April 16, 2010

A problem with the LDS solution to the Problem of Evil

There are a few problems with the Mormon solution to the problem of evil. I'm not saying I disbelieve possible LDS solutions, but only to say they don't come without downsides, however slight. If you're already familiar with the basics, skip down to "Possible Problem" below.

"Theodicy" Briefly Explained:
Before my mission I'd never heard of "theodicy," theological responses to the problem of evil. The problem being, evil exists and we don't like it. Theodicies are ways to justify God's goodness and power in the face of the evil around us. How could an all-powerful and loving God allow such suffering and sorrow in the world? Truman Madsen explained it quite nicely in his "Timeless Questions, Gospel Insights" lectures (pirated copies circulated throughout my mission). Truman described a triangle with three points, any one of which would call into question the other two. Here's my handy MS Paint attempt:

This triangle assumes that evil exists (some deny this premise from the get-go but I'm not addressing them here). What does the existence of evil say about God's qualities? He is thought to be omnipotent (all-powerful). He is thought to be omnibenevolent (all loving). Yet evil exists. So, either God cannot prevent evil, and is thus not omnipotent, or he doesn't want to, and is thus not all-loving. This problem is particularly acute for people who believe God created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing). Ostensibly, God could have created a world without evil but didn't.

LDS Theodicy:
Joseph Smith's revelations give Latter-day Saints a different perspective on God's relation to the world. Kathleen Flake described it this way:

[In LDS thought] evil is uncreated and co-eternal with good and God; so are we. Evil, like God and us, simply is, but evil pollutes, like a fly in the ointment, God’s order for the flourishing of human life in God’s image. Thus, in Mormonism, most of the bad experiences in this life are explained in terms of humans choosing the fly over the ointment. But, notwithstanding this interplay of independent agency and existence, evil’s uncreatedness does not place it beyond God’s power; neither is God blind to or unmoved by evil’s effect...[Evil's] limits are set, but God’s are not. Why God doesn’t prevent evil immediately is a function of a world comprised of competing agencies, pending final judgment...
For Latter-day Saints, God’s mightiness to save is defined not by his capacity to prevent evil, but to create good when only evil seems possible. He doesn’t turn evil into good, but he overcomes it with the good.1

Possible Problem: 
Longer and more complex responses to the problem of evil have been crafted by Latter-day Saints.2 Our solutions don't come without potential downsides, of course. One such downside was pointed out to me by a Catholic friend during a conversation about Verdi's "Requiem," which was performed last week by the Utah Symphony Orchestra. He commented on the lyrics of the piece:

To appreciate what is meant by Requiem aeternam dona eis [from the Catholic Mass], it requires a conception of a God who is able to satisfy the soul in a genuinely eternal way: so that by grasping him, we grasp the whole of our own happiness and need labor no further, just as God himself sanctifies creation by resting, and speaks of heaven and the temple as "my rest." (Ps 132:4; Heb 3:11, cf. Ps 95:11).3

Of course, I believe this description of God resting overlooks other scriptures, including LDS verses about God weeping.4 Mormons also have uniquely LDS scriptures discussing eternal rest (e.g. 2 Ne. 24: 3; Jacob 1:7; Enos 1:27; Alma 12:34; 13:6, 29; 40:12; 3 Nephi 27:19; 28:3, Moroni 7:3; 9:6; 10:34; D&C 15:659:2; 121:32, etc.).

At the same time, we believe in "eternal progression," which seems to imply action (D&C 101:31 has interesting implications, tying rest and glory together, considering D&C 76). One of Joseph's revelations explicitly ties rest to works:

"If they live here let them live unto me; and if they die let them die unto me; for they shall rest from all their labors here, and shall continue their works" (D&C 124:86). 

This goes to show how a Mormon view of the afterlife might not be entirely appealing to everyone, and perhaps especially to those who deal with great tragedy in life and look forward to eternal rest.

On the Mormon view, it is possible to say that evil itself may never entirely be overcome for everyone. A nice eternity of nothing but resting, where there are no more tears because God wipes them away forever (Rev. 21:4), doesn't seem to be in the game plan for Mormons. Or maybe it's an option in a particular degree of glory?

In short: many non-Mormon theodicies appeal to mystery--that our sorrow here is God's mysterious will but that all will be made up to us in a wonderful eternity of rest. This doesn't help confirm God's goodness and loving nature in the here and now. On the other hand, the Mormon view exonerates God here and now by explaining that he is not the creator or delighter in evil, but that through Him evil can be overcome. Eternity, though, may not be that easy and comfortable rest hoped for by my Catholic friend.5  

Looking for feedback here.

Kathleen Flake, "Making Good For, Not From Evil," The Washington Post, 7 September 2007.

For instance, see Blake T. Ostler, and David L. Paulsen, "Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith on the Problem of Evil," in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks eds., Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, (Provo: FARMS, 2002).

My friend goes by the name "Soren" at the online forum MormonApologetics.org. See the discussion here.

See Daniel C. Peterson, "On the Motif of the Weeping God in Moses 7," in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks eds., Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, (Provo: FARMS, 2002).

See "Kristen's Dilemma: Eternity or Annihilation," a post I wrote a few weeks ago on LDS views of eternity and Alphaville's "Forever Young."

April 13, 2010

"My Faves" on the Book of Mormon - Brant Gardner

The next installment of the "My Faves" series includes selections by Brant Gardner. Gardner's six-volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon is the most detailed commentary on the Book of Mormon to date. His faves had some overlap with other participants in this series, so he sent me five favorites in three different categories. In the spirit of this series, I whittled them down to five total selections. 1, 2 and 3 are from his "seminal" category. 4 is a "personal favorite" and 5 is "important, but probably overlooked." Gardner's own explanations follow the recommendations below. 

  1. Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, edited by John W. Welch. (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 69-82. See also Barker, “What Did King Josiah Reform?”, Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem, edited by John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely. (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2004), 522-42.

Although Margaret Barker’s work is controversial [see this blog post and comments, and this discussion for example], she is known and well-published. That Barker would write an explicitly favorable article discussing the Book of Mormon against pre-exilic Israel is a monumental breakthrough into non-LDS scholarly work. Also, I was in the audience when Barker presented "What Did King Josiah Reform?" It changed my entire perception of 1 Nephi. Very few other articles have caused so many pieces to fall into place for me.

2. Hugh Nibley, "The Book of Mormon as a Mirror of the East." Improvement Era 51/4 (April 1948): 202-4, 249-51. Reprinted, without illustrations, in the Improvement Era 73/11 (November 1970): 115-20, 122-25.

This is the [now-difficult-to-find] article that introduced Nibley’s approach comparing the Book of Mormon to the Old World. In this article, he lists comparisons of Book of Mormon names to Old World names, probably the first time serious discussions of the Egyptian onomasticon appeared in an LDS publication. It was the Improvement Era, no less. This article preceded three longer Improvement Era pieces, "Lehi in the Desert" in 1950, "The World of the Jaredites" in 1951-52, and "There Were Jaredites" in 1956-57. These became Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites.

3. John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies vol. 10:1 (1969).

Although it spawned a chiasmania that has perhaps diminished some of its power, the very fact that it did set of such a craze is a witness to the powerful suggestion of antiquity it had for the Book of Mormon.

4. Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah: A Note on 1 Nephi 11:8—23,” Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, edited by Davis Bitton. Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1998, 191-243. Shorter version: Peterson, Daniel C. “Nephi and His Asherah,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 2 (2000): 16-25.

This article demonstrates how re-visioning the Book of Mormon against the cultural background of the Old World can have surprisingly powerful interpretive power.

5. John E. Clark, “A New Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5: A Step Toward Improved Interpretation,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 22-33.

The use of Izapa Stela 5 has been a staple of much of LDS advocacy for the Book of Mormon and a Mesoamerican location. Clark shows that the emphasis is misplaced. It is another important and courageous demonstration of the need for both solid research and following paths to their correct end, even if they don’t end where we wish they would.

Brant Gardner describes himself as a "slightly used Anthropologist." He received a B.A. in University Studies from Brigham Young University in 1975 and an M.A. in Anthropology from the State University of New York, Albany (SUNY) in 1978. From 1978–80, Gardner completed all the course work toward a Ph.D. in Mesoamerican ethnohistory at SUNY, but did not complete exams or a dissertation. In addition to his 6-volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Gardner has published on classical Nahuatl kinship terminology, ethnohistoric investigation of Coxoh in southern Mexico, and the Aztec Legend of the Suns. He has published with the New World Archaeological Foundation and the Institute for Mesoamerican Studies. Professionally, Gardner has worked in software consulting and product management. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.