Conversion, Cultural Conditioning and (the Absence of) Compulsory Means

It is pretty great being a member of the LDS Church. We have a tightly-knit, caring community. We have satisfying, coherent theology. We have a strong organizational structure that provides us with opportunity to serve and grow. I know of no other institution that better fulfils the Divine purposes of transforming our natures and getting us to care for each other. The beliefs and practices of the LDS Church do an admirable job meeting the deep human needs and longings at the core of religiosity.

It is understandable why people would want to be part of this community. Even in an article about why Latter-day Saints aren’t Christian, a Catholic Bishop acknowledges there is “much to admire” in our faith.

That said, I submit that the evangelistic conditioning that every person needs to be an active member of the LDS Church is problematic and offensive. The Church meets the social needs of members so well that often “doing missionary work” is a key factor getting members to talk to those not of their faith community. Though the degree differs with the individual, the assignment of conversion therefore simmers beneath all social interaction between members and “non-members”. The message is clear: to be fully accepted and valued, all people need to belong to the “one true Church.”

Elder Eyring poignantly played upon and reinforced this message in his 1996 General Conference talk “Witnesses for God”:

“Those we meet will feel the love that springs from our long practice in keeping a covenant to ‘mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.’ It may not be in hours or days as it was for King Lamoni, but they will feel our love after testing our hearts. And when they find our concern is sincere, the Holy Spirit can more easily touch them to allow us to teach and to testify, as it did for Ammon.

“Again I have a caution and a promise. The caution is that sorrow will come from failure either to love or to bear witness. If we fail to feel and show honest concern for those we approach with the Gospel, they will reasonably distrust our message. But, if out of fear of rejection we fail to tell them what the gospel has meant in our lives and could mean in theirs, we will someday share their sorrow.

“Either in this life or in the life to come, they will know that we failed to share with them the priceless gift of the gospel. They will know that accepting the gospel was the only way for them to inherit eternal life. And they will know that we received the gospel with a promise that we would share it.” (“Witnesses for God”, October 1996 General Conference)

On one hand, Eyring models missionary work in a very positive, natural way based in love and sincerity. But I think the “us centered” approach of focusing on obligation can often backfire. The feeling of duty to share the gospel can result in members offering “warm bread and a cold shoulder.” As Marlin Jensen notes in the talk from which that phrase was drawn, no one wants to be made a project, assigned a friend (“Friendship: A Gospel Principle”, April 1999 General Conference).

Eyring’s rhetoric motivates members to remember their missionary duty. Does it fully acknowledge the power of LDS soteriology however? The LDS view of salvation is one of its most appealing points. In short, we believe in a hell temporary at most and a salvation best described as universal. The LDS position as I understand it is that everyone will get the chance to accept or reject the gospel with full knowledge of its truth. Now, it is true that if we delay sharing the joys of the gospels with our friends, they may miss out on a greater measure of joy and fulfillment in this life. But our missionary work should flow naturally from friendship and wanting to share the rewards of our faith, not a sense of obligation that we or those we care about will be condemned if we fail to act–that fear based approach forces the issue and can come across as false.

That is the offensive part, now the problematic part: Adherents of an exclusivistic worldview can be socially tolerant and get along well with those of other faiths, but they cannot be religiously tolerant, not truly. Even as such a believer allows for a plurality of belief, at the core of feelings and doctrine is the surety that eventually, everyone else will need to convert. The only way to practice true religious tolerance is to allow that someone can be right with God based on *their own religion*. So Jews and Christians and Muslims can be great neighbors, all the while convinced that when the Kingdom of God is restored, their Abrahamic compatriots will see the light (ironically, according to the Qur’an Jesus is the one who will convert the world to Islam).

There is nothing wrong with sharing with people ideas or practices that improve our lives. And to the Church’s credit, this is often how missionary work is framed. From an institutional perspective, however, this absolutist emphasis on missionary work serves to confirm the faith of the members as it increases the membership and therefore resources of the Church.

So what’s the solution? It is already there in the teachings of LDS leaders–friendship, love, and service needs to develop naturally rather than being forced. It needs to flourish “without compulsory means” (D&C 121:46). The LDS church encourages a healthy emphasis on relationships, from focus on family, to home and visiting teaching, to sharing the joy of the gospel.

But all this service needs to be a natural extension of our lives and feelings, rather than being manipulated by exclusivist rhetoric. I think we can allow the power of the LDS view of salvation and post-mortal missionary work to diminish our anxiety. We need to let go. If we care for those around us with their well-being sincerely in mind, they will likely be interested in all the positives of LDS belief and practice, and might join if it is best for them. But though that can be a positive result, I do not think it can be a goal.

There are some things we cannot aim for; we can only live correct principles that maximize the chance of our desired result. Someone falling in love with you, raising obedient children, making *anyone* change–none of these things can be forced. I put conversion in the same category.

As LDS members let go of the idea that everyone needs to belong to the “only true Church” (in this life) and instead strive to live the principles of happiness as fully as possible while sharing those principles with those around them, I feel several benefits will occur:

1) Members will continue to nurture and value even those relationships that do not result in “conversion”

2) Investigators will no longer feel the anxious obligation projected by the members, and will be more receptive to the benefits that come from Church membership.

3) The Church itself will be more worth being a part of. I think Jesus would approve.

9 Replies to “Conversion, Cultural Conditioning and (the Absence of) Compulsory Means”

  1. you make a strong case (to continue the legal speak of the other day), enoch. and i do sympathize.

    still the claims to exclusivity run pretty deep and are part of temple worthiness, if i understand correctly. how might you reassure someone that such true religious telerance is not a weakening or betrayal of mormonism?

    on a practical level, for instance, how are verses like d&c 1:30 to be handled? would they just get ignored? do we cut them out?

  2. Is religious tolerance, as you define it, such an important virtue on its own that social (and legal) tolerance aren’t perfectly satisfactory to all on a practical, lived level? Is religious tolerance even a virtue at all?

    The motivations and practices you call “the offensive part” are equally true of many (all?) religious teachings that aim at “transforming our natures” — wouldn’t it be better if we kept the Sabbath day holy out of love for God? refrained from adultery because of a complete understanding of and love for chastity and virtue? served as shepherds to the flock without the need of “a strong organizational structure that provides us with opportunities to serve”? If so, are you advocating that all sermons and lessons to motivate us in those areas also be eliminated or downplayed in favor of their becoming (magically?) “a natural extension of our lives and feelings” and not a duty and obligation?

    I agree that modeling the gospel in our lives is probably the purest and best way for all concerned, but that doesn’t usually (ever?) happen in the real world or in real lives without reminders and teachings and other forms — however mild — of compulsory means.

  3. Sorry Enoch, I stopped reading after your claim that Mormons have a coherent theology. Though, I am still looking for a place where someone does try and make sense out of Mormon theology. If you have a reference to an article or book I would dearly love to read it.

  4. David, glad you made it a whole 23 word into the post. I would think that your issue would be with the satisfying part of that sentence rather than the coherent part.

    Of course, I do not want a single coherent theology for Mormonism.

  5. Sadly, the culture (and its conditioning) tend to be exclusionary not only to the outside world but also within its own walls. There are levels of acceptance and tolerance depending upon how closely you fit the traditional, middle-class, white collar family unit. This makes it very difficult to bring in the wide variety of people, families, and alternative lifestyles that would gain great satisfaction and nourishment (but not necessarily theological coherency) from the glories and blessing of the Restored Gospel.

    Living on the fringes of LDS cultural society is pure torture to most people and gives true meaning to the phrase “enduring to the end”. I think that it will become more difficult to break this self-imposed exclusionary cultural mindset as society fragments into even more diverse and alternative approaches to life. I truly believe that our current cultural mindset is not an eternal one. Elder Maxwell used to speak of the amazement and surprise we will encounter when the true scope and meaning of family is finally revealed to us in an eternal setting.

    As a side note, I would also agree with David that our theology is not very coherent. While it is very extensive, expansive and glorious, it tends to be a “do-it-yourself” puzzle that most members find difficult to assemble. It requires diligence and real effort to put together for oneself. Correlation’s successful efforts at creating a feeling of shame for those that are not fully nourished by the platitudes and basic kindergarten lessons only hampers those that may be so inclined to deeply feast upon the Fullness of the Restored Gospel. In this aspect, the Catholics have us beat hands down. The low church Protestants have too many gaps and too many contradictory voices to be taken seriously in this regard while the high church Protestants are abandoning any type of defined Christian theology at all in pursuit of a more secular social theology.

  6. Chris H,

    There are parts of Mormonism that are satisfying. Notice, I didn’t take issue with the strength of the Mormon community, which I do see as the single biggest strength in Mormonism. There are others as well, but enoch did not mention them. Had he mentioned things like the idea of continuing revelation or the closest thing to a practical implementation of a priesthood of all believers (even with the exclusion of over half of the Mormon population, the LDS church is still much closer in terms of raw percentages of actually achieving that ideal), I would also have not had a single quibble.

    Each tradition has strengths but I think it stupid to try and sell a weakness as a strength. The Eastern Orthodox traditions have much to recommend them, but I wouldn’t try and pretend that a major strength of theirs is in dealing with contemporary issues in contemporary language. I also wouldn’t call your average evangelical mega-church doctrinally sophisticated, though plenty of people enjoy attending them.

    The LDS church has many strengths. A coherent theology is not one of them.

    As for the rest of the article, “Be less exclusive, be more sincere,” is fine advice, though I have to wonder how far the LDS church can actually go towards being non-exclusivistic without giving up its identity.

  7. I know this is basically a total thread jack, but when it comes to theology, any theology, coherence is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. Some would say that the phrase “coherent theology” is already an oxymoron.

  8. Thanks for the comments.

    g.welsey, your question cuts to the heart of the matter, and I appreciate that. I personally reject exclusivity because I don’t think God works that way… I think God gives all his children as much truth as they will accept. That said, I do think the Church has the most beneficial perspective of any religion of which I am aware. I was discussing the idea of “the Kingdom of God” with a friend and though I do not think the Kingdom of God equals the Church, I think there is no other institution on the earth that better embodies the ideal of the Kingdom of God.

    So to answer your question, I feel a first step is to acknowledge that exclusivity can be offensive. Feeling that everyone has to be a member is bad enough, but *not understanding why such a view hurts others* makes the problem even worse. But I think if members could say “I still believe what I believe, but I understand how my views could be offensive to you, and so I will seek to allow my love and respect for you as a person to minimize that offense” would go a long way.

    The second step I feel I have already outlined in my post—LDS doctrine teaches that everyone will get a chance to accept the Church, and LDS view of salvation is almost universalist when you take it seriously. As I said, I think members can use this doctrine to get over feeling obligated about missionary work. Once that obligation is past, they can share the beneficial aspects of the gospel naturally, which I feel would be most effective anyway.

    As I said, I think the rhetoric of the “only true Church” benefits a lot of people. My suggested approach is a win-win situation I believe… I think people can still believe that everyone needs to become LDS in the eternities without that view causing offense in personal interactions. In order to do that, members need to realize that the Church does not have a corner on all truth. We can learn from other faiths, as they can learn from us. I don’t think we need to take any exclusivist verses out, but I feel we can put those verses in perspective with other more inclusive doctrines.

    Ardis, great question. I don’t feel that people need to give up their religious intolerance, but I think that *acknowledging the problems* of that religious intolerance benefits relationships. Again, the ignorance of “I can’t imagine why you would think that Mormons aren’t Christian, or why our views offend” compounds the problem. If we can really have tolerance in our relationships, society, and laws, I agree with you that is enough. But again, my main point is that acknowledging the problems with the LDS exclusivist position goes a long way in minimizing the damage that comes from them. Understanding another’s perspective even while maintaining your own goes a long way in establishing productive interaction.

    Your points about motivation are apt. This is the question of which is better: to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or not do to the right things? We progress through stages of motivation, and we both agree that doing things of our own choice, out of love, is the ideal, an ideal many do not attain. But my point is that we can *talk about* these issues in a way that maximizes the chance of people doing things naturally out of love.

    David Clark, after reading your comment I made sure I said “coherent” and not “consistent.” Though I agree with TT that coherence is in the eye of the beholder, and with Michael that members are left to work out much for themselves, I think that LDS theology does an admirable job answering the big questions of theology. I feel that even with gaps and inconsistencies, the “Plan of Salvation” taught to members provides a framework for coherent theology.

    Moving to your other comment, I appreciate the positives you bring up about the LDS church. The ability to discuss the positives and negatives of all religions/worldviews demonstrates an enlightened maturity.

    I wrestle with your incisive point “I have to wonder how far the LDS church can actually go towards being non-exclusivistic without giving up its identity” all the time. It will be interesting and important to see how the Church negotiates that over the next several decades. This is a wrenchingly complex topic for me… I personally think that historical, philosophical, and sociological issues make it impossible to accept the standard narrative of LDS authority and exclusivity. At the same time, I think the LDS Church does a tremendous amount of good in the lives of its members, and the majority of those members are comfortable with that simplistic but problematic framework. In response to someone saying Mormonism is not “Christ centered” enough, I responded that we have Jesus even where he doesn’t belong! (for example, the Book of Mormon is Christ-focused to a historically jarring degree). I hope the LDS community can continue to discuss these tensions productively.

    Beautifully phrased comment, Michael. I agree with your assessment of mainstream Mormonism’s tragically myopic view of acceptance. Frankly, I think that Jesus would be profoundly disappointed by this failing on members’ part… a close reading of the gospels supports this. I have been toying with the idea of translating a gospel into LDS terms, saying things like “the drinking, smoking non-member who spends good time with his children and loves his family is closer to God than the active LDS bishop who disowns his gay son”, or having Joshua invite people to church who are dressed in tattered jeans and heavy metal t-shirts, smelling of smoke.

  9. I have a lot of respect for full time missionaries. I won’t be encouraging our son to go on a mission but it won’t be the end of the world if he does!

    As a faithful member of the church I use to just take missionary work admonishes and put them in the back of my head. I focused on mutual respect of my friends of other faiths and genuinely cared for them and questions would arise. One particular pal of ours came to dinner on several occasions and it finally came up and he let us know rather frankly we weren’t really Christian but admitted we seemed to behave as such. He was Church of Christ by affiliation.
    I grew up in the South so religious diversity is a part of me despite the loving words of the GA’s. I agree that the case presented here is valid and I agree with the comments that it would call for omitting several things and a fresh face on old teachings which, in this church, isn’t so far fetched! I love this blog.

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