Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mormonism as Hermetic Christianity (part 1)

I have to admit to being remarkably ignorant about the Mormon religion prior to a few weeks ago.  I had always viewed Mormonism as a legalistic branch of Christianity combined with a ridiculous story about Jesus having come to America to preach to American Indians.   For all the exotic religions from the ancient world, from the middle ages, from the more recent past, I'd explored I never looked at a faith with 6 million modern day Americans with anything more than a passing glance because I assumed there would be nothing interesting to see.   And just recently with one of those passing glances I did a double take.  I ran into an internet discussion with a bunch of religious Mormons the kind that don't know what coffee tastes like and were married by 23, using authors from History of Religions in a religious debate, the sort of authors and more importantly concepts that usually only atheists or radical theologians would cite; and the Mormons showed clear signs of having read, understood and at least in some part approving of those books.

And so I was caught off guard, so I read more and more of the discussions on that board, and saw ideas from esoteric Christianity,  what looked to me like ideas from Rosicrucianism, being used casually.  A bunch of people who all think George W. Bush was a good president, citing religious ideas that Paul Tillich might think but would figure too radical to speak?  This warranted more investigation.  And after a few weeks I've come to the conclusion that Morminism is genuinely cool.   A truly new American religion, a blend of ingredients I've never seen before.  That would be worthy of discussion in and of itself but a month ago if you would have asked me, "what would happen if a Conservative version of Helena Blavatsky had set up a mainstream church that grew to millions and thinks it's part of Evangelical Christianity"? I would have considered the question an oxymoron, not even possible enough to warrant discussion,  until I looked at Brigham Young's church.  I must admit I'm still getting over the idea of KJVonlyists who are to the left of Elizabeth Johnson on re-imaging God with Holy Mother(s).   If you are someone who likes this blog, and haven't looked into Mormonism, I'll stop you right here and say this is religion worth looking at.  It is frankly amazing that such a thing even exists much less is a church with million and millions of members, who have been in the church for 5-7 generations plus new recruits.  It is shattering many of my assumptions about what is possible.

Mormons defines itself as a close cousin of Evangelical Christianity   Evangelical Christianity defines itself first and foremost in terms of adherence to Protestant doctrines.  Protestantism defines itself based on: its definition of scripture, faith defined by creeds, its understanding of grace within a narrow band between Luther and Calvin, a creedal understanding of Christ, and a rejection of sacramental theology. All 5 of which are contradicted by Mormon theology, and contradicted not by a little bit, either.  From an evangelical standpoint 7th day Adventists, sit on the border between Christianity and heresy; Jehovah's witnesses while Christian are preaching clear cut heresies and Mormons well is just another religion.The paradox that gets beaten to death on the web is "Is Mormon Christian?"  Now the average evangelical who understands something about Mormonism usually responds with some variation of, "What are you kidding?"

Ah but... Mormonism is a very theologically tolerant religion.   It takes an open view of relationship between theology and religion, we are not saved by our knowledge of biblical doctrine.  Catholicism fought against the ancient alternative forms of Christianity with a: one God, one creed, one Bishop slogan.  And while Protestant Christianity has rejected the "one Bishop" in their mind that requires they cling all the more tightly to "one creed".   So,  is it really fair to use a evangelical standard, or can we possibly come up with some sort of neutral standard?  There wouldn't even be a question if Mormonism didn't identify heavily with Evangelical Christianity, but it does, and further culturally and linguistically there are a lot of similarities.  It would be hard to imagine someone who didn't take the ties with Evangelical Christianity serious writing an argument or an article like the Apostle's creed and the book of Mormon.   Self identification is a key criteria, so we should treat it as respectfully as possible.  As an aside, the argument about the Apostle's creed IMHO ducks the key issue, most evangelicals are willing to grant that at the time the book of Mormon was authored Joseph Smith was still essentially Christian in his religious views, its the developments after that, the beliefs that are held over and beyond those which are of at this point the largest source of conflict.  And this is evidenced by the fact that a more mainstream group than the LDS, a group that rejects the later revelations, The Community of Christ, joined the NCC in 2010 (link), without the later revelations there simply is not nearly the same degree of theological hurdles.  

So I actually have something different to say about this never ending debate; a possible compromise on the "is Mormon Christian" debate which:
  1. Is historically accurate and is not an abuse of language.  
  2. Is supportive of Mormon theology regarding being a restored church.  It provides some genuine historical meat to what is otherwise a vague claim, making "we are the re-established, original Christian church" plausible in a genuine historical context, capable of holding up to scrutiny and scholarship.     
  3. Is respectful of the theological objections that Catholics and Protestants express towards Mormonism by openly acknowledging their "non-normative" theology.  
  4. Offers a plausible theory for how the distinctive aspects of the Mormon faith developed as quickly as they did, and why Mormonism diverged from "normative" Christianity as far as it did under Brigham Young.  
What I'm proposing is that we answer the question in the affirmative, Mormonism is a form of Hermetic Christianity, a form of Christianity that coexisted in the ancient world along with Catholic Christianity, and has continued to off and on exist throughout the next two millennia.    Before getting into my argument for that answer let me first qualify by saying there are a few problems with this solution.  
  1. The Mormon church is probably over ten-times the size of all the other Hermetic churches worldwide, put together.  Mainline or Evangelical Christianity are big enough that the Church of Later Day Saints could be "just another denomination" if grouped with Hermetic Christianity the Mormon church would redefine the entire group.
  2. Culturally they are not a fit.  Hermetic Christianity has a 1000 year history of having essentially always been associated with political and/or sexual radicalism.  Hermetic Christian churches further have a more limited ecclesiology,  they aim to be an activity their members engage in, they make no attempt to form an inter-generational relationship guiding their lives.     
  3. Because of (2) above, this doesn't address the core issue in terms of ecumenical dialogue, which is I suspect the main reason Mormons want to identify as Evangelical Christians.  The religions themselves travel in different circles.  Hermetic Christians groups in today's world along with Gnostic Christianity,   form a bridge between the left end of Liberal Christianity and Neopaganism, New Age movement, Spiritualism...  Its unlikely the people in those groups know who Al Mohler or John MacArthur even are, much less have a desire for their acceptance.  If evangelicals came in contact with Hermetic Churches, while the counter arguments would be different, the level of hostility would likely be almost equally high.  
So a fairly good case could be made that this article is irrelevant, I'm just ducking the issue.  But I think its worth a conversation as a possible compromise.   So lets start with a quick discussion about what is Hermeticism and Hermetic Christianity.  In the ancient world, Hermeticism was a branch of Egyptian paganism created after Alexander the Great, merging the cults of Hermes, the Greek messenger (writing) god, the source of hidden wisdom, and for later Greeks the Logos; and Thoth an Egyptian god, the only begotten son of Ra the high god, who was the teacher of man, the god of writing.
 The attraction for both sides was a well developed magick (we'll adopt the Hermetic convention of using magic for a form of stagecraft involving illusion and magick for ritual activities aimed at altering the material world through supernatural means) cult in each of the respective religions.   Hermeticism became an international religion, centered in Egypt, focused on creating a synthesis between Platonic philosophy and its religious offshoots with more traditional, religious forms.  To left you see pictured the Hermetic symbol, the symbol of Hermes Trismegistus,  their merged God which has the the Ankh of Thoth merged with the twin snakes  of Hermes.  For later Hellenists, Hermes Trismegistus was the Logos who had become incarnate to teach man hidden wisdoms of the high God, including the magick healing i.e. medicine.  You can see the obvious derivation with today's modern symbol for medicine, pictured to the right.  I'll won't focus on the obvious symbolism of the cross but will (link) and mention in the Coptic church even today you can see Ankh crosses, hybrids between the Ankh and the cross and these go back to the 1st century.

In many ways this was exactly the goal of Hellenistic Judaism, to create a merger between Jewish ritual and theology with Greek culture and philosophy.  This friendly alliance between Hermitics and Hellenistic Jews was strengthened with Julius Caesar's and Mark Anthony's conquest of Egypt.  Hermetics rejected Roman rule and got involved political resistance, Jews were fighting the occupation of Judea and Roman customs and laws like circumcision prohibitions; another great friendship forged based on "the enemy of my enemy".    This merger is evidence in both the literature and archeology of 1st century Judaism, its from this period that we find a wealth of Jewish magical amulets all over the ancient world using Hermetic incantations modified with Jewish / Babylonian angels rather than Egyptian / Greek names.   Jewish Hermeticism sought to reinterpret Hermes Trismegistus with the Logos, the divine word or message reinterpret as Torah (the first 5 books of the old testament), the Word of God in essentially modern usage.  Now if we consider the Gospel of Mark for a moment
  • A long Jewish midrash, a religious biography of a messianic character constructed from the Septuagint.
  • Miracles of healing including their wording a magical character (see for example Morton's Smith, Jesus the Magician for a long discussion of magick as a theme of Mark).  
  • An adoptionist view of Jesus, in particular a description, bird and all (Mark 1:9-11), of the Hermetic magick rite for gaining divine powers.
  • The idea that the God, has secrets (the Messianic secret) openly only to the select few, a motif that hadn't appeared in Judaism to this point but was common in Hermeticism.  
  • A focus on baptism, common for Jewish baptismal cults.
  • The Hermetic eating the god rite, eucharist, presented in a Jewish context (Mark 14:22-26).  
Hermetic Jews / proto-Christians are by far the community most likely to have authored Mark.    The same relationship that Mark has to Matthew and Luke (Mack the Knife, and biblical development) is founding underlying the Gospel of John, is a Signs Gospel which presents a list of earthly miracle worker in the Jewish community as a savior (see my post Bultmann's order for John for more on the construction of the Gospel of John).  A focused tie on the connection between magick and revelation of truth which could have emerged from a Hermetic Jewish / proto-Christian community.

In terms of the Epistles, we also run into some pretty clear evidence in Colossians 2:8-23:

  • Col 2:8, Col 2:20 manipulation of matter through spirits, secret magick rituals; 
  • Col 2:11 circumcision, the importance of earthly acts to control powers,  Hermeticism is not gnostic "as above is below" is the core idea of magick.  
  • Col 2:16-17 special ritual holidays
  • Col 2:18 angel worship, a truly distinctive part of Hermetic Judaism provides the strongest evidence for the identification
  • Col 2:21-23 legalism, a focus on ritual purity for the laity.  
The opponents in Galatians, the Judaizers, with their demand for an earthly circumcision could very easily have been Hermetic proto-Christians.  Interestingly enough, Paul's own methodology, of searching through scripture for mystical revelation has a Hermetic feel but then the lack of earthly action is Gnostic.  And can view Paul, a 2nd generation Christian trying to steer the church between the two extreme of Hermeticism and proto-Gnosticism.   Corinthians provides a wonderful example where he seems to be confronted with a congregation unable to decide whether material things are of no importance (Gnosticism) or what is bound on earth is bound in heaven (Hermeticism).  We can imagine the world of Paul, confronting a Hermetic i.e. messianic congregation which has seen its earthly expectations of redemption crushed under Roman might.  Jewish / Christian Gnosticism started as a reaction against what the Jews believes was their defeated god, fake god, a god who had promised that his faithful would be redeemed and then allowed them to be humiliated and defeated.  Paul's message that it was not an earthly redemption, and far from a defeat that the cross represented a heavenly triumph against the powers and principalities would have represented an appealing message.   When reading the epistles you can hear Paul viewing early Christianity caught between Scylla and Charybdis, Paul moving the congregation away from both magical thinking, believing they could change the course of human history through supernatural means;  and at the same time fighting the utter dispair in history and this world that Gnosticism represented.  In Paul's 7 authentic epistles we can view a second generation of Hermetic Jew, his Christianity which will uphold the power of the material sacraments, codes of morality while asserting that their effects are heavenly not earthly; in effect moving his congregation from proto-Christianity to Christianity.   Jude can be seen in the same light loaded with mystical references and obscure literature while still asserting the key importance of earthly events.


Revelations is traditional apocalyptic literature, that could have been written at almost anytime.    The theology is Hermetic with an interplay between levels of heaven.  For example giving birth to a heavenly savior with a dragon cast down to represent the beasts of the earth and land.     It could very easily have been an earlier work recast with the Christian community recasting Jesus as God's earthly redeemer.  


Hebrews presents a mythical savior as a new form of priest establishing a new type of mythical priesthood, based on a new heavenly sacrifice in his heavenly sanctuary where he acts as High Priest making ineffectual earthly sacrifices.  Nope not Hermetic Judaism.  Hermetic Judaism would have been an argument that earthly sacrifices are effectual because they mimic the heavenly sacrifices of the heavenly Christ in his heavenly temple, or that the earthly ones aren't close enough to actually work.   Hebrews is also unavoidably early, as it predates the destruction of the temple, so this theory of origins is going to require a belief in at least one other strand of early Christianity.    But in the Essenes we have obvious candidates for its original authors.  And we both sides of this for James, an early version from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the later "Christianized" version which is canonical James.  And that solution of the Essenes would work for Hebrews as well, an argument for community holiness and God's deliverance over what they saw as Herod's perverse temple.     So for the purpose of believing in a unique early church we could have the Hermetic Judaism influencing the Essenes and then literature passing between those communities.

The pastoral epistles with their obvious 2nd century references, as well as most of the catholic epistles belong to a later phase; a community done migrating from Judaism, that has concerns over governance.  The two main strands of Q: Greek cynical philosophy and Jewish apocalyptic traditions are not part of Hermetic Judaism.  Matthew's theology would not have come from this group, though again the Essenes would work.    Similarly Luke/Acts (and even the earlier form of Luke, The Gospel of the Lord) is not Hermetic Jewish either but I'd date this well in 2nd century.  The reworking Signs into John, is hard to date with confidence but we can be assured its later than most other works in the New Testament. Hence,  those remaining books present no contradiction to the theory.

Hermetic Judaism was even without any other influence already a fairly complete proto-Christianity.   It could very well have represented the original church, the church that authored most of the bible.  A plausible source for the sort of group a primitive Christianity could initially have emerged from.  This sort of naturalistic framework for viewing the bible is fully in accord with Mormon tradition:
“The Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible from which translations have been made, are evidently very much corrupted,…the learned are under the necessity of translating from such mutilated, imperfect, and, in very many instances, contradictory copies as still exist. This uncertainty, combined with the imperfections of uninspired translators, renders the Bibles of all languages, at the present day, emphatically the words of men, intead of the pure word of God.” (Pratt, Spiritual Gifts
We will stop here and take up the rest of the argument in the 2nd half.
  • What happened to pagan Hermeticism and its collapse into Catholic Christianity, Hermes Christianus.    
  • Hermetic Christianity, its disappearance from the ancient world and its rebirth as a religion of European aristocrats and religious radicals.  
  • How a religion of European aristocrats might have made contact, transformed and been reborn in a middle / lower class rural American sect run by Brigham Young.   
___________

See also:

13 comments:

Jettboy said...

I am wondering what blogs you were reading? I didn't see them referenced. At any rate, as a Mormon I think you are in a worthwhile direction with this, but are also missing some deviance from Hermetic tradition. Mormonism supports such as the physicality of spirit and spirituality of the material, not supported by either Hermetic or Normative Christianity.

Visit my "http://jettboy.blogspot.com" if you have any questions or would like feedback from an actual Mormon.

CD-Host said...

Jettboy --

Thanks for stopping by the blog! Hope you subscribed to comments. Glad you agree with the Hermetic Christian approach in general. Which proves my point about the open mindedness I've been seeing in the community and that has won my respect.

Yes I'd love more on those 2 aspects. I'm not sure what you mean by physicality of spirit and spirituality of the material? I know of spirituality of the material from newage / animist type faiths, I assume that's not what's meant. I tried googling those terms with Mormon and no dice... so I'm all ears.

I'll also drop by your blog for an entirely different conversation.

As far as the blogs it started with http://ldstalk.wordpress.com/ and then http://summatheologica.wordpress.com/ (appears to be ignoring comments, read only mode). But since then I've read probably about a dozen others. Yours being one of them. And on most of them I've seen the same kind of well informed, open minded approach.

Jettboy said...

Sorry for confusing you with those terms, as they are my own describing Mormons rejection of the usual spiritual/material dichotomy that Hellenism and the the Hermetic take for granted. I would suggest starting with this materialism and Mormonism post to get an idea what I was meaning. Another good place to start is this speculative introduction to Joseph Smith's teachings on Mormon Metaphysics.

CD-Host said...

Hmm those were good links. You are making an interesting point about the nature of early 19th century materialism, the spirit is material.

Anyway I'm going to read a bit more on this. So... now that I understand your original point, I'm unclear how this conflicts with Hermetic Christianity. It would seem to me that this is fully consist with the Hermetic view "as above is below" that there is a bridge between body and spirit and that the bridge is two way. Bodily things can effect spiritual things, and spiritual things can effect bodily things.

It seems to be that Mormon theory of spirit is absolutely dependent on this central dogma? Without it, if you are going to take a materialist view, why bother having "spirit" or "soul" in the system at all? Clearly Mormons believe there is something besides the body, that exists, there is a you that undergoes mortal probation(s). It appears that Joseph Smith saw this spirit aspect as atemporal, that is unable to react which is really useful because it make sense of what the point of an earthly life is. Body has properties like temporality that spirit does not. God needs to be able to interact with matter thus must be temporal.

Moral perfection has some role in the system but I'm not sure what it is yet, can you fill me in?

I also am still a little unclear on the connection. I guess, what is the tie between my spirit and my life in any meaningful sense? I get how the spirit can refer to my body as "its probation", I'm not sure how the body can refer to the spirit as "my spirit" and moreover, using the language in this way seems to be jumping right back into the dualism that the system was designed to avoid.

I like the idea that Orson Pratt is addressing mechanism head on within a materialist framework. I actually personally am a mechanist and don't find it at all absurd that we can construct thought from organization of matter but I agree that in the 19th century many many thinkers did have that problem and did see it as absurd. Computers, probably more than anything else have changed people's mind on that. So I assume the thinking has changed to some extent?

I did like the liberty pages links: 3 views

But again, I love the fact that Mormons are actively thinking about this issue. Platonism is obsessed with this question, but I honestly never knew there was any non-Platonic school outside of the enlightenment that even tried to answer the question in a Christian way. The kind of pagan dualism of Platonism is common in today's Christianity that's why over 1/2 of evangelicals no longer believe in a bodily resurrection, even while claiming to support the creeds. Obviously normative Christianity has failed to answer the question what is the point of creation, even to its most ardent supporters.

As an aside, I should also mention that up until roughly the 1920s while scientists had discovered other galaxies, in general the universe was seen as what we would today call the galaxy and the galaxy was seen as relatively static. Its hard for us in 2011 to understand how much are thinking changed because "the big bang" was instantly adopted by our culture because it resolved the heated "science vs. creation" debate in a crucial way, at least in the popular mind.

Jettboy said...

"unclear how this conflicts with Hermetic Christianity."

Perhaps I don't understand fully what Hermetic Christianity is, but Mormons since Brigham Young have been strongly against the "Spiritualist" movements that seem to be a part of the nomenclature. Perhaps you recognized this when stating that Mormons don't walk in the same circles as Hermetics, and wouldn't want to.

Maybe the differences haven't been articulated enough within Mormonism other than vague notions that something doesn't sit well with theological assumptions. If I may take a guess, it would have to do with issues of authority and, like any traditional Christian, demonic influences. Perhaps your right that Mormon materialism jumps, "right back into the dualism that the system was designed to avoid." In other words, typical Hermetic systems go a bridge too far in wiping out the dualism. Spirit and and Body are material, but not made of the same and therefore interact with reality differently. You have basically run into a Mormon discussion that has been going on since Joseph Smith about how far to take the similarities and dichotomies of material and spiritual (impressive for a non-Mormon who just discovered what most people have no idea exists).

Again, going by what Mormonism teaches about the purpose of life and eternity, the whole reason for Earth life is to ultimately fuse the spiritual and physical into a single entity. Think of the analogy of two desperate metals heated and refined together until they create a stronger material. As one of the Mormon scriptures reads, "this is life eternal, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." That can only be done by a final resurrection of body and spirit together as a single unbreakable unit.

"Moral perfection has some role in the system but I'm not sure what it is yet, can you fill me in?"

I would suggest reading Alma 42 in the Book of Mormon, explaining the interaction of mercy and judgement as conflicting sides of God that He must navigate. This should be read in conjunction with Mosiah 16 that talks about the relationship of Resurrection and morality. Finally, it would be good to read D&C 76 about the three degrees of Glory. It would be impossible to answer your question briefly in one paragraph.

Jettboy said...

Oh, and hurry up with Part II. I want to hear the rest of your thoughts ;)

CD-Host said...

Jettboy --

Well the 1600 years between the mid 2nd century and the 19th ended up sucking too much material to add to it all the Mormon transition material. Hopefully I get this finished at part 3. I don't think this will drag on beyond that, but this idea is taking longer to elaborate than I would have liked. I keep thinking can skip stuff, and I went really really fast in part 2 but there is just no getting around some details.

Anyway, hopefully that clears up some of the issues. I agree that there seems to be some objection to Spiritualism in the later church, like around 1900. But at that point in its history I suspect the Mormon church is worried about reverse conversion. In 1850 Spiritualism is acting as a bridge form conventional churches to the Mormon in 1900 the bridge may be running the other direction.

As for unbreakable unit what does it mean for a spirit, that isn't normally the case? Some sort of elevated body, like Jesus post resurrection?

Jettboy said...

By unbreakable unit, I mean that spirit and body will never be separated again like happens at mortal death. You are right to compare it to post-resurrection Jesus as what happened to him will happen to us. His body died and his spirit went into Heaven. Then his spirit and body united again in the Resurrection to always be (in Mormon speak) a Glorified Eternal Soul, death having lost its sting.

CD-Host said...

I just had a blogger accident. Was doing final editing on part 3, accidentally deleted about 70% of it and autosave kicked in.

Wow....

Khadijah said...

I too just discovered Mormonisim, er the Holy Spirit dragged me kicking and screaming into the historical site in Kirtland. More on that if you wish later.

I must admit that I am not an intellectual giant, so I hope that you all will at least tolerate me. I was an evangelical christian for over 30 years in which I studied hard and went on three short term missions. Then I had a "problem" and they kicked me out.

For some reason I studied Islam for 5 years and had become quite happy with it as the moderates in America practice it.

So, in early March I found myself at that historical site, and the people there were so loving and gentle that it just drew me. In the months since, I have come to see that I think it is what Christianity 1.0 should have been. Mormons insist on calling themselves Christians, so I call them version 8.1 :)

If they will have me, I plan to join when they think I am ready.

Khadijah

CD-Host said...

Khadijah of course you are welcome to the blog! Glad to have you and glad to see you found a great church for you. My respect for the LDS keeps growing.

In terms of the discipline issue, this is a discipline blog so if you would like to share your story we could also do that, I'd suggest a different thread for that sharing.

Greg said...

Mormonism has much in common with Hermeticism. Perhaps no one has delved as deeply into that well as Dr. Hugh W. Nibley. Here is one such article called One Eternal Round - The Hermetic Vision. It draws upon the scriptural phrase one eternal round; although Joseph Smith did not draw upon hermeticism "much that was revealed to him relates to it and is implicit in temple worship" (from the foreword to the book Temple and Cosmos).

CD-Host said...

Hi Greg --

(For lurkers, Greg runs the Believe all things blog).

I'm sorry I missed this comment a few days back when you made it. I'm becoming something of a Hugh Nibley fan. For him to agree that Mormonism is essentially Hermetic is huge. I'll link this article in to part 3, its a terrific reference. Its interesting that he makes a case of how many of the ideals of Mormonism are Hermetic and then closes by denying that Mormonism is a hermetic movement.

Out of curiosity where do you come down on the Mormonism as a conservative branch of Hermetic Christianity?