United Brethren has retired.

Of world religions...

Will Mormonism be a "world religion", and if not, do we care?

Like all good Mormon topics, this one has already been thrashed out at T&S, but wouldn't you like the opinion of an "international Mormon" (say yes)? Plus, with the Joseph Smith conference, this topic is once again current.

The question of what is and what isn't a world religion is a thorny matter. Is size all-important, or do other factors come into play? To get a sense of this, ask yourself whether Catholicism is a world religion, or is it subsumed under Christianity? Tough one, huh?

According to Douglas Davies, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the potential to be a "globally present religion", but not a world religion. In short we are too centrally-controlled, too dependent on one culture. This will come as a disappointment to many Latter-Day Saints who wear Rodney Stark's famous prediction as a badge of honour. But in reality, this is just a semantic game: what Mormons focus on is the potential for church growth. Whether or not the Church is a world religion or a globally present religion, is not important. Only size matters.

(At the conference Gerald McDermott popped this balloon a little too, gleefully reminding all and sundry that the Jehovah Witnesses--the JW's!--are bigger and more successful than we are.)

"If Mormons want to be a World Religion," Davies stated, "they have to make some changes." He suggested a process of de-Americanization (or de-Utahification?) and de-centralization. Perhaps we can imagine a time when the church in each country has its own governing body (led by a local Area Authority) and is given a certain autonomy in adjusting the Church programme (not doctrine) to local mores.

Roger Keller's objection to this suggestion was that it assumed that the Church should adjust to popular models. "This is the Church of God," he testified, "led by authorized leaders." In other words, we will not be moved.

All of this is a great misunderstanding. Davies did not suggest that Church has to adjust, only that it should if it wants to be a world religion. But we just want growth, not to fit some academic model. It was just a little deflating to many in the audience to hear Rodney Stark challenged so, er, starkly. (Bad, I know.)

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Blogger Dave said ... (May 11, 2005 2:56 AM) 

Alas, I didn't make the conference, nor did I manage to watch any of it online. It strikes me that "you're not a real world religion" is just an academic version of "you're not a real Christian denomination." A more precise statement would be: "You don't match up with my definition of a world religion." Okay--so what?


Blogger HP said ... (May 11, 2005 8:05 AM) 

I am in agreement with Dave's point. But also, aren't we headed in that direction anyway? Isn't this the reason for the new Seventy/Area Authority system?


Blogger Ronan said ... (May 11, 2005 8:06 AM) 

One could argue that what hinders us is that we're *too* Christian. A world religion has to be obviously different than others. It seems that we choose not to stress what makes us different.


Blogger Ronan said ... (May 11, 2005 8:07 AM) 

John C:

It depends on whether local Area Authorities can act on their own or if they're just agents of SLC.


Blogger HP said ... (May 11, 2005 2:43 PM) 

I don't know. Are ideas allowed to travel both directions along the lines of authority?


Blogger Intern said ... (May 12, 2005 2:26 PM) 

Mormonism is a "world religion" much in the same way that America is/was the "policeman" of the world, if you catch my drift.

If not, let's just say that subjectively, America was the policeman of the world. Did your history textbooks in the UK teach you that, Ronan?


Blogger Ronan said ... (May 12, 2005 3:06 PM) 

I don't understand your point. Clearly, UK education is sorely lacking.


Blogger Todd H said ... (May 17, 2005 11:32 AM) 

I finally got around to listing to the conference just yesterday. I agree with Ronan's characterization of the the hanging question: Why should Mormon's care about the World Religion status that Davies defines?

His 'thick' definition sets down four or so criteria:

A World Religion must involve
1) a distinctive process of conquest of death, rooted in ritual;
2) explanatory doctrine giving rise to an ethical pattern of life;
3) generation of merit for salvation;
4) a creative engagement of the cultures into which it expands.

Davies believes Mormonisim may satisfy 1,2, and 3, but not 4. He elaborates on 4 in his response to Keller's comments. Here, in describing the "nature of decentralization necessary to see Mormonism as a world religion," he suggests that a revelation recieved by an native in Patagonia would suffice. He then forwards Islam's qualification for world religion status: "Muslims are killing each other because they belong to different traditions. Now, it takes that to have a world religion."

It's unclear to me why the Lord, or the average Mormon, should be in the least concerned that the Church does not satisfy number 4. It seems the LDS have their own vision of a world religion with no requisite splinter groups or strife:
"The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth." (D&C 65:2)

If it's true, as Davies mentions later in his talk, that the real drawback of not conforming to number 4 is that "diversity may be a major factor of local success," then yes, this might prompt changes in the way the Church engages local cultures. But my sense is that a coherent doctrine and centralized leadership offer advantages for growth that outstrip those offered by adaptation to local culture, especially when the latter entails Muslim-style internecine conflict. Davies seems to recognize this too. He prefaces his discussion on world religion with: "I am sure LDS numbers will expand globally."

So if a 'thick' definition of world religion is at odds with the Mormon conception of Church growth, and if conforming to the 'thick' definition won't save any more souls than conforming to a 'thin' definition, methinks thin trumps thick.

Davies will continue to object to Mormon's hijacking the term 'world religion' for advertisement, but if, as Mormons believe, the stone indeed rolls forth and fills the whole world, his definition will look mighty silly in retrospect.


Blogger Rebecca said ... (May 17, 2005 8:45 PM) 

For me - what does it matter if we're defined as a world religion or not. It's not a competition. Members who spend their time worrying about such things need to focus a little more on important things like living a Christ-like life. I don't think he'd care whether the church was a defined as a world religion or not


Blogger Ronan said ... (May 18, 2005 3:49 PM) 

good summation, r.
and todd, i appreciate your comment and it summarised nicely the heart of the issue: we'll take thin over thick, thanks!


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (May 24, 2005 12:02 AM) 

Todd, that business about death conquest -- I really don't think he meant that to be one of the defining characteristics of a world religion! He just brought that up as one interesting driver of Mormon growth, because we are particularly good at death conquest. 

Posted by Ben H


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (May 25, 2005 8:22 PM) 

Death conquest is indeed required for Davies's world religion status. You can listen to his speech here:

He defines a world religion about one third of the way though his talk. 

Posted by Todd H


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