Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Mechanics of Belief

I was happy to hear from a reader last week (really, I'm just happy to know I have readers) who asked for my (unofficial) perspective on a few questions in preparation for an article he's writing on "The Mechanics of Belief." Here's my shot at answering his questions--and please, readers, jump in on the comments if you feel I misrepresent the perspective of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!

1. On a scale of 1-10, how important do you think allegory is, in our religious doctrines, for bolstering or maintaining strong adherence to a belief system? For instance: Joseph Smith learning through a revelation from God that the Garden of Eden had been in Jackson County, Missouri, and it is where he will return; that mormon souls begin as pre-human on a crystal orb in outer space; and that after humans die they have a chance to become Gods themselves and live on their own planet.

For starters, let's be clear: Mormons believe in allegorical interpretations of the scriptures. As an example, the Church has canonized an allegorical interpretation of the book of Revelation, especially chapter four. John's vision of four beasts, recorded in Revelations 4:7-8, is fairly opaque: "And the first beast was like a lion and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within"  Joseph Smith, seeking an understanding of the text, received revelation now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, which reads in part: "Q. What are we to understand by the eyes and wings, which the beasts had? A. Their eyes are a representation of light and knowledge, that is, they are full of knowledge; and their wings area  representation of power, to move, to act" (77:4). 

Now--how important is it that we emphasize such allegorical interpretations? I suspect that most Mormons tend to focus less on abstract matters which may or may not require allegorical interpretation and more on the core doctrines of the gospel: faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, and receipt of the Holy Ghost. 

As a side note, I'm not familiar with either of the last two "doctrines" you describe; I have never been taught of a pre-existence on a crystalline orb or that exaltation involves living on your own planet. 

2. What percentage, if any, of Mormons do you think see this part of doctrine as incredulous, yet look the other way in order to be part of a lifestyle that they admire?

The simple answer is: I don't know. To quote one of my favorite poems, by Herman Melville, "Betwixt rejection and belief, / Shadings there are--degrees, in brief." In order to enter temples, which Mormons regard as the holiest places on earth, Church members must indicate a belief in core doctrines on the Godhead and the prophetic calling of Church leaders; beliefs on fringe doctrines--such as the geographic location of Eden or the nature of the pre-existence--have little if any bearing on the worship or everyday life of Church members. 

I am quite sure that if you walked into any congregation and asked members to express their understandings of the pre-existence, you would receive a series of diverging, potentially conflicting answers. However, these beliefs do not determine temple-worthiness.

3. At what age, or at what level of a new Mormon members' education, are these doctrinal beliefs taught?

At the risk of sounding repetitive, non-core doctrines are, to the best of my knowledge, never intentionally taught within Chuch-sponsored classes. In-Church instruction revolves around cultivating faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and implementing core gospel principles--such as repentance, honesty, chastity, and obedience--into everyday life. Individual members of the church may seek guidance on fringe doctrines within the scriptures or from Church leaders, but the Church does not actively or systematically instruct members on matters immaterial to salvation.

4. Do you belief that what is taught in the Book of Mormon has left the rest of Christianity in a state of apostasy?

The word apostasy signifies the abandonment of religious beliefs. Accordingly, it seems appropriate to distinguish between the individuals who DO the abandoning and those who inherit a culture of disbelief. Mormons, together with Protestants, believe that important elements of the gospel taught by Jesus Christ and his apostles--such as baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29)--were discontinued or altered. The sixteenth-century Reformation instigated by Luther, Calvin, and others sought to recover those truths and practices through the study of biblical texts in their original languages, Hebrew and Greek. Mormons claim to have recovered those truths and practices through divine intervention and the restoration of priesthood power held by Peter, James, John, and Christ's other apostles. 

While Protestants and Mormons would agree that apostasy occurred at some point between the first and sixteenth century CE, Mormons would never accuse Protestants of living in a state of apostasy--abandoning belief in a true church--any more than Protestants would accuse Catholics of living in a state of apostasy. Rather, Mormons would suggest that modern Protestants, like modern Catholics, have inherited an incomplete or corrupted belief system. We invite all people to read the Book of Mormon and to learn the doctrines of the restored gospel; if, after having come to a knowledge of the Church's truthfulness, these individuals then reject its precepts, then and only then will they be living in a state of apostasy. 

5. In light of the various "revelations" from God received by various prophets, does this conflict with the Biblical teachings that God is immutable, or are these simply adjustments to the societal changes and pressures of our times? 

Christians who accept both the Old and New Testaments as scripture will recognize that God issues different--even conflicting--instructions to his covenant peoples at different historical moments. For instance, the law of Moses forbade the consumption of various "unclean" animals, but Peter's vision in Acts 10 was one of many divine communications to prophets indicating that God expected members of his first century church to follow a different moral code than that given to the Children of Israel. Belief in an immutable God does not necessarily equate to belief in an immutable application of gospel principles; as Jesus taught, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28). The principle underlying both commandments--chastity--was the same, yet the application of that principle and the expectation of disciples changed. 

6. Do you believe in the adage that power corrupts, but that the wealth of the Mormon church, estimated by some to be between $30 billion to $80 billion, will not cause it to succumb because of its moral base?

I believe that God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, direct the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through revelation given to a living prophet. As yet, I have not noticed that the omnipotent God described in the Bible and other holy writ has been accused of corruption, so I do not fear that the financial resources of the Church will be misused on a large scale. I recognize, of course, that Mormons, like all people, are fallible and may make mistakes or even intentionally misuse sacred funds, but I do not believe that God will allow those who govern the affairs of His Church to misdirect its resources. 

The best explanation of Church finances can be found here.

As always, these are imperfect answers by an unofficial voice; I hope, dear reader, that you will find them useful in thinking through the mechanics of Mormon belief.


Jo Jo said...

Holy cow. I'm such a non thinker! Who thinks up stuff like this? Obviously not me, but you must as you answered them so succinctly. Well done.

Jenny said...

Thinking through the mechanics? Or looking to trip them up? Hmmm.
open to interpretation.
Well written.

Muthu Pearl said...

I too like Herman Melville Poems and quotes. Thanks for sharing this with us.