Notes on the possibility of a profitable dialogue between Mormons and Protestants

This is a response to Gundek’s suggestions regarding the way forward in my project to create a profitable LDS/Evangelical dialogue.  (Again, I didn’t edit this much and it might be a bit too repetitive, so please read charitably. :) )

Like I have said earlier, I really don’t know much about being a converted Protestant, but I know that I now see something now that I didn’t see as a believing, spiritually minded Latter-day Saint.  I am starting with the Light of Christ because the LDS will have no problem acknowledging that whatever truth I did find, it was not from an experience with the Holy Ghost, or from the Gift of the Holy Ghost.  This is important because I am not LDS anymore and I want to be clear that whatever think about salvation does not threaten the LDS tradition because it comes outside of LDS covenants and outside of the Gift of the Holy Ghost.  Mormonism is, by definition, the religion that is revealed outside of the understanding available through the Light of Christ, i.e. the Spirit of God, that those outside the Church have access to.

The Light of Christ seems a great place to start my dialogue with the LDS tradition because within the LDS tradition, whatever light and knowledge I have found must have come through the Light of Christ.  By couching my understanding in terms of the Light of Christ, it side-steps all LDS revelation and tradition, and tries to go to the root of what non-LDS see in God that Joseph Smith may have taken for granted, or simply failed to grasp.  It is no knock on Joseph Smith to claim that he did not understand the full nature of the Light of Christ, because the Light of Christ encompasses all knowledge.

In some ways I am trying to reverse-engineer my conversion process, restating the ideas that pushed me over the edge. The problem with this approach is that  that once I began to recognize the reality of law and the reality of grace, and then feel the joy that this recognition brought, all kinds of ideas started clicking together to the point that I didn’t know precisely what convinced me, and how to explain why the argument was inescapable.

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“Grace” and Politics: searching for new terminology to explain salvation

This post is a bit incomplete, and un-proof read, but I thought I would throw out these thoughts in response to SlowCowboy’s comments.

I am still coming to grips with the conversion experience that I had a few weeks ago, and still very tentative about committing to any particular way of explaining it, even though I recognize that it is unmistakably similar to Protestant Christianity. The new way of feeling joy has made me realize that I probably didn’t know much of anything before, and things that were confusing to me before seem much clearer. I don’t think I have things figured out. Part of my confusion was thinking that I did. I also recognize that I have a lot to learn about the experience of grace, I am a new convert. Pascal’s thought means a lot more to me now: “Men often take their imagination for their heart; and they believe they are converted as soon as they think of being converted.”

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Joseph Smith’s bedrock message about the Light of Christ

In LDS teaching there is often a minor mistake often made in explaining the Light of Christ, but this mistake can have dramatic consequences in the minds of LDS children.

The light of Christ often defined by LDS Missionaries as the conscience, enabling people to judge good from evil. But according to doctrine, the conscience is only a manifestation of the Light of Christ. But if you judge by the Book of Mormon, the Light of Christ must also be the thing that allows you to see salvation from the conscience.  A critical doctrine in the LDS Faith is that Adam and Eve were sent from the garden with a specific sort of enlightenment: (1) the knowledge of good and evil, and (2) a knowledge of their inevitable salvation from good and evil.  The Books of Abraham and Moses establish that Adam and Eve knew about Christ from the time they left the Garden. Symbolically, the temple ceremony must mean that (1) all humans have a conscience, and (2) they have the capacity to understand their ultimate salvation, even before Jesus taught about it.  This understanding is assumed, before any priesthood, and any of the covenants.  This must be the Light of Christ. 

The temple ceremony also must mean that parents have the responsibility, before anything else, to teach their children to distinguish good from evil and to choose the right, and the inevitable salvation from their wrong choices in Christ.  Children must be taught that their salvation is inevitable in Christ, just as it is inevitable that they will fail to do good in nearly every choice they make.  To not teach the full light of Christ, is to fail to teach the first principle of the Gospel.  Without being enlightened in the mind somehow by the light of Christ it is not possible to have faith in Jesus Christ.

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Pass the Christ-amine.

The scariest and perhaps the strongest argument in front of me that I might a Christian is that, all of a sudden, I find Kirk Cameron interesting.  Kirk Cameron was once my poster child for the intellectually retarded, but now, shockingly, it seems I have no choice but to grant that there might be some genius to his approach to showing people the basics of the light of Christ, and it might be worthwhile.  I might need some Christ-amine.

The difference between the Light of Christ and the Gift of the Holy Ghost

I have probably been thinking about this way too much lately, but it seems to be an occupational hazard when what I do otherwise is make hopeless arguments for the hopeless people that are my clients.

I wanted to share a common LDS example of the difference between what the LDS call “the light of Christ” and what they call “the Gift of the Holy Ghost.” In LDS teaching, the Gift of the Holy Ghost was not on the earth at the time Jesus was on the earth. The Holy Ghost was around, but this particular state of having its “constant companionship” was not. This is the explanation of why Jesus’ disciples seemed so clueless about who He was. They were simply operating on what Jesus taught and the light of Christ. This is why Thomas doubted, this is why Peter denied Christ three times – they didn’t have the power of the Gift of the Holy Ghost to make them strong and unshakable in their testimonies.  After Pentecost, when they received the “baptism of fire,” the book of Acts shows that the apostles did not falter.

This story is used in LDS teaching to show that the surest way to know that Jesus, a man, was actually God (in the LDS sense or any other sense) was by accepting the testimony of the Holy Ghost, not by seeing visions and miracles. Why? Because, as shown by Peter’s humiliating denials, and Thomas’s obstinate doubt, even the Gospels report that intimately knowing the man Jesus, watching him be crucified for his teaching (not to mention watching him raise the dead) did not fully convince them that his cause was worth being crucified for. But after Pentecost, it is pretty clear that the Apostles were all willing to “take up the cross” in the most brutally literal way. This unbelievable commitment to sacrifice for the truth – like what Stephen showed – was probably what shocked Paul out of his complacency and prompted him to see the “light of Christ” on the road to Damascus.

The flip-side of the story is also fascinating. What in the world convinced the disciples in the first place, if not the Holy Ghost? Jesus must have been essentially a social outcast, a bastard step-son of a typical family, probably treated precisely like a step-child, he clearly took comfort in the scriptures and spent plenty of time thinking about their meaning, even when he was a pre-teen. When started his ministry it probably seemed to His community that he completely lost his marbles, they were ready to stone him for his blasphemies. He was a dangerous man to be associated with from the beginning. He openly blasphemed, ate and drank with traitors, outcasts, and sinners, did not share the revolutionary politics of the day, caused public disturbances in holy places, and preached the moral bankruptcy of all of the powers that be of the day.

What was it that these early disciples saw in Jesus words that made them break away from their culture, even if they were yet unwilling to give up their lives?  To the LDS it was not the Gift of the Holy Ghost, it was the words of Jesus and the light of Christ that shone in his words.  The LDS believe it is these words and the light of Christ that kept the church alive, in spite of the apostasy of the clergy, and laid the groundwork for the Restoration.

Zion and the Light of Christ

Along with the fact of salvation, there is another fact that is wound up in Christianity.  James pointed to this fact: i.e. faith without works is dead. Once a person accepts that salvation is possible, the question remains, what should I do?  The Mormon answer is actually very compelling for most people given the facts in front of them.

Joseph Smith grew up. like many Christians today, with the understanding that the Bible was the word of God. He had no sophisticated understanding of how to prioritize scriptural passages – nor did he care for sophisticated understandings – he saw the original text all as equally true. It all came from God didn’t it?  The bible talks a lot about Israel, Zion, the end of the world, the Second Coming, the Kingdom of God and a whole lot of other things that would happen on earth. To him, and to many reasonable people, if the Bible is reliable, it seems like the “true” Church should be wrapped up in that stuff in a big way.

Nearly every country preacher in Joseph Smith’s time was using reason and the Bible to try to figure out how the Bible should apply to life and society in light of the dire prophecies in the text.  They were incorporating “churches” based on all kinds of novel hermeneutics, visions, assimilation of science, and personal creativity.  Some of this, no doubt, was simply branding and gimmicks, and the young Joseph Smith was clearly deeply cynical about the established order of things – especially given the bald-faced selling of salvation and religious competition that was going on around him.  It may not be possible tell if Joseph was “saved” in the Protestant sense, but it may be also that he rejected the descriptions of salvation given by the country preachers around him, because they were too simple and self-serving. He might have thought that the way the preachers talked about salvation was corrupt as they were, or at least made way-too-simple in order to make their product more attractive.   Like Joseph, these country preachers had already completely rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, every state church, and every other denomination except their own.  It seemed clear to him that these men did not seek “the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol.”  (D&C 1: 16.)  He sought direction from heaven.

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Possibly Protestant?

I may have come a Christian in the Protestant sense over the weekend, but I am still slightly skeptical I meet that definition.   There is a lot that could be said, but all I really know is that I had a “conversion” experience.  The way I see things has changed.  I can’t explain why the change happened, but I link it to my accepance of this fact:  justified guilt and pain can turn to joy in the mind without effort or rationalization. When I acknowledged this fact, the way I look at things started to change quite dramatically, and it has brought me what is best described as joy.

I am very focused on not resorting to “spiritual” matters to explain my position. I say “fact” because I was convinced of this proposition by argument, not by any spiritual experience.  The strange thing is I came out of thinking about the argument with a different view. I also realized that explaining this fact to other people is not straightforward, understanding the strength of the argument is also hard to explain to those who don’t seem to “get it”. I also felt a bit embarrassed for not really getting it earlier, it doesn’t feel like a brilliant discovery, but more like a recognition of something that lots of people have already figured out. Maybe I have been convinced to be a Christian again.