Saturday, 11 August 2018

The joy of Mormon theology - Terryl Givens's Wrestling the Angel (2015)

As soon as I began learning about Mormon theology, which began before I became a Christian, I have responded to it with a heartfelt joy. This has been renewed over the past days when I have been listening to an audiobook of Wrestling the Angel: the Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity - by Terryl Givens.

I had already bought the paper book, and read parts of it; but found it rather dense and hard-going compared with Givens's usual style, which I like so much. The audible book medium proves ideal in taking me through the book at a measured pace, and maintaining progress the face of any tendency to lose concentration. My response has been powerful, inspiring, en-couraging.

The experience has triggered yet another renewal of my appreciation, and gratitude, for the Mormon awakening; specifically for the way in which Joseph Smith and subsequent theologians of the CJCLDS have restored the gospel spirit - that underlying and defining spirit of Jesus that we get from the accounts of his life and records of his words.

Not many people (including, according to Givens and other Mormon theologians, not many Mormons) recognise how radical is the Mormon recasting of Christian theology, how total and systematic, how radical (i.e. root level) is the transformation.

The observable, explicit superstructure of Christian teaching, worship, ethics, and the ideal life is very little changed (Mormon church members live very similarly to other devout Christians, although they tend to be more devout in their practice); but the underlying metaphysics is altogether different. And this difference goes right down to the metaphysical assumptions concerning the nature of reality, the nature of the universe and the origins of man. So the message and person of Jesus is much the same, but the understanding of that message rests upon qualitatively different foundations.

I am not and never have been a Mormon, and it has become very obvious over the past years that outside the Mormon church almost everybody is strongly prejudiced against the idea that Mormon theology could be good, beautiful; and intellectually deeply satisfying; and that this absolutely blocks the possibility of them learning otherwise.

So be it. But I am very grateful for the work of Terryl Givens - and have found listening to Wrestling the Angel to be a wonderful experience. Many of (what I regard as) the stumbling blocks of 'traditional' Christianity are lucidly explained in their developing historical context, and the Mormon reappraisals and recastings (which I find so satisfying, and for which I am so grateful) set out in their more recent context.

To give specific examples; Mormon theology and metaphysics solves what I personally regard as the most important errors of traditional, mainstream Christian emphasis and explanation - such as the omniscience and nature of God, false doctrine of original sin, the nature of human agency, and the basis of sex and sexuality.

I have often observed that the traditional Christian theological explanations have a tendency to gravitate towards an 'Islamic' understanding of God and the human condition on the one hand; or else towards secularism on the other. This is because of the wrongness of the metaphysics and theology that was imposed upon Christianity in (probably) the early centuries, from approximately 100 AD onwards, presumably after - and allowed by - the death of most of the disciples.

From this time the early theologians, including most of the 'Church Fathers', began to place Christianity within an incompatible set of pre-existing (pre-Christian) basic assumptions about philosophy. Details are lacking concerning this era, but these early and influential intellectuals apparently did not work from Christ's message and teachings, to develop a compatible and supporting set of assumptions; but went in the other direction - shoe-horning Christianity into their prior intellectual frameworks.

The idea of Original Sin is a particularly chilling example. Reading Givens and thinking about the problems created by the false understanding of God's 'omniscience' one can see how this really nasty idea (no hint of which is in the Gospels, and barely at all anywhere in the New Testament - except with the eye of prejudice) emerged to explain the need for Christ when God was supposedly omnipotent. Original sin reached an astonishing degree of prominence with Augustine of Hippo: almost becoming the single most important Christian doctrinal-fact. This was later taken even further with Calvin.

The result was Christianity that, at a deep level, became something that in practice (in terms of the relation between Man and God) was about as strongly against the spirit of the Gospels as it was possible to be. In sum, by Original Sin, Christianity was transformed from a religion of hope and joy at the new possibilities of everlasting and divine life that Jesus brought (clearest and least ambiguous in the Fourth, and most authoritative, Gospel); into a religion in which Jesus was our rescuer from a mortal torture chamber, which all Men justly were born-into, and which all Men inhabited due to their essential and ineradicable depravity; both our torment and our depravity being caused by a mystical complicity in a primal act of sin against Jesus's Father.

In contrast to such monstrous error, misrepresentation, and manipulation; Mormon theology shows us how to be Christian without such interpretations being forced upon us by foundational but not-Christian assumptions; and, so far as I know, Mormonism is the only Christian theology which does this. That is a measure of its scope, originality and importance!*

(And if you don't believe-in the reality of that scope and originality, then you simply don't understand it - and not many do. Whether you agree with Mormon theology is a secondary matter. My point is that very few people are in a position to disagree - since they don't know enough to recognise what they are disagreeing with.)  

Anyway, if you are interested and intrigued by the above; and if you can sufficiently 'trust a Mormon' that you can make a genuine effort to understand and think-though the Mormon perspective, then Terryl Givens would be the place to start; if not with the all-out scholarship and rigour of Wrestling the Angel, then probably with the shorter and more polemical (yet equally, albeit covertly, scholarly and rigorous) The God Who Weeps (with Fiona Givens, 2012).

It is difficult. So you need both to be interested, reasonably well-disposed, and also to be willing (initially) to adopt a different perspective; until such a point that you have learned enough to grasp the coherence of the 'system'.

But if (like most external commentators) you are studying Mormon theology and metaphysics only to prove 'why it is wrong', and without any expectation of finding good in it; then it is very unlikely that you will ever make the 'paradigm shift' required to understand it in the first place.

*Note added: To clarify, my point is that original sin is a monstrous perversion on Christianity but if original sin is dispensed-with in the context of traditional Christian theology, it is nearly-always associated with apostasy - certainly, that has been the historical pattern and trend. Those churches that (correctly) deleted original sin were also those churches that were en route to apostasy, to becoming non-Christian - such as the Unitarians around 1800, or later 19th century Methodists. Thus original sin seems to be necessary to the integrity of traditional Christian theology; yet it is a false and monstrous doctrine in stark opposition to the teaching of the Fourth Gospel (in particular, but all the Gospels and nearly all of the NT). Therefore, original sin is a reductio ad absurdum of traditional theology: with this theology OS needs to be adopted for the sake of coherence and sustainability, but necessarily leads to absurd conclusions. Mormon theology represents a third way, a wholly different theological system, which both rejects original sin and yet is sustainable (for over 190 years so far) without a decline through apostasy, 'liberalism', or laxness. Original sin therefore represents an argument both for the error of traditional Christian theology and an argument for both the radical different-ness and for the coherence and sustainability of Mormon theology. The same type of argument could be constructed for other issues, such as free-will/ agency, the nature of God, the nature of suffering etc.


Chiu ChunLing said...

"Original Sin" as a doctrine may imply a specific falsehood (that all humans are guilty of the specific transgression of Adam and Eve which led to them being ejected from the Garden of Eden). But that falsehood is generally rejected because it contradicts a more enticing and spiritually dangerous falsehood, that humans are not responsible for current conditions by failing to significantly obey God.

The fact is, at any given point in human history, if suddenly every human on Earth turned to God and did according to the general commandments in scripture and the present injunctions of conscience and the Spirit, Earth would have become a paradise in the blink of an eye. But this has only occurred on a strictly limited scale of individuals or relatively tiny groups, it has never been general, and that is because humans overwhelmingly choose not to do it.

The other enticing falsehood is that there would be any meaning or goodness in forcing everyone (by which those proposing it always mean everyone else) to do what is right.

What we can hope for, and what some achieve, is to realize that we each individually have daily, hourly, and even in every second choices about whether to make the world better for everyone by obeying God, or worse for everyone by disobeying God, and that we have largely been making the world worse for everyone by disobeying God because obedience wouldn't have benefited us more than the total benefits to others.

And then realizing that we ought to not merely be satisfied when we share in the benefit, but that to be really good we should do what benefits everyone else even if we personally gain nothing from it, or even if it costs us greatly as long as the total benefits to others are greater than what it costs us personally.

Desert Rat said...

I have read most of Given's books and find them to be excellent. I second your recommendation of "Wrestling the Angel". Anyone wanting to know just where LDS theology differs from traditional theology will find it clearly laid out in this book. It also points out where the two converge.

The reason so many Mormon's are unaware of where their theology differs from the traditional is that so many are born in the church and have little or no instruction in the traditional theology. Converts tend to have a better understanding of this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@DR - Yes indeed. I should add that I *first* got an understanding of Mormon Theology in context from Sterling McMurrin. Then the essays and talks of Blake Ostler. Givens came later - but Givens would probably be the best first choice for most people approaching the subject.