I went to have a chat the other day with the rector of the local Episcopal church where I’ve been attending services, mostly just because I am manically talkative right now and always looking for a new victim to process my religious journey with. Fortunately, he turned out to be a skilled listener. And something that really impressed me came early on, after I told him my basic background (namely that I was a super conflicted Mormon who’d been recently dabbling in all things Episcopal and loving it). He easily could have used that as a launching point to do a sales pitch for the Episcopal tradition, or plunged into a narrative of Mormonism as an oppressive tradition from which I needed to escape. But instead, rather my to my surprise, the first thing he asked was, “what do you like about Mormonism?” As a lifelong Mormon I am perhaps overly alert to potential proselytizing, and the thought may have crossed my mind that this could be a trick question, part of “building a relationship of trust” or “establishing common ground” so that then you can later pounce and get the person to convert. But as the conversation continued, it was clear that nothing of the sort was happening. He genuinely wanted to learn more about Mormonism (he didn’t know much), and in particular my experience of it. He didn’t have an agenda for me; he just wanted to hear about my spiritual journey. It’s an absolute delight to talk to someone with that attitude.
Anyway, the conversation got me thinking about what I do like about Mormonism, and inspired me to dig out a post I started years ago on the topic and expand it. Here are some of the things I came up with:
1)Personal revelation. I love that in the Mormon worldview, anyone can directly approach God and get answers and guidance. There is of course a much-discussed tension between this core LDS teaching and equally core teachings about the importance of religious authorities and allegiance to the church hierarchy. But it’s still an idea I really value, and one that has been hugely significant in shaping my personal religious journey and outlook. Of course, it’s insanely frustrating when the communication doesn’t come and God seems to be no longer sending out radio signals (I blogged about a period like this last year), and I don’t really know what to do with the theological mess caused by all the conflicting answers that people get, or how to make sense of it that some people report never getting any divine answers despite faithfully seeking them. But in the end, the personal experiences I’ve had with God are the building blocks of my faith.
2) The importance of relationships. At this point I don’t entirely know what I think about sealing, and I’m feeling dubious about the idea that heterosexual pairings are the be all end all that bring about exaltation. But that said, there’s something about the vision of eternity as a place where the human family is linked together that I find quite appealing. I like that in LDS teachings, relationships with other human beings aren’t just a kind of side thing in life that may or may not continue in the future, but are explicitly said to at least potentially have the ability to last eternally. (And my hope is that this doesn’t apply exclusively to family relationships, but to friendships as well, since in the end we’re all connected, right?) I think it’s a useful counter to individualism run amok.
3) Everyone is a child of God. I love this affirmation of the dignity and worth of every human being, which provides a moral template for how we should treat others as well as ourselves. When I first encountered strains of Christianity which teach that only those who accept Christ are God’s children, and God doesn’t really care about anyone else and is in fact pretty happy to damn them, I was horrified. (Fortunately, in my experience this idea is not terribly common; pretty much all the non-LDS Christians I know, who belong to both Catholic and Protestant persuasions, see all of humanity as God’s children in some sense, created imago dei, deeply beloved, and deserving of respect.) Mormons of course ratchet this up a notch in collapsing the ontological gap between human and divine and asserting that humans are children of God in a very literal sense. I don’t know how to sort out all the details of that, like how the doctrine of eternally existing intelligences fits with the doctrine of humans as God’s spirit children, but I really value the theological anthropology that comes from it, both as a theologian (I find it more difficult to deal with the problem of evil if you’re assuming ex nihilo creation), and in my more practical life (the teaching that everyone I meet is a child of God, and I am too, is something that doesn’t inform my behavior nearly as much as it should, but has nonetheless been a useful touchstone).
4) The constant call to be better. Huge caveat on this one: it’s less of a positive when you’re depressed, which for me is usually, and it easily morphs into a burden (they say improve! improve! and you’re like, I’m barely surviving!) But in my less-depressed periods, I’ve come to appreciate the value of something in your life that encourages you to critically reflect on your behavior and keep trying to do better. (Also, related to my first point, I’ve found that when I’ve genuinely felt like God was calling me to be better, it hasn’t been the same as those talks in church which tell everyone they’re terrible for not measuring up; it’s always felt hopeful and possible and non-condemning).
5) The Word of Wisdom. This one’s actually been really good for me; pretty much everyone who knows me, LDS or not, agrees that my dabbling with alcohol would be a very bad idea, given that there’s a history of alcoholism in my family, I am easily addicted to things, and I am emotionally unstable as it is. As a teenager I managed to get messed up with the self-destructive behaviors available to me (like eating disorders and self-injury), so I’m grateful that my commitment to Mormonism meant that alcohol (and illegal drugs) just weren’t really an option. Even if I end up eventually leaving the tradition, I don’t foresee my behavior on this changing much; my reasons for avoiding alcohol will still hold (and honestly, it doesn’t have much appeal for me in any case; I’m kind of a control freak, and lowering my inhibitions sounds more scary than exciting). As far as coffee and tea, I don’t think they would have the same destructive potential in my life, but I actually don’t care for caffeine and avoid it even in pop (yes, I’m from Utah, I say “pop” and not “soda”), so I don’t really harbor secret desires to try them out (as good as coffee smells). And I have to say that for all the ways it can go awry, I actually kind of like the thing where you express your commitment to God in mundane decisions like dietary choices.
6) The priesthood. You might be surprised to see this on my list, given my status as a certified Angry Feminist, and no I don’t like the way the LDS priesthood is gendered and how men run the church and only men can give blessings and perform ordinances. And I really don’t like being told that my opinions should give way to those of males because the latter hold the priesthood. But I do like the idea that God shares divine power with her/his children, and they can draw on it to bless the lives of others (and I hope that someday her/his daughters will get to do that, too). In my own spiritual life, priesthood blessings in particular have at times been very, very meaningful to me.
7) The local community. This is one that can be really bad when it’s bad, but can be amazing when it’s good. I’ve been in wards where I felt utterly marginalized and invisible, or labeled as a Problem to be Solved, and that’s been pretty awful. But when I’ve been in wards where I felt like a valued member of the community, that’s been a huge positive in my life. My ward in the Bay Area saw me through multiple hospitalizations—my experience of the mental hospital is that getting visitors is just about the single most important thing in making your stay tolerable, and the fact that so many people from my ward came to see me (the staff at one hospital actually asked what was going on with all the different visitors) is something I am immensely grateful for to this day. Also, while I realize that people move all the time without a Mormon community to help them, I’ve never done it. I think with great affection of all the people I’ve known in different wards where I’ve lived who’ve uncomplaining hauled boxes and boxes and boxes of books in and out of apartments and up and down stairs.
8) The connections. I was having lunch the other week with a fellow Latter-day Saint, and we were swapping wild stories of crazy things we’d learned in church that messed us up as teenagers and young adults, and I realized that I feel a bond to other Mormons that is akin to what I feel to my siblings. We experienced the same family dysfunctions, and to this day, no one understands certain things the way that my siblings do, just because we went through it all together. When you come from a tradition like Mormonism that is in some ways not just a religion but an ethnicity, it really connects you to something. Sometimes it’s a connection that chafes and I find myself wanting distance, but other times I deeply value it. And the connections I’ve formed in the past decade through blogging in particular, as a thriving progressive Mormon community has come into existence online, are something I value so much. Wherever I go, I want to stay in touch with the Mormon feminist world, as well as the expanding world of Mormon Studies and academic work on Mormonism, both of which have immeasurably enriched my life.