Advantages of Mormonism
May 10, 2007

I have about a half dozen posts half written. My apologies that I've not had time to finish and post them. Most are answers to various emails folks have sent me the last week or so. Many have more of a religious theme than most of my posts the last while have had. One odd question I got was, "what [I] thought the advantages of Mormanism are in comparison to other popular views in America." Now one has to be careful with a question like that. Both for matters of politeness but also simply because it's kind of a difficult question. I tend to disparage what I call the naive pragmatic position. The stereotype that truth is what "works" in some subjective short term sense of "works." Thus a religion may be useful even if it is false and therefore ought be believed. You might recall Voltaire at some point in his life held to that. The idea that religion is useful for the masses. (I've been told Leo Strauss did as well, but I'm just not up on Strauss enough to say) So to me the only real reason to belong to a religion is if you think it is correct. But I'd be the first to recognize that I'd not be able to convince folks of the correctness of the LDS faith on a lot of matters. The public evidence is lacking or even, on some matters, against Mormonism. I think one can still know. But it ends up not being a terribly interesting blog question.

My questioner agreed with this problem and so narrowed the categories of focus down to "are science/history compatible, practical, theological, and philisophical." So let me, hopefully briefly, address those. And, to be fair to the topic, let me address what I perceive to be the weaknesses on these topics. I'll limit myself to what can be discussed in terms of public evidence and argument even though ultimately I think those will be insufficient to lead anyone to any particular religion. (At least rationally so)

Science and History: I think the strength of Mormonism is that it is very open to both science and history. Indeed historically there was a period in the early 20th century where a lot of public discourse verged into scientism. Of course while this is an historic element of Mormonism there has also in the 20th century be a strong literalist movement not that unlike what one finds in conservative Evangelicalism. However while that has been a strong element in Mormonism, especially since the 1960's, I think it has peaked and groups like FARMS with a strong scientific ground of interpretation have far more influence on Mormon theology than the literalists the past decade or more.

To be fair the downside is that many crucial elements of LDS belief, such as the historicity of the Book of Mormon, are simply not established scientifically. Mormon apologists can, at best, point to hints or elements hard to explain when one reads the Book of Mormon as 19th century fiction. This doesn't entail that the Book of Mormon is or isn't historical. As some, like Dan Peterson, note, we may be looking at Nephite ruins and simply have no way to know that they are.

In general though I think Mormons are simply much, much more open to science than all but the most liberal Protestant and Catholic theologians are. It simply doesn't pose much of a theological problem whereas many styles of Protestantism have serious problems with science. Mormonism, in its most common interpretations, has an embodied material God within the universe. So naturalism just isn't a problem for Mormons. That's not to say individual prominent Mormon thinkers haven't embraced ideas like Cartesian dualism. But by and large, due to the Mormon belief that spirits are material, Mormons have embraced a more naturalistic metaphysics and methadology.

The one place critics have attacked Mormonism via science is in terms of our belief in God and individual spirits existing back into the infinite past. While this is incompatible with the big bang it is quite compatible with most views within modern theoretical physics which postulate various kinds of multiverses that go back infinitely in 'time.' (One has to put scare quotes around time in that sense for technical reasons) I have a post on this topic in response to someone else's question that is half finished. So I'll hold off saying too much here.

Practical: In terms of practical religions, Mormons tend to be healthier than most. We have a large welfare system to help take care of our fellow Mormons. While hardly perfectly established in every congregation we also have fellowshipping to ensure that those with problems in church can find help. I'm sure there are other things one could write but broadly the things people focus on Mormonism about are our welfare system, our health, and our social infrastructure.

The negatives are that in a religion so focused on family single people can sometimes feel alienated. And homosexuals who can't be married have to remain celibate to be in good standing in the faith. i.e. there isn't a real way for a homosexual to be socially involved in a way satisfactory to them ultimately. Something even the LDS leadership acknowledge. (They were asked this question in last week's PBS special on The Mormons) Mormons are sometimes accused of being a little clannish, although I think that's primarily due to being busy in Church service, typically having a family and thus having limited time. (I always swore I'd have more of a social life when married with kids - but it is extremely hard in terms of time commitments)

As to how Mormons compare on this front to other religions, it's hard to say. Certainly there is a strong social structure in the LDS Church. However some non-Mormon congregations do manage that as well. One nice thing is that if I run into trouble anywhere in the world I can probably find the LDS church in the phone book and get a hold of someone to help me. And folks would typically without much trouble. (When growing up we used to get calls from the Bishop to help folks immigrating into Canada from other countries who needed help. We'd even let them stay in our home until they could find an apartment or so forth.) One place I think the LDS church does worse than most Catholic or Protestant congregations is in access to certain kinds of social services. So while there are LDS social services, and in the Utah region have a strong presence, in most places there simply is no good church sponsored counselling or psychological help. At best you might get a referral. While Mormons do go to Bishops for help, it's always important to note that Mormon Bishops are lay members called to that job: typically for a few years. They don't necessarily get the training that many Priests or other clergy in other faiths do. Further whereas most faiths have full time clergy, Mormon clergy do their service as volunteer work on top of their job and family responsibilities. One can debate the benefits of this, but clearly there are also significant tradeoffs. Of course some might argue that psychologists ought be independent and that Churches providing psychological counseling is on par with supplying their own medical services.

Over all though I'm not sure practicality is the way to judge a religion, although as I said, Mormons often end up in the media based upon these sorts of positive claims. (Although, with the Romney candidacy and the Olympics of 2002 some of the negative aspects have made it into stories as well) By and large though how much practical service a Church can offer will be very much tied to the local congregation. Obviously, given human nature, some LDS congregations will be better than others.

Philosophical: Blake Ostler has done a lot here so I'd probably largely defer to his excellent books on LDS theology. (I've had many discussions on volume 2, The Problems of Theism, and volume 1, The Attributes of God) I think that in terms of the problem of evil Mormons simply have better answers due to our belief that this life is for the purpose of developing us as individuals. And that we all chose knowingly to come here. (i.e. we knew what we were in for in at least general terms and freely chose to experience it anyway) It doesn't solve all the problems of evidentiary evil, but I believe it does a better job than anyone but the atheists. I think having a more limited God than the God of "classic theism" also ends up being a huge theological plus and resolves a lot of problems. Even though I don't favor Blake's views on free will, clearly Mormonism is open to a very robust view of free will that resolves many theological conundrums. Mormonism rejects the idea of original sin as commonly conceived of which resolves some huge philosophical problems. (IMO) Being so tied to materialism Mormonism also avoids some of the philosophical problems of both immateriality and supernaturalism, although it's theology is also open enough to embrace those perspectives if someone feels they are necessary philosophically.

In terms of philosophical negatives, I can't really think of many that aren't easily resolved. The only big one is that if one is committed to God being the Absolute philosophically conceived then Mormonism's view of God will seem too limited. However I think the philosophical problems of absolutism end up being pretty big themselves.


Comments


1: Posted By: Casual Mormon | May 11, 2007 06:40 AM

Great post. I wish I had something of substance to add.


2: Posted By: Eric Nielson | May 11, 2007 06:48 AM

Excellent review Clark. Thank you for this straight forward summary.


3: Posted By: Clark | May 11, 2007 10:09 AM

One other one that might be viewed as an advantage by some (and disadvantage by others) is epistemology. Mormons believe in a kind of evidentiary faith. That is that individuals can go to God and receive answers and that this forms the ground of religion. Thus the kind of blind leap of faith that some religions demand is not a part. Likewise we don't require faith in a book or a set of interpretations of a book.

The downside to that is that if folks try this quest for evidence and don't succeed they then leave the Chruch (or never embrace it) So there obviously is disagreement over it. But I think Mormonism presents itself as a form of Christianity that is falsifiable. I'm not sure of too many religions that put for a test of Truth in such verificationalist methods. That's not to say there aren't elements of dogma or practice we take of faith. Clearly there are. But there is a ground to the whole movement that really is tied to a verificationalist criteria.


3: Posted By: Joshua Blanchard | May 11, 2007 01:37 PM

I think one of the most important questions of relevance - from a Christian standpoint - is what associating oneself with Mormonism will add to the salvation of a person who otherwise abides in the person of Jesus. On the - I think relatively uncontroversial, but feel free to comment - assumption that the first Apostles were preaching a direct encounter with the living God and not a religion, institution, or other system (they already had these in abundance), it just seems highly suspicious when someone comes along and says that it is somehow not enough (the implicit presumption of missionary activity toward its subjects, whether they know it or not).

I already hold the person of Jesus as the Center, try to obey his commandments, and abide in him, so what more is needed for salvation? Anything? Maybe the answer is just that there are reasons other than soteriological ones for caring about what other revelations say. In any case I'm curious as to your take on the matter. To me this issue is more important than even questions of historicity, because this question needs to be answered before the discussion even gets off the ground. If it doesn't, then Mormonism isn't any more "relevant" than someone coming up to me and telling me about their new political movement, or a new diet, etc.


4: Posted By: Clark | May 11, 2007 01:57 PM

Well, that gets into more of a debate about dogma. I used to enjoy such debates but I'll confess I've lost a lot of the interest I once had. I'd just note that there isn't a Christian perspective on this. Indeed there have been great debates over just these issues throughout the history of Christianity. So to portray it as a Christian standpoint rather than a particular kind of Christian standpoint is a bit misleading.

However I'd say that the LDS view is close to that of semi-Pelagianism. That is salvation in Christ provides us with the opportunity to act. We show if we really accept Christ by how we behave. (And, to make the philosophical connection, the Peircean idea of belief as being a kind of habit that entails how we'd behave in various situations is perhaps apt) So I'd argue that any Christian (of whatever stripe) who has had a sincere and fulfilling encounter with the divine and who exercises faith would never stop at that point. They'd continue to inquire. Part of that inquiry entails learning about God both in practical terms (how do I behave as a good neighbor etc.) as well as in theoretical terms (that is I come to learn about God and increase in learning of him)

Mormonism to me is thus completely relevant in that it provides that revelation of God that is the continuing path we take as we exercise faith. If it was only about that initial encounter then you'd be right. But I believe salvation and faith are processes and not momentary events.

So certainly the direct encounter with God is key. And indeed, as I mentioned, that is foundational to Mormons. (Indeed many of the 19th century critics of Mormonism criticized us because we made it so key) Indeed that's why after bringing up the truth issue I somewhat put it aside. In terms of public evidence there is insufficient to rationally become (or stay) a Mormon. In terms of private evidence through that direct encountering with God then one can accept some of the basic tenets of Mormonism.

As I understand it Mormonism is much more about providing opportunities to people. In large measure within Mormonism one has to take a very active role. (Of course not everyone does - many are passive or get wrapped up in the social aspects of religion) But by and large we are ultimately responsible for working out our salvation. And that means personally turning to God and following the path he directs.


5: Posted By: Mary Ann | May 23, 2007 08:07 PM

Then, would you accept that Mormonism is like Catholicism, in that Christ's salvation provides us with an opportunity to act in His name?


6: Posted By: Clark | May 23, 2007 11:35 PM

Well, I'm not quite sure what aspects of Catholicism you're referring to. But certainly Mormons think salvation entails an ability to act in God's name. I think we could think of two levels of salvation. One immediately possible in this life and one that will come only later. The first is the desire to act in God's name. The latter is the fully actualized ability to act in God's name. (Which, for Mormons, is sanctification as the becoming like God)


7: Posted By: Mary Ann | May 24, 2007 07:15 AM

As in the imitation of Christ that Catholics strive for? I found your site on a Catholic-Mormon blog. A real gift to me. I'm not a scientist nor a philosopher (nowhere close) but I like exegesis, particularly when it explores shared discovery between our two faiths. When I lived in Tokyo and in Syracuse, I got to attend Women's Institute and other forums for scriptural study and discussion. But I can't go beyond the opening page of websites for lds wards here in Westchester County, so I can't find the same. I miss it.


8: Posted By: Clark | May 24, 2007 05:20 PM

Yes, I think one could argue that most of what Mormons do is a kind of imitation of Christ. Arguably our rituals that aren't shared by all Christian sects do this even more. Certainly baptism, which is shared by all sects, is an example of this. But arguably our temple ordinances do this even more. I think the key scripture for this understanding of Grace is Mosiah 15 which is itself a kind of exegesis of Is 52.


9: Posted By: Mary Ann | May 24, 2007 08:05 PM

Did I read that you while you used to like apologetics, you aren't as into it as you once were? I'll keep this reply short, then. I found a Catholic sourse on semi-pelagianism. Here's the Catholic view: savation is a process by which we come closer to God as we participate in the sacraments (ordinances) adn the grace that comes through them.The Church affirm that trust in Christ is essential to salvation, but one must live out this faith by a life of obedience and good works. Heb: 12:14 says that "no one will see the Lord" withoutholiness. So our entire life should be a pursuit of the holiness that Christ gained for us by his death. We draw the line on becoming gods, ourselves... except, then how does one explain the stigmata?


10: Posted By: Clark | May 24, 2007 08:23 PM

I don't mind apologetics as research. That is more a focus on potential attack or problems so as to increase understanding. It's more the back and forth, often tied to ambiguous proof texts, that I lost a lot of interest in.

I think that while Grace comes through our participating in the ordinances it also tends to come via a personal relationship we develop with God. That is we learn to feel and identify the spirit and through the Holy Ghost develop communication with God. The ordinances are part of that. But it is ultimately through this indwelling of the spirit that our natures are changed somewhat (we still have a fallen body) and we start to act more like God. That is our focus becomes more on service and love. Good works are a manifestation of this.

The stigmata, while not really in Mormonism the way it is in Catholicism, actually has an echo in our temple ceremonies. (Because of their sacred nature to Mormons I'll have to leave that vague - just that there is a similar idea of receiving in ourselves the marks of the savior)

The main reason I think most more traditional Christians balk at becoming God except in a metaphoric sense is because of the demands of the doctrine of creation ex nihlo. That is there is an ultimate impassible ontological gulf between man and God. The theological problem I see with this is that the incarnation of Christ appears to be, in part, an effacing of this gulf. That is God is of the two natures. But certainly the philosophical baggage (to my eyes) of thinking of the problem in terms of philosophies influenced by Plato and Aristotle lead to problems.

As I've long said though creation ex nihlo is ultimately the real gulf between Mormonism and most of the rest of Christianity, theologically speaking.


11: Posted By: Peter | May 25, 2007 08:16 PM

I really enjoyed the commentary from the multiple parties involved in the discussion. Why can't the rest of the world take such a Christ-like attitude towards theological discussions. I highly agree with your loss of interest in apologetics, Clark. The back and forth attempts to prove or disprove a doctrine are quite pointless, in that they rarely, if ever, invite the Spirit - thus leaving the two parties to bicker... and usually never benefiting from the exchange.

it is hard to explain spiritual beliefs in scholastic ways, but i commend your effort Clark.


12: Posted By: WestBerkeleyFlats | June 03, 2007 01:43 PM

"Science and History: I think the strength of Mormonism is that it is very open to both science and history."

I think that this statement is valid with regard to science, given the qualification that you mentioned of a certain strand of literalism that has existed throughout the tradition along side an attitude of scientific inquiry from those with different backgrounds. Of course, those at sufficiently advanced levels such as someone such as Kip Thorne tend toall distance themselves from the tradition because of the intellectual and ethical problems inherent in it.

I don't see how it is as relevant to history, which you do not discuss in as much detail. I think it fair to say that the church, both institutionally and collectively, has not shown much interest in scholarly analysis of its history nor in developing an understanding of the larger historical and intellectual traditions from which that history has developed. This has not always been the case, and as recently as the 1970s the church allowed a scholar to serve as its historian, but the results of intellectual inquiry have tended to undermine various truth claims made in the tradition. It would be nice if Mormons actually studied the thought and actions of the historical Jesus or the early Christian church from a historical and theological perspective, but most are not inclined or equipped to do so and instead prefer to work within the framework of the Mormon-Christian synthesis that was developed by people such as Talmage and Widstoe, both of whom had backgrounds in fields such as chemistry and geology rather than intellectual history, early in the twentieth century, which is nice for a junior-high-level Sunday School class but not much more than that.


13: Posted By: Clark | June 03, 2007 04:06 PM

I think Kip Thorne's relationship with Mormonism is perhaps a tad more complex than you let on. He was fairly young when his family made the cut from Mormonism primarily over the ERA issue as I recall. As to whether such matters are an intellectual and ethical problem seems far more complex. At best such commitments that led his family to leave are not without their own controversy. (IMO) But certainly they are matters on which intelligent people can disagree.

Regarding history, I was more thinking of the difficulty Evangelicals have with scholarly history of the Old Testament. While certainly some Mormons (especially the literalist subgroup) will have trouble with the history of the era I don't think Mormonism per se does.

I'd strongly disagree that the Church has shown no interest in its history. I think quite the contrary - they have had a lot of interest although one can dispute the competence for much of the history of the Church. As you point out there were professional historians running things in the 70s. Although as Richard Bushman pointed out that might not be wisest thing to do since there will always be a tension between what is scholarly (and thus tentative) and what is authoritative (and thus seen as less tentative). One should note that Bushman himself was involved in the writing of the histories in the 70's under the direction of Arrignton. (Bushman's comments can be heard in his interview by the podcast Mormon Stories. Like Bushman I think the idea of a Church History department can be problematic.

However certainly while there was a bit of a backlash against Arrignton, especially by more literalists, the current Church History department is filled with excellent scholars. Indeed the new book from Oxford Press on the Mountain Meadows Massacre is partly written by them. I fear though that the mere fact some of the authors work for the Church will discredit them in the eyes of some critics. Thus establishing Bushman's point.

Regarding Mormons studying the "historic Jesus" I think more do than you might imagine. But I'm not sure the fact most lay members are ill equipped to do say is much more significant than the fact most lay people are ill equipped to study perturbation methods in classical mechanics. Indeed I think it a fair comment that many more lay members are familiar with NT and OT history than physics.


14: Posted By: Scarlet | July 02, 2007 04:46 AM

I am kind of an existentialist post-mormon. I think you may be able to answer a question I have been pondering:

What does mormonism add to world philosophy? What are its basic philosophic tenets that establish it as more than or different from other kinds of Christianity? I think the idea about personal epistemological experience may be part of the answer, as may be the idea that we could someday be as powerful as that which we most highly revere. Doe you think that is correct? What else is there? To rephrase my question, what is it that makes mormonism philosophically valuable, in your opinion?

Who else may have valuable ideas on the subject?

Finally, how does that philosophical piece relate to church doctrine? (I would happily accept answers from thinkers other than this blog's author, BTW)


15: Posted By: Clark | July 07, 2007 10:32 PM

Some people have given their thoughts to that - especially in various SMPT conference papers. My own personal opinion is that it adds nothing since all the various LDS perspectives can already be found in the history of philosophy. Further there's not much "unique" to give that distinct a flavor. In the 19th century there was a strong pragmatist streak, IMO. But it was very unfleshed out. Then there was the naive quasi-rationalist, quasi-empiricist, quasi-animist streak of Orson Pratt. But it simply was bad philosophy and never really went that far (IMO).

If there is one tendency that comes out of Mormonism it is to emphasize practice above theory. But of course one can find that in many forms of philosophy, as I mentioned.

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