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Posts Tagged ‘Obedience’

mormon-jesus-gethsemane

[After posting this, my beautiful and sexy wife pointed out the huge hole in my thesis, so I am going to re-tool the post and re-post it in the near future, but I am leaving it up for now even though it is massively flawed.]

So, in light of some frustrating discussions lately with Mormons about the nature of the Atonement (most particularly this one), I think I have managed to nail down two competing Mormon Atonement narratives or models:

1. Heavenly Father requires your perfect obedience in order for you to qualify for exaltation (“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—-and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.D&C 130:20-21). Mortals are born innocent and fully able to obey Heavenly Father’s commandments, but we have free will and we are subjected to temptation, and so each of us will inevitably, sometimes, break the commandments. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane to pay the price for all of our sins and transgressions, and because of his sacrifice, we are able to go through the repentance process and have our sins effectively erased, so that we are counted in Heavenly Father’s eyes as if you had kept the perfect standard (so mercy satisfies the irrevocably decreed demand of justice). However, over time, in the eternities, we will stumble and fall short less and less, and eventually progress to where we, like Heavenly Father, no longer need repentance.

Put simply, we qualify for exaltation by never deviating from the standard of perfection. If and when we do deviate, the Atonement erases the deviation so that it is as if we had never sinned. So our exaltation is something that we earn by perfect obedience, and to the extent we are unable to be perfectly obedient, Jesus takes up the shortfall if we have faith in him, repent and have our sins washed away by baptism (and regularly renew our baptism through taking the sacrament).

I think that this model is internally consistent, and generally more supportable from Mormon sources across the standard works and the words of latter-day prophets and apostles. I think that it reflects a Mormonism that can be found in Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness. I suspect that older Mormons, Mormons who live in more homogenous Mormon communities and more traditionally-minded Mormons are more likely to espouse this first model. If you had asked me to explain the Atonement as an adolescent or early on my mission, I would have explained it in terms of this first model.

I also think that this first model is thoroughly Pelagian.

2. Heavenly Father wants to bring about our exaltation, which is a thing of infinite worth and so it comes with an infinite price. We have no means of paying an infinite price, so justice demands that we can’t be given an infinite gift that we did not earn. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane, paying an infinite price on our behalf, essentially purchasing our exaltation for us. We can then take part in the exaltation that Jesus has bought with his sacrifice when we fulfill the requirements that he has set: faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost and enduring to the end.

In this model, we do not directly qualify for exaltation. We qualify for it only indirectly through Jesus, who pays the entire price to obtain it, and then grants it to us (or gives us access to it) if we, in a separate transaction, meet the requirements he sets out. Mercy thus satisfies justice twice: once when Jesus pays an infinite price for our exaltation that we cannot pay, and once when he gives it to us for a price we can.

I also think that this second model is generally internally consistent, but I do not think it is as consistent with historical Mormon sources. We could probably have an argument about the degree of tension it has with other Mormon ideas, doctrines and texts. I think that it reflects a contemporary, PR-conscious and interfaith-dialogue-minded Mormonism that emphasizes the role of Jesus Christ and the Atonement, minimizes historic Momronism, and is influenced by Stephen E. Robinson’s Believing Christ. I suspect that younger Mormons and Mormons who live in diverse, pluralist urban centers and Mormons who are more engaged with postmodern culture are more likely to espouse this second model. I would not be surprised if, in a generation or two, this second model becomes overwhelmingly the norm among Mormons and will be taught consistently from the pulpit as if it had always been the norm. I would have explained the Atonement in terms of this second model towards the end of my mission and as a Mormon adult.

I’m not sure if the second model is Pelagian or not (kinda doesn’t matter since it’s still based on a completely and thoroughly heretical Christology). I suspect that Mormons who espouse the second model would assert that it is consistent with Protestant ideas about salvation by faith through grace, but I think you would have to look hard to find a Protestant who would agree.

Given the Mormon tendency to eschew systematic theology, I think that many Mormons probably hold oth models without giving it a lot of thought and without thinking about whether the models are consistent (not that Mormons lack the intellectual rigor to do so; I think they are just more likely to approach the atonement devotionally instead of theologically, and be satisfied* with any illustration or explanation of the Atonement that is sufficiently moving, reverent, and not obviously inconsistent with other Mormon doctrine).

To my Mormon readers: Do either of these models fairly represent your beliefs about the Atonement? Which one do you think is the most consistent with scripture and the teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles? Do you think that these models are mutually exclusive? If not, why not?

To everyone else, let me know your thoughts and observations. Let’s discuss.

*Did you see what I did there?

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I served a full-time, two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from 1998-2000. For two years, I spent every waking moment (when I wasn’t in the bathroom) with a missionary companion. I got up in the morning every day for personal and companion study. I spent all day proselytizing, with short breaks for meals. I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t use the internet. I was only supposed to read Church-approved books and publications. I talked to my family back home on the phone only on Christmas and Mother’s Day. I had (part of) one day a week off from study and proselytizing to spend cleaning my apartment, doing my laundry, going grocery shopping, writing letters to my friends and family, and then, if I had any time left over, for recreation or relaxation. I wore a suit and tie (or at least a shirt and tie) and a name-tag every day. For two years, I was not Kullervo; I was Elder Kullervo.

And even though I am no longer a Mormon, I don’t regret it at all.

I was reasonably faithful, I worked reasonably hard, and I did my best to follow the rules most of the time. I matured a lot, I learned a lot, I made a lot of great friends, I learned a foreign languauge, I had a lot of life-changing experiences, and I’m a better person for having gone.

There were a lot of downsides to it, of course–I struggled with feelings of depression and unworthiness the same as many (most? all?) missionaries, but it wasn’t like a constant, horrible black cloud. I manifested the first signs of some problematic anxiety issues that would plague me for years to come, but honestly they run in the family, and so I figure I was prone to them anyway. There were good days and bad days, same as any other time; maybe a little more intense on both sides of the spectrum but it’s an intense couple of years, so it’s sort of to be expected.

One of the reasons I don’t regret my mission (or anything else I did as a Mormon), is that now, in retrospect, I don’t question my motives for leaving the Church. I don’t second-guess myself and wonder if I “decided” the Church wasn’t true in order to give myself a break for being unfaithful. I did everything right. I wasn’t a superhuman (supermormon?) but I did all of the things a Mormon is supposed to do, up to and including an honorable mission and a temple marriage, with reasonable effort and a basically good attitude. So I am confident that I am not now making excuses to cover my guilt, and nobody can tell me that I am. I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I’m an ex-Mormon now because I don’t believe that the Church is true, and I don’t think it’s a good church if it isn’t true, not because I am too cowardly to live up to the expectations of Mormonism.

Are there other, better things I could have done with those two years? Other ways I could have spent my time? Sure. And maybe some of them would have been fantastic. And maybe I wouldn’t have had to make some of the sacrifices I did. But you know what? I was born into the Church. I was raised Mormon. I was always going to go on a mission and get married in the temple, and it’s pointless to imagine fantasy scenarios where I didn’t.

I did what I did because I thought it was the right thing to do, even though, in retrospect, I was wrong. I’ve grown and changed since then, but I am proud of myself for acting with integrity. I strongly suspect that we’ve all done a lot of things like that, both related and unrelated to religion. It’s part of growing up: you do the best you can with the tools you’ve got, and maybe with more experience or maturity you would have done something different but hey, you didn’t have more experience or maturity back then. So no sense regretting it now.

I regret the times in my life when I have acted out of selfishness or cowardice, not the times when I did what I believed in. When I served my mission, I was doing what I believed in, and so I have no regrets.

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I had a great discussion with my mother a few days ago (she’s a true believing Mormon) about the difference between faith and testimony in Mormon theology, and I’ve been mulling around some thoughts about it ever since.

“Testimony,” as commonly used by Mormons, is an unfortunate term. It’s an umbrella term, a thought-construct composed of several different distinct but related concepts, but they’re all blurred together into one conglomerate noun in the Mormon vernacular. When the Holy Ghost bears witness of the truth of x, a Mormon calls that your testimony. When you tell others the religious things you believe or “know,” that’s also your testimony. Those two I can handle, but the third main use is the most vague and elusive, and the one least based in (even Mormon) scripture and theology. It’s this idea that a testiony is a thing, a noun, an intangible object that you actually have and need to nurture and work on so it grows.

It’s not the same thing as Faith, which is given some pretty clear and basically consistent definitions in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews) said “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (NIV). In the Book of Mormon, Alma said faith “is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true,” and Moroni said faith is “things which are hoped for and not seen.” None of those are really the same thing that Mormons are talking about when they talk about their testimony. Testimony is the assurance of the truth of Mormonism via mystical experiences.

Faith is consistently couched in terms like “hope.” Your testimony is the things you know. You might talk about faith in terms of certainty, but you would never describe a testimony using the word “hope.” Sure, the terms are similar, but they’re not identical.

In Mormon theology, such as it is, the requirments for salvation are faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost, and enduring to the end (which includes getting the necessary ordinances and priesthood, and continuing to develop faith, repent of sins, and renew your baptismal covenant by taking the sacrament). Testimony per se is not a requirement for the Celestial Kingdom. There’s not testimony checker at the pearly gates. Nevertheless, Mormons constantly talk about the necessity of having a testimony, as if it is basically the most important thing in Mormonism.

It has no real connected place in Mormon theology, so why is it necessary? All of the critical steps (the principles and ordinances of the gospel) for salvation are obtainable without ever once feeling the Holy Ghost, much less Getting a Testimony.

There’s a weird inconsistency yhere that bothers me. Basically, what it boils down to is that Mormonism in practice focuses almost obsessively on the need for the individual to experience successive, ongoing conversion experiences. No wonder Mormons are able to simply ignore their doubts and criticisms of the church that they hear! They are spending their time and effort constantly converting themselves. Why? I think it’s because without constant conversion-as-reinforcement, Mormonism doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Testimony may not actually be a requirement for salvation in Mormonism, but if you aren’t constantly cultivating mystical confirmations of the Church’s truth, you’re far less likely to stay a member of a Church that is heavy-handed, authoritarian, wildly implausible, and extremely demanding.

I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “having a testimony.” I think that you can experience God through the Holy Spirit, and I think you can yourself bear witness to things you believe are true, but as far as this nebulous thing that you have, I think it’s a mental and cultural construct with no real existence. It’s a doublespeak term tat obscures what’s going on. Faith is something that you have. Testimony is something you hear or give.

Given that opinion, why then does it bother me when people say I must not have ever really had a testimony, seeing as how I left the Church. I mean, if I don;t believe that testimony exists, at least the way they’re talking about it, why do I care if they say I never had one? Again, it comes down to the nebulous doublespeak use of the term. When someone says I never had a testimony, they’re actually questioning whether I ever was really ommitted to the Church, and that pisses me off. I was raised in the Church, and I was a faithful member. I scrupulously tried to keep the commandments. I graduated from early morning seminary. I served an honorable mission and I worked incredibly hard, both physically and spiritually. I read the Book of Mormon again and again, not as a skeptic, but as an earnest believer. I married in the temple, which took great personal sacrifices on my part and on my wife’s part. I always paid a full tithe, and I gave generous fast offerings. I magnified my callings. I prayed daily. When doubts came, I did my best to resolve them. I tried to me a member-missionary, and I even tried my best to do my home teaching. I did everything I was supposed to do to “get a testimony,” and I did it with pure intentions, because I honestly thought it was all the right thing to do.

The Church promises that if you do this stuff, you’ll Get A Testimony. Thus, when people say I must not have had a testimony, they are insinuating that I never did the things that were required to get one, and that impugns my integrity and my earnestness, and that bothers me a lot.

I have to say that I believe that the Church is simply not true, at least it is not true the way it claims to be. It may be a fine place for some people, but it is certainly not God’s one true church, restored in these latter days in preparation for the second coming, led by living prophets, etc. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me, but I do have a problem with people assuming that the only reason I came to the conclusion I did is that I wasn’t really genuinely committed and faithful in the first place. That’s just insulting.

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