The unenviable position of Mormon apologetics

This is a post that I wrote on another blog that is now defunct, but I liked it and I want to keep it. Here it is, reproduced in its entirety:

I have seen quite a bit of banter lately about Mormon apologetics lately and wanted to throw in my $0.02. Recently John Dehlin publicly stated:

I just want to go on record as saying that 20th and 21st century LDS apologetics (FAIR, FARMS, Maxwell institute) will go down as destroying more testimonies than any other single Mormon influence. That’s what happens when you blame the victim, or give very poor and evasive answers to credible issues.

Now I actually think this is unfair for a number of reasons. First, people don’t go to LDS apologetics unless they are a Mormon who is already struggling with their testimony (very few Mormons, ex-Mormons, or non-Mormons look to FAIR for casual, unbiased, light reading on a Sunday afternoon). So it’s hard to say that the apologists are really “destroying” these testimonies, as though they were completely whole beforehand and then the apologists strapped some plastic explosives to them and pushed the plunger. Second, I am not convinced that if there were no apologetic wing of the LDS church, we wouldn’t be seeing the same people exiting the LDS faith. It could be that the apologetic defense is ineffectual, or in John’s words, “poor and evasive,” but in this case they’re simply failing to stop a person from doing what they were already considering doing. Third, there is the implication that apologists bear the ultimate responsibility for other people’s testimonies. This is problematic to me because, if the LDS church is true in any sense, then ultimate responsibility for a person’s testimony rests with the person and God. To think that an apologist could somehow thwart the work of God (if that’s what it is) seems backwards. Continue reading

Making blog public again.

I don’t know if anyone is really a “follower” of this blog anymore but I felt the need to put it back up online.

For anyone who stumbles on this blog, here’s the history of the blog in a nutshell:

I grew up in the Mormon church as a product of multiple generations of Mormons on both sides. However, after serving a mission and marrying in the temple, I began to discover other religions in a deeper and more open way than I ever had before. I wanted to learn about other religions on their own terms. Orthodoxy had always been with me, and as I learned and grew, it came to me more and more. Finally, by 2012 I was actively comparing and contrasting Mormonism and Orthodoxy in my mind, with the purpose of discovering which church I should be in.

I created this blog to explore questions and invite discussion. Unfortunately, when my father found out about the blog he contacted someone from FAIR (an LDS apologetics organization) to visit and try to discuss things with me. My parents do not understand my faith journey and did not take it well. I, in turn, did not take the intrusion into my blog well and it soured me on the whole experience. In any case, by that point my mind was basically made up. I decided to make this blog private and keep it from the world. Arguing on the internet was taking an emotional toll on me. Trying to decide what church is true is already stressful, and I was reading and studying for hours every day. The added stress of dealing with surrogates from my parents was much worse.

In 2014 I became a catechumen in the Orthodox church, and in 2015 I was baptized. You can read more about my actual conversion here. One month later, I took an academic and personal journey to Istanbul to see the Hagia Sophia. Everything fell into place for me. Then, in 2016, my wife and three children joined me in the Orthodox church.

I am truly happy, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Joining the Orthodox church was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

Some last notes.

  1. I may or may not currently endorse any position I have taken in this blog. The point of the blog was to explore ideas.
  2. I am generally anonymous on this blog, though my identity is not such much “secret” as it is not that important.
  3. I am keeping the blog in place for historical and informational purposes. I will probably not respond to or comment on any post from now on. Please do not expect anything additional from me beyond what I have posted.

Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

To Be or Not To Be

As I’ve made very clear on this blog, I think about Christ’s Atonement quite a bit. I always have. I think part of the reason is that the ingredients that make up the Atonement within Mormonism never quite “cooked” right to me – the parts don’t seem to quite fit. There are many theories of the Atonement within Christianity, all based on Tradition, logic, and Scripture, but Mormonism has a few extra ingredients that have to be taken into account: specifically, the event in Gethsemane described in D&C 19, in which Christ experienced some kind of additional, excruciatingly painful event that made up what seems to be the lynch-pin of the Atonement. The Book of Mormon mentions Jesus “bleeding from every pore.” It’s really just that piece that I never quite felt right about.

I tried to make my objection to this bit of Mormon doctrine in the comments on this post, but I feared that it was a thread-jack and I think that without a full understanding of the classical picture of existence, it probably didn’t make much sense.

That’s because I really think the Atonement is about existence and non-existence.

This might seem odd to many of you, especially who were raised in the Mormon tradition. I’ll try to explain.

In the classical Christian picture of the world, all things can be seen in a unipolar scheme of existence. On one hand, we have Reality/Goodness/Existence. At the other “end” of this pole, we have… nothing. It can’t really be seen as a “pole” of existence, because it’s not a thing at all.

Humans get a tiny taste of this reality when we create things. Let us say that a human creates a chair out of wood. What is a chair? A chair is typically a kind of a platform with four legs that is meant for people to sit on. Its existence as a chair is measured by its ability to do what its creator intended for it to do. A chair that fulfills this function is a “good” chair.

Now let’s say that, in a fit of rage, the chair’s creator grabs a chainsaw and cuts off one of the legs of the chair. Is it still a chair? If the chair can still stay up and allow a person to sit on it, then we can say that it’s still a chair – albeit not a great chair. A three-legged chair is usually less stable than a four-legged chair.

Now, the chair’s creator saws off the other three legs. Now she saws the seat in two. Now she saws off the back. Then, she lights the remaining pieces on fire and stomps on them, reducing the chair to a pile of ash.

Where is the chair now? It’s gone. The chair is no more. It went from “good chair” to “bad chair” to not a chair at all. Thus, the chair has passed from Real (or Good, or Existent) to Bad to nothingness.

On the classical Christian scheme of reality, God brought all things into being from nothingness. This includes you and me. As such, every part of our being and every object and environment we encounter in our lives can be defined only in reference to that Being who brought it into existence. And our measure of whether we are “good” or “bad” is only in reference to that purpose (the Greeks called it a telos) for which we are made.

On this scheme of things, to be good is to be more human.

(note: some philosophers would take great issue that I’m comparing humans to an artifact created by humans, but let’s try to skip that and continue)

On the Mormon scheme of things, existence is not really framed in this way. According to a common interpretation of Mormon scripture, the “spark” that makes humans what they are is called an intelligence, and intelligences are not made. It is simply the nature of an intelligence to exist, and intelligence existed with God in the beginning. Joseph Smith said (quoted from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith):

God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them.

On this scheme of things, non-existence is not really an option for us. We have always existed in some form or another, and thus we weren’t brought into existence for any purpose. Thus, there really is no built-in purpose or reason for our existence: we just are. Whatever purpose exists for us is one that we design for ourselves. God, being greater than the other spirits in existence, instituted laws to help us all get to where He is – but it is our choice to follow that path.

Mormon does leave room for a purpose for humans – “men are that they might have joy.” However, it is not clear whether this purpose is imposed on us from the outside (in which case, what gives another being the right to do this to us?) or if it is something that we are by our nature (in which case, how did we get our natures?) or if it is something that we choose (in which case, can we freely choose a different purpose?).

Thus, on the Mormon scheme of things, existence can be seen as bi-polar. On one end we have progression, learning, and joy, and on the other hand we have damnation, stagnation, and suffering.

The Atonement

What does all this have to do with the Atonement? Remember that on the classical Christian conception of the world, our greatest enemy is non-existence (chaos, meaninglessness, absurdity). The philosophers Camus, Nietzsche, and William Lane Craig have painted a cold picture of man’s role in the Universe without God (Camus and Nietzsche obviously rejecting the existence of God – Craig merely using that picture as a rhetorical tool); on this view, any meaning created by man is simply a puny act of rebellion against a Universe that couldn’t care less.

It was this vivid nothingness that almost had its victory on the Cross.

What can we say about the picture of God Himself, the Creator, suffering and dying a humiliating, torturous death at the hands of soldiers, other than it is completely absurd? The apostles believed that Jesus was on the cusp of a great triumph that would defeat Israel’s enemies, and slowly they watched the life slip from Jesus’ eyes. And then He was gone. What could the apostles be thinking other than this:

“What the hell just happened?

“Did Jesus really die?

“Could this all have been one big joke? Have we all been deceived? Is it possible that life actually didn’t have the meaning we thought it did – or any meaning at all?”

We have all been confronted with this absurdity at times in our lives. Perhaps when a loved one passes away, one doesn’t get the job that would reverse one’s fortunes, a school full of children is shelled in a war. At these times the absurdity of life hits us squarely in the face, and leaves us wondering whether anything means anything at all. Is there any purpose at all in this world?

These are the times when Satan laughs – and thinks he has the victory. Movement toward chaos, absurdity, unreality… nothingness. Thus, on this view, the Problem of Evil is really the Problem of Nothingness.

Jesus being raised from the dead reverses this tragedy into the Greatest Victory in history. This, ultimately, is the triumph over sin, because sin is death and death is chaotic, purposeless nothing.

Mormon Atonement

In Mormonism, the enemy is not non-existence, because this is really not an option for us. Instead, the enemy is suffering and damnation. Rather than confronting nothingness, Jesus instead must confront suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus literally takes upon himself the suffering of humanity, and in doing so he gains the capacity to succor us – since he knows the suffering we’ve felt.

This is the thing that always rubbed me the wrong way, but I was never able to contextualize that feeling until tonight when I reflected on that BCC discussion. The Mormon view of Atonement, which hinges on an extremely excruciating event (whether Jesus was suffering the penalty of our sins or simply experience the suffering of humanity, I’ll let Mormon theologians figure out), puts suffering at the core of the human existence. Jesus can’t truly succor us unless he has suffered. We can’t be forgiven unless Jesus suffers. We will suffer if we don’t repent.

But I see this as missing the mark.

Imagine living the most difficult life anyone on the planet has lived, full of pain and suffering. The thought is so unbearable that I think our minds kind of buffer us from being able to cognitively grasp the idea completely, but give it a shot.

But what if we had a reason for suffering so much? What if you were told that your life of suffering actually prevented many people from suffering even worse than you did? Well, then a brave soul might actually be willing to take that trade out of love.

So it seems that suffering on its own is not the main problem: the problem is meaninglessness. If our suffering has no meaning, then it is truly a punishment beyond measure. But if we have a purpose or meaning behind our suffering, the suffering becomes bearable – even heroic. Take the following story from a truly heroic psychiatrist, Victor Frankl (in Man’s Search for Meaning, pg. 113):

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.


Thus, it seems that meaning is a more fundamental human craving than simply the avoidance of suffering. If the center of the Atonement is Christ’s suffering (and the Mormon canon leaves us little room to escape the reality or centrality of that suffering), then it seems to miss the mark. Suffering is not the problem. The black, empty void is the problem.

The way it seems to me, in Mormonism, Christ suffers in the Garden because of sin. On the Mormon scheme of the world, sin is an object unto itself – one pole of existence. It is synonymous with suffering and damnation, because it hinders us from progressing toward greater light, joy, and intelligence. Sin is also viewed in terms of a transgression of the laws that God instates to help us progress. Thus, sin is a contractual or legal problem. Because legal terminology is used to contextualize sin, God’s only just response to sin is punishment or restitution. This punishment or restitution seems to be suffering.

But on the classical Christian view, sin is not an object, and ultimately, it’s not Real. Sinful acts are really just a symptom of an underlying sickness or weakness in humans – we often fail to fulfill that purpose for which we are created. Instead of treating the symptoms (sins), the Atonement cures the sickness (death).

Thus, any additional punishment or suffering heaped on Jesus to make restitution for sins would seem utterly superfluous. It just doesn’t make any sense and isn’t necessary at all.

I think I always sensed this but was never able to express it. Why would Jesus need to suffer pains in Gethsemane as a result of our sins? That just doesn’t seem to be the point. Outside of Mormonism one can completely explain the Atonement in terms of Jesus’ victory over death on the Cross, and in the Tomb. But in Mormonism, you’re always faced with D&C 19, and a Cosmology that simply doesn’t take into account the real possibility of nothingness.

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