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?
A Tale of Two Translations
The Pearl of Great Price is composed of the Book of Moses (which is actually Joseph Smith’s version of the first several chapters of Genesis), the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith’s version of Matthew 24, excerpts from the History of the Church, and the Articles of Faith.
The Book of Moses
We have in the Book of Moses something quite remarkable. It does not claim to be a translation of an ancient text, but it is more than mere commentary. It is actually a selection from the Joseph Smith Translation — sometimes (and more appropriately, in my opinion) called the “Inspired Version” — of the bible. The word ‘translation’ in Joseph Smith Translation is misleading. As I said, Joseph was not working from a source text (other than his own KJV bible).
The text itself has actually undergone quite a few changes (see this discussion), the most significant and substantial of which occurred early on. From what I gather (and I am no specialist), Joseph began work on the JST almost immediately after the organization of the Church. The earliest MS we have dates back to June 1830 — two months after the founding. About 9 or 10 months later, Joseph returned to the project and substantially revised his original revelation. Kent Jackson (see the link above) writes,
Some of those [revisions to the text of the Book of Moses] are editorial in nature and clarify and smooth out the words of the dictated text. But others are inspired additions and corrections that provide new insights or even change the meaning of what had been written before.
So, this was not a case of the windows of heaven being opened and Joseph simply dictating what he saw. It was an unfolding–a gradual accretion of inspiration–that occurred over months and years.
The Book of Moses contains some of the most beautiful passages in Mormon scripture. In addition to the wonderful teachings on the page, the process of how we came to have them should teach us something about the nature of revelation.
The Book of Abraham
The Book of Abraham is perhaps the most problematic of Joseph’s scriptural productions, and it tops the list of historical issues that shake people’s faith in the truth claims of the Church (at least according to John Dehlin’s survey of doubters). Learning more about the Book of Abraham certainly caused me to reexamine my own views on revelation and and the nature of scripture. From the evidence, it is hard for me to believe that the scripture we have was translated in any straightforward sense of the word from the actual papyri in Joseph’s possession at the time.
Why would he claim to have translated the papyrus? During his translation, Joseph went so far as to create a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphs to aid the work of translation. It seems apparent that he believed (or wanted people to believe) that he was actually translating the papyri in the usual sense of the word.
Beyond its origins, the text itself is considerably stranger and (to my mind) more problematic than most anything else we have canonized of Smith’s writings. Among other gems, we have references that seem to corroborate the dubious ‘curse of Ham’ theology (1:24), Kolob and other bizarre astrological references (3:4), and it all seems to end rather abruptly (before we even get to the Fall).
The best of times… the worst of times…
So, where can we go from here? One possibility is to just throw it all out. I can respect this decision. At times the weight of the evidence against the divinity of Joseph’s calling seems to far outweigh any supporting evidence.
Another possibility is to uncritically accept it all. If you’ve read anything else that I have written so far, you know that I don’t think this is very defensible (and if you are still reading, you probably agree).
As with so many things in life, I think the correct answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. Having an open canon is a wonderful blessing, but it is also a weighty responsibility. It calls us to critically evaluate scripture. We should be ready to accept the good, but we also need to be willing to let go of the bad.
In its section on the Doctrine and Covenants, the manual says that it
contains the revelations regarding the Church of Jesus Christ as it has been restored in these last days. Several sections of the book explain the organization of the Church and define the offices of the priesthood and their functions. Other sections … contain glorious truths that were lost to the world for hundreds of years. Still others … shed light on teachings in the Bible. In addition, some sections … contain prophecies of events to come. [examples removed — find the original quote here]
One of the things that made a lot of sense to me about Mormonism in my more believing years is this idea that God continues to speak to us. The Doctrine and Covenants, as the description above makes clear is basically just a collection of questions that Joseph had and answers he received.
The idea of an open canon is lovely. It doesn’t make sense to confine ourselves to a few books that could be agreed upon by a committee that met more than 1500 years ago. Why shouldn’t God speak to us as She/He/They did in ancient times?
The problem of history
The Doctrine and Covenants has almost the opposite problem of the Hebrew Canon and the Gospels. We have an absolute embarrassment of riches when it comes to the history of the Church. Ours is a history that is (sometimes–oftentimes?–troublingly) knowable if we make the effort.
Unfortunately almost none of the actual historical context makes it into the book itself (it isn’t even arranged in chronological order!). I don’t believe that this is a problem unique to Mormons, but we certainly are guilty of divorcing our scripture from its context. The process of breaking the text into numbered verses facilitates study in important ways, but it also discourages holistic reading. In the Doctrine and Covenants, this tendency toward atomizing scripture is magnified by the total lack of coherent narrative. The references to the History of the Church in the headings of the D&C are precious little to go from for the lay member.
The lack of context contributes, I think, to a misunderstanding about the relationship between God, the prophet, and the people. Because we have so little recent experience with revelation the way it was practiced in Joseph’s day, we might get the impression that the prophet sits at the head of the Church and relays God’s word to the people. The reality seems to be considerably more complex.
Is our canon really open?
It has been nearly 100 years since the last real revelation was recorded in the D&C. Now, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that the pace of revelation would slow a bit now that the church is fully institutionalized, but the extreme caution modern prophets appear to exercise in publicizing their prophecies seems to be entirely new.
Take Official Declaration 2. It is essentially a press release announcing that a revelation had been received. There is no “Thus saith the Lord” or similar language revealing the ‘mind and will’ of God concerning the matter. The closest it comes is the concluding paragraph which notes,
We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.
But we are left to speculate as to what precisely the will of God in this matter is (especially concerning the rightness or wrongness of the ban in the first place). Our contemporary prophets seem to have delegated their prophetic responsibility to the PR department of the Church.
A more recent example is found in the family proclamation — perhaps the most important statement to come from the First Presidency in recent memory. A less-noticed edit to Boyd Packer’s infamous October 2010 general conference talk walked back his assertion that the proclamation was a revelation. The original said,
Fifteen years ago, with the world in turmoil, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” the fifth proclamation in the history of the Church. It qualifies according to the definition as a revelation and would do well that members of the church to read and follow it.
Packer’s anonymous editor replaced the last sentence with, “It is a guide that members of the Church would do well to read and follow” (see this post for a full documentation of the changes made).
A silent witness
The Doctrine and Covenants stands as a silent (silenced?) reminder of a church that once had the confidence to claim special and direct access to the will of God.
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, this is not altogether a bad thing. There are several examples in our history of prophets saying terrible things in the name of God. Through Joseph, God threatened Emma with destruction in Section 132. God, through Brigham, said any number of crazy things. Caution is certainly in order when we claim to speak for God.
But it feels disingenuous to me when the church goes to such great lengths in making the case that it is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I can’t help but get the feeling that the Brethren have worked themselves into a tricky corner. They are complicit in inflating the expectations of the membership to unhealthy heights, but now that they’ve got most of us here, they don’t seem to be sure what to do.
I think we would do well as a people to have a serious, open, and on-going discussion about the nature of revelation and the role of prophets.
In recent years, Church leaders seem to have placed a tremendous burden of proof on the Book of Mormon. Gordon Hinckley said repeatedly that the Book of Mormon is “either true or false.” In an interview, he continues (see the full quote, here),
If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true.
If you’ve read anything that I’ve written on this blog over the last few weeks, you might guess that I don’t find this kind of black-and-white approach helpful.
All Mormons are familiar with Joseph’s description of the Book of Mormon as the “keystone of our religion” and the “most correct” book. It is easy to see how one could get from Joseph’s quotes about the book to Hinckley’s position, but I think we risk turning faith into something rigid and fragile by not admitting some of the obvious shortcomings of the book.
Racism in the Book of Mormon: A case study
The question of race in the Book of Mormon is a fraught one, and the way that we cope with it (and I believe it can be a traumatizing experience) reveals a lot about what we believe about scripture.
Mormons have a problem with race. We should admit it, apologize for it, and move forward. Certain readings of the Book of Mormon do not help us in this collective repentance process. While it is not as straightforwardly racist as some have portrayed it, the intimate connection between the skin color of the Lamanites (the on-again, off-again villains of the narrative) and their righteousness, feeds into age old stereotypes.
As I see it, there are a few possibilities.
1) God is a racist
After reading the Book of Mormon’s descriptions of the “skin of blackness” and people becoming “white and delightsome,” we might conclude that God uses skin color as a marker of obedience and faithfulness. Nevermind that this view is contradicted by other parts of the book:
he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
The Mormon view of God at least opens up the possibility that he can “cease to be God.” We aren’t forced into the position that just because an act was committed by God it is definitionally good. By any standard of morality that I can endorse, the kind of racism that seems to be in the Book of Mormon would cross the line.
Since a racist god would thereby disqualify himself from being worthy of our worship, we can safely dismiss this possibility.
2) Nephi was a racist
Assuming for the moment that the scriptural Nephi corresponds to a (an?) historical person, it is possible that in writing the narrative, he inserted his own racist ideas. Dan Wotherspoon develops this idea in a recent discussion of racism in the Book of Mormon. (The Wotherspoon podcast helped me work through some of the more troublesome racial passages in the book, and a lot of what I will say below is derived from it.) For Wotherspoon, this explanation depends on at least three factors:
First, we have to assume that the people discussed in the text were not alone when they got here. The church has softened its position on this in recent years. Notably, they changed the wording of the introduction of the Book of Mormon to say that the Nephites and Lamanites described in the text are among the ancestors of the Native Americans rather than their principal ancestors. (This seems to ignore some of the discussion in the book about “this land” — presumably the Americas — being reserved for a righteous people and the fact that almost all modern prophets refer to Native Americans, Mexicans, South Americans, and Polynesians as ‘Lamanites,’ but it is what it is).
Second, we have to assume that the Lamanites — having abandoned the faith — began intermixing with the native population and adopting their customs.
Finally, if we take for granted the various allusions to dates in the book of Nephi, he seems to be writing it many years after the separation of the people into two warring factions. Given that Nephi had been socialized as an Israelite, he would have had strong ideas about ‘marrying outside of the covenant,’ and may have had ethnocentric stereotypes about the native people. Wotherspoon’s position is that Nephi may have seen the effects of the Lamanites’ intermarriage with the perhaps darker skinned native people and concluded that the natural changes in skin color were a curse from God.
I had not considered this, but it is at least possible. This explanation is interesting as it factors in the fallibility of the authors of the Book of Mormon, and it takes them seriously as three-dimensional people rather than the shallow caricatures we are sometimes told they are. As I’ve mentioned before, Latter-day Saints should be in a good position to accept limitations in ancient prophets given our experience with modern ones.
3) Joseph Smith was a racist
A more plausible explanation, in my mind, is to consider the ways Joseph might have inserted racism into the Book of Mormon. One theory of Book of Mormon origins (the expansion theory), holds that the process of translation was much closer to inspiration than what we typically think of translation (converting from one language to another). Expansion theorists (Blake Ostler and others) remind us that Joseph rarely used the plates in the translation, and received most of the book by looking into his ‘peep stone.’ The idea that the native Americans had their origins in Israel was floating around in Joseph’s time, and it is possible that a lot of Joseph’s own assumptions about how the world works made their way into the text.
Where are we now?
The Book of Mormon is a remarkable work. I am not completely sold on its historicity, but it seems to contain something deep and beautiful. I find myself unable to write it off as a hoax, but its origins are obviously more complicated (and in my mind, so much more interesting) than we teach our primary children.
Apologies for the overly autobiographical nature of recent posts. Today, we are moving into an area that I have very little direct personal experience with, so I might be able to resist the temptation to derail the post into my own life.
As with so many other gospel principles, the idea of prophets and revelation has become more complicated for me than what is presented in the manual. The manual begins by saying,
Many people live in darkness, unsure of God’s will. They believe that the heavens are closed and that people must face the world’s perils alone. How fortunate are the Latter-day Saints! We know that God communicates to the Church through His prophet. … Ancient prophets wore tunics and carried staffs. Modern prophets wear suits and carry briefcases.
On its face, there is a certain logic to this. If you accept the straightforward interpretation of the biblical stories, prophets play a central role in the narrative. The bible is full of people who seem to have some kind of special relationship with God and are called upon to share that knowledge with other people. As a missionary, we were encouraged to draw out this logic: If God has always used this method to communicate with his people, and God is an unchangeable, perfect being, it follows that God would continue to call prophets in our day. Why would He stop speaking to us (through the prophet) at the moment when we need Him most?
The Mormon story is very neat. Our modern prophet is just a continuation of a long line of prophets that stretches back nearly continuously (with some punctuation — notably a 2000 year gap after Christ died) to Adam.
On the one hand…
Mormon experience with modern prophets and prophecy should give us a very healthy perspective on ancient ones. We know how deeply flawed and utterly human Joseph Smith and those who took up the role of leading the Church were and are. We should be able to use our contemporary experience with modern prophets to extrapolate the weakness and limitations of ancient ones. This puts us in a unique position to understand that revelation is never so clear as we sometimes suppose. It is always filtered through very human minds and it is oftentimes hugely misunderstood.
For example, it is pretty safe to say that Joseph Smith had an entirely mistaken set of assumptions about the nature of the Book of Mormon. It is clear from the way that he talked about the book and off-hand ‘revelations’ he would relate that Joseph had a model of Book of Mormon geography that filled the whole western hemisphere (hello Zelph, “the white Lamanite”). In Joseph’s mind, the Book of Mormon was a history of the native people of the Americas. The church has since (quietly) walked back some of these claims, and modern Book of Mormon scholarship seems to have settled on a “limited geography model.” Anthropological and genetic research makes clear that the overwhelming majority of native people in the Americas can trace their heritage back to Asia (rather than the Middle East) many thousands of years ago.
A few more examples? Several of Brigham Young’s more creative theological innovations have been thoroughly repudiated by the Church (Adam-God, blood atonement, racist teachings). There is some evidence that Wiford Woodruff held on to erroneous ideas about the timing of the second coming (which may have helped him compromise on polygamy in 1890). We’ve discussed McConkie’s teachings several times already. Gordon Hinckley was duped by Mark Hoffman with the Salamander letter forgery. All of this should cast considerable doubt on the idea that God directly speaks to prophets in unequivocal terms.
One of my favorite poems by Anis Mojgani puts this well. I’ve copied a few lines below, but Mojgani’s poetry in particular is much better listened to than read. You should really go listen to the whole thing read by the author (here — if you are offended by a little bit of strong language, you should get over it and listen anyway. Once you finish that one go and see this and this and this),
we wish to become one with our Lord
we hear the voices and think we know what they say
is the word of God
i hear this i heard this correctly
so we rise and try to translate this word
with the work
with the heart
but our ears are too small
for our hearts to understand the humming of these sentences inside of us
I love those last lines. We are too small indeed to grasp the whole, but it is the human drive to always try.
One of my favorite films is the adaptation of Camelot for the screen. To me, it is a beautiful story of trying and striving (and ultimately failing) to live up to the ideal. Joseph Smith, in my mind, was a modern Arthur. He had a vision of a society that held everything in common, where friendship was the highest law, and the people were ennobled and empowered to govern themselves. This grand experiment failed time and time again (and Joseph’s own weakness was partly to blame for its failure), but he kept trying and reaching for the unobtainable.
On the other hand…
You’ve probably heard this couplet (which I will probably do some injustice to in my paraphrase), “Catholic doctrine holds that the Pope is infallible, but the Catholics don’t believe it. Mormon doctrine holds that the prophet is fallible, but the Mormons don’t believe it.” It is comforting to think that all we need to do is “follow the prophet,” but blind obedience is never appropriate for mature adults. Joseph (and even Brigham) warned against this kind of passive discipleship.
Unfortunately, institutions have a natural self-preservationist instinct that seems to create a set of messages that are biased in favor of their own interests, and what is “good for the Church” is not always good for the membership (see, for example, the troubling story of Elder Poelman’s talk in the — of all years — 1984 General Conference).
On the other, other hand…
I am also troubled by the seeming lack of substance that comes out of the Conference Center every six months. We get talks on social media, platitudes about kindness, warnings against the dangers of pornography and a laundry list of other first-world problems, and a few anecdotes about President Monson’s great acts of service while he was a bishop. All the while, scores of people are being decapitated in Mexico (where there are hundreds of thousands of members of the Church), the United States continues its worrisome practice of drone strikes across the world, AIDS ravages Africa, millions go without enough to eat, or are cold, or homeless…
This past conference, there was quite a bit of excitement about what amounts to a really modest policy change. While lowering the age for missionary service will undoubtedly be meaningful for thousands of young men and women, it was hardly an earth-shattering revelation. The reaction to this small change seems to be symptomatic of a deeper longing and hunger in the body of the church for something of substance to come over the pulpit.
Our modern prophets with their suits and briefcases seem to be more comfortable as cautious administrators of the institutional Church than the ancient pariahs with staffs and tunics challenging social injustice.
The church is as true as the gospel
This past week in Sunday School, we talked about a verse of scripture in Isaiah (which also appears in the Book of Mormon),
Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes;
The part that struck me when reading this verse was the idea of the “stakes.” Stakes are driven into the earth, they are anchored in the dirt. There is no way to escape the reality of the world. The “gospel” doesn’t exist in the abstract. It can only be what we make of it.
Chapter 3 begins by outlining the traditional understanding of the “Council in Heaven.” As I mentioned before, I think we assume too much about this premortal conference.
I want to talk in more detail later about the problems I have with the “ransom” and “penal-substitution” models of atonement that shine clearly through the manual’s description of the way God apparently framed the plan of salvation, but I think that should wait for a future post. For now, let’s focus on the War in Heaven.
According to the manual,
Because our Heavenly Father chose Jesus Christ to be our Savior, Satan became angry and rebelled. There was war in heaven. Satan and his followers fought against Jesus Christ and His followers. The Savior’s followers “overcame [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).
When I was younger, I got really excited by thinking about the war in heaven. This was encouraged by well-meaning leaders who would remind us that — as evidenced by our birth into the True Church — we were a chosen generation, reserved to come forth in the final, wrapping up scenes of history. We had been particularly valiant — file leaders and generals — in that great conflict in heaven, and God knew that we were up to the challenges that would face the faithful in the Last Days.
Wars — especially cosmic, heavenly ones — require villains, and who could be more villainous than the Father of Lies, the Great Deceiver, or (as he is referred to a few verses earlier in Revelation 12) the Dragon? In my mind’s eye, the battles that followed must have been awesome. I was inclined toward fantasy novels, and I had plenty of good imagery to draw from.
Of course, I don’t believe any of this now. War imagery is, I think, particularly inappropriate in religious settings. There is already a temptation to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘in’ and ‘out.’ When we add rhetoric about enemies, soldiers, war, battle, etc., I think we risk ramping up our inborn capacity to divide the world into groups to unhealthy, feverish heights.
Mormons would do well to seriously consider the provenance of the Book of Revelation. I think we have inherited a great many assumptions about its meaning from our more traditional Christian cousins (see this review for an excellent run-down), and the further we can get away from the Left Behind-esque superstitions that surround this rather suspect part of the canon, the better.
The problem of Satan
As a younger man, when I wasn’t fantasizing about kicking some serious demonic @$$, I was often troubled by the idea of Satan and his seemingly essential role in the Plan. It seemed fundamentally unfair that if there had to be opposition in all things and Satan was the source of that opposition he should be cast as the ultimate Bad Guy.
Jorge Luis Borges’s meditation in The Three Versions of Judas reflects my thinking in more elegant terms. In Borges’s telling, Judas is the real hero for betraying Jesus. To quote Borges,
Judas’ betrayal was not a random act, but predetermined, with its own mysterious place in the economy of redemption…. The Word, when it was made Flesh, passed from omnipresence into space, from eternity into history, from unlimited joy and happiness into mutability and death; to repay that sacrifice, it was needful that a man (in representation of all mankind) make a sacrifice of equal worth. Judas Iscariot was that man. Alone among the apostles, Judas sensed Jesus’ secret divinity and His terrible purpose. The Word had stooped to become mortal; Judas, a disciple of the Word, would stoop to become an informer (the most heinous crime that infamy will bear) and to dwell amid inextinguishable flames…. Judas sought hell because joy in the Lord was enough for him.”
Judas, from this perspective, made an equal or perhaps even more noble sacrifice than Christ. Willing to give up his name and to be remembered in derision throughout time by Christians and even to give himself over to eternal torment, he stepped up to become the essential catalyst of salvation. Where Christ’s agony was temporary and ultimately rewarded with a seat on the right-hand of God, Judas’s disgrace is infinite.
This presents us with a tangled theological knot indeed. It seems that if Satan was really so intent on thwarting God’s plan, his best course of action would be to protest the whole thing. By his simple refusal to be a co-conspirator at all, some popular understandings of the Plan would unravel entirely.
While I am well aware of scriptural injunctions (such as this one) against succumbing to the devil’s lies about his own non-existence (and if I am honest, they nag at the edges of my doubting mind), I still do not see how Satan fits into the whole picture. Perhaps it is useful in some settings to personify the pull that we all feel toward our baser instincts, but these drives have better naturalistic explanations than the devil-on-the-shoulder image that we sometimes concoct.
For me, it is most helpful to think of the war in heaven and accompanying doctrines as entirely symbolic. I like the idea of a God who persuades and respects agency at all stages in our halting development. In this way, Mormon theology offers compelling ways of dealing with some of the more troublesome parts of the traditional Christian worldview (theodicy anyone?). Since we chose in some sense to enter this mortal coil, we bear collective responsibility for the suffering and evil that exists in the world. We can’t so easily shove it off on some supernatural beings with horns and a tail. As children of God, it is our responsibility to clean up our own messes, not simply wait out our time until the triumphal return of the conquering Christ (but that is a subject for another day).
First a word of apology. Apparently, I spoke too soon earlier when I noted that Heavenly Mother had been expunged completely from the new manual.
Chapter 2 begins by quoting Joseph F. Smith:
Man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body.
So there it is, if you look closely enough, squint a little, and think about it, “heavenly parents” at least implies the existence of God the Mother.
(Interestingly, the unattributed curriculum committee members choose this point in the text to address the teacher and say: “You do not need to teach everything in each chapter.”)
I really love the idea that in Mormon theology each individual is, in some sense, co-eternal with God. When we add to that the notion of a family-like connection that binds us to God and one another, Mormonism really takes off in my mind. What fantastic potential! We share a common source, we are intimately connected with one another, we come into this world “trailing clouds of glory“!
The Mormon conception of God is blessedly lacking the megalomania comes through in the ways that some portray God’s motives for creation. In the Mormon creation myth (which begins far before the creation of the world), God called our intelligences out of some cosmic pool of unorganized spirit-stuff and set us on a course that — in accordance with Eternal Law — would exalt us all. Contrast this to some other views of a god who finds himself in need of creatures to worship him and sets them down a path that he knows will lead (at least some) to their torment and eternal misery. The way some tell it, he does this only to contrast them against his more elect creatures so that he can “make his power known” (at least that is my understanding of how some read these verses).
Unfortunately, some have read ugly implications into this beautiful story. I am speaking of course about the unfortunate history of theologically-reinforced racism in the Church. In a prime example of reading assumptions into doctrine, surely Brigham Young and perhaps Joseph Smith himself (despite the latter’s seemingly more enlightened views) bought into a pernicious theory about racial hierarchy and the origin of racial distinctions that was common in their day.
In some ways, it is understandable how they could reach these terrible conclusions about race and the premortal existence. There is a principle in statistics called Cromwell’s Rule, which says, basically, that if we are sure that a thing is true (our Bayesian prior is either 1 or 0), no amount of evidence to the contrary can persuade us. In the very natural impulse to fill in the gaps in the revelatory experience, they could see no other explanation.
And so we return to Mormon Doctrine. I don’t want to pick on Bruce McConkie too much, but he embodies for me a certainty of thought that is a large part of the problem, I believe, with popular understandings of Mormon teachings. By calcifying the ‘truth’ into one particular and peculiar understanding, McConkie and his ilk have done a great deal of damage (see the blow-back from the recent Randy Bott controversy). At least for me, this kind of rigid theology was alluring when I was growing up in the Church. Certainty feels good — and McConkie could deliver that certainty in powerful ways. But it is also brittle, and there came a point in my faith journey when it shattered.
As with so many things, I think that we actually know a great deal less about this premortal realm than we sometimes suppose. I want to return to this theme later, but the premortal existence in the popular imagination of the church provides a great case-study of the problems associated with assuming too much. Part of the problem stems from popularized depictions such as Nephi Anderson‘s Added Upon and its more modern adaptations, Saturday’s Warrior and My Turn on Earth. Church produced films — with images of premortal realms adorned with fluted columns and marble floors populated by throngs of white-skinned, white-robed people in soft focus — surely aren’t helping.
What we all need, I think, is a large dose of intellectual-spiritual humility. I love the idea that “we see through a glass darkly,” and we should always be wary of those who claim differently (or interpreting their words in a way that suggests certainty).
Post-script: The Indifferent
One of the implications of a set of “heavenly parents” and eternal increase is the ever titillating implication of eternal, heavenly sex. In my teenage years, this was (and I don’t think I was alone in this) the best reason to hope for a spot in the celestial kingdom (I wasn’t much concerned then about the logical consequence for my lucky eternal bride… eternal pregnancy doesn’t appeal to everyone apparently). As I’ve matured (a little) since then, the absurdity of this kind of speculation about the actual mechanics of divine increase is almost laughable.
There was a very interesting discussion on Mormon Matters about the possibility of a post-heterosexual Mormon theology. If you are at all interested in these kinds of things, I highly recommend taking some time and listening to the discussion. The Dialogue article that inspired the podcast is also worth a read.