Tuesday, December 31, 2019

D&C 9: Cowing Cowdery

So apparently Oliver can't let go of his desire to translate because God has to give another revelation on the subject.  This one is a less subtle, less confusing smackdown.

Expediency's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Translate
It starts out gently, informing Oliver that it's "not expedient" for him to translate now, but that there will be "other records" that he can translate later.

This seems like God is lying.  I say that because God is omniscient—even in the unusual Mormon tradition—and because God is a long-term planner, so it's not like he's making things up as he goes.  So why would he give Oliver Cowdery hope of translating future scriptures when he knows damn well it's never gonna happen?  That seems intentionally misleading and kind of cruel, like he's just stringing the poor guy along.

Cowdery doesn't translate shit.  He leaves the church.  Even if he hadn't left the church, what would he have translated?  The Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith started working on years before Cowdery's excommunication?  So much for that prophetic promise.

Reproving Betimes with Sharpness
Next, continuing in his cruelty, God starts explaining to poor Oliver that his inability to translate is all his own fault.  Verse 5 vaguely chastens him because he "did not continue as [he] commenced," a reprimand that nobody today really seems sure of the impetus for.  And, even worse, in verse 7, it's revealed that Oliver assumed the power to translate would be given to him merely by asking God for it.  "Behold, ye have not understood," God informs him.

Wait...how many times so far in the D&C has God said, "ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you"?  God is basically a stereotypical sitcom wife punishing her clueless partner for paying attention to the words she said instead of paying attention to what she really meant.

But it's better to understand late than never, right?  So God explains the part that he hasn't previously stated but that Oliver was supposed to have known (verses 8-9):
But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. 
But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
Oh, that's handy to know now, after I've been rebuked for not knowing it. 

But it's interesting to me that the "stupor of thought," which is referenced now and then in the church, has some detail to it that's either deemphasized or isn't commonly discussed.  My understanding was that the stupor of thought meant that you'd feel uncomfortable and confused if your request was wrong—as opposed to warm and confident if it was right.  But the scriptures say that you'll actually forget what you were asking about if you were asking "amiss."  You'll actually forget.

I guess this means the fact that I remember praying so hard about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon indicates that it's true.  If I had been asking amiss, I'd have forgotten all about it, therefore the Book of Mormon is true and my butt will be in a pew on Sunday.

When has an apostle ever talked about this method of making choices?  Not sure if you should take that job and move your family across the country?  Pray about it with your spouse—if neither of you remembers what you were praying about once you stand up, then you'll know not to put your house on the market!  Ingenious!

You Can't Always Get What You Want
God twists the knife a little bit (verse 10):
Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.
What a jerk.  If you had known this thing I didn't tell you and kind of implied something dissimilar to, you could have translated.  But since you didn't know the thing I didn't tell you and kind of implied something dissimilar to, you're out of luck.  Window of opportunity closed.

And then God leaves one final bruise on Oliver's ego before saying some nicer stuff at the end of the section (verse 11):
Behold, it was expedient when you commenced; but you feared, and the time is past, and it is not expedient now;
Again, this is basically gloating about how Oliver missed out on an opportunity to do something he really wanted to be able to do. Also, it's his fault because he was scared.  I actually feel bad for Oliver Cowdery because of the way God keeps dicking him around.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

D&C 8: Translation Motivation

Oliver Cowdery wants to be able to do what Joseph Smith does.  So Joseph gets a handy divine revelation for him.

God puts the Bland in Blandishment
First God tries to wave him off the notion of translation, explaining that Oliver has the spirit of revelation so that he can, like, know things and evade enemies and stuff.  He butters Oliver up a bit by adding, in verse 3, that this is the same gift that Moses had.  Just to keep Oliver appeased, he also mentions that he has the gift of Aaron too, which I'd normally expect to be a reference to the Aaronic Priesthood but for the fact that it won't be restored for another month or so.  So it could be a reference to Aaron's public speaking ability, which supplemented a weakness of the prophet Moses.  Is God saying that Joseph is a poor orator and that Oliver is destined to be the prophet's press secretary?
It's difficult to say, especially since the most likely explanation isn't really supported by the subsequent history in which Joseph addressed the church directly—tons of times—without requiring a sidekick to improve his diction or to elevate his elocution.  This means God is being pretty vague about what makes these two gifts distinct from each other.  Maybe he was hoping Oliver would be so honored to be compared to not one but two great Biblical figures that he wouldn't realize both of these revelatory gifts he supposedly possessed sounded like the same thing.

God Puts the Mess in Mixed Messaging
This weirdness comes through in verse 10:
Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith. Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not.
Without faith you can do nothing?  What a dick comment.  None of this make-weak-things-become-strong pussyfooting—you're basically worthless when you're faithless. 

And the advice not to ask for that which he ought not is even more insidious.  I wonder if Joseph was manipulating Oliver here by giving him vague threats that he has no guarantees of avoiding.  God isn't saying, "Don't ask for A, B, or C, but D is cool."  It's phrased in such a way that you have to wonder if, whenever Oliver got ambitious, he'd stop himself, quaking in his boots, because he didn't want to piss God off for asking the wrong thing based on these nebulous guidelines for inquiries.  After all these wonderful words and grand promises, Joseph is trying to make sure that, now that Oliver is appeased and motivated, he's also going to be restrained and tractable.

And then perhaps to end on a positive note of appeasement and motivation, God tells Oliver in verse 11 that he'll be able to translate ancient records according to his faith.  God is sending some really mixed signals here, and it sure seems manipulative.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Billion-Dollar Boondoggle

Anybody who's seen anything about Mormonism online recently is probably aware of the Washington Post article about a recent whistleblower's IRS complaint, which challenges the church's tax exempt status by pointing to investment holdings of roughly one hundred billion dollars.

Many of you may have seen an op-ed in the Deseret News that tries to spin this revelation as a positive thing.  Perhaps the details of the allegations themselves are best discussed by those with greater investment knowledge than mine, so I'd like to focus on this baffling pro-church response.  It begins:
Monday’s Washington Post story about the finances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has already gotten a lot of attention. We think it deserves more.
Not because the topic of church holdings is somehow new — it’s not (Time magazine once ran a cover story titled, “MORMONS, INC.”) — but because the renewed focus on the church’s extensive holdings once again proves that, well, the church actually practices what it preaches regarding provident living and self-reliance.
Dismissing challenging information as "not new" is kind of my pet peeve of Mormon aplogetics.  Sure, it's not new in its basic subject matter, but it's wholly new in its scope and in its evidence of dishonesty.  Yes, Time Magazine estimated church assets at 30 billion in 1997 and MormonLeaks outlined investments of 32 billion in 2018, but if these more recent accusations are accurate, the numbers dwarf previous figures and indicate outright lies by the prophets and apostles as to how church funds and tithes are used.  Newness isn't the issue.

As far as the "provident living" assertion goes, there's a difference between provident living and Scrooge McDuck living.  Just for kicks, let's take the hundred billion dollar figure and divide it by the US median income from 2018 of $61,937.  Using that obviously rough number, that means that if the church liquidated its fortune right now, they could support 1.6 million American households at a moderate level of comfort for a full year.

How many Mormons who followed the prophetic directive to prepare long-term food storage have accumulated enough to feed 1.6 million families for twelve months?  If you're hoarding food (or money) to such an extreme degree despite the obvious presence of hunger (or poverty) in the world, you're not being prepared—you're just hoarding.  Which, incidentally, is not practicing something the church preaches.  You know, that whole "sell all that thou hast, and distribute to the poor" thing?  That thing that was famously said by the person the church is named after?  The name that the church repeatedly urges news organizations to use?

100 billion dollars is the kind of money that can actually solve one of the world's serious issues.  100 billion dollars can provide fresh water to every corner of Africa.  It can produce huge amounts of lifesaving vaccines and medicines.  It can accomplish crucial research toward carbon capture technologies, water desalination, or high-yield genetically modified crops.  When you truly care about the well-being of the human species, you don't keep this kind of wealth to yourself.  Besides, Jesus Christ would certainly understand if you had a few billion less saved for his second coming because of all the homeless shelters and refugee housing and hospitals and aqueducts you'd built.  When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, after all, ye are only in the service of your God.  

Saving money is good.  Saving this much money is immoral, especially for an institution that claims to be an authority on morality.

In an age of ballooning federal deficits, massive student debt and failed pension promises, we should perhaps be a bit slower to blow whistles when an organization — once on the brink of financial ruin — actually stays out of debt and saves for a rainy day.
So we started the article by saying we want more light shed on this because it's such a good thing, but now we're criticizing the whistleblower for making this data public?  The moral of the story is that we should perhaps be a bit slower to share positive information?  I think we're trying to have this both ways and that doesn't make a lot of sense.  

As a nation, and especially as individuals, we would all do well to try harder to model this behavior.
No, actually, we need more people who exhibit selfless generosity.  I would never reach the point of having 100 billion dollars saved up, even if I did somehow have an income that made accumulating that sum possible.  Sure, I'd probably buy myself a house and some expensive toys.  I'd probably bestow some similar opulent indulgences on my friends and family.  But even at my greediest, how much could I really spend?  I've led a relatively privileged life, but even I know that there are people and places with crucial needs that easily supersede the importance of my materialistic desires.  My 100 billion dollars could fund replacement of lead pipes in Michigan or provide health services to refugees from Yemen or Myanmar or Syria.

The behavior of the church here—squirreling away money and not using it to help—is selfish.  This is not admirable behavior to be emulated.  When your neighbor's house is on fire, you don't hide your hose to save it for a time when your own house might be on fire. 

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal ranked church-owned Brigham Young University the No. 1 school in the nation in terms of value for the price. Thanks to church assets — and specifically the financial investments highlighted by The Washington Post’s article — tuition for BYU students remains astonishingly low ($2,895 a semester for church members). Even more recently, the Journal has applauded Utah for having the best economy in the country (with a state government that runs a surplus and also saves for a rainy day). Meanwhile, researchers such as Raj Chetty have highlighted how Utah communities sustain some of the highest rates of upward mobility in the country.
The billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why Brigham Young University has low tuition.  The billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why Utah has a strong economy. The billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why Utah communities have high rates of upward mobility.  Of course, that's not actually the point the opiner is trying to make here.  Here's why he's citing that data: 
Much of this success is influenced by the prudent financial and charitable principles taught (and evidently exemplified) by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hopefully, by underscoring the church’s holdings, the Post article and the story’s whistleblower will draw some attention to an institutional model that’s actually working.
Okay, this is silly.  The failing financial models these authors previously identified are government budgets, student loans, and corporate pensions.  These are not financial models that can necessarily become viable by emulating the church.  

The church's institutional model requires a minimum of ten percent of the income of everyone who wants its divine services (such as baptisms endowments, and sealings).  It also convinces its adherents that these divine services are not optional, making the required ten percent payment essentially a mandatory act of self-interest.  The model then relies on the church's position of authority to assure those providing the funds that their money is being used to further the availability of these services even as the church stockpiles what it's not using and repeatedly eschews transparency and accountability.

Let's apply that model to the US Government.  The government does require payments of varying rates from those who benefit from its services (such as infrastructure, police and military protection, and social security).  It also convinces its citizens that these services are not optional, requiring these payments by law and penalizing those who do not satisfy the requirements.  So far, this seems pretty analogous, but here's where it starts to break down—secrecy is not a generally well-received concept when it comes to public funds.  Were the government to follow the institutional model embodied by the LDS church, it would be keeping all of its finances private, sending out its own accountant once a year to assure us that everything is being done according to approved procedures, and then stockpiling the taxes that could be going toward building schools, landing on Mars, and buying body armor for Marines.  Imagine the public outcry if this were to happen.  This is not an institutional model that's going to work for that particular institution.  This is an institutional model that is more likely to show up in a dystopian film.

Similarly, the institutional model of secrecy and stockpiling and unaccountability is not viable for student loan programs and pension programs.  So basically, telling the world it should look to the Mormon church as a paragon of fiscal responsibility is like telling an aspiring soccer player to use Simone Biles's workout routine.  Even though these are both athletic endeavors, what makes a gymnast good at gymnastics is not the same thing that makes a soccer player good at soccer.  What may work for one does not necessarily translate to all.

The Post’s whistleblower puts the church’s financial holdings at $100 billion, but more substantiated financial leaks from last year put the numbers closer to $32 billion.
We're trying to have it both ways again.  It's a good thing that the church has so much money!  But also it's not as much money as you think!

It's also bizarre to characterize the MormonLeaks data as "more substantiated," considering that it wasn't presented as an exhaustive list of holdings, just a group of thirteen companies.  MormonLeaks did not come out with this saying, "here is exactly how much money the church has."  It was more of a "we've found some of the money the church has, and it sure looks like a buttload."  It could have been anywhere from the tip of the iceberg to everything but the tip of the iceberg, and one hundred billion dollars falls pretty easily within that range.  While it's arguable that the MormonLeaks data is more substantiated as accurate information than the Nielsen data is, we really don't know much about whether it's more substantiated as complete information.

It's also weird that the MormonLeaks numbers are "more substantiated" considering that one of the authors of this article was sharply critical of that organization's tactics back in 2017.  This was prior to the reveal of the 32 billion stock holdings, of course.  And it's certainly possible that the author can hold disdain for MormonLeaks' methods while accepting the validity of their information.  But it does sorta feel like maybe we're saying nice things about last year's leak now because it makes us look less bad than the latest leak.  I don't know the author.  This supposition could be completely off-base. 

But it does fit the Mormon pattern. We now accept the narrative of the seer stone because it makes us look less like deniers of history than insisting on the traditional Book of Mormon translation narrative.  We now accept that the Book of Abraham papyrus is a funerary text and we developed the catalyst theory because it makes us look less ignorant than flat-out disagreeing with scholarly Egyptology.  We now claim that the Book of Mormon people are merely among the ancestors of Native Americans because it makes us look less anti-science than insisting against DNA evidence that the Lamanites are the primary ancestors of Native Americans.  So do we also now accept the substance of the MormonLeaks valuation because it makes us feel less embarrassed than accepting the substance of the Ensign Peak Advisors valuation?

The church, by contrast, serves 16 million members with the scope of its work often spilling beyond its own membership. The church supports international humanitarian and welfare efforts, extensive education services, food banks, addiction recovery and employment programs, family therapy and counseling services, genealogical and self-reliance initiatives, and, of course, its broad ecclesiastical functions, which include more than 30,000 congregations worldwide.
Okay, until last year, I was one of those 16 million members and I hadn't received any services from the church since 2008—not that I was asking for any, of course.  But my point is that the church in no way serves 16 million members.  Any ward clerk should be able to see that this argument is inflated.  Estimates vary, and of course the church isn't going to share the information if they have it, but activity rates could be in the neighborhood of 25%—insert disclaimer that obviously this is speculation on my part here—which means that it's only 4 million members.  I mean, that's still a lot, and it could be much higher than that for all we know, but it's still pretty disingenuous, I think, to claim that one hundred billion dollars that the church isn't spending is relevant to their efforts to support an exaggerated number of members.

In education alone, the church runs a university system with total enrollments — both online and through four brick-and-mortar campuses — of nearly 90,000 students. And the church’s high-school-level church education program provides daily religious instruction and other services to more than 400,000 students each year.
Okay, but those 90,000 students pay tuition.  Crazy-low tuition, yes, but BYU does generate some income even if it operates at a loss based on tuition alone.  And again, the billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why Brigham Young University has low tuition.  The billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why seminary students have access to manuals and multimedia presentations.  These are reasons why the church has expenses.  These are things that are already being paid for without dipping into the multi-billion-dollar investments.  These things do not explain why it isn't problematic for the church to have so much tax-exempt money that is not being used for charitable, educational, or religious purposes.

I'm honestly not sure if these authors are missing the point on purpose.  I have no idea if this is sophistry or delusion.

Though this renewed focus on church finances will undoubtedly draw attention to the buzzier elements of its asset portfolio (hey, look, the church invests in a mall), it’s unlikely to change attitudes among those in its congregations who see how the money from investments and tithes funnels back to carrying out a global-sized mission. Their kids go to BYU or church seminary classes. They serve missions in foreign lands or receive financial assistance through unpaid clergy when they fall on hard times. They participate in disaster relief efforts, helping throngs of co-religionists in delivering food and other essentials.
Okay, first of all, the church has not invested in a singular mall.  It's more than one, although the one in downtown Salt Lake is easily the most extravagant.  But the reason the City Creek Center is "buzzier" than other things is because it's a hugely expensive for-profit endeavor by the one true church of God.  

Additionally, "invest" seems like a misleading verb that downplays the depth of the church's involvement in it.  I'd prefer verbs like bought, built, or operates.  If the LDS church merely invested in a 1.5-billion-dollar mall, then I suppose John Hammond merely invested in a theme park full of reconstituted dinosaurs. But let's focus on the cited ways by which these funds are funneled back toward the church's global mission:
  • Mormon kids go to BYU, where they pay tuition, so I guess that means these unspent billions have somehow allowed access to significantly cheaper—but still not free—institutions of higher learning
  • Mormon kids attend seminary classes, so I guess that means these unspent billions have somehow produced cringey "And My Soul Hungered" music videos and handy little laminated Book of Mormon timeline reference cards
  • Mormon kids visit foreign lands on their missions, which they also pay for, so I guess that means these unspent billions have somehow allowed people to be taken away from their families to serve the multi-billion-dollar organization continuously for two years while doing very little to enjoy these foreign lands
  • Mormons who have fallen on hard times receive financial assistance, so I guess that means that these unspent billions, with a local leader's careful approval, have somehow satisfied the electric bills and mortgage payments of families who have been taught to pay tithing to a multi-billion-dollar organization before they buy food for their children
  • Mormon clergy is unpaid, so I guess that means these unspent billions have somehow not been used to compensate the local leadership whose dedication often makes them work long hours on top of the time they commit to their own professions and to their own familial obligations
  • Mormons participate in disaster relief efforts, so I guess that means that these unspent billions are somehow responsible for the volunteer work of local wards and local members
  • Mormons deliver food and other essentials, so I guess that means that these unspent billions have somehow paid for the supplies that come from the bishop's storehouses and are usually only available to church members at a bishop's discretion
Even the link this op-ed provides about helping during disaster relief is an article about a Mormon guy who was working at a flood shelter and personally housing two displaced families.  Sure, what that guy did was awesome.  But it has nothing to do with church funds if it's the individual guy taking it upon himself to provide Christlike service with his own resources.  Please explain to me how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sitting on one hundred billion dollars made Brent Magnum's extraordinary acts of kindness possible.

[D. Michael Quinn] said that if people understood “the larger picture” on church finances they would “see the church is not a profit-making business.” Yes, the church saves and invests its surplus pennies, but it also helps vastly reduce the debt of college students, gives to the poor regardless of background and supports one of the largest non-governmental welfare programs in the country. Most importantly, it does all this without enriching those at the top.
Okay, sure, that's a nice thing for Quinn to say, but there are some problems here.  First of all, yes, it is a profit-making business. It literally makes profit by owning malls and real estate developments.  And you don't wind up with one hundred billion dollars anywhere without making a profit.  If a hundred billion dollars doesn't count as profit, pretty much every business in history has been a complete failure. 

And perhaps the most outrageous thing in this entire article is the comment that the church saves and invests its surplus pennies.  Just in case I haven't thrown this number around enough times, let me remind you that this line is included in an op-ed about a one hundred billion dollar investment structure.  Even going by the authors' claim that the 32-billion-dollar leak from last year is "more substantiated," that's 3.2 trillion pennies.  That's like saying Saudi Arabia represents Rhode Island's surplus sand.

The college debt comment is, by my count, the fourth reference to BYU in this article (though still not as many times as I've mentioned one hundred billion dollars in mine).  Is the church really reducing the debt of college students?  Because that wording makes it sound like it's paying off people's loans.  What it's actually doing is offering really low tuition when people attend its own universities.  This may prevent higher student debt for some people, but it's not exactly an altruistic largesse that the church is magnanimously bestowing upon the world.  It's a discount on its own educational programs for people whose families have generally already donated huge sums of money to the church on a yearly basis.  I'm not complaining about the cheap BYU tuition—I'm just saying it isn't an indicator that the church is leading the charge to alleviate the student debt crisis the way this article's phrasing seems to imply.

"Gives to the poor regardless of background" is something I'd like a citation for.  I'm perfectly willing to believe that Mormons do this.  I'm skeptical that the organization of Mormonism does this.  If you're Mormon and you become destitute, your access to church welfare may become contingent upon your worthiness in the eyes of the bishop.  So it's not like the church is turning away people of specific racial groups who request assistance, but it does mean that aid isn't freely dispensed.  I'm conjecturing that if the author had provided some kind of link for the church giving to the poor, it would have been something similar to the $25,000 the church donated for LGBT suicide prevention last year—a donation made mostly for public relations purposes and a paltry sum considering its full resources.

The best evidence I can find for the church helping the poor is too easily explained away by the organization's obsession with appearances.  While the ten million they donated toward housing for the homeless in 2017 is an impressive sum, I consider it likely that the leadership wanted to increase the appeal of their tourist draws in Salt Lake City.  And the amount they donated was roughly one hundredth of one percent of the wealth the whistleblower's report claims they had at the time.  Meanwhile, in this past October's conference, President Nelson bragged about the church's generosity in giving the residents of a Congalese village without running water the "materials and training to pipe water to the city."  Ten million dollars to help less than 3000 people in your backyard but only "materials and training" to help 100,000 people on a different continent?  I think that's suspiciously incongruent.

Obviously, donating ten million dollars to help the homeless is a great thing to do.  The impact that housing made on any of those affected Utahns was likely life-changing in a very literal sense.  But with these immense resources and with an estimated seven-billion-dollar annual return on the investments outlined in the report sent to the IRS, the church could put a huge dent in, say, world hunger—which we once thought would take $30 billion a year.  My point is not to deride the church for helping the needy.  My point is that, as good old Uncle Ben advised the world, with great power comes great responsibility.  A hundred billion dollars and a worldwide network represents great power.  Staggering power.  By accumulating so much wealth and endeavoring to hide the magnitude of that wealth, the church is trying to give the impression that it is acting on that responsibility while secretly abdicating as much of it as possible.

That's immoral.

That's not Christlike.

That's not something we should be defending.

And if you still think that the church's sound fiscal practices spread philanthropy around the world without enriching those at the top, well...just remember that the church is a corporation sole.  Theoretically, Russell M. Nelson could be worth a hundred billion dollars right now.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

D&C 7: John the Immortal

The heading for this section explains that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery asked if John the Beloved had died or had been permitted to live until the Second Coming.  It further explains that the verses to follow are a translation of a record written—and subsequently squirreled away—by John himself.

First of all, this seems like a silly thing to consult God about.  It's an almost irresponsible use of the Urim and Thummim.  It's 1829 and the church hasn't even been officially established.  The Book of Mormon isn't finished and no priesthood authority has been restored.  With the breadth of doctrine still uncodified and the scope of theologies still unresolved, why the hell are these guys wasting time by asking whether or not one of Jesus's original disciples is immortal?  What kind of religious concept has less bearing on the grand scheme of things?  What could be less relevant to our salvation?  They're in the middle of revealing scripture that has not seen the light of day in modern times and they're asking God to clarify a few vague New Testament verses that only apply to one guy?  Seems frivolous.

Second, why are we even calling this a translation?  Joseph Smith didn't have John's hidden record and—assuming this record existed—he was probably a continent or two away from it.  Maybe the contents of the writing were revealed to him in his own language, but in order for this to have been  a translation, God would have needed to reveal the words to Joseph in their original form and then have him use his seer stone or his Urim and Thummim to translate it into English.  I refuse to believe a perfected being would be so inefficient.  Although, God did make his ancient prophets go through a whole lot of effort to preserve a Book of Mormon record that didn't even need to be uncovered or in the same room as the translator to be converted into English (which I guess is pretty consistent with this translation story too), so maybe God is just grossly uneconomical with his prophets' time.

But moving onto the actual substance of this section, what we have here is a disagreement between Jesus and Alma.  Because Jesus basically explains that Peter's desire to come speedily to Heaven was good, but that John's desire for immortal missionary service was even better [verses 5-6].  But the Book of Mormon prophet Alma clearly states in Alma 29:1-3 that his desire to be an angel to cry repentance to every people is sinful because he "ought to be content with the things the Lord hath allotted unto [him]."

And I suppose there may be an argument here that these are slightly different situations, but it's pretty clear to me that Alma's and John's motivations and objectives are identical, especially since, in verse 6, Jesus says he will make John "as a flaming fire and a ministering angel."  How much more similar can these two guys' goals get?  Yet the scriptures teach that one is awesome and one is sinful.  That's kind of confusing.

Also there's a little sneak foreshadowing in this section about the restoration of the Priesthood through Peter, James, and John, but there will undoubtedly be more on that later.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Plot Holes in the Mormon Cosmological Narrative

I have long maintained that the Plan of Salvation is a mess of contradictions and slapdash compensations for its own weaknesses, but I don't believe I've ever tried to lay it out in detail. Contained within our Heavenly Father's road map to exaltation are a few apparent contradictions, several significant gaps, and many things that I think reasonably require more thorough explanations.  I'll start with a few that I know I've mentioned before and move on to some other ideas that I've been mulling over more recently.

This list is far from exhaustive.  Like most things in Mormonism, more and more avenues of questions open up the further you dive into the subject.

The Logistics of Temple Work
Since estimates of the number of people who have ever lived on this planet are approaching 110 billion, temple-goers clearly have their work cut out for them.  Even after all the culling of genealogical records and all the indexing to find names to take to the temple, a lot is going to fall through the cracks—especially considering that, during the Great Apostasy, every single person on the planet went without their requisite ordinances (with a few notable exceptions who had been given extended lifespans by Jesus).  Tens of billions will need to have their work done by proxy.

How many of those serfs from feudal France do you think we'll be able to find names for using our impressive genealogical resources?  How many riders in Genghis Khan's horde left a paper trail of their lives?  How many settlers of Rapa Nui have had their names and birth dates preserved in written records?

I assume the answer to this is that God will make sure those lost names will be given to us in the Millennium so that everyone can have temple work done.  But if that's the case, what's the point of having us do so much genealogy now?  And if God can simply provide us the names of all the people we need to baptize, isn't he equally able of granting his children the blessings of baptism without requiring completely different people to perform rituals on their behalf?

The Complexities of Sealings
This is an issue acknowledged by Dallin H. Oaks in the most recent general conference:
My dear brothers and sisters, a letter I received some time ago introduces the subject of my talk. The writer was contemplating a temple marriage to a man whose eternal companion had died. She would be a second wife. She asked this question: would she be able to have her own house in the next life, or would she have to live with her husband and his first wife? [audience laughter] I just told her to trust the Lord.
The concept of eternal sealings is designed for straightforward, uncomplicated, generically nuclear families.  As your own family structure deviates from that model, your eternal living arrangements become increasingly messy and increasingly vague.  And there isn't any punitive moralistic angle to try to hang this on, since—as Oaks's example illustrates—it's not just the much-stigmatized divorce that can cause this kind of thing.

When an arrangement is understood to be eternal, it's completely fair to want to know exactly how it's going to work, especially if you have personal concerns about how the company you'll keep may affect your happiness.  "Trust in the Lord" is fine for those who don't have serious qualms, but considering that God has revealed in scripture and through his modern-day prophets how some of this is going to work, those for whom the revealed structure implies something untenable deservedly want to know how these vague rules may be applied to their own situations.  If God can't reveal it in detail, it shouldn't be too much to ask him to provide some kind of personal revelation to those in less formulaic circumstances so that people aren't sweating out their mortal lives wondering if their eternal existence is gonna suck.

Perfunctory platitudes and dismissive punchlines from the Lord's anointed are unacceptable when it comes to untangling complicated matters of such impactful personal importance.

The Origins of Gods
Mormonism teaches the doctrine of eternal progression—the concept that, in the Celestial Kingdom, we will be exalted just as God is now.  Additionally, this means that even God once slogged his way through an unexalted mortal life.  That means that God had his own divine creator who, ostensibly, proved himself to his own god during his mortal existence.

Mormonism is relatively quick to discuss the future reaches of eternity, but it doesn't tend to address the eternity that preceded our spirit births.  Other than that one weird line in that one weird hymn, we don't get a lot of hints that point us toward the generation where gods began to be.

Where did it all start?  How did it all start?  Our god was not born ex nihilo, and we might assume that his was not either.  But if we were to do a spiritual genealogical study to trace the lineage of gods back, then somebody had to have been created from nothing.  Either that, or gods have always existed, which is a mindbender.  Perhaps it's because the nature of the question is complete nonsense to human understanding, but Mormonism only tells us where we started, not how everything started.  It's kind of a disappointing limitation for a religion that boasts of such a broad theological scope.

The Necessity of Rebellion
It seems difficult to deny how crucial Lucifer is to the Plan of Salvation.  Let's say that, in the War in Heaven, Lucifer had taken things in stride.  Let's say he got voted down but he sat on his hands and allowed God to put Jesus's plan into effect and didn't stage any kind of dramatic rebellion.  What would God's plan have been then?

If Lucifer had been cool with God's plan, what would the narrative have been?  How would God have introduced the influence of evil to test us based on our faith and our works?  2 Nephi chapter 2 frames our existence as a choice between eternal life through Jesus and "captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil."  The same chapter explains that there must be "an opposition in all things." Those concepts don't exist if Lucifer and his campaign of evil are removed from the story.  How was this perfect Plan of Happiness supposed to work if the devil were never created, if Lucifer were not miserable, and if he threatened no captivity?  How would our eternal road map have been designed without that crucial personification of evil to oppose to the power of God?

And, to take it a step further, doesn't this mean that Jesus's plan wouldn't have worked without Lucifer's rejection of it?  Does it mean that God picked a losing plan and that Lucifer, by virtue of his rebellion, was the one who made the flawed strategy viable?

The Necessity of Temptation
Not to make Satan's evil influence even more crucial, but there are some troubling angles from which we can asses his role in the Garden of Eden.  2 Nephi chapter 2 also teaches that "if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen" and he would have "remained in the garden of Eden...in a state of innocence, having no joy" forever.  It also famously states that "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy."  So that means that, if Satan had not convinced these first two humans to gain the knowledge of good and evil, they would never have left the garden, they would never have had children, and they would never have had joy.

If they'll never have joy, then they'll fail to achieve the stated purpose of their existence.  Had Satan chosen to steer clear of the Garden of Eden, he would have utterly defeated God's brilliant plan.  How would God have provided all his children with the physical bodies they needed if Adam and Eve had remained innocent and naked and childless?  And why would a benevolent God design a master plan that hinged on the corrupting, evil influence of one of his formerly valiant children?

The Value of Free Agency
The importance God places on free agency throughout the various things we've been taught about the Plan of Redemption seem inconsistent and sometimes arbitrary.  The entire objective of our mortal estate is for us to make choices that can lead us back to him, but a third of the host of heaven had their eternal progression permanently halted for exercising that most precious of God-given abilities.  They are no longer given the ability to choose to return.

And, of course, the Second Anointing swings too far in the opposite direction—the ability to choose is made mostly moot by the assurance that, barring any extraordinarily grievous transgressions, one's choices have no deleterious effects on one's eternal trajectory.

But back to pre-judgment punishments for using agency, it's also worth mentioning some of the now-disavowed teachings that can be tough to find primary sources for:

By extension, this means that, based on one decision to support Jesus in the premortal life, people who were born in certain countries or in certain races or without certain physical disabilities have been given a huge leg up during the test of their agency.  I mean, obviously it's sleazy to teach that someone like me is inherently a better person because I was born a white American with four working limbs, but even disregarding that this is a problematic teaching.  Why is one decision that I have no memory of making in the premortal world given so much more weight than any of the millions of decisions I will make during my mortal life?  What's the logic behind this?

Three years after the above quotation, the Ensign advised us that persons with mental disabilities may go their entire lives without reaching a level of accountability for their actions.  This would mean that, effectively, those people would not be tested based on their free agency in this life.  While it's certainly nicer to teach that a severely autistic child won't be punished for their mortal behavior than to teach that a palsied child is being punished for their premortal behavior, it still doesn't assign consistent, reasonable value to the concept of free agency.

How important is our freedom of choice anyway if there are so many heavy restrictions placed on it and so much conditional leniency applied to it?  It's like God was making chocolate chip pancakes and he measured too much flower, so he tried to correct it by putting in more milk.  But he measured the milk wrong and tried to fix it with more flour.  Once he's made this mistake too many times, each pancake will have only one chocolate chip in it.  Even though chocolate chips were used in the recipe, that's not really a chocolate chip pancake anymore, then, is it?

Our Own Plans of Salvation
Since we'll become like God in the Celestial Kingdom, does that mean we'll need to implement our own paths to exaltation for the countless spirit children we'll produce?  Just like Elohim did, will we need to send one of our spirit children through agony and torture in order to absolve the sins of the billions of other less righteous souls we've spawned?  I'd imagine most parents wouldn't dream of subjecting their oldest child to Jesus's fate.  But if God truly is perfect, he'd have found a better way to accomplish his goals if a better way existed.  That makes me really glad I'm not anybody's firstborn spirit son.

It also makes me glad I won't be having any spirit children to toy with.

The Source of Power and Perfection
What mechanism made Jesus perfect?  He is described not as a previously exalted being (like we might assume Elohim's physical offspring from his mortal life could be) but as the first spirit child of our heavenly parents.  He did not receive a body until he was born of Mary.  So if he's just like us, how was he perfect?  What made him better than the rest of us?  And if he was just inherently more righteous and innately immune to temptation, doesn't that sound a lot like predestination?  Like the choices we make are less a result of our learning and growth and more a result of our predisposition toward righteousness or wickedness?  And doesn't that circle back to the dubious importance of free agency?

Also, if Jesus was just a spirit child of Elohim like the rest of us grunts, how did he have the power to create the heavens and the earth?  Why was he given the ability to be the Old Testament Jehovah, to rule and dictate despite not having gone through the necessary steps to achieve exaltation?

If the only stated difference between Jesus and the rest of us that accounts for his special status is that he was born first, does that mean that if the ordering of spiritual siblings had been different, we'd have had a different savior?  Could it have been me?  Could it have been Matt Groening?  Could it have been—gasp!—a woman?

The questions multiply as we sink deeper and deeper into an analysis of the cosmological narratives underpinning the Plan of Salvation and the mechanisms that drive them.  It feels less and less like the beautiful craft of a perfected god and more and more like a time travel B-movie dreamed up by scriptwriters who didn't have the patience to flesh out the ramifications of the rules they'd devised for their science fiction world. 

Because that's what we all want in a god, right?  Someone who's basically phoning it in?