The Infinite. Part 8. Trouble in Paradise. The good, the bad and the peculiar.

[Part 7 is here. Probably it's worth reviewing before reading this.]

I’ll begin with the Peculiar, or let’s say, Unsettling, or Cautionary. Cantor allowed that “sets” could be defined by any well-formed logical statement. As it happened, this was not precise enough. And by that I mean, you can describe collections of things by well-formed logical statements which are somehow, too large or strange. A first sign of trouble came from British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, in the form of a paradox. This is not one of those namby-pamby literary/political/economic/theological/legal things where it seems some assumption or other leads to an outlandish or uncomfortable conclusion. No. This is a genuine fault in the system, FULL STOP.

Trouble in paradise.

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The Infinite. Part 7. Paradise.

Last time, I briefly introduced you to Georg Cantor (1845-1918), a Russian-born Jewish Christian who became a well-known and in some quarters infamous, mathematician. Cantor systematized much of what perviously was just mystical respect for the infinite.
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Your Sunday Brunch Special #7. The Garden and The Cross. Cultural “Over-belief”? And a Poll.

Stephen Webb (professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College — and someone who is clearly up on his Mormonism), in his thoughtful piece at First Things writes (ht: sidebar):
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The Infinite. Part 6. Mathematics, Physics and Religion in the 19th Century

[See part 5 here.]

The Intrigues of the Infinite are coming to play. Whether you are confused by the infinite or have some logical grasp of it, I’m going to take you on a ride through a few of those intrigues of the past. Hold on to your logical pants.
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Friday the 13th Caffeine Poll

So what do BCC readers believe (check all that apply):
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The University of Utah Institute of Religion

The Institutes of Religion were and are an outreach by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to LDS college students. To a lesser extent this was and perhaps is true for faculty too. When I’ve been employed by universities outside Utah, I have always enjoyed it when an Institute was nearby because it also served as an island of friendship. For the most part, these were small operations with maybe one full-time CES person as instructor along with a part-time secretary. For me, as a faculty member, they were always an oasis in a somewhat sterile academic environment. Often a few of us would get together for lunch-time discussions with the CES personnel and those discussions were wide-ranging, feeling out the limits of gospel interaction with humanities, education and science. It was nearly always a blast because generally none of us felt threatened in our various faith-worlds during these discussions.[1] Once, three of us constituted the bishopric of one of the local wards. I was a big fan of those experiences and wonder if they are replicated in the current system. I presume they are in many places.
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The Infinite. Part 5. Is there anything infinite?

In part 4 I looked at some “large” stuff. Now let’s think a little about the possibility that infinite things may exist.

Depending on the physics or metaphysics you subscribe to, infinite or eternal may be reality. In the physical universe we don’t live behind an “event horizon.” There is no secret universe hiding behind some information barrier.[1] Think of the universe as existing on the surface of a ballon.

M31. One of my favorite galaxies. It's bigger than our island.

Someone is blowing up this ballon. As it gets larger, the surface stretches and points formerly close together become further and further apart. There isn’t a real “center” of the universe, but everything is getting further from everything else. Space itself is expanding. Another interesting thing is going on: the further stuff is from you, the faster it is moving away from you.[2] Space is expanding locally, not into some extra dimension and not by pushing out some “edge.”[3]
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The Infinite. Part 4. Or What Makes the Federal Debt Look Tiny.

Journalists and pop science writers have a little fun trying to make large numbers “real” to us.[1] For example, a billion dollars in one hundred dollar denomination bills would require about ten standard storage pallets in your garage, stacked 5 feet high or so. A trillion dollars in one hundred dollar bills would occupy a warehouse with 10,000 such pallets. I don’t know what you’d spend it on, but if you spent a million dollars every day since the time of Moses, until now, you may have used up the trillion dollars. Spendthrift! Stacking up a hundred million trillion one dollar bills will get you out a bit more than one light year from earth. (Making that many dollar bills would require more than the mass of the earth – and it would take too long – not to mention the ink.)
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The Infinite. Part 3. The Unexamined Life er, Speech

{Part 1, Part 2.}

Last time we agreed that scriptural references to the infinite should be approached with caution and often are not to be taken seriously as pointers to the “actual” infinite. Didn’t we?
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The Infinite. Part 2. Large.

[Here is part 1.]

Humans do not deal directly with the infinite and there has been considerable debate on whether the idea makes sense at all. Imprecision is the name of the game where infinity is concerned.

If that isn't Mormon, I don't know what is.

Eventually we will see that trying to codify the idea is difficult and puzzling. It is as much a problem with intuition as logic. But first let’s look at a related discursive family: The Very Large.[1]
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The Infinite. Part 1: The Finite.

This series examines, from a somewhat naive point of view, the meaning of “infinite” in a number of contexts. Joseph Smith delves deeply into the infinite, and in particular in funeral sermons, even though he does not engage it with rigor. (Parts of this series appeared elsewhere.)

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The Mormon Naturalist

No this isn’t a post about Steve Peck, much as I think that would be fun. Instead, its in the vein I’ve been sort of mining a little here lately. I hesitate to use the tired “Mormonism and Science” title, but what the heck. Why not?
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Salvational Exclusion

Universalism was an interesting phenomenon in early America. New England is often described as the home of the movement but the new thinking sprouted in other places too. Historian Ann Bressler argues that the movement climbed in popularity in the Northeast because it filled a gap created by the end of Puritanism’s community after the revolutionary war. In part a response to Congregational establishment, it still flourished after anti-prejudicial rules became law in Massachusetts in 1780. Baptists were angry with taxation and its role in religion. But as Janet Lindman observes, at least part of the national debate over the nature and applicability of salvation began in Pennsylvania and it was motivated by more than just taxes. There,

Elhanan Winchester. All God's Children Gonna Be Saved.

Elhanan Winchester1 was advocating Unversalism and at the same time acting as head of an important Baptist congregation in the Delaware Valley.
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The Crying Poll

Shedding a tear with or about a friend, during a movie or a testimony or a beautiful scriptural or musical pericope is pretty common. Everyone knows of President Eyring’s near boundary to tearful expression. Occasionally I’ve heard the odd Church leader remark that the shedding of tears (usually by men) is a mark of spirituality (maybe they’re thinking: “Jesus wept”). When I’ve sat through such speech, I have felt a little inadequate (maybe only Idaho farm boys cry – kidding, I’m kidding). I don’t cry. Not that I have never cried. I have. Three or maybe four times since childhood. Once I cried for days on end. But that seems to have used up the tears and it was decades ago. Does this make me an aberration? Do serial killers cry? (You can’t trust filmography for this.)
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Your Sunday Brunch Special #6: Dear Diary

Ever kept a diary? Part of my historian avocation (nobody pays me to do it) involves reading the journals/diaries of people now long dead. A danger in doing so is taking them too seriously. Diarists vary in their ability and “desire” to robustly represent their perceptions and experience. Some seem nearly robotic (George Albert Smith for example) in reporting what they had for breakfast and who they saw that day – and little else – as though they had little or no reaction whatsoever. Others seem to give us wonderful and candid detail even where great embarrassment might come from its revelation.[1] Most edit the happenings around them, distilling their memories of the day or days into brief accounts of conversations, feelings, impressions, etc. filtered through a lens only they understand. Many write prayers and other sacred things.
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Toward a Theology of the Material

[I was just sitting here - thinking about where the fun speculations of 19th century Mormonism might lead, and this is what came out. Excuse its ragged form.]

Mormonism has a uniquely materialist bent. It posits that the material is necessary for complete happiness.[1] That while the world is biphasic, physical and spiritual, both are material.[2] Modern physics divides much of its attention between the very large (cosmology) and the very small (quantum phenomena). In the large, physics tells us of a universe whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere and yet expanding. That expansion is apparently going on forever, never to stop.
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Love (Sex) and Marriage

Go together like a horse and carriage, or so the ditty says.1 What it really means is that love=sex and you can’t have that without marriage. At least among respectable people.
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A Grand Unification Theory

In physics, the holy grail in the present moment is a theory which explains, with the power of prediction, the fundamental things. The things of the small universe (weak force, strong force, electricity, magnetism) the quantum world, and the things of the big universe – essentially gravity. The historical inspiration for this frenzy was the achievement of the Scotsman, James Clerk [pronounced "Goble"] Maxwell. Maxwell proposed a version of this business, which unites the formerly disperate understandings of electricity and magnetism:

Maxwell's Unified Theory

This is a rich explanation which both predicts and accounts for much of what happens in your daily life – from the operation of your cell phone, computer and television – to how your eyeglasses and contact lens behave.[1]
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The Seventy. Part 6: The Kimball/Benson/Hinckley Revolution.

[If you haven't seen the predecessors, here you go: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.]

Church growth during the 1960s and 70s placed increased pressure on the apostles in their role in local priesthood organization and regulation to say nothing of bureaucratic administration at headquarters. Stake conferences were reduced in number to 2 per year, the First Council, the Assistants and Regional Representatives were in place, but more help would be needed based on growth predictions. In 1975, the First Presidency and the Twelve made public the decision to reconstitute the First Quorum. The First Council would again be known as the Presidency of the Seventy. Three new men were called into the quorum and the first quorum was defined as a body of general authorities.

Spencer W. Kimball. Asked First Council to put up or shut up. They put up, he bought it.


One year previous to this, seventies quorums were redistributed to stake jurisdictions, no longer would quorums cross stake boundaries. For some decades, stake presidents were authorized to use the seventies in various ways. Now they had them where they wanted them.[1] The stake seventies presidencies were now the stake mission presidencies. The First Council’s role was again diminished in the lives of the quorums.

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The Seventy. Part 5: McKay Turns the Tide.

David O. McKay - Agent of Change


[See part 4 here.] From Roberts’ death (1933) up to 1960, First Council members were called from the ranks of the seventies quorums and the elders. Still no high priests allowed. The First Council visited missions and stakes, but could not perform much administrative work there. Then in 1960, David O. McKay decided that the current members of the First Council could be ordained high priests and yet maintain their membership in that body. The news rocked the LDS world a bit (just a bit–the reason: HC 2:476. Check note 3 in part 4 for why that angst was probably unfounded). This move opened the way for the First Council to perform administrative work in the stakes on an as needed basis.[1] They went when the 12 or their assistants could not, or they (the 12) formed teams with the First Council, training them in place. The members of the First Council had never come out of the ranks of the local church leaders like bishops or stake presidents and consequently were seen as somewhat eclectic in their approach. Now things were different. The flow from below would change.
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The Seventy. Part 4: B. H. Roberts Era.

B. H. Roberts as Body Retrieval Operative

[See parts one,two and three.]
The new guard among the First Council took their responsibilities seriously, met together frequently and did their best to help train the missionary force of the Church. Unfortunately the pattern in force for calling missionaries at the time made calls to elders, who were then ordained seventies and sent on their way. Hence the seventies quorums were mostly filled with men who had already served and would likely not serve again. The men of the First Council served as mission presidents from time to time, and more than once each in many cases. Most of these men were dynamic preachers and good writers. In 1901 the First Presidency and Twelve decided that elders had all necessary authority to serve as missionaries. The character of the seventies quorums began to change. More on this later.
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The Seventy. Part 3: John Taylor.

John Taylor produces two written revelations on the Seventy - and a cool beard

[See part 1 and part 2.] The year Brigham died (1877) a massive reorganization took place in local church operations. President Young staffed Intermountain West stakes (getting apostles out of the business of being stake presidents), releasing the corps of “acting” bishops, filling out bishoprics with high priests as counselors, filling high council vacancies, redrawing stake boundaries for more effective work, etc. (12 stakes were organized in 1877, an unheard of number). The effect on the seventies was large -they filled the gaps in high priest need by being ordained to the high priesthood – and at the same time, a moratorium was instituted on ordaining new seventies. After Brigham’s death and the 1880 reorganization of the First Presidency, John Taylor began to pressure the First Council (three of whom were non-functioning and one deceased without being replaced) to deliver names of seventies to fill mission assignments.
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The Seventy. Part 2: The High Priesthood.

One of the things that plagued the office of Seventy was its position relative to the high priesthood (I use the term as it was used in the 19th century – a synonym for the office of high priest). While Joseph does not seem to have given too much thought to these kinds of questions, Brigham Young had expansive views on both the apostleship and the office of Seventy. With the huge expansion of seventies quorums, indeed their intended use as the major component of the missionary force of the Church, the question was often raised as to how these officers could manage or ordain high priests should that occasion arise. Brigham saw the apostles as superior to the high priests out of necessity. Moreover, it was the apostles who were in charge when it came to the esoteric ordinances of the future temple. Running counter to this was the considerable status conferred by revelation and history on the high priests. The apostles took every opportunity to assert not only their right to direct and regulate the high priesthood, but Brigham at least saw the Seventy in a similar light.
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The Seventy. Part 1: Joseph Smith and Co.

Recently the Church web site, lds.org ran a three part series (with President Boyd K. Packer and President Ronald A. Rasband) on the Seventy and their current relationship with the Twelve Apostles. That got me thinking about this group of Church leaders and with conference coming, it seemed appropriate to talk about them a little.
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Conference Prep #4: Mother in Heaven. Or not.

This is the fourth and last post in a series on General Conference. Part 3 is here.
Well, since Jonathan Green and James Olsen blew this out of the water (thanks guys) it’s much shorter. That’s probably a good thing. So here’s the final post in the series. Which opens the way for another series on the Seventy. Fair warning.

Pulpit scripture comes with varying valence. As promised in part 2, here is some (nearly?) canonical pulpit scripture.

A recent issue of BYU Studies (vol. 50/1) contains an article regarding Mother in Heaven. David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido present an informal descriptive bibliography (not an exhaustive one) on the subject to show that Latter-day Saint sermons and writings are not silent (and mostly do not advocate silence) on the subject. They present references from Latter-day Saint speakers and writers from the 1840s to the present. The authors catalog these Mormon discursions under the rubrics of

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Right, Wrong and Absolute Truth

What is the meaning of this:

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill,—at another time he said, thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.

The earliest appearance of the statement comes in the Sangamo Journal of 19 August 1842, as part of an article by disaffected Mormon, John C. Bennett. Bennett claimed that this statement (and the letter it was a part of) was written by Joseph Smith. How seriously should we take such a document? And what do you think of this statement?

Conference Prep #3. Or, the High Councilor’s Nightmare.

This is the third in a series of posts on General Conference. Part 2 is here. Followup post here.

In this part I’m going to focus a little more on Christian preaching in Joseph Smith’s time but first I want to take a final stab at the last post. There I briefly mentioned the thinking that the Standard Works are superior to pulpit scripture, the latter to be measured by the former. While I said that in modern times this idea might be traced to Joseph F. Smith and James E. Talmage, it had a much earlier adumbration in Orson Pratt. Pratt’s value system for Mormon doctrine pressed into service the early revelations of Joseph Smith. It seems clear that he ranked those revelations, published in the Doctrine and Covenants in Smith’s day, as superior to the innovative preaching of Nauvoo (I’m excluding private teachings). Indeed, he seems somewhat ignorant of that preaching, or perhaps saw it as speculative (see for example his discourse of Feb. 18, 1855, JD 2:338). In the internal discussions regarding doctrine among the apostles in Utah, Pratt tended to favor the written Word (as he saw it) over the cosmological declarations of Brigham Young, say. (Think: Adam.) Pratt was no exception to the rule that every generation reinterprets inherited texts to situate itself — but for him the elasticity of scripture was just not generous enough to accommodate the necessary rereading of the Old Testament and the revelations.

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Truth

In 1851, young Mormon Apostle (and British Mission President) Franklin Dewey Richards did a remarkable thing:
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Conference Prep #2. Pulpit scripture and canon Scripture

This is the second post in a series on General Conference. Part 1 is here. The followup post is here.

I have some continuing interest in antebellum American sermon culture and this post examines some legacies of early Mormonism on the topic of sermons. Protestants of the era inherited an ongoing question over the status of the pulpit. Where do sermons fit into the rule of faith? The issue was most touchy in the more severe “Bible Alone” strains of Protestantism and one can see the same concern in Protestant debates over creedal statements and confessions or the likes of the Book of Common Prayer. On the other hand, even though the early Latter-day Saints were liberals regarding “revelation,” the relationship between pulpit and scripture in Mormonism was a curious one and bore a resemblance to that cautious calculus surrounding the subject among conservative Protestants.[1]

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Joseph Smith as Preaching Platform

This is the first in a series of posts on General Conference.Part 2 is here.

During the upcoming October conference, we are likely to hear Joseph Smith quoted. I’m always curious to see what material surfaces in these contexts. It’s just that our sensibilities about texts have changed over the last 200 years and we annotate, edit and valorize reliability in ways that print cultures of the past did not do. Our Church print culture has been powerfully traditional, with one generation taking from the previous one, rarely returning to sources.
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