This is a companion piece to a blog post I wrote meant as light, devotional reading, inspired by the passage of Nephi’s vision of Jesus Christ in 2 Nephi 11, with emphasis on the question “Knowest thou the condescension of God”. This will explore this same view from a metaphorical standpoint, ie a view you might call Mormon Deism.
Though I don’t have traditional, literal LDS beliefs, I feel I know what it’s like to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life. I feel I know God’s love. I feel very moved by Nephi’s words explaining his vision answering the question “Knowest thou the condescension of God?”
I wrote previously on how difficult, even impossible, it is to change one’s beliefs. But I want this church to work for me. I love Mormonism. I am moved by the doctrine and the beliefs. I believe it is a wonderful community and great way to live. If I can’t change my beliefs, I’d like to explore whether I can view Mormonism a different way to fit it into different types of beliefs.
I’d like to experiment here with literal beliefs to determine how far you can vary them from the standard, LDS view, and still make some logical sense of them. So, let’s test this from the extreme perspective of Deism.
Deism is the belief that God has created the universe but remains apart from it and permits his creation to administer itself through natural laws. Deism thus rejects the supernatural aspects of religion, such as belief in revelation in the Bible, and stresses the importance of ethical conduct.
For sake of discussion, let’s use this continuum I created, with definitions below.
I’m not advocating Deism. As I mentioned, my own personal views would not be considered Deism, but may range from time to time between 10-40 on the scale above.
For purpose of this analysis, let’s set up a continuum and call it God’s involvement in religion and define a few parts on the line.
0: Atheism/Agnosticism. God may or may not exist, but humans can use the principles of religion such as service, sacrifice, virtue to enrich their lives.
5: Far end of Deism. God exists but has absolutely no involvement with man and religion. If religion exists, it is 100% creation by man.
25: Overlap of Deism and Progressive Mormonism. This would be a model where God may intervene from time to time in religion but not in a huge way. There is likely no “one true” religion. All religions likely have some absolute truth in them but none have all the absolute truth. Most scripture should be viewed as metaphorical and not historical.
60: Overlap of Progressive Mormonism and Traditional Mormonism. Jesus is the literal Son of God. God appeared to Joseph Smith and restored the gospel. Every aspect of Mormon scripture and teachings may not be directly from God, there may have been some mistakes by Joseph or other prophets, but this is God’s one true church. The prophet leads the church with some degree of revelation from God, but not in every matter. Many scriptures may be metaphorical and not historical, such as Noah and the Flood, Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, etc.
85: Overlap of Traditional Mormonism and Fundamental Mormonism. Scriptures are almost always literal. The modern day prophets and apostles have likely seen Jesus Christ and the prophet has a very direct line of communication with God. There are very few mistakes in doctrine or policy. If there are, they would be very minor. The earth may not be 6,000 years old, but Adam and Eve are literal people and the Garden of Eden account should be taken as actual events.
100: Fundamental Mormonism. Scriptures are always literal and perfect. The earth is 6,000 years old. Every policy, doctrine, and teaching from modern day prophets and apostles are perfect, as if God himself had spoken them.
For sake of discussion, I am going to take point 5, far end of Deism, to see how it can fit within Mormonism, focusing mostly on the testimony of Jesus Christ, as I shared in my last blog.
John Dominic Crossan, Progressive Christian scholar, who wrote the book “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus”, believes that Jesus Christ’s powerful teachings were in the form of parable. And that we should view his life and status as the Savior and Son of God as a parable.
If we view the doctrine of Jesus Christ and teachings of him as Divinity not as absolute truth, but as parable, do they lose significant power?
Condescension of God
What if Nephi’s vision of the condescension of God is not about the absolute truth of God sending his Son to be born as man, but what if this is Nephi’s (or Joseph Smith’s) best attempt to describe what God would do if he did reveal himself to man?
What if the doctrine of Jesus Christ in the New Testament and LDS scripture is not what actually happened, but a way for man to personify God enough to make our worship personal?
Scripture and doctrine in this view are not God’s revelations but a form of human worship. They are sacraments that we offer to God. As a culture or community or Body of Christ, this is our collective wisdom about you, God. This is what we think you’re like. This is how we think you want us to act. This is how we think you want us to relate to you and to each other.
Doctrines such as fall, atonement, grace, obedience, baptism, covenants, consecration, charity, exaltation. These are not absolute truths that describe the exact order of the universe and God. These are doctrines that resonate with us. We see the fruits of joy and peace in our lives when we apply faith in these doctrines or we “act as if they are absolute truth,” even though our knowledge is not perfect and even our actual belief may not match up.
In my last blog on the Condescension of God, I wrote about Krishna the incarnation of God in the Hindu religion. Krishna was said to have lived around 3,000 BC, but none of the details of his life came about until 400 BC or so. Hindus believe their scripture came from him and his life is used as an example of how to live right. From an outsider perspective, does their religion become less valid if Krishna was actually God or a symbol of God? I argue that it doesn’t. Many Hindus actually do have non-literal belief in their foundational claims and worship and obey side by side literal believers.
God came to Earth so that we could know him, and he could relate to us. Our scriptures say he came to the nation of Israel in the meridian of time. But Joseph Smith’s restoration has opened up to every nation and time. He came to Ancient America. He came to Joseph in modern times. We take not just the New Testament account, but all of these accounts, and he becomes alive to us in our time and space.
I once heard someone question whether we should toss out our pictures of Jesus we have grown accustomed to, the white Jesus with light brown hair. We now have better guess at what he might have looked at, historically, and it doesn’t match up. NO!!! This completely misses the point of his condescension to Earth.
James Taylor – Some Children See Him
Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, ah! they love Him, too!
The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!
I cheered recently when I read of the black LDS family that tossed out their pictures of white Jesus. The historical Jesus is not the point. The point is what the historical Jesus was. Which is a representation of God descended to Earth so we might relate to him.
Our most beautiful, touching scriptures testifying of our God. Do they lose power if they become “man describing God” vs “God describing himself to man”?
2 Ne 31:5
5 And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water!
We believe if God presented himself to man, he would give us a code of conduct, standards to live by, and covenants to remind us of him and that he would live his life that way to show by example.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
We picture Old Testament prophets joining with modern man as we formulate the characteristics of God. We believe the collective wisdom of man has brought us closer and closer to the proper conceptualization of God.
13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
We picture God loving us so much that he would lay down his life for us and call us his friends.
Alma Chapter 7:11-13
11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
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.
In order for us to understand the depth of the love of God, we use the life and actions of the historical Jesus as defined in the New Testament as symbol of God to help our little human brains understand logically how it could have worked. Even though God was actually already perfectly capable of understanding and relating to us.
What’s the point? Why not just believe it literally?
Faith (controlling your actions to act as if one believed or knew a principle) is a choice. Belief (state of mind of affirming a thought) is not a choice. Many faithful followers of various religions (including Christianity specifically) have had scriptures, doctrines, and historical teachings challenged by historical and scientific data to the point of eliminating their belief in a literal view. Some dump religion altogether, but many are finding ways to retain their faith by altering their view on this historicity of the religious teachings. Many have faith restored or even increased through these new symbolic and metaphorical approaches.
Is this a powerless faith?
I argue very strongly that this is not a weakened, powerless faith. Many non-literal believers have testified within Mormonism, within Progressive Christianity, and within other religions, that their faith is powerful. Though my view today may be a little further to the right on that continuum above than the “5” we defined as our starting point earlier, I add my own testimony. Twenty years ago as a returned missionary, I would testify strongly of Christ based on my literal testimony. I lost that literal belief. My testimony today, based on a metaphorical/sacramental paradigm of Christ and religion, is just as powerful and sustaining.
When Nephi was asked “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” He answered simply “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” This is the common absolute truth that the Deist at point #5 in my diagram has in common with the Progressive Mormon, the Traditional Mormon, the Fundamental Mormon, and Nephi at that point in his life. We know God lives. We know he loves his children. We don’t know the meaning of all things. This faith had sustained Nephi in his life, to where he had faith sufficient to go and do all things commanded by the Lord.
Parable of Christ
Jesus descending to Earth, being born of Mary, healing the blind man, defending the woman taken in adultery from her accusers, healing the woman wish issue of blood, declaring how we would leave the ninety and nine to find the one, washing the feet of Peter, taking upon our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane, and ultimately dying on the cross for us. What if we view all of this as parable?
The reason parable is valuable is that a) there is truth behind it b) it explains the truth in a way that is more simple to understand so we can “get it”. The absolute truth is that there is a God in heaven who loves us and has a way he wants us to live.
Then he drew near unto him all to hear him. And he spake this parable unto them, saying, there was God in heaven. And he looked down upon man, and wondered to himself, “How might I teach man about me? “How can I show my children how much their Father loves them?” “How would I teach man the pathway he should go?” And the Father, one with glory with His Son, sent His Son to be born a mortal man. To suffer and sacrifice and die, that he may know how to succor his children. And that the hearts of the children of men would be bound to Him forever.
Knowest thou the condescension of God?