Monday, October 19, 2009

Mormonism: Communal Unity & Individual Diversity

Mormonism has been called "non-creedal" by a lot of people, and I like that overall label - as much as I dislike most labels. There is an important application of this terminology that goes a long way toward addressing one of the largest misconceptions about Mormons - the idea that we are brainwashed robots who all think alike.

One of the things that drives people crazy about Mormons is that you can ask 20 Mormons a question and get at least 5 different responses - with variations in some points that really can give you 20 different answers. This is not because Mormons will say anything to convince people they are Christian, as I have heard some people claim. It is not "lying" in any sense of the word. The reason is that the VAST majority of "answers" aren't provided by "The Church" in an official statement. The general principle is, in Joseph Smith's words, "Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves." Of course, there are texts and talks/sermons and statements by leaders, but there is relatively little that requires unanimity of understanding to maintain one's place as a "faithful" member. Even most of the standards to enter the temple (which are the most restrictive in the Church) deal almost completely with what one does - NOT what one professes to believe. There also is NO belief in prophetic infallibility – which means there is no requirement to hold onto what previous leaders believed, and there is an openness to change (even major change) that baffles many other Christians.

Further complicating the picture is the emphasis on the Gift of the Holy Ghost (the baptism of fire bestowed symbolically by the laying on of hands after baptism by water for all members) and its attendant personal revelation - which puts the responsibility on the individual to develop his or her own understanding of and relationship to God. This means, in a very real and powerful way, that Mormonism is an interesting mixture of centralized, full-time, hierarchical, vertical organization and correlation at the church-wide level and individualized, volunteer, amateur, horizontal organization and thought at the local and individual level. We believe in prophets and apostles who convey to us **at the meta level** what God wants His children to hear **collectively** in their specific day, but we believe it is up to us each as individuals to take that counsel and command, figure out which it is (counsel or command), pray for guidance as to how it applies to our own circumstances, seek the will of the Lord for those circumstances, and accept accountability on our own for the result of our choices throughout that process.

In the end, while we believe the prophets will never lead us to do or accept something that will deprive us of our eternal reward, we believe that ultimately it is up to us to figure out what we believe. Of course, there are areas of broadly defined unanimous consent (Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world; we are saved by the grace of God; we are commanded to obey the commandments He has given - produce the fruits of a life truly connected to the Vine; what is recorded in the Articles of Faith; etc.), but they really are few and far between when viewed in the big picture. Mormons disagree with each other on a LOT of issues - even purely theological ones that other Christians often think of as obvious, specifically because very few things are presented as absolutes.

In all my years in "The Church" there have been only a handful of things that I would consider to have been "official church teachings" with which I disagreed - and I am moderate by most standards and definitions. (some conservative views, some liberal views and many in the middle somewhere) I disagreed with the Priesthood ban, as is obvious from my previous comments on that subject. I think I understand why God allowed it to be in place for so long, and that understanding helped me accept the practice even while I did not accept its rationalization. My view on homosexuality is now fairly close to the Church's official statement in "God Loveth His Children", but that agreement only happened recently. Prior to the most recent statement, I disagreed with the standard explanation - but it wasn't presented as immutable doctrine, so I accepted the difference. Joseph Smith was as deeply flawed as I and you and every Biblical prophet, but I believe he was a prophet - as I also would say of Brigham Young and the prophets since him.

In short, in all my years as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have never been told, "You MUST believe "this" **in exactly this way** to be a faithful member," and disagreed with "this". In fact, while my own views on some things are not the "mainstream" views of perhaps the majority of members (quite heterodox in some cases), I still have served and do serve in highly visible positions in my local congregations. Usually my views are accepted by my fellow worshipers; sometimes they are not. I'm fine with that, given what I said in the opening paragraphs of this post.


I believe in the ability to craft communal unity while celebrating and encouraging individual diversity, even in terms of ideological outlook.


Lunicrax said...

excellent entry!! total agreement from my side.

adamf said...

Great post. I'm copying this one into my permanent file... Maybe I'll use it in a talk sometime.

Keep it up Ray.