A neighbor at First Thoughts has found occasion (someone was listening to Glenn Beck…) to issue yet another warning to any who might consider communing as Christians with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fair enough. Since we Mormons (you may as well know) in fact regard our church as “the only true and living church,” we really don’t crave recognition by gatekeepers of another orthodoxy. The somewhat quaint Vatican statement our fellow blogger relies on reads like a puzzled anthropologist’s report on an exotic tribe of whom we have but fragmentary information. It notes very correctly that, although Mormons baptize in the name of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,” they are not Trinitarians, and concludes from this that the Mormon concept of divinity has no “substance.” Well, the Mormon “concept” (if that’s what it is) certainly has no Trinitarian “substance.” The Vatican document offers a rather odd account of Mormonism as a “sacred history” rewritten in America, in which what God revealed was the “latter-day saints” – whatever that would mean. But it suffices to open the Book of Mormon to its title page to learn that its own stated purpose is “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself to all nations…” (Caps in the original).
Now, none of this is secret, and so, if you’re tempted to try survey research or to consult primary sources in addition to referring to Vatican reports of strange peoples, you might just (1) ask the Mormon next door or down the hall, who will no doubt willingly confess to not having a stake in the 3-in-1 doctrine, however elegant the venerable creedal statement may be, or (2) consult reliable information available at mormon.org – which, I can assure you, is not just an exoteric front. What’s published there is really what we believe! And indeed, you may note there both the prominence of Jesus Christ and the absence of Trinitarian sophistication, or, if you prefer, profundity.
So, please, commune with whomever you believe you ought to commune with. And if it helps to ease anyone’s mind, I can validate the following logic for you: All Christians are Trinitarians; No Mormons are Trinitarians; Ergo No Mormons are Christians. Well argued! But Mormons start with a different premise, and reach a different conclusion. And of course there have been many believers, before and after 325 AD, who called themselves Christians, but who would not have recognized many theological formulations that are now considered “traditional.” But to each his own definitions, if define we must. There remains, however, the question whether our blogger’s dichotomy between “scripture and tradition” and “personal revelation” is adequate to frame the question of how to arrive at good definitions.
Whatever may be at stake in affirming that Mormons believe in a “different religion” from “traditional” Christians, maybe we can at least agree that the only important question is, finally, not what is traditional, but what is true. That question seems a better starting point for “interfaith relations” than the pre-emptive deployment of definitions. In fact I have found discussions with Trinitarian friends (yes indeed, some of my best friends are Trinitarians), discussions not only of political and moral things, but indeed of the highest things – discussions, so it happens, that simply skipped over the stage of “definitions” –to be extremely rewarding, not only for reaching mutual understanding of differences and for forming practical alliances, but even for approaching and gaining glimpses of the meaning of truth, notably the truth of Jesus Christ’s infinite atonement (excuse the Mormon locution). I won’t try to define that for you here.
In any case, it is curious that our First Thoughts blogger seems oblivious to much fuller discussions of these matters, discussions published not all so long ago, in the very pages of First Things. Check out the Hancock-Peterson-Holland letter in particular. You can be sure the authors indeed depart from Father Neuhaus’s “tradition,” respectfully but with no regrets.