Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Theology of Mormon "Nice"

Many commentators have stated recently that Mormons have weird beliefs, but they are nice people. At least one said that, compared to other religious people, Mormons they have known were mostly nice with fewer "Jerks" to be found. This may be high compliments, but there is something behind the words that hasn't been properly evaluated. It begs the question of why Mormons, if this is indeed the case, are nice to a fault that some have even found spooky.

It can be frustrating to hear such good praise and yet at the same time have deeply held beliefs dismissed. There seems to be a disconnect in commentator's minds between behavior and theology. At least there is consistency with those who say that Mormon theology is bad and therefore Mormons are bad people. The good news is those who have a distorted view of Mormonism aren't taken seriously by the open-minded who actually know Mormons as more than a headline.

How Mormons behave and treat others is not merely a social construct. It doesn't spring from nowhere. There are very specific beliefs and theological concepts that shape the Mormon community. Understanding those can bridge a gap that many ignore or simply dismiss as unrelated.

Probably the most important starting point is that Mormons believe every human, no matter who, is a Child of God. The scriptures seem to indicate this is probably less literal than some Mormons believe, but more literal than other religions teach. The idea is clearest in Ephesians 3:15 and 4:6 where it reads first:

14 For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
15 Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named

followed by:

4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling;
5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

This family bond goes beyond membership in the LDS Church, but the whole human race. That includes Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Caucasians and whoever else ever lived on the Earth. Because of this, there is a special obligation to treat others with kindness and respect. Even those Mormons disagree with have an importance for the fact they exist. The Book of Mormon in Mosiah 2: 17 states,"And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God." That makes relationships far more important than immediate friends or family members. The ties that bind, bind us all together.

Looking even farther back in time, so far as Mormon theology, each individual is more than a mere creation. They are an eternal element:

29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

As Doctrine and Covenants 93: 29-30 indicates, humans are free to choose good or evil because they are separate from each other. There can be no forcing of the wills onto other people, and therefore Mormons tend to be passive aggressive when challenged. Each person is considered unique. Not just because God created them, but from the knowledge they are part of the primordial universe.

Much has been made about Satan as the brother of Jesus. Those who have paid attention understand Mormons believe everyone is related, no matter how good or bad they are. A reporter had a short explanation when she wrote:

Mormon theology holds that the savior and the devil are both sons of God. Therefore, an official church website explains, "Jesus was Lucifer's older brother." But as former Mormon Bishop Scott Gordon points out, the faith also holds that all human beings are sons of God, which would make everyone a sibling of Christ (and of the devil). Mormons believe that Lucifer was not born evil but turned into a power-hungry glory-seeker. He opposed God's plan for mankind and was cast out of heaven.

There is no inherent evilness to the human soul. It is true that "The Fall" brought about the moral corruption of natural man. Yet, even The Fall is not considered the great tragedy that many other Christians teach. Adam and Eve's taking of the forbidden fruit was part of the process to help shape personality for better or worse, according to individual choices. The 13 Articles of Faith of the LDS Church states, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression." Even when mistakes are made, there is value in evaluating what went wrong and making corrections and repenting.

All of this is made possible by the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Continuing with the Articles of Faith, "We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost." From this is learned that Faith is more than a recognition, but an action from that recognition. It is also a constant irritation to those who believe "right belief" is all that matters, and behavior (called by some "works") is meaningless.

It is true that "works" can become superficial in evaluating an individual. There are hypocrites who act according to what is expected of them rather than out of real convictions. However, it is equally as true that "works" are at least a starting point in evaluating a person or organization. Jesus in Matt. 7:16-21 was clear on the subject:

16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

For a Mormon, faith and works are inseparable. You can't truly have one without the other and still be spiritually whole. You can have faith, but it won't do you or the world any good without the works. You can have works, but that doesn't mean ultimately you can be saved. On the other hand, doing good works will probably save a person faster than having faith and doing wrong or evil. 2 Nephi 9:25-27 makes that implication:

25 Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him. . .

27 But wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!

Repentance is essential to understanding Mormon behavior. Because there was a Fall, there was also an Atonement made by Jesus Christ. That Atonement will in the end wipe out both sin and death, but not before the purposes of mortality have finished. One of the main reasons for mortal life is to develop our true selves. What we become in mortality will reflect our state in the Eternities. This isn't because of some malice of God, but out of a sense of justice. No wrong can go unpunished. However, mistakes do happen and a way must exist that allows for mercy. Alma 34:15, 32-33 reads:

15 And thus he [Jesus Christ] shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. . .

32 For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.
33 And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.

One of my favorite quotes comes from movie The Gladiator when the character of the title says, "what we do here will echo into eternity." For that reason Mormons who live by their religion are careful how they behave, talk, and sometimes even dress. Earthly consequences can sometimes be avoided, but there is no escaping ourselves. This also relates to the Mormon belief in more than one "Heaven" where a variety of personality types will find a place to live. The closer to the ideals of God a human gets, the closer to God they will end up. Only those who openly and with full knowledge rebel against God, such as Satan and his angels, will have no salvation. Therefore, even the worst sinner among humans is considered worthy of some kind of respect, even if nothing more than sorrow.

This is especially the case when talking about one of the least understood doctrines of the LDS Church; becoming gods. Although reserved for the most devout and believing of Mormons, it is within all human's capabilities to achieve divine stature. The sentiment is expressed in Romans 8:16-17 that, "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together."

At GetReligion.Org, a person called gfe explains, in response to a non-Mormon description of the LDS belief:

However, I’ve never before heard the term “ultimate deification” either, and most Mormons wouldn’t even use the term “deification” (although they might know what it means). The word of choice in LDS circles is “exaltation.” I think the idea of becoming godlike is as good a definition as any.

The teaching on exactly what that entails isn’t all that clear (although there’s plenty of speculation). Most of the clearest doctrines about it are Biblical, actually, with concepts such as becoming partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), being holy and perfect as God is holy and perfect, and becoming joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). All these scriptural passages point to the idea of being godlike, although Mormons take the idea farther and perhaps more literally than other Christians do.

There is no Usurpation of God by gaining the divine nature, as He remains the Divine devotion of our Worship. What God gains is influence, or as the Bible might put it Thrones and Principalities. And what do Mormon’s mean by becoming like God?

It doesn’t mean getting your own world to rule or any such nonsense cooked up by enemies of LDS theology who put more importance in things that Mormons don’t stress. The most it means is arguably gaining the role of Divine Parents, or at the least moral perfection. There is no pride associated with the concept as that would be counter to the divine. It is gaining the attributes of God: mercy, justice, hope, charity, faith, knowledge, and above all love. The only way to gain that is to practice it in the here and now of mortality. Such attention to behavior out of faith in the Gospel leads to treating others decently. Too bad people are open enough to recognize the "good behavior" of Mormons, and not open enough to want to understand the motivation comes from those wacky beliefs.


Eric Nielson said...

Well done my friend.

Eric Nielson said...

Oh, I had a question for you. You mentioned that Mormons tend to be passive aggressive because of free will.

If a person is non-confrontational, does that make them passive-aggressive? Is passive-aggressive a bad thing?

Jettboy said...

I actually wasn't sure how to put it really. That is perhaps one of my most problematic statements. Nothing I wrote seemed to fit.

What I was trying to say was Mormons were more libertarian or independant. They have opinions, but generally don't tend to push it on others. There are those non-Mormons who say this isn't the case in Utah. However, over the net I have heard people say such things as "the nicest trolls I have ever seen."

Anne Bradshaw said...

Thanks for some excellent posts. I've added you to my favorites list and will be back again to read more.

My own studies from many sides of the Mormon equation, together with deep prayer, always build my faith and testimony further. I have a hard time expressing the results, especially verbally, as emotions get in the way--especially those of frustration when people I love don't get it. I end up being non-confrontational to prevent getting tongue-tied. However, I'd love to be able to say everything as eloquently as these posts do.

annegb said...

Yes, a really wonderful post. I love your title.

I've been working a 12 step program that involves turning ourselves over to God's will. For a long time, seeking God's will meant asking him, "should I take this job?" stuff like what should I DO."

I've learned the more important question is "How should I ACT?"

God wants me to be decent (my euphemism for Christ-like) no matter the choices I make (well so long as they're basically righteous in nature.)

For Mormons, I believe that we define "works" as doing your genealogy, having food storage, reading the scriptures perfectly consistently, etc. etc. And that we have misread God's definition of works.

I believe that indeed He wants us to be obedient because we are safer then. However, before we do all those things, He wants us to have an attitudde of devotion to Christ and love for our fellow man.

I think we Mormons get that totally turned around. A woman, for isntance, might think she's perfectly obedient if she does all I mentioned above, if her children are all temple worthy, etc. But "if ye have not charity,..." I can't remember the exact quote.

We must start with "Nice" and add works. God ain't keeping near as much score of your food storage as He's keeping score how well you treat your fellow man and where you are headed.

Jettboy said...

Thanks Anne x 2. I am glad you enjoyed this post. I really liked, "God ain't keeping near as much score of your food storage as He's keeping score how well you treat your fellow man and where you are headed." The only problem I have with this statement is that God does care about the food storage if you are at that point where it is part of personal growth. We shouldn't run more than we have strength, but stagnation is the start of deteriation.

Alan from Orem said...

One of my pet peeves is the morphing of the concept of "passive-aggressive" to refer to anyone who is assertive in a polite way. The term has a long history is psychological literature. You can read about it here:

The term implies a certain underhandedness, sneakiness, even hypocrisy that simply does not characterize most people who hold and promote strong views while remaining "nice". I believe the misuse of this term has become the recourse of pugnacious individuals who simply cannot understand that civilty can be combined with assertiveness (not aggression).

A visit to the Salt Lake Tribune article blogs is particularly revealing. Mormon posters who politely express their views are constantly labelled as passive-aggressive.

Nathan said...

This reminds me of a fantastic article I read on Meridian about the portrayal of religion (particularly Christianity) in popular movies and TV shows (the link doesn't seem to be working; sorry). The author classified religious characters into three types (I can't remember the exact terms he used), beginning with the most common:

1. The judgemental hypocrite
2. The nice but naive incompetent
3. The wise sage

#1 is by far the most common depiction. Hollywood thinks it's being gracious by calling someone #2, because at least it's not #1. But they will rarely, if ever, grant someone the label of #3 or depict a Christian character as such. They'll freely do so with non-Christian or non-Abrahamic religions; Buddhists are always the wise, learned mentor characters, but not Christians. The only good Christian characters are the ones fraught with doubts about their religion.