What of the
Defending the Truth
Mormonism and modernism
The removal of the ban on black priesthood members brought the church more in step with modern sensibilities and eased assimilation into contemporary life, but the largest obstacle to assimilation could never be surmounted: the claim that miraculous events underlay the founding of Mormonism. What was a modern, educated citizen in an advanced capitalist nation to make of Joseph Smith's story of an angel, gold plates, and inspired translation? How could the visions and visitations be considered anything more than psychological illusions?
There was no room in the modern worldview for angels. The Yale literary critic Harold Bloom has said that Joseph Smith's angels once would have been considered perfectly natural, but since the Enlightenment angels have been contrary to the laws of nature. The Roman Catholic sociologist Thomas O'Dea, whose book on Mormonism is considered one of the most astute commentaries by an outside observer, predicted that the Mormon emphasis on education was on a collision course with fundamental Mormon beliefs. As the Mormon population learned the critical methods of scientific scholarship, their own core beliefs would be doomed.
Over the past century, the church has suffered the loss of many of its educated members, but probably no more than the seepage of believers at every level of education. Studies of church activity show that PhD-holding members are more likely to be fully engaged than high school graduates. Mormons feel that their founding miracles are no more unlikely than the other founding miracles of Christianity. All the revealed religions of the world begin with divine intervention in human life. Christianity has the Incarnation and the Resurrection, Judaism its God at Sinai and the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, Islam the conveyance of God's word in the Qur'an. These miracles remain controversial centuries after they are purported to have occurred. Critics attribute them to illusion or legend; believers hold on to them as signs of God's involvement in human affairs.
The debate over the rationality of the miracles—though carried on passionately—is not quite on point for Mormon believers. Their miracles represent an attitude toward the world. Miracles imply that God takes an interest in humans. If some educated Mormons drift away, overwhelmed by the dissonance with modernity, other young Mormons keep the faith and delight in their independence. Being outliers on the intellectual landscape empowers young Mormon intellectuals to challenge and go beyond the conventional assumptions of modern scholarly disciplines and find a way of their own.
This loyalty to Mormonism baffles outside observers. How can informed Mormons remain true to a religion based on miracles, behind the times in its adherence to conservative social principles, and subject to the authoritarian control of the church hierarchy? Mormonism appears to be the quintessence of anti-modernism. How can it survive?
The most common explanation is Mormon communalism. Mormons create congregational communities in which everyone has a place. Even skeptical members are reluctant to break the ties, feeling at home in a society where everyone watches out for one another temporally and spiritually. The Mormon congregation is a beehive where everyone is involved. The wealthy and powerful do not stand aside but become the bishops and high councilors, the scoutmasters and youth leaders. No one is exempt; no one is excluded. Those tight social bonds weave individuals into a powerful structure many cannot bear to leave.
Mormonism, moreover, offers people a way of life. It provides a basic personal discipline for modern living. Its Word of Wisdom and insistence on chastity offer a foundation for a clean life. Mormon young people live in a world where abstinence of all kinds is the rule, not the exception. They grow up knowing it is wrong to smoke and drink. Adults conform to the same rules. Young people may stray from the discipline or even flaunt its strictures to prove their independence, but they feel the power of a community with standards. Converts sometimes come into the church just to give their children a place in that world. It is a good that even jaundiced Mormons value.
Beyond the community and the wholesome life, Mormonism gives its members a place in the universe. The stories of eternity laid out in Joseph Smith's revelations imply a basic attitude toward existence. Mormons imagine the beginnings when they stood before God and were offered the chance to come to earth, gain a body, and be tested. Here they are passing through another test to see if they will remain faithful to God amid adversity and temptation.
This simple story, much of it found in the Bible but accentuated and enlarged in Joseph Smith's writings, is basically optimistic. The story begins with a God striving to save his children, and in the end he brings all but a few of them into a kingdom of glory. Mormons feel a strong obligation to go along with God, to make the most of their time on earth, to acquire intelligence and knowledge, and to help everyone else along the same path. It is an activist attitude. Salvation requires exertion and constructive effort. Mormons feel they are building the kingdom of God on earth in anticipation of the time when it will be joined with the kingdom of heaven. The same activist stance carries over to the next life, which they envision as an extension of what happens here. People minister to one another, they organize, they establish kingdoms where growing souls can learn godliness. Even borderline Mormons feel the strength of that story.
All of this is in the background at the weekly services in the chapel. Ordinary Mormon services are low church in the extreme. The bishop stands up and makes announcements before beginning the meeting. The Sacrament is blessed by young men sixteen or seventeen years old and passed to everyone in the meeting by boys twelve and thirteen. Members of the congregation take turns speaking, often as couples. They tell how the Lord has helped them and give little messages about faith or Christ or reading the scriptures. They speak colloquially. They tell simple stories. All the while children chirp and cry in the congregation and have to be taken out of the meeting. Everyone at every level is involved. Young people present five-minute messages to prepare them for more elaborate speaking assignments later. In Primary, children four and five give brief talks. The meetings are invariably inclusive—and not always stimulating. But members listen patiently, knowing their turn may come next.
Mormons often have trouble explaining what they believe. They usually say something about the return of revelation and priesthood. Often they will refer to their own experience with personal revelation. That is probably as good an answer as any, but it falls short of the actual nature of Mormon faith. Mormonism is an array of doctrines, communal interaction, ritual, private worship, and spiritual history integrated into a life experience. The complexity and comprehensiveness of the whole are the reason Mormons keep their faith. They know they are part of a satisfying and enriching culture. To depart from the Mormon circle is to abandon a plenteous and ordered existence for the perplexities and sorrows of modern life. All this gives Mormons reason to hold on to the faith at the center of their lives.