An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Mormon theology’

Inner Change

As a Mormon, I find the Calvinist doctrine of salvation by grace for the elect unappealing. It seems unfair that a person’s good behavior on earth doesn’t count. Not all birthright Mormons feel this way, of course. Todd, the leader of my first Buddhist sangha, said he left Mormonism because, “I could never be good enough, no matter how hard I tried.”

Our older son had a similar experience with Mormonism. A Calvinist church, which taught the doctrine of salvation by grace, reassured him of God’s love for mortals who fall short of perfection.

Our younger son, the opposite of his brother, flaunted authority and broke rules almost from day one. Mormon concepts of being good in order to merit blessings and avoid punishments struck him as manipulation by those in power. Oddly enough, he followed his brother into Calvinism. None of us thought it would last.

For several years, I’ve tried to understand the appeal of Calvinism to our sons. I recently gleaned some understanding from Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis in 1945. The foreword by Timothy J. Keller has the clearest definition of grace I’ve read. Keller dismisses as cheap grace the concept of being saved by God’s love no matter how a person lives. He defines as legalism the concept of being saved by laws and works: “God loves you because you have pulled yourself together and are trying to live a good, disciplined life.” Keller would likely place the Mormon doctrine, “by grace we are saved after all we can do,” (2 Ne. 25:23) in this category.

Keller credits Bonhoeffer with teaching costly grace—the idea that we are saved by grace alone, but “if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live.” True believers love and serve God out of gratitude for what they have already been given, not for what they expect to receive.

Like Mormons who believe those of the lineage of Israel will hear and accept the gospel message, Calvinists tend to believe that those elected to salvation will heed and live the gospel. Both my sons found the idea of having already received grace rather than needing to earn it appealing. Both have changed their lives—not from fear of losing salvation or missing blessings, but from love and gratitude to God who loves them unconditionally.

Certainly, I have heard many sincere testimonies from Mormons who have joined the Church and changed their lives. I believe a teaching that causes inner change in a person, which is manifest in outward behavior, is a true teaching for that person.

My own inner change has come mostly from Buddhist teachings of acceptance, mindfulness, and connectedness. Accepting myself as I am has made me more tolerant of others. Being mindful of the present moment helps slow me down to savor this life and to value the relationships I enjoy now rather than those I might expect to find in Heaven. Recognizing my connectedness to other people and to the natural world makes me want to for care the earth and all its inhabitants.


Agency is a key component of Mormon theology. Dozens of scriptures from Joshua’s “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. . .” to 2 Nephi’s “”ye are free to act for yourselves . . .” affirm humankind’s freedom to choose.

I never quite bought into my YW teacher’s motto, “You can be anything you want to be.” Even as a 13-year-old, I knew I was not endowed with the gifts to be either a ballerina or an opera star—although I did see a possibility for a career as a film star.

While I never really challenged my assigned station in life, my brother Doogie went through a prolonged rebellion against his upbringing by our boring, workaholic father. Still, Doogie ended up spending most of his life working a job he hated to provide for his kids—just as our father had. Did Doogie have a choice to put his own needs ahead of his kids’? I don’t think so. Whether by nature, nurture or both, Doogie was pretty well programmed to be a caring parent. He could not have done less for his kids and lived with himself.

George’s stepson and his wife came to visit us several years ago. George was the only father-figure Skipper remembered from his mother’s marriages. Skipper, the oldest of three children by three different fathers, functioned as the adult in the family for most of his childhood. From what we saw of his marriage, he’d picked up his mother’s ways of controlling a relationship. He’d also picked up her binge-spending habit. Finally, his wife divorced him. How much agency did Skipper really have? He certainly didn’t choose a childhood that left him emotionally scarred.

Choice is limited by many things not under our control—intelligence, talent, physical and mental health, control by others, poverty. Certainly a person with an IQ of 120 has a far greater range of choices than someone functioning at 80. My friend with chronic lung disease is limited in where she can go and what kind of work she can do. People under totalitarian governments have limited access to information. In many cultures, people cannot choose whom to marry. People in third world countries lack the opportunity to choose education or employment.

Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that the concentration camp guards could control everything in his life except his mind. But—Frankl’s mind was formed decades before he entered the concentration camp. Had that kind of brutality been forced upon him as a child, how much control over his own mind would he have achieved?

And how much choice does a kid have if he’s taught to fear Satan and told he’d be under an evil influence if he steps from the straight and narrow?

Despite the abundance of scriptures on agency, more often I find myself on the determinist rather than the free will page. In the end, I suppose it behooves us all to avoid judging since we cannot possibly know another person’s circumstances nor guess at how much agency that person actually enjoys.

Us and Them

Us and Them

The notion that negative publicity is better than no publicity may work for celebrities, but it is not a slogan for religious organizations. Like many religions, the Mormon Church has received its share of negative attention—some of it deserved. Expecting to be ignored while adopting illegal marriage practices is a touch naïve. Staunchly insisting that racist practices are revelation from God while the rest of the country is moving toward civil rights also invites criticism. Then there’s rallying the troops to defeat the ERA in the ‘70s and to support Prop 8 in 2008.

An argument can be made that the church, albeit unwittingly, asked for negative attention on these issues. More subtle and not necessarily negative, is media attention to LDS doctrine. Larry King’s question to President Hinckley on the Mormon belief in eternal progression to godhood caused the usually forthright prophet to utter a disclaimer, “I don’t know much about that.” Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid brought public questions about Mormon beliefs such as: “Do Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers?” Contemporary Mormons shy away from discussing doctrinal issues. Salvation is attained by obedience to the commandments and temple ordinances, not from understanding theology.

Big Love and the Warren Jeffs’ trial have revived an embarrassing interest in Mormon polygamy. BL has been condemned by church leaders, but I suspect the overall effect of the program on non-members has been to make Mormons seem more normal. Normal, that is, except for their extreme piety.  BL writers get the details of Mormon Utah life remarkably accurate—not an easy task for an outsider. The only major flaw I noticed the first season was portraying Mormons at a restaurant ordering milk instead of coffee with their meal. Real Mormons know the coffee substitute is Diet Coke, not milk.

BL’s third season stirred a lot of controversy by portraying the temple endowment. I suspect the endowment segment disappointed non-Mormons because it burst the speculation bubble about sexual orgies in the temple. The endowment depiction and its meaningfulness to Barb were quite touching to this Mormon. Likewise, the scene where Bill baptizes Barb for Margy’s dead mother. The Bishop’s Court on Barbara and its effect on her seemed far more damaging to the church image.

The real church PR problem with BL is that some of the fictional situations reflect actual events in the non-to-distant past, such as the attempt by the church to purchase the Salamander document and the behind-the-scenes political influence of the church in Utah.

Depicting Mormons realistically is not the same as ridiculing the sacred. In fact, the mirror held up to ourselves may turn out to be our best friend. Church growth and the success of its own PR have moved the LDS Church into the public arena. We can’t expect national media to focus only on the ideal image to which we aspire. How can we not admit that some of our beliefs and practices seem a little strange to outsiders?  Like the Catholic Church dealing with the sex-abuse scandal, the Mormon Church needs to own up to past mistakes. Being less secretive about temple ceremonies and church history documents may be the best PR strategy the church could employ.

Tag Cloud