Filed under: Catholicity — March 21, 2006 @ 11:31 am
just returned yesterday from attending the 2006 annual meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology. I really enjoyed the experience. There were some interesting topics discussed at the two-day conference, including:
A paper on the nature of ritual, by Jennifer Lane.
A paper on Reformed epistemology in comparison with Mormon epistemology, by Brian Birch.
A paper on the epistemic nature of the Mormon “testimony,” by Adam Miller.
A paper on unity of action as a basis for the divine unity in the Mormon Godhead, by Benjamin Huff.
A panel discussion on the Godhead with Daniel Peterson and Blake Ostler.
The keynote address on the doctrine of the Trinity in Christianity and Mormonism, by Evangelical philosopher Stephen T. Davis. A lively panel discussion followed.
A paper on points of contact between Mormonism and German mysticism and Buddhist thought, by James MacLachlan.
A paper evaluating Joseph Smith’s claim of apostolicity on the basis of criteria drawn up by Kierkegaard, by Charlotte Erdman.
A paper on Intelligent Design, by Richard Sherlock.
A critique of J. P. Moreland’s contribution to The New Mormon Challenge, by Kevin Winters.
A paper denying the existence of transcendent realities (including a transcendent God) as the basis for meaning in language, by Dennis Potter.
My personal favorites were the papers by Davis, MacLachlan and Sherlock, though most all the papers had interesting things to say.
My observations are as follows:
1. The very fact that Mormons are increasingly becoming interested in theological reflection, and reflection on the interaction between Scripture and doctrine is a positive sign. In my personal opinion, a more reflective Mormonism is in the long run more likely to come to some sense of awareness of the problems and inconsistencies which plague the teachings of Joseph Smith. The more Mormons are encouraged to systematize their theology, the less Mormonism will resemble the Gnostics of old, and the closer they will come to the light of revealed and consistent truth, as it was defended in days of old by men like Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Irenaeus.
2. There was a small but significant Evangelical presence at the meeting. In addition to the keynote speaker, and myself and Carl Mosser, there were a couple of Evangelical students of college age in attendance (one a student at Biola who traveled to Salt Lake for the conference).
3. The tone throughout was cordial and respectful. Whenever Carl or I would challenge a point peculiar to Mormonism, our questions were always entertained in a polite and thoughtful manner. The same holds true for Stephen T. Davis’ keynote address, which was openly critical of some points of Mormon teaching, and very open and forthright about differences between LDS and orthodox Christian views on the Trinity.
4. There are clearly two distinct streams developing within Mormon thought.
There is a stream which is in many ways sympathetic to the views of orthodox Christianity, and desires to build closer ties in that direction (this would include Robert Millet, Stephen Robinson, Blake Ostler, and Richard Sherlock). I have it from good sources that a majority of the current LDS apostles would fall under this category. This group emphasizes the primacy of the clear teachings of the Bible and Book of Mormon in theological reflection.
There is also a stream which is very appreciative of the distinctive teachings of Joseph Smith developed in the Nauvoo period (1839-1844), and is very suspicious of “Evangelical” influence upon the leaders and teachings of the Church (this would include Dennis Potter, James MacLachlan, Louis Midgley, and to some degree Daniel Peterson). Several voices at the conference were openly critical of the moves the LDS Church has been making to establish closer ties with conservative Evangelicalism.
Many LDS thinkers seem to be somewhere in the middle between these extremes (e.g., Brian Birch, David Paulsen and Benjamin Huff).
5. I was again struck by the fact that typical Evangelicalism all too often lacks the resources to deal constructively with Mormon thought. Evangelicalism lacks a robust understanding of the efficacy of the sacraments, an appreciation for ritual, an acknowledgment of the teaching authority of the Church, a sense of the identity of the visible Church (outside of which there is no ordinary way of salvation), the continuation of a ministerial priesthood (including apostolic succession) in the Church conveyed through the laying on of hands, and a recognition of the necessity of good works for salvation (and not merely their inevitability as the fruits of faith). I recognize that not all Reformed Christians would sign on to every detail of the above list, but in general terms, Reformed Catholicism is in a position to recognize the legitimacy of such things, and hence to bridge the gap between Mormons and orthodox Christians. For one example, as long as Evangelicals feel constrained to tell Mormons they must give up clear biblical teachings like the saving efficacy of baptism, they are going to make little progress with them in evangelism and dialogue.
I enjoyed my time in Salt Lake City, taking in some good food, and stimulating conversations with good friends (both Christian and Mormon). I pray that further theological discussion will bring more of the light of God’s truth, and the blessing of Christ’s presence, into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I pray as well that I will continue to grow in grace, in the knowledge of God’s will, and in my capacity to speak the truth in love to my friends in the Mormon church.