A Place Without God

The first time my wife and I attended an LDS baptism a man stood up to speak and he told the young woman being baptized that the following day they would lay hands on her and give her the gift of the Holy Ghost. He counseled her to avoid all evil afterwards and to never enter a place in which the Holy Ghost could not follow. My wife and I were stunned. This might have been the thing that stunned and offended our sensibilities more than anything we had heard in Mormonism to that point.

As we discussed it later we couldn’t imagine living a faith where the possibility existed that the Holy Spirit could not bear his presence. Our own journeys and the faith we had grown up in taught us that even in the deepest darkest places the Holy Spirit was at work convicting, counseling and comforting. Though the distractions around us may make it difficult to hear him, we believed that he always had to power to reveal himself. As God, He could always overcome the situations or atmosphere of those he wished to guide.

Jared recently directed me to an article written by Boyd K Packer on “the light of Christ” and I was encouraged to see that this concept was not absent in Mormonism, it was just renamed and attributed to the “light of Christ” rather than the Holy Spirit. The article states:
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The simple fact is: God.

Having been thoroughly terrified after watching the Sunset Limited based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel,  I thought I should try to actually do a little philosophy in order to (at least?) believe in God again. I do it here in an attempt to keep myself honest in the company of those that do believe. If this doesn’t make much sense, please keep in mind my lingering view of philosophy, and consider this an apologia and a confession.


Some thoughts to set the stage:

“I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view”. — Ludwig Wittgenstein, noted philosopher.

“But theology is the function of the Church. The church confesses God as it talks about God… But in so doing it recognizes and takes up as an active Church the further human task of criticizing and revising its speech about God” — Karl Barthnoted theologianChurch Dogmatics, 1.1, p. 3.

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Five Possible Reactions to Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

New York Times Front Page Joseph Smith PolygamyThe LDS church has recently taken a big step in respect to the life of Joseph Smith by publicly admitting that Joseph Smith had up to 40 wives, that some of his wives were married to other men, and that some of his wives were as young 14 years old.  The Church’s essays on these things at times strain credulity in offering a faith-promoting narrative and occasionally distort the evidence to favor Smith.  But nonetheless, the Church should be congratulated for taking this first big step in accepting the basic facts.

A friend asked me what this could mean in terms of accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet. I have seen 5 general reactions that I think are possible for the institutional Church to adopt as it moves forward.  They are listed in here in order of trust in Joseph Smith.

1) So What.  If God commanded him to do it, it doesn’t matter what he did. Any action ordained by God is righteous and Joseph was ordered to do all of these things. (This was the Church’s stance toward Smith while Brigham Young was Prophet of the Church and of the polygamous Mormon sects of today.)

2) No Sex. Joseph married these women and it looks creepy but he didn’t have earthly sex with them, his carnal knowledge is in Eternity only. It was Brigham Young who brought sex into polygamy. Implicit in this reaction is that if Smith was having sex with girls 20 years younger than himself or married it other men, it would be a problem. (The Church will try this as long as it can but the historical record doesn’t bear it out. The Church is already in conflict on this by simultaneously saying that the purpose of polygamy was to raise up a righteous seed.)

3) He Was a Fallen Prophet. Joseph eventually fell into sin and abused his position and power as prophet.  We hope he repented before his death but the good things he gave us still stand and are useful for pursuing God. (This is the stance of the Henderickites who own the Temple Lot in Independence, MO. They maintain the Book of Mormon and the general church structure and mode of worship established by Smith.)

4) No Religion Is True, So Stick With What You Know.  This has become popular among the so-called “Pastoral Mormon Apologists” like Adam Miller and Teryl Givens. They don’t outright say it like that but that’s the heart of their argument.  If you’re comfortable remain comfortable and we’ll just slowly reform the things we don’t like. (The Community of Christ, formerly the RLDS, largely took up this and stance #3 in the last 15-20 years. They are now practically indistinguishable from the Mainline Protestant Denominations. Liberal zeitgeist seems to be the greatest source of inspiration and instruction).

5) Repentance. Fully acknowledging the sins of Joseph Smith and the institutional Church’s fault in promoting Joseph Smith and his teachings followed up by a massive and painful reformation. (This was what the stance the non-Mormon Worldwide Church of God took toward their founder in the late ’90s.)

Each of these positions carry risk and most certainly a loss of membership. I think we can look at November 2014 as a watershed moment in the history of Mormonism.

One Mormon view of the Truth of Christ

I was once of the opinion that you could convert the entire world to Christ if you sat the world down and simply told them, with sincere love, that they could feel, that He was their Savior. Indeed, I thought that would inevitably happen.  I believed that once a person was converted to Jesus, and followed Him as a disciple, that it did not matter what I believed or thought outside of that one Truth—so long as I lived by what Jesus taught and the Spirit. I think this is a belief that many Mormons might share, and have tried to root out its source—-in my own mind at least.

To me, the core of what Jesus taught was very simple and clear—even if it was mind-blowing, revolutionary, and extremely humbling. It seemed that that was all anyone really needed—everything else was just another conference talk or sermon. The wild variation I saw within the scriptures was merely a function of the fact that the Truth was essentially ineffable, as was the Life. Given the task Jesus gave his disciples–to love as He loved–I did not think you could even precisely explain how to act like a Christian in any particular circumstance without the Gift of the Holy Ghost. The capacity of love was a supernatural gift. It was a gift offered to everyone, and it could be expanded by faith and hard work, but it was the only mark of a true follower of Jesus.

The process of arriving at the Truth also seemed very simple—you could only really know that Jesus was the Christ by the Spirit. These most important truths could only be expressed with the Spirit, and the Spirit was practically instantiated and invoked through love and sincerity.  Hence, the root of my belief that all we could convert anyone to Christ by simply finding the right words.

I recognize that this belief was ultimately unstable. But perhaps I saw things in these terms out of a tendency to keep things simple in what I found to be an immensely complex world.  Perhaps it was pride–I wanted to believe in truth without reservation, and that demands simplicity. Perhaps it was out of recognition of the difficulty of asking and answering the question: What is truth? As a Christian, the answer was ultimately both obvious and simple. The Truth was what Jesus told of. All other truth flowed from That. Whatever we could work out through reason was true, but without that Truth, what did it matter?

Boundary Maintenance and Mormonism

The very public news that John Dehlin, Kate Kelly and Rock Waterman are facing possible church discipline has hit the Bloggernacle with a great deal of sound and fury. I must admit that while I don’t really have a dog in the fight in this particular controversy I find the topic to be fascinating. This issue has highlighted to me the benefits of having a cornucopia of options within Protestantism in which adherents can find an option which best matches their personal understanding on controversial topics. Several notable dissenting authors have enjoyed the ability to disassociate themselves from Evangelicalism entirely and no one had to hold an official trial to boot them out.

I was asked by a Mormon friend (Seth) what I thought of excommunication and whether or not a church should have the right to define itself and officially excuse dissenting members? Continue reading

Is the Protestant Doctrine of Salvation Incommensurate with the Mormon View?

I am always harping about how Mormons are allowed to believe a lot more things than traditional Christians and still be Mormons. I don’t think the Mormons that run the Church care about truth per se, but its usefulness in the cause, and it is eminently useful not to engage in debates about what you have to believe to be LDS.  I think most sane people believe this— it is generally not wise to declare how stupid you think others are within their earshot, and most people are apt to say stupid things when they are cutting down another cause.

From my point of view, this reality presents those who make massive truth claims, such as Evangelical Protestants, an interesting test: Here is a group of people who ostensibly believe a lot of the same things you Evangelicals believe; they are going to hell, forever, because of their confusion; it seems that the power of your message should be able to convert these people.  For me, it’s as if the Mormons are laying ready on Mount Carmel and Evangelicals can’t make so much as a spark to ignite what is dry kindling. I thought a good place to put my pet theory to the test is to determine whether a Mormon can fully believe the Protestant view of Salvation and remain LDS.  Is there some logical necessity of rejecting the message of the Restoration?  If they are not now, Mormons even become saved Christians and remain in the Church?

The question seems important. If the answer is “no,” Protestants should joyfully want Mormons to believe in their view of the Gospel whether or not the Mormons remain faithful to their LDS covenants or attend LDS church or believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God, or even continue to gather converts.  The entire approach to LDS missionary work would not be to show them where they are wrong theologically (which is extremely boring), but to teach them the truth in spirit and in power like Paul advocated (manifestly less boring). I recognize that many Mormons do not, and never will, understand or believe the theology behind the Evangelical view of salvation from original sin. But most Mormons are new Mormons without set theologies, and LDS Missionary efforts require a wide tolerance for strange beliefs. (I learned this acutely while eating dinner with a Jet Propulsion Laboratory physicist and my missionary companion, who was convinced that the earth was hollow.)   Continue reading

Reverse Course

In a stunning announcement World Vision has reversed course two days after changing their employee handbook to allow for the hiring on people in open, unrepentant homosexual relationships.

http://www.religionnews.com/2014/03/26/world-vision-reverses-decision-sex-marriage-mistake/

In our board’s effort to unite around the church’s shared mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ, we failed to be consistent with World Vision U.S.’s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners. As a result, we made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.

 

World Vision has placed itself in the tragic position of creating a controversy and angering both sides of the issue.  I can’t imagine that Richard Stearns will not be shortly offering his resignation in order to restore credibility back to the organization. What ever might have been his motivations it appears that at least once in this controversy he made an unprincipled decision (your guess is as good as mine on whether it was Monday or Wednesday).  Neither conservative nor liberal supporters of World Vision can feel a deep sense of trust in his leadership.

Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy went on a Twitter rant about the events of the last two days and shared some other thoughts on his blog. He discusses both World Vision’s misstep as well as whether or not Evangelicals are displaying a deeper commitment to fighting same-sex marriage than fighting poverty.  I think his comments are well worth reading.

Update:

This post from Timothy Dalrymple offers some great insight into what when wrong:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/philosophicalfragments/2014/03/27/the-right-lesson-to-learn-from-the-world-vision-debacle/

The core of the mistake, it seems to me, is precisely in regarding this as merely a “culture war issue.” When Richard Stearns addressed the Q Conference in Los Angeles in April, he pointed to Westboro Baptists as an example of “angry Christians protest[ing] gay marriage.” He then admonished Christians to be outraged by the right things. “As far as I know,” he said, “no one ever died of gay marriage.” That statement, I think, set off alarm bells amongst some Christian leaders, and that framed how they interpreted this change of policy. Even in the letters and phone calls and statements since the reversal, the leadership of World Vision has explained that they were trying to bracket a “culture war issue.”

That’s the problem right there. This is not a culture war issue. It’s much more than that.

World Vision and the Redefinition of Christianity

Yesterday news struck that World Vision, one of the top ten charitable organizations in the world would no longer prohibit the hiring of Christians in open homosexual relationships.

World Vision’s American branch will no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman.

Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule. But a policy change announced Monday [March 24] will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed at one of America’s largest Christian charities.

World Vision argues that the decision about whether or not homosexuality is a sin is a theological question and as a parachurch organization they leave open theological questions to be solved by local churches. This news did not go unnoticed.

Russell Moore responded:

At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it. If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish.

John Piper posted:

When World Vision says, “We cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue,” here is the side they do, in fact, jump onto: We forbid fornication and adultery as acceptable lifestyles among our employees (which they do), but we will not forbid the regular practice of homosexual intercourse. To presume that this position is not “jumping into the fight on one side or the other” is fanciful.

But worse than fancy, removing homosexual intercourse from its biblical alignment with fornication and adultery (and greed and theft and drunkenness) trivializes its correlation with perdition.

Trevin Wax posting at Gospel Coaltion said:

Sex is our god. Children are our sacrifice.

 

Albert Mohler challenged [perhaps my favorite of all the responses]:

Richard Stearns has every right to try to make his case, but these arguments are pathetically inadequate. Far more than that, his arguments reveal basic issues that every Christian ministry, organization, church, and denomination will have to face — and soon.

The distinction between an “operational arm” of the church and a “theological arm” is a fatal misreading of reality. World Vision claims a Christian identity, claims to serve the kingdom of Christ, and claims a theological rationale for its much-needed ministries to the poor and distressed. It cannot surrender theological responsibility when convenient and then claim a Christian identity and a theological mandate for ministry.

I think there is much that is tragic about this situation. What stands out to me most keenly is that our culture’s interest and preoccupation with sexual identity is causing a subtle redefinition of Christianity.  I agree with Word Vision that human sexuality is not at the core of Christianity, it ought not be a part of their intentionally inclusive statement of faith.  But the question of righteous Christian living in regards to sexual practice has become so decisive that I think many churches and organizations will be tempted to place their understanding of Biblical sexuality at the top of their doctrinal standards.

Driscoll’s Open Apology

I’m not a follower of Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, but it’s hard to be an Evangelical and not see his name pop up now and again.  Driscoll has recently been hit with charges of plagiarism, unfair ghost-writing practices and most recently a book sales manipulation scheme.  Yesterday he presented an open apology to his congregation.  I’m pleased to see Driscoll make this step and to re-align his priorities around his congregation and his family.

You can read the letter here. http://renuemag.com/2014/03/16/an-open-letter-of-apology-from-pastor-mark-driscoll/

I was particularly pleased with this section:

First, a marketing company called ResultSource was used in conjunction with the book Real Marriage, which was released in January 2012. My understanding of the ResultSource marketing strategy was to maximize book sales, so that we could reach more people with the message and help grow our church. In retrospect, I no longer see it that way. Instead, I now see it as manipulating a book sales reporting system, which is wrong. I am sorry that I used this strategy, and will never use it again. I have also asked my publisher to not use the “#1 New York Times bestseller” status in future publications, and am working to remove this from past publications as well.

Religious Liberty in Post-Christian America

If you’re not aware, religious liberty is currently the hot button political topic within Evangelicalism and Catholicism (and perhaps Mormonism as well). The topic came to the national forefront in the last couple of weeks due to a bill that was attempting passage in Arizona.  I saw a flurry of articles recommend on the topic.  Some with an understanding of the political and legal nuances of the topic, others without. The rhetorical battle got kicked off with one Christian columnist claiming that Evangelicals wanted to reinstate Jim Crow laws, followed by a blogger declaring that there should be no discrimination laws at all. I personally felt challenged by a blogger’s reminder to “go the extra mile” when we feel our rights are violated.

Eric recently shared an article with me that is basically the voice I’ve been looking for.  “Religious Liberty Should be a Liberal Value Too”  It explains the tension between pluralism (which is losing cultural prestige) and egalitarianism.  I highly recommend the article.

Becoming Like God

The LDS church has posted a new Gospel Topics essay, this one on the Mormon belief in deification.  I’m happy for the church to clarify its own beliefs on this doctrine but found myself frequently frustrated by their justifications for the doctrine. On the one hand the church ask that its beliefs not be caricatured (having your own planet) but it has no problem creating a caricature of Eastern orthodoxy and the early church fathers for its own benefit.

In response one friend stated:

Perhaps deification or theosis as in Eastern Orthodoxy. I’d argue this is a dramatically different concept than LDS “becoming like god,” as will be argued in the forthcoming volume “Understanding Evangelicalism: A Guide for Mormons” through Greg Kofford Books.

 

Another friend stated :

“Becoming Gods” became “becoming gods” became “becoming like our Heavenly Father” became “approaching godliness.” Yet Christians are depicted as evolving to use language which “appear[s] more limited in scope.”

 

 

 

 

 

Faking It

A story has emerged (pardon the pun) of the possibility that a Evangelical mega-church may be staging baptisms to induce others to baptism.  I think Charles Finney might be proud but it sounds kind of rotten in my view.

You can read the story here:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2014/02/concerning-all-those-fake-baptisms-at-elevation-church/

The Curious Case of Sean McCraney (and the problem of church history)

Sean McCraney was a Mormon who openly put his faith in an Evangelical brand of Christianity and was born-again by most Evangelical measures. Yet, lately, he sounds like Joseph Smith or Brigham Young when he talks about the extant traditional Christian church.  This seems indicative of both his Mormon and Calvary Chapel roots, and his blatantly contrarian attitude.

Sean McCraney’s approach to theology seems common sense. To a modern liberal who answers to God alone, the church has clearly needed fixing over the years.  It does not represent the “good guys,” just “some guys” who happened to have attracted enough credentials and attention to make policy. Common sense tells people like McCraney that if you can fix something using Biblical interpretation, can’t you fix anything, including the Trinity?  Can’t you reject any doctrine of pagan origin if you can reasonably show it to be such?  McCraney’s refrain is as common as his sense. If “only God can judge us” it is clear to many that “we run things things don’t run we.”

While anarchy is not necessarily an irrational response to the corruption of the world, it is clearly a practically unreasonable one. Tim’s last post pointed out the firm, yet soft-spoken response to McCraney by Pastor Jason Wallace of Christ Presbyterian Church.  For the first time, perhaps, I recognized the complexities of positively explaining the historical church and its necessity for those who believe in the historical theology.

McCraney’s case might show Evangelicals something important about their brand of Christianity strikes people. It is easy for Mormons to pick up Evangelical views of salvation–and these views are also often quite spiritually effective–but it is very difficult to explain and swallow the historical Church. This is one of the seeds that sprouted into Mormonism. It’s far easier to reject the church as fundamentally corrupt or essentially irrelevant than to shoehorn its history  into a neat package that can appeal to modern sensibilities.  In a small way, the McCraney case shows that Evangelical Protestants have as big a problem with church history as do Mormons.

Hearts of the Scattered

A controversy has emerged in the Evangelical community of Utah.  Shawn McCraney announced on his television show his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity.

I watched the program and found that Shawn seems to be reacting against Mormonism and Mormon apologetics perhaps more than the orthodox teachings of Christianity.  His arguments are first and foremost a rejection of tri-theism (a belief in three gods) and second a anti-parrallel driven narrative.  Whereas some Mormon apologist are quick to pick up on any parallel from the ancient world as evidence that LDS particulars are justified, Shawn has adopted the inverse argument that any parrallel to anything outside of Christianity proves it must be heretical (This argument is often employed against Christian spiritual disciplines as proof that they are New Age).  What’s even more troubling is that one of his primary sources is a dubiously conspiratorial, Anti-Catholic book called “The Two Babylons”.

I wasn’t so much concerned with his emphasis against the existence of three gods as much as I was by his unwillingness to engage the arguments that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. Towards the end of the program a caller challenged him with an argument that’s a low entry point into Trinitarianism and he was unwilling to engage the argument.

Shawn has a confrontational style and without a force to oppose I think he loses what makes him interesting to watch. This is not the first, nor I think the last time he will set himself up against the Evangelical community in Utah. I’m sure many Mormons are pleased to see this fracture, proclaiming a pox on both of their houses.  It will be interesting to see how Shawn and Utah Evangelicals interact in the near future. Some responses have already begun to appear.  My guess is that without correction, Shawn will be disavowed by Evangelicals and his teachings declared just as heretical as Mormonism’s.

Fraud and Religious Freedom

The Evangelical ministry Breakpoint made Mormonism the topic of their daily broadcast.  The topic in question is a British criminal charge of fraud against Thomas Monson.  Breakpoint comes out strongly on the side of the LDS church that this is a slippery slope to the erosion of religious liberty.

I largely agree with Breakpoint’s assessment of the situation with one caveat.  A fraud charge is not solely based on whether or not the beliefs in question are falsifiable, it hangs on whether or not the perpetrators of the belief know it to be false.  How this can be proven to be the case for Thomas Monson seems like a herculean task.

In one more Evangelical connection to this case, wasn’t the plot of “The Godmakers” about a guy who wants to sue the LDS church for fraud and deception? {video queued to relevant scene}

Darwin’s Doubt Debate Pre-Game Warmup

We’ve had a recent string of posts on the origins of life, I thought I’d continue that string with this introduction to Intelligent Design. As indicated by William Lane Craig, I don’t think the theory of evolution need be a problem for any serious Christian. But I do gain a certain amount of pleasure in seeing the holes in the theory poked and prodded. Perhaps it’s because so many secularist presume that Darwin introduced the death of religion.

Bill Nye will soon debate a young earth creationist named Ken Ham. I’m not a young earth creationist so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. But one thing I’m certain of, Ham will discuss the limits of Darwin’s theory. When he does so, he will most likely be jumping off the work on Dr. Stephen Meyer (also not a young earth creationist).

In this video Meyer discusses his latest work “Darwin’s Doubt” and the scientific reaction to this book and the ever growing field of Intelligent Design. Often when I see Intelligent Design mocked or cajoled in culture it is being dismissed as a fancy word for “Young Earth Creationist”. I think hearing Meyers talk about his work will dismiss that notion.

For a look at someone really digging into the scientific hubris of the New Atheist see this scathing video featuring the David Berlinski (himself a non-believer). He intentionally reaches for acidic rhetoric which makes, if for nothing else, a fun listen.

Freedom and Friendship

Ravi Zacharias Mormon LDS

Ravi Zacharias will again be speaking in the Mormon Tabernacle. His visit to Utah will also include a stop at BYU. I hope some of my Utah based friends can attend. Live streams of the event are included below for those who can’t be there in person.

BYU Live Stream

Friday, January 17, 2014 – 12:00pm-1:00pm (MST)

Title: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Dr. Ravi Zacharias will speak on what it means to be human as he believes faith, family, and society cannot be fully appreciated until this question is first answered.

Mormon Tabernacle Live Stream

Saturday, January 18, 2014 – 6:30pm-8:30pm (MST)

Title: Lessons from History: Building A Nation Under God

Dr. Ravi Zacharias will speak on the centrality of the Word of God as the guide for personal conduct, true freedom, and building a nation under God.