Sunday, January 22, 2012

Faith Traditions in Mormonism

A friend of mine is the source of inspiration for this and the next blog post. A History of God by Karen Armstrong and God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero helped me come to realize and gave words to a lot of what I've thought and experienced in Mormonism. I want to talk about literalism and spiritualism within the Mormon faith. I need to define some times and most of this post will be about defining terms. Literalism in this case just means those within the Mormon faith that see their faith defined by decrees from the leadership of the Church, by a literal reading of the scriptures or by authoritative reading, doctrines and dogmas by the Church, and by official revelations by the Church. In other words, such attitudes like "When the Prophet speaks, the thinking has been done" and similar phrases would come from this mindset. Spiritualism would be those that rely on individual revelation even when it contradicts official doctrine and official revelations, private interpretation of the scriptures, maintaining ideas that run contrary to the Mormon faith as far as controversial topics go (feminism, same-sex marriage, priesthood authority, and the nature of deity). Spiritualism would be the less rigid tradition within Mormonism, I would suggest, while literalism would be the more rigid tradition. Certainly it can be said that literalism has a wider appeal to members of the Mormon Church throughout most of the United States and perhaps other areas of the world that were previously influenced by primarily Protestant Christianity. 

Mormonism is not entirely unique in its approach to things. Its doctrines of the corporeal body of God, the Godhead versus the Trinity, and other doctrines that run counter to mainstream Christianity are simply differences of views within the mindset that has shaped Christianity and Mormonism in Western civilization. Let's be honest and admit this much: Mormonism as it is today, is partially the result of repeated interaction with the culture of the United States. That culture is the product of the Enlightenment and the more logical form of faith that Western Christianity has.

Karen Armstrong's book does a fantastic job detailing the evolution of human thought on who, what, and why God is and does. She explains that Western Christianity never fully developed a spiritual or mystical view of God like Judaism and Islam went on to do. Western Christianity fell in love with the logical proofs for the existence of God and transforming God into a more literal or definable Being. Mormonism, I would suggest, takes this one step further and transforms the whole of their faith (with such exceptions as the Endowment ceremony) into a more literal, logical interpretation of the spiritual world. Couched in this mindset, Mormonism is influenced by Western Christianity's obsession and fascination with the logical and legal aspects of God within the Bible and Mormonism develops a similar tradition. 

In Mormonism this can be seen through the many Laws and Covenants that we make. God is a god of laws. Children that reach the age of eight and converts to the Mormon Church make a covenant (a two way promise) between themselves and God. They agree to do certain things that makes God promise to do things in return. The LDS scriptures are full of the word "law."

"There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated - and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated." (Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21)

"I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise." (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10)

"Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment? Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man...And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin." (Alma 42:17-18,20)

"O the greatness and the justice of our God! For he executeth all his words, and they have gone forth out of his mouth, and his law must be fulfilled." (2 Nephi 9:17)

But what of spirituality? The mystical and altogether personal experience that individuals have with the Divine. Certainly there are those within Mormonism. In my experiences at BYU and on my mission, I would meet individuals that would interact with the Divine from this perspective that were Mormon. They are certainly not common. Such individuals, I have noticed, do not rely on the scriptures to support their arguments by on feelings that they receive due to the influence of the Holy Spirit or from private revelations from God. They rely on fellow human being's thinking to understand anything that is scriptural or religious, the physical and real manifestations of the Divine in this world so to speak. 

Hmm...perhaps to explain it simpler, the literalist would use the Book of Mormon or any other set of scriptures to explain why they believe this sort of thing. They would cite the words of one of the leaders of their church to defend their views. The matter would be closed once they had cited such authority. The spiritualist would not find the matter closed as they would have found their own private revelations and interactions with the Divine to contradict this. They would be more likely to cite contradictions among the authorities and draw an area of confusion with which they can work and live in that exists between different prophetic statements that disagree with each other and live according to "What God has told me." 

I hope this post adequately defines the terms "literalist" and "spiritualist." In the next post I want to describe the conflict that exists between these two traditions and why, ultimately, the "spiritualist" path lost the ability to gain equal footing later on within the Mormon Church. I want to use this to share a story and why I think as I do towards it. 

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