We seem to live in a time of religious change and polarization. In the US, as in Western Europe, secularization marches steadily on, as highlighted by the recent Pew poll. A large number of young Americans have disaffiliated themselves from religious institutions; “nones,” or people with no religious affiliation, now make about about one fifth of the US population. On the other hand, fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Hindus (and even Buddhists, in places like Burma) seem to be on the march. Not to be outdone, the anti-theist movement usually described as the “New Atheists” has adapted a fundamentalist hermeneutic to the condemnation of religious texts and movements. They have attained considerable influence in non-religious circles, undermining the more measured approach to religion that has historically appealed to atheists and agnostics in the Anglophone world. Even as figures such as Pope Francis have attempted to maintain a space for traditional and non-fundamentalist approaches to religion, and individuals like Alain de Botton have tried to bring the useful aspects of religion to non-believers, it appears that the demilitarized zone between theistic fundamentalists and atheistic fundamentalists is steadily diminishing.
In such a context, anyone whose faith commitments do not fit either of these camps must sometimes feel the need to explain what work his or her religion does in his or her life. This is something I want to do better. When I have tried to explain my religious alignment to more fundamentalist believers—both within and without my own Latter-day Saint tradition—they often wince at the limited place that authority (personal and scriptural) plays in my personal faith. Non-religious friends sometimes express pity that I would still persist in “self-deception” after I had concluded that many of the faith claims associated with my religious tradition are not likely to be factual. Here, I want to express what my faith tradition has done for me and does for people like me (of which, I believe, there are a few).
A Relatable God
Near the opening of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer lies the assertion, “There is but one true and living God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.” This is a God that may be revered, but it is not a God to whom a human can truly relate; his most salient traits are aspects in which he is unlike humans. Certainly, my faith tradition teaches me that God is both good and wise, but that God is not simply to be worshiped from an insurmountable distance. He (or they) is to be sought and approached. He (or they) is like humans, only more so. God feels deeply and weeps, like humans. God is intertwined with the material universe, like humans. God, incarnate as Jesus Christ, suffered all the pains that men and women can suffer so he could empathize with human suffering and lead human beings from human passions to divine passions. In my own struggles with depression, this has been an important source of meaning: my prayers are not delivered to a stranger to pointless suffering but to a God who embraces the pain that is inseparable from existence. This view of deity stands in stark contrast to the view currently prevalent in orthodox forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. From the standpoint of the current orthodoxies in the Abrahamic religions, my God seems small and anthropomorphic. From my viewpoint, their God inspires awe and dread, but no sense of relationship.
As my faith has developed, I have come to see that this dialog is as old as the Pentateuch. In the first chapter of Genesis, we see a transcendent, sovereign, unapproachable God who interacts with the universe only through his words. In the next few chapters, we see a God who empathizes and experiments, who asks questions and learns, who plans his trips to the garden he planted so that they coincide with the cool part of the day. My faith does not tell me to completely reject the first view of God but to modulate it with understanding gleaned from the second. God is powerful, wise, and good; God is also not entirely different from us.
Personal Communication with God
The advantage of a relatable God is that you can have a relationship with him (or them). Any relationship is based on mutual communication and my faith tradition teaches me that two-way communication with God is available. For me, this ongoing conversation with deity is the last recourse and final authority in settling questions about what is right. For me, turns in this conversation are not limited to prayers and answers to prayers; study—whether in scriptures, scientific works, or the writing of thoughtful people—is often the means by which I hear the voice of God. Indeed, conversations with those I love often reveal flashes of wisdom that I understand as divine. Of course, when I explain this dialog to those who do not understand interaction with God in the same way, a natural question is, “How do you know you are not simply deceiving yourself or placing your own words in the mouth of God?” I understand the skepticism, but feel a better question is “Why do you believe that some of the thoughts, ideas, and words that enter your life are from God?” My answer, also not entirely satisfying, is that embracing those thoughts, ideas, and words leads me to act and develop in ways that make me more effective, kinder, and more humane. If this is the case, even if there is nothing divine about these insights, I have lost nothing by my following them. My fellow human beings have lost nothing by my following of them either.
If the most important thing about God is that you can have a relationship with him (or them), then the next logical step is to see the cultivation of human relationships as the most important aspect of being human. My faith teaches me that relationships are eternal just as individuals are eternal. The LDS Doctrine and Covenants (130:2) teaches, “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory.” Among most contemporary Mormons, this is understood to mean marital and family relationships, but I understand it as something much broader and all-encompassing. Mormon founder Joseph Smith taught: “Friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.” I see this aphorism as pointing towards a grand network of love, neighbor-to-neighbor, transcending the bounds of time and death. I see our lives as a foreshadowing, foretaste, and rehearsal for an eternity of infinite connectedness.
Text and Tradition
Relationships can be asynchronous as well as synchronous. They can be mediated by texts and traditions. If personal revelation is supreme, the doctrine of sola scriptura is excluded. If scriptural texts are not the final authority—indeed, if they are subject to the vagaries of human authorship and human transmission—what good can they be? My faith teaches me to see them as bridges of connectedness, traversing space and time. I see scriptural texts, like the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and even the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses as reflections of human beings, in various places and at various times, grasping towards God. It is senseless to try to use these texts to smack down those who believe differently, as if they resolved questions of belief or practice by themselves. However, I have found that using them build relationships with, and learn from the experiences of, members of the human family reared in radically different cultures and contexts, is an enriching experience.
Books of scripture are not the only texts that can play this role. Historical narratives and traditions belonging to a community of faith can allow us to develop nourishing relationships with others. This is not to say that only relationships within the same community of faith are possible or valuable. However, cultivating an initial relationship with someone who is obviously connected to you can often act as a springboard to future relationships that are more remote. That is not the only value of faith traditions. For me, the fact that I belong to a tradition gives me a feeling of groundedness and orientation—a starting point. This does not mean that I believe that all answers are found within the confines of my tradition, only that I believe it contains useful and interesting answers and precedents.
Equality and the Pursuit of Zion
One tradition that means a great deal to me, and that is reflected in my political as well as my religious views, is a striving for a better society characterized by justice, righteousness, and equality. The early years of the Mormon movement were characterized with a overwhelming endeavor: the build a society worthy of the presence of God, to which Christ could return and in which Christ would dwell. This is the kind of society that is described in the Book of Mormon, following the appearance of Christ, and it inspired the early adherents of Mormonism to aspire to a society and an economy with the same characteristics. Mormons called this just society Zion. The Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations, most of which were received by Joseph Smith, is littered with references to this goal:
- D&C 49:20: But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.
- D&C 51:3: Wherefore, let my servant Edward Partridge, and those whom he has chosen, in whom I am well pleased, appoint unto this people their portions, every man equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs.
- D&C 70:14: Nevertheless, in your temporal things you shall be equal, and this not grudgingly, otherwise the abundance of the manifestations of the Spirit shall be withheld.
- D&C 104:16: This is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.
This aspect of the tradition remained robust well up past the time that Brigham Young, the second leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Mountain Saints”), led his followers to Utah. It was also reflected in the practices of another branch of the Mormon tradition, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Prairie Saints”) or Community of Christ, until far more recently.
Now, this aspiration is not part of Mormon practice (though many Mormons cherish a vague hope that, some day, Latter-day Saints will establish Zion). For now, it is assumed, rapacious capitalism in the Social Darwinist mold is the order of the day, perhaps tempered by some charitable giving and a modest workfare program. My understanding of this tradition is different: a society that tolerates extremes of inequality is unacceptable to God and it is the duty of those who claim to build his kingdom to lift up the poor and marginalized, whether through personal sacrifice or legislative means. Joseph Smith required voluntary “consecration” of property; in building a new society in the west, Brigham Young used obligatory means to distribute land and food to Mormon settlers. My faith tells me that equality is important and while voluntary giving is the best way to “exalt the poor” by making the rich low, the social contract obliges the rich to accept being “made low” to life up the poor even when they are not personally inclined to use their wealth in this fashion.
My goal in writing this essay is less to convince you of the tenets that stand out in my system of belief than to explain how these tenets follow from my understanding of the Mormon faith. It is to explain how someone can feel embedded in and enriched by the Latter-day Saint tradition without adopting a fundamentalist world view. More broadly, it is to remind readers that religious life is not limited to suicide bombings, abortion clinic protests, sanctimonious “National Prayer Breakfasts,” and anti-science educational initiatives. It is a truism that humanists are capable of living meaningful and ethical lives without religious belief. Acknowledged. However, assenting to this assertion does not negate the proposition that grounding in a religious traditions has also helped people live meaningful and ethical lives for centuries. I suggest that nonbelievers and believers can live together with mutual respect and appreciation if they are willing to acknowledge the functional value of their differing systems of belief, no matter what Richard Dawkins or the Family Research Council claim.