OK, let’s ask a relatively simple question: Why do non-Mormon accounts of Mormon theology so often seem grotesque? To avoid derailing the discussion immediately, let me concede that there are non-Mormon folks who “get” Mormon theology, etc. etc. etc. On the other hand, if you are a Mormon and have not seen, heard, or read some non-Mormon describing Mormon theology as a pastiche of ridiculous beliefs about magic underwear, visitors from outer space, and eternal sex in the hereafter you haven’t been paying much attention to what your neighbors think about you.
There are a couple of quite plausible and to a greater or lesser extent valid explanations of this phenomena. I’ll mention two before moving on:
1. Bruce R. McConkie
2. Mormon theology actually is weird
I think, however, that margins provides another possible explanation. The reality of course is that there is not a single Mormon theology. Rather there are a whole bunch of differing — and occasionally contradictory — Mormon theologies. Although we all use the same language, we sometimes mean quite different things. We even occasionally have — gasp! — explicit disagreements with one another about theological subjects.
This does not mean, of course, that Mormonism simply means what ever we want it to mean, or that there are no boundaries to legitimate discourse. When your Uncle LaVerrn starts explaining to you how the Three Nephites have authored a secret book of scripture kept in the First Presidency vault that explains the precise time of the second coming, which the Brethren have told to all Stake Presidents (at least the ones who aren’t Democrats), you can be fairly certain that he is out to lunch.
To a greater or lesser extent all religions have the issue of pluralism and margins. One of the chief differences between Mormonism and other strands of Christianity is that we place the margins in different places. For example, a couple of years ago the Catholic Church issued a formal canon law ruling to the effect that Mormons who convert to Catholicism must be rebaptized. Initially, this seems entirely plausible. After all, Mormons demand that Catholic converts get rebaptized and turn about is fair play.
Catholics, however, have a dramatically different understanding of baptism than Mormons. As I understand it, under canon law a baptism need not be performed by a Catholic priest in order to be valid. Nor must it be performed according to the rites of the Catholic church, ie infant sprinkling. All that is required for a baptism to be valid is that it be: 1. Performed using water; 2. Be done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; 3. Be done with the intention that it be a Christian baptism. That, as I understand it, is it. Thus, Protestant baptisms are valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Even baptisms by those with heretical beliefs — such as the early Donatists and Arians — are valid.
The canon lawyers who made the ruling concluded that Mormon baptism satisfies the first two elements. They argued, however, that it did not satisfy the third element. When I read the ruling, I initially thought that they would argue that Mormon baptism was disqualified because it is not performed with the intention of baptizing a person into the universal Christian church. This, however, was not the tack that was chosen. Rather, they concluded when Mormons use the terms “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” they don’t use them in any Christian sense. Of course, if one understands “Christian” here to mean something like Nicene Christianity, one has a point. However, there is a long tradition in canon law to the effect that baptisms by non-Nicene Christians are valid. (The rule dates back the Arian controversy. Arians rejected the Nicene creed, but there baptisms were still valid.)
Rather than looking to the creeds, the canon lawyers looked to the King Follet Discourse. Reading it, they concluded that Mormons believe that God was an ordinary mortal who progressed to be God. This belief, however, means that when Mormons say “God” they simply can’t mean anything like what other Christians mean. Now anyone who has read any Mormon theology knows the canon lawyers adopted an interpretation of the King Follet Discourse that is an acceptable interpretation. Brigham Young certainly believed something like this formulation. It is, however, the interpretation that gives the King Follet Discourse its most radical possible theology. On the other hand, it is by no means the only way in which the King Follet Discourse has been read within Mormonism. For example, one can interpret it as saying that God has been eternally god but at some point in the past eternities he became mortal in the way that Christ became mortal and then re-assumed his godship. On this view, God has always been God. Likewise, one can understand exaltation in terms of becoming an independent God just like the Father. Alternatively, one can understand exaltation as becoming one with the Father as Christ is one with the Father, so that one is a “god” but always and eternally subordinate.
At the end of the day, I don’t begrudge the Catholic Church its conclusion. Certainly, their analysis was much more careful than most. (Incidentally, the cardinal with ultimate responsibility for the ruling is now pope.) I just found it interesting that they identified all Mormon intentions with regard to baptism with a single Mormon position, which while acceptable is nevertheless toward the edge of the acceptable Mormon interpretation. Given the imprecision with which we generally carry on our theological discussions, in many cases non-Mormons can’t be faulted if they have no sense of where the center and where the edges are of Mormon thought.
In this sense Mormon theology is like the common law. To understand what is or is not the law, one has to read a lot of cases in order to get a sense of where abstract arguments are likely to lose their force, despite their logical validity. One gets a sense of the whole only through immersion in the particulars. This is why a practicing Mormon can tell you that the belief that the garment stops bullets is at the edge of Mormon belief, within the fold but neither universally held nor doctrinally required. This is also why a journalist is unlikely to get the same simple point.