_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 0 – Context
Posted by joespencer on June 1, 2012
I want to begin this series with a few words about the context in which Believing Christ appeared. I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of sense to read this book apart from its original setting. It would, at any rate, be a bit uncharitable to criticize any part of Robinson’s book as “unscriptural” without trying to get a sense for what exactly he was trying to address.
Douglas Davies, a religious studies scholar who has given particular interest to Mormonism over the past decade or two, has suggested that Stephen Robinson (along with others like Robert Millet) wrote in response to a very specific tension, a tension to which Davies gives the name “the Mormon cultural dilemma of salvation.” Here’s how he describes it (this can all be found in his book The Mormon Culture of Salvation):
On the one hand, orthodox Mormonism needs to retain the activist system of temple ritual that seeks to foster deity within individuals but which can lead either to a degree of nominal action or a sense of the impossibility of ever achieving the set standards. On the other hand, it needs the passive mode of reception of divine power that, itself, brings a sense of authenticity of the religion and furnishes the very spiritual energy to engage in the active life of endeavor.
Notice that “traditional” Mormonism here can veer off, as it were, in two problematic directions. On the one hand, one can “go through the motions” or do the supposed “minimal requirements” to be an active Saint, faking one’s way through the Church. On the other hand, one can experience serious “burnout” or feel constantly frustrated by one’s own incapacity to do all that Mormonism demands. It’s for this reason, according to Davies, that there emerges the need for a “passive mode of reception of divine power,” something that corrects the one deviation by “bring[ing] a sense of authenticity to the religion” and corrects the other by “furnish[ing] the very spiritual energy to engage in the active life of endeavor.” What a too-activist Mormonism produces is a profound need for grace.
This problem came to a kind of head in the 1980s, I think. I wish I had a better sense for why it was then that the real problem seems to have surfaced. I’ve got guesses but no real answers. At any rate, the 1980s seem to have been the decade when burnout and spiritlessness became prominent enough as cultural phenomena to draw the attention of LDS authors. The result was, a few years before Robinson’s Believing Christ, a cluster of LDS publications on grace. 1989 in particular was a watershed year. Robert Millet published By Grace Are We Saved that year; Brent Top published Though Your Sins Be As Scarlet that year; and Bruce Hafen published The Broken Heart that year. All three books were focused on the doctrine of grace, though each had a somewhat different emphasis. Top was, for instance, more concerned about people going through the motions, while Millet was more concerned about burnout. But all three authors weighed in rather crucially on the matter of grace, arguing particularly against a too-common LDS belief that grace was “what the other guys believe in” and not a part of the Mormon doctrine of salvation. All were focused on the “balance” between grace and works, as they put it, on the joint roles played by grace and works in the salvation of human beings.
Talk of balance was nothing new. Bruce R. McConkie in particular had had plenty to say about salvation being a matter of grace and works. But what these authors argued for, all at the same time, was an understanding of the relation between grace and works focused on covenant. Whereas talk of grace and works before had largely been focused on works preceding grace—we travel our part of the road until we’ve accomplished it, and then Christ carries us senseless from that point to the road’s end—these several authors were setting forth a vision of a kind of weave of grace and works: every step of the road to salvation is traveled hand-in-hand with Christ. This is most radically stated in Hafen’s interesting gloss on Nephi’s “after all we can do” statement in 2 Nephi 25:23: “the Savior’s gift of grace to us is not necessarily limited in time to ‘after’ all we can do. We may receive his grace before, during, and after the time when we expend our own efforts.” Grace is the divine attendant of righteous works, not the divine response to them.
All three of these works were responding to an essential problem, but they didn’t do so with a whole lot of effectiveness. They were at times too practical, at other times too abstract. They were written in a too-sterile tone. And they didn’t bring out with enough force the idea of the covenant. They introduced it, but they padded it with so much quotation from earlier authors and authorities that what was revolutionary in their message didn’t really come out. That task was left to Robinson’s Believing Christ. Robinson would articulate the crucial underpinnings of these other authors’ claims, and he would do so more or less without references to previous authors or authorities, and he would do so in a tone that was so conversational that one can’t help but fall in love with the author. Robinson brought out what was astir in the last years of the 1980s, and he did so with a force that allowed his book to be felt like a bomb in Mormon culture.