Religions in Their Own Words – Morality in Representing Other Religions

March 4, 2008
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Several posts ago, I wrote about the morality of other Christians referring to Mormons as non-Christian without explaining their non-standard use of the word “Christian.” Far from claiming that they should call us “Christians” I suggested how they could morally call us “non-Christians” without misrepresenting our beliefs.

That article was actually a heavily modified letter I had written to an Evangelical in defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses, not Mormons. In retrospect it was a mistake for me to change it to be a defense of Mormons because it brought the subject matter too close to home and, I suspect, caused people to miss my point. This new article is also a letter to a Protestant friend in defense of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This time I’m going to learn from my mistakes and just leave it as a defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It should be obvious how this topic relates to Mormonism.

What I am really exploring here is the morality of representing or misrepresenting another religion and the value of taking religions on their own terms rather than your terms. I have changed the names in this letter and modified any words of the person I was writing to so that I am not giving out private communications

Jill,

You said the following about the Jehovah’s Witnesses beliefs: “I have a concern with Jehovah’s Witnesses saying that they believe Jesus is Divine. As you know, they believe Jesus is Michael the Archangel, not God. They do call him “a god” but they distinctly see him as lesser than God in his divinity. To a Christian that believes in the Trinity doctrine, it is very truthful to say JWs deny the divinity of Christ. We believe in One Triune God. Saying Jesus is not part of that Triune God is, to us, the same as saying Jesus is not Divine at all. To a Trinitarian, the Jehovah’s Witnesses view of Jesus is not only not divine, it’s just a myth. It’s false. False is fiction. The opposite of True is False. That’s why we say they deny His Divinity.

Now it seems to me you make several very good logic points that any honest and logical Jehovah’s Witness should really have to consider and respond to. It seems to me that you are correct that JWs do not see Jesus as part of “God” in the same sense that either you or I believe. (And we don’t believe in it in the same way either, though there seems to be more similarities between us than between us and them since both Protestants and Mormons accept that Jesus is fully divine.) Thus I can see why, from your point of view, the JW belief could be rightly said to be “the same” as denying the divinity of Christ.

And yet, this isn’t the truth because in fact Jehovah’s Witnesses affirm the divinity of Christ. For you to tell people they deny the Divinity of Christ leaves a false impression about their beliefs. For instance, it seems likely people that heard you say that would think it meant Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus is just a normal human prophet. But we both know their beliefs about Jesus go far beyond this.

But how can they affirm the Divinity of Christ at all considering what they actually believe about Jesus? Well, I don’t want to speak for the JWs, but it seems possible that they are either using a different sense of the word “divine” than you are, or it’s possible they might believe a contradiction.

Now let’s take the worst possible case here and assume they believe a contradiction. The fact that they believe a contradiction does not really give us the right to sum up their beliefs as “Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the divinity of Christ.” In truth, we could only say that their beliefs are a contradiction and explain how.

I’m guessing you’ll ask “But Bruce, what’s the difference?”

It seems to me that it’s the entire difference between true and lying. Let me explain with an example.

We just had a discussion about the doctrine of Trinity and the difference between yours and my interpretations of this. I called it a “seeming contradiction from a human point of view” or something like that. When I said the Trinity doctrine was a contradiction I actually had the Athanasius Creed in mind, not the Nicean Creed. We haven’t talked about the Athanasius Creed so I don’t know if you accept it or not.

Regardless of how you feel about the Athanasius Creed, let’s pretend that you accept it as true for the sake of this example. Here is the version of the text I am using.

Now let’s say you made friends with a Muslim, named Dan, who asks you what you believe about God. And let’s say you whip out the Athanasius Creed and you say “Dan, here is what I believe about God.”

So Dan reads it over and says “Jill! You’re a polytheist!”

You would naturally respond “No, I’m not! I’m no polytheist! See right here in the Athanasius Creed is says: ’16. And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.’”

So Dan looks at the Athanasius Creed and says “Yeah, but it says right here: ’5. For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost.’ so you see, Jill, this says that you actually do believe in three Gods, logically speaking. Because this contradicts the other statement.”

So you and Dan go back and forth and Dan creates what he feels is a logical proof for you.

Quoting from William F. Vallicella, PhD, who happens to believe in the doctrine of Trinity by the way -

The problem, to put it schematically, is to prove the consistency of the following set of propositions:

a) P1 is numerically distinct from P2.
b) P2 is numerically distinct from P3.
c) P1 is numerically distinct from P3.
d) P1 is G.
e) P2 is G.
f) P3 is G.

[Bruce's Note: G = God P1 = Person 1, etc.]

If the ‘is’ in the last three propositions is the ‘is’ of identity, then a contradiction is easily derivable. (Verify this for yourself.)

This suggests that the solution must lie in the direction of reinterpreting the ‘is’ as it occurs in the last three propositions. Say what you want about Bill Clinton, he rendered a great service to philosophical logic by insisting that much depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is. And he saved his hide to boot!

Reading the ‘is’ as the ‘is’ of predication won’t cut it. Suppose you take ‘The Father is God’ to mean ‘The Father is divine’ where the ‘is’ expresses predication and ‘divine’ picks out the property of divinity. Then what you are saying in effect is that the Father exemplifies or instantiates divinity. And similarly in the cases of the Son and the Holy Ghost. But if each exemplifies divinity, then each is a god, and the result is tritheism.

The trick is to maintain monotheism while also maintaining the distinctness of Persons.

Okay, back to our example. Dan, now convinced that he’s proven the Athanasius Creed is a contradiction, goes around telling everyone that will listen, “Hey, did you know Jill is a polytheist!” or “Can you believe Jill believes in polytheism?” or “Christians are Polytheists!”

If later someone approaches Dan and says “Hey, I talked to Jill, and she believes in only one God, please stop lying about Jill!” Dan might counter and say “Hey, Jill believes a contradiction, thus to me she’s a polytheist! Besides, to us Muslims, this is the same as polytheism, since we believe in a single person in God. The opposite of True is False. That’s why I say she denies the one True monotheistic God.”

Would this be a valid argument? Let’s be honest here: this hypothetical Muslim, who knows full well what you really believe, is lying. There is simply no truth in what he’s saying. If indeed you believe a contradiction, this is not the same as you believing in polytheism. Now why is that true?

Couldn’t it be said that in a sense he isn’t lying because to him you are a polytheist? But what gives him the right to choose which side of the contradiction, from his point of view, represents your beliefs the best? And for that matter, can we really say he’s representing you in truth if he’s leaving out the other side of the contradiction all together? And clearly for the sake of being able to persecute you, nonetheless.

Dan might counter that according to his definition of polytheism, Jill qualifies. But isn’t he really misrepresenting your beliefs since most people listening to him would mistakenly think you were a polytheist in the sense that the Greeks or Romans were? (And aren’t you clearly not the same as Greeks and Roman polytheists?) He’s not really attempting to be careful that his audience understands how he defines his terms, so this counter would ultimately still be a lie.

And this begs a much more important question: why in the world do I or anyone else care how Dan chooses to translate your beliefs and theological views into his terminology and theological view? All he’s really doing is grabbing one concept from your religion while ignoring all the other related ones, and translating only that one concept. This strikes me as disingenuous at best and a lie at worst. Now surely I can understand why he might say “I can’t accept this Trinitarian belief of yours personally, for I see it as a contradiction.” But what right does he have to unilaterally interpret your beliefs as polytheistic?

While you may personally see Jehovah’s Witnesses beliefs as contradicting the idea of the divinity of Jesus (I do too, by the way) I do not believe it’s appropriate for us to boil this down to “Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the divinity of Jesus” for exactly the same reasons it’s wrong for “Dan” to call you a polytheist.

–End of letter to Jill.–

Afterwards, Jill and I discussed morally appropriate ways to accomplish her purpose without misrepresenting the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The following possibilities come to mind:

  1. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Trinitarians
  2. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus is less Divine than God
  3. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus only atoned for the sins, directly, for the 144,000. (Though all that live on the paradisaical earth benefited from it.) Thus they do not believe Jesus is our savior in the same sense Protestants believe it.
  4. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus isn’t the Great Jehovah, he’s Michael the Archangel.
  5. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus is “a god” but he is not “the God.”
  6. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the Divinity of Jesus in the same sense Protestants believe in the Divinity of Jesus.

None of the above list would be rejected by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, I was told each of these by a knowledgeable Jehovah’s Witness who still insisted they believe Jesus is divine in some sense. And yet any of the above accomplished Jill’s purpose of explaining to others that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe Jesus is divine in the same sense she believes He is.

12 Responses to Religions in Their Own Words – Morality in Representing Other Religions

  1. March 4, 2008 at 6:55 am

    Interestingly enough, one of the common core cult secrets (of the mystery cults — I’m using the word in the academic sense, not the pejorative one) is that there is really just one God. So Jill and a typical educated ancient Greek would both think of themselves as monotheists, just for the record ;)

    I like your summation. You’ve pointed out that what is often going on is a matter of nuance and that what people are doing is rejecting nuance and thereby bearing false witness; and doing it more or less intentionally and in bad faith.

    I would add that it strikes me that there is a reason for the simplified professions of faith in the New Testament: they allow for a vast inclusiveness. To be Christian is to believe that Christ was born of Mary as the son of God, that he died for our sins and brought to pass the resurrection.

  2. March 4, 2008 at 6:58 am

    I think you’ve nailed this one. Which I think is exactly what I think we need for a lot of our discussion of the LDS and Mormon faith (let’s face it, what is called ‘Mormon’ on this site often encompasses much more than the LDS out of SLC!), especially when dealing with those of other faiths. One of the problems in the LDS church that we commonly face is that we don’t realize just how uniquely we use the language of scripture sometimes, which means that the apologists and the theologists among us go to school, get some learning, recognize that the terms we use are being used VERY differently by the rest of the world, and then their language shifts, but even they aren’t sure.

    Unfortunately, even the GA’s are using the language differently than most of the members, I suspect. It’s a byproduct of revelation. I read an article by Orson Scott Card about revelation recently. His thesis was that when we are given revelation on an personal level we understand it at a spiritual level, but we then have to cram that into our cognitive capacity, and it just doesn’t fit into our mortal and physical understanding once the Holy Spirit is withdrawn from us. Then when we try to write it down we lose even more (or try to speak it). Thus the only way to try to understand words written under the influence of the Spirit is by the influence of the Spirit, because of the massive disconnect in conveyance. What we see in the church though is a set of codes that are used very differently by different groups.

    So much of the problem in talking about religion then, is trying to understand how people use different terms–semantics are not just important, they are essential. Yet you will hear semantic differences as being unimportant. Yet if you are a missionary, you had darn well better understand the differences in semantics when we say salvation in the LDS/Mormon faith and what almost any other faith means by that. Also knowing the parrallel concepts are important. Yet comparative theology is almost never touched on. Why? Because at some point we decided that it might somehow damage our youth to be exposed to this.

    Yet I am a believer in inoculation therapies: it works in general medicine and there is good evidence for it in psychology (if I get time I might dig up the article later on–it has to do with groupthink, attitude change and preparing people against future arguments–great stuff). Frankly, I think that our seminary programs need to be much more intensive. We need our kids to feel like the program really matters, and that it is one of the most important things that they can do.

  3. Bruce Nielson
    March 4, 2008 at 9:20 am

    >>> I like your summation. You’ve pointed out that what is often going on is a matter of nuance and that what people are doing is rejecting nuance and thereby bearing false witness; and doing it more or less intentionally and in bad faith.

    Amen, Stephen.

    >>> His thesis was that when we are given revelation on an personal level we understand it at a spiritual level, but we then have to cram that into our cognitive capacity, and it just doesn’t fit into our mortal and physical understanding once the Holy Spirit is withdrawn from us.

    I believe I was getting at the same thing in this article: http://mormonmatters.org/2008/01/19/what-is-mormon-doctrine/ So in other words, I agree.

    >>> His thesis was that when we are given revelation on an personal level we understand it at a spiritual level, but we then have to cram that into our cognitive capacity, and it just doesn’t fit into our mortal and physical understanding once the Holy Spirit is withdrawn from us.

    You know, I’ve never given that any thought… but I think you right! :) Guess I should give it more thought before I start campaigning for it. But it just sounds right that we need to advance our semanary and institute programs.

    >>> Yet if you are a missionary, you had darn well better understand the differences in semantics when we say salvation in the LDS/Mormon faith and what almost any other faith means by that. Also knowing the parrallel concepts are important. Yet comparative theology is almost never touched on. Why?

    I can’t tell you how often on my mission I was frustrated standing there while my companion would start to argue with yet another Born Again that we aren’t saved by faith alone (in the sense that you can go out and sin freely) and we have to have works while the other guy would argue that the merrit of our works can’t save us and good Christians do have works because they have been changed. It was like they were talking past each other and neither cared what the other was really saying. AND THEN they’d start to quote scripture, which, as it turned out, was supportive of both of their positions but neither realized it. It was so frustrating. Trying to break it up and talk some sense to both was a completely waste of time too. Neither cared what the truth of the other’s religion was.

  4. March 4, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Bruce, you’re expressing exactly what I felt a lot of times myself, although it was much less common on my mission, since our good Catholic brothers and sisters don’t generally go in for that argument. The veneration of saints is somewhat more difficult, however.

    How do you explain to a 75 year old Portuguese dona that that she can get baptized, but that means she can no longer pray to Maria de Fatima? The discussions were quite clear about this, and rightly so. I don’t see any wiggle room on this particular issue, and it’s one that we don’t face inside the US very much, since that particular bit of Roman Catholicism seems to be limited to southern Europe. I’m telling you, it takes a lot of patience to explain, and we had to explain it to members on occasion, too [appropriately it was our place, as my companion was the branch president too:: here's an interesting tidbit--part of a missionaries calling allows him to hold any calling in the church up to district president without being further set apart:: thus a missionary serving in an area without branch leadership may assume the mantle of branch president without being set apart (if I'm wrong, then my mission president was wrong, so President Calvin Clegg had better have been right!)].

    Right now I work for a major nonprofit that works to test the education standards in the USA (not naming names, but you might be able to guess) and I’m thinking the church needs something similar in CES for institute and seminary. After all, right now the seminary program is very lax about the requirements. If you show up every morning (outside of Utah, that is) and make the teacher happy, then that’s about all that’s required. Honestly though, I think that we need more. A serious attempt to really educate the kids and make this really about learning not just our own doctrine, but what others say about us, what the counter arguments have been, and about how to understand when people are being genuinely curious and when they are trying to destroy your faith. Also knowing how to talk to people in another faith about their faith and use their language is important. We don’t do that. Knowing the big words is important. Most members simply don’t have the capacity for it, and we need, as a church, to rectify the situation.

    I’m thinking about applying to CES as a career change now. Won’t my wife be happy! (Please calibrate your sarcasm detector now, then reread last sentence.)

  5. Bruce Nielson
    March 4, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    >>> Also knowing how to talk to people in another faith about their faith and use their language is important

    I think this is hard for members of all religion. But as a seriously minority religion, I’m afraid the burden falls on us to talk *their* language, and not the other way around. Of course the moment we try to do this we get accused of trying to pretend like we’re Protestant, so this is a no-win situation for a minority religion like Mormons. But I still really feel that expanding the Mormon vocabulary is a requirement for us to be able to communicate to the outside world.

    I think Oaks’ talk on “Are you Saved?” was a step in the right direction, but didn’t go nearly far enough. The recent talk on what Mormons being Christians that talked about the Trinity (can’t remember who… Holland?) was another step in the right direction, but didn’t really go far enough either.

    It’s also time for us to drop lame words that don’t mean what we use them for, like “quorum.” :P

  6. John Nilsson
    March 4, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Bruce,

    Your letter to your friend is an excellent example of how to promote honest conversation between members of different religions. Kudos to you on being a practitioner of what you preach!

  7. March 5, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    I am all for clarity and specificity in understanding what other people believe about the nature of God and of salvation. I think any Evangelical who sincerely wants to take the time to understand what LDS believe should not have that difficult a time–after all, people convert from Baptist to LDS all the time.

    On the seminary idea, it might be worthwhile to have the CES ask each church to approve a short statement about its beliefs on specific topics for use in explaining their beliefs to LDS seminary students. Then the CEA can append an explanation of how our doctrines agree and how they diverge, and why ours are different. This appendix would of course include citations to the added revelation of the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, JST, D&C, and other accounts of revelatory experiences. It could perhaps be in the Church History and D&C unit, so that students have context for the different faiths that converts to Mormonism came from. Then when they read Joseph Smith’s testimony about his confusion, and Christ’s statements about the Creeds, they will know what is being referred to.

    On actual dialogue with people of other faiths, there is plenty of that attitude of “I’m not interested in understanding you, I just want to prove you are wrong.” That is of course the whole thrust of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Missions Board newsletters that criticize LDS doctrine and history. They are not seeking better understanding of Mormon beliefs, but to make Mormon beliefs sound undesirable and heretical, so as to deter investigation. I read Christianity Today to get an Evangelical perspective on a lot of religious questions, and Catholicism is discussed in many of the articles in First Things journal, which is targeted at voicing the moral concerns of Christians and Jews in the public square. There is a lot of diversity within both communities, including on things like the place of works in salvation.

    I actually had a friend who was an Evangelical whose church absolutely bought into the idea that, once you had declared your faith in Jesus, you were saved no matter what you did before or AFTER, while a person who had lived a good life, but had not taken 5 minutes to accept Jesus, was damned to eternal torment. Evangelicals insist that they believe the Creeds, but they actually disagree on just about everything related to salvation (baptism, infant baptism, free will, salvation of the unevangelized, etc.). Indeed, I have never seen any Evangelical explanation of why belief in a Creed is necessary to salvation, as distinct from having faith in Christ. In the assertion that Mormons worship a “different Jesus” and therefore don’t have real “faith in Christ,” the attackers will use the Creeds as the description of Christ that must be accepted. Yet there is nothing of that in the Bible, and even the Creeds themselves refer to excommunication rather than the creed being a prerequisite for salvation. And I have never seen any Evangelical pastor making an altar call stop the person and ask if they understand the doctrine of the Trinity correctly, and send anyone to sit back down if they can’t recite or explain the Trinity correctly. As you pointed out, the doctrine of the Trinity is more like an icon that is worshipped, rather than an idea that is understood. Going through the same outline of propositions, I have seen others argue that the only way to make it logically consistent is to define “the Son is God” to mean he belongs to a family, species or group descriptor that has the name God. That is, God has to be a plural entity for the doctrine of Trinity to make sense. Otherwise it is just a “mystery” that cannot be understood, but only affirmed by rote, without understanding. Some of the summaries of theologies I have seen suggest that the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity is in fact a “social trinity” of that kind. The LDS concept clearly matches that relationship of the three distinct persons. What we believe could be called a “social trinity”, but use of the term “trinity” can be misunderstood as including the concept of the REAL god being a single entity, without body or passions, even though the Bible is very clear about Jesus having a body in which he ascends to heaven, and to having emotions and great passions.

  8. George Jackson
    March 5, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    I have to agree to a small degree with the sentiment of the “traditional/orthodox” Christians that to a degree some Mormons do not have the same degree of faith in Christ as they do. It doesn’t make Mormons unchristian, but we seldom have the same amount of focus on Christ that these people do, and we need to demonstrate that we are really born again!. For example, I have a good friend that is a “Born Again Christian” that I have been trying to get to see that I’m a Christian too for some time. He finally has acknowledged that I am just as “saved” as he is because I have had an “encounter with the true Jesus” but he still says that Mormons still don’t believe in the same Jesus, because they don’t teach Jesus enough, or have enough types of encounters with Jesus as they should (of the nature that people had in the Book of Mormon account where King Benjamin was preaching to the people and how they cried out to apply the blood of Jesus to them, as an example). THIS is what these people want to see in us. If we want to be accepted by them as Christian, we need to show them that we have had a “born again” experience as the Nephites of King Benjamin had. We need to talk and teach more of Christ if we really want to be considered “Christan” not in just name only, but in deed and in word.

  9. Bruce Nielson
    March 6, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    >>> On the seminary idea, it might be worthwhile to have the CES ask each church to approve a short statement about its beliefs on specific topics for use in explaining their beliefs to LDS seminary students. Then the CEA can append an explanation of how our doctrines agree and how they diverge, and why ours are different

    I think this would be a good idea, but with an emphasis on vocabulary differences. I want more Mormons to understand that “Salvation by Grace Alone” is a catch phrase that frankly doesn’t mean what you think it means, etc. I once posed a question to a group of Evangelicals/Protestants about how Salvation couldn’t be “by grace alone” since they all believed in a resurrection that happened to all and thus salvation from physical death was literally “by grace alone” and salvation from spiritual death must needs be something else since not everyone received it. They scratched their heads for a while over that one. I think about half of them didn’t even undestand the question because they were so used to refering to their beliefs as “salvation by grace alone.”

    >>> They are not seeking better understanding of Mormon beliefs, but to make Mormon beliefs sound undesirable and heretical, so as to deter investigation

    This is my impression too. Actually, we have a really good example on my previous post: http://mormonmatters.org/2008/02/29/what-if-everyone-found-out-the-mormon-plan-of-salvation-was-true/ see comment #51. Any doubt that “Sarah’s” purpose was to mock, not to understand?

    >>> The LDS concept clearly matches that relationship of the three distinct persons. What we believe could be called a “social trinity”

    I’m convinced Mormons theology is a social Trinity. I think we should not be afraid of the term “Trinity” at all. We do believe in a Tri-Une God.

    >>> As you pointed out, the doctrine of the Trinity is more like an icon that is worshipped, rather than an idea that is understood. …is just a “mystery” that cannot be understood, but only affirmed by rote, without understanding

    This does seem to be the case. That’s why I think it’s funny that it’s used as a basis for calling Mormons non-Christian.

    I just have to ask… since the Trinity is a contradiction, and you have to affirm it to be Christian… How in the world do we know if we are affirming the RIGHT contradiction? Maybe there is both one God and many Gods and we should affirm THAT contradiction. Maybe there is one person in God and three persons in God and we should affirm THAT contradiction. Maybe Jesus is God and He isn’t God and we should affirm THAT contradiction. There is no end to the number of possible contradictions we might be passing up that could just as easily have been used to mesh all the Biblical facts together.

  10. Bruce Nielson
    March 6, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    George said: “If we want to be accepted by them as Christian, we need to show them that we have had a “born again” experience as the Nephites of King Benjamin had. We need to talk and teach more of Christ if we really want to be considered “Christan” not in just name only, but in deed and in word”

    George, on the one hand, I agree with you that we in the LDS Church lack the “awe” of God that some Protestant/Born Again sects have. I think this is a problem, to be honest.

    On the other hand, I don’t, for even a moment, believe that a change in our culture to make us emphasize our Born Again experiences would cause us to be “more accepted” by other Christians.

    I’m afraid there is really only one thing we could do to become accepted by other Christians. Stop proselytizing them. Nothing else could ever possibly work. I think we’ve ample evidence that the excuses for rejecting us or being prejudice against us are all made up after the fact explanations that don’t actually hold water any how.

    There rejection of Mormons as Christians has less to do with Mormons than it does to do with their need for border control. They have no legitimate way of rejecting Mormons as “not one of us” but Mormons have a fairly legitimate way of rejecting them as “no one of us.” That puts them at a disadvantage, so there is a compeling need for them to come up with reasons to reduce us to non-Christians based on the only thing they’ve got: doctrine. This won’t change until we stop proselytizing them or if they gain a Magistrium so that they can control their borders in some other way besides doctrinal rejection of an opposing religion.

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