Thursday, June 20, 2013

Krister Stendahl, Mormon Temples, and Jesus as Temple: Further Thoughts for "Holy Envy" and Dialogue

The late Lutheran Bishop is well known for his articulation of various principles related to understanding other religions. These include:

 (1) When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
(2) Don't compare your best to their worst.
(3) Leave room for “holy envy.”

 Stendahl is perhaps best known for the last item, that of "holy envy," the attempt to find something that you value in another religion and even wish was found within your own religious tradition. The Bishop practiced this in his own life, including helping to arrange a press conference at the opening of a Mormon temple in his native Sweden and speaking favorably about his appreciation of the Mormon ritual connection between the dead and the living. Stendahl then appeared in a Mormon video, Mormon Temples: Between Heaven and Earth, where he articulated his views on this subject. In the video clip that accompanies this post you can see a segment of the temple video, and hear Truman Madsen describe Stendahl's efforts at expressing "holy envy" in connection with Mormon death rituals. I want to express agreement and disagreement with Stendahl, and in so doing point Mormons and Evangelicals toward another area for dialogue.

First, I strongly support Stendahl's principles for religious understanding, including and especially holy envy. I can point to elements that I appreciate in other religious traditions that I wish was found within my own Christianity. I've even commented previously on the poor way in which Western Christianity deals with death, and in my view Mormonism, Paganism, and transformational festivals like Burning Man do a better job of addressing death and grieving, and maintaining a sense of ongoing connectedness between the living and the dead. I disagree with their larger views and practices on the matter, but there remains a lot to envy in this area. Evangelicals should practice holy envy whenever possible in regards to other religious and spiritual traditions.

But I also want to state my disagreement with Stendahl, at least on the specifics related to the Mormon temple. While Mormon rituals connected with death and the temple are interesting, they represent a significant theological departure from historic Christianity. I was reminded of this when I came across Nicholas Perrin's book Jesus the Temple (Baker Academic, 2010). Perrin argues that there were a number of counter-temple movement's in Palestine in the time of Jesus, including John the Baptist's, Qumran, and the Jesus movement itself. Perrin writes:
If both John the Baptizer’s following and the early Church were counter-temple movements…, then this grants basic plausibility to the hypothesis that Jesus, who straddled both groups, also saw his own mission and destiny in similar terms. In other words, … Jesus found the temple of his day to be corrupt, [and] inferred from this … the onset of messianic tribulation, and then finally saw his own calling as a response to this divinely ordained crisis (78).
He argues argues that "the idea of Jesus as temple dates back to Christ himself and that he saw his following as the new temple movement, the social and confessional boundaries of which were marked off by allegiance to him." This makes for an interesting consideration in light of the theology of the book of Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament where Jesus is not only presented as temple, but also as High Priest and offering as well.

If Perrin's analysis holds up, and represents an accurate representation of Jesus' self-understanding and New Testament theology, then it is seemingly at odds with the theology and ritual associated with Mormon temples. It would make for a fascinating topic for discussion between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints.


malkie said...

When trying to understand another religion, why should you not ask the adherents of that religion AND its "enemies" (or, at least, its critics)?

Do those on the outside, and especially those who have been on the inside) not have value to add?

John W. Morehead said...

Your comment is curious in light of the subject matter of the post. The point is that adherents of given religions should try to develop a sincere admiration, or holy envy, of a facet of another religious tradition. This is very different from the thrust of your comments. Of course, to understand a religion the best way to do so is to try to develop a fair and informed understanding of it from an insider's perspective as they understand their own religion. This can be dome by discussion with adherents, and supplemented with the best academic descriptive materials. The opinions of "enemies" and critics can be considered, but should be weighed very carefully. If the intent is to understand and positively engage adherents of other religions, why look to the opinions of "enemies"?

Nellie said...

Hi John,
I was wondering if you can address some of the recent studies that show that after the temple was destroyed, Christians incorporated elements of temple practices into other areas of their worship.

For example:

John W. Morehead said...

The abstract you link to does not provide specifics to comment on.

There are good studies which indicate that Jesus saw himself as creating a community that would surround him and that he and this community would function as the temple of God. You see this in the New Testament with references to Christ as the foundation and Christians as building blocks.

Related to Mormonism and their temples, the practices they engage in are very different from that of Second Temple Judaism, are informed more by the western esoteric tradition, and seem at odds with a process of separation from the temple that Jewish disciples of Christ began to make as the messianic community.

A. Dalley said...

I'm Mormon. And you are very wise. Though we see some things differently I can admire your way of putting your words and the points you make. Thank you for your post of Holy Envy and your responses to the comments. Very thought out and enlightening in many good ways.