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.

Reasons Roman Catholics Give for not Becoming Orthodox

I was going to write an article responding to Roman Catholic arguments against Eastern Orthodoxy, but I found this article by Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck far superior to anything I could have penned. Enjoy:

Introduction: Fr. Brian Harrison is a professor of theology and Catholic priest in good standing who wrote the article “Why I Didn’t Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy” for This Rock magazine, now known as Catholic Answers Magazine, in October 2008. The original article is available online here. Here is Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck’s reply:

At the outset, Orthodox Christians should be respectful and grateful as this article is a chance to open an in-depth dialogue on some of the deeper issues that divide us. My comments are in bold; however, there are few “Proposals” that were also in bold in the original article. The reader should be able to recognize those easily.

I am probably a rather unusual convert to Catholicism, in that my spiritual journey to Rome involved both the other major world divisions of Christianity—Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. As an undergraduate university student, guided by the rational λογος (logos) of classical philosophy (which Pope Benedict famously insisted upon as an attribute of God in his 2006 Regensburg discourse), I came to see the essential logical incoherence in Reformation Christianity: Its fundamental sola scriptura principle itself nowhere appears in Scripture and so is self-referentially contradictory.

I was also becoming increasingly convinced that if there is to be any true and definitive revelation from God to humanity, then—given that God has plainly not decided to offer this revelation immediately and directly to each individual—he will need to establish a completely reliable intermediary, perennially accessible here on earth to ordinary people like you and me. In short, an infallible teaching authority.

This is a very interesting – and very human, understandable – concern: the desire to have certainty on religious matters. However, this assumes that this is the way God actually works; with a rational, reliable, permanent answer on questions pertaining to God’s revelation. In other words, that spiritual truth is revealed rationally (a very Western / Scholastic leaning) in contrast with theoria (the vision of God in the Holy Spirit – the Eastern Orthodox tradition)… continued here

Perry Robinson’s response to David Bentley Hart

I recently posted a link to David Bentley Hart’s presentation, “God, Creation, and Evil” given at the University of Notre Dame, along with a transcription of part of his presentation. For those of you interested in reading a rebuttal to Hart’s argument, fellow Orthodox Christian scholar, Perry Robinson, has this to say:

Note: Perry’s words were written as a Facebook comment, which is why there are occasional informalities.

He gets Maximus wrong, probably because he has just read Balthasar’s account of him. That is at least the way it smells. The natural will is not the person, it is the power of willing the person uses. His gloss on the natural will ignores the hypostatic employment and the fusion of the mode of willing with the telos of the natural power. More importantly, he ignores or seems unaware of the role that the metaphysical plurality of the divine energies plays in satisfying the AP condition on freedom for Maximus. Fixity in virtue is not incompatible with choosing between a plurality of objects, which was the crucial point against the Monothelites.

Seems unaware of the shift convicting Origen of in fact rejecting the resurrection of the flesh, among other errors, vindicating his critics over the last twenty years. Apparently I can read Studia Patristica and monographs on Origen but he can’t. Is completely clueless about the discussion by Libertarians on the nature of freedom…for the past forty years. This idea that Libertarians are committed to some absolute voluntarism is absurd and the product of gross ignorance. A natural telos of the good is only incompatible with libertarianism if the good is absolutely simple and singular. He is simply reading 17t-18h century Enlightenment conceptions of freedom into….everyone.

Mistakenly thinks that Gnome is permanent, which runs counter to Conciliar Christology. I suspect he gets this from reading Barth because he sure as hell didn’t get it from reading anything in Maximus scholarship…over the last century. Rejects an ecumenical council of the church, imperial or not, it is still dogmatically binding. And that council dealt with a lot more than just Origen.

Trots out the usual Thomist understanding of freedom (which is also Augustinian btw #moreirony) that is Stoic and Plotinian where freedom is construed in terms of efficacy of the will in accomplishing the end, completely ignoring that a determined and/or unfree will can be perfectly efficacious as well That certainly isn’t the notion of freedom in the Cappadocians, Athanasius, Cyril, et al. See Ennead 4 on the determined yet free fall of the souls.

It is entirely irrelevant that Analytic philosophers do not “own” such terms. What is relevant is if he can say why the standard glosses on them are mistaken in some way. Transcendental causality doesn’t get you out of determinism simply because the efficient causation isn’t temporal. So what he has to say about the nature of freedom is irrelevant.

It is highly ironic that the whole, don’t be hatin’ Augustine crowd talks about how wrong Augustine is on a number of issues in the comments of the original post, who simply historicized Origen. They “hate” Augustine when it suits their purpose in glowing ad hoc style.

It seems strange (aka wrong) to speak of necessity in God with respect to the Triad of persons when Athanasius and Cyril both deny necessity and contingency in the Father willing the Son.

He can’t seem to figure out that Universalism doesn’t solve the problem of Hell so it is a non-starter. Either it is the case that the truth of U is contingent or necessary. If the former, if divine goodness is incompatible with an eternal hell, then divine goodness is a contingent fact, since there is some logically possible world where hell is eternal. How does sacrificing divine perfection represent an advance here? In this way Open Theism and Universalism are alike in sacrificing a traditional Christian portrait of deity.

If it is necessary, then we are back to a compatibilist/soft determinist set of conditions on freedom/moral responsibility. hello, Calvinism writ large.

And nowhere do any of the participants point out exactly where the Church teaches universalism as an article of Faith or of the Apostolic deposit.#becausetheycan‘t.

Other than that, his comments seem just great.

I have my own reservations  about what both Hart and Robinson have to say, and perhaps I will write up a response in the near future. For now, though, I thought it right to present another view of this issue in the spirit of intellectual honesty.

David Bentley Hart on Why the Free Will Argument for Eternal Damnation Fails.

David Bentley Hart recently presented a paper at an Institute for Church Life conference on the topic “God, Creation, and Evil.” His paper focused specifically on eternal damnation in light of creation ex nihilo. The presentation can be listened to in its entirety here.

I was moved by Hart’s argument contra eternal damnation, which he makes from approximately 18:00 to 22:00 in the recording. I have had similar thoughts, and have made similar arguments, though not as elegantly as Hart does here. Although I am not a strong universalist like Hart, I do find this specific argument persuasive and worthy of consideration. Here it is transcribed:

Who are we other than all the others who have made us who we are and to whom we belong as much as they to us. We are those others. To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed, or worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved. For if the memories of others are removed or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss? Some other being altogether, surely a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one, but not a person, not the person who was.

But it’s not the logic of the claims that bother me; it is their moral hideousness… Currently, the most popular way of defending the notion of an eternal torment is an appeal to creaturely freedom and to God’s respect for its dignity, but there could scarcely be a poorer argument, whether it’s made crudely… by William Lane Craig or elegantly by Eleonore Stump, it is going to fail. It wouldn’t if we could construct a metaphysics or phenomenology of the will’s liberty that was purely voluntarist, purely spontaneous, though even then we would have to explain how an absolutely libertarian act, obedient to no rationale whatsoever would be distinguishable from sheer chance or mindless organic or mechanical impulse, and so any more free than an earthquake or embolism. But on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented towards the good and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil. One can take the evil for the good. but that doesn’t alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it and so never having been free to choose it. It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them, or his respect for their freedom, than to say that a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy. 

And the argument becomes quite insufferable when one considers the personal conditions – ignorance, mortality, defectibility of intellect and will – under which each soul enters the world and the circumstances, the suffering of all creatures, even the most innocent and delightful among them, with which that world confronts the soul.


The Bruce Jenner controversy and our inability to have productive dialogue.

I was hesitant to jump into the conversation about Bruce Jenner’s recent transformation because the controversy isn’t exactly lacking attention, and I’d honestly like to see us all move past it altogether. Therefore I’m not actually going to talk about Bruce Jenner’s recent transformation, since I really only brought him up to segue into a broader discussion about how people, and especially those who uphold traditional Christian principles, ought to communicate their positions.

First, and I thought this was obvious until I read some of the comments people were making, those who wish to promote traditional Christian principles ought to speak the truth in love, and remind our opponents that we do not disagree with them out of spite or detestation.

Then again, people might be lining up to sign up for what this guy is selling.

Vitriol has a way of shutting down a conversation, or even worse, replacing any possibility of productive dialogue with an exchange of diatribes. If you are one of the  (I hope) many Christians who strive to convey your positions in a respectful manner, I say keep up the good work. If your responses to your interlocutors are riddled with insults, condescending remarks, or other barriers to productive conversation, I encourage you to find more irenic methods of communicating your perspectives.

That said, false dichotomies are rampant in contemporary discourse, and no camp is immune. For instance, it is believed and promoted by many today that to love someone is to accept and love everything about them, and to reject certain aspects of an individual is to hate them. A prime example of this was the “No H8” campaign that arose in response to California’s Proposition 8. This campaign not only sought to redefine the legal definition of marriage to include those who wished to marry persons of the same sex, it painted opposition to this redefinition as a form of hate. This dichotomy, though, is obviously false. Take, for example, a mother who hates her son’s shrieking laugh. To hold that the mother, therefore, hates her son would mean that the son is defined primarily by a noise he makes. This is, of course, a ridiculous proposition, but so also is claiming that support for traditional marriage is synonymous with hating those who experience same-sex attraction.

In short (TL;DR version), in order to have productive conversations about controversial issues and get our points across, we should strive to make our cases respectfully, and avoid villainizing our opponents or distorting their positions. This is especially important for Christians who wish to promote traditional Christian morals that grow evermore unpopular, due in part, no doubt, to the uncharitable ways in which proponents of said morals express themselves.