Thursday, February 4, 2010

We Can Do Better

And now for some gentle (hopefully) reprooving with sharpness: Latter-day Saints can and should do better in trying to not misrepresent traditional Christian beliefs. We often express how it feels when we're misunderstood and caricatures of our beliefs are perpetuated. But there is indeed two sides to every pancake, and we can be guilty of this too--even unintentionally.

Now it must be said that I think we generally do a pretty good job at this. Our current general authorities in particular not only strive to represent our own beliefs well, but whenever they do address other faiths, they overwhelmingly do so responsibly and charitably. Nevertheless, two recent public examples caught my attention and made me recognize that there is one matter in which we could (and should) do better.

Like many other Christians who quite unintentionally misunderstand the doctrine of the Trinity, many Latter-day Saints also often misunderstand, and therefore risk misrepresenting it. Although it happens quite often, it's somewhat understandable (and even forgivable) since this is a complex doctrine for anyone to get quite right. Nevertheless, if we expect others to be careful in understanding our doctrine, we too must be careful (especially when addressing a public audience) to make sure we most accurately represent traditional Christian beliefs.

Recent example #1: a BYU-Idaho fireside where Elder Ballard spoke. He said that "it always bothered [reporters] when we would say that we just don't believe that the Lord Jesus Christ was praying to himself when he often prayed to his Heavenly Father for guidance."

Implying that other Christians believe that Christ is praying to himself has the potential of bothering any informed Christian. Because that's not what informed Christians believe. According to actual trinitarian doctrine, Christ wasn't praying to himself. (See, for example, "That They May Be One As We Are One").

Recent example #2: At the last General Conference--while making some otherwise great points--Elder Callister didn't quite accurately portray the doctrine of the Trinity. (Although I was actually more concerned with his line at the end that seemed to suggest that salvation is found in the Church, rather than in Christ--now that's asking for misunderstanding).

Far more common, however, is an almost mocking attitude about the Nicene Creed--and this despite the fact that the only part of the Nicene Creed that Mormons would not agree with would be the statement that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of "one substance".

While the nuances of the current doctrine of the Trinity (developed even more at the later Council of Chalcedon) are not particularly easy to comprehend, Mormons have nuanced doctrines too. More respect is called for, in both cases. The more I've learned about the doctrine of the Trinity, the more of a healthy respect I've developed for it. If we want respect from others--and better understanding--we have to reciprocate. We can do better.


Matt W. said...

Before you chew Elder Ballard out too much, please keep in mind that the general populist consensus is pretty in line with what he was saying, whether informed or not. Lots of Christians, including this one when I was Catholic, don't have any sort of depth to their understanding of the Trinity.

Bill said...

I very much agree. Even though it is useful to help students see when incorrect doctrines don't "make sense" in the light of the restored gospel, we do ourselves an injustice when we claim an idea to be completely nonsensical. To imply that we can discount any false doctrine with some level of "sense" implies that we don't need divine revelation -- we just need to go with what "makes sense." This not only dangerously decreases the importance of revelation, but it also unfairly discredits good people who did their best with the light they had even though they were not blessed with the restored gospel. Even the restored gospel as we have it has a lot of things that don't yet "make sense" -- I have often found these to be the topics that lead to many spirit-ed but Spirit-less discussions in various Sunday School or other religion classes. The important thing is to focus on the wonderful blessings we do have -- the fact that through the Atonement our very natures can be changed, through the blessing of the priesthood and the organization of the church we can receive saving ordinances and covenants which give us access to the Atonement in ways that can bless us and our families eternally, that God loves us enough to still send us living prophets, because He knows that no matter how much scripture He sends there will still be good, well-meaning people who misunderstand and get some very important things wrong, and that we can receive personal revelation through the matchless gift of the Holy Ghost through which we may "know the truth of all things".

Stephanie said...

What a great post!

It wasn't until I started having conversations with Mormons that I really looked at the Nicene Creed. I'd heard of it before, but growing up in traditional Christian churches, I had never been exposed to it. Therefore I was rather surprised to be labeled as a "creedalist." :-)

I agree with you that the Trinity is a complex doctrine. Sometimes I've wondered if I'm a little crazy for believing it myself. After all, it messes with a person's head a little bit. But then I try to get around some of the most complex passages--such as God being one, and yet Jesus using expressions like "I AM" about Himself. Why would the Jews have tried to stone Him if they didn't view His claims as blasphemous? How can God be one and yet be plural?

I think that the difference in views on the Trinity has to do with our views of Jesus and whether or not we literally see Him as physical offspring from God the Father and a heavenly mother. Believing or not believing that would have a tremendous impact upon how a person views the Trinity.

Keep up the great posts, Clean Cut!


Anonymous said...

Intriguing post. I agree that if we, as members of the LDS Church, expect to be respected for our beliefs, we need to practice respectful discussion of others' faiths. Thanks for the reminder.

And keep up the good work. I hardly ever comment, but marvel at the great work you do here. Keep it up.


aquinas said...

Matt, even though you are right that large segments of Christians tend to hold modalist and therefore inaccurate understandings of the Trinity by the standards of their own tradition, I think there is a good argument that we should describe the faith traditions of others based on the best articulations available in that faith tradition, rather than on inaccurate or confusing position that might be held by some adherents. (Because there are a lot of inaccurate and confusing positions held by Mormons about their own beliefs).

When the tables are turned, many critics of the Latter-day Saints turn to what many members might popularly believe or have believed, which in many cases contradict the Latter-day Saint scriptures themselves or statements by the prophet Joseph Smith. I would hope those looking at my faith would not stop as soon as they find some member inadequately and awkwardly explaining the doctrine.

I often come into contact with those who have left the Mormon faith and they are emphatic and insistent that Mormons believe such and such, that they were taught such and such in Sunday School, and that they themselves taught such and such. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to convince them that what they think is "Mormon doctrine" is actually inaccurate and represents a misunderstanding (or at best just one position among many). The fact that it was believed by people, even a lot of people, doesn't make it true or compelling. Are they justified in continuing to present the inaccurate version of Mormonism just because they can find a lot of Mormons who happen believe it?

When people leave the Mormon faith and cite teachings, that I feel aren't accurate, as the reason for why they left, I can hardly feel justified in presenting inaccurate versions or misunderstandings of Protestant and Catholic teachings by Protestant and Catholic converts to Mormonism, as what those other Christians believe. Because when the tables are turned, I would hope that those who leave the Latter-day Saint faith would not do the same thing.

Imagine the odd predicament I sometimes find myself when a member, who is a former Catholic, in Sunday School or Priesthood Meeting explains Catholic doctrine to everyone that I know goes contrary to the Catechism, and when I talk to my Catholic friend who teaches at a Catholic university tells me "No, that's not right and if he was taught that or told that, that was wrong, that was completely wrong." But yet doesn't this happen to us? Isn't it the case that many former Mormons are out there right now perpetuating misconceptions and misunderstandings, and feel completely justified in doing so?

If the goal is to survey popular thought among a faith tradition, this may be appropriate, but if the goal is to describe accurately another faith tradition, isn't it important to interact with the best articulation that that faith tradition as to offer, rather than settle for some inaccurate views even if held by large segments of the population? Isn't that what we hope others would do for us? This is more or less simply an expression of the golden rule.

Eric said...

Well said, Clean Cut.

If we are to make comparisons, let's compare our best with their best. In many cases (but definitely not all!), we'll find that the differences aren't so great as we might have supposed.

Matt W. said...

Aquinas: That's all well and good, except that when you talk to a lay Catholic on the street about their faith and act like you know more about it than they do, they typically don't respond well. I guess the best approach is to ask someone what they believe and then respond to what they actually believe, rather than what the church they are a member of has it's scholars believe.

Just like in Mormonism, every other religious sect has a large variety of believers within it, and when we assume we are using "the best articulations available in that faith tradition" what we really mean are those that are most in line with our own views.

Eric Nielson said...

Elder Ballard was not criticizing a specific religion as far as I can tell. He was appropriately trying to proclaim that a literal oneness of the Godhead is a false notion. There are plenty of individuals out there who believe just that. I met many of them on my mission to Georgia. It is also important because many anti-Mormons will claim that because we do not believe that way that we are not even Christian at all. This is not some straw man that Ballard is creating, nor is it a specific criticism about any particular faith. It is simply explaining something about the true nature of God in a clear way, with a clear example. It is simply good teaching based on a Biblical example. 'Informed Christians' (whoever they are) should be grateful for this example, and use it in their own teachings to correct false notions within their own faith.

If by doing 'better' we mean watering down Mormonism, becoming apologists for conservative protestants, or criticizing the brethren for straight forward teachings, then I suppose we could do 'better', although I don't believe this would do anyone any long-term good.

And doesn't the Nicene creed also include some creation out of nothing language as well?

Clean Cut said...

Chew him out, Matt? Is that how this comes across? That was the last thing on my mind, quite honestly. The purpose of the post was to simply say we can do better to further mutual understanding. I hope that is the message that is “heard”--not that this is a criticism of Elder Ballard. He simply provided the most recent (public) example that caught my attention.
The “gentle reproving” I had in mind was not intended for a any particular individual, just fellow Latter-day Saints in general. I love Elder Ballard. I have a deep respect for him. I even personally met him in his own driveway several years ago just as he and his wife had pulled in from the grocery store. (I was riding with a family member who lived in his ward and decided to introduce me to him). He’s a wonderful person and he has done a ton of good. Naturally he’s not infallible, and I’m not blaming him personally. The statement I referred to is a common misunderstanding, and as you point out, it is even misunderstood by a great number of traditional Christians too.
I’ll simply echo aquinas’ comment--we can do better to promote mutual understanding. Conversing with individuals is a bit different than speaking in public. And I absolutely agree that the best approach when speaking with an individual is to interact with what that individual actually believes, not with what you think they believe. That is imperative. But I also feel that being informed about actual doctrine versus popular belief is imperative—and that goes for both LDS Christians and Traditional Christians.

Clean Cut said...

Bill, I appreciate your comment. What a great point. Amen.

Stephanie, thank you. Admittedly, as you say, the “Trinity is a complex doctrine.” Thanks for sharing why is makes sense to you. While I believe there are more ways to understand “oneness” than ontologically or numerically, I respect your view.

I’ll just add there also happens to be a variety of views within Mormonism as well as debate about the literalness of the “offspring” language. I believe some LDS say “more than we know” when they claim to know exactly HOW we became children of Heavenly Parents in the pre-earth life. The important thing is that we became so.

Hunter and Eric, thanks for commenting. You captured my point quite well.

Aquinas—thank you for your excellent comment. Excellent with a capital E. Ditto.

Clean Cut said...

Eric Nielson, while I agree that Elder Ballard was trying to emphasize our unique understanding of the Godhead, implying that others believe that Jesus was praying to himself does not describe Trinitarian belief--it describes modalism. Plain and simple. Now, I agree with you that there are plenty of individuals out there who unwittingly believe that, but that is actually declared heresy by Trinitarian standards.

I would also agree that many Christians who proudly say that they believe in the Trinity actually forget to properly emphasize the “threeness” of God by focusing almost exclusively on God’s “oneness”. They too error. And anytime the opportunity arises to correct false beliefs, I think we should all be grateful.

But it is inane and misguided to suggest that the approach my post advocates: “watering down Mormonism”, “becoming apologists for conservative protestants”, "criticizing the brethren", and/or that no good can come from seeking mutual understanding. Respect is a two way street, Eric.

aquinas said...

Matt, I fully agree that "when you talk to a [Catholic, Protestant, Mormon] on the street about their faith and act like you know more about it than they do, they typically don't respond well." Because I agree, I don't advocate doing that. I'm disappointed that you chose to attribute such a behavior to what I am saying. I'm not talking about anyone on the street, however, I'm talking about when Latter-day Saints choose to discuss the faith of others in Latter-day Saint lessons and talks. When we do this, I only think it is proper to make sure we seek to be informed about what we are presenting. I'm pleased when individuals of other faiths show Mormonism the same courtesy.

In addition, when those of other faiths have made efforts to make themselves informed about Mormon beliefs and teaching, they are not merely describing what they themselves believe. When Mouw, or McDermott, or Blomberg, or Paul Owen, describe Mormon teachings in responsible and accurate ways, they are not merely describing what is inline with their own views. In fact, when Latter-day Saints describe the Trinity based on a proper historical understanding, they aren't describing what is inline with their own personal views.

I disagree that the only motivation why a person would make efforts to faithfully describe another faith tradition is when doing so advantageously coincides with their own personal beliefs. If that was the case, we would never have any motivation to describe other faith traditions faithfully.

Matt W. said...

CC: I will not disagree that we can do better in attributing proper thoughts and motivations to others. I just think we can also do better in attributing those motivations to our own general authorities. Truman Madsen was a huge fan of "Holy Envy", and spoke of it often. I agree with him that we need more of that and that we need to take our best and compare it with their best. I don't think one snapshot from Elder Ballard at a church university in Idaho represents our church's general behavior towards traditional christianity, nor do I see Elder Callister's statements regarding the distinctness of God the Father and the Son directly approaching the doctrine of any religion. I think it points to a dialogue with popular belief, and not with any actual doctrine. After all, how could either statement address an actual doctrine, as there is no universal actual doctrine to describe. So while I can agree with your sentiment that we need to do our best to understand other faiths actual beliefs, I don't see any of your examples as suggesting we are not.

Aquinas- You originally agreed with me that many Christians are Modalists, then you went on to tell me I should represent them faithfully by describing their trinitarian faith accurately. Thus my conundrum.

In any case, I do whole-heartedly agree that we need to accurately represent the faiths of others, and do our best to accurately represent the best of their believes. I overstated my case by implying otherwise in my previous comment. I think as a church, it is imperative that we understand clearly the teachings of other faiths, if for nothing else than to fulfill our divine edict to seek out the virtuous, lovely, of good-report and praise-worthy. Lastly, and perhaps to tactically for your tastes, I think it behooves us to understand our competition so that we may more effectively market to it.

aquinas said...

Matt, I do appreciate your response and your efforts to understand my comment.

The reason I agree that many Christians at some point in their life hold a modalist understanding of the Trinity is because many Christian theologians lament that probably the most common heresy in Christianity today is modalism. It isn't that Christians deliberately adopt Modalism.

What I'm suggesting is that there is an argument to be made that describing Christian orthodoxy solely according to heretical views inadvertently held by some Christians, views that Christian pastors and theologians themselves point out is not correct, is not really doing our best to describe a faith tradition accurately and faithfully.

The argument may not be persuasive to you and it requires making some distinctions that, depending on your point of view, Latter-day Saints may have no incentive to make. I'm floating the idea here and hope that people can keep it in mind and perhaps consider it.

Papa D said...

Great post, CC - and even better comment.

All I will add is that I have a deep and abiding belief in the Restoration, but I find when I try to understand what others say (from ANY religion, frankly) in terms of how I would say it that many of the things that appear to be in conflict upon first hearing really aren't that different after all. Sure, there still are major theological differences, but there are so many similarities that only appear to be differences because we use different terminology - or because some common words mean different things in different denominations. The whole grace/faith/works debate probably is the best example of this - but that's a topic for a different post. Suffice it to say that we aren't as far apart in that arena with the VAST majority of individuals as we often suppose - certainly as it relates to those who hear about Jesus and the Gospel in this life, and even with many relative to the dead who know not Christ in this life.

Papa D said...

Sorry, meant to say "even better conversation" - not "comment". Thanks, everyone. I really enjoyed reading the comments.

Oh, and this post in NO way came across to me as criticism of the apostles or the Church - or an attempt to water down Mormonism.

Clean Cut said...

Thanks for the additional comment Matt. It made me realize that I failed to originally state something that I have always assumed is self-evident: Our general authorities overwhelmingly and consistently excel at this very thing—not only representing our own beliefs but those of other faiths, and they do so quite responsibly and charitably.

This post should have stated that up front, and I’ll edit it to reflect this. Also, the fact that I happened to choose examples from general authorities had nothing to do with the fact that they hold those callings—it was just that those statements (in isolation) were the most public examples that caught MY attention.

Update: "Now it must be said that I think we generally do a pretty good job at this. Our current general authorities in particular overwhelmingly and consistently excel at this very thing. Not only do they represent our own beliefs well, but when they address those of other faiths, they do so responsibly and charitably. Nevertheless, two recent public examples caught my attention and made me think that there is one particular area in which we could do better.

"Like many other Christians who quite unintentionally misunderstand the doctrine of the Trinity, many Latter-day Saints also often misunderstand, and therefore risk misrepresenting it. This is understandable and even forgivable, since this is a complex doctrine for anyone to get quite right. Nevertheless, if we expect others to be careful with in understanding our doctrine, we too must be careful (especially when addressing a public audience) to make sure we most accurately represent traditional Christian beliefs."

Clean Cut said...

"Oh, and this post in NO way came across to me as criticism of the apostles or the Church - or an attempt to water down Mormonism."

Thanks Papa D!

I especially appreciate that your comments came BEFORE I made any revision!

Kelark said...

I was in a chat room once and the LDS fellow I was talking with was desparately trying to get me to agree that I believed that the Father and Son were one substance. I had not really thought it out before and I was not aware of the creed stating this.

The trinity is very difficult to explain but an explantion is not always needed if one can say I believe it because God said it and that is good enough for me.

I think we all believe that God said let there be light and there was light. That is what he did. But if I say if you believe he did that then tell me how he did it. That is quite a different proposition.

I explained that I believe that there is only one who is Holy and that there is only one who is perfect and only one who is devine.

I believe that Jesus is Holy I believe that the Father is Holy, I believe that that Jesus is perfect and that the Father is perfect.

So I guess that if the substance is Holiness, and perfection, and love I agree with the substance part of the creed. However trinitarians do not believe in a material God or Godhead except that Christ became flesh and dwelt among us.

I heard a teaching once that said that Jesus is the wriiten and spoken word of God. So when the Father said let there be light the very words were Christ. That helps me with the concept of "through him and by were all things created."

I have been an evangelical Christian since I was 15 I have been active in Church and Bible studies and I agree with you Clean Cut that sometimes the trinity is misrepresented by some as I have never heard any of my brothers claim or assert that Jesus was praying to himself.

Rather I have seen more often people referring to the Baptism of Jesus where the Father says this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased as the Spirit is descending as Dove.

We see this a perfect picture of unity among a divine triune God.

Clean Cut could you find the Mormon doctrine of the Godhead in the BOM alone without further revelation or would your view be more inline with mainstream Christians on this one?

Alma 11 and Mosiah 15 are certainly diificult passage for those that hold the current LDS view at least from my point of view. When I read them to Christian friends they are shocked that they are in your scripture.

The Amulek and Zeezrom exchange is amazing.

Sorry for rambling!

Clean Cut said...

Very good comment, Kelark. And very good question.

In short, I don't know. So much depends upon the different lenses with with we read scripture.

Like you, I'm comfortable with seeing my understanding of God in these religious texts. But people have ALWAYS read these texts differently. For example, you say that you're comfortable with the Trinity because that's what God said in the Bible. But there were MAJOR debates about what God said in the Bible leading up to those creeds that are taken for granted today. Even among those early "Church Fathers" there was major disagreement. See Arianism, for example.

So in short, it is impossible for either you or me to come to an agreement on one "self-evident" way of interpreting these texts because we already possess a preconceived lens/bias. I believe that if I tried to take off my own lenses, I could at least begin to see things from another perspective--even within the Book of Mormon text.

Unfortunately people seldom question their own blind spots. Thus, rather than being persuaded to change lenses, people end up either agreeing to disagree or they denounce each other as heretics in error.

Clean Cut said...

Speaking of having different lenses, while you see a "perfect picture of unity among a divine triune God" at the baptism of Jesus, Latter-day Saints see evidence for the ontological separateness yet complete unity of the Godhead.

Different lenses--different results.

Mad said...

Awesome post, as usual.

I think sometimes we forget that usually church members aren't studying other faiths. We often rely on the experiences of others who have.

Reading Joseph Smith's "anti-trinitarian" writings, we find Joseph was actually anti-Modalist the strongest, and then went further than that. But his writings are anti-Modalist in what they preach against, though certainly not trinitarian in what they affirm. I think, too often we continue to talk about others how JS viewed them (and found them at the time. Remember, Protestantism has changed even more than Mormonism has over the last 150 years).

I think positive interactions with people like Jack, and Tim teach me that I want to really understand them, and make sure I don't misunderstand them. But I don't think I'm trying to water down Mormonism, as Eric accuses you of (nor do I believe you're doing that either).


Anonymous said...

You know, we used to have a great example of this in the temple ceremony. One of the characters was a Christian preacher who showed up to talk to Adam and Eve. The point was to disparage the (supposed) doctrines of other churches and to show that the preacher was actually a servant of Lucifer.

The church leaders took that part out in 1990, I suppose because it was offensive to Christians. (I don't know if you are old enough to remember this, but you can easily google it.)