Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

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_Kishkumen
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Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _Kishkumen »

On occasion I spend a little time reading about ancient philosophy and the works of ancient philosophers themselves. Recently, I have spent a little time reading Stoic philosophy. One thing I am repeatedly struck by is the complexity and logical consistency of these ancient systems of thought in their instructions for how to live. By comparison, the Bible and LDS scripture are relatively impoverished. Sure, these books are filled with some commandments and lots of stories of people and God behaving either admirably or poorly, but almost all of it is a hodgepodge. Nothing about it is really systematic or consistent.

This arguably makes Mormonism and Christianity poor guides to life. Oh, yes, you are told to love others, not to murder them, blah, blah, blah. But that’s pretty rudimentary stuff. You get no help in figuring things out, moral reasoning, in other words. It’s “do it because God said so” and “follow the Spirit.” The latter, of course, is a feeling, so in making profound ethical decisions, if one with such a bankrupt education can even begin to fathom what such a thing is, one goes into the depths armed with commandments and feelings. You go into crucial questions regarding life with severe handicaps.

I am not holding myself up as a paragon of ethical sophistication. No, what I see here is how badly we have been robbed, how inadequate my education has been. I can’t help but think that the victory of Christianity is partly to blame. Pagan philosophy retreated from the public sphere and became ever more the preserve of an increasingly tiny elite. The masses got sacraments and Bible readings.

Mormonism succeeded, in a way, in making things worse because of its rejection of philosophy. Mormonism’s traditional narrative inculcates apathy regarding the bulk of Western culture and history.

Sure, I get that people are free to read and learn on their own. But, let’s be realistic here: the vast majority of people will learn what they are told by their culture is important to know. Mormons were told to look down on “the philosophies of men” and Christian creeds (which defined Christianity for the majority of its history). This is a one-two punch in the face of historical and philosophical consciousness.

Yes, Mormons do excel in higher education. But I would submit that the culture creates huge blind spots in its members’ intellectual lives. One can begin to compensate for these blind spots, but it gets tougher to catch up over time.
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_Philo Sofee
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Re: Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _Philo Sofee »

This is quite profound Kish. All my life......ALL my bloody frickin life I have never had an interest in studying the Middle Ages because they were all people who were in apostasy so I felt they had nothing to learn about or learn from so why bother with them? Lets skip 600-1805 and get on with the good stuff...... Joseph Smith and the restoration. I never studied the Middle Ages for decades and decades because of that stupid teaching of the apostasy as I was taught it in the 1960's and 1970's. The underlying theme of apostasy psychologically made only two eras worth knowing about..... Jesus's day, and Joseph Smith's....... hows that for robbing us of knowledge? And the Chinese? Eskimos? Siberians? Australians? Who were they? No one important with nothing to contribute to our spirituality. Only Jesus and only Joseph. It was so bloody frickin emphasized that that was the only two areas I ever studied for years......
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_orangganjil
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Re: Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _orangganjil »

Really enjoyed your comments, Kish.

Add to your observation the fact that the LDS Church keeps people busy, busy, busy doing stuff for the Church, and an active member arguably doesn't even have time to study on their own, ensuring they will remain impoverished. In fact, sticking with the Middle Ages theme, one could argue that the Church sets its members up for a lifetime as serfs to the Church - intellectually impoverished, relying upon a spiritual elite for guidance.
_moksha
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Re: Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _moksha »

Joseph Smith would have loved Chinese history. They really did have battles involving a million participants, not to mention the terracotta cureloms.

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_Johannes
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Re: Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _Johannes »

Hello, Kish. This is an interesting post, and a few comments come to mind.

Kishkumen wrote:On occasion I spend a little time reading about ancient philosophy and the works of ancient philosophers themselves. Recently, I have spent a little time reading Stoic philosophy. One thing I am repeatedly struck by is the complexity and logical consistency of these ancient systems of thought in their instructions for how to live. By comparison, the Bible and LDS scripture are relatively impoverished. Sure, these books are filled with some commandments and lots of stories of people and God behaving either admirably or poorly, but almost all of it is a hodgepodge. Nothing about it is really systematic or consistent.


I agree. Personally, I prefer the scriptural hodgepodge - the former British chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once described the Bible as a bunch of Jews arguing with each other, and some of us rather like that sort of thing. Evidently you're more of a systems man. The point, for me, is that the two things are not really susceptible of comparison. Whatever you think about the scriptures, they were written and compiled under wholly different circumstances and for different reasons from, say, the writings of Seneca (to use the Stoic example). A more appropriate comparison would be Seneca and St Augustine.

Kishkumen wrote:I am not holding myself up as a paragon of ethical sophistication. No, what I see here is how badly we have been robbed, how inadequate my education has been. I can’t help but think that the victory of Christianity is partly to blame. Pagan philosophy retreated from the public sphere and became ever more the preserve of an increasingly tiny elite. The masses got sacraments and Bible readings.


There are really two responses to this. The first, rather banal response is that classical philosophy was always more or less an élite pursuit. You only have to read Aristophanes' Clouds to see how it was perceived by mass opinion. If there is evidence that the Stoics - or the Epicureans, or the Peripatetics, or the Platonists - ever amounted to a mass movement, I am unaware of it. All I can think of off hand is a rhetorical reference in a biography of Plotinus to the effect that even the common people adopted his doctrines, but I don't think that counts for much. If anything, one gets the impression that philosophical schools were self-consciously élitist, both intellectually and socially (and sometimes politically). I love Plato, for example, but he and followers of his like Plotinus were amongst the worst offenders.

The second, and much more interesting, response is that classical philosophy merged seamlessly into Christian theology. This is a matter of historical record. In patristic writings, you find a recurring desire to plug the faith of Christ into the pagan philosophical tradition, and this bore fruit with the likes of Justin Martyr, Origen and indeed St Augustine. Certainly, the Stoics were profoundly influential on early Christian thought, arguably going back to St Paul. One could multiply examples. Clement of Alexandria would be unimaginable without the influence of pagan philosophy. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is profoundly indebted to Platonism. The last great anti-Christian philosophical movement of antiquity was Neoplatonism, and yet who was the culmination of that movement? Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a Christian.

I think some of the dichotomies need to be deconstructed here.
_Meadowchik
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Re: Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _Meadowchik »

I was impressed by my brief glance at Stoicism. Also I agree that Christianity seems to be inadequate in addressing some very difficult problems. What about narcissistic abuse? Do you turn your other cheek forever?

Myself, I was stuck in a miserable relationship because we both believed Spencer W. Kimball's promise that any good man and any good woman can have a successful marriage. Finally, I was able to extricate myself.

I think about the implications of such counsel, especially on those who gave it. It's not surprising to me, when the marriage formula in Mormonism requires fidelity, service in the church, and raising faithful children. It's not exactly about the quality of the relationship itself, but it's productivity for the church.

Back to general Christianity, though, and narcissists. I don't believe in forgiveness, per se, but rather in healthy boundaries.
_Chap
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Re: Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _Chap »

Johannes wrote:The first, rather banal response is that classical philosophy was always more or less an élite pursuit. You only have to read Aristophanes' Clouds to see how it was perceived by mass opinion. If there is evidence that the Stoics - or the Epicureans, or the Peripatetics, or the Platonists - ever amounted to a mass movement, I am unaware of it.


Yup. We are talking about the choices that an intelligent and educated person might make.

Of course it is much easier nowadays for non-elite people to learn about the Stoics than it was in antiquity, so we may reasonably expect the range of choices available to ordinary people today to be much wider than they were two thousand years ago.

Johannes wrote: ... classical philosophy merged seamlessly into Christian theology. This is a matter of historical record. In patristic writings, you find a recurring desire to plug the faith of Christ into the pagan philosophical tradition, and this bore fruit with the likes of Justin Martyr, Origen and indeed St Augustine. Certainly, the Stoics were profoundly influential on early Christian thought, arguably going back to St Paul. One could multiply examples. Clement of Alexandria would be unimaginable without the influence of pagan philosophy.


Funny, isn't it? It is almost as if those early Christian thinkers realised that, on its own, their religion was not a very satisfactory world view for an intelligent person ...
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_Johannes
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Re: Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _Johannes »

Chap wrote:
Johannes wrote:The first, rather banal response is that classical philosophy was always more or less an élite pursuit. You only have to read Aristophanes' Clouds to see how it was perceived by mass opinion. If there is evidence that the Stoics - or the Epicureans, or the Peripatetics, or the Platonists - ever amounted to a mass movement, I am unaware of it.


Yup. We are talking about the choices that an intelligent and educated person might make.


We're at cross purposes. I was responding to Kish's point about classical philosophy being forced out of the public square. I'm not convinced that it was ever really in the public square in the first place, any more than Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius were in later times.

Chap wrote:Funny, isn't it? It is almost as if those early Christian thinkers realised that, on its own, their religion was not a very satisfactory world view for an intelligent person ...


You're being playful, of course, but this raises a serious point. Why would we expect a religious commitment to generate a systematic world-view? And, as I intimated above, there is the further question of whether systematic coherence is a good thing. I surmise that you and Kish are taking these points to be self-evident, but they aren't. That is why I think that taking something like the NT - which is basically a collection of people (with varying degrees of education, in as much as that matters) stuggling to make sense of what the life of Jesus means - and comparing it to the elegant coherence of something like the Nicomachean Ethics isn't a useful comparison. And I think that point holds without needing to get into the very boring question of which text is objectively superior.
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Re: Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _Always Changing »

Johannes wrote:I agree. Personally, I prefer the scriptural hodgepodge - the former British chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once described the Bible as a bunch of Jews arguing with each other, and some of us rather like that sort of thing. Evidently you're more of a systems man. The point, for me, is that the two things are not really susceptible of comparison. Whatever you think about the scriptures, they were written and compiled under wholly different circumstances and for different reasons from, say, the writings of Seneca (to use the Stoic example). A more appropriate comparison would be Seneca and St Augustine.
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The second, and much more interesting, response is that classical philosophy merged seamlessly into Christian theology. This is a matter of historical record. In patristic writings, you find a recurring desire to plug the faith of Christ into the pagan philosophical tradition, and this bore fruit with the likes of Justin Martyr, Origen and indeed St Augustine. Certainly, the Stoics were profoundly influential on early Christian thought, arguably going back to St Paul. One could multiply examples. Clement of Alexandria would be unimaginable without the influence of pagan philosophy. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is profoundly indebted to Platonism. The last great anti-Christian philosophical movement of antiquity was Neoplatonism, and yet who was the culmination of that movement? Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a Christian.

I think some of the dichotomies need to be deconstructed here.
Agreed. The OT is confusing, because it showed the development of Jewish thought through the centuries. Jesus (disregarding the issue of divinity for the moment) took many different things from it, and made it into a consistent whole.

Then the Early Church Fathers borrowed from the best of Greek and Roman systems. The CCC then quotes from them and later theologians to reintegrate all in the context of modern life. Tradition plus Scripture. The Protestant (in large part) rejection of Tradition is one reason for many of the dysfunctions. Yes, medieval Catholicism was grossly dysfunctional in many areas, due to illiteracy, corruption, and lack of access to books. Yet there were bright spots, mostly in the convents and monasteries, where learning continued.
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_Symmachus
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Re: Mormonism and Christianity, Inferior Philosophies?

Post by _Symmachus »

In find myself largely in agreement with the eloquent subtleties of Johannes, but I also find a great deal of sympathy with Kish's general point.

First, what Stoicism (and Epicureanism, and Neoplatonism) offered was at least something practical, even if it was largely the domain of elites (though let's not forget Epictetus): not only a conceptual means of ordering the world as philosophical systems but also of ordering one's experience in the world as a therepeutic practice. Stoicism is, in that sense, really the first form of "self-help" in the western tradition. As a result, someone like Seneca does not appear to be all that systematic because so much of what he addresses are particular situations, and classical philosophical systems aim for generalalities—indeed, St. Augustine was far more systematic than the old Roman stoic!

But it is that therapeutic aspect—how should I deal with my irritation at loud noise? how should I deal with the death of a loved one? where is my place in the cosmos? etc.—that these philosophical systems have most in common with ancient Christianity, probably in part because, as Johannes points out, Greek philosophy was poured into the Christian vessel. But why did this happen in the first place? Why, for example, were philosophers like Justin Martyr attracted to Christianity? It wasn't because of the Bible (the Christian canon wasn't even formed in the West till the fourth century and some Christians rejected large portions of it!) but because Christianity seemed to them better to address the ethical and personal concerns they faced as philosophers in the therapeutic mode of ancient philosophy.

Where I am most in sympathy with Kish is where the LDS Church has failed. For one thing, the Church has completely scrubbed 1800 years of Christian experience from the consciousness of its members. Never mind the fact that almost no Mormon understand the concept of the trinity that they derisively dismiss; nor the fact that they don't see the massive conceptual problems in their own system, problems which the trinity at least attempts to address. The fact is that one is not even allowed, let alone encouraged, to discover what is therapeutic in the Christian tradition. Mormons don't read St. Augustine or the Cappadocians, for example, because, obviously, they lived in apostasy and had no priesthood authority to pass out bread and water every seven days.

This isn't a question of intellectual sophistication, so let's bracket the fact that there's probably no god; this is just a question about learning how to think of one's experience as a Christian believer in the world of pain we inhabit (as the great thinker Walter Sobchak once articulated it). Just from a believer's experience, what is there for a Mormon to draw on in terms of personal devotion? Every other Christian tradition can go to a St. Augustine or Gregory the Great or the Cappadocian fathers or the desert ascetics or whomever. Sure, people who aren't intellectually curious might not go there, but their pastors usually will (because they're professional), and at the very least they won't object. Meanwhile, we got an old kook named Ezra Taft Benson who thought justice was a communist plot to raise taxes, or a socially awkward bird portraitist named Boyd who thinks funerals shouldn't be about the person who died, or, if we really want to go back, we have Joseph Smith promising that your dead baby will get to reign over a planet as a gnome-sized god. And if you do go to St. Ignatius of Loyola to find a way to reconstitute your world after it seems destroyed or what have you, be sure to keep quiet about it. There is no official way to form a social bond with like-minded people (e.g. intellectually obsessive catholics can be Jesuits, but Mormons of that type really have no home in the Church at all and are usually marginalized). And even unofficial associations (those awfully dangerous "symposia" that Elder Oaks wisely warned us about) are viewed with hostile suspicion.

And what has the Church replaced the Christian tradition with besides these "general authorities" who now admit to being authorities in nothing more general than running the LDS Church? Well, you can always go the temple, I suppose. Utah Mormonism doesn't answer many questions because the businessmen who run it never asked any questions in the first place and consequently they do not have a tragic sense of life, which is what Christianity responds to. The only thing they read the Book of Job for is a one liner they lean on to prove that the idea of "preexistence" has some biblical support. The whole damned point of the thing flies gloriously over their number-crunching heads. They seem not to understand that the appeal of classical Christianity was that the god who made this shit-hole of a world at least had the decency to try it on for size. One can buy that or not (I don't), but at least it's something.
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