Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Why Christ was necessary - repair or progression? Some advantages of Mormon metaphysics in understanding Christ as essential

One of the difficult things about Christianity for a modern convert from atheism is to understand the necessity of Christ.

In this respect my experience recapitulated that of CS Lewis - I could appreciate the reasons to be a theist, to believe in 'god', but I found it hard to understand why Christ was necessary.

It is easy for a modern Westerner to understand how Christ is helpful (e.g. as a teacher) but hard to understand why he is necessary.

And part of the difficulty is understanding 'necessary to what?'. We might accept that Christ is necessary, we might repeat this as an article of faith; but it is apparently difficult for Modern Man to understand just exactly what it is that Christ is necessary to.


What difference did Christ make? - What was the situation before and after Christ - What does the world look like with and without Christ?

Indeed, the problems run even deeper than that, because any answers to the above depend upon a narrative of salvation - relating to God the Father - into which Christ is introduced. So the potential convert finds each question leads not to an answer but more questions - until he comes up against one or another of the fundamental (metaphysical) narratives which underpin Christianity.

Now, most converts do not go through this multi-layered process of questioning, but have a personal and direct revelation of the divinity and necessity of Christ. The problem is for those who do not have such a revelation, or who do have such a revelation but begin to question or doubt its validity (suspecting that the revelation may have been simply a psychological phenomenon due to wishful thinking).

But it is a deep problem for a modern convert when he finds implausible the ultimate metaphysical account of reality into-which the Christian story is being explained. This was my own experience.


As I have already said, a metaphysical account is not necessary to being a Christian; but I found the basic mainstream Christian story told to explain 'why' Christ was necessary, to be a mixture of discordant, implausible and incoherent.

The story I mean is the one about Man's task being to return to a pre-established perfection with the aid of Christ. God created a Good situation, Man destroyed it leading to a fallen world, and Christ restoring the primordial state of Good.

By this account Christ's job was to repair the situation which was set-up by God the Father, and wrecked by Man.

I understand that most Christians throughout history have believed that (more-or-less) this explanation is true - but on the other hand this story is a metaphysical abstraction which has been read-into scripture by a complex process of piecing together evidence from passages here and there, and underpinned by assumptions derived from Greek and Roman philosophy.

What the Gospels seem to be reporting is instead that Christ was operating in a situation where people already knew what was needed, already knew that a Messiah was the only possibly answer to providing what was needed - so that there was already a Christ-shaped-hole in the culture of that time and place. Jesus 'merely' had to demonstrate that he personally was the long-awaited Christ.


But what exactly that 'long-awaited Christ' was, is unclear from the Bible. And the attempt to explain Christ's role in terms of perfection-destruction-restoration has severe weaknesses.

In the first place, it reduces Christ to a role of repair - which does not explain why Christ is primary.

Secondly, it suggests a creator God who was either unable to set-up the situation so that it was robust to a bad choice from a creature whose strengths and weaknesses also had been set-up by that creator.

And thirdly, it is a world-picture that is merely an arc: perfection to wreckage and back to perfection.


It was the basic unsatisfactoryness of this explanation that kept me questioning (against my active will, I should add - I very much wanted to be satisfied with it, tried to be satisfied with it; but met with a continuous gut-resistance); and kept me fundamentally disbelieving of mainstream, bottom-line, metaphysical theology.

And it was this dissatisfaction which kept me seeking, and led to my delight in Mormon theology, when I finally understood that it solved all the above problems, inconsistencies, irrationalities.


For Mormon theology, Christ does not just repair a wrecked situation, he enables further spiritual progression: the whole 'universe' of Mormonism is dynamic rather than static.

After Christ the world does not merely return to where it was, but has had vast possibilities opened-out.

For Mormon metaphysics; the necessity of Christ goes beyond his role in repair and restoration, to enabling a world which is better than the world ever was before.



ajb said...

"After Christ the world [has] vast possibilities opened-out."

This post makes a great deal of sense to me. Being unfamiliar with much in Mormon theology, however, the next questions I have are

From the Mormon perspective, what are the possibilities that are opened up (I take it this has something to do with bodily resurrection?), and how, exactly, has Jesus Christ opened up these possibilities?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - Mormonism looks beyond Resurrection, Salvation and Heaven to what happens next - what is our meaning, purpose and relationships in the eternities. For 'devout' Mormons, Salvation is not the main problem, because Salvation is available to all who want it and acknowledge reality (ie who repent) - the focus is on divinization, theosis or spiritual progression beyond Resurrection and Salvation - until we have become fully Sons or Daughters of God and can fully participate in the divine work - which is itself infinite and eternal in its creativity. The importance is not that you are saved, but what it is you are saved-to - what you *do* with your Salvation. I think this is why Resurrection and Salvation are so much more real and certain for Mormons than any other denomination of which I know - to some extent they are 'taken for granted', and faith and hope therefore made solid, precisely because they are embedded in a bigger picture.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I realize I have not answered your 'how exactly' question about the atonement. My feeling is that Mormons are no better at describing the mechanism of the atonement than any other Christians are. If you search this blog for atonement, you will find several attempts of mine to make a satisfactory (or at least satisfying) explanation for my own use. My current favourite theory is, obviously, the most recent - - which is that Christ repented for everyone (past, present and future) so that simply by believing in Christ anyone can achieve total repentance for all possible sins (rather than, for example, recalling and repenting each sin individually). But this is my own made-up albeit Mormon-based theology and is not LDS doctrine by any means!

Adam G. said...

my own made up albeit Mormon-based theology on the atonement can be found here:
the Atonement enables meaningful choice--
the Atonement enables us to put God in our debt--

Dr. Charlton's idea is also interesting. I comment on it from my Mormon perspective here:

Cui Pertinebit said...

Bruce, whenever you hit on something true, I'm always amazed by the fact that it seems distinctively Mormon to you. What you are describing is bread and butter stuff to any traditional Christian (i.e., a well-educated Catholic or Orthodox or Coptic Christian).

It is certainly already evident in Scripture - Christ is a Propitiation, an Atonement, a Conciliatory Offering; He is an Exemplum, a Paradigm; He is the Healer, the Repairer of the Fall; He is the Annihilator of Bondage, of Sin, of the Law's Accusing Power; He is the Triumpher over evil, who leads our enemies captive and ascends to the Father and prepares "what eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the mind of man;" He is the sower of divine charity, of deification, of supernatural grace, Who opens up a share in the divine life and power to the faithful, and citizenship in the New Jerusalem.

He is all these things, already in the Scriptures; and anyone who reads the Fathers of the Church finds that they had anything but a "static" view of all this, but from the beginning described the infinite progress in love, contemplation, knowledge and grace that will occur. It is obvious in Dante's Paradiso. It is in Therese of Lisieux and Columba Marmion, Don Bosco, John Vianney, and on and on and on. This stuff is bread and butter, rudimentary, abc stuff for traditional Christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CP - It could be that you haven't fully understood what I am trying to say? Sterling McMurrin makes these differences clear by proper comparisons in Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion; or more recently Blake Ostler's essays and books.

But, really, if you personally are happy with mainstream classical theology there is no reason or incentive for you to make the considerable effort required to grasp the different metaphysics of Mormonism.If you don't want to change, then why do it?

I think there is a good reason for there being several valid Christian denominations (as well as there being bad reasons for this) - it should enable more people to be devout Christians, in different ways or styles.

My blog is not intended to make people who are happy and keen Christians change denomination, it is aiming to help people who are not Christians or who are miserable or feeble Christians or who would like to be Christians but are blocked - for example by mainstream classical theologies inability to explain free will and human suffering, or who find it too abstract and distant and incomprehensible (which are especially important problems for me).

Scory said...

I don't believe the LDS church brings anything new to Christian theology and I doubt Joseph Smith or any of the prophets of the church would make that claim. What they would claim is that important pieces of Christianity had been excised from the official canon and that some things had been added that should not have been. And they would claim that via revelation certain corrections have been made to restore doctrine as taught by Jesus and the apostles. They would also claim that more will come as humanity progresses and makes itself worthy. Terryl Givens recently had a book published titled "Wrestling the Angel" that gives a good overview of what Mormonism is and how it both comports with and diverges from mainstream or historic Christian thought.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Scory. "I don't believe the LDS church brings anything new to Christian theology"

Christian theology is not the most important thing, and there is no compelling reason why anyone must or should take notice of it unless they want or need to.

Indeed I am sure that the very best Christians have included children and simple or practical people who respond to Christ and revelation in a direct and non-theological fashion.

Such Christians are found among the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglicans, Protestant of many kinds as well as Mormons (and Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists and others).

But, if you are interested in theology and compare Mormonism with pre-Mormon Christianity, Mormon theology is about as deeply different as it is possible to imagine - because Mormon theology is based on a fundamentally different set of metaphysical assumptions about the basic nature of reality.

For instance, Mormonism is pluralist, and sees reality as consisting of multiple, irreducible intelligences with free will. And Mormonism sees the fundamental 'unit' of spiritual progression as a dyad of a man and a woman.

I came to understand this from the work of Sterling McMurrin, Blake Ostler and Terryl Givens - Givens indeed points out that Mormonism has historically oscillated between emphasis on what is shared with other Christians, and what is different. This oscillation can be seen in the Articles of Faith.

But Givens himself emphasises particularly what is different and distinctive; and cautiously suggests that this is the best way ahead for the CJCLDS. He has been consistently (but quietly) stating this at least since the PBS Mormons documentary.

So this theological difference is real, and is one of several crucial reasons why the Restoration was necessary (other reasons being the need for a restored Priesthood authority and Church organization, and the need for further scriptural clarification to add to the Bible).

The reason that I tend to harp on this theological matter on this blog is partly to do with my own angle on things, and partly due to the intended audience for the blog.

But this blog is by and for a very atypical micro-minority - and is just one very small piece of the picture.

Small but important, because each individual person is important. As CS Lewis often stated - one person is more important than an empire, in the sense that each person is eternal while an empire is ephemeral.

Cui Pertinebit said...


Certainly I don't want to become a Mormon, but that wasn't the point of what I was saying. As to whether I've grasped the metaphysics of Mormonism, well, I don't know. I would say that I understand the general gist of Mormon theology, but my devout Mormon friends essentially tell me that there are no Mormon metaphysics, and that they think Catholicism went wrong by getting too deep into metaphysics via Scholastic theology.

What do you mean by metaphysics? Usually metaphysics is understood to be the joint study of ontology and cosmology - i.e., what truly exists, and how does it exist? Every time I've discussed that issue with a Mormon, I've been told that Mormonism is more practical, and doesn't deal with that. Just to touch upon cosmology, Mormonism seems to teach that Elohim created everything, through Jesus. Yet Jesus is Jehovah, firstborn spirit child of Elohim by one of his heavenly wives, so he must not have created his own heavenly mother. Further, Mormonism has always taught that famous couplet of Lorenzo Snow ("as man is, God once was..."), clearly present in the teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, President Spence Kimball, etc.; Orson Pratt said that Elohim was once in a finite, mortal body and, with all the other gods in the heavens, was once in a fallen state, was redeemed from the grave, and was exalted to live in his own heaven. So, how can Elohim be the creator of everything, let alone Jesus/Jehovah? Who created the whole shebang? Who sired Elohim? Who redeemed him?

Some Mormons told me by way of response that Mormonism believed in the eternal existence of all matter and rejected creation ex nihilo. Some of them said that Jesus created and redeemed many worlds, and not just ours, but they had no answer to the questions above. They told me that Mormons believe theology is revealed to them on a "need to know" basis, and that such things are too abstruse and just lead to trouble. It seems that this view - which I don't criticize in and of itself - is obviously agnostic about fundamental elements of metaphysics.

My only point, was that the idea of Christ's work being more than just a reparation, is central to traditional Christianity. When you say that you found Christianity's mere "repairing" theory to be a mixture of the discordant, implausible and incoherent, I wanted to say that this can only be because you didn't understand Christian theology. And, I mean no offense but am simply stating my observation, it seems to me that the metaphysical confusion about creation and the role of the Mormon Elohim and Jesus/Jehovah in that process, is far more incoherent. It seems to me like going from the frying pan into the fire.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CP - Metaphysics is the most fundamental possible description of reality.

Few people are interested in it, fewer are capable of thinking about it, and among the few who are capable of thinking about it - few have made a sustained effort.

So, you would need to read people such as I mentioned, or maybe William James on Pluralism (James believed something very like a Mormon metaphysics), to engage in this matter.

But there would be no point in doing this, it would indeed be harmful, unless there was a genuine, visceral desire to sort things out for yourself, to grapple with problems of which you feel compelled to seek resolution.

If not, then it is best to stay away from metaphysics.

Cui Pertinebit said...

Metaphysics is indeed a prime interest of mine, and precisely because it is the foundation of everything else. No field of learning is settled without sorting Metaphysics and Epistemology out, first.

In my opinion, that is precisely why the Church has been right to focus on Metaphysics; in our times, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange and Jaques Maritain stand forth as the best, though Maritain sadly strayed from the orthodox social doctrine in key points.