What is religion for?
Is religion about revelation from God? If so, then Mormonism is the greatest and perhaps only religion.
Is religion about answering the questions that science cannot answer? Then Mormonism has the most completely developed set of answers, which are the most satisfying to the scientific mind and also to the philosophical mind (see below).
Is religion about tradition - about continuity with the past? Then Mormonism, which is supported by ancient documents, is the true faith.
Is religion about individual experience of the divine? Mormonism is founded on this, and it is made all the stronger by existing within a wider framework (e.g. personal revelation need not mean spiritual anarchy).
Or is religion about making a better world?
This will be discussed in a moment. But first...
The advantages of Mormonism
Some of the reasons why the Mormon Church stands head and shoulders above all others are as follows:
|How to unite the world|
The task is quite simple. How can each person have complete freedom within the context of complete harmony?
How do we live together yet remain true to our own thoughts and feelings?
Answer: by finding a way for freedom and organization to live together. And the key to this is for everyone to share a true understanding of reality. The idea of revelation and truth is discussed in many other pages on this site. This page is just about how we come to that understanding: by reconciling individual freedom with group organization.
This is the real strength of Mormonism. It is written on everything the church does, and everything it is. It is the reason some people love the Church, and the reason some people hate the Church. It is the cause of deep insights and power to those who catch the vision, and confusion and distrust to those who do not. The key is this:
|The conflict between personal revelation and authority.|
This conflict is inevitable. Real freedom means that the individual makes the final decisions in every case. Each person acts as his own prophet. But to work together, there has to be an authoritative structure.
This conflict forces the thinking person to find his or her own solution. Only by finding their own solutions - each one different - can free individuals be satisfied. Every solution is different (some opt for simple obedience, others for endlessly questioning) but what they must have in common is:
The more we learn these things, the more we become like God.
Facing this opposition is the key
In the church, the battleground is the heart. The task for the individual is to conquer himself. Not by blind submission to a more powerful force, but by understanding the bigger picture and seeing all things in their true perspective. In the world, in contrast, the battleground is external, between different people, where neither side really understands each other or itself, and so neither side can ever live in true peace.
Many people in the church hate this conflict. They run away from independent thought, fearful that their testimonies might weaken. Or they run away from obedience, disgusted at the concept of following someone else. But those who face up to the task become stronger.
Opposition is what makes a muscle grow, it makes a business healthy, and it makes a person strong. It forces the individual to think, to work, to understand, to cooperate, to learn how to love - or to drown. It creates the unbeatable strength of Mormonism: the strength that comes from millions of individuals facing challenges - and winning.
There is no other way
Whenever someone learns these things -in or out of the church - it is because they have had to face the same conflict: how to live together, yet still be free. The other solutions are only partial solutions. They only work insofar as they conform to the above model:
But each of these only goes part of the way.
Theocracy, Democracy, Dictatorship and Anarchy
The ultimate system of organization is a theocracy - the rule of God. That is why the Church is called the Kingdom of God. God is in charge.
This is not a democracy. A democracy is fine for the majority, but the minority have to put up with rules they genuinely dislike.
This is not a dictatorship. God rules by understanding and agreement.. Anyone who does not accept the rules is free to ignore them and opt out of the system.
This is not anarchy. Members of the church recognize that for an organization to function, it must have a system of authority, accepted by covenant.
Theocracy is rule from within, based on the individual's commitment to rules that he or she has accepted by direct negotiation with God. It is thus the best of all possible worlds. Theocracy does not seek to replace the alternative. It relies on opposition - or at least a wider context (such as democracy):
Friendship is theocracy
It could be said that theocracy is the normal state of things. Each individual has his own gods (e.g. ultimate desires) and his own view of life. Each person, like it or not, is his own prophet. So, each person has his own private theocracy. If we choose to act with others (e.g. friends) it is not because they make us do it, but because we think it is a good idea. We do not see spending time on friends or hobbies as a loss of authority or freedom.
We each operate our own little theocracy. Families are theocracies. Friendship groups are theocracies. They all operate based on shared values, and not on legalistic frameworks.
But most theocracies do not work very well. So most people reluctantly accept an extra layer of control - such as democracy, with the implied restrictions, taxes, and so on - just because we know that our own little theocracies would lead to destruction if left alone.
The sign of a theocracy that works is one where:
The Church - when people understand it and live its teachings (which most members do not) - is a perfect theocracy. Even with imperfect members, it already maintains exceptional unity across numerous countries and cultures. It teaches people to be good citizens and to get along together. It provides for its members both spiritually and physically. It is unique. It really is an alternative, and better society - one based on love and not based on force.
For more about this, study the topic of Zion in LDS scripture and literature. Zion is our goal. Zion is both metaphorical (having a pure heart - in other words, one that is consistent and honest) and literal (including geographical). You cannot have one without wanting the other.
Insights into this "conflict"
Inner peace and a Zion society
From M. Catherine Thomas on the atonement, available through FARMS
"How do we bridge the gap between where we may now perceive ourselves to be spiritually and where we want and need to be as a society? ...
"I would suggest that we have come to earth to learn the principles of peace and at-one-ment and to take them with us into the kingdom of heaven. We knew these principles in the premortal world; we lived them and learned how they worked. But we may have forgotten, in mortality, how the principles worked. Is it possible that our very possession of these principles is the evidence of our preparation to enter into the kingdom?...
The author identifies inner peace as a sign of living the gospel, and suggests the following principles:
"A Zion society is the product of the personal choice of every person in it. It is also a function of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, which shapes hearts to be like his great heart. But first it begins with an individual choice that must become independent of other people's choices for something less."
Conflict as a source of strength, a pillar of faith
From "Another Kind Of Faith" by Irene M. Bates (a convert to the church, working on a history of the office of Church Patriarch) at the 1988 Sunstone Symposium
"[This pillar of my faith] may seem a strange one but from the beginning it has remained deeply rooted, despite increasing institutional onslaughts. It has survived, constant and strong, through changes in Church leadership and in Church policies over the years. It has to do with what I have learned since becoming a member of the Church. I don't mean doctrine, or scripture, although they are necessarily a part of it. I mean the significant spiritual insights afforded by having to confront the paradoxes, myths, and contradictions that are ever present in the Church. These exist in all institutions, but because of the peculiarities of our faith they are more accessible for us.
"As a lay church we have opportunities to confront and come to terms with the inevitability of conflict and paradox because most of us are involved in administrative duties as well as spiritual adventures. Choices have to be made in terms of priorities and there is a constant danger that the element of choice itself may become hidden in institutional routine. ... It seems to me we are faced with that kind of a situation in the Church all the time. The practical needs of the institution and the successful implementation of programs and policies require that we attend to such ongoing demands. ...
"Why do these seeming conflicts reinforce this particular pillar of my faith? It sounds as if they might more appropriately be seen as threats to that faith. At the most, they might be accepted as a requisite testing of faith, by requiring me to endure to the end without questioning the inexplicable. The fact is, though, they serve my faith in more positive ways. They do not disturb the foundation of my faith but instead contribute to my understanding of the central purpose of the Church in two ways.
"Ironically, first of all, by requiring me to turn to that foundation even more, they bring me closer to the Savior. They cause me to measure everything by the truths He taught and exemplified as I experience the meaning of those principles in my own life.
"Second, these challenges serve as a means of developing, often painfully, greater understanding, wisdom, and humility. The weighing, the balancing, the choice between two or more competing goods, and the recognition of complexity, can help me have compassion for others, even for leaders in their formidable task, as I am forced to discover my own values and limitations. When people talk of the simple truths of the gospel they are right. What more simple teaching than the paramount virtue of love-love of God and love of one's neighbor? What we are less anxious to point out are the complexities involved in living such simple truths.
"The organizational structure of our church can afford us access to the paradoxes, myths, and contradictions of our faith in ways that many religions, by the nature of their structure, do not. ... It is true that some choose not to notice troubling questions. But my experience in the Church over the years has taught me that when we do confront these challenges we become alive in a faith that is truly our own, suffering the pain and uncertainty, taking the risks, and enjoying the exhilaration of personal discovery."
To a great extent, you must develop your own creed
Critics sometimes comment that it is very difficult to find out what is "official" church doctrine. This is deliberate! We have thousands of pages of official teachings and manuals, but most of it is general and not specific. The prophet is there to decide what needs to be made perfectly clear (such as "no smoking" or "Adam and Eve were real") and what needs to be left to the individual (such as "how to calculate tithing" or "what is the church position on evolution").
In general, the church gives great freedom to the individual, and only makes rigid statements where absolutely necessary.
"I stated that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time."
- Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol.5, p.215
The following is from "What A Privilege To Believe" by Chauncey C. Riddle (professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University) at the Sunstone Symposium IX
"One of the reasons why I am so grateful for the opportunity to support this church is because it has no creed. It challenges me to construct for myself out of the scriptures and my own personal revelations an understanding of the universe which will help me to attain important goals in this life. I enjoy this challenge to search for the truth using all of the evidence and intelligence which I can muster. I recognize that my understanding is neither complete nor as yet fully self-consistent. But I rejoice in the process of learning and growing line by line, precept upon precept."
[Speaking of his early experience of the occasional flash of inspiration:]
"To be a rock, a bastion of surety, revelation must be something on which one can count and receive in every occasion of real need. I began to seek for it actively. I prayed, I fasted, I lived the gospel as best I knew. I was faithful in my church duties. I tried to live up to every scruple which my conscience enjoined upon me. And dependable revelation did come. Intermittently, haltingly at first, then steadily, over some years it finally came to be a mighty stream of experience. I came to know that any time of day or night, in any circumstance, for any real need, I could get help. That help came in the form of feelings of encouragement when things seemed hopeless. It came in ideas to unravel puzzles that blocked my accomplishment. It came in priesthood blessings which were fully realized. It came in whisperings of prophecy which were fulfilled. It came in support and even anticipation of what the General Authorities of the Church would say and do in general conference. It came in the gifts of the Spirit, as the wonders of eternity were opened to the eyes of my understanding. That stream of spiritual experience is today for me a river of living water that nourishes my soul in every situation. It is the most important factor of my life. If it were taken away, all that I have and am would be dust and ashes. It is the basis of my love, life, understanding, hope, and progress. My only regret is that though this river is so wonderful, I have not been able to take full advantage of it as yet. My life does not yet conform to all that I know. But now I do know; I do not just believe."
[After discussing ,this topic in more depth:]
"In conclusion, I emphasize that I have been sharing my beliefs and my basis for knowing the truth of the restored gospel. If your beliefs and basis for testimony differ from mine, that is only to be expected. I believe that no one can build on another's foundation, that we all must be true to our own experience and evidence."
Mormons are all different
From "Yet All Experience Is An Arch" by Elouise Bell (A convert to the Church, and professor of English at Brigham Young University) from the 1991 Sunstone Symposium:
"What then exactly are these pillars of faith, as we call them? Surely they are the unique components of an individual life experience, both practical and transcendent. Words trip us up just a bit here. We can speak of the Mormon faith, meaning the Mormon religion or belief system. We think of that as a relatively fixed, formed set of concepts. But when we speak of an individual's faith, what we are talking about is a totally unique thing, as individual as fingerprints or memories. Latter-day Saints may share certain scriptures, doctrines, practices, articles of faith, correlated lesson manuals. But the faith of any particular Saint is one of a kind. Nor can any one of us really know-let alone dictate-what forms the central pillars of another person's faith. . . .
"I say, whatever they may look like and even sound like, American Mormons today are much less of a pattern than most of us suppose. Mormons tend to speak up about the aspects of their faith which are predictable and traditional; they tend to keep quiet about those parts of their faith which are exotic, unexpected, and highly individualized. But more and more of these folk are speaking of their faith these days. ... What with the harvest of converts abroad and the unexpected varieties in the crop springing up at home, the Church membership will have many interesting questions to ponder in the years ahead."
Everything is interpreted
From "Why The Church Is As True As The Gospel - Grappling Constructively With the Oppositions of Existence" by Eugene England (high profile LDS scholar)
"I know that those who use the cliché about the gospel being more "true" than the Church want the term gospel to mean a perfect system of revealed commandments based in principles which infallibly express the natural laws of the universe. But even revelation is, in fact, merely the best understanding the Lord can give us of those things. And, as God himself has clearly insisted, that understanding is far from perfect. He reminds us in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
"Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known." (D&C 1:24-25.)
"This is a remarkably complete and sobering inventory of the problems involved in putting God's knowledge of the universe into human language and then having it understood. It should make us careful about claiming too much for "the gospel," which is not the perfect principles or natural laws themselves-or God's perfect knowledge of those things-but is merely the closest approximation that inspired but limited mortals can receive."
[He then discusses how a revelation is filtered by the words used, the person reading it, its use in programs and manuals, the choice of what revelations we read and when, etc.]
That is how it should be - that is how we retain our freedom of thought
The writer continues: "Yes, I know that the Holy Ghost can give strokes of pure intelligence to the speaker and bear witness of truth to the hearer. I have experienced both of these lovely, reassuring gifts. But those gifts, which guarantee the overall guidance of the Church in the way the Lord intends and provide occasional remarkably clear guidance to individuals, still do not override individuality and agency."
The most fundamental of all concepts: opposition
"This problem is compounded by the fundamentally paradoxical nature of the universe itself and thus of the true laws and principles that the gospel uses to describe the universe. Lehi's law, 'It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things' (I Ne. 2:11), is perhaps the most provocative and profound statement of abstract theology in the scriptures, because it presumes to describe what is most ultimate in the universe... Without it 'all things must have vanished away' (2:13).
Why this conflict matters
"We all know from experience the consequences for mortal life of this fundamental, eternal truth about reality. Throughout history the most important and productive ideas have been paradoxical; the energizing force in all art has been conflict and opposition; the basis for success in all economic, political, and other social development has been competition and dialogue. Think of our federal system of checks and balances and our two-party political system (which together make pluralistic democracy possible), Romanticism and Classicism, reason and emotion, freedom and order, individual and community, men and women (whose differences make eternal increase possible), justice and mercy (whose opposition makes our redemption through the 'At Onement' possible).
"Life in this universe is full of polarities and is made full by them; we struggle with them, complain about them, even try sometimes to destroy them with dogmatism or self-righteousness or retreat into the innocence that is only ignorance, a return to the Garden of Eden where there is deceptive ease and clarity but no salvation. William Blake, the prophetic poet, taught that 'without contraries is no existence' and warned that 'whoever tries to reconcile [the contraries] seeks to destroy existence.' Whatever it means that we will eventually see 'face to face,' now we can see only 'through a glass, darkly' (i Cor. 13:12), and we had better make the best of it. So, as we know it in human terms, the 'gospel' is not-and perhaps, given the paradoxical nature of the universe itself, cannot ever be-a simple and clear set of unequivocal propositions."
Challenges in the Church are like challenges in a marriage
"And that is where the Church comes in. I believe it is the best medium, apart from marriage (which it much resembles in this respect), for grappling constructively with the oppositions of existence."
[He discusses why this is: because the church - by claiming divine authority - forces us into situations, and ideas, and to work with people, who we would otherwise avoid.]
"As you read this passage from Novak [a Catholic philosopher, defending marriage], mentally substitute the Church for marriage:
"Marriage is an assault upon the lonely, atomic ego. Marriage is a threat to the solitary individual. Marriage does impose grueling, humbling, baffling, and frustrating responsibilities. Yet if one supposes that precisely such things are the preconditions for all true liberation, marriage is not the enemy of moral development in adults. Quite the opposite."
Why the Church can provide this kind of challenge better than anything else
"Two keys to this paradoxical power in the Mormon church are:
Being different and being the same
From "A Web Of Illuminating Moments" by Clayne W. Robison (professor of music at Brigham Young University) at Sunstone Symposium IX
"Elder Neal Maxwell [taught that] living the gospel well actually encouraged heterogeneity of style. For proof he cited the similarity of dress, grooming, speech, diet, viewpoint and approach which seemed paradoxically to pervade the 'do-my-own-thing' hippy culture of the period [the 1970s] when compared with the shocking change of style they, as missionaries, would probably experience when a new mission president was called in the middle of their missions. Anyone who has served a mission during a transition of mission presidents will probably find his evidence convincing." [A personal note: I have and I do!] ...
"Not only am I learning to treasure the oppositions in viewpoint, style, and preference between me and my neighbors, but I have begun to recognize and harness some of the opposing forces within my own soul. The discovery of some of these has had a major enriching effect on my ability to perform my chosen life's work with both success and joy--too often mutually exclusive qualities in professional life.
A feminist example of triumph over personal conflict
From "Bearing the Weight" by Kathleen Flake (an attorney living in Washington, D.C) at Sunstone Symposium XI
"To the uninitiated, five generations of Mormon progenitors and forty years of experience in the culture, including a two-year mission and BYU education, can even seem to be the cause rather than the effect of my Mormonism. In my experience, however, ... none of these things are of real help to me when I have to decide the hard questions, such as, whether to support the Equal Rights Amendment or how to support the bishop who doesn't want me to support it. And, when a desirable man offers me his bed, it's not memories of the wonderful conversations in front of the dry goods store that informs my decision. These decorative pillars seem to crumble very easily under stress. ... This secondary pillar includes many exciting experiences, even miracles. If I were to describe them here, you would, no doubt, recognize them from your own experience. Healings and mendings both great and small. Fires of testimony heard and given. Revelations of hearts and minds, as well as information. Tongues to speak the ineffable. Even wisdom and understanding. These gifts have spared me much confusion and given me moments of great joy. Yet, however much I love these things, I must confess that their usefulness is limited in the face of demands for sacrifice, obedience, virtue, and consecration. They are supportive. They give me signals of what's important. They even announce a doorway or two. But, I know they do not in themselves sustain me; they do not bear the load of the weight of this building that is my spiritual life. ...
"The important stuff, the crisis for me, came and still lies in the ontological questions related to my relationship to God and the opportunity to realize my spiritual potential through the Church."
[The author went on to describe how she spent many years away from the Church, and why she finally came back.]
"Finally, one day having escaped to the Blue Ridge at a Yoga retreat, I sat meditating upon the conflicts which I tolerated, even fostered, in my life in my attempt to ward off the threat I felt from the institution of the Church. It came to me as surely as any revelation I have ever received that, if I truly wanted to know God the Mother and be called her daughter, I would have to conform myself to the law of the gospel and make peace with her Son's church. I bowed to this necessity and in doing so found the pillar to my faith."
The three great
strengths of Mormonism
From a philosophical viewpoint
Excerpts from an interview with Sterling McMurrin, largely drawing on his book, "The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion." McMurrin has a few points regarding the church that he was unable to defend - such as a prejudice against angels. But that does at least mean that when looking at the church with an outsider's viewpoint, he is well qualified.
"Mormon theology has strengths that virtually all, not all, but virtually all of the writers in the church seem to have been unaware of.
1. new revelation
"The chief strength of Mormon theology is its opposition to absolutism in theology." In other words, we do not claim that the Bible is the final and complete word (That position is just not logical)
2. a physical God
"It is the temporal facet of the nature of God which distinguishes Mormonism. And I think that in some ways the materialistic facet of Mormonism. I mean the materialism in metaphysics, not ethics. ... I should tell you, if I may, of an incident that occurred years ago when I was doing work at Princeton University. This would have been in 1953. I called on [a colleague], a British philosopher at Princeton, a man of great stature in the field of philosophy and he had been a teacher at Stanford in earlier years of Obert Tanner [a prominent Mormon]. And they had become very good friends. And in the course of our conversation he said to me, 'You know, it seems to me that Obert Tanner said that God had a body. No...', he said '...that can't be true ... that couldn't be true. It seems to me that Tanner said to me that you Mormons believe that God has a body like a human being. That can't be true, surely.' And I said, 'Yes, that is what Tanner told you and that is what the Mormons believe.' And he slapped his hand down on the table and he says, 'G** d***, it is nice to find a religion that makes some sense.'
"Now you understand that he didn't say that he thought it was true. Just that it made some sense. He didn't think it was true. But it is a strength of Mormonism to bring God down out of the emperiam, out of the clouds and try to, in some way or another, and make some way for God to be a living being. This is the great thing in the Bible, you see, that distinguished the Biblical God from the typical deity of the ancient world, is that God is a living God. And this is stressed over and over again in the Bible."
"[Another great strength is] the Mormon emphasis on the freedom of the will. Or what Mormons call, this is using an old fashion terminology, what Mormons call, free agency. This is a very great strength in Mormonism. St. Augustine, the greatest of the theologicans, denied the freedom of the will in some of his writings, although in other of his writings he defended it. Martin Luther in his controversies with Erasmus, the Catholic humanist, argued against the freedom of the will. There are many arguments against the freedom of the will in John Calvin. If you take the three most important of the Christian theologicans, in the history of Christianity and this is a great strength in Mormonism, the emphasis on the freedom of the will."
And last of all, from a traditional Christian viewpoint
From "The Strength of the Mormon Position" by Orson F. Whitney (quoted in LeGrand Richards' "A Marvelous Work And A Wonder"):
"Many years ago a learned man, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, came to Utah and spoke from the stand of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. I became well-acquainted with him, and we conversed freely and frankly. A great scholar, with perhaps a dozen languages at his tongue's end, he seemed to know all about theology, law, literature, science and philosophy. One day he said to me: 'You Mormons are all ignoramuses. You don't even know the strength of your own position. It is so strong that there is only one other tenable in the whole Christian world, and that is the position of the Catholic Church. The issue is between Catholicism and Mormonism. If we are right, you are wrong; if you are right, we are wrong; and that's all there is to it. The Protestants haven't a leg to stand on. For, if we are wrong, they are wrong with us, since they were a part of us and went out from us: while if we are right, they are apostates whom we cut off long ago. If we have the apostolic succession from St. Peter, as we claim, there is no need of Joseph Smith and Mormonism: but if we have not that succession, then such a man as Joseph Smith was necessary, and Mormonism's attitude is the only consistent one. It is either the perpetuation of the gospel from ancient times, or the restoration of the gospel in latter days.' "