Yesterday as I was returning home from work at the end of a long week, I finally ran into two Mormons who had been wanting to speak with me since Tuesday. They had been doing the ’rounds’ on our block and surrounding area and they were told to come back day after day in the hopes that they would get to speak to me (somebody interested in having a conversation with them). It took until the end of the week, but we finally ran into each other.
Now, this is not my first encounter with serious Mormons, and I have due respect for those Mormons willing to have doors shut in their faces and be verbally abused just for the opportunity to share their message with somebody. I have found that engaging them in sincere conversation is a welcome treat for many of them, and this was my experience again yesterday. In what follows I will track and bring together some of the most interesting threads of the conversation which lasted a few hours.
First, I made sure to, charitably, put all my cards on the table and tell them where I was coming from, as a very convicted Catholic. I then told them that since I’ve had similar encounters with Mormon elders on mission before, I have a relatively good working idea what Mormonism is. The first thing I said was that the single greatest problem I have with Mormonism as a theology is that it isn’t logically possible. Now, that seems like quite the indictment I know, so I explained myself. I said that the term God as any theist would understand it just was ‘that than which nothing greater could be conceived’ or ‘that which is maximally great, having all the great making properties’. Although I was clear about this entailing things like God’s omniscience, omnipotence, simplicity and other divine attributes, the single most important feature of God is that he exists necessarily (that is, that he exists such that he cannot logically fail to exist). In other words God is not a contingent feature of existence, but an incontingent feature. Now, in Mormon soteriology each man is intended to become a god in heaven, so that each man will be able to create his own world and populate it full of potential worshipers. This is how they understand God (our god). They believe him to have had a god of his own, in another world where he was created at one time, and was something significantly like a man. Literally just like one of us. I pointed out that on that definition not only does polytheism follow, but actually that the Mormon claim to being theists at all was merely semantical. I said “whatever you mean by god, if its anything like what I just outlined (as a contingent not logically necessary nor maximally great being) is for me irrelevant in one sense – what I am talking about when I say God is the God of your god.” I made it clear that even before teasing out many of the problems with Mormonism that I see internally, this one problem for me was going to be the elephant in the room until ‘resolved’. They directed me to a Mormon philosopher and theologian, which is surprising both because Mormon theologians and philosophers are very very rare, and because these two in particular were well read enough to know something about him (though they admitted they hadn’t read him and didn’t have the philosophical training to read him easily). I will be looking up his works and blogging on that when I have read through his philosophy.
Next, we talked about Apostolic succession, a really pivotal point for both Mormons and Catholics. Mormons believe that the Church was intended to have apostolic succession, where the Apostles impart their teaching authority and hierarchical positions to others. On this Catholics are in agreement. However, Mormons maintain that there were supposed to be exactly 12 Apostles for all time (that is, that there is supposed to be only 12 apostles for any generation, as Jesus established it). The evidence for this comes from Acts 1:15-26 where Judas has died, and the Apostles feel the need to elect one man to fill his place as the twelfth Apostle. Now, I pointed out that the purpose of Jesus’ electing 12 apostles in the first place was to represent the 12 tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). From a Catholic perspective, this purpose was completely satisfied by having the first 12 apostles. The Mormons asked why Catholics don’t have Apostles today, and I responded by saying that actually (at least in a hierarchical/magisterial sense) we do, we just call them bishops. However, I pointed out that even among Catholics we call all Bishops collectively “the college of the 12”. In pointing these things out I think I uncovered how closely the Catholic model came to satisfying the Mormon intuition here. I also pointed out that among the early Apostolic fathers (that is, those Fathers like Clement, Timothy, Titus, Ignatius, and others) who literally learnt directly from the Apostles, that their understanding of Apostolic succession just was the Catholic understanding born out in history. This means that at least the Apostles didn’t hand on the Mormon model of hierarchy properly even to their very first students, and at most that Jesus and the Apostles just didn’t intend the Mormon model of hierarchy. I used the example of Ignatius of Antioch in particular, student of John the Apostle, and actually ordained by Peter, who left us in writing a preview of the theology he received from them. He spoke specifically about the role of bishops in the Church as apostolic successors to the Apostles, and that their authority, like the Apostles, was like the authority of Christ.
We also talked about some of the other problems I have with Mormonism, such as the criticisms Mormons often offer against infant baptism. It all sounds similar to me, having been a Baptist previously – that the child can’t choose for him or her-self, that they aren’t really making an act of faith (of course all of that has the massive problem of being anti-sacramental in principle). However, I pressed this point because I recognized that Mormon theology requires Mormons to baptize everyone except children, including (apparently) many dead and buried Jews who died horrifically in the Holocaust. These bodies were dug up by Mormons, causing much pain to their loved ones and scandal to the whole world, just to be baptized. As it stands now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (LDS) takes the official prudential position that Mormons don’t have to and shouldn’t dig up graves and baptize the dead, because at the end of the world God will give it to the LDS Church to baptize all who have died one at a time. So in other words, there is “no rush”. Now, what strikes me about this is that, although I could understand a Baptist leveling the aforementioned criticisms and (while I think they are gravely mistaken and out of line with Christianity proper) I simply can’t help but be perplexed by Mormons bringing the same criticisms to the table when their theology seems to run contrary to those concerns. After all, can the dead people really make an act of faith by you forcibly baptizing them? Do they have any choice in the matter? The Mormon justification goes something like this: “well, since Baptism is necessary for salvation, these people must be baptized to be part of God’s salvific plan – and if they choose to reject the grace of baptism after the fact then that is their choice.” I smiled as I thought how similar to the Catholic vision this all was, and how it could just as easily, it seems to me, apply to Children even in Mormonism.
We also talked about Joseph Smith (naturally) and I gave my reasons why I thought his story lacked the integrity I look for and find in Christ. I contrasted the example of Joseph Smith with Jesus Christ and with the Prophet Muhammed. I gave reasons why Muhammed and Joseph Smith seemed to lack the integrity that Christ’s story has. Muhammed by taking to himself multiple wives including (famously) with a 9 year old, Smith by his engaging in over 40 affairs with married women, when he was already married himself. I particularly pointed to the Bible as Joseph Smith had at one point in his ministry set out to correct the Bible, restoring it from the corruption of the Catholic Church. However, when I had previously asked about these corrections, knowing something about textual criticism, I found that Smith neither corrected obvious problems like the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7) nor did he even try to change some questionable LXX translations (Isaiah 7:14). Rather, the changes he did make were loaded with theological baggage, and there was absolutely no good textual evidence that he restored anything at all. Now, what’s interesting here is that these particular Mormons explained this by saying that it was never Smith’s intention to do anything so ambitious as correct the Bible, but only just to bring it into harmony with what Smith was teaching which, as a prophet and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he had every right to do.
Then we talked about things more tentatively in terms of thought experiments. I asked them to imagine all the different gods for all the different worlds that are out there. I asked them if they thought each of those gods would actualize something like the mormon story. I asked if any of them thought that in one of those worlds the ecclesiology of the ‘church’ as the vehicle of salvation would look significantly different (for instance by having, say, 14 apostles). We also talked about God being a trinity by reason of ‘the Father’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘The Holy Spirit’ being three different beings who were ‘one in purpose’ making them all ‘God’ in a qualified sense. I said that if the ‘Father’s wives from his previous life were supportive, then couldn’t we imagine a ‘god the mother’ or perhaps ‘gods who are the mothers’? They seemed ready to admit all of this very easily and openly, and simply said that it was too speculative for them to give me a definitive answer in this life. We also got into the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, and how radically different it was from what they were proposing.
We talked about Marriage being indissoluble in heaven, and I brought up Jesus’ advice of celibacy in Matthew 19:12. This conversation hadn’t lasted long on their end once I dove into talking about Old Testament Trajectories and the realization of ‘Sacramental’ theology in Christ.
Finally I challenged them to not take the burning in their bosom, giving them assurance that Mormonism is true, to be about mormonism as a theology at all. “After all, even with a burning in your bosom” I said to them “you surely have disagreed with some other mormons about somethings throughout your lives.” So at least the burning doesn’t give you a method for having all of your theology right. I suggested to them that the way I as a Catholic read their experiences is that they are indeed related to God and they love and know him, even while their theological expressions are completely absurd (I put this more kindly). I suggested that that sensation that they get of the Holy Spirit does not tell them that their theology is correct, but only (at best) that their hearts are open and responsive, in some degree, to God.
Eventually I told them that since I am a Catholic, this conversation is only really going to be a real conversation if they are open to considering Catholicism possibly true. I suggested to them candidly that they think and pray about what it would mean for Catholicism to be true, what it would mean for them personally, and if that might be actually true. They seemed very open to the suggestion, and overall the conversation was fantastic. Neither of these two Mormons were able to dissolve many of my problems as stated roughly and briefly in this blog-post, but they were open and had an air of integrity about them. They want to meet again next Friday. I look forward to seeing where the conversation goes then.
As an additional note, a friend of mine was inspired to make a website for me called “conversations with mormons” based on this most recent encounter with them. I thought this was a joke, but seeing as the website actually exists now, maybe I’ll take it anyways. If I do, what I’ll do with it is simply write a few short articles on my problems with the Mormon faith as a Catholic apologetic to Mormons.