Monday, May 28, 2007

Answers from the Mormons, Part 1

Jeannette and I met with the Mormons on Sunday night, and had some of the questions we had answered, and about half unanswered. We'll have the rest answered on Thursday.


From 2 Nephi:

2:5 And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever.

Is the reference to 'men' here to mean mankind, or just men?

A: Men here refers to mankind, not just men.

2:11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Does all life need need a balance of good and bad?

A: Yes, life needs good and bad. When Adam fell, he gave humankind joy, for without suffering, you can't know joy. While this may be true, to a point, some degrees of suffering are unnecessary. I don't need to loose my arms to appreciate them, for example. I wouldn't gain any joy by getting my arms cut off, even if they magically grew back.

2:21 And the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened, according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men. For he gave commandment that all men must repent; for he showed unto all men that they were lost, because of the transgression of their parents.

Do we have to pay for the sins of our parents?

A: One of the core beliefs of Mormonism, is that you are responsible for your own stewardships, and nothing else. If you are a parent, you are responsible for your children, but your sins don't pass onto them. However, we are all fallen because of Adam. While the answer skirts around the issue, the scripture seems clear, we are lost because of the transgression of our parents. What this seems like to me, is a call to become Mormon, even if your parents raised you incorrectly.

3:7 Yea, Joseph truly said: Thus saith the Lord unto me: A choice seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins; and he shall be esteemed highly among the fruit of thy loins. And unto him will I give commandment that he shall do a work for the fruit of thy loins, his brethren, which shall be of great worth unto them, even to the bringing of them to the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy fathers.

How can Joseph Smith be from the fruit of Joseph's loins if all of Joseph's decedents died, according to Mormon 6?

A: He is the fruit of Joseph of Egypt's loins, not Joseph who lived in America's loins. But it could mean that his lineage is from Joseph, which is a ritual Mormons have, where a priest will tell you what your lineage is. This gets recorded down, and can be played back if anyone wanted to know what lineage they are.
I think there are too many Joseph's in this book, and using last names, or son of's would have helped.

5:12 And I, Nephi, had also brought the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass; and also the ball, or compass, which was prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord, according to that which is written.

The earliest record of people using a compass is 1100 CE in China, then 1200 CE for Arabians and Western Europeans, and in 1300 CE for Scandinavians. How could Nephi have a compass in 590 BCE? And why had no one copied the compass earlier?

A: The compass, was actually a golden ball where writing would appear, and there would be two pointers on it. No one could replicate it, because God made it. This refers to the Liahona, which is a magic ball with writing on it which God places there according to the faith of the user. If the user's faith is correct, it will lead you to where you are searching, if incorrect, it will lead you astray. The Liahona is rumored to be on a purple pillow in the office of the prophet.

5:14 And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us; for I knew their hatred towards me and my children and those who were called my people.

Why isn't there any evidence of swords in pre-Columbian America?

A: We don't know. We know the Book of Mormon said there were many swords, and one sword was made of fine steel, but swords could have meant weapons, like spears. This is an example of the trouble with translation. If Joseph Smith were translating reformed Egyptian via seer stones, there would be no way this could be incorrect. There would be no swords of steel if God had not intended for it to be written, so there must be a sword of steel, and as long as there was one, there should be many. One of the Mormons mentioned Damascus steel, and how the Nephites could have made a sword in the same manner. I did some research of Damascus steel, and it wasn't used for sword making until 1100 CE. Wootz steel, from Sri Lanka, was a high carbon steel making process from 300 BCE, which is how Damascus steel was made, but that date places it far too late for the immigrants from Israel in 590 BCE to be making such fine steel.

5:15 And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance.

How could a handful of immigrants from the Ancient Near East have the skills necessary to work with such metals, especially in 590 BCE?

A: Nephi's father was a merchant, so it isn't unreasonable to assume that his children would have learned a trade. Nephi could have been a metallurgist.

5:16 And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon's temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine.

Verse 15 and 16 contradict each other. Were there many precious things to be found, or not? The Temple of Solomon took 150,000 men seven years to build, according to 2 Chronicles, chapter 2 verse 2, how could Nephi's dozen men build a similar temple with so few people?

A: When Nephi landed, there were people already in America. They were drawn to the Nephites, because they had language, scripture, and Nephi was a prophet. Because of this, they helped build the temple.

5:21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

This verse seems racist, being interpreted by a modern person. These people, who were from Israel were called white, and God caused a curse to be placed on them, making their skin black, and making them "loathsome" to his people. If I read this now, it sounds like black people, or the decedents of Indians as this would refer to, are ancestors of the Lamanites, a cursed people by God.

A: While the verse seems racist, it's the word of God. Either you believe that the Book of Mormon is the word of God or not. If you believe it is the word of God, then yes, God cursed the Indians by giving them black skin. However, the church is not racist, and provides for education for Lamanites, or Native American's throughout America. There are scholarships available to Lamanites to go to BYU, as well as other opportunities in Latin and South America. You should look at the works of the church, not just it's writings, to determine whether Mormon's are racist or not. While this may by true, that Mormons are helping the less fortunate in poorer countries with education, it does not erase the racism of Joseph Smith, and the early church. Blacks could not hold the priesthood until 1978. One of the Mormons mentioned the Curse of Ham, how that was used to justify the treatment of Blacks, including the prohibition of Blacks, and their descendants from the priesthood.

Brigham Young, from the "Journal of Discourses:"
"You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. The first man that committed the odious crime of killing one of his brethren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race--that they should be the 'servant of servants;' and they will be, until that curse is removed."

In 1954, Mormon elder Mark E. Peterson discussed blacks and the priesthood in an address to a Convention of Teachers of Religion at the College Level at Brigham Young University. He said:

"The reason that one would lose his blessings by marrying a Negro is due to the restriction placed upon them. 'No person having the least particle of Negro blood can hold the Priesthood' (Brigham Young). It does not matter if they are one-sixth Negro or one-hundred and sixth, the curse of no Priesthood is the same. If an individual who is entitled to the Priesthood marries a Negro, the Lord has decreed that only spirits who are not eligible for the Priesthood will come to that marriage as children. To intermarry with a Negro is to forfeit a 'Nation of Priesthood holders'...."

The LDS Church changed its policy after a revelation in 1978 led them to make a statement was all men, regardless of race or color could join the priesthood. This came after the IRS threatened to remove their not for profit status, sports teams were boycotting events with BYU, and it became too difficult to determine the race of people in South America, and Australia, and many people who had descendants from Africa were already in the priesthood. While the current actions of the church are noble, this is something the Mormons have not been able to sweep under the rug. The current stance on the passage is that, it's the word of God, not Joseph Smith being racist.

5:23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.

This verse forbids intermarriage between the whites and Indians, otherwise, the curse will be passed on to the children, their skin will be darker. Why do you think God would do such a thing?

A: God doesn't forbid intermarriage between whites and Indians, or Lamanites, but your children will have the curse, which is dark skin. We can see this happens, so it's true, and that's all the curse means, is a mark from God.
I had trouble with this passage, and the concept that we do not suffer for the sins of our parents. If you make the curse as insignificant as just having dark skin, then it isn't so bad, but last I checked, it wasn't a good thing to have a curse.

6:12 And blessed are the Gentiles, they of whom the prophet has written; for behold, if it so be that they shall repent and fight not against Zion, and do not unite themselves to that great and abominable church, they shall be saved; for the Lord God will fulfill his covenants which he has made unto his children; and for this cause the prophet has written these things.

What is the great and abominable church?

A: Any church which isn't the LDS. From the reading I have done on the history of Mormonism, this is interpreted to specifically refer to the Catholic church.

6:15 And they that believe not in him shall be destroyed, both by fire, and by tempest, and by earthquakes, and by bloodsheds, and by pestilence, and by famine. And they shall know that the Lord is God, the Holy One of Israel.

Is this literal, or allegorical? If there is no fiery hell which people go to when dead, how can unbelievers be destroyed by storms, fire, famine and such?

A: This refers to the end times, not Hell, or an afterlife. So, because I don't believe in Jesus, or the God of Israel, the best proof God can provide for his existence, is by destroying me by storms, fire, and famine?

We meet again with the Mormons on Thursday. Hopefully I'll get to the parts of 2 Nephi which I thought promoted equality, and even a passage which is considered anti-war.


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JKC said...

Be careful about regarding Bill's and the Elders' answers as the official position of the church. In reality, the idea of an official position is somewhat elusive in Mormonism.

This is because there is wide freedom of interpretation in Mormonism. There are no Mormon creeds (in fact, Joseph Smith's retelling of his first vision specifically repudiates the notion of a creed), which places substantial responsibility on the individual to find the answers through personal inspiration (and study). While the church does take a position on some things, you cannot usually go to a Mormon Bishop to get an answer that is mandatory for all Mormons to believe.

Some Mormons are uncomfortable with this and they try to prove (usually by arguments that begin with "either it is the word of God or it isn't) that their particular interpretation of a concept or verse is the only correct one. Most questions and most answers in Mormon doctrine are significantly less black and white than such discussions would make them appear.

While it is true that Joseph Smith was not immune from the racist attitudes of his day, it probably isn't totally accurate to lump him in with the racist statements of Mark E Petersen and Brigham Young. Brigham Young was significantly more racist than Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith, for example, ordained several black men to the priesthood during his lifetime, and we have no recorded statement that he ever taught that the priesthood ought to be denied to Blacks. The policy of priesthood denial began after Joseph Smith's death. Joseph Smith called for the abolition of slavery and equal voting rights for African Americans. Though he did advocate segregation, I think it is safe to say that he was definitely progressive in the 1830s.

You point out a verse from the Book of Mormon that taken at face value has racist overtones. You seem to set it up as an either/or, that is, either Joseph Smith was racist and wrote the Book of Mormon himself, or the Book of Mormon really is the word of God, and God is racist. Let me suggest one other possibility: the Book of Mormon is indeed a translation of an ancient text, completed through divine inspiration, and Nephi (the author) is racist. If Nephi was an Israelite, it would not be unusual for him to have some enthnocentric/racist notions. The Old Testament, for example, is full of them. Remember that Joseph Smith never claimed that God wrote the Book of Mormon, only that God aided him in translating it. There are many human intervenors in the Book of Mormon. Think of it like this: God tells Nephi something through divine inspiration, Nephi filters it through his own life experiences and writes it in his own language, Mormon filters it through his own life experiences and condenses it, putting it in his own language, then Joseph Smith reads it by divine aid, then he dictates it to Oliver Cowdery (or his wife, Emma, for some parts), who then puts it down as he hears it, then the typesetter, E.B. Grandin, (and his employees) sets the type for the manuscript, substituting his own words when the manuscript is blotchy or unreadable, and making his own impromptu grammatical revisions as he goes, then we read it, filtering it through our own life experiences.

Basically, the point of this already too long comment (sorry!) is that some racist overtones in certain verses of the Book of Mormon don't require me to impute racism to God or give up my belief in the divine translation of the text. I can believe that Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith really did what he said he did without rationalizing away racism or pretending it doesn't exist.

Bjorn said...

Thanks for your unique perspective on the issue of racism in Mormonism. You do point out something interesting with regards to interpretation, translation, and production of words of prophets throughout history. For example, Isaiah had no scribe to write down his exact words, like many cultures, Jews had an oral tradition, which was later written down. What was eventually written down had been passed on through many people, so who can tell what the meaning was of the original telling.

There are a few myths about Mormonism I've had an opportunity to dispel as I've learned more. Some of the myths are: Mormonism is racist, God cursed black people, and Native American's with dark skin, and so remain cursed, or show the mark of an ancestral curse. Also, the "good guys" are described as white, or fair. While it is common in different cultures to depict Jesus as which ever race appeals most to the culture, it doesn't help Mormon PR when Jesus looks like he walked out of Oslo, not Jerusalem. This isn't unique to Mormons, but as an outsider, it's something that stands out.

The other myth is that Mormons are polygamists. That's pretty easy to get over, but there is that history to be dealt with. Just as the Catholic church must answer for its past, polygamy isn't something that can be swept under the rug.

A coworker of mine views Mormonism as a cult. He's not the only person I've met to has the same views. I'd interpret their view of Mormonism as a cult, in that, while no one forces anyone to follow the doctrine of Mormonism, the pressures to fall in line would be stronger then a desire to leave. It could be similar to the military, it's all voluntary, no one is making you join, but it's not like you can leave whenever you want without penalty. If you leave the military, you loose your benefits, if you leave the Mormon Church; you loose your afterlife with your family, past, present, and future. You could say phooey to the theology, and leave the church, and feel no pressure, but you still have your living family to worry about. It would depend on the family, but I don't think if most members of the family have a certain belief, and another falls away from that, that they would be overjoyed.

The PBS special on Mormons did paint a bleak picture for apostates, which colors my perspective. The PBS documentary didn't help the myth of Mormonism as a cult either. After watching it, you have this image of a large family at a dinner table, reading the Book of Mormon on a Monday night like robots, taking direction from a Prophet and a Bishop and a Quorum of 12 guys. Mormons or at least Mormons throughout history are depicted as a controlling group, establishing set roles for men and women, discriminating against races, fighting against equal rights for women, and discouraging homosexuality.

Mormons have some PR issues to resolve, but that may be secondary to mission work. However, people would be more open to the story of Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon, if the myths could be dispelled. But, that would have to be outside of trying to get converts.

Oh, and you are right about Jews having an ethnocentric tone in the Old Testament, and other scriptures. While persecution of Jews throughout history has been a tragedy, there is something to be said about a people who view themselves as God’s chosen people, without regard for anyone else. I did read somewhere that the Law of Moses could be interpreted to only pertain to Jews, for example, you shouldn’t murder another Jew, but Gentiles are fair game.