I came across a post on IFLScience the other day, about the likelihood that we will very soon be identifying extra-terrestrial planets that have life of one form or another on them. The author then went on to pose the philosophical and theological question of how our human religions might react to the information. I read through the first part of the article with a bit of smugness, as I am confident the Mormon perspective here is rather unique and robust in the face of this particular “disruption.” I was then rather surprised to see the Mormon beliefs called out in particular, in a section with several examples. I guess that’s progress – people know something about us besides the fact that we used to condone polygamy.
Anyhow, the doctrine about other worlds is not really central to our perspective of the Gospel, so it’s not talked about much, nor are there many details laid out specifically. So, it’s not surprising that IFLScience’s summary of our belief does not appear to be fully inline with my understanding of the doctrine. I do admit, however, that much of my explanation that will follow will be an extrapolation from the revealed word, and so, may also not match explanations other Mormons might give. Nevertheless, as this is probably one of those things that people might classify as cult-ish, I will endeavor to explain how the doctrine fits in with the rest of the Mormon belief system, and how it therefore makes sense.
The doctrine of many worlds is tied to the concept of people as the literal children of God. I went into this doctrine in detail in my series on the “Plan of Salvation.” The key points are that as children of God, we have the potential to become gods ourselves, to continue the life-cycle (so to speak) and create our own progeny and worlds for them. God Himself, as an eternal being, has done this before, and will continue to do it after this world ends. As such, the greatness of His creations is truly unfathomable. It is this superlative greatness that Moses glimpsed, according to LDS scripture, when God told him, “worlds without number have I created… there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.” (Moses 1:33-35)
There are many supplementary non-canonical discussions about this doctrine that have been documented between early Mormon leaders – the nature of the eternities and of godliness seemed to be a favorite topic among them. There are some perspectives from these discussions that are in-line with the gist of what was summarized in the IFLScience post – that among God’s creations, this world is “special” because His Only Begotten was born on this world. However, I am not fully convinced of that perspective. It seems consistent with God’s established patterns that He would have a “Firstborn” of every “generation” of His descendants, and that each generation might get its own world. It might also be the case that God was trying something new with this world, and that other worlds had previously been handled differently. The doctrine of the “war in Heaven” (Lucifer’s rebellion – also mentioned in my Plan of Salvation posts) seems like it would have only have happened if the plan for this world was unexpected. In which case, other worlds would have developed in dramatically different ways.
Suffice it to say, there are many ways one could look at this doctrine to see different relationships and perspectives about how other worlds might have been organized. The point is that it is not a central point of doctrine, is not entirely clear, and that there are, have been and will be many more worlds of one form or another created for people like ourselves. There may also be other worlds created with other forms of life on them. One could even start to postulate about other universes in relation to this doctrine. The wonderful thing about this in my mind, is that these questions were being discussed and considered long before a definitive scientific answer was even dreamed as possible, and that the answers provided by science will not require any change to LDS theology to bring it in-line.
There is a fundamental question that religion needs to answer if it expects to survive in an increasingly secular world. The question is, “how is your religion better at making the world a better place than ethical atheism?” Now, I’ve never heard this question stated outright like this; many atheists (and some others, too) seem to take it as a given that religion is inferior to ethical atheism and that religion is a “crutch” for the unintelligent. I, naturally, disagree. I would like to address this assumption and answer the question from a Mormon perspective, generalizing to wider Christianity when appropriate.
Let me begin by saying, I have a great deal of respect for ethical atheists. By “ethical atheists” I mean people who believe in right and wrong and who do their best to follow their understanding of how to be a good person – helping others, being productive, advocating for education, making the world a better place, etc. These people tend to contribute substantially to society. Christians could learn a lot from them. A good atheist can be just as good for society as a good Christian.
Ethics, as understood my most Christians, is rooted in love for your fellow human beings. However, we also acknowledge that people are “fallen” and require salvation, because our nature is, as stated in the Book of Mormon, “an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) A post I read recently by Michael Sitman described this state well:
This isn’t because we all fail to uphold certain ideals on occasion, but because we are sinners, meaning that even our supposed good works are tinged with self-interest or self-regard. Nothing pure issues forth from human hands, nothing escapes from the fallibility and brokenness in which we are inevitably implicated. Jesus didn’t just talk about our deeds, but our motives. He told us to pray in closets and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, such is our capacity for arrogance and self-congratulations. He didn’t just talk about adultery, but lust, and asked those of us who have never murdered someone if we’ve ever been filled with anger. I wish more churches would preach about sin this way – not as some kind of list of what not to do, but rather as the impossibility of being truly good.
The science is pretty clear to support this. Our Darwinian instincts and survival mechanisms make us inherently selfish and self-centered. Even our desire to do good is nearly always rooted in “what’s best for me?” So, even when we have excellent standards and ethics most of the time, there are always times when we will fail to follow our principles, and will take an easier or more appealing path. Do that a few times, and you will be in a rut that can be hard to get out of.
Salvation, particularly the Mormon interpretation thereof, not only raises our sights to the ethics taught, but gives us hope and help in striving to meet those ideals, despite our past and inevitable future failures. We believe that even failed efforts to do what is right will be rewarded in the end. In this way, our efforts to do good are never wasted. This can be a great comfort in difficult or dark times in our lives, thereby encouraging us to keep trying.
On top of that, there is an excellent support structure in the LDS church, for those willing to accept the help, consisting of the leadership, the home teaching and visiting teaching programs and fellow members. Because the church is run by the members, people are involved in the congregation and in each others’ lives. Wherever you go in the world, you will find a congregation with shoulders to cry on and backs to help carry your burden.
Another area where religion surpasses ethical atheism is in teaching the next generation. There’s a simple reason for this – Christianity has an absolute moral authority. While most atheists see a lack of authority as a positive, the level of knowledge and wisdom necessary to turn that into a positive is a significant barrier to teaching children ethics. While the litmus test of “can I predict any negative consequences from my actions?” may, for a mature adult, be a good way to make decisions in an unforeseen scenario, for children or teens, this could be potentially disastrous. Even if a parent claims to be the ultimate ethical authority, that authority will be mimicked and challenged eventually.
People need an ethical authority when they are growing up. A parent can be an ethical authority, but our children know us far too well for that to be consistently effective. To have God and the scriptures as an ethical authority takes that burden from us, and helps us to teach kids even when we want them to do what we say, and not what we do. When we teach our children how to reconcile ourselves to that moral authority when we make mistakes, we can even help kids become better through our failings.
I guess you could summarize my argument in one word: sustainability. Devout Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, are more sustainable systems for perpetuating ethical behavior than ethical atheism. It is for this reason that I truly believe that following Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities is the best way to bring about a better world.
Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. – Ether 12:4
Note: This post is primarily targeting members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Please pardon my use of the Mormon jargon.
“I know this church is true.” You might be able to go a week without hearing that string of words in a Mormon congregation, but certainly not a month. Every Fast Sunday that comes along is almost guaranteed to have at least a handful of members proclaiming this as part of their testimony. By itself, however, this phrase has little meaning. What it really is is shorthand for a concept that is not easily put into a sound bite.
“I know the church is true” more explicitly means that the speaker has a conviction that the LDS Church is the one and only church of Jesus Christ in that it is run by His authority through His priesthood with leaders who follow Him to the best of their ability and who receive inspiration and revelation to facilitate that leadership. Moreover, that any errors or imperfections in the church are there because of man, but that Christ will compensate and justify honest mistakes to continue the work of His church. That through the ordinances provided by the church that we are able to make binding covenants with Christ, and through service in the church and to our fellowmen that we show ourselves worthy of His grace. And finally, that through the scriptures and prophets of the church that true doctrines of the Gospel can be most effectively learned.
You may have noticed a few points in that last paragraph where human error might come into play. We also believe in human error – even in leaders of the church. The church may be true, but is not perfect.
Before I get into too much trouble with those statements, let me quote a couple of scriptures. First, Article of Faith 9 says, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (emphasis added) This is not just referring to the concept of continuing revelation for the guiding of the church through modern challenges, but to new and important information (dare I say doctrine?) to add to our understanding of the Kingdom of God. If we are missing important information, how can we consider it perfect?
Second is from Wilford Woodruff in the first Official Declaration, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” Yet we know that the Lord allowed imperfect practices (born of good intentions or ignorance?) in the form of denying the priesthood to blacks. Due to this apparent contradiction, the only way to reconcile this is through the principle of agency. We are expected to do our best and seek guidance from the Lord. Our state as imperfect mortals means that we will not always do the best thing, even if we’re trying our best. Hence the initiation and propagation of imperfections.
So, this is awkward. This is how we end up with situations that give rise to organizations like the Ordain Women movement in the church, for instance. We have conflict between the current practice of the church, which some see as needing correction, and our responsibility as members to sustain the leaders of the church.
So, let’s say you’re someone who believes a practice of the church is wrong or imperfect. Say you feel you even received personal revelation to the effect that the practice would be changed some day — which is something a person may be entitled to receive, depending on their circumstances. What, then, are you obliged to do with that belief? Do you hold it sacred and keep it a secret? Do you use it to help alleviate someone else’s suffering? Do you share it publicly, with the caveat that you intend to follow current practices until it is changed? Do you question whether you were given the personal revelation to help prepare the membership for a coming change? I would argue that all of these are at least forgivable if not reasonable courses of action to this kind of belief.
I would draw the line at publicly questioning the leadership of the church. I don’t think we can intentionally suggest publicly that the General Authorities are not doing what they should be doing without risking our salvation. If we as members feel that the General Authorities are in error, and are willfully ignoring that error, it is our responsibility to either find a way to reconcile our beliefs to the church or leave it. Either this church is true, and the Lord will not allow it to be lead astray, or it is not, in which case, our belief in the church has been the straying. This is a weighty decision to make. To cause others to have to make this decision because of my choices and public statements is not a responsibility I would want to take upon myself.
The Lord uses the agency and transgressions of men for his own purposes. Consider Adam & Eve and the Crucifixion. These terrible events had to take place to allow the greater work of the Plan of Salvation to proceed. Is it that impossible to consider that the Lord uses the imperfections of his prophets to teach His flock and provide for us?
I believe that the leaders of the church are, in fact, lead by Christ. I trust them to follow the Lord. If they are aware of a potential error in the practices of the church, they are being lead in regard to it. A change will come, or it won’t. I will pray for understanding and unity.
Having questions and concerns about the church is normal, and in many ways part of the learning and faith-building process. Discussing concerns and even advocating for change can be a very good thing. However, if we truly believe that the church is lead by Jesus Christ, and is not just some other man-made institution, we need to stop short of criticizing the leaders. We need to have sufficient faith that the Lord will make all things right in His time frame. The imperfections of the church will not prevent our eternal progression unless we choose to dwell on those imperfections.
I love the church. I love my brothers and sisters. I love the discourse among passionate members. I hope we, as a church, can work through this period of turbulence, and find ways to disagree without causing others to lose faith. Dialogue and discourse are extremely healthy, conflict is not.
I know the church is not perfect. Despite that, it is still true.
Repentance has a bad reputation. For a long time, thinking of repentance brought up images of crazy people insisting the world was ending imminently, confessions of sins, guilt and other extremely negative ideas. Add on top of this that Christ explicitly tells his followers to call people to repentance as one of his final acts in the New Testament, and you get to add guilt for not telling people to repent to the list of negatives.
However, lately I’ve begun to think of repentance differently, all thanks to one simple idea. That idea was the realization that the importance of repentance comes not from the guilt nor even the forgiveness, but rather from it’s utility in promoting positive changes in our lives. This leads one to conclude that the main process for accomplishing repentance is to choose to make positive changes — to try to be a better person. When I changed my perspective in this way, the negativity associated with guilt was swept away, replaced by the recognition that we are always falling short of our divine potential, and can make incremental changes constantly in an effort to become better people. The awesome part about this is that whenever we are trying to do what we believe is right, and are trying to become better, His forgiveness makes it possible for us to push forward without the baggage of guilt for the past.
As I began thinking of repentance this way, I realized that although there may be occasions when a more formal confession-forgiveness type of repentance event is necessary, more often than not, what is required is an attitude of repentance — a penitent perspective. Again, though, it is important to slough the the negative connotations from those words and our attitudes. We might regret or be frustrated by our blunders and imperfections, but the key purpose of those emotions should be motivation to continue to try to be better.
The Atonement provided by our Savior makes it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins if we repent. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect after repenting. That means if we are constantly repenting and trying to be more perfect, even while knowing that we will never be perfect through our own efforts, that brief periods of perfection can be attainable, as the history of our mistakes is washed clean through the grace of the Atonement. Perhaps rather than aiming to be perfect, we should aim to repent faster than we sin.
The peace available through the Gospel comes from knowing that we are reconciled to God and that all will be well in the end. Learning to live habitually repentant can help us have this peace more often, regardless of the chaos swirling around us.
Repent! It’s awesome!