What Mormonism Offers to the World

I don’t know how many of you read the transcript of Richard Bushman’s talk up at Weber State. If you haven’t you really should. It’s very well written and really makes one think. I’d really like to comment on one paragraph that really stood out to me. It was the question Helen Whitney from last year’s PBS special The Mormons asked but couldn’t get a satisfactory answer to.

“What is it that you have to say that can be used by the rest of the world?”

Quoting from Bushman,

She didn’t mean “join us, become a part of the Church.” She meant “What perspective on the world do you have to offer?” Mormons think they have all sorts of perspectives on the world, these are of immense value. But no one communicated with Helen Whitney. She just couldn’t find anything. She talked to Terryl Givens, she talked to me, she talked to Kathleen Flake, she talked to all sorts of Mormon scholars in many, many situations, and none of us could give her an answer that was persuasive and won her heart. And so nothing of that, the meaning of Mormonism, got into her TV show. That’s the direction in which I think Mormon intellectuals should now turn their attention.

Bushman suggests that what Mormonism offers is a theodicy. While the Mormon answer there, based upon a God within the universe and who doesn’t create ex nihilo. But is that fully satisfactory? That is do we really provide a justification of the ways of God? I’m not sure we do.

Certainly we resolve the logical problem of evil. A God who creates and maintains all existence clearly is responsible for existence and its nature in a way that a God who is a part of existence does not. Yet the reason many question is not because of some abstract question of evil but the question of the evils each of us experiences. Not just the every day slights but the hurricanes, the disease, the aches and pains as our body malfunctions or is injured. Even explaining away many evils due to free will isn’t ultimately helpful.

Perhaps to other religious believers we can offer a lot. I think creation ex nihilo is one of the biggest mistakes made in religion. I understand why the doctrine developed. But I think it ends up being unhelpful in many, many ways.

So let me ask you, is the greatest perspective we can offer is our view of a God who is within and alongside the universe rather than the ontological “first cause” “God of the philosophers?” Perhaps it is.

But are we communicating it very well?

And is it something people want?

19 thoughts on “What Mormonism Offers to the World

  1. Outsiders will have to tell us what we have to offer them. As far as I’m concerned, what Mormonism has to offer is not a perspective but an experience. You have to live it to learn from it.

  2. I think the most significant thing mormonism offers to the world is the idea of restoration.

    I know that we aren’t unique in suggesting such an idea, but it is by far the most important.

    What mormonism offers is the idea that many religious ideas might be the result of man’s thinking and not God’s intent. That is, that God should not be held accountable for man’s actions. Therefore, no matter what history and the bad behavior of a few speak concerning traditional values and the character of religion, it cannot necessarily be attributed to God.

    Most religious thought seems to center on man’s experience, how is man spiritual, how does he react to spiritual experiences, how does he define God. Eastern religions seem to emphasize this, and philosophy and science follow.

    Mormonism teaches that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That He has a will, that it is independent of man’s experiences/desires, and that those who attempt to define God could very well just be wrong.

    Therefore, spirituality is sought through seeking a personal relationship with that being, and attempting to live precepts that come externally.

    What do I mean? I think a good example is found in the belief of Mormons. Often overlooked publicly is that many Mormons really believe in what they say they believe. I’m talking about people with ‘testimonies’.

    There’s no spiritual speculation, it’s a matter of “God told me and so it is”.

    So, by restoration, I mean that it is prudent to reject religious speculation, and seek a spirituality dependent on acknowledging concepts such as personal revelation.

    I hope I’m understood.

  3. Wow, I will have to go back and spend some quality time on Bushman’s talk! Thanks for the link, Clark.

    On the question asked by Whitney, “What is it that you have to say that can be used by the rest of the world?” The answer that comes to my mind–albeit just an initial thought, and not my final answer–is the plan of salvation.

    The concept of what the afterlife will be like is something I don’t think other Christian religions has answered to my satisfaction. The idea of sitting around a great banquet table worshipping Christ (that was the answer given me by the pastor of a local bible church when I asked her what we would do when we got to heaven) holds only so much appeal for me and I am left asking the question , “Ok, what comes after the banquet and the worshipping?”

    For me, the plan of salvation says that there is more to life than just the daily grind and that there is meaning to why we are here and where we will go after this life.

    Does that make sense?

  4. ZSorenson: What mormonism offers is the idea that many religious ideas might be the result of man’s thinking and not God’s intent.

    Except that is pretty mainstream and has been for quite sometime. One could argue that Evangelical fundamentalism is primarily distinguished as a reaction against this idea.

    ZSorenson: Mormonism teaches that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That He has a will, that it is independent of man’s experiences/desires, and that those who attempt to define God could very well just be wrong.

    Once again though that seems a pretty ubiquitous belief. And, our Evangelical friends like to point out that we don’t believe it to quite the same degree they do.

    ZSorenson: Therefore, spirituality is sought through seeking a personal relationship with that being, and attempting to live precepts that come externally.

    Once again though this really isn’t that uncommon. I don’t think we could say it is what Mormonism offers (in distinction to what most already have)

    I think what Mormonism does offer though (and this is related to the rejection of ex nihilo is the idea of a more anthropomorphic God. While most emphasize how God is “Other” we emphasize how God is “like.”

  5. Brian, I agree our plan of salvation is helpful. But it seems too tied to conversion. I think what Bushman and Whitney were after is what ideas or way of thinking can Mormonism offer that is useful independent of joining Mormonism. Something useful to Buddhists, Catholics, Evangelicals and perhaps even atheists.

    To be honest the more I think about it the more I’m convinced the rejection of creation ex nihilo and the unifying of God and the world is our main contribution. However I think the anthropormophizing of God in opposition to thousands of years going the other way is a closely related big contribution as well.

  6. Clark, I think the main issue is continuing revelation, not just with prophets but with all individuals.

    If you think about what missionaries ask their investigators to do, they don’t do what any other religion does, meaning asking people to join us because of XXX, YY or ZZ reason or because you are going to **** if you don’t. At the end of the day, missionaries work to get non-members to get their own personal revelation from God. Again and again, we are asked to ignore what the world says and concentrate on getting confirmation from God.

    I think this completely vertical religion is unique and unlike anything else out there. Most other religions ask you to rely on a pastor or priest or rabbi to be your “spiritual guide” and explain things for you. That’s why the whole issue of religion in politics is such a big deal for other religions but less so for us. We don’t ask people to get a confirmation of their testimony from the bishop — we ask them to get a confirmation from themselves by asking the Father again and again.

    The whole concept of “enduring to the end” is about personal struggles. If you are going to endure to the end, you have to develop that vertical relationship with the Father to such an extent that you are always guided by His will. As your tests continue, you will only succeed if you have a good antenna to pick up His guidance. Yes, all of the Church leaders are there as support, but at the end of the day it’s between you and the Father. There are way, way too many paths that can lead you astray — unless you are asking for help and guidance from Him all the time.

    So, as to what we offer the world, I would say the most incredible thing we offer is the news that you can have a direct, personal relationship with the Father where He will guide you throughout your life, and if you have a good “antenna” you will get closer and closer to Him throughout your lifetime. If you think about the First Vision, that is really what God is announcing to the world — He is there with His Son, and He will answer you if you sincerely pray to Him.

  7. “So let me ask you, is the greatest perspective we can offer is our view of a God who is within and alongside the universe rather than the ontological “first cause” “God of the philosophers?” Perhaps it is.”

    I didn’t know this was Mormon doctrine. I certainly think that God is “first cause”. I even believe in an eternity that comprehends but is not contained in time. Am I going to be denied a temple recommend?

    My non-Mormon friends ask me if I am going to get a planet of my own someday. My reply is no I am aiming for a universe. Lightening hasn’t struck yet. Maybe Revelation 21:7 is true.

  8. I think one we sell short is the idea of Man’s origin and destiny. I am quite sure Ms. Whitney must have heard that answer, and to some extent she seemed to like it, as she encourages to own it more. The idea of eternal progression, continuously moving forward is a powerful, positive message.

  9. Yeah, eternal progression is a nice doctrine although we vary on how much we embrace it. (i.e. think McConkie’s views on knowledge and eternal progression)

    Aloysius, it all depends upon how you view the King Follet Discourse and related doctrines. They aren’t canonized but show up in most theology in varying degrees. Some people like Blake Ostler back off from them a fair bit. But even Blake takes as central the rejection of creation ex nihilo. So far as I can tell it’s been a consistent doctrine that we reject ex nihilo and understand God as crafter.

    As I mentioned this is also the older Jewish view as well.

  10. I think our two greatest offerings to the world is the understanding of the Premortal divine council. It explains our relationship with God, why we are here, and why there are evils and trials in life. When we look at tragedy as experiences that will help us in our divine journey back to God, then war/famine/pestilence/etc have an actual reason that makes sense.

    Second, we show that the heavens are not closed. While many think Mormons and gold plates are strange, if you were to ask the average Christian if he/she believed in angelic visits, most would probably say, “yes.” It’s just that most others don’t speak of such things, while Mormons wear it on our sleeve for all to see. I think that the greatest point on the First Vision is that God does make house calls today – that Nietzche is wrong, God didn’t die. And I agree with Bushman that revelation is available to all, according to our faith and our attention to it. Even the temple is a rite of practicing entering into God’s presence and have Him revealed to us as individuals.

  11. I’m with you on the rejection of creation ex nihilo, and I’d add the Mormon doctrine of exaltation—of becoming so one with God that one becomes a god. That doctrine, to me, affects nearly every aspect of how and why I worship. Do any other religions offer a comparable doctrine? Many (or most?) offer some kind of salvation/heaven/nirvana, but nothing quite like exaltation.

  12. Aloysius – he’s standing beside us. One could say he’s still crafting.

    Brian, deification in Eastern Orthodoxy is pretty key doctrine to them although they still maintain the ontological difference which ends up affecting the theology in some key ways. One could say that in Eastern Orthodoxy deification is the key doctrine after the Trinity: especially relative to western Christianity.

    Gerald, a surprising number of Evangelics are pretty open to revelation, angels and do talk about them a lot. At least they did in my mission. Mormons have this view of the ‘closing of the heavens’ as being our opposition but that was more liberal Christianity. Mormonism was part of 19th century movements reacting against this and our Evangelical friends were part of that movement. There were other parts, most of which didn’t end up doing as well as we have.

    I do think our doctrine of pre-existence offers a lot. In some ways it’s not unique. (It’s found among many strands of Judaism) But the way we conceive of it is pretty unique. I also agree that it tends to change ones perspective. Especially the way our choices there affect us here.

  13. Clark, I’ll have to read up on Eastern Orthodoxy. Not something I’ve done before and it sounds quite interesting. Thanks.

  14. Gospel messages are communicated via feeling as opposed to intellectually. Sure, vocabulary has to be used, and the words have to be factually correct, and in a language and sub-language that the listener can understand. But without the Spirit, nothing can be communicated, let alone accepted as truth, no matter how intellectual or how smart the speaker and the listener are.

    That is one reason why intellectual communication of gospel principles doesn’t seem to have much effect. The scholars, whether they be the speakers or the listeners, are focusing on an ineffectual method of gospel communication, and an ineffectual method of gospel understanding.

    This is not to say that emotionalism should replace intellectualism. After all, the glory of God is intelligence.

    But gospel understanding has to start at the basics and work up from a good foundation. The basics of the gospel are simple enough for an 8 year-old.

    Those who try to understand lofty concepts before getting their foundation in place will never achieve understanding of the higher concepts.

  15. What Mormonism offers, is not primarily a theology, or belief system, but a destiny. It places us in the larger universe. It speaks of what we were and what we can become. It offers a person the chance to transcend suffering and error and unite with God. It’s a chance to hold the universe in your hands and unite with others in the unity of love and cosmic family.

    And yet, it isn’t some fuzzy loss of identity in the big gooey happy cosmic collective otherwise known as God. It is an opportunity to transcend into the next level of human evolution as a free individual and not as some worthless and expendable redundancy that God could just as well do without.

    Mormonism offers the believer true freedom in the cosmos and a love and unity worth having. It names us sons and daughters of the living, present, speaking and breathing God. It gathers us as Israel into Zion.

    This is no mere belief system, no mere philosophical game. This is a divine and glorious destiny that we are called to rise to.

    That is what Mormonism is and what it offers.

  16. I found this quote attributed to BH Roberts:
    Less than a year after B. H. Roberts returned from presiding over the Eastern States Mission, he was asked by an editor of a national magazine, “Why does Mormonism appeal to you?”
    He sat down and wrote the following nine-point list:
    1. Its views of God,
    2. Its views of man,
    3. Its views of creation and the universe,
    4. Its views of the purpose of life,
    5. Its views of the atonement of the Christ,
    6. Its views of the gospel as a means of man’s salvation,
    7. The grandeur and consistency of its development as the dispensation of the fullness of times, the completion of the plans of God with reference to the redemption of the earth and the salvation of man, and finally,
    8. Its views of the physical resurrection and the
    9. future degrees of glory to which man will be assigned as the outcome of his earth life.

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