Mormonism: A Shallow Faith for Superficial People?



Not your typical Mormon.
But, then again, not your typical human, either.


Some years ago, I was irritated by a gratuitous insult to my faith in Thomas Cahill’s otherwise interesting book How the Irish Saved Civilization.  While discussing the ancient Iranian-born religion of Manichaeism, now long gone but once (for a few centuries) a serious rival to Christianity, Cahill suddenly, out of the blue, compared it to Mormonism and to the doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  All are, he said, shallow and superficial faiths, “full of assertions . . . but yield[ing] no intellectual system to nourish a great intellect.”


I thought this remarkably unfair.  While Jehovah’s Witnesses have been noted over many decades for their disdain for higher education, Mormonism has, to put it mildly, not been so known.  Indeed, as far back, at least, as Kenneth R. Hardy’s “Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars,” Science 185 (9 August 1974): 497-506, it’s been recognized that Latter-day Saints are disproportionately represented in scholarship and the sciences.  (See also this article, by sociologists Stan Albrecht and Tim Heaton.)  There exists, so far as I’m aware, no Jehovah’s Witness analogue to, say, the Association for Mormon Letters, the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, the Mormon History Association, the Academy for Temple StudiesMormon Scholars in the Humanities, the Mormon Social Science Association, the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, The Interpreter Foundation, nor even, for that matter, to Brigham Young University (in its three campuses at Provo, Rexburg, and Laie) or Southern Virginia University.  The Interpreter Foundation will sponsor a conference, on 9 November 2013, dedicated to Mormonism and science.  I’m aware of no corresponding conference sponsored by any association of Jehovah’s Witnesses.


Inspired by Elder M. Russell Ballard’s 2007 call to use the Internet more effectively to spread the Gospel, I had already been intending to someday seriously think about perhaps getting around to eventually maybe launching something like Mormon Scholars Testify.  It was, though, Thomas Cahill’s unexpected slur that finally impelled me to act.


I would, of course, agree with Mr. Cahill that Mormonism hasn’t yet produced its equivalent of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  However, mainstream Christianity took twelve centuries to produce St. Thomas — he died in March 1274; it’s not coincidental, by the way, that one of my sons, born on that same date, bears his name — and Mormonism, not yet two centuries old, doesn’t seem to me to be doing dramatically worse on the intellectual front than the early Christians were at roughly AD 213.


A few days ago, I posted several aphorisms from the eighteenth-century German physicist and satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.  Two of them, I said, reminded me of the reactions of certain critics to the Book of Mormon:  “A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.”  (Ein Buch ist Spiegel, aus dem kein Apostel herausgucken kann, wenn ein Affe hineinguckt.)  “When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?”  (Wenn ein Buch und ein Kopf zusammenstoßen und es klingt hohl, ist das allemal im Buch?)  But it seems to me that precisely the same things can validly be said about the reaction of certain critics to Mormonism as a whole.


Moreover, for various reasons, I’m not convinced that Mormonism should generate its own Summa Theologica.  And St. Thomas himself might agree with me on that.  The famous story is told of some sort of revelation given to him on 6 December 1273, roughly four months prior to his death, in the Dominican monastery at Naples.  Although his works are voluminous, St. Thomas never wrote another line thereafter.  He dictated nothing more to his socius, Reginald of Piperno.  When Reginald begged him to continue with his work, Thomas replied  “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me [mihi videtur ut palea].”


Failure to produce a Summa is not, in my judgment, tantamount to shallow superficiality.  There is, I’m convinced, great depth in Mormonism — whether or not we’ve done much thus far to explore that depth.


But the Church and the Gospel aren’t intended solely or even primarily for Thomist philosophers or Hegelians.  Our services and Sunday school classes aren’t academic seminars in historiography or systematic theology.  Like every other broad demographic group, the Saints are mostly people who don’t spend hours each day worrying about ontology, epistemology, counterfactual conditionals, or Angst in the works of Sartre.  And the saving message of the Gospel is for them, every bit as much as it is for intellectuals and artistes.


I’m convinced that people will find depth in Mormonism commensurate to their own, if they put the requisite thought and effort into studying and reflecting on it.  But, just as the exclamation “Fire!” doesn’t have to be philosophically deep in order to bear life-saving meaning, so too the theological depths of the Gospel don’t have to be fully charted before it can lead us to life-saving repentance.  It would be a fool, and very likely soon a dead one, who refused to budge while the flames drew nearer simply because the person who had warned him to flee had shown insufficient intellectual or literary sophistication while doing it.


A well-known story is told about the prominent Swiss thinker Karl Barth (d. 1968; author of, among other important things, the massive and famous thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics), who is generally considered the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century:  After a lecture at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel — or, perhaps, at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, or perhaps in both places (see here) — a student supposedly rose during the question-and-answer period to ask Barth whether his entire life’s work could be summarized in a single sentence.  Yes indeed, Barth is said to have responded.  “In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”


Simple, yes.  But, if true, profound.  Profoundly important.  And very richly meaningful.



Addendum:  My friend James McLachlan reminds me of an anecdote about the great first-century BC  Jewish thinker and leader Hillel that I should have included as a very apt illustration:


Asked, once, by a non-Jew to summarize the Torah “while standing on one leg,” Hillel is said to have responded, “Do not do to others what would be hateful if done to you. That is the whole of the Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”



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  • Lucy Mcgee

    I knew exactly one Jehovah’s Witness in my youth. She was an absolutely thoughtful, kind, and gregarious person, and at the same time sheltered by her upbringing. She escaped her home on occasion and we had great fun, exploring the miles of wild riparian habitat along the Big Horn river, near where she lived. I met her through a friend who introduced me to her as I was searching for a model to photograph for a state photography competition. I took photographs of her in this wild setting and won a second-place ribbon . It certainly wasn’t my skill as a photographer that won it.

    We laughed. We were friends for only a few months.

    To my dismay, she couldn’t escape the bonds of her religion which taught her to distrust anything secular as unholy. Back then, I hadn’t a clue that the world was so divided, but she knew. We never spoke again.

    I’ve thought about her over the decades. I’ve pondered about just how much religious belief can divide people and it starts when we are young. Lately it seems that division is ever present; religion against religion, secular against religion, etc.

    Most people will never read the writings of the greatest religious minds. Most people will never read the writings of the most irreligious minds. One can only wonder what will eventuate.

    • Ray Agostini

      Lucy wrote: “I’ve thought about her over the decades. I’ve pondered about just
      how much religious belief can divide people and it starts when we are
      young. Lately it seems that division is ever present; religion against
      religion, secular against religion, etc.

      Most people will never read the writings of the greatest religious
      minds. Most people will never read the writings of the most irreligious
      minds. One can only wonder what will eventuate.”

      Religion is not the only thing that divides people, Lucy, nor even the most important thing that divides people.

      Class segregation still exists. There are “rich suburbs”, “middle class” suburbs, and “lower class” or “poor” suburbs.

      The divide between black and white is still not exactly “cured”, either, in
      spite of Martin Luther King, Jnr. , and a black US president. Senator
      Robert Kennedy’s speech after the assassination of Dr. King, expressed
      an ideal we still haven’t attained: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what
      the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

      When you write things like, “she couldn’t escape the *bonds*
      of her religion” (Emphasis added), you’re surely not suggesting that
      you’ve found the one and only true way to freedom and happiness which is right for everyone, are you?

      If I’ve misread you, I apologise in advance, but why do you appear to see others’ religious beliefs as some kind of “bondage”?

      • Lucy Mcgee

        In her case, her religion did bind her, it kept her from getting an education and her family kept her isolated. There were only a few Jehovah’s Witness in our small community and they very much kept to themselves.

        I wrote that religion “can” divide people, as it did with my friend in youth. And wasn’t it the Christians who persecuted the LDS Church all the way to Zion and beyond?

        Of course race and class divisions exist as well.

        I’m not suggesting I’ve found anything, simply making an observation about how religion can divide people. That’s it.

        • Ray Agostini

          Lucy wrote:

          “In her case, her religion did bind her, it kept her from getting an education…”

          What’s more important? An education of the mind, or an education of the spirit? As far as I know, Jesus never formally graduated from any “educational institution”. The Gospels would be written more than a thousand years before the birth of the university.

          To miss this message, is to miss the whole spirit of the New Testament.

          “21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

          22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

          23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

          24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

          25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

          26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:

          27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

          28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:

          29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.

          30 But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:

          31 That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. ”

          In that sense, Lucy, “missing an education” seems to me to even be a good thing.

          But I know you don’t see it that way. That doesn’t mean your friend was wrong, and you right, nor that she was in “bonds”, and you free.

          • DanielPeterson

            A good reminder, Ray.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            But what if she wanted to be free and couldn’t, because her parents controlled her? That’s the part that made me most sad. She didn’t have any choice in the matter and missed an opportunity at an education because of rules foisted on her by the religion of her parents. There’s more to the story that I won’t share, but it didn’t have a happy outcome.

        • davidl7

          Lucy, Witnesses may choose to pursue a higher education. The congregation does not prevent anyone from doing so. True, they may advise one to be careful that they don’t become involved in materialistic pursuits and place the spiritual things in second place. My mother became a Witness when I was in grade school. I became baptized as a Christian Witness when I was in high school. Like other youths I knew from the congregation, I chose to attend college, eventually earning a Bachelor’s in Economics and Business Administration and a Masters in Information and Library Science. From my experience, in the late 1980′s and early 1990s, at least 65% of the young people associated with the congregation, and even some older individuals, attended some type of post secondary education, with about 50% earning an Associates degrees, and the others obtaining a Bachelors or higher.

  • John P

    Great article. On the part about “no intellectual system”, I was a sophomore sitting in Dr. Peer’s Comp Lit 301, or maybe Humanities 101, class when he said that Mormonism is the world’s only religion that is philosophically sound. As an inexperienced undergraduate, that seemed like a big claim to me, so I just made a mental note to keep an eye on that. I can say that over the intervening years I have found that statement to be true.

    • Thinking Mormon

      “Mormonism is the world’s only religion that is philosophically sound”?
      Asinine statement like that are the reason why people think, that
      Mormonism is shallow and that its followers are dumb. Dr. Peer (if he
      really made the statement) should leave the university and teach

      • John P

        It would appear that your judgement reflects your own level of sophistication. If you haven’t studied the other thought systems well enough to be familiar with their flaws, you really are not qualified to pass judgement on the issue. And yes, Dr. Peer is an internationally recognized scholar since you don’t appear to be acquainted with him or the level of his accomplishments.

  • Kenngo1969

    Yes, well … anyone who would call Mormonism shallow surely has taken all of the time necessary fully to plumb its depths.

    • Patrick Mefford

      So….what are those depths?

      • DanielPeterson

        LOL. Listing the “depths” would be a pretty superficial way of dealing with this issue, wouldn’t it, Stak/Patrick?

        Really. Rather like asking for a snappy and concise top-ten list from Hegel’s “Phänomenologie des Geistes.” Scarcely seems appropriate.

        • Patrick Mefford

          A Name would be a good place to start, or a title of a specific work would be even better.

          • DanielPeterson

            Have a look at Blake Ostler’s “Exploring Mormon Thought” series, or at B. H. Roberts’s “Mormon Doctrine of Deity,” or at some of the issues of SMPT’s “Element.” Or at some of Jim Faulconer’s recent work. Or maybe at some of the things Joe Spencer has been doing recently.

          • Patrick Mefford

            I think your answer proves the point I was trying to make on another venue. I think you are mistaking intelligence and professional jargon for depth, but nothing you mentioned is on the kind of required reading lists for graduate schools and seminaries nor are any of those authors going to make it on those lists. Just to make myself clear, it isn’t for a lack of intelligent, brilliant, or creative Mormons, BYU is a hotbed of it. I blame the ecclesiastical structure of the Church which restricts such a thing from ever really being written and published, much less endorsed by the powers that be.

          • DanielPeterson

            PM: “I think you are mistaking intelligence and professional jargon for depth,”

            I think I’m not. So it seems that we’re at an impasse.

            PM: “nothing you mentioned is on the kind of required reading lists for graduate schools and seminaries nor are any of those authors going to make it on those lists.”

            What on earth does THAT have to do with the issue?

            I doubt that the works of Origen or Clement were on the reading lists of the major philosophical schools of the early third century, either.

            PM: “I blame the ecclesiastical structure of the Church which restricts such a thing from ever really being written and published, much less endorsed by the powers that be.”

            I can think of absolutely no reason “the powers that be” should endorse such a thing. Nor do I see any significant evidence that they’re somehow restricting such things from being written or published.

          • Patrick Mefford

            “What on earth does THAT have to do with the issue?”

            Significant works transcend denominational boundaries. Reform Judaism as been existent in America nearly as long as the LDS Church, and Reform authors make their way on to secular and Christian reading lists all the time.

            The names/titles you listed haven’t done that and likely never will. For example, there is a reason why Ostler’s books are published by Greg Kofford Books and not by the usual publishers that put out analytical theology or philosophy of religion. Another example would be B.H. Robert’s Christology, which isn’t really unique or innovative in the big scope.

            All your examples suffer from things like this. I’m not saying any of these works don’t merit serious study or that their authors don’t do good work. What I am saying is they don’t shine as bright outside the tiny microcosm of Mormon studies and beliefs. I think that is one of the strongest marks of depth.

            I’m also puzzled over the comparison of the LDS Church and early Christianity. I don’t see how they are analogous, could you say more about that?

          • Stephen Smoot

            “What I am saying is they don’t shine as bright outside the tiny microcosm of Mormon studies and beliefs. I think that is one of the strongest marks of depth.”

            This is, I confess, a very odd argument. What is the rationale behind this? Why is this to be considered the “strongest mark of depth”? Should the “strongest mark of depth” be, you know, whether it has depth? Doesn’t the depth of something depend on its own merits, not on how many people are reading it? I think Hugo v. Hofmannsthal wrote very deep plays with “Jedermann” and “Elektra,” but very few people I know have even heard of him, let alone read his work. Does this mean one of the more important figures of fin de siècle Viennese literature doesn’t have “depth”?

            But if this is the case, then what do you have to say about the fact that “Mormon Studies” programs have been launched at UVU, USU, Claremont, University of Virginia, and the University of Wyoming? Or that Oxford University Press, Princeton University Press, Yale University Press, Cambridge University Press, and other academic presses have published books on Mormon history, Mormon culture, the Book of Mormon, and (with the upcoming release of Terryl Givens’ and Phillip Barlow’s book) Mormon theology? And this is to say nothing of popular presses, like Penguin, that have published the Book of Mormon as part of their prestigious “Penguin Classics” series, for example.

            By your own standard, then, Mormonism does have depth. Maybe our street cred isn’t as good as Reform Judaism, but it’s something, would’t you agree?

            (Honestly though, I don’t even know why I’m responding, since your arguments are inherently subjective, and it’s hard to argue that somebody’s subjective opinion is wrong.)

          • DanielPeterson

            PM: “Significant works transcend denominational boundaries.”

            Sometimes they do. Many times they don’t.

            PM: “Reform Judaism as been existent in America nearly as long as the LDS Church, and Reform authors make their way on to secular and Christian reading lists all the time.”

            That might well have much more to do with the isolation of the Mormons in the Great Basin West and the strong presence of Reform Jews in the American financial and publishing capital, New York.

            And it’s misleading to compare Reform Judaism, with its roots deep in the cosmopolitan and two-millennia-old cultural and intellectual tradition of Judaism generally, with Mormonism, which dates back only to the nineteenth-century American frontier.

            PM: “The names/titles you listed haven’t done that and likely never will. For example, there is a reason why Ostler’s books are published by Greg Kofford Books and not by the usual publishers that put out analytical theology or philosophy of religion.”

            Yes, there is a reason. But I would say, whereas you evidently would not, that it’s because Mormonism remains a small and marginal tradition at this point.

            PM: “Another example would be B.H. Robert’s Christology, which isn’t really unique or innovative in the big scope.”

            I don’t know that Roberts was seeking Christological uniqueness or innovation, and, off hand, I don’t recall having heard anybody claiming such qualities for him on that issue.

            PM: “All your examples suffer from things like this. I’m not saying any of these works don’t merit serious study or that their authors don’t do good work. What I am saying is they don’t shine as bright outside the tiny microcosm of Mormon studies and beliefs. I think that is one of the strongest marks of depth.”

            I think that’s wholly irrelevant. Depth is depth, as Steve Smoot also points out. The number of readers that something gets is utterly immaterial. Until its revival around the beginning of the 1900s, spearheaded (among others) by Albert Schweitzer, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was relatively unknown. It didn’t suddenly become “deep” or good when it became more popular. Those qualities had always existed in it.

            PM: “I’m also puzzled over the comparison of the LDS Church and early Christianity. I don’t see how they are analogous, could you say more about that?”

            It should be fairly straightforward. Mormonism today is roughly the same age that Christianity itself was in AD 213. Outside of the scriptures themselves (which are a distinct case), what great literature or works of philosophy had the Jesus movement produced by AD 213?

            It won’t do to compare the cultural output of the 183-year-old LDS Church with that of Christianity by, say, AD 1274.

          • Patrick Mefford

            Its interesting Dan, that you find it misleading to compare Reform Judaism to the LDS movement because Reform Judaism could draw a two millennium old tradition, but the LDS movement can’t. I’ve always seen the LDS movement as standing in the Christian tradition and not outside it, and always able to draw on that tradition since the beginning, such as borrowing from Unitarian polemics against Trinitarian theology.

            At the same time, you seem to think it appropriate to compare the LDS movement to the early Christian church, despite being nearly two thousand years distant from each other, don’t share a common culture, language, economic situation, political situation, or even comparable technology.

            In any event, I actually agree with you that Mormonism is marginal in regards to philosophy and theology, but the marginality is disproportionate to the size and wealth of the Mormon population.

            We probably both agree there isn’t much more to be said that already hasn’t, so I’ll bow out. Thanks for the exchange!

          • DanielPeterson

            I appreciate the civil, respectful tone of the exchange — so very different from the other venue that we both know.

            I don’t think the cases of Reform Judaism and Mormonism are comparable because they stand in quite dissimilar relationships to their respective broader traditions. Reform rabbis are trained in the rabbinic literature of Judaism, while there exists in Mormonism no such clergy training in the analogous texts of Christendom (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas). Nor, given their respective attitudes toward their broader traditions, SHOULD they be similar in this regard.

            You may say that this confirms your point. I would simply respond that Mormonism has to lift itself by its own bootstraps, jumpstart itself, as regards an intellectual tradition, in a way that Reform Judaism has plainly not had to do. So the take-off is slower. (To bring in yet another metaphor.)

            On the matter of my comparison of the LDS movement to the early Christian church, the distance in time, culture, language, economic and political setting, and technical infrastructure, while obviously important in many ways, doesn’t strike me as salient to the particular matter at hand.

            Finally, the current “size and wealth of the Mormon population” is deceptive: It’s quite recent. We have been, for most of our history, a small and rather agrarian group — and, unlike what Ramsay MacMullen has called “The First Urban Christians,” we were driven into cultural and geographical isolation in the semi-arid Great Basin West, while they were located in such culturally vital centers as Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome. In terms of art and literature and philosophy, that gave them an advantage that the pioneering Mormon generations, focused on clearing land and building irrigation systems, did not enjoy.

          • Kenngo1969

            As you’ve shown, you’re not all that keenly interested in dialogue. You simply wanted something you could dismiss out-of-hand (or “off-of-keyboard,” as it were). Thanks fer playin’!

      • Kenngo1969

        If you really think there’s no “there” there, that says more about you than it ever could say about the Church of Jesus Christ.

  • Wile E. Coyote

    I used to think you had to be crazy to be a Mormon. Now I think you’re crazy to not be a Mormon.

    I’ve never been abused, cheated, maligned or injured by a Jehovah’s Witness. My complaint with that church is their members don’t vote. All my voting was erased by a corrupt judge. Looks like voting is a waste of time.

  • Stephen Smoot

    I wonder what Harold Bloom would have to say to anyone who doesn’t think Mormonism has any depth, given that he once described Joseph Smith’s King Follett sermon as “one of the truly remarkable sermons ever preached in America.” (Having read the King Follett sermon, I’d have to agree with Bloom. So too, apparently, do the editors of the book “American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr.,” seeing as how they included the King Follett sermon.)

    • Patrick Mefford

      Hi Stephen,

      Bloom also said “Joseph Smith did not excel as a writer or as a theologian, let alone as a psychologist and philosopher. But he was an authentic religious genius, and surpassed all Americans, before and since, in the possession and expression of what could be called the religion-making imagination.” (page 91-92, The American Religion).

      I have no disagreements with Bloom above and appraising the King Follet discourse as a remarkable and important sermon in American religious history, but this doesn’t entail the kind of axiological judgment you think it does.

      • Stephen Smoot

        “this doesn’t entail the kind of axiological judgment you think it does.”

        I fail to see how it doesn’t. Bloom, in the same book you cite above, is not just looking at Mormonism, particularly Joseph Smith’s teachings, as a historian who’s merely analyzing the historical context of KFD in American religious history, etc. He’s clearly infatuated with it, and with Joseph Smith, and devotes considerable attention trying to unwrap and understand it, etc.

        I can only assume he does this because he thinks there is some philosophical, religious, and/or intellectual depth to it worth studying. At least that’s the impression I got when I read Bloom’s views on Joseph Smith.

  • brotheroflogan

    Mormonism: a deep faith for shallow people. And for deep people. And for everybody else.

  • jafnhar

    What is intellectual depth? Having a PhD, having a whole university doesn’t make your thoughts deep. It doesn’t say you aren’t deep either. I work in academia just like you, and I think we both know several intellectually shallow PhDs. We both probably know a genius or two as well. Having a PhD at best says that a person is most likely of average intelligence.

    I got to know a Jehovah’s Witness family a few years back and we were in touch off and on for a while. They were simple people (that is, they lived simply), but they weren’t dumb. I can’t say whether Jehovah’s Witnesses have deep intellectual thoughts, (I’m not even sure how to define that) but this particular family that I happened to know showed a willingness to sacrifice for their faith, and sometimes face ridicule, and it’s well known that other Jehovah’s Witnesses have likewise had it pretty tough on that account too. Maybe that’s not the only indication of depth, but it strikes me as a good one.

    You weren’t being especially tough on the Jehovah’s Witnesses here, but it looks to me like you implicitly threw them under the bus with the comparison to LDS dedication to higher education.

    • DanielPeterson

      I’ve only known one Jehovah’s Witness well, and that was a kid in my elementary school. He was reasonably bright, but gradually, as the years rolled by, he was less and less involved in school. I know that he didn’t go on to college, though he easily could have.

      I was simply pointing out that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t, on the whole, do higher education, or write books of cultural criticism or literary analysis or philosophy, or publish articles on genetics or particle physics.

      If those are the sorts of things typically associated with intellectual depth, Jehovah’s Witnesses, by and large, don’t seem to produce them. But Mormons do.

      If there is some other measure of the intellectual depth of a given culture or society, I would be happy to see it.

      Can some/many academics be fairly shallow? Of course. Can some non-academics be deep? Of course. There is, so far as I know, no objective measure for this.

  • RaymondSwenson

    Catholic theologian Stephen Webb”‘s new book Mormon Christianity argues that Mormon doctrines should be studied by other Christians because it can provide new.insights into their thinkng about the nature of God. The Mormon theological well is deep enough to provide some living water to Christianity at large.

    Non-Mormon sociologist Rodney Stark argues in several of his books that the growth of Mormonism is the best contemorary model for understanding the early growth of Chrstianity, including the connections that lead to conversion and the rate of growth. The main theme of LDS doctrine has always been a restoration of the original Church.of Jesus Christ.

  • bdlaacmm

    “mainstream (sic) Christianity took twelve centuries to produce St. Thomas”
    Maybe so, but it took the blink of an eye to produce St. Paul, and less than one generation to produce St. Ignatius of Antioch – both towering intellects.
    And I too can summarize my faith in a single sentence: “He saved others, Himself He cannot save.”

    • DanielPeterson

      Having spent a lot of time with both St. Paul and St. Ignatius, I’m not going to dismiss them lightly. But I doubt that they would be regarded as great thinkers had Christianity fizzled in the first century or two.

  • pineconethoughts

    I think perhaps he was referencing to the fact that Mormonism is simply borrowed. i.e. …The ideal of three degrees of heaven and celestrial marriage was taught by Swedenborg in the mid 18th century. I can not think of even one Mormon thought that has not been borrowed.

    • DanielPeterson

      Big claim. No evidence. But every word in it already used by millions of others, many times over.

      • pineconethoughts

        Simply put… read Swedenborg, Today researching anything is as simple as choosing a belief point and finding where it came from. Do not research Mormonism but instead, each belief separately. Three degrees of heaven is just one example. If thoughts and beliefs printed 5, 10, 50, 100, or more years early is not borrowing (to put it nicely) than what is it? One thing it is not is revelation.

        • DanielPeterson

          Simply put, read a basic primer on logic.

          I specifically suggest that you reflect upon the logical fallacy known as “post hoc, ergo propter hoc.”

          I’ve been aware of Swedenborg for many years, and have read a fair amount of his work.

          It’s not enough to say that the idea X appeared at time A and that the rather similar idea Y appeared at subsequent time B and then to conclude from that fact that Y was stolen or plagiarized or borrowed from X. Actual historical links of a specific kind would have to be demonstrated. Simply shouting out “X!” doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything about Y.

          Anyway, you seem to be acting as if 1 Corinthians 15, which can obviously be understood as referring to three grades of heaven and which Joseph Smith undeniably read, didn’t exist. Why claim that the idea was stolen from a Latin-writing eighteenth-century Swede when the King James Bible was omnipresent?

          • pineconethoughts

            When one can, through careful study and research trace a linkage of thought and knowledge of the other… than it is fair to say it is borrowed.

          • pineconethoughts

            To clarify, I do want to stress that a connection of knowledge of the other must be traced/found… and not simply order of events. It seems some may not understand clearly previous statement.

  • paul

    “When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?” (Wenn ein Buch und ein Kopf zusammenstoßen und es klingt hohl, ist das allemal im Buch?) But it seems to me that precisely the same things can validly be said about the reaction of certain critics to Mormonism as a whole.”
    Hmmmm. That’s quite a defense of the Book of Mormon, Dan.
    Obviously, this little article is not your best work.
    BTW one possible reason non-LDS consider LDS “shallow & superficial” is their politics, which are not only shallow & superficial but prehistoric, from the patriarchy on down to the general demographic of the State of Utah. Everything the church does is right-wing partisan – “Pastor” Richard Land recently invited to SLC by the Brethren, then bashing Democrats in the Deseret News, for example. What kind of “depth” does the Tea Party have?

    • DanielPeterson

      That little post, Paul, wasn’t intended to be an argument in defense of the depth of the Book of Mormon. So your discovery that it’s not a particularly RIGOROUS defense of the depth of the Book of Mormon is scarcely unexpected.

      It’s amusing to learn, though, that your apparent definition of “intellectual depth” is “agreement with Paul’s political views.”

    • JohnH2

      I believe that Harry Reid is LDS and last I checked he was the antithesis of the Tea Party.

      • John P

        Harry Reid may be LDS and do his home teaching, but he doesn’t seem very well versed on the church’s teachings on the dangers of communism. On the other hand, the church has declared the Constitution to be an inspired document, and the Founding Fathers to be inspired men who established our nation. This is where the Tea Party draws its doctrine. Who is the closest to the principles of the gospel?

        • JohnH2

          Harry Reid doesn’t believe that his position is supporting Communism and follows Hugh B. Brown in his disagreement with other apostles and prophets about the nature and dangers of social programs (and party). Harry Reid probably finds supporting what he does to be following the second great commandment.

          I am sure Chris Henrichsen at Approaching Justice could give a more detailed and better response.

          • DanielPeterson

            Just tell Chris Henrichsen that I’M connected with this in some way, and that should get him snorting mad!

            As always, of course, I take the mediating position: I disagree with Harry Reid’s politics (and with the way he seeks to implement his politics), but I believe him to be a loyal member of the Church and regard him as a brother.

            I wouldn’t vote for him, but I was ashamed, some years ago, when members of the Church essentially wouldn’t permit him to speak at a Church function.

  • stinkyboy

    depth? seerstones? really?

    • DanielPeterson


      Deep Stinky Boy.

  • DanielPeterson

    Good grief.

    The Association of the Irony Impaired seems to have discovered my blog photos over just the past thirty-six hours or so.

    Is this their conference weekend, too?

  • Elizabeth Scott

    Nice article, Dan. One question that follows the theme of what we have been discussing on my website is do intellectual people require a deep, philosophical religion? I always thought that the beauty of the gospel of Christ was in its simplicity.

    • DanielPeterson

      Thanks. I agree.

  • paul

    OMG is this the Mormon Glee Club or what? Talk about an echo chamber! Dan, your piece was both self-serving and poorly written, beginning with a ridiculous straw-man opener. No mention at all of Sterling McMurrin’s The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, which would have supported at least half (OK, one quarter) of your point (there IS depth in Mormonism) – but I suppose that old apostate is too far afield for a faithful discussion like this one, right? You guys come off like the high school archaeology club, i.e., a poor representation of that “depth” you so desperately want the rest of the world to see.
    Raymond, you’re no help. Challenge him, already!!! You can’t love every little thing he says.
    Can you?!?

    • DanielPeterson

      I thought of mentioning McMurrin, but decided against it. Not because he was an old apostate but because, in itself, it’s something of a name-dropping survey rather than a profound analysis, and isn’t particularly deep.

      Your personal attacks aren’t particularly deep, either.

  • David Tiffany

    But the Mormon claim that they have the fulness of the gospel needs to be theologically deep. The lives of many depend on it. The gospel that Mormonism presents is different than the one that the Apostle Paul preached, and he said if anyone taught a gospel other than the one that he taught, that person would be eternally condemned (Galatians 1:6-9). In saying this, Paul is implying that the Gospel he preached is complete. There was no more to come, or he would have said so. We are born with a nature that is an object of God’s wrath. We fall short of His glory. Jesus went to the Cross and paid the penalty in full for our sin debt. He alone lived the perfect life. Anyone who comes to Him and asks Him to save him or her from judgement, Jesus will make an exchange with: He paid the penalty for their sin, will take it out of the way, and will fill their account with His righteousness and give them eternal life.
    At least in it’s basic form, the restored gospel that Mormonism teaches is not new (Salvation is the full existence of man, of the angels, and the Gods; it is eternal life—the life which was, which is, and which is to come. And we, as human beings, are heirs to all this life, if we apply ourselves strictly to obey the requirements of the law of God, and continue in faithfulness (Bringham Young, DBY, 387)).
    In the book of Galatians Paul is dealing with this same kind of teaching. Some had slipped in among the believers in Galatia and were convincing them that they were saved by grace but they had to maintain that salvation by observing the law. Paul’s response to this is to ask them who had bewitched them (put a spell on them and gained control over them). I see this with some of the Mormons I know: Mormonism tells them they can be saved by strictly observing the law, and then they add more and more and more burdens on them until they are very heavily burdened, and then you still don’t give them the guarantee of eternal life.
    But God does: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. He did for you what you cannot do. Salvation is a completely free gift from God. Romans 11:6, “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.”

    • DanielPeterson

      Thank you, David Tiffany, for your expression of your particular form of Protestant Christianity.

      I doubt that you’ll be surprised to learn that I disagree with you on multiple levels.

    • EteU Spencer

      Is there a possibility to think that we espouse largely the same ideas? Is it possible that the same truths from another source only proves the point of the first source?

  • Gafly

    The problem with Mormonism is that when one “plums the depths” you begin to drown in subjectivity. Asking a group at the Mormon temple to address the inconsistencies in the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and the Book of Doctrines, we received the response “that there will always be inconsistencies.” This also does not deal with the varnished inconsistencies of the Mormon community which presents itself as a Fairy Land which is enjoying its Celestial benefits here on earth; this might explain why Utah downlands more porn than any other state. But I’m sure that it is all of those Jack Mormons giving “true” Mormons a bad name. Remember Mr Peterson you can know the rules of logic and still use them in the wrong context.

    • DanielPeterson

      Gafly (Gadfly?): “Remember Mr [sic] Peterson you can know the rules of logic and still use them in the wrong context.”

      True. But you haven’t even formed a logical argument here. You’ve merely deployed a number of dubious claims. Thus, your error, had you advanced an argument, wouldn’t have been wrong context. It might still have been a problem of logical validity, of course, but it would certainly have been one of “soundness.”

      Logic 101.

  • David_Naas

    In the speed-of-light world of the internet, my taking time to ponder the essay will place my comment in pre-historic times, however…
    Whenever one declares the canon to be closed and revelation (for the whole body) as ceased, then theology must develop in order to ” ‘splain to Lucy” how something written long ago in a foreign time and place applies to anyone today.
    If one believes in current revelation, theology (as currently defined) becomes impossible, and only individual speculation remains.
    To be sure, there are certain basics which will not be covered by current revelation, but they appear to be so limited that any “theologizing” is rapidly and easily done — if it is as simple as all that, it is impossible to elaborate.
    Or, am I just an ignorant buffoon way out of his depth?

    • David_Naas

      If the option of “closed canon” is followed, one can easily be accused of indifference to the Spirit. If one goes with the idea of “ongoing revelation”, one can be accused of making it up as you go along. Spiritual discernment is necessary here.

  • Grotoff

    I wouldn’t take Cahill too seriously. “How the Irish Saved Civilization” is pure malarcky, to turn a relevant phrase.

  • Andrew J. Abalahin

    I think beyond a certain age most people, even “uneducated ” ones, are rather complicated, and perhaps one of the easier ways to that simplicity of spirit that Jesus enjoins on us is through learning and a lot of it. Easier than being humbled by a sequence of misfortunes. Most people arguably progress via a mixture of both.

    Isly impossible to generalize about the “intellectual depth” of Mormonism in the way one might dare to about that of the JW’s. Clearly the educational level of many Mormon families has produced a crop of intellectuals, many of whom are committed to LDS apologetics. My superficial impression of Mormonism, however, is that it does tend to the anti-intellectual, that voicing doubts at all is frowned upon, that there is a premium on “feeling” the truth of the various propositions, etc., etc.

    Maybe the comparison that needs to be introduced is between figures like Luther and Calvin, who were steeped in the theological and philosophical traditions of medieval catholicism and who were themselves great thinkers and writers on the one hand and the founders of Mormonism.

    • Andrew J. Abalahin

      Typo stubborn to be edited: it is obviously impossible to generalize…

    • DanielPeterson

      Another helpful comparison, Andrew J. Abalahin, would be to contrast Peter and the other early apostles with the Sadducees and Pharisees. Or perhaps Jesus himself with, say, Pliny or Celsus.

    • EteU Spencer

      Andrew J Abalahin A very good point indeed. The intellectual prowess of the early Latter-Day Saints would be in question. Joseph Smith had little more than elementary school knowledge. He was all but illiterate. How then, can an early church leader measure against great intellects? How then was he able to draft a book with little education? How then, does a church grow into a global phenomenon as the LDS Church? From and uneducated simpleton? Here is the answer: One familiar story from Joseph Smith’s journals and writings is the story of Joseph visiting the angel Moroni at the same time every year at the site where the gold plates were: the story follows as so: Joseph Smith-History 2: 54……….”Accordingly, as I had been commanded, I went at the end of each year, and at each time I found the same messenger there, and received INSTRUCTION and INTELLIGENCE from him at each of our interviews, respecting what the Lord was going to do,and how and in what manner His kingdom was to be conducted in the last days”
      Joseph Smith taught that intelligence is a power, and when properly attained and exercised, it brings us closer to our Heavenly Father, gives us perspective of ourselves in eternity.
      Joseph Smith also taught that “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intellligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the word to come” D&C 130:8-9
      The LDS church has 3 primary missions: A. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. B. Perfect the Saints. C. Redeem the Dead. Of course academic excellence, social excellence, physical excellence, spiritual/emotive excellence are taught to Latter-Day youths from toddler throughout their lives.
      We baptize people with a given understanding that they are to espouse and embody a desire to “make themselves” and their sphere of influence “better.” Latter-Day Saints are invited study, learn, grow through a systemic course of learning intellectually and experimentally in academia, scriptural study and developing social behavior throughout our lives.

  • davidl7

    It is not true that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a disdain for higher education. Anyone reading their publications will note that they regularly quote from university and scholarly studies on a regular basis. Jehovah’s Witness scholars and professors have contributed to many academic and scholarly journals and other works on a wide variety topics. Rolf Furuli, a lecturer in Semitic languages at the University Olso, has written scholarly works, including books on Assyrian, Babylonian, , Egyptian, and Persian Chronology compared with the Bible Chronology, as well as a highly acclaimed volume on Bible translations which defends the NWT. Jehovah’s Witness scholars contributed to the historical work, Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses During, the Nazi Regime 1933-1945. Among the authors were:

    Jolene Chu
    Studied social history at New York University, researcher specializing in the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Nazi era, at the international offices of the Watch Tower Society; project coordinator of Holocaust-related education programs and cooperative efforts with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, Facing History and Ourselves, the Imperial War Museum Holocaust Exhibition, and numerous other Holocaust education and research facilities; serves on the advisory board for the Journal of Genocide Research.

    James N. Pellechia
    Studied journalism and communications at Columbia University; associate editor of the periodical Awake! (Erwachet!); author of The Spirit and the Sword-Jehovah’s Witnesses Expose the Third Reich; producer of the video documentary Jehovah’s Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault.

    Hubert Roser
    Sudied history, geography, and political science in Mannheim; Ph.D. 1996, dissertation “NS-Beamtenpolitik und regionale Verwaltung in Baden und Württemberg, 1933-1939.” Since 1997, researcher at the University of Karlsruhe for the research project “Resistance against National Socialism in the German Southwest.” Editor and contributor to Widerstand als Bekenntnis: Die Zeugen Jehovas und das NS-Regime in Baden und Württemberg (Konstanz, 1998).
    Carolyn Wah, legal counsel for the Watchtower, has written numerous articles in the Journal of Church & State as well as other sources. Dr. Gabriel Yonan, historian, has also written articles in the Journal of Church & State as well as book in German about the Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses “spiritual resistance” against the Nazi regime. The late Hayden Covington, one of the greatest civil liberties attorneys in the US, has written numerous legal treatises and has helped define what the constitution means by religious freedom. Dr. Lowell Dixon, a Jehovah’s Witness surgeon, has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed medical journals, many of them on alternatives to blood transfusion during surgical procedures. Hal Flemings, David Jakuhovic, Anthony Byatt, and Edgar Foster have all written scholarly articles and books on a variety of biblical and other subjects. Some of them are professors, including NT and OT professors. I can name others, but the fact is that there are many scholars among Jehovah’s Witnesses and they published numerous historical, academic and scholarly works.
    And unlike some anti-Witness propaganda, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not forbidden to attend an institution of higher learning or university. Many have done so. It is up to each individual to decide whether or not to pursue a higher education. While the WT publications do allude to potential risks involving higher education including the teaching of evolution as a fact, and the possible harmful association with those who reject Bible morals, in the end, the individual Christian will have to decide whether or not to pursue a college education.

  • EteU Spencer

    “For behold, this is my work and glory-to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Moses 1:39 If the “other” Christian religions knew this one concept, how much better off would they be? Wouldn’t they seek after learning, socially improving, and self-mastery? Wouldn’t the knowledge that every human being is a god/goddess in embryo cultivate intellectual pursuit? The LDS lifestyle/culture breeds success academically, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. LDS children are raised with the understanding that they are to be exceptional people in the world. Yea, a founding doctrine of our faith is the pursuit of excellence. We are taught to be “IN the world-but not OF the world. Latter_Day Saints the world over are happier, more successful and more productive in every realm of the human experience. The fact that a devout Latter-Day Saint climbed the ladder of success and became a candidate to lead the most powerful nation on the earth (Mitt Romney) speaks for itself. These statistics are available for the asking from any LDS missionary worldwide. The LDS faith is the fastest growing religion throughout the world and for a reason.