Mormon Historian Richard Bushman on Putting Christ Before Mormonism

The Mormon Scholar Richard Bushman, perhaps best known for his award-winning biography about Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rollingrecently did an AMA session on Reddit. As a convert from the LDS faith to Orthodox Christianity, one of Bushman’s exchanges with his questioners stood out for me:

Question:  There are many people with a fraction of your knowledge of church history that throw up their hands and give up. They say looking any further into the truthfulness is futile, because what they’ve come to know negates the possibility of truth. What fundamental difference is there in those who let the knowledge negate their faith and those who let knowledge sustain it?

Bushman:  For me that is the question of the hour. It is hard to explain. People on each side dream up explanations of the other. The believers say you must be sinning; the unbelievers say you are biased by your background and emotional factors. I don’t know the actual answer. I have come recently to ask people how they feel about Christ. If they still value him, I think they will be okay. But many have given up on Christ and even on God. Their problem in other words is a Christian, not just a Mormon, problem. I don’t know why that happens. People are left without a spiritual anchor of any kind. My hope is that wherever they land they will have the strength to reconstruct a belief they can live by. I don’t like it when anti-Mormonism becomes their religion. That is not a good way to live.

Question:  It seems that if the organisation that taught you who and what God is turns out to be a fraud, the the credibility of the existence of said god comes into question. What would you say to those who feel they can’t believe in God or Christ because they think Joseph Smith made this whole thing up?

Bushman:  I believe that is what indeed happens, but it implies Mormonism is the whole world for people. When the Mormon world cracks, everything crashes down. Lots of people believe in God and Christ who are not Mormons. Are they all as flawed as the Mormons?

I will say something a little abrasive in hopes of being informed. Should not Mormons have a connection with God that goes beyond the Church? Do we worship God or do we worship Mormonism? What should we teach our people to protect them from this vulnerability?

Bushman’s words speak to a pressing reality. When a Mormon loses faith in the LDS Church, he or she tends to disregard faith and religion entirely. The thought process that leads Mormons to lose all faith is as follows:

1. I was taught that the LDS Church is the only true church and all others are in error.

2. I no longer believe that the LDS Church is true.

3. Therefore, since the only true church isn’t true, no church is true.

The central mistake of this argument is that, while disregarding the truth claims of the LDS faith, it still adheres to its claim that all other churches are in error. One should instead realize that if they think the LDS Church is wrong about its central tenets, perhaps it is also wrong in claiming all other faith traditions are erroneous. This argument is understandable, especially to those who grew up learning apostasy narratives. The LDS Church holds and teaches that, at some undefined point, the early Christian Church lost apostolic authority and Christianity then became corrupted by Platonic philosophy. As a result of this narrative, seeing Christianity as corrupted lingers for the ex-Mormon and is further reinforced by the evermore prominent and vocal critics of religion.

Bushman, however, encourages Mormons to be rooted, first and foremost, in Christ so that if their faith in Mormonism is undermined, they will still have a Christian anchor. I applaud Bushman for placing Christianity above Mormonism, but this, in reality, is difficult for Mormons, given the uniqueness of the LDS faith’s perspective of God and Jesus Christ. A Mormon cannot simply disregard everything about the LDS faith save its notions of God and Jesus Christ. These notions are unique to and dependent upon the LDS narrative. In order for a Mormon to have a Christian faith capable of surviving departure from Mormonism, his or her Christian view would have to be capable of functioning independent of LDS doctrine, and this seems untenable given the interdependency of LDS doctrine and the LDS view of God and Jesus Christ. The problem, though, is that this independent Christianity would likely be irreconcilable with the greater LDS theological perspective.

A Mormon must either lose his or her faith entirely and rebuild anew from the ground up, or gradually transition from one theistic perspective to another. In either case, the Mormon’s Christianity or theism cannot be an anchor by which faith remains constant. The truth of this claim is demonstrated by asking why one should maintain belief in the unique Mormon view of the godhead when the veracity of Mormonism itself is the basis for accepting or rejecting the view. I suppose one could independently find grounds for accepting a view of God and Jesus Christ similar to Mormonism’s, but this itself would be a transition or reconstruction, since the entire basis for one’s faith would be altered. Transitioning from one Christian worldview to another, at least in my experience, was more akin to switching boats and anchors entirely.

Perhaps Bushman has all this in mind. Perhaps when he says one should put Christianity above Mormonism he means to say one should find a way to make Christianity work, even if the Mormon way doesn’t. Either way, it is interesting to hear from a man whose faith in God transcends his denomination.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Mormon Historian Richard Bushman on Putting Christ Before Mormonism

  1. This is ringing true in my situation right this minute. I am troubled that if I leave the church based on the corruption of Joseph Smith and the early church, how can I latch onto Christianity who historically has been plagued with corruption, murder, cover up and misinformation equalling a hundred times what happened in Mormonism. How do you reconcile that? Thank you

    Like

  2. Hi Jiminpanama, Thank you for your comments and question.

    There is a lot that could be said in answer to your inquiry. Here is a list of short responses.

    1. I don’t think that a person should leave or disregard a faith tradition because members of that faith group have been imperfect. What is most important is the greater view and narrative of a religion, and how these elements hold up under historical, empirical, and philosophical scrutiny. That said, there may be examples of corruption that undermine the credibility of someone who claims to be a prophet of God, or may even undermine the entire religious movement established by such a charismatic figure. In my case, it was not Joseph Smith’s or Brigham Young’s actions that led me out of the LDS faith, but rather that I don’t think Mormonism -that is, Mormon doctrines and beliefs- holds up under scrutiny.

    2. There is an important, yet often overlooked, distinction between Christianity and individuals and groups who claim to be Christian and who may commit evil acts in the name of Christianity. Once again, the most important question isn’t “How do Christians act?” but “What does Christianity teach?” Judaism and Christianity have held from their origins that people are corruptible and prone to evil actions, but they have sought to be a remedy in the midst of the chaos.

    3. People often get caught up on the actual and supposed atrocities committed in the name of religion, but often fail to give credit where credit is due. Yes, Catholics carried out the Inquisition, but they also established the first hospitals. Yes, the Catholic Church could have handled Galileo’s trial better, but it has also been behind many scientific discoveries that have been made throughout time, and has preserved some of the most valuable historical documents humanity possesses. Yes, members of the Russian Orthodox Church participated in anti-Semitic mobs, but many of the Jews who have escaped anti-Semitic violence have done so with the help of Orthodox Christians. I could list many more examples, but I think you get the point.

    The corruption and atrocities that have occurred throughout human history are not the result of religion, but of the evils to which we are susceptible in this existence. One need only consider the secular governments of the 20th century to see that this is the case. the Nazis in Germany, the Communists in Russia, China, and Cambodia Massacred more people than have been or likely ever will be in the name of religion.

    4. One must take into account the environment in which events take place. It is easy for us, in our world of unprecedented comforts and securities, to look back and criticize the Hebrew nation for the warfare tactics they used, or to accuse the Roman Catholic Church of being a cruel overlord during the Middle Ages, but most of us likely would have been right on board with such actions in a world that was much more cruel than anything we, or even our Mormon ancestors, could have imagined. It really only makes sense to compare groups that have existed and operated in similar environments. It is easy to put the LDS faith on a pedestal, but can we really say that it would not have fallen to many of the same temptations as the early Christian Church? A more appropriate comparison is the Roman Catholic Church in America during the 19th-21st centuries.

    All that said, I still don’t think that Mormonism is 100 times less corrupt than is Christianity. To respond further on this point I would have to know what corruptions, murders and cover ups you have in mind to offer a more detailed response.

    For the past couple of decades, there has been a popular narrative that paints Christianity as a product of corruption, murder, and all sorts of other scandals. The reality is much more complicated, though. If you are interested in reading more balanced approaches to Christian history, I recommend checking out Jaroslav Pelikan’s series on the Christian Tradition and David Bentley Hart’s “Atheist Delusions,” which is a well-written response to historian-critics of Christianity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. You have some valid viewpoints. Honestly my entire faith is shaken right now. I had always been a diligent apologist for the church and I can handle a lot of indiscretions but the whole picture was just to much to overlook anymore. You know this I’m sure, but everything I have believed has a Mormon angle it, so therefore my faith in Christ is even in doubt and I don’t want that. I truly wanted Joseph’s smiths story to be true. The origins of it I believe are cultic and selfs serving. Even though the people are good and the family message is good, I see that a feel good story that is untrue, is a deceptive faith building method and not producing genuine faith at all.
      I agree the narrative of Christianity is flawed these past 20 years or so I will take a look at the David Bently book. I was very nervous to talk to my wife about this, but it turned out that she had been doing her own research and was totally on board with me last night. How lucky was that?
      Thank you. Putting things in their historical/time context is helpful too, and the point is well taken. I have one question for you. I have trouble believing much or anyone right now. Do you think the info on mormonthink.com is accurate and fair? I felt that it was sincere and factual with no BS, but I have a lot of mistrust after being so completely duped. Thank you for your time.

      Like

      • Jim,

        A lot of what you say resonates with me, and is reminiscent of what a lot of my ex-Mormon friends have expressed. The big picture is where you should focus. Joseph Smith’s polygamy may be disconcerting, as was the racist priesthood ban, but while serious problems, they don’t necessarily mean the LDS faith is false. Things like the veracity of the Book of Mormon, or the LDS narrative, whether or not those hold up are crucial.

        I understand what you say about Christ, In order to remain a Christian after losing faith in the LDS Church, one really does need to reassess what they believe about Christ and God in general. For instance, one might ask what reason there is to believe in the unique, anthropomorphic perspective of God held by Mormons when, not only all other major branches of Christianity, but Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Krishna, and most all the other major world religions reject this view of God. One might argue that Christianity’s transcendent view of the Divine was influenced by Greek philosophy, but it would be a stretch to say the same is true of the other religions mentioned. Check out this video, and let me know what you think:

        That Mormonism has many good elements mean that it has truth. I have no problem admitting this. That said, what is true and good about Mormonism is what is true and good in many other world religions. The question I would ask is what religion is most true, or has the most truths, and best helps individuals live according to these truths.

        I am glad that things went more smoothly with your wife than you expected. Glory to God!

        Responding to your inquiries has been a pleasure. Don’t hesitate to reach out in the future.

        Do I think mormonthink is accurate and fair? It depends on the article. I do think that they have a strong bias against Mormonism and religion in general, but that doesn’t mean everything on the website is false or unworthy of consideration. With any source, I would check it against others. This is a good rule to follow in general, whether one is considering political, historical, religious, or philosophical claims.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s