Thursday, October 8, 2009

LDS Lesson #1

It's been quite some time since I've had anything to narrate. I've seen neither hide nor hair of any of Jehovah's Witnesses since I left America. Uriah couldn't make our last scheduled meeting because of a wedding he had to attend. However, several weeks ago – has it truly been so long already? – a friend of mine (who happens to be a theology student from Tübingen) and I were exploring the Areopagus, the famous hill at which Paul preached while in Athens – check Acts 17. While there, I heard her make a peculiar comment along the lines of, “Oh look, Mormons.” Needless to say, this caught my attention, and so we eventually made our way over to them for a brief chat. I spoke with two young missionaries, elders whose names I shall replace, as I do with Jehovah's Witnesses, with substitutes. Since I'm currently living in Greece, the names “Creon” (from California) and “Daedalos” (from Nevada) seem quite apropros. My friend and I both gave them our e-mail addresses, and after hearing from them, I set up a meeting for today at 5:30 PM (or, I should say, 5:30 μμ) at their church. And so begins a new story...

The address I had been given for the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was Vassilisis Amalias 52, Kentro (that is, central Athens). I live in Pagkrati, an very hilly (abominably hilly, I might say) Athenian neighborhood south of central Athens, and so the trek northward was not terribly arduous. Of course, I wasn't exactly sure where to find Vassilisis Amalias; my map did, however, show a street called Amalias. It took some searching, but while walking westward on Amalias, I came across a massive evangelical church at Amalias 50. Knowing that Creon and Daedalos had referred to their church as just next to a large evangelical church, I found myself in the right place. I'd realize later that the easiest way to direct someone to the church is to simply say, “Across the street from the Arch of Hadrian.” Would that have been so hard?

And it came to pass that I explored the building for a bit first. It was at least three stories tall and very clean. On my way down through again after a quick stop at the restroom, I paused to read some posters in English and Greek (the same one in both languages, side by side), and as I turned around, Daedalos was descending the stairs. I was almost half an hour early, but he nevertheless showed me to a quiet little room where Creon was... well, to be perfectly honest, Creon was sitting at the table taking a nap after a long day. Daedalos had to wake him.

And it came to pass that the meeting began with some relaxed chit-chat. I spoke for a while of my recent travels in Crete, about my progress in learning modern Greek, about weather, about food – all manner of things, really, I suppose. I mentioned my love for gyros; they agree they're delicious, but typically don't eat them because the spits on which the meat is cooked probably doesn't quite measure up to American health codes. They also told me a bit about what a mission is like. A young Latter-day Saint man will customarily go on a two-year mission in a foreign country, with relatively little contact with the world back home or the larger globe as a whole. It really sounds like quite a formative experience. At any rate, Creon described it as a “life within a life”, filled with plenty of structure – they get up at 6:30 AM every morning, for example – and with a senior adviser who serves almost as a father-figure. Creon is about halfway through his mission, whereas Daedalos will finish his in just 2.5 months; he'll depart for America near the end of December, whereas I'll be leaving on the sixth, hopefully just before the scheduled riot.

And it came to pass that Daedalos opened us in a word of prayer, and after that Creon explained that as missionaries, they teach five lessons explaining why their church differs from all the others: (1) the Restoration; (2) the Plan of Salvation; (3) the Gospel of Jesus Christ; (4) Commandments; and (5) Laws and Ordinances. To quote one of them – I think it was still Creon speaking:

It's those five things that, we believe, either convert or don't. It's the essentials of the gospel, you know? And as missionaries, we do promise that if you take the five lessons with an open heart and an open mind, and you do some of the things that we ask you to do – like read and things like that – you will find the answers that you've been looking for, not only in your life, but also in a Church. And if you search with an open heart and an open mind, you'll find that these are true doctrines.
And it came to pass that after this – I can't quite recall the few words that immediately followed – Daedalos asked me if I'd grown up in a religious home, and so I explained that while I initially did not, my family attended a gospel presentation at a church one night many years ago, and we realized that we needed Christ, and so we accepted salvation, and a few weeks after that came to our current church home. That is, more or less, the rough outline of the tale; in retrospect, the gospel presentation in question was very crude at best – I like to call it the 'baseball-bat-to-the-head method of evangelism', since it basically focused on the good results of being a Christian (go to heaven and be happy, yaay!) or the bad results of not being a Christian (be dragged off kicking and screaming by a laughing Satan into a blazing pit of hellfire while angels weep, boooo....). I didn't bother going into those particular details during the meeting, however.

And it came to pass that Daedalos and Creon talked for a while about the profound influence it has on a person to discover that God is real and to become genuinely involved with him. Creon then said, among other things:

We do believe that we are sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father – that he is our literal, spiritual Heavenly Father. He created our spirits and because he is our father, he loves us very much. He loves everything about us, he wants to help us out so much, he wants to make sure that we do what we can to return to live with him – and that's what we are, we're a big, giant family, you know, and that's why we're on our mission. We come to a different foreign land, with foreign traditions and things, but really, we're all spirit children of our Heavenly Father, and we all share the same thing. We're all trying to get back in the end together.
I should note here, in case some are unfamiliar with some of the distinctive marks of 'Mormon' doctrine, several of them that appear here. Latter-day Saints have traditionally held that God and man are of the same fundamental species, which is why several of the LDS prophets have made proclamations that what God now is, man is becoming, and what man now is, God once was (there's a famed couplet by Lorenzo Snow, their fifth prophet, to this effect). This is essential background for understanding that our eternal spirits are universally held in LDS doctrine to have pre-existed. That is, just as death is not the end of us, so birth in these mortal bodies was not the beginning. Our souls, if you will, dwelled above with God long before they came here, and in fact are generally regarded as his literal offspring, whatever “literal” here means. It may or may not mean that the mode of their generation was analogous to the mode of our bodies being generated – and it shouldn't be difficult to see what that might potentially imply. Actually, there seem to be strains of LDS thought in which our spirits pre-date even that spirit birth as 'intelligences' that are as eternal as God himself is. So when one reads that Creon calls God “our literal, spiritual Heavenly Father”, recall that this is probably not simply fatherhood by creation, but fatherhood by begetting; and when Creon speaks of us “return[ing] to live with [God]”, or about “get[ting] back in the end together”, this reflects LDS belief in our heavenly pre-existence. While there are orthodox Christians who believe in some mitigated notion of pre-existence – I am not one of them, by the way, but rather am a traducian with respect to that issue – none go so far as do the Latter-day Saints.

And it came to pass that Daedalos and Creon began to explain the need for prophets. As is clear, God and humans need a suitable means of communication, since we reside in different realms. Thus, God periodically sends prophets as spokesmen to communicate his message. However, the people frequently reject these prophets and instead lapse into apostasy, a state of spiritual rebellion against God.

And it came to pass that there was also talk at some point thereafter about how faith-strengthening the Book of Mormon is, but it didn't really seem all that organically connected to what had come before it. Creon talked about how Christ is a Savior who knows all about what we're going through and what we will go through; the ubiquitous phrase “personal relationship” appeared once in here.

And it came to pass that he said that after Christ ascended, the apostles discovered that apostasy began creeping quickly into the small churches, hence the letters of Paul. And the apostles, comparable to twelve legs on which the faith of the church stood, were knocked out one-by-one until none were left and the church was unequivocally swept away into apostasy. The apostles couldn't appoint replacements for their dying members because the church was too spread out and martyrdoms occurred too quickly. (This, of course, is not historically accurate.)

The result was, naturally, a great deal of schism, and it is because of this alleged apostasy that divergences in biblical interpretation and doctrine arose. Creon cited the faith vs. works controversy as an example. He explained that this happened because without a living apostle or prophet, there was no valid authority figure on earth who could keep the church on the straight and narrow. Thus, “lots of truths were lost”, even things like how to pray properly.

And it came to pass that Daedalos then jumped in to ask me why I love to study theology and what first interested me in it. I answered that after becoming a Christian, I pondered my gifts and how they could be used to serve God best. The resultant analysis was very weighted towards the intellectual side, and thus theology and biblical studies seemed to be a quite natural move. He later asked how theology has enriched my life, and I explained that it helps me to read the Bible more appropriately; it helps me to know God better; and it deepens my worship.

And it came to pass that Daedalos asked me also if, in my studies, I had ever come to wonder “why all this happened, why there are so many different churches.” I responded by refining the question: am I to be wondering why Christians have doctrinal disagreements, or why they have broken fellowship with one another? Daedalos had to think about that for a couple moments, but turned toward the first one. Now, I will say that my ability to speak well was apparently on vacation today. As was my ability to think quickly. I said first that Christians do tend to agree on the most essential doctrinal matters: things like who God is, and that Christ came to earth, preached, worked wonders, died for our sins, rose again, ascended, and will return, and so forth. In reality, the areas in which churches tend to disagree are usually minor in comparison, particularly when we aren't talking about the major branches. Other things, I said, were matters of practice moreso than doctrine. Still other matters were cases in which some historical controversy had led one group to deny something, or at least seem to deny something, important; and the other side overreacted and made the opposite error – and so the result is an unnecessary polarization. I'm inclined to think that, at least to some extent, the matter of faith and works has often been one of these cases. The two sides may well even be saying virtually the same thing, albeit with different emphasis. I went on to explain that I think that other differences arise because the questions they address were simply not being asked during the apostolic era, and so naturally we will differ on such things. Of course, I didn't say this nearly so well as I've just written it. This is where Creon stepped out to grab a Bible and where Daedalos asked the aforementioned question about theology affecting my life.

And it came to pass that Creon began to explain the story of Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a young man, Smith lived in the 'Burnt-Over District' of New York, where many denominations were having revivals, and there was generally a fair bit of anti-ecumenicalism there – that is, the denominations tended not to get along, or at least Smith perceived it that way. As Creon told it, one would think that the Baptists, the Methodists, the Anglicans, etc., were all claiming to be the one true church independently of each other – which I doubt was historically the case, since that is obviously false. Smith visited many of these churches but was left in confusion over which to join, since he perceived his salvation to hang in the balance of that particular decision. Smith, as the story was told, decided that it was impossible for anyone to rationally decide between them without direct divine guidance, particularly an uninformed country boy like himself. When Smith read James 1:5 (“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him”), however, he (mis)applied it to the situation at hand while praying in the woods. Creon read an excerpt from Smith's account of what happened next: a pillar of light, a manifestation of the Father and the Son in bodily form, the Father directing attention to the Son. Creon didn't quote exactly what the Son said; rather, Creon paraphrased it as indicating that while each church had some of the truth and had gone into error at certain points, the fullness of the gospel needed to be restored. It's probably wise to paraphrase there; after all, in Smith's version, he has Jesus attack all the churches by declaring their statements of faith to all be “abominations”.

And it came to pass that Creon explained that in the wake of this revelation, Joseph Smith was persecuted by his peers for claiming to have had such a vision. Creon also said:

Personally, from my personal experiences, I have come to know that that was a true event: that our Heavenly Father did appear to Joseph Smith and that he did call him to be a prophet, and that's what has brought so much happiness into my life.
And it came to pass that he continued to explain that what Smith brought was a restoration, not a mere reformation; and that God gave Smith the Book of Mormon in golden plates found at the Hill Cumorah. Daedalos then explained for a bit that the Book of Mormon is another testament for Jesus Christ and for the Bible; he got stuck for a while on a word until I filled in “complement” for him. Creon then explained the basic plot line of the Book of Mormon: Lehi was called to leave Jerusalem for the New World around the time of Jeremiah, and he and his family arrived on the American continent and became a numerous people with plenty of problems. They wrote Scriptures just as the Jews did, and these constitute a testament to Christ from the American continent, including appearances of the risen Christ, and ending with the prophet Mormon compiling the records (hence “Book of Mormon”) and the prophet Moroni depositing them in the Hill Cumorah.

And it came to pass that, when they asked about my familiarity with the Book of Mormon, I mentioned how I'd related to them at the Areopagus that I own nine copies back home, and that I've read it through cover to cover. After reading the promise in, I think, Moroni 10:4-5 (“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things”), Creon asked 'Medea', an Asian woman who'd entered the room earlier at a juncture I can't recall, what the Book of Mormon has done for her, and she went on about how much it strengthens her faith. Daedalos made some remarks along the same lines.

And it came to pass that Creon told a story about how, since he was raised in the church, some might say he's biased in favor of it, but everyone comes to a point in life where they have to face the question, and his was when he pondered the idea of a two-year mission in a foreign land. So he'd sat down, read the Book of Mormon all the way through (which took him a while), and prayed about it. The answer that came “was one that [he] had known”, telling him that it was all true and that he should proceed with his mission.

And it came to pass that Creon mentioned prophets after Joseph Smith, and he made a brief digression on the recent General Conference, when LDS faithful could hear the contemporary prophet and apostles speak. Daedalos said that they can give me a promise that, just as with them, if I pray to God with an open heart and open mind while reading the Book of Mormon, God will assure me of its truth, through “something you feel, confirming the things you think”. I agreed to read and pray, and I received both a Greek copy of the Book of Mormon (I requested that) and another English one, both hardcover.

And it came to pass that Creon turned the floor over to me to any questions I might possibly have, so I started off by inquiring for more information about the development of the church after the translation of the Book of Mormon. Creon answered with some standard material about the translation process, the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses, the new apostles, the waves of persecution, and then Joseph's 'martyrdom' in jail with his brother Hyrum. The next prophet, Brigham Young, pioneered the move to Utah to escape persecution for a while. After Daedalos took a bit to explain more about LDS notions of continuing revelation, Creon later remembered most of the LDS prophets with a little ditty that lists them all, like kids might use to recall the presidents of the USA. It was around then that I mentioned that Ezra Taft Benson, the fourteenth LDS prophet/president, is a distant cousin of mine, which I'd mentioned earlier at the Areopagus but which Daedalos had forgotten.

Returning to a more chronological account, Creon said at one point:
Either the Book of Mormon is true and is a record of ancient America, or Joseph Smith made it up, either way. And, you know, either the Book of Mormon is true or it is not. If the Book of Mormon is not true, then we're horrible liars and this is a fraud and we shouldn't be here. But the thing is that I've come to know that the Book of Mormon is true and so have so many other members throughout the world....
And it came to pass that he also said that, unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon is directed particularly at today's reader; and that it's so easy to read that even a child can understand the Book of Mormon. (I should mention that this seems difficult to swallow, since the Book of Mormon mimics the King James Version of the Bible in its style in English. Daedalos continued for a while with the message about receiving confirmation via prayer. I asked, after a while, whether or not there was archaeological evidence regarding the Book of Mormon. Daedalos and Creon affirmed that there's actually quite a bit (which isn't true), but that – like archaeological evidence for biblical events, persons, and places, it's inconclusive because it's open to other interpretations. For them, the evidence serves as a faith-booster only for someone who already has faith, but doesn't suffice to lead to faith beforehand. (In reality, the opposite is the ideal; and many biblical sites, etc., are strongly supported by reasonably interpreted archaeological evidence, while there is no such thing as Book of Mormon archaeology.) They're going to try to find me some more information about that. But both of them insisted that the spiritual realization must precede the physical evidence. Daedalos at one point asked what I thought would've been the case if all my present knowledge were given to my pre-conversion self; my answer was that, after sorting through it, my decision to put faith in Christ would've been even more bold, firm, and enthusiastic than it was without that knowledge. I didn't spell out that the reason is that I think that a supported faith is, from the beginning, a very wonderful thing; the evidence, physical or otherwise, should precede the leap of faith.

And it came to pass that they asked me to read Mosiah 2--5 for the next meeting and to maybe try praying about the Book of Mormon, and also to start drawing up a list of questions to ask them. They're fairly sure they can deal with 98% of all possible questions that could be asked. Heh... we'll see. I received a Greek copy of the Book of Mormon and an English one, both hardcopy; and I may be able to get a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants (with, hopefully, the Pearl of Great Price) for a not-so-high price, maybe around €3. (There's an entertaining story that I'm omitting about how Creon had a friend who heard some ridiculous rumors about Mormons; during the course of telling it, I think Creon let his first name slip, which is somewhat uncustomary. LDS missionaries simply go by “Elder [Last Name Here]”.) Medea closed us in prayer, and I spent some time reviewing common LDS acronyms with Daedalos and Creon before leaving. We'll meet again tomorrow at 4:30.

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