Theodicy, the Fall, Forgiveness, and Christmas

Sacrament meeting talk given in the Worcester Ward, Cheltenham, England Stake.

If you keep track of American politics you will know that a Mormon is currently running for president in the United States. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and scion of a prominent Mormon family, hopes to receive the Republican nomination.

Romney is, by all accounts, a decent fellow. He’s a successful businessman with a track record of competence in business and as governor. He has served a mission and in callings throughout the church. Like all candidates he has his political Achilles’ heel (a penchant for political pandering), but it is a flap over his religion that has America all a-flutter.

Perhaps you have seen the headlines: “can a Mormon be president?” One concern is that a Mormon president would take his orders from Salt Lake City, a rather silly worry considering the long history of partisan neutrality by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (People tend to overlook the fact that the current leader of the US Senate — Harry Reid, a Democrat — is also a Mormon and does not seem to take his cues from the Elders of Zion.)

The other concern is specifically sectarian. In order to win the Republican nomination, Romney feels he needs to court the vote of the religious right within the party. Trouble is, many evangelical Christians do not like the Mormon faith, claiming it is not Christian. They want a Christian in the White House and so Romney has gone to a lot of effort to explain that despite his Mormonism he is a Christian.

Many of us probably feel some sense of outrage, or at very least, incredulity, at the suggestion that we are not Christian. We may also feel disappointment that a religious test is applied in this way. Surely it does not matter what religion (or none!) is practised by the president. Unfortunately, it seems that it does. The following bears saying loud and clear: we believe in God the Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. We believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that he died for our sins, that he was resurrected from the dead, and that he sits at the right hand of God.

Nothing “Mormon” — not the Book of Mormon, not Joseph Smith, not the temple — stands in the way of this belief in Christ.

Obviously, I feel passionately about this and am angry at the religious cruelty that would withhold public office from a Mormon. As Latter-day Saints, and without pomposity, we can take the moral high ground here, perhaps even applying some of the universalist streak available in Mormonism. We want honest and capable leaders, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or whatever. In 1978 the First Presidency of the Church issued the following declaration:

“The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals…. Our message therefore is one of special love and concern for the eternal welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race, or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters because we are sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father.”

This talk is not about Mitt Romney. In fact, I am now going to contradict myself somewhat. Yes, Mormons are Christians, and we are rightly distressed when people claim otherwise. But there are distinctive beliefs in our religion, ones that are heretical to mainstream Christianity. This does not make us less Christian — many early Christians held views that most would now consider heretical — but we must be bold enough to claim that which makes us distinctive while at the same time holding to that which is the same.

The Mormon “heresy” that I would like to briefly address is our doctrine of the Fall. Our view of sin and mortality is unique in Christendom and is one I think we should confidently embrace. In short, and contrary to orthodox Christianity, we believe that Adam’s “fall” was ultimately “good”: “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Without the Fall, I do not believe we could truly have joy.

Genesis 2-3 tells the story of a perfect garden and two humans who live in happy, childlike innocence. They eventually succumb to sin and are cast out into this dark and dreary world. Christianity sees this as a tragedy — a “paradise lost” — and yearns for a return to the garden. Mormonism’s approach to the Fall is both profoundly yet subtly different. It is true that man’s fallen state makes us “an enemy to God” (originally sinful, if you like) but the Fall represents an opportunity, not a disaster.

A German writer called Heinrich von Kleist tells of a conversation he had with a dancer. The dancer described to him a beautiful display of dancing that he had recently seen — in a puppet theatre. The marionettes’ gracefulness was sublime.

But the puppets’ grace was unconscious and thus lacking that which is truly human. We do not seek the unconscious grace of a puppet, but the fully conscious grace of God. We do not want to return to the womb-like theatre of the Garden of Eden — whatever its beauty — but to progress to the kingdom of heaven, having eaten, like Adam, of the fruit which makes us capable of evil but having learned to choose the good nonetheless.

In Mormon scripture we learn that God sent us to Earth (for we lived with him before we came here) in order to “prove” us (Abraham 3:25). This world’s fallen state, with its “opposition in all things,” offers the canvas upon which our lives our painted. It is not a monochrome white, but a messy splash of red, and blue, and black. As we learn to choose good over evil, a Caravaggio emerges — complicated, but beautiful, human and divine.

If we take this thought even further, a profound truth emerges. In Mormonism we speak of having “shouted for joy” when mortality was presented before us. And yet ours is a mortality of disease, death, hatred, war, and cruelty. How is this good, a thing worthy of joy? Simply because it is life, and unless there is pain there can be no growth, unless there is hate, there can be no love, unless there is death, there can be no life. I do not say this to minimise the great difficulties that we may face, nor to excuse the great evil done by man, but I hope a view of the noble Fall can help us see some things differently.

The first is theological. People wonder how a good God can countenance bad things, but in Mormonism our theodicies need not seek to excuse God for a veil of tears we ourselves gladly embraced.

The second centres on true religion. The vicissitudes of mortality were accepted by all of us but we have all individually paid an unequal price. In mortal terms, this is not fair. Can we not alleviate the suffering of those called to carry more than they can bear? And if we can accept the inevitability of own frailties and the opportunity they provide for us to repent and improve, can we not forgive ourselves and others when we make mistakes?

A few years ago I heard a wonderful story of forgiveness.

Emblematic of Mormon life in the Holy Land is Sahar, a young Palestinian woman and member of the church. Whilst living in Israel one summer, I arranged to meet her in Ramallah in the West Bank, but Sahar made the effort to come to Jerusalem. This was not easy, as all Palestinians require a permit to enter Israel. She lined up early that morning with a letter of recommendation from the LDS district president. The permit allowed her to stay until sundown.

Sahar grew up in a Christian-Arab family near Bethlehem. Despite coming from a good family, she tells a life story full of despair. Her experiences as a Palestinian in the West Bank, including seeing a boy shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, were not conducive to a positive view of Israel or the Israeli people. “There was so much hate,” she admits, “that I even considered becoming a suicide bomber.”

Things began to change for Sahar in 1994. She had been offered a generous and prestigious scholarship to study at the American University in Washington D.C., and was all set to go when she saw an advertisement for BYU in the local newspaper. “I had no idea what BYU was, where Utah was or who the Mormons were,” she recalls, “but something told me to apply.” She was accepted but the scholarship was considerably less than that offered by the American University. Logic suggested that she reject BYU’s offer but she could not shake the impression that she should go to Provo. She decided to pray about it: “My prayers had been meaningless up to this point. After this particular prayer, I had this strong feeling in my heart that I could not deny, saying that I should go to BYU.”

After becoming acquainted with the Church at BYU, and despite tremendous opposition from her family, Sahar decided to be baptised. She then returned to Palestine. Sahar is not optimistic that there will ever be peace in the Holy Land but has managed to find peace within. “I was full of so much hate and despair, even as a Christian, before I joined the church. There may not be peace in this land, but now there is peace in me.”

In support of this she recounted a story. A couple of years ago, while on her way to church in Jerusalem, she was going through a checkpoint when she was turned back by an Israeli soldier. Years of pain and hatred welled up within her. “I looked at him and I could not love him,” she said. “After joining the Church, much of my hatred for Israelis – particularly the soldiers – had eased, but I could not love him. Then I remembered a scripture I had read in Matthew where Christ says, ‘love your enemies,’ and it bothered me. ‘He’s a child of God’, I thought. ‘Why can’t I love him?’ So I made it my goal to love these people.”

After a year of fasting and prayer she came to the point where she could honestly say that she felt love for Israeli soldiers. “In that sense being a Mormon has changed the way I look at things.”

For Sahar, only the power of the Gospel was able to motivate her to love her enemy. Long ago we all accepted that life would hurt, that some, like Sahar, would be born into the difficult world of the Occupied Territories, that others, like the soldier, would be born into a country that faces the constant threat of terrorism. We happily chose to accept these risks because within them lie the seeds of eternal life. Sahar’s forgiveness has made her more Christlike. This is the challenge and blessing of the fallen world.

As Mormon Christians, we celebrate at Christmas a God who came to Earth to descend below all things so he can succor us in our infirmities (Alma 7:12). The bright hope of Bethlehem and the wickedness of Golgotha place God on the same path we tread. Where there is gold, there are also thorns; where there is frankincense, there is a cross; where there is myrrh, there is the tomb.

This, brothers and sisters, is life. May we endure it and enjoy it, and arrive at the veil wiser, happier, stronger — more like God. Happy Christmas!

Comments

  1. Great talk, thanks for sharing it.

  2. We do not seek the unconscious grace of a puppet, but the fully conscious grace of God. We do not want to return to the womb-like theatre of the Garden of Eden — whatever its beauty — but to progress to the kingdom of heaven, having eaten of the fruit which makes us capable of evil but having learned to choose the good nonetheless.

    Put that in a quote book. Beautiful!

  3. Great.

  4. Ronan, the world would be a better place if more people read Kleist while preparing Sacrament Meeting talks :) Well done, sir!

  5. fantastic.

  6. Antonio Parr says:

    Amen, and, Amen!

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Wonderful talk; thanks for sharing it with us.

    What were the reactions of the locals when you gave it? Would you say there more appreciation, dumbfounded scratching of heads, or was there any particular reaction at all?

  8. Latter-day Guy says:

    Ditto to #4. Great stuff.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    If you want to see a contrast with the theology Ronan summarizes here, try reading Augustine’s Enchiridion. He just rips Adam and Eve a new one every which way he can for ruining our one chance at true happiness.

  10. What’s this about “Sinner Adam”?

  11. Simply excellent, Ronan. Posts like this make the bloggernacle rewarding and worthwhile.

  12. Ronan, you obviously put a lot of time and effort into this. Thank you. I would also like to know some of the reactions of fellow ward members. This certainly was not their average sacrament meeting talk prepared the night before.

  13. Ronan, thank you for this. I found it deeply poignant and moving. You are a true brother.

  14. Such a great message. Thank you, Ronan.

  15. Aaron and Kevin re: reactions. What are you trying to say…?!

    Aaron, I “wrote” this talk in my head while riding my bike. I banged it out in about 1/2 hour.

    Brad, “Transgressor Adam” if you prefer, but I think the difference is slight.

  16. Steve Evans says:

    Excellent work, young Ronan. It almost makes up for yesterday’s poll.

  17. LOL- You made me think of the scene in “A Beautiful Mind” where Nash is working out his equilibrium theory in his head while riding his bike on Princeton’s campus. If you start hearing voices, it may not be the Spirit :)

  18. Stephen,
    You takes the sermon, you takes the poll. ‘Tis all part of the package, sir.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    That’s why we love you, baby!

    In many ways saying “it’s all part of the package” is very telling as to the nature of mormonism, IMO. We have a pranksterism in us that is deep-seated; we love the Joseph that wrestles and J. Golden Kimball. Equally enracinated is this wonderful spirit of shouting for joy as you’ve captured it in the talk. I take it all, gladly.

  20. Suberb. I might want to stand and applaud if this talk were given in one of my Sacrament meetings.

  21. Its good,

    I like to hear practical christian living preaching. With real life examples to flesh them out.

    Should have thrown in section 64 vs 9-10 for good measure.

    75% of the game though in Sac mtg talks is delivery. If the eyes are watching you its going well. If they are not they are bored and wondering whats for lunch

  22. Superb, I meant. Egad, I need more sleep.

  23. bbell,
    I usually give sacrament talks in a gorilla mask.

    Evans,
    Call me Loki.

  24. I find it difficult to use metaphor well, but I particularly liked

    this world’s fallen state, with its “opposition in all things,” offers the canvas upon which our lives our painted. It is not a monochrome white, but a messy splash of red, and blue, and black. As we learn to choose good over evil, a Caravaggio emerges — complicated, but beautiful, human and divine.

    That’s one of the things I miss about Elder Maxwell. He did it very well. I am but a novice. I too feel the pain when people do not equate me with being Christian. Even more so if they are insensitive enough to take joy in that pain. I’ve found that it’s hard to be a Christian. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.

  25. Antonio Parr says:

    Having seen Ronan give a real, live sermon, I can attest that his delivery is superb, and only made more exquisite by that fancy accent of his.

    Now that he is back in the motherland, I wonder if he talks ‘merican to get the natives’ attention . . .

  26. Actually, AP, the consensus here is that I’ve picked up an American twang. I’m constantly mocked for it.

  27. Good talk. Interestingly enough we had a similar talk, although not nearly as good and an ever-so slightly more political bent in Sacarament meeting. Our Stake Pres. instructed a high councilman to come and talk about what it is to be a Christian and the Romney stuff came out of it. I like yours better :)

  28. Antonio Parr sent me a wonderful link. Steve West laments the loss of the perfect Platonic form inherent in the Fall:

    It’s 11:38 p.m. You just finished paying the last bills, put away the dishes from dinner, put in a load of laundry, folded what seemed a hundredfold small articles of clothing, fed the animals, and put the toys back in the toy chest (even the Matchbox cars pushed under the sofa). You hoist a brimming laundry basket and, dimming the last light, wearily turn and head up the stairs. At the top of the stairs you set the laundry basket down, thinking you will look in on your son and daughter where they sleep. You stand at the side of their bed and watch their deep breathing, the sweetness of a face at peace, see the perspiration on their face as the surplus energy of a full day of play oozes out. A feeling of joy wells up in you, unbidden, the kind that swallows up all your deep weariness. And then you sense something else underneath the joy, something you recognize as a profound sadness, and you turn to leave, an unspoken prayer caught in your throat.

    West quotes Alain de Botton:

    Christian philosophers have been singularly alive to the sadness which beauty may provoke. ‘When we admire the beauty of visible objects, we experience joy certainly,’ observed the medieval thinker Hugh of St. Victor, ‘but at the same time, we experience a feeling of tremendous void’ . . . Beauty, then is a fragment of the divine, and the sight of it saddens us by evoking our sense of loss and our yearning for the life denied us.

    I would not want to fight too strenuously with these beautiful thoughts. I would just suggest that perhaps things are beautiful precisely because they are fragile, precisely because they carry the seeds of decay. This make beauty so much the more wonderful. In Mormon thought we will not be restored to our premortal form, but to a reunion of the soul with the body. This is the soul in its truest sense!

  29. Thank you for this talk. I really needed it.

  30. Thank you Ronan,
    Merry Christmas. I really needed a reminder of what makes my faith beautiful after all the pounding and grating in the media.

  31. Absolutely inspiring. Powerfully illustrated and eloquently given. That must have been some Sacrament Meeting. Despite not being there I have felt the Spirit of the message just the same.

    Let me know when you go on tour… I would love to get tickets;)

  32. I am grateful for everyone’s kind words.

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