Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book Review: The Great Partnership, by Jonathan Sacks

In The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks attempts to stake out a middle ground in the conflict between militant atheists who wish to eradicate religion and religious fundamentalists who see no need for science to inform their spiritual beliefs.


To Sacks, science and religion are to human life what the left and right hemispheres are to the brain. The “creative tension” between science and religion “keeps us … grounded in physical reality without losing our spiritual sensibility.” The capacity to grasp both of these perspectives, scientific and religious, is essential to understanding the human condition.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Bravo, Grant Hardy

I was deeply impressed by Grant Hardy’s presentation at the recent FAIR conference. Hardy discussed four different types of conversations that Mormons might have about their faith (with academics, critics, faithful members, and wavering Mormons) and gave some advice and suggestions for each. In a nutshell, Hardy encouraged Mormons to err on the side of kindness and generosity, to acknowledge that we have much to learn from others, and to give more space for complexity, nuance, and alternative interpretations.


The entire presentation is terrific, but this quote in particular stood out to me:

When confronted with information that makes our beliefs seem unreasonable, … sometimes the best response may be to reexamine our own assumptions and expectations. I grew up thinking that evolution was false and that the Book of Mormon was a history of most of the inhabitants of ancient America. I no longer believe those things. Many criticisms can be summarized as “the basic claims of the Church are contrary to science, history, or ethics,” and as painful as it may be to hear that, such charges often have some validity and deserve careful consideration rather than an offhand dismissal or a snappy retort.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Review: Evolving Faith, by Steven Peck

BYU biology professor Steven Peck is quite unlike most Mormons I know. For example, Peck:
—believes that evolution is the best way to view the history of biological life on Earth;
—believes that some of the stories in the scriptures (like the universal flood) should not be taken literally; and
—does not believe that “environmentalist” is a pejorative term.

Peck’s most recent book, Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist, was released last fall as part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. The title might suggest that this is a book about evolution, but it’s actually a collection of essays on a wide range of interesting topics. Some of the essays will strengthen your faith, while others will challenge it in productive ways. Nearly all of them will leave you asking questions.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Gesture of Love from "The Friend"?

This month’s cover of The Friend (a children’s magazine published by the LDS church) shows two children eating a watermelon. It’s a terrific drawing, but, at least at first glance, not that different from what you might expect to see on the cover of a children’s magazine. However, upon closer inspection, I noticed two things that make me smile.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Wisdom from "Spotlight"

In the movie Spotlight, (which is about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church), there’s an interesting conversation between reporter Michael Rezendes and Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest who helped the Globe with their investigation:

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Near-Death Experiences

One of the foundational teachings of most religions, including my own, is that some part of us — usually called the “spirit” or “soul” — continues to live after physical death. Near-death experiences (NDEs) strengthen my faith that this is true.


I recognize that NDEs do not prove there is an afterlife. It is certainly possible that NDEs are caused by nothing more than physical changes in a stressed or dying brain. I have read about a number of proposed materialist explanations for NDEs, such as the release of endorphins or other opioids, lowered levels of oxygen, increased levels of carbon dioxide, imperfect anesthesia, etc. Personally, however, I don’t find these explanations particularly compelling.


The following are some of the most notable NDEs that I’ve read about (and for which the proposed materialist explanations seem inadequate):

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Isaiah and the Meaning of “Translation”

Here are a  few additional thoughts related to my previous post about Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.

My testimony of the Book of Mormon does not depend on scholars being incorrect about the authorship of Isaiah. If it turns out that Isaiah 48-54 wasn’t actually on the gold plates and Joseph felt inspired to add that material to the text of the Book of Mormon, I’m fine with that.

This kind of an approach  may not sit well with some Mormons, because we tend to assume that Joseph had very little influence on the textual form that the Book of Mormon took. But is this assumption necessary?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

I am grateful for two recent blog posts (here and here) by LDS biblical scholar David Bokovoy about the issue of authorship of the book of Isaiah. In these blog posts, Dr. Bokovoy describes the evidence supporting the scholarly consensus that chapters 40–66 of the book of Isaiah were written after the Jewish exile into Babylon. This is of interest to Latter-day Saints because the Book of Mormon quotes Isaiah 48–54. If the scholarly consensus is correct, the quoted material would not have been available to Lehi’s family when they left Jerusalem.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Many Footprints in the Sand

I had the privilege of baptizing my daughter Katelyn on Saturday. As I prepared for this event, I read Samuel Brown’s excellent book, First Principles and Ordinances, where I came across an insightful perspective on the famous poem “Footprints in the Sand”:

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

God the Mother

A few years ago, the LDS church released a video titled “Earthly Father, Heavenly Father.” The video, which was released in honor of Father’s Day, compares a father’s feelings for his children to our Heavenly Father’s feelings about all of humankind. It’s a good video with a nice message.


I wish the church would release something similar in honor of Mother’s Day, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon. Although Mormonism envisions the existence of a Heavenly Mother — a recently released essay on the church’s website confirms this — little theology has been developed about Her, and there is virtually no role for Her in any of the church’s current teachings or practices.


On the one hand, I’m grateful that my religion includes a representation of the feminine in its conception of the divine. However, Mormonism’s current teachings about Heavenly Mother raise a number of difficult questions for me.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Blessed? Or Lucky?

In his new book, economist Robert Frank describes a frightening experience he had a few years ago. While playing tennis with a colleague, Frank collapsed due to what doctors typically refer to as “sudden cardiac death.” But Frank didn’t die, primarily because an extra ambulance just happened to be a few hundred yards away. In reflecting on this incident, Frank says:


If an extra ambulance hadn’t happened to be nearby, I would not have survived. Some friends have suggested that I was the beneficiary of divine intervention, and I have no quarrel with those who see things that way. But that’s never been a comfortable view for me. I believe I’m alive today because of pure dumb luck.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Divine Intervention

I struggle with how to think about divine intervention. While I certainly want to believe that God intervenes in the world and in my own life, there are many terrible things that God doesn’t intervene to stop (including many things not caused by humans, thereby making human free will an unsatisfying explanation).

In his new book, Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist (published by the Maxwell Institute), BYU biology professor Steven Peck shares some thought provoking ideas related to divine intervention.

By way of background, Peck acknowledges the reality of evolution, and he also believes there are “deep and unavoidable theological implications for incorporating into our theology the belief that natural selection structured the way life evolved on our planet.” Some of these implications are related to the brutality of natural selection: “It is hard to imagine that evolution by natural selection is a reasonable choice for creation if other methods were available,” he says. Peck suggests that perhaps “God … is subject to certain natural laws,” and natural selection may have been “a natural law necessary for the creation of a diverse and fully functioning universe.”

Peck then expands upon this idea in connection with God’s intervention in the world:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Women and the Book of Mormon

I recently read an essay by Carol Lynn Pearson in which she discusses some of her feelings about the way in which women are portrayed in the Book of Mormon:

“A few years ago, I read the [Book of Mormon] specifically to focus on what it says about women, circling in red every female reference. And as I did, it became more and more clear why I had always felt like an unwelcome visitor as I entered Nephite society, a stranger in a strange land indeed.”

I was initially surprised when I read this, because I have never thought of the Book of Mormon as portraying women negatively. But Pearson makes some excellent points.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Rethinking Adam and Eve

For anyone who believes that working toward a reconciliation of evolution and Christianity is a worthwhile goal (as I do), I highly recommend Peter Enns’s The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (TEoA).

Enns is a biblical scholar and a committed Christian. He “believe[s] in the universal and humanly unalterable grip of both death and sin, and the work of the Savior, by the deep love and mercy of the Father, in delivering humanity from them.” At the same time, Enns is convinced “that evolution must be taken seriously.” With both of those considerations in mind, TEoA presents an alternative way to think about the story of Adam and Eve.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Choosing the Left

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Many Mormons consider the word “liberal” to be a pejorative description. For example, when I decided to attend law school at the University of California, Berkeley, several of my family and friends made comments like, “But that’s the most liberal school in the country!” In other words, why on earth would a Mormon choose to go to such a liberal school?

However, BYU political science professor Richard Davis sees the term “liberal” quite differently. Rather than having negative connotations, Davis defines “liberal” the way that it is used in the scriptures, namely describing “personal characteristics of generosity, magnanimity, and charity.” Davis thinks that all Latter-day Saints should become “liberal souls” (a term taken from Proverbs 11:25), meaning someone who “follow[s] Jesus Christ in his love and acceptance of others, specifically in his care for the poor and the needy, his concern for the most vulnerable in society, and his compassion toward all.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A More Embracing Mormonism

Review of Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, by Patrick Q. Mason

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I am surprised — and delighted — that Deseret Book and the Maxwell Institute co-published this book by Mormon scholar Patrick Mason. It acknowledges that there are “troubling episodes” in the LDS church’s past and “apparent contradictions and conundrums in the church’s history, doctrine, and positions on current issues.” It discusses several of these issues at length, including withholding priesthood and temple blessings from blacks, Joseph Smith’s treasure digging, and the Mountain Meadows massacre. And it doesn’t shy away from honest critique.

But Mason is no rabble-rouser; he’s “all in” with respect to Mormonism, describing himself as a “believer and a belonger.” He “find[s] redemption and sanctification in the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and he “can’t imagine being more convinced that God has ordained The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to accomplish its divine mission.”