A couple of years ago I was in a temple recommend interview with a member of the Stake Presidency. I had just arrived through the door when unexpectedly and without any particular context associated with the TR questions I was told.’Sister McCluskey, I’ve heard you bare beautiful testimonies of Jesus Christ, but I haven’t heard you bare your testimony of
‘The Church’ – would you kindly do so now’. This was not a brilliant start to what I had expected to be a pretty straight forward interview. He seemed to be suggesting that my love for Christ simply wasn’t enough and that I needed somehow to match my enthusiasm for the saviour with a similar inclination toward the church. It turned out that, that wasn’t good enough anyway because the Stake Presidency had already decided that I wouldn’t get a TR on the basis that I had unnerved too many people with my lack of orthodoxy.
This was all indicative of a palpable fear that my difference would somehow infect ‘The Church’, that the non-conformist way I expressed myself was not helpful and needed to be disciplined. It was saddening but not entirely unexpected – but no one has offered me a very good solution for stemming the tide of words and questions that just bubble up out of me in spontaneous bursts of curiosity so I’ve just decided to give into it. And to be truthful I don’t get the sense that God (and Mrs God) wired my mouth shut either. (BTW the TR thingy got resolved eventually).
Ecclesiastical abuse aside this brings me to an interesting pattern that I have noticed in the ways in which we understand ‘The Church’. Excuse me now as I do a bit of theorizing!
The shaping, unifying, and organising principles of any religion tend to be the ‘cumulative traditions’ which we construct across time and express through language, symbolism and ritual. Yet as Terryl Givens (2007) points out, Mormon culture exists on a ‘field of tension’ where multiple sites with respect to doctrine and belief seem to be legitimate places to inhabit. On the doctrine of polygamy for instance, while having been recently retracted as a ‘formal doctrine’ by GBH, the practice for some in our church is still to imagine the principle as requisite for our salvation (though I think they are a bit barking mad – still, horses for courses). While it seems to have been made clear that the practice of the priesthood is available to all worthy men (my emphasis) I was recently in a Sunday School class where the teacher emphatically endorsed the McConkie position on the very 19th century protestant theory of the curse of Cain (to the nodding assent of a bunch of nice old white folk).
Stories, discourses, ideas, sermons, talks, narratives, scriptural expositions, conversations, correlated materials all get thrown into the mix and the way we try to make sense of that mix is very telling of our religion. Joseph Smith himself (the perennial questioner) ushered in an era of spiritual limitless. His ideas were sublime, transcendent, superlative and miraculous. Yet he lamented:
I have tried for many years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them….[that] will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions; they cannot stand the fire at all.
I often wonder what he would make of the church today where all of the expository offerings given over the generations have been nudged by certain strong minded leaders and the equally bullish members to a place that sometimes feels for all intents and purposes like an assembly of a bunch of neo-liberal, far right, fascist, misogynistic, patriarchal, racist, imperialistic, oligarchs. The recent meteoric rise and adulation of the frankly unhinged Glenn Beck in Mormon circles in the US is testament to the kind of poverty stricken dialogue some Mormons have defaulted to. My position is that this cultural rendering (and I would say the same if we had ‘gospelized’ a far left political agenda), does not mirror the gospel of Jesus Christ, nor should it be conflated with the Church. Sure it is a feature of the breadth of the ideological terrain that mormonism occupies through its members, but there is nothing universally redemptive about the free market ideologies or conservative politics that seems to be the flavour of the Book of Mormon belt, and has found its way to New Zealand in an unholy and confused politico-religious bricolage (deep breath). Only a couple of days ago I was confronted by a member who asked (as if it was a matter of worthiness) whether or not I was a (shock, horror) left-winger – as if that was incomprehensible in someone who claims a Mormon identity. There is a deeply disconcerting conformism abroad in Mormonism which sometimes works to disenfranchise the margins by abusively calling into question their political orientation as a marker of their righteousness.
Nibley (1989, p.75) addresses an aspect of this state of fevered conformism which seems characteristic of our community, with his searing indictment of Latter-day Saints who have lost the will to think, to question, query, dialogue, pursue understanding, but instead choose to languish defiantly at a place of of religious ‘zeal’ alone. Joseph Smith’s pattern of thought and enquiry he argues is a corrective for the Latter-day saints who find virtue in:
sitting in endless meetings, for dedicated conformity and unlimited capacity for suffering boredom. We think it more commendable to get up at five A.M to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one – that [he argues] is pure zeal that tends to breed a race of insufferable, self-righteous prigs and barren minds.
While some will argue that ‘The Church’ belongs to the Lord and must be left alone, defended and remain unquestioned I wonder if we are not drawing upon a popularized political rendering rather than a working and thoughtful definition of the ‘The Church’. To me, the church is us. The church is a community of similarly inclined worshipers, who, like an oil slick, will list where the waves take us without some thoughtful, well considered questioning and critique. ‘The Church’ is also the corporate church, and the ecclesiastical church both of which has a duty of organizational care for us ‘the common church’. The idea that its the Lord’s church does not indicate that we are to be hands off in a kind of ‘arc of the covenant’ way. It means that inasmuch as it belongs to the Lord we need to model the kind of care, charity, succoring, stewardship, correction and evaluation that will keep it relevant, inviting and cherished by all.
Some suggest that ‘the church’ is not helped by critique. I wonder if they would suggest that of themselves. I know I have been constantly, and sometimes uncomfortably moved and changed from places which were not helpful for my soul. I have been afflicted in my comfort on more than one occasion, and have been better off for it. Isn’t that the power of community? Isn’t that why we are bought together to worship so that in our isolation we’re are not left to flounder in self-satisfied ignorance?
I love ‘The Church” and while it might come as a surprise to some, I love being a Mormon. Its who I am in my blood, in my bones and in my heart. You could take me out of the Mormon but you couldn’t take the Mormon out of me. When the Lord speaks of His church I do believe that he is more than marking His territory, He is claiming us and making us His. And for this Mormon, there is tremendous comfort and ecstasy in the notion of us belonging to him and to each other in a vibrant, beautiful, messy, wounding, healing, brilliant, complex, diverse, changing and organic church.