Wednesday, October 14, 2009

LDS Lesson #3

So this evening, I managed to arrive at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about 5-10 minutes early. After a quick stop at the second-story bathroom, I descended to the first floor, from which I could hear “How Great Thou Art” being played on a piano. When I entered the room, I saw Creon talking to another Latter-day Saint whom I hadn't yet met, and Daedalos was the one on the piano. As we were leaving, I got into a conversation with the third Latter-day Saint, who had the same last name as mine. He was from Utah, and I remarked that it was interesting that of the three of them, only one was from there, considering the reputation of Utah. Creon remarked that he's heard that, while the proportion is just 2% of the general population, California has a larger total population of Latter-day Saints than does Utah. Hopefully I'll get a chance to chat with this other elder again sometime.

And it came to pass that, while Daedalos had to take care of something quickly, Creon took me up to the third floor, which is where on Saturday evenings they hold fun nights open to pretty much anyone who wants to come. It was a very comfy space. One of the rooms had a pool table, and I think there might've been some foosball tables as well. One room had a fantastic view of the Acropolis, while the other had a great view of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Excellent, excellent vantage point. After Daedalos had returned, we were joined by a third party, whom I'll name “Admetus” for these purposes. Admetus, an older fellow from Colorado who'd just arrived in Greece about 2.5 weeks previously, is a CES Institute Teacher, and Creon and Daedalos decided to bring him in to help deal with my questions about pre-mortality. Admetus made a good first impression, too; he brought some homemade cinnamon rolls that his wife made. Delicious! I hadn't realized how much I'd been craving those. He said at one point that he wouldn't eat well without his wife's cooking; I responded that one of the best things about LDS doctrine is getting to enjoy one's wife's cooking in the next life, too. That got a laugh and a, “Oh [JB], you're so theological.” We talked for a bit about how Admetus and I are progressing in Greek, about Cypriot food (specifically cheese), and a few other things.

And it came to pass that, after Admetus led us in an opening prayer, we got started on pre-mortality. Now, to remind the reader, Latter-day Saints believe very firmly that each and every person existed as pure spirit for a great length of time prior to being born into an earthly body. Admetus and I pulled out our Bibles, and we turned to Jeremiah 1:4-5 (“Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 'Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations”). Admetus commented on that passage that God knew Jeremiah before forming him in the womb, which is obviously what the text says, though the implicit assumption Latter-day Saint readers bring to this is that this requires Jeremiah to have existed at those pre-conception times at which God knew him. He remarked that not many churches talk about where we were before here. The next verse was Hebrews 12:9 (“Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?”), to which Admetus said that we clearly must have existed with God before this earthly life. To quote his precise words, “So if he [God] is the Father of our spirits, then we must have known him, been with him, seen him, existed with him before this earth life.” I actually found this to be a non sequitur as pertains to this verse, but no matter. I'll introduce some critiques later. Admetus said at this point that it isn't a “quantum leap” to deduce from these passages together some sort of pre-mortal existence. As he said, though, most of his friends in Colorado think that all things came into being at roughly the same time, and so pre-existence is a concept that they don't seem to be able to get their minds around.

These were the only two passages that I would've ordinarily gotten, but I asked if there were others, and so the first one was Acts 17:28-29 (“'For in him we live, and move, and have our being'; as certain also of your own poets have said, 'For we also are his offspring.' Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device”), which Creon read. Since we are God's offspring, Admetus reasoned, we came from Heavenly Father as his children, which thereby means that we must look like him and be similar to him. (This was another utter non sequitur, it seems.) Creon then turned us to John 9:1-2 (“And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, 'Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?'”), which is one of his favorite passages on the topic. He said that the question here simply assumed that there must be a pre-mortal life, and so the Jews at the time must have believed in it. The doctrine, thus, is something lost in the apostasy.

And it came to pass that, when given the option to ask a question, I asked what details have been revealed about the nature of the pre-mortal life. Admetus, after checking with Daedalos and Creon that they'd already taught me the lesson about the Plan of Salvation, explained simply that the pre-mortal life was when the Father devised his great plan for us, and that the pre-mortal existence is that from whence he sent us forth into earthly life. Not exactly the level of detail I'd been hoping, since this was hardly anything new. Creon also took the chance to explain that the LDS belief in a pre-mortal existence helps to ground their church's opposition to abortion, since we need to keep the birth rate up to accommodate spirits entering mortality. (I don't think he quite stated it explicitly like that, but that's more or less the gist.) Creon is fond of describing the Plan of Salvation as a three-act play, with the first act being pre-mortality, the second being mortality, and the third being the kingdoms of glory after the general resurrection. It reminds me somewhat of N. T. Wright's description of the saga of redemption as a five-act play in his excellent book The Last Word, which I highly recommend, as I do any book by N. T. Wright.

And it came to pass that around this point – well, after Daedalos talked for a while about the importance of the Plan of Salvation – Admetus decided to ask me for my own thoughts about where we come from. Heh... that's generally a bad move, no? Well, I asked him first about his level of familiarity with the range of opinions in Christianity in general about the origin of the soul. He looked almost a little perplexed; I suppose that perhaps he hadn't ever really encountered non-LDS Christians who ever gave any thought to the matter at all. So I launched into a fairly brief explanation of three major views. The first, often termed 'creationism' (though with respect to the soul, and not in any way inconsistent with evolutionary theory) is, essentially, the view that at the moment of conception, God immediately creates a new human soul that is, either at that moment or shortly thereafter, joined to the fertilized human ovum, resulting in a newly ensouled human person. This view, which essentially emphasizes the timing of it, doesn't really leave room for any sort of pre-existence. The second view is, basically, what the Latter-day Saints have proposed: that human spirits are created by God en masse (or, alternatively, at different intervals) at some time in the past, and exist for a while without bodies before descending to the earth to become fully human in the embodied sense. However, there are many strains in LDS thought in which our spirits are in some sense material and have definite form; are literally begotten by the Heavenly Father; and may or may not have had an even earlier existence as 'intelligences' that were co-eternal with God, whatever that might entail. In orthodox circles, even those who propose pre-existence will not go so far. Since Admetus hadn't brought up any of these LDS beliefs, however, I didn't bother to expound on those contrasts. The third view is called 'traducianism', and in this view, the spirit is created indirectly by God through the mediation of the parents, in the same way in which the body is created indirectly by God through the mediation of the parents. What goes for how the body comes into being, largely goes for how the soul comes into being: both derive from the union of spermatozoon and ovum and have an organic connection to those respective components in the parents. In short, in this view the human soul is, more or less, begotten by the souls of the parents. This can obviously still be described as the soul being created by God; after all, God is the creator of each individual human body, yet the obvious role of the parent is not excluded. This third one, as I told Admetus, is my own current viewpoint on the matter. (By the way, it's hardly novel; Tertullian of Carthage, a third-century church father, was widely known for his traducianism, although he held some other peculiar beliefs with respect to the soul.)

He seemed to have been thrown for a bit of a loop. He asked if that meant that we hadn't existed for a long time with the Father before our birth. As I explained, if our spirits come into being according to the traducian account, then there was no pre-mortal existence. The first moment of a human spirit's existence as such is at the moment of conception, which is part of mortal, earthly life. Admetus queried, then, what I do with the case of Jeremiah. I explained – though not nearly as well as I hope to put it now in text – that most churches read this passage in terms of God's foreknowledge. Because we believe God to have perfect omniscience, he can be said to know any given person before they exist. Thus, we reject the premise that God can only have knowledge of another party at times at which they are contemporaries. My explanation was much more convoluted and garbled than that, but that's basically what I meant to say. He asked, then, what about God ordaining and sanctifying Jeremiah before conception. I explained that, on my view, this can be perfectly explained within the context of God's eternal decree. As part of God's eternal decision to create the world – not just a world, but our particular world, with all that it entails – he chose to create a person who would be named Jeremiah, and God decreed that Jeremiah would be set apart by him as a prophet. Thus, one can speak of God's ordaining Jeremiah before conception, even if Jeremiah did not exist outside of God's thoughts at any such time. (I should also note that, in retrospect, the passage doesn't even require one to say this; the ordination as a prophet is said to be before birth, not before conception. Only God's knowledge of Jeremiah is specified precisely to be before conception. Nonetheless, as a Molinist, I believe firmly in a comprehensive and eternal divine decree by God to create the world, in all its specificity.) Admetus said that it sounds like they take the passage more “literally” than I do. I essentially agreed, though I actually should've taken the time to discuss how Latter-day Saints seem to plot things on a 'literal/metaphorical' spectrum that I, personally, would use other ways to describe. But I'm sure I'll talk about that later.

Now, Admetus never asked me about any of the other passages. And since I've more or less committed myself to only giving critical responses when they solicit them, I didn't launch into an attack on their interpretations. But I might as well say, more or less, what I probably would've said if given the opportunity. As for Hebrews 12:9, the phrase “Father of spirits” doesn't imply any sort of pre-mortal existence. After all, this phrase would be equally compatible with the view that God miraculously, individually, and directly creates each spirit at the moment of conception. It seems obvious to me that the phrase doesn't favor 'pre-existence' over 'creationism'. (I might also add that, contrary to the view that God is our “literal Father” – assuming that to mean that our spirits originated through begetting by God rather than through creation by God, as I'd use the terms – the phrase “Father of spirits” no more states this than it makes God the biological father of each of us if we were to call him, e.g., the Father of all flesh, or the Father of all mankind, or our Father in general.) As to Acts 17:28-29, much the same applies. It should first be noted, however, that Paul doesn't even need to accept the view that we are God's offspring. Paul was initially quoting a pagan poet to that effect. His entire argument could be construed as a reductio ad absurdum, a reduction to absurdity. Let me roughly schematize it:

  1. If idolatry is acceptable, God must be comparable to things like wood and stone.
  2. According to pagan authorities, we are God's offspring.
  3. We could never be the offspring of anything comparable to wood and stone.
  4. So, if we are God's offspring, God is not comparable to wood and stone.
  5. Therefore, if we are God's offspring, idolatry is unacceptable.
  6. ince pagan authority establishes that we are God's offspring, that same authority establishes the unacceptability of idolatry.
That, I think, is a fair account of Paul's general line of argument, though it could obviously be expressed more tightly and more rigorously than I just did. Note that nowhere in here does Paul need to agree with those pagan authorities. He's perfectly free to deny that we are God's offspring and still use that passage from the poet in his argument, to basically the same effect. In other words, instead of saying, 'We are God's offspring, so idolatry is unacceptable', he could just be stating that, since (5) is true (he just made a case for this) and a pagan authority has affirmed the antecedent (that is, said that we are God's offspring), logical consistency demands that his audience either reject that authority entirely (which is not something Paul envisions them doing) or else accept the conclusion that idolatry is unacceptable. He never needs to agree with the statement that we are God's offspring. But even if he accepts something like it, that statement could be seen as compatible with any of the main schools of thought ('creationism, 'pre-existence', 'traducianism'). So it doesn't really help their case.

Finally, with John 9:1-2, it isn't at all clear that the question assumes a pre-mortal life. The question could equally well be raising the possibility of pre-natal sin. That is, was the man born blind because his parents sinned during their earthly lives, or was the man born blind because he already sinned during what is, thus far, his very short term of an earthly life? This is at least an equally fair way to understand the question. I don't have Craig S. Keener's commentary on Matthew with me (or any other one, for that matter; this is just the one that comes most immediately to mind), but I've heard that there were, in fact, debates in the rabbinical world about that possibility. Now, we might be free to reject the idea of sinning in the womb as ridiculous, but what matters here is what those asking the question thought. However, let's suppose that they did ask the question assuming a pre-mortal existence to at least be a possible option. Jesus' response never affirms that at all. His answer, after all, is that the blindness does not result from particularly egregious sin on the part of either party. Whether or not his questioners believed pre-mortal life to be possible is practically irrelevant, because Jesus never affirms that their assumption is right. Quite a contrast to one old Latter-day Saint view that those who were less valiant in standing against Satan's rebellion in pre-mortality were thereafter punished by being sent into bodies that had the mark of Cain – i.e., dark skin. (I can just imagine it: 'Teacher, who sinned that this man should be born dark-skinned, himself or his parents?' 'Oh, definitely him. He wasn't valiant enough in his pre-mortal existence.') So this doesn't seem to give good reason for believing in a pre-mortal life, either.

Anyway, let us return to the actual flow of the narrative once more. It came to pass that Creon decided to turn us to Genesis 1:26-27 (“And God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth.' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them”), which Daedalos read aloud. He emphasized that the verse uses the word “our”, thus requiring that God be talking to somebody. Creon suggested that it be all the hosts of heaven, and he explained that Latter-day Saints believe that God has a tangible body of flesh and bones, and that the spirit resembles the physical body in form. Thus, he sees in this verse an intimation of our pre-mortal life; to him it “confirms the pre-mortal existence”. Now, they didn't ask me my opinion on this passage, but if they had, I would've explained that I do not believe that we were created in the image of all the hosts of heaven; I believe we were created in the image of God, and God alone. I believe – as do many Christian readers of this passage – that the Father is here speaking to the Son and the Spirit. This has been held since the days of the church fathers. If the Father is addressing the Son and the Spirit, then we don't need to be included in “our”, and so nothing in the passage indicates that our spirits existed in heaven with God before our bodies were created.

And it came to pass that Creon asked, however, if I had any further questions, and so I chose to ask Admetus if it has been revealed how long we existed before the earth's creation. After all, I was eager to test the waters a bit more to see whether or not this particular group of Latter-day Saints believes that we are, in some sense, co-eternal with God. From the answer given, if they believe that, they weren't very forthcoming with it. I was told by Admetus that God's time and man's time are of course very different, and that while we know that we existed with God for “a long time” before the earth's creation, we don't have anything remotely approaching a timetable for it, since we don't need to know that for this life to gain salvation.

And it came to pass, however, that Creon made the tactical mistake of trying to support his view in a pre-mortal existence through appeal to the Scriptures. Specifically, he said:
One of the things that always stuck out to my mind too is that, while reading the Scriptures, it always says that we need to 'return' to live with our Heavenly Father, and we need to make it through this life and 'return' to his presence. And I think about this term “return”, and if we're returning to live with God, then obviously we must have lived with him before.
Why a tactical mistake? Because it gave me the chance to ask for a verse that uses the term “return” to describe our going to be with the Father in the future when we die, or in the resurrection. He admitted that he couldn't quote any such passage off the top of his head, but said that he “think[s] that's just what [he's] always heard, that we're going to return to live in his presence”. He said he should do more research on it and get back to me. Since before Admetus showed up, Creon and Daedalos had mentioned how in awe they always were of his ability to cite references for anything, I asked him if he knew. There was a bit of hemming and hawing (not literally, of course; that would've just been bizarre), and he said that it seems obvious to him that if we did have a pre-mortal existence with the Heavenly Father, then going to be with him would have to constitute a return. And that's all quite true. But it doesn't remotely answer my question, which was about where the Scriptures explicitly describe that as a “return”. After all, we're trying to make a case here from the notion of return to the notion of pre-mortality, not the other way around. To use the idea of pre-mortality as evidence for a future 'return' to God here would be circular logic. So after I asked him more specifically about explicitly using the term “return” or some equivalent, he eventually conceded that, to his knowledge, the Scriptures never speak that way. It took a while to actually get it out of him, though. He kept wanting to make the appeal the other way around.

And it came to pass that Daedalos started what appeared to be a consideration of Bible translation, perhaps so as to escape the force of my catching Creon in a bungle as to the word “return”. I sort of hoped at this point that Daedalos would turn the discussion to how, in the LDS Articles of Faith, they say that the Bible is the Word of God only “in so far as it is correctly translated”; of course, in practice this will often result in lowering the Bible beneath later revelation like, e.g., the Book of Mormon. I've observed this before, as you may recall. Instead, Daedalos never went there, but instead got around to talking about how what's far more important than issues of the precise wording of the text is having a testimony, which is “something that you just feel”. As he once said, “I don't know about the wording, but I do know that this is true.” Rather typical for Latter-day Saints, alas. (He did, however, admit that he doesn't know whether the word “return” is in the Bible in that context or not.) This testimony, he said, received by prayer, is far more important than all scholarly investigation into what the Bible actually says (although he didn't put it quite so bluntly as that). He also intimated that, when it comes to receiving a spiritual confirmation, the experiential phenomenon probably differs from person to person; that is, the exact feeling that Daedalos received from God (allegedly) in confirmation of his faith in the Book of Mormon is probably not the exact same feeling that Creon or Admetus received for the same purpose. Interesting. Wholly irrelevant to what we'd been discussing, but interesting.

And it came to pass that Creon had, meanwhilem found the index in the back of his Bible in hopes that it'd help him out of this little scrape. He said that while he didn't get around to checking the literary context of each verse, he did find some references to “return[ing] to the Lord thy God” in Deuteronomy. I didn't bother calling him out on it, but these aren't talking about returning to God after this mortal life; they're talking about turning back to God in faithfulness after having rebelled against him. It isn't so much a spatial movement of the spirit between phases of the Plan of Salvation, as a moral 'return' within the context of this earthly life. So this didn't actually help him at all. It would've been more interesting if he'd stumbled across Ecclesiastes 12:7 (“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it”), which does talk about the spirit 'returning' to God. This at least seems at first glance (and perhaps even second or third) to support their view, and I think they would've been overjoyed to find a new favorite prooftext. My answer to that use of that verse, by the way, is that it isn't talking about returning to God's presence so much as to his possession. In other words, the spirit was a gift (or, rather, a loan) from God that now reverts to his full ownership at death. If he immediately created each spirit upon conception, this is still a gift and the reversion to his full possession could be described appropriately as 'returning' without implying that there was a time before it was given at which it co-existed apart from the body with him. But, as I said, this verse never came up.

And it came to pass that, getting off the subject of pre-mortality at last – I think I gave them a bit of a run for their money, despite taking it very easy on them – Creon asked if I had any other questions or anything before we turned to the lesson itself. The first thing I did wasn't a question; rather, I said I was ready to return the book they'd let me borrow last week (New Evidences of Christ in Ancient America). They seemed rather stunned, almost incredulous, that I'd finished it already. I laughed and quipped that for me, this book constituted light reading, compared to a lot of the other stuff I work through. I then explained that I keep a running tally of how many books I read each year, and that at this point in 2009 I was up to 127, that book included. Creon asked if I found the book interesting, and I said that I did and that there were some things in it (I didn't go into specifics) that I'd like to think about and research a bit more. I decided to let it go at that. In fact, I found myself profoundly underwhelmed by the book. Let me explain a bit. First of all, the book is clearly written to a Latter-day Saint audience; or, if it isn't, then the authors have no clue how to write to a more skeptical audience. The book essentially assumes that the Book of Mormon is an accurate historical record and then proceeds to try to use Mesoamerican archaeology to illuminate it a bit. This, however, was not the professed goal of the book. Furthermore, a large number of entries in the bibliography are Latter-day Saint works, or else are outdated or virtually irrelevant. The twelfth chapter was interesting because it was basically sermonizing about the “shamanistic”, worldly outlook of contemporary society. But totally irrelevant to the purpose of the book. They identified the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon with the Olmec civilization, but didn't propose anything specific for the Nephites, Lamanites, or Mulekites. Well, I do think they suggested that one particular city – can't recall if it was Teotihuacan or another one – was the Nephite capital. But they never explicitly said, 'Such-and-such a Mesoamerican civilization were Nephites', or anything of the sort. Also, they used sources very uncritically. Many sources for pre-Columbian Mesoamerica are, in fact, sources written after the beginning of colonization. However, these are notorious for Christianizing indigenous beliefs and practices, and the authors did nothing to control for this (and even LDS reviews have criticized them for that). At one point, they quoted a source that identified some Mesoamerican term with the Father – and then throughout the rest of the book, they used that term for the Son without any explanation! I had to do a double-take on that one! The list of 'significant' parallels between Mesoamerican society and Near Eastern cultures was pretty laughable, for the most part. Many of the alleged similarities were with pagan Near Eastern cultures, and they made no effort to square this with pious Israelite colonists. They made use of Izapa Stele 5 (a purported representation of the Tree of Life, with Book of Mormon characters), which is widely known in LDS circles to be bad apologetics (a la Josh McDowell or Ray Comfort for orthodox Christians), and they strained to identify Quetzalcoatl (a Mesoamerican feathered serpent god) with Jesus' visit to the Americas in the Book of Mormon. (By the way, they assumed throughout the book that Book of Mormon geography must be restricted to Mesoamerica, but never once tried to explain how the Hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon, where Moroni deposited the golden plates, could be there, whereas the Hill Cumorah where the angel-ified Moroni helped Joseph Smith uncover the exact same golden plates could be in New York. To say nothing of Smith's famous 'discoveries' of skeletal remains of Lamanite warriors in the northern United States.) Oh, and they attempted to argue that Jesus was born in 1 BC, contrary to a basically unanimous scholarly consensus that it had to have been 6-4 BC, since Herod the Great died in 4 BC. Their answer? Um, well, Josephus must just have gotten the date of Herod's death totally wrong, that's all. Hardly a valid answer. No interaction with Josephan scholarship, for that matter. While a couple things in the book were at least potentially interesting – for example, their treatment of how Mayan calender systems allegedly square up perfectly with the Book of Mormon – most of the book was very, very weak. So that's my basic impression of the book; perhaps someday when I've done a bit more studying, I'll find a copy of the book, work through it again, and then draft a more detailed review.

And it came to pass that, after I returned the book and talked about how much I read, Admetus became curious about my major, so I explained that I'm a religion and philosophy major, and that theology is moreso my passion than my major. He asked if I'd studied much about the Greek Orthodox Church, and I said that I hadn't done as much study on that as I'd like to, and that I attended a Divine Liturgy one Sunday here that... well, let's just say that it was the least friendly place I've ever been. After describing that service to an Orthodox friend of mine, he said that that church apparently is doing just about everything wrong. Admetus then asked me for my opinion on the idea of a restoration of the church. As he put the question:
How does the idea of a restoration impact you? It's a little bit different theology than what you've probably studied. It seems like either the Protestants broke away from a certain line of reasoning, or there's a continual line of reasoning, and the third option seems to be a restoration.
I think I understood what he was at least getting at, even if it was expressed oddly – and I may very well have just plain transcribed what he said wrong. So it came to pass that I began to discuss what I'll venture to call my evangelical ecclesiology a bit. (In other words, my view of the church.) I said that I personally believe that many aspects of the church – particularly the hierarchical, institutional outward form of the church – did eventually become corrupt in certain ways. At times in church history, ecclesiastical offices were sold for money. At times, incorrect doctrines were taught (though, in my opinion, seldom did the church as a whole preach anything that denied the essential doctrines of the faith). At times, religion was used as an excuse for warfare, violence, and bloodshed in ways that would have absolutely horrified the apostles. All of this, I can hardly deny. Still, I maintain that there was no 'Great Apostasy', as Latter-day Saints understand it. Corruption, yes, but not apostasy. And so there was no need for a restoration. Rather, God could raise up people who would nudge his church back onto the right track. They wouldn't have to be prophets, per se, although they certainly could be if God so chose. Reformers would be just as good. (Although I did make clear that I disagree quite strongly with Luther and Calvin on certain points, just as I do with official Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching where I believe that they add to the faith beyond the essential doctrinal core.)

And it camee to pass that, when Creon asked whether I think it matters which church it goes to, I first said that I prefer to speak of denominations rather than churches, because there's only one church: the people whom Christ purchased out of this age by means of his atonement made on the cross. That can be the only true church, because that church consists of all of God's people in all times and in all places. I went on to say that I believe that this church, this people, can be found across all sorts of denominations. I believe that there are Baptists who are part of that true church, and Lutherans who are part of that true church, and Methodists, and Catholics, and Orthodox, and many others. (I did not mention it there, but I also believe that there are plenty of Latter-day Saints and perhaps even Jehovah's Witnesses who are likewise part of that one true church, despite the heretical teachings found within each of those groups. This is where I frequently part ways with many evangelical 'countercult' apologists, who take a more strongly negative stance towards the possibility that members of heretical sects might be true Christians even within those groups.) I said that I do not think that any denomination has a monopoly on being the one true church to the exclusion to all the others; rather, all can be said to be the true church, even if one denomination might, in some given respect, adhere more faithfully to the correct doctrine than another.

That being said, it came to pass that Creon decided to ask if I had any other questions, and since I didn't just yet, it was finally time to move on to the lesson itself. Creon asked if I'd had a chance to read the passages from the Book of Mormon that had been 'assigned', as it were, at our previous meeting. I had, of course, and I proceeded to list from memory the references from both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, which impressed them. I mentioned that my memory works in weird ways; I can memorize all that by sheer accident, and yet sometimes forget my own name or age. (I hadn't bothered to re-read the biblical passages they'd given me, since I'm already sufficiently familiar with all of them.) The key chapter for this time around was 3 Nephi 27, in which Jesus is portrayed as laying out his gospel, and Creon asked me what I'd gotten from it as to what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. Here's what I said, verbatim except for the occasional “um” and “ah” (and keep in mind that this is me presenting their view moreso than my own):
Well, the gospel of Jesus Christ concerns what one needs to do in order to find alvation, to return to the Heavenly Father. The gospel of Jesus Christ is of course founded upon the incomparable work that Christ accomplished through his sufferings at the time of the crucifixion – and, as Latter-day Saints believe, also in the Garden of Gethsemane, beginning with his sweating of blood there. As related in 3 Nephi 27, the gospel requirements are for a person to have complete faith in Christ's atonement in order to take care of one's sins, so of course acknowledging that one has sinned is a prerequisite for that. It's also required that one repent of one's sins, you know, turn utterly away from them and spurn them for good. The next thing one must do is fulfill God's commandments, and the first commandment is of course becoming baptized into Christ's death and resurrection and thus becoming a part of his chosen people. There are of course other commandments that one must then also fulfill in order to have Christ plead for oneself on the day of judgment, when the Heavenly Father will judge the world, and so one must fulfill these other commandments, and the other point after that is simply to do this while enduring to the end through all manner of trial and tribulation, that one may be presented blameless to the Father on the last day.
And it came to pass that the first words out of Creon's mouth were along the lines of, “Wow, you understood that a lot better than any of the other investigators we've come to talk to. No one has ever read that chapter and gotten as much out of it as you have.” Heh, I'm used to hearing things like that from Jehovah's Witnesses as well. Creon then said that he generally charts it in eight points from that chapter, which include things like the birth and life of Christ. I did, however, miss one element in the progression, but eventually with some prodding I remembered that after baptism for them must come the separate act of receiving the Holy Ghost. So after agreeing with me and taking some time to elaborate on the need to be cleansed from sin, Creon asked me what I understand faith to be. What follows is, verbatim, my reply:
Faith is fundamentally trust and loyalty. So to have faith in God is to trust that he is good; it is to put all that I have in his hands and simply believe and accept that he will do with them what is best, because he is far, far wiser than I can ever imagine. It also entails, of course, believing certain propositions, various doctrines, because there is simply no way to coherently trust in God if you don't believe that he exists, for example. There's no way to have faith in the atonement if you don't believe that Christ did in fact go through all these things for you, or [if you believe that] he was not who he said he was. So those are all included in there. Faith also entails loyalty. It's not simply about belief, it's not simply about trust, the third plank is loyalty. One must commit oneself to acknowledging God as the absolute king whose word is law, and therefore loving and obeying him.
Creon really liked the way I laid that out, and I have a feeling that this analysis of faith will serve as a sort of touchstone for future discussions of the topic. After Creon talked a bit about how important each of those factors is, and cited James 2:17-18 (“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, 'Thou hast faith, and I have works'; shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works”), he also referenced the parable in Alma 32 about faith as a little seed. (Can't imagine where Joseph Smith could've possibly heard that before...) After this, Daedalos talked for a while about what is entailed in repentance. The first step, he said, is recognition of our own mistakes. This must be followed by the experience of godly sorrow and contrition. Third, there must come a desire for change; after all, the Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia, “change of mind” and of heart as well, Daedalos said. He had a hard time finding the right word for the next step (Admetus finally came to the rescue), but it involves making restitution, seeking to make right what had been damaged before. The next step after that is confession and asking for forgiveness from the wronged party or parties. For more serious sins, he said, we need a guide, typically an ecclesiastical leader such as a bishop or a branch president. After seeking forgiveness, we must release ourselves from guilt and pledge to never repeat the same mistakes. And it came to pass that, when Daedalos had finished, Creon talked about the testimony he has of repentance. By this I mean, not a personal story about how he repented or anything like that, but rather the wonderful feeling he gets and the positive impact on his life from understanding what repentance is.

As a prelude to the third of the five steps in the gospel, Creon turned me to three Scripture passages. It took me a little while to realize exactly where this was going. The first passage was Matthew 7:29 (“For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes”), in which the people note that Jesus taught with authority. Next came Matthew 16:15-19 (“He saith unto them, 'But whom say ye that I am?' And Simon Peter answered and said, 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.' And Jesus answered and said unto him, 'Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven'”), wherein all the authority of Christ will be given to Peter. Vaguely criticizing the Roman Catholic use of verse 18 in support of papal primacy, Creon explained that latter-day revelation shows this authority to consist in the keys of sealing, which are used for establishing the family unit as eternal. I suppose I can see why a Latter-day Saint reader would approach verse 19 and see this there; in fact, binding and loosing refers to halakhic decisions – binding apostolic decrees as to practice. But, I can understand why the typical LDS reader would misunderstand that passage. The third verse was Luke 9:1 (“Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases”). Creon explained that a very special sort of authority had been given to the apostles in general, but that it had been lost by the church in the apostasy. Only three contemporary churches, he said, claim to have this authority, without which no valid baptisms can be performed: the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, he said, surely one of these must be the one true church, or else all is lost. His exact words, you ask? But of course:
Now this authority that Jesus Christ had that allowed him to cast out the devils, to perform these miracles, he gave to his twelve apostles. Now when we talk about an apostasy, this is what we're talking about. This authority that was given to the apostles was lost. And there's only on the earth today three churches that claim this authority: the two of which we've talked about already, and one you're sitting in right now. The first one being the Orthodox Church, the second one being the Catholic Church, and the third one being the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those are the only churches that claim authority. Interesting to note is, Martin Luther, when he split off from, I believe it was the Catholic Church, he never claimed that he had the authority to do so. He only knew that there was something wrong in the things that he was doing. But this authority is something that really matters, because if you don't have the authority, what does that mean? Okay, you can't cause miracles to happen, you can't cast out devils, you can't preach the word of God just as these people did when they received that authority, that's when they were able to do that, and they can't perform baptisms. [. . .] But this baptism, this is why we go back to the importance of authority, this is why say that there was a need for restoration, because either the Orthodox Church has the keys to baptize and they've been having the keys since the time of 300 AD, or the Catholic Church that split off, or those keys that were given to the apostles weren't handed down, and they were lost. And that's why we need the restoration....
Now, I wasn't asked at this point for a reaction, but if I had been, I would've reiterated that the one true church is spread out among many denominations, and that I see no reason for supposing that the authority to perform baptisms, for instance, has been lost. It seems to me that all of them have that particular authority; the particular notion of priesthood authority held by Latter-day Saints is peculiar to them. (And I'll note that I do not hold to Catholic or Orthodox forms of belief in apostolic succession, insofar as I believe that the apostles had a position of authority that can never be rivaled by their successors in any bishopric, and that the successor of the apostles in certain capacities is not a person at all, but rather the Scriptures themselves.)

And it came to pass that Creon went on to talk about baptism as the completion of repentance, citing Romans 4-5, which is completed further through the later ordinance of receiving the Holy Ghost. This was the fourth step. Daedalos explained that the Holy Ghost provides protection, gives nudges (answers of God), gives comfort in times of need, is always there “so long as we are worthy”, and acts as a “still, small voice” from God to us. Creon next made two Scripture references with the point that a convert receives the Holy Ghost only at some point after baptism. The first citation was Acts 2:37-40 (“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?' Then Peter said unto them, 'Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call.' And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, 'Save yourselves from this untoward generation'”), the story of Pentecost, which allegedly has Peter represent the gift of the Holy Ghost as a third step in the process, distinct in time from baptism for the remission of sins. The second citation was Acts 8:15-16 (“Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: for as yet he was fallen on none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”), which would appear to substantiate their point only if generalized to a rule. But this is hardly the place to dive into that thorny issue. He said that the power to confer this gift requires special authority, just like baptism, and that the reason why we don't need to be re-baptized each time we sin is that the sacrament (i.e., communion) takes its place in cleansing us from sin.

As a fifth point, a Christian must endure to the end in order to be saved. This, Creon explained, includes temple ordinances (a peculiarly LDS thing), such as being sealed for time and all eternity, as well as various covenants, or promises between man and God. The baptismal covenants are the crowning example of these, and are renewed and re-affirmed each Sunday at sacrament meeting. Creon then went on to celebrate his happiness in the gospel. He mentioned that his mother was a convert, whereas he grew up in the church, and that their family has grown stronger through Family Home Evenings. His little mini-monologue concluded with this:
I know that this is the true church with all my heart. I know that the Scriptures are true, and I know that as we study them, we gain a better understanding. It's these Scriptures that help us, okay, clue in to what we need to be doing and how it all fits together. And I know that I don't know everything. And I really wish that I did, I really wish that I could just open up the Scriptures and just expound verse by verse what it says. But unfortunately I can't. But I do know that without a living prophet, there would be tons of mysteries in this book [the Bible] that I wouldn't understand. Without modern-day revelation, without being able to receive revelation myself, I would be very confused. That's why I'm so thankful for this greater light and knowledge of the gospel.
And it came to pass that, after that, Daedalos took up with a quite well-phrased plea about receiving a testimony that, while I can't quote it wholly verbatim, involved just going home and setting books aside for an evening. What I can recall is here, perhaps slightly paraphrased at points:
I'd like for you actually to go home and.... you know, usually we give you something to read [. . .] and of course you read them all, but this time I'm gonna ask you to do the exact opposite. I want you to go home tonight and just put your books on the side and kneel down after really thinking about these things, after really pondering everything that we've told you so far, and to take some time before you pray just to think about all these things, what exactly do they mean, and what they could mean to you, and why we feel so strongly about this, why we leave our families for two years and come and do this. [. . .] I know that these things will help you as well. I know you to be a very logical person – these things need to make sense in your head – but now I ask you to go home, think about them, pray, listen clearly, and listen to your heart. To... like you said when you described faith, and you said there were two things: trust and loyalty. Trust in God and Jesus Christ that they will never lead you astray, and be loyal to the things that they tell you. Tonight when you go home and you pray, keep those two things in mind. Keep in mind that you do trust, you do have faith. That's undeniable. No one here or on the face of this earth could deny that you have faith. Everybody knows you have faith. You do trust and you are loyal to things that he [God] tells you; you are loyal to the faith. Now, when you pray, we ask you to again ask if these things are true. You'll find that this is the most important thing that we'll ever ask you to do. More important than reading any books, more important than finding references, more important than listening to scholars who have spent their lives teaching [these things]. The most important thing that you could do is to pray – to pray, and then to listen, to be loyal, to trust the things that God will tell you. Because he will speak to you, in his own way and in his own time. Trust that he loves you enough, just like he loves all of his children, to take a little bit of time out of his busy schedule to speak to you first, and I promise you, you will feel it, you will feel it in your heart and you will feel this confirmation we talked about. Everything you've learned, your knowledge of the gospel, your knowledge of the life of Jesus Christ, your knowledge of church history – church histories – is more than sufficient for God to work with. I'm pretty sure that you know way more about the Scriptures, about all these things, than I do. Yet God took some time out of his busy schedule to confirm them to me. And I know that he will do the same for you. This – if you do this thing, you will receive an answer, either yes or no. And that is all we ask, that you try with a sincere and open heart to know whether these things are true. [. . .] And then again, after your prayer, take a little bit of time – God will take some time out of his busy schedule, you can take some time out of yours, after your prayer, just to stay on your knees and think about the things that you've said. And when you pray it, pray out loud, and you will see.
That is, at least, more than the main gist of it. And it came to pass that I learned at this point that it's common practice every two months for some missionaries to get transfer calls, so they often have new partners, and as a result, either Daedalos or Creon (probably the former) might be replaced by the next time I see them. I hope, of course, that both of them get to stick together, since it seems that they get along quite well. The next lesson will deal with the commandments, and because Creon knows I can handle it, he has no fear in laying out for me even the things considered most “weird” by outsiders. After we scheduled our next meeting date – the evening of November 4th at the same time and location – Admetus chimed in with some closing thoughts about how much fun he'd had sitting in on the meeting tonight. He said at one point, “First of all, these guys told me what a fun guy you are, and how you just push them to the limits on questions”, and he said that it's clear that from his observations just that one night, it's clear that I've had more training in philosophy and theology than any of them have. He also gave the usual talk about how he knows that I'll know things if I ask God in prayer, and that he can tell I have a “simple, powerful faith” deep in my heart; and he shared that his mother, like Creon's, was a convert to the church, but his father had already been a member, so he was raised in the faith.

And it came to pass that, after Creon offered a closing prayer, I got to meet Admetus' wife – wouldn't be appropriate to nickname her anything but Alcestis – who sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for seven years. I spent quite a while chatting with Admetus and Alcestis as they started to pack up. Found out what LDS seminary and institutes are like – seminary is for high-schoolers and basically spends a year on the OT, a year on the NT, a year on the Book of Mormon, and a year on church history (I presume this to mostly be LDS church history); and the difference with CES Institute is that they get to go more in depth. (Somewhere in here, I got to eat the last cinnamon roll, too... Mmmm.....) I'm also getting to borrow a large hardcover copy of James E. Talmage's Jesus the Christ until the next meeting. (Admetus said that I'd enjoy it because I'm “on a par with James E. Talmage”, which is pretty high praise from a Latter-day Saint, haha!) Creon is currently working his way through it (he's 200-some pages in, which means he's less than a third of the way), and he suspects I'll finish before he does. I have the same suspicion. Admetus is going to try to sit in on my next lesson with the missionaries; Alcestis encouraged me to be tough on him.

Eventually I left the church building, and since it occurred to me that I seldom have private space to pray aloud back in my apartment, I prayed under my breath virtually the entire walk back, in accordance to Daedalos' directions.

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