I find the Mormon religion fascinating; I’ve been known to watch BYU TV for hours and am slowly making my way through the vast literature written about its church’s history and development. While it is (fairly) easy to point out some of Mormonism’s extremely questionable claims—see, for instance, South Park—I think that there are some really interesting ways the Mormons have incorporated the concepts of Law and Gospel into their theology. If you’re interested, talk to our resident expert, Jacob Smith (I’m still hoping he’s going to call me up to his planet someday:).
Along those lines, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven about hyper-fundamentalist Mormons (these are not your Pepsi/Jet-Blue Mormons). This book explores the religious motivation behind the calculated murder of a young woman and her child by members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect. I have to confess that while reading I was overcome by a profound sense of unease, not because I have anything particular against Mormons, and not because I think that we’re all in danger of fundamentalist violence like that described in the book; on the contrary, what was unsettling was how similar the justification these particular Mormons had for their actions is to much of contemporary Christian thought. These men were acting completely in line with Mormon epistemology, meaning that they were making decisions based upon how Mormon “theology” claims God speaks to people, through their feelings. Like when Mormons appeal to their faith as “an inner confirmation of the truth,” so these men were convinced by their feelings that God was telling them to kill.
“So, what does this have to do with Christianity?” you ask. Well, everything. If the validity of religion, or of a religious message, rests on or is substantiated by whether it answers a particular felt need, then the Feuerbachian/Marxist critique stands, and those who have developed better ways of coping with reality will have fewer and fewer reasons to resort to projecting their problems on a God of their own making.
This is not to say that I reject the idea of a “Theology from the bottom up.” Certainly not! The Gospel can never be separated from the everyday cares and concerns—the experiences—that make up our perceived world. But, as has been argued, theology that begins with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the grounds for both confession and speculation, can never get too far from the Cross and the shadow of healthy (necessary) self-skepticism that it casts over all of our pretensions. This is why we affirm that, although people are vaguely aware of something wrong with the world in general, only the Law preached can convert that annoyingly persistent general unease—an idea best summed up by the phrase, “I’m only human”–to Peter’s specific confession of “Go away, for I am a sinful man”—the only true confession. Through a variety of psychological neo-mystical palliative guilt management Oprahisms, the former can be effectively numbed, thus convincing the unwitting person that the erosion of hope and growing despair is one of the mysteries of life.
I’m sure we all know people, or maybe have been in the situation ourselves, completely convinced that we know both what ails us and what would alleviate that pain, only to find out that what we really needed was a Snickers bar, or maybe to sit down for a while. Or maybe you’ve found yourself in a position of having, like Monty Brewster, “all of your wildest dreams” come true, and yet you find yourself confronted with another set of problems. In other words, what I’m arguing is that total reliance on our own felt needs implies a self awareness and knowledge of who we are and what we really need that goes beyond the reach of what the Cross and the Gospel imply about our capabilities and capacities. What’s more, it makes our dependence on God inversely proportionate to our sense of emotional wellbeing. Feelings of “absolute dependence” (cf. Schliermacher), while certainly more in line with a theology of the cross, are nevertheless still feelings, and as such, are just as fleeting as feelings of absolute world domination.
Mercifully, the message of the Gospel, while certainly mediated (for better or worse) by our feelings, is nevertheless not contingent upon our own subjective appropriation of the message. These are comforting words: Jesus Christ came to save Sinners—whether you feel like one or not!