Reassessing the theological side of the Compromise

February 18, 2012 | 21 comments
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Terryl Givens’ recently wrote about the American compromise with Mormonism, whereby Mormons agreed not to be so radical as to entirely alienate themselves from American society (i.e., ditch polygamy and our lovely Deseret) in exchange for the U.S. ceasing its explicit campaign to eradicate us. He describes the unwritten contours of that compromise as consisting in a willingness to accept and even promote the various cultural achievements of Mormonism (e.g., our choir, football, family focus), while agreeing to shelve any serious engagement with our theology. One can hear the variation on a popular General Conference theme when he writes: “In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule. . . . But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction.” The upshot is that Mormons themselves need to help define their public image now that Presidential politics have disturbed our great Compromise and open season’s been declared on our theology.

According to Givens, here are the theological starting point for any serious engagement:

1. God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.

2. Men and women existed as spiritual beings in the presence of God before progressing to this mortal life.

3. Adam and Eve were noble progenitors of the human family, and their fall made possible human life in this realm. Men and women are born pure and innocent, with no taint of original sin. (We find plenty on our own).

4. God has the desire and the power to save, through his son Jesus Christ, the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and except for the most perversely unwilling, that will be our destiny.

5. Heaven will principally consist in the eternal duration of those relationships that matter most to us now: spouses, children, and friends.

None of these beliefs is relevant to a political candidate’s fitness for office. But they should be the starting point for any serious attempt to get at the core of Mormon belief. And there should be no compromise on that point.

It strikes me as just as good a list as any. And of course it’s very important not to overwhelm our interlocutors when striking up the public conversation. But drawing up a list of this sort, particularly in the absence of Mormon creeds, is bound to be at least a little controversial. So just for fun, here’s my two questions:

1. Is there anything on Givens’ list that you think ought not be there (keeping in mind the specifics of what he’s doing)?

2. If you had an audience with an attention span and interest, what other points would you want to offer?

To kick things off, I’ll say that I’m happy with what’s on the list, but think that just as important is our (perhaps nuanced) materialism, our humanistic-utopian theological commitments (which includes our commitment to education), and our belief in (hierarchically constrained) dialogic revelation (something that Givens himself has already invested a lot of time in discussing).

What else?

21 Responses to Reassessing the theological side of the Compromise

  1. Dan on February 19, 2012 at 12:08 am

    keep it simple. We believe in Jesus Christ, that he is our savior. All this focus on the pre-mortal, or post-mortal is just a distraction. Who cares where we came from? Who cares where we are going? What are we doing NOW to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ? Are we “selling all we have and giving to the poor?” With the wealthiest candidate in US history being a Mormon, this makes it challenging, particularly since he says he is not concerned about the poor. But we need to divorce the church from the political chatter, from the political candidate, and from the political punditry. We must remember that Jesus didn’t dine with the doctors, but with the poor.

  2. Dave on February 19, 2012 at 12:41 am

    Two millennia and Christians are still arguing over Christian theology. Theology tends to divide rather than unite people. I doubt whether any formulation of LDS beliefs, whether short or extended, will change that reality. Christian commentators who think a better explanation of LDS beliefs or theology will solve anything (such as Christian misunderstanding of LDS beliefs) are naive in apparently learning nothing from 2000 years of incessant Christian theological squabbling. Liberal pundits who suggest a better explanation of LDS theology is called for are being disingenuous: they realize public discussion of theology will create only division, not understanding. Of course liberal commentators would rather talk about LDS theology than about the mismanagement of the economy.

  3. ji on February 19, 2012 at 1:05 am

    I’ll go along with the first part of Dan’s post (no. 1):

    [START] keep it simple. We believe in Jesus Christ, that he is our savior. All this focus on the pre-mortal, or post-mortal is just a distraction. Who cares where we came from? Who cares where we are going? What are we doing NOW to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ? [STOP]

  4. Cameron N. on February 19, 2012 at 1:26 am

    I see where Dan’s going, but I disagree. Back to the whole three act play thing. Context is everything. Knowing the first act changes everything.

  5. Michael H. on February 19, 2012 at 2:10 am

    Yeah, “keeping it simple” can work for our daily lives, but if we’re ever going to talk about why we aren’t interchangeable with Non-Denominational Church of the Ethical God (and maybe Jesus too, but that’s not necessary), we need to talk about what makes us unique. As central as it is, stating that “Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world” is not unique.

    Moreover, theology necessarily defines divisions. But so does any classification. What is important to recognize is that division is not equivalent to contention. If we try to avoid division in order to avoid contention, we’ll only end up with even more of the latter.

    That said, I think this is a wonderful list.

  6. James Olsen on February 19, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Dan & Dave: we appear to be far enough apart on this issue (which is, incidentally, orthogonal to the questions raised in the OP), that we’ll probably not have a satisfactory discussion here in the comments. I regret that I can’t have you over for dinner where we could more seriously (and effectively) discuss these differences.

    I’m not sure who all Jesus dined with, but he certainly performed a work of redemption for all humanity – and I believe along with brother Joseph that part of salvation includes intellectual redemption. Even so, I’ve no doubt that prostitutes, sinners and publicans are among those distorting the public image of Mormon theology today, so Jesus’ dining habits recorded in the NT may nonetheless be relevant here. If nothing else, I’m happy to take my cues from Elder Ballard and all the other General Authorities currently encouraging us to engage in the public discourse at all levels. This admonition clearly includes discussion of our theology, which in some venues demands a much more nuanced and sophisticated discussion than you’re calling for.

    I’m also convinced that simplistic appeals to our Jesus focus is every bit as distorting as our evangelical brothers and sisters claim they are. In any case, Jesus made the original list. I’d be surprised if Jesus’ own list doesn’t include a might bit more than “believe in Jesus” – certainly every recorded description of his teachings do.

    Dave, I’m confident that if you read and participated more in ecumenical discussion, you wouldn’t feel quite so fatalistic.

  7. Jonathan Green on February 19, 2012 at 10:34 am

    James, the one thing I’d want to add is one you mentioned already, namely revelation, because it touches on both the origin story (First Vision), exercise of leadership, and Mormons’ lived religion (testimony gaining).

  8. James Olsen on February 19, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Jonathan: yeah, it really does seem to be something that colors all aspects of our religious experience – something very relevant to understanding Mormons in general, whatever one makes of theology.

  9. Alison Moore Smith on February 19, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    Dan #1, I was with you for a minute there:

    Are we “selling all we have and giving to the poor?”

    Well, you’re not. You’re sitting at a computer with an internet connection. Do you believe that’s what we are asked to do? If so, please clarify. If not, what’s the point (oh, other than the political jab).

    With the wealthiest candidate in US history being a Mormon, this makes it challenging

    Challenging to what? To prove that we give everything we have to the poor? Last I checked the church is building temples worth millions of dollars as we speak. I don’t think Romney’s the first example to pop up showing that we don’t give everything we have to the humanitarian aid fund. And certainly no one who reads or posts here does either.

    …particularly since he says he is not concerned about the poor.

    Yea, I know. Can you believe that? What arrogance! Of course, you seem to agree with him, since you said, “if I find a poor person in my ward, he’s clearly sinning and should be damned to hell.”

    So, you know, that context thing goes both ways.

    James #6, very nice.

  10. Dan on February 19, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Alison,

    Well, you’re not. You’re sitting at a computer with an internet connection.

    Casting the first stone eh…..I support policies that provide money, food, and services to poor people in this country.

    Yea, I know. Can you believe that? What arrogance! Of course, you seem to agree with him, since you said, “if I find a poor person in my ward, he’s clearly sinning and should be damned to hell.”

    So, you know, that context thing goes both ways.

    You think I misquoted Romney? He rephrased himself and said a second time, “i’m not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net.” Yet, he wants to eliminate that safety net! I haven’t taken anything of his out of context. But thanks for showing that you care enough about my comments to remember that one. How long ago was it? I can’t remember when I wrote that….

  11. Dan on February 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    As central as it is, stating that “Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world” is not unique.

    Why would God create the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? Was it just so He could show the world a different post-mortal theology? Add another view of how the world works? NO! He created this church because all other churches had forgotten to follow Jesus Christ’s teachings. THAT’S why the church, His church, was restored again to the world. THAT’S what makes us unique. Or, we could be following along now with all the other Christian faiths and forget Jesus and just make stuff up about whatever and hope it sticks for a while.

  12. clark on February 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Dan (10), I don’t think it fair to say Romney wants to destroy all safety nets for the poor. There have been others like Ron Paul who do want that. But Romney’s much more a part of the moderate wing which doesn’t. (Indeed arguably that’s his problem in the primaries) All he meant is that his focus should be on the middle class because they don’t have the government helps that the poor do in the recession. Now one can debate that focus (it seems that the poor have been harder hit in terms of unemployment than the middle class) but I don’t think would should push it farther than is just.

  13. ji on February 19, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    The Book of Mormon was revealed (an the Church was restored) for two reasons, as shown on the title page: (1) to remind us that God remembers his promises, and (2) to remind us that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God. These are the theological starting point for any serious engagement for me.

  14. Dan on February 20, 2012 at 8:05 am

    sorry Clark, if Romney were dictator, the safety net would be gone, and it would be left to private charities to help out poor people. And i’ll say no more on that tangent.

  15. Adam Greenwood on February 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    These propositions are all defensible as Mormon beliefs, but calling them *all* “fundamental” badly misstates the range of acceptable possibilities.

    #3 is not a fundamental belief, see here:
    http://www.jrganymede.com/2012/02/17/korihor-and-terry-givens-vs-the-mormon-doctrine-of-original-sin/

    #5 errs by using the word “principally” and by excluding the Godhead from our list of important relationships that matter to us now.

  16. Keith on February 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    I agree with Adam that #3 is a little more nuanced and complicated than stated.

  17. Lucy on February 21, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Scratch the whole list.
    God is our literal Father in Heaven, not just a sympathetic entity. We are children of God. Heavenly Father has a plan for our happiness. Jesus Christ is the most important part of this plan. He is the Only Begotten Son of God and the Savior of the world. The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, and we are led today by a living prophet, President Thomas S. Monson. The Holy Ghost testifies that these things are true.
    Faith is highly relevant to a politics.

  18. Lucy on February 21, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    to politics

  19. Michael on February 21, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    I always find it interesting when life-long members of the Church distill down the Restored Gospel into its most simple parts and urge everyone to be satisfied concentrating on just those things. It seems to be a very arrogant and selfish approach which serves only those already in the community of Saints.

    However, for those of us who are converts, this approach serves no purpose whatsoever. A convert joins the Church in baptism because the Restored Gospel provides unique, interesting, and truthful claims to the most difficult questions in life. It offers a framework and a paradigm which places men and women within the context of a much larger and universal work. It gives assurance of the pre-mortal existence, the purpose of mortality and the justness of God in ways that cannot be found in other faith traditions.

    Many converts give up their familial support systems, the good traditions of their fathers, and the comfort of their upbringing to become Latter-day Saints. It is a significant sacrifice to join a community that has strange and peculiar social customs, lackluster worship services and a political slant which is unofficially emphasized through cultural pressure. If someone did not have the unique theology and additional scripture, the attraction would be nil.

    So why do we seek to take that away and reduce our emphasis down to the basis tenets of all Christianity? If that is really the path that we are going, I might as well go back to the richness of Catholicism which emphasizes the same things as Lucy mentions in her post. At least I will be able to partake of the Eucharist again and join my extended family during celebrations.

    The compromise does not work. It never has and never will. It is an illusion. Either we take pride in the Restored Gospel in all its uniqueness or we just merge with the Methodists.

  20. Suleiman on February 21, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Joseph Smith deplored creeds. Probably because first, words never fully convey the truth; and second, creeds politicize the search for truth. I think it would be fruitless to write them now.

  21. James Olsen on February 22, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Michael: I’m sympathetic to most of what you say. And as far as I’m concerned, you’re more than welcome to attend Catholic celebrations with your friends and family (happy – er, meaningful – Ash Wednesday to you).

    As a general note, let me remind everyone of the context both of Givens’ list and my questions above: interfaith dialogue and defining Mormon theology in public perception. What are the starting points of that dialogue? What do we hope that the “general” public understanding of Mormon theology will be? I agree with others here who note that this requires us to give a more nuanced articulation of our beliefs than mere Christian overlap.