By Craig Atkinson
The more I study Mormonism, the more I am perplexed by the unity within such a diverse group of people. What has increased my perplexity (enough so to inspire me to write this post) is my participation in blogs like this one. Here people feel comfortable enough to share their unique positions with others, and as they do, it becomes clear that there is great diversity within Mormonism.
As I have thought about the question, what makes a Mormon a Mormon? I have considered three answers, (though this isn’t an exhaustive list, it should cover most sub-categories) doctrine, history/tradition, and practice. As I address each of these possible answers keep in mind that this is still a question for me, not something I have a strong opinion on, or even completely thought through, and I am hoping that the responses that I receive will shed more light on the subject for me.
Is it doctrine that unifies us as a church? If so, then to what degree?
For those who have never thought about the question of what unifies the church would probably immediately say that doctrine unifies us more than any other element, and before I began to wonder about this, it is probably what I would have thought as well. If you think about it though, doctrine doesn’t play as much of a role in unifying us as you might think. For those who have studied the Young/Pratt or the Smith/Roberts debates will realize how much disagreement there has been over doctrinal matters even among the leadership of the church. The same issue’s that these men have argued over, are the same ones we debate over on these blogs. Mormonism is different from Christianity in this way. Christianity has what you call Ecumenical creeds which unite them, if you don’t accept the Ecumenical Creeds, then your not a Christian (hence the belief that Mormons are not Christian), simple as that. Mormons on the other hand do not have creeds and therefore what is binding is a little trickier. I have heard it argued, and I agree, that the only doctrine that is binding upon members is that doctrine which you agree to in the temple recommend interview, and very little doctrine is discussed there. If that is so then all you have to believe to be a Mormon is that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the current prophet is one as well, and believe in Jesus Christ and his atonement. Your beliefs about God’s nature, soteriology, and the nature of the atonement are not questioned. Yet these same issues have divided Christianity for centuries. It seems, at least to me, that doctrine cannot be the answer. Doctrine within the church is vague and debatable; we can disagree and still be good Mormons.
Is it our history and tradition that unifies us? If so, then to what degree?
I think that in a big way (even if not completely so) our history and tradition do bind us, especially here in the West. Our pioneer heritage and our grand beginnings are one thing that many of us (including me) take pride in, and feel unity with those who also take pride in these things. But if tradition is all that unifies us then can we really call ourselves a religion, or just another culture? If I am born in Utah and raised by a Mormon family, and my ancestors were Pioneers, does that make me a Mormon? Maybe it does to an extent, but I think if we are speaking of a spiritual unity within a spiritual community, this will not cut it. Also if we accept this as the answer, how can Mormonism be a world religion among diverse cultures? I’m sure many other such issues can be brought up if we accept this answer.
Is it our practice that unifies us? If so, then to what degree?
This seems to be the answer that is the most popular right now. And it is probably the closest to the truth. As I have already pointed out, Mormonism does not put so much emphasis on orthodoxy as other Christian religions do. On the other hand, Mormonism places a great amount of attention on correct practice. By practice I first of all mean what is considered moral and correct behavior. Also included in practice are the ordinances such as temple worship, baptism, and the sacrament. To be truly a Mormon one must act like one, and if you don’t, then your not a (for a lack of a better word) complete Mormon. It’s more evident than ever in the church today that practice is important, sometimes even to an extreme. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m bagging on President Hinckley, because I love the guy, but his coming out against tattoo’s and earrings is a perfect example of our definition of what it is to be a Mormon. If you have no tattoos and earrings, or if you’re a girl only one pair, then there’s a good possibility that you’re a Mormon. My personal opinion is this may be taking it a little too far, but I’m not about ready to correct the prophet.
This post may seem a little disjointed, but that is because I am still process of thought on this one. I am curious though how you all would answer this question, or if is even as perplexing to you as it is to me.
Craig Atkinson is currently studying history and philosophy at BYU. He is originally from Emmett Idaho and is now happily married with one daughter.