A familiar refrain: “In the next life, things will be made right.” Closely related to “We don’t understand why now, but God will reveal x in the next world.”
These are theological propositions intended to provide spiritual and emotional peace in the wake of unresolved suffering or injustice, or intellectual peace when all the pieces of a theological system do not appear to fit together.
I understand the impulse to transfer the possibility of these different kinds of peace to a future stage of existence. We feel that if our suffering or confusion has no chance, ever, of resolution than it will become impossibly unbearable. And besides, we don’t know everything, right? Surely there are some things that won’t be known until the next life.
Usually confident (often overly so) in our present knowledge, encountering the jagged piece that just doesn’t seem to fit no matter how we position it can feel overwhelming. After all, if this death or that unremitting pain or that declaration that seems to run counter to the rest of our beliefs exceeds what our knowledge seemed equipped to encompass, then what does that mean for the system as a whole? Could the entire structure be compromised? Could this one thing threaten the existence of my entire world?
When this happens we often outsource our theology to a world ostensibly outfitted to perfectly handle what didn’t seem to make sense in this world. In other words, instead of doing the hard work of theological expansion, creativity, and, especially, charity, we choose to export that which doesn’t appear to fit to an essentially unknowable realm where it can, as far as this world is concerned, be forever passed over in silence.
Theological outsourcing is as much a sociopolitical move as it is a theological one. When there is an idea or group that is perceived to threaten the collective, outsourcing can be an effective way to control the discourse about those ideas and groups. That which cannot be said about a subject can often have far worse social and political consequences for that subject than those things that are affirmed. The place of LGBTQ people within Mormon theology is an example of this. Whatever is affirmed in the present about those who are not heterosexual, the fact remains that the place of such people within the larger cosmological framework is a mystery, both here and in the eternities. Consequently, the more we are forced to say that we do not have the language or resources to account for such people in this world, or worse, the more we resort to eschatological mythology–“God will change their orientations/identities in the next life,” “They’ll be ministering angels,” etc–the easier it becomes to consider and treat them as enemies, pariahs, or second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Similar outsourcing occurs with women, people of color, the unmarried, etc.
The place of the Afterlife is an important element in most religions, and is particularly detailed and robust in Mormonism. But the more we rely on outsourcing our theology to the next world–particularly those aspects of theology that directly impact people here and now–the weaker our theology as the way we understand our religion and our place in the world as practitioners of our religion becomes. The extent of outsourcing is proportionate to the loss of accountability we hold for maintaining the universality of the love of Christ as it applies to our understanding of our religion. That is the theological work that always remains, even in the absence of explicit texts or new revelation.