It turns out there are a lot of Mormons around here where I live. All of my daughter’s close friends (the ones who visit our apartment for play dates) belong to Mormon families. What’s more, I was actually relieved when I learned that they were LDS rather than, say, Catholic. A Catholic I would assume regarded Jesus as, at most, a long-dead “great teacher” whose teachings are most fully embodied in the sexual revolution and the American Democratic Party, whereas there is a decent chance that a Mormon is on my side in the Culture War and acknowledges Jesus as his Savior in a more substantial sense. True, this is a very low bar to clear. In the last couple of months, I’ve had to admit to myself that Catholicism really is the sick man of Christendom, that there is no branch of Orthodoxy or Protestantism with as little vitality or as much contempt for its own spiritual foundations. (Shopping at Wal-Mart has also forced me to admit the material superiority of communism. Seriously, the free world can’t even make its own Elmo dolls? That’s a lament for another day, though.) However, as I’ve learned more about them, the Mormons have entirely lived up to my initial positive prejudices.
The LDS missionaries have made the rounds past my street a couple of times. I always invite them in and let them deliver their spiel. Their grasp of Church history is, shall we say, extremely shaky. I find that I can’t probe them too far on their own theology, although they are quite honest in admitting the limits of their own knowledge. Remember that these are very young men. I hope for my part to disabuse them of some misconceptions they might have about Catholics by not disagreeing in exactly the way they expect. Overall, I admire them very much for the courage it must take to go from door to door evangelizing strangers. And all of their men have to do this! In my Church, none of the priests even seem to have the courage to share the Gospel with their own flock, for fear of giving offense.
Being friends with some of them means we’ve been been invited to some Mormon activities. We were even invited to one of their church services once, because my wife’s friend was going to deliver a presentation. (At their services, it seems that it is not the pastor but a few of the laity who give the sermons. I believe they cycle through their parishioners, letting each know when their turn comes up and what the general theme of the talk must be.) My wife asked if we could go, and she was surprised when I agreed. After all, I refuse to let any of my family go to the Catholic Church our home town, run by a priest who I always call “that sodomy-loving rat“. The difference, I explained to my wife, is that the priest I hate is a formal heretic, whereas her friends are only material heretics. They were born that way and can’t really help it. So off we went.
About the service itself, I noted nothing remarkable except the fact that two of the speakers–my wife’s friend and her husband–really did deliver quite good talks. They knew their book of Doctrine and Covanents well enough to quote usefully from it, and their devotion to Jesus Christ was evident and touching. I shutter to think what would happen if Catholic laymen were to preach during Mass. I’d have to hear calls for women priests and sodomy acceptance every week.
I disagree with my colleague Alan Roebuck’s claims about whether Mormons worship the real Christ as opposed to some sort of counterfeit, just as I disagreed with him earlier about whether Muslims worship the true God. In both cases, the question is “How badly can one mischaracterize an entity before one is, in fact, not talking about that entity at all, but rather about a figment of one’s own imagination?” Muslims acknowledge Allah as the source and plenitude of all being, and to my mind this mean they must be talking about God. They make incorrect statements about God, but they do nevertheless succeed in making statements about Him. I have no doubt that Islam is a kind of theism. Similarly, the Mormons acknowledge as their Savior a Jew they call “Jesus” who lived in first century Palestine, was crucified as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity, and rose from the dead. I don’t see how we can deny that they are talking about the Jesus Christ, even if they sometimes speak wrongly about him. They are indeed Christians.
The validity of their doctrines and sacraments is, of course, another issue, but I doubt it can be addressed at the “mere Christian” level. Each ecclesial body must decide according to its own particular dogmatic commitments.