Is Mormonism a Postmodern Religion?

The lesson is clearly that receiving your own revelation is far more important than hearing it, even from a prophet. What is also interesting is that while the vision is the same, it is still experienced. Nephi tells his brothers of one of the elements of his vision—a river of filthy water—and then, referring to his father Lehi, he tells us that "and so much was his mind swallowed up in other things, that he beheld not the filthiness of the water." The revelation, the vision, can be the same, but our experience of it is individual. The leaders of the Church—even its prophets—are no different from all of the members of the church.

The role of a prophet is not to be a substitute for God. Rather, the prophet speaks to those who do not (or cannot) speak to God themselves. For the rest of us, it is far better for us to individually receive revelation than to rely on some intermediary who can only interpret the oracle he delivers, and whose interpretation is no more valid than any other interpretation by those who receive it. The Church as an institution may be led by a hierarchy, but that hierarchy functions primarily to direct the church. This is not an issue of salvation. It is the personal revelation that we receive that brings salvation, and which helps us to know God. We are encouraged to receive our own revelation and that encouragement extends to all facets of our lives. Personal revelation is the most significant revelation we can receive. And since we receive revelation in such a way, it should come as no surprise that is different for all of us; it is experienced, and we all see it differently—some of us may see the river, others may focus on something far more important and immediately relevant.

The corollary in postmodernism is the notion of removing privilege. What constitutes authority in postmodernism is always deconstructed. What makes Mormonism a strong movement is not its adherence to a fixed set of beliefs, to creeds and statements of faith, but to a vibrant diversity in perspectives, beliefs, and interpretation coming together in a common faith. "And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith" (D&C 26:2).

The third trait of Mormonism is that idea that there is no universal standard by which everyone is judged, nor is the LDS Church the only repository of truth. As Joseph Smith said, "One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism,' is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may." He also noted "God judges men according to the use they make of the light which He gives them." Mormon theology suggests that all are judged by their individual circumstances. There is no list of specific requirements for salvation that holds true in every case (or even in a majority of cases). Everyone is given an equal opportunity for salvation, even if we don't always understand how that opportunity presents itself. This functions both within the faith, and external to it. Even within the membership of the church, uniformity of belief and understanding is not a requirement for salvation.

The corollary in postmodernism is the rejection of a meta-narrative, and the introduction of pluralism. It doesn't matter if you aren't one of the privileged few who happen to born in the right place at the right time to be baptized into the Mormon church. There is no need to redefine history to conform to a specific understanding of Truth. Mormonism may promote its understanding as a better way, but without suggesting that it is the only way to salvation.

Not all Mormons will agree with this assessment. Some will say that salvation isn't as open ended as I have suggested, that all must be baptized (except perhaps for a few who can be characterized by their age or mental capacity). They may struggle with revelation as an agent of change. They may prefer absolutes to ambiguity. The hierarchy of church authority provides for them a security of knowing that I cannot offer. To them, Mormonism is decidedly not a post-modern faith.

We may not all be in agreement, but we can disagree and still share a salvific faith. From my perspective, embracing diversity is part of what has led to the growth of Mormonism. This diversity crosses social, ethnic, political, and economic barriers. It helps build narratives that give us a sense of purpose in our lives. It allows us to embrace ambiguity, to appreciate mystery, and to develop a mature faith that challenges us to change. In the words of a more recent leader of the church, Bruce Hafen, "I hope that I will never be so aware of ‘reality' that I am unresponsive to the whisperings of heaven."

12/29/2010 5:00:00 AM