Liberal Mormonism II: Why I am a Liberal Mormon

John Nilsson Mormon 40 Comments

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I was raised in a household of faith. My parents are believers who encouraged discussion of religion in their home. I’ve asked around and found that this isn’t the case in many LDS homes. My parents asked what we children learned in Primary and Sunday School and then what we thought about it!

We also had books on the shelves, dangerous books. I often think of this when I hear well-meaning LDS friends say they put an historical or theological concern “on the shelf,” so to speak. I pull mine off the shelf! The shelf is where most of these issues come from in the first place! Reading H.G. Wells’s Outline of History, Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials of Church History, Leonard Arrington’s and Davis Bitton’s The Mormon Experience, Obert Tanner’s Christ’s Ideals for Living, and Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine was enough to get some internal debates going. It was apparent these folks were not all on the same page about very fundamental things.

How to make sense of the contradictory voices? Only later in seminary did I hear that prayer followed by expected good feelings was the surest way to truth. This never fully took with me, and certainly didn’t help me decide if evolution driven by natural selection was the means by which human life developed, or if the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch was true. As a child and teenager, I had occasional intuitive flashes which I sometimes interpreted as inspiration, but these felt less certain to me than objective evidence, especially when my intuitions took me in wrong directions.

Lowell Bennion’s Understanding the Scriptures was one tool I found to use reason to sift through religion and extract the truth. I mean, have you ever tried to sit down and read through the book of Genesis, let alone the entire Old Testament, from beginning to end, and not have some serious questions about the mass of weirdness you encounter? Bennion used his faith in the loving character of God as the most important criterion to judge the divinity of particular scriptural passages. Therefore, if you read in the Good Book that a certain prophet called down she-bears to devour little children for making fun of his bald spot, you can be sure God was not involved in the transaction, and presumably that the author of this particular piece of scripture was making it up or mistaken. I continue to be amused at those who will jump to the defense of the divine origin of every verse of scripture, and use their knowledge of ancient languages to show that the little children were really Babylonian teenage gangsters, Assyrians undergoing mid-life crises or Canaanite senior citizens, missing the point that God doesn’t do this kind of thing at all if other scriptures we read about Him being loving are to be held as true.

Bennion’s basic approach of focusing on the character of God revealed to us in Mormon scripture and experience, modified slightly as I have lived more fully and read more widely, has served me well in doing two things: staying Mormon and staying sane. I have kept my faith in a loving God through crises that were trying, and have kept my self-respect as I have shifted my theological paradigm occasionally to adjust to new information and life experiences.

In part III, I will present a prognosis for Mormons like me. What are some of the challenges this approach to Mormonism will likely face, from within and without the Church?

Discuss, my friends:

Comments

comments

Comments 40

  1. John, it sounds like your upbringing was, in my view, very healthy. It is great to have a chance to discuss things openly in the home. I think the church will generally move in this direction. I have seen a shift since the 1970’s to the present day though it is very very slow. I know Jeff and I differ on this, but I think an autonomous interpretation of Mormonism is a very healthy thing….but this doesnt exclude orthodoxy or unified morality.

  2. I’ve never liked the council to “trust the prophets,” so to speak. I find that Joseph Smith said that we, too, all of us, would have the knowledge that he had. And he didn’t get that knowledge by simply following a leader. He searched for it. He expanded on the current thinking. He went to God often, both in the scriptures and in prayer.

    What I’ve learned, when reading the Old Testament, particularly, though the same goes with all prophetic council, words, and stories, is to not take what is written exactly literally or even accurately, or even necessarily the absolute word of God. Brigham Young was a racist, for example. I find most of his views regarding blacks to be reprehensible and wrong. But he was a prophet nonetheless. Elisha did indeed call down a she-bear to teach some boys a lesson about respecting a prophet. Would I have approved of that? Nope. I would have gone to Elisha and berated him for being so insecure about a little schoolyard bullying. Sheesh, overact much, Mr. Elisha!

    I go back further to Moses, our only link to the events before the Flood. I think he was racist too. I think his views of the descendants of Ham and Egypt were racist and has led to much of the confusion about the “mark of Cain” that we’ve seen over the last couple of hundred years.

    When it comes to the Doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I tend to only rely on a few basic principles as rock solid and the rest as attempts to understand what we cannot fully understand. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus is the Christ, the only way to Heaven. We must take his name upon us for eternal salvation. We must follow his principles and live a good life. We must be baptized in his church by proper authorities. We must go through the temple and take upon us the eternal covenants found there. And we need to proclaim this gospel to the people of the world. Beyond these things, the rest touches too much on speculation for me to state solidly one way or the other.

  3. Sounds like your parents raised you much the same way as mine did. I never thought of any question being “off limits” with my parents and they didn’t pretend to have all the answers or tell me to just “have faith,” even though I realize that sometimes that’s all we’re truly left with, *sigh.* I think I can relate to the “occasional intuitive flashes” that you describe, and I often wonder whether they are pure inspiration or just the product of an overactive mind. For instance, I can read a scripture and apply it in a totally different way than someone else who reads the same scripture, which results in a lot of self-doubt.

    I remember the book “Mormon Doctrine” because my parents had it in their bookcase and I used to read it as a young teenager. It was one of those books that you couldn’t stop reading but then always regretted it afterwards because it would inevitably leave you feeling guilty about one thing or another, such as the deck of cards in your game closet or reading your horoscope in the newspaper. I kind of think that the title “Mormon Doctrine” is a bit misleading. “Mormon Speculation” would perhaps suffice. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m familiar with the other books you listed.

  4. I was forever marred by Spencer W. Kimball’s talk at BYU where he quoted Brigham Young to the effect that blind trust would lead us straight to hell. Struck me then that we need to seek the Spirit and knowledge and that has stayed with me.

    As to Mormon Doctrine, now I’m wondering about the strong defense of chocolate and white bread it included. 😉

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    Stephen W,

    My parents thank you for the compliment 🙂

    You are spot on about liberal Mormonism not necessarily excluding orthodoxy or orthopraxy. Of course, both orthodoxy and orthopraxy change depending on what year it is and what country you’re in, and one of the strengths of liberal Mormon theology is that it recognizes this.

    Dan,

    I agree with much of what you write, especially the part about sticking to a few basic concepts as fundamental and being healthily skeptical about the rest. That was a point I stressed in Part I. When you write that Moses was racist, are you referring to texts in the Old Testament, Pearl of Great Price, or both?

    FaithfulDissident,

    Mormon Doctrine guilt is a fun nostalgic trip! For me it was not only the face cards, but the age of the earth and development of life which were problematic. As far as the other books I listed, H.G. Wells’ book was an overview of the natural and then written history of the human race which began with the development of life on Earth from a non-theistic viewpoint and went up through the Second World War and which treated religion anthropologically as a cultural artifact. Wells was similar to Shaw in his belief that religion was on the way out. He has been shown to be wrong in that regard.

    Smith’s Essentials of Church History was a slim volume which distilled the major events of the Restoration into a digestible faith-promoting narrative. As I recall, events of major significance at the time, like the role of Joseph’s polygamy in arousing opposition to the Nauvoo project, or the Mountain Meadows Massacre or Utah Reformation in the development of the Utah War, are dealt with in less than a paragraph, if mentioned at all.

    Mormon Experience was a book which capitalized on the Camelot period of Church history to present a more naturalistic picture of Church history accessible to non-members. The irony was it sold better among members. Tanner’s Christ’s Ideals for Living was a text used in Sunday School during the McKay administration, and it’s topical approach is about as far from today’s Sunday School texts as you can imagine. I loved it! Along these lines, I found a copy of Bennion’s Religion of the Latter-day Saints, his Institute manual published in 1940 and in use until his fall from favor in 1962. The conversational style and explicit pitch to the college student are things we don’t see today.

    Stephen M,

    I love chocolate! Although my wife has encouraged me to eat whole grains as much as possible, I have to agree with Brother McConkie that extremism in the application of the Word of Wisdom is unwise. One positive thing I will say about McConkie is that he really tried to live what he preached, and what he preached was grounded in the scriptures for the most part. This is his greatest strength and greatest weakness.

  6. John, I enjoyed this post. One question for you, my friend. What is it about your approach that you believe qualifies it as being distinctively “liberal”? I take the same approach to reading the Old Testament as Bennion outlines (although I’d never heard of his book so I will be reading that one soon), but I’ve never considered myself a “liberal Mormon.”

    Or maybe I am just in the closet or in denial? 🙂 Please help me understand what makes this “liberal” thinking as opposed to “common sense,” which is what I’d call it when we have heavy skepticism or disbelief about a prophet calling out bears to rip children into pieces for mocking his bald head.

    “WHOOOOOOOOOO LET THE BEARS OUT?!”

  7. I’m with Andrew (#6) What is it about your approach that you believe qualifies it as being distinctively “liberal”?and Please help me understand what makes this “liberal” thinking as opposed to “common sense. . . .”

  8. “I’m wondering about the strong defense of . . . white bread it included.” Mormon Doctrine seems very white bread to me.

    Since both my parents are converts, their experience colored my viewpoint quite a bit. They were always trying to learn more about church doctrine. I had access to many other viewpoints as a result of their backgrounds, and living where there were very few church members.

    Even though both my parents came from different faiths (Lutheran & Baptist), both sides of grandparents were in agreement that too much church was a bad thing. While my parents rebelled against that, I often wonder if my grandparents had a point on some level. Not that going to church is bad or unhealthy (which is really what they thought–church was for children and you should put in an appearance sometimes), but that attitudes of self-righteousness or a lack of questioning is problematic. A healthy skepticism of the clergy (even a well-intentioned lay clergy) seems like a wise notion, although I would distinguish that from criticizing or backbiting church leaders – you can be supportive and admire people while acknowledging fallibility and humanity.

  9. Mormon Doctrine guilt is a fun nostalgic trip! For me it was not only the face cards, but the age of the earth and development of life which were problematic.

    Heh…I was a big McConkie fan, but even so, I could never quite understand his position that there was “no death” prior to the Fall. The text certainly indicates that Adam and Eve ate, and almost anything you eat is going to involve the death of some living thing or part thereof.

    Then again, McConkie wasn’t much of a logician when it came to doctrine. When he gave his “Seven Deadly Heresies” speech, he condemned the idea that deity is still progressing in knowledge of the truth, arguing that such a doctrine allowed deity to learn something “new” that entirely upended the plan of salvation. Somehow, he didn’t seem to consider that anything deity already knew was true, and thus would be added to, rather than contradicted by, further light and knowledge.

  10. John Nilsson,

    I couldn’t point out to you right now any particular example and I’m probably off my rocker actually, the more I think of it.

  11. I was raised in Chicago and while growing up lived in NYC and Atlanta; as a result I grew up the only Mormon in all of my schools. I was teased, hit and mocked because I was a Mormon. I remember talking to my father, and his advice was, “You better read the Book of Mormon and study this religion, so you can decide if it’s worth getting teased about.”

    His advice started me on my own journey of responsibility for deciding what religion (if any) I was going to follow. There’s a lot of wisdom in what he taught me. As a result we raised our children with the same responsibility for their choice and commitment to a religion. Now it is such a joy to see all of our grandchildren being raised with the same open minded discussions.

    The basic teaching of the gospel is choice and accountability; if that is taken away it does not allow us to learn. Many people learn and believe differently, however if their testimony grows, if they hunger and thirst for truth at some point in their life it has to become their choice to seek it. It simply does not work any other way.

    As Brigham Young said, “Faith is obedience to the truth confirmed”. There is no such thing as blind faith, we have responsibility for seeking truth; however once we have an answer we must be obedient to that truth, before we can be given more knowledge.

    I actually view this process as the true principle of the gospel; not as a liberal or conservative of the religion. Look at how Christ taught, look in the D&C how the Priesthood is to govern; there is never any coercion.

    In the D&C we are told to seek knowledge from the best books, gain wisdom of all things. The Spirit works through both the mind and the heart; the more knowledge we gain combined with greater humility will allow us to have better and a more sure enlightenment from the Holy Ghost.

    John, thank you for your post, I’m looking forward to more.

  12. Brad, Chris (11, 13)

    Why would you cook with something you wouldn’t drink? If it doesn’t taste good before you cook it, what makes you think cooking it is going to change that drastically? Meats change their flavor some, but not drastically, when cooked, but most foods retain at least the basics of the flavor. That’s why I opt for fresh wines in my cooking: eg, fruit juices unfermented. I still haven’t quite gotten an acceptable substitute for beer in certain recipes. Generally I avoid those…still.

    But I digress. But seriously–what is it about questioning sources, keeping an open mind and thinking logically that is uniquely liberal? Do you think that it is really a ‘liberal’ position? If so, I’m afraid you haven’t really done your homework. It is merely an erudite position, which I’m afraid is really what we should be after. Just a thought.

  13. Seems to me that “liberal” is being used here to mean “open-minded” (not actually liberal). So does that mean conservative = closed-minded? I tend to agree that what is described above isn’t that liberal, even among LDS circles.

  14. Excellent Mr Nilsson.

    My nephew and wife recently visited us. He is an ER Nurse and she is doing here internship. She mentioned that she could see a significant difference between the ages of the patients. Older patients tend to listen to the Dr and ask few questions.

    Younger patients have already Googled and done a fair amount of research before they come back for their second appointment. They have a fair idea of possible treatments that might be offered and ask many more questions.

    I think this is becoming more evident in the church young adults youth are questioning what their taught more and more and are asking a lot of further probing questions.

    If were not up to speed with some of their questions and answer them back with something they feel is feasible, they won’t be as tolerant as previous generations.

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    Ah, Andrew,

    You paid attention in school. You always ask the perceptive questions.

    Several reasons for the appellation liberal, one of which is cultural: Lowell Bennion himself was tagged as a liberal, and as a humanist, by conservative CES and General Authorities.

    But methodologically, this approach I outlined ties in to subjective and objective strands of liberal theology I talked about in Part I of my post. Subjectively it is liberal because it presupposes a loving God you can have a relationship with, not an arbitrary cruel being. Objectively it places reason above scripture in terms of passing on it’s divine origins.

    You might be falling into the trap of thinking what I call liberal thinking is actually middle of the road or common sense. What if I were to use the same liberal method of reason over scripture, Bennion’s faith in the loving character of God, and another example, like Abraham sacrificing Isaac? The conclusion I draw that the author of this tale was communicating the severe nature of a tribal God he understood imperfectly and trying to flesh out the beginnings of the Hebrew nation, not communicating the actual nature of God which I can use in my 21st century daily life, is a liberal one. I think. If not, man, what does it take to be a liberal around here? 🙂

  16. I don’t find deducing that the Elisha she-bear incident, for example, is merely just made-up, mistranslated, or wrong, is really a “liberal” take. A language study I think _is_ informative to that story, for example. However the most provocative thing I thought John said is “…God doesn’t do this kind of thing at all if other scriptures we read about Him being loving are to be held as true.”

    My picture of God from scripture is that He is supremely loving and benevolent; He is also a fierce warrior. Jesus could be the very embodiment of the greatest compassion possible to the infirm who trusted in Him; he also cleansed the temple and publicly embarrassed and shamed those Jewish leaders who criticized His divine mission. He could be Fred Rogers. He can also be the mighty William Wallace. Personally I think it is emasculating that in the LDS church, and many Christian churches, frequently teach in their words and actions that the example of God and Jesus that all we are asked to emulate is a meekness that simply becomes weakness because the strong, mighty, wild and dangerous characteristics of God are de-emphasized or not talked about. That Jesus asks us to turn the other cheek makes it a teaching of strength, in my opinion, because He had the power to destroy, and usually chose not to use that power.

    I certainly think it is fair for the modern reader to raise an eyebrow at amazing tales from the Old Testament and say, “Is that the God I believe in?” But that’s not a liberal position, it’s a presentist one. We each can choose to award our faith and allegiance to a God whom we will, but my perspective, which I think is a more liberal one, is to look at scripture, as best we can, through the eyes of those who told these tales: their God is a God mighty to destroy, but mighty to preserve. And Jesus, His son, fought the ultimate battle to conquer evil and death through both his goodness and mightiness, as each case needed. Following this perspective we don’t literally and blindly follow from the Bible, but distill from these teachings when we should magnify our wild and dangerous character, and when we must subdue it. But never deny it.

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    Just for Quix,

    While I appreciate what you are saying, how is it liberal to “look at scripture…from the eyes of those who told these tales”? Isn’t it more liberal to question the ones who told these tales, to the point of wondering who wrote them in the first place? Isn’t it liberal to recognize the variety of circumstances under which the books of the canon were written have an influence on their contents? And isn’t it liberal to prefer the view of God and history which allows one to have faith in and a positive relationship with God? And then to ask yourself if the picture of God that comes to you from an Israelite priest motivated by a desire to differentiate the current political system from previous ones may not be the most reliable source for the nature of God?

    I agree that Jesus’s language was not all flowers and light, but neither is it arbitrary, mean-spirited, and low.

  18. I don’t have “Mormon Doctrine” on me right now and it’s been quite a few years since I’ve perused its pages, but I seem to remember an excerpt about soup. I believe it was listed under “hot drinks.” Even now, sometimes when I eat soup the thought does cross my mind that I could be damaging my stomach.

    I’m going home to my parents for a visit soon. I think I’m going to pull out Mormon Doctrine and take a trip down memory lane… 🙂

    (I don’t want to bash the book because it does give some very helpful insight into a lot of different topics. I’m sure I remember there were some really good parts. Unfortunately, it’s stuff like hot soup that you never forget. 🙂

  19. On the Tangent per “liberalized” use of wines:

    Per Ben (15): fermentation changes the character of wines. It will bring out nuances of flavor undistinguishable in fresh grape juices. Fresh fruit juice has its place in some dishes, but the yeasts, fermentation temperature, ethanol, and fermentation and storage containers all lend their own part into breaking down sugars, transforming flavenoids, building character, etc. These benefits are not just distinguishable in drinking, but also in cooking, although less so. At least in cooking, grilling and baking most ethanol is evaporated, at least to nearly as low a level as the natural ethanol present in citrus juices or the addition of other flavorings, like vanilla. Is such use really something about which a good Mormon should have any discomfort?

    re: Chris (11): As ben said, only buy wines you would or could drink. “Cooking wines” are amended with salts and etc., to make them unsuitable for drinking, which also, IMO, makes them unsuitable for cooking. But maybe by “cookine wine” Chris just meant a $8-15 “cooking-class” of drinking wine. No sense wasting a $40+-a-bottle red on marinating a piece of beef! *drooool*

    ===

    Per John (20): I see what you are saying. I think you are right… as long as we don’t deduce that God is just a “flowers and light” and warm n fuzzy God. There definitely is a lot of nationalistic, spiritual and primitive propaganda with the O.T. However the violent, wild, uncontrollable, sovereign and mighty characteristics and behavior of God are not merely dismissed as such propaganda, either.

  20. In college, I had a Comparative Religion professor who used “literalist” and “interpretist” when it came to “historical religion” – meaning “one who takes religious statements and stories literally” and “one who looks for interpretations, allegories or morals and, generally, ignores questions of historicity”. I really liked that distinction, since it removes the condescension and negative connotations inherent in quasi-political terms like “liberal” and “conservative”. I also like the “black and white” vs. “gray” description I’ve heard from lots of people. The first one tends to see everything clearly (or at least believe they see clearly) – which qualification shows my own perspective, the latter. One tends to state things as absolutes; the other tends to use words like “tends”, “most”, “many”, “I think”, “I believe”, etc.

    Frankly, I am a combination of the two – and it drives some people nuts on both “sides”. I am a hardcore parser, since I hate defending what I don’t say or believe just because someone assumes what I don’t say. That tends to be associated with literalists and black-and-whiters, but it’s just common courtesy to me. (Golden Rule) I live a VERY conservative lifestyle, and it leads many people to assume I have a strictly conservative, literalist view, but philosophically I am very interpretive and see gray in most things. There are certain things that I feel totally comfortable claiming to “know”, while there are many things I simply believe, accept or don’t worry about understanding for now.

    Ironically, both extremes legitimately can be called “lazy” by the other. Those who see in black and white (literalists) can be said to be copping-out and avoiding the pain of nuances and contradiction; those who see gray (interpretists) can be said to be endlessly avoiding having to make a firm decision by eternally wandering in the middle.

    Summary: I believe in moderation / balance in all things, including terms like liberal, conservative, intellectual, orthodox, literalism, interpretive, etc. I think if you can be characterized too easily as one thing or another, you probably aren’t thinking enough – that if there is no “internal opposition in all things”, you probably are too sure of yourself. However, I also believe there are certain areas, concepts, principles, commands, etc. that really can be grasped as universal and undeniable – that really do constitute absolutes. It’s figuring out individually what those things are for me and allowing others to reach different conclusions for themselves that is the central issue, imho. That is inherently a painful process, but it’s where I think the real growth occurs – the muddle in the middle.

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    Chris,

    Keep up the good work!

    Brad,

    I’ll take your word for it.

    tk,

    Congratulations to you on doing so well with your grandchildren!

    Benjamin O, Ray,

    “what is it about questioning sources, keeping an open mind and thinking logically that is uniquely liberal? Do you think that it is really a ‘liberal’ position? If so, I’m afraid you haven’t really done your homework. It is merely an erudite position, which I’m afraid is really what we should be after. Just a thought.”

    I’ve learned two useful things from these posts–most commenters don’t like the “L” word and those that don’t prefer the tag of common-sensical, learned, or informed. Merriam-Webster has this definition of liberal: broad-minded; especially : not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.

    So if you prefer broad-minded, by all means. You’ll notice I have the dictionary on my side 🙂

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    Just for Quix,

    I notice you use the word sovereign and say God is a fierce warrior. This says two things of interest to me–If God is warring or struggling, then he is not TOTALLY sovereign, and also that you lean towards Calvinism versus Arminianism? It may help me to know where you’re coming from.

    I prefer the finite God of liberal Mormonism who can’t solve all of our problems but who, as William James said, “is with us in all of the muck and dirt of the world helping us to clean it up.”

  23. Very well said Ray (23). I find a lot of similarity and persuasion in your persuasion. Most find me quite conservative in manner and thought, though maybe a little less so than “Utah standards” that I live by Italian-like standards that a little alcohol with a meal is a glorious pleasure of life, indeed. 🙂

    On a aside: I mostly take mild umbrage with those who would emasculate God into a warm n fuzzy milquetoast God because they would claim it is “common sense” that God wouldn’t do anything wild, violent, dangerous, or mighty. I’m with ya solidly on your point re “interpretism.” I just think it is as “common sense” to worship a God who is the dangerous Lion of Judah who usually prefers to descend to us as a Lamb.

  24. Another exceptional post by John!

    Steve says this: “I know Jeff and I differ on this, but I think an autonomous interpretation of Mormonism is a very healthy thing….but this doesn’t exclude orthodoxy or unified morality.”

    Do you mean me? I think we really agree on your statement. I also like Hawkgrrrl’s definition that this sounds more like open-mindedness than “liberal.”

    I think one can be liberal in the application of the gospel and still be very much in harmony. I’ve stated before that I think that the church and its leaders want to have it both ways nowadays. Think for yourself as long as you agree with us.

    Besides, compared to many people, even the most “liberal” Mormon looks conservative!!!!!

  25. John (25): God is at war with evil in our world polluted by sin, and cannot look on it in the slightest allowance. I don’t know how that warring allegiance compromises His divine sovereignty, unless one would argue the absurd “If God is Sovereign can He freely choose Evil?” or “If God is all powerful can he create a rock he can’t lift?” Do we don the Armor of God just so we can cower and avoid the fiery darts of the Adversary, or because we are called into a noble battle of a mighty God? [Okay not to get machoistic and superfluous; I’m just trying to paint a landscape here of a God I think is worthy of worship. 🙂 ]

    I get why people may define God as finite: to answer rational contentions of why there is evil in the world, how we can have free will, or even how it is possible for a Homo sapiens to progress to godhood. I don’t think it reconciles with the testament of scripture, to faith, to the majesty that makes man’s heart leap and knee bow. I believe an infinite and divine God can do just as William James may have “pragmatized”; I don’t see how that is much of a justification for a “finite god of liberal Mormonism,” though.

    I’ve never thought of myself as allied one way or t’other with Calvinism or Armenianism. Good question. I’d need to give that a little thought, as with all the other metrics by which I could be bifurcated. 😉

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    Just for Quix,

    I find it easier to believe that a finite God is a person, or at least has a personality, than an infinite one. A God with a personality is easier for me to relate to, I guess. But I take your points as well. Speaking of that, and metrics to bifurcate yourself with, check out the Jesus’s MBTI post today.

  27. John, And I take your points about the need for relating, in particular “relationship”. I will admit that when I became converted to Christianity that the concept of God actually made more sense to me in every way, both in a thoughtful and a faithful sense. It seemed more majestic, more awe-inspiring, more powerful, more God-like. But it _was_ hard to imagine, “So, how do I have a relationship to this God?” Thinking of God the Father in a Zeus-like limited way did make it easier to picture to whom I was praying. And I truly had limited God to satisfy philosophical quandaries, but in the end I cut off the majesty of faith.

    Now that’s not to imply Mormons, even liberal ones, can’t have majesty in their faith. I just argue for what is meaningful to me, to think through my convictions, and maybe benefit those who would care. Seeing God as a benevolent, powerful God, completely in sync with Jesus, a human incarnation of deity, gave me what I needed. Both a heart more leaped to wonder. And a God with whom I felt could personally relate to me, and in way, one I could picture in my mind’s eye– I didn’t want to go so far I needed to create a “statue” to worship. But I appreciate the desire to imagine God is One with whom we can relate, and have a relationship.

    Anyhow, the Meyers-Briggs post by Hawkgrrrl _is_ a fresh, creative and interesting idea. In that sense I argued that God could not be bifurcated unless only those humans with personalities just like Him were the ones apt to believe in Him and desire a relationship with Him. Don’t know if that is the strongest argument, however…

  28. JfQ: I don’t want to turn this into a discussion of faith, but I have a slightly different view of faith and the nature of God.

    The reason the disciples had such a hard time understanding and accepting the resurrection was because they had no frame of reference to envision a physical, spatially-limited God. When Luke 24 describes their reaction to the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, it is explicit that they thought they were viewing a spirit. After all, they had a long history of recorded angelic/spirit visitations. Mary herself had been visited by an angel, and Moses and Elias had appeared at the Mount of Transfiguration in front of Peter, James and John. A spirit God they could understand.

    Jesus went out of his way to demonstrate that the resurrection did NOT result in a spiritual condition. In Luke 24:39, he said explicitly, “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” He then ate in front of them to drive the point home completely. THEN, and only then, “opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures.” (v.45)

    Personally, I don’t think it takes much faith at all to accept and believe in the limitless, formless, passionless, vast, spirit God of the Westminster Confession. That’s pretty easy, frankly, since ALL religious traditions include that type of belief. It’s much harder to understand and accept a physically resurrected, tangible, spatially-limited Being – but that’s the message of the unique God of the New Testament. That takes real “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” – since no other religion teaches it. It’s easy to quote other verses to make the counter-argument, but to do so one has to ignore the words that are attributed to Jesus, himself. I’d rather work from the opposite assumption – that Jesus’ words represent the best picture and the other verses need to be interpreted based on those words, even if it takes more faith to do so.

  29. Only later in seminary did I hear that prayer followed by expected good feelings was the surest way to truth. This never fully took with me, and certainly didn’t help me decide if evolution driven by natural selection was the means by which human life developed, or if the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch was true. As a child and teenager, I had occasional intuitive flashes which I sometimes interpreted as inspiration, but these felt less certain to me than objective evidence, especially when my intuitions took me in wrong directions.

    John, I think what you said here brings up a question that I would like to touch on. I wonder if praying about evolution is as productive as praying about other things. In my experience I’ve never prayed about evolution, politics, and like things. I’m not saying one shouldn’t pray about these things, I just haven’t done so.

    The point I want to make is we all need to have experience where we’ve received answers to prayer. I would like to know if praying for subjects that we’re specifically invited to pray about is not a better way to approach God and receive answers. I’m thinking about praying about and obtaining a answer regarding the Book of Mormon, for example. Alma 34 teaches us to pray for very specific things.

    In my opinion, one of the things that is most productive when it come to prayer, is praying about prayer, the Holy Ghost, and the gifts of the Spirit. So what I guess I am saying is we all need to have a portfolio of answered prayers and the best way to accomplish this is to invest in those spiritual commodities that will give the best return, in my opinion receiving an answer about the Book of Mormon should be our first investment.

  30. We need to have an illustration on semantics here: The bottom line is what is liberal? From this post I have concluded that:

    Liberal = Open-Mindedness
    Liberal = Logical vs. Intuitive
    Liberal = Ambiguous vs. Black and White
    Liberal = Questioning
    Liberal = Figurative not Literal
    Liberal = Nothing Bruce R. McConkie wrote or discussed

    Funny because I classify myself as a conservative but I know I’m open-minded, flexible, logical, tend to ambiguity over polarism, questioning, and really don’t like McConkie much.

    I call myself conservative because of my culture and political philosophy. I do tend to be more literal in my scriptural interpretation and I like to balance my logical thought with my intuition. Am I therefore a liberal but just don’t know it? Am I classically liberal but politically and culturally conservative? Various elements of political conservatism (economic mainly) seem to contradict much of this definition of liberal.

    As far as am I a liberal Mormon. I’m open to people finding paths to God, although there has to be a convergance in this life or the next to be true to truth. I’m also open to changing and shifting doctrine, beliefs, and practices. So am I a liberal Mormon? I also believe in the literal translation of the Book of Mormon, the literal resurrection, and a literal Second Coming followed by a Millennium and judgement. I am a true believer. Does that disqualify me from being liberal?

    I think it’s all semantics.

  31. Ray (31). Thanks for your point. I largely agree with what you say. In fact, I think it is probable that resurrected beings are not only dissimilar to mortal manifestation merely because the disciples expected a spiritual God. It seems that the physicality of the Risen Lord did not entirely resemble the mortal Lord. The disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize the Lord until it was witnessed to them. Mary at the tomb, same story. Notice even Thomas, while asking for physical evidence before seeing the Lord, was invited once Christ appeared to put his finger in the side of the Lord. But it doesn’t record that Thomas actually did it; he asked for proof but didn’t seem to really need to touch it after all. Jesus met each witness where they were, and opened understanding to them that was not plainly self-evident. I agree it takes a great deal of faith to accept an embodied God. And for us modern day folks, to believe He actually lived and was risen.

    I don’t actually understand what is the “slightly different faith” you have on this topic than mine, at least how you’ve articulated it. Perhaps you see in the risen Lord a justification for an embodied Father also. On that I believe differently, and disagree, both that the Father is embodied (I think the Bible is clear He is spirit), and that it takes less faith to believe in a spirit God. I think the kind of saving faith of which scripture speaks, if one accepts the Bible, elevates the validity of and value of such faith in God beyond merely qualifying and relegating it with the statement, “since ALL religious traditions include that type of belief.” Besides that –and realizing you haven’t actually claimed anything about the Father which I may disagree with you on– I think you’ve articulated this very nicely.

  32. So, to draw a parallel, was Jesus a “liberal Jew”? There was a great news article by a Rabbi stating that Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah because he was a bad (unobservant) Jew.

  33. Post
    Author

    I would not call Jesus a liberal Jew. Liberalism usually indicates a basis in the historical period of the Enlightenment, and I don’t think we can read Jesus’s statements in the way I have sketched out liberal Mormonism. Apocalyptic Jew certainly, because apocalypticism was a phenomenon of the times.

    Peter,

    Thanks for your insights. I was trying to illustrate that liberal Mormons could use the same method and come to some different conclusions (based on the different evidences we have each come in contact with). Perhaps I should do a post on traditionalist or conservative Mormonism to define the other end of the spectrum I am trying to distinguish my approach from. For me, I should state this baldly, a purely subjective experience cannot produce certainty of objective matters.

  34. This morning I read from the Book of Mormon. I read from Jacobs Isaiah chapters. I noted a few verses as I read. I got to thinking about this post and others like it that appear in the Bloggernacle from time to time. I have to admit I’m not enthused about “liberal mormon” thought as outlined in #32, especially the idea of “Nothing Bruce R. McConkie wrote or discussed”. I can’t understand anyone making such a broad and sweeping statement about BRM. I have problems with some of the things he said and did, but his contributions can’t be ignored. The fact he was called as an Apostle gives him credibility if we believe that inspiration exist in the church.

    For any who may be interested here are the Isaiah verses I read this morning:

    10 Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God.
    11 Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.
    Isaiah 50:10 – 11

  35. JfQ: I think I would love to sit down and free-flow with you in private. Even when see things differently, we see things similarly.

  36. whoa whoa whoa God is a Spirit? That is not liberal Mormonism that is non-doctrinal non-Mormonism. I understand that the concept of God was messed up – mostly on purpose to declare that Christianity was a monotheistic religion during the 3rd and 4th centuries – so that the physicality of the Godhead became the Tri-unity of current Christendom. I think that the concept of the Holy Ghost as spirit only, mixed in with God the Father and God the Creator and became the non-Mormon, Christian version of who God was/is. Please note that this debate on the nature of God was not decided at the council of Nicea – it continued through the centuries and is even questioned today by careful readers of the new testament. I heard a christian radio talk show host admit that there are ‘at least as many scriptures that say God is a person as there are God is a spirit.’ However, church doctrine clearly states through modern prophets that God and Christ have tangible – real, non spirit bodies.

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