Obsessed with Christ

This is a response to  Steven E. Webb on Mormonism’s obsession with Christ.

“I have come to repent of this view, and not just because I came to my senses about how wrong it is to be rude toward somebody else’s faith. I changed my mind because I came to realize just how deeply Christ-centered Mormonism is. Mormonism is more than Christianity, of course—most obviously by adding the Book of Mormon to the Bible—and that makes it much less than Christianity as well. Nevertheless, the fact that Mormonism adds to the traditional Christian story does not necessarily mean that it detracts from Christianity to the point of denying it altogether.

After all, what gives Christianity its identity is its commitment to the divinity of Jesus Christ. And on that ground Mormons are more Christian than many mainstream Christians who do not take seriously the astounding claim that Jesus is the Son of God.

Mormonism is obsessed with Christ, and everything that it teaches is meant to awaken, encourage, and expand faith in him. It adds to the plural but coherent portrait of Jesus that emerges from the four gospels in a way, I am convinced, that does not significantly damage or deface that portrait.”

Does anybody have an idea how common this logic is used to support the church? I think it is honest, but unsettling. I am with Chesterton on this:

“[T]he next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And aparticular point of it is that the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it. They are on a debatable ground, in every sense of the term. They are doubtful in their very doubts.”

Yikes, sounds a lot like my boy Uchtdorf.

I think Mormons need to be wary of anything that is “much less” than Christianity. Anything less Christian than the run-of-the-mill non-Catholicism that parades around as Protestantism needs to be highly questioned.  The Church needs to become closer to the type of Christian Joseph Smith was, however ironic that sounds.  It seems like Joseph Smith simply shot a bunch of charismatic and smart guys on an incredible trajectory.  They did amazing things and all that, but can they really settle for something “LESS” than the Christianity of legend?

“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable”

Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15:

Now if Christ is preached that He rose from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not risen. If Christ has not risen, then our preaching is vain, and your faith is also vain.  Yes, and we would then be found false witnesses of God, because we have testified that God raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up, if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ has not been raised.  If Christ is not raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then they also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

I can see why Paul draws this conclusion, but I don’t understand this as a good argument for the resurrection of the dead.  Does our joy in Christ prove that the joy will last? I am not sure that this makes sense.

I can see the argument that my joy in Christ might be “counterfeit” like it is often said of Mormons. Does consciousness of death without conscious of resurrection even qualify as “joy in Christ”?

What Mormons don’t get about the Telestial Kingdom

Many Mormons got a bit bent about my “off-the-wall” post about how the LDS Church could advance itself dramatically by adopting a more grace-based theology, and that Uchtdorf’s talk was a great step in that direction. Many claimed that “Mormons have taught this all along”.   I see where they are coming from, because I might have claimed this as a Mormon.  This was my attempt to salvage a clumsy attempt to explain to Mormons that in Joseph Smith’s own theology everybody get’s a free ride to heaven through God’s grace:

Me: I’m being serious. When we confront the reality of death and hell we fear God, and recognize that we have no capacity to escape death or hell, even with our great choices. Our only hope to escape the disease is to simply look to Christ and live. Reasonably people often recognize that they do not have any freedom except in Christ, because they cannot escape hell, and they cannot escape their guilt. When we can grasp that in Christ we are redeemed, the joy of the redemption transforms us. If we react to the joy we will live, if we deny the joy, we are doomed. This is really our only choice, but it is a simple choice and the fruits of that choice, including the resulting power to live the celestial law, is all a free gift from God.

What Joseph Smith saw about the next life doesn’t change this reality. In fact, he saw that only those that do not CHOOSE heaven over hell will be given a portion of God’s glory. Even those who are filthy when they die will be cleansed and glorified. The telestial kingdom is HEAVEN, and we all get that free ride. And that fact alone should make us uncontrollably happy that we will eventually be free from all of the consequences of our choices. Joseph Smith taught that hell is not eternal, and that God won’t let anyone stay in hell that does not want to. Thus, we all get a free ride to heaven.

Reasonable LDS believer: At this point I don’t think any purpose can be served by discoursing with you any longer. Your views here are, as far as I’m concerned, so unhinged and irrational as to be quite beyond any attempt at logical amelioration.

Reasonable LDS Believer 2: Agreed [Believer 1]. Not only unhinged and irrational but also disjointed.

Me: You can’t expect much more from someone like me who learned theology from the Book of Mormon.

Was I as incoherent as they are saying here?  Am I getting the Gospel wrong?

I re-read my un-edited response and, even though it could have been worded a whole lot better, I am not sure that my ideas are completely “unhinged”.  It’s hard to swallow that criticism coming from a Mormon, so I admit that I let by ego get involved. But I actually don’t have an agenda that is against the Church here: I am very open to any orthodox believers correcting me if I explained grace incorrectly and I am very open to hear from Mormons if I get Joseph Smith wrong.

When I was a TBM, my LDS theology was mainly based on Joseph Smith’s theology, and I believe Joseph Smith had a reasonable grasp of grace, even if he did not explicitly use that word (he would often use the word “mercy” and did so inconsistently.)In my opinion, the sooner the Mormons start at least listening to Joseph Smith’s actual theology, the sooner they will start listening to the message of the New Testament.

If you really get what Joseph Smith was saying, Mormons are, strictly speaking, complete Universalists. In Joseph Smith’s theology, beings are immune from utter destruction, because we are co-existent with God.  God cannot destroy us, but only relegate us to the torments that our sins will give us for eternity.  There is no hell in Mormonism, only regret. No matter how successful we are in this test, it will torment us forever to know that we could have “had it all” but chose not to because we were too weak to follow the principles that lead to any particular level of glory.

I personally think this regret is directly opposed to the Gospel, and to teach it at all completely misses the point, to a dangerous degree.  But what is often ignored by Mormons and anti-Mormons is that Joseph Smith taught that the telestial kingdom, the lowest tier in heaven, surpassed all of our wildest dreams of happiness and that men would commit suicide in droves if we were to understand this.  This was always puzzling to me as a kid, this teaching was almost never repeated in church, even though it seemed like a piece of information that we should be very excited about, i.e. we will eventually be free from all regret from our choices and dwell in eternal joy.  Sometimes it seems that Joseph Smith might have been the last Mormon to actually believe this.  (Perhaps you can blame him for that, but that is another story.)

What Mormons simply don’t get — but Joseph Smith did — was that any heaven is heaven, not earth life.  And a state of being called “heaven” requires that we be free of the regret that often plagues faithful Mormons throughout their lives.  In Christ even the worst of us will, eventually — after a lengthy term in spirit prison, the millennium, and eons of time in our post-earth existence — learn and grow to the point that we will be completely happy serving God in whatever heaven we wind up in.  Those in the telestial kingdom will have no regrets, they will be as the angels, filled with joy in the service of God.  This should not make us not want to be celestial, but it should FILL US WITH JOY NOW.

However, Mormons often teach that those in the telestial kingdom will be in the hell that we find themselves in on earth, i.e. plagued with the knowledge that they are complete screw-ups when it comes to really being one of the “good guys”, and the everlasting regret that they didn’t follow Christ well enough in this life. This is not the Gospel.

What does it mean to have a testimony of the LDS Church?

A very important part of LDS practice is the development and bearing of testimonies.  A testimony is a public statement of faith and belief.  Because having a testimony is considered to be an important, if not essential, part of conversion, the LDS have developed a very nuance way of talking about the matter.   I think there is a lot of confusion about what you must believe in order to have a testimony of the Church, and to believe the Church is true.

In an effort to clear up some of the confusion I propose that for a person to “have a testimony” of the Church is merely to believe that it is God’s will that the person belong and participate in the Church for the good of the Church, its members, and the world.

I like this definition because it allows the freedom of religious belief that Joseph Smith, and many other Latter-Day Saints died for.  It also allows for those who have such a testimony openly accept new (or old) teachings without casting doubt on their loyalty to the cause of Zion that the Church has always stood for.  If Joseph Smith stood for anything in his life, it was the freedom to proclaim and embrace the words God gave him, whether God gave him those words through experience, ancient scripture, or direct revelation.

I think it is a disservice to his memory and legacy to question somebody’s testimony of the church merely because they embrace radically different doctrine.  It is the ability to embrace any and all bodies of truth, which are filled with both wheat and tares, that only sure path for the members to make the Church the true church that they claim it to be.

The Message of Sin to a Mormon Missionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Mormonism, post-Marxism, and the liberal challenge of John Dehlin

Slowcowboy asked in the last thread about how Mormons are like Catholics. The question can best be answered from a 20,000-foot view of the goals of Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons within Christendom.

The Catholic goals are (1) to protect and preserve the proclamation of the New Testament and (2) maintain the power and influence of the Catholic church as holders of the keys of the priesthood. Protestants had two primary political goals, (1) rationally clarify and re-proclaim the message of the New Testament as the basis of the church and (2) break the political power of the Catholic church. The Mormons goals are (1) reinstate spirituality over rational theology as the primary mover of the church, (2) re-institute the earthly priesthood authority instituted at the time of Christ, (3) establish Zion in preparation for the second coming.   All things considered, the Mormon goals are not unreasonable in the context of the history of Christendom. However, I think the Mormons are operating with some distinct disadvantages in their understanding of Christ.

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