Monday, January 28, 2008

The Passing of LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley

This morning before I had a chance to turn on the television for the national and local news my wife gave me a call on her way to work to let me know that Gordon B. Hinckley, President and Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had passed away at the age of 97. The Church's official news coverage on this event can be found here.

I offer my sincere condolences and well wishes to my LDS friends and contacts. I also hope the best for the leadership of the LDS Church over the next few days as they prepare to confirm the new President and Prophet. Hinckley did a service for the Mormon community in his support of dialogue between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints, and it is my hope and prayer that Hinckley's successor will also support this important process.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Eleven Reasons for Dialogue with People of Other Faiths: Part 2

Part 2 of Bob Robinson's "Eleven Reasons for Dialogue with People of Other Faiths" adapted from chapters 3 and 4d in Christians Meeting Hindus: An Analysis and Theological Critique of the Hindu Christian Encounter in India (Regnum, 2004):

6. The Promotion of Religious Growth

A further reason given for dialogue is the suggestion that it can assist the spiritual development of individuals, communities and even whole religious traditions. Although one tradition learning from another is sometimes meant, usually mutual growth is expected. The theme of mutual spiritual enrichment is especially prominent in Catholic discussions of Hindu‑Christian dialogue. Religious growth can also mean the rediscovery of elements that have been neglected or even abandoned. Dialogue might also help some aspects of religious traditions to be set free from certain of the philosophical, cultural or ‘imported’ religious forms with which they have become identified. Hindu‑Christian dialogue might help some Hindus to move away from a dependence upon wholly advaitin categories of thought and might help some Indian Christians to be less dependent upon Western theological and philosophical categories. Dialogue could bring considerable hermeneutical benefits, including the reminder it might bring about the conditioned nature of all religious language.

7. Common or Complementary Religious Experience

Here the supposed ground on which the participants in dialogue meet is said to be the common experience of the divine. Among Christian advocates of dialogue, Roman Catholic writers often suggest this basis (though it is not confined to them). Sometimes the common ground is said simply to be belief in the divine, but it is usually described in more experiential terms. The imagery of depth within the human spirit recurs, sometimes as the locus of the ‘ultimate awakening’ about which both Hindus and Christians are said to be concerned ‑ a concern that lies beneath their culturally conditioned forms. The appeal to shared religious experience is, of course, frequently made by Hindus as well. One particular aspect of religious experience to which they often appeal is its complementary nature – either in the sense that the perceived complementarity is between whole religious traditions or aspects of the different traditions. Such complementarity, it is said, can even act as a corrective for each tradition.

The promotion of the essential unity of the religions is said to be an urgent necessity in a climate of inter-religious suspicion. And some Christian writers also appeal to the complementary nature of the Hindu witness to God, sometimes explained in terms of the complementarity of the unavoidably historically and culturally conditioned nature of all talk of the Absolute, and an “admission of the fragmentary and ‘incomplete’ nature of each tradition” (Klostermaier 1986: 269; see also Klostermaier 1993). Related to the appeal to a common spirituality is the advocacy of dialogue as a means of fostering or strengthening ‘spiritual and moral values’ with the clear presumption that these values are shared (or at least compatible). Discussion will return below to the highly problematical nature of all such appeals to supposedly complementary religious experience.

8. Towards an Indian Theology and Inculturated Church

Attention now turns to a cluster of reasons that offer more distinctly (Christian) theological bases for engagement in dialogue. The first of these is the question of what might be the most appropriate form to be taken by Christian belief and practice in India today. Both Catholics and Protestants have usually been anxious that the whole Church in India assumes an appropriately Indian character in its theology, liturgy and general ethos – and this has even led to prompted dialogue with Indian culture as one means of helping to identify those elements that might be critically adapted for use by the Christian community.

A related issue is the perceived need for Indian Christianity to rid itself of what are considered to be excessively Western forms of the expression of the Christian faith ‑ forms that are inappropriate and even alien when used in India. For some, at least, it seems to be important in the context of national independence that the Indian Church continues to deny any ‘colonial’ dependence upon Western ways of expressing its faith and practice (for example, Sugirtharajah 1999). There seems to be some agreement (but by no means unanimous) that Indian Christian theology and practice ought to be recognisably Indian in character. But this agreement leads to the question of how much of the understanding and wisdom of the Hindu world and lifeview(s) can be incorporated into that theology and practice to enable a more Indian church? If it is believed that Christianity is capable of incarnating itself in any culture and that Indian culture provides a number of opportunities for this, then the incarnation will be extensive – though it should also be noted that attempts at inculturation have drawn criticism ‑ especially from those who see it as the ‘Hinduisation’ of the Christian faith. (In Indian Catholic circles, liturgical adaptation in particular has generated considerable opposition as have other aspects of inculturation in that church.)

9. Dialogue as a Means of Mission

Some have seen dialogue as a means of implementing the Christian mission in general, and even evangelisation in particular. This does, of course, raises concerns for most Hindus (unhappy to be seen as the targets of Christian missionary interest) and some liberal Christian advocates of dialogue as well. But among evangelical, Pentecostal/charismatic and fundamentalist Christians in India, as elsewhere, lack of interest in intentional dialogue is usually because of a prior commitment to mission (understood in a conservative sense) that is seen to exclude the practice of dialogue.

Probably the most frequent means of attempting to reconcile mission with dialogue is to suggest that dialogue is compatible not with mission in the sense of evangelization but with some widened definition of mission. In Indian Catholic circles, for example, a new emphasis upon the Kingdom or Reign of God has led to a substantial redefining of the nature of mission and evangelization in which it now is given a comprehensive meaning, identifying it with the whole mission of the church. In this sense “evangelisation” includes any form of activity undertaken to promote and strengthen the ideal of the Kingdom of God. ... It is clear that dialogue ... is an activity that belongs to the sphere of evangelisation understood in the broad sense. (Guidelines 1989: 36)

Amaladoss also writes of the broadening of the focus of mission. The new Kingdom-centred paradigm sees God’s saving will as progressively realised in history with mission and dialogue in a convergent relationship. “Proclamation leading to conversion is seen only as one aspect of evangelisation, the other aspects being dialogue, liberation and inculturation.” (Amaladoss 1986: 62)

It seems as if the relationship between mission/evangelization and dialogue depends upon the definition of mission used. If mission is viewed as centred upon the church then dialogue (like inculturation and even the quest for liberation) may well be seen as a means of proclamation that intends to build (up) the church. In other words, the content of the Christian proclamation is the key. Dialogue may be rendered more possible and less threatening to others if its advocates emphasise what God is doing in the whole world rather than what God is doing in an individual, or the church or an individual’s religion. If mission is seen as centred upon the Kingdom rather than the church then dialogue may assume a more significant role as a means of mutual enrichment and co-operation in a diverse and pluralistic world as the church bears witness to the values of the Kingdom wherever they are found. In other words, many contemporary understandings of dialogue imply a radical revision of the traditional understanding of evangelism and mission. Needless to say, others ‑ including most Hindu commentators ‑ have found the relationship between, and even compatibility of, dialogue and mission to be highly problematical.

10. The Activity of God in Dialogue

Another substantial basis for dialogue seen from a predominantly Christian perspective is provided by what might be called the activity of God – either in the church or in the world or in both places. Even more conservative Christians will generally allow (or concede) that some measure of God’s self‑communication is found in all faiths; in personal terms this could even mean discerning such self-communication through the beliefs, practices and loyalties of a neighbour of another faith. Any belief in the active and discernible presence of God in other faiths is clearly conducive to dialogue. Some Indian Protestants have also spoken of God’s activity in actual dialogue encounters but their assessments of the degree and kind of divine activity in dialogue have tended to be far less explicit and less positive than Catholic appraisals.

Some writers claim that the activity of the Spirit beyond the boundaries of the Christian community constitutes a reason or basis for dialogue. The Indian Catholic Guidelines cites with approval a statement that, “confident in the Holy Spirit’s action which overflows the bounds of the Christian community, we wish to further dialogue with other religions” (Guidelines 1989: 32). The Christian in dialogue is said to realise the constant possibility of learning from others because the Spirit of God can speak through “brothers or sisters” of other faiths (Guidelines 1989: 45).

One justification of dialogue is, then, the activity of God – and it is interesting to note a Hindu assessment of this claim. Sharma traces “the changing theistic pattern” in the Christian missionary assessment of the religions over the centuries so that now “in a dialogue situation God is not so much with us as amongst us, or with us with a very different sense than at the beginning – he is now with us all.” (Sharma 1998: 37)

11. Dialogue as a Fruit of the Gospel

There is a final cluster of reasons which proposes commitment to dialogue because of certain qualities or attitudes implied by the Christian understanding of the Gospel. The first and probably most widely suggested of these is the love that is a witness to the love of Christ, and an expression of Christian neighbourliness. The Indian Catholic Guidelines begins its lengthy discussion of ‘Theological Perspectives’ with a definition of Christians in dialogue as people who know themselves to be the outcome of God’s love, “a sign of God’s own gift to this world.” Because of this they are to live in constant dialogue with the community; “Dialogue is the law of our being” and Christians fail in their vocation if they fail to love every single individual (Guidelines 1989: 13).

Critical comment

A number of reasons are, then, able to be given for the justification of Hindu‑Christian dialogue. These reasons are now discussed and suggestions are made about apparent strengths and weaknesses. This is done as a means of asking whether there are points of transferable learning that might motivate others (especially more conservative Christians) towards adding dialogue to their attempts to communicate with others.

The first two sets of reasons (increased understanding and common social concern) contain much that is acceptable and commendable. Dialogue undertaken for these reasons can help overcome alienation, misunderstanding and the isolation of communities – or, at the very least, the way of dialogue seems to offer a means towards a more positive cohabitation in place of the self‑contented passivity, insecure suspicion or aggressive chauvinism often found in both communities.

The appeals to the unity of humanity and a shared quest for community are also commendable - especially if one can elaborate the ground or reality on which such unity might be based. However, notions such as human unity and common humanity are open to the same criticism as the concept of the unity of religion - namely, that they impose an idealised abstraction upon a dynamic and complex reality. At the same time, increased awareness of the unity of humankind, actual or potential, has made more visible and more poignant the incongruity of religious divisions. Nonetheless, a certain balance is required between the motivation provided by the ideals of common humanity and the realisation of unity, and the acceptance of religious pluralism and diversity that is usually suggested as one of the conditions for fruitful dialogue. Perhaps the notion of harmony – which is less static and abstract and implies the continuing recognition of religious particularities (in other words, what could be called a highly differentiated unity) – may be a better basis for dialogue. But even if one or more forms of dialogue are required by the necessities of understanding and good community relations, it is difficult to formulate a wholly satisfactory theory and theology of inter-religious dialogue on such pragmatic considerations. What people think ought to be done in a given situation depends at time quite acutely upon what they believe; how or even why one ought to act is not always self-evident. Nonetheless, these first reasons (greater understanding, common social concern and the ideals of common humanity and enhanced community) do seem to have much to commend them – especially to those who might otherwise remain suspicious of any move towards dialogue.

Then there is the suggestion that a joint search for truth might also constitute an appropriate and commendable basis for dialogue. However, when the wide diversity of understandings of truth in Hinduism and Christianity is acknowledged, then questions must be raised. For example, there is the considerable problem of the determination of validating epistemological criteria (if any): how they are to be found and whether they can be elaborated in conjunction or interplay with those of the other faith. It must be noted that the quest for truth in the context of dialogue starts in quite different ways. One starting point is the assumption that neither party may have the truth. Some proponents of dialogue (Christian and otherwise) assume that mutual criticism or simply the clash of opinions inevitably leads (perhaps in some Hegelian fashion) to the disclosure of some fuller truth – to which it must be said that dialogue does not offer some privileged mode of access to the truth. There is also the question of the intended limits of dialogue as a quest (perhaps a joint quest) for truth. Ought not a place remain for dialogue as critical judgment directed towards the other?

In a somewhat forcefully written critique of liberal Christian approaches to dialogue – what he calls “an underlying scholarly orthodoxy on the goals and functions of interreligious dialogue” – Paul Griffiths argues against those even who maintain that understanding is the only legitimate goal of dialogue. Theirs, he asserts, is the evaluation that critical judgement (other than that directed against one’s own faith) is inappropriate, and that the active defence of the truth and practices of one’s own position is to be avoided. Such an approach according to Griffiths, produces a discourse that is “pallid, platitudinous and degutted.” (Griffiths 1991: xif)

But there is no compelling reason why a joint search for truth might not be commended as a worthy basis for dialogue – and to evangelicals, at least some of whom are acknowledging the demise of foundationalism and absolutist claims to knowledge and their replacement with what Miroslav Volf calls “a provisional certitude.”

The next justification of dialogue – the notion of religious growth – is also problematical. It often makes assumptions about the desirability of religious change and its facilitation by dialogue. These assumptions can imply that without dialogue such change might not or perhaps even could not take place and either or both of the Christian and Hindu traditions would remain incomplete in some way. Questions about the means of such growth might also be raised, especially if the view is accepted that the instrumental function of scripture, institutions and practices is markedly different in the two religious traditions: in Hinduism and elsewhere they are usually instrumental for the realisation of moksa and then, in most Hindu traditions, transcended in a way not usually advocated in Christianity.

The appeal to common or complementary religious values or experience is (or, arguably, should be) the single most contested reason advanced for dialogue. The supposed origin or actual content of the spiritual values or resources is usually not made clear. The usual objections to any appeal to religious experience remain: all experience is made available by means of a complex epistemology; it is, necessarily, interpreted experience and may not function so much a pointer to a common centre for the religions as a covert (even if unwitting) endorsement of any number of parochial claims and viewpoints.

Honest acknowledgement needs also to be given to the very different axes around which the Christian and Hindu traditions revolve. The notion of common faith ‑ contrasted with divergent beliefs articulated from that faith (a distinction that is maintained by many Christians and most Hindus as essential for dialogue) ‑ also raises problems, especially if this faith is seen as inaccessible to logical scrutiny (as maintained by some advocates of dialogue).

But it must also be added that the appeal to complementary experience does at least acknowledge some real (rather than superficial or imaginary) differences between the two traditions ‑ reflection on which might enable further understanding. For Hindus and Christians to ask, “why do we see things so differently?” may be the beginning of a profound spiritual journey. Without an understanding of this difference apparent similarities and complementarities may well be highly misleading and too often the claim by Hindus or Christians that certain values are ‘moral’ or ‘spiritual’ or ‘authentic’ (a favoured adjective in some Catholic circles) is regarded as self‑evident justification for assumptions about a common source for both traditions that thereby justifies dialogue. There has yet to emerge a definition of this supposed Other that is recognisably the shared centre of both traditions. And this, in turn, raises a cluster of questions about the advocacy of the shared prayer and worship that seems to be implied (or even required) by the appeal to common religious experience – although it should be noted that even conservative Christians will usually participate in (in the sense of respectful attendance at) occasions such as weddings and funerals, for example.

We come now to the cluster of reasons that offer more distinctly (Christian) theological bases for engagement in dialogue. Dialogue is an obvious and even necessary means of assisting the processes of contextualisation and inculturation. Before Paul spoke to Athens, Athens had spoken to Paul – and he had listened by means of what we could call prior ‘interior dialogue’ that clearly shaped his framing of his proclamation in Acts 17. This observation alone seems to justify – in fact, require for Biblically-guided Christians - some form of dialogue even if there are, of course, a number of problems attached to the quest for an appropriate contextualisation. For example, what has come to be called postcolonial discourse has, in its own way, pointed out that the influences of globalisation on Indian society have made difficult the quest for a supposedly authentic Indian cultural identity. As the realities of postcolonial pluralism lead to complex and hyphenated or multiple identities, so the defining of an appropriate contextualisation becomes more problematical – but that might simply make the appeal of dialogue more compelling. Having said that, this writer is only too conscious of powerful trends across the conservative Protestant spectrum in India (especially in urban settings) to admire and imitate Western, especially American styles of worship and church life.

The missional justification of dialogue remains complex and contestable – even with a widened definition of mission. Perhaps evangelization and dialogue may be seen as aspects of the mission of the church in and to the world with evangelization corresponding with the church as eschatological; dialogue with the church as pilgrim. If there is a tension between these two it might be seen as necessary and unavoidable. Perhaps no more can be said than that each is to be respected and encouraged, but without denying the validity and importance of the other. Perhaps at different times and in different contexts the need for one might be felt to outweigh but not entirely deny the other. In other words, it seems plausible to argue that mission / evangelisation and dialogue are distinct but related to one another because of the way in which each may be (differently) derived from the same broadly defined understanding of Christian mission. There may be sufficient reason for commitment to each without defining or even anticipating a resolution of the tension between the two.

References to the present, and prevenient, activity of God as the initiator and sustainer of dialogue, often as the Spirit, raise the question of the possibly arbitrary nature of such an appeal. The activity of God in the world is not in question; but the criteria by which this activity might be known ‑ especially when it is used to justify the relatively novel endeavour of inter‑faith dialogue ‑ need carefully to be delineated.

The same criticism might be offered of the notion that the fundamental Gospel principles of love and freedom lead necessarily to dialogue. These appeals to love and freedom can, however, lead advocates of dialogue in many directions. As conditions for dialogue the presence and practice of both virtues are certainly desirable. But their utility as principles, especially theological principles, in establishing bases for dialogue, is less certain. On the one hand the appeals to love and freedom, especially when supposedly approved by the Spirit, can be used to endorse a widely varying number of opinions, and with an added degree of plausibility once it is implied that these new conclusions replace older untenable positions of reactionary resistance to necessary change and growth in interreligious relations.

Eleven Reasons for Dialogue with People of Other Faiths

In previous posts I have explored the variety of reasons why Christians, particularly evangelicals, should be involved in interreligious dialogue. In my review of evangelical discussions of interreligious dialogue, particularly in the context of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, many times evangelicals equate dialogue with evangelism, or see evangelism as the major or only appropriate goal of this form of engagement. While I believe that faith communities, including Christianity, which believe strongly in their message and want to share that with others should view evangelism as an important part of dialogue when the context is appropriate, I have also tried to argue that there are other valid reasons for the various faith communities to engage each other.

One of the helpful sources I have reflected upon is Christians Meeting Hindus: An Analysis and Theological Critique of the Hindu-Christian Encounter in India (Regnum, 2004), by Bob Robinson who teaches in the Tyndale Graduate School of Theology in New Zealand. In a recent email exchange with Dr. Robinson he sent me a copy of a document he produced titled "Eleven REasons for Dialogue with People of Other Faiths" which is adapted from chapters 3 and 4d of his book. Due to the length of this document it is reproduced in to posts with reasons 1 through 5 in this post followed by reasons 6 through 11 in the second post. This document is posted by permission of Dr. Robinson. I post it here for reflection among evangelicals and other Christians for application to the context of dialogue in the Evangelical-Mormon context.

Eleven reasons for dialogue with people of other faiths

(based on Bob Robinson, Christians Meeting Hindus, chapters 3, 4D)

Intentional dialogue

Beginning in about 1960 there was a gradually increasing trend among both Protestants and Catholics to consider formal dialogue as an additional or even preferable means of engaging or encountering people of other faiths when compared with traditional proclamation. This intentional meeting of Christians and Hindus in India (especially) over the past forty-five or so years has been justified under some eleven headings that – at least for the first seven (reasons that might be shared by both Christians and Hindus) - can be arranged in order of increasing complexity according to the presuppositions upon which they are based. These are worth describing in a little detail in order to show that advocates of the dialogical model can and do offer some principled reasons for the intentional encounter. Moreover, these advocates can also offer at least some evidence of beneficial consequences that might prove to be equally persuasive for conservative Christians of a pragmatic disposition: dialogue can be shown to produce at least some good results.

1. Understanding and the Reduction of Tension

The simplest reason for entering into dialogue is the perceived need to understand why others believe and act in the ways they do, and to offer explanations in turn. This enables misunderstandings to be removed and positive understanding to be deepened ‑ and so it is not the same either as defensive apologetic, or polemic. (In fact, it is not unlike the definition of hermeneutics as “the art of avoiding misunderstanding.”) Religiously plural societies such as India experience interreligious conflict ‑ or, at least, an exacerbation of politically, economically and caste-generated tensions by religious differences and misunderstanding. Division and opposition between religious communities often seems to be an unnecessary burden to add to a nation (or world) already and painfully divided by other issues. Interreligious understanding is especially important in situations of inter‑communal tension, actual or potential, where ignorance, social isolation and prejudice can and do breed misunderstanding, fear and alienation.

For this reason there does seem to be a continuing role for ‘Dialogue as Conflict Resolution’ (Amaladoss 1999) – that is, dialogue that, as an explanatory device, can help overcome alienation, misunderstanding and the isolation of communities. At the very least, the way of dialogue seems to offer a means towards a more positive coexistence in place of the self‑contented passivity, insecure suspicion or aggressive chauvinism often found in both communities.

2. Common Social Concern

Commitment to common social concern can also be acknowledged by Christian and Hindu advocates of dialogue as both a reason for and a basis of dialogue (for example, Guidelines 1989: 68-75; Amaladoss 1988). Such dialogue will mean that urgent human needs can be tackled together rather than separately. The importance of national harmony and integration has provided reason for dialogue (see, for example, Romus 1998).

Several consequences have followed from an emphasis upon such dialogue that arises out of mutually agreed social concerns. Those who meet in this way do so as national citizens and not simply as members of different religious groups. There seems to be widespread agreement that pressing social concerns offer an urgent incentive to a dialogue which may otherwise become both empty and unrewarding if attempts are made to confine it to discussion of religious matters alone. Whereas communalist piety might separate, common action for social justice might unite ‑ which is one reason why a joint engagement in social justice is said to be central to dialogue. Put simply: in a pluralist setting, justice is an inter-faith task (see, for example, Pattery 1994). There may also be a common women’s perspective that engages the joint concerns of women of all faiths and women of no faith. The attention and energies of young people, often alienated from formal religious participation, might also be re‑engaged by common social action.

3. Common Humanity and the Ideal of Community

Another starting point for dialogue has been the common humanity said to be shared by people of different faiths. Some Protestants have argued forcefully that common humanity, not common religion or religious experience, is the common denominator in the meeting of people of different faiths – a reason that may be of particular interest or appeal to those Christians who hesitate to pursue the inter-faith encounter because of a distaste for the seemingly inevitable interreligious disputations that so quickly arise.

The Christian appeal to a common humanity is not merely because of a pragmatic desire to justify interreligious dialogue and co-operation; theological reasons can be advanced as well. Perhaps the most common are the implications of the Biblical statements about humanity made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26a, 27a) and about the unity of humankind (Acts 17.26a). The idea of a shared and inter-dependent humanity also points to the distinctly personal basis of dialogue in which meetings are not meetings between Hinduism and Christianity or even between representatives of Hinduism and Christianity but, rather, an encounter of human beings - of individual Hindus and Christians (for example, Alphonse 1997). Dialogue is, in fact, the movement from thinking and talking about ‘them’ to thinking and talking in some way about ‘us’. In Protestant circles during the 1970s, the notion of common humanity was supplemented and for a number of writers replaced by the more concrete ideal of ‘community’, in either a world or regional sense, as the basis for inter‑faith dialogue. A number of individuals also discuss what one of them calls “the quest for community through dialogue” (Samartha 1971: 155) – and it is not unknown for some conservative Christians to acknowledge this felt need as well.

4. The Challenges of Modernity and Postmodernity

India is a pluralist society in which the forces called modernisation and secularisation have directly or indirectly challenged traditional religious loyalties of every kind. One response has, of course, been a reactive quest for a new sense of religious identity, including a reaction in negative fundamentalist, communalistic and stridently nationalistic senses. But modernisation has also facilitated the interaction of religious communities; for example, the increased knowledge of other communities that it has enabled seems often to raise questions about whether some supposed communal distinctiveness might depend more upon shared sociological or economic factors than immutable religious foundations.

Modernity is sometimes seen as a threat to religion and therefore an incentive for interreligious dialogue and co-operation. Inter‑faith partnership can be urged in order to meet the need for ‘spiritual resources’ to undergird the struggle for justice and Catholic statements often speak about dialogue in order to strengthen or promote ‘moral values’ or the ‘forces of religion.’ Both Hindus and Christians might well be found, perhaps even together, raising the possibility of a transcendent reference point for the concerns of secularised or uncertain neighbours. But most Christians find they must reject the related notion (suggested by some anxious Hindu friends) of a common religious ‘front’ against modernising and other secular forces.

A further level of complexity is provided by the advent of postmodernity whose contours in India are, of course, highly specific to the subcontinent. Perhaps because the notion of postmodernity is a western construct its usefulness in the Indian context is somewhat limited but postmodernity coheres well with the traditional Indian emphases on experiential and epistemological decenteredness, pluralism and inclusiveness. And although these characteristics are hardly amenable to conservative Christians, the general spirit of postmodern openness to the self-authenticating power of personal narrative that is highly congenial to them; Christians have personal stories of faith and coming to faith – and love telling them!

5. Understanding and the Quest for Truth

Yet another reason for dialogue is to explore the relationship of enhanced understanding to a shared quest for truth. One example is the quest to acknowledge and clarify the differences in belief and practice between Hinduism and Christianity; “an important aim of the dialogue is to find out where the parties do really differ” (Chethimattam 1965: 92; see also Guidelines 31). One variation upon the theme of understanding as a motivation for dialogue is that of self‑understanding in which partners in dialogue intentionally engage in a process of self‑understanding prior to actual conversation with others.

Sometimes ‘the truth’ that is sought in dialogue appears to mean an accumulation of knowledge and wisdom by people seeking solutions for common needs and common problems. But usually the common search for truth is described in more conventional religious language, with Christians sometimes appealing to the promise that the Spirit will lead believers into all the truth. Because of the way in which Gandhi so embodies the quest for truth his example may continue to enable a fruitful dialogue. If it is true of Gandhi that, as Lipner asserts the, “single distinguishing mark of his life and thought was a whole-hearted and passionate quest for truth, wherever it may be. He looked for truth to any recognised source, Hindu or non-Hindu” (Lipner 1983: 325), then there is potential for fruitful dialogue whenever there is engagement with this quest.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Carnival, Festival, and Folk Performance: Max Harris interview

One aspect of my research on Burning Man Festival dealt with festival and folk performance. One of the helpful pieces of research I interacted with was done by Max Harris, Executive Director Emeritus of the Wisconsin Humanities Council. His first book, Theater and Incarnation was reissued as a paperback by Eerdmans in 2005. He spent Fall 2006 as a visiting professor of Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School. He is now working on a book called The Feast of Fools: A History. Max is also a Presbyterian minister and has pastored churches in England, Virginia, Maryland, and Wisconsin.

Morehead's Musings: Max, I found your academic work very helpful in my reflections on Burning Man Festival as a form of festival and folk performance. One of your books that I found most interesting was Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance (University of Texas Press, 2003). I think most readers, particularly Protestants, would not think of the excess of Carnival and connect that with a Christian festival. In your book you point out that Carnival has "often been demonized as pagan or heretical." Can you sketch the contours of Carnival and its connection to Christianity?

Max Harris: First, it may be helpful to realize that Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which informs most American’s perceptions of the festival, is in many ways an exceptional rather than a typical Carnival. Carnivals worldwide display considerable variety and some are openly religious. Even in rural Cajun Louisiana, the Mardi Gras masqueraders are predominantly Catholic and go in faith to church on Ash Wednesday. In Oruro, Bolivia, the second largest Carnival in Latin America (after Rio de Janeiro) is held in honor of the Virgen del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft). After the opening procession through town to the Virgin’s sanctuary, the masqueraders remove their masks and approach on their knees the sacred painting of the Virgin. There is, I believe (as I have set out in Carnival and Other Christian Festivals), a profound theological message about God’s acceptance of the marginalized at work in this Carnival. Historically, I believe Carnival had its origins in the traditional topsy-turvydom of the medieval Christmas season, which in turn was grounded in the doctrine of the Incarnation and expressed in Mary’s words in the Magnificat: “He has put down the mighty from their seat and raised up the humble and meek. He has fed the poor with good things and sent the rich empty away” (Luke 1:52-53). During the Middle Ages, the Carnival season gradually expanded (especially in Italy) to fill the period from Christmas to the Tuesday before Lent. When those in authority wished to suppress Carnival’s critique of the powerful, they demonized Carnival by separating it from Christmas, confining it to the last few days before Lent, and then declaring it a last pagan fling before Lent. Specifically, they linked Carnival with ancient Roman festivals such as the Bacchanalia and Saturnalia. While good for hostile propaganda and, more recently, for attracting hedonistic tourists, this pedigree has no historical warrant. Whatever Carnival may now look like in some places, I believe its historical roots are Christian.

Morehead's Musings: One of the concerns if not fears of both Protestant and Catholic theologians is syncretism. After some discussion of Catholicism interacting with Aztec religion, and a few examples in the Old and New Testaments, you state that "festive syncretism is not..something to be feared by the Christian theologian," and your remind the reader that the "folk theology of fiesta is more likely to reside in its mixed, syncretic, or inclusive elements." Can you say a few words that addresses the fear of syncretism where cultural aspects like festival are involved, a fear that seems to be increasing in the Protestant Christian West in the context of a vibrant Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere and the shift to a global rather than Western Christianity?

Max Harris: It is important to realize that there is no such thing as a Christianity that is not already inculturated, i.e. that is not expressed in terms of a particular culture. God became flesh in Jesus Christ at a particular time and place and therefore in the midst of a particular culture. Jesus was (by divine intent!) not some kind of generic human being, transcending all cultural expression. He was Jewish, spoke Aramaic, knew Jewish songs, etc. Early Christians were hugely influenced, in their mode of articulating and practising their faith, by the Hellenistic culture in which they lived, and, in their way of organizing the church, by the Roman imperial model of hierarchical government. The church still bears strong marks (scars?) from this influence. And so on through history: the western European church expressed itself largely in terms of western European culture; the U.S. church is distinctively North American. Christianity is always and everywhere syncretistic, in the sense that it must express itself in terms of a particular culture. Our calling as Christians is to do our utmost to distinguish those aspects of our culture that are incompatible with the gospel from those that can contribute to legitimate forms of Christian expression. The most damaging example of Christian syncretism at the moment may well be the conservative American church’s embrace of a political and economic ideology that, to my mind, is incompatible with Christ’s call to care for the poor and the stranger and to begin the search for peace by turning the other cheek. Part of the problem is that we only see the other’s syncretism; we are blind to our own.

Morehead's Musings: In chapter 9 of your book you describe some interesting festive behavior from the 1400s that mocked the established civic and ecclesiastical order, including that involving the clergy, and then state that this is not associated with Carnival, but rather with early Christmas celebrations. I was struck by how much of this activity from a Christian festival in the past finds parallel expression in Burning Man Festival in the contemporary period in the U.S. Can you describe some of the mocking-type behaviors that took place in early Christmas "reversals of status" as you describe them, and how this might be connected to the Feast of Fools?

Max Harris: This is the part of my Carnival book that I would now most like to rewrite! What you find in that chapter is in line with conventional scholarship on the Feast of Fools, but I am now in the process of consulting the early sources themselves rather than the later secondary scholarship. As a result, I am writing a book on the Feast of Fools that will show that much (most?) of the conventional scholarship on the subject is inaccurate. To quote one of the few perceptive scholarly remarks on the topic: “Some of the wilder excesses said to have been committed [during the Feast of Fools] lay more in the wishful imagination of later commentators than in fact” (Nick Sandon, The Octave of the Nativity, London, 1984, p. 69). Some light-hearted “rites of reversal” remain, however: the repeated chanting of the Deposuit (the lines from the Magnificat that I quoted above) during Vespers at the feast of the Circumcision (January 1) in twelfth-century Notre-Dame de Paris; the orderly processional admission of an ass to Beauvais cathedral in the early twelfth century; and a procession through the streets of twelfth-century Chalons-sur-Marne (now Chalons-en-Champagne) during which clergy and townspeople joined in a round dance ahead of the procession. (You will notice that I’m still working on the early material, but I strongly suspect that the same will hold true when I reach 1400 and beyond.) So, there were small, merry festive rites of reversal, but they appear to have been surrounded by orderly liturgy and to have expressed joy in the good news of the Incarnation. They do not appear to have descended into disorderly, drunken revels, as so many scholars and clerical critics have assumed.

Morehead's Musings: While conservative Protestants and Catholics might be put off by such festive reversals, in your book you mention the connection between this and various biblical teachings, such as the Magnificat of Luke's gospel. Can you discuss the biblical materials on this and help readers make the connection to ancient, and possibly contemporary festivals of inversion?

Max Harris: In the Magnificat, Mary rejoices in a God who characteristically overturns privilege and favors the poor and the hungry. The church, whether Catholic, Presbyterian, or Baptist, has too often been supported by, sided with, and wanted to belong to the the rich and the well-fed. There have been wonderful exceptions: the early desert fathers, St. Francis of Assissi, Gustavo Gutierrez, to name just three. Many more are no doubt known only by God. But the Magnificat reminds us of our call to stand with God among the poor and the hungry. In chapter 3 of my Carnival book, I describe the Fiestas de Santiago Apostol en Loiza (Festivals of St. James the Apostle in Loiza), held each July in one of the most Afro-Caribbean communities of Puerto Rico. The fiestas enact a joyous exodus of the marginalized from the local seat of power in Loiza to the poorer neighboring community of Mediania, blessed especially by the presence of the smallest of three local statues of Santiago. In many ways, I see this festival as a folk mediation on Luke 14:21: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”

Morehead's Musings: You also discuss the Feast of Fools as more than "mere parody of conventional liturgy," stating that it "deserves respect as a genuine expression of liturgical drama." Can you help us understand this?

Max Harris: I would no longer even call it a parody. I would now argue that, at its best, the Feast of Fools was an integral part of the liturgy of the feast of the Circumcision (January 1), insisting on the astonishing truth that God not only became human in Jesus of Nazareth, but (perhaps sotto voce) that God became poor, homeless, and a victim of unjust social structures. What I will argue when my book is finished remains to be seen!

Morehead's Musings: Given the connections between Christmas and Carnival, how was it that the church suppressed "the ecclesiastical Feast of fools, but its counterparts survived"?

Max Harris: Beginning about 1400, for reasons that I have yet to establish but which I suspect have more to do with broader cultural trends than with any real fault in the feast itself, ecclesiastical reformers began to press for the suppression of the Feast of Fools. Local cathedral chapters, often with the support of local bishops and archbishops, resisted. As a result, the Feast of Fools was gradually transferred from church buildings to city streets, where its organization was eventually taken over by secular groups. The “fools” became part of such outdoor activities as the Procession of Our Lady of the Trellis in Lille and the incipient Carnival in Dijon.

Morehead's Musings: You state that festivals like Carnival "can display a creative folk theology in dialogue with the official dogma of the church." You also mention "the festive God of folk theology," a conception of God and a form of theology all too absent from both Catholic and Protestant theologies. How might we look more positively at "popular religious festivals a source of theological wisdom, otherwise unarticulated and therefore unnoticed by formal theology, that is worthy of a place alongside sacred text, reason, and ecclesiastical tradition"?

Max Harris: It’s not a simple matter. First, there is the problem of miscommunication (or lack of communication) between scholars and folk performers. Scholars are, by and large, trained to read written texts or to interview informants. Folk performers express themselves with great sophistication, but they do so in performance rather than in text or spoken word. As I try to make clear in my Carnival book, anyone who is truly interested in what folk performers have to say must acquire a sensitivity to what I call “the signs visible only in performance.” I came to this with some advantage, having a background in theater, but it still took much practice. In my book, I’ve tried to set out some hermeneutic principles for understanding folk performance, but there is no substitute for close and patient observance. As for such festivals being a source of theological wisdom, I mean by this that the traditional sources of theological authority (sacred text, reason and ecclesiastical tradition) all privilege those in power in the church: the educated clergy and theologians are the ones who interpret the sacred text and establish/guard/reform the traditions. Voices from below are rarely included in the process. My own theological reflection over the last twenty years has been significantly influenced by my participant observation of folk festivals in Spain and Latin America. I’ve never had a theological conversation as such with a folk performer, but I’ve learned a great deal from watching folk performers in action. And, part of what I’ve learned is the blessing of an exuberant joy in God’s love even for me!

Morehead's Musings: After reflection on religious festivals and folk performance, its connection with the church, and its absence in America and the West with the strong influences and history of Protestantism, I wonder whether the rise and increasing popularity of festival alternative subcultures like Burning Man in the U.S. and ConFest in Australia might represent attempts by other subcultures to fill a void not addressed by the churches of Christendom in its various branches. Your thoughts?

Max Harris: I don’t know Burning Man or ConFest first hand, so I’m not really in a position to comment. They may well be evidence of a festive gap in American religion (both Protestant and Catholic), but I have no way of knowing whether they fill that gap in healthy or unhealthy ways. (My own town of Madison, WI, is famous for its annual Halloween festival, during which several thousand costumed students and out-of-town visitors take over the downtown area. I took part one year: it left me very disappointed.) This festive gap, by the way, is partly a byproduct of the separation of church and state, which, for other reasons, I favor strongly. It is effectively illegal in this country to hold large-scale outdoor communal religious celebrations. So we hold large-scale secular celebrations (e.g., July 4th, the Super Bowl), which are, to my mind, poor substitutes for real fiestas! Some comparatively small Native American, Hispanic, and Cajun communities in the Southwest do hold outdoor religious festivals, but that’s about it.

Morehead's Musings: Max, thanks again for these thoughts. As I said, I have benefited greatly from your work, and I hope this interview helps provide food for thought for others to look at festivals more positively and to see their significance for church and society.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sacred Tribes Journal invites submissions for new edition

Sacred Tribes Journal invites submissions for its spring 2008 issue. This is not a theme issues so any contribution addressing new religious movements and spiritualities are invited. Please see the contributor's guidelines. If you have questions regarding potential submissions, please email the editor, Michael Cooper at

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sacred Tribes Journal Revised and Expanded

A few years ago I was privileged to start an electronic journal, Sacred Tribes Journal, devoted to the academic study of new religions with my co-editors Jon Trott and Philip Johnson. Unfortunately, we were only able to produce a few issues, but they were well received. Over the course of the last several months Sacred Tribes has undergone a major facelift in collaboration with some of the faculty at Trinity International University, and as a result the website has been revised and expanded. The publication now has a logo, and we are also in process of obtaining an ISSN number so that the journal will be retrievable through electronic databases such as ATLA and EBSCO. In addition, Sacred Tribes Journal announces two new senior editors, Dr. Michael T. Cooper and Dr. Sylvie Raquel of Trinity International University. Jon Trott, Philip Johnson and I will continue our roles as senior editors. However, in an effort to focus the journal toward an academic audience as well as to enhance its credibility in the academic study of new religious movements, the journal has deliberately sought reputable scholars in the field of religious studies as editorial advisors. As such, joining Cooper, Morehead, Trott, Johnson and Raquel are Dr. Gerald McDermott (Roanoke College), Dr. Irving Hexham (University of Calgary), Dr. Stephen P. Kennedy (Trinity Graduate School), Dr. Amos Yong (Regent University) and Dr. Terry C. Muck (Asbury Theological Seminary).

Please stop by the website to look at the new format.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Armand Mauss on The Angel and the Beehive: Implications of Mormon Assimilation and Retrenchment

During my research in Mormon studies Dr. Armand Mauss has proved to be a very helpful resource for me. For thirty years he has served as a professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. The first half of his career was devoted mainly to mainstream sociology, but the rest of it to specializing in the sociology of religion, particularly Mormons, but with some attention also (in collaboration with his graduate students) to other religious movements, including a community of so-called “Jesus Freaks” in the 1970s and to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in the 1980s. For four years he was editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (the main professional journal in the social-scientific study of religion).

Since retirement to southern California in 1999 he has continued his academic activities, most recently as Visiting Scholar in the School of Religion at the Claremont Graduate University, where he taught a course in Mormon Studies once each year during 2005, 2006, and 2007. He is author or co-author of four books, most of them on Mormons, and some hundred articles in academic journals. One of his most interesting volumes for me is The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Mauss, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I have long benefitted from your scholarship in my research in Mormon studies, and a few years ago you provided helpful feedback to a news story I wrote for Christian Research Journal on the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case. Your work was also helpful in my graduate studies in Mormon culture at Salt Lake Theological Seminary. As we begin our conversation, how did you become involved in the academic study of sociology, and did you reconcile the results of this with your faith as a Latter-day Saint?

Armand Mauss: I began my studies with an interest in history – especially cultural history – and I received both a B. A. and an M. A. degree in that discipline. For reasons that are not particularly germane here, I switched to sociology for my doctoral studies at the University of Californa, Berkeley. I was fortunate that three luminaries in the sociology/anthropology of religion were on the faculty at Berkeley in those days (1950s-60s) : Charles Glock, Robert Bellah, and Guy Swanson. My main mentor was Glock. He had recently come to Berkeley from Columbia and was trying to develop a research program in the sociology of religion. One of his first projects was a study of Christian beliefs and anti-Semitism, financed by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and based upon a large survey of Catholics and Protestants in northern California. I sought him out and he agreed to take me on as one of his doctoral students. He knew nothing about Mormons (and did not include any Mormons in his surveys), but he was intrigued by my claim that Mormons were unique in lacking the anti-Semitism so common in Christianity generally. During this same period, however, the LDS Church was becoming notorious for its discriminatory policy in denying the priesthood to people of black African ancestry. All of this raised the larger question (of great interest to both Glock and me) of whether and how the religious beliefs of a people got translated into racial or ethnic discrimination against other peoples. My lifelong commitments to the LDS Church, and to the prophetic religion on which it was based, were thus constantly under pressure as I contrasted sociological explanations and evidence with traditional religious claims and doctrines. In the process, I was forced to distinguish constantly between the human and the divine elements in my religious heritage. I had to learn to “give myself permission,” as it were, to try to make that distinction, since it is not encouraged in one’s upbringing as a Mormon. Ultimately, though, such success as I have had in living both as a believer and as a scholar in the social sciences has depended on my keeping in mind that distinction.

Morehead's Musings: I only recently became aware of an informative interview you gave to Times and Seasons in 2004 that intrigued me greatly. One of the questions you were asked I'd like to repeat here. In my work in Utah I will be arranging for academic conferences on new religious movements, and Mormon studies will be an important facet of this, perhaps the focus of the first such conference. Perhaps your thinking has changed slightly from the 2004 interview, but what areas of research would you like to see pursued by academics in Mormon studies?

Armand Mauss: Well, I think the five topics (a through e) that I mentioned in that T & S interview are still important, though I had in mind then topics that I thought were especially relevant for inside (intra-Mormon) research. I would like to see non-Mormon scholars pursue such questions as:

1) Where does the anti-Mormon animus come from? Sociologists Bromley, Richardson, Robbins, Anthony, Barker, and others, have all (in various ways) raised some interesting questions about whose interests are actually being served by the thriving “anti-cult” movement in the world (usually including an anti-Mormon component, so derivatively the same question is applicable to the anti-Mormon movement specifically). Ex-Mormons seem to play a prominent part in the latter movement, even launching entire new careers. I know of no counterpart phenomenon of the opposite kind (i.e. ex-Evangelicals – or ex-anything else –) who become Mormons and then devote themselves to fighting against their former co-religionists.

2) From the viewpoint of the “religious economy” model recently popularized by Stark et al. (and by Laurence Moore among historians), might we understand the strains between Mormons and Evangelicals in part as a natural result of competing for “customers” in the same market niche? The moderately educated, upwardly mobile segment of American society seems to be the main stratum from which both Mormons and Evangelicals are drawing their converts. Ultimately, how much of the tension between Mormons and Evangelicals is theological and how much is sociological?

3) What is the impact on the Mormon leadership and grassroots of the unwillingness to accept Mormons as Christians – an issue very much highlighted for Mormons by the Romney campaign? Is the tension over this issue likely to accelerate Mormon assimilation into the American mainstream, or have the opposite effect – i. e. encourage a new retrenchment and “circling of the wagons”? Will the effect be different among U. S. Mormons than among Mormons elsewhere (who are now the majority of the world’s Mormons)?

Morehead's Musings: One of your books that I found most interesting is The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation. You stated in the 2004 interview that the books "seems to have been largely overlooked," and I agree that this is the case. Can you briefly summarize the thesis you develop concerning assimilation and retrenchment?

Armand Mauss: Before summarizing the thesis, I should explain that it is derived ultimately from the classic insight of Weber and Troeltsch that new religious movements (NRMs) that survive tend to make compromises across time with the surrounding world such that they become at least partially assimilated, and thus less threatening to the “host society” and less an object of derision or persecution. This historical generalization implies the existence of a polarity or continuum, one end of which is marked by the mutual rejection of the NRM and the host society, and the other end by mutual acceptance. The classical expectation was always that movement down that continuum only goes only one way – toward mutual acceptance or assimilation. Sociologist Benton Johnson in the 1960s raised the theoretical possibility that a religious organization could actually move in either direction, depending on historical circumstances, but my 1994 book is the first study (of which I am aware) of a real historical example (namely, the LDS), in which a NRM spent two generations moving in an assimilationist direction, but then reversed course and began moving away from assimilation and back to “peculiarity.” I call this reversal of direction a “retrenchment.”

My basic thesis is derivative not only of the Weberian tradition in the sociology of religion, but more directly of the recent work of Rodney Stark and his associates, often called a “new paradigm” in the sociology of religion. In its fullest development, this new paradigm has been put forth in the recent book by Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith (U. of Calif. Press, 2000), which argues, in effect, that for a religious organization to grow and prosper it must find the “optimum” location on that continuum between total rejection and total acceptance of the surrounding culture. If the organization remains too close to the rejection end, it will continue to be stigmatized, persecuted, and (in extreme cases) stamped out. On the other hand, if the organization travels too far down the continuum toward acceptance, then it will eventually be absorbed into the mainstream culture. In either case, it loses its identity as a separate institution. Just what is the “optimum” level, however, of cultural tension will change with time, circumstances, and location (geography).

In my 1994 book, I argue that the LDS leadership launched a deliberate policy of assimilation (that is, reduced cultural tension) with American society as Utah acquired statehood, and that assimilation continued to develop all the way to the middle of the 20th century. However, starting in around 1960, a new generation of leaders became concerned about the loss of the unique and “peculiar” identity of the LDS Church, and they instituted a policy intended to increase the tension with American culture, to move the Church back in the direction of 19th century Mormonism in an effort to recover some of its lost “peculiarity” or identity. (I would add that since the administration of Pres. Hinckley starting in 1995, I see signs of another reversal, or at least “fine-tuning,” with the “pendulum” moving back somewhat in the assimilationist direction).

Morehead's Musings: Can you provide some examples of both the efforts at assimilation and the process of retrenchment?

Armand Mauss: Of course, the major symptoms of assimilation were the abandonment of polygamy, theocracy, collectivist economic experiments, the adoption of American 2-party politics, and the embrace of American patriotism. Theologically, during the first half of the 20th century, LDS leaders such as Talmage, Widtsoe, and Roberts undertook to codify and “Christianize” LDS theology, and to emphasize use of the King James Bible over the use of the Book of Mormon. Then, after midcentury, symptoms of retrenchment were a new emphasis upon use of the Book of Mormon; a renewed focus on the president of the church as a prophet (with additions to the D & C for the first time in the century, recurrent slogans about following the prophet and obedience); the centralization and standardization of the church program and administration known as “correlation;” a great expansion in such “peculiar” Mormon programs as genealogy, temple-building, missionary work, and religious education (seminary and institute programs) – all of which had languished for decades; and finally a renewal and redefinition of the LDS theology of the family, with a conservative definition of women’s roles and an ongoing program to bolster the nuclear family institution as a bulwark against the creeping vices of sexual indulgence, substance use or abuse, and many other social ills afflicting American society since the 1960s.

Morehead's Musings: You have described this as an ongoing process of identify formation and boundary negotiation and renegotiation. This is not only an ongoing but also complex social, cultural, and religious process. When evangelicals or traditional Christians look at such issues it is often a matter of concern directed only toward doctrinal or worldview issues. Wouldn't your research and thesis indicate that a much broader template needs to be considered in order to understand these dynamics?

Armand Mauss: Yes, to be sure. Much that the LDS Church advocates for the behavior and “life-style” of its members is about boundary maintenance, which is very important for any people or community seeking to maintain a distinct identity. For Mormons, living in a certain way is more important than believing in a certain way. We can infer much more about what or who a person is from what he does than from what he believes (or claims to believe). Furthermore, beliefs can always be changed by teaching and by the promptings of the Holy Spirit (either in this world or in the next world, according to Mormonism). Certain kinds of behavior, however (such as sexual sin) can have consequences in this life that can never be entirely mitigated by later repentance. Ideally, people will learn both correct belief and correct behavior from membership in the LDS community, but it is the behavioral boundaries that really define the Mormon identity. I don’t know if that’s quite what your question was getting at, but that’s what first came to mind.

Morehead's Musings: Some, particularly Protestant critics of the LDS Church, often make the accusation that the Church contradicts itself when it speaks with an assimilation emphasis to the outside world, particularly to Protestants, and with the voice of retrenchment within. In your Times & Seasons interview you stated that this was not a contradiction. Can you describe how the assimilation/retrenchment dynamic works in this situation so that outsiders might come to a different perception of it?

Armand Mauss: Speaking differently to different audiences does not necessarily imply contradiction. We do it all the time. When we talk among our friends about what goes on in our families, we are not likely to provide the same details or explanations as if we were talking within the intimacy of the family circle. When Mormons talk among themselves, they make certain assumptions about shared beliefs and values, so they (and their leaders) can emphasize the internal beliefs and standards that they have in common with each other, that make the Mormon community special. On the other hand, when Mormons and their leaders talk about their religion and religious community to non-Mormons, including other Christians, they are trying to communicate what they feel they have in common with those others. That’s why Mormons “sound” more assimilationist when they are reaching out to others and more “retrenching” when they are calling on each other to honor established Mormon ideals and standards.

Morehead's Musings: Latter-day Saint-Evangelical dialogue has been taking place for a number of years now, with some supporting the process and some opposed to it on both sides of the religious divide. Can you comment on assimilation/retrenchment and how this might impact the dialogue taking place and how both religious communities might keep this dynamic in mind as the dialogue continues?

Armand Mauss: No matter where the LDS Church in general stands at a given moment in time on the “tension” continuum (explained earlier), there will always be some Mormon members and leaders who are “assimilation-oriented,” as it were, and therefore looking for areas of agreement and collaboration with others in civic and humanitarian affairs. I presume that there will also always be some Evangelicals similarly oriented. Mormons who remain in the more insular mindset of “retrenchment” will never be comfortable in such external relationships, and neither will Evangelicals who continue to think of Mormonism as a diabolical and dangerous cult.

On the Mormon side, the orientation of a given set of leaders (General Authorities) makes a big difference. At present, during the administration of Pres. Hinckley, the assimilationist orientation has become more apparent and has certainly permeated the professional PR bureaucracy (Public Affairs) more thoroughly than ever before. For the dialogue between Mormons and Evangelicals to continue (to say nothing of a closer rapprochement), I think we will have to see on the Evangelical side more Richard Mouws and Greg Johnsons and fewer local pastors sponsoring seminars and lectures on the dangers and deceptions of the Mormon “cult.”

I recognize that there are some serious theological issues that make Mormons seem especially scary to many Evangelicals. In one way or another, most of those issues seem to shake down to doctrines of deity. Mormonism will never be able to accommodate the traditional Trinitarian theology, and that theology, in turn, seems to be the “litmus test” of “true” Christianity for Evangelicals. When Mormons, in all sincerity, claim to believe in the divinity of Jesus, and in His indispensible salvific role in human history, Evangelicals tend to dismiss such claims because they are not made within the context of Trinitarian theology. There is some irony in this Evangelical dismissal of the “Mormon Jesus,” since many surveys in recent decades have shown that many, if not most, of the modern clergy of the “Protestant mainline” do not believe in the literal divinity of Jesus or in His literal resurrection. Yet no one would claim that these denominations –- or even their clergy — are “not Christians.” Evangelicals also object to Mormon doctrines about the role of Jesus in the pre-existence, and/or the Mormon conception of God as once mortal – even though such ideas are strictly theoretical and play no part whatever in modern Mormon worship, or in the de facto Mormon focus exclusively on the God of Abraham as the only God ever encountered in Mormon scriptures and discourse. For some reason, these theoretical Mormon “embellishments” on doctrines about deity disqualify them from the “Christian” label, but Roman Catholics are not disqualified by the elaborate cult of Mary, or by such doctrines as the immaculate conception or transubstantiation, none of which are strictly biblical. It seems that for mainline Catholics and Protestants, all extra-biblical ideas are forgivable as long as they embrace a Trinitarian deity, but Mormons can’t be permitted their extra-biblical ideas and still be part of the Christian “family.”

I am no theologian, and I must confess that I find theological disputes generally tedious; as a social scientist, my main interest in theology is pretty much limited to its implications for behavior. I guess that’s why I find it difficult to understand why the “divide” has to be so “wide” between Mormons and Evangelicals.

Morehead's Musings: Related to this question and the issues of assimilation and retrentchment, as well as the nature of Mormon spirituality that includes sacred and somewhat secretive aspects to it, attracts a lot of Protestant Christian criticism. This has spilled over into presidential politics with the issue of "soft secrecy" that was the topic of a recent New York Times article. Can you address how these issues are relevant to such issues, and how non-Mormons might come away with less sensationalistic interpretations?

Armand Mauss: I read that article by Noah Feldman in the NYT Magazine, and I thought it was excellent. He did a “fair and balanced” treatment of what it is that puts people off about Mormonism, and why it is that Mormons are so surprised at the way they and their religion are perceived. I haven’t seen the new book (apparently just published) about Romney and Mormonism on the heels of this Feldman article, but it seems from the description like just another anti-Mormon tirade by a Mormon apostate. Sociologists who have studied NRMs and their critics have long since realized that apostates are among the least reliable sources of information and understanding about a religion, since they always write in an exposé mode to vindicate their own change of feelings. (The so-called “white horse prophecy,” for example, has long been known by scholars, Mormon and non-Mormon, to be a fraud).

It is important to consider this Mormon predicament within the comparative and historical context of other unpopular religions (and Masonry). The charge about Romney’s covenant to obey the Mormon leaders, for example, is not only false, but it is highly reminiscent of the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” according to which there was a Jewish plot to take over the world. I have participated in the Mormon temple rituals many times, and I have made the same covenant of obedience that presumably Romney has made. However, it is a covenant of obedience to GOD, NOT to any prophet or earthly leaders. The whole canard about what REALLY goes on in Mormon temples reminds me of the regular stories I used to hear while growing up (not in Utah) about what REALLY goes on in those secretive Catholic convents and monasteries.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Mauss, thank you again for your thoughts. The information you have shared and your academic work will continue to make an important impact in the understanding of Mormonism.

Armand Mauss: Thanks for caring enough about my ideas to ask for them.