The fundamental divide between Mormon theology and traditional Christian theology may stem from their starting point. Moses tells us of how Jacob wrestled with God in the desert in a place he called Peniel – where he saw God face to face. To Mormons, this is the starting point for all theology i.e. the words received face to face with God. Put simply, the state of being before face of God is considered the only place where the simple Truth can be found. If anything is, this concept is the beating heart of Mormonism.
Joseph Smith’s peniel approach to truth is elegantly simple- and extremely powerful in its simplicity. It slashes through theological argument, making irrelevant entire worldviews. The approach depends on two important moves. First, Joseph affirms as a simple fact that seeing something with spiritual eyes is equivalent to seeing something with actual eyes, i.e. a person’s vision of reality is the same in character as that person’s real vision. Seeing an angel “in the spirit” is no less trustworthy than seeing the angel with actual eyes. This point is most simply made in Joseph’s statement that spiritual things were also physical- i.e. as much a part of the world as earth, wind, and fire. This would come naturally to someone who understood the world in a magical way. Joseph taught that empirical experiences of the prophets, combined with his own, could more clearly explain the magic that was in the world.
This idea is – as Mormons might put it – very strong doctrine. It’s salience comes in its simplicity, it does not distinguish between classes of experience that are often indistinguishable to the person experiencing them. Joseph was in good company in making this move. In a sense, this was the key intuition founding Descartes’ philosophy that paved the way for clarity in science.
Put in other words: Joseph’ strongest point is that all trustworthy knowledge about God must be rooted in experience – inductive reasoning could not establish facts from the testimony of scripture. Hence the deep criticism against traditional Christians who taught the “philosophies of men mingled with scripture.” In the terms I’ve been using, Joseph’s idea is that the simple facts received by experience must be prior to the explanation of those facts.
Oliver Cowdery perhaps the most astute intimate witness of Joseph Smith’s visions describes this concept, and how it entails the problem Joseph Smith saw in contemporary religion, in a footnote found in the LDS scriptures. Cowdery explains the problem he and Joseph saw regarding priesthood authority after first hearing the Book-of-Mormon account of Jesus founding of his church in ancient america:
“After writing the account . . it was easy to be seen, as the prophet said it would be, that darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the minds of the people. On reflecting further it was as easy to be seen that amid the great strife and noise concerning religion, none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the Gospel. For the question might be asked, have men authority to administer in the name of Christ, who deny revelations, when His testimony is no less than the spirit of prophecy, and His religion based, built, and sustained by immediate revelations, in all ages of the world when He has had a people on earth? ’
Why was this reality undeniable? For the same reason faithful Mormons pledge all they are and have to the Church – because Joseph Smith’s account led them to a believable experience with the love of God. Cowdery writes:
On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the veil was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the Gospel of repentance.. . . [description of the vision] . . . Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever!
To Cowdery and Joseph, the simple facts were that Joseph had received a vision that would be rejected by the clergy out of hand. This rejection – based on theological argument – could not be trusted for two reasons (1) the undeniable reality of their vision, and (2) the vested interests of the clergy in preventing new visions. What made their vision trustworthy? The experience of feeling the love of God while having it.
In short, this is what makes Mormonism work – the feeling of surety that comes with the phenomena most Christians would call a demonstration of the Holy Spirit. From my own experience, it is pretty clear that the feeling described as the Love of God generally ends argument and doubt in the mind of the person feeling it. Oliver Cowdery described this effect:
[T]his earth [has no] power to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as they were delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit! Man may deceive his fellow-men, deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may have power to seduce the foolish and untaught, till naught but fiction feeds the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave; but one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Savior, from the bosom of eternity, strikes it all into insignificance, and blots it forever from the mind.
The difficulty Mormons have with this approach is that the phenomena of feeling the Love of God does not say anything about the vision a person may be having, except that a person can feel the Love of God (the Spirit) while having that vision. This is identical to the principle that the experience of feeling the warmth of the sun does not make a person’s vision of the world illuminated by the sun anything more than their vision, completely bound by the limitations of the mind of the witness.
What the scriptures must prove, especially if they are true, is that even standing before the face of God – just as Jacob did at Peniel – a human only has the vision of a human. This cannot be a fault, because scripture, if it contains the truth at all, must be put in language that humans respond to. This fact seems to have important and disruptive implications to any theology.
More later. . .