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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Rodney Dangerfield of Religion

... would be Mormons. Cuz they don't get no respect.

Such at least is the claim of some scholars, reported in a Salt Lake Tribune article by Kristen Moulton. It's a decent article, and touches on matters that are pretty important, both to Mormons and to other observers of interaction among different faiths. The basic claim is that people respect -- or "like," a word used almost interchangeably in the article -- things like the Tabernacle Choir and the genealogical resources, but have little use for the theology.

According to Terryl Givens, who is a Mormon and also a professor at the University of Richmond, “in return for qualified esteem, the public reserves the right not to take [Mormonism] seriously as a belief system.”

The article goes on to say this:

In fact, a 2007 survey ranked Mormons — along with Buddhists and Muslims — among the nation’s least-liked faiths.

“Mormons like everyone else,” wrote Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, “while almost everyone else dislikes Mormons.”

Really? We doubt it. Here at the Egg, we like Mormons very much. We have only known a few, but they were uniformly bright, pleasant, and hardworking. Also white. And one was a drunk. And another got kicked out of her church. Oh, and another dated a married woman. So maybe we haven't known the widest or most representative sample. But we like Mormons just fine. Not as well as Buddhists, maybe, but well enough.

The real question is this business of "taking Mormonism seriously as a belief system." And this is where Professor Givens, along with any Mormons still eagerly awaiting their invitation to the World Council of Churches. A great many people have trouble taking their faith seriously, and always will. Among the world's religions, it is an odd, odd duck. From the new "Bible" to the funny underpants, it just strikes most of us -- including people who believe some pretty unlikely things -- as improbable.

Of course, everybody believes something that sounds risible to somebody else. We'll see your quantum singularity and raise you an incarnate deity. If you liked the Samoan cargo cult, you'll love the Raelians. And if you liked Communism, we have some real estate investment opportunities for you. What makes Mormonism any harder to take seriously than these things?

Nothing, really. It's all pretty absurd, in the specific sense that Tertullian so famously embraced. Mormonism, to the extent that it does not receive the respect its adherents may sometimes desire, is the victim of unhappy circumstance. First, it is far bigger than the cargo or flying-saucer cults; it is harder to write off as a harmless eccentricity. Second, however, it is far newer than any other "major" new religion, apart from Baha'i and Scientology. Look, Christians, and Buddhists may not share a view of the cosmos, but at least they are both old. There is a certain credibility, earned or not, that comes with age.

And third, Mormons want to be -- even believe themselves to be -- something the rest of the world knows instinctively that they are not: Christian.

In many posts over the years, we've been clear that we don't consider Mormonism to be "Christianity," which is circumscribed (if not indeed defined) by a handful of foundational texts, truth claims, and practices. Throughout history, there have been other movements which borrow the language and symbols of Christianity as a means of communicating their own quite different ideas. The various forms of ancient Gnosticism, as well as the modern New Age, have dabbled in this.

Unlike those movements, of course, Mormonism has no other form. There were second-century Gnostics who didn't give a hoot about Jesus, just as there are New Agers today who would much rather dumb down Hinduism or animism than Christianity. But Mormons have no alternative language. For better or worse, they are stuck with Jesus, which in their own minds makes them Christian. For the rest of us, their peculiar revelation, the Book of Mormon, makes them insuperably alien.

Perhaps they should just go with it. Givens claims that Mormons are torn between the desire to proclaim their own distinctive doctrine, and the competing desire to accommodate their doctrine to those of the Christians around them. This sounds entirely probable, and so long as it continues, Mormonism will be regarded just as most people regard it today: as the modern world's largest organized "Christian" heresy.

But what if the accommodationists lost, soundly and completely? What if Mormonism just stood up and said, "We are a tertium quid, God's new work, as different from Christianity as it was from Judaism"? What if they sucked it up and said, "Sure, our faith has roots in American protestantism. But we aren't really Christians, any more than Bernard of Clairvaux was a Jew"? Would statements like this get them theological respect?

Probably not in the short run. But frankly, Christianity's street cred ain't what it used to be. Who knows but that, somewhere down the line, disassociating themselves from Christianity might make them more credible to the general public. In any case, it would be more honest.

1 comment:

troutbirder said...

Being of the live and let live mindset I've always been one of those somewhat at uneasy about my unease about The Book Of Mormon. Some really bad construction there. Now I think I understand why. Thanks