Sunday, September 30, 2007

The "Mormon Transhumanist" Problem

There is a strange little group who call themselves Mormon Transhumanist Association that believe in the enhancement of humanity through technology. It isn't just increasing what we are able to do with technology, but changing the human body. One explanation of the movement from wikipedia is:

Transhumanism (sometimes symbolized by >H or H+) is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of new sciences and technologies to enhance human mental and physical abilities and aptitudes, and ameliorate what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as stupidity, suffering, disease, aging and involuntary death. Transhumanist thinkers study the possibilities and consequences of developing and using human enhancement techniques and other emerging technologies for these purposes. Possible dangers, as well as benefits, of powerful new technologies that might radically change the conditions of human life are also of concern to the transhumanist movement.

Although the first known use of the term "transhumanism" dates from 1957, the contemporary meaning is a product of the 1980s, when a group of scientists, artists, and futurists based in the United States began to organize what has since grown into the transhumanist movement. Transhumanist thinkers postulate that human beings will eventually be transformed into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label "posthuman."

A small group of Mormons see this as compatible with the teachings and even mission of the LDS Church. They state as affirmaiton:

(1) We seek the spiritual and physical exaltation of individuals and their anatomies, as well as communities and their environments, according to their wills, desires and laws, to the extent they are not oppressive.

(2) We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.

(3) We feel a duty to use science and technology according to wisdom and inspiration, to identify and prepare for risks and responsibilities associated with future advances, and to persuade others to do likewise.

Despite the good natured introduction of science and technology into Mormon theological understanding of salvation, the movement is flawed. They say they, "seek the spiritual and physical exaltation of individuals," in hopes of enabling God's will. Transhumanism is seen as part of the means to achieve the, "transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end." All noble ideas, but lacking theological grounds.

From Joseph Smith Jr. to the current leadership of the Church, there has been only one way to exaltation and eternal life. It is through Faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Human technology cannot and never will achieve what this group has stated. It is a gross misunderstanding of the gospel.

From the Book of Mormon in Mormon chap. 9:12-13 we learn:

12 Behold, he created Adam, and by Adam came the fall of man. And because of the fall of man came Jesus Christ, even the Father and the Son; and because of Jesus Christ came the redemption of man.

13 And because of the redemption of man, which came by Jesus Christ, they are brought back into the presence of the Lord; yea, this is wherein all men are redeemed, because the death of Christ bringeth to pass the resurrection, which bringeth to pass a redemption from an endless sleep, from which sleep all men shall be awakened by the power of God when the trump shall sound; and they shall come forth, both small and great, and all shall stand before his bar, being redeemed and loosed from this eternal band of death, which death is a temporal death.

Nephi in Second Nephi chap. 25:20 is no less insistant:

20 And now, my brethren, I have spoken plainly that ye cannot err. And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did raise up before them, and also gave him power that he should smite the rock and the water should come forth; yea, behold I say unto you, that as these things are true, and as the Lord God liveth, there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved.

There is no mention of technology enhancements. In every instance the way to salvation is through Faith in Jesus Christ, and only through the Atonement. Interesting enough, there is no mention of this in any of the statements made by those who claim to be part of the Transhumanist movement. The Bible is, of course, just as specific on the topic. Paul states, in First Corinthians, as part of his sermon about the Resurrection:

49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.

50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.

51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all asleep, but we shall all be changed,

52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.

57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Again, there is no slow enhancement of the human body from biotechnological advances. In this description, it is almost an instant transformation at the time of the judgement. When Joseph Smith and others talk about, ". . . going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead . . . (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 346-347), it is a spiritual development. A person must change the inner, and not the outer, self in order to reach perfection. And that is only because of the Grace of God through the Atonement of Jesus Christ available to all.

None of this has questioned the moral implications of biotechnological enhancements. That is an open discussion at this point. Science can and does have a positive value in Mormon metaphysics, often with critics confusing it with materialism. Sadly, it would seem some Mormons are making that mistaken connection as well. The danger is in losing our humanity (the God-like attributes of love, charity, and faith) in the quest for a perfection reserved for the eternities after death. What such physical changes as proposed does to us as spiritual individuals is more important than what it does to our bodies. The resurrection will take care of that later. I am afraid that the Mormon Transhumanists are selling Salvation for bread and pottage of lentiles (Gen. 25: 34) made out of silicon.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Must Read News About Mormons

Here are three of the best news reports about Mormons so far. Two of them are from religious publications and one of them is outside of the United States. What makes them stand out is the amount of accuracy and unbiased information. They treat Mormonism as more than stereotypes. Most importantly, they are insightful and show some respect for the subject. All of these have some connection to Romney's run for U.S. President, as that has sparked the interest of the Press far more than it should.

It still follows too closely to the set paradigms set by other news sources, but Mitt Romney: proudly, quietly Mormon in The Christian Science Monitor personalizes where others have caricatured. Some of the noteworthy paragraphs include:

For three years, from 1982 to 1985, Mr. Romney served as the bishop, or lay pastor, at his church in Belmont, Mass. After that, he served nine years as "stake" president, overseeing about a dozen Boston-area parishes. But it was his time as bishop that gave him the most contact with everyday churchgoers. . .

He says the experience taught him that, despite the sea of happy faces he saw each week at church, everybody faces hardships. That lesson is just as vibrant for him now, as a presidential candidate, traveling the country and addressing crowds.

This could be the only time an LDS Church position was discussed rather than simply mentioned. A Bishop, Stake President, and even the President of the LDS Church are real people who are dealing with real people in the real world. Most of the other news reports have ignored that; and do that even with the leadership of other religions. Another worthy quote is:

But even in that answer, in mentioning Jesus Christ, Romney is treading on sensitive territory. Many Protestants and Roman Catholics do not recognize Mormons as Christian because the church does not adhere to the common view of the Holy Trinity. The Mormon Church, instead, sees God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost as three separate beings – God and Jesus having human form – who collectively make up the Godhead.

This is wonderful. It mentions the specific reasons that other denominations don't believe Mormons are Christians. Any observant reader can realize from this it is a matter of "orthodoxy" that others would find inter-religious bickering. And, best of all, it does not mention the completely false notion that Mormons believe God and Jesus Christ have flesh and blood bodies. Rather, it states the more accurate statement that Mormons believe they have human form that constitute a "Godhead" governing body. Still not a complete statement, but closer to the actual beliefs.

The rest of the news report is mostly about Romney, but touches on the more personal religious life of a Mormon through him. Politics of Romney aside, it is a well rounded report. The other news report Ahead of 'September Dawn,' Mormon Church revisits dark period is equally as well written and fair, not editorializing on any particular side of the story. So far, that makes two better than any other newspaper, including the ones in Utah.

The second read is A Mormon Goes West: The German Apostle that at least recognizes the stereotypes are not a complete picture. It still comes off as slightly condescending toward relgion in general, but has a couple profound statements despite itself. Among the best quotes from the piece are:

And why shouldn't he be doing well? His church now comprises 120,000 members in Japan, he reports, and the number is rising -- not just in Japan but worldwide, from Mexico to Brazil, from Asia to Africa.

This presents a picture of the LDS Church that really is global. Other news reports have said it almost as an afterthought, if they mention it at all. What the article says about the leadership is interesting:

The Mormons take that literally: They view their apostles as prophets in the Biblical sense, as mouthpieces of God, just like in the New Testament. The reference to "Latter-day Saints" in the church's name signifies that its saints are direct successors to Jesus Christ.

Nothing about how other Christians don't believe Mormons belong. They just state how Mormons see themselves. If only that were more common than quoting non-Mormons on what Mormons believe, instead of asking a Latter-day Saint who should know better than others. The insightful examination of leadership authority continues:

Every apostle is a prophet with divine inspiration; each of them is in direct contact with God. But just to be safe, none of them is allowed to turn his own private inspirations into commandments for all the faithful. The 12 can only answer theological questions collectively.

Yes, this is great research. It was much different with Joseph Smith, but a condition that American newspapers don't seem to understand or care about mentioning. That is why the old idea that one leader of the LDS Church can have a new revelation without repercussions is unfounded. There is one thing correct that others get wrong:

the secrecy with which it shrouds the rites celebrated in its temples

It might seem slight, but they point out the "secrecy" is in the rites. Most newspapers talk as if Mormons have everything as a secret. As has been said before, the doctrines are open for anyone who actually takes the time to do research.

There are some things that are completely wrong:

To them, God is a flesh-and-blood being -- married of course.

As was mentioned, this is everywhere and yet is mistaken at best. Then there is:

But the Mormon Church is a church in motion. They are strong believers, and they seek expansion rather than an intensification of their piety.

I'm not even sure that makes sense. At any rate, it is hard to reconcile to a religion that believes in becoming perfect as individuals through faith in Christ.

However, it would be nice if reporters would keep in mind:

There is nothing sophisticated or even intellectual about their faith. Mormons don't strive to harmonize faith and reason, like the pope, any more than they try to develop a theodicy, or a justification of God in the face of worldly misery, like entire armies of theologians from other faiths.

A pinch of Plato (all humans are spiritual beings even prior to birth) plus the Christian Sermon on the Mount and the capricious self-admiration of the first Mormon, Joseph Smith, who said that an angel had appeared to him and led him to a stone case with "golden plates" and ancient characters, which he was able to read using "prophet's spectacles" -- that's all the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expects the faithful to cope with.

The Mormons want their teachings to be that simple, which is why they don't have an elitist body of priests to develop elaborate interpretations of their faith. Theirs is a lay church.

The writer is laying it on a bit too thick, but at least the spirit of the description is on target. It would be nice if other reporters would consider that Mormonism has its complications, but the doctrines are not developed with sophisticated reasoning. It is, after all, a lay church where doctrines are as likely to be populist constructs than dogma.

Finally, there is A Mormon president? The LDS difference from The Christian Century that looks realistically at the political ramifications of Mormon doctrine and personality. For once it is thoughtful more than mere drive-by speculative. It is hard to find any particular quotes when the whole thing is worthy of reading. Some of the most important include:

But even if Romney were to explain his religious beliefs at length, I doubt that most people would feel more at ease. It is hard to imagine that anything Romney says on the subject would be taken at face value by the many Americans already predisposed to be suspicious of the LDS Church.

Regardless of the intention of the writer, I like how this puts the problem on the shoulders of American's with this attitude rather than Romney or the Mormons simply because others are ignorant or fearful.

Variety among Mormons is as common as in many other Christian traditions . . .
The LDS Church itself is only one of dozens of diverse Mormon groups that claim the Book of Mormon as authoritative. Although all share a common core of teachings, the groups range from some that could pass as Unitarian to the polygamist sect led by fundamentalist Warren Jeffs. The LDS Church, by far the largest Mormon communion, falls somewhere between these extremes.

There isn't much else to say. The first step to breaking stereotypes is to recognize there are always differences. And that is what happens with the whole of the article. Basically, what the writer states is that what outsiders have thought about Mormons is more complicated and different in actual practice and insider interpretation. Read this one and find your own good quotes.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Family as Salvation

This is a copy of a post I wrote for "Blogger of Jared."

Many people who hear that "Families can be together forever" recognize it as an important Mormon teaching. It has been said that Mormons were concerned about the concept of "family values" before it became a political catch phrase. There is the vague notion that we are all related to God as sons and daughters, and therefore brothers and sisters to each other. That is the deepest that many Mormons go in understanding eternal relationships.

What is less thought about is exactly how central the family is to the Mormon theology of salvation. It is not just about some kind of cosmic emotional connection to a Higher Power. Rather, the family cements each person to God in a way that goes beyond simple relatedness. The power of the Atonement is fully crystallized when humans become part of a structure patterned after an eternal organization. To not become part of that pre-existing community is to keep from reaching the full potential of the individual. Damnation is to be single, alone, and without family.