Friday, 15 May 2009

Faith understood

Being a part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) has often meant I felt on the outside of Christianity. I grew up in a bubble in which I didn't know much about other's faiths. I knew most other faiths didn't consider me a Christian (despite the name of my church bearing Christ's name), and I knew there were some key differences between our religions.

What I didn't realize was just how closely our faiths actually were. Over the past five years I have become good friends with people strong in their own faiths. I have come to learn and understand more deeply what they believe. And I have come to know that in fact we stand very close - much closer than either of us would have believed.

I think the biggest difference is the willingness to talk about the deeper doctrines. My interaction with other Christian religions has mostly ended in the "Just believe in Christ and the rest is just details." While that may be the core truth, I am constantly amazed at how our differences are not all that different in the end.

What spurred these thoughts? A short television series called "Eternity: Where Do We Go From Here?" produced by a local Christian television program. My impression of the widely-held Christian belief of Heaven was simply a state of paradise, where all is beautiful, where we dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. My own belief was one of eternal progression, that the next life is a continuation of life and learning and creation, while dwelling with God in a state of happiness. As I watched this series, I was surprised to learn that I had grossly misunderstood the mainstream Christian belief about Heaven.

The more interaction I have with people of other faiths, the more I realize just how much we have in common. We each have misunderstandings about the other, and are amazed that we can sit and have discussions on faith and gospel topics and be in complete agreement with each other. Of course there are some differences, but more than not even the differences can be understood, if not reconciled.

Check out the video I saw on youtube:


belowatime said...

I'll stick my neck out here, because I'm generally not a debater, but I thought I'd reflect on some of the ways I think it is difficult to just "focus on Jesus", because we need not only to revere him, but agree on who he is, and who we are in relation to him - if he truly is "the truth".

I struggle with Mormon doctrine, as I think that it contradicts a Biblical faith. Here are a few of the gaps I see, as someone who believes that the Bible alone must be our faith manual.

The Bible repeatedly tells us that there is one God, not a progression of Gods (Is. 23:10, Is. 44:6, Is. 44: 8) and when 'gods' (plural) are mentioned they are 'idol gods', not gods of other worlds (1 Cor. 8:4-6).

The Bible does not speak of spirit children either, but when it mentions 'the sons of God' it refers to angels (Job 38:4, 7). Angels are of the spiritual creation and we are of the earthly creation. There is a spirit realm and physical realm. Angels and humans are not the same, nor do they evolve from one to the other. Man began in the garden, with Adam (1 Cor. 15: 46-47 says, "The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven.") That Christ pre-existed is Biblical, that we pre-existed is not.

I understand from reading the Bible that Adam was not the archangel, Michael, but an earthly creation who caused the sin problem for which Jesus would be the sin-solution. Adam was a sinner who willfully disobeyed God's command not to eat the forbidden fruit. He opened the door to sin for all of humanity ("For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous" Rom. 5:19). Not everyone will be given eternal life, for as Jesus said, few would find life (Matt. 7:13-14). Jesus makes it very clear that there are two destinies, to perish or have everlasting life, nothing about eternal progression is mentioned in the Bible. It is by the shed blood of Jesus that we can be saved, and our baptism is a symbol of that salvation.

I also have trouble with the fact that Joseph Smith "fixed" the King James Bible, not by studying the original languages, but by adding his own details and interpretations, creating "The Joseph Smith Translation" as the authoritative version for the LDS church. The Book of Revelations clearly warns against adding anything to the book:

Revelation 22:18

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book."

(I believe this verse refers to the entire Bible, but regardless it seems that Smith also added to the book of Revelations specifically, as well as many other places in Scripture).

I think the LDS community is very devout, very sincere and very, very big-hearted, yet my concern remains regarding a number of LDS church doctrines that are not just extra-Biblical, but I think, anti-Biblical.

We cannot have two truths. Either the Bible is true, or it is not. In my (pretty limited) understanding of Joseph Smith, he did not seem to place much value on the truth of the Bible, but felt that it needed to be added to, something the Bible itself repeatedly warns against.

What do you think?

Terri-Ann said...

Thanks for starting this discussion. I love to delve into issues of faith, and I find so few people are really able and wanting to talk about what they believe. I think so many people feel apprehensive talking about something either so personal, or perhaps even a little unstable, in their lives. I loved your reply here.

I was so curious to hear from someone about this video - I was really surprised by this "mainstream" Christian view about heaven and eternal progression - I really had thought it was unique to the LDS faith, but was really surprised to learn that other Christians also believe in it. But I gather from your reply that you don't adhere to this point of view. Is this something all Christians disagree on?

Spirit children is an interesting doctrine, that I believe stems from the idea that "before we were formed in the belly, God knew us." (Jer 1:5). Many people, when they come to Christ, talk about a feeling of 'coming home;. They feel that they have simply found something they subconsciously always knew. William Wordsworth has a beautiful poem:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
the soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home;

The homely nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
and that imperial palace whence he came.

You're right in that the idea of Adam being the archangel is not found in the bible - not addressed at all. It doesn't say he wasn't, it doesn't say he was. However we agree that Adam did choose disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit. As a part of God's great plan, sin came into the world that the rest of mankind may be born on earth.

The concept of Heaven, Paradise and Eternal life is an idea of great interest to me. I think it must be so difficult when the same scripture can be interpreted in so many ways. In 1 Corinthians 15 it talks about glories telestial and terrestrial and celestial, from whence comes the LDS doctrine of different glories in the kingdom of God. His house has "many mansions" - not one great big one. However there is obviously an alternative interpretation to this in which others would see many mansions and different glories being all encompassed in heaven. That was why this video caught my interest - all of a sudden there seemed to be a mainstream interpretation of a first "stop" in paradise, followed by judgement, followed by our eternal reward, which mirrors the LDS view.

The Joseph Smith interpretation of the Bible stemmed from his reading of it and finding contradictions within it. If one compares even the different interpretations we have today from scholars who relied on their own knowledge, there are varied results. While Joseph Smith had no training in this area, he relied purely on the power of the Holy Spirit to interpret for him. In fact, we use the King James version of the bible, with an appendix at the back that notes the translations Joseph made. There are not too many of them, and most involve the idea that God does not have any evil in him, but that evil is from Satan or the result of man's choices. For example, in Exodus, the original passage reads that God hardened Pharoah's heart, and the translation says that Pharoah hardened his own heart against Moses and the word of God. The same in 1 Samuel, that the evil spirit did not come from the Lord, as the original says.

There are several answers to the "adding to the bible". When the Book of revelations was written, several other books of the bible had not yet been written, which might mean that it applies only to the Book of Revelations. Some might say that it was written because God knew how the bible would be compiled eventually, but it was not always compiled thus either. In specific reference to the book of Revelations, Joseph smith did retranslate some of the verses, but this happens every time another scholar writes another interpretation. Also to be noted is that in the book of Deuteronomy (4:2 and 12:2) Moses writes from God that nothing shall be added or taken from the scriptures as written. My interpretation would then be that only God has the authority to inspire men to write what God would have written. But I do believe in the bible just as much as other scripture I believe to be inspired of God. The truth of the bible is central to my core belief, a tenet included in the "Articles of Faith", which were penned to outline the beliefs of the LDS church. "We believe the bible to be the word of God."

What I find most interesting in one's journey of faith is that so many people are looking for the "smoking gun" - the thing that definitively proves one faith over another. I believe that if that existed, we would all be of the same faith. I am not a scholar, but I believe there are good, devout, educated, faithful scholars in every faith, Christian, Muslim, Islam, Eastern, Atheists, etc. Each one will look at the same evidences we all have access to, and come to completely separate and logical conclusions. To sit at the feet of any of these people and listen, you could be convinced of the absolute truth of their way. Which is why I realized long ago that God is the only one who can give us the knowledge we desire. (James 1:5)

Certainly the most unique element of the LDS faith is that it takes many of the basic doctrines of Christianity and expounds upon them, the idea being a restoration of truths that had been a part of the gospel but had been lost over time. Just as Paul needed to constantly bring the ancient church back into the fold of correct doctrine, man left on his own throughout the Dark Ages also lost key pieces of truth. That's why the LDS church claims to be "Restorative" rather than "Protestant" - a foundation on coming back to the original rather than protesting the existing. Certainly the Protestant movement was necessary, because the state of faith and religion at the time needed to brought back in line with Christ's teachings. The LDS faith comes from the idea that protesting the existing was only the first step, that after protesting the incorrect ideas, a restoration of lost truths was needed.

Of all this, I'm most interested to hear from you on the Protestant idea of heaven - was this video a true representation of Protestant faith?

belowatime said...

Terri- Ann,

Thanks for being willing to discuss! Since you didn't chop my head off last time, I'll keep sticking my neck out ;)

In a conversation like this I think it's critical to keep defining terms. In a sense I am Protestant (as opposed to Catholic), but what I really am is a Bible believer, an imperfect follower of the Christ of the Bible. Protestantism, like every other branch of religious belief has points of agreement and divergence, that's why I believe it's so critical to keep coming back to the Bible alone, as it is reliable and sufficient.

God has promised that his word, the Bible, would stand forever (Isaiah 40:3). We know that his word is true (John 17:17), contains wisdom unto salvation, and thoroughly equips Gods people for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:2).

Starting with salvation, the Bible never interprets mere resurrection as salvation (John 5:29). Those who receive Jesus will have eternal life, but the wrath of God remains on those who reject him (John 3:36). While Christians are called to keep God's commandments (e.g. John 14:15), salvation is in no way based on our own righteous deeds (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5-8). It is through the atonement of Christ that we are made perfect (Hebrews 10:13-18). The atonement took place, not in the Garden of Gethsemane but through his blood shed on the cross (Colossians 1:20; 1 Peter 2:24).

Now, on to Heaven, the context of 1 Corinthians 15:40-41 is the contrast between resurrection (celestial or heavenly) and pre-resurrection (terrestrial or earthly) bodies, not heavenly kingdoms. The Bible does speak of three heavens: the atmospheric heaven, where birds fly and from which the rains fall (Genesis 7:23;8:2); the astronomic heaven, where the stars and planets reside (Genesis 1:14, 15; 22:17); and the third heaven, the throne of God (Matthew 6:9; Revelation 4:2).

On the topic of hell (outer darkness): one's place in hell is as eternal as one's abode in heaven (Matthew 25:46). There is no second chance after death (Hebrews 9:27). At the final judgment, men either receive the resurrection of life or the resurrection of condemnation (Daniel 12:2; John 5:29) they are assigned either to heaven or hell.

Here's also a web page I found that seems to lay out well the the "solo-scriptura" (Bible-alone) understanding of Heaven:

Now, one of the Bible verses that raises a red flag for me regarding Mormonism is
Galatians 1:6-9 where the Apostle Paul says,

"I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed."

Even if this text was only, primarily, intended to be applied locally, to the church in Galatia, the principle stands—the true Gospel is a message of salvation by grace, not of works. Where does LDS stand on the idea of grace?

Paul includes even himself among those who are to be accursed if he should ever subsequently try to revise or append the Gospel in any way.

And he says, "...or an angel from heaven..." Does the term angel (aggelos—messenger) include Moroni? Is it possible that either Moroni, or Moroni's father, Mormon, the Nephite historian and author of the gold plates, were false spirits, or at least had it wrong due to the leading of a false spirit—and that Joseph Smith was possibly a victim of a deceiving spirit (I Timothy 4:1) disguised as an angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14)?

What do you think?

Terri-Ann said...

How I wish we were closer – these conversations are hard to have in pieces through writing. I have another good friend with whom I often debate, and distance often means we communicate through email also. I hope clarity prevails, as writing so often clouds meaning. As I am currently laid up in bed, I have time to respond quickly – I understand if a family of 7 keeps you sometimes from finding spare moments!

I am excited to hear someone who places such importance on the bible and your own ability to read, interpret, pray and rely on revelation from God to answer questions one has. Too often I think people build their faith on what pastors/ministers/church leaders preach and fail to discover the truth for themselves. I believe this is the only way to discern truth.

I agree with your comments on the bible. I suppose, when it comes to the Book of Mormon, it is best understood by its subtitle: “Another testament of Christ”. In fact, the Book of Mormon reaffirms everything the bible teaches, and stands as a witness of the promise that by two or three witnesses his word shall be established, and also that both the Stick (book) of Judah and the Stick of Ephraim would come forth (Ezek37:16, 19). What I am even more interested in is the idea that there might be even more scripture written – by the lost 10 tribes, perhaps, or other of God’s children he chose to speak to. Certainly this poses an element of uncertainty, but I think it difficult to say that God could not have spoken to others, if he so chose. God has promised to reveal his mysteries to us, which insinuates there is much more which we do not currently have.

I also completely agree with your thoughts on Salvation. This I always find a curious conversation with others, because I think it is so often misunderstood. I firmly believe without the grace of God and Christ’s sacrifice, we would have no hope. Period. There is nothing we can do that could earn our salvation or resurrection. When you say “Christians are called to keep God’s commandments” and I say “We need to show our faith by our works” (James 2:14-26) we are effectively saying the same thing. James (the book) notes in vs 24 that man is not justified by faith alone, but that he must show his faith through his works. But, in the end, it would not matter what we did if Christ’s atonement on the cross (yes, I agree, that is where it happened) had not occurred. The grace of Christ stands supreme.

I confess the biblical evidences of the state of Heaven not to be sufficient to truly understand what comes next – hence the great and diverse opinions that exist in the world. Eastern writing is so difficult for a Westerner to wrap their mind around, and the imagery and symbolism can be interpreted in so many ways. I have resigned myself that although God seems to be giving us a glimpse of what is to come, that really it isn’t for us to know for certain. Likely the concept of what heaven and eternity really is, is just too abstract for a finite mind to grasp. I also resign myself that it is impossible for someone to judge who shall go where – there is only one Judge. God will know what is written on my heart, and in the end that is all that matters.

Deception by the devil would be a serious thing indeed. Matthew talks about that, the wolves in sheep’s clothing. But as every good tree will bring forth good fruit, and by their fruits ye shall know them (Matt 715:20), then if one’s heart is good and is doing good, then the seed must be good. That is the promise God made to us, so that we may discern what is good. I believe the Devil has more important work than propagating any religion that is bringing people to God, his word and his love. People within may stray and waver, but I truly believe that all the religions exist to bring as many people to God in as many ways as possible. What could Satan possibly gain by bringing people to confess and believe in Christ? Although Satan might appear as an angel of light, that planted seed would soon bring forth the evil fruit, and the essence of the seed would be betrayed. I would not say there is evil in any Christian, unless it be hypocrisy. A genuine desire to learn and love and accept God is what He asks of us.

I am also interested in your thoughts on those who never hear the word of God in this life. Are they saved in their innocence, even without faith and confession that Christ is their Lord? I know this touches on the “judging others”, but I personally believe that God would not condemn one of his children because they lived their life never hearing the word. I hesitate to step further in this, other than saying God is just and loving.

(Never fear of offending me or having your head chopped off! I am an avid and fair debater, who enjoys a tussle of the mind and a challenge of ideas – if one is not standing on firm ground, then the sandy foundation will soon wash you away, and it is better to have fallen and rebuild on rock then to continue to sway in the winds!)