It (Still) Seems So BIG

January 27, 2004 | 5 comments
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What first caught my attention with respect to the Gospel was the sheer size of it. For my first ten or fifteen years of consciousness, growing up in a semi-active part-LDS home, the Church, to me, represented boring meetings, lackluster hymn-singing, and little more. Other things in 1960s California seemed much more exciting, and, frankly, there was little home pressure to think otherwise.

One day, though, I stayed home from school. I may actually have been sick; I can’t recall. Bored, I picked up a little novel that we had inherited from my maternal grandmother a decade or more earlier. I doubt very much that I could endure Nephi Anderson’s LDS “home literature” story entitled “Added Upon” today. I haven’t looked at it for many years, and hesitate to do so. But it came to me then with the force of a genuine revelation.

For the first time in my life, I really caught a glimpse of the Plan of Salvation, as Anderson’s characters moved from antemortal existence to mortal life, and then on to the spirit world and, eventually, through the resurrection and the Millennium to exaltation. I had never found anything even remotely interesting in church before and considered myself an agnostic, but this was exciting. This was the biggest, most panoramic view of what it meant to be human that I had ever encountered. I still find the Plan of Salvation inexpressibly vast, profound, and satisfying. The only time that I recall finding anything else that seemed so dramatic, enacted on such a vast cosmic canvas, was when I first read Hans Jonas’s book on “The Gnostic Religion.” The Plan of Salvation has the considerable advantage over the Gnostic myth, however, that it’s coherent.

Another related experience, important to me personally, came a few years later, when some members of my ward who had taken an interest in me invited me to attend an “Education Week” in a nearby stake. One of the speakers was Truman Madsen, who, in his three lectures, discussed “Existentialism,” “Logical Positivism,” and, if I recall correctly, “Marxism.” I was absolutely hooked. And I was intrigued by Madsen’s suggestion that the doctrines of Mormonism fared pretty well, and still had important things to say, amidst such company. (I’ve since developed that conviction on my own, most notably in a summer NEH seminar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in 1990, where a small group — a Buddhist, two Hindus, a Jesuit process theologian, a true-blue Platonist, a convinced Nietzschean, and a few others, including myself in my persona as an Islamicist — discussed the “Great Chain of Being” for two months under the directorship of Huston Smith.)

The “size” of the Gospel has become apparent to me in other ways, as well. When my wife and I were living in Egypt in the late 1970s, we had the opportunity to take a really inexpensive trip, clearly subsidized by the Soviet government as a propaganda effort, to Moscow and what was then still called Leningrad. The propaganda didn’t take very well with me, and I found myself thinking constantly about the Gulag. It hit me then that perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the wretched twentieth century had been to organize genocide and oppression on a massive scale, with industrial efficiency. Via the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust and the Gulag itself and Mao’s purges and the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Ukrainian terror-famine and the Cambodian killing fields (and later, unfortunately, Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the mass graves of Baathist Iraq), literally tens of millions of people were “liquidated,” obliterated, rendered as if they had never existed. Their names and records were often completely lost. They were, quite deliberately, turned into “non-persons.” But then I realized that there is an anti-Holocaust: The seemingly quixotic effort, thus far small and relatively unheralded, represented by genealogical and temple work, to remember each and every individual who has ever lived, to identify and serve each one as a valuable child of God, eternally existent, with infinite potential. This is the polar opposite of the Gulag. The contrast between Zion and Babylon, it seemed to me, could not possibly be clearer.

The Gospel also seems wonderfully large and “liberal” to me in its attitude toward other faiths. Though the condemnatory words of the First Vision stand at the modern origin of our faith, there are other, balancing, words and ideas. Official statements of the Church pay tribute to such figures as Plato, Muhammad, Confucius, and the Protestant Reformers, as inspired by God. Moreover, Latter-day Saints come very close to being universalists, in a sense, something in which I take great comfort. Though we wish that all would be even as we are, in accepting the Restoration, we are happy if, short of that, they live up to the light they’ve received. We do not believe that virtuous pagans, or Hindus, or Jews, or Buddhists, will be tortured forever in Hell, but that a loving Father will give each person as much as he or she is willing and able to receive. I do not tremble with terror at the ultimate fate of my many Muslim friends. And I am delighted that the Church’s university has been so supportive of my efforts to launch a translation project that works to make the finest of classical Islamic writing widely available and accessible. This latter is something that astonishes many of my professional colleagues. I delight in their astonishment. I like to tell them what I very much believe to be true, which is that, yes, our faith is radically exclusivist. But it is also radically inclusivist, exhorting us to seek and value and accept truth from every quarter.

That we don’t always (or even commonly) live up to that exhortation, that lived Mormonism is not always “big” and exciting in the sense I’ve been sketching here, is obvious. I will readily admit that I do not always sense the breadth and liberality of the Gospel in our day to day life as Latter-day Saints. But it’s there, as an ideal, nonetheless. And while I sometimes (often!) struggle with humdrum meetings and the like, I remind myself that, as Gene England used to say, the Church really is as true as the Gospel. For many Saints, that’s probably easy to believe. Some like myself, though, who would probably prefer a more serene, secluded, and reflective life than — significant word! — activity in the Church often seems to allow, who love “theoria” but tend to be annoyed by and impatient with “praxis,” who find it easy to “think globally” but who would also easily neglect “acting locally,” the Church (like the family life it encourages) disciplines us to everyday acts of service and concern for neighbors that we might easily let slide.

Well. Enough of this. I won’t sermonize and (I hope) won’t drone on at such length in future comments. I jotted down the notes for this little essay during a meeting yesterday at church (on my “Day of Rest,” as we quaintly call it), and I guess the urge to testify was upon me.

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5 Responses to It (Still) Seems So BIG

  1. Gordon Smith on January 27, 2004 at 2:55 am

    Dan, much of this post resonates with me. Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts.

  2. Dave on January 27, 2004 at 4:44 am

    I had a similar experience while reading Truman Madsen’s Eternal Man some years back. He is kind of a big picture thinker–I’m sure he could baptize Marxism without missing a beat, although the withering away of the Church would need to be reworked a bit.

  3. lyle on January 27, 2004 at 4:53 am

    Great post. I like how you highlight the paradoxical juxtaposition of exclusionary and inclusionary tendencies in the gospel. I’m currently compiling a list of such socio-gospel contradictions and will credit this one to you.

  4. Jim F. on January 27, 2004 at 3:22 pm

    Dan, the universalist aspect of LDS understanding may go even further than you suggest. There have been and are those who believe that it is possible that eventually everyone, with the exception of the Sons of Perdition, will progress to the celestial kingdom. Obviously that isn’t doctrine and, equally as obvious, it is a minority view. But it is a view held by a significant minority. Nevertheless, as you point out, even without that version of eternal progression LDS belief is incredibly hopeful and universal.

  5. clark goble on January 27, 2004 at 4:34 pm

    Is that really held by a significant minority? I don’t know. I’ve only encountered the idea, outside of GAs around the turn of the 20th century, in the writings of those who link it to a kind of reincarnation. (i.e. that this world is *literally* the telestial kingdom and that if you screw up you are sent back here) I’m obviously uncomfortable with that idea. But apparently there were a few 19th century GAs who believed along that line.

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