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.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Response to Richard Bushman Part I: Foolishness

I have great respect for Richard Bushman. His first book "Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism" was an inspiration. Later articles and his book length biography of Joseph Smith cemented him as a personal intellectual hero. The Pew Forum interview was pure genious. Because of this, it came as a shock that I disagreed with much of his latest talk given at Weber State University about intellectual prospects for Mormonism.

Perhaps it has to do with my own conclusions I have made after the failed attempt by Gov. Romney to secure the Republican nomination for U.S. President. There was viciousness from media, religionists, secularists and the general public that made me rethink Mormonism's place in the world. The most potent observation is that perhaps Mormonism doesn't have a place in the world; at least beyond its own peculiarities. That is where what Richard Bushman's views in this talk and my own part company.

“how can an educated person like yourself believe all those things?” [audience laughter] So it had been a trap that this clever man had sneakily snared me with. Well, my answer was this: all the revealed religions are based on miracles. Christianity has its resurrection, Judaism has the parting of the Red Sea and the visit of God on Mount Sinai, and Islam has Mohammed being carried by Gabriel in the night to Jerusalem for a vision. And those revelations, those miracles, are always the most controversial but the most powerful part of the religion because they represent the moment when God intervenes into the world. And it gives immense momentum to people that think that they are in touch with the divine. But at the same time they are always contested simply because they are so miraculous and fabulous. And that’s simply the state with Mormonism.

I partly agree with this answer and his continuation of this theme. Where I disagree is the idea that familiarity comes from age. This is not completely true because there are any number of new religions that exist that don't get half the scorn toward followers. What really bothers people is numbers mixed with differences. That might even be where the hatred and fear of Mormonism (the question of legitimacy) comes from. The history of religion isn't about missionary work, but about the spread of religion by violence. No major religion has grown without fear and violence as a tool. Any talk of Mormonism becoming a real religious movement gives over to that unspoken knowledge.

Christianity never had the respect and numbers until Constantine made it a National Faith backed by the military. He fought under the banner of the cross and forced others to choose the faith or death. Islam was not much different although Christians pretend otherwise. Like Constantine before him, Muhummad's faith grew in numbers and territory by military conquest. Those who followed them both continued missionary work with the sword and political power. Protestants continued this way of growth as governments picked up official religious positions and wars were fought about the true faith of the fathers.

That is one of the reasons I don't believe Mormonism will ever be a World Religion, although it is an International Church. Despite the fears of anti-Mormons, the religion doesn't have a violent tendancy involved in its growth. Any violence in Mormon thought and history is related to self preservation. There was a fear, real and imagined, that it was the Mormons that would be wiped out. Besides, the scriptures indicate that Mormonism will be wide spread, but ultimately hardly worth mentioning. As Nephi says in 1 Nephi 14:

11 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the whore of all the earth, and she sat upon many waters; and she had dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.

12 And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.

Nephi continues to say that violence against the Saints and others keep the numbers small. Knowledge and education can change people's minds. War changes the views and direction of civilization.

Bushman next argues that getting to know Mormons will change people's minds about the religion. He states:

What is really important is for people who are so skeptical to meet sane, wise, effective, balanced individuals who can do all the things that are required in the world and do them well and still have in their heads somewhere a belief that an angel appeared to Joseph Smith; that there were gold plates. That assurance that those apparently extreme beliefs can have a place in a very ordinary, good person is what is going to have more effect in taking the edge off of the fabulous side of Mormonism than anything else.

Yet, his own observations before this goes completely against the conclusion:

And he said the peculiar thing about the Mormons is the extreme normalcy of the people and the extreme oddity of their beliefs. This split is so evident to him, and I’ve had scholarly friends who have made the same comment, “a wonderful community, but an empty religion” is the phrase that one of them used. Well, we have thought that because we are accepted and admired as a people, now speaking for my people, the Mormons, that our religious claims were equally respectable. And these last few years have shown that we were wrong.

There is not going to be a respect for Mormonism, and that is something that must be accepted. No amount of intellectual or theological discussion is going to change the minds of the vast majority of theologins and intellectuals. Those are the two groups he indicates are the most intrenched in their negative views. At this point I believe all his arguments about trying to fit Mormonism into a broader intellectual respectability fail. If you can't get them to take you seriously, as he continually states will not happen, then why argue how to get them to take you seriously? I wonder if Richard Bushman is making a joke with this or if he doesn't realize the paradox? He doesn't seem to indicate a realization of the paradox, but he does say perhaps Mormons should take their religion as a joke.

I am reminded of what Paul said in 1 Corinth. 1:18 when talking about the Jews and Greeks views of the Gospel, "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God." Mormonism is not going to be respected by large numbers of people. It will be a small and insignificant religion until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Spreading the Gospel with missionary work is both important and a commandment. However, it is time Mormons should stop trying to get in the good graces of others and start living on their own terms. Of course, as Bushman said, we need to decide what those terms are.

Part II will be criticism of what Bushman said those terms should be. That includes his thoughts Temple sacred secrecy and the Mormon label of Christian. His paradoxes continue when he tries too hard to accomidate while trying to explain how they are not accomidations.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Big Bang and Mormon Creation

Much of the discussion of creation has been focused on Evolution, but there is another scientific theory that is important to examine. Within the last twenty years scientists have theorized that everything came from a "Big Bang" when a fist sized blob of mass and energy exploded. From that explosion came the Universe filled with uncountable particles and energy.

For Mormonism, the theory causes as many theological problems as it does supports them. The biggest of the problems is that some Traditional Christians have used it to support their own ideas of the creation at odds with the LDS view:

Some interpretations of the Big Bang theory go beyond science, and some purport to explain the cause of the Big Bang itself (first cause). These views have been criticized by some naturalist philosophers as being modern creation myths. Some people believe that the Big Bang theory is inconsistent with traditional views of creation such as that in Genesis, for example, while others, like astronomer and old Earth creationist Hugh Ross, believe that the Big Bang theory lends support to the idea of creation ex nihilo ("out of nothing").[2]

A number of Christian and traditional Jewish sources have accepted the Big Bang as a possible description of the origin of the universe, interpreting it to allow for a philosophical first cause.[citation needed] Pope Pius XII was an enthusiastic proponent of the Big Bang even before the theory was scientifically well-established,[3][4] and consequently the Roman Catholic Church has been a prominent advocate for the idea that creation ex nihilo can be interpreted as consistent with the Big Bang. This view is shared by many religious Jews in all branches of rabbinic Judaism.

Mormonism's creation theology is opposed to both "first cause" and especially "ex nihilo" because there is nothing that has been made that didn't already exist. Matter and energy are eternal, although the materials have changed. Even if the Big Bang resembles more traditional theology, it doesn't completely support either first cause or ex nihilo. The definitions of both are not the same as what the theory explains. First Cause has not been about the creation where the theory postulates a singular event, but about the Creator. Just as problematic is that ex nihilo is "out of nothing" where the theory can only work if there exists something. In fact, a lot of something has to exist that is packed into an extremely heavy glob of energy.

The problem for Mormonism is that the Big Bang doesn't seem to fit the cosmological theology, vague as the descriptions. The theology is broken down into two main parts. First is the nature of any existant substances as eternal and always existant. Joseph Smith as qouted in "Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith" pg 205, states:

"The elements are eternal. That which had a beggining will surely have an end; take a ring, it is without beggining or end - cut it for a beggining place and at the same time you have an ending place."

He rejected that there was a beggining and end to both matter and, in the next sentence, principals. Nothing that is was never. With the Big Bang, everything had a start with that one singular event. No scientist has given a theory why the glob existed in the first place. That is perhaps where theologins have filled in "the gap" by using it to prove their own teachings.

The second part of Mormon creation theology is the cyclic nature of creation. Whatever was used and discarded would become part of another creation for the use of man and God to His Glory. Nothing goes to waste or simply disappears. The Scriptures explain:

37 And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.
38 And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.
Moses 1:37-38

Although the relative nature of time must be considered, the Big Bang does not represent in its present theory a typical cyclical creation. It starts with a point in time when there was an explosion that started the formation of the Universe. That isn't to say that a cyclical creation hasn't been postulated with the theory. Some scientists believe the Universe has expanded and is going to contract back into what it was before the Big Bang. The cyclical "germ" is possible. Joseph Smith seems to have rejected any single event and put the two ideas of the eternal existance and cyclical nature of matter together. The creation was a combination of both:

Now, the word create came from the word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos - chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existance from the time he had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beggining, and can have no end.
(STPJS, pg. 395)

There isn't time to explore all Mormon cosmological theology that might be relevant to the discussion. One of those is the infamous star Kolob that has been erronously interpreted to mean the Throne of God, a planet, or the center of the Universe. Each reading seems to indicate a far more symbolic rather than literal place. It is a time-keeper rather than a map location. This is brought up to demostrate how much conjecture comes into interpreting the creation. Definitions are sometimes forced without consideration of other possible meanings or recognition of vagaries.

It is hard to reconcile, although not impossible, what modern revelation has taught about the Universal creation and the Big Bang theory. When a Mormon tries, they end up doing the same thing traditionalist Christians do; redefine definitions to fit the paradigm. It is a theory that has been largely ignored in Mormon creation discussion, but has very distinct implications. Perhaps its relative distance from the creation of the Earth and the Garden of Eden has made it less interesting. Right now it seems immune to a vigorous argument for its rejection or acceptance; while at the same time remains an elephant in the theological room.