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Posts Tagged ‘Interfaith Dialogue’

mormon-jesus-gethsemane

[After posting this, my beautiful and sexy wife pointed out the huge hole in my thesis, so I am going to re-tool the post and re-post it in the near future, but I am leaving it up for now even though it is massively flawed.]

So, in light of some frustrating discussions lately with Mormons about the nature of the Atonement (most particularly this one), I think I have managed to nail down two competing Mormon Atonement narratives or models:

1. Heavenly Father requires your perfect obedience in order for you to qualify for exaltation (“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—-and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.D&C 130:20-21). Mortals are born innocent and fully able to obey Heavenly Father’s commandments, but we have free will and we are subjected to temptation, and so each of us will inevitably, sometimes, break the commandments. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane to pay the price for all of our sins and transgressions, and because of his sacrifice, we are able to go through the repentance process and have our sins effectively erased, so that we are counted in Heavenly Father’s eyes as if you had kept the perfect standard (so mercy satisfies the irrevocably decreed demand of justice). However, over time, in the eternities, we will stumble and fall short less and less, and eventually progress to where we, like Heavenly Father, no longer need repentance.

Put simply, we qualify for exaltation by never deviating from the standard of perfection. If and when we do deviate, the Atonement erases the deviation so that it is as if we had never sinned. So our exaltation is something that we earn by perfect obedience, and to the extent we are unable to be perfectly obedient, Jesus takes up the shortfall if we have faith in him, repent and have our sins washed away by baptism (and regularly renew our baptism through taking the sacrament).

I think that this model is internally consistent, and generally more supportable from Mormon sources across the standard works and the words of latter-day prophets and apostles. I think that it reflects a Mormonism that can be found in Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness. I suspect that older Mormons, Mormons who live in more homogenous Mormon communities and more traditionally-minded Mormons are more likely to espouse this first model. If you had asked me to explain the Atonement as an adolescent or early on my mission, I would have explained it in terms of this first model.

I also think that this first model is thoroughly Pelagian.

2. Heavenly Father wants to bring about our exaltation, which is a thing of infinite worth and so it comes with an infinite price. We have no means of paying an infinite price, so justice demands that we can’t be given an infinite gift that we did not earn. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane, paying an infinite price on our behalf, essentially purchasing our exaltation for us. We can then take part in the exaltation that Jesus has bought with his sacrifice when we fulfill the requirements that he has set: faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost and enduring to the end.

In this model, we do not directly qualify for exaltation. We qualify for it only indirectly through Jesus, who pays the entire price to obtain it, and then grants it to us (or gives us access to it) if we, in a separate transaction, meet the requirements he sets out. Mercy thus satisfies justice twice: once when Jesus pays an infinite price for our exaltation that we cannot pay, and once when he gives it to us for a price we can.

I also think that this second model is generally internally consistent, but I do not think it is as consistent with historical Mormon sources. We could probably have an argument about the degree of tension it has with other Mormon ideas, doctrines and texts. I think that it reflects a contemporary, PR-conscious and interfaith-dialogue-minded Mormonism that emphasizes the role of Jesus Christ and the Atonement, minimizes historic Momronism, and is influenced by Stephen E. Robinson’s Believing Christ. I suspect that younger Mormons and Mormons who live in diverse, pluralist urban centers and Mormons who are more engaged with postmodern culture are more likely to espouse this second model. I would not be surprised if, in a generation or two, this second model becomes overwhelmingly the norm among Mormons and will be taught consistently from the pulpit as if it had always been the norm. I would have explained the Atonement in terms of this second model towards the end of my mission and as a Mormon adult.

I’m not sure if the second model is Pelagian or not (kinda doesn’t matter since it’s still based on a completely and thoroughly heretical Christology). I suspect that Mormons who espouse the second model would assert that it is consistent with Protestant ideas about salvation by faith through grace, but I think you would have to look hard to find a Protestant who would agree.

Given the Mormon tendency to eschew systematic theology, I think that many Mormons probably hold oth models without giving it a lot of thought and without thinking about whether the models are consistent (not that Mormons lack the intellectual rigor to do so; I think they are just more likely to approach the atonement devotionally instead of theologically, and be satisfied* with any illustration or explanation of the Atonement that is sufficiently moving, reverent, and not obviously inconsistent with other Mormon doctrine).

To my Mormon readers: Do either of these models fairly represent your beliefs about the Atonement? Which one do you think is the most consistent with scripture and the teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles? Do you think that these models are mutually exclusive? If not, why not?

To everyone else, let me know your thoughts and observations. Let’s discuss.

*Did you see what I did there?

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The question of whether Mormons can be considered Christian is fairly central to interfaith dialogue, and is significant enough to have garnered national attention during the 2008 presidential campaign. It comes up every now and then on Tim’s most excellent blog, and as an ex-Mormon non-Christian who is nevertheless widely read and confident in his basic grasp of the world of religion and religious belief, I thought I would take a stab at untangling some of the mess. Fundamentally, the question and ensuing argument is an issue of semantics/framing: both sides are talking about something different when they talk about whether Mormons are Christians, and both sides feel like they have something extremely important–but again, totally different–at stake with regards to the answer. the resolution to the dispute is probably not as simple as forcing one or both sides to re-frame their dialogue, since the way it is framed is not arbitrary. But an awareness of the semantic mismatch and an understanding of why it matters to both sides would go a long way into at least setting the issue aside and reducing its potential for causing a ruckus.

From the individual Mormon’s perspective, I think there is a pathological fear of being misunderstood. I believe that a large number of Mormons, fed on Mormon historical accounts of mistreatment in the early days of the church and anecdotal hostility since then, fear that they will be discriminated against or that they will encounter hostility because of misinformation about Mormonism that has been perpetuated. In other words, a significant number of Mormons believe that 1) they face potential or present persecution, because of 2) lies, misinformation, and twisted truth about their religion. Thus, if they could get people to accurately understand who they are and what they were about, they would not be in danger. I think there’s also a belief that a large number of potential converts to the Church refuse to consider Mormonism as an option because of misinformation about it: indeed that the single biggest obstacle to the missionary effort is misunderstandings about the Church.

So, for the Mormon, it is important to promote accurate, descriptive picture of their religion for their safety and for the success of their missionary program. This is underscored and reinforced in the individual Mormon’s mind by the Church’s intensive and explicit public relations efforts over the last three or so decades. If the Church itself has been engaged so desperately in promoting a positive image, then it must be not only important and beneficial, but God’s intention for His Church.

So when the Mormon encounters a conservative Christian that says “Mormons are not Christians,” alarm bells go off. The Mormon, in this encounter, wants first and foremost to be descriptively understood: he wants to correct misunderstandings because he believes misunderstandings lead to persecution and prevent the missionaries from touching the hearts of the people they contact and teach. The Mormon believes, descriptively, that he is a Christian: in fact, he believes that his Church is actually the Church established by Jesus Christ, and from a dictionary/encyclopedia-standpoint, that makes Mormons Christians. To say otherwise is to spread damaging lies such as that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ, share Christian values, or believe in the Bible. And if those lies get (further) spread, individual Mormons will be persecuted because they are misunderstood and the missionaries will not be able to reach the people who are looking for the Truth.

(Lurking here is the presumption that if Mormons were correctly understood that they would not be persecuted except at the hands of the truly evil, and that the missionaries would be able to teach and baptize exponentially more people).

This also means–and this is crucial–that when the Mormon confronts someone who still insists that Mormons are not Christians despite being exposed to an accurate description, the Mormon is likely to conclude that the person is being aggressively dishonest, and intentionally slandering the Church.

Now, there may be some people out there like that, but most of them are well-known heads of countercult ministries, or pissed-off ex-Mormons who (whether they are justified or not), are angry enough to lash out by saying anything bad about the Church that they can. whether or not it is true (though they are usually not also conservative Evangelicals, so they are not really relevant to the topic). But most theologically conservative Christians who insist on the non-Christianity of Mormonism despite an accurate picture of what the Church believes and teaches do not do so because of an evil motive. There is a misunderstanding here, because when the Mormon and the Evangelical talk about the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, they are not really talking about the same thing. The Mormons are talking about “Christianity” from a descriptive, historical, and sociological point of view, whereas the Evangelical is talking about “Christianity” from a theological point of view. I shall attempt to explain.

Conservative Protestants, as a general rule, do not believe that denomination matters. They do not believe that salvation is found in the Lutheran Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or in their Evangelical Free Congregation. Conservative Protestants believe salvation is found only in the person of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that salvation is only available through Jesus Christ too, but they believe that the road to that salvation (or exaltation, whatever, semantics) is only available through the Church’s teachings and sacraments. To a conservative Protestant, a denomination has other meanings, but very few if any would try to claim that any one denomination is the “one true church,” because the one true church is Christianity, in other words, those followers of Jesus who have embraced his gospel and have found salvation through faith on his name. Mormons (and other exclusive denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more often than not, the Roman Catholic Church) do not fit into this category because their understanding about the nature of Jesus Christ and the means of salvation are radically different: just the claim that it can only be found in fullness in one organization is enough to completely disqualify Mormonism.

In other words, Mormons don’t understand why Evangelicals won’t acknowledge Mormonism’s Christianity because Mormons do not realize what is at stake. Evangelicals do not think of themselves as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Nondenominationals, at least not in terms of their primary spiritual identity. They may recognize that as a matter of history they are members of a specific denomination (if they are) and that they have been designated “Protestant,” but their primary way of thinking about themselves religiously is as a Christian. Again, to a conservative Protestant, specific denomination does not matter. What matters is whether you are a Christian. This means a Protestant is free to move between denominations as much as he wants without worrying about it, as long as the denominations are teaching Christianity. Not Christianity in the sense of “a religion about Jesus,” but in the theologically significant sense of “the way to Jesus.” Mormons may talk about and believe important things about Jesus, enough for sociologists and librarians to categorize them as Christians, but what they teach and believe about Jesus is significantly different enough to make it a different religion than the one that conservative Protestants are practicing. I know of no Mormon that would dispute this. What the Mormon thus fails to understand is that the conservative Protestant calls his religion “Christianity.”

So when the Evangelical meets a Mormon who claims that Mormonism is Christian, the Evangelical hears the Mormon claiming that they have the same religion. That is flat-out not true, and it’s obvious by even a fairly cursory examination. So the Evangelical concludes that the Mormon is trying to be deceptive: trying to claim to be theologically compatible so as to lure converts into a religious organization that is actually an entirely different animal. It looks like a bait-and-switch, using the Evangelical’s faith as the bait. Understandably, this irks the Evangelical. Furthermore, the Evangelical is justifiably concerned about his friends and family and assorted loved ones: as conservative Protestants they operate in a religious environment where, provided the denomination is Christian (in the Protestant theological sense), one is free to switch from denomination to denomination without necessarily jeopardizing one’s salvation. When the Mormon Church claims to be Christian and insists that Evangelicals agree that it is, the Mormon Church creates a situation wherein Evangelicals may be lured into something they never meant to get involved in. And with Mormonism’s “milk-before-meat” missionary policy, it is not an unreasonable fear. And eternal salvation is at stake.

The Mormon may ask, “why do the Evangelicals get to decide what Christian means? Why can’t they just call their religion something else? Then there wouldn’t be a problem.” But that’s a particularly disingenous claim from a Church that sets a great store by the name of their religion. Like Mormons, conservative Protestants believe their religion is the one true religion. However, unlike Mormons, Protestants do not set theological significance by the organizational boundaries of a denomination. So the conservative Protestant’s religion is not the same thing as his denomination. He may be categorized historically as a Protestant, but he, like the Mormon, believes that he is in fact a true follower of Jesus Christ, a designation which he shares with people who have a common understanding of doctrine and practice, and since they believe they are the only true followers of Jesus Christ, they call their religion “Christianity.”

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