Tuesday, May 29, 2007


A few weeks ago, PBS ran a two-part, four-hour program on "The Mormons." I caught the first part, but my DVR erased part two before I got a chance to watch it, so I was pleased to find that I could watch the whole program on the web.

The program consisted of a narrated history of Mormonism along with interviews with various people most of whom were either current or former Mormons. One of the things that captured my attention was the nature of faith among the Latter Day Saints.

Several people talked about faith in terms of really believing the story about Joseph Smith and the golden plates. One man said that he wasn't sure he believed the story until he went on his missionary journey and then, while speaking in a Lutheran church in Germany apparently, he was moved to really believe the story.

Now I would expect a lot of people of faith to want to stand up and say, "That's not what faith is!" Faith isn't about believing that some factual proposition is true. It's about trusting in God and believing that God intends good for us. Right?

But one of the things I got out of this program on Mormonism is that the relationship between faith as trust in God and believing that the stories of our religion are true just isn't that simple. And maybe this is easier to see from the outside.

For instance, part one of the program told the story of the Mormon migration to Utah in the winter following the killing of Joseph Smith. These people suffered unimaginable hardship crossing the American west in the middle of winter just trying to find a place where they wouldn't be hated and persecuted as they had been in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. And so under the leadership of Brigham Young they loaded up their wagons and headed to Utah -- Utah! I don't think there can be any doubt that this part of the Mormon experience involved a lot of faith in the "radical trust in God" sense of the word. But at the same time, they absolutely would not have done it if they didn't believe the story about Joseph Smith and the golden plates.

Faith is a strange thing. Many people work very hard to keep faith unbound by dogma, and yet it is fairly impossible to have any depth of faith in "God-in-general". If God doesn't act, we can't have faith in God. And if God acts, faith must believe that God has acted.

But here's where things get really sticky. I am pretty certain that the story about Joseph Smith and the golden plates isn't true. At the same time, I get the sense that the faith of Mormons, anchored as it is in this story that I believe to be false, is nevertheless genuine faith of the same quality as my faith. How can this be?


P.S. an after-thought said...

I've visited the Mormon temple and "museum" in Salt Lake City. Some Mormon acquaintances that encouraged us to go there told us about how some of the "history" shown in the museum had been changed to sanitize it.

I watched a TV program called something like Saints in Korea. Since I have an interest in Korea and visited there and know that the country has a long history of Catholicism, I thought this would be a Catholic show, but it was about a unit of men from Utah who had served there during the Korean War. The men told about the blessing they received before they left, the promise that if they continued to live upright lives, they would be spared, and their return home, as promised, as well as about the hardships they endured there.

If traditional Christian churches had even a smattering of men who could speak of their faith, spiritual journeys, and their God even half as well as these men did, our churches couldn't help but grow by leaps and bounds....as the Mormons are doing all over the world.

Regarding your specific question: Couldn't we say the same question regarding our "faith" in some of the specific Bible stories? I believe in God, I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. I accept the Bible stories. I don't believe that they all are literally true. I believe it doesn't matter.

Maybe, however, for a Mormon, that one story is key.????

Andy said...

Sure, we could absolutely look at traditional Christianity "from the outside" and see the same thing. That's what's curious to me about it. It seems to me that faith depends on belief in concrete stories, but true faith can apparently derive from false stories.

Andy said...

I should clarify that I don't mean to worry about whose stories are true and whose aren't.

What I mean to say is that the stories being believed must be somehow concrete in order for it to be a bridge to God, but it seems like the pattern is more important than the particulars in making the connection.

LutherPunk said...

I watched that mini-series as well, and it was incredibly interesting.

Faith is a strange thing. For me, if I ceased believing in our foundational story (the Resurrection), I would cease to be Christian. Others would not, I suppose. Would they still have "faith"? I think so. Would it be the same in substance or type as the faith that I hold in the truth of the traditional Gospel accounts? No, probably not.

I think the problem we run into is the need that we have to quantify or verify things. It just doesn't work so well with notions like faith. To ask if faith is real or not I think is to ask a question with no answer.

Now, I think the question that might be able to be answered within the confines of traditional theological methodology and terminology is if their faith is a "justifying" faith. I'll not post my own feeling on that, but leave it to others...

Lee said...

I think this post is right on.

It's noteworthy, after all, that in the Bible God is not usually identified by the "classic" attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) but rather in terms of particular events: The God who led Israel out of Egypt, or the God who raised Jesus from the dead, etc. These stories narrate the identity of God for us. Without that it's not clear what you have left to put faith in.

Tom in Ontario said...

How do we define faith? Some will define faith as "belief" rather than as "the presence of Christ by the Holy Spirit." We are saved by grace through faith—i.e., God saves us graciously by sending Christ to be present in us by the Holy Spirit in, with, and under Word and Sacrament. Christ present in us responds to God's grace by trusting that what the Word (in words, water, bread and wine) promises is given to us in the disciple community.

Andy said...


I like your question about justifying faith, but I worry that by using that terminology we risk dragging too much 16th century theology into the picture. The question is still relevant, but it's a dangerous angle of approach.

Would we be saying the same thing in modern language if we asked, "Does their faith connect them to God?" I think, yes. And I think that's the essence of justification.


Your description of faith is great from within a traditional Christian context. It's difficult to apply to people of other religions, though I think theologically it still works. As Gaudium Et Spes says, "For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery."