Thursday, November 21, 2013

Jesus is dead, I Presume

Jesus was a failed, apocalyptic, Jewish prophet--and not a prophet in the sense of actually making true prophecies, but just in the sense of saying things about the future.

File:Pologenie vo grob.jpgApparently, if I correctly paraphrased Bart Ehrman from one or more of his many Youtube appearances, this is a broad scholarly consensus regarding the historical Jesus. In his popular books, Ehrman isn't presenting anything that is new to scholars, he is just conveying it accessibly to a broader audience. Of course he will admit that there is disagreement on any number of details, and that there is room for some variety of interpretations. He also admits that history can not comment on the miraculous. By its nature, the discipline of scholarly history can't tell you anything conclusive about one off, miraculous events. But he is convinced enough of his basic analysis of Jesus that he is willing to go around preaching it. He is willing to make claims about Christian belief in the divine based on historical research.

This disconnect between scholarly history and religious experience seems obvious enough to me that for years I couldn't be bothered to pay serious attention to unbelieving scholars. I feel about it a lot like I feel about the psychology of religion. It is worth learning about because it is likely that we each hold false beliefs. Understanding scholarship can help us weed out some of our errors and can enrich our understanding. But when the scholarship goes beyond its limits, it isn't worth much. False hypothesis, arbitrary conclusion. I know revelation happens and God lives. I have data sources I accept that demonstrate this conclusively to my satisfaction. These are not data sources that I could or would use in a chemistry paper, or that I would presume prove these truths to anyone else's satisfaction. We each have to weigh evidence, and personal, internal experience (including trust in specific people, like my ancestors, or Joseph Smith) is not something you can pass on academically. I have this evidence, so I've been happy mostly limiting my scholarly intake as regards religion to scholars who share these beliefs.

My entry into biblical scholarship.

Then I started having friendly and trusting feelings (maybe it's a friendship, but it is really rather one-sided, since I know him much better than he knows me) with a New Testament scholar who is LDS but seems to believe roughly what Bart Ehrman does about Jesus. It made me want to understand, and begin to wonder if there was something more compelling in the dominant conclusions of biblical scholarship than I had imagined. How far do the limits of biblical scholarship extend? Had I been assuming those limits were too narrow, and that scholars really could say more about Jesus' life and teachings than I was giving them credit for? Of course, I knew they could say more about Jesus than I knew, but I mean did they really have something that seriously challenged the validity of my religious views of Jesus? I asked my friend for some substantial recommendations. He gave me several. I'm working my way through the recommendations, now. What follows is my emotional/logical response to one of these books:

In Jesus and Judaism, E. P. Sanders presents an attempt to understand the historical Jesus in the context of 1st century Judaism. If you want to understand the methods behind a scholarly approach to understanding Jesus, and you want an overview of major arguments made from about 1900-1975, the introduction alone is well worth reading. Honestly, I'm not much past it, but there are so many things in it that I have to write now, before I've finished the book. I'm going to give you a few examples of things I found valuable or informative.

Apparently there are only a few agreed on facts about Jesus. "The almost indisputable facts, listed more or less in chronological order are these:
  1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  2. Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  3. Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  4. Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  5. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  6. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  7. After his death Jesus' followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  8. At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement, and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul's career. 
End quote.

The problem(s)

The problem scholars face is tying as many of these things as possible together into a coherent story that fits the external facts of history. One difficulty in trying to tell this story is that almost every saying attributed to Jesus is suspect. This will begin to have practical consequences in the very first section of his book where Sanders discusses the temple controversy. I almost laughed aloud at this gem of a sentence on the first page of chapter 1: "Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction." Sanders' discussion is much better than that sentence suggests, but he has really put himself, and all scholars, in a very difficult position. Before anyone can make any claims about Jesus' teachings--the very best potential window into Jesus' thought and intention--he or she must make long, detailed arguments about what Jesus actually said.

Getting back to the introduction, the problems with sayings are essentially insuperable. To summarize Sanders' stance: 1. We know the sayings have been transmitted by the church, and so have been altered, or at least maintained, in a way that biases them in favor of the church institution (this means the early Christian movement, not a specific denomination). I'm going to pause here for a little preaching about the value of taking scholarship seriously. Latter-day Saints should respect the fact that scripture has changed. According to the Pew Research Center's survey on religion, the majority of Mormons do believe this. While accepting scripture as the word of God, we do not believe in scriptural inerrancy. We save that for modern LDS interpretation as implemented in our policies, lesson manuals, and General Conference. That's from the Pew survey, too, although they didn't ask exactly that question. They asked if there is only one correct interpretation of our doctrine. About half of Latter-day Saints believed there is only one correct interpretation, despite ample evidence that interpretations of many doctrines, both central and peripheral, have changed over our 150 year history. These changes have happened even with our ample access to historical documents and our access to the printing press. Here's a clear case of, if we don't learn history we are likely to repeat it. I'll leave you to judge what we will be repeating.

Back to Sanders. 2. Tests people have used to attempt to objectively determine the original forms of sayings are unreliable. Here's another aside. We do not have sufficient documentary evidence upon which to base truly objective analyses of Jesus' teachings. You can't plug his words into a statistical program designed for assigning authorship and determine anything at all. In fact, you can barely think about doing it with Paul, and I don't think you can even do it with Paul. It's hard enough with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and there are many more thousands of words in documents we have from Joseph Smith. So you can't do it with statistics, but textual critics claim they can do it objectively from inferred original sources that have no direct documentary evidence. I have to say, if there weren't so many of us who revere the Bible, we'd have a lot of out of work scholars.

Sanders again. 3. "In a few instances there is indisputable evidence that a saying has been altered or perhaps created after the death of Jesus, but we can give nothing like a catalogue of the kinds of changes that may have been introduced." In other words, we know a few things changed. We have no evidence of changes in most of the sayings (other than, perhaps, a different way of paraphrasing the same message). About the only thing that can be shown (almost) conclusively is that for the few sayings where changes are clearly documented, Jesus didn't say the later version. So for most sayings we are making our most educated guesses. We are extrapolating, and extrapolating based on subjective criteria. One of Ehrman's favorite Youtube arguments is that since we know a few changes happened later, between 100 and 200 CE, the changes that happened before then must have been much bigger. I say, maybe you're right. My chemistry experience has shown me that extrapolation is the least accurate type of prediction, so show me the algorithm you used to do your extrapolation, and don't assume I'm too dumb to understand the details. This is why I wanted to read the real stuff. I wanted the best, nitty-gritty reviews of what biblical scholars know.

What would Jesus say?

What are some of the ways scholars argue authenticity? Sanders describes one type of test for authenticity of sayings called "double dissimilarity". If a saying is different from what Jews taught, and is different from what later Christians taught, then it pretty confidently came from Jesus. Sanders concludes that this is a little helpful, but not very. I think I agree, so I won't go into his discussion of the problems with this approach.

Another question that biblical scholars have to address is whether Jesus had a plan, and whether he himself knew what that plan was. They have to figure this out without knowing exactly what Jesus said, too. I don't envy them this task. In fact, Sanders claims that all of the major attempts to define this plan and draw connections from it to Jesus' death at the hands of the Romans have major flaws. The flaws he points out seem pretty convincing. I will note here that Sanders does not include among the possible hypotheses the plan as Christians (any Christians, early or late) came to understand it. Apparently it is self-evident that such an understanding was imposed after the fact and could not have been held by Jesus. In defense of Sanders and other scholars, I agree that they can't consider this possibility in their publications and be true to the standards of their profession. I should say, that is true if their funding is secular. I would not permit into a scientific journal a chemistry article that argued based on revelation, on miraculous healings, or on the resurrection of Jesus. I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't even want it as a basis for argument in Book of Mormon studies, necessarily. You can discuss these things as people's experiences, but not as a basis for rational argument. I just don't agree that the resurrection hypothesis is unworthy of examination. Thankfully, there are religiously funded scholars who can entertain and examine hypotheses that incorporate the literal resurrection of Jesus, but Sanders isn't among them (I'm not assuming he wants to be).

The resurrection

I noticed in the introduction that the resurrection of Jesus is a key part of understanding the success of early Christianity. Whether or not it happened, scholars recognize the importance of the resurrection experience as understood by early Christians. This experience (real or perceived) changed how Christians understood Jesus' sayings. Whether it also caused them to modify or invent sayings is a question that must be asked. Ah, how the waters get muddier! Already in the first chapter, this will become a problem, and the implicit assumptions of scholarly history will hijack Sanders' discussion of Jesus. He will still have interesting things to say, but their appeal to someone like me will begin to wane.

Implicit assumptions

Scholarly history requires naturalistic explanations. Jesus may have healed people, or people may have thought they were healed by Jesus, but the explanation that is not allowed is that Jesus did it inexplicably. As Latter-day Saints, we can go along with that because of people like Brigham Young who taught that all miracles obey the laws of nature, but that's not really what scholars are assuming. They are assuming Jesus couldn't have done his miracles (or perceived miracles) through the power of God. So they are rejecting the Mormon view of miracles, too. Another example. Jesus died, and the tomb might have been empty on the third day. Jesus' followers might have experienced his resurrection (hallucinations, lies from power or fame seeking leaders, self-delusions, or something), but His actual, physical resurrection cannot be part of the scholarly discourse. Let's look next at prophecy. Jesus might have had good foresight, and he certainly was a prophet, because he said things about what would happen in the future. However, Jesus can't have known that he would be resurrected (he wasn't resurrected, so he couldn't have known he would be), so the statement that the temple would be destroyed and built again after three days can't have been referring to Jesus' death and resurrection. In his first chapter, Sanders doesn't discuss this possibility. The result is an entire chapter that can't conclude anything. Sanders' conclusion is that every major naturalistic explanation of Jesus statement about the destruction of the temple is even more flawed than the one he favors. Sanders is quite good about recognizing weaknesses in his own arguments, but as Sherlock Holmes says, when you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the answer. The hypothesis that remains is that Jesus thought the end of the world was coming quick. Someone would destroy the temple, and three days later (maybe) God would bring down a newly built temple (made without hands).

I got to this point and thought, wow, I'm done. We've already proved that Jesus was a failed (his prophecy didn't come true), apocalyptic (he thought the end of the world was almost here) prophet. All that's left is to show that he's a product of 1st century Judaism, and I don't really care if that's true once I know he failed. I know Joseph Smith was a product of 19th century America, so why should it bother me if Jesus was a Jew? As you might imagine, my interest in this book declined, at this point. Sanders ignored as a possibility the very interpretation of this saying given in the Bible--namely that Jesus knew he would die and be resurrected. He was forced to ignore it by the historical method, even if it wasn't his inclination (I can't speak to that). It is possible that Sanders was right. What is not possible is that his scholarship has anything to say about the resurrection of Christ. He assumed a priori that the resurrection did not occur and that prophecy can't be more than intelligent foresight or wishful thinking. And he's not doing it in some clever mathematical way, like assuming A and showing not A, so A can't be true. He's assuming not A and showing not A. I think the word for that is tautology. As far as I know, tautologies are only proof that definitions exist. Maybe there are going to be more relevant, thoughtful discussions of the resurrection hypothesis later in the book, but I doubt it. You see, Sanders laid out his plan. He would start from the agreed on event that is most revealing of the historical Jesus--the controversy in the temple--and build on that to create the most accurate depiction of the historical Jesus. Already at his foundation he has ignored the hypothesis I favor. I'm skeptical about my ability to respect his subsequent conclusions, and there isn't really anything Sanders can do about it. His professional standards prevent it. Maybe his hypothesis is better than mine--it's certainly better informed--but they weren't ever compared.

I want to step aside and make some things clear. I am really liking the care with which Sanders presents his arguments. He has put all his cards on the table and is not shy about pointing out the limitations of his own conclusions. The one thing he hasn't said is that all his arguments are founded on this strict, atheistic naturalism. I believe in natural explanations for things. I'm committed to it, professionally. I'm also committed to it as one of those Mormons who thinks all truth, religious and scientific, can be reconciled into one great whole. I suspect we might be children of evolved Gods that came into being, innumerable generations ago, through semi-random events. But Sanders' strict naturalistic explanation has already led him away from even discussing any possibilities I could believe in. It looks like most of the rest of the book is dedicated to supporting the hypothesis that Jesus is a failed, apocalyptic, Jewish prophet, but without comparing it to the hypothesis that Jesus was a successful deity. If, at the end of the day, he concludes that he has accurately shown who the historical Jesus was, all I can say is, you didn't even examine the Jesus I know.

I'll finish with Sanders' own conclusion to his introduction:
That the problem we have posed is not susceptible of a rock-hard answer which absolutely excludes all others is shown not only by the difficulties which can be brought against any hypothesis, but also by the very large number of hypotheses. It is almost a foregone conclusion that a fresh attempt to unravel the problem--or rather set of problems--which we have posed will not come up with a totally new answer. There are no totally new answers (except for fictional constructions) to be offered. We shall, however, investigate the most pertinent points in an effort to come up with the best answer. One is looking for a hypothesis which explains more (not everything), which gives a good account (not the only one) of what happened, which fits Jesus realistically into his environment, and which has in view cause and effect.
Is it beating a dead horse to add, a hypothesis that fits the naturalistic assumptions of the historical method?

My conclusions

  • I like the care with which Sanders approaches his work. I assume many other biblical scholars take similar care.
  • If something in the Bible or in our beliefs is subject to measurement, we should not only be unafraid to measure it, it is incumbent upon us to do so. The Gospel is all truth, so if we want to believe the Gospel, we better be willing to throw away falsehood as we uncover it. This means that we should be looking to these careful scholars for answers where their methods are justly applied. Growth requires restraining our defensive instincts.
  • Biblical scholarship is inherently limited by naturalistic assumptions. So is science. That shouldn't stop us from doing it, but Reader Beware when you turn to history asking it to speak on subjects outside of its scope. If you assume Jesus is dead, it should be no surprise that your conclusions agree with your assumptions.
  • If you can't identify the assumptions behind the scholarship, you don't understand the scholarship. It may not be your fault. The experts may not have told you what they assume. Some assumptions may be such integral parts of their thought that they don't even recognize them anymore. That's what makes them experts. If they had to start from the ground up with everything they wrote, no progress would be made. But don't think that because there is scholarly consensus it means that the story is over. Especially when the scholars themselves are giving answers to questions they say that scholarship can't conclusively answer.
  • I don't think I have the patience or interest to seek out the good in biblical scholarship and reexamine it in light of the things I "know" about God, revelation, the temple, and the plan of salvation.
  • I hope Latter-day Saints who do have the patience and the interest will carefully examine the work of these scholars and communicate the best of it to me. I can't imagine that my religious experience and understanding will be anything but enriched by such efforts. 
  • To scholars: if it's important to you that I understand the work of scholars, don't tell me to go read a synthesis by an unbeliever. I'll see his assumptions and constantly be fighting suspicion of his conclusions. I'll be wondering  Write it yourself with assumptions of unbelief weeded out. Show me how your conclusions aren't predetermined by unbelieving assumptions. I'll hear it better.
I'll continue a while longer working through my reading list. There has already been lots of interesting stuff in the first parts of the first two books (I haven't written about the other). Maybe the books my friend says are from "a more faithful perspective" will be more interesting to me. I don't have time or patience for scholars who look for the historical Jesus while assuming He's dead.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Parenting, Childhood, and Separation

A repost from Rational Faiths for my personal blog readers.

An Australian working mother and BBC reporter, Madeleine Morris, is producing a series of short documentaries on childcare around the world. She's asking, "Who's left holding the baby?" She began with Australian nursery, or daycare. (Unfortunately, I can't find a link to the podcast.) Her child goes to nursery, and lots of parents really like it; however, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year for a family. It seems that a good daycare can avoid most of the reported negatives of daycare, and can even provide some benefits that a typical home can't, but it's still hard for many children and parents to be separated. It's especially hard when children can go into daycare as young as 6 weeks old. From Australia she went to Fiji, where communal child rearing is still practiced. Children are watched over and disciplined by everyone, but are also left to play their own games and work out their own conflicts, most of the time. The Fijian children show a resilience and confidence that is attractive to Madeleine, and her three year-old joins right in with their play, but they aren't as well prepared to deal with the particular rigors of the kind of schooling that Australian children are prepared for.

In the second installment (I hope it stays available) she visits an elite kindergarten boarding school in China. I get the impression these schools were developed for some very good reasons--for helping with orphans and for families where both parents have to work very long hours. The school that was visited evaluates applicants and encourages families to put their children in daycare only, if possible. During the day, the children seem happy. There is a lot to do, and they are helped to play and learn based on their interests, not some fixed curriculum. These programs were started many years ago. Many of the adults deal with aftereffects of feeling abandoned, and don't know how to interact with their families. Others have adapted well, but China is largely phasing out these boarding kindergartens. The painful part was when the reporter described bedtime. Some of the children are three years old. Bedtime means lights out with 20 children and only two--admittedly loving--teachers. Most children won't cry for even a half hour before going to sleep. That's all. They're resilient. Yeah.

I have a four year-old and a two year-old. They don't go to sleep without one of their parents. We probably could have trained them to go to sleep on their own, but I'll tell you, even if it were a good thing, it doesn't work for everyone. As a baby, our four year-old didn't just fall asleep after crying for 15 minutes. The times we had to set him down by himself because we couldn't hold him, he would cry for half an hour and then throw up and keep crying some more. I want to cry just remembering. As a four year-old, he chose to stop going to playschool because he doesn't like saying goodbye to us. He loved playschool some days. Some days he didn't want to come home (they have a playground), but after two months of twice a week, he said he didn't want to go anymore. Just recently my two year-old woke up early. We ate breakfast together, him sitting on my lap, but then I needed to go to work. There I was, putting on my bike helmet and closing the door on my child--the child who loves going outside, loves riding in the bike trailer, loves his dad, and has never spent more than a couple of minutes alone and awake in his entire life. I saw the tears and panic forming in his eyes. I saw the undefined sense of abandonment and questioning on his face as I closed the door between us. I was crying and doing my G-rated version of cursing in my head as I rode away. (Maybe you are getting the sense that I cry a lot. I do, recently, but it's good for my mental health, so don't worry.) Tying this all back in to the BBC documentaries, I agree with Madeleine Morris's conclusions. Children are resilient, parents and families have to make the best choices they can, and lots of different choices can be good parenting. Judging parenting styles is not the point of my writing. I'm headed toward another analogy.

I find LDS theology all-consuming. I have Heavenly Parents. They shut the door between us, and sometimes I feel alone and panicked. I don't know how long it is going to go on. I don't know what scary things will happen while we are separated. I do trust in two things: my Parents didn't shut the door until I chose to walk out it--until I thought I was ready to leave the garden--and my Parents cry for my pain and wish I didn't have to feel alone and abandoned.

I'm Mormon. It's just who I am. There isn't a specific why. Maybe I'm not simply a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the Plan of Salvation is my story. I live it, I breath it, I think about it. I struggle with it, I'm a product of it, I'm a perpetrator of it. I live the pain of separation and sin, I strive for exaltation. I believe the Gospel is everything that's true and real (and not anything that is false or fake), and I don't know what it means to exist outside of that. So I'm Mormon.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Before Abraham Was and the Book of Mormon

Heads up: 3000+ words. I plan to post a 1500 word version of this review on sometime next year. Only read if you are really interested.

I believe the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be and that we got it in the way Joseph Smith says we got it. You shouldn't assume too much about the details of my belief from that statement, but in broad strokes I am a literal believer. Here is my current model of how the Book of Mormon came to be:
  • Ancient prophets kept records, and Mormon, with help from Moroni, compiled, edited, and preserved these records as described in the Book of Mormon itself.
  • Joseph Smith received gold plates which contained this record. (See contemporary, first hand witness accounts of the existence of these plates.)
  • Joseph Smith translated this record by inspiration, not by reading the words and using a dictionary. Joseph Smith dictated the entire Book of Mormon without notes or outside reference. (See first hand witness accounts.)
  • The translation was tightly controlled, but not ironclad. God inspired Joseph with the ideas to write, including some specific wordings and spellings of names. Joseph contributed his own language only as any other faithful translator would. (See works of Royal Skousen on how studying the original and printers manuscripts illustrate tight control rather than loose or ironclad control. See the non-contextual word analyses of John Hilton and his collaborators for objective evidence that large portions of the Book of Mormon do not match Joseph Smith's use of language.)
  • The King James Version wording of biblical passages was inspired so that we could make rigorous connections between ancient Hebrew and Greek biblical words and the language of the Book of Mormon. If Joseph had presented a new translation of the same passages, or if he had used 19th century language instead of KJV language in non-biblical Book of Mormon passages, we would not be able to make direct connections between biblical meanings and Book of Mormon passages. The exact quotations tell us that when the Book of Mormon uses KJV words, we can with confidence examine biblical meanings of those words to better understand the Book of Mormon, and we can use Book of Mormon meanings of those words to more fully comprehend the Bible. (See Legrand Baker and Stephen Ricks, Who Shall Ascend unto the Hill of the Lord, for an example of the potential fruits of this approach for a believing reader.) Subpoint: Errors present in the KJV of Joseph's day were only corrected when there was an important difference in meaning. Other anachronistic errors were ignored, or Joseph made mistakes in his translation because of prejudiced knowledge of the passages—the errors of men, which the Book of Mormon itself claims to have.
This view of the Book of Mormon means that I believe the Isaiah passages were copied by Nephi from the Brass Plates. This means that I believe that Jesus actually gave the Sermon on the Mount, and that it wasn't compiled later from collections of wisdom sayings. This means I believe that Mormon compiled the whole thing (almost), and that it wasn't put together through some inspired conglomeration of 1. ancient stories revealed to or invented by Joseph Smith, 2. selections from the King James Version of the Bible, and 3. nineteenth century wisdom and sermons. This view apparently leaves me open to scholarly criticism. It seems that the Bible, as seen through the Book of Mormon, doesn't line up with the Bible as seen through 150+ years of biblical scholarship. I'll be up front about what does and doesn't bother me. Rejecting biblical inerrancy works for me. Recognizing inconsistencies that need explanation works for me. Recognizing editorial changes, especially in the selection of which texts are recognized as canon, works for me. Making educated guesses about how editorial changes might have happened and what was changed works for me. Claiming that because biblical scholarship has 150 years of consensus, so I should accept that and do mental gymnastics to explain how Joseph Smith could have put deutero-Isaiah into the Book of Mormon seems crazy to me. So before I invent new explanations of the Book of Mormon translation process that stretch the historical record, I'm going to need to be really convinced.

I'm not a biblical scholar, but I 'm a trained scientist. I figured I was smart enough to understand the biblical scholarship if I found the right stuff and put in enough time, and I decided it was time to find out for myself. I had two problems with continuing forward on the authority of my favorite Latter-day Saint scholars and friends: 1. I'm a chemist with a healthy respect for the academy. 2. I'm a Mormon who engages with other Mormons who don't accept the positions of the LDS scholars as readily as I do. So I picked up some available biblical scholarship for a general audience. It was depressing. Most of it was too shallow to judge the scholarship on its merits. Of the more serious books, I found one author who explained how different verses in the creation account in Genesis could be assigned to three separate sources. I'd heard of the Documentary Hypothesis, and read that it was the dominant working theory in Old Testament studies (and I think New Testament, too, in a different form), but no one had ever really explained it to me. The summaries and books I somewhat randomly picked up didn't help. I couldn't take them seriously.

I have some professional biases regarding evidence. I'm a biophysical chemist which, in my case, means I do research relying heavily on numerical data and the laws of thermodynamics—a bit like we imagine physicists do. I also deal with approximations and qualitative data—a lot like many biologists. So I view myself as having a pretty good grasp of the problems involved in trying to relate exact data to approximate conclusions. When biophysicists make assumptions and approximations, I expect them to state the assumptions clearly, discuss potential sources of error, and evaluate how big those errors are likely to be. I wanted to hold biblical scholars to these standards and see how their conclusions measured up. I'm still working on the New Testament, thanks to some great recommendations from a friend. As for the Old Testament I might have gotten lucky with one book I found.
Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1-11, by Isaac M. Kikawada and Arthur Quinn, sells itself as “A provocative challenge to the documentary hypothesis.” At the time it was written (1985), both authors were professors and the University of California at Berkeley, so I suspected they didn't fit into the camp of conservative Christians who oppose the documentary hypothesis, or Mormon scholars who dismiss it on various grounds. I was not disappointed with the book. In fact, it was a wonderful read.

The first thing Kikawada and Quinn did was convince me that the scholars who argue for and elaborate on the documentary hypothesis aren't universally idiots or ideologues (something I suspected, but my unsystematic initial approach had not confirmed). They did it by separating out the entire flood account into two stories. I'll give you a piece. Notice how you can read one and then read the other and it really sounds like two complete, and different, tellings of the same story:

The waters prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man. And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

But god remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat. And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.

In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you. Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.
The flood continued forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.

The rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him anymore.

And Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold the face of the ground was dry.

If you leave out the chapter and verse numbers, you could read the first account and think, “Yep, that's the incredibly boring Old Testament that I made myself slog through so I could say I read the entire Old Testament in Seminary.” If you read the second account, you'd think, “Yep, these are the Bible stories I heard in Sunday School when I was a kid.” That's an oversimplification, but it's how I now understand the motivation behind making the documentary hypothesis. It turns out you can split up nearly all of Genesis 1-11 in this way, and you can use fairly consistent clues in the text itself to tell you how to divide it. Of course it doesn't work perfectly, but it works so well that biblical scholars have been able to argue for it, and about it, for 150 years or more. I was actually relieved that it finally made sense to me. My emotions would now let me start taking mainstream biblical scholars more seriously. But Kikawada and Quinn were just doing this to set up their main argument.

The central premise of Kikawada and Quinn's arguments is that the presumed sole author of Genesis 1-11 is at least as clever and conscious of form and content as other great authors throughout history. This contrasts greatly with assumptions implicit (and at times explicit) in the documentary hypothesis. You see, the Old Testament is littered with seemingly nonsensical contradictions and questionably moral stories. In elaborating the documentary hypothesis, scholars have carefully picked apart these inconsistencies and suggested that an (apparently sloppy or careless) editor or editors put the Pentateuch (and other books) together from at least three different sources. Only by splitting it up in this way can you explain all the textual difficulties. This approach has also fostered the view (popular with a number of my Transhumanist friends) that the Old Testament is morally backward and that modern morality is much more evolved. Kikawada and Quinn have taken what seems to me a humbler approach (although they've taken it with great pride in how they have seen more than 150 years of previous biblical scholars). Instead of assuming carelessness and moral smallness, they assume intelligence, rhetorical skill, and great feeling for humanity. It appears you can use this perspective to reinterpret many of the same passages that were evidence of the documentary hypothesis. Overlooked evidence of careful craftsmanship starts turning up everywhere you look, with hints that further study will reveal even more.
The primary example of conscious craftsmanship is found in a pattern belonging to another pre-biblical work, the Akkadian Atrahasis Epic. The pattern is:
  1. Creation
  2. First Threat
  3. Second Threat
  4. Final Threat
  5. Resolution
This pattern is found in the story of Adam and Eve, the story of Noah, and the story of the tower of Babel. It appears again with Moses, and arguably with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and with David and Solomon. It's almost fractal like, or nested in its appearances, with the pattern being recognizable on the level of individual stories, and also at the level of the entire Pentateuch. Kikawada and Quinn demonstrate how the several stories that the documentary hypothesis splits apart actually contribute to faithfully reproducing the pattern. It is very possible Kikawada and Quinn are reading too much into the text, but I find the fruits of Kikawada and Quinn's approach more rewarding than those of the documentary hypothesis, so for now I'll work from there.

What are some of those fruits? First they give me increased respect for Book of Mormon scholarship. I see critical scholars (and simply critics) pooh-poohing the work of Jack Welch on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Kikawada and Quinn rely heavily on evidence and interpretation of chiasm in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible, quoting and citing biblical scholars who use chiasm as evidence. It appears that to ignore Welch's work would require rejection of a common element in mainstream biblical scholarship, and the scholarship of ancient literature more generally. I see Book of Mormon scholars making great efforts to pay close attention to the Book of Mormon text and to incorporate evidence from outside—looking at biblical scholarship, 19th century scholarship, mesoamerican and near eastern studies, and language and rhetorical analysis. Kikawada and Quinn criticize proponents of the documentary hypothesis for Genesis of remaining too closely in their narrow, reductionist textual analysis and thus arriving at unsubstantiated conclusions—conclusions that have been discarded elsewhere in classical studies because of a greater availability of external data for comparison.

The second fruit is a continued respect for the moral authority of the Bible. I don't find the Old Testament backwards. I don't find modern humanity so incredibly superior. Many Old Testament stories are violent, nationalistic, racist, sexist, etc., but the moral messages found in these stories most often seem complex, human, and humane, to me. Maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see, but when Kikawada and Quinn assume intelligence and humanity in the authors, they are able to find what seems to me substantial and coherent evidence supporting that hypothesis.
The last fruit is my own synthesis of an explicit theme running throughout the book. Kikawada and Quinn see in Genesis, and much of the Old Testament, a rejection of cities and civilization and a glorification of the nomadic lifestyle. With cities and civilization come problems of overcrowding, overpopulation, overutilization of resources, and a resulting devaluing of new births. The Bible, on the other hand, praises and commands the spreading of children over the whole earth, praises the nomadic lifestyle not controlled by kings or by the trappings of civilization, and emphasizes the movement and action of God himself. By the end, they managed to convince me that this theme might really be there. And I like it. As you read on, you find that it isn't simply a “nomads are more righteous than city folk” morality, but it does highlight two virtues that really attract me. First, God and all of his chosen people are expected to keep moving. I see in this shades of eternal progression. Second, having lots of children is a good thing. I see in this a morality that fits with an evolutionarily successful God.

Where does this leave me? I'll give a comparison a biblical scholar friend of mine used when describing Book of Mormon apologetics. He called it, “All the evidence we don't have agrees with us.” I admit a little delight in turning it back on biblical scholars. Where are the separate documents? There are, according to the documentary hypothesis, at least four, and some argue more, separate sources necessary to maintain the documentary hypothesis for the Pentateuch. My understanding is that none of them have been found. The only documents we have already have all of the sources mixed together. No one has found the stories split apart, or combined in ways that only use two of the sources but not the third or fourth. In this regard, Kikawada and Quinn's hypothesis is much simpler. They don't have to postulate unidentifiable sources, but instead provide an extant ancient source as a text which the author of Genesis may have used as a model and may have been responding to. They postulate a single, skilled author, which seems to me more typical of literature that has lasted to our day than does composite editing. So what do I say to critics who would have me defend the Bible quotes found in the Book of Mormon? I'll read your arguments and try to understand them, if you've made them accessible to me. But you need to show me first and second Isaiah. Show me the wisdom literature that was pieced together into the Sermon on the Mount. Then I will feel a need to defend and explain the Book of Mormon. Until then, I'm not the one claiming that all the evidence we don't have agrees with me. I'm the one providing the hard evidence. The Book of Mormon is right in front of you. The history is there to show that it was dictated entirely by Joseph Smith. The objective statistics are there to show that large parts of it were written by authors other than Joseph Smith. Address some of these data in a respectful, scholarly, and compelling way and then I will feel compelled to respond. Until then, I hope you're having fun. I'll do my best to be respectful of those who blindly trust your authority, but don't be surprised if I roll my eyes when I hear you rehash the same old material.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

As [Children] in Zion

I've never sat in a Relief Society meeting (no, they aren't secret, they are sacred), and we don't tend to sing songs arranged for women in Sacrament or priesthood meetings, so it was probably when I was working my way through the hymn book on my own that I came across the song "As Sisters in Zion." I've encountered the hymn since mostly in the context of how it manages to offend people in various ways. I am now experienced enough to understand how it is offensive. (It helps me to notice that, while the music is recent, the words were written long before the modern Feminist movement.) But setting that aside, I wish we had a song like this for Brothers. I want to share some of the words, here, and maybe take away a little of the sting of offense and highlight some of the glorious Christian aspirations that this song adds to our hymn book.

I like the poetry of "sisters" and "women" in the text, but I'm going to make it more inclusive, the way I "hear" it in my soul when I sing the song. First I'll give my personal summary, and then the words.

The first verse invokes God's blessing, states our commitment to building His kingdom--the Zion of old, where all were of one heart and there were no rich or poor among them--and equates that task with comforting the weary and strengthening the weak. Our efforts are toward the kingdom of peace long prophesied. I feel when I think of this Zion, and that means something to me in the midst of my frequent depression.

The second verse claims a blessing. This is not common to our current way of thinking. To approach God and say, you owe us this gift, seems very presumptuous, but it reminds me that we can and should claim good gifts from God. It's scattered all over the scriptures. We don't need to be shy about it, and Emily Woodmansee captured that. I don't want my kids saying to me, could I please, if it's okay with you, go to school and learn? I want them saying, Dad, take me to school. Why should I imagine my Heavenly Parents feels any differently? After claiming a gift, we see that Sister Woodmansee is claiming the gifts needed to build Zion. That's what I want.

The third verse glories in our vast calling and potential. Life is not small or insignificant. Then there is an idea reflected that I have had ever since I dug through a textbook on Ethics. There is no way to arrive at all the moral goodness I hope to achieve without relying on a God who knows more than any human. While I must learn all I can on my own, if God can tell me more, I need to listen in order to act in the ways that will ultimately bring about the greatest good. That is part of my faith, even if I don't listen very well or very often.

And Emily Woodmansee, whether she meant to or not, captured all of that for me in three short verses. It doesn't hurt that Sister Perry once again did her magic with melody. Here are the verses:
As children in Zion, we'll all work together;
The blessings of God on our labors we'll seek.
We'll build up his kingdom with earnest endeavor;
We'll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.

The errand of angels is given to humans;
And this is a gift, as God's children, we claim:
To do whatsoever is gentle and human,
To cheer and to bless in humanity's name.

How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission,
If we but fulfill it in spirit and deed.
Oh, naught but the Spirit's divinest tuition
Can give us the wisdom to truly succeed.

Text: Emily H. Woodmansee, 1836-1906
Music: Janice Kapp Perry, b. 1938. (c) 1985 IRI

Monday, October 28, 2013

Thermodynamics and Theories of Atonement

I don't know if it has always been this way, but I suspect it has. Many people want a simple idea that will explain everything, even when the idea that really explains everything doesn't exist, yet.

People are really good at seeing patterns. We evolved that way, and it serves us well. We look for patterns to explain the world that is happening around us. I mean, it is more than just nice to know where our next meal is coming from, or what people and places are safe. What seems to me one very natural result of all this pattern seeking is the desire to find one pattern that will explain everything. It's not only physicists who want a Theory Of Everything (TOE)--a single theory that unifies all of physics from the quantum mechanical to the cosmic. Theologians have sought for theories of everything for at least several centuries. I'm neither a historian nor philosopher (beyond the aspiration to be a Knower Of Everything--sometimes referred to by less flattering names), but Aristotle's First Great Cause appealed to my triple great grandfather, Orson Pratt, as a reasonable view of God and everything, and I'm pretty sure, even from my piecemeal philosophical education, that he was not the first to attempt such an all-encompassing formulation of existence. The maybe 10 people who have followed all my musings over the last couple of years already know that I'm on my own quest to make such a formulation for myself. Right now, though, I want to explain why I don't think we should be bothered by attempts at TOEs that don't quite make it. To this end I have two stories, one about the laws of thermodynamics (an area where I am somewhat expert), and the other about theories of atonement. If you were looking for an essay that explains Atonement using Thermodynamics, I'm sorry to disappoint you.

The Power of Thermodynamics

Some days you have moments that remind you you really have learned something in all your years of study. My Biochemistry students do a lot of teaching themselves. I don't leave them alone without guidance, but I help them work exercises through which they build their own understanding of Biochemistry. This often means working through simple models that don't capture every nuance of reality. When my students noticed one of these simplifications (without being aware that was what they had done) and asked about it, I began to explain that what they had learned was a good first approximation. "A good what?!" I wanted to say, don't you understand English? Parse the words. Approximation = not real but trying to be. First = there is something coming after. Good = reality is functionally approximated in many instances. I was much more politic in my response. This was a good student, and I appreciate his frank feedback, hard work, and honesty about what he knows and is learning. Since then the phrase has become a favorite joke with him, and he uses it whenever he can--fortunately, correctly.

The laws of thermodynamics are not first approximations, and I would feel comfortable saying that they go beyond good. But it turns out that the laws of thermodynamics are really hard to apply rigorously to real situations. We can measure temperature changes and other energy changes really well for everyday things, and even for some very big things and some microscopic things. But when you get down to measuring energy of individual molecules, it gets really tricky. You see, temperature is an average. The cool breeze blowing by your face on a lovely summer evening is really a huge number of molecules running into, and past, you at a whole lot of different speeds. Some barely bump into you. Many hit you at the average wind speed. Some hit you moving a whole lot faster. We can measure the energy of the wind, but what is the energy in one air molecule in that wind? Measuring that becomes a problem long before you get to quantum mechanical considerations and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. These exact laws of thermodynamics that tell us exactly how energy moves around among things in the observable universe turn out to be very difficult to understand when you examine small numbers of molecules--say fewer than 100.

Now that I've set that up, what do Biochemists do? Below is a picture of regulation of the lac Operon. The details don't really matter, but I'll explain a bit of what is going on. There is a piece of DNA (a gene) that codes for proteins (X, Y, and Z) that help bacteria digest lactose (the sugar in milk). Making these proteins takes energy, so the bacterium regulates it in a rather complex fashion.
Click on the image for higher resolution and source information

Now for the relevant part of the picture. How many DNA molecules are shown? How many of each of the other kinds of molecules are shown? Do any of them exceed the 100 molecule lower limit? Of course, the answer is no. This makes a lot of sense. Reactions don't actually take place between 100 lac Operon genes and 100 RNA polymerase molecules. They take place one molecule at a time. One DNA strand reacts with one RNA polymerase molecule. It happens an astounding number of times per second (billions and trillions are small numbers when we are talking about numbers of chemical reactions going on over a period of time), but each reaction is just one or two or three molecules interacting in a particular time and place.

So how do we relate macroscopic, exact, thermodynamic numbers to microscopic, highly random events? There are many different kinds of answers to this, but I will give two fairly general ones: 1. really well when we can measure the average of large numbers of reactions. 2. lots of different, approximate ways when we are looking at things on a molecular scale. We fail to apply the laws of thermodynamics precisely to lots of real situations we are interested in, so we have developed a whole bunch of different ways to approximate reality. Currently, if a computer program wants to calculate exactly what is going on in a chemical reaction, right down to the last detail, it must limit the system to tens, or at most thousands, of atoms. A single protein can have thousands of atoms, and that is without calculating any of the water molecules around it. So programs leave out most or all of the water and treat it as a flat background instead of like the individual molecules it really is. But there are even more molecules that need to be considered. What about things like salts, sugars, amino acids, and other small molecules that are floating around in the cell but aren't directly involved in reacting with the protein? What about neighboring proteins, or DNA, or membranes that bump into the protein we are interested in? Most computer programs for calculating what goes on in cells make lots of approximations. There is no way around it. The only practical way to avoid lots of approximations is to just measure the real cell, but if that's what we're going to do, why try to calculate it at all? We want to understand and simplify things so that we can make predictions and develop technologies on human timescales. We don't want to test every chemical in the world, plus all the chemicals we can synthesize, for usefulness as a high blood-pressure drug. We want to just figure out a few of the best candidates. So we make approximations. Pretty much any approximation you find in the scientific literature works for a number of real cases. Somebody found the approximation useful. In that sense, the approximation is good and true. It reflects a significant part of the reality of some biochemical process.

Does it bother anybody that lots of these approximations only work for special cases, and not necessarily very well for very many of those? If I'm anybody, then yes. In fact, many fields have a small number of practitioners that spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about just such problems. If you mean does it bother many people by percentage of the earth's population? No. It doesn't even bother most practicing Biochemists. You see, they've found that they can do their work--often really well--without even being aware of these problems. Ask most Biochemists, and they won't even know what you are talking about if you bring up thermodynamics of small systems. If you ask about statistical mechanics, they will probably have heard of it, but either never had to take a course in it, or may have actively avoided studying it. If you talk to most Physical Chemists who are doing computations of biological processes, they will be able to identify many of the approximations they are making, but will likely be only vaguely aware of some relevant biochemical complexities. Lots of their computations are informative despite this limitation. Maybe it will surprise you, but laws of nature seem to work just fine even if we don't understand them.

Theories of Atonement

I've already admitted to not being a theologian. In fact, I'm taking most of my theology from a podcast on Mormon Matters and a brief perusal of links to articles on the accompanying blog post. Over the centuries, various explanations have been put forth of how the Atonement works and why the sacrifice of Christ was necessary. Many of them appear in Mormonism in the metaphors and stories we use to help each other understand and benefit from the Atonement. Some of these ideas include explanations like:

When we sin we give Satan power over us, and Christ had to buy us back. There are cosmic demands of justice that not even God can ignore, so Christ had to suffer and die for us. Jesus's example was so great and powerful that people before and since have been made whole through its influence on their lives. Jesus's sacrifice gave him complete empathy for all of our pains and sins because he suffered them all.

I haven't fleshed out a single one of these theories anywhere near enough to give you a full sense of their strengths, or their weaknesses. I decided not to after reading some of the wonderful explanations and syntheses found in links on the Mormon Matters blog--you really ought to read some if you are at all interested. The articles are wonderful, and often moving. What I will say is that most of the authors, even with their preferred theories, don't claim to have written the final word on the Atonement. None of them have a Theory of Everything for the Atonement. None of them claim to have synthesized all of the revelations about the Atonement into one coherent model. Some of the theories do better than others, and I like some theories better than others. But what does this philosophical mess mean? Does it mean that none of the theories are right? Does it mean that the Atonement isn't a real thing, or that Jesus wasn't divine, or that His suffering and death weren't really necessary for the Atonement?

Let me take you back to Thermodynamics. If I'm being honest, every one of the several theories of Atonement has worked for somebody. Even the ones I think are morally bankrupt. Each one approximates some aspect of the Atonement correctly. Does it bother me that some of these theories only work to explain some special cases of repentance or salvation? That some don't explain how certain evils are overcome, or why Jesus had to suffer for me? Yes. But lots of people experience the power of the Atonement, anyway. In fact, some of them truly are Saints, living lives of goodness beyond what most of us manage. They do really good work without understanding the best theories of Atonement, and maybe without even knowing the theories exist. Some people spend a lot of time looking for that theory of everything. I'm inclined to admire them. I want to know it all. But somehow, the Atonement works just fine, even if I don't understand it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Silly Science Poems

If anyone wants to attempt identifying all of the jokes and references in these poems, I'll tell you if you are right and if you missed any (that I intentionally constructed). The poems are more fun, I think, if you find the jokes, but some of the lines are just silly, not subtle. Enjoy, if you can. :)

Incompatible Mixture

I tried dancing with xylose, so nimble and sweet,
But she left me with nothing but two aching feet.

I tangoed with hexane before going to bed,
But her perfume left me light in the head.

Allowed me one two-step and then fled the hall.

Go figure,” I said, as ketones and pentoses
Turned their backs to me while raising their noses,

I love chemistry and dance. What’s wrong with this picture?”
My lab partner just said, “Incompatible mixture."

(I'll help with interpreting this one:
  • xylose is a sugar with a cool name
  • I have been sensitized to hexane, so while most people don't like the smell but just forget it once the fumes have been cleared, I get headaches from this relatively innocuous organic solvent
  • The next chemical was made up to match the meter and rhyme, although it probably could be synthesized 
  • ketones and pentoses are just two more classes of organic molecules
That's really all there is to this poem.)

The two sonnets that follow have a lot more subtle references to toddlerhood (and anemia) and science, particularly basic things you are taught in physics classes when you start studying electrons. 

To my niece in her second year

You smile and laugh and flash that lively glint
That melts the rocks your lips do kiss. Yet should
You slip, to the complacent crowds, some hint
Of your true self, you’d not be understood.
You crave to sink your teeth into a book—
Were I to tell the crowds as much, unfazed,
Their smiles would say, “How nice,” and overlook
The import of your most inhuman taste—
But I know. No, I do not know the tide
Or moon that makes you so, or what sweet wine
May flow within your veins, yet love will hide
My fear of all that’s strange—Oh, Caroline.
No, never will I let them halt your growth—
Your secret’s safe, my chemolithotroph.

To an electron in spring

Now tell me, will I ever see you spin
on stage alone? Yet even if my clum-
sy eyes could see so fine would my mind numb
with trying to comprehend your nimble spin
in “circles,” up and down and only half
way round? John Henry dug great tunnels through
the earth so we might follow. Tunneling through
much steeper walls you leave no signs of hav-
ing passed and lead me nowhere. Left alone
I wonder where you’ve gone and where you are
but I will never know so much. You’re far
too private, too elusive to be known.
Although your coyness mocks my mind and heart,
without you near my life would fly apart.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

WWI Transhumanist Poem

I first encountered Wilfred Owen in a high school anthology, but as a 19 year old I read his collected poems. They were required for my History of Civilization class, the Pen and the Sword, taught by Alan Keele and Wilford Griggs at Brigham Young University. It was one of the later books we read that semester, but I started reading it early, just because it looked interesting to me. I'm glad I did, because in some ways it introduced my to poetry. I really worked at understanding what his poems were saying. Wilfred Owen's poetry really opened me up to the pity of war. That was his intent, and I have never viewed war the same, since. I struggle to see any glory in war, and see pain and sorrow much more clearly. Thank you Wilfred Owen.

I've picked up his poems several times over the years. This most recent time as I think about my relationship with God and religion, but you will have to wait to see if I can frame those thoughts for posting. In browsing his poems, I came across one I hadn't noticed before, in praise of the Transhumanist soldiers who fight against Death. Here it is.

The Next War

War's a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.
                               Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death;
  Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,--
  Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,--
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
  He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
  Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
  We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against his powers.
  We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death--for lives; not men--for flags.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Bottomless Word Pit

Scriptural Speculations on Transhumanist Gods

It was suggested to me that I refer to Doctrine and Covenants section 93 as a reference to characteristics of God. I will do so, but I continue somewhat hesitantly. There are an awful lot of ambiguous words in the descriptions of D&C 93. This is compounded by the use of these words to describe things with which we have no earthly experience. So any interpretation I give is necessarily mixed with huge amounts of guesswork. Some elements have corroboration in other parts of scripture and in this-worldly knowledge, and I will try to draw some of those connections, but I'm not sure how useful this section will really be in attempting a semi-concrete description of the characteristics of an evolutionarily successful god.

I could just quote large sections of D&C 93, with all their superficially straightforward statements of what God is and does, but that seems useless for my current purposes. Instead, I will write things in my own words, unapologetically, with my own interpretations. I do not claim that my interpretations are the correct, or even a correct interpretation, but I don't want to be couching every sentence in hesitancy. Assume my thoughts are tentative, and you can go read the section for yourself to decide if I've abused its words.

Christ is the true light, in the Father, one with the Father, the Father, the Son, from the beginning, before the world was, the light of the world, the redeemer of the world, the Spirit of truth, the stuff all things were made of, the life and light of humans, 'tabernacled' in element, the friend of anyone who will become an heir with him.
Christ lights everyone who comes into the world (is born into, or also those who come by some other means?), made flesh (elements) his tabernacle, dwelt among the children of humans, made manifest the works of the Father, made the world, made worlds, made humans, made all things, received grace for grace, received the fulness, received all power in heaven and on earth.

Now I'd like you to notice some things that this revelation says about us: Christ is through all things, and all things (us included) are of him. Christ is the Father because the Father gave Christ of his fulness, and we will receive of the fulness (conditionally). We, like Christ, were in the beginning with the Father. We are spirit temporarily connected with element. We are God's tabernacle (maybe not exclusively).

I think a few things are pretty clear from all of this mess of words, even without getting all of the details right--
  1. God is interconnected with us, and we with Him, and we with each other, in some way that is fundamental to our existence and to His glory. It may be literal, meaning we share some of the same matter (my hand is literally a part of my body), it may be completely relational (the way we are part of a family or an organization), or it may be some combination of the two.
  2. We share a lot of important characteristics with Christ. We can receive of the fulness, and if it means the same thing it meant when Christ received the fulness, then each of us will be God. To get around that, you have to argue that the same words mean significantly different things in the same revelation, with no textual reasons for such an assertion that I can see. It's possible, but I would need a pretty detailed argument to convince me of an alternative interpretation.
  3. God is spirit and element inseparably connected, and that is the object of our being, since that is how we receive a fulness of joy (see previous post). It seems that element is the observable stuff of this earth--at least what was observable in Joseph Smith's day. I still don't know what spirit is.
  4. Intelligence, light, and truth, whatever they mean here, are important characteristics of God.
There are some additional interesting things that I don't know how to turn into anything concrete. Intelligence is the light of truth and is uncreated. Truth and intelligence are independent (able to act) within limits (spheres), and that independence is necessary for existence. Receiving light is how you avoid condemnation. It is possible to be confounded in this world, and in the next. This last one I think is curious. Two possible meanings are that we can be surprised at how things really are in the next life (more likely meaning, I think), or we can be mixed up so that our individual elements are difficult to distinguish. I would discount this last, except parts of this section are talking about what we, and gods, are made of, and how we are interconnected. I don't think any of this last set of observations can be ignored, but I think I will have to come back to them when trying to answer specific questions. There is too much uncertainty in the meanings.

Getting back to God's purposes in giving this revelation--He wants us to know and understand how to worship and what we worship so that we can become gods. We need to know what Christ is and does so that we can become Christ. With all the tumult of words, that has been pretty easy for me to overlook, but reading D&C 93 this time, I don't know how else it can be interpreted. I'm willing to debate what becoming Christ means, practically speaking, but this revelation strongly favors a literal leaning interpretation. To share some feelings as I studied and wrote this, I was a little bit confounded to have this conclusion staring me so intently in the face. I guess that's one more reason for me to take Transhumanist thought seriously. Seems like the more I look the further I dig myself into a Mormon Transhumanist pit that I can't escape--or maybe a better picture is I'm getting closer and closer to the gravity well of a Mormon Transhumanism black hole. Hopefully it's a gateway to a heavenly universe. If it's a hole to hell, the community is pretty good so far, and I bet Joseph Smith would be pleased if we made something better of it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Iconic Mormon scriptures on God

Scriptural Speculations on Transhumanist Gods

God's work and glory

In LDS scripture, God tells us what his object is:
For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
We have a fairly standard interpretation of this, although many Mormons don't think it through fully. The immortality is probably just what you might think it means--God wants us to live forever. Maybe sometime I'll explain why I think this problem is already solved, and why I don't give greater importance to studying the how of making humans immortal over the how of several other aspects of Godhood, but basically, most Latter-day Saints believe the resurrection of Christ took care of this. The eternal life part is what is of more interest to me and many other LDSs, (and if we are right about the resurrection, maybe you can understand why). Eternal life is living with, and like, God. Unfortunately, many LDSs have a concept of eternal life that is so vague as to be indistinguishable, to my point of view, from mainstream Christian perspectives of worshiping God forever in a state of eternal bliss. And it's not just "mainstream" LDSs, it's some thoughtful, unorthodox Mormons, too.

I'm about to be critical of two of my favorite Mormon personalities, but consider this an advertisement for them and for my current favorite LDS themed podcast, Mormon Matters. Go pick some episodes on topics that look interesting to you. You won't be disappointed. On an episode about the pros and cons of keeping Mormonism weird, Dan Wotherspoon and Joanna Brooks, along with two other panelists, talk about the idea of "having our own planets." They start out great by saying the Mormon conception of godhood is more complex than simply making and ruling a planet, but the complexity they suggest is a rather nebulous, participating in the creative process. Come on! After all the thoughtful things you all have said and written, I guess you haven't thought deeply about every Mormon topic, after all, Dan and Joanna. You've fallen from your pedestals. You can breathe sighs of relief. I think you are right, that creation will be participatory (we'll go into the ample evidence for that sometime, probably), but it's not that nebulous. We will make worlds. We will make universes. We will make gods. So we haven't figured out (or remembered, or learned) all of the how to's, but what else can life like God mean? That's a serious question. I'll consider any suggestions anyone wants to give me, as well as criticisms of the details of my speculations. I hold most of the details quite tentatively, but what is so hard about accepting that becoming gods is what it means to become like God? I haven't seen anywhere where we are commanded to become mostly like God, or as much as possible like God. God's goal is to give us lives like His. And what do we know about what God does, day to day? Not much, really, but if He's there, He created this and many other worlds--without end.


That's more than I thought I would write about Moses 1:39, but I still want to bring up another iconic Mormon scripture from the Book of Mormon prophet, Jacob:
Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
This one is causing me a little trouble to understand. I think a full treatment will require defining, or at least describing, joy. Then one can hypothesize how joy might be evolutionarily advantageous for gods. I'm not sure where to start, but the dictionary and psychological and neuroscientific research into happiness might be good starts. If this world is designed to help us on our way to godhood, then maybe there is a correspondence between joy in this life and joy in the eternities. It's an assumption I can't prove, but if it isn't true--at least to a degree--then this whole process of speculation isn't worth much. Some correspondence between heaven and earth underlies my whole exploration. I guess this gives me something else to study. Anyone want to recommend some good books on joy?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Gods Grow on Love

Scriptural speculations on Transhumanist gods

From Mark:
. . . thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.
And from Matthew:
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all . . .
It is possible that love is not the greatest commandment outside of this life, but I'm willing to bet that it is. I'm willing to bet that, without perfect love, God just wouldn't make as many universes, have as many kids, keep them all alive, and turn them into successful, creative, creator-gods. So however else we understand any of the characteristics of God, if we can't refer our understanding back to love of God, self, and others, our thinking is likely flawed. The details will be tough, but this is a framework we can never ignore, since no other traits are greater than these.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Not an Angry God

Scriptural Speculations on Transhumanist Gods

. . . whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of his judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore, if ye shall come unto me, or shall desire to come unto me, and rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee— Go thy way unto thy brother, and first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I will receive you.

I've been wanting to get back to figuring out what it takes to be an evolutionarily successful God in the vast expanses of reality. The Beattitudes are done, but I think there are more clues a little later on. It appears that anger toward, accusation of, and ridicule for others are grounds for keeping a growing god from reaching his or her potential. These verses don't just say that there are earthly consequences for anger, accusation, and ridicule, but that there are heavenly consequences. (Remember, these posts are for believers. I'm not interested in discussing how hyperbole can be a tool for controlling the masses, but in learning what I can from these scriptures that I'm choosing to take at face value, within limits.) Beyond avoiding attacks--even if they are just emotional--on our siblings, we must be reconciled with our brothers and sisters. I see in this one more little evidence that God doesn't do it alone, but that worlds--and universes--are created and maintained by communities. Why else would good relations be evolutionarily essential?

That was both a rhetorical and a sincere question, 

and that's all for this post.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Mother Here

An art and poetry contest for work representing Heavenly Mother is accepting entries until March 4th, 2014. I have donated to the contest since I have doubts about my ability to produce a fitting entry, although I intend to try. I feel inspired to try. I've written a few good poems in the past, but I'm hardly a poet. I've made some decent art, but my best stuff is embroidered, so doesn't qualify as 2D. By profession I'm a biophysicist and a teacher, not an artist or poet, but that won't stop me from trying. You see, I want to know more about Heavenly Mother. It seems to me that getting people thinking about Her is a possible step towards someone seeking and receiving revelation that will help us all know Her more. So I'm hoping that you start thinking about Mother in Heaven and make something beautiful. It might only be beautiful to you (as is the case with most of the art I make, although my family and friends encourage me, anyway). It might be amateur folk art (which I am likely to love, even if it won't ever win a contest). It might not meet the criteria of the contest (my wife said she wants to knit a Tree of Life hearkening back to early representations of the tree as a goddess). So if this idea inspires you, too, do something about it. If you're having trouble thinking of ideas, I've got some stories that might get you started.

If you are serious about doing this, you might want to come back and read my ideas later. They are speculative and dubiously doctrinal, and they might interfere with your receiving truly inspired and true ideas. Disclaimer done, I hope you enjoy my stories.

Agency is Eternal

My father-in-law spends a lot of time riding a tractor and thinking. He once shared with me his thoughts on a statement in The Family: A Proclamation to the World. "Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." He concluded that if gender was part of our being as spirit children, we must have chosen it as intelligences, because God would not force us into a particular state of being. My father-in-law would probably not agree with the conclusions I eventually came to from this idea (that some individuals may have chosen a gender different from male or female, and that the genders some individuals chose may not match up with their biological gender, which could have been an accident of their births in the messy world we live in), but either way it seems like possible inspiration for art. There is real tension in making a decision that will affect us for the rest of eternity, and real joy in finding your choice is leading you home--helping you become the you you sense you could be, the most fulfilled being you could hope for. What kind of Heavenly Mother would inspire an intelligence to emulate Her? What would that transition be like? What is the experience of an intelligence being born, or growing, as a Heavenly Mother in embryo?

The Next Vision

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism reminds us of these teachings of Joseph Smith regarding visions:

"Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject" (TPJS, p. 324; cf. HC 6:50). He also declared that "the best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching" (TPJS, p. 191).
I envision a new story that might have some of these familiar elements--or it might happen some way I've never imagined:

There was in the time when I lived an unusual excitement on the matter of a Mother in Heaven. It began on the bloggernacle but soon became general among Mormons everywhere. Indeed, every ward and branch seemed to have someone talking about it, and lots of people had different opinions about it, which created no small stir and division in Sunday School, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for Feminism, some for simply more talk about Mother in Heaven, some for the status quo or for an end to speculation or blasphemy, some for recognition of Heavenly Polygamy.
For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed for everyone, and the great zeal manifested by the respective teachers, leaders, and agitators, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them believe what they pleased; yet when the members began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both bloggers and bishops were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—blogger contending against blogger, commenter against commenter, Elders Quorum president against Young Womens councilor; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.
I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My mother’s family hoped more would be said by the prophets about Heavenly Mother, and four of them joined that party.
During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I read their several blogs and listened to their talks as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Feminist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with women and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. 
My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. Those who favored the "yet to be revealed" status quo were most decided against the Heavenly Polygamists and the Feminists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Heavenly Polygamists and the Feminists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. 
In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? 
While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let [her] ask of God, that giveth to all [people] liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given [her]. Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of woman than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to scripture. 
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture. 
So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I went into the foothills near my home to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of two thousand ____ ____. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to receive my own, new revelation. . .

I leave the rest of the story to you. I don't know what it will be, but I have no doubt God will answer, and it will be a vision that opens the heavens in ways people have prayed for yet never imagined. I feel I'm more like a Robert Mason than a Joseph Smith or even a Wilford Woodruff, although I haven't attained to Robert Mason's gifts or goodness. In Chapter 3 of Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors, Wilford Woodruff says of aged "Father Mason":
He said that [the work of establishing God's church and kingdom] would commence upon the earth before he died, but that he would not live to partake of its blessings. He said that I should live to do so, and that I should become a conspicuous actor in that kingdom.
I've had no visions of the future as God has ordained it--only fond imaginings and hopes of Zion and the eternities. I'll seek the visions, since I'm told it's my right, but I don't trust myself yet to get them, or get them right, but maybe you or I will live to see the day when visions of Mother in Heaven are proclaimed to the world by prophets, and we see more glorious panoramas of existence than we have yet imagined. Too often I doubt God will reveal it to me, but I don't doubt some guileless soul will seek and need to know the answer, and God will speak through her, if we will listen.

Post Script

So submit your art. Tell your friends. Donate if you like. Read the rules, if you want a chance at winning, because my ideas might not fit the requested theme. If your art doesn't get selected for display by the judges, send me your poem or a picture after the contest and we'll put our art up on a "Rejected Heavenly Mother Art" blog, or some such thing. Or at least I can tell you what I love about your entry.