Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Intimations of Immortality

By Ann Thomas

Mormonism claims to answer the big questions of life: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? The answers are called The Purpose of Life, or God's Plan of Happiness. This is how it begins on the official Mormon Church website:

Your life didn’t begin at birth and it won’t end at death. Before you came to earth, your spirit lived with Heavenly Father who created you. You knew Him, and He knew and loved you. It was a happy time during which you were taught God’s plan of happiness and the path to true joy. But just as most of us leave our home and parents when we grow up, God knew you needed to do the same. He knew you couldn’t progress unless you left for a while. So he allowed you to come to earth to experience the joy—as well as pain—of a physical body.

One thing that makes this life so hard sometimes is that we’re out of God’s physical presence. Not only that, but we can’t remember our pre-earth life which means we have to operate by faith rather than sight. God didn’t say it would be easy, but He promised His spirit would be there when we needed Him. Even though it feels like it sometimes, we’re not alone in our journey. (http://mormon.org/plan-of-happiness/)

All their teaching about the pre-existence, or pre-earth life, cannot be substantiated because they say that we are made to forget it when we are born. That makes this life more of a test, because we have no memory of our previous life with God. Many years ago there was a video presentation called 'The Purpose of Life', which used lines from William Wordsworth's poem 'Intimations of Immortality' to talk about their belief in the pre-existence.

Wordsworth also believed in a pre-existence of the soul, so these lines seemed perfect:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,

        Hath had elsewhere its setting,

          And cometh from afar:

        Not in entire forgetfulness,

        And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

        From God, who is our home:

These are stirring words, to think that we come 'trailing clouds of glory'. We may let them carry us along and not examine the detail too closely. But, in the same way that they treat the Bible, the Mormons picked carefully which lines to use. Because they believe that our memory of the pre-existence was taken from us, 'Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting' is spot on. Except that is not what Wordsworth believed, nor what he says in this poem.

This poem is considered one of Wordsworth's greatest works and took him two years to write. It has eleven stanzas – these lines are part of the fifth. Here is what a literary analysis says about this section of the poem:

In the fifth stanza, he proclaims that human life is merely “a sleep and a forgetting”—that human beings dwell in a purer, more glorious realm before they enter the earth. “Heaven,” he says, “lies about us in our infancy!” As children, we still retain some memory of that place, which causes our experience of the earth to be suffused with its magic—but as the baby passes through boyhood and young adulthood and into manhood, he sees that magic die. In the sixth stanza, the speaker says that the pleasures unique to earth conspire to help the man forget the “glories” whence he came. (http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/wordsworth/section3.rhtml )

The poem is 208 lines long, and this extract is lines 59 to 66. And, just as is often the case with scripture, reading a few lines above and below establishes the context. Wordsworth believed that we do indeed remember God when we are born, and as children we can still see His glory in nature, which fades as we grow older. Here is the wider context:

  —But there's a tree, of many, one,

A single field which I have look'd upon,

Both of them speak of something that is gone:

          The pansy at my feet

          Doth the same tale repeat:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,

        Hath had elsewhere its setting,

          And cometh from afar:

        Not in entire forgetfulness,

        And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

        From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

        Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

        He sees it in his joy;

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

    Must travel, still is Nature's priest,

      And by the vision splendid

      Is on his way attended;

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

The full poem can be read here http://www.bartleby.com/101/536.html

Far from supporting the Mormon claim about forgetting our pre-earth life when we are born, Wordsworth regrets that the memory, so clear in infancy, fades with age. And indeed, Wordsworth's idea of the pre-existence of the soul would in no way have fitted in with the Mormon teaching about this pre-earth life. He just believed our souls came from the presence of God.

Mormons believe that God is an exalted man, who has many wives who bear him many spirit children. The first child born was Jesus, the second was Lucifer, so they are our elder brothers. In jealousy of Jesus, Lucifer later led a rebellion against God, which led to a war in heaven.

Like many Mormon doctrines, what seems at first glance to agree with orthodox Christian teachings, is only using the same terminology, but means something totally different when examined in detail. Wordsworth would not have recognised any of these teachings in his beliefs, nor did he portray them in his poem.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Equipping the Cults to Deal With the Church – 2 The Problem With the Church

so how are we doing?

I sometimes imagine myself having the opportunity to address church leaders from across the UK on the subject of the cults. I imagine a lively question and answer session during which a hand would go up and someone would ask the question. “How well do you think we are doing in handling the challenge of the cults?” After a pause to gather my thoughts I would reply,

Watching the church handle the cults is rather like watching a bus crash in slow motion. You know it isn’t going to turn out well, you wish you could do something to stop it, but past experience has taught you that all you can do is be there to pick up the pieces and deal with the casualties afterwards.”

I think of the otherwise intelligent and sensitive church leader who said, “I didn’t know what to say to the Mormons at my door so I asked to see their magic underwear.” Or the pastor who proudly related how he told a Jehovah’s Witness to “leave that satanic Bible on my doorstep and come inside so I can tell you the truth!” Or the Christian who, finding that 1 John 5:7 in the King James Bible fails to impress a Jehovah’s Witness, can’t talk about Jesus’ deity from anywhere else in the Bible. Shocking I know but not unusual.

Don’t misunderstand me, there are individual Christians and churches that do reasonably well, occasionally very well, but the picture across the church in general is inexcusably poor. I have been the hapless Mormon victim of such poor practice and as a Christian shocked by the irrational fear, careless indifference, profound ignorance and inexcusable prejudices so prevalent among even mature Christians and Christian leaders.

two ways to fail

It seems that there are two extremes, two ways to ensure failure in witnessing, that are common and thoroughly unbiblical. The first is one in which the cult member is regarded as having no intrinsic worth unless and until they convert. Before that happens a Mormon is fair prey for anyone who fancies chancing their arm at a bit of witnessing, that witnessing usually involving a lot of shouting, finger pointing, denouncing, ridiculing and ‘casting out’ as though outrage is a spiritual multi-tool.

The other extreme is that post-modernist attitude that ‘respects’ other faiths, new religions etc. such that there are no meaningful differences between them. There is no objective truth, no way to be lost, no way to be saved and no faith for which to contend. In short no light in the darkness just a crowd of people scrambling around in the failing light politely repeating, ‘after you’, ‘no, after you’ as they defer to one another all the way down to hell.

My experience of the two extremes has seen some so bent on giving the cultist a good telling that they fail to model hope and forget their responsibility for the reputation of Christ. The message is not “look and live” but “turn or burn”. Disgust and disapproval are so reassuring. They anchor our moral sentiments and feel instinctively like a moral proof. To abandon our sense of disapproval seems to have the effect of cutting at the very foundations that support our innate sense of being right. Yet, if we are to be effective witnesses for Christ then grace demands that we overcome our instincts and look at the world through the eyes of Christ.

Others, however, are so determined to nurture a good reputation before the world (usually their own is uppermost in their thinking, “see how liberal and enlightened I am?”) that they dare not risk offence even though the Bible makes clear that the Cross is an offence to those that are dying. These take every opportunity to find the good in Mormonism, downplay differences as experimental rather than fundamental, and reinforce in Mormons the false notion that they really are part of the wider Christian community and have something ultimately positive to offer. Such an approach would have robbed me of my salvation and I do not appreciate it.

The heart of the matter

What is the answer? It has been said that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. Peter wrote:

In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15-16)

Christians have a hope uniquely founded upon Jesus Christ. There is one hope and one reason for that hope and a clear injunction to evangelise those without hope. But it is to be done with gentleness towards others, respect for the Lord and concern for his good name. This means we daren’t compromise when sharing the one way – by grace, through faith in Christ. It also means making sure our heart attitude is Christ-like; gracious, sacrificial and intelligently compassionate.

The Cross is an offence (Gal.5:11) and foolishness to those that are perishing (1Cor.1:18) but that is not a reason to be offensive, to be foolish. If we preach the Cross that is offence enough and the hackneyed question “I am a fool for Jesus, whose fool are you?” is not a call to be foolish but a call to disregard the foolish judgement of the world as we abandon worldly loyalties and follow Jesus. In making that choice we are still to be wise in our walk and understanding (Eph.5:15-17), “trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed” (1 Tim.4:6) In these things we are to grow so that we are prepared to give a reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15)

Some will still take offence, speak maliciously against our good behaviour in Christ, but if we have set apart Christ in our hearts we can be confident that no offence has been given and our conscience is clear before God and man. No one can ask more of us, for the sake of the lost we dare not ask less of ourselves.

Previously: If These are Christians

Next: The Problem with Anti-cult Ministry

Coming up: What are the Dos and Don’ts?

Monday, 20 June 2011

Equipping the Cults to Deal With the Church–1 If These are Christians

The Pastor’s Tale

The young man loiters outside the church office as though in a fog of indecision. Seeming to resolve his apparent doubts, he climbs the few steps leading up to the church building and walks purposefully through the door, not knowing what to expect when he gets inside. He finds meets a young woman, a secretary perhaps, who confidently asks him how she might help. He asks to see the pastor.

Ushered through the outer office into an inner sanctum, his resolve is already beginning to fail him. A middle-aged man sitting behind a large desk looks up and asks him what he wants. Words almost fail the young man but he manages, “I am a Mormon” immediately doubting the wisdom of such an opening as he sees a look of caution come over the pastors face. Pressing on regardless he stutters, “I want to talk about the differences between what you believe and what we believe.”

The pastor hasn’t risen from his chair, hasn’t offered his hand and nor has he offered his visitor a seat, suggesting that this might be a very short interview and getting shorter by the moment. “You know,” he responds dryly, “there is a vast chasm between what you believe and what we believe?” His tongue clinging to the roof of his mouth and his voice failing him, the young man says in what is almost a whisper, “Yes, I know.”

The pastor is silent and the combination of the cold welcome and his own failing nerve motivates the young man to mutter his thanks and retreat back out onto the cold pavement where, moments earlier, his resolve had seemed so strong. Where he was once confused and harboured questions about his faith he is now mortified and asking how he could possibly have believed this was a good idea.

The Christian “Witness’”Tale

That same young man stands on the perimeter of a Christian bookshop in the local indoor market, surreptitiously scanning a book that purports to expose the truth about “the cults”. If a pastor won’t help him understand, then he will just have to find out for himself and so he peruses the pages about Mormonism. An older man is looking over his shoulder but he is completely unaware of this man’s presence until he speaks.

“You don’t believe that rubbish?” He hears the disparaging words before turning to see the older man walking off briskly through the market. This time the young man’s nerve holds, indeed he is angry. “Who do these people think they are!” he thinks to himself. Putting down the book he rushes after the man, catching up with him at the other end of the market building. Putting his hand on the man’s shoulder, he makes the man turn to face him and demands, “Do you know me?” This has caught the older man completely off guard and he says, “No, I don’t know you.”

““Then why,” the young man demanded, “assume that I was a Mormon? I needn’t have been.”

He continued, “I am a Mormon, and want to know what exactly gives you the right to speak to me in that way when you don’t even know me?”

The older man squirms, turns and rushes off as a very angry and disappointed young man watches him go. He’s got the message; he’s a Mormon so fair game. “If these are Christians,” he thinks to himself, “I don’t want to be one of them!” I remained a Mormon for another ten years.

the convert’s tale

When I finally became a Christian, I was convinced that it was a true miracle, and one that occurred in spite of most Christians and not because of them. That was twenty-five years ago and I have spent the best part of that time trying to equip the church to deal with the cults. I have chosen the title of this series because I have wondered over the years whether my time would have been better and more productively spent equipping the cults to deal with the church.

Just a few years after coming to Christ my wife and I got involved with Reachout Trust (www.reachouttrust.org) and have spent the past twenty years or so increasingly involved in cult work. For many years I had been a director and trustee, have written books and articles, given seminars at conferences and in churches, met with, spoken to and corresponded with cult members and with those Christians who are concerned with the work of reaching out to the cultist. Having recently (Summer 2008) stepped down from that official position with Reachout Trust I feel I can and should share something of my experience and my deep concern for the role of the church in that work.

Next: The Problem with the Church

Coming up: The Problem With Anti-Cult Ministry