Saturday, December 26, 2009

JW Study Meeting #28

Today around 1:00, it was time for the next meeting. When I opened the door for them, Uriah entered with Shem in tow. I hadn't seen Shem in ages, so it was great to see him again, catch up a bit, etc. (Interestingly, Uriah had told another JW at the Kingdom Hall about my meetings with Latter-day Saints while in Greece, and that JW had in turn told Shem, so when Uriah brought it up today, Shem had heard a bit about it but hadn't known it was me involved.)

After meeting a minimal quota of smalltalk (computer stuff, largely), we talked a bit about some decorations in my house, and while we were joking around, Uriah quipped, "You know why the Israelites wondered around for forty years in the wilderness, don'tcha? One of them dropped a quarter." I also showed them a couple knives I brought back from Greece. Uriah also confessed that he has his own bottle of Pepto-Bismol at home because when he isn't feeling so well, he likes to take a few swigs straight from the bottle to help him feel better. That... might explain a lot, actually. Eventually we picked up with some material from the eighth chaper ("What Is God's Kingdom?") in What Does the Bible Really Teach?; we covered pages 76 through 81 today.

Shem promptly started us off with a bang (okay, maybe a befuddled whimper) by remembering that Jesus talks about the kingdom of God in the Lord's Prayer as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew... and then completely drawing a blank on how it went. (After watching his friend struggle with this sudden shutdown of brain activity, Uriah helpfully noted that the relevant quote is on the very first page of the chapter that was open right in front of Shem.) Shem remarked, "Oh my God.... Don't listen to me the rest of the day." Finally, we began with Uriah asking the first question in the chapter header: "What does the Bible tell us about the Kingdom of God?" My answer was:

It tells us a lot of things about it. It tells us what the kingdom of God is, why it's a hope we should-- something we should all be hoping for and praying for, why it's something to look forward to, and why it's the solution to our problems.
After commending the answer, we turned to the second of those questions: "What will God's kingdom do?" My answer, and the subsequent clarifications, ran as follows:

JB: Rule over everything and, again, solve our problems.

Uriah: And when you say "everything", you're including the earth?

JB: Mmhmm.

Uriah: I knew that. We did that one (?) before.

The third question ("When will the kingdom cause God's will to be done on earth?") generated a bit more discussion:

Uriah: "When will the kingdom cause God" [cough]-- sorry, let me start over. "When will the kingdom cause God's will to be done on earth?"

JB: When it comes in its fullness.

Uriah: Right. Right. I was looking for a specific date. [laughs]

Shem: October.

Uriah: October 14th, right, yeah. Of who-knows-what year.

After I read the first paragraph, which introduces the "first three petitions" of the Lord's Prayer, the question was, "What famous prayer will now be examined?" It was a reminder of how elementary the questions in this book are; the questions aren't designed so much to stimulate robust thought as to make sure that the person is following along. The same holds true, at least in my meagre experience, at Watchtower studies held at Kingdom Halls. I made light a bit of the triviality of the question by pretending to be having difficulty figuring it out, which of course gave Shem another opportunity to poke fun at himself for his earlier gaffe:

JB: I forget...

Shem: Don't laugh, I did!

[We all laugh]

JB: I know, and we're still laughing about it! Ahh... the Lord's Prayer.

Uriah: Yeah, I was assuming you knew that one.

Shem then read the second paragraph, which contained the first couple verses (Matthew 6:9-11) of the Lord's Prayer, and it came time for the study question:

Uriah: The next question is just as simple, but, I want to warn you: fifty percent of practising ministers [...] wouldn't get this right. "What were three of the things that Jesus taught his disciples to pray for?"

JB: The first one, in the order of the list in the prayer, is for the name of the Father to be sanctified, to be set apart as holy in the sight of all peoples. The second thing is for the kingdom of God to arrive in its fullness, so that God would truly and visibly be established as ruler over all the earth. And the third thing is for the will of God to be done, for all peoples to be brought into conformity with the will of Jehovah.

Uriah: Absolutely. This chapter is not difficult, but it is going to get into some things like that. I mean, that was easy for you, that was just elementary for you. But fifty percent of ministers would not be able to answer those three questions. Another 25 percent wouldn't believe 'em. Because they just... put too many of their own wants in, irregardless of what Jesus prayed or said.

I read the third paragraph, which narrowed the chapter's focus to the second petition.

Uriah: "What do we need to know about God's Kingdom?"

JB: We need to know what it is, how it relates to the other things Jesus urged us to pray for, and... we need to know-- we need to be able to recognize what its coming might look like. At least [. . .].

Uriah: Okay. There's one more specific point that I'd like you to talk to us-- talk to me about.

JB: Okay...

Uriah: And the reason I want this is because most of the world denies this, but I know that you don't, so this is....

JB: We need to know that it will indeed come upon the earth.

Uriah: Okay. How, uh...-- What do we need to know about God's kingdom as far as Jehovah's name?

JB: We need to know that Jehovah's name must be sanctified in God's kingdom.

From there we got into a brief discussion of the importance of the name of Jehovah, with which I really have little substantial quarrel with Jehovah's Witnesses save that I think that they're rather extreme in their emphasis (though perhaps understandably, to counter a perceived de-emphasis on the part of other groups). Shem then read the fourth paragraph, which basically just said that Jesus is the king of God's kingdom, and Uriah then asked the question:

Uriah: "What is God's Kingdom, and who is its Ruler"-- "who is its King?"

JB: The king of God's kingdom is Jesus Christ, and he will rule as the head of God's government, which is God's kingdom, his sovereign authority over all mankind and, indeed, all of creation.

Uriah: Perfect answer with the book closed. Good. Sometimes in a study, I'll be going through here and I'll get the right answer every time from somebody, but as you get this far into the book they start to develop a knack of feeling what the answer is so they can parrot it back to you without understanding it. You didn't do that, 'cause you had your book closed and I knew you knew this much. Good! I used to do that with Benjamin. We'd read the paragraph, I'd read the question, and then I'd tell him the answer. I said, "Now tell me why that's the answer." 'Cause he was just, you know, he'd be able to pick it out of the paragraph, this is the sentence structure that fits the question. So I, "Okay, [laughs], but I want you to understand it." So I'd make him tell me why. He got mad at me! [laughs] Too bad.

We went on to the fifth paragraph, which Shem read, which asserted that God's kingdom is in heaven. The text of the paragraph (What Does the Bible Really Teach?, p. 77):
From where will God's Kingdom rule? Well, where is Jesus? You will remember learning that he was put to death on a torture stake, and then he was resurrected. Shortly thereafter, he ascended to heaven. (Acts 2:33) Hence, that is where God's Kingdom is--in heaven. That is why the Bible calls it a "heavenly kingdom." (2 Timothy 4:18) Although God's Kingdom is in heaven, it will rule over the earth.--Revelation 11:15.
After that was read, naturally the question came next:

Uriah: "From where does God's Kingdom rule, and over what?"

JB: Let me close the book first, so I can think about it for a moment on my own. ...Well, God's kingdom, ah...-- any kingdom rules from wherever the ruler is. That's simply the way all governments work. If you've got a hierarchical structure with some group ruling, that group necessarily constitutes the power base, as it were, of the kingdom. In this case, because God's kingdom is ruled and administrated by Jesus Christ, it is ruled from wherever he is. Since he is in heaven after the Ascension, God's kingdom rules from heaven while he is there, and God's kingdom rules over a universal domain, which necessarily includes the earth. Thus God's kingdom rules over earth as well.

Uriah: Good. And it is talking about present tense, sooo.... we'll let that go for now.

I have a feeling that Uriah was considering bringing up the 1914 thing but decided better of it. That's probably a wise choice, because we'll be getting into some eschatological controversies pretty darn soon anyway. The sixth and seventh paragraphs concerned what makes Jesus such an ideal king, with emphasis on his character, his compassion, and his immortality (which, as I noted in answering one of the related questions, precludes any sort of succession crisis like those endemic to all other dynastic houses throughout history). Things get a little more interesting with the next few paragraphs, which deal with the role of the 144,000 in the kingdom government. I transcribe the dialogue; anything bracketed within quotes here is bracketed in the text from which is was read, save for the bracketed-and-parenthesied (parenthesized?) Scripture references, which are put in parentheses in the text, but which we don't read aloud:

Uriah: ...I think I got ahead of myself here. Want to do eight, [Shem]?

Shem: "Here is another truth about God's Kingdom: Jesus will not rule alone. He will have corulers. For example, the apostle Paul told Timothy: 'If we go on enduring, we shall also rule together as kings.' [(2 Timothy 2:12)] Yes, Paul, Timothy, and other faithful ones who have been selected by God will rule together with Jesus in the heavenly Kingdom. How many will have that privilege?"

Uriah: "Who will rule with Jesus?"

JB: Good and faithful servants will. Those who have been loyal to him and who strive to do his will have been promised that they will be made joint-heirs with Christ.

Uriah: Good. Number nine!

JB: "As pointed out in Chapter 7 of this book, the apostle John was given a vision in which he saw 'the Lamb [Jesus Christ] standing upon the Mount Zion [his royal position in heaven], and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand having his name and the name of his Father written on their foreheads.' Who are those 144,000? John himself tells us: 'These are the ones that keep following the Lamb no matter where he goes. These were bought from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb.' [(Revelation 14:1, 14)] Yes, they are faithful followers of Jesus Christ specially chosen to rule in heaven with him. After being raised out of death to heavenly life, 'they are to rule as kings over the earth' along with Jesus. [(Revelation 5:10)] Since the days of the apostles, God has been selecting faithful Christians in order to complete the number 144,000."

Uriah: "How many will rule with Jesus, and when did God start to choose them?"

JB: Well, as you know, this is one of the areas where we still have some disagreements that we're going to revisit.

Uriah: Right.

JB: According to the text as it's given here, which takes the number 144,000 in Revelation to be a literal figure rather than a symbolic figure, there will be exactly 144,000 co-rulers with Christ. He began to choose them upon his ministry, his death, his resurrection, and he is continuing to choose them as time goes on, with the renewal of the gospel on earth in Jehovah's organization, and of course as replacements are needed in the cases of apostasy by those who have already been selected for the anointed class, a few new ones must be chosen.

Uriah: Okay, good--

JB: And in the understanding here--

Uriah: Mmhmm. ...Refresh my memory on what your beliefs-- [cough] beliefs on that.

JB: My belief is that the figure 144,000 given in Revelation is symbolic; it symbolizes the renewal of Israel. And it can be taken either to refer to God's people as a whole, thus being co-terminous with all who believe, or as representing the Jewish believers as opposed to the Gentile believers. In both cases, I think--I think--that all who come this saving faith will have part as joint-heirs with Christ in his rule of the kingdom of God.

Uriah: So all faithful Christians would have part in that?

JB: I believe so, yeah.

Uriah: Okay. Who would they be ruling over then?

JB: The entire creation.

Uriah: Other humans too?

JB: I think all humans would be-- all humans who are redeemed, and thereby all-- I believe that all humans who are not redeemed will suffer a fate so dreadful that, if they can be call-- if they can be said to exist at all after that, it won't be very human. It will be dehumanized, because they will have turned themselves from the source of all things that-- that is [sic] good: God. I believe that the rule of the joint-heirs with Christ will be over all of creation as a whole.

Uriah: Okay.

They essentially accepted my answer as an answer without any quarrel whatsoever, moving us immediately to the tenth paragraph, which dealt again with the rule of this government being compassionate because of their sympathy. Paragraph eleven set out the peculiar JW interpretation of the line in the Lord's Prayer about God's will being done "as in heaven, also upon earth". In JW belief, Satan was (up until the time of the parousia in 1914, at least) still alive and well in heaven, and thus God's will was not being done there much more perfectly than it was being done on earth. Thus, Jesus told his followers to pray for it to be done in heaven perfectly and to be done on earth perfectly as well. Since the parousia, in JW belief, Satan and his forces have been cast down to our vicinity, and consequently God's will is now done in heaven but not on earth. (I asked consequently about the propriety of praying today in the exact manner specified in that verse, and they said that if a JW today were to pray, "Your will be done, as in heaven, also upon earth", they would be taken aside afterwards for correction, though neither of them have ever heard someone do that. Uriah also said that, since they don't pray the Lord's Prayer "by rote", they don't really worry about not praying along those lines.)

I have doubts that this verse has ever been interpreted this way by any other movement prior to theirs. Rather, the prayer seems to assume that God's will is already being carried out in heaven ("as in heaven"), it should additionally be done here as well ("also upon earth"). This is essentially how Augustine of Hippo reads it (see here, section 21), as imploring God to bring our obedience to his will in greater conformity to how the angels do things. He gives an alternative explanation that glosses the passage with the sense of, "As the righteous do Thy will, in like manner let sinners also do it, so that they may be converted unto Thee", and another with the sense of, "as in our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, so also in the Church". John Chrysostom, too, said that "ye must long, saith He, for heaven, and the things in heaven", and that "He hath bidden us make the earth a heaven and do and say all things, even while we are continuing in it, as having our conversation there". Theodore of Mopsuestia, likewise commenting on the passage, affirmed that "in this world we strive as much as possible to imitate the life which we shall live in heaven, because heaven contains nothing that is contrary to God" and, just as much to the point, that "as we believe that the will of God reigns in heaven, so it should also hold sway in earth". And interesting, before any of the three of them, Origen of Alexandria specifically addresses the problem of evil in heaven and, whatever one thinks of his solutions, he most definitely does not suggest that Jesus meant for us to pray that heaven be cleansed.

The next few paragraphs treated the expulsion of Satan from heaven, and Uriah offered Job 1:6-8 as a passage showing that, in earlier stages of human history, Satan was quite active in heaven. I think that's rather overstretching the passage, at least just a bit. Uriah also asked me my opinion as to why God permitted Satan to continue existing at all, and since Jehovah's Witnesses actually have a fairly decent explanation of that (that merely extinguishing Satan from existence would be resolving by brute force rather than through nobler means, and such just wouldn't be God's immensely compassionate style) and we'd talked about it months and months ago, I gave them essentially that answer, which made them quite pleased; Uriah referred to my reply as "perfect". The book went on to note that Satan now resides on the earth, and that God's will for the earth is to restore it. Paragraphs 16 and 17 went on to note that God's kingdom will triumph over all other kingdoms and is established in the midst of kingdoms that oppose it. Nothing really objectionable there. We decided that paragraph 18 would be a great place to resume, so we called it quits there and parted ways. The next meeting will be on the first Saturday of 2010.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

JW Study Meeting #27

After my return from Greece, it wasn't long before I e-mailed Uriah to resume our Bible study. Our initial appointment for 19 December fell through because of a massive snowstorm; evidently, "neither slow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" is a good slogan for Persian postal couriers and for the U. S. Postal Service, but not so much for Jehovah's Witnesses. Hence, we rescheduled for today. With snow still heavy on the ground, though less so on the street, Uriah made his way to my door perhaps 10-30 minutes late, but no harm, no foul.

We didn't get down to cracking open any books today for an actual study; it was, rather, mostly catch-up and story time. I told, in brief, of my living arrangements in Athens, and of my travels to Corinth and Ephesus, assuredly standing in the very footsteps of Paul the apostle; Uriah asked, "You weren't beaten with rods or stones or anything, were ya?" Nope, no persecution for me this time around. I explained how, while in Turkey, I was mistaken for a Muslim recently returned from the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Finally, however, I mentioned that I hadn't run into any Jehovah's Witnesses while there, chiefly because the nearest Kingdom Hall that I knew about had been in a relatively distant part of the city. Hence, as I said, I had to "go with the second-best: Mormons". At this, of course, Uriah started laughing and said, "Gimme a break!" We then talked for a while about my studies with Latter-day Saints over there. I mentioned that the LDS missionaries had a fairly positive image of JWs, perhaps largely because in Greece, pretty much anybody who ain't Greek Orthodox has to stick together. I then went into some of my experiences in dialogue:

JB: I don't know how much you know about the details of what Mormons believe, but they believe that the Father is not Jehovah. They believe that Jesus is Jehovah, but that the Father is not Jehovah. Which is really quite the complete opposite--

Uriah: Yeah.

JB: --of what you guys believe, and of what I believe.

Uriah: I studied them years ago, and they kept me-- I have a hard time studying things in detail that I know going in are false. That's just too much time and effort to put into it. They have so many different levels of stuff that even they, in their literature, is made up on certain dates by certain men. Well, what's the point? I, uh-- It bored me pretty quick after I got the highlights of, 'What? Joseph Smith did what?'

JB: Actually I found out that I'm probably a distant cousin of Joseph Smith.

Uriah: Oh really?

JB: Yeah.

Uriah: So am I.

JB: Oh yeah?

Uriah: Yeah, we both have relatives on the Ark.

JB: Haha, I have 'em a bit more recent than that.

Uriah [laughing]: Okay.

JB: Back in like the 1600s or something.

Uriah: Is that right?

JB: ...So it was interesting, I finally got to attempt to convince somebody that the Father was Jehovah. And I remember one day--I'll tell you some of the arguments I used after... I remember one day, sitting down with the Mormon missionaries, and one of them looked at me and said, "The bad news is, Jehovah's Witnesses are right."

Uriah: One of the Mormon missionaries said that?

JB: Yeah.

Uriah: Hm! Yeah, yeah-- That makes your religion tough, if you don't believe it. Wow. Hm.

JB: But, uh, here's basically what I said to them when they-- They believe that there are multiple gods, basically--

Uriah: Right.

JB: --That the Father is a god and the Son is a god; they believe that the Son is Jehovah and that the Father is an even higher god still. So the first thing I asked them was, 'Okay, well, you look at the Ten Commandments, which you guys believe are still pretty valid, and you see Jehovah say in the Ten Commandments that you're not supposed to have any gods before him. But you believe that you are supposed to worship the Father, who is - in your belief - a god higher than Jehovah. What's the deal, aren't you breaking that commandment?' They sorta had to think about that one a bit oddly for a while, weren't quite sure what to do with it. Finally they just sort of had to say, 'Well, that was for the Israelites at the time, they didn't even know about the Father, so that wouldn't have been a problem...' I asked them, 'Okay, what if one of them did know about the Father?', and they just sorta said, 'Wellllllll.... *shrug*' And then the second thing I gave them was-- in an earlier conversation, one of them had said that Jesus had referred to the temple in Jerusalem sometimes as his house but other times as his Father's house, so I said to them, 'Okay, if that's the case, the temple that was built in Jerusalem was dedicated to only one god, Jehovah. If the Israelites didn't know about any other gods, such as the Father, then that's not who the temple was dedicated to. So you have Jesus say that it's his Father's house. If you say that the Father is a god other than Jehovah, how's that even possible?' Basically the only thing they could come up with there was, 'Welllllll, he had to sort of fudge the truth a bit to be understood...'

Uriah: Hoho! Wow!

JB: And I said, 'Ummmmm.... No.'

Uriah [laughing]: 'There's another Scripture you oughta bring up right now!' Haha, wow!

JB: And then the final argument I used - and this one probably drove them even more crazy - was-- I looked up a number of passages in the Old Testament that I read to them that clearly say that, 'Here's Jehovah, and here's the Messiah', two people. You know, like in Psalm 2:2, it says something like, 'Why do the nations rage, why are the kings plotting against Jehovah and against his Messiah?' And then I brought in, you know, Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 where, again, repeatedly, it distinguishes between Jehovah and the Messiah. So I gave them a few verses, and the first answer that one of them came up with was, 'Well, I've run into some things like this before, and when I look into the Hebrew, it usually turns out not to be "Jehovah" written there.' And I looked at him and said, 'I'm pretty sure you won't find that to be the case here. But, let's just you and me both go back, look at the Hebrew, and then next time we meet up, we'll talk about it again.' Sure enough, every single verse I'd mentioned had "Jehovah" there in the Hebrew.

Uriah: Yeah, the Tetragrammaton.

JB: So I confronted them with that later, and they sorta just smiled and said, 'Welllll.... those messianic passages, maybe the authors-- Jehovah was the only god they knew, so when talking about the Father they had to refer to him that way...', and I said, 'No. Even on your beliefs, they could have referred to the Father as "Elohim", since that's what you call the Father anyway, and that would've been perfectly good Hebrew at the time, and wouldn't have been wrong.' They sorta just smiled and said, 'Okay, yeahhh, but, here are some other scriptures that we think say that Jesus is Jehovah, and darn it, we believe in Jesus and that's what we're sticking to.' And I sorta just thought, 'You haven't been listening to a thing I've been saying.'

Uriah: Right.

I have a couple regrets about that exchange. Chiefly, I could have done a better job subtly reminding Uriah that I believe that both the Father and the Son are Jehovah; the way I presented it, my beliefs seem too compatible with JW beliefs for my taste, and I regret that. I suppose that, since it was our first meeting after the break and I'd had to use some persuasion to get him to come back, I didn't want to raise anything controversial right off the bat. I still think I should've been more clear on that, but to be honest, I don't have a personality that goes very boldly into confrontation and disputation, contrary to the way it might sometimes appear from some of my accounts. Also, it should be obvious that I did not portray the Latter-day Saints terribly sympathetically, and I probably should have done a greater job at that. Not, of course, that I think my account is in any way an inaccurate summary of the exchanges I had; far from it, I think that my queries did potentially expose some glaring problems with at least the theology of the LDS missionaries I met, if not necessarily the theology of better equipped Latter-day Saints. Still, I wasn't exceptionally charitable in my description, and I think in retrospect that my LDS friends deserved better than that, so I feel a twinge of guilt about it.

Anyway, Uriah asked where these guys came from, and so I told him where they'd originally come from, and then how I'd met them at the Areopagus, and how I came to get back in touch with them and set up the discussions, and so forth. And then, when I mentioned how in one conversation, the LDS had to basically plead faith over logic (and as I noted, whenever someone says that, my brain replies, "When you have to say that logic doesn't apply, you lose"). Uriah, of course, agreed; Jehovah's Witnesses have a more respectable epistemology than Latter-day Saints generally do. So we spent some time talking about how fideism and related sorts of things are a real problem. He noted that even many ministers in this country tend to punt to "mystery" (which, more often than not, really is a cop-out), and that the Bible was written for humans to understand, and hence even if there are deep things in it that require hard work to dig out, nothing in it is in principle beyond our capacity to get.

From there, he said that he loves that the more fundamental truths of the Bible can be understood by anyone. As he put it, some people within "Jehovah's organization" are geniuses, and others who "are struggling to get by, 'cuz they're not hitting it with all eight cylinders" (I'm going to have to remember that metaphor), and yet all of them can understand the Bible to the extent they need to in order to do Jehovah's will; as he put it, the Bible is "as deep as you are, or not". He explained that some people in his local congregation are "mildly retarded; I mean, they're functioning, but, you know-- and God bless them, I wouldn't want to have to go through this life like that, but they are, and they're doing fine, and they understand things about the Bible that Paul wrote and everything-- they understand enough to be accepted by God."

He also, on the other hand, mentioned that when he was still a fairly new JW, he went out for door-to-door work with another newbie, a ministerial servant, a congregational elder, a circuit overseer, and a district overseer. And the district overseer was, evidently, quite a sharp fellow; as Uriah put it, during breaks he liked to get into discussions of his hobby to unwind: quantum physics. (Sounds like my kind of guy!) And one cold morning, he'd felt rather intimidated by how accomplished they were, and was inclined to go home, but after sticking with it he realized he didn't feel embarassed, but rather great. They all stopped at the one local diner for a cup of coffee and donuts, Uriah said, and naturally the district overseer wanted to talk physics. And the other new guy had "kind of an ambitious spirit" and hence "kept brown-nosing", and on the way to the cash register to pay, the other new guy pushes through and tells the cashier that he'll pay for the two overseers as well as himself. The district overseer, a clever guy, thanked the new guy and said, "And these other brothers are with us too", and then all of them promptly walked out and left the brown-noser there to pay for everyone. (As Uriah said, the new guy was eventually disabused of the notion that "we have ranks, which we don't", and having matured and gotten his head on straight, he's pretty fine now.)

I told a couple more stories from my meetings with the LDS, mostly revolving around my penchant for reading and so forth, and how the addition of Admetus to the meetings didn't help the LDS to actually answer my questions satisfactorily, per se. And we went on to discuss how anyone who's going to belong to a religion should be willing to put forth the effort required in terms of labor and study to really do it well. Hey, no argument there! As he said for his part, being a Jehovah's Witness would be "way too much work" if he didn't sincerely believe in it; "if this was just something I was supposed to go through mechanically, I'm not doing all this. I'm not doing all this studying, I'm not going to all these meetings, I'm not going out in service, because I can go back to being a Methodist and do nothing! That was easy. It's just too much work." And I agreed, of course, that it's quite important to put in a real effort. I know for my part, I'm determined to study as much as I can, because "God gave us brains for a reason: to use them".

Uriah then mentioned that they'd gotten a new elder for their congregation lately, a quiet, "Gomer Pyle-ish" guy who's nonetheless "sharp as a task". He moved here from Minnesota and has twenty years or so of experience as a congregational elder. Uriah then talked for a bit about Christmas and how the real facts about it are readily available in newspapers and encyclopedias, but people just don't care, and etc., etc. He didn't go on about it for long, and I decided not to start an argument about it.

I asked how the publishing work was going, and he said it was going alright. They'd picked up a few studies while I was gone, and dropped a few too. He said that some of their studies are old people who just want some company for an hour or so every now and then, and who couldn't care less what they're studying, be it JW literature or the phone book, just to get some human contact. And those aren't fruitful studies, so they generally drop them when they're sure it isn't going to change. He said of the four or five new studies they've picked up, "most of those will wash out, too". He said that the congregation typically has 25-30 going on at any given time, which is less than one per JW. "About every third person usually has a study, give or take." After a quick story about how he covered another JW's study while the other guy was off in Trinidad, I asked how many studies he personally usually has going on. He said that his range has historically been between zero and five, but it's two these days, which he started after a period of having none a few years back. He also said that he, as a JW, typically has 25 return visits to do per month to drop off new magazines and gauge a person's spiritual interest, and that if he repeatedly detects none, he'll generally invite a person to a specific meeting, often the annual memorial service, and if they don't come, then he'll go back one more time and say, "Well, there's no point in continuing this, because you're not making any spiritual advancement, and that's what I'm here for." Most of the time, that gets met with apathy, though on rare occasions it'll spur the person to action. (I find it interesting, of course, that 'spiritual advancement' seems to have just one measure: external involvement with Jehovah's Witnesses.) He related a story of having regular 15-20 minute spiritual conversations with an octogenarian whose Lutheran wife disapproved strongly of Jehovah's Witnesses, and Uriah used to invite the guy regularly to meetings, but he never came. But Uriah figured, well, it's understandable that the elderly guy wouldn't necessarily want to drive a few cities over to get there. However, one time Uriah arrived and heard that the guy had just gotten back from a hunting trip to Maine, so clearly driving was no problem at all, and so Uriah "cranked the study up a little bit with him and told him that, you know, 'I'm gonna invite you to the memorial in March, and if you don't come, I don't really see any point in me coming here every month for nothing, for no progress,' because it's been four years, so... I lost that one, because he didn't come." He went on to say,
You try not to lose any, because although we do refer to them as "our studies", they're not. It's Jesus' study. He gave that assignment to the faithful and discreet slave, and as the other sheep we're helping them out, so ultimately it's Jesus' study, and I don't want the responsibility, I don't have the right to sit there and judge people's spirituality. That's up to them, that's between them and God, so... I'm just the tool that's supposed to be helping them through the book.
From there, he said that on many occasions, "the first thing we do in a study, by accident, is teach people how to read out loud", because that just isn't a skill that most people have cultivated and kept using in their lives, particularly when it isn't something that they themselves have written. For his own part, he said, he was forty when he started "studying the Bible", and he was "amazed at what [he] couldn't read out loud". So, naturally, one of the first barriers aside from sheer interest issues is to deal with the embarassment factor with public speaking. He said that "reading the Bible every day, discussing it with somebody every week, and going to the Theocratic Ministry School that teaches you how to do public speaking and then gives you the counsel on it every single week" is a huge benefit in keeping that ability alive and making it stronger.

He also talked about how difficult it can be at first to give talks in front of people like that; for the first year he was doing it, he said he should've brought a change of shirt because he'd soak his through with sweat during his talks. (I can sympathize. No matter how much I get complimented when speaking, preaching, or acting on stage, I'm typically panicking on the inside for about an hour before hand and most of the way through the thing!) However, it's a necessary skill for the evangelistic work that they do. Uriah said that the first "talk" they do in Theocratic Ministry School is generally a Bible reading of about 15-20 verses, which is still quite difficult for most because placing emotion and emphasis while reading is definitely an acquired skill for many. For his own part, he found that although for years he had managed several departments, run meetings for his employees, and read his own material aloud, he stumbled over words constantly when he started to work through Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life. And, while he was tempted to give up, he pressed through. And here I got to hear a little bit of the chronology of his indoctrination:
It took me a year. We started the book in June, and the following June... well, by November we were done with the book. And then I went out in service and I was preaching for about six months and then I got baptized. And, uh, it's been work. It's been work, it's been persecution, it's been blessings... it's been worth it. Even in times when I didn't have a job and money was short, I could think to myself, "Do I want to be me, poor, and in a good relationship with God, or do I want to be Bill Gates and have no Bible-based relationship with God and have billions of dollars?" And I keep picking me; my situation's better! So, yeah, I've had no regrets whatsoever. It's been work, and I'm willing to put more into it.
And then he gave some stories about how one year he was head of the installation department for a convention, and the next year he was just an assistant, and he was pleasantly surprised to find that he was okay with that, because "the work is still the work", and leading isn't the important thing. And he explained that a congregation is typically divided into service groups of 12-15 people so that elders can focus on a group and not get overworked, and each group takes turns cleaning the Kingdom Hall. And the elders have an unwritten agreement that they're the ones who clean the toilets, to send the message that they're not above anybody else. He added that one thing they tell ministerial servants who want to become elders is that "the reward for a good job is more work".

When I had a chance to ask how Shem was doing, Uriah revealed that Shem's started dating a woman from the JW congregation in Palmyra, and things are going well because "neither one's turned off by the other one". So Uriah filled me in for a bit and mentioned how some friends had managed to hook Shem up, and how things had been going since. Sounds like things are going well, and I'm happy for him. (They'll be meeting again soon at Japheth's house, but not Ham's. Ham "doesn't know anything about it, [Ham] would be judgmental".) When I mentioned that I hope I get to see Shem again sometime, Uriah said that they'd recently moved their small group's study location, but that he's still the group overseer and Shem's still his assistant, so if I want to keep studying, I'll be guaranteed to see Shem again, "so long as he isn't girl-crazy".

After some other discussion from there, largely about memories from the convention, Uriah said:
So, in case I never told you, that's my ultimate motive for coming here. To study with you, to familiarize you with the Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs, and hopefully you would progress on that, because like we said before, I'm not gonna try to teach you a religion I don't believe in. That would be stupid, that would be Southern Baptist or something. Or Mormon!
Then, after recalling that the last time LDS missionaries stopped at his door, Uriah had succeeded in placing literature with them after about a half-hour of conversation, he said that he feels sorry for Latter-day Saints, because he knows how tough door-to-door work is, whether for the "right religion" or the "wrong religion". And so he judges most of them to be sincere, but wrong, and noted that one doesn't have to study very hard to begin to see where they're wrong. He said he wasn't completely sure if Mormons consider themselves "literal Christians" (whatever that means, they do), and talked about how one is bound to stumble into believing some of Jesus' teachings just by accident.

After deciding where to pick up when we meet again on Saturday (chapter 8), Uriah handed me some of the latest magazines, including the Watchtower and Awake! from December, both of which include (naturally) some Christmas-bashing stuff dealing with the wise men, as well as the November Watchtower, which features a six-article series called "Exposed: Six Myths About Christianity". It tackles things like the soul, hell, the Trinity, the status of Mary, icons, etc., and while Uriah was impressed with how well they all hung together, I read through it afterwards and was... significantly underwhelmed. It basically included quotes from several scarcely relevant sources, some of which would only be even remotely authoritative for Roman Catholic readers, and then a few comments that wholly miss any sort of nuance. Each 'article' is maybe half a page, and half of each is just a couple quotes, and then the rest are very brief comments. Nothing for any educated orthodox believer to sweat for even a moment. Uriah, however, said that "in my mind, if somebody understands those six pages, and is attending meetings, then they're ready to join the School", referring no doubt to the Theocratic Ministry School. Presumably, "understand" has to also include "agree".

As the meeting ended, I talked briefly about the LDS understanding of the Fall (he had asked more precisely how LDS understand Genesis 3:15), and then about their identification of Adam with the archangel Michael and the Ancient of Days, which really shocked Uriah, who after a bit of silence said, "Apparently I need to go into business with some Mormons, they're willing to believe anything." He also said that he's glad that at least I can keep all this stuff straight in my head, because he doesn't think he could.

So with that, we parted, setting up our next meeting time while at the door...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Table of Contents

Introductory Material

Questions from Readers

  1. Jehovah's Witnesses and Romans 8:8-9
JW Study Meetings

  1. 7 June 2008 - Wherein JB begins a JW Bible study and hears conversion stories
  2. 21 June 2008 - Wherein JB and the JWs discuss the Bible being the Word of God
  3. 5 July 2008 - Wherein JB and the JWs discuss the future restoration of creation
  4. 26 July 2008 - Wherein JB confesses his Trinitarianism
  5. 2 August 2008 - Wherein JB defends the deity of Christ and answers JW objections
  6. 16 August 2008 - Wherein JB distinguishes Trinitarianism from modalism and questions the 'faithful and discreet slave'
  7. 30 August 2008 - Wherein JB explains John 1:1, Trinitarian doctrine, and church history, and discusses the practical implications of Trinitarianism
  8. 13 September 2008 - Wherein JB distinguished Trinitarianism from modalism (again), answers JW objections to the deity of Christ (again), and learns about JW history; also wherein JB challenges the JW depiction of the crucifixion
  9. 13 October 2008 - Wherein Uriah expounds the Watchtower's authority and discusses 'new light' with JB
  10. 1 November 2008 - Wherein Uriah gives JB articles
  11. 29 November 2008 - Wherein JB and Uriah discuss books, Mormonism, Joyce Meyer, etc.
  12. 20 December 2008 - Wherein JB and Uriah make small-talk and discuss the atonement
  13. 27 December 2008 - Wherein JB and Uriah make more small talk and discuss the atonement some more
  14. 17 January 2009 - Wherein Uriah presents the JW perspective on the fate of the dead
  15. N/A
  16. 7 March 2009 - Wherein JB challenges the JW view on the fate of the dead, and Uriah interprets scriptures differently
  17. 14 March 2009 - Wherein JB and Uriah make small-talk
  18. 23 May 2009 - Wherein JB learns about JW conventions
  19. 30 May 2009 - Wherein JB rants about Word of Faith teachers
  20. 6 June 2009 - Wherein JB challenges the JW view of the limited general resurrection
  21. 20 June 2009 - Wherein JB challenges the JW position on resurrection as 'spirit-creatures'
  22. 18 July 2009 - Wherein Uriah is open to the physical resurrection of Christ
  23. 8 August 2009 - Wherein JB learns more about JW organizational structure and life as a JW
  24. 15 August 2009 - Wherein JB and Uriah discuss the anointed class and the great crowd
  25. 22 August 2009 - Wherein Uriah shares stories from door-to-door ministry and life as a congregational elder and literature servant, and JB and Uriah talk about books
  26. 29 August 2009 - Wherein they discuss computers and bad neighbors
  27. 23 December 2009 - Wherein JB and Uriah catch up after the former's stay in Greece, and the two talk about LDS stuff and the importance of personal involvement in religion
  28. 26 December 2009 - Wherein JB, Uriah, and Shem talk about the kingdom of God
  29. 2 January 2010 - Wherein they discuss God's kingdom and Armageddon, and JB explains preterism briefly
  30. 9 January 2010 - Wherein JB, Uriah, and Shem begin to discuss 'signs of the end'.
  31. 16 January 2010 - Wherein JB, Uriah, and Shem continue to discuss 'signs of the end' and also how to be prepared.
  32. 13 February 2010 - Wherein JB, Uriah, and Raanan discuss angels, and JB asks annoying questions about the Nephilim.
LDS Discussions

  1. 8 October 2009 - Wherein Creon and Daedalos present LDS views on apostasy, the Restoration, and ecclesiology, and everyone discusses the relationship between faith and knowledge
  2. 9 October 2009 - Wherein JB asks about LDS scripture and the apostasy, Creon presents an inaccurate summary of church history, and the missionaries present the LDS Plan of Salvation
  3. 14 October 2009 - Wherein Admetus is introduced, and wherein all discuss pre-mortality, ecclesiology, and the gospel
  4. 4 November 2009 - Wherein Daedalos is replaced by Orestes, and wherein all discuss the plurality of gods, perfection, monotheism, the difference between Trinitarianism and modalism, God as an exalted man, the relationship between God and time, the Book of Mormon, and praying for testimonies
  5. 11 November 2009 - Wherein JB asks hard questions about ordinances in the apostolic period, the biblical view of priesthood, the sonship of Christ; and also wherein they watch a video clip and the missionaries talk about the importance of feelings
  6. 18 November 2009 - Wherein the missionaries discuss the Ten Commandments and the Word of Wisdom with JB, and wherein we all laud C. S. Lewis
  7. 19 November 2009 - Wherein JB asks hard questions about the relationship between Jehovah and the Father and intelligences, and wherein the missionaries try to discredit the Bible
  8. 27 November 2009 - Wherein the missionaries explain tithing and fasting, and JB asks more hard questions about Jehovah and the Father, the King Follett Discourse, and exaltation and omniscience
  9. 30 November 2009 - Wherein the missionaries and JB discuss personal revelation... and wherein JB receives a 'burning in the bosom'?
  10. 18 February 2010 - Wherein JB gets to meet some missionaries on this side of the Atlantic Ocean and reminisces about Greece
  11. 26 February 2010 - Wherein the missionaries talk to JB about spiritual gifts, focusing on others, and praying "with real intent"
Kingdom Hall Visits

  1. 6 April 2008 - Wherein Daniel and JB attend a JW meeting
  2. 10 April 2009 - Wherein JB attends a "Lord's Evening Meal" Memorial Service.
  3. 20 August 2009 - Wherein JB's friends Nick and Ray visit a Kingdom Hall
LDS Church Visits
  1. 14 March 2010 - Wherein JB experiences sacrament meeting, Gospel Principles class, and priesthood meeting for the first time
JW Conventions

LDS Fireside Chats

  1. 7 November 2009 - Elder Johann Wondra, Third Quorum of the Seventy
  2. 25 November 2009 - Elder Gerald Causse, First Quorum of the Seventy

Miscellaneous Other Posts

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dramatis Personae

This is, as it were, just a brief guide to some of the characters you're bound to run into around these parts.

Admetus: A Latter-day Saint CES Institute teacher from Colorado who worked in the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there. Also a former LDS bishop when he lived in Utah. Husband of Alcestis. He's a jovial, good-natured, fairly sharp-minded fellow.

Aethelbald: An older friend of JB's who occasionally attends classes at JB's college.

Ajax: A Latter-day Saint missionary who served in the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there.

Alcestis: A Latter-day Saint woman from Colorado. Wife of Admetus.

Alcibiades: A Latter-day Saint man who served as mission president of Greece in 2009.

Almog: A young Jehovah's Witness man from Pennsylvania whom JB met at a circuit assembly.

Amythaon: The second counselor in the bishopric of the Latter-day Saint ward nearest to where JB went to college.

Ananias: A Jehovah's Witness man from Pennsylvania.

Atarah: A Jehovah's Witness woman from Pennsylvania. Wife of Uriah.

Aquila: A young Jehovah's Witness man from New Jersey whom I met at a district convention.

Beriah: An older Jehovah's Witness man from Pennsylvania. Taught Uriah.

Childeric: JB's college roommate during his final semester as an undergraduate. A conservative charismatic Christian with an extreme focus on miraculous faith-healings, modern-day prophecy, etc.

Cleisthenes: A Latter-day Saint missionary who served in the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there.

Creon: A Latter-day Saint missionary and BYU student from California who served in the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there and was transferred to the Greece - Thessaloniki mission a few weeks after JB left. One of the missionaries with whom JB did the missionary discussions. Fairly soft-spoken fellow, but eminently likeable.

Daedalos: A Latter-day Saint missionary from Nevada who served for a time in the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there, but who was transferred to the Cyprus mission. One of the missionaries with whom JB did the missionary discussions initially.

Daniel: JB's best friend and partner in crime. A moderately conservative evangelical Christian and university student from Pennsylvania. Consider him JB's mischievous evil twin - or the other way around.

Demophon: A Latter-day Saint missionary serving his mission in Pennsylvania.

Ealhswith: A friend of JB's and an evangelical/charismatic Christian and university student from Pennsylvania.

Ehud: A Jehovah's Witness man from Pennsylvania. Attends same congregation as Uriah and Shem. Dynamic speaker who delivered talks at both the 2009 district convention and the 2010 circuit assembly.

Ezbon: Formerly the local district overseer of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Ham: A Jehovah's Witness man from Pennsylvania. Brother of Shem and Japheth, son of Zibiah.

Harthacanute: A Christian man from Pennsylvania. Formerly associate pastor of JB's church.

Ithamar: A Jehovah's Witness elder who moved from the Midwest to Pennsylvania. Serves in the same congregation as Uriah.

Japheth: A Jehovah's Witness man from Pennsylvania. Brother of Shem and Ham, son of Zibiah.

JB: Author of this blog. A moderately conservative evangelical Christian and religion and philosophy student from Pennsylvania. Self-professed jerk.

Kallinos: A Latter-day Saint missionary from California who served a mission in Pennsylvania. Demophon's partner after Sthenlos' transfer.

Kostas: A Latter-day Saint missionary from Italy whom JB met at a fireside chat in Athens, Greece.

Lysistrata: A female Latter-day Saint missionary from Connecticut who served in the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there. Partner of Sappho.

Medea: A Latter-day Saint woman whom JB met in Athens.

Mephibosheth: A Jehovah's Witness man from Pennsylvania.

Meret: A Jehovah's Witness woman who moved from the Midwest to Pennsylvania. Wife of Ithamar.

Mieszko: Friend and fellow student at JB's college.

Nahath: The local circuit overseer (Pennsylvania Circuit 5) of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Nick: JB's friend. A conservative evangelical Christian and philosophy student at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina.

Noam: A Jehovah's Witness man from Pennsylvania whom JB met at a circuit assembly.

Orestes: A Latter-day Saint missionary from Utah who served in the Greece - Thessaloniki mission initially and who was transferred to the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there. One of the missionaries with whom JB did the majority of the missionary discussions. Likeable fellow who exudes confidence and good cheer.

Polyxena: A Latter-day Saint woman from Pennsylvania who teaches a Gospel Essentials class at the ward near where JB went to college.

Priscilla: A young Jehovah's Witness woman from New Jersey whom JB met at a district convention.

Ray: Friend of JB and Nick. A conservative evangelical Christian and student and Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina.

Sappho: A female Latter-day Saint missionary from Finland who served in the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there. Partner of Lysistrata.

Sarah: JB's girlfriend. A young Christian woman from Pennsylvania (originally, Wisconsin).

Shem: A Jehovah's Witness ministerial servant from Pennsylvania. One of the Jehovah's Witnesses with whom JB does their 'Bible study'. Raised in a Jehovah's Witness home, rebelled, then returned to their faith. Very quiet fellow with a good sense of humor.

Solon: A Latter-day Saint missionary who served in the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there. When JB met him, Solon had recently injured himself playing football.

Sthenelos: A Latter-day Saint missionary who served a mission in Pennsylvania. Creon's roommate at BYU. Met with JB once before being transferred to another ward.

Sweyn: A Christian student who attends the same college as JB.

Talya: A Jehovah's Witness woman originally from England. Mother of Meret.

Tiresias: A Latter-day Saint missionary from Sweden who served in the Greece - Athens mission while JB was studying there.

Uriah: A Jehovah's Witness congregational elder from Pennsylvania. One of the Jehovah's Witnesses with whom JB does their 'Bible study'. A convert to their faith from Methodism. A very likeable, down-to-earth, good-natured fellow.

Zedekiah: A very talkative Jehovah's Witness man who engaged me in conversation at a district convention.

Ze'ev: A Theocratic Ministry School overseer for a congregation in Pennsylvania Circuit 5. JB met him at the 2010 circuit assembly of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Zibiah: A Jehovah's Witness woman from Pennsylvania. Mother of Shem, Ham, and Japheth.


Q: Are these really 'Frequently Asked Questions'?

A: Sure! Well, I mean, I frequently ask myself these questions, and no one said that didn't count.

Q: That doesn't count.

A: Too late. And that wasn't a question.

Q: Fine. So who are you, anyway?

A: I go by 'JB', both online and (for the most part) offline, so call me that. I prefer it to "that one loser with the goofy blog", thank you very much. (Though I'd probably answer to both...) I'm a moderately conservative evangelical Christian with a bachelor's degree in religion and philosophy and a passion for theology, philosophy, biblical studies, church history, apologetics, ecumenicism, and inter-religious dialogue. My primary hobbies are reading, goofing around on the Internet, watching shows like Law and Order, and genealogical research. Theologically, I stand steadfastly within the realm of Nicene orthodoxy, and even more specifically within Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

Q: How about more specifically? Theologically speaking, I mean.

A: Protologically, I'm a theistic evolutionist. Eschatologically, I'm an orthodox preterist. With respect to the role of God and man in salvation, I'm an Arminian, and with respect to God's foreknowledge, I'm a Molinist. On baptism, I'm a credobaptist who favors immersion as the norm, but I recognize other forms as valid; and when it comes to communion, I generally dance back and forth between consubstantiation and a more symbolic, mystical, ritual view. I'm also quite strongly egalitarian, and I'm inclined towards cessationism when it comes to the flashier sorts of pneumatic gifts - count me as 'open but cautious', really, but with an inclination towards what's sometimes called "concentric cessationism". I think that covers the main bases.

Q: What do all those words mean? Like, "protology", isn't that something to do with the doctor who puts his hand--

A: NO. No need to finish that sentence, please. Alright, more simply, "protology" is the study of 'first things', like creation/origins stuff. I believe in evolution, and I believe that God's providence was heavily involved from start to finish. "Eschatology" is the study of 'last things', and I'm an orthodox preterist (not to be confused with so-called 'full preterists', who are actually heretics who believe that all prophecy has been fulfilled, that the resurrection has already taken place, and that this is the best things will ever be). Being an orthodox preterist means that I consider most biblical prophecy, like in Matthew 24 and in the bulk of the Book of Revelation, to be talking about things that already happened; but I definitely still believe in the future bodily return of Christ to earth and in the future bodily resurrection of all. I also mentioned that I'm an Arminian and a Molinist. Basically--and this is more complicated--I place a high stress both on the absolute necessity of God's grace and also on the role of genuine free will on our part; God doesn't make us choose him. Every person who is saved, while unable to be saved without God's grace, could have rejected him; and no person will in the end have anyone to blame but themselves for refusing God. Being a Molinist is basically holding Luis de Molina's view of how divine foreknowledge 'works', and essentially it divides God's knowledge into three major categories. First is 'natural knowledge', which is God's knowledge of all necessary truths that are independent of his will (e.g., "2 + 2 = 4"). On the other end is his 'free knowledge', his knowledge of all contingent truths that are dependent on his will (e.g., "JB has a blog", because God didn't have to create me, although I think he made a pretty darn good choice in doing so, because I'm just that cool). In between comes his 'middle knowledge', his knowledge of things like counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (e.g., "If JB is given a book about football, he will sell it and buy a book about something important like theology instead"). In between the second and third logical 'moments' of divine knowledge comes God's decree to create. That's the big difference between Luis de Molina and Domingo Banez, an opponent of Molina who put the creative decree before 'middle knowledge'. So why care? Well, Molinism seems to do a pretty good job at reconciling free will and a robust view of divine election. The next term, "credobaptist", means that I think that baptism should ideally be for those who can actually have faith; it's the opposite of a "paedobaptist", who supports baptizing infants. Basically, I don't think that someone can be born into Christianity; it's a choice. And since that's what baptism is for, I'm not a fan of baptizing babies who don't even have a clue what's going on. Then on communion, I'm tempted towards "consubstantiation", which is a 'Real Presence' view of the eucharist (i.e., Christ calling the bread his 'body' isn't just a metaphor or a symbol), but which dissents from the Roman Catholic view that the bread and wine cease to be bread and wine when they begin to be body and blood. But I'm also cool with certain non-'Real Presence' views of the eucharist, so no biggie. I also referred to myself as "egalitarian", which means that I take a strong stance as to the equality of men and women before God, and I have no objection to, say, female elders, pastors, bishops, etc. The most influential book in cementing me in that position was William Webb's Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Finally, I'm a "concentric cessationist". A 'cessationist' basically considers certain gifts of the Spirit--things like faith-healing, speaking in tongues, and especially certain offices like 'apostle' and 'prophet'--to generally be inoperative today; in other words, Pentecostal we ain't. A 'concentric cessationist' qualifies this by saying that many of these gifts (but generally not offices like 'apostle') were given to the church then because of their social situation, and so where those circumstances apply to the church today (say, in the global South), so might 'miraculous' gifts in ways that they probably don't in, say, contemporary America.

Q: So what's the point of this blog?

A: The original motivation was to keep my personal blog (now defunct) relatively uncluttered by accounts of my dealings with Jehovah's Witnesses, since I tend to write long-winded posts anyway. In addition, it's my hope that the stories of my encounters with Jehovah's Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, and others can be of some use to somebody out there, or at least of interest. And, even if not, then it's pretty useful to me to write this stuff down anyway. I blog elsewhere about 'Christian spirituality' or whatever you want to call it.

Q: Why do you meet with these people?

A: As I said before, I have a passion for inter-religious dialogue, and that includes with these folks. Jehovah's Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, anybody. I particularly enjoy those dialogues because I'm very interested in the doctrine of the Trinity, and so interacting with non-Trinitarian groups within the Christian fold (or even claim to exhaust the extent of that fold) is pretty much the perfect activity for me. And, of course, I freely confess having a desire to rationally persuade members of those groups that, where we disagree, their group is incorrect. Because I think that's simply what should be done in the context of incompatible claims to truth. I want them to have the same desire to rationally persuade me of their positions.

Q: Do you think Jehovah's Witnesses and Latter-day Saints are in cults?

A: In short, no. For my own extended take on that, though, stay tuned for a possible post in which I'll try to explain my thoughts on the 'cult' issue. In brief, however, I'm no longer certain that the word "cult" is a useful term at all, so naturally I'd be disinclined to label certain groups with it; also, it provides an unnecessary stumbling-block for dialogue. If we were to develop a notion of "cult" based exclusively on structural features and their social effects, I'm quite confident that the LDS Church wouldn't be one. Jehovah's Witnesses might. I don't focus on the issue much at all because I'm concerned chiefly with truth, and I know of very few viable definitions of "cult" that preclude an alleged 'cult' from happening to be right.

Q: Do Jehovah's Witnesses and Latter-day Saints serve another Jesus?

A: That's a thornier question than most think, and it's tough to give a straight 'yes' or 'no' answer. To give a woefully short answer, yes in one sense and no in another, but that of course needs a lot of further clarification, which I hope to give in a future post. I would like to say that I find that rather few 'countercultists' have done much serious reflection on either a theory of reference or on 2 Corinthians 11:4 in its historical setting.

Q: Would you ever convert to one of those groups?

A: If I were convinced they were right, sure! In a heartbeat! All I want to do is find the truth and latch onto it. If I should come to believe that another group has it, well, then sign me up! I strive to be as open as possible to being rationally persuaded of opposing views. However, it also so happens that I have current views that I consider to be more rationally defensible - and, in fact, that I consider to be true. And so unless a Jehovah's Witness or a Latter-day Saint - or somebody else - can give me good reasons to think that I'm wrong and they're right, I'm staying put in orthodox Christianity, because to do otherwise would be an offense to God, to truth, and to reason.

Q: You're a jerk, by the way.

A: True! I'm glad my efforts aren't going unnoticed. Have a nice day!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reflections on Lessons with LDS Missionaries

Over the past three months, while staying in Greece - I'm back in the United States now - I had a number of opportunities to meet with Latter-day Saint missionaries. Though I never attended a Sunday morning worship service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I think I may have spent more time in that building than I did with my own church home in Greece (St. Andrews International Church). After my initial encounter with a group of Latter-day Saints at the Areopagus where Paul preached, I had nine 'lessons' (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) with LDS missionaries, and most of those meetings also involved a former bishop who's now a CES Institute teacher. During these, I went through all of the lessons that missionaries teach investigators prior to baptism, and this included all doctrinal material, sparse though it may have been. I also attended two Center for Young Adults events on Saturday evenings, as well as two fireside chats: the first with a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy and the second with a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Throughout all this, I met numerous Latter-day Saints, most of whom were currently serving as missionaries, from all over the United States and Europe (and a few non-missionary members, I think, from Africa). And I'm pleased to number quite a few of these people as my friends, people whom I hope to keep in touch with for years to come. They're friendly people. Not overbearingly friendly in the way that Jehovah's Witnesses can sometimes come across, but friendly, a normal human sort of friendly of the sort that we could all strive for. I really have come to regard several of the folks there as good friends. And I don't think I can emphasize that enough. They're genuinely authentic, decent, pious people who genuinely want to serve God to the best of their ability, and who have good senses of humor, and vivid, interesting lives, and admirable devotion. What's not to love in all that?

Aside from that, some reflections on my experiences? First of all, I'd have to say that I was surprised just how many of my questions received very indirect confessions of ignorance in response. For the most part, they tried to mark these as instances of understandable ignorance, saying that they were questions for which we don't have the answers in this mortal life. I think that, in many of these cases, that reply is more of a cop-out than a real interaction. Sometimes, theology has to be done by speculating, by pushing the boundaries of what we know to see what works and what doesn't, and then seeking God's help to let the truth win out. I find the confessions of ignorance ironic for several reasons. First, in an early meeting, one of the missionaries said that they were absolutely sure that they could answer without problem about 95% of the questions that I or anyone else could throw at them. I think the percentages were just about perfectly reversed. Second, they spent a great deal of effort dancing around their ignorance and trying to excuse it. And third, their church leaders have historically made very firm pronouncements on certain points of doctrine, and yet probing the edges with questions will frequently result in claims of ignorance as to whether the doctrine itself is even taught.

So I think that my biggest surprise was their inability to answer some of my questions, or at least take a stronger stab at it. I think that I might have actually been able to do a better job defending Latter-day Saint doctrine. But, of course, this sort of thing is just what I do. The best way to play with an idea is to test it, hammer it, speculate a bit, and see what happens. When I asked questions about their strict identification of Jesus with Jehovah, to the exclusion of the Father - which has not always been their church's uniform practice - they failed to handle a single one of my challenges adequately. Biblical passages that teach otherwise were dismissed as evidence of the Bible's corruption. Issues regarding the temple as dedicated to Jesus or to his Father were similarly a source of consternation, because they could only escape the force of the query by implicitly accusing Jesus of needlessly misleading people. And with respect to the Decalogue's prohibition of worshipping gods other than Jehovah, they really had no good answer. They also failed to deal with Isaiah's clear statements of monotheism, other than to either appeal to context (which, in this case, could not dismiss the problem) or else dismiss Isaiah's text as corrupt without any evidence other than their own position. When asked about the Father's past, they shrouded the matter in obscurity and contradiction, first suggesting that the Father is outside of time but failing to reconcile that with the logic of their own views of God, and then later conceding that they believe that the Father was once a man a lot like us, presumably with a pre-mortality and mortality. They also could not answer challenges to their hopes of robust deification, other than to make it immune to logical inquiry at all--which is always the surest sign of defeat. They could not find any biblical warrant for their church's views on the Melchizedek Priesthood, and they also couldn't really answer questions about where apostolic Christians performed ordinances. This is all to say nothing of their indefensible position on the textual reliability of biblical manuscripts.

While I did nonetheless find them to be, on the whole, familiar with the basics of their own faith - I was pleased that at least two of my interlocuters knew of the King Follett Discourse, to take just one example - I also found that they weren't quite so familiar with certain other crucial things. For example, the basics of orthodox Christian theology were somewhat lost on them, and I doubt I need to repeat the numerous gaffes on church history.

If I were persuaded that their beliefs are true, that their church is the One True Church, then I would gladly convert. No question about it. And I am open to that sort of persuasion. But the past few months have not gotten me closer to believing that what they say is, in fact, true. I see no biblical or rational warrant for their particular religious epistemology. I now see their doctrines of the Godhead and of exaltation as being weaker than ever, and I still haven't seen good reasons to think of the Book of Mormon as an accurate historical record or of Joseph Smith as an authentic prophet of God. I have, however, gained a greater understanding of LDS beliefs and practices, and I think that was a very worthwhile experience. I'm very glad to have experienced what I did over the past few months.

Monday, November 30, 2009

LDS Lesson #9

When I arrived at the LDS Church at 6:30, it wasn't quite open yet; however, Lysistrata and Sappho--whom I hadn't expected to see again after the Center for Young Adults activity two nights ago--were standing outside teaching a Finnish potential convert (an attractive young woman who doesn't feature again in this narrative) Bible and BoM stories from a picture book, or something of the sort; one of the sisters told me that they're the same pictures used to teach her when they were little. Admetus and Alcestis finally arrived and opened up the church--it gets sealed behind a lowered sheet of metal akin to a garage door when not in use--and we all went inside. As they took the elevator up, I opted for the stairs so as to make a quick stop on the way.

And when we all reached the third floor it came to pass that the sisters took the main room for their lesson with the aforementioned Finnish girl, and I spent some final time in Admetus' little office space. When Creon and Orestes arrived, we took a few pictures to keep the memories alive, and then Creon and Orestes took me down a level to a room that would be suitable for our last meeting. As we waited for Admetus, it came to pass that the three of us looked at a pamphlet that had been left there; it was in Greek and evidently concerned LDS temples, because it contained numerous pictures of the insides of various rooms in some of them. I got to see what Orestes had been talking about when he spoke of 'grapes' hanging from the ceiling in the celestial room of the Salt Lake City Temple, and I could understand why Creon considers that temple to be a bit too "gaudy". It was nice to finally have some images to put with my impressions of what such a temple might be like. I said I was disappointed that it didn't have flickering candles in dark, secret chambers; when I said that I liked dark and creepy rituals, Orestes said, "But dark and creepy is so... weird."

And it came to pass that, when Admetus finally arrived and we opened the session with a quick time of prayer, they wanted to talk about revelation, and although looking forward to my final questions, I was happy to let them. It started out with a reading from Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9 ("Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right then I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me"). As my missionary friends explained, Oliver Cowdery, who had been a scribe for the Book of Mormon, wanted a promotion, as it were. He wanted to try his hand at the act of translation itself. Joseph Smith consented to allow him to, but when Cowdery attempted it, he discovered that he was unable. The ninth section of Doctrine and Covenants was given in response to this event. Cowdery, they explained, failed in two respects: he failed to do the necessary legwork for receiving the gift, and he failed to bring the matter to God first.

And it came to pass that the next scriptural passage they brought up for discussion was Acts 1:22-26 ("Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles"). According to them, there is no actual record of Matthias having personally seen the risen Christ. They used this passage as a biblical illustration of the procedure outlined in D&C 9:7-9. First, the eleven remaining apostles of Christ used their own powers of discernment to find two candidates for the position. In the words of D&C 9, they studied it out in their own minds. They then brought the issue to the Lord for a final decision on the matter, allowing it to be his choice rather than theirs. Of course, I note now that even if we accept this schematization, the two passages there diverge. Where D&C 9 urges the believer to take refuge in private feelings, Acts 1 shows the disciples using a more public venue of verification: visible lots. Whatever one may think about the merits of choosing by casting lots, at least it's a publicly visible result, if not a publicly visible mechanism. I wish I had thought of this during the meeting. Would've been fun to ask them.

And it came to pass that Creon said that it establishes a pattern, as Luke frequently does in Acts: when one apostle dies, another one must be appointed. I take issue with this. The reason for replacing Judas with Matthias was not so much Judas' death as his defection, as is essentially declared in Acts 1:25. When Jesus spoke of his disciples sitting on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28), this seems to keep the number at a strict twelve, and any other apostles (for which the biblical requirements seem to rather clearly include having seen the risen Christ, cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1) would not be among the Twelve. So I question, for example, the LDS practice of continuing to claim to have a legitimate Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, since these must then be seen as supplanting Jesus' disciples after their death. (The Book of Mormon, by the way, reaffirms that Jesus' twelve disciples will judge the twelve tribes of Israel--see 1 Nephi 12:9 and Mormon 3:18--but doesn't really seem to grapple with the problem. On my reading of those passages, the Old World apostles will judge the New World apostles, and the New World apostles will judge the New World Israelites, so it seems. But this is all so foreign to Matthew 19:28 that it's difficult to take it seriously without an overriding reason to do so.)

And it came to pass that Orestes said that revelation is the key to God's one true church--namely, theirs--from top to bottom. Every person, he explained, has a responsibility to gain revelations for themselves from God. This requires preparation on the part of the seeker; as with the case of Oliver Cowdery, there's no license for being lazy and waiting on God to speak. Christ said, "ask, and ye shall receive" (John 16:24; D&C 4:7), and since what church to join is such a fundamental issue, surely it falls under the purview of that passage. Thus, we have biblical counsel to ask Christ what church to join. The hard part, he said, is knowing when one has done enough to receive such a revelation. Humility and sincerity are crucial. The exact words?
Revelation is so key to God's church, so key all the way up from the very top, all the way down to the very bottom. I mean, the prophet has a very big responsibility to be in tune with the Spirit and to get revelation for the Church as a whole. But in the very same, in a very serious sense, us personally, we have the responsibility to get personal revelation for ourselves, to know what things we need to change in our lives, what things we're doing good, to be really guided by the Spirit, and to receive, you know, that what we need. That is our communication, that's our link between us and God, through revelation, through the Holy Spirit. This is so important, especially because at least right now in your life this is exactly what you need. You need to be able to get an answer from God. You need to be ready to receive that answer. We've kinda talked a little bit about it, and we've said that you're kinda in the in-between phase, maybe it's true, maybe it's not, you just feel like you haven't really gotten an answer. And it's hard for me to believe really in any situation - especially for something as basic as this, like 'what church should I join?', like 'is the Book of Mormon true?', something-- such a basic question - when Christ said so many times in so many different ways, "Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you"... I don't think that-- I mean, maybe rarely, God-- I don't try to limit what God can do, he can do what he wants, but according to my opinion I don't believe that God would make you wait to-- as long as you've done your part, I believe that he will give you that answer. Now, and that's the hard part, knowing if you've done enough, knowing if you've done your part. And so if you feel like you're not getting an answer, I'd like to invite you to check everything. Check first your motives. Why do you want an answer? Is this, is this, is this a sincere motive? Is this something that you would act upon? Think to yourself, you know, the Book of Mormon's a good book, you've read it and you liked it, but you don't know yet whether it's inspired, whether it's of God or not. So I guess that, that's the goal, you need to know where you're going with it, you need to have the goal, you need to have the answer. But you need to make sure that you're humble enough that you're ready to act on whatever God has for you, whether it be a yes or a no. But that, you know, that your intentions are-- you have every intention to act on the answer God will give you.
And it came to pass that Creon added that there is a difference between having a "desire to know" and having a "need to know". People who simply have a desire to know the truth--out of, say, academic curiosity--have no right to a revelation. Only those who have a felt need, who burn with passion to get to the heart of the matter, are ready for such a revelation. Since (or so he thinks) if the Book of Mormon is true, then it follows that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and the church and its priesthood have been restored, it is truly a matter of great consequence, and "baptism by this authority means salvation". (And, once again, salvation has been seemingly shifted away from Christ and onto their church's baptism, or at least that's how it comes across. And yes, of course I'm aware that one could say that the necessity of proper baptism derives from its inherent power as an identification with the death and resurrection of Christ, and so forth, so that salvation is from Christ through baptism, or some such formulation.) Thus, we must clearly perceive our own need to receive an answer. And as he put it:

Either you've been saved by the church that you're in already, or you haven't been. And it's either somewhere else, or you already have it. Um, the Book of Mormon is that perfect key, to say, "Alright, well I can know, if the Book of Mormon is true, then that means everything else about, you know, the steps behind that, there's certain precautions. So it means, 'Is my soul saved?' Because I have a need to be with God again. I have a need to be baptized, to be cleansed from all my sins, because if I'm not baptized by proper authority, then I won't be able to be in the kingdom of God and I have these sins still on me." So there's a big difference between just having a desire and having a need, and when God sees that our need is true, that we see our need, that's when I think he'll give us the answers as well. That's when he'll feed us the knowledge, because he knows that you are sincere and you will act upon these things.
And it came to pass that Orestes then turned to another passage of LDS scripture, Doctrine and Covenants 8:1-3 ("Oliver Cowdery, verily, verily, I say unto you, that assuredly as the Lord liveth, who is your God and your Redeemer, even so surely shall you receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which has been spoken by the manifestation of my Spirit. Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground"). Here we find three criteria for receiving a revelation: (1) ask in faith, (2) have an honest heart, and (3) believe that an answer will be given. Another passage that he cited, Moroni 10:3-5 ("Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things"), the famous promise passage adored by Latter-day Saints everywhere, also lists three criteria: (1) have a sincere heart, (2) ask with real intent, and (3) have faith in Christ. (Notice how none of these 'promise' passages are from scripture that Latter-day Saints share in common with orthodox Christians?) We need to seek out of a true desire to please God. When Orestes asked me how that promise makes me feel, I answered, "That's a very, very strong promise, and if it is one that God really has given, then it's absolutely the most reliable method of coming to the truth." He replied, "I believe that wholeheartedly, and I don't think I could have put it better myself."

And at this point it came to pass that Creon chimed in with a biblical passage, Galatians 5:22 ("But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith"), and said that the fruit of the Spirit shows the quality of the "feelings that we're going to feel", the different forms that the feeling of confirmation takes. (I might add that this is such a peculiar interpretation of Galatians that I hardly know where to begin. None of the fruit of the Spirit are, properly speaking, 'feelings', or would not likely have been understood as such by the original hearers of Paul's letter.) The fuller statement, for context:
One of the things that sticks up to me is, "by the power of the Holy Ghost", which reminded me of Galatians, chapter 5, verse, uh, 22. Previously Paul is kind of mentioning all of the things that are not of the Holy Spirit, and then he talks about what is of the Spirit. So the kind of feelings that we're going to feel through the Holy Ghost, that's the power of the Holy Ghost, it says in verse 22 of Galatians, chapter 5, it says that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance"--now temperance, the Greek word is a little bit different, the Greek word is 'self-control', it says "against such there is no law". So you can see that the fruits of the Spirit, the power that we're going to feel, it's a feeling, it's a power, and it's a converting power within us. In Doctrine and Covenants it says that there's a 'burning within the bosom'. Other people have said that it feels like a-- some people feel something from the top of their head to the bottom of their toes.
And it came to pass that Orestes, tying into this, brought in another LDS scripture, Doctrine and Covenants 6:20-23 ("Behold, thou art Oliver, and I have spoken unto thee because of thy desires; therefore treasure up these words in thy heart. Be faithful and diligent in keeping the commandments of God, and I will encircle thee in the arms of thy love. Behold, I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I am the same that came unto mine own, and mine own received me not. I am the light which shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not. Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?"), which Admetus read. Orestes explained that the peace given upon the request was an answer and a sufficient witness to the truth. "By fruits", he added, "we can know the false prophets", but he glossed this by saying that these fruits are whether the spirit of the teaching feels good or not so good. (Inside of my head at this time, a little man was banging his skull against the inside of my skull, shouting, "No! No! No!" When John exhorts people to "try the spirits" in 1 John 4:1, or Paul exhorts people to "prove all things" in 1 Thessalonians 5:1, our feelings were emphatically not the recommended measuring stick.) A fuller statement, for context:

Now I think many times, everyone of these days, they think, you know, "I, I gotta have something big", but in reality this-- Oliver had already received an answer to his prayers. He had prayed, and he had received that peace, that peace of mind, that-- those feelings that only come from the Spirit of God, and it spoke peace to his mind, he felt good about it. But yet he didn't trust that, he just thought, "You know, I, it feels good to pray." But that is a fruit, that is the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus Christ said that by fruits we can know the false prophets, I mean, by things as simple as, 'the spirit doesn't feel good', you know, or 'the spirit does feel good', by small things can we judge how to work, how to act, and so it's still-- it takes faith, it takes a little bit of faith, because it's not, you didn't see an angel, you didn't see anything, but then he says, "What greater witness can ye have than from God?" Because that feeling comes from God himself.
And it came to pass that Creon hearkened back to the clip we'd watched called The Restoration, particularly to a line given to Lucy Mack (Joseph Smith's mother) to the effect that he should obtain from God that which no man can take away, meaning a direct, private testimony of the truth that isn't susceptible to external disconfirmation. As Creon explained, no reasoning, no philosophy, no way of man can possibly undermine a 'personal testimony'--and therein, I think, lies one of the chief problems. Orestes encouraged me to engage in some introspection as to whether I'm truly open to the LDS faith and whether I meet the criteria outlined. (I do, save for believing firmly that God will indeed answer prayers in the way they describe, because I am neither persuaded from the Scriptures nor by reason that that's how God works.)

And it came to pass that Creon added that there's more involved than just reading the Book of Mormon; if one applies the Book of Mormon's principles to one's life, one will invariably become closer to God than someone else who abides by the principles of any other book, including the Bible itself. Needless to say, this proclamation of the Book of Mormon's practical superiority intrigued me, so I asked for some examples of principles that are in the Book of Mormon but are lacking in the Bible. The first example I was given was from 1 Nephi 3:7 ("And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing that he commandeth them"), wherein it is taught that the Lord will provide a path to accomplish any commandment he gives. (And yet, I find it curious that the practice of 'plural marriage' seems to have been stopped precisely because the government disapproved, and God purportedly commanded his church to acquiesce rather than follow the commandment that, in the teaching of many early LDS leaders, was essential to having eternal life.) They did concede, fortunately, that 1 Corinthians 10:13 ("There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it") stands as an obvious corollary. I personally would have to say that anyone who couldn't see that "God will make a way, where there seems to be no way" (in the words of Don Moen's now-classic song) would probably be a bit of a dullard, so color me unimpressed thus far with the Book of Mormon's alleged 'greater-than-the-Bible' insight.

And it came to pass that Admetus jumped in with another passage from the Book of Mormon, this time using Mosiah 2:17-18 ("And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God. Behold, ye have called me your king; and if I, whom ye call your king, do labor to serve you, then ought ye not to labor to serve one another?"). Service to others being service to God, he said, surpasses all biblical injunction, and Mosiah 2 is all about service. On the contrary, it seems to be that the Book of Mormon's statement here could be easily extrapolated from several verses in the New Testament, such as Matthew 25:40 ("And the king shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me") and a synthesis of Ephesians 6:7 ("With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men") and Galatians 5:13 ("For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another"). Admetus also referenced Alma 36 as teaching about the afterlife and 2 Nephi 2 as teaching about the fall, and both of these go beyond what the Bible says. However, since we were supposed to be focusing on principles for practical, day-to-day living, these were both irrelevant.

And it came to pass that, since they had already lost sight somewhat of the point of the question, I wasn't surprised when the trend continued. Creon brought up Alma 22:18 ("O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead"), one of his favorite verses for the (admittedly very beautiful) phrase "I will give away all my sins to know thee". Admetus, with perhaps a slightly greater focus on the issue at hand, noted that the Book of Mormon is much clearer than the Bible on the proper mode of baptism. (He cited no verses other than the entire book of 3 Nephi.) He related a story from his youth when he and his father went to see a movie about the life of Jesus, and it featured a scene where John the Baptist led Jesus down into the river, and then proceeded to baptize him by sprinkling. His father had, of course, burst out laughing, as I probably would have as well. Orestes tossed in Alma 37:42-45 ("Therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions. And now, my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow; for as out fathers were slothful to give heed to this compass (now these things were temporal) they did not prosper; even so with things which are spiritual. For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land. And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise"), which he said gave a very clear interpretation of the brazen serpent from Exodus, though the brazen serpent actually appears nowhere in those verses; he must have been thinking of something else. And the allegorical use of the story of the Nephites, while quite nice, has probably been done ages before Joseph Smith's time by Christian commentators on the Exodus narrative. Creon hearkened back to Alma 37:6 ("Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say to you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise"), saying that LDS missionary work is an excellent example of "small and simple things" doing great deeds, because their church sends out such young missionaries. These things, they summed up, all cohere with the gospel but are not taught clearly in the Bible.

Finally moving back to the issue of revelation, it came to pass that Admetus related a story from former LDS Church president/prophet/seer Gordon B. Hinckley's famed interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes. When Wallace asked him directly how a prophet speaks with God, Hinckley alluded to 1 Kings 19:9-13 ("And he came thither to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?") and said that promptings come quietly and frequently to him as a "still, small voice". Admetus said that most people receive revelation, not via various objects (he gave as examples the Urim and Thummim and the Liahona), but quietly in the midst of prayer, as "thoughts in your mind and feelings in your heart". He cited some footnoted material from Joseph Smith-History to the effect that "these were days never to be forgotten", and he said that he was sure that our encounters would be days that none of us would ever forget. After all, he said, I was the first person they'd met who actually could understand the Christian creeds (which is rather sad), and we were leaving as good friends. Admetus also said that he was quite certain that I could have gone after them far more aggressively and vigorously than I did--which is very, very, very true.

And after this it came to pass that Creon related how some of our mutual friends go about receiving revelation, to give some concrete examples. Tiresias, for example, learns doctrine according to an interesting process. His first step is philosophizing, studying out the matter, developing an idea, and writing it down. He then talks to others about it, bounces the idea off of them, and revises and refines it. Then, he prays about it and asks God to enlighten his mind. After this, he spends some time in silence just staring at the paper on which he wrote down the idea. At times, he feels led to simply crumple it up and toss it; on other occasions, he sees points where it can be improved and then kept. Solon, on the other hand, alternates prayer and writing. He gets down on his knees to pray, then gets up to write something down, then gets down on his knees again, and repeats. When Creon asked what was going on, Solon said that he was going through the preceding day with the Lord, asking God to bring things to his remembrance or not, and seeking knowledge.

And it came to pass at this point that Orestes turned to me and said that "what you felt here tonight is the Holy Ghost". He urged me to trust in that feeling, however it happens to feel precisely, and to remember it always. If I do so, he said, I will "never go wrong", and that it would be the same feeling I'd get while praying about the Book of Mormon.
What you felt here tonight is the Holy Ghost, and if you learn to trust that feeling, learn to follow that feeling-- Never forget what the Holy Ghost feels like. For me, I can think of what I'm feeling right now and I can say, "Okay, I know exactly what it's like for me to have the Holy Ghost." For you, it might be different, but I think, I think you feel very much how I feel right now. I feel full right now. I feel very, very full inside, and I don't know how to explain it, I've always fallen short with words, but the Holy Spirit has borne witness to me tonight that the things that we've talked about were true principles, that these things were all true, and the Holy Ghost continues to bear witness in my life of the things that I do. It's so great because it's kinda like, sometimes you gotta know, like, "God, are you really happy where I'm at? Are you really needing me? Am I really-- am I a good person?" And it's so great to have that, that comfort, the Comforter to come and to witness to me time and time again that, 'Yeah, you're doing okay', or maybe, 'You can just fix this thing', and then I feel better. But never forget that feeling right now, because if you always remember that feeling, then you'll never go wrong, as long as you obey that. Now, know how it feels, and when you pray about the Book of Mormon, you'll receive that same feeling. You'll know that the Book of Mormon is true, through the fruits of the Spirit. [. . .] The Spirit is just delicious to my soul, I don't know how else to describe it, but right now I just feel full, I know the Spirit's here with us right now. That would be my one greatest counsel to you, is to know how you feel and to always live your life as to feel the Holy Ghost with you, to always feel this, to always have your spirit full, full of gratitude, full of faith, through all these things that the Spirit brings. And I know that the Book of Mormon also will help you with that, 'cause it helps me every day. These things-- I just am not the same person without it.
And it came to pass that around this time, during the earlier portion of this monologue, I could almost have tricked myself into believing that I was feeling a 'burning in the bosom', to use that term to cover all revelatory/confirmatory experiences of the sort that Latter-day Saints emphasize. That is, I felt happy and peaceful, of a sort; it's difficult to put into words in retrospect, though I tend to find that with most emotions. It was interesting to evaluate the process while it was happening, though. If I were an uncritical investigator, I probably wouldn't have given it a thought, but instead would have acclaimed it as the feeling of which they had spoken, and taken it as solid proof for the truth of their position. I can easily see how a person who wants to believe and has an uncritical epistemology could be taken in--and believe me when I say that I did want to believe, wanted to feel that 'burning in the bosom'. With a bit greater reflection, however, it was obvious that it was more or less the exact same feeling I always tend to have when having a good conversation with friends whom I really, really like. The feeling was, in all probability, no more than the psychological component of positive social experience. At least, so I think. But hey, what do I know?

Well, what I do know is this: that I have--or at least believe that I have; I'd be willing to reinterpret these experiences in light of forthcoming evidence, if necessary--felt the Holy Spirit very powerfully at various points in my life, in diverse ways. I've had what some might call 'mystical experiences', for example, those moments of God-intoxication in which I can feel the Spirit rush through my body, eliciting exuberant praise for God, and in which I'd hardly be surprised to see the heavens open, revealing the throne of God. I'd say I've felt the Spirit on other occasions, such as the day I ascended the steps toward my current church home; I felt a sense of peace, as though a burden were removed from my shoulders, of a kind that I've seldom felt since. And, as a lesser example, one might ascribe to the Spirit the sensation of recognizing Truth with a capital 'T' that I can feel coursing through my veins as I read the Nicene Creed--a liveliness and excitement and inner rejoicing at the lofty nature of God and his immense condescension to meet us where we are. If we're going to go by feelings--which I don't, because feelings can easily mislead, as I've learned the hard way at times--then no feeling I've had while talking to the missionaries or while reading the Book of Mormon can compare with the feelings I've just described as Spirit-inspired. If the Holy Spirit wanted to communicate with me via feelings and impressions, any of those would work fine for catching my attention, I think.

And it came to pass that, after I promised to use these tools to further investigate the Book of Mormon and the LDS Church, I was asked again if I had anyone I could possibly refer to them who might like to chat with LDS missionaries. They told me a bit about how exactly the referral process works. While I was fairly sure that I didn't know anyone in Athens who'd be interested, I said that I'd continue to think about anyone back in America who might be interested. After that, I got a bit of time to ask some last questions. The first one, which I didn't have on my list but which had occurred to me at some point over the last few weeks, was rather simple, and they actually had an answer of sorts. Noting that Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by a number of 'resurrected personages' (e.g., Moroni, John the Baptist, Peter, the sons of Zebedee), I asked when they were resurrected. Creon answered that on Easter, many other saints rose from the dead along with the resurrection of Christ (cf. Matthew 27:52-53). If this had been the whole answer, it obviously wouldn't have worked. Creon, however, added that they understand the 'first resurrection' spoken of in Revelation 20:5-6 ("But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years") as beginning with the resurrection of Christ and continuing throughout the current age and up until the conclusion of Christ's millennial reign (which Latter-day Saints consider to be a future period, whereas as a tentative amillennialist I consider the present period to be the millennial reign). Thus, he explained, resurrections are actually ongoing in the present age, particularly for those who need to be raised from the dead for a given purpose, as was the case for the figures in question. With respect to the precise point in history at which any of them were raised from the dead, however, Creon professed an understandable ignorance. This was actually one of the few questions for which they had a decent answer, and I congratulated them on it.

My final question was one I had been saving, since it wouldn't have been appropriate at an earlier stage in the game. I noted that LDS evangelism places a high premium on urging people to pray for a direct revelation from God as to the truth of the message, and I asked whether Acts showed this to be the dominant apostolic method. And it came to pass that Orestes went to bat first, saying that conversion necessarily happens through the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit can work through a variety of media. The Book of Mormon is of course one but not the only one. The Holy Spirit can also reach people through the modern-day prophet, through talks, through pamphlets, and other ways as well. Admetus cited Matthew 28:18-20 ("And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen") for reasons that remain a tad inexplicable, while Creon raised the more relevant passage of Acts 2:37-41 ("Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you into the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls"), focusing on the phrase "pricked in the heart", which he said indicated that they felt the leading of the Holy Spirit; that is, they were receiving revelation. He said that "the way that we teach as missionaries is inspired of God", insofar as it's a clear case of God working through human weakness.

And it came to pass that, when I asked whether the rest of Acts bore out their analysis, Creon referenced his previous remarks about Acts as a book of patterns, and said that this is one of the patterns assumed throughout the rest of the work. He said that it doesn't appear as much in the case of Paul because much of Paul's mission was to strengthen those already converted in the faith, as can be seen in his letters. (Notice, of course, that at best, this just says that Acts assumes that the leading of the Holy Spirit will be involved in all true conversion, which is an uncontroversial proposition. I didn't challenge them on it there in the interest of time, though in retrospect I should have, but nowhere did they show that their methods in evangelism are at all parallel to those of Christ's apostles. The apostles appealed to verifiable facts and urged people to make the rational decision; Latter-day Saint missionaries frequently appeal to unverifiable private experience and urge people to follow their feelings.)

And it came to pass that this brought our very last meeting to a close at last. And it came to pass that I said the closing prayer:
Heavenly Father, God and Lord of all, I thank you for having had so many opportunities over the past couple months to meet such wonderful friends as these three men and to converse with them about things that do concern you and do concern what truly matters in life. I thank you for having watched over our conversations and having had a great deal to do with them. I pray that you would see fit to guard over all of us, guide us into all truth, and strengthen us in the days to come. As I depart to go back to the United States, I pray that you would continue to work in my life to show me truth and in their lives to show them truth, and that you would-- that it would be your will to allow us to keep in frequent contact and to continue to share with one another. We're so grateful for all of the many things that you've done in each of our lives, and we pray that we would all find the places that you have marked out for us in your grand plan for the renewal of the earth and the bringing of mankind into your love. Thank you, Lord, for everything. In Christ's name, Amen.
Saying goodbye wasn't easy, though it hasn't really hit me yet that I may never see these guys again, at least in this world. But I certainly hope I do. Creon and Orestes and I walked part of the way back from the church before our paths diverged; we shook hands one last time before I walked forward into the darkness once again...