Thinking Myself into Mormonism

Now, maybe I'm missing Nephi's point. But he seems to be saying: it's the same self-satisfied complacency, being "at ease in Zion" (2 Ne. 28:24), that motivates both of these errors. This complacency makes us assume we have all the Word we need; this complacency makes us assume all is fine and dandy in the Kingdom. Note that such a self-satisfied complacency opposes both points of Lindsay's "informed and faithful" narrative. It refuses to acknowledge problems, and similarly -- at least according to Nephi -- deprives us of the truth we do have.

Returning to Sister Young's piece, she smacks me over the head by making a similar point with a different Book of Mormon passage. "If opposition has ceased and self-examination has ceased," she writes, "then growth has ceased." To expand on that: Lehi explains at length that, without the ability to be enticed by and choose between good and evil, "all things [would] be a compound in one," and "if it should be one body it must remain as dead, having neither life nor death, happiness nor misery" (2 Ne. 2:11). So Lehi says a world without choice and struggle is "as dead"; and Nephi says that people who proclaim falsely that all is well -- perhaps assuming all choices and struggles have departed -- are being led to spiritual death. Embracing this perspective, shaped by uniquely Mormon scripture, has helped me come to terms with another tic.

I sometimes restrain myself from frustration or impatience at various things I hear in church. I'm sure that sentiment is universal, even if the personal triggers of annoyance differ. For me, those include (what I perceive as) ill-phrased or ill-mannered proclamations that everyone will eventually convert, or testimony of divine providence that seems to disregard agency. But the above perspective helps determine when to raise a hand or apply a mental filter: if others' statements seem to promote collective complacency.

This was reinforced for me when I read another Dialogue article. In "Good Literature for a Chosen People," Eugene England notes that we see ourselves, like Israel, as a chosen people -- but don't always realize the implications. Brother England details what he calls "the Amos strategy": a prophet who, at the height of the chosen people's self-satisfied judgment of others, turns the judgment of God on them. Brother England gives as an example a sermon by President Spencer W. Kimball, which uses this strategy to rebuke the Saints for having absorbed the surrounding culture's materialism and militarism.

Then Brother England continues: "[In the] Amos view, . . . being chosen means being the ones known and taught by the Lord and, thus, the ones most responsible to keep his commandments and be punished if one does not. It does not mean being better than others, by definition more righteous and blessed. It does not even mean knowing the correct forms of worship and having special priesthood power to perform them as the core of one's religion. The Lord makes this painfully clear by saying, through Amos, ‘I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts.'"

So, why didn't I take up the post-Mormon narrative? At least partly because embarrassing stories look different through the definitely Mormon lenses I found in Dialogue. If pride and ease in Zion led the Morin brothers to look down on their neighbors; if the racist seminary teacher certain of his righteousness was really just saying he had "received, and need[ed] no more"; if it is because we think "chosen" means "more righteous and blessed" that we jump to circulate falsely attributed stories about being generals in the war in heaven, we must ask ourselves a question. Are we willing to own up to our failures to keep the Lord's commandments? I mean not just each of us individually, but we as a people? Certainly -- as in personal repentance -- there is a balance between refusing to admit wrongdoing, and going overboard.

On the one hand, it is hard to change practices if you refuse to admit fault. On the other hand, it's possible to get so wrapped up in admitting fault that you refuse to acknowledge and benefit from your strengths. It's a hard balance to keep, and I don't know where it is personally -- let alone institutionally. But I do know that the collective, self-examining repentance involved is fundamental to Mormonism. And though we may not speak in terms of collective repentance, we understand both why and how we must do it.

In the October 2008 general conference, after recalling the failure of early Saints to establish Zion in Missouri, Elder D. Todd Christofferson cautioned us against judging them too harshly, because "we should look to ourselves to see if we are doing any better. ‘The Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them' (Moses 7:18). If we would establish Zion in our homes, branches, wards, and stakes, we must rise to this standard." The message I take from Nephi and Lehi, from President Kimball and Elder Christofferson, from Brother England, Brother Lindsay, and Sister Young is this: We are a chosen people, but only because we "stand on the shoulders of giants." Jesus Christ told Joseph Smith that the ministers of the time "draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me" (JS-H 1:19).

We are "chosen" because latter-day revelation teaches us the process by which we may draw near with our hearts. The main problems with Mormonism, I've come to believe, stem from the fact that too often, our hearts are -- and my own heart is -- still too far from the Lord.

That's my narrative.


This article originally appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 42:3 (Fall 2009) and is reprinted with permission.

Sam Bhagwat is an undergraduate at Stanford University, majoring in economics. He is currently serving as a full-time missionary for the LDS Church in the India Bangalore Mission.

3/15/2010 4:00:00 AM
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