Guest post by Seth:
Religiously savvy readers (probably most of you) will have heard of “Vatican II” – the landmark gathering of Roman Catholic leadership that attempted, among other things, to modernize the liturgy and bury the hatchet between Roman Catholics and other major Christian faith traditions, including Protestants (see the resulting Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration of 1965). You still see flare-ups over the role of faith vs. works and the role of the ecclesiarchy, as well as the obligatory pot shots at “Mary-worshiping.” But by and large, after centuries of rather nasty feuding, both faith traditions have come to terms with the reality that both of them are, after all, “Christians.”
Richard Mouw, President of the Fuller Theological Seminary has recently suggested that it may be high time that the LDS Church had its own Vatican II equivalent (albeit much watered down) – a watershed redefinition of Mormonism vis-a-vis the rest of the Christian world. You can read his article making the call on Beliefnet here. Essentially, Mouw calls on the LDS Church to give its official blessing to the kind of dialogue currently being conducted by LDS scholars such as Robert Millet and Stephen Robinson and Evangelical counterparts such as Craig Blomberg, Gerald McDermott, Paul Owen, and of course, Mouw himself (let me know if I’ve left out any key players).
Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack did a write-up on Mouw’s article here. After quoting a vague and non-committal response from LDS representatives, she notes that not everyone sees a reconciliation in the cards, quoting respected Mormon history scholar – Kathleen Flake. The key excerpt is as follows:
The differences between Evangelicals and Mormons is more than theological, says Kathleen Flake, who teaches American religious history at Vanderbilt University. It’s also organizational and systematic.
Evangelicals are only loosely organized around a set of principles; not least emphasizing the primacy of the Bible over theology, Flake says. Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, “are tightly organized around an enlarged canon of Bible-based narratives. These are loosely employed to express personal conviction of God’s contemporary and revelatory immediacy.”
Mouw’s invitation for official, Vatican II-like negotiation makes sense, she says, “only if you think that Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints have a theology sufficiently systematized to speak definitively. It seems to me that neither does.”
Talking is good, Flake says, “but it’s never going to be official, only academic.”
Professor Flake’s statement rang a bit true for me and got me wondering what we are doing here. I remember remarking that discussion of theological issues between Mormons and Evangelicals is difficult because “the Evangelical movement has multiple personality disorder, and the Mormons have a sort of institutional amnesia.” Neither of our traditions really has a firm identity that can be pinned down.
If you try to pin down many Evangelicals on uncomfortable or questionable doctrinal stances, they’ll claim that that may be true for SOME Evangelicals, but it is not something they subscribe to or wish to be affiliated with. Likewise, when you try to confront many Mormons with the same sort of things, they’ll claim that’s not what the Church is now, and will seem fairly unaware of how firmly the controversial points were adhered to by their forebears and the institutional Church.
Like I said – schizophrenia and amnesia. It makes it really hard to talk to each other, except on an individual, case-by-case basis (at least I know what I believe, and so does Tim…). Maybe that’s enough. Certainly it’s a modest and achievable goal. But it’s bound to leave us all feeling a bit dissatisfied on occasion. I’ve seen more than one Evangelical reject certain versions of Mormonism that don’t suit their preconceptions by claiming “that’s not what normal Mormons believe.” For instance the essays of Mormon scholars like Millet and Robinson often get rejected for not accurately reflecting the “common Mormon view” (whatever that is) or the official view from Salt Lake. Likewise, when Evangelical ministers promote stuff like the recent “Evangelical Manifesto” I myself have to wonder if they really have the voice of the movement, or whether they are just one among many competing factions.
The LDS Church is a long way from anything resembling Vatican II. It seems largely uninterested in complex theological problems and still keeps even its most respected scholars (Robert Millet would certainly qualify) safely at arms length.
On the Evangelical side, such united positions seem fundamentally and structurally impossible, since one of their foundational beliefs is a rejection of any sort of authoritative magisterium which could possibly speak for the whole.
Oh well… At least we can still talk on a case-by-case basis as individuals. But it makes it hard when neither of us have an official orthodoxy to which we can be held. I personally love books like the landmark “How Wide the Divide?” by Robinson and Blomberg. But as I read through such books, I find myself wondering how much credence to give to either man’s theological views. Is that really what Evangelicals think? Or is it just his angle on the religion? And vis versa.
To me, it seems we’re both doomed to inhabit this uncomfortable theological no-man’s land for quite some time. The sort of official validation Mouw is seeking for may be a long time in coming.