Thursday, January 28, 2010

Speaking Christian: Redeeming Christian Language

I have returned from my first field trip for this blog. I attended a discussion by author Marcus Borg in Scottsdale at the North Scottsdale United Methodist Church. The title of the discussion was “Speaking Christian—Redeeming Christian Language”. Borg mentioned that he is working on a book touching on the same content that he spoke on tonight. I arrived early and was able to meet him and have him sign my copy of “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary”. In this post I want to just cover the material of his discussion much in the way he presented it with minimal commentary. Borg actually provided a lot of his lecture in a paper handout and encouraged us “borrow shamelessly” from his material. I will share my own observations in a later post.

While I was waiting for the discussion to start there was a woman playing Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninoff and she was excellent. The person who introduced the main speaker referred to the gathered audience as “The Borg Collective”. I appreciated the Star Trek reference. Dr. Borg began by asking everyone about their religious affiliation and people raised their hands as he mentioned each group. He didn’t mention Mormons, which sort of surprised me since I told him I was Mormon when he signed my book—but that’s alright. Marcus Borg has a great sense of humor and a quick wit. My favorite joke was when he mentioned Unitarian Universalists and said: “I see some to my right which I find a bit alarming” (Unitarian Universalists are known for being very left-wing).

He mentioned a comment that Pat Robertson made about Haiti. After the horrible earthquake in Haiti, Pat Robertson said: “They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it’s a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another”. [1] Borg asked how anyone could think that about the Christian God. How could God punish a country for something that people did 200 years ago when all the people who supposedly made the pact were long dead? This kind of talk contributes to a negative image of Christianity. If Pat Robertson is right then Christopher Hitchens is also right that “god is not great”. He then read a letter to the editor in which someone wrote to Pat Robertson pretending to be Satan. I recommend reading the whole letter but one of my favorite lines is this: “when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing... If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing.” [2] He used this as an introduction to the topic to show how important it is to communicate and show the best of Christianity rather than a distorted view that is often portrayed.

The premise of Borg’s lecture was that religions are like languages. “To be part of a religion includes using, hearing, and understanding that religion’s language. To be Jewish means ‘speaking Jewish,’ to be Muslim means ‘speaking Muslim,’ to be Buddhist means ’speaking Buddhist.’ So also, to be Christian means ‘speaking Christian.’ Of course, religions are about more than ‘speaking,’ about more than ‘words.’ They also involve a way of seeing reality and an ‘ethos,’ a way of life. But all of this is conveyed in language, in words.”

“An illuminating phrase from recent scholarship: Religions are ‘cultural-linguistic traditions’ (George Lindbeck, 1984). Something simple and important is meant: each religion originated in a particular culture and used the language of that culture, even if it also challenged that culture. Religions that survived over time became cultural-linguistic traditions themselves, each with its own language, stories, understandings, and ethos.”

He then outlined the problem: “Christian language in our time is often unfamiliar and even more often misunderstood.” It is unfamiliar because “in recent decades, more and more people have grown up ‘unchurched.’” It is misunderstood because “of two central features of the ‘common Christianity’ of the recent past that have shaped the meanings of much of Christian language.” The first feature is the literalization of Christian language—that “everything the Bible says is the literal, factual, and absolute revelation of God. Literalism flattens the meaning of language and, of course, distorts it.”

The second feature that makes Christian language misunderstood is a misunderstanding of Christianity’s core message. Many Christians describe this core message in terms of the afterlife, our sinfulness, and Jesus’ death as the basis for our forgiveness. But the words used to describe the message are often not understood in their full range. Some of the most basic Christian words include: mercy, repentance, redeem, faith, believe, and salvation.

The word “mercy” is usually used to describe “what we need from God: to be forgiven in spite of our wrongdoing”. It is the idea that humanity is sinful and evil. But mercy is more than just getting off the hook. Mercy is compassion, empathy and love expressed to those who suffer and are afflicted. It is Christ succoring us in our hour of need. It is this kind of compassion that God shows toward us in our times of trial and that he expects us to show toward others.

Repentance is usually understood as “contrition about our sins and resolving to try to live otherwise”. Again it is the negative view of humanity; the idea that we are vial and evil and that we need to feel horrible about ourselves to repent. But repentance in the Bible is used to describe a “returning” to God. It has nothing to do with self-loathing. In fact self-loathing is counter-productive to returning to God. True repentance means “to go beyond the mind that you have,” to put yourself at one with God.

Redemption in the Bible is used to describe redemption from bondage and slavery. Bondage could refer to emotional or psychological bondage. We could be in bondage to our own bad habits and addiction. But as our Redeemer, Christ can free us from this bondage.

Faith and belief are usually understood to mean an intellectual assent to certain tenets and principles—to assert that such-and-such is so. But faith is something much deeper than this. To have faith is to be faithful to something. It is to be committed to something. The deeper meaning to the word “believe” is “to belove”. To believe something is to give your heart and dedicate yourself.

Salvation is “one of the ‘big’ Christian words—as central to Christianity as nirvana” is to Buddhism. Unfortunately, it is to many a loaded word that carries a lot of baggage. Some people have a negative association with the word because they see in it the implicit threat of Hell and damnation. It carries the baggage of an “in group—out group”. Those who got their beliefs right or were born into the right faith are rewarded in Heaven while everyone else is out of luck. But in the Bible salvation is much more.

Salvation in the Old Testament is used in to refer to salvation from bondage as in the story of the exodus from Egypt. In the New Testament times the word “savior” was used to refer to the Roman emperor. The Roman emperor was the great savior who brought peace on Earth by unifying the empire from civil war. But Christians in the early days of the church used this same terminology to refer to Jesus as if to say “Jesus is the Savior who brings real peace on Earth.” The peace that Jesus brings is not the kind that the emperor gives [the world giveth], not the kind of peace brought about by armies and governments, but peace that comes by drawing near to God (John 14:27).

The primary Biblical meaning of the word “’salvation’ is about transformation in this life, this side of death—the transformation of ourselves and of the world. It’s both personal and political, concerns both individuals and the transformations of societies.” Salvation is about healing.

There are multiple images for salvation which include transformation from:
· Bondage to liberation
· Exile/estrangement to re-connection
· Sickness/woundedness to wholeness
· Blindness to seeing
· Death to life
· Anxiety to freedom from anxiety
· Self-preoccupation to the ability to be present and compassionate
· A world of injustice to a world of justice
· A world of violence and war to a world of non-violence and peace

“Transformation [is] a concise crystallization of what Christianity and the Christian life are about.” Borg phrased the question: “What’s our product?” What is it that Christianity has to offer the world? “Transformation is our ‘product,’ message. It responds to our deepest yearning. Religions are means of ultimate transformation.” Our speech and method of speaking about Christianity must make it clear that we are called and invited to experience a transformation. And these words are words of life.

In his final comments Borg said, “Christianity at its best is magnificent”. It struggles at times and can sometimes be distorted from the pure, authentic teachings of Christ. The great religious struggles are not between religions but within religions themselves, seeking to define themselves. But at its best Christianity is magnificent. It is the means of transformation that responds to our deepest yearning.

[1] (retrieved Jan 28, 2010)

[2] (retrieved Jan 28, 2010)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Fall, Part 2: Parable and Paradox

“And in that day Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God. And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient. And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters.” (Moses 5:10-12)

“O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkenss! Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done or occasion’d, or rejoyce
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
To God more glory, more good will to Men
From God, and over wrauth grace shall abound.”
-Adam (John Milton’s Paradise Lost) [1]

In my last post I reviewed just a few of the major points in the history of Original Sin. The doctrine of Original Sin is one way to interpret the story, one among many. Here I would like to explore some other ways of looking at the Fall of Adam and Eve. I mentioned that some of the problems with traditional interpretation of the story stem from an overemphasis on a literal understanding. It is common for people of faith to defend strict Biblical literalism and assert that everything in scripture happened just as described and that to suggest that passages are metaphorical or parabolic is demeaning to the scripture. However, as a devout believer I feel that strict Biblical literalism that eschews metaphor, parable, and symbolism misses out on the richness imbedded in the sacred text. Stories can be both literal and metaphorical and the degree to which a story is literal is not especially important. The message hidden in the parable is what impacts us and causes us to stretch our minds and to grow. It is useful in the story of Adam and Eve to place ourselves in their place. The name “Adam” is, in addition to a proper name, a Hebrew word for “mankind”. This says to me that we are meant to understand the story in relation to ourselves.

The simplest way to organize anything is to divide it up into clear, distinct, well-defined categories. This approach has the advantages of being very clean and easy to understand. As an engineer I love clear and concise models, formulas and graphs. The Fall could be seen as all bad: disobedience, sin, death, etc. It could also be seen as all good: knowledge, growth, experience, etc. But the Hebrew Bible was not written in this way. It was not written by mathematicians or logicians. If the Greeks had written the Bible it would have been very different. Hebrew authors often wrote or told stories in such a way that interpretations could be more open, sometimes even paradoxical. The Fall could be viewed as good or bad. Maybe some aspects were good and others were bad. But maybe this is still too organized: some aspects of the Fall could be both good and bad. While this kind of approach is not as clear and much more difficult, it also allows you to play with it, work through it and around it, and to shape it and reshape it in several different ways. Like art, it causes you to step back and think about it and ask questions. I think that one of the major lessons from this story is that life is filled with paradox and that part of maturing and coming to grips with your world is to accept and appreciate the paradox and complexity of your universe.

Paradox in literature is defined as “an anomalous juxtaposition of incongruous ideas for the sake of striking exposition or unexpected insight.” [2] For example, in Mormon doctrine, the Fall was part of God’s plan yet he commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. I have seen Sunday School teachers and class members all trying to make sense of this and I think it is a lost cause. I will stick my neck out here and say that this just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think it’s supposed to make sense—that’s the point. We live in a world of contradictions and opposition—not just in some things—in all things. In The Book of Mormon, Lehi said “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things...” (2 Nephi 2:11) He then listed several things that exist in dual pairs, defined by their opposites. For example, there can be no such thing as good if there is not also evil. If evil were eradicated, good would be a meaningless term. Thus, the quality of “goodness” depends on evil. The same could be said with righteousness and wickedness, life and death, cleanliness and uncleanliness. This understanding of abstract concepts is organized by division of opposites. But at the same time these opposing concepts depend each other for their meaning.

But some things, can be both good and bad depending on a variety of factors. Lehi said of the Fall: “And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:22-25) If we put ourselves in the place of Adam and Eve we see that we toil, suffer, age and die. Yet from work we progress, from suffering we become compassionate, from age we learn wisdom and the prospect of death makes us value life. From negative things we can find the good.

The latest interpretation I have discovered in this parable is one of maturation. Each person is born into a Garden of Eden. We know neither good nor evil. We don’t have to work. We are not aware of sexuality. We are innocent. But in every aspect of life there comes a time when we have to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Life has risk and just as a child stumbles when he learns to walk, every new step holds danger and the possibility of harm. Everyone needs to spend time in the Garden of Eden. Sometimes children are pushed out of it too quickly—they have the fruit jammed down their throat. But everyone needs to eat of the fruit eventually and if they don’t they cannot function in this world. We don’t live in the Garden of Eden and we can’t live as if we did.

God was right when he warned Adam and Eve of the danger of the fruit. The fruit of knowledge is dangerous because knowledge is dangerous. But the dangers of knowledge can be resolved with more knowledge, developed knowledge. President Hugh B. Brown, First Counselor to President David O. McKay taught a similar concept about freedom: “One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking.” [3] When a child learns the concept of possession it can initially lead to covetousness and stealing. He has gained knowledge of possession but has not yet learned of rights of ownership, earning and work. More knowledge is required. A teenager matures and is no longer “naked and not ashamed” but aware and has knowledge of sexuality. This can be dangerous without the more mature knowledge of chastity and respect for the body. More knowledge is required.

As we grow, acquire more knowlege and face new dangers we must respond in different ways. The variety of situations we may come accross will require more methods than a simple, one-dimensional personality will allow. Every person has within them an Adam and Eve. Adam is our obedient, conforming, safe side. Eve is our curious, adventurous, risk-taking side. We need both sides to function in our lives. We need to be conservative and have a base where we set limits and boundaries. But we also need to recognize the times when limits are too small and break through barriers and expand. We need both parts in our psyche.

These are just a few ways to look at the parable and we can think about it and discuss it endlessly to pull out new and pertinent applications. This story is repeated in a few different places in the LDS scriptures and I think there is a reason for that. We are supposed to be learning from this parable and we can learn something new every time we approach it depending on our needs, our interests or what we are looking for. My next post will treat the Fall in relation to the Atonement and the Grace of Christ.

[1] John Milton, Paradise Lost, 12th Bk, lines 469-78

[2] (retrieved January 26, 2010)

[3] Hugh B. Brown. An Abundant Life. 1999. p. 139

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Fall, Part 1: A History of Original Sin

I am moving right along in my reading of the Old Testament but I want to come back to talk about the story of Adam and Eve. Yesterday my ward’s Gospel Doctrine class was about the Fall of Adam and Eve. As I was sitting in sacrament meeting I was thinking about the story and realized what a important story it is. I thought of several applications the drama of the Garden of Eden could have depending the particular angle you take to analyze it. I want to dedicate a series of posts on Adam and Eve in addition to the few posts I have already done. I hope not to bury the subject too much but I think there is a lot here to investigate. I would like to review in this first post the history of the theological understanding of The Fall. In subsequent posts I will lay out some possible, symbolic interpretations (I think there are many, many viable interpretations).

The earliest history of the story begins of course in Hebrew culture but I would like to begin with the early Christian understanding of the Fall of Adam and Eve—the idea of original sin. To say this was the early Christian view is not entirely accurate. The first three centuries of the Christian era saw little treatment of the idea. It was Saint Ambrose (337-397) and his pupil Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in particular who first formulated the doctrine of Original Sin.

The idea was not conceived in a social vacuum but was a response to the contemporaneous political and ecclesiastical atmosphere. The time of Ambrose and Augustine was a time of the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Barbarian forces were invading from Europe and the fall of Rome influenced Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin [1]. Augustine’s writings were also in a large measure directed in response to another theologian, the British monk Pelagius. Pelagius (354-420) denied both original sin and the doctrine of salvation by grace. His doctrine, now known as the heresy of Pelagianism, affirmed the idea of salvation by merit.

Said Pelagius: “Everything good and everything evil, in respect of which we are either worthy of praise or of blame, is done by us, not born with us. We are born in our full development, but with a capacity for good and evil; we are begotten as well without virtue as without vice, and before the activity of our own personal will there is nothing in man but what God has stored in him.” [2]

The teachings of Pelagius were condemned by the Council of Carthage in 416. He was excommunicated by Pope Innocent I in 417. In the end it was Augustine who would exert the greatest influence on Christian teachings. Augustine taught that God was justified to damn the whole of humanity for the sin of Adam, the father of humanity. He understood that the guilt of Adam was passed down from one generation to the next through the sexual act and that all are thus conceived in sin. This depravity through sexuality he called “concupiscence” [1].

Augustine said: “Banished after his sin, Adam bound his offspring also with the penalty of death and damnation, that offspring which by sinning he had corrupted in himself, as in a root; so that whatever progeny was born (through carnal concupiscence, by which a fitting retribution for his disobedience was bestowed upon him) from himself and his spouse—who was the cause of his sin and the companion of his damnation—would drag through the ages the burden of Original Sin...” [3]

Augustine’s understanding of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden was, at the time, unique and different from that of Jews or Greek Orthodox Christians [4]. The other faiths had never taken such a negative view of the entirety of mankind in such unflinching totality.

Since the time of Augustine, several concepts have held sway regarding original sin. It is important to understand that not all theological positions of Original Sin claim that mankind is actually guilty for the sin of Adam (though that is one view). Most modern Christians ascribe to the idea that Adam and Eve simply caused mankind to become naturally sinful while we are not actually guilty of something done thousands of years ago. LDS philosopher Blake Ostler lists the historical theories of vicarious guilt as follows:

1. Calvinism: “We are guilty of Adam’s sin because we were ‘in’ him as ‘seed’ at the time he sinned and/or because he acted as our ‘federal head’ or representative in his sinful acts.”
2. Arminianism: “We would be guilty of Adam’s sin except that our guilt has been removed through prevenient grace as a result of Christ’s atonement...however, our nature is so corrupted that we inevitably sin, thus endorsing Adam’s sin, thus becoming guilty of it ourselves.”
3. Semi-Pelagianism: “We are guilty only for our own acts... Inevitably, we become guilty of our own sins.”
4. Pelagianism: “We are not guilty for Adam’s sin but only for our own acts. In principle, we could live perfect lives.”
5. Anselmianism: As a result of the sin of Adam, we have all lost the supernatural gift of grace that would have made it possible for us to appropriately order our inclinations... As a result, it is impossible for us to refrain from sin.” [5]

Both Semi-Pelagianism and Pelagianism deny the idea of any guilt on our own part for Adam’s sin. Calvinism and, in essence, Arminiansim assert a certain guilt born by the descendants of Adam for the sins of their ancestor. Anselmianism does not claim that humanity shares any of Adam’s guilt, but that we are affected by it in such a way that we are led to sin. The Calvinistic view involves the idea of traducianism, which is to say that the soul of an individual is generated by the souls of his parents (a topic for another post). All these ideas have had influence in Christianity, but what scriptural basis do they have?

Most of the Biblical support for the idea was taken from the epistles of Paul. The passage most important for Saint Augustine was the Epistle to the Romans: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned... For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification... Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:12-19)

It can be seen here that the understanding of man’s sinful nature is tied to the understanding of salvation by grace. The doctrine that man must be saved from sin through the grace of Christ is accepted by most Christian religions (including Mormonism) to one degree or another. But it is the severity of man’s depravity that determines the extent to which he depends on grace. In Calvinism and Arminianism, man is so base and evil that he is liable to be damned unless God, by his grace, selects an individual to be saved and enables him to become righteous. Such an extreme view stands in direct opposition to Pelagianism. Taken to its logical conclusion it is a doctrine of predestination. This is the view that we can do nothing to even seek the grace of Christ; we must be chosen and can do nothing about it for ourselves.

It is quite possible and evident that Augustine relied upon the Ambrosiaster mistranslation of Romans 5:12. The verse, again, states: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned”. In Greek, the text reads “So death passed to all men in that (heth ho) all sin.” However, in the old Latin translation which Augustine read the text read “in whom (in quo) all sinned.” [6] The difference is critical. In Greek, it means that all men sin. In Latin, it means that all men sin in the person Adam.

There are several other doctrines which easily follow from the doctrine of Original Sin. One is the doctrine of Predestination. If we are so naturally evil that we cannot even do good of our own free will then God has already chosen who will be saved and who will be damned, independently of our own participation. Carried further this may entail the idea of Determinism. This is that we have no free will to choose our own fate but everything we do is determined by our nature. Essentially, all the particles that make up the universe are organized and set in motion in a particular way that everything is perfectly predictable and inalterable.

Other implications are more striking. Augustine believed that humanity's guilt for the sin of Adam extended even to children. Thus, he believed infants who died before they were baptized would be consigned to Hell. This, he felt, was supported by numerous Biblical passages: Psalms 50:10; Job 14:4-5; John 3:5; Romans 5:12; Ephesians 2:3. [7] I defer comment to The Book of Mormon: “And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism... little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!... And he that saith that little children need baptism denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption... But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.” (Moroni 8:11-23)

In such a short space I have hardly been able to give these theologies fair assessment and I in no way mean to disparage the ideas developed during hundreds of years of Christianity. Nor have I scratched the surface of the history. But I think the logical and ethical problems brought about by the idea of Original Sin stem from an overemphasis on the literal understanding of the story of Adam and Eve. In other words, the entire point of the story is lost—the point being embedded in the symbolism.

[1] Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 1993. p. 123

[2] Pelagius, Pro Libero Arbitrio, quoted by St. Augustine in On Original Sin, chap XIV.

[3] Enchyridion 26.27.

[4] Armstrong, 124

[5] Ostler, Blake. Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God. 2006. p. 123-124.

[6] Ibid., 128

[7] Ibid., 127

Friday, January 22, 2010

Upcoming Event: Marcus Borg

I will be doing my first field trip for this blog next week. Marcus Borg, who I quoted in my post "The Challenge of Jesus", will be speaking at North Scottsdale United Methodist Church on Thursday, January 28th from 7 to 9 PM. His discussion is called "Speaking Christian: A Misunderstood Language". It is hosted by the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology.

Here is a summary from the event website:

"Being Christian includes using and understanding Christian language, yet many crucial Christian words are seriously misunderstood in our time. Words such as savior, salvation, redemption, righteousness, repentance and sacrifice have lost their original, rich meanings. How do we reclaim this language from its captivity to conventional Christianity? Can we then translate the Christian vision into words that enable us to engage with others who have not grown up with this langauge?"

It sounds like it should be pretty interesting. I have read some of Marcus Borg's work before. While I have some differences in my beliefs with him I do think it will be interesting to hear his presentation. After attending I'll give a review here and some of my own thoughts on the discussion.

For more information visit

Monday, January 18, 2010

Love Your Enemies

“How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?"

Enoch saw the earth and all the people living in it. He saw wickedness and hatred and Satan with a great chain in his hand veiling the face of the earth in darkness. Satan looked up toward Heaven and laughed. And the Heavens wept.

“How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity? And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever... and naught but peace, justice, and truth is the habitation of thy throne; and mercy shall go before thy face and have no end; how is it thou canst weep?”

And the Lord said: “Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency; And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood... Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (Moses 7:28-37)

We all have the capacity to choose our own progenitors. We can be children of God of children of Satan and the choice is made by the doctrine we choose to follow. The Title of Father is given to God the Father (Matthew 5:48; 6:9; 16:17), Jesus Christ (Mosiah 5:7; 15:1-3) and Satan (Moses 7:37; 3 Nephi 11:29; 2 Nephi 9:9). As children share the attributes of their parents, so do the spiritual offspring of God or Satan share the characteristics of their spiritual parents.

John said: “He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (1 John 3:8-11)

The simplicity of the message is striking—that we should love one another—this is what makes all the difference. Nephi prophesied: “For behold, at that day shall he [Satan] rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.” (2 Nephi 28:20) These are the fruits of Satanic progeny—hatred, anger, emnity.

Conversely, Christ says “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35) And this call is universal. Loving our own friends just won’t cut it. Jesus says “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven...” (Matthew 5:44-45) This is a hard saying. Are we able to hear it? (John 6:60) This doctrine must be taken seriously because it is forms the basis of our relationship with God. We become children of our “Father which is in heaven” by loving all, including our enemies.

I think it is safe to say that what is taught here is that we should not only love our enemies but we should in fact have no enemies at all. If we have enemies, let it be by their will and not by our own. Let our enemies be conquered not through violence, but by turning enemies into friends. This does not mean that our friends will respond in the same spirit of friendship. But as Disciples of Christ let us be friends to all and thus become children of Christ and children of our Heavenly Father.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

There Is Grandeur in These Views of Life

In 1859 in London, John Murray published a book that has become one of the most important works in the history of science to this day. The book was On the Origin of Species by author Charles Darwin. As denoted by the title, Darwin sought in this book to propose a theory that would explain how species originate and what conditions lead to speciation. His theory is known as the theory of evolution by natural selection. It was not the only theory of evolution proposed at the time and was not the only method Darwin proposed to bring about the origin of species. But current understanding of biology recognizes natural selection to be the most significant form of evolution.

Move forward to 1931, a Catholic Priest named Georges Lemaitre, who was also a physicist and astronomer, was researching Albert Einstein’s equations of General Relativity. He independently derived what are now known as the Friedman Equations. He had predicted in 1927 that the recession of a nebula was actually due to the expansion of space itself. Noting the expansion of space in forward time, he suggested that space should contract looking backward in time. Of course, eventually this contraction would reach a single point from which the entire universe would have expanded. In other words, all the matter and energy of the universe was originally contained in a single point of immense density and heat. Fred Hoyle, another scientist, was opposed to Lemaitre’s theories and derisively referred to them as “this big bang idea”. This name was eventually adopted as the accepted name for the Big Bang theory.

Both Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang theory seem to cause people of faith some discomfort. If God is not mentioned in either of these theories then where does that leave him? I can understand this discomfort but I don’t share it myself. I get a little worried that science and faith are so often placed at odds against each other. The reason this worries me is because both science and faith are important parts of my life. We lose something if we discount the benefits of either.

Orson Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said in 1860, “The study of science is the study of something eternal. If we study astronomy, we study the works of God. If we study chemistry, geology, optics, or any other branch of science, every new truth we come to the understanding of is eternal; it is a part of the great system of universal truth. It is truth that exists throughout universal nature; and God is the dispenser of all truth—scientific, religious, and political. Therefore let all classes of citizens and people endeavour to improve their time more than heretofore—to train their minds to that which is best calculated for their good and the good of the society which surrounds them. As God is the dispenser of all truth it is wise to seek truth in all disciplines.

But to a certain extent scientists have to share some of the blame for the conflict between science and religion. There is a trend of anti-religion sentiment lately among some scientists that ignores the power of faith and its redemptive power. As much as I like the science books of Richard Dawkins, his attacks on religion are unfair. When people hear scientists and professors attack religion in this way it gives the impression that science is something dangerous and a tool of Satan to attack our faith in God. But this is not the purpose of science. The purpose of science is to understand the nature of the physical universe. Attacking faith and our relationship with God does nothing to forward the cause of science.

But on the other end is a more important question for people of faith. Are there theories of science that contradict faith and religion? From what I know of Charles Darwin, he had no intention of attacking religion. He was considering a profession in the Anglican Church before embarking on his voyage on the Beagle. He did say, when asked, that he would be best described as agnostic, but he did not publicize this nor attack religion. George Lemaitre was a Catholic priest and understood the Big Bang theory as a confirmation of the creation account in Genesis, i.e. “let there be light”. So I don’t think that the originators of these theories had any anti-religious intent, but what about the theories themselves?

I don’t think that the Big Bang theory or the theory of natural selection have any detrimental implications for religion. True, the creation account of Genesis does not mention natural selection or the expansion of space. But I wouldn’t expect to find these in the Bible. The Bible does not mention anything about the structure of the atom, germ theory, Galilean physics, or Newtonian physics either. These things were not understood at the time the Bible was written and even if they were I doubt the authors would have included them. Biblical authors were writing for other purposes.

Charles Darwin said in the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. I see “grandeur” everywhere I look. I find grandeur in physics, chemistry, and biology. I especially find grandeur in the works and glory of God.

The greatest grandeur I see is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is grandeur in these views of life. As I think of all the people who have ever lived on this earth, children of God, I am grateful for the Plan of Salvation that will elevate these “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” to eternal life and salvation. There is grandeur in faith and in our relationship with our Heavenly Father.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Second Creation Narrative: Eve

This is my second post in the two-part series on the creation narratives of Genesis. This second narrative is found in Genesis 2:4-25. After reading the first two chapters I noticed very distinct messages and approaches in each chapter. I also noticed the clear demarcation of in Genesis 2:4 opening a new account: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth...” One detail of note is that in Hebrew the scriptures began referring to the creator as “Yahweh”. The previous creation account referred to the creator as “Elohim”. For this reason, the second creation narrative is often credited to another author called the Jahwist (J). The name “Yahweh” is often translated in English to “Jehovah”. However, Jews prefer not to vocalize the name “Yahweh” when reading the Torah and substitute this name with “Adonai”, meaning “Lord”. The King James Version of the Bible follows this practice with few exceptions. Therefore, the change in the name of the creator can be observed in English by the use of the word “Lord”.

One obvious indication that this is a separate creation narrative is the statement in the fifth verse: “and every plant of the field before it was in the earth and every herb of the field before it grew... and there was not a man to till the ground”. This verse is going back to the time before there were plants or people. Later, in the story we find that there were not yet animals. But in the previous creation narrative God had created plants, animals and man. It appears these creation accounts are not sequential in time but parallel. I see these two accounts portraying the same story but for different purposes.

God creates man “from the dust of the ground”. The word for “ground” in Hebrew is “adhamah” which is something of a play on words. The word “adhamah” is composed of four Hebrew letters: aleph, daleth, mem, he. If the last letter “he” is removed, the three letters that remain form the word “adham” or “mankind”. Thus, in Hebrew, “mankind” is literally taken out of the “ground”. Yahweh then animates the body of man by breathing into it the breath of life so it becomes a living soul.

Now that there is a man to till the ground, Yahweh plants a garden and places the man in it. He plants many trees and is permitted to eat from all but The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He is warned that if should he eat the fruit of this tree he will surely die. The account also gives the geography and rivers of the surrounding area. I will skim over a lot of this to get to the part that I think is the most important part of the story.

Yahweh says “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (verse 18). The word “meet” in Hebrew is “neghedh”, meaning a front, i.e. part opposite; specifically a counterpart, or mate. Yahweh then forms out of the ground every beast of the field and fowl of the air. These are presented to Adam and he names them. All these creatures are created from the same source as man himself, the ground or “adhamah”. But among all these many useful beasts and creatures there is found no aid “meet” for man, or “counterpart” corresponding to him.

Finally, Yahweh causes Adam to sleep and takes part of the man’s own flesh to create a companion: a woman. The woman is made from Adam’s rib, in Hebrew “tsela”, which can also be understood to mean “side”. Adam then says, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (verse 23). This companion is named “ishah”, which is woman, because she was taken out of man, “ish”.

As I have mentioned previously, I don’t think the literal, historical veracity of this story is what is important. I doubt that Eve was literally created out of a rib. But who knows? Maybe it is literal. But I think this story is creating an image to portray an important meaning. The man was alone. He needed a counterpart, an opposite, a mate. All the animals with their many uses were not able to fill this role. They were made of the same materials. The cattle of the field are useful for food and labor. But none of these corresponded to man on the deepest and most important levels. For this, the Lord needed to create a new life out of the man himself—someone who he could connect with as if the two were one soul. This was done by creating woman, the final act of creation.

This is the great lesson of the second creation narrative. Men and women should be connected to each other in every possible way. They are opposite and similar, contrasting and complementing. They are as one flesh though in two separate bodies. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh”.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The First Creation Narrative

This is my first post in a two-part series on the two creation narratives. The first creation narrative is found in Genesis 1:1-2:3. Interestingly, the first creation narrative uses the name "Elohim" whenever referring to the creator. The second creation narrative is found in Genesis 2:4-25. This second narrative uses the name "Yahweh" to refer to the creator. This name is often translated to "Jehovah" in English. Both narratives have different focuses and points of emphasis so I think it is useful to look at them separately.

According to one theory, Wellhausen's Documentary Hypothesis, the first creation narrative was written by the Priestly Source (P). The Priestly Source is thought to be a priest or group of priests living in Babylonian captivity. As they kept the ancient records of Israel they paid particular attention to those matters of special interest to priests such as the extensive ritualistic instructions in Leviticus and genealogies in Numbers. But it is also believed that this first creation narrative has been attributed to the Priestly Source as well. Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, said: "the didactic tone and repetitions suggest that P's creation story was also designed for liturgical recital" (64). Indeed it's structure is quite elaborate and organized with symbolism deeply enmeshed in the writings, possibly for use in the the ancient temple.

On recurring symbol is the number seven. The number seven is highly symbolic in the Torah. Seven signifies divine completion. The most obvious use of the number seven is that there are seven days of creation. The first sentence of the Hebrew Bible contains seven words: "Bereshith bara elohim eth hashamayim va'eth ha'arets". The second sentence contains 14 words. The verses about the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-3) contain 35 words (7x5). The word "elohim" or "God" appears 35 time (7x5). The word "earth" appears 21 times (7x3). Both the phrases "and it was so" and "God saw that it was good" appear seven times.

The Framework Interpretation of Genesis posits an elaborate structure in the text developed to reinforce the commandment to honor the Sabbath. The narrative can be broken down into two triads. The first triad is of the first three days and the second triad is of the next three days. These two triads parallel each other. For example, on the first God says "light there by light" (verse 3) and on the fourth day says "let there be lights" (verse 14). On the second day, God separates the waters above from waters beneath and on the fifth day fills the waters above with birds and the waters beneath with swimming creatures. On the third day God brings forth dry land and vegetation and on the sixth day makes animals and mankind. These two triads can also be seen as part of three kingdoms. In the first three days God creates three creation kingdoms. In the next three days he creates the creature kings. On the seventh day the creator king takes his rest.

The cosmological view given in Genesis is consistent with the Middle-Eastern understanding of the time (shown above). Civilizations in the region understood the earth to be a flat disk suspended in waters, or "mayim". The sky was understood to be a metal bowl which separated the earth and the surrounding waters from the waters above, which formed the heavens, or "shamayim".

The creation account of Genesis is sometimes compared with the contemporary Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish. Enuma Elish shares the idea of a primeval chaos with waters above and below. But the creation narrative of the Hebrew Bible is distinct in its portrayal of creation as an ordered and planned construction. While Enuma Elish, as well as many other creation stories, portray the universe as a result of divine conflict among competing gods, the creation by Elohim is seemingly effortless, brought forth by simple verbal command. The Genesis narrative places special emphasis on organization. The story uses the word "bhdel" meaning "to divide" when separating the light from the darkness, the waters above from the waters beneath, the day from the night. Every living thing is organized and made to bring forth after its kind.

Both the Genesis narrative and Enuma Elish share six days of creation followed by a day of rest. However, whereas in Enuma Elish the creation of mankind is something of an afterthought, mankind is Elohim's crowning creation. To mankind, or "adham", God gives his own image. Mankind is given dominion over all things, all the plants and animals. Of note here is that mankind, adham, is created male and female. It is clear here that the author was referring to "adham" as mankind and not the individual Adam. This first creation account mentions the creation of mankind, both men and women. This is noteworthy because the second creation account places more particular emphasis on the relationship between the men and women in the form of the individuals Adam and Eve.

It can be said that both creation narratives in Genesis have a message, a moral. In the last three verses (Genesis 2:1-3), God rests from his labors on the seventh day and sanctifies it. The verb "rest" is in Hebrew, "shaboth", which is now understood in English as the "Sabbath". God blesses, "bharekh", and sanctifies, "qaddesh", the seventh day because on that day he rested. The first creation narratives ends with the lesson that the Sabbath is a blessed and holy day on which we should rest from our labor and sanctify the Sabbath as did Elohim on the seventh day of creation.


Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 1993.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Where Art Thou?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman, The Rav of Northern White Russia (died 1813), was put in jail in Petersbutf, because the mitnagdim had denounced his principles and his way of living to the government. He was awaiting trial when the chief of the gendarmes entered his cell. The majestic and quiet face of the rav, who was so deep in meditation that he did not at first notice his visitor, suggested to the chief, a thoughtful person, what manner of man he had before him. He began to converse with his prisoner and brought up a number of questions which had occurred to him in reading the Scriptures. Finally, he asked: “How are we to understand that God, the all-knowing, said to Adam: ‘Where art thou?’”

“Do you believe,” answered the rav, “that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era, every generation and every man is included in them?”

“I believe this,” said the other.

“Well then,” said the zaddik, “in every era, God calls to every man: ‘Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’ God says something like this: ‘You have lived forty-six years. How far along are you?”

When the chief of the gendarmes heard his age mentioned, he pulled himself together, laid his hand on the rav’s shoulder, and cried: “Bravo!” But his heart trembled.

-Martin Buber, The Way of Man (9-10)

As I mentioned in my last post, the seemingly simple can be quite powerful when understood for its underlying symbolism. The name “Adam” is Hebrew, meaning “mankind”. While on one level the Biblical text tells the story of a particular individual, it also tells the story of all mankind, as well as the story of every individual. We are to understand the story as we stand in Adam’s place and imagine God speaking to us. God has given us commandments and the violation of these commandments brings us into opposition with God, for he “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:31).

I quote again from Buber. God says to Adam: “Where art thou?”

In so asking, God does not expect to learn something he does not know; what he wants is to produce an effect in man which can only be produced by just such a question, provided that it reaches man’s heart—that man allows it to reach his heart.

Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of living. Every man hides for this purpose, for every man is Adam and finds himself in Adam’s situation...

Everything now depends on whether man faces the question. Of course every man’s heart, like that of the chief in the story, will tremble when he hears it. But his system of hideouts will help him to overcome this emotion. For the voice does not come in a thunderstorm which threatens man’s very existence; it is a “still small voice”, and easy to drown... Adam faces the Voice, perceives his enmeshment, and avows: “I hid myself”; this is the beginning of man’s way. The decisive heart-searching is the beginning of the way in man’s life; it is, again and again, the beginning of a human way. (pages 12-13)

Everyone must take this step and face the Voice. Until Adam takes responsibility for his action he does not progress. Hiding from God provides only a false solace. It is like trying to solve problems by forgetting about them. Forgetting may bring relief but it does not actually change anything—the problems are still there. The reason God calls after Adam is not to find him but to help Adam to find himself. When Adam understands where he is he can decide where he must go.

Adam and Eve are made to face the consequences of their action: pain and death. Because the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance they are banished from his presence. As Adam, mankind, we face a similar, personal fall from favor with God by sin. We are cut off from the presence of God and suffer sorrow and spiritual death. The objective now is to return to Eden. This is the “teshuvah”, the returning to God. This is what is meant by repentance, to return. The Lord still cannot allow sin, but Adam can return to the presence of God through covenant.

By sinning, Adam has become “natural man” and is in effect “an enemy to God... and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19). Adam can become “kadosh”, or holy once again, through the atonement of Christ to be brought back “at-one” with God.

So Adam, where art thou? “Have ye been spiritually born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view his mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?” (Alma 5:14-15).

“Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you” (Alma 5:33).

The Richness of Symbolism

As I have been reading the Old Testament and preparing new posts I thought I might take a moment to take about symbolism and metaphor. The Bible is filled with symbolism as is most religion and this adds to its richness. Sometimes we think of metaphor as less potent than objectively verifiable facts; the stories of the Bible are somehow threatened if we label them as “metaphorical”. This dejected response sounds something like: “you mean it’s only a metaphor?” But the symbolism of the Bible is not only metaphorical it is profoundly and powerfully metaphorical. Whether a certain story is literal or not may not be the most important issue. Maybe Eve was literally created out of Adam’s rib, but without an understanding of the symbolism behind this the power of the story is lost. Symbolism can be a very helpful way of expressing religious concepts that regular language cannot effectively relate.

In her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong said: “Religion is hard work. Its insights are not self-evident and have to be cultivated in the same way as an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be development” (page 8). I can relate especially to the reference to music. Music is also hard work and can only be mastered (in my opinion) through an emotional and spiritual appreciation. Even music with no overt religiosity can be spiritual for me. To give an example of the power of music, think of its role in film. If you have seen The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, think of the scene in which Rohan is being sacked at Helm’s Deep and lies on the brink of annihilation. Théoden and Aragorn ride out to meet death and glory when they look up the hill to see Gandolf and the riders of Rohan ready to descend and save their kin. The armies fall down the hill, the sun rises, and hope is restored. If you are like me, you have the soundtrack playing in your mind as you remember this scene. The music is what gives it life. The music gives it emotion. Much like the music in a film, the symbolism of scripture animates and enriches it.

I give this post as a preface to later treatments of the Bible such as the Creation, the Garden of Eden, etc. The symbolism in these stories is powerful. I don’t mean to disparage the scripture in any way by addressing its symbolism. To the contrary, the symbolism of the Biblical narratives is what makes them so moving for me.