Five Possible Reactions to Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

At the Heart of Heresy

I think these thoughts shared by Victoria Osteen are the heart of every great heresy.  There might be more controversial quotes from the Osteens floating around but this one captures the lie behind every single one of them.  “YOU are the center of the story and God plays a part in it.”

 

Pride Goes Before the Fall

A couple of weeks ago the Evangelical world was set ablaze when the church planting network founded by Mark Driscoll, rebuked and removed Driscoll and his church from their organization.  Accusations of brashness, chauvinism and pride had frequently swirled around Driscoll. A confession of some inappropriate message board comments had proceeded this discipline step by the Acts 29 organization which felt that Driscoll and his church were still not responding to complaints lodged by people who had been mentored or employed by Driscoll. 

Yesterday Driscoll announced that he was taking a six week leave of absence to seek counsel of mature believers and to submit himself to his church’s disciplinary process.  I highly recommend this article from Christianity Today to supply more information on the situation. This has been an ongoing and developing story as was discussed previously on this blog.

I’m pleased to see that Acts 29 and Mars Hill Church has a disciplinary structure in place and are using it for something other that sexual and financial sins.  I’m also pleased to see Driscoll submitting himself to their processes.  This is a wait and see situation and I think Driscoll’s credibility is seriously on the line.

I’ve stated before that I’m not so concerned that leaders are fallible and sinful as I am with how they confront their accusers and reconcile their sinfulness.  King David lays out an excellent model for public repentance and I hope to see Driscoll express similar repentance.

 

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
 Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,

    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.