Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ramblings on Faith and Christ

Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the First Principle of the Gospel. I'm glad Joseph wrote it that way. In fact, its one of those things that I am truly glad it is written the way it is, because it is not written the way I sometimes wish it was.

Sometimes I wish it was just written, "Faith in Christ", rather than "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ." Hopefully it will be clear, by the end, why I sometimes which it was written the former way, and also why I am glad it is written the latter way. But just to be clear, as perhaps the title implies, this post is many about the former.

What is the difference, you ask? Two words - "Lord Jesus". The difference is the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I'm greatful for Jesus. He challenges me. He challenges particularly the me who might otherwise be tempted, as many have before me, to mythologize him away. To make him all symbol, and not really a man.

I say this as someone who, in my times of existential thought and pondering, have considered the possibility that there is no God, as well as the possibility not just that Jesus was not the Son of God, but that there was no Jesus. That the man Jesus was simply a story - a person made up to tell the story of the Christ, the Son of God, in a more understandable way. But that he was no more real (and some would say no less) than Zeus, or Apollo, or Mithras, etc. Oh, I've let myself think the thoughts. And ironically, what I found was not what I expected.

I can, if I try hard enough, doubt the truthfulness of Joseph Smith's experiences. I can doubt not just the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth, but even the historical existence of Jesus. I can doubt the existence of God. Now, I'm not saying I do. Indeed, I choose not to doubt them and choose to accept the spiritual witnesses that I have received of those things.

But I know not only enough people who have had similar experiences and denied them, but also enough about the difference between those experiences and the more, tangible say, ones of getting dressed in the morning or stubbing my toe. I recognize the potential in me - the potential in all of us, to turn from faith to doubt.

But I can't doubt the Christ. Indeed, I think that should I ever get to a place where I could doubt the Christ, I should be very near lost. In fact, I can only think of one time in my life, as a freshman in college, when I had a particularly "dark night of the soul" where I think I could say I came close to doubting the Christ. And I was filled with Christ's light that night.

Why can't I doubt Christ? I can't doubt Christ because as a dear friend of mine would put it (though he does so with the word 'God'), Christ is posited, not proven. I can't doubt Christ because, to put it bluntly, I'm not a good enough skeptic to doubt my own or the rest of humanities existence. And I see Christ in us.

In a sense, I might say I have greater faith in Christ than I do in God. I'm not sure that's true, but it might be. You see, let's take the stereotype atheistic science is everything materialist outlook (ironically, of course, Mormonism is a very materialistic faith). Everything just came into being. Now, if the world is totally deterministic than this all kind of falls apart to me as well I must admit. Or, at the very least, becomes entirely uninteresting. But taking two ideas - one, we humans exist in this universe and two, we have some degree of choice, then I believe in Christ. Christ is my choice for how I view the world. And with Christ comes God, and with both, to me, come Mormonism.

Regardless of anything else (i.e. - even if there is no God {now}) if we exist and have choice than Christ is, because at least some of us choose to believe in him. And our belief leads us to be his disciples and to do his work. To become him.

The story of Christ is that God (i.e. at most extreme, the universe) became flesh, suffered with and for us, and made us at one.

And that is something I believe in. We humans should and can love each other. We can suffer together. We can build each other up. And perhaps, just perhaps, we can find a way to overcome death and hell and become the Gods that we have faith in.

Let's take the other extreme, to perhaps make things clear(er). Let's imagine a world with God but without Christ.

This is one I do not have faith in. Seriously. Without the story of Christ, without both God becoming one of us, and asking us to become one with him, I'm not sure why I should care a great deal about God. I would not make a good Muslim perhaps. Though if I understand their theology at all, I wouldn't make much of a fundamentalist/Calvinist Christian either.

Nor do I have faith in determinism (nor, if determinims is true, does it matter); in fact, definitionally I can't have faith in determinism. Faith, as Joseph taught, is a belief leading to action.

Anyway, the point I don't think I've made clearly is that the story - the myth - of Christ is powerful to me. I have faith in it, even if nothing else about the gospel were true. I believe the story that much, that we would be able to make it true. It is a story that inspires faith in us - inspires us to action.

But this is also where this line of thought kind of all falls apart.

I believe it because it "tastes good". Because as I both reflect on my experience and observe the world around me, the universe seems to respond to my faith - to our faith. I have faith that the story of Christ would come true because I beleive that the universe simply is that way.

I acknowledge, I guess, that I could stop having faith in Christ. But it would entail a lose of faith in either my ability to choose or in my own existence.

But I do believe in myself. I do believe I have choice. And so I believe in Christ. And so I believe not only in Christ, but in God. I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, even when I'm not certain what that al entails. And I believe not only that Christ is a powerful myth, but I believe that Christ lives - again, even without knowing what that really means.

Which is why I'm grateful Joseph wrote those two extra words, "Lord Jesus".

They challenge my inner skeptic. They challenge that part of my that risks allegorizing the concrete away and spiritualizing it all. That would rest content in the "spiritual power" that I truly feel in the powerful stories that are told and perhaps let myself drift into those who do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Son of God or that he rose again the third day.

It is, in the scientific sense, unknowable. It is, in the scientific sense, profoundly implausible, impossible even. I hold my beliefs tentative - I do not know with certainty what things were, nor what things are.

But I have faith. First and foremost, I have faith in Christ - and I am grateful, each week as I take the sacrament, that that includes faith in the Lord Jesus Christ too.

Plain and Precious Truths: The Council of the Gods

One aspect of the restoration was expressed by Nephi in his vision, in which he describes many plain and precious truths that will be lost during the ages. If one looks at Joseph's teachings, there is one, I would argue, that stands out most clearly as such a restoration. It is one we talk about but don't emphasize too much. Ironically enough, it is not one that Nephi, nor the entire Book of Mormon even addresses. But as a testament, not only of Jesus Christ, but of Joseph's mission as prophet, seer, and revelator, the Book still sets the stage.

I am referring, of course, to the restoration of the plurality of Gods. Of all Joseph's teachings, this remains perhaps one of the most radical. It is also one of the most outstanding, in that it preceeded any significant research on the subject of the Israelites ancient beliefs by over one hundred years. It doesn't take too much digging to find the wide swath of historians who will agree (there are, of course, those who do not) that the ancient Israelites were not the monotheists of lore, but polytheists. Polytheists who believed in a pantheon of gods, a Council in Heavan, so to speak, overseen by a Most High God. Some even argue that the development of Yahweh Elohim (the LORD God) was a merging of two Gods, a Father and Son, and that the merger was not complete in some segments until even after Jesus Christ, with some holding a view that Yahweh Elohim was God and that he was served by the Angel of the Lord, a sort of secondary deity. This is perhaps what allowed Jesus to be accept so readily (by a least a portion); there was many who could see in Jesus' messiahship this very aspect of the "Other God", so to speak. Of course, the other part of this pantheon is the female deities, the Goddess wives of the God husbands, the most well known name wise being Asherah, the Queen of Heaven. An idea, of course, which Joseph also restored in laying the foundation for discussion (what little we have) of our Mother in Heaven.

What I find particularly interesting about this particular branch of the restoration is that, as I said above (and would say better, with footnotes and whatnot, were I not so lazy) is that this is perhaps the clearest example of Joseph restoring a clearly ancient idea without any real preceding foundation. There is not equivalent to Swedenbourg's three heavens, or to the Masons' ceremony, or even the Kabbalists Tree of Life (I'm not saying necessary arguing this things were the source of even the inspiration for Joseph, only that they had a potential role). I think you would be hard pressed to find any meaningful source for the Council of the Gods in Joseph's environment. And certainly, as I mentioned, not scholar who would be talking about it for another century. Yet there it is, from as early as Section 76 in the D&C, and finally so bold put forward in Joseph's last sermons, the King Follett discourse and the Sermon in the Grove. I'm not saying "and this proves Joseph was a prophet". No testimony should be based on such ideas. Nevertheless, there it is, begging to be explained, how his relatively uneducated man came forward with such a bold and blasphemous idea. Even more, how he could be so right.

It does to me emphasize the importance of a prophet, however. All these scholars have written all these books about it. Yet not one is able to step forward and say "And this is the truth about God(s)!". Yet Joseph was, and did.

The other irony, of course, is how little we appreciate it. How little we do with it. Joseph taught it so boldly, so defiantly, and it impacted Mormonism quite significantly early on. Not so much now. Of course, of itself that isn't a problem and it certainly isn't my place to say what should and shouldn't be emphasized, and there are all the easy arguments, and all the good ones too, about why we choose not to. But the irony remains - if we are going to make such a big deal about the restoration, not just of authority, but of plain and precious truths as well, that we wouldn't make more of one of the clearest restorations of such truths Joseph gave us.

Some scriptures of note
Deut. 10:17
D&C 76:58 (incidentally, while this verse specifically refers to sons of God, I think the context obviously implies daughters as well, particularly verse 24)
D&C 121:28
D&C 121:32
D&C 132:20
Abraham 4

In the end, it seems to me that we are, as a whole, very uncomfortable with the idea of the plurality of gods. Perhaps it makes us feel too "outside the mainstream". But the discomfort is obvious. I just can't quite grasp why...