An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

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Why Don’t They Like Us?

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, closed his interview on PBS’s Religion and Ethics   by stating  that Christians have an obligation to convert non-Christians—specifically Muslims, Jews, and Mormons. He repeated the often-heard assertion that “Mormonism is at the very least another religion. It’s not the Christian faith.”

I suppose any group is free to define its terms and decide who does and who does not belong. Certainly, mainstream Mormons bristle when polygamous splinter groups are referred to as Mormon, although these groups accept Joseph Smith, the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants—at least through the 132nd section.

I do think Land is right that the church Joseph Smith founded was different enough from mainstream Christianity to be considered an entirely new religion. Joseph Smith introduced some radically new doctrines to American religion. His First Vision account of seeing the Father and Son as individual personages conflicted with the Christian notion of the trinity. Identifying Missouri as the location of the Garden of Eden and of Adam-Ondi-Ahman—the place where Adam shall return to bless his people—was certainly an innovation with no biblical source . Eternal progression, via plural marriage, enabling men to become as gods through obeying the principles and ordinances of the restored gospel was also extra-biblical. Even the emphasis on knowledge as a key to salvation was closer to ancient Gnosticism than to Christianity.

Current Church rhetoric avoids most of these non-mainstream topics. I haven’t heard a conference address or a Gospel Doctrine lesson about Adam and Eve residing in Missouri for many years. Likewise, polygamy has been officially repudiated—although temple sealings to more than one woman still occur if a previous wife has died. Eternal progression is no longer a standard part of Mormon rhetoric. And like most Christian faiths, Mormonism now emphasizes faith and obedience to gospel principles and ordinances rather than knowledge as key requirements for salvation.

Except for the concept of God as three individuals working as one rather than three aspects of one being, few Mormon doctrines now differ radically from those of mainstream Christianity. So, why do evangelicals refuse to regard Mormons as fellow Christians? Possibly, since the Church hasn’t officially renounced any prior teachings other than polygamy, some may believe LDS leaders plan to reinstate some of these previous teachings.

I suspect, however, that it is not Mormon doctrine that troubles evangelical leaders so much as Mormon proselytizing. Most Christian faiths restrict their missionary work to those outside the Christian fold. Mormons overstep that boundary and frequently draw members away from their previous Christian faith. Because Mormon and evangelical cultures have common elements, they are likely competing for the same group of people. It’s not easy to love a competitor.

Feed My Soul

See today’s post here.

Reading the Book of Mormon

Runto’s Rincon posts an honest experience when acting on the words of Moroni “and God shall show unto you that which I have written is true (Moro 10:29).

Find it here.

End Goal of Religion

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi’s essay, “The Message of the Gita,”  gives me new insight into Christianity. A devout Hindu, Gandhi opens his essay by stating that he’s never believed the sacred Bhagavad Gita  is an historical account. For him, the story is an allegory, written to teach humans how to perfect themselves.

I like Gandhi’s refusal to let other people interpret scripture for him. He takes from the Gita what makes sense for him and ignores the passages about reincarnation and caste.

Gandhi sees the central theme of the Gita as, “renunciation of the fruits of action.”

 

You have a right to your actions,

But never to your actions’ fruits.

Act for the action’s sake

And do not be attached to inaction.”

                      (Gita 2:47—Stephen Mitchell translation)

I like the idea of right action for its own sake. Gandhi says this is possible only by overcoming attachment. Freedom from ego and from cravings for material possessions free a person to act without desire for reward.

 This idea differs quite radically from Middle-Eastern religions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are based on rewards and punishments. God commands. He blesses those who obey. He punishes those who don’t.

  In these religions, blessings in this life and salvation in the next are a simple matter of cause and effect. The problem for me is that the world doesn’t work this way. Jesus taught this in the Sermon on the Mount: “. . . He (God) sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” That’s not a scripture I’ve heard quoted often in church.

 Probably most Christian religions teach the doctrine of original sin—that humans are born in a depraved condition and must be guided to civilized behavior. The Book of Mormon scripture, “the natural man is an enemy to God,” (Mosiah 3:19) supports this idea.

 Much observable human behavior in the world today tends to prove that many people will not behave in a civilized manner unless forced to do so. Religions that emphasize rewards and punishments no doubt help create stable societies. And yes, I know that people go to war with each other over religious beliefs. Still, I suspect the good done by religion outweighs the bad, although I don’t know of any research supporting that theory. The problem with delving into the effects of religion is that human motives are often mixed.

Rewards and punishments motivate many people. I don’t see churches that emphasize this kind of motivation giving it up anytime soon. But I do think church leaders need to keep in mind that the end goal is not doctrinal orthodoxy. The end goal should be helping people understand themselves and act in responsible ways to promote well being for themselves and others.

I Liked Teaching Prison Inmates, but ….

Wally, a husky Ute student, blossomed when I worked with him individually in a lockdown building. He mourned when I was assigned to the regular school in minimum security. Two years later, he was moved to minimum security and placed in my U.S. History class.

I didn’t realize that Wally might feel overwhelmed in a classroom with 15 or 16 other students. On his first test day, I didn’t see him leave class without turning in his test. He offered it to me the next day after class. Since our students were all criminals, the school had strict policies about cheating. The secretary informed all students of school policies when they enrolled, and they signed an agreement to abide. I repeated the rule that no tests could be taken from the classroom and showed Wally the bold type on top of the page: “Do Not Take This Test Outside The Classroom: NO CREDIT.”

“I can’t accept a test which you took home.”

“Can I get credit for this chapter?”         

“No, but we’re starting on the next chapter. You can do that work, take the test, and get credit for it.” 

Wally’s eyes narrowed and his voice rose. “Then I did all the work on this chapter for nothing?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t accept your test. That’s school policy.”

Wally pleaded. “I read slow. I needed more time to finish, so I took it to my house.”

“You didn’t tell me you needed more time to finish. I could have given you a few extra minutes.”

“Just take my test this time.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

By now everyone else had exited the school for lunch.  Wally took a step toward me. His jaw tightened. His voice rasped as if he were fighting to hold back tears. “You’re saying I cheated!”

 “I didn’t say you cheated. Taking a test out of the school is against the rules. I can’t accept it.”

Wally’s black eyes sent me a look of pure hatred as he wadded up his test, threw it in my face, and stomped from the room. I was shocked. He had been such an amiable lockdown student. I didn’t intend to drop him from school over the issue and dismissed it from my mind. The next day Martin, the school psychologist, came into my room. Wally had asked Martin to keep him from being dropped from school. Wally said I’d called him a liar and a cheater.  He told Martin he’d been so mad, it was all he could do to keep from picking up a desk and hitting me on the head.

My knees quivered as I heard of Wally’s rage. Martin put his arm around my shoulder. “Are you okay?” Martin reassured me until I quit trembling, but I was left knowing I had let my guard down. I had gotten too comfortable. I should not have stayed alone in the school with a student, angry or not. Wally could have killed me.

Why had I been unaware of Wally’s rage? I think now it was because I expected him to react as I would have. I had not accused him of cheating. I could understand disappointment, but not fury at having a rule enforced. I had briefly forgotten I was dealing with a person who sees the world entirely differently from the way I do.

 Did Wally take the test with the intent to find the answers in the book or from a friend outside of class? Probably. Wally was dropped from school—possibly he was sent to another facility. I never saw him again.

This event caused me to qualify the statement, “I like my students” by adding “in prison” to the phrase. Inmates can be agreeable, even fun, within the confines of prison walls, but that doesn’t mean they can function outside a strictly controlled environment.

Social Animals

In his new book, The Social Animal, David Brooks creates fictional charactaers to synthesize the latest research on human behavior and brain development into a format understandable to those of us lacking Ph.D.’s in psychology or sociology.A great read for parents seeking to understand their infants’ and young children’s development and to couples working on relationships.

Brooks delves into the social patterns of family stability and educational opportunity as well as the huge role our subconscious plays in what we generally think of as conscious choices. Following the fictional couple he creates is poignant as Harold and Erica meet, marry, go through career upheavals, marriage crisis, and end of life.

In his day job, Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times. Naturally, he doesn’t leave government and politics untouched as he applies research to how humans behave. In his opinion, government programs fail, not because of lack of money or wrong ideology, but because policy makers believe people are mostly rational beings. Unaware of the emotional factors underlying behavior, programs to address poverty not only don’t succeed, they often make things worse.

Brooks is a witty writer. His book is fun as well as informative. You can find a film synopsis at the following link.

On Being a Good Samaritan

At the Pilgrimage Retreat last week, Debbie Humphries, a
Quaker speaker, presented her interpretation of Bible stories. My favorite was
the Good Samaritan. Traditionally, this story induces more guilt than polishing
off half a box of chocolates and hiding the wrappers. Do many days go by when
we don’t see one or more people figuratively in the ditch? How can we rescue
them all?

Debbie’s interpretation is that the story’s purpose is not
to make us feel we must pick up everybody from the ditch— which is, of course,
impossible. The purpose of the story is to move us to pity for the less
fortunate—and to recognize those whom God has called us to help.

Twenty years ago I was wrestling with a large family, a full
time job, and responsible church callings. The sound of the phone ringing made
me want to lock myself in the bathroom and wait until people quit asking me to
do things–or the millennium—whichever came first.

I walked around singing the first line of the Michael McLean
song, “I Can’t Do Everything.” Nobody listened. Spouses, kids, employers, and
church leaders will allow—even expect a person to give until the fuel tank runs
dry—and the demands don’t stop then. Not until a person takes charge of her or
his own life.

Doctrine & Covenants 10:4 tells us not to run faster nor
labor more than our strength allows. Debbie’s interpretation of the Good
Samaritan frees me to set my own priorities and liberates me from guilt over my
human limitations of time and energy.

Canine Crisis

Pita, our dog with the color and disposition of a golden lab
and the pointed ears of a collie, elicits admiring comments wherever she goes.

“What  kind of dog is she?” we’re often asked—but we don’t know. She was a stray when
we adopted her 5 years ago. She was my idea and George immediately named her
Pain-in-the Ass which I sanitized to the initials. This week, Pita lived up to
her name.

Pita, like many dogs, goes into flight mode at the first
crack of thunder or burst of fireworks. Explosive noises have motivated her to
squeeze her 60 pound body through the slats of our vinyl fence. George
stabilized the fence slats with wire; she worked them loose. He fastened
lattice in front of the fence slats; Pita climbed the lattice and vaulted the
fence. George put chicken wire in front of the lattice; she tore it off with
her teeth.

Sunday morning Pita was missing and the lattice was chewed
off the fence making a passage large enough for her to slip through. Aided by
our daughter and son-in-law, we searched the neighborhood and drove along nearby
highways looking for our pet—or her body. We posted flyers with her picture and
sent out a neighborhood alert about Pita through Relief Society email. We
anguished at the thought of Pita being injured with no one to help her. Would
we ever know what happened to her?

Monday morning George and Aroo visited the animal shelter.
While they were gone, a woman called to say she had our dog. I drove over and
found Pita sitting happily on the lawn with three adoring children. She allowed
me to pet her, but showed no enthusiasm for my presence and had to be dragged
to the car. She exhibited no interest in being home, but was willing to eat
the ground beef I warmed for her. She kept eyeballing the road leading up to the
cool place where she’d found kids to play with. Some gratitude!

I wasn’t consoled that Pita treated George with the same
disdain she’d shown to me. Clearly, she means more to us than we do to her. Or
maybe not. Maybe she’s just having a midlife crisis. In dog years, she is
middle-aged—probably realizing that life is passing her by and there’s a whole
world beyond our backyard and neighborhood walks which she has yet to
experience.

Probably, I should be more concerned with my reaction than with
hers. Is my relationship with Pita one of love or ego?

Teach Me How to Pray

A friend who teaches the four-year-olds in Primary told me a
recent lesson included the story of a boy whose father was very ill. The boy
prayed to Heavenly Father to make his dad well, and the next day his father was
much better. My friend did not use that story with her class because it is not honest.

George was taught in Primary that Heavenly Father would
answer his prayers if he asked in faith. Eight-year-old George borrowed his
cousin’s new bike without asking. He crashed the bike into a ditch and broke
two spokes. Knowing his cousin would never forgive him for ruining her bike,
little George needed help—so he knelt beside the bike and prayed with all his might
for Heavenly Father to fix it. Unfortunately, his Primary lesson failed to
mention that not all prayers are answered affirmatively. George suffered a loss
of faith when he opened his eyes, beheld the still-broken spokes, and knew he must
take the consequences of his action.

Maybe the best approach for teaching children about prayer
is simply to teach prayers of gratitude—to offer thanks for the wonders and
beauties of the natural world, for the senses to enjoy these blessings, for the
necessities of life, and for the goodness and love of people in their lives.

Most adults overdo prayers of request—effectively turning
God into Santa. Maybe we should teach ourselves as well as our children to
limit asking to requests for the wisdom to recognize and take advantage of
opportunities and the strength to deal constructively with the challenges of life.

Mormons vs. Theology

Our son, who is married to a Baptist minister’s daughter,
asked me to define Mormon theology for our daughter-in-law. “Mormons aren’t
very interested in theology,” I replied.

“But theology is the study of the attributes of God. Why
aren’t Mormons interested in that?”

Good question—and my answer is that Mormons focus on
pleasing God by keeping His commandments rather than trying to define Him
beyond the basic attributes of love and justice. This has not always been the
case. I think Spencer W. Kimball moved Mormons from the notion of study for the
sake of study when he suggested changing the word “know” in the Primary song, “I
Am a Child of God” to “do.” The current line reads: “Teach me all that I must do to live with him someday.”

Early Mormon leaders took theology seriously. Joseph Smith
had a lot to say about the attributes of God. The prophet’s concept of God
expanded through the nearly two decades of his ministry—from a traditional Trinitarian
view of God as found in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 15) and Lectures on Faith—to the God of Eternal Progression revealed in D&C
132 and the King Follett Discourse.

Brigham Young developed some radical theology—which he
insisted he’d learned from Joseph Smith. Brother Brigham’s unorthodox Adam/God
theory has been relegated to the dustbin by modern leaders—as has Lectures on Faith which was removed from
the D&C in 1921.

Joseph F. Smith, a 20th century prophet with an
interest in defining Mormon theology, provided space in the SL temple for scholarly
apostle, James Talmage to write two doctrinal books, The Articles of Faith and Jesus
the Christ
. The only books besides scripture officially endorsed by the church,
both were quoted extensively in church lessons and conference addresses until
the church published the 1979 edition of the King James Bible with quotations
from the Joseph Smith Translation included in footnotes. Some of Joseph Smith’s
emendations contradicted Talmage’s Bible exegesis and references to Talmage’s
books have disappeared from lessons and conference addresses.

As an apostle, Joseph Fielding Smith put forth his
interpretation of Mormon theology in a long-running Improvement Era column titled “Answers to Gospel Questions.” His
son-in-law, Bruce R. McConkie, became unofficial church theologian when he
published his book Mormon Doctrine in
the ‘60s. Both Smith’s and McConkie’s books have now been dropped from official
church discourse.

Unlike Protestants and Catholics, Mormons quietly replace
rather than build upon the learning of past church scholars. Since an unchanging
God who reveals gospel truths perfectly is a core Mormon belief, this is not
surprising.

Theology attempts to define God.  I think what theology really does is provide insights about people who write about God .

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