Monday, November 12, 2007

Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue: Ramifications of "Disparity of Concern"

I am still continuing to reflect on the Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue Conference held in Salt Lake City recently. I ordered the CDs of the plenary sessions to accompany my notes that I took during the conference, and they have been helpful as I review my reflections from the time, and as I continue to develop them.

An interesting concept surfaced in the question and answer period in the first plenary session between Craig Hazen and Grant Underwood, that in my view undergirds many of the difficulties in evangelical-Mormon dialogue. In response to one of the questions from the audience, Craig Hazen mentioned a phenomonen that he called a "disparity of concern." This refers to very different concerns over eternal matters in terms of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and the afterlife between these two religious sytems. As Craig painted the picture, in his understanding of the afterlife for Latter-day Saints the evangelical can gain more with a modification of belief and praxis within an LDS worldview, but the evangelical has a positive position in the afterlife even given his aberrant views and practices from the LDS perspective. By contrast, for many evangelicals the Latter-day Saint has much to lose from their beliefs and practices in the eternal scheme of things, as they are viewed as heretical from the evangelical viewpoint. This very different view of things and their soteriological ramifications leads to the disparity of concern, one which is far stronger in the evangelical community toward Latter-day Saints than perhaps it is in the Latter-day Saint community toward evangelicals.

I think this consideration is important for our reflection, not only as an idea in an of itself, but also how it impacts, consciously or subconsiously, various other aspects of evangelical-Mormon understandings and interactions.

First, the strong sense of soteriological disparity of concern on the part of evangelicals often leads to a strong emotional sense of urgency in the proclamation of the message, which, in my view, often short circuits or prevents more careful reflection on important issues related to effective cross-(sub)cultural communication. This was illustrated for me as I watched an informal dialogue between an evangelical and a Latter-day Saint during lunch during the conference. After an hour's worth of exchange, the Latter-day Saint stated in exhasperation that he had wasted an hour of time because his evangelical dialogue partner had made no attempt to understand his position, but instead, seemed intent on merely proclaiming his message and concerns. After watching this dialogue it was evident to me that the evangelical had no ability to enter into the thought-world, empathetically or otherwise, of the Latter-day Saint, and thus he was unable to understand his dialogue partner accurately or to frame the message he wanted to communicate in terms that would be favorably received by the receptor. The difficulty in this miscommunication scenario was the overriding disparity of concern on the part of the evangelical that could not be held onto in balanced and holistic fashion with other concerns so as to faciliate effective communication.

The second example of the ramifications of the disparity of concern came to me as I recently read a newsletter from a counter-cult ministry that addressed Mormonism. The article used a presentation titled "What Would Jesus Say to a Mormon" by Denver Seminary's Craig Blomberg as a point of departure. While the article viewed Blomberg's comments favorably, nevertheless, the author argued that Blomberg did not go far enough. In the counter-cult author's opinion, Christ would go further with a Latter-day Saint to point out various points of Christology as reflected in the form of biblical and creedal orthdoxy in contrast with perceived Latter-day Saint heresy. I am aware that I'll probably get myself into trouble with evangelicals by probing this issue, but I wonder: Would Jesus have argued in such fashion with a Mormon (or any other religious or spiritual group), and if so, how much doctrinal detail would he have gone into? Perhaps evangelicals need to rethink their assumptions in this area.

If the evangelical-Mormon encounter represents a form of cultural or subcultural communication (and I have argued elsewhere that on the level of ethnicity or self-identity that Mormonism is rightly viewed in a unique subcultural sense necessitating cross-cultural understanding and communication) then questions arise as to how evangelicals might appropriately communicate their concerns with their Latter-day Saint friends and contacts. The disparity of concern often faciliates a communication of the charge of heresy, followed by aspects of creedal Christological orthodoxy that the evangelical believes the Latter-day Saint must make assent to both mentally and in terms of personal faith commitments. If Paul's exchange with the Athenian philosophers at the Areopagus in Acts 17 provides some kind of model for such cross-cultural and interreligious exchanges, then some contextualized presentation of Christian truth claims, and an appropriate correction and alternative to competing worldviews seems in order, nevertheless, what type of information and doctrinal ideas should be communicated? Is a full blown, post-Nicean Christology in order, or indeed, even essential? Many of our evangelistic methodologies assume so.

In a previous blog post I addressed issues related to this in a discussion of correct knowledge and doctrinal mininalism. In this post I considered two missiological resources that looked at the question of essential biblical Christological issues related to soteriology and the separate issue of worldview transformation. I then concluded, in part:

It appears from the biblical evidence that a minimal amount of correct knowledge and doctrine was presented to and accepted by the “convert,” and our tendencies toward more extensive evangelistic formulas might be not only unbiblical, but also put the doctrinal cart before the horse. Rather than expecting potential converts to have more extensive and orthodox theological views, perhaps this is something that should be developed over time as individuals mature in the discipleship process.

I believe the twin issues of Christological (and theology proper) minimalism, as well as the proper place for worldview transformation, are key issues for theologians and missiologists in an age of increasing religious pluralism, and in the evangelical encounter with new religions where dialogue appears to be gaining a greater place on the agenda. To my knowledge these issues have not been addressed in any substantial fashion in places like the Evangelical Theological Society or Evangelical Missiological Society. It is time for us to put them on the respective theological and missiological agendas.

As I reflect on these issues and their application to evangelical-Mormon dialogue I wonder whether they do not represent examples of the ramifications and impact of the disparity of concern. Is it possible that evangelicals have allowed their soteriological passions and the affective impact of the disparity of concern for Latter-day Saints to prevent them from critical reassessment of their theological assumptions?

12 comments:

Matt Stone said...

John, I too find it hard to imagine Jesus going into points of doctrinal minute with a Mormon, but the question arises, how would he approach them? Without disparaging the value of dialogue I suppose I would ask, how would you personally recommend we challenge a Mormon over Christological issues? I suppose in this I am asking for a sample of what could happen rather than a methodology for all possibilities. Just to get the flavour.

John W. Morehead said...

Great question, Matt.

I suppose I'd begin with a discussion with the Latter-day Saint in order to ascertain their understanding of who Christ is, who God is, and what the gospel is. Then this personal information and context would faciliate my presentation of a biblical position on such issues appropriately contextualized for this specific discussion.

In my view too many times evangelicals assume that LDS orthodoxy as reflected in the writings of the General Authorities is that held by a given Latter-day Saint, and an apologeitc is launched accordingly. This may be the case, or it may not. We might be surprised to find diversity of thought, and only personal discussion can clarify.

The thrust of my post was to question how much of our creedal orthodoxy needs to be included in our presentation of the gospel. As I read Paul in Acts 17 with the Athenian philosophers, in his contextualization apporach he did correct some of their notions of the divine, and offered a contextualized Christian alternative, but he did not touch on trinitiarianism, the two natures of Christ, the deity of Christ, or a substitionary atonement. These tend to be doctrinal assumptions for evangelicals that we consider part and parcel of the gospel. Are they? They represent elements of Christian orthodoxy, but how do they relate to gospel contextualization, and in particular, how do they relate to this process with a new religion that claims an identification with the Christian tradtion, as does Mormonism?

So toanswer your question specifically, my response would differ depending upon the understanding of the Latter-day Saint. We might find some who require very little correction and "challenge" if they are what some have labeled neo-orthodox, and more they hold to other forms of Restorationist Christologies.

Not sure if this really answers the question, but it's curious to me that the issues related to doctrinal minimalism seem significant to theology and missiology, and yet I have not been able to track down any academic treatments on such topics.

Excal said...

John,

I think the first thing Evangelicals need to understand about a Mormon's view of Christ and the doctrines of salvation is that they give them no sense of being "a new religion that claims an identification with the Christian tradition."

They see Christ and the doctrines of salvation in a context that begins with the baptism of Adam and extends, through the covenants of Enoch, Abraham, and Jacob, to the present day.

To understand the Mormon view of modern Christianity, in the context of the restoration, one must understand the allegory of the wild and tame olive trees in Romans, Chapter 11.

The Latter-day Saints are urgently gathering in the elect of God, in preparation for the Savior's return. The fact that some started labeling them non-Christian had to be corrected from the standpoint of misinformation as to who they represent in this work, not from some need to identify with traditional Christian religions.

The title "Christian" is a very sacred title to the Mormons, because it is by that name they will be called in the last day. It identifies them with all those, who from Adam til today, have looked to Christ as their Savior and Redeemer, but it has nothing to do with wanting to be included and accepted as yet another member of the modern religous community of Christian tradition.

The Mormons are sent to witness to the secular world, and to members of the multitude of Christian and Jewish sects in all nations, before the end comes.

In effect, they are grafting the natural branches that were cut out of the tame olive tree, when God grafted the branches of the wild tree into their place, back into the natural tree, and cutting out the wild branches from the tame tree.

This is in accordance with the love, mercy, and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the work of the Father, which has commenced upon all the face of the earth, as the fullness of the Gentiles has now come in.

The witness of the Mormons comes from God, as personal revelation, which is the rock upon which the Church is founded. That is why intellectual, historical, scientific, and linguistic arguements, generated to convince them otherwise, as winds and floods beating upon them, doesn't phase them.

They are about the errand of the Lord, and will leave all those things for him to resolve who warned the nations that cursed is he who trusts in the arm of flesh. He who promised that the wisdom of their wise would perish, and the understanding of their prudent would be hid, when he set his hand the second time to gather his ancient covenant people.

For, thus sayeth the Lord, the law shall go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Those that erred in spirit will come to understanding, and those that murmured will learn doctrine.

As Paul exclaimed, so do we,

O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?
Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen

John W. Morehead said...

Excal, thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate and recognize the Mormon view of their own religious tradition in relation to other groups in Christendom. My comments were directed toward an evangelical view of Mormonism and other groups which have been labeled "Bible-based new religions" by some scholars. While we disagree as to the nature of Mormonism surely this is a positive step forward beyond the "cult" concept and label.

As I read your comment I was struck once again by the Mormon concept of itself in relation to more mainstream forms of Christianity, a relationship not unlike early Christianity to Judaism, a point brought out by John Bracht in his thesis and interview on this blog, and a point worthy of further reflection by evangelicals.

Thanks again for your comments.

aquinas said...

John, I really appreciate the suggestions for dialogue offered in your comments. Especially the point that your approach is dependant on the understanding provided by the Latter-day Saint you are engaging in conversation. I heartily agree with this.

Often there seems to me to be a view (often held by both LDS and Evangelicals I might add) that there is a stock understanding that all Mormons accept or that they internalize doctrine in the exact same manner. In my observations and discussions with Mormons and Evangelicals I have also been quite amazed at the range and diversity of ideas and beliefs. One of the confusing things that I’ve noticed is that when Mormons discuss doctrine and scriptures amongst themselves they don’t often say, “Well, we believe this and we believe that” because the diversity of view points is quite apparent. Thus, they would say, “I think” and “My understanding is that.” However, when the discussion turns to a dialogue between those of different faiths the tendency is to switch language and say, “We Mormons believe this” or “We LDS do not accept that.” There is a shift from speaking as an individual to speaking as a collective body or even as a representative of the faith. This is not only limited to Latter-day Saints or even to religious faith groups. This is most likely a phenomenon common to intra-group and inter-group communication styles. I am not saying this is wrong or inappropriate, only that is poses unique challenges. It can be confusing and often it masks the diversity of understandings and view points shared within the community. Often the assumption (again held by some LDS as well in my opinion) is that the one individual Latter-day Saint’s framework and understanding can be assumed for every Latter-day Saint in the greater population. There really is no way other than continual dialogue with various members to know to what degree this framework and understanding is truly shared by others, whether something is more of a personal belief or whether it is truly a communal belief, a shared narrative.

To that end, (something I have been musing about recently) I do think it could prove useful for LDS engaging in interfaith dialogue to be sensitive when they use the phrase “We believe” or perhaps more frequently opt for “I believe.” It would clearly be more efficient if we could speak to one person who could tell us what every member of their faith group believes and let us know how every member would answer certain questions. However, a case by case method seems to be the only way to find out the understandings of others.

John W. Morehead said...

Aquinas, I really appreciate your comments. It is always a little risky on this blog to answer questions like Matt's where comment is provided related to doctrine and evangelism between traditional Christianity and another religious group, whether this group holds to affinities with traditional Christianity or not. I appreciate that such discussion between evangelicals can be found to have some value to a Latter-day Saint such as yourself. Thanks as always for the continued reflection on dialogue.

Matt Stone said...

Aquinas, I appreciate your comments, and see that phenomenon in myself too to be honest. I differ sharply with some evangelicals on some matters of interpretation, but generally stand beside them in interfaith dialogue conversations. For me it is a matter of shifting focus from nuances and disputes over peripheral matters (which evidence the diversity of the Christian movement) to essential issues (which define us as a movement).

Lint Hatcher said...

John -- Here's a thought: I've wrestled with a similar question in terms of my own inner conversation between Evangelical me and Catholic me (not quite as schizo as that sounds, but it's there). What I want to do is take copies of the "Have You Heard of the 4 Spiritual Laws?" tract, hand them out in a Catholic Bible study group and then challenge the members to come up with a Catholic variation. In a sense, Catholic theology is too complex, because there is an insistence on the supernatural role of various sacraments (although "repent and be baptized" isn't all that complicated). In another sense, however, Catholicism is even simpler than the 4 Spiritual Laws. That is, it presents the Church as a physical presence in the world and says, "Do you want to find forgiveness? Come in here!" Which is not to say the elements of soteriology are absent -- rather they are present in the mass itself, which is largely a series of scripture quotations placed in the context of their relationship to Christ's Passion, and in symbols provided in statues, stained glass, etc. So, in a Catholic sense, one doesn't so much come to grips with soteriology and THEN become a Christian. Rather, one realizes one is a sinner and then turns to the Church for help -- because the Church, despite very serious scandals of recent years, has a multi-faceted credibility based on its ancient origins, consistent stance on various moral questions, artistic heritage, authoritative posture, and, from a Catholic point of view, the witness of the Real Presence that, for some, is palpable when they enter the sanctuary. Which is not to bail on the question of how to present the Gospel. Rather, it shows how salvation can come to anybody and everybody regardless of their education, literacy, grasp of theological concepts, etc. Even so, I still wonder what a "4 Spiritual Laws" tract would become if it was run through a Bible study attended by Catholics who know their faith and are articulate about it.

Steve Hayes said...

Surely a lot depends on the nature of the encounter. I can think of four kinds of encounter, though there may be more: (1) Dialogue (2) Evangelism (3) Proselytism (4) Polemics.

I can't speak for evangelicals, but as an Orthodox Christian I wouldn't be happy with getting involved in (3) or (4).

In dialogue, my main concern would be to learn the similarities and differences between the Orthodox and LDS outlooks, theology, practice, etc. That might include some of the finer points of Christology etc, depending on where the discussion led. But the main point would be exchange of information.

In evangelism, it assumes that a member of the LDS is interested in learning more about Orthodox Christianity, and I would then concentrate on what Orthodox Christians see as the good news of Jesus Christ -- what is the news, and why is it good? The finer points of doctrine only come into it if they are needed to prevent a serious misunderstanding of the good news.

In both cases, but especially in evangelism, doctrine etc would be confined to the "this is what we dio, this is what we do not do" kind of thing.

If the person is convinced that he or she should become an Orthodox Christian, then would be the time to give doctrinal instruction, but that would be catechism rather than dialogue.

Proselytism and polemics, on the other hand, concentrate on the "this is what you do and its WRONG" kind of argument, which I think is counterproductive.

aquinas said...

Matt, thanks for the response and I'm glad you found my comment useful. And like I said, to the extent that any of us are part of a group, we probably all do this to a greater or lesser extent. I also agree that we can say we have a unity even though we may disagree sharply over what we might call peripheral issues.

For me, the interesting thing is the situation where we may be challenged on an issue by someone outside our faith community and by someone inside our faith community. It is the identical point being raised (for example, a matter of interpretation), and yet, somehow the response is different. I've sometimes seen where a person was more willing to listen and accept this challenge from someone inside their faith group, or at least they assumed this issue would not separate them in a serious way. However, they were more defensive and quicker to dismiss the challenge from someone outside their in-group because they labeled the challenge or perceived the challenge as an attack on the faith community they identify with, even though someone within their own faith community could raise the same issue. However, if they would have considered the issue in a more objective manner, they would have realized there are those within their own faith community who hold such positions and who make the identical points.

That is why when a person outside my faith community raises a point of concern or a challenge or offers an interpretation, rather than immediately feel I must defend against this, I try to first scan my own faith tradition and history, and first see if this concern has been raised by people within my own faith tradition. In other words, can my faith tradition, with its diversity and complexity accommodate this concern and view point? In some cases it can. This question helps me see the issues more clearly. Thus, in many cases, and certainly not all cases, but I’ve often witnessed people defending against something which actually can be accommodated in their own faith tradition, and in fact if it were brought up by a member of their own faith community they may be been more willing to see this perspective. I hope that makes sense.

Again, the challenge for me is to be aware of inter-group and intra-group communication styles and not let those dynamics stifle or inhibit potential dialogue with those of other faiths.

aquinas said...

Steve, I completely agree that the right ‘kind’ of communication is greatly dependant on the goals one has for communicating in the first instance. I also find it helpful that you have delineated four goals that you feel people of different faiths would have for engaging in communication. It is helpful because I suspect different groups view these terms and their value in different ways.

I like the goal of ‘exchanging information’ or the goal of learning more about the perspectives and understanding of the person I am speaking with. One of reservations and concerns I have about typical apologetics is that it tends to conclude that no additional exchange of information is required. Everything one needs to know about the other person is documented and detailed in some tract or book and thus, there is very little need or point to enter into a dialogue with the other person. In other words, the understanding of the other person’s beliefs and perspectives is assumed before even engaging in conversation. That kind of activity seems dangerous to me and tends to lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings.

Or to put it in other terms, while you feel it is counterproductive to argue “this is what you do and it’s wrong,” we can imagine an even more counterproductive argument and that is being mistaken in what a person actually believes and does because one has not yet engaged in dialogue with them to actually find out what they believe or do. In other words, to say “this is what you do and it’s wrong” only to have a person respond with, “um, I don’t believe that and I don’t do that” which is often or at least has often been the challenge in Evangelical and Mormon relations, historically speaking. Given that history, it would be nice from the Latter-day Saint’s perspective and really from anyone's perspective, to be able to respond, “You know, you have explained how I see things accurately and charitably, that is exactly what I believe, that is exactly how I see it.” That might sound like asking too much, but the more I think about it, the more I feel it isn’t asking too much. It is the only thing that will truly satisfy us. Everyone wants to be understood and would like their faith described in a way that they can recognize. This is one of the reasons why I feel dialogue is so important.

Steve Hayes said...

Aquinas,

Yes, that is exactly why dialogue is so important. Dialogue is not attacking caricatures of each other -- that is not dialogue, but two simultaneous monologues.

After dialogue we still may not agree, but at least we will disagree with what people actually believe, and not a caricature.