Mormons have helped move their faith from the fringe to the mainstream in the past decade—and as I'm typing, Brandon Flowers is overhead on Pandora at the bar—and because the faith is similar to traditional Christianity, certain sects of Christians respond quite negatively to points of Mormon doctrine if not to Mormons as people, and because the faith is growing rapidly, the fundangelical Christian response has been predictably bad.
Christian, the well-meaning youth group graduate whom I’ve quoted here before, isn’t sure which Christian narrative he believes—Baptist, neo-Reformed, Pentecostal, etc.—but, helpfully, they are all fundamentalist in character. I was talking about Mormon doctrines after tracing the development of the religion, beginning with Joseph Smith. After a brief overview of what the Book of Mormon teaches, I mentioned Jesus’ appearance to the Nephites in North America. It was more than Christian could endure.
“That’s ridiculous,” he offered.
“What is ridiculous?” I asked.
“It doesn’t even make sense.”
“How does it not?” I asked.
“That Jesus would show up in America and talk to people after the Resurrection. It makes no sense.”
He was absolutely convinced his point was obvious. This is one of those places where "makes sense" is learned phraseology and not an actual assessment of the words just uttered. Why would the Savior of the world come to North America to talk to a lost group of Israelites? It boggled the imagination. He has been taught that his story is correct and all other versions of absurd, so in comparison, his story seems plausible, even with talking snakes and donkeys, bears that maul children on God's command, the murder by flood of thousands of infants, people raised from the dead, and a god that becomes human so as to save humans. So, I asked him a couple questions.
“What you seem to be saying is that the traditional Christian story of God becoming a human and kicking it around Idumea and Judea in the first century C.E. and being crucified for the sins of the world and then resurrected is perfectly reasonable, but the resurrected Jesus appearing to people in another place is absolutely absurd. Is that your position?”
He already looked trapped, but he persisted. “They have no evidence of it, do they?” The question was not sincere or rhetorical; it was triumphant. Sigh. I’m not even going to mention again how Christian has been cheated in terms of Christian education, but please imagine a good youth group kid as a freshman in college arriving at that point in a conversation with me and ask yourself how that happened.
Pentecostals, Baptists, and other evangelizing denominations have developed a well-earned reputation for mustering arguments to deconstruct other faiths so that the superiority of Christianity can be demonstrated. (I realize Christians by definition should be proselytizers, but not all sects are as aggressive as the aforementioned.) The approach has suffered from three common errors, one an obvious blind spot, one a matter of misunderstanding praxis versus doctrine, and one a preference for one's own narrative.
The obvious blind spot is the idea that faiths don't have to answer to Christianity to demonstrate the truth of their own claims. Christianity has failed to demonstrate its own truth claims, so to insist that faiths that depart from the Christian narrative and metaphysics are somehow falling short of the truth is to give epistemological superiority to Christianity without even bothering to do the hard work of demonstrating its own claims. It's a lovely presumptive position, but it relies on cultural and political superiority, two factors that are fading in the post-Christendom era.
The second is the way Christians discuss doctrines of other faiths as if knowing doctrine is the same thing as practicing faith. This is largely due to the fact that fundangelical Christianity gives priority to belief over praxis in order to do away with the necessity of actually living out a faith. But people in faith traditions ignore particular stories, doctrines, commands, etc., all the time in order to practice a faith that integrates into their lives. The list of things Muslim, Christian, Mormon, and Jewish students don't know that they are supposed to know would fill volumes. In another religion class, a Turkish student was making note of the Arabic terms I was using to discuss Islam because she, a woman who speaks four languages, did not know the Arabic terms even though the only official Qur'an is in Arabic. They are practicing an enculturated and necessarily truncated version of a faith, not the fullness of the faith itself. No one, literally, can do that.
Finally, and this is best illustrated by the conversation with Christian, people of all faiths prefer their own narrative to other narratives. It's absolutely a matter of preference, not justification of belief or proof. I can find no coherent way to sort one faith from another in terms of their metaphysical claims. Why would I prefer Islam to Christianity or vice versa? Once the difficulty of justifying one faith over against another faith is realized, the task is finally and really understood to be pointless. The inability to see preference at work is one of the most poisonous things in religion because it asserts the superiority of one tribe's narrative over another's, but it does so without contending with its own absurdities, weaknesses, gaps, and errors. Offer me a way of demonstrating the truth of one narrative over another on a consistent basis, and I might be able to believe a faith again.