I’ve always been happy to be a Mormon without insisting on being a Christian. Indeed, the whole debate has always struck me as resting on confusion and political battles that I donâ€™t care about.
On one hand, I think that those who deny the Christianity of Mormons are not entirely out to lunch. After all, we do reject various creedal formulations that lots and lots of Christians regard as fundamental to Christianity. Furthermore, we have lots of doctrines that traditional Protestants and Catholics are likely to find repugnant. Fine by me; they have some doctrines that I am not so hyped up about. On the other hand, I think that there is a certain viciousness about denial of the Christianity of Mormons. It is often not made simply as a theological point. Rather, it is part of a larger rhetorical framework that seeks to define Mormonism as a dangerous cult that at best must be excluded from a place at the table of legitimate religious beliefs and at worse needs to be subject to petty legal harassment in the United States and far more pernicious anti-cult legislation abroad.
My problem is that neither of these formulations of the issue leaves me wanting to claim the title of Christian. I donâ€™t have any particular desire to squash Mormonism into the creeds, although I am perfectly happy to study and learn from the Christian tradition. (I tend to read Aquinas or Augustine for edification and enlightenment rather than to expose an apostate Christianity.) I also have no particular desire to muscle my way into a club with those that hate me and my most sacred beliefs. Hence, to the extent that the â€œMormons really are Christians!â€ refrain is part of some sort of campaign to gain admission to the Evangelical Protestant club, I just donâ€™t care.
Harold Bloomâ€™s recent essay in Sunstone, however, has caused me to rethink this. On the whole, I like Bloomâ€™s reading of Mormonism. It is wrong, of course, but it is wrong in interesting and illuminating ways. Bloom was talking about Joseph Smithâ€™s thinking, and breezily insisted, â€œMormonism is not a Christian sect, because it is (or should be) henotheist, and if you can be a Christian, Muslim, or Jew without even being a monotheist, then may all the angels bless you!â€
These is something deeply false about this statement. One can, of course, make historical or textual arguments in opposition. Much of the Old Testament strikes me as plainly henotheistic, and the long Christian struggle over the Trinity (and its ultimately nonsensical conclusion in the homoousion of Nicea) is really an attempt to understand the henotheism inherent in the triumvirate of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But this isnâ€™t what struck me as false about Bloomâ€™s statement.
Rather, what struck me as false was the shallowness of his reading of Joseph Smith. To be sure, Joseph was a henotheist and a Christian heretic of the blackest die. He was also, however, a Christ-intoxicated man. One cannot read the corpus of his translations and revelations without be assaulted by wave upon wave of Christology, Christ-narratives, and Christian imagery. (For all of the supposed anti-Paulinism of Josephâ€™s theology, his words constantly resonate with the echoes of Paulâ€™s language.) Likewise, I think that Richard Bushman has demonstrated that one cannot understand his inner spiritual life independently of his own quest for Christian salvation. There is just something fundamentally silly about denying the Christianity of Joseph Smith. It speaks falsely of the texts.
It got me thinking about whether or not I was a Christian. This is â€“ for me â€“ a different question of whether or not I believe in Christ as the son of God and the savior of the world. It is different than the question of Christ as my savior and my relationship to him. I take these as given. Rather, it strikes me that it is a question of names. I have always thought â€“ and continue to think â€“ that the claim â€œWe really are Christian because the words â€˜Jesus Christâ€™ appear in the name of the churchâ€ is a bit thin. Indeed, when we take a name for ourselves from the name of the church it is not â€œChristianâ€ but rather â€œLatter-day Saint.â€ Why the insistence on the name â€œChristianâ€?
My epiphany came in sacrament meeting. Before me the young men broke and blessed by the bread by the power of the priesthood, priesthood restored by resurrected beings laying physical hands on physical heads after coming from the presence of Godâ€™s physical body. Good Mormon images those. They began the prayer. â€œO God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy son, Jesus Christ, . . .â€ There is the henotheism. When I hear those words, there is no homoousion in them for me; only the invocation of one god in the name of another god on behalf of children of god. The bread was blessed. Then came the words that endowed my eating with meaning. â€œâ€¦an witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy sonâ€¦â€
I have no desire to be a Christian to reconcile the radicalism of Josephâ€™s legacy to the long theological tradition, as interesting and fruitful as a dialogue between the radicalism and the tradition is in my mind. I certainly have no desire to be a Christian so as to gain access to the club of conservative Protestantism is America.
I do, however, find the covenant to take his name upon me compelling. So I became a Christian.