Thursday, December 16, 2010

Calling good evil.

Isaiah warns against calling evil good, and about calling good evil. The latter warning is something I think many of us (especially here in Provo, Utah) forget about. We excel at calling things evil, at avoiding things that might harm us. We take anything that isn't explicitly scriptural (any music that isn't hymns, any book that isn't from Deseret, you name it), and we label it as "the world." We put it in a little bin in our mind and shut it off, call it "evil," forget about it, avoid contact with it. We therefore are safe from accidentally calling something evil "good," and cannot be poisoned by it. We forget that however safe this practice's intentions are, it is very, very dangerous.

When we shut out "the world," we are in danger of calling good things "evil." We are in danger of closing our minds to things that could have edified us. We are in danger of rejecting the profound in our efforts to be pious. We try to be shielded, but we just end up sheltered.

The other day, while cashiering at Subway, I mentioned that the Christopher Nolan film "Inception" had recently came out on DVD. Of course, film is something I'm more passionate about than anyone I know, and "Inception" in particular is a film I can never seem to stop talking about. As many of you know by now, it is just ... so good.

The customer mentioned she had not seen "Inception." I told her that she should. She told me that she does not watch PG-13 movies, out of principle. Jokingly, I said, "oh, so you're twelve then?" She laughed. "Eleven, actually," she replied, playing along.

Then, abruptly defensive, she got a very serious look on her face, and said: "filth is filth, no matter how old you are." Sure, it was a self-righteous and pretentious thing to say, but I don't blame her for standing up for her values in the face of ridicule (that I'd admittedly started); I just think her values are flawed.

Drawing a Pharisaical line in the sand to rule out PG-13 movies in an effort to avoid "filth" has the right intentions, but for so many reasons it is the wrong way to act out those intentions. Think of all the good you're ruling out ("Inception" is but one example of literally thousands), in an effort to block out evil. And think of all the evil you're still allowing in ("The Graduate" and "Airplane!" are both rated PG, but they can more easily qualify as "filth" than most of the PG-13 movies I've seen).

I'm not suggesting that we should embrace All Things, that we should take evil things into our homes and pat them on the back and allow them to degrade and demoralize us. I am suggesting, however, that there are a lot of wonderful, edifying, thought-provoking, soul-building things out there in the world that will be missed by those of us who draw too many imaginary lines.

A counterargument: "Sure, by limiting the films I watch, I might miss out on some good things, but isn't it more important to keep evil out? Why take the risk of being exposed to evil, when I can get my fill of 'good' things from Church, where I know it's all actually good?"

My answer: The 13th Article of Faith as written by Joseph Smith (sorry, non-LDS readers) says that if there is anything "virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy," we don't just passively wait for it to fall in our lap; rather, "we seek after these things." Emphasis on the word "seek." You see that elsewhere in the scriptures, and it always implies something very active. Seek, and ye shall find. Lovely and praiseworthy things are to be actively sought, and of course that includes art. Since film is the culmination of all past art forms, I would say it qualifies as something we ought to vigorously monitor: something we ought to actively--aggressively!--look for the good in. When we find that good, that truth, no matter what its source, we ought to embrace it. Another little thing Joseph Smith taught, that we are so quick to forget: "one of the grand fundamental principles of 'Mormonism' is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may." Again, the idea of "receiving" truth implies action. We use the word similarly when we say you "receive" the Holy Ghost. In Gospel context, "receive" is very much an action word.

Furthermore, let us remember that God's creative powers come from His ability to make order out of chaos, so if we are to become like Him, we must learn to make order out of the chaos we see here in the world. That cannot happen if we ignore the world and its chaos. We have to acknowledge it, and make edifying sense of it. That is why the best and most significant films are often rated PG-13 or R; they take serious and chaotic and dark subject matter (things like gang violence, drug use, or the Holocaust, things that actually happen in the real world), and portray it honestly and maturely. Enlightenment comes when we can be mature enough to pay attention to these sorts of things, and walk away with a better understanding of existence.

I hope none of you think this post is just about films. This post is about truth and light, and our responsibility (not just privilege) to embrace it no matter from whence it comes. There is truth in art, and therefore in film, so let's embrace it. But there is truth elsewhere also (in other religions, in other cultures, et cetera), and I hope we can eventually learn to embrace it everywhere.

If we do not, we are doomed to call good evil, and to turn our noses up to things that perhaps God wants us to experience. All in the name of what we would like to call "purity." And that sort of exclusive philosophy is, in some ways, the exact opposite of Mormonism.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mystery on a pen.

I'm sitting in Biology class right now, mesmerized by a young man in the row in front of me. He's eating some sort of unidentified object, cake-like in consistency but of completely uncertain substance.

And he's eating it with a pen.

I wonder what his thought process was this morning. "I really want to eat this old cookie dough mixed with last year's pumpkin pie, but I don't have a fork." Pause. Lightbulb moment in the bathroom mirror. "Heck, I'll use my pen."

There is so much uncertainty in life. What will happen after graduation, what will happen after death, and what on earth is the strange food on the end of that man's writing utensil. Whatever it is, it is apparently delicious, because he's been eating it for about thirty minutes.

My friend Erin came up with a brilliant idea. "What if I sold a pen that had a fork on the other end," she said. Hey, I'd buy that. The idea could be taken even further. Pens could double as spoons, knives, lightbulbs, mascara wands, you name it! This is the future, my friends.

My neighbors and I in the class can't take our eyes off him, trying to figure out what it is. One theory is that it's some sort of pot sticker. Another theory is that it's a fruitcake. So far, it seems the opinions of the masses are as varied as religious beliefs. I'll post again if I ever find out.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why I miss the mission.

Recently (the first of October), I went to a mission reunion hosted by President and Sister Perry. It was great to catch up with old friends, and it made me more than a little nostalgic. I started to wonder: what is it about being a missionary that I miss so much? Certainly it wasn't the tracting or the biking.

I can sum up the things I miss in three words: camaraderie, simplicity, and significance.

CAMARADERIE: I miss the connection I had with other Elders. Surely we didn't all get along perfectly, but for some reason I feel a special sort of kinship even with the ones I didn't enjoy living with. It was like we were soldiers fighting a war together. Companionship came naturally from our sense of commonality: we had a common cause and served under the same Captain. Post-mission, friendships can too often be forced or fake; people are always going in different directions and have different goals, and therefore they will inevitably come across times when they have no more need of each other.

SIMPLICITY: This I miss tremendously. Mission life is not easy but it is assuredly simple. You worry about the same things every day, and you needn't worry about anything else. You are doing well if you are consistently and wholeheartedly inviting others to come unto Christ. Everything else about missionary work is fluff. After the tie and the tag come off, though, life gets much more complex. People warned me about this in California between 2006 and 2008, but I didn't understand their warnings until I found myself knee-deep in the worries of the world: financial responsibilities, socioromantic endeavors, academic pursuits, and other concerns threatened to drown out the spiritual focus I used to have. The solution has not been simple. It is not like I can abandon all these other things; life is multifaceted now. I just have to see everything through a spiritual lens and keep my perspective and priorities. In the past two years, that has proven trickier than it sounds.

SIGNIFICANCE: Perhaps many Mormon missionaries think too much of themselves, and I was probably included in that generalization. But in truth, they're important, and the work they get up every morning to do is of eternal significance. And most of them know that. They can feel it. They can feel the strength of the millions--literally--of prayers uttered every day, prayers asking God to "bless the missionaries in their endeavors." I distinctly remember feeling that. Every time I put a tie and tag on and got outside, I knew I was part of something bigger than myself, that I was preaching something so very important that at least in some contexts it could fairly be called the Only Important Thing. But what about now? My life choices are still significant, sure, but they don't always feel like it in such obvious ways. I got an A on a Biology test the other day, but I didn't feel all that special about it. In no visible or direct way did anyone's soul creep closer to salvation and further from damnation because of my Biology score.

Speaking of exams and scores, I had better conclude this blog post so I can get back to studying for my History of Philosophy test. Hopefully as I do, I will try to keep in mind the significance of my actions, the beautiful simplicity hidden behind the complexities of my post-mission life, and the camaraderie all around me that I have a newfound determination not to neglect. After all, the mission is only two short years, and if it is to be the Indisputably Best Time Ever in a man's life, then God wouldn't be as loving as we preach Him to be. I submit, however, that He is still loving, and that there are wonderful and fulfilling years ahead. I've just got to choose to recognize their awesomeness, so that I can enjoy them and forge ahead with hope.

Let us remember and learn from the past, without neglecting the present. Let us cherish our memories, and move on to the future to make new ones. That's my goal, at least.

Monday, July 26, 2010

One-liners that don't hold water.

In one of my favorite songs, I noticed an interesting lyric the other day: "our ideas held no water, but we used them like a dam." This is how I feel about a lot of one-liners: they're often used to respond to crises or to answer deep questions, but in my eyes they don't provide any meaningful answers. They don't hold any water, but we use them like a dam. Here are a few of those one-liners, and why they don't really do anything for me...

- "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!"

Problem: Where am I to get the water and sugar from? How can I be expected to make lemonade if all life "gives" me is lemons? This adage implies that "life" just arbitrarily HANDS us everything we have, and therefore the adage implicitly asks the impossible. It sets up an expectation so whenever something "bad" happens in our lives, we feel pressure to magically transform it into something "good." Oh, and when you still have lemons in your pocket and no lemonade to drink, how do you feel? Miserable and powerless. This adage tells us that if things are bad, we're doing something wrong. "What's the matter," it taunts, "you can't turn this into lemonade?" No, maybe I can't. But I cannot come to peace with my circumstances, so I am tortured: I cannot simply accept things for how they are, because this adage teaches me to expect myself to somehow change them, like some sort of alchemist.

When life gives you lemons, be happy about lemons. Do not automatically label life events as "good things" or "bad things," but rather, simply accept your reality as such and react accordingly. Sometimes trying to change things will be an appropriate reaction, and sometimes it will not.

- "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me."

I have had issue with this adage since the first day I heard it. Sure, we teach this saying to children so that they learn not to get over-offended by what others say. But on the flip side, we try to teach kindness and tact. Why? Why be kind or tactful if the only thing that will hurt is a stick or a stone? For most of my youth, I felt like I could (and should) say whatever came to mind, no matter what, because no one had the right to be offended by mere words. This unhealthy habit of communication eventually faded, but probably would have faded sooner if it weren't for sayings like this "sticks and stones" nonsense.

Don't tell your kids that words "can never hurt" them. Words CAN hurt, and words DO hurt. How we react to that hurt is what matters.

- "That person has too much time on their hands."

Okay, this isn't really an "adage," per se, but it's a one-liner that is often used to sneer at those who perform some impressive or talented feat. It makes us feel better when we watch Youtube videos or "America's Got Talent" or whatever it is. Instead of admiring gifted and dedicated individuals, we assure ourselves of our superiority by noting, "wow, SOMEONE has a lot of time on their hands..."

Actually, everyone has the same amount of time on their hands: namely, twenty-four hours each day. Everyone gets the same amount. Everyone has seven days in a week, just like you. The only difference between the people using this adage and the people it's used against is the use of said time. Sure, this sounds like an obvious distinction to make, but it's very important to remember. The guy you saw doing crazy tricks on TV last night doesn't have some random unfair advantage over you, and he certainly doesn't have more time than you do. He just used his time to hone a skill... and you used your time to watch him on TV.

- "Where there's a will, there's a way."

This is just blatantly and obviously untrue. I find it difficult to understand why people still use this phrase. I hope I don't need to explain that sometimes, will notwithstanding, there is no way.

Where there's a will, there's a will. Where there's a way, there's a way. Sometimes there is both, but they do not cause each other. However, where there's a will, it is sometimes easier [than it would be without a will] to find/recognize a way, if there is one at all.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The overcrowded life boat.

Consider the following ethical dilemma, and discuss your thoughts in the comments:

In 1842, a ship struck an iceberg and more than 30 survivors were crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7. As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive. The captain reasoned that the right thing to do in this situation was to force some individuals to go over the side and drown. Such an action, he reasoned, was not unjust to those thrown overboard, for they would have drowned anyway. If he did nothing, however, he would be responsible for the deaths of those whom he could have saved. Some people opposed the captain's decision. They claimed that if nothing were done and everyone died as a result, no one would be responsible for these deaths. On the other hand, if the captain attempted to save some, he could do so only by killing others and their deaths would be his responsibility; this would be worse than doing nothing and letting all die. The captain rejected this reasoning. Since the only possibility for rescue required great efforts of rowing, the captain decided that the weakest would have to be sacrificed. In this situation it would be absurd, he thought, to decide by drawing lots who should be thrown overboard. As it turned out, after days of hard rowing, the survivors were rescued and the captain was tried for his action. If you had been on the jury, how would you have decided?

Monday, May 3, 2010

A defense of two trilemmas.

Disclaimer: this one is (somewhat absurdly) long.


Yesterday, a bunch of Mormon Facebookers were asked to log onto Youtube to uprate a video called "Testimony of the Book of Mormon," featuring excerpts from a recent inspiring sermon by LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland. Meanwhile, readers of a website called "science blogs" were told about the Facebook group and instructed to do precisely the opposite: namely, downrate the video with a "thumbs down" on Youtube, in protest to the video's "appallingly illogical" message, as atheist blogger PZ Meyers puts it. PZ compares the video to C. S. Lewis' Trilemma, which he and his readers seem to hold in automatic low regard as far as logical soundness goes.

Granted, Lewis was a Christian apologetic, not a theologian - and Holland is a preacher, not a philosopher. But let's go ahead and examine their respective "trilemmas" with the scrutiny they deserve. I don't think they're nearly as illogical as their attackers make them out to be.


C. S. Lewis, to break his argument down in premise-and-conclusion form, says something like this:

I. Jesus claimed to be God.
II. One of the following must be true:
---Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but believed that he was.
---Liar: Jesus did not believe he was God, but spoke as if he did.
---Lord: Jesus is God.
III. If not God, Jesus must be a fraud, or worse.
IV. A further conclusion, according to C. S. Lewis: Jesus' greatness and morality were "obvious" so he could not have been delusional or a deceiver, and thus he must have been God.

I'll take the liberty of breaking Jeffrey R. Holland's argument, and others like it, into similar terms:

I. Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon by the power of God.
II. One of the following must be true:
---Sham: Joseph's claims about the Book were imaginative fabrications.
---Satanic: The Book comes from deranged or demonic influences.
---Sacred: The Book of Mormon was truly of divine origin and Joseph Smith was a prophet.
III. If the Book of Mormon is not of God, its creation is fraudulent, or worse.
IV. A further conclusion, as illustrated by George Cannon (Elder Holland's great-grandfather): "No wicked man could write [i.e. fabricate] such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so."

In other words, Holland has examined the Book of Mormon (much like Lewis has examined the words and works of Christ), and concluded that the probability of its being fraudulent (given its complexity) or hellish (given its virtue) are minimal at best, and therefore the Book must be of God.

Holland further argues that Joseph and Hyrum Smith would not have died with testimonies of the Book of Mormon on their lips if the Book were false. Our opponents on scienceblogs point out that this is a fallacy: martyrdom does not necessarily imply truth. This is a valid counterargument. I think that Elder Holland's aim was to create moving religious rhetoric rather than some kind of solid Pythagorean proof. It works for what it is, so let us not attack it for failing to be what it never purported to be. Instead, I'd like to focus on the similarities between (and the validity of) C. S. Lewis' Trilemma and Mormon apologetics on Joseph Smith.


The naysayers claim: the problem with the trilemmas is that there are more options available than the three offered. For example, with C. S. Lewis' Lunatic, Liar, or Lord, we could easily add a fourth alternative, "Legend," if the historical records are inaccurate and Jesus never really claimed to be God as we think he did. Some even argue for a "pentalemma," adding the fifth option that perhaps Jesus was a sort of guru, who believed himself to be God only in the sense that everything is divine.

To adapt these arguments so they oppose Mormon apologetic writing, however, we would have to alter them somewhat. For example, the historical records of early LDS history are reliable enough for us to know that the Book of Mormon's status cannot be considered mere "legend" - it is well documented that Joseph clearly and explicitly defined the Book's origins as divine. So, are there any other options other than 1) he was lying, 2) he was deceived, or 3) he was right? Perhaps. Could an alternate option could be that 4) he was exaggerating?


Let us first examine the five proposed explanations of Jesus' divinity.

1. Jesus as Lunatic: is this likely? Are typical lunatics as consistently wise as he? He explained prophecies to Jewish teachers when he was twelve years old. A couple decades later, he delivered what is probably the most important moral discourse of human history. I do not think it plausible that a man like Jesus could have been insane.

2. Jesus as Liar: this is doubtful. He was not afraid to die for what he taught, which (as mentioned above) doesn't prove his teachings, but it certainly proves that if they were not true, he at least thought they were. Con artists have no reason to sacrifice as much as he did. And it's not like he was ever rich; he never even owned a home.

3. Jesus as Lord: the reality of this claim, of course, requires the existence of a God. I'd have to devote an entirely new post to build an argument for God's existence (maybe next time). Given that God exists, though, the theology of salvation through Christ (called "soteriology"), and what that implies, still poses a lot of problems and questions. Incidentally, LDS teachings provide some possible answers to those questions, as I've discussed in part of an earlier blog post (the only one longer than this one, probably).

4. Jesus as Legend: with good reason, this is the atheists' favorite weapon of choice against Lewis' trilemma. They argue that Biblical accounts are not historically reliable and therefore cannot be treated as infallible accounts of what Jesus, if he ever lived, actually said. Now, is this plausible? Certainly. The events described in the Bible happened so long ago that, despite evidences for and against them that have sprung up since, there is still no definitive "proof" either way. The Bible was never intended to be a comprehensive historical record. Read Josephus if that's what you want. The Bible is a work of subjective religious history, focusing on doctrinal discourses, faith-promoting accounts of selected incidents, and genealogical records (and it certainly isn't infallible - message me if you'd like me to send you the term paper I wrote about Biblical mistranslations). My defense against the Legend claim is that in the context of Lewis' original argument, it's not really relevant. C. S. Lewis was arguing against those who believe the Bible to be a fairly true account and yet deny Christ's divinity while admitting his moral usefulness. This opponent of Lewis' is not a "straw man," as many atheists say it is. It is a real argument that I have heard dozens of people say to me, and have read even more times. So to be fair to C. S. Lewis we must remember that his trilemma was intended as a rebuttal against someone who did not doubt the historicity of Biblical accounts.

5. Jesus as Guru: I find this argument doesn't quite fit with what our source material tells us. Jesus spoke of himself as being separate from God the Father, yes - but he also spoke of himself as Son of God distinctly, and in a different way than he spoke of all of us being children of God. I'll spare you a scriptural rundown, but maybe in a later post I will go into more detail on how the Guru theory can only be true if the Legend theory is also true (namely, if the Bible does not say what Jesus said). It really does not stand on its own.

Now let us examine the possibilities for Joseph Smith.

1. The Book of Mormon as Sham: is it really likely that the Book was simply made up on the spot? Renowned scholar Hugh Nibley often challenged his university students to write something that fits the criteria the Book of Mormon fits. To his death, he never received one of those term papers back. And why not? Perhaps because of the sheer complexity and intricacy of the Book of Mormon's narrative. Remember, this is a book:
---containing a 2600-year history.
---with 300,000 words.
---that was completely dictated (and without having the stenographer read back the last paragraph or sentences, after a lunch break, etc).
---containing multiple distinct writing styles, as it contains contributions from multiple authors. These writing styles were later linguistically analyzed and did not match each other, nor did they match Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries.
---containing (correctly used) figures of speech, similes, metaphors, narration, exposition, description, oratory, epic lyric, and parables.
---including authentic descriptions of travel, clothing, mourning customs, and types of government.
Another strong criticism I have for the "fraud" theory is that while most believe Oliver Cowdery was probably involved in the "con," the truth of the matter is that Oliver never denied his witness of the Book's authenticity and of his having seen an angel proclaim the same. And why not? By the time Cowdery died, he had become enemies with Joseph Smith, and if the Book (and consequently, the LDS Church) was indeed fraudulent, Cowdery had a golden opportunity to expose and defame Smith. But he never did. If he knew it to be fake, this is extraordinarily puzzling.

2. The Book of Mormon as Satanic: our atheist friends would of course never use this argument, because if there is no God why would there be a Satan? However, the argument exists and I have heard it countless times by people who believe Mormonism was forged in the fires of Hell. This is, to put it mildly, theologically unlikely. If a book is neither manmade nor Godmade, it might be infernal, but if one examines the Book of Mormon closely they can clearly see that it does not lead away from God. I have heard people say that "it might bring people to do good but they come away with an incorrect understanding of Jesus," but even if that were true in principle, then the Book at worst would be a corrupted mixture of light and darkness (see possibility #4). If it has some light in it, however, then that light must have come from God. Satan by definition produces only evil and lies. And as a side note: yes, if you were wondering, I would certainly argue that the Qur'an, Torah, etc, are at least partially of God. They have light and truth in them and aim to bring people from vice to virtue.

3. The Book of Mormon as Sacred: the argument for the Book of Mormon's divinity is usually only made to an audience who assumes that God exists in the first place, for if there is no God then certainly a Book cannot come "from God." The assumption of a divine reality is, in most cases, a necessary starting point. So, given that there is a God, is the Book's authenticity logical? Of course it is. If there is a God, why would he not speak to all people? And if the Bible is true, why would God limit his communication to just those people described therein? If the Middle-Eastern Jews had prophets, why wouldn't the American Indians? And why would there not be more records? Further, if God once revealed his will to prophets, then why would he not do so today? It has been suggested (although perhaps this is another trilemma that deserves some scrutiny) that the only reasons God would cease speaking to us would be neglect, powerlessness, or a lack of need. Certainly God is neither neglectful nor impotent, and certainly we need him now more than ever.

4. The Book of Mormon as Exaggeration: a final possibility we could consider is that the Book of Mormon has hints of divine inspiration therein, but the details of its origin are perhaps exaggerated. This would mean that the Book's virtue really is from a God who really does exist, but the historical particulars surrounding both its translator's power and its characters' exodus from Jerusalem to Mesoamerica are not necessarily veridical (though they may be "true" in some metaphorical or symbolic sense). This puts the Book's alleged contents and its alleged origin in the category of Myth. So, is the exaggeration theory plausible? Kind of. Of course, the theological problem with this theory is that it presents a sort of inconsistent view of Deity. What I mean is, if there is a God who is involved enough in human affairs to inspire Joseph to write the sort of moral ideas he wrote in the Book of Mormon, then why wouldn't that same God intervene and forbid Joseph from embellishing his story? Or, if God always intended for the stories in and about the Book to be symbolic, why would he not have said so?


I'll be the first to admit that this blog post doesn't do its subject matter justice and there is much more that ought to be said for all points of view involved. However, I do hope I have sufficiently shown that the criticisms against Lewis and Holland are at least somewhat unfair. The trilemmas we see in Christian apologetics, and specifically in Mormon apologetics, are not as unsound as many assume. Of course these trilemmas are not without flaw, but we must remember that religious/historical proofs can hardly be expected to be as perfectly precise as mathematical proofs.

I do believe that Jesus was and is Lord, and that Joseph Smith was and is a true prophet. I also believe the Book of Mormon to be both authentic and spiritually priceless. I do not believe thoughtlessly or dogmatically or blindly, and I do not advise anyone to. However, my belief (while being significantly strengthened by rationalism and empiricism) has its epistemological foundations mostly in the relationship that I have with my God.

I thank God for men like Jeffrey Holland who aren't afraid to share their convictions despite constant torrents of criticism, and I aspire to do likewise: for I do know that God is real, and no one can take that knowledge away from me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The God of Joseph Smith.

In this post, we will examine two questions. First, how is the God of Joseph Smith theologically consistent with the existence of evil? Second, what is the function and value of theology in a universe ruled by the God of Joseph Smith? Our discussion on these two questions will be adapted from a paper I wrote for a Philosophy of Religion class taught by Dr. David L. Paulsen.

Joseph Smith and the problem of evil:

The problem of evil is threefold:  the problems are are logical, soteriological, and practical.  The logical problem of evil asks how it is even possible for there to be a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and who created all things absolutely (that is, ex nihilo, or out of nothing), given that the universe over which he allegedly rules is one consisting of countless evils.  The theology of Joseph Smith’s teachings answers this question simply by defining God differently.  While God is indeed omnipotent, he cannot bring about any state of affairs whatsoever (or even any logically possible state of affairs); while God is indeed omniscient, he does not know things that are inherently unknowable (he knows all knowledge, but “knowledge” by definition is limited to that which is and can be known); while God is indeed omnibenevolent, he is not thereby required to prevent all evils whatsoever.  Lastly (and perhaps most importantly), while God is indeed the “Creator,” he did not create all things ex nihilo.  Instead, Joseph teaches, “God’s creative activity consists of bringing order out of disorder, of organizing a cosmos out of chaos, not of the production of something out of nothing” (David Paulsen, Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil, 58, emphasis added).  If Joseph Smith’s God is God, then the existence of evil ceases to be a logical problem.  The God of Joseph Smith is co-eternal with other self-existent realities, like laws (or “principles”), time and space, matter, and our very intelligences (or what most would call our “souls”).  This implies that omnipotence need be redefined as “the power to bring about any state of affairs consistent with the natures of eternal existences” (B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology, as referenced in Paulsen, 59).  Therefore, God is not impossible given evil, nor is God omniresponsible for evil.  All evils that occur are therefore 1) unpreventable absolutely, 2) unpreventable by God (but not by us, given our moral freedom), or 3) “unpreventable by God without thereby preventing some greater good or causing some greater evil” (Paulsen, 60).

Second, the soteriological problem of evil asks a question not about mortal, temporary evils (like sins or earthly suffering), but asks instead about a much more significant evil, namely eternal damnation.  The question is this:  Given that millions of God’s children have lived and died without ever hearing of Christ, how could God (who is perfectly loving and therefore desires that all of his children be saved) possibly require acceptance of Christ as a universal and irrevocable condition for salvation?  Most Christian philosophers attempt to answer this question either with “universalism” (a universalist will claim the eventual salvation of all mankind, thereby maintaining God’s infinite love but denying the scriptural indications that acceptance of Christ is absolutely essential for salvation) or “exclusivism” (an exclusivist will tell you that a woman born in Kenya  4000 years ago, who never heard of Christ at all, will go to Hell:  thereby the exclusivist puts God’s infinite love in severe doubt, emphatically affirming the validity of the divine mandate to accept Christ or be damned).  Meanwhile, Joseph Smith’s teachings allow for an entirely different (and infinitely more satisfactory) answer to the problem:  assert that those who live and die without having a chance to accept Christ will be given that chance in the spirit world.  With this doctrine, the Prophet Joseph provides complete liberation from a truly vexing paradox.  In Latter-Day Saint theology, the conditions for salvation remain intact and authoritative, yet accessible to everyone—thus both the infinite justice and the infinite love of God are preserved.  Dr. Paulsen concludes, and I vigorously agree:  “Thank God for Joseph Smith!” (62)

Third, the practical problem of evil asks us how we can deal with “the personal challenge of living trustingly and faithfully in the face of what seems to be overwhelmingly evil” (Paulsen, 62).  The Prophet Joseph was tarred and feathered, lost children, was betrayed, suffered sicknesses, danger, and all sorts of persecution; through it all, he “found meaning in his suffering, maintained hope, trusted God, [and] kept the faith” (64), despite extreme tribulations and evils.  Smith believed the Lord’s instruction that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good,” and took to heart the message behind the immediately subsequent rhetorical question:  “The Son of Man hath descended below them all.  Art thou greater than he?” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7-8)

I believe we will find difficulty finding a response to the practical problem of evil that is more appropriate, beneficial, and constructive than that of Joseph Smith.  If we do not personally respond to evils as Joseph did, then the worth of our logical and soteriological answers to the problems of evil diminish significantly.  If I attached a bowling ball to the ceiling with a rope, then held the ball up to my nose and released, I would know because of the laws of physics that it would not hit me on its return swing—however, if I flinch anyway, that theoretical knowledge does me no practical good.  Likewise, we can philosophize all day about the solutions to the logical and soteriological problems of evil, but until we are unflinchingly committed to our ideas, those ideas are worth very little.

The God of Joseph Smith is a God of fairness, who provides for people to overcome their evils through Jesus Christ, either in this life or in the next, depending on circumstance and opportunity.  As we embrace these truths, we will understand the existence and purpose of evil, and hopefully we can have a greater capacity to “endure it well” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:8).

The Value of Theology:

Our next question addresses what the fundamental relationship is between theology and religion.  What is the function and value of theology (for instance, that done by Dr. Paulsen in the article discussed above, or by Sterling M. McMurrin in The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion) in the LDS religious community, which professes to be led by living prophets and apostles?

I believe that theology and religion relate to each other in a symbiotic fashion, similarly to how faith and works are related.  As faith is dead without works (James 2:14-26), theology is dead without religion (we’ve discussed above how logical and soteriological ideas are worth little without practical application).  On the other hand, works without faith are also, in a different way, dead (Pharisaical piety is not the same as sincere virtue); likewise, it’s possible that religion without theology is somewhat incomplete.

By this statement I in no way intend to demean the devoted faith of disciples whose understanding of theology is limited.  Faith is faith, and there is something positive to be said of religious zeal of any kind.  However, I submit that religion is of most use when it is backed by solid theological ideas.  Not all men are (or need to be) philosophers, but I believe that all religious men have a responsibility to examine their faith from a logical perspective.  We need not have all the answers (indeed, faith is by definition to not have all the answers, as Hebrews 11:1 and Alma 32:21 point out), but in efforts to keep our faith from being blind, perhaps we should seek as many answers as we can.

A possible counterargument:  to say “religionists ought to be theologians” is not to say that religious leaders need to be theological leaders.  I readily agree with this point.  It is true that in the LDS community, the examination and explanation of theological ideas is not the main purpose of apostles and prophets.  Apostles and prophets are to bear special witness of the Christ, encouraging heartfelt faith, humble repentance and religious fervor in the congregations they address.  This is their primary role.  However, I contend that occasional publications written by Church authorities on important questions and theological topics are quite appropriate and beneficial.  B. H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, and Jeffrey R. Holland are some examples of theologically minded LDS leaders, and their insights are always welcome.  However, when it comes to theological investigation, I think the burden of intellectual responsibility lies mostly on the shoulders of individual believers rather than on those of the teachers and leaders.  If one is to espouse any given creed, one ought first to thoughtfully consider the theological implications of that creed’s claims.  Any Mormon who testifies that Joseph Smith was a prophet ought to examine and analyze Smith’s teachings (and their implications) with a sense of delighted scrutiny.  I believe this investigation will lead to a newfound appreciation for the glorious truths revealed in recent centuries by Joseph and other prophets.  The scriptures teach that spiritual communication happens both in the heart and in the mind (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2), and one cannot expect to learn much with a closed and lazy mind.

Another counterargument my opponents would bring against my symbiotic model of theology’s relationship with religion is that not all knowledge is “pertinent to our salvation,” and an understanding of metaphysics, for example, is not necessarily required of us by divine decree.  I respond that an understanding of metaphysics, while admittedly not divinely required, is nevertheless not without use.  In fact, it could be argued that no knowledge is without use, for God has all knowledge, and he expects his children to endeavor to become like him.  In one sense of the word, “salvation” means to be saved from all our enemies (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 305), and if ignorance is our enemy, then is it unfair to conclude that a complete knowledge of all things is prerequisite for a complete salvation?  God (who in a sense is the most saved being), for example, certainly understands metaphysics.  Why shouldn’t we?

Jesus says that he not only teaches the truth, or believes the truth, but he, in a sense, is the truth (John 14:6).  We learn here that the relationship between Deity and truth is one of perfect unity:  God is a God of truth; and therefore as we seek truth, we seek God.  Theology is a way to seek truth, as is any kind of philosophy.  Therefore, the role of theology in an LDS religious community ought to be considerable.  The meaning of evil, of the Atonement, of Godhood, of faith, and of other important religious ideas ought to permeate our minds.  For truly, if we do not know who or what we worship, we may as well be worshiping the Athenian “UNKNOWN GOD” that Paul mentioned on Mars’ hill (Acts 17:16-31).

Thanks to the Restoration through Joseph Smith, we know much of who God is.  He speaks, he answers questions, and his theology is perfect.  His ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8), but I believe that he does want us to understand him on a logical, theological, and spiritual level.  Our God is not unknown.  So let us know him.