What Manner of People Should We Be? Prig or Penitent?

There is a natural and dynamic tension in most faith communities between the letter and the spirit of the law. What kind of people should you be?  asked Jesus of the Nephites.  Be like me, he said, answering his own question (3 Nephi 27:27). Jesus of course knew the letter of the law very well. But he himself was the spirit of the law, a spirit that transcended but did not necessarily rescind the letter of the law.

“Be ye therefore perfect” (Mathew 5:48) is often cited by those who would follow a letter of the law or perhaps a gospel “checklist” mode of gospel progression.  But “perfect” in this instance was likely mistranslated from what should have been something like “whole” or “consistent.”  Before the charge is given in verse 48  to be “perfect”, the Lord compared and contrasted  the letter and the spirit of a few of the more salient commandments.  “You have heard it said”:  you must not lie, you must not commit adultery, etc.  Each of these “letters of the law” were followed with a “but I tell you”  to look a little deeper, to look at the spirit of the law.  No murder—of course!  But anger with your brother or sister also puts you in danger of judgement.  The checklist mode of keeping the commandments is not enough –not enough by far. This entire section of Matthew 5:21-48 is a call to deeply examine the spirit of each of these laws or commandments. I explore this section in more detail here. Continue reading What Manner of People Should We Be? Prig or Penitent?


Literature for the Member Errant. Part 3 San Manuel Bueno, Martir

The short story of San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, by Miguel de Unamuno, is perhaps the most important of the three resources for members errant.  Unamuno paints the story of a village priest who no longer believes, but he believes his parishioners need to believe, and he dedicates himself to feeding that need. Later in life, 2 of his parishioners draw a confession from him, and it is here that we see the depth of his sacrifice –the sacrifice of putting to one side his own aspirations and dreams. But eventually the dreams of his flock become his own dreams. Continue reading Literature for the Member Errant. Part 3 San Manuel Bueno, Martir

Literature for the Member Errant. Part 2. Marcus Borg

 ‘erənt’ erring or straying from the proper course or standards, or:
traveling in search of adventure (as in knight errant). Take your pick.

Reading Marcus Borg, again, for the first time

Marcus Borg introduces us to Jesus and the scriptures for the first time, again. For the first time again because we are taking a new look at the scriptures, as it were for the first time. But this time as moderns, as people guided by reason. His view is very much in line with Joseph Campbell, with a real focus on metaphor and meaning. Borg is focused on the scriptures of Christianity, while Campbell takes in the whole of human experience.

For me, Borg’s work is about reconciliation. After going through a period of doubt and disaffection, with respect to the church and its canon, I can come again to the scriptures and see the truth that matters. In a sense, it is coming to a place where I am not overly worried about the absolute factual truth of every scripture story, but to a place where I can find redeeming meaning  in the timeless stories and parables of our scriptures.

Coming again to Jesus and the scriptures defines Borg’s work—even his titles: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, perhaps his two most well-known books. Borg is a biblical scholar, and clearly an “unbelieving” modern, but at the same time he also appears to be totally grounded in the bible, and very much a biblical enthusiast.  He calls his state “postcritical naiveté”: “the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even though one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.” Continue reading Literature for the Member Errant. Part 2. Marcus Borg

Literature for the Member Errant. Part 1. Joseph Campbell.

'erənt'  erring or straying from the proper course or standards, or: 
traveling in search of adventure (as in knight errant). Take your pick.
Part 1: Joseph Campbell

Staying in the church can be a struggle for some of us. Family ties keep me in, but over the years a deeper reconciliation has made it possible for me to feel at peace with “my” church. This reconciliation has not necessarily been an increase in testimony, although there has been some of that. Mainly it has been about seeing things in a much more tolerant light. Some deep reading and reflection has illuminated my path in that regard. In a series of posts, I will review the guiding lights that have influenced me.

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell is the Hugh Nibley of the gentile world. Really it should be the other way around. Their similarities are profound. Both are scholars of the arcane, but in later years they both plumbed the depths of meaning found in their respective fields—Campbell in mythology, and Nibley in ancient scriptures and epigrapha. It is in their interpretive writings that we find the most inspiring words.

With Campbell we learn the truth of mythology. It is not that mythology is debunked. It is that mythology is seen as a deeper shade of true. Mythology is not make-believe. It is the prism whereby we can ascertain the deeper truth of things. Continue reading Literature for the Member Errant. Part 1. Joseph Campbell.

The fellowship of the Watchtower or of the Gardener?

Priesthood lesson 22, Broadway 3rd Ward, Houston, Nov 2017

President Hinkley called the loss of members after baptism the greatest tragedy that can occur in the Church. Given that we consistently lose 60-70% of baptized members, it seems we are in a state of perpetual tragedy.

My ward and stake are in the midst of a concerted “rescue” effort to bring back wayward Melchizedek priesthood holders. This effort has some new spins on it, but like some many others before it, the effort is starting to fade, in spite of our best intentions.

We seem to do well at focusing on the flows of members—flows into the Church through missionary work, and flows of members out of the Church through inactivity. The outward flow is of great concern, so we frequently engage in “rescue” efforts to try to stem that flow somewhat. While we do pay some attention to what happens in the ward itself to wayward and potentially wayward members (we know, for example, that they need a calling, a friend, some nurturing), most of our efforts seem to be on what happens outside the Church –how do we get new members in, and how do we bring back those who have left? Continue reading The fellowship of the Watchtower or of the Gardener?

Be ye therefore …whole and merciful

Be ye therefore perfect (Matthew 5:48) is well-loved scripture among Mormons, but also the source of much frustration and angst. Elder Jeffrey Holland focused on the frustration side of things in his General Conference talk in October 2017. He recounts what he hears from members across the globe: “I am just not good enough.” “I fall so far short.” “I will never measure up.”  He cites a   Sister Darla Isackson who “observed that Satan has somehow managed to make covenants and commandments seem like curses and condemnations. For some he has turned the ideals and inspiration of the gospel into self-loathing and misery-making”.

Elder Holland then articulates the standard Mormon explanation: we are not expected to be perfect now, but eventually. So we don’t have to feel miserable about not measuring up, at least not just yet. And in the end, it is the Savior who through his atonement makes perfection possible. So we must do all we can, but we must trust in the Lord’s grace in the final analysis.

But is Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) really referring to a future time in the afterlife for this directive?  I think not. A key element of the directive is “therefore,” a conjunctive adverb, which as the name suggests, links two independent clauses: “be perfect”, and the section that immediately precedes this directive. The “be perfect” clause cannot, therefore, be interpreted as a stand-alone instruction, as it has by generations of Mormon scholars and leaders. More than just a simple oversight, this in vacuo  interpretation of the “be perfect” mandate robs it and what goes before of significance. Continue reading Be ye therefore …whole and merciful

All the seeds are within us

Preliminary thoughts for a sacrament meeting talk

seed to tree

Seeds are powerful metaphors.  Much of life seems to be bound up with seeds one way or another. All mammals pass through a seed life stage, as do many plants.  One of the Restoration’s most powerful seed metaphors is contained in Alma 32, where the word is compared to a seed.  The seed is advertised as that of a large tree, representing a mature and strong faith. But one can be unsure of the seed yet willing to give it a try.  But you have to follow a protocol to really test the seed, just like you would with a regular seed.  You plant it in good soil, when it sprouts you at least know it is a good seed and so worth caring for a little more. As it grows, you begin to see its utility so you continue to care for it. Eventually it is the promised tree. Such is the word of  truth, that it can grow inwardly, and eventually become a sure faith, like a mighty oak. Continue reading All the seeds are within us

No Place for Fellowship: LDS Sabbath Worship

There is no place for fellowship in the LDS Sabbath worship.  There is no theological ban on fellowship on Sundays. In fact, Mormons greatly value fellowship. There is just no place for it on Sundays. Literally. The schedule is full of teaching, with a little singing thrown in.

It wasn’t always so. Continue reading No Place for Fellowship: LDS Sabbath Worship

Reflections on the New Year: Embrace your fate—and challenge it…with love.

Taken from a Sacrament meeting talk, 12-27-2015

We can’t predict anything specific about the New Year, but we can be sure that among those in this congregation, serious sorrow will come to some and real happiness to others. And many will experience both in the coming year. Further, some events will bring both pain and happiness at the same time to others.  There will be death—if not to you or someone in your immediate family, then to someone you know. There will be pain—in both body and spirit. Some may lose jobs or have other reverses.  On the other hand, some will get promotions or other successes, some will be married, and some will have children or grandchildren.

Change is the one thing we can predict for sure for the New Year and for those that follow. We just can’t control what exactly will come our way. What we can control is our attitude, and how we will respond to the coming changes. Continue reading Reflections on the New Year: Embrace your fate—and challenge it…with love.

Wanting to Know

A review of Steven Peck’s “Evolving Faith”

and a brief digression into the epistemology of faith and belief

Peck-faith cover

Steven L. Peck has just published  “Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist.”  Peck plows some familiar ground exploring the intersection of science and faith. Peck is a confirmed evolutionist and also apparently a fairly devout Mormon. He believes that a devout scientist can navigate these spheres with equal skill, and he ably and interestingly charts his paths in and around these issues in both of his roles. As a scientist and as a devout Mormon, I share Peck’s perspective. It is indeed possible to be both devout and a solid, rigorous scientist, despite the protestations of the fundamentalists Peck and I have both no doubt frequently encountered.

Circumscribed into one great whole

I take issue with Peck’s views on knowledge and ways of knowing, however. Peck subscribes to the view that there are two mutually exclusive ways of knowing—an objective, scientific way of knowing, and a subjective, religious or spiritual way of knowing.  I contend that this bifurcated view runs counter to the way Joseph Smith viewed “truth”:

The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2011), 261–70). Continue reading Wanting to Know