The Book of Mormon as a Reflection of Religious History

Dont-look-at-fingerThe dichotomy between believers and non-believers of the Book of Mormon (BoM) was simple for many years following its introduction into the sectarian religious scene. Believers believed it was a literal record of ancient American tribes delivered through Joseph Smith by God. This literal belief is what Marcus Borg would call natural literalism;* belief with little reason not to believe. Non-believers confidently asserted it was the product of a con-man, or perhaps several. It possessed no value whatsoever.

Two reflections can be made based on the above paragraph. First, the early BoM saga represents a microcosm of the intense debate of the early 19th century between skeptics (often Deists) and evangelicals/mystics. Second, the natural literalism which pervaded the early church is similar to that of Christians with regards to the Bible during the Dark Ages and much of Medieval Times.

While, admittedly, my knowledge of Community of Christ history in and of itself is limited, I think it is fair to assert that its reaction to scientific and empirical thought in the 20th century is reminiscent of the Deist reaction in the 17th and 18th centuries. For many, conscious literalism (or fundamentalism) became and has become untenable, even outside of the Community of Christ tradition. On the other hand, many Latter Day Saint traditions continue to assert such literalism. They ask a poignant question of so-called “liberal” members: Is Latter Day liberalism, like Deism, a halfway house on the road to rejection of the BoM?

First, conscious literalism is not evil, or necessarily wrong, at its core. Such beliefs can provide a rewarding life and fulfillment. I know, for many years, I was both a natural and conscious literalist. Like others who have become much more liberal, I have had to ponder the question posed above. The answer is no, it does not have to be. Additionally, the question assumes it is the BoM which makes the religion. For the rest of this post, I will recount how I have come to understand faith in general, and the BoM’s relationship to faith in the Latter Day tradition.

Faith, for me, is not in an object. Using a Buddhist proverb: I don’t believe in the finger, I look to where the finger points. In addition, the words of Paul Tillich summarize another element of faith:

“Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolic name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.”

Continuing a line of Tillich-ian thought, I do not ground my faith in that which is finite, as God, for me, is an infinite reality. However, I can use language and images of God to relate to that which I believe serves as the basis of being.

The finger of the Latter Day tradition, the BoM, can still play an integral role. Just as it can be viewed as a human response to God, time, and man in its own era, we can respond to it as well. By this I mean we can find where it is applicable to our lives, not necessarily as God’s direct word, but as relevant to the divine.

*See Reading the Bible Again for the First Time; I include several references to it throughout this post.

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Finding Meaning in the Resurrection

In my inaugural post, I briefly discussed my struggles with Christianity and how I came to (and continue to) terms with it. I have always enjoyed the traditional story of Jesus. As I grow older, I often become nostalgic around the holiday season, recalling memories of past Christmases. Unfortunately, I can no longer hold to what I perceive is a romanticized view of the birth of Jesus, although I still find value in it.* With this preface in mind, I continue to what I have come to understand about the resurrection.

I do not believe the body of Jesus resuscitated, and he walked out of his tomb. I see too many problems with the traditional historical narratives, both intra- and extra-canonical.† Rather than get into a lengthy discussion of Biblical exegesis and historical reconstruction, I will skip right to the point. What does the resurrection mean to me?

Above Us Only Sky

The resurrection lies within us, not above us.

Jesus embodied hope to his followers, who were primarily made up of social outcasts and dispossessed peasants in Galilee; although eventually, some educated scribes in Jerusalem evidently joined the movement. He advocated radical social change, yet with non-violent means. He was not apocalyptic in the sense of the coming kingdom of God, but instead advocated the view that the kingdom of God was here on earth waiting to be unleashed. The Kingdom of God, in that case, was a transcendently divine mandate for the followers of Jesus to strive for. In this sense, I would argue that Jesus emphasized a God who, as John Crossan put it, is “epiphanic,” working and manifesting itself through people, not intervening for people, or episodic. Jesus’ death created a conundrum for those who viewed him as the Messiah, God’s chosen servant on earth. As the oral stage of transmitting stories about Jesus developed, so did understandings of Jesus himself, as followers searched the Hebrew Scriptures and sought ways of testifying of the power of his message through interpretive narratives. Today, most scholars hold the view that the birth, Passion, and resurrection narratives developed last. In that sense, they were the magnum opus of the evangelists who were putting the oral stories into written form.

If that is truly the case, why not just say the evangelists were liars, telling fictional stories as theological apologetics? Because that misses the point. The resurrection of Jesus lies in the empowering of disciples to live by a mantra similar to what John Spong once stated, “Whatever diminishes life is evil, and whatever enhances life is good.” When Jesus died, the disciples fled; the movement was on the brink of collapse and the new hope found in Jesus almost blew away. Yet it didn’t. It is at this point that I think the Holy Spirit and the resurrection go hand in hand. The ruah (breath in Hebrew) personified the message of Jesus and brought itself back into the minds of his disciples, who realized a new consciousness, or reality, had been born (perhaps even unleashed). It is, as Spong said, “Christpower,” flowing then and flowing today. It is a rebirth into the kingdom of God on earth within and without. It is letting an old way of living die, and being born again into the fully human life of Jesus, who embodied what an experience of God, the sacred could be; an eternal mysticism, which can be partaken of now and forever.

A bodily resuscitation was simply a later interpretive device, emphasized by Paul and later Luke. However, as John Dominic Crossan pointed out, Paul’s attempt to defend a bodily resurrection led to creative attempts trying to defend a dualistic philosophy (1 Cor 15). Understood without Paul’s influence, the resurrection of Jesus could be seen as monistic, in which the spirit, or transcendent divine, within each of us is empowered to live, to be, to uplift, and to serve. Using the words of the late Paul Tillich, the resurrection gives us “The courage to be.” For me, that is where I find hope and meaning in the resurrection.

I conclude with a paragraph taken from the preface of Crossan’s The Birth of Christianity:

In the light of all that, the title of this section should be not “The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” but “The Fleshly Resurrection of Jesus.” I tend to use those words interchangeably, but Paul most certainly did not-and it is now clear why he would not. When, therefore, he says that “flesh and blood” cannot enter the kingdom of God, a gulf of sensibility opens up between him and Jesus…. For Jesus, anyone incarnating divine justice on earth was “flesh and blood” entering the kingdom of God. Paul is also in contradiction to the declaration in John 1:14 that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The “Word”-Logos, in Greek-is the intelligibility of the world, the rationality of the universe, the meaning of life, as revelation of the Divine Mind. And John says that Word became not just body but flesh, not just the special-effects body of standard Greco-Roman divine visitations, but the one and only flesh and blood of full and normal human existence. The Word became flesh; that is to say, the divine meaning of life is incarnated in a certain human way of living.

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*Raymond Brown’s “Birth of the Messiah” is perhaps the most comprehensive modern study to date. Brown focuses primarily on the theological motivation and meaning behind the narratives, rather than their historical value.

†See the work of John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality and Jesus for the Non-Religious; John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, and The Birth of Christianity; Robert Funk/Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?; other scholars such as Marcus Borg have studied the Passion and Resurrection narratives extensively, as well; for a brief summary, see Borg’s blog-http://www.marcusjborg.com/2011/05/16/the-resurrection-of-jesus/

Coming to Terms with Mormonism, Christianity, and God

There is more than one path to the top of the mountain.

There is more than one path to the top of the mountain.

For as long as memory permits, I have, until recently, considered myself a staunch orthodox Christian. Although I still reside in the midst of my teenage years, my ability to identify with typical problems of adolescence has disappeared in the past year. Introspective examination into the past several years has shed light on my true immaturity and close-mindedness; an immaturity which, although I still sometimes long to live in unreality, is in its final days.

To clarify, I am speaking strictly in terms of religious belief. Until I began critically evaluating my view of Mormonism, religion, and God itself, I had seen my place in existence as organized and clear-cut. However, to paraphrase and extend neurologist Kevin Nelson’s idea of the self, I have come to realize that being is similar to Picasso’s portraits, fractured, unorganized, yet somehow binding into a coherent whole.

When I had first learned about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the missionary lessons and social environment seemed packed into a neat, conservative package. Perfect. I was baptized in April 2009, and although I was not an overly-enthusiastic member at first, I gradually became more and more enamored by the seemingly impenetrable certainty offered by the church. However, 2012 brought challenges from unlikely sources: (1) a conservative Protestant friend, (2) a history textbook, and (3) History Channel. In summary, the inquiries of my friend, the subject of Mormon history being brought up in class, and a History Channel special on archaeology piqued my curiosity. I began spending hours online, reading old articles from FARMS, devouring the Maxwell Institute website, and developing a short-lived addiction to FAIR. Hugh Nibley became a temporary idol. However, the faithful answers were not wholly satisfying, and soon after, I started to read critical material, as well as posts from various forums. I could go on for hours recounting the saga of my faith crisis, but to keep a long story short, after reading dozens of books, spending an unhealthy amount of time online examining both scholarly articles and primary sources, and not receiving the same confirming answer to prayers, I came to the conclusion that strict orthodoxy was untenable.

This was new territory. If my orthodox faith in the LDS church could fall apart, what of Christianity in general? Reflecting my pattern of research during my exploration into early Mormon history, I began with intense scripture study, prayer, and lots of apologetics, especially from William Lane Craig. However, as before, those answers were not enough to satiate my hunger for knowledge and truth, whatever it was (and is) and wherever it may have been (and may be). I read Bart Ehrman’s books, which, ironically, I had first heard of in a debate with Dr. Craig. Then I moved on to theological and philosophical books by authors such as John Spong and Paul Tillich. During this time, I drifted between various forms of theism, agnosticism, and deism; similar to the Book of Mormon’s “-ites,” I called myself all sorts of “-isms.”

It was not until relatively recently that I heard about the Community of Christ, at least by that name. The Reorganized Church was only referred to on rare occasions, and never beyond an offhand comment during Sunday services. The Community of Christ intrigued me when I first looked into it. What I once would have looked at as a liberal, radical, and reform-minded (God forbid!) church, now is an object of fascination. Although I still have deeply ingrained roots in religious conservatism, it became apparent months ago that continuing such a course would leave me without any sort of belief. With the urging of John Hamer, I joined the John Whitmer Historical Association, attending my first conference several weeks ago. It was an experience I shall not soon forget.

How have I come to terms with Mormonism, Christianity, and God? While enumerating all that I have learned and now hold close would occupy a book, there are several especially important lessons. First, I no longer believe certainty is equivalent to truth. Truth must be sought after continually, and I think Socrates put it best by stating, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Second, religious liberalism is not the satanic force I once thought, but rather is an invaluable vehicle for understanding, learning, and being respectful of others. The theologian Krister Stendahl once stated that holy envy, or the admiration of other belief systems, is essential to interdenominational understanding, and ecumenismfosters that idea. Finally, I believe more than ever that, even in a rational universe, God is there, within each of us.