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Posts Tagged ‘theology’

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

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 »

what I believe, what should I believe?

Posted by nebula0 on October 28, 2008


Posted in Reflections, Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 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.

Posted in Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 10 Comments »

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 »

Trinity and the Mormon Godhead

Posted by nebula0 on October 11, 2008


I’ll never forget the day when, as a new member baptized maybe three months ago, missionaries showed up at my apartment to ask me what the different was between the godhead as spelled out by the Articles of Faith and the trinity as believed by orthodox Christianity.  Part of the reason it’s an episode burned into my mind is that I was so shocked that these poor missionaries who had gone through the Missionary Training Center, one who was on the tail end of his mission, did not understand basic Mormon theology.  For all you orthodox Christians out there who read this, let this be a lesson for you when you speak to Mormons before you accuse them of lying or being brainwashed.  The reality of the situation is that many Mormons, maybe the majority, do not understand basic Mormon theology anymore.  For you Mormons, you may argue that the doctrine of the trinity just doesn’t make sense, it’s a contradiction in terms, and that’s why there is confusion.

Let’s start with the trinity.  The grounding assumption of any formulation of the trinity starts with the assumption that there is but One God.  By God here I mean the immutable, infinite, eternal, necessary being labeled God.  There are two ways to come to this conclusion, through philosophy and through exegesis of the Bible.   Through philosophy you can come to suspect that the God I stated above exists through classic arguments such as the argument from contingency or the ontological argument.  It follows from such arguments that there would be only one such being, as a truly infinite, necessary, immutable being would be a true unity.  From the Bible verses from especially deutero Isaiah and the New Testament, when monotheism was firmly established in Israel, reaffirm the notion that there is but one God.

With that established, the next thing integrated into the notion of the trinity is usually the Son, Christ.  Again, there are two ways of approaching this problem, through philosophy and exegesis of the Bible.  Through philosophy you may come to some notion of a finite creation separated from its infinite Creator and the question as to how to close that gap between two qualitatively different types of beings.  The incarnation is one particularly appealing solution, and since it is testified to in the New Testament, appears to many Christians to be particularly powerful.  From statements in the New Testament, most powerfully from John 1, it is understood that Christ is the expressed Logos, or spoken Word/reason/mind of God somehow enfleshed.  It follows from the notion that there is but One God, that there must be some kind of profound unity between the creator God and this enfleshed Logos.  There are a couple ways to do this, the easiest way mentally is through modalism/oneness theology, which states that God expresses himself through different modes of being- the father first, the son second and the holy ghost third.  Hence, Jesus IS the father IS the holy ghost.  That melding of persons into one person doesn’t prove satisfactory to all however, since through exegesis most Christians argue that Christ was a bonafide separate person from the Father (i.e. who was Jesus praying to when praying to the Father?  It seems reasonable to assert it was a different person). 

This is where it getes tricky and the doctrine of the trinity loses many well meaning people.  How can you possibly assert that two separate persons are the same Being?  Because recall, it was already established that there is only One God.  The notion of personhood is a tricky enough one to begin with.  What does it mean that youare a person when you are not made up of the same ‘stuff’ one year to the next as your cells are created and destroyed?  Is there a difference between a person and a being?  Usually when we talk about personhood we mean a rational agent, and when we talk about being we describe qualities.  To be a human being is to be a person with a mortal, finite body.  To be a human being is to be a a person and a particular being in unity.  But, what if there was a type of being which was unlimited, infinite, is it possible that multiple persons could share the exact same nature?  Think about this for a second, part of being a human being is being finite and imperfect- separate, distinct.  But if a rational agent has an infinite, immutable being, what’s to say that another rational agent, another person, could not share that exact same being of infinity?  There can only be one such being- multiple, perfect infinites would actually overlap and become the exact same beings, they would overlay each other or become contradictions in terms- but why not have multiple persons be that being?  From there comes the inclusion of the Holy Spirit as a third person to be the being of God.  From what I can tell, the inclusion of the Holy Spirit is primarily due to exegesis from scripture.

Whether or not you agree with the above, I hope you realize that it isn’t just silly, impossible nonsense.  It’s reasonable enough.  Now how does that compare to the Mormon notion of the Godhead?  Simple.  The Mormon Godhead supposes that there are three beings which compose it, not just three persons in one being.  This is made possible because deity in Mormonism is not infinite in the absolute sense.  It is infinite only in a relative sense- in the same way that a large sheet might as well be infinite to a speck of dust.  Therefore it is not contradiction in terms to assume that there can be multiple relatively infinite beings, it is only a problem if you suppose that there is an absolutely infinite being in existence.

Posted in Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , | 48 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 »

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 »

The Paradoxes of Authority in Mormonism

Posted by nebula0 on September 25, 2008


Mormonism has at its heart a tension between the concept of free agency and that of authority.  This tension plays itself out in Mormon life on all levels, between a democratic impulse and an authoritarian one, between personal revelation and the strict levels of the priesthood with their respective domains.  What makes any tension like this interesting is the fact that the practitioners are not consciously aware of it playing out, they hold fast to the notion of freedom and authority simultaneously, privileging one element or the other as the situation demands.  How did such a tension of opposites come about in a single religious system?  What is the theology which supports these ideas in a single system? What are the implications?

Mormonism was born in a colorful time of American history, and more specifically, a turbulent time of American Christianity.  As any beginning student of Mormonism is aware, it was a product of the Second Great Awakening in American religious life, a time of large revivals, a time of itinerant preachers, a time of anxiety of one’s salvation.  Joseph Smith’s account of his seeking religious guidance in his First Vision accounts all point to the confusion that this could have on Americans involved (check out the canonized version of his story here: http://scriptures.lds.org/en/js_h/contents).  The area Joseph grew up in in upper New York was known as the Burnt Out District because of the all of the revivals that had come through.  Joseph, having been exposed to the views of many preachers, became concerned about the state of his own salvation and that concern led directly to his First Vision.  These revivals were directly influenced by American values such as freedom and individual rights which preachers on the vanguard of the movement had internalized and used to rebel against Puritan Calvinism which was once so influential.  This in turn influenced the church Joseph was to form, evidenced in terms such as “President of the church” and the practice of the body of members to sustain leadership.  Joseph’s environment leaves a deep mark in Mormonism’s basic theological notion of free agency and the American value of free enterprise and ability for anyone to rise in the system finds its most exuberant expression in Mormonism’s eternal progression which allows for any person to become a god or goddess.

Joseph soon found that this impulse to freedom and rising in the ranks would have a negative effect on the cohesion of the church he founded.  Soon, not only Joseph was getting revelation, but many others in the early Mormon community were as well, and their revelations undermined the authority of Joseph.  It was at this moment that the notion of priesthood authority was refined and its proper domains categorized.  So it was that only the Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the church, Joseph Smith, could have revelation pertaining to the entire church (as well as the globe, incidentally).  Other church authorities could have more circumscribed authority, patriarchs could have revelation pertaining to their family, and women revelation pertaining to their own limited spheres.  Not only was this priesthood authority conceptualized to order life on mortal earth, but also to extent to the eternities and order the life of the gods. So it is that our heavenly father will always have authority over us, even if we attain godhood ourselves and women are said to become priestesses and queens to their husbands, while the men become priests and kings to God.  The domains of the priesthood find their most unit in the family structure, which is envisioned to be the fundamental order of intelligent beings throughout all eternity.

The implications of these two elements in tension, personal revelation for all on one hand, rigid church authority on the other; free agency on one hand, the necessity to enter into binding covenants to progress on the other plays itself out in interesting ways in ordinary Mormon life.  Take for instance the practice of sustaining leaders.  Mormons are asked at various meetings to show their support for their leadership and also show support for sundry callings that every active Mormon will accept. The opportunity is also available for any member to express opposition to any leader or calling during these occasions.  The interesting thing is, it is culturally taboo to express dissent to what is understood to be an inspired decision.  So it is that in all my years as a Mormon I have never seen anyone dissent, and if you ask around, many other Mormons active all their lives have never seen anyone dissent and of those who have, it is usually just once or twice that they have seen it.  The notion of personal revelation is satisfied through going through the motions of sustaining and at least hypothetically allowing for dissent, while the reality of rigid church structure through which inspired bishops and stake presidents make their personnel choices is played out in the reality that opposition by other members is very rarely expressed.

Perhaps you, readers, have other examples.  Anyone care to share?

Posted in Historical Thoughts, sociological thoughts, Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

Posted by nebula0 on September 23, 2008


If you start to explore religious studies, chances are you’ll run into this supposed divide between religions which emphasize orthodoxy (right belief) with those that emphasize orthopraxy (right practice).  For instance, Judaism is often touted as a religious focused on orthopraxy, whereas Christianity traditionally focused on orthodoxy.  I’m bringing this up here because I think you’ll find some well educated Mormons embracing this supposed divide in order to promote Mormonism as a religion that is focused on orthopraxy and through so doing escape difficulties.  First I’ll discuss why Mormons would find this approach useful. Next I’ll discuss why this does not work for the Mormon case  I’ll close by generalizing my critique of this classification technique.

So, what might Mormon apologists gain by classifying Mormonism under the orthopraxy heading?  Mormonism lacks a solid, systematic theology by which a serious scholar could pinpoint beliefs.  Those of you who have been in many debates with Mormons no doubt have run into this frustration.  How many times has a Mormon claimed something you thought to be a central piece of Mormon theology to not be ‘official doctrine’?  It’s happened to me often, even when I pull that doctrine in question right out of officially published manuals used to teach Sunday school class.  Ultimately this confusion stems from the fact that the LDS leadership is uneducated in religion or philosophy, generally, and therefore avoids clarifying important doctrines, leaving individual Mormons interested in the topic to their own devices.  Many Mormons embrace this challenge as a freedom and an outgrowth of the initial meeting Joseph Smith had in the grove with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ when he was told that creeds are an abomination to God- they are a result of the Great Apostasy.  But, if things really are so fluid on the level of beliefs, what makes a Mormon a Mormon exactly?  This is where the notion of orthopraxy and orthopraxic religions helps the Mormon apologist, who now claims that being a good Mormon is mostly an issue of right practice, such as obeying the law of chastity, tithing, obeying the Word of Wisdom, activity in the church, holding a calling, and the like.  Furthermore, he may argue, privileging orthodoxy disproportionately privileges the scholar over and above the average Joe, so the Mormon system truly is a superior one on a moral level as well.

On the face of it this seems compelling.  After all, American culture tends to have an anti-intellectual streak and this no doubt resonates with many people.  Here’s the problem though. Mormonism is interested in orthodoxy, at least as much as orthopraxy.  Go to any fast and testimony meeting and one thing you’ll hear from almost all participants who speak is something akin to “I know this church is true, I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, I know that Jesus is the Christ,” and so on.  “I know” is rather strong phrasing of a statement of Mormon orthodoxy.  Or, how about meet with some Mormon missionaries and allow them to run through the standard missionary discussions.  One of the first things they will do is teach you how to ‘recognize the witness of the Spirit’ which consists of associating good feelings with statements that they argue are true.  From the very beginning the potential convert is encouraged to form an orthodoxy grounded in an epistemology consisting of the formula “good feelings about things which authorities claim to be true= witness of the Spirit of the truthfulness of the said claims”.  In order to be baptized, you have to agree to a set of belief claims, not just promises to obey the Word of Wisdom, the law of chastity and the law of tithing.  Likewise, to go through the temple the Mormon must affirm core doctrines which in practice constitute a sort of Mormon creed.  I argue the only reason this isn’t systemized, is as I said before, due to the Mormon aversion to theological learning, but that doesn’t mean that Mormonism isn’t a religion obsessed with orthodoxy.  It surely is.  It’s just a sloppy theology, which does have the effect of allowing the few to take their belief system in unique directions but remain Mormons in good standing.

Alright, that being said, I further argue that the whole distinction between orthodoxic and orthopraxic religions is a false dichotomy.  Take the example of Judaism again.  It’s true, you can be considered a Jew and an atheist at the same time– but not a good Jew!  There is no way to untangle beliefs from practices and experiences, they are intimately associated for human beings.  Every person claiming a religion has a theology that he or she embraces, it’s inescapable.  As soon as a person begins to think about the divine, theological opinions are formed.  Some are more thought out than others, but they are there.

Posted in Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 24 Comments »