Category: Comparative religion

A Catholic-to-LDS Dictionary

Pope Francis recently dismissed a US bishop from his post. This is a pretty big deal in the Catholic world, but in the Latter-day Saint chatter I’ve been privy to there is some confusion about why this should be newsworthy. After all, if an area authority 70 was openly snarking about President Nelson to the press, nobody would or should be surprised if he was released.  However, in my experience there is a tendency among members to draw simple one-to-one analogies between us and Catholics. After all, we are both hierarchical, centralized faiths that believe in an ordained priesthood. However, such one-to-one equivalences have a tendency to gloss over fairly significant distinctions.  Therefore, here I am providing a Catholic-LDS institutional dictionary of sorts; providing the closest equivalent terms but then describing the ways in which one doesn’t exactly mean the other. Priest=Bishop In Catholicism the head of a congregation is a priest, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the head of a congregation is a bishop. Of course, the former is professional clergy and the latter is lay clergy.  Bishop= Apostle or Stake President Diocese= Stake or Area During the Romney campaign the media loved to compare a stake to a diocese. If you were forced into a 1-to-1 equivalency I guess this is true in the sense that both are the next higher level of organization after a congregation, but again that papers over a lot…

I Even Remain Alone: LDS Men sans Families

I wrote this in over three years ago in response to a call for personal essays on LDS single experiences; alas, it was declined primarily for a lack of anecdotes. It’s not something I would necessarily write today and is longer than a normal blog post. Nevertheless, it’s still a perspective that I rarely see, so I wanted to make it available somewhere. Please don’t take issue with my use of “Mormon.” I wrote this before Pres. Nelson was even Church president and the word “Mormon” is essential to the content of the essay. If it grates against you, please take a moment to ponder what the word “Mormon” meant to me.   My whole life I’ve wanted to marry someone whom I could love and who would reciprocate. For me, this stems from my identity as a Mormon man: marriage is what Mormon men do. My patriarchal blessing, like so many others’, promises me a temple marriage to a “companion” Heavenly Father has “chosen for [me].” But often I fear—for reasons irrelevant to this essay—I may always be single. And I’ve found that the lack of a permanent companion is, of course, a painful part of singlehood, but it isn’t the solitary painful aspect of being single. Indeed, something else oft outweighs it in my heart.  In Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “Imaginary Countries,” a woman admits to an aspiring Catholic priest that “the idea of celibacy terrifies” her.…

Toward a Universal Thanksgiving

This coming Sunday our neighborhood will hold its 6th annual Interfaith Thanksgiving celebration. As many as 500 members of Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Mormon congregations will join together for a program giving thanks and blessing children, followed by a communal thanksgiving dinner1. As I’ve participated in the planning for the celebration each year, I’ve been pleased that our congregations are able to agree on so much. The nature of the holiday helps, I think, because Thanksgiving is nearly a universal holiday

Grace and Cooperative Salvation

Since at least the time of Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius, western Christianity has been embroiled in a debate about salvation and grace. The two extremes have been represented as salvation by grace alone and earning salvation by our own works. Theologians and Church leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have generally followed a middle way. On the one hand, we believe in the free will of humans and that actions like baptism, temple ordinances, good works, etc. are necessary for salvation. On the other hand, however, we read in the Book of Mormon that we must “remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Nephi 10:24). Thus, it seems that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we hold both extremes in tension but try to find a way of balancing the two extremes. Recently, I was reading a book by the Eastern Orthodox bishop and theologian Kallistos (Thomas) Ware where he described an Orthodox approach to the subject that I felt resonates well with Latter-day Saint theology. Ware wrote that human beings “possess free will,” since “God wanted sons and daughters, not slaves.” As such, “the Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace which might seem to infringe upon human freedom.” He goes on to explain how this is balanced with grace in their beliefs: To describe…

The Book of the Weeping God

One of the most striking features of the Bible is its division into Old and New Testaments, which present not only substantially different sets of religious beliefs and practices, but very different portrayals of God. The God of the Old Testament is a judgmental, jealous, and vengeful God, who destroys sinners without remorse, whether of his own people, the Hebrews, or even entire nations such as those of Canaan. God’s love and compassion are also visible in the Old Testament, but the harsher side is displayed quite dramatically. This judgmental conception of God is reflected not only in descriptions of God himself and his behavior, but also in the attitudes and behavior of his prophets and of his chosen people. There is quite a contrast with Christ in the New Testament, who is gentle with sinners and teaches that we should love our enemies, bless those that curse us, and turn the other cheek when others treat us badly. Christians explain the major differences between the Old and New Testaments as partly a reflection of the fact that the Law of Moses was offered to prepare the Hebrews for the new law, which was delivered by Christ. This account explains the differences in worship practices and in behavioral commandments, but it does not explain the different portrayals of God. I suggest that part of the difference we are seeing is precisely the difference in perspective between a people who are…

Scientists and Religious Belief

Exactly how religious are scientists? The typical assumption is that they aren’t terribly religious at all. Further I think most people assume this is a relatively recent change – say around the time of the second world war. It’s always a difficult question since there’s debate about who is or isn’t a scientist. Are doctors? Are people with computer science degrees? Are people with degrees in science but not practicing in the field? There’s also the question of significance. For instance I’m almost certainly insignificant and especially compared with a Nobel Prize winner. When making these studies do you give more weight to people who’ve published significant articles or who are in academia versus private facilities? It gets complex fast. Any study attempting to answer these questions should be taken with an eye of skepticism. It is interesting though that 100 years ago a survey was sent to 1000 scientists asking them about their belief in God. Around 30% of “greater” scientists believed in a personal god and about 48% of “lesser” scientists did. The numbers were remarkably close to what a 2006 Pew study found with 33% of scientists believing in God.

The Nova Effect – Secular Age, round 7

This third section of Taylor’s book is, to me, the most redundant, so I’m going to make up for lost time by condensing these four chapters into one blog post. In fact, I’ll leave Ch. 11 off entirely because it’s mostly an exploration of the section’s themes through case studies in Britain and France. In the last post, we saw the effects of the new “Providential Deism” (and the accompanying sociopolitical and economic trends) on the nature of belief in the eighteenth century. Religion among intellectual elites was naturalized (i.e. seen as non-mysterious, accessible by reason or observation) and circumscribed entirely to the flourishing of human beings and society in the here and now. In this post, we’ll see how Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reacted against the perceived stifling effects of this anthropocentric order, and what new modes of belief and unbelief (and countless hybrids) their reactions first spawned. In chapter 8, “The Malaises of Modernity,” Taylor delves into some of the early “cross pressures” that confronted Westerners who chafed against orthodox Christianity (and its perceived authoritarianism, conformity, focus on human guilt and evil, mystery, etc.) but also the buffered self. Undoubtedly, the buffered self had many attractions—the promise of power to “order our world and ourselves” through reason, self-control, and knowledge; the sense of invulnerability and self-possession or independence, with no need to rely on the power of God or other externals; and a sense…

The Anthropocentric Shift: Secular Age, round 6

Links to posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 In the last several posts, we’ve covered how the enchanted, hierarchical world of pre-modern Europe slowly shifted in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries to a “disciplinary” society, where human beings began to perceive themselves as rational agents and masters of their own will and destiny, and increasingly related to each other in terms of mutual benefit, exchange, and equality. This shift corresponded with the changes in scientific views (with the “mechanized” universe), sociopolitical views (i.e. government as an instrument for mutual benefit), and economic developments (the rise of the “invisible hand” free market) . In this post covering chapters 6 and 7, we’ll see corresponding religious changes during the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resulting in what Taylor calls “Providential Deism” — the bridge between the transcendence of pre-modern Christianity and the immanence of secular humanism and atheism. Providential Deism encapsulated what Taylor calls the anthropocentric shift, or the reduction of religion, politics, the universe, God, etc. to fit the scope of human flourishing in the here-and-now.  The other face of this anthropocentric shift was a widespread  “immanentization,” where the transcendent or other-worldly faded in importance and legitimacy. In Providential Deism, the religion of many Enlightenment intellectual elites, we see these changes reflected in the recasting of God’s nature from that of a being who relates to us through his agency and personality, to one who relates to us only indirectly–…

Enchantment and Disenchantment: Secular Age Round 3

(Links to Rounds 1 and 2) These next several posts will cover chapters in Parts I-III, which comprise Taylor’s account of the western historical trajectory towards secularity, from the enchanted world of 1500 AD to the disenchanted and pluralistic one of 2000 AD. Overall, Taylor’s historical account challenges the  “subtraction” stories that explain the road to modernity as one in which human beings have “lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” [1]. According to Taylor, this naive and selective view fails to account for the “positive” developments and changes in sensibility, meaning, and social imaginaries that made alternatives (like secular humanism) possible. The “subtraction” of God from the social and cosmic imaginary was merely one element, thought it was not linear or even, and certainly not inevitable. Taylor begins the historical trajectory in chapter 1, the “Bulwarks of Belief,” describing the major elements of the early modern imaginary that had to be removed for exclusive humanism to emerge. One was the belief that the natural world was divinely orchestrated—part of a semiotic cosmos that pointed beyond to an order and force beyond itself (God). Secondly, society was embedded in a higher time and higher reality: collective rituals, holy days, and other practices brought society into contact with the “higher” dimension of time or existence, as well as protected them from malevolent forces. The “higher reality” —the Kingdom of God— made…

A Crazy Wild Reformation Day

For some reason, kids in my neighborhood don’t celebrate Halloween: they do Reformation Day instead. Right around 5, the little tikes start pounding on doors, dressed as characters of the Reformation and absolutely clamoring for people to tell them more about the big event.

Two Churches, Two Gospels

As a Mormon, you belong to two churches: your local congregation, be it ward or branch (the Local Church), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Institutional Church). While something similar may be true for members of other denominations, it is more true for and has more effect on Latter-day Saints. You may draw strength from both your Local Church and from the Institutional Church; I do, and I think most Mormons do. But they are surprisingly distinct units, with rather different, if complementary, agendas.

A Mormon Holiday

Sometimes I am a little envious of my friends whose religions involve a year full of meaningful religious holidays that strengthen and define them both culturally and spiritually. Ramadan, for instance, is a sort of month-long holiday for Muslims, complete with special foods and lots of family time. When we lived in Tunisia, I was amazed at the community cohesiveness produced by a holiday that disrupted people’s lives so much for so long. Not much work of any kind was accomplished during the month of Ramadan, but family ties were strengthened, religious convictions deepened, and there was a palpable feeling that everyone was in this whole fasting thing together, and would help each other make it through. When I was growing up, our next door neighbors were Jewish, and sometimes invited us over to share their holidays with them. One of the most fun times I remember was eating potato pancakes for Purim, and then listening to the story of Esther, and all of us children stamping our feet and shouting to drown out the name of dastardly Haman. My Catholic homeschooling friends have a whole liturgical year of Saints’ days and other religious festivals, with their accompanying centuries-old traditions, that they work seamlessly into their curriculum. It seems to lend a sort of holiness to everyday life for them to always be remembering and commemorating saints and spiritual events. Like other Christians, we Mormons celebrate Christmas and Easter, both lovely holidays…

You and Your Righteous Religious Mind

Psychology has come a long way the last couple of decades. Instead of seeing us coming into the world with a mind like a blank slate, psychologists and cognitive scientists are discovering through cleverly designed empirical research that we are born with a preloaded mental operating system. It predisposes us to see the world like emotional, opinionated, tribal human beings rather than like rational, logical robots. You can get the whole story, with special emphasis on how moral systems and individual moral convictions are formed, in Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books, 2012; publisher’s page; official book page).

Mormons and Muslims

I had a university professor who lived in Iran and ran a television program dedicated to classical Persian music prior to the Islamic revolution. He spent a lot of time during the seventies crossing sketchy borders into various ‘Stans. One of his tools for successful border crossing (not to mention survival) was a pamphlet he wrote himself, highlighting similarities between Mormons and Muslims; things like a founding prophet, directly revealed scripture, fasting, and polygamy. I was intrigued by his comparisons, and this class was one of the many things that prompted me to study Arabic and learn more about Islam.  It’s sad to me that so many Mormons (like Americans in general) have negative and badly stereotyped views of Muslims. As adherents ourselves to a religion that often seems to get more than its share of unfair and unfounded criticism, we can afford a deeper look. During the time I’ve spent in Muslim countries (and with Muslims in this country), I have noticed quite a few points in which Mormons and Muslims have more in common than either group does with other denominations of Christians. One of the first that seems to come up is alcohol. If you go out to a restaurant and decline to order wine, your American waiter will think you’re cheap, your Italian waiter will think you’re crazy, and your Tunisian waiter will light up in pleasure and disbelief, commend you for your temperance,  and tell you this…

Bible, Church, and Mystic

On a recent trip, I took along as reading material Christianity: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2004) by Linda Woodhead. Like all of the books in the wildly successful VSI series, the book is short but informative. I want to focus on the author’s analysis of how views about divine power and earthly authority can be used to classify Christian churches and denominations, then try to place Mormonism and the LDS Church within that classification scheme.

Downgrading Doctrine

Here is a second post (see No. 1) drawn from Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One (HarperOne, 2010). In Chapter 7, titled Judaism: The Way of Exile and Return, Prothero comments on how ritual and ethics receive greater emphasis in Judaism and doctrine receives less emphasis than in, for example, Christianity. I wonder to what extent this is also true of Mormonism. Noting how narrative Exodus is followed immediately by the detailed legal and ethical recitations in Leviticus, Prothero notes that Judaism is “about both story and law,” and that Judaism stresses “doing over believing, orthopraxy over orthodoxy.” The word “orthopraxy” should set off your Bloggernacle word alert (see discussions here, here, here, and here, for example). If Prothero thinks Jews emphasize orthopraxy over orthodoxy, he is saying that correct practice or action is more important to Jews than correct opinion. He summarizes this by saying, “So Jews are knit together more by ritual and ethics than by doctrine.” Is this true of Latter-day Saints as well? Do we define our LDS community more by ritual and ethics than by agreed-upon doctrine? Obviously I’m not the first one to make the suggestion. In an earlier post I suggested that ritual is “largely absent from LDS public life and worship,” but I don’t think that’s true if we’re thinking of general practices or informal rituals. There is definitely a Mormon way of doing religion. Prothero brings up a related idea when…

Mormonism in God Is Not One

I’ve been reading Stephen Prothero’s new book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010). I’m rather enjoying it, which is a bit of a surprise given that I’m not generally a religions of the world kind of guy. Anyway, Prothero devoted a generous two pages in his 34-page chapter on Christianity to Mormonism and said some refreshingly pleasant things about us.

An Apostle on Muslims

Yesterday, I read the following comments on Muslims by an LDS Apostle: I am aware it is not without a great deal of prejudice that we as Europeans, and Americans, and Christians in religion and in our education, so called, have looked down upon the history of Muhammad, or even the name; and even now we may think that Islam, compared with Christianity as it exists in the world, is a kind of heathenism, or something dreadful…