The Mormons returned to our doorstep last evening. Elder Watkins and Elder Brown, my previous Mormon guests (I describe our meeting here), had moved on from here but passed our names and address along to two other missionaries who graced us with their presence today. They were nice young women (Sister Ross and Sister M – I never got her full last name) who spent alot of time at first just chatting about life and families and work and stuff. However, when I began to ask questions about their faith and tradition, they asked if we could begin with a word of prayer. I remember this from the previous visit – chit-chat is nice, but when conversation turns to God and Mormonism, we must first begin with a word of prayer.
My wife and I asked a few probing questions about the Book of Mormon and their teaching about the restoration – that the church of Jesus Christ and its teaching was properly restored through Joseph Smith (post-Bible times the church went into a Great Apostasy, and even though some good teachers sought to reform the church – St. Francis, Martin Luther, etc. – it was not until Joseph Smith that the church was restored). Guided by angels, Joseph Smith recovered a lost testament of Jesus Christ (the Book of Mormon) and translated it. He was then made a priest and a prophet (by the angels? I don’t remember) and re-established the church of Jesus Christ by gathering 12 men to be apostles. It’s all a little odd to me.
Well, I guess that it is no more odd than what I believe – that God became man (but was both man and God at the same time), performed some pretty cool miracles, reached out to the poor and rejected, yet was rejected himself by the people, killed and buried, rose from the dead (wounds and all), and ascended into heaven (body and all). This God comes to me every week through spoken words, bread and wine, and guides my life and that of the church through a divine Spirit. That’s pretty odd, too.
But, unlike my Mormon sisters who came to my house yesterday, I have the benefit of belonging to a religious tradition that is widely accepted and part of the dominant culture. It’s pretty easy being a Christian when being a Christian is status quo. Unlike my Mormon sisters, I don’t receive weird looks when I mention the name of my religion (for example, Mormonism was openly mocked in my high school yearbook by some friends in a "where will they be in x number of years" article in which they joked that they would all become Mormon missionaries. The article was accompanied by a picture of the three friends, each holding a copy of the Book of Mormon, and each wearing a silly grin. Had they attempted to mock Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism or other forms of mainstream religion, the article would not have been printed and they would likely have been punished.)
When testifying to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as God’s Word, these missionaries and the previous missionaries appealed to their own personal experience – "I read the Book of Mormon, asked for God’s guidance in prayer, and God showed me that the Book of Mormon is indeed the Word of God. I know it because God led me to believe it." Personal experience – that’s it, isn’t it? Who am I to invalidate their personal experience of faith because my personal, semi-rational, socially acceptable faith is distinct from theirs? Surely we are want to dismiss their personal experience and say, "P’shaw! They appeal to personal experience, but we lean on the great tradition of the church – it’s liturgy and theology and pastoral practice; it’s scholarship and contribution to society, history, the arts, etc. The great Catholic and Protestant traditions depend on much more than mere personal experience. Personal experience? Ha!"
Yet, in the end, isn’t my faith or tradition "valid" only because of personal experience? I know the Gospel and I know that the witness of the Lutheran tradition is a true expression of the Gospel because I have experienced God’s love and grace through it. I can appeal to tradition and scholarship and this and that – but how does that make my faith any more rational or legitimate than that of the Mormon? How is it superior? Not by any measure of reason. There is no objective criteria that would put Lutheranism or "orthodox" Christianity above Mormonism, Swedenborgianism or any other fringe, heterodox Christian group. The only difference is that we "orthodox" Christians have history and a significant cultural hegemony on our side. Nonetheless, we’re all a bunch of believers who, at some point, suspend reason and live in a faith and belief that is simply illogical and nonsensical.
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:20-25, NRSV
This is not a melt-down into an everybody-for-themselves spiritual relativism. However, this is a recognition that, in the non-religious eyes of reason, all believers are a little nuts. When we who belong to a dominant and widely-accepted religious tradition look down our noses at fringe religious traditions, we need to recognize the coziness we have with Cesar and the dominant culture, and check our smug superiority at the door. I found myself looking down at my Mormon sisters last night because they, their church and their beliefs are weird. But the truth is that I, my church and my beliefs are just as weird.
But weird is a cultural term, a term that a person in a position of privilege uses to ostracize someone who doesn’t fit in. I benefit from fitting in, but my Mormon sister does not. Rather than sneer my nose at her and call her weird, I should engage and critique her not using the language of cultural or historical superiority, but using the language of theology and faith. That is, in the terms of my belief I should engage her belief, because whatever so-called rational stone I can throw at her would likely break the stained glass windows of my faith, too.
That being said, I have little interest in dissecting Mormon belief and describing how it falls short of the Gospel – a Gospel that I hear, know and love in my mainstream, socially-accepted, Lutheran Christian church. I simply say a prayer for my Mormon sisters, that God might work through them, even if I think they are weird.