Fostering or failing faith?

It’s been a while- apologies. About 8 years ago I presented a paper that explored my approach to my studies and while some of my thoughts have moved on, a lot remain the same. People had sometimes worried about the compatibility of my studies and my faith. In some ways this was my rejoinder to those who felt my studies might undermine my faith. Although the topics I study may be different, the same concerns continue to arise for others as they encounter things seemingly in contradiction to their beliefs. I write from a Latter-day Saint perspective but I am sure others may face similar situations.

Let me begin by sharing a story told about Marion G. Romney

A few years ago I found something that I thought was remarkable confirmation of Mormonism written by one of the world’s great scholars. I read it to J. Reuben Clark, and he said, “Look, Marion, when you read things from the great scholars of the world and they don’t agree with us, so what? And when you read something like that and you find they are right on the mark and they agree with us, so what?” (J. McConkie 2003: ).

This is one response faced by Latter-day Saints who engage with Christian theology– “Why look elsewhere when the fullness of truth can be found within the confines of the Church?” Very early in my studies of Christian theology I was questioned intently in a temple recommend interview about whether “I supported, agreed or affiliated with any group or individual whose teachings or practices oppose those accepted by the Church”. This attitude is lessening in the Church brought about in part by a move toward the mainstream– books such as How wide the Divide and Bridging the Divide have established a Mormon interfaith dialogue that is based on more than “repent and be baptized”.

Mauss has noted that as Latter-day Saints have struggled for acceptance there has been a tension between retrenchment and assimilation:

Movements that, which, like Mormonism, survive and prosper are those that succeed in maintaining indefinitely an optimum tension between the two opposing strains:  the strain toward greater assimilation and respectability, on the one hand, and that towards greater separateness, peculiarity, and militance, on the other. Along the continuum between total assimilation and total repression or destruction is a narrow segment on either side of the centre; and it is within this narrower range of socially tolerable variation that movements must maintain themselves, pendulumlike, to survive (Mauss, 1994: 5).

This view of maintaining the balance between assimilation and peculiarity is perfectly illustrated by this tension in relating to other faiths and their belief in Christ. Shipps  has argued that the tension is an increasing trend within Latter-day Saint culture. In early Latter-day Saint history the focus was on exclusivity (a trend that continues today) reflected in the “total refutation of the doctrines of every other Christian body” however, more recently there has been a softening in attitude:

While non-Mormons who study Mormonism sometimes continue to think of themselves- and speak of themselves- as Gentiles, recent references to people like me nearly always point to our status as non-Mormons or nonmembers.

This turn away from labelling outsiders as Other has coincided with the dramatic turn… toward Christian rhetoric and Christian themes, not only in Mormonism’s official presentation of itself to the world, but in Mormon life generally (1993: 13).

This paper seeks to highlight the problems faced as a Latter-day Saint in engaging with Christian theology combined with the great opportunities.

In approaching Christian theology one faces voluminous material on which to reflect and build. My research is based around the constructing of a Latter-day Saint theology of religions. The work highlights the various nuances of the three traditional paradigms within Christian theology (exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism) but also recognises their limitations both within existing Christian theology but also for someone who is trying to construct a theology within this framework. A Latter-day Saint theology of religions cannot be neatly accommodated in any of these but the emphases of the paradigms will provide points of reference for a systematic development of a distinctly Latter-day Saint theology. The work recognises that for some these paradigms are redundant but will use them and their associated outworkings to enable a Latter-day Saint theology of religions to be constructed, accessible and useful to a Latter-day Saint, mainstream Christian and scholarly audience.

The researcher contrasts the vast material in Christian theology with the paucity of Latter-day Saint theological works. The vast majority of Latter-day Saint writings are devotional and homiletic in nature. What has to be guarded against, however, is that in using this devotional and doctrinal material the research does not become a sermon about Latter-day Saint belief but remains a rational reflection on the devotional and other material to ensure it develops into a systematic theology; which Berkhof has argued is a reflection on the “accepted doctrines of the Church” (1996:18).

However, there is still a great deal to be done to establish a Latter-day Saint theological body of work reflecting on the existing Christian scholarship. There is a reciprocal relationship that is available in the Latter-day Saint study of Christian theology. Paulsen (2005 and 2006) has begun this discussion but acknowledges himself that there is a greater road to travel: “I hope it [the article] will motivate others, especially Christian theologians, to take Joseph [Smith]’s ideas more seriously and generate discussion of Joseph’s theological insights” (2006: 36). Building from Paulsen’s articles I would argue that not only Joseph Smith’s teachings but also those of his successors and the Church he led should be “winning increasing acceptance by influential non-LDS thinkers” (Paulsen, 2006: 38). Latter-day Saints can find themselves wanting to shout solutions to questions that Christian theology struggles with. As mentioned, my research is based around the fate of the unevangelised. In examining the work of Clark Pinnock there are elements which sound distinctly Mormon and Latter-day Saint teaching would help move the debate forward and answer some of the concerns. He suggests a post-mortem encounter for those not evangelised while in this life. He rejects the universalist idea of God approaching people time and again following death until they accept Christ. Similarly, the theology of Hick suggesting a waiting or purifying experience until salvation is achieved is rejected by Pinnock. In positing the suggestion that “people would have an opportunity to respond to Christ after death, if they had not had the opportunity to respond before” (1997:  168), he draws on the teaching of Pannenberg. “Salvation from future judgement is still made available to those who during their lifetime encountered neither Jesus nor the Christian message” (1972:  95).

Pinnock draws upon the text of 1 Peter 3: 19-20 where, he argues, it “sounds as if the dead are given an opportunity to respond to Christ” (1997:  169);

…in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah… (1 Pet 3: 19-20)

Similarly Romans 14: 11-12 is quoted with Pinnock using the argument that because everyone will stand before God it is reasonable to suggest that at this post mortem encounter all will be able to confess Christ as Lord:

For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

He does recognise that “scriptural evidence is not abundant” for his thesis of a post-mortem experience, but suggests that this “scantiness is relativised by the strength of the theological argument or it. A post-mortem encounter with Jesus actually makes very good sense” (1997:  169. This isn’t a second chance for those who rejected it either explicitly or through their actions in response to the light they received Pinnock indeed suggests that the “fate of some may be sealed at death; those, for example, who heard the gospel and declined the offer of salvation” (ibid:  171). He argues that this post-mortem encounter is nothing more than an updating of a person’s knowledge of God (ibid:  172) and as such is a logical continuation of a person’s response to general revelation.

Within the Evangelical community, however, this view of a post-mortem experience based on a biblical understanding would seem to be “unacceptable”. Indeed, with reference to his exegesis it has been argued that “Pinnock’s hermeneutic of hopefulness has allowed him to read conclusions into this passage, which are simply not there.”

This post-mortem experience has more in common with Latter-day Saint thought than the Evangelical family of Churches, and while Evangelicals tend to see themselves in opposition to Latter-day Saints[1], this crossover between a doctrine of the Latter-day Saints and an Evangelical theologian can provide a large area of discussion[2].

Rather than using this as “proof” of Latter-day Saint teaching, however, Latter-day Saint should use such material as an area where they can begin their contributions to the scholarly debate.

However, in seeking to understand Latter-day Saint theology Christian theology can also provide exemplification and points of reference. In the introduction to Ostler’s The Attributes of God Paulsen notes that this work contains the first attempt at a Mormon Christology. This is not an isolated case– in examining a Latter-day Saint Pneumatology, with the exception of a small number of devotional books[3] the Holy Ghost/Spirit has not been the subject of a systematic analysis except as it impinges on other areas. This is not to suggest that there is a deficit of the Spirit in the life and practice of the Church or its members but could be seen to suggest that the Spirit only has relational importance. Whilst being critically linked with other areas the role of the Spirit in individual and institutional practice is an area which needs exploring in much greater depth than has previously been the case. For Latter-day Saints the words of Lederle could have important application.

For too long the Spirit and his work has been conceived of in too limited a sense. There was a capitulation at the beginning of the modern era in which faith became restricted to the private devotional life and that latter was then described as “spiritual.” The Spirit should not be limited to spiritual experience and charisms- even though it needs to be recognised that this element still awaits acknowledgement in much of Christianity. We need, however, to set our sights much higher. Not only the realm discovered by pentecostalism needs to be reclaimed but also the cosmic dimension of the Spirit’s work (1998: 338).

Reflection on what has already been written within Christian theology can lead Latter-day Saints to more fully explore their faith, beliefs and its implications.

An example of this can also be found in an examination of the various models of the atonement. This is not an area systematically developed within Church circles (though Ostler and others have begun to more fully explore this). Exploring the Christus victor, penal substitution, moral imperative and kaleidoscopic views a Latter-day Saint can enhance their view of Christ’s sacrifice. It is imperative that a Latter-day Saint accepts the atonement but they can also find room for elements of each to better develop a relationship with the Saviour.

The title of this paper is “Fostering or Failing Faith”. Thus far the role of fostering faith through the relevance of Latter-day Saint theology to today’s theological discussion has been exemplified. Similarly, the fostering of faith through the engagement with the wider Christian theological framework has also been explored. This builds on the work of the Scriptural Reasoning movement based at Cambridge University which works from the basis that “recognizing those differences can be a source of illumination to each” faith group (Ford, 2006: 345). In revealing that which is important to faith communities scriptural reasoning “models the discovery that making deep reasoning public is not only risky—because one makes oneself vulnerable when revealing what one loves” (Adams, 2006: ). However, the work of systematic theology within Mormonism can face opposition and perhaps is the reason why some people suggest that faith can fail in such studies.

An example of this can be found in the discussion about the “Jesus of history and the Christ of faith”. I think this very debate highlights that in studying Christian theology the student is going to uncover commonly taught theories that are in opposition to their faith. This is further exemplified in the work of Geza Vermes who suggests that in striving to find The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (Penguin, 2004)we should ignore the whole of the Gospel of John as “rambling and repetitious” written by an author “who reshaped the portrait of Jesus two to three generations after his death” (2004: xii). From my own perspective I was able to study these writings, examine the conclusions of form and redaction critics and yet conclude that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith were essentially the same. This doesn’t mean that student ignores all that they had to say– my appreciation of the Gospel authors increased as I realised their backgrounds against which they were writing– but through it all my faith remained unscathed and in some ways built up. Dallin H. Oaks has taught that “When we know spiritual truths by spiritual means, we can be just as sure of that knowledge as scholars and scientists are of the different kinds of knowledge they have acquired by different methods”. The student of theology must keep those “non-negotiables” in mind as they examine any theory or argument. If this is done, then faith can be fostered and not failed.

In examining writings that are diametrically opposed to Gospel teaching the student is faced with easy choices. However, the harder choices and experiences come when the challenges in attempting to do systematic theology involve the researcher in engaging in some of the controversies which are to be found within Mormonism itself. Rather than theology and philosophy it is in the writings of Mormon history that the most vehement challenges arise. In constructing a Latter-day Saint Christology it is imperative to examine the place of Christ in the Godhead. There has been debate about the accuracy of Joseph Smith’s 1838 version of the events of the First Vision which is reproduced in the Pearl of Great Price (see Alexander, 1980). Some suggest that it is evidence of the more refined theology Smith had developed by that time (see Vogel, 2004). However contemporary Latter-day Saint orthodoxy would argue that the First Vision happened as recorded and hence, Smith’s (and the Latter-day Saint) belief in the separate nature of the members of the Godhead traces all the way back to the events of 1820. A belief supported in a statement by Smith towards the end of his life:

I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods (1938: 370).

Alexander has argued that this is a flaw in the beliefs of modern Latter-day Saints:

Perhaps the main barrier to understanding the development of Mormon theology is an underlying assumption by most Church members that there is a cumulative unity of doctrine.  Mormons seem to believe that particular doctrines develop consistently, that ideas build on each other in hierarchical fashion.  As a result, older revelations are interpreted by referring to current doctrinal positions.  Thus, most members would suppose that a scripture or statement at any point in time has resulted from such orderly change.  While this type of exegesis or interpretation may produce systematic theology and while it may satisfy those trying to understand and internalize current doctrine, it is bad history since it leaves an unwarranted impression of continuity and consistency (1980).

He includes in this the belief in God. However, contemporary Latter-day Saints would see this as ‘unfaithful history’[4]. Latter-day Saint orthodoxy can consider a building up of understanding in various areas but with the crucial nature of the concept of God and the First Vision they would not be able to countenance a developmental theology, and would see any idea of this as a misunderstanding of the facts. Indeed, Bohn suggests that those who write critical history commit “acts of intellectual violence against the believing community” by seeking to “de-literalize or mythologize the historical reality” of founding events. He continues that these same historians have anti-religious biases and hide behind a pretended objectivity (1992). In these areas it could be argued that the believing Latter-day Saint argues against anything that is against current teaching without any objectivity. This could certainly be true, but must be tempered with the bias that any researcher has. There are certain non-negotiables I have in my life– one of them being my testimony of my Saviour and his restored Gospel. Having established those parameters it is easy to evaluate everything in that light and thus either maintain or strengthen faith.

In examining Latter-day Saint interaction and interpretation of Christian theology it is important to focus on a number of points. First of all, in comparing other faith systems we are able to build relationships with others. One point that we need to clarify is that although Latter-day Saints are at pains to assert their Christianity in dealing with other Christian denominations it is perhaps more valuable to approach them as other faiths rather than ecumenically. If Latter-day Saints approach other Christians as ‘other’ faiths what impact will this have in their dialogue? Will mainstream Christians respond in kind? This asymmetry is reflected in Judaeo-Christian dialogue– each approaches in different ways and thus their goals are different.[5] This is acceptable as long as both parties recognise the differences. MacIntyre recognises this tension:

It becomes clear that the problem… of how to confront the rival systematic claims of traditions contending with each other in the agōn of ideological encounter are not one and the same set of problems for all persons. What those problems are, how they are to be formulated and addressed, and how, if at all, they may be resolved will vary not only with the historical, social, and cultural situation of the persons whose problems these are but also with the history of belief and attitude of each particular person up to the point at which he or she finds these problems inescapable (1988: 393).

In Latter-day Saint interfaith dialogue I would argue that whilst both use the term ‘Christian’ in their understandings and conversations it would be most beneficial to recognise both the areas of convergence and divergence. To do so would ensure that the experience is a “genuine intellectual encounter” and not “some generalised, abstract” and ultimately fruitless exchange of ideas (MacIntyre, 1988: 393).

Secondly, in interpreting Latter-day Saint theology in light of Christian theology it is important that both groups are open to learn more about each other and also their own faith. This does not mean that we abandon the central tenets of our faith in some relativistic exercise. We must examine other faiths in light of our own experience, culture and belief to further understand ourselves and build our faith. If we don’t have these central tenets then faith could fail as we seek for answers rather than clarification. This attitude needs to be replicated in engaging with all theology, including, those that may be described as on the fringes of Mormonism.

Some people may feel that the method suggested this paper is placing blinkers on the researcher and is not being true to the scientific method. Flew criticises religious believers using the falsification principle to suggest that whatever we face it will never destroy our faith. He sees this as a negative thing; however, the purpose of my studies is to build my understanding and also my faith. Everybody approaches their studies with some bias but it is important to be honest about it from the outset so people recognise the parameters within which we work and that we do not pretend objectivity. Theological writing and research are able to operate within what Kuhn (1962) would call “paradigms”. He argues that these paradigms are frameworks within which scientists think. These paradigms determine the sort of questions that scientists should and should not investigate and determines the way in which such problems are tackled by giving rise to procedures. He concludes that scientists are not neutral but are locked into the dominant paradigm. Suggesting such a paradigm within Latter-day Saint theology of a testimony of Jesus Christ and the Restored Gospel would be appropriate and using our framework it is possible to maintain or foster faith in studies where many people feel it may fail.

[1] See for example Robinson and Blomberg (1997). Similarly the author has experienced groups with their roots in the evangelical community ‘reaching out’ to ‘save’ Latter-day Saints. There is, indeed, a whole genre of literature that calls itself ‘anti-Mormon’.

[2] It is important to note the problems of religious language at this point. Certainly there are areas where Latter-day Saint and mainstream Christian theology overlap but making those links they must not be to the exclusion of the areas of difference. Indeed, it may be that while Latter-day Saint and Christian theology agree in certain areas it may only be at a superficial level. For example in discussing a Latter-day Saint Christology it is imperative to highlight that Jesus is the Son of God. However, is this understood in the same way as mainstream Christianity? The language may be the same but the understanding could be either subtly or blatantly different: “terminology is deceptive. Men may speak similarly but mean and feel differently. And as you know, the theological vocabulary is notortiously vague” (Madsen, 1974: 74). This argument is reminiscent of Wittgenstein: “One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that” summarised as ‘don’t ask for meaning ask for use’ (1968: 109).

[3] E.g. McConkie (1989)

[4] A term inverting the title of a book Faithful History (Smith, GD ed, 1992) in which historians/theologians from both sides of the debate put forward their views.

[5] As mentioned earlier it is possible for Christians to approach Judaism as ‘unfulfilled’ whilst Jews would approach Christians as ‘other’. It is the argument of this work that this relationship is replicated between Latter-day Saint and traditional Christianity.