A number of weeks ago I sat in the dining room of an inn some miles outside of London. The meal was excellent–rabbit and wild mushroom pie, goose fat roasted potatoes, and sticky toffee pudding for desert. I ate with a close friend and associate. It was a perfect evening to have been disrupted by another group of businessmen, one of whom was American; his accent was obvious, but so too the uncanny capacity to speak an order of magnitude louder than is required.
This American had taken it upon himself to educate his presumably British and European colleagues on the mysteries of Mormonism. His choice of descriptors betrayed his likely-youthful exposure to a certain brand of professionalized evangelical counter-ministry (really, who uses words like “false prophet” at a business dinner). My companion smirked knowingly as I suppressed the urge to surprise the hall and reveal my own Mormonism. It was easy to roll my eyes at his snide and bigoted comments, until the man made his own revelation. He was married to a Mormon who had stopped going to church years ago. He described the missionaries that regularly came to his home and who had clearly missed how their persistent inquiries translated in the mind of this man to a creepy inability to leave him alone.
That moment kindled the recollection of what I consider the greatest failings of my mission, all of which involved my lack of empathy. Despite my earnest religiosity, superficial scriptural fluency, and hard work, I simply did not understand the situations, suffering, and feelings of a very many number of the people with whom I worked. This understanding has taken years to develop, and I am sure that it will only become more profound with time. It took my own children, family health scares, and crises of transition to realize.
The previous trip to fair England I walked with Ronan down the street to visit Annie Darwin’s grave and to have chicken tikka masala in the land of its origin. Of the many delightful topics we riffed on was soteriology, a mutual confession of sorts. The greatest gift of Mormonism to Christian theology is liberation from the ultimately perverted and perverting requirements of penal substitution. The Spirit knows all things says the prophet. Nevertheless Christ suffered in the flesh so that he could know according to the flesh. And with that knowledge he heals us. I believe in this atonement because I have, in a small degree, witnessed it in my own soul with others and with Jesus.
Despite our historic flirtations with the Imitatio Christi and the sublimity of Pope John Paul II’s Salvafici Doloris, I do not believe our suffering is required for our glorification (though I do believe that it does empower us, like Christ to be healers). I also believe that the chasm that separates us from each other is only bridged by that suffering on one hand, or the miracle of the atonement on the other. And like many other miracles it is frequently elusive.