This post is in response to a recent blog by Ben Witherington ‘Why Mormonism is not Christian – the issue of Christology.’
My nine year old adores his older brother and it was no surprise that after years of watching Isaac sing choral evensong he too wanted to don a bright red cassock, a crisp white surplice and ruff, and praise the Lord in an Anglican cathedral, resplendent with flickering candles, stained windows, crosses, and the Book of Common Prayer. And so, every Tuesday evening and twice on Sunday he sings his heart out as only a boy chorister can. It’s busy on Sundays as we try valiantly to squeeze our LDS services between an 11am mass and a 5pm evensong. I’m enormously proud of both sons (one currently preparing for his LDS mission) who have developed an abiding love for Church Music from preces to psalms, and at the same time have felt strong sense of God’s presence in their lives through their interfaith experiences. A third son also attends an Anglican school and looks forward keenly to his church services where he gets to sing his favourite anthem, ‘Here I am Lord’. All of my boys have developed important attachments with their non-LDS clergy, and its warm community of lay persons. My nine year old is particularly fond of Lynda Patterson, the acting Dean of the Christchurch Cathedral who just a few weeks ago, led a children’s service wearing a chicken costume! She was glorious. My boys move gracefully and beautifully from one space to another, rarely making anything of the difference, and frequently building and enriching upon their lessons, talks and sermons as they shift between denominations.
My boys’ LDS interfaith life in some way mirrors my own. There was never a question that I was LDS, but as a child, and before the correlated programme, I would attend the Linwood Avenue Baptist Church with my Oma and later, when my mother married a Roman Catholic, I’d happily attend St Mary’s for mass even sneaking away occasionally to take communion because I didn’t want to miss out on this wonderful opportunity to remember Christ in this most sanctifying and blessed of ways. As an 8 year old I used my time in the Evangelical church’s ‘Joy Club’ to prepare for my baptism. I basked in the stories of Jesus, wept for the man left by the side of the road with only a Samaritan a willing help in his time of need. I sang Jesus Loves the Little Children while gazing wonderingly at the faces of those children of every different hue that graced the song sheet. Each of my Mormon, Anglican, Catholic, Baptist and Pentecostal church experiences affirmed to me, time and time again that, the Jesus person who I’d had fallen unremittingly in love with, loved me too and that is all that mattered. Perhaps in my head I made sense of the obvious denominational differences much like a child would make sense of different restaurants. In some places dining is casual, in others it’s formal. Either way you hold your fork – its still food. But to be honest I don’t recall weighing them up, measuring them, or comparing them. To me all of the pages in my inter-denominational experiences fit together with a neat binding that said – The Jesus I Know.
So you can imagine my surprise as a child, when upon learning that I was a Mormon, a neighbour announced to me, ‘Mormons aren’t Christians’. In all of my young life I had, thankfully, been spared this accusation. But in her saying it with such emphatic knowing, with such confidence, I realized that this came from something larger than her. Sitting behind these words was a conviction that one only bears when they know they have ideological company. Her words ricocheted through me like a million barbs. I had never heard nor imagined such a thing – I wasn’t a Christian?
All at once I recalled the framed picture of Jesus clasping the helm of a ship in a tempest, that sat behind the podium in my LDS meetinghouse primary room. I remembered the songs, ‘Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam’, ‘Jesus once was a little child’, ‘Remember the stories of Jesus’ – the bible stories from Joy Club that were repeated in junior Sunday School and I was stunned that any one would imagine me as anything but His child. Something stole away from on that day, my innocence perhaps? I learned then that when it comes to our hyperbolic denominationalism, adults can be cruel, even with a child’s simple faith.
I’ve had many years to reflect on this statement. It was the first time I had heard it, but it hasn’t been the last. I will make some intellectual concessions to Witherington’s argument. Yes, early Mormonism eschewed patristics and in doing so brazenly stepped up and over a long, rich, beautiful, cruel, magnificent, dark and deeply complex Christian tradition. But Christianity is full of heresy, Mormonism being one of them, and each of these heresies put together today is a breathtaking bricolage of thought, feeling, intelligence, transcendence, wonder, testimony and majesty all bound up in the supernal and immortal figure of Christ.
At St Christopher’s Anglican church some months back, the priest talked movingly about the Trinity. His question was, ‘Of what value the Trinity?’ His thought provoking sermon was centered around the idea that in the Trinity one can be assured that whether we are feeling the presence of the Holy Ghost, or marveling on the goodness of Christ’s ministry, God is present. Thus, in being moved by the spirit – God is with me; in taking the communion and remembering the death and resurrection of Christ – God is with me. I had never seen the grace of the Trinity in this way before – it made sense. At my LDS ward recently someone shared their testimony of Christ and their gratitude for a Heavenly Father who sent his Son to atone for our sins. The underlying message I believe is that in experiencing the miracle of the atonement, God can be with you and I – this too made sense. In the final analysis does it really matter what theological, doctrinal, soteriological, Christological position, if the end result is that we experience the miracle of Christ?
It is true, the Mormon tradition does not out rightly and explicitly honour the Church Fathers –and personally I think we are diminished somewhat by not understanding their great contributions to the Christian faith. But in the final analysis, these Christian Fathers were not pointing to themselves as the object of our adoration, they were grappling with the exigencies of mortality while trying to point heavenward, searching for a course that would shore us up in the bosom of the Lord, who, after all is the object of our worship and adoration.
So perhaps Ben Witherington would like to explain to me how I tell my children that because they are Mormon they are not Christian? Perhaps he could suggest to me a way of explaining to them that there is a problematic divide between the Christ they experience in their Anglican faith life, and the one they experience in their Mormon faith life.
At what point should we have stopped Finn, our 8 year old, who, after a devastating earthquake in our city prayed fervently that Jesus would come down and fix the houses because he was a carpenter? Should I have added that in when he raised his weeping eyes from his clasped hands, or should we have stopped him mid-point? At what point should I remind my chorister son that he isn’t a Christian, would that be after he takes off his Anglican Cassock but before he takes the Mormon sacrament? When do I tell my twins that they aren’t Christians? Would that be as they pick up their colouring pencils to draw a picture of Jesus with Mary buying a cheese burger at McDonalds, or should I wait until they have pinned it up proudly beside their beds, to drop the bomb?
There is a startling hypocrisy for any Christian to seek through theological, or doctrinal argument to undermine any one’s faith in Christ. I will concede that Mormonism hasn’t made many friends with its ‘One True Church’ mantras. I have personally found this position repugnant. But I am equally incensed by those who have sought to undermine my faith (a difficult spiritual commodity to come by these days) by cornering me – and with a pointed finger refusing me an identity that is not theirs to bestow. My Christianity is something I’ll work out in the quiet confines of my soul, with Jesus as my friend.