Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mormonism: A Short Historical Write-Up

Mormonism is an American-born religious movement that arose out of the general religious ferment of the American 1800s, which involved much creativity and bucking of religious traditions and a turn to creative, new, yet non-standard interpretations of the Bible and Christian doctrine and a distinct emphasis on prophecy. Out of this general milieu arose groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and, initially as an import, the theological system of Dispensationalism. Out of all the many groups that coalesced during this time, the Mormons have definitely been one of the best organized, fastest-growing, and most influential, both religiously and politically (and increasingly marketing themselves as more and more mainstream, whatever their theological idiosyncrasies, in order to gain broader acceptance and to shake off feelings of discomfort that have been associated with them and their particularities).
One can see Mormonism as, in effect, a combined unity of two religious systems. One system, which is more embodied in the teachings of the Book of Mormon and most closely resembles traditional Christian teachings, is very similar to that of a standard Protestant church and is the form Mormonism took in its earliest days before it took on further developments under Joseph Smith and then under future prophetic leaders. This system is that of the local church, or stake, and involves going to church on Sundays for worship and moral instruction as well as the administration of the rites of baptism and communion, which are involved in granting salvation, which requires repentance in baptism and also faith.
The local church, then, represents a Protestant-like religious system focusing on the earthly life and on the procurement of salvation. Particularly Mormon teachings are not as common as general ethical exhortation and teaching from the Bible and hence this religious system is not, and may not seem to many Mormons who have not gone beyond it, to be really all that different from what other Christians do or believe. Mormon missionaries, in particular, tend to stress this system when evangelizing others, trying to avoid most of the particularities associated with the temple system which I will turn to next, and instead trying to present Mormonism as really just another church but one that has now got some things going for it that others do not (a living prophet, for instance). Focusing on this system, they say things such as that they “believe the same things” or “believe the same gospel” that other Christians do and focus, out of all their writings, on the Book of Mormon which well-represents the Mormon version of this sort of religious system.
As time went on, however, another sort of system was laid on top of the Protestant-like system by Joseph Smith and his successors. The salvation-oriented system of the local stake was but the beginning foundation for a much more glorious system oriented towards the exaltation of Mormons – that is, towards their being made into gods in their right just like the Father himself. Salvation, in this system, is merely one of the prerequisites to gain the chance to get one’s foot in the door. Exaltation is the real goal for the whole Mormon religious structure and the exaltation-oriented structure focused on and in the temple as opposed to the stake is the means for achieving it.
This temple system represents a kind of mystery religion, complete with esoteric knowledge and secret rituals designed to secure through the ritual power unleashed thereby the exaltation of the individuals so involved. Mormons who hope to participate in all of this have to meet certain stringent requirements and perform a number of different rituals at various discrete times in the temple before they can be guaranteed godhood. Mormons who have not been or cannot yet be involved in the temple and its uses of religious power may know little to nothing about it or the theological ideas associated with it, particularly given the secrecy and sacredness associated with the whole system.
To be exalted, Mormons must get married in an eternal marriage in the temple, which means that husband and wife will be able join together as gods and start the whole process of creation-fall-redemption-exaltation again with their own spirit children just as God the Father and his heavenly spouse have done with their own spirit children – a process God the Father himself has undergone in a process of embodiment-exaltation, having himself achieved godhood from a lower state. Creation, fall, and redemption are just part of a continuing process developing spirits from their initial states and into full godhood. This process required embodiment, which inevitably brings sin, which requires redemption, and which thereby provides an initial foundation on which to build and acquire final exaltation. Sin and the Fall, then, in this system were parts of the plan in order to turn spirit-children into gods. Christ was simply one of the spirit-children who volunteered and was chosen to carry out that redemption prior to the plan’s implementation, a very different Christ than the traditional Christian one and ultimately a very different system of religion as well.

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