The Descent—and the Divine Calling—of the Modernists tumblr_inline_mpskiziZjj1qz4rgp.jpg

‘The Descent of the Modernists’, cartoon by E. J. Pace, first published in Seven Questions in Dispute by William Jennings Bryan (1924). (cmnotes gives some nice autobiographical details.)

The 1924 cartoon above is reblogged from isomorphismes. By this standard I am a descended Modernist. 

What I find intriguing about the cartoon is the contrast between how each of these beliefs sounded to me when I believed in Mormonism and how they sound to me now. Here is where I stand today on the issues highlighted in the cartoon:

  • CHRISTIANITY: I do not believe in all the teachings of Christianity, but I believe Christianity as a whole has been a force for good in the world, as Rodney Stark describes in his series of books on the effect of religion on history. 
  • BIBLE NOT INFALLIBLE: Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, talked a lot about the imperfections of the Bible, and even did his own revision of the Bible, so I have always believed the Bible to be fallible.
  • MAN NOT MADE IN GOD’S IMAGE: I like the idea that humankind is made in the image of God. That fits with the theology I lay out in my post “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life.” There, I define God as “the greatest of all things that can come true.” Human beings– and even more, groups of human beings working together–are the greatest of all things I know to exist. In my book, that counts as being “in God’s image.” Evolution has put humankind in an exalted place, and given our species a great opportunity. But reaching our potential is not guaranteed. As Joseph Smith said: “Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity–thou must commune with God.”  My post “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life” is about what it means to me to “commune with God."
  • NO MIRACLES: I believe that the picture of the world painted by physics–which drastically limits any wiggle room for "miracles”–is basically correct. (See my post “What Do You Mean by ‘Supernatural.’”)  I don’t have any problem with “miracles” that are within the laws of physics (including the Second Law of Thermodynamics that establishes the key difference between “the future” and “the past”).
  • NO VIRGIN BIRTH: The importance of the virgin birth is in singling out Jesus as God's “Only Begotten Son.” Here, what I find most fascinating is the way in which the New Testament attributes to Jesus almost every way in which Jewish and Greek culture at the time had found to describe what we would now call “superheroes.” For this and for many other insights, the book Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, by Donald Harmon Akenson, is absolutely wonderful. I see his model of new layers of scripture incorporating and powerfully reinterpreting earlier layers of scripture as a wonderful description of what Joseph Smith did with a new layer of distinctively Mormon scriptures.    
  • NO DEITY: My belief is that God comes toward the end of history, not at the beginning, as I spell out in “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life.” The presence of great evil in the world makes it seem unlikely that God is already with us in full measure. (This is the “Problem of Evil” that has bedeviled believers in God for millennia.) 
  • NO ATONEMENT: I believe that, through non-miraculous means, Jesus brought humankind to a higher level. What he accomplished easily counts as “saving the world” in the sense I talk about saving the world on this blog. As for the traditional doctrine of the atonement, it would be wonderful to be loved in the way described in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But in Mormon Christianity, Protestant Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, the traditional doctrine of the atonement has a dark side: the necessity for Jesus to suffer and die in order to temper God’s Justice. Even before I left Mormonism, I wondered about “God’s Justice,” which required Jesus’ death in order to be become something that corresponds to our usual notions of justice. If the intemperate, pre-atonement version of “God’s Justice” was a part of God, how could that be squared with God’s goodness? If the intemperate, pre-atonement version of “God’s Justice” was not a part of God, what was this mysterious entity called “God’s Justice”?
  • NO RESURRECTION: The possibility that science will someday be able to bring people back from the dead motivates a slice of GDP devoted to cryogenically freezing people’s heads after death in the hopes of future resurrection with technology that does not exist yet. Based on my own imperfect assessment of the difficulties of the relevant technology, I believe that those alive today are doomed to die. That is, I think Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman are over-optimistic in thinking that current and near-future anti-aging technologies can allow people to live long enough that more advanced technologies such as the technology I discuss in my post “Cyborgian Immortality” can come into play. If we are doomed to die, some form of resurrection is our only real hope for an after-life. (But I find myself very queasy about the route of hoping to be one of the unfrozen.) Unlike Plato, who felt that the soul was naturally immortal, I think consciousness is a complex phenomenon that can easily be disrupted. Hence, for us to have an afterlife, someone or something with a great deal of power will have to make that afterlife happen.         
  • AGNOSTICISM: David Hume, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, gives sound reasons to be philosophically agnostic about just about everything, while allowing oneself a sense of relative certainty about key things at the psychological level. By personality type, I am a believer. Other than people’s general tendency to tell the truth, the only thing that saves me from being constantly duped is that I want to believe the critics as well as the proponents of any idea.  
  • ATHEISM: From a sociological point of view, I think of myself as an atheist. I don’t want to pretend that my beliefs are at all consistent with traditional beliefs in a supernatural God. But if you, my reader, are willing to accept the definition of “God” I propose in “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life” as the greatest of all things that can come true, then I am delighted to call myself a theist, and to echo Joseph Smith in saying:

Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men [and women]. Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve [God] with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day. (D&C 4:1,2)

Working for the greatest of all things that can come true with all our heart, might, mind and strength is a worthy calling for Modernists. Our responsibility is great. It is only by our diligent efforts that the world can be saved in our day, and that humankind and its descendants can move further down the path toward bring God fully into being in a day yet to come.