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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Was Milton a Mormon?

Seriously, I'm starting to wonder... In the wake of Mitt Romney's speech on faith today in Texas, I trolled around a bit in the sub-basements of the blogosphere and internets, where you can find some serious hostility to Mormonism (or LDS, as they like to be called now). Not from the "religion of secularism" as Romney terms it, of course, but from Protestants, largely from evangelicals. What fascinates me is how certain debates never go away in Christianity. For instance, this from a site called Probe Ministries:
According to the Mormon view, Jesus is not unique from the rest of mankind. He is simply the firstborn spirit child. ... Mormon doctrine deviates significantly from the Bible, which teaches that Jesus is eternal and not procreated. Although Mormons teach that Jesus is eternal, what they mean is that He existed as a spirit child prior to His incarnation. Being an offspring of Elohim means He was created at some point in time.
Those of you up on your classic Christian heresies--and I know our readers are--will recognize this as an oldie but goodie, the first major doctrinal heresy: Arianism. Most scholars have traditionally seen Milton as an Arian based on some of his statements in Christian Doctrine and Paradise Lost (e.g., "Thee next they sang of all Creation first, / Begotten Son" from Book 3).

Then there's this from the same anti-Mormon site; I have no idea if it's true but it's kind of amazing:
Mormonism teaches that Jesus and Lucifer were involved in planning mankind's eternal destiny. In order to attain godhood like our heavenly parents, the spirit children needed to leave the presence of their heavenly Father, inhabit a physical body, and live a worthy life. Elohim knew that mankind would sin and thus require a savior to pay for sin and show us how to return to our heavenly father. At the heavenly council, Jesus and Lucifer proposed their plans. Lucifer offered to go to earth and be the savior but he wanted to force everyone to be saved and do everything himself. Jesus desired to give man the freedom of choice. The Father chose Jesus' plan. Angered by the decision, Lucifer persuaded one third of the spirit children to rebel and a war in heaven took place between Satan's forces and Jesus and His followers.
What a take on the war in Heaven! Consider it alongside Milton's view that Satan's rebellion begins because he is "fraught / With envie against the Son of God, that day / Honourd by his great Father, and proclaimd / Messiah King anointed..." (Book 5), and his depiction of the Father's query to the assembled angels in Book 3:
"Which of ye will be mortal, to redeem
Man's mortal crime, and just, the unjust to save?
Dwells in all Heaven charity so dear?"
He asked, but all the Heavenly Quire stood mute,
And silence was in Heaven.
For Milton too, there's a moment of choice in Heaven, and the possibility that someone other than the Son might have taken up the duty of becoming mortal to save mankind. And for Milton too, I think, this possibility is left open precisely so as to emphasize the free choice, not simply of human beings, but of the Son himself ("Such I created all the Ethereal Powers / And Spirits, both them who stood and them who failed; / Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell"). The intriguing bit about Lucifer and Jesus proposing alternative plans aside, this leads to another of the attacks on Mormonism from the evangelical Protestant community (at least as I read it): "Lucifer offered to go to earth and be the savior but he wanted to force everyone to be saved and do everything himself. Jesus desired to give man the freedom of choice."

Thus another site, "What is Mormonism?", decries this LDS belief:
The Jesus of the Bible taught that salvation is a free gift anyone can receive by accepting Him as your personal Savior, not by works (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:6 & 11:6; Philippians 3:9). The LDS Jesus taught that your level of exaltation was based on faith plus works determined by men. Thus, the Jesus of the Bible and the LDS Jesus can't be the same Jesus, as they taught mutually exclusive doctrine.
(Mormonism here seems to be subsumed into a traditional bit of anti-popery.) As one person who I think is LDS himself puts it: "Mormons often get lumped in with Pelagius, although I do think there are some important differences between the Pelagian view of Grace and the LDS view of Grace."

So, we have Mormons accused of both Arianism and Pelagianism. Milton would have felt right at home. (Well, his cosmology may have differed just a tad, but that's another can of worms...) When you think about it, in at least this respect, Mormons seem to be as traditional as Christianity gets, since you can't claim a more traditional lineage than being lumped in with those two hoary old heresies.

But does anyone out there know if this story about the alternative plans proposed by Lucifer and Jesus is an accurate representation of Mormon beliefs? It's amazing. What I love is that Lucifer's plan seems to be demonic only in that he wants to force people to be saved, rather than giving them freedom to choose salvation or damnation. (This sort of sounds like one of Satan's temptations in Paradise Regained, actually, doesn't it?)

The problem for evangelicals is that the LDS-Lucifer's demonic belief that he can "do everything himself" and must force humans to be saved (presumably because they can't/won't do it themselves) is perilously close to the view of God's "irresistible grace" that dominates in the more radical version of Protestantism that most evangelicals espouse and that they trace back to the Synod of Dort, a nice early modern place to end.

Sometimes I feel like we are living in 1618.

INSTANT UPDATE: I just realized that the LDS scriptures are online, and with a nice search function too. The story about Lucifer seems to derive from the Book of Moses, which is described as "An extract from the book of Genesis of Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, which he began in June 1830." I don't quite know what that means, but maybe others out there do. Anyway, here is Moses 4:1-4
1 And I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.
2 But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me—Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.
3 Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down;
4 And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.
Wow. Satan "sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him." There must be some interesting research out there into the debates around Pelagianism and Protestant doctrines of irresistible grace during the time of Joseph Smith ...

  • At 12/07/2007 01:51:00 AM, Blogger James wrote…

    Isn't it wonderful how Smith dutifully recreates 1611 English for the LDS scriptures? KJ6/1 would be so proud that his legacy includes teaching the angels how to speak.

    With all those wagons trundling westward in the 19th century with a library consisting only of the Bible and Paradise Lost, surely some revival of Milton-filtered heresy had to have taken root out here in Deseret, even without the help of Smiths and Youngs and all that crowd.

    Seriously, though, Mormons are wacky.


  • At 12/07/2007 10:43:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Or maybe, "Was Smith a Miltonist?" (Or, if someone is a member of the Church of LDS, I guess that question becomes, "Is God a Miltonist?")


  • At 12/07/2007 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I may have more to say about this later, but for now two comments:

    1. I have an ex-Mormon academic friend (not a Renaissance scholar) who has always maintained that her early love for Milton was based upon the similarities between Paradise Lost and some of the accounts in the Book of Mormon. Her theory is that Joseph Smith was either consciously, or more likely subconsciously, incorporating elements from PL in his account of the War in Heaven, etc. I guess we'd have to know more about Smith's reading habits, but this seems entirely possible to me--anyone who's read PL often enough knows how hard it is to remember exactly how and where it differs from Genesis. In other words? Milton wasn't a Mormon, but the Mormons may be Miltonists.

    2. This summer I had the dubious pleasure of attending this event. It was actually a little dull, but the crazy fundy protesters out in full force were worth it. People yelling through bullhorns about salvation being only through faith in JC, not works? Kinda awesome.


  • At 12/07/2007 10:51:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Flavia: that spectacle you attended looks decidedly un-dull in the pictures and I want to go.

    Note to all LDS members trolling the web: I wrote my post without suggesting anything about the Mormon scriptures not being divinely inspired. So you want to direct your emails to the commenters here, not to me.


  • At 12/08/2007 01:29:00 PM, Blogger Renaissance Girl wrote…

    I’ve been torn about responding to this post, mostly because I am reluctant to out myself as a Mormon. (I’m fiercely private about my faith, and don’t wish it to be intruded upon even by members of my own faith; moreover, I don’t wish to suggest that my spirituality looks anything like that of other Mormons—my view is that there are about 6.1 billion religions in the world.) Nevertheless, it’s a good topic, and may demystify a bit a religions that is sometimes only vaguely (or mis-) understood, and you’ve introduced it with admirable sensitivity, Hieronimo. Plus, it relates to a conversation happening elsewhere in the blogosphere about the familiarity/ alterity of old texts.

    I wasn’t observant from my early adolescence until well into my adulthood. When I started practicing, it was largely as a consequence of having read Milton. In my first read through Milton, I experienced none of the disorientation that characterized my classmates’ responses to the theology of Paradise Lost etc. Rather, its near-Pelagianism and its Arianism rang true with distant memories of childhood spirituality. Add to that a dash of Arminianism (in the obsession with the sanctity of reasoned choice) and a Zwinglian Eucharist, and ladies and gentlemen, Milton becomes a posterboy for Mormon theology. Yes, Hieronimo—all of our heresies are old ones. We just have them in unique combination.

    There’s a formerly promising Milton scholar who has, sadly, spent much of his scholarly mind in recent years pursuing these connections. (Always sad to see a subtle thinker turn parochial.) You can look at his stuff if you’re interested; it’s all in the MLA bibliography: John S. Tanner.


  • At 12/09/2007 01:09:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Thanks for the interesting follow-up, Renaissance Girl (since you're anonymous, you haven't really outed yourself at all!) No one would mistake me for a Christian in any sense of the word, but if anything were to convert me, it'd be Paradise Lost.

    What fascinates me about the passage is that what Satan is trying to do--what's so satanic apparently, as I read the passage--is to force people to be saved. That's not what I would have expected from a religion that I associate with a fairly aggressive kind of missionary evangelism. (It's not that there's any strict logical contradiction here, but the tone of the appeal just feels unexpected to me given the missionizing zeal... then again, maybe this has something to do with why LDS seems to be so successful at evangelizing?) It's so interesting that, at least as I read it, the only real difference between Christ and Satan is that one gives humans free choice to be saved while the other saves them forcibly. Again, it reminds me of all the ways that Milton kind of shockingly parallels Christ and Satan (e.g., Satan's articulation of his solo mission to earth in Book 2)--but it goes way beyond Milton in viewing Satan (at least at this point in the story) as wanting not the fall but the salvation of humans (am I misunderstanding the import of the passage?) but just by invalid means. There's a pretty radical conception of human freedom in that passage...


  • At 12/09/2007 12:40:00 PM, Blogger James wrote…

    I would like to apologize for pre-emptively lowering the tone of what has turned out to be a great conversation with my blithely-weilded cudgel of a remark earlier, and to my LDS buddies (many of whom are, in fact, wacky, but not in a way they can blame on their religion).


  • At 12/10/2007 03:06:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Quoth Hieronimo:

    "No one would mistake me for a Christian in any sense of the word, but if anything were to convert me, it'd be Paradise Lost."

    You, me, Stanley Fish, and countless others.


  • At 12/12/2007 04:10:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    BtR beat the big blogs to this story, but it looks like "Was Satan the brother of Jesus?" might become a campaign issue.

    It's starting to feel more and more like 1618.


  • At 12/12/2007 04:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    After finishing a semester of teaching both PL and various heresies to a student body largely made up of LDS-ers, I'm loving this discussion.

    We've addressed Pelagianism and Arianism, but has anyone mentioned Montanism, speaking of hoary old heresies? Montanus and Joseph Smith have more than a little in common. I'm sure this has occurred frequently to better people than myself.


  • At 12/12/2007 04:27:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    For those of you not up on Montanus, here's the Wikipedia entry.

    Now here's the OrthodoxWiki entry, where apparently copying from Wikipedia is kosher.


  • At 12/13/2007 07:45:00 PM, Blogger Renaissance Girl wrote…

    No. Not Montanism, unless you want to limit the vast field of Montanism's innovations to its founder's claim of personal revelation. Smith never claimed to BE the Holy Spirit. And interestingly, Mormon theology holds that everyone (not just Mormons, btw) is entitled to revelations--that revelation is how God communicates with his children.

    Simplicius (and, by extension, Huckabee): concerning Mormon belief in the brotherhood of Satan and Jesus: only insofar as God created them both.


  • At 12/13/2007 08:13:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Sorry, by "this story" in my earlier comment, I meant the Mormon understanding of the fall and the relationship between Jesus and Lucifer. I didn't mean to imply that we were discussing (or endorsing) the view that J&L were brothers.

    I'm still blown away by the idea that part of Satan's demonic mistake was wishing to save all mankind and seeking "to destroy the agency of man." Sullivan et. al should be linking to H's post.

    Oh, and if I were God, I would have totally signed on with Lucifer--I'd rather save souls and share the glory instead of damn people to hell and retain all the glory for myself. Someday I'll have to write a post on this whole issue.


  • At 12/14/2007 12:08:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    But then again, in Paradise Lost, Milton too refers to the demons (in their pre-fallen angelic state) as "sons" of God. All the angels are considered "sons", aren't they?


  • At 12/14/2007 10:13:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Yeah, we're all the children of God, but Jesus is the only Son of God. We're all brothers and sisters, but not with Jesus and Satan. This clearly is an issue that is not derived from logically consistent and verifiable evidence.


  • At 12/14/2007 07:56:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Hm. Does Milton describe the angels as "sons of God"? Satan certainly does, in both PL and PR--most famously in his statement "The Son of God. . . bears no single sense;/The Son of God I also am, or was,/And if I was, I am; relation stands;/All men are Sons of God" (PR 4.517-20)--but I'm not sure that the narrative voice of either poem endorses this language.

    Does it?


  • At 12/14/2007 08:15:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    You may be right, Flavia. But there's this bit from book 5, 443ff:

    Mean while at Table Eve
    Ministerd naked, and thir flowing cups
    With pleasant liquors crown'd: O innocence
    Deserving Paradise! if ever, then,
    Then had the Sons of God excuse to have bin
    Enamour'd at that sight; but in those hearts
    Love unlibidinous reign'd, nor jealousie
    Was understood, the injur'd Lovers Hell.


  • At 12/15/2007 11:33:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    But that's not exactly Milton, is it? The episode alluded to is Genesis 6, and I believe that "sons of God" there had traditionally been interpreted as referring to angels. M is accepting that reading, obviously, but (not being a biblical scholar) I'm not sure what other interpretive options were available.

    (Incidentally: I have a colleague who's right now designing a class called "Angelic Sex"--among other things, I'd had no idea just how much human-angel sex there is in the Bible.)


  • At 12/15/2007 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Re: angelic sex; when I teach Milton, I always make sure to include the passage from book 8 (even if we're skipping book 8) on the subject, about which Adam asks Raphael:

    To whom the Angel, with a smile that glowed
    Celestial rosy-red, Love's proper hue,
    Answered:—"Let it suffice thee that thou know'st
    Us happy, and without Love no happiness.
    Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy'st
    (And pure thou wert created) we enjoy
    In eminence, and obstacle find none
    Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars.
    Easier than air with air, if Spirits embrace,
    Total they mix, union of pure with pure
    Desiring, nor restrained conveyance need
    As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul.

    Nor that's good sex.


  • At 12/15/2007 12:13:00 PM, Blogger James wrote…

    Angelic sex may be good, Hieronimo, but I've always loved the fact that Adam is not convinced by Raphael's rather snooty endorsement of it. And I'm with Adam (and Milton) on this. Give me membranes, joints, and limbs any day. Angels don't get "sweet, reluctant, amorous, delay."


  • At 12/15/2007 03:33:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    This makes me think of the melancholy gay angels in the last book of Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Given the box office flop that is "The Golden Compass" it seems unlikely that Hollywood will get to tackling the third book, which is a shame. Take that, fundagelicals!


  • At 12/15/2007 03:37:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    PS Isn't there something in Orthodox Jewish culture about angels getting aroused by married womens' hair? Or did I dream that.


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