I am not a natural “Mormon”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A common narrative one hears is something along the lines of the following: “I love the Church, it has so much potential, it could go a long way even if it dropped, changed, or soft-pedaled [insert major, foundational truth claim].” And honestly, to me many of the people who make that argument come off as being very “Mormon.” For them Mormonism without the truth claims makes sense precisely because cultural Mormonism is such a natural fit for them in terms of the community and religious aesthetics. 

However, this sociocultural Mormonism only applies to those for whom Mormonism is a natural fit. For example, for me my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is very theological and functional: a God either reflecting or embodying some eternal metaphysical reality came down, saved us and provided the way for us to be exalted to Godhood, worlds without end. I’m not terribly nostalgic about my Mormon upbringing or Mormon community, and I would not act Mormon at all if I didn’t buy the claims. While some cultural Mormons have a hard time distinguishing being off and on the iron rod because they’re sort of wandering in the same general direction anyway, I would be four-wheeling in the mists of darkness if I ever let go, so for me the Church with and without the actual Tree of Life is a pretty stark contrast. 

A lot of people like the fresh-faced, wholesome aspects of Mormons and Mormonism and want to sort of capture that in a bottle towards this or that particular end. But what about those of us who aren’t so fresh-faced? This hit me the other day when I was volunteering at the open house for the Washington DC temple, surrounded by the kind of glowing youth of Zion or senior missionary types that find their way onto the covers of Ensign magazines, while I have a heavy brow and on occasion have been told that I look scary. I mentioned my relative lack of fresh-faced wholesomeness to my wife, and without missing a beat she said “well, the Lord needs Porter Rockwells too.”

And that’s the point, the functional take-away of what the Church offers is universal, whether you are a natural “Mormon” or not. I believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s particular mechanism for salvation and eternal exaltation, and this is good news for those of us who are not so naturally inclined towards Mormonism as a lifestyle or culture, because at the end of the day, the scary looking, natural-man type with a personal testimony of the Messiah who is mighty to save will end up closer to the end point of the faith than the fresh-faced former seminary teacher who you can tell doesn’t really believe the exclusivistic claims anymore but thinks that the Church should divert its attention away from temple work and towards soup kitchens. For those of us whose natural, non-religious self isn’t anywhere close to the way of Jesus, Guru Nanak, or the Buddha, we naturally recognize that the niceties alone are fairly weak and unconvincing by themselves without the concreteness of religious belief.  

In his book Salem’s Lot, Stephen King writes of a Catholic priest who is facing his own faith crisis as he battles against satanic forces who are taking over the town. 

He would pray. Pray all night, if necessary. Not the new God. Not to the God of ghettos and social conscience and free lunches. But to the God of old, who had proclaimed through Moses not to suffer a watch to live and who had given it unto his own son to raise the dead. All my life for penance. Only… a second chance. 

Now, I for one am for suffering witches to live, and have no problem with free lunches, but the point that there is evil, not just a they-mean-well, but actual, reified Manichean evil that is in an actual battle with good, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the main protagonist in said battle, is a fundamentally different religion than the kind that is only fuzzily different from a secular charity or ideology with the symbols and motions of religion layered on top of it. 

Of course, one can choose to accept my theological premises here or not, but it’s clear that the faith I’ve outlined is in a completely different ontological category than its more sociocultural-based derivative. Some of this difference is because, as noted here and a lot of other places online, a cultural Mormon has different beliefs, but just as important, if much less discussed, is the fact that cultural Mormonism is limited to a very small circle of people for whom the people, behavior, and community is a natural fit, whereas the principles of the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are logically a-cultural and universal, and expand even to natural non-Mormons like me. 

26 comments for “I am not a natural “Mormon”

  1. Porter Rockwell was real… a 19th century man with serious issues and PTSD. Fresh-faced missionaries? Temporary. They go home, have a faith crisis, get a tattoo and gain weight.

  2. So, this post seems to basically be saying, “I may not look “Mormon,” but I might be more “Mormon” (and more righteous) than some people who do.” Or, in other words, don’t judge a book by its cover.

  3. Stephen, thanks for the thoughtful and unique posts you are making here at T&S. Your new voice, along with Chad’s, coupled with continuing posts from Jonathan and Wilfried are always thought provoking and a little bit off the well trod bloggernacle path. The kind of folk that trumpet diversity should love what you have to say. But of course they don’t because they don’t really value diversity other than for its use as a cudgel to pound on those who don’t think like they do. Keep up the good work!

  4. From the OP:

    “I’m not terribly nostalgic about my Mormon upbringing or Mormon community, and I would not act Mormon at all if I didn’t buy the claims. While some cultural Mormons have a hard time distinguishing being off and on the iron rod because they’re sort of wandering in the same general direction anyway, I would be four-wheeling in the mists of darkness if I ever let go, so for me the Church with and without the actual Tree of Life is a pretty stark contrast. ” Can you really prove you would flounder if you left the church? Does that say more about you than the church, or than others who have very successfully navigated a life as a never-Mormon/post-Mormon? I mean, is the institution really succeeding if the members can’t survive without it?

    “Now, I for one am for suffering witches to live, and have no problem with free lunches, but the point that there is evil, not just a they-mean-well, but actual, reified Manichean evil that is in an actual battle with good, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the main protagonist in said battle, is a fundamentally different religion than the kind that is only fuzzily different from a secular charity or ideology with the symbols and motions of religion layered on top of it.” I’m not buying it. What is the actual evil in the world, and what is the church, as the main protagonist, doing about it? For example, if the main evil in the world is violence, what is the church doing to promote peace? If the main evil in the world is poverty, what is the church doing to help? If the main evil in the world is the way many treat the marginalized, are the church’s muskets protecting them or firing on them? I could go on. You get the picture.

    The ONLY reason I go to church is for the social. There. I said it. I mean, I have the scriptures on my phone, I have priesthood in my home to bless the sacrament, and I can play the hymns on my piano. I’ve heard all the lessons, I’ve received all the ordinances save the second anointing. I literally go to church to be with my tribe. No, I don’t believe everything. Yes, I think the institutional church could be healthier. But I go to cultivate love of my neighbors, even the ones I don’t agree with. I fail more than I succeed. But I’m trying.

    This is not meant to say I’m better than the OP. I’m not. Just to say there are many and diverse reasons to choose to be a member of TCOJCOLDS, and one is not more valid than another. To wit, we absolutely need the Porter Rockwells. But the list doesn’t end there.

  5. @ Brian: Kind of, but not really; the people who look and act Mormon might also be naturally more righteous behaviorally and in terms of desires, but if they don’t concretely accept and incorporate into their lives the Church’s salvific theology then it doesn’t really matter whether they were born on third base spiritually.

    @Chadwick: Trying to guesstimate what I would do if I left is difficult, but I know enough about myself to know I wouldn’t act Mormon. I’m not saying I’d end up in the gutter (or that people who leave in general end up in the gutter), just that I personally wouldn’t act Mormon.

    The evil is Satan and his attempt to get in the way of the plan, which is the whole point of being here. His influence isn’t clearly delineable in utilitarian terms, although in general, yes, wickedness wasn’t happiness and all that.

    That’s great that you go to Church for the reasons you list, although I’ll push back a little on the idea that one reason for being a member isn’t better than the other. Based on the internal logic of the Church’s theology, membership derives its theological benefits from various buy-ins. Given the Church’s own premises, somebody taking the sacrament out of habit to not look weird among the tribe isn’t the same thing as somebody taking it to renew their covenants. Of course, if the Church is viewed more as a social tribe that helps and supports each other (I’m not saying that’s your view, just giving an example), then given that premise you’re probably right, as long as somebody isn’t a member to, say, defraud people or something patently evil like that.

  6. Stephen, can you expand on your understanding of this idea: “The evil is Satan and his attempt to get in the way of the plan, which is the whole point of being here.”

    If the plan is for people to learn to distinguish good from evil, and to become more like God by choosing good, isn’t Satan’s role as source of evil actually an integral part of the plan?

  7. It seems to me that God is pretty intent on nudging us into fellowship with Him and with each other by whatever means will work. Deciding that your theological reasons for being in covenant are better than somebody else’s social reasons seems like it would be a real impediment to the kind of covenanted belonging God wants us to strive for.

  8. @ food allergy: You’re absolutely right, Satan’s participation is part of the plan because we have to have opposition, but that doesn’t mean Satan and God have tea on weekends (the book of Job notwithstanding); the opposition to God’s children following and becoming like God is necessary, but that doesn’t mean it’s not evil.

    @Kristine: Oh, I have no problem with God nudging people using the social, but presumably the social isn’t the end point and shouldn’t be mistaken as one. Now, if you view the Church the same way I view, say, Islam or Orthodox Judaism in that the particularistic claims are not true but it is still a powerful vessel for God to work through, then I suppose given that premise you’re right, but if you grant validity to what the institution claims about itself then that’s kind of the point of it all, isn’t it?

  9. What with long hair down my back and a long beard down my front I look more like a bedraggled biker than a “Mormon.” But such has become my appearance after I hit the wall of depression and retreated into my cave–which reflects a retreat to my natural cultural self. But even so, I am 100% orthodox with regard to the foundational claims to the church. I love, Love, LOVE the church.

  10. “there is evil, not just a they-mean-well, but actual, reified Manichean evil that is in an actual battle with good, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the main protagonist in said battle”.

    Yes, I’ve always believed this (quick note: The ancient Manichæns believed there were two powerful opposing deities. A powerful Principle caused all of the good in the universe while an opposing Principle caused all the evil.). But there is currently a big problem: who are The Saints choosing to follow? Yah, I’m going to go there. I am going to modify a Roger Terry post – using the opposing deities proposed by Mani – to make his point. Terry mentions 13 characteristics of Jesus, represented here as the Good Principle. Then he mentions the 13 opposite characteristics representing the Evil Principle. The opposites read like this:

    LOVE/animosity, COMPASSION/vindictiveness, SELFLESSNESS/egotism, HONESTY/dishonesty, HUMILITY/arrogance, CHASTITY/infidelity, BENEVOLENCE/spite, KINDNESS/cruelty, TRUTHFULNESS/lying, DECENCY/crudeness, LOYALTY/disaffection, SERENITY/anger, HONOR/corruption. So if Jesus is the leader of the powerful principle of good, who do you think Br. Terry presents as the embodiment of the opposing principle of evil? (I ask, anticlimactically). Why, it’s Donald Trump. Who wooda saw that comin’?

    So, Stephen, much like you, I have always viewed the prophet-led LDS’s as the great protagonist in the battle for good. They are the stripling warriors who would brush away the very elect who had been deceived and marched forward with Christ, the royal Master, leading against the foe. (sorry for the militant rhetoric). Now, I’m just a 70 year old dude who is very confused and doesn’t really have a firm answer to the question “who’s on the Lord’s side, who?”

  11. Opus Dei Mormonism is just as stupid, depressing & pointless as Opus Dei Catholicism. I suspect that practitioners of the Catholic variety suffer likewise from the same low opinion you have of yourself. Your – our – beloved, inspired, glorious institution still can’t figure out what a homosexual is or why a large majority of its adherents fell under the spell of a vulgar political demagogue. Your declared fealty and devotion is really the easy way, isn’t it?

  12. Stephen C.–no, I do not view the Church the same way as you view Islam or Judaism. But I do view it as working through a covenant. It’s hard to be in a covenant relationship with people whom you believe to be converted in a manner that is inferior to your conversion. I don’t think it’s at all clear that God cares nearly as much about right belief as you do–our baptismal covenants, in fact, say almost nothing about belief, and a great deal about how we ought to relate to our fellow Saints.

  13. When I was you age Stephen, I believed the church was one of the goodies. In the age of the internet when I can read your blogs, and a few others I am much less sure.

    With Seeker I am disturbed that 80% of members over 40 could vote republican, but that they could vote for trump even after he said he would not accept the result, in other words vote for America to be a dictatorship, with trump the dictator, incomprehensible.

  14. Stephen C., maybe I misunderstand the premise of your post. You present such a different view of members than what I experience! Or maybe you’re only referring to Very Online Mormons?

    Sincere question: do you really hold to the idea that members who espouse a love for the Church but disregard its foundational truth claims are “common”? In my lived experience, the members who have an avowed love for the Church are very much stalwart in their belief in the truth claims. (Conversely, the members who want to drop, change or soft-pedal major, foundational truth claims are mostly just online, in my experience.) And in my experience, these believing members come in different looking vessels; they can look fresh-faced and ready for the cover of a Church magazine, or they can look rough and unrefined. Some are young; some are wrinkled and worn. But the common denominator is a belief in the core tenets of the Church.

    I truly don’t see this phenomenon of active-but-only-cultural Mormons as “common.” At all! I don’t know who you are talking about. Therefore, the rest of your post is just kind of “off” for me. Do you mind telling us what part of the world you live in? What are the general demographics of your unit’s members? Or again, maybe you’re just referring to online chatter.

    I’m so confused.

  15. Hunter: Yes, I am indeed referring to a very niche, largely online group, and the fact that they’re so niche kind of makes a different point that the cultural Mormon model, while it might work for some people and more power to them, doesn’t really have the heft to carry the faith on its own without the believers.

    Kristine: If person A and person B are making a two-way promise, but person A is just going through the motions and doesn’t really think B is actually there or cares, then yes, that agreement is going to mean something different to person B than if A was sincerely communicating with them, so I have no problem believing that God is going to view sacrament participation of somebody going through the motions for social reasons differently than somebody for whom it’s an intentional covenant.

  16. Stephen are you sure “the social isn’t the end point”? The older I get the more I kind of wonder if it actually is. Christ wants us to be one with him and each other as he is one with the Father. At-one-ment. Doesn’t this sound social?

  17. “Social reasons” could be commitment to Zion, love of neighbor, belief in Jesus’ teachings about how to love one another… I just don’t think you have a way to know whether your reasons are the best reasons. (And I’m not sure why you would want to know).

  18. I’m sorry to belabor the point, but it keeps bugging me. The notion that the highest form of religiosity is belief in theological assertions is a way-station on the road from modernity to secularism. Religion that is mostly about belief is convenient for the state, and for capitalism, but it’s not what Christianity was about until after the Renaissance, at least. Here’s Hugh of St. Victor’s description of how the Rule of St. Benedict worked to instill faith:

    “The novitiate is the road to beatitude: virtue leads to the latter, but it is discipline imposed on the body which forms virtue. Body and spirit are but one: disordered movements of the former betray outwardly the disarranged interior of the soul. But inversely, “discipline” can act on the soul through the body–in ways of dressing (in habitu), in posture and movement (in gestu), in speech (in locutione), and in table manners (in mensa).”

    On this view, taking the sacrament is a way of instilling belief as well as a manifestation of pre-existing belief. The very best things about Mormonism have always been this sort of dutiful behavior that can lead to right belief (see, e.g., David O. McKay on the testimony he received, “as a natural sequence to the performance of duty”). I just don’t see any evidence that the performance of religion as outward manifestation of conviction is inherently superior to the performance of religion as a dutiful expression of faith or hope.

  19. I can buy that as long as it is hope or yearning *toward the religious thing*. I love Levi Peterson’s point about this:

    “Often when I recognize how intensely I yearn for eternal life, I find myself elevated and encouraged. I find that my yearning has transformed itself into hope and I find myself responding to the sacrament as a ceremony of hope. On many Sundays while I participate in this solemn ritual, I ponder the possibility that Christ will one day resurrect me, and I am filled with gratitude that such a thing may come to pass.”

    But yes, I’m still sticking to what I think is the commonsensical idea that outright non-belief while going through the motions doesn’t mean the same thing as when believers treat it as if it has God’s imprimatur.

  20. If we consider what Nephi’s trying to teach his people (in 2Ne 25) about the Law of Moses vs redemption through Christ one of the things we come away with (IMO) is a sense of empty praxis on the one hand vs meaningful praxis on the other. And I think this is what undergirds Stephen’s argument.

    Now that’s not to say that our understanding–or even our motives–has to be perfect for our participation in the rites of the church to be acceptable–or even edifying. But it does suggest (IMO) that when we have a good sense of the underlying purpose(s) for such rites they become more meaningful to the participant.

    And I should add–when Stephen mentions theology he’s not pitting “theology” as a category against praxis. He’s merely suggesting (IMO) that religious praxis can be hollow without sacred knowledge.

  21. I suspect that in the parable of the ten virgins that the five unprepared ones are the culture Mormons (or natural Mormons as you put it), who like the healthy lifestyle but might find the doctrines an annoyance.
    With a sincere belief in the theology and doctrines of the church, it should transform all of us, Porter Rockwell(s) included. You can’t just say that you believe, but not change into becoming someone more Christlike. Even in outward appearance.
    I couldn’t fathom the energy to be a natural Mormon without a testimony of all of the doctrines. The church is true, regardless of how much I want it to be or not.
    Great post Stephen.

  22. Coming in late as I had to think about this post for a while.

    The thing is… The OP seems to divide people into only two classes: Those who are committed and believe the church’s theological claims and those who are not committed but like the social/lifestyle aspects. I find this to be a false dichotomy, mostly because I don’t fit into either one. I’m a believer in Deity. I have faith in Deity. I seek a relationship with Deity. I have zero interest in the church organization or mandatory theological claims. I white-knuckle my way through church services because I so don’t fit in socially and find the theology-as-presented-at-church unsatisfying. But I love the opportunities for service and learning and love exploring theology with Mormonism as a starting point. I find serving my fellow man and a bottomless desire for exploration what most greatly develops my spirituality.

    This is me. I imagine there are thousands of other shades of gray between the two types of people you described as well. Why does there only have to be one way to be a true Disciple of Christ?

  23. @ReTX: You’re right, I was pointing out that it seemed like a lot of the cultural Mormons seem really Mormony, but of course there is a wide diversity in who walks through the Church door on Sundays. I wish you the best in your particular religious journey,

  24. I could write a similar post about how I am
    Not a natural exmormon. I look so Mormon. Imagine your blond skinny zone leader turned 45 with five kids and a mid level management science career. But like you say you stay because you believe. At some point I couldn’t say that I believed and staying felt like a betrayal of my values. I found that my morals and sense of right and wrong was not dependent on the church. I didn’t feel like breaking all the commandments just because I left, although I have found a cup of coffee or tea to be a delightful way to start my day.

  25. “Imagine your blond skinny zone leader turned 45 with five kids and a mid level management science career.”

    That made made me laugh and nailed it on the head.

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