HOT JUPITERS AND PRIVILEGED SCRIPTURAL FRAMES

May 14, 2009 at 1:09 PM 21 comments

As part of an ongoing Scriptural commentary series for the Community of Christ, David Brock, the church’s Presiding Evangelist, recently posted a statement about Scripture that I quote below in part.

Scripture can’t be used to oppress or control other people. God is no respecter of persons… If God loves all people our job is to uphold the worth of everyone.

Scripture is treasure in an earthen vessel. Revelation of God is found there, but it comes through humans—amazing, but imperfect and flawed humans.  It reflects the times and cultures and languages of the many voices heard within its pages.  It is not inerrant.

Scripture is best interpreted through the life and teachings of Jesus, who came to serve, to break down dividing walls, to heal, to share good news, to instill hope, to save.

Scriptural interpretation is dependent on experience, tradition, and scholarship.  We pay attention to our own life experience.  We draw from the wisdom of our forbearers, who interpreted the same writings in their day.  We use our own intellectual ability and the latest discoveries and insights of the best minds.

Scripture is illuminated by God’s Spirit working within us—if we are attentive and receptive enough.  The same Spirit that moved on the waters at creation moves in our hearts and minds to guide and direct us today.

David states a theory of Scriptural interpretation that reflects consensus views within today’s Community of Christ.  However, notice that it is a theory with which just about any mainstream Protestant theologian could be comfortable, despite the fact that mainstream Protestants do not use two of the books of Scripture that the Community of Christ does.

But that makes this a theory really tested on one case – the Bible – and then too easily presumed to guide how we view our other Scriptures as well.  And, unfortunately, theories tested on one case remind me of hot Jupiters!

You see, astronomers spent much of the last half of the 20th Century devising a very good theory of how our solar system formed.  It correctly predicted that the solar system would have “dwarf” planets — only astronomers would call something as large as the earth a dwarf — made of rock closest to the sun where temperatures were highest.  It also correctly predicted that farther out from the sun, planets would grow large enough to accrete vast amounts of gas and grow into giants like Jupiter and Saturn.  Farther out, as raw materials tapered off and temperatures fell still further, planets would shrink into dwarves made of ices before disappearing into the realm of comets – planetary fragments that never collected into planets because the volumes of space they inhabited were too vast.  Everything else was details, and astronomers assumed that other solar systems would look fairly similar.

And then we devised technology to look for other solar systems.  The technology we first developed would be able to see planets like Jupiter, but only if you looked for a long enough time.  It would find such Jupiter-like planets even faster if they were close to their stars, but our theories said such planets could not form there because the temperature exceeded the point above which most planetary raw materials volatilized.  So we deployed our technology and sat down to wait.  

Except that these “hot Jupiters” started to show up by the dozens!  Astronomers questioned the first observations, and then started looking for special scenarios to explain what they were seeing.  After all, everyone naturally assumed that giant planets were too large to have their orbits significantly moved by anything but other giant planets or stars.

However, that was an assumption that was dead wrong, and no one bothered to question it until we were confronted with cases of solar systems unlike the one with which we were familiar.  It turns out that a general theory of solar system formation must allow for the interaction between forming planets and the dust and gas cloud from which the parent star is condensing.  Such actions can cause planets to spiral either inward or outward; even giant planets do not end up in the orbits in which they first formed.  Indeed, once we recognized the effect was important, astronomers soon realized that it accounted for some of the most important remaining mysteries about events in our own solar system.

Theories of Scripture validated on single cases are subject to surprises from the same kind of hidden assumptions.  What kind of hidden assumptions might exist in our theories of Scripture?  Well, consider just one thing that appears unique about us: we live in the most progressive culture we know about.

Here I don’t use the word “progressive” in its political sense; I’m talking about something that’s so deep in our cultural bones that it has spread across the globe as an essential aspect of modernism (if not post-modernism).  Things are expected to change, and to change for the better.  That makes us prone to an attitude for which, if I recall correctly, the columnist George Will appropriated the term “chronological determinism” – the idea that today’s views of reality are better than yesterday’s, not just in areas of science, that precocious child of the Enlightenment, but in government, philosophy, religion, ethics and art as well.

In short, we have difficulty in extending the notion of the “worth of all persons” expressed in our theory of Scripture above into the past.  We regard ourselves as having a “privileged frame of reference” with which to judge the insights of others regarding Scripture.  For example, we try to value non-Christian cultures extant today and seek to find and understand fundamental truths they may hold.  We assume there are areas of understanding where they are correct and we are wrong.  Are we as quick to extend to the Scriptural and theological understandings of our less-educated 19th Century (let alone 6th Century BCE) predecessors the notion that we may be the ones in error?

We expect to be judged by the 23rd Century perhaps – that expectation is itself implicit in the notion of progress.  And we accord a second “privileged frame” to the 1st Century Eastern Mediterranean on the basis that cultures there were direct or second-hand witnesses of the historical Jesus, and so expose ourselves to judgment in the light of those cultures.  But, even then our vulnerability to chronological determinism is inherent in expressions such as “the latest discoveries and insights of the best minds” or our interpretations of what Jesus came to do – interpretations that were not shared by many Christians who regarded themselves as faithful throughout history.  Indeed, we sometimes stray into use of the term “prophetic” as a synonym for those in the past whose understandings can most closely be interpreted as mirroring our own, and are quick to almost treat the “Old Testament” as if it were an “Inferior Testament”.

In fact, David’s commentary emphasizes our vulnerability on this very score later when he says:

“But, alas, I am confessing what I consider the faults of others whom I believe misinterpret scripture.  I’m quite proud of myself, frankly, that I do not use scripture to advance sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, creationism, apocalypticism, or salvation for me and mine over against the rest of creation.  That sounds a lot like the man in the Jerusalem Temple who prayed loudly in a prominent place for all to hear and admire, “Thank you, God, that I am not like those other people!”  Jesus was not impressed!

“…What about me? What is God asking me to confess and repent of in my misuse of scripture?  It likely remains for other sisters and brothers and spiritual companions to guide me through my own blindness to a place of confession and repentance.”

Just as we were best able to make further progress in understanding the planets when confronting solar systems that didn’t play by our rules, perhaps we can best make progress in understanding the prophets by confronting Scriptures whose origin, assumptions, and content don’t play by the rule of chronological determinism.  In science, confrontation with anomalies drives revolutions in understanding; they are the big prize.

And the Book of Mormon is one gigantic anomaly when it comes to the Community of Christ’s understanding of its mission and its interpretation of Christianity.  The Book of Mormon asserts that there is another privileged frame of reference for interpreting Christianity – based on exactly the same standards on which we’ve granted privilege to the other two frames. 

It asserts that the people of Mesoamerica also knew the historical Jesus just as did the 1st Century Mediterranean.  Arguably, it asserts, Mesoamerica knew the historical Jesus better than did the Mid East because His divinity was presented to Mesoamerica unambiguously, anticipation of His coming guided their religious debate for generations beforehand, and adoption of His teachings was widespread in the generations following His coming.

The challenge of the Book of Mormon to our own chronological determinism is in some ways even more “in-your-face”.

Oh, in tone it is gentle, loving, pleading for us to heed what their prophets are telling us.  But its content can be as annoying as the little brother or sister taunting “I know somethin’ you don’t know, and you’d bet-ter lis-en!”

It purports to have seen our times, to know which parts of our fates are subject to change and which are “locked in” by divine command.  It claims to be in position to evaluate our understanding as Christians the way we normally evaluate theological writings of the past.  It challenges us to accept it as a divinely-prepared means – not just our “sisters and brothers and spiritual companions” – to show us aspects of our blindness and lead us to a place of confession and repentance.

One can accept the challenge.  Or, one can regard it as unworthy of refutation.  There is significant scholarly evidence for both points of view. (See here for a review that I’ll discuss more extensively in future posts.)  However, this particular “coin” is unlikely to come to rest standing on edge in some sort of theological compromise – it’s probably going to come down heads or tails.

 Even to follow the suggestion of Jan Shipps that the Book is “sacred fiction” does not avoid the challenge.  Instead, the terminology tends to devolve into supporting chronological determinism (by emphasizing the “fiction”) or simply restating the challenge by moving the third privileged reference frame to 19th Century North America (by emphasizing the “sacred”).

That’s why questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon are not distractions from the call to pursue peace and justice. Their answers potentially tell us important things about how to pursue peace and justice, because they potentially change the progressive “chronological determinism” understanding of how God has put reality together, what He is doing, and why He is doing it.

That kind of disorienting potential is what makes the Book of Mormon a “hot Jupiter”.  Knowing that our theories of solar system formation were distorted by focusing on a single case probably doesn’t matter much.  However, if the Book of Mormon is waiting to rock the way we interpret Scripture and the intent and nature of the Master, such knowledge probably matters intensely – especially when said Book claims to come postmarked specifically for civilizations of our time.

Entry filed under: astronomy, Book of Mormon, CofChrist history, Community of Christ, Mormon Scripture, Mormonism, Science and Theology, scripture, theology. Tags: , , , .

SCIENCE TRIBES GAPS IN MY FOSSIL RECORD

21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. TH  |  May 14, 2009 at 9:40 PM

    “Questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon are not distractions from the call to pursue peace and justice. Their answers potentially tell us important things about how to pursue peace and justice…”

    Darryl, this phrase was like a light bulb turning on for me. I see a connection with many other goals that individuals or societies have. Basically, it is probably safe to say that most people (animals too?) want to live in a peaceful world, just like in America right now, most people want the economy to be strong. People see a world filled with too much absence of peace and want to fix that, just like people see a hurting economy and want for that to be fixed. I can’t think of any church that does not want to contribute to peace, nor can I think of any politician who runs on a campaign platform to make the economy worse. A difference comes in the strategies and tactics (behaviors, attitudes, values, culture, etc) used to both define peace and achieve peace. Peace is probably a bit more elusive to define than a strong economy, but like the economy, it’s hard to determine what is best for everyone when different people have different ideas about what constitutes fairness.

    I think it is critical to both (1) acknowledge our limited frame in determining what peace is and what the best way is to promote it, and (2) not let the inability to grasp the whole picture (human level, animal level, God level, etc.—microscope/telescope) keep us from living and sharing peace.

    The question then becomes…if God has the best view, God should obviously be the adviser on how we have peace, so how do we discern what God “wants” us to do, etc., without getting caught in the place where we think we get what God wants, but that isn’t accurate?

    Reply
    • 2. FireTag  |  May 15, 2009 at 12:26 AM

      In Givens “by the Hand of Mormon”, linked in the OP above, he makes the point that perhaps the most substantive challenge the BofM makes to Biblical theology is the idea that revelation with God can be dialogue.

      I’m not so sure it’s an idea that is missing from the Bible as much as one we don’t take seriously because of our tendency toward “chronological determinism”. The idea of dialogic revelation is that the spiritual and physical realms can interact more directly than we can imagine in guiding history.

      If we believe in a monotheistic, intelligent God who interacts with humanity in the present for our good, it’s hard to imagine that God not planning ahead. Indeed, modern physical understandings of how tightly time and space are bound to each other make it hard to even distinguish between past, present and future on the largest, “theologically relevant” scales.

      What will be needed to establish the Kingdom will be there when we need it, even if God had to kick-off the operation thousands of years ago to make it happen.

      If the Book of Mormon is intended as one of those things we need, walking away from it would be like the Israelites ignoring the manna in the wilderness. Not fatal to the cause of peace and justice — we couldn’t prevent the kingdom if we try — but definitely making ourselves hungry for no good reason.

      Reply
  • 3. Margie Miller  |  May 23, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    I believe the Book of Mormon is a 19th century document, You’ve all heard the dozens of reasons why many of us discount it’s value as anything else so I won’t repeat those time worn arguments.

    It is so full of “wars and rumors of wars” that discarding it would be the most sensible thing we could do to work toward being a peace church.

    Reply
  • 4. FireTag  |  May 25, 2009 at 1:51 PM

    I’d appreciate a little clarification on your last paragraph, Margie, because I don’t follow the rationale .

    Certainly a lot of the Book of Mormon is full of “wars and rumors of wars”; so was my Washington Post this morning, and the WP didn’t even have the story of today’s North Korean nuke-capable missile launch or underground nuclear test yet. It certainly seems that war is a topic of extreme relevance to a 21st Century peace and justice church, even if that church chooses to drop belief in its historicity.

    The Book of Mormon teaches what we would call “Christian realism”, but primarily in the sense that it proposes very “situational” responses to problems of violence. Depending on the story, it may describe responses that involve everything from pacifism-unto-martyrdom to execution of prisoners. I would think that even as “19th Century Fiction” written by our own restoration culture, that range of responses and the consequences would be worth studying.

    Reply
    • 5. TH  |  May 25, 2009 at 2:11 PM

      I think that both of you bring up two different approaches to peace. The one that Margie shares, as I understand it, is that to obtain peace, war must be rejected. This pacifism approach is one heralded by many people who are devout, such as Thomas Merton or Gandhi, for example.

      Firetag says, as I understand it, that to obtain peace, the causes of “un-peace” must be understood and that the appropriate response is not a categorical rejection of war or violence, because doing so may lead to more violence and more un-peace in the long run. It depends on the situation.

      Both of these perspectives seem to me to not only be statements about peace, but statements about how God operates, for lack of a better description, or said a different way how we should operate to be faithful to God. One perspective seems to say that God’s choice is always the choice that is nonviolence. Jesus certainly didn’t kill soldiers to avoid the cross. The other perspective says that war can be used to further God’s purposes, the battle of Jericho might be an example used to support this point. If the first perspective is correct, then “banning” the book of mormon makes sense, just like turning off the tv when a show has too much violence. If the second perspective is correct, then understanding the military perspectives in the book of mormon may be of use to help create peace.

      What all of this reminds me of is a special I saw on the discovery channel or the history channel about a military view of the Exodus. There is a book that talks about Ancient Israel from a military perspective. I haven’t read it, but it looks interesting. Here is the link: http://books.google.com/books?id=72ZR9KCh9lUC&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=military+perspective+exodus&source=bl&ots=LOr6nNB0Qp&sig=T1STitQqmpF_9itSJGlTvoH0Fc4&hl=en&ei=INwaSrbfJ-Krtge0xZj2DA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3

      Reply
      • 6. Margie Miller  |  May 25, 2009 at 4:03 PM

        You’re right! All reasonable ways to avoid war must he tried before any violence is ever used and then it should only be used in self defense. War is definitely not the road to peace. Diplomacy is the road to peace. Peacekeeping is also the road to peace. I agree with Asimov.

        Not only should all violent books be avoided but also violent movies and videos. Seeing violence and reading about it desensitizes people to it. It then becomes the “norm”.

        In my opinion, war can never be used for God’s purposes. Our God is the God of love and peace…not Mars.

  • 7. FireTag  |  May 25, 2009 at 3:27 PM

    In the phrase “war can be used for God’s purposes”, the choice of the verb “can”, “may”, or “should” has enormous theological implications, as does the negative form of all of them (as in “can not”).

    My high school math teacher quoted Asimov to me: “Violence is the ‘last resort’ of the incompetent.”

    There does seem to be a lot of that going around, either because people want illegitimate things that others can’t give them, or because people can’t find legitimate ways to get legitimate things.

    Reply
  • 8. TH  |  May 25, 2009 at 5:22 PM

    I don’t know. It seems like banning everything that people think are violent would be a form of non-physical violence in and of itself. Also, I think that while being exposed to violence in the media can be psychologically harmful, it can also be a good thing provided that people have the tools to think for themselves. It reminds me of what I learned about the Holocaust and how the people who went through that wanted no one to ever forget what happened. Remembering and studying that violence may prevent violence from happening in the future. Also, I wonder about those moral dilemma situations, such as having to choose between shooting a single person or having that person kill dozens of others. One thing is for sure, the questions are complex and the answers are not simple.

    Reply
  • 9. Margie  |  May 25, 2009 at 7:20 PM

    There are now other first ways to deal with the situation you describe. There are tazers and other alternate weapons. Also, that situation may be thought of as defense. Aggression is one thing but defense is an altogether different thing.

    Reply
  • 10. TH  |  May 26, 2009 at 10:18 AM

    We agree on defense being justified to use violence in some situations. I hear this comment a lot, “Aggression is one thing but defense is an altogether different thing.” I think your right about that. However, I see a lot of situations where one group or one country does something and then the group that responds gets blamed. The position, and I’m not saying that this is your position, that some groups that are being violent towards others should not be stopped while using force to stop that violence is condemned. It’s kind of like we’re okay with other people being slaughtered so long as we’re not having to use violence to stop it.

    Reply
  • 11. Margie Miller  |  May 26, 2009 at 11:24 AM

    That’s why the respondents need to be the UN instead of an individual country. Individual countries need to avoid getting into these conflicts. If those who are aggressors learn that the rest of the world will put sanctions against them is they act in that manner, they will think twice before using aggression.

    Reply
  • 12. FireTag  |  May 26, 2009 at 1:14 PM

    I have never understood the faith placed in the UN (and similar international institutions) by many in the church who I doubt would ever place such faith in the government of any individual nation. The entire prophetic tradition from the OT onward was based on prophets holding governments to account for corruption and misrule of the people by afflicting the poor and marginalized.

    Unique to the post-WWI Wilsonian idealism that has persisted through the League of Nations and the UN is what seems to me to be a strange notion. Even though every government on the planet ultimately derives its power from the same special-interest behavior we’ve always “prphetically” decried — if not from outright violence or threat of violence — we assume that if we put lots of those governments in an organization, a miracle occurs and these governments all turn into altruistic statesmen who are agents of peace and justice.

    What history has instead shown is that those governments exploit the League or UN to pursue their own national or party interests. (Since both the League and the UN were formed by victors in a war, the Great Powers initially get their way.) “International cooperation” breaks down almost immediately on any issue where national interests diverge.

    The poor and marginalized nations are the first to be abandoned, such as Ethiopia before WW2. Any “sanctions” that are imposed are undermined by nations (or interest groups within nations) and prove ineffective. As it becomes apparent to any aggressors that no other nation-state or alliance can or will pay the cost to stop them, they act with greater and greater agression, which raises the cost of stopping them still higher, and the situation spirals out of control.

    We are now at a point where “peacekeepers” in places like Darfur are outgunned by the aggressors, and humanitarian workers exist in the country at the whim of the aggressors. And darfur isn’t even as bad as some places in Asia.

    In other places, the peacekeepers sell their “protection” for sexual favors or provide lifetime employment for the aggressors civilians. The UN officials take graft to enforce or not enforce the sanctions, and unanimous Security Council resolutions are openly defied by all parties, often within 24 hours.

    I’m afraid reliance on a “super government” that doesn’t use violence to stop violence only works when aggression has ceased in the first place.

    Until the Law of Love is written in humanity’s heart, the Laws of War will often be the best we can do to minimize violence.

    Reply
  • 13. Margie Miller  |  May 26, 2009 at 1:21 PM

    What makes you think the USA hasn’t done exactly the same thing and subjected the poor and it’s people who cannot get deferments to fighting their wars for them?

    There’s nothing altruistic about our interference in other country’s business, including the present ones.. I read a statement not long ago from an American general who listed all the wars we got ourselves into to and including the Spanish American War for pursuing selfish interests usually to benefit the rich and large companies.

    Reply
    • 14. FireTag  |  May 26, 2009 at 2:56 PM

      Margie:

      I do believe the USA has done the same thing. If you reread my post, you’ll see that I think ALL nation states do and have always done the same thing. So do the political parties within the nations. So do factions within political parties. And most interest groups don’t care that much about which parties they write the checks out to — they only care that the checks go to people who are amenable to their point of view.

      You are actually supporting my point. Why would I assume that piling up a bunch of non-altruistic nations has produced an altruistic international order, when I can’t turn on the TV in the morning without seeing evidence that it hasn’t?

      As for deferments, that went out with Nam. The military today are not the poor victims of our youthful years; their economic and intellectual profile compare quite favorably with their age cohorts as a whole.

      I do, and have been privileged to know, many individuals who work within government, and in the private sector as well, to bring to pass peace and justice. It is hard enough for them to achieve the right outcome period, without imposing the extra burden of requiring that the outcome occur from a moral purity of motive from their institutions before they do anything..

      Reply
  • 15. Margie Miller  |  May 26, 2009 at 3:08 PM

    Most people who are enlisted men and women in today’s army are the poor who cannot find work any other place.

    That’s the problem with the military. During peacetime, when people want to make a career out of it, like my youngest son who has been deployed four times in five years and is a first sergeant, join to be peace keepers like he was in Bosnia.

    During his fourth deployment, his wife moved in with a boyfriend.

    The army should be a deterrent to war…not a fighting force to enrich the already rich.

    Reply
  • 16. FireTag  |  May 26, 2009 at 4:58 PM

    Margie:

    I appreciate your son’s sacrifice. I also have family members in the military.

    But please look at your last sentence. It is impossible for an Army to be a deterrent to anybody if the people to be deterred don’t believe that Army can and will fight and will win.

    There was no peace to keep in Bosnia until the US demonstrated they could and would bomb Serbia (and send in ground troops if necessary). NATO peacekeepers were taken hostage and the civilians they were supposed to protect were slaughtered in the UN safe havens while the peace keepers stood by helpless.

    And the civilians were helpless to begin with because, in the desire to avoid sparking civil war in Yugoslavia as it broke up, the West froze weapons sales, freezing the military advantage in the hands of the people willing to use military power most ruthlessly. The Muslims could not protect themselves because the reliance on diplomacy lasted too long.

    There’s no “one size fits all” answer to these kinds of situations. You can only try to reduce the harm to innocents, which — to bring the thread back to the original topic — is why the issues portrayed in the Book of Mormon, with their emphasis on situational answers, remain critical for a peace and justice church to debate and study.

    Reply
  • 17. Margie Miller  |  May 26, 2009 at 5:07 PM

    As long as you rely on the Book of Mormon for your answers to life and peace this conversation will go nowhere since I believe the document is a 19th century one. Joseph Smith knew nothing about peacemaking. That is one of the reasons why he eventually died. The other was his polygamy.

    My son spent over a year in Bosnia while our country was nation building there and rebuilding the country. He was with the Un at that time and stationed with Swedish troops and Norwegian troops.

    At that time, the country was at peace and those people were very appreciative of the UN troops.

    Reply
  • 18. Margie Miller  |  May 26, 2009 at 5:10 PM

    I also should remind you of how helpless the civilians of Iraq and Afghanistan are while we kill civilians all the time. We call them collateral damage. That makes it seem alright.

    The Army just convicted one of our soldiers for raping and killing a 14 year old girl and killing her sister, mother and father by shooting them in the face.

    Reply
  • 19. FireTag  |  May 26, 2009 at 6:35 PM

    Margie, do you honestly see no connection between the ability of your son to be a peacekeeper on a UN mission in Bosnia after 2000 and the use of force in the 1990’s to win the Bosnian War and force the Dayton Accords in 1995 under which he served? It was the same Air Force, with the same desire to avoid civilian casualties in 1995 and 2009, that did the bombing. And the same Army that punished war crimes among its own both times.

    Men joined the military after the Cold War who, I’m sure wanted to be only peace keepers. They found themselves having to build nations like Bosnia and punish nations like Serbia instead, with civilians on both sides suffering because of the lusts for power of leaders.

    Casualties are never “all right”. War is never “all right.” The question must be what course of action minimizes human suffering when aggression is all too common. And the pain of the answer, even when it’s right, may be unbearable at times.

    I honestly wish I could make that pain go away for you and your son and daughter-in-law.

    Reply
  • 20. Margie Miller  |  May 26, 2009 at 6:39 PM

    You put your finger right on it alright. It was the “lust for power” that causes all these problems.

    Reply
  • 21. GEOGRAPHY OF THE NEPHIHAH CAMPAIGN « The Fire Still Burning  |  December 13, 2009 at 1:03 AM

    [...] 14, 2009 I’ve spoken in an earlier post here about the importance to the Restoration movement (and specifically to the Community of Christ) of [...]

    Reply

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