How “Christian” Should Mormonism Strive To Be?

This is an interesting discussion from the Sunstone Symposium. The panel included Shawn McCraney, Grant Palmer, Brian Birch, Rex Sears, Bill Russell and Dan Wotherspoon. You can download the file from here.

I thought it was interesting that there were basically 3 paths given that would mainstream the LDS church into orthodox Christianity.

  1. A greater emphasis on methaphysical experiences with Jesus (born-again experiences)
  2. More emphasis on Jesus in worship, more emphasis on the Gospels in lesson planning and adoption of modern Bible translations.
  3. Abandonment of all doctrines stemming from the King Follet Discourse and the Lorenzo Snow couplet

I think any of these would have an effect on Mormonism that would bring it into orthodox Christianity in pretty short order. I imagine that #1 and #2 would probably bring about #3 on it’s own. While #3 in isolation would be welcomed, but would not necessarily produce a vibrant Evangelical-Mormonism.

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74 thoughts on “How “Christian” Should Mormonism Strive To Be?

  1. Hmmm. I can see how #1 would look attractive to some Evangelicals, whereas others would just skeptically view it as a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing attempt. I definitely cannot see how it would impact or bring about #3 at all.

    re #2: I suppose this really means “more directly and explicitly worshiping Jesus directly.” For example, praying to him. Again, I can’t see how that brings about #3 at all. Greater emphasis on the Gospels also wouldn’t affect any #3-derived beliefs—especially since some of those beliefs are strengthened by passages in the Gospels. Lastly, a modern Bible translation would be spectacular and wonderful and long overdue and great and oh so welcomed and…! Now, depending on the translation, I can see how it would start to raise questions re #3.

    (Note: maybe my concerns are addressed in the audio, but it’s simple impractical for me to listen to it.)

  2. Oh, one more thought: the question itself disturbs me. The LDS Church has a pretty slick marketing campaign (usually). But I don’t like slick. It makes me feel all sickly inside, like a super-sugary breakfast, devoid of protein, washed down with soda pop. I’d rather the Church focus its efforts on being Christian rather than looking Christian. For example, I like the Mormonads that show people being kind to each other, and then simply adding briefly at the end the “a message from” part. “Polished” is proper, but “slick” is sick.

    Yeah, I know: “Let your light so shine” and all that, but I think there’s a limit—a difference between letting your light shine and shining your light in someone’s eyes.

  3. Good idea, but really… gotta do away with secret temple rituals learning secret handshakes and tokens for use in gaining godhood.. maybe the udergarment has gotta go, too..

    What about missionaries teaching false teacherspastors/whore of babylon and only true church/priesthood stuff.?? lots in the way..

    But a real good start..

    I have always said..

    Get to the real act of His dying for our sins on the cross instead of suffereing in garden for our sins ‘conditonal’ on obedience to LDS dogma..

    Just that will get the game over…

  4. I pretty much agree with what BrianJ said in his first post above. (I haven’t listened to the audio either.)

    I also fail to see how #1 and #2 bring about #3. And with regard to the couplet and the KFD, I hear a lot more about them from evangelicals who interact with Mormons than I ever do from Mormons themselves at church.

    And I’d bet my life there were far more references at the last General Conferences to the Gospels than there were to the couplet or the KFD. In fact, I’d almost bet neither one was mentioned at all.

    While I’d welcome the use of modern Bible translations — I have three or four favorites I use for personal study and lesson preparation — I fail to see how how changing translations would change our theology.

    And why would we want to be mainstreamed anyway?

  5. I agree that #2 doesn’t really have anything to do with #3.

    Besides – we’re already doing #2, and have been for over ten years now – except for the modern translations, of course.

    Unless you count the Bibles used outside the USA…

  6. If you listen to the audio, you’re not really doing #2. The suggestion is to make each gospel the primary teaching source once every four years, and then to make the OT, NT, BofM and D&C merely the secondary teaching sources. In addition to make the life and actions of Jesus the theme for sacrament talks rather than any specific teachings.

    Agree or disagree with the recommendation, I don’t think anyone could say that the LDS church is already doing the things he recommends.

  7. Oh, I see.

    Basically, we can be “Christians” if we pretend like we never had additional scripture.

    Got it.

  8. I say that, because emphasizing the Bible at the expense of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, etc. pretty much admits as much.

    You can only do that if you view the Bible in a different class than the other writings – which we do not – and which we absolutely should not do.

    Mormons who want to pull that kind of stuff already have an option – the “Community of Christ” (formerly RLDS).

  9. I think it’s even more of that. It’s an emphasis on the Gospels over even the rest of the New Testament.

  10. Tim: Mormons favoring the Gospels is akin to ROCKHARBOR favoring the Book of Matthew and using the other Gospels as “secondary teaching sources.”

    Eric: “with regard to the couplet and the KFD, I hear a lot more about them from evangelicals who interact with Mormons than I ever do from Mormons themselves at church.”

    I think that’s probably true only directly. Meaning that a good amount of Mormon thought is influenced by approaching other topics with KFD and LS in mind. I remember reading the KFD for the first time and thinking again and again, “Oh, so that’s where such-and-such idea that everyone keeps talking about comes from.”

  11. btw, wouldn’t “an emphasis on the Gospels over even the rest of the New Testament” make Mormons more like Evangelicals specifically, not like mainstream Christianity as a whole? For example, it seems that in my interaction with some Christians, Romans is their big focus, whereas others (Catholics mostly) in my experience treat the whole NT pretty much equally.

  12. Eric said
    And why would we want to be mainstreamed anyway?

    That is certainly the real question before the panel. I merely highlighted the things that they seemed to propose would make Mormonism more mainstream.

    I’m holding off on commenting more about my comments in the OP until more people have an opportunity to listen.

  13. I said:

    With regard to the couplet and the KFD, I hear a lot more about them from evangelicals who interact with Mormons than I ever do from Mormons themselves at church.”

    To which BrianJ responded:

    I think that’s probably true only directly. Meaning that a good amount of Mormon thought is influenced by approaching other topics with KFD and LS in mind.

    Point well-taken.

  14. I’ve had a chance to listen to the audio while doing other things, so I heard it well enough to get some general impressions.

    First of all, I think the title of the presentation was a bit of a misnomer; I felt mostly that the presenters were saying what might do if they were in charge to make the church better from their perspective. I don’t think all had the goal of making the church more “mainstream”; in fact, there was one who thought we should do more with 19th-century doctrines.

    Regarding doing more to make the Gospels the focus of study: As much as I love the Gospels (and the New Testament in general; it’s my favorite of the Standard Works), I think the balance of scripture study in the Gospel Doctrine four-year cycle is about right. What the speaker who brought up that issue (and he was wrong about how many months we study the gospels) seems to forget is that in LDS theology, Jesus is (usually) the God of the Old Testament. Take into account parts of the Book of Mormon and the D&C, and at least half of our Gospel Doctrine lessons focus on the premortal, mortal or postmortal Christ. I don’t think that’s off-balance at all. What I might like to see is some in-depth scripture study classes as an alternative to Gospel Doctrine for those who have already gone through the series multiple times, but many wards aren’t large enough to pull that off successfully, and in many communities there are Institute classes for that purpose anyway.

    And I disagree with the speaker when he says that members of the Church don’t know much about the life of Jesus. My experience in teaching adults in the Church has been the opposite. And while there’s always room for improvement, for those who “go through the system” of seminary and regular church attendance, I’d compare the typical LDS graduating high school senior’s knowledge of Jesus’ life against the knowledge of the typical graduating high school senior who “goes through the system” of almost any evangelical church, and it wouldn’t be the LDS kids who’d be found lacking. Again, we can always do better, but we’re not as ignorant about what Jesus did while here on Earth as the speaker said.

    Where I’d agree with that speaker, though, is his suggestion is that in our Sunday meetings that the sacrament follow a talk (or both talks) focusing on the life and/or direct teachings of Christ. I agree with him that doing so may help us focus more on what he did for us and could give the sacrament more meaning. We sometimes do spend more time focusing on the peripherals of our faith more than we do on the person our Church is named after, and that suggestion of his could help us come to appreciate more what Jesus did for us. I’d like to see the powers that be explore that speaker’s proposal.

    I don’t think that doing so would make us “more mainstream,” however. And while I think there are things we can learn from evangelicals in terms of varieties of worship styles, emphases and even (in some cases) theology, I for one have no desire to do things for the reasons that we want approval of other Christians and/or to become more like them. There are some distinctives of the LDS faith, including the doctrine of familial exaltation, that speak to me in ways that evangelicalism never did, and if we were to start jettisoning some of our unique doctrines we would lose our reason for existence.

  15. I’ll listen to the audio later, so I may be back with more comments.

    #1: I’m not in favor of this. Though I welcome people having born again experiences focusing on Jesus, I don’t think it should become a focal point of worship or doctrine. There are several reasons for this.

    First, the idea that one needs to have an experience confirming one’s relationship to God is a very recent idea restricted to a subset of Protestantism. To make this “minority report” a hallmark of worship or doctrine fails to engage the wider historical Christian experience. Second, many Christians, probably the majority, do not have these types of experiences. Third, LDS culture already focuses, to its detriment in my opinion, on personal experience leading to the gaining of and maintaining of a testimony. This has lead to a limited epistemology and a failure to engage other types of religious experience. My fear is that born again experiences would simply replace the testimony experience content wise, but the effects on the culture and practices of the LDS church would be identical.

    #2: I don’t think this would make an impact. Any newer emphasis on Jesus would be mediated through an LDS hermeneutic. You can emphasize Jesus more, but it would be done through not just the Bible, but through the BofM, the D&C, the modern prophets, etc. Unless of course this means to ditch the LDS scriptures, which isn’t going to happen unless there is a reason beyond “more Jesus,” because in the eyes of most LDS there’s plenty of Jesus in the standard works. And, they are correct, there’s plenty of Jesus, it’s simply seen through the LDS hermeneutic.

    I also don’t think modern translations would help. Numerically, most LDS do use a modern translation, since all non-English speakers use a more modern translation. Well, at least most used to before the LDS Spanish Bible came out, replacing the 1960 Reina Valera (a very nice translation) with the 1909 Reina Valera (still nicer than the KJV, but a step backwards).

    #3: Without a compelling reason to do this, why would the LDS church do this? Most LDS consider this the most compelling aspect of LDS doctrine/theology, whatever that is.

    I think the hope that many evangelicals have is that there is a path whereby the LDS church gradually moves toward mainstream Christianity and makes a soft landing, i.e. doesn’t cause widespread apostasy, disbelief, atheism, agnosticism, etc. The hope is that over time millions of LDS become orthodox Christians without really realizing it. I don’t think this is possible, the CoC (RLDS) and the Worldwide Church of God have already tried this, and the results were dismal.

    I think evangelicals need to ask themselves a hard question: “Do we prefer the LDS church to stay the course and have people with high values and a belief in God (but not of the orthodox variety)? Or is it more important to get a chunk of LDS to be more orthodox, accepting that there is going to be substantial collateral damage?”

  16. A quibble with what D.C. said (although I agree with most of his points): The Spanish Bible now used by the Church is a Church-sponsored update of the 1909 Reina-Valera, not the 1909 Reina-Valera itself. The Church wanted use the 1960 RV but was prevented from doing so because the copyright owner didn’t want an LDS version, so the powers that be adapted the 1909 version, which is in the public domain.

    The Church’s translation/update (which it somewhat pretentiously calls the 2009 Reina-Valera), at least the chapters I’ve examined, is a pretty good update. As far as I’ve been able to tell, although the translation uses traditional interpretations of ambiguous passages (such as using the word for “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 instead of the Spanish for “young woman”), the translators didn’t succumb to the temptation to put an LDS spin on the translation like the Jehovah’s Witnesses did for their “translation” of the Bible.

    I’m not sure the translation is an improvement over the 1960 Reina-Valera, but it’s definitely better than what we native English speakers have to deal with.

    If I had been in charge of the project, I would have dropped the versification rather than cloning the format of the official English-language LDS Bible. But that’s a whole other subject.

  17. Eric,

    I have nothing to quibble with on your quibble, in fact you largely explained my understanding of the Church’s version as well.

    I should have just dropped that sentence. If you define a modern translation as being translated after 1900, then most of the church still does use a modern translation.

  18. I think David’s 9:57 comment pretty much nails it.

    I also found the “emphasize the Four Gospels more” suggestion to be a bit silly.

    The LDS already emphasize the Four Gospels plenty – probably as much as any Evangelical.

    In fact, if there is a fault of the LDS treatment of the New Testament, it’s that the Four Gospels are pretty much the only part of it they read – outside of isolated “scripture mastery” passages. Most Mormons read the Four Gospels, and then wade into Acts, but have pretty much lost interest by the end of Acts. Romans winds up being a pretty-much impenetrable wall.

    Thus all that other content in the New Testament gets neglected. But we’ve got the Four Gospels covered quite nicely.

    I’d say air time for the Four Gospels is probably comparable for the two faith traditions. It’s coverage of the rest of the New Testament and the Old Testament where the differences emerge.

  19. LDS in Brazil used (still use?) the Almeida translation—originally from the 1600’s. There have been a few editions, but I don’t remember it reading as “modern.”

  20. The last two paragraphs of David Clark’s great comment at 9:57am deserve a post—even a book—of their own.

  21. I think Tim, long ago (maybe it was Dando back then), touched on those ideas in a post titled something like, “We Push Them Out into What?” But I couldn’t find it after searching.

  22. Of all things, facebook brought me over here today. Aaron’s quoting David Clark.

    With Joseph Smith in the picture, how can one be evangelical? I can’t see the synthesis. Of course, I am thinking of historical evangelicalism, the paleoevangelicals.

    But in some sectors of today’s climate: the mormangelical Americano is out there. But for me, he is like a guy carrying his KJV in one hand and his NRSV in his other hand.

  23. The reason I said that #1 and #2 would eventually lead to #3 is that I think they would both lead to an experience with the risen Jesus. An experience with Jesus will lead believers to reject false prophets, false doctrines and false gospels.

    I’ve said as much elsewhere. https://ldstalk.wordpress.com/2009/05/06/can-a-christian-follow-a-false-prophet/

    I think David’s right that a “born-again” experience shouldn’t be touted as mandatory or preferable. But I think a true experience with Jesus would radicalize anyone.

    I don’t think that an isolated study of the Gospels is appropriate either. I think the Bible should be read as a whole. As Seth suggested it would have the effect of causing Mormons to ignore their other scriptures. I think reading the Gospels without a persistent influence of the unique Mormon Scriptures would have an impact.

    Grant Palmer, who made the suggestion, proposed that this might cause Mormons to approach their leadership through the eyes of Jesus, rather than approaching Jesus through the eyes of Mormon leadership.

    I think Eric’s suggestion that there is plenty of Jesus in the other Mormon scriptures is poopy-cock. There is plenty of mention of someone named “Jesus” or “Christ” but he only has a passing resemblance to the Jesus of the New Testament. He’s presented as the “same Jesus” but he’s just wearing a lion’s skin. Likewise, I think it’s a mistake to assume that the “God” of the Old Testament is Jesus. This is an extra-biblical Mormon end-around some theological dilemmas. The actual person known as “the Son of God” is not really well known in the Bible until he’s born of virgin.

    I’m convinced having a focus on the real, flesh-and-blood, Jesus as he walked the earth for an intense 4 year study (in the language you speak) would have an impact on anyone.

  24. Interesting follow-up Tim. I think you shifted the goalposts a bit on #1, since in the OP you talked about emphasizing born-again experiences, whereas now you restrict that to “true” born-again experiences; i.e., all the “spiritual experiences” Mormons currently emphasize all the time are subject to rejection.

    I still don’t see how #2 brings about #3. Sure, I can see how raising Mormons in a #2 context but isolated from KFD/LS would make a difference, but what you’re trying to do is get #2 to somehow uproot and erase KFD/LS. As I said before, I don’t see any direct conflict between the Gospels and KFD/LS, so I don’t see how emphasizing one weakens the other. (Aside from the type of conflicts that exist even within the Gospels; i.e., are Jesus and Father two or one beings? etc.)

    “I’m convinced having a focus on the real, flesh-and-blood, Jesus as he walked the earth for an intense 4 year study (in the language you speak) would have an impact on anyone.”

    I’m still not convinced, for reasons similar to why I hesitated on what Eric said earlier: “I hear a lot more about [KFD/LS] from evangelicals who interact with Mormons than I ever do from Mormons themselves at church.” To which I responded: “…a good amount of Mormon thought is influenced by approaching other topics with KFD and LS in mind.”

    That is, a great deal of our worship is influenced by how we view the flesh-and-blood Jesus, even if we’re not actually reading out of Luke at the time. Now I know you can counter with “Yeah, but this would be more,” and there’s no way for either of us to prove our case. My hunch says “we already have Jesus on the mind”; your hunch says “not so much.”

    I’ll reiterate that the only way I really see something from #2 impacting #3 is if a particular KFD-unfriendly modern translation were chosen.

  25. If you listen to the audio, the kind of metaphysical experience with Jesus that McCraney recommends doesn’t seem to be one that he thinks is commonly experienced or sought out by Mormons.

  26. Tim said:

    I’m convinced having a focus on the real, flesh-and-blood, Jesus as he walked the earth for an intense 4 year study (in the language you speak) would have an impact on anyone.

    Oh, I agree. I’d be happy to see everyone on the planet study the Gospels intensively.

    But your premise — that Latter-day Saints view what piddly they know about the Gospels through the filter of Mormonism, but that if they spend more time studying the Gospels they might somehow become evangelical in outlook — rests on the assumption that an evangelical understanding of Jesus is the natural outcome of studying the Gospels.

    I don’t buy it.

    No doubt about it, Mormons read the Gospels and the rest of the Bible through an LDS filter — but evangelicals read the Gospels and the Bible through a filter too. They (or, to be fair, many of them) just think that they’re the only genuine Christians and the only people who really believe the Bible, so they don’t know that a filter is there.

  27. It’s slightly bothered me at times to hear or read people say that a “born-again experience” is necessary for salvation. I believe that being born again is necessary for salvation – not quite the same thing. Jesus said “unless one is born again [or ‘born from above’] he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). He didn’t say “unless one has a born-again experience” (i.e. a conscious, dateable conversion experience).

    Likewise, I believe that every individual, in order to receive eternal life, needs to be converted, i.e. to repent of their sins and to trust wholly in Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. However, there are many people who are truly converted but can’t put their finger on a conscious dateable moment when this occurred. Conversely (though I realise this will throw up awkward questions I might not be able to answer satisfactorily), I think it’s possible to have an emotional religious experience which might be taken for a “born again experience” without this resulting in authentic Christian faith.

    An analogy I’ve found helpful here is that you know you’ve been born physically even though you don’t remember it because you are physically alive, and you can know you’ve been born again spiritually if you are spiritually alive.

    “Born again” is a phrase which has lost its meaning through overuse and misuse, particularly in the US. In practice “born-again Christian” seems to be used interchangeably with “evangelical”, whereas I would see “Evangelical” as referring to a specific, visible tradition within the broader visible Christian Church, and “born again” as referring to the spiritual reality of having received new spiritual life through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, I cringe when I see statistics of how many people in a given population are “born again Christians”, since in its true sense this is something which no pollster could ever discover. I believe that there are plenty of Christians who are not affiliated with the evangelical tradition but who are born again in the biblical sense, even if some of them would be uncomfortable with the phrase “born again” and so would not use it of themselves.

    It seems to me that the right spiritual diagnostic is not “Can I remember having a conversion experience at a specific moment in the past?” but “Am I, in this present moment, trusting in Jesus Christ (and not in anything in myself or in my own moral or religious performance) to rescue me from sin and to give me access to God the Father?”

  28. When I read the gospels I don’t see much of anything that Mormons and evangelicals get stuck in the minutiae over. Instead, I see something grander and more transcendent and ultimately much, much simpler than the complicated theologies we’ve worked out for ourselves: a God who calls us to be humble and open, who says we’re blessed when we mourn and strong when we’re meek, who tells us not to judge others, and who insists that the state of our hearts is infinitely more important than our outward actions or the content of our beliefs.

    So I’m all for studying the gospels. Then maybe we can put some of these debates behind us and get our hands dirty in the work of spreading the kingdom of God. 😉

  29. By the way, I agree with David P. that an emphasis on “born again experiences” is probably less useful.

    Ultimately, being “born again” is merely the entrance to a life modeled after the way of the Master — a first step, not the whole point. It’s the new life you’re born into that really matters, and I think God will take it however it happens, regardless of how mundane or spectacular it might seem to an outsider.

  30. Pingback: Yes, There Was A “Debate,” Lots of Punditry, and No We Still Do Not Really KNow What’s Going To Happen Here | Article VI Blog | John Schroeder

  31. I listened to the podcast and I think Tim did a good job of summarizing the options presented there for moving towards Christianity.

    I found the second speaker, I think that was Rex Sears, to be the most interesting. Probably because his position is closest to my position on the LDS church. His position is that the LDS church has three options to take.

    One, is to emphasize the 19th century doctrines which made Mormonism unique from Christianity. By doing this the LDS church explicitly chooses to not move towards orthodox Christianity, but he considers this an honest option for the church to take. I am in agreement with him there.

    Option two is to explicitly move towards orthodox Christianity by denying the unique Mormon doctrines and embracing orthodox Christianity. But he says that the way to honestly do this is to simply close up shop and have everyone move on to orthodox Christian churches. I think his idea, and one that I agree with, is that it simply makes no sense to continue the LDS church if it is going to deny everything that once made it unique. My impression is that he considers this an honest option as well. He emphatically doesn’t want the church to take this option, while I would welcome it.

    Option three is to continue on the same path the church is now on of deemphasizing unique doctrines while maintaining exclusivity claims. He doesn’t like this option (and neither do I), because it results in a version of legalism, a particularly unpalatable version of sacerdotal legalism. In essence the church makes claims about its priesthood powers, but offers nothing in the way of doctrines that enlighten or excite people. His position is that sacerdotal claims should be derived from doctrine, rather than doctrines being exclusively about sacerdotal claims.

    By the way, this is one of the roots of my complaints about types of Mormonism which seek to reduce and/or eliminate doctrinal claims that the church makes. The problem is that these types of Mormonism usually still make exclusivity claims. The problem is that the more you reduce doctrinal claims, the more you make exclusivity claims nothing more than a naked power claim. Ironically, in many ways attempts to liberalize Mormonism in the end have the exact opposite effect, provided they still maintain exclusivity claims. And in some cases, even when people don’t claim exclusivity for sacerdotal rights, they still live as if the church exercises them, thus rendering their position self-contradictory.

    Finally, this podcast is pretty old. At the time of the recording Shawn Mcraney was still claiming to be a born-again Mormon and Grant Palmer was attending LDS church and considered himself a Mormon. Neither of those is the case any longer. I think they are both examples of the fact that once you decide to emphasize Christianity at the expense of the LDS exclusivity claims, you are on your way out. I also think that they impact they made on the institutional church was nil, a lesson to would be reformers. While people can dismiss Mcraney, I think it’s hard to dismiss Grant Palmer (though I’m not so naive to think that he won’t be dismissed with extreme prejudice by most active LDS). His ideas were measured and not that radical. He spoke calmly and had a good command of how to speak like an LDS person to LDS people. He was never in favor of spilling the beans on the disturbing aspects of LDS history and doctrine to the general church public. Indeed, he explicitly says that his Insider’s Guide was only meant for members with a lot of experience in the LDS church. If someone as soft spoken, patient, and non-radical as he is can’t really make any headway towards more orthodox Christianity in the LDS church, I have to wonder if such a thing is possible. I don’t think it is.

  32. Katie L. said, “When I read the gospels I don’t see much of anything that Mormons and evangelicals get stuck in the minutiae over. Instead, I see something grander and more transcendent and ultimately much, much simpler than the complicated theologies we’ve worked out for ourselves: a God who calls us to be humble and open, who says we’re blessed when we mourn and strong when we’re meek, who tells us not to judge others. . . .”

    That’s wonderful. I would add that if our hearts are yielded to God, our outward actions will begin to fall in line with his love.

    We can get so entangled in theological minutiae that we can’t hear the voice of God. “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).

  33. David Clark, thanks for those additional thoughts.

    David P, I didn’t hear anyone saying that a “born-again experience” is required for salvation (though I share your concern).

  34. Option three is to continue on the same path the church is now on of deemphasizing unique doctrines while maintaining exclusivity claims. … In essence the church makes claims about its priesthood powers, but offers nothing in the way of doctrines that enlighten or excite people.

    The “doctrines” I see “deemphasized” are those that were never canonized in the first place. Perhaps there’s a reason they weren’t.

    Aside from an exclusive priesthood (and associated ideas such as there being a Restoration), the “unorthodox” doctrine I see emphasized in LDS Christianity is that of familial exaltation. It’s taught at General Conference, it’s taught in current church publications, it’s spoken from the pulpit, it is directly responsible for the building of temples around the world, and it’s discussed in classes. And that is a doctrine that excites people. I’ve known people who have joined the church almost solely because of that doctrine, and it’s a doctrine that holds immense appeal to members of the Church.

    If Church leaders chose to do so, they could explicitly reject numerous 19th-century teachings (the ones that the critics like to bring up), and the ripple it would make in the Church would be tiny. But move away from the doctrine of familial exaltation, and the Church would lose its reason for existence in the minds of many if not most members.

    Even if I were to look at this as an outsider, as a sociologist might, I can’t imagine any sequence of events that would cause abandonment of this doctrine (although I could imagine events that might cause the Church to become more rigid or more tolerant in many areas, even in semi-defining matters such as the Word of Wisdom or homosexuality). It just ain’t going to happen. And that doctrine alone is enough to keep the Church from being considered “Christian” in the eyes of those who claim exclusive use of that term for those with an evangelical theology.

  35. Aside from an exclusive priesthood (and associated ideas such as there being a Restoration), the “unorthodox” doctrine I see emphasized in LDS Christianity is that of familial exaltation. It’s taught at General Conference, it’s taught in current church publications, it’s spoken from the pulpit, it is directly responsible for the building of temples around the world, and it’s discussed in classes. And that is a doctrine that excites people. I’ve known people who have joined the church almost solely because of that doctrine, and it’s a doctrine that holds immense appeal to members of the Church.

    If Church leaders chose to do so, they could explicitly reject numerous 19th-century teachings (the ones that the critics like to bring up), and the ripple it would make in the Church would be tiny. But move away from the doctrine of familial exaltation, and the Church would lose its reason for existence in the minds of many if not most members.

    I absolutely think this is true.

  36. Even if I were to look at this as an outsider, as a sociologist might, I can’t imagine any sequence of events that would cause abandonment of this doctrine

    You do realize that the same things were said about polygamy, by insiders no less, in the 19th century?

    But even more importantly, like Kullervo, I see the doctrine of eternal families, as it is currently taught in the church, to make no sense. And I think this goes to the heart of the matter here. In the 19th century the doctrine actually did make sense. But, the 19th century version of the doctrine is now completely unpalatable to 21st century Mormons.

    And this is Sears’ point. 19th century doctrines are deemphasized to make them more palatable to 21st century Mormons and/or to make them more palatable to orthodox Christians. Eternal families is a prime example. Eternal Families is powerful emotionally, but it basically means next to nothing in the 21st century church, except some nebulous sense of familial togetherness. The only really solid thing taught about it is that Mormons have to get married in the temple for exaltation, which is an authority claim. No priesthood marriage in the temple = No exaltation in the hereafter. What it means, how it works, doctrinal basis for the act itself, what it says about the nature of God, what it means for eternal progression, have all been stripped away or deemphasized. In the 19th century this was all a fabric of connected teachings, now it’s just a few strands and a power claim.

  37. You do realize that the same things were said about polygamy, by insiders no less, in the 19th century?

    But even more importantly, like Kullervo, I see the doctrine of eternal families, as it is currently taught in the church, to make no sense. And I think this goes to the heart of the matter here. In the 19th century the doctrine actually did make sense. But, the 19th century version of the doctrine is now completely unpalatable to 21st century Mormons.

    And this is Sears’ point. 19th century doctrines are deemphasized to make them more palatable to 21st century Mormons and/or to make them more palatable to orthodox Christians. Eternal families is a prime example. Eternal Families is powerful emotionally, but it basically means next to nothing in the 21st century church, except some nebulous sense of familial togetherness. The only really solid thing taught about it is that Mormons have to get married in the temple for exaltation, which is an authority claim. No priesthood marriage in the temple = No exaltation in the hereafter. What it means, how it works, doctrinal basis for the act itself, what it says about the nature of God, what it means for eternal progression, have all been stripped away or deemphasized. In the 19th century this was all a fabric of connected teachings, now it’s just a few strands and a power claim.

    I agree with all of this as well.

  38. But even more importantly, like Kullervo, I see the doctrine of eternal families, as it is currently taught in the church, to make no sense.

    Sense according to whom?

    Here’s what I think you’re missing, David. There is a massive cultural shift taking place in the world, from modernism to post-modernism. In the post-modern paradigm, whether or not the I’s are dotted and the T’s crossed isn’t a very important question. Neither are exclusive authority claims. Neither are systematic, formal theologies.

    Mormonism runs about three generations behind — which is not without some wisdom — and post-modernism is still emerging as the dominant worldview in the culture at large. So it will take time for these changes to be integrated into our theology and church culture. But they will be. Just as Mormonism adapted from a 19th century charismatic, frontier faith to a 20th century streamlined, centralized faith. It will not destroy the essence of Mormonism, because the essence of Mormonism isn’t about authority claims, it’s a spiritual approach to the world that says that God is accessible and speaks to His children, that as His children we are special and loved, that we can be bound to one another in the great family of God for eternity. These are beautiful, beautiful truths that I embrace and that I believe are wholly compatible with Christ’s teachings.

    Mormonism is still young, and has been on the outskirts of society for so long that we are still obsessed with apologizing for our existence. But that won’t last forever. One day, we’ll become comfortable with who we are as a people, and this complex, rich, beautiful, vibrant faith tradition will continue — with its tugs and pulls and pendulum swings and problems — as it completes the work God has for it in this world, imperfections and all.

  39. I agree with you Eric that this is the most cherished doctrine. But I don’t think it’s completely off the table for being tossed.

    If the church is faced with legalized polygamy they may have to revoke D&C 132 (if they don’t want to practice it). Doing so would revoke eternal families. They’d need a new prophecy specifically outlining how “families can be together”.

    Also, as it’s currently taught in it’s weakest form (removing the King Follet Discourse and the Snow Couplet from its context) it’s really not all that offensive to orthodox sensibilities. If you want to say you’ll be with your family in Heaven, I see that as pretty benign at best and missing-the-point at worst for the rest of Christianity.

  40. “Eternal Families is powerful emotionally, but it basically means next to nothing in the 21st century church, except some nebulous sense of familial togetherness.”

    Likewise, salvation is powerful emotionally, but it basically means next to nothing except some nebulous sense of eternal happiness. Ditto for “heaven.” Or any of the other “eternal reward” words found in Christianity.

    But we’ve had this argument before about how I don’t think you understand the concept of eternal families the same way I do. You didn’t like what I said then, and you’re not going to now.

  41. Likewise, salvation is powerful emotionally, but it basically means next to nothing except some nebulous sense of eternal happiness. Ditto for “heaven.” Or any of the other “eternal reward” words found in Christianity.

    This.

  42. But even more importantly, like Kullervo, I see the doctrine of eternal families, as it is currently taught in the church, to make no sense.

    I said “incoherent” not “makes no sense.”

  43. Likewise, salvation is powerful emotionally, but it basically means next to nothing except some nebulous sense of eternal happiness. Ditto for “heaven.” Or any of the other “eternal reward” words found in Christianity.

    The salient point is not whether the concepts are nebulous, but if the people teaching the concepts are using it to make a power claim.

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume the concepts are both equally nebulous. What power and authority argument can I as a protestant Christian make about salvation? None. That salvation comes by grace and faith. There is nothing that I, my church, my pastor, etc. can do to make a power claim for ourselves to mediate you receiving your nebulous reward. It’s a free gift to the believer. Even claiming you have to believe isn’t a power claim, because there is nothing that I, my church, my pastor, etc. can do to mediate your belief in Christ.

    Don’t get me wrong, plenty of corrupt people have perverted that message precisely to make a power claim, and I abhor what they have done.

    Now take the nebulous claim of LDS families. That claim is wholly mediated by the LDS church. If you want it you have to join the LDS church, pay 10% tithing to the church, submit yourself the the authority of the church, be interviewed by the representatives of the church, go to an LDS temple, and be sealed by the LDS priesthood. That’s a power claim, and it’s mediated exclusively by the LDS church.

    And that was Sears’ point as I take it. If you are going to make power claims, you better give something expansive and meaningful to back them up. Otherwise, it becomes a naked power claim.

  44. Kullervo,

    If it makes you feel better, you can mentally substitute “incoherent” for “makes no sense” with no loss of meaning or explanatory power. In my mind they are largely synonymous.

  45. I was about to respond to D.C.s’ comment of 11:09 a.m., but then Katie came along at 11:42 a.m. and said much of what I was about to say, but in a better way. So I’ll leave that as my response (at least for now).

    Tim said:

    If you want to say you’ll be with your family in Heaven, I see that as pretty benign at best and missing-the-point at worst for the rest of Christianity.

    Then you’re missing the point of what eternal families are all about.

  46. Likewise, salvation is powerful emotionally, but it basically means next to nothing except some nebulous sense of eternal happiness. Ditto for “heaven.” Or any of the other “eternal reward” words found in Christianity.

    I disagree. If an arbitrary all-powerful God is going to send us into the flaming torture den of Satan after we die unless we obtain salvation via the prescribed method, then it means a lot. If you are saved, you go to Heaven and avoid the torture den. If not, you spend eternity in the Devil’s dungeon.

    This may be a ludicrous doctrine and it may offend our sense of justice, but it’s not incoherent.

    By contrast, one of the Church’s biggest marketing bullet points is “eternal families,” which is explained as “being together forever with your family.” That is an emotionally powerful but rationally incoherent doctrine.

    The usual response is to explain that “eternal families” actually means something different than merely “being together forever,” but that’s a bait-and-switch. The apologist explanation doesn;t have near the emotional appeal that “together forever” does.

  47. If it makes you feel better, you can mentally substitute “incoherent” for “makes no sense” with no loss of meaning or explanatory power. In my mind they are largely synonymous.

    You may be using them interchangeably but I am not. I think, specifically that the idea of “being together forever” as an eternal reward/carrot for obedience falls apart under scrutiny because it is not meaningfully distinguishable from the alternative, at least not sufficiently so to warrant the amount of emotional attachment that it generates.

    To me, the idea of an arbitrary God who throws me into Satan’s torture den ebcause I have disobeyed him offends my sensibilities. It makes no sense. But I admit, if I accept its premises, it is not incoherent.

    The problem with Together Forever is that it still does not cohere even if you accept all of its premises.

  48. Christianity makes the power claim that “Jesus” is the gateway to this supposed happiness. I see your distinction, but I think it’s significance shrinks to meaningless when viewed by a non-believer. Both denominations are trying to entice me with carrots that can’t be seen or even described.

    And we both have just as little proof for our power claims as we do for the existence of our carrots.

  49. Kullervo,

    I call bullsh!t, you did say it makes no sense. This is the first line of your blog post: “The Mormon doctrine of eternal families is incoherent. It makes no sense at all, once you get past how good it sounds on the surface.”

    I no longer give you permission to mentally substitute words in my post. 😉

  50. If you are going to make power claims, you better give something expansive and meaningful to back them up. Otherwise, it becomes a naked power claim.

    This I agree with one million percent.

    This is why it matters whether the Church’s claims are literally true way the heck more than it matters whether, say, Aphrodite literally rose from the sea-foam left when Kronos castrated his father, Ouranos.

  51. Christianity makes the power claim that “Jesus” is the gateway to this supposed happiness. I see your distinction, but I think it’s significance shrinks to meaningless when viewed by a non-believer. Both denominations are trying to entice me with carrots that can’t be seen or even described.

    BrianJ,

    Since you are a believer, I take it that the significance is meaningful. Since I have established a meaningful significance, my work is complete.

  52. Eric said
    Then you’re missing the point of what eternal families are all about.

    In my estimation, those who are in the LDS church simply because they are emotionally charged by “eternal families” are missing the point as well. And as David Clark already stated, outside of a 19th Century context “the point” of eternal families has already been stripped away.

    By quietly dismissing some of its “uncorrelated doctrines” the church has set “eternal families” down the path of reduction to warm-fuzzies.

  53. Christianity makes the power claim that “Jesus” is the gateway to this supposed happiness. I see your distinction, but I think it’s significance shrinks to meaningless when viewed by a non-believer. Both denominations are trying to entice me with carrots that can’t be seen or even described.

    But “Christianity” is not an organization that can exercise power over you or to which you can subject yourself. Christianity is an idea, and a demonstrably malelable one at that.

  54. Kullervo,

    I call bullsh!t, you did say it makes no sense. This is the first line of your blog post: “The Mormon doctrine of eternal families is incoherent. It makes no sense at all, once you get past how good it sounds on the surface.”

    I no longer give you permission to mentally substitute words in my post.

    ZING! You got me.

    But what I say in this blog comment trumps what I said in an old blog post.

    Plus, you just used a swear that I would gladly have paid a premium to be able to use myself and not get banned.

  55. “Since you are a believer, I take it that the significance is meaningful. Since I have established a meaningful significance, my work is complete.”

    Clever. I’ve got to congratulate you. You definitely outmaneuvered me with that one. Yet, still I don’t feel that you’ve considered my point nor swayed my position. I wonder how many were swayed.

  56. kullervo: ” “Christianity” is not an organization”

    That’s the distinction I saw, and that I think is insignificant on this point—although I recognize that you, I and DC are likely arguing on different points. (Also, for clarity: the comment you quoted was directed to DC but you commented in between—just so you know who the “your” was in what I wrote.)

  57. But if nobody can exercise power over you based on a power claim, then it isn’t a power claim. That’s the point.

  58. Clever. I’ve got to congratulate you. You definitely outmaneuvered me with that one. Yet, still I don’t feel that you’ve considered my point nor swayed my position. I wonder how many were swayed.

    In all honesty, I’ve tried pretty hard to stick to Sears’ point about power claims. You have conceded my main point but seem upset that I haven’t engaged side claims. I’m not interested in those side claims (which is why I conceded for the sake of argument about the nebulous nature of the afterlife. I don’t believe you are correct, but it’s not the point I am trying to make).

  59. Tim: Maybe we’re talking about different 19-century doctrines that supposedly have been jettisoned. I don’t see anything in our current teaching materials or what has been said in General Conference lately to indicate that exaltation means anything other than becoming godlike.

  60. DC: I didn’t have a problem with Sears’ three options as you presented them on May 9, 2011 at 8:58 am. Including where he warns against a Church that de-emphasizes doctrine and only preaches authority.

    Where I started to disagree is when you said, “Eternal Families is powerful emotionally but meaningless….” If that was also Sears’ point, then I suppose I disagree with him too. My point is, you present three options for the Church (which I agree with), then you go on to argue that the Church is following Option #3 (which I worry about, but don’t think it’s as “guilty” of it as you seem to), and from there you use the doctrine of eternal families as an example of a teaching that is now completely meaningless in Mormonism outside of being only an authority claim (and this is where I disagreed).

    Your support for the meaninglessness of “eternal families” is that it’s a nebulous idea—and I agree. I just see no difference between that and all the other nebulousness in Christianity.

    Well, no difference other than that “eternal families” is connected to an authority/power claim in a way that doctrines for other Christians are not connected to authority. That is the point I “conceded”; the small difference that I recognized between Mormonism (specifically “eternal families”) and other Christianity. My reason for viewing that as an insignificant difference is that Christianity is filled with claims without proof; in this case, Mormonism makes two claims, neither of which can be “seen and verified”: 1) eternal families, 2) temple exclusivity.

    Now, you argue that this is just merely a “naked power claim,” but I don’t see it. If we were saying, “You have to be sealed but doing so doesn’t offer you anything different than not doing so,” then that would be a naked power claim. But that’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying something more like, “You have to be a sealed if you want to enjoy this thing that we can’t prove exists but we believe that you’ll want.” Our power claim offers something, even if you think that something is nebulous.

    And on that point, I understand that you think that doctrine is becoming increasingly nebulous. I disagree. But that was the other thread’s conversation.

  61. I think that Tim and DC are both claiming that the 19th century doctrine of Eternal Families is only meaningful in a context of polygamy. I don’t think that’s true, and I think that the continued emphasis on the eternal nature of families over the past hundred years or so since polygamy was stopped within the church would indicate that polygamy is just a part of the doctrine, not the heart of it.

    Also, as has been pointed out by many people, members of the church still practice polygamy, as a man can be sealed to more than one woman, just not while both are living. In fact, the importance of OD-1 is that while the LDS church will no longer solemnise plural marriages of the sort practiced in the 19th century, section 132 was never revoked, and therefore the principles are still true, even if the practice is not.

    I don’t believe the church will ever jettison section 132, nor will they ever “apologise” for the practice for the simple fact that the church claims divine appointment and that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff, as divinely appointed prophets, were told to allow and encourage the practice but then Wilford Woodruff revealed that God had said to stop doing it.

    Even if polygamy were legalised in the United States, the church would not need to do anything in response, because OD-1 does not say that the practice was stopped because it was illegal but because God said so:

    … I saw exactly what would come to pass if there was not something done. I have had this spirit upon me for a long time. But I want to say this: I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do; and when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write. …

    Besides, the church is active in countries where polygamy is allowed, such as Kenya, and yet polygamy is not practiced there (at least, not to my knowledge). So I don’t see how the claim that the legalisation of polygamy would result in a nullification of either OD-1 or a need to revoke and/or re-word section 132.

  62. Plus, you just used a swear that I would gladly have paid a premium to be able to use myself and not get banned.

    For the record, I’m not about to let Kullervo pay good money for the right to swear. lol

  63. I think that Tim and DC are both claiming that the 19th century doctrine of Eternal Families is only meaningful in a context of polygamy.

    Polygamy is part of the historical lineage of eternal marriage, and it’s undeniable that D&C 132 was mainly a document about polygamy, with a concept of eternal marriage coming along for the ride.

    It’s also undeniable that eternal marriage was a secondary concept for Joseph as he didn’t bother to seal himself to Emma until long after he had acquired many other wives.

    As a historical matter, eternal marriage is mainly an afterthought to the whole idea of polygamy. But there’s a lot more than that which made the 19th century concept more coherent. Eternal marriage used to be an eternal breeding license where people would literally have literal spiritual children with their literal plumbing (if you catch my drift, however that would work). This is what Elohim and his Heavenly Wi(fv)(es) are literally doing right now. You had to be sealed to so as to become exactly like God is right now. And you knew that you could obtain this because God was once exactly like we are now. In many cases sealing was seen as literally salvific as entering into certain sealing alliances brought one exaltation for having done so. In short it was an awesome power which God had given his saints.

    Yes, yes, I know, that never was official doctrine and I am a moral reprobate for ever insinuating that it was important to people. But, that’s exactly the point, it was important to LDS back then, they taught it, cherished it, and believed it. Now, eternal marriage just doesn’t make much sense because none of these concepts are brought to bear on the issue.

    I don’t think that’s true, and I think that the continued emphasis on the eternal nature of families over the past hundred years or so since polygamy was stopped within the church would indicate that polygamy is just a part of the doctrine, not the heart of it.

    Just to reiterate, no one has said that the church hasn’t emphasized this. I think we can all agree that this has been a consistent teaching of the LDS church for many decades now. But just because it has continually emphasized it and it has an emotional appeal doesn’t mean it makes sense.

  64. This post makes absolutely no sense. Point 1 I do not understand but it does not sound like a big deal. Point 2 seems like mere nuance. The notion that points 1 and 2 would lead to point 3 is completely unsound. Why would that occur? Jesus Christ is in no way contrary to eternal progression. Also, as to point 3, the KFD came from Joseph Smith as did the Book of Mormon. Does the author of this post contemplate that points 1 and 2 are contrary to the Book of Mormon? if so, better read 3 Nephi.

  65. Point 1 I do not understand but it does not sound like a big deal.

    Personal experiences of Jesus Christ himself are not generally a major part of the Mormon religion. Personal experiences of the presence of the Holy Ghost are the Church’s bread-and-butter. But experiences of Jesus himself? Relegated to hush-hush hints about second comforters and calling and elections made sure and that’s about it. Personal experience of Jesus himself are saved for only the most ultra-sacred (and consequently rare) moments in a Mormon’s life.

    The idea here, as I understand it, is to encourage more direct experience with Jesus himself.

    Point 2 seems like mere nuance.

    The primary focus of worship is “a mere nuance?”

    The notion that points 1 and 2 would lead to point 3 is completely unsound. Why would that occur?

    The idea is, KFD is false doctrine, and more personal experience of Jesus will lead away from false doctrine. Keep in mind, this is strictly from an evangelical standpoint. If you don’t accept that KFD is false as a premise and that increased personal experience of Jesus leads toward truth and away from error as a second premise, then you will of course disagree with the conclusion.

    But the reason you disagree is not that the reasoning is unsound, but that you disagree with the premises.

    Also, as to point 3, the KFD came from Joseph Smith as did the Book of Mormon.

    …so?

  66. I’d like to retract a point I made earlier. I think that using a modern translation in English might be helpful, at least in the short term. Thinking back to my journey, reading the Bible in a fresh and modern translation was like reading it for the first time and it had a profound impact on me. My point that most of the rest of the church uses a modern translation still holds, but I think there are reasons why it doesn’t have much of an impact in those countries.

    However, I don’t know if it would move the church as a whole towards orthodoxy. It might just move isolated individuals out of the church. Also, over the long term the new translation would become a naturalized citizen in the LDS thought world, which would lessen its impact over time on the members.

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