R. R. Reno, agreeing with Yuval Levin, believes we must rid ourselves of our nostalgia (“Public Square,” May). It is banal, of course, to suggest that we cannot live in the past. But is it nostalgic to yearn for a time when workers enjoyed a measure of security, families were intact, and “disruption” was not a business byword? Is it nostalgic to believe that certain traditions best serve men? It was Edmund Burke who admonished us not to overthrow tradition in favor of a new idea or theory. Our malady is not nostalgia; our malady is neophilia.
Many thanks for taking a stand against the postmodern denial of eternal law, natural law, human law, and personal law (conscience). This pretentiously “noble” illusion, known as “human rights,” which makes humans privileged creatures, has wiped out our Creator and deified man.
All violations of so-called “human rights” are violations of natural law and violations of the will of the Creator, first and foremost. Presenting man only and not God as the victim of unlawful actions eliminates God. It perfectly illustrates what Solzhenitsyn was talking about in his 1978 Harvard commencement address.
Western civilization, built upon obedience to natural law, the will of God, has replaced God with man. Solzhenitsyn summed up our betrayal, our unbelief, our self-worship perfectly with one word: anthropocentricity.
orange county, virginia
R. R. Reno replies:
In “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism,” Mark C. Henrie explains the positive role of nostalgia. We look back and regret goods eclipsed by social change. This sense of loss expands our moral horizons, reminding us that our present form of life lacks something important. In this way, nostalgia can be an important step toward moral and political wisdom.
Jim Severance rightly commends nostalgia in this sense. We have every reason to long for the lost economic security of the earlier postwar era—as well as family stability and enduring marriages. This does not mean restoring the quasi-monopolistic practices of that era—or reinventing 1950s culture. Nostalgia is not a policy. It’s a discipline of thought and sentiment that saves us from the malady of neophilia, as Severance so pungently puts it.
There is also a debilitating nostalgia, however, that lives in or clings to the past rather than learning from it. It’s this sort that Yuval Levin censures in The Fractured Republic. He points out the ways in which Democrats and Republicans continue to presume forms of solidarity that no longer exist, or are significantly diminished. Our parties have become unreflectively nostalgic because they want to be reassured that their rhetoric of freedom—sexual liberation on the left and economic deregulation on the right—remains salient. The opposite is the case.
Severance and Levin, therefore, do not disagree. What we need today is a politics of solidarity, not freedom, one that supports our innate desire for stability, continuity, and loyalty. Again, that does not entail “going back.” Instead, it means expanding our political imaginations so that we seek to find realistic ways to restore to public life what has been lost. That’s exactly what Levin outlines in the final chapters of his book.
Piers Woodriff raises an important question: Why has the legal and moral project of human rights gone off the rails? I’m sympathetic to his answer: All human rights are based upon still deeper moral truths. As an instrument of justice, human rights can protect human dignity. But this only works when we see the human person against the horizon of a larger moral vision.
Christ in College
I commend Molly Oshatz’s “College Without Truth” (May) for getting at the heart of the political hypersensitivity at so many elite colleges. The stated commitment to demographic diversity and the utter lack of ideological diversity are among the top reasons for higher education’s crisis of credibility today.
I wonder if Oshatz might have had a different experience in a setting other than San Francisco State University, however. You would be hard-pressed these days to find a university that does not identify “diversity” as a first-order good. But I suspect the touchiness about disagreement is not quite so frantic at many of the schools between the East and West coasts, especially at many religious institutions.
As a professor who has taught his whole career at Baylor, a Baptist university in Texas, I know that the diversity question can roil schools like ours, too. But I am also struck by the fact that many Christian colleges feature surprising levels of ideological diversity, even as we seek to unify around our common faith.
My theory is that if Christ is the center of a Christian university, that commitment can open the door for a real range of views on politics, because politics becomes a second-order priority. (Traditional seminaries, I would argue, are a different matter— there you must have stricter theological standards that tend to produce more uniformity in all areas of life and thought.)
At Baylor, I am definitely on the conservative end of the faculty’s spectrum of political views. But I am not alone as a conservative, and there are plenty of professors who are on the liberal end. The litmus test for being hired is not one’s politics, but (aside from academic qualifications) church involvement and an articulate faith.
Don’t get me wrong: We have our disagreements about ideological issues, too. But that’s my point: We have actual diversity of political thought here. What’s more, this diversity has emerged organically, without requiring any special “initiatives” to create it. Many Protestant and Catholic institutions that remain committed to their faith could say the same thing.
At least in the humanities and social sciences, universities can’t seem to get by without some kind of centering intellectual commitment. At most secular schools, that centering commitment is political liberalism. Thus ideological diversity is intolerable. At Christian universities, we can afford to have political diversity, because our centering commitment is faith in Jesus.
Thomas S. Kidd
Molly Oshatz replies:
I thank Thomas Kidd for his insightful and encouraging response to my article. My own experience confirms his statement that “the touchiness about disagreement is not quite so frantic at many of the schools between the East and West coasts, especially at many religious institutions.” Before working at San Francisco State, I taught at Florida State University. Although FSU is of course not a religious institution, my classes there included many students with strong faith commitments who were able to bring their perspective to the classroom in appropriate ways. Perhaps even more importantly, their fellow students responded to these contributions with respect and civility. A politically, religiously, and ideologically diverse student body, as well as a faculty that did not see their job as one of indoctrination, made for an excellent teaching environment. So, as I too can attest, there do indeed remain universities at which one can devote oneself to the pursuit of truth rather than the pursuit of a political identity.
Yet Kidd is also correct that, in order to resist an insidious hyper-politicization and ideological sameness, all colleges and universities need a “centering intellectual commitment.” I can certainly see how a commitment to Christ could serve as such, as Kidd attests that it does at Baylor. However, it is also true that plenty of traditionally Christian colleges and universities have fallen prey to a creeping secularization that has left them nearly indistinguishable intellectually from institutions without Christian commitments. In the name of student and faculty diversity and other goods, Christian identity often gets watered down until it comes to mean no more than a vague commitment to “service” along with merely formal recognition of the institution’s religious affiliation. (I’m looking at you, Notre Dame.) To hold a uniform and politicized academic culture at bay, even Christian colleges and universities require an objective standard, which might as well be a theologically grounded, Christ-centered version of the same standard that should apply at secular universities: the pursuit of truth.
Finally, I appreciate Kidd’s observation that no “special initiatives” have been needed to protect political diversity at Baylor. In the long term, I hope the same is true for secular educational institutions. As a strategy for decreasing ideological intolerance and increasing civility and mutual respect, programs undertaken explicitly to increase the hiring and promotion of conservative and religious faculty members seem both impracticable and self-defeating. Far better that concerned students, faculty, alumni, and other friends of American higher education encourage and inspire colleges and universities to return to the pursuit of their true and highest purpose.
I had the privilege of editing John Stott’s Basic Christianity for its fiftieth anniversary edition published in 2008 and so read Barton Swaim’s review with great interest (“Stott Bowdlerized,” May). May I add my observations to those made by James Ernest, editor-in-chief at Eerdmans, on the publishing house’s blog Eerdword in April?
Making changes to an acknowledged classic carries a significant risk of censure—not least from those who feel that tampering with such treasures should never even be contemplated! So it’s important to place on record that the revision was indeed “done at John Stott’s impetus, in accord with his aims, and with his approval.” As Ernest goes on to say, Stott’s primary mission was “not to make [my readers] more literate but to introduce them to Jesus Christ, and if there is anything in my patterns of speech or attire or manners in general that makes it difficult for them to listen to me, I will adapt my presentation of the gospel to their current ability to comprehend.”
Brian Wilson, IVP-UK’s chief executive at the time, liaised directly with John Stott and showed him the draft of a revised chapter and the editorial objectives I outlined. Wilson reported: “He seems very happy with this and has given us the go ahead to move forward on this basis. He will read the chapter in full and compare it to the original, but he is highly unlikely to object to anything. On the contrary, he asked if we thought it had gone far enough.” Six months later, when the revision was completed, Wilson indicated that Stott was content with the final text.
Barton Swaim’s most serious criticism is that “In the original text, Stott connected the word ‘reconciliation’ to the word ‘atonement’ by reference to Paul’s use of it in his Letter to the Romans. . . . In the updated text, however, ‘atonement’ is gone altogether.”
The reason for deleting John Stott’s observation that the word for “reconciliation” “is translated ‘atonement’ in Romans 5:11 (AV)” was twofold. First, because there was little to be gained from distracting the reader by having to explain what the Authorized Version is, and second, because it’s now generally acknowledged that katallagē doesn’t mean “atonement” anyway. It’s translated “reconciliation” in just about every English translation of the Bible since at least the Revised Version of 1881.
Swaim feels that “The newer text leaves the reader free (or freer) to think of the reconciliation Christ has accomplished as the sort of therapeutic fence-mending urged on brawling high-schoolers by their guidance counselors.” But I would suggest that the chapter as a whole, especially the section headed “Christ died as our Sinbearer,” does no such thing and is an eminently clear explanation of the meaning and significance of the death of Christ.
I’m delighted that Swaim shares with me a passion for John Stott’s enduring legacy as a first-class communicator of Christian truth. But, please, let’s not allow controversies about changes in style to conceal the reality that the substance of Basic Christianity is as faithful to the unchanging Gospel as ever.
coventry, united kingdom
Barton Swaim replies:
I thank David Stone for his civil response. My criticisms of his edits to Basic Christianity would not have been so sharp—indeed, they would not have been made at all, since I would not have read the updated version—if the extent of the changes had been announced prominently on the book’s cover or title page. As it was, only one throwaway sentence in the author’s preface indicated that there had been any changes made to Stott’s original text, leading one (or leading me, anyway) to believe that the alterations were minimal. In fact, as I explained in the article, about two in three sentences were altered in some way or other, in many cases significantly.
As for Romans 5:11, I will only say that Stott’s original version was an accurate and eloquent reflection of Paul’s text. In the context of Romans 5 the word “atonement” is a perfectly valid translation of katallagēn (indeed, although I am not myself a New Testament scholar, I note from the works I have readily available that John McIntyre, in The Shape of Soteriology, prefers “atonement” to “reconciliation”). As with the vast majority of other alterations made to the book—and there were far more than I could mention in my article—this one was not necessary.
That Stott approved the edits, in any case, I do not doubt. I leave it to the reader of my article to judge whether they were warranted.
Patricia Snow’s essay “Look at Me” (May) had many important and thoughtful comments on the increasing intrusion of technology into our social lives and how it conflicts with, and can be soothed by, the Catholic Church and the analog world at large. This was most instructive in the second half of the essay, which deals seriously with finding what possible remedies there might be for our dependence on screens and the alienation they have wrought. The first half, however, was more confusing and applies a framework that, while provocative, misses the mark.
I’m on the autism spectrum—specifically, I have Asperger’s syndrome—and so I went into Snow’s essay with a particular interest. In some ways I was not disappointed. Snow’s exploration of Let Me Hear Your Voice, for instance, gave me pause and made me realize how carelessly I considered the effect I’ve had on my parents and the immense effort it takes to nurture a child with autism. (For background, I was diagnosed in middle school but not informed until after college, which was something of a mixed blessing, but I digress.) And the depiction of treatment itself is fascinating. Yet Snow loses me when she conflates autism with the detaching effects of technological dependency, which, going by my experience, are not one and the same.
Though symptoms of the spectrum and symptoms of tech addiction may be similar on the surface, their root causes are opposed. The problem of autism isn’t over-connection but misconnection. Just because autistics—particularly those with Asperger’s—may be cold or without empathy does not mean that they are always unaware of their effect on others. Indeed, daily life on the spectrum is fraught with worry over having inadvertently upset or discomforted someone—or worry about detecting someone’s level of sincerity, the misreading of which makes us constantly vulnerable to being taken advantage of, particularly when young.
Moreover, the problem of autism is not under-stimulation but overstimulation. Again, my own experience with self-harm (in my case, biting my forearms in middle school) has been the opposite of what Snow describes: It always occurred in moments of anxiety and stress, of being put upon by surrounding pressures, not times of boredom or idleness.
For my part, idleness and disconnectedness are important to me. I cherish those times I’m taken away from the internet. Even in winter I could walk as many as eight miles around town or sit along the Passaic River, by a nature trail where I have no reception. Whatever intensity the autistic brings into real life, life gives back just as much, sometimes more, so a calm and meditative setting is never undesirable.
This is not to undermine Snow’s overall point, which is true and necessary—nor, I hope, to misunderstand it. I admit, of course, that I am susceptible to tech dependency and that ever-dreaded “fear of missing out.” But I attribute this less to my neurological condition and more to the fact that I am human. With autism there is a danger of abstraction—as much from within as from without—which I am trying to overcome. I crave more than anything a sense of concreteness. I want to be those things that come so easily to everyone else: a good friend, son, brother, and soon-to-be uncle, and not the unreliable and burdensome person I can sometimes be. This desire is made possible by those moments of contemplation and examination Snow calls for. I don’t know what makes people dive headlong into the detachment I have struggled with and wanted to break out of long before the Internet’s advent, and I don’t know if I can encourage them to follow my not-entirely-perfected example, but they should; I could probably hang out with some of them.
berkeley heights, new jersey
Patricia Snow replies:
My thanks to Chris Morgan for his thoughtful letter. Clearly, it is tricky trying to generalize about autism now that it has been defined as a comprehensive spectrum disorder. When I used autism as a metaphor for a kind of spiritual lostness, I had in mind classic autism rather than Asperger’s syndrome, which, as Morgan points out, presents quite differently. Perhaps one could generalize, though, by saying that whether overly indifferent or overly anxious in social situations, whether pathologically silent or inappropriately loquacious, individuals on the spectrum have more than ordinary difficulty achieving healthy, comfortable relationships with other people.
I agree with Morgan that the problem of autism is, at bottom, a problem of overstimulation. One theory is that an autistic person has inefficient neurocircuits, so that, for example, instead of traveling from A to B, an impulse may go from A to C, D, E, and F before finally finding its way to B, generating in the process a lot of neurological “noise” that may hinder social and cognitive development and even overwhelm an individual entirely. (As I write this, I can’t help but think about our overstimulating, multitasking, noise-polluted world, or about the person who goes online in search of B only to be distracted by C, D, E, and so on.) But once genuine collapse or withdrawal occurs, an individual may be so resistant to intrusion that under-stimulation may indeed become a problem, at which point appropriate parental and/or therapeutic intervention may make a difference.
I should add that I didn’t mean to suggest that self-harm is occasioned simply by boredom or idleness. In the University of Virginia experiment that I described, the students who gave themselves electric shocks were undoubtedly both anxious and stressed, once the devices to which they had become habituated, or addicted, were taken away.
Speaking of addiction, in the last paragraph of his letter, Morgan raises an issue that I didn’t explicitly address in the essay: namely, the irony of the fact that so many people today seem to be voluntarily abandoning themselves to a way of living and relating that resembles a condition to which other people have been involuntarily subjected since birth. He writes, “I don’t know what makes people dive headlong into the detachment”—meaning here a state of alienation, rather than something positive—“[that] I have struggled with and wanted to break out of long before the Internet’s advent.” This irony, I think, can only finally be explained by the trap of addiction, with the category of habit occupying a crucial intermediary stage between a person’s original freedom and eventual bondage.
In the same vein, in his last paragraph, Morgan warns us that “with autism there is a danger of abstraction, as much from within as from without,” and adds, “I crave more than anything a sense of concreteness.” These are prophetic words, addressed to an increasingly disembodied, relationally abstracted age. As our culture’s unprecedented flight from the real and from God accelerates, one can only wonder, with Fr. Donald Haggerty, if “we are heading for a historically significant time of disaster.”
I’m disappointed to see First Things giving implied credibility to Richard J. Mouw’s Mormon studies work by publishing his badly flawed article “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy” (May). Speaking as someone in Mormon studies, I believe that in this article Mouw has severely misrepresented current Mormon doctrine in general as well as its core doctrine of “celestial exaltation” in particular.
Stated simply, celestial exaltation (the doctrine that men can become gods) is the hub that the entire wheel of the Latter-day Saints “plan of salvation” turns around. And a key component of that doctrine is that the Heavenly Father (the God of our world) was once a man who successfully completed the plan of salvation, thus earning celestial exaltation. Remove this doctrine from Mormonism and both its soteriology and cosmology collapse.
Hence the Lorenzo Snow couplet (“As man now is, God once was;/As God now is, man may be”) that Mouw insists is being de-emphasized in LDS theology in fact remains as central and essential as when Joseph Smith taught in sermon form that which President Snow reduced to couplet.
This isn’t the first time that Mouw has misrepresented the true state of things in the contemporary LDS Church, nor do I think it will be the last if he remains in the field.
lake forest, california
I want to thank Rev. Richard J. Mouw for his thoughtful and charitable essay “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy.” I am glad that, through people like Robert Millet, there are those like Mouw with whom we can have friendly and fruitful dialogue.
There is no question that there are significant differences between Mormon theology and the theologies of traditional Christianity. It would be silly to suggest otherwise. Whether Latter-day Saints theology is becoming more like that of traditional Christians is an interesting question, as interesting as how far apart they have been previously.
In his discussion Mouw implicitly recognizes something that many who engage Mormon thought do not understand: namely, that deciding what constitutes orthodox Mormon doctrine is complicated. This makes discussions of LDS theology considerably more difficult. A scholar could ask “What is the LDS Church’s official teaching?” or “What do most Mormons believe?” He would get different answers to the two questions.
Another scholar might look at the history of Mormon belief to make the most rational sense of that history and its direction. This seems to be what Mouw has done. There’s no reason to believe that the result wouldn’t also accurately be called Mormon orthodoxy. Yet this answer would not be identical to the results of either of the previous two ways of exploring the question.
The fact that I can take part in LDS temple liturgy with those whose theology is radically different from mine testifies to the multiplicity of orthodoxies in Mormonism. Though there is a test for participation in that liturgy, it is not a theological test.
Having differences in theology is not unique to Mormonism. But where Mormons and most Protestants disagree is on theology’s importance. Mouw says, “Getting theology right is of great importance.” Mormons believe that getting the basics right is crucial: We must trust in Jesus Christ and come to him in the faith of that trust; we must repent of our sins and be baptized; we must receive the Holy Ghost; we must continue in faith to the end. That has been Mormon teaching from the beginning.
However, beyond that basic theology of the good news, relatively little is required of Mormons theologically. We agree with Mouw that “a person’s actual trust in Christ is not the same as his theological account of what goes into proper trust in Christ,” and we take that insight to be critical. So we allow for considerable latitude in the latter (theological accounts of faith), putting our focus on the former (the practice and practices of faith).
It may be that, almost no matter how one decides to parse the notion of orthodoxy when asking the question “Are Mormons orthodox Christian believers, as Evangelical Protestants understand that term?” the answer will be no. I cannot answer for Evangelical Protestants, or for anyone else for that matter, and I do not want to discount the differences between LDS worship and belief and the Christianity that has developed since about the fourth century. I can only say that, as Mouw points out, like the tradition, we put our trust in Christ, amazed at the love he offers, trembling before the knowledge of his crucifixion, and rejoicing in the glorious promise of his Resurrection. In that, there is a parallel relationship between the beliefs of other Christians and the beliefs of Mormons. Presumably, in at least that, we are orthodox by any reasonable definition of the term.
Of course, in all these things I speak for no one but myself.
James E. Faulconer
brigham young university
Mormons must appreciate Richard Mouw’s good-faith effort to find common ground between us and “orthodox” Christians, as well as First Things’s according him the space to publish this effort. I reply in the same spirit, hoping to contribute to both sides’ approaching the truth concerning God and humanity.
The Lorenzo Snow couplet (“As man now is, God once was;/As God now is, man may be”) is a fair starting point for discussion, and Mouw is right, I think, to judge that Mormons are more attached to the second half of the couplet than to the first. That is, after all, the “operational” half, the idea that most directly informs practical life. And it is undeniable that Mormon religious practice is in important respects oriented toward the promise of deification. Becoming like God, sharing in the fullness of the divine life, is a hope that is meant to inform—and often enough really does inform—the Sunday worship, the still more sacred temple ordinances, and the daily life of Latter-day Saints. President Gordon Hinckley’s somewhat hesitant public statements on the first half of the couplet were not experienced by the Mormon faithful as signaling some significant “marginalization,” since the pursuit of a divine life through Christ’s redemption has always been the point, certainly in the sixty years of thoroughly Mormon experience I can remember.
To be sure, the speculative élan expressed in Joseph Smith’s daring King Follett Address (available to us only as the composite of various transcriptions) has had its resonance in discourses by such eminent Mormons as Parley Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph F. Smith, and B. H. Roberts, but even for them, the practical significance of such venturesome theological propositions has lain in their intended purpose, namely, to support the Mormon quest for participation in God’s perfection.
Mouw is hopeful that Mormons will emphasize the second half of the couplet— the promise of divinization or “theosis”—and I believe I speak for many Mormons, and will disappoint few, in happily obliging. But then, of course, the whole question between us Mormons and Christian orthodoxy turns on just how becoming God-like is interpreted. Mouw insists on the “orthodox” view that there is an “absolute ontological difference” between God and man. And here we come to the real obstacle to his wish that Mormons might slip or be nudged toward creedal conformity. The good news, and at the same time the bad news, for creedal Christians who hope Mormons will edge closer to them is that such talk of ontological absolutes is for Mormons an absolutely foreign language.
Mouw might see this as good news because it means that, when Mormons talk about becoming gods, they’re not talking about overcoming this ontological difference, and themselves becoming absolute, self-sufficient, and impassible beings. But the bad news, from his point of view, is that Mormons do not talk about God that way either. As far as Mormons have an implicit ontology, it is indeed best represented in the saying that human beings and angels and God are all “of the same species.” And an important part of this implicit ontology of Mormon Christianity that distinguishes it from the particular orthodoxy Mouw is eager to defend is the pronounced rejection of divine impassibility in favor of the being Terryl and Fiona Givens have eloquently presented as The God Who Weeps.
While we sympathize, then, with Mouw’s readiness to emphasize the second part of Snow’s couplet, it by no means follows that we share his hope that Mormons might prove “capable of self-reformation” in the sense of embracing the “absolute ontological difference” between God and man. Though we appreciate the gesture of welcoming “serious conversation” between creedal Christians and Mormons, we do not find the assumption that any such conversation must go in the direction of Mormons’ “greater conformity with the orthodox Christian consensus” a very encouraging starting point. We do not wish to disappoint Mouw in his quest for fruitful conversation with Mormons, but we must alert him to the fact that any tendency he may observe among Mormons to downplay speculation about God’s origin has nothing at all to do with some orthodoxy-envy on our part. Incomprehensible absolute otherness is going to be a hard sell for us.
Beyond the basic belief in God the Father, in the Holy Ghost, in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice, there are no tenets of speculative theology required to be a Mormon in good standing, and church leaders are not trained in any theological system. Of course, shared beliefs are essential to religious practice and community, but Mormons rely on resources other than systematic philosophical theology to guide individuals and to bind communities together. These include not only sacred Scripture both ancient and modern, but also sacramental and ritual practices, including temple ordinances sealing families together for eternity and guidance by a living prophet and twelve apostles authorized to receive continuing revelation for the Church as a whole. Mouw is worried that Mormons will be blown about by every wind of doctrine, but we Mormons might well answer that our beliefs, anchored in covenantal practice and bolstered by prophetic authority, provide more solid resistance against unholy winds than an inherited orthodoxy of absolute difference.
Richard Mouw and other Christians beholden to a systematic theology of incomprehensible otherness and impassibility foreign to Mormonism will have to decide for themselves whether our lack of interest in such a system makes it impossible for the orthodox to regard us as “Christians.”
brigham young university
Richard J. Mouw replies:
Fred Anson is convinced that I consistently misrepresent Mormonism, particularly in my contention that Mormons are de-emphasizing these days the teaching that “as man now is, God once was.” This can’t be, he says, because that teaching is “the hub that the entire wheel of the Latter-day Saints ‘plan of salvation’ turns around.”
If Mormonism as such does indeed require a consistent affirmation of that teaching, the movement would have quickly ground to a halt at the very founding of the LDS Church when Joseph Smith, summarizing the essential Mormon teachings, told his followers that “we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them” (D&C 20:17).
The fact is that the late Gordon B. Hinckley responded to a journalist who asked about the teaching that God began as a human being, “I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.” Anson can only stick with his “hub” contention by assuming that LDS leaders are being deceptive, not only in what they say to us, but also in what they teach to their own members. I think there is good reason to take them at their word.
Indeed, we need look no further than the two fine letters from James E. Faulconer and Ralph Hancock, both respected scholars on the BYU faculty. Faulconer tells us that it is difficult to find any technical theological doctrines that define Mormonism because what Mormonism has consistently taught as essential “from the beginning” takes a more practical form: that “we must trust in Jesus Christ and come to him in the faith of that trust; we must repent of our sins and be baptized; we must receive the Holy Ghost; we must continue in faith to the end.” I can testify that those are the emphases that have been expressed to me by Mormon friends over the past decade and a half of studying Mormon life and thought.
Hancock joins his colleague in warning me not to push too hard on the notion that Mormons are moving closer to traditional Christian orthodoxy. I take the point. Needless to say, I would love to see Mormonism embrace, say, the Nicene Creed. But my own goal in engaging in our dialogue has not been to try to make that happen. Rather, I have wanted better to understand Mormonism.
When my Mormon friends assure me that they believe that the three persons of the Godhead alone are worthy of our eternal worship—and that such worship must rely fully upon the atoning work of Jesus Christ—my response is not to say to them that this means that they are moving toward orthodoxy. Rather, I want to encourage Fred Anson and other harsh critics of Mormonism to listen with more empathy when Mormons say, as Hancock does here, that Mormonism’s “basic belief” is “in God the Father, in the Holy Ghost, in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice.” Whether those convictions are best grounded in a theology that insists upon “absolute otherness”—now, that is a conversation I want to keep having.