Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Something New

Something New
I haven’t made much use of my blog in many years. I have only posted 2 things since 2014. Where have I been? Well…

Beginning at an Ending

My shelf finally broke in 2009.

In Mormon circles the mental “shelf” is a common analogy. Mormons are encouraged to put intellectual questions that challenge their faith on their “intellectual shelf”. The idea is that we can't know everything now, so we should expect a few unanswered questions, which is an eminently reasonable position. But we are also told to not let those unanswered questions challenge our faith. Instead, we should put them up on a shelf. At least for now. Then perhaps one day we can take them down and there will be answers. In the meantime, we can have faith.

This seems to work very well until our shelves grow so heavy that they eventually break. This can happen suddenly, spilling an entire lifetime of problems and impossibilities onto our unprepared laps. The result is often traumatic.

It was traumatic for me. It felt like pieces of my life, of my identity, of my core self, had been ripped away, leaving large holes that seemed impossible to ever fill.

Worse, I was one semester away from graduation at BYU. At the time, I was paying my way through graduate school by teaching courses in the Ancient Scripture department. My goal was to eventually teach religious studies at BYU full time. That was now obviously impossible. I couldn't bring myself to pretend to believe something that I do not.

I finished that last course, and did not teach religion at BYU again. The next semester I graduated from BYU, thankfully without needing to go through another of the annual “worthiness” interviews which spared me from being forced to choose between my integrity and receiving the degree I had worked for so many years to achieve.

I left Utah, and took a job near my wife’s family in New Mexico, and gave up on my hopes to teach religion at BYU one day. But this left another major hole in my life, because one of my central interests (religious studies) had no obvious outlet.

Despite my lack of belief, I continued to attend the local LDS church, where I taught Gospel Doctrine for several years, and was eventually made the Sunday School President. I informed my bishop at the time of my doubts, but he felt that God wanted me to serve anyway, so long as I could represent the Church when I taught, and not my own opinions. I hope that I did this well.

In 2012 I admitted to my wife that I no longer believed in the LDS church. This was a huge step, since it was something I could barely admit to myself. In January of 2013 I asked to be released from my calling as Sunday school president, and I had quit attending regularly. But this left me with another major hole in my life where the powerfully connected community of my Mormon congregation used to be.

The more involved you are with a given tradition, the more difficult it is to discover that it is not what it claims to be. I was all in, and so my loss of faith nearly destroyed me.

When I started this blog, the idea was that I would use it to share my thoughts about scriptural interpretation and ancient studies. But those thoughts were mostly directed at Mormon apologetics. With a broken shelf, what could I write? I have little desire to trade my Mormon apologetics for attacks on Mormonism.

So for the next few years this blog sat… mostly unused.  


Sometime near the middle or end of 2013 I visited the Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation that meets across the street from the Mormon church I used to attend. The UU service contains these lines: "As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life's journey, you are welcome here." The first time I heard those words I cried.

On December 19th, 2013, marriage equality finally came to New Mexico. The daughter of a member of our UU congregation is gay. She was married shortly after. The next Sunday, we all sat in the service, and they read from the Book of Joys and Sorrows". When our pastor read that she had finally been married to her long time partner that week...every person in the congregation stood up and cheered! We cheered! We clapped! We celebrated!

And I wept.

I felt what most Mormons call the feelings of the spirit more strongly in that moment than I had ever felt it in any Mormon context, and I knew that I had finally come home to a place where I was welcome, and where I could truly welcome others as they are.

I quickly found my new home and community here, and the holes left by my crashing shelf were filled.

Shortly thereafter I joined a Buddhist philosophy and meditation group that meets at the UU church. Buddhism has had a profound impact on my life for the better. These days, my wife claims that I am a more patient and a more loving person. I hope that she is correct.

In 2014 the UU church allowed me to begin teaching a comparative religions class as part of their adult religious education offerings, and they allowed me to design my own curriculum. At first, I borrowed heavily from the comparative religion class I had team taught with Stephen Ricks at BYU titled “Temples and Texts”. But the class quickly grew in scope far beyond this initial seed.

At first I recorded the audio from the classes for my own use in preparing better lectures on each subject. But soon, people began requesting the recordings for classes that they missed, or so that they could “attend” even though they didn't live nearby. So I began to share the recordings of my classes on YouTube.

In 2018 I began teaching a second class at the Church titled “Biblical Scholarship and Literacy”.

It feels as if the last major hole left by my crashing shelf is finally filled.

The Future of Amateur Scriptorians

These days I have no desire to write a blog about Mormonism. But I do want to write again.

I wish I could find a way to talk to people about why I love my new Church so much without constantly contrasting it with the LDS Church. But I'm not sure I know how to do that yet. Everything I see is still in contrast with my past. And the contrasts are large. Similarly, I still process the interesting things I discover about temples, texts, traditions, and religions in contrast to what I once believed. And Mormonism is an incredibly interesting topic of study from the perspective of anthropology and religious studies.

So while I have no desire to write primarily about Mormonism, I am sure that the topic will come up.

But if you are LDS, I would hope that you could stay. I will not be constantly attacking your church and your faith here. That is not what I want to write about. Part of the beauty of being a Universalist is that I don't feel like I need to convert my Mormon friends in order to save their souls. I think they can be “saved” where they are. If they are doing well where they are, then I don't need to convince them to believe exactly like me.

I want to write about the things I have been learning and teaching. I find great value in studying and understanding the world's many religious traditions. I believe that the story of where they came from is one of the most fascinating stories ever told. I am now free to explore that story, without any preconceived notions about what the conclusions must be. Richard Feynman supposedly said that “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered, than answers that can’t be questioned.” It has been a fascinating journey so far. And there is a lot more ground that we can cover.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life's journey, you are welcome here. I hope you will come exploring with me.


[1] When I initially left Mormonism, there was some motivation for me to try and explain my reasons for leaving, particularly because of the many false assumptions and mischaracterizations of the motivations of those who leave that are so common. At the time I began writing down some of my reasons. It quickly turned into a long catalog of all the things that were on my shelf. And after only getting about a quarter of the way through, it hit 60 pages! If anyone is interested in the reasons my shelf broke, they can read it, in its largely incomplete and unfinished state. But discussing reasons why I do not believe in the LDS Church will not be my focus in this blog.  

[2] This amazing quote is commonly attributed to Richard Feynman, but no firm source is currently known. Richard is known to have made very similar (if somewhat less pithy)  statements. For example: “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live, not knowing, than to have answers which might be wrong.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MmpUWEW6Is

[3] Some future blog topics I have planned include:
* “Why Study Comparative Religion”
* “The Origins of Monotheism”
* “Mormonism is Where it’s At!” (a discussion of the unique contributions that a study of Mormonism can have in Comparative Religious Studies)
* “The Evolution of God, What the Theory of Evolution Says About the Potential Existence and Nature of God”
* “The End of Religious Anxiety”
* “Meaning and the Broken Myth”
* A series of posts on religion and homosexuality
* “The Philosophy of the Self”
* “Lucifer and Isaiah”
* “Cosmology and Genesis 1”
* “Biblical Inerrancy and Sufficiency”
* “Agency and Free Will”
* ...and there will be many more...

Monday, June 22, 2015

Melchizedek's Priesthood in its Historical Context

Genesis 14 is one of the most fascinating chapters in the entire Bible. Ironically, it simultaneously provides both the best evidence for the historicity of Biblical figures such as Abraham, and for the fallibility of the later Biblical authors who failed to properly understand the historical background of the text.

Genesis 14 has a remarkably different theme and perspective on Abraham's life that is shown in other chapters. Here, Abraham seems less like a peaceful patriarch, and more like an important tribal warlord. The text also contains the primary reference to the figure of Melchizedek, who would become a favorite figure for the wildest of speculations from later religious leaders and authors.

The text shows no evidence of having been written by any of the more familiar Biblical sources, J, E, or P. Textually, it is filled with unique vocabulary and grammatical structures. Grammatically, the text itself hints at having been translated from an older Akkadian source, especially in verses 1, 7, 14, and 23. And there are other reasons to suppose that the text is the work of a non-Israelite outsider, (just as one example among many, Abraham is referred to as "Abram the Hebrew", a term most often applied to the family by outsiders).

The text also seems to hint of an authentic historical setting. For example, the cities mentioned all are authentic names from the correct time period and setting, not the sort of names that later authors would have realistically been able to invent.

None of this evidence by itself is terribly convincing, however, when taken as a whole, the evidence points to some startling implications for the historicity of Abraham himself. What we may have before us in Genesis 14, could be the next best thing to finding an independent external and contemporary Akkadian reference to the person of Abraham in the writings of Israel's neighbors!

Perhaps ironically enough, a historically contextual view of Genesis 14 also clearly demonstrate the fallibility of the later Biblical authors, who badly misinterpret this passage, especially as it relates to Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is presented in the text as an important Canaanite king/priest, the  ruler of the Salem city state, presumably Jeru-salem (literally, the city of Salem) before the Israelite conquest. In that context, it would make sense for Abraham, as a tribal war lord, waging a military campaign in Melchizedek's general territory, to assure Melchizedek that Abraham was not setting himself up as a military rival. To that end, Abraham appears to have shared a covenant meal with Melchizedek, and paid homage to Melchizedek as his political superior, giving him a tenth of the spoils of the conflict waged in Melchizedek's territory. As we would expect from a Canaanite city state king, Melchizedek invokes an authentic Canaanite deity in this exchange (El Elyon) that is well attested in both Ugaritic and Phoenician sources.

Later Biblical authors falsely assume that Abraham would not pay "tithes" to a pagan, and they therefore assume that El Elyon must be another name for Jehovah (this despite the obvious impossibility of turning the king of a Canaanite city state into a worshiper of Jehovah). This same argument is used by the late author of the New Testament book of Hebrews, who argues that Abraham would not be paying tithes to Melchizedek, unless Melchizedek held a priesthood that was both higher, and more ancient than the one that Abraham's descendant Aaron held. This is the foundation of the Book of Hebrew's argument for the existence of a non-Aaronic priesthood that Christ held, that allowed him to function as a "better High Priest" despite his not being a descendant of Aaron. Instead, Christ was thought of as a priest "after the order of Melchizedek." This "better" High priest was able to perform the functions of the Day of Atonement in a better (heavenly) temple, and thereby cleans the world of sin permanently, instead of having to repeat the ritual annually as the High Priests of Aaron had to. Unfortunately for the author of Hebrews, (and for those who cling to Biblical inerrancy) the entire argument is based upon a rather serious and fundamental misunderstanding of the text of Genesis 14!

This sort of misinterpretation of Genesis 14 is not just found in the Biblical authors. It is present in the writings of later religious figures as well. As just one example, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. includes a lengthy discourse on Melchizedek in his Book of Mormon (see Alma 13) that is based upon the same central misunderstanding of the nature of the meeting between Melchizedek and Abraham. That mistake is also found in the Joseph Smith's Translation of Genesis 14, and in Joseph's revelation on the priesthood which states that one order of the priesthood was called the Melchizedek priesthood "because Melchizedek was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood" (D&C 107:2-4). This view does not make sense, once one realizes that Melchizedek was a Canaanite king/priest, and not a worshiper of the Israelite god Jehovah at all.

Further reading:

E. A. Speiser, "Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (The Anchor Bible, Vol. 1)"

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Religious Search For Truth

I believe that it's important to do our very best to know what will happen to us after this life (if anything happens to us). If we go somewhere, it would seem to be of paramount importance to know where that somewhere will be because eternity is a loooooong time. On the other hand, since there are many contradictory opinions about this subject, I find great solace and comfort in what the Buddha allegedly taught about this subject. He said:

"If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance [a man who follows the teachings] acquires.

"But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance [a man who follows the teachings] acquires." (Kalama Sutta, AN 3.65)

Thus, I have some certainty that if there is another world after this one, I will be blessed, because I do my very best to live a good and a compassionate life here, and because I search for the truth to my very best of my ability. If there is a God that is worthy of my worship, He or She will reward my efforts. If there is no life after this one then my efforts, and my search, are of value in and of themselves, because they help me to live a better life here and now, and because they bring me joy in the search, here and now.

Either way, the path, the journey, and the search are well worth the effort.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bureaucratic Dogma vs. the Spirit of God.

After reading the recent NY Times article about women's roles in the LDS Church, I was reminded of this experience, and I felt that I should share it.

When I was called as the Sunday School President in my LDS ward a few years ago, the Bishop asked me to pray about my councilors, and then give the names of those people who God brought to my mind to him. I followed this direction, and prayed about who God wanted to be my counselors. One name repeatedly came to mind. This person used to be a seminary teacher, and they had a very very different approach to teaching the Gospel than I did, and they were very opinionated and outspoken about how the gospel should be taught, and wasn't afraid to share their opinions. And their opinions often differed form my own. My approach was very intellectual, while theirs was very emotional. I was sure that their influence would provide a valuable contrast to my thinking. They had been in the ward for many years, while I was new, so they could give valuable advice when it came to choosing new teachers for various classes. They would know the abilities of the people, as well as the needs of the students in a way that I could not. They were absolutely perfect.

The only problem? The person that the Lord brought to my mind was a woman.

Of course, I knew that the answer would be no, but I had to present the name anyway, because she was the one I felt like the Lord really wanted doing the job. Predictably, the Bishop wouldn't let me. But I told my Bishop that the Spirit had called her, and that she was the one the Lord wanted.

There is no real priesthood required to lead the Sunday School, any more than there is to lead the relief society, or the young women. But it didn't matter. Traditionally, Sunday School presidencies were male. And that was that.

Furthermore, mixed gender presidencies are not allowed in the LDS Church. Apparently they trusted me to run the Sunday School, but they didn't trust me to not end up sleeping with a woman if she was in a presidency with me, even if the woman God wanted was old enough to be my mother.

Again, this was all as I expected, and when the name was rejected, I immediately handed in my runner up, acceptably male, name. And the presidency worked relatively well I think, we accomplished many things, and made the ward a better place. But I often wondered how much more good we might have been able to accomplish if the will of God had actually been carried out.

I often remember and think about this moment. It seems important somehow. That moment when bureaucratic dogma took precedence over revelation and The Spirit of God.

Friday, October 19, 2012

BSA Ban on Homosexuality is Antithetical to LDS Doctrine

The Boy Scouts of America's policy with regard to homosexuals is spelled out as follows: “While the BSA does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals.” (see http://blog.scoutingmagazine.org/2012/06/07/boy-scouts-of-america-clarifies-its-membership-policy/)

Here are two good doctrinal reasons why members of the LDS Church should believe that the Scout's policy with regard to homosexuality is wrong:

1. According to the teachings of Jesus Christ, we are to "eat" and "associate" with sinners. Therefore it is wrong to exclude people from the BSA (the young men's activity arm of the Church) for homosexuality, even if it is a sin (which it need not be, see point 2).
2. According to LDS doctrine, open admission of homosexuality (in the sense of being attracted to the same gender, much as heterosexuality means being attracted to the opposite gender), without action upon those tendencies, is not a sin (as taught by Elder Oaks). Therefore it is wrong for the BSA to exclude people for this non-sinful action in and of itself (as they currently do).

While I support their right, as a private organization, to set their own rules of association and membership, I also support my right to complain about their rules when those rules are immoral, or otherwise dangerous or damaging. As they are in this case.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review, Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design

I couldn't really decide which of my blogs to post this review on, my religion blog, or my science/technology blog. After all, this book is an interesting amalgamation of both. My end conclusion was to post my review over there, and link to it from here.

So, for those that are interested, here's the review:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Transhumanism and Satan's Plan

I recently read an interesting blog post equating the goals of transhumanism with those of Satan's plan. I found this article to be interesting, and reasonably well thought out, even though I disagree with it rather profoundly.

After reading that article, I figured that his thoughts deserved some form of rebuttal, and after writing that rebuttal, I decided that it had value in its own right, and should therefore be posted.

This is the comment I posted to his blog (we will have to wait and see if it is approved or not):


I believe that the central problem here is a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the proper balance between works and grace.

I have faith that death is part of God’s plan, and that God will eventually grant me immortality as a gift of grace, in fact, He will give this gift to all, and all will be saved (in this sense) but the Sons of Perdition (see D&C 76:43). If I am worthy, and do “all that I can do” to live a life of goodness, then I will also be granted eternal life, and given the power to become like God through the grace of Christ’s infinite atonement.

On the other hand, this faith doesn’t lead me to go out and step in front of a buss, nor does it lead me to refuse potential medical cures. When I get sick, I get a blessing, and I go to the doctor. Nor would it lead me to refuse medical means for moderate life extension, or even for radical life extension for that matter. Methuselah didn’t violate God’s plan by living for a long time, and neither did the three Nephites. If I too want to live and serve in His kingdom until He comes, that does not mean that I am following Lucifer’s plan. The fact that one group seem to have achieved their long lives from faith while transhumanists want to receive it through works, technology, and science does not mean that one is inherently good while the other is inherently evil. Nor is it fair to equate Lucifer’s plan of exaltation for all without any testing with transhumanists plan for immortality and a better life for all. Indeed, the transhumanist vision looks more like God’s plan for ALL his children (again read D&C 76:43) than it looks like Lucifer’s plan.

Pure religion is to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, serve those in need, heal the sick, and create a better world for all. As James so eloquently teaches us, this is about granting real, literal, physical, earthly, temporal aid. The sort of aid that in the past has best been provided through advances in technology. That last is nothing but a historically undeniable fact, and I have blogged about it extensively here and here. Technology leads to increased prosperity, and thus to a reduction in poverty, and thus to James’ “pure religion.” Of course we must also teach the gospel, but that priority does not absolve us from providing James’ pure religion. Doing this is a priority of our religious conviction. In other words, we are quite literally commanded to TRY to build heaven on earth as best we can, while at the same time waiting for God’s kingdom to come, and his will do be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We are commanded to strive to build Zion, through works as well as through faith.

A Luddite interpretation of our religion essentially denies its most fundamental aspect, charity, love, and compassion for all.

If the Telestial kingdom is really so much better than this world, and if ALL God’s children will eventually inherit that glory or greater, and we are commanded to seek by works that which we expect to be given by grace and faith, then a desire for the goals of transhumanism (and even those of the singularity) is nothing more than the logical extension of the doctrine of works and grace.