January 24, 2008

Krista's Journal: A Young and Growing Religion

January 24, 2008

This program is something of a departure. We rarely do a program "about" an entire religious tradition, and I don't usually ask religious authorities to focus on doctrines. I'm always wary of sweeping generalization about what all adherents of a faith believe. But at this moment in time, I really wanted some foundational knowledge of Mormon theology and spirituality in order to put the little I'm learning by way of cultural and political debates in context: What does Mormon theology teach at its orthodox core about the nature of God and Jesus? What are the spiritual underpinnings of the Mormon way of community and family? How does a devout Mormon scholar honor Joseph Smith as a prophet and make sense of the controversies about his teachings?

I pose these questions and others to Robert Millet, a lifelong practitioner who has raised six children in this faith. He's been a professor of ancient scripture and of religious understanding at Brigham Young University for a quarter-century. Long before the recent Evangelical/Mormon debates, Millet was involved in ongoing dialogues with Evangelical leaders and others seeking understanding if not unanimity.

I am surprised, as I listen to him speak about what his theology teaches and how he lives with it, by the very distinct and particular take this Church has even on texts and doctrines that it shares with the larger Christian church and with Judaism. Among his mid-19th century "latter day" revelations, Joseph Smith discerned, for example, that God is a corporeal being who was once a man. Jesus, in LDS theology, is the Jahweh or Jehovah of the Hebrew Bible; he chose to come to earth as Jesus of Nazareth. With great warmth, Robert Millet also describes the "pre-mortal existence" through which his Church teaches that all human beings pass, and its complex understanding of the reality of angels. At risk of generalizing, I'll let you listen to his more detailed explanations of these articles of faith and others.

Perhaps the most mind-opening and fascinating insight that I take away is how young this religion really is. Joseph Smith proclaimed that the Christian canon, while sacred, was no longer closed. He presented his revelations and further texts less than 200 years ago, during an age of vast religious ferment in American life. And it is plain from conversation with Robert Millet that this frontier faith continues to formulate its truths, at times revising and expanding on core understandings. "We're in the religion-making business" and only now "halfway to Nicaea," he says — referring to the fourth-century council at which the New Testament canon was finally formalized and many core Christian doctrines clarified, authoritatively, for the first time.

Whatever Mitt Romney's fate in this presidential election, however one defines a Christian, and whatever judgment science or culture may pass on Joseph Smith's revelations, the Church of Latter-Day Saints is a global force to be taken seriously. From 1.7 million members in 1960, the Church now claims 13 million members, more than half of them outside the U.S. An estimated 65 percent of its members are first-generation converts. I am glad to have some more concrete sense of the teachings and spiritual culture that galvanize them. And I look forward to interviewing Mormons with other perspectives and experiences along the ongoing journey of Speaking of Faith.

Recommended Reading

For two introductory primers on the Mormon faith, these books by my guest helped me better understand this young, burgeoning religion.

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is professor of Ancient Scripture and the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University.