Mormonism = Paganism + Christianity

When I look at the mortal religious scene here on earth, I think one of the adversary’s masterstrokes has been to split apart two key streams of understanding of God’s full truth. These two streams are 1) humankind’s divine origins and potential and (2) the need for a Savior and his atonement.

If you look at most pagan religions, the pagans often have very interesting, true-ish ideas about where humans came from and where we are going, but they totally lack knowledge of the need for a Savior to get us out of our current mortal dilemma. (I use the term pagan to mean non-Christian religions, even though it more correctly means polytheistic religions, but in reality those two aspects often go together. I don’t consider Mormons polytheistic because we worship only one god, although of course we acknowledge the existence of countless gods. I’m not sure where Islam fits in this… monotheistic non-Christian?)

By the same token, if you look at Christian religions, they enjoy an abundance of understanding and faith about the Savior and his New Testament gospel, but they have lost nearly all the truth about humankind’s origins and potential—in other words, about our true nature. There’s a tunnel-vision focus in Christianity on Jesus as an end in of himself rather than as a means to an end, which in Mormonism we understand to be exaltation for God’s children who pass the test. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Christianity undervalues humanity and overdoes Jesus, if that’s possible.

Christianity understands the how but not the why. Paganism (or some of it, anyway) understands the why but not the how. So the masterstroke of Mormonism, to me, is that it restores these two key areas of understanding back into one belief system. We understand both the how and the why in a way that I don’t think any other religion does (correct me if I’m wrong).

I served my mission in Australia, and even the pagan Australian Aborigines have some true-ish beliefs about premortality. During what Aborigines call the Dreamtime, which could be another word for premortality, creative beings formed the land’s physical features, and some of those beings became human to safeguard the creation. Many Aborigines believe that spirit children wait at certain fertility sites for a suitable opportunity to enter a womb. In one group, spirit children are small, dark-skinned personages who have always existed. When one of them wishes to become human, it enters a camp and whispers to a sleeping man, requesting to be escorted to his wife. All this is quite breath-taking for me from a Mormon point of view.

The Greek mystics believed that the spiritual nature of man descended from the Milky Way into material existence. Socrates wrote, “Our souls must also have existed without bodies before they were in the form of man, and must have had intelligence.” Egyptian mystic Hermes Trismegistus taught, “We must not shrink from saying that a man on earth is a mortal god, and that God in heaven is an immortal man.” In a sense, the Hindus believe that humans are gods who have always existed and have forgotten who they really are.

Even some of the early Christians believed in the doctrine of premortality. The third-century Christian writer Origen of Alexandria believed that human spirits were judged for their premortal conduct before coming to earth. He wrote, “The concrete and individual human mind descended into the body from the choir of aerial souls, having lived earlier lives and bringing with it the qualities and a nature which it had acquired by its conduct.”

However, in A.D. 543 the Roman Catholic pope officially outlawed belief in premortality as too speculative, unscriptural, and pagan. So the concept was essentially lost to mainstream Christianity, and no one else has restored it like Joseph Smith finally did. Even as late as 1329, however, a monk was excommunicated for teaching that the human soul is uncreated and uncreatable.

And of course, terrestrial-kingdom-level Christianity sees Mormonism’s understanding of humankind’s godly potential as equally blasphemous. That’s why I love Mormonism as a belief system, because not only do we totally embrace the Savior but also we comprehend the celestial-kingdom-level “fullness of the father.” (At least, most of us do—I’ve been dismayed to see some Mormons drift into “mere Christianity,” even President Hinckley at times when he was doing P.R.)

This thrilling big-picture kind of stuff is one of the main reasons I stay in Mormonism even though I don’t personally much enjoy the culture or lifestyle. I’m just totally sold on the worldview. I honestly don’t know if anything I’ve said or how I’ve said it is strikingly original or not; I may have read it all or been taught it all before somewhere. All the same, any enhancements or push-backs on this outlook?



17 comments for “Mormonism = Paganism + Christianity

  1. wayfarer
    July 6, 2008 at 6:47 am

    It is delightful to consider the enhancing views of other religions on the gospel of Jesus Christ,It makes me consider what scripture may yet be availableto us in terms of the Lord,s dealings with all of his children over the ages.Dreamtime is a lovely concept implying an eternal now which I find very interesting,especially as my daughter is an astronomer.These things invariably enhance my testimony,as Fraser’s ‘Golden Bough’did-‘there’s nothing new under the sun’
    I agree,it’s the big picture stuff that Keeps me hanging in there too.A definition of God whose raison d’etre is to share with us all he has is the only definition of God that holds any water for me and it is the extraordinary doctrines of hte Lord’s church that are so r\evolutionary in their nature that continue to excite me intellectually in their implications.Whatever any of the individuals pecadillos in this church may be,I can’t get around the fact that this doctrine is divine and separate from the world’s well meaning but limited conclusions.Thanks for the joy.

  2. Thomas Parkin
    July 6, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Great stuff, Christopher.

    “This thrilling big-picture kind of stuff is one of the main reasons I stay in Mormonism even though I don’t personally much enjoy the culture or lifestyle. I’m just totally sold on the worldview. ”

    Me, too. Although it isn’t only that I find it thrilling, only that I’m sold on it. I do find it intellectually and emotionally vivid and engaging,- perhpas the one thing that seperates me at 42 from me at 22 is that I am rather forcing myself to dovetail my enamorment with Mormon metaphysics with an attempt to live it truly, exactly. I have always wondered about people who find the motivation to live it without any apparent joy at the spiritual ramifications of the cosmology.


  3. Howard
    July 6, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Refreshing! Thank you for explaining the relationship of Paganism, Christianity and Mormonism. Aren’t all three simply preparatory steps for what is yet to come?

  4. July 6, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Sorry I can’t say more about your subject. I had noticed a long time ago a lot of similarities between pre-christian beliefes and the teaching of the church and my question about this matter is more: how did this come to them?

  5. hawkgrrrl
    July 6, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Chris – that’s funny, because the formula I would have come up with is Christianity + Paganism = What Most People Call Christianity. A quick trip to Rome will make that abundantly clear. But I agree with your points above. It seems the early RC sometimes voted to keep or adopt the wrong things and voted to oust the things they should have kept (again, based on a restorationist viewpoint). But that’s what happens when you rely on the arm of flesh to make decisions about doctrine.

  6. Ray
    July 6, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Chris, this nails my fascination with Mormon theology – and that it was articulated by someone as uneducated in the theological world of his day as Joseph Smith. It never ceases to amaze me – the grandeur of the view. I love what Richard Bushman said in a fireside I attended last year:

    “The splendor of Mormonism is that one can be knee deep in mud and muck in the morning, then sit in sacred space contemplating the cosmos that same afternoon.”

    That sums up my awe quite well.

    Also, I promise I had not read this post prior to writing the one that will appear tomorrow, but I love the fact that they are appearing on back to back days.

    Thanks, Chris. This really was good to read.

  7. Ray
    July 6, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Copied from my comment on another thread but applicable here:

    “Compared to the orthodox Christian concept of the nature of life (which I see as astoundingly simple and lacking in the need for any kind of deep faith whatsoever), concepts of eternal progression – in their various manifestations – are so much more inspiring and edifying and stimulating and faith-based that it’s like comparing apples and green beans.”

  8. tk
    July 6, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    Very good post. I have often thought of traditional Catholic and Protestant Religions lost understanding of our divine birthright, but had never thought of the fracture between the atonement and our divine potential between Christian and non-Christian religions. It expands my understanding of the restoration.

    “This thrilling big-picture kind of stuff is one of the main reasons I stay in Mormonism even though I don’t personally much enjoy the culture or lifestyle.”

    If by culture you mean the programs, socials, meetings etc, I must admit I have been sitting with you in the same bleachers. However, through all the Jell-O and casseroles, I have been a recipient of kind service and sacrifice by others on my behalf, which has changed my heart and humbled me on the culture.

    I’m the first to agree the culture is truly flawed, but that is because we are flawed and we make the culture. I view the culture as our sandbox to learn to play together as we gain knowledge of the Cosmos.

    It is in the sandbox that I learn to play with people I don’t like, people who abuse our welfare program, or any number of situations that are silly, arrogant or foolish. I have come to appreciate this environment that I can practice and learn to improve my own behavior.

  9. GlasFam4Ever
    July 6, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    Good stuff Chris. Some of my own thinking I believe harmonizes with your own. The LDS Church makes some very exclusive claims that others sometimes find offensive (like being the only true church, only church with the authority to perform gospel ordinances, revelation, etc., etc.). However, what I love about our faith is that while it makes these exclusive claims, it is also, to my mind, the most open framework to truth no matter the source. The quotes I have read from prophets and apostles, and official statements about Mohammad, Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Martin Luther as well as many other great leaders from the past being inspired by God and given a portion of his light to elevate the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual climates of their respective peoples is very inclusive to me and shows a God who is actively engaged in the affairs of all his children, even those for whom no record is currently available. I believe that Alma 29: 8 is one scriptural support for this conclusion:

    “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.”

    The above verse does not say that all these teachers would be prophets in the old or new testament sense, but that they are teachers nonetheless inspired to help their peoples move along in the right direction according to the Lords wisdom.

    To add to your examples, my mentor in my undergrad program spent a good number of years before teaching on the Navajo Indian reservations. He shared many stories of the great intercultural learning experiences he had. One story that really got my attention was the idea the Navajos have of all things possessing a spiritual identity. This was told as he pointed to a tree nearby us. He said that there was not one tree there, but two. I wanted to jump out of my skin and shout about the parallels between what he was saying and LDS thought on preexistance, and the idea that all things were created spiritually before they were created temporally, but I restrained my self until he was done.

    Roger Keller and others at BYU have a text book called Religions of the World, if memory serves me right. One of the things I really appreciated about their efforts in writing it was how LDS perspectives and the perspectives of other faith traditions were not just shown were each disagreed, but also were there was complementarity, as well as were ideas from other traditions could help us see the LDS perspective in a fresh way. Sometimes we need fresh perspectives on revealed truth. The restored gospel is true. Our understanding of it not always so much so.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share.

    Mr. GlasFam4Ever

  10. hawkgrrrl
    July 7, 2008 at 12:04 am

    GF4E – the offensiveness of the LDS claim to be the “one true church” usually stems from 1) a total misapprehension of the LDS view of salvation which is actually very universalist – all but the vilest of sinners will receive some form of glory higher than we have on earth (unlike the complaining religions’ views of salvation in which those not saved through their belief system are consigned to hell), and 2) the competition for members due to our active proselyting efforts.

  11. Valoel
    July 7, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    One of my greatest loves about Mormonism is the univeralist angle of accepting truth from all sources. It doesn’t matter if something from ancient Egyptian mathematics helps me understand the endowment ceremony better. Whatever brings me closer to God and the divine is good. If it’s true and good, then it’s part of the Gospel. I see the “one and only” true Gospel as being much larger than the current LDS Church and our literature.

    Like people have mentioned already from scriptural quotes, God has given wisdom and truth to people all throughout the ages. If we can pick some of that back up now and use it, that’s great! I think JS did a lot of that in the restoration. Is that wrong? I don’t think so.

  12. Carlos U.
    July 7, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    I’ve been meaning to write an essay titled something like,

    “Mormonism: The most (Jewish/Muslim/Budist/Hindu/Pagan/Confucian/Native American/Ancestor Worship/Daoist/etc.) of all Christian religions.”

    Looks like you got a jump on me. Simply a result of the Gospel holding all truth.

  13. GlasFam4Ever
    July 7, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    With 10, 11 and 12 in mind, I remember reading Ezra Taft Benson saying that the more restrictive (narrow) definition of the gospel includes only the principles and doctrines related to salvation (see The Teachings of ETB). The more expansive (wider)sense, or definition, of the gospel encompasses all truth, all fields of knowledge, philosophy, science, all areas of learning, etc., etc.,…..add at will any field of knowledge you like.

    I find the world view of the restored gospel the most intellectually satisfying, as well as spiritually satisfying. If something is good, true, praiseworthy, or of good report, to use Pauls language, it comes from Christ, no matter where it’s found.

    On another note, Alonzo Gaskill, a professor at BYU has a new book out called “Odds Are Your Going to be Exalted”. Excerpts have been posted on which is how I became aware of it. I mention it as worthy reading in light of the universalistic comments made above. It goes along very nicely with them I think.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to post.

    Mr. GF4E

  14. July 10, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Very interesting post. I enjoyed it and will read more of what you write in the future. I especially loved the information about the Aborigines. It made me think of my first few years in the church after my conversion. Some of the things I learned made me think my head was going to explode.

  15. Eric
    July 14, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Chris, this was mind-expanding. You put some puzzle pieces together that have been rattling around in my head for some time. Thank you.

    What is your source on the Hermes Trismegistus quotation? I have seen the namesake of the Hermetic tradition come up before (e.g., in Nibley. I have previously understood that tradition to be an ancient counterpoint to (counterfeit of?) the Gospel of Jesus Christ, including the Melchizedek Priesthood. Hence, to attempt to reconcile them seems odd. Would you elaborate on your understanding of this issue?

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