I’m not sure why us Mormons insist that the Church is the same today as it existed anciently. For some reason organizational resemblance has become an evidence of the ‘truthfulness’ of the Church. This seemed to be of particular importance to truth-seekers in Joseph’s day, but I’m not sure why it should remain the hallmark of the ‘one true church.’
The manual lists several characteristics of the ancient church and our modern church. Let’s take them in turn:
The manual draws a parallel between the way that Jesus led his ‘church’ while he was on the earth and how God continued to direct the affairs of the Church after Christ’s death. I don’t want to quibble too much with the idea that Jesus was actively creating some kind of institution during his brief ministry. Let me just say that I think it is a pretty big stretch to try to see in Jesus’ band of followers the same kind of organization that exists in the Church today.
Reading through the New Testament, it becomes clear that these people thought that Christ’s return was immanent. Although we like to try to interpret some of Paul’s letters (or those attributed to him) as foreseeing a ‘falling away’ that needed to come first, it is plain that this wasn’t a generally held belief among ancient Christians (and I would be a little surprised to learn that Paul — or whoever wrote the epistle — interpreted ‘falling away’ in the same way as the popular Mormon reading of 2 Thessalonians 2). So, if God was leading the primitive Church, he or she wasn’t very interested in imparting specifics.
Authority from God
But the manual tells us,
That there might be order in His Church, Jesus gave the greatest responsibility and authority to the Twelve Apostles. He appointed Peter chief Apostle and gave him the keys to seal blessings both on earth and in heaven (see Matthew 16:19). Jesus also ordained other officers with specific duties to perform.
I’ve talked before about Paul. I am persuaded by the accounts of Paul as something of a renegade apostle. He wasn’t a part of the original Twelve, and he was proud of that fact. He seems to openly challenge Peter’s authority, and he is constantly warning the churches that he is said to have established as part of his extensive proselytizing efforts against ‘false brethren’ and ‘false prophets’ and people preaching ‘some other gospel.’ We like to fit these into our own apostasy narrative, but it seems at least plausible that Paul could have been referring to the church in Jerusalem.
The manual tries to tells us that Christ put together the church as a “a carefully organized unit.” However, as Elder Holland recently pointed out in General Conference, the first thing that Jesus’ inner circle did after the Resurrection was return to their former lives. This isn’t the behavior of people who have been installed in the leadership positions of a fitly formed together organization.
Indeed, it makes a lot more sense to me to interpret much of what the New Testament has to say about organizational structures in the Church as post hoc apologia to justify and give scriptural support for a hierarchical organization that was taking on the leadership of the Christ movement.
First principles and ordinances
I talked about covenants and ordinances last time… not much new to say here.
Ordinances performed for the dead
I remember as a missionary really loving 1 Corinthians 15. There it was staring anybody who was willing to look at it in the face. Proof positive that the ancient saints practiced baptism (and of course one can naturally assume other ordinances) for the dead.
I’ll talk more about this later in a dedicated post on temple work for the dead, but I really love the sentiment behind performing ordinances in behalf of those who cannot do them for themselves. However, this passing reference by Paul is pretty thin evidence, and it is not at all obvious that he is endorsing the practice. Apparently there is some more compelling evidence that ancient Christians practiced vicarious ordinances, but this scripture is rather controversial among biblical scholars.
This one is really interesting to me, and it perhaps highlights better than anything else the problems with too much yearning for the ancient order.
Reading accounts of the early days of the Church in Kirtland and Nauvoo, one gets a very different picture than our rather reserved, well-ordered Sunday meetings in the 21st century. Charismatic expressions of faith seemed to be commonplace (or at least not uncommon). People spoke in tongues (and not the ‘I-picked-up-Spanish-slightly-faster-than-I-might-have-otherwise’ kind of tongues, but the full-on ‘pure-Adamic-tongues-of-angels’ kind of tongues). Members of the congregation would prophesy. People would see angels and the heavens opened. It is really difficult for me to imagine any of this happening in my upper-middle class ward, and in those rare moments when someone goes ‘off-script,’ you can almost feel the waves of discomfiture sweep across the congregation.
So if the 21st century incarnation of the Only-True-And-Living-Church is so different from the ‘same’ church in the 19th century, why do we expect or even want there to be a high degree of similarity between the church in ancient times and the church today?
Once we allow for the possibility of the divine, it is only natural to try to understand just what it is we are talking about.
I don’t think it is entirely controversial to say that we Mormons don’t do mystery very well. In fact, I have sat in many Sunday School and early-morning seminary classes where the very idea that Truth could be mysterious was ridiculed. One of the founding principles of the faith was that many “plain and precious” had been lost. Mormons talk about the “Great Apostasy” — the period of time from shortly after the death of Christ and his original disciples up until 1820 and Joseph Smith’s divine encounter — as a time when evil and designing (or perhaps well-intentioned but Satanically influenced) men twisted the meaning of simple gospel truths and transmogrified them into something mysterious and incomprehensible (for a more charitable discussion of the relationship between Mormonism and the creeds of the wider Christian world, see this).
This is a compelling narrative (and would have been perhaps especially resonant with the virulent anti-Catholicism of Joseph’s day), but I think it is at least possible that the pendulum has swung too far away from the mysterious.
The manual’s very brief discussion of the nature of God first makes the point that man was created in the image of God, and therefore, to quote its anonymous authors, “[God’s] eternal spirit”–like ours–“is housed in a tangible body of flesh and bones.” This straightforward, but radical, reading of Genesis seems to shock and scandalize the broader Christian community (do a google search for Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet for a taste of the controversy).
I really love some of the implications of this heretical theology. Terryl Givens enunciates this well, “That God has a heart that beats in sympathy with ours is the truth that catalyzes millions—that he feels real sorrow, rejoices with real gladness, and weeps real tears. This, as Enoch learned, is an awful, terrible, yet infinitely comforting truth” (from this article).
But I think we sometimes take this to ridiculous extremes.
On one hand, it is
sometimes often used as a way to deny the empirically demonstrable reality of human evolution (ask yourself if you really believe that God has nostrils — lungs? lower intestines? For that matter, is God fully equipped with vestigial organs?).
This also sometimes takes us to places that would really be better left un-speculated upon. For some reason, it was very important to Bruce McConkie’s worldview that God was in the most literal sense the father of Jesus Christ. Now, McConkie was fantastically, spectacularly, and utterly wrong on many, many occasions (you really have to admire the ballsy-ness that led him to publish Mormon Doctrine in the first place), and it is perhaps unfair to trot out some of his sillier ideas. But no one ever accused bloggers of being fair. I won’t delve any further into the lurid details here, but it should be sufficient to say that I think this kind of “doctrine” is entirely unhelpful.
Most seriously however, I think there is a real danger in having a god that is too familiar. Perhaps only because it is fresh on my mind, let me appeal to the mystics once again. Armstrong discusses mysticism as a way of combating the idolatrous impulse–the desire to create god in our image. It seems to me that one of the great advantages of leaving a little mystery in God’s nature is that it restores some of the “divine distance” (to borrow from Givens again) that Joseph Smith enthusiastically closed wherever possible. The mystic traditions acknowledge that God is too big for any one person to hold in his or her imagination. The cocksure pronouncements of Mormons (pest personified in my mind my Elder McConkie) have a tendency to quickly slide into arrogance, and we might do well to back off from overconfidence in the face of the divine.
One of the things that I find most engaging about god in the mystical tradition is the vastness that I find there. It is analogous to what I find great about poetry — by jarring us out of our normal ways of thinking, it hints at transcendent truth. Similarly with the mystical. If we too readily assume that we know what Joseph was talking about when he said that God is “an exalted man” who “sits enthroned in yonder heavens,” we risk closing the door on truths that cannot be spoken.
A masculine god?
A final problem… in the short 11 sentences in this section, I count no less than 11 masculine pronouns with reference to God.
One of the great tragedies of the “mainstreaming” of Mormonism is the way in which we seem intent on erasing some of the most beautiful elements of our theology. I am not the first to comment on the absence of the divine feminine from the most recent edition of the manual. In past editions of the manual, one could find Her between the lines in references to “heavenly parents,” but even those have been removed in the 2011 version.
Others have made the case for a more prominent role for a feminine counterpart to the traditional image of god, and I feel like any attempt by me to add to what has already been said on the topic would be inadequate.
The God that I believe in is far bigger than the parochial, white-bearded kingly father-figure that we have foisted upon us at times.