The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of Mormon theology, as gathered from Sterling McMurrin’s “The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion”, one of the books recommended to me.  This is the third in a series, and probably the last for a little while as I gear up for the fall semester.  Mormon commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post and the subsequent discussion will be to accurately describe the Mormon faith.  Commenters may respectfully question or register disagreement with this or that LDS tenet, but I will not tolerate the gratuitous insults of Mormonism that are unfortunately common in orthodox Christian circles.]

Despite being highly visible allies in the culture wars, Mormons are by-and-large poorly understood by more mainstream Christians.  Joseph Smith was a genius but not a formally trained theologian, so he ended up using philosophical terms idiosyncratically to express his insights, and this can create misunderstanding among those trained to follow Aristotle’s prior idiosyncrasies.  In this book, Professor McMurrin performs a valuable service translating between Mormon and Trinitarian theological statements.  Usually, misunderstandings lead groups to exaggerate their differences, but McMurrin argues that Mormonism’s innovations are even more drastic and fundamental than either side realizes.

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Laudato Si

Rusty Reno at First Things, complaining that Pope Francis’s attitude to modernity reminds him of Pius IX’s, almost makes me a Francis fan.

In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era…

If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity. In the nineteenth century, the Church regarded modernity’s failure to acknowledge God as damning. It led to usurpations of authority, disrespect for hierarchy, and other signs of anthropocentric self-regard. Francis’s concerns are different. He’s worried about the poor, environmental disasters, and the complacent rich indifferent to both. But his analysis is the same, and he shares a similar dire, global view of modernity as the epitome of godless sin.

He’s right.  Modernity is the epitome of godless sin.

I’m not opposed to the idea of an encyclical on the environment or even one on the ethical issues raised by climate change, but I fear the encyclical we’ve got will be a lost opportunity.  This is a shame, because it does make some important points mixed amid the tedious committee-speak.

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The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of Eastern Orthodox theology, as gathered from Vladimir Lossky’s “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”, one of the books recommended to me.  This is the second in a series as I work my way down my reading list.  Orthodox commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post, and I hope of the subsequent discussion, will be to accurately describe the Orthodox faith, rather than to criticize or defend it.]

Lossky’s book was first published in French in 1944, so Thomist Catholicism is naturally the tradition to which he most often compares his own, and the “individual” vs. “person” craze of that era definitely left its mark.  These points of familiarity will aid western readers.  Lossky sometimes strikes me as too eager to assert differences between East and West, but the purpose is to explain rather than disparage, making it a good book for our purposes.

Lossky (and, I gather, much of the Eastern tradition) is ultimately motivated by a desire to defend two truths:  1) that God is utterly beyond our knowledge and comprehension, 2) and yet He does make Himself really and immediately accessible to us, especially in mystical experience.  God is both inaccessible and accessible, a seeming paradox that would probably please Lossky and the Eastern Fathers who inspire him.  His goal is to preserve antinomies rather than resolve them; the danger of contradiction worries him far less than that of premature epistemic closure, of replacing the real, incomprehensible God with some construction more amenable to the human mind.

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Is the Orthosphere part of a larger whole?

Certainly, the Orthosphere fits within the larger category of Right-wing blogs, and within the subcategory of “reactionary” (extreme, i.e. Enlightenment-rejecting, Right) blogs.  Even this subcategory has distinct clusters:  the Orthosphere, Integralists, Identitarians, and Neoreactionaries, to name just the most impressive.  Are these different ideological movements, or different focuses within a single movement?  To rephrase, here are the two possibilities.  1) The Orthosphere’s fundamental principles (our ultimate premises) are the same as its defining principles (the positions that distinguish us from other groups), in which case we are ultimately our own movement and those other groups are at best allies.  2) Our defining principles are applications to our particular area of interest of more fundamental principles shared by the larger community of reactionaries.  Which is it?

Orthosphere commenter Mark Citadel has an impressive blog of his own.  In this post, he addresses weaknesses in the reactionary blogosphere.

With a movement that has different areas of focus, you are bound to get drift. The different wheels of Spandrell’s Trike like to roll off on their own for extended periods and not participate in the congregation of a collective might. Social Matter, a product of the Hestia Society for Social Studies, is a more-than-worthy rallying point for the radical right...Through promotion, Social Matter should get pushed to the fore.

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What is Reformed Theology?

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of the Calvinist system, as gathered from R. C. Sproul’s “What is Reformed Theology?”, one of the books recommended to me.  Hopefully, this will be the first in a series as I work my way down my reading list.  Protestant commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post, and I hope of the subsequent discussion, will be to accurately describe the Reformed faith, rather than to criticize or defend it (except against definite misunderstandings, of which there are unfortunately many).]

Sproul’s book attempts to explain the distinctive tenets of Reformed theology.  It highlights differences with other Christians while avoiding a polemical tone.  (Sproul tries hard to be fair to Catholicism.  More often, he contrasts his classical Protestant positions with those of the Arminians; only they could say how fairly he characterizes them.)  This is just right for our purposes.

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Are people getting better or worse at taking others’ perspectives?

Michael Shermer at Reason writes that mankind is being uplifted by a “moral Flynn effect”–not only are we much smarter than our ancestors; we are also much more moral, and the smarter among us are the most moral of all.  Of course, one’s opinion of this thesis will depend on whether one agrees or disagrees with the moral novelties of recent decades.  I’ll leave the critique of the writer’s biases and unwarranted assumptions to readers who feel they’re not getting enough practice at that sort of thing, limiting myself to a quibble over language.  I would say that the trend he describes is not so much men becoming more moral as men becoming more docile.  The very intelligent, I am willing to concede, are a very docile bunch, inclined neither to violent crime nor to questioning the reigning liberal dogmas, these being Shermer’s two measures of moral advance.  Docility is usually a good thing–heaven forbid I speak disparagingly of it!–but it is not quite the same thing as morality, a potentially wilder attribute.

What I’d really like to talk about is an interesting claim that comes up in the essay.  Shermer proposes an explanation for the connection between intelligence and morality:  intelligence helps us understand the perspective of others, which makes us treat them better.  Thus, the more intelligent of us have broader sympathies, and as the Flynn effect raises the general IQ, society as a whole becomes more compassionate and just.  Here we have an empirical claim that can stand apart from the ethical commitments of the writer.  One might even make this claim while remaining ambivalent on the moral value of perspective-shifting.  Traditionally, justice was seen as the “view from nowhere”; just sampling the different perspectives couldn’t reveal which one is right.  Compassion can be misdirected.  Failure to punish can be a defect of justice.  The more sympathetic party is not always the one in the right.

In fact, I doubt we are getting better at perspective-shifting.  My observations all go the other way.  It seems to me that modern men are uniquely lacking in the ability to assume other peoples’ perspectives, and in fact that they have gotten noticeably worse at it over the course of my own lifetime.

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Original sin as good news

From Juan Donoso Cortes’ Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism:

Reason, which revolts against the transmission of sin or of penalty, yet receives what is transmitted to us without repugnance, notwithstanding the sorrow which accompanies it, if in place of being designated as sin and penalty it is called inevitable misfortune.  It is not, however, difficult clearly to prove that this misfortune could not be changed into happiness, except with the condition of its being a penalty, from which we necessarily conclude that the rationalistic solution in its definitive results is less acceptable than the Catholic solution.

If our actual depravity is only a physical and necessary effect of the primitive corruption, and the effect must last so long as the cause remains, it is evident that since there is no means whatever of removing the cause, neither can there be any by which the effect may be prevented.

…For it is worthy of remark, and in opposition to what at first sight would appear, that it is not justice but mercy which is especially conspicuous in that solemn condemnation which immediately followed the commission of sin.  If God had refrained from intervening with this condemnation when this tremendous catastrophe occurred, if when He saw man separated from Him He had withdrawn Himself from man, and entering into the tranquility of His repose had no longer vouchsafed to think of man, or, to express all in one word, if God in place of condemning man had abandoned him to the inevitable consequences of his voluntary disunion and separation, then the fall of man would have been hopeless, and his perdition certain.  But in order that this disaster might be repaired, it became necessary for God to draw near to man in another way, uniting Himself to him anew, though imperfectly, by the ties of mercy.  Punishment was the new bond of union between the Creator and the creature, and in it mercy and justice were mysteriously joined, mercy being the connecting link, and justice vindicated in the penalty assigned.

If we cease to view suffering and sorrow in the light of a penalty, we not only deprive them of their power to reunite the Creator and the creature, but we also destroy their expiatory and purifying effect on man.  If grief is not a penalty, it is an unmitigated evil; if it is a penalty, it still remains an evil through its origin, sin; but it is also a great good, on account of its freeing from the defilement of sin.  The universality of sin renders necessary the universality of purification, in order that all mankind may be cleansed in its mysterious waters.

…Regard the Earth throughout its length and breadth, consider all that surrounds you, annihilate space and time, and you will find among the abodes of men only what you here behold–a grief without intermission, and a lamentation which never ceases.  But this grief freely accepted is the measure of all greatness; for there can be no greatness without sacrifice, and sacrifice is only grief voluntarily accepted.  The world calls those persons heroic who, transpierced with a sword of grief, freely accept their suffering.  The Church calls holy those who accept every grief, both the the spirit and of the flesh…

Mankind has unanimously recognized a sanctifying virtue in grief.  This is why, though the ages, in every zone, man has rendered homage and worship to great misfortune.  Oedipus is greater in the day of his calamity than in the days of his glory…

What is science?

The following are reflections based on my years teaching introductory astronomy for non-science majors.  Few of my students take the class out of personal interest.  It fulfills a natural sciences general education requirement and sounds less scary than geology or chemistry.  Thus, the ultimate purpose of the class is to expose students to the scientific enterprise, so I put a lot of thought into the impression of science I’m giving them.  When I speak of “science” below, I will be using the word in its modern rather than its classical sense, according to which biology and sociology are sciences while philosophy and history are not.

Survey course textbooks in the branches of science usually include some discussion of the general nature of science.  Anxious to emphasize science’s quality as a process rather than a fixed body of knowledge, they often hold up the “scientific method” as the essence of science.  This, however, has disadvantages.  For one, actual science rarely follows the model given in these books.  More importantly, the scientific method is itself given no real justification, and the limits of its usefulness are left unclear.  What makes this problem pressing is that students may believe, and textbooks may even state, that the scientific method involves assumptions about the world and excludes a priori certain kinds of explanation, as for instance when scientific explanations are contrasted with assertions of miraculous or animistic spiritual causality.  The impression is given that science is at least methodologically naturalist, that when thinking scientifically we must pretend to be atheists.  This, I emphasize, is not a problem for religion; it’s a problem for science.  To tie oneself from the beginning to very questionable metaphysical assumptions threatens the credibility of the whole enterprise.

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Muslims in the Obama coalition: an anecdote

Half of the families in my apartment building are Muslims.  I don’t interact with them much, but occasionally we run into each other.  I remember the night in 2012 when President Obama accepted his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president.  Ordinarily, I try to stay clear of all that political partisan stuff, but I was out for a walk, and one of the Muslim men decided to play Obama’s acceptance speech on his car radio loud enough for the rest of us to hear.  Obama was going on about a sinister cabal of rich men who are scheming to decide “whether you can have birth control” and “who you can marry”, etc, with Obama assuring us that he’s going to fight these miscreants.  And there’s this Muslim guy with his long beard and funny non-Western clothes grinning and nodding along.  Our eyes met, and he smiled, and went on listening.

Here’s the funny thing.  I haven’t talked to them, but the other American family in the apartment building has, and they’ve learned some things about our Muslim neighbors.  These guys are from Saudi Arabia.  The guy’s wife goes around completely covered except for her eyes, and she’s actually not supposed to be out at all if men might be present.  And there they are, seemingly as happy as can be with the Democrats’ feminist jihad, as if there’s no tension there.  I know this would make a better story if I would have gone up and asked him if it didn’t make him a little bit uncomfortable that the President was advocating contraception and sodomy, but I don’t know him, and I didn’t want to start an argument.  I suppose it’s possible that he was laughing to himself about what a bunch of degenerates Americans are, but I can’t help suspecting that he was just nodding with approval at the thought that his candidate was going to stick it to those white Christians.  Consistently applied principles are for suckers.  What one thinks of Muslims in America depends a lot on how one reads those grins.

Let me tell you how I think about Muslims in the West.  They’re liberals, married for life to the Left, just like Jews and American blacks.  Individuals among these groups might make common cause with us, and such are welcome, but their identities are too tied with the sense of opposition to Christian Europe for us to expect more than that.  Terrorism is a nuisance, much less dangerous to our civilization than blasphemy.  In the end, Muslims will only matter as communist voters.

Any religion without a theodicy problem is immoral

Why does God allow evil?  You are asking for a reason for evil, but evil is by definition that which has no reason.  It is the absence of what should be there.  God cannot have a reason for it.  It cannot be good that evil be.  It cannot be that good relies in any necessary way on evil.  That would mean that good isn’t entirely good and can’t be self-subsistent; it means that God, Who is Subsistent Goodness, doesn’t exist.  If you think you have thought of a good reason for God to put sin in the world, repent and put such wicked thoughts aside.  It is not better that Satan fell and Adam sinned.

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