Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Response to Richard Bushman II: Great and Terrible Questions

Before I start discussing other criticism, I just want to put some questions out into the open that have been bothering me. Twice in his talk he mentioned, both in history and in his personal experience, the viewpoint that there is something missing in Mormonism. He mentions that in 1893 there was a parliament of religion that rejected inclusion of the Mormons on the grounds they were not a religion. Later in the talk, he mentions scholarly friends say it is an empty religion. Perhaps it is because I am a believing Mormon, but I just don’t understand this attitude. Historically it reminds me of what the Romans said of the Christians before Constantine’s era. For whatever reason they were considered by the pagans as atheist. Both of these viewpoints seem to focus on some very specific, rigid, and unarticulated definitions. Considering the historical and present attitudes toward one believing group or another, the most important question becomes what is a religion?

That is what Bushman ultimately grapples with in the talk, and doesn’t seem to succeed in confronting. Instead of castigating the bigots for their narrow mindedness, he puts too much on the shoulders of the Mormons. For me, that is ultimately the biggest reason the talk is largely problematic.

A good starting point might be where he says, “We too have our revelations and they’re the very secret of our energy. And yet they’re also the secret that the opposition uses as the basis of things. . . They’re considered unscientific; impossible. We live in that age of science and Enlightenment where angels are impossible.” Mormons must come to accept that we live in a time of unbelief – even among believers. That is our burden. It is also our message, accepted or not. The Heavens are open and truth can be found beyond the bounds of science or long ago history. Currently my thinking is that Mormonism came along when and where it did because of the trajectory of history. The 18th Century was the point where the “Enlightenment” finally overtook the era of Faith, fallen or not. Although not rejecting the Enlightenment ideals of truth through observable facts, Mormons have a duty to remind the world that God lives, Angels continue to administer to mortals, and mighty Miracles have not ended.

In answer to Bushman’s question, how are we going to deal with the problem of respect and misunderstanding? The answer, I believe, is by not giving in to a need to answer the question. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to explain Mormonism to others. Missionary work demands that we do. Rather, it means that we should not give in to the temptation to change our personal identity to better fit in with others. He says he understands this and says “We have to make the problem of Mormonism a problem they have to handle,” but seems to side more with Mormons having to handle it.

I suppose bringing up Mormonism’s Christianity is the best way to explain the situation. He says:

And of course that basic apostasy/restoration doctrine sets Mormons apart from everybody else, the whole world is wrong except Mormons. But on the other hand when they tell us we’re not Christians or not another denomination like everybody else we get all upset and start whining about it. . . We use this category of the restored Church but that is hopeless for any other person because saying “we are the restored Church” says “every other church is not restored and is wrong,” and has to be, in effect, nullified by the restoration of this Church. So we don’t apply a useful label to ourselves for people who are not going to become Mormons; they want to understand us in a way that does justice to us. But we don’t give them a label they can use.

That is simply wrong. Mormonism does give a label that is useable. It is called Restored Christianity. The problem is that others refuse to use that label either because of prejudice, ignorance, or wanting a more politically correct term. Assuming that another label would be more prudent to use then it would be Mormon Christians, just like there are Catholic Christians, Protestant Christians, and Gnostic Christians. That last one is the best example of why it is simply wrong to disassociate Mormons with Christianity and try to use “another Abrahamic religion” for good measure.

Historically those who could be labeled “Christian” during the first couple centuries of the religion’s development were a much more diverse group. As the book “Lost Christinities” by Bart D. Ehrman explains, there was a time when the controversies that surround the Christian faith were monumental and fundamental. Because one set of Christians won a battle that lasted for two centuries doesn’t mean they can co-opt the label. As Gov. Romney said, “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of Mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history.” That is perhaps why I disagree with not giving the label “Mormon” to others who believe in Joseph Smith as a founding prophet. It is wrong considering the great effort to be accepted as Christians even if of a different variety.

His Temple discussion is among his better observations. He acknowledges that the secretive part of our sacred space is always going to be a problem for those who consider secrecy a sign of sin and threat. What to do about it is be more open in our general discussion, without resorting to specifics. As Bushman said, “Mormons are wrong to say that the Mormon temple is ‘sacred, not secret.’ It is secret.” He doesn’t say it completely, although he expands on the idea in the same paragraph, but the Temple is secret because it is sacred. That is something that Mormons should articulate.

Still, the Masons had a short history of serious prejudice against them that seemed to quickly fade into the corners of conspiracy theorists that aren’t taken seriously. How the same can happen with Mormons is hard to say. It isn’t as if the Masons now treat what they do as something to share with the world. Maybe it is because they aren’t a group that aggressively sends missionaries. Instead, they privately invite others to join as friends and acquaintances. Not to dismiss the absolute need for missionaries, but members of the LDS Church might learn something from that.

Bringing this full circle, Bushman states Mormons should do more to answer the question:

What is the meaning of Mormonism; its humanistic meaning? What does it mean? Tell us about the meaning and purpose of life. How does it cope with the great conundrums that are part of human existence?

I think before these questions can be answered, there has to be a discussion about what is a religion. Does religion have to have particular answers to questions to be considered relevant? That is, I think, the difficulty that Helen Whitney had when asking the question of Mormons what they have to offer to the world. I think that, “she talked to all sorts of Mormon scholars in many, many situations, and none of us could give her an answer that was persuasive and won her heart,” was her problem if this is actually a correct observation. The answer to the question is, as Hugh Nibley has said and Bushman points out, the nature of human existence.

What does Mormonism have to offer? I would say the idea that the Heavens are open for more than the then and there, but the here and now! Bushman is troubled that Mormons ignore atheists. The problem is that the message of the Book of Mormon and Mormonism is for those who already have a belief in God. Those who don’t can’t even start to approach God and find out the mysteries of Heaven. That, I think, might be why the Helen Whitney’s and parliament of religions of the world question the religious nature of Mormonism. They don’t understand that the story is the moral and the meaning.

How to explain the religious importance of a concrete God to a world of myth and metaphor is the greatest challenge.


Dr. B said...

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Copy and paste the following code into your HTML/JavaScript widget, then take out the # signs:

<#a href=""><#img src=""/><#/a>


Dr. B.

Jon said...

I just wanted to compliment you on your blog--I've enjoyed perusing your posts. You're a very talented and thoughtful writer.

Jettboy said...

If anyone is still reading, I am on blog vacation indefinantly for now. That means I will be back, but not sure when. I had blog burn-out and had to give it a rest.

Thank you for those who have supported my writing. Since I am not getting paid for the effort, it is those who read that make it worthwile or not.

Steve Boston said...

I'm not LDS, but I took American religious history seminars with Prof. Bushman at Columbia.

I think he is right that some of the extraordinary miracles attributed to Joseph Smith, and to others since, are difficult for non-LDS to understand, even for people of faith. Because LDS revelations are relatively recent and theologically radical, Mormonism seems strange even for people of faith.

So I think Bushman is not critical of Mormonism, instead he is explaining the problem of perception that LDS experiences in American culture.