Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Protestantism’

Fall of Adam

I’ve been thinking about original sin a lot over the past few years. Right now my beautiful and sexy wife and I are working through Credo House‘s Discipleship Program, and in Session 2: Mankind, Michael Patton and Tim Kimberley (going back to Augustine and Calvin, of course) break mankind’s sin problem down into three categories:

Particular Sin: This is the easiest one to buy into and, as a Mormon, it’s the only one I grew up believing in. Weirdly, for orthodox Protestants, it’s actually the least important. Our particular sins are the specific sins we commit during our lifetimes. No big stretch at all to imagine that God will hold us accountable for them; even Pelagius agrees. It seems fair.

Inherited Sin: By inherited sin I mean a sinful nature, and this is more than just being born into an environment where people sin and we learn by example (Pelagius again), but an inherent sinful nature that we are born with. Not just nurture, but actual nature: an inherent propensity to sin that we can’t overcome on our own. This I did not grow up believing in (as Mormons are pretty Pelagian), but I have grown convinced of it since coming back to Christianity. I even wrote what I consider to be one of my better blog posts about it back in 2012. I really hope that you will go back and read it, but to briefly summarize in case you don’t, I believe that the idea that we are subject to inherited sin is actually a far more just doctrine than the Mormon/Pelagian idea that we are guilty for our own sins only, because it acknowledges the reality that we really do lack the power to obey God’s law:

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

So far, so good. Original Sin: I’m on board. But then we get to the idea of imputed sin, and that’s a sticky wicket.

Imputed Sin: The doctrine of imputed sin holds that we are not only guilty of our own particular sins and guilty of having a broken and sinful nature, but that we are actually each individually and personally guilty of Adam’s sin. That absolutely flies in the face of our contemporary cultural ideas about individual responsibility, justice and fairness. Why should we be guilty for someone else’s particular sin? How is that fair? And I don’t know if I’m one hundred percent sold on it, but I am starting to lean towards it based on Romans 5 (and a drift towards believing in Biblical infallibility). The idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s particular sin sounds ridiculous at first, but then, hang on, because it turns out that’s precisely how the Atonement works. If imputation of sin is not possible, then Jesus can’t die for our sins. And that sure sounds like what Paul is saying in Romans 5, if you read him carefullly and allow him to communicate to you with the precision that he intended (I think that Mormons are able to gloss over Paul by treating his wrigint in the sort of broad narrative sense that you can treat most of the rest of the Bible, but that doesn’t do Paul justice because unlike, say, the Evangelists, Paul was writing precisely and theologically, so we need to do our best to read him that way).

So I’m grappling with the doctrine of imputed sin, and I am coming around to the idea that it may in fact be a Biblically sound doctrine, even though it’s hard to swallow. The fact that it sticks in my craw a bit shouldn’t be a good reason to just discard it–if I do that then really I’m just giving authority to some other influence (my culture, my upbringing, popular culture, my political values) that I have less reason to trust than the Bible. And Jesus’s disciples were constantly telling him that his sayings were hard to accept–having to deal with “hard sayings” is a part of Christianity and means exercising faith when things might not make sense (and I think we need to avoid the kind of easy and arrogant read of Jesus that tames him to our modern cultural values and then assumes that the disciples just thought his sayings were hard because they were primitive and backward and didn’t want to forgive people or love one another like we are totally cool with doing).

So then that brings us to evolution.

I’m not really sure about how the Biblical account of creation and scientific models of the origin of life are reconciled. I don’t really think that my salvation depends on it one way or another, and I am comforted in openness by the fact that we know that some of the church fathers, including Ambrose of Milan and no less than Augustine, didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis. But if Paul actually described imputed sin in Romans 5, how does that work if there was no historical Adam?

I think that it’s a bigger issue than just creation vs. evolution, because if (1) there was no real Adam, (2) you can’t have imputed sin without a real Adam and (3) Paul preached imputed sin in Romans 5, then I think we have a problem. Because that means Paul preached something impossible in the middle of the logical argument of the book of the New Testament that constitutes pretty much the theological bedrock foundation of the Protestant Reformation. If Romans goes, a whole lot goes with it.

The issue is in my head right now because it has come up on Tim’s blog (in the comments to the post that I vote “Sounds Most Like A Death Metal Band”). I admit that I haven’t done all of my homework on what people are saying about a historical Adam in light of scientific theories of the origin of humanity and its theological ramifications, so I’m sort of asking the internet to fill me in. So, internet, tell me: can you have imputed sin and no historical Adam?

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

I wrote a guest post on Tim’s blog, LDS & Evangelical Conversations. Go read it!

http://ldstalk.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/for-this-purpose/

So while I don’t subscribe to the Mormon Plan of Salvation anymore (I don’t even use those terms), I do believe that God set the events of creation in motion with a specific end in sight. And while I don’t know how meticulous of a Providence I believe in, I am definitely not an Open Theist.

In any case, I’d like to talk about what “Heavenly Father’s plan” for mankind really is. So, with that in mind, my question is, what is the purpose of life, and how does your answer square with the Bible?

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

John_Calvin_Titian

I don’t think that a Christian is necessarily required to come down one way or another on Calvinism vs. Arminianism (or Lutheranism or whatever the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox think about it), but the fact is, I’ve been wrestling with issues of predestination, free will and the nature of God pretty fiercely for months now, and I keep coming to the same conclusions.

It doesn’t help that I have been reading Augustine’s Confessions this year, either. Next up: the Institutes!

No offense to my Arminian friends, but I just don’t think that the Arminian position is tenable at all. It eats itself.

Read Full Post »

If you, as a Mormon woman, want to be ordained to the priesthood, why don’t you leave the LDS Church and join the Reorganized LDS Church/Community of Christ, where they ordain women?

Partially as a response to the late Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley’s statement in an interview that there has been no “agitation” in the Church for women to be ordained to the priesthood, a number of Mormon women have begun to step up and publicly advocate for ordination. Groups have been formed like Ordain Women. Protests have been planned. Women have told their stories and explained why having the priesthood is important.

But it all seems entirely unnecessary to me. The Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) already ordains women. If you think women should be ordained, why not vote with your feet? I don’t think that there is a good, coherent reason to stay LDS, and I’ll tell you why I think that (and I invite you to tell me if and why you think I am wrong).

Normally, the biggest reason to stay Mormon despite any difficulty you have with the Church is that, at the end of the day, you believe that the Church is the sole holder of the priesthood keys necessary for saving ordinances. But it seems to me that if you believe that the nature of the priesthood is such that the Church is this far in error and can be corrected by “agitation,” you are effectively undermining the notion of exclusive priesthood authority anyway. The point of the priesthood in Mormonism is the authority to act in God’s name. It’s a principal-agent relationship with God. And it’s not just the authority to do saving ordinances, but also the authority to organize and preside over God’s church. But by rejecting the priesthood’s exercise of this authority (e.g., the policy of not ordaining women), you are rejecting the authority itself, aren’t you? If the priesthood held by the LDS Church is God’s exclusive authority, then when God’s agents act within the constraints of their calling, it is as if God has acted, isn’t it? That’s what authority is. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t really believe that the LDS Church’s priesthood is the exclusive authority to act in God’s name after all. And if that is the case, couldn’t you theoretically get the priesthood somewhere else? My understanding is that the Community of Christ will happily give it to you.

You might reply that, even though you may reject the Church’s claims to exclusive priesthood authority, your culture is Mormon and you identify as a Mormon and your Mormon heritage means everything to you and you do not feel like you should have to give it up to get equality. But you don’t! The Community of Christ is just as “Mormon” as the LDS Church is! It’s a close branch of the same family! Joining the Community of Christ is not a rejection of your Mormon identity at all. It’s just a different organization.

You could also say that unity is important, and you don’t believe that leaving the Church for the priesthood is the right decision, but as a Mormon–a member of a schismatic Restoration sect drawn out of schismatic Protestantism from schismatic Roman catholicism–you are hardly in a place to say that. If unity of faith is the most important thing, even to the extent that you are willing to stay in a patriarchal church and work for change that may never happen, the Eastern Orthodox church is happy to welcome you back with open arms. And their patriarchs have better hats.

I know that many Mormons who reject the Church’s truth claims choose to remain members of the Church for fear of family backlash, but I honestly suspect that you would not get nearly the same negative reaction to leaving for the Community of Christ. It’s still appreciably Mormon after all. I strongly suspect that your friends and family would not feel anywhere near the rejection that they would feel if you just became an atheist or an Evangelical. You would retain a cultural common ground without having to be a part of the Patriarchy. You might even get less flak for switching to the CoC than you would for staying LDS as a dissenter.

I’ve also heard the arguments about inequality anywhere hurting all of us, and whether or not I agree with that (it’s a zinger of a statement that can stand to have come unpacking and close examination done to it, but that is outside the scope of this post), I’m not sure it applies. There’s no guarantee that “agitating” inside the Church will change anything anyway, and voting with your feet will have an immediate individual and potentially powerfully aggregate impact (you make a statement, the patriarchal Church doesn’t get your tithing money anymore, membership in the patriarchal Church shrinks, etc.).

So why not convert to the Community of Christ?

(I want to be clear–this is an honest question and I’m interested in hearing the answers. I’m not a member of the Community of Christ, so I have no vested interest there; it just seems like it would be a better option.)

Read Full Post »

I go to Church to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the eucharist.

For Mormons, the sacrament is a covenantal rite: you take the bread and water as symbols, in rememberance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and in order to renew your baptismal covenant. It’s a sacred ordinance, but it is purely symbolic. Plenty of Mormon literature discusses the Roman Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation and why it is a false and apostate doctrine, but that’s it, really. As a result, for most of my life I didn’t have the slightest inkling that there was such a massive excluded middle between those two polar ends of the eucharistic doctrinal spectrum.

But now, years after leaving Mormonism, I have discovered the middle, and it is absolutely amazing. I don’t buy that the bread and wine literally transform in my stomach into Jesus’s flesh and blood. But when I take the eucharist, I know that God’s presence is literally there in a unique, incarnational and mysterious way. And it blows my mind and makes me actively and impatiently look forward to it all week. I hunger and thirst for it.

I’m no theologian, so I couldn’t tell you the ins and outs of the doctrine, but what I can tell you is that when I understood that God was literally and uniquely present in that bread and wine, all the awkward and troublesome pieces of Christianity fell together for me. I knew it was what I was missing.

Like most liturgical Christian churches, the service at the church we attend is completely centered on communion. The eucharist is the climax of the liturgy. Everything else points to it or builds up to it. If you, like me, have spent your life in a sermon-focused (or talk-focused, whatever) worship tradition, you have no idea what a eucharist-centered liturgy is like. The sermon is nice, but I don’t go to church to for the sermon. I go to church to take communion. If the sermon winds up being a flop, that’s sad, but it’s really not that big of a deal. The sermon is only a small part of the worship. The real message is the bread and wine, and the unique presence of God in it. When we eat it and drink it, we eat and drink grace itself. It is a physical, tangible thing, and it is completely and utterly infused with Spirit. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t bother.

The other day I was chatting with Katie L, and I told her that I felt so strongly about the doctrine of real presence that I didn’t think I would even be willing to take communion at a church that taught that it was only a symbol. I surprised myself not only by saying that, but by really meaning it. It was like revelation.

My last serious attempt at Christianity as a post-Mormon, in 2008, was a frustrating and sadly dissatisfying experience. To put it simply, I was in it for new life, for transformation, for the experience of God, and it kept not happening. I got a lot out of the theology and the worship service, but on a personal spiritual level, I was waiting for something like a click in my head, something to happen that made me feel changed. I was waiting for Grace to so something, something I could feel. I felt like I should know when I was forgiven or when I was accepted as Jesus Christ’s, like I should feel something that would mark the transition from the old life to the new life.

But it kept not happening, and I didn’t know what was wrong. I wanted to become a Christian, but I didn’t know what to do to become a Christian. Or how to know when I had become one.

I know that there are a lot of Christians out there, especially Evangelical Protestants, who would say that all I had to do to be a Christian was to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Well, I tried that, but it didn’t feel any different. I prayed sincerely and told Jesus that I accepted him, that I wanted to follow Him, that I was His, and it just didn’t click. Nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different after praying than I did before, and I didn’t understand why.

So eventually I just lost interest. The transformation I wanted to happen wasn’t happening. As appealing as I thought church and Christianity were, Led Zeppelin gave me a heavier buzz than Jesus christ ever did. So I drifted away from Christianity. Explored other options. Looked for spirituality in unconventional places.

Here’s the thing though: while I was going to Church, praying, and grappling with scripture and theology, what I was not doing was anything that was sacramental. I didn’t get baptized. I didn’t take communion. I was waiting for something inward to happen first.

In Mormonism, the religious tradition I was raised in, the conversion process is neatly prescribed: you read the Book of Mormon, you pray to ask God if it’s true, you feel a “burning in the bosom” that tells you it’s true, you become a member of the church by being baptized, you are confirmed a member and you are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and then you take the sacrament (what they call communion) every week as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to renew your baptismal covenants.

The critical variable in the equation was that “burining in the bosom.” The expectation that you will be converted by a personal mystical experience–a click that makes you feel different–and then you respond to that mystical experience by ritually making and renewing covenants.

For better or worse, that is how I have approached religion ever since I left Mormonism, and that is how I approached Christianity in 2008: I read, I prayed, I worshipped, but nothing mystical ever happened. And I held back on making commitments or taking part in sacraments because I felt like that click should come first. That’s how I was raised: the click happens first, and you memorialize it with ritual second. The click is conversion. The click is how you know that things have changed, how you know you have been changed from a non-believer to a believer. And since the click never came, I I felt like it wasn’t taking. So I observed. I prayed along. I sang. I crossed my arms and let the priest bless me. But I never pursued baptism, and I never considered actually taking communion, because to me, sacraments were secondary. Sacraments were for people who already felt the click.

I was totally and completely wrong. The sacraments are the click. I was waiting for something to happen in a vague and inward way that was being offerent to me right up at the front of the church in a literal and physical way. I was praying for Jesus Christ’s presence to enter into me without realizing that Jesus Christ’s table was set liberally with his presence right before my eyes and I was invited to eat and drink my fill, but I kept saying no.

Jesus Christ, the bread and water of life, is offered to me every week, and I am welcome to it.

That’s why I go to church. Well, one of the reasons, I guess.

Read Full Post »

So, at this point I am identifying as some kind of a quasi-transcendentalist vaguely-Hinduish esoterically-inclined green Christian. How I got there from paganism is not really the topic of this post, but I promise to post about it someday. Maybe.

The topic of this post if the trouble with finding a church home for my family, and the disappointment of modern liberal Mainline Christianity.

We have been going to a Presbyterian (PC(USA)) church for a couple of weeks, and I am increasingly feeling like it’s probably not going to work out. I haven’t passed a verdict yet, but so far I am seeing a lot of things that lead me to conclude that this church, like many other liberal Protestant churches, emphasizes social justice to the near-total exclusion of theology, personal righteousness, and spirituality.

And that is the heart of my conundrum. There simply appear to not be a lot of churches out there that are able to be theologically liberal without it reducing to merely politically liberal (and theologically nothing at all). I’m sure my more theologically conservative friends are going to insist that such a reduction is inevitable, that theological liberalism invariably leads to no theology at all. I dunno; they may be right, but I kind of think that’s a false dichotomy. I think that the reduction of theologically liberal churches to mere social justice clubs has a lot more to do with American culture wars and political polarization than it does about anything inherent about liberal theology. But either way, it’s immensely frustrating.

My notions of spirituality and theology may be offbeat, but they’re what I am focused on and interested in, not social justice. Make no mistake, I believe that Christianity can and should give rise to social gospel concerns and the desire to address the evils of our society. But if that’s all that’s going on at your church, I would suggest that you are putting the cart before the horse, and I suspect that if I look hard, I will see that your social gospel is motivated almost purely by political and cultural considerations, not by spiritual or theological ones. And thus I am not interested in going to your church at all, because it has nothing that interests me.

In many ways, I think I would be happier being a quiet heretic in an orthodox, theologically conservative church. Except that I don’t necessarily want my kids indoctrinated that way. And I’m not sure how well being a quiet heretic really works out in practice.

A related issue is the fact that right now we live in a large northern metropolitan area: most of my neighbors are Catholics, Jews, or nonreligious. There’s not the massive smorgasbord of Protestant churches to pick from that I grew up with in my Appalachian-upper-South hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. And while I would dearly love to move back to the South (sooner rather than later), this is where I am at the moment.

Going to church is important to me and to my family (for a lot of reasons–maybe a topic for another post that I can promise to write and then never deliver on?), so I’m not okay with just being religious-at-home. So that’s out, too.

One thing I am considering is whether I will find more satisfaction in a communion/eucharist-centered liturgical tradition. The homily may be about something ridiculously politically liberal, but the service is centered on the eucharist, the eucharist is the real message. Isn’t it? Or am I just cruising for more disappointment? Of course, this line of thinking points me once again in an Anglican direction, which is somewhat comforting. I wouldn’t mind finding a nice Episcopal parish to belong to.

On the other hand, I know that a thought-provoking sermon is essential for my beautiful and sexy wife–it’s basically what she wants to go to church for. And she’s not wild about lots of liturgy. so, Episcopalianism may not be the way to go after all. Where we would really like most to be is back at Cedar Ridge Community Church, but that’s a long drive for a Sunday morning. Cedar Ridge was far from my personally perfect, ideal church, but it was a pretty good place for us as a family. But that’s moot, because there doesn’t seem to be anything comparable around here. I’ve looked.

So there you go. I’m not really sure what to do. I feel like I and my family have pressing spiritual needs, but I am growing increasingly concerned that the right church for meeting those needs doesn’t exist anywhere nearby.

PS, here’s a good recent editorial about (sigh) the state of the Episcopal Church that addresses a lot of these issues.

Read Full Post »

The question of whether Mormons can be considered Christian is fairly central to interfaith dialogue, and is significant enough to have garnered national attention during the 2008 presidential campaign. It comes up every now and then on Tim’s most excellent blog, and as an ex-Mormon non-Christian who is nevertheless widely read and confident in his basic grasp of the world of religion and religious belief, I thought I would take a stab at untangling some of the mess. Fundamentally, the question and ensuing argument is an issue of semantics/framing: both sides are talking about something different when they talk about whether Mormons are Christians, and both sides feel like they have something extremely important–but again, totally different–at stake with regards to the answer. the resolution to the dispute is probably not as simple as forcing one or both sides to re-frame their dialogue, since the way it is framed is not arbitrary. But an awareness of the semantic mismatch and an understanding of why it matters to both sides would go a long way into at least setting the issue aside and reducing its potential for causing a ruckus.

From the individual Mormon’s perspective, I think there is a pathological fear of being misunderstood. I believe that a large number of Mormons, fed on Mormon historical accounts of mistreatment in the early days of the church and anecdotal hostility since then, fear that they will be discriminated against or that they will encounter hostility because of misinformation about Mormonism that has been perpetuated. In other words, a significant number of Mormons believe that 1) they face potential or present persecution, because of 2) lies, misinformation, and twisted truth about their religion. Thus, if they could get people to accurately understand who they are and what they were about, they would not be in danger. I think there’s also a belief that a large number of potential converts to the Church refuse to consider Mormonism as an option because of misinformation about it: indeed that the single biggest obstacle to the missionary effort is misunderstandings about the Church.

So, for the Mormon, it is important to promote accurate, descriptive picture of their religion for their safety and for the success of their missionary program. This is underscored and reinforced in the individual Mormon’s mind by the Church’s intensive and explicit public relations efforts over the last three or so decades. If the Church itself has been engaged so desperately in promoting a positive image, then it must be not only important and beneficial, but God’s intention for His Church.

So when the Mormon encounters a conservative Christian that says “Mormons are not Christians,” alarm bells go off. The Mormon, in this encounter, wants first and foremost to be descriptively understood: he wants to correct misunderstandings because he believes misunderstandings lead to persecution and prevent the missionaries from touching the hearts of the people they contact and teach. The Mormon believes, descriptively, that he is a Christian: in fact, he believes that his Church is actually the Church established by Jesus Christ, and from a dictionary/encyclopedia-standpoint, that makes Mormons Christians. To say otherwise is to spread damaging lies such as that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ, share Christian values, or believe in the Bible. And if those lies get (further) spread, individual Mormons will be persecuted because they are misunderstood and the missionaries will not be able to reach the people who are looking for the Truth.

(Lurking here is the presumption that if Mormons were correctly understood that they would not be persecuted except at the hands of the truly evil, and that the missionaries would be able to teach and baptize exponentially more people).

This also means–and this is crucial–that when the Mormon confronts someone who still insists that Mormons are not Christians despite being exposed to an accurate description, the Mormon is likely to conclude that the person is being aggressively dishonest, and intentionally slandering the Church.

Now, there may be some people out there like that, but most of them are well-known heads of countercult ministries, or pissed-off ex-Mormons who (whether they are justified or not), are angry enough to lash out by saying anything bad about the Church that they can. whether or not it is true (though they are usually not also conservative Evangelicals, so they are not really relevant to the topic). But most theologically conservative Christians who insist on the non-Christianity of Mormonism despite an accurate picture of what the Church believes and teaches do not do so because of an evil motive. There is a misunderstanding here, because when the Mormon and the Evangelical talk about the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, they are not really talking about the same thing. The Mormons are talking about “Christianity” from a descriptive, historical, and sociological point of view, whereas the Evangelical is talking about “Christianity” from a theological point of view. I shall attempt to explain.

Conservative Protestants, as a general rule, do not believe that denomination matters. They do not believe that salvation is found in the Lutheran Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or in their Evangelical Free Congregation. Conservative Protestants believe salvation is found only in the person of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that salvation is only available through Jesus Christ too, but they believe that the road to that salvation (or exaltation, whatever, semantics) is only available through the Church’s teachings and sacraments. To a conservative Protestant, a denomination has other meanings, but very few if any would try to claim that any one denomination is the “one true church,” because the one true church is Christianity, in other words, those followers of Jesus who have embraced his gospel and have found salvation through faith on his name. Mormons (and other exclusive denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more often than not, the Roman Catholic Church) do not fit into this category because their understanding about the nature of Jesus Christ and the means of salvation are radically different: just the claim that it can only be found in fullness in one organization is enough to completely disqualify Mormonism.

In other words, Mormons don’t understand why Evangelicals won’t acknowledge Mormonism’s Christianity because Mormons do not realize what is at stake. Evangelicals do not think of themselves as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Nondenominationals, at least not in terms of their primary spiritual identity. They may recognize that as a matter of history they are members of a specific denomination (if they are) and that they have been designated “Protestant,” but their primary way of thinking about themselves religiously is as a Christian. Again, to a conservative Protestant, specific denomination does not matter. What matters is whether you are a Christian. This means a Protestant is free to move between denominations as much as he wants without worrying about it, as long as the denominations are teaching Christianity. Not Christianity in the sense of “a religion about Jesus,” but in the theologically significant sense of “the way to Jesus.” Mormons may talk about and believe important things about Jesus, enough for sociologists and librarians to categorize them as Christians, but what they teach and believe about Jesus is significantly different enough to make it a different religion than the one that conservative Protestants are practicing. I know of no Mormon that would dispute this. What the Mormon thus fails to understand is that the conservative Protestant calls his religion “Christianity.”

So when the Evangelical meets a Mormon who claims that Mormonism is Christian, the Evangelical hears the Mormon claiming that they have the same religion. That is flat-out not true, and it’s obvious by even a fairly cursory examination. So the Evangelical concludes that the Mormon is trying to be deceptive: trying to claim to be theologically compatible so as to lure converts into a religious organization that is actually an entirely different animal. It looks like a bait-and-switch, using the Evangelical’s faith as the bait. Understandably, this irks the Evangelical. Furthermore, the Evangelical is justifiably concerned about his friends and family and assorted loved ones: as conservative Protestants they operate in a religious environment where, provided the denomination is Christian (in the Protestant theological sense), one is free to switch from denomination to denomination without necessarily jeopardizing one’s salvation. When the Mormon Church claims to be Christian and insists that Evangelicals agree that it is, the Mormon Church creates a situation wherein Evangelicals may be lured into something they never meant to get involved in. And with Mormonism’s “milk-before-meat” missionary policy, it is not an unreasonable fear. And eternal salvation is at stake.

The Mormon may ask, “why do the Evangelicals get to decide what Christian means? Why can’t they just call their religion something else? Then there wouldn’t be a problem.” But that’s a particularly disingenous claim from a Church that sets a great store by the name of their religion. Like Mormons, conservative Protestants believe their religion is the one true religion. However, unlike Mormons, Protestants do not set theological significance by the organizational boundaries of a denomination. So the conservative Protestant’s religion is not the same thing as his denomination. He may be categorized historically as a Protestant, but he, like the Mormon, believes that he is in fact a true follower of Jesus Christ, a designation which he shares with people who have a common understanding of doctrine and practice, and since they believe they are the only true followers of Jesus Christ, they call their religion “Christianity.”

Read Full Post »

Within the limits of possible knowledge, epistemologically speaking, I am as certain as a person could reasonably be that Mormonism is not True. Assuming, arguendo, the truth of Christianity, I believe that Mormonism’s claims to truth cannot possibly be true because of fatal flaws in the fundamental Mormon teachings about the Great Apostasy and the Restoration. As the new “discussions” reflect, Apostasy and Restoration are Mormonism’s lynchpins: without a Great Apostasy there was no need for a Restoration, and without a Restoration, Mormonism’s self-justifying truth claims fall apart.

For the Apostasy-Restoration to have happened, the following must be true:

1. Priesthood authority must indeed work the way the Mormon Church claims it does. This actually means that, in fact, the concept of priesthood authority is actually the most fundamental Mormon doctrine, because Apostasy-Restoration presupposes the existence of a priesthood authority that functions the way Mormonism teaches. The thing is, there is almost no evidence from the apostolic era or before (i.e., from the Bible or other contemporary sources) that priesthood authority–if it exists at all–works like that. Mormon scriptures do not count, because for them to be acceptable, Mormonism must be true which means that priesthood must work the way Mormonism says it does (which is what we’re trying to decide in the first place). That is, unless Mormon scripture was somehow independently verifiable, which it most certainly is not.

2. Said priesthood must have been lost in the manner that Mormonism claims. This requires us to believe a claim of Mormonism at face value, which we have no reason to do unless we first accept that Mormonism’s concept of priesthood authority is true and that the Apostasy-Restoration actually happened. Again, if we could verify this loss of priesthood independently, Mormonism would be more credible. But we can’t. Change in doctrine does not evidence loss of priesthood authority, because that requires us to first accept a Mormon understanding of how priesthood works. Ditto for basically every other Mormon evidence of the loss of priesthood leading to the great apostasy. The Bible verses appealed to by Mormonism do not really help, either: taken alone, without presupposing Mormon priesthood authority, and Apostasy-Restoration, they do not by any means necessarily mean what Mormonism says they mean. The fact that the idea of a Great Apostasy was common in the 19th century is also not dispositive. Nobody thinks that anymore. A vague semi-consensus among some–but by no means all–Protestant Christians in the 1800s that something like the Great Apostasy had happened cannot possibly be credible evidence now that it actually did happen. Furthermore, Mormon claims about the loss of priesthood–and what would have had to have happened for such a loss to occur–are facially implausible. Even if we do accept Mormon ideas about priesthood authority and how it works, the likelihood that it would be lost while Christianity would survive is completely unbelievable. I wrote a post awhile back explaining exactly why. I think it is well worth the read.

So we have no reason to believe that priesthood works the way Mormonism says it does or that a Great Apostasy happened, except for circular logic that requires us to first assume the truth of Mormonism. That means Mormonism’s claims are simply not credible unless we believe Mormonism’s claims of authority based on nothing but… Mormonism’s claims to authority. Even the official Way To Truth (read, pray, feel-the-spirit-confirming-the-truth-and-banishing-all-doubt-and/or-contrary-evidence, rinse, repeat ad nauseum) requires us to begin by assuming that Mormonism is right regarding how you find out what is true. Unless you independently think that the Mormon Way To Truth is the right way to truth, or even one of several reliable ways, we have no reason to trust Mormonism when it tells us the way to truth, since it does it based on its own authority, which is what we’re trying to verify in the first place. This is textbook circular reasoning.

As far as independently thinking–i.e. based on something other than Mormonism’s teachings–that the Mormon Way To Truth is in fact the right way, I have a lot to say about that. But for the moment I will merely point out that no other religion or religious leader teaches it. If it was independently verifiable or somehow self-evident, the chances are pretty good that someone would actually have come up with it on their own (and then if Mormonism was really true, it would have to lead them to Mormonism). Good luck trying to argue that this in fact happens.

Read Full Post »

I am actually writing this post from… the future!

Seriously, in going back and assembling my list of high points along the journey, I realized that there are a couple of spots where important things happened, I didn’t blog about them, and I didn’t go back and explain what happened either. This is one of those spots, so I will try to recap for the sake of historical continuity.  So I am actually writing this post on April 2, 2009 to go back and fill in the blanks, and I am inserting it timewise into the summer of 2008.

In the spring of 2008, I headed east, spiritually speaking. I read a lot of the Baghavad Gita, I watched a lot of Heroes, and my daughter was born. For awhile, I thought that a kind of quasi-Dharmic Hinduism was going to be the path for me. I even went and started a new blog called “Dharma Bum” which I subsequently deleted (after bringing the important posts back here, so they wouldn’t be lost).

My brother came to visit with his wife in April, and he brought a bunch of books about Zen Buddhism, which I had never really considered seriously before. In particular, the book Hardcore Zen struck me as relevant and important. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that Zen Buddhism was the right path for me–the truths that it espoused were, for the most part, things that I believed to be self-evident truths about the universe. I had some semantic concerns about distinguishing the Hindu Atman from the Buddhist Anatman, but that was more the kind of thing that could produce long, quirky debates later on. Important was the Zen universe was a universe I believed in, and Zen meditation seemed rally helpful to me.

But there was still a nagging feeling that this wasn’t really the right thing for me. Maybe it was jsut my fear of spiritual commitment, I don’t know. But it seemed to me that the problem with Zen was not that i thought it was untrue, but that it did not provide me with things I wanted and needed, spiritually speaking: a culturally relevant context with ritual, compelling mythological framework, professional clergy, etcetera. Although I couldn’t make myself believe that Christianity was true, I still felt an attraction to the Episcopal Church that in my opinion contradicted my Zen inklings.

My brother’s advice was just to pick one, go with it, and see what happens. And eventually that’s what I did.

While studying for final exams last April, I read C. S. Lewis’s Surprised By Joy, which is an amazing book. I was surprised to see how unconventional Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was, and in the end, I started to feel like the Episcopal Church really was the place for me–a place to be, in fact, even if I was not sure about my belief in Christianity.

So when we moved to New York for the summer, we started attending an Episcopal Church in the Village, and I even went to services at Trinity during my lunch hour downtown. It was meaningful and important to me, but there was some critical quality that was just elusive. I read every C. S. Lewis book I could get my hands on, I prayed and did devotions, and I thought of myself as a Christian, a Protestant, and an Anglican.

Maybe the biggest problem was that, concurrent to all of this, I spiralled into what might have been the worst depression I have ever been in. I can’t even describe it beyond saying that it was an absolute nightmare, and finally getting help and eventually climbing out of it has saved my life. My beautiful and sexy wife was there for me in my darkest hours, even when things got scary and that means so much to me. But in a lot of ways, God was distant, and I couldn’t figure out why. I literally cried out to Jesus to deliver me, but things just kept getting darker.

My love affair with Christianity started to enter a period of uncertainty when we came back to Maryland, partly because I was just plain more interested in Led Zeppelin than I was in religion. I still kept Episcopal Christianity in my head as a spiritual placeholder, but even then I wasn’t sure anymore–not because Christianity hadn’t pulled me out of my depression, because for all I know things might have been a lot worse without prayer and devotion, but just because my interest was fading. Again, fear of spiritual commitment? Maybe. But also Christianity honestly just wasn’t punching all of the spiritual buttons I needed to have punched.

Incidentally, I haven’t really felt the need or desire to go back to Zen. It is interesting, and probably, in retrospect, the religion whose truth-claims are the closest to matching reality, but despite being true, it is so stripped down that it actually lacks Truth.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: