Converts per Missionary

Roger Terry has some very good analysis of the demographics of missionary work and converts to Mormonism. The basic focus is on the number of converts per missionary in general along with recent changes to missionary work. There’s very little I disagree with. In particular I think making missionaries younger will almost certainly result in less effective missionaries. One thing to keep in mind is that not everyone matures at the same rate. While my mission was a fantastic experience, realistically I was very immature when I went. Even an other year of development would have made me a much better missionary.

That’s not to say that convert conversion is the only concern with missionaries. I think that realistically a big part of the Church’s view of missionary work is in terms of how it affects the missionary themselves. That is individual development seems to be quite important. Terry touches on this but I really think it should get more emphasis. 

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Why Humans Disagree on Right and Wrong

Interesting essay up at New Scientist on why humans disagree on right and wrong. As is often the case with New Scientist it’s a little overly sensationalist and speculative. The argument is that how societies get their energy incentivizes certain ethical stances. More or less it’s a variation on people’s ethics being highly biased by their economic needs. Thus societies oppose slavery when they don’t need it but manage to excuse it when it’s in society’s best interests. 

The author notes that hunter/gather societies are extremely egalitarian. Yet with the rise of agriculture about 9500 BC that expands throughout the world over the next 5000 years individuals specialize and have to be treated differently. Thus ethics comes to be viewed through a prism of different people being treated differently. Hierarchy becomes viewed as fair. What’s interesting about ethical views in such societies (according to anthropologists of modern peasant societies) is that it’s not the system that’s viewed as unethical.

What the downtrodden disagree with, ethnographers find, is not hierarchy as such, but their own place in it, or the suspicion that their so-called “betters” are not living up to their moral obligations. Resisting specific husbands, masters or lords who are abusing their authority is right and proper; resisting authority itself is not. 

With the rise of fossil fuels (coal, oil, etc.) in the 19th century we have a massive economic shift and thereby a structural change in society. Instead of ones place in hierarchy being bad it is the structures themselves seen as bad.

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Some Thoughts on Grace

There was an discussion on the usually quiet LDS-Phil mailing list this last week which was rather interesting. It was over Elder Uchtdorf’s talk “The Gift of Grace.” The question is whether this is a big change or not. I take the position that it really isn’t. For one there really are quite a few talks and resources at lds.org on the topic of grace that are quite excellent. There are three that I took particular note of. First Elder Oak’s excellent “Have You Been Saved” from 1998 that quite carefully goes through the different senses of grace and salvation. Elder Cook’s “Receiving Divine Assistance through the Grace of the Lord” from 1993 is also great. Finally Elder Faust’s “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope” from 2001 was also quite good. There really were numerous good talks on the subject such as Gerald Lund’s analysis of grace and works from 1981. Finally the Encyclopedia of Mormonism on grace from the early 90’s is particularly excellent.

I think all of these really get at the same points Elder Uchtdorf does. However I’m really not sure that’s ultimately the issue. I think fundamentally even those who couldn’t really describe grace in traditional theological language understand the notion. It’s just that typically rather than using the Pauline language, especially from Romans, Mormons tend to use different terms. So people talk about the plan of salvation where the plan from before the world was created was to make all of this for us as a free gift. A place where we could experience mortality with all it’s joys and pains and experience true opposition in a fashion we just couldn’t in the presence of God. That’s grace in its broadest sense. It’s just we don’t tend to use that language. Likewise nearly all Mormons will talk about being in tune with the spirit, receiving gifts of the spirit, and other spiritual aids that enabled them to do things they couldn’t on their own. That too is grace. Finally nearly every Mormon is familiar with 2 Nephi 2 and the notion of the fall and how God through Christ made it possible for us to be enticed by both good and evil and thereby be free. That is grace through and through in the Arminian conception. (This was largely the conception of Methodism which was a major influence on many of the early members of the Church including Joseph Smith)

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Heidegger on Plato

Heidegger on Plato. (HT: Enowning

When Antisthenes objected to Plato, ‘I see the real horse but I don’t see the idea of horseness,’ Plato replied: ‘You have what is required to see the real horse, but you do not yet have the eye to see the idea of horse.’ Heidegger wants to overcome this dualism between empirical and ideal by making the idea of horse the ontological pre-understanding that allows us to see and recognize actual horses. For Heidegger, what Antisthenes lacked was not dialectical ability, the capacity for abstract thought, but phenomenological sensitivity.

Postmodern Apologetics

Apologetics has come to be a bit of a by-word in Mormon blogging circles. Dave, over at Times and Seasons linked to a review of a book criticizing Christian apologetics with the following comment: “Yes, it is relevant to Mormon apologetics – same tune, different words.” The book sounds interesting since it purports to be a postmodern critique of Christian apologetics. 

Now I’m pretty familiar with postmodernism. I used to even self-identify as a postmodernist until the abuses of reason and discourse by proponents became just too egregious.1 The language fakery of aping the sound and “style” of how key figures wrote without really saying anything culminated in the Sokal Hoax. Even before then the term had already become so broad and encompassed so many views and themes as to be near meaningless. After Sokal it became not only meaningless but so heavily laden with negative connotations that I’m surprised anyone still embraces the term except as a pejorative ad homen. Sokal simply collapsed the house of cards that I think postmodernism had become in literary departments and far too much of the softer “social sciences.”2 

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  1. The saying, “with friends like these who needs enemies?” definitely applied to postmodernism in the 90’s.
  2. I think part of the problem was people reading key difficult philosophers without having the solid background in philosophy such that they could understand what was being argued. Before one really could engage with Derrida, for instance, one really needs a solid grounding in Heidegger and Husserl and a bit of Hegel. None of whom are easy on their own terms. Throw in an understanding of how philosophy developed after Frege and a solid basis in Descartes, Kant, and Hume plus the figures any particular paper engages with and you then can begin to understand. However few had even the rudiments of this background. I have far more sympathy to those who discount figures I’ve learned a lot from but who do so from a perspective of having the right background knowledge than I do those who appear to agree with me but have no basis to do so.

Crisis in Science?

There’s been a lot of discussion the past few years on the problem of reproducing scientific results. Razib linked to a post at the Spectroscope that the issue isn’t a crisis. Surprisingly the justification for it not being a crisis is that 20 years ago a study showed only 10% – 25% of papers could be reproduced. I’m not sure the fact this has been a long standing problem and that we don’t know the current failure rates entails there being no crisis. If anything it just suggests that there has been a long standing crisis in science. Science, and more particularly the US funding agencies like the NSF and NIH, simply haven’t sufficiently engaged with these issues. 

Of course this isn’t the only problem. While things have been getting better, publication of negative results is still far below what it should be.

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Ricoeur on Religion

One of my favorite podcasts, The Partially Examined Life, recently did a show on Paul Ricoeur and religion. It’s well worth listening to if only to make some of the more recent disputes within Mormonism make a little more sense – especially the conflict between Mormon apologetics and to a degree Mormon studies.1 The text they focused on first was “The Critique of Religion” which more or less applies Nietzsche, Marx and Freud against religion to purportedly make religion more authentic. The second essay presupposes the first and is “The Language of Faith.”

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  1. Mormon studies is by necessity much broader than what Ricoeur gets into but I think the basic tension is there.

What is the Tripartite Model?

Jonathan Stapley had up a pretty interesting post at BCC on the ascendance of the tripartite model of the soul. The occasion was a talk by Elder Christofferson. I don’t think Elder Christofferson really made comments as theologically significant as Jonathan suggests.1 However it’s still a good jumping off place for an interesting topic. I want to try and bring some clarity to the issue of what we mean by the “tripartite model.” I think several separate issues are typically conflated such that it’s not quite clear who means what. This is more or less my attempt to clarify them.

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  1. This was why I waiting for the transcript before posting this. My memory of the talk seemed somewhat at odds with Jonathan’s. Christofferson just says we existed as intelligences before being organized with form as spirits. However he doesn’t really say much about what the relationship between the two is. Nor does he say intelligence is a full person. He’s about as vague as one can be on the topic. At a minimum I think his statement is fully compatible with McConkie’s views as discussed here.

Adam Miller on Sale

Well his book is on sale anyway. His interpretive translation of Romans, Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan, is only $0.99 for Easter. That’s basically 1/10th the price.

Adam’s long thought about Grace – especially in expanding it to a broader sense of Secular Grace. (Sort of Being in Heidegger, only taken not in terms of Daesin but in terms of reality itself) Here he’s more focused on the religious sense of Grace rather than his more secular notion. Although I’ll confess I just ordered the book so I’ve not read it all yet. (I still am working through Joe’s book on Zion)

All Dogs Go to Heaven

Keith Lane noted an interesting blog post at First Things about spiritual materialism. I’m not sure it’s quite as similar to Mormon thought as some do. (Especially check out the final paragraph) it does get at though the difference in views between western Christianity (following Aquinas) and eastern Christianity on the nature of spirits. As many have long noted Mormonism in many ways is much closer to eastern Christian theology than western. (And of course eastern Christian marriages are always a little shocking to Mormons familiar with Mormon marriages.)

Musings on Science, Religion, Phenomenology and More