Christ as a hidden answer to despair

This is a quickly drafted response to Andrew S about this comment:

I don’t think that it is pain is a pre-requisite for understanding Christianity, but enormous pain is just a part of life- that is the message of the Buddha as well as Christ. In my view, Christ is about facing reality. Discovering the reality of despair is as easy as looking out the window, most simply ignore it because they don’t have to/want to worry about it.

Andrew asked: How does this reality support Christ, rather than diminish/preclude Christ?

The short answer is that the despair and pain we see in the world neither proves nor disproves Christ, nor does it reveal Christ.  There is no explanation for why the world is the way it is.  The fact that more people do not find joy in Christ just shows that the way is straight and narrow and few will find it.

I think Christ is a reality just like I think language is a reality.  It is obvious that language exists, but I can’t explain why it works or how.

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The Message of Sin to a Mormon Missionary

I spent quite a bit of time as a missionary seeking out Evangelicals to talk with.  (I spent 8 months of my mission within a mile of Azusa Pacific University, and I would tract through the student housing for fun.)  Most of the Evangelicals that I met approached me with one of two attitudes: (1) ridicule, and (2 ) fear. I have never felt anyone fear me like I have felt in the presence of some true-believing Evangelicals when I was a missionary. I can chalk some of this up to pure physical presence (I was 6″2, and built a sort of like a skinny orangutan) but I am not a particularly hostile person, and I had made it clear that I was there to learn from them if they were.

It seemed that most of the fear came when I expressed my faith with both confidence and demonstrated knowledge of the Bible.  I seemed to be able to explain my faith better than they could, and in a more confident spirit. Because they “knew” I was wrong, this made them fear that they did not have the prowess or ability to correct me, so they simply wanted escape.  They saw me as a representative of the devil, when I knew I was a representative of God. I knew I was not from the devil, I knew I was there to save them, and they seemed to fear the salvation on offer.  Their fear made me think that the Gospel they believed in must be deeply confused.

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Vision vs. Explanation: LDS Godhead and the dogma of the Trinity

Andrew brought up a point that I often scratch my head about: Why does it matter whether you describe God as the Godhead or the Trinity?

I am not quite sure how my understanding of the Trinity influenced my new understanding of Christ. But given that a greater understanding of the Trinity may have played an important part, I don’t think the LDS should not reject the creeds simply because creedal Christians reject LDS doctrines.  I think it is reasonable to accept the LDS view of Godhead as a summation of literal interpretations of the visions of God found in the scriptures, but it is not reasonable to fail to affirm the Trinity as a extremely important explanation that fits in with a larger body of philosophy.

The LDS claim that all we know about God comes from direct experience with God (spiritual experience) and thus we can only really grasp God through spiritual practice, which includes asserting as doctrine the literal meaning of scripture.  Joseph Smith’s theology was not in the words themselves, but in the knowledge brought through the Spirit when pondering the words and applying them to life. Joseph Smith  describes this position at the tail end of his most important revelation about the three-tiered nature of heaven (D&C 76):

But great and marvelous are the works of the Lord, and the mysteries of his kingdom which he showed unto us, which surpass all understanding in glory, and in might, and in dominion; which he commanded us we should not write while we were yet in the Spirit, and are not lawful for man to utter; Neither is man capable to make them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him; To whom he grants this privilege of seeing and knowing for themselves; . . .

 

Doctrines are words attached to mystery. Any LDS who thinks that the scriptures explain God should keep this in mind. God is inexplicable, all knowledge of God is going to be essentially beyond explanation to others.  Whatever explanations we do formulate are simply to orient our understanding of God within the other knowledge, perceptions, and beliefs.

The Godhead is a summation of the visions of God.  The Trinity does not do this, it is just a philosophical attempt at defining the mystery of why there is only one God that is three persons.

Joseph Smith taught that spiritual visions were more important and carried more authority than philosophical explanations. This may be true, but even so, it would not eliminate the utility of philosophical explanations and catechism for pointing to spiritual truth.  It is perfectly reasonable to accept a Trinitarian explanation of God in precisely the same way it is reasonable to accept rights-based interpretation of human government.  Likewise, it is fine to conceive of God as a divine Man – as Stephen did in the vision recorded in Acts – because that is how God shows up for some people.  What is not reasonable is to take a vision for a reasonable/philosophical/historical explanation, just as it is not reasonable to explain matter by simply re-telling what it looks like.

As I mentioned before, all theology and creeds are existentially the same as the whistling of beavers.  The difference between theologies is most simply, the attitude they produce in those who speak and hear them as truth.  In some ways, denying the value of the Trinity is similar to denying the value of Newtonian physics. Even if you have proven the validity of the theory of General Relativity, it does not make sense to reject Newton’s theory as vitally useful. Thus, it may be reasonable to posit dogma such as transubstantiation, the Trinity, the hypostatic union, etc. to consistently orient our understanding of scripture with the body of intellectual work that girds our philsophically-minded view of the world — even when these explanations conflict with the literal wording of certain visions.

Christ doesn’t let up

There is something about my state of being that has changed and something that seems beyond my control.  What is striking is that it does not feel like the Spirit, it feels like nothing inside me, it feels like the world itself has changed.  Whatever the fact of Christ is, it is unrelenting.

When I abandoned atheism when I found it to be incoherent, the God that I acknowledged was not the personal God that I believed in as an Latter-Day Saint, it was simply the mystery that is the source of the world.  Formulated in this way, the fact of God was nearly impossible to dispute, I simply accepted that I came from something that I could not grasp or explain.

When I wrote this post, I was grappling with the question of whether the words of the Gospel were just straightforwardly true, that in Christ we are saved from the pain of guilt (hell); whether there was a source of “living water” that ends our thirst for joy. There was no prayer, and no answer. The question was simply one I seriously posed to myself: Is there any escape from guilt?

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Living by the Sword

I don’t want to disrespect Slowcowboy or any other Christian that hangs out here with this post, but something is under my skin.

TO EVANGELICALS: If you want to have any influence whatsoever with Mormons you have to adopt the same approach they adopt toward you. i.e. “Bring all the TRUTH you have and let us show you MORE.” Not, “You have it wrong and you are going to hell if you don’t shape up.” This is not about theology, it’s just human relations.  I am not pointining any fingers here, but from what I know of the love of God and the truth in Christ, traditional Christians should not be afraid of Mormons. Yet,  90% of all the inter-faith dialogue I see among Christians is complaining, arguing and fear-mongering.  If Evangelicals spend their efforts resisting the evil of bad theology, they are going to be as effective at winning souls for the TRUE Christ as the Spanish inquisition. Resisting bad theology is not teaching good theology. 

Mormons are not traditional Christians for a reason.  The more Evangelicals try to tear down LDS theology and claim that Mormons are not committed to Christ, the more Mormons feel completely secure that Evangelicals are part of the crowd in the great and spacious building mocking those who seek the love of God in Christ. This approach keeps people in the Church more than it leads them to whatever view of Christ Evangelicals have.  The folks that attack Mormonism come across like self-serving dumb-asses. Resisting Evangelicals come across as part of that crowd that Mormons think are clearly apostate. Why, because attacking anybody is blatantly un-Christian.

From a LDS perspective, and the perspective of a whole lot of non-LDS Christians, there is nothing to be proud of in Christian theology, and nothing to be proud of in Protestant theology. The most Protestant nations on earth are also the harbingers of death, destruction, and mayhem. It is arguable that the holocaust was an all-too-direct result of the Reformation. There is a strong case that the “whore of all the earth” is the traditional Christian Church.  The LDS don’t use this approach much because it is completely ineffective in converting Protestants, but that is not because it is not completely reasonable to see the church this way.  From the LDS the field is white, but most of it is choked with tares.

Mormons don’t see traditional Christianity as a reasonable alternative because they don’t believe they have everything that traditional Christians have and more. When I was a missionary, it was all too easy. I would stack up the LDS approach against anything out there. And it had nothing to do with theology.  If you take the ordinary run-of-the mill deist, they are going to find the LDS view just as reasonable as the Evangelical view.

Why am I saying this?  Its because I have skin in the game. I actually think Evangelicals have something the LDS do not have, but I fully believe that most Christians I have met don’t have what many Mormons have.

I WANT ENLIGHTEN MY LDS FAMILY TO CHRIST. If they want to be Christian, they should more fully join the body of Christ.  I think it is obvious that they do not need to leave the Church in order to accept Christ in an Evangelical way, just like Catholics don’t need to become Calvinists in order to be Evangelical. I believe the LDS should wake up to a richer and deeper view of redemption, but in the six years I have spent following the conversation I don’t see how Evangelicals are going to help them do that.  And the problem is not the Mormons. They need people that can see to lead them, not people that are blind to the Spirit that they follow, that they are sure leads them to Christ and God.  There are plenty of people in the Church that would be willing to embrace and teach a more grace-filled theology.  One of the greatest barriers to this is that those that try to teach them grace can’t get past their pagan theology enough to break spiritual bread with them. The boundaries are more important than the Gospel.  I don’t think the truth Mormons learn from the Spirit is AT ALL incompatible with the truth that Evangelicals know from the Spirit and from scripture.  I don’t think you have to name all of your errors in order to embrace the truth. I don’t think you have to give up all of your cults or culture to embrace the truth.

Evangelicals often try to save Mormon’s souls from the wrath of a God that Mormons know loves them. You can’t convince a Mormon that God will send them to hell.  Evangelicals should be focusing on saving Mormons from the wrath they hold in their hearts for their own souls and the hell they put themselves through on earth. God has nothing but love for the Mormons, and He routinely shows this (even if they don’t quite understand the breadth and depth of that love).  I can’t see why Evangelicals can’t follow suit.

The simple facts of guilt and joy

Since I acknowledged the fact of God, I have considered what other important facts should be acknowledged, which is the most simple, and how these facts fit together.

Guilt is a simple fact.  Guilt should be obvious to everyone – every sane person gets it. Justice also seems a simple fact- some people should accept guilt and feel it. Logic and honesty also require that I acknowledge that I should accept guilt and rightfully feel guilty.   In fact, everybody should feel guilty.  This fact showed itself in a most visceral way in a small Polish town while staring at room filled with human hair.  Guilt is the case for us all, justice and honesty require it.

The fact of guilt is very simple and sturdy. It remains even after we have been completely distracted from it. Also clear is the fact that virtue permeates every aspect of life and excellence is never perfection.  No matter what the sacrifice, justice and logic continue to point to out the fact guilt in the honest mind – especially in light of the bloody cost of the most common sorts of imperfection and vice.

Virtue is also a fact – there are ways of being that people should never be required to feel guilty for. These ways should be championed and fostered in children.  It is a fact that children should be taught to make a stand for virtue and to suffer wrong rather to sacrifice it.  Life is better with virtue.

It also seems that virtue also seems to dissolve feelings of guilt, or at least relieve the intensity of the feeling.  Some who have the knack for acting with virtuous attitudes can avoid almost any feeling of guilt, even when they engage in unspeakable atrocity.  (e.g. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori)  It’s a simple fact: justice requires guilt, but virtuous feeling alleviates guilt. Of course, when virtue demands performance and sacrifice, guilt shows up when we don’t tender performance and sacrifice. Perfection is required in order to eliminate guilt.

There is one very powerful fact that seems relieve guilt better than virtue: Love. Love doesn’t follow rules like virtue, it’s well outside the rules of justice. It often acts inexplicably, like magic. But love’s power to direct a person virtue and action even when virtue and justice does not require it does not relieve all guilt and bring stable joy. It always demands more love.  With love, amazing joy comes in glimpses and these feelings are only worth anything when virtue shows up with love.

Joy also is a fact. People seem to find joy in all kinds of things: virtue, work, leisure, sensory pleasure, drugs, intellectual contemplation, relationships, fame.  But after the joyful attitude ends with the activity, the weird facts of logic reassert the very simple and pervasive fact of guilt: it’s shadow lies behind every action, every thought, every impulse. Virtue and love (among other things) can distract us from guilt, but justice and honesty continue to reassert guilt as a fact.

It is also a strange fact that joy is rarely found in tandem with guilt.  For some reason – likely rooted in our DNA and culture – the feeling of guilt does not sit well with joy.  For some, any guilt robs the mind of unspeakable joy, especially when the mind honestly recognizes the impossible demands of virtue and love.  For some left without a path to consistent virtue or love, life is pain peppered with fleeting joy, or even completely joyless.

But there is a weird sort of joy.   That joy that shows up even while honestly contemplating the hard facts of guilt is also a well-established fact. There are plenty of cases where the attitude of guilt changes immediately and powerfully into the attitude of joy by adopting a certain attitude — often merely by acknowledging the fact that guilt can turn to joy.  For some, tears of sadness caused by guilt actually do turn to tears of joy.

This sort of joy happens even when people should feel guilty, even when they are not virtuous or loving, even when they are in agonizing pain, hanging mangled on a cross.  Justice, virtue, and guilt all seem irrelevant to the fact of this joy.  This seems to happen especially when people are brutally honest and acknowledge that justice, virtue, guilt, pain, and death are pervasive and undeniable facts.

This sort of joy is an unspeakable mystery for it to drastically undermine these simple facts of life. Given the nature of guilt we have no good words to explain this feeling of joy because it would not to depend on any of our attitudes toward words like: love, happiness, goodness, righteousness, kindness, propriety, virtue, guilt, justice etc..   Perhaps it could be described as “salvation” or “redemption”, but even these seem mixed up in virtue and love, and begin to engender guilt by their association. Maybe a more unique word is necessary.

How is it possible that such unspeakable joy is a fact, even in the honest mind who acknowledges its vices and has never known the magic of unconditional love? Even in cases where the fact of guilt is blaring and inescapable?  What if there was honest joy even when there is honestly not enough love or virtue to distract the mind from guilt?  A sort of joy that somehow rightfully defied nature, feeling, thought, instinct, or description.

What if it was a fact that this joy happened by merely acknowledging that this sort of joy is a simple fact.  A fact far more simple the pervasive complexities of justice, virtue, and guilt.  What if it was this simple, unspeakable, fact that Jesus was pointing to?

Could salvation be that simple? 

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.

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