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Mormonism and Christianity: the definition of things

July 30, 2009

I was listening to episode 5 of the Mormon Expressions podcast…what does it mean to be Mormon? …and I recall that the discussion turned to the LDS church’s (this is, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) efforts to “own” the term Mormon (first in order to tell people not to use it to describe the church [e.g., it’s not the Mormon church, it’s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, thank you very much] and then to tell people not to use it to describe others [e.g., the FLDS are not “polygamist Mormons.” They aren’t Mormon.])

This issue of definition is interesting (especially to me…getting caught up semantics is a kryptonite.)

What is a true definition of things?

One answer is to say that an authoritative body is solely allowed to define its associated terms. So the LDS church should be allowed to say who is Mormon and who isn’t Mormon because it is authoritative.

But how do you determine authority? As was mentioned in the podcast, what about other groups in the Mormon tradition. Doesn’t the Community of Christ (previously known as the Reorganized CJCLDS — please take caution, the LDS there are three separate words, not like the Brighamite church’s L-dS with hyphen and lower-case d) have as much ownership of “Mormon” as anyone? Never mind that they don’t characteristically use the term and are a smaller organization…this isn’t tyranny of the majority, is it?

And then some would say that this would allow non-Mormon Christian groups to “take authority” and declare Mormons unChristian — and I don’t think Mormons would like to concede that.

So comes answer two. A group should be able to self-identify as they want. So, Mormons should be able to consider themselves Christian without some label police saying, “No, you can’t do that.” Theoretically then, FLDS communities should be able to call themselves Mormon.

Maybe I’m taking the argument to ridiculous conclusions, but this seems ripe for abuse. If I self-identify as a dog…well…I’m not a dog. Sorry. My self-identification doesn’t justify anything, and gives me no justification to take action when someone else doesn’t submit to my self-identification.

So, even though language is arbitrary, I think the goal is to find the reasonable fit definition for a concept. Forget about if Mormons are Christians or if the FLDS are Mormon. Let’s look at Christianity and Mormonism, these prized associations. What is the reasonable fit definition for membership in these groups?

Again, a tough arbitrary thing to accomplish. But I think if you talked to people, you could find out the things that they found “fit” the term at hand. And you might poll not only insiders, not only authoritative sources, but also outsiders. So, if we said that Mormonism was a religious group that came about through Joseph Smith’s restoration and which believes in the Book of Mormon as a religious text…would others say, “Yeah, that’s sounds like Mormonism”? And I mean, SURE we could come up with other parts of this reasonable fit, but the point is, eventually, we could come up with such. And THEN we can evaluate if the FLDS fit.

Arbitrariness would rear its head, of course. Some people might add parts to the definition that are not necessary…or which are unreasonable. And who decides what’s reasonable or not?! For example, the church would probably like to say that a reasonable definition of Mormon includes someone who is an active member of the CoJCoL-dS. Is that necessary for Mormonism? Is that reasonable? Depends on who you ask.

This arbitrariness is the problem with Mormonism and Christianity. Is it reasonable to say that the acceptance of certain creeds is part of the necessary definition of Christianity (note: pay attention to Liz Cook’s definition of Christian)? Depends on who you’d ask.

Additionally, I find that people approach the definitions in two ways. Some people create minimalist definitions, and others create maximalist definitions.

A minimalist creates a definition with the minimum necessary traits. I think this is what many Mormons like to do. They establish things like belief in the God, Son, and Holy Ghost, belief in the Bible, belief in the atonement and resurrection, etc., are “minimal” requirements for Christianity. As long as you do not lack a minimalist requirement, you’re ok. So, Muslims aren’t Christians because they lack Jesus’s atonement. OK, cool. Catholics and Mormons and Baptists are as Christians as each other because they do not lack any of these qualities, even if they may add or differ in other qualities. (As Clean Cut notes, Mormons fit Liz Cook’s “reasonable definition”.)

I was arguing with some guy (note: I’m not amused to be compelled to serve as apologist for the church) about if Mormons were Christian. Instead, he came up with a maximalist definition…and this confused me at first. So his definition included the maximum amount of traits for a Christian. Adding upon these would boot you out of the club. (Then again, this guy said that Catholics were barely Christian because of the Apocrypha and sacred tradition.) I tried pointing out that some of his own beliefs were additions or corruptions away from the early church (whatever that was). But he kept on defaulting to, “But we don’t have a different book…we’re just interpreting…”

The conversation went nowhere, but I took solace that passers-by felt the minimalist definition was more reasonable than the maximalist. And the guy honestly wasn’t helping his case by saying Catholics were barely Christian. (unfortunately, Catholic vs. Mormon would play out a bit differently).

So, I’m dead off apologetics for a while. I’d hate to do THAT for a career.

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One Comment
  1. sxark permalink

    In this world of “political correctness”, it is wise to use any advantage to promote one’s message. I believe you are correct, when you say,…”an authoritive body is solely allowed to define its associated terms”.

    Although the LDS leadership has the authority to label other groups, so does everyone else in the USA, under “Freedom of speech”. It seems to me, that the LDS leadership has, in the last several years, tried to avoid contention, by being sensitive not to offend any one group by placing descriptive labels on them They leave this right to the leadership of those groups.

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