Wow! Well, I’m sure there’s nothing I can say to turn of the spigot of comments on the Mormon question – both here and at our sister blog (First Thoughts), where they are up to 140+, I think. (One thing I have learned, at least, is that there are really quite a few LDS readers of First Things blogs! I take this as good news, and I hope even the defenders of another orthodoxy can see it as such.) So there is no point trying to end what I seem to have begun (or re-begun), but let me articulate a kind of conclusion for my own part.
I appreciate many discerning and temperate remarks on both or all sides of the question of where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands in relation to a conception of mainstream or traditional Christianity. It is undeniable that Mormons center their devotion on Jesus Christ, and equally undeniable that they hold a number of beliefs about the nature of the Godhead (with its three distinct persons) and about the relationship between divinity and humanity that are alien to official creeds shared by many Christian groups. One question this difference raises, a kind of second-order question, is that of the relation between developed, more or less systematic and philosophically-informed theological positions and the less well-defined notions that more immediately inform the actual practices (prayer, sacraments, repentance, forgiveness – faith, love, hope…) of — let’s just say “people who look to Christ for their salvation,” however different their theologies and even ontologies may be. It occurs to me to suggest that we Pomocons might attend at least as much to these practices and experiences realize that the systematic theological formulations mean nothing if they do not help to make these practices sweeter and stronger for us.
“Jim” and Prof. Lawler take the discussion up a notch — and this in a helpful way – when they raise the question of sin and atonement. It is true that LDS have no taste for the language of “original sin,” and in fact embrace a teaching of Felix Culpa – the fortunate fall – that no doubt goes beyond anything Milton imagined. Just to prove that I’m holding back none of my heresies, here’s a remarkable (for me, magnificently beautiful) exclamation by Eve (of all people!) from a Mormon scripture known as the Book of Moses (5:11) in The Pearl of Great Price: “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” But perhaps the spirit of this exclamation is not so far from the old English praise that Benjamin Britten so wonderfully sets to music in his Ceremony of Carols:
Ne had the appil take ben, the appil take ben,
Ne hadde never our lady a ben hevene quene.
Blessed be the time that appil take was.
Therefore we moun singen. Deo gracias!
To be sure, for Mormons, not only Mary, and not only Lewis’s Susan and Lucy, but all God’s daughters can look forward to being crowned “heavenly queens,” in a quite literal sense. Note as well that, for Mormons, Satan’s offering to Adam and Eve the knowledge of good and evil as a temptation is the true part of a half-truth. The moral knowledge necessary to agency is a legitimate aspiration. But it would be wrong to conclude from this that Mormons (as Jim and Prof. Lawler seem to think) see human beings as capable of righteousness without the Atonement of Christ. On the contrary: it seems to me rather that for LDS agency and atonement are intimately associated. (2 Nephi ch. 2 in the Book of Mormon is a key text on this point.) The very mean of goodness and therefore the ground of agency is not only exemplified but is in fact effectuated in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. There is absolutely no question for Mormons of attaining righteousness without receiving the healing and strengthening power of the Atonement. To become like Christ and therefore like God has nothing to do with making one’s way by some “natural” powers; indeed, “deification” has everything to do with entering into an economy of covenants that draws all its power from God’s gift of his Son, and from the Son’s submission to his Father, a submission that effects an infinite love that draws all mankind to him. This drawing is the very power of the only real human agency. The only real choice we can make is to accept this gift, a reception that enables us to have something ourselves to give.
This to me is “(the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart. (–e.e. cummings – of all people!)