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.

The Future

I think this guy gives us a glimpse at the future of Mormonism due to the recent publication of Church essays on Mormon history. It won’t come quickly, easily or without consequence, but it will come.

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

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

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.)

Mormon Doctrine as Positive Law

Gundek suggested I lay out my thinking regarding Mormonism as a system of positive laws. Here goes:

The LDS Church is structured in the doctrine of unity. To them, Christ  himself decreed: “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27.)  This command is still at the very root of the way the Church is run today.  This unity is also at the heart of the project of the Church, which is to bring about Zion.  To the LDS, the concept of Zion was simply defined by Jehovah who applied that name to the city established by the antediluvian Enoch “because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.) Zion is a sort of heaven on earth, so much so that, in theory, when people approach Zion in practice, they are translated, i.e. taken to heaven to await the final establishment of Zion.

Unity of heart and mind is generally considered a celestial standard by the LDS, which generally means that it is part of the higher law, the political goal striven for in this life, but ultimately reached after the Second Coming of Christ.  In theory, the Church was designed as the human vehicle for establishment of Zion on earth. As a Mormon, I saw most of the law throughout Biblical and LDS church as human groping with the Spirit to form a Zion society.  The law differed from time-to-time based on what was needed to move toward Zion. The differences were based what the culture and temperament of the people that followed God could sustain.  The doctrines and practices are contingent and transitory steps to produce Zion rather than dogmatic principles of theology.

What this has meant, in practice, is that the political unity of the Church is the paramount priority over the perfection of its theology or practice. Getting the right answer on they way the church has run is less important than getting behind the leadership.  Most theological questions are intentionally left unanswered. In rough terms, this is a system where the policy of the Church is considered correct, not because of its intellectual justification, but fact that the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Membership have ratified it. The ultimate basis for the authority of the ratification comes from the conscience of the Church as it listens to the spirit. Thus, apostasy has little to do with theology or even argument, but a rejection of the structure that controls the ordinances of the Gospel.

In this way, most of the policies of the church are properly considered posited– i.e.  not directly derived from scripture, reason, or nature but established by proposition by the leadership and ratification by the membership. Unlike with Protestantism, Church doctrine and practice is not derived by interpretation of scripture through some hermeneutic principle. Church doctrine, including the content of Church covenants, is dependent on institutional facts, not the merits of a particular scriptural interpretation or philosophical argument.  This view was helpful to me as a Mormon in explaining the sweeping changes that have been made in the rules and practices and even the ordinances of the Church.  It also explains the pragmatic approach taken by the Church in policy over the years.

Dumb arguments against Mormonism

Recent comments by Ron Den Boer strike a pattern found frequently in arguments against Mormonism by Evangelicals. The attack generally plays out like this:

Evangelical: Mormonism is preposterous.

Mormon: No, its not.

Evangelical:  Yes, it must be because important LDS leader said and believed [insert preposterous thing].

To me, this argument always seemed unsound and ignorant.  The argument rests on the premises that: (1) Mormonism requires belief in any particular preposterous thing said by any particular Mormon priesthood leader and (2) a belief in preposterous things means a believer cannot also have faith in the most important truth.

The first premise is false. The heart of Mormonism is the belief in revelation— i.e. the belief that a person’s heart and mind can translate what God says into human language.  But most who believe in revelation recognize that any belief in revelation is bound to produce plenty of preposterous talk.  God can speak to people, but people always have the freedom to reason or dream the memories of that voice into ostensibly laughable propositions and phatasmagoria. To expect otherwise would be unreasonable.

Put differently, the LDS believe that the fact that a person receives revelation on occasion, even important revelation, does not guarantee the right-speaking (or right-living) of that person.  And when people speak in the name of God, they do so within a particular cultural context, making much of what they say strange to those outside that context.  Weird talk is clearly no problem for the LDS, in part because the LDS do not read and interpret scripture to form philosophy, but to feel and ponder it like they do music. The strangeness of the material and the language is part of the charm, but any particular strangeness is not required. Just as a person does not need to even listen to Elvis to be a rock-and-roller (let alone believe everything he said), a Mormon does not have to take into account any particular statement of any Church leader or ancient prophet in order to be on the path of truth. (Hence the predictable inability to pin a Mormon down on orthodox doctrine.)

The second premise is also false.  To believe in the preposterous is part of being human.  And to expect a person to obsessively root out their wacky or false beliefs is to expect madness.

The argument does have the rhetorical power of making a believer dance around the weirdness of how some interpret revelation.  But this rhetorical power casts the wielder as a crusader for impossible intellectual purity rather than a sensible bearer of the truth. The implication is that all evil is to be resisted, especially the evils of thought. But rejection of the preposterous is not something Christ expects, is it? Doesn’t the Gospel relieve a person of the unending task of constantly separating the grain from the weeds within one’s own beliefs?