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Investigating Mormonism from many different angles

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Update!

Posted by nebula0 on March 1, 2015


It’s been a while. Years in fact. Every now and again I get an email about some comment or ping back. I decided to look one of these up, discovered I was quoted, and also took note of an unfortunate grammar error in my writing. How can I live with that? This is no doubt a result of my aversion to editing my own work, but at least that post got an edit.

I haven’t posted here because I profoundly lost interest in Mormonism. A lethargic, lazy indifference has taken hold on the topic so deep, in fact, that I am moving to give away my books on the subject. I am of the position concerning God and related topics that if God exists, such a being must certainly be beyond our cognitive faculties for discovery and understanding. Somewhat related to this philosophical move I am going to graduate school for physics. While I continue to be fascinated with the human proclivity to religion, I finding myself compelled to learn about what can be discovered about nature. I am finding this latter opportunity more satisfying than the former because the latter involves answers that are, more or less, yes or no. It is something I can really cut my teeth on. You may speculate, you may guess, but in the end nature vets all physical claims. There is no such vetting in religion, or even religious studies often for that matter.

In ways, my opinions on things have gotten a tinge more cynical. But, it is an even handed cynicism for religious organizations in general, not particularly targeted at Mormonism. More and more I see religion as an outgrowth for human maneuvering for power. It is a secondary outlet for status achievement. The reason I suspect this, more than favoring opinions having to do with striving for metaphysical answers, is because seeking deep meaning doesn’t require these organizations at all. In fact, given the fluid nature of explorations about the meaning of life, the universe and so forth, and the rather static and unbending nature of these organizations, it is very unlikely that one even readily responds to the other. As far as that goes then, I view the existence of most religious organizations as at least mildly unfortunate, if not inevitable. The psychological need for status in some community is strong enough that if not ‘the Church’ (whichever that may be) that impulse would merely be directed at some other venue.

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Mormonism and God

Posted by nebula0 on July 15, 2011


To be perfectly honest I haven’t given Mormonism much thought lately. I did present at the Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium last August for the second time and enjoyed that, and the thought that I put into that paper was the last time I gave the religion serious thought.

I have been giving the concept of God a lot of attention however. As I have been learning more about philosophy I have been taken aback by the sheer force of many of the arguments for God’s existence. I was of the mindset that modernity, culminating with Kant, had done away with Aquinas’ arguments. I was wrong, they are alive and well, thriving even.

My current favorite is the various forms of the Leibnizian cosmological argument (argument from contingency). There are several ways to approach this one, but it goes something like this:

There is a possible explanation for every contingent thing. [a contingent thing is one which could have conceivably not existed]

The aggregate of all contingent things is a contingent thing, call it C.

There is a possible explanation for C. [via the premise]

Any contingent thing posed as an explanation for C will be a member of C [by definition].

Therefore, there possibly exists some necessary thing to explain C. [a necessary thing is one which must exist in every possible world]

If it is to stand in an explanatory relationship with C it will be a concrete thing. [a concrete thing as opposed to an abstract, can effect things in the world]

Therefore, a necessary concrete object exists [via S5, a rule in modal logic which states that a possible necessary is necessary]

There is a stage 2 of this argument which explicates what sorts of properties this necessary concrete object must have analytically. Stage 2 ends up arguing for an agent with unbounded power and knowledge. There are of course rejoinders to consider, but in general if one accepts some form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and possibly mereological universalism the argument seems to run.

I will pose this question, does Mormonism fulfill the requirements of these sorts of arguments? Historically obviously not, philosophy has been looked upon with suspicion and the corporal, finite nature of God the Father embraced as a positive distinctive element in the religion. But is there some room in Mormonism to integrate into it the insights that these kinds of arguments? After all, intelligence is the glory of God.

I have no immediate answers to this. It is clear that like any religious group Mormonism is changing, and as a young one is still defining itself. My hope is that as a group Mormons embrace all that reason reveals. Even if Mormonism as a theological system rejects what natural theology has to offer by engaging it it can only grow richer and deeper for its adherents.

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What IS Mormonism after all?

Posted by nebula0 on April 8, 2010


My most recent reflection on Mormonism was prompted by re-watching PBS’s American Experience on Mormonism.  Naturally my husband, something of a Mormon though inactive and unsure of what he believes, was interested in re-watching the show.  Going through the four hours of the documentary over two nights clarified for me what I think about Mormonism.

Firstly, I think Mormonism as it was founded was a result of 19th C utopian experimentation, revivalism in the Second Great Awakening style, widespread King James Bible literacy, American exceptionalism, regional folk magic, masonic rites and the special charisma of Joseph Smith.  I think Joseph started by making it up, realized that people were sucking it in, and started to take it more seriously.  It’s likely he completely fabricated at first his story about the golden plates, found it interesting that the local minister reacted so strongly to his story, enjoyed how engaged people were over it, and set to work constructing something.  I do think that by the time he formed the church he believed in himself, that he had in fact been called by God and had in fact been inspired in writing the Book of Mormon.  After that, the syncretism of the elements I mentioned before happened subconsciously.

Everything fits together so neatly in this model.  The Book of Mormon spoke to people because they resonated with the fact that it was peculiarly contemporary and couched in a comfortable King James style of language.  It dealt with those pressing issues of the day, infant baptism?  Trinity?  Anti-Masonry?  What about those curious Indian mounds?  Origins of the Indians?  Why is America so special to God? (they assumed it was).  And of course, they would have been familiar with the experimental societies of the day, as they were legion, and wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable joining one under Joseph.  His seer stone and gold digging wouldn’t have necessarily bothered them, all that they were familiar with. Finding hidden treasure was often undertaken by respectable citizens.  Joseph’s insistence on the nuclear family as basic unit of salvation would have been unique and provided a sense of reassurance and comfort to a culture emphasizing overwhelming individuality and a society which suffered from the frequent loss of children.

None of that need to invalidate the claim that Mormonism really is inspired by God and that God did in fact give Joseph the keys of the priesthood.  It may be that God speaks to each human community in terms the community can understand and thus allowed Joseph some freedom in how to express deeper truths.  Thus it would in fact be expected to see elements of his time in the religion.  This is of course a possibility but one that I do not argue for.

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Unity or Disunity?

Posted by nebula0 on March 24, 2010


Oftentimes it is the groups which seem the closest to us in beliefs that cause us the most concern.  The reason that so many Christian groups have ‘anti Mormon’ missions is just because of that.  Mormons use the Bible, so do they.  Mormons talk about Jesus Christ, so do they.  But the differences are also as great and these Christians want to find a way to emphasize that to their members and outsiders.  What would relieve this tension?

At this point, I can only speak for myself.  Despite the fact that in theory Mormons and I both share a battle against secularists and the atheist movement which has tried to take over the public sphere, I cannot endorse Mormonism.  The main issue, which I have spoken about elsewhere on this blog, is a theological one, the nature of God.  If Mormonism became truly monotheistic, not even necessarily trinitarian, I would feel more comfortable.   Other issues which I find personally bothersome, such as the undue emphasis on obedience to the hierarchy I could file away as an issue for Mormons in-house deal with.  That is one reason I would not be a Mormon but not a real reason for me to hesitate over whether or not to call Mormons Christian and therefore on my team.  But the nature of God is too fundamental. 

Mormons will always get grief from some, if for no other reason than there are a lot of jerks out there.  But Mormons already have a notion of the necessity of Christ for salvation which is surely a basic ingredient to any Christianity.  They need only now abandon their early theology in an official and public way that God the Father is one of us, all grown up, and I think they will find themselves more fully embraced into the Christian world.  The reality is, most Mormons are pretty well monotheists anyway and it’s only a matter of time that, if for no other reason than ignorance of Mormon theology, Mormonism as a belief system will officially register this change.

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Borderline Mormons and Doubt

Posted by nebula0 on November 26, 2009


Is it just me or is Doubt a major theme of Sunstone?  Why is it that doubt is such an obsession amongst self-declared Mormon intelligentsia?  Doubt as the root of real faith, Doubt as sacrament, Doubt as grace, Doubt Doubt Doubt.  Why is this?  I suppose my real question is , if you don’t really believe all that much is it worth it or even honest to stick around?  Perhaps this is easy for me, a relative outsider from the start.  I wasn’t born in the covenant, I was a convert.  When I knew my doubts caused me to really question whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet in any obvious sense of the word I became inactive.  When I became a monotheist I simply stopped being a Mormon.  It seemed so well… obvious to me that is what you do.  For many however I suppose it’s not as simple.  What it really appears to boil down to is family and social ties.

As much as certain people want to make romantic serious doubts about the basic truth claims of Mormonism as some kind of ‘dark night of the soul’ I will step out on a ledge here and assert the real problem is fear.  Certain people just do not believe Mormonism is true but fear disturbing their family and social lives.  As a result, their minds construct multiple layers of justifications for sticking around and finding meaning in their inner strife.  I assert that if the social aspect were removed, many of these people would simply quit being Mormons without much further ado.

I don’t think this is a problem of Mormonism alone, by the way, but of religion in general.  Certain sociological studies pretty thoroughly demonstrate that conversion is likely to happen if your social network is primarily of a certain religion and your past social network impaired for some reason (i.e. going off to college, getting a divorce).  Likewise, retention is likely only when the new convert makes lots of new friends in their new faith.  What these studies also demonstrate is that the subjects are typically unaware that their social contacts appear to be the major predictor of whether or not they convert and whether or not they stay.  The subjects typically talk about the merit of the truth claims.

As time has gone by I realize that this is largely true of my story.  I became a Mormon when I went off to college.  I converted and though was friendly with many never managed to make any good Mormon friends.  When I got married to a Mormon he was on the edge of activity himself (actually I was MORE active), so although I gained a  large social network of Mormons by marrying into a family of Mormons that was hardly enough to keep me in.  When expecting our first child I realized that I didn’t want to be a Mormon in part because I didn’t care at all for the culture and didn’t want to impart it to my children.  So while it was a truth claim issue that caused the final severing, social and culture belonging likely played a larger role.

My hope is that those who doubt the very fundamentals of Mormonism honestly think about their motivations for staying and come to a true clarity within themselves.  Trying to maintain the kinds of ‘making doubt meaningful’ mental structures that some erect just takes too much striving- eventually, something will give.

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Models for Conversation

Posted by nebula0 on November 1, 2009


There are several theological approaches to dealing with the problem of religious plurality, that is, how to deal with the fact that there are multiple truth claims made by others who seem very sincere.  These truth claims are often exclusive.  The evangelical and Mormon conversation typifies one response to the problem, that is, simply maintaining strict exclusivism.  The best that can be done in this model is attempting to understand the other position thoroughly while maintaining that the end of the day the other position is just not a path to God.  Though the other party may be sincere and well-meaning, there can only be one true path to God.  This position has several advantages, among which are that it is simple, straightforward, and in a not so obvious fashion perhaps more respectful than the other possible positions because it recognizes that the other side is trying to claim an absolute truth which isn’t the same as your own.  This model of conversation envisions an eventual total replacement of the other side by the one true way.

But there are other ways too.  In Roman Catholic theology it is common to think of other religions as containing ‘anonymous Christians’ who have access to real grace in their own religious traditions.  While Catholicism maintains that it has the clearest path to God and the most truth, it argues that there are sincere believers in other traditions that despite their traditions are, in a real sense, making their way to God.  So it is that Karl Rahner can argue that other religions are ways of salvation, if not as bright and well-marked as the Catholic way, and even if the individuals in question are in reality being saved by Christ even if they don’t agree.  This way has the advantage of approaching the other as possibly, in a true sense, approaching God and therefore listening closer, but all the while thinking that you are still most correct. 

In liberal Protestantism there are generally two approaches that can be taken.  One is that world religions are all mutually valid ways of approaching God- that is, different paths up the same mountain.  Some arguing that this position is too arrogant in assuming that someone has access to seeing the whole mountain while others do not (those who insist their way is truly exclusive, for instance) and that there is but one peak argue that there are multiple mountains with multiple peaks.  If a Buddhist expect nirvana and a Mormon the Celestial Kingdom, a good Buddhist will get nirvana and a good Mormon the Celestial Kingdom, exactly as they expect and desire.  Naturally this approach creates the greatest openness to hearing others speak and completely eliminates the desire to convert the other.

I argue that it is best to be clear and straightforward about what our biases are.  Obviously if we did not think we had the best way to worship God, we’d do it the way that we did think was best.  The danger is that conversations with those very jealous about the exclusiveness of their truth claims often quickly become frustrating as each side, rather than being able to have open conversation, is on constant guard against giving too much ground while attempting vigorously to convert the other.   I have seen too often conversations between evangelicals and Mormon degrade into a mutual play act, in which one side recalls ‘tips for evangelizing’ and the other resorts to bearing his testimony.  Both sides walk away frustrated and having gained nothing whatsoever.  Is there a way to engage in real conversation?  Only if there is a modicum of danger involved, that is, an allowance of the possibility of changing minds, if even a little bit.

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Heavenly Father and Theodicy

Posted by nebula0 on October 30, 2009


One of the most prickly problems theists face is the problem of evil and developing a theodicy in response.  If there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator how can evil exist?  If he is all good and all powerful and all knowing there should be no excuse.  In response to the problem a number of responses exist from classic monotheists including the free will defense or arguing that from God’s perspective all really is well.   In the face of true evil however, these responses often feel thin.  Knowing that God, if he wanted to, have intervened in the Holocaust and prevented children from getting gassed, wouldn’t we expect a good God to do that, free will be damned?  What kind of God allows for the unbearable torture of the innocent?  These thoughts have in part led to the creation of new types of theologies, namely, process theology.  However, Mormonism also has an interesting potential angle.

One of the strengths of Mormonism, I argue, is that it has a very interesting solution to the problem.  In Mormonism God is relatively, not absolutely, infinite.  That is, as a mile wide piece of paper might as well be infinite to a speck of dust, God is relatively infinite in qualities to us.  God has so much more power, goodness and knowledge than we possess he is in effect infinite, though not in the absolute sense of the classical monotheist.  You can probably already sense where this is going, if God is not absolutely infinite, then perhaps his power is in some sense insufficient to prevent evils even if he wanted to.  What’s more, Mormonism provides a further avenue of thought on the matter by arguing that God became God by following pre-existing rules of the cosmos that just happened to be there, that he is in effect bound to them and to break them would cause him to cease being God.  We are, of course, also bound by these same laws. God wants to illumine these laws to us for our good and further our happiness.  He provides us succor and guidance as we learn, but cannot alter these laws.  So it is, that through the unavoidable operation of these laws people get hurt.  God can do much to alleviate suffering, but it is inevitable that suffering will occur and he cannot help that.  God in this theology remains truly good, without significant problem.

This is truly a great strength of Mormon theology and I hope it is not overlooked by the Mormon population.  The problem of evil is a disturbing one and the ability to salvage God’s character through the Mormon solution is not a trivial thing.

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Tracked Down! Families in Mormonism

Posted by nebula0 on October 29, 2009


So after having moved after having not been to church for over a year, I admit I had great hopes that we’d fly under the radar and never be tracked down by what is supposed to be our new local ward.  Most of our Mormon friends dropped out of the picture after we stopped showing up for sacrament meetings, so I reasoned that there would be no reason for our new address to enter the picture.  However it was only a week ago that an older gentleman came to our door and introduced himself as a neighbor ‘in our ward’ with, of course, an invitation to church.

What surprised me was not so much that our address eventually did get out, but my reaction to the visit.  I was deeply disturbed.  I realized that Mormonism threatened, at least in my own mind, our family harmony.  I am completely non-Mormon, I don’t even really think of myself as ‘ex’ Mormon.  I don’t feel related to Mormonism at all, good or bad.  However, my spouse considers himself a jack Mormon, even though he doesn’t accept its basic truth claims.  He feels some kind of cultural connection, as if he was born a Jew who disbelieves that Moses was a prophet.  It is for that reason I don’t want Mormonism an issue in our lives, I don’t want it brought up, I don’t want anyone thinking about it in our family.  We have such a happy, close family life and I am so pleased not to raise our children in the church, or any church for that matter, I don’t want this happy family ship perturbed.

If you are familiar with Mormonism you might find my sentiments ironic.  After all, isn’t Mormonism a bastion of happy, close families?  It really only works if all the members of the family are also active Mormons.  Only active Mormon couples can be sealed for ‘time and all eternity’ in the temples, and thus have their children ‘born in the covenant’ and thus sealed to them for ‘time and all eternity’.  And those promises are bound up with individual obedience to Mormonism’s gospel message.  So it is having one spouse an active Mormon and another not, or even worse, one who is non Mormon, is bound to cause stress on the marriage. 

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t just a Mormon issue- interreligious marriages in general cause stress if one member of the marriage is committed to a religion.  But, Mormonism creates a unique stressor by stressing so much family unity, in the church.  In fact, a defective spouse can threaten the eternal possibility of the other.  It is a couple that is exalted to godhood through obedience to the (Mormon) gospel, not individuals.

Since nothing has come of the visit of the well intentioned older gentleman to our house, I have relaxed again.  But the episode has reaffirmed to me how far I have come in the matter of a couple of years in how I understand the very core of my identity.

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Some Recent Thoughts about Mormonism

Posted by nebula0 on October 28, 2009


Well folks, in case you haven’t guessed I haven’t thought a whole lot about Mormonism for a while now.  It has been over 2 years since I have been to a Mormon church, and I nearly thought we’d fall off the radar when we moved (someone, however, tattled us out).  Nonetheless, as I have been reviewing some of my comparative religion literature along with Christian history I thought about Mormonism vis-a-vis other religious traditions and I came to realize a couple of things through comparison.

In Hinduism there are 4 main yogas, or paths, by which one can become enlightened.  The most popular path is called bhakti yoga, the way of love or adoration of God.  By many Hindus, Christianity is regarded as an exemplar of this way.  Through total love of God adherents are able to turn from ego and progress spiritually.  Likewise, one way to approach God is Sufism is through a similar all out adoration of God.  Out of this tradition love poetry has been created.  I probably needn’t tell you about the emphasis on love and personal relationship with Christ (whom the Hindus would regard as an avatar of God) in Christianity, and how establishing the relationship is the way to salvation in evangelical thought.

How does this compare with Mormonism?  Mormonism doesn’t include a concept of the truly infinite, and therefore doesn’t include a notion of utter dependence.  It is the latter, I argue, which inspires the way of devotion which I describe above.  The idea that it is God who is the source of existence itself creates a relationship to God in which the finite worshipper finds himself swallowed up into God as the essence of Being itself.  In Mormonism, every individual is immortal, apart from God, at the core of his being.  God, in Mormonism, is to be loved, of course, but it does not inspire the sort of total love devotion that religions of the infinite God can command.  Whether this is good or bad is not the point of my argument at all, that is for you to decide.  What Mormonism has instead is a religion of covenant.  God is a sort of way shower, to show the individual how to succeed, helping him to do so at every step as humans need help and guidance.  In Mormonism, God is a literal and figurative Father figure, and the love and devotion shown by God most approximates the love and guidance shown by good human fathers than any other religion I am aware of.  As good human fathers, Heavenly Father is patient, knowing that we are but little children, and sacrificing. 

I believe that this distinction can explain much about the differences between Mormonism and many other world religions, particularly orthodox Christianity.

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Offspring of God

Posted by nebula0 on March 26, 2009


Alright, so this is the last little apologetics related post for a while… at least let’s hope.  But, Mormon apologists, future missionaries everywhere, it’s better to be aware of these things from the outset.  I’m sure you know about that verse in Acts in which Paul is speaking to the Athenians and says  that we are the offspring of God.  I’m sure you also know that that is a popular Mormon prooftext (i.e. a verse often used by Mormons to bolster particular Mormon claims).  Please be aware that in that verse Paul is actually quoting a philosopher named Cleanthes who wrote a poem exalting Zeus.  Given the context of the quotation, you may want to proceed rather cautiously when trying to use that tidbit to make any broad theological claims.

Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

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