When I left Utah, I had a very naïve idea of the conversations I would have with people who had never heard of Mormons. Being totally serious, I had the expectation that I would jump out of my car and people would ask, “Why are you glowing?!” “Why are you so happy?” “Tell me about the church you believe in.”
Fast forward to the year 2013.
I’m having a much different conversation with friends who are tilting their heads and avoiding eye contact because the questions they just asked caught me off guard, and the crickets in the background have better answers than I do.
Round 1 of questions in these type of scenarios are almost always, “Mormon’s can’t” questions. Why can’t Mormons smoke, drink, have sex, or wear tight leather booty shorts? Etc. etc.
If I make it through Round 1, Round 2 is about the LDS Church’s past. For example, African Americans not having the priesthood until 1978 and the practice of Polygamy.
I guess based on pop culture, Mitt Romney, and The Book of Mormon Musical, I should have seen these questions coming, but I honestly didn’t. Probably because in most scenarios, when someone is first trying to learn about something they don’t ask what it is not or what it used to be.
For example, if a guy were to use this approach on a date he would ask me why I don’t make $100,000 a year, why I don’t cook, or why I wore chokers and sang Broadway tunes in high school. It would be mortifying, he wouldn’t get to know me very well, and I would have an ulcer.
But by talking to my friends more I realized that there are good reasons why they ask these questions. First of all, the fact that we stay away from drugs, alcohol, and pre-marital sex sets Mormons apart, so it is natural for people to be curious why we seem to be raging against the norm in strange ways. Second of all, there seems to be a fear that comes with religion in general. That is the overwhelming idea of Obedience.
I’d like to focus on the second reason.
“In Wikipedia, obedience is described as follows: “Obedience, in human behavior, is a form of social influence in which a person yields to explicit instructions or orders from an authority figure.”
Humans have been shown to be surprisingly obedient in the presence of perceived legitimate authority figures. A good example of this is the Milgram experiment in the 1960’s.
Stanley Milgram carried out this experiment to find out how the Nazis managed to get ordinary people to take part in the mass murders of the Holocaust. The experiment showed that obedience to authority was the norm, not the exception.
That is honestly a terrifying thought, and one that many of my friends have expressed as a reason to stay away from religion. They fear that “blind faith” could lead to large groups of people being trained or brain washed to make amoral decisions.
So how does obedience work specifically in the LDS church? Are Mormons trained to be obedient? And how does that obedience lead to making moral decisions to follow God vs. amoral decisions?
Enter: The Idea of Agency
You might know a lot about the LDS Church and the commandments that the church members follow. However, what you might not be familiar with is the LDS Church’s view on free agency. It’s one of my favorite principles.
We believe that previous to this life we were given two options for our lives on earth: Option 1) was to come here with only the ability to make the right decisions. Option 2) was to come to earth with the ability to make decisions for ourselves so we could learn and grow from them, even if it meant learning from our mistakes. God’s plan was agency, and in the end we chose to come to earth with the ability to choose between right and wrong for ourselves.
We wanted the freedom to choose then, and we celebrate that same freedom now.
And while we are given the freedom to make decisions on our own, we are also given personal revelation to help to make those decisions.
In Matthew 7:7 of the New Testament it says, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find: knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
Since I was a kid, I have been taught that I need to make decisions on my own through personal revelation and gain a testimony of God and his plan for me. Sometimes this meant being abandoned in the woods at girls camp with a set of scriptures and parachute pants.
And sometimes it meant my parents dropping me off at college and simply saying, “it’s up to you what you do from here on out.” I was told not to feed off of what other people know, but instead to ask questions to find answers on my own. Most importantly, I was taught that once I find an answer I should act on it.
I guess what I would want people to realize about Mormons and obedience is:
- To us, obedience means focusing on the actions we should be taking, not the actions we shouldn’t.
- We aren’t trained to think the exact same way, and we do not always come to the same conclusions. We have different perspectives on things like Diet Coke and Evolution and that is okay.
As C.S. Lewis said in his book The Screwtape Letters: “When He [God] talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.”
God is not interested in robots.
Personal Experience and Revelation
So if we’re not trained to think like robots, how do Mormons make decisions about past and current doctrines that are hard to understand?
I recently read a section of a book called The Mormonizing of America written by Stephen Mansfield who is not a member of the LDS church but has been studying it. His observation helps answer that question.
“In terms of its unusual doctrines, the Saints see themselves in a completely different light. Ask a Saint about any of these, and an expression of confusion will likely flash fleetingly across his face. He knows that each is part of the Mormon matrix but he likely does not think of any as vital. Doctrine is not primary for him; experience is.”
I think this is true for a lot of members of the LDS church. When you ask them about their faith, they tell you about it by their personal experiences.
I would explain my personal faith the same way. It’s very similar to riding a bike.
I ride a bike because I love it. Simply put, it makes me happy. I have had amazing experiences riding my bike in Moab, on the beach, and through canyons. However, if you were to ask me to explain how that bike was built, I would have a hard time breaking it down for you. There are things I still don’t know about bikes even though I ride one all the time.
These are things I am learning piece by piece about my bike through my life’s experiences. If I get a flat tire, I focus on the tires, I get advice, I find a way to fix it, and I continue riding.
The same principle applies to my faith in the LDS Religion. I am obedient because when I keep the commandments I am undoubtedly happy. I have had amazing experiences from learning to give to others, forgiving enemies, loving my neighbor, and making decisions for the greater good.
However, when people ask me specific details about the church or unusual doctrines I sometimes don’t know all the answers. I don’t know the ins and outs of some principles and I am continuing to build my knowledge piece by piece. When I don’t understand something or a section of my faith is broken, I stop, I focus on it, and I pray for answers. I seek counsel of prophets and other mentors, and I pray for personal revelation. But through that whole process I hold on to the other ideas I know to be true. The foundations of the gospel that have always blessed my life.
In our last General Conference, an Apostle of the LDS Church Elder Jeffrey R. Holland counseled:
“When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have. The size of your faith or the degree of your knowledge is not the issue—it is the integrity you demonstrate toward the faith you do have and the truth you already know.”
I believe this is the root of obedience within the LDS church. It isn’t about what we don’t know, but it’s about what we do know, what we are seeking to know, and the actions we take in order to follow God.
So when you ask, “How do you train a Mormon?” The answer is: you don’t. You empower them to make their own decisions in the best way possible.