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.

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Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the First Vision

While it seems like this blog might generally be a comparison and contrast between Orthodoxy and Mormonism, generally favoring first visionOrthodoxy when the two are contrasted, I have also mentioned that not all my posts about Mormonism are unfavorable.  This is a post (perhaps the beginning of a loose series of posts) that explain why a lot of anti-Mormon* arguments don’t seem to work with me.

See, I don’t really “click” with a lot of the disaffected Mormon crowd.  I don’t hate Mormonism, I don’t think it’s evil or demonic, and I don’t think it is “so easily dismissed.”  I generally approach Mormonism as a religion that I love, but think is for the most part incorrect.  So I don’t particularly like reading anti-Mormon* stuff or dwelling on the historical problems of Mormonism, etc. because I just think it’s mostly a waste of my time – I think we can decide whether Mormonism is correct by examining its theology alone, especially contrasting it with other major theologies in the world.

One thing that a lot of critics of Mormonism seem to think is an obvious kill-shot to Mormonism is the fact that Joseph Smith’s ideas, visions, and interpretations shifted over time.  Let’s examine one in particular:  the differing accounts of the First Vision.  Now I’m not going to do a side-by-side analysis of all the different accounts because other people have done this way better than I could, but I want to address the idea that a person’s interpretation of a mystical event can shift over time. Continue reading

Eldred G. Smith – the Presiding Patriarch

eldred-g-smithWell just when I think I know everything about Mormonism, something like this knocks me off my feet.  I saw a post at By Common Consent lamenting the loss of Eldred G. Smith, emeritus Presiding Patriarch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the remarkable age of 106.

I have taught D&C and church history for CES for early morning seminary and institute, I have taught gospel doctrine and gospel principles, and I served a mission, as well as being a member of the LDS church my whole life, and I didn’t know there was still a Presiding Patriarch on the Earth.

I knew that Joseph Smith Jr. had ordained his father to be a Presiding Patriarch, but I did not know that the office was intended to be a lineal office, nor did I know it had been filled as recently as 1978.  Nor did I know that the office was once considered second only to the prophet, and that the Presiding Patriarch was sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator along with the 12 Apostles and First Presidency until the office was retired.  In fact, I did not know until yesterday that several of my family members were given their patriarchal blessings from Eldred G. Smith’s own hand.

Wow! Continue reading

Can a Mormon criticize the use of holy icons?

pantocratorI have been speaking with an Orthodox priest over the last few days about improving my prayer life.  When I first started reading about Orthodoxy, I was very much like a lot of Westerners from the Protestant tradition (okay, Mormonism isn’t exactly Protestantism, but for my purposes here let’s just say it is and move on) in that I worried that the use of icons is idolatry.

In my defense, icons look idolatrous from the outside.  Visitors to an Orthodox church will notice people bowing to, kissing, and touching their heads to pictures of Christ and the saints.  That sort of thing raises serious warning flags to Westerners who grew up being taught that any sort of image in church borders on idolatry.  Mormon chapels don’t have pictures of anything, and Mormons don’t even wear crosses due to the fear of idolatry.

In order to improve my prayer life, I have decided to “plant a seed” and experiment upon the Orthodox model of prayer.  Sometimes I think it is the complete opposite of Mormon prayer.  Mormon prayer is unstructured, extemporaneous, conversational, and involves mostly “thanks for opportunities” and asking for things.  Orthodox prayer is long, structured, sometimes read, sometimes involves petitioning saints for prayers, and often simply involves praising God for His holiness, mercy, and wisdom.  Mormon prayer rarely involves praising God directly – you won’t ever hear “we praise you” in a Mormon prayer.  I asked this Orthodox priest for help in trying Orthodox prayer and even asked about proper use of icons.

In the context of prayer, Orthodox icons are used as a means of focusing the mind on God, Christ, and sometimes a saint or the Theotokos.  They serve a didactic function as well as a meditative function – and open the mind to Heaven and spiritual truths.  But I have had to really work hard to get into a mindset that might allow me to light a candle in front of an icon and stare into it prayerfully.  It’s so different from my lived experience up until this point.

Now there are plenty of Protestant arguments against the use of icons, and I won’t get into those.  I think what might be more useful is to ask whether a Mormon has grounds for criticizing the use of icons? Continue reading

Zion on Earth

EnochA recent post at Toward Attention reminded me of Joseph Smith’s attempt at building Zion.

Smith’s beliefs about Zion underwent a considerable amount of evolution and were one of his biggest preoccupations, so I’m not going to attempt to even present it in any kind of thorough way.  Suffice to say that Joseph Smith was not satisfied with the hope of a future Heaven, he really wanted to bring it to Earth.  This desire manifested itself in a lifelong struggle with organizing the Mormon saints in a heavenly way that he called Zion.  This meant attempts at communal sharing of worldly possessions, banking schemes, and city planning and building, as well as a hierarchical lay priesthood that unified the church from bottom (the family) to top (the General Authorities).

A few things about Smith’s attempts.  First, they were not the only attempts at that time in America of creating Utopian societies.  There were, most notably, the Shakers, but also lesser-known but still significant communities such as the Oneida Community and Fruitlands.  And secondly, like those communities, Smith’s attempts were largely failures.  That is not to say that he was a failure for trying – if anything, I think it is the trying that makes the difference.  But it is notable to point out that the modern LDS church does not seem quite as preoccupied with organizing Zion in such a concrete way.  Most of our institutions hat-tip to that time (home teaching, tithing, the Law of Consecration being enacted in principle but not so much in practice, etc.) but seem to fall short of the full-on expectation of being able to give away all one’s possessions or travel in a handcart or wagon or physically laboring to build a temple.

(An interesting side-note is that the Community of Christ, a much smaller but still historically significant Mormon denomination, was attempting Zionic communities even into the 1980s)

So in my last post I think was a bit harsh on Mormonism because I noted that its doctrine of eternal families seems to miss the mark of the purpose of Heaven, which is to bind all God’s children together.  However, I think that Smith had it right in a sense – in attempting to build an actual, concrete Zion he was not missing that mark at all, and the doctrine of eternal families, when combined with attempts at Zion on Earth, was a good thing.  Unfortunately I feel like those lessons are a bit lost on the modern LDS church, which I think has stripped away a lot of the magic of Smith’s vision into a sort of slogging, semi-spiritual bureaucracy.

Theosis, Part 1

This is a massive topic in both Eastern Orthodoxy and Mormonism so this will only be my first post on it; likely many more are to come. When I really began examining the doctrines of Mormonism that set us apart from other faiths, my understanding of theosis changed.  Mormons often use the word theosis and early Patristic literature on that subject for a few reasons.  First, they want to show that Mormons are not so strange for talking about men becoming gods, since many Christians have been using such language for thousands of years.  Second, there is the suggestion that when the Church Fathers talked about men becoming gods, it was perhaps a vestige of Christ’s true teachings on exaltation which were lost during the ‘Great Apostasy.’

I think both these reasons are misguided.  The Orthodox view of theosis is different from Mormonism in the most crucial way possible.  In Orthodoxy, God is One, and his essence is utterly transcendent and can never be known directly by men.  Theosis is the process whereby men can be transformed by God’s grace and thus participate in his nature, but it does not mean that the essence of a man can become like the essence of God, because there is only one God.  As far as I can tell, this has always been what the Orthodox have meant by theosis, including the Church Fathers. Continue reading