The Aspirational Language of Mormonism

This post is a guest submission from Isaac Black.

Recent events in Mormondom, including the excommunication of Kate Kelly and the Church’s blog posts on controversial topics like the priesthood ban and polygamy, have prompted a higher scrutiny of seemingly basic terms of the religion. What defines apostasy? What precisely is priesthood? Even, what is doctrine? It is my observation that Mormon vocabulary, rather than being strict and legalistic as some of the more textually inclined among us would hope it to be, has a performative aspect. Usage of key Mormon terms, a few of which I’ll elaborate upon, is a speech act which binds one to the mainstream community by affirming a shared ideal.

Consider the all-important testimony. A testimony is colloquially (and monthly) glossed as knowledge that the Church is true, the implication being that a proper testimony is inclusive of all aspects of Mormonism. But the Doctrine & Covenants lays out that knowledge is a spiritual gift and that different ones are doled out to different members: “For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God… To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God… To others it is given to believe on their words” (D&C 46:11,13-14). The assertion of a scripturally improbable complete testimony is a statement of the kind of testimony that one should have rather than one that has been achieved. Oft heard counsel to missionaries is that a “testimony is to be found in the bearing of it” (“The Candle of the Lord,” Boyd K. Packer). This is because to bear testimony that the Church is true is to reinforce the ideal of one’s community and inscribe one’s personal experience in the larger, shared narrative. In other words, bearing testimony that one is not sure of draws upon the ideal to bolster one’s personal testimony.

“Faith” is another term in which the usage is more aspirational than literal. Joseph Smith taught that “doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time” (Lectures on Faith). Because of this, the mainstream tends to assume that public expression of doubt or disbelief proves that one lacks faith. But whose personal story doesn’t involve doubt or uncertainty? Faith is something that the community aspires to, not something that every member achieves with a perfect record.

From faith comes blessings, as the leaders frequently remind members. The fact that “blessings” proceed from some positive behavior is illustrated by the popularity of “tender mercies,” which by contrast happen for no particular reason. Members often express blessings in public, but the identification of one’s blessings doesn’t come with any sense of self-aggrandizement. Rather, it is because of the shared narrative, reaffirmed in one’s personal testimony, that the community expects the faithful to receive blessings from God. One does not distinguish oneself from the community on account of having received blessings, rather the opposite: one’s blessings confirm that one belongs.

The aspirational usage of the most fundamental concepts of Mormonism seeks to encourage the participant to shape her or his experience to fit the larger narrative of Mormonism with its attendant cultural, political, and historical biases. Those members who would like to communicate their idiosyncratic experiences in the language of scripture find themselves without the words to do so. Instead, their failure to participate linguistically in conflating the real with the ideal sets them apart from the larger community. It makes it difficult to gain validity in the eyes of other members or even for themselves, because those terms not associated with the master narrative or that convey ambiguity or uncertainty carry negative connotations. Their reluctance to use these terms, among many others, in an aspirational sense drives a wedge between them and their community.

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