Mr. Smith Goes to Nicea
Bruce D. Porter and Gerald R. McDermott’s dual analysis (Is Mormonism Christian? October 2008) provides us with a type of exchange that is far too infrequent. However, there is a long way to go in reaching a meeting of the minds in this endeavor. Unlike other ecumenical exchanges, a dialogue with our Mormon friends contains a peculiar communication problem.
When speaking with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many of us find great difficulty establishing shared and consistent definitions of important words such as God , universe , salvation , and the like. (McDermott omits the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression, which illuminates their definitions of grace and salvation .)
This nebulosity can give the appearance of concurrence where none exists. McDermott refers to the term God in his discourse on the nature of the Trinity, which inherently contains an understanding of monotheism, omnipotence, and Christian metaphysics. This commendably goes to the heart of the matter, but it is most likely to go untouched in conversations between Christian and Mormon laity. Next time an LDS member knocks on my door, I shall ask him, What did God worship before he became God, and why don’t we worship that? Which brings us to the important issue of apostatizing.
When I, as a Lutheran pastor, encounter a Catholic, a Southern Baptist, or a Methodist, I happily encourage them to worship at their respective churches.
This behavior demonstrates that I regard our denominations, despite their differences, as all under the name Christian. However, when a Mormon elder visits a member of my flock, he systematically and aggressively works to divorce said member from my church. This behavior demonstrates that, however the important words are defined, Mormons regard us and our beliefs as sufficiently unchristian as to warrant the need for conversion, rebaptism, and a radical separation from the catholic Church. Through our behavior, we make our words incarnate and, in doing so, give them clarity. If Mormons are truly to regard the rest of us as Christians, they must restrict their evangelism to non-Christians.
Rev. Philip Spomer
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Edgewood, New Mexico
I would like to congratulate First Things for the most illuminating treatment of the relations between Mormonism and traditional Christianity to date in your publication. Not incidentally, this is due to the invitation of a Mormon believer to contribute to the dialogue, as well as an attitude of fair-minded engagement.
Like McDermott, I have come to the conclusion that the most fundamental issue at the core of informed debate between the Mormon and traditional Christian understanding of God is whether God is wholly other or whether man is literally the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes [so that] even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God (First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1909). This Mormon understanding does not diminish the central reality of the Fall and the dependence of humans on the grace of God through the atonement of Christ to receive salvation and attain this divine destiny. The implications of this understanding are worthy of theological reflection. For example, it provides a context to understand the agency of man and the existence of evil.
Joseph B. Stanford
Salt Lake City, Utah
Bruce D. Porter and Gerald R. McDermott are to be congratulated on their effort to elucidate the similarities and differences between Christianity and Mormonism. I had a similar engagement with a Mormon bishop years ago, which resulted in a respectful friendship as well as a clearer understanding on both our parts. The fact that I was pursuing a doctorate in the history of doctrine at the time made it all the more interesting.
McDermott has identified the key elements regarding the problems concerning the Book of Mormon and its revelatory claims. When measured by both intrinsic and extrinsic criteria, it fails the test of authenticity. I was, however, disappointed in his minimalizing of the doctrinal differnces. I am persuaded that, on every major locus of doctrine, Mormonism stands in stark contrast to biblical and historical Christianity.
First, their doctrine of God is different. As man is, God once was; as God is, man will become. This phrase is a staple of Mormon doctrine and contrasts starkly with the teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which can be summarized in God’s word to the prophet Hosea: I am God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst (Hos. 11:9). Nowhere, anywhere, does Scripture teach that the Father was a man, as Joseph Smith did”The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s (D&C, 130:22). The Scriptures also teach that God (meaning the Father) is a Spirit, not a physical person. In addition, Mormonism teaches that God, as an exalted man, physically impregnated the Virgin Mary by sexual intercourse.
Second, their doctrine of man is different. In Mormonism, we will become Gods, Lords over our own planets, just as God is Lord over this one. We must spend a probationary period on Earth in preparation for our exaltation and lordship. In fact, the original purpose of polygamy, prior to its abandonment, was to populate these planets.
Third, Mormon Christology is radically different. Jesus is not God in the proper sense but a Spirit brother of Lucifer, the angel of light. As such, this makes him part of the (spiritual) creation”a creature and, as such, not eternal. These twin tenets constitute the doctrine of Arius in its fullness, and McDermott misses the point. No matter that Mormons say in the Book of Mormon that it was the God of Abraham and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob who was lifted up and crucified (1 Nephi 19:10); they have already redefined him in such a way as to make this confession a logical impossibility. In fact, I think Arianism is a charitable charge.
Fourth, Mormon soteriology is different. Porter claims Mormons are saved by grace, and McDermott lends credence to this by citing several Mormon sources. But this is a deception. Here, context is everything. The fact is that Mormons do believe that we are saved by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it is a half-salvation, which is no salvation at all. Mormonism teaches only that Jesus saves us from the sin of Adam and brings us to heaven for the final judgment. However, there we remain responsible for our own sins. In classical terms, Jesus erases original sin, but the sins we commit beyond that are ours to bear. Once given admission to eternal life and the Judgment by Jesus’ ticket, we’re on our own.
So my question is: If your doctrine of God is different, if your doctrine of man is different, if you hold to a completely different Christology, and if your soteriology is some kind of eschatological Pelagianism, then why exactly do you call yourselves Christian? Mormons are generally good people”people with whom we share ethical values. Many, I think, don’t know what orthodox Christianity teaches. But let us be clear. Mormonism is another Jesus and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:4).
Thomas C. Pfizenmaier
As Latter-day Saints, we would be without hope in this life or the next without the infinite, atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which alone assures our corporeal resurrection and makes reconciliation with our Heavenly Father possible. Thus, we thank First Things for publishing Bruce Porter’s fine statement of Mormon Christianity, and we also appreciate Gerald McDermott’s civil and conscientious effort to situate Mormons in relation to his understanding of Christianity.
Of McDermott’s four main reasons for considering the Christ of the Book of Mormon distinct from the biblical Christ, the third seems to reflect a simple misunderstanding that can perhaps be simply corrected: The new Jerusalem spoken of in the Book of Mormon does not displace the old one but, rather, stands alongside it; it does not represent the salvation of a single nation but precisely the coming Kingdom as a worldwide phenomenon. No minimally informed Latter-day Saint would recognize the assertion that the American Jesus is fixated on America.
Regarding McDermott’s fourth reason, Mormons find no cosmically significant changes in [Joseph Smith’s] view of God over the course of his prophetic career. There are, in fact, references to the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the Book of Mormon, but these do not imply a creedal doctrine of the Trinity. And in reports of the Prophet’s later statements there are views on the nature of God that are not entailed by the Book of Mormon, but faithful Mormons have renounced nothing of the book’s teachings concerning the three members of the Godhead, whom we believe to be one in a way that surpasses all human experience”but in purpose, thought, and love rather than ontologically. While we lack an authoritative body of professionally trained systematic theologians, we live comfortably with a richly articulated and in some respects quite distinctive body of teachings that offers much for philosophical and theological reflection. Relying as we do on the guidance of living prophets, and drawing meaning and spiritual sustenance from our participation in divinely revealed patterns of worship performed by a divinely authorized priesthood, we do not experience the absence of professional theologians as a deficiency.
We cheerfully grant that a different ontology is at work in the Latter-day Saint idea of divinity than in the orthodoxy that Gerald McDermott represents. Though it may shock orthodox sensibilities, Mormons, we think, would typically embrace the statement that Jesus . . . shares our species, and we confess that we do not believe in creation ex nihilo or in the infinite qualitative difference of God. If these are the charges, we, at least, plead guilty to having departed from what McDermott terms the orthodox tradition. And we have philosophized enough to understand pretty well the questions that arise from considering God, as we Mormons often do, to be limited by principles that stand outside him”but also enough to understand the so-called Euthyphro dilemma concerning the source of moral law and the antinomies that are inherent in the orthodox attempt to reconcile God’s knowing and his willing, antinomies that had much to do with both the nominalists’ and the Reformers’ assaults on the Roman Catholic tradition in the name of some purified Christian truth. But the key point here is that, whatever one makes of the relation between God’s reason and his will, scholars familiar with the history of doctrines such as creation ex nihilo will know better than simply to identify the tradition of philosophical theology with the teachings McDermott started out defending, namely what [Jesus] said to the first-century apostles.
McDermott obviously disagrees with us. He correctly points out that Mormonism differs from traditional Christianity. But there would be little point to a restoration if nothing needed to be restored. And our disagreement concerning this restoration with others who acknowledge the divine and universal mission of Christ would not seem to justify our expulsion from Christendom: Christians have debated many fundamental issues over the centuries (that is, the contents of the canon, the status of the God depicted in the Old Testament, the nature of Christ, the definition of the Trinity, the scope of the atonement, free will, and predestination, the interpretation of Genesis 1-11, and so on), and presumably most if not all of those participating in such debates have been more or less wrong. Nonetheless, the parties to those debates are rarely declared non-Christian for their views.
McDermott’s first two objections to Mormonism bear on the reliability of the Book of Mormon as a testimony of Christ. The recent date of the appearance of this record seems to him to detract from its authority in comparison with manuscripts containing one or more gospels that date to within just a few centuries of Jesus’ time, and some evidence . . . that goes back to within just a few decades . . . of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. But discussion of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon can cut either way. It is a substantial text (more than 500 pages) whose internal complexity and coherence are rarely appreciated, even by Latter-day Saints. It includes a dozen or so distinct prophetic voices; interweaves many diverse historical strands; richly depicts a foreign civilization (or two or three of them), including diverse cultural notes and other features (detailed geography, sophisticated warfare, a complex monetary system, and so on); contains a powerful and multifaceted Christian teaching that is consonant with, but not simply identical to, teachings of the Bible and the Christian tradition, and often does so in surpassingly beautiful language”and all this in a volume of English prose of determinate content that no one doubts came into existence during a brief and definite period not quite 180 years ago. The book exists”a brute fact”and is easily available for anyone’s inspection. Mark Twain dismissed it as chloroform in print, but, of course, it was not written for Twain’s entertainment, and that what he saw in it bored him does little to account for its existence, even if we set aside the compelling quality of its teachings. Anyone with a stake in the veracity of Christ’s message and the reality of his mission might consider the significance of the sheer existence of this text: For if, by any chance, it is what it claims to be, then we are indeed in possession of another witness of Christ that truly assures us, independent of doubts arising out of the long, complex, and clouded history of the biblical manuscripts or, from the distance of the events they narrate, of the reality of the living Christ.
In targeting what he seems to take to be Mormonism’s weakest point”the authenticity of the Book of Mormon”we believe that McDermott has in fact struck at its strongest. He passes over what eleven witnesses say they saw as if so many direct and well-attested statements, never renounced even in the face of powerful incentives, were of little import. Would such testimony in favor of Luke’s gospel not be welcome, even if two thousand years old? Does he so easily dismiss the eleven faithful apostolic witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ? But we refer readers again to the text itself. How is one to account for it? The more one knows about it, the harder it is to accept any of the alternative theories of its inauthentic production, if indeed there is even a serious contender left in this field. Anyone is free to read the book, to study it prayerfully, and perhaps to begin to appreciate the rich articulation of its parts within a consistent whole, and then, if so inclined, to propose some theory of its origins. Indeed, any reader who is at all open to the possibility of God’s intervention in human affairs in modern as well as ancient times is free to consider the possibility that we, today, have been given a powerful and beautiful new witness of Christ’s reality for all people of all climes and all epochs”that is, the possibility that he holds in his hands an ancient text translated by an unlearned young man through the gift and power of God.
Ralph C. Hancock
Daniel C. Peterson
Matthew S. Holland
Brigham Young University
Gerald McDermott asks the question: Is the historical record of Jesus’ appearance to groups of people in America, as presented in the Book of Mormon, to be believed? He answers no, because there are many voices, particularly the witnesses of the four gospels, to certify the Palestinian Jesus, but there is only one voice”namely, Joseph Smith’s”to affirm the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I ask: Would our witness of the divine Sonship of Christ be weakened or diluted if we had only three gospels? Or, what if we simply possessed the Gospel of John? The number of witnesses seems almost irrelevant to me. A billion people can be blatantly wrong on a particular matter, while a single voice can be right. Further, this line of reasoning would make sense only if honest truth-seekers were being forced to choose between the four canonical gospels or the book of Third Nephi in the Book of Mormon, to decide which record is the one and only source of truth concerning the reality and teachings of Jesus, which we are not. The Book of Mormon is intended to complement the New Testament.
McDermott then adds that the New Testament testimonies are eighteen centuries older than the manuscript that became the Book of Mormon. To begin with, no one is debating the truthfulness of the NT story. But having said that, are we to conclude that older always means better or truer? Many of the Nag Hammadi (Gnostic) codices, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are older than some NT documents, but should they occupy a more prominent place in our library or be included within the Christian canon?
McDermott writes of an inconsistency between the Palestinian Jesus, who spoke of the larger kingdom and of the relevance of the gospel for the whole world, as opposed to the Jesus in the Book of Mormon, who spoke much of America as a promised land and the location of the New Jerusalem. This is not really an inconsistency. In the very chapter describing the first appearance of the risen Lord to the people in America in a.d. 34, the following words are spoken by the American Jesus: Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world. And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning. Now note this verse: Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world (3 Nephi 11:10“11, 14). Jesus is not fixated on America any more than he was, in the Old World, intent that the gospel go first to the Jews and later to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:5; 15:24).
One of the larger issues put forward by McDermott is the seeming inconsistency between the teachings on the Godhead within the Book of Mormon and the later teachings of Joseph Smith. He did not outgrow the Book of Mormon; in fact, he was testifying of its truthfulness to the guards in the Carthage, Illinois jail the night before he was killed. Brother Joseph and the Saints saw no inconsistency between the God of 1830 and the God of 1844. In fact, on June 16, 1844, only eleven days before his death, Joseph stated: I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.
Clearly the central point of departure between Nicene Christianity and Latter-day Saint Christianity is the doctrine of the Trinity. As McDermott appropriately points out, Latter-day Saints do not believe in an ontological oneness within the Trinity, that our Heavenly Father, our divine Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit are in fact the same being. Must one really accept the ontological oneness of the members of the Godhead in order to be close to them, to be at peace with them, to feel their power and presence in one’s life, or to gain salvation? When I say that I feel the Spirit of the Lord in my life, I do not stop and ask, Is this the Spirit of the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit? Frankly, to me it doesn’t matter: It is God’s Spirit. Nor do I feel that my capacity to love others”more specifically to enjoy the love of God in my own personal life and then to be empowered to extend that love to my brothers and sisters about me”is in any way hindered or misdirected because I do not believe in an ontological oneness. My ability to give to my wife, children, and grandchildren from deep resources within me is not a product of my intellectual conceptualization of the divine. Rather, it is a product of personal devotion, communion, and transformation through divine grace.
When a theologian declares that Mormonism is not Christian, what does he mean? Further, what does the man on the street or the woman in the pew understand by that exclusion? Does it mean that Latter-day Saints do not accept the New Testament as the word of God? Does it mean they do not accept Jesus’ divine birth, matchless teachings, perfect walk, miracles, and substitutionary atonement for the whole of humanity? Does it mean that Mormons reject the Resurrection and Ascension into heaven? To assume any of these would be incorrect. Thus to assert that Mormons are not Christian, in the abstract, is misleading and a serious misrepresentation.
Robert L. Millet
Brigham Young University
Bruce D. Porter replies:
My article and the article by Gerald McDermott appeared under the same title but were written independently, so I will confine my responses to those letters that addressed my contribution only.
Pastor Philip Spomer objects to Mormons proselytizing other Christians. We are hardly the only denomination that seeks to win converts from other Christian churches; there are many evangelicals, for example, quite ambitious about reclaiming Mormons. Let me stress, however, that we have always referred to other Christian faiths as Christian despite our differences, and we believe their witness of Christ to be valid and accepted by him. We simply believe that modern prophets have brought additional light and truth into the world, which we wish to share.
Thomas Pfizenmaier’s letter reflects so many inaccuracies about Mormon doctrine I can only assume his understanding is based entirely on secondary sources openly hostile to Mormonism. Certainly he shows no familiarity with the teachings of the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants, much less with those of contemporary Church leaders. First, we do not believe that God is Lord only of this Earth, but of the entire universe, and that Jesus Christ is fully divine and was so before the creation of the world. We do not believe he was created by God, but rather begotten; he is described in the Doctrine and Covenants as being from everlasting to everlasting (D&C 61:1).
Second, Pfizenmaier’s language regarding Mary’s motherhood is offensive and does not reflect the doctrine we teach. We believe in the account of Christ’s birth found in the New Testament and confirmed in the Book of Mormon: He shall be born of Mary . . . she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost (Alma 7:10).
Third, the brief Mormon practice of polygamy had nothing whatever to do with populating other planets; it may have helped populate the intermountain West.
Fourth, Pfizenmaier is 180 degrees inaccurate in his baffling assertion that Mormons believe that Jesus atoned not for individual sins but only for Adam’s sin. In fact, though we believe in the fall of Adam and that our earth is a fallen world, Mormons do not accept the doctrine of original sin. Rather, we believe that children are born innocent and that human beings are accountable for their own sins, not for Adam’s transgression. We proclaim that Christ atoned for the individual sins of every human being that ever lived and that only by the Savior’s atoning grace and resurrection can any mortal overcome sin and death. Those who come unto Christ with humble, penitent hearts and are baptized and receive the Holy Ghost will stand before his judgment seat cleansed and sanctified of all sin. Redeemed by him, they will be free from every effect and penalty of sin.
Finally, he asserts that our doctrine of God is different; this is true insofar as we do not accept the Nicene Creed or other creedal conceptualizations of God and Christ as ontologically one. Contrary to another of his claims, we most definitely believe that Christ is fully God and that he is diametrically opposed to Lucifer in every conceivable way. However, Pfizenmaier seems most disturbed by our belief that man can become like God. By this we mean that glorified, resurrected human beings, free from all mortal corruption, can, in the course of eternity and through the grace and blessing of Christ, become ever more like God in virtue, attributes, and spiritual and creative powers. A modest rephrasing of the couplet he quotes illuminates this in a way perhaps more meaningful to traditional Christians: As man is, Christ once was; as Christ is, man may become. Several New Testament passages point to the possibility of man becoming like God: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48); Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him (1 John 3:2); We are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ . . . that we may be also glorified together (Romans 8:16“17); Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God (Phil. 2:5“6).
In this connection, let me comment briefly on McDermott’s assertion in his companion article that, in orthodox Christianity, God is wholly other. If God is wholly other, how can we have any access to him at all? How can we know him in any measure? Yet Christ said, And this is life eternal, that they may know thee the only true God (John 17:3). Moreover, if he is wholly other, then why did Peter write of precious promises whereby we might be partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)? A central teaching of Mormonism is simply this: Being children of God, created in his image, we have the potential within us to partake of the divine nature and become like unto God. We are infinitely less than he is now, but, since he has infinite power to bless and uplift, he will in eternity, as a loving father, grant true followers of his beloved Son every possible blessing he has to give.
Gerald R. McDermott replies:
The letters make four basic objections: that I minimized the problems between Mormonism and orthodoxy, that I misrepresented Mormonism, that I underestimated the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, and that I accuse Mormonism of being non-Christian.
First, minimizing the problems. I don’t understand why Pastor Spomer says I omitted the doctrine of eternal progression, for I stated that according to Mormonism we are all on the same path of progression to becoming gods like Jesus. (Interestingly, Joseph Stanford confirms this Mormon belief in evolving into a God.) I am also puzzled that Pastor Pfizenmaier says I minimized doctrinal differences, when the last major section of my essay focused on how Mormon doctrine about Jesus and the Trinity differs from classical Christian doctrine. In any event, he suggests the Mormon Jesus is not God in the proper sense because he was created alongside Lucifer and so is at best Arian. I pointed out that the Jesus taught by Mormon authorities was not always God but is fully God now. Thus the Mormon Jesus is neither orthodox (for he was once not God) nor Arian (since the Arian Jesus was never fully God). Pfizenmaier’s eschatological Pelagianism probably refers to Mormon teaching that there will be different rewards based on works, which is not in principle different from the orthodox teaching that we are saved by grace through faith but judged by works. His charge that the atonement applies only to Adam’s sin is denied by the Encyclopedia of Mormonism , which declares that Jesus’ atonement was a redeeming ransom . . . for the personal sins of all who repent, from Adam to the end of the world.
Ralph Hancock, Daniel Peterson, Matthew Holland, and Robert Millet insist I misrepresent Mormonism by positing a dichotomy between the Palestinian Jesus and the American Jesus, especially when I say the American Jesus was fixated on America. They argue rightly that the American Jesus said he is the light of the world, took the sins of the world, would preach the gospel to all nations and that there would still be a role for old Jerusalem. But I would say there is still something of a fixation on America: The Book of Mormon is the story of lost tribes coming to America, Jesus’ sole travel outside Palestine is to America, God’s latter-day prophet was from New York, Eden is thought to have been in Missouri, the New Jerusalem will descend to Missouri, and the Western Hemisphere during the millennium will be centered there.
These writers also contend that there was no cosmically significant change in Smith’s view of God between the Book of Mormon and his later writings. Then why do Hancock, Peterson, and Holland concede that Smith’s later views of God are not entailed by the Book of Mormon? Perhaps because there is no way to reconcile the relative orthodoxy of the Book of Mormon’s view of the Godhead with Smith’s mention of three Gods eleven days before his death and with the following statements in his King Follet Discourse: Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? . . . Hence if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that he had a Father also? I think most non-LDS readers will conclude this is indeed a cosmically significant change in anyone’s view of God and a radical departure from the theology of the New Testament.
The third series of objections has to do with the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. According to Hancock, Peterson, and Holland, I pass over . . . the direct and well-attested statements of the eleven witnesses. But these witnesses claimed only that they saw the plates and engravings on them. Was there really enough engraving on the plates to have filled two columns of 572 pages in the current Doubleday edition? How can we know that Smith’s translation of the engravings was authentic? There was only one witness who could reliably answer these questions”Joseph Smith. Millet says the number of the witnesses is irrelevant. In other cases, I agree. But both Peter at Pentecost and Paul in writing to the Corinthians seemed to believe that when it comes to new events of redemption it is important to have a plurality of witnesses: This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses (Acts 2:32). [Christ] appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then to more than five hundred brothers at one time . . . . then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all . . . he appeared also to me (1 Cor. 15:5“8). Millet also argues that older is not better, for some of the Nag Hammadi documents may have been older than some of the New Testament documents. Well, not all specialists would agree with this dating of the documents. But if older is not always better, witnesses closer to the event have greater plausibility, and the gap between a first-century event and a nineteenth-century testimony to that event is huge. Besides, if Jesus came to a flourishing civilization in the Americas in the first century, why are there no other extant records of these appearances?
Finally, the relation of Mormonism to Christianity. My friend Robert Millet argues that Mormonism is Christian because it accepts a large number of orthodox beliefs. I agree that Mormon Christology, for example, is better than that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are full-blown Arians. But when Mormon Christology also rejects Christ’s preexistence as fully divine and says that we humans are no different from him ontologically and that Christ is limited by principles that stand outside him”and when Smith says Christ’s Father has his own Father”then Mormon Christology has wandered far from orthodox and biblical Christian theology. Hancock, Peterson, and Holland say that others who have wandered have still been called Christian. But they fail to distinguish between those issues that are considered nonessential (such as the scope of the atonement, the relation between free will and predestination, and how to interpret Genesis 1“11) and those regarded universally as essential, such as God’s identity (Christ and Trinity). The latter is among the critical issues on which Mormons and the orthodox tradition differ.
Most of the letter writers were irked by my saying that Mormonism as it stands cannot be successfully grafted onto the olive shoot of Christianity. This was at the end of two paragraphs in which I concluded that Mormonism is a rejection of historic Christian orthodoxy and the existing Christian tradition. I was not denying any relation between Mormonism and Christianity, and I was not talking about whether Mormons can be saved, which is a different matter.
At the end of the day, I think historians Irving Hexham and J. Gordon Melton have it right when they say that Mormonism is one of a number of New Religious Movements with connections to historic Christianity.
Robert George’s prescription to make business moral (Making Business Moral, October 2008) is really a call for businesses to support the formation of moral people and therefore ensure an honest and capable workforce, through the agency of a strengthened traditional family. This would certainly be valuable and moral, but it is not a path to make business moral. In fact, rooted as it is, like most aspects of business, in self-serving, it all seems a bit limited.
The problem with making business moral is that the demands of competition, the desire for maximizing gain, and the ability of the owners to separate themselves from the personal, social, and environmental impacts of their business almost inevitably lead to some form of immoral action, at least if we’re using the Golden Rule as a moral standard. The mining business strips the hills bare and pollutes the groundwater in West Virginia, while the executives gaze out on the green hills of the Berkshires and the stockholders require only an expected return. The human-resources manager proclaims that their people are their greatest assets, all while she is planning to outsource their jobs to Borneo”anything to break the union or increase margins. The agribusiness giant patents new seed and then sues the farmer whose field has grown that seed accidentally, blown from a neighboring farm on the fickle evening breezes.
In more purely economic terms, Adam Smith’s invisible hand can operate to the betterment of all only when all of the costs of a transaction are fully included in the price and things are proceeding in the context of a fair market. But no company worth its charter wants to acknowledge the true costs of its production in environmental terms (as its competitors won’t), nor can it resist trying to un-level the playing field through some form of government subsidy or monopolistic protection (as its competitors definitely will).
This comes of Milton Friedman’s dictum that the sole concern of American business should be the maximization of profit and of the growing dissociation between owners and the communities in which they make and sell. It’s interesting that Rakesh Khurana’s book focuses on the change from managerial capitalism to shareholder capitalism. What irony that what is in some ways the democratization of business ownership actually contributes to the tyranny of the now and the self. If a business owner has to face his customers and fellow citizens across the aisle in church, won’t he be just a little more likely to follow the Golden Rule?
Accepting the reality of all this, the community at large must limit the freedom of business to behave as usual through the agency of Robert George’s third pillar: a fair and effective system of law and government. If business schools have a role in the making of moral businesses, it must start with teaching students a civics, even a patriotism, that values government (and therefore community) rather than viewing it as a constraint to be slipped or as a means to constrain others.
John M. Kelly
Robert P. George ably defends the principle that the family is one of the pillars on which any functioning society stands. But along with the first pillar (respect for individual human beings and their dignity), the second (the family), and the third (a fair and effective system of law and government), he not so subtly sneaks in a fourth pillar near the end: business. By implication, he puts business on an equal footing with the other three, which seems to me a little excessive. Although he never uses the word capitalism , the word business is a fairly obvious stand-in for capitalism: unrestricted accumulation of wealth, joint-stock companies, corporation law, and all the other machinery that we are so used to by now that it seems to be the only conceivable alternative to socialism, which is by now generally regarded as a failure by all but the tenured among us. What he doesn’t mention, but comes close to at one point, is any consideration of a third way that is neither pure capitalism nor socialism by any means: namely, distributism.
Simply put, distributism takes the principle of subsidiarity, which by George’s own definition says that government must respect individual initiative to the extent reasonably possible and avoid violating the autonomy and usurping the authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society, and applies it to business as well as to government. One of distributism’s most well-known and vocal proponents was G.K. Chesterton, whose quip about Christianity also applies to distributism: One could say that distributism has not been tried and failed, but merely has not been tried, at least in the last century or so.
We are so used to having entire towns destroyed economically by the decisions or poor planning of multinational corporations, the price fluctuations of necessary commodities being determined by speculators halfway across the world, and power beyond that of most nineteenth-century countries being concentrated in the hands of a few CEOs and boards of directors that distributism seems like an eccentric, even laughable, idea.
While even in its heyday distributism was mainly a British phenomenon, its ideas are deeply rooted in Catholic social thought and draw therefrom the integrity and Christian character of timeless principles of justice and charity.
While I do not hope that the current financial turmoil in the United States and elsewhere gets anywhere near as bad as it was in the 1930s, perhaps it will lead more people, including George, at least to inform themselves about the third way of economics, politics, and the ordering of public life that distributism represents.
Karl D. Stephan
San Marcos, Texas
It was heartening to read Robert George’s defense of business from a moral perspective. Unfortunately, his defense is flawed by, first, giving all three pillars comparable status, and second, a perilous vagueness about their underlying values.
As to the first, George’s analogy suggests that the pillars, though supportive of the same thing (society), each possess a primary importance warranting intervention by the government for a society’s well-being. It is implied that such intervention would not interfere with the function of the other pillars”like actual pillars, they are equally strong and separate. This analogy breaks down when one considers the nature of pillar number two. The family is composed of individuals, making it derivative of the first pillar, and so cannot be considered a separate, primary unit. As individuals protected by the first pillar, adult family members may be morally responsible for espousing particular values, but they cannot legitimately be made to do so.
By making the family a second pillar, comparable to the first, George pays mistaken homage to chronology in his architectural analogy. Yes, individuals who respect other individuals come from nurturing families, and, if they don’t, the first pillar of a decent society will be undermined and sooner or later lost. It does not follow, however, that families are a primary unit to be protected apart from individuals. Families are individuals.
George makes a similar error with his third pillar”an effective system of law and government”by equating common goals with the common good (the law coordinates human behavior for the sake of achieving common goals”the common good). This exhibits the second major flaw of his article: vagueness. A writer on guard against Marxist thinking should not leave such a phrase as the common good undefined. Citizens of a free society cannot legally be made to be their brothers’ (or even brother’s) keeper via forced redistribution of their justly earned resources. Marx argued the opposite: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. George opposes this, but the common good remains a loaded and unqualified phrase.
The article is full of such undefined and unqualified statements which accommodate a wide range of interpretations. Even with the unassailable first pillar, George is not specific. A healthy liberal ethos supports the dignity of the human person by giving witness to fundamental human rights and civil liberties. What exactly are these rights and liberties? Do they include the right to free health care, a right to a job, a right to three meals a day? Egalitarianism could be argued from such a statement. George supplies no specific counter to such a notion.
He endorses government intervention based on the ideal of limited government and the principle of subsidiarity, according to which government must respect individual initiative to the extent reasonably possible and avoid violating the autonomy and usurping the authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society. Limited in what way? What defines reasonably possible? And what is the authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society apart from the authority that protects individual rights? Unanswered, these questions are quite chilling to anyone familiar with the platitudes of several twentieth-century dictators.
The proper limit to government was set by the memorable definition of inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This definition affirms an individual’s right to freedom of action that does not interfere with any other individual’s freedom of action. A prohibition against the initiation of force (whether physical force or the breach of contracts) logically follows, and provides a sure guideline as to what constitutes interference.
What’s commonly known as the rule of law is the body of law that protects inalienable rights. With this established, one of the points about which George is more explicit can be readily agreed with: Business itself, valuable as it is, is not a primary unit itself and must operate within the rule of law. It need only be added that this point is also applicable to families, religious communities, and all other institutions of civil society. All are composed of individuals. Our rights protected, all right things will follow.
Brooklyn, New York
With regard to business, the foundational unit is not the family but the tribe. Corporate culture, whether or not for profit, is tribal culture. Almost every business has rituals for initiation (such as new-employee orientation), rituals to reinforce desired behavior (performance reviews, pay raises, promotions), and rituals to reduce or eliminate undesired behavior (demotions, firing for cause). These rituals are implemented by a hierarchy of progressively more in tribal in-groups, from first-line supervisors to the CEO. Or from priests to the pope.
An organization’s culture functions as its personality, and, like an individual personality, it has a Jungian shadow side. Chemical engineer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi noted that, for hierarchical organizations, that shadow approximates the Nazi concentration camp.
He called it the gray zone between the victims and the persecutors of which he wrote in The Drowned and the Saved (1988): Only a schematic rhetoric can claim that that space is empty: It never is, it is studded with obscene or pathetic figures (sometimes they possess both qualities simultaneously) whom it is indispensable to know if we want to know the human species, if we want to know how to defend our souls when a similar test should once more loom before us, or even if we only want to understand what takes place in a big industrial factory.
A complement to this vision of the corporate dark side was offered by the psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, who opined in A General Theory of Love (2000): A company has no limbic structure predisposing it to recognize its own as intrinsically valuable. People who extend fidelity and fealty to a corporate entity”legally a person and biologically a phantom”have been duped into a perilously unilateral contract. Steeped as they are in limbic physiology, healthy people have trouble forcing their minds into the unfamiliar outline of this reptilian truth: No intrinsic restraint on harming people exists outside the limbic domain.
Yet every individual in the corporation does have a limbic system, and almost everyone has the moral sense that it mediates. The challenge of corporate life is that one must be moral on the job, despite the company having no intrinsic moral framework other than the interlocking social networks of its members and the policies and actions of its leadership.
In Making Business Moral, George discusses the stake business has in upholding societies that respect human rights, families, and principles of good government. He does not address morality on the job as a thing in itself. M. Scott Peck did so from his viewpoint as a Christian and a psychiatrist in his book A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered (1993). I would love for George to address it from his position as a professor of jurisprudence and a Catholic moral philosopher.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Robert P. George replies:
Some years ago I wrote a book entitled Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality. By reminding readers of something everyone knows, namely, that law shapes culture and culture shapes conduct, I sought to cast doubt on the plausibility of a central dogma of contemporary liberal political philosophy, namely, that law should be neutral with respect to what makes for, and detracts from, a valuable and morally worthy way of life. I argued that, though law cannot make us moral, it can (and will) either support or hinder the character-forming efforts of families, churches, and other institutions of civil society that bear the principal responsibility for encouraging virtue and discouraging vice.
The title (Making Business Moral) assigned by the editors of First Things to my little essay on the pillars of decent and dynamic societies was a clever play on the title of my book, but I fear it had the effect of misleading some readers. John Kelly, for example, supposes that I was offering a prescription to make business moral. I was not. The core of my argument about business was to show that business firms have a profound stake in the flourishing of the family and other institutions of civil society that play the primary roles in transmitting the virtues necessary to sustain decent and dynamic societies. Therefore, such firms should refrain from doing things that tend to enervate or undermine these institutions and should do what they can to support and encourage them.
As to the substance of Kelly’s letter, I would say that the free-market system of exchange is a great blessing, especially as an engine of prosperity and social dynamism and as an enabler of upward social mobility, but, by itself, the market is incapable of securing the overall common good, and, left free of prudent regulation, it would quickly pose a threat to the well-being of the community and sow the seeds of its own demise. Unnecessary regulation damages the public good and therefore should be avoided, but some regulation is necessary.
Karl Stephan also misunderstands my argument in some important respects. I do not say that the family is one of the pillars on which any functioning society stands. I say that the family (together with the other institutions of civil society that support it) is one of the pillars on which any decent society stands. (The other two pillars are the principle of respect for the dignity of human persons and fair and effective institutions of law and government.) Stephan accuses me of not so subtly sneak[ing] in a fourth pillar . . . business, and placing it on an equal footing with the other three. Nonsense. I do not argue that business is a pillar of any decent society. What I claim is that it is a pillar of social dynamism. And I explicitly say that societies needn’t be dynamic in order to be decent. (At the same time, I argue”more controversially”that social dynamism need not undermine decency.) So, though I am a supporter of business and the (properly regulated) market economy, I don’t treat business as equal in fundamental moral importance to the family.
As a card-carrying Chestertonian, I will not say a bad word about distributism, though I will note that distributism , like capitalism (and, to a lesser extent, socialism ), is a term used by different people (even different disciples of Chesterton) to mean different things. Any distributism worth defending will honor private property and the market system of exchange”a system that, when functioning well, serves the common good by enhancing overall prosperity and making more people and families possessors of productive assets (or possessors of shares of such assets). It will, to be sure, reject laissez-faire economics but will not regard profit-seeking as inherently corrupt or corrupting. It will, in short, be in line with the teaching of John Paul the Great in his encyclical letter Centesimus Annus ”a teaching, I should add, whose wisdom is appreciated not just by Catholics but also by Eastern Orthodox Christians, evangelical and other Protestants, Latter-day Saints, Jews, and people of other faiths.
Like the late pontiff, I am no statist or collectivist. Yet Bruce Marr seems to suspect that I am. It is certainly true that I reject radical individualism and strict libertarianism. I am no disciple of Ayn Rand. But that doesn’t make me a statist or collectivist. As noted, I believe in private property and the market economy. In my view, anyone who understands anything about political economy and cares about the dignity of the human person and the legitimate autonomy and proper authority of the family will share these beliefs. Private property and economic freedom are bulwarks against state tyranny. In this way, among others, they vitally serve the common good.
In the classic conception of the common good”a conception I share”the dignity of the human person is central. Evidently, however, this is not clear to Marr. He reacts to my references to the common good by declaring it to be a loaded and unqualified phrase whose use reveals that I am not sufficiently on guard against Marxist thinking. He worries that my concern for the common good opens the door to collectivist notions of rights to state-provided health care, jobs, and daily meals. Some of my points about, for example, subsidiarity and the autonomy and authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society raise questions, he says, that are quite chilling to anyone familiar with the platitudes of several twentieth-century dictators.
Oy vey. Like any concept, including the concept of individual liberty, the concept of the common good can be misunderstood and even manipulated and abused. A Marxist might claim that the abolition of private property, the expropriation and collective ownership of the means of production, and the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat are for the common good. But no one who is in the least knowledgeable and alert will be deceived into believing that such ideas are entailed by, or are even compatible with, the classic conception of the common good.
Usually in speaking of the common good we mean to refer to the good of a political society. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that communities of all sorts and at every level have a common good. A business firm has a common good; so does a religious community, and so does a family. The common good of some communities is an intrinsic good; the common good of others is fundamentally instrumental. It is uncontroversial to say that the common good of a business firm is fundamentally an instrumental good, businesses are, in essence, means to ends. The common good of a church or family, however, is intrinsic. Such communities are ends as well as means. This is because the well-being and fulfillment of persons consist in part precisely in participating in such communities. They are not mere instruments. They have value for persons even beyond the instrumental benefits they provide.
What about the common good of political societies: Is it intrinsic or fundamentally instrumental? The question is difficult and theorists of the classic conception of the common good are divided on it. The argument is far too complicated to go into here, but I will take the occasion to record my view that it is fundamentally instrumental. While I agree with Aristotle that the political common good is great and godlike in its scope and importance, I also agree with the fathers of the Second Vatican Council that it consists in the establishment and maintenance of the conditions for the flourishing of persons and the communities (families, churches, and other communities of faith) in which membership and participation are intrinsically fulfilling.
When Marr says that the family is composed of individuals . . . and so cannot be considered a separate, primary unit, I grow a little uneasy. Sure, a family is a group of individuals, but it is not a mere means or purely an extrinsic instrument to be used by individuals to accomplish their subjective goals. That is because among the various inherent and irreducible aspects of human well-being and fulfillment is the good of being part of a family. That helps to explain why members of families carry the burden and enjoy the benefit of responsibilities toward each other that were not chosen or freely assumed, such as the ordinary responsibility of adult children to attend to and care for infirm elderly parents. We come packaged as individuals, but we are by nature sociable creatures whose flourishing consists in part in being members of communities, beginning with a community we did not choose to join, namely, the family.
Drawing on a body of literature in psychology with which I am unfamiliar, my dear friend and college classmate John Futterman offers some interesting reflections on the structure and function of business firms and similar organizations. His letter concludes by urging me to follow the lead of M. Scott Peck and address questions concerning morality on the job. Since that sort of thing made Peck a very rich man, I’m tempted to follow my friend’s advice! I suspect, though, that my ruminations on the subject would find a much smaller market. Still, I’ll give the matter some thought. For now, I would simply suggest that there is no special morality (or special set of moral principles or norms of conduct) for the workplace. The rules and virtues governing ordinary life apply at work. There are, to be sure, certain special challenges arising out of circumstances of employment, but these are to be met by thoughtfully applying the principles that serve us well in every other domain, not by imagining that we need to invent a novel set of moral principles for business”though I confess that Moral Principles for Business would make a pretty snazzy title for a just-in-time-for-Christmas, stocking-stuffer book.
Children of God
Babies Perfect and Imperfect by Amy Julia Becker (November 2008) evokes the ancient question about a man born blind: His disciples asked him, Rabbi, was it his sin or that of his parents that caused him to be born blind?’ Neither, answered Jesus. It was no sin, either of this man or of his parents. Rather it was to let God’s works show forth in him.
Amy Julia Becker and her husband now face one of life’s greatest challenges. I know that this is so because my husband and I, like them, are parents of a disabled child”in our case, a daughter now grown to adulthood. Like Penny Becker, Lisa was born with a serious handicap, one that was and is a factor affecting every aspect of her life.
God’s grace, mercifully given, is the only possible explanation for my ability to understand that our daughter’s disability did not extend to her eternal soul formed in the mind of God. And while this knowledge did not make the trials of day to day life easy, it did enable me to relate to Lisa as a perfect, temporarily wounded person. It shaped our relationship to allow us occasional glimpses of what might have been”of what I believe will be in eternity. It put us to the test, imposing an obligation to believe and to assure Lisa that a person is more than her worldly accomplishments.
Yes, Lisa and Penny are no more or less human than I am, no more or less born in sin, no more or less blessed, no more or less in need of redemption, but we gain nothing by denying the suffering implicit in their situations. Amy Julia Becker is correct: Bad things do happen during our earthly lives. But through our experience, as I have every reason to hope and do believe, God’s work will show forth in our children, that they will be healed of their disabilities, and that their true natures will emerge unimpeded in eternal life.
Linda Wolpert Smith
New London, New Hampshire
With the disabled Christ, all creation groans, as St. Paul asserts, or, as Becker says, it has limitations ”this in relation to her Down syndrome daughter, Penny, not because of the pain of disablement, but rather because of the joyous pain caused by the gut laughter of victory’s pain, over the greatest disablement of all, death . This allows the triumphant chant to rise through the heavens to the Throne, O death, where is thy victory?
Therefore I believe that, in some mystical way, our oneness in the Body of Christ, the term as it refers to the baptized (all humanity?) and as understood by St. Paul, is not just a poetic expression. No, it is so real, so tangible, that in and through Christ we suffer together, completing collectively what the Father, in the Spirit with the Son, determined.
Bronx, New York
Amy Julia Becker makes an important point when she writes, The initial sin of Adam and Eve was to attempt to become like God instead of accepting their inherent limitedness as humans.
For years this passage in the third chapter of Genesis troubled me: Then the Lord God said, Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’”therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken (Gen. 3:22“23).
It sounded as if God was somehow threatened by man’s overreaching and ordered him out of the garden in order to protect himself. But the rest of Scripture makes that thought nonsensical. As I reflected on the passage, however, it became clear to me that God’s act here was more one of grace and protection rather than judgment and punishment. Deification may be something we invariably strive for in our sinfulness, but it is not something for which we were created and therefore of which we are capable. To till the ground and to live by the sweat of our brow may be a