The problem with religion is that it’s old, tied to its tradition and slow to evolve. I can imagine how religion dominated life in ancient history before we had a really good understanding of how the world worked. Much of what we didn’t understand, we attributed to God. The Old Testament, in particular, reads this way, but all of our sacred texts of nearly every religion is rooted in pre-modern perspectives. Historically, church has taken a larger than life role in our lives, from politics, to science, to history, to art, our lives were centered around faith and religious leaders dominated the conversation.
And it’s hard for religious conservatives to really shake this over-attachment to magic and miracles, modern day Christians still believe the world is 6000 years old, believe in intelligent design as a scientific explanation for creation, and build well-funded museums around these ideas.
But people are leaving churches, conservative or otherwise. I’m wondering if it’s because the church has lost its authority. It’s gotten too many things wrong in the past and as we learn more and more about the world, science, history and scholarship in general have provided more accurate answers that have replaced and refuted previous religious and sometimes superstitious views. Not only do we feel like we can live without our religion, we lose our faith in the religious view altogether. Rather, we trust our experts and specialists for the final word. We are becoming societies of specialists and experts. Secularism is becoming our new national religion.
But perhaps the answer is not to leave church, but to re-center what church was always best at. Because Mormonism was never about Mormonism anyway. Just like science is not about science, or art is not really about art, or music is not just about music. Everything we do is about something else. We’re all just trying to figure things out. We’re trying to understand what it’s means to be human. We’re trying to wake up. We’re trying to figure out what it means to be truly and completely alive.
And religion has something to say about all of this. First of all, there’s still plenty we don’t know and religion fundamentally is a response to the unknown. Yes, sometimes the religious voice is wrong, but we have to at times get things wrong before we can get things right. Perhaps it’s faith that helps us take the first step into the darkness until our scientists and historians can catch up and scour the details, correcting the false ideas and replacing them with new understandings. Faith is our way of dealing with the uncertainty of life, the vastness of the universe, and the relative insignificance of a single person subsisting in this vastness. Ross Douthat in his book, Bad Religion:
What defines this consensus, above all— what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta— is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding.
Thus orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow also essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament’s God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God’s Kingdom for all the extremes of human life— fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.
Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (Kindle Locations 312-316). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
That’s what religion does best, its points in a certain direction but doesn’t quite give specific answers. I feel like those times in our past when religion tried to answer questions with too much specificity, it got the answers wrong.
And my faith, Mormonism, builds on this Christian foundation and offers something more and unique, a few small examples:
- Mormonism presents a God who weeps, a God who suffers, a God who cares for us and is linked intimately in with us. Terryl and Fiona Givens put it this way:
The answer , it turns out, is that God is not exempt from emotional pain. Exempt? On the contrary, God’s pain is as infinite as His love. He weeps because He feels compassion….
It is not their wickedness, but their “misery,” not their disobedience, but their “suffering,” that elicits the God of Heaven’s tears. Not until Gethsemane and Golgotha does the scriptural record reveal so unflinchingly the costly investment of God’s love in His people, the price at which He placed His heart upon them. There could be nothing in this universe, or in any possible universe, more perfectly good, absolutely beautiful, worthy of adoration, and deserving of emulation, than this God of love and kindness and vulnerability.
That no matter who we are, no matter how uncredentialed we feel, no matter how unaccomplished or unworthy, or friendless, the God of Heaven loves us individually and will weep with us as we suffer.
- That opposition in life is at the very core of our theology, “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things”. Eugene England says of this statement that it “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).
- That God’s interaction with us is intimate and full of grace. That the creation was a grace, that the fall was a rejection of that grace, and the atonement was re-uniting each of us to the original gift of grace, the three pillars of our faith, the creation, the fall, and the atonement. This is what Adam Miller refers to as a “general theory of grace” and it’s littered throughout the Book of Mormon, such as in 2 Nephi 2:8:
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
- Finally, that God wants to save all His children and not just individually, but in their relationships, sealing the relationships we’ve created and nurtured here to continue on, perfecting ourselves individually and in our relationships well on into the next life.
There are so many more. But religion is really all about where we come from, why we are here and how we should organize our lives according to God’s will while we are here, and where we should be going. Religion provides meaning to the mundane. It speaks into the vastness beyond the boundary between what is known and what is unknown.
Late in Joseph Smith’s life, he wrote a letter to a newspaper editor, John Wentworth, providing a basic summary of Mormon beliefs. In the letter, Joseph Smith includes what we now know as the thirteen articles of faith. The last one is my favorite:
We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul-We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
This is what it means to be Christian, this is what it means to be Mormon. We believe all things. We hope all things. Being a Mormon, being a Christian means believing in truth no matter where we find it. If it’s true, we claim it. We offer our perspectives, but we’re open to others. We listen. But we also have something to say.