Disguising the Divide
One recent example of dialogue between members of two very different faiths is the book How Wide the Divide? : A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation. The book, as noted by Ron Enroth, was indeed "a landmark book!" Seldom had anything of the kind ever been attempted on such a scale. It was not, however, a very accurate book. For that and many other reasons, it did not provide a very good model for future dialogue. Its failures are too numerous to adequately detail and answer in anything short of a book. Indeed, a very excellent work by James White, titled, Is the Mormon My Brother? was written largely in response to How Wide the Divide? White's whole book covered the topic of only one of How Wide the Divide?'s four major divisions.
While space and time obviously limit what may be detailed in a magazine, no discussion of inter-faith dialogue since How Wide the Divide?'s publication can be complete without some analysis of its problems. Anyone hopeful of truly meaningful inter-faith dialogue will be on guard against repeating its failures. The following material examines only a small part of the list of pitfalls evident in the Robinson/Blomberg interchange, which Watchman Fellowship believes should be avoided.
One-sided Presentation of History
Robinson several times makes mention of violence that affected early Mormons. His depiction of it is totally one-sided and accusatory. "After all, Prof. Blomberg's great-great-grandfathers may very well have shot at my great-great-grandfathers as the Mormons were driven out of New York, Ohio, Missouri or Illinois and eventually out of the country altogether. For many Latter-day Saints such events as these are not yet ancient history. The murders, the rapes and the burnings are still a deeply felt part of our family heritage. Many still cherish the memory of each nineteenth-century outrage committed against their forebears, and this frequently sours twentieth-century relationships. Perhaps if we start trying now, the twenty-first century may see the beginnings of better understanding between our two communities" (p. 12-13).
One might have assumed that a "good-faith" effort to "start trying now" would include a little truth-telling about Mormon history. Instead, Robinson's moralizing that we should "start trying now" offers nothing specific at which such efforts should be directed. In context, it seems rather like a weak reason to justify inclusion of the preceding one-sided history. On the surface, Robinson almost appears to be gently chiding Mormons that they need to "forgive and forget" the past. But the fact is, besides disparaging Christians, the above portrayal of history only perpetuates the half-truths and lies that keep the fires of Mormon paranoia burning. Mormons were not forcibly driven out of every place in which the Church was once centered, as described by Robinson, and believed by most Mormons, and nothing near a majority of those who did persecute them were "Christians," or religiously motivated.
Mormon Elder Dix W. Price stated, "Let us examine the early persecutions and the movements of the Saints from one state to another. In December of 1830 they made the first move to Kirtland, Ohio (now a suburb of Cleveland), This move was not prompted by persecution. As a matter of fact, the Prophet indicates that it was a matter of revelation, that God directed the move from the upstate area of New York to Kirtland, where three very fine Ohio citizens, Sidney Rigdon, Edward Partridge, and Newel K, Whitney, had invited the Prophet to move the headquarters of the infant Church."1
Joseph Smith later claimed to have been persecuted, personally, in New York due to his persistence in maintaining he had seen a vision. However, there does not appear to be any contemporaneous historical record indicating such persecution, nor any indication that his first vision was ever heard of by anyone, including Mormon church members, until after the New York period.
Elder Price continued, "The next move was from Kirtland to the Missouri area, and this was brought about essentially by an economic upheaval. You will recall in history the establishment of the Kirtland Safety Society, the unfortunate banking venture that the Prophet started. It was his plan to provide an honest and fair method of savings for his people, but the little bank was hit hard by national depression and panic and by the fraud of a trusted friend, whom the Prophet had made the cashier of the bank. It failed, and out of the economic upheaval that occurred, the movement of the Church to Missouri was motivated."2
The above description of events in Kirtland in connection with the Kirtland Safety Society is a portrait very sympathetic to Joseph Smith, and still it does not indicate that religious persecution drove the Mormons out of the area.
In Missouri, where unquestionably the Mormons were driven from the state, their troubles were largely of their own making, and their opponents were not particularly religiously motivated. Unquestionably, there were atrocities vented upon some Mormons who had done nothing to provoke such attacks. The same, however, was true in reverse. Even the Church's Religion 341-43 student manual, Church History in the Fulness of Times, acknowledges that "Danite depredations, both real and imagined, intensified hostilities and gave Missouri officials a reason to indict Joseph Smith and other leaders for crimes against the state.& Sidney Rigdon's Independence Day speech added more fuel to the Mormon-gentile conflict.& 'It shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us'" (pp. 191-92). Rigdon's extermination speech, approved by Joseph Smith and the full church presidency, was delivered some three months before the "Extermination Order" issued by Governor Boggs, which Mormons today so often trumpet as an example of the persecution their forbears had to endure.
Naturally, it is not expected that Robinson would volunteer historical details such as the above, especially in a discussion not particularly concerned with history. Neither, however, would it be expected in a scholarly discussion that he would throw in references to past history in such a one-sided and accusatory manner as he did. In context, Robinson's statement that Mormons "have never wanted to be identified with the 'Christians' who burned them from their homes and drove them into the wilderness" (HWTD, p. 20) is like a dagger thrust in the side while passing. It insinuates that it was primarily Christians who persecuted Mormons, and that by association, all Christians of succeeding generations are somehow collectively guilty of the named depredations. Such malicious sideswipes are not called for in a "good-faith" scholarly discussion.
Unfortunately, they seem commonplace in Robinson's portions of How Wide the Divide? and they are not limited to historical matters, as demonstrated below.
False, Prejudicial Implications, Inferences, and Innuendoes
"Some Evangelicals oppose Mormons more vehemently than they oppose pornography" (p. 9). Robinson fires this shot as a conclusion drawn from the fact that some Evangelical ministers would not participate in a citizen's committee set up to fight pornography, if Mormons were included in the group. The ministers did not say they would not fight pornography; they only refused to be party to a group that accepted Mormonism as an equal with Christianity. If their consciences forbade them participation in such a group, that did not mean they could not or would not continue to fight pornography by other means. Their refusal to work as equals with Mormon leaders implied absolutely nothing about their views on pornography or Mormonism as compared to each other.
Turn it around. Would the Mormon leaders have been willing to join with, publicly work shoulder to shoulder with, pornographers who might be involved in an otherwise legitimate campaign against the infringement of freedom of speech? Of course not. But, why not? Would it be fair to conclude they care less about freedom of speech than about pornography? Of course not. But they would rightly not want their name and reputation associated with something they consider to be evil. Evangelical ministers who view Mormonism as a counterfeit-Christianity such as that warned against by the apostle Paul, (Acts 20:28-30; 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 12-15; Galatians 1:6-9) have a right to harbor the same concern.
Robinson says Mormons and Evangelicals are always being drawn together by shared values, until denominational affiliation is surfaced; "Then prejudice or proselytizing usually ends the fellowship" (p. 10; emphasis added). This itself is a very prejudiced remark. He seems never to consider, and apparently would not have anyone else consider, that there might actually be real differences between Evangelical Christianity and Mormonism sufficient to justify "breaking fellowship." The apostle Paul specifically warned Christians against having fellowship with those who claimed to be Christian, but who did not live as Christians (1 Corinthians 5:9-13), or who actually were not Christians (2 Corinthians 6:14-17). It is granted that many Mormons may live in the manner Christians ought to live, because Mormonism today utilizes basically biblical ethics. Living a Christian lifestyle, however, while worshipping a totally different being - a totally different kind of being - as God, does not make one a Christian. It instead merely gives one the appearance of being Christian.
Mormonism and Mormon apostles and prophets have declared worship of such a God as conceived in the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity to be idolatry (see, e.g., Bruce R. McConkie, "The Seven Deadly Heresies," BYU Fourteen-Stake Fireside, 1 June 1980). If Mormons take their apostles' and prophets' offices and teaching seriously, they should be just as zealous to avoid fellowship with "idolatrous" Christians (worshippers of the Triune God) as worshippers of the Triune God are zealous to avoid fellowship with them.
Refusing to engage in fellowship, or giving acknowledgement as fellow-Christians, is not persecution. Neither does denial of fellowship presume hatred, nor preclude dialogue. Indeed, to demand fellowship - mutual acknowledgement as fellow-Christians - before, or as a condition for, dialogue is as much as to force acceptance of all aberrations of doctrine between the two systems as equally legitimate. Neither party has any right to impose such a condition on the other. Beware of those who demand "tolerance;" the position is inherently self-refuting.
"I have learned that what many Mormons believe about the theology of 'born agains' or 'saved-by-gracers' (as Evangelicals are sometimes labeled by LDS) is often a caricature of mainstream Evangelical beliefs& we tend to identify all Evangelicals with the fundamentalist anti-Mormons who incessantly attack us, and dishonest because these so-called anti-cultists always insist the LDS believe things we do not in fact believe" (p. 10-11). Even as Robinson purports to identify false conceptions and stereotypes, he subtly perpetuates others.
First and foremost here is the idea that attacking false doctrine is equivalent to attacking persons. Certainly Robinson knows that the LDS Church can be 'anti-smoking" without hating smokers. In fact, an anti-smoking stance is actually a way of demonstrating more respect and compassion for smokers if one truly believes that smoking is harmful and dangerous.
Robinson, however, has labeled as "anti-Mormons" virtually everyone who is emphatically opposed to Mormonism as a system and body of doctrine, and who believe the ongoing spiritual danger of that doctrine warrants both perseverant warning to other Christians and evangelization of Mormons.
This resonates well in today's culture where many people cannot bear even the presence of religious disagreement - much less discussion of the validity, worth, or consequences of divergent religious doctrines - because they automatically identify such discussion as personal attacks. As this author has noted elsewhere, this false identification is "a thought-stopping, emotion-stoking subterfuge that insulates many Mormons from rational consideration of Christian objections to Mormon doctrine."3
Also, whether or not it is consciously made by Robinson, there is an attempt here to divide Christians. Robinson would have the average Evangelical automatically identify virtually all persons or ministries devoted to warning the Christian body about the anti-Christian elements of Mormonism, as "fundamentalist," "mean-spirited and dishonest" people who "always" lie about Mormon belief (p. 11). Professor Blomberg himself bought into that picture sufficiently to use some of the same language, unwittingly providing fodder for Robinson's "divide and conquer" cannons.
"Perhaps," says Robinson, "if mainstream Evangelicals could distance themselves a little from the repugnant literature of 'extreme fundamentalists,' as Prof. Blomberg calls them, Mormons could in turn do a better job of distinguishing between mainstream Evangelicals and fundamentalists" (p. 11). In other words, if Evangelical Christians will only accept false Mormon stereotypes about Christians who are emphatically opposed to Mormonism, Mormons will kindly refrain from applying those same stereotypes to all Evangelicals, who, no doubt, should be grateful for the favor. Robinson would evidently have mainstream Evangelical Christians believe that the only real problem is those who persist in saying there is a problem.
While Robinson would have mainstream Evangelicals believe that he recognizes they are not like those "mean-spirited and dishonest" "extreme fundamentalists," he still finds it "ironic" that what he "most appreciate[s] about Prof. Blomberg is his fairness and honesty" (p. 11). Robinson repeatedly classifies virtually all other Evangelicals he has encountered with those mean-spirited dishonest fundamentalists. He would nevertheless have Christians reading this book believe that his experience with just one man, Professor Blomberg, has convinced him that all those Evangelicals so emphatically opposed to Mormonism are only "the more extreme factions of Evangelicalism," and that he and his fellow-Mormons had "mistakenly identified that part as the whole" (p. 12).
From his own words it would seem that Robinson has taken a rather unscholarly approach of discarding the overwhelming body of evidence at his disposal, or with which he claims familiarity, in favor of one apparent anomaly, Professor Blomberg. This is obviously pandering. If they fall for it, the audience for whom it is done will be relieved to know they bear no such opprobrium as "fundamentalist" themselves. If they follow Robinson's lead, they will also no doubt identify and marginalize as mere "polemicists" of that "rabid anti-Mormon" "extreme faction" (pp. 11-12) anyone who smells a motivational rat in Robinson's magnanimous inclusion of mainstream Evangelicals with his estimation of Blomberg.
Robinson is zealous for Mormonism's right to define itself (p. 12), but he has neatly, deftly provided Evangelicals with his own categorizations of themselves. To the extent that they allow Robinson to thus define and compartmentalize Evangelicalism, Robinson's good mainstream Evangelicalism will be so much the more inclined to embrace his Mormonism. It is hard to believe Robinson does not know that.
Calculated Exploitation of the Language Barrier
After trashing all the "anti-Mormons," Robinson makes much of a theme these same people have warned about for years - the fact that Mormons use many of the same words Christians use, but attach meanings to them different from those contemplated by Christians using the same words. Robinson complains that Christians "seldom bother to adjust their thinking to allow for LDS definitions and usage" (p. 13). Significantly, most of the outsiders who are aware of the barrier, who have studied and do know and understand Mormon definitions and usage, are the same people Robinson judges as mean-spirited, dishonest, and possessed of "the worst motives" (p.15).
One might expect, since Robinson complains of the language barrier, that he would not make use of it to further his own agenda. Yet even in his discussion of the problem, he turns the barrier to his own advantage. He says, "when Mormons speak on the subject of faith and works, for example, they usually do so in a way that seems from an Evangelical perspective to be inadequate or imprecise, though it makes perfectly good sense to us. This is not an issue of who is theologically right or wrong. New Testament Christians, were they suddenly transported to the twentieth century, would experience the same difficulty and for the same reasons - it is just a case of highly idiomatic terminology on the one hand and a lack of terminological sophistication on the other" (p. 13).
Of course no one has ever argued that the Mormon gospel doesn't make "perfectly good sense" to Mormons. And Mormons do not mind being thought of as rubes, if the alternative (as Robinson labors to show) is to be full of the learning of man. The question is, Is the gospel believed by, and ever so plain to, Mormons, the same gospel believed by Evangelical Christians? It should be self-evident that where two parties use the same words to discuss a particular issue, but attach different meanings to the words used, then they are not, and cannot be, in agreement about that issue.
Yet before ever entering the discussion of soteriology, Robinson would have the reader approach that whole study believing that the real problem is simply the language barrier, as if there were no differences so fundamental and essential they should divide Evangelicals and Mormons as Christians and non-Christians. Mormons, he infers, just speak more simply and more like New Testament Christians than do modern Christians. Professor Robinson, however, knows full well the Mormon gospel is not the same gospel taught by Evangelicals (p. 20). (It could also be argued [in another book] that neither is the Mormon gospel Professor Robinson's gospel.) And the differences are sufficiently deep that both gospels cannot possibly both be true at the same time. It is a question of right and wrong, truth and error. For purposes of his own, however, Robinson would have the reader believe, above all, that it "is not an issue of who is theologically right or wrong."
Those purposes are more easily discerned the more Robinson employs the language barrier. Especially is this true in the chapter summation statements about agreements between Mormons and Evangelicals. Time after time both camps are said to agree with statements of doctrine, where the statements given cannot possibly be agreed to without both sides maintaining different definitions for most of the theologically significant words employed in the statements.
Robinson claims to be informed on Evangelical language (p. 163), i.e., he understands Evangelical usage of most theologically significant terms. He knows, therefore, that when he says in these chapter summations that he agrees with Blomberg on certain statements of doctrine, the meaning he expresses by, or extracts from, those statements is actually different from Blomberg's. When Robinson says Mormons "agree," for example, that God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, etc. (p. 110), he knows full well that Mormons mean something by each of those terms quite different from what Evangelicals believe.4 The only agreement here is on the choice of words used to describe totally different beliefs. There is not agreement on the meaning of those words. There is not doctrinal agreement on the points described by those words. Knowing all this Robinson still willfully, purposefully represents difference as sameness. One has to wonder, Why? This is precisely the kind of deception that provoked Dr. Walter Martin's so-called "'colorful' language" (p. 23). It requires explanation.
Professor Blomberg, unfortunately following Robinson's lead, and accepting Robinson's stereotypes about Christians emphatically opposed to Mormonism, rejects out of hand the evangelicals who could have instructed him on Mormon vocabulary sufficiently to recognize the disingenuousness of Robinson's "agreements." He apparently accepts the Mormon view of virtually all ex-Mormons as people "who have left the Church because they are bitter about how it treated them," or worse. "Individuals," he says, "who have converted from one religion or denomination to another are usually the most likely to be antagonistic toward the group they have left and to describe only the worst aspects and most extreme manifestations of that organization or belief system" (p. 22).
Certainly if they are bitter their motives must be suspect. But is it impossible that persons who had no unpleasant experiences with Mormon church members or leaders - and sins no more serious than those of all their fellows who remained Mormons - could nevertheless be absolutely and honestly convicted in their hearts that Mormonism was not biblical Christianity, and so leave it? Is it impossible that such persons could be free of bitterness?
For a "true-believer" Mormon, the discovery that Mormonism is contrary to biblical Christianity and built on a fabric of historical and spiritual lies is not far different from suffering the death of a loved one, or a divorce. That in itself could produce some bitterness. But if it does, that should not be assumed to last forever. Has God's arm been shortened that He could not have healed their hurt, and filled them with the love of Christ (Romans 5:5; 2 Corinthians 5:14, 17-20) for those they believe are still in the same eternal peril from which they themselves were rescued?
Such possibilities seem never to have entered Professor Blomberg's mind any more than Robinson's. Surely, however, Professor Blomberg would not assume that Paul, having left Judaism for Christ (Philippians 3:4-10) could no longer speak accurately about Judaism. Surely he would not assume that Paul's efforts to convert Jews, or his warnings to Christians about Judaizers, were motivated by bitterness (Romans 9:1-3). Yet Blomberg fails to acknowledge even the existence of comparable ex-Mormons, much less the possibility that they could be a reliable source of accurate information on Mormonism - a source that could provide an invaluable counter to the salesman's pitch.
"The purpose of this book," Robinson says, "is neither to attack nor to defend - there will be no winner and no loser at the end of it. The purpose of this book is to explain and to educate - at last to hear and to tell the truth about each other" (p. 21). This last clause is actually malicious. It implies that all the writing by Christians about Mormonism over the years is all false, misinformed at least, deliberately deceitful at worst. Just discard it all. Now, at last, the real truth will be told.
Unfortunately, the above purpose statement from Professor Robinson did not include "tell the truth about ourselves." Of course, he complains of Evangelicals accusing him of lying about his beliefs, and makes valid points that no one but himself can say what he personally believes, and that religious groups have the right to define their own doctrine (pp. 12, 162-3). Robinson no doubt does not feel like he has lied about his beliefs or Mormonism, because he can say that his statements accurately describe his belief.
But Robinson himself makes a point of the importance of the meaning behind the bare words (p. 14) and claims to be familiar with Evangelical usage and definitions of theological terms (p. 163). It is too much, then, to believe that he is unaware that Evangelicals and Mormons cannot agree to most of How Wide the Divide's summation agreement statements without maintaining separate mental glossaries on the terms used in the statements. As noted earlier, for him to present these statements as agreements between two parties, knowing that each party understands the statements quite differently from the other, is deceitful.
It may be asked, Why is Robinson being blamed here, and not Blomberg? After all, is not Blomberg deceiving Mormons by saying he agrees with belief statements they could make, all the while intending a meaning different from theirs? If he knew that was the case, yes, he would be equally guilty. Blomberg is a fine New Testament scholar. He appears, however, to have been as dependant on Robinson for his understanding of different Mormon and Evangelical word usage as he was reliant on Robinson's assessment of Christian critics of Mormonism. Unfortunately in both cases, he assumed an honesty and forthrightness in Robinson not supported by the record of their exchange.
Christians having far less understanding (of either Mormonism or Christian theology) than Blomberg are now reading that exchange. If he did not always know when to challenge claimed agreements, neither will they. And why else, one might ask, would Robinson, who did know better, deliberately misrepresent difference as sameness? Christians who may know so little of Mormon doctrine that they are unaware of how differently from themselves a Mormon would understand those statements will thereby naturally be "disarmed." They will mistakenly believe that Mormons believe, if not quite the same as themselves, at least similarly enough to themselves to be considered another Christian denomination. Not only does proselytizing Christians into Mormonism then become a thousand-fold easier to do, alerting Christians to the spiritual danger of Mormonism and mobilizing them to evangelize Mormons (or even support others willing to bear the task) becomes a thousand-times more difficult.
Neither the desire to defend one's religion nor to convert others to it is wrong in and of itself. Of course it is most unfortunate, for oneself and for one's converts, if one's religion is false. But apart from the issue of the truth or error of one's religion, the defense of honestly held views, and efforts to convert others to those views, depend for their worth and validity upon the manner in which they are done. There are both honorable and unscrupulous means to the accomplishment of most any end. One way in which apologetics, evangelism, and proselytizing may be corrupted is to pretend that one is not conducting such activity when in fact one is so engaged. This is simply deceitful. Yet it is difficult to know how else to evaluate Professor Robinson's deliberate misrepresentation of difference as sameness.
To the extent that Robinson succeeds, through How Wide the Divide?, in obfuscating the differences between Mormonism and Christian theology, to that extent there is a "winner" in this discussion after all. And he wins without even making the case that his doctrinal belief is the right and true doctrine. To the extent that he convinces Christians that "understanding" one another is to accept "agreements" that don't exist, to the extent that he convinces them that those who say there is a problem are the problem, then he will succeed in marginalizing Christians who know enough to hinder open Mormon proselytizing. The covert has paved the way for the overt. Information received by Watchman Fellowship indicates that all over the country Mormons and Mormon missionaries are using How Wide the Divide? in discussions with Christians to break down their resistance to Mormonism and aid the process of conversion thereto. It is extremely difficult to imagine the book successfully serving that process in the reverse.
1 Speech delivered April 18, 1962, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year, 1960-1966, p. 3.
3 The Watchman Expositor, vol. 15, no. 2, 1998, p.10.
4 cf Stephen E. Robinson, "God the Father," The Encyclopedia of Mormonsim, vol. 2, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992); Robinson, "Doctrine," The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 1.