A Mormon Voyage

In his brief history of India’s geography, Land of the Seven Rivers, Sanjeev Sanyal describes how India’s maritime prowess fell into decline beginning at the end of the twelfth century.

Indian merchants had once been explorers and risk-takers who criss-crossed the oceans in their stitched ships. They could be found in large numbers in ports from the Persian Gulf to China…Suddenly…they almost all disappeared.

What happened?

…there appears to have been a shift in India’s cultural and civilizational attitude towards innovation and risk-taking…foreigners who visited India at that time…commented that contemporary Indian scholars were so full of themselves that they were unwilling to learn anything from the rest of the world.

He then describes a similar decline in the Chinese domination of the seas, concluding that:

Like India, China turned inward and slipped into centuries of decline. Technological superiority could not save China from the closing of the mind.

As I go to church and listen to correlated messages from correlated manuals bolstered by correlated thinking derived from carefully approved sources, I worry that the Church is also in decline, the daring outriggers of Joseph Smith’s adventurous theological voyages coming aground, once and for all, on the reef of regimented thought that may be “safe” but is neither invigorating nor inspiring. We have well-meaning leaders who carry dog-eared copies of the Church Handbook of Instructions, highlighted everywhere in multi-colored Sharpie, and members who carry Kindles loaded to the brim with every Deseret bestseller, but our collective Mormon mind feels–to me, anyway–dangerously closed.

Our music is lovely–Come, Come Ye Saints is an awe-inspiring anthem–but it remains untouched by the drums of Angola or the sitars of India or the exuberant strains of Gladys Knight’s Saints Unified Voices. Our canon is powerful–King Benjamin’s sermon, Mormon’s faith, hope, and charity, Enoch’s walk with God, D&C 121’s treatise on interpersonal relations–yet to quote from the Bhagavad Gita or the Tao Te Ching or even Reinhold Niebuhr or Martin Luther King, Jr., is culturally if not ecclesiastically verboten in most wards.

Above all, we seem unable to hear and learn from voices that are not white, male, and heterosexual. We are so sure of our revelatory rightness that the inputs that could open our minds to the deepest and most lovely truths of God are stymied, turned away and never allowed to enter our hearts, small sparks that are snuffed out before they can light our souls on fire. As a result, we do not criss-cross the oceans of life and love but instead are content to splash in the puddles of orthodoxy, making our self-congratulatory Mormon mudpies.

And I am as guilty as anyone else. I seek for safety and comfort. I long for certainty and rightness, however spiritually dulling it may be.

But, as they say, a ship isn’t built to sit in the harbor, and there is no reason that Mormonism must carefully creep into decline, oblivious. For India, one of the antidotes to the civilizational malaise, according to Sanyal, was the support from many of the reformist Indians for education in English.

This preference for a foreign language is not as strange as it may appear at first sight. The early reformers were very conscious that Indian civilization had been in decline for a long time and correctly blamed it on lack of technological and intellectual innovation. The knowledge of English was seen as a window to the world of ideas emanating from Europe.

So too, we Mormons can seek an antidote by learning to speak foreign tongues–not the MTC grammar of missionaries heading out to proselyte, but the cultural and spiritual languages that remain foreign to us. For straight, white, American males like me, this means listening to and internalizing the stories of women, persons of color, LGBT individuals, non-Americans, non-Mormons, even (gasp!) atheists.

If we wish to carry on the vibrant community of the early Saints, learning to listen seems like a great place to start. The best stuff of Mormonism is beautiful and creative, inclusive and inspiring. It has the strength to stand on its own, like the hulls of those early Indian and Chinese ships. We simply need to keep scraping off the barnacles of certainty that keep us from venturing out into God’s great unknown.


  1. I love the post!

    But, a question: What if this adventure leads you to leave Mormon Ocean and you end up in Atheist Sea?

    I’m not criticizing or being snarky, I am asking a serious question. How do you navigate that line? I think the brethren don’t want members going to far from shore for this very reason. So how does one effectively open their minds to listen to different perspectives and ideas while keeping the mind within safe range?

    For example, church leaders have compared the commandments and teachings of the gospel to a safety net below a tight rope. Having a safety net is certainly a good practical idea with obvious benefits. But you can’t tell me the challenge of walking a tight rope (and the rush) is the same with or without a safety net.

  2. I really like your analogy, Mike. Isn’t there a theory out there about how religions start out radical, but become more conservative (in the sense of not wanting to change) and safe with time? If that were true, would the kind of movement you describe be something even more difficult to fight against, since it would be a common trend? (Just thinking out loud; I could be wrong about the theory or about how applicable it is.)

  3. This is such a great post. I have been feeling this way for years, but didn’t know how to express it quite so well. How can we get new direction our new revelation err don’t ask questions?
    I am trying to listen to all of the general conference that are available on lds.org, starting from the beginning. I am now in April 1974. And the my biggest take away so far, I haven’t heard anything new. They could be played today and no-one would think they were spoken 40+ years ago. I have heard some great talks and marked different parts, and I catch snippets here and there, but they are the same “dog-eared” pages we are comfortable with.
    I think the big challenge with asking questions, we might learn something new thachchanges our paradigm and it is hard to admit that what we’ve believed is right is wrong or can be improved.

  4. I don’t think we need to worry about ending up in atheist sea if we truly believe that all truth is Gospel truth. Eastern thought and meditation techniques could be folded in. As could a study of philosophy etc.

  5. I agree with Kristine. I think one can explore beyond the Mormon ocean without getting lost in the sea of Atheism. Do our leaders really think that our faith is so weak that the smallest breeze of non-scripture will send us into a crisis of faith? Joseph Smith saw it differently:
    “The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds.”

  6. Of course you can keep yourself from venturing into Atheist Sea. But that requires, like Kristine said, “believing that all truth is Gospel truth.” That is a fine strategy, but the priority there is clearly to maintain a belief in the gospel.

    If your ultimate priority is complete open mindedness, and I’m not saying that SHOULD be your priority, but if it is, then you will go wherever the winds of truth push your sails. And that could be anywhere, which is quite thrilling but also risky if you don’t want to leave the comforts of Mormon Ocean.

  7. Dexter, I think you’ve put your finger on the underlying tension. It may be that the highest priority of church leaders must be to ensure the viability of the institution, whereas our individual priority must be to do what we feel is right. For many people those priorities match up, but not always.

    I am not sure there is any way to resolve that tension. I’ve grown up believing that of course the Church wants what’s best for me rather than what’s best for the Church, but perhaps that is asking too much of leaders who feel charged with protecting and preserving the institution first and foremost. They may encourage us to stay in the harbor because that is optimal for the Church (and perhaps for many individuals as well, I don’t know). For me, however, sitting in the harbor has become too damaging to my soul; I must voyage if I hope to be able to look myself in the mirror each day.

    I’ve wished that the Church could be big enough for members who value the good things it has created on dry land, but whose conscience and nature leads them to voyage far from shore. I like to think that the leaders could be more comfortable and confident with making that kind of space, but the events of the past year leave me doubtful. I guess we’ll see.

  8. I agree, Mike.

    I think the church’s goals are to have members question, but not question too much. But each individual has to decide for him or herself. For some, this means they won’t read certain books. For others, they will. My view is that each person has to decide for themselves how far from shore they want/need to go. And if they rely on someone else’s advice on how far to go (be it their parents or the church or whomever), at some point, they’ll have to take the voyage again. It has to be your own.


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