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.