Why Did God Command Abraham to Kill Isaac?

May 14th, 2015

So I keep an eye on, and occasionally participate in, this Mormon blog, where people discuss their doubts and discomforts about various issues in Mormonism today. Naturally, polygamy is a constant sore spot.

One correspondent there noted that while Joseph Smith was struggling with his “Doctrine of Plural Marriage”, he claims to have received an angelic visitation commanding him to take additional wives (Journal of Discourses, Vol.20, p.28 – p.29). In an essay released by the church in 2014 on its official website, this visitation is described as follows:

“Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage….During the…final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.”

The correspondent continues,

When releasing this recent essay, the Church rejected a unique opportunity to move away from the polygamy doctrine which has plagued it for nearly 200 years. It could have emphasized the statement Gordon B. Hinckley made in 1998, where he said that polygamy “was not doctrinal.” The LDS Church could have moved away from the 132nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants saying that if Joseph had “ten virgins given unto him” it would not be adultery. The same section threatens Emma Smith with destruction if she would not agree with Joseph marrying and, in many cases, having sexual relationships with other women.

Well, as you can imagine, this story has generated a lot of debate.

But I was interested in the fact that the Mormon Church asserts that angels are occasionally sent by God to force people to obey. I was a little surprised at this, and asked, “Does God ever force anyone to do anything, in the Bible?” The answer, of course, is No, but I asked the question, just to see what people would say. To my surprise it generated a fair amount of discussion.

At one point a guy who’s sometimes pretty perceptive wrote,

And yet God famously commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. Would this not have been “morally repugnant” to Abraham? Or is your point that God did not “force” Abraham to kill his son?

And this provoked the attached response from me (about 5 pages), mostly a meditation on the story of Abraham. I was surprised at what came out.

Do please read this, and let me know what you think of it in the comments below.

Did God Command Abraham to Kill Isaac?

Well, the first verse of that story is really crucial. The writer states right off the bat that God was “testing” Abraham (22.1). Telling us that, he makes it clear that God has no actual desire for Isaac to die; his intention is only to prove something about Abraham and his faithfulness— faithfulness being the trait that most defines Abraham in the Bible. But what is faithfulness?

Most people think that God just wanted to find out whether Abraham would do anything God asked, even to the point of killing his own son and heir. Abraham showed that he was ready to do it, and so we should be ready and willing also, if somehow required, to make a “burnt offering” of whatever is most precious to ourselves.

But this leaves a couple of questions unanswered. First of all, since God doesn’t usually talk to people so openly these days, who else might have the authority to tell us to kill our children? And in any case, even if God himself were to tell us to do so, should we? Is it really even ok for God (let alone Abraham) to be so cavalier with the life of an innocent human being, moreover one who is Abraham’s only son and heir, “whom he loves” (Gn 22.2), moreover the heir with whom God himself has promised to make an “everlasting covenant” (17.19)? Can Abraham seriously think of doing that with a good conscience? Can God even ask it with a good conscience?

Don’t— just don’t!— tell me that “God’s ways are not our ways”! Let’s just admit that God’s demand is insane. But before we move on to something more reasonable, let’s also note the usually overlooked fact that if God, who had promised to establish his covenant precisely with Isaac, did in fact want Abraham to kill Isaac, then he wasn’t planning to keep his promise. And that means, he’s a deceiver. And how can Abraham be faithful to a deceiver? Well, he can be personally loyal— but in that case, what he does with Isaac won’t have anything to do with conscience.

And what makes the story horrific— what gives it its particular force— is that God is staking a claim precisely on Abraham’s conscience. How can a man kill “his son, his only son, whom he loves” (22.2)? If Abraham would murder his son in order to be faithful to God, he must also murder his own conscience as well. And if he does that, and if his God is thus not only a deceiver but has no trouble demanding an innocent life, what else will either of them not do?

So (to answer your question), yes, my (previous) point was that God didn’t force Abraham to kill his son. In the Bible, God never forces anyone to do anything, although he sometimes stops them from doing things— for example, from killing Isaac. But in particular, he never forces anyone to act against their conscience. But might he?

Well, the question of “forcing” is the wrong one to ask about this story, because God neither threatens, nor even so much as warns Abraham of consequences in this case at all. In fact, the only consequence in view is the obvious, if implicit one, that if Abraham does obey, then his son— “his only son, whom he loves” (22.2), the sole heir of God’s own promise— will die, and die childless. And if Isaac dies childless, then God was being deceitful when he promised to make with Isaac “an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him” (17.19).

So if Abraham obeys, he accepts that God is a deceiver, and just goes with it. In that case, he shows that deceiving has a divine origin, and there’s no further need for conscience, covenant, or faithfulness! And yet— if he refuses— again he shows that he thinks God is a deceiver— whether or not he was serious about the covenant, or whether he really wanted Abraham to kill his son or not, is immaterial; he was deceiving!— and again, if God is a deceiver, there’s no further use for conscience, covenant, or faithfulness!

That’s the test, then— not just “will Abraham sacrifice what is most precious to him”, but— “what kind of God does Abraham obey, and what kind of obedience does he obey him with?” And the test is really clever— a kind of double bind— although, as we’ll see, there’s one way out, which will save both Isaac and God’s honor at the same time. But strangely enough, the outcome will depend on God, not on Abraham.

For his part, Abraham makes only one comment in the whole story, and it shows that he’s no more interested in killing Isaac than God was when he decided to “test” Abraham. “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.” At this point, Isaac, apparently not yet aware that God has demanded his life, asks, “‘My father! my father!… Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ And Abraham said, ‘God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering for himself, my son'” (22.6-8— most translations have “God will provide”, but the Hebrew verb is “see”, in the sense of “see to it”). Abraham’s only comment is, “God will see to it”. He says nothing to Isaac about having to die.

From our viewpoint (and, we may surmise, from Abraham’s as well), God seems to have laid a morally repugnant, unconscionable, insane demand on Abraham, but precisely because Abraham is “faithful”, he accepts it without the least mental reservation— and indeed, to act without mental reservation is the meaning of hᵉyêh ṯāmîm— “be thou perfect/wholehearted”— the requirement God laid upon him in 17.1. But Abraham’s apparent prevarication to Isaac shows that he accepts this new demand of God only in full view of the promise God earlier made to him: “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him” (17.19).

So what’s Abraham doing?

By not telling his son, he isn’t just protecting Isaac’s feelings or his own. He leaving open the possibility of another outcome. And in the space of his prevarication, Abraham is calling God’s bluff. He has accepted the test, but only as a very high-stakes game of chicken. Who is even testing whom, at this point?

But this is Abraham, that wily merchant who just a few pages earlier, dared to bargain— with God!— over Sodom: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?… Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (18.23,25). And even though the city was very wicked, he even secured God’s assent: “I will not destroy it for the sake of ten” (18.32). Abraham knows whom he’s dealing with, and he isn’t afraid to play hardball— with God!

But God is testing Abraham. What he wants to know isn’t, as I said and as people usually suppose, just whether Abraham is so incredibly faithful that he would even go so far as to sacrifice “his son, his only son, whom he loved” (22.2), if God asked him to do so. If that were the end of it, he might be a nice moral example for the kids in sunday school— but the grownups would be left with a rather serious question as to just when, exactly, we’re supposed to draw the line. After all, what if somebody— a respected religious leader, perhaps— comes to a woman and says, “In the name of God you have to sleep with me even though you’re married to another man”? The test isn’t to see whether Abraham would actually kill his son for God. It’s to see just what kind of obedience Abraham has; in what way he will be obedient.

And again here’s the game: If he trusts God, he will do as required, and kill the heir of the Promise. But if he does as required, he proves God can’t be trusted. If he refuses to do as required, he proves he doesn’t really trust God. But if he doesn’t trust God, then the covenant, whose only condition was trust, is finished. Again, if he goes through with it, he shows that he worships a powerful, but deceiving God, and is prepared to do so at the price of his own conscience (not to mention his son’s life). But again, on the other hand, if he bases his refusal on his own integrity, and chooses to live without God, he forfeits the promise.

And remember— the promise was not just “I will multiply thee exceedingly… [and] make thee exceeding fruitful” (17.2, 6), but “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (12.3) with the same blessing. In other words, In thee, the sin of Adam will be undone, and the blessing Adam lost will be restored— for the entire human race.

So God has thrown down just this gauntlet, and now it’s Abraham’s move. Fully conscious of God’s promise, Abraham climbs the mountain, lays out the wood, binds Isaac, seizes the knife, grasps Isaac by the hair and pulls his head back, and—

God blinks.

Suggestively, for our discussion here, he even sends an angel, not to force Abraham with a knife, but to stop him from wielding one. God admits defeat, and Abraham sacrifices a ram that God provides, just as Abraham said he would, and together with his son Isaac, whom he loves, worships a faithful God with a pure conscience.

Abraham is not a daredevil who takes his son’s life lightly, even when God requires it. But God himself initiated the contest, and Abraham had no choice but to play. But Abraham trusted that whatever else he says, God will be faithful to his own word. But he trusted God, faithful to his own conscience too. That’s why he said to Isaac only, “God will see to it” (22.8).

But he can trust and be faithful to both God and his conscience only if God himself is trustworthy and faithful. If the God who set the contest keeps his promises, then to keep his promise to Isaac, God will have to blink. Abraham may have to go all the way to the mountain, but “as it is said to this day, On the mountain of the Lord, it will be seen” (22.14). “To this day”— because Abraham has shown, once and for all, that when it comes to conscience, that’s what God is looking for.

Of course it has to be the mountain of the Lord, not just any mountain. But on that mountain, where the Lord has authority to demand, Abraham had to obey. But as a righteous man (15.6), who once held even God to conscience (18.23,25)— he obeys in view only of a righteous God. A slave does what he’s told because he fears consequences. But, as it turns out, it was precisely the conscience of his covenant partner that the righteous and faithful God wanted to prove— so that he could, in the end, show his respect for it.

The point of this story, then, is not so much that God could say, as he does at the end, “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gn 22.12)— rather, the point is that, having seen that Abraham fears both God and his conscience, he stayed Abraham’s hand. And in doing so, he revealed his own faithfulness once and for all. God was faithful precisely to Abraham’s conscience. That is why “Abraham called the name of that place Yhwh-yireh [The LORD has seen]: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen” (22.14).

Now, the remarkable thing is the way in which, by making his demand, God actually invited Abraham to participate in and to constitute God’s own self-disclosure in the world. If Abraham had gone through with the sacrifice, he would have shown that God was a deceiver. If he had stood on his own integrity and cut himself off from God, then his last word about him would again have been that God is a deceiver. God put his own honor at great risk, making it dependent on the response of a mere man. But that is what was at issue in Abraham’s choice. God “tested” Abraham (22.1), to see if he had faith with conscience, not just faith for its own sake. And Abraham took it right to the mountain, to test whether God would honor his promise.

For all who believe, now, in this God, themselves, Abraham’s test has settled once and for all whether they would ever have to violate their own conscience out of obedience to God or to anyone else. By accepting the demand and playing chicken, Abraham was faithful to God’s promise and to his conscience, and he made God expose his own faithfulness— and thereby to show that he respects the consciences of those who are in covenant with him. As to those who are not— well, God is One: he respects conscience— but for their part, they’re on their own.

But if an angel appears and demands that we do something contrary to our conscience, we can be sure, after Abraham, that that angel is a demon. And if someone says that such an angel has appeared, he is saying it either to take advantage of someone, or to cover his ass for having taken advantage already. The faithful God does not violate a person’s conscience.

But returning to the issue of whether God forces people to do things— whether against their conscience or not— you also ask,

But really, isn’t most of Christianity at bottom exactly the sort of “forcing” you mention? Isn’t God saying that we have our choice, but if we do differently than he wants, we will spend eternity in punishment?

(To which someone responded, “Amen!”)

At this point, I hesitate to say much, because I don’t want to appear sectarian, but we’re going to have to make some distinctions if we want to avoid defending the indefensible, or overlooking the key facts. But let me offer the following as information— it’s up to you to make of it what you will— but the answer to your question lies at least partly in history, and there are different histories, and they’ve had different consequences.

So— “most of Christianity”. . . .

Have you ever noticed that conditions we consider permanent are often of more recent origin than we think? Did you know, for example, that less than 100 years ago, pink (as a shade of red, an aggressive color) was considered more appropriate for boys, while blue was better for girls? I suspect it’s not even possible to dress a baby boy in pink today!

But how possible is it that what we think of as “most of Christianity” is actually only about a thousand years old, and much of it only five hundred years old, and an awful lot of it even less than that? Yet facts are facts.

Just at the time of the final split between Eastern and Western Christianity, Anselm (11th c) was rethinking the atonement in terms Western European feudalism. He sought to understand God’s justice within the context of honor and satisfaction, where justice played out in the world he knew. By breaking God’s rules (and who hasn’t?), he reasoned, we have insulted God. But for Anselm, the magnitude of an offense is measured by the honor of the person offended, and that is the measure of the righteous wrath that has to be appeased. So if you offend your neighbor, you say “Pardon me!”, but if you offend the king, you crawl on your knees and say, “Pardon me”, and offer a great gift!

God is infinite, though. We finite creatures can never appease or satisfy or atone for the insult we’ve given him, because we have no gift commensurate with his infinity. But since he’s infinitely just, God can’t just let us get away with it; his wrath must be appeased. But he’s infinitely loving at the same time, and wants to save us as well. However, justice requires satisfaction; and wrath, appeasement. That’s why, as Anselm and the Scholastics who followed him explained, he sent his Son, the only person who could appease his wrath by offering infinite satisfaction.

Anselm’s theory caught on and became the ruling paradigm in Scholastic theology; and both Luther and Calvin (16th c) were highly trained in this style of thinking. That’s how it came about that in “most of Christianity”, we now have a Savior who saves us from a feudal God (a friend of mine calls him “Zeus”) by taking the punishment we deserve. That’s the “atonement”, in “most of Christianity”.

But of course, behind this, the story is still “follow God or be punished forever”, as you put it. We don’t really follow God very well, so we simply can’t avoid being punished forever— unless of course we accept that Jesus took the blow for us. Jesus is our Get Out Of Jail Free card.

The Book of Mormon strikes me as informed by this Scholastic-Reformation theory only in a general way, as one would expect if it had been written by a frontier American who got his theology mostly from popular preaching rather than, say, a university-trained theologian living in Vienna or Rome. And in many respects, the writer actually seems a little confused. In addition, Mormonism also advances its own peculiar take on the atonement, centering on his agony in the garden more than on the death of Christ. In various ways it seems that the American culture in which Mormonism emerged was no longer quite in sync with feudal ideas of honor and satisfaction, and all of this looks like an effort to explain anew something that no longer quite makes sense, but nobody can quite put their finger on why. But I honestly think that the “Zeus” of Anselmian and Calvinist scholasticism is still more or less by default the God who still appears in, or is assumed by the Book of Mormon and related literature. That’s why the Book of Mormon is so chock-full of threat and punishment (plus of course lots of miracles for the believing). 1st Nephi provides as many examples as any, but 18.20 put it quite succinctly: “There was nothing save it were the power of God, which threatened them with destruction, could soften their hearts”. The “power of God”, because the Book of Mormon is for the most part about the God of power.

To be fair, God’s threats are generally addressed to unbelievers who always seem peculiarly obtuse in the face of prophetic proof, and generally they appeal to their better sense of things. They don’t usually demand a suspension of conscience— although Korihor (Alma 30) provides an interesting example to the contrary. But precisely in those endless stories of threat and punishment, the book seems to share this idea of God-as-Zeus with “most of Christianity”, and certainly with the part of it that was common in American frontier churches in his day. Nothing convinces me that the church Smith founded doesn’t share it with “most of Christianity” even now.

But here’s where we rejoin our discussion of Abraham: Because Smith and the average American frontier Protestants with whom he was speaking both more or less thought of the biblical God precisely as the kind o’ guy who would “shock” people (1Nephi 17.53) and threaten them with drawn swords anyway, Smith could readily tell people that an angel with a drawn sword forced him to enter into a union that he claimed was (initially) against his conscience and morally repugnant to him. That was to be expected! But it strikes me as no accident that just as people are starting massively to question the idea of God-as-Zeus in other churches, Mormons are starting question this story of Smith’s as well.

More generally, though, something doesn’t quite add up when, as you put it, “God is saying that we have our choice, but if we do differently than he wants, we will spend eternity in punishment”. Such an ethical regime entails all the morality of “Obey or die, slave!”— and seems particularly suspicious, if not odious, when Zeus is telling us to violate our conscience or die.

Yet isn’t that the demand of the angel with the fiery sword— the demand Smith acquiesced to, and then imposed on Emma and other reluctant church members— for an obedience which, in the face of deadly threat, is willing to renounce its own conscience?

To the extent that God is like Zeus, this is understandable. Zeus is power, and conscience has nothing to do with power.

But as we saw with Abraham, such an idea is actually quite at odds with the God of the Bible— and not in a minor way, for that’s actually the point that the Bible is making, in view of a lot of other deities on offer in the ancient world, including Zeus himself, and Moloch, who demanded the sacrifice of children. Conscience is key. But if “most of Christianity” tends to believe in this Zeus, and promotes a kind of slave morality (as Nietzsche pointed out, only about 50 years after the Book of Mormon was published), then we might ask, was there or is there some other part of Christianity that ever said or says anything else?

We can look behind Anselm and his feudal-Scholastic friends to see how people dealt with the question of conscience and atonement before them. As it turns out, Christianity everywhere, both East and West, taught that even if we have sinned, we were all created to see God in his uncreated glory, and that all of us, without exception, will indeed see him— for “unto thee shall all flesh come” (Ps 65.2), and “with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light” (Ps 36.9). So “we now see in a mirror, darkly, but then we shall see face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known” (1Co 13.12)— and this is true of both sinners and saints. And when we see God face to face, we will understand that “God is love” (1Jn 4.8), and that he really does love everyone equally and indiscriminately, regardless of their moral status. For “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5.8). God loves everyone with the same love, both the saint and the devil, for “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1Jn 1.5). We were all created to see God in his uncreated glory, and without exception all of us— “all flesh”— will indeed see him.

Whoever we are, then, and no matter what we’ve done, we will spend eternity in God’s light. So the idea that “if we do differently than he wants, we will spend eternity in punishment” is not exactly correct. It may actually surprise you to learn that the doctrine of “hell”, as popularly assumed in our culture (and in the Book of Mormon), was simply unknown during the first thousand years of Christianity, and was not taught in the East at all— nor is it found in the Bible. (Whenever the word “hell” does appear in the Bible, it always translates she’ol or hades, which are simply “The Grave”, the “Land of Oblivion” (Ps 88.12) where the dead dwell.

So we all die and go to hades. But when the veil of this life is removed, the light of God’s infinite love appears. To the righteous, it will appear as “gladome light”, but as “consuming fire” to the ungodly (Hb 12.29). Accordingly, our own manner of being will determine whether our vision of God will be light or fire, heaven or gehenna, reward or punishment. This has nothing to do with a “spiritual feeling” or a “burning in the bosom”, but with our actual transformation from selfish love to Godlike, self-emptying love. This transformation originates in the Spirit, but requires our cooperation.

The question, then, is not whether we “do differently than God wants”, but whether “Christ be formed in us” (Ga 4.19). We ourselves need to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rm 12.2)— then we shall be “conformed to the image of his glory” (St Basil, quoting Rm 8.29 and Ph 3.10, 21). If we’re not so transformed, then “this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn 3.19-21). This isn’t particularly hard to grasp— lust and hatred have no place in love, but if we prefer them, we may have them— yet in the light of God’s love, the truth of what we’ve choosen will be very painful to eyes accustomed to darkness. So, if we “do differently than God wants”, we will “suffer punishment”, in a sense, but only in the sense that the hell of a conscience that condemns itself and is condemned by itself in the light of love is not at all the same thing as being condemned to hell by a Judge who didn’t like that we didn’t do what he wanted.

One absolutely indispensible condition of the transformation to which God invites us is a pure conscience.

Accordingly, great spiritual teachers are not about telling us “what God wants”— whether polygamy or tithing or fasting on Fridays— but about helping people to purify their consciences, so that the vision of God’s glory will be heaven for them, and not gehenna; reward, and not punishment. That’s why St Paul wrote, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience…” (1Tm 1.5). All other teachings, sacraments, books, and practices have this transformation as their fundamental purpose and context.

But how can this ever work, when angels with drawn swords tell us that God requires us to violate our conscience?

You concluded,

Even with Joseph Smith’s angel story, Joseph still had his agency. He could do as the angel directed or be slain.

I know that isn’t much agency to speak of, but I am not sure how it is appreciably different from the doctrine that we have our agency to follow God or be punished forever.

It seems to me like the latter is even more severe than the former.

Is there really any difference at all between “follow God or be punished forever”, and “do as the angel directs or be slain”? Either way, it’s the morality of slaves. And as Nietzsche announced out, the God of slaves, is dead.

But my point has been only that this mutilated Christianity never existed outside the West and before the Middle Ages, even if “most of Christianity” is unaware of that.

In the Bible and the early church fathers, we find a Christianity in which the ultimate, final, and unsurpassable revelation of God is Jesus, who did not threaten with a drawn sword but said to Peter, who had drawn his sword, “Put your sword back into its place… or do you think that I cannot pray to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26.52-53). For as you know, he didn’t.


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‘I hold the keys of death and Hell’

April 9th, 2015

Just for the record— something I wrote the other day on facebook went sorta viral, so I edited it and incorporated subsequent discussion, so if you didn’t see it there, it’s presently the top item here— entitled as above— ‘I hold the keys of death and Hell’. As I say there, the terms gehenna, hell, she’ol, and hades— as well as what the Bible and Christian Tradition say about where Christ went when he died, and what he did there, and where we go when we die, and what we do there, are no longer well understood, so they need some discussion. Comments invited!


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Africa’s Catholic Church Steps Up to the Plate

March 25th, 2015

Interesting article here. I think people aren’t really aware of Africa’s power, but surprises are on the way.


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Shell Game

March 6th, 2015

Over on Ancient Faith, Eric Jobe, a PhD candidate at U Chicago and biblical instructor for the OCA’s Diocese of the Midwest Vocations Program, tries to justify the violence in the Old Testament, or at least to soften it, by lining up some modern scholarly insights along with some patristic allegories, to show the compatibility of both approaches. His argument is that we don’t have to read the Bible literally, and that modern critical insights give us new ways of not doing so. Therefore, about the the violence—

we may take some solace in the possibility that these texts were never intended by their authors as reporting factual history. Rather, they reflect theological and ideological concerns as encountered by the communities that first read these books.

To be more specific, Jobe avers that Joshua was first written at the time of Josiah, one of the last kings of Judah, to justify his own reconquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, which had fallen to the Assyrians. Ultimately, his Reconquista failed and Josiah himself was killed. Some decades later, after overthrowing the Assyrians, the Babylonians came and sacked Jerusalem itself, and hauled Josiah’s great grandson and all the nobles and artisans of Israel off into exile. But at that point, the exiles expanded the book of Joshua into an even bigger lie enhanced Josiah’s failed propaganda by adding material that retrojectively anticipated their own return to the Land from Babylon— and since this actually happened, Joshua is now part of the Bible as we have it. And so,

[a]s Joshua is depicted conquering the land of Benjamin, so Josiah wished also to view himself as a new Joshua taking back land that had been captured by the Assyrians. In the same way, Christ, the New Joshua (Yeshua), leads the people of God to reclaim the “Land” of their heart, overtaken and captured by sin. . . .

All well and good, even if some have a problem with the theory that Joshua originated as a bit of Josianic propaganda. In their view, if it’s not a “reliable record of history”, then it’s not true (truth being defined as a “reliable historical record”).

But a more serious objection, I think, is that if the case is something like what Jobe says, then you have to explain why and how a piece of failed political ideology became Divine Scripture— and then why we should still honor it as such. Because the Return from Exile turns out not to have been altogether irenic itself, though in that case, the history seems to have been written (but not entirely erased) by the victors (Ezra and Nehemiah).

But ok, let’s go with Jobe for a moment. He’s saying that if Joshua isn’t actually historical in the first place, then we don’t have to worry about whether God is a violent God, because the violence never actually happened! But the problem isn’t whether the violence ever happened; the problem is that the text we revere speaks of it as if it did, and seems to sanction it!

In fact the effort to extricate ourselves from the problem of violence in the OT is already an admission that the violence in the OT is a problem. And you can’t solve the problem by explaining it away. “The Text says what it says, but it doesn’t really mean it. Or at least, doesn’t mean it literally. Violence? Violence? Do you see any violence? Lookie here— no violence to be found!

It’s the oldest trick in the book.

In positing a redaction of the Book of Joshua during the time of Josiah and the Exile, we are able to move away from an overly literal, historical-factual reading of the book. If indeed the book was composed in order to express certain ideological and theological ideas, then such a historical-factual reading would in that case not even be “literal.” If Joshua was composed to promote the ideology of Jewish kingship and the hopes of an exilic community awaiting their own “Exodus” and return to the Land, then a properly “literal” reading will take these ideas into account.

So— it’s only “an overly literal, historical-factual reading of the book” that finds a lot of violence in the Scripture, and thinks this might be a problem for a religion of love?

Jobe isn’t the only one trying this approach. It’s become very popular lately among Christian apologists of all stripes, especially those who want to rewrite, or excise, the parts of the Bible that seem to clobber gays, women, and so forth. But for one and all, this is the wrong tack altogether. The violent passages are there, but they’re only part of a larger pattern, and it’s precisely that big picture that we don’t see! And that’s why we have a problem with the violence in the Bible. There’s a murder that takes place in Crime and Punishment too, but if we read only that chapter, our view of Crime and Punishment will be distorted, at best!

As Jobe knows (he alludes to this in his discussion of the book’s origins), Joshua is part of a series of books— Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings— that form a continuous narrative with common themes, style, vocabulary, point of view. Scholars call this sequence the “Deuteronomic History”, and its author was likely Jeremiah or someone in his circle (perhaps his secretary Baruch). If we read Joshua within the whole of the Deuteronomic history— together with Jeremiah and related books, and the rest of the prophets— we discover something much different than a mere “inspired record” of divinely sanctioned violence— let alone a justification for it.

We discover a prophetic view of the violence in history. And the violence of history is a problem. In fact, it’s the problem, and the Bible is all about it.

More specifically, the Bible’s big, sprawling story is about Israel in history. But it’s not just a book of history; it’s a book about history, or rather, about Israel’s experience of history, in which Israel experienced violence on both the giving and on the receiving ends. And it has its own development. It sets out, in the beginning, to get you all enthusiastic for Israel’s conquests, to draw you in: “Hooray for our side! How dare those dastardly Canaanites— baby-murderers all!— oppose the Great March to Victory of God’s Own Chosen People!!” . . . . and you read on through all the ups and downs (well, there are a lot of downs; somehow those kings just never seem to work out)— until you get to the other end of the story, where all the violence comes down on Israel herself, and for the same reasons (including murderous sacrifices of babies). In the end, sick of the violence, you seriously doubt God approves of any of it. The whole story was just to get you to think about your own attitudes. And it’s more than obvious by that point that people insist on violence— just read the papers even today!— and people *believe* in violence, and so there will be violence. Do you have a problem with it? You bet! That’s the point!

But in the final analysis, the Bible’s story turns out to be about God calling one people— Israel, as much prone to violence as anyone else— to bear witness to the fact that God will ultimately use the violence and the injustice of the nations to bring the nations to repentance, beginning with his own people.

That’s the story in the Bible.

Jobe is actually fighting two battles in his Ancient Faith piece, and I think he fails on both counts, not least because he doesn’t keep his battles clear. There is the problem of violence in the Scriptures, his ostensible topic, which as I say I think he get’s wrong. But there’s also the problem of fundamentalism in the Church, which has to face up to the problem of violence in Scripture precisely because it insists on a “literal, historical-factual reading of the book” without ever seeing the story whole. For as Jobe says,

This is a pastoral issue. There are many people out there who reject Christianity because of such literalist readings of the Bible. It is incumbent upon Orthodox Christian leaders to assure them that the God we believe in is not a genocidal maniac, and our Bible does not have to be read in such a manner. Furthermore, we do not need to try to justify such heinous acts in order to support a literalistic reading of the Bible.

He urges that when critical scholarship puts the history into question, it becomes easier to accept patristic allegory as a “true” interpretation— closer than historical literalism to what was intended by the writers in the first place. Thus,

While the Fathers did not have recourse to modern critical scholarship, they nevertheless interpreted the Bible in non-literal ways which are able to work harmoniously with critical scholarship, in that both allow us to transcend literalist readings.

“To transcend literalist readings”. Sigh. The point is, if you read the Bible, “literally” or not, the violence is there. It’s dishonest to pretend that it isn’t. And to reach for allegory before or instead of looking at the literal meaning is not to take the Bible seriously.

This is a kind of Docetism: the Old Testament is flesh in appearance only.

In the comments, Fr John Whiteford weighs in with his usual anti-critical Nazarene-fundamentalist idiocy. I do get tired of his nonsense. Of course, blind as he is, he correctly wants to avoid Jobe’s Docetism, and understands well enough that to reach for allegory is to ignore the text; and he half-gets that to reach for it first is to ignore the text altogether. So, half-converted from Protestant fundamentalism, he can’t give up his “literal understanding” of the text, even though he’s found in the Fathers something to be all the more fundamentalist about. Joshua has to be literally historical, and we have to follow the fathers in interpreting it typologically or allegorically. Thus he falls into a kind of Marcionism, where the Old is there, but the New supersedes and replaces it. But he can’t really get rid of the Old, because he’d then have nothing to allegorize. So the violence still attaches to him, like an ugly leech, because we have to take it literally.

Nobody actually wants to look at the text as a whole, partly because mastering a book that’s about 2,500 pages long requires a huge effort; and as a result, nobody ever teaches it as a whole. So we have to come up with explanations of why it doesn’t “really” sanction violence because we’re afraid it actually does sanction violence and we know in our heart of hearts that we can’t support that.

Well, explain away the violence in the Bible as best you can, but unless you can actually explain it, I won’t believe a word you’re saying.

The violence is there. We have to tell why it’s there.

[Be sure to read the comments below.]


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Where Was Jesus Coming From? (Mt 8.1–9.36)

November 30th, 2014

I just posted my notes (about 21 pages) on chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew, for any who are interested, and especially for those who’ve been part of the Matthew Discussion Group at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church for the past year.

Coming between what are usually called the Sermon on the Mount and the Missionary Discourse, this section mainly deals with the question of Jesus’ authority. Thus I’ve called my commentary, “Where Is Jesus Coming From?”

In general, I’m trying to approach Matthew as a *book* with a structure, plot, and development of its own, rather than as a collection of unrelated episodes aimed somewhat at “showing that Jesus was the Son of God” or “building faith” or whatever.

In particular, the section on the centurion and his ‘boy’ (Mt 8.5-13) has turned out to be very interesting. Regardless of the identity of the ‘boy’ (which I discussed with a number of people separately a week ago or so), it seems unquestionable that *both* the centurion and the Pharisees of 9.32-34 have the same view of Jesus as a ‘centurion of demons’, though the centurion regards him positively and the Pharisees negatively.

Also unexpected is the fact that Matthew is not trying to assert or prove Jesus’ authority, but (as a good storyteller would) letting us see how the people around Jesus actually *struggled* to understand “what kind of man this is” (8.27).

You can download the notes by clicking the fourth item listed here.

Comments invited, either here or on FB or by email.


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Human Slaves Are Feeding Your Cat

August 18th, 2014

Americans’ love of pets— not just a psycho-pathology, but an environmental, political, and spiritual pathology as well.

In my experience, it’s always been women who go crazy about animals; guys often have dogs or even cats, but not usually four or five or ten of them. Not being an essentialist, I refuse to speculate what it might be about the “female psyche” that makes women go crazy about cats, but I wonder what it is about women’s lives that takes this toll. Best I can come up with is that maybe in a world of men spinning out of control in places like Ferguson, MO and Iraq, if we can keep our little feline friends happy, then we can feel good about ourselves. A friend of mine, whose mother had this illness, puts it this way: “But they’re hungry, you see, and you need to feed them. The whole world is hungry…!” So it’s a sort of metastasis of the compassion instinct— but in response to what?

I’m no stranger to bonding with animals. I had a kitty in Kampala, and i liked my little kitty. And since it turns out a lot of Africans were mildly afraid of cats (witchcraft associations), keeping it was an interesting experiment in social interaction. Problem is, I like to connect the dots even more than i like to connect with kitties.

So today I noticed that all the canned cat food i feed to the SIX cats i take care of (I should explain that I’m house-sitting; they aren’t mine) is labeled, “Product of Thailand”.

Well, about that Thai fishing industry— wouldn’t you know— it’s a major location of human trafficking; see also this article, and this one, and this one; and for good measure, here’s one about the Thai prawn industry as well. I particularly liked the part about where one guy beat up on a boss who was torturing him, so once the crew subdued him, they summoned three other boats, tied each of his arms and legs to one boat, put their engines in reverse, and— pulled him apart, alive, as the other slaves were forced to watch.

I’m personally not eating shrimp again, or any fish caught in Thailand.

But UPS brought me this big box of cat food today, a monthly occurrence:

  • Weruva (“Because Weluvya”) Chicken in Gravy;
  • Tiki Cat (“Gourmet Whole Food”) “Molokai Luau” tuna on rice with calamari;
  • B.F.F. (“Best Feline Friend”) Tuna & Beef Baby-Cakes (“wild-caught & dolphin free”)

And a 30-lb bag of dry food:

  • Taste of the Wild “Rocky Mountain Feline® Formula with Roasted Venison & Smoked Salmon”, “The balanced diet that nature intended”— with “Fruits & Vegetables”.

Well, this dry food includes “Dried Chickory Root… helps support a healthy digestive system”; “Blueberries & Raspberries… packed with powerful antioxidants to help keep the body healthy as the days go by”; and “Tomatoes… an additional source of antioxidants”. The cats like it well enough, but come on!— Is this really even cat food??!

Of course I get that cats like fish. So… salmon. Though really, I don’t know why we don’t raise mice for cat food; it would probably take a lot of burden off the seas. But smoked salmon? In fact I wonder where they even get the smoked salmon and especially the venison for this feline fruit-and-meat salad. Are there gigantic deer farms somewhere in Missouri (apparently, that’s what the Taste of the Wild company means by “Rocky Mountains”), where deer are bred and raised to become cat food?

Of course we love our kitties and we want only the best for them. Our kitties, ourselves. The whole marketing pitch is all about pampering and comfort and indulgence. “Poor witto Beau-Beau. Did pussie get his antioxidants and venison today?” Our kitties, ourselves. And there is something terribly weak, something deeply out of balance not only with the diet, but with the attitude.

In Kampala, I could buy these little tiny dried fish that people used to make a popular fish sauce out of, for about 5¢ the handful, and one handful fed the cat for several days. So “Eat Local” was a real option. And my cat was a real killing machine that kept the rat, mouse, cockroach (eww!), and lizard populations down as well. Too bad about the lizards; as a Southwesterner, i’ve always thought they were cool, but as the saying goes, you can’t take sides in the jungle. However, here in America we don’t have the little dried fish or the giant cockroaches, and not so many rats or mice, so we feed our cats tuna, which comes in packages of aluminum (which can now be recycled in many places) as well as plastic (which can’t), and which is transported from Thailand by an industry that runs on fossil fuels.

Oh, and about that tuna: In the first place, even if a lot of the fish in those cans looks suspiciously like sardines— nonetheless, it says “tuna”, and we need to consider the implications of feeding tuna (especially slave-caught tuna!) to our cats:

In 2010, Greenpeace International has added the albacore, bigeye tuna, Pacific bluefin tuna, Atlantic bluefin tuna, southern bluefin tuna and the yellowfin tuna to its seafood red list. “The Greenpeace International seafood red list is a list of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries.”

It is widely accepted that bluefin tuna have been severely overfished, with some stocks at risk of collapse. According to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (a global, non-profit partnership between the tuna industry, scientists, and the World Wide Fund for Nature), Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna, Pacific Ocean (eastern & western) bigeye tuna, and North Atlantic albacore tuna are all overfished. In April 2009, no stock of skipjack tuna (which makes up roughly 60 percent of all tuna fished worldwide) was “considered” to be overfished. However, the BBC documentary South Pacific, which first aired in May 2009, stated that, should fishing in the Pacific continue at its current rate, populations of all tuna species could collapse within 5 years. It highlighted huge Japanese and European tuna fishing vessels, sent to the South Pacific international waters after overfishing their own fish stocks to the point of collapse.

A 2010 tuna fishery assessment report, released in January 2012 by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), supported this finding, recommending that all tuna fishing should be reduced or limited to current levels and that limits on skipjack fishing be considered. [source: Wikipedia]

It’s going to be interesting when we fished the oceans to the point of collapse to feed our cats, and cat food starts costing $ten per tin, and global warming wipes out our own land-based food supply (paid for anything at the supermarket lately?)

Will we start eating our cats? Well, if we don’t want to go there, I’m thinking it’s about time we started to look seriously at what our addiction to pets is costing a world where, in addition to the environmental issues i’ve mentioned, one out of every eight people goes to bed hungry each night and billions more are doing barely better than that. I’ve met people who would be happy to eat cat— except for the witchcraft issue— and that might just be negotiable.


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“Self-Reliance Team” to Go to Uganda Church in October!

July 29th, 2014

I just received OCMC’s latest fundraising newsletter. It contained this item:

“Also departing on October 27th will be a [short-term] team bound for Uganda. This team will continue the work begun last year with the blessings of His Eminence Jonah aimed at helping the Church in Uganda to be more self-reliant. This year’s team will teach Christian stewardship workshops in various communities across the country.”

Potential donors and missionaries should know that there is NO teaching in the Uganda Orthodox Church. Most of the priests have NO training. There are NO catechetical materials, NO icons, NO service books (except for the few I printed at my own expense), NO prayerbooks, NO knowledge of the Scriptures, NO knowledge of the Liturgy, and what little idea of basic Christianity there is, comes from the state-sponsored “Christian Religious Education” (CRE) classes required in the national school system— an ecumenical pablum of ethics and civics, with a few bible tidbits thrown in, guaranteed to offend neither Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, nor Catholics and Orthodox.

So, given all that, and given the fact that Greek and even American funding has all but dried up for the diocese— OCMC now proposes, under Bishop Jonah’s direction (the same who has never put into motion even a half-serious catechetical program in the 20 years or so that he’s been bishop)— to build the church with MONEY rather than the Gospels.

Well, that’s how it always was, but now the MONEY is to be raised locally, and we’re sending a “TEAM” to show em how to do it!!

Good luck on that!!

(Btw, once i’d been there for about 3 months, nothing has ever convinced me that OCMC even has a clue about Africa!)

I shake my head in amusement, amazement, and sorrow, all at once. And I can’t recommend supporting it.

Ocmc does have medical missions, which can do some good. i don’t have a huge problem with those.

Sometimes they send “short term education missions” as well. That’s when they drop a “team”— they don’t seem to have a clue how loathesome their corporate gibberish is!— of people who have absolutely no understanding of the local culture, don’t speak a word of the language, and don’t have the foggiest about what the church actually needs in that country— onto peasants who may have a third-grade education, if any, and have never so much as even seen any orthodox service except the divine liturgy MAYBE. There, they will tour as many villages as possible for eight weeks giving seminars on things like “sacraments, God in Christ, and women saints”, as one prospective missionary wrote me. But the one that made me really want to laugh, cry, and scream when i read about it was short term “team” that went to Turkanaland a while back to talk about “Orthodox parenting” to naked cattle nomads.

Well, i respect naked cattle nomads a good deal. I’d survive about 5 minutes in their environment, and they have a whole thriving culture. But you just have to picture a small “team” of unmarried privileged freshly scrubbed snot-nosed american college kids in their Patagonia® active wear and sunscreen presuming to tell cattle nomad women who’ve been married since the age of ten, living mostly outdoors, and drinking a mixture of blood and milk for breakfast, whose rigidly traditional culture REQUIRES YOU EITHER TO DO IT THE SAME WAY YOU’VE ALWAYS DONE IT OR YOU ALL DIE— but never ever once in their lives even seen, much less held, a pencil or tapped an iPhone®— how to be “good Orthodox moms”. In addition, of course, to cluing them in on Orthodox Sacraments and Women Saints.

About the Bible, or the basic apostolic kerygma, not so much. But then, we’re not really familiar with those, ourselves.

The “self-reliance teams” to which i refer above are a new thing. As i may have intimated, the Orthodox churches of Greece and America have created in Uganda (and i suspect most other places on the “dark continent”, as the Greek newsletters unerringly describe it) a number of local churches that are completely dependent on outside money and unable to do much of anything for themselves. The Orthodox Church has not yet been forced to face the consequences of its colonialism, like the Catholics and the Protestants have, at least to an extent, and so we still fantasize that this is some kind of viable “mission”.

But apparently the Greek money has completely dried up since the 2008 financial crisis. So who’d a-thunk?— where there has never been even the slightest thought of supporting the church before— people became orthodox so they could get supported!— now there’s a need to tell them that they have to cough up and support their priests! Add to that the fact that altogether too many of the priests are kinda famous for “just using the church as a way to eat”, as the saying goes— the picture does not inspire visions of success for these “self-reliance teams”. My informants on the ground are fairly amused by the whole show, but they look forward to the free lunches.

There’s just absolutely no program of evangelization, let alone catechesis, let alone community building, let alone pastoral care in the Uganda Orthodox Church. It’s a leadership issue, and things won’t change until there are new leaders, if then. I don’t know how it is elsewhere except in South Africa, where pretty much one patient deacon and his wife are struggling more or less alone. Which is a real tragedy because the churches he helps had been around for a hundred years, were completely self-supporting and very active until they became Orthodox, and then we turned them into passive basket cases entirely dependent on Greek largesse, which is seldom actually forthcoming (some discussion here, but still looking for another link specifically about the fortunes of the independent churches that joined the Orthodox.)

Our notions of “Orthodox mission” are so deeply flawed and in fact colonialist that it’s hard to know where to begin. They are generally the natural outgrowth of our endemic ethnophyletism; I recall reading one Greek bishop’s glowing report, after visiting Congo a couple a years ago, about how all the young men there just couldn’t wait to learn Greek and become Greeks! Well, Ocmc, being American, is beyond all that, but we still imagine that dropping a Greek church on an African village is going to build an African church.

And then there was that Ocmc “education team” (loathesome word!) that we had to host when i was in SA, which probably spent over $10,000 on air fare alone— when i was trying to live on less than $500/month and supporting a couple of other people— so they could come and yammer on about their “lovely wives and successful kids” back in America, and then get on to some prepared lectures, read from notes, in english, to isiNdebele-speaking teenagers who about as much interest in hearing about Orthodox sexual ethics as you might guess. If you want, i have pictures.

But I can’t recommend strongly enough Vincent J Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, about the evangelization of the Maasai. I don’t think i agree with about 30% of what he says, but even the parts i take exception to absolutely must be answered. And yet, generally, we aren’t even aware that there are questions there. And by “we”, i mean the Ocmc in particular.

I bet this reaches Ocmc’s Fr Ritsi’s desk by tomorrow afternoon, and I’d be curious to know what he says, but since i’m no longer working for the church, let alone for Ocmc, i’m feeling free to embrace my inner gadfly.

Africa seared me. I realized i knew nothing. But I think if you know that, you can at least get started. But I honestly wonder what Ocmc thinks it’s doing, since they clearly don’t actually have a clue as to what they’re actually doing.

What a colossal waste of money and time! To say nothing of the sheer nonsense of trying to start a church with money!


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Genesis and evolution

July 7th, 2014

A friend of mine writes,

I was just trying to figure out a way evolution could work with the Biblical view of God creating a ‘good’ World. As evolution requires creatures to be fighting with one another for survival it seems to contradict the ‘good’ idea. I guess this continues on into the human experience (that we appear to be born into or evolve in a fallen world or imperfect world rather than beginning in Eden).

My response:

Any attempt to relate Genesis to the scientific account of origins (human or cosmic) is going to lead to insurmountable problems. Whatever way you look at it, you’re going to be trying to match the wrong answer to the right question, and you just can’t make it fit. The reason why people keep trying is that the wrong answer (creation; evolution) of course is the right answer when you ask the question that leads to it, but neither answer is ever going to be the right answer to the other question. Both questions (science; religion) are valid and legitimate and necessary, but they address different aspects of the human experience and therefore use different orders of discourse. Or as Steven Jay Gould says on an article that you can read here on my site, they belong to “Nonoverlapping Magisteria“.

The problem is really cultural. No society was capable of asking the sophisticated physical, biological, geological, astrophysical, etc questions that we refer to when we say “science”. People honestly did think the stars were just out of reach and that the world was 4000 years old at the time of Jesus (5500, if you read the Septuagint). I forget which Greek philosopher it was who brought a lot of ridicule on himself for proposing that the sun was bigger than a bonfire, perhaps even bigger than Greece, and quite far away. In such a thought-world, it wouldn’t occur to anyone to doubt or question the Genesis account of the Seven Days or of Adam, Eve, and Eden. So we grew up, as a culture, naturally assuming that the stories in Genesis were “scientific”. But it is a sheer impossibility to take those accounts as “science” today, except in bad faith and by means of the anti-biblicism of fundamentalism.

But such a move is so unnecessary! Biblical studies have amply and fascinatingly demonstrated that the story of the Seven Days is the account of a building of a Temple— an account reflected, moreover, in the building of the Tabernacle in the desert, and in Solomon’s Temple later on. In this Garden/Temple, God installs Adam as his image, high priest, and king. The Eden story is about how the Image of God, the Royal High Priest, got thrown out of the Temple and banished into Exile. And that and nothing else is precisely the story of Israel in the Bible. It is everything that the Bible is about— how it happened, why it happened, and what God is doing about it. The Genesis accounts are a brilliant and profound preface/introduction to the rest of the Bible. But they no longer work for us as an introduction to science; they once did, but it is the nature of science to ask critical questions and because of that, Genesis no longer serves as an introduction to astrophysics or biochemistry.

But scholars also point out that in the context of the ancient imperial societies and their myths, with which it was in dialog, Genesis gives voice to a deeply scientific and critical impulse. In other words, it gives us the question that is science but not the answers that science has found. Stanley Jaki’s book, The Savior of Science, is good on this point. Interestingly, the Bible gives us the question of science precisely as it summarizes and elevates Israel’s history to a reflective myth which it then uses as the introduction to an elaborate and profound discourse about What Happened to Us (Israel) in History, and Why. It gives us the critical question that is science as it gives us the religious question that is theology.

NT Wright and others have made the point that evolutionary theory became popular as the mythos of nascent industrial capitalism. People (especially the owner class) liked the idea of the “survival of the fittest”, since it meant that if you were surviving, you must be the fittest, and therefore obviously justified in whatever it was you were doing. We’ve since come to recognize that competition and conflict are not the only stories being played out in nature, and that in fact we owe a good deal more to cooperation and symbiosis. I understand that even the cell itself— every cell from algae to humans— started out zillions of years ago as a symbiotic union of two originally distinct organisms, one of which somehow got inside the other. Worked out pretty good, considering the number of cells in the world now!

But the ‘good world’ that God created in Genesis is not that world. Nor is it the mythical Neverneverland of popular imagination, or the dishonest and lying fantasy of “Creation Science”. The popular imagination is utterly unschooled in the Bible even while, even among the least informed, it is far ahead of our ancestors in its properly scientific understanding of the world. That’s why we don’t need more conferences on “Science and Religion”, where we try to fit something called “religion” to “science” (or, supposedly, vice-versa); what we need today is a serious conversation about the Bible!

The ‘good world’ that God created is the world of the Eternal Covenant, known and appropriated within Israel through the Temple. The Seven Days is the mythos of the Temple. The Bible repeatedly stresses how this covenant was broken and how this has resulted in disaster and exile. We don’t have much of the mythos of the royal priesthood— this would have been associated with Melchizedek and the king, rather than with Aaron and Moses— but the story of Adam and Eve tells us in symbolic terms why it was lost. Jesus’ promise to the guerilla on the cross is that the Eternal Covenant is now restored and the Exile is over. Paul calls him the New Adam, and Hebrews calls him the New Melchizedek, the great High Priest.

Genesis is not about single-celled organisms emerging from the primordial soup, but about priesthood and covenant. If we start from where the Bible starts in our reflections on Genesis— from the history unfolded subsequently in the rest of the Bible— we will end up in a place that does not at all conflict with our scientific equations, but rather, at the Messianic Banquet. If in our reflections on Genesis we start from where the Bible does *not* start— from scientific questions about the nature of matter and the origins of the terrestrial biome— we will end up with nothing but insurmountable conflicts with our science.

In a context of moral evaluation, Jesus said you don’t pick grapes from thistles. But in another, less value-laden context, he could as well have said you don’t pick apples from an orange tree.

On this website there are a number of articles under the “biblical studies” tabs and others that address some of these issues separately, or lay the foundation for what I’m saying. I won’t try linking all the ones I think are relevant here, but they are many.


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Can There Be Morality in a Godless World?

June 21st, 2014

By etymology, “sin” is a term taken from archery; it means “missing the target”. So we can still speak of sin in a godless world, if we can still conceive of a “target” for human existence there. I think a good example of this would be Buddhism, in which there is no god, but there are skillful and unskillful acts. Buddhism, at least in its american versions, doesn’t really subscribe to “rules”, but it is by no means just a matter of “if it feels good it’s ok; if not, not”. Buddhism is quite clear about what’s skillful and what’s unskillful, but this is based on a very clear perception of the nature of the mind and of things as they are, rather than on any external creator or rule-maker. What makes acts “skillful” or not is whether they’re based on insight or on delusion. The goal of spiritual practice (or rather, of life) is health, peace, compassion, wholeness, and ultimately a state beyond even these. There are six hells, but the interesting thing is the six corresponding heavens aren’t ultimately any less delusional. What’s needed is insight, not ecstasy; wisdom, not “feelgood”, however high the feelgood is!

If, on the other hand, you live in a godded world (can i make up that term?), then the question of sin and morality is whether the god of your world provides a list of rules (which may be more, or less arbitrary) and some system of reward and punishment for keeping or not keeping them. There, the “target” you could miss would be something like “perfection” or perhaps “righteousness”, and “sin” would be breaking the rules and failing to attain to that perfection or righteousness. In Protestantism it is said that no amount of rule-keeping will make you righteous, and that you can’t possibly keep all the burdensome rules anyway, but Jesus kept them for you and his righteousness or perfection is imputed to you. Thus you can relax a bit, maybe. But the basic paradigm is still one of rules, or “ethics”, and the measuring stick registers the extent to which you keep them.

But perhaps your god has provided, precisely, a world, and a possibility of life within it, in which you can either attain to some kind of health or fall into sickness. The goal of this godded world would then be similar to that of Buddhism— health, peace, love, integrity, union with God and with the cosmos…. “Sin”, in this case, would be to live in an unhealthy and destructive way that brought misery to you and those around you.

As to the sources of morality in a non-theistic world, I’ve already said it would be reality itself, and whatever practice (e.g., meditation) helped you to gain deep insight into it. If there’s any revelation in a godded world, the question is whether it reveal purely extrinsic “rules”, a “code of ethics”— or whether it illumines the nature of life from within and helps you to live in wisdom, understanding, and grace? Or are there other possibilities for what “revelation” is? What kind of revelation is the Bible?

Developmental psychologist James Fowler, in his important but unreadable book, Stages of Faith (you can find serviceable synopses here or here or here), shows how different kinds of “faith” and hence of “morality” are related to the stages of human psychological and social growth. He traces the successful negotiation of each stage, and its failure. And he notes that most americans get stuck between the need for authority that characterizes the third of his six identifiable stages (characteristic of the early teen years), and the more reflective, individuative relationship to one’s spiritual context that characterizes the fourth, which emerges (if at all) in one’s twenties. If you listen to their discourse, not to agree or disagree but to hear the kind of discourse they engage in, it seems that many people do in fact rely on a strong authoritarian moralism when responding to moral and social challenges. “The Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and that’s good enough for me!” This explains a lot of our politics, in fact, especially on the conservative side.

So “morality”, would seem to have different meanings for different people, based on their own level of development. To one person, the question of morality in a godless world comes down to whether there could be a “code of ethics”, such that “morality” is about following or keeping those rules. Or would “morality” be about a possibility inherent in life, in which you can be more, or less, true to the order of being in which you’re part, in which you can attain to health or fall into sickness, and become, or fail to become, a mature person, integrated in freedom, creativity, and love?

I think just to state the question that way is to make the optimum obvious, but the answer doesn’t have to do with whether the world is godless or godded. Do you want to be Mark Driscoll or the Dalai Lama? Jonathan Edwards or Mahatma Ghandi? Pius IX (“Pio No-No”) or the Elder Thaddeus? Of course we all admire the latter of each of these more than the former. But that the rules, even the Bible, might be “relative” in some way can be quite scary. It usually takes a crisis of some kind— a major disappointment in a religious figure or community; coming to terms with something that renders you a permanent outsider, like being gay; a recognition that by applying the rules as absolutely as you thought you had you, you badly hurt someone you really love; reaching midlife; or perhaps by long sojourn in a foreign culture— usually it takes something like these to force you to make your transcendental passage beyond the safe confines of religion and morality as you’ve received them, toward a wider, more open and inclusive horizon.

I like to think that every traditional religion provides both authoritarian and integrative answers, but by nature the latter can be understood only when you’re ready, and those who can guide the disciple along those paths are relatively rare. Most people who have to leave home find themselves frighteningly alone, and very often have to give birth to themselves, often again amid tempest and earthquake. In any case, birth is hard and painful and dangerous, and the chances of coming out stillborn— of falling, for instance, into alcoholism, permanent distraction, various delusions, or simply a life of quiet despair— is very great. I’m not sure many make it.

I think that whole cultures can undergo this kind of transcendental passage too, at least to some degree, even though of course at all times there will be people at all stages of development in something as big as a culture. But it seems that if a leader emerges not by political maneuvering or demagoguery but “by the power of an indestructible life”, as Hebrews says about Jesus in a context not altogether irrelevant— after bloodshed and puritanism and mayhem, there may be a new flowering of life, a new period of cultural energy. Gandhi was one example, perhaps; Rumi, another; Jesus and the Buddha, certainly. Or, without such guides, a people may just tacitly agree to take it down a notch and just live and let live, within whatever largely unspoken (and often unjust) arrangements a social order maintains itself. Woe, though, to that culture which is ruled by clerics, even if they dress in business suits!

Another book i could recommend is A. Reza Arasteh, Toward Final Personality Integration. Thomas Merton wrote a review and reflection on the first edition of this book in Contemplation in a World of Action, and correspondents may well be interested at least in that article, which has the same title as an earlier edition of Arasteh’s book, “Final Integration in the Adult Personality”.


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Faith in the Book of Mormon

June 3rd, 2014

I originally posted this to a friend’s blog, but he’s not doing anything with his blog, and neither he nor anyone else ever commented on it, so I thought I’d polish it up and post it here, in case anyone was interested and wanted to respond.


It’s interesting to read the Book of Mormon as a series of stories that Joseph Smith was telling in response to people or contexts that he was actually encountering as he was writing it. Obviously it has to be something like that; to anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the culture of Israel at any time in history— let alone during the period between the Exile and Christ (i.e., between 600 BC and 100 AD), when the book purports to have been written— it’s quite obviously not a pre-Christian Jewish document produced by any “Lost Tribes of Israel” (which weren’t all that lost anyway). In fact it’s poignant testimony to our massive ignorance of the Bible that anyone in Smith’s day or ours could even for one second take it to be Israelite, or not solidly a piece of Americana. It swims entirely in the 19th-century American frontier Protestant milieu in which it appeared, and reflects a standpoint that both competes with, and rests upon that milieu. So even though I sometimes find Smith’s stories hilarious (see the “Rameumptom” narrative below), they’re also sometimes interesting for the light they throw on American religious attitudes, in both his day and ours.

Readers who aren’t familiar with the Book of Mormon may find it helpful to know that it’s modeled on the Bible, in the sense that it’s comprised of some 15 “books”, each purporting to be by a different author. The portion I’ll be discussing includes chapters 30-34 of the Book of Alma, in the Book of Mormon. Significantly, in the earliest version of the Book of Mormon, these chapters comprised a single chapter 16, some 261 verses long. Subsequent editions broke this and other lengthy sections into smaller units and renumbered some of the verses. This has the effect of somewhat dissociating parts of what reads more as a single narrative in the original long chapter. There were also some changes in the wording, as for example at 16.78 || 31.1, where “dumb idols, etc.” [sic!] became simply “dumb idols”. How significant any of these changes are would take more study than I’m interested in doing, but in any case we can use the current version on the official website of the Salt Lake Mormons, the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”.


In keeping with my theory that Smith was responding to people or contexts that he was actually encountering as he was writing his book, the figure of “Korihor” in Alma 30 reads well enough as someone (or as a composite of people) whom Smith and his followers encountered in real life as they spread their message within the somewhat narrow theological horizons of frontier America in the 1820s. Korihor (y’gotta love Smith’s onomastic imagination, even though the names he invents are only randomly Hebrew-like)— denied the existence of God, not in an abstract, philosophical sense, so much as the god of prophecies. One can imagine just such homespun American skeptics, or perhaps Roman Catholics, within Smith’s horizon.

Prophecy was always a hot topic in Protestantism, particularly in its American flavors. It really wasn’t until well into the development of historical critical studies that people who read the Bible could appreciate its prophets as addressing their own contemporaries. Surely these are the End Times, and surely God’s Word the Bible is addressed to Us! Like most Americans, Smith and his followers rarely showed much interest in scholastic arguments about God’s existence, but the idea that the Bible contains important “predictions” about the End Times and America’s role in them has always been a matter of intense and abiding concern. Indeed, Smith was founding precisely a church of “saints” for “these latter days”— that is, for the times not long before the return of Christ. Mormonism isn’t too millennial any more, however much it ever was, but the Book of Mormon reflects the preoccupations of Smith’s milieu as in a mirror, and (since they haven’t changed much) general American notions of religion even today.

Unlike his near-contemporaries Ellen G White and her Seventh-Day Adventists, or Charles Taze Russell and his Jehovah’s Witnesses, Smith didn’t emphasize or attempt to discern the prophetic future; instead, he set forth a prophetic past whose key predictions had already come to pass. Thus in one stroke his book avoids the “Great Disappointments” and failed eschatons of his contemporary End-Times enthusiasts, and even points to the present as its own proof! Smith thus becomes the first “prophet, seer, and revelator” of a new, fully American Christianity, with its own American Bible— if you can accept it.

But the problem precisely is, “if you can accept it”— that is, “faith”. That’s a problem that has become all the more acute today, of course, because Smith could not and did not anticipate, as he peered through his “seer-stones” (allegedly the fabled “Urim” and “Thummim” oracle pieces of biblical antiquity, though actually quite different from them) at the past that played itself out in colorful visions at the bottom of his hat, the rise of scientific archaeology both in the Middle East and in the Americas, or the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics and of the Semitic and Native American genomes. So although the ploy of locating his “prophecies” in the past, about a past that actually did happen, his story of the settling of America has ended up faring no better than White or Russell’s calculations of the future. Thus not surprisingly, the question of faith has become quite acute in contemporary Mormonism. How indeed to keep “believing” in something that has been so thoroughly discredited, from so many angles?

All the more reason to read the sequence that begins with the story of Korihor the unbeliever and Anti-Christ, then, for here Smith deals with the problem of religious knowledge— that is, with the relation of knowledge to faith— and does so from several different angles.

Many people in Smith’s world accepted the notion that the Bible was full of prophecies, but they doubted Smith’s prophecies; others (for instance, Roman Catholics or Episcopalians) would have pooh-poohed the idea of “prophecies” addressed to our time altogether; the Bible predicted Christ, but not America. Korihor, like many who refused to join Smith’s new sect 2000 years “after” the events in the Book of Mormon, denied generally that prophecies were true and that anyone could know the future. Of course, Smith’s reader knows that Korihor, who lived some centuries before Christ, was wrong because Christ did come. So— do the messianic events that proved Isaiah reliable, confirm the book’s New World prophecies as well?

Now, everybody knows that Christ came. But without actual knowledge of the American past apart from Smith’s book, how indeed would you know whether Korihor and the past he belonged to actually happened? And, given that you couldn’t actually know about that, in Smith’s day, on the basis of archaeology, genetics, or whatnot— on what basis would you then believe it? I don’t know enough about American religious history that I can point to any specific early-nineteenth-century Richard Dawkins that Smith might have encountered, whether in person or in print. But the Korihor story itself attests to the fact that Smith felt a need to respond to “atheist” objections such as Korihor’s, that occasionally did rile the hearts and minds of the frontier faithful. I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know if there’s a discernable match between Korihor and any of Smith’s known encounters.

Korihor sometimes seems to express a kind of generic atheism, but his objections are never purely philosophical. For him, the real issue is always prophecy. The God in doubt is always the God who stands behind prophecy. The prophecies Korihor doubted have been proven by the coming of Christ. So faith in all of that is on one level. But regarding faith in Smith’s book, most Mormons I’ve known have said that you have to pray and get a “testimony”, which will be God’s own confirmation of truth in your heart. Yet the question of faith and evidence apparently remained strong enough that Smith had to write the Korihor sequence, in which Korihor and the punishment he receives at the behest of Alma, “the chief judge who was governor over all the land” (Alma 30) serves as an illustration of unbelief, and an extended account of Alma’s subsequent mission to the Zoramites (Alma 31-34) serves as an illustration of belief. But although, unlike Korihor, the Zoramites want to believe, they seem to have some doubts as to how to do so. In these chapters, Alma and his brother Amulek (and Smith behind them) deal with the question of religious epistemology directly.

Korihor’s story is one of a number of narratives in the Book of Mormon in which characters who doubt a prophet receive stern comeuppance. When I first read the Book of Mormon a long time ago, my main impression was that again and again a prophet (in some cases, a prophet named Joseph!) makes predictions, encounters opposition, and threatens the recalcitrant(s) with divine wrath; whereupon the naysayers either repent, and the story moves on; or they do not, and he calls down, as it were, fire from heaven; and the cycle repeats. That ever-present threat of divine rebuke for unbelief in prediction, is pretty much the content of the Korihor episode. Smith’s readers know that Christ really did come, so a further question becomes inevitable: Do the threats carried out against those who refused to believe the prophets in the BofM apply to us, if we reject Smith and his new religion? The story of Korihor seems to suggest that they would. The story of the Zoramites thus teaches how we can avoid them.

Psychologist James Fowler points out in his Stages of Faith (google it) that spiritally, despite their sophistication in other areas, most people never develop a faith that goes much beyond the authoritarianism of their early teen years— which is why, ludicrous as it might seem, “authoritative” “prophecies” and threats of punishment actually work among large segments of the populace even today. As long as the leader is charismatic and people fear that his or her predictions might come true, they’re ready to drink the Kool-Aid.


In Alma 30, Korihor arrives and starts spouting confusion among the (post-) “Hebrew” tribes of the American frontier:

30.6 there came a man into the land of Zarahemla, and he was Anti-Christ, for he began to preach unto the people against the prophecies which had been spoken by the prophets, concerning the coming of Christ.

The narrator steps back a moment and comments on the legal background of Korihor’s preaching:

7 Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.

8 For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.

9 Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.

In case anyone still entertains the notion that the Book of Mormon has to do with any “Lost Tribes of Israel”, let me point out that this notion is already put to rest right here. Already this is a piece of pure Americana. The Old Testament was had quite explicit “laws against a man’s belief”, including this one, as important as it is well-known:

I am Yhwh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You shall have no other gods before Me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.

You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,

but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Ex 20.2-6)

But more deeply, for the Bible, religion isn’t a matter of “belief” at all. You worship the god of your own people. Solomon built temples for his foreign wives in Jerusalem precisely so they could worship their own gods. Christianity, when it came, proclaimed a single God who superseded all the national cults, but it did not seek to enact “laws against a man’s belief” until half a millennium later. But Smith’s story seems to assume a plurality of religions— precisely that of 19th century America. And this is true even though the land in the America of his story is populated only by post-“Hebrew” tribes. There is only one god, and individuals might “desire to serve” him or not. So land of Korihor and Alma and their contemporaries is basically upstate New York in 1825. But Korihor’s American-style freedom will turn out to be someting less than inalienable, in Smith’s supposedly pre-Columbian Neverneverland.

12 And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. And after this manner did he preach, saying:

13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.

14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.

Christ, of course, is in the future of the story, but in the past of its readers. To deny Christ in the story is to deny prophecy, but for the reader to side with Korihor’s denial would not only be to deny Christ but to deny what one already knows to be true.

But Korihor’s main objection seems to be the one that every naysayer would level against End-Times predictions even today:

15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.

Smith’s readers— quite likely End-Times believers already— know, of course, that Korihor is a fool. Christ has already come! But his foolishness leads Korihor to denial even the atonement as well—

16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.

To the narrator, this denial of atonement and remission of sins entailed self-will and lawlessness:

17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.

I’m partly guessing, but the story seems to explain the underlying logic of this, at least in part, when Amulek tells the Zoramites, “he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption” (34.16b). Not to “exercise faith unto repentance” is not to reject an atonement already made, but to deny that there will be an atonement. But if Christ doesn’t make an “eternal atonement”, as is “expedient” “according to the great plan of the Eternal God” (34.9,10,13), nobody else will either, and therefore justice will not be established. So you’d be free to live lawlessly. But that’s only my guess, and this would contradict the idea that “he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice”. It isn’t clear, at least within the bounds of this story, why Korihor’s denial of prophecy and atonement would mean that “whatsoever a man did was no crime” (30.17).

In addition to denying the atonement and promoting immorality, Korihor also denies life after death:

18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms— telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

It’s curious that women are those whom Smith mentions first among those led into such “whoredoms”. But anyway, Korihor peddles his wares among several groups, with the inevitable result that despite the fact that “the law could have no hold upon him” (30.12), he keeps getting arrested and brought before the high priest. At last,

21 …he came over into the land of Gideon, and began to preach unto them also; and here he did not have much success, for he was taken and bound and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land.
22 And it came to pass that the high priest said unto him: Why do ye go about perverting the ways of the Lord? Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings? Why do ye speak against all the prophecies of the holy prophets?

23 Now the high priest’s name was Giddonah.

Korihor responds by listing his objections to Giddonah’s religion (which we can take to be a cypher for frontier Christianity and for Mormonism, insofar as they would agree on the damage that Korihor is doing). He adds to his objection to “the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so” (30.16), an objection also to what we might call (and what frontier Protestants often did call) priestcraft— that priests convince people to follow them by manipulating their superstitions in order to gain control:

And Korihor said unto him: Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words.

24a Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage.

“The traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so” (30.16) are, specifically, prophecy. He doesn’t say that the prophecies aren’t true; he says, “ye do not know that they are true”. And with this assertion, the question of religious epistemology which is really the main thread of the narrative despite the several other objections he mentions, is fully out in the open.

And he insists on it:

24b Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.

But just for good measure, he adds a rejection of the Western (post-Augustinian) notion of Original Sin:

25 Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents.

There are almost too many things to comment on in Korihor’s speech. He denies prophecy (30.15-16), the atonement (30.16-17), and life after death (30.18). He calls prophecy “the foolish traditions of your fathers”, and religion “foolish ordinances… laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and … to keep [people] in ignorance” (30.23). In 30.24, he explicitly claims the American civic value of freedom of/from religion, and in 30.25 he denies Original Sin. 

Despite the archaizing diction, Korihor’s objections are practically a laundry-list of modern “liberal” objections to Christianity. We almost expect him to include creationism, anti-gay crusading, Tea Party politics, and the Right To Life.

Nevertheless, how to know whether prophecy is true is the main issue. He already raised this subject in 30.15, when he demanded, “How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.” He repeats it in 30.24b: “Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.” And he comes back to it in 30.26, where he not only denies that one can know for sure that a Christ will even exist, much less come and atone for the sins of the world:

26 And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world—

The priests claim to know the future and other “foolish traditions” only in order to control people and to profit from them:

27 And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges.

—”They durst not enjoy their rights and privileges“— well, this is an American story, to be sure!

—(And, btw, “durst” is an archaic past tense of “dare”— so Korihor/Smith is saying, “ye lead away this people… that they dared not look up…”. Smith never quite understands Elizabethan English. You may have already noted that he uses ‘ye’ for both singular and plural.)—

28 Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God— a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

Korihor’s charge of priestcraft clearly paraphrases boilerplate anti-Catholic tract material. On this reading, Korihor seems to view Giddonah’s religion— i.e., his fictive “proto-Mormonism”— as a kind of Catholicism (he is, after all, a priest).

But Korihor is not just an anticlericalist. He has transgressed into outright atheism. To profit from them, priests yoke people to “some unknown being, who they say is God— a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be” (30.28). Korihor is a full-blow Freethinker. This is a little startling, though, for two reasons. First, given the fact that we usually envision frontier America as filled with sturdy Bible-believing Methodists or some such, we don’t expect Smith to have to deal with such brash irreligion. But Korihor’s atheism also seems a bit out of place in a narrative that doesn’t otherwise deal with God in the abstract. But in just a few verses, the high priest and chief judge Alma will show that he understands Korihor’s denial of God existence with denial of (prophecy of Christ). The god denied in this tale about the nature of religious knowledge is always the god of prophecy.

As an endless pastiche of Bible verses, Christian tracts, half-remembered Protestant theologems, American law and culture, pseudo-Elizabethan language, “ancient” context, and speculation about the origins of the Native Americans, the Book of Mormon is very postmodern. Or rather, Smith’s tale of freedom of/from religion, denial of prophecy (which is equivalent to denial of Christ), objection to “tradition”, repudiation of priestcraft and original sin, disavowal of life after death, and outright atheism— and of religion’s response to all this— not only casts Korihor as the very image of an American sceptic, but unveils the Master Narrative of Western Christian culture just as it breaks its axle on the stony ground of the New World. And by presenting his story as “sacred scripture”, Smith himself is actually making the very tracks he’s trying to cover by showing how wrong Korihor is. Smith is not only creating in Korihor a homespun portrait of the freethinking, critical persona he’s encountering on America’s frontier, but a portrait at the same time of himself as Korihor the charlatan. How will Korihor’s Joseph Smith deal with Joseph Smith’s Korihor?

Well, apparently the great religious freedom that Korihor could take for granted in frontier America— “and the law could have no hold upon him”, 30.12— he has well and truly used up. When he denies the existence of God, Giddonah the high priest has him arrested anew, and hauls him to Zarahemla, where he must appear before the State:

29 Now when the high priest and the chief judge saw the hardness of his heart, yea, when they saw that he would revile even against God [—and remember: this is the god of prophecy—], they would not make any reply to his words; but they caused that he should be bound; and they delivered him up into the hands of the officers, and sent him to the land of Zarahemla, that he might be brought before Alma, and the chief judge who was governor over all the land.

Interrogated by Alma, Korihor again insists, with “great swelling words” that Alma, the priests, and the teachers are leading people astray only “for the sake of glutting on [their] labors”. Alma denies this, saying that he has “never received so much as even one senine for my labor; neither has any of my brethren, save it were in the judgment-seat; and then we have received only according to law for our time” (30.33). But Korihor doesn’t believe him (30.36), and the episode degenerates into something of a tit-for-tat— Korihor accuses Giddonah and Alma of believing without evidence in God who can’t be seen and doesn’t exist (30.15,24b,26,28). Giddonah says that Korihor himself actually has the same evidence that he does, in the form of a “testimony” by “all things” that God exists and the prophecies are true (30.41). Korihor requires proof of Alma’s testimony that there is a God, and Alma requires him to prove there isn’t one:

39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.

40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.

41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?

42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.

Korihor is possessed!

But what “testimony” is Korihor denying?

For the Book of Mormon, as for the American frontier Protestantism upon which it feeds, belief in the God of prophecy means belief in predictions. To believe in the predictions is to believe in God, and conversely, to believe in God is to believe in predictions. Korihor precisely and consistently denies both the predictions and the supposed “God” behind them.

Now, as we’ve said, for the characters in the Book of Mormon, “Christ shall come” refers to Jesus, who came in the reader’s past. S/he already knows that Christ has come, just as predicted in the Old Testament. Thus the Old Testament, together with the New, is a proven and reliable predictor of our own future. Smith’s narrative also contains narratives of predictions of the coming of Christ; so it too is at least potentially reliable. In the Book of Mormon, “Christ shall come” also means, “shall come to America” after his ascension, to establish his true religion on American soil. Since there’s no question that Christ came in accordance with prophecy, the question now is only whether the events described in Smith’s book really happened.

But Korihor, in the pre-Christ past of the Book of Mormon, demands a sign:

 43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.

“Power”, of course, means power to bring the prophecies of Christ to pass in the future, but this would have to be shown by some other display of power in the present.

 44a But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee…

That prophets prophesied is sign enough that prophecies are true! but if that’s not enough,

44b …yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

This seems like a variant of the cosmological argument— but do “all things” prophecy “that Christ cometh”? This is precisely Alma’s claim. He has said, “What evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? … I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony” (30.39-40). He is not proving the God of the philosopher, but the God of the prophets.

45 And yet do ye go about, leading away the hearts of this people, testifying unto them there is no God? And yet will ye deny against all these witnesses?

And he said: Yea, I will deny, except ye shall show me a sign.

Exasperated, Alma prophesies that God will strike him dumb if he says another word:

47 …behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction, by thy lying and by thy flattering words; therefore if thou shalt deny again, behold God shall smite thee, that thou shalt become dumb, that thou shalt never open thy mouth any more, that thou shalt not deceive this people any more.

It’s worth savoring that statement a moment: “It is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction”.

You need to die, because your demand for a sign really disturbs us.

At this, Korihor becomes surprisingly meek. He doesn’t deny God; he just continues to insist on proof:

48 …I do not deny… but I do not believe… and I say also, that ye do not know… and unless ye show me… I will not believe.

Even though Alma thinks he has a lying spirit, Korihor actually seems quite sincere. It’s interesting, in fact, how this exchange tracks certain verses in John’s gospel. Compare “behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction” (30.47) with “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (Jn 11.50). Korihor is supposed to be the bad guy, but Alma’s rhetoric casts him in the role of Christ— and that makes Alma and the other high priests into Annas, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin. Korihor’s plaintive “Unless ye show me… I will not believe” (30.48) also recalls Thomas, who said, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20.25). The risen Christ assuaged his unbelief by allowing him to put his hand into his side— with precisely the result that Korihor seeks, when Thomas cried, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20.24-28). That is all Korihor is asking for. We cannot but feel sympathetic, and we hope that somehow he will get his answer.

And get his answer he does. Alma proves the existence of the God of prophecy by striking Korihor dumb:

 49 …This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.

50 Now when Alma had said these words, Korihor was struck dumb, that he could not have utterance, according to the words of Alma.

And yet again, oddly, Alma’s prophecy casts Korihor in the role of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, whose tongue the angel bound until John was born, precisely because he asked for a sign: “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Lk 1.20)— but Zechariah seems unable to speak because of joy, not because of punishment.

Moreover, still as in the story of Zecharias, the narrator assumes that Korihor has been struck deaf as well (cf Lk 1.62-63), because the “chief judge” (not Alma this time, even though Alma was said to be “the chief judge who was governor over all the land” in 30.29)

51 … put forth his hand and wrote unto Korihor, saying: Art thou convinced of the power of God? In whom did ye desire that Alma should show forth his sign? Would ye that he should afflict others, to show unto thee a sign? Behold, he has showed unto you a sign; and now will ye dispute more?

This seems to assume that the only sign God would give is a chastisement. Speechless Korihor then writes back and fesses up:

52 … I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.

53 But, behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me, Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray… and for this cause, I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.

He also begs Alma to pray that the curse be lifted (30.54). But Alma refuses, even though Korihor has recognized his error, and expressed remorse and repentance:

55 …If this curse should be taken from thee thou wouldst again lead away the hearts of this people.

Nothing here about forgiving “seventy times seven times” (Mt 18.22)! Korihor is reduced to beggary (30.56), and the narrator takes up one last time the issue of religious knowledge from the standpoint of the victors:

57 Now the knowledge of what had happened unto Korihor was immediately published throughout all the land; yea, the proclamation was sent forth by the chief judge to all the people in the land, declaring unto those who had believed in the words of Korihor that they must speedily repent, lest the same judgments would come unto them.

How do you know that there is a God and that Christ will come? Because someone who denied it was silenced and reduced to beggary, and the same will happen to you if you deny it too.

In the end, a faction of Zoramites, followers of a man named Zoram, end up trampling Korihor the speechless beggar to death for some reason unspecified (30.58-59). The narrator then steps back and delivers the Moral Of The Story:

60 And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.

Just so! And as for you, faithful reader— ask questions, and the church authorities will make sure you never talk again; you might even be killed. (And those became real threats in Smith’s Mormondom).


Korihor’s story has raised the question of belief and settled it in terms of authority. But this is not a satisfactory answer, and so, despite the apparent ending we’ve just seen, there follows another long account that raises the question of religious knowledge once again, but answering it this time in terms of an epistemology of faith as such.

The episode opens as Alma learns of what Korihor’s killers, the Zoramites, are up to:

31.1 Now it came to pass that after the end of Korihor, Alma having received tidings that the Zoramites were perverting the ways of the Lord, and that Zoram, who was their leader, was leading the hearts of the people to bow down to dumb idols, his heart again began to sicken because of the iniquity of the people.

As the story progresses, though, it turns out to say nothing about “idols, etc” (as the original version put it, at 16.78), and the Zoramites are not otherwise described as idolaters. Rather, they are introduced as “dissenters from the Nephites” (31.8). The issue here is dissent, though as we will see, nothing is said of their actual argument with the Nephites. The story on depicts the peculiar form of the religious practice they have evolved; this will invite our consideration, but eventually the focus moves to a group of Zoramite outcasts who are excluded from regular Zoramite worship, which receives no further mention. Alma and his brother Amulek then teach the outcasts about the nature of faith. We should still keep in mind that “faith” still means, above all, faith in prophecy.

Upon hearing of the Zoramites’ heretical doings, Alma gathers a band of brethren and missionaries and travels to “Antionum”, where the Zoramites have “gathered themselves” (31.3). There he discovers that they have developed a remarkable new religion, which features “synagogues” built around a curious construction called a “Rameumptom” (31.21). Here is the full description of the new religion and its ritual:

31.12 Now, when they had come into the land, behold, to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which day they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld;

13 For they had a place built up in the center of their synagogue, a place for standing, which was high above the head; and the top thereof would only admit one person.

14 Therefore, whosoever desired to worship must go forth and stand upon the top thereof, and stretch forth his hands towards heaven, and cry with a loud voice, saying:

15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.

16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.

17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.

18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.

19 Now it came to pass that after Alma and his brethren and his sons had heard these prayers, they were astonished beyond all measure.

20 For behold, every man did go forth and offer up these same prayers.

21 Now the place was called by them Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand.

22 Now, from this stand they did offer up, every man, the selfsame prayer unto God, thanking their God that they were chosen of him, and that he did not lead them away after the tradition of their brethren, and that their hearts were not stolen away to believe in things to come, which they knew nothing about.

23 Now, after the people had all offered up thanks after this manner, they returned to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand, to offer up thanks after their manner.

Aspects of the story— “synagogues”, “day of the Lord” (= Sabbath), the prayer “Holy, holy God”, denial of the “Christ”, the assertion “we are a chosen and a holy people”, wealth, etc— remind one of the Jews, and it would be interesting to know whether and to what extent Smith had any contact with Judaism prior to 1830, when he published the Book of Mormon. Certainly, after publishing it, Smith and his associates did take a few weeks of Hebrew lessons from a certain Professor Seixas, who may have had some connection with Oberlin. If there is a Jewish background to this story, then Smith’s image of  “a place for standing, which was high above the head; and the top thereof would only admit one person, who would pray in gratitude for being one of the chosen” (31.13) would caricature the Bema of a Jewish synagogue.

But this archaeology is less interesting than the fact that, in any case, the rite he describes— the fact that the top of the “Rameumptom” would only admit one person, and exalts him above all others, the “spiritual” worship, “that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren” (31.16)— provides a rather canny, if hilarious image not of Judaism so much as of American Protestant religious individualism, which surely must have presented in both institutional or personal forms a constant problem for Smith and his missionaries, even if Smith himself exemplifies it in spades.

But above all, the prayer of the “Rameumptom” raises Korihor’s issues once again— denial of prophecies, “that there shall be no Christ”, disbelief in “things to come”, and so forth. But Korihor was an atheist, or at least an agnostic, or maybe a free thinker. The Zoramites actually do believe in God; they just believe (wrongly) that he’s a pure spirit and does not support prophecy. Moreover, most of them are wealthy and hence little interested in true religion. They are content to “return to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand” (31.23).

But the missionaries begin “to have success among the poor class of people”, who have been cast out of the Zoramite synagogues “because of the coarseness of their apparel” (32.2). When this begins to happen, Alma stops trying to win over the wealthy, and focuses exclusively on these simpler brethren (32.3-7), flattering them in their poverty (32.8-16). One cannot help thinking this is a description of Smith’s own missionary journey, just as it was and is of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists and other such sects today. An unfriendly commentator might say they were preying on the weaker sheep.

Alma delivers a remarkable monologue to his outcast Zoramite inquirers. It’s worth reading carefully, even though the wording is convoluted and the logic sometimes a little sketchy. He begins by comparing poor men, who sometimes “seek repentance” and find mercy, with those who don’t have to “seek repentance”, but do it anyway because they believe in the word of God. The latter are better off:

13 And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.

14 And now, as I said unto you, that because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed, do ye not suppose that they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word?

15 Yea, he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessed— yea, much more blessed than they who are compelled to be humble because of their exceeding poverty.

This seems a little strange, because repentance actually has nothing to do with material wealth or poverty, but with recognition of one’s sinfulness and a desire to return to God. Poverty may indeed, as Alma suggests, bring you to your knees, but the gospels give no indication that a wealthy man like Matthew the tax-collector was any better off than a poor man like Peter, after they’d both met Jesus.

But Alma is not actually addressing rich men; he’s trying to persuade poor men to believe even though they don’t know much at all:

16 Therefore, blessed are they who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble; or rather, in other words, blessed is he that believeth in the word of God, and is baptized without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know, before they will believe.

In other words, blessed are those who join without really understanding too much of the message.

Now, “there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe” (32.17). Alma raises the very issue that got Korihor killed. Alma indeed claimed, “I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come” (30.47), but Korihor had put his finger on the problem: “show me” (30.48), and for that, he was struck dumb.

Korihor served as an example of one “who perverteth the ways of the Lord” (30.60), and of what church authorities might do with dissenters. But at least in the early days, Smith’s dissenters weren’t actually being struck dumb, so the narrative has to address the question of faith in itself. The Zoramites afford Alma an opportunity to do so on his terms.

Alma begins by denying that faith has anything to do with a desire to know, because knowledge is not the same as faith, and to “seek repentance”, we apparently need faith, not knowledge:

17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.

18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

This somewhat echoes Rm 8.24— “we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for [it]?”, and  2Co 5.7, “we walk by faith, not by sight”. But this background only obscures what’s being said. Korihor, and now presumably the Zoramites, have demanded a sign, and Alma explains, That’s not faith; because knowledge and faith are logically incompatible! Alma exaggerates St Paul’s point. Despite the fact that he repeatedly claimed to “know”, he seems to want to drive a wedge between faith and knowledge.

The Zoramites don’t (yet) believe, and they want to know why they should. Alma actually begged this very question when Korihor asked it (30.44-45). Alma again asserts that knowing is not faith, and indeed, knowing might even get you into trouble:

18b …if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

19 Now how much more cursed is he that knoweth the will of God and doeth it not, than he that only believeth, or only hath cause to believe, and falleth into transgression?

Better, then, not to know, but just to believe! Alma then adds,

Behold, I say unto you, that it is on the one hand even as it is on the other; and it shall be unto every man according to his work.

—which I take to mean that whether you know or not, you’ll get your due reward. But (getting back to faith itself)—

21 … faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

Well, or at least you hope they are, anyway— for how indeed would you know? Which puts us back where we started. But at least we know that faith is hoping that things you have no evidence for, are true!

For St Paul, hope is confidence in someone reliable, not a wish or a desire that something would turn out to be the case. In fact the word elpis (ἐλπίς) can often be translated as ‘confidence’. But the key point is that this confidence is always placed in a person, not in a prediction. For Alma, faith seems to be the belief, or at least the earnest wish or desire, that the prophecies, and the scriptures more broadly, are true. And about these, God apparently wants you to “believe” not actually to “know”:

22 …God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word.

The primary object of belief is the “word”. Elsewhere this has more or less been equivalent to the prophecy that there will be a Christ, and it’s not surprising that Alma brings up the topic of prophecy here:

23 And now, he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned.

24 And now, my beloved brethren, as ye have desired to know of me what ye shall do because ye are afflicted and cast out— now I do not desire that ye should suppose that I mean to judge you only according to that which is true—

—evidently meaning that he’s not looking at their poverty, simplicity, and meekness, with intent to take advantage of them—

25 For I do not mean that ye all of you have been compelled to humble yourselves; for I verily believe that there are some among you who would humble themselves, let them be in whatsoever circumstances they might.

—and here he begins to describe how the humble submission of faith actually works.

Since knowing is not the same as believing, the Zoramites can’t know the certainty of his words— but they can start with just a small “portion” of what he’s saying, and “exercise a particle of faith” upon it, or at least just exercise the “desire to believe”:

26 Now, as I said concerning faith— that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

Basically, you have to manufacture belief by trying to believe, even though there’s no reason to do so.

28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves— It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

As he compares this “desire to believe” to nurturing a seed, it’s easy to overlook the fact that although your faith is increasing, your knowledge is not. The word just “begins to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions”, you say, This is good!

It’s hard to get past the metaphor here, and return to its referent, because Alma has driven that wedge between faith and knowledge. Nothing he has said so far suggests knowledge of any kind. But he does now suggest that the word “beginneth to enlighten my understanding”, although he immediately restates this as, “yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me”. So apparently trying to believe the word results in understanding, and understanding results in a feeling of “deliciousness”, or appreciation.

So faith works like this: You hear the word, you find some small “portion” that you can “exercise a particle of faith” on, or rather, a “desire to believe”. You try to develop this until you begin to feel that it’s “delicious”.

29a …would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea;…

Yet Alma has to admit—

29b …nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

Still, because you’ve begun to feel that the word is “delicious”, that is, because you’ve begun to appreciate it on some level, you believe more. And since faith is what you’re looking for, not knowledge, this is ok!

30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

The effort to believe pays off— in belief! Your faith is based on— the desire for faith! You say, “This is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow”!

31 And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.

You’ve begun to believe, and yet there still seems to be an element of doubt— “Are ye sure?” It is, because the seed was good. And why was the seed good? because seed, when it sprouts, is good (32.28). Or, to restate the matter more fully,

32 if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.

33 And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

Remember, in the context of Alma 30-34, “faith” is always faith in prophecy, or in the God of prophecy. But do you really know that the prophecy is true? Alma has admitted that this an impossibility (32.18,21). But you’ve built the “desire to believe” (32.27) into belief!

In fact at this point you can even tell yourself that your knowledge is “perfect”, at least as far as “that thing” goes— presumably, the small “portion” of the word that you were trying to believe.

34 And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

“Faith” is “dormant”, because you’ve convinced yourself.

35a O then, is not this real? 

Alma asks. This is apparently the “knowledge” that he and Giddonah claimed they actually had, which Korihor refused to accept.

35b I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?

But actually your knowledge is perfect only insofar as you’ve convinced yourself; you do actually have to keep believing and (as they say) “developing your testimony”.

36 Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.

37 And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. …

40 [Otherwise], …ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life.

So then!—

42 … because of your diligence, and your faith, and your patience with the word, in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by, ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white; yea, and pure above all that is pure; And ye shall feast upon this fruit, even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst..

And who wouldn’t want that?

So knowledge that the word of prophecy and of Mormon teaching is true is based on hoping and trying to believe that it’s true.

Well, this can’t possibly be satisfying, and in Alma 33, unsurprisingly, the Zoramites want to know how they can plant the seed (33.1).

Alma first returns to the fact that the Zoramite poor have been cast out of their synagogues. They should realize that God will hear them in any place and at any time they turn to him (33.2-11). They don’t need synagogues. He then asks, “Do ye believe those scriptures which have been written by them of old?” (33.12). For the characters in the story, “those scriptures” are the writings of Moses and a number of other prophets who are known only in the pages of the Book of Mormon. For Smith’s readers, however, this would be the writers of the Bible. If you believe them, then how could you possibly disbelieve Alma? (30.14). As Alma asks the Zoramites to trust him, Smith asks the reader to believe his book.

The Zoramites are invited to believe that Christ will come because the scriptures prophecy that he will. In 19th century America, Smith’s readers already know that Christ came as prophesied, and also believe that Christ will come again because the Bible says he will. But the question is, can they believe that Christ came to America?

The Zoramites want to know how they should plant the seed (33.1), and Alma answers, “begin to believe in the Son of God” (33.22), and “plant the word in your heart” (33.23). And since the reader is already likely to “believe in the Son of God”, it’s only a question of “planting the word” that Alma— that is, the Book of Mormon— is teaching. Surely it’s in continuity with the scriptures already familiar!

Alma then sits down and his brother Amulek takes up not the issue of prophecy as such, but of its content— “that there shall be a Christ”, and the nature of his atonement:

5 …we have beheld that the great question which is in your minds is whether the word be in the Son of God, or whether there shall be no Christ.

This was the question of Korihor, and then of the impoverished Zoramites in the story. Since the ideal reader identifies with them, it becomes his/her question also. But the American frontier Christian who picks up the Book of Mormon and reads it already believes that “the word be in the Son of God”, and that there was a Christ. Would denying the Book of Mormon mean denying Christ?

7 My brother has called upon the words of Zenos, that redemption cometh through the Son of God, and also upon the words of Zenock; and also he has appealed unto Moses, to prove that these things are true.

The reader also already believes that the Old Testament (“Moses”) spoke of Christ; now he hears of other prophets who say the same. Amulek affirms that they’re trustworthy:

8 And now, behold, I will testify unto you of myself that these things are true. Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.

Amulek aligns himself with the reader’s beliefs. Smith the missionary’s question is thus: “If you already believe in Bible prophecies, why wouldn’t you believe in my prophecies, since I too am aligned with the Bible you already believe it?

After all, faith is a matter of “believing”— that is, of hoping— that certain concepts, predictions, scriptures, and authorities are true, and convincing oneself that they are. You start with some small “portion” of “my words” that you can accept, and build out from there.

Korihor begged for mercy but died a miserable death at the end of Alma 30 because of his unbelief, even though he repented. But this doesn’t have to be your fate.

Amulek then points to the story of the bronze serpent that Moses erected in the wilderness, in order to save those who had grumbled against God and were being chastised by a plague of fiery serpents:

Nm 21.8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

The biblical text stresses salvation, even repeating that “if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Nm 21.9). Amulek, however, turns it into a story of condemnation, for he asserts that “there were many which were so hardened that they would not look; therefore they perished… because they did not believe…” (33.19).

Numbers 21 speaks of looking; Amulek speaks of not looking. Moreover, the Israelites saw and were healed, but the Zoramites (and the reader) are told that not seeing but believing will keep them from perishing. The Israelites only had to do was look; all you have to do is “begin to believe…. plant this word in your hearts, and … nourish it by your faith. And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life” (33.23).

But if not, well— “there were many which were so hardened that they would not look; therefore they perished… because they did not believe…” (33.19).

Amulek thus resorts to the same threat of death that Giddonah and Alma issued to Korihor.

When Amulek says, “the great question which is in your minds is whether the word be in the Son of God, or whether there shall be no Christ” (34.5), he goes on to set forth a theory of atonement:

34.8 …I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.

Unless there is an atonement, and  unless you believe in it, you will “perish” (34.9)— such, indeed, was the fate of Korihor (cf 30.60). This is standard Protestant theology, and Smith’s immediate readers would not be inclined to doubt it. Amulek does give the notion of atonement a somewhat unique spin, but most people wouldn’t be so sophisticated as to object to it—

9 For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.

“There has to be an atonement, because all are fallen; therefore there has to be an atonement.” This atonement requires a sacrifice. This is explained by a dazzling display of non sequiturs:

10 For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.

What is this “expedience” that requires an infinite and eternal atonement? Why? Has an infinite and eternal crime been committed?

11 Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.

12a But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered.

If that’s true, then not even a “Christ” can atone for anyone else’s sin. The law is clear. It “requireth the life of him who hath murdered” (34.12). But, Amulek reasons—

12b Therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

How does that conclusion follow from the fact just asserted, that no one can atone for another? 

Well, just never mind. Apparently Smith can’t explain it either, so Amulek skips right over the nonsequitur to the benefits of this infinite atonement, among which is the fact that it offers a way to have faith unto repentance:

34.15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.

16a And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety…

What Amulek lacks in analysis, he here somewhat makes up in sentiment and poetry— and by reiterating his threat:

16b … he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.

All of this strikes me as more than a little garbled, but I take it that it means that there’s an infinite atonement that can satisfy the demands of justice, and that (somehow) it’s a means by which we can believe in it, and that if we don’t, we’ll have to face the demands of justice without it.

What Amulek describes, of course, is a rather confused version of the standard Augustinian-Anselmian-Protestant notions of penal substitutionary atonement and salvation by faith. He inscribes them here somewhat abstractly (i.e., without much explicit reference to Christ) and within the strange notion of faith as the “desire to believe”.

But if indeed no one can sacrifice his own life to atone for another, how indeed does the conclusion that Christ can and indeed “must” offer an infinite atonement for everyone? And if no one has ever committed an infinite and eternal crime, what “expedience” requires an infinite and eternal atonement? And what is the nature of that atonement, except that it is (said to be) “infinite and eternal”?

Smith wrote his book in the backwoods of America, and cannot be expected to show a lot of theological sophistication. This really isn’t much more complicated than a standard evangelistic tract, and indeed looks like little more than an attempt to weave just such “bumper-sticker theology” into his narrative somewhat artificially and without much context. The “infinite and eternal atonement” is just a thing that you have to believe— and in Smith’s early American frontier context, probably most people did, and with no more sophistication than his.

But with the breakdown of Christian culture in our own time, questions about the nature of the atonement of Christ have begun to emerge quite forcefully. Standard Calvinist theology tells us that Jesus saves us from God— an idea not only absurd on the face of it, but one that assumes a really troubling view of the nature of God himself as one who somehow has to murder his only son if his “wrath” is to be “appeased”. Personally, I don’t think this was ever really tenable, and it’s no surprised that it is sustained largely by an anti-intellectual, pietistic, and maudlin dolorism. Anselm and the Reformers had affirmed the need for an infinite sacrifice because they subscribed to mediaeval theories of honor and justice in which the gravity of the offense is measured by the majesty of the one insulted. Since God is infinite, therefore an infinite atonement must be made. That theory might have worked for the Middle Ages, but by the time Smith inherited it, it had become little more than a few relatively unexamined floating around in the American frontier. Thus— precisely as Amulek says— “if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay” (34.11)— Smith pastes a page from a tract he remembers onto an argument he doesn’t understand, and ends up actually demonstrating the logic of Korihor’s demand, bless his heart—

Prove it! Or at least, explain it, in a way that makes sense!

Smith can’t do this, and doesn’t really try. But precisely because its illogic demands “belief” (since it really doesn’t make sense, he tries to exploit its familiarity precisely as a “means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance” (34.15)— that is, as a point of entry into his own “revelation”. If people can convince themselves of penal substitutionary atonement, then they can convince themselves that the absurdities and threats of the Book of Mormon also make sense.

Amulek exhorts the Zoramites to exercise this faith, to call upon God, and not to forget the needy (34.17-31)… all in view of our impending mortality (34.32-33), because— and here is the threat again— “that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world” (34.34). The reader recalls the accursed “Anti-Christ” (30.6) Korihor’s punishment, and the “lying spirit” that possessed him (30.37)! You wouldn’t want that, so maybe you’ll try and see if the Book of Mormon is true. Smith has shown you how. Start with a “portion” of what he says— perhaps the part about the Atonement which (as a Protestant on the American frontier) you already more or less believe— and “exercise a particle of faith” upon it, with the “desire to believe”, and you’ll sorta go with it. And bit by bit you can convince yourself.

Then “that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world”.


This whole series of chapters (which were one single chapter/narrative in the original) is a record of a (rather unsuccessful) wrestling with what “faith” has become in our culture. “Faith” means “believing stuff”. Within the world of the story, these “beliefs” amount to an assent “that there is a God” of prophecy (30.37-39), who has given predictions of a “Christ” who “shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and … atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it” (34.8). Korihor brought an unfriendly demand for proof of this, and was punished for unbelief; the Zoramites brought a friendly demand, and were instructed in the “means… that they may have faith”, which is just to convince yourself little by little until you have a “testimony” of it. In both cases, a dire threat hangs over the reader. If the story of Korihor and the Zoramites is true— even just symbolically— we live in a world where we must convince ourselves of absurdities or be damned forever.

If Joseph Smith was aware that he was making up this story— as he had to be, since there were no golden plates, nor later any “words of Abraham”— and that his Nephites and Lamanites never existed, he was a charlatan. The conclusion is inescapable. But I wonder how much he was aware of how deeply absurd his theory of religious knowledge could have been. The Lutheran-Calvinist model of the atonement was everywhere taken for granted, and Amulek’s presentation simply reproduces conventional ideas in rather abbreviated form. Moreover, even today, believers and non-believers alike often take for granted that “religion” is precisely about “believing” in this model in precisely this way.

That’s why Alma’s discussion with Korihor and most discussions between believers and non-believers on the internet inevitably devolve to whether we can “prove” the “existence of God” or not, whether we can “prove” the Bible or not, or the Book of Mormon. People seem to have trouble conceiving of “religion” (let alone “Christianity”) in terms other than authoritarian “belief structures”. It can’t possibly be a matter of experience, though it may be a matter of “experiences” like “the swelling between my bosoms”. But “experiences” are not enough. I see people abandoning Joseph Smith even faster than the Christianity he mimicked and depended on.

Could there even be another kind of Christianity?


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