Thursday, January 26, 2012

Some Muddled Thoughts on Mormonism

In a recent GOP debate, Mitt Romney was asked what he would do as president if he found out Fidel Castro had died.  Romney said he'd "thank heavens" that Castro had "returned to his maker".  I immediately thought of Alma 40:11 ("the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to the God that gave them life") and wondered how much that factored into Romney's reply.  Gingrich (and others) assumed Romney was speaking about a final resting place (even though in Mormon scripture, final judgement comes later on), and made it clear he believed Castro was "going to the other place".

I'm really not interested in talking politics, Fidel Castro, or even the semantics of someone who doesn't believe in creation ex nihilo using the word "maker".  But I did wonder for a brief second about whether the Mormon understanding of the plan of salvation would become public fodder for presidential debates.  As far as I can tell (thankfully), it hasn't.  Nevertheless, it didn't stop me from reflecting on one of the things I like most about Mormonism--a very generous and quite inclusive version of salvation. 

I really don't care where Fidel Castro ends up.  In fact, I may be unusual among Mormons because I really don't even think about post-earth life very much anymore, nor the "degrees" of heaven.  In a way, I almost feel as though I've personally adopted an atheist perspective in the sense that what matters most to me, regardless of what comes after, is making the most of the here and now.  These precious moments of life become all the more precious when you don't take for granted anything "after".   

Nevertheless, I can still participate in the discussion, and we had a good one in a recent church lesson on the plan of salvation.  The teacher took the opening few minutes to draw out an impressive visual on a white board mapping the entire plan from our pre-earth life all the way through the three degrees of glory, because you know, we "know" that's how it goes (wink).  The focus of the lesson happened to be on the final judgement, and another scripture from Alma came up: "Our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; . . . and our thoughts will also condemn us" (Alma 12:14). 

I raised two points: 1.  If this scripture were taken out of context, then it would be very easy to despair because we'd all be screwed.  And 2. The necessary context (and the only thing which happened to be missing on the impressive map/visual display) was actually the most important, but missing elephant in the room--hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  (He immediately added "ATONEMENT" to the display in capital letters). 

Some Christians accuse Mormons of being universalists, since Mormons believe that ultimately most of God's children will end up in some kind of heaven.  The traditional Calvinist idea of God is one in which God predestines some of his children to heaven and some of them to hell.  I can't fathom a more unloving or more un-Christian idea.  I'm much more at peace with the idea of a generous and more inclusive afterlife.  It makes no sense to me that a God could eternally condemn His own children for something done here on earth when our understanding is so imperfect.

Of course the true Mormon view lies somewhere in between the two extremes of universalism and the injustices of the traditional heaven-hell theology.  On the one hand we Mormons have before us the Book of Mormon, which argues against universal salvation, and then on the other hand we have a later revelation through Joseph Smith (“The Vision”, or section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants), which leans more towards universal salvation—to a degree.

I would assume that Universalists believe that eventually all mankind will get to live with God in heaven. However, under LDS doctrine, the truth is that some (a small minority) of God’s children will never permanently live with Him again.  But Mormons believe that a far more generous amount of people will eventually end up in a place they'll most likely feel perfectly comfortable with--"heaven".  And even though I don't worry too much about all that "future" stuff and try not to take post-earth life for granted (because my life now is all I've got), this is one of the things I love most about Mormonism.

I really like how Richard Bushman frames the issue in his classic biography “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” (p. 198-200), so I'll conclude my muddled thoughts by quoting at length his very articulate ones:

“Building on Paul, “The Vision” made the three resurrected glories of sun, moon, and stars into three heavenly realms…[Joseph Smith was not alone in believing thinking that] the sharp division of the afterlife into heaven and hell underestimated God’s desire to bless his children…Joseph later taught that there were three “heavens or degrees” within the celestial kingdom, further dividing the economy of God. 
“The most radical departure of “The Vision” was not the tripartite heaven but the contraction of hell. In Joseph[‘s] economy of God, the sinners ordinarily sent to hell forever remained there only until “Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet”. Then they are redeemed from the devil in the last resurrection to find a place in the telestial kingdom. Only those rare souls who know God’s power and reject it suffer everlasting punishment. God redeems all save these sons of perdition, “the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power”. 
“The doctrine recast life after death. The traditional division of heaven and hell made religious life arbitrary. One received grace or one went to hell. In Joseph’s afterlife, the issue was degrees of glory. A permanent hell threatened very few. The question was not escape from hell but closeness to God. God scaled the rewards to each person’s capacity. Even the telestial glory, the lowest of the three, “surpasses all understanding”. 
“A later revelation further softened divine judgment. In December 1832 the elders were told that glory was granted according to the law each person could “abide”, whether celestial, terrestrial, or telestial. One’s glory, it was implied, was tailored to one’s capacity. “He who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom, cannot abide a celestial glory.” The glory one received was the glory on found tolerable. “For what doth it profit a man,” the section concluded, “if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold he rejoices not in that which is given him.” One’s place in heaven reflected more one’s preference than a judgment. “Intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth”. The last judgment matched affinities. 
“The three degrees doctrine resembled the Universalists’ belief that Christ’s atonement was sufficient to redeem everyone, or, alternately, that a benevolent God would not eternally punish his own children. No sinners were beyond salvation. The Universalists derived their name from the doctrine that salvation was as universal as Christ’s atoning sacrifice was powerful. Though sinners might be punished for a time as a form of discipline, Christ would ultimately save everyone. Joseph’s grandfather Asael Smith was among many small farmers and workers attracted to Universalist doctrine. In a sense, “The Vision” perpetuated Smith family doctrine.

“Strange to say, the Book of Mormon argued against universal salvation. A teacher of universalist doctrine, Nehor, was labeled a heretic in the Book of Mormon, and his followers, a band of rebellious priests called the Order of Nehor, disrupted Nephite society. Alma, a preeminent prophet, refuted universal salvation in a discourse to his son Corianton, and another prophet, Lehi, delivered an elaborate philosophical discourse to show that the law must impose punishment on transgressors or good and evil had no meaning. In opposition to universal salvation, the Book of Mormon envisioned the afterlife as heaven or hell. 
“In a perplexing reversal, a revelation received in the very month the Book of Mormon was published contradicted the book’s firm stand. The revelation said that the phrase “endless torment” did not mean no end to torment, but that “Endless” was a name of God, and “endless punishment” meant God’s punishment. Torment for sins would be temporary, just as the Universalists taught. In this tug-of-war between the Book of Mormon and the revelations, “The Vision” reinforced the Universalist tendency against the Book of Mormon’s anti-universalism.
“Where was Joseph Smith coming down on the question of universal salvation? Contradictory as they sound, the Universalist tendencies of the revelations and the anti-universalism of the Book of Mormon defined a middle ground where there were graded rewards in the afterlife, but few were damned. “The Vision” did not actually endorse universal salvation any more than the Book of Mormon did. It imposed permanent penalties for sinning, rewarded righteousness with higher degrees of glory, and assigned the sons of perdition to permanent outer darkness. But “The Vision” also eliminated the injustices of heaven-and-hell theology. The three degrees of glory doctrine lay somewhere between the two extremes.”


Papa D said...

Love this post, friend.

"It makes no sense to me that a God could eternally condemn His own children for something done here on earth when our understanding is so imperfect."

May I suggest that your view on this issue is based on your humility - your recognition that your own understanding "is so imperfect". Losing sight of the concept that we see through a glass, darkly, leads to the type of certainty that breeds the type of arrogance that leads to the type of exclusivism that is found on the type of judgment about which Jesus warned so clearly in the Sermon on the Mount.

My biggest concern within the Church right now is not "doctrinal" as much as it is "philosophical" - that the movement toward absolute certainty (which is a strong aspect of the "natural [wo]man") has eroded basic faith (the acceptance of "things not seen") and led to too much exclusivism, even with (as you describe) a theology that actually is very liberal when compared to mainstream Christianity.

Clean Cut said...

"May I suggest that your view on this issue is based on your humility - your recognition that your own understanding 'is so imperfect'."

That's how I feel, Ray. I don't know how much of it is humility, but I openly acknowledge my lack of certainty and I feel very keenly that sense of "imperfect knowledge".

And that scripture about seeing through a glass darkly has become one of my most quoted lately. I also like the NLT translation: "Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity." iow, all that I know now is partial and incomplete. Thus, I too find the "absolute certainty" and "I know" language a bit of a turn off.

Aaron said...

If God loves all his children, would he not also love Fidel who started out to rid his country of an evil dictator and ended up becoming one himself? We humans are complicated, witness King David. Our understanding is indeed imperfect, especially when it comes to other children of our Father. Leave the judging to Him. Good post.