Tuesday 22 July 2014

Are Mormons Christians? Yes, of course! - or else, most Catholics and Protestants are not Christians either...


What I find most ominous about the way that so many mainstream Christians reject the Christian status of the CJCLDS / Mormon church - is that the grounds on which they do so would also reject the vast majority of past and present members of their own Catholic and Protestant denominations.


In practice, many mainstream Christian intellectuals regard philosophical doctrines as more important than Christianity; in the sense that they cannot believe that anyone who rejects their philosophical doctrines can really be a Christian.

This formally entails that their understanding of Christianity is contained-within the philosophical doctrines of Catholic or Protestant theology; or those bits of Catholic and Protestant theology which overlap.

To put it crudely, they put philosophy first, and fit Christianity inside it; and assert that anything outside the philosophy cannot be Christian

What does this mean for the mass majority of Catholic and Protestant children, simple people, and others who either cannot understand these philosophical doctrines, or cannot hold them in mind, or in actual fact believe in a God the Father and Jesus Christ who have (to all intents and purpose) exactly the same nature as is understood by Mormons?


This must, indeed, be the case - because ordinary simple people simply cannot comprehend what it means to create from nothing, or to have a disembodied God who is located everywhere, or to have a Holy Trinity which both is three and one simultaneously - what is actually in their heads is pretty much what Mormons have as their 'official' doctrine.

Now either these Catholics and Protestants who actually believe in the Mormon God and Jesus are not really Catholics or Protestants; or else we regard being Catholic or Protestant as being merely a submission to a structure of authority and passive assent to a set of un-comprehended verbal forms.


This is a terribly hazardous situation - not for the LDS, which is doing fine, and indeed is perhaps more devout than at any time in its history - but hazardous for Catholic and Protestant Intellectual Christians; because the temptation is to misrepresent Mormon beliefs - in order to be able to deny that Protestants and Catholics actually hold them - is hard to resist, and is clearly seldom resisted. 

The misrepresentation of Mormonism ranges from an ignorance which is understandable, yet is proud, wilful and refuses correction; through to an ignorance which is based upon pervasive bias; to a deliberate focus upon decontextualized peripheral aspects of Mormonism (pulled-out and held-up for ridicule as obviously crazy) while ignoring the core of actual Mormon beliefs and practices as they are lived; to plain and straightforward lying about Mormons (dishonestly rationalized by the desired-for end - of destroying the LDS church - justifying the means); to what I can only regard as a near-psychotic craziness on the topic of Mormonism which refuses to see the plain and obvious present day known realities, and instead focuses on the open-ended realms of the hidden and unknown, the arcane, the potentially possible, supposed analogies with other religions, and whatever evils attributed to Mormons (someplace at some time) that cannot conclusively be disproved.

(And, as always in human affairs, there are those Christians who are simply looking for an excuse to indulge in the exhilarating emotion of unrestrained hatred; in which case, unless this pleasure-in-hatred is repented, they may not remain Christians for very long.)


Now - of course I do not expect that either Protestants or Catholics ever could or would accept Mormon theology - it is profoundly different, profoundly in the accurate sense of different way back at the level of metaphysical assumptions.

Also there are additions to Mormonism compared with Catholic and Protestant beliefs. But then there are additions (loads of them, and very profound ones!) in Catholicism as compared with Protestantism; and in many forms of Protestantism in actual practice - which incorporate magic, animism. Indeed, in general, since Protestantism lacks a central authority - and many forms have a very local form of organization, there are almost as many types of Protestantism as there are churches, home groups or individual worshippers. Who knows what additions, combinations, or new emphases these may have?  


And I accept that there is evidence on both sides of Mormon claims. Certainly the evidence is not overwhelming. There is some good evidence that the LDS church is true (in the sense of essentially what it claims to be), and also some good evidence that it is not true: the evidence is in some kind of balance. In other words, the evidence either way is not decisive. The choice between the possibilities is a choice, the decision is not-compelled, and the choice must be made by each person.

Furthermore, the way that Mormonism was set-up, and the highly specific and concrete nature of its claims, leaves very little 'wriggle room'. This means that there are only two informed coherent attitudes to the CJCLDS - that it is true or it is a fraud: a deliberate deception by the founders and sustainers.


So, the crux is that for Mormon unbelievers the choice is between on the one hand regarding the religion as a benign fraud - and on the other hand, regarding Mormonism as a fraud that is covertly malicious (since there is so little/ zero evidence of overt wickedness).

Nonetheless, if we are both honest and informed, it must be acknowledged that precisely this situation exists between all Christian denominations - that either someone else's denomination is true or a fraud; and that any Christian faith which comes from another denomination must be attributed to ignorance or accident.

However - this should never lead us to deny the reality of Christian belief in despite of what inevitably seems like organizational fraud, or doctrinal ignorance.

We must have a concept of Christianity which fully and at the highest level encompasses the faith of the the simple and the ignorant - and those of other Christian denominations who live by Christ, as best they may (which may be very well indeed, and far better than the intellectuals who profess to judge them on philosophical grounds).


(I know that some will allow that individual Mormons may be Christian, but hold that the LDS church itself is not Christian. And they regard this as a problem because they believe that false theology will lead - sooner or later - to apostasy, and evil. Yet the apparent fact that this has not happened in the CJCLDS must either challenge their belief, or encourage them to look hard for signs of apostasy and evil in the modern Mormon church - evidence that it is going-bad; and if you look hard enough, you will of course find what you seek. Also, it is obvious that 'true' belief in a church does not prevent apostasy, or error or corruption. Thus the relationship between philosophy/ theological detail/highly specific official doctrine on the one hand - and on the other hand goodness and Christian faith is... well, at best extremely weak and probabilistic.)


So, the status of being 'a Christian' must - and I really mean must - be non-philosophical and extremely simple; or else we will do terrible damage both between denominations, and also within denominations.

Therefore, the specific example of Protestant and Catholic attitudes to Mormonism leads us to a very important general topic that transcends the specific question of the CJCLDS - i.e. the definition of being 'a Christian', as contrasted with the definition of any particular Christian denomination.

I contend that the apparent desire to enforce a definition of Christian which includes both Catholic (Eastern and Western) and Protestants, yet excludes Mormons, will lead to falsity and wickedness - will indeed stoke hatred within-denominations and between sincere self-identified Christians; and will, in short, play-into the hands of the Enemy.

Because, a definition of 'Christian' which includes Protestants and Catholics yet excludes Mormons, will also and inevitably exclude most of the simple, the ignorant, the isolated, and the children among Protestants and Catholics.

Thus I would expect that honest and informed Protestants and Catholics would accept that it is possible for Mormons to be Christians (and good Christians) despite the philosophical/ metaphysical differences.

And if they do NOT accept this, then they need to agree that if Mormons are not Christians due to (for example) their supposed misunderstanding of the nature of God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity - then the clear implication is that many and probably most Catholics and Protestants throughout history have not been Christians for exactly that same reason.



Adam G. said...

Sometimes I am reluctant to argue with people who say that Mormons aren't Christians because the argument often forces them to take up extreme or distorted positions of their own faith, of the kind you lay out.

But I usually argue anyway, because I figure most people drop the argumentative version of their belief and go back to their real belief as soon as the argument is over.

Bruce Charlton said...

@intuitivereason - Thanks for your comment, but I think you need to find out more about Mormons in order to evaluate them - from what you wrote it sounds as if you have some significant misunderstandings. You could start with examining what Mormons say about themselves, and to each other - on the lds.org web pages.

George Goerlich said...

It is unfortunate that Christians feel a need to hate, or at least strongly dislike/disprove of those traditions they are not adhering to.

The LDS I've spoken with seemed the least-prone to this attitude. Though it seems likely an attribute to all denominations, especially when there is a fear of loss involved, like compromises with modern beliefs and dwindling followers.

Personally I feel most drawn towards a traditional Catholicism and its deep history and roots in European culture, though the LDS clearly has truth (enough? more than enough? all of it?) and appears to be the healthiest Christian denomination.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Commodore - But that is a completely different argument, which it would involve hijacking this post (and a lot of probably futile effort on my behalf) to answer - but a point which has been answered multiple times if you cared to look.

Commodore said...

@bgc - My point was more that there are at least some Christians who believe that Mormons are not (as a whole) Christian not due to metaphysical or philosophical issues but due to other problems.

But I'll concede quite willingly that a Christian intellectual saying "Mormonism is false and not Christian because of a bad view of God/Christ/metaphysics" should be very careful; he condemns all the ignorant and probably himself as well that way. It is a good point!

I would take the arrow of causality to run the other way: "Mormonism is false (due the completely different argument). Mormonism's warped view of God is probably because of its falseness." Completely opposite direction. And one that, I hope, is a great deal more humble (Lewis' "Footnote to All Prayers" applies always).

ajb said...

Good points.

This isn't anything unique to Christianity or Mormonism. It's a result of a tribalist mind-set (so, human nature), and you can see it in Islam (Sunni vs. Shia), secular politics (Democrat vs. Republican), sports teams, even things like Kung Fu schools in historical China, and so on.

It happens pretty much any time people divide themselves into groups with names attached, where the issue in question is something that has some importance to those people.

So, I just expect it to happen, and then try to figure out how to manage it without it causing too much damage.

The trend towards non-denominationalism is one reaction to the tribalist mind-set, although even there you get it (is Joel Osteen a heretic? and so on).

Bruce Charlton said...

@C - OK.

My recurrent question is "Compared with what?" Mormonism must be compared in as fair and controlled a way as possible with early Christianity and the Reformation; and Joseph Smith with the range of other Biblical prophets - and of course we need to know the relevant detail.

One factor is that Mormonism was under intense public, indeed hostile mass media, scrutiny from even before the church was organised, from even before the gold plates were translated - from before the plates were even obtained!

So pretty much everything, including everything bad (real and invented) - hyped to the Heavens from its origin, is known about the origins of Mormonism and all the persons involved.

This doesn't apply to most of the other big religions - and not not the history of Christianity or Judaism. But it would be naive to suppose that this the paucity of the record means that nothing bad happened, and that the prophets and founders were wholly well behaved.

Furthermore, it is necessary to know what Joseph Smith did, and did not, claim for himself and for his various productions - and how he was regarded by the early Mormons. Knowing this context, I don't see any problems at all about the history of Mormonism compared with any other relevant human activity.

MC said...

"But it would be naive to suppose that this the paucity of the record means that nothing bad happened, and that the prophets and founders were wholly well behaved."

Just imagine how people would react if Joseph Smith slept with another man's wife, and then sent that man off to die so that he could have her.

Or if he had responded to some children's mockery of his hair by calling down a couple of she-bears to kill 42 children.

Samson J. said...

Bruce, you really doth protest too much.

I am going to turn the question around on our host, with something I never recall having seen him address: where would *you* draw the line between Christian and non-?

Bruce Charlton said...

@CP - Your comment was dripping with malice and contempt. Watch out.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - But I have been writing on this topic for years!

I presume we are talking about self-identified Christians. So, the proper question is whether somebody (or some church) who says they are Christian - and shows all signs of sincerely believing that they are Christian - really is what they profess to be and what they show signs of believing they are.

When a person (or church) says he is Christian and behaves as if he believes that Jesus is his Lord and Saviour; then the principle is to approach he claim with charity, and with a genuine hope that the claim is true.

Then, observe the situation over time, check what is happening to that person or church.

An example of a borderline but false claim of being Christian was Unitarianism - which seemed, initially, just like Protestant Christianity (from which it evolved) but denying the divinity of Jesus - and the earliest Unitarians included people who seemed sincere and devout and well behaved.

Denying the divinity of Christ would seem to be a clearly non-Christian belief anyway (although many Anglican Bishops and theologians would perhaps disagree) - but the fact was very swiftly confirmed by the trajectory into apostasy of many well known Unitarians (such as Ralph Waldo Emerson) and of the Unitarian church itself - and this just increased with every decade.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Cui Pertinebit - I received your comment, but I do not want to publish it.