Gundek and Kullervo are on me to clarify why I don’t think Mormons have creeds in the way traditional Christians do. I thought I would go further and try to explain why Mormon rejection of creedalism is also a critical part of their belief system. I think G.K. Chesteron’s essay “What is America?” is a good place to start. (This is a bit long-winded so be warned.) Chesterton describes how he was required to answer numerous questions about his political beliefs before being allowed to enter the United States, something he found laughably intrusive leading him to compare the Spanish Inquisition to the American Constitution:
“It may have seemed something less than a compliment to compare the American Constitution to the Spanish Inquisition. But oddly enough, it does involve a truth, and still more oddly perhaps, it does involve a compliment. The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world that is founded on creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism. And it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.
“Now a creed is at once the broadest and the narrowest thing in the world. In its nature it is as broad as its scheme for a brotherhood of all men. In its nature it is limited by its definition of the nature of all men. This was true of the Christian Church, which was truly said to exclude neither Jew nor Greek, but which did definitely substitute something else for Jewish religion or Greek philosophy. It was truly said to be a net drawing in of all kinds; but a net of a certain pattern, the pattern of Peter the Fisherman. And this is true even of the most disastrous distortions or degradations of that creed; and true among others of the Spanish Inquisition. It may have been narrow about theology, it could not confess to being narrow about nationality or ethnology. The Spanish Inquisition might be admittedly Inquisitorial; but the Spanish Inquisition could not be merely Spanish. Such a Spaniard, even when he was narrower than his own creed, had to be broader than his own empire. He might burn a philosopher because he was heterodox; but he must accept a barbarian because he was orthodox. And we see, even in modern times, that the same Church which is blamed for making sages heretics is also blamed for making savages priests. Now in a much vaguer and more evolutionary fashion, there is something of the same idea at the back of the great American experiment; the experiment of a democracy of diverse races which has been compared to a melting-pot. But even that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting-pot must not melt. The original shape was traced on the lines of Jeffersonian democracy; and it will remain in that shape until it becomes shapeless. America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship. Only, so far as its primary ideal is concerned, its exclusiveness is religious because it is not racial. The missionary can condemn a cannibal, precisely because he cannot condemn a Sandwich Islander. And in something of the same spirit the American may exclude a polygamist, precisely because he cannot exclude a Turk.”
I don’t think Mormonism is creedal in the way Chesterton describes both Christianity and America as creedal. Mormons appear to be much more like England than the United States. I think there is a lot more ideology and philosophy entailed in believing in the American creed than believing in the Mormon church. In Chesteron’s terms, Mormons are happier to accept the heterodox philosopher as long as he doesn’t behave like a savage, and reject the man who behaves savagely in a certain way even if he believes Joseph Smith was a prophet.
Another analogy is also helpful. The LDS church is not theological creedal like a military is generally not politically creedal. There are indeed ethos, ideology, and doctrines ingrained in every military institution, but a military organization is not principally worried about the ideologies of its soldiers, but whether they will follow, or lead within the authority the chain of command provides. The personal ideology of the soldiers is not relevant to the fight—only their willing participation. Professional soldiers behave the way they do because they are soldiers, their clothes and actions need to be uniform, their beliefs don’t. The Mormon rallying cry of “follow the prophet,” doesn’t actually involve believing much of what traditional Christians would call theology at all. Both Chesteron’s and my analogy can only be pushed so far, but I also think there is something about creeds that is inimical to the Mormon view of religion. I think the reason stems from how traditional creeds were described by Joseph Smith.
Mormons are not creedal because attack on traditional creeds is wrapped up in the LDS narrative of the Great Apostasy (i.e. the doctrine that the entire world fell away from the true teaching of Jesus and the true church of Jesus Christ.) Today, in Sunday school and missionary discussions the LDS church focuses mainly on the authority problem. i.e. that the churches lost the authority of the priesthood. But Joseph’s Smith’s visions point to the traditional Christian practice of formulating creeds as both a mark of and continuing cause of the Great Apostasy. As “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture,” traditional creeds were seen as the chains that bound Christian thought to prevent the restoration— The blinders that kept it from accepting new things that God had to offer. When I was a Mormon studying philosophy at BYU, I agreed with this assessment. My reasoning was two simple arguments:
- God reveals himself to humanity through the minds of prophets.
- God’s revelations over the centuries came in very strange ways and God’s interactions took lot of strange twists and turns, often departing dramatically from older worldviews that were embraced by other scriptural authors
Therefore: We cannot anticipate the way God will communicate with humanity, nor how these revelations will conflict with extant human philosophies.
- Traditional Christian creeds were designed to clarify theological positions in the context of the philosophical/theological discussions.
- Creeds became binding traditions.
- Creeds,as a matter of course, will lead to the condemnation of legitimatenew revelation from God because these revelations might be strange to the old philosophies.
Therefore: The Christian Creeds were “abominable” in that they led to the condemnation of truth from God.
At root, I thought the problem with creeds was that they were developed as conclusions to philosophical arguments. The history of creeds is one of philosophical polemics, and thus entailed too much philosophy to allow for an expansive view of revelation. They could only be understood—or assailed— within certain philosophical constraints. Within the Christian philosophical tradition, the most basic creeds could not be effectively assailed at all. They were also generally dependent on a closed canon, something I found, in typical Mormon fashion, as unsupportable.
Perhaps because of views like mine, Mormons are very resistant to formulating creeds that entailed strong theological positions, even if many embrace statements of beliefs such as the Articles of Faith. This is evident in the way they are very hesitant to proclaim nearly anything as “official doctrine” of the church. This comes up mainly because Mormons don’t want to have to believe in more than the simple declarations of belief required in baptismal and temple recommend interviews.
The creedal divide is a (the?) problem with interfaith dialogue between LDS and traditional Christians. The LDS view of creeds, and their failure to formulate them in the traditional Christian way, is a big part of what makes interfaith dialogue extremely difficult and confusing between the LDS and traditional Christians. Most Mormons can confess the Apostle’s Creed and most of the Nicene creed without any theological complaint because they don’t believe (or understand) the technical definitions that now are part and parcel with the creeds. Thus, they can’t see the how wide the philosophical and theological divide actually is (also they generally don’t care). Mormons don’t understand why they are denounced for disbelief in the creeds because they find little value in the theological discussion that spawned the creeds. And Mormon theology is naturally laughable to the traditional creedal Christian. They can barely understand why Mormons even want to be counted among their ranks (but also don’t really care).
For some reason I have found the problem of reconciling those who sincerely claim to believe in the same God and Christ interesting.—perhaps because I found traditional Christianity laughable in so many ways, even as they seemed to believe in the same God and Christ I did. I find Chesterton’s advice on how a foreigner should view Americans helpful on this point:
“A man is perfectly entitled to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What he has no right to do is to laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then criticise it as if he comprehended it. The very fact of its unfamiliarity and mystery ought to set him thinking about the deeper causes that make people so different from himself, and that without merely assuming that they must be inferior to himself.
“Superficially this is rather a queer business.It would be easy enough to suggest that in this America has introduced a quite abnormal spirit of inquisition; an interference with liberty unknown among all the ancient despotisms and aristocracies.. . .They held their power as limited to the limitation of practice; they did not forbid me to hold a theory. It would be easy to argue here that Western democracy persecutes where even Eastern despotism tolerates or emancipates. It would be easy to develop the fancy that, as compared with the sultans of Turkey or Egypt, the American Constitution is a thing like the Spanish Inquisition.
“Only the traveller who stops at that point is totally wrong; and the traveller only too often does stop at that point. He has found something to make him laugh, and he will not suffer it to make him think. And the remedy is not to unsay what he has said, not even, so to speak, to unlaugh what he has laughed, not to deny that there is something unique and curious about this American inquisition into our abstract opinions, but rather to continue the train of thought, and follow the admirable advice of Mr. H. G. Wells, who said, ‘It is not much good thinking of a thing unless you think it out.’ It is not to deny that American officialism is rather peculiar on this point, but to inquire what it really is which makes America peculiar, or which is peculiar to America. In short, it is to get some ultimate idea of what America is and the answer to that question will reveal something much deeper and grander and more worthy of our intelligent interest.”
As a Mormon, traditional Christian theology was as laughable as American idiosyncrasies were to Chesterton. Based on my contacts with traditional Christians, they found my beliefs to be equally ludicrous. As a non-believer in Mormonism or other recognizable forms of Christianity, I can see how both Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity are laughable. But in a world populated by such radically different theologies among people that are essentially the same, it was difficult to for me to say I understand God or humanity at all without understanding the heart and guts of these sorts of differences. I maintain the hope that as I understand this spiritual physiology the deeper and grander thing will continue to slowly reveal itself.
 [Note that I do not think Mormons are at all exceptional in this view. Tolstoy was right beside them this point: given how Christianity historically worked in society, traditional churches had something very un-Christian about them. It seems that Jesus would not approve of a lot of their dogma or their political antics. This was my view as an LDS. (I still pretty much agree with Tolstoy.)]