How accurate are your myths? –The Curious Case of Transubstantiation

In a friendly effort to get my friend SlowCowboy to eat his words regarding the importance of the doctrine of transubstantiation, I also want to present my case for a “Great Apostasy” during the very earliest history of the church.

There was quite a bit of discussion about  transubstantiation because Gnostic Docetists were being theologically cast out for taking the doctrine of transubstantiation too seriously. They didn’t take the bread and the water because they did not believe that Christ could be present in the bread and water because Christ was completely separate from the world. The doctrine that the bread and the water were also the Christ makes a very deep philosophical (not spiritual) point that the Gnostics Docetists were not getting. i.e. that the substance of Christ was before us and actually present, even inside of us.  This is perhaps a stronger point than “the Kingdom of God is in our midst” but it is really quite breathtaking as far as theology goes. The doctrine of transubstantiation allowed people to explain their faith accurately to pagan peoples.

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Rethinking the Great Apostasy: “The Peasant Revolt of the Spirit” and the definition of Mormonism

Friedrich Nietzsche explained Luther’s Reformation as a dramatic spiritual revolution within Europe of the northern sentiment and character, which demanded simplicity, with the southern, liberal sentiment that allowed for unending complication under the simple structure of the Church.  Whatever can be said of Nietzsche, he was a fabulous writer.  His imagery viscerally cast light on the spiritual facts going on around him, that cleared the clutter of culture to allow the simplicity of “modern science” but eventually pushed Europe into the maw of gore and madness that reigned there in the first half of the 20th century.

Luther’s Revolution

Nietzsche explains, with at least a bit of lament, the ruins of the Church as he saw it in Europe in the 1880s:

. . . were there ever finer ruins?  Overgrown with weeds, large and small.  It is the Church which is this city of decay: we see the religious organisation of Christianity shaken to its deepest foundations.  The belief in God is overthrown, the belief in the Christian ascetic ideal is now fighting its last fight.  Such a long and solidly built work as Christianity it was the last construction of the Romans!  It could not of course be demolished all at once; every sort of earthquake had to shake it, every sort of spirit which perforates, digs, gnaws and moulders had to assist in the work of destruction.  But that which is strangest is that those who have exerted themselves most to retain and preserve Christianity, have been precisely those who did most to destroy it, the Germans.  . . The Lutheran Reformation in all its length and breadth was the indignation of the simple against something “complicated”.

He describes Luther’s revolution as that of the thinking of simple, good-natured folk over the complexities of culture that shone in the Church because the church retained “the luxury of skepticism and toleration which every victorious, self-confident power permits.” While Nietzsche acknowledged the fact that Luther spiritually revived Christianity as a worldview, and his simplicity allowed for modern thinking, but to him, Luther’s German reasoning meant an unraveling:

“[H]e tore asunder with honest rage, where the old spider had woven longest and most carefully.  He gave the sacred books into the hands of everyone, they thereby got at last into the hands of the philologists, that is to say, the annihilators of every belief based upon books.  He demolished the conception of “the Church” in that he repudiated the belief in the inspiration of the Councils: for only under the supposition that the inspiring spirit which had founded the Church still lives in it, still builds it, still goes on building its house, does the conception of ” the Church ” retain its power.”

Nietzsche also puts his finger on the simple fact that the Reformation made the Church, which had enforced its superiority since Theodosius, the vassel of the state rather than its rightful superior.  Christianity became “good-natured” in its simplicity, and cleared the way for infecting law with modern thinking in the form of modern science.

The consequences of Luther’s simplification of Christianity Continue reading

What is your most compelling reason for believing in God?

Here is a question that may shed some light and understanding on the common ground between Evangelicals and Mormons:

Why (the heck) do you believe in God anyway?

There are all kinds of reasons not to believe in God, all kinds of proofs for his existence, but I doubt these make a lot of difference in the bedrock reasons for belief in a personal God.  So, for those willing to share, if you do believe that a personal God exists, what is the most compelling reason for you. Is it a historical account, a personal experience, a series of personal experiences?

For me, although there are other reasons, it comes down to a series of personal experiences  (quite a few) that I can’t explain effectively without refering to God.  I know this comes across as pretty weak, but my skeptical nature has stripped bare my interpretations of these experiences to the point to where that is the best description of what anchors my faith.

In recent years I have mentally revisited many of my experiences and tried to be more discerning about what they really mean.  My attitude is partly shaped by the thoughts of the  philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most compelling and entertaining anti-christ writers, who criticised the way people view religious experiences:

” As interpreters of our experiences- One sort of honesty has been alien to all founders of religions and their kind: They ahve never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience?  What happened in me and around me at the that time? Was my reason bright enough? Was my will opposed to all deceptions of the senses and bold in resisting the fantastic?” None of them has asked such questions, nor do any of our dear religious people ask them even now.  On the contrary, they thirst after things that go against reason, and they do not wish to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it. So they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear the voices of little angels! But we, we others who thirst after reason, are determined to scrutinize our experiences as severely as a scientific experiment– hour after hour, day after day.  We ourselves wish to be our experiments and guinea pigs.” — (The Gay Science #319 trans. by Walter Kaufmann, 1974, Random House. )

I have tried to take guidance from this advice, because I think it is important for me to feel comfortable that I am not deceiving myself, because ultimately I have to be able to trust myself in order to trust my experiences.  One of these experiences that confirms my belief in God occurred about 4 months ago.  I went to temple square in Salt Lake City and walked through the tour posing as a non-mormon. It was me, a couple from Britain and a guy from Brooklyn.  The sisters that lead us through the tour, although pretty, did not have much game when it came to explaining the church to the savvy, skeptical non-believer.    The tour lasted about 20 minutes and ended at the Assembly Hall a pretty church that sits next to the Tabernacle.   I sat down on an pew and told the sisters I wanted to ask them a question, why did they believe in God.   They gave me the standard, true believer answers, i.e. that everything tells them that there is a God, that they get answers to their prayers all the time (e.g. one sister prayed in the morning when she lost her keys, and they turned up, etc).   I could tell they were sincere believers, not brainwashed, but not skeptical of the experiences they had either, therefore I found much of what they were saying un-helpful. All of this was very sincere, and I don’t find any fault with what they said or how they said it, but I was essentially disappointed, this was the same stuff rehashed and wasn’t at all compelling.  Then one sister turned to me, and said that if I would pray in my room that night, and ask God to show himself that I would get an answer.   Of course this is exactly what I had expected, but I did not expect the internal response I had.  Almost the instant the words came out of her mount, it was all I could do just to hold it together, tears were streaming down my cheeks.  I was not sure if I was surprised or not but tried to remain as “objective” as possible about what was happening, and I don’t want to jump to many conclusions about the ultimate meaning and interpretation of the experience.  But suffice it to say this came at a time where I was at my most skeptical of the existence of God, the Church, Christianity, etc.

The sisters were remarkably cool about how they reacted, they stood there until I pulled it together, I apologized for my tears and they said goodbye, didn’t push anything or put any spin on what they clearly saw happen to me.

Now I am not about to put too much of a spin on this experience either, I don’t know that it should “prove” anything to you at all, after all you were not in a position to observe myself as I was, you were not in a position to be the scientist to make sure that there were not non-God influences that brought about such a strong reaction in me.   Certainly you cotuld chalk up my reaction to so many similar childhood experiences, or even  conditioned response.  But as the observer who knew my history best, and can see the similarities and differences in this context compared to other near identical experiences where I did not have such a reaction, my conclusion is that something outside of me triggered this reaction.  Given the vagueness of the way I felt,  I can’t say that this experience was proof of the truth of the Mormon Church, or Christianity, or anything particularly detailed, but I can say that on that Sunday afternoon, I felt that God existed and was making me feel it in the presence of those two kids with nametags, representing the LDS Church and It didn’t seem to have much to do with what they were saying or how they said it.

This is one of dozens of experiences that  I could relate.  Unfortunately, even taken together, they don’t remove most of the questions I have regarding God and religion, but they do mean something.   To continue with the science analogy, I am still seeking more data points before I draw my regression line.

I am interested to know what Evangelicals and Mormons alike think about this sort of anchor for a belief in God and also very interested to know what anchor’s other people’s faith.   My guess is that we my have more in common on this issue than on our theology.