A Public Conversation about Mormonism
Of course Mormons are Christians, or heretical Christians, or post-Christians. Call us what you will as long as what you call us doesn't exile us from those who recognize Jesus as the Messiah. But the question of what label to stick on our backs is a lot less interesting than the questions implied by Simon's challenge.
How ought a Mormon, who believes that every person she meets has existed eternally and has the potential to become like God, be expected to understand her relations to other persons? How ought a Mormon, who is a materialist (even if an odd one), denying the existence of anything immaterial, think about the environment? About the body and bodily rights? About science?
How ought a Mormon, with strong incarnational views as well as strong views about human identity, bring together questions of social justice, individual rights, and public obligations? What is the source of morality for a religion that appears to deny that God is in a metaphysically transcendent sphere? What does it mean to say that our sexual being is eternal, and what does that imply about earthly human relations? What does the belief in almost universal salvation imply about our present existence and our present relationships? For example, what might it suggest about how we mete out judicial penalties for crimes?
Some possible answers are at least hinted at by the ways in which Mormon life is constructed: it is built on obligation and service at every level. All of the congregational officers serve without pay, with the bishop often spending as much time in service to the congregation as he spends on his paying job. Everyone is expected to have some job within the congregation.
Everyone is expected not only to tithe, but to pay a monthly fast offering for the welfare of the poor, and to make additional offerings, such as for the Perpetual Education Fund. Expected donations can easily come to 15 percent of one's income, and Mormons are urged also to contribute to other charities.
Pairs of women and pairs of men are supposed to visit all of the homes in the congregation each month to help with both physical and spiritual needs. As needed by the local church welfare unit, members of the congregation are expected to work at church-owned food production plants when needed, producing meat, canned fruits and vegetables, milk products, bread, etc. The larger LDS Church devotes considerable money and effort to internal welfare as well as to humanitarian efforts. And members are expected not only to take part in the service and welfare projects sponsored by the Church, but also to be an important part of local community and broader efforts to alleviate suffering and poverty.
We make little distinction between the obligation to meet the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of other mortals and the obligation to meet the needs of those who have died. Huge amounts of time are spent gathering the names of ancestors and doing work in Mormon temples in order to create a vast, interlinking and eternal society of husbands and wives, brothers, sisters, and friends in the eternities. For Mormons, these efforts are anything but metaphorical. They are as real and as obligatory as the demands to come to the aid of those in physical need.
We don't practice these things perfectly by any means, but they and the beliefs they incarnate suggest that the as-yet unexplored Mormon view of the world is different than the worldview of either political party, notwithstanding Mitt Romney's Republican candidacy and Harry Reid's Democratic membership. The most interesting public conversation about Mormonism hasn't occurred yet.
Simon Critchley has written a beautiful, though in spots perhaps slightly awkward, love-letter to Mormons, but most such first confessions of love are somewhat awkward. Our responses have also been awkward, and probably will continue to be. We're just getting used to this kind of relationship with non-Mormons. But I, at least, owe Simon great thanks for what he said, and I think other Mormons do too.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.