Looking Beyond the Surface: A Scholar’s View on Mormonism

This column has previously pointed out the deficiencies of “sound-bite journalism” in depicting the richness and depth of religious faith. For example, when only glancing at the surface of Latter-day Saint beliefs and the commitment of its members, some people see something curious, different and unusual. But those who look deeper into that very same set of beliefs can find understanding and satisfying explanations.

All the more welcome, then, is a recent article in The Christian Century magazine by Laurie Maffly-Kipp, religion professor at the University of North Carolina, who takes a look at the beliefs, history and culture of Mormonism. Written in the context of current presidential politics (the Church is neutral in partisan politics), she has produced an informed, rigorous and “non-Mormon” analysis with insights that go well beyond the surface.

Maffly-Kipp examines, for example, the interplay between religious authority and individual conscience and argues that “in practice” the authority of Church leaders is “diffused and regulated in quite orderly ways,” resulting in a religious authority in the Latter-day Saint tradition that is “both more controlled than in many Protestant churches and more democratically distributed than in Roman Catholicism.” In addition, she writes, “considerable emphasis … is placed on the individual cultivation of personal agency.”

Exploring the link between theology and family life, Maffly-Kipp observes how Latter-day Saint teachings on the purpose of life have such “profound implications for one's orientation to family life.” For example, all human beings were created by God as “spirit children” and enter mortal life free from sin but not fully developed spiritually and in need of “a means of maturation.” With this broader perspective, “all human beings are brothers and sisters, literal children of God,” and “family takes on a new meaning when it is viewed as eternal in nature.”

Maffley-Kipp doesn’t flinch when she looks at Mormon history and the periods of conflict, isolation and assimilation. But while she notes vestiges of that past in modern Mormonism, she understands that 19th-century history does not predict or determine the nature of the Latter-day Saint experience of the 21st century. She rightly reads the past without forcing present-day Mormonism into easy stereotypes. “Variety among Mormons,” she writes, “is as common as in many other Christian traditions.”

Analysis like this shows again that Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices are worthy of careful, thoughtful investigation and not merely a cursory glance.

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