"Are Mormons Christian?" is a perplexing question to ask, according to Bill Martin, associate professor of philosophy at Chicago's DePaul University. That's because he's not sure what Christianity is, given the transformation of the movement during its first three centuries after Christ.
Martin, who is a Methodist, addressed the topic of "Mormons and Christianity, or, Are Christians Mormon?" during a Sunstone Symposium session Saturday at the downtown Marriott Hotel.
"Mormonism is a form of Christianity . . . and remains a valuable addition," he said.
Martin believes Greek philosophy took over Christianity about 300 years after Christ and turned it into a philosophy test or what he calls "ontological Christianity."
"Christ and his disciples didn't talk much about philosophy," he said, explaining all the creeds and many of the modern things about Christianity were added hundreds of years later.
It's kind of like St. Peter is going to give you a test at the gate to heaven and you can't get in if you don't get an "A." Martin's viewpoint is that this kind of contemporary Christianity wasn't what the early Christian church was all about.
In his view, Mormonism was like a reinvention of Christianity, since Mormons believe other Christian churches had run out of steam.
What does it mean to be a Christian? What difference does it make? Why don't we just ask whether Mormonism is good? are key questions Martin said that need asking.
"It's become a game — I'm a Christian and you're not," he said. "And the 'you're not' doesn't seem very Christian."
Martin said some churches talk too much about hell, and while their members don't want to go there, they seem happy to have you — if you're not a member of their church — go there.
He said some churches believe in the Trinity, a Godhead that's separate and yet three-in-one. Martin said he can't understand that concept and that even the Bible doesn't address it well.
"What does it mean to believe things that make no sense?" he asked, saying if he's asked to believe something, he needs to understand it. Martin believes that was basically Joseph Smith's point of view, to ask what makes sense. He feels belief and action have to have a connection — beliefs have to make you live differently.
Martin admits a deep sympathy for certain aspects of Mormonism.
He said most authors of books that examine whether Mormons are Christian don't ask the questions they should. Instead, he said, they seem to tear the church down.
"The lines already seem drawn," he said, explaining that's why he likes to turn the tables and ask, "Are Christians Mormon?"