Saturday 15 August 2015

Evaluating the Mormon Church 185 years on - a pretty straightforward business! But for many Christians it leads to a paradox...

When Mormonism came out, it would have been easy and natural to assume it was a fraud.

Because, if the facts of its origin are known and the implications understood - it seems like Mormonism either has to be true or a fraud - bearing in mind that 'true' does not mean, cannot mean, and never has in any circumstances meant something-like 'correct in every microscopic detail when each is detached and examined separately'. True-overall - or a fraud. 

But 185 years down the line Mormonism does not look anything like a fraud, quite the opposite.

Therefore to the unprejudiced eye it seems a pretty straightforward matter to believe Mormonism is true (given that the choice is between truth and fraud) - assuming that one has had a personal revelation to that effect, there seems no reason not to accept that personal revelation as valid.

(For any Christian to believe must be a choice, it is an opt-in situation - my point is merely the double-negative that 185 years down the line, there is no compelling reason not to believe - if one feels in one's heart, having prayed for guidance, that the LDS church is true.)  

At least, that is how is feels to me - to believe in the truth of the CJCLDS should not be psychologically or logistically a big deal - because after 185 years experience and knowledge, to believe that the Mormon church is valid is easy, not strange, nor a thing rationally difficult to justify! 

What is strange and difficult to justify; is to believe on the one hand that the CJCLDS is a fraud, and yet on the other hand that it is also what it clearly is: a good and beneficial organization. 

Although strange and difficult, this 'on the one hand and on the other' paradox is, of course, precisely what many people do believe: that is, many people do not believe the truth of the CJCLDS (implicitly they believe it was built upon a fraud - even if the fraud may have had noble intentions) but they do believe that the Mormon church is, nonetheless, a good thing

Logical or not; this paradox is simply a factual state of affairs, I know of several people in the above situation - indeed perhaps most people who are informed about the CJCLDS think that it is, paradoxically, both fraudulently-founded and also good.  

The paradox is quite real, and the paradox is also quite common. I am not sure whether it is a stable psychological state - or meta-stable and liable to flip into either faith on the one hand, or a more consistent (but less honest) view of pretending that Mormonism is fraudulently-founded and therefore evil (despite appearances). 

This particular 'and therefore' ignoble consistency is distressingly common among mainstream Christians. I mean, a willingness to believe that - because they regard it as fraudulently founded, therefore the obvious goodness of Mormonism 'must be' a fake. What follows is too-often a spiteful willingness and desire to believe all sorts of malicious lies and gossip and misrepresentations about Mormons; to infer all sorts of wicked and covert motivations - in sum to indulge in negative prejudice which already-assumes that which it ostensibly sets out to discover: i.e. the wickedness of the CJCLDS. 

Today's 2 X 2 Table is therefore:

Mormonism is:

True and Good
True and Evil
A Fraud and Good
A Fraud and Evil

To say the CJCLDS is True and Good is to be a believer; to say it is a Fraud and Evil is to be dishonest about 185 years of knowledge and experience. 

The two apparent paradoxes are True and Evil - which might theoretically be found in someone who  believed the CJCLDS had become corrupted - perhaps one of the other Mormon-descended groups such as the erstwhile Reformed Latter Day Saints. And the other paradox is Fraud and Good - which is the position being discussed here. 

So, this is a challenge for decent, honest, mainstream Christians (note: the challenge is not for Mormons!) -  I mean those many Christians who do not believe Mormonism is true, but who do believe it is good.

The challenge to make an explanation for your honest beliefs: an explanation for the reality of the Mormon church 185 years down the line - an explanation that describes how goodness can come from fraud, and what that explanation entails and implies. 

This is no easy matter, and I have never yet seen it convincingly done - and until it has been done we will not know whether it is possible to do. 

Note: By contrast with belief, which ought to be straightforward; becoming an active member of the CJCLDS is a further step, and very big step - for instance, I am a believer in the truth of the CJCLDS, and I did not find this a big or scary step to make once I had become a Christian - but I am not a church member. 


Bruce B. said...

A commenter in another thread offered an answer to your paradox. The Mormon religion, like many religions, shows the fruits of natural religion/revelation. To their credit, the Mormon religion does this better than many religions so one certainly gets the impression of a good religion.

Tucker said...

I think this is a pretty poor post, Bruce; there's not nearly as much as as "paradox" as you're making out. It's entirely possible to allow that Mormonism does a lot of this-world good, while being on the whole evil in the sense of being ultimately fraudulent.

I mean, I would say that The Other Religion does a lot of this-world good, too...

Freddy Martini said...

I am not sure how much influence it has outside of the US, but in every bookstore, for decades, one of the most widely sold "self-help" book was written by the Mormon Stephen Covey, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." I suspect that Mormon theology had a profound effect on the book. This book personally changed my life when I was studying in college around the age of 20.

Nathaniel said...

Tucker - I'd contend then that you simply don't understand Mormonism very well, if you think it's that easy to dismiss as a poor post. Mormons, individually and on a whole, claim to receive real and continuous revelation and guidance from God for their personal lives and the church as a whole.

Mormons, as individuals, are better than average on almost every metric. Higher median wealth, longer life expectancy, higher average intelligence, one of the few Christian denomination with above-replace fertility, etc.. So all these personal benefits on top of being one of the largest givers, both monetarily and of personal time, to religious activities, devotion, etc.

So either this constant guidance is a fraud, and it is somehow inconceivably leading to good fruits, or God is actively working within the church. If God is actively working within the church and its members, did he do this despite it being somehow founded on a fraud? Most of the explanations don't seem particularly tenable.

Odin's Raven said...

Are your categories relevant and complete? What are truth and fraud in religious terms? What is the purpose of religion and how does it actually function, regardless of the particular claims of particular versions?

You will be of aware of Christianity's history of pious fraud and fakery, allegedly to strengthen the faith of the weaker brethren by providing the 'evidence' that God or history had failed to leave. Remember the famous quote from Edward Gibbon, “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”

Surely any religion is not something separate from its practitioners, it can hardly be more or less true,good or fraudulent than their behaviour. A famous Indian guru said that he'd managed to achieve enlightenment in their terms by practice of the precepts of Christianity and Islam, as well as Hinduism.

If the purpose of religion is, as the term suggests, to tie or link one back to one's source in spirit, the particular one used seems a matter of convenience. For most people its a social convenience, usually with an authority to relieve them of the responsibility of thinking for themselves.

An interesting possibility is that Mormonism may be a successor or offshoot of Christianity, which is obviously very feeble now. The cohesiveness, energy and discipline reputed of Mormons are useful survival characteristics.

If Mormonism floats your boat, good luck on your spiritual voyage!

Bruce Charlton said...

Comments from Deconstructing Leftism: "I spent part of my childhood in the natural home of Mormonism, the inland Western US, knew a number of Mormon families growing up, and maybe have a cultural understanding of Mormon culture a non-American, or an American who had not lived some time in the inland western US, would have(...)

"Mormonism is a niche religion, with a appeal to a small number of people. I think there need to be different versions of Christianity for different people, and the Mormon version is good for Mormons. The additions and modifications Mormons make to the Bible are helpful to the extent they help people understand and follow Jesus, even if they are not true.

"I don't think debating theology aggressively is very helpful. I would strongly discourage a non-Mormon from adopting the religion, but I would not try to convince a Mormon he was wrong."

Bruce Charlton said...

I think, probably, the best approach to this paradox would start from Mere Christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

Actually, on further thought (in the bath) I think I have found a possible way of explaining the paradox - which some mainstream Christians believe - that Mormonism is both a fraud and good...

Which is firstly to accept that Joseph Smith really was a Prophet of God as he claimed, and genuinely received divine revelations - and it was this which enabled him to do what he did, and which made Mormonism good -

Now, all informed and thoughtful Mormons accept that Joseph Smith's was *also* (as he said of himself) fallible, and that his knowledge was incomplete.

A mainstream Christian could simply take this further, and claim that Joseph Smith was a true prophet who received a number of divine revelations- but so fallible that he also made many errors, made-up extra stuff, and over-reached - eventually, he got-carried-away to the extent of committing fraud as a means to a good end.

Let's say, JS may have been on the one hand God-inspired and good-hearted and well-intended, on the other hand he had self-deluding elements - the kind of person who believes his own lies (not at all uncommon).

So the good of Mormonism is from God via Joseph Smith, and the fraud is from Joseph Smith alone.

To believe this would merely entail believing that God would use a very flawed prophet to attain his purposes - and that idea has ample Old Testament parallels.

Of course, most mainstream Christians would reject the idea that Joseph Smith was a true Prophet- but most of them are either ignorant or negatively prejudiced. As Harold Bloom discovered (see above link) - once you know about what Joseph Smith did, honesty compels the choice between believing that he was either a real genius or a real prophet.

So it is not really at all difficult to believe that Joseph Smith was a true Prophet!

And both Mormons and non-Mormon Christians agree with Smith that he was a flawed Prophet.

If these premises are accepted, the only disagreement between Mormons and non-Mormon Christians can then simply be a matter of *how much* flawed of a Prophet he was, a merely quantitative dispute.

Maybe this is helpful?

Nathaniel said...

Bruce - I'm not sure that works with the Book of Mormon. It is necessary for most denominations to reject the Book of Mormon entirely as part of their explanation. Individual Christians might believe otherwise, but then how do they approach it? Do they ignore it or use it? It seems it would necessarily lead to a non-CJCLDS yet Mormon denomination.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathaniel - I don't see any particular problem with the Book of Mormon; in the sense that Mormons believe it was translated by Joseph Smith with divine aid. That is Joseph did not receive it literally, by dictation - but in a complex process in which Joseph actively participated. So (as a translator) Joseph's personality is in the BoM, and also his era and knowledge, and some errors or approximations.

My imaginary Christian non-Mormon would simply need to assume that the Book of Mormon was divinely inspired and contained revelations - but also a high percentage of Joseph Smith, who added a lot to, and maybe distorted, the divine revelations.

In other words, if Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon is almost perfect in its accuracy and validity, this person might believe that Book of Mormon contained some nuggets of genuine revelation (because JS was indeed a prophet - I am assuming that this is assumed) but that most of it, perhaps *nearly* all of it but not all, was 'made up' by Joseph.

ajb said...

This paradox is similar to the trilemma Lewis attempts to construct. Was Jesus liar, lunatic, or lord?

Just as the paradox above can be resolved through a more detailed, messy theory of what was going on, Lewis' trilemma can have holes poked through it by invoking a more messy, complicated picture of what exactly was going on in Jesus' day.

Lewis was going for an easy 'philosophical' knock-out, but my experience suggests any such philosophical arguments should be treated with a large amount of critical thought - they're usually too abstract, too airy, reality usually has more options than we can imagine while walking the grounds of Oxford, say.

As far as Mormonism goes, my view is that there are obviously good and true aspects of Mormonism, but some things that it gets wrong. Smith was a to-some-significant-extent inspired prophet. Like with basically anything, I take what seems good, reject what seems obviously bad, and leave for further review things that might not make sense to me now but might in the future.

I can also separate questions about Smith from questions about the organization today. Smith advocated polygamy, Mormons today don't. And so on.

I would have no problem being active with a CJCLDS church in some significant sense (perhaps in an interdenominational sense), while not being a Mormon theoretically (holding certain major aspects of Mormon orthodoxy in question - as with basically every major type of Christianity) - but I wouldn't be willing to say I agreed with things where I didn't (so formally joining the CJCLDS would probably be out of the question).

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I personally regard Lewis's trilemma as correct, and I am unconvinced by the arguments of those who have tried to portray it as simplistic. The reason Lewis is correct is that he is psychologically realistic, while the arguments against the trilemma are purely formal/ logical.

Unknown said...

Howdy, Bruce.
Long-time reader, never-yet-comment-er. I really enjoy your thoughts.
Short introduction for context: American / Mormon / Community Psychiatrist / father of 6 among other things. For what it might or might not be worth, Mormonism in practice (and I am practicing) despite the off-putting phantasmagoria, is (for me) mere Christianity. It has permitted me, and my family, to worship Jesus in a setting that foregrounds the spiritual meaning of the mundane things of life (family, future, striving, suffering). And, though the question of whether the Church is True is a meaningful one, it has not, in my lived experience, been as important to me in the end as how good and how true the life has been that it has disciplined me into. I know that it has helped me to be a “more good, more true” father, physician, and follower of Jesus.
As you are saying (I think): How can something be a fraud if it makes true people?
Thanks again for this blog which also helps me.
Mark Clifford

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mark - Thanks for your encouraging note - I'm very pleased to have been of some help.