Ph.D. versus Sci-Fi

June 30, 2007 | 13 comments
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Beliefnet is hosting an online debate of sorts on the topic (and I’m sure you’ve never seen this one before) “Are Mormons Christian?” Albert Mohler, who holds a Ph.D. (in systematic and historical theology) and is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, titles his post “Mormonism Is Not Christianity.” Orson Scott Card, an award-winning science fiction writer and an active Latter-day Saint, replies with “Who Gets to Define ‘Christian’?” I’ll take one paragraph to talk about Mohler, one paragraph to talk about Card, and one paragraph to talk about the mixed bag of comments to Card’s post.

Mohler writes a regular blog opinion column over at Crosswalk.com. I used to get some quickie “link and comment” blog posts from his short essays. They are pretty much indistinguishable from what a particularly literate and well read CES instructor would write on such topics were they inclined to publish weblogs or opinion columns. In other words, Evangelicals (and I’m assuming Mohler is writing his posts there as an Evangelical Baptist) and Mormons have an awful lot in common. Except for the religious differences that most Evangelicals invariably insist on emphasizing, we’d be almost indistinguishable. It would be nice if having so much in common would lead people like Mohler to be a little friendlier towards Mormonism as a religion. Alas, the quest for religious purity has its own dynamic that seems to pull in the opposite direction.

Card is a busy guy: he runs a popular website, he is on the faculty at SVU, and he is writing a screenplay for a promising motion picture scheduled for release in 2008. He writes books, too. As you might expect from his willingness to defend Mormonism at the Beliefnet site, he is not shy about advertising his status as a believing and practicing Mormon or in writing about it. You have to admire someone who is willing to attach the label “Mormon” so openly to their public persona. And you gotta know it costs you once in a while (or more than once in a while) to do that. It’s nice he took the time to post a long explanation defending the LDS position on the never-ending Christian question. This seems like just the sort of thing that the recent post at LDS.org is trying to encourage.

Finally, have a peek at the comments to Card’s post. The one I like most is by the Pagan, who is seemingly offended by a Christian who dismissed Mormonism as “a Masonic, pagan … cult.” No, responds this self-described classical polytheist, “I can assure you that Mormonism is not Pagan and would not pass as Pagan as far as most Neopagans are concerned.” Well, finally some good news: Mormons aren’t Pagan, even in the eyes of those newfangled Neopagans.

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13 Responses to Ph.D. versus Sci-Fi

  1. Jonathan Green on June 30, 2007 at 4:09 am

    Shoot, now even the pagans won’t take us. Can we register as a heretical sect of Islam? Or Reform Shinto, maybe?

  2. Jeremy on June 30, 2007 at 8:23 am

    In this dialogue, as well as in the bizarrely circular essay by Neuhaus at First Things, the real concerns finally come to the surface. First, it’s not about Christ, it’s about the creeds (which would eliminate Christ and the apostles from being “Christian,” since they, predating the creeds, could hardly subscribe to them). Second, the real concern, which Neuhaus says with such candor that it’s at once refreshing and revolting, isn’t that someone who believes what we believe might run the country in the wrong direction, but that someone who believes what we believe might run the country in the right direction, thereby legitimizing our beliefs as a valid way to live one’s life. These guys don’t think Romney will necessarily be a bad president, but they deeply fear the possibility of his being a good one.

    I think the talking point for us is to let the theologians dig all they want into the creeds, keep them talking about the creeds as long as they have wind for it, because Card is right: normal everyday Christians want to know if we’re Christians in the way they think of themselves as such: do we believe in Christ as our savior? If I ask an evangelical or mainstream protestant or catholic friend what it means to them to be Christian, they certainly aren’t going to follow Mohler rattling off lines from the Nicene creed. The more people like Mohler talk, the less their creedal definition of Christianity resonates with regular Christians. The more people like Neuhaus talk, the more transparent their bigotry becomes–also resonating less and less with regular Christians.

    [And I say all this as someone who has liked Card less and less with every word he’s written in the last few years, and someone who will only vote for Romney if Cody Judy gets the democratic presidential nomination.]

  3. Adam Greenwood on June 30, 2007 at 8:44 am

    Those are all excellent points, Jeremy. For lots of theologians who think Mormons aren’t Christians, “Christian” is defined as “accepting the winning side of old ecumenical councils up the point where I stop accepting them.”

  4. Blain on June 30, 2007 at 9:37 am

    Yes. The definition of “Christian” when used in the sentence “Mormons aren’t Christian” is a political definition. Mormons do not accept the council-based consensuses on which mainstream creedal Christianity is based. We didn’t “take one for Team Christian” and, in fact, mess with their whole “it doesn’t matter what church you belong to or attend as long as you accept Jesus and are saved (and are baptized by anyone other than a Mormon)” thing. We reject their authority, we don’t accept their baptisms (the authority thing), we describe their teachings as “doctrines of men mingled with scriptures,” and have portrayed their ministers as being employed by Satan.

    I can understand them being a little miffed about that, actually.

  5. Ugly Mahana on June 30, 2007 at 10:31 am

    # 4: All of this is true, but we don’t deny their belief in Christ, especially the belief of the laity. Nor do we condemn them, personally, to hell. We condemn false belief even while holding out greater blessings for the adherents of those beliefs than they give any who disagree with them. And, despite all the (understandable) frustration they may feel, they bear false witness against us when they claim we do not worship Jesus. We may misunderstand their position, but we have not called their God a lie.

  6. Ugly Mahana on June 30, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Or, to be more specific, despite our deep philosophical differences over the nature of God, among other things, we have not denied that they recognize the divinity of Christ – which they do – while they have denied that we recognize His divinity. Of course, we DO recognize Christ’s divinity, and to say otherwise, is either to misunderstand so completely as to be foolish, or to lie.

  7. Jonathan Green on June 30, 2007 at 10:43 am

    Plus, if they’re going to pit someone from SciFi against a theologian to defend Mormon theology, they really should have tried to get Starbuck.

  8. Jeremy on June 30, 2007 at 11:45 am

    Yes, that’s the imbalance here: even if we’re right, they still go to someplace very similar to what they imagine heaven to be. If they’re right, we go to hell. Hardly seems fair.

    Another possible talking point: Mohler and Neuhaus both say that one of the things that makes us not Christian is the Book of Mormon. This can be easily caricaturized in our favor in the public discourse: according to Mohler, the problem isn’t that we don’t have Jesus, but that we just have too much Jesus to be Christian.

  9. TMD on June 30, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    The nature of Mohler’s argument seems to me inconsistent with wider Baptist beliefs about authority and the nature of the church. In a sense, he is stating that creeds devised and accepted by church councils in the 4th and 5th centuries define christianity. This seems inconsistent, to me, with more general Baptist claims of authority, and thus inherently contradictory to their apparent ability to define Baptists as christians. To wit–

    (1) Nicea, etc., were approved by a church council called by a Roman emperor and under the authority of an ancient pope and patriarchs. If they accept their authority to speak as such and to define christianity, why do they not accept their successors’ (the popes and patriarchs, obviously) authority to do so? By the fourth century there is transparency in succession, major doctrines of succession had been in place, and central concepts of authority still central to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy were in order. So it seems to me entirely contradictory to accept the authority of their creed but not their authority on other issues.
    (2) The Nicene creed, particularly, is organically rooted in hellenized understandings of God–which go far beyond the biblical statements on the nature of God. Yet, my understanding of Baptist theology is that it was defined solely in terms of Biblical teaching. Thus is it not the case that accepting the nicene creed as an authoritative definition of christianity itself violates this central claim of Baptist teachings?

  10. Ray on June 30, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    The only definition of “Christian” that does not fit us is the one that is made up in order to exclude us.

    I really like one thing Card said. Paraphrasing, if someone wants to claim we are not creedal Christians, fine; we aren’t. Any other definition that Joe Protestant can understand? We’re Christian. I really like that, because it highlights that we are practicing Christians even if we aren’t professional Christians. I can accept that.

  11. Seth R. on July 1, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    The defining of “Christian” has nothing to do with actual theological distinctions, and everything to do with staking claims in a turf war for bodies in the pews.

  12. Mike Parker on July 1, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    Wolfgang Petersen is directing Ender’s Game? Good choice!

  13. Blain on July 2, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    5 — Yes, but they don’t mean “those who believe in Christ” when they say “Christian, ” so us acknowledging their Christianity doesn’t earn us any points. And while we don’t say that they’re going to Hell, we also don’t really have a Hell for them to go to.

    The “don’t worship Jesus” claim is more accurately “don’t worship the same Jesus,” to which I enjoy saying “Well, we worship the Jesus that was described in the Bible, born to a virgin, taught people to love each other, died on the cross for the sins of the world and rose from the grave three days later. Which Jesus do you worship?”

    And we do tend to be a bit smug about “We have the True Gospel of Jesus Christ and you don’t” thing. I’m clearly on our side of the fence, but I’m pointing out that they’ve got cause to find us a bit annoying and superior-sounding in our approach.

    9 — The thing with the creeds were that they were used to determine the paradigm to which Christians must subscribe. You’re not going to find many mainstream Christians who can really explain what the Trinity is clearly, but that’s not important, because they believe in it and, because we (think we) don’t, we aren’t Christian. By my best understanding of the Trinity, when we strip away the idiosyncratic usages of words to their meanings, the Godhead and the Trinity are the same things, but our understanding of God’s body is different. I think a bigger problem than us not accepting the creeds is our lack of concern of the issues of the councils that issued them.