Viewpoints, Part Two

Stephen Marsh Mormon 13 Comments

A viewpoint can change things.  Consider Sir Thomas More, famous as a model of honesty, integrity and virtue.  A man for all seasons and a Catholic Saint.

He is also the man truly responsible for William Tyndale’s being burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English in addition to those he was able to prosecute and burn directly for owning copies of the scriptures in English such as John Tewkesbury.

We tend to reverence Tyndale since he coined most of the new words in the King James Version, and that version of the Bible is about 90% Tyndale’s work (the translators who did the King James, while they were instructed to translate from sources and to focus on literary quality, also took an interest in retaining Tyndale’s work to the extent possible).  We also tend to reverence More as heroic, someone who embodies the virtues we all wish we had.  At the same time, it is sobering to think how his virtues also were the same thing that led to what we would now see as a sin against God – the effort to keep the scriptures from the people.

More is interesting, because once you’ve looked at him both ways, you can look at Samuel again.  Samuel had sons who were rapacious.  Imagine if Thomas Monson had some sons that kept their mistresses employed at the Salt Lake Temple, felt free to loot the Bishop’s Storehouse regularly and were employed as judges in Utah who freely (and apparently publicly) supplemented their income with bribes.

As I mentioned before, it is not surprising that against such a backdrop the Children of Israel decided that they wanted a king rather than continuing on with the pot luck of judges – nor is it surprising that when they were warned of where a bad king might lead them they did not see it as so bad.  Tellingly, Samuel’s response to this all, when he conferred with God was to see this as a repudiation not of God but of himself.  This is not too far different from the early members of the Church who excluded large swaths of public figures from having temple work done because when their flaws were reviewed (such as Sir Thomas More’s flaws), those doing the work just could not see it as appropriate to do it for them.

Of course we know what God told Samuel.  The people had not rejected Samuel, they had rejected God.  We know what happened in later times, we have the vision at the St. George Temple (usually recounted without the context, which is not an affirmation of the truth of the Church, it is a rebuke against the judgments that were being made — that it was not our place to judge whether or not they had sinned against the light they had, but instead we should leave that to God).

Viewpoint makes a difference.  I read blogs, from time to time, that I disagree with because reading them changes my viewpoint (e.g. http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/) – at least some times.  How often does your viewpoint change from things you learn and why does it change?


Even better, we have a timely example of this in practice.  John Dehlin recently gave an interview.  He “was effusively positive about the ad campaign” and in the edited form, his comments ended up provoking this post:  http://www.bloggernacle.org/john-dehlin-the-new-go-to-critic-of-mormonism/

Perspective can be vastly altered by editing, which is what historians do.  Have you been edited?

Comments

comments

Comments 13

  1. Great post! The only perfect person who ever lived, of course, was Jesus, and He was also Jehovah, the Creator of the Earth, a God. I wish the Church focused more on coming unto Christ and less on reverencing prophets, who, although they have great strenghs, are also flawed and human. I see too much hero-worship in the Church and find this unhealthy at best and dangerous at worst.

    {BTW: Pres. Monson’s son is flawed. Church resources have been used to defend him is a sexual harrassment charge brought by his secretary.]

  2. That is one change that moving from a regional, ethnic group religion to an international faith has created — distance between leaders and the members.

    When I was a kid, about forty years ago, you could visit every unit in the Church in about a year. There were more mission presidents than stake presidents, or so it seemed. Most general authorities served among people who knew them well, the good and the bad about them.

    An interesting thing is that John was more perturbed about the news story that Geoff was. That creates a certain irony about it all.

  3. I’m reminded of another great man: William Wilberforce, so admired for his successful campaign to end the slave trade in Britain. Yet he was also seriously misogynistic (even for his time), religiously intolerant — and an opium addict.

    It would be silly to claim that those flaws negate his very real contribution to the advancement of humanity; but knowing the whole man makes him both more human and, for that very reason more worthy of admiration. Even if it makes him, like More, a man for only three seasons. 🙂

  4. I left this comment on a (positive) YouTube video on Masonry and Mormonism last night, and I feel like it bears repeating:

    “The process of becoming a Mason (my petition and member record were submitted two days apart) not only strengthened my membership but made it possible. Reading all (and I mean ALL) available information on the Church leaves an investigator with a very uncertain picture; conceptualizing the early Church leaders as I did my brothers rather than as the idealized quasi-superheroes of Church publications allowed me to understand, admire and sustain them regardless of their faults.”

  5. conceptualizing the early Church leaders as I did my brothers Well said This Guy. Early Church leaders kept telling people to think of them exactly that way.

    SLK in SF — that is a good point. The movie about him illustrates that somewhat.

    We have a hard time in our current culture accepting that people are flawed. It is interesting that in other cultures the concept that all heroes have to be flawed, that it is a necessary part of being a heroic figure, makes for a completely different viewpoint.

    It is also interesting to see what they consider to be the flaws in some heroic figures, but that is another post.

  6. When you really dig into Sir Thomas More, you see him as (in my opinion) an evil historical figure, a murderer (plain and simple), a “party man” to the extreme, and in no way a role model for anyone. He was romanticized and idealized in “A Man for All Seasons,” but that is a work of fiction. Tyndale, however, was a real hero, who lived a life of sacrifice for true ideals. I cringe when I hear More invoked positively and reverentially. I wish people would study the life of Tyndale– he is amazing.

  7. I highly recommend Wide As The Waters by Benson Bobrick, which tells the story of Tyndale and his arch-enemy, Sir Thomas More, in the context of telling the story of where the King James Bible comes from. It is well-documented in the footnotes, and will give you an entirely different view of Sir Thomas More than you get if your only source of “information” is A Man for all Seasons. It is also a book that really built my faith in and appreciation of the Bible. We often cite to people like Tyndale, but we don’t tend to know the factual stories of their lives and works. This book will fill you in.

  8. In defense of More, he operated within a worldview where orthodoxy was seen as a literal matter of eternal life and death, where protecting people against soul-destroying heresies spread by agents of Satan was every bit as important as protecting them against physical murder.

    More’s concern was not only with Tyndale’s general project of making scripture available in the vernacular, but with Tyndale’s specific translations, which More saw to be biased against the Catholic Church’s teaching that priesthood authority was a critical part of Christianity. In other words, he was defending against more or less the same principle the LDS Church proclaims — that the “priesthood of all believers” does not dispense with the need for ordinances performed with specific authorization from duly-ordained servants of God.

    Was More right to be concerned with what Tyndale was up to? Tyndale’s work did, in fact, contribute to the splintering of Christianity, with the arguable result that it ceased to be the central animating force in Western civilization, where secularism is now the default worldview. According to More’s understanding of the gospel (shaped, unfortunately, by the traditions of his fathers, which were not correct), millions of souls have irrevocably perished as a result, making Tyndale an animacide competitive with the dead-physical-body numbers Stalin and Mao racked up. Better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle in unbelief.

    We who know the details “A Man For All Seasons” left out, are prone to condemn More for what he did — but what he did, in the context of his conscience as it had been formed by his times, was not so far different, perhaps, from what was done by some other figures we admire. We admire FDR, notwithstanding that he gave orders that led to children in Ash Wednesday costumes being incinerated by the thousands in Dresden, for instance.

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  10. Thomas, I appreciate your thoughtful response, and appreciate your facts and viewpoints. BUT, I believe that murder is murder, that the human conscience cries out against it, and has at all times from the beginning. Although we of the LDS faith believe in “one authorized priesthood authority,” we do not burn and murder those who disagree with us, like More did. According to historical records cited in “Wide as the Waters,” More actually participated in the burnings and murdered. He was drunk with his power, numbed in his conscience, and I have to classify him with dark and evil figures in history. I think we need to be consistent and deal in facts, and for some reason, many people have a false, myth-based, positive view of the “Man for All Seasons.”

  11. Bro Q, murder is murder, but of course More (and the vast majority of his Catholic contemporaries) didn’t see the execution of heretics — who were considered the murderers of souls — as murder, any more than we view the execution of regular murderers to be murder. If you call More a murderer, you’d have to indict Thomas Aquinas as well, for providing the justification. If “the human conscience cries out against” executions for things other than murder, then the human conscience was almost universally deadened until the nineteenth century at the earliest. This was an age where respectable people nodded approvingly when a twelve-year-old girl could be hanged for the crime of stealing a handkerchief, or a ten-year-old boy for stealing a shilling. Custom doesn’t establish what is ultimately right or wrong, but I do believe historical context, and its effect on forming the human conscience, has to be taken into account whilst judging people misfortunate enough to have born earlier than we were.

    Although we of the LDS faith believe in “one authorized priesthood authority,” we do not burn and murder those who disagree with us, like More did.

    With the exception of a handful of California-bound dissenters in the 1850s. Had the Old Testament-tinged Restoration not occurred among people enculturated by American notions of liberty of conscience and religious pluralism, who’s to say Mormons wouldn’t have been more like More?

    And of course if you damn More as a murderer, what on earth do you call Moses, or Elijah, or Josiah? Killing dissenters was just what religious people did, almost universally. You can’t chalk this up to the “Apostasy” — God’s enemies got whacked by God’s people in most of the previous prophetic dispensations. The only difference about the Last Dispensation is that this one occurred after secular folks had done the heavy lifting of demonstrating to religiously-formed consciences — which absolutely did not “cry out” against it — that killing heretics was wrong.

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    Brother Q, that makes me think of Paul when he was Saul and the martyrdom of Stephen. Or how opponents of capital punishment view the death penalty today.

    Remember all felonies used to be death penalty offenses.

    And Tyndale was more than complicit with the burning of at least one visionary.

    I think that realizing that things are complex and nuanced does not need to require us to forget right and wrong, but I think the lesson of the appearance of the founding fathers in the St. George Temple has been lost. Nowadays people think of it as some sort of validation of the the Church. But what happened is that they chastised those there for having the gall to judge them unrighteously and decide that they had sinned so that doing their work was a waste of time. They had done according to the light they had, and done well.

    More, in the end, was willing to die for what he believed, and because he believed. How many of us would not take an escape from such a position when it was available?

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