Many Mormons find that many Christian discussions are compatible with Mormon belief. We cheerfully borrow from C.S. Lewis, for instance, simply adding a Mormon gloss to Lewis’s statements; we happily listen to Switchfoot or Joy Williams.
The idea of adding upon a Christian foundation has become popular in missionary discussion, as well. President Hinckley said, “To people everywhere we simply say, You bring with you all the good that you have and let us add to it.” This approach is a popular one, and is often viewed as a friendly gesture, a recognition that Christian belief is foundational in Mormonism.
The idea has been criticized by some non-Mormon interlocutors. Recently, Evangelical Sarah pointed out some concerns at her blog, writing:
Being on the receiving end of the comment “You wouldn’t lose anything…” is frustrating, as it takes but a moment of real reflection to realize that I would lose some beliefs that are very precious to me if I were to join the LDS Church. That’s not necessarily a valid reason not to join; it just makes the statement untrue. I cannot be Mormon and believe that God is a Trinity, I cannot be Mormon and believe that the one true church is the invisible body of all the redeemed regardless of official church affiliation or lack thereof, I cannot be Mormon and believe that God has faithfully sustained all the truth his Church needed throughout the centuries, and I cannot be Mormon and believe that God created from nothing everything in existence outside Himself. I would lose some things that are close to the core of what makes God so beautiful to me, beliefs that it would be almost physically painful for me to part ways with.
I think there’s a lot of truth to Sarah’s statement. She does a good job of pointing out some ways that the adding-upon approach understates real differences between beliefs, and in the process undervalues beliefs. Her analysis was thoughtful, and I’m glad that she addressed the topic.
However, I think that Sarah’s analysis just scratches the surface; and in fact, that her post may actually understate the difficulties with the idea of adding upon. There are much deeper conflicts here. In particular, the idea of adding upon is deeply problematic for many Christians because of the special concerns of heresy.
I’ll illustrate with a real dialogue that I had on this topic, two decades ago, with a high school friend named Shawn. Shawn was an Evangelical Christian (he generally used the term “born again” to describe himself). Shawn was determined to save Mormons, including me. We talked religion frequently. He stressed the importance of being born again in his own life, and constantly talked about the necessity of accepting Jesus as one’s personal Savior
One day in conversation, I asked Shawn, “so, what does accepting Jesus involve?” And he gave his own story — he bore his testimony, so to speak. Being born again meant accepting Jesus, both out loud and more importantly in one’s heart. Thus, it meant saying and believing, “I accept Jesus as my personal Savior.” That was exactly what Shawn himself had done in order to be born again.
This didn’t seem to clash with my Mormon beliefs, so I said, “okay, I can do that. Hey Shawn, listen. I accept Jesus as my personal Savior.” Of course, I said this with the intention of adding my own additional beliefs to this core. I certainly intended to stay Mormon. But I was happy to state a basic belief in Jesus. I was, in effect, engaging in an adding on exercise. And it was a natural response to the way that Shawn’s Evangelical Christianity had been described. He had set out a certain minimalist core: Say that you believe in Jesus, and you will be saved. (Given Pascal’s Wager, is there any reason *not* to do this?) This works just fine, in theory.
Of course, it didn’t go quite so easily in practice. When I said that I accepted Jesus, Shawn asked me if I still believed in Mormon doctrines. When I said that I did, he told me that my earlier statement didn’t count. (Yes, he said “didn’t count”; you’ve got to love the tactlessness of seventeen year olds.)
Our discussion then went through a predictable series of elaborations and clarifications. Shawn said that one had to accept Jesus as the only means by which a person can be saved; I replied, “okay, I accept Jesus as my personal Savior and as the only means by which I can be saved.” No, it still didn’t count. Shawn added that one had to accept the Bible as the sole Word of God. He knew that I couldn’t commit to that one.
I argued that this was highly unfair. I pointed out, repeatedly, that I had jumped through all of the hoops that Shawn himself had ever had to jump through. I had said and believed, “I accept Jesus.” That was all that he had ever done. His own being-saved statement hadn’t contained other caveats.
I asked him outright, can a person believe in Ezra Taft Benson as prophet, while also accepting Jesus as their personal Savior? No, he said. Why not? Shawn stuck to his guns. It was because if I said I believed Ezra Taft Benson was a prophet, then I must not really mean it when I accepted Jesus. The two were incompatible. Plus the scripture was important too — Shawn had been saved after reading the Bible, so it was implied; for me, it would have to be stated explicitly. Also, I was using different definitions of believe. And so on.
I had known ahead of time that basically all of this was going to happen; and it’s a conversation that I’ve seen repeated many times between Mormons and evangelicals. Typically, it’s a discussion that neither party finds very satisfying.
For many years, I thought that the issue was one of unwritten rules. Shawn had told me that I merely needed to accept Jesus. But it turned out that there had been a variety of unstated assumptions and unwritten rules. The stated rule, as presented to me — and as performed by Shawn in his own born again experience — was simply to accept Jesus in sincere statement. But there were unwritten rules — for instance, one could not accept Jesus and also believe in Joesph Smith as a prophet. I claimed that this was unfair, and Shawn pushed back as best he could.
I’ve long liked to think that I won that debate; he never did give me a satisfactory explanation. But on later reflection, I think that neither of us got to the real issue.
The problem was that as a Mormon, I could not simply follow Shawn’s path. His own route had been that of the unconverted. But I wasn’t merely unconverted; I was a heretic.
This is not a problem limited to Evangelicals and Mormons.
On my own mission, I became very familiar with baptismal requirements. I served in a relatively high-baptizing mission in Guatemala, and taught scores of people who joined the church. Like many missionaries, I was a district leader and zone leader for a while. I probably gave 30 baptismal interviews myself, plus preparing dozens more people for interviews.
The baptismal interviews asked a series of basic questions. Do you believe in God, and in Jesus Christ? Do you believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet? Do you believe the Book of Mormon is true? Do you commit to live the law of chastity, the word of wisdom, the law of tithing?
I never once asked any person, either one of my own teaching families or someone I was interviewing, what they thought of polygamy. Not once.
But now, let’s imagine a missionary who is serving in Colorado City, and who is interviewing a currently practicing Fundamentalist Mormon for baptism. For that missionary, the approach has to be different. The interviewee has to be asked not only whether they believe in Jesus and Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon; they *also* must be asked whether they have renounced polygamy.
Of course, an intelligent Fundamentalist could counter this with a basic added-upon argument. “I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. I believe the Book of Mormon. I accept Thomas S. Monson as well. And I *also* believe in The One Mighty and Strong who has told me to secretly revive plural marriage.” (In fact, this could be cast as a mere adding-on to a scripture already in the D&C.)
But our hypothetical missionary would have to reply — not unlike Shawn in high school — no, those are incompatible. You can’t both believe in Thomas S. Monson and also believe in the One Mighty and Strong. The Colorado City fundamentalist must commit to *more* than the Guatemalan family. This is because of the problem of heresy.
The heretic is fundamentally different than the unconverted. The unconverted needs to be shown basic building blocks of belief. But the heretic already knows those building blocks, and has chosen to twist them in unacceptable ways. Thus, the heretic needs not only to accept basic foundations, but also to renounce any heretical twistings of those foundations. Like an athlete who has developed improper form, the heretic must unlearn prior bad habits. The broken bone initially needs just a splint to heal. But if it has healed in a wrong direction, it must be re-broken before it can be set correctly.
(And what are those twisted bones or practice-field bad habits? As we see from Sarah’s post, or Shawn’s high school dialogue — or for that matter, our own fictional talk with the fundamentalist — they tend to involve a lot of the other details of the community.)
Thus the adding-upon argument would be ineffective. This is why our Fundamentalist cannot offer an adding-upon argument to support modern-day polygamy as a mere addition to Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon, and Thomas S. Monson. Certain types of adding-upon are not viewed as an adding-upon which leaves the foundation intact. Rather, they are viewed as an act which changes the foundation.
And this is why heretics require special consideration at the community gate, and why the heretic and the unconverted cannot enter the same gate. In this light, my impasse with Shawn makes sense. I was offering to enter a gate that could not admit me.
And this shows Sarah’s understatement as well. The invitation to “take your truth and add upon it” is not just descriptively incomplete. Rather, it may be viewed as an affront to the believer, an act of temptation itself, an invitation to take one’s true beliefs and to turn them into heresies. Of course, the invitation to add upon seems natural and friendly from within the community, as a mere suggestion to keep C.S. Lewis and simply add a Mormon spin. But for outsiders, the invitation to add upon may not only not be welcoming, but may in fact be viewed as a threat.