I was recently asked by an employee what Mormons believe that’s unique which he rephrased as what I personally believe (the two are not necessarily the same thing, of course). Given the person asking, I wasn’t sure what he wanted to know about, but it’s something I have given a lot of thought to. As a thought exercise, I’ll kick out a few of the things I most embrace about our doctrines and those that I don’t.
Often, ex-Mos like to state that what’s good about Mormonism isn’t unique and what’s unique isn’t good. I’m not quite in agreement with them. There are some really intriguing ideas that Mormonism brings into the Christian canon that you can’t get in other religions. In some cases, these have been twisted around a bit or overstated, but they are at heart innovative concepts that add meaning to life. Here’s my list of the best ones.
- Theosis. The concept that humans are becoming gods and that human progress is the objective of our mortality (along with being further tested). The byproducts of this concept are: a focus on education, an embracing of modernity, flipping the common Christian script of human depravity, an interest in human flourishing (as partly evidenced by our focus on self-reliance). This concept solves the Boring Heaven problem (playing harps on a cloud for eternity), although it replaces it with a Heaven of Work.
- As man is, God once was. While the prior bullet relates to man’s purpose, this one relates to the nature of God. In this teaching, we double down on the idea of a Jesus who is both fully human and fully divine, and we say that God the Father also has progressed from a human state to a divine one. That sets a pattern for humans to follow but creates a God of true empathy.
- Pre-existence. This concept is hidden in plain site in the Bible, but not widely discussed or taught as it pertains to normal humans. The idea that our intelligences, some core element of ourselves, is co-eternal with God is a powerful idea. Obviously, this concept has been twisted at various times to support racist and other reprehensible ideas, but the core idea is worth contemplation.
- Heavenly Mother. The idea that women can also become Gods (although currently very suppressed and limited) is a valuable innovation. Catholicism has addressed the “woman-gap” by elevating Mary, the Mother of God, and also by including many female Saints. Other Christian sects (barring women’s ordination) suffer from a lack of female pathway. Having said that, see polygamy below.
- Personal Revelation. That every church member has access to revelation and that we don’t have to accept what we are told without our own confirmation that it’s correct is a very empowering concept. (Even if many church members give away their empowerment or claim you can’t receive an answer that contradicts what a higher leader has taught–this was not the teaching when I was growing up. You absolutely could receive a contradictory answer at least for yourself even if it wasn’t binding on others.)
- Open Canon of Scripture. The most important aspect of this is that we aren’t a Sola Scriptura faith. We can take scripture with a grain of–if not salt–context. We can question whether it’s literal or not, what the motives of the narrators are, why this scripture contradicts that one, etc. We can learn from “further light and knowledge” rather than just trying to wrestle the same approved life meanings out of disparate verses written thousands of years ago.
- Genealogy. This is not one I would have included on my list several years ago, and I’ll be honest, I still hate doing the work of it. But there’s something really magical and interesting about the sudden interest in DNA kits and family trees, and that’s thanks to the Mormons. It’s getting people interested in the human race, and that can bring us together in ways not yet imagined.
Neutrals that are Unique. There are a few Mormon ideas that church members are sometimes really proud of (including me at times in the past), that with time, I’ve come to see as a mixed bag.
- Lay Clergy. There are positives here, but there are also many negatives. I love that church members write and give the sermons, including women and teens (unlike some churches where no women preach or no youth speakers), but of course, we don’t get some of the rousing, professional sermons that other churches enjoy. We have a fairly business-like service run mostly by businessmen. Additionally, when our lay clergy are in a pastoral care role, the lack of experience, lack of time, and lack of vocation all seem to have unintended consequences.
- Missionary Service. As someone who served and even published a mission memoir, you’d think I’d put this in my “Best” column, but I think it’s pretty clearly a mixed bag. The sexist distinctions aren’t great, the high pressure sales techniques can be a turn off, and ultimately, a lot of conversions (including the missionaries themselves) don’t stick. Ultimately, I think we beat the Jehovah’s Witnesses for being slightly less annoying, a low bar. I know that changes are underway, and I have a lot of confidence in Gary Crittenden who was CFO at Amex.
- Welfare. This one is nearly in the “Best” column, but it’s another mixed bag. We tend to outsource our charity to the church too much and focus a lot on only helping within our own ward boundaries. The church does humanitarian efforts, and both Just Serve and Helping Hands are the best parts of this program.
- Seminary. This is an idea that is intriguing, putting all our youth, male and female, in a program to prepare them for future church leadership and missionary service. What it really is, though, falls short of that ideal. It’s just another class, one aimed at positive social peer pressure (fine), and indoctrination (not ideal). Plus, wherever time release isn’t an option, there are huge sacrifices and burdens placed on families and students.
Worst of Mormonism. These are the concepts that are unique to Mormonism that really are terrible.
- Polygamy. You won’t hear a lot of contemporary Mormons saying nice things about polygamy, but those who descended from it aren’t going to completely trash it (as they should) either. Plus, it’s never been disavowed either as a historical practice nor as a celestial one. It dehumanizes and demeans women, devaluing us to a fraction of a man, an eternal baby factory to worship a glorified husband. This only works if women are something so subhuman that we are different in our very nature to men, which is simply not the case.
- Living Prophets. This one purports to be unique, but in many ways it is not. There’s no substantial difference between the Pope and the Church President in terms of authority over a church or belief in that individual’s ability to represent the will of God. Additionally, the twisting of Biblical prophets into roles that they didn’t really have in the scriptures in order to bolster the one-leader narrative is . . . odd. “Adam was a prophet. First one that we know.” No, unless you have some other sources I’m not aware of, that claim doesn’t actually hold water. Most of the people I know who love the idea of living prophets are just seeking to outsource their own moral reasoning to another person, and this is, IMO, a truly terrible idea that leads to all sorts of downstream problems.
- Eternal Families. Look, I think this one doesn’t have to be in this bad column. It’s just landed here because of how it’s gone from a positive idea to a negative one, a threat, a way to control and coerce others or to promote church loyalty over human love. There are two other reasons I’m downgrading this to a “worst” idea: 1) it’s not truly unique because many people believe their love and/or families will last forever, and 2) salvation is also an individual act. We each work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. I do believe there was a concept revealed to Joseph Smith that was unique and valuable, but I’ve put that up in the genealogy note. We’ve devolved to a place where we worship families as an idol, and we’ve forgotten that the gospel is also for people who aren’t in families, a thing which Jesus didn’t teach at all. It seems to me that this happened because in the 80s, eternal families were the one positive thing people knew about the Church, and it was an important missionary tool. It’s gotten out of hand and had unintended consequences.
- Correlation. Nobody at church talks about “correlation” per se, but what they do talk about is only using “approved” materials (not being curious or thoughtful or intellectual), and there’s also an assumption that everything must have male (Priesthood) oversight. Those are the fruits of correlation. And while they have made things more orderly, they have wounded the inquisitive soul of Mormonism, the concept of personal progression toward godhood through learning. You can’t learn to be a god through indoctrination. You have to have a spark of intelligence, a wonder and curiosity and love of investigation and experimentation. And you can’t suppress the intellect of over half the church members (women) and also encourage their progression.
Those are my thoughts about the Best and Worst Mormonism has to offer. What are yours? Do you disagree with these? Are there some you expected to see on the list you didn’t?