Sunday, February 3, 2019

Why go to church?

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

Not infrequently, I read comments from purportedly liberated ex-Mormons about the glories of churchless Sundays.  Instead of attending mind-numbingly dull and repetitious meetings, they claim to spend most of their Sundays skiing, golfing, biking, reading classic books, listening to superb music, perfecting their highly toned bodies through exercise, enjoying the beach, and sipping fine imported wines.

And perhaps they do.

Would I gain by skipping out on Sunday meetings and spending the day as if God didn’t exist?  Yes.  In some ways, quite undeniably so.  I’m not a big fan of meetings myself.  I love forests and oceans.  And quietly reading.

But I think that my life would also be seriously impoverished.

Bracketing the truth-claims of my faith, I simply want to jot down, in no particular order, some of the things that I would be missing if I were to drop out of participation in my ward on Sundays.

I would lose a great deal of social contact, and other types of socializing probably wouldn’t fully (or even significantly) compensate me for that loss.  I think of people who lack the kind of close society that the Church provides — and not merely of young people who need to cruise singles bars in the hopes of picking somebody up with whom they can have a long-term (or even short-term) relationship.  I’ve often noticed boastful entries on a couple of message boards where apostates want to know what everybody else on their board is doing that Sunday morning instead of attending Latter-day Saint services; the obvious answer, at least at the time people are writing there, is that they’re sitting alone in front of their computers, typing comments into cyberspace directed to strangers, to people whom, overwhelmingly, they’ve never met and probably won’t ever meet.

Virtual community isn’t entirely the same thing as real community.  It’s a well-publicized fact that study after study has demonstrated significant health benefits for religious believers.  Some opponents have dismissed those benefits as coming not from religious belief itself, but from being participants in a strongly supportive community.  Fine.  I’m not sure that that’s all it is, but let’s grant that claim for purposes of the argument.  The fact remains that religious believers have pretty easy and regular access to such supportive communities; the irreligious, on the whole, suffer by comparison.

Sometimes, when my wife has been out of town, members of our ward have called me and invited me out to a restaurant.  More often, I’ve enjoyed dinner at the home of neighbors in our ward.

On other, quite different occasions, funerals are well-attended and grieving families are lovingly supported.  (I’ve been to some funerals, outside of Mormonism, where the non-family mourners could easily be counted on one hand.)  Mine is a community of people who “are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9).  “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:45).

Weddings and wedding receptions draw large, supportive crowds.  Wedding and baby showers attract eager helpers and enthusiastic participation.  The community rallies around its members at the crucial pivot-points of their lives.  We aren’t social atoms.  A while back, my wife and her sister were in Hawaii for several days.  By coincidence, so were several members of our ward, in the same area of Maui.  They spent a lot of time together.  By contrast, my parents spent their last three decades in an upscale California neighborhood where there was seldom any contact of any kind with the people who lived on either side of them or across the street.  They were all past the age when they had kids in school and ran into each other at PTA meetings, so they had virtually nothing in common, nothing to bring them together.  They sometimes waved at each other across the street, but that was essentially it.  When my parents died, nobody from their neighborhood attended the services.  I doubt that any of the neighbors even knew that they had died.

Some years ago, Hillary Clinton made an African proverb famous: “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Latter-day Saint wards supply such “villages.”  They supplement the efforts of parents and extended families, providing teachers, youth leaders and activities, scouting programs, youth service projects, and the like.  Parents aren’t left on their own for the moral and social formation of their children.

I’m put in mind of Robert Putnam’s famous 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  The book surveys the decline of “social capital” in the United States since 1950, describing what Putnam holds to be a marked reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans once founded and enriched the fabric of their social lives.  A distinguished political scientist, he believes that this trend undermines the active civil engagement on which a strong democracy depends.  If the earlier Harvard sociologist David Riesman hadn’t already used the phrase in rather a different sense as the title of a famous book of his own, Putnam could easily have described America as, more and more, a “lonely crowd.”  And I doubt very much that Putnam regards internet message boards as an adequate replacement for genuine community.

There are many other values to be found in participation in Latter-day Saint Sunday meetings, or, anyway, in something very like them.  They may not be as hedonistically satisfying as snowboarding or mountain biking on the Sabbath, but they’re probably more important, and perhaps even more satisfying, in the long term.

Take singing, for example.  Some have noticed that, once Americans are out of high school and into their mid-twenties, most never sing much any more.  A small thing, you might think.  But not, perhaps, completely unimportant.  Church, however, offers not only congregational singing, but the chance to participate in a choir.  And, for some, the opportunity to play the piano and the organ on a regular basis.  Good things.  They keep music alive among ordinary people who aren’t professionals at it.  We who participate in church have other sources of music beyond iPods.  We’re not just passive consumers of it.

For Latter-day Saints, Sunday worship offers a weekly opportunity to renew covenants.  Even if critics recognize no transcendent significance in the sacrament service, surely they might be able to see that taking weekly stock of where one stands, and forming weekly resolutions to improve, can have real value.

Sunday services provide a chance for reflection on the biggest of big issues, an opportunity to pause and take stock of oneself and one’s life.  And not just during the administration of the sacrament.  Otherwise, the pressures to careen thoughtlessly through life — “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T. S. Eliot puts it in the first of his Four Quartets — are intense.

At church, we think about the meaning of life.  We become part of a community of Saints that reaches back not only into the early nineteenth century but beyond, into biblical times.  And, even beyond that, into an eternity before this world that extends into an eternity ahead, beyond it.  Especially for Americans, who tend to live in an ahistorical Now, this provides a deeply rich ground for our daily lives and decisions and pursuits.  We’re part of a communion of Saints, of those who’ve gone before and those who will follow after us.  And I haven’t even mentioned family history research, so much encouraged and supported by the Church.)  On an even grander scale, too, the Plan of Salvation, the Great Plan of Happiness, endows every day with potentially cosmic meaning.

I’m currently a Gospel Doctrine teacher in Sunday school.  It’s my favorite Church calling, bar none.  This year, of course, we’re focused on the New Testament — which, even if you deny its inspiration or religious authority, must surely be ranked as one of the greatest of the “Great Books.”  From one perspective, church is a kind of continuing adult education seminar.  It’s fabulous to be able to come together each week in order to discuss some of the greatest and most influential texts in human history.  For those of us who believe that, in doing so, we’re hearing the word of God, it’s an inestimable treasure.

There are even benefits to be gained from simply dressing up.  I’m not someone who loves suits and ties; I prefer, indeed, not to wear shoes.  But I feel sorry for those whose days and weeks are casual all the time, without variation, without certain times and places being demarcated as special, as worthy of somewhat greater formality.  This adds richness to life.

Participating in a community of discipleship offers enormous scope for service — which, as many studies have shown, is a major source of human happiness.  It’s not only the children and the youth who benefit from programs for young people.  The adults who’re involved in them also benefit.  And this extends beyond youth programs.  Teaching, heading up activities, participating in organized efforts to fix up widows’ homes and to shovel snow for the elderly, serving in welfare canneries, volunteering at Church employment centers, and a host of other, similar efforts, can provide deep satisfaction.  I think, in this context, particularly of my service as a bishop, which exposed me to people and situations and experiences I would never otherwise have encountered.  They tested me, and sometimes they worked me to the bone, and I didn’t always handle them as effectively and competently as I wished, but I grew from them in a manner that few other assignments could have matched.

I appreciate a community in which elderly people can still contribute, and in which they’re valued.  Not merely within a family, but publicly.  And not merely for their monetary value, or their productivity as employees, which largely ends when  they retire.  In my ward, older men and women serve in multiple capacities, including the temple and various leadership roles.  They aren’t marginalized into irrelevancy.

It’s true that the preaching in our congregations isn’t done by polished professionals.  It can be uneven.  Sometimes it can be a bit pedestrian. But it’s often quite personal and heartfelt, and, through it, we learn to know about, and to know, our neighbors in remarkable ways.

Our monthly day for fasting and for expressing testimonies in sacrament meeting is, when we approach it in the proper spirit, a feast.  And not merely in terms of the comments made in the meeting by members of our ward.  The opportunity to abstain from food for two meals, and then to donate at least the amount of money saved thereby for assistance to the (mostly local) poor, is a wonderful one.  The money doesn’t go to fundraising campaigns, or to expensive overhead, but directly to people who need it.

Our discussions in priesthood quorums and Relief Society can also be deeply meaningful, and serve to bind us to each other.

These are just a few hasty thoughts.  If I were to forego gathering with the Saints on Sundays, I would miss out on all or most of what I’ve mentioned above, and probably on much else besides.  Would there be some gains?  Yes.  I might get more writing done.  I could, very conceivably, spend more time in the mountains.  I would have more time for television and, even better, for reading.  And so forth.  But, in the long term, even (for now) bracketing the eternal benefits that I foresee, my life would, in several important respects, be measurably less than it now is.

Do you have anything to add?  (Confession:  I’m more interested in comments from believing Latter-day Saints here than I am in hearing from sneering and alienated former believers.  I already know pretty much what they think.  That’s what led me to write this.)


Keeping meaninglessness at bay?

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

New Testament Note 6

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

Matthew 1:2-17
Luke 3:23-38

Most people simply skim or even skip over the genealogies provided for Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.  Those who don’t, however, frequently wonder about the differences between them.

I draw here on S. Kent Brown’s important volume The Testimony of Luke (Provo: BYU Studies, 2015), which is part of the ongoing project of producing a multivolume, multiauthor “Brigham Young University New Testament Commentary” and which offers this comment:

The first, clear impression, of course, is that the two records differ notably.  Whereas Matthew’s is a descending genealogy, tracing Jesus’ ancestry down from Abraham and through David, Luke’s is ascending, tracing Jesus’ ancestry up all the way to Adam.  Matthew records the names of forty-two male ancestors between Abraham and Jesus, Luke sets down fifty-five between the two.  Matthew follows Jesus’ descent from David through the kingly line, beginning with Solomon, but Luke traces the Savior’s progenitors through Nathan, another son of David.  Matthew’s table rests on the number fourteen, multiplied three times; Luke’s list rests on the number seven, multiplied eleven times.  Matthew’s genealogy aims to demonstrate that Jesus is the king of Israel, descended from David through the line of kings.  In fact, Matthew enhances this objective by the repetition of the number fourteen, which represents David, whose name, when reduced to numerical equivalencies in Hebrew, adds up to fourteen (D + V + D [daleth + waw + daleth] equals 4 + 6 + 4).  In contrast, Luke’s genealogy seeks not only to tie Jesus to Adam, and thus to all humankind, but also to further establish his place as God’s son, a concept already revealed in Luke 1-2.  (215)

And here’s another worthwhile comment from Kent Brown’s commentary regarding Luke 3:23:

Luke’s note alone establishes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  According to Numbers 4:3, when a descendant of Aaron reaches thirty years of age, all things being settled, he is then permitted to officiate at the temple (see also Num. 4:47).  A connection to David may also lie in this expression because, according to 2 Samuel 5:4, “David was thirty years old when he began to reign.”  In this connection, Judah ben Tema, a rabbinic authority of the second century AD, taught that “at thirty” a person is fit “for authority.”  (213)

Finally, for those who have worried about what became of Mary’s husband, the Savior’s adoptive father, the Joseph Smith Translation adds a phrase right after Luke 3:23’s “thirty years of age” — “having lived with his father” — that suggests the possibility that Joseph lived long enough to see at least the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  By the time of the crucifixion, though, he seems to be gone.


Homosexuality, the Latter-day Saints, and Suicide in India

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

Thoughts on the passing scene

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

“Unspeakable words”

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

I mentioned the other day that among the classes that I’m teaching this term is Middle East Studies (Arabic) 467R, which is also listed as Philosophy 360R.  The first book that we’re reading for the class is Lenn Evan Goodman, Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), where we’re focusing on Professor Goodman’s translation of a wonderful Andalusian text from the twelfth century.

In that previous entry, I introduced the text’s distinction between learning about something, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, seeing something directly, which is something like the difference between knowing about somebody and knowing somebody — corresponding, roughly, to the contrast between the German verbs wissen and kennen.  Ibn Tufayl, the text’s author, uses terms like ecstasy and intimacy to describe the sort of direct experiential knowledge of the divine that he has in mind.

I quote now another passage from that text in which Ibn Tufayl addresses the person to whom he is ostensibly writing.  (That person may be a real individual or, alternatively, a fictional literary device not unlike “Wormwood,” the junior tempter to whom the senior demon “Screwtape” writes his famous letters in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters or, for that matter, like the “Theophilus” of Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1, who may have been an actual historical correspondent of Luke’s, but whose name, Greek for “Friend of God” or “Lover of God,” has always struck me as somewhat suspicious.)  Anyway, here is Ibn Tufayl:

You may be asking what is actually seen by those who undergo the experience and reach intimacy.  If so, this is something which cannot be put into a book.  Whenever anyone tries to entrust it to words or to the written page its essence is distorted and it slips into that other, purely theoretical branch of discourse.  For, clothed in letters and sounds and brought into the perceptible world, it cannot remain, in any way, what it was.  Accounts of it, thus, differ widely.  Many stray into error by trying to describe it, yet presume others to have strayed who never left the path.  All this is because it is something vast, infinite — encompassing, but unencompassed.

But on the other hand you may desire a discursive, intellectualized introduction to this experience.  And this — God honor you with His intimacy — is something that can be put into words and set down in books.  (98-99)

I think, in this context, of the experience that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4, an ascension experience that, by the way, is symbolically and ritually represented (in my view) by certain elements of Latter-day Saint temple worship:

It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

Note that there is a two-fold constraint on Paul’s ability to tell us what he heard in paradise.  (The “man” to whom Paul refers is clearly Paul himself.)  The “words” that he was given were not merely unlawful or impermissible for him to share (οὐκ ἐξὸν ἀνθρώπῳ λαλῆσαι) but actually “unspeakable” or inexpressible (ἄρρητα ῥήματα).


Temples and Binding Together

(by Dan Peterson , sic et non blog)

I’ve been reading N. T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018).  The two passages below remind me of the Latter-day Saint conception of the temple, linking this world and the next, heaven and earth, those who have gone before with those living now and beyond.  I think of family history, and sealing, and the binding of generations together, and of the idea of the streets of a temple-centered city being numbered outward, to the north and the south and the east and the west of the temple:

All this . . . is many a mile from what we today mean by “religion.”  That is why I often put that word in quotation marks, to signal the danger of imagining that Saul of Tarsus, either as a young man or as a mature apostle, was “teaching a religion” in some modern sense.  Today, “religion” for most Westerners designates a detached area of life, a kind of private hobby for those who like that sort of thing, separated by definition (and in some countries by law) from politics and public life, from science and technology.  In Paul’s day, “religion” meant almost exactly the opposite.  The Latin word religio has to do with “binding” things together.  Worship, prayer, sacrifice, and other public rituals were designed to hold the unseen inhabitants of a city (the gods and perhaps the ancestors) together with the visible ones, the living humans, thus providing a vital framework for ordinary life, for business, marriage, travel, and home life.  (A distinction was made between religio, official and authorized observance, and superstitio, unauthorized and perhaps subversive practice.)

The Jewish equivalent of this was clear.  For Saul of Tarsus, the place where the invisible world (“heaven”) and the visibile world (“earth”) were joined together was the Temple.  If you couldn’t get to the Temple, you could and should study and practice the Torah, and it would have the same effect.  Temple and Torah, the two great symbols of Jewish life, pointed to the story in which devout Jews like Saul and his family believed themselves to be living: the great story of Israel and the world, which, they hoped, was at last reaching the point where God would reveal his glory in a fresh way.  The One God would come back at last to set up his kingdom, to make the whole world one vast glory-filled Temple, and to enable all people — or at least his chosen people — to keep the Torah perfectly.  Any who prayed or sang the Psalms regularly would find themselves thinking this, hoping this, praying this, day after day, month after month.  (22-23)

All this meant that the symbolism at the heart of all ancient temples would come true at last.  Temples were built to hold together the divine realm (“heaven”) and the human realm (“earth”).  Jerusalem’s Temple, like the wilderness Tabernacle before it, was designed as a small working model of the entire cosmos.  This was where the One God of Creation would live, dwelling in the midst of his people.  (48)

A major new Latter-day Saint resource for New Testament study

(by Daniel Peterson 1-24-19)

Fortunately, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints move into a new curriculum year focused on the New Testament — and, indeed, into a new kind of curriculum expecting serious individual and family study at home — helpful though unofficial supplemental resources are available.

There are too many for me to comment on all of them. But here are some suggestions:

• On Saturday, Jan. 26, the BYU New Testament Commentary project will host a conference in the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni Center on Brigham Young University’s Provo campus under the title “In the Beginning Were the Words: A Closer Look at Key New Testament Terms.” It will run from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. — obviously, interested people are welcome to attend whatever portions they can — and admission will be free. Afterward, videos of the conference presentations will be posted. See for information.

• The online Meridian Magazine is posting podcasts relating to this year’s New Testament study at

• The Interpreter Foundation — full disclosure: I serve as its president — is posting (and continually expanding) a “Resource Index” for the 2019 New Testament curriculum; see

• But the resource to which I call particular attention here is a landmark book very recently published by Thomas Wayment, a professor of classics at Brigham Young University (and, before that, of religious education) who received his doctorate from the famous program in New Testament studies at California’s Claremont Graduate School.

Wayment’s “The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints: A Study Bible” provides a modern English version that draws upon his expert knowledge of both the ancient Greek language and the best ancient manuscript evidence. Displaying the text in paragraph form while highlighting quotations, portions of early Christian hymns and poetic passages, it makes the biblical accounts more readable and accessible. Further, the book’s extensive notes are sensitive to Latter-day Saint practices and beliefs, featuring not only alternative renderings, references to manuscript variants and historical explanations, but cross-references to the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.

I do not suggest that Wayment’s or any other modern translation should replace the King James Version of the New Testament in Latter-day Saint usage. It’s not my place to do so, and the King James continues to be the official English translation of the Bible for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But many readers find the often majestic early 17th-century English of the King James Version intimidating, not to mention occasionally incomprehensible. Accordingly, a modern translation such as Wayment’s can significantly increase understanding.

Moreover, even for those to whom the Jacobean English of the so-called “Authorized Version” poses little or no challenge, reading the text in a different translation — whether in a foreign language or a new English version — can provide a fresh and thought-provoking perspective on very familiar passages. And more than four centuries of scholarship on New Testament Greek since the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, to say nothing of the discovery, since then, of many important manuscripts and variant readings, has in some cases strengthened our grasp of what the ancient New Testament authors wanted to say (and wanted us to know).

Permit me to supply an example of how modern translation of a biblical passage can clarify its meaning. Latter-day Saints have long seen in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 an obvious enough prophecy of looming apostasy:

“Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.”

However, 2 Thessalonians 2:7 is rather obscure in its King James translation:

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“For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.”

Wayment’s excellent rendering of the whole chapter, however, suggests that the tidal force of apostasy is being controlled by apostolic authority — but only temporarily:
“For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but the one who restrains him will do so until he is taken out of the way.”

See for more information on the book.


The Nauvoo West Grove Regeneration Project

(by Kenneth Mays 1-23-19)

During the period when the Prophet Joseph Smith lived in Nauvoo, Illinois, he often preached to the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outdoors at several different sites referred to as the groves.

One such site, known as the West Grove, was located on or near the hill that descends from the temple site on the bluffs down to the Nauvoo flats, closer to the Mississippi River. The West Grove was the site of such historic events as the funeral sermon for the Prophet Joseph, which was preached by William W. Phelps (see "Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise," by Glen M. Leonard, page 403.)

Several years ago, a parcel of land at the site of the former West Grove was fenced off. This was to keep visitors out of an area that, up to that time, had been a field of ordinary lawn. Signage at the fence now explains: “In the 1840s, this hill was home to a small group of trees called the West Grove. Latter-day Saints gathered in the grove to learn gospel truths from the Prophet Joseph Smith and other Church leaders. After the Saints left Nauvoo, the trees were cut down for firewood and lumber. In 2015, saplings of those same species of trees were planted here. They will be allowed to grow naturally, protected by this fence. When the trees are mature, visitors will be able to enter this sacred place.”

In the meantime, a site representing what were once the groves in Nauvoo has been recreated to remind visitors of the role the groves once played in Nauvoo. That site is in a grove of trees on the west side of Partridge Street, just south of Mulholland Street.


Monday, January 21, 2019

"Heretics and Other Insiders"

(by Dan Peterson - sic et non blog - 1-19-19)

I like the argument here.  I think it’s solid:

Two reservations:


I’m surely among those Latter-day Saints who insist — many times without result — on identifying themselves as Christians.

I’ve published a book on the topic.

Is this solely about “marketing,” though, as the author rather snootily dismisses it?  No.  It’s about truth.  My theology doesn’t work without Jesus.  My condition is hopeless without Christ.  In my view, the atonement and the resurrection of Jesus are not only historical facts but the very pivot, the entire eternal point, of history.  To have my view dismissed as non-Christian is, from my point of view, ineffably absurd and, simply, a factual untruth.

But I want to return to that somewhat condescending word marketing.  If you recast marketing as missionary work or as evangelizing the world, which is what we’re really talking about, you can, if you’re a believer, easily understand why getting our “branding” right is so very important.

Permit me to cite J. B. Phillips’s translation of the eighth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

Now to deal with the matter of meat which has been sacrificed to idols.
It is not easy to think that we “know” over problems like this, but we should remember that while knowledge may make a man look big, it is only love that can make him grow to his full stature. For whatever a man may know, he still has a lot to learn, but if he loves God, he is opening his whole life to the Spirit of God.
In this matter, then, of eating meat which has been offered to idols, knowledge tells us that no idol has any real existence, and that there is no God but one. For though there are so-called gods both in heaven and earth, gods and lords galore in fact, to us there is only one God, the Father, from whom everything comes, and for whom we live. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom everything exists, and by whom we ourselves are alive. But this knowledge of ours is not shared by all men. For some, who until now have been used to idols, eat the meat as meat really sacrificed to a god, and their delicate conscience is thereby injured. Now our acceptance of God is not a matter of meat. If we eat it, that does not make us better men, nor are we the worse if we do not eat it. You must be careful that your freedom to eat meat does not in any way hinder anyone whose faith is not as robust as yours. For suppose you with your knowledge of God should be observed eating meat in an idol’s temple, are you not encouraging the man with a delicate conscience to do the same? Surely you would not want your superior knowledge to bring spiritual disaster to a weaker brother for whom Christ died? And when you sin like this and damage the weak consciences of your brethren you really sin against Christ. This makes me determined that, if there is any possibility of meat injuring my brother, I will have none of it as long as I live, for fear I might do him harm.

If Paul was concerned about how eating meat might interfere with the salvation of others, how much more, it seems to me, should we be concerned about gross misunderstandings or distortions that might prevent people from accepting the Restored Gospel of Christ?  If even a single person out there imagines that, by listening seriously to the message of the missionaries, he or she would be consorting with people who reject the saving role of Jesus Christ as our sovereign Lord and atoning Redeemer, that’s spiritually dangerous and a tragedy.  Thus, we have to insist on clarity regarding this vital matter.


On a much less serious matter raised by the article: I think we should always be clear that, in excommunicating somebody from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church is simply saying that the excommunicated person is no longer a member of the Church.  “Mormonism” is much more diffuse than is Church membership.  If people outside the Church but in some sense connected to the Restoration claim to be “Mormons,” we really can’t stop them.  (Some do so claim.  Many — members of the church formerly known as RLDS, for instance — often don’t.)  However, since, for most non-Mormons (I think), Mormon means “of or pertaining to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” we’ll sometimes need to intervene for the sake of clarity — to point out, for instance, that Brian David Mitchell wasn’t a Mormon any more when he kidnapped Elizabeth Smart, and that Jeffrey Lundgren was never a Mormon.

Heretics and Other Insiders

(by David Mason - aetheism patheos blog - 2-28-15)
If Mormonism is a heresy, it’s only a Christian heresy.  Which means that Mormonism’s very conflict with traditional Christianity demonstrates its Christian character.
In the official record of existence, I have denied that I—a comfortably self-identifying LDS-Mormon—am a Christian.  Many of my LDS-Mormon compatriots have voiced markedly, ironically, un-Christian objections to my denial, as though by way of invective they could force me to be Christian against my will.
As it is, entities such as describe Mormonism as a “heretical religion”, and I don’t mind conceding the point.  Since I find it impossible to believe that god cares one whit whether I’m formally, traditionally, historically, thematically, obnoxiously Christian, the labor that many of my Mormon compatriots invest in securing the title for themselves seems to me only to have a marketing purpose.  And I can’t believe that god cares one whit for marketing, either.
But Mormonism’s heretical notions must be Christian notions, or they can’t be heresies.  Mormonism isn’t a Jewish heresy, after all.  It can’t be an Islamic heresy, or a Hindu heresy.  In common use the term heretic indicates someone who is radically outside a conventional understanding of a religious tradition.  But the heretic—as opposed to, say, the unbeliever—is clearly not outside the tradition to which he or she seems opposed.  The heretic is only a heretic inside the context of a particular religious system.*

The thirteenth century Cathars, who rejected virgin birth, resurrection, and the pope’s authority, were not hunted down by Catholic inquisitors for being outsiders, but for being very, very upsetting insiders.  There’s no way to understand the Cathar movement except as a Catholic one.
Which seems to mean that Mormonism’s Christian heresy necessarily, ironically, shows that Mormonism is Christian, after all.  Where Mormonism’s concept of Jesus is heretical, it’s only heretical in the context of the phenomenon of Christianity.  Eliminate Christianity altogether, and whatever Mormonism thinks about Jesus cannot be heresy.
At least, it appears that folks will have to choose.  If Mormonism cannot be Christian, then it cannot be a heresy.  If Mormonism must be a heresy, it must be Christian.
Whichever you decide to choose makes little difference to me.  I’m perfectly happy affirming that I do Mormonism as a Christian heretic, as an unbeliever, as a polytheist, as a pagan, and as whatever other insult good Christian folks feel suits the purpose.
But, my Mormon compatriots, consider where the concept of heresy necessarily leads: if someone who has been excommunicated by the LDS church for apostasy is an apostate, it’s only as a Mormon apostate.  The LDS church can push a person out of its institutional walls, but it cannot push a person out of Mormonism.  At least, not on the grounds of apostasy.  As long as the term apostate sticks to a formerly-LDS person, the term itself affirms him or her as a Mormon, in deed and truth.
We might have to choose, also, like our gnashing Christian counterparts.  If a person must be a Mormon apostate, he or she must be Mormon.
Or he or she can’t be an apostate at all.
* The Romans had it figured out.  They were smart enough to call the first Christians atheists.

I’m a Mormon, Not a Christian

(by David V. Mason 6-12-12)

Thanks to Mitt Romney, a Broadway hit and a relentless marketing campaign by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormons seem to be everywhere.

This is the so-called Mormon Moment: a strange convergence of developments offering Mormons hope that the Christian nation that persecuted, banished or killed them in the 19th century will finally love them as fellow Christians.
I want to be on record about this. I’m about as genuine a Mormon as you’ll find — a templegoer with a Utah pedigree and an administrative position in a congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am also emphatically not a Christian.
For the curious, the dispute can be reduced to Jesus. Mormons assert that because they believe Jesus is divine, they are Christians by default. Christians respond that because Mormons don’t believe — in accordance with the Nicene Creed promulgated in the fourth century — that Jesus is also the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Jesus that Mormons have in mind is someone else altogether. The Mormon reaction is incredulity. The Christian retort is exasperation. Rinse and repeat.
I am confident that I am not the only person — Mormon or Christian — who has had enough of the acrimonious niggling from both sides over the nature of the trinity, the authority of the creeds, the significance of grace and works, the union of Christ’s divinity and humanity, and the real color of  God’s underwear. I’m perfectly happy not being a Christian. My Mormon fellows, most of whom will argue earnestly for their Christian legitimacy, will scream bloody murder that I don’t represent them. I don’t. They don’t represent me, either.
I’m with Harry Emerson Fosdick, the liberal Protestant minister and former pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, who wrote that he would be “ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic.” Being a Christian so often involves such boorish and mean-spirited behavior that I marvel that any of my Mormon colleagues are so eager to join the fold.
In fact, I rather agree with Richard D. Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who calls Mormonism a fourth Abrahamic religion, along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Being set apart from Christianity in this way could give Mormonism a chance to fashion its own legacy.
Christianity, you’ll recall, had to fight the same battle. Many early Christians grew up reading the Torah, living the law, observing the Sabbath and thinking of themselves as Jews. They were aghast to find that traditional Judaism regarded them as something else entirely.
In addition, these Christians had to defend their use of additional scripture and their unconventional conception of God and explain why they were following a bumpkin carpenter from some obscure backwater. Early Christianity’s relationship with non-Jews was even worse.

Roman writers frequently alluded to rumors about the cannibalistic and hedonistic elements of early Christian rites. One after the other, Christians went to the lions because they found it impossible to defend themselves against such outrageous accusations. They did eat flesh and drink blood every Sunday, after all.
Eventually, Christianity grew up and conceded that it wasn’t authentic Judaism. Lo and behold, once it had given up its claim to Judaism, it became a state religion — cannibalism notwithstanding — and spent the next 1,700 years getting back at all the bullies who had slighted it when it was a child.
Eventually, Mormonism will grow up. Maybe a Mormon in the White House will hasten that moment when Mormonism will no longer plead through billboards and sappy radio ads to be liked, though I suspect that Mr. Romney is such a typical politician that, should he occupy the Oval Office, he’ll studiously avoid the appearance of being anything but a WASP. This could set back the cause of Mormon identity by decades.
Whatever happens in November, I hope Mormonism eventually realizes that it doesn’t need Christianity’s approval and will get big and beat up all the imperious Christians who tormented it when it was small, weird and painfully self-conscious. Mormons are certainly Christian enough to know how to spitefully abuse their power.

Terryl Givens & Thomas Wayment, "A new New Testament translation"

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The groves in Nauvoo, Illinois

(by Kenneth Mays 1-16-19)

The Prophet Joseph Smith lived in Nauvoo, Illinois, for the last five years of his life. During that time, there was not a single building built exclusively for meetings and worship. The temple was under construction and was used as a site to meet on occasion, but it was not really suitable for use until after Joseph’s death. Even then, only the third floor was utilized for ordinance work. The two large halls on the first and second floors were never completed.

There were, however, designated sites in Nauvoo where the Prophet and other church leaders could preach to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outdoors. These were called the groves. There, listeners could sit on the stumps of felled trees, split-log benches, the ground, or they could bring their own chairs. One researcher has noted that the groves were used for “funerals, Fourth of July celebrations, general conferences, Sabbath meetings (weather permitting), and lectures by visiting lecturers” (see "In Old Nauvoo: Everyday Life in the City of Joseph," by George W. Givens, page 145).

There was a grove immediately west of the temple where the bluff begins its slope down to the flats. This was sometimes referred to as the West Grove or Temple Stand. There was another grove or open-air meeting place several blocks east of the temple near the intersection of Knight and Robinson streets (see "Sacred Places, Vol. 3: Ohio and Illinois," edited by LaMar C. Berrett, Keith Perkins and Donald Q. Cannon, pages 169, 175).

The former or West Grove was more commonly used by the Saints, but the East Grove was the site of several important events. One was the Prophet’s general conference address of April 1844, often referred to as the King Follett Sermon. A second event of note held at the East Grove was that when Sidney Rigdon and, later, Brigham Young addressed the Saints with regard to who should lead the church following the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Church Established the Bible, Not Vice Versa

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

I published this article in the Deseret News back on 13 May 2010:

The earliest Christians didn’t believe in the New Testament. They couldn’t. It didn’t exist yet. 

When Paul praises young Timothy because “from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15), the only “holy scriptures” to which he can be referring are those contained in what Christians today call the Old Testament. When Paul proceeds to explain, in the following two verses, that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works,” he’s speaking of the Hebrew Bible. Or, if not, he’s referring to contemporary, ongoing revelation.
More than once, zealous “Bible-believing” Protestants have told me that, since Timothy already had enough scriptural material to “make (him) wise unto salvation” and to render him “perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works,” the Book of Mormon and modern revelation are unnecessary, redundant. They mistakenly assume that Paul was referring to the Bible as they know it. But, by their reasoning, the New Testament itself would seem to be superfluous, as well. (I generally congratulate such people on their apparent conversion to Judaism.)

2 Timothy was probably written about A.D. 64, at the end of Paul’s life. Most, if not all, of his other letters, obviously, had already been written and sent by then. But they hadn’t yet been gathered together, and the vast majority of Christian congregations — in an age without printing, modern transportation and easy communications — were probably unaware of them. (It’s virtually certain that they didn’t know of them all.) Moreover, the four gospels, the Revelation of John and many of the other New Testament epistles were very likely yet to be written.

Nearly 20 years elapsed between the crucifixion of Christ and Paul’s first letter (1 Thessalonians, written in A.D. 52 or 53), and as many as 60 years or more may have passed before the last New Testament book was composed. (Some scholars would extend that interval to as much as 120 years.) And, then, even more time was still required to gather up the various books, copy them and establish a canon of scripture. In fact, complete texts of the New Testament were still relatively rare until Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-15th century. Individuals seldom, if ever, owned their own copies; very few elite congregations possessed a complete set of the biblical writings. Moreover, most people were illiterate anyway. Given the rarity of books, illiteracy wasn’t a crippling liability, and the incentive to learn to read was relatively small. (Medieval European stained glass windows served a vital teaching function.)

What this tells us is that many generations of Christians lived and died without access to the New Testament in anything like the sense we know (and take for granted). So there must be something else that made them Christians, something prior to acceptance of the New Testament.

What was it? Plainly, it was the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. In the very earliest days of the Christian movement, such acceptance came via personal acquaintance with him, through hearing and receiving his teachings. Subsequently, it came through accepting the teachings of his apostles and other missionaries—still transmitted orally in almost all cases. Then, as the apostles and the earliest Christian disciples departed the scene, the task of passing on the doctrine of Jesus and the facts about his ministry, crucifixion and resurrection fell to those of the next generations. Sometimes they may have been equipped with a gospel or with an epistle or two, but, probably most often, they relied solely on oral tradition and memory.

This is another clue to what made people Christians in the earliest period: fellowship with the church and the disciples of Christ. As St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. A.D. 108) put it in his post-apostolic time, in order to be a Christian, one had to be in fellowship with one’s Christian bishop. The church existed prior to the New Testament. It wrote the New Testament books and defined the canon. The Bible doesn’t establish the church; the church established the Bible.


Move over, Vatican -- there's a new church in town!

(by Delia Gallagher 1-15-19)

Italy's first ever Mormon temple opened on Monday, just a few miles up the road from the Vatican, in the Eternal City of Rome.

While the building's spires don't reach the heights of St. Peter's 450-foot-high dome, the Pope's new neighbors hope their temple will also become a place of pilgrimage for spiritual seekers.
Elder Ronald Rasband, one of 12 men known as Apostles who govern the Mormon Church, says the choice of Rome is based on its history as the center of Christianity.
"The early apostles served and lived and were martyred here in Rome," he told CNN, "so this is the place that our prophet (President Russell M. Nelson) felt the temple in Italy should be."
Rasband says Mormon leaders discussed their plans with the Vatican and that the two churches often work together on social issues.
"We are friends with the Catholic Church," Rasband said. "I have been part of an official delegation to go to the Vatican and meet with cardinals and others about not only this project and not only our church in Italy but relative to the interrelationship we have with our friends, the Catholics, all over the world, whether it has to do with humanitarian work, refugee work or freedom of religion in the public square."
The Temple
The 40,000-square-foot building is made of Italian marble and granite. While the church won't reveal any costs, no expense has been spared in this house of God, with sparkling Swarovski crystal and Murano glass chandeliers set in 24-carat gold adorning its rooms.
Mormon temples are used mainly for baptisms and marriages, and only members of the faith in good standing may enter their inner rooms.
Showers and locker rooms are also provided in the building, where members must change into white garments and slippers before the ceremonies.
At the heart of a Mormon temple is a small pool, a full-immersion baptismal font, where Mormons baptize their dead ancestors by proxy in a ceremony central to their belief that families are bound together for all eternity and that only the baptized can enter the Kingdom of God.
Once the temple has been dedicated in March, non-Mormon visitors will only be allowed into its outside spaces and visitors' center.
An American Beginning
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon church is officially called, was founded in New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who claimed to have received a revelation from God.
There are some 16 million Mormons worldwide, according to the church's statistics, with more Mormons now living outside the United States than inside it.
The US currently has some 6.5 million members, while Mormons in South America number 4 million. Europe accounts for 500,000 of the church's members, some 6,000 of whom are in Italy.
The Italian temple is the 162nd Mormon temple in the world and the 12th in Europe.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Rome Italy Temple Begins Public Tours

A brief thought on women and the priesthood

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

There is no serious question that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, in some very important senses, a patriarchal organization.  Its priesthood is exclusively male, for example, which means that the central leadership positions in local congregations and in the Church as a whole are held entirely, or almost entirely, by men.

But, I’m going to hastily argue, that may not be quite as important or lethal as some on the outside assume.

For example, while the Catholic hierarchy is likewise all-male, there is this crucial difference between the Catholic and LDS churches:  The Catholic hierarchs are celibate.  Which is to say that, while they obviously all have mothers and may well have sisters, they have no wives and no daughters, and they’re formed in all-male institutions such as seminaries and monasteries and they live and work very largely in an all-male and all-celibate world of fathers superior, abbots, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals.  By contrast, all Mormon leaders are married, and most have daughters and/or daughters-in-law and/or granddaughters.  In fact, Mormonism teaches that the highest degree of heaven is available only to those who are married.  (It also makes provision for those who have died unmarried to enter into marriage after death.)

Further, I suspect that many outsiders assume, hearing that Mormons have an all-male “clergy,” that sermons in our worship services are always given by men, and that women are silent in our churches.  But such an assumption is entirely baseless.  We have no professional clergy, and our bishops don’t give sermons every Sunday, or even most Sundays.  Rather, ordinary members of our congregations give the “sermons,” with several such “sermons” being given on just about any typical Sunday.  And, in fact, it’s a very rare Sunday when there isn’t at least one woman speaking in our main worship service.  Often, in fact, there will be more than one — perhaps, in addition to one or two men, a young woman (a teenager) and an older, married woman. And women routinely teach our Sunday school classes, too.  (Even in the worldwide general conferences of the Church that are broadcast globally — today’s, for example — women speak to the entire church from the podium of Salt Lake City’s Conference Center.)

Moreover, women are represented in the ward leadership councils of each local congregation, and in councils for the Church as a whole.

And they serve as missionaries for the Church.  More of them, in fact, are now serving than ever before.

I was delighted by the announcement that younger sisters could serve.  It has led to many more sister missionaries representing the Church to the world — which will eventually help (I hope) to lessen the Church’s reputation for patriarchal sexism.  I’ve known many young women who wanted to serve missions but who, for various reasons, were worried about beginning their service at a relatively advanced age.   (Twenty-one seems really old when you’re really young.)  It also makes available to the Church a huge reservoir of enthusiasm and spiritual power that is of enormous assistance in the work of, as we say, “building the Kingdom.”


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Ephesians 6:13

On what it feels like to be a Mormon ‘apologist’

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

I published this article in the Deseret News on 29 October 2015:

Few, if any, medicines cure every patient. Even the best pharmaceuticals can sometimes cause harm, hence the obligatory warnings. One in 7 flu vaccinations leads to coughing, abdominal pain or nausea. One in a hundred causes fever.
But this scarcely means that vaccinations are without value.

So, too, with “apologetics,” arguments marshaled to defend a (typically religious) position. Few arguments will convince everybody — otherwise, obviously, informed people wouldn’t still hold differing political, economic, philosophical and religious opinions. But that fact doesn’t, in itself, prove the arguments bad.

Some who’ve failed to benefit from apologetic arguments for Mormonism claim that the arguments are therefore worthless, or even worse. Of course, it’s difficult to know how well they understood the arguments — in my experience, many critics have plainly misunderstood the reasoning — or how much relevant material they’ve actually encountered in the first place.

But perhaps I can offer my own perspective, that of someone who’s been deeply involved in Mormon apologetics for nearly three decades.

Are there still debates? Absolutely. Just as there are about the authorship of the Homeric poems and of Shakespeare’s plays. Do problems remain? Certainly. Do some questions still lack answers? Absolutely. We would love, for instance, to find an inscription identifying the ruins of Zarahemla. It would also be nice to know whether horses, in the modern sense, existed in the Americas in Nephite times, or whether perhaps the Nephites called some unfamiliar other animal a horse — as the Greeks did when they encountered Egypt’s hippopotamus. (“Hippopotamus” is Greek for “river horse”; in German, a hippopotamus is a “Nilpferd,” or “Nile horse.”)
Years ago, my friend Louis Midgley alerted me to an anecdote that the eminent Protestant church historian Martin Marty once used to make a point about Mormonism: The famous 18th-century French hostess Marie de Vichy-Chamrond, the Marquise du Deffand, friend of Voltaire and other leading intellectuals of her day, was conversing with Cardinal de Polignac. He told her that the martyr St. Denis, first Christian bishop of Paris, had taken up his head and walked a hundred miles after his execution. Madame du Deffand replied, “In such a promenade, it is the first step that is difficult.” She meant, of course, that it’s not the claim that St. Denis walked a hundred miles that poses a difficulty. Maybe he really walked only 99 miles. Or perhaps he walked a hundred and two. Such differences mean little. The fundamental question is whether, after his beheading, he walked at all. If that essential point has been granted, the rest is merely a footnote.

In my judgment, which I know is shared by others in my “apologist” circles, there’s far more than enough evidence to justify confidence in that “first step” with respect to Joseph Smith, who restored The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and translated the Book of Mormon, and Mormonism.

The witnesses to the Book of Mormon, the complexity of its content and the speed of its dictation, the manifold ways in which it and other revelations given through Joseph Smith seem to fit the ancient milieu that they purport to reflect, the abundant evidence of Joseph’s sincerity and good character, the profundity of his teachings — these and many other things seem so striking that, for us, many other controversies resemble quibbles over whether St. Denis walked a hundred miles or only 99. (For reading suggestions on some of these topics, see my previous column “Some aids to nourish our faith.“)

Some critics claim to detect desperation in contemporary Mormon apologetics. For myself and, I think I can safely say, for others whom I know, this simply isn’t true. We’re excited and exhilarated by what we see. Of course, we try to defend the Restoration against attack. In this, we follow a remark from an essay on C.S. Lewis by the late Austin Farrer that long served as something of an unofficial motto for the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and its successor, Brigham Young University’s Maxwell Institute:

“Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”

We’re much more thrilled, though, about positive arguments that, we believe, illustrate the credibility of Mormon claims. They can strengthen faith and, where necessary, create doubts about doubts.


A note on “relics”

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

Bill Hamblin and I published this column in the Deseret News on 11 May 2018:

From Neolithic times, if not earlier, humans have buried revered ancestors and leaders in monumental tombs that could serve as sites for pilgrimage. In part, this was an attempt for oral cultures to remember the blessed dead. Parents could take children on a pilgrimage, visiting the tombs of their ancestors, while telling the stories of their great-grandparents.

A classic example from the biblical tradition was the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives (Genesis 23:17-1950:13), and still venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Visiting the tombs of holy men and women often became a practice not just of memorialization, but of seeking spiritual blessings and healings. The holiness of a dead saint continued to reside in his bones or relics, and could be transmitted by those who touched them.

This belief is reflected in a story from 2 Kings 13:21, where, “as (a group of Israelites) were burying a man … they spied a band of (Moabite) men; and they cast the (dead) man into the sepulchre of Elisha (in order to flee the Moabites): and when the (dead) man was let down (into the tomb), and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet.”

But what if there is no known tomb for the holy man, or if the tomb is empty? This is the problem many early Christians faced with the tomb of Jesus Christ. Since Christ is resurrected, no one can visit, see or touch his bones to receive spiritual power, blessings or healing. Visiting the empty tomb of Christ was, of course, an alternative, and the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem remains one of the most visited Christian shrines in the world.

Many early Christians, however, seeking physical manifestations of the spiritual reality of Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection, unceasingly searched for artifacts or relics associated with these events. And, miraculously, they found them, or at least believed they did.

The most important relic associated with Christ was the True Cross — fragments of the wood of the cross of the crucifixion, which was “invented” (meaning “discovered”) by Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, in A.D. 320 in a cistern which is now a chapel in the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. Small fragments of this cross can be seen in many Orthodox and Catholic churches throughout the world, notably in the Greek reliquary chapel of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross of Jerusalem), one of the seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome.

The discovery of other relics associated with the last days of Christ followed over the centuries. Most famous was the Holy Grail (“cup/chalice”) used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Two candidates can still be seen in the Cathedral of Valencia (Spain) and the Cathedral of Genoa (Italy) — which, of course, raises the messy problem of duplicate and forged relics. (Some 200 grails or chalices have been put forward as the original.) 

According to tradition, a young woman named Veronica wiped the brow of Christ with her veil, which miraculously received the imprint of Jesus’s face. The resultant relic, the Veil of Veronica — whose name is an anagram for “vera icon” (“true image”) — is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and has been reproduced in numerous paintings and icons.

The Crown of Thorns was placed on the head of Jesus as part of the torture that accompanied his trial (Matthew 27:29). A relic claiming to be that crown was located in Constantinople for centuries; individual thorns were plucked from it and given as gifts to medieval Christian rulers. Louis IX of France eventually purchased it, building the stunning Sainte-Chapelle in 1248 to house the relic. It is now in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Likewise, the Holy Lance (also the “Spear of Destiny” or “Spear of Longinus,” after the traditional name of the Roman soldier who owned it) is said to have been the spear that pierced Jesus’ side during the crucifixion (John 19:34). Again there are several rival relics, the most famous being the Holy Lance in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna.

These relics were believed to be a conduit by which Christ’s spiritual power could be physically transferred to the believer who saw, venerated or touched the holy relics. To touch such a relic, it was believed, was the closest most people can come to touching God.


Monday, January 7, 2019

What if the Israel-Palestine Conflict Cannot Be Solved? An Interview with Micah Goodman

(by Michael Schulson 12-4-18)

Here’s the catch, according to Micah Goodman: Israel cannot continue to occupy the West Bank, because doing so will precipitate a moral and democratic crisis. But Israel cannot withdraw from the West Bank, because doing so will leave a power vacuum on its borders that could lead to regional collapse.

In other words: to survive, Israel must withdraw. But to withdraw may be to perish. Faced with such a catch, most Israeli voters have retreated into ideological trenches—or simply given up talking about the conflict altogether.

That, at least, is the contention Goodman makes in Catch-67, a surprise bestseller in Israel that appeared in September in English from Yale University Press, in a lucid translation by Eylon Levy.

In Israel last year, the book topped the nonfiction lists for weeks. Much of the Israeli political establishment read it, including, reportedly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was upset enough to publish a lengthy takedown. In a matter of months, Goodman, best known for his writing on Jewish religious history, became a prominent voice in Israeli politics.

Goodman is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and the founder of Ein Prat, a study program for young Israelis. Over the course of two phone conversations earlier this year, he spoke with Religion & Politics about the two-state solution, political pragmatism, and whether it’s hypocritical for him to live in a settlement.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: Discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict are often oriented toward finding a total solution to the conflict. You talk about it as an intractable problem, which is more unusual.

Micah Goodman: I think we’re trapped in a false dichotomy, that we have two options: either the status quo, and wherever that will take us. Or we solve the conflict.

When our aspiration is to end the conflict, every plan seems like a bad plan, because you measure it compared to one question: Will it end the conflict? And since it doesn’t seem like it will, we neglect the plan. Let’s start measuring plans in a more modest way: Does it shrink the conflict? Does it make things better?

R&P: Is there really that much desire to shrink the conflict among Jewish Israelis?

MG: Oh, I think there is a lot of desire. One of the problems we have is that [many] Israelis became indifferent to the conflict. And they became indifferent to the conflict because for years they were waiting for a defined way to solve the conflict. And we can’t solve the conflict, so there’s nothing [they] can do. Other issues grabbed their attention. Serious issues, by the way! Like our relationship with the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, like housing prices, like cottage cheese prices.

Most of the people who became indifferent to the conflict are the more moderate, pragmatic Israelis. The idealists stayed in the conversation, and they’re arguing about the conflict. So the result of that is, when this center left the conversation, it distorted the conversation, because the only people participating in the conversation are the extremists on both sides.

What the book is trying to do is to bring a language that will enable pragmatic moderate people to return to this conversation. My assumption is that this is most Israelis and most American Jews.

R&P: You occupy an interesting position in the Israeli political conversation. By saying that the concerns of both the left and of the right are legitimate, you’re accused of being all over the spectrum. 

MG: After a while, I could sense if a writer criticizing my book is right-wing or left-wing. If they start saying, “Micah is a closet right-winger,” I know they’re left-wing. And if they’re saying I’m a closet left-winger, I know they’re right-wing.

The idealists that have read the book have a hard time overcoming my wish to have a conversation about ideas, and not about labels. The interesting thing is, most Israelis were liberated from labels and they were interested in just the ideas. Because most Israelis are pragmatic and moderate. But the critics that wrote were very obsessed with labels: “What are you really?”

As if it matters! [laughs] As if it matters. Like, if you could label someone, then you know exactly what you’re supposed to think about their thoughts and about what they wrote.

R&P: Does occupying the West Bank actually make Israel safer?

MG: I don’t think settlements in the West Bank make Israel safer. But military presence, and especially the Shabak—the intelligence—makes Israel safer.

[Ed note: Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak accuses Goodman of overstating the security rationale for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank—what Goodman calls “the security argument.” Goodman references that here.]

I think that Barak’s attack on the security argument is not an updated critique of the security argument, because I think it’s a critique of the old security argument. And when I say old, I mean pre-2011 [and the Arab Spring].

R&P: What’s that pre-2011 mindset?

MG: In my experience talking to generals in the Israeli army, there are two generations: There are the people who built their military way of thinking in the old Middle East—the Middle East filled with relatively stable nation-states. And that thinking led to, “Well, there [could be] an independent Palestinian state.” They’re not naive, they don’t think it’ll be a liberal democracy, but they think it’ll be a state we can do business with and have security arrangements with.

The new generals, whose thinking was evolved through 2011, after 2011, are like, “Yeah, we might have great security agreements with another nation-state, but we’re not really sure that right now is the right time for a nation-state.”

Barak’s critique is a powerful critique if we were in 2010. And Barak, you know Barak, I highly appreciate it, but he’s old-school!

R&P: So the nightmare is that an independent Palestinian state would collapse and look like Syria?

MG: That’s a massive nightmare.

R&P: One of the challenges of a pragmatic approach is that it can stay in this realm of ideas, and perhaps forget the suffering of individual people. How do you, as someone trying to be pragmatic, reckon with that deep moral dimension of the conflict?

MG: I actually think it’s the other way around!

R&P: Okay, why?

MG: I think actually overcoming the idealism, the dream of ending the conflict right here and right now, unleashes new energies, new initiatives that could shrink the conflict, shrink the occupation, shrink the control over Palestinians, minimize humiliations—there are things we can do.

If I overcome the dream of ending the conflict, then I can start doing what really matters ethically. The way I understand morality is the noble attempt to decrease suffering. So I think on the contrary, a pragmatist approach is the moral approach here.

R&P: What would those pragmatic steps look like? The book focuses on the West Bank, but I’m curious how this might look in Gaza, too.

MG: Well, Gaza seems like it’s the easier problem.

R&P: How so?

MG: There are lots of ideas about Gaza. Gaza’s a question of how can we lift the blockade on Gaza without Gaza becoming armed again. That’s the question. And that’s not such a big catch. There are ways to lift the blockade in Gaza, make massive investments in Gaza, without Gaza being armed again.

People on the right, they have the whole thing of not looking like you gave in to terrorism, not to look weak. People on the left are saying, “Well, if we make a separate deal with Gaza and Hamas, two things happen—we’re choosing Hamas over the Palestinian Authority, and we separate the West Bank from Gaza. And separating Gaza from the West Bank, we are weakening, crippling our ability to make a deal.”

And as a result, people in Gaza are suffering. If we’re willing to give up the dream for the ultimate deal, we could actually do real things on the ground in Gaza!

R&P: What would some of those steps look like in the West Bank—things that the Israeli government could do tomorrow?

MG: Here is a different way to think about the catch of Catch-67. Many Israelis, and not only Israelis, think intuitively that there is a zero-sum game between control and security, meaning the more we control the Palestinians, the more security Israelis have. The less we control the Palestinians, the less security Israelis have.

That is false. There are many actions that we can do tomorrow morning that will lead to controlling Palestinians a lot less without risking Israelis a lot more. It’s not a zero-sum game.

I’ll give you an example: If you are, say, a Palestinian living in Ramallah, which is Area A, meaning it’s an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and you’re now drinking coffee in a coffee place in Ramallah, you’re not experiencing that much occupation. You’re actually not! You are a Palestinian that is in a town that’s governed by a Palestinian government that was elected by Palestinians.

R&P: Okay, but…

MG: Actually, that last line is not really true, but that’s not our problem.

R&P: And to say that you’re not experiencing the occupation there seems like a stretch. Israeli forces could enter at any time, your freedom of movement outside that space is very limited…

MG: So where is the occupation? If you want to quantify occupation, where is it? Well, here it is: when you leave Ramallah to visit your cousin living in Nablus.

R&P: You’re talking about checkpoints, roadblocks.

MG: Yes, yes. The fact that the Palestinian autonomy is an island within territory that Israelis control.

So, thinking pragmatically, asking where is the critical mass of the experience of occupation, a good place to look for it is the space that’s between spaces controlled by the Palestinian Authority. What we need is a massive deal, a security arrangement that will enable the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] to leave that land, and to evacuate settlements, in order to create territorial continuity for Palestinians.

R&P: Is there a realistic world where any of that happens in the next five, ten years?

MG: I think it’s the only realistic thing. Expansion of settlements is unrealistic. Reaching a two-state solution in the next five years, I think, is unrealistic.

If the moderate Israelis, the confused Israelis, return to the conversation, and they convert indifference about the conflict to being moderate about the conflict, I think these kinds of ideas could—you could find a very large consensus within Israel, and I think also among Palestinians, for these kinds of ideas.

From the Palestinians, we’re not asking anything in return—you don’t have to recognize Israel, you don’t have to give up right of return, all of these problems are blocking their ability to reach an agreement with us.

When I represent these ideas to my Palestinian friends, they think, okay, what’s the catch? How are you going to screw us over? Obviously, there’s a lot of trust that needs to be built. And I think these steps are part of building trust.

R&P: I imagine this would be seen as a way to make the settlement project more tolerable.

MG: And one of the steps has to be freezing settlements. Or else these steps don’t have any credibility.

R&P: I just don’t see where the political will for this would come from inside Israel. Is it really there?

MG: We’re trapped in the wrong conversation—“Are you for or against the great plan?”— and not “What do we think about the small steps?” You see, the thing is, every small step is a small step, but the accumulation of small steps is a big step. It won’t lead to an end of the conflict, but it will lead to minimizing the conflict.

R&P: You live near the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, right?

MG: Yeah.

R&P: Do you find that your status as a moderate is challenged by living in the settlements?

MG: If there’ll ever be a solution, I’ll be happy to leave. And two, where I live is a part of areas where there is a broad consensus that they will be part of Israel [in an eventual peace deal].

R&P: Still, how did you make the decision to live there? How do you think about that decision in the context of this larger political conversation?

MG: Well, first of all, not everything is coherent in my life. It’s where I live, it’s not who I am, and if there’ll ever be a real two-state solution that will include the evacuation of settlements, I’ll comply, and I’ll leave, and everything. And so will, I think, most of my neighbors.

But, where we live is not an obstacle in the peace arrangement because it’s part of the area which, according to the Clinton parameters [for land swaps, laid out in 2000], will be a part of Israel in the future peace agreements.

R&P: You’re talking about when a peace deal happens. But thinking in the more pragmatic, immediate timeframe of Catch-67, do settlements like this complicate things on the ground?

MG: Settlements are making it harder. They’re making it tougher. They’re making it harder to move things on the ground, and they’re making it harder because they are creating suspicion on the other side.

I think in some sense, the peace movement and the settler movement are allies in preaching the status quo. Because if any movement on the ground depends on peace, well, if peace is not coming, no movement is going to happen.

I think that in Israel, as I argue in Catch-67, that we have to overcome these great redeeming ideologies, and start asking another question. Not “how do we cure the Middle East,” not “how do we solve our problems,” but “how do we deal with our problems, how do we shrink our problems?”

R&P: I get that. It seems like evacuating settlements—even if that’s not a political reality in Israel right now—would be the single most straightforward way to shrink the occupation.

MG: Listen, at that rate, 200,000 settlers, you have to create a massive Israeli majority for that. And you’re not going to have a massive Israeli majority for that.

So even if it’s the right way to go, taking down the occupation. But let’s ask what we can do. I think freezing settlements, and expanding the Palestinian economy.

R&P: This brings us back, once again, to the question of political will. What I’m always struck by is the desperation on the Palestinian side, and the lack of desperation among most Israeli Jews. The asymmetry is gigantic.

MG: Yes. I think that the way to get Israelis back in—to create the political will—is actually through a moderate [approach]. Israelis are not going to agree on a massive withdrawal from the West Bank tomorrow. That’s not going to happen. And if any movement on the ground depends on that, there’s not going to be any movement on the ground.

R&P: Before we wrap up, could you speak a little bit about your work at Ein Prat?

MG: [The program] is for Israelis who are after the army, secular and religious together, studying Plato, Shakespeare, great works of the world, and also the Bible, the Talmud, the great works of Jewish tradition. I think what we’re building in Ein Prat is a middle-of-the-road Jewish identity.

Ein Prat is about trying to [find] the middle of the road when it comes to the secular-religious divide in Israel. Catch-67 is trying to find the middle of the road of a right-left division of Israel. In that sense, Catch-67 is a part of my life’s project, trying to articulate the unspoken intuition of the people who are in the middle and very confused.