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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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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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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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what I believe, what should I believe?

Posted by nebula0 on October 28, 2008

Posted in Reflections, Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

The Aesthetics of it all!

Posted by nebula0 on October 22, 2008

In my time discussing Mormonism over the years one of the biggest misconceptions that Mormons have about traditional Christianity isn’t so much over a particular doctrine or a ritual, but a whole feel that they have for the thing.  So many Mormons see traditional Christianity as oppressively bland.  You can tell if a Mormon harbors this bias by their overuse of the word ‘Platonic’ in describing Christianity.  By Platonic they don’t mean technically Platonic as much as they mean empty, vacuous, words cleverly hidden under more words crafted together in impossible creeds.  They may tell you that the Christian God sounds like a no-person and that Christian heaven sounds like a hell with its clouds and harps and unending hymn singing.  In fact, look at a recent Sunstone article, issue 150, “Of Time and all Eternitiy: God and Others in Mormonism and Heterdox Christainity” by James McLachlan- a well crafted, interesting article whose premise is just this very false notion.  Let’s face this bias head on.

After I finished my physics degree, I had the opportunity to work at CERN (yes, I knew I’d get to brag about that one day) and so lived in Switzerland/France for several months.  One thing that I quickly discovered would be a favorite pastime was looking at the glorious churches all around.  Even the smallest chapel was full of charm, usually stone, usually old, usually with stained glass.  The Mormon chapel I attended in Geneve on the other hand, was well, typically Mormon.  The biggest thing that sticks out in my memory is my visit to the cathedral at Milan.  What a truly awesome sight.  Not only is the exterior a monumental work of art to behold, but the inside… is the very definition of sacred.  I knew as soon as I stepped inside on an ordinary summer day why Catholicism has such a strong grip on the heart of humanity.  The space seeped with sacredness.

Or, I think of a more recent visit to a Presbyterian church (before I made my final decision to leave Mormonism, by the way).  The space is nice, large, with stained glass windows.  It sets the stage.  But that wasn’t what I was thinking of this time.  It was the music.  There is a giant pipe organ in that church, and it was played by a professional, and she played who else but Bach.  Unless you’ve listened to Bach played in a church with a good organ by a professional you can’t relate.  I highly suggest it.  The beauty of it is nothing short of sublime.

When I think of the richness of Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy in particular- the vestments, the decorated, large spaces, the music- and then I hear a Mormon complain about the emptiness of Christianity, I don’t know whether to laugh or wring my hands.  Really?  Have you never heard a Gregorian chant or listened to Bach?  Have you never stepped inside a Cathedral on Easter Mass and saw the candles lite up the darkness?

On the other hand, let’s look at Mormonism for a second.  The Salt Lake temple is an inspiring building.  There is not question about that.  But most temples feel like what a mansion would feel like if it were decorated by hillbillies who just won the lottery.  Most Mormon chapels feel sterile and popped out of a cookie cutter.  Sure, the Tabernacle Choir can do some great stuff, but the stuff Mormons are usually subjected to Sunday by Sunday is less than inspiring and I know as a fact I’m not the only one with that opinion.

You may say, hey nebula, that’s not what we’re talking about.  We’re talking about the belief system.  The theology.  In Mormonism we know all this stuff about the afterlife.  We’re married, we have families, we’re resurrected!  Well many Mormons don’t seem to be aware that orthodox Christianity teaches of the resurrection of the dead.  I agree, Mormonism does spend much more time thinking about the specifics of the afterlife, but a lot of that I don’t personally care for.  If the Celestial Kingdom really looks like an ostentatious living room in which we all have to whisper- no thanks.  If I really have to continue to be subjected to Home Teaching in the Spirit world- no thanks.  Frankly the orthodox Christian notion of glorious union with The Bridegroom sounds much more interesting.

The next time you feel the urge to paint traditional Christianity as vacuous, empty, Platonism, remember the cathedrals, the vestments, the music, the paintings, the sculptures, and ask yourself, would emptiness have the power to inspire such beauty?

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Why I Became a Mormon, Baptism story

Posted by nebula0 on October 18, 2008

When I left off the baptism was being planned.  Looking back on it, I wonder if I was really ready to be baptized.  By then I knew a lot about Mormonism, I read through all the scriptures, I was aware of most of the anti literature but I was still highly conflicted. 

But the day of the baptism I showed up early.  By the baptismal font in the stake center was a dressing room, and I was dressed in an all white jumper and was sure to wear white underwear and bring a change of clothes.  I was nervous partly because I hated any event to be about me.  I’m one of those people who tries to keep their birthdate a secret so that no one will get the bright idea of throwing a party.  Others tend to interpret that as a sly maneuver and can’t imagine anyone NOT wanting a party, but I sincerely don’t.  I’m one of those people who cannot fathom why anyone would want to be on TV.  So it was that I went to my baptism with an anxiety and a desire to get the thing over with.

Here’s how it went, hymns were sung, a little speech given, then I went to the font with the missionaries who I had selected to baptize me.  You get in the water, which is nice and warm, plug your nose, and you’re dropped under the water.  It’s important that every part of you goes under, if a toe pops up, for example, the whole thing must be done again.  Afterward, I got myself dried up while everyone sang hymns, then I bore my testimony, for the first time.  “Bearing your testimony” is a technical Mormon phrase, it’s a ritual with a particular format, utilized at particular moments.  Acceptable phrasing includes things like “I know this church is true, I know Joseph Smith is a prophet, I know Jesus is the Christ” followed with or preceded with a personal story.  The whole thing is always concluded with “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen”.

I really have no idea what I said, so I can’t share that here.  But standing up in front of those people assembled, in their Sunday clothes (it was Saturday but Sunday clothes are standard wear for a baptism) I felt taken out of myself.  The words flowed but I didn’t control them.  I said the correct phrases at the correct times so as to engage my Mormon audience.  That is, I was now a speaker of the Mormon language: I had converted without even fully realizing the fact.  Everyone was moved, and for the rest of the small party, (what baptism is complete without cookies?) I felt as if I were floating.

Upon retrospect I believe that I was forcing my mind to be split for too long.  On the one hand I had a secret longing to become a Mormon fully, but on the other, I didn’t really buy the whole package.  So it was, the day of my baptism, my mind forced a reconciliation and moved me into the Mormon community.  I adopted Mormon aspirations and ways of thinking and became fluent in Mormon-ese.  This was reinforced when I was confirmed that Sunday and I experienced the same sense of being out of my body, floating- with my decision to join I released my mind from the tension of investigation.  Finally I had chosen to give into my desires to join and shelve my questions and disbelief.

Obviously that didn’t work forever, but you get the idea.

Posted in My Experiences | Tagged: , , , , | 15 Comments »

Why I Became a Mormon, part 1

Posted by nebula0 on October 16, 2008

At this point it seems appropriate to share a little of my story.  Things are always so much more interesting when given in some kind of personal context, at least they are for me.

Sociologists tell us that people are most likely to convert when they are at some kind of boundary which disassociates them from their own social networks.  So, adolescents first leaving home, those who have just moved to a new city, those who have just been divorced are all prime candidates.  Also, conversion tends to go hand in hand with the building of a new social network, people tend to become the religion of their new friends.  So it was that I converted after the first year I attended university, as predicted, but I broke the mold in that I came into the Mormon fold with no Mormon friends.

Here is what happened.  I grew up with no religion.  My parents didn’t talk about God at all, neither pro nor con religious belief.  My interest in religion seemed to arise spontaneously, I’m still not sure where it came from, as a teenager.  Like many teenagers, I became intensely interested in those Ultimate Questions: what is the meaning to life?  why does anything exist? and so on.  My answer to that question took two forms, an interest in physics as the most basic of sciences and an interest in religious belief.  I figured that the real way to answer this question was through the most fundamental of sciences, in which I could understand and approve of every step and through which I could touch the deepest structures of reality.  I determined that I would become a physicist and answer my questions. 

On the other hand, I was intensely curious as to how others answered the Ultimate Questions and began to study religious beliefs.  I read through the Bhagavad Gita, Rig Veda, Tao te Ching, Qur’anand ultimately the Bible (among others)- in the limited way available to an adolescent just starting out the process of scholarship.  My initial curiosity then fed into my obsession with debate.  My interest in religion took another form too, that of a deep desire to talk to God.  I can’t explain where this came from without invoking the existence of God.  I didn’t want to believe in God, I thought it was foolish and weak, and yet I felt a physical pressure on my chest and in my hands to pray.  I had to fight it.  I remember finally giving into the temptation one night, on my hands and knees begging for forgiveness and having the most extraordinary experience.  I felt weightless and my whole body tingled.  I felt lifted off the ground as if the hand of God were wrapped around me.  The next day I was so embarrassed at myself, I vowed that I would not pray unless I actually, really believed.  So I suppressed my urges for years.

When I went to the university to study physics I brought with it my secret obsession with religion.  Every chance I got I would debate Christians, street preachers, students.   I would challenge them all to prove to me that God existed and I quickly learned the basic four proofs for the existence of God and the holes in them all.  In fact it was through an evangelical sponsored event that I first ran into the Mormons.  All week evangelicals on campus gathered to a certain location to talk to other students about their religion, and so I came, every day, for hours.  I challenged them all to prove to me God exists.  Finally, on the last day, as I was about to leave, Mormon missionaries showed up.  I made my way over to them, curious.  I didn’t know much about Mormonism then and wanted to learn.  I asked them to prove to me that God existed, and I remember being impressed that they told me that they couldn’t.  I agreed to take the lessons, just to see what Mormonism was all about.

part 2 is coming…

Posted in My Experiences, sociological thoughts | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Mormon Misconceptions about Traditional Ideas of Heaven

Posted by nebula0 on October 14, 2008

This isn’t meant to pick on anyone in particular, but it’s a widespread problem in Mormonism.  Mormons really don’t understand what normative Christian heaven is supposed to be about.  This is partly due to the fact that Mormonism is a religion which is in a way obsessed with the beyond mortal life realms.  Who hasn’t seen that elaborate diagram drawn which called a depiction of “The Plan of Salvation” which consists of demonstrating how a spirit child in the premortal realm moves through mortal earth to the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom?  And, think about this, Mormon temples are arranged around those same degrees of glory, and move participants through that same drama to the Celestial Kingdom.  There is talk about all the work that is to be done in the spirit world.  There is talk about all of the families sealed to be together for all eternity.  Yes, there is a lot of specific, embodied talk about the afterlife in Mormonism, which can make traditional Christian notions of heaven seem pale and thin. 

This is also partly due to the fact that traditional Christians aren’t very good about talking about heaven.  Many are so confused by their own theologies concerning the afterlife that they aren’t even sure if they are going to be resurrected.  All of this stems from the Western obsession with salvation from Sin and Death.  Once that is conquered, it is assumed all will be very good, but exactly what that means isn’t well explained.

These two items combine to in the unfortunate current state of affairs in which most Mormons assume traditional Christian heaven consists of disembodied spirits singing hymns to an invisible God- invisible even in heaven!  So here is misconception #1: traditional Christians deny the resurrection.  Not true.  Most orthodox Christian theologies affirm the resurrection.  Misconception #2: there will be no friends or family in heaven, just individual spirits praising for eternity an invisible God.  Why not?  Yes it’s true that the highest loyalty will go to God.  It should be to God right now on planet earth (remember, Jesus claims that one must ‘hate his mother, brother,’ and so on to be a disciple).  But that doesn’t then follow that we won’t recognize each other in heaven, I can’t imagine why not.  Misconception #3: it will be very boring.  What?  By definition heaven will be great, the greatest.  We will have fullness of joy. 

What this comes down to is faith.  Do you have faith that God knows you, better than you know you, and cares for you completely?  Children may not understand why their parents make them do boring things like learn to read or eat gross things like vegetables.  It isn’t until later that we find out what gifts they were preparing for us.  Similarly with God.  I imagine when we see face to face, with full reality before us, our God, that our relationships with those we knew will be richer and better than anything, literally, imaginable to us now.  Our existence will be the richest and fullest possible.  The real problem is that our finite imaginations are simply not capable of really understanding the joys that God has in store for us.

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A Look at Mormon Epistemology

Posted by nebula0 on October 14, 2008

In a way, this is The Discussion, because almost every debate I have gotten in here and elsewhere has come down to the question of epistemology (meaning, the way we come to claim we know anything).  It’s a fascinating experience for me, because I have realized these past few days that this is precisely what I used to do as a Mormon as well.  I feel as though I am debating with my past self. 

Here’s an example of what I mean.  You can start with any opening topic, it will always end up doing the same thing:

Me: Take the nature of deity.  Does it make sense to have an infinite regress of dependent beings such as classical Mormon theology teaches?

Mormon: The idea of an infinite, immutable God is a Platonic construct, therefore I don’t need to pay attention to it.  I will pay attention only to special revelation.

Me: Platonic or not, who cares?  If it’s a valid argument it’s a valid argument.  And how do you know what special revelation that you can trust as representing reality if you haven’t thought through what the nature of deity is like in the first place?

Mormon: None of those proofs are bulletproof so they are all really just mere speculation by the minds of men.  We have to learn to listen to the Spirit if we are going to learn truth, why not learn it right from the source?

Me: But how do you know what you are hearing is really the voice of the Spirit and not you- your own beliefs being encoded into an experience?

Mormon: If you can’t trust your experiences, and you can’t trust reasoning, what can you trust?

Me: That’s precisely why reasoning is important.  Whether we like it or not, we have no unfettered direct access to reality through experience.  We have to take the chance and do the best we can at reasoning.

and so on…

Posted in Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , | 34 Comments »

The Strangeness of Mormon Deity

Posted by nebula0 on September 27, 2008

Mormons forget how odd (i.e. very unusual) their theology and ritual is.  That’s to be expected; the longer someone is involved in something, the more normative it becomes.  A case in point is my experience.  The very first Gospel Principles class (the Sunday School class oriented to new members) I attended went over exaltation.  Now, keep in mind that I was familiar with this doctrine before I went to the class, and yet, that didn’t stop my reaction when I heard quotes from the manual about how God was once a man like us on another earth who progressed to godhood.  Hearing this spoken and taken for granted by class members was a truly otherworldly experience.  It is extremely odd.

Even in ancient pagan polytheistic theologies, gods were always different from the mortals.  Gods were immortal, a different sort of species of being than were mere mortal humans.  If mortals were to become at all like the gods, it was because the gods helped them, not because humans were like nascent gods with the difference between the gods and mortals simply being one of time and experience.  Yet, the latter is exactly what Mormonism teaches.  It is alien not only to traditional/orthodox Christianity and Judaism and Islam in that, but also to the kinds of paganism we are familiar with, such as the Greek pantheon.

So it is that Joseph Smith was truly a great innovator.  Combining what he knew about Christianity with an American sense of inherent rights (= eternal intelligences) and equal economic opportunity he opened the pathway for any ordinary Joe to reach the highest heights.  Not even God is beyond this American can-do attitude, as attaining Heavenly Father’s station is the ultimate purpose of the Mormon gospel.

Posted in Reflections, Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »