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.

Anonymous said...

Bruce, the theologion who has done the most to make me open to and amenable to the theology of Mormonism is you yourself. In your e-book, you presented yourself as probably the most powerful advocate (and a disinterested one at that!), I have come across. Ted Callister's book The Inevitable Apostasy was so polemical in nature as to leave me quite turned off. Indeed, I found his use of Church Father writings to be an exercise in cherry-picking and taking things out of context, as well as a willful disregarding of explicit statements in the New Testament that contradicted his case against the early Church Fathers. Anyway, I am making this preamble simply to make clear that I am not looking to disqualify Mormom thought, as your own work has already gone quite a distance in drawing me to it.

That said, can you clarify what you mean by Original Sin and why you think there is no Biblical basis for it? When I think of the doctrine of Original Sin and its relation to Christian theology, the Christian thinker who immediately comes to mind is neither Augustine nor Calvin, but Paul in the following passage from Romans. When I read this, I don't see how one can come away other than with some understanding that sin was brought into the world via Adam's disobedience, that we have all paid the price for this (i.e. been sinners), but that since Jesus Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, a path has been show to us that liberates us from Sin / Death, if we follow it. The preceding sentence is how I understand "original sin", and how I see Christian doctrine -- since the very earliest NT scriptures without any subsequent Church Father interpretation -- understands and addresses it. Is your objection to the doctrine of Original Sin that it would condemn any child born into the world prior to his/her conscious, knowing acceptance of Christianity?

"12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:

13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.

14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.

15 But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.

16 And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification.

17 For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)

18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.

19 For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

20 Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound:

21 That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord."

Romans, 5:12-21.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Samuel - You would have to read Givens to get the full argument. From my POV I cannot allow that fundamental Christian doctrine be set by a single Biblical passage when that is not supported by the Gospels and/or overall New Testament teaching.

As you know, I regard the Fourth Gospel as by-far the most authoritative account of Jesus's teaching; and Original Sin is neither mentioned nor implied - indeed it runs contrary to the teachings presented.

The only significant 'difficulty' is therefore to explain the apparent wrongness of the passage from Paul - but as it is complex - and we may be misunderstanding it; and anyway the Bible is not supposed to be infallible in every verse and passage... so there isn't really much to 'explain away'.

My interpretation is that this passage and a few other partial-hints, were seized upon, and dishonestly elaborated, as a way of explaining why Christ was *necessary*. i.e. Why an allegedly omnipotent God (who could do anything that was possible, including creating everything from nothing) could not set things right for Man without such a roundabout rigmarole as sending Jesus - part of himself in a mystical Trinity - to be incarnated, live, be crucified, die and be resurrected.

Such bizarre pseudo-explanations as Original Sin was typical of the kind of thing that some early theologians were driven to, by their philosophical preconceptions about what God 'must be' like. And these errors were locked-in - not least by the vicious persecutions of the early Christological disputes.

Part of the necessity of creating Original Sin was due to the refusal to accept the Fourth Gospel's account that Jesus taught that Man was to be as He was (starting with the disciples), and that Jesus himself was like to God... So that there was a path of divinisation leading from all Men, to Jesus, and to the Father.

Because the early theologians wanted to retain their already existing (pre-Christian) definition of God as utterly other than, and infinitely distant from Man (living outside space and time; omni-potent, -present, -scient etc) such a path to theosis had to be excluded by definition.

Yet theosis is the proper aim of all Men (not just in mortal life, but implicitly beyond and forever) - according to Christ's own teaching.

Once we have abandoned these philosophical errors, there is no need for Original Sin - and we can recognise that it just isn't taught in relevant and authoritative Scripture.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I myself take a nuanced view. While I would not say that all humans are guilty of the specific transgression of Adam and Eve which led to them being ejected from the Garden of Eden, I frequently say that all humans born on Earth have specific individual spiritual circumstances which require that they suffer life on a fallen world, and except for Christ, the circumstances always include spiritual flaws that needed to be purged.

So for me, the difference between the false doctrine of Original Sin and the true doctrine of ubiquitous personal sin is basically splitting hairs with an axe. One has better things to be doing with an axe that sharp.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your detailed response, Bruce.

A few additional thoughts on this:

I see what Paul is doing as making explicit what was, perhaps, implicit in the Gospels and Jesus' words. Jesus did say that we must follow him to get into the kingdom of heaven. To that extent, something is "wrong" with us, that could only be fixed via revelation and the intervention of God via Jesus into our lives. However one chooses to interpret this "wrongness" -- i.e. as Sin, as evil, as confusion, as weakness, or as "missing the mark" [the literal meaning of the word sin in Greek -- the system that is being described in the Gospel is one of flawed mankind with a corresponding way out. (And I hear you that it is possible I am "reading in" notions that are not there.) This system, as so described, is an elegant way of understanding evil in the world, and how we can, on an individual basis, overcome it, or be prepared to overcome it in the world to come.

And far from seeing this as involving an omnipotent God, to me it implies a God who is not omnipotent: if the Devil is the Prince of this world, that would imply that God has lost control or never had full control, and He used the vehicle of his Son to "hack" into a system that He was not fully in control of. And this can be found without resorting to Paul or the Church Fathers, although clearly Paul makes it more explicit.

But Paul's explication both comports with my individual experience of the world and is consistent with what is already in the Gospels, namely, that (1) we are flawed, and subject to sin, even where we know better and wish we were stronger, thus the need to repent which is presented in the Gospels; (2) that submitting ourselves to Jesus, following him, is the way out of that, and that this submission is a liberation, not an enslavement, (3) that such submission had to come via Jesus: the OT view of submitting to the will of a God who was not mediated through man simply did not work; and (4) this is consonant with the view of Will presented in the Gospels, for example the Lord's Prayer, Jesus' statement in Gethsemane, etc.

One more explicit quote from Paul on these matters. And, yes, he does make it harsher than how it is presented in the Gospel, but I don't see it is incompatible with what is already there.

"For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin."

Romans 7:15-25

Bruce Charlton said...

@Samuel - I don't see it like that - but in a way of theosis. To think of the whole thing as a fall-into and rescue-from sin is upside down. Its not about getting again what we already had - we never had it. We never were like God - that is in the future (wanting it, after work, choices etc). It is about moving towards becoming more divine; more like a development. The Fourth Gospel calls this things like Life Everlasting - the gift of Jesus.

Chiu ChunLing said...

To use a human analogy, a loving parent doesn't try to avoid the commonplace rebellion of teenage years by stunting their children's emotional and physical development so that they are stuck in perpetual infancy and never gain the capacity for rebellion.

Instead, you just have to accept that there's going to be a certain amount of rebellion as children grow up and deal with it when it happens.

Anonymous said...

Bruce, thank you for your responses and insights. I will give further consideration to them.