What Mormons Believe

At first glance, Mormonism is not an especially creedal religion. Brigham Young, the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, demanded practical, ongoing self-sacrificial service to the church, not an assent to a particular group of doctrines. After his 1848 return to the Salt Lake Valley, Young informed its early settlers that they would have to forego sermons on “the glories of the eternal worlds.” Instead, he would tell them “what is wanting today.” What one did in the here-and-now was more important than what one believed about the hereafter (or, in the LDS case, the pre-existent).

Even today, theology sometimes seems extraneous to much of Latter-day Saint life, so focused on the family, church service, and reverence for modern-day prophets.  Outsiders are often confused about what exactly Latter-day Saints believe, and the “Articles of Faith” included in the Pearl of Great Price (one of three additional Mormon works of scripture alongside the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants) only partly illuminate distinctively Mormon beliefs.

Enter The God Who Weeps: How Mormons Make Sense of Life, co-authored by Terryl and Fiona Givens. Most simply, the authors succinctly articulate “five propositions pertaining to who presides over this universe, where we came from, why we are here, and what might await us in the ‘undiscovered country.'” The last four propositions will be familiar, both to Latter-day Saints and outsiders acquainted with the church: a spiritual preexistence with God in advance of mortality; mortality as an “ascent” into “the school house of the world,” an existence filled with joy, sorry, and potential; the salvation of nearly everyone; the persistence in heaven “of those relationships that matter most to us now.” (I will circle back to the first proposition below).

Those four propositions have been central to the Mormon faith since its infancy. One finds at least some of them in the Book of Mormon itself:  “Adam  fell that might men be; and men are, that they might have joy.” A retelling and reinterpretation of the experiences of Adam and Eve, 2 Nephi 2 is one of the most poignant and beautiful passages in the Book of Mormon. Without the fall, without Adam and Eve’s transgression, “they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.”

Protestants and Catholics reading either the Book of Mormon or the authors’ explication of it will almost certainly object to the hint of anything fortunate about the fall. They will likely have similar reactions to the idea of a premortal existence, the sealing of earthly relationships in order for them to persist into eternity, and perhaps to the Mormon concept of nearly universal salvation. Nevertheless, The God Who Weeps rather winsomely suggests that other Christians should respect Mormon beliefs by connecting them to a wealth of Christian, Jewish, and philosophical antecedents. For example, they find suggestions of the above reinterpretation of the “fall” in the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich’s vision of Adam. There is nothing combative in their presentation of Mormon doctrine. Instead, they stress its congruence with reason and truth wherever they are found. Outsiders to Mormonism looking for an introduction to contemporary Mormon beliefs would be well served to begin here, not because The God Who Weeps presents Mormon theology systematically or answers every objection to its arguments. They should begin here because charitable readers should engage religious traditions at their most winsome and accessible.

At the same time that the authors stress the reasonableness of Mormon beliefs, they also acknowledge the reasonableness of human doubt and skepticism (for Latter-day Saints and others). These passages reminded me of Tanya Luhrmann’s discussion of doubt (in her When God Talks Back) as a necessary component of contemporary spirituality. Terryl and Fiona Givens know that outsiders generally do not respect Mormon theology, but they also know that many Latter-day Saints themselves struggle with doubt within a church that often seems to make little room for skepticism. “In the case of us mortals,” they write, “we are confronted with a world in which there are appealing arguments for a Divinity that is a childish projection, for prophets as scheming or deluded imposters, and for scriptures as so much fabulous fiction. But there is also compelling evidence that a glorious Divinity presides over the cosmos, that His angels are strangers we have entertained unaware, and that His word and will are made manifest through a scriptural canon that is never definitively closed.” Even with a closed canon, Protestants and Catholics can well understand the evidence for both belief and doubt. Indeed, the “option to believe” appears to us, especially to us in today’s United States, “perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension.” Thus, all human beings face a choice, a free choice about whether or not to believe. That concept of free agency, along with the propositions listed above, is another core LDS belief (early Mormonism was part of a more general early nineteenth-century reaction against Calvinism).

Finally, to the book’s title and first proposition: “God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.” Thinking of its context within Mormonism, this first proposition struck me as the most innovative, indeed unusual, aspect of the book. The authors might have begun with spiritual preexistence (their second proposition), but instead they frame their book around a God who weeps over creation, especially the sorrow of those beings who have chosen the admixture of joy and misery found in mortality. Strangely, this proposition reminded me both of the sacred romance that evangelicals have with Jesus and the process theologians’ God who is changed by the world. “God is not radically Other,” conclude the authors, “and neither is His heaven.”

Unlike in 1850, the LDS Church no longer needs its members to concentrate wholly on the practical tasks set before them by their leaders. Instead, “what is wanting today” — for Mormons and for others — are good reasons to believe in the face of doubt, struggle, and sorrow. For many Latter-day Saints, The God Who Weeps will help provide those reasons. For Mormons and others, moreover, Terryl and Fiona Givens provide a glimpse of the logic, beauty, and long heritage of those doctrines at the heart of their church.

This post is part of the Patheos Book Club conversation about The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, by Terryl and Fiona Givens.

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  • Thanks for this, John – the “God who weeps” motif is surprising to me, as well. I’m not sure I see how this is a Mormon distinctive (perhaps they just mean a Mormon emphasis?) since the notion that God identifies with our suffering seems directly connected to the doctrine of the Incarnation. But making this the first point, and the title of the book, is intriguing.

  • Dan

    Nicely stated. . . and a few of the many teachings from the Scriptures that show our relationship with God. . .

    God of the spirits of all flesh. Num. 16: 22
    the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Eccl. 12: 7
    he that giveth breath . . . and spirit to them that walk. Isa. 42: 5
    Ye are the sons of the living God. Hosea 1: 10
    Have we not all one father. Mal. 2: 10
    Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father. Matt. 5: 48
    Our Father which art in heaven. Matt. 6: 9
    we are the offspring of God. Acts 17: 29
    The Spirit itself beareth witness . . . we are the children of God. Rom. 8: 16
    One God and Father of all. Eph. 4: 6
    be in subjection unto the Father of spirits. Heb. 12: 9
    Ye are the children of the Lord your God. Deut. 14: 1
    there is a spirit in man. Job 32: 8
    breath of the Almighty hath given me life. Job 33: 4
    Ye are gods . . . children of the most High. Ps. 82: 6

  • J Stuart

    TK, I believe that it has reference to a story in the LDS “Pearl of Great Price,” in which Enoch sees the God of Heaven weeping over the sins of humanity. Enoch sees God weeping because of the hatred mankind has for one another and for him.

  • Poetico

    What Mormons believe in is polygamy, and there are hundreds of fundamentalist Mormon cults in Utah still practicing polygamy. I’m glad Romney lost the election because the last thing America needs is a president who comes from a culture that turns a blind-eye on the abuse of women and children. Anyone who’s seen the doc film “Banking On Heaven” or read the book “Escape” knows that mainstream Mormons are a big part of the polygamy problem in Utah, not the solution. Powerful Mormon legislatures have been molly-coddling corrupt polygamists for generations, and I suspect that the current federal investigation will result in a class action lawsuit against Utah’s corrupt leaders.

  • johnturner

    Thanks, J. Sorry not to have moderated your comment (and several others) earlier. Yes, I should have explained the reference to Enoch, but I was already running long on the review!

  • Dan

    Though polygamy was a practice in the Bible by several prophets and even those who were chosen by God. . .

    polygamy is not a practice of the Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints (often referred to as LDS, or Latter-day Saints, or Saints, or sometimes nicknamed: “Mormon”). . .

    and is an issue of excommunication if any member of the Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints were to enter into polygamous marriage.

    Get your facts straight!

    If you really want to know more. . .



    If you really want to know. . .

  • Philip Jenkins

    Mormonism has enjoyed some growth in modern Africa, where polygamy is a living tradition, but the LDS church has made it clear that even there, where it would be culturally acceptable, the prohibition on it still holds.

  • Scott T

    As the LDS Church comes out of obscurity, members find themselves and their beliefs under a microscope. Day of Defense: Positive Talking Points for the Latter Days give a clearer understanding on the beliefs of Latter-day Saints, redress some of the common misinterpretations regarding LDS culture, and re-brand Mormonism in a positive way, as builders of the Kingdom and as a worldwide movement to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth.

  • DandyStryker

    Okay … let’s get the facts straight.

    Fact: Plural marriage is still doctrine in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The “revelation” establishing plural marriage is in “Doctrine and Covenants 132.” It has never been repealed. In that “revelation” we read:

    “And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.”

    Read the entire section. Here’s the link: http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132.61?lang=eng#60

    Fact: The LDS Church continues to seal men to multiple wives (Dallin Oaks, one of the church’s “twelve apostles” is sealed to two women). According to D&C 132, the only marriage that counts is the temple “sealing,” so from the LDS perspective the church continues to not only believe in plural marriage, but *practice* it. The only caveat is that the church doesn’t civilly marry men to multiple women — not because they don’t want to, but because the Federal Government wouldn’t let Utah join the union until the Mormons agreed to obey the law (and polygamy was against the law). But, from the “eternal” perspective that Mormons claim, they most certainly believe and practice “sealing” men to multiple wives, as far as the law allows. [Note: In some instances these men are “sealed” to multiple *living* women — but only civilly married to one wife. This happens in instances where a man and woman are “sealed,” and then divorce, and the man marries/seals another wife. The fundamentalist Mormons play the same game — the polygamous wives of the fundamentalist Mormons are only “sealed” to their husbands, not civilly married to them. Thus, legally, they are not married — only cohabitating and committing adultery. The SLC cult, unlike the fundamentalists, however, does not allow cohabitation between a man and his living polygamous wives.]