Monday, October 08, 2007

Mormons vs. Christians, Again

According to the AP, Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "defended" the Mormon faith Sunday, saying the beliefs and practices differ from every other church. Specifically, he said, "It is fundamentally different from every other body of religious doctrine of which I know."

Well, no argument there, Gordo. The rest of us have been saying that pretty much since Joseph Smith had his revelation. Your faith is fundamentally different from Christianity.

And yet somehow, in the strange reversible world of Mormonism, Hinkley's argument is intended to support the persistent Mormon claim that they are not fundamentally different -- that they are, somehow, part of the Christian Church.

It's a sort of tired argument, and there is a nice, short piece on it in this week's Christian Century by my seminary classmate Janna Riess, herself a Mormon. Sadly, the Century didn't post the article online. Cutting to the chase, Janna says (more or less) that "If by 'Christian' you mean believing that Jesus is the way to salvation, then we're Christian. If you mean believing that God is the Holy Trinity, then we're not."

This is pretty good, as far as it goes. It is certainly the core of what we traditional Christians have always used as our argument that Mormonism is in fact a different religion: that it offers a dramatically different vision of who God is.

She might have gone a bit further. For example, although there are disagreements among Christians over precisely which ancient texts constitute the rule and norm of faith, we are in universal agreement that the Book of Mormon is a modern forgery, and cannot conceivably be counted among the authentic Scriptures. Likewise, although there are certainly arguments among Christians about eschatology, we are in universal agreement (so far as I know) that Zion will not be rebuilt on the American continent. Neither of these is decisive, however; you can disagree about the canon and the end times and still be a Christian. But you really can't disagree about the Incarnation and the Trinity.

It all boils down to this: the Mormons say -- over and over, especially with one of their own running for president -- that that Christianity can be defined as they define it. The rest of Christianity says that it can't. This isn't an argument that can ever be won, except in the believer's heart.

But look. I can wake up one morning believing that I am a member of the Augusta National Golf Club. Okay, granted, membership is by invitation, and I wasn't invited. And granted, membership fees are a quarter-to-half of a million dollars, more money than I will earn in a lifetime of parish priesting. Still, I believe in my bones that I am a member, because I think the real membership rules -- the secret ones declared by Bobby Jones in 1933, and never written down -- said that all short guys with big mouths were automatically members.

Now, as long as I stay home, the caddies and waiters and so forth may not be able to prove that I'm wrong. But if I show up at the club, they aren't going to let me play, either.

Sigh. It's late at night, and I should probably avoid sports metaphors. But do you see what I'm getting at?

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