Rethinking the Great Apostasy: “The Peasant Revolt of the Spirit” and the definition of Mormonism

Friedrich Nietzsche explained Luther’s Reformation as a dramatic spiritual revolution within Europe of the northern sentiment and character, which demanded simplicity, with the southern, liberal sentiment that allowed for unending complication under the simple structure of the Church.  Whatever can be said of Nietzsche, he was a fabulous writer.  His imagery viscerally cast light on the spiritual facts going on around him, that cleared the clutter of culture to allow the simplicity of “modern science” but eventually pushed Europe into the maw of gore and madness that reigned there in the first half of the 20th century.

Luther’s Revolution

Nietzsche explains, with at least a bit of lament, the ruins of the Church as he saw it in Europe in the 1880s:

. . . were there ever finer ruins?  Overgrown with weeds, large and small.  It is the Church which is this city of decay: we see the religious organisation of Christianity shaken to its deepest foundations.  The belief in God is overthrown, the belief in the Christian ascetic ideal is now fighting its last fight.  Such a long and solidly built work as Christianity it was the last construction of the Romans!  It could not of course be demolished all at once; every sort of earthquake had to shake it, every sort of spirit which perforates, digs, gnaws and moulders had to assist in the work of destruction.  But that which is strangest is that those who have exerted themselves most to retain and preserve Christianity, have been precisely those who did most to destroy it, the Germans.  . . The Lutheran Reformation in all its length and breadth was the indignation of the simple against something “complicated”.

He describes Luther’s revolution as that of the thinking of simple, good-natured folk over the complexities of culture that shone in the Church because the church retained “the luxury of skepticism and toleration which every victorious, self-confident power permits.” While Nietzsche acknowledged the fact that Luther spiritually revived Christianity as a worldview, and his simplicity allowed for modern thinking, but to him, Luther’s German reasoning meant an unraveling:

“[H]e tore asunder with honest rage, where the old spider had woven longest and most carefully.  He gave the sacred books into the hands of everyone, they thereby got at last into the hands of the philologists, that is to say, the annihilators of every belief based upon books.  He demolished the conception of “the Church” in that he repudiated the belief in the inspiration of the Councils: for only under the supposition that the inspiring spirit which had founded the Church still lives in it, still builds it, still goes on building its house, does the conception of ” the Church ” retain its power.”

Nietzsche also puts his finger on the simple fact that the Reformation made the Church, which had enforced its superiority since Theodosius, the vassel of the state rather than its rightful superior.  Christianity became “good-natured” in its simplicity, and cleared the way for infecting law with modern thinking in the form of modern science.

The consequences of Luther’s simplification of Christianity Continue reading

The facts of language and spiritual experience.

“Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?

Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

Wittgenstein’s philosophy confirmed a simple fact that was pretty clear when I was a child, but became cloudier over the course of my education: i.e. the meaning of the words I use is not a matter of my private experience, even if all of my experience is private.

In fact, it is often impossible for me to adequately explain the meaning of many of the words I use, even though I somehow know what they point at, and how to use them.

It seems to me that human language is the same kind of fact as the whistling of beavers building their dams and living their lives. The whistles come to them through their senses, hit their brains, and then – they behave like beavers and build dams. What is the meaning of a particular whistle?  It creates a particular attitude in a beaver.  What are the meaning of words? The attitude that is invoked in the hearer. The whistling is a fact other than the beaver because the whistles change the facts of the world as other beavers react to the  influence of the whistling beaver’s attitude. Continue reading

Is Peniel ground zero for theology?

The fundamental divide between Mormon theology and traditional Christian theology may stem from their starting point.  Moses tells us of how Jacob wrestled with God in the desert in a place he called Peniel – where he saw God face to face. To Mormons, this is the starting point for all theology i.e. the words received face to face with God.  Put simply, the state of being before face of God is considered the only place where the simple Truth can be found. If anything is, this concept is the beating heart of Mormonism.

Joseph Smith’s peniel approach to truth is elegantly simple- and extremely powerful in its simplicity. It slashes through theological argument, making irrelevant entire worldviews. The approach depends on two important moves.  First, Joseph affirms as a simple fact that seeing something with spiritual eyes is equivalent to seeing something with actual eyes, i.e. a person’s vision of reality is the same in character as that person’s real vision. Seeing an angel “in the spirit” is no less trustworthy than seeing the angel with actual eyes. This point is most simply made in Joseph’s statement that spiritual things were also physical- i.e. as much a part of the world as earth, wind, and fire.  This would come naturally to someone who understood the world in a magical way.  Joseph taught that empirical experiences of the prophets, combined with his own, could more clearly explain the magic that was in the world.

This idea is – as Mormons might put it – very strong doctrine. It’s salience comes in its simplicity, it does not distinguish between classes of experience that are often indistinguishable to the person experiencing them. Joseph was in good company in making this move.  In a sense, this was the key intuition founding Descartes’ philosophy that paved the way for clarity in science.

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The simple fact is: God.

Having been thoroughly terrified after watching the Sunset Limited based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel,  I thought I should try to actually do a little philosophy in order to (at least?) believe in God again. I do it here in an attempt to keep myself honest in the company of those that do believe. If this doesn’t make much sense, please keep in mind my lingering view of philosophy, and consider this an apologia and a confession.


Some thoughts to set the stage:

“I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view”. — Ludwig Wittgenstein, noted philosopher.

“But theology is the function of the Church. The church confesses God as it talks about God… But in so doing it recognizes and takes up as an active Church the further human task of criticizing and revising its speech about God” – Karl Barthnoted theologianChurch Dogmatics, 1.1, p. 3.

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Rethinking the Great Apostasy: The victory of Christianity over Roman Paganism

What Happened: 

In 1776, Edward Gibbon described a fascinating sequence of events he calls the “ruin of Paganism” during the reign of Theodosius in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (Gibbon’s patrician, Enlightenment, classically conservative,  modern, and rationalist biases are in full effect — but it’s a brilliant read.)

Gibbon wrote: “The ruin of the Pagan religion is described by the sophists as a dreadful and amazing prodigy, which covered the earth with darkness, and restored the ancient dominion of chaos and of night. . . a revolution, which raised those obscure victims of the laws of Rome to the rank of celestial and invisible protectors of the Roman empire.” He cites it as,”perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition; and may therefore deserve to be considered as a singular event in the history of the human mind.”

The third to wear the purple robes after Constantine declared himself a Christian was Constantine’s nephew, the last pagan emperor, Julian.  Orphaned as a child, he raised as a Christian with his half-brother, consul of the east, Gallus.  When he reached twenty, Julian rejected Christianity in a secret initiation into the Greek mysteries of Eleusis. He adopted neoplatonic philosophy, and worshiped the Greek pantheon. He hid his pagan devotion and feigned Christian worship for ten years, until he finally declared his paganism while waging a civil war against the Christian prince Constantinius. His victory revitalized paganism as well as religious toleration across the empire.

Continue reading

Five Possible Reactions to Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

New York Times Front Page Joseph Smith PolygamyThe LDS church has recently taken a big step in respect to the life of Joseph Smith by publicly admitting that Joseph Smith had up to 40 wives, that some of his wives were married to other men, and that some of his wives were as young 14 years old.  The Church’s essays on these things at times strain credulity in offering a faith-promoting narrative and occasionally distort the evidence to favor Smith.  But nonetheless, the Church should be congratulated for taking this first big step in accepting the basic facts.

A friend asked me what this could mean in terms of accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet. I have seen 5 general reactions that I think are possible for the institutional Church to adopt as it moves forward.  They are listed in here in order of trust in Joseph Smith.

1) So What.  If God commanded him to do it, it doesn’t matter what he did. Any action ordained by God is righteous and Joseph was ordered to do all of these things. (This was the Church’s stance toward Smith while Brigham Young was Prophet of the Church and of the polygamous Mormon sects of today.)

2) No Sex. Joseph married these women and it looks creepy but he didn’t have earthly sex with them, his carnal knowledge is in Eternity only. It was Brigham Young who brought sex into polygamy. Implicit in this reaction is that if Smith was having sex with girls 20 years younger than himself or married it other men, it would be a problem. (The Church will try this as long as it can but the historical record doesn’t bear it out. The Church is already in conflict on this by simultaneously saying that the purpose of polygamy was to raise up a righteous seed.)

3) He Was a Fallen Prophet. Joseph eventually fell into sin and abused his position and power as prophet.  We hope he repented before his death but the good things he gave us still stand and are useful for pursuing God. (This is the stance of the Henderickites who own the Temple Lot in Independence, MO. They maintain the Book of Mormon and the general church structure and mode of worship established by Smith.)

4) No Religion Is True, So Stick With What You Know.  This has become popular among the so-called “Pastoral Mormon Apologists” like Adam Miller and Teryl Givens. They don’t outright say it like that but that’s the heart of their argument.  If you’re comfortable remain comfortable and we’ll just slowly reform the things we don’t like. (The Community of Christ, formerly the RLDS, largely took up this and stance #3 in the last 15-20 years. They are now practically indistinguishable from the Mainline Protestant Denominations. Liberal zeitgeist seems to be the greatest source of inspiration and instruction).

5) Repentance. Fully acknowledging the sins of Joseph Smith and the institutional Church’s fault in promoting Joseph Smith and his teachings followed up by a massive and painful reformation. (This was what the stance the non-Mormon Worldwide Church of God took toward their founder in the late ’90s.)

Each of these positions carry risk and most certainly a loss of membership. I think we can look at November 2014 as a watershed moment in the history of Mormonism.

Failing LDS-Evangelical Dialogue: “Was it the Holy Spirit telling you something? Or last night’s pizza?”

TheOldAdam, (aka Steve Martin) is the indomitable Lutheran delegate to this blog.  Over the years he has attempted to demonstrate that when it comes to certain good news, repetition can never be redundancy. As much as I sincerely appreciate the charm of theOldAdam’s message, I think he gets the LDS wrong in a very common and egregious way, i.e. by completely mis-characterizing the LDS view of the Holy Spirit.

I have tried to point to my view of the LDS understanding of the experience of the Spirit hereherehere and here, but my recent exchange with theOldAdam seems like he missed these points and it might be worth reiterating how the LDS view and the Lutheran view of the Holy Spirit are, in principle, nearly identical. It went like this:

Jared C. (Me): . . .  Mormons believe they are following the Holy Spirit and place faith in that as primal. Whatever the membership classify as common experiences with the Spirit ultimately dictate the social facts that make up doctrine. This is why some doctrines stick and others don’t, regardless of whether they are taught by the leadership.

 theOldAdam: Once again, a dubious exercise (following the Spirit)…since apart from the gospel and God’s law…”the devil can come to us all dressed up as an angel of light” (Moroni). As St. Paul said, “Even if an angel from Heaven come down with another gospel, let him be accursed.”

Me: This really makes no sense oldadam, the Holy Spirit is an integral part of any Christian life, no?

theOldAdam: What is the job of the Holy Spirit? We believe that it is to point to Christ. Not to lead us off into self-focused ladder-climbing, or experiential feelings which we cannot trust in. Was it the Holy Spirit telling you something? Or last night’s pizza?

This sort of talk always makes me shake my head. This is one of the oldest of chestnuts flung at Mormons by Evangelicals and the like: i.e. that Mormons are misguided by their emotions rather than reason because they believe in following the Spirit.

Whatever differences the LDS and Evangelicals have, it really makes no sense to say that the LDS believe substantially differently about the Holy Spirit. The OldAdam and other Lutherans wishing to speak intelligently with Mormons should take note that Mormons share the same view of the Holy Spirit: i.e. that the Holy Spirit it is the source of all scripture, and that – according to one celebrated angel – its purpose is to point Jesus. (Revelation 19:10.)

For Mormons, like most other Christians, do not believe that following the Spirit is following a human feeling at all.  “Experiential feelings” may be product of an experience with the Spirit, but not the experience itself.  The phenomena of feeling is simply the product of experience. If theOldAdam rejects the practice of trusting experiential feelings is foolish, then it’s difficult to imagine why he believes anything at all.

And the argument that Mormons are somehow not Christian because they believe in “self-focused ladder climbing” also seems like a strange argument coming from a bible believer. Mormons do, indeed, believe in the value of righteous acts committed through actively following the Spirit in faith. And, from time to time, dress themselves “in fine linen, clean and white”, to symbolize what God gave them to wear when Jesus comes again. As the voice of the Spirit pointed out, fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people. (Revelation 19: 8) However “self-focused” it may be by some estimations to wear pure white clothing, it is indisputably engaging in biblical symbolism. In the context of this symbolism, Mormons do not believe they earned their “fine linens”. The garments are literally given to them by the Lord’s servant, as a consequence of tendering a broken heart and contrite spirit, and in preparation for the Second Coming. Even though many Mormons misinterpret these symbols, this is not a knock on the “Mormon Gospel” but only on its adherents.

If Lutherans and other Evangelicals want to actually bring more LDS into the light of the Holy Spirit that testifies of Jesus, it seems far more practical and friendly to reinforce the biblical basis for the LDS temple and baptismal symbolism rather than to mock them for participating in these sorts of symbolic exercises.  (This strategy also seems less ridiculous to the outside observer.)