There is a saying frequently attributed to a Chinese proverb: "If you want to know what water is like don't ask a fish." Regardless of the source the idea behind it is true: when someone is too familiar with their surroundings it becomes a blind spot that so influences their perspective that they aren't aware of it. It simply becomes something that is taken for granted. This is the case with Evangelicals and modernity. As Myron Bradley Penner argues in his new book on apologetics, modernity influences Evangelical assumptions on apologetics, theology, and as I will note in this post, it is also what is behind Evangelical definitions of Christianity that then serve as the backdrop for a major sticking point in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.
I am currently reading and enjoying The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Baker Academic, 2013), by Myron Penner. The main thesis the author develops is that Evangelical apologetic approaches of whatever type are based upon the assumptions of modernity and its perspectives on reason. In particular, Penner states that, "In the modern philosophical paradigm, then, reason forms what I will call the 'objective-universal-neutral complex' (OUNCE)" (32). Penner identifies these features of reason in modernity in distinction to premodern views wherein, "reason is internal to (and possessed only by) human beings in a way that is universal, objective, and neutral" (32). Given these assumptions, apologists like William Lane Craig, and many conservative Evangelical theologians, present arguments, evidence, and theological propositions in ways that conform to the assumptions of modernity in regards to reason and epistemological justifications of belief. Penner takes issue with these assumptions and finds them far more secular than Evangelicals assume in the name of reason and its alleged objectivity and neutrality.
As Penner goes further in his description of Evangelicalism and modernity, he makes the interesting observation that, for many (most?) conservative Evangelicals, "What is essential to being a Christian is an objective event: the cognitive acceptance (belief) of specific propositions (doctrines)" (36). While Penner explores this in relation to Evangelical apologetics, and to a lesser extent theology (after all, apologetics is a branch of theology), I want to consider this in relation to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.
You don't have to search for or read much in dialogue and conversations between Evangelicals and Mormons to find the question "Are Mormons Christian?" raised by concerned Mormons. Evangelicals usually respond in the negative, and with certain historic, creedal, and doctrinal assumptions providing the foundation for that response. Mormons are naturally offended by this idea, as they have a different set of assumptions, with the idea that Mormons believe in and follow Christ, therefore they should be considered Christians.
As Evangelicals and Mormons pass each other like two ships in the night on this topic I would note that members of both groups are missing an important element in exactly why Evangelicals would answer this question negatively. It goes beyond historic creeds and doctrines to some underlying philosophical assumptions. Evangelicals have so imbibed at the well of modernity and its philosophical assumptions that for them, as Penner notes, "What is essential to being a Christian is an objective event: the cognitive acceptance (belief) of specific propositions (doctrines)." This means that while Evangelicals connect these propositions to a relationship with Christ, even so, the cognitive acceptance of certain specific propositions are primary in their definition of what it means to be a Christian. The assumptions of modernity have become so intertwined with Evangelical thinking that, like the fish in water that knows nothing else other than its daily experience of its environment, that Evangelicals may not be aware of the extent to which these modernist assumptions impact not only its apologetics and theology, but also its ways of relating to those of other religions, as well as the formation of perceptions by those of other religions because of the views Evangelicals have of them that are shaped in part by the assumptions of modernity.
My friend and colleague at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, Charles Randall Paul, once shared his observation that Evangelicals are the scientists and philosophers of their religion. I agreed with his assessment, and made my own observation that Mormons are the performers and artists of their religion. We certainly approach our religious pathways very differently. But the more I reflect on the "scientists and science of Evangelicalism" the more I realize how modernity has impacted us, even in the way in which we define what it means to be a Christian and relate our message to those in other religions.
Maybe it's time for Evangelical fish to jump out of the bowl and look around for a bit.