Mitt the Heretic

AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2012: AS WE SEE IT

by Daniel Meeter

Are Mormons Christians?” When my parishioners ask me this, I answer, “Yes, I think so.” And then I add, “But they’re heretics” Isn’t that helpful? If it’s not politically correct, it is historically so. But I really do answer this way because I am serious about my pastoral roles as an on-deck theologian and the catechist of my adult members. I answer this way because implicit in the question of my parishioners is the definition of their own Christianity. I think we can call Mormons Christians because they satisfy the minimum requirement of being able to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Richard Mouw confirms this in his recent book, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Eerdmans, 2012). It’s a wise book, and I was convicted by its challenge to my prejudice. Mouw has taken heat for his openness in dialogue with Mormons, but surely he’s doing the right thing, and, as usual, modeling both honor and hospitality.

But at the same time I think we are not wrong to consider Mormons heretics, because they cannot satisfy the minimum requirement of the Nicene Creed. We have to make this judgment out of regard for the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that we confess, but even more, out of our love and our fear of the Holy Trinity whom we worship. And in the great tradition of the church (if you care about such things, as I think we must), the inability to repeat the creed makes you, well, a heretic. But the judgment of heresy need not prevent the kind of respect and conversations that Mouw advocates. We associate the judgment of heresy with animosity and persecution, and for good historical reason. The Arians persecuted the Athanasians and then vice versa. The Orthodox persecuted the Nestorians and then the Monophysites. The Iconoclasts persecuted the Orthodox and then vice versa. It has often been suggested that when the Arabs began their conquests in 632 it was no coincidence that they made their earliest gains among the Nestorian and Monophysite Christians, who must have resented their mistreatment by their Byzantine masters.

We tend to be nastier to heretics than to people of distinctly different faiths. Family feuds and all that. The first response of the Byzantine theologians to the Muslims was to regard Islam as one more Christian heresy. (Even early Dutch Reformed documents condemn the Turks for their–Unitarianism!) And the Muslims returned the favor. While the Holy Koran gives reasons to treat both Jews and Christians as mistaken but respectable allies in honoring the prophets and the One God, it also gives reasons to treat Jews and Christians as heretics deserving death. The double attitude, I suggest, is not contradictory but dialectical. I think of the violence that followed the adjournment of the Synod of Dordt. It would< seem that the treatment is always nastiest when the “orthodox” are in power politically, and protecting it.

And yet, though less well known to us, apart from the intermittent persecutions that were usually instigated for political reasons, the more typical attitude of the Byzantine Empire and its church was accommodation, interaction, and even collaboration with heretical groups. Any good reading of Byzantine history will show it, but consider that it must have been so, during all those centuries with the involvement of all those varied population groups and the necessities of manning the army and the >fleet. The typical policy of the empire was both to defend the orthodoxy of the Holy Church and then to accommodate the heretical groups in as many ways as possible. Remarkably, during a time of resurgent Arab attacks on Byzantium, Emperor Leo III had a mosque erected within the walls of Constantinople< for the service of Muslim visitors to the sacred capital.

Islam was first regarded by the Byzantines as a ramification of Arianism. You could say the same of Mormonism, although it adds strong features of Gnosticism that would be reprehensible to Islam. I understand Mormons to believe that God has a divine wife and has sexual relations with this wife, producing all of us spiritual children. I understand that eventually Mitt Romney and his wife, for example, will be a godly couple with their own worlds to populate. (Imagine all those Young Republicans!) Added to this mix of Arianism and Gnosticism is a Mormon version of Montanism together with American millennial civil religion. America figures in the Mormon faith and scriptures in a way that it doesn’t among even the most patriotic right-wing fundamentalist Christians. (Isn’t the Second Coming supposed to take place in Missouri?) In his landmark >book of 1992, The American Religion, Harold Bloom suggests that this Gnostic brand of Christianity can attain an almost “established” status in America.

I suspect that this is what makes so many of us nervous about Mitt Romney. I mean, we virtuousPerspectives readers to the south of the Canadian border have all learned to hold our noses and put up with our president being a “high priest after the order of Melchizedek” for American civil religion. (I am writing this from the more safely secular refuge to the north of the border.) Whether our high priest is from the United Church of Christ like Obama, or is Methodist to Southern Baptist like Bush, or even Roman Catholic like Kennedy, we are used to hearing them end their speeches with “May God bless America” and inviting us to prayer in times of national trial or suffering. We are used to tolerating this civil religion, and we know it infects the good congregations we belong to, with their American flags up front in their sanctuaries. But what if the new Melchizedek is a convinced believer of heretical doctrines about divine heterosexuality and postbiblical special doctrines about America?

Well, I know of members of mainline Protestant churches who do not say the Nicene Creed, much less subscribe to it. This summer I spent some hours at the forty-first General Council of the United Church< of Canada, and I heard people there who cannot bring themselves to say that “Jesus is Lord.” I’m guessing that many folks within our congregations are functionally Monothelite, if not Monophysite. (I think my sermons often tread Monophysite.) I think many Calvinists are unconsciously Nestorian, and many evangelicals are virtually Docetist (Menno Simons clearly was). I have known respectable pastors and congregations in the eastern Reformed Church in America who are essentially “evangelical unitarians.” So who are we to be so righteous as to not converse with Mormons? As Mouw reminds us, they may have as much to say to us as we to them.

Lesslie Newbigin wrote that all of us are heretics, according to the original meaning of the term (and the analysis of Peter Berger’s The Heretical Imperative). Since the Enlightenment, we moderns expect to determine our own religion as a personal choice, and so we’ve both implicitly and explicitly surrendered the gospel as a public truth for everyone, which makes us all classically heretical. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But this is the milieu in which my congregation operates and in which I preach and teach and do my pastoring. Especially in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where any fundamentalism is anathema, it’s the easiest thing to go along with this and present our Christian faith as another option among the many.

But to present the gospel, even lovingly and with humility, as “public truth” means boundaries and suffering (Newbigin) and sacrifice (Barth). All the popular scholarship in favor of the Gnostic Gospels implies that the Orthodox were the people in power who used the sword to stamp out all the free-thinkers, when the opposite is more accurate. In the time of Irenaeus it was less dangerous to be a Gnostic than to be a Christian. Athanasius was archbishop of Alexandria and he spent lots of time in jail. Chrysostom was archbishop of Constantinople and he was banished and he died from suffering in exile. We don’t face such blatant sacrifice today (are we maybe in denial?), but it seems to me that if we avoid heresy as a loaded word, we should not avoid the category and its proper standards, nor the charitable and humble approach to it, and that we approach it only on our knees.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of the Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York. His recent ebook is Why Be a Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)? (Shook Foil Books).