Sunday, August 28, 2016

Are Mormons Christian? Not really.....

While I was preparing for my group meeting before my second shift of work on Tuesday, my colleague told me about her day, mentioning that her young siblings had awoken her before she had liked. She concluded by saying "Some days you can only be so Christian" to which I remarked "Mormons are not Christians." This remark, like others I have made, was not met with enthusiasm and endorsement, but rather a general scorn and an asking to explain my position. I remarked that the time was too brief to give an explanation, but that I would write one out on my blog. So here it is.

I have been interested in the relationship of Christianity and Mormonism for quite some time, perhaps beginning when I was tracting (knocking doors) with the missionaries who taught me and remembering an encounter we had with an elderly woman who after answering the door said "I am a Christian", to which Elder Kidman responded "Well, we are Christians too." The response surprised me because it seemed that Christians and Mormons were theologically fundamentally opposed to each other, but I did not raise the objection at the time.

My friend Scott Dodge, who is a former Mormon and now a Roman Catholic deacon once remarked to me "There is no greater question than knowing who God is." That is particularly true of the Mormon-Christian dialogue because neither Mormons or Christians are questioning (at least not as a whole) whether or not God exists; that question is already presupposed to be that he does in fact exist. The real question is what are the attributes and nature of this being. All other questions, such as the nature of the Church, priesthood, scriptural interpretation, ethics, etc, flow out of who and what God is.

It would be impossible to cover all the differences between the beliefs of Mormons and Christians in a blog post; that is a book length work. Rather, I am going to present 3 things: 1) Who God is according to Christianity 2) Who God is according to Mormonism 3) Conclude whether or not Mormons are Christians, and to present how our interfaith dialogue should proceed.

1) Who is God according to Christianity? I should state outright that by Christianity I mean Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and the various denominations that fall under the Protestant label. While they differ on some matters of theology, their view of God is summed up nicely in the Nicene Creed:
"I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen."
So, according to this creed, Christians believe in one God and like Islam and Judaism are a monotheistic religion. Also, it is important to note a few things about this God that are of fundamental importance to Christians. First, according to Christianity, God is much like the Greek philosopher Plato's Form of the Good, meaning that God is the fundamental reality of the existence. To break it down a little further, in Christianity God is not a being; rather he is being itself. If that seems hard to understand, then you are in the right place because as Augustine of Hippo said "If you understand, that is not God."

In addition to being being itself, it is important to note the attributes of God include omnipotence (all-powerful), omnipresence (being everywhere), omnibenevolent (all-loving), and omniscient (all-knowing). Since God is being itself, it follows that God is not created and exists independently of his creation, and is therefore ontologically distinct from his creation in the relationship of creator-creation. God also creates things out of nothing, because apart from God nothing exists. This means that Christians answer the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz question "Why is there something rather than nothing" as "Because God creates things."

The God of Christianity is an un-embodied mind, meaning that God is not human or humanoid. Because of this, it may be inappropriate to call God "he", "she", or "it" because those words apply to beings, but remember that God is not a being among many,God is being itself. Also, God has always been and always will be God according to Christianity; there never was a time he came into existence or did not exist.

These are the fundamental properties of the God of Christianity that are shared by various sects of Christianity, although they may differ on other matters about God's nature such as whether God is timeless (Boethius) or everlasting (Wolterstorff).

2) Who is God according to Mormonism? While Mormons often say they do not have a creed, they do in fact have one called The Articles of Faith, which like the creeds of Christendom sum up basic Mormon beliefs. According to the first article of faith:
We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
It appears on the surface that Mormons and Christians believe in something similar, but keep in mind that this view of God is not fleshed out well. To get a better understanding of the Mormon doctrine of God, we will need to turn to Joseph Smith, Jr. In one of his finals sermons called the King Follett Sermon Smith declared:
 "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with Him, as one man talks and communes with another."
 "It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did"
 "Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power."
Ok, lets break that down. While the Christian God is synonymous with Plato's Form of the Good, the God of Mormonism is closer to the Demiurge described in Plato's Timaeus; a being who descends upon matter and organizes it rather than creates it. In fact the word "create" is one that does not truly apply in Mormonism because matter rather than God is what is eternal. While the God of Christianity is supernatural, God in Mormonism is natural and Mormons are materialists and naturalists unlike their Christian counterparts.

While God is being itself in Christianity, in Mormonism God is a being among many and is not ontologically distinct from his creation. Further, Mormons are polytheists, they believe in many Gods while Christianity believes in only one. While God is being itself in Christianity, God is a PhD student in Mormonism; he begins as matter, he is organized into a humanoid, he learns things until he advances to the station of a God, and then he repeats the cycle among the organisms he then designs later. Thus Mormons are theological Darwinists rather than classical theists.

It is a matter of dispute among Mormons whether or not God truly has the attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience, but most would agree with LDS theologian and apostle Orson Pratt that in the process of becoming a God God acquires these attributes, while some like LDS president Brigham Young postulate an open theism that says that there are things God does not know and that he progresses in knowledge.

To sum up both positions, lets have a review. The God of Christianity is one God in three persons known as the Trinity, he is self-existent, has all power, all knowledge, loves all, is uncreated, and is being itself. The God of Mormonism is one among many, is contingent (meaning he could not exist), is embodied, came to be God, is a man, and people on Earth now can become Gods. In short, these conceptions of God are fundamentally opposed to each other.

3) It follows logically that if you do not worship the same God that you are not the same religion. Mormons are fundamentally non-Christian and are closer to the materialism and naturalism of Epicurus and David Hume than they are to the non-materialism of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo. The only way for Mormons to be Christian are for them to state that they alone are Christans, and in truth this is really what Mormons do believe. The fundamental claim of Mormonism is that after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the teachings of the Church he founded were corrupted by Platonic philosophy, and were wrong until the Restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith. This is the standard narrative taught by LDS missionaries worldwide.

If you want further proof that Mormons believe this, take into account the fact that if a Christian wishes to become Mormon, they must be re-baptized. Why? Because Mormons believe that they alone are Christians. If they truly believed that others were Christian, they would accept their baptism and just have them make a profession of faith as other Christian sects do. For instance, if a Baptist once to become a Roman Catholic, baptism is not required because the Baptist is a Christian already, they are just coming into communion with another Church by converting.

The thirteenth Article of Faith states:
We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
In order to be honest, you must clearly state what you believe, and honesty is the best avenue to have fruitful interfaith dialogue. In order for this to happen, Mormons will need to be honest and say that they are a separate religion from Christians, be straightforward about their materialistic and polytheistic beliefs, and honest that they alone are the vehicle of salvation and exaltation, even if other faiths do much good. We cannot move forward unless we are strictly honest.

If I have misrepresented Mormonism or Christianity, please feel free to comment and correct me (respectfully) and I will address my error.

Review of "The Natural History of Religion"

In The Natural History of Religion, a short work of less than 100 pages, the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume assumes a new role; that of a cultural anthropologist. While a philosopher will look at the arguments for and against religion and a historian will reconstruct a story about religious belief of the past, an anthropologist will look at the people themselves and wonder about how the beliefs themselves originated. While not trained as one, Hume excels in this role as well.

Hume begins by outlining that while most religions today are monotheistic, this was not was religion was in its earliest stages of development. Rather, the first religions that mankind had were polytheistic religions, and rather than being all powerful, they were capricious and not very caring about people. Hume also notes, and here he disagrees with Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, that some cultures have shown no belief in religion or God at all, showing that perhaps man is not always a religious animal as Burke believed.

One of the questions that Hume addresses throughout the book is that mankind seems to show a belief in invisible power or agency, and from this comes mans belief in fairies, goblins, demi-gods, and then the traditional monotheistic God. Hume is unknowingly laying in some degree the foundation for modern evolutionary theory, showing that man goes from brute, unintelligent beginnings until he reaches the station where he is now.

While Hume does criticize religion in the book for the harm it has done in the past and present, do not come away with the idea that Hume is an atheist, because he simply isn't. In the book he states that Christianity is the only religion that is free of contradiction, and that the design in the cosmos show the handiwork of an intelligent creator and author. However, Hume does state that in large part most religious belief comes from a dread of the unknown. For instance:
"It must necessarily, indeed, be allowed, that in order to carry men’s attention beyond the present course of things, or lead them into any inference concerning invisible intelligent power, they must be actuated by some passion which prompts their thought and reflection; some motive which urges their first inquiry. But what passion shall we here have recourse to, for explaining an effect of such mighty consequence? Not speculative curiosity surely, or the pure love of truth. That motive is too [10] refined for such gross apprehensions, and would lead men into inquiries concerning the frame of nature; a subject too large and comprehensive for their narrow capacities. No passions, therefore, can be supposed to work upon such barbarians, but the ordinary affections of human life; the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food and other necessaries. Agitated by hopes and fears of this nature, especially the latter, men scrutinise, with a trembling curiosity, the course of future causes, and examine the various and contrary events of human life. And in this disordered scene, with eyes still more disordered and astonished, they see the first obscure traces of divinity."
The book concludes that while religion is based on fear and a dread of the unknown, that is not the same as belief in God. To quote Hume again:
 "The universal propensity to believe in invisible, intelligent power, if not an original instinct, being at least a general attendant of human nature, may be considered as a kind of mark or stamp, which the divine workman has set upon his work; and nothing surely can more dignify mankind than to be thus selected from all the other parts of the creation, and to bear the image or impression of the universal Creator. "
While Hume is happy to admit that God exists, he does not believe humans can understand his nature or attributes, and calls the caricatures that men have mad of God "sick men's dreams"

Anyone interested in the study of religion should definitely have a copy of The Natural History of Religion in there collection. However, one caution I would make is that while Hume was a man of the enlightenment, his racism and prejudices are sometimes painfully obvious in the text. However, it is overall a very good introduction to religious anthropology. 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

3 Keys to Academic Success

This week most college students return to the classroom for the fall semester. At this point, everyone starts at the same place; no one is failing in a class and no one is getting an A in a class. What a person chooses to do at this point will determine how the rest of the semester will go. So, I thought I would give 3 tips that will ensure a person can have a chance at being successful. They may seem very much like common sense, but you would amazed how uncommon that sense is. 

1. Always attend class. This seems like a "duh" thing, but because many professors don't take role regularly, classes are large, and some professors don't count attendance in their grading, some feel they can skip class when they feel like it and still succeed. Two problems with this. First, class is where a professor will go beyond what is in the text, elaborate on it, and often what they share is on the final exam, which you will have no way of knowing because you did not attend class. Second, professors are more likely to help someone who is ill if they have regularly attended class, which I know first hand. I was ill for a number of weeks, but because I attended class when I was well my professors were willing to help me when I was ill, and I was able to get in A in all my classes.

2. Be engaged in class. Merely showing up to class will not be sufficient to success, interacting with the professor and diligently taking notes is required also. If you have a question, ask it when you have it because it is likely you will forget. Pay attention to what the professor is saying like your life depends on it, because your final grade very well might.

3. Avoid electronic devices during class. As my friend and philosophy professor Shannon Mussett puts it "Class time is for class." I admit that I am a social media junkie, and that I like to look at sports related things while in class from time to time. But, this is a very unnecessary distraction that can cost you. Neuroscience studies have shown that the brain is very myopic and tends to only focus one thing at a time while shutting others out. For this reason, use paper and pencils to take notes and don't bring laptops to class (or keep them in your backpack until you go to the library or study hall) and have your cell phone turned off. Doing so will allow you to focus, and focus in and of itself makes an astounding difference in performance.

There are more tips than these to be successful in school, and entire books have been written on the subject; I would recommend How to Win at College by Cal Newport to anyone interested in it. But these 3 steps will put a person on the right path to academic success.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review of "Planted:Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt"

As a Latter-day Saint of nearly seven years, I have long known the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issues that it does not address head on as much as it should, among them being the early Church's practice of plural marriage and the race restriction on priesthood until 1978. While I had worked out many of these issues myself before joining the Church, it came to my attention after joining that many of my friends had but a passing knowledge of these issues, if they were aware of them at all. In fact, I am sad to admit that one of my best friends left the Church after she was made aware of some of these issues, and she had a strong testimony and had also served as a full-time missionary before leaving the Church. I had come to feel like the Prophet Joseph Smith in his journey saying "What is to be done?"

Soon after this happened, a woman named Chelsi Barnard Archibald (who has since become my friend) e-mailed me after reading my blog and asked whether I would like to participate in a round-table with Patrick Q. Mason, author of Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. I have to sadly state that I did not participate, but Chelsi did send me a free copy of Professor Mason's book. I also have to sadly say I did not read it right away because I had several other reading projects I was engaged in.

Recently, I finally picked up my copy of the book and began to read it, since I was again thinking about my friends who have lost their faith, have doubts, or wonder if the Church has a place for them. Mason's words seemed like a godsend to me, saying from the outset that there is indeed a place for everyone,and that there are questions in the Church that need to be worked on and resolved. I found his "big-tent" approach to Mormonism refreshing and inspiring, because here is a man who knows all the issues and still remains a committed believer in the doctrines of the Restoration.

Planted states from the outset that it won't try to solve all problems that an individual may have with the LDS Church; this would require a book of great length and Planted is just shy of 200 pages. Rather, Mason encourages the reader to have certain beliefs that plant them in the Church and can keep them anchored in times of trouble or doubt. Namely, what he is saying is that when something happens that a person can't fully understand, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Stay with what you know to be true, but continue to inquire, and sometimes exercise the Christlike attribute of patience and wait for an answer to come if it has not come yet.

The main principle of Mason's book that I loved was that gospel answers do not come without gospel scholarship and persistence. It's not enough to simply browse the internet in search of answers about things the Prophet Joseph Smith did during his ministry, you will need to read volumes of history to make sense of what was happening and keep it in context. At the end of his book, Mason lists many books for the reader to read, among them Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman and Brigham Young American Moses by Leonard Arrington. Skeptics, put on your hard hats, you have work to do before you say Mormonism is intellectually indefensible.

While Mason does not address all issues in the book, he does tell stories about how he has dealt with some of them as a historian. One of them I will call perspectivism; understanding that things today are not how they have always been, and that is ok. Latter-day Saints, according to the 9th article of faith, believe "all God has revealed, all he does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."

Close quote. Revelation means change, so we can't expect everything to be the same as it always was; it is part of our religion. Rather, we should embrace change. According to President Brigham Young, one of the things that separated the Prophet Joseph from the Patriarch Hyrum Smith was his willingness to embrace new revelation, while Hyrum found it difficult at times. If you wish to follow the Prophet, that will mean changing your views from time to time.

However, do not come away with the idea that I approve of everything Professor Mason is saying; he says some somewhat dangerous things. One of them is his idea that unbelievers should stay in the Church because that may be the better option. Oh no, bad idea. The Church has value only insofar as it teaches true doctrine; it is not a vehicle of moralism. If one does not believe the doctrines of the Church, it is best for them to leave and find a space where they can more fully contribute. This is not to say that we should cast unbelievers away, we should love and help them in their journey. But when unbelief gets to a certain point, it is best to leave and save heartache and pain for oneself and others.

I highly recommend firm believer and skeptic alike to read Bro. Mason's book and the reading list he provides at the end. 5 stars.