Rethinking Mormon Christianity

When I first entered divinity school I met a friend who described his home denomination as “Methodist but with more of an emphasis on Holiness.” I was befuddled. I had assumed that it was common practice even among the most liberal denominations to at least make a gesture at avoiding profaneness. I was embarrassed to ask him what he meant by “holiness.” His response was a diplomatic, “Oh. Wow,” and then an awkward attempt to explain something he had assumed was a fundamental principle. The man in question is a great friend, but has hinted before that while he absolutely respects and values my faith in Christ (indeed, we’ve had many uplifting, edifying theological conversations about Christology), that doesn’t necessarily deserve a “Christian” appellation.

So I’ve been thinking for a while about the reasons for or against Mormon Christianity. I suspect most of the people who swear up and down that we’re not Christian and have a public interest in doing so are motivated by theology. The internet is full of such conversations; one of the most recent is Dan McClellan’s response to James White. I absolutely agree with Dan and affirm Latter-day Saints’ right to define themselves and insist that grouping Mormonism with Judaism and Islam over against Christianity is irresponsible and dishonest. Reading between the lines, I think most of those who would rather say Mormons are not Christian at all than say they are heretical Christians are afraid of what it might mean to call a Mormon a Christian. For some, being a Christian denotes salvation. If you are a Christian you have accepted Jesus as your Savior and are saved. So to say that Mormons, JW’s, and Catholics are Christian is tantamount to saying they are saved which runs counterintuitive to the disagreeable doctrines we espouse. So it is more important to say we are non-Christians than heretics, because in their mind, a heretical Christian is a contradiction in terms.

But I digress. I disagree with those who would exclude Mormonism because of a theological litmus test for many of the reasons Dan discusses, but I’m wondering if Mormons might be non-Christians in another sense. As in the story shared above, I have participated in or eavesdropped on many conversations concerning liturgy and theology that have been over my head. During these conversations, I have realized that there has been several centuries of Christian thinking into which I was not plugged. Nor, I would guess, are the millions of Mormons who have not converted from another Christian denomination. So, in conversation with my classmates, here I was pretending to know something about the atonement of Jesus Christ without being able to distinguish the difference between the Substitutionary, Satisfaction, Christus Victor, and Governmental theory of atonement. They all sounded the same to me. I couldn’t contribute to any discussion of church polity or liturgy or anything else being discussed at lunch. And because I’m a Bible kid, I still can’t. I can’t even provide you with adequate examples because I don’t know what I’m talking about.

And I’m afraid most Mormons would do much worse. Since its beginnings in popular 19th-century folk religion, Mormonism as a whole, despite its adherence to the Bible, has existed apart from Christian discourse. To this day it remains largely unaware of the millenia-old Christian conversation to which Catholic and Protestant thinkers have contributed.  This has been a good thing and a bad thing. While it has allowed Mormonism to pursue its own paths of discourse independently of other movements, this independence has resulted in isolation. Consequently, Mormon and general Christian semantics are so differently situated that we often talk past each other in heated debate about something we would otherwise fundamentally agree on. Of course, it’s not impossible for Mormons to participate in this type of mainstream discussion without compromising their doctrine, but few have done so.

So because of this shared history of dialog, historic Christians have enjoyed longtime association — sometimes as bitter enemies and other times as colleagues. In some cases, this association excludes Mormons not because of doctrinal differences but because of differences in theological language and learning. Mainstream Christian academics do not read Mormon authors the way they read authors from Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, or other more traditional backgrounds. Most of these individuals do not exclude Mormonism from Christianity by nature but rather do not think of Mormons first when mentioning “Christian initiatives,” “Christian bookstores,” “Christian missionaries,” “Christian schools,” etc. This is not meant to insist that Mormons aren’t Christian by doctrine or nature or to somehow deny their own difficulties in mapping their own theologies onto the Bible. Instead it just draws distinction between two very divergent currents of collegiality .

So there are two different points here. From an objective view, it might be theological mistake to say Mormons are not Christians. However, it might be a historical mistake to say that they are Christians. Which question is most important? I still believe the first is more important. The theological discourse I describe above is one to which belongs only an academic, erudite subset of Christian believers (to be generous) and remains very misleading if taught to Christians on the whole. The misinformation is always that Mormons don’t believe in Jesus. Therefore, It is more important to accurately describe Mormons theologically than to use the term Christian to mark out who usually chums it up with whom.

49 Replies to “Rethinking Mormon Christianity”

  1. So you going to write a Christianity for Mormonisms text to get LDS members up to speed on the broader academic and theological debates out there? Barring that, where are some good places to start?

  2. I agree with your conclusion. If people want to call me a heretical Christian, I’m not bothered by that. But if they want to call me a non-Christian, they have to provide a definition of what they mean, because in the common, generic sense it’s a false statement and inherently misleading. But if they pony up a definition, I’d even be ok with being called non-Christian. My only problem is with the bait and switch of saying we’re non-Christian using a private definition but not supplying that definition so that onlookers who don’t know better apply the public definition of the word and take from that assertion that we do not believe in Jesus Christ. When people do that, I find it smarmy and offensive.

  3. Taking a key from MLB and their steroid drama, I believe that a simple solution could be found in an asterisk. Thus Mormons are Christian*.

    Personally, I could care less about theological debates on doctrine to define Christianity. Rather, I believe, that Christianity should instead be defined through an understanding of liberation theology that defines Christianity in terms of progressive action and protest in behalf of the poor, discriminated, alienated, and oppressed. In this sense, much of traditional Christianity (and perhaps most of Mormonism) would then be defined as insufficiently Christian.

    *While believing that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God and savior of humanity, they do no subscribe to creeds which have historically and theologically defined Christianity.

  4. Rob F. Are you kidding? I already said I didn’t know what I was talking about, so there’s no way I could produce any literature on the subject. Besides, I’m not sure this is a situation I want to fix. While there are disagreements on points of doctrine which arise primarily out of semantics, I really appreciate the independent direction Mormonism has gone and the creativity isolation has afforded it. I would no sooner teach a Platypus how to be a mainstream mammal.

    Kevin I couldn’t help but laugh at the first statement of your comment. I thought to myself, “I wonder if he agrees with anything else?”

    narrator I see your point. You could care less about theological debates on doctrine to define Christianity. Rather you believe they should submit to your debatable definition of theology and doctrine.

  5. Aliquis, you have to understand that when you speak of historical Christianity, Protestantism is not traditional. It was a radical innovation. You need to read Eamon Duffy’s the Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 to understand what traditional Christianity actually was and how the Protestants worked to destroy it. I argue that Mormon line up with traditional Christianity much better than do Protestants.

    It’s true that Mormonism is largely removed from Protestant THEOLOGY, but theology is not the same as Christianity. What percentage of Christians have heard of the various theological positions you described?

  6. Perhaps I should have been more clear. What I mean is that I could care less about doctrinal debates concerning the ontology and metaphysical/mystical nature of God (ie. trinity, absolute characteristics, etc)–which is the primary issue in the Mormon/Christian debate. Rather, I am more concerned with the moral concern of God (which, yes, is debatable).

  7. “It’s true that Mormonism is largely removed from Protestant THEOLOGY, but theology is not the same as Christianity. What percentage of Christians have heard of the various theological positions you described?”

    While most Christians may perhaps have not read the theological creeds which have historically defined Christianity, the Churches/sects/denominations that they participate in (and the ecclesiastical leaders that head them) are directly tied to the theology of those creeds.

  8. Steve I’m excited to read Eamon Duffy’s book, but I have to disagree with you about this being only a Protestant issue. For example the discussion on the atonement I allude to was begun by Catholics like Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas.

  9. Great post. I think the battle over labels obfuscates the larger issue at play, which is whether knowledge of the history of Christian theology is even valuable for the Latter-day Saint.

    I think there is a good case to be made that knowledge of this history is valuable. It allows us to appreciate the rich history of Christianity and our relation to it, it also helps us to better understand our own theological positions that is often only possible in contrast with other traditions, and it allows us to effectively communicate with these broader traditions in ways that can be understood. I agree that Mormonism’s theological independence has isolated itself, or in other words, cut itself off from the larger Christian tradition. I recognize, however, that in my association with other Latter-day Saints, many see that as a good thing, they do not see the value in knowledge of Christian theological history, nor do they see much value in engaging in dialogue with these other traditions. While there are many possible reasons for this, I think a large factor is the presence of the ever-influential apostasy narrative, which in many ways, devalues or renders moot knowledge of the struggles of centuries of Christian self-reflection and identity formation. While we are just barely seeing a greater acknowledgment of figures in Christian history in our discourse, which is quite encouraging, it still seems limited to treatments of history, mostly from the reformation period, that are seen to support ideas of restoration. I do see signs that this is slowly changing. I would like to see Christian histories written by Latter-day Saints that go beyond the apostasy narrative.

    The general Mormon consternation with battle over the appellation Christian confirms this lack of awareness of broader Christian theology. It is important to realize that from the perspective of many of those involved in the debate, to be called Christian is not simply indicative of religious belief or praxis or good citizenship, as many Mormons understand the term, but indicative of specific soteriological status. As you point out, this means that to call Mormons Christian would, in their minds, mean to no longer proselytize to them, and accept their baptisms as valid, and accept their teachings as consistent with historic Christianity as they understand it, and for Mormons to reciprocate. I think that is important to know, and be aware of, regardless of whether we agree with it.

  10. Indeed, Aliquis, but you still seem to be conflating Christianity with theology. Again, how many Christians throughout the history of Christianity could tell you anything about ” Substitutionary, Satisfaction, Christus Victor, and Governmental theory of atonement”? Are the theologians the only Christians that count according to your definition? Theology is just one very small subset of Christian practice.

  11. Narrator,

    A minor quibble, not with your argument, but with language usage (which, whether we like it or not, does factor in to credibility). The mistake you made is not entirely your fault, however, because it happens so often that many inadvertently start to use the mistaken idiomatic expression rather than the accurate one.

    You said “I could care less.”
    Actual idiom “I couldn’t care less.”

    The meaning of each of these statements is wildly distinct from the other. The first expresses ability to actually care less, which says little about the degree of caring in the first place. President Monson could say “I could care less about the the gospel and the church” and be wholly accurate because no matter how much he does care about it, he could lessen that feeling of concern. The second expression indicate such little concern that it would be impossible for one to actually care less. In the first there is room for less caring, in the second the absolute boundary for not caring is expressed.

    Like I said, this comment is largely unimportant, but you are a really bright guy (I’ve seen your comments around on blogs and such and visit your blog from time to time) and so I thought you’d like to know about a little language mistake that could have an impact on credibility, even one as minuscule as the one I’ve pointed out.

  12. I’m going to have to follow Fleming here. The distinction aliquis seems to be making essential cuts off every christian group besides professional clergy.

  13. Perhaps I’m not being clear enough. My point is not “whoever knows the most about historical theology gets to be Christian.” My point is rather, they are Christian whose group’s participation in Christian dialog throughout history has cohered them to one another. This does not require every individual within the group to be conversant in theology, just the ones with controlling interest. If this applies mainly to professional clergy, then that makes a lot of sense, since their parishioners generally follow them.

    This is not an observation on Christian theology itself, which, I agree with Steve Fleming, is different from Christianity on the whole. This is rather an observation on the role theological discourse has played in the the way different Christian groups have talked and worked together.

  14. In this sense, much of traditional Christianity (and perhaps most of Mormonism) would then be defined as insufficiently Christian.

    But still Christian nonetheless! 😉

    Great post and great follow-up discussion folks. I especially appreciated Steve and aquinas’s input.

  15. Great insights.

    I’m subbing for Gospel Principles class for the next two weeks. The first class topic is on Chapter 12, “The Atonement”. I’m going to be splitting it into two lessons, with the first one focused on discussing what “Salvation” actually practically means, instead of being some vague mystical concept of “Going To Heaven”.

    It’s been my experience that many Mormons don’t think beyond the stock answers “Saved from Spiritual Death and Saved from Temporal Death – all that came from Adam” when asked about Salvation.

    It’s often framed more as the Atonement saves us from what Adam did, instead of in terms of personal responsibility. Members just don’t seem to be thinking beyond the standard satisfaction theory Justice & Mercy aspect of the Atonement, and rarely appear to be aware there are many different and powerful and extremely personal and relevant aspects or ways of understanding and thinking about the Atonement.

    I’ll be Asking them to think about questions such as, What are we saved from? What actual physical temporal things are we saved from? Why do we need saving from those things? What are things we do to try as human beings to save ourselves and others from these things? Does God appreciate the temporal efforts we do take to help save others from these things? What does the Atonement do that we can’t do ourselves, etc. This is in addition to a discussion of what they understand “sin” to be, and why it of necessity keeps one from Eternal Life.

    This discussion will be replacing the time usually set aside for Boyd K. Packer’s “Mediator” parable. I’m interested in seeing how it goes. It will directly affect what I do for “Part 2”.

  16. [a] I think Steve Fleming (#10) is absolutely spot-on.

    [b] Off-topic, but my linguistics training compels me to note that the narrator (#7)’s use of “could care less” is actually, historically speaking, not incorrect, contra widely disseminated legend otherwise.

    [c] It may sound like a joke, but i mean this completely seriously: Given what self-professed Xians have turned Xianity into, why in the world do we keep insisting that we need to belong to their club? Why not just let them exclude us, and be happy about it?

  17. I’m inclined to respond to James’s comment about “I could care less” as the judge did to Vinny’s objection in “My Cousin Vinny”–“That is a lucid, intelligent, well thought-out objection. . . . Overruled!”

    If you don’t think “I could care less” means that you don’t give a damn, then you probably also have never understood what people mean when they say “Yeah, Right!”

    And I could care less whether James agrees with me or not.

  18. David B ~ Could you clarify who it is that keeps insisting that Latter-day Saints need to “belong to their club” and could you explain what “belong to their club” entails?

  19. Great post, aliquis.

    You said:
    “As a result, Mormon and general Christian semantics are so differently situated that we often talk past each other in heated debate about something we would otherwise fundamentally agree on.”

    This reminds me of a “debate” I recently had with a colleague in my divinity school. He was challenging me on the idea of “modern revelation.” He kept insisting that revelation ended with Jesus Christ and I persisted in arguing that the Bible doesn’t support this conclusion and that there were plenty of revelations after Jesus died.
    It took me the longest time to realize that we were each using the term “revelation” differently. He saw revelation as the process of God making himself known unto mankind, which was completed in the incarnation and mission of the Son. He didn’t have any problem with the idea of there being further “inspiration” from the Holy Ghost, which inspiration resulted in the writing of the New Testament letters. However, when we Mormons claim to have new, modern revelation, he saw this as us moving beyond Christ to something different. Although he certainly wouldn’t accept our modern Scriptures, somehow re-wording our view as that we believe in “modern inspiration” was not so offensive to him.
    I still don’t know if I really appreciate the significance of this seemingly minor (to me) difference in the use of the two terms, but if I would have understood the significance that difference made to him, we could have avoided so much arguing over that particular point.
    As you point out, I think that many of the arguments between other religious parties and ourselves could be avoided if we just knew a bit more about them and they about us.

  20. David Larsen, great example. I’m reminded of a similar discussion I had with a Catholic friend of mine. For him, stressing that we need new revelation was tantamount to saying we need a new Christ. For him, Christ is God’s self-revelation, he is the Revelation and therefore to argue we need ‘new’ revelation didn’t compute, it was a theological syntax error. He had no problems, however, with the saying that the Church needed ‘guidance’ from God. We are often completely unaware that the words we use daily have very different connotations to those outside the walls of our church. Being aware of those traditions can assist us to be much more effective communicators.

  21. aquinas (#22): I was referring to the repeated assertion by Mormons that we are actually Christians, no matter what some Christians may say. For reference, see any number of general conference addresses over the course of the past several years (decades, really).

  22. Regarding the semantics of revelation. Isn’t the Mormon point though that a new revelation of Christ was necessary because it wasn’t had in the Catholic/Protestant traditions? One could even see Lectures on Faith as adopting that view and it being a catechism for why new revelation was necessary in order to have faith in Christ.

    One can disagree of course. But it seems to me that the Mormon rejection of creation ex nihilo is a pretty big break with what Protestants see as the Revelation of Christ. Our notion of the two natures is radically different as well if only because of how we conceive of embodiment.

  23. David B ~ But that doesn’t sound at all like wanting to “belong to their club.” I’m not aware of Latter-day Saints who are insisting that we need to “belong to their club.” In fact, I tend to hear just the opposite, with your comment being the latest iteration of that perspective. From what I have observed, the main concern from Latter-day Saints who describe themselves as “Christian” is that to define themselves as “non-Christian” not only misrepresents and distorts their faith, but it simply doesn’t correspond to their own self-perception. Historically speaking, it is true that many sermons have spoken of Mormons, not just as Christian, but as the only true Christians. As McConkie would say “where else shall we find true Christians except among the Latter-day Saints?”

    Setting aside religious polemics, however, the issue is being correctly and accurately understood, not about joining some club. Many Mormons make it clear that they are not Protestant, Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, they don’t accept or subscribe to the creeds, they don’t accept the Trinity, they don’t derive their religion from historical Christian theology, nor do they wish to abandon Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. But despite all of that, they simply wish to reserve the right to use the label “Christian” but only to use it, some might add, in a way not to be associated or confused with, in your words, all those self-professed Christians who have turned Christianity into something negative. That hardly sounds like the kind of language from somebody expressing a real desire to “belong to their club.”

  24. Really interesting discussion. Thanks.

    I’d be interested in more thoughts on what people think the solution should be. The OP states: “Therefore, It is more important to accurately describe Mormons theologically than to use the term Christian to mark out who usually chums it up with whom.” I agree with this while also thinking that we need to continue to find ways to get past the ways we talk past other Christians. It’s been interesting to read even the few examples given in this thread, e.g., revelation vs. inspiration. I think there is much good in our society that can and needs to be done by good people of many faiths working together, such as Elder Oaks recently talked about at Chapman.

  25. David Larsen & aquinas ~ Interesting stories about revelation vs. inspiration. That seems to be the background of this comment on Dan’s post, item # 3. I had a similar conversation with an evangelical family on my mission about being “saved.” By the end of the discussion, I realized that they were talking about an experience similar to what we LDS sometimes call “conversion” or what King Benjamin describes as a change of heart. While the two concepts were not equivalent, they were far more similar than either of us had originally thought.

  26. Stephen M. ~ I’m not sure to which definition you’re referring, but if you mean mine, I disagree that it excludes Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Orthodox and Catholic theology draw on many of the same early church fathers who first formulated this traditional theological syntax and therefore, while they do not enjoy common fellowship within the same church, they can still be said to be genealogically Christian. Protestants and Catholics, while continuing their centuries-old disagreements, have disagreed formally, in debates and dialog and such. Beginning with Luther, reformed Christians have spoken against and criticized Catholics within the same theological systems, but at least they spoke one another’s language.

    Michelle ~ I sympathize the need brought up by you and Aquinas to find ways to better connect with other Christians, but I have this inordinate fear that the more we start speaking the lingo of mainstream Christians, the more like them our doctrine becomes. Historically, it seems that once religions start talking together and such, syncretism is unavoidable. I yearn for fellowship, but I value independence more highly. Besides, there are plenty of good things in the world that can be done in union with people of faith without an equivalence of theological syntax. Furthermore, doctrinal understanding alone has not always brought about brotherly love between religious movements.

    On the other hand, if I believe that the same God who guides the LDS church through prophets and revelation* is the same God who despises contention and estrangement among his children, I should have nothing to fear concerning doctrinal integrity in interfaith dialog. And inasmuch as other LDS’s share this idiosyncratic paranoia with me, we’ll just have to get over it, won’t we?

  27. aliquis ~ I sympathize with your perspective and I don’t dismiss your fears summarily. I also appreciate your irenic tone and thoughtful approach on these complicated issues.

    My fear is that people will uncritically accept the notion that interfaith dialogue will lead to compromises in doctrine, or arguments that Mormons will lose their distinctiveness or unique flavor or theological independence. As someone who has been involved and interested in, and an advocate for interfaith dialogue, I simply see no evidence of this. I’m reminded by Truman Madsen who studied in-depth the language and philosophy of the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. I think one will be hard pressed to find any evidence that somehow this compromised Madsen’s Mormonism in any way. One could say the same for others who have been deeply involved in interfaith dialogue. My concern is that those who come across the doctrinal integrity argument, and who aren’t interested in interfaith dialogue anyway, will uncritically adopt this argument as yet another reason not to engage in dialogue, or that others will allow themselves to be manipulated by this fear.

    Within Mormonism there are many varieties of perspectives, and people naturally discourse about what view best articulates or explains Mormonism. That is important and is indicative of healthy religious discourse. In that however, one of the most egregious tactics I’ve seen is to label the views of one’s perceived opponent as “Evangelical” in order to curry favor with one’s more conservative colleagues who harbor this latent animosity or fear of doctrinal corruption. I’ve seen this done elsewhere and I do not want to pass judgment as to whether this has been done deliberately or unintentionally. However, we all should be aware of this and guard against it. I’m often frustrated by this state of affairs. We may disagree with how to best articulate Mormonism, we have vested interests in being faithful to our religious heritage, but I worry when people exploit the ignorance or fear of others in the process.

    I appreciate your last paragraph, and share the same sentiments. I do believe we have nothing to fear and while this paranoia is certainly understandable I hope it will not turn into paralysis in our discourse with others.

  28. aquinas (#28): I think you’re reading way not what i intended with my “belong to their club” line (and also that you’re putting way too much weight on the phrasing of what was, really, a bit of mild snarkiness). I was simply talking about naming rights, not about points of doctrine or dogma.

    For the most part, Mormons are, in my observation, really intent on being called by the label “Christian”. Like i said in my first comment on this thread, though, whatever its history, given what the term has turned into, why in the world should we care whether that label gets used for us or not? Why not let others have exclusive use of their label, if they wish to (very successfully, i might add) redefine it? Fine—so we come up with a different label. Seems reasonable to me, at least.

  29. David B ~ Thanks for your response. I’m trying to encourage a little more clarity on your part. I suspected perhaps this may have been a joke on your part but you insisted “It may sound like a joke, but i mean this completely seriously.” You can perhaps forgive me then if I took you seriously.

    I’ve heard this kind of language before and I simply believe it is inaccurate and misleading, so I appreciate to know you didn’t mean what you wrote. Secondly, I’m not at all persuaded that Mormons should avoid the label Christian merely because “what the term has turned into.” What exactly it has turned into, you still haven’t said. I realize you may be asking more of a rhetorical question and really aren’t interested in why Mormons insist on being called Christian, but I included two links in my response above from Mormons who explain why they are Christian, in the event that your question is not rhetorical.

    Others have suggested various other labels. Robert Millet has suggested “Christian, but different.” Elder Bruce D. Porter of the Seventy, writing in the religion magazine First Things in 2008, said:

    “To the title Christian a critic of Mormonism may add any modifiers he deems appropriate—unorthodox, heretical, non-Nicene, different—but blanket assertions that we are not Christian are a poor substitute for informed argument and dialogue.”

  30. I’m not sure LDSs are as adamant about being labeled “Christian” by others, as they are about being labeled “non-Christian,” by churches and organizations who maintain billboards for faith, Christ and the Bible alongside the road to salvation. The question is, “why the concern?”

    Perhaps part of the answer lies within a type of apprehension or fear on the part of LDSs in general. First off, might I be so bold to say that Mormons don’t really like to offend (aside from talk on www sports message boards and the whole the wicked can’t handle the truth stuff), especially when it comes to discussion of religious diversity. I think aliquis pointed out well the dilemma LDSs find in trying to brige the gap between the “divergent currents” of Christian religions without compromising Mormon doctrine and I would add to that, without offending. That dilemma is a double edged sword because on the one side, we LDSs possess the alertness of killer bees when opportunities to discuss our religion surface. At such a point JoeMo slowly accepts the whisperings of some voice in his head that says “Ah ha! Now the Spirit is really going to let me show this guy the truth!” Discussion ensues and then the second side of the sword is wielded when JoeMo is respectfully labeled “non-Christian” by his counter-part. The voice JoeMo thought he earlier heard in his head has now coagulated into cloud-like images spelling out popular acronyms that are supposed to be interpreted as vulgar expressions of shock and surprise.

    In the end, yes, the labeling seems quite silly. Still, I can see how the perception of being labeled “non-Christian” causes heartburn for some LDSs who may view such a label as a big, frustrating blockade that stands in the way of their efforts to not just share and discuss the gospel; but to even hold something resembling a productive conversation about religion with a believer of another faith.

    I also agree that it is of more importance to accurately describe LDSs theologically than it is to speak words that place Mormons within the populace box definition of “Christian.”

  31. aquinas (#34): No, i meant exactly what i wrote—it was mildly snarky, but it was completely serious. (One can be both, after all.) I realize that it was ambiguous, but i meant precisely the one reading that was intended—that it doesn’t matter whether we’re called by the label Christian, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re well-served by insisting on the label.

    After all, meanings change over time. Villain used to mean a non-noble, generally a farmer, but nowadays calling a farmer a villain would be an insult. If the meaning of Christian is in the process of changing in general use (and i really do think it is, in that the meaning is becoming more specific, not to mention that it’s accreting a lot of new connotative baggage), does it really work to insist that everybody should use the meaning we think they should be using?

    Coloring all this, by the way, is the fact that my training is in descriptive linguistics, not in any of the religious fields. My worry about words like Christian is not their technical meanings, but in the way people actually use them in everyday conversation.

  32. And Pani’s (#35) point about the way that Christian and non-Christian aren’t exactly a P and ¬P set plays into this. The problem of course, is that the grey area (or, for some, overlap) between the terms is ill-defined and, i suspect, varies widely among individuals.

  33. David B ~ “it doesn’t matter whether we’re called by the label Christian, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re well-served by insisting on the label.” This is a much better and improved statement. Much better than the description of the use of the term Christian by Mormons as indicative of a desire to “join their club” which you have not shown is the case.

    I understand that from the perspective of someone like yourself who doesn’t think it is a good idea for Mormons to insist to describe themselves as Christian that it gives you a rhetorical advantage to claim that those Mormons who do insist on being called Christian are doing so out of a motivation to “join their club.” But I’m directly calling you out on that point and suggesting that you are imputing motives to these Mormons that they simply do not have. It is not reflected in reality. I’m pointing out that this is inaccurate, and if done so deliberately, it is dishonest.

    I’m glad to learn that you are interested in the “way people actually use [words like Christian in everyday conversation.” However, you seem to want to ignore the ways that Mormons are actually using the term Christian. The fact that semantic shift occurs is not pertinent here because you fail to take into account the linguistic data available, which does not indicate the motives that you suggest are at play.

    The better argument is to say, as you have subsequently done, that “it’s unclear to me whether we’re well-served by insisting on the label.” I think that is worth exploring. I’ve already stated earlier (#9) that “I think the battle over labels obfuscates the larger issue at play, which is whether knowledge of the history of Christian theology is even valuable for the Latter-day Saint.” So like others I’m less interested in debates over labels, which I view as symptomatic of larger issues at play.

    To take your comments for example. You take an unflattering view of Christians, you have suggested they are “self-professed” hinting that they aren’t really Christian, or somehow sub-Christian and that they have turned Christianity into something negative, less desirable or bad. Your language evidences a negative view of Christians, which corresponds to your admission that you do not much care for the term. I think those attitudes are not uncommon among Latter-day Saints, and I think are driving some of the discourse here.

  34. A word on the “belong to the club” line of conversation between David B. and aquinas.

    Setting aside religious polemics, however, the issue is being correctly and accurately understood, not about joining some club.

    I think that is a better approach to take. David B. seems to want to just take his ball and go home, so to speak, when someone is disrespectful of his faith (on purpose or by accident). That’s one way to deal with it, just say “good riddance,” but it doesn’t take care of other important questions, like whether or not being labeled as “non-Christian” is entirely accurate, or how such labeling might affect other members or non-members of the Church. That’s why I also appreciate michelle’s comment, “I agree with this while also thinking that we need to continue to find ways to get past the ways we talk past other Christians.”

    Then aliquis raises this interesting observation:

    I sympathize the need brought up by you and Aquinas to find ways to better connect with other Christians, but I have this inordinate fear that the more we start speaking the lingo of mainstream Christians, the more like them our doctrine becomes.

    Yes, I wonder about that as well. I see this in Robert Millet’s new book, Modern Mormonism: Myths and Realities, which is geared to an Evangelical audience while still speaking to Latter-day Saints. It seems there are times when Millet is trying to be a translator, something like what David Larsen advocated, when at the same time he was being quite declarative about what Mormon doctrine is on a particular issue (in this instance, the nature of the atonement). So while he is trying to help different people understand each other, he is at the same time theologizing. That can be problematic. (Historically, it seems to be a common way for theology to be constructed, parenthetically). Fellowship versus independence is an interesting way to frame things.

    Aquinas responds by pointing out that such syncretism is not a necessary component of inter-faith dialogue, and I agree. But the possibility is there nevertheless. I agree that this fear can become an easy escape from trying to understand other faiths, though. No doubt.

    It seems to me that one potential way to avoid problems is to state up front what one is doing in translating across faith bridges, and to avoid being very dogmatic or speaking in an overly-representative tone, noting that other possibilities exist. Of course, dialog partners won’t like this shakiness, they might say it is like nailing Jell-O to the wall, etc. But it seems to me this is unavoidable (and further, that such dialog partners may be overconfident in their own grasp of their own faith tradition in terms of it being representative or not).

    In conversations on whether Mormons are Christian or not I have found it most useful to simply ask the person to describe the grounds on which they make such a judgment, than see if I can’t persuade them otherwise according to the direction their grounds take me.

  35. Okay, a few things in response to aquinas (#38) and BHodges (#39), in no particular order:

    →I was using the term “self-professed” in the way i’ve generally heard it used before—to mean someone who claims a particular label. “Self-professed Christians” is most emphatically not “hinting that they aren’t really Christian”, it’s stating that they label themselves Christian. Most Mormons, by that measure, are also “self-professed Christians”.

    →I don’t think that not insisting on Mormons being labeled Christians is “tak[ing my] ball and go[ing] home”, nor do i think that someone calling my faith non-Christian is being disrespectful of it—i just see it as a difference in definitions. What i’m questioning is the insistence on a particular label even in the face of those differing definitions.

    →So my “join their club” phrasing was regrettable, but i think that that’s mainly because of the context it occurred in, not because of the substance underlying it. I did not mean it in any sort of doctrinal way, i meant it completely in a labeling way. We have people around us who have managed to provide gatekeeping for the term “Christian”, and it’s not us (no surprise, really—we’re outnumbered). The “club”, as i see it, is purely whether a particular word gets used to refer to a group.

    →Am i imputing motives to Mormons who insist on using the label “Christian” to label themselves, as was stated up above? Well, sure—but that’s a trivial statement, since everyone has motives for everything they do. As far as the specifics of those motives, though, i think that it’s actually pretty clear that any claims by members of group X that they should be labeled as members of group Y even though some members of group Y insist otherwise—well, that could reasonably be described (though a bit snarkily) as evidence of a desire to join group Y’s “club”.

    →There appears to be a lot of talking past each other on this subthread, which is unfortunate. It’s particularly unfortunate given that this subthread has sucked the life out of some of the (in my opinion) more important discussion of doctrinal knowledge that was the main thrust of the original post—and i apologize for starting that.

  36. David B ~ I appreciate your continued interaction. Perhaps you are unaware that “self-professed” often includes a negative connotation similar to “self-proclaimed.” A better substitute without negative connotations is “self-identify.” But the context you used this term supported a negative connotation. You wrote: “Given what self-professed Xians have turned Xianity into, why in the world do we keep insisting that we need to belong to their club?” A reasonable person can see the underlying negativity in that statement.

    You can’t now claim you merely meant to say that these people call themselves Christian. Else why did you add “have turned Xianity into”? There is no way to read that as positive.

    The phrase of “club” in these exchanges is not helpful.

    Secondly, I am not claiming it is wrong to attribute motives to people. I’m saying it is wrong to attribute motives to people that you know are false, especially when they go out of their way to bring it to your attention. When members of group X say they are Christian and say it is not because they want to be part of a club, it is not reasonable to persist in saying that group X is motivated by a desire to join a club.

    Tangential discourse can sometimes be unfortunate, but I felt it was important to clarify these issues. I hope people who would like to explore other issues will continue to feel free to do so.

  37. What i’m questioning is the insistence on a particular label even in the face of those differing definitions.

    Well and good. In response, then, I prefer to be understood as a “Christian” because, on your everyday level, I suspect the label entails a person who believes in the reality, or importance, of Jesus Christ, a historical figure who is also looked to as the source of a better life and salvation. On a general level, I think when people hear “Mormons aren’t Christian” they could get the mistaken impression that we do not believe in Christ as God’s son, which in my view does not responsibly or adequately grasp my faith.

  38. BHodges ~ I agree that Latter-day Saint interlocutors in an interfaith dialogue exchange are often perceived as speaking on behalf of the entire Mormon community, taking on a role of ambassador or interpreter. I’m reminded by the New York Times article describing Richard Bushman as “explainer of Mormonism.”

    I agree that this does have the potential for difficulty, especially given the diversity of views within Mormonism. The exchange between Stephen Robinson and Craig Blomberg in How Wide the Divide was criticized on that point if I recall. Some Latter-day Saints took issue with Robinson on some points. However, this can be remedied where interlocutors provide explanation of the diversity of views within their own religious tradition. I think Craig Blomberg provides a good illustration where he explained not merely his own views but also surveyed the various positions within Evangelical Christianity. The aftermath of How Wide the Divide that played out in venues such as FARMS Review shows the diversity of thought. Other Latter-day Saint thinkers such as Paulsen or Ostler identified areas where they agreed with Robinson but also areas where they disagreed. I don’t always agree with Robert Millet’s descriptions or his scriptural exegesis, but I recognize his views as articulations of positions held by Latter-day Saints within the tradition. Not everyone may see their personal understanding manifest in any one given exchange. In addition, the form that interfaith dialogue takes is highly participant-dependent. You are going to get somewhat different articulations based on the people involved. An exchange with Eugene England is going to be different. But my perspective is that if a Latter-day Saint is disappointed or feels any given Mormon interlocutor has not done the tradition justice, to get involved, engage in interfaith dialogue, write reviews or commentary, depending on the situation. Therefore, I while it is true that there are challenges, I don’t feel this means the whole enterprise is flawed, but merely that we improve our communication and discourse. One exchange isn’t the final word.

    One example comes to mind about where translation gets close to “theologizing.” Robert Millet and Gerald McDermott of Roanoke College engaged in a public conversation at that college back in 2005. McDermott asked Millet to explain where Mormonism came out in regards to communicable and incommunicable attributes. And for those who may not be familiar, these are attributes that can be shared between God and man. Millet didn’t create Mormon theology on the spot, but just said he didn’t really know. Now, from my perspective, this distinction within Mormonism has never been invented, it doesn’t exist. Mormonism never created language like this, and that’s important to realize, because there are reasons for it. Even the absence of particular theological constructs in Mormonism can tell you a great deal about it. In many ways, it doesn’t make sense to have communicable and incommunicable attributes in Mormon theology because of its radically different anthropology. And in early Mormonism we get equality language (D&C 88:107) that is relevant there. But the point is that religious traditions include questions and answers, and sometimes the questions don’t match up, not all religious traditions ask the same questions or come up with the same answers. So, ideally, interfaith dialogue isn’t merely for Mormons to populate historical theological questions with Mormon answers, but to also explore what questions are asked in any given religious tradition.

  39. aquinas (#41): I suspect you’ve hit on a dialect difference between us—to me, the positive-negative scopes of self-proclaimed and self-professed are amazingly similar, and in fact self-proclaimed may even skew slightly more negative for me, though i’m not completely certain of that. (It’s a similar phenomenon to things like guys, which some varieties of English have with a gender-neutral semantic scope and others have a gender-specific scope. Such differences lead to some big difficulties in argumentation, especially in text media.)

    But yes, i do think that what many self-*ed Christians have turned Christianity into is a negative. That’s completely separate from whether i intended the word self-proclaimed as negative or neutral, though.

    Also, i’m having trouble seeing where you’re criticizing my characterization of why (at least many) Mormons want to be called Christian. I mean, i’m simply saying that there are Mormons who want to be labeled Christian because they want to be considered Christian. That’s not a tautological claim, but it’s pretty close to it—so how do i know it’s false? I mean, really, i don’t see it.

    That said, your post #43 on a different subtopic—yes, and agreed.

  40. Why not just say “Christian” is an equivocal term with several meanings? We do that for other labels why not that one?

  41. Like so many of you, I also wish that more LDS People would know their own doctrine (and some of its history) better.

    From there, we could move on to mainstream Christians…

  42. I have experienced a fair amount of bigotry when it comes to religion and I was wondering what the justification is for other Christians hating on Mormons. Update In response to those who say Mormons are not Christians all I have to say is Ye shall know them by their fruits .. Okay I felt inclined to make another comment as I have looke dclosely at Mormonisms palce among Christianity.

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