Before we prophesy anything about Mormonism’s future, let’s concede one crucial thing about its present and its past: Mormonism is not yet two centuries old. Today, the religion defies definition, has no orthodoxy, studiously eschews theology, and clings to its past as though it is certain there is no future. We could, of course, read this cloud of inadequacy as the religion’s last gasps, but this conclusion would ignore the reality of religious infancy.
When Christianity was 185 years old, people could hardly distinguish it as a coherent movement. It lived under suspicion on the edges of respectable society. What rites it had were secret and suspect, its politics were feared, its metaphysics ridiculed.
Christianity, in its second century, had no theology. Clement of Alexandria gives us hardly more than fragmentary aphorisms from that second century, Origen would come only in the next century, and it would still be two hundred more years before Augustine would make any difference to anyone.
When it was Mormonism’s present age, Christianity hardly made any sense—to Christians, themselves, never mind everyone else. First, then, let’s acknowledge that Mormonism’s future could very well surprise everyone—Mormons, included.
Whatever comes next for Mormonism certainly starts with an acknowledgement of the religion’s plurality. The media in the USA consistently parrots the error that there is a the Mormon church. In fact, in addition to the LDS church, there is the Community of Christ, the Fundamentalist LDS church, some dogged Strangites, the Remnant LDS church, the Bullaites, the Bickertonites, to name only a few of the many extant Mormon movements that are institutionally distinct from each other and which regard each other as heretical. Referring to the LDS church as the Mormon church is rather like calling Roman Catholicism the Christian church. Sure, plenty of Catholics would welcome this mistake. But this mistake treats the rest of Christendom with undeserved contempt, and willfully ignores history. In any case, one can certainly say nothing about the future of Christianity without acknowledging the Church of England, and so forth.
Consider, for instance, the real possibility that the current strata of aging LDS leadership, which, over the next thirty years, will expire fighting change, will give way to a generation that is now growing up very uncomfortable with LDS culture’s traditional xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny. Under the guidance of the coming generation, the LDS church will ordain women, will radically reform its oppressively patriarchal temple rites, will legitimize the LDS identity of gay people, and will accommodate itself to different concepts of god, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon. Or: increasing numbers of LDS people—to whom Mormonism is dear but fading—will migrate to the Community of Christ, a Mormonism that has already arrived at these benchmarks.
My point is not to shill for the C of C—with which I do not affiliate myself—but to recommend that seeing the future of Mormonism involves the acknowledgement, by insiders and outsiders, that the formally LDS version of Mormonism that has endeavored, of late, to sever itself from its origin’s brazen combination of frontier spirituality, progressive politics, and natural science cannot prevent a genuine Mormon from realizing the hopeful vision of that origin.
In the Mormon century to come, we will not only speak of Mormon churches, but of Mormonisms, as public discourse catches up to the reality that no one institution, nor any one individual, determines what Mormonism is or will be. As the fragmentation of this nineteenth century religion is acknowledged, systematic theologies will emerge to distinguish one Mormon path from another. These emerging theologies will place long-needed limits on power in the various institutions and will also channel the religion’s wild creativity. Eventually—perhaps, unavoidably—pan-Mormon councils will attempt to wind the strands back together by privileging one theology over another. But Nicea did not end Arianism, and the Mormon councils to come will serve mostly to construct theological and praxical divisions—the Mormon orthodox, liberal, reform, big-boat, little-boat, sahajdhari, etc. This theological formalization of Mormonisms will legitimize variance in belief and practice, and, thus, will locate “Mormonism” in peculiar ways of understanding life and how to live it, rather than in institutional affiliations and their programmatic behavior.
Which is to say that I have great hope in Mormonism’s future, and even great hope in the LDS version of it. LDS Mormonism certainly can become a vehicle of genuine faith and love—less a bulwark against the earnest exercise of charity and more an invitation to participate in the divine dance. And in a cosmos articulated by probabilities, only the dogmatically intractable could insist that such change won’t come. In the Mormon future, the multiplicity in the religion is bound to move the dogmatically intractable to that margin of irrelevance towards which they have been hustling everyone else.