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LDS antipathy toward what we call doctrinal speculation is well-documented.   I’ve denigrated it myself, and used it calm unruly Gospel Doctrine classes.  And yet, I have begun to wonder about it.  How are we to figure out how to fit accepted doctrine into our world-view without speculation?  How do you frame a question and then ask for a revelatory yes-no answer, without speculation?

My current opinion: What presents challenges is not really speculation per se, but ill-disciplined or ill-advised efforts.   Here, I’m trying to catch a rather wide spectrum of issues, such as an unwillingness to swear off the sorts of things we simply don’t know much about, an unhealthy interest in esoterica, a lack of discretion in choosing conversation partners, or failure to consider the diversity of opinion that already exists, even within the canon.

But I don’t really think we can avoid speculation.  I think it’s part of the learning process.



The second essay in Barton and Wilkinson’s Reading Genesis After Darwin is by Francis Watson.  Yeah, that Francis Watson.  Watson’s thesis is that Darwin liberated Genesis from the natural sciences.  Before Darwin, theologians and scientists tended to make interpretive choices that harmonized Genesis with current scientific hypotheses.  This, according to Watson, produces “an unnatural conflation of of scriptural and scientific truths whose significance only comes to light if they are kept distinct.”  I tend to agree.

In the course of his argument Watson points out, as John Calvin did before him, that the description of heavenly bodies in the fourth day of creation is quite different from that derived from modern science.  In Genesis, the Sun is the “great light,” the Moon is a lesser light, the stars are mentioned more or less as an aside, and the planets do not come up at all.  Science, however, knows that the Sun is a mediocre star and most planets are larger than the Moon.  Following Calvin, Watson writes:

…Our capacity for reason enable us both to operate within our own given and immediate perspective and to transcend it.  We transcend it in the context of a scientific investigation in which a perspective on reality comes to light that is quite other than the one from which Genesis speaks.  Here, we learn (among other things) that the least conspicuous of all the visible planets [Saturn] is actually much larger than the moon–in spite of appearances to the contrary.

This discovery of a scientific perspective is all good, because it discloses something about God and his work.  Despite this, however, it is not good to pursue the scientific perspective to the exclusion of the Genesis perspective because:

There is a danger that ‘the knowledge of the divine gifts we enjoy’ may ‘vanish away.’  That is to say, we may acquire a knowledge of abstracted natural phenomena at the cost of a knowledge of our own giftedness.  If so, the idea that a scientifically explicable phenomenon such as moonlight is a gift of God will imperceptively lose its persuasiveness, as we understand ourselves no longer as participants in a God-given order, but as observers of a reality become neutral and indifferent.

I like the idea that one of the transcendent truths we learn from Genesis is our own giftedness.  I agree that this is a perspective that we will not get from science, and that it is important.  Anyway, from his reading of Calvin’s argument Watson develops four hermeneutical rules:

1.  In those  cases where science and scripture differ, it is unwise to assume that science must give way.  Instead, we need to evaluate each case and discern whether we really face one truth claim in opposition to another or simply a difference in perspective.

2. The perspective in scripture is that “of our own life-world understood as the gift of God,” and is foundational.  Because of this, when scripture comes in contact with science the biblical account “should take precedence.”

3. Because scientific discourse reveals God and his creation it must not be neglected.  It also “provokes a more insightful reading of the scriptural text that is not content merely to note and paraphrase its fact-like assertions, but seeks to uncover their significance and rationale.”

4. Since science operates in a different realm than scripture, interpretation should “explain the difference rather than deny it.  Where one attempt to show that scripture is confirmed by science or science by scripture, the integrity of both discourses may be compromised.”  [emphasis in the original]

Darwin’s contribution, according to Watson, arises precisely from the fact that he did not interpret Genesis.  Instead, he worked strictly within the natural world.  This left Genesis to the theologians, “who will perhaps succeed in restoring it to its natural habitat with the Christian narrative of “salvation” or final human well-being–incidentally learning from Darwin to avoid some of the serious interpretive errors that have clustered around this text in the past.”


War in Heaven

The war in heaven.  Always a hot topic among the saints because our ideas about the pre-existence feature a conflict between, depending on what you’re reading, Satan and God, Satan and Jesus, or Satan and Micheal.  It is this latter conflict that I want to look at today.  The biblical proof-text is this passage from Revelation:

Revelation 12:7-9  7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back,  8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.  9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world– he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

The unsettling thing about the LDS use of this as a proof-text for a pre-mortal war in heaven is that in its current literary context it doesn’t have anything to do with the pre-existence.  Consider the verses that precede it:

Revelation 12:1-6  A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.  2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth.  3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.  4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.  5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

If we chose to read the rapture of the man-child into heaven as the exaltation of Christ, which is quite common among Christians, then the war in heaven described in vv. 7-12 takes place after the resurrection of Christ.  This means that Satan’s exile to the earth is the proximate cause of the persecution of Christians in the 1st century, C.E. rather than an explanation for the presence of demonic forces on the earth since the creation of humanity.



So I have been perusuing Reading Genesis After Darwin, edited by Stephen C. Barton and David Wilkinson (New York: Oxford, 2009).  Let me confess, right from the start, that I don’t know either of these gentlemen, nor do I recognize the names of the contributors except for Francis Watson.  (Yeah, that Francis Watson.)  My impression right now is that most, if not all, are either scientists, theologians, or exegetes, and would describe their affiliation with Christianity as either conservative or evangelical.  I’ll test my hypothesis as I continue to read, but let that be the temporary basis for some contextualization.

Although the authors seem to come from more conservative Christian traditions, so far in my reading none has tried mount a defense of a literal reading of Genesis, or to harmonize it with biology, geology, or cosmogony.  In fact, to this point they have all rejected that sort of an approach.  In general, that coheres well with my approach to Genesis.  So at the moment I find it pretty interesting, and over the next few days I’ll share a couple of tidbits.

Tonight’s tidbit comes from the first essay, “How Should One Read the Early Chapters of Genesis?” by Walter Moberly.   Moberly is a professor at Durham, in the UK, and his bio is here.   His essay opens likes this:

The question of how best to read the early chapters of Genesis seems to be something of a hardy perennial.  In one form or another, the question is rather regularly applied put to me in my capacity as a Christian scholar whose academic specialty is the Old Testament, with the expectation that I should be able to answer in just a few words.

Unfortunately, my answers tend not to be as succinct as my questioners hope for.  On the one hand, I feel the need to say something about the genre of the material.  You cannot put good questions and expect fruitful answers from a text apart from a grasp of the kind of material it is in the first place; misjudge the genre, and you may skew many of the things you try to do with the text.  However, all of the common classificatory terms, most famously, “myth,” are used in a wide variety of ways, with something of a chasm between scholarly understandings and popular pejorative usages.

Amen.  And in my experience that “hardy perennial” must be some kind of a weed!  You would not believe how much confusion about biblical readings can be cleared up just by working through the issues of genre

Anyway, Moberly concludes that Darwin’s biological contributions make little difference in reading Genesis 1-3 because the evidence for its genre and its status as a constructed text were there long before Darwin published The Descent of Man.  To him, what is key is the reader’s willingness to allow that God can work through a text that shows all the signs of “literary conventions and historical processes.”  This is another way of pointing out that what we get from a text has a great deal to do with the expectations we bring to it.

Now to my point: pre-Adamites. I had heard of pre-Adamites, most famously through Hugh Nibley’s advocacy of the same.  Until I read this essay, however, I had not known where the idea originated.  And since you have probably been holding your breath in anticipation since you started to read this essay, I will get right on it.

What Moberly calls the “constructed nature” of the Genesis narrative arises from the evidence that the pericopes it contains were once part of a different story. In this original story the family of Adam and Eve are not the first humans.  This means that things like the identity of Cain’s wife and need to leave the city to murder one’s brother presented no particular challenge to readers who encountered Cain and Abel in their original literary context because Adam’s family was not the first family of the human race.  In the current context, however, these details have prompted a great deal of what we might call excreted imagination

One of those who tried to deal with this challenge was the 17th century author Isaac La Peyrere.     La Peyrere followed Augustine’s lead in suggesting that the Genesis text was selective, that is, that details implied but not included were the result of a rigorous editing process that stripped out unneeded information.   According to La Peyrere, Genesis records the ancestry of the Jews, not of all of humanity.  What readers find in the Cain / Abel story is evidence that biblical authors knew of a wider story that they declined to tell.  Those who existed before Adam were called pre-Adamites.

La Peyrere took it tough, both for his thoughts on pre-Adamites and for his views that the Messiah would soon appear and take his place in Jerusalem, with the King of France as his regent.  Others have used La Peyrere’s theory for their own purposes and I will let you follow the link above if you would like to read more about them.  For my part, I agree with Moberly that the idea does justice to neither the Bible nor to the other knowledge we have about the origin of humanity.  It is far more likely that Moberly is right, that is, that the larger Genesis narrative was constructed from smaller stories since removed from their original literary context and placed into their present context to serve the theological purposed of the final redactor.


Authentic Prayer

I think the Psalms are tremendously underrated in LDS thought and use.  I’m going to guess that to at least some extent it’s a reaction against the way others use them, that is, we downplay them to establish our uniqueness.  In any case, I think this is unfortunate because a sub-set of the psalms, the lamentations, provide a certain permission for some very authentic prayer.

Consider Psalm 44.  The first nine verses recount what God has done for the Israelite ancestors.  Then in v. 5 the Psalmist affirms his positive relationship with God:

2 O God, we have heard with our own ears; our ancestors have told us The deeds you did in their days, with your own hand in days of old:  3 You rooted out nations to plant them, crushed peoples to make room for them.  4 Not with their own swords did they conquer the land, nor did their own arms bring victory; It was your right hand, your own arm, the light of your face for you favored them.  5 You are my king and my God, who bestows victories on Jacob.  6 Through you we batter our foes; through your name, trample our adversaries.  7 Not in my bow do I trust, nor does my sword bring me victory.  8 You have brought us victory over our enemies, shamed those who hate us.  9 In God we have boasted all the day long; your name we will praise forever. Selah

At this point, it sounds like a hymn of praise!  But now look what happens…I think that the way the Psalmist describes his community’s suffering very deliberately undermines the entire concept of faith as trust in God:

10 But now you have rejected and disgraced us; you do not march out with our armies.  11 You make us retreat before the foe; those who hate us plunder us at will.  12 You hand us over like sheep to be slaughtered, scatter us among the nations.  13 You sell your people for nothing; you make no profit from their sale.  14 You make us the reproach of our neighbors, the mockery and scorn of those around us.  15 You make us a byword among the nations; the peoples shake their heads at us.  16 All day long my disgrace is before me; shame has covered my face  17 At the sound of those who taunt and revile, at the sight of the spiteful enemy.  18 All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, nor been disloyal to your covenant.  19 Our hearts have not turned back, nor have our steps strayed from your path.  20 Yet you have left us crushed, desolate in a place of jackals; you have covered us with darkness.

Do you think that God’s rejection might have been caused by some sin on the part of the community?  Not so, says the Psalmist.  He and his community are innocent, according to him, and God is quite capable of rectifying the situation if he wished to.

21 If we had forgotten the name of our God, stretched out our hands to another god,  22 Would not God have discovered this, God who knows the secrets of the heart?  23 For you we are slain all the day long, considered only as sheep to be slaughtered.  24 Awake! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Rise up! Do not reject us forever!  25 Why do you hide your face; why forget our pain and misery?  26 We are bowed down to the ground; our bodies are pressed to the earth.  27 Rise up, help us! Redeem us as your love demands.


Rise up! Redeem us!  Those are imperatives, right there, addressed to God and they’re not an instance of polite importuning, either.   What’s the logic behind the imperatives?  Well, God’s love, which is his preeminent quality, demands that he act, according to the Psalmist.

And the most surprising thing?   The Psalmist did not get turned into a toad for saying it!

My point is this: Although our social conventions require that we downplay, dismiss, or deny our pain, God does not.  In prayer, we are free to be candid how we feel about the situations in which we find ourselves.  We do not need to try to convince God that our pain doesn’t exist, that it doesn’t matter, or that we are happy to find ourselves in distress.  We don’t even have to assume that the situation is somehow fair, in a fashion that we don’t understand!  Instead, we are free to really, really, unburden ourselves and to talk through the situation.  There’s no telling how God is going to react, but there’s also no denying that the freedom to “cast your burden on the Lord” without reservation can be both liberating and comforting.

And all this comes from…the Psalms, a book to which we devote maybe one lesson.  Hm.


Dominic’s Frontiers

One of today’s tasks was an extended contemplation generated by an article by Liam G. Walsh, OP, on the way Dominic Guzman (d. 1221) organized the religious order he founded (the Dominicans) so that the Preaching (Dominicans are the Order of Preachers or OP), matched his understanding of the world and the church.  One of the things that he understood was that organization are quite likely to become corrupt regardless of how good the original intentions of those who initially set them up.  To try to lessen the temptation, Dominic set three measures in place.  One of these three, the idea that the Preacher’s boundaries were to become frontiers, is particularly interesting to me.

Boundaries are, according to Walsh, the limits beyond which we do not normally go.  If we choose to cross these boundaries then they are no longer limits but frontiers.   Geographical boundaries as frontiers are easiest to visualize but social and demographic boundaries are likewise frontiers for those who cross them.  And so it was that in Dominic’s time the frontiers in which his followers worked were the boundaries between the growing medieval cities and the countryside, with all that that implies in terms of poverty, education, chances for social advancement, etc., etc.  The friars actually built their chapter houses on the walls or just outside the walls, where much of society came, went, and gathered!  (Think road, gates, medieval fairs, shows, festivals, etc.)

According to Walsh, Dominic did this on purpose because he “hoped that life on the frontiers would make [those who would follow him] see the world as it really is in the time of waiting.”   This connection with the created reality of the world in all its good and evil, as it now waits for final salvation, would help the friars avoid the temptation to avert their eyes from the world and pretend that the pursuit of wealth and power could be consistent with an authentic Christian life.

Dominic was, I think, quite right.  Frontiers are places where one must stay on one’s toes in order to remain standing, places where reality cannot be avoided.   As I teach this semester I am going to remain alert to the point(s) at which the Dominicans succumbed to the pursuit of wealth and power, to see if these can be aligned with points at which they left their frontiers and so were able to escape reality.


Another Little Funny

How would Exodus 1 sound if it were written as emails between bureaucrats?

Mormon Archipelago

June 2017
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