five kids! He gave up.

  7. Peter LLC on April 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    If God is all knowing, he also knows the timetable by which natural events are set to occur.

    I don’t believe Geoff J would argue this at all.

  8. matt b on April 23, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Peter – nor would I, actually.

    Mike offers us something of a restatement of Dave’s contention; that if we understand the Bible as a historical text rather than a canonical one (canon being those texts we take as authoritative toward our own religious experience), then we don’t have to worry about the strange an uncomfortable things therein. This is a bit too easy; I’d argue that even if we don’t want to take some contents of scripture literally, we must at the least take them seriously. Similarly, Mike also offers us a disenchanted world, where God is not at all present; again this is congenial to a rationalist worldview, but becomes problematic if we don’t want to neuter God entirely.

  9. Dave on April 23, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Thanks for the comments.

    matt (#2), by labelling your comment a “devil’s advocate” view, it sounds like you don’t really endorse your own criticism, but I’ll respond nonetheless. What is the proper balance between natural and supernatural explanations of events? I’m inclined to adopt natural explanations for natural events (earthquakes and skiing injuries) and reserve supernatural explanations for claimed supernatural events. When a person invokes a supernatural explanation for a natural event (say, claiming God caused a given earthquake), that requires better justification than is generally offered.

    Geoff (#3), examples aren’t my forte. Yes, if God is omnipotent, he could cause or prevent earthquakes however he chooses. And, peering down from heaven, he could toss thunderbolts down whenever it strikes his fancy, too. That’s just not how I see God working in the world, however — there are natural processes (some of which we understand quite well) that seem to be sufficient causes of earthquakes and thunderstorms. No doubt there’s a discussion about primary and secondary causes that speaks to this issue, but that’s not the terminology one finds in most LDS discussions.

    The post wasn’t tackling the bigger picture as much as the narrower belief question. In light of the comments, I might restate the topic as: Given that natural processes now seem to explain natural events, why do so many people posit supernatural explanations (paranormal beliefs as well as religious beliefs) for many natural events?

  10. Idahospud on April 23, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    When I was little, my grandma told me that if I looked at a star, and it twinkled, it was because the star saw me and it was winking at me. I still like to believe that.

  11. Clark on April 23, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    Dave, yes if God was logically omnipotent he could do that. However if he acts according to the rules he himself set in play (which seems reasonable to assume) then interfering with an earthquake in one place could cause problems in an other. The bigger question is more why the earth has the rules it has.

  12. Jared on April 23, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    I’ve always thought earthquakes arrived just like the sun rise and sun set. I don’t think God is involved on a daily basis causing the sun to rise or set. Same with earthquakes. However, I have no doubt He set things up at the creation to move in there order.

    What I’ve stated above is a general rule. Those occurrences spoken of in the scriptures would certainly be exceptions to the general rule.

  13. Geoff J on April 24, 2010 at 12:52 am

    Peter LLC: I don’t believe Geoff J would argue this at all.

    Actually I would argue that God knows the timetable by which natural events are set to occur. Those sorts of causally determined events are entirely predictable. It is the future actions of free willed agents that is logically much more difficult to predict.

    Matt B: Similarly, Mike also offers us a disenchanted world, where God is not at all present;

    Again Matt is right on here. Mike seems to be pitching a Deist worldview. The problem is, that ain’t Mormonism. Mormonism insists on a God who does intervene on earth at times. Sure there is always the Problem of Evil that Mike hints at. But Deism is not a solution that is compatible with Mormonism.

    Dave: Yes, if God is omnipotent, he could cause or prevent earthquakes however he chooses.

    God need not be omnipotent to at least delay or expedite the timing and intensity of earthquakes. God only needs to know how to do some things we don’t know how to do. Heck, it is not hard to envision a Star Trek future where humans could use technology to delay or expedite earthquakes so why should it be hard to think God can do that now?

    Given that natural processes now seem to explain natural events, why do so many people posit supernatural explanations (paranormal beliefs as well as religious beliefs) for many natural events?

    Good question. It may be because people are pretty dumb. Or we may have been evolutionarily designed to be superstitious. (Neither of which precludes an intervening God in my estimation)

  14. Cameron Nielsen on April 24, 2010 at 12:53 am

    Well, I think as usual, the answer here is ‘both.’ God both allows and occasionally causes natural disasters to occur, usually b/c of general wickedness or because he allows all sorts of things to happen to all sorts of people. General authorities have quoted that related scripture in D&C frequently the last few years.

  15. Bob on April 24, 2010 at 7:48 am

    The reason these questions hang around for centuries, is no one has answered them___not me, not any of you, or any of the smartest thinkers of history. I believe that will continue.

  16. Peter LLC on April 24, 2010 at 8:11 am

    Those sorts of causally determined events are entirely predictable. It is the future actions of free willed agents that is logically much more difficult to predict.

    That makes sense.

  17. Jon Miranda on April 25, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    People hold 2 things very near and dear to them.

    1. Who they are ethnically
    2. What they believe/values.

    Mess with this and you mess with fire.

  18. Brad Dennis on April 25, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Great post.

    To add to the list, just look at some of the writers in Meridian Magazine, where this sort of thinking seems to thrive.

    For instance, John Pratt suggests that a Gay Day celebration at Disney World prompted a series of fires to break out in Florida and that there is a connection between sinful acts and natural disasters:

    http://www.meridianmagazine.com/sci_rel/031209disasters.html

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 26, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    The Book of Mormon is very explicit that the seismic event described in 3 Nephi, and which was predicted by Samuel in Helaman, was caused by God in direct response (and indeed anticipation of) the wickedness of the Nephites who lived in the many cities that were destroyed. On the one hand, it has been analyzed as being well within the realm of phenomena which we now know (since the Krakatoa eruption in the 1880s) are associated with volcanic super-eruptions ten or a hundred times the magnitude of the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption, such as the repeated eruptions of the Yellowstone Caldera which obliterated central North America several times in the past two million years. During the three days of darkness, the people hear the voice of Christ explaining to them that the people who were killed in the earthquakes, mud slides, fires and subsidence flooding dired because they were “more wicked” than the survivors. The disaster confirmed the prophecy of Samuel and of Nephi, son of Lehi. It was not a deduction by the men who wrote the Book of Mormon, but a straightforward revelation by the voice of God.

    The flood that caused destruction of the wicked at the time of Noah was prophesied by God to Enoch and to Noah. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorah by what sounds like a destructive meteor fall is fully within the potential realm of natural phenomena (as we know from historical events like the Tunguska, Siberia explosion), yet was specifically prophesied to Abraham and Lot.

    Natural disasters are very broadly cited by God as phenomena that will be prominent in the last days before the Second Coming.

    I would not assume of course that Pat Robertson has any privilege to speak for God and identify God’s motive for causing or not preventing a natural disaster. I have not heard any of the modern prophets declare that any particular earthquake or other natural disaster is a direct action by God to punish the wicked for anything in particular or in general. It is presumptive for Robertson and others to claim to know God’s mens rea (his mental state or intent), even though they generally do not claim to have explicit revelation or have the status of a prophet. It is clear that historical earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes and wildfires have taken the lives of the “just and the unjust”.

    The 1976 Teton Dam flood was a major disaster, that killed several people and severely harmed the homes and livelihoods of thousands. A good half or more of the affected people were LDS, and one would assume from God’s dialogue with Abraham about Sodom that such a population of good people should be sufficient to exempt them from God’s destruction, using that as a precedent. Many in the area regarded the small loss of life in the face of a sudden flood as miraculous. Still, there was massive suffering. When Boyd K. Packer went up to speak to the people and addressed the question, “Why did this happen to us”, he said that it happened because the dam (which was being filled for the first time) broke. He declined to ascribe any causation or intent to God. Basic analysis of the dama showed that it was poorly designed from the start as an earthen dam placed on cracked, extremely porous basalt that allowed the water, under pressure as it rose behind the dam, to rapidly erode the earth from below, until the structure fell apart. Basically, it was a natural consequence of a combination of scientific ignorance and government arrogance, both human failings. You could call it a punishment for stupidity, just as crashing a car for driving too fast on ice is a “punishment” for the sin of stupid driving. But God did not have to give the dam a push to knock it down. Human beings were able to do it just fine by themselves.

    So the fact that on SOME occasions God has affirmed that he has specifically intended that specific disasters go forward to punish the wicked, should sober us, but given the lack of specific prophetic ascription of divine causation for other disasters, we should hesitate to blame God for them, even though the formal legal term of art for unexpected natural destruction is “Act of God.” It is also clear that God has instructed the Church and its members to prepare to survive the natural disasters that will be an unavoidable part of the Last Days.

  20. Cameron Nielsen on April 26, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    Well said, as always Raymond.

  21. Brad Dennis on April 27, 2010 at 9:09 am

    Raymond, look at it this way. These instances in the scriptures of natural disasters that you mention represent only the belief of the authors that there is a correlation between wickedness and natural disaster. The scriptures are written in retrospect…after the fact. With hindsight it is easy to draw correlations between natural disasters, disasters, and sin.

  22. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 27, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Brad: Ascribing divine causation to a disaster post hoc is a natural impulse for humans because we try to figure out cause and effect. My wife has defined her “Connie’s Law of the Perversity of Causation” which is that any adverse event that you prepare for will NOT happen simply as a way for punishing you for having invested the time and resources in preparation. On the other hand, the things you specifically DECLINE to prepare for WILL happen to punish you for your laziness. Since we only remember the two kinds of events because they are exceptional, her hypothesis is self-evidently true. QED.

    So I can understand your reasoning as being the explanation for a scriptural statement in, say, 2 Chronicles about ascribing certain disasters to God’s intent to punish the Israelites.

    However, we have a few specific instances in which the record makers affirmatively attest to God or his angels communicating to a prophet that a specific disaster will come in the immediate future precisely because God finds it necessary to take the lives of people who have crossed an irredeemable boundary in their wickedness. If you believe, as I do, that these records are fundamentally a record of actual encounters with God and God’s messengers, you have to take God at his word and accept that those disasyters, which God specifically takes credit–or blame–for, are ones he brought about for the reasons he offers.

    As to the general calamities which are part of the scenario of the last days, as things accelerate to the Second Coming, I read the scriptures more to identify these as general disasters that will happen all over the earth to mixed populations of the righteous among the wicked, as a “wake up call” to mankind to reconsider their complacent belief that they control their destiny and are not dependent on the Creator for their very lives. Evidently the Saints are not to be spared the effects of the disasters, but we are promised that they will be mitigated for us as we “gather to Zion” and “stand in holy places”, with all of the preparation of resources–food, clothing, shelter, education, savings, righteousness, and brotherhood with our fellow saints–that will help us to survive in better shape than others who are disobedient and therefore not prepared. We thus take a divergent view from the Evangelicals who think they are going to be spared all the hard work of living through the last days by being Raptured into heaven, while everyone else feels the brunt of the natural disasters spoken of in John’s Revelation.

  23. Brad Dennis on April 28, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Raymond: it certainly cannot be proven or disproved that God is behind the natural disasters. But we do, as Dave pointed out in his article, understand through science very well why natural disasters occur, although we cannot accurately predict when and where these will occur.

    As for the scriptures, I certainly am a believer, but my interpretive framework of the scriptures significantly from yours. Whereas you see the scriptures as literal histories and God’s exact words which accurately describe events as they precisely happened, I see the scriptures as the human attempt to promote religious and ethnic (in the case of the Old Testament) identities. I believe that the scriptures, particularly the Old Testament and Book of Mormon, while certainly inspirational, are best understood when seen as based on true stories, but often invoking hyperbole and allegory to illustrate points. The authors of the scriptures attempt to understand God, and I believe that they manage to do so quite well, but often fall short and inject their human reasoning into the scripture. So I wouldn’t believe all scripture to be God’s immortal words, but a inspired human attempt to represent them. But as for the causes behind natural disasters, I simply cannot find any correlation between these and human behavior. It rains on both the just and unjust, does it not?

  24. Alison Moore Smith on April 28, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Yet if someone we know gets injured on Sunday, the first thought that leaps to mind (though hopefully not our lips) might still be, “Well, that’s what you get for skiing on Sunday …”

    I can say I’ve never thought that. But I have thought, “If only you’d been in church, this wouldn’t have happened.” Just as, when a 20-year-old LDS boy is killed in a car accident, I think, “If only you’d been on a mission!” But I don’t think such things are generally caused or deserved, and such thoughts aren’t reserved for churchy things.

    If a young person drowns, I think, “If you only you were (doing anything but swimming).” When a little boy was run over in his driveway last summer, I thought, “If only you had stayed in the backyard with your family.”

    Accidents are strange things because there is always the issue of how it could have been prevented. My father-in-law died in a car accident many years ago and the mother of a good friend fell off her roof and died in the driveway. The reaction in such situations is, in my experience, very different from other deaths — and filled with guilt and “what ifs.” And many have a tendency to see how the tragedy could have been different.

    Raymond, I definitely like your wife. :)

    Brad, at very least your idea (#21) is debatable. There are many authoritative sources that acknowledge the fact that God can — when he chooses — give us trials. I certainly wouldn’t put it beyond his reach to cause an accident. The problem, IMO, is when we try to assign cause without the information to do so.

    Elder Maxwell (if i remember correctly — it was on a tape I used to listen to while running (back in the days when people listed to tapes)) gave a list of causes for bad things that happen:

    (1) Natural consequence of our sins and mistakes (get pregnant out of wedlock, car totaled against wall)
    (2) Consequence of sins and mistakes of others (iPod stolen, really bad hair cut)
    (3) God-given for a particular purpose (Noah’s flood, Job’s “issues,” plagues in Egypt)
    (4) Result of living in an imperfect world (disease, rocks falling on heads, wild animals eat you…)

    #18 I actually know John Pratt. He lives a half block away. I don’t quite agree with your reading of his column (he simply asks if there could be any correlation using a modern-day example). But it might be interesting to know that he isn’t some “ooo you evil people” finger-pointer. He does the same analysis with his own life.

    John has leukemia. And he thinks about the *possibility* that God could have specifically caused it for his own purposes. He has talked about what lessons he has (and is) learning from it and how it has made him reevaluate many things in his life. And he thinks the curse is a blessing in many ways, particularly if he’s willing to learn what God wants him to learn.

    As he says, maybe the truth lies somewhere between the ancient “God causes everything” and your “these instances in the scriptures…represent only the belief of the authors” or “a human attempt to promote religious and ethnic identities.”

  25. Brad Dennis on April 28, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    However it may be, I still feel uncomfortable about attributing any sort of natural disaster, past or present, (or even accidents such as skiing) to human sinfulness. Now human-caused disasters are a different story. There a connection can be made.

    I still hold firm to my interpretation on the scriptures and maintain that these literalistic readings of scripture don’t do it justice.

    You (#24) mention that “there are many authoritative sources that acknowledge the fact that God can — when he chooses — give us trials.” Once again, not something that can be proven or disproved. But in the end can we not agree that the question of whether disasters or trials are God-given or not is really all in the eye of the beholder? I get the sense from the church authorities that they clearly acknowledge God’s hand in human affairs and probably natural disasters, but that they leave this to be an open question. At the same time they are cautious to not pull a Pat Robertson and claim that the Haitians brought the earthquake upon themselves because of a pact that they made with the devil to liberate themselves from European occupation. It is precisely because of people like Pat Robertson that I am sensitive to this notion of a connection between the natural disasters and God’s judgment. It only does damage for our image as individuals and as a church to verbally be making connections like this.

    As for John Pratt, I am sorry to hear that he has leukemia. He is an intelligent person. I have read other articles of his and I find his readings of the scriptures to be far too literalistic. He seems to be too rooted in the notion that calendars and the scriptures put together can give us the exact dates of events in the Old Testament and that they can even predict the future. But he doesn’t make any attempt to reconcile his views with other views of scripture and prophecy within the LDS church. But that is a discussion for another day.

  26. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 28, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Brad: I guess I understand better now where you are coming from. I assume you also have sort of a “steady state” theory of history too, because (it seems to me) if one takes as literal God’s statements about his creation of the earth, and Christ’s Second Coming, God has at least once made a major intervention in natural history, and is promising to do so again. Indeed, my reading of 3 Nephi is that it is a testimony to the modern world that the Jesus who was crucified did indeed, at that time, fulfill all the prophecies about the Messiah as establishing his kingdom on earth, and that it was a foretaste of what we can expect when he appears to the whole of mankind in the way he did, in glory, to the Nephite survivors. I tend to take seriously the promises about God’s intervention into natural history, because it is from the same source that attests to God’s intervention in the biological history of mankind, namely, the Resurrection brought about by his Son, which (according to Matthew and 3 Nephi) already started almost 2000 years ago. The same power that healed people and raised Lazarus from death also stilled the Sea of Galilee during a storm.

  27. Cameron Nielsen on April 28, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Whether God allows disasters that would have happened anyway to occur, or he alters nature’s course by commanding them to, I don’t really think it matters. He Himself has said that such things are a testimony that comes after other delivery methods have been rejected. The Lord claimed responsibility for such events like Raymond said.

    EG *some Nephite city* “have I caused….” *insert natural disaster here* because of *insert general transgressions here*

    My opinion is that most of them he knowingly allows to passively come about, while a select few merit specific causation.

  28. Brad Dennis on April 29, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Raymond, I concede that your position probably represents that of most of LDS regarding the scriptures and God’s intervention in history. But I get the feeling that my more liberal position on the scriptures and how they are relevant in our lives is shared by an increasing number of LDS believers and even authorities. Take John Dehlin and Lowell Bennion for instance.

    I am not sure what you mean by a steady state theory of history.

    There is a key issue that you seem to be ignoring about scripture: the messenger and the interpreter. We would not have God’s word were it not for a messenger. And we would not be able to understand, or—better said—collectively represent, God’s word without an interpreter. Before we jump to the conclusion that the scriptures are literal history, we need to ask who the messengers and interpreters are, what their message or core representation is, and the potential socioeconomic and political factors are that may have influenced the shaping of such message or representation. Did the messengers construct allegory to represent what they felt was God’s word, or did they write down verbatim a voice from heaven? Were the messengers interested in writing the literal history of events as they happened, or were they more interested in selecting imagery or snippets of their perceptions of history to represent and promote particular cosmologies and theologies? What of interpreters? How do they use scripture to legitimize their positions? How do they select pieces of scripture to represent their worldviews?

    I personally believe that the scriptures can best be understood as a secondary source for God’s word, the primary source being our spiritual promptings. However, the scriptures (and also the words of our modern church leaders) may be a more enlightened representation of God’s word than we ourselves can come up with through our own communication with Him. In the end it scriptures are an attempt to understand and represent God, and the relevance of their words concerning future and past are faith-based.
    I believe, like you do, that God has intervened in history. But this has taken place on a more individual level and not so much a collective level, as you maintain.

  29. Alison Moore Smith on April 30, 2010 at 2:04 am

    #25 Brad, I’m uncomfortable with the attribution most of the time, too. Unless God tells us he did it, I can’t see a positive reason to assign him responsibility. OTOH, in my own life, I think the introspection caused by considering that possibility is helpful. And in a general sense, acknowledging his hand (or the possibility of his hand) in events is, at least, interesting, if not verifiable.

    But in the end can we not agree that the question of whether disasters or trials are God-given or not is really all in the eye of the beholder?

    Well, no. He either did or he did not. Opinions about it are irrelevant in the end. But perhaps we can agree that since we seldom know what he caused and what he did not, that our speculation about God condemning people we think are evil, isn’t the best way to go. :)

    He seems to be too rooted in the notion that calendars and the scriptures put together can give us the exact dates of events in the Old Testament and that they can even predict the future.

    I don’t have a problem with the idea that “calendars and scriptures” can give us exact dates in the OT. But I’m not convinced they date future events. I don’t think his ideas are as much about “prediction” as they are about interpretation, but I find them interesting. I disagree that he doesn’t try to reconcile his ideas with the scriptures (although I’m not sure what “other views” you expect him to incorporate) and prophecy. In my experience, that’s is pretty much his focus.

  30. liberty on April 30, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I adhere to two firm rules when thinking along these lines:

    1. When there are negative, even catastrophic events… If God didn’t say he did it, He didn’t.
    2. If God acts at all, it is usally on the micro, not the macro level. I like the phrase “God is in the details.”

  31. Mark D. on April 30, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    “Put on a jacket or you’ll catch a cold”

    Is it at all unreasonable to suspect that the additional stress placed upon a person who is inadequately insulated from severe weather may increase the likelihood that a viral infection may be exacerbated?

    But Matthew 5:45 says that God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” suggesting God does not intervene in natural processes on moral grounds.

    In Calvinism, which is the dominant theology of American Protestantism, everything that happens is according to God’s Eternal Decree. That includes the “free” acts of individuals. So if you are a Calvinist minister, it is pretty much an article of faith that if anything bad happens, God has some divine purpose behind it, even if unknown to us. Take this scripture, for example:

    “shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6)

    This sort of proto-Calvinism (if usually not quite so explicit) is all over the Old Testament. Not only that, it is common place in Islamic theology as well, including the theology of Islamic contemporaries of John Calvin. Creatio ex nihilo + determinism = theological Calvinism. God spins up the world, everything ticks according to deterministic rules or divine intervention means that everything that happens happens because God decreed it to be so.

    Foreordination / Predestination – it is all the same thing in the Calvinist / Islamic view of the world. It gives new meaning to the phrases “God willing”, “Insha’Allah” and so on, although the foreknowledge / compatibilist / moral responsibility debate appears to run pretty strongly among adherents of both theologies.

    You pretty much have to both be a philosophical libertarian or deny creatio ex nihilo to avoid the conclusion that God causes earthquakes (and every other evil) – and such free will theism tends to be regarded as a bit of a heresy in classical theist circles, Christian and Islamic.

    Protestant Calvinists tend to look on Arminians as their lesser, quasi-heretical brethren for example. A debate running prominently in Christian theology since the time of Augustine (who was on the “Calvinist” side of the question). I don’t know, but I would suspect that Islamic libertarianism is not exactly a leading tradition in Muslim circles either. Perhaps someone with a greater knowledge of Islamic theology could weigh in on that.

  32. Mark D. on May 1, 2010 at 12:05 am

    Wikipedia has a great page on this issue in Islam here. Apparently this debate was in full force in Islam from very early on, with all the features that later caused the Protestant world to practically divide in two.