Friday, March 18, 2011

Mormonism and the Emergent Church Paradigm

The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter-day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning;
And angels are coming to visit the earth.

--William W. Phelps, 1836

In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), Phyllis Tickle dispenses with Mormonism in two sentences:
Mormonism, which is growing rapidly domestically and globally, is arguably the fourth of the great Abrahamic faiths rather than a subset or variant of Christianity and increasingly is so treated by religionists. Accordingly, it is omitted here.
While some Mormon apologists take umbrage at the suggestion that Mormons aren't Christians in the classical sense, I (and many other Mormon scholars) tend to agree with Tickle's assessment, first elaborated by Mormon-friendly Methodist scholar Jan Shipps.(1) Tickle's sweeping analysis of Christian history shows how new faiths have come into being as the result of previous realignments of faith similar to what she calls the present "Great Emergence." In the scheme Tickle delineates, the timing of Mormonism's arrival on the world religious scene would arguably suggest that Mormonism is in fact the earliest product of the present "Great Emergence," and that understanding Mormonism is a key to understanding what is happening throughout the entire Christian world today.

For those of you unfamiliar with the "Great Emergence" paradigm, it is a model for looking at religious history that posits major shifts or realignments of belief every five hundred years or so. The last major realignment took place around 1500 A.D., and in the Christian world was known as "the Great Reformation," resulting in the emergence of Protestantism as a new form of Christianity and bringing about a major realignment of belief within the Catholic Church as well. Five hundred years before that, around 1000 A.D., a major realignment of faith resulted in "the Great Schism" between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Five hundred years before that, around 500 A.D., we saw the emergence of Christian monasticism, helping preserve Christian belief and piety through the "dark ages." Around the time of this major realignment, we also see the emergence of Islam as the third branch of the family tree of Abrahamic religions.

Five hundred years before that is of course the time of the emergence of Christianity from Judaism. Five hundred years before that, around 500 B.C., was a period sometimes referred to by historians as "the Axial Period," because it involved another major realignment of faith not just within Judaism, but within many world religions, spawning Buddhism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism. Within Judaism, this was the time of the Babylonian captivity, and it was the period of history that produced the great prophets of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Amos.

Within this model, each five hundred year period of realignment is preceded by about a century and a half of growing instability caused and/or exacerbated by a crisis of authority. By the end of the realignment, a new foundation for spiritual and social authority emerges, usually requiring another century or so of adjustment. In the previous realignment, "the Great Reformation," the principle of sola scriptura, scriptura sola ("only scripture, the scripture alone") emerged as the dominant basis for religious and social authority.

People's faith in the authority of scripture has been eroding rapidly since roughly 1850, helping to bring on, among other things, the great social and religious schism between "fundamentalists" and "liberals" within most mainline churches. But the fault-lines that were to emerge in the great nineteenth-century debate over the authority of scripture were already starting to be visible in the late eighteenth century, with the rise of Enlightenment philosophy, Deist attacks on Christianity and the Christian canon, and the first public emergence, in the wake of the French Revolution, of atheism as a philosophical and moral system. Joseph Smith Jr.'s family were certainly aware of Deism. His paternal grandfather, Asael Smith, had read and was apparently a fan of Tom Paine's Age of Reason.

Implicit within the "Restored Gospel" revealed by Joseph Smith the prophet was a radical critique and rejection of the authority principle of sola scriptura, scriptura sola, and the substitution in its place of a new authority principle: direct, modern-day divine revelation, both personal and collective. Because of Mormonism's emphasis on direct personal communion with God, and on prophecy and other gifts of the Spirit, Pentecostal scholar Vinson Synan identified Mormonism as a "proto-Pentecostal" movement.(2) From the Mormon perspective, of course, it was Joseph Smith, Jr. who had "unlocked the Heavens" and opened the gates of divine inspiration that would result in a great outpouring of knowledge and spirit on "all flesh," among "all nations, kindreds, tongues and people."

Latter-day Saints currently have, and have always had, a paradoxical relationship with scripture. On the one hand, the Saints cherish and revere scripture as the repository of divine wisdom and revelation. The Mormon love for scripture manifested itself especially in early Mormonism as a seeming inability to get enough of it! Joseph Smith added three major books to the canon: The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, and promised more scripture yet to come as the work of the Restoration unfolded. It is likely for this reason that today's Latter-day Saints are fascinated by extra-canonical scripture like the Nag Hammadi library, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Enochian literature.

Yet, despite revering scripture, Latter-day Saints reject written canons as the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth. For Mormons, not dead prophets but the living prophets and the living prophets only provide definitive answers to the great problems of the age. You could say that the new principle elucidated by Mormonism is sola revelatio, revelatio sola. The Mormon definition of scripture tells the whole story. For Mormons,
...Whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation. (D&C 68: 4)
But also built into Mormonism is an acknowledgment of the fallible human element in written scripture, which includes problems of linguistics, human weakness, human inability to receive the divine fullness, and the inappropriateness of rendering transcendent truths into limited human discourse. Joseph Smith explained that Mormons believed scripture to be true "in so far is it is translated correctly." But even the authors of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith described as "the most correct book," acknowledged their "weakness in writing," and their belief that the fullness of the book's message could only be carried into the hearts of its readers by the power of the Holy Ghost (see, for instance, Ether 12).

The Mormon canon -- the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price -- have all been subjected to the same type of historical textual scrutiny and criticism as the Bible, but, to the dismay of some of Mormonism's opponents, without the same devastating effect among Mormons as textual criticism has had among mainline Christians. This is because for Mormons, direct personal revelation trumps all. Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon because they have read it and the Spirit has testified to them of its truthfulness; because they have applied its principles and found them to work in real life. And Mormons simply don't rely on the Book of Mormon as the authoritative guide for their faith in the same way that Protestants rely on the Bible. Mormons look to living prophets for that kind of authority.

While theologians and religious commentators are observing and talking about an "emergent church" phenomenon in Christianity as a whole, is there a similar phenomenon among Latter-day Saints? There are indeed signs (disquieting or encouraging, depending on one's perspective) of a growing generation gap in Mormonism, particularly with respect to the issues of women's equality, gay rights, and attitudes toward authoritarian Mormon claims of infallibility and exclusive access to spiritual truth. I routinely have conversations with younger Mormons who take women's equality and the validity of gay relationships for granted, and who, while having testimonies that "the Church is true," insist that to them this does not mean that other faiths do not also grant access to equally valid spiritual truths.

However, the sources of friction between the rising generation and present-day institutional Mormonism are not problems that require a re-invention of the Mormon authority paradigm in order to solve. The authoritarian, exclusivistic, infallible tone that has repelled some is, as argued by Armand Mauss(3), a relatively recent phenomenon within Mormonism, and Mormons have a rich tradition of inclusivity, broad-mindedness, and egalitarianism to draw on in reframing themselves for a new generation. Joseph Smith taught the existence of a Heavenly Mother and sent mixed signals on the question of women and the priesthood which provide the fodder for continuing speculation and debate. And individuals who are pained by the church's position on homosexuality or on gender issues can still find solace in Joseph Smith's insistence that
We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
While the encounter with gay Christians, as Phyllis Tickle observes, seems to be the straw that is breaking the back of sola scriptura among mainline Christians, for Mormons the principle of continuing revelation can only be reaffirmed by a revelatory resolution of issues related to homosexuality, whatever that resolution ultimately may be. Mormonism probably has a greater capacity to come through this issue with the overarching structure of its belief-system unscathed than almost any other of the great Abrahamic faiths.

The revelatory authority paradigm, which is the cornerstone of Mormonism and the source of its on-going dynamism, first began to shake the rafters of the mainline Christian world with the Azusa Street Revival, beginning in 1906. Since that time, pentecostal or charismatic Christianity has grown from several thousands to approaching one quarter of the world's Christian population, if one counts the charismatic adherents of mainline Catholicism and Protestantism as well as the members of explicitly Pentecostal sects like the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God. For these Christians, as for Mormons, the mark of true divine authority is the on-going manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit, and true faith involves turning to a God who is expected to reveal and manifest himself visibly today no less than at any other period of human history. While the revelatory authority paradigm was primarily to blame for the scandal of disrepute under which Mormonism labored for most of the first two centuries of its emergence in the world scene, we are now seeing growing acceptance in the culture at large of the idea that "God is still speaking," and a growing sense that revelation is the way forward in a world precariously balanced on the brink of ruin.

Joseph Smith once said, "Have the Presbyterians any truth? Embrace that. Have the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth? Embrace that. Get all the good in the world and you will come out a pure Mormon."(4) That is about as classically "emergent" a faith statement as there is. Mormons frequently refer to their faith as "the fullness of the Gospel." For Mormons, that means having not just correct beliefs and true doctrines, but the living, active presence and work of the Holy Spirit, and the actual power of God that comes through a miraculously instituted priesthood. That is why, even though I in many ways fit the profile of an "emergent," even though I occasionally wrestle with a deep sense of personal tragedy as a gay man excommunicated from his home faith community, I find a deep, vibrant hope in my faith as a Latter-day Saint, and I can truly say that everything I have witnessed and experienced in my life has taught me a profound reverence for and given me a deepened testimony of the Gospel as restored in latter days through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
1. See Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (University of Illinois Press, 1987).

2. See Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1997).

3. See Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (University of Illinois Press, 1994).

4. Quoted in Don Bradley, "The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism: Joseph Smith's Unfinished Reformation," Sunstone 141 (April 2006): 36.


  1. Sometimes I wonder if the gathering of the 12 tribes really will just be a gathering of all truth from whatever tradition it comes from.

  2. Amen and amen!

    Are you familiar with the writings of Avraham Gileadi? He does a beautiful job of outlining how the "marvelous work and a wonder" foretold by scripture really is something that has yet to come to pass. The Restoration was simply an early type and shadow of what that marvelous work and a wonder will yet be. President Hinckley seemed to confirm this when he said that the future will be "much like the past only on a much larger and grander scale." I've come to believe that the second half of the restoration will be much like unto the first and include many of the same distinctive elements like the revelation of new scriptures and a large gathering from the four corners of the earth.

    Anyway, I'd be curious to know if you're familiar with the writings of Avraham. I have a feeling that a lot of his writings might resonate with you.

  3. Jon - That's an interesting thought, something that had never occurred to me.

    The way that concept traditionally unfolded in LDS history was the idea that we had to bring the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue and people, because we never knew where we might find members of scattered Israel...

    Your idea does sort of cross reference with the parable of the fig tree in the Book of Mormon (Jacob 5), where it says that grafting the scattered branches into the main trunk will bring the vitality back to the House of Israel.

    It's an interesting thought, because the "emergent church" paradigm as Tickle describes it does seem to suggest a fragmenting/scattering to be followed by a re-merging/regathering...

  4. Anonymous - Interesting you'd mention that.

    My dad has read some of Gileadi's work, and really likes him a lot. (In spite of the fact Gileadi kind of got himself in trouble with the Church for a while.)

    I actually have a copy of The Book of Isaiah: A New Translation with Interpretive Keys from the Book of Mormon that my dad loaned me, sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. Maybe I'll finally pick it up after the end of the semester and I actually have time!

  5. Yes, Avraham is a member for the infamous "September Six," though he is the only one of that group who has returned to the least so far. The story behind how he got "in trouble" is an interesting one, but one that he does not like to dwell on. At least for now. (Someday he might tell the full story.) He is fiercely and firmly in the fold today.

    I hope you do get a chance to read Avraham's translation of Isaiah that is sitting on your shelf. Hugh Nibley was a dear friend and loyal supporter of Avraham (even during his "troubles"), and he went on record saying that Avraham is the only Latter-day Saint fully qualified to understand and teach the book of Isaiah. Pretty high praise from Uncle Hugh.

    I've noticed that you have a strong understanding of many of Isaiah's themes, especially those relating to injustice and the treatment of the poor and the disenfranchised. I believe there is a reason the Lord commanded us to study Isaiah. The only prophet to receive that kind of explicit call out by the Lord.

    And if you like that book, I'd recommend that you read Avraham's book, The Last Days, which was originally published by Deseret Book complete with a forward by Hugh Nibley. It's actually the book that got him in trouble. It's full of "radioactive" ideas that bear directly on the "emerging church" paradigm. I think you may want to check that one out as well.

    If you ever read either of them, I'd love to hear your response to what's presented.

  6. I'll have to check out The Last Days. (I just checked to see if it's available in e-book format, but alas not!)

  7. Avraham is working on getting all of his books published in e-book format, and it may come to pass fairly soon. I'll let you know if/when it becomes available. I may even be able to score you a copy. I think it's a book you could really sink your teeth into.

  8. You write that "Mormons look to living prophets for that kind of authority" and I wonder if you meant the plural, as in "there are many prophets alive today", or plural as in "a line of prophets with only one true prophet currently living at the head of the church"?

    In this case I see a parallel with the Catholic system, with progressives and conservatives hoping that "their" pope will be elected. Isn't this how Mormon splinter groups justify their existence? They are following their own prophet's revelations in the context of Mormon culture.

    I believe your broader point is that any believer may evidence a prophetic voice, but doesn't the church hierarchy significantly control this kind of expression? My understanding of the efficiency of church organization is that dissenting prophets would be counseled for institutional correctness.

  9. A.J. - Mormons believe everyone is entitled to receive personal revelation for their own stewardship. So parents are entitled to revelation to guide their families; a bishop is entitled to revelation for his ward. Only the president of the Church is entitled to revelations for the Church and the world, and there's only one person on the earth who can hold that position at a time. So yes, not all that different from the Catholic concept of apostolic succession.

    Despite the the authority structure, however, the Mormon belief in personal revelation has historically been a source of tension. Roger Lausanius and Linda Thatcher, in their study Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, counted more than 100 schismatic Mormon movements since 1830...

  10. Interesting. But most of the schisms are very small and isolated, correct?
    They don't pose any real threat to the "established" church. I'm especially interested in the "Temple Lot" sect that manages to hold on to some interesting real estate. They were in the right place at the right time?

    I also note that Mormonism has "no tradition of prophetic infallibility" (Mauss 110) which does distinguish it from the Catholic model.

  11. You're right... Most of those sects were very small and/or did not last very long.

    After the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1847, about half of the Saints who were then members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ended up following Brigham Young to Utah. The other half dispersed into a number of other sects. Some went to Michigan, some to Pennsylvania, some to Kentucky, some to Texas. There was even a splinter group that made its way to Iowa and Minnesota (the "Cutlerites").

    A lot of the splinter groups in the eastern half of the U.S. eventually merged to form the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ).

    In the 20th century, the LDS Church began to acquire historic properties in the east, where the Church originated. For instance, where I grew up, in upstate New York, the LDS Church owns the Hill Cumorah, the Sacred Grove, and the Joseph Smith home. But many historic properties had been acquired by other Mormon sects. For instance, the Kirtland Temple is presently owned by the Community of Christ...

  12. And yes, there's no tradition of "prophetic infallibility" in the LDS Church.

    But then, the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility did not become an official doctrine until the late 19th century! And of course, it has a very limited and specific application. It doesn't mean that Catholics believe the Pope never makes mistakes...!

  13. Mormons do tend to believe that when the prophet speaks in some official capacity, for instance, when he says, "Thus saith the Lord," that his words/teachings carry a special weight... It's maybe not so different from the Catholic concept that the Pope's teachings having a special authority when he speaks ex cathedra.

  14. I guess, actually, it's a bit more complicated than that, though.

    Latter-day Saints have great reverence for the teachings of the prophet. And in recent years, there's been growing emphasis on the authoritative nature of prophetic teaching -- actually, any teaching that emanates from the General Authorities of the Church (the First Presidency, the Twelve Apostles, the Quorum of the Seventy).

    Most faithful LDS attend or listen to General Conference with great attentiveness, and with the expectation that every word spoken by Church leaders is inspired, and should be obeyed.

    There is, also, a certain expectation that members of the Church will be attentive to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to help them understand the significance of Church leaders' teachings for them personally. The Spirit will carry particular teachings into the hearts of the Saints with particular force, and give them special insight about how to apply the teachings in their own lives...

    So, true, no Mormon would use the term "infallible" to describe the teachings of their leaders. But at the same time, they take them very seriously.

  15. I appreciate your comprehensive description of 500 year axial cycles. Last year was the first time I heard the term "axial," listening to lectures by Cynthia Bourgeault and Karen Armstrong describing the blending and adapting eastern spirituality to Christian practices as having axial implications.(I'm thinking particularly of centering prayer meditation.) A 500 year tidal pull. Nice.

    I also really resonate with the Joseph Smith's reference "...get all the good." For me, hope for good is central. Hope lies in realizing so many places of "alikeness" and shared hope. In this cosmos, rivers of belief are fed by the same ocean of faith.

  16. Ilee, thanks. I can't take credit for the idea of 500 year cycles. But using that model is a fascinating way to look at the history of religion.

    Have you read Varieties of Religious Experience by William James? If you haven't, you might enjoy it, because he looks at religious experience from the view point of psychology, and does a great job of delineating common experiences across many different religious (and even non-religious) perspectives...

  17. John, I appreciate your clarification on infallibility and respect toward the General Authorities. In Catholic parlance, they are Mormon cardinals, appointed for life.

    Mauss repeats the claim that leadership is more restrained at higher levels (161) but what is his evidence? He also talks about recurrent instability in the First Presidency with less control over elite eccentrics than members at large (168). Are there usually a few "loose cannons" that are ignored?

  18. A.J., the evidence that Mauss offers here is the (fairly notorious) example of Bruce R. McConkie, and the contentious history of his book Mormon Doctrine, and the ways that the leadership of his day sought to rein him in.

    There have been other similar examples... Ezra Taft Benson was the maverick of David O. McKay's generation, and Boyd K. Packer has played that role in more recent times. I think the term "loose cannon" is a bit too strong! Even the "mavericks" have felt the same basic restraint that Mauss describes here. Since the 1850s, the Mormon hierarchy has almost always operated on the principles of consensus and deference to authority...

  19. JonJOn says in his comments above " them this does not mean that other faiths do not also grant access to equally valid spiritual truths."

    JonJOn is more right than he might know. According to LDS theology, church affiliation or religious tradition does not define godly people. This is a poorly understood aspect of the LDS theology. According to the Book of Mormon, there are three distinct groups of people. The first group are those who choose evil. They live a worldly lifestyle, hate things that are holy and revile God. The second group are those who choose to live a holy life to the best of their ability and understanding. They would do so in any religious tradition in which they might be born. The third group are those who, like the second group, do their best to live a holier life but have taken on themselves the added responsibility of the priesthood of the restored gospel. The second and third groups are counted as members of the Church of the Lamb of God while the first group are counted as being members of the "great and abominable church whose founder was the devil". That church is not a recognized organization such as we see in various religious traditions. The "church" is worldliness and the willful rejection of God and His law. This group calls good things evil and evil things good and persecutes those who love God, live Godly principles and seek to do His will.

  20. JL - I like your analysis.

    When I was a missionary in France in 1981-82, I would occasionally use my p-day to go explore and visit some of the gorgeous Roman Catholic cathedrals there. One of the elders stationed in Aix-en-Provence at the same time I was there refused to set foot in them, because he said that the Roman Catholic Church was the "Church of the Devil."

    In my readings in the D&C lately, I've run into a few relevant verses though... "Contend against no church" (D&C 18:20); "Of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior.... This shall suffice for thy daily walk, even unto the end of thy life" (D&C 19: 31-32).

    I think seeing other churches as allies in the work of Christ takes us closer to the heart of the Restored Gospel.