“Christian” – an elastic term

Stephen Prothero writes in his latest book, God is Not One (HarperOne, 2010) (see the latest review):

Christianity is now so elastic that it seems a stretch to use this term to cover the beliefs and behaviors of Pentecostals in Brazil, Mormons in Utah, Roman Catholics in Italy, and the Orthodox in Moscow. (p. 67)

Verily, I think it is a stretch.  But my Mormon friends don’t.

Notice the section in the book devoted to Mormonism (pp. 82-84).


  1. Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  2. Ron, I would submit that with regard to Orthodox Christianity (both Eastern-Byzantine and Oriental Orthodoxy), there is no contradiction between inward devotion and mystical experience and outward, liturgical worship. Quite the opposite. They each reinforce each other.

  3. Father Gregory,

    I agree with you in principal: “The aim of man’s life is union
    with God (henosis) and deification (theosis).”

    In practice, however, few Orthodox Christians (or followers of any other faith) follow the mystical path to realize the spiritual awareness which transcends space and time / self and other.

    One of my mentors was a Greek Orthodox monk who I met in Jerusalem. He was one of the most spiritual people I have ever known and was a true mystic in his approach to daily life.

    As I said in the footnote, “this is just a consensus…”

  4. Ron, I think I understand what you are saying, and in general, I agree. What I would point out with regard to Orthodoxy, however, is what you refer to is a failure of practice on the part of many people, not an inherent tension between inner spirituality and outer ritual which one often finds elsewhere for various reasons.

    I know that you were blessed by your encounter with the monk. From him, I am sure you learned of the importance of praxis, the disciplines of verbal prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, especially in the beginning of the spiritual life

  5. Father Gregory,

    We are agreeing beyond the limits of any blog, let alone one of LDS which is not known for a mystical approach to life (hopefully, a Mormon will correct me).

    Having a mystical experience(s) is wonderful and enhances our sense of being. Incorporating that awareness into our daily living is far more important than those isolated (albeit wonderful) epiphanies. The monk (and 18 other mystics of five faiths I had met) was transformed.

    I hope you would agree that it is not limited to Christian Orthodoxy.

  6. You are indeed correct about Mormonism and mysticism. Just so you understand, this blog is written by a self-identified “fundamentalist” Baptist who lives in the heart of Mormon country.

    I agree that it is all about transformation by way of dying and rising with Christ in the context of the Church. This is the entire point of Orthodox Christianity. I also know that the Most Blessed Trinity acts, by extraordinary grace, outside the bounds of Orthodox Christianity, and even, outside of all Christianity, in order to effect that transformation in all who will receive it. At the end of the day, however, it IS the Trinity, the Eternal, Communal God as understood by Orthodox Christianity, who is in fact doing this.

  7. Hmmm . . . (just read it this morning)

    From an evangelical perspective, Jack is tantalizing everyone with a hypothetical church council in dealing with Mormonism.


    (1) The thread is provocative. Very boisterous.

    (2) I ask myself – Is America the proper place for the ruling by a new Church Council on American Mormonism, it’s very own patriotic and moralistic culture? Does America realistically care about the Apostolic Tradition? The faith which was once delivered unto the saints?

  8. Stephen Prothero says that he believes in the Christian Trinity, but that other religions do not. There are “trinities,” of sorts, in various faiths. My e-book at http://www.suprarational.org summarizes five of them.

    Mahayana and Vajrayana vehicles of Buddhism speak of Trikaya, or three bodies: Nirmanakaya is the Buddha in human form, Sambhogakaya is celestial Buddha and Dharmakaya is the formless essence, or Buddha-nature. The Theravada primarily addresses the historic Buddha. The “Three Jewels” are the Buddha, the dharma (his teachings) and the sangha (the community of monks and nuns).

    Christianity has its Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit referring to God, Jesus Christ and their spiritual bond of unity (some say the Godhead). Interpretation of the essential nature of each, and their relationship, differed among the churches. In Christian mysticism, the three ways of the spiritual life are the purgative in being purified from sin, the illuminative in true understanding of created things, and the unitive in which the soul unites with God by love.

    Hinduism’s trimurti are the threefold activities of Brahman: in Brahma as creator, in Vishnu as sustainer and in Shiva as destroyer. Saccidananda are the triune attributes or essence of Brahman: sat, being, cit, consciousness and ananda, bliss. The three major schools of yoga are bhakti, devotion, and jnana, knowledge and karma, the way of selfless action. Raja yoga can apply to, and integrate, all three in mental and spiritual concentration.

    In Islam, nafs is the ego-soul, qalb is heart and ruh is spirit. Heart is the inner self [soul], hardened when it is turned toward ego and softened when it is polished by dhikr, remembrance of the spirit of Allah. This is a three-part foundation for Sufi psychology. Initiation guides them from shari`a, religious law, along tariqa, the spiritual path, to haqiqa, interior reality. It is a gradual unveiling of the Real.

    In the Kabbalah of Judaism, sefirot – sparks from the divine – have three fulcrums to balance the horizontal levels of the Tree of Life: Da`at (a pseudo-sefirot) is knowledge combining understanding and wisdom; Tiferet is beauty, the midpoint of judgment and loving kindness; Yesod is the foundation for empathy and endurance. They also vertically connect, through the supreme crown, the infinite and transcendent Ein Sof with its kingdom in the immanent Shekhinah.

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