Friday, October 21, 2011

The Challenges of Mormonism to Fundamentalists

The reactions we are encountering to Mitt Romney from "evangelical" Christians are not surprising, largely because of prior experience, for the nonreligious and apathetic and parochial. They sure don't surprise me. I actually think the pastors who say that Mormons are nice folks, but doomed to Hell, are simply following their convictions. No one in favor of tolerance has much of a position for denouncing someone whose monotheism is jealous, simply because it is jealous.

No: people in churches are allowed to think members of the congregation down the road are all heathens. Speaking as a person who is viewed locally and increasingly as "unsaved" because not having a conversion experience but rather believing in the truth of Christ Risen, I know that opposing the right of people to think what they want will do no good anyway. I also know that making fun of Baptists and Assemblies of God folks is missing the mark. The outrage is not that a group has an identity with an include/exclude criterion. That another group disagrees isn't news, is it? For how many centuries have there been groups that think of themselves as Christian but which other Christian groups either wish to or do exclude?

We don't need to start with Martin Luther for that one. We can go to the Docetists, if we want.

In churches with hierarchy, any revelation has to go through channels, as it were. Further, any logical argument with dogma must also go through the process. This means, of course, that the channels limit what gets through, and what comes out tends to look like the pipe it traveled through. Dogma strengthening bishops is approved by bishops, etc. Sometimes, though, some really revolutionary material gets through. Sometimes the power, the spirituality, or the popular spirit of a revelation or reform will overtop the levees, and reformers like Francis of Assisi or visionaries like Julian of Norwich or Juan de la Cruz or Theresea of Avilla will pass into the body and change the world.

However, when churches without "papist" hierarchy encounter revelation, they depend upon the Bible, naturally, and the congregation to discern the revelation.

 Further, the nature of the "evangelical" movement is to assume a few critical intellectual positions that are by no means common to all churches:
  1. When Jesus commissioned His disciples to go out and heal the sick and spread the news, that commissioning is open-ended to all who would follow Jesus always.
  2. When Jesus commands that His followers carry the good news of salvation to the corners of the earth, that is a specific sanctification of each believer to be an evangelist.
  3. The Apostolic Age either has never ended, because the Holy Spirit performs the same miracles now as before and the same state of "spiritual warfare" exists now as in 32 AD, or because there is a special dispensation due to "end of days" whereby a new Apostolic Age has emerged.
  4. "Witnessing," which is to say telling another person about one's own conversion story is the principle form of spreading the Good News, as this Good News is a converting news.
  5. Exposing the unbeliever to the Good News is efficacious by itself in affecting a conversion.
  6. The efficacy of the Word is known by the converting of the person from sin to non-sin, accompanied by a change of essence, whereby an old human nature is lost and a newly perfected one comes in, accompanied with a vast emotional change.

Many Christians can and do argue with several of those assumptions. This is why we have separate denominations and churches. I do not want to argue these points, except that I, myself, am growing weary of 4-6 in their effects on me. You see, I recall that Jesus also had a story about the "good seed." The seed (the Word) is good, and the sower may be fine, but that doesn't mean that there is a return.

Anyway, to return to my subject, these assumptions are very important. It means that we know the truth of the message from the response to the message. In other words, the way we know that the minister's vision and visitation were holy is that he "brings people to the Lord." Efficacy is attributed to holiness.

We have all long ago noted the consequence of this assumption. Elmer Gantry and "Dusty Rhodes" are examples of this natural, if not superstitious, habit of assuming that the person who sells a lot of units must have divine blessing. What Sinclair Lewis noted first has not changed: the emphasis on gathering bodies to the church encourages the adoption of hucksterism and puts a pressure on the minister to study advertising and psychology and sales. It takes the slight theater that is inevitable in any positioning of a priest before a church and turns it into full on circus, as the speakers go into trademark gestures, patented cadences, and jumps and leaps that would surprise an orthopedist.

The ministers are sincere, I am sure. However, the assumptions of their church put a pressure on them to conform to a Westmoreland-like body count. "Last night, forty-two young people came to the Lord!" someone gushed recently and concluded "___ is a really special speaker." Hrrrm.

So far, it probably seems more like I'm interested in belittling evangelical churches than I am explaining the heeby-jeebies they get with Mormons, but I really do need to explain these peculiarities of practical theology (beliefs about God as they are manifest in action) before I can explain. You see, if the message's validity and the messenger's holiness are both proven by the convert without any hierarchy or history to check it against, then the Mormons are frightening.

How do you -- yes, you -- explain the fact that Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the world? How do you explain the relative uprightness of the flock?

It's tough for anyone who isn't a Mormon.

I was driving today (told you all my ideas come in the morning), and I was thinking about how I could explain "kairos" in "Little Gidding," and I was reflecting on the fact that, in the 19th century, a lot of people were beginning to see History as a series of circles. I then thought, "The Mormons are big on that 'it happened before and will happen again' thing." I then thought about how that religion started and spread. Here's the problem: the foundation story of the religion is very, very... implausible [warning: link auto-plays].

So, a man in New York claims to have seen an angel who led him to buried golden tablets that he can only read with magic stones and in the bottom of a hat, and from that he can dictate the Book of Mormon, which is a sequel to, or "further adventures of," the New Testament. No one can see the golden tablets, or the magic stones, and no one sees the angel but him. The revelation consists of giving permission for multiple wives, commands for clean living (a common 19th century temperance movement feature), and gleeful mistreatment of American natives. It gains adherents, is immediately attacked, gains more, and begins moving with, and then ahead of, the frontier.

Why did it keep growing?

A person with access to "secular" theories would say that the religion incorporated many of the movements of its age and so appealed to many of the psychological and social pressures of its adherents. Such a person would point to other groups nearby who had similar calls. However, that doesn't do much. Then, of course, there is what having multiple wives and as large a family as possible will do for a religion. Then there is what mandatory mission work will do.

What, though, if you do not have such a theory to use? What is using such a theory is fearful, because it might be used against oneself?

Mormonism puts revelation and enthusiasm into the crucible. If the only test a person has of the validity of a belief is the Bible and the effect on a person, then Mormons are hard to challenge. Mormons fall all to pieces if they have to be squared with tradition, with the writings of the Fathers, with rational analysis, and with the test of confirmation (does no one remember that Paul says that a person with a prophecy has to have corroboration? the Holy Spirit isn't, so far as I know, in the business of keeping the truth a secret from those who seek).

When a Christian evangelical looks at a Mormon, it is looking at a mirror of fear. Mormonism itself is an extension of evangelical assumptions, and so there is nothing that an evangelical may say, except, "You're going to Hell." There is no mechanism by which she or he can speak with the Mormon, no reasoning he or she may offer, because, at base, there is too much similarity in frame.

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