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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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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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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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Philosophies of Men in Mormon Theology

Posted by nebula0 on March 24, 2009

I wouldn’t take delight in pointing out striking similarities between Platonic and Mormon thought it if weren’t for the fact that a persistent tactic in Mormon apologetics is to accuse orthodox Christianity of being nearly hopelessly infused with these ‘philosophies of men’ corrupting the purity of the gospel.  As that is the case, I want to point out a couple of places in which Mormonism fits better with Platonic philosophy than does orthodox Christianity (see Plato’s Timaeus). 

First of all: creation ex nihilo.  In orthodox Christianity, God creates the cosmos out of nothing and according to his own rules, this is creation ex nihilo.  According to Mormonism God created the universe out of pre-existent materials and according to pre-existent laws of the cosmos, the creation was more of an organization or building.  Now your immediate inclination may be to suppose that the Mormon view is closer to an authentic ancient Hebrew belief and that the orthodox Christian creation is a Greek notion- and that would be wrong.  According to Platonism, the  universe was created by a being called the demiurge who created it out of pre-existing materials and according to pre-existing rules.  Sound familiar? 

Another thing that I would point out is the Platonic notion that as the universe was being put together, there was a sort of life force or soul present in the things created, that this life-ness was present in the things put together before they were materialized.  Now if you know Mormon theology, you know that God formed all things spiritually before they were formed physically.  Compare that to the Platonic concept I just described and now compare that to the orthodox Christian notion that God infused life into the world in a single instant after physical creation.

I’m just saying, maybe the pot shouldn’t call the kettle black too quickly here…

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How to Witness to Mormonism

Posted by nebula0 on March 18, 2009

Since I do believe that the theology of Mormonism is fundamentally flawed in a significant way, it makes sense to me to at least explain why I think this way to Mormons who are interested.  I do not go into such conversations with the unrealistic expectation of converting them to trinitarianism, my aims are much more modest, the hope to impart a greater understanding of what the trinity is.  Now that is not what evangelicals usually think when they think of witnessing.  Evangelicals in general are an excited lot, certain of the obvious truth of their position to the point that many become quickly frustrated when others don’t see the obvious aspect of their truth claims.  When dealing with Mormons this leads to disastrous results that you can see on internet boards all over- accusing Mormons of being brainwashed cultists, mocking Mormon rituals, ridiculing Mormon leaders and so forth.  Evangelicals will gleefully take part in these activities with the explanation that they are telling the truth and therefore being loving.

Imagine for a moment if Paul, in a fit of exasperation, threw up his hands and let those at Mars Hill know that they were brainwashed beyond belief and incapable of rational thought because they didn’t agree with his explanations.  Not a pretty picture is it?  Paul, instead, found common ground and patiently reasoned with the people so they at least understood what he was saying.  Likewise, he tells us that for Jews he becomes a Jew and for Gentiles a Gentile in order that he might convert some, that is, he explains things in a way that makes sense for each individual, not that he compromises the gospel message.

So here are my tips for witnessing to Mormons, borne of my experience having been a Mormon and on the receiving end of terrible ‘witnessing’.

1.  Don’t be a jerk.  This seems obvious but let me reiterate: don’t be a jerk.  Don’t take pleasure in trying to cause another discomfort with negative information about things they’ve held sacred or persons they’ve held in high regard.

2.  Understand Mormon culture.  Mormons are often thought of as nice people, that is because Utah Mormon culture prescribes extraordinary niceness and the standard of communications.  So this is especially for you Reformed people out there who liked to be in your face- realize that Mormons will interpret that ‘in your faceness’ not as being bold, but as being rude and whatever you have to say will then be ignored.  If you actually care about communicating a message, communicate in a way that Mormons are willing to hear.  Be polite, even excessively so, and you will find that Mormons will listen to your message without the message itself being compromised.

3.  Do your homework.  If you happen to run into misisonaries  coming to your house, or find yourself suddenly in a conversation with a Mormon friend, you may have to rely on scattered information.  In that case, stick to what you know best, your side of things, and avoid venturing into Mormon territory.  If you think that witnessing to Mormons is something that you should be doing all of the time, do not be lazy and rely on what this and that website tell you.  Take the time to read through Mormon scriptures, attend a few Mormon meetings, read through the literature they use to teach other Mormons so that you understand Mormon language and understand what Mormons hear every Sunday.  That way you will understand what is truly significant to average Mormons and not get on useless sidetracks about whether or not the Journal of Discourses ought to be counted as scripture, it’s just not.

4.  Take the time to learn about different Mormon circles.  This relates to the above point.   Your average Mormon isn’t going to be in the same boat as your apologetic FARMS oriented Mormon, and he isn’t going to be in the same boat as your theologically  liberal Sunstone oriented Mormon, and you may occasionally run into the old school Mormon who hold onto old ideas such as natives getting lighter skin with baptism.  Get to know the way of thinking of these different groups and learn the basic apologetic arguments.  For instance, you may find yourself embarrassed if you aren’t at least familiar with the limited geographical model of the Book of Mormon widely accepted amongst true believers.  It is wrong to insist that “Mormons” believe that Elohim had sex with Mary when only your old school believers will assent to this.

5.  Examine your own motives.  You may have wiggled at some of my above information and said “but it’s true!  Mormon leaders DID teach that natives become lighter and that Elohim had sex with Mary!  that’s right!”.  The point is, will insisting on THOSE issues with average Mormons get them any closer to understanding the gospel?  The point is not about you winning points.

6.  Focus your conversation.  I suggest sticking to theological issues rather than trying to attack the historicity of the Book of Mormon or prove that Joseph Smith had sex with all of his spirit wives.  That is, I suggest sticking to the issues that actually matter- the nature of God, grace, atonement and so forth.  Now it is true, that some Mormons will show some interest in learning about other topics, and if that is so, you should discuss them using discretion, but avoid attacks.  I think of this as trying to talk to someone about a straying spouse, if you go in for the attack straightaway the natural human reaction is to clam up and defend the spouse.  Be patient and kind and avoid casting dispersions on Mormonism. 

7.  On that last note, think of a few things you can admire about Mormonism.  It will help the conversation along if you can admire some things about Mormonism- find some kind of common ground, to set the tone of the conversation as positive.  Likewise, be willing to defend misinformation of Mormonism against others who have an incorrect understanding even if it may seem to them that you are defending Mormonism itself.  It will advertise to Mormons that you have integrity and won’t lie to them.

8.  My last suggestion is to listen.  Do not follow a script.  I repeat, do not follow a script.  Be open to a real discussion, that’s where any meaningful exchange of discussion is going to happen.  You may never know if your Mormon friend was altered by your conversation, but it’s not for you to know, it’s for God to know, but you can be sure that if you are rude, if you are simply throwing out this and that negative statement about Mormonism, you did nothing for the glory of God.  In fact, many Mormons point to the perceived rudeness of evangelicals in general as proof that their messages must not be any good. It’s time to turn that around.

I’m not saying there isn’t a time and place for out and out debate, if for no other reason than mutual amusement, but please be honest about your motivation.

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Continuing Revelation

Posted by nebula0 on December 1, 2008

In several ways the Mormon notion of continuing revelation makes sense.  If God is a personal God who cares about us, wouldn’t he want to continue to direct us?  Likewise, if God is at least relatively infinite and us comparatively finite, then it also follows that we have a lot more to learn and God has a lot more to reveal to us about truth.  On many levels this idea has appeal, especially as it is so ordered in the Mormon hierarchy as to exclude the possibility of confusion.  The usual evangelical Christian responses to Mormon continuing revelation and the ‘extra’ scripture that follows is to quote out of context biblical verses that don’t really work for their argument (for instance the verse from Revelation really only applies to the book of Revelation).  Is there a firm basis by which the orthodox Christian world might disagree?

All of those ‘extra’ scriptures Mormons have are ‘extras’ because they tend to have the effect of distraction.  The orthodox Christian story is a rather simple one overall: God creates creatures with the freedom to truly love him back, these finite creatures cannot be united to their infinite God alone, God erupts his finite creation by becoming a creature himself.  Via the book of Hebrews the Old Testament can be seen as primarily a collection of foreshadowing providing many different ways to understand The Event- the incarnation of the infinite God as Christ.  The New Testament restricts itself to discussing the meaning and ramifications of this event to those who had access at least to those who did have first hand interaction with Christ and so it ends.  There is no continuing revelation because The Revelation has happened, at a moment in history, two thousand years ago.  While we can always discuss and interpret and apply The Revelation, The Event, there is no more universal revelation to be had lest it distract from the greatest happening that will ever happen to us until history ends.

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