Thursday, October 13, 2011

MORMONISM: Cult or Christian?

Most readers will recognize that the question implied in my title is impossible to answer accurately. It is—as becomes obvious after a moment’s thought—an “apples and oranges” kind of question, one which, given its form, has no “correct” answer.
The two questions embedded more deeply in my title, however, prove far more difficult to deal with.

      Is Mormonism a Cult?
     Are Mormons Christian?

Both are ultimately non-questions. As presently stated, both invite—if not require—a simple “Yes” or “No” answer. Yet because of an elemental characteristic of language, either answer would be inadequate or incorrect.

Years ago, one of my professors, Albert Upton, taught us that one of the most complex ideas about language, and one at the center of both the greatness and the perniciousness of language, is what he called the “doctrine of essential ambiguity.” He devoted a chapter to it in his book, Design for Thinking, and spent several weeks in his course discussing it.

Condensed to a sentence or two, it states: (1) The great advantage of a language such as English is that most of its words have multiple meanings, thus eliminating the need for an almost infinite vocabulary to communicate ideas critical to modern culture; and (2) The great disadvantage of a language such as English is that most of its words have multiple meanings, thus facilitating miscommunication and misunderstanding.

As long ago as the seventeenth-century, scholars recognized several things about language. One was that it was basically impossible to translate perfectly from one language to another, since the range of meanings (“denotations”) and emotional overtones (“connotations”) for words would differ from language to language, particularly if one language had a restricted vocabulary (as in traditional German) and the other an expansive vocabulary (as in English).  Another was that there were precious few actual synonyms in languages; there might be any number of words that meant almost the same thing—as ocean and sea, for example—but there is almost always at least a narrow area in which the two do not overlap. We don’t, for example, speak of the Pacific Sea and the Mediterranean Ocean, even though both are large bodies of water. The two words are partially synonymous but not entirely interchangeable.

And a third, crucial thing, the one that concerned them the most, was that since words are ultimately arbitrary signs—hence the totally unrelated sequences of sounds in dog and Hund in English and German to designate the same thing—was quite simply that most of the time, we do not actually understand each other. We only approximate understanding.

To give an example: in my English and Creative Writing classes at Pepperdine University, I would frequently go around the room and ask each student to give a definition of a simple word: set. At first, the students would have no difficulty. “Set of encyclopedias.” “Television set.” “Set of dishes.” “Jello sets.” “Concrete sets.” “Ready…set.” Gradually, the impetus would slow, and usually by the time I went through twenty or so students, the final few would have difficulty coming up with something different.

Then I would ask if they wanted to go around again.

Their faces usually indicated their answer: “Not in a million years.”

Yet we could have gone around again. And again. And again. And again….

The Oxford English Dictionary in fact gives over 200 definitions of set. If printed on paper of normal thickness, instead of the Bible-thin paper that dictionaries frequently use, and cut to the dimensions of  traditional trade paperback books, just the definitions of that one word would comprise a decent-sized book.

Thus the problem.

I say a sentence using “set.” You hear the sentence and mentally assign a meaning to the word.  If we are lucky, the two meanings may be relatively close. If we are less fortunate, they may be quite distant…and any attempt at communication fails.

English is replete with words that have multiple meanings. Generally, the longer the word, the fewer the possibilities; the shorter the word, the more the possibilities. Pneumonoultramicroscopic-silicovolcanoconiosis has a single definition. Set has over 200.

Now the problem with the two questions given above becomes clearer.

“Is Mormonism a cult”? Most dictionaries give anywhere from five to a dozen definitions for the word, ranging from “any system of religion” to far more specific, and in recent decades, far more pejorative, connotatively negative possibilities.  In the world that contained Jim Jones, David Koresh, and others, merely to couple a group with the term cult is tantamount to putting it in the same small category—secretive, fanatical, ultimately murderous.

Similarly with “Are Mormons Christians?” The word Christian has gone from being a term of opprobrium imposed by the enemies of the earliest saints to being an omnibus term that ranges from signifying overt obedience to the doctrines Christ taught (and, of course, obedience, doctrine, and taught are themselves multiply ambiguous) to meaning something akin to merely “decent, appropriate” as in a “Christian burial.”

“Is Mormonism a cult?” and “Are Mormons Christians?” are both doubly, fatally flawed as questions. The format and the tone usually imply that the hearer will respond with a simple “Yes” or “No” and that the respondent will understand precisely what the questions mean.

Neither is possible.

The resolution to the problem—assuming that we are interested in dialogue rather than nose-to-nose, blood-vessels-bursting arguments (ah! argument, another ambiguous word)—should be fairly obvious: Restate the question to incorporate a clear, precise definition. For example, “If by Christian, do you mean one who follows Christ’s example?” is more nearly answerable: “Yes.” Or, “If by Christian, do you mean one who adheres to the historical councils and creeds—a “creedal Christian?” the question is also answerable: Mormons are not creedal Christians but believe in a restoration of first-century Christianity.

The same works with cult. “If by cult you mean the general sense of religious organization, then, yes, Mormonism is.” Or “If by cult you mean a secretive, isolated, relatively small group who follow their (mortal) leader with fanatical devotion, then, no, Mormonism isn’t.”

These responses may lead to further questions, many of them perhaps couched in the same fallacious Yes/No format, others more amenable to discussion and clarification. But at the least, questions and answers will be moving in the same broad direction…toward greater openness and accuracy, understanding, and community.


  1. Excellent commentary and the best answer I've read to both of those questions!

  2. What a fantastic post, thank you so much.

  3. Great post. Maybe one day my blog will grow up to be like yours! =)