Just finished Huston Smith's The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition (2005). Huston Smith is a Christian scholar who stresses the broad, ecumenical themes of religion and Christianity. He was a friend and colleague of Joseph Campbell; he notes that "early on we agreed to divide mythology's turf between us: he would defend its power and I its truth." So Smith is well qualified to identify a handful of doctrines, beliefs, and symbols that constitute the "soul of Christianity." My previous post featured Bertrand Russell's definition of a Christian (to believe in God and immortality, and affirm Jesus Christ as the Son of God or at least as the most exalted of moral teachers), a definition which certainly includes Mormons. I wonder how Mormons match up using Huston Smith's list?
Smith doesn't actually make a list — I'm really just collecting the primary points he discusses in the main part of the book where he summarizes the heart of the Christian story. There are two groups of concepts, points related to specifically to Jesus and points related to Christian symbols such as the Incarnation or the Trinity.
Christian Beliefs About Jesus
1. The Resurrected Jesus. "[H]is resurrected body differed importantly from the one that died on the cross. It was visible: some people (but not all) recognized it as that of the Jesus they knew. And it was corporeal .... At the same time, in ways it was incorporeal: it passed through closed doors. These mysterious differences persuaded the disciples that their Master had entered a new mode of being."
2. Pentecost. "[F]orty days after [the Ascension], God sent the disciples the Comforter Jesus had promised them in an event we now know as Pentecost." Pentecost reestablished the living link (mediated by the Holy Spirit) between Jesus and the disciples.
3. The Good News. The Resurrection marked a victory over death and sin, but it was not just the content of the message about Jesus or his teachings that constituted the Gospel or "good news," it was also the messengers themselves, who felt called to live a transformed life of faith, hope, and charity:
The people who heard Jesus's disciples proclaiming the Good News were as impressed by what they saw as by what they heard. They saw lives that had been transformed—men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living. They evinced a tranquillity, simplicity, and cheerfulness that their hearers had nowhere else encountered. Here were people who seemed to be making a success of the enterprise everyone would like to succeed at—life itself.
4. The Mystical Body of Christ. Groups of early Christians termed each group an ekklesia (an assembly or, in modern parlance, a church) but these ekklesia were not independent. Paul's metaphor of the body captures this underlying sense of unity between the many separate ekklesia: many members, but one body. Or, as Jesus taught, "I am the vine, ye are the branches." The Christian distinction between between the church visible and the church invisible captures a similar contrast of diversity and unity.
I think the Mormon understanding of Jesus matches up pretty closely with these points summarizing the Christian understanding of Jesus. On the first point, the Mormon resurrected Jesus has a glorified body of flesh and bone, whereas the Christian resurrected Jesus has a spiritual body (see 1 Cor. 15:44). On the fourth point, the Mormon view stresses the authority of the Church as an institution rather than the mystical unity of the Church or the Church Invisible. But, viewed broadly, these differences are not substantial.
Deep subject, but listen to what Huston Smith means when he refers to key Christian beliefs as symbols:
The experience of things that inspire us gives rise to symbols as the mind tries to think about these invisible, inspiring things. Symbols are ambiguous, however, so eventually the mind introduces thoughts to resolve the ambiguities of symbols and to systematize intuitions. Reading this sequence backward we can define theology as the systemization of thoughts about the symbols that religious experience gives rise to.
He then lists what he calls the "foundational points in Christian theology": the incarnation, the atonement, the trinity, life everlasting, the resurrection of the body, hell, and the virgin birth.
For an in-depth discussion of these Christian symbols and the associated points of theology, you'll have to go read the book (it's only about 150 pages). What strikes me is that only the atonement and the resurrection of the body really carry the same symbolic weight in LDS theology as they do in Christian theology. Mormonism has developed its own symbols or "foundational points in Mormon theology" to augment or even replace some of the Christian symbols. Just winging it, some good candidates for key Mormon symbols are the First Vision, the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon, the angelic restoration of priesthood authority, Zion, and the sealing power exercised in LDS temples extending the bonds of marriage and of parents/children to the next life.
This difference in symbols helps explain why some Christians seem disoriented when encountering serious discussion of Mormon doctine and theology. [As underdeveloped as Mormon theology is, I still think it is fair to use the term.] Mormons do use different symbols to express their deep religious convictions. But, as noted at the end of the first section, the extent to which Mormon beliefs about Jesus overlap Christian beliefs about Jesus should warn against the simple conclusion that because Mormons use some religious symbols that aren't in the Protestant inventory of religious symbols they therefore reject Christian beliefs. The different Mormon symbols are rooted in the different Mormon religious experience of the 19th and 20th centuries. But Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches employ their own religious symbols, too, yet most Protestants are happy to regard them as Christian. So why don't Mormons get the same treatment?
In the final chapter of the book, Smith contrasts the beliefs of the three main branches of Christianity: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. Perhaps, in a few decades, that final chapter will have four sections?