Monday, February 05, 2007

Baptism of the dead.

Let me alert my readers that the following post has a bearing on my life, as my wife was raised, and still practices as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. (Here after referred to as Mormon, or LDS for sake of ease.) I'm certain family members of hers will read this post so I'm sort of touching on sensitive territory as I proceed.

My wife and her family are familiar with my personal beliefs. I have carefully studied the teachings of Joseph Smith and prayed after my own fashion as to the true nature of spirituality, and after due consideration determined that Mormonism is not for me. I believe an odd sort of amalgam of Christianity. What it comes down to for me is the belief that God is unfathomable, and all we as humans can hope to do in our lives is live as we are led to believe God would want us to. In my way of thinking good Mormons will go to heaven, as will good Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics and even Tree worshipers from 5000 years ago who had no possible way of understanding modern spiritual concepts.

One appreciation I have for Mormonism is the precept they seem to live by, allowing for humankind to follow the individuals spiritual calling as the individual sees fit. This tenet of Mormonism has had a real impact on my life in particular, as my wifes family have treated me with great respect and kindness, even if their politics are diametrically opposed to my own, and I'm not a member of the Latter Day Saints. Mormons are very interested in seeing to it that you understand where they are coming from, and are keen on having you join the church, but (in my experience) they will not condemn you for holding your own beliefs.

So an issue has been brought to my attention which I believe does not speak well for this tolerance on the part of my Mormon sisters and brothers. This issue is the Mormon belief in the baptism of the dead. Now I'm certain that my explanation of this practice will be sorely lacking in detail or the fundamentals which lead to the practice, and I admittedly have yet to broach the subject with my in laws or wife, but here we go anyway.

Remember how I previously expressed my belief that good Muslims, Jews, and pre historic tree worshipers would all go to heaven if they lived good lives? Mormons hold a distantly similar belief. In order for a non Mormon to get the benefits of church membership, Mormons believe that non members will be given the opportunity to accept the teachings of Joseph Smith after they are deceased. My wife has made me promise that after I am dead, if I am approached in the afterlife and offered to become a Mormon, that I would accept. I of course complied!

Mormons also hold that in order to be a Mormon, one must be baptized. We are talking full immersion baptism here folks, none of that pansy water sprinkle stuff they like in other denominations. Well, you can see the rub here right? How can a person be invited to Mormonism from beyond the grave if they have not been baptized... and no the answer is not to go dig up their mouldering bones for a dunking either.

The answer is the belief in the baptism of the dead. Mormons believe that a member in good standing with the church can stand in for a deceased non believer and be baptized in their stead. The non believer will then be offered the choice to accept or decline Mormonism in the afterlife.

Despite the good intentions, I can understand how this practice would be upsetting to certain groups and families. The story that leads me to post today details how Mormons intend to give Pope Benedict the baptismal of the dead. This rite has been performed on behalf of many many people who simply by their lifes work seem to have a very well grounded belief that should be respected, not questioned. The Pope? Pope John Paul III has been baptized after death on no less than 3 occasions. Several other Popes have been as well. Spiritual giants of many other religions and sects of Christianity are not immune.

The LDS leadership agreed in 1995 to remove the names of Jewish holocaust victims from the rolls of those given the rite. However recent investigations serve to show that despite the best intentions of church leadership, thousands of questionable names remain on the rolls. Despite the Mormon belief in the voluntary nature of the recipient to accept the baptism, I can full well understand why a family member of a holocaust victim would be upset at the practice. Especially when considering that Adolph Hitler has also been given the baptism of the dead. I don't know of any relatives of mine who were involved in the holocaust, but I'll admit that I feel a bit peeved at the thought that Adolph would be offered eternal bliss along with those he was responsible for killing, due to well meaning LDS members.

In fact the LDS leaders have tacitly admitted the problems, urging members to only baptize relatives, and agreeing to purge the rolls due to the outcry. However they note that it would be impossible for them to check each name submitted out of the tens of thousands of baptisms performed each month so as to stop the rite when questions arise.

I honestly do not believe that the members of the LDS are doing this out of spite or to be hurtful. In fact the motivation is to do good. It is that drive to do the right thing, even if that action is not appreciated by the family or organization of the recipient that makes this issue just about impossible to settle in my opinion. If someone is convinced they are saving the mortal soul of the recipient, it is hard to imagine the means to stop the practice regardless of the sensitivities of the recipients family member and so forth. Yet saying these members do not mean to be spiteful does not remove the odious nature of the practice in the eyes of the unwilling recipients family and loved ones, and that feeling is justifiable as far as I'm concerned.

To wrap this up, I would be very interested in hearing how Mitt Romney would respond to this issue. I might make a habit of commenting on Romney from the perspective of a non-Mormon in touch with the Mormon perspective, and able to fairly judge the issues in my humble opinion, depending on what kind of reaction I get to this post.

I am baffled. Why would anyone care? If someone wants to hold a private ceremony for one of your ancestors, thinking it will do them good in the hereafter, how would that hurt your feelings? What is "odious" about it? I would expect people to be glad that someone cares about their loved ones, that they are not forgotten. Now if the Mormons were publicly using the names, or listing them on church rosters, I could understand the objection. But they don't.
I don't think anyone would have a problem if it were simply immediate family members who were subject to the practice. But it is clear that some members in their zeal to save souls are performing the rite for people who are simply famously not Mormon, and not related to the the member conducting the ceremony. And to perform the rite for someone like the Pope or a founding member of Islam really is to question the validity of that person entire belief system in my humble opinion. It is to say that due to this persons mistaken faith they need to have Mormon intervention in order to save their mortal souls. I do believe this sends an objectionable message in certain circumstances...

But what this boils down to is if I'm out of line for thinking like I do, so is the LDS leadership for knuckling under, apparently when there should be no reason for anyone to be concerned. They (attempted to)removed the names of holocaust survivors from the list for a reason it seems to me...
I need all the help and "Blessings" I can get.

If someone, religious or not, happened to be walking through a cemetery and said a prayer over my grave or one of my ancestors, I would welcome it.

If the LDS church wishes to offer "Blessings" by their own definitions, I see no problem with that!

Would all of these people get upset if a Minister were to pray at the graveside of one of their relatives for that individual's well-being? Especially if that Minister did so quietly while asking for nothing?

I see no problem.
To summarize, what you are saying, bhfrik, is that for a church "to question the validity of" another's "entire belief system" "sends an objectionable message in certain circumstances".

Hence, you think that churches should not question the validity of other belief systems. Questioning = bad. What do you think is the alternative? And aren't you questioning the Mormon belief system? Do you see an error in your logic?

The reason the LDS leadership knuckled under is because of the wide publicity. Although no one should be concerned, there are certain public figures who create issues to inflame passions. When the masses don't take the time to find out what is really going on, they can become antagonistic. The church was trying to avoid that.
I can't help but note how ironic it is that I find myself defending the position of LDS leadership, and Jeff feels the need to explain their actions.

How about this? We both agree they have it right. Members ought to only give the rite to immediate family members. I think then if some family members want to do the baptism, and other family members object, it is an internal family matter rather than a seeming attempt at post mortem conversion of someone who is famously not Mormon.

As to disagreeing with the Mormon belief system, how can that be the case when I am agreeing with the position of the church leaders. If individual members feel the need to step outside of official guidelines and baptize famous people, that seems to me to be the questionable practice per church doctrine. Of course I don't claim to be the expert on LDS hierarchy and dogma, but I do believe following the guidelines set forth by LDS leadership would offer a mutually satisfactory solution from my perspective.
There actually is one correction I would make to the post in particular. (As a matter of etiquette I won't just edit the post once it is the subject of debate) In the post I write: "So an issue has been brought to my attention which I believe does not speak well for this tolerance on the part of my Mormon sisters and brothers. This issue is the Mormon belief in the baptism of the dead."

I don't have an issue with the belief per say, only the practice as carried forth by members who I think are too zealous in their eagerness to save famous people, or people who obviously are well established in another faith, and which the members performing the rite have no relation to... In fact, knowing my wife, I expect that a year after death I will be baptized. I have not problem with that on a personal level. However I'm not the Pope, a founding member of Islam, or a Jewish holocaust survivor.
I'm glad that you don't have a problem with the issue on a personal level. And I'm glad you agree with church leaders. But you seem to be confusing policy with doctrine. The doctrine, or belief system, is that everyone, even famous people need baptism. The current policy is to only encourage members to submit names of relatives. Mormons understand that eventually every dead person needs the chance to be saved. (That should be obvious.) So, when you say you agree with church leaders, you are really only agreeing to recent policies, not the underlying belief system.

So, the questions remain:
Why should anyone care? Is it because it is wrong for a church to question another belief system? (Questioning = bad)

If a Catholic wants to perform last rites on a Mormon prophet, I don't see any reason for hurt feelings. If a Muslim, or even a Satan-worshipper wants to use Brigham Young's name in a ceremony to save his soul, there is no harm done because I don't believe they have any authority or power. The issue only arises when people think the Mormon church considers the baptisees to be Mormon, which it doesn't. It is all a misunderstanding perpetuated to arouse passion by those who seek political gain.
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