Patheos is conducting an “interfaith round table” discussion of the question “Are Mormons Christian?”
My initial reaction to such a question is dismay. Such questions invite tribal gatekeepers to do what they do — defining and redefining religion as a matter of boundaries separating us and them, insider and outsider. It becomes an exercise in drawing concentric circles with hollow centers — a way of focusing attention on the periphery and drawing it away from the center. Ugh.
Fortunately, Chris Henrichsen is hosting this conversation, and Henrichsen brings a refreshing perspective:
For me, the question itself, and that it gets asked, is what intrigues me and brings me to this round table. Why do we get caught up in these debates? What do such questions tell us about Mormonism, Christianity, and religion?
In that spirit, I’m in. Here I will try to address this larger question — “Are Mormons Christian?” — by considering a set of other, related questions. These questions, I think, are unhelpful when considered separately. Added together, however, I suspect they’re even less helpful.
1. Is Mormon doctrine orthodox, accurate and correct?
Clearly, no. Mormon doctrines are full of errors, mistakes and misconceptions about God.
The category “Mormon” is a subset of the category “human.” Thus what is true for all human doctrines is also true for all Mormon doctrines — i.e., they are full of errors, mistakes and misconceptions about God.
If, then, God’s favor, God’s love, our redemption or our salvation is based on our possession of orthodox, accurate and correct doctrine about God, then Mormons are, like the rest of us, in big trouble.
2. Do Mormons have a proper understanding of salvation?
Here, again, the answer is most likely no (see above).
The various branches of Christianity hold widely disparate ideas about what “salvation” means and how it works. I think some of those are likelier to be closer to the truth than others, but I doubt any of us have grasped the One Proper Whole Truth of it.
Most Mormons, to their credit, do not subscribe to the one theory of “salvation” about which I can say with confident certainty, “This is wholly and utterly wrong.” That certainly wrong theory is the notion that our salvation is dependent on our possessing a correct and proper understanding of the mechanics of salvation.
This wrong theory, interestingly, is shared by many religious people — including, probably, some Mormons — who hold otherwise disparate and incompatible views about God and salvation. But the logic of it makes the specific apparent substance of those various religious views irrelevant. Whether those preaching this view are Sunni Muslims or Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics or Latter Day Saints, it doesn’t really matter what particular content they assert to be the “true” understanding that leads to salvation. For all of them, the only thing that ultimately matters is that being “saved” is a function of grasping a correct understanding of how being “saved” works. That’s a closed circle with an empty center. It’s a snake swallowing its own tail. I’m confident, then, that such a closed loop of semantic nonsense can’t be right.
It’s also quite likely, though, that every other theory about what “salvation” means and how it works is also partly or even wholly mistaken. And Mormonism would, again, be a subset of “every other theory,” so, again, see answer No. 1 above.
3. Do Mormons love Jesus?
Yes, they do! Or, rather, many do — and they demonstrate this with undeniably genuine commitment and sacrificial dedication that I cannot help but admire.
But this question turns out to be much trickier than it at first appears. Those words — “love” and “Jesus” — turn out to be rather vast and elastic categories, signifying an enormous variety of disparate and incompatible ideas that vary from speaker to speaker and hearer to hearer.
For many Christians, the question “Do Mormons love Jesus?” really means something more like “Do Mormons love Jesus in precisely the same way that we love Jesus?” And that’s rather a different question. The point of such a question, it seems, is to clarify that the “Jesus” in question is the Jesus of, say, the Nicene Creed, or of one of our denominational/institutional “statements of faith.” After all, Gandhi loved Jesus, but he was not and did not claim to be a Christian. Devout Muslims love and revere Jesus, yet devout Muslims are not and do not wish to be identified as Christians. So for this question to be of any use in a discussion about distinctions between religious perspectives, we can’t just ask “Do Mormons love Jesus?” We need to ask, instead, “Do Mormons have the same kind of love for the same kind of Jesus as other Christians?”
So really, in order to answer this question about Mormons, we first have to ask the same question about other Christians.
4. Do non-Mormon Christians love Jesus?
We can’t put off defining our terms any longer. What does it mean to love Jesus?
In my own evangelical Baptist tradition, we try to answer such questions by turning to the words of the Bible. The Bible is notoriously malleable. It’s a large and multi-vocal collection of writings that can be and has been cited to defend and define almost anything, depending on what those turning to it wish to make it say.
On this question, unfortunately, the Bible is emphatically unambiguous. It presents the words of Jesus himself defining what it means to love Jesus:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
So, then, according to the Gospels, we can say with some confidence that most non-Mormon Christians do not love Jesus. And also probably that most Mormons do not love Jesus either.
This would seem to put nearly all of us — Mormon and non-Mormon alike — in the same boat with Jesus’ original disciples, who heard their teacher talking like this and asked, “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
That’s reassuring, even if it’s not a straight answer to the disciples’ question. It’s reassuring, I think, because it’s not a straight answer to their question — because it suggests they’re probably asking the wrong question.
So let’s ask a different question.
5. Does Jesus love Mormons?
Yes. Period. Without qualification. Jesus loves Mormons.
This is true in the most specific, particular granularity and it is true in the broadest general sense. Jesus loves Mormons because, again, the category “Mormons” is a sub-set of the category “humans.” Jesus loves the entire category of humans and, therefore, Jesus also loves the sub-set of that category that we call “Mormons.” But Jesus also loves Phyllis, a dental hygienist in Orem, who is also a Mormon. She’s not a very good Mormon or, for that matter, a very good dental hygienist, but Jesus loves her. And Jesus doesn’t love her only because she’s a member of the category “humans” or because she’s a member of the sub-category of “Mormons.” Jesus loves her because Jesus loves Phyllis.
Here, then, we have our first truly definitive answer: Jesus does, indeed, love Mormons. Yet this answer doesn’t prove very helpful for our particular project here of distinguishing among and between religious factions. The indiscriminate, overwhelming nature of Jesus’ love doesn’t seem useful for helping us to draw such lines and distinctions and boundaries.
That might suggest something to us about the usefulness of this project itself.
6. We seem to have gotten off track, what was the point of all this again?
I’m not really sure. I think originally it had to do with the religious labels used by different groups of people who say they love Jesus and with our control of those labels and the ways in which such control can be used to control others and … I don’t know. I’ve lost track and lost interest.
Here’s what I would say to/about Mormons, non-Mormons, myself, other Christians and everyone else who wants to love Jesus: Let’s try to do better with the whole feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and tend the sick business. As one prominent non-Mormon Christian recently said:
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! … We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.
That’s not to say we are redeemed by doing good, or — even worse — to say that we ought to do good in order to be redeemed. Feeding the hungry isn’t how “Mormons” become “Christians” or how Christians become Mormons. But feeding the hungry is how we love the hungry, and how we love Jesus who loves the hungry and who identifies with the hungry. Welcome the stranger, tend the sick, seek justice for those denied justice, be kind to poor Phyllis — “do good: we will meet one another there.”
And then, when we meet there, we can sort out the matter of labels and lines and boundaries between factions. My guess, though, is that if we meet there, that conversation may not interest us as much as it does now.