Getting it wrong, kinda sorta…

OK, let’s ask a relatively simple question: Why do non-Mormon accounts of Mormon theology so often seem grotesque? To avoid derailing the discussion immediately, let me concede that there are non-Mormon folks who “get” Mormon theology, etc. etc. etc. On the other hand, if you are a Mormon and have not seen, heard, or read some non-Mormon describing Mormon theology as a pastiche of ridiculous beliefs about magic underwear, visitors from outer space, and eternal sex in the hereafter you haven’t been paying much attention to what your neighbors think about you.

There are a couple of quite plausible and to a greater or lesser extent valid explanations of this phenomena. I’ll mention two before moving on:

1. Bruce R. McConkie
2. Mormon theology actually is weird

I think, however, that margins provides another possible explanation. The reality of course is that there is not a single Mormon theology. Rather there are a whole bunch of differing — and occasionally contradictory — Mormon theologies. Although we all use the same language, we sometimes mean quite different things. We even occasionally have — gasp! — explicit disagreements with one another about theological subjects.

This does not mean, of course, that Mormonism simply means what ever we want it to mean, or that there are no boundaries to legitimate discourse. When your Uncle LaVerrn starts explaining to you how the Three Nephites have authored a secret book of scripture kept in the First Presidency vault that explains the precise time of the second coming, which the Brethren have told to all Stake Presidents (at least the ones who aren’t Democrats), you can be fairly certain that he is out to lunch.

To a greater or lesser extent all religions have the issue of pluralism and margins. One of the chief differences between Mormonism and other strands of Christianity is that we place the margins in different places. For example, a couple of years ago the Catholic Church issued a formal canon law ruling to the effect that Mormons who convert to Catholicism must be rebaptized. Initially, this seems entirely plausible. After all, Mormons demand that Catholic converts get rebaptized and turn about is fair play.

Catholics, however, have a dramatically different understanding of baptism than Mormons. As I understand it, under canon law a baptism need not be performed by a Catholic priest in order to be valid. Nor must it be performed according to the rites of the Catholic church, ie infant sprinkling. All that is required for a baptism to be valid is that it be: 1. Performed using water; 2. Be done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; 3. Be done with the intention that it be a Christian baptism. That, as I understand it, is it. Thus, Protestant baptisms are valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Even baptisms by those with heretical beliefs — such as the early Donatists and Arians — are valid.

The canon lawyers who made the ruling concluded that Mormon baptism satisfies the first two elements. They argued, however, that it did not satisfy the third element. When I read the ruling, I initially thought that they would argue that Mormon baptism was disqualified because it is not performed with the intention of baptizing a person into the universal Christian church. This, however, was not the tack that was chosen. Rather, they concluded when Mormons use the terms “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” they don’t use them in any Christian sense. Of course, if one understands “Christian” here to mean something like Nicene Christianity, one has a point. However, there is a long tradition in canon law to the effect that baptisms by non-Nicene Christians are valid. (The rule dates back the Arian controversy. Arians rejected the Nicene creed, but there baptisms were still valid.)

Rather than looking to the creeds, the canon lawyers looked to the King Follet Discourse. Reading it, they concluded that Mormons believe that God was an ordinary mortal who progressed to be God. This belief, however, means that when Mormons say “God” they simply can’t mean anything like what other Christians mean. Now anyone who has read any Mormon theology knows the canon lawyers adopted an interpretation of the King Follet Discourse that is an acceptable interpretation. Brigham Young certainly believed something like this formulation. It is, however, the interpretation that gives the King Follet Discourse its most radical possible theology. On the other hand, it is by no means the only way in which the King Follet Discourse has been read within Mormonism. For example, one can interpret it as saying that God has been eternally god but at some point in the past eternities he became mortal in the way that Christ became mortal and then re-assumed his godship. On this view, God has always been God. Likewise, one can understand exaltation in terms of becoming an independent God just like the Father. Alternatively, one can understand exaltation as becoming one with the Father as Christ is one with the Father, so that one is a “god” but always and eternally subordinate.

At the end of the day, I don’t begrudge the Catholic Church its conclusion. Certainly, their analysis was much more careful than most. (Incidentally, the cardinal with ultimate responsibility for the ruling is now pope.) I just found it interesting that they identified all Mormon intentions with regard to baptism with a single Mormon position, which while acceptable is nevertheless toward the edge of the acceptable Mormon interpretation. Given the imprecision with which we generally carry on our theological discussions, in many cases non-Mormons can’t be faulted if they have no sense of where the center and where the edges are of Mormon thought.

In this sense Mormon theology is like the common law. To understand what is or is not the law, one has to read a lot of cases in order to get a sense of where abstract arguments are likely to lose their force, despite their logical validity. One gets a sense of the whole only through immersion in the particulars. This is why a practicing Mormon can tell you that the belief that the garment stops bullets is at the edge of Mormon belief, within the fold but neither universally held nor doctrinally required. This is also why a journalist is unlikely to get the same simple point.

48 comments for “Getting it wrong, kinda sorta…

  1. “In this sense Mormon theology is like the common law.”

    I have to say, this is a great analogy Nate. Can you extend it to account for the process (or lack thereof) involved in the church’s historical “canonization” of the four standard works, and how that canon relate to all the other “particulars” (like the accepted transcripts of the King Follet Discourse) out there?

  2. Funny, I grew up in the religion and seems as wacky and crazy to me as it doesn to non-mormons. If it came as revelation not even 200 years ago how can there be so much justification of what it \”really\” means. I\’ve watched it rationalized to death by those in this decade and I keep an eye on mormon blogs because I find it fasicnating to watch people create a religion but c\’mon, it really isn\’t that profound folks. Mormons love talking a lot and intellectualizing it but really it\’s pretty wacky.

  3. Nice to hear that Pope Benedict got to spend some time thinking about Mormon teachings. Can we stretch this out and start a rumor that he was meeting with the missionaries?

  4. “On the other hand, it is by no means the only way in which the King Follet Discourse has been read within Mormonism.”

    If I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in the Bloggernacle, or occasionally spend time lurking on LDS-PHIL, or have 10 years of dabbling in Mormon Studies under my belt, I probably would have never run across any of the alternative readings of KFD you mention. This doesn’t affect the validity of your larger point, of course, but it does cause me to wonder what you mean when you say:

    “I just found it interesting that they identified all Mormon intentions with regard to baptism with a single Mormon position, which while acceptable is nevertheless toward the edge of the acceptable Mormon interpretation.”

    Presumably, you are saying the traditional, Brigham Young view of God is on the “edge” of Mormon discourse because it is so “radical,” in that this interpretation is farthest afield from mainstream Christian interpretations. But in the case of the KFD, your “edge” is where most Mormons I have known are hanging out. So I agree that “in many cases non-Mormons can’t be faulted if they have no sense of where the center and where the edges are of Mormon thought.” But I am not so sure the non-Mormons missed the boat here, in assuming Brigham Young, et al. were at the center, rather than the edge. So there’s no danger of their being unfairly faulted.

    Aaron B

  5. Nice post Nate. I agree with Aaron that while reading the KFD in the most obvious way puts Mormonism at a radical edge of mainstream Christian theology it would probably put one close to the middle of a mainstream Mormon theology. When Ostler and a few others around here argue the alternate reading of the KFD you mentioned (where the person God was never not God) I believe they find themselves on the radical edges of Mormon theology. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

  6. Aaron: If I recall correctly, Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Joseph F. Smith all adopted some version of the non-Brigham theory that I offered. Talmadge also carefully avoids the issue in Articles of Faith.

    FWIW, I actually like the BY view better, so I am glad to hear that it is the dominant interpretation that you have seen…

  7. If I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in the Bloggernacle, or occasionally spend time lurking on LDS-PHIL, or have 10 years of dabbling in Mormon Studies under my belt, I probably would have never run across any of the alternative readings of KFD you mention.

    Perhaps it is a difference of experience, but I found the alternates quite commonly during my adolescence.

    This is a great analogy Nate. Very nice.

  8. I like the common law analogy, Nate. For a lawyer, that is a succinct and effective way to describe the relative murkiness of Mormon theology.

    (Many evangelicals complain that trying to grasp Mormon theology is like nailing Jello to a wall.)

  9. I have actually heard that temple weddings involve consummation, with all the family in attendance.

  10. (my 10 was in response to Kevin’s 8 — D. just got in there quickly with his 9 and in so doing gave my 10 a possible negative connotation!!!)

  11. Yipes–just think what somebody who ends up here by googling “weird Mormon underwear” is going to imagine when s/he reads #10 & 11!!

  12. I think popular Mormonism is much more in line with Brigham Young. Neo-absolutist Mormonism, however, seems to have been more popular with the authorities from roughly Joseph F. Smith to the present, probably in part due to the problems of reconciling some of Brigham Young’s more peculiar beliefs with the scriptures.

    I think Brigham Young’s view is more accurate, with the exception that I think the Eternal Father is more like a divine society (Elohim) than just one man, except as represented unto us by the investiture of the authority of the divine society in one particular father, who is God unto us. “For there be gods man and lords many, but unto us is one God, and one Lord Jesus Christ”.

  13. Kristine, I am guessing that is guaranteed to happen! Hilarious twist of fate. I hope it does not mean that we have twisted minds to see the innuendo in reading my 11 as a response to D.’s 10.

  14. I admire Mark Butler’s stoicism in trying to continue the serious discussion of the post topic after the thread jackknife in comments 10 and 11.

    Alas, I’m afraid his efforts are in vain. Virtually every word in comment 11 compounds the hilarity of its position after 10.

    A classic bloggernacle moment.

  15. Maybe this discussion isn’t salvagable, but I wanted to address this:

    “Why do non-Mormon accounts of Mormon theology so often seem grotesque?”

    Because insiders (of anything) rarely feel that outsiders (to anything) get it right. I’ve heard Christianity described at divine child abuse and deistic cannibalism. I’ve heard blogging described as a waste of time. etc.

  16. Julie, there is also the difference between a sympathetic reading of a complex body of thought (which requires a good deal of effort) and an adversarial reading that is simply interested in finding weak or offensive points and highlighting them for sectarian purposes. Plenty of writers pose as fair and honest Christians (suggesting they are giving Mormon sources a sympathetic reading) when in fact they are acting adversarially (simply highlighting difficulties or “cherry-picking” doctrinal problems). People who really want to understand don’t have that tough a time getting most of Mormon doctrine more or less right.

  17. And why should any of us think that Latter-day Saint doctrine isn’t weird to the world? After all, I am guessing that a certain obscure sect’s doctrines about a tortured, executed, and resurrected Messiah, a mortal Son of God, looked pretty bizarre, weird, and even cultish to the Greco-Roman world, with their pantheons of glorious and devious gods, in which it began its existence.

    The doctrines of the Restored Gospel, much as with the doctrines of the Gospel at its inception, are weird to the outside world. Nate’s point is more about whether we can or should expect an accurate treatment from outsiders. My view is that it is rare and not to be expected, as nice as it would be. We can’t expect people who have made decisions against the truth claims of the Church to view those truth claims objectively.

  18. By the way, with regard to my comment 24, there is evidence that suggests that the earliest Christians to whom I referred there shared many of the same weird beliefs that Latter-day Saints embrace today. They certainly weren’t bound by the Nicene Creed’s view of how to define God, at any rate. Despite Jesus Christ’s own statement of disapproval of the philosophical choices of the Council that created the Nicene Creed, Clark has, at times past, pointed out how a relatively trinitarian method of viewing the Godhead actually isn’t really that incompatible with Latter-day Saint understanding of the Godhead. At least I think it was Clark.

  19. I always thought that on this \”christian\” issue, there is a good deal of merit to Jan Shipps and Rodney Stark, arguing we\’re a new world religion, with a relation to Christianity similar to the relation of Judaism to Christianity. This argument solves the problem. It makes us seem really cool. And the argument has a certain elegance.

  20. I’m still chuckling over the juxtapositioning of #10 and 11.

    I get the sense that many, many Mormons define their theology as “whatever we are, we are not them. So if someone comes up with something that looks like ‘them’, it is a betrayal and sale-out to ‘them’ and should be carefully guarded against because whatever we are, it isn’t ‘them’ and that we aren’t ‘them’ is what I like most about Mormon views.” I also get the idea that many, many non-Mormons view us as “they aren’t us, and whatever they think, it isn’t what we think, so if there is something they say that makes them look like us they are lying about it to look like us and try to bamboozle our folks into thinking they are like us. Whatever they are, they aren’t ‘us’ so we must adopt any interpretation that shows that they aren’t us.”

    I read the KFD differently than BY did — I also view Adam and his relation to our spirits differently than BY and so does everyone I know except three fundamentalist Mormons. Yet it is appropriate to address BY’s view for the simple reason that we see him as having been God’s prophet. I suppose that is one reason why I focus on the scriptures and Joseph Smith — any other way of approaching LDS views gets away from what is foundational for us — at least it seems to me.

  21. I tend to think that the fundamentalist Mormon view is going to look ridiculously conservative compared to the truth of the matter.

  22. I’m not sure that non-LDS do any worse of a job of getting LDS theology right than LDS do in getting non-LDS theology right. I’ve heard intelligent Mormons say with a straight face that Protestants believe that God is a blob, for example, because they don’t believe he has a body.

  23. I get the sense that many, many Mormons define their theology as “whatever we are, we are not them.

    I know what you mean, Blake, and I think this can cause problems. On the other hand, you have to admit that our founding event (as we run the emphasis lately anyway) was pretty much that. Christ told Joseph, “Whatever you do, don’t join any of those churches! We’ll get back to you with the real story later.” I take it one central connotation of “abomination” is something one should stay far away from. So a certain amount of contrarianism seems only appropriate.

  24. But he did not say that the churches were an abomination in his sight, he said that their creeds were an abomination in his sight. Big difference.

  25. LOL! Where was I yesterday?! I could really, really have used that laugh. Thanks D and John, that was evidence of the (laughing till I’m) weeping God of Mormonism, if ever there were any.

  26. The creeds aren’t all they believe, in fact many members of those churches do not strictly subscribe to or comprehend the creeds at all. The problem I see with creeds by the way, is not the errors therein, but rather the enforcement aspect – requiring not just belief in the scriptural fundamentals, but a hardline scholarly interpretation of the fundamentals that shuts down spiritual progress and personal revelation.

    It makes it impossible for anyone to understand the mysteries of godliness, because some body has decreed against them by scholarly diktat. And without the mysteries, the power of godliness is not manifest in the flesh.

  27. Ben: what will you do with the fact that their doctrines have “a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereofâ€?? As I read it, their doctrines are godly in form, but they lack the power [or perhaps authority] to preach them. Or perhaps their doctrines are godly in form but the lack the power of God behind them? I find the attitude to unsustainable to the effect that the doctrines of all others who preach Christ except Mormons are corrupt and abominable.

    Formulating what one believes by “whatever it is we believe, it has to be different than they believe” is going to create a pretty shoddy belief. I don’t like creeds. I like the open discussion and on-going dialogue of LDS thought and its possiblities. That is certainly not a creed; but it isn’t necessary a rejection of the insights of Ireneaus, Origen, Augustine, Boethius, Theresa of Avila, Aquinas, de Molina, Suarez, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, Arminius and others either. I have profound differences with virtually all of these people who sought to give their lives to Christ. However, I have also learned a great deal from them. For that I am grateful.

    My greatest gripe is that when I hear LDS caricature the beliefs of Catholics, or Protestants or Muslims the way I have often seen our caricatured, I wonder if our lips are near to Him, but our hearts are far from Him.

  28. Contrarianism is the Restoration’s raison d’etre. Take that away, and the story becomes pointless. I’ve never understood this Mormon desire to be accepted by the Evangelicals and Catholics. It’s like the LDS are just begging for any scrap of approval and when they get it jump to the podium like Sally Field at the Oscars: “You like me! You really like me!” Ask this: What changes would the Catholic church (or Evangelicals) require in order to agree to any kind of fellowship with the Church ?

  29. MikeIWH(#39),

    I disagree. There is no salvation in being against anything (except perhaps unadulterated evil). Our raison d’etre is in proclaiming the divine truths of the restored gospel before the world, not in being against any good thing, no matter how half baked. As the scripture says: contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil.

  30. I don’t think I was clear in #39, Mark. What I meant was: take away the contrarianism and there must needs be no Restoration. Traditional Christianity would have sufficed. Interesting to see how the LDS have moderated their view of what the “church of the devil” is over the years. Seems rather vague these days. Mormonism only makes sense in contradistinction to the rest of Christendom. This is intrinsic to the entire missionary program. It’s also why there is no serious ecumenical dialogue between the LDS and other churches. There can only be interfaith dialogue. From my perspective, this is all for the good.

  31. I think we shall all be amazed (some day) how uncomplicated LDS theology really is. If it can’t be understood by the unlearned it will be to difficult for the learned. The brethren spend a good deal of time trying to convince us of this fact. I will list one or two examples as I see them.

    1. The relationship of God to mankind is in the context of a family. There is a father and a mother, and then there are sons and daughters. I see the genealogy of that paternal and maternal relationship reaching back into an endless eternity, and forward unto an endless eternity…………

    2. Birthright alone does not assure one of the nature of their eternal nature………….

    3. We are to live a principle centered life. If we choose not to live a principle centered life than we are unprincipled, and no principle can save us…………

    4. God can be known on His grounds not ours…………….

    5. If we find ourselves in pitiful circumstances, find a use for the pits………beading anyone……….

    Harold B. Curtis

  32. I have actually heard that temple weddings involve consummation, with all the family in attendance.

    Comment by D. Fletcher — 8/18/2006 @ 12:50 pm

    Now THAT is really funny. And they say Mormons dont have a sense of humor.

    As a lifelong non-Mormon, I can give a view from “the other side.” There is a Mormon God and there is a God for the rest of us. Your God is in no way related to “our” God. Your Jesus Christ is in no way related to “our” Jesus Christ. Your Holy Ghost is completely different from “our” Holy Spirit.
    You (Mormons) have elevated your God to a higher position than “our” God. In your mind “your” God trumps “our” God. That’s the way I see it.

  33. Snarkey anon.

    My thought on that position has always been that just because we assign a few different attributes doesn’t mean we don’t both believe in the same Jesus, etc… .I happen to think my Dad is a great guy and a good father. My sister thinks he’s one step away from the devil incarnate. Same dad, different perceptions.

  34. Mike (#41),

    The other Christian denominations may not admit it, but one of the fundamental evidences of the truth of our doctrine is the influence it has, direct or indirect, on the doctrinal interpretation of others. When any denomination moves their understanding in the direction of truth, that is cause for celebration. We need not, in fact should not, take credit – it is the glory of God and the working of the Holy Spirit. There is no value in the other churches believing or teaching something other than the truth, hence my point – the Spirit wishes us to arrive at a unity of the faith – a true unity, not a botched compromise of course.

  35. I might say also that conciliar ecumenicism would not be a bad thing, if the representatives accepted the principle of continuing revelation, or were sufficiently sensitive enough to the Spirit to recevie it, as well as to correct the mistakes of the past. The Protestants claim sola scriptura, but in fact they rely on a cult of conciliar infallibility nearly as much as the Catholics do. It may very well be the case that the decisions of the early church councils were better than the confusion that they replaced, but their errors cannot be allowed to stand forever. At some point the word of the Lord must outweigh and override the word of any mortal council.

  36. Totally, Mark. Being raised Lutheran, I remember hearing the sola scriptura mantra yet seeing how clearly Luther functioned in a prophetic role and how the Book of Concord was de facto cannonical. I did like the doctrine that Pope = Anti-Christ, though. Can’t deny that there are moments when Il Papi makes me wonder if maybe Luther wasn’t onto something there. Benedict XVI looks like he sleeps in a coffin. Has anybody ever actually seen him during the daytime? : ) (Note to papist bloggers: Just kidding!)

    re: 45 While I agree completely, Ryan, I suspect an anti-mo fundamentalist would have a field day with your analogy. Who exactly are these embodied deities you’re following? YOU think they’re great guys, snarky anon thinks…..

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