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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Know Your Religion

Previously: Correct Me If I'm Wrong

You want a challenge? Try getting a decent handle on Mormon theology today. The gospel of Christ is supposed to be simple enough for any of us to understand as long as we are willing to put in a bit of effort. Why then do we have such trouble separating the pure teachings of our religion (those that come from the revealed word of God) from later collections of rumors, myths, opinions, and speculation? 

Author Adam S. Miller acknowledged how convoluted the search for religious knowledge has become when he aptly titled his book on Mormon theology Rube Goldberg Machines:
"Doing theology is like building a comically circuitous
Rube Goldberg machine: you spend your time tinkering together an unnecessarily complicated, impractical, and ingenious apparatus for doing things that are, in themselves, simple...Engaged in this work, theology has only one definitive strength: it can make simple things difficult." (Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays In Mormon Theology)
As it happens, in recent weeks two remarkable books have been published that will serve to make the difficult things simple again, and it's these books I wish to write about today.  The first is Paul Toscano's The Serpent and the Dove: Messianic Mysteries of the Mormon Temple 

This is a thin volume consisting of only three short chapters and an epilogue. It takes up all of 178 pages, yet it's packed with more valuable information than anything in memory.  A book this short I could usually finish in an hour or two, but I kept finding myself stopping to think long and hard about what I was learning.  This is the kind of book that will have you exclaiming, "Whoa, Dude!" and staring off into space while you let what you just learned try to wrap itself around your brain. I was only part way through the first chapter when I realized this was the most amazing book on Mormon theology I had ever read in my life. And I am not exaggerating. 

One area of LDS teaching that has long confused me is the Book of Mormon's description of the attributes of God.  In numerous places the Book of Mormon makes it quite clear that Jesus Christ is not only the Son of God, but he is also the Eternal Father as well. At least that's the way it reads throughout the original 1830 edition. Here are some examples taken just from First Nephi:
"And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin which thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh." (verse 11:18)
"And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father! " (verse 11:21)
". . . And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world..." (verse 11:32)
"...and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world . . . " (verse 13:40)
I was 21 years old before I bothered to read the Book of Mormon straight through (I went on my mission when I was nearly 22), and I think the only reason I was finally getting around to it then was because I found an 1830 replica edition at Deseret Book for 30 dollars and thought it looked and felt kinda cool. So I started in reading, and found that narrative version more readable than my modern seminary edition that was all broken up by verse. But you can imagine my confusion when the original translation seemed to contradict what I had learned growing up in the church. God the Father did not sacrifice himself, I had been taught. He sent his son Jesus to perform that mission.

So I stuck with what I had been taught by my teachers, especially after being told Joseph Smith obviously had translated those verses incorrectly.  Seemed a bit unlikely that the prophet would inadvertently make mistakes like that one after the other, but I accepted that explanation.  After all, Church committees hard at work since then have updated our modern editions and set it all right by inserting the words "son of" every place they rightly belonged. Here's how those verses read in my modern Triple Com:
"And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh."
"And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! . . . "
" . . . And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world . . . "
 " . . . and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the World..."
Problem solved!

Or was it?

I wasn't certain, because Abinadi delivered a very lengthy dissertation on the topic so involved that it could not so easily be explained away, beginning with this statement:
"I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people." (Mosiah 15:1, emphasis mine)
I continued to believe what I was taught at church, though it didn't sit well with me, and not just because my teachers contradicted the scriptures.  It didn't sit well with me because it didn't seem to me like much of a sacrifice for an all-powerful God to send his Son (who, let's be honest, we consider to be a personage of lesser rank than the father) to be killed in his place, even if the Son was willing.

Well, as it happens, it was not a lesser God who takes the hit. It actually is God the Father who sacrifices himself. As Toscano writes:
It is the Eternal God, not some lesser deity, who does the work of salvation. The dual nature of this God is then revealed and explained:
"And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son— The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son—and they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth." (Mosiah 15:2-4)
Toscano continues:
"On the nature of God there is, perhaps, no more concise or confusing statement in the Mormon canon.  These verses present Jesus Christ as God, a single being who is both the Father and Son -the Son because of the flesh and the Father because he was 'conceived by the power of God.'  If the phrase 'conceived by the power of God' means only that Christ was conceived in the flesh by and with godly powers, it does not explain how Christ is the Father.  If, however, the phrase means that Christ as the Father was conceived by no power outside his own, then this verse tells us that Christ as Father had no progenitor, but was the uncreated and pre-existed creation as the self-existent divine Supreme Being."
Are you lost yet?  Don't be. Toscano provides a complete explanation of how and why this seeming dichotomy can exist and still make sense. And he doesn't just pull the explanation out of thin air, either. Joseph Smith tried to teach these things to the people in the months prior to his death, and we have numerous instances where he lamented the Saint's inability to comprehend such wonderful concepts. Toscano provides us with the prophet's own words as he tried get the Saints to understand the mysteries of godliness.

Such truths may, on the surface, seem incredible, but they are not incomprehensible. They can be understood. It does, however, take some personal effort in order to gain understanding of the greater things. Apparently it was easier for Joseph Smith's contemporaries to simply assume the prophet himself was confused. It was whispered about in some quarters by this time that Brother Joseph had become a fallen prophet, so it was easier to ignore his ramblings than to pray and ask for a witness. And so rather than embrace the wondrous doctrines, they dismissed them and wished them away. As Toscano puts it,
"Joseph Smith's godhead statements, which by his death achieved the intricacy of an invention by J.S. Bach, were reduced by the 20th century LDS Church to the simplicity of a Lawrence Welk polka."
The Mysteries Of Godliness
More important than the how of the condescension of God, is the why. This is covered in chapters two and three of Toscano's book, where the endowment ceremony is discussed and explained in detail. I should note here that many members feel that a discussion of any part of the temple ceremony outside those walls is strictly forbidden, but that isn't so. It is only in three short places that we covenant to secrecy at all, and as will be shown below, it is quite doubtful that Joseph Smith ever intended for any of the ritual to be so secret. It's unfortunate that so many assume nothing at all is up for discussion. Perhaps this reluctance to talk about the meaning of this important ordinance is the very reason we understand so little about the things God would have us know.

Nevertheless, I'm not going to go into any of that, except to point out that the overriding message of the temple is that the Eternal God, (Jesus Christ, Jehovah, the Supreme Being), being so filled with infinite love for his creations,chose not to remain on his throne and lord it over the rest of us, but instead to join us, to become one with us, to make us all His equals. 
"The endowment presents the Garden of Eden as the symbolic place where the Gods descend into mortality. This condescension is referred to in 1 Nephi 11 of the Book of Mormon, where the text presents an angel who asks Nephi, "knowest thou the condescension of God?" When Nephi answers no, the angel opens to him a vision of the virgin Mary, the mortal portal through which the male aspect of Jehovah is incarnated as the mortal Jesus."
"The condescension of Jehovah is not a show or sham. It is not temporary. It is permanent. God becomes one with the angels, and the angels become one with God."
The endowment, when properly performed and understood, is symbolic of God's infinite, unrestricted, and unconditional love for his children.

But it doesn't appear that way today, largely because the ritual has been twisted and corrupted into an instrument of control. Whatever Joseph Smith originally intended for the temple ritual, the Messianic interpretation was subverted and obscured following the prophet's untimely death. Toscano writes:
"It is subverted by competing similar rituals of both Masonry and Wicca. It is obscured by the temple narrative itself.  It is distorted by placing women in subjugation to their husbands, by allowing a husband to play the Lord to his wife prior to their being sealed in marriage. It is distorted by the relentless emphasis on obedience, by the oaths of secrecy, by the former connection of the penalties with threats of punishment and revenge. These distortions resulted in part from Brigham Young's narrative of retribution, his desire to punish apostates, his insistence on avenging the murders of the prophet and patriarch, and his objective of preventing with threats further betrayals of the Saints by members of the LDS Church."
The Church of Jesus Christ was never intended by its founder to be governed by an all-male hierarchy. An essential element of the temple ceremony was the Quorum of the Anointed, which already consisted of both males and females acting in equal authority. These quorums, to be spread among the various stakes and branches, would come together during general conference to govern and conduct the affairs of the church.  But look what happened just a year after Joseph's death:
"In December of 1845, the meetings of the Quorum of the Anointed were suspended and thenceforth women were prohibited from participation in the theocratic activities of the church.  This act constituted the first death blow to Joseph Smith's revelation of Messianic priesthood fullness."
"The Second blow to priesthood fulness and the Holy Order also occurred in December of 1845, when the language of the second anointing was changed so that women were no longer anointed 'priestesses unto God,' but rather 'priestesses unto their husbands.'  During Joseph Smith's lifetime, beginning with the second anointing of the first female, women had been anointed priestesses and men had been anointed priests unto God."
"The Third blow to priesthood fulness and the priesthood order was dealt by Brigham Young when he suspended for 23 years the meetings and operation of the Relief Society, an institution intended by Joseph Smith to serve as a female priesthood organization, a 'kingdom of priestesses.' Eventually, the Relief Society was reconstituted, but not as an organization of female priests. It was organized as an independent women's organization.
It's worth remembering that Brigham Young had never been ordained of God. He had no authority to change the everlasting ordinances that the prophet Joseph had put in place.  He did not even claim the mantle of the Prophet, but saw himself as placeholder until Joseph's son came of age to take the reins of the church.  Still, it didn't seem to bother him to undo Joseph's sacred work.

As depressing as it is to see how bad things have gotten, I'm convinced it's not too late to repent.  Near the end of the third and final chapter of his book, Brother Toscano provides "a blueprint for Zion." For those of us who still hold out hope, this plan follows the requirements the Lord would have us follow.  Whatever you want to call the growing awakening taking place within the church today, Toscano must certainly be considered the grandfather of the movement. As former Associate Editor at the Ensign magazine, Paul Toscano was the first prominent church member back in the early '90s to recognize things were slipping.  (Paul is probably best known for his influential essay entitled All Is Not Well In Zion: False Teachings of the True Church, which you can read for free here.)  We would all do well to consider his proposals as to what we as individuals can do to bring about Zion in our own lives without waiting for the institutional Church to come around.  Remember, Zion is not a Church; it isn't necessarily even a place. Zion is "the pure in heart."  We need not wait around for official instructions. We already have them in our scriptures.

The Serpent and the Dove is essential reading. I don't usually insist this adamantly that my readers buy a specific book (unless it's mine, of course!), but believe me when I tell you, you need to get this book, and you need to get it now.

O Say, What Is Truth?
While Paul Toscano's book is the size of a small handbook at a mere .3 of an inch thick, Bret Corbridge's 77 Truths has the heft of a big city White Pages. For those seeking a comprehensive guide to the essential doctrines of our faith, this is the absolute best one volume reference I know of (and I own a lot of Church reference books). Most importantly, it will walk you through the steps necessary to contribute to a Zion society.  Laid out under 77 key principles of the gospel, this book contains all the scriptures and statements of the prophets you will ever need to assist you in following the Savior's will.  It's divided into 77 separate sections, each section with its own header statement outlining a single doctrinal principal or "truth."  This is followed in each instance by several pages of scriptures, analysis, and quotations to back up and thoroughly explain that principle.

This book has already become my chief gospel reference of late; when I'm looking for a needed scripture or quotation, this is now the source I now go to first.  But a reference book is not even its intended first use. This book is designed to be used as a sort of "Gospel Textbook," starting at the front and working your way through one principle at a time. It's ideal for family night teaching, or daily or weekly devotionals, or even as a couple's study. And if you're like me and slept through all four years of Seminary, this book is your second chance to get that Gospel G.E.D.

I'll go further than that. This book, along with Paul Toscano's The Serpent and the Dove, will provide you with your Master's Degree in Mormon Theology. If I had to go live out my days on a desert Island and was forced to pack light, I'd take these two books and my scriptures, and I could make do.*

*However, the edition of the Book of Mormon I would want to bring with me would be Daymon Smith's The Abridging Works: The Epic and Historic Book of Mormon Arranged in Sequence of Composition, which is far superior to the one in my Triple Combination. 

Mormons And War 
At the beginning of this piece I said I was going to recommend two books on Mormon Theology, but a third book has just crossed my desk which begs to be included here, since it covers the doctrine surrounding a topic that a great majority of latter-day Saints are woefully ignorant about. The book is War: A Book Of Mormon Perspective, by Kendal Anderson.

I have spent only a few minutes skimming through the pages thus far, but it looks like a very promising read, and a much needed antidote to the false teachings so prevalent throughout the church today. Long-time readers may recall that last Memorial day I nearly gave myself an aneurism after watching an official Church video that completely misrepresented the Lord's teachings on war, and had this book been available then, I might have shut up and just told you to read this book.

War: A Book of Mormon Perspective is not the first book to address this important topic, but it is the most comprehensive. Three years ago,  War and Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives was favorably reviewed by me here, and although I recommend it, this recent publication seems to hold the promise of providing more accurate and comprehensive theology on the topic overall. The final third of the book contains two sections of apendices, and like Corbridge and Toscano's books, this one is heavily footnoted.

As Anderson reminds us in his chapter on the misunderstood Captain Moroni, Warfare is the number two theme in the entire Book of Mormon, and since it is both the most important and the most ignored doctrinal issue of our day, it would behoove us to make certain we are on the Lord's side on this before we thoughtlessly jump into battle.

So now you have three books as your assigned reading. If you still have some of that Christmas money grandma gave you last month, head on over to Amazon and start spending it, quick. Here are the links:

The Serpent and the Dove: Messianic Mysteries of the Mormon Temple by Paul Toscano

77 Truths by Bret L. Corbridge

War: A Book of Mormon Perspective by Kendal Anderson

As first announced last month, plans are being made for a Remnant Family Reunion to be held in May on Colorado's Grand Mesa, about a five hour drive from Salt Lake City.  This will be a FREE opportunity to gather and get to know like-minded latter-day Saints. I'm happy to announce that the venues have been obtained and all details have been hammered out, so if the Lord inspires you to come join us, I hope you will. I'm very excited to meet many of you in person.  If you are at all considering joining us, please hie over to Adrian Larsen's website, To The Remnant right now, and click on the flyer to download the pdf file where you'll find the schedule, maps, information, and places you can buy your groceries for the potluck meal.

And remember, this event is FREE.  I hope to see you there!

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