After two weeks of much needed rain, the Sun is shining brightly in Southern California today. I spent much of the morning finalizing my class roster for the three classes I am teaching this semester. And I cleaned out my sock drawer. It’s amazing how many mate-less socks and other useless things you can find in the back and underneath the top layer of a sock drawer! Just before noon I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. I ran 4 and ½ miles yesterday, so I planned to take it easy today.
After about a mile I looked ahead and saw two young women walking and a man walking his dogs on the other side of the street. The women greeted the man and engaged in a brief conversation, which I could not hear. I surmised that the two either knew the man or they were Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon missionaries. Since I was walking at a faster pace than they I soon caught up with the women. They greeted me and asked how I was enjoying my walk. What are your plans for the rest of the day, they asked further. I noticed the badge attached to their blouses, which identified them as associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
What I Said
After the pleasantries, I said something like, “I admire your faith, but you are very misguided in your theology.” At some point I had already told them that I had studied Christianity for 40 years and had been a professor of theology for 30 years. Mormons teach that the God of the Bible was once like us and that we can become like God is now, reigning over a world of our own. I asked them whether or not they agreed with Anselm of Canterbury who said that God is “that than which a greater cannot be conceived”? Or, paraphrasing Anselm, Do you believe God is the greatest possible being? They both said, “Yes!” I replied, “How then can you say that God was once like us? How can a being that was at one time not greater than any conceivable being become that great? Wouldn’t a God who is eternally great be greater than a being that merely becomes great after not being great?”
In reply, they urged me to read the Book of Mormon and pray to God to reveal whether or not it is true. I said something like this: You are asking people to make a decision based on a subjective feeling. Shouldn’t such an important decision be supported by facts and reasonable arguments? After all, Mormonism cannot be true unless certain historical claims are really factual. And you can’t substantiate historical facts by subjective feelings. Continuing along this line, I asked, “Don’t Mormons believe the New Testament is true? What if the theology of Mormonism is incompatible with the New Testament? Wouldn’t that count as evidence against Mormonism?” The two again urged me to pray.
What I Wish I had Said
After about 10 minutes I could tell that the two young women had given up on me and were ready to search for more open-minded subjects. As I continued my walk it came to me what I wish I had said. They wanted me to pray for enlightenment, and they said they too continually pray for divine guidance. I wish I had said this in response: “Well, I am the answer to your prayer. You asked God for guidance, and here I am. I may not know everything about Mormonism, and I may not be able to refute every Mormon claim. But I know what Christianity is, and I know Mormonism is not Christianity.”
Mormonism claims to be the original and restored Christianity, and it accepts the New Testament as the uncorrupted word of God. They claim that the teaching in the Book of Mormon is contemporary with the NT. But of course there is no trace of the Book of Mormon in the NT era. I wish I had asked this: “Can one be a good Christian without access to the Book of Mormon, with just the truth contained in the NT? If not, then we have no record of any good Christians before the Book of Mormon was discovered and translated by Joseph Smith in the early 19th. If so, then why try to convert people to Mormonism who believe and live according the NT presentation of the faith?”
There are some lessons here for Christians. But I will save those thoughts for another occasion.
These kinds of situations are often very difficult for many Christians (including myself). On the one hand, these situations seem like an ideal time to make use of the training in theology and apologetics that we have honed over the years. On the other hand, Mormon missionaries too receive training for their evangelical activities, as shown by the classic response to your challenge with the injunction to read the BoM and pray for the “burning in the bosom.” It seems that to “convert” the Mormon missionaries instead of the other way around is out of the picture—the most that can be hoped for is a good and productive conversation.
On (yet) another hand, though, many Mormon youths are not particularly well-grounded in the apologetics of their belief system—even those that have gone through the evangelical training! Sometimes, issues raised in conversation with them can plant seeds that sprout into questions later on in their life. There are many such “de-conversions” from those who have grown up in the Mormon faith, and I have known one such a person. So we never know what God may bring from even a brief conversation like this one.
It becomes odd to consider when we flip the roles, though—after all, the Mormon missionaries may also be telling themselves the same thing hoping to undermine our professed faith down the line. So too may those we dialogue with from a secular, atheist, scientistic, Muslim, etc. perspective. And yet we protest when we perceive this approach occurring to our children, friends, or loved ones from secular friends, professors, or internet infidel personalities! The issue certainly is convoluted, and I have no easy harmonization.
Indeed. I hope for a soft landing for these young people. Sometimes, people feel so deceived by their families and churches that they flip completely to the opposite. I do not resent anyone making a reasoned argument to me or my friends. What I resent is using ridicule or threats of retaliation by professors or other authority figures. I never want to “covert” someone except by a careful and holistic approach tempered by compassion. Jesus, I believe, does not want superficial converts. Thanks!