Sometimes I get impatient with LDS theology: the clunky anthropomorphism of a “God who weeps,” the sentimental materialism of the eternal family “in heaven as it is on earth,” the focus on obedience, historicity, universality, etc. As a BYU student, I remember being thrilled by the doctrine of deification and eternal progression. But today, I see it as derivative of 19th century American individualism. Now I’m living in Europe and I have more collectivist, “living in the moment” values, and the exceptionalism of LDS theology seems to be gradually diminishing before my eyes.
I know these attitudes are arrogant and presumptive. There is infinite depth and breadth even within the “strait and narrow way.” Many Mormons far more intelligent than I, intellectuals I respect such as Terryl Givens or James Faulconer, have squeezed themselves through the needle’s eye of Mormonism and found “hidden treasures of knowledge.” An incredible spirit of learning and theological flexibility existed in Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s day and that spirit can still be accessed in our scriptures and doctrines, in spite of decades of correlation. The spiritual beauty of Mormonism still has the power to surprise and thrill me, even with my current cynicism.
I am currently a High Councilor. When I prepare talks for church, I’m sometimes tempted to throw in Gnostic scriptures upon unsuspecting congregants, or quote non-LDS sources more than LDS sources, or promote a different agenda than the one the Stake President had in mind when he assigned me the talk. Over the past few months I’ve had a recurring thought which has come back again and again, with a revelatory force: Mormons need Mormonism.
The Surprising Power of Correlated Mormonism
Last week I spoke to a friend who had been excommunicated and was making her way slowly back to the church. I found myself launching into a speech about how the repentance process is really about receiving forgiveness from the church, not from God. But further into my conversation, I realized I had misspoken. God was actively guiding this woman’s life through the correlated steps of the repentance process as articulated in The Miracle of Forgiveness. This process was real and transformative and I was threatening to derail it.
There have been other times when I have been shocked at the power of the correlated message to resonate with Mormons. When I married my wife, she was liberal and I was conservative. Now we are both liberal, yet one evening I came home to find her watching video after video on lds.org, basking in the spirit of correlated Mormonism in a way that would have been impossible for me to do without cynicism.
My mother is an excellent listener. For years I’ve been bouncing my liberal arguments off her and she always responds with intelligence and sympathy. Every time I get off the phone I have the impression that she is right with me, that she understands completely, and that my arguments are sound and convincing. Yet last week I was taken aback when she said she would rather not purchase tickets for a musical event I was participating in if it was on Sunday. I shouldn’t have been surprised. She was never even close to becoming a liberal Mormon. She understands me, but she absolutely does not agree with me, though she would never say it so bluntly to my face. She needs conservative, correlated Mormonism in a way I cannot fully appreciate, cannot fully understand, even though I feel she understands and sympathizes with my perspective.
The Church is for the 99, Individuals are for the One
I do think my liberalism has a place within the church. A conversation I had with one inactive liberal helped him return to activity. Sometimes I say unexpected things that lie on the fringes of the correlated message but that conservative members find inspiring. But I always have to remind myself that Mormons need Mormonism. Its in their spiritual DNA. They joined the church, often because they felt something “familiar” about the doctrine, as if from a distant pre-existent home. Clearly it is working for them, even when it doesn’t work for me.
Liberals often say the church needs to do more to accommodate “the one.” While this might sometimes be the case, I fundamentally disagree with this approach. The church is for the 99 and individuals are for the one. The church itself does not enlarge its tent into the homes of disaffected or struggling members. But it sends individuals out. Our church, more than any other church I can think of, has programs that help reach the one: home and visiting teaching, ecclesiastical interviews, inactive outreach, etc. In these one-on-one encounters, individual members can seek the Spirit in adapting the correlated message to fit the needs of that particular individual. The gospel is not preached only in church or conference, but in phone conversations, family gatherings, among friends, on blogs. It is in these encounters that Mormonism can show its richness and depth. But in congregational encounters, the message must be adapted for the majority, which will necessarily make it more simple and black and white. The correlated message won’t speak to everyone. But it will speak to the majority of membership.
Sometimes “the one” has views and perspectives which are irreconcilable with “the 99.” They may never feel like they have a place at church, through no fault of their own. They find their inner morality is opposed to the morality of the church. When Hagar rightfully thought Ishmael should have the birthright, as he was firstborn, Abraham was commanded to kick her out of the tent. Sarah was given preference, as she was the first wife. Likewise in the church, there are many who will not be able to stay because their views are fundamentally at odds with the church. This is not a tragedy. This is how God designed it. When Hagar was cast out, God sent her angels and gave her her own set of covenants and promises. God does not abandon those who must leave. The church is exclusive, but God is inclusive, and He has paths prepared for all of His children. But for Mormons, He has prepared Mormonism. And for Mormons, as Lorenzo Snow said, “the gospel is designed and calculated in its nature to bestow upon us happiness, peace and glory.”
- Is the Church for “the One” or for “the 99?”
- Are you a Mormon who needs Mormonism, or a Mormon who stays in spite of Mormonism?
- Do you find you need to advocating a more “liberal” Mormonism in church? Does this help or hurt average Mormons?