Saturday, February 4, 2012

Latter Day Beliefs and Mormon Values


Events over the last few years have resulted in an increased focus on the beliefs and culture of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.   The amplified attention is bringing to light many aspects of LDS beliefs that may not be widely known and are often misunderstood.  As is common with outsiders looking into a different set of beliefs, some things will appear strange and difficult to understand or to accept.  I am not attempting in this post to convince anyone that these beliefs are true, although if someone wants to know more, please let me know and I’ll be sure to send the missionaries!


In a few brief paragraphs I hope to shed some light on these beliefs and some interesting corollaries to LDS culture and values.  What follows is purely my opinion and is not an official representation of beliefs or views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Additionally, my statements are not meant to reflect on the religious beliefs of any other group.  My goal is to show that some of what makes “Mormons” strange or peculiar contributes to our core values, our successes and our desire to make the best of life for others and ourselves.   We, as Americans, can disagree on religious doctrine while at the same time accepting that our various beliefs and faiths strengthen us, making us better than we might be otherwise.


First Vision, New Scripture and Continuing Revelation
Let’s start at the beginning with Joseph Smith.  Joseph Smith was a young man in the early part of the 19th century who was caught up in the midst of a religious revival in upstate New York.  During the course of his search for a place amidst all the Christian churches of the day he came across a verse in the Bible that told him God would answer his prayer.  As a result he went into a nearby grove a trees not far from the family farm to pray vocally for the first time.  Without attempting to share the history of the episode in its entirety, the main point is that he came out of that grove sharing a story that God the Eternal Father and His Son Jesus Christ had visited him.  In the course of their visit they informed Joseph that through him the true Church of Jesus Christ would be restored.


In subsequent angelic visitations Joseph Smith was shown the location of golden plates that contained the history and revelations of an ancient people who had lived on the American continent.  Through Joseph Smith and successive prophets additional revelation and scripture have come forth.  Today LDS faithful believe that the Lord has provided them with living prophets and apostles to lead and guide the Church.


Now for many the idea of divine visitations, new scripture and living prophets may range from the realm of strange to blasphemous.  But, the question must be asked, does the belief in such a direct connection from God to man weaken or strengthen the LDS faithful?  First, I posit that the LDS faithful draw strength from the idea and faith that God cares for and loves them enough to provide them revelation and direction today.  Second, if anyone has taken the time to read the teachings of LDS prophets and scripture, they will find that the primary focus of the teachings is to encourage the members to live Christ centered lives of service, morality and honesty.   They are encouraged to love their families and to serve God and man.  Granted, some of the deeper doctrine may be different, but the goal of this life is the same as that encouraged by so many religious faiths—to live a good life.  Third, the faith that God continues to speak to man provides strength when life is difficult; it encourages believers to seek answers from an authority and intelligence higher than their own.  Latter-day Saints are driven to understand the world around them.  They seek answers and solutions to problems.


Eternal Progression and Godhood?  Really?
Latter-day Saints believe that they are the literal spiritual sons and daughters of a loving Heavenly Father.  They believe that they have a familial relationship with the Creator that began before their tenure on this earth.  Additionally, they hold to the belief that their Heavenly Father wants them to become as much like him as possible, that he wants to share His glory with them—even though the process will be long.  They believe that their God, their Eternal Father, has provided them a path to become like him.  He provided a Savior to allow them to overcome their sins and imperfections.  


This is a heavy doctrine, a deep doctrine—one that many may find blasphemous in the extreme.  How dare the Mormons assume that they can become like God or even become a God?  They believe the words of Christ that they can become joint heirs with him.  Even though many won’t accept this doctrine and may think that those who hold to it are at best confused and at the worst on a train bound for, well, you know to where, it bears thinking about the impact of this belief on their psyche, their actions and attitude toward life.  


Latter-day Saints take the injunction to be perfect seriously.  They believe that in order to become like their Savior and their Heavenly Father they must do all they can to obey the commandments and serve others.  They believe in the importance of actual works as part of their religious observance.  This focus on works causes them to be anxiously engaged in good causes, from the raising of their own families to serving in their Church and communities.  It gives them the motivation to try to excel across multiple facets of their lives.  This belief makes education more important, success acceptable and desirable, and every day behavior meaningful.  In short this belief that their works can help them return to God and become like him, inspires them to live the best life possible.  


While pursuing the injunction to be like Christ, Latter-day Saints understand very well that they will not be perfect in this life.  Perfection and salvation are not attainable without divine help.  They believe that the grace of Christ, made available through his suffering and sacrifice, are necessary to return to God and become like him.  In many Latter-day Saints this understanding contributes to a level of humility that allows them to work well with others, to be teachable and to accept success without claiming all the credit.


What about Polygamy?
People outside of the LDS faith love to bring up polygamy.  In our culture this definitely comes across as a strange idea.  Multiple wives for one husband at the command of God?  Even many Latter-day Saints have a difficult time explaining and/or understanding the reasoning behind this religious practice.  When the principle was first introduced most of the early Latter-day Saints embraced it grudgingly and slowly.  Today, not many would jump at the opportunity to go back to it.  


While polygamy seems anathema to the idea of the traditional family, it’s worth taking a look at the place of the family in the Church today.  Latter-day Saints see the family as the most important social unit.  They believe that God has charged them to protect the family now and into the future.  Life is considered sacred and purposeful; it is not something to be wasted.  


How did a people who embraced polygamy develop such a positive and strong set of values on the family?  In part it did so because the part of the purpose of polygamy was to strengthen, grow and sustain families.  Family members were expected to contribute to the welfare of the whole.  They protected one another and kept one another safe.  Success and livelihood were determined at the family level first.  


I’ve always been impressed at the strength of LDS women to include my wife, my mother, my mother-in-law and grandmothers.  Perhaps the combination of polygamy and the pioneer lifestyle where men were often gone on missions or for other reasons created a culture of strong, independent women focused on taking care of their families.  At the same time perhaps the responsibility for large families created a culture where men learned to work hard and effectively to provide for so many.  Is polygamy a strange and peculiar idea?  Absolutely, but I believe it contributed to a belief system and culture where the family is preserved, protected and perpetuated.  These cultural values, in part, were developed in the crucible of polygamy and passed down to the current generation of LDS wives and mothers and fathers and husbands.  These values are encapsulated in their lives and teachings.


WoW!  No alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee, no tea!
Mormons are well known for their peculiar health code.  Received as a revelation by Joseph Smith in 1833, this code is known among Latter-day Saints as the Word of Wisdom.  The revelation provides guidelines for foods that are healthy and substances that were to be avoided.  For most it’s as much a matter of faith and obedience as it is a matter of health. 


Latter-day Saints understand that in many social gatherings the refusal to partake of alcoholic beverages or coffee or tea sets them apart from others.  Yet, think of the purely physical benefits of living this law.  Ahead of its time the revelation provided excellent guidance on proper diet and the need to avoid addictive substances.  The result is that those Latter-day Saints who strive to live this law, both the dos and don’ts, tend to enjoy good health.  They spend less time sick and more time working and serving.  Understanding of the health code encourages adherents to take personal responsibility for their health and well being.


Temple Worship and Ordinances
Since the early days of the Church, Mormons have built and worshipped in temples.  Today over 130 temples operate across the world.  These buildings are separate and different from normal Sunday houses of worship.  Only members deemed worthy may enter into these temples.  For Latter-day Saints the temples represent the house of God, a place of learning and place to make covenants to obey God’s law.  It serves as a connecting place between this world and heaven.  Temple worship is considered sacred and not spoken of in detail openly.  Temple worship is a very private matter between a loving Heavenly Father and his children.  


Temple worship among the Latter-day Saints is considered unique among outsiders for two other reasons: eternal marriage and ordinance work for the dead.  Latter-day Saints believe that marriage, performed in the proper place and under the proper authority, can last forever.  This doctrine is connected with the importance of families.  They believe that the family unit, based on the marriage between a man and a woman, doesn’t end with this life but can continue on into the next life and last for the eternities. 


Baptism and other ordinances are performed for and in behalf of deceased persons in the temples.  These ordinances are considered necessary for salvation and exaltation.  In order for a man or woman to achieve the ultimate purpose of this life, these ordinances must be performed.  Many of God’s children have entered and left this life without the opportunity to receive these ordinances from those with the proper authority.  Latter-day Saints believe that a loving Heavenly Father has provided a way for these individuals to receive these ordinances.  As part of this doctrine members are encouraged to perform these ordinances in the temples for their kindred dead and others who didn’t receive them while alive.  Basically, a person can receive these ordinances for and in behalf of someone who has died.


While these two concepts may seem foreign to one outside the faith, perhaps even shocking, they provide the believing Latter-day Saint a unique perspective on this life and their purpose in it.  Mormons believe not only that they are spirit children of their Heavenly Father who lived with him before this life; they also believe that after this life they have the opportunity to return to him.  The purpose of this life is prove ourselves, to be tested, to live by obedience and grace through faith so that reunion and everlasting life with God is possible.  The idea of eternal marriage and work for the dead give weight to these beliefs.  Marriage and family, for Latter-day Saints, are eternal and are worthy of every effort to protect and save.  Personal responsibility and action is paramount because it affects the outcome of our existence after this life.


Temple worship provides Latter-day Saints with a foundation that pushes them toward responsible action.  One may disagree with the truthfulness of the doctrine, yet the effect in this life is real.  It encourages people to do the right thing.  It provides them the strength to be better, to overcome adversity and to serve others.  For Latter-day Saints, this existence is a momentary blip on their eternal progression, but it’s one that matters and it affects their everyday life.  These doctrines provide the incentive for the adherents to be the best they can be and to repent and change when they fall short.


As a practicing and believing Mormon, I don’t expect people to accept my beliefs.  My ego and faith don’t even have a problem with people telling me that my beliefs are strange or wrong.  What I would ask, and what I offer to those of other beliefs and faiths, is respect for the right to believe how I want and in what I want.  I ask for others to judge me on the quality of my character, not the specific contents of my beliefs.  


As Jesus Christ taught in his sermon on the mount, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”  (Matthew 7:20).  Latter-day Saints may believe differently from others, but their beliefs and practices encourage them to be people of high moral character and strong values.  Their doctrines encourage them to serve others and contribute to their communities.  Even if you think your Mormon neighbor or acquaintance believes some crazy stuff, look at the content of their character and the quality of their actions.  Mormons aren’t perfect.  Many of us struggle to do what is right and some fall well short of their expectations.  But, our doctrine encourages us to strive for something better and to help as many along in the process as possible.

UPDATE:  Due to the recent comments by Pastor Dozier, I've included a link to the recent press release by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding race and the priesthood.

http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article

(For more information about LDS doctrine and beliefs please visit: http://mormon.org/.)

Jarad Van Wagoner

3 comments:

Anonymous said...
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SueG52 said...

Yes you do have the right to believe what you want to believe. I would like to point out, however, that it is our beliefs that determine our character and it is our beliefs that will determine whether we enter heaven or hell for all eternity. I would also like to leave you with a question to think about: If man could obtain Godhood, whether it be in this life or the next, then wouldn't that mean that God would no longer be God because some human has been put on an equal plain with God? Finally, I would like to point out that the Jesus Christ of the Bible is not the same as the Jesus Christ that was made up by Joseph Smith. I encourage you to look at the differences.

Jarad said...

Sue, thank you for your comments. Our beliefs do affect our character, but I think if we take a close look we would find that our values are extremely close despite any doctrinal differences. I do agree, that in the end, what we believe and what we do will determine our place in the eternities. The best method for having that a discussion on such a topic is in a forum where the respect prevails and thoughts and beliefs are shared in a spirit of love and mutual concern. Regarding the concept of Godhood, in the New Testament Paul speaks of becoming joint-heirs with Christ. This is what we believe in. Our God, our Heavenly Father, offers us all He has if we accept His Son and are obedient. In no way would this make us equal to Him as we could not obtain such a great blessing without the grace of His Son Jesus Christ. I find in my studies that the Christ of the Bible and the one taught by Joseph Smith are the same. The additional scripture revealed through Joseph Smith give greater insight into and provide an additional witness of the Savior. I'm never offended when someone disagrees with my beliefs, or when they express that disagreement. I am saddened when someone uses those differences in an attempt to reduce by ability to contribute to the public dialogue and contribute.