Saturday, 3 August 2013

Mormonism: poised between incredibilities


Incredible: 1b - Hard to believe. New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary


It strikes me that Mormonism is an incredible religion, in the two-sided sense that it both hard to believe and hard not to believe!

I realize that to most non-Mormons this is untrue - in the sense that they find Mormonism one-sidedly hard to believe and easy to disbelieve - hard to accept and extremely easy to dismiss.

But, when not due to sheer ignorance, that attitude is often due to them being blinded by negative prejudice; because there are remarkable facts about Mormonism which it is hard to believe are not due to its being true.

There are at least four two-sidedly incredible aspects of Mormonism - that is they are both hard to believe, and hard not to believe.


1. Joseph Smith.

On the one hand, it is hard to believe that such an ordinary and flawed person as Joseph Smith should have been a prophet of God; on the other hand it is hard to believe that anybody except a prophet of God could have done what he did.

2. The book of Mormon

On the one hand, the convoluted story of how the book of Mormon came to be written is bizarre, unprecedented - in a word incredible; on the other hand, it is very hard to believe that a book of such length, quality, complexity could have been dictated verbatim and unrevised in extremely difficult conditions and in just a few months.

3. The organization of the LDS church

On the one hand, the piecemeal emergence of the Mormon church, the adoption of elements from various traditions, the revisions and corrections of doctrine and so on - all seem like ad hoc improvisations and strain credibility; on the other hand, the results were incredible: a church which commanded great strength and devoutness and expanded exponentially for 180 years and successfully scaled up from a few hundreds to many millions.

4. Mormon theology

Contradicts so much of the theology of the historical Christian church, and so profoundly, that it is very hard to believe that almost all Christians could have been so wrong about so many things for such a long time; on the other hand, the Mormon theology is so simple, systematic and also Biblically coherent that it is incredible that Christians could have failed to discover it for so many centuries.


I could go on - but I hope the point has been made that if Mormonism is given its due, then incredibilities abound, and are rather exactly poised!

It is incredible that something as incredible as Mormonism could be true: it is also incredible that something as coherent, as long-term successful, and as good as Mormonism could be false.



Luqman said...

Your posts on Mormonism have positively illumined aspects of the faith I was unaware of, and though I have reservations I am willing to put them aside for more careful study. It strikes me that the modern obssession, especially in academics, of seeing things with a `critical` eye automatically precludes any spiritual gain from scripture. We are irrational creatures who cannot be convinced if we have set ourselves out to not be convinced.

I do not believe however, that Mormonism has as of yet been long-term successful. I think it is yet to be truly tested, but that is not to say other Christian denominations are somehow healthy. The Nestorians had generations of growth and strength, and where is that Church now? Perhaps it is an argument of details, but the Mormon church still seems to be in some sort of core organizational period. Nevertheless I cannot deny the obvious fruits; I can imagine our future descendents looking back at this era as the Early Mormon Church!

I dont know if you have done such a post already Dr. Charlton, but could you expound on the problems of Mormonism, if any? Beyond direct study the only resource for this is negative propaganda from other denominations. I think such an analysis from someone sympathetic would be useful. It could set a field for legitimate discussion between denominations can occur, if only in people`s heads :)

NC said...

This is a favorite topic of mine so I can't resist adding a couple points that would likely be more relevant to a young outsider than an older conservative:

It's common in the modern world to idealize revolutionary movements, ones that somehow managed to defy official persecution successfully. Marxists movements and folk heroes such as Che Guevara, for example.

Mormons could be legally executed for some time during their rise and still they succeeded. They faced as official an opposition as it can get and still found their way through to persist and grow.

Interestingly, while Mormonism has been in some ways traditional it has also had a very revolutionary arc. To have a group that had many of the aspects of a revolutionary movement, and to have them succeed so dramatically, is a stunning rarity in the world.

They also went through a lengthy period of remarkably unmodern idealism in organizing in Utah along non-capitalist lines - for many decades they practiced communal forms of ownership.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Luq - " could you expound on the problems of Mormonism, if any?"

I don't want to do this because I am prejudiced in favour of Mormonism; as I am also prejudiced in favour of the Church of England (including Anglo-Catholic and Prayer Book Anglican, and Conservative Evangelical) and the Roman Catholic Church (especially SSPX) and Eastern Orthodoxy (especially Russian).

Each of these has significant advantages (as do some other denominations of whom I know little or nothing, and so don't comment upon).

One thing I have mentioned is that there are no Mormon ascetic and mystical monks - and such monks have, in the past (e.g. Anglo-Saxon England, Byzantium, Holy Russia), demonstrated a potential for advanced miracle-working Christianity which is beyond anything else, but which seems absent from the West today.

Adam G. said...

Loved this. As an active Mormon, I see the struggles and demands of Mormon life every day, so this kind of perspective is needful. I particularly like your insight that what is glorious about Mormonism is inseparably connected with the difficulties. If Mormon doctrine hadn't developed in so awkward a way, it wouldn't be so remarkable that it works.

This is the ultimate idea of the incarnation. It is in the person of a farting, puking, whimpering man that true divinity was made most manifest.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - That is exactly how it seems to me - I think I got the insight from Terryl Givens. It is very much a part of what makes Mormonism 'work' in the context of the modern world.

With this post, I feel I have more or less come to the end of what I want to say about Mormonism for the time being.

But a point which I may amplify more generally is the glib and arrogant way in which people talk about the achievements of Joseph Smith - the radically new yet coherent mode of reading the Bible and of a Christian theology, the writing of the Book of Mormon, the church organization - as if these are *easy* things which *anyone* could have done!

To me, this simply reveals that such critics don't know what they are talking about.

Harold Bloom's frank acknowledgment that Joseph Smith was a creative genius is the only sensible explanation available to an honest man who understands the magnitude of his achievement yet does not believe in its truth.

Imnobody said...

I guess the same can be said about Christianity in general. At least for a guy raised in the modern age, such as me. It makes a lot of sense and, at the same time, there are thinks that it is hard for me to swallow (for example, atonement, the Trinity).

(I know, Bruce, that you have written a Mormon explanation of atonement that you find completely satisfactory but I don't).

My way of dealing with this is to think that we cannot understand God's reasons, because they are beyond our understanding. The way my dog could think my behavior is irrational, I can think God's behavior is absurd. Credo quia absurdum.

It is not completely satisfactory because I need to understand things but it helps.

(OT: I read yesterday about Mormonism was Pelagianism interpreted inside a Puritan tradition. I think it is a good line)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Imn - "Mormonism was Pelagianism interpreted inside a Puritan tradition."

That kind if reductive formulation misses the essence and importance of Mormonism - best to try first to understand it in its own terms, and only then draw comparisons.

"My way of dealing with this is to think that we cannot understand God's reasons, because they are beyond our understanding. The way my dog could think my behavior is irrational, I can think God's behavior is absurd. Credo quia absurdum."

If this works for you without challenging your Christian faith then fine - but it does not really *support* Christianity, and is more akin to the concept of God of Christianity's most formidable rival, and is hard to square with a God who is personal love.

I think the incomprehensibility stuff can be and is often very overdone - you don't often hear children going on that way about their Fathers. Of course a child does not understand his Father's reasons, but this is rendered unimportant by his confidence and trust in the Father's love.

Bruce Charlton said...

A question:

(This is not meant to decide the matter, but it might be relevant in consideration that Joseph Smith had to be a fraud if he was not truthful, since he is so detailed and specific in his claims)

Is there any example of a group/ movement/ religion which was *in fact* known to be built on a deceptive and fraudulent basis, yet nonetheless had good fruits over a reasonable timescale (say four generations/ 100 years)?

It seems unlikely to me that there could be such a thing - but maybe there is an example sometime, somewhere?

FHL said...

Well, there was that king who decided to cause a schism and start his own church because the pope wouldn't let him divorce his wife. That one went pretty far I'd say.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - I don't think that one works! It is more an example of evil motives leading to quite a lot of good - but the actual change introduced by Henry VIII was merely the replacement of the Roman Catholic relation of Church and Monarch with something akin to the Eastern Orthodox system.

Bookslinger said...

@luqman, Perhaps the best-known non-Mormon author who has written with a non-prejudiced eye on the Mormons is Jan Shipps. Her wikipedia entry lists her major works on Mormonism.

Richard Lyman Bushman and Terryl Givens are Mormon authors who have written books aimed at academic/scholarly readers.

An interesting blog by a non-Mormon woman married to a Mormon man is by Bridget Jack Jeffries. She has interesting and funny views from the outside looking in.

Aside from the canonized works (Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price) the closest thing to doctrinal works published by the Church are Gospel Principles
( )
which is taught over the course of a year in Sunday School to all new members, and the various "Institute Manuals"
( )
which can be read online or downloaded at

The Institute manuals that correspond to the canonized standard works (Bible, BoM, D&C, PofGP) give the closest thing to what could be called an interpretation or doctrinal explication of the canonized standard works. However, those are not used in our standard Sunday services, and are not "officially" doctrine, but they are taught to college age Mormons. College age Mormons everywhere are encouraged to take local "Institute" classes even if they are not enrolled in post-secondary schools. Informal "Institutes" are also held for older adults.