Evangelicals and Mormons: Exploring the Boundaries


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The Religious Origins of Manifest Destiny. The American Jewish Experience. Divining America Advisors and Staff. Donald M. In , an unsigned article in a popular American journal, a long standing Jacksonian publication, the Democratic Review , issued an unmistakable call for American expansionism.

It claimed that America had a destiny, manifest, i. Coming later to the venture, the British and especially the New England Puritans carried with them a demanding sense of Providential purpose. John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, gave the clearest and most far-reaching statement of the idea that God had charged the English settlers in New England with a special and unique Providential mission.

For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others necessities. Leading preachers of the Second Great Awakening that swept across the United States over much of the first half of the nineteenth century, such as Lyman Beecher father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Grandison Finney, reasserted the claim that America would be the site of the millennium and that the Awakening was its sure sign.

They, however, gave their idea of the millennium a particular American twist. But if it is by the march of revolution and civil liberty, that the way of the Lord is to be prepared, where shall the central energy be found, and from what nation shall the renovating power go forth? At the same time, it makes the nation, itself, an instrument in the coming of the millennium. It was the Mormons , however, who gave the fullest expression to the idea of America as the site of the millennium. The idea that God had chosen the British colonies for a special destiny received a major reformulation with the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States as a new and unique, independent nation, a Novus Ordo Seclorum —a new secular order.

The clergy, especially the Calvinistic New England clergy, was very much a Patriot clergy that probably played a greater role in mobilizing support for the revolution than the innumerable anti-British pamphlets produced between and Americans did not consider their new nation to be simply another nation among nations, but a providentially blessed entity charged to develop and maintain itself as the beacon of liberty and democracy to the world.

Her placement of Mormonism outside of the broad Christian household certainly provoked no outcry from her Mormon colleagues. I had found it unacceptable simply to relegate Mormonism to cult status. The cult label basically functions, for evangelicals at least, as an instrument of condemnation. Cults are secretive.

Gerald R. McDermott

They are aggressive proselytizers, employing manipulative methods of persuasion. They use language in deceptive ways. It allowed me to approach Mormons with respect and a genuine desire to learn from them. As her subtitle makes clear, in this volume Shipps was gathering her thoughts together about her four-decade academic sojourn in Mormon studies.

The book contains some essays previously published in various journals, plus some essays making their first appearance in this book. In the final section of the book Shipps moves to a directly autobiographical mode. But in explaining it she touches on a nuance that I had missed in my reading of her earlier book.

Yes, she had argued there that Mormonism was discontinuous with Christianity in much the same way that Christianity had seen itself with Judaism. My differences with my Jewish friends have much to do with my conviction that there is something significant within their own faith tradition that they fail to understand properly.

Evangelicals and Mormons: Exploring the Boundaries

And my Mormon friends make similar claims about my understanding of Christianity. In coming to her own conclusion about whether Mormons are Christians, Shipps points to the ways in which the question of who is truly Christian has loomed large in many splits that have taken place in Christian history.

I agree with Jan Shipps that we humans should not second-guess God about what will be revealed at the Last Judgment. In our past relations with Mormons, though, we evangelicals have not always gone about this testing-the-spirits in a manner that honors another important biblical mandate. Gentle respect for people with whom we disagree is key to productive efforts at dialogue. One reason why we evangelicals have had difficulties in this kind of engagement has to do with the way our approaches to other perspectives—and this has certainly been the case with our approach to Mormonism—have been dominated by soteriological and apologetic concerns.

We have seen them as souls whose eternal destinies are imperiled, and we have also wanted to disprove key elements in their worldview. To be sure, there is much merit in caring about salvation and doctrinal truth. But having them dominate our approaches to others can also lead to dangers. The most basic one is also spiritual in nature: the real possibility that we will bear false witness against our non-Christian neighbors. In evangelization contexts, we rightly want to get people to see the inadequacy of their present religious commitments.

But this can lead us to portray those commitments in the worst possible light so that Christian belief and practice can clearly be seen as the better way. It is easy in such contexts to emphasize the negative aspects of the other perspective or even to distort the positive elements of that perspective so that things are portrayed as worse than they really are.

The challenge is to seriously engage other religious perspectives while being very careful not to say anything in our theology of religions that would deny what is at the core of our own deepest convictions. Certainly one criterion for the adequacy of an evangelical theology of religions is whether or not our formulations comport well with our attempts to bring the gospel to those who have not yet accepted Christ. Nonetheless, it is a helpful exercise to attempt, temporarily at least—and especially because of our overemphasis in the other direction in the past—to bracket our overt interests in evangelism and apologetics as we think about some broader topics in this area.

This bracketing allows us to offer assessments that are not easy to make when we are concentrating primarily on who is in and who is out. When the main question is whether we have good reasons to believe that, say, a fully committed Buddhist—someone whose understanding of reality is spelled out in consistently Buddhist terms—can go to heaven, then many of us will have to answer in the negative.

In this context it is appropriate for evangelicals to say that Buddhism is a false religion in the sense that a person who wants to enter into a saving a relationship with the one true God will not achieve that goal by following the Buddhist path. But this is not the same as saying that there is no truth in Buddhism. If we can bracket the question of whether Buddhists qua Buddhists can be saved, then we are free to evaluate this or that particular Buddhist teaching or practice in terms of whether it illuminates reality, and we may well find many good and true elements in the Buddhist worldview.

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Indeed, we might even find things in the Buddhist understanding of spiritual reality that can enrich—even by calling our attention to spiritual matters that we have not thought about clearly—our own Christian understanding of religious truth. Needless to say, the best way of truly attempting to understand another religious perspective is to engage in genuine dialogue with persons who adhere to that perspective. And in order to do this, we need to be clear about the basic point of the enterprise. Relativism runs rampant in contemporary culture, in both the high and the low versions, and it is important that we not encourage the dilettantish samplings of various worldviews.

For me a key element for successful dialogue is entering into the engagement with a genuine learning posture. In approaching another religious perspective it is important to see how specific beliefs function within the larger web of beliefs and convictions in that perspective. Evangelicals have often failed to do this in our approach to Mormonism. What such an approach fails to take into account is the deep differences among religious perspectives. To do this is to make genuine communication possible. And this, in turn, means setting aside our much-too-common temptation to win rhetorical victories that cut off any interesting conversations.

Our recent efforts at Mormon-evangelical dialogue have been characterized by this empathetic approach: a mutual desire to learn, a spirit of genuine listening. For me this has meant coming to a much better understanding of specific Mormon teachings that had been troubling me deeply. On the doctrinal checklist approach to get to the point of recognizing that disagreement is basically to shut down the conversation.

What evangelicals, along with others in Judaism and Christianity, take to be an essential—even non-negotiable—doctrine about the nature of God stands in stark opposition to Mormon teaching. What more can be said?

Evangelicals and Mormons: Exploring the Boundaries

The fact is, there is much more to be discussed. Those three metaphysical perspectives obviously differed from each other in key respects. Indeed, in the case of Mormonism and Christian Science, they were exact opposites, with Joseph Smith arguing that everything is physical, so that even God has a physical body, while Mary Baker Eddy espoused the philosophy that everything is spirit, with the appearance of matter resulting from a sinful delusion. On a deeper level, however, Smith, Emerson, and Eddy shared a common religious motivation. Each of them wanted to bring the realm of the divine nearer—to reduce the ontological distance between God and human beings.

What these reduce-the-distance theologies also had in common was that they emerged in an environment shaped significantly by the high Calvinism of New England Puritanism. And I have observed that it can be plausibly argued that New England theology, while it rightly, from an orthodox Christian perspective, stressed the legitimate metaphysical distance between God and his human creatures, at the same time it often fostered an unhealthy spiritual distance between the Calvinist deity and his human subjects.

Thus it should not surprise us that movements arose to shrink that spiritual distance, even if we evangelicals must deeply regret that they did so by also shrinking the distance of Being, rather than by drawing on corrective teachings—such as the incarnation and the person of the Holy Spirit—that can be found within orthodox Christian theology. Sign In or Create an Account. Sign In. Advanced Search. Article Navigation.

Close mobile search navigation Article Navigation. Volume University of Lethbridge. E-mail: beamlg uleth. Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. Abstract Based on data from life history interviews with 28 Latter Day Saints women, this paper considers the process of boundary negotiation on two key sites.

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