Notes on the possibility of a profitable dialogue between Mormons and Protestants

This is a response to Gundek’s suggestions regarding the way forward in my project to create a profitable LDS/Evangelical dialogue.  (Again, I didn’t edit this much and it might be a bit too repetitive, so please read charitably. 🙂 )

Like I have said earlier, I really don’t know much about being a converted Protestant, but I know that I now see something now that I didn’t see as a believing, spiritually minded Latter-day Saint.  I am starting with the Light of Christ because the LDS will have no problem acknowledging that whatever truth I did find, it was not from an experience with the Holy Ghost, or from the Gift of the Holy Ghost.  This is important because I am not LDS anymore and I want to be clear that whatever think about salvation does not threaten the LDS tradition because it comes outside of LDS covenants and outside of the Gift of the Holy Ghost.  Mormonism is, by definition, the religion that is revealed outside of the understanding available through the Light of Christ, i.e. the Spirit of God, that those outside the Church have access to.

The Light of Christ seems a great place to start my dialogue with the LDS tradition because within the LDS tradition, whatever light and knowledge I have found must have come through the Light of Christ.  By couching my understanding in terms of the Light of Christ, it side-steps all LDS revelation and tradition, and tries to go to the root of what non-LDS see in God that Joseph Smith may have taken for granted, or simply failed to grasp.  It is no knock on Joseph Smith to claim that he did not understand the full nature of the Light of Christ, because the Light of Christ encompasses all knowledge.

In some ways I am trying to reverse-engineer my conversion process, restating the ideas that pushed me over the edge. The problem with this approach is that  that once I began to recognize the reality of law and the reality of grace, and then feel the joy that this recognition brought, all kinds of ideas started clicking together to the point that I didn’t know precisely what convinced me, and how to explain why the argument was inescapable.

I also realize that my epiphany came at the end of a very gradual process, after a lot of reading, and a lot of thought experimentation, and there are natural barriers to observing one’s own thoughts and though processes.  Notwithstanding the difficulties, I am pretty sure the breakthrough came when I understood the nature of my own “sin” and understood that nothing that I had yet experienced, and no principle of action that I could formulate could provide a path out of this sin. For me, it took understanding sin in a very different way than I had as an LDS, and what it would take to escape it, to grasp that there is actually a way out of sin. This way out appeared as a simple fact, as soon as I dropped the conceit that I could understand the way out, I was able to accept it simply, and this mysterious simplicity happened to fit what Paul and Jesus said about the way out of sin.

As soon as I recognized this, but also recognized that others had experienced a way out of their sin, I seemed to see the “light” that illuminated the salvation that others experienced, and it illuminated my own. It also made Protestant theology and Paul’s ideas a lot more understandable. It began to seem like convincing argument when it seemed completely arbitrary before.

However, as Protestants might understand, when I tried to explain this new understanding of salvation to LDS it was met with hostility, confusion, and flat rejection. I think the root of this hostility lies in the very world-centered metaphysics. The LDS do not talk about anything that is really out-of-this-world, because the Godhead is completely contained within the world. Everything in the world s eternal, including all personality, all matter, and all spirit.  In this way Mormonism is a sort of partial pantheism — everything is not God, but everything has godlike properties and becomes godlike as it obeys the will of God.

My goal in clearly defining the Light of Christ is to get LDS to think about and articulate that the source of the law, and the source of salvation are facts which are outside of nature and wrapped up in the fact which makes all facts of nature possible (including the exaltation of the Heavenly Father and Mother.) I think the ideas of Karl Barth and Wittgenstein pried the Mormon lid that I had on my personal theology by pointing out that whatever it is could “save” us from the realities of experience and the law must be outsidethe confines of experience and the law. Within Mormonism, Heavenly Father is not this fact, he is only a manifestation of this fact.

The Light of Christ theology seems to be a profitable area because as described in Joseph Smith’s revelations, and by later Church leaders, the Light of Christ does not come from Heavenly Father, but the God that is the fact outside of nature from which all nature and law and celestial life originates. The root of the Light of Christ is not Heavenly Father, it is the Spirit of God, an unknown God of all Gods, including the Father. This God is outside the personal project of eternal progression, the plan of salvation that humans, the Heavenly Father and Mother, the Son, and the Holy Ghost participate in.  The Light of Christ is also variously called the “Spirit of God” and the “Spirit of Christ”.  Identifying both God and Christ as having the same “Spirit” begins to approach a Trinitarian view of the universe. I think the Trinitarian idea can be approximated by explaining The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in terms of the Spirit of God, i.e. the omnipresent substance of Godhood that dominates all things.

In the LDS scheme, I think you can accurately say that the personal deity of each member of the Godhead necessarily has the same substance, i.e. the Light of Christ/Spirit of God/Spirit of Christ —  the power which created all things, the Spirit which is through all and in all.

Thus, the Light of Christ–and whatever indescribable and  unknown God that it emanates from–comes a lot closer to a description of the God of Protestant orthodoxy, the inescapable nature of sin in the world, and the world-defying nature of grace.   My guess is that if I can convince an LDS to separate the muddled concepts that they don’t think about, and see things in terms of this unchanging “Spirit of God” rather than in terms of the creation of a particular coalition of exalted persons, I think they will be able to see sin differently, and then, perhaps, see salvation differently.  Once they do this, it may be possible to convince them using Paul’s arguments that salvation from sin through grace is an absolute immediate reality, rather than a progression process that is yet to occur.

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11 thoughts on “Notes on the possibility of a profitable dialogue between Mormons and Protestants

  1. ” I think they will be able to see sin differently, and then, perhaps, see salvation differently.”

    I think you are on the right track.

    And as my pastor says whenever I speak to him of someone that I have encountered who is a bit (or more) legalistic, “Pour it on them. Pour the law on them…and keep pouring the law on them until it breaks them.”

    ___

    By the way, I just placed a great class on my blog on ‘The Gospel of Mark’. It would be perfect for any Mormon to listen to:

    [audio src="https://theoldadam.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/the-gospel-of-mark-pastors-class.mp3" /]

    Enjoy.

  2. I wonder if others have noticed most LDS really avoid getting to know precisely what traditional Christians believe. Its seems to me that LDS are happy to learn peripherals and look to see differences from church to church, ie Methodist to Baptist to Catholic, but generally fail to see what unites all of these churches.

    Am I wrong in that observation?

  3. Jared,

    As I understand your goal, it is to open the probability of of valid experience of reconciliation?

  4. @slowcowboy

    I think it is difficult for Mormons to grasp precisely what other Christians mean because they have not had the same sort of religious experience, and if they have, they don’t talk about it in the same way. Mormons generally believe they have everything that other Christians have as far as Christian experience. I think this is partly because for most Mormons, the Mormon church is the only place that they have experienced God.

  5. @gundek,

    That’s right. The LDS religion is open to members having the experience of reconciliation, but there is an incomplete explanation of the fact that reconciliation is possible now.

  6. Jared, its interesting. Many seem to be quite willing to learn about all the differences between Christian denominations and the like, but are unwilling to learn what Christians believe. It may well be that they just cannot experience it. I don’t know, which is why I brought it up.

    But it fascinates me how they go to such lengths to ensure their faith is presented accurately but do not put the same emphasis or care in getting traditional Christianity correct. Maybe I expect too much and don’t fully understand the mindset of the LDS. To the extent I am not LDS, and never have been, I understand why this is, but at the same time, I do honestly put forth effort to learn their faith and try to view it through their eyes.

  7. Slowcowboy,

    Christianity is confusing to a lot of people, even very smart people. Most people I have spoken to about religion cannot explain their belief very well, and it generally rests on experience that is not easy to explain. Christian theology often confuses the issues even more if approached absent these experiences. Added to that, many Mormons that do seek to understand traditional Christianity, begin with a fundamentally paradigm of the origin of humanity, of history, and the nature of the Father. Mormons also have an institutional defensiveness against creedal Christianity. The fact that traditional Christians consistently join the LDS Church is proof to them that their former belief was somehow lacking, and that the LDS have the fullnessof the gospel. These are formidable barriers to open mindedness.

    Mormonism is wrapped up in a certain kind of ordered spirituality and community spirit that is not often found in other places. Their stubborn closed-mindedness lies in the effectiveness of their lifestyle in keeping them and their children happy and prosperous. Interpreting spiritual experiences requires a certain closed-mindedness to alternative interpretations that lead away from the valued traditions, ritual, and practices of the Church.

    I think that, in order to open the LDS mind, the arguments must be first couched in their terms in order to validate the things that they already know through their experience.

  8. Jared,

    I hope you had a great Christmas.

    Is Christianity confusing? I am not sure it is, at least not in the same way as Mormonism. Sure, I get that explaining what is gained in Christianity and the spiritual experiences are difficult. But isn’t that true in any faith? The basics of Christianity are the Trinity, easily explained, but harder to fully grasp (but I can explain it with ease); the Virgin Birth of Christ; Christ’s resurrection from death on a cross to save mankind from his sin; the coming return of Christ.

    Sure, each of these can be parsed further, but inherent within the Trinity is that Christ is God; the Father is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; there is only one God and all three are that God. God came to earth as a man to make the ultimate and final sacrifice for his creation. He did so on a tree/cross, died there, but rose three days later. He ascended into heaven and will return.

    For us as individuals to reach heaven, all we have to do is accept Christ into our lives and hearts and trust in Him.

    That’s the Gospel in three paragraphs, and its pretty darn full. There’s really nothing else one needs to know. It be explained to non-believers in a simple sentence: Christians believe that God came to earth as a man named Jesus Christ, to die on a cross to save his creation from sin.

    As to Mormonism, one wonders where the institutional defensiveness comes from. As to Christians joining their ranks, I hope they see that is a pretty empty position, as Mormons join the ranks of traditional Christianity with regularity, as well.

    To put your paragraph on ordered spirituality, it seems the Mormon culture leads to a business and peer pressure to think in certain ways and do certain things. It does seem to keep them relatively happy, but it has them often worn out. It does keep them on a specific track, though.

    Its interesting to hear you say that the arguments need to be couched in their terms to validate things they know. Perhaps that is the better way to go, but I admit, I find the closed-mindedness exceedingly frustrating. Sometimes it seems discussions with them on matters of comparative faith are pointless.

  9. Slowcowboy,

    I have been thinking a lot about how to explain why traditional Christianity is confusing to many non-believers, but succinctness and accuracy in explaining the traditional Christian position does not seem to be the problem. The problem seems to lie in how to make sense of the traditional Christian position in the context of non-Christian understanding of the world and history. I will try to give a fuller explanation of what I mean a bit later.

  10. Jared, I get it. I actually do. I am just trying to state that despite its difficulty in understanding, it is a simple faith. Things we don’t get, though, are always difficult. I remember a number of years ago reading through the Gospel of John as I was finding my way back to Christ, thinking it was a messed up book and what Christ was saying was pretty far-out. Really, drinking Christ to sustain life is bizarre, but that’s the message, and that’s really all of the message. But how do you drink of Christ? To someone who doesn’t get it, its a difficult concept. And that’s just one. I know well there are more that can trip up someone trying grasp the philosophy.

    Anyway, I hope you had a great holiday season!

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