Last night, as I was digging through a stack of books looking for my copy of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan to give to a family member who will really enjoy it, I stumbled across my copy of the Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions, first published in 1958. My copy is the 50th anniversary edition, which includes an additional chapter (first added in the 1991 revised edition) on “the primal religions,” including for example Native American religious beliefs and practices, as well as the original chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It was the original “world religions” book, and made the author the best known religious studies scholar of his generation. He passed away in 2016.
Smith was not your average scholar. He was a participant, not just a scholar, in the religions of the world. He was raised a Christian (his parents were missionaries in China), but in the course of his lifetime practiced Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. In his later years he studied with leaders of the Native American Church and publicly defended its right to practice its rites (which included the use of peyote). Smith took a different approach to exploring the faiths he discusses in the book than you might expect. As explained in the back cover blurb of my copy of The World’s Religions, Smith “emphasiz[es] the inner — rather than the institutional — dimensions of these religions …. He convincingly conveys the unique appeal and gifts of each of the traditions and reveals their hold on the human heart and imagination.”
Unfortunately, Mormonism doesn’t get a chapter in the book. It doesn’t even appear in the index. So we’re going to have to do our own thinking about what the “unique appeal and gifts” of Mormonism or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are. There are, of course, many different ways that the Church appeals to active and believing members of the Church. Surprisingly, there are many ways that the Church continues to appeal to those who are inactive and unbelieving members of the Church. And that’s a perspective that comes from the Smith book, which looks at the world’s faiths through the lens of experience and meaning and enduring relevance, rather than simply in terms of truth claims or doctrine or historicity.
Let me defend that point of view before I offer my own example of something appealing about the Church. Truth has a lot to offer, but not in every context. If you tour an art museum, you don’t look at this or that painting asking yourself, “Is it true?” If you explain why you root for a certain football team and not one of the others, you don’t say that it’s the true team, as opposed to all those other false or apostate teams. When you decide where to take the family on vacation, you don’t look for the one true vacation. When you fall for that special someone, you might note many wonderful things about Ms. or Mr. Right to your parents, but you won’t say, “this is the one true spouse for me, as opposed to all those wannabe false ones.” Truth is an important concept, but in many areas of our lives, even many important ones, truth is not the controlling dimension. Sometimes it’s not even relevant.
Now if you are raised Mormon and learned to use the term “the one true church” without even a hint of irony, your default mode for thinking about religion is going to be in terms of truth. In recent years, the leadership has walked back that rhetoric to claim only “one true priesthood,” acknowledging that there is a goodly measure of truth in other Christian denominations and even in other religions. I think that’s a nicer way to express the claim of Mormon exceptionalism. It at least inclines the average Mormon to recognize and even applaud the good things in other denominations and religions. Sometimes those of other faiths do the same for Mormonism. Not every Evangelical stands on a corner waving anti-Mormon signs or cheers those who do.
If you are going to be critical about religion, the best place to start is your own. If you practice religious self-criticism, you are likely to develop a measure of humility about your own place in the religious world. You are likely to think about how to make your own congregation or religion better. You may even think about how to make yourself a better person and a better member of your congregation or religion. Self-criticism is rather alien to the Mormon way of thinking, but Mormonism could certainly use more self-criticism. That’s one of Hugh Nibley’s traits that I wish the apologists who idolize him would clue into a bit more.
Mormon blogs and social media groups do a lot of Mormon self-criticism. It’s about the only place in the wide world of Mormonism that you find much of that, outside of Sunstone and Dialogue. But self-criticism shouldn’t be the only tune you sing. Honesty and fairness requires acknowledging what is good and praiseworthy in your own faith, as well as the weaknesses and problems. A good Mormon blogger should take both approaches from time to time. Hence this post, an attempt to look at some of the positives of being a Mormon. As Mormon insiders, let’s try to identify and articulate something of the “unique appeal and gifts” of Mormonism or the LDS Church. There are dozens of nice things to choose from. Me first.
Mormons are pleasantly and surprisingly inclusive. That’s a good thing and a Christian ideal and virtue. I think back to a talent show I attended as a youth, where a young man with disabilities and not much of a talent nevertheless had a place on the program, and everyone listened. I think of the average priesthood quorum, which generally works hard to make everyone who attends, however marginal in terms of gospel knowledge or Church commitment, feel welcome. I think of the average sacrament meeting and the noticeable buzz of babies bubbling or crying and kids chatting. We like reverence, but we like babies and kids more, so we put up with it. It may be offputting to visitors, but if they stick around they’ll come around. We like visitors from out of town. We like visitors who aren’t LDS. Even the Mormon vision of Zion is inclusive. It’s not like there is a gatekeeper checking temple recommends in the LDS vision of Zion. It’s not like Zion is a collection of morally or doctrinally perfect Mormons. There are plenty of average Mormons there. There are plenty of non-LDS there. Zion is a city, not a purified congregation, and as such there is a lot of diversity in the citizenry. I’m not sure what the gatekeeper to Mormon Zion asks. Maybe it’s just “you’re welcome to come in if you leave your guns outside.”
You might reply to me that the long and painful LDS priesthood and temple ban against those variously identified as African or with African heritage or black (and all of these and other classifications used at various times are problematic, but that’s another post) cuts against my inclusion claim. You might reply that the continuing campaign by leadership against LGBT persons and gay marriage cuts against my inclusion claim. Yes, there is a bigoted and exclusionist strain within Mormon thinking and Mormon leadership. But in the long run I believe the Mormon arc bends toward inclusion rather than virulent or even polite exclusion. The priesthood and temple ban was dropped. The LDS position and leadership rhetoric directed against LGBT persons has softened. In another couple of generations, the Church might actually live up to the Christian ideals it proclaims (all are alike unto God) rather than the watered-down version it actually practices (all are alike unto God, but some are more alike than others, and a few aren’t very alike at all).
Your turn. What do you like about Mormonism? What do you find appealing about membership in the Church? What was it you liked about the favorite ward you ever attended? If you don’t attend anymore, what do you miss? If you attend another denomination, what light does that new approach to church shine on your prior experience in LDS congregations? I look forward to your interesting observations.