Tuesday, February 13, 2007

John Bracht Interview: Perspectives on Mormonism

As I mentioned in a previous post, John Broacht has agreed to particpate in an interview. Due to its length it will be divided into two installments. Following is Part 1:

A few years ago Philip Johnson made me aware of an interesting Master of Arts thesis written by John L. Bracht for the Department of Religious Studies at The University of Sydney, and supervised by Garry Trompf. The topic for John's 1988 thesis was "Mormonism: The Search for a Personal God." John's perspective on this is both academically rigorous, as well as personally sympathetic and engaging in that John brings together his former involvement with Mormonism along with his academic abilities, and his encounters with evangelical apologetic approaches to Mormonism from the time that continue to be influential today.

John has also contributed to academic books with his expertise in Mormonism, and in Gary Trompf (ed), Cargo Cults and Millenarian Movements: Transoceanic Comparisons of New Religious Movements (Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990), John wrote a chapter titled "The Americanization of Adam."

John is now serving in a pastoral role for a Presbyterian church in Canberra, Australia. He has graciously made some time to respond to some questions in order to share more about his work and perspective on Mormon studies.

MoreheadsMusings: John, thank you for making the time to participate in this interview. Can you tell us a little more about your background and how this helped inform your perspective on your masters thesis and later writings on Mormonism?

John Bracht: Thank you, John. I appreciate your interest and have enjoyed our correspondence in recent days. Your Neighbouring Faiths Project is an important ministry and I am happy to make a contribution to it in this way. I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised in the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), but after emigrating to Australia with my family as a young boy, encountered the Mormons in my early teens. Against the serious misgivings of my parents, I joined the LDS Church in Sydney in 1961 at the age of 14. It was the dominant passion of my teenage years and the reason for my going to the Church College of Hawaii (now BYU-Hawaii) in 1967 – 1970. During my Junior Year some intensive and disillusioning extra-curricular studies into the history of the LDS Church as well as a reading of the Book of Romans, led to a growing crisis of faith and my conversion to Christianity in the summer of 1969. One of the people I turned to for ‘help’ during that troubled time was Stephen Covey, then in Hawaii on sabbatical writing a book. I never forgot his sincere and loving attempts to steer me in the ‘right’ direction, unsuccessful though they ultimately proved to be. Though I felt elated at finding Christ, I was not completely prepared for the difficult, final year that lay ahead. At the time I was Editor of the college newspaper, Ke Alaka’i, a History student and President of the local Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the History Honor Fraternal, on the Dean’s List for 1969 and a member of the Honour Council. In May of that year I received letters from Harvey L. Taylor, Administrator of Church Schools and President Nathan Eldon Tanner, office of the First Presidency, commending me for an editorial I wrote in the College newspaper. That commitment to both the academic and spiritual life of the college was then contrasted with a singular dishonour – excommunication for apostasy.

After graduating, I returned to Sydney and after teaching high school History and English for some years, felt called to the ministry and commenced theological training in 1978 at the Baptist Theological College of North South Wales. During that time and beyond, I received numerous invitations to conduct seminars on Mormonism in various churches and institutions and completed a Master’s degree on the Mormon doctrine of God. I have continued to take a keen interest in the life and growth of the LDS Church and the changes that have taken place since I left it.

MM: Can you summarize the essence of your thesis for us?

John Bracht: If I were to summarize the essence of my thesis, I would say first of all, that it was motivated by the observation that it is easier to caricaturise and ridicule the Mormon doctrine of deity than it is to analyse it seriously and accurately. I felt that anti-Mormon writers rarely comprehended the complexity and sophistication of Mormonism as a world faith and generally failed to assess Mormonism in the light of its appeal to the common man. In examining that appeal, I sought to show that there is room in the popular imagination and understanding of the Mormon doctrine of God, for something more than caricature and expose; something revealing the complexity, sophistication, even wonder of the Mormon view.

I suppose empathy describes something of my approach. Having been deeply and passionately committed to the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith during a very formative period of my life, I tried to write with a certain intuition for how the Mormon thinks and feels about these things. When Christianity challenges the Mormon view of deity and seeks to ‘expose’ it, it challenges the Mormon psyche and threatens to undermine the Mormon’s sense of identity and security. So much of what they are is bound up in what God is, that it is not possible to criticize or ridicule the one, without deeply offending and wounding the other. I felt it was possible to go on disagreeing with Mormonism theologically, while at the same time exercising some real empathy towards the Mormon people. Empathy, rather than polemics, also helps us as Christians, to sharpen perceptions of our own faith.

Whatever we think of the Mormon doctrine of God with its characteristic finitism, materiality and polytheism [or henotheism], it is important to remember that Mormons are simply bewildered that all people do not see God as they see him. It is a bewilderment that can be read on the young, zealous faces of their proselyting missionaries when their message is rejected. For them, their own position is eminently rational, irrefutable, Biblically-based and most natural. When they look at our ‘incomprehensible’ creeds they see no alternative to the God revealed by Joseph Smith. I wanted to both explain and define the Mormon heresy and something of why Mormons believe as they do. I believe that Mormonism as a movement within Christianity is the most comprehensive and effective challenge to Trinitarian orthodoxy in the history of the Church. You cannot effectively deal with that challenge simply through polemics. I think it was Robinson and Blomberg who said in their How Wide the Divide? that we must learn to understand each other in each other’s terms.

As I wrote the thesis I was thinking not only of showing why the Mormon God is incompatible with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but also why Mormons believe that their greatest contribution to the world of religion is to share their understanding of the relationship of God to persons. Naively Mormons reject as an impossibility, the kind of ‘non-person’, the immaterial being, that Christian theology appears to promote in its understanding of God. They believe instead in a God who is personal because he is corporeal. That is the crux of the issue and that is why I chose the title "Mormonism: The Search for a Personal God." I hope I have shown that the search for that kind of God is ultimately futile, but at the same time why they want God to be like that.

MM: In the introduction to your thesis you refer to anti-Mormon writers, Christian critics and apologists of various types that usually go by the term "counter-cult," and you state, "Anti-Mormon writers, more often than not, simply draw attention to Mormon theology in the most simplistic and sensationalist terms, sometimes without comment or qualification. The theology is rarely examined fairly and few of its amateur critics are competent to assess its philosophical implications." You wrote this in the late 1980s, but do you feel that by and large this is still a concern?

John Bracht: Yes, it is still a concern. Of course I am encouraged by my growing awareness of recent alternative approaches to Mormonism adopted by institutions like the Salt lake Theological Seminary, the Standing Together ministry and your own Neighbouring Faiths Project, but the big battalions still seem to be with the evangelical “counter-cult” ministries. I recently checked a website of the largest Christian bookstore network in Australia. Its titles on Mormonism were overwhelmingly in favour of that traditional approach. I constantly read titles and phrases like, Latter-day Deception, Mormonism Unmasked, Lifting the Veil, Exposing Secrets Mormon Authorities Don’t Want You to Know, Occult Practices, How to Rescue Your Loved One From Mormonism, and so on. Such descriptives are great for sales, but achieve very little in terms of cross-cultural missions. They absolutely pre-empt any serious dialogue with Mormons. At least in the U.S. and particularly in Utah, you have groups seeking to build real ‘Bridges’ into Mormon culture, but there’s not much if any of that kind of thing in Australia or the rest of the world, where Mormonism is growing apace. The crucial difference between the ‘relational’ type of ministry and the ‘confrontational’ is that only the former is truly Christian in the sense that that is how Christians should behave in dealing with others. There are no guarantees that our more sensitive overtures to Mormons will reap a great harvest, but at least we will have the satisfaction of knowing that Christ himself was more truly manifest in the effort.

MM: In the Introduction you also state that "some Christians, far from being repulsed by accounts of Mormon deity, may actually feel an uncomfortable attraction to certain Mormon concepts and be forced to admit that they may have conceived of God in Mormon terms all along!" The evangelical apologetic against Mormonism often focuses on the nature of God, but as your thesis notes, Christians are rarely reflective in any depth on their own theology, and given that Mormonism appears to be successful in its growth by drawing from Protestant ranks, do you feel that this statement from your thesis is still valid? And what does this mean for theological education in our churches, let alone our apologetic?

John Bracht: Yes, I do think my statement from the Introduction is still valid. I can only guess, but I’m sure that if we had more access to LDS analyses of what converts are responding to, we would discover that the doctrine of God is still high on the list. There has been an evolution of this doctrine from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young and beyond. That evolution, with some marked mutations, has included President Hinckley’s now famously-evasive responses to Wallace’s question about God once being a man in the Mike Wallace interview on 60 Minutes in 1997 – “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it . . . I don’t know a lot about it”! And yet, the two persisting features, God’s corporealty and plurality (as opposed to the Trinity) remain unchanged. I don’t think they will ever be apologetic about those. And why should they be when people continue to be persuaded, albeit wrongly, that that is what Scripture teaches.

I recently conducted a Bible study in my own church on the doctrine of the Trinity. A simple exercise quickly demonstrates that most of the people in the group subscribe in one way or another to most of the major heresies associated with this doctrine. At the very least, many Christians are modalists. Interestingly, it was the emotional reactions of some in the group that caught my attention. A few simply shrugged off attempts to explain the Trinity. Either they don’t accept or believe traditional interpretations or see no need to try and understand them. Others were obviously uncomfortable with the whole discussion and wanted to avoid talking about something that seemed too difficult. Now even if we accept as some have suggested, that the Trinity is not a subject to be preached, but rather a reality to be experienced, I think we still have to accept that we face considerable obstacles in getting many Christians to have an appropriate understanding of the doctrine. I doubt that most would want to read a book on the Trinity. It was Moltmann who said that “In practice, the religious conceptions of many Christians prove to be no more than a weakly Christianized monotheism.” He goes further and quotes Rahner as observing that people say that “God has been made man instead of ‘the Word has been made flesh’ (John 1:14)” and that “one could suspect that as regards the catechism of the head and heart, in contrast to the catechism in books, the Christian idea of the Incarnation would not have to change at all if there were no Trinity.”

So the Mormons have an advantage here because their view appears to make much more sense and is readily adopted. When the missionaries tell people that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are really three beings and not one, people generally tend to agree with them. It may take years before the implications of that revelation prove that the simple solution is not so simple after all. For most converts, it never happens.

I suspect that in their confusions about the Godhead, some Christians may even be closet Mormons! There’s some truth in what Augustine said, that when we are talking about the persona or three persons in the Trinity, “we are not speaking in order to say something, but in order to avoid being silent”. My suspicion is that most of the time we Christians are not avoiding being silent and the result is that our people are vague or ill-informed. So yes, I think this does have serious implications for theological education. When you consider that there are at least 30 million people in the world today claiming to be Christians who do not believe in the Trinity (Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses), then you can appreciate how effective their apologetics are. This was another motivation for my thesis. If, as Harold O. J. Brown said, there is a positive side to heresy and that is “to note what orthodoxy owes to heresy: in a sense, it owes its very existence” because heresy usually precedes orthodoxy, then understanding the Mormon view is going to be very helpful in understanding our own, orthodox view. But we have to understand the Mormon view first, not attack it.

Tomorrow part 2.


Sally said...

Thanks John, looking forward to the next post!

Anonymous said...

John: Great interview. This is the way they should be, lengthy and with such good stuff :-). Thanks. Looking forward to part 2.

Anonymous said...

I was intrigued that John spoke of Mormons as Christians who did not believe in the Trinity. Until recently I always view such statements as somewhat oxymoronic and conceptualised Mormons as Christians only in the sense that Christians are Jews. But recently I have begun to wonder if we should consider the resurrection story as more foundational than Trinitarian doctrine in which case there may be a case for fuzzing up the boundaries a bit. Would be interested to hear more of both your thoughts on this.

John W. Morehead said...

Matt, great question. I've passed this along to Bracht for his thoughts.

Of course the question of definitions and boundaries for religious groups are difficult. This does not mean they do not exist and should not be pursued, but I want to avoid the frequent tendency toward oversimplifying complex issues that takes place all too often in evangelicalism in this regard.

In my thinking both Trinitarianism and the bodily resurrection story are essential elements that surely set the early Christians apart from Second Temple Judaism, and continue to be defining factors in relation to other religious groups, including those new religions that arise from the Christian tradition. But simply because these are important facotrs in boundary definition does not necessarily mean that some in these new religions, such as Mormonism, might not be genuinely Christian apart from awareness of and confession of creedal orthodoxy. I think this too is one of the errors of contemporary evangelicals in regard to the "cults:" the equation of a relationship with God through Christ with doctrinal orthodoxy, at least in what they might consider the essentials. I've tried to comment on this in a previous post on doctrinal minimalism.

Amos Yong's reflections on such questions are worthy of reflection, and I think this issue also points out the importance of a theology of religions to the Western church in the 21st century as one of the major issues if not the major issue.

Not sure if this helps or muddies the watters. Let's see what Bracht has to say.

John W. Morehead said...

John Bracht sent me the following that I am posting here for him:

A slight misunderstanding. My statement is certainly not oxymoronic. What I actually said was that "there are at least 30 million people in the world today claiming to be Christians who do not believe in the Trinity." I don't make that claim, they - the Mormons - do. I think Carl Mosser has put it aptly when he writes that "I do not believe at this time that Mormonism can be categorized as Christian in any very useful or theologically significant sense - as much as we might hate to see such a noble people outside the faith" (The New Mormon Challenge p. 66). Blomberg makes the same point when he concludes that: "despite numerous encouraging signs, I do not believe we have yet reached that state" (where Mormonism can be considered true Christianity) . . ."I cannot affirm with integrity that either Mormonism as a whole or any individual, based solely on his or her affirmation of the totality of LDS doctrine, deserves the label 'Christian." (ibid. p. 331). So no, Trinitarianism really does remain foundational and too much is at stake if we go for "fuzzing up the boundaries a bit" as you put it.

John Bracht

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification. Of course I recognise Trinitarianism as implicit in the resurrection story even if not entirely explicit. So on that count Mormonism surely fails the orthodoxy test even if the line of argument is a lot more complex when working from a narrative framework.

The question that concerns me most in all of this is how to dialogue on such issues in pluralistic contexts, say ones involving Christians, Mormons and NeoPagans on the issue of who is or is not Christian. We are obviously not judging orthodoxy from a neutral standpoint and the more neutral observers (in this example the NeoPagans) only too readily point this out when we make pronouncements of who can and cannot be legitimately called Christian. This problem is compunded when so few evangelicals participating in such conversations have a robust grasp on Trinitanian theology themselves.

John W. Morehead said...

More good thoughts and questions, Matt. But for myself, I wonder why we need entertain such questions, at least initially and primarily, in interreligious dialogue. Might it not be best to proceed with all paricipans holding on to whatever self-understandings and descriptions and then through the dialogue process understanding, clarification, definitions, and contrasts might help address such issues? It seems to me as if evangelicals might be too bounded set rather than centered set oriented and this leads to preoccupation with such questions. I do believe that this is an important issue, and I am not equating various religious movements with Christianity, but I am trying to rethink the place such questions have in dialogue and how best to conceive of a stance that leads to their proper discussion.