Mormons & Evangelicals: What can I learn from you?

Over several months so I have had a born-again sort of experience of sorts– one of those times in life where perspective shifts dramatically and you feel like you are seeing the world for the first time.  One of the biggest difficulties in experience was recognizing that I had lost faith in the LDS Church. It has been coming for quite a while, and it feels like the core meaning of my life was yanked from me. Losing faith has been very difficult for me even to acknowledge. But for complex reasons, I can’t now honestly claim to believe in the Mormon Church and this reality has stung me hard.  My participation in this blog has been a big part of the process of figuring out where I am and what to do next.

Over the years the blog has been a place for me to vent a lot of the deep thoughts and patent nonsense that bubbled up during this process. (Regulars here will recognize I write far more of the latter than the former.)  But lately I have been thinking about what attracted me to this blog– and how it might help me in the new spiritual life that I face.

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Obery Hendricks on Mitt Romney & Mormon Racism

Yesterday Obery Hendricks posted an article on the Huffington Post challenging Mitt Romney on racist sentiments found in the Book of Mormon.  As has been pointed out, Hendricks is guilty of cherry-picking some of those statements.  He also doesn’t have a good enough handle on Mormonism to understand that the Book of Mormon is not making reference to people of African descent, rather it’s speaking of dark-skinned people of Jewish descent living in a yet-to-be-determined location (some might say they are dark-skinned Native Americans, others might say these passages have nothing to do with skin color at all).

Last night Hendricks appeared as a guest of Ed Schultz on MSNBC.  As I predicted, I believe this is just the start of these attacks on Mitt Romney and Mormonism.  The challenge Romney faces is answering these charges in the length of a sound-bite.  I don’t think the nuance that Mormons engage the priesthood bad with is going to communicate.  I also don’t think he has the opportunity to engage in exegis of the Book of Mormon. Hendricks does not offer an attack that effectively sways Mormons, but he does offer an attack that sways non-Mormons.

I don’t believe this is going to go away and I’ll be interested to see how Romney resolves it.  I believe he’ll eventually be forced to say, as John Huntsman has stated, that the priesthood ban was wrong.

Review: Imaginary Jesus

Imaginary JesusA couple of months ago a friend recommended “Imaginary Jesus” to me.  Over my Christmas vacation I had the chance to read it.  With little information about the content I dove in and discovered that I love this book.  In many ways I felt the book was written just for me.

The author, Matt Mikalatos, is hilarious and he applies his sense of humor to his search for what it means to be in a personal relationship with Jesus, what to do with pain and dares to ask if prayer is anything more than sitting alone talking to himself.

At one point the story takes a break to interject the character Matt into a snow-tube race in which “Meticulous Providence Jesus”, “Free Will Jesus” and “Can’t-See-the-Future-Because-It’s-Unknowable Jesus” all compete for Matt’s devotion by attempting to offer him an explanation for the death of his child while speeding down a snowy mountain.  It’s situations such as this that make the book seem far-fetched and inappropriate for dealing with such tough issues and too irreverent for religious offering.  But it’s the farcical nature of Matt’s search that allows the book to touch on places in these issues that the reader may be unprepared to examine and grateful for the element of fun in exploring them.

Mormon readers may be concerned with his introduction of Elder Laurel and Elder Hardy. Mikalatos handles Mormonism the way you might expect an Evangelical to view it.  He dismisses the Book of Mormon because of well known anachronisms and by naming the missionaries Laurel and Hardy he’s clearly using them as a comic device.  But I don’t think these issues should dissuade Mormons from reading the book.  The humor in the book is much harsher on Evangelicalism than it is on Mormonism and the missionaries ultimately serve the purpose of causing Matt to question if he’s straining at a speck in Mormonism’s eye when he has a plank in his own. The larger message of the book is so powerful that I think Mormons can easily disregard or skip any passages about Mormonism and still find great value in the book.

The writing style is fast-paced and frenetic. As a result I was able to finish the book in two sittings. Afterwards I felt encouraged and re-invigorated to pursue Jesus in a way I desperately needed. I highly recommend this book. 

Basics on Witnessing to Mormons

Every year Mormon Research Ministries leads a team of missionaries to Manti, Utah to discuss faith with people attending the Mormon Miracle Pageant. This is a training video from this year in which Bill McKeever outlines his ministy’s basic approach to presenting Evangelicalism to Mormons.

His approach of using Book of Mormon passages to emphasize and validate non-Mormon doctrines is somewhat controversial among Christian groups reaching out to Mormons, but it’s becoming the accepted standard.

The Prophet Will Not Lead the People of the Church Astray

LDS apologist Michael Ash has an ongoing series at Mormon Times and the FAIR podcast called “Challenging Issues and Keeping the Faith”. I was interested to hear him speak directly to the popular Mormon expression that “the prophet will not lead the people of the church astray.”

In his article on this issue he states

The purpose and mission of the church is to “invite all to come unto Christ” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:59). Prophets stand as leaders in this invitation and the things they do and say (as prophets) are intended to accomplish this goal.

How do we come unto Christ? The Book of Mormon gives us the six-point pattern: belief in Christ, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Spirit, enduring to the end and being found guiltless at the final judgment.

I’m glad to see someone putting some more meat on the idea and clearly defining the places in which a prophet might lead the people astray. It’s interesting that Ash chose to reduce the arena of possible prophetic negligence down to 6 messages that all serve to help us “come unto Christ”.

Based on this criteria we could assume the absolute worst about every LDS prophet and all of them would safely be in the bounds of doctrinal orthodoxy. For instance we could take the view that polygamy was indeed started to cover up Joseph Smith’s desire for extra-marital affairs, that the Book of Mormon was a fraudulent scheme to make money, that the priesthood ban was a blatant attempt to spiritually affirm racism or that Brigham Young collaborated and conspired as an active part of the Mountain Meadows Massacre; and still safely regard these men as prophets who never led the church astray. Perhaps some future prophet could use his pulpit to disband the priesthood, bulldoze under every LDS temple or even encourage all faithful LDS to invest in another failed banking venture and still it could be said that he “never led the people astray”.

I think the phrase has to mean more than a prophet’s ability to direct people into these six principles. If it doesn’t the unique voice and role of the LDS prophet quite quickly because functionally unnecessary. In addition, the LDS teaching of a great apostasy or its status as the only one and true church lose all significance.

I can’t think of a single time in Christian history when the majority of Christian churches were not leading their people in some form of this six-point pattern. As a non-Mormon, Ash’s argument leaves me unconvinced that I need something that only the LDS church offers. Further it opens the door to prophetic fallibility so widely that we can’t be certain that the every single unique teaching of LDS prophets and LDS scriptures (given to us by modern prophets) are nothing more than overstated opinions. If the truth claims of the LDS church are really only vital in regards to this six-point pattern of belief, there are no unique LDS doctrines that aren’t and weren’t being taught by other churches.

I understand that Ash’s role as an apologist is to reduce the surface area that critics might use to attack the LDS prophet, but he’s gone so far that he’s also reduced the unique role of the LDS church to nothing and entirely eliminated its evangelistic message. If the world needs modern prophets, their role must be for something more than what my pastor delivers every week. Orson and Parley Pratt took a tact of strongly embracing difficult teachings, I think Ash should reconsider his apologetic strategy before he leaves the LDS church with nothing more than an optional-belief-in-God.

Where The Troubles Lie

I was recently asked what kinds of things in practice and in doctrine would the LDS church have to change in order to be accepted in the realm of Christian orthodoxy. I’m not under any delusion that the LDS church is interested in making any of these changes.  But this serves as a reference for how I would categorize Mormon distinctives in comparison to Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches. I’m sure there will be some dispute of whether or not the LDS church actually teaches some of these things.  So consider this a list of things that would need to be specifically disavowed since some Mormon somewhere has given me the impression that this is what they have learned from the LDS church. If the LDS church doesn’t teach it, then they would need to do more than remain silent on it, they would need to remove confusion over it.

I’ve placed these items in four categories.

No Compromise, This Must Change

  • God was created or formed and was not always in his present state
  • The difference between God and man is one of degree not kind
  • There is more than one god
  • God the Father has a corporeal body
  • God lived a mortal life before the creation of this world
  • God might have been a sinner
  • As God is, man may become
  • Joseph Smith (or any other mortal) is serving in the role of “Holy Ghost” (a speculative theology I’ve heard a few Mormons opine)
  • Heavenly Mother(s) (another speculative theology)

Should Really Be Reviewed

  • Salvation comes in part from our own works
  • Ordinances are required for salvation
  • “The Miracle of Forgiveness” as recommended reading
  • All references to God in the Old Testament are only references to Jesus
  • Marriage is required for the highest degree of glory
  • Acceptance of The Joseph Smith Translation
  • Canonization of “The Pearl of Great Price” and large portions of “Doctrine & Covenants”
  • Creation ex Materia
  • Belief that no Mormon Prophet has ever led the church astray
  • There are High Priests in the order of Melchizedek other than Jesus
  • The Book of Mormon is an actual history (I may hedge on this one)

Just Different, but Weird

  • Eternal Marriage
  • Canonization of “The Book of Mormon”
  • Temples for making covenants with God (content dependent)
  • Baptism for the dead
  • Sacred undergarments
  • Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods
  • The canon is open and continues to expand (content dependent)

Have Fun

  • Lay clergy
  • Expectation of missionary service
  • Canning
  • King James Bible
  • 19th Century Methodist-style worship services
  • General Conference
  • Leadership determined by longevity
  • Geographically designated worship communities

Would any other non-Mormons disagree with my list and how I’ve ordered these items? Does this clarify our differences?

A Faith Based in History

This is a guest post provided by Eric.

Despite significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences in the way we understand the Bible, evangelicals and Mormons generally share an appreciation not only for its teachings, but also for its historicity. We see our faiths grounded not in what is merely a collection of goodness-promoting stories, but in a God who directly intervened in history in a series of miraculous events culminating in an actual, physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this way, we share an outlook that is not shared by all who consider themselves Christians.

For most of us who wear the LDS or evangelical label, this historicity is a key aspect of our faiths. We agree with Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians that if is isn’t true that God raised Jesus from the dead then our faith is useless. But our belief in what the Bible teaches as history goes beyond that: Generally, if the Bible teaches that something is historical — whether it’s the raising of Lazarus or the feeding of the thousands — we tend to believe it actually happened. That isn’t the case with the Bible’s skeptics, nor is it the case among many leaders in mainline Protestant denominations such as the United Church of Christ (I’m not picking on my UCC friends here, just mentioning a denomination that has become particularly liberal in its interpretive outlook).

Certainly, accepting the Bible as literal truth isn’t the only way of understanding it. In fact, some parts of the Bible are clearly intended to be allegory: You’ll find almost no evangelical pastor nor LDS bishop advising the parishioner who got caught shoplifting to chop off his or her hands. Most likely, that pastor or bishop would suggest that the parishioner find a way to remove the source of temptation, and also to apply that principle not just to thievery but also in dealing with other temptations as well where that principle may help.

But what about other aspects of the Biblical narrative? A century ago, you would have found few Bible-believing Christians, whether Protestant or LDS, who believed that the Earth was many millions of years old. But today, that is no longer the case. Many of us, whether evangelical or LDS, have come up with ways of reconciling, at least to some degree, what the Bible teachers and what science teaches. Perhaps the six days weren’t meant to be understood literally (possibly, in LDS lingo, they’re six “creative periods”), that the creation accounts of Genesis were meant to be allegorical or figurative in some way. And, at least according to what I’ve observed, many evangelicals and Mormons don’t spend a lot of time defending as literal history some of the more seemingly outlandish events of the Old Testament, such as Joshua’s making the sun stand still.

But all this raises some ultimate questions: How much of the Bible is real history? How much is figurative or allegorical? Did Jesus perform amazing miracles? Does it matter? Are Adam and Eve to be understood as actual, historical characters, or are they an allegory designed to teach us about the state of humanity? Was Jonah really swallowed by a big fish? Or is that merely a fun, humorous story designed to teach us lessons about sharing the gospel?

More importantly, does it matter if these events weren’t real in a historical sense? And if we say it’s unimportant whether the story of Jonah is true in a historical sense, what about the ultimate miracle, the Resurrection of Christ? Do these mean anything as historical events, or are they merely allegories designed to teach us eternal truths?

This essay was prompted by a recent Mormon Expressions interview with a Mormon bishop who has become skeptical of much of the Church’s historical narrative. It’s a fascinating interview, and it raises questions not just for Mormons, but for all Christians who believe in a God who intervened in history.

Of course, the broader question is a bigger one for Mormons than it is for evangelicals — for Mormonism’s legacy is based not only on the Bible but also on a series of events where we believe God intervened in the 19th century and since then. But I don’t really care to dwell on specifically LDS beliefs here; there are plenty of places in this blog and elsewhere on the web where those issues are discussed (as they should be). I’d like us to look at those extraordinary events that are part of our common heritage. Specifically, here are some questions for discussion:

  • How do we determine which parts of the Bible should be accepted as literal truth and which as figurative or allegorical in nature?
  • How important is it to believe in a literal Resurrection?
  • If you were the person in charge, would you accept into church membership someone who openly denied a literal Resurrection? If so, would you allow such a person to teach Sunday school? Preach a Sunday sermon?
  • The same questions can be asked of Biblical teachings that would seem to be foundational to some degree: Were there a literal Adam and Eve? Is Satan for real? Will there be a Second Coming?
  • Or how about the lesser fantastic events of the Bible? Did Jesus turn water into wine? Did he heal the sick? Is Job a historical character? Were there a David and Goliath? A worldwide flood? Does it matter? And how do you decide whether it matters?
  • Finally, if some or all of the events above are allegorical in nature, how does that affect your faith?

We All Need a Reason

In comments on an earlier post I had argued that everyone comes to faith in a religious belief system through either experience, authority or reason (ideally all three would play a role).

BrianJ asked me to clarify with these questions:

Suppose I find that following the principles found in the New Testament makes me happier, time and time again. That’s an experience argument, I know. But at what point can I start to view the NT as an “authority on happy choices” by your definition? Or, if I apply the “by their fruits ye shall know them” test, at what point does it become sound reasoning to consider the NT as a thoroughly vetted source?

Actually, that’s probably jumping ahead too much. Just help me understand this: How do you determine what you will view as “authority”?

To clarify and expand my earlier thoughts. It would be very rare for someone to come to faith based on authority, reason and experience all at the same time. But as faith matures and the believer is discipled into their worldview I believe you will see people incorporate all three into their belief systems. As a cord of three strands is not easily broken, the reliability of authority, reason and experience will support one another if any of the three is attacked. In fact, to convert anyone from one faith system to another the concerns of authority, reason and experience more often than not must all be addressed.

To make a specific example, many Catholics are persuaded to believe and behave a certain way because of the authority they believe the Vatican, and their local priest hold. An individual may learn to respect that authority from the authority of their parents or their larger culture. Allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and further allegations of cover up by bishops and cardinals should to some degree threaten that authority. But despite these troublesome reports, many Catholics remain faithful, some despite being directly abused. The reasons they may remain faithful have to do with their positive spiritual experiences in mass or while practicing spiritual disciplines as well as their exposure to deep thinking Catholic writings and philosophy (starting with their catechism). The attack on Catholic authority will only threaten faith in the Catholic church if it overwhelms a Catholic’s positive experience with Catholic experience and Catholic reason.

There may be any number of people who are part of a belief system because of only one of the three (authority, reason, experience). But those people are probably most at risk for a loss in faith. The person who only relies on reason will find their spiritual life stale. The person who only relies on experience will find their faith easily attacked by outside questions and may not weather through persecution or dark nights of the soul. The person who only relies on authority will only follow that authority so long as it doesn’t conflict with their outside experiences with reason or emotional/spiritual well-being.

If you’re clever enough, you can recognize that every anti-Mormon argument is an attack at authority, reason or experience. Similarly, every encouragement toward baptism by Mormon missionaries is an appeal to authority, reason or experience.

Brian asked me “How do you determine what you will view as “authority”?” I have placed authority in primarily two places in my spiritual life. The first is the leadership of my local church. I give them authority in my religious life simply because I choose to. I recognize the need for structure and leadership in a congregation. I also appreciated what was happening in my church before I started attending and what continues to take place there. Their wisdom holds good fruit. Earlier in my life I may have also granted them authority based on their greater education and experience. Their authority in my life is a weaker authority because I believe other congregations hold the same qualities and can easily replace the Elders in my church (as compared to the Mormon and Catholic belief in only one priesthood).

The second place I trust as an authority is the Bible. I learned to trust the Bible as an authority initially from my parents and from my surrounding culture in Oklahoma. As the song goes, “for the Bible tells me so” was enough motivation to believe or behave in any particular way. Pointing to a Bible verse was enough to convince me. This was considered culturally appropriate and also the way my family did things. In time I learned reasons to believe the Bible was historically reliable and I had positive and powerful experiences following its teachings that convinced me to continue trusting the Bible. I’ve also added my trust in the traditions of my Christian ancestors (another source of authority) as a reason to trust and rely on the Bible.

As you can see, from just this one example, authority, reason and experience have found a way to intertwine themselves around one another in my religious life and it doesn’t stop there. When I have a spiritual experience (see a miracle, hear voices, feel unwittingly deeply emotional) I test those experiences against what my sources of authority and reason say (as well as what my past spiritual experiences were like). If I encounter troubling historical or philosophical arguments against Christianity, I consult or rely on my sources of authority and my past experiences until I can overcome or resolve those issues (in addition to the reasons I already believe Christianity to be true).

In that earlier post I antagonized spiritual experiences as being sufficient or useful in evaluating all religious claims. It’s not a problem for Mormonism to point to reason and authority as a motivation to believe (in addition to spiritual experience). This is exactly how faith in all religious belief is formed. In fact Mormonism already quite frequently directs investigators and believers to authority and reason. When anyone says “when the Prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” they are making an authority claim. When Mormon missionaries point investigators to Moroni’s Promise, they are holding the Book of Mormon up as a source of trusted authority. When Mormons visit Missouri to catch a glimpse of what was once Adam-ondi-Ahman or go on Book of Mormon tours of Central America, they are adding a source of historical reason to their faith. When Elder Holland called on believers and critics alike to consider Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s use of the Book of Mormon for spiritual comfort as they faced martyrdom as well as the evidence of chiasmus he was pointing toward reason.

Neither authority, nor reason, nor experience sit alone in developing faith. Spiritual fruit is not limited to experience, we can also find good and bad fruit in authority and good and bad fruit in reason. When any of the three are neglected or eschewed we are likely to find the kind of poor soil that Jesus said would not produce any fruit.

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

Guest post by Seth, an active member of the LDS church
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There is no telling the amount of damage that has been done in the world in the name of a good argument. Argument and debate are a natural part of the process of understanding other people and this is as true of inter-faith dialogue as any other aspect of our society. But we do have to be careful in how we argue. Argument can be very damaging – not just to our opponents, but to ourselves as well.

One way this manifests itself, is when we push an argument that turns out to be just as damaging to our own position as the opposing position. A quick example might show what I mean.

Some time ago, I came across a blog run by an avowed ex-Mormon who had, however, remained “Christian” in affiliation. She was voicing various concerns about her former faith and explaining why she had rejected it. One of the reasons she gave for leaving the LDS faith was the supposed lack of empirical evidence for the Book of Mormon and it’s historical claims. She noted that while the Bible had some hard evidence showing some of its content to be historically-bases, the Book of Mormon completely lacked such evidence, and was therefore not a credible document to her.

Now, I’ve been around the block a few times on the interfaith dialogue circuit, and this argument always annoys me to no end. It just seems to show a lack of awareness of one’s own position and what really provides the foundation for faith. The truth, as I see it, is that while the Bible may have some of it’s historical incidentals corroborated by the undisputed weight of historical and archeological evidence (like the existence of an actual city of Jerusalem, and the fact of a man named Jesus Christ living), it’s faith claims completely lack any such evidence or proof.

Since both the Bible and Book of Mormon claim to be primarily religious texts, it seems apparent to me that – in ways that matter – the texts are equally unproven by empirical evidence (I realize some Evangelicals like to point to eyewitness testimony of the resurrection – but until these people are willing to give equal weight and credibility to the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, I’m not inclined to take these arguments too seriously). It has always been apparent to me that belief in either book is first and foremost a matter of faith in that which is not seen. Evidence is just the icing on the cake for people who already believe. It is not an adequate basis for faith.

Furthermore, I have been arguing over matters of faith long enough to realize that whatever “hard evidence” you think you have, there is always someone out there knowledgeable enough to call it into question. I also have realized that hard evidence has a disturbing habit of becoming outmoded, outdated, and discredited by new discovery. It always seemed like a foundation of sand to me.

So, full of irritation, I waded into the comments section to show this deluded soul what’s-what, and defend my own faith “for the umpteenth time” against this silly and misguided attack.

Well, I made my points, had a bit of back and forth arguing about them, and left feeling like I had defended my position, and my faith well. Just another day’s work in the defense of the true faith. What a hero!

Well, a week or two later, I was browsing the latest new content at the blog of an atheist ex-Mormon whose measured and respectful opinion I have always respected and valued. And he had a new post up – and I was mentioned by name! We bloggers can’t help but feel pleased when other people online are talking about us. Well, what’s this about?

I’m afraid it wasn’t all that flattering. He pointed out my response as an example of how a Mormon SHOULD NOT witness to other Christians. He noted that Mormons supposedly believe in Jesus too, and we are hardly well-served by undermining what basis for faith in Jesus other people may have. His paraphrasing of my argument basically boiled down to:

“Well, my faith might be ridiculous, but yours is just as stupid.”

Which, he noted, is really only a good method for creating a brand-new atheist. Reeling a bit with the irony of being reprimanded by an atheist for undermining someone else’s faith in God, went back to the Christian ex-Mormon’s blog and offered a sheepish apology along with a statement of my belief in the Bible. The apology was graciously accepted, and via continued interaction I was reassured that my opponent’s faith in the Bible had not been irredeemably damaged.

But I was still a bit shaken by the implications of what might have been. Those of us who debate regularly on the internet tend to get a bit thick-skinned and callous, due to the repeated experience of having our treasured beliefs and opinions challenged, and even ridiculed. We also get used to debating people who are just as jaded as we are. After a while, we tend to assume everyone out there is like that – a hardened ideologue who is likely immune to most of the arguments you can make. We start to assume that – if you are on the Internet, that must mean you “came to play hardball.” And the gloves come off.

But I don’t think that was true at all of this particular blogger. She turned out to be much more sincere than I gave her credit for, and my words really did seem like they might shaken her faith a bit. I of course, expecting a hardened ideologue, did not expect this. But the whole experience was a reminder not to forget the people we are arguing against. There is a real person there behind the screen. We cannot lose sight of that as we “prep for battle.”

This makes interfaith dialogue something of a delicate operation – which is unfortunate for me, because I’m not always a “delicate touch.” You never know how much that “false doctrine” you are arguing against is intertwined with something vital in their overall faith life. Like a barbed arrowhead that has lodged close to some vital arteries. You can’t just rip the cursed thing out. You might kill the patient.

There’s probably more that could be said on this subject, but for now, it might be a good idea for us to step back and realize that, while we are at each other’s throats on occasion, we also are all in this thing called “faith” together. And we probably ought to be supportive of each other.

Fellowship in Christ.

What Has Changed?

I entered the world of online Mormon discussions at about this time 4 years ago.  It was shortly after visiting the Newport Beach Temple.  Upon returning home my wife promptly fired up the internet to find out all the sacrets that our tour guide wasn’t allowed to tell us.  That lead me to not only learn those sacrets but to discover a dearth of information concerning a fascinating topic I thought I already knew a lot about (but didn’t).  I haven’t learned everything I know about Mormonism from the internet, but certainly most of it.  I used to spend a great deal of time at FAIR, and then Ex-Mormon.org. Then after having a bad taste in my mouth from both places I played around a little bit on the MySpace Mormonism forums and then dove into the blogging world. (for a more complete history of my life with Mormons, check out my series: Me & Mormons)

I have noticed some changes since I started hanging out on the web with Mormons. The change I have seen has been how Mormon history is discussed.  When I first started blogging, I made a decision to not focus on Mormon history as much as possible.  It was being done elsewhere and the tone of the discussion didn’t seem all that fruitful for what I was after.  It used to be that discussions on Mormon history where a back and forth about what the facts really were, mostly focusing on Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, Brigham Young’s teaching of the Adam-God doctrine, the Mountain Meadow Massacre and translation methods of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.  Now those facts are for the most part pretty much agreed upon.   The discussion has instead turned to “does it matter”.  The conversation has become about theology rather than history.

Occasionally you’ll find an odd nut attempting to claim that Joseph wasn’t a polygamist, but when that happens both Mormons and Non-Mormons come at them with the same ammo and knowing smirk on their faces.

If I had to say there was one thing that changed the focus of the discussion on the internet it was Rough Stone Rolling.  Bushman provided a faithful Mormon voice to the same things that Non-Mormons had been saying for quite some time.  He gave Mormons permission to own their history rather than being forced to repudiate it.  I’d say very few of us involved in these discussions have actually read the book, but it gave us a common source to point to and agree with.

If I had to say there was one site (or person) that has changed the discussion it would be Mormon Stories (and John Dehlin).  While few of us have the time to read Rough Stone Rolling, it was quite easy and accessible to listen to a podcast that discussed the same things.  Again Mormon Stories provided a voice from someone attempting to be faithful to the church but delivering information that was typically viewed as threatening to Mormonism.

While I’m on the topic of changes on the web I’d have to say the rise of “New Order Mormonsim” is right up there as a shift in the community (again John Dehlin probably gets the lion’s share of the credit for bringing that community out of the shadows).  There’s also the rise of friendly ex-mormonism.  If you haven’t checked out the Mormon Expression Podcast you should.  I’m impressed with their ability to discuss Mormonism and Mormon culture from a knowledgeable but outsiders viewpoint without anger or reprisal.

Of course, if you’re still looking for a good history and archeology debate, the Book of Mormon holds a great deal of potential. But even there, you see very few strongly holding to the Lamanite and Nephite people living near or visiting Palmyra, New York. If they are out there, they find themselves debating against Mormons more so or as much as Non-Mormons.

Navigating Living Waters – Helping Our Evangelical Friends Make Sense of “Mormon Doctrine”

The following guest post  is written by Seth. I successfully guilted him into writing it  (we all know guilt is the most effective way to motivate a Mormon). Thanks Seth for adding to the cause.

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Evangelicals are sometimes express irritation at the complex nature of Mormon doctrine and theology. They complain that once you think you’ve pinned Mormon theology down on something, the Mormon in front of you will say things like

“Oh, but that’s not what we believe today.”

“That was just Joseph’s personal opinion.”

“That’s not official doctrine.”

“You aren’t taking that quote in context.”

And you’re back to square one and still not sure what Mormons – as a whole – are supposed to be held accountable for in their doctrine. You might be forgiven for considering us, at best, confused or even, at worst, plain sneaky. I won’t deny that some of us Mormons may be both, but bear with me and I’ll try to do my best to provide a few ground rules for sifting the unfamiliar world of Mormon doctrine.

First thing to keep in mind is that Mormonism is a relatively young religion. We haven’t been the first religion in this awkward position. Our current situation is actually unsimilar to Christianity in the first couple centuries, when people like Tertullian took the first tentative stabs at explaing themselves to the world and its existing systems of thought and belief. Like early Christianity, Mormonism does not have the most developed approach to theology. And like most early religions, the focus is more correct practice rather than correct theological belief. Mormonism is more focused on orthopraxy than orthodoxy. So to ask Mormons for a go-to source of orthodoxy is asking the wrong question, because honestly, most Mormons aren’t all that bothered about orthodoxy and questions of orthodoxy. Questions of practice and community concern us more.

That said, Mormons are not entirely indifferent to orthodoxy. We do try to approach our doctrine with a semblance of discipline. Here are the sources of Mormon doctrine, in order of importance as I see them:

1. Canonized scripture. Currently this Entails the Holy Bible (we use the KJV), the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants.

A book does not become canonized in the LDS Church until it has been presented to the entire membership of the Church and sustained as such. I believe the last time this occurred was in relation to some passages in the Doctrine and Covenants. All other sources of doctrine must be tested against this canon.

2. Statements of living prophets (this includes the President of the Church and the other Apostles), spoken officially to the Church, and disseminated to the Church.

This only applies to the currently living General Authorities of the Church. We consider them prophets, and their words are going to have great impact. But you have to make sure that their statements were made in an official capacity and meant to be binding upon the membership. Usually, this means that their words have to be disseminated to the membership by official means. The current vehicle for doing this is the official magazine of the LDS Church (”The Ensign” in the US and “The Liahona” elsewhere). General Conference addresses (in their final published form) are also a good example. Official declarations such as the recent “Proclamation on the Family” top off this category.

3. Doctrine as disseminated in official LDS study materials – such as the teachers guides for youth classes, or Gospel Doctrine handbooks.

You’d think that if it has the LDS seal of approval for being taught every week in Church, that’s as good as God’s own iron-clad guarantee, right?  Well, not quite. While they are a great resource for guaging what modern LDS are being taught, and what they are thinking and believing, the manuals should not be viewed as always binding doctrinally. You have to be careful to constantly reassess these sources against numbers 1 and 2. Especially in light of #2 since Church manuals have been known to become outdated in some respects years before new updates are budgeted for. For instance, you might find an old quote from a long dead apostle in a current Church study guide that presents a certain spin on the question of “grace vs. works.” But you have to read that quote in light of the more recent statements made by living General Authorities.

The famous “Church Handbook of Instructions” disseminated to LDS local leadership also falls into this category. It is more of a book of current Church policy than a disciplined and binding statement of timeless doctrine (and since a large swath of the membership is unaware of its precise contents, it doesn’t always accurately portray what ordinary Mormons believe either). Fiinally, statements made on the LDS Newsroom website would also fall into this category – though I think these are often more up-to-date than the actual manuals, due to the fluid and constantly updated nature of the internet.

4. Doctrine as presented by past prophets and apostles.

Once the prophet is dead, he is replaced by successors whose words carry modern authority to the Church going forward. If the successor moves on from policies or (more rarely) doctrines espoused by his predecessor, the living prophet generally trumps the old one. The quotes, sermons and writings of that old prophet must now be subordinated to #4 on the totem pole of Mormon authority.

The Journal of Discourses – that document Evangelicals counter-cultists are always mining for radioactive Brigham Young quotes – falls into this category. Even old Joseph Smith quotes can fall into this category – although his prestige within Mormon belief often prevents his quotes from falling out of favor so quickly. The LIVING prophet takes precedence in guiding the present-day Church. Old quotes do not always stand the test of time. Brigham Young’s Adam-God idea being a prime example. No one in the LDS Church really knows what Brigham meant by those quotes, they seem to conflict with what we know of canonized LDS scripture, and even Brigham Young himself seemed to contradict the notion on occasion in his own statements. Thus the doctrine was discarded.

I imagine some Evangelicals would be horrified at the notion of discarding the doctrinal explanations of a living prophet with a direct connection to God-almighty, but his is not overly concerning from a Mormon perspective. We never claimed our prophets were infallible to begin with. Nor did we ever claim they were exempt from being tested against the scriptures, or even against plain common sense. Prophets in the Mormon tradition are always subject to a great many checks and balances. Those who expect to find a theological dictator with an iron-grasp over the beliefs of the membership will be disappointed (or pleasantly surprised). The LDS Church appears authoritarian on the outside, but in reality, it is surprisingly grass-roots. All must find their own witness among a variety of doctrinal guides.

5. Books apostles write in their spare time, and statements made by General Authorities that were never meant for Church-wide dissemination.

Just because an apostle wrote it doesn’t mean you’re holding binding doctrine in your hand. LDS General Authorities try to be very careful in their writings (perhaps moreso today than in decades past) because they are aware that people will inevitably be tempted to take their opinion as law. But sometimes stuff slips through the cracks.

The most obvious example of this, is apostle Bruce R. McConkie’s landmark book – “Mormon Doctrine.” It’s an invaluable resource and shows a great deal of care and scripture cross-referencing. It’s a resource I use all the time. And most of the time, it gets the doctrine essentially right. Most of the time….

McConkie’s fellow apostles and even the President David O. McKay specifically asked McConkie not to publish the book. They did not want a single apostle giving the impression that he was speaking definitively for Mormon doctrine. The title of the book certainly didn’t help matters in this regard. But McConkie disregarded the advice, and published it anyway. After a few years of circulation, McConkie was forced retract certain incendiary remarks about Catholics and his own theories about the eternal status of certain racial groups among other things.

It’s a dang useful book and will give a lot of insight. But you’ll get a warped view of Mormonism from McConkie if you don’t test it against the doctrinal sources that are higher in priority and status.

Another book example along these lines is Spencer W. Kimball’s book – “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” Another good book that has become something of gold mine for Evangelicals wishing to proof-text how Mormons are obsessed with works at the expense of grace. I personally think the book is a bit dated and due for another book to come along and unseat it.  It’s also worth noting that Kimball wrote it as an apostle, not as President of the Church – which gives it less status than something that the President would have written.

Books written by apostles really should not be viewed as binding – merely persuasive. Sort of like rabbinic commentary on the Torah in the Jewish tradition. If it jives with the canon of scripture, great. If it’s out of step with that canon, we need not feel bound by it (though we are encouraged to consider that maybe, just maybe, that apostle knows something we don’t).

6. Mormon literature in general.

Here you have all the other LDS books published. They aren’t published by General Authorities which means they will have varying force and persuasiveness depending on the author. Hugh Nibley has a lot of cachet in some circles. In others Robert Millet or Stephen Robinson might be highly regarded. In yet others, you might have lay LDS gushing over the latest Chicken Soup for the Soul-style offering from a popular LDS author from the youth speaking circuit or what have you. The “Encyclopedia on Mormonism” also falls into this category. It had a lot of scholarly input and I believe they were being as careful as they possibly could in their pronouncements. But, despite it’s impressive name, it is still not the final word (nor would it’s authors claim it was).

Scholarly Mormon magazines and publications fall into this category, as does the online content of various private Mormon sources – such as Mormon blogs. All sources in this category are, of course, best viewed with a highly critical eye.

That’s the best I can do for a summary for you. I hope it’s becoming clear to the readers here that defining the limits of Mormon doctrine is more of an art than a science. Maybe that bothers some who see religion first and foremost as a source of theological and personal security.

But I don’t consider this a bad thing. I’m sure others will disagree with me, but I like the flexibility and natural adaptivity that is built into the LDS interface with doctrine. It makes for a religion that is far more exciting to me than any of the alternatives. And the truth is, you are just going to have a more complex authoritative mix when you throw living, breathing, and dying prophets. That said, Mormonism offers a real opportunity to not be commanded in all things, to move off-script for a moment and stand revealed before God without the shield of a biblical text, and take ownership of your own beliefs.

I believe there comes a time in every Mormon’s life when he or she has to stop a moment, do some serious thinking, and ask themselves – do I really believe that?  After such reflection, we Mormons are invited to ask God directly if a teaching should be embraced or disregarded.

I would suggest this isn’t a bad pattern for outside students of Mormonism either.

Best of luck to you. It’s a strange and interesting world you are entering.

Three Good Questions About The Trinity


Direct Link

In this lecture about the doctrine of the Trinity, Fred Sanders answers three questions about the Trinity.

  1. Is it Biblical?
  2. Does it make sense?
  3. Does it matter?

I think he does a great job of summarizing all of the main arguments for the Trinity. Bible in hand, he thoroughly answered if the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each God. For discussions with Mormons, I think the lecture could have focused more on whether or not the Bible says there is only one God. But as a means of increasing understanding about the doctrine I think this is great listening. Sanders, despite having earned a PhD on the Trinity, does a good job of keeping the talk conversational and understandable.

I really should be encouraging my Evangelical friends to listen to this more than my Mormon friends.

Lost in Translation

The Book of Mormon declares that the Bible has been deliberately altered (see 1 Nephi 13:26-28). Mormons will often point to all the different translations of the Bible as proof that it has been changed. You can ask them something like:

  • Does translation always lessen scripture’s value or change its teaching?
  • What about the Book of Mormon? How many translations have been made of it? Is it less reliable in French or German?
  • Does the church put a disclaimer on the Book of Mormon in other languages as they do with the Bible? If not, why not?
  • If professional LDS translators can reliably take the English Book of Mormon into French, why can’t professional translators take the Greek New Testament into English?
  • If the Bible is in such bad shape, which verses are wrong, so I won’t use them?

The last question in this sequence I think is an excellent question.  Some LDS will point to the Joseph Smith translation as a means of finding out which verses in the Bible are wrong.  This begs the question, if those same verses are found (word for word) in the Book of Mormon, are they also wrong? Which is more reliable, the Book of Mormon or the Joseph Smith Translation?

For the record, I think translation does in fact lessen scripture’s meaning.  It’s an inherent problem in translation.  Studying the scriptures in their original languages holds immense value.  But that said, I don’t think any of the major translations of the Bible can be shown to have negligently translated the original language.

Many of the cultural Mormon arguments against the Bible are made out of a ignorance of the translation process.  There’s an understanding that modern English translation are updated from the KJV rather than taken directly from the oldest manuscripts.

The Value of the Book of Mormon

Today’s question:

Why do Mormons approach people with the Book of Mormon if it doesn’t contain their most important doctrines? Why don’t they give out copies of their other scriptures instead of the Book of Mormon?

I’ve heard about a number of people that have wanted to know the truth for themselves about distinct Mormon doctrines and have gone to where they naturally thought those doctrines to be.  Only to discover that reading the Book of Mormon doesn’t tell you much of anything about Mormonism.

LDS missionaries often encourage people to read the Book of Mormon and pray about whether or not it is true to get a sense of truthfulness about Mormonism.  But really, to start understanding Mormonism, the Book of Mormon offers little help.  It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch (pardon the negative connotations of that term).

I’d like to add on to this question, why did Joseph Smith and subsequent prophets and leaders of the LDS church neglect the Book of Mormon in their sermons? As has been well documented, it wasn’t until the Spencer/Kimball era that Mormons really started reading and discussing the actual contents of the Book of Mormon.

The question is different than asking why don’t Mormons teach from the Book of Numbers because the Book of Mormon is held up as key LDS scripture.  In fact when Mormons talk about they’re own methods of counseling, camping, teaching, etc. they call it “Book of Mormon based (insert noun)”.

LDS Contradictions to the Book of Mormon

Okay, the last question successfully launched an active discussion.  This one is even more controversial, so I can’t wait to see what it inspires.

I mentioned in the comments section of the last question that I expect that some people will prefer to focus on the quality of the question rather than answer the question itself.  That’s okay with me, some questions might be so lame that they can be disregarded.  But, it would be great if participants can at least attempt to answer the question.

So here goes #2

If you truly believe the Book of Mormon, doctrinally, how do you accept the Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price since these books teach different concepts?

For further clarification on this question, please FIRST review this list of apparent contradictions before answering.  We need a common list of contradictions so that we’re all on the same page and this is it.

This question obviously gets at what I’ve been describing as the apparent orthodoxy of the Book of Mormon and the heterodoxy/heresy of the other Mormon scriptures (or vice -versa as the case may be).  Something that bothered David Whitmer enough to cause him to abandon the LDS church.

A Few Simple Questions

While perusing the Utah Lighthouse Ministry website I found this list of questions to ask my Mormon friends.  I thought they’d be good fodder for the blog as they get at the heart of many of our disagreements and differences.  I’ll of course be adding my own commentary to and about each question.

So with out further ado, here is UTLM Question #1:

Since the Introduction to the Book of Mormon states that it contains “the fulness of the everlasting gospel” can you give me verses that teach the doctrines of pre-earth existence, plural gods with wives, temple marriage, chance to repent after you die, temple rituals for the dead, three levels of heaven, etc.?

It’s my understanding that the introduction to the Book of Mormon is not itself canonical or scriptural.  It can be disregarded as purely the “opinion of men”.  But this question gets right at an LDS apologetic that was used by Joseph Smith and continues to be used by LDS missionaries today. Getting to the vast majority of unique LDS teachings is  a big jump and the Book of Mormon doesn’t serve as a very good bridge.

I’ve also heard Mormons say that the “gospel” found in the Book of Mormon relates to placing faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.  There are two problems with this. The way Mormons use the word “gospel” is not limited to this but also includes eternal progression, pre-existence, temple rituals, etc. The second is that the Book of Mormon adds no more fullness than the Bible already offers in way of placing faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

Whitmer’s Compromise

I believe it was CS Lewis who came up with a Christian apologetic argument which has come to be known as “Lord, Liar or Lunatic.”  The basic idea is that you can’t consider Jesus to be a nice man with some benign teachings.  If you actually look at what he was saying you have to consider him to be God, a liar or a complete lunatic.  Jesus doesn’t leave a safe option for those who wish to identify with him and his teachings but not have them transform their lives. (the “escape” clause that you can’t trust the Gospels doesn’t help.  If you can’t trust the Gospels for the things you don’t like that were attributed to Jesus, you can’t trust them for the things you do like).

There’s a similar choice to be made with Joseph Smith.  True prophet of God or false prophet.  I recently read a pamphlet by David Whitmer which strives to carve a third option. It’s called “An Address to All Believers“.  I highly recommend you read it, if for nothing more than its historical perspective.

David Whitmer was one of the 3 witnesses to the Book of Mormon.  In this pamphlet he strongly reasserts his testimony that the golden plates were real and that Joseph Smith translated them using a seer stone. Then using the Bible and his own personal experience lays out when and how Joseph Smith became a false prophet.

In a nutshell, Whitmer explains that when Joseph Smith used his seer stone he was offering true revelations (and translations). Then when Sydney Rigdon joined the church, Smith no longer used the seer stone but instead used Rigdon as his inspiration for new doctrine and practices. Using the Bible and the Book of Mormon, Whitmer explains how these revelations are false. He goes after the office of high priest as tenaciously as he goes after polygamy.

One of the things I really appreciated about the pamphlet was its readability.  I’ve read so many things concerning Mormonism that are desperately (and often poorly) trying to mimic the King James Bible or are written to match the General Conference speaking style. It was nice to actually read something that isn’t intentionally trying to be difficult to follow.

As I’ve stated many times before, the doctrine and theology presented in the Book of Mormon seems pretty orthodox to me.  In some cases it states some doctrines in orthodoxy more clearly than the Bible does.  You have a long way to go from the Book of Mormon to current LDS theology (if you’re able to define it).  If you’re compelled by Whitmer’s testimony of the Book of Mormon, I think this pamphlet will give you a lot to consider.

As a side note, It’s my understanding that the Missouri “extermination order” came about partly due to Danite persecution of Whitmer and others. Can someone confirm or deny that?

The Problem of Revelation for Mormons and Evangelicals

A guest post from Jared C

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Something that I have been thinking about while reading the interesting back and forth between Tim, our Evangelical friend and us Mormons is our theories of revelation. This may be a bit controversial for some of my fellow Mormons but I would like to hear a reaction from all sides:

Both Evangelicals and Mormons accept and rely on revelation for understanding of God. LDS and Evangelicals as groups, take all scripture very seriously as inspired of God. Both groups generally reject revisionist descriptions of biblical authorship and both generally agree that the books of the Bible were written by unique inspired men. (e.g. they both generally believe in one Isaiah, not three). They reject the so called “liberal” scholarship that explains away the miraculous and supernatural in the text.

Evangelicalism and Mormonism seems to be equally rooted in the idea that although people can and do receive messages, callings, inspiration, guidance from God. Evangelicals believe, however that the Bible is the ultimate and final source of truth and all other revelation and inspiration needs to be gauged and measured against it. This is because the Bible is considered free from error and therefore can be used prove and reprove doctrine and ideas brought up in the church. Although the Bible was written by men, was directed and brought forth by God, much as the director of a play with the scripture authors as the actors. Mormonism challenges the notion that the Bible is the only possible source of such inspired and directed truth and contends that the play is not over, but in another act.

Latter-Day Saints cogently point out that (1) there is nothing in the Bible that says future revelation is not possible and (2) it is not consistent with how God has operated throughout the bible to refrain from speaking to his people through revelation.

Even if you reject the Book of Mormon, even if it was a proven hoax, these objections would remain. There appears to be no biblical reason to limit God in such away as to preclude Him from sending down additional scripture that should be considered as important as canon. Further, knowing what we know about the prophets and patriarchs in the Bible, we cannot rule out someone from scripture authorship for any particular character flaw. There is no reason to limit a God whom prophets have foretold would use the weak things of the world to pull down the wise.

However, there remains a serious problem, from my perspective, for LDS to be able to coherently explain this process of revelation to the rest of Christianity. Without a coherent explanation of how prophets work that jibes with history of those who were purported to be prophets (Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, etc. along with Biblical prophets.)

From one perspective, I can understand the Evangelical position. Opening up the canon opens up Pandora’s box in a theological sense. Without a standard, that is taken unquestioned and closed, you are left open to question (or accept) almost any doctrine or idea inside or outside the Bible. The ultimate standard of the Spirit, which LDS believe teach to be the test of all Scripture and Prophets, in practice does not yield the ideological and doctrinal unity that a large organization craves in order to remain intact as a global organization. This is, of course, due to the accepted idea within Mormonism that the Spirit effects men differently and blends with their prejudice in a way that even allows Prophets to firmly believe doctrines that no one (now) accepts as inspired (i.e. the Adam-God theory).

What I see happening in the Church is a process of refining and reforming doctrine and history to make it cohere into a more unified package. The problem I see is that this process appears as political and “people centered” as the Council of Nicaea that is so often scorned by LDS. The “correlation” of LDS doctrines and teaching into a more coherent whole, in principle, appears no different than the consensus and tradition method that traditional brands of Christianity have followed. We knock off and disregard the more “radical”, unpopular, or “speculative” ideas, without really strong reasons for preferring the less-radical, non-“speculative” sides of the issue . Some LDS, I think reasonably, are resentful of the “correlating” that seems to nip and tuck doctrines to make the church more compatible with more traditional notions about God. Doctrines that were clearly held to be absolutely inspired by previous prophets are essentially forgotten or disregarded by current leadership and membership (i.e. polygamy). It is like Nicaea with the added drawback of being LESS transparent and open.

So, from where I sit, while Evangelicals don’t have a good answer for why they firmly reject the idea of writing new Scripture, Mormons really don’t have a good explanation for why some inspired writing is Scripture and some not. Without such an coherent explanation that matches previous practice, I think Mormons will have a hard time convincing the hundreds of millions that cling to the Bible as the final word, to open themselves to the thousands that have claimed to be Prophets since the canon was closed.

Why It Matters That Jesus Is “My God”

I’m beginning a new post because the comments in my last post got off on a number of diversions. Among those comments were these:

Jared said:
What does Thomas’ opinion (as reported by John) matter, in the original Greek or otherwise?

Seth said:
. . .But like Jared, I wonder why Thomas’s opinion has much weight for our purposes.

Kullervo also made a number of good points questioning the historicity of John that are important to discuss and I don’t wish to dismiss them. But in the realm of Mormon and Evangelical conversations it’s not an issue. Both Mormons and Evangelicals have come to agree that they are Thomas’ words and that the Gospel of John accurately records them. We also agree that those words are authoritatively canonized and should be viewed as scripture.

So why does it matter that Thomas called Jesus “my God”? (John 20:28) It matters because it tells us, as disciples of Jesus, what kind of view WE should have of Jesus. It gives us an indication of what we should think when we encounter a risen Jesus. Thomas was not chastised by Jesus for declaring him to be his God. Instead Jesus acknowledges his belief and says others will be blessed for having the same belief without the benefit of sight.

Compare this to John falling at the feet of Jesus in Revelation 1 (a correct response) and to John falling at the feet of an angel in Revelation 19 (an incorrect response). Jesus apparently expects his followers to fall at his feet and worship him as their God. It matters because it is what is due to Jesus. Denying God the worship he deserves has consequences.

The Book of Mormon and sermons by Joseph Smith both indicate that this should be our posture to Jesus as well. The “Joseph Smith Translation” doesn’t even scratch this portion of John. If, as a Christian, you don’t think Jesus should be worshiped as your God I’d like to know why and what your opinion is of Thomas and John’s example.

Random thought about this passage
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It struck me in church today that in John’s Gospel, the stories after the resurrection seem to be cleaning some loose ends from before the crucifixion. Similar to Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved him I think this story about Thomas has some relevance to a conversation Thomas and Jesus had at the Last Supper.

John 14: 5-7

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”