Wednesday, 13 October 2010

When Mormons are Offended

We have looked at the Mormon kingdom “Behind the Zion Curtain” and seen that the political, social and historical issues preoccupying Mormons there are not the key issues “Beyond the Zion Curtain.” There are, however, many issues that must be dealt with wherever we are and this is one of the more thorny ones; how do we share the truth without causing offence to our Mormon friends?

god is not a man that he should lie

Peter writes of Balaam as one who “loved the wages of wickedness” (2 Pet.2:15); Jude compares “godless men” who rush to profit with perfidious Balaam (Jude 11). You see, Balak king of Moab summoned Balaam to pronounce a curse on Israel (Numbers 22). Balaam duly sought the endorsement of a god (any god would do) to bless this enterprise but the God of Israel spoke to him, forbidding him to obey Balak (22:8-13). God permitted Balaam to go to Balak but gave strict instructions that Balaam should obey God and not the king (22:14-20).

God proved true to his promise to bless Israel and to curse her enemies but Balaam continued to know and tell the will of God while attempting to earn his fee in cursing Israel, all the time prevaricating, equivocating and changing. God’s response to all this was to demonstrate his constancy, faithfulness and immutability through the oracles of Balaam. Balak sought to curse Israel but God had promised to bless and declared, “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind” (23:19)

every man a liar

What is striking about these words is that God does not contrast his character with that of a particular man (Balak or Balaam for instance) but with “man”. It is as though he was saying that if he were a man he would be a liar but he is God so he is not. “Man” is being used as a byword for dishonesty.

Paul declares “every man a liar” (Ro.3:4) and God vindicated in punishing man’s deceit. We know this is true of us as we embellish the stories we tell each other to show ourselves in the best light and then excuse it by speaking of “gilding the Lilly”; We tell untruths to guard ourselves from certain consequences or to gain benefits and talk about “white lies”; We lie even to ourselves to justify our bad conduct or questionable decisions, to avoid taking responsibility or changing in any way; we make things up when we’re not prepared to stand down.

If Mormonism isn’t True

One of the most distasteful aspects of witnessing to Mormons is finding some way of highlighting the lies of Mormonism without alienating our Mormon friends. The Mormon testimony is so apparently heartfelt, their beliefs so ‘sincere’, it hardly seems credible that they believe lies, especially when, like Balaam, they have a certain reputation. Even as I write and you read this, it seems in some way wrong to compare them so harshly with this false prophet, to speak of false witness.

Once we begin to question the claims of Mormonism we quickly discover how easily Mormons are offended and even the most honest inquiry can be taken as a personal attack, characterised quite ridiculously as “persecution”. Coupled with our natural tendency to want to think the best of people, this “offended party” posture can make us doubt our own understanding and even our own integrity.

Some of the questions asked by people who leave the Mormon Church and look back wistfully at their Mormon friends and associates reflect this reluctance to believe of Mormons that they tell fibs. We cast about for some reasonable explanation to reconcile the fact that the Mormon Church isn’t true with a reluctance to believe our Mormon friends believe and propagate lies. In this post, and the next, I want to address some typical questions, the answers to which will help us see how easy it is for every man (and woman) to be a liar, especially to themselves.

1) Was Joseph Smith sincere but deluded, or a fraud?  Why did he do all he did if not a prophet?

This is the typical “sincerely meant” defence that releases us from thinking ill of someone because their intentions were good. Of course it is not possible altogether to know the mind of another man, especially at this distance in time but given his history, from prosecution for money digging through polygamous relationships, from leading a militia to standing for US president, there was obviously an enormous degree of personal ambition in all he did.

In considering any historic figure the person must be taken in the round and not simply celebrated for those things for which some like him best (hagiography). Not so easily achieved in this case when you consider that the noted academic and biographer Fawn Brodie (1915-1981) was excommunicated by the Mormon Church for considering the whole man in her definitive biography of Smith, No Man Knows My History. Maybe the question to ask is not, “Why did he do all he did if not a prophet?” but “Would a prophet of God do all he did?” Would an honest man behave like Joseph Smith?

2) Are Mormon leaders today sincere or simply trying to maintain an empire?

This is another “sincerely meant” question that is nearer home since we are talking about living people. Mormon leaders are often presented and perceived as “sweet old gentlemen” like the late GB Hinckley who traded on his age and charm for years as leader of the Mormon Church while never giving a straight answer to an honest question, or an honest answer to a straight one. I am often asked if the people at the top “really know”. Experience has taught me that man’s capacity for self-delusion is enormous.

The people at the bottom believe the people at the top and express that belief as a “testimony”; that much we understand. The people at the top believe the people at the bottom because they affirm them in their leadership and so it must be “true”. Keep in mind that such self-delusion comes from beginning with what you want to believe, i.e. “the way I conduct my life is justifiable”, then casting about for that justification.

This is a familiar enough phenomenon. One of the errors we can make in reading the Bible is deciding what we believe and then going to the Bible to find texts that justify our chosen course. Proof texting is a common practice in the cults. The fact that we have already decided on a course influences the way we read and how we understand what we read and we then find the meanings we want. In the same way people look at life according to preconceptions influenced by upbringing, background, family etc. and Mormons are no different – leaders included.

They look at life a certain way and cast about for reasons to continue seeing things that way. “The church must be true because we have a prophet” works for the people at the bottom; “The church must be true because millions follow the prophet” must work for those at the top.

if the truth offends you

Of course, leaders must have access to more incriminating evidence than most Mormons since they run the church. Certainly, when you have been at the centre of Mormonism for almost 100 years you cannot fail to know the prevarications, equivocations and changes so characteristic of that faith.

But they can rationalise that just as they do everything else. Do Mormon leaders know they are lying? It seems hardly credible that they shouldn’t, but unregenerate man is a liar and very comfortable with his untruths. Just because they are uttered in a religious setting makes them no less deceiving.

When we come to God’s Word in Scripture and allow it to teach and challenge us instead of insisting it affirms us we begin to see the world the way it is. That is why reading the Bible is so important, not allowing Mormon preconceptions to “interpret” it but asking: what is this passage telling me? That is why the Bible is so important in witnessing to Mormons. In the end you don’t need to call anyone a liar but simply point out the truth and leave them to draw their own conclusions.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own truth. If they choose to take offense at the truth that itself is a witness to the error of their position and a vindication of God’s righteous judgement (Ro.3:4)

2 comments:

  1. Great blog Mike! I'm reminded of one of my favorite passages from "Mormon America":

    "The thin-skinned and image-conscious Mormon can display immature, isolationist, and defensive reactions to outsiders, perhaps because there is no substantive debate and no "loyal opposition" within their kingdom. With some, it almost seems that the wilderness is still untamed, the federal "polyg" police are on the prowl, and the Illinois lynch mob is still oiling muskets and preparing to raid Carthage Jail. All too often Saints use the label "anti-Mormon" as a tactic to forestall serious discussion."
    ("Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (2007 Edition)"; Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling; p. 115)

    And this one from LdS Scholar John P. Hatch:

    "... I believe Mormons are still in a 'persecution' mentality. After enduring years of physical then cultural persecution, the Mormon church is finally gaining the respect it deserves.

    However, too many Mormons seem unable to accept criticism of their faith without automatically labeling it, 'anti-Mormon.' It's as if anyone who disagrees with us automatically earns the label.

    Yet most Mormons wouldn't consider themselves anti-Catholic, just because they don't always agree with certain tenets of Catholicism. We Mormons need to get out of our persecution complex and accept valid criticism and try and learn from it."

    -- Excerpted from an Amazon book review by John P. Hatch, a Utah Mormon
    (scrolled from http://www.amazon.com/review/R2QR3FO4A7Y7KL in 2008 - this is now a dead link)

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  2. Thanks for that. Excellent quotes and well obeserved. Makes you wonder how confident Mormons really are in their faith that they cannot hear a little criticism.

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