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)