Saturday, May 23, 2009

My "Testimony" of Respectful Interfaith Dialogue

Interfaith dialogue, for me, is not about "seeking middle ground with Evangelicals", as one has put it. It's simply about seeking mutual understanding. The divide is the divide. It can't really be narrowed. However, some peoples' perceptions of that divide are extremely out of whack. Indeed, many might need to narrow the divide that exists only in their own understanding. In other words, interfaith dialogue has less to do with “bridging the divide” as it does with defining the divide accurately. A good place to start is understanding what actually constitutes (in descending order) "traditional Christianity", "Evangelicalism", and "Calvinism".

For me, interfaith dialogue is about better understanding the facts of what both "camps" do and do not believe. This is why "How Wide the Divide?" was a watershed. False witness is being born, whether intentionally or not. My initial motivation was to stop the perpetual dishonesty I sensed from the counter-cult movement in regards to Mormonism. That motivation gradually expanded as I learned that counter-cultists (most of whom happen to be Calvinists, by the way) do not represent well the larger Evangelical community (including many Calvinists), and I began to have a desire to truly seek mutual understanding with good Christians of similar mindset.

That's why I recommend all "camps" read "How Wide the Divide?", to better understand each other and to recognize where we actually ( and perhaps surprisingly) agree, and where we indeed have disagreements--some of which are very significant.

For too long, too many traditional Christians viewed Mormonism through the filter of the counter-cultists. Likewise, many Mormons have viewed many traditional Christians (especially the subset of "Evangelical Christians") as counter-cultists. No wonder there is so much misunderstanding!

I've since learned to become much more fair-minded. In the meantime, my own faith has been strengthened. Nothing has been compromised; much has been gained. That is the biggest reward here--my own faith has been strengthened. This is why I suppose I can say I have a "testimony" of respectful interfaith dialogue, as opposed to simply putting up walls and engaging in antagonistic debate. (For the record, I do believe there is an appropriate place for healthy "debate", but I see a difference between informed and respectful debate on the one hand and misinformed, open antagonism in pseudo-debate form on the other).

Frankly, one of the biggest obstacles in all of this is that sometimes what is understood by what we say isn't exactly what we mean, since we use different theological vocabularies. Seeking out mutual understanding through interfaith dialogue has, for me, been a step toward becoming theologically "bilingual".


Sabio Lantz said...

I just ran into your blog today. You will be the first Mormon blog in my aggregator. This post is very well written and I feel your method is superb !
I am an Buddhist Atheist (and ex-Evangelical) but value much is the Mormon tradition (having made several excellent Mormon friends over the years) and I look forward to learning from your site. Thank you.

Sabio Lantz said...

BTW, I wrote a little post for my Evangelical friends on my lost salvation which touch on Calvinist issues. If I understand your faith correctly, there is a good chance, in your Cosmology, I will live in a heaven after death, albeit a lower heaven, but I will be relatively happy and my Mormon friends can come down and visit me from their heavens. I just can't go up and visit them. Although still odd to me, your cosmology is much more generous than evangelical christianity. And consequently, I think this allows Mormon Goyology to be a little more generous. Do you agree?

Clean Cut said...

First of all, Sabio, thank you for your comment and welcome.

Second, as to your questions, I do agree. I think that "generous" is a good way of describing this. Latter-day Saints believe that ALL mankind may be saved through the atonement of Christ by responding appropriately to the gospel message.

Contrast that with Calvinist theology, where God supposedly predestines only an elect few for salvation, while a vast number of his children are eternally damned.

Yes, in my view, the Latter-day Saint/Mormon view of God is one that is an all wise and all loving Father in Heaven whose plan of salvation is big enough for all his children.

I also agree, to a degree, that we become what we worship. Because I believe that my Father in Heaven is loving and generous with His children, I too desire to be more loving and generous in how I regard others. So there is truth, in my opinion, to your statement.

Contrast this with much of Calvinism who are quick to damn others (including myself) to hell. My next post, in fact, will be dealing with Mormon misgivings concerning Calvinism and why it is so unpalatable to Latter-day Saints.

When all is said and done, we believe that God will provide everyone with a valid first chance to accept and receive the gospel message (whether in this life or in the next life, before the Final Judgement). I agree that this is more "generous" than the view that God has pre-determined that some (even many) of his children will forever be damned. That just doesn't jive with me.

Sabio Lantz said...

Well said, that is how I remember the witness of my other LDS friends.

One's Goyology, in my opinion, is critical. For instance, how can a Calvanist or an Arminian Christian maintain an honest relationship with a friend who is a non-believer when they believe that friend will live in eternal torment. Two ways to do that, I think:

1) You become a "Cafeteria Believer" -- I actually think many wonderful people, who also happen to believe a certain form of Christianity, actually do not really believe the salvation scheme of their sect of Christianity. And thus can maintain an honest relationship with their friend. For they believe, contrary to the doctrine of their faith-of-allegiance, that their God is good and judges peoples hearts and that their friend will have another chance in the afterlife.

2) The believer constantly tries to convert their unbeliever friend -- but then this is not the sort of "honest relationship" that the friend would want. For if the friend already said that they had no interest in converting, it would be a friendship of manipulation and secrecy. A further sad thing in such relationships is that the believer joyfully awaits the non-believer friend to suffer some lost -- saying to himself, "Ah, maybe that will wake up my blind friend and bring him closer to God." Boy, who needs friends like that.

Sabio Lantz said...

PS - I just posted this one problem I do see with LDS soteriology. If you have time, please read it and comment if you think I am wrong.

Clean Cut said...

I appreciate the insight. I suppose we all are selective believers in one way or another. I'll respond to your concerns about Mormon "universalism" on your blog, but I thought I'd include it here for future reference for myself too:

How timely that you discuss this right after I finished reading a chapter in “Claming Christ” (by Evangelical scholar Gerald McDermott and Mormon scholar Robert Millet) concerning the fate of the “unevangalized”. McDermott accuses the Mormon view of being “quasi-universalism”.

Millett responds that he can see why it would be “easy to suggest that because Latter-day Saints believe that only the sons of perdition, those who have sinned against major light in this world and committed the unpardonable sin (the one that will not be forgiven in this world or in the world to come—Matthew 12:31) are the only ones consigned to hell forever, that Mormons believe in a kind of universal salvation. This requires a slight clarification. Yes, we do believe that each person who does not defect to perdition will be assigned to one of three degrees of glory hereafter (Doctrine and Covenants 76), but this does not mean that either (a) there will be no consequences or suffering for sin, or (b) everyone will be saved in the presence of God and the Lamb.

“We believe that when a person passes from this world into the next, into a post-mortal spirit world, it is there that he or she will face up to who he or she is and how he or she has lived. Those who have fought against light and truth, who have denied and defied the Only Begotten Son, will be subject to hell, to the taunting of conscience, taunting so bitter and exquisite as to be compared to fire and brimstone. Second, only those who attain unto the highest degree of glory, the celestial glory, will enjoy the eternal association of God the Eternal Father and his Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

As for the “safety clause”, I got a chuckle out of your comment about not every wanting to hear the “complete story” for safety reasons. But in reality, I’d hate to think that simply conversing with someone about my faith or even those people who "spurned" my testimony of Jesus at the doorstep when I served as a Mormon missionary, were/are forfeiting their opportunity for eternal reward hereafter. Like Millett, “I would certainly not believe that one encounter with someone who declared it, constituted one’s only and final opportunity to find salvation”. Also, I often hear the accusation that Latter-day Saints believe in “second chances” for salvation in the next life. I don’t buy that. Rather, I believe that everyone will be given a valid “first chance” to receive the message of salvation.

Millett goes on to express my own personal thoughts: “We cannot judge or condemn other human beings because we do not know what is going on in their hearts, what struggles they may have had, what tragedies may have been inflicted upon them, what crosses they have been called upon to bear, what ironies they may have been required to endure. So many things, including false traditions transmitted through the generations, can prevent us from being at our best, from discerning clearly the truth from error, from walking in the light when we seem to be drawn so dramatically into the darkness. Thank heavens that God is in charge and that the final judgment will rest with him.”

I think the following revelation received through Joseph Smith is most generous, and speaks to God’s omniscience and love: “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom; for I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts. (D&C 137:7-9).

Dolly said...

Congrats to Sabio for finding such a respectable blogger and to recognize the well written and responsible basis that Clean Cut is producing.

I appreciate how well supported this site is. I am planning to stay tuned in, time permitting as I am a mormon who is going to participate in the church's annual Hill Cumorah Pageant this summer and I expect to be met with Calvinist types who are bent on defamatory persecution against us.

I highly respect and favor the interfaith dialogue for those who truly seek knowledge and are not simply pushing an agenda.

I am personally comfortable with people not wanting to know more or become more informed. Free agency is an apex principle for understanding where people are coming from. I enjoyed your description of the "valid first chance" at gaining an opportunity to know the truth for themselves.

Bob Millet said it best. Thanks for quoting him. People do have it rough and to condemn them for their inability to "get it" would be so barbaric.

I'll look forward to reading your archives.

Sabio Lantz said...

Yes Dolly, I like the tone of Clean Cut's blog.
As I am an atheist, I actually end up standing up for Mormons all the time for the following reason:

1) Of the 20 or so Mormons I know, I like them all. However, those friends do tell me that there are lots of LSDers out there not to like and I was just lucky to meet them ! Smiling.

2) I like their ideas of salvation. Mind you, to be forthright, I think they are totally contrived -- but I would have to, I am, after all, an atheist. But in my personal philosophical system, it is not the beliefs that matter but how an individual anchors their beliefs to their hearts and lives that concerns me. And the LDS salvation scheme is more generous than the Calvinists or the Arminians and thus it allows Mormons to be better people -- IMHO. I don't mean to sound like I am talking down, for I am complimenting you in my system. Many atheists are very self-righteous in their beliefs and should be held to account for that.

3) I don't like when the predominant culture puts down minorites. Now, I have only lived in areas where Mormons are minorities and the Christian majority put them down. But I have heard that in Utah, the cards are turned -- maybe if I were there, I would feel differently.

Now, my questions:
1)it seems that this notion of "valid first chance" phrase allows for total Universalism. For even if a person is told the story perfectly, if their background and personality is such that they can never really get it until God reveals it perfectly, you could NEVER, with full confidence say anyone had a "valid first chance". So if people are accusing Mormons of universalism, they are right. no matter how you try to couch your idea, it is universalism. But then THAT is one reason I like you guys and one reasons Nicene Creed Christians will dislike you ! (one of many). You don't want to pretend you are not Universalists just to get Christians to like you and to accept you into the Sacred Nicene circles ! Such theology gymnastics to be accepted is easily seen as deception and confirms suspicious of cultishness (hiddenness -- which does seem to abound in Mormon faith, I must say). Again, remember, I am not Christian, so I don't really mind much. But I'd love to help referee and inter-religious dialogue like that as an outside observer.

2) I'd love to hear someone's reply to my post entitled The Special Curse Clause. Do you agree that this clause also exists in the Mormon faith. Could you give me a Non-Bible, Mormon source? Clean Cut has not had a chance to reply.

Clean Cut said...

“Many atheists are very self-righteous in their beliefs and should be held to account for that.”

Hey, at least you’re fair!

“So if people are accusing Mormons of universalism, they are right. No matter how you try to couch your idea, it is universalism. But then THAT is one reason I like you guys and one reasons Nicene Creed Christians will dislike you!”

Well, if you’re wanting to get technical, then make yourself comfortable and prepare for a long response on my part. :)

I think that the true Mormon view lies somewhere in between the two extremes of universalism and the injustices of the traditional heaven-hell theology. I find this intriguing that I’m engaging not only in “interfaith” dialogue, but dialogue with an atheist who shares no particular faith in the after-life at all!

By any means, what Mormons have before us is the Book of Mormon, which argues against universal salvation, and then a later revelation through Joseph Smith which simply became known as “The Vision” (section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants), which leans more towards universal salvation—to a degree—but the degrees are important here, in discussing the three “heavens or degrees” in Mormon soteriology.

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 of God’s children will never permanently live with Him again.

FWIW, these original three terms piggybacked on Pauls teaching of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:40-42:

“There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead”.

I really like how Richard Bushman frames the issue in his (already) classic biography of the Prophet, “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling”. I’ll now quote from that (p. 198-200) in the following comment:

Clean Cut said...

Richard Bushman, in "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling":

“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.

Clean Cut said...

Bushman, continued:

“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.”

Clean Cut said...

I had to break up the long Bushman commentary because of the length in order to post it, but I do feel that it would be helpful for anyone trying to understand the Mormon "position". I hope it was worth my time to type out. You can read D&C Section 76 ("The Vision") here, and the Book of Mormon here.

I also forgot to say thank you to Dolly for your kind words. Thank you!

Sabio Lantz said...

Wow, that was a lot and very generous, thank you. Well written and perfect clarification (as I expected) -- I have put Bushman on my reading list. Interestingly, Bushman writes like he believes Smith made up this stuff to some degree. Bushman, though LDS, seems to hold a uniquely liberal Mormon view. (Which I can respect) I'd be curious if there is this sort of thing in intellectual Mormon circles -- conservative (literalists) vs liberal (modernist) views of scripture and religion. For there is this in "Traditional" Christianity (that is what you all call it, right?)

Sabio Lantz said...

So, thank you for engaging the atheist in dialogue ! Here is my brief summary of what you have shared of the Mormon view of Heaven & Hell (with my unavoidable comment or two , smile).

Qualified Universalism1. All can make it to an afterlife with rewards (unlike Calvinism)

2. Decision does not necessarily have to be made in this life (unlike Arminians and most Christians which have an OBVIOUSLY unjust and arbitrary view of heaven and hell -- I wager that is why most Christians don't really believe it -- which is what I call "Cafeteria Christians" -- a term of endearment from me, actually)

3. Three levels (degrees) of heaven depending on how much you obeyed god. Some heavens are closer to god. And thus scales of reward differ. No more black and white of "heaven or hell"

4. Ones place after death reflects more one's preferences rather than judgement.

5. Very rare few go to actual hell (perdition)

Did I get this right? I still agree, this is infinitely better than the traditional view -- I shall be an unexpected witness for the LDS view when I speak to others. Isn't that odd ! Smiling seriously.

Clean Cut said...

I think that's a fair summary. Additionally, you might take note that Latter-day Saints believe that the purpose of the gospel is not so much to get us into heaven, but rather to get us home, since we believe we are literal children of our Father in Heaven who lived with Him before we came to earth.

Moreover, as apostle Dallin H. Oaks has insightfully observed, "the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become." (Dallin H. Oaks, "The Challenge to Become")