Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Redemption for the Dead, Part II

Tied to the previous lesson from the Joseph Smith manual, which I blogged about before, is lesson 36, “Receiving the Ordinances and Blessings of the Temple”:

Spending most of my time around biblical Christians these days there are some nuances on this subject that are not necessarily that meaningful to most Latter-day Saints. In some ways I was looking for specific things to be offended about and didn’t necessarily find those things, mostly because the lesson wasn’t that specific about them. It tends to refer to “ordinances of salvation” with sort of a broad brush, without being specific about what ordinances might be involved in specific aspects of salvation.

For me, even when I was a believing Latter-day Saint, there were nuances to this subject because of all the various kingdoms involved. From the LDS view “salvation” could be a range of things from just being in “Heaven” to becoming a king and priest unto the most high God to achieving “exaltation”, i.e. godhood. My viewpoint was always that salvation was sort of a graded event with a number of different possible outcomes, depending on worthiness, ordinances, and ultimately what kind of place your faith would lead you to want to spend time and all eternity.

Well, the lesson doesn’t really get into that and just isn’t very specific in that way. Probably representative statements are these:

““The question is frequently asked, ‘Can we not be saved without going through with all those ordinances, etc.?’ I would answer, No, not the fullness of salvation. Jesus said, ‘There are many mansions in my Father’s house, and I will go and prepare a place for you.’ [See John 14:2.] House here named should have been translated kingdom; and any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a celestial law, and the whole law too.”15

“All men who become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ will have to receive the fulness of the ordinances of his kingdom; and those who will not receive all the ordinances will come short of the fulness of that glory.”16

So clearly to receive the fullness of salvation all the ordinances must be received, which I think we can reasonably assume to mean temple marriage.

So I think any cathartic goal I might have had to rip this lesson to shreds in that way is just going to be frustrated.

I will comment on a few things I found just plain wrong about this lesson, possibly more because of misleading impressions it might give than what it might actually say.

This statement would be my poster child:

“In March 1844, the Prophet met with the Twelve and the Nauvoo Temple committee to discuss how to allocate the Church’s meager resources. In this meeting, the Prophet said: “We need the temple more than anything else.” "

You can probably twist this statement different ways, but fundamentally what it says is not true.

We do not need the temple more than anything else. We need the blessings of the atonement more than anything else.

You might say that the temple is the place we go to get the fullness of those blessings, but this obsessive focus on the temple itself encourages an unhealthy idolatry. It causes us to think about the mechanics. The building, the hoops you have to jump through to get a temple recommend, your personal “worthiness”, the authority of the person who signs the recommend who functionally stands between you and eternal life if you can’t convince them you’re worthy, etc.

To the extent that temple ordinances have any actual impact on our eternal life, the miracle and power behind those ordinances is what Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, and there is simply no other responsible way to present this subject.

There was one quote from the lesson I thought verged on the bizarre:

“If a man gets a fulness of the priesthood of God, he has to get it in the same way that Jesus Christ obtained it, and that was by keeping all the commandments and obeying all the ordinances of the house of the Lord. … “

I find any number of things to be offensive about this statement. It’s odd in general to think of the great God who created heaven and earth, who spoke and brought the known universes into existence, having to be evaluated by some kind of scorecard, just like we are, and having to receive ordinances, I assume directly from the hand of God the Father, as there was nobody else to administer them. I’m somehow imagining God the Father dressed in a white polyester suit standing behind an altar and pushing buttons to roll the film, while Jesus Christ has a little slip of paper pinned to his robe with his name on it. Then I start to think about having to stand in the prayer circle, I assume with Heavenly Mother, and it goes downhill from there.

Probably the thing that is most offensive is that this idea, conceptually similar to the King Follett sermon, brings Christ down to our level. He has to follow the same rules and system we do, which at the same time diminishes the glory and authority of Christ and exalts the scorecard, the ordinances, and the “rules” we have to follow for eternal progression.

I reject both ideas.

Christ is incomparably holy. He defines holiness and perfection. And the “system” we have established for salvation in the LDS church in the latter days is a fraud. Man is created as an imperfect being for reasons we don’t totally understand, and we achieve eternal life through faith and the merits of the Christ and not primarily through our own efforts or ordinances administered by fallible human beings. The New Testament and Book of Mormon are crystal-clear on this. I don’t understand why the LDS church has chosen to twist the foundational scriptures in this way.

In general the problem with lessons like this is not the underlying doctrine or practice, with some obvious exceptions. I think it would be totally possible to present this subject in a balanced way that gave glory to God, reinforced the principles of salvation by faith through the merits of Christ, and helped people to appreciate the power of Joseph Smith’s words and the beauty of the ordinances. Instead the brains behind this lesson choose to reinforce the authority of LDS church leaders and to twist this doctrine and these practices into some kind of weird para-Christian cult, and I find this perpetually disappointing.
Why do I do this? --

As time goes on I find myself drifting out of the "evaluation" phase of my disaffection with the LDS church and into the advocacy phase. Before we were kind of studying all this out together to try and figure it out. Now I have basically made my decision and am trying to point out things to help clarify other people's thinking.


To destroy the church or something similar? Not at all. I have no hope whatsoever of influencing the institutional LDS church. I might, however, help alleviate some of the cognitive dissonance people unconsciously feel as they experience the disconnect between doctrine and practice. I think being able to see it for what it is helps people process it in healthier ways.

Another point my wife made is that there are a lot of people trying to deconstruct the LDS church based on historical or cultural issues. There aren't many people out there deconstructing it from the inside based on doctrinal issues, because most people who get to this point just hang up their cleats and leave. So maybe it's useful to approach the LDS church from the truly believing perspective of someone who has actually studied the scriptures, believes them to be generally true, and wants the LDS church to be consistent with what should be its own teachings.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Latter-day Saint Ethical Life

A link to this showed up in my inbox this morning.

I thought it was interesting that several LDS general authorities were quoted, and quotes like this:

"Latter-day Saint ethical life requires members to treat their neighbors with respect, regardless of the situation."

attempt to inspire behavior based on church membership.

Nowhere was Christ quoted, from either the Book of Mormon or the Bible. So, who is our authority in the LDS church? What is our primary allegiance? To the institutional church, or to Christ? Pointing people to Thomas Monson and "the Church" just doesn't have the power of pointing them to Christ and the cross.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Redemption for the Dead –

Having spent the summer re-reading the Book of Mormon and a loooong book on Systematic Theology from the Reformed viewpoint, I find myself getting caught up on lessons from the priesthood manual. Haven’t been to my ward since May, but I’m still committed to staying up on the priesthood lessons and the Ensign, so long as my name is still on the record books. Some apostate I am, but I digress.

This morning I made my second trip through lesson 35 in the Joseph Smith manual, entitled “Redemption for the Dead”:

This is an important subject for me. The arbitrariness of one person being saved forever in Heaven because they said a little prayer, while some equally good or evil person being damned because they failed to say a little prayer, is one of the things that drew me to the LDS church in the first place. I found the doctrine to be systematic, consistent, and fair (at least according to my logic).

This is going to be a yin/yang post, so don’t judge the content until you’ve read to the end. I both liked this lesson and hated it for various reasons, so I guess this will perpetuate both the love affair I’ve always had with the LDS church as well as the current road to apostasy, leading straight to Hell, that I’m currently on.

First the carrot.

In general the principles actually articulated in this lesson come closest to what I actually doctrinally believe. I’ve studied this subject and don’t believe that God will arbitrarily condemn some people to a fiery Hell, where the wicked are continually burning but never consumed, because of an accident of birth or circumstance. Joseph Smith says this much better than I do.

“The idea that some men form of the justice, judgment, and mercy of God, is too foolish for an intelligent man to think of: for instance, it is common for many of our orthodox preachers to suppose that if a man is not what they call converted, if he dies in that state he must remain eternally in Hell without any hope. Infinite years in torment must he spend, and never, never, never have an end; and yet this eternal misery is made frequently to rest upon the merest casualty [chance]. The breaking of a shoe-string, the tearing of a coat of those officiating, or the peculiar location in which a person lives, may be the means, indirectly, of his damnation, or the cause of his not being saved.

“I will suppose a case which is not extraordinary: Two men, who have been equally wicked, who have neglected religion, are both of them taken sick at the same time; one of them has the good fortune to be visited by a praying man, and he gets converted a few minutes before he dies; the other sends for three different praying men, a tailor, a shoemaker, and a tinman; the tinman has a handle to solder to a pan, the tailor has a button-hole to work on some coat that he needed in a hurry, and the shoemaker has a patch to put on somebody’s boot; they none of them can go in time, the man dies, and goes to hell: one of these is exalted to Abraham’s bosom, he sits down in the presence of God and enjoys eternal, uninterrupted happiness, while the other, equally as good as he, sinks to eternal damnation, irretrievable misery and hopeless despair, because a man had a boot to mend, the button-hole of a coat to work, or a handle to solder on to a saucepan.

“The plans of Jehovah are not so unjust, the statements of holy writ so [illusory], nor the plan of salvation for the human family so incompatible with common sense; at such proceedings God would frown with indignance, angels would hide their heads in shame, and every virtuous, intelligent man would recoil.

“If human laws award to each man his deserts, and punish all delinquents according to their several crimes, surely the Lord will not be more cruel than man, for He is a wise legislator, and His laws are more equitable, His enactments more just, and His decisions more perfect than those of man; and as man judges his fellow man by law, and punishes him according to the penalty of the law, so does God of Heaven judge ‘according to the deeds done in the body.’ [See Alma 5:15.] To say that the heathens would be damned because they did not believe the Gospel would be preposterous, and to say that the Jews would all be damned that do not believe in Jesus would be equally absurd; for ‘how can they believe on him of whom they have not heard, and how can they hear without a preacher, and how can he preach except he be sent’ [see Romans 10:14–15]; consequently neither Jew nor heathen can be culpable for rejecting the conflicting opinions of sectarianism, nor for rejecting any testimony but that which is sent of God, for as the preacher cannot preach except he be sent, so the hearer cannot believe [except] he hear a ‘sent’ preacher, and cannot be condemned for what he has not heard, and being without law, will have to be judged without law.”10

End quote.

Having studied 1 Peter several times, and also having read non-LDS analyses of it, I generally agree with his reading of it:

“Peter, also, in speaking concerning our Savior, says, that ‘He went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which sometimes were disobedient, when once the long suffering of God waited in the days of Noah’ (1 Peter 3:19, 20). Here then we have an account of our Savior preaching to the spirits in prison, to spirits that had been imprisoned from the days of Noah; and what did He preach to them? That they were to stay there? Certainly not! Let His own declaration testify. ‘He hath sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.’ (Luke 4:18.) Isaiah has it—‘To bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness from the prison house.’ (Isaiah 42:7.) It is very evident from this that He not only went to preach to them, but to deliver, or bring them out of the prison house. … “

Whether actually scripture or not, I’ve always found the answer to Joseph F. Smith’s heartfelt prayer to be extremely compelling:

When I think of the God who created the heavens and the wonderful earth we live on, with man as his crowning creation, I just can’t believe people would be arbitrarily condemned based on an accident of circumstance. That they happened to be born in China or Saudi Arabia, or in post-Christian Europe for that matter. I have to believe that, if people are really saved or condemned based on accepting Christ, they will get a fair chance to hear the gospel preached and either accept it or reject it, in this life or the next. If we can take John 3:3 – 5 literally and that the ordinance of baptism is really required to go to Heaven, that all will somehow get a fair chance to receive that ordinance.

OK, thus ends the carrot.

If you’re a true-believing Mormon and feel pretty good about Joseph Smith and what the institutional church is teaching, this would be a good time to brew up a cup of Postum and review the First Presidency message for this month and maybe skip the rest of this.

The stick.

Having read through this lesson in the Joseph Smith manual and feeling pretty good about what Joseph Smith taught, this is not what we currently teach as the doctrine of salvation. We do not teach that people are saved merely by baptism, as the Joseph Smith manual suggests.
See a previous blog post on this subject:

Current teaching of the LDS apostles is that salvation/exaltation is only achieved through the ordinance of temple marriage, which is not what this lesson from the Joseph Smith manual teaches.

There are a number of things that bother me about this.

First, I’m comfortable believing in baptism as the gateway to Heaven, because Jesus taught that and the Book of Mormon teaches it. This is a salvation based on faith, receiving a simple ordinance as the public expression of that faith.

I just can’t believe in salvation based on temple marriage, because there are too many hoops for people to jump through to qualify for it. Not only being able to pass a temple recommend interview, which is almost completely works-based, but having to pass an interview conducted by two fallible human beings who I will not accept as the gatekeepers to Heaven.

Possibly the main thing that specifically bothers me about this lesson in the Joseph Smith manual is that it does not teach doctrine that’s consistent with what the apostles are teaching. It teaches a warm fuzzy doctrine of inclusion that is at odds with the stark doctrine of salvation for the very few who can qualify for a temple marriage. At its best it’s inconsistent. At its worst its intentionally deceptive, again hiding the true doctrine we actually preach that is going to make many members of the LDS church uncomfortable and most non-LDS Christians angry.
If people are really going roast in Hell without a temple marriage, do us a favor and tell us that and don’t tell us heartwarming stories about Alvin Smith being baptized by proxy, as though baptism would actually do us any good.