The first time I prayed with a group of evangelical Christians was nearly 40 years ago. My wife and I had been living in Japan, and were on our way back to our native England via Taiwan, when our one-year-old baby daughter fell sick. Unable to find an English-speaking doctor, we ended up at a U.S. military base, where the doctor on duty prescribed rest for the baby and promptly invited us to stay with him and his family for a few days at his home in the mountains.
I have never forgotten that kindness. One evening he invited us to join him as he taught his evangelical church youth group in his home. The kids sat in a circle on the floor and, when they prayed, we all held hands. I admit to a moment of self-consciousness -- Mormons typically don’t pray like that in a group setting. But the overwhelming impression was the evident goodness of these people, and while we had doctrinal differences it was obvious we were praying to God in the name of the same Jesus.
Christianity is a complicated matter. Now more than two millennia old, it has weathered centuries of history and change. It has experienced periods of growth, persecution, reformation, schism, globalization, and more. And it has inspired believers of every race, taken a multitude of forms, and advanced a diversity of doctrines.
In this period of increased public attention to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’m going to use this column to respectfully explore the questions people are asking about the similarities and differences between Mormon belief and what is sometimes referred to as traditional Christianity.
First, some full disclosure. The institutional church I belong to has never been comfortable with the word, “ecumenical.” While the definition of the word has shifted in past decades, in the Mormon mind “ecumenical” still carries with it a sense of doctrinal negotiation and compromise. That has never been on the Mormon agenda, and neither can it be if you know anything about Mormon history and how the church views revelation. It might be added that other churches haven’t been in a hurry to invite us into their councils either. However, the Latter-day Saint position, emphatically, does not equate with lack of respect for others with theological differences. Our church leaders and members are not only perfectly comfortable but eager to move beyond those differences and work arm-in-arm with other churches to confront poverty, disease and moral issues in our society.
In the intervening decades since my Taiwan experience, I have come to know and respect Catholics, Protestants and Jews of all persuasions, including the very devout. For those comfortable in their own religious skin, it isn’t difficult to embrace each other’s goodness and recognize the values we all contribute without diminishing the passion or commitment we feel for our own faith. This may be especially important at a time when religious people face vocal secular critics who would marginalize religion and ignore the increasingly visible consequences of eroding religious values. (On that point, the past weekend’s Wall Street Journal column by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, is a must-read).
So, if this really is a “Mormon moment” when people are asking for clarity about similarities and differences between our faith and other Christians, we are obligated to explain them. But in this space at least, the discussion will be about understanding and accepting each other’s differences for what they are, rather than trying to define some amorphous middle ground that we can all embrace. So, too, accusations of heresy on either side make for poor dialogue. Serious attempts at mutual understanding require the removal of negative labels and a major dose of goodwill in the best tradition of our pluralistic society.
As an example, let’s start with the Trinity - that is, the nature of God - specifically, the relationship between God (the Father), Jesus Christ (His Son), and the Holy Ghost (Holy Spirit). Mormons believe that much of what is recognized as Christianity today has evolved from the origins of the faith established by Jesus Christ. That’s pretty easy to demonstrate from secular as well as religious history. Some of the formative moments in Christianity’s history came in the four centuries after the deaths of Jesus’ chosen apostles, as councils of Christians within the Roman Empire convened, trying to get a handle on Christian orthodoxy. Their discussions involved deep differences of opinion, and out of these councils came what have come to be called the Christian creeds - notably the Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition.
The language of the creeds is complex, since it reflects centuries of debate about what the “oneness” of God - Father, Son and Holy Ghost - really means. Every word has a history of meaning to theologians. Such complexity makes it impossible to capture their essence in a single sentence. So, rather than attempt it and risk misrepresentation of someone else’s faith, I have provided links above instead.
While recognizing that the creeds have deep meaning for millions of Christians, Latter-day Saints have a simpler view than the three-in-one God. God is understood by Latter-day Saints to be our Father in Heaven in whose image we are made. He sent his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ - a physically separate Being - to earth to redeem mankind, and the principal account of his life is found in the New Testament of the Bible. We pray to Our Father in Heaven in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and we receive answers, guidance, promptings and insights through the power of the Holy Ghost, who is the third member of what we call the Godhead. Three separate Beings, but one in unity and purpose and in perfect harmony.
So, yes, the Mormon view of the Godhead differs from the Christianity of the creeds, but every Mormon believes that it is not at odds with what Jesus taught or what is written in the Bible. For me, a believing Latter-day Saint, Jesus Christ is not only the heroic figure of the New Testament, but also the incomparable figure of the ages, past and future. He lived a mortal but sinless life, taught the principles of salvation, redeemed all human kind through his personal suffering beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane and culminating in his death on the cross. He was resurrected on the third day, showed himself to his followers as a physical being, ate food and invited them to handle his body of flesh and bones. He ascended into heaven, while his apostles looked on and angels predicted that he would return in the same way.
I sometimes think back to that little prayer circle in Taiwan. The kids and the adults in that group would probably not disagree with anything here in my depiction of Jesus. They may use different words. They may add points of doctrine, while Mormons would correctly say there is also much, much more to understanding Jesus Christ than I have touched on. But there should be no disagreement among Christians on the effect of Christ’s matchless life and redeeming sacrifice on all of us, his ability to draw out what is best in us and change what is worst. Perhaps that is the defining issue for conversation and mutual understanding among those who claim to be his followers.
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Michael Otterson | Aug 23, 2011 8:08 PM