Monday, May 10, 2010

Triumphalism is For the Birds

My grandma always used to say that "growing old is for the birds". Obviously she didn't think much of all her growing health issues. In that same spirit, I say that triumphalism is for the birds. Unfortunately, it came out strong at times with our early church leaders. Exhibit A:

"And this is the gospel which God has commanded us to preach to all people, once more, for the last time. And no other system of religion which is now organized among men is of any use; everything different from this, is a perverted gospel bringing a curse upon them that preach it, and upon them that hear it."
—Parley P. Pratt ("A Voice of Warning" 1838)

Find me someone who still believes that and I'll find you a fool. And this deeply offensive rhetoric certainly doesn't help our cause. Small consolation is the fact that it's out of step with the majority of modern-day Mormonism, not to mention our thirteenth Article of Faith.

The smugness of superiority, however, still comes out from time to time. Yesterday in our priesthood lesson it was implied that having a prophet clears up doctrinal confusion and chaos, as if the rest of Christianity finds itself in a doctrinal maze and yet Mormonism is crystal clear. Of course anyone who believes that is not only ignorant of traditional Christianity but oblivious to the concerns of Mormons and non-Mormons who find plenty of doctrinal uncertainties that the living prophet hasn't seemed to clear up much.

Just because "the morning breaks" isn't a guarantee that the rest of the the day contains a perfect forecast. Pinning down Mormon "doctrine" with any degree of certitude is still quite a challenge.

Richard Bushman has written: "Our covenant with God is to bless the people of the earth. That should be our motto. Establishing Zion does not mean sweeping vast masses of people onto our membership records but creating a people of God dedicated to blessing others. Joseph and his early followers came forth with lots of triumphalist rhetoric, but I think we need a new voice, one of humility, friendship, and service. We should teach people to believe in God because it will soften their hearts and make them more willing to serve."

That "new voice" is already strong and growing in today's Church. But it would certainly help if we can remember to not keep shooting ourselves in the foot.


Matt Davies said...

A great thought right there. Thanks

Papa D said...

Gotta love Brother Pratt!! lol

People forget sometimes that ALL new orgainzations of ANY kind always have to gain original momentum and membership by positioning themselves against "the establishment" - the existing "competition" - the "enemy". It's sad, but it's true even outside religion.

I'm glad such rhetoric is disappearing - and I see a HUGE difference between what was said even in my youth (multiple decades ago) and what is said now. I am grateful for that change.

Mark D. said...

triumphalism - "The attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, especially a religion or political theory, is superior to all others." (American Heritage Dictionary)

Based on that definition, a Mormon church that wasn't triumphalist wouldn't be recognizably Mormon at all. No unique priesthood authority, no special claim to revelation, no Church of Jesus Christ. Just another denomination among many others, perhaps with a few good ideas.

Clean Cut said...

Matt Davies, thanks. It's good to see you around.

Papa D--as a historian, I completely agree with you about placing it in [its historical] context. In fact ever since I read Parley P. Pratt's autobiography, I've had a liking for him. So I sincerely hope people don't take this as a personal criticism of Pratt. It's really just me taking a stand against this kind of rhetoric that can come all too easily. As you say, it's good to put it in context, but of course that certainly doesn't excuse it. So I too am glad the rhetoric has changed.

Mark D--in arguing against triumphalism I'm not saying significant distinctions be ignored. I'm arguing against the rhetoric that gloats and tears others down in order to raise yourself up.

Besides, apart from being patently false, it's also rude and completely unnecessary to say other religions are useless. It's completely opposite of the way I think. There is so much good and truth to be admired everywhere.

I personally try to remember this even within my own church meetings rather than just criticizing that which I do not like. I try to remind myself to look for the good, even while recognizing things I don't necessary like. If I do that (and I'm not always that great at it) I just get so much more satisfaction and contentment out of life.

By any means, contrast smug triumphalism with the humility exemplified by President Gordon B. Hinckley:

“The true gospel of Jesus Christ never led to bigotry. It never led to self-righteousness. It never led to arrogance. The true gospel of Jesus Christ leads to brotherhood, to friendship, to appreciation of others, to respect and kindness and love” (devotional, BYU alumni, 12 Sept. 2000).

Mark D. said...

Clean Cut, I agree with your position. I just have a problem with your title. Christianity in general is triumphalistic: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned". (Mark 16:16)

Of course there is some subtlety required about passages like that, but ultimately I don't think a religion that is not triumphalistic is worth taking all that seriously. The core theme of Judeo-Christianity is the eventual triumph of good over evil. How is that supposed to happen if God's divine plan and purpose for us is just one among many? If the commandments are optional? If one can lie, cheat, and steal his way to eternal salvation? etc.

Matt Davies said...

I'm reading "The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism" by Grant Underwood right now (he's a professor at BYU-Hawaii) and the chapter I just finished was about the eschatological speeches given by early missionaries. Obviously they are proclaiming things like only Saints are going to heaven and obviously the "gentiles" don't like to hear that. In fact, due to the animosity in Missouri before the expulsion, the missionaries were commanded not to talk about final judgements.

Although this quote doesn't directly relate to your blog post, it's still worth nothing here. W.W. Phelps warned the Church elders in 1832, "Warn in compassion without threatening the wicked with judgments which are to be poured out upon the world hereafter. You have no collect the calamities of six thousand years, and paint them upon the curtain of these last days to scare mankind to repentance; no, you are to preach the gospel...even glad tidings of great joy unto all people."

Speaking as a non-member, the Church has a greater benefit than strictly triumphalism. In fact, Christianity runs into the same problem with evangelicals. Jesus commanded us above all to love our neighbor. Triumphalism tends to risk condemnation. If we show the benefits of our respective faiths (the Church for you and Christianity for me) instead of the cons of not accepting, we will get much further.

Mark, you are absolutely correct. Most religions fall into triumphalism. What Clean Cut is saying doesn't fall into universalism, as you infer. The commandments are by no means optional. And that includes the second greatest command, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Triumphalism isn't loving your neighbor. That's why both the Church and evangelical Christianity need to move away from that and move more into a position of love. Preaching triumphalism only drives people away.

Eric said...

Great Bushman quote.

Lago said...

I got nothing to add...just saying how much I agree with this!