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.

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).

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

Top 11 Things Every Mormon Should Know About Eastern Orthodoxy

lds-jesus-with-pantocratorDavid J. Dunn recently posted an article on his blog which he called “Top Ten Things Every Protestant Should Know About Eastern Orthodoxy.”  I liked the idea, and have always felt that there are a number of things that Mormons ought to know about the Orthodox, so I have  decided to create this list.  It’s not meant to replace Dunn’s article since I think Mormons would like to know all those things, too (in fact I think you should all read that one first), but I think there are some things that Mormons would be particularly interested in. Continue reading

Does non-literal Mormonism lose its “punch?”

temple marriageThe title of this post might seem either trivially true or too vague to be useful, so let me unpack it a bit and then use an example to see if it’s more clear.  I have found that a lot of “Cafeteria” or “Middle-Way” Mormons (maybe the “StayLDS” or John Dehlin crowd) compartmentalize some of the more troublesome doctrines of the LDS church by sort of mythologizing them.  However, I wonder if this renders Mormonism less coherent as a result. Continue reading

Watching the Clock

Orthodox-Candle-Lighting1This is a guest post by regular reader orthojaxy.  She is a former Latter-day Saint who recently was baptized into the Orthodox faith.

I love listening to the sermons that my priest gives at our Greek Orthodox parish. This week he told us that he does not wear a watch once Orthros begins; he does not keep track of time. Divine Liturgy follows directly after Orthros. My parish begins Orthros at 9 a.m. and Divine Liturgy usually begins around 10 a.m. Could it start a little after 10? Could it start before 10? The answer to both is yes, and neither time would be late or early. Many parishes don’t even give a time for Divine Liturgy. They only provide the time for Orthros. That is because once the first service begins, we are in heavenly time. Worldly time is lost, and it is all about the divine experience.

There are no breaks between services. No stops and starts. It is just one continual flow of time and worship. I didn’t know that during my first visit to an Orthodox Church. I remember sitting in the dark candle lit Orthros service. It was beautiful. It was amazingly wonderful to watch when Orthros became the Divine Liturgy. The room suddenly became well-lit and the priest sang, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.” When our priest mentioned that he never wears a watch during service, I realized that I never look at my watch during service. Orthodox services aren’t kept to a schedule. They end when everything that is supposed to be done is done and when everything that should be said, is said. Continue reading

Honesty and More Cultural Appropriation

corner 2This recent post at a Patheos blog called “The White Hindu” had me reflecting about my Eastern Orthodox experience.

To summarize, the author is a white woman of a privileged background (her words) who has decided to become and live as a Hindu.  However, she is quite sensitive to the idea that it can be insulting to “borrow” cultural items (ideas, beliefs, clothing, etc.) from a historically rich and perhaps oppressed group, in order to make a fashion-type statement.  She doesn’t want to “play with Indian-ness.”  She loves the philosophy and traditions of Hinduism but admits that she may not be capable or willing to take on the burden of Hinduism.

Now just from my cursory reading, I don’t think she has anything to worry about – she seems like a sincere believer to me.  But the post did cause me to reflect on what I do in my spiritual life.

Continue reading

Unsaintly Saints

cyrilModern historians and popularizers of history for television and movies are not easy on ancient Christians. My first contact whatsoever with anything Orthodox was a book I purchased as a tween about Byzantium. Now it’s been a few years since I read the book, but I found it both enthralling as a youth and revolting in places – Byzantium could be a wonderful and horrible place. Government, especially during that time period, was messy and violent. And since the church was wedded to the Empire it is easy to conflate the sins of one with the institution of the other.

Today I watched a historical documentary on the ancient city of Alexandria and came across a particularly unflattering event in its history, no doubt much more familiar to some of you: the murder of Hypatia. It was an event that was recently depicted in the film Agora and is quite troubling, to say the least.

Now granted, I wasn’t taking notes at the time, but this is the general narrative I got from the documentary: Hypatia was a wise, popular, attractive woman who made many contributions to philosophical and scientific thought. She taught at an Alexandrian school and was well-loved by all (Christians and pagans alike). However, she got caught up in an unfortunate political power struggle between a local secular leader named Orestes and the Evil Cyril, a Christian bishop who was involved in a power grab. Cyril wasn’t satisfied with ecclesiastical authority – he wanted secular authority, too. However, Orestes tried to stop Cyril, and Hypatia sided with Orestes. So in order to remove this barrier to achieving his goal, Cyril accused Hypatia of being a witch (her use of an astrolabe and her secular learning made this quite easy). A furious Christian mob immediately rose up, grabbed Hypatia, and tore her literally to shreds, with pieces of tile and stones, and then burned her dismembered body. Continue reading

Poll: What best describes you?

This is something I’ve been wondering, since I now have a few people who visit this blog regularly. What is the religious affiliation of the people who visit and subscribe to this blog?

I would like my blog to attract anyone on the spectrum from believing Latter-day Saint to believing Eastern Orthodox (and anyone who has gone from one to the other). However, I must admit that my tone in most posts is critical of Mormonism, such that I may have scared off most Mormons from reading this blog. It seems that the only faithful Mormons who visit come to argue some point or another and then leave. I would like to make this website more welcoming to both sides, however. Suggestions are welcome.

Now, without further ado, please fill out this survey!

Comparative Religion

seraphimThanks to a comment left today by another blogger, I’ve been made aware of another blog that is quite similar to this one.  It is called Comparative Religion: Discerning between Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism).  That blogger, Seraphim, seems to be quite interested in the differences, similarities, and most of all the truth of those three religions.  Kind of reminds me of me!

He has a quite similar faith journey to me, though it seems that in the past, he has favored Roman Catholicism over Eastern Orthodoxy, and his blog has reflected that.  He seems to be interested in the same philosophy as me as well – questions about the origin of the universe, the nature of God, and Apostolic Succession.  A member of the LDS church, he is open-minded and thoughtful.  The thing I like most about his blog is that he is not angry, bitter, or reactive in his writings.  So much of the “Disaffected Mormon Underground” (DAMU) is so bitter that I think it clouds their judgment.  Lots of blogs there simply take cheap shots at General Authorities or the much-hated Mormon Culture.  But is that how you discover truth?  I think not.

In any case, I would love to have some greater collaboration, guest posting, and cross posting from Seraphim.  I really dig his style.