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Mormonism and “Historical/Traditional” Christianity

By: Steve Fleming - January 20, 2012

My dissertation committee felt I sort of gave them a bait and switch at my prospectus defense.  I had spent three years telling them I wanted to compare Mormonism to medieval Christianity (which I’m still doing) but for my prospectus I was now talking about Mormonism and Neoplatonism.  They found this all rather confusing and wanted brainstorm other angles I could take.  In the midst of all this, my medieval advisor exclaimed, “I know what your thesis should be.  It should be how Christian Mormonism is.  This is all thoroughly Christian, it’s just not Protestant.”

What is Christian depends on one’s point of view.  Medieval Christianity was very different from Protestantism.  As I’ve noted around here a few times, Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 presents a very different picture of traditional Christianity than do Protestants.

So what is “traditional/historical” Christianity?  As Karen Jolley, a scholar who focusses on Anglo-Saxon Christianity, asserts, “Because of the amorphous nature of Christian practice as it changed through time, it is hard to isolate what Christianity is or was….  Theology seeks a timeless definition, a set of standard by which to measure what is Christian and what is not ….  But from a historical standpoint, this is impossible” [1].

Theologians will debate and discuss what they believe proper Christian belief and practice is, as they have always done.  But this is not the same a describing what Christian practice actually was historically.  In the words of Norman Tanner, “Christianity, however, has never existed in a ‘pure’ form except in the person of Jesus Christ….  It does not exist in the abstract, rather in individuals and particular historical situations”  [2].

The truth is, you can find even the most radical Mormon ideas and practices throughout the history of Christianity.  Such doctrines were usually seen as unorthodox and often suppressed, but they still existed in “historical/traditional” Christian practice and belief.  Pre-existence, deification, heavenly marriage, marital experimentation, utopianism, continuing revelation, heavenly mother, etc. all have a history within Christian practice.

Kocku von Stuckrad argues in his brilliant new book Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe:  Esoteric Discourse and Western Identities, that there have always been multiple Christianities. “It is not that Christian Europe never existed; instead, Christianity in Europe has always been diverse and comprised many forms of beliefs and practices that populated the minds of believers” [3]. Von Stuckrad traces the “esoteric” components of Western Christianity (where one finds most the Mormon-looking ideas mentioned above) which are often overlooked or suppressed in narratives of Christian history.

 Von Stuckrad goes so far as to call the word tradition “a polemical term.”  This is because traditions are constructed by those in power to differentiate between what they see as legitimate and illegitimate.  “It is not a candidate for an analytical term in the study of religion.  Although there are identifiable continuities in the history of religions, these continuities do not necessarily constitute tradition.  Instead, tradition is the evocation and application, if not the invention, of a set of continuities for certain identifiable purposes” [4].  

Thus theologians will seek to define and claim “traditional” Christianity in opposition to that Christianities they do not like.  This is quite natural (Mormons do it too, there’s nothing wrong with it).  But we ought to be aware, as von Stuckard warns, of the theological premises behind such actions and the difference between history and theology.  “Master narratives, even if they are based on historically dubious material, are capable of creating structures of power and society realities” [5].

At the first European Mormon Studies Association meeting, someone asked Douglas Davies if Mormonism was Christian, to which he responded, “Well, yeah, because to scholars, Christians are simply people who say they are Christians.”  I agree, which makes my medieval advisors’ thesis suggestion not really feasible since there’s nothing really to defend.  Of course practitioners have always debated how to define Christianity, and Mormonism (as well as the various strains on which it drew) has been very controversial.  Why that is is a topic worth exploring.

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[1] Karen Louise Jolley, “Magic, Miracle, and Popular Practice in the Early Medieval West: Anglo-Saxon England,” in Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and Conflict, ed. Jacob Neusner et. al (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 179.

[2] Norman Tanner, The Ages of Faith: Popular Religion in Late Medieval England and Western Europe (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 195.

[3] Kocku von Stuckrad, Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Esoteric Discourse and Western Identities (Leiden: Brill, 2010) 14.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Ibid., 4.

 

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11 Comments

  1. Excellent (and politically timely) statement. Hopefully, your professors will agree. I suggest that you correct “brainstorm other angels” to “brainstorm other angles”.

    Comment by Tom D — January 20, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  2. Wasn’t pre-Scholastic Christianity pretty heavily neoPlatonic? Of course if you’d been saying medieval Christianity then the focus on neoPlatonism is problematic. There are of course famous medieval Platonists but they tended to run into lots of problem simply because they were so different from contemporaries. (Not that Aquinas didn’t have some Platonic streaks)

    Too bad you had to reformulate. I was really looking forward to the strong neoPlatonic angle.

    Comment by Clark — January 20, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

  3. Thanks for the reference to von Stuckrad. It looks like an excellent book.

    Comment by D. Martin — January 20, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

  4. Thanks Tom.

    Let me clarify a little. This meeting happened a little over a year ago. The posts I put up a few months ago about my new prospectus is the project I’m doing. I’m going to be talking about the various forms Neoplatonism took, so I’ll talk a bit about how it passed through medieval Christianity. I mention the one professor’s remark because I thought it was an interesting response and wanted to share. I’ve actually rearranged my committee since then and am now working with other people. But I am operating under the premise of self-ascription when it comes to Christianity: Christians are people who say they are Christians.

    Clark, yes, there was a surge of Platonism prior to the rise of scholasticism centered at Chartres. They focussed on the Timaeus, the only of Plato’s tests they had. Though pseudo-Dionysius was also popular. That was in the 12th century.

    D. Martin, Von Stuckrad’s book is excellent, I’ll likely post more about it.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 20, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

  5. Wow. I missed that they only had the Timaeus. Learn something new every day. That would explain a lot.

    Comment by Clark — January 21, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

  6. May I suggest that you ask your medieval advisor if he really wants you to take on a topic so polemical? This is not polemical in a good way — you can only peeve people (even many academic’s, I’d bet) with the answer.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — January 22, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

  7. It was more an offhand remark, and again, this was over a year ago. Plus she’s no longer on my committee. I thought it was an interesting comment though. Again, my dissertation is comparing Mormonism to Neoplatonism.

    Clark, yes, so historically the Timaeus has been Plato’s most influential dialogue. A few other things came out before Ficino’s massive translation project, mostly Proclus’s various commentaries (the most important of which was his commentary on the Timaeus).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 22, 2012 @ 6:23 pm

  8. Yeah, I knew the place of the Timaeus. Somehow I’d missed (or forgot) that they only had the Timaeus.

    Comment by Clark — January 22, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

  9. Hey Steve, interestingly there’s a discussion over at LDS-Herm that’s ended up being a debate about neoPlatonism and Mormonism and whether truth, good, and being are equivalent. I’d be interested in hearing you chime in over there. It arises from a comment of David Hart (who’d I’d misread as Kevin Hart of Trespass of the Sign fame)

    Comment by Clark — January 24, 2012 @ 2:27 am

  10. Which post?

    Though I’m not sure I’d have must to add since my focus is more historical than theological. That is, I can tell you that Neoplatonists divided the good and being and that pseudo-Dionysius sort of lumped them all together in the Trinity. But I don’t see the implications of that for Mormonism.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 24, 2012 @ 11:04 am

  11. Ah. OK. I thought you might find the discussion interesting. But if you’re more on the history side of things rather than philosophy you might not. Also almost everyone said this morning they had to bow out due to time issues.

    Comment by Clark — January 24, 2012 @ 2:04 pm