*For those unfamiliar with the term "postmodernism," it is a philosophy
that seeks to undermine the classical and Enlightenment precepts of
truth, reason, objectivity, etc. I hope you better understand it as I
define it contextually throughout my paper.
In recent years, postmodernism has been a curious and some would add
uncomfortable bedfellow with Mormonism. This paper will explore
postmodernism’s implications for and relevance to the LDS Church and
For most Mormons, postmodernism’s relationship to their faith is either
incidental or unobvious. So note that whatever parallels between
postmodernism and Mormonism I discuss in this paper are parallels found
by people like myself—that is, people interested in finding such
parallels. Were Mormons to casually read postmodernist works, I doubt
they would see their religious beliefs present in those philosophies.
Whatever points of intersection exist just go unnoticed by the majority
of Mormons. This is partly because, as James Faulconer, a philosopher
professor at Brigham Young University, argues, Mormons are
"atheological." They do not busy themselves with theologizing. They do
not understand their beliefs and actions within the context of any
rational or coherent theology. Professor Faulconer gives several
reasons for this.
First, this disinterest in theology has its origins in the early LDS
Church. Catholicism inherited the classical, holistic philosophies of
ancient Greece—philosophies that extol reason and truth. Consequently,
Catholicism is a religion with a rational theology. But Mormonism and
its beliefs took root in a very different socio-philosophical soil. As
was typical of many in the Jacksonian Era of American history, Joseph
Smith disdained intellectualism, of which theologians are often
indicted. Smith hailed from a poor farming community, where a formal
education was a privilege few could enjoy, and that fact may have bred
Smith’s anti-creedal views may have also contributed to a “continuing
LDS suspicion of theology.” Smith taught that God’s true gospel had
been shackled by “cast-iron creeds” that didn’t allow for revelation.
From this, one can see how Mormons find rational theology too
restrictive for the same reason.
This leads me to the second reason why Mormons are “atheological”:
revelation. With revelation, any theology runs the risk of being
rendered irrelevant. Consider polygamy. Early church leaders
theologized about the centrality of polygamy to Mormonism, but these
theologies had to be abandoned as polygamy was discontinued by the
mainstream LDS Church in 1890.
The third, and final, reason is that Mormons are more concerned with
orthopraxy (right practice) than orthodoxy (right belief). Faulconer
explains: “The gospel is a divine activity, the saving activity of
God…To be a believer is to accept the gospel: it is to believe that God
can save, but not merely to believe…To be a believer is to respond to
God’s saving activity with repentance and in rebirth and with tokens
that testify of God’s saving power."
Mormons identify as a people—as a distinct ethnic group, even. They
revel in their peculiarity, but without fully understanding those
beliefs that make them peculiar. The lived Mormon experience, then, is
less about assenting to any given doctrine and more about the community
and culture of Mormonism.
Faulconer personally shares in his church’s suspicion of theology.
“Rational theology,” he writes, “presumes that the theologian can
intellectually dominate the religion of which he or she speaks.
However, if to be religious means to be mastered, awed, by something,
then neither religion nor that to which religion is a response can be
something over which one has mastery. The conflict between religion and
rational theology is the conflict between the willingness to submit and
the desire to master."
Ironically, it’s this atheological sentiment—the very sentiment that
inhibits Mormons from drawing parallels between their faith and
postmodernism—that is itself a parallel between the two! Mormons are in
good company among postmodernist thinkers when it comes to theology.
Soren Kierkegaard, who some contend is the father of postmodernism,
felt that rational theology was a fundamentally unchristian enterprise.
"Woe to the person who could make the miracles reasonable…Woe to the
person who betrayed and broke the mystery of the faith [and] distorted
it into public wisdom…Woe to all those unfaithful stewards who sat down
and wrote false proofs…O, the learning and acumen tragically wasted…in
this enormous work of defending Christianity!"
Kierkegaard believed that the power of Christianity was in its power to
offend. To defend Christianity, then, was to rob it of its radical
nature. Jesus said, “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword”
(Matthew 10:34). Rational theology, or any attempt to make sense of
Christianity, dulls that sword.
French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion went so far as to call theology
“dangerous.” “Theology,” Marion said, “always writes starting from an
other than itself. It diverts the author from himself…It causes him to
write outside of himself, even against himself, since he must write not
of what he is, on what he knows, in view of what he wants, but in, for,
and by that which he receives and in no case masters.” In other words,
theologians speak in the stead of the sacred, when they are wholly
unworthy to do so. Thus theology makes hypocrites of its practitioners.
“One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology,” Marion wrote.
Jacques Derrida, another French postmodern thinker, argued that most
theology is weighed down with metaphysical baggage. The only good
theology, on Derrida’s view, is a weak or negative theology—a theology
that describes the divine by what it’s not. Positive theology, in
contrast, is inherently violent. It attempts to define the divine,
which is to limit it. In fact, the Latin etymology of the word “define”
literally means “to bind or limit completely.” Derrida wants religion
without religion—divorced from all “tradition, authority, orthodoxy,
rule, or doctrine."
All these concerns notwithstanding, some Mormons still succumb to the
temptation of theology. One prominent Mormon theologian is Daniel
Wotherspoon. In his doctoral dissertation Awakening Joseph Smith:
Mormon Resources for a Post-Modern Worldview, Wotherspoon suggests that
Mormonism offers unique answers to the difficulties raised by both
modernism and its unraveling. And insofar as Wotherspoon’s work is a
response to modernism, his theology may be considered postmodern.
Arguably the most readily apparent parallel between postmodernism and
Mormonism is the LDS emphasis on personal, spiritual experiences as a
source of knowledge. Wotherspoon thinks that a major failing of
modernism has been its inability to provide an epistemology that
guarantees the existence of the real world outside of the mind. Most
modern epistemologies rely on sense-perceptions, which are faulty and
cannot sidestep our minds as they are received through them.
The Mormon response that Wotherspoon offers is a rejection of
empiricism. He instead affirms what constructive postmodern theologians
like David Ray Griffin call “direct, non-sensory perception.” This is
where God circumvents the five senses to communicate—via personal
revelation and spiritual experiences—with people at a deeper level.
Mormon philosopher Blake Ostler similarly advocates personal revelation
and spiritual experiences as the basis for an LDS epistemology. The
validity of this epistemology has to be dogmatically asserted—it is
something that neither can nor should be defended rationally. Ostler
explained this before an audience of Mormon intellectuals and
apologists at the 2007 FAIR Conference:
"I will not give some argument or evidence to try to persuade you or
anybody else that your spiritual experiences are valid and trustworthy.
If I were to attempt to argue with you to prove that to you, I would
only show and prove (quite conclusively) that I believe that in reality
there is something more basic and trustworthy than spiritual
experiences; that is, the arguments I would give you."
Here, with this anti-modern, irrational epistemology, is where
postmodernism most resonates with lay Mormons. In my conversations with
Mormons, these personal, spiritual experiences are what they most often
cite as the anchor of their testimony. Even, if not especially, when
confronted with evidence against their faith, most Mormons fall back on
their spiritual experiences.
Wotherspoon also includes in his dissertation a discussion about the
nature of God. He believes that the traditional notions of God are
untenable, especially in light of the problem of evil. Wotherspoon
agrees with skeptics that a perfectly good and all-powerful deity would
not permit the evil that we witness in the world. His solution to the
problem of evil is to deny God’s omnipotence. So while God sincerely
wants to eradicate every evil, he is unable to. In this understanding
of Mormonism, God’s power is limited in two ways. First, God must be
able to progress, which is an important activity in the Mormon
afterlife. Were God perfect in his power, there would be no room for
growth. And second, God is limited by the freedom and autonomy that
inhere not in him, but the universe at large. This concept is best
explained by the Mormon account of creation.
Genesis 1:1 reads: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the
earth.” The word “created” in this verse comes from the Hebrew word
“baurau,” which Joseph Smith translated as “organized.” This new
(albeit suspect) translation is of profound theological import to
Mormonism. It means that God did not create the universe ex nihilo (out
of nothing), but instead organized the universe from eternally
pre-existent matter—or what Smith termed “intelligences.”
Here, I think the philosophy of Martin Heidegger holds some insights by
which we can appreciate the Mormon account of creation. In The Question
Concerning Technology, Heidegger writes that man’s relationship with
technology has yielded our understanding of everything as a potential
resource to be exploited. Heidegger calls this “technological
thinking.” One way in which “technological thinking” manifests itself
is in our making unreasonable demands of and claims to nature—a sort of
“challenging-forth.” Heidegger gives the example of a hydroelectric
plant imposing on a river. But in my opinion, the traditional Christian
account of creation provides a more egregious example of a
The Christian God creates ex nihilo. In other words, he demands
somethingness from nothingness. Could there be any less reasonable a
demand than that? On the classical view, something cannot come from
nothing. So to create ex nihilo is to challenge-forth from nothing that
which is most against its nature.
The Mormon creation, however, better resembles the harmony between God
and the universe that Heidegger sought. Again, the Mormon God is not a
creator, but an organizer; he existed alongside intelligences.
Wotherspoon postulates that these intelligences were refined spiritual
matter that made up the universe and were the precursors to human
In organizing these intelligences into the universe, God did not simply
dictate that this intelligence become a planet and that intelligence a
person. No, each intelligence possessed an inviolable autonomy and had
to be persuaded by God. Just as Mormons believe we elected to follow
God’s Plan of Salvation in the pre-existence, some Mormons like
Wotherspoon believe that each particle freely participated in the
organization of the universe. This persuasive power of the Mormon God
ought to be preferable over the coercive, creative power of the
Christian God to those with Heideggarean sympathies.
Wotherspoon also believes that Mormonism can better ward of the
postmodern threats of nihilism and relativism than can either Christian
or secular humanism. Mormonism affirms the intrinsic value of all
things by asserting that all things—in some form—are “enduring
entities” that always existed alongside God, and differ from God in
only degree, not kind. All things exist on a continuum, along which
they can progress (some even to godhood!). “Such a view,” Wotherspoon
wrote, “is capable of inspiring many more people, because of the way it
lends momentum to the idea that each moment in an element’s life makes
a concrete difference in its capacity for experiencing joy or growth."
I read shades of Kierkegaard in the Mormon doctrine of eternal growth
and exaltation. For Kierkegaard, an important criterion for love is
equality. One way in which Kierkegaard believes that Christianity
embodies this idea of equal love is in God descending to man, incarnate
in Jesus. Mormonism, by the same reasoning, also embodies an equal
love. Because in Mormonism, not only did God (well, a God: Jehovah)
descend to man, but he also provided a way for man to be elevated to
godhood. This is the truest kind of love, one could argue from
Kierkegaard, because it’s a love that shares.
I’m going to depart from Wotherspoon’s work to propose that this same
doctrine of exaltation is a proto-Nietzschean vehicle for the will to
power. Consider German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche’s critique of
Christianity. In Beyond Good and Evil and elsewhere, Nietzsche bemoans
what he calls the “slave morality” of Christianity. The Christian ethic
makes a virtue out of vices like charity, humility, and meekness. And
Nietzsche’s view of the Christian heaven as a pitiable existence, where
adherents spend an eternity groveling before their Creator, only
further offends Nietzsche. “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be
praised all the time,” Nietzsche once wrote.
But Mormonism is, I’d argue, an anthropocentric religion as opposed to
a theocentric one. Put more simply, Mormonism is more concerned with
man than God. This fact may mitigate some of the aforementioned
criticisms that Nietzsche had of Christianity. That Mormonism is
primarily for man will likely be heard as heresy to Mormons, but I
think LDS scripture is squarely on my side. 2 Nephi 2:25 reads: “…men
are, that they might have joy.” And in the Pearl of Great Price, it
explicitly says that God’s work and glory is “to bring to pass the
immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
Mormons subscribe to the same “slave morality” that Nietzsche derided
in Christianity, but the payoff for Mormons is potential godhood.
Instead of worshiping God in the afterlife, you can become one! To be
clear, Nietzche’s idea of the übermensch (the ideal man) is not
supposed to be distracted from this world with promises of other
worlds, but I have to imagine that Nietzsche would nonetheless find the
LDS afterlife rather enticing.
Now admittedly, some of the above parallels between postmodernism and
Mormonism are a bit strained and contrived. Indeed, there are more
dissimilarities than similarities between the two ideologies.
The totality of Nietzsche’s philosophy, for instance, is diametrically
opposed to Mormonism in particular and religion in general. That hardly
And while there may be something Kierkegaardian about God wanting to
exalt man to godhood, Kierkegaard could still accuse the Mormon God of
“self-love.” We are, after all, made in the literal, physical image of
God according to Mormonism. God extends his likeness and (potentially)
godliness to us only in order that he may be reflected in the object of
his own love. Moreover, the equality of which Kierkegaard spoke as a
requisite for love is not the blurring of distinctions. Christian love,
pure love, acknowledges distinctions and loves despite them.
Derrida and Marion, too, would be extraordinarily critical of many
Mormon doctrines. Again, Derrida sought to have religion without
“tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine." What is
Mormonism, though, without these things? And Marion would find the
nature of the Mormon God objectionable. Marion seems to believe that
existence itself is an unfair limitation on God—God must be “beyond
being.” He would doubtless cringe, then, at the corporeality of the
More generally, Mormons place a high premium on free will—it’s
essential to their doctrine. Free will, though, is widely considered an
illusion by postmodern thinkers. The self is simply a social
construction—a mere reification of the first-person pronoun “I.”
So why, if these parallels are neither that striking nor recognized by
most Mormons as parallels, do they merit mentioning in this paper? It’s
not the parallels between postmodernism and Mormonism that I find so
compelling; it’s that a sizable minority of Mormons have been drawing
such parallels and appropriating (often misappropriating) postmodernism
in the service of their faith. Nowhere is this more evident than with
Over the past twenty-five years, there has been a dramatic rise in the
volume and sophistication of Mormon apologetics. This rise has been
especially pronounced in just the last decade or so. The Foundation for
Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), the foremost Mormon
apologetic outfit, became an official entity of Brigham Young
University and now enjoys church funding. Websites like FAIRLDS,
SHIELDS, Mormon Fortress, and others have also helped to popularize and
make accessible LDS apologetics.
John-Charles Duffy, a young religious studies scholar at Chapel Hill in
North Carolina, argues in a recent Dialogue article that postmodernism
has been incredibly influential in Mormon apologetics and helps account
for its ascendancy. To see why, one must know the history of Mormon
Duffy identifies two dominant schools of thought in Mormon scholarship
today: the “new Mormon history” and “faithful history.” The new Mormon
history began in the late 1960s, and purports to be a more objective,
less sectarian reporting of the LDS Church’s history. This new approach
to church history broke with the traditional approaches in that it
neither shied away from sensitive topics nor suppressed controversial
The second school of thought in Mormon scholarship is “faithful
history.” This “faithful history” was a response to and rejection of
“the new Mormon history.” Scholars in this camp are orthodox Mormons,
who believe all histories of Mormonism should be sympathetic and
faith-promoting. In other words, Mormons should be engaged in
apologetics, not academically rigorous histories.
The tensions between postmodern and modern thought exist in many
religions. In Christianity, there is a debate between Protestant
fundamentalists and liberals over Biblical inerrancy. Protestant
fundamentalists are often considered anti-science, but where it
concerns the Bible, they are wedded to the modern concepts of
“objective knowledge” and “truth.” Liberal Protestants, however, have a
more postmodern, metaphorical reading of the Bible. Mormonism is having
a similar dialogue about the Book of Mormon historicity and other
issues, but the roles are reversed. As Duffy notes, it’s the
conservative, orthodox scholars that advance postmodernism against the
more liberal scholars of the new Mormon history, who want a
dispassionate approach to the LDS Church.
The success of the faithful history came with the demise of the new
Mormon history during the 1980s and ‘90s. Louis Midgley and David E.
Bohn, retired BYU political science professors and contributors to
FARMS, were among the earliest and most dogged detractors of the New
Mormon history. Midgley and Bohn employed a postmodern critique against
the approach. In particular, they argued that any attempt at an
objective Mormon history is futile, because all claims originate in an
ideology and are “inescapably mediated by language and culture." And
since there is no objective or a priori means by which determine the
truth or falsity of an ideology, all perspectives are valid. This
philosophy resembles Nietzsche’s perspectivism, which says that we can
only know things from our individual perspectives. Midgley and Bohn
therefore urged all Mormon scholars to study from their religious
perspectives and give up their pretenses of neutrality.
Bohn accused reputable Mormon scholars like Leonard Arrington and
Lawrence Foster of excluding “non-scientific testimony of the role of
God” in Mormon history. Midgley was less diplomatic and boldly indicted
such historians of treason against the faith for not actively affirming
Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims. These attacks proved devastating to
the new Mormon history.
So-called “faithful historians” like Midgley and Bohn gained an
audience with LDS church leaders. Church leaders were concerned that
the new Mormon history scholars were flirting with apostasy by
publishing what was at times unflattering research about Mormonism.
Apostle Boyd K. Packer conveyed these concerns to BYU educators in an
address he gave in 1981 titled “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the
Intellect.” “There is a temptation,” Packer said, “for the writer or
the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is
worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not
very useful.” He also warned that some scholars’ “posture of
detachment” was “giving equal time to the adversary."
Later, in 1991, the First Presidency released an official statement
cautioning members from reading histories or attending research
symposia that were not approved by the LDS Church. And throughout the
‘90s, the church was quick to discipline scholars who challenged the
traditional LDS narrative. These actions had a chilling effect on all
research into Mormonism that wasn’t expressly apologetic. Mormon
scholarship is only now beginning to rebound.
So postmodernism was the bludgeon with which Mormon apologists beat
down the new Mormon history. And apologists continue to use postmodern
perspectivism to deflect criticisms of the LDS Church.
There is another way that Mormon apologists employ postmodernism. Duffy
writes that apologists use perspectivist language “as the primary
rhetorical resource for those who hope to win credibility for faithful
scholarship within the academic mainstream." They play on academia’s
postmodern sympathies in order that their faithful perspective will get
offered at or respected by universities other than, say, Brigham Young
University. Again, their argument is that all perspectives are valid
given postmodernism, so on what grounds can a faithful LDS perspective
be excluded? LDS literary critic Michael Austin wants to see Mormonism
counted among other minority histories. Austin believes that Mormons
are hyphenated Americans, like African-Americans or Italian-Americans.
He even coined the term “Mormo-American."
Such appeals to academia’s tolerance of differing perspectives haven’t
been successful. And noted Mormon historian Richard Bushman is somewhat
relieved that they haven’t. “Wouldn’t we prefer,” Bushman asked, “to be
taken seriously enough to be directly opposed rather than condescended
As it was for Mormon teachings, postmodernism is a double-edged sword
for Mormon apologetics. Many professors at the very conservative BYU do
not want to see their school become a bastion of postmodern thought.
English professor Richard Cracroft fears that postmodernism will
invariably bring with it “the creeds of secularism,” which include
“immoralism, atheism, nihilism, negativism, perversity, rebelliousness,
doubt, disbelief, and disorder."
What’s more, it seems that orthodox Mormon apologists have yet to
internalize the very postmodern philosophies that they use against
their critics. On the one hand, the Mormon apologist dismisses truth as
a fiction as per postmodernism. But on the other, they affirm that the
LDS Church is “the one and only true Church.” These two sentiments
cannot easily be reconciled. If the apologists were to fully adopt the
philosophies they exploit, then postmodern Mormon apologetics would be
a self-cannibalizing project. The orthodox scholars would have to
surrender their claims to knowledge and objective, religious truth.
It will be interesting to see, then, whether postmodernism will keep
its privileged role among Mormon intellectuals for much longer. I
suspect it won’t. Postmodernism was not a philosophical commitment for
apologists, but a novel convenience.
Already, Mormon scholarship seems to be trending back toward a new “new
Mormon history.” In Duffy’s words: “…faithful scholars must capitulate
to secular ground rules more than they might prefer as the price for
participating in the academic mainstream, postmodern challenges to the
*Another amateurish foray into the study of Mormonism.
Mormonism is a religion colored by complexities and contradictions. The
prolific Mormon essayist Eugene England called the Mormon experience
“essentially, as well as existentially, paradoxical.” LDS author Terryl
Givens agrees, echoing England’s sentiment in his recent book, People
“By proving contraries, truth is made manifest,” said Joseph Smith, the
founding prophet of the LDS Church. Informed by Smith’s statement, I
will discuss Mormonism’s contraries in the hope of explaining the
My method in this paper will follow the seven Cs of religious studies:
creed, code, cultus, community, culture, confines, and consciousness.
In each of these seven characteristics exist tensions that help define
One of the most important aspects of a religion is its creed—its set of
core beliefs. The Mormon “creed,” as it were, can be found in the
Articles of Faith. Joseph Smith penned a letter to the inquiring John
Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, articulating 13 fundamental
doctrines of Mormonism. The letter was later canonized as the Articles
The primary articles affirm the church’s belief in: God, Christ, and
the Holy Ghost; free moral agency and accountability for one’s actions;
the salvation of man through the Atonement and “by obedience to the
laws and ordinances (faith, repentance, baptism by immersion, and the
laying on of hands) of the Gospel; the Bible “as far as it is
translated correctly” and the Book of Mormon as scripture; continuing
revelation; and the Restoration of the Primitive Church.
The Articles of Faith, though, only sketch Mormon beliefs. They omit
many important teachings. We must also look to other canonical sources,
like the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of
The Book of Mormon purports to be a translation by Joseph Smith of an
ancient American document· According to LDS lore, Smith recovered
buried gold plates from a hill near his house and translated it by the
power of God. The plates relate the history of a group of Hebrews who
migrated from Jerusalem to America.
Mormons call the Book of Mormon the “most correct book of any on earth”
and the “keystone” of their religion. The Book of Mormon enjoys this
privileged position among Mormons because not only is it a test of
Joseph Smith’s prophetic abilities, but it also contains uniquely
Mormon teachings. For example, the Book of Mormon makes the radical
claim that Jesus visited the Americas after his Resurrection and spread
the Gospel to ancient peoples there. Another LDS doctrine that
originates from the Book of Mormon is that “Adam fell that men might
be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne 2:25). The Fall, then,
is something Mormons rejoice in rather than lament. This teaching is
anathema to much of the Christian community.
But the Book of Mormon, too, is silent on a host of fundamental Mormon
doctrines. The majority of distinctly LDS teachings are found in the
Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, including polygamy
and the exaltation of man (D&C 132), baptism for the dead (D&C
88:101), the plurality of gods (Abraham 4:1), and many more.
Mormon doctrine does not end with these works of scripture, however. A
core tenet of Mormonism is that revelation is progressive and ongoing.
God speaks through a living, modern-day prophet who—in his capacity as
the “Lord’s mouthpiece”—can add to or amend church doctrines.
Revelation is the mechanism by which the church was able to survive
doctrinal changes concerning polygamy and the black priesthood ban, for
There are, I’m convinced, contradictions within and among all these
books. The Book of Mormon, for instance, is explicitly monotheistic
(Alma 11:26-29). In later works of scripture, however, a plurality of
gods is taught (Abraham 4:27, D&C 132:37).
The Book of Mormon also seems to endorse a fairly traditional
conception of the Trinity—that God the Father and Jesus Christ are one
being. “Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the
Son,”declares God (Ether 3:14). This is at obvious variance with the
LDS Godhead, where these personages are wholly separate beings (D&C
130:22). These are but a couple examples.
The apparent textual contradictions among LDS canon are the birthing
pains of a new theology. Joseph Smith had the difficult task of
formulating the early church’s beliefs. Over his life, it seems, he
changed his mind on key theological issues. The contradictions above
suggest that Mormonism in its infancy was monotheistic and Trinitarian.
But come Nauvoo, Smith was espousing a new Mormonism. Perhaps this just
underscores the importance of revelatory reform. Mormonism has the
luxury to evolve, as per progressive revelation from the Prophet.
There is another tension aside from canonical contradictions—one
Mormons are more likely to confront: the perception of a widening
“sacred distance” between man and God. In biblical times, it seemed
that God was omnipresent. He was always manifest in the world, and his
dealings with man were overt. In the Garden of Eden, God walked amidst
man (Genesis 3:8-10). He even fought alongside them in battle, as was
the case with the Israelites (Judges 1:19). But in the centuries
following Christ’s ascendance to Heaven, a period known by Mormons as
“the Great Apostasy,” God has kept hidden and man has felt very alone.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the subsequent restoration of the
Gospel collapsed this “sacred distance” or “divine hiddenness.” As
Prophet, Smith announced revelation after revelation. He also promised
his members the ability to receive personal revelation. This was proof
that God was again intimately involved in our lives. Now certainly,
Mormons today still believe this. At the same time, however, it is hard
not to notice that revelations (in both gravity and frequency) have
declined in the modern era. There are exceptions—the lifting of the
black priesthood ban in 1978 comes to mind. But generally speaking,
what important radical pronouncements has the church made lately? I
think some Mormons long to be back on the theological frontlines—I know
The LDS Church is widely known for its strict moral codes. Non-Mormons
often see the church’s prohibitions as weird or draconian. Others agree
with LDS values and commend Mormons for living them.
In D&C 89, God revealed to Smith what is commonly referred to as
the “Word of Wisdom.” The Word of Wisdom presents a dietary code for
Mormons. It stipulates that alcohol and other “strong drinks” should
not be ingested. The revelation also strongly advises against tobacco
and “hot drinks”—a prohibition that has clarified to include drinks
like coffee and tea. The Word of Wisdom promises all those who heed its
advice “health in their navel and marrow to their bones,” wisdom,
physical endurance, and that “the destroying angel shall pass by
them…and not slay them” (D&C 89:18-21).
The second (and more important) code established by the LDS Church is
the Law of Chastity. In the Endowment ceremony, participants swear to
obey the law so as to guarantee marital fidelity. The Law of Chastity
extends far beyond the Endowment ceremony, however. All members of the
church are bound to it. The Law of Chastity not only forbids marital
infidelity, but homosexual behavior, masturbation, and pornography as
well. Impure thoughts that may lead to said offenses are also
The consequences for disobeying the Law of Chastity are serious. In
Mormonism, sexual impurity is the second greatest evil next to murder
(Alma 39:5). Deviance from the law results in revocation of a temple
recommend and other forms of church discipline, relative to the
severity of the offense.
It is argued that the sexual repression caused by the Law of Chastity
contributes to the brief courtships and early marriages. My parents met
at a BYU dance and got engaged two weeks later! My parents recently
confessed to me that one impetus for the hasty engagement was their
wanting to be physically intimate, but within the bonds of marriage.
That is anecdotal and unrepresentative of most Mormons of course, but
it is true that Utahns marry youngest in our country.
Many Christians are sympathetic to and share LDS values, but
nonetheless convict the LDS Church of “legalism”--that is, an
over-emphasis on codes of conduct. This criticism also alludes to a
larger theological debate concerning the saving power of works versus
The debate over works and faith is most pronounced when discussing LDS
rituals (cultus). “Saving ordinances” are those rituals in Mormonism
that are required for exaltation. These include baptism, confirmation
and the reception of the Holy Ghost, and certain temple rituals such as
the endowment and marriage.
The temple is one of the most visible manifestations of Mormonism. Over
120 LDS temples are operating worldwide, with many more in either under
construction or planning. Mormons give a lot of import to their temples
and the rituals practiced therein. Much of the temple work is concerned
with the family and its continuance in the hereafter. Marriage
partners, for examples, are not joined “’til death do us part,” but
instead for “time and all eternity.” Their relationship with their
children, too, is eternal (provided the children live worthily).
The ordinances performed in the temple are also extended to the dead.
Through living proxies, baptismal rites, sealings, and endowments can
be performed on the deceased’s behalf. The dead are free to accept or
decline these ordinances in the spirit world. A lot of misunderstanding
surrounds these posthumous practices, so they have garnered horror and
ridicule from others.
Mormons keep the specific details of their temple rituals secret from
non-members and also those members not yet eligible or worthy to enter
the temple themselves. The mantra many Mormons say in defense that
these rituals are “sacred, not secret.” In truth, they are both. But
the label of “secretive” has a special sting for Mormons, because the
Book of Mormon forcefully and repeatedly condemns “secret
combinations,” “secret works” and oath taking (Mormon 8:27, 40; 2 Ne
26:22; and Hel 6:22, to list just a few verses).
This speaks to a debate within Mormonism between its Masonic and
anti-Mason influences. Some scholars, both Mormon and non-Mormon alike,
who have studied the Book of Mormon believe that those passages that
condemn secrecy reflect anti-Masonic sentiments that were common at
Smith’s time in the late 1820s. Indeed, some early Mormons even called
the Book of Mormon the “anti-Masonick Bible." And yet notwithstanding
these anti-Masonic sentiments, there are also striking influences from
Masonry evident in the temple ceremonies.
In March 1842, Joseph Smith was initiated into Freemasonry. Less than
two months later, he introduced the temple ceremonies. It is no
surprise, then, that there are parallels between Masonic rituals and
LDS temple rituals. These parallels include special handshakes,
blood-oaths (prior to 1990), and new names given to participants. The
church and Freemasonry share symbolic imagery as well: sun, moon, and
star symbols, the square and the cross, the beehive, the all seeing
eye, and several others.
Community plays a central role in Mormonism. Mormons identify as a
people; Mormonism in this sense resembles an ethnic group. This is a
macro understanding of community in Mormonism, however. I’d like to
focuse on the micro, namely the LDS ward. A ward consists of anywhere
between 200 and 500 active Mormons. A ward is not merely a local
congregation that meets each Sunday for religious services; it is a
community. These members grow so close together that wards are often
called “ward families.”
Most members of wards do more than sit and sing together in church.
They teach each other’s children in Sunday school. Their kids are in
the same Boy Scout troops, sports teams, and dance groups. The members
invite eat dinners together. When a family moves in to a ward, they
help them unload and often donate dishes and furniture. And when
tragedy strikes the ward, the members mourn and pray together.
This closeness within a ward is not without costs. One consequence of
“ward families” is gossip. The Relief Society, the women’s religious
service in a ward, has a notorious reputation for gossip. I could share
anecdotes, but the fact that church leaders have to routinely address
the issue of gossip should suffice as evidence of the problem. A search
for the word “gossip” at lds.org yielded 240 results!
The second consequence for ward intimacy is the difficulty in leaving
the church. Many who leave the LDS Church find the transition very
painful since they are breaking not only religious ties, but also
social and familial ones. Leaving the church, then, is tantamount to
betrayal—to friends, to family, to the community.
In leaving Mormonism, I was fortunate enough have most of my
relationship remain intact. Those friends I lost in my ward were
friends worth losing anyway. But others aren’t so lucky. My mother was
born and raised in the LDS faith. I’ve often confronted her on why she
believes in the church in the face of difficulties like the translation
of the Book of Abraham and the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Just
a couple months ago, my mother confided in me that she does not believe
the church is true, but said she stays with it because it is the only
community she has ever known. Her leaving the church would damage her
marriage, and make her a pariah among the extended family, at work,
and—more immediately—in the neighborhood.
Similar social pressures often prod young Mormon males into missions. I
had a friend leave on a mission for no other reason (sadly) than that
he’d make a more marketable bachelor in Utah as a returned missionary.
Closely related to community is culture, another important
characteristic of religion. Most people only know Mormonism by its
culture, not its doctrines. Mormons are perceived to be honest,
hard-working, sober, friendly, family-oriented and generous—almost to a
fault. Indeed, despite this image (or perhaps because of it), many
people are still uneasy about Mormonism. Some may think that
Mormonism's smiley façade masks a darker reality. And if Utah is any
indication, this concern is not entirely without warrant.
According to a 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, Utah leads the country in non-medical painkiller abuse.
Utah culture is arguably one of culprits. Marked by denial, conformity,
social pressure and guilt, this culture contributes to the state’s drug
problem (among others). In an interview in the local documentary Happy
Valley, one addict said that recovery in Utah is especially difficult
because our society is so judgmental—people don’t want to be honest and
open about their addictions for fear of how others might perceive them.
He asked that Utahns “look in the mirror, before looking out the
Youth suicide is also an epidemic in Utah. And disproportionately
represented in these suicides are gay youth, who are three to five
times more likely to commit suicide. Overall, Utah had the 7th highest
suicide rates in the country from the years 2000-2004.
Chief among the risk factors for suicide is an unwillingness to seek
help due to the stigma attached mental disorders like depression. “We
have this 'All is well in Zion' kind of thing going here," Attorney
General Mark Shurtleff told the Deseret News.
"We'd rather not talk about [depression] at all or maybe to go talk to
the bishop about it," he said. "If there really is a mental health
issue you need help. It doesn't work to talk to the youth leaders or
In rape, too, Utah exceeds the national average. One in eight Utah
women will be raped at some point in their lifetime. And sadly, few
rapes will be reported.
A recent report by the Deseret Morning News found that 90 percent of
Provo rapes go unreported. A BYU police officer explained, “Most Provo
residents are religious and have a tendency to stigmatize discussion of
sexual assault and sometimes to demonize the survivor.” And I wonder
whether the rapes themselves result, in part, from our unhealthy
climate of sexual repression.
It is also true that Utah is home to green jello, low crime rates,
healthy residents, and the highest literacy and language fluency rates
in the country. I only give focus to the state’s ills because they so
often get ignored.
For most of the church’s history, Mormonism has been inescapably
associated with Utah. And while I believe that there is a Mormon
culture distinct from Utah culture, there is nonetheless overlap
between the two. Mormonism has undoubtedly affected many aspects of
Utah culture. But the distinction between Mormonism and Utah will only
grow sharper as Utah becomes less Mormon and the church becomes
A religion’s confines—that is, its spatial and geographical location—is
the sixth C in the seven Cs of religious studies. I just touched on the
important relationship between Utah and Mormonism, for example. But
there are still other aspects of Mormonism’s confines to discuss.
Mormons yearn for Zion, for home; they desperately want to belong. It
is odd that members of a uniquely American religion like Mormonism can
feel like strangers in their own land. But historically, they very much
have been strangers. Persecution drove the saints from New York to
Ohio, then to Missouri, then to Illinois, and finally in 1847 to Utah
(what was then a distant territory). So it’s obvious that Mormons
believe it is imperative that they have sacred space in which they can
worship and practice their faith freely.
The idea of sacred space is incorporated into all church buildings. The
temples are built very intentionally to be conducive to “the spirit” (a
spiritual feeling that accompanies worship). The temples’ rooms are
filled with penetrating white lights and adorned with lavish carpets
and elegant furniture. Every floor in a temple is soundproofed, to
ensure a still, reverent quiet. The endowment room, where Mormons
receive special ordinances, is distinguished by walls painted to depict
a wooded setting. And the sealing room boasts beautiful, gold-framed
mirrors on either side of the room that create an endless reflection,
representing the eternity in which couples and their children will
Some Mormons feel that the sacred space in LDS meetinghouses has been
compromised in recent decades. Virtually all LDS chapels have a
basketball court. It is a curious sight, but the church wanted their
meetinghouses to be more than places of worship; they wanted them to be
community centers and “cultural halls.” There is a tension with this
desire, however. Something as worldly as basketball can crowd out
sacred space in an LDS chapel. At what point does an LDS meetinghouse
feel too much like a community center and not enough like a church?
I noticed this concern when I was Mormon. In my ward, it took the form
of a stigma against those families (like mine) who sat on the
basketball court half of the chapel during sacrament meeting. It means
they were late to church and had other priorities, like finishing
watching a quarter of a football game.
And finally, the enigmatic Mormon consciousness. The Mormon mind is a congress of contradictory ideas and identities.
Mormons, out of doctrinal necessity, are a very gender-conscious
people. God created man and woman and commanded them to “multiply and
replenish the earth” (Moses 2:28).
On one hand, the LDS Church is an ultra-patriarchal system. Many point
to the practice of polygamy as degrading to women. Emma Smith, Joseph
Smith’s wife, found the practice abhorrent and also harbored a deep
resentment for it. Smith commanded her to accept the practice on threat
of damnation (D&C 132:52). One main justification for polygamy was
the bearing of children in this life and of “spirit children” in the
next. Some women object to this teaching, as it seems to reduce a
woman’s role to solely procreation.
The church has long since abandoned polygamy, but other patriarchal
practices remain. Women are unable to receive the priesthood, for
example. Another example: In the temple, women promise to obey their
husbands in everything so long as their husbands obey God.
On the other hand, women can find their role in Mormonism very
empowering. A case could be made that the church has historically been
progressive on women’s issues. Polygamy was partly justified in order
to afford women financial security, for instance. Women in the Utah
territory were also the first to receive suffrage. In regards to the
temple ceremonies, women are endowed with a certain priesthood power
and, under the authority of a male priesthood holder, can exercise that
power (and have historically). And then doctrinally, Mormons reject
original sin and thus do not see Eve (or women generally) as
responsible for the Fall. If anything, Eve is revered as a heroine.
A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found
that Mormons are the most partisan religious demographic in America.
Fifty-two percent of Mormons are strongly Republican, as opposed to
only 15 percent who are strongly Democrat.
I don’t find the survey surprising, but I think it glosses over
Mormonism’s rich history of political diversity. In The Mormon Quest
for the Presidency, we read about several LDS presidential candidates
who ran on surprisingly liberal platforms. Consider Joseph Smith. For
his time, Smith held some very progressive ideas. He campaigned on the
abolition of slavery and a blanket pardon for and release of all prison
inmates. Today, Senator Harry Reid, a practicing Mormon, is the
Democratic leader in the Senate. And the Udalls are a LDS family who
are also prominent in contemporary Democratic politics.
Integral to the Mormon identity is a profound sense of
persecution—dare I say a martyrdom complex. Being a “peculiar people”
and being persecuted for it allows Mormons to connect with their
pioneer forbearers, who suffered violence back East and weathered
fierce blizzards moving west. The balance between being “mainstream”
and “peculiar” in LDS consciousness is a difficult and delicate one.
This difficulty was explored by historian Kathleen Flake’s book, The
Politics of American Religious Identity, when during the Smoot hearings
the church had to disavow polygamy in order to be integrated into the
mainstream, while emphasizing other uniquely Mormon teachings like the
Godhead and the First Vision to preserve its peculiarity.
Mormons have earned their reputation for being wholesome, but they are
hardly prudes. Unlike puritanical Christians, Mormons have a lust of
life. The Articles of Faith encourage Mormons to seek after “virtuous,”
“lovely,” and “praiseworthy” things. D&C 58:26 asks Mormons to be
“anxiously engaged in a good cause…” We see this zeal in Mormon
participation in the arts.
Music and dance are almost sacrosanct in Mormonism. Mormonism’s
contribution to music is best embodied in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,
which is world-renowned and has performed for several U.S. Presidents.
And about the LDS tradition of dance, Terryl Givens says the following
in the PBS documentary The Mormons:
"Because we believe that God the Father, as well as Jesus Christ, are
physical, embodied beings, that elevates the body to a heavenly
status…And so dancing, I think, is in many ways, just an emblem or a
symbol of a kind of righteous reveling in the physical tabernacle that
we believe is a stage on our way to godliness itself."
Mormons also celebrate the mind. “The glory of God is intelligence,”
says D&C 93:36. Mormons, then, put a special emphasis on education.
The church even manages several universities, with the flagship being
BYU Provo. Interestingly, Mormons are among the only demographic for
whom religiosity increases with education.
At odds with the Mormon emphasis on education is a definite
anti-intellectual streak among Mormons. A lot is revealed about the
Mormon mind in how they deal with criticisms of their faith. Many
Mormons’ beliefs are immune to reasoned argument. Like my mother, they
belong to the church for its community and emotionalism. When
confronted with criticism, they retreat to their personal, spiritual
experiences. This is often coupled with a dismissive attitude toward
reason and science.
Over the years, church leaders have taught members to be wary of the
“philosophies of men.” They are also admonished not to trust in the
“arm of flesh” (D&C 1:19). This message is shared with church
educators, too. Boyd K. Packer infamously told a group of church
educators at BYU, “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher
Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or
faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”
The most profound conundrum in the Mormon consciousness is that Mormons
belong to a hierarchical and authoritarian church, yet one that has
remarkably individualistic qualities (a reflection of the individualism
of the Jacksonian era).
“Obedience is a fundamental law of the gospel…Unquestioning obedience
to the Lord indicates that a person has developed faith and trust in
Him to the point where he or she considers all inspired instruction —
whether it be recorded scripture or the words of modern prophets — to
be worthy of obedience.”
But Mormonism—in theory, if not in practice—also affords members
enormous freedom. As stated in the Articles of Faith, people are
endowed with moral agency and are not held to account for “Adam’s
transgressions.” Agency is central to the LDS understanding of the “war
in heaven” and Christ’s “plan of salvation.” Joseph Smith also told his
followers that they had the ability to receive personal revelations for
them and their families. This can create (and at times has created) a
tension between the members and church leadership.
Millions of people with disparate beliefs and from different
backgrounds profess to be Mormon. It is because of the complexities and
contradictions in Mormonism that such a diversity of people and beliefs
can claim the same faith.
By “proving the contraries,” we gained insight into the LDS faith. The
“truth” about what exactly Mormonism is, however, has not quite been
“made manifest.” It still eludes us. And that for me is precisely
*Work in progress. Comments and criticisms welcome.
I'm late to the discussion over Proposition 8. I've been following the news, digesting the defeat, tempering my emotions, and articulating my thoughts. But as a bisexual ex-Mormon living in the heart of Mormondom (Utah), I feel compelled to break my peace and make a foray into the issue. So here goes.
The LGBT community endured an emotional roller coaster on Election Day. One moment, they were assured "Yes we can!" The next, with the passage of Proposition 8, they were told "Um, no you can't." They are still suffering from that whiplash.
Over the past week and a half, that pain has manifested itself as anger (and understandably so) toward those who supported Proposition 8—particularly the LDS Church.
The LDS Church has been quick to note that they were not alone in supporting Proposition 8—they were party to a coalition of hundreds of churches*. Point taken. There were admittedly many culprits: the majority of older voters and black voters, a dishonest YES campaign, an inept NO campaign—all these contributed to and share some blame for Proposition 8's passage. But this ignores the fact that the LDS Church and its members were undoubtedly the most influential backers of Proposition 8, donating nearly half of the YES campaign's $23 million dollars and canvassing across the state of California. Jeff Flint, a strategist with Protect Marriage, estimated that Mormons made up 80 percent to 90 percent of the early volunteers who walked door-to-door in election precincts.
Given the church's extensive involvement in Proposition 8, it's not at all surprising that there have been worldwide protests at their temples and church-houses. But Mormons have cried foul. "It is disturbing that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is being singled out for speaking up as part of its democratic right in a free election," wrote Kim Farah, the spokeswoman for the LDS Church and (incidentally) my neighbor.
"While those who disagree with our position on Proposition 8 have the right to make their feelings known, it is wrong to target the Church and its sacred places of worship for being part of the democratic process."
Did the LDS Church think it could help deprive people their marriage rights with immunity? Protests are the price the church paid to exercise their First Amendment rights and participate in our democratic process. The church didn't have to stick its nose in Californian affairs. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
That said, I do have some reservations about the recent spate of protests. The LGBT community and its allies are upset, and I think it's wholly appropriate for them to communicate the profound pain wrought by Proposition 8. But I fear that the protests will prove counterproductive—especially those protests targeting Mormon temples and church-houses. They play into Mormon prejudices about homosexuals and feed their martyrdom complex.
Mormons are no strangers to persecution. Indeed, persecution strokes their identity as a "peculiar people" (their phrase). And it will only strengthen Mormon resolve against what they perceive to be threats to their religion, like gay rights.
Also, an angry unfocused response to Proposition 8 invites irresponsible behavior and speech. Just a few days ago, for example, some punk mailed suspicious white powder to two LDS temples. It's too soon to tell who did it or why (perhaps Prop 8 opponents are just being framed), but such actions must be swiftly and forcefully condemned regardless.
Signs like "Keep your cult out of the culture wars" and "F**k you, bigots!" aren't helpful either. If they do anything, they just make our calls for tolerance ring hollow.
Now, I don't think violence or vitriol typify the protests. But sadly, that is what's making the news.
The protests are making it easier for the Mormons to claim that they are the real victims, not the homosexuals whose marriage rights they helped rob. No matter how poor the LDS Church's public image is, we cannot allow this debate to be framed as a religious liberties issue. We'll lose. Time and time again.
Remember that the public opinion turned in favor of Proposition 8 only when the YES campaign dishonestly claimed that homosexuality would be thrust upon Californians in their churches and in their children's schools. In other words, the YES campaign effectively painted the opponents of Proposition 8 as invasive and intolerant—they made us the bad guys.
At the same time, however, we cannot let up on pressuring the LDS Church. Bowing to pressures—both internal and external—in the past, the church gave up polygamy and the priesthood ban for blacks. What exactly a measured and effective amount of pressure would be, though, I don't know. But I do know what it's not: http://www.latimes.com/media/photo/2008-11/43235098.jpg
There are already legal challenges to Proposition 8. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit claiming that a mere amendment is not adequate to strip people of what the California Constitution says is a "fundamental right"—marriage. A revision is required to strike the "fundamental right" language, and that takes a 2/3rds vote by citizens of California.
Don't invest too much in this lawsuit, though. From my understanding, the ACLU's case is shaky and the California Supreme Court has rejected the "revision" argument in other cases.
Glenn Greenwald thinks there's another answer to Proposition 8: A repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Repealing DOMA would "enable the equal granting of federal rights to same-sex couples without having any effect on the definition of marriage." Unlike the ACLU lawsuit, this isn't a direct challenge to Proposition 8. But a repeal of DOMA would give gay rights activists a much-needed and well-deserved victory. Thankfully, Obama has committed to at least amending DOMA.
These legal and political approaches to gay rights are fine so long as they are coupled with grassroots efforts. That might mean the occasional protest. Protests get our voices heard, which is important. But they rarely get our voices listened to. Gay rights advocates need to work on building bridges of dialogue. Abraham Lincoln said, "The best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend."
I hope I haven't been a downer; I'm really quite optimistic for the future. Equal rights will win out eventually. We (LGBT persons and allies) are on the winning side not only of an argument, but of history also.
Just half a century ago, the LDS Church and most of society opposed interracial marriage. In 1947, the First Presidency (the Mormon prophet and his two counselors) stated: "The intermarriage of the Negro and White races [is] a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now…We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency…toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.**"
You know, for a church that claims to be protecting marriage, the LDS Church sure has a difficult time defining what exactly it is defending. One man, many women? One white man, one white woman? One man, one woman? The church's definition of marriage has changed over time and with each revision it inches toward a recognition of gay marriage.
Progress, while hard-fought, is the natural arc of human history. And those institutions anchored in the past will drown with the rising tide of tomorrow.
If you are interested in the history of Mormon anti-gay policies and rhetoric, check out this link: http://www.affirmation.org/learning/anti-gay.shtml
I have also written about certain anti-gay policies at Brigham Young University: http://secweb.infidels.org/?kiosk=articles&id=764
Or here if you're a Facebook friend of mine: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=2210651499&id=122802902&index=39
And finally, my thoughts about gay rights more generally: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=16672101499&id=122802902&index=4
*According to recently leaked memos, LDS Church joined the coalition to have it serve as a cover. The LDS Church said that they want to take an activist approach against gay marriage, but was reluctant to be "out front." The church had the money, but recognized that "the public image of the Catholic Church [was] higher than [their] church." The LDS Church's alliance with the Catholic Church is yet another oddity in this whole affair, as historically Mormons have vilified the Catholic Church as "the whore of Babylon" and "the great and abominable church."
**Even that ignorant statement represented progress over what Brigham Young (the second Mormon prophet) taught: "Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so." (Journal of Discourses, 10:110)
Socrates, a philosophical agitator in ancient Greece, was taken to court on two accusations: first, that he had corrupted the young with his philosophies and, second, atheism toward the Gods recognized by the State. Despite an impassioned defense, Socrates was convicted of these charges and executed.
Upon death, Socrates finds himself (or rather, his spirit) at the Gates of Heaven. Here he meets his maker, Yahweh.
Socrates: Where am I?
Yahweh: If I may borrow an allegory of yours, you escaped the cave. You're in Heaven, Socrates.
Socrates: Oh, hey! Aren't you the god of the Israelites?
Yahweh: That'd be me, yes. My name is Yahweh.
Socrates: So what brings you here?
Yahweh: I own this joint, actually. I'm just manning the gates until Saint Peter gets back from his lunch break.
Socrates: By Zeus! This beautiful place is yours? That's wonderful.
Yahweh: Meh, it's nice. I run it on the cheap, though. I employ child laborers from Limbo; they do the jobs angels won't do and for a lower wage. Oh, and don't let the streets paved with gold fool you—it's only like 8 karats.
Socrates: Still, you must have worked hard to get where you are.
Yahweh: Actually, this God business was a self-appointed deal, what with my being uncaused and all. There was no job application, no election, no arbitrary Supreme Court fiat—nada.
Socrates: Wow. Lucky break. You say you run Heaven; do you preside over the Pantheon of gods, then?
Yahweh: Nope. Those pagan gods don't exist—your atheism toward them was warranted. Good on you, Socrates. But I've got some bad news: I still have to send you to Hell. You didn't believe in me, and that's my biggest pet peeve. I'm a jealous god.
Socrates: In all due respect, that hardly seems fair. I was a lover of many virtues. Why do I deserve Hell?
Yahweh: How dare you question God Almighty, the Alpha & Omega, the Big Cheese! Look, Socrates, I call the shots here. And everything I decree is just.
Socrates: That begs the question: what exactly is justness?
Yahweh: This old shtick? I've heard of your rhetorical skills, Socrates. But I refuse to be your philosophical punching bag. Your lowly debate tricks are ineffectual here in my Kingdom.
Socrates: I meant no offense. I genuinely just wanted to drink from your well of wisdom.
Yahweh: You mean that?
Socrates: I do.
Yahweh: Well alright. What is just? Hmm. As I said, all I decree is just. So justness, I suppose, is whatever I decree.
Socrates (mumbling): Dumbass.
Yahweh: What'd you say?
Socrates: Oh nothing, nothing. I'm having a difficult time following you. Forgive me. So can you decree lying to be just?
Yahweh: Of course. I could conceivably do anything. But I would not make lying just. After all, I forbade my chosen people to bear false witness. That commandment is even written in stone!
Socrates: Why wouldn't you make lying just, though? It would spare a lot of people the fires of Hell—politicians, lawyers, used car salesman, et al.
Yahweh: Ha! That's funny because it's true.
Socrates: More to the point, what moral reservations could you have against sanctioning dishonesty?
Yahweh: Oy Vey! You're kidding. That's easy, Socrates—dishonesty is obviously unjust.
Socrates: Only because you decree it to be so. Perhaps I misheard you, but I thought you just taught me that whatever you decreed to be just is just.
Yahweh: And I stand by that statement. There's more to my argument, though.
Socrates: Enlighten me, Lord.
Yahweh: It's like this: I am, by my nature, just; my decrees are in accordance with and an expression of that justness. So to make lying just would be to contradict my very nature.
Socrates: By Zeus, I think I follow you now.
Yahweh: Ahem! Thou shalt have no gods before me. Drop this "by Zeus" bullshit, please.
Socrates: I will; I swear on "The Odyssey."
Yahweh: Ugh. I'd really rather you didn't, but whatever. Continue.
Socrates: It is your nature to be just. I understand that. But we have yet to define justness. To say that you are justness and justness is you is to utter an empty tautology.
Yahweh: Huh? Tautology? I may be omniscient, but I'm not omnilingual—speak English.
Socrates: In other words, if justness equals you, then it makes no sense to say you are just. You're simply saying that you are yourself. You devoid the word justness of its meaning and reduce it to a mere synonym for yourself. Surely there is a better way to demonstrate your justness.
Yahweh: Look, I freely admit that this is all very confusing, Socrates. Remember that the wisdom of this world is foolishness. I cannot expect you to fully comprehend these things.
Socrates: Thank you for tolerating my ignorance. But would you please try—for my sake—to explain your justness?
Yahweh: Okay, but my patience and interest in this discussion are wearing thin. It's becoming increasingly apparent that you do not seek truth, but contention. Out of my infinite mercy, however, I will nonetheless educate you. When I say my nature is just, I mean to say that I am measuring up to standard of justness.
Socrates: Interesting. So justness is something all by itself, apart from you?
Yahweh: Uh, I guess it would have to be in order for me to measure up against it.
Socrates: What assurance do I have that you are constrained to follow this objective standard of justness? Why should I trust that your damning me to Hell is just?
Yahweh: Again, it is my nature to be bound to the standard of justness.
Socrates: To what exactly are you bound? The question persists: what is justness?
Yahweh: Socrates, you are too dense to understand it were I to tell you. Can we please set this issue aside?
Socrates: Very well. I did want to explore one last thing, though: your nature. To have a nature is to mean that you are defined and therefore constrained—that you are one way and not another. Right?
Yahweh: Exactly. I could not, to revisit your example, make lying just.
Socrates: I remember you saying that you could make lying just, but would not.
Yahweh: Maybe I misspoke. I don't know; I don't care. This is just a silly exercise in semantics. The fact is that I could not make lying just—it is contrary to my nature.
Socrates: If you cannot make lying just, as you conceded, then, you are not all-powerful. But you, the Judeo-Christian God, must be all-powerful. It, too, is integral to your nature. And given that you are not all-powerful, you cannot be God.
What's more, a person is just, in large part, by choosing justice over injustice. However, you do not have this choice as per your nature; you have to be just. In what way, then, can you be called just? In what way can you even be called God?
Yahweh: Perhaps I don't have a nature at all. What now, Einstein?
Socrates: That is equally problematic. Without a nature, you have no limits. Without limits, you have no identity. And to be without an identity is to not exist at all.
Yahweh: Certainly, I exist! "I think, therefore I am."
Socrates: Frankly, it would be generous to call what you've been doing in this discussion "thinking."
Yahweh: You are as aggravating as you are ugly, Socrates! I can understand why you were executed. If sending you to Hell is unfair, it is unfair only to Satan! Enjoy your eternity in torment.