Negotiating the Tension Between Modernism and Mormonism

Latter-day Saints begin our lives by being brought before the community to be given a name and a blessing, to be welcomed into the Mormon tribe. We live before God with others more than by ourselves and our ultimate goal is to be before him with others to whom we are sealed rather than as individuals or groups of individuals. Our most sacred covenants, both in our Sunday worship and in the temple, are made as groups. Our daily practices emphasize our place among other Latter-day Saints and our obligations to them. We die anticipating "that same sociality which exists among us here" (D&C 130:2). There is room in Mormonism for private devotion, but at its heart it is a religion of the community rather than the individual.

Christians exist along a continuum with individual worship at one end and social, ritualized worship at the other. Though the simplicity of our Sunday services might lead us to think otherwise, Mormons are found much more toward the latter end of that continuum. What it means to be a Latter-day Saint Christian cannot be separated from what it means to be part of the body of the Church, "a member" to use Paul's language (e.g., Rom. 12:4-5). So a narrative of Mormon identity cannot avoid being in tension and sometimes even in conflict with the narrative of modern identity. Being a Mormon means finding a way to negotiate that conflict.

Such negotiations are not easy. There is not one narrative for everyone, though as members of the same community our stories will overlap considerably. But whatever one thinks of recent, ongoing events in the LDS community, the protestant (note the lower case "p"), individualistic option is not a Mormon one. A Mormon cannot say "I stand alone before God and have no need for another in that relationship." To decide simply in favor of the modern narrative is, at least in principle, to give up one's Mormon identity.

Mormonism is hierarchical because it is communal. Mormonism practices excommunication (which does not mean "consignment to hell") because it is communal. Mormonism has a priesthood because it is communal. At the same time, it makes mistakes and has a difficult time dealing with them because it is communal. It is tempting to adopt the individualistic metaphysics of Modernism, or at least its politics, in response to injustice and perceived injustice. But succumbing to that temptation risks ceasing to be defined by the communal narrative of Mormon identity.

7/9/2014 4:00:00 AM