A few years ago I mentioned to one of my sons that if I were not Mormon I think that I would have to be Catholic. This was a bit of a shock to him at the time, but he is getting used to my “shocks” and they don’t trouble him anymore.
The principle reasons for making this statement are that only two churches, in my mind, have a claim to legitimate authority to act in God’s name. I had also learned at the time of my declaration that many of the traditional Catholic scandals were exaggerated or false. (I still need to acquire Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History) And, many of the stereotypical criticisms of Catholic worship were misrepresentations of the real intent (thanks to my Theology on Tap Logan friends).
Consequently, when I came across Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation, I had to read it.
From the Audience: “Are you saying that you’re thinking about leaving the LDS church?”
No, I think you would have to classify my feelings as holy envy and recognition of the deep theological richness that Catholicism allows. I think there is the same opportunity within Mormonism and theological discussion is becoming more mainstream in our community.
Stephen H. Webb and Alonzo L. Gaskill do a fabulous job in their dialogue. Unlike How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation by Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, Catholic and Mormon lacks any latent vitriol or tension. Webb and Gaskill are each converts to their respective faith traditions, which adds humility and broad context to the discussion; Webb was a Protestant, now converted to Catholicism and Stephen was raised Orthodox and is now a Mormon. Both men also have deep theological knowledge that they bring to the table, adding contextual background to a respectful conversation.
All-in-all, this is now my favorite theological book—and I usually don’t have favorites of anything.
The following are a few quotes (among many) that I found interesting. (I’ve used the authors first names, just as they do in the book.)
Chapter 1 – Authority
Christianity cannot survive anarchy any more than any government in the world can. (pg 6)
Chapter 2 – Grace
It just does not make sense to say that salvation and works are mutually exclusive or theological[ly] incompatible. Even those who say that only a born again experience will save you are requiring a work for salvation, since “having a certain kind of experience” is something that we try to do, in the sense of preparing ourselves by opening our hearts, and thus it is a “work.” As Alonzo rightly says, when you receive a gift, even the freest gift imaginable, you still have to do something to receive it, even if that just means showing up and extending your empty hands. (pg 46)
As Brigham Young counseled, Latter-day Saints must have their “minds riveted—yes, I may say riveted—on the cross of Christ” or their works will be “in vain.” How can anyone sincerely contemplate all that Jesus has done and then expected or feel deserving of “cheap grace”?!? It did not come cheaply for Christ and should not come cheaply to us. We do good and seek to obey because we have our eyes trained on Him attached to Golgotha’s cross. When we allow the fog to roll in, that is when we run the risk of forgetting what must never be forgotten by anyone worthy of the name “Christian.” (pg 48)
Chapter 3 – Mary
The Bible suggests the belief in a feminine divine is not a new or new-age idea. One Evangelical scholar noted: “The idea of God as mother has a rich and long tradition in Christian spirituality.” The Old and New Testaments hint at the feminine divine. For example, the Hebrew word for one of the most important attributes of God is rahum, which is often translated as “compassion,” but literally means “womb love.” Thus, we find in the Bible God’s love painted in feminine terms–using the image of a woman’s womb as the metaphor. (pg 56)
Many Protestants have something like an allergic reaction to all things Mary. It sometimes seems that Protestants almost define themselves as the anti-Mary theological party, since they suppose that Roman Catholics go too far in honoring her. … If there is a feminine dimension to heaven, who would better represent that than Mary? (pg 59)
Chapter 4 – Revelation
LDS doctrine declares that if something is true it is part of Mormonism—regardless of the source of that truth, be it Latter-day Saint, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, and so forth. While this is our doctrine, I believe a percentage of Mormons are still suspicious about the teachings of other traditions. Perhaps we are not all as open to the universality of truth as we ought to be. (pg 74)
Mormonism can evolve, adapt, and change because it is led by a President who is also considered by the Saints to be a Prophet in continuity with the prophetic vocation of Joseph Smith. Yet it is unimaginable that the President of the Latter-day Saints would say, teach, or believe anything that would contradict or deny basic Mormon teachings. He might modify some aspect of Mormon doctrines… . Mormons have continuing revelation, but they do not have contradictory revelations, or at least I do not think they would want to say that revelation can contradict itself. (pg 76-77)
Chapter 5 – Ritual
Mormonism was born in America during a time when Protestants were very suspicious of creeds as well as formal, scholarly theology, and those suspicions are still a part of Mormon identity. That makes it hard at times to know exactly what Mormons believe, especially if an outsider is looking for terminological consistency and metaphysical depth on par with Thomas Aquinas. Mormon theology is not systematic and propositional in any obvious way, although it has systematic depths and propositional commitments. To learn what Mormons believe, a holistic and sympathetic approach is required. (pg 88)
Chapter 7 – Jesus
Individual Christians, of course, should not have their relationship to Christ judged by the quality of their philosophical acumen. Nor should so-called heretical traditions be dismissed as stubborn and willful rebellions against the obvious truth of the early creeds. In this area of complexity and mystery, any Christian tradition that puts Christ at the center of its worship and ethics should be welcomed into the Christian family. The Catholic Church for much of its history was zealous in its role of safeguarding the truths of the faith, but its history of persecution against minority Christians is one of the reasons that the Church today is so fragmented. . . . If Christians want to judge other Christians, they should do so by their fruits, not their metaphysics. (pg 123)
Chapter 9 – History
For many Protestants, history is a problem. If you try to believe and practice only what you read in the Bible, then you end up skipping over the theological wisdom of centuries of church history. The lives and testimonies of so many faithful Christians become stones to be stepped over on the way back to the Bible. The only people who count are the ones who wrote or appear in the sacred scripture. History becomes little more than one long illustration of how people inevitably fail to please God. (pg 155)
In this chapter Stephen has leveled a criticism against Mormons that, as much as I hate to admit it, is an accurate one. Many Latter-day Saints are prone to see Catholicism as an “apostate” version of Christianity. They are prone to forget that the Catholics preserved for the world (including for the Latter-day Saints) the Holy Bible, ordinances such as the Lord’s Supper or baptism, doctrines like Jesus’s messianic role and His act of ransom. Too many Latter-day Saints forget that Joseph Smith walked into the Sacred Grove and had his first vision (wherein he saw God) because of the provocation provided by the Bible (which Catholics canonized and preserved). (pg 160)
The above quotes are just a few points that I found interesting. Some of the most interesting subjects are not included because they just can’t be reduced and still retain the meaning. For example Stephen asks: “If matter is eternal and God is material, then is not God a product of forces beyond His control? If God is secondary to and derivative from matter, then isn’t He not only not omnipotent but also not immortal? If He is the product of material processes, then He cannot be eternal and unchanging. In a word, He cannot be God.”
These are common questions for Trinitarian Christians and logically flow from that perspective when confronted by Mormonisms view of God. While initially I thought Alonzo was obfuscating, I realized that the response was the only practical way to handle the matter. How did he respond? I will leave this as a teaser.
This was a great read. The well written content, while often technical, was engaging.
Are there aspects of Catholic theology that you think compliment Mormon worship?
Now get off my lawn.