A “Rigorous” Theology, Ctd

Apr 26 2011 @ 12:15pm

Fac2Fig1 A reader writes:

In your response to David Brooks’ review of The Book of Mormon musical, you characterize the literal doctrines of Mormonism as “manifestly untrue,” but I don’t understand how by the same standards you apply to Mormonism, the doctrines of mainline Christianity and Catholicism are not also obviously false. Yes, you disavow certain doctrinal ideas that have been scientifically disproved or make no literal sense (such as The Garden of Eden or a 6000 year old Earth), but I don’t think I understand what that leaves you with.

You say we cannot know what happened in the final moments of Christ’s life or what his resurrection entailed because of textual inconsistencies between the books of the Bible, that in the space between these inconsistencies lies a mystery. If I understand you correctly, you are willing to put your faith in that mystery, to believe that something miraculous happened (even if you don’t know exactly what) and proclaim that in some capacity you are unwilling to totally define, Christ is risen from his grave.

Andrew, with all due respect to you (and I do respect you a great deal), I do not think that you are putting your own beliefs on this subject up to the same harsh judgment that leads you to contemptuously dismiss Mormon doctrine. Reason says that Native Americans are not descended from Jewish forefathers, that stones aren’t used to translate metal books, and that precocious fourteen year old boys are not visited by God in upstate New York. That same reason should tell you that  textual inconsistencies between the different accounts of Christ’s death and resurrection point to only one “reasonable” explanation, that Christ did not rise (because people don’t do that, neither literally or in any more vague, mysterious, or undefined ways) and that differences in the accounts are due to them being fabricated.

You say God exists and loves us, that he came to Earth as a man, sacrificed himself, and that He is risen. Fine, but in doing so you greatly diminish your standing to scoff at the stupid believers from other faiths because none of these things you say you believe pass the test of “reason” as you have applied it to others.  You are unwilling to say how exactly Christ is risen, how God exists, I would suggest that at least part of why you won’t commit to specifics is that when people get too definite about these things they start to sound ridiculous. This unwillingness to commit to the details does not make you more reasonable than fundamentalists (which term I would be careful about using in reference to Mormons, as a people they tend to be far more complicated than they appear at first blush), because if I understand you correctly, you still believe in something that is (from the perspective of the pure rationalist) manifestly untrue. 

Or maybe you don’t; I’m not really sure what you believe, given the enormous rhetorical wiggle room you have allowed yourself.  You don’t believe in the Garden of Eden, but do you believe that Jesus Christ was dead and then later walked around as a risen being interacting with people? You believe that he was God come to Earth, but do you not believe that he performed miracles, healed the sick, and raised the dead? If you believe in some of these premises, then what keeps you from believing in all of them? They’re all unreasonable.

Conversely, if reason stops you from believing in some of these things, how does it allow you to believe in any of them? And if you don’t believe in any of them, how are you really a Christian in a religious sense? You don’t owe me any of the answers to these questions, but I think you should grapple with them a bit more before unloading on others with the reason bazooka.

There’s one key phrase in my reader’s comment – “from the perspective of the pure rationalist.” I have never defended pure rationalism, and am epistemologically emphatically not a rationalist. It is clear that Joseph Smith meant to be taken literally in every respect, and cannot be by standards of empirical evidence. It’s clear to me that the Gospels were not written from the same 19th Century mindset. And therefore treating them as such is bound to misread them. Another writes:

I have no desire to enter into a religious debate, but I don’t really understand this statement: “And The Book Of Mormon rather deftly shows that, by any rational perspective, the literal doctrines of Mormonism are manifestly untrue – perhaps because they are more easily exposed because they are so recently concocted.”

Granted, I cannot convince you or anyone else by rational means that the doctrines of Mormonism are true, but can you or a Broadway show really say that by ANY rational perspective they are manifestly untrue? How exactly do you manifest that?

I even admit that my faith is irrational. That seems to be the nature of faith. But how can you discount any rational acceptance of faith or even agnostic, rational, possibility without knowing the ultimate answers? I can’t prove or disprove Catholicism, Hiduism, Islam or any religion any more than you can. I also can’t discount by rational means the truth of any other religion. In fact, they rather rationally and fairly are encompassed in Mormonism, one if the doctrines of which holds that all men and women, and whatever their nature of sin and error are heirs of eternal glory unless they commit some unpardonable sin denying the spirit when they have full knowledge (which we don’t even know how to define ourselves since none of us apparently have that full knowledge). We don’t condemn anyone to a straight up or down heaven or hell. But I didn’t mean to get into doctrinal issues.

I know you have serious personal, political and even moral differences with official Mormonism. My faith is such that all those things can be eventually worked out. And I know that “belief” ultimately comes down to a question of choice – as does rationality for the most part. But can you really dismiss my and any other religion by saying its doctrines are “manifestly untrue?”

Not all of them. But I added the qualifier: “perhaps because they are more easily exposed because they are so recently concocted.” The story of the golden plates is so obviously a fraud it beggars belief. Theories about racial difference based on God’s intervention are empirically refuted by Darwin. The idea that God may literally live on a planet is, er, contrary to what we know to be true:

The literal interpretation of Kolob as an actual star or planet has significant formative impact on Mormon belief and criticism, leading to conceptions such as that God dwells within this universe, and that the Biblical creation is a creation of the local earth, solar system, or galaxy, rather than the entire known physical reality.

Yes, some Mormons interpret these doctrines as metaphors. But we know that Smith meant them to be literal truths, derived from his misreading of ancient plates and papyri, placing him smack-dab in the middle of nineteenth century historicism. I do not doubt David Brooks’ empirical thesis that requiring people to believe facts they know to be untrue is such a leap of faith that the religions they adhere to have great power and strength. But that doesn’t make them true, which is the only criterion that matters for religion, in my view. 

It makes contemporary fundamentalism a form of postmodernism. Which in so many ways, it is.

(Tracing from Joseph Smith’s Hypocephalus.)