Zion and the Light of Christ

Along with the fact of salvation, there is another fact that is wound up in Christianity.  James pointed to this fact: i.e. faith without works is dead. Once a person accepts that salvation is possible, the question remains, what should I do?  The Mormon answer is actually very compelling for most people given the facts in front of them.

Joseph Smith grew up. like many Christians today, with the understanding that the Bible was the word of God. He had no sophisticated understanding of how to prioritize scriptural passages – nor did he care for sophisticated understandings – he saw the original text all as equally true. It all came from God didn’t it?  The bible talks a lot about Israel, Zion, the end of the world, the Second Coming, the Kingdom of God and a whole lot of other things that would happen on earth. To him, and to many reasonable people, if the Bible is reliable, it seems like the “true” Church should be wrapped up in that stuff in a big way.

Nearly every country preacher in Joseph Smith’s time was using reason and the Bible to try to figure out how the Bible should apply to life and society in light of the dire prophecies in the text.  They were incorporating “churches” based on all kinds of novel hermeneutics, visions, assimilation of science, and personal creativity.  Some of this, no doubt, was simply branding and gimmicks, and the young Joseph Smith was clearly deeply cynical about the established order of things – especially given the bald-faced selling of salvation and religious competition that was going on around him.  It may not be possible tell if Joseph was “saved” in the Protestant sense, but it may be also that he rejected the descriptions of salvation given by the country preachers around him, because they were too simple and self-serving. He might have thought that the way the preachers talked about salvation was corrupt as they were, or at least made way-too-simple in order to make their product more attractive.   Like Joseph, these country preachers had already completely rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, every state church, and every other denomination except their own.  It seemed clear to him that these men did not seek “the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol.”  (D&C 1: 16.)  He sought direction from heaven.

Joseph’s answer to his confusion was hermetic, not hermeneutic.  He went to God in prayer and saw visions, and sought to translate the realities he saw in his visions into new religious text rather than find the answer from the existing text using reason and rules of interpretation.  He continued to see amazing visions, and could clearly and automatically dictate these visions to other people. This is why he felt he could go through the Bible and change it, he knew he saw things differently than most everybody around him, especially the preachers and politicians. This is essentially the same rationale given by Tolstoy when he rewrote the Gospels. Thomas Jefferson, no doubt,  felt  much the same way when he rewrote the Gospels and advocated periodic, bloody, patriotic revolt.  I think that is is indisputable that Joseph, Tolstoy, and Jefferson, in fact, saw things very differently than most of us, and they also believed they saw things more clearly- this attitude leads to revolutionary thinking.

Joseph, seeking his own way rather than the confused ways around him, looked to the Old Testament and clearly locked hold on God’s promise to Jacob, i.e. his covenant with  Israel.  Joseph was a wrestler, he had seen God, and the the Bible told him that wrestling with God was possible.  These were simple facts to Joseph, and they affected his entire thinking about God, these were the simple truths that were lost.  This view profoundly affected his ability to hope for Zion (Christian utopia) because he believed that God could explain what justice meant so long as those seeking Zion followed the Spirit, sought virtue and justice, and did not seek to exercise “unrighteous dominion”.   This belief may have been the genesis of his most important teachings about authority and priesthood. (D&C 121.)

As a Mormon,  I firmly believed that Zion was only possible through obedience to the Christian law. I still might believe this, it seems to be ingrained in my mind with deep ruts. These ruts began in the Church but wore even deeper,because of my empathy with Tolstoy’s vision, captured this vision in his last novel, Resurrection. My experience with the Gospels as an LDS missionary was very similar to those that Tolstoy described in that novel.

Recognizing that the Church was not Zion, but was only a group of normal people who sought Zion, Joseph’s personality and sins were irrelevant to me.   He was visionary, but he seemed to act like an average person otherwise, and you could not trust all of his visions- but his direction toward Zion was clear enough. I believed the Church was “true” because it seemed to be the only organization that seemed to grasp that law should be made through the Christian spirit, and to believe that this sort of law was critical.  I felt that God wanted me to support this cause.  I accepted that the Church had not gained enough momentum to make it happen all at once, mainly because of the existing attitude of members, who were, of course, still stuck in the world. But I accepted that a conservative, diligent, prolonged effort was needed and it could take a long time and would happen step-by-step.

To me, this was the great truth that Joseph Smith taught, and polygamy was a very important part of that teaching. Polygamy was an affront to the law of the land, and it might have been the only thing that could have isolated Mormons enough to allow them to live by their own law, and separate the emotional connection to the worldly law, including the rules of romance, that most conservative people have. It also prevented the Church from folding back into Protestantism, and the associated corruption I saw.  This view seemed reasonable and easily explained to most people. To those who sought the love God, explaining Zion is simple enough.  You simply have a person sit still for a while and listen carefully, and attempt to feel their deepest intuitions, which generally reasonably pointed to joining a church that aimed for Zion, practice the religion of love, and giving everything to the cause of Zion in a unified effort. To me, the Spirit confirmed truth of the  Church’s direction for life and society, not any particular theology, so I was free to doubt the specifics of theology, study philosophy and science, and accept whatever was good and true and add it to my understanding of what Zion was and how it could be achieved.

The allegorical description of life found in the Book of Mormon matches the lives of many.  Life is a march through mists of darkness, and dangerous waters. Most never feel the love of God and mock those that strive to feel it.  To the reasonable person who finds himself in these mists of darkness, the answer is not to join the masses who mock the pilgrims, but to discover the word of God, in order to feel God’s love, and establish a new society based on God’s law, i.e. Zion.  To those that recognize the darkness, and are confused by the world, including its theologies, the most sensible thing is to follow the Spirit of God through the darkness in hope of Zion. It seems very clear that it is better far for those who seek Zion to forget their useless cares, to give up everything, to pledge all they have to building the Kingdom. To a person lost in the mists of darkness or drowning in the fountains of “filthy water” found in the world, stuck in hopelessness and confusion, who cannot feel the love of God, this is a path to salvation, if not exaltation.

The best-thinking reaction of a Mormon to a person with this dark attitude is this: help this person feel the love of God again, and use the Spirit to direct him to have faith in the Christian law and have hope for Zion in his life as well as the lives of others. If he does this he will have peace and his confidence will “wax strong in the presence of God”.  It is almost a truism.

What is clear to me now – as much as ever – is that I have “tasted the fruit of the tree of life”, I have “felt the love of God”, and I have felt the “influence of the Holy Spirit.”   I recognized with Nephi, that the “love of God” was the most desirable feeling, “the most joyous to the soul” and it was unlike any other feeling I had ever had.  I could put my finger on it, and as an missionary, I know I pointed hundreds to that feeling, and dozens joined the Church. I did not equate that feeling with any emotion – it was actually completely pure of any emotion of mine – it came in the midst of hate, panic, fear, sorrow, depression in the lives of others.

But what is equally clear is that I did not quite fully understand the light of Christ, what Mormons believe shines on all those outside the cause of Zion and the Church, especially sincere Christians. The light of Christ is something that is distinct from the Holy Ghost. The Gift of the Holy Ghost may only come to the right-thinking and devoted, as it did to the disciples on Pentecost, but the light of Christ shines on all people like the sunlight – i.e. on the righteous and the wicked alike.

When I was in the Church, I did not think about the joy that this light could bring, only its ability to show me the right direction.  But when I abandoned the Church, when all hope in Zion in my life and in the world was completely gone, when I no longer felt any of the love of God, when I trusted no institution, when I no longer trusted my own vision, when I trusted no person, when I no longer trusted the Spirit, I seemed to have caught a glimpse of the light of Christ that I did not see before.

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21 thoughts on “Zion and the Light of Christ

  1. Wow. So much there.

    No doubt a great many country preachers (as well as now) had little knowledge of the great need to properly distinguish God’s law, and it purposes, from God’s gospel and it’s purpose.

    The proper response to the question, “What should I do?”…ought be, “What do you want to do? You are free in Christ.”

    These are the last words spoken to us after each service by our pastor. “Go in peace…You are free in Christ.”

  2. Jared, you said this: “I believed the Church was “true” because it seemed to be the only organization that seemed to grasp that law should be made through the Christian spirit, and to believe that this sort of law was critical.”

    What does this law have to do with the light of Christ? What law? I tend to think the ‘law’ replaces the light of Christ within Mormonism, essentially. It becomes about obedience to specific rules rather than Christ himself.

    You then finish that paragraph by saying: “But I accepted that a conservative, diligent, prolonged effort was needed and it could take a long time and would happen step-by-step.” Here, you are talking about the church as a whole rather than individuals, but as I understand the Mormon program, individual and prolonged effort is needed to achieve exaltation. So I see this concept as reflective of what individuals are required to do for ultimate salvation. I, too, wonder how this effort relates to the light of Christ.

    I like what theoldadam quotes of his pastor: you are free in Christ, free of effort to achieve glory.

  3. I wonder if the people of God, in the new covenant sense, are not already Zion while we hope for the ultimate consummation of Zion in the Lord?

    “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

  4. What I have tried to do here is lay out my Mormon belief in order to contrast it somewhat with my current position. I think I have a new understanding of Christian freedom and understand how it is slightly different than the concept of “free agency” This was written to an LDS audience, and draws out common LDS themes, I am basically trying to figure out in my mind what I thought, and how it compares to what I think now. I am sure some of my family will read this, and I wanted to make it intelligible to them.

    The LDS idea of the law is that it is a means of progression through the realities of the universe. Christ saved all mankind, and therefore left them free to do good or evil. The punishment for either good or evil acts is spiritual, i.e. the spirit will be damned and prevented from progression if they do not choose to obey the law that brings righteousness and glory. The Church is part of the progression of the individual, but it has a special mission that is separate from the plight of the individual. It’s job is to establish Zion, which requires earthly law to order things here. Authority was given to make earthly law, to bind on earth an in heaven. This is seen as a prerequisite to establishing Zion. There is quite a lot to this, but my goal is to show that the LDS Church does not require the full light of Christ to operate, and it may be that many in the Church fail to understand the light of Christ even if they consistently feel the Holy Spirit.

    Given my recent experience, which the LDS would acknowledge was a product of the “light of Christ” I am beginning to think that the light of Christ is the most productive area of dialogue between Evangelicals and the LDS, the area of the least dispute. I also wanted to point out a bit more clearly why Joseph Smith’s sex life might be irrelevant to the discussion.

  5. The light of Christ is the influence of the power of Christ that the entire world is given. I don’t think the concept is very well formed in LDS thinking, most people equate it with a conscience, but to Mormons it is the source of all that is good and true in any non-LDS church. It is basically all true spirituality and light and knowledge from God that is not the Gift of the Holy Ghost or the influence of the Holy Ghost.

  6. Thanks. It seems they have a different view of the light of Christ than do Christians. Certainly, there is room to discuss it and maybe a hefty amount of common ground, but like many other things, I imagine behind the curtain it is something different at its heart.

    Maybe I am just too skeptical regarding Mormonism, but it seems the differences are important in understanding why such discussions are even necessary. It goes beyond right/wrong and into the world of truly understanding the other faith.

  7. What I have found over the years in trying to disentangle the phenomena that the LDS and Evangelicals are talking about that you have to be very careful to recognize that LDS terms are not attempts to redefine traditional Christian theological terms. They are part of a separate religious language.

    The light of Christ is a sort of blanket term that applies to anything from God that comes outside the workings of the priesthood and the Restored Gospel. By this definition, everything that happens in Evangelical Churches falls within the light of Christ, as does all scientific and musical inspiration. It thus applies to nearly every kind of inspirational and positive phenomena that happens, except the manifestations of the Holy Ghost, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

    I think the light of Christ is the most important area of discussion because Evangelicals actually have a good argument that they understand the light of Christ better than LDS, because in LDS terms, anything good in Protestantism is derived from the light of Christ, and they have had much more practical experience in investigating what the light of Christ is, and what phenomena surround it.

  8. I suppose whether they are part of a separate religious language or redefined, the result is the same words meaning different things, often resulting in impossible discussion.

    As to the light of Christ, I think it is a reflection of who Jesus was/is and what he does in our lives and in the world. This is very different thing than all the good in the world apart from the workings of the church, which you identify as seen as good, though apart from the light of Christ. I don’t think everything good is of God, though if I understand you correctly, the Mormon does.

  9. This is Mormon’s view of the light of Christ:

    15 For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.

    16 For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.”

    ( https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/moro/7.14-16?lang=eng#14)

    Mormons do hold that all knowledge about Christ is locked up inside the Church or its doctrines. Because of doctrine of the light of Christ Mormons should acknowledge that the phenomena of being “born again” in Christ is not a Mormon thing, its a human thing. It is a “thing” regardless of how you describe it, even if you attempt to describe it with materialistic or purely psychological explanations.

    It seems straightforward that Mormons should be happy to have other Christians teach them and their children about how the light of Christ shows up in their lives, and adds to their discipleship, in the same way that Mormons accept psychology or social science.

    The reasons Mormons and traditional Christians don’t have this sort of relationship seem to be mainly political and rhetorical. I think for the sake of many Mormons, it is important to find a way over these barriers in order to help them more clearly see the “light of Christ” which many other Christians see.

  10. So that I can be sure I understand, you are saying that Mormon theology has a doctrine of the “light of Christ” and if Mormons take that doctrine seriously they can understand the good in other religions?

  11. Yes, even though the LDS believe that the creeds are abominations, they believe that even those that believe in these creeds have the light of Christ.

  12. Given that all other churches are wrong and their creeds an abomination, and that it was God who spoke this, it seems Smith reported that God intended to replace other churches with the one true church, that is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

    Arguing about there being good in them is a bit superficial when their very creeds, ie the basis for their beliefs and their existence, are abominations. Might there be good within the church, sure, but at their heart they are disgusting to God.

    Seems a hallow point to suggest there is good in them, then. And as far as I know, the LDS church has never retracted God’s statement to Smith. If I am wrong on that, please let me know.

  13. I think the reason the LDS believe that the creeds are seen as abominations is that they are used to discredit new truth from God, whether or not they bring some believers to love and worship God.

    The problem in the LDS view is not with the believers, but with the churches that are built around the creeds, their abuses, priestcraft, and corruption by joining the governments of the world. The creeds are considered backward customs that keep people from being open to new prophecy. The problem with the creeds is the same problem with all dogma, they harden the mind against other positions. The LDS position is that the church should not follow creeds, but proceed with the heart and mind open to further light and knowledge.

    The LDS church has never retracted God’s statement to Smith.

    I can’t retract the statement, it can only accept it, ignore it, or reject it. Each of these positions is represented within the membership of the LDS Church.

  14. Perhaps, though a possible collateral effect is that Mormons then fail to understand Christian doctrine. They further take, generally, a very uninformed approach to learning about the creeds and assume things that are not true.

    Further, the creeds are the foundations for the belief of millions upon millions of people. Its hard, then, to separate the person from the belief from the creed. This, I think, is similar to what non-LDS do when looking at the historical and doctrinal foundations of the present LDS church. So, when our creeds are called abominations, just as many Mormons feel threatened by criticism of Smith, it comes across as an attack on us personally.

  15. Yes, I think that many Mormons fail to see the light of Christ in traditional Christian Doctrine, some fail to see it at all.

    Mormons might not understand why you would take it personally when they call your creeds abominations. Likewise, you might not understand Mormons might take it personally when Protestants refer to their children and loved ones as “totally depraved.” I, personally, don’t think that there is much reason in taking the other side’s religious positions personally. This is not much to fear from the idea of the Great Apostasy or that of Original Sin.

  16. I tend to agree, and I don’t take it personally at all. However, I am trying to bring forth the point that Mormons are just as ignorant of Christian doctrine as they accuse Christians of being of theirs. This ignorance from both sides, gets in the way of real discussion.

    And one reason I am enjoying this blog is that it is giving me new understanding of Mormon thinking. I do appreciate it. If I push a point, its not to offend or anything like that but to push for mutual understanding.

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