Whither Big Tent Mormonism?

A quick post to start a discussion and get your thoughts.

In talking with friends about Mother In Heaven, it seemed clear that her presence in LDS doctrine is now permanent but that our liturgy and current practice just don’t know what to do with her. We don’t pray to Her, we talk of Her but we have nothing to say; we know nothing of Her except by association. But She is a compelling figure for many and the desire to work Her into a pattern of worship is there.

My personal thought around it is that I envy people who have strong religious experiences within the faith, and that I can’t begrudge people a connection to Heavenly Mother even if I don’t understand such a connection myself. Or, more broadly speaking, I think it may be more important for people to have deep religious experiences within the Church than it is to ensure that their experiences follow a narrow prescribed format. I am generally in favor of things that bring people a feeling of being closer to God, and generally not in favor of obstacles to that relationship. In other words, I’d rather have Cafeteria Mormons than ex-mos.

This sounds a bit like Big Tent Mormonism, that notion that you are Mormon if you self-identify as one, even if your beliefs, practices and community don’t correspond to the institutional LDS Church. But I am looking at a distinction here, or rather several distinctions. First, I’m focusing on individual devotional practice and not movements or groups, which I view as schismatic. Second, I’m looking at variations of traditional LDS practice rather than disavowing mainstream LDS beliefs or discounting the Brethren. And further, I am looking at supplemental devotional exercise rather than a substitute for bread-and-butter LDS practices.

A friend noted that the response to black-and-white thinking isn’t shades of gray; it’s vivid colors. I tend to agree. So, if you are generally in favor of people adding variety to their devotion as a means of keeping their faith fresh, are you a Big Tent Mormon? If that term is inaccurate (and I suspect it is), what term is more suited? What are the limiting factors here? What are practical examples of what works (and what doesn’t or shouldn’t)? How can we give a broad range of helping people find God and feel the power of the Atonement while still teaching pure doctrine and keeping the body of Christ intact?


  1. Alf O'Mega says:

    Why would you want Big Tent Mormonism to wither?

  2. Sighhhhhhhh

  3. Thanks for this post, Steve.

    When I see/hear the term “Big Tent Mormonism,” I generally see it as describing the wide variety of personal spiritual experience and individual interpretation and belief within the institutional LDS church, since I think of the institutional church as being the “tent” in the metaphor. The tent of the institution is far bigger than its opponents acknowledge, and far smaller than I would hope. When I look at examples of the institutional church trying to keep people ‘in line,’ it looks more to me like an effort to ensure institutional loyalty than an effort to ensure uniformity of belief (which is not to assign any normative judgment as to the merit of either of those goals).

    Is there a better term to describe that? I don’t know that there is.

    The goal of “teaching pure doctrine” is an elusive one in a church like ours where “scripture” and “doctrine” simultaneously include both everything and nothing. Keeping the body of Christ intact is, I think, the more noble and realistic goal, and I don’t know that doctrinal purity is an attribute that’s conducive to keeping the body of Christ intact.

  4. To me, this boils down to deeply private relationships with God. I have struggled- for the entire 14 years of my membership in the church- with feeling like I just can’t accept every jot and tittle. I have, at times, thought that meant I couldn’t be a ‘real’ Mormon. Over time, and in oscillating waves, I have made peace with that notion, and have come to realize I can be (and am) a Mormon. I don’t have to toe the line on every. single. thing. but neither can I judge or malign someone who finds value in that very practice. There is value and worth in the existence of the line, and it can act as a north star for me find my own way. As I find my way to God, I do so within the framework and language of Mormonism. It makes my faith more complicated for me, but it also allows me to be sane. It requires me to be certain about where my center lies, and be okay if the borders are gerrymandered.

    I have envied people who can say “I know…” and find their home firmly within the plot of Temple Square. While I value the beauty of that kind of certainty, it’s not among my gift. But the gifts I do bring are important to God, I have come to realize, even if they don’t look like the Ensign. It’s harder, but that awareness requires I give everyone else the same respect within the framework that I hope for for myself.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    “… our liturgy and current practice just don’t know what to do with her”

    This describes nearly any divine being in Mormon theology that arose in the Nauvoo era. There were some variants that did move beyond this. (Think Brigham Young’s infamous lecture at the veil in the 19th century — but that’s largely been rejected theologically)

    The usual appeal for injecting these other divine beings (or at least heavenly mother) more into discourse is that we have a different relationship with our divine parents who gave birth to us than others. But this then raises the theological issues of whether there is a real premortal birth or a premortal adoption. Then there is the whole issue of the King Follet Discourse and Sermon at the Grove that some in certain degrees reject. (Blake Ostler being the most famous theologian rejecting this theology) This isn’t just the place of the Father/God in our theology but a big issue even for people who adopt a more robust KFD infused theology with an infinite regress of divine beings & family. After all is each creation solely that of a single couple with all creation being their children? Or is it more of a joint work making who is whose mother/child more than a tad trickier to figure out. None of these things have clear answers and typically arise out of theology that is itself more than a little speculative.

    “I’d rather have Cafeteria Mormons than ex-mos”

    I think that gets a tad tricky too. After all as soon as you get at picking what’s important in a way that’s too far out of norms there’s inherent conflict. Consider say the issues besetting contemporary young Evangelicals where there are preachers offering a theology where sexual ethics are pretty well downplayed as unimportant. While there are undoubtedly self-identifying Mormons sympathetic to those views, how are they dealt with?

    That ‘dealt with’ seems brushed aside too quickly. I don’t mean formally. If you’re sexually active outside of marriage you’re at best getting disfellowshipped if you’re active in any strong sense. I mean more than that though. If one advocates “big tent” then you have to deal with the discourse within Church. Typically big tent advocates simultaneously advocate a change in rhetoric in places like Church. Some of this is hard to deny as appropriate. (Staunch conservatives ridiculing Democrats at church just seems completely inappropriate) However move beyond that and things get a lot trickier. If you think people thinking the Book of Mormon is fiction should be part of the big tent, how do you deal with discussions of the truth of the Book of Mormon? Because a lot of people will react very emotionally and negatively to discussions that present it as fictitious. (Understandably so)

    If we mean by “big tent” saying people with heterodox beliefs being welcome while normative believes say their beliefs are false, what do we have? I think this is a much thornier issue than it first appears even without getting into the even more difficult issues of callings. (Here thinking of a BYU Stake President who thought the Book of Mormon was fiction)

  6. Steve,

    First, I’m focusing on individual devotional practice and not movements or groups, which I view as schismatic. Second, I’m looking at variations of traditional LDS practice rather than disavowing mainstream LDS beliefs or discounting the Brethren. And further, I am looking at supplemental devotional exercise rather than a substitute for bread-and-butter LDS practices.

    Speaking for myself and my own personal heresies, I imagine that I’m fully on board with numbers one and three, but I find number two problematic. Focusing solely on “individual devotional practice” in contrast to anything that would involve other people means that you prefer private variations on Mormonism rather than public ones, and that’s a disputable position to take, but on the whole it’s not a bad compromise. Same for number three, with the focus on supplements rather than substitutes; again, there’s a gray area there, but in general it’s not a bad rule of thumb. But number two? Wouldn’t even a personal, private rejection of righteousness of the new church policy regarding the baptism of children from same-sex couples constitute a disavowal and a discounting of the Brethren? If it wouldn’t, why wouldn’t it? What if you reject key elements of temple theology; is that a “mainstream LDS belief”? Or what if you think the Book of Mormon is inspired fiction? Etc., etc., etc.

    Point being: if one and three suffice for allowing for the flourishing of a Big Tent Cafeteria of Mormonisms, then I’d agree that’s a doable project. But if you strongly believe you’ve got to have two as well, then I think some other name is necessary, at least if my own experience is any guide.

  7. Gamaliel Mormons? The attitude that if some kind of spiritual experiences/practices are not of God, they will die out on their own, eventually, and if they are of God, let’s not be found to fight against them. (Subject, of course to all the caveats you already mentioned: non-schismatic, not inconsistent with mainstream LDS beliefs, etc.)

  8. I feel like there has always been people in the church who have beliefs that don’t fit the actual doctrine of the church. Certainly on my mission, in South America, there were a lot of people who brought traditions and practices from their previous churches to the LDS chapel on Sunday. (we had to teach gently about why we don’t pray to Joseph Smith as a saint).

    I would much rather that everyone feel welcomed and if there are concerns by leadership that they are approached with love, patience, and teaching without force.

    I don’t believe that a leaf falling of a tree and hitting you in the face is a sign from God that he loves you. . but you do, and that’s fine. I don’t feel much of a connection to my Heavenly Mother, as far as I know, but you may and that’s fine too. Now when I win the lottery that’s clearly God saying he loves me the mostest of all ya’all.

  9. It seems to me that “Big Tent Mormonism” is a misdirect. That phrase usually means that I can be considered or can consider myself “Mormon” even though I don’t abide by certain beliefs (orthodoxy) or practices (orthopraxy) that others declare as necessary or defining. What you are describing sounds more like Mormonism+plus (I made it up and I’m already not liking it) which is perhaps orthodox+orthoprax+non-standard or non-canonized beliefs and practices that enhance one’s individual understanding and worship. And that may be an answer looking for a question. If I turn around with one of my non-canonized beliefs or practices and tell you that it is true or right or necessary or defining, well that’s a problem. But if I’m satisfied with the fact that it enhances my own understanding and worship . . . what’s the problem?

  10. “I’m focusing on individual devotional practice and not movements or groups, which I view as schismatic. Second, I’m looking at variations of traditional LDS practice rather than disavowing mainstream LDS beliefs…”

    This is why I said the focus for me is on personal devotion to God. I can take part in all the traditional practices, valuing the scaffolding I am provided in that setting, and take that in my heart and prayers to God for answers unique to me. This is what a personal relationship with God— which we absolutely preach— means. Traditional Mormonism gives me the language to figure this out. For years before I joined the church I was searching, and I can testify how impossibly difficult it is to create those pathways and meaning without scaffolding. This language works for me, and the scaffolding holds things I value and find beautiful. The details of how that looks in my internal life is what I keep to myself and to sharing with close family and friends- and it works for me.

  11. This is good, and I think I like the basic distinctions you describe. I think one thing that’s hard with that type of “big tent” Mormonism is that it’s really hard (I know, I know). From what I can see, forming schismatic groups is very appealing for some pretty obvious reasons (mostly that you no longer feel bound to the people you disagree with, and stuff like that) and I know that with people I interact with frequently, that tends to be the most attractive approach to dealing with unorthodox stuff (practice, beliefs, everything). Which has basically led to me having very few big tent friends. By and large, my experience is that people are leaving or they staying. Those who share my more big tent views tend to gravitate toward schismatic groups and eventually leave, those who don’t seem to agree with me and feel more comfortable with strict orthodoxy tend to stay. So what I’m saying is, this sounds challenging to me, but maybe I’m a super pessimist. The other thing I wonder about is the “supplemental devotional exercises.” This has been the biggest thing to get in my way of associating with more big tent types. Trying to stay involved in my local ward and calling can be tough — it’s a pretty time consuming church — so finding time to supplement my more routine (and often drab) involvement can seem stressful. I’m also curious how one could find substantive supplemental exercises, particularly ones that nurture a sense of community etc, without it eventually forming into a schismatic group.

    Nothing terribly coherent about this. Just some brief thoughts.

  12. “Wouldn’t even a personal, private rejection of righteousness of the new church policy regarding the baptism of children from same-sex couples constitute a disavowal and a discounting of the Brethren? If it wouldn’t, why wouldn’t it? What if you reject key elements of temple theology; is that a “mainstream LDS belief”? Or what if you think the Book of Mormon is inspired fiction? Etc., etc., etc.”

    I don’t know, but it seems like Steve is getting more at not rejecting the Brethren as authoriative keyholders than necessarily agreeing with everything they say. I think there’s room to accept the Brethren as authoritative, while still disagreeing with certain teachings. But the real question is, where does that stop? How do you draw the line between accepting their authority but disagreeing with them on some things and “discounting” them?

    I don’t know the answer, but I would suggest that it might be some kind of sliding scale where disagreements over core principles (what Jesus calls “my doctrine” in the Book of Mormon) weigh heavily in favor of outright rejection, and disagreements over more peripheral or speculative stuff (KFD, details of the nature of the Godhead) or stuff that is presented as policy or practice rather than as doctrine weighs much less heavily.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    JKC, by and large though there are issues that might be core in some sense but are viewed as practically unimportant. (Debates about the King Follet Discourse fall into that) However then there are issues (whether practical ones or abstract theological ones) that are seen as important. Typically people are far less understanding of those when they come up in discussion. I’m not sure how to get around that.

    Effectively what you’re left with is people with heterodox beliefs being silent and putting up with discussions going against their beliers (more or less the status quo) or you’re left with a way of trying to be more pluralistic with those. It’s the more pluralistic approach that I think is wishful thinking.

    Don’t get me wrong, what are normative might even be wrong. For instance back in the very early 90’s there still were lots of people at church who felt like any discussion of a limited geographic model of the Book of Mormon were heretical. It didn’t bother me precisely because I think the evidence and at least some key apostles were on my side. History proved that right and now I think it’s the dominant view.

  14. How do you draw the line between accepting their authority but disagreeing with them on some things and “discounting” them?

    I can disagree. I can take it to God. I can feel very complicated and questioning about decisions or policies and I can even believe they are wrong. What I cannot do is proclaim that I have greater authority or knowledge for anyone else. I have authority for me. *I* can believe they are wrong, but it would be wrong of me to proclaim that others should believe as I do. That’s the line. That’s why it’s personal and why a personal relationship with God is so vital. Its also not easy.

  15. I like that idea, JKC – that “outright rejection” is not reached unless one rejects what Jesus calls “my doctrine” in the Book of Mormon (i.e. repentance and baptism, full stop). Everything else is fair game.

  16. JJ, I agree with with where you’re going. I just want to keep my friends in the church, I don’t want them to feel like we’re coercing them into belief patterns unnecessarily. Some things are fixed points in our religion, some aren’t. So what are the fixed points, and does their presence indicate real limits on personal practice?

  17. Provocative post, Steve. Thanks.

    One question I had while reading: what part does God play in our “deeply religious experiences”? How essential an ingredient is God to having them at all? Or, to what degree are our religious experiences a function of the interplay between ourselves, symbols of God, and only maybe, and on rare occasion,God him/herself?

    Might it be that a key distinction between big and small tent Mormons is a difference of view regarding the size of God’s role in religious experiences? The less God is a direct and necessary participant in our “deeply religious experiences,” the more likely we are to have the sorts of experiences we might describe (honestly and truthfully) as religious experiences in unlikely or unorthodox ways or places. Perhaps in ways more personal and unfettered. On the other hand, the more essential we believe God’s role, the more likely we are to seek God out in familiar, routinized ways.

    I don’t really know. Just some musings. Thanks for the prompt.

  18. What are the fixed points? This is the core; if I have a testimony of the fixed points, then I am free to navigate the borders as works for me, while still claiming Mormonism as my home. If I lose those fixed points, then I am no longer in the tent at all.

  19. One complicating factor is that “what are the fixed points” is one of the things on which views vary significantly within the membership and leadership of the institutional LDS church, not to mention evolution and variation in those views over time.

  20. Ultimately, the Atonement is the starting point, right? Though even the substance of that is a bit of an open question. But ‘fixed points’ is a bit of a red herring. What we’re really talking about, at least pragmatically, are community norms.

  21. Angela C says:

    I liked Patrick Mason’s gated community (but with open gates) analogy more than Big Tent Mormonism. The problem with the Big Tent idea is that it means some of us are near the fringes of that tent which implies that some are “more in” than others.

    The gated community idea is on point because like a HOA, the church has a bunch of made up rules to create uniformity, and if you don’t follow them, prepare to get the stink eye. The blue shirt is the pink flamingo of our gated community. Everyone kind of knows the rules are a pain, but they also know that the uniformity has some benefits in terms of property value. Too many pink houses and there goes the neighborhood. And yet, the gates are open for people to see our perfectly manicured little lawns (our business suits and dresses and seemingly perfect little families) and that will make (some of them) aspire to join our little community if only they can get rid of their junk cars and ugly curtains.

    But like all gated communities, you give up a lot of personality to be there. You can have private opinions in your own home, but your lawn had better match the neighbor’s or there will be hell to pay, mister.

  22. Clark Goble says:

    We’re talking about what the norms are and then how deeply valued they are. There are lots of community norms not viewed as that important for instance. (Jello at ward activities) Then there are norms deeply held which people are not going to be willing to be open about. No way getting around that even if we completely ignore questions of authority and truth.

  23. Doctrinally, the Atonement is the starting point (what Christ calls “my doctrine” and to which no one is to add anything, heh).

    Culturally, the starting point is loyalty, which includes being loyal enough to the organization and leadership structure to not advocate against them on doctrinal points. I would argue that there is room for respectful but open doctrinal disagreement within that loyalty. But there are a lot of people in this big tent with me that would disagree with me on that point.

  24. Clark Goble says:

    Speaking as one who has regularly worn a blue shirt to Church and felt no particular reaction, I think this illustrates that perception of what norms/values are and what the norms/values actually are frequently differ. It’s kind of like feeling alienated as a teen and thinking everyone else has it together and then realizing in your late 20’s that most people felt that way.

  25. Angela – yes. That’s a pretty good analogy in that I think the public/private distinction is key. That said, I don’t think the public aspects of belief are as objectively unimportant as, say, no Christmas lights up after January.

  26. Clark–
    Every neighborhood is different. Some are uptight HOAs that require white shirts and ties (and kick out–or perhaps just ostracize–those who don’t comply). Some are more accepting of differences, and even allow (and perhaps even enjoy having) crazy things like fences and gardens.

  27. Discussions of big tent Mormonism are about belonging and its prerequisites. Phyllis Tickle, in her book The Great Emergence described how a lot of Christian churches are turning belonging around. Traditionally, the order was (if I remember right) “behave, believe, belong.” In other words, a person first has to conform to social norms and believe the creed of the church before they belong in the church. Tickle says that emergence churches turn the traditional order into “belong, believe, become.” A church like this embraces all comers, communicating belonging, and then people can grow to believe and be transformed by the church at their pace, but no matter whether they ever believe and conform, they still belong. This is the vision of big tent Mormonism a lot of us hope for. If you want to be with us, then you belong. You’re one of us and we claim you, whatever your understanding of history or dogma or however you’re dressed.

  28. objectively unimportant as, say, no Christmas lights up after January.

    Objection! Trees and lights come down at the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, 40 days after Christmas. (That’s February 2 for those keeping track at home.)

    Speaking of community norms in a worldwide church–whose? If yours–why?

  29. Opinion! 21st century different than the 20th and the 19th, top of mind stream of consciousness:
    Blue shirts, pants purple or otherwise, ties — not a fixed point.
    Race, why and when and how — not a fixed point.
    Plural marriage, why and when and how — not a fixed point.
    Sexual preference — arguable, likely a fixed point right now but . . .
    Sex outside marriage, tithing, WoW — fixed points
    Sustaining leaders — fixed point with significant discussion about the meaning of the words
    God the Father and Jesus Christ — fixed points
    Atonement, Christ as savior, ‘core’ (TBD) Christian principles — fixed points
    Mother in Heaven and the Holy Ghost — too much unknown or uncertain for any particular conceptualization to be a fixed point
    Temple practice (respect for and allegiance to) and temple recommends — fixed points.

  30. Angela C says:

    Look, by the time October rolls around, you can totally justify leaving those lights up. Everyone wins.

  31. AnonForThis says:

    I identify as Mormon because I usually go to some part of church each week, hold callings, and appropriate various lenses from Mormonism to describe my worldview. I’m not much of a believer in the supernatural (e.g. a literal deity, afterlife, literal substitutionary atonement). I still find enough middle ground to teach the occasional well-received EQ lesson and happily participate with average Mormons in practical religious discussions. (I’m not exactly open about my heterodoxy, but I don’t overtly pretend to be something I’m not either…)

    Can I continue to participate in the church this way? Does the Church even want me to stay? I know plenty of my peers would disinvite me or shun me if they knew all this about me. I’ve been in this game long enough that it seems highly unlikely I magically become a believer in the future.

    So long as there is room for me to feel welcome at the table _as I am_ (and not as the believer they hope I become), and so long as I find meaningful ways to participate, I am in.

    But will you have me?

  32. AnonForThis, yeah please hang out with us.

  33. In a sense, aren’t we all really cafeteria Mormons? We take, emphasize, or share the things that help us in our faith while leaving untouched the things we question or do not understand. It’s not bad. It’s not wrong. The all or nothing approach seems to lead people away from the faith. We need to be a big tent church because the tent of the gospel of Jesus Christ is big indeed. Of course we cannot tolerate the acceptance of sin or evil, but we can tolerate differences and be respectful of each faith journey.

  34. Yes, the only way any Mormon could *not* be a cafeteria Mormon would be if one could somehow rigidly define beyond dispute what, exactly, the beliefs of a non-cafeteria Mormon are. Since that’s not possible, there’s always going to be something in the cafeteria that even the most fervently orthodox/orthoprax Mormon simply doesn’t put on their tray, as it were.

  35. AnonForThis, “will you have me?” is an interesting question but perhaps misleading. Clearly Steve Evans will. And I can say *I* will too. (However, a fairly large part of Mormondom would say that I have no right to say yea or nay, if they knew me!)
    Haven’t you answered your own implied question when you say “plenty of my peers would disinvite me or shun me if they knew”? Isn’t that what we’re talking about? I mean, I would like it to be different, but the hard truth is that a lot of the Mormon world draws rigid lines around legitimate or true or faithful or believing “Mormon.”

  36. A lot of the world draws rigid lines, but a lot of the Mormon world doesn’t. And both of those Mormon worlds exist within the big tent of the institutional LDS church. If the “tent” is the institution, there’s room for both to exist within the tent. Whether the rigid line drawers welcome others into their own, smaller tent is an important question, but a separate one.

  37. I guess the abstract discussion here makes me uncomfortable. The whole point is to consider individuals. Let’s go back to my Mother in Heaven example. If someone prays to Heavenly Parents or something like that, is there a place for them at church? The answer is yes. That sort of analysis method just seems more productive to me.

  38. “Mormon worlds within the big tent” — Interesting concept. In a Venn diagram sense it seems to me that there’s a circle defined by baptism and excommunication (which is arguably the de jure big tent of the institutional LDS church). There’s a circle defined by “temple recommend worthy” (which is the one I hear quite often from institutional sources and seems like the de facto tent of the institutional LDS church). There’s a circle defined by self-identification (is that larger or smaller, a subset or a superset, of the others?) There’s a circle defined by the rigid line drawers. There’s a circle defined by BCC commentary (which seems to me much larger than the rigid line drawer circle). And surely a dozen more. So if we’re to have any useful discussion, don’t we need to agree on a circle to talk about?

  39. I don’t know that we have to agree on which circle we’re talking about, as long as we understand that there are all those circles.

    As to Steve’s more specific question and the Mother in Heaven example: If someone prays to Heavenly Parents or something like that, there’s a place for them in the big “baptized and not excommunicated” circle, certainly. If they do so openly among other church members, then I think the circles start shrinking on them and, depending on where they live, who their local leaders are, who their fellow ward and stake members are, and that sort of thing, they are likely to be excluded from one or more of the circles.

  40. I just don’t think that most of the circles really matter that much.

  41. marcella says:

    Ok, so am I ok with some members choosing to pray to Heavenly Mother or some other religious practice like that. Sure.

    How would I feel if it was taught in Primary or any other class at church? I’d have to say uncomfortable. Not because I think they’re wrong but because I’m so conditioned by years of “teaching from the manual” that things outside of that feel really foreign (and sometimes uncomfortable) to me.

  42. Antonio Parr says:

    Steve –

    Thoughtful post, as always.

    Humble observation: the thought of praying to “Heavenly Parents” is of concern to me, because of the special place that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth holds in my personal theology. He taught His disciples to pray “Our Father, who art in heaven”, and, both in Gesthemane and Calvary – the most pivotal moments in creation – cried out to “Abba” and “Father”. For me, that is the end and beginning of the identity of the Being to whom I pray. To deviate from this command would, to me, transform what was announced from the beginning as a restoration of the pure teachings of Christ to, at least in part, an abandonment of a core, fundamental precept given to disciples in both Jerusalem and the New World. If a prayer to His Father was good enough for the Messiah in His (and our) greatest hour of need, then why would we want or need anything more?

  43. The Other Clark says:

    I prefer the term “unorthodox Mormon” to Big Tent. The big tent name has too much baggage. Unorthodox is commonly understood. But I think a large percentage of Mormons are unorthodox in some area of their belief (e.g. polygamy in the afterlife, the nature of God, following the “do’s” of the Word of Wisdom, meaning of the Law of Consecration, heck, meaning of “honest in your business dealings”.)

    As far as boundaries, let’s set the fixed points as the correct answers to the Temple Recommend questions. As to all other points of doctrine and even the interpretation of what the TR questions mean, that where we have room form unorthodox members.

  44. TR questions may be fair to middling measures of orthopraxis, but they’re far from doctrinal fixed points.

  45. Jason K. says:

    Drawing on an excellent recent book by Caroline Levine called Forms (whose concluding chapter on The Wire is alone worth the purchase price), I wonder if it might be useful to think of Mormonism as a form with certain affordances (things the form equips you to do). A form doesn’t oblige everyone to use it in the same way–just think of all the different things people have done with sonnets, or cell phones–but it does have limitations. For instance, shovels are better for digging holes than water balloons are.

    What I’m getting at is that the question of whether or not you belong in Mormonism depends on how well it affords what you’re trying to do with it. I think it can handle a pretty wide range of personal spiritual quests, for instance, provided they don’t, as Tracy said above, start claiming authority over what other people do. As far as the pastoral concern motivating the post goes, I think that the thing to do is to keep insisting that Mormonism affords a wide range of paths to God. The people I interact with in ordinary Church life are far more spiritually diverse than most commentary gives them credit for being, and I think that’s a testament to Mormonism’s flexibility that we forget at our own collective peril.

  46. Antonio, no question that Christ has a special relationship with his Father, and he instructed us to pray ‘after this manner’; however, the Lord’s Prayer is not a prescriptive form for all prayer. As I said before, praying to Heavenly Parents is something I’m not personally inclined to do, but I’m not going to exclude someone from the community for it.

  47. non e mouse says:

    I really like what Tracy M said about the church providing the scaffolding to promote a personal relationship with God.

    A few months ago I got an answer to a prayer. I acted on it. I believe it to be a good decision. But I was (am?) pretty pissed off at God about it. At one point I told Him “I agree with you that this was the right thing to do, but I think Mom would have found a nicer way to tell me!” His response: study this particular good and praiseworthy book instead of the scriptures for a while and see what Mom has to teach you. And it was wonderful and exactly what I needed. It’s helped me process my experience and shaped my self narrative. I can’t say that I would recommend substituting other books for scripture study to everyone–that was a very specific (and surprising!) answer for my situation.

    I think the key element in all of this is having the personal relationship with God. And it’s really hard to get a sense of what another person’s relationship to God is like, even if you are very close to that person.

  48. Almost in following the comment previous, I had an interesting and uplifting conversation with my little brother this week. He has not been an active mormon for some time. He stopped going over the past two years as he’s recovered from years of drug addiction and a divorce. No one in my family has ever really confronted or talked to him about his activity in the church because frankly, we trust him and they way he is living his life, but this week as we spoke, I asked him how he felt about the church and his membership. I was surprised to hear that his immediate response was “I’m still a Mormon! I still love the gospel!” I had inaccurately assumed that some sort of bitterness or resentment must have accompanied his departure, partly because he dealt with a lot of judgement, guilt, shame, etc… from leaders and members in his ward as his life was falling apart due to his addiction. He talked about how even though on paper he is not being a “good” mormon, he feels closer to the spirit and more at peace than he has in maybe his whole life. I don’t write this to say that that is the best way for all people to come to Christ, but it was an important teaching moment and reminder to me that the God and Christ of Mormonism does not only stay within the walls of mormonism. In other words, I believe the tent is very big and that the spirit of Christ visits all corners of it, in fact, may spend more time in those far corners with people who we do not consider “mainstream” in the faith. I think we have a lot to learn from people like my brother and if nothing else, I did feel strongly in speaking with him that I am most certainly in charge of doing the same difficult and rewarding work he is doing to get to know God and what God wants and hopes for me.

  49. Also though, in terms of this conversation about dividing groups, I think that my brother has benefitted by not aligning himself with another group, either post mormon, ex-mormon, etc… I think it has been so vital for his peace of mind to spend some time away sorting out the spiritual life that he grew up with and felt familiar, but doing so in his own way and space. I think it has been healthy and vital for him to hold the belief that he very much is still a part of the tent of mormonism and always will be, whether he comes back to full activity or not.

  50. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for sharing that experience, Ashmae. I firmly believe, on the thorough witness of scripture, that the spirit especially attends the people in the far corners.

  51. Antonio Parr says:

    Steve – I am by nature disinclined to exclude anyone, but the abandonment of the form of prayer taught by Christ in our communal worship would severely wound the quality of my personal worship experience. Further, to pray to someone other than the one to whom Christ prayed and to whom He instructed us to pray would, I believe, undermine our efforts to persuade our neighbors that we are a uniquely Christ-centered people.

  52. No one is asking you to abandon anything.

  53. I’m going to echo a bit of Patrick Mason, too – I think this comes down to finding a place to fill your bucket. For a lot of people our buckets are necessarily filled through church attendance (sometimes, I’ll admit) and we go outside mainstream to get the nourishment we need. On a personal level it’s how you connect and develop a relationship with God. You be you, I’ll be me – and sing kumbaya. I’ve learned that it’s not kosher to go spouting all of my meandering borderland positions…keep it on the down low, share things that prompt connected-ness when prompted by the Spirit. Is that big-tent mormonism? I don’t know – but I feel fairly deeply planted in the foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All the rest? Usually meh.

  54. Antonio Parr says:

    Steve – you are a good lawyer. To clarify, the abandonment by fellow Saints of the established practice of praying in our meetings to our Heavenly Father would be distressing to me.

  55. Sure. But lots of things are distressing. The abandonment by fellow Saints of the body of the Church is, I believe, worse.

  56. Antonio Parr says:

    Respectfully disagree. Prayer connects us to God, and the form of prayer connects us to Jesus. We would lose more members than we would save by rejecting/abandoning one of the fundamental teachings of our Lord. We would also further isolate ourselves from non-LDS Christendom. There is a certain measure of uniformity necessary to bind any body of believers. The object of our prayer and worship is too essential to compromise.

  57. It’s okay to disagree.

  58. Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer for his followers at that specific time in history. Doesn’t mean it is set in stone for the rest of time–especially in a Church that believes in ongoing revelation, not sola scriptura.

    One could easily postulate that Jesus didn’t mention Heavenly Mother because Jews in the first century AD weren’t ready for that concept (heck, twenty centuries later, we still aren’t quite ready…)

  59. John Mansfield says:

    Is there anything besides prayer to the Mother in Heaven that people have in mind with this idea of supplemental devotional exercises? Keeping a kosher home? Three-day fasts that include complete silence? Selling everything and giving the money to the poor? Always taking the sacrament with the right hand?

  60. Ryan Mullen says:

    In public, I simply pray to “God” and let the celestial telegraph & telephone operator route my prayer to any being with that title–God the Father, God the Mother, etc. In private, I sometimes direct my prayer to one, but I try not to put limits on who can respond. No one has ever objected to my public prayers offered this way, and only the few close friends I’ve shared this with would even know I mean anything by it. This is my simple way of making room in the tent for myself without seeking to cause friction with people whose views differ (e.g., Antonio Parr).

  61. Jason K. says:

    Say, following the Lectionary…

    There are all kinds of prayer or other meditative practices out there. Keeping silence for a specified period isn’t a bad idea. Personally, a lot of my supplemental devotional exercises involve reading religious works outside the Christian tradition. Doing so has enriched my life considerably, and I share things I’ve learned along the way in comments at Church (as appropriate), which I’ve found that most of my fellow members welcome.

  62. For me “supplemental devotional exercises” means more about paring down, rather than adding things- and doing so without guilt. This church can swallow up your whole life, if you let it. It means I say no to extra callings that would take me away from my family. It means bowing out of scouts if I have a child who has a hard time. It means skipping ward conference or stake conference and taking a mental health holiday with the family outdoors.

  63. “I’d rather have Cafeteria Mormons than ex-mos.”

    This, 100%. On Twitter a few months ago, BCC tweeted something along the lines of “if you want to drink coffee, drink coffee, just don’t leave the church over it.” Again, I agree completely.

    I want our church to be a place where everyone feels welcome, and where anyone can sit next to me during a worship service. Let’s view each other as children of God, and not “projects” that need to be fixed or corrected. Let’s be kind to each other, and help each other along the way home.

  64. “Anything besides …?” — I’ll respond. I wear a cross. (Which doesn’t or shouldn’t affect anyone else.) I choose silence quite a lot. (Which does sometimes conflict with the busy-with-callings social nature of LDS community life.) My prayers don’t sound culturally Mormon (in more ways than the address), including a notable absence of the word “moisture,”

  65. three cheers for that, CK!

  66. Jason K. says:


  67. Clark Goble says:

    I think the issue tends to be what’s held as valuable (by a particular ward – as someone noted these things vary regionally) but also how people within the ward are trying. Someone mentioned either in this thread or the other one a kind of loyalty. Whether loyalty ought be an inherent value (I think it’s open to abuse) it seems undeniable that people perceived as loyal are given a lot more slack for their differences even on valued norms than those who aren’t perceived as loyal.

    Again, not saying whether this is good or bad just looking at how the norms function. I think this can be helpful but I’ve also seen wards where things were excused because of this that never should have been excused. So all of these are open to abuse.

    In general I agree with Steve that we should be more welcoming to those who don’t fit in. I think a constant danger in wards is that they become too much of a clique where people feel unwelcome. Even when that’s not intended (and I suspect it’s rarely intended) people still feel it. For those who have been in many wards we’ve probably encountered wards that feel inclusive where you quickly feel a part of the family and those that don’t. Sometimes that’s just because you individually “click” with people in the ward. Sometimes it’s just because the ward is that welcoming. I’ve been in all kinds and one thing I’ve noticed is that the less friendly wards aren’t trying to be such. Often it’s just one or two families within the ward that can make all the difference. (As I call myself to repentance since I suspect I’m often so exhausted Sunday morning I don’t make the effort to be as outgoing and inclusive as I should be)

  68. Mark Brown says:

    I appreciate the attempt to find concrete examples of personal behavior or devotion which could fit within the big tent, but ultimately I think that approach won’t work. As others have already pointed out, there is already a lot of regional variation, so what counts as authoritative? I know from personal experience that there are wards in Louisiana and Tennessee where iced tea doesn’t raise an eyebrow. And we only need to spend a month in regular Sunday school classes and high priest lessons to see, for sure and for certain, that orthodox Mormonism is capable of containing all kinds of far out nuttery and non-doctrinal beliefs.

    Wendell Berry observed that one of the necessary ingredients for a healthy community is something he called “a will toward good will”. That attribute is impossible to quantify and often very hard to even recognize, but I think that is where we finally end up when we try to find the line which distinguishes big tent from no tent.

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