Friday, October 24, 2008

Dealing With "Hidden" Mormonism

Mormons who say they have just "discovered" Mormon history and doctrine after years of membership just don't make any sense. Perhaps a couple decades ago that might have been a possibility, but even then not likely. Some say that the LDS Church hides its history and doctrines, but that is innacurate. At worst it chooses what it presents like any religion or organization seeking to have a voice. That doesn't mean things are hidden; just slanted or emphasized.

There are some approaches to LDS history and doctrine at Dave's Mormon Inquiry that absolutely represents my own faith and knowledge journey. He lists those as:

The "what's the rest of the story?" approach. Most accounts are either abbreviated, selective, or influenced by a writer's personal agenda. Before freaking out, do more reading from a variety of authors.

The "adjust my opinions and convictions" approach. Yes, new facts are a fine basis for updating your inherited stock of opinions about life and all that. What better way to expand your understanding of human nature and institutions than reading history? A scaled-down-to-reality sense of what human institutions, including the LDS Church, can actually achieve is one of the benefits of reading history.

The "I'm a little bit smarter now" approach. I'm puzzled at why so many people who first read up on LDS history (at 20 or 25) leap to the conclusion that they've been lied to all these years. Right, try teaching history to LDS teenagers. Or adults. In a world filled with books and websites, you can start learning all you want to know about LDS history the day you get interested. If you do, give yourself a pat on the back and keep reading.

Each of these I subscribe to in my own reading throughout the years. The polygamy issue has perhaps been the most problematic, but hardly missing. There were repsonses to the RLDS (now Community of Christ) that dealt specifically with Joseph Smith having plural wives. The Doctrine and Covenants still contains a section that directly relates to Joseph Smith's revelation on the subject, as critics continue to point out. I love the quote from Kirk Douglas at the same blog above:

"I grew up, went to college, but my Judaism stayed stuck in a 14-year-old boy's Hebrew school book. It has been pointed out to me that no rational adult would make a business decision based on what they knew when they were 14. You wouldn't decide who to marry based on what you knew about love and relationships when you were 14. But lots of us seem satisfied to dismiss religion based on what we learned at 14, and I was one of those that stupid."

That is exactly what happened to me with polygamy, to continue the example. I first learned of the practice and doctrine around the age of 13 from a non-member friend. I didn't believe it. However, when I did discover the truth during my readings of "orthodox" books I wasn't shocked. It was there in black and white. To this day hearing grown men and women say they just discovered the same information just doesn't make any sense to me. When I was a child I thought as a child, but I didn't have to grow up to find the information.

I must say that I am amused by the idea of "hidden" things. I knew a lot about those things before I went on my mission just from reading LDS Church produced material. Other readings were either different (mostly antagonistic) opinions on the same history and doctrines, or the filling in of details.

Maybe it has to do with the hunger effect. when a person is seriously malnourished it can kill them to eat a feast. From what I understand most who lose their faith over what they read all of a sudden discover all these "hidden" teachings and historical information. Those who have continually read the scriptures and other material starting out young stay strong, or lose the faith in a different way.

Another curiosity is that for all the "hidden" information, it is interesting that the bulk of the knowledge comes from LDS produced writings. For example, other than a few original newspaper sources, Brodie's "No Man Knows My History" mostly uses The Joseph Smith History and Journal of Discourses. Aside from that, much of what she talks about can be found in B.H. Robert's Comprehensive History of the Church from a different perspective. Now, if you go to blatant anti-LDS works, they are a compendium of quotes (badly edited and way out of context) from LDS sources. To paraphrase Scully from the X-Files, "the [information] is there. You just have to know where to look."

Here are my own "must read" books to read before going on a mission. Warning: these are not easy to digest in one sitting lesson manuals. It might take a year or more with one grouping. This list also contains some books that came out later that if existed before my mission I would have read:

The Book of Mormon, New Testament, Pearl of Great Price, selected Old Testament, and selected Doctrine and Covenants.

Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, edited by Joseph Fielding Smith

Discourses of Brigham Young, edited by John A. Widtsoe.

Jesus the Christ, by James E. Talmage.

Articles of Faith, by James E. Talmage.

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard L. Bushman.

Brigham Young: American Moses, by Leonard J. Arrington.

Answers to Gospel Questions: The Classic Collection in One Volume
by Joseph Fielding Smith.

Selections, particularly the prophets and well known persons and sermons, from Journal of Discourses, edited by George Watt.

Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by B.H. Roberts.

By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, by Terryl L. Givens.

The Latter-day Saint Experience In America, by Terryl L. Givens.

Massacre at Mountain Meadows, by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Glen M. Leonard.

Just about anything by Hugh Nibley (probably more of a personal taste). I admit he, more than any other author, shaped my approach to Mormonism.

Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales About Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, by Hugh Nibley and David J. Whittaker.

Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, by Hugh Nibley, edited by Don E. Norton.

An Approach to the Book of Mormon, by Hugh Nibley.

Mormonism and Early Christianity, by Hugh Nibley.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Why Mormon/Evangelical Dialogue is Problematic

The idea that Mormons can have a constructive dialogue with Evangelical Christians doesn't seem practical. Both hold so strongly to what they believe and are so serious about getting others to believe it that a bloodless catfight is the best that can be hoped. However, I think that Evangelical Christians must change ten times more than Mormons in order to have a real discussion. That isn't to say it is impossible, but it is improbable.

Probably the most important change that must take place is mutual respect. It is true that both consider the other as wrong, but there is an added problem that E.C. considers Mormons as contemptible. Despite a few instances where E.C. and Mormons get along, those most able to influence the wider population are spiteful. As one self described former E.C. Anti-Mormon put it:

People who support the counter-cult ministry would probably interject at this point that their intention has never been to culture that kind of behavior. I would reply that their intentions mean very little, it’s their results that matter, and I was one of their results whether they like it or not. I’ve heard the talk that goes on when evangelical anti-Mormons think Latter-day Saints aren’t in the room, the sneering and the condescension. You cannot spend major parts of your life thinking and preaching that the followers of a competing religion are deceived, blind and going to hell without looking down on them in some form, and condescension easily breeds hate and ridicule.

I do think that Mormon's should take to heart her comment:

For example, when one of the missionaries was explaining why I needed to be baptized in their church, I objected, “But I’ve already been baptized. Why should I do it again?” His flippant response: “You didn’t get baptized, you went swimming.” It did not sit well with me to have someone belittle what I considered sacred, but even more unsettling was the logic behind that statement. When all is said and done, the LDS church teaches that evangelical Christianity is inadequate, evangelicals do not have the Holy Spirit, and evangelical baptisms are worthless no matter how sincere the intentions behind them.

On the other hand, the E.C. needs to realize that, yes Mormons do believe differently than they do about authority and salvation. That is something that Mormons understand all too well or should if they don't. Many Catholics and Protestants are no different in this matter among each other. That is what defines religions, even very closely related faiths. The answer to that is breathing room by actual discussions about the very nature of authority and salvation. To attack is to stop the discussion dead.

It doesn't help that E.C.s constantly accuse Mormons of lying about their history and beliefs, while Mormons consider the E.C. criticisms lies. There is some truth in both perspectives. The problem is that with Mormons it is usually about either difference of opinion about what the history and beliefs mean or ignorance. With E.C. it is often conscious dismissives that come off as real lies. While some Mormons might ignore their own history or doctrine (and that isn't much different from many religious people and organizations), E.C.s often ignore what Mormons think. Again, from that excellent blog post:

I began to notice something about the evangelical counter-cult ministry which bothered me immensely: the evangelicals were not responding to the LDS fiskings of their arguments, they just kept peddling the same material as if it was the final word on the subject and no one had refuted it.

In order for a good dialogue to happen, ground rules of each side must be understood. That is where the breaking point is reached in even well intentioned discussions. That is the problem that Gerald R. McDermott had at First Things, even if he did better than others have. He made assumptions about Mormonism and it's Scriptures by superficial readings and lack of looking beyond his own pre-conceptions. As I have said in another of my posts:

The first and most damaging fallacies are the lack of contextual and definitional examinations. Some of the logical problems are based on lack of explaining related subjects that help to answer some of the questions posed. Other logical problems are based on assumptions held by the presenter that Mormons don't hold themselves. Both of these are very common anti-Mormon tactics. Probably the most hypocritical is when a detractor states (with some truth I might add) that Mormons use Protestant and Catholic words and notions, yet mean something different. Then, they turn around and criticize Mormonism from the definitions that Mormons don't hold as if the first statement didn't exist. A very switch and bait tactic that is employed with such ease . . .

The most important thing to remember is dropping the "to hate is to love" rhetoric. It is hard to reconcile the idea that there is some kind of love and honesty in your heart when the only words out of your mouth are negatives. Start by dropping the "cult" accusation if you really want to talk with a Mormon on equal terms. When "How Wide the Divide" came out, the loudest and most numerous responses from the "other half" was condemnation and blaspheme. The very act of even trying to talk with Mormons was a sin. What is interesting is that while Mormons are trying to cozy up to them, they are becoming less liked because they are becoming less likeable and are proud of that.

Also, as Bruce D. Porter said, "To the title Christian a critic of Mormonism may add any modifiers he deems appropriate—unorthodox, heretical, non-Nicene, different—but blanket assertions that we are not Christian are a poor substitute for informed argument and dialogue." You can say Mormons believe in a different concept of Jesus as Christ, but to say they believe in a different Jesus is not only offensive, it is illogical. He lived unless you believe he didn't. Mormons may not be considered fellow or orthodox Christians, but they are still Christians.

I would like to have a discussion with Evangelicals as they hold important similarities, but it starts with both sides letting down a few defensive positions. More than anything I would like to be understood on my own terms and expect E.C.s want to be as well. Perhaps it starts with accepting each other as humans first and Mormons and Evangelicals second.