C.S. Lewis, in accord with other heavy hitters of Christian apologetics, contend that the most incontrovertible tenant of Christianity is original sin. (However, my favorite exposition of this doctrine is, of course, found here.) Indeed, most all people have an internal moral compass, a conscience, that tells them that they fall short of perfection. Those people incapable of feeling guilt are considered the most dangerous and potentially monstrous of all humans. While I am not convinced that universal sin is “proven” by the facts, it is clear that most of the people we call good or conscientious would agree that falling short of internal and external aspirations is a common part of life. Falling short is part of life not simply because we are defective, it seems to be an ingrained part of being a human to recognize that we do not live up to what our consciences aspire to. Even those that are often completely blind to their own faults can usually point out the faults of others. This brings guilt, perhaps one of the most important defenses against barbarism, yet it also one of those things that invariably saps happiness and joy from life.
What Christianity brings to the table is forgiveness. Evangelists tells us: “In Christ you will be saved and forgiven, white as snow.” Where Evangelicalism and Mormonism diverge is how they dish up the meaty meal of forgiveness to the believer. (To be specific: I am talking about how the forgiveness of is felt and experienced, not about whether or not either approach is justified by scripture, revelation or theology.)
Mormons “eat meat sparingly”, perhaps for fear that not worrying about fault will sap our desire to improve. For a Mormon, the forgiveness of God is a tool God uses to perfect us, not the whole message. Mormons grow by striving, knowing that the prize is to be had, but a premium is placed on “enduring to the end” and not sitting back and resting. For the believer, life is about “preparing to meet god” its about being found worthy to be in his presence. True knowledge, revelation and understanding of what glories God has prepared for us come only by human effort, by doing our part. This is what was made clear to me by the ultimate passages of what was perhaps Joseph Smiths most bold and astounding revelation: D&C 76. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, together saw and conversed with a glorified Jesus who explained to them some of the mysterious of the kingdoms of God that wait for humanity. The recorded revelation begins by explaining the conditions upon which God grants mercy:
“(5) For thus saith the Lord—I, the Lord, am merciful and gracious unto those who fear me, and delight to honor those who serve me in righteousness and in truth unto the end.”
In the end of the section the prophet explains the conditions of even understanding the mysteries he attested to in the body of the passage:
(114) But great and marvelous are the works of the Lord, and the mysteries of his kingdom which he showed unto us, which surpass all understanding in glory, and in might, and in dominion;
(115) Which he commanded us we should not write while we were yet in the Spirit, and are not lawful for man to utter;
(116) Neither is man capable to make them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him;
(117)To whom he grants this privilege of seeing and knowing for themselves;
(118) That through the power and manifestation of the Spirit, while in the flesh, they may be able to bear his presence in the world of glory.
I think this passage highlights up all kinds of complex differences between Evangelicals and Mormons. But what I want to focus on is that the focus here is that in this section where the afterlife is explained, the focus Joseph ends with is is knowledge, understanding and experience, through conscious self-purification. For Joseph, seeing and experiencing light and knowledge from God was the end of religion and the crowning difference of Mormonism. Eternal life is literally to “know” God in this unspeakable way. In this paradigm, forgiveness is pervasive, practically everybody ends up forgiven and enjoys glory, but it is not the focus, and often comes only after the sinners feel the pain of their sins that they knowingly committed. Such is Mormonism in practice, Christianity is the plan of God to save ALL from endless torment brought on by universal sin, and the systematic program for obtaining perfection through using the atonement to purify and become worthy. The feeling of being forgiven is the carrot at the end of a long day of effort. Often the experience of the joy is intentionally kept just out of reach to keep the body spurred along.
Where Mormons dish out the meat of feeling forgiven sparingly, for Evangelicals its whats for dinner. (and breakfast, and lunch, and mid-day snack.) Evangelicals provide an all-you-can-eat buffet of the joy of essentially unconditional forgiveness. For Evangelicals the problem is never feeling too forgiven, its forgetting that you are forgiven and denying the love and mercy of God in the process. I think this also explains a difference in their worship practices. When you feel completely and unconditionally forgiven in this way you want to throw your hands up and make noise.
When I have attended Evangelical worship services, I always found the vibrant expression of joy and praise to be unsettling and often unseemly. This comes directly from my Mormon background (I was an active believing Mormon for the first 33 years of my life.) Mormonism is a daily effort to maintain the spirit, a channel of revelation that keeps you close to God. Its a personal and sober struggle, not without contentment, warmth and happiness, but you don’t get up and jump around about it. I think this is because few Mormons get what is going on with Evangelicals. They just don’t feel forgiven like Evangelicals feel forgiven.
Perhaps one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I have had in the last few years is feeling forgiven in this way. I first felt this feeling powerfully late one night as the events of my life were passing through my head as I tried to sleep. The thought entered my mind that I was forgiven of all of my sins. . . .full stop. I had the realization that there were no conditions to reach for, no process to go through, no principles to practice, no price to pay, no struggle to undertake. It was done. I was no longer on the hook for all the stupid sh*t I had done, the failures, the weaknesses, and the shortcomings. Nor was I ever going to be on the hook for the stupid sh*t I would yet to do. Sure the consequences of screwing up cannot be avoided, but God wouldn’t condemn me for them. . . any more . . . ever. Being unconditionally forgiven, all the time, even as we fall and struggle with sin, is something to get up and sing and shout about. Feeling this, I begin to understand what all the hand raising and foot stomping is about. Its quite an un-Mormon feeling. (I say un-Mormon conditionally, this IS the sort of love and forgiveness I feel from my devout Mormon parents. I think they are exceptional in all kinds of ways but their virtues certainly are hand-in-hand with their Mormonism.)
Mormons view this sort of euphoria with the same suspicion that they view intoxication. They don’t doubt that feeling lit up, tipsy or high may feel great, but this is certainly not something you build a respectable life around. Unhindered joy is a distraction from the business at hand, and may divert you from the path that leads to purification and perfection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such an attitude is bizarre to an Evangelical. The whole point of being forgiven by God is to embrace it and praise Him for it. Those feasting on filet mignon pity those who shun such a meal for oatmeal, however wholesome that may be.
I no longer a Mormon by any standard definition of the term nor am I an Evangelical. (Mormons would definitely consider me lost in the “mists of darkness” and Evangelicals would certainly consider my claim to the joy of forgiveness quite dubious given my understanding of God and Christ (or lack thereof). ) However, I think that this peculiar difference in how forgiveness is felt may be an import key to the complex differences in how these religions work in the lives of believers. My observation has raised all kinds of questions and I am interested to know what you all think. There is certainly more to be said. I plan on posting again to point out what I think is the corollary to this big difference in the two faiths.
Am I off base? Do you think there is a fundamental difference in how forgiveness is felt or emphasized in Mormonism or Evangelicalism? Is the Mormon de-emphasis or denial of unconditional forgiveness foolish, dangerous or stultifying? Is the Evangelical focus on feeling forgiven foolish, dangerous or stultifying? Is there a middle ground or is the level of difference essential . . .