Thursday, January 19, 2012

A good week for religious thought by philosophers

Platinga has some interesting things to say about religion in general. First, all of us must accept some things on faith -- logic cannot take us everywhere:
After all, one of the main lessons to be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume is that there don’t seem to be good arguments for the existence of other minds or selves, or the past, or an external world and much else besides; nevertheless belief in other minds, the past, and an external world is presumably not irrational or in any other way below epistemic par.

Are things different with belief in God?
--Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, on the faith all of us have
The .Plan also cites the restored Wikipedia on Platinga's arguments regarding the problem of evil and their general acceptance in the philosophical community
Plantinga's argument (in a truncated form) is that "It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures."
--Wikipedia on an example of progress in philosophy
Then Webb (who is not LDS) comes out with an impressive article on Mormonism. It is impressive partly because of some great one-liners, but more for giving me new and accurate insight into my own religion. First some one-liners:
Deriding Mormonism pulls off the neat trick of making the devout and the godless feel as if they are on the same side. ...
Mormons are more Christian than many mainstream Christians who do not take seriously the astounding claim that Jesus is the Son of God. Mormonism is obsessed with Christ ...
The Book of Mormon has to be one of the most lackluster of all the great works of literature that have inspired enduring religious movements. Yet it is dull precisely because it is all about Jesus. ...
Still, the Book of Mormon raises a question for Christians. Can you believe too much about Jesus? Can you go too far in conceiving his glory?
Mormon metaphysics is ... Christianity divorced from Plato.

The main point Webb draws out that I had not appreciated as much before now has to do with how we perceive matter:

Christianity has always affirmed the goodness of matter and the integrity of the human body, but Mormonism offers that Christian dogma gone mad. For [Joseph] Smith, Christ’s pre-existent form was as physically real as we are today. Christianity teaches that the incarnation happened in a particular place and time, but for Smith, taking Hebrews 13:8 (“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”) very literally, the Son has always been Jesus. The body of Jesus Christ is the eternal image of all bodies, spiritual and physical alike. The incarnation is a specification (or material intensification) of his body, not the first and only time that God and matter unite. Mormon metaphysics is Christian metaphysics minus Origen and Augustine—in other words, Christianity divorced from Plato.

This leads to the only point where I actually disagree with Webb about what my beliefs are:
They also deny the virgin birth, since their materialism leads them to speculate that Jesus is literally begotten by the immortal Father rather than conceived by the Holy Spirit.
We do not deny the virgin birth at all, even if as he says we believe he is the Only Begotten of the Father, and not the Only Begotten of the Holy Ghost. In 1980, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ezra Taft Benson, declared that the virgin birth is "the most fundamental doctrine of true Christianity," and he discusses it at some length.

Webb draws an interesting parallel between Latter-day Saint beliefs about Jesus -- such as that He visited His "other sheep" in the Americas after His resurrection -- with a family's reaction at a funeral, hearing other guests who are not "part of the family" discussing their loved one. The whole parallel is worth reading, but I'm quoting enough of his material as is, so I'll just give the flavor here:
As you eavesdrop on them, you realize they are talking about your grandfather as if they knew him well, yet you have never heard some of the stories they are telling. These new stories are not insulting to his memory, though some ring more true than others. ... The funny thing is, though, that this other group knows all of the stories your family likes to tell about the deceased, and the stories they add to the mix sound more like mythic embellishments of his character than outright lies. Clearly, the two groups have a lot to talk about! 

Webb also mentions a debating point, and since he mentions it I thought I would add my version of the standard answer to it:
The Book of Mormon places the birth of Jesus in Jerusalem, much to the delight of biblical fundamentalists who use such discrepancies to score debating points. 
The phrase used is the "land of Jerusalem" rather than the "city of Jerusalem."  Bethlehem is what we would today call a suburb of Jerusalem, less than 5 miles away. Technically, I live in Jimeta, but I continually refer to it as Yola because that's the capital. There are 5 cities that were absorbed into Eisenhuettenstadt where I lived for a time, and some people were very insistent that they lived in the town that got absorbed rather than in Hutti. I tell people I come from Santa Barbara, not Goleta. Goleta would be more accurate but it is completely unknown. I wasn't born in Los Angeles, but in one of its suburbs, but I still regularly tell people LA.

While I was on a mission in 1998, a group of Baptists came to save the Mormons in Utah. My dad wrote to me about one person's experience. Someone knocked on the door and told the LDS family behind it about this "land of Jerusalem" stuff and that therefore the Book of Mormon was wrong. The family asked their guests where they were right now. "Salt Lake City, of course." "No," came the reply, "You're in Murray." A suburb is a suburb is a suburb. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which is in the land of Jersualem. The Bible is true and we are "obsessed" about the fact that Jesus is the Christ.

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