Mormonism, post-Marxism, and the liberal challenge of John Dehlin

Slowcowboy asked in the last thread about how Mormons are like Catholics. The question can best be answered from a 20,000-foot view of the goals of Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons within Christendom.

The Catholic goals are (1) to protect and preserve the proclamation of the New Testament and (2) maintain the power and influence of the Catholic church as holders of the keys of the priesthood. Protestants had two primary political goals, (1) rationally clarify and re-proclaim the message of the New Testament as the basis of the church and (2) break the political power of the Catholic church. The Mormons goals are (1) reinstate spirituality over rational theology as the primary mover of the church, (2) re-institute the earthly priesthood authority instituted at the time of Christ, (3) establish Zion in preparation for the second coming.   All things considered, the Mormon goals are not unreasonable in the context of the history of Christendom. However, I think the Mormons are operating with some distinct disadvantages in their understanding of Christ.

This topic brings to mind an interesting model that may illuminate where Mormonism is and where it should go. Mormonism could be seen as revolt movement within Christendom which parallels the revolt Marxism was within oligarchy.  Marx was a materialist monist who believed in a eschatology based on the brotherhood of mankind. Joseph Smith was a spiritual monist, similar to Hegel, Marx’s philosophical godfather. The ideas of Marx and his contemporaries have radically reformed capitalist democracies, however Soviet Marxism fell into authoritarian malaise.  It is arguable that Marxism and Americanism have been the only effective disruption of oligarchy, I think it is clear that both forces are collapsing into a more Roman oligarchical model of concentrated power. (See Thomas Picketty‘s touted explanation.) It is arguable that the Mormon idea of gathering to Zion could be an idea whose time has come if it was able to organize theologically as effectively as it has organizationally within American-style western culture.

Many years ago, in a very enlightening discussion with a faithful Mormon who is also an expert in Soviet history and political science, I came to see that the current church leadership is somewhat typical of the political leadership in the latter days of the Soviet Union. Now, I see LDS Church’s insistence on distinguishing its Christology from Protestantism is similar to the Soviet attempt to survive economically without paying attention to the time-value of money.  The Russian communists refused to open their minds to the realities of capital in the same ways that many Mormons refuse to open their minds to the realities of Christ.

I think the Church could live up to many of its aspirations and solve many of its internal struggles if its members would adopt a more Evangelical Christology. As the Church is worried about liberal-minded humanists, like John Dehlin, who are very concerned with the spiritual health of the membership. The best reaction to Dehlin is not to liberalize, but to open itself up to the more powerful understanding of Christ, i.e. the same understanding Joseph Smith embodied in the Book of Mormon but more deeply explained by the New Testament.

In a strange way, the challenge for the LDS is the same as the challenge for the Russian people. Western Capitalism has completely eroded the spiritual base of Russia, and people flock to authority.  However, the Russians have the education and resources to transform their society if they could abandon nationalist authoritarianism and follow the democratic spiritual ideals of the left, armed with a conservative and rational economic policy. Mormonism could transform and reinvigorate the church, and the world that they are attempting to convert, if they directed their mission away from the Utah-centric nationalist reactionary authoritarianism and pursue the mission of the church with a more conservative and rational Christology.

I think the Church has much to fear from the reasonable people that respect John Dehlin and what he stands for. American Liberalism has the capacity to completely erode the institutional momentum of the church because Mormons do not have the spiritual technology that can match secular psychology.  I would call on Mormons to follow the example of the young Joseph Smith and seek to understand Christ and teach Christ using the “words of wisdom” of their Evangelical brethren, and “seek learning, even by study, and also by faith.

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45 thoughts on “Mormonism, post-Marxism, and the liberal challenge of John Dehlin

  1. Very little about my experience with John Dehlin would make me call him “reasonable.”

    I’d call him a naive one-sided ideologue who swallows idiocies like “Jesus wasn’t a real person” with wide-eyed credulity, subordinates all his beliefs to ideological gripes over gay marriage, stubbornly refuses to listen to anything from supporters of the LDS Church, and heavily censors all dissenting opinions from his Mormon Stories blog.

  2. I am not sure focusing on goals is most helpful. Without expressing what the understanding of Christ is for each tradition is also not very helpful.

    You seem to be saying Mormonism is kind of like a revolt against Protestantism, but this brings me back to why I suggest there may be more similarity between Mormonism and Catholicism than most seem to recognize. The focus on authority is huge here. There are a number of other beliefs there that seem to support this idea. If Mormonism is a restoration of the original church, the original church is what the Catholic say they have maintained.

    Its interesting, though, to see you write that a solution for the LDS is to move toard a more conservative Christology. What do you mean by that? What is wrong with their Christology?

  3. A small sample of Mr. Dehlin’s statements is provided below. (And yes, I lifted this from another website that I’ll cite later):

    Opposing Church Doctrine: God and Jesus Christ

    “I think the probability that Jesus actually really lived and was resurrected is actually really low. And I’m actually not invested in that.”15
    “All I can say is… if God and Jesus really do exist… I believe that they have a lot of ‘splaining to do. Especially if they endorse the stories in the Bible, and the LDS Church as the one true church.”16

    Opposing Church Scripture: Book of Mormon

    “The Book of Mormon is fiction. There is no other plausible explanation (in my view). Joseph (along with whomever) simply made it up.”17
    “What I can say for sure is that… [t]he Book of Mormon is not a translation of gold plates provided by an ancient American civilization via an angel (which it claims to be).”18
    “[A]nyone willing to fairly review the evidence, with an open mind, will conclude that the Books of Mormon and Abraham are NOT what they claim to be. At all. They are not translated ancient records. They are fiction. Authored by Joseph Smith.”19
    “[I]t’s incumbent upon all of us, when we speak of these books, to openly acknowledge that they are not translations of ancient records, as they claim. At their core, they are based on a deception.”20
    “[T]he evidence against [the Book of Mormon] as [a] translation… of ancient documents is OVERWHELMING to anyone who is objective.”21

    Opposing Other Core Church Truth Claims

    “I… consider it to be a very low probability that the LDS church, Joseph Smith, or the Book of Mormon are exactly what they (the church) claim them to be.” 22
    “I am not convinced that these LDS ordinances are required for salvation in heaven. I simply do not believe in the notion that LDS rituals are uniquely legitimate in God’s eyes.”23
    “The church’s exclusive truth claims are not credible. At all. Not even a tiny bit. As in… there’s gravity… the earth revolves around the sun… and the BOM [is] not [a] translation… of ancient documents. It has become that clear/obvious to me.”24

    Attacks on Joseph Smith

    Joseph Smith demonstrates a “behavior pattern of claiming fraudulent translations.”25
    “[I]t’s okay to look at Warren Jeffs and say what an evil person. What a bad, evil, despicable man. Or Jim Jones. Or pick some kind of cult leader that we all feel comfortable demonizing, right? David Koresh, right? Why is Joseph different than that?”26

  4. Honestly, if you have opinions like that, why are you even in the LDS Church?

    And if you want to push those ideas and actively proselyte them as widely as possible, why shouldn’t the leadership kick you out the door swiftly as possible?

  5. I agree with you Seth, I don’t think Dehlin belongs inside the Church unless he is loyal to its objectives, if not its “truth claims”. However, many people I know and love consider themselves indebted to his work in voicing how they feel about the Church while attempting to remain a part of it. Despite his unbelief, I think Dehlin cares about many who suffer in the Church more than the leadership does.

    My point in the O.P. is that Dehlin presents a challenge to the Church that it can’t get rid of through excommunication. Mormonism is a form of spiritualized Christianity which is stuck politically to the right of liberal mainline Christianity. I think the failure to engage intellectually with the rest of Christianity has left it in the weeds and far more open to liberal positions like Dehlin’s.

  6. Gundek, you may be right, but from what I can gather, there are aspects of similarity that are worthy of exploration, at least more so than with protestants. I’d like to hear how you think they are not similar.

  7. Seth,

    I have never been able to figure John Dehlin out. I’m just not sure I ever understood what his beliefs or his motives are.

  8. Very little about my experience with John Dehlin would make me call him “reasonable.”

    I suppose you can chalk up the label to my adventures in the legal trade where reasonableness standards are pretty liberal.

    I even consider myself reasonable. 😉

  9. It might help you understand a bit more Gundeck if you knew that he was drawing about a 90K a year salary from Mormon Stories.

  10. I think Dehlin caters to the unmet needs of liberal LDS who want to remain part of the Church but wanted to know they were not alone in their heterodoxy. I don’t see anything wrong with his “ministry” or his salary if he is helping people.

  11. Well, he’s no longer a part of the LDS church. As of today, apparently he’s been kicked out or whatever precisely excommunicated means. I’m also not sure his income from the site proves much.

  12. Dehlin is a popular figure in the LDS internet community. His Mormon Stories podcast has been one of the more influential forums of secular and/or intellectual Mormonism

  13. Cowboy,

    In practically every way you compare Roman Catholicism with Mormonism, no similarity can be found.

    Roman Catholicism is Trinitarian.

    Ecclesiastically, Roman Catholicism has a strong Conciliar Movement, there is no comparison in Mormonism.

    Soteriologically Mormonism is functionally a universalist system with meritorious exaltation.

    The two priesthood systems are incomparable.

    The sacramental systems are incomparable.

    etc.

  14. Gundek, yet…

    Strong sense of authority. Merit is required and encouraged. Dissent is not well accepted. There are different levels where one goes after death based on merit and other concerns.

    Sure, when you get into what these are, there is little that is the same or similar. I have not abandoned my position that Mormonism is not Christianity because of that.

    My only suggestion is that Mormonism in some ways looks more like Catholicism than it does Protestantism.

    Mormonism really is a hodge-podge of a religion that seems to throw things against a wall to see what sticks. It therefore makes some sense that it would take on apparent similarities with other faiths, especially if it claims to be a restoration of the original church. This, despite there no evidence that it has restored a single thing from the apostolic period, would outwardly be plausible.

  15. Seth,

    I can understand how a $90K salary can motivate someone, but wouldn’t he have a $90K salary even if he just bowed out Inconspicuously?

    That doesn’t explain poking a stick in an ecclesiastical leaders eye and daring them to do something about it.

  16. One of John’s huge sales pitches that he’s bragged about constantly is how he’s a “temple-worthy Mormon” and still has all these outrageous ideas – and you can too.

    It’s the niche market he sells to, and how he got a lot of his publicity for being novel.

    Kick him out of the Church, and now he’s just another dime a dozen secularist anti-Mormon, and not half so marketable.

  17. Thing is, I don’t see any needs that John Dehlin was offering in his Mormon Stories community for LDS liberals that weren’t already being met by the bloggernacle.

  18. I think the fact that he was pulling in $90k a year shows that he was meeting somebody’s needs. . . for entertainment at the very least.

  19. Cowboy

    Yes, but…

    Different type of authority… merit is not required for salvation in Mormonism… huge amount of diversity and public dissent in Roman Catholicism.

    I’m not saying a surface level comparison can’t be made. I’m saying I don’t know why someone would want to compare Mormonism and Roman Catholicism without the proper distinctions in place. It’s like a Jack Chick tract.

    In fact I think it can actually be counter productive to insist on similarities between Rome and Salt Lake by importing historic Reformational debates where Mormon theology simply doesn’t enter into the equation.

    Outside a of small minority who will insist on direct similarity with the early Church, it seems that most Mormons today have accepted/embraced that their distinct doctrines are a result of modern revelation. Proving the early church wasn’t Mormon only has so much utility, kind of like proving Nauvoo Mormonism isn’t Salt Lake Mormonism. As long as continuing revelation is the rule of faith in Mormonism I’m not sure what the role for historic theology.

    I think a Roman Catholic would say that rather than Mormonism being more similar to Rome, Mormonism is the result of Protestantism.

  20. Seth,

    Yes but, what is the point of being temple worthy of you don’t agree with the temple to begin with?

    So, in your opinion he was all show?

  21. I think genuinely cares about the difficulties faced by people like himself, trapped within Mormon culture without believing in the Restoration. He is also genuinely concerned with giving voice to diverse Mormon views.

  22. I do think he was largely show.

    But a part of the show was the one he was putting on for his own benefit – to prove to himself that he was a nice guy and doing something noble.

  23. It seems like plenty of people thought what he was doing was noble as well. It seems that the Church was a good dance partner for him while it lasted. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

  24. I would note Gundeck that Catholicism and Mormonism often get a really similar set of criticisms lobbed at them.

  25. I think there are plenty of similarities that the average person could acknowledge: Both Mormons and Catholics reject sola scriptura, and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, they are both centrally controlled under the auspices of a single male leader. They both deny priesthood to women, etc.

  26. Gundek, I agree. I am also not sure the full utility of examining, except to say that I think this realization has helped me understand Mormonism a bit more. Rather than trying to put it under the auspices of Protestant theology and history, I think there is something to be said for its relation to Catholicism, at least such that Catholic theology is not tossed aside when considering Mormonism. And if Mormonism is the result of Protestantism, what does that say about tracking back to Catholicism?

    Anyway….

  27. Jared,

    None of those are similarities.

    Rome rejects sola scriptura in favor of scripture and tradition. Salt Lake rejects sola scripture in favor of continuing revelation.

    The Roman Catholic Church affirms the priesthood of all believers.

    The idea that the Roman Catholic Church is controled by a single male leader ignores even the Conciliar history of the Church.

    etc.

  28. Interesting article. For a clearer perspective I would suggest checking out lds.org or mormon.org and searching the specific doctrin/opinion you are curious about. That way you have another source to check your reasoning and logic about the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  29. Gundek:

    You write, “I think a Roman Catholic would say that rather than Mormonism being more similar to Rome, Mormonism is the result of Protestantism.”

    Bingo, that is exactly what I would say. There is no question but that Mormonism grew out of a Protestant milieu, not a Catholic one. Very few of its original members proportionally were Catholics, and so if it can be said to be related organically to one or the other, it has to be much closer to Protestantism.

    Its similarities to Catholicism are on the surface only. It adopted a priesthood and a single sacrament. The Mormon Sacrament seems to be patterned after the Catholic Mass, yet, again, the resemblance is extremely shallow: It is not considered to be a sacrifice, as the Mass is, and there is no claim that it becomes the Body and Blood of Christ.

    Still, Cowboy is right in saying that they resemble each other in rejecting the two main pillars of Protestantism, sola scriptura and sola fide.

  30. Except that Hindus don’t profess belief in Christ in addition to their rejection of the solas, whereas Catholics and Mormons do.

  31. I agree that Mormonism resembles Hinduism in some ways more than it does Catholicism, except in its claims to be the only Christian church with the keys of Peter.

  32. Agellius,

    My basic point is that saying “Mormons resemble Roman Catholics in rejecting sola scriptura and sola fide” doesn’t tell us anything about either Roman Catholics or Mormons. It only serves to confuse.

    As soon as you ask a Mormons or Roman Catholics why they reject sola scriptura and sola fide you quickly realize that Roman Catholic and Mormon ecclesiology and soteriology have no similarity except that they are not Protestant.

    Personally if I am going to disagree with a theology, I want to disagree with the best possible representation of that system available, not an oversimplification.

  33. “I agree that Mormonism resembles Hinduism in some ways more than it does Catholicism,”

    Huh?

  34. Gundek:

    You write, “As soon as you ask a Mormons or Roman Catholics why they reject sola scriptura and sola fide you quickly realize that Roman Catholic and Mormon ecclesiology and soteriology have no similarity except that they are not Protestant.”

    I don’t disagree that it’s a surface similarity only, and the same is true of the priesthood and sacraments, as I said.

    Still, I can’t help thinking that Mormonism and Catholicism both differ from Protestantism in being “non-minimalist”, so to speak. For example, a Protestant (Evangelical) church requires nothing but a pastor and a Bible, and therefore a “church” can be a tent or a storefront or what have you. Whereas a Catholic church requires also an altar and a tabernacle, and a Mormon temple requires all kinds of things (though I couldn’t list them for you).

    Obviously the kinds of things that Catholics and Mormons require in their places of worship could hardly be more different from each other. Nevertheless they do have this distinction from Protestantism in common, that a man and a book are not enough. That doesn’t make Catholicism and Mormonism alike, but it is one way in which both are distinguished from Protestantism, and so I can’t really blame a Protestant for thinking that they are alike in this respect.

  35. “I agree that Mormonism resembles Hinduism in some ways more than it does Catholicism, except in its claims to be the only Christian church with the keys of Peter.”

    Ya, just that. Lol.

  36. @Seth,

    Mormons believe that each individual is a permanent part of the universe, progressing towards an ultimate state of oneness with God. Conceptually the purpose of life and the metaphysics is more similar to Hinduism than Catholicism, which does not give any purpose of life except the glory of God.

  37. Jared, I’d say the Mormon concept of the individual alone makes it more similar to Catholicism than Hinduism on that score.

  38. Good discussion. What I hoped for when I asked the question.

    The more I look at Mormonism, the more it stands on its own as its own thing. It has surface similarities with a bunch of religions, including but not limited to traditional, orthodox Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. It shares some in common with eastern faiths, too, as has been mentioned.

    It really is a fascinating hodge podge of different philosophies and faiths rolled up into one. Because of the built in freedom, what Jared once called positive law, it has an ability to adapt to new challenges and problems without looking back or worrying about contradiction. While I find that problematic, many see power there.

    Anyway, thanks all, for good discussion and I hope I am not too much a pain. :0

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