Monday, February 06, 2006

Mormonism, Identity, Boundaries, Cultural Allegiance and Experience-Near Theologizing

In my continued reading for intercultural studies I came across a few sources that brought some missional thoughts worth stringing together. I pass them along for missional colleagues to think through with me.

The first pearl of the string comes in the form of an article by Armand Mauss titled "Identity and boundary maintenance: International prospects for Mormonism at the dawn of the twenty-first century," included in the book Mormon Identities in Transition, Douglas J. Davies (ed.) (Cassell, 1996). Mauss reminds us of the important concepts of identity and boundaries that are maintained and constantly negotiated and renegotiated by religious groups in response to surrounding culture. Mauss notes that during the last few decades Mormonism in North America has gone through a retrenchment process in response to negative perceptions of an assimilation process where the boundary between Mormonism and American culture had been blurred, threatening both the boundary and Mormon identity. Evangelicals involved in various forms of missional engagement with Mormon culture will need to remember the concepts of identity and boundaries, as well as the cyclical retrenchment process, as they engage Mormons at levels which threaten LDS uniqueness and identity.

The second string on the pearl which can be tied directly to the preceding point is our tendency toward extraction evangelism approaches as it relates to Mormonism. I have commented on this previously, but by way of reminder, as we engage the religious other our tendency is to expect them to leave their subculture upon conversion, only to reinculturate them in an evangelical subculture, rather than to allow and facilitate indigenous expressions of Christian community drawn from their culture. This tendency toward extractional approaches may be a factor in the lack of interest many adherents of new religions express in Christianity which is often perceived as being counter-cultural in the sense of opposing virtually every aspect of the religious or spiritual subculture of the religious other. As Christian anthropologist Robert Priest has mentioned in another context, "The resistance aroused by such preaching may have little to do with resistance to the Holy Spirit and rejection of Christ, and a great deal to do with allegiance to one's own culture and society in the face of an invitation to a disloyal conversion to an alien culture."

The final pearl on the string has to do with a process of "experience-near theologizing." Priest, mentioned above, has contributed a chapter that describes this process for a book titled Globalizing Theology: Christian Belief and Practice in an Era of Global Christianity, Harold Netland and Craig Ott (eds.) (Baker, Forthcoming 2006). In the article, Priest contrasts experience-near theologizing with the approach of systematic theology, which has "historically employed the assumptions, categories, questions and methods of the disciple of philosophy," resulting in "experience-distant" understandings of theological truths. Experience-near theologizing is missional theologizing, which interacts with anthropology and the human sciences as dialogue partners, resulting in experience-near theology, or theology that is both context-sensitive in relation to cultures, but also draws upon concepts that are intimately related to the daily lives of those in a given culture. Priest notes that each form of theology "pushes the theologian in different directions." While systematic theology moves us toward "logical entailments, formal consistency, and abstract rationality," experience-near theologizing helps us to appreciate "actual lived experiences" that reflect biblical truths as well. Priest states that while there have been a few lone voices calling for the development of experience-near theologizing in missiology, much more work needs to be done.

I hope the reader considers both the importance of the individual pearls, and what the string might look like when they are all put together. Reflection on the individual elements as well as the entire string will be helpful to to those of us in missiological engagement with Mormon culture.

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