Thursday, 14 February 2013

Sterling M McMurrin - Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion


I've just finished a very close and careful re-read of McMurrin's book on Mormon Theology, which I first read, more swiftly, four years ago.

I would strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in theology of any type.


In order to understand and explain what is different about Mormonism - which he knows from the inside having grown-up in an established Mormon family living in the heartland - McMurrin performs a masterly summary of the metaphysical, philosophical and theological history relevant to Judaism and Christianity.


Yet this is not a work of apologetics; because although McMurrin never left the LDS church, was on excellent terms with many of its senior figures, and has very positive attitudes towards Mormonism - he was in fact a multiple heretic voicing many strong criticisms, and someone who came close to being formally excommunicated before some very senior figures of the CJCLDS stepped-in and put a stop to the proceedings, and such figures (including some Presidents of the church) continued to protect him through the rest of his career and life.

As an adult academic, McMurrin was, indeed, explicitly an agnostic; and also unusual in being politically a Democrat of the Liberal type and serving at a senior level in the Kennedy administration.


All this is marginal - what is important is that McMurrin is extremely intelligent, well read and (most important) has thoroughly thought-through all the metaphysical, philosophical and theological perspectives he describes - as well as being able to place them in historical context. 


I am hesitant to try and explain briefly and in my own words what kind of conclusions McMurrin reaches; but they are absolutely fascinating, and reveal that Joseph Smith was a creative theologian of the first rank; since the theology of Mormonism solves several of the perennial problems of Christian theology in a - mostly - coherent fashion; and had advantages of inculcating a more positive, active, engaged and indeed happy mind-set than preceding theologies.



Regular Reader said...

It would certainly be interesting to read your summation of McMurrin's conclusions!

Bruce Charlton said...

@RR - It is a short and concise book, tightly-argued; and *any* summary (even McMurrin's own summaries, or statements of conclusions) are therefore intrinsically misleading.

If you are sufficiently interested in the topic/s, you will just have to read the whole thing!

MC said...

Mr. Charlton,

I'm not sure if you watched this video, but it goes along with some of the themes you've been discussing recently:

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - Yes indeed, I have watched it several time. Beautiful.

Arakawa said...

Tracked down a library copy of this book, and it seems to be well-worth the recommendation. Won't attempt to summarize my impressions of it.

On another note, I watched the video MC linked. That was wonderful. I clicked around the website, and found another video which served to me as an explanation of why it took so long for me to consider the life and resurrection of Jesus to be a plausible event. The explanation is a bit involved.

(Fair warning: I'm writing somewhat under the influence of GK Chesterton, whose writing apparently intoxicates the mind in a similar manner to alcohol. So the below could all be fanciful drivel.)

The 'Earthly Father, Heavenly Father' video is an extreme example of what makes most of the very best fantasy literature and film work for me. Namely, the best fantasy is unabashedly and unashamedly mundane. In order to depict the otherworldly, it does not invent the purely fantastic and fill the screen with what we do not experience; such a video would convince us of nothing beyond God's silence. (A "Mormon-ish" video in the 'purely fantastic' genre might very well depict something like the creation of the Earth, hurtled together as an unimaginable crash of matter in the orbit of Kolob, then whisked at utterly meaningless speeds to its present location in the galaxy, all in an orgy of CGI effects... impressive, but bearing a very vague and uncertain relation to day-to-day existence. Mainstream Christians can find the same sort of effect by opening one of the fantastic books of prophecy, Ezekiel perhaps or Revelations, and proceeding to read as superficially as possible.) Instead, successful fantasy takes the mundane and shows it to be otherworldly. In this case, we look at a family in rural America with the same eyes that we use to look at one of the households in the mythical depths of the Old Testament -- and we get the sense that the family in the video is a part of the same history, not something in an entirely different sphere of being, like we commonly imagine it to be.

Performing such a transfiguration for the 'ordinary American family' is no mean feat. We are looking at something that is generally derided by modernity as insipid and suburban, derided with such successful intensity that to disdain it is almost a trained reflex on some level for me, merely from exposure to modern attitudes. ("Family is all well and good," the treacherous reflex whispers, "but certainly my family is not, and will never be quite so insipid...")

I bring Chesterton into this because this is exactly the effect he keeps stressing in his apologetics -- he puts forth a strong endorsement, I think, for any depiction that manages to restore the sense that mundane reality is quite as extraordinary as any fairytale.

One of my favourite 'fantasy' films, 'Spirited Away', has a great impact on the viewer precisely because it manages to show mundane things as being part and parcel of an otherworldly reality. The most major and exciting set pieces in it are the ones where the supernatural element exists matter-of-factly in the background, and the place of prominence is taken by something almost embarrassingly mundane, like a rickety staircase. It's the scenes where the screen is dominated by purely fantastic creatures that feel relatively flat.

I would have had grounds to recommend the movie to Chesterton; he might have enjoyed it on the grounds that it lures the viewer into the theatre with promises of strange and wild beings and locations, but then sends him back out into the world, having quite deliberately fostered the impression that there is no experience in the world more mystical and ineffable than boarding a train.

(continued in next comment)

Arakawa said...

Tracked down a library copy of this book, and it seems to be well-worth the recommendation. Won't attempt to summarize my impressions of it just now.

On another note, I watched the video MC linked. That was wonderful. I clicked around the website, and found another video which served to me as an explanation of why it took so long for me to consider the life and resurrection of Jesus to be a plausible event. The explanation is a bit involved, so involved it doesn't fit even in two separate comments, so posting it elsewhere...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Arakawa - I've kept your early long version of the comment, despite your request to delete it... I found it interesting and enjoyable.

Arakawa said...


Not a problem! I'm perfectly fine with the double-posting, even though it's not something I'd have had the audacity to actively suggest.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - btw, did you find McM's exposition of Mormon theology to make of it a coherent entity? I found it very satisfying - and having clear advantages exactly where mainstream theology is weakest.

Arakawa said...

I'm about two-thirds of the way through the book; so far, it seems to me that the aspects of theology being described are exactly what you get when an American applies sound American common sense to the scriptures, taking what is written at face value and ignoring the complex theological disagreements and dogmas of Christian history. In particular, where the underlying intellectual premises (as obtained from philosophy and not scripture) of the old theology forced an unintuitive or opaque conclusion, Mormon theology felt itself free to adopt different premises.

So, granted the premises, the theology is indeed a coherent entity. I am less certain about the premises themselves. McMurrin points out in particular that it's difficult for some to conceive of a metaphysic that is materialistic and not mechanistic (predetermined), and the one attempt he mentioned by Orson Pratt to go into more details veered off almost into monadology, which is a staggeringly unintuitive doctrine to actually apply to observable events.

Regardless, if you find (materialism + a mystery of free will) to be an entirely intuitive and practical combination, which evidently works for many people, then McMurrin shows how that can be used to cut the Gordian knot of a lot of very mad and unsatisfying theological debates.

Unknown said...

I just ran across this exchange online. I read McMurrin's book some years ago. I found it fascinating. I am not an active practicing Mormon and never have been but I am of that background. One cousin was, and an aunt who I was very close to, and who just died at age 96. I agree with all the positive comments here and highly recommend the book. I might mention that the famous scholar Harold Bloom of Yale University has interesting things to say about these topics in his book "The American Religion", which is actually about all the religions that started or were greatly modified in America. Some of Bloom's comments are based on McMurrin.