On a recent trip, I took along as reading material Christianity: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2004) by Linda Woodhead. Like all of the books in the wildly successful VSI series, the book is short but informative. I want to focus on the author’s analysis of how views about divine power and earthly authority can be used to classify Christian churches and denominations, then try to place Mormonism and the LDS Church within that classification scheme.
The first distinction to consider is whether divine power is ultimately lodged in heaven or is somehow present here on earth. The terms transcendence and immanence are often used in this context, but the terms are overused and are perhaps better left aside by a scholar trying to bring new insight to the topic. Woodhouse describes three generic forms of Christianity:
- Church Christianity affirms “a hierarchical power that flows down from heaven to earth,” centered in God the Father, mediated by Jesus Christ, and channelled through “designated representatives on Earth, the clergy.” Sacramentalism and sacerdotalism (roughly, ordinances and priests) are key features of this form.
- Biblical Christianity affirms that “the Bible is of greater authority than the church, its sacraments and priests, and its desire that the whole of life should be governed by strict conformity to Biblical teaching.” This form emerged in the wake of the Reformation and the accompanying widespread distribution of printed vernacular translations of the Bible.
- Mystic Christianity emphasizes not a higher and external power but “power from within,” with the Holy Spirit playing a more prominent role for mystics and the communities that follow them. While the term “mystics” might suggest a marginal chapter from Christian history with little application to the present day, the sudden emergence of “spiritual but not religious” amounts to a personalized version of mysticism, rejecting external authority (church or bible) but recognizing some spark of the divine within.
The second distinction to consider emerges from the course of history and theology over the last three centuries. How does a given church or movement balance divine power or authority against other alternatives?
- Transcendent authority allows little compromise with reason or with differing human experience. Once God has spoken (through church, bible, or mystic), the thinking is done.
- Rational authority grants human reason a strong role in determining what God, the Bible, or your favorite mystic is really saying. Another way to describe this view is that granting reason some authority means one is more willing to accommodate one’s church, bible, or mystic views to the discoveries of modern science.
- Experiential authority is the final category, where tradition, hierarchy, and Bible are all secondary to the present and often personal experience of God.
The three categories of the second set of distinctions are tied to two intellectual revolutions of the modern era. The first was the Enlightenment, which exalted the authority of reason against traditional sources of authority, both political and ecclesiastical. Liberal Christianity, in which some authority is granted to human reason, spanned many Protestant denominations, eventually reaching Catholicism as well. The second revolution was the Sixties, which were about more than just sex, drugs, and rock music. The Sixties produced a second society-wide rejection of traditional authority and a turn to subjective modes of understanding. Almost overnight, Liberal Christianity seemed old-fashioned, almost irrelevant. Organized, hierarchical churches were, within a decade, in steady and unrelenting demographic decline. Suddenly very relevant was personal experience: how you feel about God, religion, your church, your spirituality, your congregation, your minister, and your Bible. So the last three centuries of Christianity can be illustrated by a move across the three columns, with religious authority broadening first to the second column (reason), then later broadening again to the third column (experience, whether rational and scientific or not).
Put these two different three-category analyses together as two axes and you get a table with 9 cells, which the author does on page 104 of the book.
|Transcendent authority||Rational authority||Experiential authority|
|Liberal Protestants||Pentecostal Catholics|
|(Liberal) Evangelicals||Pentecostal Protestants|
|Mystical Eastern Orthodoxy||Christian Science||Quakers|
The table brings together 60 pages of material by Woodhouse, which I have summarized in just three paragraphs. Also, I listed only some of the example entries provided by the author in each cell. Nevertheless, I think I have covered enough for you to agree that the categories and the table are helpful devices for understanding what is going on with religion (and Mormonism) in the 21st century.
So here is your discussion question: In which cell should the LDS Church or mainstream Mormonism appear? I can think of arguments for several different cells.