Tuesday, December 26, 2017

On the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture

Summary: Mormons resist theology, thinking it to be the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.  Instead, we ought to realize that the phrase originated in response to “orthodoxy”, and that it is orthodox dogma, not theology, that is to be avoided.  Indeed, theology gives us the tools to have dialogue about the nature of our spiritual experience, and helps us build loving communities of faith.


In our temple creation narrative, we have Satan being asked what religion he teaches.  He says he teaches the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.  In response, Adam rejects Satan’s teachings, looking for messengers from his Father in Heaven to teach him.

I see merit in this dialogue.  I grew up really delving deeply into philosophy and theology, not as a scholar, mind you, but more as a dilettante – a passionate hobbyist on understanding all the complexities of theology. 

Yet no amount of philosophy, no amount of analysis, could prepare me for life.  When my faith crisis came upon me years ago, my intellect could not save me from my self-destructive behaviors. 

Then, at some point in this Journey, I came to realize a relationship with a presence I have come to call Christ.  When I came to know this Presence, anything I could possibly know *about* god was complete nonsense. 

But to explain this presence, to understand what it means, when I go to church each Sunday and hear a correlated doctrine *about* god and all else, I am left to wonder why we must reject philosophical inquiry, why we must accept the correlated doctrine without question, when our personal experience – our truth – is so different.

Are we forbidden from exploring what our experience means?  Is talking about the nature of god so “sacred” that we must simply keep to the script, or not talk at all about it?

Eugene England grappled with the idea of who god is.  As he explored how god could once have been man and is now god, he pondered what this might mean.  Is god “progressing” he asked.  After all, it would seem that we are on a path of “eternal progression”, so when is it that we “arrive” at perfection?

When Eugene England opened up a theological discussion at BYU as to whether God progresses, Bruce R McConkie went on the warpath against him, declaring the notion the first of seven great heresies, and commanded England to echo what McConkie taught or remain silent.

In like manner, Orson Pratt was shut down by Brigham Young when Pratt explored the nature of God.

Yet here is the problem: Whether we like it or not, the notion of who or what god is, and how we come to believe it, is the work of theology.  And because “theology” is a kind of philosophical inquiry into the nature of god and our existence, LDS are doubly forbidden from exploring this line of thinking: both from the dogmatic statements by our leaders as well as our temple narrative.

But are we really forbidden? 

In 1990, the temple narrative was simplified, removing from it some elements that really were quite offensive to many.  While we cannot really talk about all parts that were removed, we can actually talk about the creation, garden, and telestial kingdom narrative – the interactions between God, Jesus, Adam, Eve, the Apostles, and Satan.

There was one more character in the pre-1990 account – a sectarian minister who was employed by Satan to teach religion.  While this was pretty offensive toward other religions – the minister was clothed in typical clerical garb – the narrative is important, because it sets the context of what is meant by condemning the “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture”.   Satan conducts an interview with the minister:

Satan asks, “Do you preach the orthodox religion?”

The preacher responds, “Yes, that is what I preach”.

Then, the preacher teaches the creedal, orthodox definition of god to Adam.  Although it is a bit of a caricature of orthodox belief, it is accurate enough to demonstrate how the orthodox definition of god is contradictory and confusing to most people. 

Adam’s answer is illuminating: “To me it is a mass of confusion”.

Then the preacher teaches Adam the orthodox definition of hell – one nearly verbatim from the beliefs of hell outlined in the Book of Mormon, to which Adam responds “I believe in no such place.”

All of the above dialogue was removed from the temple endowment in 1990.  But what remains in the endowment is the dialogue between the Apostles and Satan.  Satan is asked, “What is being taught?”, and Satan responds, “The philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.”

As I opened this post, I note that there is merit to this dialogue.  But the merit is significantly lessened when we lose the context of what the expression actually meant.  The religion being taught was *orthodoxy*: the religion based upon creeds and dogmas that had to be accepted without question in order to be “right thinking”/”orthodox” in one’s beliefs.

Properly understood, “philosophies of men” are not the problem here.  It is when a religion is based upon orthodoxy: the established dogmas and creeds derived from the “philosophies of men mingled with scripture”. 

So how is Orthodoxy the “Philosophies of Men, Mingled with Scripture”?

When we explore the history of Christian Doctrine – and the works of Jaroslav Pelikan are essential to understanding this, we realize that as the Christian church grew, it changed, it became institutionalized, and the idea of personal revelation needed to be set aside in order to create a consistent doctrine. 

The Council of Nicaea is illustrative. Hundreds of Bishops gathered together by request of Emperor Constantine, in order to systematize Christian doctrine so that it could be used to govern the empire.  There were too many controversies in Christian doctrine – too many schools of thought, and there needed to be order. 

The deepest controversy was on the nature of God, and how Jesus was both God and man. 

The reality is that no-one knew.  They were all administrators – politically connected men who were well established in Church leadership.  Many were smart, inspired, and paragons of thought and Christian practice.  Both Eusebius, the great church historian, as well as Nikolaos of Myra (St. Nick) were there.  They were good people earnestly striving to grapple with the most essential doctrine of the Christian religion: How can two persons, God the Father and Jesus Christ, be One God?

Much as they tried, they could not find an answer to this in scripture.  So they turned to the philosophies of men, or specifically, the prevailing Greek philosophy of the time: Neoplatonism.  In Plato, the essence of God is the Form of the Good – a concept outside of creation.  This essence is One, or in Greek, “homoousion” – “Single Essence” or “Singe Being”.  Thus, the Nicene Creed introduced that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were three persons who shared one “homoousion” – One god in three persons.

And from that point going forward, Neoplatonic philosophy more or less formed the ideas around what the orthodox god is in essence:  Neoplatonism says the Form of the Good is incomprehensible, so thus, God is incomprehensible.  Neoplatonism says that the form of the good is outside of creation, thus god is outside of creation.  Omnipotence, omniscience, all the extremes of perfection and unchanging nature come from these same philosophies.  Then, scriptures are cherry picked to support the philosophies of men.  And voila!  Orthodoxy is born.

Then, around 1820, a fourteen or fifteen year old farm boy has a personal experience with god. In this vision, the young man learns that the orthodoxy of the creeds was an abomination to God, that those who profess such creeds are corrupted thereby, and they “teach for doctrine the commandments of men”.

These are strong indictments against orthodoxy.  Indeed, the beauty of the Restoration was the undoing of orthodoxy, opening up the singular idea that man could have a personal relationship with god and receive revelation.  In contrast, orthodoxy demands that if mankind receives revelation, it can only confirm that which has already been revealed – there is no concept of “line upon line, precept upon precept”, for in orthodoxy, we seek to preserve what was, rather than embrace what might be.

For many years, the LDS church eschewed orthodoxy.  There were generations of LDS amateur theologians, whether Orson Pratt, BH Roberts, John A Widtsoe, James E Talmage, OC Tanner, Sterling McMurrin, and Eugene England.  Yet try as they might, another camp exists within the Church leadership, taking their lead from Joseph Fielding Smith, to shut down any kind of theology that doesn’t conform to orthodoxy.  Smith’s son-in-law Bruce R McConkie wrote Mormon Doctrine, a catechism for Mormon orthodoxy, in parallel with Harold B Lee and Boyd K Packer’s development and enforcement of the Priesthood Correlation. 

And while LDS correlated beliefs do include Mormon-specific ideas, they also are meant to be amenable to the prevailing Christian definitions of god – the precise same ones that came from “the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.” 

To Correlated Mormons, God the Father is an unchanging being from everlasting to everlasting, who has always been God, yet was once man like us.  God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good, yet allows evil (including random evil such as tsunami) because he does not intervene in free will.  God is present everywhere, but is a body of flesh and bones and cannot dwell in our hearts (an old sectarian notion). 

In other words, LDS have taken the creedal definition of god: unchangeable and omni-whatever, and added to it that God was once a mortal man and is corporeal.  We have taken an already internally inconsistent and logically impossible dogma and done the miraculous: we have made it worse.

I have been dragged into my bishop’s office over my public statement: “In the beginning man created God in his own image.  In the image of man created he Him.  Father and Son created he Them.”  Yet I stand by my statement, because I was talking about orthodoxy: the creedal definitions of god, which I reject.  The philosophies of men, mingled with scripture, do not make for good doctrine.  It’s about how we *define* god, and whether we are free to have our own experience with god.

To me, this is the core idea of Mormonism: God lives and reveals him and her self to us personally.  And yes, this may stimulate us to think about theology, because the experience of god essentially calls into question any orthodoxy that defines god in defiance to personal witness.

So what does this mean to the everyday Mormon experience?

Rather than shunning theology as the “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture”, I believe we ought to embrace theology as a way to understand the personal experience with god that we all have in our own Way and in our own time.  Theology gives us the tools to discuss our experience with others, and to better understand our own relationship with god. 

Let’s take, for example, our testimony meetings.  The idea of a “pure testimony” is one which makes five claims:

1. I know that God is our Heavenly Father and He loves us.

2. I know that His Son, Jesus Christ, is our Savior and Redeemer.

3. I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. He restored the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth and translated the Book of Mormon by the power of God.

4. I know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s Church on the earth today.

5. I know that this Church is led by a living prophet who receives revelation.

For all intents and purposes, this testimony is fully correlated.  It is a creed, although instead of “I believe” (“credo” in latin), we say “I know” – asserting a certainty in place of faith/belief.  From a theological point of view, this testimony is fraught with serious problems.  There is no epistemological justification for saying “I know” such claims other than one’s personal feelings.  And a witness or testimony should not focus on the claim but rather, the observation.

A testimony is a personal witness, what I have observed to be true.  If I am to witness that God is my heavenly father, and that he loves me, it might be good to express why I feel that way.  How is the idea of god as “heavenly father” relevant to me?  In what way does he love me?  My experience with this is relevant, not my claim.  If I believe that God loves me, I have witnessed that love by some experience, and to bear witness is to explain the experience, not the certainty claim.

Theology gives us the tools of understanding our relationship with god in a common, shareable language.  To be sure, the personal relationship with god transcends any theological construct – if I have experienced god or spirit in some way, it’s not because I have the right theology.  At it’s core, the personal experience is ineffable.  That said, we share our experiences in dialogue, so how I *explain* my experience, how I dialogue with others, has everything to do with theology. 

Theology gives us a framework for discussing who god is (and is not) and who we are.  This is the discipline of Ontology: the study of the nature of being.  Theology also helps us properly define how we come to believe things.  This is “Epistemology”: the study of the nature of belief (literally, “pistis” in greek is “Faith”).  When we realize that epistemology and ontology are the First Principles of any theology, then, we can equate that to something more understandable to Mormons. 

In Mormonism, the First Principle is “Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”.  This is a theological construct.  It is the idea that “faith” is our epistemology, and Jesus Christ is our ontology.  We must not simply throw off this First Principle as “I know Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer”.  While I accept this as what we profess, we need to go deeper. 

First, we must realize that faith is “not knowing”.  Faith is a life-long process and relationship with truth.  We ever realize we don’t know, and then in that realization, we hope for things which are not seen, which are true.  Faith is the basis of our lives, as we seek to live with uncertainties, yet act with charity and love in faithfulness. 

And as we suggest who Jesus Christ is as Savior and Redeemer, we must go further, deeper, probe what it truly means to follow Christ, to become One with Christ.  We realize, theologically, that Jesus Christ repeatedly equated himself with YHWH – the I AM.  The Identity of Christ – the very nature of his being, and his being God is worthy of the deepest contemplation.  If we are to be like him, if we are to follow him, we must come to an understanding of what that means to us, to me personally. 

And Jesus prayed that we might be One with Him in exactly the same way he is One with God.  Such an idea has profound theological implications, both for ourselves, as well as for the nature of God.  When we say, As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become, we are engaging in the deepest theology of all.

If God is our *ultimate concern*, then we must seek with all of our heart, might, mind and strength to follow god, to embrace god, to understand god, and all we can do to know god as a personal experience.  This need not be formal theology, but it is most definitely theology. 

And in realizing the importance of this quest, when we repeat the Shema, “Hear Oh Israel, I AM our gods, I AM One”, we are invoking the singular idea that not only is God One, but we are also One in God as we struggle in our theological quest.