Explaining Mormonism

Richard Lyman Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History, Emeritus, at Columbia University and most recently the the author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.

Dear LDS Bloggers:

Many you are aware of the conference for LDS Religious Studies and Divinity School students to be held at Yale University on February 16-17. The aim of the conference is to address issues that create problems for LDS students in religion and to ask what can a Mormon contribute to the debates that go on in these fields. (For more information email Seth Payne (seth -dot- payne at yale -dot- edu).

In the hope that this will be the first of a series of conferences for LDS graduate students, scholars, and intellectuals, I have begun to entertain proposals for 2008. One idea that has come up is a conference on “Explaining Mormonism,” using C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity as the governing text. We would ask for close readings of Lewis in order to understand how he tells the Christian story so effectively and then propose the question: can Mormonism be explained so convincingly? The purpose of this kind of apologetics is not to convert readers but to make religion intelligible and attractive. We would have to ask what is the Mormon story that corresponds to the Christian story at the heart of Mere Christianity, and then inquire what would it take to tell that story as effectively as Lewis does.

I would envision a series of panels or short papers by scholars in literature, philosophy, history, religious studies and about any other discipline. The fact is that all Mormon scholars, whatever their field, have to give an accounting of their faith–if only to themselves. They cannot just live their religion, they have to explain it. The conference would be an occasion to reflect on how we can best do this.

We might wish to add Sterling McMurrin’s Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology as a companion work. McMurrin’s work is about the best we have right now in the C.S. Lewis genre; we need to know how we can go beyond McMurrin.

My question to bloggers is how interested are you in this topic. Can we find people ready to contribute to the discussion?

Richard Bushman


  1. Molly Bennion says:

    Wonderful idea, Richard. Holds such possibilities for intellectuals who indeed must explain their religion as well as for many others who should be able to explain their religion.

    Tony Kimball, are you out there? It was your gospel doctrine classes that turned me and so many others on to Lewis.

  2. Problem is, I think, that C.S. Lewis wrote arguments for instead of explanations of Christianity. Not sure if the two go together in the way proposed. What I would like to see is an expansion of the idea behind this proposed conference. How can Mormonism explain itself to a non-Christian world?

  3. As the token Brit around here, I am wondering how an “explaining Mormonism” exercise for Americans would differ from a British or [fill-in foreign country] version. Certainly when I “explain” Mormonism to my American friends we often delve into American history and Mormonism’s place in the grand tapestry of “America.” Would I choose a different narrative when explaining Mormonism to a Brit? Hmmmmm. I’ll have to think about that.

  4. I have a hard time seeing McMurrin as our C. S. Lewis. Far from it. I personal find his text as distorting as it is illuminating. But it doesn’t offer much by way of argument.

    I think Blake’s books, while certainly promoting a more narrow and perhaps controversial theology, do a far superior job.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Actually, I agree with Richard that McMurrin (I would use Theological Foundations rather than Philosophical Foundations), as limited and dated as it is, is an illustration of something that explains basic Mormon theology in a very appealing and understandable way to an outsider with intellectual interests. (Blake’s books are a development from McMurrin, so are in some sense along the lines Richard is thinking and certainly should be a topic of discussion at such a conference. Of course, they are written at a much deeper level than any sort of analog to Mere Christianity would be.)

    I agree with Jettboy that the scope of the conference should be broadened so that it is not limited to the Lewis parallel, although that is a valuable way of explaining what you are looking for and would be a good topic for one session. Exploring how best to explain Mormonism to the uninitiated in intellectually compelling ways may go in different directions than Lewis, and the conference should be open to that kind of flow.

    For instance, I think someone could profitably do a session on Mormonism for Dummies. This may sound ridiculous on the surface (examing a Dummies book at Yale?!), but it is written by a couple of folks with legitimate LDS theological chops, and while the Church gave it no help while in production, apparently the institution thinks it does a pretty good job of “explaining Mormonism,” since it handed out copies to visiting journalists at the recent religious journalists conference in SLC.

    This is a terrific idea, Richard, with all sorts of possibilities. I suspect it will attract a lot of interest, both from potential presenters and from those wishing to attend and/or read the proceedings. It gets a thumb’s up from this direction.

  6. Wow. Can I just say, wow? We are being all calm about this, but Richard Bushman, wow. I think I just swallowed my gum.

    I always thought Mere Christianity showed how CS Lewis figured out the gospel without the LDS church showing it to him. There are a few things I disagreed with, but mostly, he just figured out God.

    This discussion is way above my intellect, but I think it’s a great plan, as much as I comprehend.

  7. My favorite book containing an “explanation of” Mormonism is still Marvelous Work and a Wonder by Legrande Richards.

    It’s still in print, $10 new at Deseret, and $2 used at Ebay, plus shipping/handling.

    I’ve been told that Elder Ballard’s Our Search for Happiness is supposed to replace it, but I still like MWW much better.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    I tend to agree with Ronan’s point: Mormonism’s role has been so distinctly American for so long, we may have trouble decontextualizing the story for a Mere Christianity-style narrative.

    I’m not worried so much about the seemingly narrow angle of Lewis; Lewis, from what I can gather, represents more of a standard or acceptable level of narrative complexity and skill rather than precise model for emulation. I don’t think we’re looking for a Mormon Screwtape Letters anytime soon (though possibilities abound!). Rather, Lewis is shorthand for a modern, interesting, complex way of thinking. Buechner would also have been a representative pick (though Richard, please feel free to shoot me down if I’m mis-speaking).

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Speaking of the Screwtape Letters, I just thought I would mention that I was physically present when Wayne Booth gave his marvellous Letters to Smoother at BYU.

  10. So, having thought some more…

    The challenge in “explaining” Mormonism, at least to my imaginary British-European friends,* is to tread lightly with the story of Mormonism.

    Mormon history being Mormon theology blah blah blah, how does one escape the inevitable wall that we run into immediately: discussing the Mormon concept of God and eternity and its everyday manifestation in the lives of its people is difficult to do when people cannot take you seriously. And they cannot take you seriously because you inevitably have to tell them about angels and gold plates.

    There is so much richness in Mormonism (outside of its history), but people never get to it because Joseph Smith is such a scandal. Now, the resurrection of Jesus is also a scandal, but one that people are used to by now. As far as I remember, CS Lewis doesn’t have to waste much time on it.

    So, there you go, explaining Mormonism, when the story of Moroni sounds as bad as L. Ron’s DC-8’s, is a tricky thing to manage.

    *I do have friends, really, but I don’t do much Mormon explaining to them beyond, “er, yes, I’m a Mormon…so how about that Chelsea goalkeeper…?”

  11. Hi Richard,

    This is a terrific idea.

    I was actually just asked yesterday to give a presentation here at Princeton next semester answering the question “What is Mormonism.” Such an assignment is challenging because it’s tempting to fall into essentializing descriptions.

    I’m not sure C.S. Lewis is the best model to follow especially if you are looking for broad participation from scholars across academic fields. Natural scientists will necessarily give a different “accounting of their faith” than will religious historians than will political philosophers, than will sociologists, and so forth. The epistemological criteria are different for different fields. Since that’s the case, I’m not sure that using a Christian apologist like Lewis or a Mormon theologian like McMurrin would serve the conference well as I assume you are interested in more than just theological explanations (which, by the way, some in Religious studies—like Wayne Proudfoot at Columbia, for example—would reject as having any explanatory power whatsoever).

    At any rate, you might reconsider whether you want to put forth any thinker as a model to follow so as not to unduly constrain creativity.

    Have you already determined a location for the 2008 conference? If not, I have some ideas. Let me know if I can help in any way.


  12. The challenge of an effort like this will be to get beyond the typical apologetics stance taken by so many Mormon authors and thinkers. When we try to “explain Mormonism,” we seem to inevitably begin by trying to hitch our wagon to the larger vehicle of historical Christianity. Things then naturally devolve into an attempt to use the Bible to “prove our Christian nature.”

    This won’t do. It’s completely inadequate as a starting premise of explanation.

    If Mormonism is to be adequately explained, it must be explained on its own merits. You must point out the things that are unique, powerful and captivating about our theology. Referencing to the existant Christian tradition is a step in the wrong direction.

    I want to see an attempt at explanation that completely ignores the preexistent Christian tradition. I’m not sure it’s possible, but I’d like to see someone at least try.

    In any case, a definitive explanation along the lines of “Mere Christianity” must avoid borrowed glory from Catholicism and Protestantism and portray this as a “new world religion” in its own right. That is ultimately the only thing that truly catch the reader’s imagination and elevate the dialogue beyond “no you aren’t” “yes I am.”

  13. Ronan describes in a more accessible way what I was trying to get at in my comment.

    What we say about Mormonism, how we explain it, depends on both who is speaking and to whom she is speaking.

    If I’m trying to explain Mormonism to a the Evangelical Bible Fellowship, I’m going to say very different things than I would if I were trying to explain Mormonism to a group of graduate students in an American religious history course. Scientists will explain their faith to themselves differently than they might explain it to their labmates.

    Giving an accounting of one’s faith necessarily assumes a discursive position—you yourself must be located somewhere intellectually (as a scholar of religion, philosophy, late antiquity, physics, American history . . . ). Your audience will similarly inhabit a particular intellectual space with regards to matters of religion generally, Christianity more specifically, and Mormonism particularly.

    It seems to me that it’s necessary to know at least these bare facts in order to determine what would be required to give an account of Mormonism that would be compelling. More than that may be required to actually explain it to a given audience.

  14. This sounds like an outstanding idea. But isn’t CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity a bin on the superficial side?

  15. MikeInWeHo says:

    Once again, Ronan nails it. But they only looked like DC-8s, mate. I think you may be Clear and not even realize it.

    It will be interesting to see how the notion of ‘explaining Mormonism’ evolves over the next couple of decades. An LDS-version of Mere Christianity will never be produced by a committee, that’s for sure. C.S. Lewis was a rather prophetic figure, imo.

    I think the Church’s own C.S. Lewis would be a Prophet who’s brave enough to walk down the path Palmer is on (i.e. wide-eyed historical honestly and candor), yet still maintains a ringing testimony that Christ has restored the gospel and the priesthood in the latter days. Many believe those two are incompatible. I don’t. Seems the whole endeavor is destined to wither on the vine otherwise, no offense intended to anyone here.

  16. I disagree on a couple points Melissa.

    Firstly, if a work like this is going to be written, it’s going to have to go beyond the artificial confines of academic specialization. That’s the only way it can have broad-based appeal. I think this hyper-specialization is one of the reasons our generation is a bit lacking in really great paradigm-shifting scholarly work.

    I also think that the writing will have to be accessible to anyone with a moderate degree of education who picks it up. The last thing we need here is some hyper-ethereal technical scholarly babble that only .05% of the readership is going to even “get.”

    Secondly, this whole idea is going wander off into silly territory and become exactly the thing I was warning against if we try to specialize the message for the audience.

    Great ideas compell the audience to come to them and engage them on their own terms. They lose integrity when they get sidetracked and let the audience set the agenda. I honestly don’t give a damn about tailoring this message to Evangelicals, Catholics, new agers, baby boomers or anyone else.

    That works as an individual proselyting approach and for books of merely topical interest. But an attempt to create a transcendental Mormon explanation that is tailored to Southern Baptists will end up small-minded and ultimately irrelevant. I’d give the book a shelf-life of about maybe 20 years before it’s not even of historical interest.

  17. Great ideas compell the audience to come to them and engage them on their own terms. They lose integrity when they get sidetracked and let the audience set the agenda.

    I know what you mean but I would put it differently. Great authors understand the audience better than the audience understands itself.

    One can do so by illucidating audience member’s subconscience or by making sense of audience members’ place in the world. That is the genius of great writers such as Thomas Mann or Mahatma Gandhi.

    In the end, to writers and speakers the audience is the measure of all things. The audience determines the quality of the argument. We speak for our audience. Without an audience, we might as well just meditate.

    The importance of the audience is perhaps most obvious in prayer. Given that the second most important commandment transfers our obligation from God to our neighbors, it cannot be wrong that we appeal to fellow human beings.

    Great works and literary fads require a positive response from an audience. The difference is that great literature does not pander but illuminates the human condition. Thus it is not always immediately successful. But it most be successful at some point in time. Otherwise it would remain irrelevant.

    Acknowledging the primacy of the audience is an indication of an author’s humility and is therefore the proper attitude to take.

  18. Seth,

    We’re talking about the parameters for a conference and aconference is about conversation. In order to have a meaningful conversation the participants must share a common language as a starting point.

    I certainly don’t think we should “let the audience set the agenda,” but I do think we need to know who it is we hope to address and what our goals are. If we don’t, we risk the same kind of problems that emerged at the LOC conference. We need to be clear about what is it that we’re about and what it is we hope to achieve. Part of the important preparation for an undertaking like this involves reflective deliberation about likely conversation partners.

    If we were to follow your “don’t give a damn” model we would risk not only intelligibility but also relevance for whatever audience we might somehow be able to draw.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “broad-based appeal.” Few academic conferences have “broad-based appeal” as they tend to draw specialists in particular subfields. If you mean that you’d like such a conference to be attended by more than just BYU faculty and members of the church who happen to live close to the venue, I couldn’t agree more. Being thoughtful about what might make Mormonism relevant to particular groups will attract more interest not less. Why Mormonism might matter will have different answers for different sorts of scholars.

    Thinking carefully about who it is we want to reach is different than suggesting we must limit ourselves to “hyper-ethereal techincal scholarly babble.”

    I don’t think this conference is about creating a “transcendental Mormon explanation” at all. I can’t actually imagine what you might mean by this, but my guess is if this were the stated goal, we’d just be talking to ourselves.

  19. Oh, I see.

    We were talking about different things.

    You were talking about the conference itself.

    I was talking more about the actual hypothetical written work that such a conference would be discussing.

    Sorry about that.

  20. Lets reverse the perspective, Richard, and evaluate Mere Christianity in the light of the Joseph Smith Story. According to Smith’s theology, there is value in Lewis’s essays. After all, Mere Christianity does bring people closer to Christ. According to Moroni, that is the measure of truth. Unfortunately, Mere Christianity is less kind to the Joseph Smith Story.

    Mere Christianity is Lewis’s attempt to liberate people from theology and sectarianism by reducing the message to its core. Mormonism, on the other hand, is very much concerned about sectarianism and these concerns legitimate the existence of the LDS Church.

    After all, the Mormon origin myth is about a boy who wants to choose the right sect. God’s answer is to start another Christian sect. According to Lewis, we can all be good Christians because we must not be encumbered by sectarianism and theology.

    Therefore Mormonism cannot be “mere” in the sense that C.S. Lewis intended. In the Mormon sense, “mere” must include the priesthood theology.

    In one sense, Lewis’s message is the antithesis of the Joseph Smith story. By emphasizing individual dedication and reducing Christianity to its core, Lewis hopes to recover modernity for Christianity (and vice versa). That Christianity is, however, about individualism. Organizational ties are secondary if not superfluous. While Lewis doesn’t condemn organization, he explicitly advises his readers that they may safely ignore organizations and their leaders.

    In the process, Lewis’s concept of Christianity advocates the direct relationship between mortal and God. According to Lewis, Christianity does not require any mediator but Christ itself. That is why the lay person Lewis can be the messenger.

    Lewis was well aware of the concept of the priesthood. After all, that is key to High Anglicans and Catholics. His direct appeal to believers and the message about the Christian core implies a rejection of sacramental theology that requires the mediation of the priesthood. At the very least, to Lewis the interposition of the priesthood is irrelevant.

    To adherents of a sacramental theology such as Mormons and Catholics, there is no such thing as mere Christianity. From their point of view, Christianity requires the mediation of the priesthood. There is no salvation without sacrament. And there is no sacrament without authority.

    In the end, Mere Christianity remains a Reformation project. It is one more attempt to modernize Christianity by returning to its core. Therefore, the essence of Mere Christianity remains anti-Catholic.

    Insofar as the Mormon message restores the pre-Reformation understanding of the priesthood, authority independent of expertise, Mere Christianity also contradicts the Joseph Smith story. In the best case, the assumptions of Lewis’s project render the Joseph Smith story marginal if not irrelevant.

    While Lewis’s message shares charismatic strains with Mormonism, it rejects the Catholic emphasis on authority. Otherwise, there can be no Mere Christianity.

    While believers and gentiles may disagree whether Joseph Smith restored the original Church of Christ, there can be no doubt that he restored the priesthood.

    Though Catholics continue to uphold the sacraments, their priests are now required to acquire theological expertise. Before the Reformation that was not the case. Any illiterate prince could buy an archdiocese if he could finance the price.

    When Martin Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular, for Protestants and Catholics alike, soon there was no more authority in the absence of expertise. Authority grounded in expertise simultaneously rendered churches accountable and preempted social anarchy.

    Like pre-Reformation Catholicism, Joseph Smith claimed supreme authority in the absence of expertise.With respect to the priesthood, Joseph Smith overturned the Reformation. In that sense, there is a restoration that no one can deny.

    Smith’s restoration of the priesthood is a Jacksonian paradox. While kicking educated elites of the pedestal, it crowns Smith and his collaborators in the vineyard of the Church.

    It is that claim to authority independent of expertise that has led to the uneasy relationship between academics and LDS leaders, which has had let to the confrontation between LDS leaders and intellectuals.

    Obviously, academics and freedom of speech can only benefit if we transpose Lewis’s standards to Mormon theology. But it is not an exercise that is compatible with the Joseph Smith Story. Lewis’s approach will inevitably constrain the power of authority.

    Let me end on a personal note. Your conference will speak to the confrontation between intellectuals and priesthood leaders. I realize that this is not your intention. But it is an implication of the logical relationship of C.S. Lewis’s and Joseph Smith’s theologies.

    I am not predicting conflict. That depends on the reaction of priesthood leaders (which is not entirely unpredictable as they have a track record regarding these issues). On a philosophical level, however, the contradiction is inevitable.

    Contributors should not kid themselves. Transposing Lewis’s Reformation voice on Mormon theology is an aggressive act because it does not respect the words of Joseph Smith.

  21. Good afternoon everyone….

    I have really enjoyed reading your posts, thoughts and ideas. It is great to see such polite and honest discussion about such an issue too. Thank you.

    I in no way think that I am as intelligent on the issues as the others that have posted here, so this may be an advatage…lol… in the sense that I don’t have quite the same paradigm.

    With that I will get to my point. I would think that the individual and body of work that you wish to be done would be best served by Stephen Covey. Yes, of the 7 Habbits of Highly Effective People and his additional work.

    If anyone has the ability to present the information you are looking for, in the mannor of which you speak, he has the ability, knowledge and skill to do it, and do it clearly.

    Don’t know if that would help and you would consider contacting him or not, but it was just a thought.



  22. The aim of the conference is to address issues that create problems for LDS students in religion and to ask what can a Mormon contribute to the debates that go on in these fields.

    Um, how many LDS students in religion are there? Since the only real utility for such a degree would be teaching in CES or at BYU, it’s hard to imagine that many folks would pursue such a major. Although perhaps some take classes that fit into a curriculum in history or classics or polisci.

    I had the privilege of being an institute student of Robert L. Millet’s, during the era when he was working on his PhD in religion at a state university. It was indeed interesting to hear about his interactions with that setting.

    The big conflict that he noted (and I’ve since found in my own life as well) is that there seems to be a huge rift between believers and non-believers, even more than believers of this faith vs. that. His committee chair was a Jewish professor who was “the closest thing to a believer” on the faculty, but most saw Religion as an academic exercise.

    And then beyond believing, we also act on our beliefs, and live a religion so demanding that it affects us every day, not just on Sundays.

    So is the Yale Divinity School a highly intellectualized, theoretical kind of environment, or are there believers among them?

  23. Stephen Taysom says:

    I would be willing to take a stab at offering sometihng at a confrence like the one you describe Richard. Among other things, it would give me an excuse to re-read Lewis and McMurrin

  24. Naismith,
    Um, how many LDS students in religion are there? Since the only real utility for such a degree would be teaching in CES or at BYU, it’s hard to imagine that many folks would pursue such a major. Although perhaps some take classes that fit into a curriculum in history or classics or polisci.

    You’re completely wrong on this. I had a good friend who had a masters from Yale divinity and went on to be a librarian at the national archives after further degrees.. I was a religious studies major, and whenever I told/tell people they automatically say, “Oh, you wanted to be a seminary teacher.” Which isn’t true at all. A religious study degree is just about as useful as any liberal arts degree, which isn’t that useful admittedly–But please don’t jump to conclusions of why anyone would ever want to study religion as a member. I’m sure we could apply your argument to many disciplines.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t think Richard meant necessarily to advocate the application of the specific substance of Mere Christianity to the LDS Church. Rather, I took him to mean that we need something on that level and with that effectiveness of our own that can communicate effectively the particular strengths of Mormon thought.

  26. You are probably right, Kevin. I probably got confused.

    May be, my entry is focussing too much on why Mere Christianity cannot be Mere Mormonism.

  27. Nathan Oman says:

    Ronan’s point about the scandal of the angels and the plates is well taken. I wonder how long you have to be around in order for the scandal to cease to be a conversation stopper.

  28. Richard Bushman says:

    Thanks for all the comments. I feel like we have held a virtual conference already. Feel free to mail further comments to me directly at rlb7@columbia.edu. Our next step is to form a committee and start planning.

    Obviously with all these perspectives in mind, the conference could take many directions. I had thought we might use the Mere Christianity model in terms of audience. Lewis wrote the book as a series of radio talks to the educated English public. The biggest problem in my judgment is selecting the story when we have two: the Restoration and the Plan of Salvation. And the issue, keeping Mere Christianity in mind, is not merely to tell that story the way LaGrande Richards does but to work one’s way through objections and seeming contradictions. That is why I like the Lewis model. He manages all this so deftly without getting argumentative. The idea is to explain how a well-informed, spiritually responsive Mormon lives a Mormon life intellectually. Our goal should be, in my opinion. to explain what it is like to reside within a Mormon mind at its very best. Maybe we have to tell both stories for it to work.

    Everyone will see the goal differently. The conference should be an occasion for presenting these various outlooks.


  29. Nathan Oman says:

    Richard: It seems to me that in some sense James E. Talmadge’s __The Vitality of Mormonism_ is very much along the same lines as _Mere Christianity_. Indeed, I think that it may have even begun as a series of radio lectures for a relatively educated audience ;->.

  30. Richard: the conference sounds like a great idea! I’ve had the opportunity about a dozen times to meet with various large groups ranging from evangelicals to humanists (with Catholics in between) to explain and describe what Mormonism is like as a lived intellectual gem and challenge. I’ve met with groups in Seattle, California (Biola) and Utah. I received a very kind welcome and was treated well at a meeting of evangelicals to discuss the New Mormon challenge. I have reason to believe that we can dialogue both kindly and intelligently in a way that is true to our core and beyond to the possibilities of the Restoration.

    I usually start with the notion of the war in heaven and how we started life with a choice as to whether we chose to grow in relation with God in a mutually glorifying enterprise — and then focus on the nature of the “choosiness” of the life that has been bequeathed to us as the purpose of life in LDS thought. I like to focus the relationship with God mediated thru Christ that is the central purpose of life. I like to focus on the peer relationship that Father seeks with us and his goal to bring us to be what he is.

    I had a class from Gary Bunker at BYU called the psychology of relgion and Mere Christianty (along with several other works by Lewis) were the texts for the class. It was interesting because Lewis gave a good deal of argument to support the reasonableness of Christianity. Where I would like to see a Lewis done on Mormonism is an attempt to argue for it with sound reasoning in the kind of fire-side colloquia that Lewis adopted. As I see it, the purpose of theology is to express the love of the religious community, faith commitments and spiritual experiences of a people in a way that makes them relevant here and now and reasonably compelling as a way of seeing the world and living in relationship with each other.

    So I wish you the best in this enterprise Richard. Keep on keeping on!

  31. I think Terryl Givens is well on the way toward something approaching a C.S. Lewis treatment in “Lightning Out Of Heaven” (pdf available here).

    I gather that the target audience of the writing is a generally educated English-speaker or, say, citizen of one of the North Atlantic democracies. That means professional academics by and large are likely to look down their noses at it–so much the worse for them. Meantime, the audience for the conference about what would go into such a piece is Mormons, particularly young Mormon scholars-to-be.

    By the way, here is the link to the 2007 conference to which the envisioned conference would be a sequel.

  32. I second what Ben H said. “Lighting Out Of Heaven” is an attempt to explain what it was about Joseph Smith that attracted so many and still does and forge them into a community. His discussion about faith at the end is very moving also. An excellent essay all round. Well worth a read or two.

  33. I think Givens “Latter-day saint experience in America” is an excellent attempt at “Explaining Mormonism”. It is a little too pricey though, to be a “mere christianity”, and not quite as conversational as “mere christianity”. I’d say the closest we’ve come to “mere christianity” would be Ballard’s “Our Search for Happiness”. It’s more the relaxed tone.

    A big difference between the LDS Faith and it’s Christian brothers is the necesity to attach so much history.

    I have to admit, I have none of the above books in front of me, so can’t comment further.

    Note to self- stop lending out books…

  34. I guess the Mormon version of Mere Christianity would be Joseph Fielding Smith’s The Signs of the Times, as the were both given as lectures around the same time. Alas, Signs> hasn’t held up so well over time.

    Theoretically, we will have a review of Claudia Bushman’s Contemporary Mormonism up sometime. I imagine that it was supposed to be a Mormonism for Dummies for Religious Studies, though I’ll have to wait for the review. But to echo Ronan’s query of what to make of the Americana of Mormonism, even the subtitle of Claudia’s book is Latter-day Saints in Modern America.

    In any case, this has made me long for the days of being a student (just two years out). When I retire, I’m going back to grad school.

  35. Ben H., thanks for providing that link to the Terryl Givens essay. I hadn’t heard of it before. What a great read. Very moving.

  36. Naiah, there are a good number of LDS students in scripture-related fields, at least 30+, at places like Harvard, Yale, Brown, University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, etc.

  37. To add to what Mami and Ben said, my oldest son graduated from a secular college in June with a degree in religious studies and is now serving his mission. He’ll probably go to graduate studies, maybe law school, after his mission. If you’re going on to further studies, a bachelor’s in religion is about s good as one in anything else. It will get attention, that’s for sure!

  38. “And the issue, keeping Mere Christianity in mind, is not merely to tell that story the way LaGrande Richards does but to work one’s way through objections and seeming contradictions. That is why I like the Lewis model. He manages all this so deftly without getting argumentative”

    I just don’t think that is possible. I would say, if it were possible, that the conference would have to stick with Mormon theology. Even with that, there is no getting away from the very historical narrative of how that theology was developed. It is at this point that I would bring up a closer relationship with Islam and Old Testament Judeaism than the spiritualized Christianity. Otherwise, any relationship with “Mere Christianity” is a shared generic faith. Although there are theological quibles, C. S. Lewis is compatible with Mormonism as a Christian tradition.

  39. What an informative discussion! My first thought for the sort of friendly general treatment of LDS history and doctrine that we’re talking about here was Robert L. Millett’s The Mormon Faith: A New Look at Christianity (1998). Digging up the bibliographical reference for that book, I also stumbled upon Millett’s book C.S. Lewis, The Man and His Message: A Latter-day Saint Perspective (1999), which might be of interest.

  40. A critical decision about such a conference would be whether or not it was to be “academic.” Lewis’ whole project (including much more than just “Mere Christianity”) was to explain Christianity to an increasingly secular and agnostic educated audience for whom academic religion (including that preached from the pulpits) was no longer relevant. If the goal of such a gathering is to explore how to undertake such a project, explaining Mormonism to the modern secular world, two things will be necessary IMHO:

    (1) we will have to abandon our traditional attachment to explanation by biblical prooftexting, best exemplified by a Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and

    (2) we will have to give up hope of it being a standard respectable academic conference, for any such conference would have to address specializations too narrow to appeal to the kind of general audience Lewis was addressing. He was speaking on the radio, not in the lecture rooms of the theology faculty.

    BTW, my nomination for the best effort to date to create such an explanation for Mormonism would be John Widtsoe’s “A Rational Theology.”

  41. Sounds like a fascinating conference. I have four comments.

    1-When I speak with devoted, intellectual (if not too academic) Christians lately, they talk a lot about a Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft, who has been advanced as the modern CS Lewis, though he suffers a bit in the comparison. It may be worth looking at Kreeft and his use in Evangelical circles for the conference.

    2-Mere Christianity is in a sense a guidebook for an early to mid 20th century convert from atheism/agnosticism to Christianity, and it seems to draw broadly on Lewis’s experience as a student of stories and images as well as a truth quest. Does this context limit its generalizability? Do we need someone like Arthur King, an academic convert, to create these apologetics?

    3-There is an important difference between Lewis’s modern atheism and postmodern atheism, which may make comparisons and extensions somewhat difficult. Lewis was writing to the generations that would produce the postmodern perspective. As an admitted oversimplification, modern atheism elaborated a deep pathos that had not yet relinquished its ties to the truth quest. From a postmodern perspective, such atheism itself may be seen as misguided and weak-kneed, because–as in the case of Lewis himself–it has the potential, through its access to pathos and truth, to become theism. Postmodern atheism portends no such possible outcome, denying as it does the very meaning of the quest.

    4-Some of us pseudo-intellectuals of recent decades were unable to approach Mormonism (via Nibley, it is true) until we had made peace with Christianity via Lewis (a notion that mainline Christians will admittedly find absurd). An important question to be broached is whether urbane LDS apologetics need merely to supplement Lewis (given a basic Christian theism, Mormonism makes sense) or to replace him (given postmodern atheism, Mormonism makes sense). The latter course may be overwhelming and isolationist (peers in mainline Christianity such as Kreeft have contributions in this department), but increasingly such will be the background of our friends and colleagues with whom we converse. I think this point will be crucial to conversations on these subjects.

  42. I first read Mere Christianity on my mission and loved it so much I thought it should be part of the missionary canon. The minor differences with LDS theology are no problem for most of us I believe.

    But on a second read, my feelings have changed. Lewis’ strength is his use of analogies that are so appealing to the common man (me!). I don’t think that at it’s core, Mere Christianity is that strong of an apologetic work, in terms of solid logic and argument. The pure beauty of Mere Christianity is watching a master storyteller discourse on the subject most dear to his own soul. Bringing that much skill and care to a story is beguiling and encaptivating. We would love a corresponding author is Mormonism, but who wouldn’t? Do other religions have equivalents?

    I love Mere Chrisitianity and still do. What a perfect title! Plan to give it as a gift to my non-LDS friend soon.

  43. Sterling McMurrin was a close friend. However, I wouldn’t recommend his Theological Foundations as work thet expresses anything approaching Mere Mormonism. First, McMurrin was actually proselytizing for a naturalistic world-view and thus made Moronism as naturalistic and materialistic as possible. Second, Lewis’s devotion and faith come thru in Mere Christianity in his apologetic focus. He really wanted to make Chistianity sensible and to answer some basic objections from a modernist point of view. That love and willingness to defend Christianity is entirely missing in McMurrin’s works for simple reason: he didn’t share the faith.

    I would also counsel against going the “post-modernist” route that smb suggests. Post-modernism (if it really means anything) doesn’t give us any ground to stand on to take a stand for Mormonism. Rather, it is a critique and deconstruction that can easily be turned against Mormonism but it really doesn’t offer us anything to re-construct. Post-modern thought is a powerful critique of the Christian tradition; but where is the ability to say “put your trust in this and it will lead you to life and salvation”?

    I also like Millett’s stuff — but its appeal is likely to be very limited. It is not in dialogue with issues beyond the evangelical/LDS divide really.

    I also liked the Given’s lecture — but it identifies four essentials without really expanding, explaining and defending them, but rather offers them as self-evident truths. Perhaps Givens could expand on these issues (which I agree are precisely the four basic issues we ought to address).

  44. Kevin Barney says:

    I suppose I liked Theological Foundations because I have certain naturalistic tendencies of my own. (grin)

  45. Blake, I apologize for the imprecise post. Other than _Pale Fire_, I find current instances of postmodernism a vast sea of insignification, and I have little interest in a truly postmodern infrastructure for an urbane apologetics of Mormonism. I meant more that such an apologetics is stuck engaging this postmodernism because of the way it infiltrates our public thinking about religion and the truth quest. What I meant to say is that postmodern atheism is much harder to overcome precisely because it is wholly unfalsifiable.

  46. smb: I think that you are correct that post-modern atheism is much harder to overcome — but it isn’t a reasoned atheism but more of a shared cultural assumption. It is more a form of sophistosticated agnosticsm that merely relegates religious belief to second-hand speach and to the corner of the public square where no dialogue really takes place.

    Kevin: I think you’re right! I also have naturalistic tendencies, but I’m working on mastering them to serve me rather than giving in to them.

  47. Mark Butler says:

    Those who think the ministering of angels is a scandal will do just fine in a denomination of unconfirmed members until they learn better.

  48. Whoops, of course I meant “sophistocated” and “speech” — tho I admit I don’t worry much about spelling. I am a devotee of Mark Twain who said that he felt sorry for a person who didn’t know more than one way to spell a word.

  49. Neal Kramer says:

    The discussion of postmodernism is interesting. But it will have to move to another level to help us understand the degree to which naturalism drove religion out of the universities.

    The current turn to religion in philosophy is absolutely dependent on the predecessors of the more radical postmodernists of our day.

    Even Heidegger, who seems entirely to dismiss religion in Being and Time, gives us powerful clues about how to think about religion in the world.

    To give in to the temptation of C.S. Lewis, to believe all Christianity is a rationally explainable good, leads mostly to a kind of tepid Anglican confusion between Aristotle and Paul.

    Only the post mods like Marion, Ricoeur, Levinas, and Derrida allow us to remove the quest for a God at the center of all things from discourse about God, faith, etc. Otherwise, reason must be seen as ultimately superior to God and must be employed in order to explain him. The correct ontological proof is all we need. And that inevitably leads to logical positivism and the end of philosophy.

    If Mormonism is simply the quest for a rational explanation of religion, why not just adopt Lewis or Richard Hooker, or Bishop Butler, or even Jane Austen? Or maybe even Kant?

    In my opinion, Joseph Smith’s mind is so far beyond the positivists that we do him a disservice when trying to control it and place it into ready made categories. McMurrin often seems to me to be desperate to demonstrate that nothing about Mormonism rises above the level of prior mundane versions of philosophy or theology. McMurrin believes his mind and his methods are so capacious that they can control and define Mormonism. The Post mods don’t believe such a thing is possible.

    I enjoy the richness of dialogue about an unlimited God whose truest characteristics have less to do with technical knowledge and more to do with unknowable and incomprehensible capacities.

    Rational atheism, which is the necessary result of truly rational inquiry, is impossible to deal with because it admits only rationalism into the dialogue.

    So, two hurrays for the post mods. At least there is a space in their world for exploring religion on its own terms. There is no real space for religion in the world of the naturalists.

    Neal Kramer

  50. Truman Madsen’s Whence Commmeth Man, etc.

  51. Alright Neal, tell us what “religion on its own terms is” and we can have you write Mere Mormonism in those terms. I suppose god made a mistake in attempting to talk to us prior to the post-mod craze? Shame on him!

  52. “I suppose god made a mistake in attempting to talk to us prior to the post-mod craze?”

    Blake, God speaketh through Po-Mo. you know this!

  53. Christopher Smith says:

    Somebody mentioned this already, but Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Le Grand Richards) is a Mere Christianity-esque book on Mormonism.

  54. Neal #49

    Rational atheism, which is the necessary result of truly rational inquiry, is impossible to deal with because it admits only rationalism into the dialogue.

    I think that this statement about rational atheism is wrong. Rational atheists are committed to formal logic and thus have to admit that they cannot prove a negative.

    Neal #49

    Only the post mods like Marion, Ricoeur, Levinas, and Derrida allow us to remove the quest for a God at the center of all things from discourse about God, faith, etc. Otherwise, reason must be seen as ultimately superior to God and must be employed in order to explain him.

    I cannot follow that conclusion. I would love to see what you have in mind. The implication has not yet been expressed.

    More substantively, notice, from Martin Luther to Joseph Smith religious innovators or reformers have always claimed that they return reason to religion. Smith is clear that god is subject to causality.

    One can debate the role of mysticism in Smith’s work. Personally, I think that mysticism demarcates the limits of his education. However that may be, it is clear that Smith proposed a faith that he considered rational.

    Even if we embrace mysticism, we only acknowledge our ignorance, which is different from proclaiming an “unreasonable” god.

    I enjoy the richness of dialogue about an unlimited God whose truest characteristics have less to do with technical knowledge and more to do with unknowable and incomprehensible capacities.

    That is the end of conversation. Rather than equality, it would require the submission of someone’s imagination to that of another.

    Mormonism, of course, is not about equality but about authority. That applies at least to the Brighamite manifestation. May be, you are on to something.

    That would be troubling though because it would diminish the humanity of the faithful who have to sacrifice their imagination.

    Even if positivism were the end of philosophy, the postmodern approach to religion is worse. It implies either the end of communication or the idolization of authority.

    While postmodernism may be liberating when we want to ask questions, it must enslave us once someone pretends to have the answers.

  55. Dave 39- Millet’s Book “The Mormon Faith” is the one I read before I joined the church. Needless to say, I think it’s a great book…

  56. Hellmut: Could you show me where you believe that Joseph Smith is clear that God is subject to causality in the fully rationalistic sense you seem to have in mind — i.e., where everything is explained by a prior cause (thus entailing causal determnism)?

    It seems to me that there can be rationality without positivism and without rationaolity being the final arbiter in light of our epistemic limitations. A bit of epistemic humility is in order — and I believe rational atheists are lacking such humility or simple common sense about our limitations.

  57. Blake said (#43):

    First, McMurrin was actually proselytizing for a naturalistic world-view and thus made Moronism as naturalistic and materialistic as possible.

    Freudian slip, Blake?

  58. Wow. Leave for a few days and a whole discussion breaks out…

    In no apparent order.

    Kevin (#5), I just can’t recommend McMurrin. Yeah it is somewhat easy to read. But I honestly think it extremely distorting. But I put most of my complaints in my reading McMurrin series at my blog.

    I think Blake’s far better even though Blake is obviously arguing for a more narrow and perhaps controversial view of theology. What we need is something short and to the point, like McMurrin, not quite so detailed like Blake, and which covers the breadth of different views of Mormon theology, which no one has done. That’s kind of the problem. Every book on Mormon theology tends to present a single view of our theology when there are frankly a lot of different views within Mormonism.

    Blake (#43), I’m not sure what postmodernism is anymore. Most of what I heard described as postmodernism bears no resemblance to the thinkers I read who are considered the main figures in that movement. I’m not about to say there aren’t ideas within the so-called postmodern movement that might not be helpful for understanding. But I’m not sure what a “postmodern” anything is.

    The closest I’ve seen to writing what I think ought be written about LDS theology is Terryl Givens. But he’s not primarily addressing theology.

    Part of the problem is that I think more scholarship needs be done on what various major figures within Mormonism conceived of as our theology. i.e. compare and contrast Pratt, Young, Heber C. Kimball, Talmage, Roberts, Widstoe, JFS, BRM, Nibley, Millett, Robinson, etc. That’s a pretty wide range of views.

    Kevin (#44), I consider myself to have stronger materialist tendencies than most, but I hated McMurrin and am cast within the “postmodern” camp. Go figure.

    SMB, (#45), I think the influence of postmodernism in apologetics is vastly overstated. A few bring up Kuhnian paradigms or similar ideas in postmodernism. But this ends up being a strawman of an argument between positivists and Kuhnians largely. Others might disagree, but I see no evidence that even most apologists buy into these views. Nor am I convinced that our naturalistic critics are as positivist as they are portrayed. (Nor am I opposed to verificationalist as some might think – the particular positivist form I find objectionable but not the broader sense of it)

    Neal (#49), I think we create a false dichotomy when we put the positivists up as opposed to understanding God. I think it unfortunate that the positivists remain the boogey-man for some many Continental thinkers and that so many Continental thinkers have neglected so much analytic philosophy that isn’t positivists. (It goes both ways of course)

    Christopher (#53), I don’t think Marvelous Work and a Wonder is really that much like C. S. Lewis. It’s been a while since I read it, but it seems very focused on practical benefits to our beliefs – to such an extent that some sections like the Word of Wisdom section are horribly dated now. I’m no Lewis fan, but I think the books are quite different.

    Hellmut (#54), I often disagree with you. But I think you’re largely right here. I’d suggest though that the issue Neal brings up about rationality and God is ultimately more of an issue for those who buy into creation ex nihilo. It’s just not an issue for us since we make such a large separation between Being and God. While it’s true we separate discussion from God from reason in the ontological sense that ex nihilo demands I’m not sure the approach Marion takes is that helpful.

    This isn’t to say that reason doesn’t apply. But how it applies is different. But I think Heidegger’s concerns there can be found in the pragmatists as well.

    I disagree that postmodern religion entails the end of communication or the appeal to authority. Far from it. While I’m skeptical of a lot that is called postmodern religion, it seems to me that the point is to call into question authority and to open up communication.

  59. Eric: Nope, you caught me doing something intentional.

  60. Could you show me where you believe that Joseph Smith is clear that God is subject to causality in the fully rationalistic sense you seem to have in mind — i.e., where everything is explained by a prior cause (thus entailing causal determnism)?

    One could probably extract evidence to that effect from the King Follet Discourse.

    In the canon, Joseph Smith emphasized the primacy of causality in the gospel at least for this dispensation: 20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
    21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

    Smith’s emphasis on formality, particularly, the line of authority imply causality as essential.

    Finally, the concept of the restoration becomes meaningless unless the priesthood, which Smith defines as the power of God, would not shape the world in a causal way. Unless the priesthood power matters in an existential sense, there is no need for a restoration.

    A bit of epistemic humility is in order — and I believe rational atheists are lacking such humility or simple common sense about our limitations.

    Many positivists agree with you. So do atheists like Richard Dawkins. Mortals can’t know everything, in part for logical reasons (Popper), in part because the evidence is unavailable. I don’t see why this would compel us to assume a postmodernist perspective.

    Because Mormons believe in God, however, that is only the beginning rather than the end of the story.

    While Niceans claim that these limitations do not apply to God, the Mormon case of the eternally progressing God might be ambiguous. On the other hand, most modern prophets would be arguably uncomfortable with the notion of an ignorant God.

    Polytheist gods, of course, are foibled. There are similar accounts in the Bible. Job comes to mind. I cannot see, however, how one can reconcile that description of God with the gospels or the letters of Paul.

    Finally, even if god were ignorant, it would not follow that reality is chaotic.

    The reasons for our inability to account for causality are not mysterious. They could not be more clear. Our ignorance is a consequence of our nature’s relationship to logic.

    It seems to me that there can be rationality without positivism and without rationality being the final arbiter in light of our epistemic limitations.

    Yes, logic for determinate problems and rhetoric for indeterminate problems are the vehicles of reason.

    It doesn’t follow though that god is “non-rational.” Nor does it follow that God is mysterious. He might be mysterious to us but that is a matter of perspective rather than ontology.

  61. Sorry about the messy blockquotes. If someone has the ability to edit them, that would be wonderful.

  62. Hellmut re: #62: There is a very large difference between God being able to effectuate his purposes through causation and the kind of rationalistic naturalism of universal causation that you seem to imply. My concern is that the LDS God is not merely caused to do what He does by exterior causes; though if God acts he acts according to the laws that define the effects of his acts. So God could freely (without being caused to do so) choose to create the world; but if he does so he uses natural laws to effectuate the purposes of his will. I don’t believe that God is at the mercy of an impersonal causal necessity that dictates his choices and acts as I have understood you to imply — tho perhaps I have read too much into your comments. However, if causation becomes the basis for rationality, then there must be a sufficient reason that explains what causes everything. I would reject the notion of sufficient reason in this strong form because it is inimical to free and moral will. That is not what the LDS view of God teaches as I see it.

  63. Causation need not imply determination. Effects can be underdetermined by causes but still grounded in causes.

  64. I tend to believe that it may be necessary, as Richard points out, to present both sides of the Mormon intellectual mentality. In this way we can more easily grasp the real and perceived problems Mormonism presents, while also taking the task of presenting the solutions. I recently read the Backslider by Levi Peterson, and I think the book is a good example of this. I am not suggesting the conference becomes one which focus is Mormonism viewed through fictional works, nor am I persuaded by those who believe the Backslider is the perfect summary of Mormonism’s strengths and weaknesses. I guess I just believe it may be necessary to present both sides in order to create greater room for understanding.

  65. No other votes for Truman Madsen?

    That’s too bad, he wrote some very interesting things.

  66. Stephen, I’ve read his Joseph Smith works but I’ve only read a few of his more philosophically oriented works – mainly short papers.

  67. I don’t think Mormons can do with their faith what C.S. Lewis did with his. Lewis sought to defend the historical accuracy of Christian events and the accuracy of Christian reporting. He demonstrated this quite well. Mormonism does not have the same advantage. It faces the obstacle of large amounts of inaccuracy of reporting and transcription and historical inaccuracy of events. Can it really explain J. Smith’s “Reformed Egyptian”? Lewis had the benefit of a faith rooted in history, a luxury that Momornism cannot be been afforded. Mormonism traditionally does not appeal to history to vindicate its claims. It appeals to faith. It’s apologetic has a degree of fideism that Christianity does not, and thus cannot appropriate the same method as Lewis.

  68. I agree with you, Blake #62, that Laplace’s demon does not apply to God. It certainly does not apply to human beings. If God created men and women in God’s image then Laplace’s demon does not apply to God.

    Like all living organisms, human beings have to adapt to their environment to survive and prosper. Humans have adapted to a large range of different environments. Human variability is a function of tool use. Applying a variety of tools to a variety of circumstances requires agency.

    Of course, there is human behavior beyond choice. Reflexes are one example.

    From my experience, I find it difficult to determine whether someone really had a choice in a given situation. There are factors such as socialization and drives that raise questions about choice.

    I am wondering if that is the ultimate reason for Jesus’s prohibition of passing judgment.

    However, it is clear that humans can make choices. It would be odd if a superhuman god would have less capacity than mortals.

  69. John #67, while your point about Mormonism’s historical vulnerability is well taken, let me remind you that Christianity benefits from a lack of documentation.

    There are no documents about Christ that have been produced during his life time. The gospels are at best hearsay.

    Don’t take me wrong. I love to read the gospels. I enjoy their teachings but one cannot reasonably view them as accurate reports about a historical figure.

    In terms of historicity, Christianity is merely less falsifiable than Mormonism because the latter has been better documented. Ironically, in Popper’s sense, Mormonism then turns out to be the more rational enterprise because one can subject it to reasonable questions more easily.

  70. Clark it occurs to me that his book is out of print, but it is an important work. I only have a photocopy of it, though the photocopy was made by permission of the rights holder for me.

    I always thought it was too bad his work in that regards did not have broader circulation. Guess it is even narrower than I thought.

  71. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 69 I agree Hellmut, it can be subjected to reasonable questions more easily but it does not fare well in the process. The inevitable outcome is avoidance of certain areas (Bushman), quasi-apostasy (Palmer), or compartmentalization. I’m with Palmer.

  72. MikeInWeHo says:

    Actually, upon further thought I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Palmer of quasi-apostasy. He’s a faithful, active member attempting to make the Restoration story coherent with clear historical facts. He refuses to dance around the obvious. Strong medicine, badly needed. The patient doesn’t seem ready for it yet though!

  73. Will Stout says:

    What a great way to make Mormonism look mainstream! I hope you are aware that C.S. Lewis was a Anglican. You must be devising some way to edit a considerable amount of Mere Christianity because a large section of it discusses Trinitarianism. A doctrine which the Mormon chruch teaches directly against. I guess your just planning on teaching polytheism sprinkled with monotheism though.

  74. David Brosnahan says:

    Lewis was a master at identifying and using universal beliefs based on human experience to make his case for Christianity. He was so sucessful in his method, his ideas seem to transend Christian belief. So much so, that nearly all Christian denominations claim him as one of their own.

    Similarly, The Master Teacher Jesus Christ, drew all of his parables from the fountain of human experience. The LDS writer which has done the best at explaining Mormonism following this paradigm is Stephen R. Robinson in his books “Believing Christ” and “Following Christ”. The parable of the bicycle and the divers are masterful. Who could argue with them? Therefore, when these parables are used together with the spirit, like Nephi, it becomes “not possible that they could disbelieve his words”

    So, the key to explaining Mormonism is to use anecdotes and parables based on human experience. In this way, we are teaching scripture without reciting scripture. People disagree too much about scripture interpretation. But people more generally agree on human experience.