One LDS View of Fasting and Faith

[This post is excerpts from an LDS sacrament meeting talk on fasting a friend of mine gave. These are not my thoughts but this is almost exactly the way I believed as a Mormon. The speaker is an strong example of typical LDS faith, and I thought this might be of interest to the discussion of the similarities and differences between Evangelicalism and LDS Christianity.

The LDS set aside one Sunday per month to fast for a chosen purpose. A “fast” consists of going 24 hours without eating or drinking or skipping two meals. The money saved by not eating is donated to the needy through the church welfare system. The program was instituted as a way to generate money for the poor. The talk began with a discussion of the historical practice of fasting in the bible and in the history of the LDS church and then turns to picking either a spiritual or a temporal purpose for the monthly fast. ]

. . . Here’s how I might go about thinking through picking a temporal purpose for a fast. I would ask myself these two questions: (1) Is this something God is capable of helping me with? (2) Is this something he even cares about?

First of all, what is God’s purpose? To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man — that is his focus. To accomplish this on this earth, he set up 2 things. First, free agency. We know that before this earth was created, Satan wanted God to have complete power to control our decisions on this earth. Christ’s plan was to give us that power. And God went with Christ’s plan. Which is remarkable, because in doing so, he consciously limited himself.

With free agency, he can’t force me to get out of bed, or go to work, or take care of my kids. He can’t force an employer to hire me – or to not fire me. He can’t stop a man from abusing his wife. He can’t stop war, or disease. He can’t stop Donald Trump from getting on TV or will the BYU Cougars to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Because we, individually and collectively, all 7 billion of us, are the decision makers on this earth. We decide who gets rich, and who doesn’t. We decide who wins wars, and who doesn’t. We decide who goes to jail and who doesn’t. Not God. It’s the primary explanation for why a loving God would allow all the temporal pain and injustice that happens in this world. It’s part of a larger plan we accepted prior to coming to this earth – with all of its risks and temporal inequalities.

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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?

Listening to the Spirit

Viktor Frankl was a very important influence on my worldview in my adolescence. I found this clip the other day and it seemed to be a very good explanation of my view of religion as a Mormon. You could quite comfortably be LDS and believe everything Frankl says here.  Toward the end of the clip, he explains that if God is anything, he is not a fossil. (also an important theme in the LDS worldview).

The first part of the interview gives what amounts to a Mormon idea of the Spirit—which he refers to as “intuition”—and a fairly passable view of why the Spirit is so important in the LDS Religion and its spirit-based epistemology.

To those who can’t listen to the video, Frankl’s position is that intuition is the primal source of truth in human situations because cognitive capacities cannot deal with the absolute uniqueness of the situation in front of us, that requires intuition, which also includes conscience and access to a divine nature.  He says in the beginning of the clip:

“Intuition is the only way to arrive at truth, even when rational concepts, or intellectual capacities fail; because you can rationalize into rational terms only what is not absolutely unique.But if you are confronted with a phenomena which is unique, which never will recur, which only once appears and confronts you, you have to resort to intuition, because intuition can handle the unique things that only once and only here and now are confronting you. “

Frankl’s religion and Mormonism bear some characteristics of undifferentiated God-belief that springs up all the time. (see Insane Clown Posse)

Scared of Hell: Evangelicals don’t really know if they are saved?

Byline: Does the difficulty in feeling assured of salvation dissolve the practical differences in “works”-focused vs. belief-focused religion?Hell Awaits You!

I used to think that the problem of assurance of salvation was a big practical difference between Mormons and Evangelicals.  I am not so sure now.The theological differences seem stark. According to the rough academic analogy, Mormons believe that everybody is born with a passing grade, and you have to decide to fail.  So long as your intentions are in the right direction, and you are living up to your potential , you are going to the Celestial Kingdom. If you fall short you are going to get a great consolation prize– eternally living in heaven with Jesus forever.   If you criminally screw up and reject Jesus,  you are going to suffer for your  sins but eventually you will be in a heavenly place with the eternal joy that the Holy Spirit can bring you.  Mormons believe (or used to) that some striving souls could get a “second endowment.”  An ordinance performed in the temple that seals a person with their spouse to the Celestial Kingdom.  They have their “calling and election made sure.” Anymore, this concept and practice has practically disappeared from the Church.  Mormons are left completely sure they are going to heaven, but always unsure of which heaven they will go to. I believed that whatever I–or nearly anybody else–was in for in the afterlife, it was going to be a whole lot better than this world.

Contrasting my experience with the children of Evangelicalism. I can see how the “faith alone” doctrine would have scared the hell out of me.  Evangelicals believe you are born with a failing grade– the default is hell.  People qualify for salvation by correct belief and reliance on the work of Jesus alone.  It seems to me that if you are an Evangelical facing the never-ending torment of hell, you’d better make darn sure you are saved.  And the problem is, because non-saving faith can masquerade as true belief and faith, there is a lot of room for consternationJust as Mormons obsess about doing enough to be “good enough” , it seems that doubt-prone Evangelicals can easily fall into a cycle of severe anxiety trying to assure their faith is “true” enough.  And the stakes– and possibly the potential anxiety seem considerably higher.  It seems that many Evangelicals indeed have this problem of assurance gauging from this article in Relevant Magazine, by J.D. Greear, Evangelical author of Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.    

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Turns out, the Bible says that Protestants should unite with Mormons

Our friend charismatic protestant friend Cal has taken a position– beleaguered by most non-Mormons here–that Mormons are Christians.  Although no longer a believer, I thought I would try to clearly lay out the argument for Cal’s position aimed at Protestants.

For purposes of the discussion, I am assuming the truth of the Five Solae, the Nicene Creed, and the and the Bible.

I propose that these three premises are true:

1. Jesus prayed for and sought as a goal before God the unity of those that believe in him through the testimony of his disciples, i.e. the New Testament. (John 17: 20-23:

 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

2. The New Testament does not make orthodox theology a qualification for inclusion in unity. Jesus was not limiting fellowship or unity to the orthodox.  He is talking about orthodoxy or unity of creed or belief–Jesus established no creed, distilled his message and rarely made it explicit. He warns against false teachers, but Jesus put the focus on distinguishing false teachers based on their fruits– i.e. you will know them by their behavior and effects on the church not (necessarily) their theological errors. 

3.  Mormons believe that the text of the New Testament is the truth.  

Given these premises, my conclusion is that Protestants should embrace Mormons as part of the group that they are challenged by Jesus to be unified with, and seek to come to complete unity.

Notice that I am assuming what Protestant’s believe is orthodoxy to be correct but the strength of the argument holds on a practical and ethical level.  But there is no orthodoxy regarding how unity can and should be achieved. That is an open question.  I suggest that even if the path to reaching unity is unclear– efforts toward unity will lead–ultimately–to a greater prevalence of salvation and faith in Jesus more effectively than efforts toward disunity–which are, generally, the order of the day.  

The Apostle Paul: the first Mormon?

St. Paul on road to Damascus

St. Paul on road to Damascus (Photo credit: bobosh_t)

Christian J pointed out in the discussion of my last post that he thought the Mormon model of seeking spiritual confirmation of doctrine was biblical. I think he is right. When I was LDS, I was very impressed by Paul’s discussion in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 2.  It captured perfectly my view of the core of Missionary work.  Those interested in Mormonism would do well to understand how Paul’s words are lived by LDS today.

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The Universalist Pope?!

Pope Francis appears to have a new, dramatic, position on salvation for the non-believer.  Catholic Online  gives a detailed account of the Pope’s sermon yesterday where he stated that even atheists were redeemed by Christ and would go to heaven if they “do good.”

A quote from the article:

Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

I recognize that the pope is not really making himself out to be a universalist, but he definitely opens the door to salvation to anyone regardless of belief. If this is a sign of things to come, I think this pope may have ideas that could really unite Christianity.  If the pope believes an atheist can get into heaven, this seems to change the entire dynamic of Christian interaction with the world.  The fundamental missionary act would be to promote and support good conduct–Christian love–rather than merely spreading Christian theology or belief.  Is the pope implying this? Am I reading too much into it? Whether this represents a sea change or is simply warmer rhetoric, I think its a very positive step. Thoughts?

Prophet, Priest, Member, and Disciple– A way to understand Mormon life

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Christianity and religion in general lately. I’m trying to figure out what was going on when I was a full-believing Mormon, and how to compare that to the religious lives of others.   I came up with some simple (i.e. over-simplified) categories of roles people play while involved in an organized religion like Mormonism.  I found them helpful in providing a way of understanding my Mormon experience and comparing it with others without worrying too much about theology.   I see four roles people play in organized religion:

Prophet: receiving spiritual guidance from the Spirit of God.

Priest/Clergy: administering teachings within a community. Teaching, preaching, helping, managing, setting policy, etc.

Member: special attachment, loyalty, and duty to particular community or group

Disciple: a devotee seeking to practice the principles taught by the prophets.

I admit it’s an over-simplified model;  there are a bunch more roles that come into play: e.g.,Saint, Missionary, Theologian, Convert, Skeptic, Monk, Mystic, etc.  And I am probably not using the terms in a  completely standard way.  But for me it’s a start on trying to grasp all the dynamics involved in living a faith.

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Follow the Fowler

Dan Wotherspoon of Mormon Matters on an episode about Mormon Doctrine recently stated (track 2, 1:04:58):

Many people know that I have found a lot of value in James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith.” This sort of human development thing, and he talks explicitly there that every faith tradition basically, generally orients at a conformist sort of authoritarian stance. Where you look to others for external authority, validation, etc. So the religion is very good to say ‘here’s what we believe, here’s who we are, trust us we know better and it brings you up there’. That’s basically the stage of young adulthood, that’s 100% appropriate that you’re in that stage until young adulthood . . .

There comes that next stage though, stage 4. There comes a taking apart, it’s a complicating, it’s a moving from external authority to internal authority, it’s saying ‘I love and honor my parents, I love and honor my teachers, these prophets, these apostles. . . they’re always going to be valuable voices for me, but I’ve got to figure it out for myself, I’ve got to own it.’

I made it through Stage 4 in about 12 years, this was a long period of time. But I continued to hang in there . . . I was still having religious experiences that let me know somehow or other that there is still in the midst of the more chaotic part. . there is still peace to be had, that we’re on the right path. And then slowly but surely we gain that confidence of owning our own spirituality, owning our own truth; to where eventually as it talks about in Stage 5 & 6 that openness to paradox . . .

I’ll tell you, I have found room within Mormonism to hold all those things, to feel oriented even in the midst of the chaos. And if I have my plea. . . Please everybody, stay in this fight. If you can. . . . I tell you I want more people to own their spirituality. . . .

I have a problem with Wotherspoon’s statement in that I think he’s misapplying the Fowler Stages of Faith. I think he’s using the Stages of Faith as a prescriptive tool rather than a descriptive one. What I mean is that he’s setting Stage 6 as a goal for religious believers, as a benchmark of spiritual maturity rather than using Stage 6 as a means of describing a certain type of religious believer.
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Be afraid. . . be very afraid.

I saw this video the other day, and I have to say that it struck a deep chord. At first it made me very happy that BYU was finally allow some open social outlet for gay students to socialize.  Then it hit me how big a challenge it will be for Mormons and Evangelicals to deal with the fact of homosexuality.

Listening to these kids stories about how they discovered that they were gay in the context of being active, faithful mormons made me realize, perhaps for the first time, how ridiculously awful it would be to be a 12 year old mormon kid discovering that you were gay.  I remember how religious I was at that age, how devoted, finding out that I was gay would have been the ultimate betrayal and would have ended my spirituality or my connection to the Church.  And the nature of the reaction of my friends and family would be the test of whether Christianity was bunk or not. Perhaps the reason that when I was young, I never saw or heard anything like what I hear in the videos. Because it was not in front of me, it was really easy not to realize the crucible that the believing Mormon gay child is in. If I had, it would have been hard to stay Mormon or Christian at all.

Seeing the kids in the video, still very much engaged in Mormonism on a sincere level, It made my heart hurt. I don’t know really how I would be able to deal with it. My brother, who knew gay friends at BYU, and struggles with depression, told me with all sincerity that he would have certainly killed himself if he was gay. The straight majority in the church simply does not recognize the gravity of the situation.   These kids cannot be both gay and Mormon without seriously twisting something that is part of them.

The fact that homosexuality exists as a natural phenomena among those that are close to God within the faith throws a very powerful curve ball at both Mormons and Evangelicals. Unlike with heterosexuality, which is channeled and controlled, homosexuality must be eliminated, or certain deeply held tenants must be abandoned.

When it comes to Evangelicals or Mormons I don’t know who has the bigger problem. For Mormons, being gay shatters the careful conception of what the pinnacle of life on earth is all about (covenants, eternal marriage, pro-creation). In my experience, People don’t talk about being gay in Mormon Church, it is not accepted, most of what is said about it is by the vocal minority who is firmly anti-gay.    Evangelicals might have an easier time.  I think it may be easier to “sin” and talk about it, and even being an active sexual “sinner” and still feel connected to Evangelicals christianity.  Partly because Mormons may kick you out if you are at all open and unrepentant about it.  However Evangelicals seem to play a lot bigger part in anti-gay activism, because of the sheer size of the group in comparison with Mormonism, and the de-centralized nature, there are a lot more vocal bigots in Evangelicalism.

The problem is that both groups can be deeply un-Christian about how they approach the problem.  The black mark this leaves on Mormonism and Evangelicalism, in the eyes a gay person who embraces their sexuality, or to anybody else who holds their sexuality dear is difficult to overstate.   An institutional stance that is anything short of deeply empathetic and loving makes a church seem like a absurd charade of the love that Jesus spoke of.

The reason why homophobia may be intractable is that Mormons and Evangelicals should be afraid on an institutional level.  The fact of natural homosexuality requires institutional change if either group is to remain followers of Jesus.  It’s hard for me to see how either group provides a satisfying answer to the person who feels God in and through their experiences of sexuality AND openly embraces a “alternative lifestyle”.   Which means, no matter how spiritually compelling either Mormonism or Evangelicalism is, they are going to appear to be very limited or broken for anybody who understands that God wants some people to be gay AND close to Him.   Just as they have to tweak their theology to account for the unfathomable size and complexity of the universe, they are going to have to change in order to get in line with this reality.  Of course this very sort of change may cause foundations to crumble.

I never quite saw this fact before this video. Hearing and seeing the human problem is necessary to make non-gay realize it.  My guess is that more open, honest and loving discussions of homosexuality within Mormonism and Evangelicalism will mean dramatic changes within both, or simply a larger exodus from a faith that has lost touch with the real world.

At this point, if my child was gay, I would actively try to de-convert them from both Evangelicalism and Mormonism because, at least to this child, neither seem to be carrying the torch of Christian love and understanding.

Believers, what can be done?

Enquiring of the Lord

There has been a lot of ink spilled on the reliability of a spiritual witness here and elsewhere. My position in a nutshell is that a personal spiritual witness is important and encouraging in directing a person toward faith in God, but it is not enough by itself in isolation of all other things.

This quote by Joseph Smith perfectly sums up the reason why I think that’s true.

When a man enquires of the Lord concerning a matter, if he is deceived by his own carnal desires, and is in error, he will receive an answer according to his erring heart, but it will not be a revelation from the Lord.

John Wesley has been credited with something that’s been named the Wesleyan Quadrilateral which I think is a useful tool in helping us discern what is from God and what is from our own carnal desires. When we seek spiritual inspiration and direction we rely on:

  • Scripture
  • Tradition
  • Reason
  • Experience

What do you think? Are spiritual revelations enough or do we need more?

Top 10 Anti-Mormon Comments of 2011?

I spotted this article in the Deseret news which referenced’s article naming 2011’s “Top” Anti-Mormon statements.   I will quote the entire list and explanation here because the original does not allow for comments.

1. “By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion.” Bill Maher, October 15, 2011, George Washington University, as reported by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, October 18, 2011.

2. “[Mormonism is] one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.” Christopher Hitchens, Slate, October 17, 2011.

3. “The theology comes across as totally barmy. We can become gods with our own planets! And the practices strike me as creepy. No coffee and tea is bad enough. But the underwear!” Michael Ruse, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 30, 2011.

4. “The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as ‘prophet, seer and revelator,’ is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy…” Harold Bloom, The New York Times, November 12, 2011.

5. “That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult…Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” Robert Jeffress, Values Voter Summit, October 7, 2011.

6. “I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve. Mitt Romney has said it is not his intent to promote Mormonism. Yet there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy—whether or not this is his intent—will be to promote Mormonism.” Warren Cole Smith,, May 24, 2011.

7. “Yes, it is my opinion that an indoctrinated Mormon should never be elected as President of the United States of America.” Tricia Erickson,, July 7, 2011.

8. “Mormonism is not an orthodox Christian faith. It just is not…it’s very clear that the founding fathers did not intend to preserve automatically religious liberty for non-Christian faiths.” Bryan Fischer, Focal Point radio show, September 2011.

9. “Can you name the candidate that’s running for president that believes that if he’s a good person in his religion he will receive his own planet?…Would you vote for someone for president who believes in their religion, if he’s a good person, he’ll get his own planet?…Do you want to get your own planet?” Ben Ferguson, Fox 13 News, Memphis TN, July 6, 2011.

10. “The Christian coalition, I think [another candidate] could get a lot of money from that, because Romney, obviously, not being a Christian…” Ainsley Earhart, Fox and Friends, July 17, 2011.

Mormonvoices explains:

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Review: The Deep Things of God

There are 3 things that Evangelicals want to know about the Trinity:

1. Is it Biblical?

2. Does it make sense?

3. Does it matter?

Fred Sanders, in his book ” The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything decides to charge at these three questions in a different way. The book in no way offers an overview of the historic development of the doctrine. It does not delve into the philosophical mathematics of the Trinity. It doesn’t even offer “triadic prooftexts” to support the doctrine.  Instead Sanders spends his entire time on the third question “Does it Matter?” I came away from just the first couple of chapters with the impression that the Trinity isn’t just one of many Christian doctrines, it is probably our most important and most defining doctrine. Everything we say and do as Christians is a testimony to the existence of the Trinity.

Many Evangelicals are Christ-centered, Father-forgetful and Spirit-ignoring.  There is a general malaise toward the doctrine of the Trinity that causes Evangelicals to think “it’s kind of weird, it’s not something I want to think about, and I’ll go no further than to sheepishly agree because I don’t quite get it.” The book challenges those notions by fine-tuning our understanding of all our other doctrines so that we can see how the Trinity is at the center of action of all of them.

Many would prefer to prioritize “What does faith do for me?” over “Who is God?” It makes sense that people would do this because it’s practical and has an affect on their day-to-day lives.  But Sanders responds “a better way of underlining what God has done on our behalf is to keep it securely anchored in his own inherent goodness.”

This diagram illustrates his point that the doctrine of the Trinity can be useful in understanding how and why God has acted in a particular way toward us.

A person may be satisfied and not ask any further questions after being given salvation, but typically when someone steps into faith they begin to seek understanding.  The ripple effects of salvation leads the believer to question “How did Jesus bring about this salvation?” then on to “Who must Jesus be to save in this way?” and then on to “Who must God be, if that is true of Jesus?”

“If you notice. . . how much bigger the outer circle is, you can begin to see how Trinitarian theology can help us maintain a proper sense of proportion. The Trinity is bigger than you and your salvation and has other things going on in the parts of the circle that don’t overlap with your circle. Those other parts of the Trinity are the rest of the fullness of God’s own life, the happy land of the Trinity. It is not possible to draw it to scale, because it is infinite, boundless and finally inconceivable. There are parts of that happy land that you don’t go to, and you never will. I cannot describe to you what happens there and neither can anybody else, for God has remained silent about those regions.” (page 74)

My take away from the book is that by finely tuning our religious practice into the frequency of the Trinity we get a much greater sense of who God is, what he is doing and why we are allowed to participate. Instead of making the Trinity an item on a list that we affirm “our tacit Trinitarianism must be coaxed out, articulated and confessed. . . . it does us little good if we continue to be radically Trinitarian without knowing it. We are at risk of staying in the shallows when God calls us to the deep things.”

I think Sander’s real gem is found in the introduction. He cites two great problems facing Evangelicalism, shallowness and Trinity-forgetfulness. Not coincidentally they are related.  Evangelicals would like to emphasize four things: the Bible, the cross, conversion and heaven.  Those are probably the right things for us to emphasize.  But being emphatic is different than being reductionist.  If we emphasize those four things by isolating them out of the main body of Christian truth, we very quickly create an anemic faith. Shouting “the cross! the cross! the cross! the cross!” over and over again very quickly makes the cross meaningless.  “The gospel reduced to four points ceases to make sense unless its broader context can be intuited.”

“Knowing what to emphasize in order to simplify the Christian message is a great skill. It is not the same thing as rejecting nuances or impatiently waving away all details in order to cut to the main point. There is a kind of anti-intellectualism that is only interested in the bottom line, and considers everything else disposable. Certainly that kind of ant-intellectualism can be found in evangelical history, but it is a deviation from the true ideal. Emphatics are not know-nothings. The emphatic approach to Christian witness has a different impulse. It knows that the only way to emphasize anything is precisely to keep everything in place, not to strip it away.” (page 17)

I’m frustrated by Evangelicals who wish to declare Mormonism to be Christian by reducing Christianity to its most simplistic confessions. This explanation of emphatic Evangelicalism vs. Reductionist Evangelicalism perfectly nails down my thoughts on why I’m bothered by it.

“A blade is not all cutting edge. In fact, the cutting edge is the smallest part of the knife. The rest of the knife is the heavy heft of the broad flat sides and the handle. Considered all by itself, the cutting edge is vanishingly small — a geometric concept instead of a usable object.” Christianity reduced to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved” is meaningless outside of the much larger context of who Jesus is, how Jesus saves and why we need salvation.  The Reductionist successfully brings Mormonism into the camp of orthodoxy by effectively declaring “there is no camp.”

The Least of My Brothers

My wife has dedicated her life to the issues surrounding poverty and world hunger and specifically what Christians can do about them.  So it was to my surprise that she illuminated to me a reading of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats that undercut every take on it I had ever heard.  But it also offered a relief to a conflict it seemed to offer in regards to our salvation not coming about “by our works” (so that no one can boast).

I hated this song, but my view of this parable was largely influenced by the very guilt-inducing rendition offered by Christian folk singer Keith Green. If you’ve never heard of Keith Green, you will gain an enormous amount of insight into late 70’s – early 80’s Evangelical culture by listening to this one song.

What was new to me was a new look at the words “brothers of mine”

The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

It seems that this was not the only place in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus had used the word “brothers”.  In fact a distinct pattern can be found.  Matthew consistently records that Jesus called his disciples his “brothers.”

Here are just two quick examples.

Matthew 12: 48-50

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 28: 9-10

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

It’s likely that when Jesus said “least of these brothers of mine” he pointed straight at his disciples. This flips the entire meaning of the parable from being about what Christians do with the oppressed to being about what people do with oppressed Christians.

Please, don’t hear me saying that I think Christians are now off the hook for caring for the “the least”.  The rest of the scriptures are full of admonitions to feed, clothe and advocate for the oppressed.  In fact I think Christians should feel justified to go on caring for others as if they are caring for Jesus. But this parable isn’t about that, this parable is about the final judgment.

Green had it right at the end of his song; the only thing separating the sheep and the goats was what they did.  What he missed was that they were being judged for what they did . . . with those who were carrying the gospel of Jesus.

We All Need a Reason

In comments on an earlier post I had argued that everyone comes to faith in a religious belief system through either experience, authority or reason (ideally all three would play a role).

BrianJ asked me to clarify with these questions:

Suppose I find that following the principles found in the New Testament makes me happier, time and time again. That’s an experience argument, I know. But at what point can I start to view the NT as an “authority on happy choices” by your definition? Or, if I apply the “by their fruits ye shall know them” test, at what point does it become sound reasoning to consider the NT as a thoroughly vetted source?

Actually, that’s probably jumping ahead too much. Just help me understand this: How do you determine what you will view as “authority”?

To clarify and expand my earlier thoughts. It would be very rare for someone to come to faith based on authority, reason and experience all at the same time. But as faith matures and the believer is discipled into their worldview I believe you will see people incorporate all three into their belief systems. As a cord of three strands is not easily broken, the reliability of authority, reason and experience will support one another if any of the three is attacked. In fact, to convert anyone from one faith system to another the concerns of authority, reason and experience more often than not must all be addressed.

To make a specific example, many Catholics are persuaded to believe and behave a certain way because of the authority they believe the Vatican, and their local priest hold. An individual may learn to respect that authority from the authority of their parents or their larger culture. Allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and further allegations of cover up by bishops and cardinals should to some degree threaten that authority. But despite these troublesome reports, many Catholics remain faithful, some despite being directly abused. The reasons they may remain faithful have to do with their positive spiritual experiences in mass or while practicing spiritual disciplines as well as their exposure to deep thinking Catholic writings and philosophy (starting with their catechism). The attack on Catholic authority will only threaten faith in the Catholic church if it overwhelms a Catholic’s positive experience with Catholic experience and Catholic reason.

There may be any number of people who are part of a belief system because of only one of the three (authority, reason, experience). But those people are probably most at risk for a loss in faith. The person who only relies on reason will find their spiritual life stale. The person who only relies on experience will find their faith easily attacked by outside questions and may not weather through persecution or dark nights of the soul. The person who only relies on authority will only follow that authority so long as it doesn’t conflict with their outside experiences with reason or emotional/spiritual well-being.

If you’re clever enough, you can recognize that every anti-Mormon argument is an attack at authority, reason or experience. Similarly, every encouragement toward baptism by Mormon missionaries is an appeal to authority, reason or experience.

Brian asked me “How do you determine what you will view as “authority”?” I have placed authority in primarily two places in my spiritual life. The first is the leadership of my local church. I give them authority in my religious life simply because I choose to. I recognize the need for structure and leadership in a congregation. I also appreciated what was happening in my church before I started attending and what continues to take place there. Their wisdom holds good fruit. Earlier in my life I may have also granted them authority based on their greater education and experience. Their authority in my life is a weaker authority because I believe other congregations hold the same qualities and can easily replace the Elders in my church (as compared to the Mormon and Catholic belief in only one priesthood).

The second place I trust as an authority is the Bible. I learned to trust the Bible as an authority initially from my parents and from my surrounding culture in Oklahoma. As the song goes, “for the Bible tells me so” was enough motivation to believe or behave in any particular way. Pointing to a Bible verse was enough to convince me. This was considered culturally appropriate and also the way my family did things. In time I learned reasons to believe the Bible was historically reliable and I had positive and powerful experiences following its teachings that convinced me to continue trusting the Bible. I’ve also added my trust in the traditions of my Christian ancestors (another source of authority) as a reason to trust and rely on the Bible.

As you can see, from just this one example, authority, reason and experience have found a way to intertwine themselves around one another in my religious life and it doesn’t stop there. When I have a spiritual experience (see a miracle, hear voices, feel unwittingly deeply emotional) I test those experiences against what my sources of authority and reason say (as well as what my past spiritual experiences were like). If I encounter troubling historical or philosophical arguments against Christianity, I consult or rely on my sources of authority and my past experiences until I can overcome or resolve those issues (in addition to the reasons I already believe Christianity to be true).

In that earlier post I antagonized spiritual experiences as being sufficient or useful in evaluating all religious claims. It’s not a problem for Mormonism to point to reason and authority as a motivation to believe (in addition to spiritual experience). This is exactly how faith in all religious belief is formed. In fact Mormonism already quite frequently directs investigators and believers to authority and reason. When anyone says “when the Prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” they are making an authority claim. When Mormon missionaries point investigators to Moroni’s Promise, they are holding the Book of Mormon up as a source of trusted authority. When Mormons visit Missouri to catch a glimpse of what was once Adam-ondi-Ahman or go on Book of Mormon tours of Central America, they are adding a source of historical reason to their faith. When Elder Holland called on believers and critics alike to consider Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s use of the Book of Mormon for spiritual comfort as they faced martyrdom as well as the evidence of chiasmus he was pointing toward reason.

Neither authority, nor reason, nor experience sit alone in developing faith. Spiritual fruit is not limited to experience, we can also find good and bad fruit in authority and good and bad fruit in reason. When any of the three are neglected or eschewed we are likely to find the kind of poor soil that Jesus said would not produce any fruit.

It’s True

When I was a kid I heard rumors of video of an entire tribe in Papua New Guinea accepting the Gospel message all at the same time and then breaking into a massive celebration that lasted several hours.  I saw a portion of the video several years later.  For some reason it just occurred to me that the video would now be on YouTube and I found it tonight.

This will give you a good idea of an evangelism technique used by New Tribes Missions.  They exclusively seek out tribes which have never heard the message of the Bible.

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

Guest post by Seth, an active member of the LDS church

There is no telling the amount of damage that has been done in the world in the name of a good argument. Argument and debate are a natural part of the process of understanding other people and this is as true of inter-faith dialogue as any other aspect of our society. But we do have to be careful in how we argue. Argument can be very damaging – not just to our opponents, but to ourselves as well.

One way this manifests itself, is when we push an argument that turns out to be just as damaging to our own position as the opposing position. A quick example might show what I mean.

Some time ago, I came across a blog run by an avowed ex-Mormon who had, however, remained “Christian” in affiliation. She was voicing various concerns about her former faith and explaining why she had rejected it. One of the reasons she gave for leaving the LDS faith was the supposed lack of empirical evidence for the Book of Mormon and it’s historical claims. She noted that while the Bible had some hard evidence showing some of its content to be historically-bases, the Book of Mormon completely lacked such evidence, and was therefore not a credible document to her.

Now, I’ve been around the block a few times on the interfaith dialogue circuit, and this argument always annoys me to no end. It just seems to show a lack of awareness of one’s own position and what really provides the foundation for faith. The truth, as I see it, is that while the Bible may have some of it’s historical incidentals corroborated by the undisputed weight of historical and archeological evidence (like the existence of an actual city of Jerusalem, and the fact of a man named Jesus Christ living), it’s faith claims completely lack any such evidence or proof.

Since both the Bible and Book of Mormon claim to be primarily religious texts, it seems apparent to me that – in ways that matter – the texts are equally unproven by empirical evidence (I realize some Evangelicals like to point to eyewitness testimony of the resurrection – but until these people are willing to give equal weight and credibility to the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, I’m not inclined to take these arguments too seriously). It has always been apparent to me that belief in either book is first and foremost a matter of faith in that which is not seen. Evidence is just the icing on the cake for people who already believe. It is not an adequate basis for faith.

Furthermore, I have been arguing over matters of faith long enough to realize that whatever “hard evidence” you think you have, there is always someone out there knowledgeable enough to call it into question. I also have realized that hard evidence has a disturbing habit of becoming outmoded, outdated, and discredited by new discovery. It always seemed like a foundation of sand to me.

So, full of irritation, I waded into the comments section to show this deluded soul what’s-what, and defend my own faith “for the umpteenth time” against this silly and misguided attack.

Well, I made my points, had a bit of back and forth arguing about them, and left feeling like I had defended my position, and my faith well. Just another day’s work in the defense of the true faith. What a hero!

Well, a week or two later, I was browsing the latest new content at the blog of an atheist ex-Mormon whose measured and respectful opinion I have always respected and valued. And he had a new post up – and I was mentioned by name! We bloggers can’t help but feel pleased when other people online are talking about us. Well, what’s this about?

I’m afraid it wasn’t all that flattering. He pointed out my response as an example of how a Mormon SHOULD NOT witness to other Christians. He noted that Mormons supposedly believe in Jesus too, and we are hardly well-served by undermining what basis for faith in Jesus other people may have. His paraphrasing of my argument basically boiled down to:

“Well, my faith might be ridiculous, but yours is just as stupid.”

Which, he noted, is really only a good method for creating a brand-new atheist. Reeling a bit with the irony of being reprimanded by an atheist for undermining someone else’s faith in God, went back to the Christian ex-Mormon’s blog and offered a sheepish apology along with a statement of my belief in the Bible. The apology was graciously accepted, and via continued interaction I was reassured that my opponent’s faith in the Bible had not been irredeemably damaged.

But I was still a bit shaken by the implications of what might have been. Those of us who debate regularly on the internet tend to get a bit thick-skinned and callous, due to the repeated experience of having our treasured beliefs and opinions challenged, and even ridiculed. We also get used to debating people who are just as jaded as we are. After a while, we tend to assume everyone out there is like that – a hardened ideologue who is likely immune to most of the arguments you can make. We start to assume that – if you are on the Internet, that must mean you “came to play hardball.” And the gloves come off.

But I don’t think that was true at all of this particular blogger. She turned out to be much more sincere than I gave her credit for, and my words really did seem like they might shaken her faith a bit. I of course, expecting a hardened ideologue, did not expect this. But the whole experience was a reminder not to forget the people we are arguing against. There is a real person there behind the screen. We cannot lose sight of that as we “prep for battle.”

This makes interfaith dialogue something of a delicate operation – which is unfortunate for me, because I’m not always a “delicate touch.” You never know how much that “false doctrine” you are arguing against is intertwined with something vital in their overall faith life. Like a barbed arrowhead that has lodged close to some vital arteries. You can’t just rip the cursed thing out. You might kill the patient.

There’s probably more that could be said on this subject, but for now, it might be a good idea for us to step back and realize that, while we are at each other’s throats on occasion, we also are all in this thing called “faith” together. And we probably ought to be supportive of each other.

Fellowship in Christ.

What Place for Unbelief in Faith

Mormon Matters has an interesting post on unbelief and remaining in the LDS church. Just as interesting are a number of comments that respond to the post.  They raise an interesting question about the place of unbelief in a religious faith.

I don’t think I would say it as strongly as this, but this comment by Jettboy kind of resonates with me

With that said, I will say that I find your leaving the LDS Church because you no longer believe in it much more moral than those who stay within. They are spiritual liars and wolves in sheep clothing, and I am not afraid to say that. That is because I DO believe in its theology, authority, scriptures, divinity and Truth! My problem isn’t for those who have some faith and some doubts and are seeking for greater faith. My problem is for those who don’t believe, aren’t seeking to believe, and simply go through the motions. They make me very angry and I feel are getting in the way of blessings and the mission of Mormonism. My fear has never been that the LDS Church will lose members, but that its members will lose faith. I lost the quote (and if anyone can find it for me I would be very thankful), but a Brigham Young quote influenced me greatly. He said, paraphrasing from memory, he would rather be the last or among a handful to believe than have a huge number of members who don’t believe.

I think that if a church is made up of a large group of people who don’t actually believe the heart of the “story” you’ve got the makings of a dead church.  The church is at that point just minding the money of a social club that revolves around acting out some quaint traditions that used to mean a great deal to some one else.  There’s no impulse to evangelize or affect the culture around you.  It’s just acting out the worst parts of religion.

That anyone intentionally makes time to attend a liberal christian church just baffles me.  As Paul says, if it’s not true, we are fools to be pitied.  Why would you want to play the part of a fool? I have to think that unbelievers would actually be more satisfied outside of the church. I’m convinced life is lived better without a fascade.

Mormons and Evangelicals, Can we rally around the Cross?

Recently I bought a couple of cool Ethiopian Orthodox cross in a flea market in Helsinki. I started wearing it. I have been reading the New Testament with my two daughters (8 years and 10 years) and I recently read The Last Temptation of Christ and the cross has been sort of a symbol for my renewed interest in what it means for me to be a Christian, so I have been wearing it nearly all the time for the last couple of weeks.

My wife questioned whether it was appropriate for me to wear it or use it as a symbol considering the prevailing Mormon position on the cross, i.e. we don’t use it as a symbol of Christ at all. I did some cursory research and found the standard justifications for not using the cross (i.e. that its a symbol of the torture and death of Christ by romans rather than the atonement and resurrection and that it is not an original primitive Christian symbol) but I could not find the origin of the tradition. I checked the handbook of instructions for priesthood leaders and found no reference to the cross. I am pretty sure that a prohibition against crosses is not in the Scriptures so it makes me wonder whether the prohibition might be hurtful to the cause.

So I have a bunch of questions.

For Evangelicals: What would your reaction be to Mormons using the cross as a symbol, would it make you all more likely to sympathize with Mormons as followers of Christ? (or would it be seen as more craftiness to dupe people into believing we are really Christians.)

For Mormons: is there any harm in allowing or even embracing the use of the cross? Is it “selling out” to gain acceptance from more worldly (less inspired) churches? Is a feeling of stronger brotherhood with other believers in Christ a good thing or a hindrance to the work of the restoration and the “gathering of the elect.”? Is there anything really doctrinally unacceptable with the cross, if so, where is the revelation that tells us this?

I am not sure of my own view yet so it would be interesting to hear from all who have anything to say.

(Forgive me if this was discussed previously I could not find any previous post on this with a search of the blog, but I might have missed it)