The Context of Perfection
Some of you might have seen the Tribune’s report about return missionary Micah Wilder who is a member of a band of Mormon converts to evangelical Christianity.
Reading the Bible more closely, Wilder says, that he has discovered that the Mormon God is too vengeful rather than forgiving. Naturally, orthodox Mormons disagree. The latter emphasize eternal progression and insist that the Mormon God that they learned about in primary is forgiving. The atheist and evangelical critics point out that no matter how much you do in Mormonism, it never is enough.
The question whether sacrament based religions can assure the faithful that God has forgiven them is much older than Mormonism and goes back to the roots of the Reformation. Realizing that he could not undo his sins, Martin Luther suffered tremendous anxiety striving to repent. Realizing that forgiveness depended not on his own efforts but on Christ’s atonement, Luther proclaimed that grace, not works such as partaking of sacraments and going to confession, was humanity’s salvation.
Luther’s theological views became relevant to western Christianity when popes and bishops financed their campaigns for office and their vanity projects with the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a document that invoked papal authority to redeem oneself or one’s parents, children, and ancestors from purgatory, where according to contemporary belief the dead had to suffer until they had paid for their sins.
Luther’s opposition to indulgences marks the origin of the Reformation. The Reformation de-emphasizes works, as in the participation in sacraments, in favor of grace.
In contrast to Luther, sacraments are essential to Joseph Smith. In that regard, Mormonism is more Catholic than Protestant.
Although salvation is beyond my expertise, I would like to take issue with a common misreading of the Sermon on the Mount in Mormon circles. On the Trib’s discussion forum, UtahRez claims, for example, that the LDS Church’s demands on its members are justifiable in terms of Christ’s admonition: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
In the context of Matthew 5, it is clear that UtahRez’s reading of Matthew is false. Matthew 5:48 does not mean that Christians need to live a perfect live. What Christ reportedly means by perfection becomes obvious when we read the verse in the Sermon’s context:
43. “You have heard that it was said, `YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’
44. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45. so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47. “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Christ is criticizing his audience for extending their love only to their brothers, which is not particularly virtuous. Even sinners love those who love them. But the people of God need to have perfect love that includes even their enemies.
The fact that Christ is not talking about living a perfect live but exercising perfect love becomes clear in context. Although there must be many Mormons who do read Biblical passages in context, seminary’s emphasis on memorization of short passages and the lack of theological training of missionaries and other priesthood authorities does render us not only vulnerable to evangelical criticism but the resulting misunderstandings do have real life consequences.
In Mormon culture, misreading life instead of love has two consequences. First, there is a lot of unnecessary anxiety that we could discard if we understood that Jesus did not mean that we need to have perfect gardens, keep diaries perfectly, and home teach 100%, for example. Second, we would be better neighbors if we understood that we have an obligation not only to other Mormons and potential converts but also to people who do not want to participate in the Mormon way of life.
That would be perfect.