Things I learned at the 2020 FAIR Mormon Conference, Part 1

The FAIR Conference is an annual gathering
of Latter-day Saint scholars.

In 2019, I attended the FAIR Mormon Conference in Provo, Utah. I stayed at the Marriott and walked across the street to the Utah Convention Center each morning. At noon and in the evening I walked the summer streets, looking for something enticing to eat and enjoying the energy of the small city. This year, the conference was virtual only, so I registered and attended online. I missed the focus which is easier to maintain when one is out of one’s house surrounded by tasks and unfinished projects, but my ability to see and hear the presentations was actually better online.

I’ve made brief summaries of some of the sessions. I’ve left out a few, not because they didn’t interest me so much as because the content was too complicated and sensitive for me to trust my severe abridgements. Sometimes the complex can be simplified only by falsifying it.

Taylor Halverson, “The Covenant Path in the Bible and the Book of Mormon”

coronavirus precautions
The podium and microphone were
disinfected before every speaker.

It is by walking the covenant path that we fully walk with God. Professor Halverson discussed the promises God made in his covenant with Abraham and the obligations he asked of His people in return at the time of the Mosaic covenant (upon his keeping his promise to Abraham by freeing the Israelites from bondage in Egypt). Halverson pays close attention to word origins and the expanded meanings of such terms as faith, perfect, prosperity, affection, righteousness, friend and many others.

Professor Halverson then turned to the Book of Mormon, suggesting that it is a covenantal text and discussing what the means. It is built around the promise God made to Abraham regarding his descendants: those who keep my commandments will prosper in the land. Jesus repeats the Sermon on the Mount in the New World (with certain changes due to the different context) because this sermon lays out the covenantal obligations of followers of Christ.

Halverson offers us a typological reading of the Book of Mormon, which is the way the book itself suggests it should be read. This reading invites us to contemplate the meaning held in the large unfolding of events across decades and centuries.

Jeffrey Thayne, “The Apologetic Implications of the Truth Made Flesh”

Jeffrey Thayne is professor of Instructional Technology at Utah State.

When Christ said, “’I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6) he asserted a quite different understanding of truth than is common in modern life. Modernists follow the Greek philosophers in seeing truth as a set of ideas, and this contrasts with the Jewish and then the Christian view of truth as a person, deity. All we can be sure of is what God has promised.

Truth seen in this way is dialogic and contextual. Whereas the Greeks believed that change was a defect, Christ updates our understanding of our covenant with the Lord when he extends the Mosaic commandments into more personal dimensions. The truth of God is seen in his activity and ministerings among people. Our stories preserve narrative continuity, but we know better than to reject living prophets in order to follow dead prophets.

Church teaching can change our practices and that’s okay. We fall into ideaolatry, the worship of our own ideas, when we allow ideas we have discovered or formulated to replace the living God. In the relational way of truth, we learn what is true in part by making and keeping covenants. Doctrine doesn’t walk with us or save us. Only Christ does that. Conversion is about more than doctrine–it’s about relationship and covenants. Quite often people who haven’t learned these truths ask the wrong questions.

Why did the church change? That may be like looking for the corner in a round room.

Bruce and Brian Dale, “Joseph Smith: The World’s Greatest Guesser (a Bayesian Statistical Analysis of Positive and Negative Correspondences between the Book of Mormon and The Maya, 9th Edition)

The Brothers Dale use statistical analysis to compare facts stated in the Book of Mormon with facts stated in Yale anthropologist Michael Coe’s The Maya. The session was a response to a claim made by Dr. Coe: “The picture of this hemisphere between 2,000 B.C. and A.D. 421 presented in the book (i.e., the Book of Mormon) has little to do with early Indian cultures.” They note that he had very little familiarity with the Book of Mormon, that he was “almost completely ignorant” of it having read it only once 45 years ago, and that his claim is simply not supported by the evidence provided in his own book.

Using Dr. Coe’s own book, Professor Dale found 131 correspondences, connections, congruences, parallels, similarities, instances of agreement, etc. between Coe’s own book and the Book of Mormon. “The cumulative weight of these correspondences, analyzed using Bayesian statistics,” they said, “provides overwhelming support for the historicity of the Book of Mormon as an authentic, factual record set in ancient Mesoamerica.

According to their analysis using the Bayesian Method, the probability that the Book of Mormon is not an authentic text vanishingly small. “When we assign the weakest Bayes Factor (0.5) to all the positive correspondences, the likelihood that the Book of Mormon is a fake is less than 1 in a thousand, billion, billion, billion, billion.

Though they did not set out to answer the question of the geographical setting of the Book of Mormon, they argue that any other plausible setting/explanation must provide equivalent or greater supporting evidence than we have presented here. “Any other plausible explanation must
consider and weight both positive and negative evidence.”
“Thou shalt not be a cherry picker,” Dale concluded.

Valerie Hudson, “The First Political Order and the Ppriesthood”

Valerie M. Hudson is Professor and George H.W. Bush
Chair at The Bush School of Government
and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

There are two divine powers in our universe. These two divine powers were meant to be joined in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, enabling even greater power than that wielded alone. The power of the divine masculine, the power held and wielded by our Heavenly Father: this is what we call the priesthood. The power of the divine feminine, the power held and wielded by our Heavenly Mother: this is the priestesshood, though we have been reluctant to name it as such until recently

Hudson began by discussing what she called the “first political order,” which is the sexual political order established between men. This order decides the nature of society. Will men and women stand before each other as equals, or as superior and inferior? Will decisions for the group be made by one, or both? Will conflicts be resolved peacefully or by force and domination?

What you do to your women,

you do to your nation.

She argued that “governance by extended male kin networks” has led to unfortunate outcomes—instability, violence, terror, corruption, autocracy—because it proceeds from the nature of male/female relations, the first political order. What you do to your women you do to your nation. She cited extensive evidence from the Minerva Initiative (DoD) grant, 2014-2018 which she worked on. Researchers studied 9 dimensions of nation-state outcomes, using stringent bar for significance (p<.001):

  1. Political Stability and Governance
  2. Security and Conflict
  3. Economic Performance
  4. Economic Rentierism
  5. Health and Wellbeing
  6. Demographic Security
  7. Education of the Population
  8. Social Progress
  9. Environmental Protection

After examing dozens of variables, they found that nations that disempowered women had

  • 3.53 times the chance of having a government that is more autocratic, less effective, and more corrupt
  • 1.5 the chance of being unstable and violent
  • 1.28 times the chance of experiencing terrorism
  • 1.40 times the chance of the country being poor and in economic decline
  • 1.50 the chance of having a low GDP per capita
  • 1.55 times the chance of having low environmental quality
  • 1.80 times the chance of scoring worse on the Global Hunger Index

With that background, she turned to a discussion of women in the church. She began by pointing out that “there is a First Political Order of Heaven, too, and the degree to which we emulate that Order here on earth determines in large measure the degree of blessings our society will enjoy (or forfeit): We have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. They are different, but we know they stand before each other as equals. We know they love each other, and are sealed together in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.

She cited several General Authorities to support these claims:
Elder L. Tom Perry’s description of the ideal earthly marriage describes our Parents’ marriage: “There is not a president and vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family … They are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward.”

We are created in Their Image and we are meant to emulate the pattern of Their Lives, including to become a spouse and a parent, and to live that equal partnership that They live. Elder M. Russell Ballard said that “Men and women are equal in God’s eyes and in the eyes of the Church.”

She noted that our understanding is increasing in this area and that “our language is adapting to this understanding. It was,” she said, “inherent in everything Joseph Smith taught.”

President Dallin H. Oaks: “[P]riesthood ordinances and priesthood authority pertain to women as well as men.”

Elder M. Russell Ballard: “When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which by definition is priesthood power.’

President Russell M. Nelson: “If you are endowed but not currently married to a man who bears the priesthood and someone says ‘Tm sorry you don’t have the priesthood in your home,” please understand that that statement is incorrect. . . You have received and made sacred covenants with God in His temple. From those covenants flows an endowment of His priesthood power upon you”

She observed that “the exercise of priesthood in mortality is the apprenticeship whereby men grow into Heavenly Fatherhood,” and adds that “the exercise of priestesshood in mortality is the apprenticeship whereby women grow into Heavenly Motherhood.”

In heaven, our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother are both equally powerful, but one holds the keys and power of Fatherhood and one holds the keys and power of Motherhood. Married in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, the joining of Their powers enables the Great Plan of Happiness for Their Children.

Women’s priestesshood is not given them by men or mediated by men, for the power of the divine feminine is endless and eternal in its own right. This suggests that the greater light and knowledge we seek about the priestesshood may have to come directly from Mother to daughters.

Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papers and the Translation of the Book of Abraham: What Careful Applications of the Evidence Can and Cannot Tell Us”

Kerry Muhlestein,
Director BYU Egypt
Excavation Project

People like simple explanations. For some questions, though, all simple explanations are wrong. Some things are in fact very complicated. Kerry Muhlestein, former associate chair of the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, examined false claims about the origins of the Book of Abraham. He discussed the provenance of the papyri that Joseph Smith had access to and translated, as well as what Joseph Smith and other eye witness reported about the translation process. A major part of his presentation was taking down claims made by Jerald Tanner in 1966 and repeated many times since. The scroll that Tanner claimed was the “source” of the Book of Abraham was not, and the textual record clearly shows that it was not. The issue is important because the Book of Abraham has tied as the number 1 reason people leave the church.

Most of the sesseion was spent with Muhlestein taking the audience through a painstaking analysis of an Egyptian alphabet and grammar begun by Joseph Smith making comparisons with it to both the papyrii that we still have (some were destroyed in the Chicago Fire) as well as with the manuscript of the Book of Abraham. This allowed him to state definitively that several theories people have advanced were NOT true.

This led to a rich discussion about the complicated relationship between revelation and translation. Everyone with first-hand knowledge of Joseph’s process emphasizes the role played be revelation, but what we can know of the historical events is very complicated. Anyone who offers a simple explanation is being deceptive.

The last question Dr. Muhlestein was asked: “Do you believe the Book of Abraham is true?” Answer: “Yes. Absolutely.”

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