Varieties of Divine Eclecticism

January 6, 2014 | 37 comments
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When I was a missionary from 2000-2002, we taught about the Restoration in the third discussion. We often drew a picture to convey the core concepts. There was a mirror (representing the Church) a string (representing the Apostles) and a nail (representing Christ). The Apostasy came about, we taught, because the Apostles died, and so the string was cut, and so the mirror fell, and so it was destroyed.

The Church, prior to the Apostasy. (I used pencil and paper instead of PowerPoint on the mission, but you get the idea.)

The Church, prior to the Apostasy. (I used pencil and paper instead of PowerPoint on the mission, but you get the idea.)

If you want to see clearly, you cannot tape together the shattered shards of a mirror. So too, we taught, Christ had to abandon the broken remnants of His former Church and—with Joseph Smith—start all over again. Christ’s Church could not be “reformed” back into existence, it had to be restored.

I don't actually remember what we would write, but I remember the emphasis was on knowledge / doctrine.

I don’t actually remember what we would write, but I remember the emphasis was on knowledge / doctrine.

That’s fine as it pertains to the concept of priesthood authority, but unfortunately we specifically taught that the shards of the broken church corresponded to theological truths. Our message was clear: if you want all the truth, you have to come to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We’ve got it all.

Except, of course, that we don’t.

The Apostasy did not constitute a sudden revocation of divine truth from the Earth, and God was not on some kind of extended vacation during the intervening centuries. Writing of the time, President John Taylor said:

There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world. . . There were men who could gaze upon the face of God, have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world. If those were dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness.

These truths, while scattered, were not gone from the Earth. Joseph Smith came to understood this, when—apparently inspired by the twelfth chapter of the Revelation of St. John—he changed the wording in D&C 5:14 to describe the “coming forth . . . out of the wilderness.” He also stated that “the old Catholic Church is worth more than all,” clearly indicating that when it comes to the Restoration, many of the most precious truths need to be uncovered in a work of subtraction as opposed to added as surplus. [1]

The Doctrine and Covenants are full of additional scriptures that establish this view of the Restoration as a process of gathering truths found here on Earth as opposed to bringing down heretofore unknown principles directly from Heaven. In 49:8 the Lord speaks to Joseph of “holy men that ye know not of,” and in D&C 88:118 we’re told to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” Most interestingly, the Lord states in D&C 10:53-54:

And for this cause have I said: If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them. Now I do not say this to destroy my church, but I say this to build up my church; Therefore, whosoever belongeth to my church need not fear, for such shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.

This revelation is dated to 1829, so the people who “belongeth to my church” were not members of the formal Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [2]

When I was much younger, I thought there was nothing to the truth beyond the Church that I saw. When I grew older I learned that there was truth—vast and bright and terrible and precious—outside what I already knew within my own tradition. Blinded by the brilliance, I could no longer see how the Church could matter. Now I’ve learned that while the role of the Church is not all-encompassing, it is real and essential.

The principle at work here is something Terryl Givens calls “divine eclecticism”. [3] From a theological standpoint, the Restoration was more about divine eclecticism then de novo revelation. Brother Joseph didn’t start with a blank slate and reveal truth. His theological genius was expressed in ignoring sacred cows while at the same time picking and choosing from the inspired principles and teachings that were already here. His mission was one of gathering. The only thing restored from Heaven in the Restoration was the priesthood. [4] Pretty much everything else was already here. Even the gold plates were buried in the dirt. To pick just one extreme example: Joseph co-opted Masonic symbols for use in the temple. Folks act like this is some scandal. It’s not. It’s all part of the same template.

Divine eclecticism is a broad principle. Beyond Brother Joseph’s work during the restoration, it also incorporates the individual responsibility we all have to seek out truth in our own lives. This solemn obligation is captured in some of my favorite quotes from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young:

“We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.” – Joseph Smith

“I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good.  If you can find a truth in heaven, earth, or hell, it belongs to our doctrine.  we believe it; it is ours; we claim it.” – Brigham Young

And of course there is the 13th Article of Faith, the ultimate manifesto of individual divine eclecticism. We have been sent to mortality to learn and grow and, now that we’re here and in the one true Church, we’re tasked with the job of venturing out again (in the world but not of the world) to continue our mission. The fundamental heroic journey always requires leaving the safety of home. And on our journey the mission is to learn rather than to teach. We may have forgotten the mission in current Mormon culture, but it’s still outstanding.

This may seem to contradict the emphatic commands to preach found within the Doctrine and Covenants, but I don’t think that it does. What do we preach? Repentance. That’s it. (e.g. D&C 19:21) That’s the whole message. Mormons are a voice of warning, not a voice of lecturing. This too is a form of divine eclecticism: our job with missionary work is also one of gathering. I spent a lot of time and energy on my mission trying to convert everyone that I talked to. I wonder how the experience would have been different if I’d seen my job first and primarily as one of finding and only secondarily as one of persuading.

What we have to offer is the power of the Priesthood that’s been vested in the Church. We have certain vital truths, yes, but the Catholics have a 2,000 year head-start on beautiful theology and intricate doctrine. That’s not our competitive advantage, to be crass. What we have to offer is, in a word, temples. We’re the salt and we’re the yeast. We’re not the whole cake. What we have is essential, absolutely essential, but it is not everything.

Temples, and everything that goes with them, are at the heart of what Mormonism has to offer the world.

Temples, and everything that goes with them, are at the heart of what Mormonism has to offer the world.

There’s one last variety of divine eclecticism I’d like to mention, and that’s the construction of personal narratives. In Terryl and Fiona Givens forthcoming book The Crucible of Doubt, they take a new view on Paul’s fear, expressed to the Romans, that the saints “Be not overcome of evil.” They write:

Paul’s fear may have been, not that we as disciples would fall prey to the allure of evil, but that as compassionate spectators we would fall prey to the cost of evil, and turn to despair, hopelessness, or bitterness. [5]

In a world that is full of a vast amounts of information—far more generated in a single year than a human being could hope to learn in a lifetime—we have the option to pick and choose what we would like to see, experience, remember, and dwell upon. Obviously this sounds horribly treacherous. The faithful are often accused of believing in God because it’s what they would like to be true, and so when they are wise they are skeptical of anything that looks like wishful thinking. But there is a peril on the other hand as well. There is a danger that we go too far in avoiding a sugar-coated view of reality and stare unblinkingly into the Nietzschean abyss.

The reality is that we can’t not decide to take an active—if indirect—role in determining what we experience and, even more than that, what experiences we choose to enshrine in our memories and propagate in our communications. Rather than mistake passivity for neutrality and objectivity, divine eclecticism would encourage us to balance the necessary shocks and dismays of life—personal as well as remote—with enough that is edifying and fortifying that we can continue to fight the good fight. If we are sincerely engaged in service (that is to say: in true religion), we will naturally encounter much that will confuse and challenge us. Our job, then, is to counterbalance the darkness by seeking out the light. After all, Paul concludes: “but overcome evil with good.”

As Mormons, we understand that the work of creation was not ex nhilo. God created by separation. Gathering is the necessary corollary to separation, and thus divine eclecticism in all its various forms is just one way in which we, in our childlike way, emulate our Father and  His Work.

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[1] This observation about D&C 5:14 as it relates to Revelation 12 in particular comes from the chapter titled “Mormons and Monopolies: Holy Persons Ye Know Not Of” in the forthcoming book Crucible of Doubt by Fiona and Terryl Givens.

[2] The understanding of “the church” in D&C 10:52-55 as other than the formal institution founded in 1830 comes from the talk “The Woman in the Wilderness: Mormonism, Catholicism, and Inspired Syncretism” given by Terryl Givens at Notre Dame on 5 December 2013. The full text is online at his website.

[3] The term “divine eclecticism” appears in the forthcoming book Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought, Vol 1: Cosmos, God, and Humanity by Terryl Givens.

[4] The nature of the Restoration as paring away unnecessary accumulation instead of adding new truth is also discussed in Wrestling the Angel.

[5] “The Too Tender Heart: Rethinking ‘Overcome with Evil’” in Crucible of Doubt by Fiona and Terryl Givens.

37 Responses to Varieties of Divine Eclecticism

  1. Howard on January 6, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Excellent! Well written.

  2. PGH on January 6, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Great article. Thanks.

    “I wonder how the experience would have been different if I’d seen my job first and primarily as one of finding and only secondarily as one of persuading.”

    Interesting idea. How would this work in practice? How exactly would you spend your time differently?

  3. mtnmarty on January 6, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Nathaniel,

    I’ve been thinking about your statement that one of the things you learned from your father was the idea of integrity and being the same in different circumstances.

    For me, this type of integrity requires me to apply the same standards of explanation to others as to myself. This is extremely difficult to do because we are all biased to see ourselves and our positions as favored.

    What do you personally make of the lives of people who are outside of Christianity, outside of monotheism, outside of God as you think of it?

    Do you view them as having the same type of existence as yourself but with less knowledge of the cause of things (ie. no knowledge of Jesus) or do you view them in some other way (people for whom God is a different form, etc.) Do you see why this is a matter of integrity to me?

    It interests (and concerns me) that many of the younger LDS I know have taken a communitarian path that rejects universalism and the unity of reason. They seem to be taking something of the 19th century German path or the late 20th century catholic path.

    We know where those paths lead and it is not to heaven.

    We need some young LDS Martin Bubers. People who can see the diversity of God’s creation and the laws that they abide and live.

  4. Nathaniel Givens on January 6, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    PGH-

    Interesting idea. How would this work in practice? How exactly would you spend your time differently?

    The primary difference would have been of attitude rather than activity. Especially at first I felt every rejection was a failure. That’s a miserable way to spend two years, especially in a central European mission where rejection is going to be almost literally universal. To instead of seeing a rejection as a failure but rather just a “this isn’t the person you were looking for” wouldn’t have made people saying “no” fun, but it would have taken the sting out. It also would have put my emphasis on what I can control (trying to speak with the Spirit) and less on what I can’t (how other people react).

    But I think it would have probably changed my actions, too. Less pressure would have meant more willingness to talk, and my approach would have been more open and friendly as a natural result of not feeling this incredible weight of needing to convince every single person right now. I’m neurotic enough as it is. I didn’t need any extra help. So I think I would have been more willing to talk to more folks with less pressure (for them and me) and maybe do things like set up booths or displays on the street in a non-invasive kind of way.

    I think I would have had more fun, built better relationships, and not spent the year or two after my mission slowly digging myself out of a deep hole of depression. But, who knows, could be wishful thinking.

  5. Nathaniel Givens on January 6, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    mtnmarty-

    I’ve got to be honest, some of your questions strike me as very odd.

    What do you personally make of the lives of people who are outside of Christianity, outside of monotheism, outside of God as you think of it?

    I don’t feel compelled to make anything of them at all.

    I used to spend a lot of time wondering about the geo-temporal exclusivity of the Church. If you look at Mormonism in particular (even if we include the early Christian Church and other prior dispensations) the number of people who had contact with it vs. the number of people who lived and died without so much as a whisper of Gospel is staggering. Even if you expand to all of Christianity, most of the world (historically) lives and dies without any meaningful interaction with Christ’s message per se.

    You have to conclude that either:

    1. God is unwilling/unable to interact with the lives of most of His children or
    2. God spends a lot of time interacting with His children in ways that we (as Mormons) don’t readily recognize.

    I think, based in no small part on verses quoted in this post, that #2 is the obvious answer.

    I mean, this is exactly what John Taylor said, right? “If those were dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness.” This pretty straigh-forward. At a macro level we would be fools to assume that just because we know of God’s work in the Restoration (for example) that He was too busy to be just as proactively involved in Osaka or Dhaka at the same time.

    Heavenly Father is equally concerned and equally involved with all His children. We, as heirs of the Restoration, obviously have a vital role to play, but we just as obviously aren’t the only game in town.

    The same applies for me on a personal level. When I see someone who is not Mormon, I don’t feel any need to “make [something] of [their] lives.” It’s not a question I feel pressed to answer.

    In the first place: because it’s not really my business. God’s interaction with His children is incredibly personalized and private, I believe. To attempt to answer this question for everyone I met would be invasive and rude, even if it was only speculation in my own mind.

    In the second place: because it’s not at all hard to come up with plausible ideas for good reasons God might have not to want to emphasize a person’s joining the Church at any one particular time. Perhaps the person can do more good outside than in, perhaps the person has lessons to learn that are more vital for them right now, perhaps the person has suffered some kind of trauma or false teaching that needs to be worked out before they would be ready to accept the Gospel. Any one of these answers would be a good reason for a person to live outside of Christianity or monotheism or God, and my ability to comprehend (or not) the full range of potential options doesn’t have any impact whatsoever on the validity of their relationship to God.

    Look, I believe we are all children of the same God, that Christ is the universal Savior, and that everyone will have to be “Mormon” in some sense of the word to ultimately be saved. But I also believe that our mortal existence is a short one that’s already crammed with important things for people to learn, and many of those have nothing to do with religion. What about basics of love, empathy, kindness, courage, loyalty, beauty,and sacrifice? An atheist can learn all those things and, depending on their personal background and identity, perhaps better outside the Church than in.

    Lastly, I believe that what is ultimately “Mormon”–the grand truth we all embrace one day as we approach God–might not look like what I recognize today.

    So all I’m saying is this: why would I be concerned by someone being non-Mormon, non-Christian, or non-believing enough that I would feel the need to invent an explanation?

  6. Steve Smith on January 6, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    I remember using a similar explanation on my mission. Do you know where it comes from?

  7. Nathaniel Givens on January 6, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Steve-

    Do you know where it comes from?

    Not a clue. I presume I learned it from one of my trainers, who learned it from one of his trainers…

  8. JKC on January 6, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    We used to use the cups: You label 12 small dixie cups with the names of the apostles, and then label a bunch of others with things like “baptism,” “priesthood,” “Godhead,” and other such symbols of LDS truth propositions. Then you lay out the 12 apostle cups and explain that Jesus built the church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with himself as the chief cornerstone, and then stack up the other cups on the foundation in pyramid fashion. Then explain that the apostles were killed and start taking out the apostle cups one by one. Soon the whole church collapses. Then explain that good people still tried to take the ruins of the church and make something of it, and build a few mini pyramids out of the wreckage. (Some elders would then explain that false teachings entered the church and pull out more cups labeled with things like “trinity” or “infant baptism,” using them to build the smaller pyramids.) Then you explain that the church was restored, with apostles and prophets, and pull out a set of 12 cups with the current apostles and prophets faces on them, and build up the original pyramid with all the gospel truths that were scattered. Then explain that while there is truth in all churches, none contain all the truth, expect for the restored church.

    What I always found unsatisfying about this object lesson (among other things) was that there was no explanation of why it was not possible to replace the original apostles as they were killed, but at the same time we asserted that that we have an unbroken line of succession from the restoration to the current 12 apostles. Or if there was an explanation is was a hurried one with no real evidence to it, e.g., “the apostles all lived far apart from each other, so they couldn’t meet to pick new apostles,” or “they all got killed faster than they could pick new apostles.” I also thought it was too complicated and showy. However, I did like that it emphasized that there was truth all over the place.

    I agree that the restoration of the church is primarily the restoration of priesthood authority, not the restoration of a set of doctrinal propositions, and focusing on the restoration of “gospel truths” rather on of priesthood authority (and specifically, the authority to baptize for the remission of sins) obscures that fact, unnecessarily takes sides in sectarian debates, and violates the injunction: “of tenets thou shalt not talk.”

  9. EFF on January 6, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    I believe our traditional explanation of the apostasy is also flawed for another reason: there is no evidence that the original twelve apostles perceived the need to select replacements when one of their members died (with the exception of Judas). This perception on their part was based on two beliefs. First, there was no need for more apostles; they were it. They were the ones who Christ said would judge the 12 tribes. If there are only 12 tribes, you don’t need more than 12 judges.

    Second, they were all convinced that Christ’s return was imminent. Any apostles who died in the interim would simply be resurrected at the time of Christ’s second coming, so there really was no leadership vacuum that needed to be filled.

    Thus, I believe our professed understanding of what happened to the church during its first 100 years is highly questionable for reasons beyond those you mention. And I’m reasonably confident that those early members of the church did not view their circumstances as we do.

  10. mtnmarty on January 6, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    NG: I’ve got to be honest, some of your questions strike me as very odd.

    I’m glad you are honest, its one of your most engaging traits and I presume anyone who is mormon would realize the oddity of it because surely it is odd.

    I appreciate your comment; it was well stated and helped me understand you better.

    NG: I don’t feel compelled to make anything of them at all. In the first place: because it’s not really my business. God’s interaction with His children is incredibly personalized and private, I believe.

    Here is why I have the questions that I do. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can we do that if we don’t make an effort to understand them and explain them?

    If as you say Heavenly Father is equally concerned and equally involved with all His children are we not also supposed to be the same way?

    Your view seems to be something of a “global God, local religion” view that seems incoherent to me. If you aren’t engaging with the world and the causes of culture, you are intellectually and spiritually shunning them which seems unloving.

  11. Nathaniel Givens on January 6, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    mtnmarty-

    Here is why I have the questions that I do. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can we do that if we don’t make an effort to understand them and explain them?

    Oh, I make the effort. I enjoy talking about the Gospel with my friends (family are already mostly members), and by pretty much any metric I’ve done more “missionary” work outside my full-time mission than on it.

    It’s just that when I have a friend who doesn’t accept the message, I don’t have to assume that something has necessarily gone wrong on either their part or mine. Maybe they are making a mistake. Maybe I failed to adequately do my job. Or maybe we’re doing the right thing, but it’s just not time. Or maybe we’re doing the right thing, but it’s time for something else in their life.

    I do try to engage and understand, but I’m not necessarily bothered when they don’t work out as we might traditionally expect them to.

  12. mtnmarty on January 6, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    OK, that makes sense. Here is a more simplistic version of the question which may make my question seem more or less odd depending on your point of view.

    Say a person is at your door telling you that they prayed and received a witness that unless you leave the LDS and do “X” you will not have eternal life.

    Now my question is about how you make sense of the witness that the other person had. Some choices are:
    1. They didn’t have that witness and are motivated to say they did for reason, x, y or Z.
    2. They had that witness but it was from a supernatural but ungodly source.
    3. They had that witness from natural,but uninspired source.
    4. They were inspired by God but he didn’t mean for you to believe it.
    5. They were inspired by God and you should heed what they said.

    Now, what I’m saying is that for me, integrity means that I apply the same standard to myself as to others and due to the incompatibility of the witnesses of others, I presume my witnesses are mistaken even though I believe in them.

    You seem relatively untroubled by the unreliable witnesses of others, but you seem a bit like you are just choosing not to care because you can hypothesize any number of likely explanations, so you don’t care which is right. I’m trying to convince you that much more is at stake in your relationship with that person and if you do not know the precise cause of their beliefs you can’t even begin to go about loving them.

  13. ji on January 6, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    I can go about loving someone with first knowing the precise cause of their beliefs.

    We’re called to be the salt of the earth, and through us, all the world will be saved — but not necessarily turned into salt like us. A little salt can save a lot of ham, and the ham and salt are saved together.

  14. Steve Martin on January 6, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    It all hinges on the picture hanger…Christ Jesus.

    He makes it ALL happen.

    The wire…and the mirror…are instruments of His. He can make the stones shout and worship Him if He so desires.

  15. Nathaniel Givens on January 6, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    mtnmarty-

    I’m afraid I still don’t really understand the conflict that you’re driving at. I’m going to skip a bit to what I think is perhaps the crux of the issue:

    You seem relatively untroubled by the unreliable witnesses of others

    Mortality would be a waste of time if I didn’t have something to learn, and having something to learn implies that what I conceive now might be wrong. Being wrong, but not being sure exactly what you’re wrong about, is just the nature of the game. It’s one of the elemental aspects of the human condition.

    Why should throwing another person in the mix matter? It may raise the volume, but it doesn’t change the tune. Sometimes I’m caught between contraries in my own mind. Sometimes I believe something and a friend believes the opposite.

    I’m not gonna lie: in the particular this can be very disturbing. But in general it’s completely unremarkable. We’ve got a few billion people and all of us are wrong about a lot of stuff, so when we contradict each other, why is that any worse than what we already knew? Which is that we’re wrong about a bunch of stuff?

    Welcome to mortality.

    if you do not know the precise cause of their beliefs you can’t even begin to go about loving them.

    I’m afraid I can’t even imagine an argument in favor of that viewpoint to rebut. People are incredibly complex. I don’t even know the precise cause of my beliefs, let alone (for example) my wife’s or my mother’s or my father’s. What, must I wait to start loving my wife and father and mother and children and friends until I know them at a level that is beyond anything I can hope to attain in this life about myself, let alone about somebody else?

    No, thanks. I’ll go ahead and start loving now, thanks. Not saying I don’t have lots of growth (of course I do!) but I’m not waiting for precise knowledge that seems tangentially related at best.

  16. Mtnmarty on January 6, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    We’ll, thanks for trying to understand. The closest I can come to an explanation will sound like a poor imitation of Socrates.

    If you love someone you want them to be just. To be just they need to have correct beliefs about justice. To help them acquire correct beliefs about justice you would need to know the cause of their beliefs.

    Just like you can’t imagine any argument for my position, I can’t imagine why all the error in the world doesn’t convince you that your chance of knowing what love is are nearly zero.

  17. Nathaniel Givens on January 7, 2014 at 9:23 am

    If you love someone you want them to be just. To be just they need to have correct beliefs about justice. To help them acquire correct beliefs about justice you would need to know the cause of their beliefs… I can’t imagine why all the error in the world doesn’t convince you that your chance of knowing what love is are nearly zero.

    1. You’re backtracking considerably. Previously you suggested that I had to know precisely why people believe what they do before I could begin loving them. So, less than 100% comprehension = 0% love. The absolutist rhetoric is gone in your new version. That’s a start.
    2. I do believe that love and understanding are intimately connected to each other, but understanding what causes a person’s beliefs is only a portion of understanding the person. It presumes a hyper-rational model of humanity (in that it focuses only on belief) that I find, ironically, to be an obstacle to really understanding people.
    3. Your vision of love seems very, very patronizing. Surely the only motivation to understand someone can’t be to fix them? I find that very telling, and quite off-putting. If that characterizes your vision of love, I’ll pass.

  18. mtnmarty on January 7, 2014 at 10:45 am

    NG: Why do people like that Christ’s love has the power to fix them?

    Of course, I sound odd and backtracking because I’m not making an argument so much as trying to get you to see that we’re all pretty much on the wrong path and lost.

    To make a pun I’m trying to get you to question your Givens.

    Here is another attempt and I very much appreciate your engaging with me.

    I think that whether one thinks that the increase in technology and scientific data is a gift from God is an enormous hinge in our way of being in the world. Mortality is changing and will change even more in the future. To not see that is to lie to oneself.

    If one thinks that God’s plan is about how human life used to be and just about learning empathy, kindness, courage and obedience, etc. then it seems like being Amish is a pretty good route to go.

    I understand people who want to minimize the changes in our world and ourselves and say God is in control and just worry about their own choices in the day to day and not think about drones and cryptography and advertising and addiction and genetic modification and galaxies and all the rest. I mean it doesn’t pay, right? Its out of our control and distracts from learning the virtues you speak of.

    But I just don’t think its God’s plan for us.

    Why are we learning how to change life? We are we inventing the ability to monitor ourselves? Why are we able to see smaller and farther away than before? Its an enormous change in human experience that is just beginning and we need to know if God wants us to change life and our species or if its a distraction.

    Again this isn’t an argument as much as questioning our traditional understanding of life.

    What if we could literally hunger and thirst after righteousness? That is change our bodies in a way that we felt hunger to do good and thirst to do right, the way we feel hunger now.

    I totally understand why people would think the idea absurd and not relevant to LDS ideas. But if one is LDS and one is aware of the tools that are being put in front of us. Tools that in some sense are absolutely allowing us to play God by modifying life and the terms of our mortality. One has to ask whether what it means to be a self is too small a concept for the future.

    I certainly understand people who use tradition and scripture to decide what is possible and will happen in the future and find this whole line of thought silly and irrelevant.

    But God seems to be putting before us the question “what do you want you mortality to be like?” do you want ten arms or a hundred eyes or seven brains or an implant or your anxiety to go away or your muscles to get big and we can’t even see that he (or the devil) is asking the question.

    Why, Nathaniel, why?

  19. Tyson Ellsworth on January 7, 2014 at 11:37 am

    The only thing restored from Heaven in the Restoration was the priesthood. [4] Pretty much everything else was already here. Even the gold plates were buried in the dirt. To pick just one extreme example: Joseph co-opted Masonic symbols for use in the temple. Folks act like this is some scandal. It’s not. It’s all part of the same template.

    To view Joseph’s interaction with Masonry as “co-opting” or as “translating” (Sam Brown’s language) seems to be an attempt to maintain the divinity of the temple ordinance while negotiating with the fact the Masonry is less than a thousand years old (my understanding of what Masonic scholars are saying). This description of Joseph’s prophetic enterprise seems to go against Joseph’s self-conception of what he was doing with Masonry. For Joseph, he was not co-opting Masonry, but restoring it to its pristine historical form; according to Heber C. Kimball’s 1842 letter to Parley Pratt, Joseph had stated that “Masonry was taken from preasthood but has become degenerated, but menny things are perfect.” How do we harmonize this view of “co-opting” or “translating” with Joseph’s view of his restorative enterprise? Are we describing Joseph’s interaction with Masonry in a way that he would not recognize or agree with?

  20. Old Man on January 7, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Nice article. It helps relieve the Saints of the perception that we are in a spitting match with other forms of Christianity. I also like to note that much of what we “do” as Latter-day Saints (outside of temple worship) is walk a traditional path that has been established through centuries of creative work completed by our Christian predecessors. Consider hymns, art, Sunday School, etc. Even the most traditional among us quote general authorities who are often quoting Christian thinkers outside the LDS tradition (e.g. Talmage’s “Jesus the Christ”).

    I have gained a deep reverence for the work and theologies of the Catholic Church through the centuries. I

    Tyson (#19),
    I’ve read research on Freemasonry for years. Its the gift that keeps on giving. When you open the doors on ritual, there are potential connections throughout the medieval and ancient worlds. I don’t pretend to be a scholar, but I’m content that Joseph’s use of masonic forms of ritual was inspired and remains inspiring in that the masons drew upon the beliefs and rituals of others who were intellectual and spiritual “searchers.”

  21. Nathaniel Givens on January 7, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Tyson-

    How do we harmonize this view of “co-opting” or “translating” with Joseph’s view of his restorative enterprise? Are we describing Joseph’s interaction with Masonry in a way that he would not recognize or agree with?

    Very possibly. That would fall under the whole “Leaders are Fallible” thing I wrote about last week.

    I realize this requires a reconceptualization of exactly how revelation works, so I’m not quite as nonchalant about it as I sound. It does challenge the prevailing assumptions we have about revelation, and I’m not sure what the new model looks like.

    I’m pretty sure that the old model was already broken, however, so I’m not that deeply concerned about adding an additional nail in the coffin.

  22. Nathaniel Givens on January 7, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    mtnmarty-

    To make a pun I’m trying to get you to question your Givens.

    Everything is up for questioning. But it sounds like you don’t want me to question a position, you want me to change a position. Let’s not confuse the two.

    My thoughts are my best guesses. You want me to acknowledge that they are guesses. I already have but, since they are my best ones, I’m sticking with them for the time being.

    But I just don’t think its God’s plan for us.

    So, rather than trying to get me to question my assumptions, what you’re really doing is advancing a specific alternative you’d like me to accept. I’m familiar with transhumanism, but I’m skeptical of it. I do believe that technology, broadly speaking, is a gift from God. But I also think that we would be fools to discount the lessons of natural philosophy before we have properly learned them.

    In the future we could all have 10 arms and 11 genders. Might there be something to learn, first, about why we were created with 2 instead?

    This is a tangent, however, which is my point. You seem to conflating (1) an unnecessary appeal to get me to back away from certainty I don’t have in my position with (2) an attempt to get me to adopt your position.

  23. Nancy on January 7, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    I love your concept of Joseph as a gatherer of truth. While certainly, he brought back various truths that were lost, he did it, not from scratch, but from being divinely pointed in the direction of truths that were obscured or replaced by something else such as the Creeds. I agree what he did restore outright was the priesthood, which is really the whole enchilada when it comes to the foundation upon which all else in the church is built. That alone is the biggest part of his mission. All else just helps us to build our faith and live righteously in order to keep the companionship of the Spirit.

  24. mtnmarty on January 7, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    NG: So, rather than trying to get me to question my assumptions, what you’re really doing is advancing a specific alternative you’d like me to accept.

    Well, what interests me is not getting you to adopt a particular position. What interests me is the way you measure the effectiveness of your guesses. You have lots of ideas and thoughts, wonderful ones. But because you know they are guesses you aren’t that constrained in how “effective” they are. I could say effective means “truthful” or “correct” but these are disputed terms.

    I am trying to get you to accept that integrity for an LDS person at a minimum means that one shouldn’t live in a fantasy land. For people that don’t believe in God, living in a fantasy land seems to me quite appropriate. As you say, part of mortality means incomplete knowledge and being forced to live in a fantasy land of our own creation. We decide what matters for us. If our fantasy is too “false” we may die, but without God, so what, one had a life and one died.

    But for an LDS person, not doing our very best to understand everything with the very best evidence that we have seems to me disrespectful of God’s creation and of our destiny.

    I don’t give a hoot about trans-humanism other than that it seems to be one way of taking matters of cosmic significance seriously.

    I’m not trying to win an argument, or convince you of anything, I’m trying to learn from a fellow traveler. One of the relatively few people who has the imagination to know what it might me like to be a person like me – that is an LDS person, who believes that God wants us to figure it all out in a new way. Its a struggle for even you to relate to my concerns. Mine is a lonely perspective on the world.

    So, point me to a post that has your best guess on why God has put us in a situation where scientific understanding of certain aspects of mortality are much more clear than in earlier times.

    If its not central to what life is about, why are we in the situation we are in? Why is it happening? What is your best guess about what that means?

    If your answer is not much, no idea, or I don’t know. No problem, please just pray for me.

    But if you have some hunches, please point me to them.

  25. larryco_ on January 8, 2014 at 3:30 am

    “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth”

    Nathaniel: I enjoy reading your ideas, but I think it does raise the question: If your eclecticism is correct, does the above statement accurately reflect the feelings of Heavenly Father? Or do we have to twist this – as well as the meaning of “the fulness of the gospel” – in some fashion? At what point in the gathering process of eclecticism did the Church become “true” and have the “fulness”, or do we remove the idea of doctrine altogether and just say that it is true and full because of the restoration of the priesthood?

  26. Nathaniel Givens on January 8, 2014 at 9:49 am

    mtnmarty-

    But because you know they are guesses you aren’t that constrained in how “effective” they are.

    Sure I am. I care about both accuracy and effectiveness, and the lack of certainty doesn’t even seem relevant to the level of concern.

    I am trying to get you to accept that integrity for an LDS person at a minimum means that one shouldn’t live in a fantasy land

    Could you let me know what makes you think I need convincing on that point?

    So, point me to a post that has your best guess on why God has put us in a situation where scientific understanding of certain aspects of mortality are much more clear than in earlier times

    That’s not something I’ve written on from a theological standpoint, although it’s an integral part of my science fiction worldbuilding. If I start to publish any of that in the next couple of years (fingers crossed), I’ll let you know.

    In all honestly, though, I just don’t find the question as central as you do. Growth tends to be exponential. This is true in biology (population), in finance (compound interest), and in economics (aggregate output). It’s exactly the same mechanism in each case: when growth is based on the amount of stuff you have, then the more stuff you have the faster you get new stuff.

    Why, then, is it remotely shocking to find that human “stuff” (technology, economic output, population) follows the same basic pattern?

    From a long-run standpoint, human growth is exponential. So the fact that humans were going to get to a point where they had massively more knowledge and wealth than in the past is unsurprising. If, on the other hand, the question is why were you born now as opposed to back in the day: that’s a different matter and I wouldn’t hazard a guess. But the fact that we’ve got a ton more stuff than they did 1,000 years ago, and that the rate of nominal growth keeps increasing? Completely normal.

    No, the interesting question (for me, at least) is not “how did we get here?” but rather “how long can this continue?” In biology you often have a carrying capacity (e.g. resource constraints) that flatten exponential growth at a certain point so that what you end up with is actually logistic growth. There’s a related problem in economic growth with depreciation. On a per-capita basis you reach a certain point where you have so much stuff that even if only some if it depreciates you lose a huge amount every moment, so you have to dedicate all of your existing productive capacity just to staving off decline and growth stalls. See the Solow-Swan model.

    So, will humans experience exponential growth forever? Will we reach a technological singularity? Are we doomed by basic physics?

    So there are lots of interesting questions here, but I’m not sure that I see the reason for the heightened concern you express for this issue over all others.

  27. Nathaniel Givens on January 8, 2014 at 9:57 am

    larryco_on-

    At what point in the gathering process of eclecticism did the Church become “true” and have the “fulness”, or do we remove the idea of doctrine altogether and just say that it is true and full because of the restoration of the priesthood?

    At present, I’m inclined towards the latter.

    I’m just not sure what else to make of extremely minimalist statements about the limitations of Christ’s doctrine. See 3 Nephi 11, for example. I’m sure much smarter folks than I have thought about this and I just haven’t read them yet, but if Christ is teaching that His doctrine is repentance (and maybe baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost) and nothing else, then where does that leave temple endowments? eternal marriage? healing of the sick? the sacrament? etc, etc.

    Either everything else we believe is in some sense contained within or implied by that kernel or the other things aren’t essential doctrine. In either case there certainly seems to be no basis for me to believe that the truth of the Church comes from some kind of theological completeness (which we don’t have) or sufficiency (which either we have exclusively based on authority or every Christian already had before Joseph Smith was born).

  28. loraine rawson on January 8, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Nathaniel’s comment #5, that was truly beautifully and truthfully done. Perhaps your period of meltdown after your mission was instrumental in articulating such a broad and inclusive position. I need to get that on a fridge magnet.
    I’m deeply moved by the sentiments and at times doctrines we see articulated in medieval hymns, particularly carols. They often articulate doctrines of pre existence and fore-ordination, as well as seeing the birth of the Saviour as mystically transformative and redemptive, and are a rich source of imaginative reverence, see for instance ‘O come o come Immanuel’ and ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’.
    Although I do have to say that it’s these eclectic and inclusive types of thought that make it difficult for me to be the kind of missionary I have the impression I should be, I’m more likely to try to take my place alongside rather than up ahead.

  29. Nathaniel Givens on January 8, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    loraine-

    I’m deeply moved by the sentiments and at times doctrines we see articulated in medieval hymns, particularly carols.

    Me too! I love, for example, The Tallis Scholars. Although, in that case, it’s less about the lyrics and more about the raw beauty of a lot of the pieces they bring to life.

    Although I do have to say that it’s these eclectic and inclusive types of thought that make it difficult for me to be the kind of missionary I have the impression I should be, I’m more likely to try to take my place alongside rather than up ahead.

    On the one hand, I think it’s possible that alongside is better than up ahead anyway. After all, if the Church’s mission is really narrowly focused, we may as well do our part to cooperate with the other servants of God. (EDIT: Even in missionary work, btw, alongside is a better paradigm than up ahead.)

    On the other hand, I think that having a really clear idea of what the Church offers can be a very good thing for missionary work. I think it can help you identify certain people that you can relate to (on a missionary level).

    I think a lot of what matters is just accepting who you are and what the Church is and then acting accordingly, as opposed to trying to be everything to everyone. Neither you–nor the Church–can do that.

  30. mtnmarty on January 8, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    NG: So there are lots of interesting questions here, but I’m not sure that I see the reason for the heightened concern you express for this issue over all others.

    Ok, that’s very helpful. The reason is simple to feel but hard to express. I believe the language of our tradition and theology is inadequate to address the changes that are coming in our world. Our whole culture is inadequate to the task. We don’t know how to name, conceptualize and understand what is happening.

    A simple example would be something like the rule of law. Law is in words -take the word privacy. Our culture does not know how to have words keep up with the technology. We all interpret them differently.
    Thinking in old words keeps us from understanding what is going on in the world.

    Now a much more difficult example would be a word like God. Pretty much every one here uses it differently even people in the same family in the same religion.

    The reason that I think you need to be convinced about constraints is that for whatever reason you seem untroubled by how hard it is to know what “God” means and what properties (whatever that means) go with that word.

    The reason that theology is so difficult is that we can’t even agree on a definition of God that we can use to discuss God.

    Your version seems to be very roughly an entity, with a gender that has supernatural powers, that is described in scripture and is best understood with our individual power of spiritual discernment. (Please don’t think I’m creating a straw man and doing a poor job of it; I’m just trying to show that is a combination of techniques you use to understand God) Everyone here has there own version. Sometimes we determine our ethics from what we think about God, other times we decide what God is from our ideas about ethics. Its a hash.

    I guess the source of my obsession with this topic is this. If our knowledge of God is not growing as exponentially as our knowledge of God’s creation, then we are doing something wrong. It is not and we are.

    To me, and I admit its just an intuition not something I can prove, our exponential growth in knowledge is telling us that all of our concepts of God are so wrong as to be useless.

  31. Nathaniel Givens on January 8, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    mtnmarty-

    The reason that I think you need to be convinced about constraints is that for whatever reason you seem untroubled by how hard it is to know what “God” means and what properties (whatever that means) go with that word.

    I’m untroubled by how hard it is, but that’s not because I don’t understand how hard it is. My son is 5. He really doesn’t understand what a concept like “work” really means. There’s not much I can really do or say to convey what the term means to him at this point, because he lacks the experience to really put it in any useful context. That’s fine: as long as he can get the basics (of doing simple chores, for example) than I trust that in time he will come to know the meaning of the term “work”.

    I don’t know what the word “God” really means, but I’m not upset about that because I believe that in patience and with effort I will come to understand it as I learn and grow. I’ll get there when I get there, as with all other important Gospel principles. You can’t rush genuine learning. It requires experience, and experience requires time.

    If our knowledge of God is not growing as exponentially as our knowledge of God’s creation, then we are doing something wrong.

    Folks have been having essentially the same argument about free will as long as we have any evidence of arguments at all. It’s not just our knowledge of God that lags science. All non-objective, non-quantifiable knowledge fails to benefit from economics of scale and rapid reproduction of past knowledge.

    It’s just the nature of the beast.

  32. mtnmarty on January 8, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    And someday you’ll write that post about free will, right?

    Thanks for helping me think this stuff through.

    P.S. God is objective and quantifiable, though, right?

  33. Carey on January 8, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    mtnmarty — I admit that I generally look forward to your exchanges with Nathaniel week after week. You definitely ask some great questions, ones I would never have thought of, that elicit some great conversations.

    But – there are other times when your approach makes me cringe a little. You seem to make it a little too personal. There are times when you seem to want Nathaniel to lay back on the couch while you play the older and wiser psychologist and psychoanalyze him. Then there are times when you couch your questions/comments in the guise of simply of trying to get to know him better, but those efforts generally come across as passive-aggressive and just a little “creepy”. You’re obviously a very intelligent guy, but I think you might need to pull back a little and not make things so personal.

  34. mtnmarty on January 8, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    Carey,

    Thanks for your input. I tried to personalize to be engaging and let him know I’m very interested. Its because he often says that he doesn’t see where my concerns are coming from that I try to make them personal to him.

    Nathaniel, please see Carey’s advice to me and I’ll try to heed it.

  35. mtnmarty on January 8, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Carey,

    Maybe, its a passive aggressive side coming out but his posts are so unique and often so intensely personal that its hard to know how to comment without it being personal.

    I guess I’ve made him into the proxy of a generation of LDS thinkers in a way that isn’t fair to him personally. Without getting too creepy about it, sorry if I got creepy.

  36. Carey on January 9, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    mtnmarty — As I drove home I regretted that I posted my comments. I didn’t want to come across too negative, especially since I think your brilliant thinker. I am impressed that your responses to me where very respectful so I just want to say thanks for that.

  37. mtnmarty on January 9, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Carey,

    I was very impressed with both your tactful post and concern. Thank you.

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