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I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, which meant that I had very few Mormon friends and many if not most of the people I went to school with were some kind of evangelical Christian. I often secretly envied them.

Even so the words and phrases they used to talk about their faith often really bugged me. It was so alien, and so off-putting.

Turns out those words and phrases were almost always actually from the Bible.

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Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time. None of these new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic Paganism. But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough. Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and ‘sweet reasonableness’ of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted.

C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

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Fall of Adam

I’ve been thinking about original sin a lot over the past few years. Right now my beautiful and sexy wife and I are working through Credo House‘s Discipleship Program, and in Session 2: Mankind, Michael Patton and Tim Kimberley (going back to Augustine and Calvin, of course) break mankind’s sin problem down into three categories:

Particular Sin: This is the easiest one to buy into and, as a Mormon, it’s the only one I grew up believing in. Weirdly, for orthodox Protestants, it’s actually the least important. Our particular sins are the specific sins we commit during our lifetimes. No big stretch at all to imagine that God will hold us accountable for them; even Pelagius agrees. It seems fair.

Inherited Sin: By inherited sin I mean a sinful nature, and this is more than just being born into an environment where people sin and we learn by example (Pelagius again), but an inherent sinful nature that we are born with. Not just nurture, but actual nature: an inherent propensity to sin that we can’t overcome on our own. This I did not grow up believing in (as Mormons are pretty Pelagian), but I have grown convinced of it since coming back to Christianity. I even wrote what I consider to be one of my better blog posts about it back in 2012. I really hope that you will go back and read it, but to briefly summarize in case you don’t, I believe that the idea that we are subject to inherited sin is actually a far more just doctrine than the Mormon/Pelagian idea that we are guilty for our own sins only, because it acknowledges the reality that we really do lack the power to obey God’s law:

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

So far, so good. Original Sin: I’m on board. But then we get to the idea of imputed sin, and that’s a sticky wicket.

Imputed Sin: The doctrine of imputed sin holds that we are not only guilty of our own particular sins and guilty of having a broken and sinful nature, but that we are actually each individually and personally guilty of Adam’s sin. That absolutely flies in the face of our contemporary cultural ideas about individual responsibility, justice and fairness. Why should we be guilty for someone else’s particular sin? How is that fair? And I don’t know if I’m one hundred percent sold on it, but I am starting to lean towards it based on Romans 5 (and a drift towards believing in Biblical infallibility). The idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s particular sin sounds ridiculous at first, but then, hang on, because it turns out that’s precisely how the Atonement works. If imputation of sin is not possible, then Jesus can’t die for our sins. And that sure sounds like what Paul is saying in Romans 5, if you read him carefullly and allow him to communicate to you with the precision that he intended (I think that Mormons are able to gloss over Paul by treating his wrigint in the sort of broad narrative sense that you can treat most of the rest of the Bible, but that doesn’t do Paul justice because unlike, say, the Evangelists, Paul was writing precisely and theologically, so we need to do our best to read him that way).

So I’m grappling with the doctrine of imputed sin, and I am coming around to the idea that it may in fact be a Biblically sound doctrine, even though it’s hard to swallow. The fact that it sticks in my craw a bit shouldn’t be a good reason to just discard it–if I do that then really I’m just giving authority to some other influence (my culture, my upbringing, popular culture, my political values) that I have less reason to trust than the Bible. And Jesus’s disciples were constantly telling him that his sayings were hard to accept–having to deal with “hard sayings” is a part of Christianity and means exercising faith when things might not make sense (and I think we need to avoid the kind of easy and arrogant read of Jesus that tames him to our modern cultural values and then assumes that the disciples just thought his sayings were hard because they were primitive and backward and didn’t want to forgive people or love one another like we are totally cool with doing).

So then that brings us to evolution.

I’m not really sure about how the Biblical account of creation and scientific models of the origin of life are reconciled. I don’t really think that my salvation depends on it one way or another, and I am comforted in openness by the fact that we know that some of the church fathers, including Ambrose of Milan and no less than Augustine, didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis. But if Paul actually described imputed sin in Romans 5, how does that work if there was no historical Adam?

I think that it’s a bigger issue than just creation vs. evolution, because if (1) there was no real Adam, (2) you can’t have imputed sin without a real Adam and (3) Paul preached imputed sin in Romans 5, then I think we have a problem. Because that means Paul preached something impossible in the middle of the logical argument of the book of the New Testament that constitutes pretty much the theological bedrock foundation of the Protestant Reformation. If Romans goes, a whole lot goes with it.

The issue is in my head right now because it has come up on Tim’s blog (in the comments to the post that I vote “Sounds Most Like A Death Metal Band”). I admit that I haven’t done all of my homework on what people are saying about a historical Adam in light of scientific theories of the origin of humanity and its theological ramifications, so I’m sort of asking the internet to fill me in. So, internet, tell me: can you have imputed sin and no historical Adam?

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If you, as a Mormon woman, want to be ordained to the priesthood, why don’t you leave the LDS Church and join the Reorganized LDS Church/Community of Christ, where they ordain women?

Partially as a response to the late Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley’s statement in an interview that there has been no “agitation” in the Church for women to be ordained to the priesthood, a number of Mormon women have begun to step up and publicly advocate for ordination. Groups have been formed like Ordain Women. Protests have been planned. Women have told their stories and explained why having the priesthood is important.

But it all seems entirely unnecessary to me. The Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) already ordains women. If you think women should be ordained, why not vote with your feet? I don’t think that there is a good, coherent reason to stay LDS, and I’ll tell you why I think that (and I invite you to tell me if and why you think I am wrong).

Normally, the biggest reason to stay Mormon despite any difficulty you have with the Church is that, at the end of the day, you believe that the Church is the sole holder of the priesthood keys necessary for saving ordinances. But it seems to me that if you believe that the nature of the priesthood is such that the Church is this far in error and can be corrected by “agitation,” you are effectively undermining the notion of exclusive priesthood authority anyway. The point of the priesthood in Mormonism is the authority to act in God’s name. It’s a principal-agent relationship with God. And it’s not just the authority to do saving ordinances, but also the authority to organize and preside over God’s church. But by rejecting the priesthood’s exercise of this authority (e.g., the policy of not ordaining women), you are rejecting the authority itself, aren’t you? If the priesthood held by the LDS Church is God’s exclusive authority, then when God’s agents act within the constraints of their calling, it is as if God has acted, isn’t it? That’s what authority is. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t really believe that the LDS Church’s priesthood is the exclusive authority to act in God’s name after all. And if that is the case, couldn’t you theoretically get the priesthood somewhere else? My understanding is that the Community of Christ will happily give it to you.

You might reply that, even though you may reject the Church’s claims to exclusive priesthood authority, your culture is Mormon and you identify as a Mormon and your Mormon heritage means everything to you and you do not feel like you should have to give it up to get equality. But you don’t! The Community of Christ is just as “Mormon” as the LDS Church is! It’s a close branch of the same family! Joining the Community of Christ is not a rejection of your Mormon identity at all. It’s just a different organization.

You could also say that unity is important, and you don’t believe that leaving the Church for the priesthood is the right decision, but as a Mormon–a member of a schismatic Restoration sect drawn out of schismatic Protestantism from schismatic Roman catholicism–you are hardly in a place to say that. If unity of faith is the most important thing, even to the extent that you are willing to stay in a patriarchal church and work for change that may never happen, the Eastern Orthodox church is happy to welcome you back with open arms. And their patriarchs have better hats.

I know that many Mormons who reject the Church’s truth claims choose to remain members of the Church for fear of family backlash, but I honestly suspect that you would not get nearly the same negative reaction to leaving for the Community of Christ. It’s still appreciably Mormon after all. I strongly suspect that your friends and family would not feel anywhere near the rejection that they would feel if you just became an atheist or an Evangelical. You would retain a cultural common ground without having to be a part of the Patriarchy. You might even get less flak for switching to the CoC than you would for staying LDS as a dissenter.

I’ve also heard the arguments about inequality anywhere hurting all of us, and whether or not I agree with that (it’s a zinger of a statement that can stand to have come unpacking and close examination done to it, but that is outside the scope of this post), I’m not sure it applies. There’s no guarantee that “agitating” inside the Church will change anything anyway, and voting with your feet will have an immediate individual and potentially powerfully aggregate impact (you make a statement, the patriarchal Church doesn’t get your tithing money anymore, membership in the patriarchal Church shrinks, etc.).

So why not convert to the Community of Christ?

(I want to be clear–this is an honest question and I’m interested in hearing the answers. I’m not a member of the Community of Christ, so I have no vested interest there; it just seems like it would be a better option.)

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Roger E. Olson has written an interesting post compiling what he believes to be “Every Known Theistic Approach to Old Testament ‘Texts of Terror’“:

The phrase “texts of terror” usually refers to stories in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible that describe God as commanding his people to slaughter groups of men, women and children and “show them no mercy” (to quote on such command).

Here I will lay out all the theistic approaches to interpreting these texts I am aware of. Every “other” approach I know about seems to me to fall under one of these—as a version of it. You may be aware of others. Feel free to post them here.

As you can see, in my opinion, all have serious problems. This is almost certainly a question that will have to wait for answer until paradise or the eschaton.

(Go to his blog to see what the approaches are)

I can’t think of any other approaches than the ones he lists, and I think he does a good job of succintly summarizing the problems with each approach. For myself, I don’t know where I come down on the issue (maybe Olson’s “wait and see” approach is the best after all), but I do feel strongly that it is important to seriously grapple with the Bible’s difficult passages. Although I am not necessarily advocating for Biblical inerrantism, I think we fall into an immediate and serious error when we simply discard the passages that make us uncomfortable (whether they are these “texts of terror” or any other passage that conflicts with our modern cultural sensibilities). I think we are obligated to seriously grapple with every word of the Bible. Yes, it is difficult. But to do otherwise means subordinating the Bible, and ultimately God, to our modern cultural sensibilities. If we want to do that, nobody’s going to stop us, but we’ll be building a house on a sandy foundation, and in any case we shouldn’t keep kidding ourselves about being Christians.

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Paganism is about honoring the fundamental aspects of authentic human experience. It’s about looking at the parts of existence that are terrifying and overwhelming and trying to figure out what they mean: things like birth, death, sex, war, love, art, and even the powerful, capricious, and unpredictable forces of the natural world. The gods give rise to these essential facets of human experience (and/or are themselves born from them), and to deny one or more of the gods because there is no place in your life or your worldview or your schema for the things they represent is to deny a fundamental part of who you are.

War is a part of being human. It may be ugly, brutal, and horrifying, but it is omnipresent. To be truly human is to know war. To reject Ares because you reject war is to reject a part of what it means to be you. And to reject Ares because you reject war means also rejecting warlike aspects of many of the other gods as well: Athena, Aphrodite, Zeus, Dionyus just off the top of my head.

Who would Ares be without war? A god of mental conflict? A god of physical exertion? We already have those gods. Ares is a god of a lot of things, and there are a lot of lenses through which to view Ares, but he is primarily a god of war. Trying to edit the war out of Ares is like trying to edit the sex out of Aphrodite. I don’t know what you’re left with, but it isn’t the real deal. That kind of selective approach to the gods is apparently pretty popular among neopagans, but I honestly don’t think it’s a road that is going to take you anywhere worth being.

Think about it: the soldier knows both war and peace, but the pacifist tries to know only peace. The pacifist is rejecting an entire part of human existence because it does not suit him or her. Whether that’s a thing worth doing, or a thing we should be doing, is not actually the issue. But I would maintain that trying to edit human existence to remove the bits we don’t like is just not what any kind of real paganism is about. Christianity does that, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Not paganism.

I also don’t think, with regards to Ares, that it’s a question of whether violence is necessary or justified, but merely whether it is an essential facet of human existence. Violence IS. War IS. We can play at quasi-Christianity if we want and imagine a utopia where violence no longer exists, but even in Christianity that requires massive divine intervention. The overwhelming, unanimous weight of human history tells us in no uncertain terms and with no exceptions that war and violence are fundamentally a part of the human condition.

Whether or not this reality is morally acceptable is a question that is, in my opinion, not even on paganism’s radar. Violence is a part of human reality, and paganism is about how we honor and respond to human reality. The ethics of paganism ask not whether a violent society is morally acceptable, but instead ask “given that violence and war exist as a part of the human condition, how do you respond virtuously?”

Look to the epics, the philosophers, and the myths. Look to the maxims. Tell me what the answer is. The world is violent–we honor that when we honor Ares. The question is how you respond with virtue when presented with that violence, whether you’re a kid in the hall at school getting beaten up by bullies, a young man who just got his draft notice, or a parent whose family is threatened.

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A new blog focused on Ares, called Aspis of Ares, is up as of last weekend, and I am excited about it and will be following along faithfully except that, as is the case with many Blogspot blogs that use OpenID for commenting, I basically am unable to leave comments from the machine I usually use (and weirdly I cannot leave them as “Kullervo,” either). So I thought I would reformulate my thoughts on Peripatetic Pete’s blog in general and the issue he raised in his first post and post it here myself as a full-fledged blog post of my own.

Pete says:

I decided to dedicate a blog for Ares for a number of reasons. First is that, even in modern circles of Polytheists (Hellenic or otherwise), Ares gets a bad rap, and I want to discuss Him and his dominion and why it is important we continue to acknowledge and sacrifice to Ares. Second, there’s not much information available for the worship of Ares, modern or ancient, so I want to share my findings, musings, and UPG regarding practice. Third, since modern worshipers are few and far between, and online groups can be active only sporadically, I wanted to gather as many resources for Ares’ worship into one place.

On the one hand, it seems to me like bloggers with a strong bent towards Ares have been coming out of the woodwork lately (at the very least there’s me, Wednesday, and now Ophiokhos), so maybe there’s a change in the air, or at least a trend towards some kind of increasingly vocal minority.

On the other hand, you only need to glance through the pagan internet to see that a lot of people out there are very uncomfortable with Ares, don’t know how to approach him at all, or want absolutely nothing to do with him. Whether they ignore Ares, hostilely disparage him, or try to subvert him into some kind of symbolic god of moral struggle in the service of their favorite liberal political agenda, they do him an incredible disservice.

My thoughts on the reasons for Ares’s unpopularity are themselves demonstrably unpopular (given the knee-jerk reaction people have had when I have posted them in the past), but here they are:

(1) I think that for most modern western people, we live lives that are so insulated from the reality of war that even thinking of it as a real thing it makes us extremely uncomfortable. Make no mistake: war is with us, it has always been with us, and there is no indication that it will ever not be with us. We put it out of our minds easily because war is not happening right here, right now, and at the risk of spouting cliches, we often fail to remember the hard wars that have been waged and are currently being waged to try to keep it that way. And while I think fighting to keep our homes safe and peaceful is virtuous and noble, when there is a massive imbalance, virtue slides back into its enemy. We are lazy, weak, and complacent, and we resent the people who fight our wars far away because they remind us that war is real. What we have done inadvertently is to create an artificial world-within-a-world where we do not face the proximity of war, and that means we are cut off from what is honestly a fundamental facet of the human experience. In doing so, we have actually become less human–what an irony in how we talk about the dehumanizing effects of war, when freedom from war also dehumanizes us!–and consequently, we have distanced ourselves from the gods that reflect those parts of humanity.

(2) Ares is not only a god of war, but a god of manhood and masculinity, a concept that is not popular either: in much of modern cultural discourse, manhood either denigrated, ridiculed, conflated with boyhood, or dismissed as an entirely optional social construct that can be cast aside as a dysfunctional and useless relic in a modern enightened world. Or worse, masculinity is re-defined by the self-help crowd into something emasculated and more socially accpetable. I think this pattern closely connected to my point above: we inhabit an artificial and (in the long term) unsustainable sociocultural bubble of gross prosperity and opulence, where masculinity, and the pursuits associated with masculinity, are not necessary for individual, family or community survival. As long as we play along with our cultural milieu, we don’t really have to be manly in order to survive and protect and provide for our wives and children. But again, it means cutting ourselves off from our own humanity: by creating this social dystopia, we have isolated ourselves from part of what makes us human, and consequently from the gods–including most particularly Ares–that reflect that part.

(3) Ares is a god of physical courage, and we are a culture of physical cowards. For probably a dozen different related reasons, we have collectively granted ourselves permission to be weak, and have done our best to steadily re-engineer the rules and rewards of our culture in order to reflect that. Physical courage is now seen as unnecessary risk-taking, because the default position for far too many people is total spinelessness. And Ares stands squarely against that position, for men and women.

That’s what I think at least. Through our successes, we have swung too far beyond peace, safety and prosperity into complacency, neurosis and decadence, and we are less human because of it. And Ares, a stark reminder of what we have done to ourselves, shames us. We reject Ares because we are ashamed. And by the gods, we should be.

Hail Ares! Hail the fearsome lord of war, stormer of cities, feasted by women, who rallies fighting men and leads them brazen-armed into battle! Hail the golden-helmed master of the hounds! I give you praise and honor!

(Also, check out my other recent post about what Ares is all about)

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As I mentioned earlier this year, I am officiating at my sister-in-law’s wedding. To this end, I have written a nice, broadly nonsectarian spiritual-but-not-religious ceremony (from which I will post excerpts probably after the wedding), and I have done a bit of work to look the part. I bought a black suit (I needed a new suit anyway, as I am in a suit-wearing career), and even a clergy shirt with a tab collar (from Mercy Robes–great people to deal with by the way).

I’m not going to lie; I look smashing in my clerical duds, but I used the phrase “look the part” intentionally above. In my black suit and clergy collar, I don’t feel like a cleric; I feel like I am wearing a cleric’s costume. And I don’t want to feel like that, because all silliness aside, I take this kind of thing seriously. I’m not going to be playing a priest on TV; I am a priest. I don’t need an organization to validate my faith or my earnestness in acting in the name of the gods, and even if I did, I’ve got that in the bag.

What’s missing from the equation is my faith. Now, the wedding is not about me, and to my knowledge, nobody at this wedding shares my spiritual leanings to even the remotest degree. But if I’m going to perform the ceremony, my authority comes from my gods, whether I name them by name or not.

So to tack a short ending on a long story, I talked my mother into making me a clerical stole to wear over my black suit, in plain white, with peacock feathers for Hera, the goddess of marriage. I will be in her service when I perform this wedding, and I want to show it. But subtly, and tastefully. Because it’s not my wedding, after all. But if anybody asks, I’ll not hesitate to tell them: peacock feathers are a symbol of Hera, the goddess of marriage. But it doesn’t need to go further than that. The gods are a part of all of our cultural heritage, whether we call ourselves pagans or not.

So here’s my stole. It was sweet of my mother to make it for me, and on insanely short notice. She is both talented and skilled. The picture quality s not fantastic, but I will post a picture of me all dressed up soon.

Thanks, Mom.

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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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