[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity. Below is my understanding of Mormon theology, as gathered from Sterling McMurrin’s “The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion”, one of the books recommended to me. This is the third in a series, and probably the last for a little while as I gear up for the fall semester. Mormon commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction. The goal of this post and the subsequent discussion will be to accurately describe the Mormon faith. Commenters may respectfully question or register disagreement with this or that LDS tenet, but I will not tolerate the gratuitous insults of Mormonism that are unfortunately common in orthodox Christian circles.]
Despite being highly visible allies in the culture wars, Mormons are by-and-large poorly understood by more mainstream Christians. Joseph Smith was a genius but not a formally trained theologian, so he ended up using philosophical terms idiosyncratically to express his insights, and this can create misunderstanding among those trained to follow Aristotle’s prior idiosyncrasies. In this book, Professor McMurrin performs a valuable service translating between Mormon and Trinitarian theological statements. Usually, misunderstandings lead groups to exaggerate their differences, but McMurrin argues that Mormonism’s innovations are even more drastic and fundamental than either side realizes.
In his presentation of Catholic and Protestant views, McMurrin seems fair and accurate. I’m less confident that what he presents is Mormon orthodoxy as his coreligionists would recognize it. One repeatedly catches him chiding his fellow Mormons for failing to follow through on what he regards as Mormonism’s deepest, most fundamental metaphysical commitments. He admits that often enough the language of classical theism with its absolute and infinite God creeps into Mormon preaching in spite of a dogmatic commitment to a finite God. I’m always hearing the theistic God called a philosophical monstrosity foisted on simple religious folk who would just like God to be a comprehensible person. Thus, it’s amusing that McMurrin considers theistic holdovers in Mormonism as concessions to the religious sensibilities of ordinary people, who don’t feel satisfied attributing anything less than Absolute Being to their object of worship.
With those preliminaries out of the way, what is the key to understanding Mormonism? Here’s a couple to try:
Mormonism as Christianity grafted onto a new metaphysics
Mormons deny that God is the sole ultimate cause of all that exists. Nor is He thought by them to transcend time (by being atemporal) or space (by being immaterial). He is, in an ultimate sense, just one being among many. In my earlier criticisms of Mormonism, I had assumed that Mormons therefore demote God to being a finite, contingent being just like us. I now realize that I was wrong. What they do is the opposite: they claim that we–that is, the fundamental constituents of the world, whatever those might be–are also necessary, self-subsistent beings. Among the world’s fundamental constituents, most Mormons would include space, time, primary matter, and individual souls (or some basic aspect of them). Like God, these things exist at all times and indeed cannot not exist. God’s role then is not to create these things, but, like Plato’s Demiurge, to arrange and bring them together into a universe. Thus, Mormons agree with classical theism up to the point where it is proved that a necessary, self-sufficient being must exist. They differ in what comes next. Theists identify God as the only such being. Pantheists allow the world to share in this necessity, and pose that the world is ultimately part of God’s being, so again there is only one non-contingent being. The Mormons propose a third solution: ultimate plurality of necessary beings. One could even imagine a distinctively Mormon atheism, in which an assembler God is deemed unnecessary, which would differ from ordinary atheism in that the Godless world would be considered necessary rather than “brute fact” contingent.
Such a Mormon atheism might be the biggest danger of the doctrine of a finite God. The world seems less reliant on Him than in classical theism, so perhaps He can be discarded altogether? On the other hand, the world’s dependence on God is admitted to be “very great”, presumably in His role of holding the fundamental principles together in a universe. McMurrin thinks finite God theology really pays off in its solution of the theodicy problem. God, not being omnipotent, is off the hook.
Mormonism as a Biblically literalistic liberal Protestantism
McMurrin situates Mormonism among the divisions of 19th and 20th century Protestantism. On the debate over how to read the Bible, Mormons come down on the literalist side. It helps their case for a finite God if descriptions of God’s passions and spatial localization are read literally. On issues of grace and original sin, McMurrin identifies Mormonism as a form of liberal Protestantism. Mormons deny the doctrines of original sin, salvation by grace alone, and predestination. Mormon readers may wish to qualify this, but McMurrin isn’t shy about saying that Mormons are basically Pelagians. Christ’s atonement somehow made salvation possible, but now that it’s possible, it’s up to us to earn it by our free choices. Some Mormons actually suggest that Adam’s fall was a good thing, that we are better off because of it, not because God thereby chose to bestow more grace upon us that He might otherwise have done, but because our separation from God, our knowledge of good and evil, has enhanced our freedom and moral maturity. That Catholics and Calvinists would find such a suggestion blasphemous shows what a radical form of Protestant liberalism we are actually dealing with.
The combination of stands taken by the Mormon Church is certainly interesting. The liberal wing of Protestantism (the successor to the Arminian wing) for the most part ended up dropping the reliability of the Bible literally read, and, as you all know, it ultimately descended into Leftist political agitation with a Deist gloss. The Mormons took the liberal side on most nineteenth-century theological issues, but they stuck to a mostly literal reading of the Bible, and they haven’t embraced political or social Leftism. (Yes, they’re mostly classical liberals, but these are Americans we’re talking about, where even the Catholics have “fortnights for freedom”.) What’s interesting is the lack of a sense of tension between these choices. Mormonism appears to form a cohesive whole, suggesting that Protestantism didn’t have to develop as it did. After all, Pope Francis is always accusing Catholics like me of being Pelagians–why couldn’t there be a sect of socially conservative Pelagians?