Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Mormonism and children


One of the most striking aspects of Mormonism is the very positive attitude towards children - this comes through in official teachings by LDS church leaders, in publicity and evangelical material, in scripture, in LDS magazines and newspapers, and in the social statistics of Mormon behaviour.

The positive attitude towards children seems to be underpinned by two striking sections of the Book of Mormon - the delightful account of the risen Christ blessing the children in the book of 3 Nephi:

21 And when he had said these words, he wept, and the multitude bare record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.
 22 And when he had done this he wept again;
 23 And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones.
 24 And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.

...and the discussion of baptism in the book of Moroni, where it is very strongly asserted that the baptism of children is not just unnecessary, but an abomination:

12 But little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!
 13 Wherefore, if little children could not be saved without baptism, these must have gone to an endless hell. ...
  15 For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism.  ...
 17 And I am filled with charity, which is everlasting love; wherefore, all children are alike unto me; wherefore, I love little children with a perfect love; and they are all alike and partakers of salvation....
 20 And he that saith that little children need baptism denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption.


However, the Book of Mormon was apparently not much used in teaching doctrine, and did not itself exert much of an influence upon Mormon doctrine, until relatively recently - so it is more likely that these passages are consistent-with Mormon practice, than that they are the origin of practice. 


The characteristic, luminously positive attitude towards young children seems to be related to the Mormons having a different, and much more positive, interpretation of The Fall than do Mainstream Christians - and consequently their denial of the Mainstream Christian doctrine of Original Sin. 

For Mormons, it seems that the concept of Original Sin is (to a significant extent) a denial of the power of Christ's atonement - and has the viscerally unacceptable consequence of damning unbaptized children (or, at least, that is how The Fall and Original Sin  has been interpreted in much of Christian history - when at times children seem to have been regarded as something much like demons).

At any rate, the consequence for Mormons seems to be an attitude of great reverence towards innocent children, and a sense that they can be - by their example - the teachers of adults.


This fits with the idea of the family as potentially the most perfect Christian environment for adults; and contrasts sharply with other Christian traditions which see the ascetic, celibate monastic, nun or priest - or the subtle and profound theologian - as the greatest Christian exemplar. 

(The Mormon ideal is, in fact, the most advanced actual form of the Via Positiva - the Way of Affirmation - among Christians.)

All of which fits seamlessly into Christ's positive attitudes and teachings with respect to children as displayed in the Gospels - which seems like something new, and something distinctive to Christianity; and an essential part of the sweetness of the pure faith. 



josh said...

I disagree with your regarding Mormon theology as "common sense". To me, the doctrine of original sin and redemption was probably the reason I became a Christian. It just seemed so obviously how-things-are. It also implies, to me at least, the kind of view of God acting in eternity that you reject.

I also don't see what is common sense about the idea of "pre-existing stuff", whether that stuff be matter, numbers or Love.

Bruce Charlton said...

@josh - You are a bit off-topic today!

But the basic stance of Mormon theology certainly is common-sensical compared with mainstream theology which takes as axiomatic various abstract philosophical ideas; this is true in general, if not in every respect.

The idea that God is within a pre-existing universe - a universe which was 'always' there rather than created, and therefore does not need to be explained - seems to be the usual understanding of the simplest 'animistic' religions.

Indeed, that style of explanation is often deployed by non-literate societies. For example, some Amerindians believe that they have 'always' been in America (and therefore that their ancestors did not migrate from Siberia 15,000 years ago, or whatever). My point is not whether this is factually correct, but that it is 'natural'.

Most indigenous/ aboriginal societies assume that things have 'always' been as they are; and that change is cyclical or superficial.

That is why I regard it as common sense.

josh said...

This threw me off topic.

"Mormons having a different, and much more positive, interpretation of The Fall than do Mainstream Christians - and consequently their denial of the Mainstream Christian doctrine of Original Sin."

I just looked up the Mormon teaching on original sin, which I should have done before commenting. It is more commonsensical than I imagined.

Adam G. said...

I believe that there is a Mormon doctrine of original sin:
In my experience, also, Mormon parents don't tend to be more convinced that their children are little angels than parents generally are. I would attribute the extra warmth towards children, assuming it exists, to the strong Mormon sense that they are divine beings in potentia and to the even stronger Mormon sense that family relations are God's essence.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - I remember reading that. I took your argument to mean that original Sin was not-incompatible-with Mormonism, rather than that OS was something most Mormons had or did believe.

Also, taking the full 2000 year sweep of Christianity in its various denominations, I think it probably true to say that there have been times when OS was interpreted to lead to a very negative attitude to children.

It ought to go without saying that children vary a lot, and some (few) do *seem* to be born wicked and are very dangerous indeed (especially to other children).

Adam G. said...

Bruce C.,
"Original sin," interpreted as meaning that children and heathen are guilty of sin and merit punishment without baptism or accepting Christ or whatever, is not a Mormon doctrine. However, many Mormons take this to mean that we believe that children and heathen are morally pure and innocent, which we don't. What we believe is that Christ freely atoned for original sin, so its *as if* there was no original sin, but only through the grace of Christ.
My view is that most mainstream christian doctrines of original sin are ok when you get a careful, nuanced version, but that you don't always get a careful nuanced version.
So its mostly a question of emphasis, which may simply boil down to personal experience. My own experience is that children are both sweeter and more trying--purer and more sinful--than one has a right to expect.