The Ecumenical Mormon, Part II

October 7, 2004 | 23 comments
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Thank you all so much for your insightful comments on the question of inclusion vs. exclusion in Mormon theology, and your helpful references to sources and talks. I might have to come to this site for assistance every time I am asked to speak somewhere! As some of you know, this issue is very close to my heart.

As a convert to the church, I am the only Mormon in my family. In fact, I’m one of the few religious people in my family; my husband is an “active� and believing Protestant, and we are raising our daughter in both traditions until she is of the age to choose for herself. My mom joined the Lutheran church about ten years ago. Other than that, we are the only churchgoers in our extended clan.

What this means is that I am extremely sensitive (perhaps over-sensitive) to the claims of exclusive truth within Mormonism. While there is clearly a doctrinal and historical tradition for the exclusive truth of the restoration – one that I believe in, or I wouldn’t have converted in the first place – there is an equally powerful tradition of openness to revealed truth in many places.

What I often find, particularly among members who grew up in the faith, is that they don’t think about the effect that their statements make on others who are not Mormon. For example, some months ago we had the missionaries over for a very nice dinner. After the meal, they asked if they could share a spiritual thought, which was fine with us. And out of the thousands of gospel topics they could have chosen, they decided to teach a mini-lesson on the Great Apostasy. Sitting next to my Methodist husband, the senior missionary outlined how all other churches but ours are in apostasy and are rife with error. It was an obvious tactic, calculated for Phil’s benefit.

Apart from the obvious Emily Post faux pas of this choice (what dinner guest would turn on his host and tell him, in effect, that he had deliberately repudiated God and the true church?) the narrow-mindedness of it infuriated me. After the missionaries had left (and after one of them had very sweetly tried to do damage control), Phil just chuckled and said, “He’s just a kid. He’s hardly met anyone outside his faith before. Of course he sees the world in black and white.� But I’ve met many Mormons who are long past adolescence who still see the world in this way. When pressed, they concede that good and righteous people exist in all faiths, but the language they use with one another does not express this. It makes me angry on behalf of my husband, his wonderful family, and all the other billions of terrific folks in the world who deserve better than to be dismissed as apostates.

Wow, I’m getting pretty riled up here. I told you I was over-sensitive on this issue! J Thanks again for your help. I’ll post on a new topic tomorrow, I promise.

Jana

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23 Responses to The Ecumenical Mormon, Part II

  1. Adam Greenwood on October 7, 2004 at 10:36 am

    Of course one should see the world in black and white. :) It’s just that one should see black-and-white inside the kingdom and black-and-white outside it.

  2. Davis Bell on October 7, 2004 at 10:49 am

    Jana,

    I think pretty much everyone here more or less agrees that as members of the Church we ought to be inclusive, tactful, and sensitive to those who aren’t of our faith. The hard part is finding a way to honestly express our belief in the exclusive truth of the restoration while still being inclusive, sensitive, and tactful. I have to confess that I’m sympathetic to the missionary in your story. His job is to try to baptize your husband, along with everyone else he meets. It seems the approach he took wasn’t perhaps the most effective means of pursuing that end, but I’m afraid his duty to testify trumps his obligations to Miss Post.

  3. Matt Evans on October 7, 2004 at 11:15 am

    Jana,

    Thanks for your posts, I’ve liked reading them. My anecdotal experiences have actually been that converts are more willing to speak harshly of their former faiths than are other members. In testimony meeting I’ve been surprised by how condemnatory many converts have been toward the practitioners of their former faiths; they talk about having been being blinded by the craftiness of men, or how they weren’t surprised by the Catholic priest scandal, or how few of their fellows took their religion seriously. When born-Mormons speak of other faiths, it’s usually in amorphous, sorrowful conceptions about people who don’t know that families are forever.

    There are billions of wonderful and good people, but most of those billions of wonderful people believe all kinds of erroneous stuff. There’s nothing incompatible with believing they are wonderful and good while at the same time believing that they are mistaken. Lots of good people believe God is a spirit, or that Joseph Smith was a fraud, or that rubbing ibuprofen on your skin prevents warts, or that they’ll have good luck tomorrow because they’re Capricorns. None of those false beliefs contradict their being wonderful, good and admirable people. The senior companion’s timing in presenting the apostasy may have been off, but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that because he thinks your husband has incorrect beliefs that he would only concede your husband’s a good person if he was “pressed.” Mormons never equate the “great aspostasy” with “apostates.” Apostates are only those who have joined and then rejected the church. Though the missionary believes in a universal apostasy, he does not believe your husband is an apostate.

    It’s also important to remember the choice language God used to describe Joseph Smith’s contemporary religious leaders; current ‘sharp’ statements look tepid by comparison.

  4. Adam Greenwood on October 7, 2004 at 11:18 am

    I happily take my place among Matt Evans ‘billions of wonderful people,’ assuming I’m wonderful.

  5. Kevin Barney on October 7, 2004 at 11:33 am

    Jana, I loved your Sunstone article on this topic, available here:

    http://www.sunstoneonline.com/magazine/issues/126/66-67_c_riess_marriage.pdf

    There is a sister in our ward whose husband is not LDS. When she moved in about a year ago, she announced that her husband was not a subject for conversion. I thought that was useful. Some women *want* you to take a run at their husbands and give it the ol’ college try, but if a sister really doesn’t want you to, she needs to communicate that to the folks on the ground, as both you and this sister I mentioned have done.

    Of course, missionaries come and go, and aren’t necessarily going to get the word, and even if they do, they aren’t necessarily going to pay attention. That’s the way missionaries are, and I think your husband’s attitude toward this minor indiscretion on the part of a young elder was excellent.

  6. john fowles on October 7, 2004 at 11:43 am

    Matt wrote Mormons never equate the “great aspostasy� with “apostates.� Apostates are only those who have joined and then rejected the church. Though the missionary believes in a universal apostasy, he does not believe your husband is an apostate.

    This is very true. I have found that a clear and “rational” explanation of the Great Apostasy goes a long way to identify the reason that anyone should investigate the Restored Gospel. It can’t be “restored” unless it went missing in the first place.

    However, I do sympathize with you and wince at the story because even though I don’t disparage the missionary his motives, I can see that the timing was aweful (out of mere considerations of politeness and manners–as you said, he had been a dinner guest) and I can imagine the tactless way that he probably presented it.

    On my mission in East Germany, at once both the heart of (or I should say the birthplace of) Lutheranism and atheism (from the Communist oppressors), I found that one of the most effective and enlightening discussions that we could teach to the people was what was then the Third Discussion on the Apostasy and Restoration of the priesthood. More than once I would literally see a light go on in the investigator’s face when we clearly discussed the falling away, the loss of priesthood authority, and the restoration of that authority through a literal prophet who was not just a self-proclaimed reformer who thus had just as little true priesthood authority as the church from which he was splitting off of. Of the few baptisms that I saw in my mission (at the time Berlin was the lowest baptizing mission in the world), at least one of them made the decision to be baptized during that third discussion.

    So, I understand the repugnance of an overzealous missionary who ignores simple manners in such a situation but at the same time commend teaching the apostasy to the billions of wonderful people in order to show them the need for a Restoration. Undoubtedly, some will take offense. But hopefully, the Spirit will ameliorate any harshness in the message.

    In a truly ecumenical approach, there would be little justification for explicitly teaching about the Great Apostasy–that the Catholic Church from its earliest days after the death of the Apostles was in unfortunate error because of the lack of priesthood authority (or rather the secularization of that priesthood authority in the politization of the bishoprics) and that offshoots of the Catholic Church thus have the same lack of authority because noone existed to pass it on. Our belief that the priesthood was lost and had to be restored again by the hands of the original Apostles Peter, James, and John is fundamentally incompatible with ecumenicalism. But it is not incompatible with a spirit of inclusivity, respect, and great admiration for the adherents of the world’s many faithful of all varieties.

    Above all, we should be humble about what we have. Perhaps what bothers you and what needs to be changed in the rameuptum-type airs that we sometimes portray when talking about the Restoration. But that is not a bid at ecumenicalism.

  7. Pete on October 7, 2004 at 11:46 am

    Jana:
    As I understand it the main point of the missionary lesson “centered on the apostasy” is not really the apostasy itself or the wickedness of other faiths, but the ultimate need to follow Divine, as opposed to man-made, authority. The basic concept is: if we want to follow God, we need to do it on God’s terms, not our own. Most religious traditions contain a similar concept. The Mormon Church simply takes the next step of affirming that it genuinely contains God’s authority and that by following its teachings, its adherents are following God on God’s terms.

    Your husband’s ability to chuckle following the missionary discussion seems to indicate that he understands that the exclusive truth concept is simply part of Mormonism. Given that you have embraced the Mormon “tradition,” do you agree that the exclusive truth concept is part of Mormonism, and what specifically bothers you about the concept?

  8. Pete on October 7, 2004 at 11:50 am

    Was Christ narrow-minded in insisting that “I am the way and the truth and the light, and no man cometh unto the Father but by me”? One can certainly disagree with the statement or be bothered by it, but ultimately, it’s either true or false. As a believer, I’m voting true.

  9. john fowles on October 7, 2004 at 11:59 am

    Jana, reading through your Sunstone article linked by Kevin, I gained an admiration for her husband. For example, Our interdenominational marriage (Phil doesn’t call it “interfaithâ€? because we are both Christian) forces us to communicate openly about our desires and our disagreements. Statements like this, coupled with Phil’s reaction to the obtuse missionary speak a lot for the open-mindedness and accepting nature of your husband. Unfortunately, this is very atypical, particularly for a Methodist. The mere fact that he accepts that you as a Latter-day Saint are a Christian is a huge departure from the established doctrine of the Methodist faith, which holds that Latter-day Saints are not Christians.

    By the way, in the Sunstone article, you say that you refuse to use the word “non-member” and imply that it is a pejorative term. I would say that most Latter-day Saints, when they use the term, have no demeaning intent at all and merely use it descriptively, like “tall” or “happy” etc.

    On a side note, I assume that combined with your interest in ecumenicalism is an adherence to political correctness in descriptors (as hinted by your refusal to use the term “non-member”). What is your view on the term “Mormon”? I for one cringe at the term because of my awareness that it was originally a smokescreen pejoratively given to us to mask our belief in Christ and make us seem like a cult of “Mormon.” In a good-natured way, the Church members adopted it as their own. But it seems to me that we can now insist on the correct term for who we are: Latter-day Saints, not “Mormons.” This doesn’t seem to be something that bothers anyone on T&S, since they regularly say Mormon rather than Latter-day Saint, but I wonder about your view on that, considering your interest in ecumenicalism.

  10. Aaron Brown on October 7, 2004 at 12:53 pm

    Jana,

    This comment probably belongs on your prior thread, but I thought I’d put it here. When you get a minute, check out my old post entitled “Ecumenicalism Run Amok?� over at BCC (http://rameumptom.blogspot.com/2004_44_25_rameumptom_archive.html ). In it, I talk about my friend Father Hans, an “Old Catholic� priest who believes fervently in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and with whom I (as Ward Mission Leader) and the missionaries held several “ecumenical,� inter-faith worship services. I’d be interested in your reaction.

    Father Hans is intensely interested in the various issues you raise regarding Mormonism’s claims to exclusivity, etc., and I may have him blog about them shortly over there. (Yes, I know I promised Hans would blog several months ago, and it still hasn’t happened. I hope that those of you who held your breath haven’t died).

    Aaron B

  11. Jonathan Green on October 7, 2004 at 1:05 pm

    John, please note that attributing “political correctness” to someone else is rude. If you mean “respecting other’s feelings in the terminology you use,” say that. But “political correctness” is a primarily right-wing term of art used to demean political opponents; the connotations are all negative. No one has yet ironically embraced the term, unlike ‘Mormon’ or ‘queer.’ If I remember correctly, GB Hinckley has deprecated the use of the word ‘non-member.’ It is not purely descriptive, but instead promotes an us-’n’-them view of religion.

    What, you never knocked on a door and said, “We’re here! We’re Mormons! Deal with it!”?

    The issue of how we think and talk about other churches is so fascinating precisely because we have well established traditions and doctrines of both exclusiveness and openness. Personally, I prefer to focus on statements like Brigham Young’s, that we should seek out truth wherever we find it, “in Heaven, on Earth, or in Hell” (which even made it into the Teachings of the Prophets manual.) I’m OK with regarding every other church out there as rife with error as long as we remember that the Restoration is a work in progress, and that we have no way of gauging how close it is to being complete.

  12. john fowles on October 7, 2004 at 1:15 pm

    Jonathan, I’m OK with regarding every other church out there as rife with error as long as we remember that the Restoration is a work in progress, and that we have no way of gauging how close it is to being complete.

    I don’t think that my comments implied that I think that every other church was rife with error. My point was that a belief in the restoration of the priesthood is incompatible with the spirit of ecumenicalism, but not with mutual respect and a willingness to learn from each other. Despite such a willingness, in the end, only those baptized by the proper authority will find their way to the celestial kingdom. The issue is ordinances performed by proper authority; if you insist that only you have the “proper authority,” then ecumenicalism is an impossibility.

  13. Kristine on October 7, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    John, any chance that one of things we might learn is better ways to perform ordinances? I think, for instances, that many Protestant churches do better at making the sacrament (Communion) a real focus of reverence (I leave out Catholics, not because they don’t have the reverence, but because the doctrine of transsubstantiation presents some immediate and significant barriers), and that a bar mitzvah, or something like it, might be a better way to teach a boy about the solemnity of ordination to the Aaronic Priesthood than the “Priesthood Preview” (yuck!). Which is to say that, while I agree with you that we Mormons (I’m just saying that to annoy you, now :)) will run into an irreducible disagreement with those of other faiths at some point in our conceptions of ordinances and their necessity, I’m not even sure the line between “this is what we can learn from you/this is what you have to learn from us” is such a sharp one.

  14. Doug on October 7, 2004 at 1:46 pm

    Serving as a ward mission leader in my ward I contacted the newly called mission president of the Peoria, Illinois mission, and BYU religion professor, Brent L. Top to ask him to keynote a missionary Open House. He consented that this is something that he would certainly be willing to do but said his friend Robert Millet would do a better job. One thing led to another and now we have scheduled Brother Millet to speak at our missionary Open House and an on-campus (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) academic lecture. The topics are both fascinating and bold. The on-campus academic talk, sponsored by the local LDSSA is “Reconciling the Irreconcilable: Joseph Smith and the Enigma of Mormonismâ€?. The open house topic: “Is there an only true church on earthâ€?. President Top has shared that Millet’s talk/paper addresses very tactfully the concerns that some have about LDS folk saying they belong to the only true church–what we mean and what we don’t mean. In anticipation of this event I have to admit that I am excited that things are falling into place for members in the area to engage their friends in LDS topics. The LDS church has something unique to offer the world. The excitement of the missionary above is great but can be balanced through more global experiences, should he choose to do so. Hopefully these missionaries who are anxious to do the lords work are listening from the brethren (Hinckley & Ballard) on how they should tactfully teach the gospel. To me it seems that we sometimes retreat from boldness because we don’t want to offend. It may be easier to calm boldness down than rev it up.

  15. Jonathan Stapley on October 7, 2004 at 2:05 pm

    Ecumenicalism cannot be a reconciliation of doctrine between any churches. The bottom line is that logic prohibits it. So if ecumenicalism is to be realized in any way, it must be in practice. “What actions are therefore reconcilable to doctrine within a specific church?� is the only appropriate question.

    To that end: Can I be faithful member of the LDS church and worship with a group of Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Jews, or Muslims? We all worship the God of Abraham. What about worshiping with a group of Bahais, Hindus, Buddhists or Animists? What about Yoga?

  16. Aaron Brown on October 7, 2004 at 2:58 pm
  17. Ben Huff on October 7, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    The mere fact that he accepts that you as a Latter-day Saint are a Christian is a huge departure from the established doctrine of the Methodist faith, which holds that Latter-day Saints are not Christians. (from john in #9) — Who is the authority who says this on behalf of Methodists as such? I have doubts. There are lots of miscellaneous American Protestants who say we are not Christian, but their testimonies do not agree: none of the tests they advance for who is and isn’t a Christian are credible, because if they exclude us, they also exclude a bunch of other people they want to say are Christian. I don’t think we should honor these folks with the concession that they speak on behalf of Methodists, or any other denomination, generally.

  18. Ben Huff on October 7, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    Ecumenism and pluralism are not the same thing. Though some people use the word “ecumenism” when what they’re really about is “pluralism” or relativism, or anti-religion, even the Pope with his exclusive claims to authority is involved in ecumenism, building friendship and trying to bridge or narrow schism, say, between Catholics and Anglicans.

    Interfaith dialogue does not require that one surrender claims to special authority. Merriam-Webster gives this definition for ecumenical: “promoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation.” Cooperation only requires common ground; it doesn’t require repudiating differences, or sweeping them under the rug. LDS should be able to be very “interfaith”, without compromising our understanding of ours as the only “true and living” church on the face of the earth. We can still find common ground, express appreciation for the good in other traditions, and cooperate in all kinds of wonderful ways (The interfaith dialogue Kristine hopes for in comment #15 of yesterday’s thread preserves a commitment to real truth, not a dishwater pluralism). The LDS Foundation made a donation to the Hare Krishnas in Spanish Fork, to help them build their temple!

    Jana, I hope you read Randy Paul’s comment, #29 on yesterday’s thread. He has an interesting and well-developed perspective on all this.

  19. JWL on October 7, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    Jana is probably more current on this background than I am, but I think we are tripping over vocabulary a bit. The word “ecumenical” is one of those soft words that is used rather loosely. At some points decades ago it was used by people who were seeking the doctrinal and organizational reunification of Christianity. However, since then that goal has been recognized as being entirely impracticable. Now most efforts between religions are focused on dialogue, understanding, and joint action where there is common ground. Nit-pickers tend to prefer to use the term “interfaith” for such efforts to distinguish them from the old dreams of reunification, but the lovely old term “ecumencial” is still widely used to describe modern interfaith efforts which nowadays have nothing to do with seeking to eliminate doctrinal distinctions between faiths.

    The LDS Church is actively involved in such modern interfaith efforts. Local Public Affairs Committee members (such as me for one example) are officially called to engage in interfaith bridge-building, official local LDS representatives serve on Interfaith Councils where they exist, and the above-mentioned Professor Millet of BYU is currently devoting a substantial part of his time to officially working with the Church-wide Public Affairs department in Salt Lake to promote contacts and joint participation where feasible with other faiths.

    The gathering Jana is describing sounds to me like a typical modern interfaith gathering seeking to understand other religious faiths rather than force everyone to some unified view. In my limited experience, in such a setting it is perfectly acceptable to forthrightly describe our views, including exclusivist ones. The difference is all in how one frames the statements. If one says “we believe” or “LDS theology holds” or “normative LDS teaching is” that such and such, most people are not offended even without the point being sugar-coated. It’s when we say “we believe such and such, AND YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE IT TOO” that it gets tense.

    Now, of course, that is exactly what missionairies have to do, and the missionary experience frames most Mormons’ experience of dealing with other faiths. The question is whether we can deal with other faiths in a non-proselyting mode. Ironically, I suspect that we can actually be more forthright, blunt even, about our beliefs if we present them in a a non-proselyting framework of “here’s what we believe, what do you believe?”

  20. john fowles on October 7, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    Ben Huff, I was referring to actual Methodist doctrine, and not to some errant Methodists who happen to hate Latter-day Saints. If I am not mistaken, Methodists require converting Latter-day Saints to be rebaptized but do not require this of individuals from other denominations.

  21. john fowles on October 7, 2004 at 6:35 pm

    JWL, nit-picking or not, I think that it is valuable to maintain the distinction and to accept that what we as Latter-day Saints can hope to achieve is this interfaith cooperation and sharing and not ecumenicalism, which retains its implications of unification/surrender on authority claims.

  22. Rob Briggs on October 9, 2004 at 5:17 am

    About 10 years ago, Dennis Prager spoke at Sunstone West. Prager is a sensible talk-radio commentator (now there’s a contradiction in terms) of the Jewish persuasion here in So. Cal. Brieftly his mediation went something like this. He believed that God acted in the lives of Jews. But how about other faiths? Did He act in the lives of people of other faiths? If he only acted in the lives of Jews and Jews were limited to a few million people, then God’s influence in the world was miniscule — only a very small fraction of 1% of earth’s inhabitants felt his influence.

    He concluded that that was clearly wrong. God acts throughout the world; his influence is everywhere and He influences people of many faiths. Who was he to limit God’s influence to just the Jews?

    Ditto for us Mormons.

  23. Ethesis (Stephen M) on October 9, 2004 at 6:33 am

    John, please note that attributing “political correctness� to someone else is rude. If you mean “respecting other’s feelings in the terminology you use,� say that. But “political correctness� is a primarily right-wing term of art

    Well, it has become such, it didn’t start that way.

    Interesting how things morph.

    BTW, enjoyed your Sunstone article.