An Epicurean Question of the Great Apostasy

first vision tallOne sticking point in the Mormon narrative, to me, is the concept of the Great Apostasy.  I suppose the general idea that God’s authority and church could be removed from the Earth isn’t so objectionable per se, but the idea that it could be gone for such a long time seems to make the claim much more difficult to believe.

Some Mormons temper this absence of authority by suggesting that God was, of course, present in the world and did many remarkable things through people such as Muhammad, Confucius, etc.  The only thing that was missing was his priesthood, and therefore, his church. But think about what that means.  That means maybe 1700 years and millions of people – Christian believers even – without proper baptism.  Millions of families without the blessings of temple sealings.  Millions of fathers with sick and dying children that they couldn’t properly bless.  True, these people still could have been enlightened by some things, and received the Gospel in Spirit Prison, and maybe one day be baptized and endowed in the Millennium, but it still remains the case that in mortality, the blessings of the Gospel that Mormons today take for granted were withheld from them.

So the narrative goes, the people rejected the Apostles and Prophet, and God took his church from the Earth.  He did not call a prophet in 100 AD to rectify the situation.  He did not call a prophet in 200 AD either.  Neither did he call one in 300 AD.  And so on.

So if this were posed to Epicurus, he may likely ask the following question:  Was God unable to call a prophet at those times, or was he unwilling?  Let’s think about the possibilities, both of which have been considered by Mormons I’ve talked to.

1. God was unable to call a prophet before 1820.

The “impotent God” idea does have a place in Mormon thought.  Recently, Russell Stevenson, the “Mormon History Guy” has suggested as his main thesis to explain the priesthood ban for people of African ancestry (as he stated on his recent RadioWest interview) that the wickedness or hardheartedness of members of Christ’s church can truly shut up the windows of Heaven and prevent revelations from happening, against God’s objections.  In other words, our free will is so powerful that God simply cannot override it.

So people espousing this line of thinking might be likely to say that God had to wait for the conditions to be perfect:  he needed the Reformers to challenge the monolith of the Roman Catholic Church by breaking away and bringing the Bible to the people, then he needed some of those people to sail across the world to a safe place, then he needed them to found a nation based on religious liberty, then he needed to place the Smith family in just the right spot, etc.

However, there are a number of objections that could be raised at this point.  First, God didn’t seem to need such perfect conditions to call prophets in the past – Micah, Enoch, Isaiah, Moses, John the Baptist, and even Jesus were certainly not born in nations with religious liberty after 1000 years of political negotiation and Reformations, etc.  God raised them up in settings that were downright hostile to begin with, and many lost their lives.  But it seemed that God still felt it was worth it to raise up these prophets, even when their efforts seemed wasted.  During the Great Apostasy, there were no prophets bringing back priesthood at all.

As I read Jacob 5:47 in the Book of Mormon, I have reflected often on the line: “But what could I have done more in my vineyard?”  This Lord of the Vineyard worked as hard as he could over many seasons to bring as much good fruit as he could out of his trees, and lamented that despite his best efforts, bad fruit was abundant.  Is a God who doesn’t call a prophet for 1700 years doing as much as he can?  Must he really work in such subtle, backdoor ways that it takes 1700 years and millions of souls to get things working perfectly?

Compare this to a hypothetical timeline where God calls a prophet every 100 years, 17 times, no matter how difficult or hostile the situation.  Say he calls Joseph Smith in 100 AD.  Then, if he was killed, he could call another prophet in 200 AD.  If that prophet was killed, why not call another in 300 AD?  But maybe God didn’t want to see 17 prophets get killed.  Maybe that’s too emotionally painful for God.  This brings us to our second option.

2. God was unwilling to call a prophet before 1820.

Maybe there are various factors making God unwilling to call so many prophets.  Maybe he hates seeing prophets wasted on the unwashed masses.  Maybe he was so angry at those who killed the Apostles that he stormed off and sulked for 1700 years.  Maybe it was to teach humanity a lesson (“that man of sin be revealed,” perhaps).  Maybe he didn’t like the people who lived for those 1700 years.  Maybe I’m not giving this option a fair shake, but to me it reduces God into a petulant child.  I just don’t see why he would punish people in 200 AD for the sins of those in 50 AD.

A fairer notion might be simply that God had reasons for not calling any prophets or restoring the priesthood for 1700 years, we just don’t know what those reasons are.

But I really hate “mysterian” positions, as they seem to just be a major cop-out.  Compared to a God who is both able and willing to keep a church together for 2000 years, providing all the full blessings of the Gospel to all those millions of people on at least three continents, the Mormon God just seems like he has “some explaining to do.”  Was God Almighty, Creator of Heavens and Earth, so helpless, bound and gagged, that he was completely unable to prepare the Earth for a prophet for 1700 years?  Or alternatively, was God Almighty, Creator of Heavens and Earth, so angry at people in the 1st Century that he’d really get so angry and storm off, causing millions of people over the next 16 centuries to be denied the full blessings of the Gospel in mortality?  Is there some other alternative that I’m missing due to my own prejudices?

1700 years is a long time.

The “Mormon Wager”

pascalHere’s a little anecdote that I suspect is more widespread than my experience. It’s not about Orthodoxy, but rather about Mormon-Protestant relations.

Many Mormons in the United States employ the following “wager” when dealing with the Protestants that very likely surround them (if they’re outside the Jello Belt).  This isn’t intended to be framed as a solid logical proof, just a sort of fluid line of reasoning that typifies one kind of Mormon argument:

  1. On Protestantism, all you have to do is “believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved.”  Anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is damned.
  2. On Mormonism, if you are a Mormon and endure to the end you can eventually be like God and live with your family for eternity.  Anyone who rejects Mormonism and/or doesn’t endure to the end still gets a pretty good existence (Terrestrial or Telestial Kingdoms).
  3. If Mormonism is true, then Mormons will have a great reward, and Protestants will have a lesser, but still good reward.
  4. If Protestantism is true, then Protestants will have a great reward, and Mormons will, too (because Mormons “believe in Jesus” and therefore they will also be saved).
  5. It is therefore rational to be a Mormon, because you are maximizing your reward either way.

Here’s a table of the possibilities. Continue reading

Is the Mormon view of Atonement “Atheological?”

gethsemaneI had a few thoughts in response to a recent article at Times and Seasons called The Atheological Atonement.  Dave Banack describes two “mildly surprising conclusions” that I think many Mormon thinkers would likely agree with.

1. The LDS Church affirms a doctrine of the atonement, but not any particular theory of the atonement.

I totally agree with this, though I also agree with his observation that many Mormons do accept Penal Substitution or a form if it (“How many drops of blood were shed for me?”) as their primary mental model.  I would argue that D&C 19 makes Penal Substitution much, much harder to escape – the fact of the matter is, according to the D&C, Jesus did have to suffer a physical punishment which we would suffer if we don’t repent.  But some very smart Mormon thinkers have attempted to view this scripture in light of other theories.  Fine.

But why doesn’t Mormonism have a strong theological model of the Atonement?  I can think of two general kinds of reasons.  Possible Reason 1 is that the Atonement really is a complete mystery.  And I mean mystery in the modern sense (since anciently the word “mystery” meant something that is revealed).  As such, as many comments on the Times and Seasons post seemed to indicate, any model of the Atonement is going to be a shadowy idol compared to the real thing.  I’ve heard some Orthodox make this argument too, but more on that in a minute.  On this view, there is simply no way we could ever understand the Atonement and so we’re free to simply guess and wonder, but we’re better off just using the Atonement rather than try to figure it out.  As a result of this mystery, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are going to shift inexplicably across many different models, analogies, theologies, and prophetic opinions because the truth is a transcendent sort of triangulation of all those models.

Possible Reason 2 is that Joseph Smith inherited a vague, undisciplined mish-mash of Atonement theories because that was the state of American Protestantism at the time.  As a result, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are going to shift inexplicably across many different models, analogies, theologies, and prophetic opinions because Joseph never really considered the depths of implications each theory has about the nature of reality and God’s relationship to humans.

The problem here – if you haven’t already noticed – is that it seems very difficult to judge which Possible Reason is right, since they both result in the same data.  On to Banack’s second conclusion:

2. Maybe it is just as well that the Church avoids formulating a more detailed theory of the atonement.

Banack’s reasoning is that sometimes when the LDS church tries to officially foray into establishing theology, it produces “questionable results.”  As such, if the church leaves questions open to interpretation, it allows us to study the issue and come up with new, interesting, and deep explanations that can be quite edifying.  He cites James Faulconer’s reasons for why the church generally stays out of theology:

He gives five reasons we have, in the past, avoided theology: the Church is still young; fideism has become popular among LDS leaders; continuing revelation makes rational theology more challenging; the view that scripture contains a catalogue of implicit propositional truths; and our view that religion is primarily a matter of practice rather than propositional belief. I find encouraging Faulconer’s view that newer and broader approaches to theology (hermeneutic theology, narrative theology, theology in the style of Wittegenstein or Badiou) offer more promise for deepening LDS thought than rational or systematic theology.

This is the part that I don’t understand, because it seems to make a few assumptions about theology that I probably don’t agree with.  Why should we be afraid of true theology?  If the LDS Prophet revealed some concrete theological truth, shouldn’t we be excited and happy that he did so?  Or would we be disappointed that we can’t BS by the campfire about it anymore?  One assumption Banack makes seems to be that theological answers (at least, systematic theology as represented by the Christian tradition) are just not very good answers to begin with.  If they were, then wouldn’t he be happy to pursue systematic theological answers?  I’m also interested in why he thinks that Continental-style theology is somehow better than this – he says it’s “broader.”  Personally I find it too vague, constructivist, and subjective to be helpful in day-to-day life.  Very few people have the patience and personality to appreciate that type of theology, and thus it seems to operate on the assumption that theology isn’t all that useful to people in their daily lives (except for the elites).  But straightforward systematic theology can be grasped by far more people and has real implications on their behavior.  So yeah, if you don’t think theology is “real” (or if it’s just an elaborate “Rube Goldberg Machine”) then yeah, let’s bury it in an amorphous cloud of Continental sophistry because it’s not all that useful anyway.  That probably isn’t a charitable interpretation, but it’s what pops into my mind.

(I’m not big on Continental philosophy if you can’t tell – especially Wittgenstein)

On the other hand I would suspect that both the Orthodox and the Mormons would suggest that theology is experiential rather than discursive, though they’d say it in their own ways.  I think this is one area of wide agreement between the two sides.  Though on the other hand I do think Orthodoxy has an emphasis on “right belief,” and would probably say that a correct discursive understanding is the start of theosis.  I’m not even sure the Mormon would claim this (though Joseph Smith did, explicitly, in the Lectures on Faith).

More about Mormon theological epistemology

How does a Mormon know if a doctrine is true?

Today at the Fall 2013 General Conference of the LDS church, Elder Dieter Uchtdorf gave a very well-received (by my friends and family) talk on those who leave the LDS church.  I don’t think it’s available to read yet but Jana Reiss gave a bit of an overview with some select quotes here.

I wanted to highlight a couple of those quotes and unpack them a bit:

Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended, or lazy, or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question of whether they should separate themselves from the Church. In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly that it was restored by a young man that had questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.”

And here’s another one, also quoted by Reiss:

Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history, along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events, there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.

I have wondered before on this blog why it seems like the standard exit narrative of Mormonism these days seems to be that a person believes totally in the church, then comes across some troubling historical truth that casts doubt on the church, and then the person’s whole testimony in the principles/theology/practices of the church comes crashing down.

It makes me wonder because that just never happened to me.  There isn’t one particularly troubling aspect of LDS history that makes me doubt the church.  Rather, I just felt that Mormon theology could stand or fall on its own merits, and when I really started studying the history of Christian theology, I started to feel like Mormonism simply couldn’t compete.

So why do historical events trouble some Mormons?  What is driving the whole “faith crisis” narrative?  Readers can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that one answer might be that Mormons lean heavily on arguments from authority, and this reveals something deeper about theological epistemology for Mormons.  How does one know a doctrine is true, on Mormonism?  The process seems to be: find some trustworthy source of truth.  This source could be the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or Thomas S. Monson.  Then, whatever that source says must be true.

On Mormonism, how does one, say, find out that God the Father has a body of flesh and bones?  A Mormon might say you just pray to know that Joseph Smith is a prophet.  The good feeling you have then confirms that Joseph is a prophet, and then you can trust the doctrines that he teaches (including that God has a physical body).

However, if you find out some historical fact that seems to cast doubt on Smith’s truthfulness or character, then suddenly your testimony may come crashing down (along with your belief that God has a physical body).  There doesn’t seem to be any philosophical or logically deductive reason why God must have a physical body (a reason that might be somewhat analogous to all the Classical Theist philosophers’ arguments that God cannot even in principle have a physical body), so the deeper doctrines of Mormonism can seem somewhat strange and arbitrary to outsiders.

Combine this with a general pragmatism that seems pervasive in the attitudes of church members (as exemplified by this recent post by Daniel C. Peterson, which I’ll probably respond to soon), and it doesn’t seem like Mormons generally look to the theology or doctrines of the LDS church themselves in order to determine whether Mormonism is right.  Joseph Smith could have said that God is blue with pink hair, or lives on the Moon, or is a unicorn, and as long as these doctrines 1) come from a trustworthy source and 2) pragmatically inspire you to live a good life, then you should just go ahead and believe it.

In other religions they might say you can know if a church is true by whether it teaches correct doctrines, but the downside there is that when people are free to decide which doctrines are correct on their own, they sometimes spend their life jumping around from church to church, trying to find the one that believes exactly what they do (in other words, a church made in their own image).  “Gee, I like this church, but they hold to a Pre-Tribulation Rapture and I think there will be a Post-Tribulation Rapture, so I guess I’ll quit and find something else.”

Thomas S. Monson releases statement on Syria, renounces war

LOL just kidding.

As of today, as Pope Francis organized a worldwide fast for peace, and a week after numerous statements by various Orthodox churches stating unequivocally the suffering that is happening and will happen if the US goes charging in militarily to Syria, as far as I know we still have radio silence on the issue from Salt Lake.

I can be pretty balanced on a lot of things (in my opinion) but not war.  As someone who is still on the records of the LDS church, I am incredibly frustrated that the General Authorities aren’t on the front lines out there, asking our people to fast, to donate to various humanitarian relief efforts in the Middle East, to proclaim a message of peace, etc.

I suppose they just assume we’ve all been taught correct principles and can therefore govern ourselves (or that general anti-war sentiments can be found in the Scriptures and we have those so we don’t need to keep talking about it), but it’s still quite frustrating to see the LDS Newsroom touting a James Taylor Concert and the release of the Joseph Smith Papers, both extremely awesome events, don’t get me wrong, but not a word on Syria – where millions of Christians are being killed, persecuted, oppressed, and displaced (as well as good Muslim men, women, and children too).  Centuries-old churches are being burned.  People are being tortured, shot, executed, raped.

If the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Obadiah, Micah, etc. weren’t afraid of prophesying specifically about the wars that would come, and what the righteous should do to avoid the coming disasters, is it too much to expect something a bit more direct regarding actual wars we’re about to engage in?  Even just to say that the war is justified or not?

Maybe something is forthcoming.  But I am not going to hold my breath.  If it’s anything like President Hinckley’s talk before the US invaded Iraq, it will likely be somewhat vague and ask us all to come to our own conclusions.  But it seems to me – and I admit I’m probably letting my emotions get pretty carried away at this point – a really useful prophet would have said in 2001, “This war will ruin us.  It is unjustified.  Tell your neighbors – make fliers – warn your families.  Preach peace.  Pray for it.  Fast for it.  Don’t give up until the Lord comes.”  And to be honest, I feel like a really useful prophet would be saying that now, too.

I ask for forgiveness for anyone who might be offended by this post.  My attitude toward war causes me to get very emotional about the topic.  This is one good thing about posting under a pseudonym on an obscure blog that not too many people read, but if I have offended any of my fellow LDS (or anyone else) I ask for your forgiveness now – I am the chief among sinners.

Mormonism and Pragmatism

william jamesIn my experience (and I reiterate that this is just my anecdotal experience), most Mormons have a sort of crude Pragmatist theory of truth.

As a psychology student who studies religion, I have a huge soft spot in my heart for William James.  In fact, my first son’s middle name is James for that very reason.  James and some other American philosophers developed a philosophical theory of truth that the average person probably wouldn’t understand (I barely do), but the naive version is this:  we can judge whether a belief is true by whether it “works.”

I put “works” in quotation marks because the biggest criticism of Pragmatism is that the criteria for “working” is not very well-defined.  But I think a lot of people, and Americans, still kind of hold the naive version of Pragmatism as true (we’ll just call it Naive Pragmatism, or NP).  And I think this is especially true for Mormons. Continue reading

The Holy Ghost, and possible power imbalance within the Mormon Godhead

pentecost-icon (1)One significant lacuna in Mormon doctrine, to me, is the identity of the Holy Ghost.  We are told that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, the only Begotten in the flesh.  However, we are not told who the Holy Ghost is.  Another Son of God, and therefore our brother?  God’s brother?  God’s wife?  A single individual or a plurality of individuals?  We do not know.

Neither are we very sure how exactly the Holy Ghost is (a) God.  Is the Holy Ghost worthy of worship?  I don’t know of any context in Mormonism where the Holy Ghost is worshiped.  There are no songs, hymns, prayers, or devotions to the Holy Ghost, directly.  Is the Holy Ghost equal in power and glory to the Father and the Son?  Does the Holy Ghost derive power from the Father, or does (s)He have power of his own? Continue reading

Mixed-faith marriage in Mormonism and Orthodoxy

wedding crownsI have spoken to several American Orthodox Christians about getting married in the church, and what they said sounded very familiar to me before I found my wife:  1) it is very difficult to find another member of the church to marry, 2) the church counsels strongly to marry within the church, and 3) non-Orthodox marriages are not considered to be participating in the “fullness” of marriage possible.  All three of these are similar in Mormonism.

Encouraging your members to marry within the faith makes sense on numerous levels. Continue reading

Theme change(s).

Hey, loyal readers (and visitors), you may be noticing that I’ve been goofing around with the theme of this blog over the last few days.  I might continue to do so over the next few days.  I hope I’m not irritating everyone by doing so – I’m just incredibly picky.  Also, I don’t like dark themes very much, so I decided to axe the old one I had.  Sorry.

Why Mormons don’t care what you say.

missionary-nottingham-cc-hoveringdogThis is a cross-post from an old blog that I wrote for.  Every now and then I see members of various churches ask questions like, “What do you say to a Mormon to prove that they’re wrong?”  Those types of questions really frustrate me, because it assumes that you can forcibly go to another person and tear down their entire worldviews with a few well-placed rhetorical below-the-belt shots, and even more incredibly, it assumes that this person you’ve just pulverized is going to turn around and thank you and actually listen to your message and join your church.  I just don’t see that happening with Mormonism, because, unless you really know what you’re talking about with Mormonism, the Mormon will likely just assume that you’re ignorant and not worth listening to (and furthermore, a jerk).  Here’s the essay: Continue reading