Is Peniel ground zero for theology?

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. . .

22 thoughts on “Is Peniel ground zero for theology?

  1. An interesting question is how to prove the experience is from God. I understand that Cowdery stated its an unmistakable sensation, but how can that sensation be shared and verified? How do we know it is of God?

    I happen to agree with Luke when he wrote the Bereans were noble for verifying everything with scripture.

    An experiential basis for proving a faith seems flawed. Thoughts?

  2. Flawed or not, I would suggest that most people today come to their faith from experience. Joseph’s point was that verifying everything with scripture simply means comparing your vision with the vision of certain trusted others. To him, only God could effectively arbitrate the differences in the visions.

  3. You’re right, I think, to suggest there is quite a number of experiential religious events in today’s world. Reliance upon the idea that “only God could effectively arbitrate the differences in the visions” is dangerous and allows for manipulation of experiences.

  4. Where you say “The difficulty Mormons have with this approach … ” did you mean “evangelical Chrisitans”? If you did indeed mean Mormons, I think I lost the thread of your argument in that paragraph. I look forward to your next post on the subject. This one had some very astute observations.

  5. @slowcowboy

    I agree, experience alone without some sort of guiding philosophy is perhaps one of the least stable basis for a religion.

  6. Rereading I think I understand where you are going there. I think where I got confused is that I thought that evangelicals struggle with this more than LDS do, as far as understanding the promptings of the Holy Spirit and interpreting what they mean for individuals other than the person receiving the prompting (at least, that is the impression I have gotten from evangelical friends when discussing this matter, and from seeing all the different preachers who claim authority — but perhaps I am misunderstanding the evangelical worldview).

    On the other hand, Mormons have the guidance that no one has the power to receive revelation for the whole church but the Prophet. And I have always understood the church’s guidance about personal revelation to mean that individuals should exercise caution and seek their own answers from the Spirit when another person claims to have a vision/message affecting them (for example, if a young man says to a young woman that he has a prompting from the Holy Spirit that they should be sealed, she should not just assume that such is the Holy Spirit’s will for her. Instead, she ought to seek her own promptings.*

  7. Daletiffany,

    I think there are all kinds of views regarding interpretation of spiritual experience within Evangelical Christian churches. I think it is important to keep in mind that what binds them together is not by their various experiences, experience, but by an idea, i.e. the simple fact that salvation is found in faith in Jesus alone.

    I think caution is important when making important decisions based on any experience, spiritual or otherwise.

  8. daletiffany, the evangelical source for authority is God (God being manifest in the Trinity, including God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit) himself as revealed in the Bible. What we receive in terms of experience we verify with what is found in scripture. In other words, if we experience something, we search the Bible to find out if our experience is Biblical. Luke’s description of the Bereans in Acts 17:11 demonstrates this.

  9. For Christians, ground zero for theology ought to be the Cross.

    The Cross obliterates everything that we (as individuals and the human collective) have done, and will yet do…and brings about something radically new. Jesus becomes the world’s biggest sinner, ever…by far. And we become holy and righteous, completely…by trusting in Jesus, alone.

    It ALL happened on the Cross. That is why Jesus said (from the Cross), “It is finished.”

  10. Jesus is certainly our ground zero, and is everything in our faith. However, it is the Jesus revealed in the Bible, not through continuing revelation. Everything we need is right there in the 66 books of the Bible. Everything we may experience must therefore be supported by the Bible before we are to conclude the experience was “of God”.

  11. Ha. That’s a good question. As you probably already know, the Bible is made up of various works by various authors, not all are strictly ‘books’. What they all share is a common description of God, but some are letters, poems, histories, etc.

    The amazing thing is the consistency of each book and its portrait of God. These were written across many years by so many authors, such that their consistency is a remarkable proof of the Bible’s trustworthiness. The history they reveal, the stories that play out, the Savior they speak of, all come together to make a compelling support for the true Messiah, Jesus Christ.

    None of that proves God with any sort of finality, but it is compelling nonetheless.

  12. The amazing thing is the consistency of each book and its portrait of God.

    I agree that the bible does not prove God with any sort of finality, mainly because the glaring differences in the views. Being able to rhetorically harmonize the Bible does not eliminate the differences in the way the fact of God appears to different prophets. If there is any difference, then these differences would seem to matter as much as any perceived consistency. What do the differences in the views of the prophets say about the Bible?

  13. Among other things, it says that God has spoken to different people and groups in different ways. What they say is more important than the mode. I am curious what examples you have to demonstrate the differences and how and why you think they matter.

    “The way the fact of God appears” to the different prophets is a vague concept, and I am not sure I can answer that without knowing what you mean by it. Do you mean to question the fact of God or His appearance? Or is it the “way”?


  14. “The amazing thing is the consistency of each book and its portrait of God.”

    I think if you were to ask any biblical studies scholar at any major university if they agreed with this statement, you would be hard-pressed to find a sing affirmative response.

  15. “In other words, if we experience something, we search the Bible to find out if our experience is Biblical.”

    What if the subject of your experience is the Bible itself? In other words, what experience led you to believe that the Bible is a reliable final arbiter of all religious experience?

  16. JT, I am not worried about Biblical studies scholars, as that very much depends on their point of view… There are those who find something wrong with every aspect of religion.

    As to your next post: faith and logic. Faith in that the Bible is God’s literal breathed words (see 2 Tim 3:16.) Logic in that everything in the Bible is consistent and speaks of God, and logic in that we are to test any spirit against the scriptures. Finally, logic in that when Christ died on the cross, and when he released his spirit upon us at Pentecost, everything of God had been revealed to us.

    There is nothing left to do or know. Understanding it all, of course, is a different matter. We all continue to grow and mature in our faith, but that is different from revelation.

    JT, I also urge you caution as you go down your line of thinking as it leads to a situation of complete relativism wherein no one can confirm or deny anything based on personal experience. If we are to discuss anything at all, there must be some agreeable standard, and since personal experience cannot be shared, experience cannot be any sort of useful standard.

  17. I am curious what examples you have to demonstrate the differences and how and why you think they matter.

    Jacob wrestled with God who was indistinguishable from a man, Moses saw God as a burning bush, Jesus

    If the differences don’t matter, you seem to be on your way to a completely relativist interpretation of the text.

    But I am not really interested in this. I am interested in the bottom line of what the Bible is. The Bible exists, that is simple enough, that the Bible came from human experience, that is also pretty clear. What this literature has to do with me, and why? – that gets more interesting.

    What are the facts that point me to take a particular interpretation of the Bible seriously?

  18. Jared, He’s God, He can do what He wants and He can appear to us how He pleases. God is not limited by our limitations. He is an all powerful God. You seem to want to limit Him and to put Him in a box. And this is perfectly logical and is in no way relativistic. His form does not define his essence or his message.

    The bottom line as I see it is that the Bible is the record of God’s revelation to us as humans. It records the history of how He relates to us and His promises to us.

    You ask additional questions that require much more discussion. What the literature has to do with you and what facts point you to a particular interpretation I can only answer in general terms at this juncture. I am willing to bet that part of your questioning has to do with a certain amount of self awareness that questions the utility of Christian wisdom against your own. In other words, you wonder what Christianity can add to your understanding of the world, and since there are so many variables of Christianity and interpretations of the Bible, how can you trust anything anyone else has to say about it.

    I don’t know you, Jared. My first post here was yesterday, and I won’t pretend to answer that question with any accuracy at this point. I will say that God is good, and we as individuals have a tendency to get in His way through our own stubbornness and pride.

  19. Thanks for hanging around! I am trying to come to terms with facts Christians acknowledge.

    After sliding from faith into a very dark period of unbelief, I now believe God is the fact. This has opened my mind to quite a few things that I didn’t see before in quite the same way – maybe most things. My questions are actually quite sincere, I have let go of the answers I had before. You are right to this extent, My stubbornness and pride are facts that I do have to deal with.

  20. Your post, Jared, reminded me of a series called the Truth Project. It posits that God equals truth. Truth is everything that equals reality, and God is the ultimate reality. I don’t know if it would answer your questions directly, but it is a fascinating video series.

    As to the stubbornness and pride, they get in my way, too. All too often in fact.

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