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"I'm a Mormon, Not a Christian"

So said David V. Mason in an edgy op-ed in the NYT last week. His point was theological: that Mormons are theologically as different from Christians as Christians are from Jews. Further, he looks to the day when Mormonism might be recognized as a fourth Abrahamic religion, an opinion he shares with Richard D. Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.He's got a point. Mormonism is henotheistic, not Trinitarian-monotheistic, and any good Mormon boy can go on to become God of a new place if he so desires. (Girls can't. Of course.) God, then, was once an ordinary dude, and still has a body, as it says in Doctrine and Covenants, The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as mans (130.22).To believe in Jesus' divinity doesn't really cut it as a means of defining Christians, either, unless you'd like to include any number of Hindus who affirm Jesus' status as an avatar of Visnu, a physical manifestation of divinity. Is considering Jesus the "Son of one God among many" close enough?

On moral matters, especially concerning family and personal behavior, Mormon doctrine tracks closely with conservative Christianity. The combined magisterial/Mormon opposition to same-sex marriage was a powerful advertising force in the push for California's Prop. 8. The tack of mainstream Mormonism today is to cast the faith as a type of evangelical Christianity.This stance of non-Christianity isn't uniform among Mormons, to be sure. As Mason notes: "My Mormon fellows, most of whom will argue earnestly for their Christian legitimacy, will scream bloody murder that I dont represent them. I dont. They dont represent me, either."Identity questions seem to be the ur-issue of the day. Do you have to affirm Nicea/Constantinople to be Christian? How about Chalcedon? Do you have to affirm seven sacraments to be Catholic, or is two enough, (since Lutherans, inter many alia, affirm the Nicene creed's affirmation of the "one holy catholic and apostolic Church")? More neuralgically at present, must one actively oppose contraception, same-sex marriage and women's ordination to be Catholic? Must one embrace Vatican II, or is agreement on the hot-button issues enough, a la SSPX?The power-question here is who gets to decide. Certainly in the early Church there was a faction that saw themselves as a reform movement within Judaism, perhaps not totally unlike the "Jews For Jesus" today. Arguably, Jesus began his ministry as a Jewish-only movement, but changed his self-understanding when he ran into people of faith who weren't Jews, most notably the Canaanite woman, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Centurion. Paul also moved in a Gentile-inclusive direction, and brought the tradition with him.Myself, I'm a big-tent person, inclined to err on the side of people's considered self-understanding, dialogue, and "in all things, charity." Dialogue doesn't mean that important issues like Trinity and Christology are thrown under the bus, to be sure, but that we begin with what unites us, not what divides us.Your thoughts?


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Great discussion! Thanks to all for corrections, clarifications, and explanations.

Some Mormon beliefs and practices are hard for non-Mormons to understand, appreciate, etc., but Catholics should be slow to criticize, imho.E.g., some (many?) people find the architecture and interior decoration of the many new Mormon temples ugly. Should Catholics look to their own insipid churches of the last few decades before joining the chorus?Some people object to the baptism of the dead, but some people object to praying for the dead. (RIP, Rodney King. Can we all get along?)Some people dislike the exclusion of non-Mormons from temple sealings, but I remember when Catholics were not allowed to attend weddings in Protestant churches.Etc.I am SO grateful to the Mormons for the inestimable!

The Nicene Creed did not just appear out of nowhere in the early fourth century - it was modelled on earlier creeds (probably the one used in Jerusalem) that derived from the three questions asked of converts at baptism and, those questions, in turn, are rooted in Matthew 28 on the baptismal formuls cited there. That Nicene orthodoxy was a Greek invention superimposed on the gospel (think of Von Harnack) is a hoary cliche ably rebutted by, among others, the late Jaroslav Pelikan.

It seems to me that all theology is an attempt to answer people's questions about God. It oftenbefins with Scripture -- where would be a better place? Language is notoriously ambiguous. so conflict is almost built into the subject. This is why the testimonies of the early Christians is so important -- they can help eliminate the ambiguities. But -- yes, they too are ambiguous.All of this serves to make theology a communal subject by necessity. The idea that dogma (the surest theology) is irrelevant to true believers, just strikes me as nonsense. Sure, we ought to do the loving thing always, but we need help finding specific advice about what the loving thing might be. That's where the experience of the earlier believers and, yes, our contemporaries can help.

I just came across this and admit to being surprised: Why Mormons flee their churchBy Carrie Sheffield, June 17, 2012

Ann Olivier, Rafi Simonton: Ann, theology may "often" begin with Scripture, or with common experience, but for Anselm and many before and after him it begins with faith: faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). It's not that understanding replaces faith or exhausts its content, but that willynilly we do have some kind of understanding, sought purposely or not, doing more or less justice to that faith. We might as well try for a faithful understanding!I agree that regarding dogma as irrelevant is misguided. But it's ironical that "dogma" and "dogmatic" now connote in everyday language the close-minded attitude of one who thinks some formulation captures truth completely and need not be examined further. The original meaning of "dogma," after all, is "opinion," so "dogmas" are the considered opinions of the faith community, opinions binding on the faithful, defining what the faith community understands regarding some element of the faith. That dogmatic declarations continued to be issued should have made it clear that something more could often be said to further clarify that understanding. I agree fully with you about heeding both past and present believers.Rafi, neither "hierarchs" nor the rest of us, when we talk of charisms, can justify straying far from what Paul had to say in 1 Cor 12. Different charisms, one Spirit. Many parts, one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I do not need you," or vice-versa. Hierarchs and academics need mystics --and vice-versa.

Julain -Thinking that one's own current understanding of the faith is *the* complete and accurate one is, it seems to me, the besetting sin of fundamentalism. And it's heresy, at least in Christians, because God's infinity can never be wholly reflected in one little finite mind. Further, our little minds can misunderstand the explanations given in dogma, and even though we repeat the words of the dogmas, we might have misunderstood them. We should never be too sure about our own understandings of God. And the same thing is true of theologians.This uncertainty is, i think, what so many scientists can't abide about religious faith -- faith is only faith. You don't meet its Object directly the way you can think "2 plus 2 is four" and be absolutely certain that's true. The scientists are finally admitting, however, that the empirical sciences themselves are also intrinsically uncertain. I suspect that might be one reason why in academe these days religion is no longer automatically tossed into the dustbin of superstitions. The seculars are starting to wonder again if there really might be something to theology, even though it is always uncertain at least to some extent and often very murky.

Ann: Your comment about fundamentalism, if anything, understates the situation. It's not just that fundamentalists regard their "current understanding" as complete and accurate. There is not, for them, a distinction between that understanding and the faith, so their view is not current but perennial. Hard not to sympathize, really. We may be seeing "through a glass, darkly," but what we see must be that enduring "lamp shining in a dark place" of 2 Peter 1. It can be difficult to acknowledge the darkness, waiting "until day dawns and the morning star rises" in our hearts.As for scientists, I think they are as heterogenous as religious believers (and the categories obviously overlap). But I doubt that it's uncertainty that bothers scientific critics of religion. Scientists rather pride themselves on the provisional nature of scientific hypotheses, theories, and even "laws." Those are all susceptible to revision based on new evidence (and scientists are in the business of finding that evidence!). So the critics are put off (to say the least) by what they see as arrogant and "dogmatic" claims to certainty.If anything, many scientists are too prone to accept (implicitly!) a nave epistemology based on classical logical positivism, for which only "falsifiable" statements have any meaning, let alone any claim to acceptance. But the situation is pretty complicated. Your example of "2 plus 2 is four," for instance, is an analytical proposition; the conclusions of empirical science are synthetic propositions. And the ground has been badly trampled when it comes to a priori, a posteriori, and synthetic a priori propositions. We have also managed to make a terrible muddle of knowledge, belief, natural theology, and revelation.

Julian --I grant you that the physicists have known for generations that empirical knowledge is uncertain, but many of them were devastated when they realized it. The Viennese positivists craved certainty. But have most scientists been as interested in philosophy of science as those physicists were? As I understand the history, it wasn't until Kuhn's theory of paradigm shifts arrived in the 60s that most scientists discovered there is a fundamental epistemological problem for empiricism -- that it is intrinsically shaky and always will be. And they didn't like it one bit. But I agree that logical positivism echoes to this day. I guess that's why I think that some scientists still claim more certainty than is justified. Some of them still blithely criticize religious believers for believing "without evidence" all the while basing their science on rickety sensory knowledge. (See Dawkins et al.) Their certainty is unshakable. It's fundamentalism of another hue.

Okay, it's established that Mormonism isn't exactly ye olde tyme faith as most of us Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox would find recognizable within the normally accepted realms of describing Christianity. It can also be safely said that of all the faiths "commonly recognized" as Christian in the land some folks want to have officially declared as a "Christian nation," Mormonism -- by virtue of it being founded by a human, much like all of Protestant denominations -- is THE true church of "American Exceptionalism," presuming that part of our spiritual heritage may one day be grafted in the Constitution. Just look at its historical roots and consistently rising growth while other Christian bodies are growing at much slower clips, or not growing at all. Thankfully not all Mormons are totally alike or fiercely libertarian in their fiscal political views as Mitt Romney or his fawning acolytes in Utah and the GOP's much more favored southwestern "Sunbelt" states. (Republicans love the Midwest, the land of their modern origins, much moreso than even the Northeast, where RINOs still call the shots money-wise. Democrats have produced some very progressive Mormon leaders from Harry Reid to the Udalls, also spread throughout the "Sunbelt." Focusing on Mormonism's ties to Christianity is much like the Tea Party's and The Donald's obsessions with President Obama's birth certificate. Fiscally conservative, and legally-wonkish (i.e"constitutional originalists") like Utah's Sen. Mike Lee, and of course, Mitt Romney, who rarely saw an unregulated market or outsourcing opportunity he didn't like are the people we should be most concerned with; not the theological doctrinnaires. These are the "slide rule Bob" McNamara's of the Southwest whom we should be more concerned with. After all, most of the best biographical stories about Romney commonly share one observation: he's COLD if nothing else, well, save for excessively ambitious. Perhaps this explains why he seldom believes he should have anything to say to the rest of us lesser enlightened "Gentiles" when it comes to Mormonism and "how to make money and create jobs." What makes the Mormons who really take their leaders' teachings to heart, especially when it comes to business and their willingness to cut any corners so long as their ends can not only be justified in simple moral right/wrong terms; but especially so in any ledgerbooks.

Ann:Along with a few others, we have somehow been drawn into posting comments not directly addressing the problematic Mormon-Christian dichotomy. I happen to find the digression interesting, but it's on a road that goes (as Tolkien might put it) "ever on and on," as we follow it "with weary feet." Not only that. Rather than joining "some longer way, Where many paths and errands meet," it threatens to split into alarmingly numerous and crooked byways. Responding briefly without gross distortions gets harder, but I'll give it a try.Your last point first: yes, Dawkins et al. may fairly be compared to fundamentalists. But it's important to notice that their mistake is not so much exaggerated confidence in the reliability of scientific conclusions as it is imagining that their assertions in other areas are just as reliable.As for sensory knowledge, it may be "rickety" (as I should know, with my slowly worsening cataracts), but it's what we have, and we don't want to disdain it! (Locke's "nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensibus" may be an overstatement, but when duly qualified it sums up the views of many before him, including Aquinas).Invoking Thomas Kuhn here opens a Brobdingnagian can of worms, and I hesitate to upend it! Among the formidable wrigglers turned loose is the Kuhn-Popper debate, which has given rise to such diverse competing narratives, with Kuhn the hero in some, Popper in others. Where experts disagree, a non-specialist should tread softly. But despite their numerous disagreements, I don't think there can be any question that both Popper (alleged conservative) and Kuhn (alleged revolutionary) understood perfectly well that scientific conclusions are always provisional. Ann, if you haven't read Steve Fuller's book, "Kuhn vs Popper," and the fierce objections to the book raised by many reviewers, you might have a look. If nothing else, it makes clear how complex the issues are. (Attempt at full disclosure: I have found reasons to admire both Kuhn and Popper. Kuhn's notion of new paradigms is certainly useful; Harvey's "De Motu Cordis" exemplifies how profoundly one contribution can change the scientific landscape. As for Popper, I admired among many qualities his refusal to overreach. I recall how carefully, in "The Open Society and Its Enemies," he wrote of "methodological nominalism," abstaining from entering the perennial debate on universals --at least at that point!).



About the Author

Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).