Many have questioned the relevance of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ message in the present age in general and to millennials in particular. According to researcher Jana Riess, a critical commentator on Latter-day Saint topics, the youth retention rate in the Church is much higher than that of other faiths but much less than it used to be. Dave Bannock opines on the same issues. The truth is that the issue of current relevance as it relates to religion has been here from the beginning. In his introduction to “Future Mormon,” Adam Miller points out “This problem isn’t new, but it is perpetually urgent. Every generation must start again. Every generation must work out their own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again. Like our grandparents, like our parents, and like us, they will have to rethink the whole tradition, from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world.”
Taking a cue from our own short history, many children and grandchildren of Latter-day Saint pioneers struggled to do just this and have become known in Mormon history as the “lost generation.” It wouldn’t be until David O. McKay ushered in a revival of sorts that made way for the rise of Modern Mormonism (See Gregory Prince, “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism”). In Antiquity the Apostle Paul’s epistles are consumed with explaining to Greek and Roman Gentiles what Israel’s God and Messiah have to do with them, hence Paul’s “all things to all people” approach (1 Cor 9:22). Similar arguments of outmoded or outdated religion can be seen in the narratives of the Book of Mormon’s anti-Christs, and in the Old Testament as Israel is pressed upon by foreign influences to embrace polytheism and idol worship. You could even take this back to a narrative in the Book Moses, where Cain, as Master Mahan, believes he has found a new pragmatic secret philosophy that he deems considerably more relevant than his parents’ teachings.
Efforts to use our faith to address the concerns of the present age are not new (the gospel is supposed to be both new and everlasting). General Conference and continuing revelation are meant to address the present needs of the general body of the Church worldwide. Some more recently have also taken up the task of relating the Faith to the present age, as seen in James Golderberg’s modest piece “Remember the Revolution,” Adam Miller’s popular “Letters to a Young Mormon” (largely addressing millennial concerns), Fiona and Terryl Givens “The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life” together with its sequels, and Patrick Mason’s “Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt.” In scriptural history, it is the same weeping God of Enoch in the Book of Moses who issues the deluge.
In scriptural history, it is the same weeping God of Enoch in the Book of Moses who issues the deluge.
“All Things New”
Some Latter-day Saints, after encountering a fair amount of goodness in the world among peoples of other faiths, have made well-meaning efforts to reduce the Church’s uniqueness primarily to authority and ordinances. I myself have heard this from several sources including across the pulpit from mission presidents. To give some support to these ideas, loose appeals are sometimes made to Joseph Smith’s more legalistic teachings.
A special emphasis on authority and ordinances can sometimes be heard by others as “we have the authority and the correct rituals and you don’t,” a non-starter for many post-moderns and Millenials. The Givenses emphatically reject such a simplified emphasis, pointing out that in addition to a restoration of authority and stewardship over sacred ordinances, the theological content of Joseph Smith’s revelations matters enormously. Not because they restore a point-for-point systematic theology of the early Christians, and not because they are inclusive of answers to all relevant theological questions. They matter most because they restore the key points of the cosmic Christian story itself, “the story’s essential plot,” which they summarize in their book after extensive discussion as comprising something like this:
“Our lives are traceable to a premortal sphere in which God the Eternal Father and God the Eternal Mother invited us, spirit beings, into eternal relationship with Themselves. Rather than creating humans for Their own glory, God chose to nurture these souls along a path of mortal education so that all women and men ‘might have joy.’ It is at this moment, before the earth is created or the first person formed, that grace—God’s freely given offering of love—irrupts into the universe. On the one hand, this grace is manifest in God’s vulnerable exposure as nurturing Parents, co-suffering in Their children’s travails and pains along their way to exaltation. On the other, this grace is manifest in that willingness of the Only Begotten, Jesus Christ, to consecrate His life, His Death, and His still-continuing efforts to heal us, nurture us, and bring us home. With these gracious resources, and by our deliberate choice, we embarked upon a course of guided transformation into holier beings committed to building holy community (Zion). As our hearts are educated and tutored by the Holy Spirit, we bring ourselves into conformity with the divine nature and anticipate a reunion as part of a heavenly, eternal family (181-182).
How difficult to summarize, but beautifully done. To the Givens’ point, you may find one or several of these assertions somewhere in various Christian denominations or writings, but you will not find them in this complete coherent narrative that can then give light, clarity, and context to everything else. A grand storyline that makes sense of life. Such ideas, the Givenses underscore, matter indeed:
“Language bears within itself the power to hurt or to heal, to obfuscate or to clarify, to instill with despair or to expand with hope. As Robert MacFarlane taught us, ‘Language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment, for language does not just register experience, it produces it.’ Our language shapes our mind and heart, our Church culture, our world. Our religious language conditions all of our experience and negates or makes possible our encounter with what is most holy.”
The Givens’ dive into patristics (the study of early Christian writers) to make this point is impressive. Though not everything in that ancient corpus maps onto Latter-day Saint theology, there are clearly entire narratives, themes, and topics that appear to have dropped out of Christian consciousness moving into the Middle Ages. The Givenses argue that the reframing of Christianity during that later period into a religion about a lost Paradise, original sin, human depravity, and God’s rescue plan takes a huge leap backward with the late Augustine and then gets worse (not better) with the Reformers. While acknowledging that the Reformers took important steps towards loosening the institutional grip of Roman Catholicism on Western Christianity, they argue many of these Reformers actually took much of Christianity further from, not closer to, the original deposit of faith on issues. Examples include a further emphasis on God’s sovereignty, the introduction of double predestination, and a disinterest in authority, ordinances/sacraments, and the fate of the dead. Their conclusion is that the biggest theological problems were concentrated not in the Nicene Creed, but in the Westminster Confession (a Reformed Creed embraced officially by many denominations). A side-by-side comparison may help. First from Nicea:
“We believe in one God, the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, Very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven, from there He shall come to judge both the quick and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit.”
With a couple of relatively minor adjustments/omissions, the above statement squares fairly well with Latter-day Saint belief. Compare this with the pronouncements of Westminster:
“There is but one only, living, and true God: who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.”
The lights have not gone out, but they have clearly dimmed. Having demonstrated how much ideas really do matter, the Givenses proceed to give us something of a new theological dictionary that wrests the most common Christian vocabulary from the Augustinian and Protestant digression and again situates them within the context of the Plan of Salvation as revealed by Joseph Smith:
- Salvation: Rescue to Realization
- Heaven: From “Where” to “with Whom”
- Fall: From Corruption to Ascension
- Obedience: From Subject to Heir
- Sin: From Guilt to Woundedness
- Justice: From Punishment to Restoration
- Repentance: From Looking Back to Looking Forward
- Forgiveness: From Transactional Love to Absolute Love
- Atonement: From Penal Substitution to Radical Healing
- Grace: From Declaring Righteous to Becoming Righteous
- Worthiness: From Merit to Miracle
- Judgment: From Court to Waystation
And then some concluding chapters suggesting some course corrections to how we have come to see our own modern story:
- Apostasy: From Total Eclipse to Wilderness Refuge
- Restoration: From Ex Nihilo to Out of the Wilderness
- Church: From Reservoir of the Righteous to Collaborators with Christ
On the whole, I love the Givenses’ book—not just what they say, but how they say it. Together, they blend scholarship and poetry in a way that can uniquely reach both the mind and the heart. My only concern with the book is that I do wonder if in some instances the Givenses overstate a few of their arguments, perhaps over-streamlining the complexity of the divine nature. It’s helpful to understand the degree to which language and metaphors around anger and punishment have been exaggerated in the Protestant tradition. In pushing back on that, it’s unclear to the extent to which the Givenses are rejecting as wrong the idea of God as the dispenser of any punishment—or simply calling for a shift in emphasis.
Certainly, more emphasis on the desires of God to heal us ought to be welcome to us all. And doing so does not—and need not—sideline the reality of sin and humankind’s responsibility for wrongdoing in the eyes of God, as the authors themselves make clear. It’s also the case that some overstatement is natural when making a novel point, especially as a counterpoint to existing emphases. I just wonder though, isn’t it possible for God to embody certain seeming contradictions, which are in fact different attributes or responses applied to the proper situations and times? Can God not heal AND sometimes punish? Can He not forgive AND sometimes issue harsh judgment? For all the problems with Augustine, he too has some gems, and the thrust of this statement from the opening chapter of his “Confessions” has long sat with me:
Who is God save our God? Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong, stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old; all-renewing, and bringing age upon the proud, and they know it not; ever working, ever at rest; still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things. Thou lovest, without passion; art jealous, without anxiety; repentest, yet grievest not; art angry, yet serene; changest Thy works, Thy purpose unchanged; receivest again what Thou findest, yet didst never lose; never in need, yet rejoicing in gains; never covetous, yet exacting usury. Thou receivest over and above, that Thou mayest owe; and who hath aught that is not Thine? Thou payest debts, owing nothing; remittest debts, losing nothing. And what had I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy? or what saith any man when he speaks of Thee? Yet woe to him that speaketh not, since mute are even the most eloquent.
Whether you agree or not with all the characteristics that Augustine attributes to God in this list, he paints a picture of a God who can hold multiple seeming contradictions within Himself. In scriptural history, it is the same weeping God of Enoch in the Book of Moses who issues the deluge. And this is likewise the same God who issues judgment on the Lehites at the death of the Messiah, but then sends Him to heal them afterward one-by-one. It is the voice of Jesus in the Doctrine and Covenants who simultaneously foretells the building up of the peaceful Zion while also pronouncing judgment on the nations. Isn’t it possible for God to embody certain seeming contradictions, which are in fact different attributes or responses applied to the proper situations and times?
Isn’t it possible for God to embody certain seeming contradictions, which are in fact different attributes or responses applied to the proper situations and times?
I would be interested to see the Givenses press their work even a step farther in attempting to more fully reconcile the sometimes competing views of Deity that we encounter even in Latter-day Saint revelation—perhaps further channeling the spirit of Terryl’s earlier text, “People of Paradox.” I fear if we don’t give adequate attention to God’s complex self-presentation in scripture, both ancient and modern, we might be missing the mark of who He truly is. Or if we deemphasize or inadvertently excise from our modern readings of scripture that which disagrees with what we think the grand narrative ought to be, then we, like Thomas Jefferson with his Deist version of the Bible, might leave many important pieces on the cutting room floor. Instead of the whole elephant, we only get a portion. We don’t want a Picasso or an idol of our own making, we want to come to see God, all sides of God, in His glory. More discussion here is warranted.
The Givenses have argued persuasively for the relevance of our beliefs in the modern age, but what of our particular work and mission? In Mason’s book, “Restoration,” he further reminds us that the restoration is not just a platonic restoration of ideas, forms, and structures (i.e. restored gospel/church), but concerns the restoration of scattered Israel (God’s people).
Christians in the New Testament appear to have understood that the Kingdom of God had come, and yet the Kingdom of God was still coming. Jesus’ resurrection had inaugurated something new that was still unfolding and would be fulfilled at the end of time. During the “in-between time” Christians were expected to fulfill the Great Commission, while God worked through them by his Spirit to do the works of righteousness in the world. As N. T. Wright points out in “Surprised by Hope,” Christians sometime in the late Middle Ages lost sight of this perspective and replaced the eschaton with a religion focused on personal salvation, on whether or not you would be going away to heaven or hell when you die. At that time, the idea of collectively preparing the world for the return of Jesus and the coming of a new heaven and new earth seems to have faded away for many believers. Fast-forward to the 19th-century and we see God calling Joseph Smith to gather a people who would serve as leaven in preparing God’s children to receive him at his coming. Restoration quickly became the word on the street.
Mason demonstrates with a corpus analysis of 19th-century Latter-day Saint texts that this is almost always how that specific word was used during that period. God was doing something different in human history, all the old covenants were being done away (D&C 22), and He was now inviting all to become part of a people who were going to build Zion (physically and spiritually) and prepare to meet the Lord. Mason points out how President Nelson appears to have revived this emphasis in recent times with his repeated calls to gather Israel on both sides of the veil. Mason points out that a key difference from the Church’s first century to its third is this: in the 19th-century many early Latter-day Saint leaders in an effort to bring the gathering about, were focused on the gathering of specific religio-ethnic groups: Lamanites, true Ephraimites, the ten tribes, Jews, etc., but uncertainty as to who modern Lamanites really are, let alone the 10 tribes, stood in the way of any clean fulfillment. That left the Saints freer to focus more directly on covenant community-building everywhere.
Mason argues that while in many ways we have been valiantly carrying out our mission for the last 200 years, we have also accumulated a good deal of detritus that is not helping us carry it out effectively in the present. In a direct reference to Pope John XXIII’s statement at “Vatican II,” Mason says it’s time for us to “open the windows.” He describes a sabbatical that he took to Romania where he and his family had the chance to visit a Fortress Church, a place of worship surrounded by high walls and battlements to which the community could retreat in times of danger. He compares such a church to our own religious history: first our physical gathering to the mountain west and the subsequent development of our insular culture. He says living in the fortress church has certainly provided us solidarity, but in some aspects, it has cut us off from the world in ways that make our religious culture less relevant to the present. And, somehow, we’ve accumulated some strange baggage within that fortress that might even have been smuggled in? According to Mason, some examples include veneration of a 17th-century Bible translation, racism, patriarchy, nationalism, western cultural colonialism, and fundamentalism. Opening the windows and laying aside the excess baggage, removing unnecessary hurdles and roadblocks, he argues, will make more room to let people in and allow us to refocus our efforts on our particular mission of restoring Israel. The following statements seem to sum up his thrust:
“Having flourished in our fortress, the Restoration’s third century is our time to range widely. … The Spirit is breathing new life into Christ’s church. You can feel it. It’s time to lower the drawbridge, open the shutters, and let the air in. It’s time to take the precious gifts that God has entrusted us with, and that we have been carefully stewarding for two centuries, and use them to bless the world. … It’s time to let the Restoration do its work not just for the church but for the world.”
According to Mason, the “ongoing restoration” is “a thoroughly modern project” where we take our gifts and apply them to current needs and conditions. He issues a plea for us to love the world, to be less afraid of it and more engaged therein. He gives several specific ideas for 21st-century “renovation projects” that could help us meet the needs of the present age:
- Re-enchantment (granting others a sense of the divine and the unseen world)
- Human Identity (understanding we are children of God with divine potential)
- Religious Freedom
- Refugees and Immigrants
- Social Justice (citing the 4th Mission of the Church and prophetic rejection of racial prejudice)
- Community (Mason is not the first to point out that Latter-day Saints “do community well”)
A Theology of Religions
What do we believe about other religions? How do we make sense of them? What do we do with them? Church Presidents since Joseph Smith have put forth some version of the following (here I quote from Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Gordon Hinckley respectively):
“The inquiry is frequently made of me, ‘Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?’ In reality and essence, we do not differ so far in our religious views, but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” (See History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1949), 5:499.)
“Mormonism,” so-called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to “Mormonism.” The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. As for their morality, many of them are, morally, just as good as we are. All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom. “Mormonism” includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel (DBY, 3).
We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it. That is the spirit of this work. That is the essence of our missionary service” (meeting, Nairobi, Kenya, 17 Feb. 1998).
Both “All Things New” and “Restoration” present their own take on this topic, and I’ve saved a discussion and juxtaposition of their approach here for last. The Givenses appear to take a middle way that affirms the beauty to be found in the world’s faiths, but also that certain aspects of the Restoration are indispensable to all. As they say:
“In articulating the Restoration’s relationship to other faith traditions, careful and charitable navigation is essential. Twin imperatives impel us in two directions, but in both directions danger lurks, a Scylla and Charybdis each inviting disaster. One imperative is to recognize the essential goodness—and inspired insights—of those across the faith spectrum. … The other imperative is to clarify what developments in doctrine, and what abandoned “plain and precious things,” … necessitated the Restoration.”
In this conception the institutional church is not just one option among many, it is “essential and indispensable, both for channeling the powers of heaven through temple ordinances and for creating the optimum environment in which we may learn the hard task of indiscriminate love.” In the same moment, however, the Givenses cite several Restoration scripture passages which elucidate the reality of an invisible church, composed of the wider body of righteous individuals outside of the Church with their spiritual gifts and godly principles and practices. While the institutional church remains the portal to God’s eternal family, not all is to be realized in this life.
Similar to this idea, Mason puts forth his argument for “particularism,” distinct from religious exclusivism (our way is the only way) and relativism (all roads lead to Rome), by saying that God has given certain peoples certain crops to cultivate in his expansive gardens. According to Mason, these five crops are:
- Restoration scripture
- Modern prophets and apostles
- The New and Everlasting Covenant (ordinances)
- A distinctive view of the plan of salvation, based on human potential to become like God and on family-based exaltation.
He adds, “Each of [these crops], as we can testify, brings unspeakable light, power, love, truth, and goodness into people’s lives and into the world.” A powerful affirmation.
But in some ways, Mason seems to take it one step further than the Givenses in his suggestion that some are perhaps better off outside the Church because that’s where they’ve been assigned and where they can best cultivate their gifts:
“We labor with all our might, mind, and strength in our particular corner of the farm, knowing that the crops we raise are absolutely essential. At the same time, we recognize that our fellow laborers are doing equally good and valuable work tending to their respective crops.”
Mason seems to imply that those other equally good crops might be better off being cultivated elsewhere. But even if they were cultivated elsewhere initially, shouldn’t those crops eventually be brought into the storehouse of Zion, to the City of the Living God? Just as the finest materials are brought from diverse sources to adorn the superstructure of our temples both ancient and modern, shouldn’t we similarly fit all the materials and stones together neatly into one perfect whole? How would this square with the Great Commission, to preach the gospel to every creature? Of course, many good servants of God will not accept the fullness of the gospel until the next life, but it seems to me that the burden of present invitation still rests with us. Would widespread adoption of Mason’s perspective lead some to conclude that we should leave much of the missionary work for the world to come? Maybe we could do some spring cleaning in order to make room in the Lord’s storehouse for others from many walks of life to bring their offerings in.
Maybe we could do some spring cleaning in order to make room in the Lord’s storehouse for others from many walks of life to bring their offerings in.
Maybe we do have some room to grow here. Maybe we could do some spring cleaning in order to make room in the Lord’s storehouse for others from many walks of life to bring their offerings in. Perhaps allowing for more such integration and blending is part of the “ongoing” aspect of the restoration. I would love to see some additional discussion of what this might look like on the ground. While structural changes to church worship forms and organizations would have to come from the General Authorities, on a ward and personal level all of us could take inventory of some perhaps needed change and recommit ourselves to contributing to the gathering scattered Israel and the ongoing restoration.