Similar Yet Different

Eric made a comment in a previous post that stated

I understand your main point — the framework of Mormonism is so different from that of evangelicalism (or, if you prefer, historic Christianity) that they can’t be considered the same religion. I wouldn’t disagree (in fact, LDS leaders often refer to non-LDS Christians as being people from other faiths).

But my observation after spending many years in both the evangelical and LDS worlds is that from everything I can tell, many Mormons and many evangelicals are having similar if not identical experiences in the relationship (for lack of a better word) they have with God. They talk in much the same way about their appreciation for their Savior, about the challenges of resisting temptation, about the joy they find in experiencing forgiveness, about the joy found in reading the Scriptures, about the desire to follow the teachings of Christ and so on. I’ve heard LDS talks about living the Christian life that, except perhaps for a quote from the Book of Mormon or an LDS apostle, could have been preached at an evangelical church, and the few evangelical sermons I’ve heard in the past few years wouldn’t seem out of place (except in speaking style) in an LDS context.

This may run counter to both LDS and evangelical dogmas, but I’m inclined to believe that in some sense many of us (both evangelical and LDS) do believe and are experiencing the same thing at some level that matters. I myself, even as a trying-to-be-faithful Saint, have little doubt that there are those outside the Church who are experiencing the Holy Spirit in their lives.

These photos serve to illustrate my point and explain how I can see such differences in Mormonism and Evangelicalism. When Mormons (or others) want to argue that Mormonism is Christian this is the view point they take in comparing the two.
Differences between Mormonism and Christianity
As you can see, I’m extending the knife analogy that I made in the previous post. When wishing to emphasize the similarities people look at the place where the knife cuts. Another way to describe this is the “pragmatic end” of the knife. This is where the knife does it’s daily business in the life of the believer. Looking at the two blades it’s clear that they look very similar. They’re both made out of the same material, they both have a similar shape and size and they both cut. There appear to be some differences but it’s unclear what those differences are or if they matter to any degree. (if I wanted to extend the analogy further I could throw in a cleaver and a steak knife and call them Buddhism and Islam). What we can figure out from this angle is that both knives cut.

But when we turn the knives on their side and look at them more deeply we discover the back end of the knives.

Differences between Mormonism and Evanglicalism
From this angle we can tell that they are much different knives and that they cut in much different ways. It might be possible to get the Chef’s Knife to slice a loaf of bread, but it won’t work as well as the Bread Knife. The same is true if reversed, the Bread Knife can’t do the job of the Chef’s Knife very well. To assume that both knives can do the job of the other equally well is a serious mistake and it diminishes the capabilities of both knives.

I believe that some Mormons are able to garner a spiritual experience that is similar to an Evangelical’s, but it is in spite of the blade they are using not because of it. The act of cutting may not be as important as how something cuts. Every religion seeks to transcend the natural and put man in touch with the thing that created him. But not all blades cut the same. If Jesus is right that there is only one way to the Father, then it is in our interest to use the knife that does the job best. That some are able to find salvation does not mean the knife they are using is “Christian”.

I would encourage Mormons to take those Joseph-Smith-shaped notches out of the blade that Jesus gave us. Mormons would say “come add to what you already have.” At some point, modifying the knife changes the knife’s entire purpose.

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16 thoughts on “Similar Yet Different

  1. I’m going to go ahead and say it ahead of time:

    “It’s just an analogy, don’t be proud of yourself for finding the place where it breaks down.”

  2. Of course, the analogy could cut both ways.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist. 🙂

  3. What makes anybody think there is one true knife, one true faith, one truth? I like variety in my cutlery, my faith, and my truth. The universe I live in is big enough for slicing vegetables and cutting bread, big enough for infinite gods (and goddesses and gender-transcendent divinity), and big enough for infinite individual perspectives on the mystery by which we all relate to one another.

  4. I regard myself as a Christian in many ways. I was born into a family of more or less devout Protestants (most of whom maintain some kind of affiliation). My dad became a Mormon in college (after being something of an atheist or agnostic as a teenager: I don’t know what his parents or siblings knew about this), converted my mom, and promptly had me. I was raised Mormon. When I was about 11, I had a really powerful spiritual awakening brought on by reading the Book of Mormon; I went on to read the rest of the Mormon canon, including the King James Bible (which I read all the way through several times). I was interested in apologetics and enjoyed reading through all of C. S. Lewis (my mom is a rabid fan), all I could get of G. K. Chesterton, and Hugh Nibley (the crazy Mormon apologist who could cite ancient scripture to prove pretty much anything).

    As an adolescent, I thought the faith narratives of the Mormon canon were all “true” — the history they contained was true history, the doctrine true doctrine, and God was a real being out there, a personage whom I regarded as my Father. The NT Gospels were history for me, just as much as the Book of Mormon. I knew Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, and died for my sins just as I knew that he was resurrected and visited his “other sheep” on the American continents. I knew that I could ask God anything, and he would answer: he wasn’t hiding anything from me. I trusted the LDS prophets, even as I acknowledged somewhere that they were not perfect (something many religious people in many traditions admit even if they have no practical idea what they are saying).

    I trusted non-LDS sources, too, even if I did not look to them first when deciding what to do with my own life. I thought there was a lot of good in Christianity outside Mormonism, and I wanted to partake in that. I read a lot of church history. (My interest was facilitated by schooling; my parents took me out of school pretty young and taught me at home, using a lot of books published by Bob Jones University. I learned a lot of rubbish about the earth being 6000 years old, and got some really good information about the history of the Reformation).

    I served an LDS proselyting mission to Spain, where two years of rejection taught me that faith was about more than just knowledge. I saw a lot of goodness, “Christian” goodness, in the lapsed Catholics and atheists who made up the majority of my Spanish acquaintance. I also met people whose faith in God was not as literal, or “knowledge-based,” as mine: the theologian Andres Torres Queiruga made a huge impression on me with his non-literal, non-historical reading of the New Testament. He is still one of the nicest, most charitable people I have ever met, and the manner in which he balances reason and faith is (in my view) admirable.

    I returned home to study at BYU, where I pursued my lifelong dream of becoming a Mormon apologist. I studied ancient languages, and took a number of courses in ancient scripture. In the course of these studies, I learned a lot of things about the history of my faith. I learned that the word “Christian” has no coherent historical definition: people have been fighting over it for centuries without concluding anything definite (apart from the fact that some of us are really into our ideology, so much so that we are willing to kill others with no more justification than that they use the same ideas differently than we would, or use words in our vocabulary to refer to ideas different from ours).

    I learned that the Great Apostasy, as taught by the LDS Mormons, never happened in history either. (As far back as we go, there are always different groups of people doing different things in the name of Jesus: none of these has obvious priority in their claim to teach the one true faith, which, historically speaking, does not exist.) Then, to top it off, I learned that there is nothing undoubtedly historic about the faith narratives in the New Testament. (If you want a reference, the handiest one is Bart Ehrman, whom you have probably already heard of.) At some point, my only anchor to an historical, literal Christianity was the LDS prophetic tradition. (“Scholars have good reason to doubt all Christian claims to historic truth, but the LDS have a direct line to God, who says it all happened.”)

    I also learned more about Mormon history at BYU. Two years after graduating, the modern LDS narrative fell apart for me much the way my (fundamentalist) Christian narrative had done already. At this point, I felt alienated and unwanted at church (where official teaching is still hopelessly mired in literalistic readings of the Mormon and Christian canon). I questioned every truth I had ever thought I knew. I prayed a lot. God did not respond. I’m OK with that: the more I learn about human cognition, the more I think the cartoon picture I had of a Father in Heaven was just a figment of my imagination, a symbol I used to cover up the mystery that is reality. The mystery is still there, even if I do not know its name.

    Today, I find myself in a place outside of literal beliefs. I don’t believe Mormonism (or Christianity) is true in the naive way I imagined when I was a child.

    I don’t know if there was a historical Jesus. If there was, I much doubt that his death guaranteed anyone a palace in the sky. But the metaphor of doing for others that his story (whether true or not) inspires is profound and touching: contemplating it might even lead one to something that I would call salvation.

    I am pretty sure the historical Joseph Smith was a con-man and nut-job (our own American version of Thomas Muntzer), but the myth of the First Vision, like the myth of the Atonement, remains a powerful force in my life. I still believe in looking into the world in search of new truth, the way Joseph does in the story.

    Some people in my shoes abjure Christianity (and/or Mormonism), and become Antichrist. That is not my style. I cannot deny my roots (Christian and Mormon). I cannot deny that those roots provided me with some good things (faith, hope, charity, to start off). At the same time, I cannot deny the “unfaithful” truth I have found: the world is bigger than literalist, fundamentalist Christianity or Mormonism.

    So, the simple answer to your question, Cal, is that I might be a Christian (depending on whom you ask), but that I am most definitely a heretic (according to everyone). If I ever affiliate deliberately with another Christian faith tradition outside Mormonism, I will probably end up Greek Orthodox (I love apophatic Christianity!), Quaker, or Unitarian Universalist.

  5. I am quite in agreement that Mormonism is not “historic Christianity.” Heck, the roots of the Mormon faith are based on the idea that historic Christianity had been getting it wrong, which is why there was the need for a Restoration, not a Reformation.

    But I think there is still a strong argument to be made that Mormonism is part of Christianity. To follow through with the analogy, Mormonism and Historic Christianity are two different knives, but they are still both knives, and they are both knives that claim to bring one to Christ. We disagree on the nature of God, but we still believe that He is the Master of the Universe in a way that He-Man and his buddies never could have been.

    To put it another way, I don’t think any of us are trying to play a game of Knifey-Spoony.

  6. Every religion seeks to transcend the natural and put man in touch with the thing that created him. But not all blades cut the same. If Jesus is right that there is only one way to the Father, then it is in our interest to use the knife that does the job best. That some are able to find salvation does not mean the knife they are using is “Christian”.

    That “if” is the core of the analogy’s usefulness. If there is a single knowable, objective and absolute religious truth and it is incumbent upon us to find it and live accordingly or face the consequences, then the practical everyday experience of one religion as opposed to another is irrelevant. Evangelicals and Mormons may have similar religious experience, but if Mormonism is correct, Evangelicals are SOL because their baptism is invalid and valid baptism is essential.

    But that’s a big “if,” and even if there is a single knowable, objective and absolute religious truth, none of the religions out there do anything more than an absolutely pathetic job of establishing that theirs is it.

  7. That “if” is the core of the analogy’s usefulness

    I agree. The analogy does nothing to convince anyone that just any cut won’t do.

    If all you’re looking to do is have some sort of transcendent experience you could probably grab just about any knife.

  8. If all you’re looking to do is have some sort of transcendent experience you could probably grab just about any knife.

    Eh, there are other considerations (like, you may want to try a transcendant experience with something other than a mind-control cult).

    Also, by “religious experience” I mean the entirety of a believer’s interaction with and practice of his or her religion: community, ritual, moral strictures or ethical codes, worldview, devotional activity, also mystical/transcendant experiences but in any case not just mystical/transcendant experiences.

    I’m talking about “what effect does this religion have on a person’s life in entirety.” And given that question, I don’t think “just about any knife” will do at all. But it’s still a different deal than whether or not your religion is the single knowable, objective and absolute religious truth.

  9. I’m talking about “what effect does this religion have on a person’s life in entirety.” And given that question, I don’t think “just about any knife” will do at all. But it’s still a different deal than whether or not your religion is the single knowable, objective and absolute religious truth.

    This is a good point, and I am wondering what people will say about how this stacks up in the “by their fruits” test that Jesus talked about.

    Like, it seems to me that if a religion can make people better, more loving, kinder, more considerate, etc., it is doing the kind of thing that Jesus seemed to approve of. No?

  10. This is a good point, and I am wondering what people will say about how this stacks up in the “by their fruits” test that Jesus talked about.

    Like, it seems to me that if a religion can make people better, more loving, kinder, more considerate, etc., it is doing the kind of thing that Jesus seemed to approve of. No?

    The problem here is that this line of thought invariably leads to special-pleading claims that only [my religion] can truly bring good fruits, and if other religions appear to bring forth good fruits, their adherents are deceived or lying about what they are experiencing.

    It’s begging the question: you’ve decided a priori as a matter of dogma that only [my religion] produces a given result, so when other religions appear to produce identical results, you reject the evidence that does not support your pre-determined conclusion.

    Not “you,” Katie L., but “you” as in the people who do that.

  11. There is nothing that anyone can add to the cross.

    That is why Christians churches have crosses on and in their buildings, and more importantly, the main focus of their theology.

    People (whether they be Mormons, Catholics, Evangelicals…whomever) get off track and into religious ladder climbing when they shift from the work of Christ and to the work of themselves.

  12. I think I understand the analogy. What helps me to understand the difference between Biblical Christianity and Mormonism is who ends up the focal point. Biblical Christianity puts the focus on God and His work in and through us upon being born from above. Mormonism puts the focus on the individual human as if God is doing something important to us for us. BC has humans performing the will of God for God and if there’s any issue with the individual out of step with the harmony of the Spirit, God through the Spirit will discipline. God disciplines those He loves because we are His children. In Mormonism, (I was an active LDS member for 9 years – all in my 30s as a convert) if the individual is out of step (sins), it’s up to the individual to do something. God must be the author and finisher of faith. If He begins a work in us, only He can complete and believe me, He will complete it, not man.

    I was wondering if anyone has ever made the comparisons between Muhammad and Joseph Smith. Both were visited by Angels stating the Bible had been completely corrupted by apostasy. Both had a system of life long works based religion one could practice to attempt a heavenly exaltation.

  13. Pingback: Mormonism: Christian Cult or Radical(ly Distinct) Religion? | Wheat and Tares

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