Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mormons at the Door

Just after dinner a couple of "elders" (looking about 20) knocked on the door. Having recently cleaned up from doing yard work, I was wearing jeans and a white undershirt with my hair all standing up, and having just finished dinner I was holding a glass of red wine. So I stepped out to talk with them for a moment.

They assured me they were here to share with me and my family a message that Jesus had to help families -- which they suspected I was aware face a plenitude of assaults in the modern world.

Yes, I was aware of the message of Jesus, but being Catholic I didn't think that this was a good time to discuss it with them.

Had I talked with missionaries from the Latter Day Saints before?

Why yes, though it's been a while.

Did I have five minutes to listen to the message they had for us?

"No, I'm afraid not. I've enjoyed dialoging with Mormons in the past, but honestly this just isn't a good time to get into all that."

Did I know anyone in the neighborhood who was in need of their message? (For a mischievous moment I considered sending them after the lesbians next door -- but neither party needed that aggravation and my better angels prevailed.) No, I'm afraid not.

It's fun to go after Mormons with questions like whether God is eternal or merely immortal, and whether Jesus and the God the Father are of one will or two (and if two, whether they agree because they both obey some higher law.) But in the end, I confess I just didn't feel like dealing with it.

And the living room was a bit messy anyway...


Anonymous said...

Gosh, though, it would have been so much funny to send them after the lesbians.

You're a better man than me.


Seth R. said...

Can the Catholic God decide one day not to be God?

Can he create a rock so big he cannot lift it?

Can he decide one day to be evil?

If the answer to all these questions is "no" then isn't your God living in accordance with some sort of standard as well?

So I fail to see the difference between the Catholic notion of God and the Mormon notion of God on this score.

Darwin said...


I'm a bit confused by your questions in that they deal with definitional impossibilities. Similar questions would be, "Can God create a circle with four corners" or "Can God calculate the square root of negative one."

That God "cannot" do these things does not mean that God is limited or that God follows some external set of laws, but rather that these are things which definitionally cannot be.

Part of the problem here is that Mormonism is philosophically incoherent -- or perhaps to give the maximum benefit of the doubt: Mormons have not up to this point couched their faith in philosophically coherent terms. Perhaps this is in part because doing so would strongly underscore the major difference between Mormonism and the monotheistic religions.

So for instance, on the question of whether God is immortal or eternal, the answer is, from what I've been able to understand from Mormons, that they believe he is immortal but not eternal. That is, God had a beginning, in the Mormon view. He will never die, but he was once born in much the same way we are and became God (or our world, at any rate) but he is not an the one, eternal, omnipotent creator which Christians, Jews and Muslims understand him to be.

Catholics believe God to be eternal, without beginning and without end. God is pure being and pure good -- all things that are came into existence through his creative will, and we define goodness and justice in reference to the perfect forms of justice and goodness which are God.

Similarly, according to Mormons (what previous Mormon missionaries have told me and what I've read, at any rate) Jesus and God the Father and the Holy Spirit are not in fact three persons of one God, one in being and one in will, but rather three completely separate persons. The way the bishop who came to back up the two missionaries we talked with several years back put it was: "The Heavenly Father and Jesus are two separate persons just like you and I are two separate persons."

This is contrary to the understanding of the Trinity which is shared by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, which is that the three persons of the Trinity are one God, sharing one nature and one will.

Obviously, all of this takes a lot of time to work through in conversation. It would be incredibly rude to start barking questions at missionaries just to trip them up. And while I think it's an important thing to do, because I would love for Mormons to come to an understanding of the one true faith, it's obviously up hill work since many missionaries have been trained not to let themselves get led off the beaten path of their presentation -- and it's not something one has time to get into just any old time. At the end of a long day, when feeling a bit under the weather anyway, it didn't seem like the right time.

Seth R. said...

In case it's not clear, I am a practicing Mormon (LDS branch). And I appreciate your concern with fairness and civility.

I think you are correct to point out that Mormonism hasn't really managed to couch its theology in philosophically careful language up to this point. Attempts are being made, but, if I may, I would compare where our Church is at to where primitive Christianity was at before figures such as Tertullian and others started systematizing Christianity (mostly as an apologetic endeavor).

So give us time.

But I would, of course, dispute that being theologically careful renders Mormonism incoherent.

Historically, there have been three main ways in which Christians have tried to deal with the issue of how you can have Father, Son and Spirit, and yet still "One God."

1. Modalism - One god with different hats, or different faces, or multiple personalities, or whatever. Thus "Father", "Son", and "Spirit" are simply different aspects that the same being shows to us at different times.

Modalism is, of course denounced as a heresy by traditional Christian thought (of which Roman Catholicism is a part).

2. Tri-Theism - Three separate beings who basically play on the same team.

This is also a denounced heresy by creedal Christianity.

3. Trinitarianism - They are three separate beings, but they aren't three separate beings. They are one nature, but they are also three natures. How this works, nobody knows. Apparently it's all a mystery.

Now, I can't get on board with trinitarianism. It's basically a non-answer. It tries to have things both ways, and ends up not making sense either way. It's self-contradictory and apparently incoherent.

The "it's a mystery" defense doesn't really do it for me either. I think you can invoke that defense with a lot of things about God. But I don't think it gives people license to say things about God that are mutually exclusive, self-contradictory, and self-defeating.

God either is one essence or he isn't. You can't have it both ways.

I also cannot get on board with modalism since it denies the reality of the Son, contradicts the Bible, and denies the direct revelation the LDS Church has received from God. I agree with Christian thinkers who have denounced this position as heresy.

But it is my experience that many traditional Christians who argue with Mormons will over-compensate and use language that is explicitly modalistic to compensate for the perceived tri-theism of Mormonism.

By using such misguided language, they unwittingly reinforce the Mormon stereotype of the creedal God as being some sort of alien, de-personalized, "divine cosmic blob" of changing aspects.

Many Mormons believe that traditional Christianity's official position is modalism.

What about tri-theism? Are Mormons tri-theists, as you assert?

Some are. I suppose it's a position you can take within the religion. I think it is a mistaken position, though not one that has to be ultimately of crucial consequence to one's salvation.

As to why Mormons are often tri-theist in their conception of God...

Honestly, I think that traditional Christianity shares some of the blame for that. Mormonism's most explicitly tri-theist rhetoric usually developed in RESPONSE to an environment of modalist rhetoric that pervaded the rest of the Christian world during the 1800s.

Seth R. said...

Post two of three:

In short, we were compensating (and perhaps over-compensating) ourselves for the heresy of modalism that had infected the rest of Christianity.

I think tri-theism is not compatible with Mormon scripture however. The Book of Mormon, for instance, is full of verses about the unity of Father Son and Spirit. In fact, ironically, the Book of Mormon is probably even more explicitly trinitarian than the New Testament.

Mormonism's critics will often nastily comment that this is because Joseph Smith was making the religion up on the fly. But I see little inconsistency with the Book of Mormon, and other revelations revealed to Joseph Smith.

I think tri-theism among Mormons, like modalism among other Christians is more a result of sloppy theological thinking than anything else.

But it's hard to blame the adherents.

Unlike traditional trinitarianism, modalism and tri-theism are both logically coherent theological propositions. Modalism makes sense, and is not logically contradictory. Likewise with tri-theism. This is why so many Christians - both Catholic and Mormon - fall into these heresies.

But traditional creedal Christianity is not the answer to these problems. It's propositions simply don't work. It's not a matter of "mystery." They just don't work because they are mutually exclusive of each other.

Let me lay it out with Augustine's explanation:

1. The Father is God
2. The Son is God
3. The Father is not the Son
4. There is one God

Take any of those three propositions and you have a coherent statement. 1, 2, and 4 and you get modalism. 1, 2, and 3 and you get tri-theism. I won't go into the other combos, but all were denounced as heresies in favor of including all 4 propositions - giving us creedal trinitarianism.

But all four propositions cannot be true together. They are
mutually exclusive.

Traditional Christianity has never resolved this glaring flaw in its theology. Today most traditional theologians throw up their hands and retreat to the "mystery" explanation (which is not an explanation at all).

Seth R. said...

Post 3 of 3:

So, how does Joseph Smith get around this?

It is not, as many Christians think, by a retreat to tri-theism.

No religious leader in history has ever been more adamant about the radical unity of Father, Son and Spirit. Many Mormons lose sight of this as they continue trying to prevent prevent their Protestant and Catholic neighbors from turning God into the cosmic equivalent of "The Blob."

But Joseph was indeed adamant that Father, Son and Spirit share a profound unity of purpose, mind, will, and above all - love. They are so united that they literally inhabit each others' minds. To know the thoughts of one is to know the thoughts of all. To meet one is to meet all.

But they are not the same person. They don't share any sort of "ousis" or any other purely Greek philosophical notion of "essence" or "substance" or whatever else.

Rather the unity is one of profound love. "Perichoresis" to use the E. Orthodox term.

Mormons often underestimate the full scope of this unity. But Joseph was adamant that unity in love is a defining feature of the Godhead. This same indwelling love or perichoresis is the same posited device whereby Mormon theology proposes to exalt humankind. We gain exaltation by participation in this unifying love.

(Incidentally, one thing that has always puzzled me is how traditional Christianity can in one breath assert a unity of three beings, and, in another breath categorically deny the possibility that MORE than three beings might be united in the same way.)

I'll save your other remarks for perhaps some other time. I think the above is enough to go on at present.

Darwin said...


Sorry to be late and brief, but I've been a trifle under the weather (last in the family to enjoy the flu bug that's going around).

First, I should say that what you say above is fairly clear and shows a good deal of thought, which of course I appreciate you taking the time to do.

In regards to your points on the Trinity: I guess I'm puzzled as to why you dismiss trinitarianism (to use your terms, which seem useful) so quickly. As you say, this is how creedal Christianity has come to understand what is revealed to us in the Scriptures, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And while it does contain an element of mystery, I don't really see how it's a "non answer" so much as a human attempt to encounter the revelation which has been provided to us.

Looking at what we have from scripture, Christ tells the disciples in Mt 28:19 to baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", so we have the trinity laid out clearly in the first Gospel. In regards to unity and co-eternity, we have John 1:1-5 and 14: "In the beginning was the Word, an the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father."

And we have the whole variety of statements by St. Paul. At the end of the day, what the Church Fathers had to deal with was a few things that were clear from Scripture and the Tradition handed down from the apostles:

- There is only one God.
- Jesus was God made flesh, yet separate from the Father.
- The Holy Spirit was also God, but separate from the Father and the Son.

Needless to say, this is not the kind of thing that one would simply think up on one's own in the absence of revelation. Monotheism on it's own is kind of a no brainer -- Plato and Aristotle essentially got there on their own without benefit of revelation. The idea of a single, eternal First Cause and source of Goodness and Justice has obvious philosophical appeal and makes a great deal of sense. And the fact that the Jewish people worshiped such a one God gave them significant appeal in the ancient world, which is how we find the extensive Hellenistic Judaism at the time of Christ, with the Septuagint tradition and such.

However, when Christ came among us he revealed something more complex, and in many ways beyond our full comprehension. Given the parameters of what Christianity has to work with, however, it seems to me that the Nicean understanding of the Trinity is a pretty straightforward interpretation of revelation into philosophical terminology.

Darwin said...

A few specific points or questions:

(Incidentally, one thing that has always puzzled me is how traditional Christianity can in one breath assert a unity of three beings, and, in another breath categorically deny the possibility that MORE than three beings might be united in the same way.)

Well, in that there's no way that human wisdom could have sat down, prior to Christ's revelation, and figured out from first principles that God was a Trinity, I wouldn't say it's in our power to deny the possibility of God's being more than three persons in one being -- because it wasn't in our capacity to know that he could be three in one in the first place. However, it is a doctrine of traditional creedal Christianity (or to speak with more surety, of the Church, since one can generally find some Protestant denomination or other which asserts almost anything these days) that revelation was closed with Christ, and that no thing which is necessary to our salvation was left unrevealed. The Church, left with the task of guarding and interpreting Scripture and Tradition, has at times exercised its charism to clarify points of doctrine which were in dispute -- but this constitutes not new revelation but clarifying the implications of revelation as it exists. As such, I don't see how one could, at this vantage point, hold that there are more than three persons in God -- since Christ did not reveal there to be more than three.

Also, I'm unclear from what you've said on the Trinity, (and from what I've read about Mormonism in the past):

- Would you say that God the Father is eternal (without beginning as well as without end) and is the creator of all things?

- Are Jesus and the Holy Spirit co-eternal with the Father, also being without beginning and also taking part in God's creative work.

- Would you describe the moral law as springing from God in the sense that God _is_ goodness and justice, and we know things to be good, just, beautiful, etc. to the extent they resemble the perfection which is God?

I find myself much involved with these sorts of questions in that God as eternal and as creator of the universe and source of morality is very central to my belief that God exists. I don't really see why one would believe in God under a system in which these questions were left unanswered -- as they seem to me to be the central points relating to the basic human question: Why are we here?

Seth R. said...

I posted a response.

Did it get eaten?

Darwin said...

Oh dear. Possibly...

I has having a rather hard time getting mine to post last night until I realized I must have exceeded a length limit and split it.

I hope you have a copy...?

Anonymous said...

Seth R. and Darwin,

A few years ago Neuhaus considered the question of whether Mormonism is Christian. (Neuhaus had published an article writtten by a Mormon, and got lots of protesting letters from his readers. His article was a response to the letters.) It's sort of a long article, but carefully considered and well-written. Among other things, he addresses the point referenced above, that Mormon theology is about as primitive now as Christian theology was 100 years after Christ, and for much the same reason.

Anyway, here's the link:


Seth R. said...

I did read that article way back. I remember liking its respectful tone, even if I'm not ready to concede anything to Neuhaus yet.

The whole "are Mormons Christian?" thing isn't a huge deal to me. I feel it's kind of like asking "were Peter and Paul Jewish?"

Well, yeah... they were... but there were a few big problems there too. Likewise with Mormonism's relationship with Christianity.

Furthermore, I think that shooting to become merely the latest installment of historical Christianity sells my religion way short.

If we're going to be a new major world religion, we'd better start acting like one and quite whining about how we can't get a new Protestant franchise. It's not like we need their permission to exist or anything.

Pete said...

I've really enjoyed the talks I've had with the young Elders who've visited me. The last time we met, I did feel I had to refuse to pray to their Heavenly Father as I felt their belief as explained to me was paganistic, and it saddened me that this might be seen as rude, but felt it was important to take that stance given my beliefs about the Martyrs and suchlike. I prayed in the name of Jesus instead, to avoid any ambiguity.

The biggest problem I had with the Elders was that they didn't have the historical knowledge to back up their claims about the apostasy. They couldn't tell me exactly when the apostolic message was perverted, all they could do was assert that it had been at some point. I'm willing to be open minded for the sake of discussion, but the Mormons need to do their research if they want Catholics in particular to take their theories seriously. As it is, I enjoyed the discussions, but if anything it just reinforced my belief that the current message of the RC church is consistent with the early church.

Seth R. said...

Answering the question about the eternal nature of human identity - a passage from the LDS book of scripture the Doctrine and Covenants 93:29-36:

29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.
32 And every man whose spirit receiveth not the light is under condemnation.
33 For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy;
34 And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.
35 The elements are the tabernacle of God; yea, man is the tabernacle of God, even temples; and whatsoever temple is defiled, God shall destroy that temple.
36 The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.

Two key things you get from this passage:

1. Human identity is co-eternal with God.
2. The universe itself (although not necessarily its form)is also co-eternal with God.

Joseph Smith made this more explicit in other statements. Mormonism rejects creation ex nihilo and advocates instead a creation ex materia - which we believe is more consistent with the actual Genesis account.

This is, I think, the biggest crucial difference between Mormonism and traditional Christianity.

c matt said...

creation ex nihilo and advocates instead a creation ex materia

What is creation ex materia? That matter always existed, but the form it currently takes (eg the universe) did not?

Seth R. said...

Basically, yes.

When Mormon theology reads Genesis 1, they view it as a creation of something new from pre-existing chaotic material (the waters referred to in that account).

So when we say "create" theologically, we mean it in the same sense that a painter "creates" a painting. Not out of nothing, but rather out of pre-existing material.

There are other sermons Joseph Smith preached were he elaborated on this a bit. He had been studying Hebrew on a strictly amateur basis to further his understanding of the Bible. He noted that the Hebrew word for "create" was "bara." Joseph Smith noted that this word does not mean "out of nothing", but rather is more correctly interpreted as "to divide" (which is how it's used in the rest of the Old Testament). Thus God divided the waters (and ancient Hebrew concept of the pre-existing chaos of the universe that God moved upon), and made a place for the earth (thus the ancient Hebrew notion that the world was a plate floating on the waters and surrounded by water above the firmament (which held the water back - thus the idea that God broke the firmament and let the waters flow in in the Noah account).

Joseph was a pure amateur at Hebrew. But modern scholarship seems to have born him out on this point.

Anonymous said...

I have written extensively on the question of the Holy Trinity... and know humankind is so "allergic" to saying they do not understand, they, instead, merely deny the experiences of others and the teachings of the Saints. There ARE such experiences well-documented in the lives of some of our particular "mystic" (I shrink to use that word in this blog) Saints which are so compelling as to be undeniable... except, those who are so quick to claim "insanity" or some form of "illness" or "perversion". Why we do not believe each other as we describe our inner experiences is an anathema to me (frankly, I'm tired of not having people believe even my ordinary experiences). If we are to believe Joseph Smith's revelations, surely we can believe the accounts of the Saints.