Wednesday 31 July 2013

How to approach the topic of differences between Mormonism and Mainstream Christianity


As I have already stated, the most important aspect is prejudice: whether the Mainstream Christian approaches Mormonism with a positive prejudice, on the assumption or in the hope of finding an underlying unity; or (as is usual) with a negative prejudice, that assumes Mormonism is not Christian, and which puts Mormonism on trial - confronting Mormonism with a set of accusations all of which it must refute on a point by point basis.

In other words, the nature of the prejudice (or prior assumption) will have a vast and decisive effect on the procedure of evaluation and therefore the outcome of evaluation.


Because Mormonism is approached by most Mainstream Christians with a negative prejudice, the differences between Mormonism and Mainstream Christianity get presented as a shopping list of point-and-sputter factoids: "Mormons believe God (the Father) had a body", "Mormons believe the risen Jesus visited America" etc etc.

Now many of these shock tactics are misrepresentations and de-contextualized distortions - but of course Mormonism does have many and important differences from mainstream Christianity.

Now, if these are examined one at a time, and especially with a negative prejudice, then this list of differences will seem either wickedly defiant; or simply absurd and arbitrary.


But in fact (and I mean in fact) most of these differences (and all of the really significant ones) emerge from an underlying metaphysical difference - philosophical pluralism - and from a different way of reading the Bible (taking it at face value, minus Classical philosophical preconceptions).

I assume that this different perspective came from Joseph Smith and predated the writing of the Book of Mormon, which was then written in accordance with this mode of understanding so different from the theology of the post-Apostolic era (but comfortably consistent with the Bible as understood by a plain man's reading).


In sum, Mormonism is Christianity; and differs from other denominations primarily in its metaphysical assumptions (i.e. its philosophical assumptions concerning the basic nature or structure of reality) which are pluralist rather than monist.

These metaphysical assumptions are not a part of Christian revelation, rather they are second order (and historically later) attempts to systematize revelations, and bring them into line with other forms of understanding.

For example, much of the intellectual theological work of the first few hundred years of Christianity seems to have focused on bringing Christian understanding into the framework of Classical Philosophy, in its various manifestations.


The vicious Christological disputes (disputes concerning the nature of Christ) of these early centuries seem to have been (at least to some significant extent) a consequence of this philosophical work - when it was found that perfectly clear and comprehensible Biblical revelations were difficult - in fact impossible - to fit into a self-consistent philosophical framework which also fitted with revelatory/ traditional understandings of the nature of Christ.

It was probably the insistence (despite the difficulties) on adopting a Classical philosophical understanding, and giving this philosophical understanding primacy over revelation, which probably led some into heresies - as they followed their philosophy wherever it led, rather than giving primacy to the revelations.


So, Christianity has various metaphysical systems backing-up revelation: most famously Platonism (associated with St Augustine) and Aristotelianism (associated with St Thomas Aquinas).

Since around 1830, to this can be added pluralism/ pragmatism - with Mormonism broadly summarizable as Christianity backed-up with a kind of precognitive version of the distinctively 'American' philosophical perspective described by William James and his colleagues.


But what is true?

The answer will have to take into account that more than 2000 years has failed to answer objectively whether Plato or Aristotle was true, or even which system was true-er.

Because the truth of metaphysical systems is not an empirical matter, because the metaphysical system includes and defines empirical evaluations.

How, then, to choose which metaphysical system to adopt?

In the first place, the system should be self-consistent.

Having passed this test, and beyond this, the choice of metaphysical systems would take account of factors such as expediency (personal, and social, fruits of the belief), and also comprehensibility, and intuition/ personal revelation.


Different metaphysical systems work for different people for different purposes and at different times - each has advantages and disadvantages.

All I would point out is that the Mormon metaphysical system very obviously has many and important advantages (in terms of fruits, of comprehensibility, and as validated by personal revelation) for some people at this point in history.



Adam G. said...

This idea of approaching things with negative or positive prejudice is an important one.

It's partly why the 70s idea of open criticism in marriage is bunk. When you put the negative at the forefront, no real understanding is possible.

It's also the difference between educated conservatives and educated liberals approach to institutions and traditions. The liberals delve into the failures and see them as emblematic, the conservatives look at the successes and see them as emblematic. There may be considerable agreement on the actual facts but wide disagreement on their significance.

Commodore said...

Perhaps we're confusing two different Joesph Smiths, then? I would approach a man who attempted to read the Bible through a literal lens and formulate a simple theology without the philosophical baggage very positively. I approach a man claiming divine revelation from a literal angel with much more suspicion.

Joesph Smith, Theologian is one thing; Joesph Smith, Prophet is quite another.

Bruce B. said...

I have known many evangelicals who think that Catholicism isn’t any more Christian than Mormonism because they believe Catholicism severely distorts the Gospel.
I think my difficulty with Mormonism isn’t so much the theological assumptions as it is the fact that it adds an entirely new revelation with additional scriptures, a latter day prophet, etc. You either believe these things or you don’t. If you do, you become Mormon. If you don’t, you believe they are lies.
However, I can see how God could work through Joseph Smith’s stories (assuming they are false) to bring about good e.g. reminding Christians about some very neglected aspects of their faith & practice.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Commodore - It depends whether you think it is impossible that JS could be a prophet. In the first place it is necessary to comprehend the scale of achievement in devising a new theological system, writing the Book of Mormon (in just a few months) and organizing an extremely successful church on original lines. If JS was not a prophet, then he was a triple genius - but it is very hard to claim that he was a genius.

@BB - I think that is more or less my own view. To acknowledge Mormonism as a Christian denomination is necessary for a reasonable Mainstream Christian; but only those who believe that Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet should consider themselves actually becoming a Mormon.

I also agree that the choice is between prophet and liar - and that is what Terryl Given argues strongly: Joseph Smiths claims are so specific and concrete - for example very detailed descriptions of the golden plates - and there are so many of these claims - that the choice to believe or not is a stark one.

Thursday said...

Well, one could frame it thus: Are we to have a prejudice in favour of Athanasius, Basil, Nyssa, Nazianzus, and Augustine or in favour of Joseph Smith and William James?! I think it quite obvious what a reactionary's prejudice should be.

NC said...

Strictly speaking, it's only those who have a revelation from the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon is true should consider themselves actually becoming a Mormon.

The leap to thinking that Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet in, for example, later works was disagreed upon by some Mormon factions.

You can find the Book of Mormon to be true without adherence to the total infallibility of Joseph Smith.

Factually speaking although not necessarily spiritually, Joseph Smith was/is a prophet. While there is intellectual room to quibble over very fine distinctions in what is meant by regarding a person as a prophet, the rise and success of Mormonism proves he was a prophet. This is a fact of what is now history.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - Aside from the fact that one should not want to be a 'reactionary' except insofar as it is Christian; it isn't as straightforward as that - because the LDS church is notably strong in the major arena of reaction in the modern world - the sexual revolution: especially marriage and the family.

So there is empirical and experiential evidence to have a prejudice in favour of JS - not, of course, entailing prejudice against the early Fathers.

And of course there isn't a choice of either or: both are possible.

And again, a 'reactionary' might privilege the apparent (non-philosophical) world view of those who lived before the church Fathers you list - such as the Apostles, or the prophets of the old testament.

I think your line of reasoning may be a pitfall of the standard secular Right perspective which sees being a reactionary as more important than being a Christian and does *not* perceive marriage and family as being the major battleground of the culture wars - thus preferring an ideology.

Luqman said...

The thing that really bothers me about Mormonism is my impression, rightly or wrongly, that some rather basic positions are made by committee rather than tradition or scripture; far too malleable for my liking. The attitude towards polygamy and ministry to black people in particular stand out as examples. The existence of the FLDS Church and the visible fruits of the belief gives me the impression that Mormonism is a lot of good stuff, just without the foundation that will make it long lasting.

I have expected a rather quick descent for the denomination and from talking to young Mormons online they are liberals to the core. From reading the posts here though I have a new appreciation and respect for Mormonism beyond the lifestyles of its adherents.

This particular post reminds me of the Hindu religion, which encompasses a number of philosophical positions; monism, dualism, whatever-you-feel-like-ism. Is this the beginning of a Christianity heterogenous in first principles?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Lugman - I think you are incorrect to describe the process as committee - the process by which a small group of religious people reach unanimous accord through prayer (or do not reach such accord) is not at all like what most people understand by a committee. The group subordinates itself to divine guidance, and opens itself to divine communication.

Mormonism is now into its ninth generation (counting generations as 25 years) - so it already is long lasting. If you think Mormons are liberal, you have to ask 'compared with what?' - we are talking relative differences from mainstream culture; not absolute adherence to a perfect ideal.

(Of the large Christian denominations, most are *indistinguishable* from mainstream secular culture in terms of their behaviours - especially in relaton to the sexual revolution, marriage and family.)

Online is not representative of the real world. For example I know of only two people who agree with me on most issues within a radius of twenty miles; indeed only a handful in England. Yet people might read this blog and suppose my views were 'representative'.

Also you need to take account that the LDS Leadership is the least liberal and the most intelligent, educated, wealthy Mormons are those who are most devout - which is the opposite of most religious denominations.

"This particular post reminds me of the Hindu religion, which encompasses a number of philosophical positions; monism, dualism, whatever-you-feel-like-ism."

That is the wrong way to think about it - we need to be able to separate Christianity from the philosophizing of Christianity. A Christian can be (and often the best Christians are) a child or a simple-minded person, cognitively incapable of philosophy.

Agellius said...

"In other words, the nature of the prejudice (or prior assumption) will have a vast and decisive effect on the procedure of evaluation and therefore the outcome of evaluation."

My question is why the prejudice is there in the first place. If it's objectively unwarranted, then what is it's source? Has it no basis whatever?

Perhaps at the start we should define "prejudice": I am using it in the sense of pre-judging, i.e. your immediate reaction to something or someone, before you have really gotten to know it. I assume you mean the same thing; if not, please let me know.

As Bruce B. said, "my difficulty with Mormonism isn’t so much the theological assumptions as it is the fact that it adds an entirely new revelation with additional scriptures, a latter day prophet, etc."

I contend that this is what gives people the prejudice against Mormonism. Different denominations may be prejudiced for different reasons: Evangelicals because their foundational premiss is that the Bible and the Bible alone is the Word of God. Thus the claim of new scripture naturally leads to a prejudice against Mormonism, as surely as it leads to prejudice against Catholicism -- though in the case of Catholicism it's not so much because of adding new scriptures as a perceived adding TO scripture, i.e. infallible teachings which are not to be found on the face of scripture.

The Catholic Church, as I have argued (though my comment was not posted), has a prejudice against Mormonism due to Mormonism's having proclaimed that there was no valid priesthood or sacraments upon the earth, and itself as having the only legitimate succession of bishops and priests and valid sacraments (ordinances). All this strikes at the very root of Catholicism.

In other words, Mormonism out of the gate strikes at the root of most other Christian bodies, and then acts surprised when these others don't welcome them with open arms into the Christian fold.

Now if you accept your (Bruce Charlton's) arguments in favor of Mormonism: That it reads the scriptures as they stand rather than through the lens of philosophy; that Joseph Smith must be a prophet because otherwise he's a genius and that's not very likely; that its good fruits point to its being more genuinely Christian (in the sense of being anti-liberal) than any other Christian group -- well, then you're no longer talking about prejudice. You're talking about trying to win people over with argument based on facts.

I have no problem with you doing so. By all means let's talk it out. But I think there should be more of an effort at understanding why the prejudice against Mormonism arises in the first place. Once that is understood then one can work to overcome it through facts and argument.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - There are very obvious and strong reasons for Christians to have a positive prejudice towards Mormons - they *ought* to have a positive prejudice.

As to why they do not? Sin. For which there are always plenty of excuses, as you outline above.

But excuses is what they are.

Agellius said...

That doesn't really answer my question. What brings the prejudice on in the first place, such that it needs excusing?

Let me put it another way:

Granting your assertion, that there are no rational grounds for this prejudice -- not even subjectively rational grounds -- but people are prejudiced anyway because of sin:

Even granting that, nevertheless, people don't sin for the sake of sinning. They sin, and make excuses for sin, because they get something out of the sin.

So, either people believe the grounds that they give for their prejudice, or they're getting something out of being prejudiced that makes it worth sinning for. What do you contend people are getting out of their prejudice against Mormonism that causes them to make excuses for indulging in that sin?

Bruce Charlton said...

@A- "your assertion, that there are no rational grounds for this prejudice -- not even subjectively rational grounds "

Straw man. I didn't say that - this is not about 'rational'. It is about there being very obvious reasons for positive prejudice, but these reasons are all-too-often, in practice overwhelmed by negative prejudice.

"What do you contend people are getting out of their prejudice against Mormonism that causes them to make excuses for indulging in that sin? "

Surely that is obvious? Far too many mainstream Christians line-up to take pot shots at Mormons, wheeling out point after point, and their enjoyment in doing so is palpable: they get to indulge disgust, condescension, hatred, anger, cruelty, show-off their skills at polemic and invective, advertize their compassion for this or that... All the usual stuff - different people having different (bad) motivations.

Is there a particular sin, which is most characteristic of anti-Mormon prejudice? Among intellectuals it would perhaps be a kind of sniggering snobbery which is akin to the above-mentioned disgust. (For example, the *first thing* some will mention about Mormons is 'magic underwear'.) What people get from this is an assertion of their own high status - it is the stuff of school gangs, the mechanism of scapegoating and mocking the 'weird kid'.

Note: I am trying to explain why anti-Mormon prejudice is so normal among (otherwise) devout real Christians, why this is so resistant. Anti-Mormon prejudice is a (shocking) fact at the group level which I am trying to explain - no such explanation can work 100 percent for all people - that is to make a reasonable assertion into a straw man. Nor am I using the utilitarian argument that anti-Mormonism is bad because it makes Mormons suffer; I am using the argument that it is bad because it is fundamentally anti-Christian behaviour. So when it is engaged in by an other-wise devout Christian, as is often the case, then the devout Christian is typically clinging to a sin but falsely excusing what is happening - in other words arguing that their sin is not a sin. That is what is so dangerous.

Agellius said...

OK. It does seem that we have been using "prejudice" differently. As I said, I was taking "prejudice" to mean "your immediate reaction to something or someone, before you have really gotten to know it". You seem to mean more like what I would call "bigotry". As a result I think we were arguing past each other.

I agree that acting in a superior and snobbish way is unchristian. It's simply uncharitable, and it's a bad idea to try to justify such behavior. If that's your main point then we have no quarrel.

But, unless I'm misunderstanding you, you also seem to be saying that anyone who disagrees that the LDS Church is a Christian church is ipso facto a snob and a bigot. I have encountered this attitude a number of times and I think it's a mistake. It basically lumps those who are trying to approach the question respectfully with those who are not. After all, it's a thing that people may need to be convinced of individually. You won't convince them by summarily disallowing the question.