Why the Church Is Not Mormonism

I recently re-read Eugene England’s phenomenal essay, Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do so now. If you have read it, I urge you to read it again. There, England argues that the Church is necessary for us as a “school of love” by forcing us to interact with and serve those who are different from us, hold often widely different views, and who might cause us pain. (We, of course, can pose that same danger to others). This in particular has resonated with me at key moments over the years:

The es­say’s main message is to that majority, who set the cultural tone of the Church. We are the ones who must constantly remind ourselves that the Church is not a place to go for comfort, to get our own prejudices validated, but a place to comfort others, even to be afflicted by them. It is a revealed and effec­tive opportunity to give—to learn and experience the meaning of the Atonement and its power to change us through uncon­ditional love. It is a place where we have many chances to re­pent and forgive—if, for a change, we can focus on our own failings and the needs of others to grow through their and our imperfect efforts.

England touches here on a crucial truth–that we need one another, not simply for mutual comfort (after all, commanded comfort tells us that the usual and more familiar situation is alienation and lack of compassion), though giving and receiving comforting and mourning are fundamental to who we should be with one another. But we also spiritually need to be intellectually, morally, and emotionally challenged. Without this kind of resistance, we become hardened, both to others and to our own possibilities. We need to be faced with the opportunities for intellectual, moral, and emotional growth, growth which almost always only comes through intellectual, moral, and emotional repentance and redemption.

Arguably, if you are not a fairly standard orthodox and conservative participant in Church life, you’re possibly getting as much opportunity for growth and repentance as you can bear. For some, it becomes too much to bear. And recent events make it quite tempting to conclude that for those in positions of leadership, it is all too easy to deny yourself the gift to be spiritually challenged by those you have been called to serve.

But England’s school of love is not without its problems, in much the same way that John Hick’s response to the problem of the compatible existence of both evil and a benevolent God is that this world is a place of soul-making. Hick argues that in a paradise of bliss and and goodness, we would not have the opportunity to learn and grow. Evil in the world provides just that resistance that is necessary for us to become better than we are. However, there is much that happens to this world’s people that is manifestly not soul-making but soul-destroying, while others are born into lives of relative comfort and ease. True it is, that most people are familiar with trials and challenges that have made them better; but genuine evil is genuine evil precisely because of its capacity to twist, corrupt, and annihilate. Genuine evil is not a trial; it is a catastrophe.

Similarly, but on a vastly reduced scale, there is much that happens within our Church families and even within some Church teachings, or interpretation of Church teachings, that is devastatingly hurtful and in some cases soul-damaging. While I firmly believe that the core of England’s thesis about the Church experience being one of learning to love and associate with others whom you would have never had the opportunity to love otherwise is generally true, I don’t know that it can be applied to every situation. There are certainly many people who have left the Church and now say that they are much more at peace with themselves and others than they were as active participants.

But even if you can in theory apply the necessity of the Church experience for everyone within the Mormon fold, this, I think, is also true: Mormonism is more than the Church alone. I don’t mean here to oppose Mormonism to the Church, nor to create some dichotomy between the “gospel” and the “Church.” I mean that the event that is Mormonism, the idea of the Mormon world, is more expansive than the Church. Mormonism cannot be reduced to the Church. The Church for the vast majority of Mormons is of central importance, but it is a mistake to see the two as equivalent. Some time ago, I characterized the Mormon theologian in this way:

It is true that she invites the world to the Mormon table. Like Francisco de Quevedo, the 17th century Spanish Baroque writer, “Nothing for [her] is disenchanting. The world has cast a spell on [her].”  She believes the table is large enough to accommodate it, indeed, that it was built for this very purpose. But not so that Mormonism can overlay itself on the world—in fact, Nephi saw that institutionally it would cover the earth only in pockets and branches. But this would be enough, insists the Mormon theologian, to inject the impulse of elemental Mormonism into the rivers and streams and oceans of the earth, becoming part of every landscape, being ingested and digested by the various peoples that cover its length and breadth, until—latent, submerged, absorbed, Mormonism as distinct, exclusionary culture would disappear (or, at least, recede into insignificance by comparison), having drenched the world in an immanent fullness and abundance. The remnant that would remain would inspire ordinary people to do precisely what the Mormon theologian had been trying to accomplish all along—gathering, welding, joining—the theological essence (if there are essences) of Mormon life.

This, then, marks the Mormon theologian as thoroughly Mormon in a way that cannot be predicated of more doctrinal and systematic theologians. The Mormon theologian is immanently Mormon because her Mormonism is thoroughly immanent, immanent to the point of being hidden and concealed because, quite simply, it is everywhere, unspoken, nearly undetectable, like the oxygen that makes a living world possible—universal precondition for life, most abundant element in the foundations of the earth, but nearly always unnoticed. Not that she never refers, lovingly, to her Mormon world with its precious people and objects—but in these cases the immanence wavers and falters and arches outward toward transcendence.

If the First Vision was the quiet beginning of the Mormon event, this beginning happened years before the formation of the Church. And it continued in branches and rivulets not just in organizational reformations (Community of Christ, fundamentalism, etc) but in the lives of people we will never know, in the architectures of knowledge and revelation that have never been recorded. As Mormonism has spread to other lands and been ingested and re-purposed by other peoples–sometimes alongside the Church, sometimes independently of it–it continues to to expand and transform in ways that will not be contained, not by the Church and not by any person or group. The Church may be the Mormon home of most Mormon people, but it is not Mormonism. Mormonism is places, ideas, literatures, music, art, politics that we will never fully grasp or retain. It will always escape us, bending around and hurtling past our preconceptions and certainties about what the Mormon world must contain or exclude. The most recent and notorious example is surely Ordain Women–anathema to much of the Church, but thoroughly Mormon in many important ways.

Say what you will about the institution of the Church–blessed repository of saving ordinances and human salvation, perfectly led by God’s will through his chosen servants, horribly damaging to its members, obsessed with obedience and subservience, woefully underachieving in its potential to bless the world, a fairly balanced mix of good and bad, etc etc.–Mormonism is underneath and beyond all of this, immanent in the world and its peoples in a way the Church not only never could be but was never supposed to be. Mormonism is that which was unleashed, that which could never be contained in any system or institution, and will continue burrowing its way into the nooks and crannies of the world no matter what becomes of the Church.

Conversely, the Church isn’t reducible to Mormonism either. For any of its human, institutional flaws, the objects, and rituals, and ordinances, and customs, and ways of relating that are singular to church life necessarily remain in the Church. They can by definition only be found here. To part with those is to necessarily leave them behind. But again, we are mistaken if we think those things are the whole of Mormonism.

The Church is vitally important to both its defenders and detractors. Our relationship with it is deeply personal, no matter where we fall along that spectrum, and the struggle to understand it and/or reconcile with it will be ongoing. But the Mormon lifeworld is much larger than the Church, and it always will be.

 

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