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Friday, October 14, 2011

LDS Church: the perfect Evangelist Church?

According to Gibbon, the spread of Christianity within the Roman Empire was
assisted by the five following causes: I. The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses. II. The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth. III. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church. IV. The pure and austere morals of the Christians. V. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire.
It occurs to me that the division of Christianity that most emulates these qualities today is the LDS Church, which just happens to also be one of the fastest growing churches in the nation.

My thoughts are based on my interactions with members of the LDS church rather than an academic study into the topic. For that reason I hope that members of the church will provide their thoughts in the comment section below. Anonymous posting is fine, as always.

Cause I: Exclusive zeal and abhorrence for idolatry. In my last post, I characterized this as being a spritual separatist, but today I am reading this as strictly adhering to one's belief in the public sphere. My friends who are Mormon would not, for example, go see rated R movies. They would politely decline an offer of alcohol or cafeinated beverage. It is clear that Mormonism transforms one and causes one to be in the world but not of it.

Casuse II: Certainty of Life After. I was discussing theology with a Mormon friend and explained that my church did not tell people what to believe but suggested that they seek their own truth in Scripture. She said, "That's because your church doesn't know for sure, right?" She was right. I think absolute conviction about afterlife, and prelife, is a quality to fairly attribute to LDS members.

Cause III: Miracles. The truth is that my recent interactions with friends in the LDS church have not addressed healing ceremonies. Although, growing up in Indiana I was riding with a father and son who were both active in the local LDS church and they talked about the power of healing ceremonies. I am not sure if physical healing brought on by Mormon Elders goes on today much.

Cause IV: Being Good People. Frankly, this is what I think is the biggest distinction between devout Mormons and devout Christian Fundamentalists. Many fundamentalists are super nice people, obviously, but there are a good number who are vicious in the judgmentalism. The first word that anyone uses to describe Mormons as a group is how friendly and kind they are.

Cause V: United & Disciplined. As a person who thrives on curiousity, I see the uniformity of theology expressed by members of the LDS church to be a drawback. But, that's for me personally. I don't think one could deny that the Mormon Church puts forward a united front on matters theological and social.

Is this a fair assessment of the characteristics of the LDS Church? Does it make sense that these same causes were present in the early church movement which spread through the ancient super power that was Rome? Should other movements consider emulating these characteristics?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Extreme Faith

I bristle at applying "extremist" to terrorist who justify their actions with religion. Violence in the name of God, I contend, displays a lack of faith, not a surplus. [note 1] I have a similar distaste for those who would withdraw from society as an act of faith, but find it less easy to condemn that behavior as a perversion of faith. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon gives me fresh reason to question my distaste for such social separatists.

Chapter XV of Gibbon's work deals with the nature of early Christianity. He notes that during the first century of the common era "the disciples of the Messiah were indulged in a freer latitude both of faith and practice than has ever been allowed in succeeding ages." [note 2] According to Gibbon, the movement split into three major components: those who adhered completely to "Mosaic law," Ebionites; those who completely reject Hebrew tradition and other doctrines, e.g., bodily resurrection, Gnostics; and the less discussed Orthodox.
But whatever difference of opinion might subsist between the Orthodox, the Ebionites, and the Gnostics, concerning the divinity or the obligation of the Mosaic law, they were all equally animated by the same exclusive zeal, and by the same abhorrence for idolatry, which had distinguished the Jews from the other nations of the ancient world.

Gibbon goes on to describe the early Christian experience as one of constant concern over the possibility of cultural interface with the pagans. Pagan ritual was present in everything from wedding ceremonies to the currency. If someone responded to a sneeze with "Jupiter bless you," according to Gibbon, the ancient Christian would be compelled to take the occasion to condemn Jupiter. "Such was the anxious diligence which was required to guard the chastity of the Gospel from the infectious breath of idolatry."

I cringe at the notion of such isolationist behavior and Christians focusing on every trivial custom. It reminds me of the annual War on Tolerance waged by Christianists who are offended by the "Happy Holidays" greeting. But, I reading this passage gives rise to my own anxiety. Is my tolerance, my integration into mainstream society at odds with what it means to be Christian? How much credence should I give the behavior of Christians so shortly after the formation of the Church?

[note 1] For an opposing view see Sam Harris's The End of Faith. A book that intensely frustrated my Sunday morning study group at Chalice Christian Church, but at the same time inspired some amazing conversations about faith.

[note 2] This lines up nicely with Harvey Cox's thesis in The Future of Faith. Cox explains that Christianity went through three phases. First the Age of Faith, which was free of dogma for the first 300-400 years. Then the Age of Belief, which was all about dogma and lasted for 1500 years or so. And finally, we are in the Age of Spirit, which nicely coincides with Cox's youth in the 1960's. Our group was less offended by but more suspicious of Cox's work on Faith as compared to Harris's.