Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reflections on Lessons with LDS Missionaries

Over the past three months, while staying in Greece - I'm back in the United States now - I had a number of opportunities to meet with Latter-day Saint missionaries. Though I never attended a Sunday morning worship service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I think I may have spent more time in that building than I did with my own church home in Greece (St. Andrews International Church). After my initial encounter with a group of Latter-day Saints at the Areopagus where Paul preached, I had nine 'lessons' (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) with LDS missionaries, and most of those meetings also involved a former bishop who's now a CES Institute teacher. During these, I went through all of the lessons that missionaries teach investigators prior to baptism, and this included all doctrinal material, sparse though it may have been. I also attended two Center for Young Adults events on Saturday evenings, as well as two fireside chats: the first with a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy and the second with a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Throughout all this, I met numerous Latter-day Saints, most of whom were currently serving as missionaries, from all over the United States and Europe (and a few non-missionary members, I think, from Africa). And I'm pleased to number quite a few of these people as my friends, people whom I hope to keep in touch with for years to come. They're friendly people. Not overbearingly friendly in the way that Jehovah's Witnesses can sometimes come across, but friendly, a normal human sort of friendly of the sort that we could all strive for. I really have come to regard several of the folks there as good friends. And I don't think I can emphasize that enough. They're genuinely authentic, decent, pious people who genuinely want to serve God to the best of their ability, and who have good senses of humor, and vivid, interesting lives, and admirable devotion. What's not to love in all that?

Aside from that, some reflections on my experiences? First of all, I'd have to say that I was surprised just how many of my questions received very indirect confessions of ignorance in response. For the most part, they tried to mark these as instances of understandable ignorance, saying that they were questions for which we don't have the answers in this mortal life. I think that, in many of these cases, that reply is more of a cop-out than a real interaction. Sometimes, theology has to be done by speculating, by pushing the boundaries of what we know to see what works and what doesn't, and then seeking God's help to let the truth win out. I find the confessions of ignorance ironic for several reasons. First, in an early meeting, one of the missionaries said that they were absolutely sure that they could answer without problem about 95% of the questions that I or anyone else could throw at them. I think the percentages were just about perfectly reversed. Second, they spent a great deal of effort dancing around their ignorance and trying to excuse it. And third, their church leaders have historically made very firm pronouncements on certain points of doctrine, and yet probing the edges with questions will frequently result in claims of ignorance as to whether the doctrine itself is even taught.

So I think that my biggest surprise was their inability to answer some of my questions, or at least take a stronger stab at it. I think that I might have actually been able to do a better job defending Latter-day Saint doctrine. But, of course, this sort of thing is just what I do. The best way to play with an idea is to test it, hammer it, speculate a bit, and see what happens. When I asked questions about their strict identification of Jesus with Jehovah, to the exclusion of the Father - which has not always been their church's uniform practice - they failed to handle a single one of my challenges adequately. Biblical passages that teach otherwise were dismissed as evidence of the Bible's corruption. Issues regarding the temple as dedicated to Jesus or to his Father were similarly a source of consternation, because they could only escape the force of the query by implicitly accusing Jesus of needlessly misleading people. And with respect to the Decalogue's prohibition of worshipping gods other than Jehovah, they really had no good answer. They also failed to deal with Isaiah's clear statements of monotheism, other than to either appeal to context (which, in this case, could not dismiss the problem) or else dismiss Isaiah's text as corrupt without any evidence other than their own position. When asked about the Father's past, they shrouded the matter in obscurity and contradiction, first suggesting that the Father is outside of time but failing to reconcile that with the logic of their own views of God, and then later conceding that they believe that the Father was once a man a lot like us, presumably with a pre-mortality and mortality. They also could not answer challenges to their hopes of robust deification, other than to make it immune to logical inquiry at all--which is always the surest sign of defeat. They could not find any biblical warrant for their church's views on the Melchizedek Priesthood, and they also couldn't really answer questions about where apostolic Christians performed ordinances. This is all to say nothing of their indefensible position on the textual reliability of biblical manuscripts.

While I did nonetheless find them to be, on the whole, familiar with the basics of their own faith - I was pleased that at least two of my interlocuters knew of the King Follett Discourse, to take just one example - I also found that they weren't quite so familiar with certain other crucial things. For example, the basics of orthodox Christian theology were somewhat lost on them, and I doubt I need to repeat the numerous gaffes on church history.

If I were persuaded that their beliefs are true, that their church is the One True Church, then I would gladly convert. No question about it. And I am open to that sort of persuasion. But the past few months have not gotten me closer to believing that what they say is, in fact, true. I see no biblical or rational warrant for their particular religious epistemology. I now see their doctrines of the Godhead and of exaltation as being weaker than ever, and I still haven't seen good reasons to think of the Book of Mormon as an accurate historical record or of Joseph Smith as an authentic prophet of God. I have, however, gained a greater understanding of LDS beliefs and practices, and I think that was a very worthwhile experience. I'm very glad to have experienced what I did over the past few months.

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