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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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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?

Posted in Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

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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Can Mormonism ever be considered a Christian religion?

Posted by nebula0 on October 22, 2008


The answer is yes.  In fact, if things keep going as they are in the LDS church that is bound to happen at one point or another, and by the general public be embraced as a Christian religion.  Here’s why: the Mormon leadership seems very keen on downplaying distinctive differences. 

-Hinckley publicly stated that “I don’t know that we teach that” when asked about the exaltation (being made a god) of Heavenly Father.  That’s a biggy.  If Mormons can get that out of the way, that is one of the biggest hurdles.  It is essential that Mormonism comes to a ‘traditional’ view of God to really be considered Christian without great opposition (loony counter cultists don’t count, you know, the kind who say that Catholics aren’t Christians… yeah.)

– The temple ceremony is downplayed over time.  This matters because the temple ceremony is going to have to readapt and become more explicitly Christ centered than it is.  That is, for example, Celestial marriage (sealed for time and eternity with your spouse) cannot be considered the gateway to exaltation (eternal life).  It can only be the usual known elements, faith in Christ, baptism is okay, and so forth.  Eternal marriage will have to be reinterpreted as a peculiar Mormon bonus perhaps, but not as the capstone in the plan of salvation.

– Mormon history is severely watered down over time.  An example of this is the fact that it was not mentioned in the blurb talking about Brigham Young’s life in the manual used for Relief Society and Elder’s Quorum a couple of years ago that he had more than one wife.  That’s right.  Nor is the issue of plural marriage tackled in the latest Temple Square movie showed about Joseph Smith (which in my personal opinion sucks, but others like it, so what can you say).  This is important because it will allow those unique theological elements to be watered down with impunity.

– An emphasis of Christ and grace over and above traditional Mormon topics.  We see this happening easily; just look at the latest General Conferences.

Things that won’t have to change include:

the Word of Wisdom- health code, why not?,

garments- easily interpreted in a vestment sort of way, lots of established Christian churches use special clothing

some kind of temple ceremony- reinterpreted of course, it’s one of those things that will keep Mormon Christianity, Mormon

the unique Mormon canon- think about this, the emphasis given to the Book of Mormon since Benson’s time has gone hand in hand with an increasing talk of traditional Christian themes.  Why?  Because the Book of Mormon was written (translated, whatever) before Joseph Smith developed unique Mormon theology.  So it is that emphasis on the BoM actually brings Mormonism closer to the larger Christian fold.

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Conversion: More thoughts on brainwashing

Posted by nebula0 on October 9, 2008


It seems as though those unfamiliar with Mormonism just cannot get over the feeling that only brainwashed fools would become Mormons.  They point to the ‘strange’ belief system, the hierarchical, centralized authority, and all of the sacrifices which are necessary to become Mormons.  I’ve pointed out previously that Mormons (to make things simple, let’s focus on the LDS today) partly bring this on themselves by refusing to talk about and poorly explaining many elements of Mormon theology.  The LDS church sells itself as Christianity Plus, Christianity plus the Book of Mormon, to outsiders, when the reality is that there is quite a bit more to it.  When outsiders find out about the little extras the LDS church isn’t explicit about, from temple ceremonies to the nature of deity, outsiders make their judgements not only on the fact that the beliefs and rituals of Mormonism are strange (unusual) but that the LDSchurch appears to these outsiders to be hiding things.  This is never a good combination of elements.  Let’s, for a moment, assume that the LDS church simply doesn’t know how to explain itself well, and that’s why it doesn’t get explicit with outsiders.  This, by the way, is what I believe to be the case.  The LDS church is run by businessmen, not trained theologians, and they are afraid that if they get too deeply into the theology that they’ll be misunderstood, which is understandable.  They probably would be.  But, back to the topic at hand, how does a rational, normal person become a Mormon?  No matter how odd the belief system and rituals seem to you, try for a moment to really understand how this could happen without jumping to the conclusion that because it doesn’t make sense to you at this moment, therefore the only option is brainwashing.

First of all, what is conversion?  It is the process by which a person moves from one overarching worldview to another.  Simple enough.  But how does this process occur?  How does someone go from being an atheist say, to a born again Christian?  Let’s look at things from an atheist worldview: the scientific method reigns supreme, the only reality is empirical reality, physical phenomena which can be observed.  The supernatural, by definition of being above the natural, does not fit this category and is therefore unreal and belief in it irrational.  For an atheist, for whom the only reality is that which is empirically demonstrable, to become a born again Christian is a momentous change of world views.  For a born again Christian, the ultimate reality that matters is the category of the saved vs the unsaved persons because the eternal, real drama is the ultimate destination of every person to heaven or to hell.  Those who enter heaven are those who have accepted their status as sinner vis a vis an eternal, perfect God and that they cannot dwell in the presence of a perfect holy God as a sinner and are therefore destined for Hell.  Out of this sad realization is the joyful one that God incarnate, Christ, has made a way for the sinner to go to heaven simply by trusting in him and accepting him as one’s personal savior.  For the atheist reality is the physical universe and the striving to understand how the mechanical universe operates, for the born again Christian reality is all about ultimate affiliation- are you committed to Christ or not? all else is scruples.

Only when you think about how utterly different these worldviews are will you be sufficiently amazed at a true conversion from one to another.  You might come to the conclusion that any paradigm shift of this magnitude must involve brainwashing, especially if you happen to be an atheist who thinks anyone who believes in a supernatural existence is irrational.  But any number of ways of thinking and social circumstances can create a passageway in the mind of an individual to consider other possibilities.  Simply meditating on the ultimate meaning of life, the meaning of death and the meaning of existence itself can prime an atheist to consider the possibility that there is some kind of existence beyond the natural.  An atheist might be in a socially unstable position as an adolescence who has just left home, someone in a perfect place to completely reinvent his or herself, for it is a known fact that having extensive social networks in place is the most likely way a person will remain faithful to their worldview, whether atheist, Christian, pagan, or whatever, so disruption of the social network often precedes a radical worldview shift.

Once the possibility is opened in the mind of an atheist, the next step is interaction with born again words.  Ultimately, conversion is about appropriating a way of thinking- a way of speaking- which reflects a new reality.  Atheism has a particular language with certain key phrases which pinpoints a person as an atheist, likewise do born again Christians.  Through extensive interaction with born again Christians who attempt through evangelizing to get prospective converts to appropriate their language, to begin to think about themselves as sinners in need of a savior, to begin to ‘hear the Holy Spirit’, an atheist may, unwittingly, begin to think of the world in these terms.  This process is no more brainwashing than you can describe any process of education as brainwashing.  A similar process happens in any classroom when an instructor attempts to open up a new dimension of reality to his or her students through teaching them a new language, whether that language happens to be that of math, science, history or Spanish.  It’s how we humans share our findings with each other, and in this case, the born again Christians are trying to share their findings with the listening atheist.  Conversion is completed when the atheist is not only a listener of born again rhetoric, but has become a speaker of the same rhetoric (and, to be fair, the same thing can and does happen in reverse as well).

It is this same process which brings a non Mormon to Mormonism.  Missionaries teach prospective converts the peculiar language of Mormonism, inviting the listener to think of the world in terms of Mormon-ese.  If the listener accepts the challenge of listening, he or she will find themselves challenged to think of the world in Mormon terms, and may find themselves speaking about it in Mormon terms.  When the language has been appropriated and made their own, conversion is complete.  The baptism, by that point, is icing on the cake.  Actions naturally follow once the new understanding of the cosmos is appropriated.  Conversion to Mormonism happens in the ordinary way, the same way conversion happens from atheism to born again Christianity (or vice versa).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a relativist.  I don’t think all choices are equal (see my “Why Does Anything Exist?” post for example).  Some worldview languages better reflect the way reality really is than others.  I’m not entirely sure what Real Reality looks like, but I do not think Mormonism is an accurate reflection, which is why I ultimately experienced mental tension and de-conversion.  Though I kept trying to describe my experiences of the world in Mormon terms, I increasingly found Mormonese to be a clumsy language to describe the world, the more I thought about things.  I ultimately realized that I no longer thought about the world in Momonese except on a superficial level and therefore was, for all real purposes, no longer a Mormon.  No one had to do a brainwashing intervention for this to happen, I simply attempted to experience my expanding world as a Mormon and experienced failure in the attempt.

I invite all readers of the blog to set aside insulting, and unecessary, accusations that Mormons are brainwashed and therefore, unlike the rest of us, unable to think clearly.  That is an unnecessary and counterproductive assumption.  If you really want to convert Mormons, take the time to understand Mormonese and communicate with Mormons effectively.  Show them why their Mormon ways of approaching the universe, using Mormonese, do not sufficiently account for their experiences of the world.  Create a rift in their langauge of the world, and their experience of the world, and then show them a way of thinking which better fits the reality of the universe.  By simply getting frustrated that Mormons don’t immediately see how your way of thinking about the unvierse is superior and so claiming that Mormons must be brainwashed, the only thing that you are proving is your own laziness and inability to communicate effectively.

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The Cult of Motherhood

Posted by nebula0 on October 8, 2008


The men and women Puritans who settled America worked side by side in small family farms.  There was, to be sure, a division of labor, but husbands and wives normally saw each other often during the day.  The Calvinist theology they held preached that both men and women were depraved sinners desperately in need of Christ’s grace.  If anything, women were viewed as snares to men, as Eve was a snare to Adam, so that husbands needed to carefully watch and manage their wives as heads of their house.  It was women in these times who were the sexual beings needed managing, not men.  If that surprises you, it’s no doubt because you too have been indoctrinated into the cult of Motherhood.  In the cult of Motherhood, women, mothers in particular, are creatures close to the angels, pure and spiritual, and through their very presence in the household civilize their men.  How did women go from being sexual temptress to asexual angel?  And, considering this is a blog about Mormonism, what does any of this have to do with Mormonism?

The change happened primarily with the Industrial Revolution.  Men and women no longer labored side by side on their small family farms or running their small businesses from their homes, now men went to the factory or the office and the wife stayed home to tend to the children.  The doctrine of the spheres came into being: the proper sphere of men is the public one, the world of business and industry, the proper sphere of women is the private one, home and family.  Men began to imagine that Industry and Business were cruel and harsh worlds, that they had to become uncivilized warriors of sorts to go and tame it.  Yes, perhaps they put on a suit and did paper work all day, but it was a world of rough morality and cutthroat action nonetheless, suited to their rugged masculinity.  The home became envisioned as a place of rest from the rough and tumblel work place, a place with the calming influence of a loving wife.  Women now were portrayed as naturally more spiritual than men, more moral and less sexual.  The less that men had interactions with women, the more women were put on a pedestal because the more that men could erect fantasies about their wives’ purity.  The private sphere became exalted as the cornerstone of societal morality, and wives as the guardians of morality.  If men were to succeed in business, they would have to dirty their hands, their wives on the other hands, would keep their homes clean physically and spiritually.  This began to backfire when women, encouraged by slogans promoting their moral and spiritual superiority to men, began to take over their churches and enter the public sphere in order to purify society as a whole.  There was a backlash against this as the nascent fundamentalist movement reemphasized the masculinity of Christianity, but mainline Protestantism never did get women out of the church committees.  The cult of Motherhood survives and flourishes in many corners of conservative Christianity.

So, how was Mormonism affected by these changes?  As Mormons began to seek greater respectability with the larger American culture at the end of the 19th, and beginning of the 20th C they began to embrace these trends.  The most obvious example is the Manifesto of 1890 officially ending the practice of polygamy, and the actual suppression of polygamy by the LDS church within a decade of the 20th C.  Interestingly, the practice of polygamy (plural marriage) initially had an insulating affect against the Victorian ethos of putting women at home.  Mormon women were already flaunting Victorian morality in the first place, and were excluded from respectable society for even accepting polygamy even if they didn’t personally practice it.  As a result, Mormon women fashioned their own culture, including one that gave their organization within the LDS church, the Relief Society, great autonomy.  Many polygamous wives used the freedom they had through having helping sister wives to campaign for women’s suffrage (Utah was the first to grant women the right to vote) or to go to college.  Women gave each other blessings and learned to look after one another.  That’s not to say that polygamy wasn’t a hard way of life, but a result of the way of life had unexpected benefits too.

When Mormonism began to embrace the larger culture, suppress polygamy and accept the larger standards of morality, the advances that Mormon women had also crumbled.  Mormon women were encouraged to stay at home, and the Relief Society lost more and more autonomy with time.  In short, Mormonism embraced with special vigor the cult of Motherhood.  This is partly why Mormonism is not in a position at this time to grant women the priesthood: the priesthood has to do with the nitty gritty running of the ecclesiastical organization, women have a more lofty position that shouldn’t get itself distracted with the operations of power.  The majority of Mormon men want to continue to be able to experience their wives as selfless angels doing the direct work of heaven rather than face the reality that perhaps their wives might enjoy the same kind of base pleasures such as public power that they do.

The cult of Motherhood may seem on the surface to be a boon to women.  Who doesn’t want to be seen as nearly supernaturally good by nature?  But the result has been reduced autonomy of women’s organizations and increased sequestering of women away from the public sphere.  Women who ascribe to the cult of Motherhood soon find that they have to live up to these expectations of angelic proportions, or at least make an appearance of it, and suppress whatever human urges they have for public power and increased recognition.  The cult of Motherhood does serve them in a practical sense, encouraging their men to provide for them and their children, and to protect them, in a way that perhaps would not happen if the cult did not exist.  So, women find themselves in a bind, to continue to suppress that part of them for serious respect and public recognition, or to deal with the possibility of less security, financial and otherwise, that is found with their men who especially ascribe to the cult.  This is a very real dilemma, and many rational, intelligent women have decided to opt for the security for themselves and their children in a world in which men no longer feel bond by societal constraints to stay with their ‘first’ wives and provide fully financially and temporally for their children.

Posted in Historical Thoughts, sociological thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Mormon Theological Development

Posted by nebula0 on October 3, 2008


If you read nothing else but the Book of Mormon, what would you understand about Mormonism?  Not a whole lot.  You’d learn about the Nephites and Lamanitesand relate to Mormonism on that level of storytelling, but you would have no idea just how different Mormon theology is from mainstream/normative Christianity.  This is because at the time of the “translating” of the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith was at the very start of his prophetic career.  He still understood things in a fairly mundane fashion.  In fact, if you read the BoM closely, you’ll see Joseph resolve many of the burning theological questions that he faced through hearing preachers debate during the great revivals of his time in the first half of the 19th C: infant baptism (BoM answer = no), trinity (BoM theology  = modalism), masonry (BoM = bad), and so on.  The BoM religion is basically a blase Christianity plus extra warm and fuzzy stories.

Things didn’t get interesting until later in Joseph’s prophetic career and he developed out a notion of priesthood authority, continuing revelation allowing for the creation of the Doctrine and Covenants (originally The Book of Commandments) and the combination of those two ideas allowed for extensive theological innovation.  Through continuing revelation Joseph formed radical new ideas about the nature of the afterlife, premortal life and God while his priesthood authority paved the way for these ideas to be understood as binding and true for the whole earth.  In the short 14 years between the creation of the LDS church and Joseph’s killing in 1844, an entirely new religious system was developed from the framework of the Christianity he had been exposed to as a boy.

The fact of this great theological innovation has allowed for the modern day LDS church to draw upon different moments of Joseph’s career to fashion its current identity.  Right now there is a shift to the earlier moments, especially as President Benson emphasized reading the BoMnot just to get a testimony of Joseph as a prophet, but as a primary source for doctrine.  This allows for Mormons to think of themselves as “Christians plus…”, Christians plus the Book of Mormon and living prophets.  Many Mormons these days cannot begin to understand the depth of the theological difference between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity- they in all sincerity think any Christian who complains is simply being mean spirited for no good reason.  Remember, the BoM does not contain any real dramatic departure from Christian ideas, the notion of multiple gods and necessity of marriage to be exalted were later innovations.

The question becomes, is the focusing on one period of Joseph’s career to form an identity a legitimate activity?  Only if one is willing to acknowledge that the rest of the 14 years were a mistake and begin to reject parts of the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Abraham.  The fact of the matter is that these moves to emphasize one Joseph, the Joseph who translates the Book of Mormon, from the Joseph who took on two dozen wives and became a Mason, isn’t done with any kind of justification.  One is more easily swallowed than the other, and that is justification enough for the LDS leadership.

I leave it to the reader to decide if this is a legitimate decision.

Posted in Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »