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?

Filling the Gaps in the Divine Game of Telephone

When Protestants attack the LDS prophet model there is often an exchange where LDS point out how the process of compiling the bible is as open to the same failings as the LDS model of venerating the words of prophets and forming scripture.   In the previous post, Tim and Seth (and I) got into an exchange regarding the similarity between the belief that a prophet won’t lead the church astray and the position that the Bible is inerrant.

As I see it, Mormons and Protestants have the same rough model of receiving information from God:

1. God uses spiritual experience or historical events to convey messages to people

2. People (lets call them prophets) have these experiences and witness these events.

3. Prophets speak about these experiences and events.

4. Authors write down what the prophets speak.

5. Scripture is chosen from the available writings of these authors.

6. Interpreters/Preachers explain the scripture.

Even if you believe that the God does reveal things to people and everybody in the process is acting conscientiously, there seems to be editing in every step of the process:

1. A prophet doesn’t always say (or can put into words) everything he feels/thinks. He might not be able to understand all of it.

3. Not everything prophets say is clear because some people are not as smart, analytical or eloquent as others.

4. Not everything every biblical prophet said, (especially Jesus) was written down.

5. Writings could be lost, mis-copied, or left out by compilers of the canon.

6. Not every scripture is considered equally important or worthy of focus by preachers/interpreters.

This editing occurs with regards to every biblical event and every prophet or revelator and is compounded in the Bible because there are so many events, authors and revelators.

I have always had a hard time with trusting this sort of process for a full or final picture of what God is offering people.  Even if everyone is acting with complete honesty and integrity, without a belief that God is intimately involved in every step of the process ( a belief that is not justified by the biblical text) you have to expect significant gaps.

The beauty of the LDS model is that it acknowledges these gaps and has a way of correcting it (at least in principle), i.e. by continuing clarification and revelation from God.

However LDS have not reconciled the real problem because when it comes to modern prophets and scripture, they do not have a principled or consistent way of delineating what makes the cut and should be focused on by the current teachers/interpreters.  Right now it almost comes down to a purely authoritarian/military model of whoever is in charge is in control of the editing.

Protestants deal with the the problem of the mess  in the early stages by arbitrarily eliminating it and leaving everything to the interpreters.  They set the canon as the only (and complete) explanation we have from God. However they have the problem of explaining why the current Bible is not suffering from gaps and has no need of continuing the kludgy cycle of receiving and interpreting messages from God.   I can understand the concept of using past revelation as a benchmark, but postulating that the bible is complete or completely correct seems quite a stretch.  Of course this “solution” simply ignores all of the problems up to stage 5, but it at least gives some common ground to judge various interpretations.

Without some sort of explanation that is more than simply an article of faith, its hard to see where Protestant biblical interpreters and Mormon Prophets/interpreters have the ability to come up with ultimate answers that are more trustworthy than seeking personal experience with God.

So, I am actually looking for answers for myself here and would be interested in what believers have to say:

What would you say to convince me that either the Mormon or the Protestant answer is more trustworthy?

How do you resolve the obvious problems with the chain of communication, and why is that resolution satisfying?

 

Got Fruits? (if so, then what?)

In response to my last post an ex-Mormon, Evangelical teenager, Richard, come pretty strong and hard in expressing his reasoning from scripture that Mormons hate God and don’t understand him. He argued specifically that I was blind to the “Real” truth, qouting this scripture:

1 Corinthians 2:14 : But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

Kullervo  (in his typical understated manner) responded to Richard and suggested that Richard’s approach was evidence that, according to Christianity, it didn’t seem that his religion was really inspired by The Spirit:

Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance”

Now at this point in my spiritual quest it would be hard to classify me as either a Mormon or a traditional Christian by my  partly because of my “lifestyle” and partly because of my eccentric theology but I think the idea that we can find out what is good by examining the fruit.   Love, joy, peace, gentleness are things I that I can sink my teeth into.  It’s experience rather than abstraction. Something that even atheists may understand.  Real proof . . .

QUESTIONS REMAIN

Of course the question is, is this an appropriate way of going about discerning what is of God from either the Mormon or Evangelical (or any other) perspective?

Does lack of these fruits demonstrate a failure to be “fully” Christian?

Do fruits of the Spirit demonstrate a closeness to the Spirit regardless of theology?

If I feel the Spirit and experience its fruits outside of either Mormonism or Evangelical Christianity, maybe even to a greater degree than I have experienced it in those contexts what conclusions can i draw?

Why do we believe the implausible? – Do we have to in order to be good Christians?

Questions concerning why or whether we should believe in implausible things that lack evidence come up tangentially in many threads on this blog. They often comes up when people are trying to show that that the Book of Mormon is not believable because it has stuff in it that is at odds with current understanding of archeology or history.  At risk of starting another boring discussion of archeological evidence , I am genuinely curious about in these questions and how believers answer them.

I think it is clear that both LDS and Evangelicals (1) believe things to be true that are historically very implausible and (2) believe these things without the type of objective evidence that is generally accepted as required to establish historically implausible things, and (3) believe that its extremely important to believe these things to be true, despite there implausibility and lack of objective evidence.

When it comes to my questions, it is irrelevant what specifically these beliefs are are and I think its probably counterproductive to compare lists, even if one religion had a longer list, there is are things on each or their lists of implausibilities that are important and maybe even critical to the religion.

It seems that in order to be a strong member of either group you cannot take the position of agnosticism even when there is barely any of evidence to justify belief.    It seems that in order to be a strong follower you need to overlook the lack of evidence and embrace some things as doctrine (e.g. Inerrancy of the Bible, the divine power behind the translation of the Book of Mormon, or even the Resurrection).

Apologetics of course is the activity of making these implausibilities seem more plausible, or at least not silly, but they seem to be more of an afterthought rather than the primary ground of most people’s belief.  Without some other ground to believe, it seems that there is no compelling reason to engage in apologetics.  However should our faith fail if our apologetics do?

So, arise the questions:

A. Should you believe that some stories are true even when there is no historical evidence?

B. On what basis should you trust stories that are not historically proven, or very plausible?

C. Can you be a good Christian if you are not willing to accept some things that are unsupportably implausible?

D. Do Mormons and Evangelicals answer these questions differently?

What happens after we die?

This question is generally a fundamental question for believers and non-believers alike, often both groups are pretty certain about what its going to be like.  I am both unsure of a good answer to this question and very skeptical about those who have sure answers both Mormon and Evangelical.

Instead of going through all of the “orthodox” or “official” ideas on the subject, I think it would be profitable to understand what the readers of this blog believe on the subject and why.  I am primarily interested in the basis for the beliefs and the details behind it.

I think there is actually solid scientific evidence for life after death or the life of a spirit outside the body.

I also have solid belief and spiritual experience evidencing God in my life based on numerous experiences as a fully practicing LDS.

However, despite all this, I am very unclear of what is going to happen when we die.  As far as I can see, all we seem to have is a brief and uncertain view of the afterlife, and there are many interpretations.  I base my own concepts on two primary ideas.

  1. God loves us with a love that that is at least similar to what we can understand, e.g. good parental love.
  2. God is just according to a concept of justice similar to what we understand.

Frankly, these two concepts cause me to disbelieve a lot of what is said about the afterlife so I would also be interested to know who believes these principles and  how everybody squares their belief in the afterlife with them.

I am also interested in how primal your belief regarding the afterlife is in the foundation of your faith.  Some become Christians out of fear of hell, others become Christians because Jesus is good and touches them and they never develop any fear of hell. Some are strong LDS because they want to go to the Celestial Kingdom- i.e. the best place, and some want to go to the Celestial Kingdom simply as a by-product of their LDS experiences.

For me this could be a helpful exercise for LDS and Evangelicals, and anybody else, to examine their own personal feelings about this issue while getting new perspectives on this very important area of faith.  Or it could just be a good way to kill some time during the day.

I know I am not offering a lot of my own feelings but I am really at a loss to offer any confident opinions.  I appreciate your thoughts in advance, Thanks for sharing!

What is your most compelling reason for believing in God?

Here is a question that may shed some light and understanding on the common ground between Evangelicals and Mormons:

Why (the heck) do you believe in God anyway?

There are all kinds of reasons not to believe in God, all kinds of proofs for his existence, but I doubt these make a lot of difference in the bedrock reasons for belief in a personal God.  So, for those willing to share, if you do believe that a personal God exists, what is the most compelling reason for you. Is it a historical account, a personal experience, a series of personal experiences?

For me, although there are other reasons, it comes down to a series of personal experiences  (quite a few) that I can’t explain effectively without refering to God.  I know this comes across as pretty weak, but my skeptical nature has stripped bare my interpretations of these experiences to the point to where that is the best description of what anchors my faith.

In recent years I have mentally revisited many of my experiences and tried to be more discerning about what they really mean.  My attitude is partly shaped by the thoughts of the  philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most compelling and entertaining anti-christ writers, who criticised the way people view religious experiences:

” As interpreters of our experiences- One sort of honesty has been alien to all founders of religions and their kind: They ahve never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience?  What happened in me and around me at the that time? Was my reason bright enough? Was my will opposed to all deceptions of the senses and bold in resisting the fantastic?” None of them has asked such questions, nor do any of our dear religious people ask them even now.  On the contrary, they thirst after things that go against reason, and they do not wish to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it. So they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear the voices of little angels! But we, we others who thirst after reason, are determined to scrutinize our experiences as severely as a scientific experiment– hour after hour, day after day.  We ourselves wish to be our experiments and guinea pigs.” — (The Gay Science #319 trans. by Walter Kaufmann, 1974, Random House. )

I have tried to take guidance from this advice, because I think it is important for me to feel comfortable that I am not deceiving myself, because ultimately I have to be able to trust myself in order to trust my experiences.  One of these experiences that confirms my belief in God occurred about 4 months ago.  I went to temple square in Salt Lake City and walked through the tour posing as a non-mormon. It was me, a couple from Britain and a guy from Brooklyn.  The sisters that lead us through the tour, although pretty, did not have much game when it came to explaining the church to the savvy, skeptical non-believer.    The tour lasted about 20 minutes and ended at the Assembly Hall a pretty church that sits next to the Tabernacle.   I sat down on an pew and told the sisters I wanted to ask them a question, why did they believe in God.   They gave me the standard, true believer answers, i.e. that everything tells them that there is a God, that they get answers to their prayers all the time (e.g. one sister prayed in the morning when she lost her keys, and they turned up, etc).   I could tell they were sincere believers, not brainwashed, but not skeptical of the experiences they had either, therefore I found much of what they were saying un-helpful. All of this was very sincere, and I don’t find any fault with what they said or how they said it, but I was essentially disappointed, this was the same stuff rehashed and wasn’t at all compelling.  Then one sister turned to me, and said that if I would pray in my room that night, and ask God to show himself that I would get an answer.   Of course this is exactly what I had expected, but I did not expect the internal response I had.  Almost the instant the words came out of her mount, it was all I could do just to hold it together, tears were streaming down my cheeks.  I was not sure if I was surprised or not but tried to remain as “objective” as possible about what was happening, and I don’t want to jump to many conclusions about the ultimate meaning and interpretation of the experience.  But suffice it to say this came at a time where I was at my most skeptical of the existence of God, the Church, Christianity, etc.

The sisters were remarkably cool about how they reacted, they stood there until I pulled it together, I apologized for my tears and they said goodbye, didn’t push anything or put any spin on what they clearly saw happen to me.

Now I am not about to put too much of a spin on this experience either, I don’t know that it should “prove” anything to you at all, after all you were not in a position to observe myself as I was, you were not in a position to be the scientist to make sure that there were not non-God influences that brought about such a strong reaction in me.   Certainly you cotuld chalk up my reaction to so many similar childhood experiences, or even  conditioned response.  But as the observer who knew my history best, and can see the similarities and differences in this context compared to other near identical experiences where I did not have such a reaction, my conclusion is that something outside of me triggered this reaction.  Given the vagueness of the way I felt,  I can’t say that this experience was proof of the truth of the Mormon Church, or Christianity, or anything particularly detailed, but I can say that on that Sunday afternoon, I felt that God existed and was making me feel it in the presence of those two kids with nametags, representing the LDS Church and It didn’t seem to have much to do with what they were saying or how they said it.

This is one of dozens of experiences that  I could relate.  Unfortunately, even taken together, they don’t remove most of the questions I have regarding God and religion, but they do mean something.   To continue with the science analogy, I am still seeking more data points before I draw my regression line.

I am interested to know what Evangelicals and Mormons alike think about this sort of anchor for a belief in God and also very interested to know what anchor’s other people’s faith.   My guess is that we my have more in common on this issue than on our theology.

Mormons believe in a Mother in Heaven

Since Tim is gone, I thought I would back him up by writing a Tim-Style Post.  i.e. throw out a controversial LDS doctrine in sort of a challenging way and then open it up for comments.

Few Mormon doctrines are more radically paradigm-shifting than the believe in the existence of a Heavenly Mother.

What equally interesting to me is what this particular doctrine tells about how Mormonism works.

I think Evangelicals often stand with open-mouth when they read that those crazy Mormon’s believe such things because they are nowhere to be found in the Bible.  Aside from being a radical shift in understanding of God and Man between Protestants and Mormons, the doctrine also shows a fundamental difference in the way Mormons form their personal theology vs. the way Evangelicals seem to go about it.  This is what I want to explore with this post.  To try to explain to bible-focused (limited?) Evangelicals why Mormons believe in a Mother in Heaven, even when its not in the bible.  For this I am going to have to call on the usual bunch of commentators.

Few people, if any, know the ultimate origin of the idea that we have a Mother in Heaven.  Joseph Smith does not seem to have spoken directly about it in his life and there is no reference in the LDS Canon.

The first time we see it in writing comes from a woman, Eliza R. Snow, in a hymn, “O My Father”  President Kimball acknowledged that “O My Father” was a “doctrinal hymn” and dozens of prophets and apostles have reiterated this idea.

President Lorenzo Snow explained that Eliza Snow got the doctrine from Joseph shortly before he was murdered.

President Spencer W. Kimball in a general conference address:

“When we sing that doctrinal hymn … ‘O My Father,’ we get a sense of the ultimate in maternal modesty, of the restrained, queenly elegance of our Heavenly Mother, and knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less?” (Ensign, May 1978, p. 6.)

The doctrine of the hymn is pretty straightforward, there is a mother in heaven and we will return to live with Her and the Father, and that they together sent people on their mission to earth:

I had learned to call thee Father,
Thru thy Spirit from on high,
But, until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal

Tells me I’ve a mother there.
Let me come and dwell with you.
With your mutual approbation
All you sent me forth to do,
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?

So there we have it, a revolutionary new way of looking at God and heaven that turns traditional notions on their ear.

Mormons believe it, but I can see the Evangelicals left scratching their heads:

  1. The doctrine is not found in scripture, including Mormon Scripture
  2. The doctrine was not explicitly taught or explained by Joseph Smith (even though it is pretty clear that he was claimed that he originally  taught the doctrine)
  3. It really shifts away from all traditional interpretations of the Bible.

I can see how an Evangelical is probably left dumbfounded:  “You can’t win with those Mormons, how can I teach them correct theology whenthey are going to beleive stuff like this with such slim support or understanding?”

Here we have, in my mind, the genius as well as the vulnerability of  Mormonism. . . our willingness to believe in things that are not in the Bible.  To some Mormons, this doctrine is very uncomfortable.  We sometimes downplay it and even reproach those that make “too much” of it due to the little we “know” about it.  To others, agreeing with Eliza R. Snow, it makes religion make more sense: i.e. “If man is made in the image of God, why wouldn’t there be family in heaven as well as on earth. “

I think if we can give a good explanation to our Evangelical friends  of why we believe this doctrine, they will be a lot closer to really understanding Mormonism.  (and we might have a clearer way of understanding our own view of how “doctrine” is born).

So Mormons, explain to Evangelicals :

1. Do you believe in a Mother in Heaven? and

2. Why?

3. What is the significance of the doctrine to you, to the Church, and to the world?

Evangelicals, we know you don’t believe it, and we know its not in the Bible, if you try to understand why we believe you may learn a lot about Mormonism in general that will enlighten you on how we do religion in other areas.