The Message of Sin to a Mormon Missionary

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

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

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Mormon Doctrine as Positive Law

Gundek suggested I lay out my thinking regarding Mormonism as a system of positive laws. Here goes:

The LDS Church is structured in the doctrine of unity. To them, Christ  himself decreed: “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27.)  This command is still at the very root of the way the Church is run today.  This unity is also at the heart of the project of the Church, which is to bring about Zion.  To the LDS, the concept of Zion was simply defined by Jehovah who applied that name to the city established by the antediluvian Enoch “because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.) Zion is a sort of heaven on earth, so much so that, in theory, when people approach Zion in practice, they are translated, i.e. taken to heaven to await the final establishment of Zion.

Unity of heart and mind is generally considered a celestial standard by the LDS, which generally means that it is part of the higher law, the political goal striven for in this life, but ultimately reached after the Second Coming of Christ.  In theory, the Church was designed as the human vehicle for establishment of Zion on earth. As a Mormon, I saw most of the law throughout Biblical and LDS church as human groping with the Spirit to form a Zion society.  The law differed from time-to-time based on what was needed to move toward Zion. The differences were based what the culture and temperament of the people that followed God could sustain.  The doctrines and practices are contingent and transitory steps to produce Zion rather than dogmatic principles of theology.

What this has meant, in practice, is that the political unity of the Church is the paramount priority over the perfection of its theology or practice. Getting the right answer on they way the church has run is less important than getting behind the leadership.  Most theological questions are intentionally left unanswered. In rough terms, this is a system where the policy of the Church is considered correct, not because of its intellectual justification, but fact that the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Membership have ratified it. The ultimate basis for the authority of the ratification comes from the conscience of the Church as it listens to the spirit. Thus, apostasy has little to do with theology or even argument, but a rejection of the structure that controls the ordinances of the Gospel.

In this way, most of the policies of the church are properly considered posited– i.e.  not directly derived from scripture, reason, or nature but established by proposition by the leadership and ratification by the membership. Unlike with Protestantism, Church doctrine and practice is not derived by interpretation of scripture through some hermeneutic principle. Church doctrine, including the content of Church covenants, is dependent on institutional facts, not the merits of a particular scriptural interpretation or philosophical argument.  This view was helpful to me as a Mormon in explaining the sweeping changes that have been made in the rules and practices and even the ordinances of the Church.  It also explains the pragmatic approach taken by the Church in policy over the years.

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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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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Explaining Jesus to a child: the witness of the spirit.

I put my six-year-old son to bed the other night and reminded him to say his prayers.  ten or fifteen minutes later he came down with a huge smile on his face, he wanted to call his mom and tell her something (his mother and I are not married anymore). It was too late so he went back to bed. First thing the next morning he came directly downstairs and called his mother to tell her about the feeling he had when he was praying.  He explained to her, and later me, that he had this amazing feeling when he was praying and could not stop smiling about it.  Watching this experience–like so many I have had as a parent– was like looking into a mirror reflecting myself at his age.

Of course this experience raises so many questions for me, and for perhaps should raise this questions for all Christians: How do we explain the witness of the Spirit to a child.

I actually do not have a good answer– a satisfactory explanation of spiritual experience like this is perhaps the biggest question I have in life. I know there are all kinds, including those that do not involve belief in God, but my son deserves one.  And he deserves one in language he can understand.  I reject many aspects of the explanation he is routinely given at LDS church, and I am not satisfied with what I did tell them.  So I put it to anyone who reads this–how would you explain this experience to my son, if he was yours?

You are FORGIVEN! – What Evangelicals have that Mormons don’t. (Part 1)

Universal sin is, perhaps, the fundamental building block of the Christian Religion.  Without sin, there is no need for the atonement of Jesus, the central focus of both Mormons and Evangelicals.

C.S. Lewis, in accord with other heavy hitters of Christian apologetics, contend that the most incontrovertible tenant of Christianity is original sin.  (However, my favorite exposition of this doctrine is, of course, found here.) Indeed, most all people have an internal moral compass, a conscience, that tells them that they fall short of perfection.  Those people incapable of feeling guilt are considered the most dangerous and potentially monstrous of all humans.  While I am not convinced that universal sin is “proven” by the facts, it is clear that most of the people we call good or conscientious would agree that falling short of internal and external aspirations is a common part of life.  Falling short is part of life not simply because we are defective, it seems to be an ingrained part of being a human to recognize that we do not live up to what our consciences aspire to.  Even those that are often completely blind to their own faults can usually point out the faults of others.   This brings guilt, perhaps one of the most important defenses against barbarism, yet it also one of those things that invariably saps happiness and joy from life.

What Christianity brings to the table is forgiveness. Evangelists tells us: “In Christ you will be saved and forgiven, white as snow.”  Where Evangelicalism and Mormonism diverge is how they dish up the meaty meal of forgiveness to the believer. (To be specific: I am talking about how the forgiveness of is felt and experienced, not about whether or not either approach is justified by scripture, revelation or theology.)

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What happens after we die?

This question is generally a fundamental question for believers and non-believers alike, often both groups are pretty certain about what its going to be like.  I am both unsure of a good answer to this question and very skeptical about those who have sure answers both Mormon and Evangelical.

Instead of going through all of the “orthodox” or “official” ideas on the subject, I think it would be profitable to understand what the readers of this blog believe on the subject and why.  I am primarily interested in the basis for the beliefs and the details behind it.

I think there is actually solid scientific evidence for life after death or the life of a spirit outside the body.

I also have solid belief and spiritual experience evidencing God in my life based on numerous experiences as a fully practicing LDS.

However, despite all this, I am very unclear of what is going to happen when we die.  As far as I can see, all we seem to have is a brief and uncertain view of the afterlife, and there are many interpretations.  I base my own concepts on two primary ideas.

  1. God loves us with a love that that is at least similar to what we can understand, e.g. good parental love.
  2. God is just according to a concept of justice similar to what we understand.

Frankly, these two concepts cause me to disbelieve a lot of what is said about the afterlife so I would also be interested to know who believes these principles and  how everybody squares their belief in the afterlife with them.

I am also interested in how primal your belief regarding the afterlife is in the foundation of your faith.  Some become Christians out of fear of hell, others become Christians because Jesus is good and touches them and they never develop any fear of hell. Some are strong LDS because they want to go to the Celestial Kingdom- i.e. the best place, and some want to go to the Celestial Kingdom simply as a by-product of their LDS experiences.

For me this could be a helpful exercise for LDS and Evangelicals, and anybody else, to examine their own personal feelings about this issue while getting new perspectives on this very important area of faith.  Or it could just be a good way to kill some time during the day.

I know I am not offering a lot of my own feelings but I am really at a loss to offer any confident opinions.  I appreciate your thoughts in advance, Thanks for sharing!

Mormons believe in a Mother in Heaven

Since Tim is gone, I thought I would back him up by writing a Tim-Style Post.  i.e. throw out a controversial LDS doctrine in sort of a challenging way and then open it up for comments.

Few Mormon doctrines are more radically paradigm-shifting than the believe in the existence of a Heavenly Mother.

What equally interesting to me is what this particular doctrine tells about how Mormonism works.

I think Evangelicals often stand with open-mouth when they read that those crazy Mormon’s believe such things because they are nowhere to be found in the Bible.  Aside from being a radical shift in understanding of God and Man between Protestants and Mormons, the doctrine also shows a fundamental difference in the way Mormons form their personal theology vs. the way Evangelicals seem to go about it.  This is what I want to explore with this post.  To try to explain to bible-focused (limited?) Evangelicals why Mormons believe in a Mother in Heaven, even when its not in the bible.  For this I am going to have to call on the usual bunch of commentators.

Few people, if any, know the ultimate origin of the idea that we have a Mother in Heaven.  Joseph Smith does not seem to have spoken directly about it in his life and there is no reference in the LDS Canon.

The first time we see it in writing comes from a woman, Eliza R. Snow, in a hymn, “O My Father”  President Kimball acknowledged that “O My Father” was a “doctrinal hymn” and dozens of prophets and apostles have reiterated this idea.

President Lorenzo Snow explained that Eliza Snow got the doctrine from Joseph shortly before he was murdered.

President Spencer W. Kimball in a general conference address:

“When we sing that doctrinal hymn … ‘O My Father,’ we get a sense of the ultimate in maternal modesty, of the restrained, queenly elegance of our Heavenly Mother, and knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less?” (Ensign, May 1978, p. 6.)

The doctrine of the hymn is pretty straightforward, there is a mother in heaven and we will return to live with Her and the Father, and that they together sent people on their mission to earth:

I had learned to call thee Father,
Thru thy Spirit from on high,
But, until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal

Tells me I’ve a mother there.
Let me come and dwell with you.
With your mutual approbation
All you sent me forth to do,
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?

So there we have it, a revolutionary new way of looking at God and heaven that turns traditional notions on their ear.

Mormons believe it, but I can see the Evangelicals left scratching their heads:

  1. The doctrine is not found in scripture, including Mormon Scripture
  2. The doctrine was not explicitly taught or explained by Joseph Smith (even though it is pretty clear that he was claimed that he originally  taught the doctrine)
  3. It really shifts away from all traditional interpretations of the Bible.

I can see how an Evangelical is probably left dumbfounded:  “You can’t win with those Mormons, how can I teach them correct theology whenthey are going to beleive stuff like this with such slim support or understanding?”

Here we have, in my mind, the genius as well as the vulnerability of  Mormonism. . . our willingness to believe in things that are not in the Bible.  To some Mormons, this doctrine is very uncomfortable.  We sometimes downplay it and even reproach those that make “too much” of it due to the little we “know” about it.  To others, agreeing with Eliza R. Snow, it makes religion make more sense: i.e. “If man is made in the image of God, why wouldn’t there be family in heaven as well as on earth. ”

I think if we can give a good explanation to our Evangelical friends  of why we believe this doctrine, they will be a lot closer to really understanding Mormonism.  (and we might have a clearer way of understanding our own view of how “doctrine” is born).

So Mormons, explain to Evangelicals :

1. Do you believe in a Mother in Heaven? and

2. Why?

3. What is the significance of the doctrine to you, to the Church, and to the world?

Evangelicals, we know you don’t believe it, and we know its not in the Bible, if you try to understand why we believe you may learn a lot about Mormonism in general that will enlighten you on how we do religion in other areas.

How To Be A Successful Mormon Missionary

I think I know enough about the LDS missionary discussions that I know how to be a successful Mormon missionary. I’m confident that I could serve 2 years and bring in a number of baptisms with this method. It comes down to focusing your visits and your investigators on the right thing. There’s really no need to ever focus on the Book of Mormon, the need for modern prophets, the Great Apostasy, the restoration of the priesthood, temples or even Joseph Smith.

If you want to get baptisms it’s all about Moroni’s promise and Galatians 5:22-23.

First you have the investigator read this passage. If you can get someone to read this passage without at all considering if it’s authoritative or true the battle is almost won. It sounds authoritative, that’s good enough. Even if the investigator is skeptical about it’s authority, you ask them to test it anyways. The proof is in the pudding. What’s it really going to cost them to try it? It’s just a prayer, that’s easy right?

Moroni 10:3-5.
3 Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

Notice the part I highlighted “he will manifest the truth of it unto you”. This is where you’ve got them sold. Now all you have to do is tell them HOW he will manifest the truth to them. Have them read Galatians 5:22-23

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

You tell the investigator that this verse shows that peace and joy are a way the Spirit manifest truth to you. I’m totally taking this verse out of context. If you read the entire book of Galatians or even the entire chapter you’ll know that the “fruits of the Spirit” are outward manifestations in the life of a believer, they aren’t inward emotions that people experience. Just compare them to the preceding verses 19-21 which are the “fruits of the sinful life”

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

This verse being out of context is beside the point. Baptism is a worthy goal, so if we’re taking verses out of context, it’s okay since the end goal is beautiful and valuable.

The main point is that if you can convince someone that they can know something is true because they have the emotions of joy and peace you’re work is practically finished. If an investigator lets you in their home it’s likely that they already have some kind of positive emotions directed toward you or the LDS church. Missionaries are often charming and good looking. Their clean cut across the board. The church is full of nice and wholesome people. It’s not difficult to find reasons for people to feel good about the church. I think investigators generally already WANT to feel good about the church. It’s really not all that hard to manifest good feelings. Try smiling while you read this, you’ll automatically feel more positive about it. Start asking the investigator if they feel good about anything associated with the Book of Mormon or the LDS church. If they say “yes” to anything, let them know that’s the witness of the Holy Spirit in their life. They know it’s true and they’re ready for baptism.

If the investigator has not accepted this, don’t move on. Stay with it. Everything else is an up hill battle unless they’ve accepted that spiritual truth is communicated through positive feelings. If you’ve convinced them that good feelings = truth from God, then they will take whatever other beliefs that come with the LDS church no matter how difficult they are to believe or live out.

In fact you have a built in defense mechanism. Any evidence that might contradict the church will cause negative emotions in the new believer. Since they believe that God brings good emotions, anything that causes negative emotions must be from Satan, and thus should be ignored and avoided.

This is all that is required to be a successful Mormon missionary.

The Only True Church of Jesus Christ

Pope Benedict XVIA couple weeks ago the Vatican raised eyebrows when Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church of Jesus Christ. Obviously, given that this blog is a conversation between Evangelicals and Mormons, many of us would disagree with that claim. But I think it’s a fascinating bit of news that is relevant to both the Mormon claim to legitimacy and our previous conversation of how to define Christianity.

The Vatican’s announcement basically said that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church of Jesus Christ because only the Catholic Church can claim the requisite authority from Christ through apostolic succession. Echoing a similar 2000 statement, the Pope said that other orthodox churches were flawed churches, and that other Christian denominations weren’t even churches at all, but instead, ecclesiastical communities. Presumably, this would include all Evangelical denominations and perhaps the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well.

This isn’t actually anything new — the Roman Catholic Church has claimed its place as the true church of Christ all along, not just in 2000 and 2007. The Mormon Church makes a similar claim to authority, through through revelation and modern prophets rather than apostolic authority. Coming from an LDS background, I was very surprised when I first discovered that many (if not most) Christian denominations don’t make similar claims. In a simplistic view, why would you subscribe to a faith that doesn’t even think it’s the right one?

Of course, the simplistic view is woefully incomplete. As Tim described in an earlier post, many Protestant Christian denominations accept baptism and communion from other denominations. They see themselves as part of a world-wide family of Christian worshipers, and the idea of claiming sole authority is alien to them. Tim described that view when he wrote:

When the LDS church defines “the one true church” it leaves everyone else out. It says that all baptisms are invalid outside of the LDS church. It says that taking the sacrament is invalid everywhere outside the LDS church. It says that there is no priesthood authority outside the LDS church. In effect, the LDS church’s position that it is the one and only true church is saying that there is no true Christian worship outside of Mormonism.

While most Mormons would describe their claim to authority in less exclusive terms, that is essentially what they assert — that they and only they have the full truth and gospel of Jesus Christ, with the requisite power and authority to perform saving ordinances and conduct His church. That is also exactly the claim the Vatican has reaffirmed in its recent statement. Like the 2000 announcement, the statement is somewhat controversial because many see it as an implicit rejection or indictment of other faiths. But I don’t think claiming to have the truth is inherently exclusionary. Mormon Church spokesman Michael Otterson observed on his On Faith blog:

Obviously, many other Christians disagree with [the LDS Church’s claim to divine authority] as much as I believe in it, and there ought to be vigorous and constructive debate. Yet I can also acknowledge fundamental differences between Christian churches (many of them clearly irreconcilable) without being offended. It matters not one whit to me that the Catholic and some other churches don’t accept “Mormon” baptisms. We don’t accept theirs either. But I can look for a deeper mutual understanding of those differences, strive for good will and hope to embrace others as fellow Christians.

Like Otterson, I’m not particularly offended by the claims of the Catholic Church. I certainly hope they think they’re right. Even without agreeing with them, I can respect their right to claim authority, just as I hope they respect the claim of my own faith. I don’t see such claims as condemning other followers of Christ. The position of my own church is that other churches are full of faithful, good people who believe many of the true principles of the Gospel of Christ. From what I understand of the Vatican statement and the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church also recognizes the good works of other churches or “ecclesiastical communities.” Rather than interpreting the Catholic or Mormon claims as an indictment of the rest of Christianity, I see it as their sincere attempts to draw closer to Christ and the truth He taught. And that is something I can always respect.

Richard Dutcher Hates Mediocre Art

Walking into Christian bookstores sometimes makes me want to puke. What we’ve decided to settle for makes me sick.

As a Christian artist one of the things that frustrates me the most about the Christian culture is the acceptance of mediocre art. More often than not Christians accept bad art just because there’s a Bible verse attached to it. What it says is that people are more interested in propoganda than beauty. Quality artwork expresses both beauty (perhaps “craft” is a better word) and truth. Sometimes a piece of art will more strongly represent one of these than the other. But it seems that to enter into our Christian ghetto the most important feature of art is that it express only things which are safe and uncontroversial. Such a representation is not only a false view of life, its a false view of Christianity and the Bible.

I have never seen any of Richard Dutcher’s films. I have no idea if what he produces has any quality. But he wrote an editorial which I think is powerful and accurate for many reasons. He wrote it to the Mormon media community, but I think what he has to say has a larger audeince than just Latter Day Saints.

Dutcher says:
In my experience, those who wave the flag of “family films” are usually those who have discovered that they lack anything valuable to say, the talent to say it, and the ability to compete in the marketplace. They are looking for a popular cause to compensate for (and to excuse) their lack of ability.

Concentrate on the presence of positives in your films, not merely the absence of negatives. Focus more on the presence of good acting, writing and cinematography and less on the absence of profanity, women’s breasts and gunfights. Passionately adhere to the guideline that it is better to tell an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie.

Stop trying to make movies that you think the General Authorities would like. General Authorities buy very few movie tickets. Make films that the rest of the human family will enjoy. Stop being afraid that if you put something “edgy” in your films then maybe you won’t get any important callings. Who cares? Someone else can be in the bishopric or the Relief Society presidency, but no one else can make those films, those very personal films, that only you can make.

At the end of his article Mr. Dutcher makes it sound like he is leaving the LDS community. This makes me sad. I think someone with his perspective is desperately needed to communicate Mormon stories and values. I hope more like him arise in the Evangelical world.