Making peace between Joseph Smith and Saint Paul

I came to the conclusion years ago that the difference between Mormons and Evangelicals was the difference between taking Paul’s philosophy and taking Joseph Smith’s seriously. If the LDS Church wants to be what it claims to be, I think it behooves them to think though and reconcile these differences in a way to keep the theology of both men intact, even if they have to be viewed within different metaphysical paradigms. My view currently is that the failure to reconcile these differences without discrediting what Paul said is a grave mistake. I think that the historical antagonism between the LDS and Paul’s theology has been as unhelpful as the LDS policy of denying the priesthood to people of African descent.

In my mind, Paul and Joseph Smith are very similar figures. Both assumed authority within their Christian communities do to supernatural experiences, and claims that they spoke and wrote under the authority of the Holy Spirit.  Both were religious geniuses, able to bring the patterns of ancient scripture to spectacular effect in promoting their new worldviews.  They both claimed to bring to light hidden knowledge from God that was hidden in the past due to false traditions perpetuated by the hard-headed, and hard-hearted.  Both claimed to speak the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Obsessed with Christ

This is a response to  Steven E. Webb on Mormonism’s obsession with Christ.

“I have come to repent of this view, and not just because I came to my senses about how wrong it is to be rude toward somebody else’s faith. I changed my mind because I came to realize just how deeply Christ-centered Mormonism is. Mormonism is more than Christianity, of course—most obviously by adding the Book of Mormon to the Bible—and that makes it much less than Christianity as well. Nevertheless, the fact that Mormonism adds to the traditional Christian story does not necessarily mean that it detracts from Christianity to the point of denying it altogether.

After all, what gives Christianity its identity is its commitment to the divinity of Jesus Christ. And on that ground Mormons are more Christian than many mainstream Christians who do not take seriously the astounding claim that Jesus is the Son of God.

Mormonism is obsessed with Christ, and everything that it teaches is meant to awaken, encourage, and expand faith in him. It adds to the plural but coherent portrait of Jesus that emerges from the four gospels in a way, I am convinced, that does not significantly damage or deface that portrait.”

Does anybody have an idea how common this logic is used to support the church? I think it is honest, but unsettling. I am with Chesterton on this:

“[T]he next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And aparticular point of it is that the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it. They are on a debatable ground, in every sense of the term. They are doubtful in their very doubts.”

Yikes, sounds a lot like my boy Uchtdorf.

I think Mormons need to be wary of anything that is “much less” than Christianity. Anything less Christian than the run-of-the-mill non-Catholicism that parades around as Protestantism needs to be highly questioned.  The Church needs to become closer to the type of Christian Joseph Smith was, however ironic that sounds.  It seems like Joseph Smith simply shot a bunch of charismatic and smart guys on an incredible trajectory.  They did amazing things and all that, but can they really settle for something “LESS” than the Christianity of legend?

“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable”

Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15:

Now if Christ is preached that He rose from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not risen. If Christ has not risen, then our preaching is vain, and your faith is also vain.  Yes, and we would then be found false witnesses of God, because we have testified that God raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up, if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ has not been raised.  If Christ is not raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then they also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

I can see why Paul draws this conclusion, but I don’t understand this as a good argument for the resurrection of the dead.  Does our joy in Christ prove that the joy will last? I am not sure that this makes sense.

I can see the argument that my joy in Christ might be “counterfeit” like it is often said of Mormons. Does consciousness of death without conscious of resurrection even qualify as “joy in Christ”?

What Mormons don’t get about the Telestial Kingdom

Many Mormons got a bit bent about my “off-the-wall” post about how the LDS Church could advance itself dramatically by adopting a more grace-based theology, and that Uchtdorf’s talk was a great step in that direction. Many claimed that “Mormons have taught this all along”.   I see where they are coming from, because I might have claimed this as a Mormon.  This was my attempt to salvage a clumsy attempt to explain to Mormons that in Joseph Smith’s own theology everybody get’s a free ride to heaven through God’s grace:

Me: I’m being serious. When we confront the reality of death and hell we fear God, and recognize that we have no capacity to escape death or hell, even with our great choices. Our only hope to escape the disease is to simply look to Christ and live. Reasonably people often recognize that they do not have any freedom except in Christ, because they cannot escape hell, and they cannot escape their guilt. When we can grasp that in Christ we are redeemed, the joy of the redemption transforms us. If we react to the joy we will live, if we deny the joy, we are doomed. This is really our only choice, but it is a simple choice and the fruits of that choice, including the resulting power to live the celestial law, is all a free gift from God.

What Joseph Smith saw about the next life doesn’t change this reality. In fact, he saw that only those that do not CHOOSE heaven over hell will be given a portion of God’s glory. Even those who are filthy when they die will be cleansed and glorified. The telestial kingdom is HEAVEN, and we all get that free ride. And that fact alone should make us uncontrollably happy that we will eventually be free from all of the consequences of our choices. Joseph Smith taught that hell is not eternal, and that God won’t let anyone stay in hell that does not want to. Thus, we all get a free ride to heaven.

Reasonable LDS believer: At this point I don’t think any purpose can be served by discoursing with you any longer. Your views here are, as far as I’m concerned, so unhinged and irrational as to be quite beyond any attempt at logical amelioration.

Reasonable LDS Believer 2: Agreed [Believer 1]. Not only unhinged and irrational but also disjointed.

Me: You can’t expect much more from someone like me who learned theology from the Book of Mormon.

Was I as incoherent as they are saying here?  Am I getting the Gospel wrong?

I re-read my un-edited response and, even though it could have been worded a whole lot better, I am not sure that my ideas are completely “unhinged”.  It’s hard to swallow that criticism coming from a Mormon, so I admit that I let by ego get involved. But I actually don’t have an agenda that is against the Church here: I am very open to any orthodox believers correcting me if I explained grace incorrectly and I am very open to hear from Mormons if I get Joseph Smith wrong.

When I was a TBM, my LDS theology was mainly based on Joseph Smith’s theology, and I believe Joseph Smith had a reasonable grasp of grace, even if he did not explicitly use that word (he would often use the word “mercy” and did so inconsistently.)In my opinion, the sooner the Mormons start at least listening to Joseph Smith’s actual theology, the sooner they will start listening to the message of the New Testament.

If you really get what Joseph Smith was saying, Mormons are, strictly speaking, complete Universalists. In Joseph Smith’s theology, beings are immune from utter destruction, because we are co-existent with God.  God cannot destroy us, but only relegate us to the torments that our sins will give us for eternity.  There is no hell in Mormonism, only regret. No matter how successful we are in this test, it will torment us forever to know that we could have “had it all” but chose not to because we were too weak to follow the principles that lead to any particular level of glory.

I personally think this regret is directly opposed to the Gospel, and to teach it at all completely misses the point, to a dangerous degree.  But what is often ignored by Mormons and anti-Mormons is that Joseph Smith taught that the telestial kingdom, the lowest tier in heaven, surpassed all of our wildest dreams of happiness and that men would commit suicide in droves if we were to understand this.  This was always puzzling to me as a kid, this teaching was almost never repeated in church, even though it seemed like a piece of information that we should be very excited about, i.e. we will eventually be free from all regret from our choices and dwell in eternal joy.  Sometimes it seems that Joseph Smith might have been the last Mormon to actually believe this.  (Perhaps you can blame him for that, but that is another story.)

What Mormons simply don’t get — but Joseph Smith did — was that any heaven is heaven, not earth life.  And a state of being called “heaven” requires that we be free of the regret that often plagues faithful Mormons throughout their lives.  In Christ even the worst of us will, eventually — after a lengthy term in spirit prison, the millennium, and eons of time in our post-earth existence — learn and grow to the point that we will be completely happy serving God in whatever heaven we wind up in.  Those in the telestial kingdom will have no regrets, they will be as the angels, filled with joy in the service of God.  This should not make us not want to be celestial, but it should FILL US WITH JOY NOW.

However, Mormons often teach that those in the telestial kingdom will be in the hell that we find themselves in on earth, i.e. plagued with the knowledge that they are complete screw-ups when it comes to really being one of the “good guys”, and the everlasting regret that they didn’t follow Christ well enough in this life. This is not the Gospel.

A free ride to heaven?

In a facebook exchange related to my last post,  I stated that, in “The Gift of Grace” President Uchtdorf “teaches explicitly that we get a free ride to heaven.”

One LDS disagreed and responded:

“If by “free ride” you mean free of repentance, obedience, good works, or somehow contradictory to what other prophets and apostles have taught, you’ve clearly completely misunderstood his point.”

Another LDS agreed and stated:

That “free” gift of sanctification, however, is itself conditioned upon repentance, personal righteousness, and “enduring to the end.” Grace assists us in these tasks as well, but DOES NOT override our agency, free will, or the power of Satan to tempt and deceive.

It is after “all we can do” moment by moment, that we are purged and made “new creatures in Christ.”

I totally disagree with these very common mis-interpretations of Mormonism. When I was a Mormon I might have been an outlier in that I based my faith on what it said in the scriptures over any other teachings.  Based on the Doctrine and Covenants section 76, Joseph Smith’s revelation concerning the afterlife, these commentators have Mormonism fully bass-ackwards.

In their vision of heaven Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon affirm that Christ himself appeared to them defined the Gospel:

 40 And this is the gospel, the glad tidings, which the voice out of the heavens bore record unto us—

 41 That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucifiedfor the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and tosanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness;

 42 That through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him;

 43 Who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him.”

It sticks in my craw that Mormons continue to deny even their own scriptural account of the Gospel, to hold onto the dream that eternal joy is not the fate of all who accept the power of God in their lives.

I have always understood that authentic scripture-based Mormonism teaches that all are guaranteed eternal joy in Christ.  What the Church has been missing are witnesses to this reality.  Without the witnesses, and without the evidence in the countenances of the saved, Mormon children simply won’t get what Jesus — or Joseph Smith — was talking about.

Joseph Smith clearly believed he, and every man, woman and child that was created, was saved from hell and his life was an attempt to glorify God.  Only those who rejected God’s grace would not wind up in heaven.  What Latter-Day Saints should be teaching is that the ONLY free ride in this world is the ride to Heaven. Instead, they often teach that everything in this world is guaranteed if we obey, EXCEPT our place in heaven.

German Technology: Making the LDS Church Even Truer

I have to admit, President Dieter Uchtdorf’s talk “The Gift of Grace” surprised me. But as I think about it, it was the logical move. When I was converted to a grace-based Gospel, I had the idea myself that the LDS church could vastly improve its teaching by simply adding Evangelical-style grace to the formula, and as Tim has proven, it barely produced a ripple. If the Church leadership doesn’t jump on this opportunity to make the church a more powerful force in the world by moving toward orthodoxy, I will know they have no hope.  If they do preach grace and salvation, they just might make themselves the true Church they claim to be.

If Uchtdorf pushed his neo-Mormon-Lutheranism down the throats of the correlation committee, the church will be in a great position to boost its power to spread to the third world.  Given how theologically wacky Brigham Young was, there should be no objection at all from the membership if the First Presidency started transforming into a full-blown Evangelical mega-megachurch. It has the media resources to put the pseudo-Christians at TBN to shame, and the organizational resources and financial support that should inflict most megachurches with a heathen lust. Whether or not move toward orthodoxy was accepted by the rest of the body of Christ, the LDS church could actually adopt the cutting edge of Protestant theologies, whatever would propagate faster in each individual culture.

Mormonism already has a competitive advantage over many Christian churches because its religious structure is much more akin to post-Christian paganism than Protestant churches.  They have the catholic capacity to mint new authoritative doctrine and tradition, and the nimble doctrine of modern-day prophecy to maximize their theological impact. This has got to play better in tribal societies that need a strong church structure within unstable nation-states.  For example, the Congo needs Mormonism badly, for social reasons as much as religious ones.  If Evangelicals got serious about teaching the Apostles how the preach the Gospel better, the Church could be a powerful force to spread hope to Africa.

The reason why Uchtdorf’s talk didn’t raise eyebrows is because grace-based theology is simply superior religious technology. From a religious perspective was as if this German airline pilot showed up with an iPhone 8 in a room full of flip phones.  Uchtdorf and other right-thinking church leaders could revise the entire church curriculum, most of the membership who has heard of the Evangelical gospel are all-too-happy to jump ship on Brigham Young and Co.’s archaic theology. Because the King Follet discourse has been kept from the canon, there is almost no need to even minimize it, simply allow people to believe what they want and preach the real McCoy in the correlated literature.  Any rift within the church could be countered with a form of Gamaliel’s counsel coming from the First Presidency.   The missionaries can integrate a grace-based message into the first discussion, and you will immediately dramatically increase the conversion rate.

The reason I think this is a good idea, is that the semi-pagan structure of the church, and allowance for further prophecy is a very important step toward bringing the Gospel to Islamic countries and pagan Europe.  The only evidence I have is a curious up-tick in Iranian-American baptisms in Southern California. (Muslims becoming anything like Christians is a very important phenomena in my book.)  By coming out with the truth behind Joseph Smith’s sex life, the church could distance itself from his later teachings yet maintain the “secret sauce” that is the Book of Mormon. Thus it could maintain its well-ordered authoritarian structure and true-church status all while moving to a more orthodox — and therefore more appealing — Gospel without jeopardizing unity.  I think they could become a force to be reckoned with in spreading the actual Gospel if they went this route.

I propose the Christian world act like Alma the Elder and push toward this new path in policy and doctrine.

What does it mean to have a testimony of the LDS Church?

A very important part of LDS practice is the development and bearing of testimonies.  A testimony is a public statement of faith and belief.  Because having a testimony is considered to be an important, if not essential, part of conversion, the LDS have developed a very nuance way of talking about the matter.   I think there is a lot of confusion about what you must believe in order to have a testimony of the Church, and to believe the Church is true.

In an effort to clear up some of the confusion I propose that for a person to “have a testimony” of the Church is merely to believe that it is God’s will that the person belong and participate in the Church for the good of the Church, its members, and the world.

I like this definition because it allows the freedom of religious belief that Joseph Smith, and many other Latter-Day Saints died for.  It also allows for those who have such a testimony openly accept new (or old) teachings without casting doubt on their loyalty to the cause of Zion that the Church has always stood for.  If Joseph Smith stood for anything in his life, it was the freedom to proclaim and embrace the words God gave him, whether God gave him those words through experience, ancient scripture, or direct revelation.

I think it is a disservice to his memory and legacy to question somebody’s testimony of the church merely because they embrace radically different doctrine.  It is the ability to embrace any and all bodies of truth, which are filled with both wheat and tares, that only sure path for the members to make the Church the true church that they claim it to be.