What a fascinating series of comment on my “Are Mormons Christians?” provocation. I have several things to say in response.
First I want to explain my admittedly (and deliberately) extreme formulation from yesterday, i.e., “not even close.” Though I think my boss could have done a much better job in making the case, I think he was right: Mormons simply believe too many things that are too radically discontinuous with the orthodox Christian tradition to be considered Christian. Compared to these differences, those separating Catholics and Baptists and Lutherans and Eastern Orthodoxy are quite tiny. As someone noted in the comments (sorry, I forgot the name), all of the above accept the validity of the Nicene Creed (except for the Orthodox, who object only over a single formulation about the Trinity). That’s a tremendous amount of overlap. Now, let’s remind ourselves of a few of the Mormons differences.
Mormons say Jesus came to earth a second time and preached the gospel to a group of people that no other Christian (or anyone else, for that matter) thinks even existed. This in itself is HUGE — and I’m afraid, Russell, that unless and until non-Mormon Christians become Mormons (meaning that they come to believe these things on the basis of the “burning in the bosom,” if that’s what it’s called), or some series of archeological discoveries are made to verify at least some key factual assertions of the BoM, then there will be no possible unification like the one you describe. Then there’s the BoM itself and the way it appeared, was translated, and then disappeared, which non-Mormons consider to be a hoax, through and through. Then there’s its distinct doctrine of atonement. Then there are the post-BoM revelations of JS, which frankly send Mormonism off in directions utterly removed from the Christian tradition — as foreign as, and in some ways much more foreign than, Islam’s views: the corporeality of God, the suggestion that God Himself was once a mortal human being and evolved into his divinity, the pre-existence of souls, rejection of creation ex nihilo, the centrality of America in the second coming, several levels of heaven — need I go on? Any one of these differences would make Mormonism a profoundly heretical Christian sect. Put them all together and it becomes, I think, something very much else entirely: a new religion that grows out of many of the same source materials, but takes them in profoundly different directions.
Now, I know that from a Mormon standpoint this all sounds kind of crazy, since you think that YOU and these beliefs represent the TRUE Christianity — more: the restoration of the true Christianity — and that the so-called Christianity that rejects all of them represents the apostasy. But this gulf or chasm in outlook is what led me to state the issue so starkly in yesterday’s post. And attempts to bridge this gap or deny it by suggesting that Mormons should be considered Christians because they believe in Jesus are, I’m afraid, unconvincing: what matters is what Mormons as opposed to non-Mormon Christians mean by “Jesus” and His Church — and as I hope the list above makes clear, the two groups mean very, very, very different things.
At the same time, though, I take Jim F’s point (to the extent that I understand it) about the difference between theological and political senses of the term “Christian.” I mean theologically Christian. I admit that politically speaking Mormons and non-Mormon Christians agree about quite a lot — including, for example, the moral grandeur of the Sermon on the Mount. That’s no small thing. But in the end, the theological differences are more fundamental. After all, lots of atheist humanists admire the teaching of the Sermon, too, while utterly rejecting the context of how and by Whom it was delivered.
Now, as usual, I’d like to leave you today by changing the subject just a bit. I’d like to explain why I — a Catholic — have so much more sympathy for Mormons and openness to the possible truth of its beliefs than (by far) most non-Mormons. Let me begin by saying that I hope you all understand how profoundly ridiculous most non-Mormons consider you to be. Occasionally I’ll say something like to this a Mormon friend and the response will be, “really? I had no idea.” Well, it’s true. It is extremely rare that a mention of Mormonism among non-Mormons — even intellectuals and even religious intellectuals — does not elicit a mocking joke about lots of wives and lots of gods and so on. In other words, it’s very rare to find someone who is willing to treat your faith with respect.
So, given that I’m no saint (latter-day or otherwise) and am guilty of harboring all kinds of ignoble prejudices, why am I different? Well, of course, some of it has to do with having lived and worked among Mormons for two years — and loving nearly every minute of it. But there’s something deeper at issue. Having been raised as a non-religious Jew, ALL religious belief seems incredible to me at some level. So Mormons think that God has a body and that He revealed himself in the 1820s to a rural farmer. That sounds weird. But certainly no less weird than the basic Christian belief that God became incarnate in a carpenter in Judea 20 centuries ago and then rose from the dead and ascended into heaven — let alone the doctrine of transubstantiation and the Trinity and lots of other things. In other words, having come from outside of all of these traditions, the playing field was already leveled for me. Of course lots of secularists feel this way and then conclude that all religion is equally absurd. But I was clearly more open to its truth for reasons I can’t quite explain.
And just as clearly, most “cradle” Christians are not open this way. For them, the doctrines of the orthodox tradition make intuitive sense in a way that Mormon views do not. But that’s always struck me as a very weak position, relying as it inevitably does either on the view that “what’s mine is true and what’s theirs is false” or the view that “what’s old is truer than what’s new.” Both are, of course, pretty pathetic. After all, if the first is valid, conversions would be impossible — and Christianity would never have arisen in the first place. As for the second, I can never get it out of my mind that in the year 150 AD, Christianity had been around for a shorter period of time than Mormonism has by today. Does that mean that the anti-Mormons of today would have rejected Christianity in 150? For their sakes, I hope not.
Anyway, that’s how it looks to me. I don’t do much with the Internet over the weekend so I can be fully available to my family, so I’ll be out of touch until Monday, for week 2 of guest blogging. Until then . . .