Monday, August 31, 2015

Mormonism--Not Another Christian Church--George's Post


(a)  Not Another Christian Church”—A Place for True Believers

Whatever the Mormon Church may be, it is not just “another” Christian Church.  If it were, it might find it far easier to attract new members and to grow.  While the uniqueness of the Mormon message--reaffirming that Jesus is the Christ and the only Begotten of the Father and the only name by which salvation can come--should be obvious through the standard lessons taught by full-time missionaries, often investigators seem to be deaf to this message.  Frequently they hardily react to the startling account of the first vision—wherein the young Prophet Joseph claims to have seen God the Father and the Son and to have been told to hold himself apart from all of the existing sects of Christianity, since “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”[1]  Equally surprising is how little they react to the Book of Mormon, which the Mormons accept as a companion set of scriptures, containing the writings and visions of holy men, prophets of God living in the Americas, both before and after the life of Jesus Christ, similar in content and style to the books of the Old and New Testament.  It is although they are not listening to what the missionaries are telling them—they hear but they hardily respond to the extraordinary, indeed revolutionary, claims made by the Mormon Church.  They seem to find themselves in the same woeful condition of thoughtlessness as many of the Israelites at the time of the Christ’s ministry, to whom he preached by way of parable.  “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.  And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith,  By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see and shall not perceive:  For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and shall understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.”  Matt: 13: 13-15.   
Not infrequently, investigators, after listening to the missionaries, will say that all Christian churches, including the Mormon Church, are pretty much the same, each, though different, a channel for getting back to God.  Implicit in these or similar comments is that Mormonism isn’t too bad and is likely much like the other Christian churches.   Some of these investigators may be merely humoring the missionaries, wanting to spare their feelings, reluctant to express the shock and dismay they actually feel upon hearing the radical, and to them unbelievable claims, of Mormonism.    But such comments, if intended seriously, suggest the investigators are largely deaf to the missionaries’ extraordinary claims—their eyes are dull and ears deaf. 
Either Mormonism represents precisely what it claims to represent—the restoration of the gospel’s fulness in these the latter days, preparatory to the great and dreadful coming of the Lord—something that should be taken seriously by all of good intent, whether they be Christian or not--or Mormonism constitutes a web of raw fabrications, not worthy of belief, indeed something contemptible.  Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, as well as all of the latter-day prophets should be rejected as “false prophets.”  They are those of whom the Savior warned when saying: “And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many”[2] and “For there shall arise … false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible they shall deceive the very elect.”[3]  It is hard to think that those listening to the message would not understand this.  Perhaps, for some, they are slow to be too critical of the Mormon Church, because, while they do not believe the message, they find Mormons to be decent, God-fearing, morally upright individuals and the Mormon Church to be a positive force for good in an increasing wicked world, neither the church nor its members deserving of any special criticism when compared to other Christian denominations or religious groups.[4]
What may be less apparent to those introduced to the Mormon Church, at least in the beginning, is the radically new vision it provides of Christianity.  Most Christian churches justify their existence in some way either as a reformation of earlier doctrines—considered distorted, lost or corrupted over time by other Christian churches and in need of reforming—and/or as a reaction to unholy or corrupt practices that have crept into the churches due to the intermingling of church and state, religious corruption or political intrigue.   But Mormonism, unlike the Protestant churches and most of the evangelical movements, does not neatly fall within two these tradition.  Certainly some Mormon doctrines might be viewed as the rejection of certain Christian doctrines pronounced by other faiths—such as the Mormon concept of the Godhead (rejecting a portion of the Nicene Creed); baptism by immersion (rejecting infant baptism and sprinkling); the establishment of a lay ministry, called by inspiration, and empowered by the priesthood (because of what Mormon see as the loss of priesthood power due to the early church apostasy); an individual form of worship, emphasizing personal unscripted prayers, direct connection with God, Christian service, in lieu of communicating to God through pastors and ministers.    In this sense, Mormonism may seem like other reform-based Christian churches, whose doctrine is based largely upon a rejection of earlier forms of Christianity, often trying to go back to an earlier, purer form of Christianity, true to its historical roots.  But upon further examination, many core Mormon doctrines are genuinely unique and do not have their genesis as the “reaction” to the church doctrine of any other denomination considered apostate or corrupt—or as a reaction to secular or unrighteous forms of public worship that have been engrafted over time into Christian life.  Instead these doctrines, central to Mormon belief, are strikingly original, yet at the same time, remarkably integrated, giving sense and form to much of traditional Christian doctrine.  Among such doctrines, as explained by humble young Mormon missionaries, without formal training, include the plan of salvation—elucidating the purpose of life by reference to the preexistence, spiritual children of god, human agency, eternal progression, the fall of Adam, the atonement and resurrection, the three degrees of glory, and the possibility of exaltation; the centrality of temple ordinances, including the endowment, baptisms for the dead, and the sealing ordinances; and the roles played the Jesus Christ, Satan as a fallen son of the morning,[5]star of the morning, and the “great and noble” ones in the preexistence, in giving shape to the history of human life.  None of these doctrines are refractions of earlier Christian doctrines, coming back in some new, reshuffled or reformed fashion.  Instead, they give a framework to Mormon orthodoxy and religious thought that many Mormons find speaking to their souls—they are “truths” considered sublime; —complete—as though all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole; —and surprisingly “simple” and “appealing—truths that make sense and that somehow seem familiar and believable though new. 
Most Mormons are fully conscious of the “all-or-nothing” character of the claims made on behalf of the Mormon Church.  There is no comfortable middle ground for Mormonism, allowing its doctrine to be reconciled with other Christian denominations, and permitting the Mormon Church to iron out the doctrinal difference through ecumenical discourse.   This recognition is captured over and over again in their testimonies, wherein they boldly, without hesitation, claim that the Mormon Church is the “one and only” true Church upon the earth.  They do not consider the Mormon Church to be another “Christian” denomination, barely distinguishable for other Christian churches, each having the power to lead to knowledge of the true character of God and the right form of worship.  Indeed, any suggestion to that effect is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the Mormon message.  For this reason alone, members of the Mormon Church are usually comfortable in their own skin only when they are “true believers.”[6]  
Many Mormons certainly consider themselves as true believers and are very devout, willing and ready to make great sacrifices for their faith.   Yet, at the same time, some struggle to accept all of the doctrine, even when they believe much of what the Mormon Church teaches.  The “absolute” nature of the doctrine—the dichotomous view of the Mormon Church as true or false--creates for them dissonance.  It is hard for them to reconcile the good they may see in the lives of Church members, the strength of the Mormon Church as an agent for good, or the beauty or simplicity of its doctrine, with those doctrines, social customs, or cultural aspects of Mormonism found offensive or hard to accept.  Mormonism seems to be wrapped in an unbending logic of its own—either it is inspired and true or is fundamentally flawed, possibly even the work of evil, designing, or deceived men.  There appears to be little room to maneuver.
There are number of ways to relieve the tension created by this dissonance, when felt by members.[7]  Those most converted may choose to “set aside” the things they find difficult accepting, cannot understand, or simply don’t believe.[8]   They are prepared to say to themselves—“we don’t or may not now understand this—but we will wait for the day when the Lord reveals more or when we understand better.”    To do this requires humility, a baseline testimony of the core gospel principles of the gospel, the faith to proceed in the face of uncertainty, and patience--knowing that some, perhaps many, truths will not be revealed to us in this life.  For those willing to do so, “shelving” issues seems to be a reasonable approach, allowing them to continue with their faith—doing the things they feel are right and important—without sacrificing their intellectual integrity.  This approach however is feasible only if they believe the issues “shelved” are fringe issues, not going to core beliefs they regard as central to the gospel message and not interfering with their good standing in the Church.  Often they believe it advisable to keep their questions, uncertainties and doubts to themselves.  Should their sentiments be shared with others, it may upset the faith of some—when that is not the intent—they are not trying to convince others of “any” particular point of view.   Their concerns are personal to them and they wish to keep them private.   Moreover, they wish to maintain good relationships with others in the Church, not wanting others to brand them as heretical or unorthodox.   
What should a member do if he or she has ambivalent feelings toward membership in the Church—on the one hand, loving much about the Church and its doctrine, and on the other hand harboring some doubts.  The first principle of the Church is “faith”—something we forget on occasion.  However much we may know, or at least be so comfortable about that we don’t worry, there is always a point where we must peer over the edge and exercise faith in the face of the yawning unknown.  We may order our beliefs—sorting core beliefs from fringe ones—and decide how much we are prepared to take on faith and where we find when the going gets too rough.  Then there is always the question about the alternatives.  If, at the end of the day, we can’t get satisfied with what we believe—where do we go?  Do we embrace our own brand of Christianity; do we choose to worship with some other Christian denomination; do we quit searching for God altogether; or do we embrace Buddhism, the Jewish faith, some form of new age religion or mysticism?  Are any of those options apt to be more comforting or answer our big life questions better, or more convincingly, than Mormonism?  Or will we find ourselves just as disappointed, unsatisfied, or left questioning as we were before. 
When thinking of these alternatives, I am reminded of the experience of the early disciples after Christ gave the “bread of life” sermon considered so blasphemous to traditional Jewish thought.  “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.  As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.”  John 6: 56-57.  Many were so upset by these teachings that, however they may have been moved by the miracles Christ performed, or drawn to the other doctrines he taught, they said: “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?”  John 6: 60.  Then they left him.  In the aftermath, Christ asked the twelve: “Will ye also go away?”  Much the same could be said of faithful Church members struggling to be at peace with doctrines they find objectionable or offensive or a Church history that at points seems problematic.    Peter’s response is, I think, idiomatic of the feelings many members have.  “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou has the words of eternal life.  And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”  John 6: 68-69.  Those converted to the Church’s core doctrines feel as though the gospel, as revealed through latter-day revelation, is ultimately the source of eternal life.  Where else would they go for “eternal life?”  Mormon doctrine is simple, complete, indeed sublime.  It addresses and provides answers to tough life questions.  Similar answers are not to be found in the doctrines of other churches.  They do not see Catholicism or other evangelical churches, as viable alternatives.  If they are prepared to accept Christianity, it is Christianity in the form taught in the Church.  Usually, they find the Mormon view of the deficiencies of Christian doctrines as espoused by other denominations to be damning.  And while they may struggle with Mormonism, they would struggle as much with the doctrines of other Christian denominations.  For the most part, if members leave the Church, they do not leave the Church in favor of joining another Christian faith.  Apostate Mormons more often than not find themselves outside of Christianity altogether.




[1] See Joseph Smith History, 1:19.
[2] Matt. 24: 11.
 
[3] Matt. 24: 24.
G
[4] This of course is relevant.  Christ, when warning his disciples about “false prophets,” did not suggest that there would not be “prophets,” but only that some would “false,” in that they would “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”  Christ then provided a means for testing the claims of prophets—“Ye shall know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes of thorns, or fits of thistles.  Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. …  Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”  Matt: 7: 15-17; 20.
 
[5] See Isa. 14: 12.  “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning.  How ar thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations.”
[6] On occasion, those born and raised in the Church, especially those in the western parts of the United States where there are many Church members, become what are in effect “cultural” Mormons, wed to the social customs of the Church, but divorced from its doctrine and orthodoxy.  Certainly for some of them the dichotomous view of the Church—as either “true” or “false” on doctrinal issues—is less relevant.  They do not tend to think of the Church as “true” or “false” but instead as an established social institution, conducive of a comfortable life style, teaching positive Christian values, and supportive of strong family values.  For many, they feel connected to the Church because their parents, grandparents, and even earlier ancestors were members; they are proud of their ancestry and the personal sacrifices made by family members to join and stay active in the Church.   The Church is part of their cultural identity, giving context and meaning to their lives, much as nationality is part of the cultural identity of many Americans.
 
[7] To be sure, many in the Mormon Church seem to be perfectly content with Church doctrine and practices.  They are happy in the Church and find its doctrines and practices reassuring.  They feel as though the Spirit has borne testimony to their hearts and that is alone sufficient.  They are not worried by the things they may not understand. 
 
[8] The practice of polygamy, no longer practiced but certainly still a part of the Church’s doctrine, is such a stumbling block for some in the Church.  Even the most faithful of Church members often set this doctrine on the “shelf,” fully mindful that they don’t know enough to understand why and how it become a part of the Church history.  They are prepared however to move beyond it, because of the fervent testimony they have of the core doctrines of the Church, confident that the time will come when the purpose of polygamy in the Lord’s plan will become clear.