Sunday, November 28, 2010

JOD Series: Introduction and Hub

I'd like to announce the start of my second major series of posts here at Study and Faith; this post will serve as a hub. Beginning in December 2010, I will be working my way through the Journal of Discourses, a 26-volume set of early LDS sermons and addresses (which is also available here and here), and post questions and relatively brief reflections. And I'd prefer not to do it alone. That's why I'd like to invite anyone who wishes - be you LDS, Evangelical, or otherwise - to join in and read through the Journal of Discourses with me. Once I make a post on a given discourse, feel free to chime in!

[N.B. - The links to my posts are on the initial number references, while links to each volume of the Journal of Discourses are available on those headings, and links to individual sermons/addresses are on the titles given. More links will be provided as time goes on.]

An Appreciation of Shared Beliefs

One thing I'd like to publicly say that I really appreciate about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is just how much of what they teach can be resolutely affirmed by many Evangelical Christians. Most of the time, Evangelicals emphasize those especially distinctive LDS views on, e.g., the nature of God. And I'm not at all saying that these things are unimportant; I think many of them are very important divergences. But my focus here is on the high degree of commonality that we also have.

Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals both profess belief in and devotion to the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; and to this God, we ascribe the creation of the physical cosmos in which we dwell and accept that this God is the governor of it. Both of us express devotion to the Godhead - Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Both of us belief firmly and resolutely in the personal distinctions between these three. Both of us believe, in some way, in the true deity of the Son. In fact, both of us are likely to be in agreement - in opposition to Jehovah's Witnesses and other modern-day Arian groups - that before becoming flesh, Jesus appeared to ancient Israel as Jehovah.

Both of us believe that humanity is especially loved by God, loved in ways that we can scarcely fathom. Both of us believe that God intends us to dwell in his presence. Many Evangelicals can also gladly join Latter-day Saints in affirming that, in order to have the opportunity to authentically love God, we have the gift of free agency (or, free will). Both of us believe that humanity sinned and turned our backs on God. And both of us believe that humanity is ideally destined for an endless future so bright and glorious that we can't yet imagine the half of it.

We also both believe that the Bible as originally given is a revelatory record of God's dealings with humanity, the unfolding saga of his redemptive activities. We believe in the truths it reveals about God and about ourselves. We believe the words of the prophets whom God sent to ancient Israel. We both believe that, at just the right time, the Creator condescended to take up a mortal body in the womb of Mary, and hence is truly human in at least as strong a sense as we are truly human. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah who was promised by God long ago. We believe that he taught the truth in his ministry in first-century Palestine, and that he paid the heavy price for our sins during a long ordeal ending in his crucifixion. We both believe that, in our state, we could not be saved apart from this atonement, which is an expression of God's grace. We believe that, on the third day after his crucifixion, he was physically raised from the dead, restored to physically embodied and indeed transformed life. We believe that he really appeared to his disciples, and that he then ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Ghost to them to empower them for the mission that we both take very seriously: make disciples of all nations. And we both believe that a people of God was to be gathered, and that this people will someday witness Jesus' return to judge the world (and to hold every human accountable for the life he or she has lived) and bring his followers into a kingdom of glory.

We both believe that we must repent of our sins and believe in Jesus as the Messiah and risen Lord who saves us from our sins and their dire consequences. We both believe in the importance of being baptized in imitation of Christ's death and resurrection, and in the other sacrament whereby we remember Christ's atoning death for us. We both believe that we may receive the Holy Ghost to dwell within us and among us as a foretaste of the age to come. We both believe in the importance of gathering together to meet as fellow believers in all of these things, and in helping one another, teaching one another, and building one another up. And we both believe in the importance of enduring until the end - whether that end be our own personal departure from this mortal body, or the return of Christ.

Those are essentially all things that, so far as I know, virtually all Latter-day Saints and all Evangelicals can affirm unashamed. This is the foundation that we share in common. Unless I am on some point mistaken, there is nothing in this list that would be considered erroneous by most Latter-day Saints or most Evangelicals. And, for all that does divide us - and, as I said, my focus at the moment is not on those - this is a considerable overlap that should give us at the least a solid prima facie reason to treat one another with respect and acknowledge the rich treasure of truth in one another's beliefs. For my part, I appreciate all on which I can gladly stand together with Latter-day Saints in affirming these truths.

Appreciation Series: Introduction and Hub

All too often, Evangelicals have a tendency to place greatest stress on what's wrong (or, what we see as wrong) with other religious traditions. There are some understandable reasons for that. After all, seldom do the Church Fathers praise the early unorthodox schismatics for their belief in, say, the uniqueness of Christ. The focus, rather, is on warning the flock why they shouldn't throw their chips in with the novel upstarts and instead should hold fast to the faith that's been handed down from the apostles; or, on presenting a direct challenge - often in a polemical sort of discourse - to the 'false teachers' on precisely those points where they diverge from what the orthodox tradition understands to be the truth. Such is perfectly natural, and inevitably leads one to focus on the 'negatives'. Nor is this a purely post-apostolic phenomenon. In James 2:19, the Lord's brother does not seem to consider the demons worthy of praise simply because they rightly believe that there is a God; the focus is not on what the demons have right, but on what they have wrong, and thereby to apply this to the situation of professing Christians who have a similar lack - in this case, a lack of a living faith that flowers into a righteous and Christ-like life. I'm sure that, with more thought, I could cite a number of other examples of this tendency to focus on the 'negatives' when those seem to be more pertinent than the positives; arguably, the same tendency exists in early LDS discussions of the rest of the Christian world. So with that background in mind, maybe it's easier to understand why that tendency should exist among Evangelicals as well.

Still, there are considerable downsides to letting that approach dominate our interactions. There is some good in virtually every tradition, often much good, and that can't be ignored; it may, rather, serve as a fruitful foundation for productive discussions and mutual respect and love. All too often, the sharp polemical edge and negative focus of discussions has resulted in a hostility-charged atmosphere that doesn't need to be there; and, worse yet, it has frequently prompted participants on all sides - myself at times regrettably included - to display a not-so-Christ-like mindset and heart. And these are only several of the problems with a dominant negative approach.

So, without compromising the distinctive truths that I believe the orthodox and Evangelical Christian tradition has to offer Latter-day Saints, I'd like to inaugurate the first major series of posts at this blog with a few reflections on what I, as an Evangelical Christian, honestly can positively appreciate about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - including its teachings (doctrinal and moral), its practices, and its culture and life.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Welcome and Introduction

Welcome to Study and Faith!
I'd like to introduce this blog through a sort of a FAQ-style format; hopefully I'll be able to expand this further as time goes on.
Who are you?
Call me JB; it's what plenty of my friends call me. The place I call home is smack-dab in the heart of Amish country in Pennsylvania. It's a calm, restful place, and my mother's side of my family has roots there going back a varied number of generations. I grew up learning just a few snippets of Pennsilfaanish Deitsch and occasionally slip into speaking 'Dutchified' English; sometime I'd like to devote some time to seriously learning the language while it's still extant. I grew up in a town that was founded by a now-extinct utopian religious community. I imagine it's like living in modern-day Nauvoo, minus the tourism and enduring religious significance. Interestingly, the group that founded my hometown practiced proxy baptism for the dead and claimed to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood - in the eighteenth century, decades before Joseph Smith was born. The Whitmer family lived just a couple miles away for some time.
I wasn't raised in a Christian household, though I did have a vaguely and nominally Christian background. A few years before I became a teenager, my mother and I became Christians, and I was baptized some time later. Grateful as I am to have become a Christian, I do still have some criticisms of the presentation at which I encountered Christ; in a way, I became and remain a Christian almost in spite of the way they portrayed it. My stepfather, on the other hand, wasn't with us that evening, and didn't become a Christian until years later in 2006. He was baptized about a week before his death that October, and I was blessed to preach at his funeral.
I've been an Evangelical Christian since within a year or two after my conversion experience, apart from one brief emotion-driven flirtation with atheism earlier in my college career. When my passions subsided and I came to my senses, I regained my faith. One might say that my faith (and not merely my belief) has been routinely protected by reason. What I mean is, I have never been able to find the degree of intellectual and rational satisfaction in any atheistic system of thought as I have in Christianity. (That will no doubt surprise the many atheists who erroneously believe Christianity to be irrational and intellectually bankrupt, whereas in fact nothing could be further from the truth.) I hope to do some posts here addressing that as well from time to time.
I have a testimony of the historic Christian teaching (in particular as embodied in the ecumenical creeds) as true and faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In short, I believe in what is contained in the Nicene Creed and in the Definition of Chalcedon. I would go so far as to say that I believe that at times when I have read them and recited their words, the Spirit of God has testified unto my spirit that those things are true; this is an impression I have never gotten in the same way or to the same degree as anything in the Book of Mormon, even those large portions that contain nothing at odds with orthodox Christian teaching. (Later in this post, I'll go into a lot more detail about the history of my relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and there I'll talk more about this testimony.) Beyond that, one could say that my outlook is broadly Wesleyan (though I'm not wholesale behind John Wesley on everything), but I'm also in dialogue with and draw upon the broad range of the historic Christian tradition. I may in the future go into more detail here on my views on particular theological topics; anyone who for some reason is curious about anything in particular is free to ask.
I'm currently a student at a Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, pursuing a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree, and I already have a Bachelor of Arts degree (summa cum laude) in religion and philosophy from a secular liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Back in my undergrad days, I also minored in mathematics and fared well enough to consider heeding my professor's request that I pursue a PhD in the field - but ultimately, that's just not where God led me. My college experience was a challenge at times, but I remained active within the campus Christian community, presiding at one point over the campus's ministry team, serving on the Council of Christian Organizations and as the chair of the committee that rewrote its constitution, and co-founding an impactful and energetic campus organization that inspired a variety of religious discussions, debates, lectures, and other events. After all that, seminary is almost a relief!
In terms of denomination, I'm also a member of the Evangelical Congregational Church, a descendant of Jacob Albright's Evangelical Association. Although influenced by the Methodist movement in America, Albright had to set out on his own ministry to his fellow German-speakers, since the Methodists refused to work among the German-speaking people of the land. (Several decades later, the Methodists learned from their mistake and began doing just that, after movements like the Evangelical Association and the United Brethren in Christ had already arisen.) If asked what church I belong to, though, my answer is that I claim inclusion in Christ's worldwide catholic communion that transcends denominational barriers and includes all faithful Christians throughout all time and space.
Why did I join the E. C. Church? Maybe you could say that it was the witness of the Spirit. Shortly after I became a Christian, I began looking around my then-hometown for a congregation to attend. When I arrived at the town's E. C. Church congregation, I had to climb a set of concrete steps to reach the front door. With every step I took, I felt a vivid sense of peace infuse my spirit, like my shoulders had been bearing weights I hadn't even known were there, yet they were being knocked off one-by-one by a powerful force that loved me. That was the clear, strong impression I had that morning. I've been attending that same congregation ever since, when I'm in the area. What I describe here is far from the most overwhelming or striking religious experience I've ever had, but it was the strongest up to that time. I can't say I've ever had a similar feeling when approaching an LDS chapel or branch office, if I might so add.
When at seminary in a land void of my home denomination, I attend a local Church of the Nazarene congregation, though in the past I've also attended an Orthodox Church in America parish, a conveniently located United Methodist congregation, and occasionally - for an added twist - a local congregation of one of the predominantly African-American bodies of Baptists. After church lets out each Sunday, I zip promptly over to the local LDS meetinghouse to catch the priesthood session and Elders' Quorum; that is, unfortunately, the most involvement I can commit to giving the ward these days without sacrificing my own church involvement in an orthodox community. I also blog more rarely at Iron in Fire, mostly about issues in Christian spirituality and things like that, though I at times make forays into other theological topics. I also have a quite dull personal blog that would interest no one in his or her right mind. (Even I find it boring.)
When I obtain my MDiv, I'll hopefully begin pastoring a congregation in my denomination, if they'll have me; and sometime in those first few years I hope perhaps also to apply to several PhD programs in philosophy or church history. At the moment, I view the prospect of pastoral ministry with a mix of excitement and trepidation, and I'm very grateful to God to have this season of life in which to prepare myself as best as I can, with the support of his grace. It's perhaps possible that God will yet call me to ministry somewhere in the Mormon Corridor (also known as the 'Mormon Culture Region' or - my favorite - the 'Book of Mormon Belt'). If not, that's quite fine with me; I'm certain that God has some use for this interest of mine, no matter where in the world he puts me. But most of all, I am called of God to be a minister of the gospel of "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2), a message that, seen by those of us who are saved, is recognized to be truly "the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).
My main academic interests are philosophical theology (and particularly its intersection with analytic philosophy of religion), church history (and particularly the history of Christian theology), Christian apologetics and its history, and ecumenical/interfaith dialogue. I'm also a somewhat avid reader, and I'm keeping a running list of the books I've completed since January 2007. I mostly stick with non-fiction, though occasionally I'll treat myself to some poetry or a collection of some author's prose works. I really resonate with what John Wesley wrote to George Holder on 8 November 1790: "It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people."
One of my other major hobbies is working on my genealogy, and I'm a distant cousin of several past leading figures in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including Joseph Smith Jr. (sixth cousin seven times removed), Brigham Young (eighth cousin six times removed), Joseph F. Smith (seventh cousin six times removed), George Albert Smith (eighth cousin five times removed), Joseph Fielding Smith (also eighth cousin five times removed), Ezra Taft Benson (ninth cousin twice removed), and Bruce R. McConkie (also ninth cousin twice removed). Those are all on my biological father's side of the family. Ethnically, I'm a quarter Volga German through my paternal grandmother. The rest of my heritage is also mostly German (as is the norm for denizens of my region) and English, though some of my ancestors were part of the colony of New Sweden.
Religiously, the two halves of my lineage are very different. My biological father is Roman Catholic, as was his mother and all of her ancestors of whom I have any record. While in Italy, he not only brought the offering to the altar of St. Peter's Basilica during a High Mass, but he also sang in a choir for Pope John Paul II, just as his great-great-grandfather sang in a choir for the Russian czar. His (my father's) father, however, was raised as a member of Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science movement (to which his father - my paternal great-grandfather - was a convert from a Methodist upbringing) and then converted to Catholicism when marrying my grandmother. On my mother's side of the family, most of my ancestors were Lutheran, although - as previously mentioned - one sprig of the family was Mennonite, a few were Reformed, and some others were adherents of the Church of the Brethren or an assortment of other groups.
In terms of personality, my result on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is INTP (that is, Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perception). By and large, I fit most descriptions I've seen of the general traits of this type (sometimes uncannily so), with the exception that I'm comparatively more comfortable navigating the world of human emotions and with leadership positions. For a few such descriptions, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Getting a sense of how an INTP personality tends to generally operate would probably be of service in understanding the way I approach things here sometimes. I take some selected quotes from the above links to offer a brief description:
INTPs exhibit the greatest precision in thought and language of all the types; they tend to see distinction and inconsistencies in thought and language instantaneously. [...] INTPs are pensive, analytical folks. They may venture so deeply into thought as to seem detached, and often actually are oblivious to the world around them. [...] They are the "absent-minded professors", who highly value intelligence and the ability to apply logic to theories to find solutions. [...] The INTP is the logician, the mathematician, the philosopher, the scientist; any pursuit requiring architecture of ideas intrigues this type. [...] They constantly seek the Truth, and have ultimate respect for the Truth. [...] For here is the central goal of the INTP: to understand and seek truth. [...] This is his Mission; to be the provider of clarity, and is often suspicious that he is the only person capable of this task. [...] They can be intellectual snobs and may show impatience at times with others less endowed intellectually. This quality, INTPs find, generates hostility and defensive behavior on the part of others, who may describe an INTP as arrogant. [...] The INTP's defense usually also contains a subtle but biting attack thrown back in the mocker's face, chiefly because the INTP cannot entirely hide the fact that he believes his opponent to be stupid. [...] They may have difficulty in being understood by others because they tend to think in a complicated fashion and want to be precise, never redundant in their communications. [...] INTPs tend to be rather mistrusting of people and are rather sceptical. [...] They prefer to work quietly, without interruption, and often alone. [...] One-to-one conversation is preferred in almost every situation. In a group situation, INTPs are sensitive to whether they believe they will be listened to or not. If a dominant (strongly extraverted and loud) person is present, the INTP will withdraw and sulk, believing the dominant person to be a brute. If an INTP speaks, he must be listened to, for he believes his spoken opinions to be important. If not, he withdraws (at least in spirit) and assumes that the people who do not listen lack intelligence. [...] NTs seldom, however, lose interest in owning books and knowledge; these hold their interest year after year, and an NT's home is likely to be well lined with books. [...] A major concern for INTPs is the haunting sense of impending failure. They spend considerable time second-guessing themselves. [...] An INTP arguing a point may very well be trying to convince himself as much as his opposition. [...] They feel a distinct unease before most fixed appointments and cannot fully relax until the scheduled event is over, or at least in progress. [...] They are often jovial and good-natured, with a good sense of humor.
What's this blog about?
For a number of years now, I've had a particular interest in ecumenical/interfaith dialogue with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For a lot of Evangelicals, I know such a thing can be rather taboo, in part because the popular stereotypical image of 'Mormons' is a somewhat distorted and selective one. The scene in recent years has in large part been dominated by the Evangelical 'countercult' movement, which tends to use a more polemical style.
Whatever the merits of some aspects of that approach, it isn't the one I want to use, in part because I don't think it's always the most fruitful. I desire an honest, reasonable, constructive, and civil dialogue involving a heavy element of mutual respect. When I do raise criticisms of Latter-day Saint perspectives (whether 'official' or 'unofficial'), I'll seek to do so as a thoughtful and irenic critic and will strive to treat the issues with the nuance they deserve, as well as sensitivity to legitimate points raised by both Latter-day Saints and other Evangelicals - and I'll also strive to be open to being shown wrong. If I have to make a critique, I want it to be a critique that's informed by criticisms of earlier forms of that critique. In addition, I have no intention of employing a double standard; I can't stand the thought of criticizing Latter-day Saints for something that I wouldn't criticize my own group for. And, let's face it, a number of Evangelical critics of LDS beliefs and practices are guilty of that sometimes.
Also, I don't want to focus exclusively or even primarily on negative issues. I intend to also discuss the things I respect about Latter-day Saint teaching, practice, and culture. And, frankly, a lot of my posts may simply consist of questions. I'm by no stretch of the imagination anywhere near an expert on LDS belief, let alone practice and culture, but I'm very interested in learning more.
I love Latter-day Saints. I especially love all my LDS friends, and I love making new LDS friends. This is so even though, as I mournfully have to admit, I've met (mainly online) my share of unpleasant and downright bile-filled people within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and who very nearly instilled a reflexive hostility toward Latter-day Saints in my heart. Some of them used slurs like "anti-Mormon" (which, given early LDS history, is really quite an ugly term to use) against myself and other friendly non-LDS Christians, and went so far as to harshly denigrate and personally attack both myself and the relatively few Latter-day Saints who dared to call them to repentance for their ungodly conduct. The people I'm talking about can at times be - and it breaks my heart to think about it - as dishonest, vicious, and willfully ignorant as the worst of real anti-Mormons, if not worse. (I don't, of course, blame the LDS Church for their behavior; unfortunately, no group is immune from jerks within the midst, and I'd be the worst kind of hypocrite to not be horrified by some of the ways I've seen some fellow Evangelicals treating Latter-day Saints as well.)  I praise and thank God for typically preserving me from returning hate for hate, though to my shame I have to say I've succumbed to the temptation to respond somewhat in kind from time to time. I haven't always been as diplomatic in the face of boorishness as I'd like to be, so if you see me slipping up, please exhort me to temper my words more with grace. A lesson I'm still learning is when to simply ignore those who refuse to have a civil, honest discussion.
I have a passion in my heart for reaching out to Latter-day Saints to build bridges of love and understanding. There's been unkindness and misunderstanding for far too long on both sides, and I want to do my small part to overcome it. I also have a passion - I freely confess it - to help both Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals (myself very much included!) to come to a better understanding of the truth wherever we need to be readjusted or reoriented. I cannot and do not shy away from saying that I believe there are a number of very serious and important points on which LDS tradition leads Latter-day Saints away from that. I also cannot and do not shy away from critiquing many of the problems of contemporary Evangelical movements - and those problems are many, though I think the underlying truth of the Evangelical message, which is a fundamentally Christian message, is so true and so beautiful that it trumps the messiness that often arises from our ineptness, foolishness, and weakness of character.
Truth is important, doctrine is important, and I take very seriously what Latter-day Saints (both individually and corporately, both officially and unofficially) have taught and now teach, just as I do any movement - my own included. Some of the the teachings I've seen in the LDS fold, past and present, I must sincerely and with all due respect reject as wrong, so far as I can evaluate the matter. Among those are some fringe speculations as well as crucial foundation-level teachings of the LDS Church. I disagree with the notion that there was a complete apostasy of the church, and so I disagree with the belief that there was a need for a total restoration, rather than simply reformation (semper reformanda!). I disagree with the belief that the differences between the divine and the human are only a matter of degree rather than kind, as though we and God were the same fundamental species; I disagree also with the belief that Godhood (in the most literal and robust sense) can be obtained, and so I reject the theology of the Lorenzo Snow couplet ("As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be") and of Joseph Smith's famed King Follett Discourse and his less-famed Sermon in the Grove. I also reject in particular those forms of LDS theology in which God the Father has a God above him.
Additionally, I disagree with the LDS conception of priesthood, the LDS denial of creation out of nothing, and the LDS belief that we each individually pre-existed this world. I reject any theologies that either do away with the (non-salvific) value of works or else neglect the primacy and all-sufficiency of God's grace and Christ's atonement. I do not accept the claims of Joseph Smith and his successors to be true prophets, seers, and revelators; and I do not accept the claims that the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price are canonical scripture given by God (as I also do not accept the claim that the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham are ancient writings at all). I do not accept the claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or any of the other descendants of the original Latter Day Saint movement, represents the one exclusive true and authorized church of God upon the earth.
I could go on detailing some of my other points of disagreement, but this should suffice for a general sketch. I hope that my stated rejection of these points isn't offensive to any of my LDS readers, because that's something I most definitely do not desire. I mean no offense whatsoever in what I said in the last two paragraphs, and I apologize ahead of time to anyone who is justifiably offended. However, I do want to be up-front and honest about exactly where I stand when it comes to LDS teaching, just as I appreciate it when Latter-day Saints are equally as forthright in telling me what they accept and reject in my own tradition - especially when they're willing to reason about it. While I reject the things I just mentioned, I don't want to disparage anyone who believes in them, or mock them, or be disrespectful in my discussions of them. I also try to stay open to being convinced of the things that I currently reject.
So what do I believe? What's the positive corollary to my negative statements above? I do believe that there is one and only one God above all, Yahweh/Jehovah, eternally existing as the three distinct persons (though of course one in essence and undivided) of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (or 'Holy Ghost', if you'd prefer). In the words of a beautiful old Wesleyan hymn, my prayer is:
Come, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Whom one all-perfect God we own,
Restorer of thine image lost,
Thy various offices make known;
Display, our fallen souls to raise,
Thy whole economy of grace.

Jehovah in three Persons, come,
And draw, and sprinkle us, and seal,
Poor, guilty, dying worms, in whom
Thou dost eternal life reveal;
The knowledge of thyself bestow,
And all thy glorious goodness show.
I believe that this God, the triune communion of divine love, is truly all-powerful and all-knowing and necessarily self-existent from everlasting to everlasting. All matter, space, and time is an absolute creation of his; as God exists in his own self, apart from creation, he is timeless, immaterial (and so incorporeal), and without spatial extension. I believe that everything that we are - body, spirit, you name it - is entirely dependent for its existence upon his sustaining us in existence, and that we were made in time but will by his grace be sustained forever, whether honorably (for those who return his love) or dishonorably (for those who return ingratitude for grace). To quote from another Wesleyan hymn I find beautiful:
Hail! Father, Son, and Spirit great
Before the birth of time
Enthroned in everlasting state,
Jehovah, Elohim!

A mystical plurality
We in the Godhead own,
Adoring One in Persons Three,
And Three in Nature One.

From thee our being we receive,
The creatures of thy grace;
And, raised out of the earth, we live
To sing our Maker's praise.
I believe that this God intends to draw us by his grace ever deeper into his communion of love; that's why he made us, and that's why he delights in us. In this glorious communion, marriages and friendships will not be so much dissolved as fulfilled and expanded; the shadow will give way to the reality to which it pointed all along. What we are to be is a reflection of his moral character and his other communicable attributes, and we will forever grow in his grace, receiving a glory that surpasses our wildest pious imaginations; but we can never exhaust his infinite being, nor will we ever share his truly incommunicable attributes, nor will we ever be worthy of the honors that are rightly his and his alone. We are not, nor could we ever become, the same fundamental sort of entity that God is - not because God is stingy, but because this is genuinely impossible for us to receive. If there is a sense in which the faithful can thus figuratively be called 'gods' insofar as we reflect God's character and communicable attributes by grace, it is a very different sense than that sense in which God is called 'God', which latter sense is the most proper and most robust sense of the term, and in which there is absolutely only one God, and he without predecessor, without beginning, without equal, without successor, without end; and all praise, honor, blessing, and glory be to him, now and ever and unto ages of ages!
I believe that Jesus Christ - the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, and the Savior promised from the beginning - was eternally the Son of the Father and became human in time when he was miraculously conceived without sexual intercourse in the womb of the Virgin Mary, by means of the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that Jesus atoned for our sins by the blood he shed and shame he endured in his death on the cross, and that we're invited to share in the overflowing, super-abundant life that flows ceaselessly out from him in his glorious resurrection. I believe that Jesus is our ever-living prophet, and that Christians together make up his body and the one temple of God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the great eternal high priest who renders all other priesthoods and sacrificial systems obsolete, and that all who are in Christ, without any distinction of sex, race, or status, are in him made sharers by grace in his own priesthood, but not holders of our own apart from him and his. (Or, as one catchy phrase has put it, "Jesus is my priesthood holder; Jesus is my temple recommend.") I believe that nothing could be more important than Jesus Christ, together with his Father and his Spirit the one God, in whom is the full total of all truth and life and glory.
O how sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to trust his cleansing blood;
And in simple faith to plunge me
'Neath the healing, cleansing flood!

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him!
How I've proved him o'er and o'er:
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus,
O for grace to trust him more!
I believe that Christ remains the living head of his church, which he established on the foundation of his unique apostles (whose enduring and inspired witness is joined to the prophets of former days in the biblical canon, which is now sufficient to ground our rule of faith), though first and foremost of his own self, and that the forces of darkness have never won victory over this church, but rather it is the manifestation of God's living power expressed in the midst of our human weakness, and has lasted from the apostolic era into today and shall remain to greet Christ when he comes. And it is in this vast body of disciples, who are called to ever-deeper holiness and witness to the world, that I claim membership by virtue of my faithful baptism into Christ and the testimony of God's Spirit to my own spirit that I am his and that I have been redeemed and granted citizenship in his kingdom. And I bear testimony that all these things are true, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Why the name 'Study and Faith'?
Perhaps some of those familiar with the LDS scriptures (and for the record, I'm not very familiar with them as of yet, in my opinion) will recognize this as coming from a famous phrase, "by study and also by faith", which occurs in two identical passages in the LDS scriptural canon. This is one of my favorite sections from uniquely LDS scripture, and so I thought it would make a good title for the blog. Here, by the way, is the text of that passage, with emphasis on some of my favorite parts:
And as not all have faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God; that your incomings may be in the name of the Lord; that your outgoings may be in the name of the Lord; that all your salutations may be in the name of the Lord, with uplifted hands to the Most High. (D&C 88:118-120; 109:7-9)
What's up with your site banner?
I made an earlier version around the start of 2011 for this site, since I thought it could use some aesthetic sprucing up. You can read more about that old one and what it means here. At the end of May 2011, I created another banner in a similar style; you can read more about the current one here. The symbols across the bottom are Reformed Egyptian characters from the Golden Plates. Along the top, from left to right, we have: a 19th-century depiction of Joseph Smith receiving the plates under Moroni's guidance; a 17th-century Flemish painting (by Hendrick van Balen) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; a clip from Raffaello's 16th-century fresco The School of Athens; a 19th-century illustration of Captain Moroni holding high the Title of Liberty; in the center, an image of a manuscript of the Doctrine and Covenants, superimposed over a 20th-century depiction of Jesus preaching to the Nephites; a late-19th-century illustration of the Nauvoo Temple; a picture of the famed Jesus statue at the visitors' center at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah; an icon portraying the participants at the First Council of Nicaea (325) holding up the Greek text of the Nicene Creed; and, finally, an early-20th-century illustration of Moroni blowing his trumpet.
How often does this blog get updated?
Ultimately, it all comes down to how busy I am with other things, and also whether or not my computer is in need of an exorcism and/or IT services. When I have the time and the sheer technological capability to make posts, I try to do so every few days if not more frequently, but that's also partly contingent upon my ability to figure out things to post on and my ability to motivate myself to undertake various projects. When I'm too busy or my computer is wroth with me (and I, in turn, with it), I take a hiatus until I have a chance to do at least some filler. Lots and lots of filler...
Do you have a commenting policy?
Yes. All comments must be civil and strive to relate to issues pertaining in the post. Spam will not be allowed. Nor will undue rudeness, insult, or profanity. If comment threads begin to go off on tangents, I reserve the right to direct commenters to stay on track. I reserve the right to delete comments where and when appropriate, but will seldom do so with non-spam remarks. Unless I'm in a weird mood that day and think it would be funny. (Just kidding... probably.) In other words, just shoot for being civil and relevant, and you'll be alright. But I should also note that sometimes, whether I like it or not, the automated spam filter here can get a bit overzealous, and I seldom remember to check it more than every couple of months.
What's the deal with your blogrolls?
I have two separate blogrolls here. The first, titled simply "Blogroll", is limited to blogs that have some focus on Mormonism or on LDS-Evangelical dialogue. I wanted to provide a mix of blogs from a variety of perspectives. Some are written by active Latter-day Saints; some are written by Evangelicals who irenically discuss LDS-related issues; some may have contributions from both; a couple may take a more secular angle yet still be relevant; and some may be written by Evangelicals who take approaches to LDS-related issues that I don't endorse.
The second blogroll, "Blogroll 2", includes a few of the other blogs I follow. The blogs in this blogroll have very little to do with Mormonism, at least not on any consistent basis, but I find them profitable, and some are authored by personal friends of mine.
I do not guarantee my endorsement of the general contents of any of the blogs included in either blogroll, nor of the sites listed beneath that.
Have you read and/or prayed about the Book of Mormon?
Yes, I have done both. To explain, I'll have to "briefly" tell the story of my encounters with the LDS faith. (Whenever I type the word 'briefly' at the beginning of something, I can almost hear the voice of Inigo Montoya from the movie The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.") When I was younger, my approach tended to be much more informed by the 'countercult' style - though I'm pleased to note that I somehow avoided exposure to Ed Decker's silly material (e.g., The God Makers), for the most part. But I did read Walter Martin's classic 'countercult' compendium The Kingdom of the Cults at least once, and have probably read the chapter on Mormonism a number of times through. In younger days, I didn't have much of an interest in 'Mormonism' in particular; it was just one component of an interest in general Christian apologetics. I did, however, have an interest in non-Trinitarian movements in particular, and I had read a few books dedicated entirely to the subject of Mormonism.
Up through my junior year of college, however, my interest in Mormonism was eclipsed by my several years of fascinated study of Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs), during which I immersed myself a fair deal in their literature, spent ages working in detail through part of their What Does the Bible Really Teach? book with a local JW elder and one of their ministerial servants (i.e., deacons), and attended numerous meetings and conventions. (And let me tell you, there is nothing quite like the feeling of being a non-JW surrounded by thousands and thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses!) They were so confident that they would eventually persuade me to join up, even though they never managed to convince me of anything I hadn't already believed as an orthodox Christian. But at any rate, I digress. If anyone is for some reason curious to know more about my experiences with Jehovah's Witnesses, well, you're free to ask.
I received my first copy of the Book of Mormon from a high school friend quite promptly after learning that he was LDS; despite having known him for years, I had never known. Walking up to him at his locker one day, I mentioned that I'd heard that he was LDS and asked if he could help me get a copy of the Book of Mormon to read. He immediately reached into his locker, grabbed a copy, and handed it to me. Somewhat surprised, I believe my comment in response was something to the effect of, "...I salute the efficiency of your religion, good sir."
After getting a copy of the Book of Mormon, I read it over the course of about two weeks. I didn't pray about it at the time, since I had (and still have, to some degree) objections to that approach to discerning the truth. I was, however, thankful to have had the chance to read the Book of Mormon. I recall later on, at a religious 'open house' at my college, running into a pair of sister missionaries. When they asked if I'd ever read the Book of Mormon and I said yes, they almost staggered back in shock, which they followed by saying - in a surprised, questioning voice - "All of it?" Though seeming to be stunned again by my affirmation that I really had read the whole thing, they regained their bearing when I conceded that I'd never prayed about it up until that time.
My next significant face-to-face contact with Latter-day Saints came several years later (Fall 2009) while I was studying in Greece. I ran into a group of LDS missionaries there at, of all places, the Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens (cf. Acts 17:22-34). I had ventured there with a theology student from Germany whom I'd met at church earlier in the morning; I can still hear the sound of her voice as she muttered, while looking over my shoulder, "Oh no.... Mormons." In time, we passed the group of missionaries on our way down off the Areopagus, and after a brief chat I gave them my contact information. After they sent an e-mail that included a mention of the missionary discussion lessons, I decided to go ahead and do it. Our meetings at the branch office there (which gets a very lovely view of the Temple of Olympian Zeus across the street) included some very rousing discussions, as one might imagine! (Among all the amusing quotes that stuck in my mind, one of my favorites was, "JB, you're a better Mormon than I am", spoken by one of the missionaries.) By the third meeting, they were joined by the branch's CES (Church Education Services) Institute teacher, who had previously served a calling as a bishop while living in Utah.
During this time, I began to intently pray very precisely about the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the way prescribed most famously in Moroni 10:3-5. I also had an opportunity to attend a pair of firesides - one with Elder Johann Wondra (Third Quorum of the Seventy, at the time; released in April 2010) and one with Elder Gérald Caussé (First Quorum of the Seventy, at the time; now in the Presiding Bishopric) - as well as some general events for young adults. I can truthfully say that I loved all the Latter-day Saints I got to meet while I was in Greece. All of the missionaries who worked with me there were truly wonderful people (which, alas, is not exactly something I can say of all the Latter-day Saints I've encountered in general, as I mentioned with regret before). I also borrowed plenty of books from the branch's library to read. I even read James E. Talmage's Jesus the Christ mostly while on a religious pilgrimage in Turkey. I was visiting the sites of the seven ecumenical councils, which is probably the first time in history that a book by James Talmage has been brought on that trip!
Although I completed the missionary discussion lessons while in Greece, I continued to meet with missionaries back here in America. One of the main reasons was that the branch in Greece was unable to procure a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants for me. I was then given a triple combination by missionaries stationed in the town where I was finishing up my undergraduate work. I continued to pray about the LDS faith quite fervently, to the point where I genuinely wanted to believe in LDS teachings. For reasons I can't quite articulate, I really wanted Mormonism to be true - though for the record, while open to being shown to be wrong, I at no time believed that it is in fact true. Still, although I believed it to be ultimately incorrect, I wanted to be convinced otherwise.
In terms of 'Moroni's promise', I had a "sincere heart". Despite my continued misgivings about LDS teaching, I was prepared to set all of those aside and seek a 'spiritual witness', even at the cost of a great deal of all I believed and held dear. I was able, with all honesty and forthrightness, to affirm that if I received a 'spiritual witness' in favor of the LDS Church, then I would immediately begin down a path leading to LDS baptism - consequences be what they may. (Even with such a 'spiritual witness', of course, I would definitely need to spend time sorting out some (but not all) of my biggest obstacles to belief in LDS teaching.) I had plenty of "real intent"; I was quite serious in my search and quite willing to convert if I genuinely came to believe that God wanted me to. And I certainly had, and still have, "faith in Christ". Jesus Christ is my Lord, my King, my Savior, my Redeemer, my Shepherd, my living Prophet, my one and only great High Priest, and my God; I testify that he is the living and powerful Lord of all, and I resolve with all my life to follow him wherever he leads me, to the glory of the Father and in the power of the Spirit.
Now, more recently, another set of missionaries offered a different sent of criteria here by turning to the introduction of the Liahona in 1 Nephi 16:23-29. I actually found this to be a much more intriguing approach. As we analyzed it, there seemed to be several main stages involved: (1) initial preparation; (2) humbling of self; and (3) provision of guidance from the Lord (4) which directs in conjunction with both faith and obedience. So did I meet these criteria? I think so. First, if there's one thing that no missionary has ever suggested is the problem, it's a lack of studying things out! So I believe I can be said to have met {1}. The second provision in the case of 1 Nephi 16 actually seems to mainly be relative to the context there in which Lehi and the others had previously been "murmuring against the Lord", which I was not during this process, and so between that and my willingness to submit the matter to God, I'd say that I met {2} as well as do most Latter-day Saints who claim to be recipients of personal revelation. Now, {3} isn't a criterion, just a result. The last criterion is {4}, faith and obedience. As I said above, I have faith in both the Father and the Son. Furthermore, while I'd never claim to be anywhere near perfect, I was also making a sincere, persistent, continual effort to live worthily of the gospel, in light of the light I'd been given. Relative to what I know of God's commands, I don't think I fare any worse than most devout Latter-day Saints, at least, and consequently I don't think {4} was an obstacle. Consequently, if this passage is to be taken as a model for receiving true and clear witness from the Spirit as to the truth, then I'd say that by the grace of God I followed through.
Anyway, back then during my last year of college, I asked the missionaries for various ways in which a witness of either the truth or the falsehood of something might manifest itself, seeking to understand how, if the general paradigm of 'spiritual confirmation' is correct, I might discern truth that way - while also utilizing standards that allow for disconfirmation as well. And with that in mind, I persevered in prayer, "ask[ing] God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true".
In time, to my great surprise, I began to experience every phenomenon they said could be a way that the Spirit would give a witness against something (or, in other words, an answer of "no"). I began to have 'stupors of thought' (D&C 9:9) whenever I attempted to think about or pray about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, the LDS Church, etc. I'd find my mind going blank, or wandering off to radically different topics, and I'd just find myself incapable of focusing on LDS things. Additionally, I began to feel a sensation akin to an unpleasantly oppressive heat whenever I met with the missionaries. It was dizzying, like an uncomfortable sweatiness of the soul, and it made it difficult to think clearly or to sit still. To borrow the words of Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as he described it in his April 2007 General Conference address 'Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer', it was "an unsettling, discomforting feeling". These experiences all matched well with the few criteria for a spiritual disconfirmation that the missionaries were willing to share.
To sum up and repeat: Of the criteria they said should be met for a person to reliably receive a testimony from God, I had all of them. Of the things they suggested could be ways that the Spirit would tell me that the LDS Church is true, I had none. Of the things they suggested could be ways that the Spirit would tell me that some church is false, I got all of them with respect to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Within the framework of the whole idea of 'gaining a testimony' (in the LDS sense), and given the above points, what would seem to be the reasonable conclusion?
Well, I realized that, very unexpectedly, I had apparently gained a testimony that Joseph Smith was not a true prophet, just as I had gained a positive testimony of historic Christian teachings like the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. This accorded very well with my best estimation of what all other evidence - scriptural, philosophical/theological, and historical/archaeological - seemed to indicate.
On the other hand, I seem to recall one missionary attempting to explain away my situation by retreating to the claim that actual belief in the LDS faith is required to receive a confirmatory answer to that prayer! In short, said he, unless you already believe in their message, one does not receive spiritual witness of that message. Of course, that raised the thorny difficulty of how to come to believe in it apart from that means - a difficulty that that missionary was not willing to address. When it comes to the missionaries' challenge about gaining a revelation on this issue, I can say with a rather clear conscience that I met not only Moroni's criteria, but all other remotely reasonable criteria that they suggested - and the outcome was still a vivid sense that God did not want me in the LDS Church, and that it was not the One True Church it claimed to be.
After I finished my undergraduate studies, I continued to meet with a pair of sister missionaries for a little while - somewhat against my will, really - and found myself simply unable to generate any further interest in LDS-related subjects for the next several months. During the time that the sister missionaries continued to pay me visits, they attempted quite strongly to persuade me to set a date for LDS baptism, urging that it would "show God that I'm serious" and thereby enable me to find out if the LDS faith is true. They maintained that what I was really lacking was a public display of faith, a clear motion in the LDS direction, and that fulfilling the exhortations of Moroni 10:3-5, studying and praying intently, meeting with them, and resolving my willingness to abide by God's commands had not been enough. No, I needed to convince God that my heart was in it by acting contrary to my conscience and contrary to what I believed God had revealed to me.
Even after praying about their suggestion further, I had to report that I couldn't in good conscience resolve myself to a course of action that I already believed that God did not want me to undertake, any more than they could set a date for baptism in my church. (In retrospect, I wish I had extended that very same invitation to them, simply to see how they would've reacted.) I shared with them that, in addition to my doctrinal misgivings, I had experiences that I took to be a spiritual witness in favor of my own faith and contrary to theirs. I explained that I genuinely did not believe that God wanted me to be initiated into their group, and that in fact I was convinced that he had told me he did not want me to go down that route; and, in light of that, I could only consider their suggestion to be 'putting God to the test' in a way that would show a lack of faith, not an abundance of it (cf. Deuteronomy 6:16). After hearing this, they accused me of being closed-minded and unwilling to consider their message, since I wouldn't agree to be baptized into their faith.
So, to recap: I did not believe that the LDS Church was 'true', and so in good conscience could not join it. In fact, I believed that God had essentially directed me not to. Since I had not been convinced to join the LDS Church, this pair of missionaries insisted that I publicly promise to do what I believed was not only wrong, but forbidden to me by God. Unfortunately, not wishing to betray God's will and my own conscience in this instance made me closed-minded and hard-hearted. Everyone following that?
Between that and my upcoming departure from the area, it seemed like an appropriate juncture at which to terminate the meetings. That was in July 2010, if I'm not mistaken. Only after the impression of a testimony contrary the LDS message had been made fully clear - in accordance with the criteria of discernment that I was able to get from the missionaries I met in Greece and Pennsylvania - did my interest slowly return during the summer and fall of 2010. That's around when I started this blog (November 2010).
From that time (July 2010), I did not see another actively serving LDS missionary until late November 2011, when I finally attended sacrament meeting in the ward closest to my seminary and, after that, agreed to the missionaries' request that we get together to discuss things further. After a few meetings, though, in December 2011 they resolved that, given the amount of time they had available to teach people on the one hand and, on the other hand, the amount of effort and investment it would take to win over someone like me, they'd make more effective use of their time to focus on, well, easier targets, so to speak. So now I'm simply a regular visitor, working on building friendships in the ward while I carry out most of my discussion with Latter-day Saints online. I have, from time to time, been picked up by the missionaries again; and I have at times returned to praying about the Book of Mormon - always with similar results. (If asked if I'm a member or investigator, though, I usually have to answer, "Investigator... sorta", as the most honest way to try to briefly relate my own situation to the categories they're using.)
So yes, to answer succinctly now the original question: I have read the Book of Mormon, and I have also prayed about the Book of Mormon - and, so far as I can see, the answer I got was no. I should also note that, even if I got a 'spiritual witness' of the Book of Mormon, that would not be quite sufficient to convince me to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all on its own. Why not? Well, first, even granting that it would mean that Joseph Smith had been called by God to bring forth that ancient text, it would not in itself mean that Joseph Smith remained a faithful prophet throughout his whole life; after all, quite a few significant members of the early LDS community drew precisely the conclusion that Joseph had become a fallen prophet, and a testimony of the Book of Mormon would not, in and of itself, provide a reason to disagree with them. This is enough of a live option for me that I could not in good faith just assume that the truth of the Book of Mormon would vindicate the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wholesale.
But even setting that matter aside, there's the issue of succession: even if Joseph Smith was a valid prophet, even if I had a testimony of the Book of Mormon and a testimony of Joseph Smith, that would not automatically ensure that the present-day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true and proper 'heir' to his legacy. Perhaps the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is it. Or, perhaps one of the 'fundamentalist' groups is the true heir; personally, I'm partial to the Apostolic United Brethren. Honestly, I struggle at times to see the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as it is now) as being a very faithful representation of Joseph Smith's teaching and practice. A testimony of the Book of Mormon alone would not, therefore, necessarily constitute a testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those are some of the issues that would have to further be addressed. And given that the Book of Mormon contains precious little distinctively LDS teaching, it also just doesn't strike me as that important, ultimately speaking - not in comparison, at least, to the developed forms of distinctively LDS teachings.
I must mention that I still have serious reservations over the notion of 'spiritual confirmation/disconfirmation' as typically presented, though I strive always to remain open to God's guidance. I believe that in my case, because I was interacting with missionaries who adhered so closely to a certain notion of 'spiritual confirmation', God deigned to warn me away from the LDS faith by using means that would be especially pertinent to that case. More typically, to the extent that God communicates with me individually, I suspect that he takes into account my academic bent and personality type and speaks to me through guiding me to this source or that argument. But I should also say that I've had plenty of other experiences of God reaching out to me in other ways. As an Evangelical, my preferred phrase for this is "God's guidance" or prompting rather than "personal revelation".
If someone wants to say that my experiences weren't a 'spiritual witness' of anything at all but were misinterpreted as such by me, I'm fine with that approach. But I claim every bit as much legitimacy in interpreting my experiences as spiritual disconfirmation of the LDS faith as any Latter-day Saint has in interpreting his or her experiences as spiritual confirmation of the LDS faith. If that degree of legitimacy happens to ultimately be rather low, I'm fine with that - so long as consistency is maintained across the board.
Either way, am I still willing to study and investigate, after a fashion, the LDS faith? Of course, because I recognize my own fallibility, and because the truth is of real importance to me. I don't hold 'spiritual witness' to be incorrigible in principle; I believe that it needs to be weighed against other, more public considerations. (This is or ought to be granted, it would seem, even within the standard LDS paradigm; for instance, any 'spiritual witness' that overreaches the recipient's realm of authorized responsibility would have to be discounted.) But, given the history of my spiritual experiences in addition to the various objections I have to distinctive LDS teachings, I'd need to be convinced, spiritually and intellectually, before I could in good conscience deviate from the path I'm on. (See below for further elaboration on this point.)
In other words, even though I have what I would regard as a 'spiritual witness' both for the truth of the orthodox Christian faith and for the falsity of the LDS faith, I choose to recognize the fallibility of my capacity for discernment, and so to humbly remain open for correction from God, whether it comes via a corrective spiritual experience or simply through powerful evidence or reasoning. But, I must re-emphasize, the workings of the Spirit in my life have already been powerful indeed. Contrary to the caricatures of some Latter-day Saints who've been quick to label me as a 'worldly' 'natural man', I do seek intently after the Spirit and follow its leading, which is why I'm thankful to have a testimony of that to which the Scriptures and sound reason also point me. I try to have an integrated epistemology, one that seeks a real role for the Spirit while not falling into what I see as the traps of irrationality, fideism, and emotionalism into which some overly simplistic LDS approaches seem to fall.
A last further clarification for the record: Some of my story does not reflect too positively on some of the missionaries I've met, and in fact other Latter-day Saints I know have been horrified to hear some of the ways that some of those missionaries have acted some of the time. However, I'd be very remiss if I didn't say that most of the missionaries I've met were and are truly wonderful, amazingly loving people whom I respect and am proud to consider friends even now. Most missionaries were genuinely respectful of me and at least gave me the impression of genuinely listening to my perspective and thinking about it - and I believe that many of them really did. Indeed, one missionary remarked that he and his companion sometimes spent hours afterwards debating over the issues that had surfaced in our discussions!
I can honestly say that I love all of the LDS missionaries I met, even those who were at times less than charitable. I remain friends with many of them and pray for them regularly. Earlier in this introduction when I mentioned having dealt with some less virtuous members of the LDS Church, I was not referring to any of the missionaries I met, but rather to some Latter-day Saints I've met online who have a serious case of 'siege mentality'. So while not all of my experiences with the missionaries have been wholly positive in character, I don't consider that a general rule and don't want to give an overly negative impression of LDS missionaries, the LDS missionary program, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself.
Do you think the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a cult?
The short answer is, no. For a longer exposition of that 'no', feel free to read on. As for the question of whether Latter-day Saints are 'Christians', which is in fact quite a separate issue from the 'cult' issue, that's also a tricky question that requires a long answer. I'd first say that some surely are and some surely aren't (same as professing Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Evangelicals, etc.), and I'd secondly say that, even setting that aside, neither a simple 'yes' nor a simple 'no' capture the nuance needed, as both are potentially misleading in their connotations.
What do I mean by that? Well, as a thought experiment, imagine Warren Jeffs coming out with an "I'm a Mormon" ad, and the FLDS (Jeffs' group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) stepping up a missionary effort in which their missionaries refer to themselves as "Mormons", and so forth. How might the mainstream LDS Church react? In the past, they've already expressed a great dissatisfaction whenever the media refer to Jeffs' group as "Mormon fundamentalists", to say nothing of just plain old "Mormons". They would likely say that the word "Mormon" should be taken to refer mainly to the mainstream LDS Church. Why? I imagine they'd be concerned about people mentally associating Warren Jeffs and his practices with the mainstream LDS Church. I imagine they'd be concerned about people forgetting the differences between mainstream LDS and the FLDS, classing them all under the label "Mormon". I imagine they'd want to say that they as the mainstream LDS Church are the only true and valid heirs to the Restoration legacy, and that the so-called "Mormon fundamentalists" are apostate and have left the pure doctrines of the real LDS Church. And I imagine they might be concerned about the possibility that FLDS missionaries claiming to be "Mormon" might use that label to get a foothold in LDS households and families.
On the other hand, the FLDS might object that they're the true heir of the Restoration since they follow Joseph Smith and Brigham Young more closely; they might object that the mainstream LDS Church can't exclude them from the Restoration heritage, since by a minimal definition of what it means to be a Mormon (believing in Joseph Smith as a prophet, belief in the Book of Mormon, belief in the priesthood restoration, etc.), they qualify as much as (if not more than) members of the mainstream LDS Church. Maybe they'd be concerned that saying that they aren't 'Mormon' would be misleading if it led people to think that they reject those basic Restoration claims. In other words, it seems like both sides here have some legitimate concerns that get ignored by either a simple 'yes' or a simple 'no' to the question, "Are the FLDS Mormon?"
It also seems to me that there's a close analogy here with the question of whether the LDS Church is Christian - except this time, the mainstream LDS Church stands in relation to traditional Christianity in a similar way that the FLDS relate to the mainstream LDS. Traditional Christians might object that the LDS can't claim the label "Christian" because we collectively own it by being the church throughout the centuries. We'd worry about LDS missionaries getting a foothold in places by stressing, say, the name "Jesus Christ" on their nametags; we'd be concerned that outside observers or even our own might assume that the differences between traditional Christianity and the beliefs and practices of Latter-day Saints are small or inconsequential, whereas we on the other hand see them as such a strong departure from what (we believe) has been the unified testimony of Christians for thousands of years that it qualifies as something new entirely. So the worry is that labeling the LDS Church 'Christian' would be misleading. But, just like the FLDS answer to the LDS, there's a pushback, with the most reasonable concern being that people might miss the commonalities if the term is denied.
That's why my answer in both cases is ultimately that both 'yes' and 'no', when applied to whole institutions or groups here, are simplistic and misleading. I happen to have more sympathy for the traditional Christian position, since I believe that many important LDS theological beliefs are totally foreign to the entire heritage of Christianity from the days of the ancient apostles until now - a much stronger difference than that between the FLDS and the LDS. But, because I don't like oversimplifying, I try not to contrast Latter-day Saints to "Christians" but rather to "traditional/mainstream Christians". While disagreeing with its decisiveness, I nevertheless want to be sympathetic to the objections Latter-day Saints have to being disqualified from using that word. Arguing over the label seldom is as productive as exploring the actual content of the similarities and differences, and - as I said above - the dispute over whether the LDS Church is Christian is related yet distinct to the dispute over whether any individual Latter-day Saint is Christian.
Have you given serious study to the LDS faith?
Yes, though of course not nearly as much as some have (but, then again, more than many others, I suppose). As mentioned above, I've spent time with Latter-day Saints, spent time building relationships with Latter-day Saints. I've discussed theology with Latter-day Saints. I've attended sacrament meeting and other features of the Sunday morning LDS experience - and I'd attend more of it regularly if it weren't largely incompatible with my own church attendance. I even once received a priesthood blessing for comfort from a pair of LDS missionaries. That last bit may be a bit surprising to some, and so I'm going to transcribe here the blessing that I received while in college:
JB, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the holy Melchizedek Priesthood which we hold, we give you a blessing of comfort and of peace from your Heavenly Father. JB, your Heavenly Father is well aware of your circumstances. He loves you. He wants you to be happy, he wants you to experience all the joys and the privilege that comes to his children in this life. He wants you to taste of his love and his mercy in your life. He recognizes the difficulty of the schooling and education that you're going through at this time, and he will bless you with knowledge, with wisdom according to your needs, as you exercise your faith in him and as you turn to him in prayer. JB, your Heavenly Father wants you to be at peace. He wants you to feel the Spirit. Always be willing to do that which will invite the Spirit. Always be willing to follow your savior Jesus Christ, and he will give unto you peace. Continue in the path that you are walking, because it is the correct path. As you will continue to exercise your faith in Jesus Christ, he will continue to bless you. We leave you with these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
I've read the Book of Mormon in its entirety and remember, sadly, very little of it - hence my desire to work through it again sometime with greater attention to detail. I haven't done quite the same for the Doctrine and Covenants or the Pearl of Great Price just yet, though I've read significant portions of both. I've also read a small number of LDS-related books, both some favorable towards LDS beliefs and culture and some critical. Here's a list of some I've completed so far:
  • Achieving a Celestial Marriage: Student Manual - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith - ed. Scott H. Faulring
  • The Articles of Faith: A Series of Lectures on the Principal Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - James E. Talmage
  • Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism - Richard Abanes
  • Brigham Young: American Moses - Leonard J. Arrington
  • Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon - Alexander Campbell
  • The Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846-2000: A Documentary History - ed. Devery S. Anderson 
  • Doctrines of Salvation (3 vols.) - Joseph Fielding Smith
  • Early Mormonism and the Magic World View - D. Michael Quinn
  • Early Patriarchal Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - ed. H. Michael Marquardt 
  • Elias: An Epic of the Ages - Orson F. Whitney
  • Five Classics by Truman G. Madsen - Truman G. Madsen 
  • From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer - ed. Bruce Westengren 
  • Gospel Principles - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • The Great Apostasy Considered in the Light of Scriptural and Secular History - James E. Talmage 
  • Hearing the Voice of the Lord: Principles and Patterns of Personal Revelation - Gerald N. Lund 
  • However Long and Hard the Road - Jeffrey R. Holland 
  • In the President's Office: The Diaries of L. John Nuttall, 1879-1892 - ed. Jedediah S. Rogers 
  • In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith - Todd Compton
  • Jesus the Christ: A Study of the Messiah and His Mission - James E. Talmage
  • Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling - Richard L. Bushman
  • Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism - Richard L. Bushman
  • Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries - eds. Reid L. Neilsen and Terryl L. Givens
  • Joseph Smith's Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845: A Documentary History - eds. Devery S. Anderson and Gary James Bergera
  • Lectures on Faith - Joseph Smith, Jr., et al.
  • Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church - Simon G. Southerton
  • A Marvelous Work and a Wonder - LeGrand Richards
  • The Master's Church: Course A - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 
  • The Miracle of Forgiveness - Spencer W. Kimball
  • A Mormon Chronicle: The Diaries of John D. Lee, 1848-1876 (2 vols.) - eds. Robert Cleland and Juanita Brooks
  • The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis - Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish
  • The Mormon Defenders: How Latter-day Saint Apologists Misinterpret the Bible - James Patrick Holding
  • Mormon Doctrine - Bruce R. McConkie
  • Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1830-1915 - Kurt Widmer
  • Mormonism Unvailed: or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time - Eber D. Howe
  • Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion - Philip L. Barlow 
  • Mormons and Evangelicals: Reasons for Faith - David E. Smith 
  • The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846: A Documentary History - eds. Devery S. Anderson and Gary James Bergera
  • New Evidences of Christ in Ancient America - Blaine M. Yorgason, et al. 
  • The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement - eds. Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen
  • On the Way to Immortality and Eternal Life - J. Reuben Clark, Jr.
  • The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 - John L. Brooke
  • Refuting the Critics: Evidences of the Book of Mormon's Authenticity - Michael T. Griffith
  • Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage - B. Carmon Hardy 
  • Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes - Gordon B. Hinckley
  • A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Truth Restored: A Short History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - Gordon B. Hinckley 
  • A Uniform System for Teaching Investigators - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy - Terryl L. Givens
  • The Vision of Mormonism: Pressing the Boundaries of Christianity - Robert L. Millet
  • Wilford Woodruff's Journals, 1833-1898: Typescript (9 vols) - ed. Scott G. Kenney
  • William Law: Biographical Essay, Nauvoo Diary, Correspondence, Interview - ed. Lyndon W. Cook
  • Within These Prison Walls: Lorenzo Snow's Record Book, 1886-1897 - ed. Richard N. Holzapfel
I try to hear out both sides when I can (cf. Proverbs 18:17). Am I an expert? No, not even close. Do I plan to study even more? Yes, most definitely. I'll continue to read books written from a variety of perspectives, I'll continue to listen to LDS-themed podcasts, I'll continue to think through the many deep issues involved, and I'll continue to seek dialogue with Latter-day Saints.
But why do you study these things, if you aren't a Latter-day Saint?
There are a lot of answers I could give to this question. Part of it is that I simply enjoy reading about religion and thinking about theology. On those grounds alone, I find Latter-day Saint beliefs to be interesting. I also value knowledge for its own sake. Consequently, I find it thrilling to learn about things that interest me even in the slightest. I also find religious history interesting, and studying Latter-day Saint history from a variety of angles is enriching both personally and intellectually.
Furthermore, I sometimes enjoy the stimulation I receive when I read works of LDS philosophy, theology, and even apologetics at times - just as I enjoy similar works from critics of the LDS Church. I should note that LDS issues don't typically occupy the majority of my time or the bulk of my reading. Other groups - e.g., Jehovah's Witnesses - have been the object of similar focus for me in the past, and other groups and issues may become equal or greater objects of fascination for me in the future. Even at present, I probably read more general historical theology, philosophy, and biblical studies than I do Mormon studies in particular. Still, I enjoy having particular focus areas to enjoy studying, and for me Mormonism happens to be one of them currently.
Beyond that, Evangelicals all-too-commonly have a poor understanding of what Latter-day Saints believe, combined at times with hostility. What we need is for Evangelical leaders and clergy to be able to accurately and sympathetically understand LDS beliefs and to lead the way in speaking the truth in evident love - and for those Evangelicals with a clear awareness of their own beliefs and an ability to articulate them to help to clear up popular LDS misunderstandings as well, and to do so in the same spirit of love. As Carl Mosser and Paul Owen recommended in their classic castigation of Evangelical reactions to Mormonism, "evangelical academians need to make Mormonism, or some aspects of it, an area of professional interest". In my situation - as an aspiring Evangelical academic with an interest in Mormonism - how can I in good conscience refuse to answer their call?
And finally, beyond that, I also keep researching, studying, dialoguing, etc., because I am aware and open to the possibility that I may be persuaded thereby to give greater credence to LDS positions on various theological issues - and it is theoretically possible, therefore, that if distinctive Latter-day Saint beliefs are true (which I do not believe) and are persuasively argued in their literature (which I have seen disappointingly seldom thus far), then my prayerful research will lead me to accept those truths (on which, see below).
Are there really any conditions under which you'd become a Latter-day Saint?
In principle, there are. In principle, I am open to conversion to basically any religious movement (including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - or, for that matter, any of the other splinter groups of the original Latter Day Saint movement), in those situations in which I can recognize that I ought to so convert. I would have to be convinced that their major claims - about the nature of God, about the history of God's people, about their own group, etc. - are true. This would require being both convicted by the Spirit of God and also persuaded through more publicly available means (reason, the Bible, historical evidence, etc.). I would have to be convinced that it's where God wanted me - which is not, in fact, what I perceive to be the case; quite the contrary.
If those conditions were satisfied, and so the net force of both areas of consideration were tilted in the LDS Church's favor in my best understanding, then I would be a fool not to become a Latter-day Saint. If I were presented with the fulfillment of those conditions, the only honest course to take would be to move in the direction of becoming a baptized member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - and so I would do so, even if it might take several years to reach a point at which I would be prepared to accept LDS baptism. I certainly couldn't promise that it would be a swift process. First, winning me over to the LDS point of view would take a great deal of effort and further study and discussion. Second, I'd need to radically reorient myself theologically, and given how deeply rooted I am in more mainstream Christian theology, that would require a fairly extended catechesis, I'd imagine. Third, I am definitely convinced that God brought me to this seminary for a reason, and whatever that reason is, I'm absolutely convinced that it requires me to finish and get my MDiv. If I did for some reason happen to become LDS at some point after that, then I'm sure God would have some fascinating plan to use that seminary training within the LDS community.
As I mentioned above, neither of the conditions has thus far been satisfied, and since I currently see all those considerations pointing me toward Evangelical Christianity instead (or, more broadly, to Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy), that is where I am. I strive to be open to new considerations, both private (a 'spiritual witness' in favor of LDS beliefs) and public (rational/philosophical and scriptural arguments for LDS beliefs, archaeological support for the Book of Mormon's historicity, etc.). But until and unless those are forthcoming, the only honest thing I can do is to refrain from joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but also to keep an open mind and to continue engaging in honest and civil dialogue with Latter-day Saints as an Evangelical Christian committed steadfastly to the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ my Redeemer and Lord.
Are you on any social media or other sites?
Yes, yes I am. Among others, I'm on Facebook, Google+, and GoodReads. If anybody wants to connect with me on any of those, just let me know.
Any concluding remarks?
I'd just like to conclude by quoting two last hymns that, to me, hit at the heart of my devotion as an Evangelical Christian:
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God the Father, and the Word,
God the Comforter, receive
Blessings more than we can give:
Mix'd with those beyond the sky,
Chanters to the Lord Most High,
We our hearts and voices raise,
Echoing thy eternal praise.

One, inexplicably Three,
One, in simplest Unity,
God, incline thy gracious ear,
Us, thy lisping creatures, hear:
Thee while man, the earth-born, sings,
Angels shrink within their wings;
Prostrate Seraphim above
Breathe unutterable love.

Happy they who never rest,
With thy heavenly presence blest!
They the heights of glory see,
Sound the depths of Deity!
Fain with them our souls would vie;
Sink as low, and mount as high;
Fall o'erwhelmed with love, or soar;
Shout, or silently adore!
Arise, my soul, arise,
Shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice
In my behalf appears;
Before the throne my Surety stands;
My name is written on his hands.

He ever lives above,
For me to intercede,
His all-redeeming love,
His precious blood, to plead;
His blood atoned for all our race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.

Five bleeding wounds he bears,
Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers,
They strongly speak for me;
"Forgive him, O forgive," they cry,
"Nor let that ransom'd sinner die!"

The Father hears him pray,
His dear Anointed One;
He cannot turn away
The presence of his Son:
His Spirit answers to the blood,
And tells me I am born of God.

My God is reconciled,
His pardoning voice I hear,
He owns me for his child,
I can no longer fear;
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And, Father, Abba, Father, cry!
[Last updated: 2 December 2013]