I like most everything from Terryl Givens, but I really liked his latest blog post titled Mormons at the Forefront published at firstthings.com.
He is responding to the idea that for the most part, LDS beliefs on Jesus Christ puts them within mainstream Christianity, if only they could get rid of some of Joseph’s “unorthodox” teachings, for example that God was once an embodied human. My own observation is that the King Follett discourse where Joseph taught this idea is not in the LDS canon and is not official doctrine of the church. It was introduced in April 1844, only a few months before the prophet’s death, so he never had a good chance to explain. I agree it has shaped Mormon understanding since then and I don’t think it’s possible that we dismiss it completely (nor should we), but I do see the church backing down a little from the literalness and specificity of the sermon, and instead looking for less certain but deeper truths that it might be representing–similar to Terryl Givens’ approach.
Dr. Givens first identifies the cyclical nature of orthodoxy. Though some Mormon ideas might be considered radical today, they might have been orthodox by Biblical followers at an earlier point. He talks about two ways in which the Mormon view of God the Father are superior to Christian thought.
1. An embodied God suffers with humans
This is considered heretical by Christians.
Although there were early figures who spoke of divine passion or suffering, for most of Christian history, it was simply assumed that God cannot suffer. He is infinite, unchanging, and impassible. “Who can sanely say that God is touched by any misery?” asks Augustine in a typical formulation.
Givens uses the beautiful allegory in Jacob 5 of the Lord of the vineyard, representing God the Father, who weeps over the fruitlessness of his servant’s efforts. And also from Moses 7, God weeping over the suffering of his children. Two examples from the Mormon canon that show the emotions of God the Father. I love this description Givens gives of God. Is this not a God worthy of our worship?
It is not their wickedness but their “misery,” not their disobedience but their “suffering,” that elicits the God of heaven’s tears. Enoch’s weeping God participates in rather than transcends the ebb and flow of human history, tragedy, and grief.
2. An embodied God is more intimate and relatable to his children. Because of this embodiment, we are endeared to him for the same reasons we are endeared to Christ: he took on human form and suffered through the same things we suffer through, so that he might succor his people. This verse Alma 7:11 refers to Jesus Christ, but we see that the source of his ability to succor and relate to the human family is due to his experience with being a human–there’s something important about this idea of taking “flesh”.
12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
I love that Brother Givens is not apologizing for Mormon doctrine. We have no reason to be ashamed of the aspects of our religion and doctrine that are a little different than other religions. This is a strength not a weakness.
In sum, the Mormon theological tradition has demonstrated enduring relevance and resonance, one that Mormons embrace without excuses. We feel no need for “greater conformity with the orthodox Christian consensus.” Indeed, the Christian consensus is fluid and, in some cases, has lagged behind the Mormon model.
Amen. My sentiments exactly. The LDS church is under a barrage of attacks over its historical organizational and scriptural claims. Critics are going back in time, pointing to various historical and scientific facts, that “prove the church is not true”. And some of that is very reasonable criticism, and we need to shift the way we talk about exclusivity and some of the historical narrative. But, that’s not the important stuff. That doesn’t describe what’s happening in the hearts of millions of LDS across the world. I point to what’s happening today, on the pews in LDS chapels each week, in the hearts of members, in the families and relationships of those working to seek God’s will and live the Christ centered LDS life, and use that to show that the “church is true”.
In a discussion on historicity issues, a critic of the church suggested that due to weaknesses in its historicity claims, acknowledging that despite the fruits may be good, the roots of the church were rotten, tied to dishonesty and misrepresentation of actual history and so the whole thing should be dumped. I can acknowledge some problems with LDS history , but oh do I disagree with the claim that the roots of the church are rotten. My response to that:
“Rotten roots?”. Those “rotten roots” are our heritage. From the ancient Israelites and the Law of Moses to the teachings of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ to the early Christian church shaped by Paul through Catholicism to the Protestant reformation to Joseph Smith’s creativity and vision and expansion of doctrine about the nature of God and eternal families to our Pioneer spirit to Brigham Young’s hard working western frontier works based religion to the modern church’s peeling away of unnecessary doctrines and mainstreaming and globalizing into a common sense service based brand of Christianity that makes a difference in the world. Those roots are so valuable. Deep and strong and helping us stay grounded in a turbulent world.
Joseph Smith took the best of Christian doctrine and the best of other doctrines of his day, and inspired by God in a process aptly described by Blake Ostler as “human creativity responding to divine persuasion”, created a profound theology that is just as relevant 200 years later. Possibly even more inspired, he created an organizational structure that enables the church to continue to progress and grow. From the Givens article:
Mormons believe in a tradition that is alive. It unfolds under the guidance of a divine influence, subject to fits and starts and a revelatory process administered through imperfect and at times fallible intermediaries. Mormons will bring to our shared tradition a soteriology, a divine and human anthropology, and a Christology that ground their enduring love and devotion to the Savior, and do so with great effectiveness. It is a tradition rich in ancient Christian precedents and, in numerous instances, it anticipates contemporary shifts in the larger Christian consensus.