We all have our people, that community of folks we really connect with because of common interests, perspectives, and goals. I can think of times in my life where I felt like I belonged to a community. It happened when I was trying to get through a rigorous engineering degree. As I progressed into the more advanced courses, class sizes got smaller and I found myself going to the same set of classes with the same basic set of people. We would form study groups and grind away at homework, labs, study sessions together. We bonded over a common struggle to survive and thrive as we worked toward the degree.
After, my first job out of school was with Motorola. They had this program where you spent three months in a study program with other new hires and then were placed in a position after its conclusion. I made really good friends in that program and am still in contact with some who I met. We bonded over our common degree and career and company with similar goals, similar skills and similar educational backgrounds.
And obviously, we see it in our political environment, mostly Democrats hang out with Democrats and Republicans with Republicans. Not always, not completely, but largely it’s true. We see it with income levels, poor people live near and associate with poor people, rich people associate with other rich people. We want to be with people like us.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s true, we also tend to cluster around religion affiliation as well. But church forces an engagement with others at a different level than otherwise might occur. I can’t really recommend this article strongly enough: Why The Church is as True as the Gospel, written by Eugene England, co-founder of Dialogue, an independent journal of Mormon studies. It gets to the essence of this post and in it, England pushes back on the idea that the gospel is perfect and pure, but the institutional, earth bound church is susceptible to the failings of imperfect people.
In fact, he takes that notion and turns it on its head. First of all, the gospel:
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.
Even after a revelation is received and expressed by a prophet, it has to be understood, taught, translated into other languages, and expressed in programs, manuals, sermons, and essays—in a word, interpreted. And that means that at least one more set of limitations of language and world-view enters in. I always find it perplexing when someone asks a teacher or speaker if what she is saying is the pure gospel or merely her own interpretation. Everything anyone says is essentially an interpretation. Even simply reading the scriptures to others involves interpretation, in choosing both what to read in a particular circumstance and how to read it (tone and emphasis). Beyond that point, anything we do becomes less and less “authoritative” as we move into explication and application of the scriptures, that is, as we teach “the gospel.
So, in terms of understanding doctrine, in terms of really understanding God’s words for us, it’s hopeless, really, if accuracy and fullness is the goal. The mere vastness of what God knows and understands, the entirety of the universe, summarized and filtered into imperfectly rendered earth-bound languages, carried into the heads of limited, imperfect, though called of God prophets, then re-translated through writing or speech as it goes from them to us in a variety of different languages. It’s too much to ask of the gospel to get that right. It’s too much to ask of us. So, when we say, “I know the church is true”, we aren’t saying there are no errors. When we say we have the fulness of the gospel, it doesn’t mean we have it all understand and received.
So, what do these faith statements mean then?
England transitions into a discussion of opposition and paradox:
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” (2 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—even beyond God. In context, it clearly suggests that not only is contradiction and opposition a natural pan of human experience, something God uses for his redemptive purposes, but also that opposition is at the very heart of things; it is intrinsic to the two most fundamental realities—intelligence and matter, what Lehi calls “things to act and things to be acted upon.” According to Lehi, opposition provides the universe with energy and meaning, even makes possible the existence of God and everything else: Without it, “all things must have vanished away” (2 Ne.2:13
So, if we want to understand God and his gospel, we need to dig right into paradox, contradiction and opposition. We subject ourselves to difficulty, difficulty and fulness.
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. I believe that the better any church or organization is at such grappling, the “truer” it is. And I believe we can accurately call the LDS church “the true Church” only if we mean it is the best organized method for doing that and is made and kept so by revelations that have come and continue to come from God, however “darkly” they of necessity emerge.
So, the church is true not because it contains no errors, it’s true because it puts its members into a position to grow through grappling with opposition and paradox. How is the church set up to do this?
It’s because the Mormon church is “radically” lay, meaning, almost every clergical position within the Mormon church is done voluntarily, in one’s spare time, by someone untrained for the position. And more, no one aspires for the positions they are called to, they are called by others through revelation and inspiration. And everyone who joins the church is asked to serve in some capacity somewhere. We preside over one another, we teach each other, we serve each other in a variety of ways big and small. And literally every member is given an assignment to watch over a few other families in their congregation. We call this home and visiting teaching. I’m called to serve with another member of the ward as companions, and together we’re assigned families to visit regularly, and if done right with the intent to connect with, bond to and serve. W
The church also does this by organizing congregations geographically. With few exceptions, nobody chooses where and with whom they attend church. They attend based on where they live.
And when we convert into Mormonism, we do so through covenants and ordinances. We promise to “mourn with those who mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” We make this commitment through the baptismal ordinance and that through it we are symbolically adopted into a ward family who covenant to welcome you, to love you and to support you.
Why does church matter? Because, essentially, it turns you out of yourself with the idea that when you lose your life for the sake of others, you’ll find it again. It matters because I can attend each week where I’m given a sermon from a 12 year old boy speaking in public for the first time, or my daughter performing a hymn on the violin, or my neighbor knocking on my door with cookies hoping I’m doing ok.
The church matters because it forces you into community and asks you to serve them.