Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Mormon Catholicism

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Mormon Catholicism

Article excerpt

Mormon Catholicism Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints BY STEPHEN H. WEBB OXFORD, 232 PAGES, $27.95

In the Evangelical world in which I was raised, "Mormon Christianity" would have been treated as an oxymoron. The Latter-day Saints were a devious cult who spoke like Christians but were intentionally hiding the fact that they meant something very different.

This harsh appraisal is still typical of much of the "counter-cult" movement, but it is no longer the generally accepted assessment of Mormon life and thought. For one thing, many Evangelicals, along with other Christians who hold right-of-center views about some much-debated matters these days, cast their votes for a Mormon candidate for the presidencynot the kind of thing you do if you simply accept the don't-trust-theMormons narrative.

Even apart from Mormonism's newfound political visibility, though, the "cult" image of the LDS doesn't fit today's realities. Brigham Young University is a world-class academic institution. Mormon authors write best-selling books. With over half of the 15 million Latter-day Saints living outside the United States, Mormonism has become an important global religious movement. Learning about Mormonism's relationship to mainstream Christian and Jewish thought is becoming an important exercise, for cultural as well as theological reasons.

It is not surprising, then, that many people in the religious world are asking questions-typically, these days, with genuine puzzlement rather than overt hostility-about the content of Mormon belief. A friend of mine, a businessman, captured the tone of this concern when he asked me for practical theological advice: "One of my business partners is Mormon. A great guy. When we have lunch together, he offers to pray over our food. He sounds like he is talking to the same God that I pray to. Is he?"

On the level of straightforward theological formulations, I would have to say he is not. Mormons believe that the divine and the human are, as one of their leaders once put it, "of the same species." Like human beings, the members of the Godhead, Mormonism teaches, have physical bodies. That contention stands in sharp contrast to traditional Jewish and Christian understandings of God as the totaliter aliter, the "Wholly Other," who, self-contained in his own being, called forth the creation ex nihilo.

From a mainstream Christian perspective, Mormonism's denial of the unbridgeable ontological gap between God and humankind is deeply troublesome. How can we take seriously Mormons who claim that they represent the true restoration of biblical faith when they depart so radically from what Jews and Christians have always taken as the most basic fact about the God of the Bible?

Mormons willingly admit that they have a very different conception of God than the rest of us, but-as my businessman friend was discovering-when they talk about their faith in "Heavenly Father" and pray over their meals, they actually seem to be closer to us in their understanding than we are led to believe by their doctrinal formulations.

Take, for example, the orthodoxsounding declaration by Joseph Smith, on the occasion of the founding of the LDS Church in April 1830: "We know," he said, "that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them."

It is that kind of talk about the deity that explains why Mormons like to sing "How Great Thou Art," even when the rest of us are not listening. This should lead us to be a bit more trusting when Mormons tell us what they believe. There is no good reason, for example, to doubt that the late LDS president Gordon Hinckley was speaking candidly when he was asked in 1997 by Time magazine about the idea that God the Father had at one time been a human being. Hinckley's response: "I don't know that we teach it. …

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