Competing Visions of Zion
Unsurprisingly, I am frequently engaged in conversations about Mormonism and what the ideal would look like. I’ve been struck recently by somewhat of a disparity in what I hope to see and what others wish for and think our competing desires (which admittedly, have some, maybe even significant, overlap) may create some interesting discussion. So, here we go, looking at Simplicity and Complexity.
The camp that I sympathize with in many ways, but don’t fully belong to is that of Simplicity. The primary motivation seems to be to strip away the excess that blocks us from the Savior and to focus on the pure, simple doctrines necessary for salvation. That no matter what we talk about, we should always bring back our discussions to some practical, basic principle that we can implement in our lives. This corresponds with a desire to avoid overly prescriptive practices—no more Do’s and Don’t’s for Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy, drop extra programs, strip things down to the most basic.
The alternative, that I am more sympathetic to, is Complexity. That is to lean into the mess, to acknowledge that no one really knows what’s going on and to embrace a collective idea of working things out together. There’s a sense that IT IS ALL TEXT, to use language from my literary theory background. In other words, we cannot do the foundational task that those advocating for Simplicity propose because we don’t know what “pure doctrine” is. Everything we believe and say is filtered and interpreted. We don’t have access to unmediated truth, all we have is our individual interpretations and those interpretations that others share with us.
My experience with both communities is a desire for understanding and acceptance of a more nuanced view of the Gospel. The solutions just differ. I’m not confident that my position is inherently better for all members. In fact some experiences here in England suggest the opposite.
I taught Elders Quorum on Sunday—teachings of our times, meaning I chose a talk from April 2017 General Conference. I focused on “Songs Sung and Unsung” from Elder Holland (which has its problems, but I think still has some valuable messages for ultra-conservative realms of the Church). As I was teaching I realized that my approach was relying on complex words and theoretical principles, talking about metaphors and how they relate to us and discovering that that approach did not work for the EQ. I stumbled for ten minutes before finding my stride with the help of some comments from the brothers about their personal experiences and then we got into some powerful stuff about needing to foster an environment where all feel like their voice is valued, that some leave because they feel as though they aren’t welcome that their ‘voice’ isn’t wanted or valued, and how we can work to counteract that. We were exploring the same principles that I had hoped to get at, just in a different, more pragmatic, simpler way.
I fully believe that all people are capable of nuanced, complex thought. Some may be more naturally disposed to it than others, but I think everyone can think that way—perhaps we need to take steps to teach people how and do our best to use inclusive language that doesn’t restrict those without academic training. I can take the theoretical, academic training that I have and use that to teach others complex ideas without the complex, excluding vocabulary. We need an inclusive, class-sensitive theoretical discourse (which I’m probably not doing great at modeling).
One critique of embracing complexity is that people aren’t ready for it. I think that’s rubbish. I mean, yes, if we just dump complexity on people, they’ll be overwhelmed and who knows what will happen, but I think all people are capable of complex thought—I don’t buy that some elite few are better. I believe in the people. I’m a humanist. And somewhat of a populist.
While I like the idea of stripping away cultural excesses from Mormonism, as I’ve detailed before, I don’t know if we can. At least as a collective. I could do it, but the lines I’d draw between culture and doctrine would be different than your lines and that is the problem of everything being text. I think there may still be value in the effort of doing so, the act of engaging with Mormonism in a way that strives to draw lines between culture and doctrine and why we draw the lines we do (since often it seems we call whatever we dislike and want to feel comfortable about not believing “culture” and the stuff we like “doctrine” with some lip-service to words of scripture or prophets or Q15 or whatever, but little consistency in that application).
I’ve often heard the wish for more Christ in our meetings, that we need to be better about bringing everything back to Christ. We could probably do with a bit more Jesus at Church, but honestly, one thing I love about Mormonism is all the non-Jesus stuff. The extra-bits that cause mainstream Christianity to doubt our Christian-ness. I’d probably get bored if we always brought it back to Jesus. Unless we had more interesting conversations about Christ and how to build a relationship with Him—what is Christ really like? Why is He always portrayed somber? What about Snarky Jesus? How was He God without a body as Jehovah in the Old Testament? What does it mean that He’s our Brother? Why wasn’t I Jehovah? How perfect is perfect? What sorta movies does He like? Does He read? Pizza or burgers? Does He get a kick out of flying through walls and just up and disappearing? What is the Atonement? What exactly did Christ experience? How? Why was that necessary? How does that help me? Why do I pray in His name? How will He be Judge and Advocate/Mediator?
Ok, that was a little off-track, but the point is, those complex sorts of questions are the ones I want to chat about if we’re going to talk about Jesus all the time. If it’s going to be the vague sorta stuff that we do now, I’m not interested and it doesn’t really help me. I don’t feel like I know Christ as a person and most of the discussion I’ve had in Church connected to Christ for the past 26 (and a bit) years hasn’t really helped me. I don’t need an enigmatic, perfect marble Christus Christ. I need a flesh and bone, human, personality-filled, radical, snarky, joyful, thoughtful, whatever-he-is Christ.
All that is to say that the approach of simplicity I think can teach us things and help us share the complex. We do need to be sensitive to the dangers of complexity in alienating others and focusing on the abstract at the expense of the practical (though I find plenty of practical application in the abstract personally) and to figure out a way to really prepare members for complexity from an early age, to promote a thoroughly and constantly examined spiritual life, because any other is not worth living.