Disparity of Concern in Evangelical-LDS Dialog / Craig Hazen & John Morehead

John Morehead is am a researcher, writer, and speaker in intercultural studies, new religious movements, theology and popular culture. He has a Master of Arts degree in intercultural studies from Salt Lake Theological Seminary which included a thesis on Burning Man Festival. He works with the Utah office of Neighboring Faiths Project in the area of new religious movements and alternative spiritualities, and is a part of the Lausanne issue group on postmodern spiritualities in the West. His thoughts can be followed on his blog “Morehead’s Musings“.

Dr. Morehead attended the Evangelical/Mormon Dialog in Salt Lake City in October 2007. During the Question and answer section in the session led by Biola’s Craig Hazen and Grant Underwood from BYU, Craig talked about the issue of a “conflict of concern” between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. Evangelicals have a lot higher interest in bringing Latter-day Saints to their understanding than Latter-day Saints in what they hope will happen from the interchanges. The theological causes and implications of this difference were also discussed by Craig in his presentation to the LDS Orange County public affairs council in November 2007.

Below are excerpts from John Morehead’s reflecting on Craig’s reflections. After reading them, I recognize that it is true that all my Evangelical acquaintances really do feel the compunction to get their message across.

They love and respect me, and thus should want me to avoid an eternity in a terrible Hell. I love and respect them, and feel confident that (1) if they don’t accept my version of the Gospel, they will not go to a terrible Hell, but an unbelieveable Terrestrial Kingdom, and be at the top of it; and (2) If their life’s experiences don’t lead them to accepting, they will get another chance in the next life. We need to understand and accept these differences of approaches, and not stop talking because we see each other’s different reactions.

Thanks much,
Steve St.Clair
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An interesting concept surfaced in the question and answer period in the first plenary session between Craig Hazen and Grant Underwood, that in my view undergirds many of the difficulties in evangelical-Mormon dialogue. In response to one of the questions from the audience, Craig Hazen mentioned a phenomonen that he called a “disparity of concern.” This refers to very different concerns over eternal matters in terms of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and the afterlife between these two religious sytems. As Craig painted the picture, in his understanding of the afterlife for Latter-day Saints the evangelical can gain more with a modification of belief and praxis within an LDS worldview, but the evangelical has a positive position in the afterlife even given his aberrant views and practices from the LDS perspective. By contrast, for many evangelicals the Latter-day Saint has much to lose from their beliefs and practices in the eternal scheme of things, as they are viewed as heretical from the evangelical viewpoint. This very different view of things and their soteriological ramifications leads to the disparity of concern, one which is far stronger in the evangelical community toward Latter-day Saints than perhaps it is in the Latter-day Saint community toward evangelicals.I think this consideration is important for our reflection, not only as an idea in an of itself, but also how it impacts, consciously or subconsiously, various other aspects of evangelical-Mormon understandings and interactions.

First, the strong sense of soteriological disparity of concern on the part of evangelicals often leads to a strong emotional sense of urgency in the proclamation of the message, which, in my view, often short circuits or prevents more careful reflection on important issues related to effective cross-(sub)cultural communication. This was illustrated for me as I watched an informal dialogue between an evangelical and a Latter-day Saint during lunch during the conference. After an hour’s worth of exchange, the Latter-day Saint stated in exasperation that he had wasted an hour of time because his evangelical dialogue partner had made no attempt to understand his position, but instead, seemed intent on merely proclaiming his message and concerns. After watching this dialogue it was evident to me that the evangelical had no ability to enter into the thought-world, empathetically or otherwise, of the Latter-day Saint, and thus he was unable to understand his dialogue partner accurately or to frame the message he wanted to communicate in terms that would be favorably received by the receptor. The difficulty in this miscommunication scenario was the overriding disparity of concern on the part of the evangelical that could not be held onto in balanced and holistic fashion with other concerns so as to faciliate effective communication.

The second example of the ramifications of the disparity of concern came to me as I recently read a newsletter from a counter-cult ministry that addressed Mormonism. The article used a presentation titled “What Would Jesus Say to a Mormon” by Denver Seminary’s Craig Blomberg as a point of departure. While the article viewed Blomberg’s comments favorably, nevertheless, the author argued that Blomberg did not go far enough. In the counter-cult author’s opinion, Christ would go further with a Latter-day Saint to point out various points of Christology as reflected in the form of biblical and creedal orthdoxy in contrast with perceived Latter-day Saint heresy. I am aware that I’ll probably get myself into trouble with evangelicals by probing this issue, but I wonder: Would Jesus have argued in such fashion with a Mormon (or any other religious or spiritual group), and if so, how much doctrinal detail would he have gone into? Perhaps evangelicals need to rethink their assumptions in this area.

If the evangelical-Mormon encounter represents a form of cultural or subcultural communication (and I have argued elsewhere that on the level of ethnicity or self-identity that Mormonism is rightly viewed in a unique subcultural sense necessitating cross-cultural understanding and communication) then questions arise as to how evangelicals might appropriately communicate their concerns with their Latter-day Saint friends and contacts.

The disparity of concern often faciliates a communication of the charge of heresy, followed by aspects of creedal Christological orthodoxy that the evangelical believes the Latter-day Saint must make assent to both mentally and in terms of personal faith commitments. If Paul’s exchange with the Athenian philosophers at the Areopagus in Acts 17 provides some kind of model for such cross-cultural and interreligious exchanges, then some contextualized presentation of Christian truth claims, and an appropriate correction and alternative to competing worldviews seems in order, nevertheless, what type of information and doctrinal ideas should be communicated? Is a full blown, post-Nicean Christology in order, or indeed, even essential? Many of our evangelistic methodologies assume so.

In a previous blog post I addressed issues related to this in a discussion of correct knowledge and doctrinal mininalism. In this post I considered two missiological resources that looked at the question of essential biblical Christological issues related to soteriology and the separate issue of worldview transformation. I then concluded, in part:

It appears from the biblical evidence that a minimal amount of correct knowledge and doctrine was presented to and accepted by the “convert,” and our tendencies toward more extensive evangelistic formulas might be not only unbiblical, but also put the doctrinal cart before the horse. Rather than expecting potential converts to have more extensive and orthodox theological views, perhaps this is something that should be developed over time as individuals mature in the discipleship process.I believe the twin issues of Christological (and theology proper) minimalism, as well as the proper place for worldview transformation, are key issues for theologians and missiologists in an age of increasing religious pluralism, and in the evangelical encounter with new religions where dialogue appears to be gaining a greater place on the agenda. To my knowledge these issues have not been addressed in any substantial fashion in places like the Evangelical Theological Society or Evangelical Missiological Society. It is time for us to put them on the respective theological and missiological agendas.

As I reflect on these issues and their application to evangelical-Mormon dialogue I wonder whether they do not represent examples of the ramifications and impact of the disparity of concern.

Is it possible that evangelicals have allowed their soteriological passions and the affective impact of the disparity of concern for Latter-day Saints to prevent them from critical reassessment of their theological assumptions?

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