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Posts Tagged ‘Book of Mormon’

For a few days I’ve been thinking about the possibility that there is no God.  For my whole life, I have assumed there was one, but I’ve never experienced him or had any kind of spiritual relationship with him.  So I have no personal basis for claiming that I know or even suspect that there is a deity.  I mean, I’d like there to be one, but that’s not really enough for me.  I’m too skeptical to be satisfied with believing based solely on the desire to believe (sorry, Alma- it’s just not going to happen).

What if there is no God?  What then?  Is there morality without God?  Of course there is.  Morality, to me, is instinctive and universal.  True morality at least.  Every religion teaches respect and kindness towards fellow humans- we don’t need a god to tell us that.  The things that aren’t universal, like whether God forbids the eating of pork or beef, are in my opinion clearly manmade morality.  Arbitrary garbage that has to do with human institutions, not with what’s really right or wrong.

What’s “morally wrong” with coffee?  Nothing; the very idea is preposteroous to everyone but Mormons.  But to them, it’s a moral issue because they believe God commanded it.  This is the kind of thing that I gleefully abandon.  We need God to tell us to not drink coffee, to not eat pork, and to adhere to specific religious observances.  We don’t need God to tell us to not be jerks.  We know to not be jerks on our own, and we manage to do it regardless, even when we’re told to not do it by “God.”

Anyway, I digress.  I don’t feel like  I need God to have morality, and anyway, that’s beside the point.  If there’s no God there’s no God regardless of whether we “need” him for something or not.

So if there is no God, what is there?  I don’t believe that the science we have describes everything, and I don’t believe that the material is all that is.  Maybe that’s ignorant and superstitious of me, but it’s who I am.  Does that mean I believe in spirit, or in mind that is separate from body?  I’m not sure.  Does it mean I believe in magic? Unfortunately, no.  As cool as magic would be, I don’t think it exists (unless you define it so broadly that it can’t help but exist, and then you’re not saying anything useful).  Likewise, in believing that there is something more than the material, I suppose I could formulate what I do believe in and call it “God,” but that would actually only confuse and mislead, since I would be talking about something that is a far cry from what most people mean when they use the term.

I’m not so sure I believe in a distinct divine being  with consciousness and personalty.  I certainly don’t believe in a God with a physical form (of flesh and bone or otherwise).  The thing is, the more I think about it, the more I think I may be comfortable with the idea of no God.  Not because it gives me license to do whatever I want or anything, because like I said, I still believe in morality.

I certainly do not have all the answers, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else does, either, no matter how adamantly they claim to have them.  I believe in mystery.  I believe in the unexplained, and perhaps in the unexplainable.  I believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.  But I don’t know if I believe in God.

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Lingering doubt.

On my mission, I first started to deal with the gospel in a serious way. As I did, there were things that bothered me. Granted, when I “got busy” with missionary work, I mostly just didn’t think about those doubts. Ultimately I was able to conclude that although I had questions that I was unable to get satisfactory answers for, since I had a general testimony of the truth of the Church, I could trust that God had the answers, maybe even just the missing information, and that in time all would be explained.

So, what were these doubts? I’m not going to go into them in a detailed list, because that would simply invite point-by-point criticism from well-intentioned members of the Church trying to refute my doubts. No thanks. Maybe I’ll deal with them in detail in future posts, but here I only want to talk about them generally.

First, I had problems that were doctrinal. Since the restoration, we in the Church have been “blessed” with so much new light and knowledge, answering all the great questions of religion (as an aside, I think that one problem is that the Church’s light and knowledge mostly answers 19th-century questions about religion, many of which modern people think are irrelevant, or they have found other answers for, or shifting theology has simply left those concerns in history’s dustbin). Anyway, I often felt that the “answers” just resulted in more questions. However, unlike the general unanswerable questions of Christianity that were broad enough to have many possible answers, the further light and knowledge revealed in this dispensation sort of tightened the focus. The questions were no longer as general, since we already had specific answers to the general questions. Now, we are left with new questions that tend to lead to weird answers. And when you try to answer them, you’re told it’s not important for your salvation. That’s, in my opinion, a huge smokescreen. “Do not look behind the curtain.” But I digress.

I also had problems that were scriptural. On my mission, I read all of the standard works, some of them multiple times. Over and over again, I enocuntered scriptures whose plain meanings seemed to directly contradict Mormon doctrine. Of course, there were always answers to these concerns, but to me they always felt like they were reaching pretty hard. Like they were meanings the scriptures could conceivably have, rather than the meanings they probably have.

And I’m not just talking about the Bible. Plenty of parts of the Book of Mormon seem, on their face, to directly contradict current LDS doctrine.

(As an aside, when I recently re-read LeGrand Richards’s A Marvelous Work And A Wonder, and I was boggled by the inconsistency in scriptural interpretation: when the plain meaning of a verse supports Mormon doctrine, it’s “clearly” correct, but when the plain meaning contradicts Mormon doctrine, we’re supposed to use attenuated interpretive methods that result in conclusions that often seem to be the exact opposite of what the scripture plainly says).

My third category of doubt had to do with blessings, specifically my patriarchial blessing. Without going into too much detail (perhaps I will in a future post), when I got my patriarchial blessing, it was awesome- it seemed to specifically answer some questions I had and to make specific promises about my future. And almost none of them were fulfilled. Sure, in retrospect I can look back on my life and apply my patriarcial blessing to it and figure out all the indirect ways that it really was true after all, but that is meaningless. That’s how tarot cards and divination work- they tell you vague things and then after the fact, you “realize” that they had presicted the future after all! All you have done is retrofitted your life to the vague promises made by the divination tool.

When I got my patriarchial blessing, I understood it in a specific way as making specific promises. Anyone who knew me at the time and read it came to the same conclusions that I did (or at least, they realized that I would clearly cometo those conclusions). Unquestionably, God, if he was the author of the blessing, knew how I was going to interpret it. Why then would he give me a blessing that he knew I would misinterpret and be disappointed by? And what’s the use of promises that you misunderstand when they are given, and you only realize that they were”true” after the fact. It provides you with nothing right now, and later on it provides you with nothing that a telephone psychic or a tarot reading couldn’t have provided.

What’s the use of promises that you completely misunderstand when given?  What good does that do you?  Sure, they make all kinds of sense years later, but it’s way more likely that you’re imposing your experiences into the vague framework of the patriarchial blessing.  So it isn’t even helpful as a kind of a “see, God had a plan for me all this time” reassurance later on in life because you’ve only seen what you want to see.

My final category of doubt was general skepticism. Can this really be true? I mean, really, really true? Am I going to die and then in fact, go to Paradise and then in fact be judged and resurrected by Jesus Christ and then in fact go tot he Celestial Kingdom for exaltation? Really? I mean, it sounded like a solid idea, but it seemed to be too removed from my own experience to always seem concrete and reliable. and so I had nagging doubts.

When I rolled up my sleeves and got intot he work, I was able to expel these doubts, sort of. It was more like I put them in a closet and forgot about them. Then, last summer, when I was questioning the truth of the Church, I decided to go back to that closet and see what was in there. and there was way more than I remembered. It all came tumbling out.

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These are going to be in no particular order, by the way.

When I was a teenager, I often struggled with depression.  No surprise; I was a teenager, and that kind of thing is perfectly normal.  However, my depression generally coincided with a period of intellectual rebellion from the Church.  I wasn’t living a licentious life of sin or anything (nothing unusually licentious for a teenager at least), but I was critical of the Church and generally did not belive that it was “true.”

When, for a number of reasons, I decided to get my life back on track and go on a mission, the depression eased. I went into a period of my life, almost a decade long, when I was living the gospel and not suffering from severe depression.  Yes, I’d have my moments, but they’d never last.  Generally, I was happy, and I attributed it to living the gospel (well, and to having a sweet, fantastic wife, but I met her through the Church and we were married in the temple so, same thing, right?).

That was fine.  I had no reason to seriously question the gospel or the Church for years, because I was generally contented with my life at the same time that I was living according to the Church’s teachings, and even trying to have a good attitude about it.

Until last year.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved living in New York City.  There are few places like it on earth, and my wife and I (and our baby, who was born there) made some of our most precious memories, and a lot of very good friends, while we were there.

However, for a host of reasons and probably some I still don;t understand, I plunged into the deepest, darkest, most relentless, soul-crushing pit of depression that I have ever been in.  This was not the kind of fog of darkness that comes, settles, and then goes away after awhile.  This despair persisted for most of a year.

During this year, we were active in the Church.  I was magnifying my calling for real for the first time- and it was rewarding (I was the ward mission leader for the Harlem ward).  We made ourselves a part of the community of the ward.  I kept the commandments asbest as I could- even reading the Book of Mormon all the way through like the prophet counseled.  It was the first time I had read the Book of Mormon all the way through, or really with any kind of serious effort, since my mission.

And all the while I was facing daily thoughts of suicide.

I was in the most horrible emotional pain, sometimes so intense that it felt like physical pain, of my entire life.  And the gospel wasn’t helping.  Not even a little bit.

I’ll grant you that it is possible that the gospel helped more than I realize, that without the gospel I would have been far, far worse.  But I can’t know that, and I do know that at no point did I feel like the gospel or the Book of Mormon or even prayer was any kind of solace or port in the storm.  Our bishop was helpful, but that’s because he is one of the best people I have ever known, not because he was the Lord’s anointed.  Mostly what got me through what was arguable the most difficult time of my life was antidepressants, psychotherapy, and my wonderful, wonderful wife (to whom I owe so much).

A major foundation to my testimony was the fact that while living the gospel, my life was so much better.  It was basic Alma 32 seed-plantin’.  But then the darkness of last year came along, despite the fact that I was living the gospel enthusiastically and to the best of my ability.   I know intellectually that bad things still happen to people who live the gospel (blah blah Job, which is in my opinion the least helpful scripture example ever when you’re actually going through hard times), but that isn’t the point.  A fair chunk of my testiony was that the gospel made my life appreciably better.  And all of a sudden it didn’t, not even a little bit.

This didn’t actually play into my thoguht processes until long after my doubts about the Church had fully materialized, but it’s the kind of thing where I look back retrospectively and realize how significant it was.

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Last night, I prayed,

God reveal yourself to me, and let me know You. 

If that means to know You through Jesus Christ, in the pages of the Bible, in the communty of Christians, or in the ritual and liturgy of the Church, then let me know You that way. 

If that means to know You through the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, then let me know You that way.

If that means to know You in silence, in peace, in integrity, and in lisetning to the Light, then let me know You that way.

If that means to know You through the trees, through magick, the awesome power and majesty of nature, and through the beliefs of my most ancient ancestors, then let me know You that way.

If that means to know You through His holy word as revealed through his prophet, be it Moses of Muhammad, then let me know You that way.

If You are the Tao, or Brahman, or  Ahura Mazda, or simply the consciousness of the cosmos, let me know You in whatever way you would have me know You.  If that means to know You through whatever path or faith or religion You might choose for me, then let me know You that way. 

If You exist at all, I pray that I might know You.

But I did not get an answer.

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Richard Bushman, a prominent Mormon scholar, recently did a series of interviews (which can be found here) in which he takes the position that when the Book of Mormon claims to contain “the fullness of the gospel,” it is only referring to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, i.e. his atonement and our salvation through him.  I have met Brother Bushman and have a lot of respect for him, but this is a bit of rhetoric that doesn’t deal with the Book of Mormon’s real doctrinal problems.

Interpreting “the fullness of the gospel” to mean “just Jesus Christ’s atonement” is just that, an interpretation.  It’s fairly unsupported in any kind of canonical way, and it certainly runs counter to the common Mormon meaning of “gospel.”  Almost without exception, when Mormons refer to the “fullness of the gospel,” they are referring to the entire set of revealed truths pertaining to God and His kingdom (ninth article of faith-style), which does include Jesus Christ’s atonement, but it is certainly not limited to it.

Furthermore, it dodges the problem of doctrine in the Book of Mormon, which is that if the ancient Nephite prophets had the Melchizidek priesthood, knew Jesus Christ, and taught “the gospel in its fullness,” why is there no mention of eternal progression, eternal marriage, baptism for the dead, degrees of glory, or the premortal life?

In other words, why did these ancient prophets ultimately have no better grasp of God’s truth than did “apostate” Christians of the 19th century?  One possibility is that these doctrines were known but not made public, i.e. known by Nephite prophets but not circulated among the population at large because of their hard-heartedness.  That doesn’t make sense to me, though.  First, even if that was the case, the Book of Mormon was more or less a secret record, directed at modern people, not something like Paul’s epistles or Isaiah’s prophecies that were meant for common consumption by contemporary believers.  So if the Nephite prophets had known these doctrines but needed to keep them quiet, they could have certainly inscribed them on the golden plates.  Second, there were major periods in Nephite history when the people were almost completely righteous, in particular the period right after Jesus Christ’s visit, i.e. the period covered by the book Fourth Nephi.  In Fourth Nephi we have what is supposedly a post-Atonement Christian community, living in peace and harmony and led by living prophets for over one hundred years.  There’s absolutely no reason why fundamental doctrines concerning the Plan of Salvation would not have been revealed, taught, and widely written and spoken about.  These are not “deep” doctrines.  They’re not sacred truths too holy to be discussed outside of temple walls; they’re the stuff of sunday school lessons and sacrament meeting talks.

The Book of Mormon teaches clearly about the period between death and the resurrection (if I recall, in Alma’s letter to his son Corianton), so why not the rest of Heavenly Father’s great plan of happiness?  The plan itself is mentioned several times, so why are there virtually no details given?

One could possibly argue that these were special doctrines that were to be revealed only in the dispensation of the fullness of times.  But if that is the case, why does the Mormon church teach that when Paul was talking about being “baptized for the dead” in First Corinthians, that he was specificaly referencing this doctrine?  Or when he mentions “the third heaven” that he is talking about the Celestial Kingdom?  If the early Christian church in Paul’s time (factionalizing and apostatizing though it supposedly was) knew these doctrines, shouldn’t the Nephites have known them?

If “the fullness of the gospel” is just Jesus Christ’s atonement, which we can read about fairly clearly in the New Testament, then what plain and precious truths were taken out of the Bible by the “great and abominable church” according to First Nephi chapter 13?  If they were the characteristically Mormon doctrines like baptism for the dead, eternal progression, etc., then that means that the prophets and apostles of the Bible knew these doctrines, and wrote them, but they were taken out.  Did the Nephite prophets know less about the truths of God then the prophets and apostles of the Bible?  That’s certainly not the impression I get from reading the Book of Mormon.  If they knew all these doctrines, these “plain and precious truths” that are so important in God’s plan, why didn’t they write them for us to read?  Why are these fundamental truths not in the Book of Mormon anywhere?

The simplest, albeit most cynical, answer is that Joseph Smith had not made those doctrines up yet, so he could not have written them into the Book of Mormon.

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