A meditation on religious conflict

[This is a prose poem that came out after I finished up writing brief about a particularly gnarly run in with original sin and the law that punishes it. Enjoy!]

“Religious War has signified the greatest advance of the masses so far, for it proves that the masses have begun to treat concepts with respect.  Religious War start only after more refined quarrels between sects have refined reason in general to the point where even the mob becomes subtle and takes trifles seriously and actually considers it possible that the “eternal salvation of the soul” might depend on small differences between concepts.” – F. Nietzsche

“But if all religious teachers were honest enough to renounce their pretensions to godliness when their ignorance of the knowledge of God is made manifest, they will all be as badly off as I am, at any rate; and you might just as well take the lives of other false teachers as that of mine. If any man is authorized to take away my life because he thinks and says I am a false teacher, then, upon the same principle, we should be justified in taking away the life of every false teacher, and where would be the end of blood? And who would not be the sufferer?” – J. Smith

Science tells us that our universe began as a single point, and that human beings are super-developed animals with incredible imaginations that in their limitless symbolizing and shaping of the world with their art spawned religion, civilization, and consciousness of our unfathomable beginning and becoming.

The orthodox catholic tells us that God is the unknowable Father that is the source of this point, but that he is nothing within it, that God is the substance of the man Jesus the Christ that became part of the created world, and the substance of the Holy Spirit that fills creation and the strange human souls that take on the the image of this substance but are condemned to be separated from it.

Mohammed tells us that man is nothing like God, and absolute and unknowable, who has no child and wills all that happens and all that exists, God is the final arbiter of this created reality and should be feared and loved.

The Buddha tells us that we are not separate souls, and God is irrelevant to our enlightenment to this fact; only in our giving up ourselves and our souls can we awake to the reality of God.

Paul tell us that man is a debased spirit separated from God, clothed in corrupt flesh but redeemed to God’s image through assent and capitulation to the reality of the single Christ, the God who submitted to death and suffering to save the world from it.

Moses tells us that there is a law from heaven that all must follow and that one people were chosen to proclaim it.

Joseph Smith tells us that God is the same as us: a single eternal soul living within the uncreated universe who discovered intelligence and then glory though the laws of reality that fill the immensity of space and makes all things as they are.

The Hindu tells us that we are all the shifting faces of God, the absolute reality that sits behind all appearances, and that only those whose intelligence has been stolen by material desires surrender themselves to other gods and follow the particular rules and regulations of worship according to their own many natures.

Pilate tells us that truth is an illusion and then spilled the blood of the man the Christians call God by the power of the law and might of Rome.

Jesus tells us that God’s law and all other truth is swallowed in Christ, the mystery and promise of God’s love, that God’s kingdom has nothing to do with Rome that killed him, but is in midst of the love and joy that springs from His blood and suffering and ours.

The Evangelical tells us that we should proclaim this last Word above all others, and attests that there is no end to this blood that saves us.

It seems that in this blood there should be an end to the blood Nietzsche and Joseph Smith spoke of, but how remains its mystery.


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.

The “God” of orthodox Christianity is the “Light of Christ” of Mormon Christianity

I think one of the most important steps Mormons and Evangelicals need to make in order to have a productive dialogue is to come to terms with what appear to be radically different views of God.  The more I revisit LDS scripture on the subject, the more I am convinced that in the best understanding of Joseph Smith’s conception of the cosmos that thing which traditional Christians call “God” is actually what he termed the “Light of Christ.”

Joseph Smith envisioned God as an exalted and perfected man.  For many reasons, this vision is the foundation of the Restoration.   To Joseph, God became God through intelligent obedience to the laws of the universe, a universe which necessarily was not created by him, but organized by his manipulation of the universe through faith and righteousness. This earth was formed to provide a place for lesser spirits, humans, to do the same by agreeing to become children of God and come to earth, suffer, and die, and then be redeemed by Jesus, who volunteered to be the Christ.   According to the Book of Mormon, the law is the foundation of God’s godhood and all reality:

“And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.”  (2 Nephi 2:11)

God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are bound by the law,i.e. they are not the law, they are outside of the fact that is the source of the way things are.  The question remains: Why does there need to be a Christ? Why is their law in the first place?  Why is the universe the way it is?   Why is the world comprehensible at all? What is the source of God’s intelligence? These questions cannot really be answered in any intelligible or scientific way, these are the ultimate mysteries, they cannot be understood or even spoken of, because these mysteries are what allows for all order and intelligence. As Einstein said: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”

For traditional Christians, these questions are answered by pointing to an God that is outside the universe, that is the incomprehensible ultimate cause of the laws of the universe, the ultimate source of the mysterious orderliness and intelligence within the way things work in the universe.   God “is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will.”  (Westminster Confession, chapter 2)

Joseph’s Smith rejected that this mystery was our Heavenly Father, but the religion he envisioned still had to account for the source of the law and the necessity of Christ.  There must be some other mystery that allowed our Father to be God, the fact that required that there be opposition in all things.  Protestant’s call this fact “God,” Joseph Smith called this fact the “Light of Christ”

It was revealed to him that the Light of Christ “proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space.” It is “the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed” (D&C 88:12-13; see also D&C 88:6-11).   This Light is not compound, nor is it a being, nor does it have parts or passions, it is the simple fact that allows all things to exist as they do, it is the source of the law, and the source of whatever facts that allow for salvation from the law.  To Mormons, the Light of Christ defines what it is to be God, what it is to be Christ, and the truth that the Holy Spirit testifies of.  The LDS term “Light of Christ” must be that fact that Evangelicals call “God.”

Seeing the God of the Nicene Creed of the Light of Christ might make the creed comprehensible to Mormons.  Translating the Nicene Creed into Mormon terms might look like this:

Continue reading

The Nature of God Illustrated

The Nature of God Illustrated The chief differences between Mormonism and Christianity are often difficult to decipher. I recently attended a seminar presented by Carl Mosser in which he tried to spotlight the different faiths in terms of contrasting worldviews. It’s one thing to say that they are similar because they both feature Jesus as the Savior of humanity. It’s another to broaden the picture to the origins of the universe itself. Is Jesus the only self-existing Creator ever or is he one of many self-existing beings? Perhaps he’s part of a vast universal system that forms matter together into beings that in turn form more matter together.

In a good faith attempt to illustrate the various religious views on the nature of God (and the capital “U” Universe”) I created this diagram. A comment by Christian J inspired the reptilian illustration. Virtually no one sees God as some sort of reptile, it’s merely a humorous attempt at illustrating the ideas that each worldview presents.

I will gladly admit that the Mormon section was the most difficult to capture. Depending on the Mormon you talk to, and the day you talk to him, I’m sure there are many different ideas floating around. Blake Ostler for instance will give a picture more inline with Social Trinitarianism. So go easy on me if you think I got it wrong. If you disagree, I’m interested to know how you would have drawn it.

Click the image to see the full-size version, you may have to click the image again when it pops up to see it in full magnification (browser dependent).

*Made a few clarifying edits on 11/8/11.

What Separates Mormons and Evangelicals Most?

I’m hoping that we can find agreement in a discussion about what separates Mormons and Evangelicals the most. We may not ever come to an agreement on all things, but at the very least we can agree about exactly what it is that we disagree about.

The idea for the this post came from a comment made by The Yellow Dart.  He as an aside suggested that he thinks the thing that most separates us is the doctrine of “creation ex nihilo” (which means that God created everything out of nothing).  I think that is for sure a key area of disagreement but not the thing that MOST separates us.

Instead I think our disagreements start and end with Joseph Smith.  In every instance of conflict, everything boils down to the prophetic authority of Joseph Smith.  Evangelicals hold him to be a false prophet and thus disregard anything new or contradictory to the Bible.  Mormons hold him to be a true prophet and more relevant to our day and age.  If we came to a mutual understanding of Joseph Smith virtually every other difference would fade away.

Am I wrong? Is there something more fundamental to our differences?

Created from Nothing

A chief theological difference between mainstream Christianity and Mormonism is found in “Creation Ex Nihilo”. This is the belief that God is a non-created being who created the universe out of nothing (or out of himself). In my understanding, Mormonism holds that God may or may not be created and that he organized the universe with pre-existing materials.

The most obvious criticism of the Mormon viewpoint is that it leads to the logical fallacy of the endless regress. If God is created, who created God? And who created that creator? And who created that creator? etc. The answer to each question is just passing the buck on into the past.

We know that in the laws of nature (something Evangelicals would say was introduced in the creation) that something can not come from nothing. So Mormons need to answer “where did the pre-existing natural materials come from that God used to create?” And I would follow that question with “if they were created, why aren’t we worshiping their creator?”

The mainstream Christian view is probably most strongly supported by John 1. Aristotle and Plato’s asked the question: who is the logical necessity that is the uncaused cause or the unmoved mover? John answers “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Later John makes it clear that the Word is Jesus. (Which raises more problems for Mormon theology about the nature of Jesus.)

The idea of creation ex-nihilo is supported by the evidence of the Big Bang. The Big Bang shows that the universe had a beginning. There was a one time a specific point where all things were born and put into motion. If it had a beginning that means in had to have a “beginner”.

I’m seriously short changing these concepts and ideas. (and there’s likely going to be some fledgling BYU philosophy student who wants to comment with their own 30 page retort). If you like to read more I’d recommend William Lane Craig’s excellent article in “The New Mormon Challenge” where he specifically places his cosmological argument in the context of Mormon studies.