On this day, let me open up a can of worms. The word for today: Mormon.
Growing up in the East Valley as a member of a United Methodist Church and youth group (not to mention generally clueless and nerdy), not only did I feel somewhat alienated from the majority of my neighbors and elementary, junior high, and high school peers; but at times, outright harassed by them. Because I wasn’t a part of any LDS “ward,” I found myself often the victim of verbal abuse, even so far as being told I was damned because I wasn’t one of them.
So, naturally, by the time I left the Valley for college, I had experienced and was nursing a great degree of hurt, anger, and prejudice toward Mormons. (In reflection, my own prejudice against them was actually re-enforced at times by adults I knew, and their vociferous opinions against the LDS faith.) Thankfully, while in college I managed to experience a new sub-community made up of several faith traditions, as I took part in the United Christian Ministry at NAU. The Mormon church became less of an influence in my life, and even less so when I left for Seminary and to serve United Methodist Churches in Illinois.
Fast forward to 2006, and our return to the Valley to pastor a small congregation in rural Queen Creek, just south-east of my adolescent home of Mesa, Arizona. I had been removed from the direct influence of or acquaintance with Mormons for several years, but now was called into ministry in communities where they flourished.
From the start of my return here, I’ve been somewhat uncomfortable. A large factor in our communities, even to the point of influencing community policy, Mormon faith and practice are so radically different from my tradition (more so than other Christian denominations), and the perception I have experienced is that I am the “alien” to them. I’m on the outside.
But it is not just the preponderance of Mormons and Mormon churches that disquiets my soul, but more-so how my Christian colleagues refer and relate to them. It is (or should be, at any rate) well observed that although Mormons consider themselves a Christian church, they are not regarded as such by virtually all other Christian churches. I knew this in returning, but have been surprised and/or challenged to learn and experience:
(1) that Mormon baptism is the _only_ self-understood Christian baptism rejected by my tradition. Whereas members of our “tribe” of Methodists bemoan and repudiate the theology of Baptists that rejects our concept of baptism and requires re-baptism, we turn around and do the same thing for Mormons.
(2) the ecumenical organization in my community specifically rejected Mormons from participating (it later self-designated itself to an organization of Christian groups, defined by accepting the Apostles Creed).
(3) in conversations with Mormons, their universal understanding of themselves is that they are Christians. Different than other denominations, sure, but – as the Vatican only finally declared of Protestants in the 1960s – fellow followers on a different path. The adult Mormons I’ve had conversation with have been far more open about their faith and tolerant of me than my earlier experience here in the Valley (suggesting that the victimization I experienced may have had more to do with adolescence than just the faith).
(4) in conversations among clergy colleagues of my own tribe, I was surprised to hear the Mormon church and its leaders referred to as misguided (I might agree with this; but then, as I’ll share, we all might be a bit misguided), as well as intentionally misled, subtly evil, and outright demonic.
I can already hear in my mind counter-arguments and justifications for Christian churches stands against the Mormon church. I understand the arguments from Scriptural and theological viewpoints, and also from the standpoint of many who felt they were “abused” by the Mormon church when they were members (there are also a large number of Christians from all traditions who express they were “abused” by the Church). Because Mormons claim the name Christian while other Christians do not accept them, their faith is a particular worry and frustration to many faithful Christians. There are so many who will vociferously express their dislike and distrust of the Mormon Church, and even express judgment on any one who expresses a different viewpoint.
I am not a member of their church, do not fully understand their faith, and do not approve of much of what I do know about it. That said, I am unsettled about, and uncomfortable with, how we respond to the Mormon faith. There is a growing disquiet in my soul that I feel I have to continue to reflect upon.
Lately, as we’ve been reading through the New Testament together, this ongoing conflict in my spirit has re-emerged. Now that we’re already deep into the topic, let me share a few Scriptural and extra-Biblical influences on me:
First, from a personally foundational standpoint, there is a song lyric that rattles around in the back of my head, written by my friend Charles Wolff. I don’t remember the specific (and can’t locate it right now as I don’t have that particular era of songs in digital form on my laptop), but it generally asserted the recognition that we all have the “right to be wrong.” We’ve all been given the freedom of self-will, and though God desires us to know and follow him in Truth, we do so in different ways. With such a preponderance of perspectives and viewpoints available, it seems virtually impossible that anybody has every aspect fully correct.
Lately, I’ve been reminded of Ezekiel 34, where through the prophet the word of the LORD critiques the temporal shepherds who have misled and not cared for the people of Israel. This critique is followed with the promise that God himself will come to care for them:
I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. (34:11b-12)
Any and every time I read critiques of Jewish or other religious leadership, I take heed. I am cautious in reading such criticisms, because as a teacher and leader, I need to be aware of the causes and be cautious of avoiding the same. I take concern in reading passages that critique false shepherds or leaders or teachers, not because I necessarily am one, but because my deepest desire is not to be one. I hope and pray to faithfully share the word of the Lord as best I am given the insight and experience to do so…
Further, Jesus also talks about being the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep, in contrast with the hired hands who only care for their own gain. In John 10, Jesus goes so far as to say:
“I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (10:16)
Although generally interpreted to refer to Gentiles, every time I read this verse I ponder the possibility that Jesus is at work in the world in ways that I am not aware. Clearly, he was teaching and challenging the Jews to that effect, that God was at work in ways they couldn’t’ see and were actually rejecting. Why wouldn’t Jesus say the same thing to Christian leaders and teachers today? Can we honestly believe that we have a complete comprehension of all God’s ways and truth?
Further, this past week I was reminded of the exchange between the Pharisees and Peter and the Apostles in Acts 5. After being brought before the religious leaders for trial in Acts 5, the Apostles are escorted out, and “a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people” stood up to speak. He challenges the Jews on their persecution of the Christians, advising them:
“Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (5:34, 38b-39)
I think you can stitch these particular passages together without my explicit help, but the general sense I get from reading them is that God’s work is not always clearly visible to us. So if the Mormons have a perception they are following Christ, and have hearts yearning to know and find God, who am I to know for sure that God may not be at work in some way in this? Or, at the very least, receive their faith and hearts as offered, even if they are wrong.
This refers once again to the idea of Christian inclusivism (which I wrote about in a comment on our Bible Study recently). One example of this from a Christian mentor I greatly respect comes from C.S. Lewis, who in The Last Battle, has the soldier Emeth narrate to the Kings and Queens of Narnia how he has come into the wonderful land at the end. Emeth has realized he has spent his life serving a “false” god, and is now confronted with Aslan, the true god (and, in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, an allegory for Christ). He narrates the rest of the encounter thusly:
the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, though knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless they desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.
In a passage I read as a teen and still remember, Frederick Buechner wrote that a Christian is not any better than anyone else, “just better informed.” I think this points to the possibility – that I am open to – that though Christ is the way to God, we might encounter, experience, and follow Christ in a great variety of ways. I am not an exclusivist – the belief that only Christians can be saved – but neither am I an universalist – that all faiths are equally valid and “true.” If anything, I uphold the theological truth that Paul hinted at when talking about our love and God’s love, that we only see “dimly”:
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
I am not seeking to make a claim of theological truth or statement regarding the salvation of others. Indeed, I would not want to do so – other Christians’ opinionated declarations of who is and is not saved often do not sit well with me! I trust in my growing relationship with God as made known in Jesus of Nazareth, and trust John’s assertion that Jesus came not to judge but to offer rebirth, salvation, and abundant life (see John 3 and 10).
I am seeking simply to express an ongoing spiritual unease in my walk with Christ. Even as I struggle with theological positions of the LDS church and their identification as Christian, I struggle just as much with much of the carte-blanche repudiation and rejection of their faith. I’ve wondered if John 4 could be re-envisioned with a Baptist Jesus, who “had to go through Salt Lake City,” and (uncharacteristically, and against the established norm) took the time to speak to a Mormon woman…
I have no definitive answers, aside from the fact that I live in the company of Mormons in my neighborhoods and community and can and will show the same respect I do for all other people (of various religious faiths). I seek to fulfill the second half of the great commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I enjoy conversations, and am happy to share about my experience of knowing life and truth in Jesus Christ, but without making the absolutist claim that they can only know God in the same way… at the same time, I do not want to be informed that I am damned unless I fully embrace their understandings of God and faith.
I do hope for the day I’ll see more clearly, as Paul promises, but until then I find myself siding with Gamaliel’s advice. Rather than focusing attention on others’ whose faith is different, rather than allying myself for or against a perceived “enemy,” I choose to seek and serve God. I prefer to focus on those whose faith is just being incubated by the work of the Holy Spirit (i.e. “prevenient grace”), or just being birthed through the experience of forgiveness of Jesus Christ (i.e. “justifying grace”), or being challenged and nurtured more into the image of Jesus Christ (i.e. “sanctifying grace”).