Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How Do You Define A "Christian"?

My last post spotlighted the very articulate Latter-day Saint, Rachel Esplin. This post spotlights another video from that very same presentation--the one of Liz Cook (a Presbyterian) speaking about her faith as a Christian. The awkward opening minutes demonstrate the fact that the debate over whether Latter-day Saints are "Christians" is alive and well.

Moreover, "the debate of the definitions" (as I'll call it) continues even among media who specialize in issues of faith. Before introducing Liz Cook (the final one to speak), Sally Quinn (journalist for the Washington Post and founder of "On Faith") speaks of how important it was for her to get someone like Liz because she wanted to make sure that there was at least one Christian on the panel. Rachel Esplin pipes in saying "I'm a Christian". At that point, Ms. Quinn doesn't seem sure how to respond, and fumbles into mentioning how much time is left for the (apparently one and only) Christian on the panel.

I know that many Christians are adamant that Mormons are not "Christian", but what they should really say is that Mormons are heretical Christians. We don't fit the traditional, orthodox mold. And I can agree with not being a part of Traditional Christianity, since Mormonism teaches some aspect of apostasy or "falling away" from and then a restoration of some form of Christianity. But to say that Mormons are not Christian in any sense doesn't recognize our deeply held Christology.

Based on the definition used by Liz Cook (the identified Christian on the panel), I'm pleased to say that Latter-day Saints can certainly fit the label of "Christian". She said that being a Christian "literally means just becoming like Christ...I believe that Jesus Christ is God's Son that He sent to us to save us from our sin...Being a Christian just means being a follower of Christ and trying to develop a relationship with him and with God".

I like her definition. I think a vast majority of Mormons would fit that description. I'd be curious to know what definition Sally Quinn uses. What definition do the majority of Christians use?

On this point of how to define a Christian, it seems that modern Christians need to get their ducks in a row. On the one hand, some want to exclusively define a Christian as only those who conceive of God in Trinitarian terms, despite the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity wasn't hammered out until hundreds of years after the first Christians became Christians (also referred to in the New Testament as "saints"). On the other hand, many (like the Presbyterian in this clip) give a more appropriate definition of a Christian.

If being a Christian "literally means just becoming like Christ...[believing] that Jesus Christ is God's Son that He sent to us to save us from our sin...being a follower of Christ and trying to develop a relationship with him and with God", then I as a Latter-day Saint certainly can't be excluded from the term "Christian". I believe this definition would certainly fit the original "Saints", and I believe it fits well with Latter-day Saints too.

Liz Cook goes on to state: "My most important thing is my identity with Jesus Christ". Amen to that!

Day of Faith: Personal Quests for a Purpose - 6. Liz Cook from Harvard Hillel on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Harvard Undergrad Explains Her Mormon Faith

I first saw this video last year around Christmastime when Aquinas posted Harvard undergraduate explains her Mormon faith. Rachel Esplin is/was the president of the Latter-day Saint Student Association at Harvard University. I was impressed then and continue to be impressed now.

Day of Faith: Personal Quests for a Purpose - 3. Rachel Esplin from Harvard Hillel on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Open Canon of Scripture: Gods Words Never Cease

"Some Christians, in large measure because of their genuine love for the Bible, have declared that there can be no more authorized scripture beyond the Bible. In thus pronouncing the canon of revelation closed, our friends in some other faiths shut the door on divine expression that we in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold dear: the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the ongoing guidance received by God’s anointed prophets and apostles. Imputing no ill will to those who take such a position, nevertheless we respectfully but resolutely reject such an unscriptural characterization of true Christianity."

Elder Holland goes on to say that "the fact of the matter is that virtually every prophet of the Old and New Testament has added scripture to that received by his predecessors. If the Old Testament words of Moses were sufficient, as some could have mistakenly thought them to be, then why, for example, the subsequent prophecies of Isaiah or of Jeremiah, who follows him? To say nothing of Ezekiel and Daniel, of Joel, Amos, and all the rest. If one revelation to one prophet in one moment of time is sufficient for all time, what justifies these many others? What justifies them was made clear by Jehovah Himself when He said to Moses, “My works are without end, and . . . my words . . . never cease."

"One Protestant scholar has inquired tellingly into the erroneous doctrine of a closed canon. He writes: 'On what biblical or historical grounds has the inspiration of God been limited to the written documents that the church now calls its Bible? . . . If the Spirit inspired only the written documents of the first century, does that mean that the same Spirit does not speak today in the church about matters that are of significant concern?” We humbly ask those same questions."

"Continuing revelation does not demean or discredit existing revelation. The Old Testament does not lose its value in our eyes when we are introduced to the New Testament, and the New Testament is only enhanced when we read the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. In considering the additional scripture accepted by Latter-day Saints, we might ask: Were those early Christians who for decades had access only to the primitive Gospel of Mark (generally considered the first of the New Testament Gospels to be written)—were they offended to receive the more detailed accounts set forth later by Matthew and Luke, to say nothing of the unprecedented passages and revelatory emphasis offered later yet by John? Surely they must have rejoiced that ever more convincing evidence of the divinity of Christ kept coming. And so do we rejoice..."

"One other point needs to be made. Since it is clear that there were Christians long before there was a New Testament or even an accumulation of the sayings of Jesus, it cannot therefore be maintained that the Bible is what makes one a Christian. In the words of esteemed New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, “The risen Jesus, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, does not say, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to the books you are all going to write,’ but [rather] ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.’ “ In other words, “Scripture itself points . . . away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself.” So the scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge for Latter-day Saints. They are manifestations of the ultimate source. The ultimate source of knowledge and authority for a Latter-day Saint is the living God. The communication of those gifts comes from God as living, vibrant, divine revelation."

-Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “My Words . . . Never Cease

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My Take on Joseph Smith's King Follet Sermon

I've shared the following thoughts about Joseph's King Follet Sermon with others elsewhere. Admittedly, they're not that original. But they are, nevertheless, now my thoughts. These are the words I have chosen to express what not only feels right, but what makes the most sense to me after having read Joseph in context.

For those who haven't read the sermon, the most common format is the amalgamated version (which is accessible in two parts here and here. The non-amalgamated scribe notes (which I find more valuable) can be found here). I think it's critical to try to step away from years of implicit assumptions and interpretations about it and and look at what Joseph was explicitly teaching. I've taken a great interest in this sermon and topic. By most accounts, Joseph teaches some pretty radical doctrine (at least as far as the traditional Christian world is concerned), but that's one of the things I love most about Joseph Smith!

First off, I think too many people pick one or two quotes out of context and interpret Joseph to be teaching that God was once not God, but was once merely a man--even sinful--exactly like us. And this despite the fact that Christ was God before he took upon himself flesh and was also sinless throughout his mortality. Not only do I believe that this is a significant misinterpretation of Joseph Smith, but I also fail to see how that teaching would have been any comfort for a funeral sermon. (Remember that the occasion for the sermon was the sudden and accidental death of Joseph's close friend, King Follet). Rather, here's how I personally understand Joseph Smith. He took this occasion to declare a "great secret"--that God the Father once had a mortal experience. To paraphrase Joseph, "we've supposed that God has always been right where he is, eternally dwelling in His heaven, without any changes. But that's actually not the case! He too came to an earth and took upon himself mortality!" That is the great secret. Not that he hasn't always been God, but that He too had a mortal experience. God our Father understands us perfectly, even in the midst of trials and death, since he's been through it too!

Nevertheless, Joseph was not teaching that the Father's mortal experience was undertaken exactly like ours (that is, not as God), but rather "the same as Jesus Christ". Jesus Christ was also "a man", but like the Father, He was God while he had His mortal experience. We, on the other hand, are mere mortals, and clearly there is a difference between our mortal experience and that of Christ's, not the least of which was the fact that he was perfect and that he never sinned. He was God, I am not. Therefore, the "great secret" wasn't that God was once not God, but that God is in the form of a man (albeit a supremely exalted one), and that he dwelt on an earth "the same as Jesus Christ Himself did". The real revolutionary teaching, of course, is that we're of the same kind or species as God! When Joseph says that God is a man like us, he's teaching that God isn't some "substance", but rather that humankind and the divine are of the same kind/species and are not permanently separate, despite the traditional Christian belief about the Creator/creature divide.

I reject the interpretation which holds that God the Father was once merely a man and then grew into becoming God. I'm sure that many people (including Church leaders) have probably made that assumption, and still do, but I think it's the weaker argument. For me, that's not only unscriptural but it just was not what Joseph was teaching as I go back and read the actual text(s). One thing that seems very clear to me is that Joseph did not mean to contradict scripture--and he doesn't. He never said he was going to refute the Bible, but rather, that he was going to show this teaching from the Bible! The teaching was that the Son can do nothing but what he sees the Father do. Therefore, the Father took on mortality, became embodied, and experienced mortality the same as Jesus did (as a perfect, sinless, human-God) with the power to take up his life again. This is a power we clearly do not share.

Some people assume too much and think that Joseph implied things he never actually taught. For example, I've seen some argue that if the foregoing is correct, and the Father experienced mortality more in line with how the Son/Jesus experienced mortality, then that must mean He too was a Savior and performed an atonement. But again, that's just not an explicit teaching of Joseph Smith, and people are on thin doctrinal ice by making those assumptions. Joseph simply teaches that the Father had power in himself "to lay down his body and take it up again". I still believe in only one "infinite atonement". I've come to believe that if the Father can create multiple worlds by the power of His Son (Moses 1:33), then he would also redeem those worlds by the power of His Son. Otherwise, we'd have to reinterpret what "infinite" means in "infinite atonement".

The King Follet sermon goes on to include many more marvelous teachings from a prophet of God, including the radical rejection of the traditional doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (or creation out of nothing). I find it so much easier to appreciate the sermon and the prophet by not getting caught up with troublesome interpretations that don't ring true. Too many people bring previous assumptions to the text, or even the Lorenzo Snow couplet, and read it through that filter, rather than looking at what Joseph Smith was actually teaching.

For the record, the Lorenzo Snow couplet states that "As man is God once was, as God is man may become". Both the Father and the Son can both correctly be referred to as God, so if we read this couplet as referring to God the Father, I think we need to remember what Joseph taught about God's mortal experience and the divine power he had while a mortal. We could gain another appreciation for it by interchanging "Jesus Christ" for "God". We know that He too was/is God--not only the Son of God, but God the Son--or as the Book of Mormon title page says, "the Eternal God". Thus, as man now is, Christ once was. As Christ now is, man may become. What does that mean? What does it not mean? If we drop our previously held assumptions, things become a lot clearer. And that's how I also view the Snow couplet, whether we're talking about the Father or the Son, they were once as man is now (experiencing mortality) and we can become divine too! That is the heart of the gospel!

Friday, July 3, 2009

An American Combination of Goodness and Greatness

I can hardly reflect on the significance of Independence Day without thinking of our history. As I contemplate the past, I find so many lessons for the present. One man who continues to teach me is Abraham Lincoln. General William Tecumseh Sherman summed up the man, Abraham Lincoln, with these words:

"Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other."

And that's what I love about Lincoln. He combined goodness and greatness. He himself said: "Whatever you are, be a good one". In my eyes, not only was he a good man, but he was a great president. He deserves so much credit for keeping our American experiment with democracy alive.

I remember showing a video during one of my first years teaching U.S. History about Abraham Lincoln's life and presidency. I'm not much of a crier. I don't know why. It's not like I object to getting emotional. I just really don't do it very often. But by the time that video ended, after his assassination, I actually felt like crying. I felt a sense of personal loss for a great man, and also a loss for how things could have worked out differently for our country.

As it turns out, thanks to him, things worked out pretty good. And as far as I'm concerned, the man lives up to the legend.

Happy Fourth of July.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Mormon Cosmology" and Substance Over Sweetness

Here's to emphasizing shinning substance over saccharine sweetness: Memoirs of a CES agent, by J. Stapley. One excerpt:

"My general shtick was to sit down on the Relief Society room table, open the scriptures, and ask the hard questions. I wanted them to engage the text and not just swallow a saccharine gloss. I wanted them to experience the words and power of God and be changed because of it. I prayed not for what to say, but that the students would think enough to interact and ask questions of their own.

The first day of class was the “plan of salvation” lesson – you know, with the circles. I told them that they should henceforth call it Mormon Cosmology and we spoke of its development in our own tradition and what it means for us. When I got home after class, my wife met me at the door and told me that my nephew, whom I love, died that morning, just one month after being married. That morning that cosmology was a comfort."

Read the rest of a great post at http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/06/16/memoirs-of-a-ces-agent/

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Hotter than Hell!"

I've spent the past few days with family in St. George, Utah. We had a blast, but it's sure hot here. 104 degrees right now as I sit in the airport waiting for the plane to fly back home. I think it hit 106 yesterday. I have a deeper appreciation for J. Golden Kimball's statement about this place in the summertime. He said that if he had a choice between spending the summer in St. George or Hell, he'd choose Hell, because "St. George is hotter than Hell!"