Wednesday, February 11, 2015

ON ORTHODOXY, APOSTASY, JOHN DEHLIN & KING BENJAMIN

First consider the following:

You are approached by someone who is clearly in a desperate situation. This person begs for your help. What do you do?

Could you easily help them without any great personal sacrifice? What if in helping this person your own well-being or that of your loved ones is compromised? What do you do if you know the person begging for your help bears full responsibility for his desperate situation? Do you help this person anyway—knowing that in the future he might do things that will again bring him to another desperate situation?

How you respond to this person’s plea for help will not only affect him. It will also reveal something essential about you—about your values and ethics; your relationship with others generally; your views on human nature; your ideas regarding justice; your emotional makeup and the content of your character.

To find one’s self in this sort of situation is to come face to face with many of life’s biggest questions. It is to find one’s self in that place where one’s ideas of right and wrong are challenged—where they must be put into practice or discarded. If one believes in God, this is the sort of situation in which one might contemplate the will of God and the relationship of God to the human race. If one is not religiously inclined, this situation could nevertheless cause one to contemplate one’s place in society and the duty—if any—that citizens owe one another.


Now consider the following:

On this past Tuesday (February 1, 2015), John Dehlin—the creator of the hugely popular and socially impactful podcast “Mormon Stories”—was excommunicated for apostasy from the LDS Church—Mormonism’s largest denomination. The decision by John’s local LDS Priesthood authorities to excommunicate him for apostasy was unanimous. In the official LDS Church statement regarding the nature of John’s so-called apostasy, these LDS Priesthood authorities cited John’s statements that “The Book of Mormon” and “The Book of Abraham” — part of the LDS canon of scripture — are fraudulent and works of fiction.

The LDS Church teaches that “The Book of Mormon” is a divinely given, literal translation of ancient American writings that had been engraved on gold plates prior to 425 AD. The LDS Church teaches that Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, was led by an angel to a spot on a hillside in New York State where ancient American prophets—themselves descendants of earlier Jewish refugees from Jerusalem—had buried the book in the fifth century AD. The LDS Church teaches that “The Book of Mormon” contains a thousand year history of two great ancient American peoples who were the descendants of ancient Israelites. It also teaches that some of these ancient Israelites were the actual ancestors of some Native Americans.

A great part of John’s so-called apostasy is that he accepts the findings of traditional mainstream archeology—which asserts that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of the two great cultures which makeup the central plot of “The Book of Mormon.”

John also accepts the findings of research in Native American DNA. There is no DNA evidence of a link between Native Americans and the population of ancient Palestine.

John has also studied early Mormon documents, accounts by Joseph Smith’s contemporaries—both Mormon and non-Mormons; he has explored the history of American society and American religion in the early 19th century—and all of this study has convinced him that “The Book of Mormon” is not an ancient American historical document but an early 19th century American work of religious fiction.

Because John not only came to these conclusions but broadcast and discussed them publicly in “Mormon Stories Podcasts,” the LDS Church has labeled him an apostate and has excommunicated him from their organization.



HOW ARE THESE TWO THNGS—John Dehlin’s excommunication from the LDS Church from apostasy, and having someone in a dire situation begging your help—RELATED?

“The Book of Mormon” contains an account of an ancient American king of Jewish ancestry named Benjamin who, shortly before his death (supposedly in the late second century B.C.), preached a great sermon to his people, regarding their relationship with God and their duties to their fellow human beings. In this sermon, King Benjamin taught the following regarding helping others in dire situations:

“…ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
“Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
“And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.”
(Mosiah 4: 16—21)



Now whether one accepts King Benjamin’s reasoning or not, one must admit that he puts forth very succinct, very clear principles that one could consider when one is approached for help by another in a dire situation. Rejecting King Benjamin’s principles or acting upon them will reveal much about the content of one’s character and how one views his or her relationship to the human family.

One is approached by someone in need; one must decide how to respond that person’s cry for help; in deciding how to respond, one considers King Benjamin’s principles; one makes a decision and acts upon it; one’s actions reveal much about one’s character and one’s spiritual and ethical state at that time.

Notice the one thing absent from all of this—the one thing that is completely unimportant. It is this question: Was King Benjamin a real person who lived in ancient America, or is he a completely fictional character created in the 1820’s by Joseph Smith?

In the end the answer either way is completely irrelevant to the actual situation at hand: how does one respond to another’s plea for help.

In the context of ethics, of personal spiritual progression, of human relationships, of how one envisions his or her relationship to God—how one responds to a beggar’s plea for help is of immeasurable importance. The role that King Benjamin’s principles play in that response are much more important as far as one’s relationship with “The Book of Mormon” is concerned that one’s beliefs regarding the historicity of either the book and King Benjamin.


If an international religious organization like the LDS Church continues the Dark Ages tradition of excommunicating members for apostasy, it might consider using the principles found in their scriptures as the basis for those actions rather than beliefs and opinions regarding the historicity of those scriptures.

But like so many orthodox, fundamentalist or literalist religious organizations, the LDS Church does not teach a religion that is based primarily on principles. Instead it teaches a religion that is first and foremost a religion ABOUT a set of scriptures and ABOUT the LDS Church itself. One believes without doubting and without any public questioning the things that the LDS Church claims about itself and what it claims about its scriptures. To not believe and to publically question is to court excommunication and the label of “apostate.”

Reform Mormonism is a religion that is first and foremost about principles.

When a Reform Mormon is approached by one in need, considering King Benjamin’s principles is much more important than believing that the king was an actual historical figure. Likewise, Reform Mormons might draw upon the principles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Sermon on the Mount and in “The Book of Mormon’s” sermon at the Nephite temple. Whether the historical Jesus actually stood atop a Judean mount and taught those principles—or whether he actually appeared in ancient America after a resurrection from the dead and taught them—is of no importance.

Reform Mormonism is a religion centered upon one’s quest to develop within one’s own character the virtues and attributes that one envisions God possessing. Reform Mormonism teaches that all human beings—by virtue of their humanity—exist in the form and likeness of the Divine, and thus they have within themselves a potential for Divinity.

Through the living of our lives, through the use of our individual agency, through the manner in which we interact with others and encounter adversity, through the degree in which we engage our intellects and emotions, through the manner in which we navigate our way through the complexities of life---through all of these things we are either developing Godliness within ourselves or we are not.

An orthodox religion that is primarily ABOUT the Bible, “The Book of Mormon,” Jesus or Joseph Smith is simply of no practical use or great importance in this process; thus it has no place in Reform Mormonism.

To label someone as “devout” or as an “apostate” regarding such things is meaningless. One could accept orthodox theologies regarding the scripture, Jesus and Joseph Smith; one could eloquently defend that orthodoxy from all attacks and by that same eloquence convert others to that orthodox faith. And yet those orthodox ideas in and of themselves alone are meaningless in developing a Godly character. Orthodoxy does not equal Godliness.

If one reads “The Book of Mormon” with clear eyes, one might see that such a principle is central to the book’s message.

That message is worth considering even if the book is a work of 19th century American religious fiction.

That message is central to Reform Mormonism—which is an “excommunication-free zone,” in which doubts, hard questions, unorthodox beliefs and a diversity of opinions are not only welcomed, but regarded as essential in the Eternal Progression of the human family.




Friday, August 22, 2014

UNITY VERSUS UNIFORMITY


Unity is a guiding principle in most of the world’s religions. But more often than not, the pursuit of unity becomes a demand for uniformity—so much so that the two concepts become confused.

Religions begin issuing commandments or enforcing policies on everything ranging from the type of clothing worn, to hair styles, to the use of language, to which books should be read, what music should be heard, which movies and TV shows should be watched, what types of thoughts should be entertained and what thoughts should be repressed. Even those who express their faith using words or phrases not in common use, become suspect; other adherents begin to worry that such a person “is losing their faith” or has “lost their testimony.”

Obey. Don’t doubt or question. Follow the fold—or leader—or the prophet. Don’t cause waves. Conform. One’s willingness to negate one’s self and blend into the crowd becomes the litmus test of one’s faith, one’s moral character, one’s spiritual health and one’s relationship with God.

In many Mormon denominations, uniformity is usually mistaken for unity. If one uses the same words used by everyone else when bearing one’s testimony , one is seen as faithful—regardless of one’s inner spiritual or ethical condition. If a testimony is born using phrases, language or images that are not familiar, many listeners become uneasy, looking with suspicion upon the person bearing the testimony. If a little girl wears a sleeveless shirt or blouse, many worry that her moral character could be more easily corrupted than the little girl who wears a top with sleeves that meet that denomination’s dress standards. The same goes for young women and their choice of clothing. Men have traditionally been encouraged to have their hair cut at certain lengths and to avoid beards. Often men are not allowed to pass the sacrament or participate in certain ordinances because they are not wearing white shirts and ties—even though there is no official policy on the matter. Uniformity is such a powerful force in some denominations of Mormonism that many believe—sincerely but mistakenly—that they can spot another Mormon at first sight.

The result is that the sacrifice of one’s individuality comes to be seen as an act of great virtue, while being true to one’s self is often denigrated as “selfishness,” “hard heartedness” “being proud” and “having a rebellious spirit.” In such a culture, hypocrisy comes easy since uniformity is more about outer appearances than inner substance. Most tragic of all is that sincere, well-meaning, highly ethical individuals who crave an atmosphere of emotional and intellectual transparency—a space where there can be a true meeting of the minds; an honest discussion of the actual issues confronting human beings; a thoughtful examination of their faith’s history and theology; a respectful and even loving difference of opinions—become frustrated to the point where they conclude Mormonism is simply not a viable, meaningful religion for them. These individuals finally succumb to the false idea that uniformity equals unity; unwilling or honestly unable to any longer wear a one-size-fits-all uniform, they leave the faith they once deeply valued.

This problem is not unique to Mormonism. One finds it in all religions. The demand for uniformity destroys true unity.

To first century followers of Jesus, the Apostle Paul wrote:

“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.” (I Corinthians 12:4)

Paul believed that Jesus’s followers were united by the same Spirit, which could manifest itself through them in diverse ways. In the midst of strife between Jesus’s followers—usually revolving around how to incorporate the traditions of distinct cultures into the movement that Jesus began—Paul encouraged them to keep in mind the bigger picture…to stay focused on moving forward, on cultivating the image of God within themselves and on transforming the earth so that it was in harmony with the Kingdom of God.

Divisions continued, of course—usually because one group, one church or one body would try to enforce uniformity in the name of establishing or preserving unity.

Shortly before Joseph Smith published “The Book of Mormon,” he revealed the reason that the book was being brought forth:

“…if the people of this generation harden not their hearts, I will work a REFORMATION among them, and I will put down all lyings, and deceivings, and priestcrafts, and envyings, and strifes…” (Book of Commandments 4:5)

The reformation that was the original objective of the movement that became known as Mormonism was a reformation of religion that would end such things as “envying and strifes” and bring about religious unity.

This unity was not a matter of establishing a new system of uniformity. It was to be a unity brought about by the Spirit, which would manifest itself in all people and all cultures the world over in many different ways. “The Book of Mormon” itself declared:

“…I exhort you, my brethren, that ye deny not the gifts of God,
for they are many; and they come from the same God.
And there are different ways that these gifts are administered;
but it is the same God who worketh all in all;
and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men,
to profit them…
…all these gifts come by the Spirit of Christ;
and they come unto every man severally, according as he will…”
(Moroni 10: 8, 17)

Reform Mormonism embraces this concept.

Reform Mormonism celebrates individuality and personal differences, declaring that these need not undermine spiritual unity within a community of faith.

One does not sacrifice one’s individuality in being a Reform Mormon. We declare that the purpose of life is the eternal progression and growth of the individual.

Reform Mormons declare that in developing a relationship with God, people need never put on a uniform.

Rather, Reform Mormons proclaim that in order for the Spirit of God to work in and through people, they must shed all pretentions, discard the labels that have been placed upon them and approach God honestly, as they are—knowing that they are fully embraced as they really are, here and now, by a loving Heavenly Father and Mother.

The foundation of Reform Mormon theology is the old Mormon adage: “As we now are, God once was; as God now is, we may become.”

Therefore human nature is nothing to be repented of, or overcome, or forsaken. Rather human nature—in all its complexity—is our most potent link to God. Existing in the image of God, humans share with God a common nature.

Reform Mormons openly deal with all aspects of human nature, all fields of human endeavor, all episodes of human history—for we declare that God intends for us to deal with reality, here and now; that only in doing so can we grow and progress and become like God.

This does not mean that we all are progressing toward some cookie-cutter image of God, but that the Divine image we are cultivating within ourselves is the result of our unique and distinct experiences, relationships, preferences and points of view—and the interaction of all of these things with the Spirit of God, which is universal and at work in all things.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

REFORM MORMONISM: Excommunication is Excommunicated here


Recently Mormonism has again made the news because the LDS Church has again excommunicated devout, believing members who followed the Light they had received. The LDS General Authorities insist that those who are excommunicated from their church are no longer Mormons: that they have been stripped of forgiveness, of Priesthood authority, of Temple blessings, of their eternal standing within their own families. The LDS Church leaders insist that they, and they alone, determine who is a true Mormon.

In response, we offer the following parable for your consideration:


"A garden (Mormonism) was planted by God, and it began to grow and spread. The few men who had at first tasted the fruit of the garden, erected fences (a church) around the garden to stop it from spreading beyond the boundaries they envisioned for it.
But the men were not the garden; they were not the plants, the flowers or the fruit-bearing trees.


"And so roots crept under the fences and sprouted beyond the small area inside the fences. The pollen from the flowers within the fenced area was picked up by the wind and blown out beyond the confines of that area. Bees, too, came into the garden and gathered pollen--and despite the fact that the men who appointed themselves the protectors of the garden swatted at the bees and drove them from the garden, the bees carried the pollen out into the world, spreading it far and wide.

"Birds also flew into the garden and ate fruit from the trees. The men who appointed themselves the guardians of the garden drove the birds from the garden. But Nature, being supreme, took its course and the birds who'd eaten the fruit, flew in all directions and the seeds of the fruit they'd eaten eventually passed into the soil so that fruit trees grew far away from the sight and control of the men.

"The day came when the men who'd appointed themselves guardians of the garden looked out beyond the fences they'd built and they saw that the whole earth outside had become like the Garden of Eden.


"This was because of the birds they had driven from the garden for eating the fruit; because of the bees who partook of the pollen and were driven away by the guardians; because of the roots of the fruit trees that snaked beneath the fences the guardians had erected.

"The garden outside the fence, unencumbered by the self-proclaimed guardians, was bigger, more lush, more full of good fruit than the tiny fenced in garden. The people of the world enjoyed the outside garden, praised its beauty and goodness; were nurtured by its fruit and cooled by the shade of its trees.



"And on those rare occasions when people happened upon the small fenced-in area, which was now hidden deep within the wide flourishing garden that covered the whole world, they shook their heads and marveled that anyone would think they could control a garden planted by God."

Who determines if you are a Mormon? YOU do.

What determines if you are a Mormon? Your relationship with God--and God alone; your intimacy with the Spirit working within you; the way you envision the universe and your place in it.

God is doing a marvelous work and a wonder in the world. God has revealed the human family's divine potential.

If you have caught a glimpse of this; if it has resonated within your soul; if the principles of Mormonism guide you in the way you live your life, in your relationships with others--then YOU ARE MORMON regardless of whether you belong to this church or that.
No one can excommunicate you from those things that you hold sacred within your own heart--especially your relationship with your Heavenly Parents.

THIS IS THE MESSAGE OF REFORM MORMONISM: there are more ways than one to be a Mormon. Mormonism is like a garden and if you have eaten of its fruit; it that fruit nourishes you, then you carry Mormonism within yourself.In Reform Mormonism, excommunication has been excommunicated.


Sunday, August 04, 2013

OPPOSITION IN ALL THINGS, or "THE TRAUMA OF BEING ALIVE"



A excellent piece appears in this weekend's NEW YORK TIMES entitled “The Trauma of Being Alive.” In reading it, I contemplated something that happened yesterday afternoon.

My partner Cary sang at a wedding and afterwards we attended the reception together. Carey proudly showed friends there photos of his first grandchild, Jadelyn, who was born just two weeks ago. While flipping through some of the photos of the baby on his cell phone and watching some of the young woman at the reception interact with their toddlers, I instantly began to tear up, emotionally overcome. It was a momentary thing, passing as quickly as it came; but it was intense enough that Carey asked in surprise, “What’s the matter?” I couldn’t explain exactly what I was feeling or what images passing through my mind triggered the onslaught of feelings, other than I was thinking (vaguely) about my Mom and feeling (momentarily but intensely) the loss of her in my daily life.

This author of this NY TIMES piece (Psychiatrist Mark Epstein) writes honestly about two common assumptions: that grief is something from which one can eventually recover completely, and that life “normally” is balanced and trauma-free. BOTH OF THESE ASSUMPTIONS ARE FALSE. As human beings, we do ourselves a grave injustice if we don’t reject these assumptions. By continuing to insist that these assumptions as true, we set ourselves up for lives of unnecessary disappointment and frustration, and—more importantly—we do battle against the very aspects of ourselves that make us human.




Epstein’s piece also reminds me why I continue to cling to my Mormon faith—which, when dealing with human nature and the nature of human life on earth, here and now—goes in the exact opposite direction of Christianity and most other religions. While Christianity interprets the mythical exile of Adam and Eve from Eden as a curse; while it declares human nature fallen and sinful, and life of earth as a series of woes from which human must be saved, Mormonism sees the mythical eating of the Fruit of Knowledge (what Christians call “the Forbidden Fruit”) and the exile from Eden as a GOOD thing, as a step UPWARD and FORWARD in the Eternal Progression of the human race.

“There must need be opposition in all things,” Mormon scripture declares. Without conscious awareness of the opposition that is inherent in the natural world, we would be less than human. Mormonism goes so far as declaring that without this opposition, “God would cease to be God.”

The awareness that human love is eternal—that our love for a mother, a father, a child, a spouse, lover or friend does not end when that person dies; that this love continues to be experienced as a potent, deeply-felt, important ongoing relationship even when that person is physically absent from us—means that the sadness and frustration over the loss of that person’s physical presence are realities with which we must deal for the remainder of our days upon the earth. It’s not only foolish but destructive of something essential to our humanity, to try to “overcome,” “get over,” or “get past” those feelings. There is no “closure”—a concept I detest when applied to the real and potent traumas and tragedies inherent in life.

Epstein confirms that “trauma” IS the norm. Life is not predictable, controllable or satisfyingly understandable. The human experience of life is complex, baffling, confusing, mysterious, demanding, sad, painful, challenging and frustrating—and it is EQUALLY beautiful, stimulating, pleasurable, rewarding and joyful. (I was tempted to use the phrase “on the flip side” when describing these contrasting and conflicting qualities; but in fact there is no flip side; all of these qualities—the traumatic and the non-traumatic—are tightly and seamlessly interwoven as equal parts of one great whole.) This is the way life is supposed to be. Human intelligence and human nature are perfectly suited to deal with it. In fact, human intelligence and human nature are unimaginable in any other context.

And so I try to embrace the “contradictions in all things” so that I might “have a fullness of joy”--to use Mormon phrases. Or, using Epstein’s words, I try to “lean into” the trauma. As he concludes, "we are human BECAUSE of trauma, not despite it."

Friday, March 29, 2013

The place of Jesus Christ in Reform Mormonism



During this Easter week, as Christians around the world focus on Jesus, we thought we would take this chance to explore the place of Jesus Christ within Reform Mormonism.

We should begin by saying that Reform Mormonism does NOT claim to be a Christian faith.

While Mormonism had its roots in the Christianity of early 19th century America (just as Christianity had its roots in the first century Judaism of Jerusalem), Reform Mormons acknowledge that Mormonism quickly evolved from a small Christian sect into a completely new religion—one distinct from Christianity (just as Christianity evolved from a small Jewish sect into a new and distinct religion).

That being said, the evolution of Mormonism into a new religion was the result of a new understanding on the nature of Jesus Christ. That understanding is radically different from the understanding taught in Christianity.

Christianity emphasizes the differences between Jesus’s nature and human nature; it focuses on how Jesus was unlike us. It erects a barrier between God and the human race which only Jesus himself, in his mercy toward humanity, can overcome. Christianity teaches that it is human nature itself that separates us from Jesus and God. According to Christianity, since we humans have no control over our nature, we are victims of it; we are unable to overcome our nature; we are in desperate need of someone to save us from ourselves—and that someone is, according to Christian theology, Jesus—and only Jesus. If we throw ourselves on his mercy, Jesus—being completely unlike us in nature—will “save us” from eternal separation from God and all that is good and holy.

In contrast, Mormonism emphasizes what we have in common with Jesus; Mormonism focuses on how Jesus is similar to us.

Though Mormonism had its roots Christian theology, within months after the first Mormon congregation was formed in upstate New York in 1830, a new understanding of Jesus’s nature—and human nature—was taught. Though Mormons used much of the same language and terminology used by Christians, the Mormon understanding of what that language and terminology meant was different—radically different.




Over the past century or more, most Mormons denominations have drifted back to a more traditional Christian understanding of things—including a more traditionally Christian understanding of Jesus’s nature and human nature—an understanding that imposes distance between God and the human race; an understanding that emphasizes how different Jesus and God are from us.

Reform Mormonism is different from these other Mormon denominations. It is founded on mid-19th century Mormon teachings about nature of humanity, Jesus and God—the very teachings that other Mormon denominations now deny, downplay or disregard.


By emphasizing how we are similar to Jesus, Reform Mormonism embraces one of the most unique concepts of early Mormonism: that our greatest and most profound connection to Jesus—and to God—is our human nature; that God, Jesus and all human beings share a common nature.
Joseph Smith—the founding prophet of Mormonism—looked to Jesus as the link between God and humanity, but not in the same way that Christian theologians did. In the divine character of Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith saw the potential of every human being.


Just as Jesus was a son of God and therefore an heir of God (meaning someone who could inherit Godhood), so Joseph Smith taught that all humans, by emulating the character of Jesus, could also become “children of God” and therefore “heirs of God.”


Much is written in the Biblical Gospel of John about Jesus “being one with the Father [God}.” Christian theology teaches that Jesus was, in fact, God Himself come to earth in human form—that Jesus and God the Father are one and the same being. At first Joseph Smith seemed to embrace the traditional Christian doctrine of Jesus and God “being one,” but very soon he began teaching that this one-ness was a one-ness of purpose, a one-ness of type; that they shared a common nature—and he began emphasizing that Jesus and God were separate, distinct beings, each with his own body.





Joseph Smith went on to teach that the “one-ness” of purpose and type shared by Jesus and God—as well as their common nature—was something shared by the entire human race. By embracing the ethical teachings of Jesus, by following Jesus’s pattern of behavior, by emulating Jesus’s virtuous character—anyone could become one with God. Jesus’s virtuous character was identical to God’s character. Both of them were the same type of being—the same sort of being. And it was within the scope of human nature, for anyone to become that same sort of being. Emulating Jesus was the key to becoming like God.


Whereas Christianity taught that human nature was fundamentally sinful and evil (because Adam and Eve had eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil), “The Book of Mormon” (in harmony with the actual text of Genesis) taught that when Adam and Eve ate the Fruit of Knowledge, their eyes were open and they actually did become like God, knowing good from evil. Only by being able to tell the difference from good and evil, could Adam and Eve become fully human in the deepest sense of the word—and only by becoming fully human could they begin to comprehend God’s character and, if they chose, become more like Him.


The Christian belief that human nature was contrary to God’s nature (the doctrine of Original Sin) was rejected by early Mormons. In the Mormon view, humans were not inherently sinful or inherently virtuous. Instead, every single human being was born innocent, with an inherent capacity to reason and learn (intelligence) and with free will (agency). Human beings, while born into circumstances beyond their control, nevertheless were able to reason and determine what was right and wrong—and they were free to act accordingly. Human nature was nothing to overcome in the Mormon view; it was nothing that one needed to “repent of.”


Because Original Sin was rejected, because human were seen as being completely free, with a natural capacity for Godlike behavior and character, if chosen—the Christian doctrine that Jesus had been die on a cross and shed his blood in order to save human from damnation in Hell began to take a back seat. The cross and the crucifix were never used as symbols within Mormonism. Traditional Christian hymns focusing on the supposed redemptive power of Jesus’s blood, and on human depravity and the need for “Amazing Grace” weren’t sung. By the mid-1800s when Mormon leaders preached about “atonement,” rather than preaching about Jesus’s atoning blood being spilt on the Cross of Calvary, they instead preached that individuals had to be responsible for their own wrong doings—that atonement for personal actions came by making restitution for wrongs done.




The image of the dying Jesus was not central to 19th century Mormonism. Instead it was the resurrected Jesus—the virtuous man emerging Godlike from the tomb and ascending heavenward to sit enthroned in eternal glory next to God—that was the center of Mormon theology. The path of Jesus—from his humble birth through a life in which he was tempted but never gave in (thus gaining knowledge and intelligence in the process), to death, then a resurrection from the dead and finally an anointing of Godlike Celestial Glory in eternity—THIS path was the path that Mormons believed every human should pursue in order to fulfill God’s purpose for their lives.


Reform Mormonism emphasizes this approach as well.




The Christian doctrine of Jesus’s Virgin Birth (the belief that his mother Mary was a virgin who conceived him without sex, by miraculous means brought about by the power of the Holy Ghost) was not central to Mormonism. Most early converts from Christianity to Mormonism brought this belief with them, but there was no creed (such as the Apostles’ Creed) that converts had to accept regarding the matter. In fact, Mormonism rejected the ALL traditional Christian creeds—believing that they instilled narrow-mindedness and superstition that could thwart one’s ethical and spiritual progress. Joseph Smith never focused on the Virgin Birth; there is no evidence that he preached a sermon or gave a lecture on the subject. In fact the earliest Mormon Scripture—“The Book of Mormon,” 1 Nephi 11:18—taught a somewhat vague concept: that Mary was a virgin who gave birth to Jesus, “after the manner of the flesh.” By the 1850’s, Mormon leaders in Utah were teaching that the only means by which any human being had ever been conceived or born—including Jesus—was through sexual generation. Some Mormon leaders—such as Brigham Young—went so far as to mock as ridiculous and irrational the idea that Mary conceived Jesus without sexual relations through a miracle brought about by the Holy Ghost. As late as the middle of the 20th century, Utah Mormon leader Joseph Fielding Smith taught, “The birth of the Savior was a natural occurrence unattended with any degree of mysticism.”

Building upon this line of thinking, Reform Mormonism does not teach the Virgin Birth; nor does it require that Reform Mormons believe in it. While individual Reform Mormons may certainly embrace the doctrine, in the overall Reform Mormon view of things, there is no need for Jesus to have been born of a virgin. A virgin birth for Christ is simply irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.



Jesus was born with the same human nature, the same type of intelligence, the same free will that all of us naturally possess. Jesus lived in the same conditions in which all humans live. He experienced every hunger, drive and limitation that every human experiences. He was not born all-knowing, but learned through his experiences just as we all must do. The way in which early Mormons viewed Jesus as being different was that he never choose to do wrong; he never chose to sin. In his character, he was seen as being the type of person God would be if God was a human being living here and now upon the earth. Mormons reasoned that if they wanted to be Godlike, then they should look to Jesus as a pattern for their character, their values and behavior. They took comfort in the belief that since Jesus, while being like them, never choose to sin, they too were always free to “choose the right.”

Reform Mormonism is not a religion about Jesus. Rather Reform Mormonism aspires to be the religion of Jesus. The intimate relationship with God that Jesus enjoyed—the relationship of a beloved child with a parent—is the relationship that Reform Mormons envision themselves—and all people—as having with God.

In many ways this approach to following Jesus is consistent with the approach of millions of Christians—even though the theology behind the approach is radically different from that of Christianity.

But Reform Mormonism—-by fully embracing that radical theology—goes further.

Drawing from ideas found the Gospel of John in the Bible, Christianity teaches that Jesus existed with God before he was born—even, before the creation of our earth. Christianity teaches that Jesus’s spirit was—like God—eternal and uncreated.

Joseph Smith and early Mormons accepted this very ancient idea—and then built upon it.

Yes, Jesus existed in the beginning with God (that is, before the earth was formed) but “man also was in the beginning with God” Joseph Smith declared in the first year of Mormonism’s existence.

Later Joseph taught that the human mind (the human spirit) was—like God and like Jesus—uncreated and eternal. While acknowledging that Christianity was correct in teaching that God and Jesus had no beginning, Joseph insisted that every human being existed on the same principle. Joseph taught that the spirit of each human being will survive the death of the body, because that same spirit existed before the birth of the body—in fact, it existed before the formation of the earth. Just as Jesus “came from [God] the Father” (meaning, his spirit existed with God before his birth) so the spirit of each and every human being came from the God and was with God “before the foundations of the earth.”

During the Christmas Season, Christians the world over sing carols celebrating the idea that Jesus came down from heaven to live on earth. According to Reform Mormonism, every single person ever born, likewise, came“down from heaven to live on earth.” We are all like Jesus in this respect.

There are many passages in the Biblical Gospels in which Jesus says that anyone who has seen him has seen God that Father; that his image [Jesus’s] is exactly the same as God’s; that in his actions, he [Jesus] was merely doing what God his Father had done.

Christianity has traditionally interpreted this as meaning that either Jesus was actually God appearing on earth as a human—or that Jesus was the human embodiment of God’s character.

While Mormonism certainly believed the latter interpretation, Joseph Smith went much further. Yes, Jesus was the human embodiment of God’s character—but, Joseph Smith taught, when Jesus declared that he was doing in his life what God his Father had done, this implied that God—Jesus’s Father—had once lived through the experience of being human. Joseph Smith linked this idea with an idea found in the first two chapters of the Bible: human beings existed in the image of God; that people if could see God, they would see a human being like themselves—albeit one that was perfectly righteous, holy, just, wise and loving.

So, in the Reform Mormon view, Jesus in a profound sense brought God down to earth. It wasn’t human nature that has separates us from God. That separation exists because of ancient traditions and superstitions we’ve accepted regarding the very nature of God.

“As we now are, God once was; as God now is, we may become.” The unity of Jesus and God that Christianity had historically proclaimed—the unity of their nature—in Reform Mormonism is now extended to all human beings.


To this day, Christianity still struggles with the reality of the human body with its urges, drives and desires. Christianity has drawn ideas from certain ancient Greek philosophers and taught that the spirit and the body are, at essence, at war with one another—and that the spirit must prevail because the body with its appetites is corrupt.


Joseph Smith looked to the Biblical accounts of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and taught the exact opposite. The New Testament contains stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his followers and when they at first think he is a spirit or a ghost, Jesus invites them to feel his body and touch the wounds from his crucifixion, saying “Handle me and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39)


From this and other Biblical stories, Joseph taught—in opposition to Christian teaching—that the body was not evil but was good; that the spirit separated from the body was powerless; that happiness involves being fully alive with a physical body.




With such a positive view of the human body and physical existence, Reform Mormonism embraces life on earth as a good thing—filled with possibilities for learning, progression, growth and profound joy. Relationships that are grounded in physical needs, desires and functions—such as romantic/sexual love, marriage, parenthood—are not distractions from emulating Jesus and becoming like God. Instead these relationships are the means by which a Christ-like and God-like character may be developed.

For two thousand years, Christians have envisioned a resurrected Jesus sitting at the right hand of God in heaven—sharing equally God’s glory and divinity.

Reform Mormons accept this vision and, drawing from the New Testament and their own additional scripture, they expand this vision to include, potentially, all human beings who live; who have ever lived or ever will live.

Just as Jesus learned from the things he suffered (experienced) in life, and became a son of God and then inherited all that God has—so each of us may, by emulating the path Jesus trod, inherit all that God has, and become like God.




What manner of [person] ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.”

(Jesus in “The Book of Mormon,” III Nephi 27:27)











Thursday, December 13, 2012

THE VALUE OF SCRIPTURAL FICTION






What is the Book of Mormon if it is not a record of pre-Columbian Hebrews revealed angelically to Joseph Smith, Jr.?
Science has not found any DNA evidence linking American Indians to ancient Semites; nor is there any firm archeological evidences that Book of Mormon geographical sites that actually existed.






There is evidence, though, that a lot of Ethan Smith’s ideas, expressed in his 1825 book, “View of the Hebrews,” do appear in Joseph’s record of the Nephites and Lamanites. So, does this mean that Joseph Smith, Jr. and Oliver Cowdery or some other 19th Century individual wrote the Book of Mormon and plagiarized other people’s ideas to enhance its readability and theology? If so, was this not wrong?


First let us address the issue of plagiarism. Plagiarism was not even considered ethically or legally wrong until the 1700’s and then laws against it were loosely and ineffectually enforced. By the 19th Century, plagiarism, though illegal, basically in the same way that it is today with requirements to cite other works in footnotes or reference pages. (A Very Brief History of Plagarism) The writers of ancient scripture, though, the ones Joseph wished to imitate, knew no such concepts.


So, if all of this is true, does this mean that Joseph was a shyster, a flim-flam man like “The Music Man’s” Professor Harold Hill who sold music instruments and music lessons, “when he didn’t know one note from another?” Or is there some other, alternative way of viewing this Latter-day scripture and its translator? After all, “Joseph Smith, Junior” is listed in the very front of the first edition, the 1830 edition as “Author and Proprietor.”





Did he originally mean to have published the Book of Mormon as a religious novel like the many that appeared during the 19th Century, before and after Joseph, such as Civil War General Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ” which appeared fifty years after the Book of Mormon but like the Book of Mormon, partook of American Evangelical Protestant doctrines and values? When did our young prophet decide to turn his religious novel into a religious myth and attempt to add it to Christianity’s already large mythology collection and why should we 21st Century citizens wish to read and study it?

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines mythology as,

“MYTHOL'OGY, n. [Gr. a fable, and discourse.] A system of fables or fabulous opinions and doctrines respecting the deities which heathen nations have supposed to preside over the world or to influence the affairs of it.” –: an allegorical narrative.”



The definition above leaves quite a bit to be desired. “An allegorical narrative,” though, is correct. I do personally feel that the term “heathen” is pejorative and should be removed.


Myths were the original way of writing theology. As civilization became more “advanced” and literacy became widespread, theology was set down in lengthy and dry tomes that only appealed to other theologians. Theology became what is known today as “systemized.” The “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” by Homer were stories that were epic poems and were often sung. They were the original scriptures of Hellenic civilization.


The Hebrew Scriptures, too, were myths that taught very subtle doctrines under the guise of history. The arts of philosophy and philosophical debate were developed in Greece and during the Bronze Age were unfamiliar with the early writers of the Hebrew Bible.





In fact, biblical experts today cannot firmly attribute any of the books of the Old Testament, Apocrypha, or the New Testament to the writers whose names they bear except for seven of Paul of Tarsus’ epistles. If one had a new theological concept and wanted a large audience for it, he or she would chose a long dead prophet and write under his name. This was known as a pious fraud. It might have been a “fraud,” in a literal sense but it was often the only way a gifted and creative religious thinker could get his thoughts read. The priests and the aristocracy of the day had a monopoly of religion and were adverse to any upstart outside theologians. To be recognized an individual would then claim he discovered a long lost scroll authored by Isaiah or some other already recognized prophet and if the writer was lucky, his forgery would become received scripture.


If Joseph Smith, Jr. did write the Book of Mormon, he was following in a time honored tradition. In 1830 upstate New York or anywhere in the United States for that matter, who would have listened to a farm boy with little formal education? This is probably one of the reasons why the Book of Mormon regales so much against the rich with their chances for learning.





There have been recently a number of propositions introduced at the Community of Christ World Conferences to de-canonize the Book of Mormon based on the view that Joseph wrote it and not pre-Columbian Hebrews. This would be most unfortunate in that for them to be logically consistent they would have to decolonize the entire Bible but for seven epistles of St. Paul. The Book of Mormon as well as the Bible should be considered for what is said theologically in them and not whether they authentic in the smallest degree or not.





The teachings in the Book of Mormon reflect the state of evangelical Protestantism in the early 19th Century and how young Joseph dealt with this. Joseph Smith, Jr. was a very creative man. His theological thoughts moved on from there climaxing in the beautiful King-Follett Discourse given on June 7, 1844 where he espoused the belief that God was once a mortal creature like us and through the acquisition of knowledge became an advanced being capable of creating worlds and universes, the ability to do this is being borne out today by modern Physicists and Quantum Physicists. (See “Kurwich Wonders" ) Joseph Smith the genius was far ahead of his time. Joseph was an extremely creative individual who built a worldwide religion of 14 million + adherents today (there are as many Mormons in the world as there are Jews) from an original membership at the Church’s organization on April 6, 1830 of only six. That is a 2333333.333% increase in 182 years or if the Church grew uniformly from year to year, which of course it did not, an average 12820.513% increase yearly. This is an astronomical growth, even adjusting this figure for the so-called “swimming conversions.” Why? Joseph built a fictitious world which was and still is in many instances, far warmer and more interesting than the work-a-day world of humdrum and boredom most of those who had investigated Mormonism had been used to before they converted.





Joseph sparked the imagination. Not only that, but he gave them a cooperative way of life where individuals and families could not fall through the economic and social cracks of society. Joseph gave them goals to work for and a way of life. I have not even mentioned the many Jungian archetype and other rich and meaningful symbolic representations in Joseph’s work, but that would make this presentation much too lengthy. So, even if Joseph Smith, Jr. did not tell the literal truth in all things, like Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” we who have been privileged to have touched his magic would be so much worse off if we had not. This is why Mormon history, Mormon culture, and above all those parts of Joseph Smith’s teachings that reverberate with modern science need to be preserved. This is why we are still Mormons even if we do not believe in the literalness of the Book of Mormon. If Mormonism is fiction, it is the very best fiction to have come out of 19th Century Western tradition.


TODAY’S REFORM MORMON GOSPEL DOCTRINE TEACHER, JIM NICKELS, INTRODUCES HIMSELF: I was a member of LDS Church for 44 years, joining the Church as a convert at age 21, 1969. I left the church in 2006 and was baptized into the Community of Christ. I have been very inactive in that church due to physical disabilities that have confined me to my home. I find both Reform Mormonism and the Society for Humanistic Mormonism, where I am Assistant President, to be my sources of spiritual nourishment. I am married to a beautiful lady, Tracey Levendusi-Nickels, who does not share my religious beliefs. While having been once baptized into the Community of Christ, she now attends the Protestant church to which she originally belonged. I am 64 years old. I have three grown sons. Tracey is my second marriage. My first "eternal" marriage was sealed in the Salt Lake Temple in 1970. Eternity ended in 1991. When in the LDS Church, I was active and served in many callings including Sunday School President for over 5 years. I left for philosophical reasons. I like to think for myself and not be told that I am "on the high road to apostasy." I worked for the Lake County Indian Department of Public Welfare in public assistance, child welfare placement, child protective services, and quality control. I retired from all gainful employment 7 years ago when the doctor ordered me to. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in History/Comparative Literature (double major) from Indiana University in 1970, a Master of Science degree in History from Indiana State University where I had a teaching assistantship teaching 2 semesters of the "United States to 1877: End of Reconstruction" an introductory U.S. history course. I also have received a Master of Science degree from Indiana University in 1974, and an online Master of Arts degree in Creativity Studies (my concentration was "Creativity and Process Theology) from Union Institute and University in May, 2012. I am currently working on a fourth Master of Arts degree online from the same school in Psychology (concentration "Carl Jung and Religion), graduation date will probably be in 2015. I hope to do a Jungian analysis of Joseph Smith as my thesis. My goal? To become a polymath. I was born on August 25, 1948 in Russell County, Virginia. I currently live in Mishawaka, Indiana.






Friday, September 21, 2012

"VISITATION EVE" September 21st

On this night—September 21st—189 years ago, 17-year-old Joseph Smith claimed he was visited by an angelic spirit who told him of an ancient American history inscribed on gold plates, buried in a hillside in his upstate New York neighborhood, containing the fullness of the everlasting Gospel. For the next four years at midnight on this night, Joseph went to that hill where he claimed he was visited and interviewed by this angelic spirit to determine if he was ready to begin the prophetic career to which he had been called. For some Reform Mormons, the night of September 21st is a holiday: Visitation Eve. On this night Joseph’s stories of spirits, angelic visitations and gold plates (whether accepted as literal events or as symbolic tales) are remembered and used as vehicles for self-examination. And so tonight as I say my bedtime prayers and as I drift off to sleep, I will contemplate where I stand on the path of Eternal Progression. (Above: The attic bedroom of the restored Smith Farm House near Palmyra, New York, in which Joseph Smith claimed he was first visited on Sept. 21, 1823 by an angelic spirit.) I will try to be brutally honest with myself. I will envision a blazing angel standing before me, shining light into those dark places within I’d rather keep secret. I will envision a salamander or giant toad (characters from other versions of Joseph’s evolving story) smacking me down for allowing short-sighted greed or selfishness to undermine my attempts to develop within myself those Celestial attributes I envision my Heavenly Parents possessing. Come the morning I may not walk away from this symbolic angelic visitation with a Gold Bible tucked under my arm. But if I greet the day with a keener awareness of my weaknesses, coupled with a greater appreciation for the ever-present reality of personal revelation, Intelligence, Light and Truth—all of which will help me turn those weaknesses into strength—then I walk away with something more precious than gold plates.