Articles by

Steve Fleming

Plato, Gender, and Eternal Marriage

By January 11, 2016


Jesus said, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30), while Plato said in his Symposium that lovers desired Hephestus to “weld” them together so that “when [they] died, [they] would be one and not two in Hades.”[1]

Such was part of Aristophanes’s myth of the androgyn, that humans had once been androgynous pairs that the gods split into male and female, who now longed for their other half. Such lovers, when they found each other, still yearned to become one again, especially in the next life. Aristophanes then adds the following caveat: “Women who are split from a woman, however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more towards women, and lesbians come from this class. People who are split from a male are male-oriented.”[2]

That is, eternal marriage is a Platonic concept, and Plato had allowances for same gender relationships.

Plato didn’t discuss eternal procreation, but in the Republic he did describe a system radically different than monogamy: shared wives and children.[3] In the Republic, the children belong to everyone, or as Plato says in the Timaeus (which begins by summarizing the Republic), “Everyone of them would believe that they all make up a single family, and that all who fall within their own age bracket are their sisters and brothers, that those who are older, who fall in an earlier bracket are their parents or grandparents, while those who fall in a later one are their children or grandchildren.”[4] Or as Mormon said, “All children are alike unto me” (Moroni 8:17).

I argue here and here that Joseph Smith sought to implement shared marriages as well: or that originally both men and women could have multiple spouses. Such sharing would make allowances for procreation by the larger group that would transcend individuals’ procreative abilities.

[1] Plato, Symposium, 190-193.

[2] Plato, Symposium, 191e.

[3] Plato, Republic, 457c-d.

[4] Plato, Timaeus, 18d.


Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism, Part 3: Inclusive Monotheism and Fabula

By December 22, 2015


This final post on Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism explores the boundaries between theology, fantasy, and literature, particularly in the context of inclusive monotheism. Barbara Newman points out that many theologians who embraced Plato’s Timaeus and its inclusive monotheism in the 12th century were condemned while writers who embraced the Timaeus through fabula, or literature, were not. “Poets, through much of the Middle Ages, had license to proclaim with impunity ideas, however radical, that if voiced as formal theology could have provoked swift, hostile response. Because of it unofficial status, mere literature might well be denounced (as Ovid so often was), but it was hardly worth the trouble repressing.”[1]

Tolkien mixed Platonist and Christian themes in his creation narrative in The Silmarillion and W. W. Phelps began his “Paracletes,” which also mixed these themes, with “Once upon a time.” Yet for Phelps, “Paracletes” was a higher form a literature: “And let me say that I have began this story of the ‘Paracletes,’ or Holy Ones to counterbalance the foolish novel reading of the present generation. My story is not revelation, but the innuendoes relate to holy transactions, which may lead good people to search after truth and find it.”[2] Andrew Michael Ramsay had a similar intent in writing his Travels of Cyrus, which also mixed Christian and Platonic creation ideas: “We have here a fruitful source of luminous ideas, beautiful images and sublime expressions, such as we find in the holy scriptures, and in Milton, who has copied them.”[3]

What Tolkien meant by the Ainulindalë I’m not sure, but like many others he used fabula to give expression to inclusive monotheistic ideas held by some of the West’s most notable thinkers.

[1] Barbara Newman, God and the Goddess: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 65.

[2] [W.W. Phelps] “Paracletes,” Times and Seasons 6 (May 1, 1845): 892.

[3] Chevalier (Andrew Michael) Ramsay, Travels of Cyrus: To Which is Annexed, A Discourse upon the Theology and Mythology of the Pagans (1727, reprint; Albany: Pratt and Doubleday, 1814), xxi.  See also Ronan’s series at BCC, which discusses similar themes (1, 2, 3).

 


Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism, Part 2: W. W. Phelps’s “Paracletes”

By December 14, 2015


In my previous post, I discussed how many of Tolkien’s creation and fall themes fit within various aspects of Christian Platonism.

Plato had two models. In the Phaedrus, pre-mortal souls fall: “By some accident [the soul] takes on a burden of forgetfulness and wrongdoing, then it is weighed down, sheds it wings and falls to earth” (248c-d). In the Timaeus, God (or the demiurge) “showed [souls] the nature of the universe. He described to them the laws that had been foreordained,” that they would be placed in bodies, “and if a person lived a good life throughout the due course of time, he would at the end return to his dwelling place in his companion star, to live a life of happiness” (41e, 42b-c). As Alan Scott explains,

There was therefore a good deal of disagreement among the later Platonists about the character of the cosmos and the soul’s incorporation. Was the world and our life part of a divine plan? Those who adopted this understanding of Plato interpreted the soul’s incorporation as providential and the heavenly bodies as assistants to a kindly design. Another interpretation of Plato stressed that this life has come about because of sin and error, and so took a very different view of the cosmos.[1]

Scott explains further, “Philo interprets the Genesis account in terms of both of these myths so that the creation of the world is good and the result of divine plan (as in the Timaeus), but the story of Adam symbolizes the soul’s fall because of sin (as in the Phaedrus),” which sounds pretty similar to Mormonism.[2]

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Authority, Revelation, and Dissent: Managing Personal Revelation in a Revelatory Church

By December 10, 2015


Medieval Catholicism believed both in continuing revelation and in personal revelation, but such beliefs could be problematic: what about false prophets? The late Middle Ages were awash with revelatory figures, often women (like Joan of Arc) and thus the church put in place a number of procedures for how to regulate such people. Revelation could not be legitimate unless it was approved by a confessor, who also looked into the character of the revelator. One of the most important trait was humility: if the revelator was willing to submit to the confessor and have all of her revelations regulated then she showed proper humility was a true revelator. If she balked at those restrictions, that was a sign that she had excessive pride, which proved that she was a false prophet.[1]

Obviously the legitimacy of such figures was highly debated (no one more so than Joan of Arc) and the Protestants came up with an even simpler way to deal with prophets: there weren’t any. The Bible was complete so true revelation would be redundant (simply say the same thing) and anything that was new was automatically false.

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Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism: The Travels of Cyrus

By October 19, 2015


Ainulindale_by_Alassea_Earello

Ainulindale by Alassea Earello from http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Ainur

To finish my series on inclusive monotheism (see here here here here) and similarities with Plato’s Timaeus, I wanted to look at similarities between Mormon pre-existence narratives and Tolkein’s.

Many have noted the similarities between Mormonism and Tolkien’s creation stories and others have pointed out Platonic elements in Tolkien. A ring of invisibility is mentioned in the Republic and the first phrase of The Silmarillion, “There was Eru the One,” is especially Platonic since “The One” was the highest deity to the Neoplatonists. Tolkien’s Eru or Iluvatar, though aloof like the One, is rather more like Plato’s demiurge in the Timaeus: the God who plans and oversees the creation.

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Jane Lead’s Inclusive Monotheism

By October 13, 2015


I wanted to put up some quotes from Jane Lead on the issue of inclusive monotheism because her writings generally look so very Mormon and because she addresses issues related to another post I want to do.

In her Enochian Walks with God (1694), Lead talks about holy people becoming deified in the next life who then seek to aid holy people on earth. “For those Angelical Spirits that once liv’d in Flesh, do more nearly sympathise with us in all our Infirmities, and therefore all feelingly they tenderly consider our tempting-state, and give themselves out most readily for our help; they are Advocates, and to remind the Lord Jesus of their Prophecies, that they may have their fulfilling upon us. Of this sort and degree, they are the choicest and greatest in the Kingdom of our Lord, and have very stately Pavilions which are pitched round the Majesty of the Jehovah God” (25).

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Inclusive Monotheism and Joseph Smith’s Sermon at the Grove

By October 5, 2015


Franklin’s statement may provide a lens through which to view some of Smith’s final statements about God(s). In the Sermon at the Grove (June 16, 1844) Smith insisted that there were multiple Gods: “the word Eloiheam ought to be in the plural all the way thro—Gods—the heads of the Gods appointed one God for us.” Franklin said there was a high God over Gods and that our God was the one who created our solar system. Franklin was probably influenced by Isaac Newton who also said there were multiple God in the universe and cited 1 Corinthians 8:5-6: “But to us there is but one God.” Smith cited the same scripture in the Sermon at the Grove.[1]

Thus Smith taught similar ideas to what some of the West’s most important thinkers and scientists had. Franklin biographer James Parton noted that Kepler and Goethe taught the same thing.[2] Strict monotheism would win out in orthodox Christianity (it usually did) but these great thinkers had found inclusive monotheism a better for the new conception of the universe.

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Benjamin Franklin’s “First Principles”: More Inclusive Monotheism

By September 22, 2015


franklin

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, c 1816, Benjamin West

Newton’s views likely influenced a remarkable statement from young Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had met with John Conduitt, the man who said that Newton had said that God had appointed “superior beings” over heavenly bodies.[1] Not long after, Franklin wrote the following which he entitled “First Principles.” Here I simply quote the whole thing and will offer further thoughts in a later post.

 

I BELIEVE there is one supreme, most perfect Being, author and father of the gods themselves.

For I believe that man is not the most perfect being but one, but rather as there are many degrees of beings superior to him.

Also when I stretch my imagination through and beyond our system of planets, beyond the visible fixed stars themselves, into that space that is every way infinite, and conceive it filled with suns like ours, each with a chorus of worlds for ever moving round him; this little ball on which we move, seems, even in my narrow imagination, to be almost nothing, and myself less than nothing, and of no sort of consequence.

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Isaac Newton’s Inclusive Monotheism

By September 16, 2015


 

Newton

Newton and Joseph Smith had a lot of similar ideas about God

In my previous post, I mentioned Barbara Newman’s discussion of “inclusive monotheism” where intermediaries and other divine beings all work in harmony under a supreme being, as opposed to the radical monotheism of the Reformation which sought to get rid of such beings. Wouter Hanegraaff argues that when Max Weber referred to “disenchantment,” “he was describing the attempt by new scientists and Enlightenment philosophers to finish the job of Protestant anti-pagan polemicists, and get rid of cosmotheism once and for all.”[1]

Yet a major figure in the Enlightenment speculated about intermediary beings as well. Isaac Newton’s editor, John Conduitt, reported that Newton wondered toward the end of his life “whether there were not intelligent beings superior to us who superintended these revolutions of heavenly bodies by the direction of the Superior Being.”[2]  

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What’s the Opposite of Strict Monotheism? A Question of Terminology

By September 8, 2015


Hanegraaff concludes Esotericism and the Academy by arguing that the two principal points that Enlightenment scholars of philosophy labeled as pagan heresy—the rejection of creation ex nihilo and the belief in the uncreated, divine part of the soul (or nous)—are in fact the chief traits of what we might term Western esotericism.

Hanegraaff calls the rejection of creation ex nihilo, cosmotheism, which he sees as a counterpart of strict monotheism. Quoting the Egyptologist Jan Assman, cosmotheism is one where “a divine world does not stand in opposition to the world of cosmos, man, and society; rather, it is a principle that permeates it and gives it structure, order and meaning … The divine cannot be excluded from the world.” Such, Hanegraaff argues, is “the logical alternative to classic monotheism, where the invisible and eternal Creator is strictly separate from this visible and temporal creation.”  Hanegraaff sees “a deep structural conflict between the dynamics of these two mutually exclusive systems and all that they imply” (371).

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Book Review: Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy

By August 27, 2015


Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

I’m planning on doing a series of posts on “cosmotheism,” or at least the way the Wouter Hanegraaff describes the concept in his book Esotericism and the Academy. But before I do so, I thought it best to review Hanegraaff’s book, which I had been meaning to do for a while now.

For anyone who attended MHA session on the reassessment of John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire, both Brooke and I mentioned this book a number of times, and I would simply state here that there isn’t a book that I would recommend more highly for anyone interested in situating Mormonism both historically and intellectually within Christian history.

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Guest Post: A Survey on the Trek Experience

By August 17, 2015


trek

 

Sara M. Patterson (Hanover College) is conducting research on people’s trek experiences for a larger project on historical memory along the Mormon Trail. She invites people who have participated in trekking to fill out this short survey about their experiences: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/KWVVKJR


If you have any questions, you can contact her at: patterson@hanover.edu


“If Any of You Lack Wisdom”: Seer Stones and John Dee’s and Joseph Smith’s Religious Quests

By August 9, 2015


A number of scholars have argued for a connection between Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the commencement of his treasure-digging activities, a trend nicely summarized by Mark Ashurst-McGee in his seminal work on Joseph Smith’s seer stones:

When Joseph went to the grove he was not just wavering between Presbyterianism and Methodism, but between organized religion and folk magic. Should he join one particular denomination or were they all wrong together? Should he convert to Evangelicalism or obtain his seer stone? “Go thy way,” the Lord told him, and rejected the churches of the day in part because, as he told Joseph, they taught “the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness but they deny the power thereof.” As historian Marvin Hill notes, the power and gifts of God were not denied by the treasure seers and diggers and other practitioners of folk magic. Richard Bushman explains that the First Vision would have driven Joseph away from the organized churches in his mother’s social orbit toward the treasuring-seeking culture of his father.

Ashusrt-McGee goes so far as to ask, “Did Jesus instruct Joseph to obtain a stone?”[1]

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JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 2: Chapters Three and Four

By May 18, 2015


RSR Image

This is the second installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings.We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions. This week Steve Fleming takes a closer look at Chapters 3 (“Translation: 1827-30”) and 4 (“A New Bible: 1830”).

Previous installments in the series:

•Part I: Prologue, Chapters 1-2

__________________________

3 Translation, 4 A New Bible (See part 1 here).

Bushman ends Chapter Two and begins Chapter Three by discussing how to make sense of the possible connections between the Smiths’ “magical” treasure-digging activities and Mormonism’s foundational events: receiving and translating the golden plates. Such similarities include seer stones, special treasure in the ground, and treasure guardians.

Bushman concedes that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture,” (51) but he argues that by 1827, the year he married Emma and received the plates, “magic had served its purpose in his life. In a sense, it was a preparatory gospel. Treasure-seeking lore may have made it easier for his father to believe his son’s fabulous story about an angel and gold plates” (54). Thus treasure digging played a “preparatory” role in the beginnings of Mormons, argues Bushman, and the treasure-digging elements in the events related to the golden plates played the purposed of Smith gaining his treasure-digging father’s support.

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“My Father Had but One Ewe Lamb”: Joseph Smith and Helen, Heber, and Vilate Kimball

By May 14, 2015


Helen Kimball as Joseph Smith’s 14-year-old wife understandably gets a lot of attention in discussions about Smith’s marital practices. In my dissertation, I argue that the story of Helen’s marriage to Smith sheds lights on larger issues so I’m posting those passages here. First, however, I’m posting a few paragraphs where I give a summary of my argument about Smith’s overall intent. It’s pages 371-74 of my dissertation.

The sexuality of Smith’s marriages has been much debated, but boiling Smith’s marital relationships down to sex misses the point. The point of the marriages, again, was best described by Mary Lightner, both in her description of the 1831 “sealing” and in the proposal to her by Smith: to be united with Smith so as to go with him into the Father’s kingdom. This was something that many early Mormons wanted. Oliver Huntington said that “soon after Dimick had given our sisters Zina & Prescinda to Joseph as wives for eternity,” Smith offered Dimick any reward he wanted. Dimick requested “that where you and your fathers family are, there I and my fathers family may also be.”[1] Todd Compton argues that a number of polyandrous husbands may have known about the sealing, particularly Henry Jacobs and Windsor Lyon.[2]

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Teaching the Priesthood/Temple Ban at BYU

By May 6, 2015


For the D&C class I taught at BYU, (see my previous post on teaching polygamy), when we got to Official Declaration 2, my objectives were to cover the difficult issues and present some possible frameworks by which to make sense of those issues.

The students had read the church’s essay, so they had some good background, but I wanted to get a little more specific on a few items. I began with a quiz where I just asked for thoughts and questions on the topic. They pretty much all had the same one: why did we do this? So I just started into my PowerPoint.

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Religious Persecution and the Great and Abominable Church

By April 24, 2015


In 1 Nephi 13:5, the angel says to Nephi “Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity.” We used to stress this being the Catholics but have sort of backed off this in the last few decades to the point where I don’t hear much talk about the GAC anymore. And yet it’s quite important in these chapters in the Book of Mormon where Nephi lays out a kind of visionary history of the world from Christ to the coming of the Book of Mormon.

Both the discussion of the apostasy and restoration that the kids are having now in church coupled with my recent discovery of the movie Agora on Netflix (it’s R but a fairly light R, historical violence that isn’t too bad), put me in mind of the topic.

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Teaching Polygamy at BYU

By April 23, 2015


So I recently finished teaching the second half of the Doctrine and Covenants at BYU, which I enjoyed very much. When we got to some of the harder issues that are part of the curriculum, especially polygamy and blacks and the priesthood, I wanted to cover them in a way that was both direct and helpful. I applaud the church’s essays in these topics, assigned them, and wanted to cover these topics in the same spirit of openness. Yet these are tough and as 132 approached, I was trying to thing about how to go about it. To me it seemed like I had three options. 1) Dodge it. Again, I didn’t want to do that. 2) Tell the students information that I felt pretty sure was incorrect. As I mentioned in this previous post,  I like the articles but think there are some mistakes, especially eternity only sealings. 3) Tell them what I believe is correct. Having tried this out on my own kids and feeling it went well, I decided to give my assertion about shared marriages a shot. So I got my powerpoint ready and headed to class.

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When Did Joseph Smith Know What He Knew?

By April 1, 2015


Okay, kind of a goofy way of putting the question, but in my last post, I said that I argued in my dissertation that I believed that JS often knew about things much earlier than when he first clearly taught them. I base this claim on a few point, most notably my assertion that I think JS was influenced early on by texts that had a lot of what we would consider “Mormon ideas.” As I’ve tried to stress a lot around here, I don’t see this claim as an attack, but as a larger claim that JS was gathering “Truth” together from the sources that had it. Nor do I see such claims as antithetical to revelatory claims since we’re supposed to seek wisdom “by study and faith” and then ask God “if it be right.”  

So with that in mind, here’s part of my introduction to my chapter 6 “The Plan of Salvation” where I treat JS’s teachings about God’s plan of sending preexistent beings to earth to progress, get bodies, with the chance of becoming deified.  It’s an overview of my claim that JS knew about a lot of the Nauvoo doctrine much earlier. It’s pages 386-87 of my dissertation.

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Two Quibbles with the Church’s Essay on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: When It Was Revealed and Eternity Only Marriages

By March 30, 2015


I add my praise for the church’s essays on gospel topics, including the essays on polygamy. However, I disagree with two points that the essay on Joseph Smith’s polygamy made: that polygamy was revealed to Joseph Smith during his translation of the Old Testament and that Smith engaged in eternity only sealings. Such points have been asserted by a number of scholars so my critique isn’t so much one of the essay but of these two commonly asserted claims.

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