Meridian Magazine’s US Supreme Court Theologian
Who Do They Say That We Are?
David Bentley Hart is a relatively unknown scholar in upward flight, in a theological ascendancy. The reason is that he has a gift of acuity about the facts of how our emerging national religion, atheism and secularity, is undoing America.
Hart’s opinions resonate. He “gets it.” Atheist delusions are unable to maintain our most basic institution’s such as the family, the courts, and the social fabric of cooperation we inherited from our nation’s Founders.
Plugging his books had made sense. I recommended the critique proffered in Hart’s Atheist Delusions, The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.
When Elder Dallin H. Oaks earlier this year urged religious groups to unite to protect the religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, Hart’s Atheist Delusions book came to mind as offering uniting of forces sociologically of entities quite different at the theological level.
Things Change and Now Hart is Not Hart the Scholar but Hart the Anti-Mormon Gossip
Time passed and I read Hart’s next book, which was a tipping point for my enthusiasm for David Bentley Hart, an enthusiasm that dropped sharply, like Citibank’s common stock in the 2008 Wall Street crash. Hart lost his value, in short. Here’s how Hart became an anti-Mormon and hence an anti-Christ.
The tale of Hart’s fall from grace was a saddening discovery that fairly leapt out of Hart’s 2009 book, In the Aftermath, Provocation and Laments. Judge for yourselves. What Hart states therein is:
“Nothing more perfectly fits the classic pattern of gnostic religion . . . than Mormonism.”* (*In the Endnote, to be fair I quote the whole of Hart’s defamation.) My enthusiasm lost is a microcosm of how, when we speak of a coalition of values under the umbrella protection of constitutional religion, any coalition quite quickly faces the need to oppose our culture’s ever-growing Nihilism.
There was a time when Nihilism was “not yet” instead of “already.” Nihilism was a long term potential problem.
Not anymore. Today Nihilism is bad news on our door steps.
But what is Nihilism? And what is Gnosticism? The next section seeks to clarify these diffuse terms.
What Is Nihilism, what is Gnosticism and how are they related? A Brief Primer
First, a look at Nihilism. Nihilism treats nothing as something. It asks us to believe that Nothing (which is just another word for Secularity) “is.” But Nihilism’s is, in fact, “is” not. It is a viewpoint that says traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless. It denies any objective ground of truth, especially moral truths.
Nihilism’s “is” in the unmaking of things at the institutional level. Nihilism has within it the anthrax of a distinctive spiritual sickness, placing great strains on our most fundamental spiritual and social structures, to bring the whole house that was the Founders’ America tumbling down.
Nihilism seeks out where the feelings of our hearts are most sensitive, aiming to break them or to harden them. It searches our vulnerability and our fellow-feeling, and men become lovers of only themselves, despisers of any authority. And Nihilism is –right now– flourishing in our culture as if a wrecking ball. It is hiding behind the much lamented cultural malaise decried by our pundits.
As a people we are unique in the high status we assign to present time. The Swiss thinker Carl Jung asks, “Why are we all in such a hurry? What does it matter, if we do something tomorrow or in a thousand years?” And the choir answers, “Today, today, work with a will . . .” Gnosticism does not have a high status but instead a low status it assigns to present time, for reasons having to do with its anti-Christ view of Creation.
To turn from Nihilism to Gnosticism and the relation between the two, Nihilism derives, in my own view, in part, from the reemergence of Gnosticism.
The core teachings of Gnosticism(s) are, first, a malicious view of the Christian Creator God and, second, an equally malicious disbelief in Christian teachings on the Creation: the Creation in its beginning, middle, and end—intending “end” as the purpose or “telos” of creation as well as Creation’s last things. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines Gnosticism in part this way: “borrowing the phraseology . . . especially of Christianity, [Gnosticism] held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all beings to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter[.]”
The “Unknown God” created –and Gnosticism derisively called the Creator God the “Demiurge”– the world.
References to the world in Scripture are often to the Cosmos, and that is the case here with the world of the Gnostics.
But the Gnostics taught that the entirety of Creation was pure blunder, like Bobby Knight throwing a chair from the bench to center court was pure blunder—times 10 to the 1,000th. The blunder of Creation was caused by the Demiurge, the Creator God, caused because in His vain imagination, the Demiurge identified himself as the only Absolute God. Some young Old Testament scholars believe Isaiah depicts the arrogant god of Gnosticism as bloodthirsty, proud with “the sin of Satan”, saying at Isaiah 45:21: “No god was formed before me, nor will be after me.”
Gnosticism is dualistic. Integrity is not. By dualistic I mean the view that an act committed in the flesh cannot affect the spirit. This is a view that has all but won out amongst young Americans. But dualism is diabolical. What we do to sin in our bodies is sin in our spirits and thus sin in the soul.
How the Gnostics Would Steal Christmas
The Grinch focused on December 25th, a happy day undeniably pagan in its lineage. The Gnostics are after stealing bigger stuff, stealing the real Christmas most Mormon Christian families quietly celebrate, as revealed, the Sixth of April. The garbage views that most Gnostic sects dump on Creation and its Creator God, the Lord –see Nephi 15:11—are a grab to deflate Christ’s birth.
The Incarnation was a great victory’s start for reversing our fallen world. “Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth,” communicates to me how little I know about what in First Nephi is recurrently referred to as “the condescension of God.” One early Christian, Athanasius understood better than I.
What is rotten about the Gnostic defamation is that innocent hearers may infer Hart thereby locates the Mormon Church on the side of Secularity and so on the opposite side of the religious liberty coalition, a terrible irony.
A 90-page book that is an affirmative statement of the Book of Mormon’s teachings is needed, but it should be a statement not in “Mormon-talk.” And independence from BYU and FARMS is a pre-requisite, with all due respect. What might reduce or stop these mistaken ascriptions of Mitt’s and my Mormonism is an independent, academic, theologically conceptualized book translated into what is not Mormon-talk but as the theologians say, “God-talk.”
Escape from Nihilism is through Scripture
The theologians of other faiths need to know that the Book of Mormon restored the doctrines the Lord left with his Apostles, to open up all Scripture. Escape from Nihilism can be from each of these just-enumerated fountains of youth (“of youth” because once internalized through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled by all things being new, which lifts us up and away from pseudo-memories of how past mistakes undid a life, an imaginary life that we punish ourselves we wrecked through sin or getting lost in the crowd).
Our own Spirit-learned scriptural messages rise in the Resurrection as life’s legacies, which the Book of Mormon describes as a source of joy even for the Father. (To be explained in the book I have committed herein to finish.)
Nihilism “is coming to fruition in our present age in a virulently dangerous manner.” The Book of Mormon throws light on past thinkers like Derrida, Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, Descartes (for a critique on Kant see the article in Meridian Magazine, “Korihor at the Supreme Court” which I wrote some months ago), Duns Scotus, Plotinus and Parmenides. These giants of thought must decrease as the Book of Mormon increases.
As Conor Cunningham writes, and I interpret him as looking just around the corner, “nihilism has come to ground [or base] existence not in life . . . . We who are– are no longer the living, but rather the living dead.” See generally his Genealogy of Nihilism.
This dismal judgment is made excepting Mormons who can live, if they will, staying close both to the Lord and the Brethren, with lives of grace abounding because then still spiritually alive in the Light. But there is a colossal stake in religious liberty as America’s cultural basis, because religious liberty can reverse the culture of Nihilism depressing too many of our children. The waters of Nihilism around us have grown, because once again the times are changing.
About my book on the Book of Mormon, the idea of preaching the Gospel in the languages of the Ivy-tongued which so often are used “to make a mock” of the Book of Mormon –resulting in 70% of Americans being uncertain Mormons are Christians—dates to earliest Mormonism.
Mormons are Christians and not Heretics or Gnostics: An Overview
In past articles I have labored to deconstruct false claims of heresy against the Saints– like Hart’s slander that we are Gnostics. What were these false claims? Here’s a quick review.
In past articles, hopefully without being theologically overbearing, I have examined the claim of theologians that Mormons are not Christian because we are Pelagian. In that instance, I simply contrasted the claims of the Book of Mormon against the argumentative slanders (slanders while argumentative do not actually put forward the inductive argument required) that Mormons do not believe in grace. (See “Mormons Are Not Christians—One Reason They Say It,” Meridian on 2011-03-23.)
I have argued against another false claim, that Mormons are not Montanists, which heresy is directed against the private abuse of the Holy Spirit. For that it was necessary to dig and dig to find the most recent, decent, theologically-presented case, which was in 1870.
In opposing this slander, the self-evident silliness of the theologian’s own arguments deconstructed his claim. (See, the Meridian article, “Circa 1870—How a Cambridge Don Viewed the Book of Mormon,” of 2011-03-17.)
The slander before us now is Gnosticism. This is much more serious than the two Christian heresies mentioned, Pelagianism and Montanism, which are still inside the boundaries of Christianity. Gnosticism, however, is much more than mere heresy, being an Anti-Christian religion. Gnosticism is therefore outside the boundaries of Christianity.
For example, in the 2nd century, during the time of primitive Christianity, Gnosticism was an organized religion—barely organized—which one could join.
That is again the case.
Gnosticism as the Anti-Mormon Mormonism
Mormons are not Gnostics, if I can infer anything from his silence, according to perhaps the nation’s best scholar of Gnosticism today, Professor Cyril O’Regan at the University of Notre Dame.
He has noted how Gnosticism, falsely alleged, can hurt the meek, how stigma works as a type of Gnostic scholarship. Stigma practices such as Hart’s follow the lead of Professor Eric Vogelin, who “is arguably, the thinker most responsible for the polemical and pathological use of the term Gnostic with respect to modern discourses. . . . Not denying the sometimes high level of insight and sound judgment with respect to a number of major thinkers, the careless attribution of Gnosticism risks making Gnosticism an element of a demonological discourse,” adds Professor O’Regan.
The stigma of Gnostic-labeling is that:
“Gnosticism and Gnostic are ciphers of decline at best, violation at worst, with classical and/or Christian culture as their favored objects. . . . Although judgments about the overextension of application, and its demonological character, risk being too harsh, such interpretive use suggests more nearly the discourse of prophecy than philosophical analysis.” See Gnostic Return in Modernity at 25 (emphasis supplied).
During the earliest centuries of Christianity, especially after 200 A.D., Gnostic sects invaded the primitive Church, teaching that matter, the Creation, and the Creator-God of the Old Testament are evil. Some of this “gnosis, falsely called” would wound the Christianity of Augustinian or Roman or Western Christianity because of its platonic resonances.
The Book of Mormon, surprisingly, is free from the theological doctrines of Augustinian Christianity. It’s a fair question if the Book’s milieu and talking partners should be the only the churches of the West and not the East. Yet all of Mormon history is in effect one giant dialogue with Augustine, though it knows it not.
Mormons unlike Western Christendom have never felt ambivalent about the goodness of matter, or of the Creation. Like Eastern Orthodoxy, we stress the three over the one in the Godhead or trinity, while Western Christendom stresses the “One” to the disappearance of the three, especially of the Holy Ghost, where the Holy Spirit is brought forward “only to quickly be sent back behind the curtain.”
Much was “lost in translation” as scriptural language became expressed in the philosophical languages of the ancient Mediterranean. To pin down the basic Apostolic teaching, Tertullian’s writings restated summations of what early Christians received from the Apostles. Referred to in the second century as the “Rule of Faith,” it is a Rule of Faith which can be attested through teachings of the Book of Mormon. (There is no trace of Joseph’s exposure to this early Christian document, but quick, somebody call Richard Bushman and ask him.)
Tertullian, for example, explains how the doctrines of the Trinity and the Creation fell victim to the least-common denominator theology of a Church “afflicted” by growth.
On the Trinity. “Now all the simple people are dismayed by the idea of the Trinity (known also as “the idea of economy). For the rule of faith brings them from the polytheism of the world at large to the one and only God. And so they make a to-do about our preaching of two or three gods’, and claim they are worshippers of One God. . . . [T]he distinction of the Trinity is quite clearly displayed [citing Isaiah xlii.I, xlix, 6, lxi. I and Isa. xlv.I, iii.I]. For there is the Spirit . . . the Father . . . [and] the Son.” Tertullian, Adversus Praxean, 2, 3, 11. Elsewhere: “the one divinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit . . . established in three persons.” Tertullian, De Pudicitia, 21.
On the Creation. Here Tertullian aims for compromise. “[H]e creates out of nothing. For even if he made them, as some will have it, out of pre-existent stuff, still it was creation from nothing in this respect, that they were not which they now are.” He rushes on to say in attacking Gnosticism, “In fact his works are as great as they are good.
” Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem, ii, 5-6. Here compromise makes the howling error of rejecting the “pre-existent stuff” to please Tertullian’s congregation, a compromise made because of how hectic his life was with, Tertullian explains, a new church being finished every day.
What Is At Stake?
Hart is on to something when he observes how short-sighted the elites manipulating our national culture are. These elites are too short-sighted to notice that “when Christianity passes away from a culture, nihilism is the inevitable consequence.” The philosopher Nietzsche (‘God is dead’ was his idea) saw as much, predicting that the Irreligion following Christianity would be characterized by such a national weakness of the will, no plan for whatever the next basis of our society could work.
Will American society post-Christianity lack the will to implement or affect any basis for society? Nihilism is a trick for suckers. The choice is the Christian values that have held our social fabric together. But that choice alone still requires wide-spread will power in society.
One expert, the author of A Secular Age, Charles Taylor, timidly suggests society has been held together by “agape,” a New Testament word as noted that is Greek for love, translated as “charity” in the KJV. In common scholarly usage, using the Greek “agape” is “almost uniformly,” Yale’s Gene Outka notes,” the referent for any alleged distinctiveness in Christian love”. The love of God or agape takes its meaning from the narratives of scripture.
In the Book of Mormon, the love of God is, for example, set forth in the Book of Ether right after the Lord explains that His “grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me, for if they humble themselves before me I will make weak things become strong unto them.” (Punctuation and parenthetical phrase altered).
“The original Christian notion of agape,” states Charles Taylor, “is of a love God has for humans which is concerned with their goodness as creatures. Human beings participate through grace in this love. There is a divine affirmation of the creature.” Says Outka: “[A]gape involves permanent stability. The loyalty enjoined is indefectible; neither partial nor fluctuating. Whatever a person does in particular never in itself qualifies or disqualifies her from such attention and care.”
Moroni in chapter eight and Matthew in chapter 22 as well as the Old Testament concepts of “chesed”, or God’s steadfast loving kindness, all make clear agape is a predicate of God known through his self-revelation.
Secularism defines reality or institutions as bearing no relation to deity or religion, and its substitutes or surrogates of agape are defective, according to Taylor. This is a problem that is just beginning to manifest itself in America the Secular. Is Taylor saying that secularity requires agape and grace in order to succeed? Therefore the Nihilism of Secularity can only succeed in self-contradiction by relying on expressly religious values which it condemns, and religious liberty going forward must settle as one option in a Nihilist culture. Otherwise, the values of justice and benevolence promoted by Secularism fail.
But this is stretching the will power religious agape is supposed to afford Nihilism to an absurd length. Why? Nihilism kills the religion of our youth. Unless we are missionaries to our secular children who are out in a Nihilistic culture all day, and vigilant that we don’t make Nihilism and Secularity are own comfort zone even in Church.
Just Read The Book of Mormon!
While the Book of Mormon is also whole-heartedly pro-Semitic, for Bloom “the Book of Mormon, more even than the King James Bible, exists in more unread copies than any other work [.]”
Bloom’s ignorance of the Book of Mormon is part of his genius; Yale has more or less licensed him to be irresponsible. But Professor Bloom’s choice not to pick up the Book and read is also a loss to his gift, in at least two ways.
First, the Book of Mormon has a “high doctrine” of the theology of angels, one of Bloom’s interests in his book for 1996, Omens of Millennium, a book in which Bloom is much less offensive to me and you (see, e.g., pp. 40 – 46.) Second, among Christian scripture, the Book of Mormon stands out unambiguously as the most pro- and not anti-Semitic volume.
As 2 Nephi 29:4-5 asks, “And what thank they (the Gentiles) the Jews for the Bible they receive from them? Do they remember the travels, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation to the Gentiles? O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them [.]”
3 Nephi 29:8 then adding in 1830, long before the death camps of World War II, “Ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of Israel [.]”
Gnostic Return in Modernity
These ancient beliefs have been given fresh life today largely through Secular America’s fascination with New Age spirituality, which is apparently emptying traditional Christian Churches to the extent alarms have sounded, especially to Protestant theologians. If a church is empty, blame the Mormons, which is only stigmatizing rhetoric.
Far from feeling trapped in an evil because material universe, we revere the Old Testament and feel awe at the Creation, “yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea and its motion, yea and also all the planets which move in their regular form,” as Alma summed up Mormon theology’s first natural theology. Alma 30:44.
How Heresy Works in the Present Age to the Disadvantage of the Mormon Church
What is a heresy?
In the case of the two that continue to be applied to us with any bite, the heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism, a heresy is not as we imagine it. Church members misunderstand heresy as what happens when our beliefs are rashly deemed to fail to conform to Christian mainline beliefs.
Those views leaves out the social power that accompanies labeling. 70% of Americans doubt our bona fides as Christians. How our secular society works to create the social knowledge that packs a punch goes to the nature of expert power.
To simplify how such social knowledge functions, the first point to keep in mind is that within Christendom a heresy is generally considered –and accurately so– as a doctrine of far-reaching technical complexity that only theologian-to-theologian can understand.
Creation and deconstruction of heresy as a label occurs within a guild of trained theologians. Once created and the heresy label sticks, it creates what Charles Taylor calls “the background picture of our spiritual nature and predicament which lies behind some of moral and spiritual intuitions of our contemporaries.” We have ignored “this dimension of moral consciousness and beliefs altogether.”
This “background picture” is why I keep harping on what the U.S. Supreme Court has done, which is to give America a background picture of Irreligion just as trained expert theologians have given Americans a background picture of Mormons as non-Christian heretics,
The second point is that theologians unfairly disqualify themselves as students of the Book of Mormon because it is widely believed that only a practicing Mormon can fully understand the book, which is too often just a nice way in “theology-speak” that reading the Book of Mormon will be a theologian’s waste of time.
German theologies for years have subjected the Old Testament to a similar obtuseness—remember the Book of Mormon’s exhortation of gratitude toward the Jews. Yet in the 20th century German theology, ignorance and criticism of the Hebrew Bible have been blatant anti-Semitism in the work of many theologians.
The study of these two heresies, because they really are the business of serious theologians who do not read the Book of Mormon, become expertised into a background picture. The general lack of independent, accredited Mormon theologians for decades now has left the Church unequipped to correct bad academic theology, which means a loss by default to the unopposed erroneous work of other Church’s theologians. As expertised social knowledge trickles down to our Christian neighbors, our neighbors –or voters– in their busy lives have no time for independent verification.
On How Subtly Influential “Background Assumptions” Can Be
What is created is a backdrop or background structure of plausibility that Mormons are not Christians.
Our testimonies are given against a backdrop of rumored heresy, and given the foibles of human nature; “first in time” in this case can all too easily trump apostolic witness sharing. A person’s pre-existent backdrop or background beliefs act to frame their interpretations of what is said to them, even testimonies, especially afterwards.
In a way, the fight against the Secular is a fight against what is our society’s dominant backdrop—Irreligion or Faith.
Conclusion: “Who Do They Say That We Are?
The Lord asks his disciples the question, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
“So they said, “Some say John the Baptist; some Elijah; and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son the Living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16.)
“Who do they say that we are?”
Some say Pelagian heretics (see 1, below). Some say Montanists heretics (see 2, below).
Others say we are pagan Gnostics, which is explored in this column.
With all this heresy practically tagged on the overpasses of freeways, and often with equal intellectual finesse as “tagging”, what does the average American say that we are? Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints perceived as a Christian Church?
No, Mormon theology to 70% of Americans say we are not a Church of Christians, ignorant that a Mormon testifies with Simon Peter that Jesus the Christ, the Son the Living God.”
Utah before acquiring statehood tried alternatives. It was, it turned out, not lobbying elected officials that did the trick. The uncertainty whether Mormons are Christians is the result of trying different public communications.
The constant in these differing answers that we are heretics has a simple explanation. Pastors and priests in Christian churches are trained in their divinity schools to rely on the Ph.D. theological leaning of “in-church” experts in theology, theologians whose Ph.D. scholarship is much deeper than the Master of Divinity degree awarded from a divinity school. Speaking the truths of the Book of Mormon in “Ph.D. Religious Studies and Theology talk” has not yet been done much, getting screened out if seen as not independent scholarship. As it took the press to pull the lever in statehood, independent Mormon theological talk is the public communications lever to adjust image to reality in theology. “Christ, the Son the Living God” is the Christian theology Mormonism must translate into academic Christian theology.
An announcement here for a book may feel tacky on so many levels it produces feelings of repugnance. Better, I would humbly ask, to wait and see.
On balance, unequipped Christian Theologians are our basic problem.
A book on the Christian theology of the Book of Mormon is inevitable.
“How so?” This book is inevitable because, as the social power of the Church rises, demand for independent Mormons’ scholarship does also.
Hart’s full sentence at issue in this column states in relevant detail: “as Bloom notes, nothing more perfectly fits the classic pattern of gnostic religion – fabulous mythologies, jealously guarded cryptadia, a collapse of the distinction between the divine and the human – than Mormonism[,]” at page 50 of Hart’s 2009 , In the Aftermath, taken from an article Hart wrote in 2004.
(c) 2011 Ashby D Boyle II