Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Theology of a Mormon Christian Atheist

A reflection on my faith in God, past and present, and a response to missionaries who try to recruit me to their faith.

Investigating the history of early Christianity did much to reshape completely the way I think about religion (all religion). I began my research believing that the Great Apostasy was historical, that there was a primitive church of Christ identifiable in history whose form was somehow perverted between 30-33 AD and 1820. When I read people like Martin Luther calling for a return to primitive Christianity, I thought they were speaking historically (as I think they often meant to, though neither they nor Joseph Smith ever really separated history from theology as much as moderns do). But the more I learned about early Christianity and the branches of the faith that survived to the present (and those that died), the less my original narrative made any sense. Today, I think the Great Apostasy is just the Mormon version of a widespread early Protestant delusion (that there was a unitary primitive Christian church and that our denomination represents its only or at least its most legitimate successor).

Paradoxically, I find myself agreeing with G. K. Chesterton, who called the Reformation an atheist movement. I see where he was wrong (not all Protestants are atheists), but for me (and many people I know, Mormon and not) he was right. Taking faith away from God (a mystery outside time and space) and putting it in history (specific events that happened or didn’t) and historical things (e.g. the Bible) leads people like me inevitably to atheism (when we read the holy books and the history and discover incoherence and human vanity masquerading as divine certainty all over the place).

I am not against God. I rather think I am for him, insofar as he represents good things about humanity. But when he represents pieces of humanity that I find abhorrent, I cannot support that (e.g. most of the OT, and even many sentiments in the New: the only books that I consistently read with enjoyment are Ecclesiastes, the Gospels, and James). The repeated claim that someone understands God better than someone else I find historically extremely problematic, since it is traditionally advanced in order to make one person subject (in ways that I find immoral) to another. Also, I don’t see the hand of God in history. A Deist god (the Platonic demiurge who sets the world going and then steps back to let it unwind ad libitum) I might admit as a possibility, but the problem of evil appears in my mind too large and glaring to be undone by the reassurance that poor children dying in agony as a result of natural disasters (leaving aside manmade ones for the moment) will be rewarded in another life. Why would a personal, loving God send tsunamis or tse-tse flies to torture small children, too little and ignorant to have done anything to warrant that kind of punishment? I cannot answer, and try as I might I don’t see God providing one in history. (All history provides is theologians telling Job to quit whining and consider that he is an idiot to trust his eyes. I don’t dispute that I am an idiot, or that my eyes can play tricks, but that doesn’t actually make life better--for me or the kids dying out there. I have spent years asking God, “Where is the pavilion covering thy hiding place?” and the only answer I get is that it is everywhere, everywhere and nowhere.)

I will confess too that I prefer models of divinity which make it less powerful (and/or less good), since these seem more like reality to me. I actually like the Mormon god(s) more than some versions of the Abrahamic one (worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims), precisely because he is not (at least not necessarily) all-powerful, all-knowing, and the rest of it.  He is just a being like us, only at some remove. (Maybe he doesn’t send the tsunamis and tse-tse flies. Maybe he would block them if he could.) I like “pagan” gods (who like the universe are sometimes just dicks: Apollo gets mad for no real reason and starts killing people because he can, just like the tse-tse flies). But I also like the idea of God as something ineffable and impossibly remote (the reality outside our limited ability to understand or express): I just don’t see this reality as necessarily kind or cruel. Like the world, it is simply there, giving some of us sunshine and others tsunamis (kind of like Zeus reaching into his two jars and tossing blessings and curses at random on everybody).

The more I have interacted with believers and non-believers in all kinds of different traditions, the less I believe in the utility of “missionary work” (at least as it exists in most traditions historically). There is a place for sharing with others. We can help each other, and we can talk about the thoughts and practices that give our individual lives meaning, but it is presumptive and wrong-headed to insist that others come around to our ways and leave their own (against their will). There is nothing inherently superior in any historical religion, nothing that makes it objectively better for all people everywhere than whatever other religion they happen to be practicing at the moment. There are superior people, people who practice their religion better than other people, but their superiority is not a matter of transferrable doctrine or ritual but something integral to themselves, an expression of their individually outstanding moral character. We can learn from these people. We can respect them. But real learning and respect is not about wearing the clothes they wear, saying the prayers they say, believing the doctrines they believe, etc. It is about cultivating our own moral excellence, looking into the depths of our own spirit and bringing out the best aspects of the humanity that we find there. That humanity is not all-knowing or all-powerful or anything similar. It is weak. It makes mistakes. But it can learn from those mistakes. It can be kind as well as cruel. It can repent. It can find and cultivate all kinds of beauty in the strangest places. I believe in it. I believe in people, even if I find our gods mostly fictions (some more infantile than others, but in the end we are all just children playing in the sand, building castles that the tide washes away the way it always has).


  1. Stunning writing going on here, absolutely love your posts. Just discovered the blog via Mormon expression. It's as if you dialed right into my brain and verbalized the output. Then added a ton of intelligent words, facts, and metaphors to make it all coherent! Haha. I'm going to print out some of your stuff, frame it and hang it on the wall as words to live by. Last time. I felt this way was reading Brothers K.

    1. Wow! That is one of the best compliments I have received, certainly. I am glad you like the blog.