Mormonism’s Three Churches

Many discussions about Mormonism are frustrating to me because of the vagueness of the phrase “The Church.” I think there are at least three ways that “The Church” is used, which overlap and intersect, but also have distinct qualities and features. I’m focusing on different bodies of people can be understood to be “The Church” rather than some of the other ways that the phrase is used to refer to the culture and teachings and ideologies of those bodies. That is also a necessary discussion, but to me is more tied to the ongoing and, for me, rarely productive conversation surrounding the definition of “doctrine”

All that said, here are the three ways that I think of The Church being used:

C1: The Institution

C2: Local Congregation

C3: Family and Friends

Each of these groups has equal claim to being The Church and they undoubtedly are intertwined and influence one another. Without C1, you cannot have C2 or C3 (at least within Mormonism, as reflections of Mormonism). By the same token, without C2s and C3s, there is no C1. For the Institution to perpetuate, local congregations, families, and friends must continue to affiliate.

The ways in which these Three Churches interact with and influence one another are likely not unique to Mormonism. I suspect that every organized religion has some variation on these Three Churches. Even political parties and any other organization that has a national or other broad level of authority along with more local groups will bear some of the marks of what I’m looking at. (When I floated this idea in a very stripped down form on twitter, a friend remarked that I was channeling Charles Taylor. This was unintentional, but since I read his A Secular Age last year, he’s been bouncing around my head, so it’s likely inevitable. I hope I can make my case here with a tad more concision than he made his, but time will tell.)

C1: The Institution

The Institution of the Church could likely be made even more precise, given the large bureaucratic apparatus that exists in SLC and surrounding areas. But, that’s for another time. I tend to think of the Institution as Church headquarters, so the Church Office Building, the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Auxiliary presidencies. This group has the largest consolidation of power in most traditional senses. They create the manuals and give the talks in General Conference and are the public face of the Church.

The Institution is responsible for any sense of doctrinal purity (however fruitless that errand ultimately is). The Institution is responsible for shaping the broad strokes of the narrative of my Mormon experience. In many ways, I cannot exist as a Mormon, that attends Church, without being touched by their influence. They determine what is in the manuals that are used in Sunday School and other general guidelines for what occurs on a weekly basis (and to some extent on other days throughout the week). The Institution determines in broad strokes what offenses should be met with which punishments.

The Institution also must compete with the spectre of its past. The Institution has existed in some form or another since 1830 (or the dawn of time depending on how you interpret teachings of The Restoration). The Institution then is constantly haunted by what has been said and done by every other previous manifestation of The Institution. The Spectre of the Institution is used in a number of different ways by people all along the ideological spectrum and perhaps it’s this spectre that motivates some of The Institution’s behavior (also I think it was David Holland that argued that Prophetic Authority is actually the weakest line of authority within a Mormon theological construct, as compared to personal revelation/the Holy Ghost and scripture, which may be why The Institution emphasizes it more than the others, to rhetorically even the scales).

Anyway. I am least interested in and least moved by The Church as The Institution.  

C2: My Local Congregation

The primary way that I think about The Church is as my local congregation, the people that I worship with every Sunday. This is where most of my lived experience as a Mormon takes place. This is where I participate in rituals and church services, this is where I serve, these are the people I see and wrestle with in the Gospel.

I have largely had very positive interactions with my various local congregations (all over Provo, Washington, D.C., London, northern England, and even to some extent Lithuania). In most of those places (Lithuania being the exception), I have been open about my experiences with faith and doubt and how I believe that doubt is essential to faith and that questions are good, that I don’t “know” things, but I “believe” them, and a number of related, semi-fringey positions. Without exception, I have people come up to me (often surprising people) and thank me for sharing my thoughts and remarking that they resonated with what I said. I have never been censured or called out (well, except once perhaps during an EQ lesson I taught with my brother about Race and the Priesthood).

All of that is to say that my experience has been very good in my local congregations. Not that I go purely to change hearts and minds. I go because they are my people, my spiritual community. I don’t feel complete in my worship without them. I learn from them, even when I disagree. I learn by being in fellowship with them.

Obviously, the local congregation is influenced by The Institution. But it’s also quite different. Even with somewhat standardized lesson materials and topics, the content and tone of those lessons varies widely. Someone’s experience with The Church as a local congregation may be radically different than their experience with the Church as The Institution.

For example, I think The Family: A Proclamation to the World is a, to put it lightly, problematic document that reflects and embodies certain sexist and homophobic ideas. The Family Proclamation is almost definitely a part of The Institution, and at least is frequently referenced by members of The Institution. However, I could go months in my ward without hearing people talk about it, which makes those two Churches quite different in relationship to categories of sexism and homophobia (though both are present at both levels, at least implicitly given structural considerations).

C3: My Family and Friends

I am Mormon, I was raised Mormon, and have lived my life up to this point surrounded by Mormons. The C3 Church helps to account for this group of people. Practically my entire family for generations, including my in-laws and their family for generations, is Mormon (Cec and I both come from about as Mormon stock as you can find). The vast majority of my friends are Mormon to some degree or another.

These people are The Church.

The robustness of this group will vary largely by individual, though the internet seems to allow for more connections than would be possible previously.

This body may be the most troubling (in a sorta Judith Butler sense) for definitional purposes and for a standard narrative or description of The Church. Everyone’s experience here is going to vary widely. This is also true at the C2 level, but there’s still enough Institutional power over local congregations that the differences among them are often of a lesser degree than the differences among the C3 Churches that people experience.

People tend to congregate with other people like them, which means that the Church at a C3 level is probably more homogenous than the C2 level, but that the different C3s have striking diversity among them. I mostly interact with similarly fringey Mormons (though my family members are largely quite traditional, orthodox, and conservative, so the make-up of my family and friend C3s is quite different).

Anyway, this iteration of The Church matters because it is one of the ways we understand and describe what The Church is capable of, or not. Like, my C3 Church is largely very on board with progressive politics surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, so I have a skewed sense of what Church membership broadly feels and thinks about them.

This becomes a sort of “found” Church, one that is self-curated. As I entered fringey Mormon spaces just after my mission, they challenged my understanding of what The Church could be. They opened my eyes to ways in which C2, and even occasionally C1, was different and more expansive than I’d previously considered. C3 seems to me to be the place where Mormonism is most interesting and potentially most alive, especially when welded with engagement in C2.

I’m a strong believer in the communal emphasis of Mormonism and for me, finding various C3 communities to be a part of (digitally and in person) has been instrumental in making my local congregation habitable. I realized that there were likely others like me to one degree or another in my congregation and I could do some work to claim and make space for me and others there.

The danger of a pure C3 communal space is that it lacks the diversity of thought and experience that I think is necessary for a truly healthy, welcoming, and sustainable community.

Obviously, without C3s, you cannot really have functioning C2s and the C1. This is partially why I believe so strongly in people (re)claiming Mormonism. We can shape what The Church is in a large sense, at least at the C3 level. There’s no formal hierarchy or gate-keeping (though in some C3s you may find plenty of informal elements of both of those). My experience with C3 Church is at its best when it has as little concern for The Institution (C1) as possible, though others’ mileage may vary on that point.

Breaking The Church down into these three categories is helpful for me in describing where my disagreement or problem or struggle or love or admiration is in relation to various elements of Mormonism. Some may span categories, which is fine and to be expected, honestly.

Understanding these distinctions and being more precise in our language I think can improve our discourse about The Church and our various frustrations or admirations. Or maybe it’ll just help me.    

Heavenly Mother: A Sunday Speculative Profile

We entered the cafe, looking for our usual booth. It was open and Marie waved us to it.

We sat down, I was holding H— since it was Mother’s Day, doing what I could to give Cec a break. We talk about the normal everyday things that we always talk about, mixed in with some peppered interjections about the podcasts we’d both been listening to and the occasional pause to look at and talk to H—.

Marie came over to get our order and as Cec spoke for both of us, I noticed that Evelyn was at the counter, with a world-weary look on Her face. She’d always been great to H— and me and Cec in our time here, helping us feel welcome almost immediately.

I tried to puzzle over why she’d look so weary and was going to ask Cec if she’d heard anything, but H— started fussing and I forgot in the immediate flurry of helping her.

Our food came and we chatted, but I kept seeing Evelyn and thinking that we should say something to Her.

As we finished, we finally made our way over.

“Hey Evelyn, how’s it going?” I ask.

She raises Her head from Her steaming cup of coffee and smiles wearily, but warmly as She locks eyes with H—.

“Always tired and sorrowing for the ills of the world and particularly for my sisters,” She replied.

She paused and swallowed, but the air was filled with Her words and holy, it felt wrong to speak, to violate the silence and space that She’d created, so I waited.

She started and stopped a few times, looking for the precise words to fit, the entire time communicating deeply with H— wordlessly.

“I’ve served the good people here for years and still, pain and suffering surrounds us. Despite my best efforts I can’t prevent people from hurting and I know the value of pain and the inevitability of grief, yet, still it hurts,” as She opened Herself up, tears welled in the corners of Her eyes and began to fall, “I look around me and am tired. Tired from the work I’ve done, tired at the thought of all the work there is to do, tired from the work that must be left to others.”

H— began to growl, babbling wildly and enthusiastically, smiling and looking straight at Evelyn.

Evelyn smiled and laughed as H— continued, a smile and laugh that know deep pain, that feel the full breadth of life’s emotions.

“Thank you,” She says to all of us, but mostly it seems to H—.

We say our goodbyes and I walk to towards the door, holding H—. I look around as I reach the door and see that Cec and Evelyn are talking, I think about going over again, but something holds me back. I simply watch. They part with a warm farewell.

As Cec walks over we join hands, fingers interlocking. I smile at her and we walk back to the car.

Heavenly Mother: A Saturday Speculative Profile

I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this. It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought, but it’s also the first time I’ve been brought here, before Her. So, uh, we’ll see how long my luck manages to hold out.

The guards brought me before Her, and I immediately was stunned by the elegance of the throne room. Gold and wood and carefully placed gems throughout. I never thought I’d end up here. And surely not like this. I was small-time. Smuggling small things here and there. Nothing worthy of the Queen of Creation’s notice.

I’ve spent most of my life on the edges, the fringes, called out here and pushed out there, but always had a place to land or a way to spin my work as less dangerous or less illegal than it was in actuality.

But Her? She was the most well-read monarch that’d ruled the galaxies for generations. She would see right through me.

“Conor, welcome,” She said, Her dark skin shining as She gestured broadly at the court, “I’ve been waiting for this moment.”

“You have?”

“Yes, no one has quite so persistently needled away at My work, Our work as you. No matter where you find yourself. You just keep at it.”

Her tone was difficult to read, I was caught between thinking this was begrudging admiration and frustration. But She was clearly in control.

“Why, thank you.”

She narrowed Her eyes and looked at me sharply, “Your persistence and dedication is admirable, but your cause? Empty. You rebel for rebellion’s sake. What guides you? Why do you do what you do? You could be so much more.”

At this point, She was standing, Her powerful frame imposing. She walked toward me and looked me in the eyes as she asked those last questions, turning away with pain at Her last words.

“But you and your queendom are everything. What choices do I have beyond joining and reacting? All life is is the powerful acting and the disempowered reacting.”

“Ah, that is a reductive and binary view of the world, yes,” She responded, still turned away from me, “But does acting in direct opposition to the voice of the powerful mean that “They” have any less influence over your life than when you did precisely what They directed?”

I paused, before pressing on, “The powerful must be resisted. At all costs. Don’t try to frame my resistance as your continued influence. I am free.”

She looked at me, eyes fierce, but weary.

“You’re wrong, Conor,” She said firmly, the quiet power of Her voice striking deep.

She began to enumerate the support for Her position, laying out an intricate and stunning argument. But I knew I was lost from that simple, unrelenting rebuttal.

“We need you. We even need your opposition, to challenge and to push us, to prevent the powerful from taking advantage of those less powerful. We need true, inspired resistance, none of this purely reactive, reductive self-serving behavior.”

“Really? But how?”

She came toward me, placing one hand on my shoulder, our eyes locked.

“Now, Conor, I cannot tell you how. You’d simply be listening to the voice of power, the Queen of All Creation, and that just wouldn’t do. You have to carve that path out for yourself, though I’m sure we’ll be speaking again.”

She turned from me, waving Her arm and snapping Her fingers.

Her guards gather and start to escort me away.
“Wait, where are you taking me? She needs me. You heard Her…” I protest.

“Giving you purpose, where you had none, that was mercy. To turn you loose without trial or efforts at rehabilitation? That would be neither just, nor merciful. You participated in breaking Creation and now must work to heal Her. But others shall give you the first framework for you. They’re taking you to await further insight into your case.”

I tried to protest further, but came up short every time I tried to think of something to say.

“Go. Give the people Hope, that’s what rebellions are built on, after all. I bring steadiness, comfort, and care to the people, but cannot provide Hope, you must do that. Without hope, we stagnate. Go and do wrong no more. Spread hope.”

Stunned, I let the guards guide me out of the throne room. She saw right through me. Could I really be more than a reaction? Could I have a purpose? Could I give people hope? I committed to try.  

Heavenly Mother: A Friday Speculative Profile

Cec and I were whale-watching in Alaska, little H— in tow. Cec has talked about Alaska more or less every day we’ve known each other. It is, unquestionably, her favorite place on earth. And now, we were finally going. She was brimming with pure joy. And to top it all off, we were whale-watching.

Cec turns to me and grabs my arm, “I LOVE whales.”

I chuckle and my eyes crinkle.

“I know, babe, I know.”

We stand next to each other, holding hands, and  looking over the side of the ship we were on. H— was settled in one of those carriers on my chest, so she was only going over if I went over. Safety first.  

We’d been out for awhile and had seen some fish and birds and stunning views of the ocean and Alaskan coast, but so far, no whales.

But up ahead, it looked like something was breaking through the ocean surface.

“Cec, what’s that?”

Cec looks attentively, recalling all her hours of Planet Earth and other nature documentaries.

“Gotta be whales,” she says confidently.

“What kind?”

“Pretty sure, that’s a humpback whale…wait, look, there’s more!”

We looked intently at the scene in front of us. A pod of the humpback whales was surrounded by something else. Smaller and sleeker. One leaped through the air. An orca! The pod of orcas was moving menacingly towards the pod of humpbacks.

Cec was turning from the whales to me, her mouth and eyes wide with shock, intensity, and horror.

The humpback whales had a baby whale with them. One of them pulled forward and was clearly the leader of the pod.

“The All-Mother!” Cec cried out.

The orcas began attacking the humpback whales, trying to break through the pod to get at the baby.

I clutch H— tighter and Cec comes over and places one arm around me and one on H— as we look out at the whales, riveted, unable to look away.

It was looking grim for the humpbacks. The pod was being decimated by the orcas, as they moved closer and closer to the baby. Suddenly the All-Mother got into action.

She was fierce.

Unstoppable.

She swam from orca to orca and used Her huge tail to slap the orcas. She beat them back and knocked them aside with Her head. Almost single-handedly She took charge and saved the child—Her child?—from the attacking orcas.

We were awestruck at the display of pure, maternal power.

The All-Mother nuzzled the child. An outpouring of warmth and comfort. I felt the tension leave my body, and I just look at H— with relief and wonder at her existence. Cec and I look at each other, sharing the moment together.

We begin talking, trying to process what we just saw.

I turn away from the whales, Cec is still half-watching over my shoulder.

H— starts fussing a bit, so I try to move around some, walking around the deck, giving some bounce, hoping to calm her down.

“Babe, Conor, babe. You’re not going to believe this.”

“What? What happened?”

“The whales. The WHALES. They talked to me.”

“How?” I reply, somewhat incredulously.

“Their song. It was for me. Somehow, just for me. Like, She started singing and I knew what She was saying. Or at least, I felt it.”

“Well, what did She say?”

“I can’t quite put it into words. Something about me having the strength to fight for H— when the time comes?”

I looked back out over the ocean, watching the pod of whales swim away. As I watch, I could’ve sworn the All-Mother leaped out of the ocean, flipped, looked me dead in the eyes, winked, and splashed back down before swimming away.

I turn to Cec.

“Of course you do.”

We pull each other close, looking out over the Pacific.

The humpbacks swim away, their song ringing faintly over the ocean.

Heavenly Mother: A Thursday Speculative Profile

H— was sleeping in her bouncer on the kitchen floor nearby as I was working furiously to finish the week’s stack of dishes and clean the mess that the kitchen always seems to be no matter how often we cleaned it. Cec was resting in our room, turned in early for the night. I was singing along to my years old, “Best Of” playlist.

“Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with meeeeeeeee…”

I was exhausted and overwhelmed. Life was just so much. Work, Cec, H— and everything else that was up ahead.

Life is good. And exhausting. How do you do it all? How can I be a dad and husband and soon to be student and generally decent human and teacher and disciple and political activist for a thousand different worthy causes? How can I give Cec everything she needs? How can I give H— everything that she needs? How do I keep my own interests alive and balanced and myself thriving as a creative person on top of all that other stuff? How do I find time for all the movies I want to see, books I want to read, podcasts and albums I want to listen to, and other art that I want to engage with?

Who knew that washing the dishes could spark an existential crisis?

I kept washing. At least I could do that. Hopefully before H— woke up.

I just always felt like I was neglecting something. Not fully taking advantage of what life had to offer, that no matter how much I watched or read or wrote or did, it would never be enough. That I would always fall short of the time I should’ve spent with Cec and H—.

 How do people do this? How do they live with this pressure, every day, forever? Does it ever get better?

I had just a few dishes left and was about to get to cleaning the kitchen, which I’d been hoping to do all week.

H— started crying. She was suddenly awake and suffering, she must have had a nightmare or something. She needed immediate attention.

“Hey, hey, H— it’ll be ok. I’ll be right there,” I breathe out, trying to sound reassuring and calming and also urgent, as I try to finish washing the dish in my hand and then get it put down and my hands dry so I can pick her up.

Lost in the urgency, I don’t notice until I turn back to grab her that she’s stopped crying.

A woman was holding her, with red bushy hair, freckles, and bright green eyes. She was wearing a denim jacket covered in patches and behind Her, parked in our kitchen was a vaguely orb-shaped craft of some kind, with the door open, and controls visible, looking like the origin of this mysterious woman.

“Well, now, H—. I’ve been hoping to get to see you. I’ve been watching your mom and dad for a long time, now. You’re in for a treat,” She looks up at me and winks, with a bright twinkle in Her eyes as She says that last line.

I feel like I know Her, even though I know I’ve never seen Her before. I’m not sure at all what is going on and am honestly baffled at this spaceship that found its way into our kitchen and this strange, familiar woman was holding H—.

H— looked totally comfortable and thrilled to be in Her arms, honestly. Which did something to assuage my fears (I’m not sure why I trust H— to be this barometer of truth and goodness, but it seems fair that her wild, less-biased baby judgments may have some shred of truth to them).

“Conor, you look exhausted. You gotta get some sleep. Probably the least helpful thing I could say to you right now, though. You’re a new dad. You won’t be sleeping well for at least like 18 years,” She finished with a grin and a soft laugh.

Realization dawned on me.

“God-Mom? Is that you?”

“In the flesh.”

I was stunned. No wonder She was familiar and strange all at the same time.

“Why me?”

She shrugged and then turned to H— to say, “You’re so cute,” as H— growled at Her in her new dinosaur voice that she’s been exploring for the last couple of days. “You needed some help and had some questions, so here I am, perhaps not with answers, but with love.”

H—’s lip started to quiver and then she was screaming, yelling the loudest she could, as if she were dying.

God-Mom reached out to me, holding H— to pass her off. I take her, talking to her the whole time I pull her close to me.

H— calms down as soon as she’s in my arms, still intermittently reminding me of the suffering that she has experienced with yells and general pouts. As I’ve focused on H—I lose sight of Her and then I look back up and realize that She’s climbed aboard Her ship and was about to take off, Her Aquabats patch barely visible over the side of the ship.

“You take care of her, now, Conor.”

“I will, I do,” I affirm enthusiastically, as I look H— in the eyes, she smiles and laughs and I’m filled with light and goodness and joy.

“Ah, you’re feeling it Conor. That’s how you carry on. Those moments right there. It won’t all be good, but nothing compares to those glimpses of Heaven that your children and loved ones give you.”

She had stood up and moved out just a tad as this was happening and then turned to get re-settled in Her spaceship, “Take care of yourself, Conor. You’re no good to your family, friends, Church, or the world at large, if you don’t give yourself what you need, to be who you are and do the good you need to do.”

By this point She had returned to Her spaceship.

The door was closing and She was waving as I tried to wave, while holding a fussing and growling daughter.

“Oh, one last thing,” She called out, “Watch a movie. Read a book. Write. It’ll make you a better dad. And remember, reckless abandon.”

The door closed on Her twinkling eyes and then blasted into Space without destroying our roof.

“H— what do you think about all that?” I ask her.  

She growls, smiles, and laughs.

Heavenly Mother: A Wednesday Speculative Profile

Sainte-Chapelle

I ascend the short, narrow staircase and enter the Chapel.

I’m speechless.

An immediate, unquenchable giddiness morphs into a profound sense of awe and wonder as I vacillate between turning quickly trying to take in the entirety of the stained glass that surrounds me on all sides and stopping fully to lose myself in individual panels.

The beauty is overwhelming.

Tears stream down my face as I simply feel the divinity of the building, my mouth forming a huge, irrepressible grin.  

She’s here.

Truth.

Beauty.

Joy.

I tread delicately around the entire Chapel, opening myself up to every detail. The glass and the Chapel reach for the unreachable, express the inexpressible. That’s divinity. That’s Her.

I walk with Her, letting the warmth of the sun shining through the stunning stained glass keep me company as I try to etch every last detail of the glass and the feelings that I’m experiencing onto my soul. Divinity had perhaps never been so close as in Sainte-Chapelle.

I am filled with Her witness. Words cannot do justice to Her and who She is, but they’re all I have. As the Chapel itself reaches for the unreachable, I feel called to write, to do my part to express the inexpressible, to feel Her light and presence again today, as I walk back to Sainte-Chapelle, placing myself in that sacred hall.

She’s not here, but the power of the glass remains. She lingers with me, and my lips curl up into a soft smile again.  

Pioneer Book

I browse the shelves, not looking for anything in particular. I’m always drawn to the Mormon Scholarship section and can only enter with a specific purpose or clear financial limit or I end up walking out with far more than I intended.

Today, I was looking for Mormon Enigma to fill the Emma-sized hole in my early Church history book collection.

As I walked down the row—buried deep in books, embraced by their collective stories and wisdom, comforted by their presence and witness to past owners and lives outside the walls of the store—I held my hand out, a couple fingers tracing the air in front of the spines as my eyes tracked the titles and authors.

Mmmmmm. No, no, no…oh, Quinn, do they have…? Still no. Next time. Mmmmm, let’s see, ah, yes!

I’d found it. Mormon Enigma. Missing it’s dust jacket. The title in gold lettering against the black of the spine, shining.

I carefully remove it from the shelf (pushing the book out from the back and gripping the spine on both sides, as I was taught by the good, book-loving folks at the Wordsworth Trust), and begin to explore it.

THAT’S A GOOD ONE.

I turn, startled, but no one’s around.

REALLY GOOD. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

I look all over, but can’t see the sound of the voice in the otherwise low rustles of the bookstore.

But then, I feel something. A friendly, side-hug.

Her.

YES, IT’S ME. OBVIOUSLY.

What? Why? What’s going on?
OF COURSE I HANG OUT IN PIONEER BOOK AND WAIT FOR PEOPLE TO LOOK AT MORMON ENIGMA. GOTTA NUDGE PEOPLE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION.

Uhhhh, I don’t know what to say…
NOTHING YET. READ THE BOOK AND THEN WE’LL HAVE SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT.

My thoughts are muddled and overwhelmed and before I get anything put together, She interrupts.

LOVE YA, CON. GOTTA GO.

I…uh…

She was gone. Some of the warmth and curiosity of the store felt reduced, Her absence noticeable, even when I hadn’t recognized Her presence.

OH. ONE LAST THING.

Yeah?

YOUR HAIR’S [THE VERBAL-NON-VERBAL CELESTIAL/FELT EQUIVALENT OF THE OK SIGN WITH A MOUTH CLICK]. GIVE CEC A KISS FOR ME.

Streetlight Manifesto at the Murray Theatre

The horns started. The trombone and saxophone dueling for dominance, debating eternity. The crowd began to fuse together. All the individuals slipped into the group, losing and maintaining their sense of self all at once. I felt the pull. The crowd moving in a circle, a strong, irresistible current.

I joined.

My hands and feet flying in coordination with everyone else. My Chuck Taylors made for this. We all move with increasing rapidity. And flow.

We’re basking in, lost in, the music. The horns punctuating the rhythms as we give ourselves over to each other. The world outside drifts away and all there is is the crowd, is us.

We are One.

I surrender to us.

We’re moving, faster and faster as the tempo increases. All giddy with the energy that fills the room. People slip and fall, but are lifted up on the backs of the rest of us. Hands reaching down to pull ourselves up, never letting us hit the ground.

The unity of the crowd is staggering. One motion. I have lost myself in something larger than myself.

I realize the community that I’ve entered, that we’re moving with one heart and one mind. We are one. We are She.

She’s here.

She is us.

We are Her.

As we move as one, we join Her, rejoicing in unity, throwing our hands and feet in time with the ecstasy of the horns, pure joy running through all of us.

We lost ourselves and we found Her.

Heavenly Mother: A Tuesday Speculative Profile

“Conor, your ideas are good, but they need a little more rigor. Come on. I know you can do better than this. The insights that you share in class, the depth of your thinking, your prose at its best…you’re capable of so much more.”

She was right, of course. I’d jotted the paper off at the last minute, per my usual modus operandi, and the result did leave something to be desired. But it was usually enough to satisfy my professors. Not Her.

Her office was brimming with the projects She was working on, a stack of third wave feminist and queer theory texts next to scans of journals of first-generation converts to Mormonism and other 19th-Century religions founded in America and in the far corner a mix of graphic novels, mythology, and postsecular theory. Small mementos from Her travels and years teaching were scattered among her desk and shelves.

She looked at me with Her fierce, yet warm eyes.

“What’s your plan, Conor? How can we take this idea and flesh it out? You’re moving in interesting territory with your argument about superheroes as modern American myth, but what does that give us? What does that mean?”

I pause for awhile before replying, “That is the question. I think, we can learn something about our values and what we yearn for in the heroes that we look to.”

“Ok, but why are they like a modern myth, why draw the connection to Hercules and Zeus and Odin and countless other mythic figures from various traditions?”

“Pop culture is religion? That’s messy and more of a sociological argument, but I think there’s evidence for it. And obviously, I can use Thor as a bridge figure, that these modern myths literally lift figures from old myths. I probably need to do something with Gaiman’s American Gods, but I can slip that in.”

She pushes me, asking, “But where’s the belief? Aren’t myths defined by the cultural belief in them? Their explanatory power? Some sort of belief system associated with them?”

“That’s the weak point. But does belief need to be literal? What about comic cons and Halloween and action figures and the ways that young kids are indoctrinated into the cult of Marvel or DC? Isn’t that a sort of belief?”

“Perhaps. You could establish some sort of rites or pilgrimages that would bolster the mythos argument. I’m not sold, but we’ll run with it. What do these myths give to us? What do they teach us?”

We’ve reached the peak, I think, as I respond, “That’s complicated. There’s a strong individualist streak, a sort of Nietzschean ubermensch. Often the characters come from nothing, we have all these American Dream origin stories. Yet there’s also a focus on teamwork and this community of superpowered people that somewhat weakens the Nietzschean pull…”

She stops me.

“Conor, why do you want to write about this?”

I sit, pondering.

She waits. Expectantly.

Why do I want to write about this? Probably some childhood thing. Maybe all those cartoons growing up. Perhaps to figure out why I’m still drawn to them, despite feeling ideologically conflicted about the violence and arguably fascistic bent of most, if not all, superheroes.

“To untangle my connection to superheroes. And because I feel like there’s some sort of religious or at least spiritual component. Maybe because I feel a sort of childlike faith when I encountered some of the films and want to figure out why and how I can replicate that elsewhere in my life. There’s something about how I understand and connect to God and power and salvation, I think, buried deep in my attachment to these films and I want to get at that.”

She smiled and leaned back.

“Now that’s interesting.”

We worked for the next hour or so bouncing ideas off one another, wrestling with my complicated connection to and relationship with these superheroes. It was enlightening. As we turned my scholarship back on me, it filled with new meaning.

We shook hands as I walked out.

“If you get stuck again, Conor, don’t hesitate to come by. Always happy to chat.”

“Will do, Professor. Thanks.”

She closed Her door and a last flash of light glinted off Her initials on Her nameplate, “H. M., Ph.D.”

As I walked away, I heard the faint hint of Danny Elfman’s haunting Batman theme and smiled.

HEAVENLY MOTHER: THE PROMISE AND THE PERILS

I, like many Mormons, love the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother. I love bringing a divine feminine presence into the discussion of Godhood (which is often, particularly in LDS circles) quite masculine.

Yet, as a queer Mormon that is wary of, and disinterested in, reinforcing prescriptive gender roles, the idea that women are only valuable as mothers, and Mormonism’s tendency toward an oppressively heteronormative heaven, I’m unsure quite what to do with Her.

Essentially, I’m concerned that increasing dialogue surrounding Heavenly Mother will reinforce Her position primarily in relation to Heavenly Father, that is as a Wife and Mother, not as God in and of Herself. Obviously, this is complicated. Because on the one hand, I love the idea that none of us can become God by ourselves, that Heavenly Father cannot be God without Heavenly Mother, that I cannot one day be a God without Cec.

And yet.

Some of it is that despite this underlying, implicit belief, the rhetoric we use has essentially granted Heavenly Father Godhood independent of Heavenly Mother for close to two hundred years (within Mormonism, and, uh, far longer within Christianity generally). Though to be fair, we know very little about Heavenly Father (especially since most of the scriptural accounts of God within Mormonism are OT or BoM, where God is Jehovah, who is the premortal Jesus Christ). But we still largely use masculine pronouns for God, suggesting that we mean Heavenly Father, when there’s a linguistic argument (and Mormon doctrinal argument) that we should use plural pronouns (God as Elohim in Hebrew is plural, plus all the coupling necessary for Godhood stuff mentioned above).

I love the representation in Divinity that Heavenly Mother gives to all the women that I know. I love that it speaks to the Divinity that I see in countless women that are in my life. I love that Heavenly Mother gives my daughter a role model that looks a little more like her for the eternities.

But I want that work to be done as inclusively as possible.

I want Heavenly Mother to truly be a Divine Feminine, to be more than a Mother, to be God.

And I want that to happen in a way that empowers all of us to embody and lean into the best of our femininity.       

Anyway. I’m writing seven (if all goes well) profiles of Heavenly Mother this week and hope that as I do so, I can build on the work of those that have gone before and work to create a space for Heavenly Mother that includes, that reaches out to those already on the margins and pulls them in for a warm embrace, that smashes every expectation, that preaches with power, that loves fiercely, that challenges warmly, that sits quietly, that stands loudly.

Here’s to Heavenly Mother, a God(dess) in Her own right.

(Re)Claiming My Mormonism

I firmly believe that reclamation is holy work. That perhaps the foundation of salvation is to reclaim and to make holy that which is tragic and broken and hurtful and imperfect and lacking and mortal. That is what God does. God helps us find and make meaning out of that which is otherwise meaningless. Suffering is not inherently meaningful. The pains and trials and tribulations that I face are not custom-made for me. But with God they can be. We together can create meaning. We can reclaim that which was previously beyond our reach.

This is what I strive to do daily with Mormonism. And what I hope I can give others a little more space to do for themselves. To reclaim Mormonism.

I believe that this is nothing new. This is precisely what every generation has done and will do. I’ve been thinking about reclaiming Mormonism for some time now and I can trace some of those thoughts back to first reading Adam Miller’s Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology in 2016. A quote from the introduction still resonates quite strongly with me:

“Every generation must work out their own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again. Like our grandparents, like our parents, and like us, they will have to rethink the whole tradition, from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world. To the degree that we can help, our job is to model that work in love and then offer them the tools, the raw materials, and the room to do it themselves.”

Adam Miller, “Introduction: A Future Tense Apologetics,” Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology, xii

We must work out our own salvation. Just like all the generations before. We must make Mormonism new. We must transform it so that it can transform us.

The most common critique of my position in and relationship to the Church as an institution is actually leveled at me from both ex- and post-Mormons and other critics, as well as those that have more traditional beliefs (for lack of a better descriptor)—that is, that Mormonism, or the Church, is not _________ (whatever I happen to be describing it as). Essentially, that I can’t make up what Mormonism is and that I have no authority to define it.

I respectfully disagree.

I am a Mormon. I may not have power to change what the Church as an institution does or teaches, but I have power over what I do and teach. Mormonism is far more than the institutional Church. And I have a say in what that is and means and can be. I want the Church, in the experience of those around me (I’m working on another piece on the Three Churches that elaborates on this, but essentially, my local congregation(s) and family and friends and others in a broader “Church” sense), to be better. To be safe for queer people, for those that doubt, for women, for single people, for those with progressive politics. These people will be in the pews and I cannot control everything, but I can do my part to make Mormonism for our generation something that better addresses these and other imperfections currently present.

Mormonism is all the good and bad of the Church. Mormonism is Tyler Glenn’s Excommunication, Imagine Dragons, Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, Utah granting women the right to vote in 1870 and refusing to ratify the ERA, the Bundys, the great work of Gina Colvin, Sistas in Zion, Sunstone, Dialogue, the on-again-off-again Student Review at BYU, the Osmonds, Gladys Knight, jello, funeral potatoes, settling much of the West, The Book of Mormon Musical, and Matt Page’s Mormon Saint candles that Cec and I use for Advent.   

And that’s just the beginning.

Mormonism is all truth. Wherever it is found. And continuing revelation. That’s far more expansive than I can really conceive of. That’s more than any single institution, no matter how good, can fully and consistently express.

I believe in the good of Mormonism. I believe in the promise of Mormonism. I believe in the past of Mormonism. I believe in the present of Mormonism. I believe in the future of Mormonism.

I’m under no illusion that the Mormonism that I believe is common or traditional or whatever. But it is still Mormon. I believe that I belong and have found myself largely accepted by my local community as I authentically express my own sorta fringey, strange way of believing.

As I continue to reclaim Mormonism, to find ways that it resonates with my life and to embody its principles and teachings and ideas in the ways that weave together in the most convincing and provocative and challenging ways for me, I have found my life enriched. During the darkest days and nights of my faith remodel, I wondered if Mormonism was worth saving. If there was anything there that I could make my own, that I could keep with me authentically as I strived to life the life of integrity that I’d been taught to prioritize by the Church and my family my entire life.

I found it by digging deeper into my Mormonism and unearthing the bits and foundations that speak the most to me. That “tastes good” as Joseph Smith would say. I am who I am because of my Mormonism and the ways that I have reclaimed it, not in spite of it.

I know that some have trauma and pain and suffering that is too inextricably tied to Mormonism to reclaim it. Don’t retraumatize yourself. Do what is best for you and let go of that which does harm. I’ll do my best to make space for you however you want space made and hope that you do the same for me.

Look, don’t let the institutional Church dictate how you Morm[on]. Every time someone insists that I can’t be Mormon, they are giving the institutional Church authority over what it means to be Mormon, authority that they don’t have a monopoly on. Mormonism is way more than them. (And they recently threw out the label “Mormon”, so it’s ours for the taking.) If you find value or promise or hope or something in Mormonism, however it is that YOU relate to it, take it. Claim it. Be a Mormon. Whatever that means to you.

I see so many friends longing for a space to be Mormon, but on their own terms. I, a fellow fringey, wanderer, universalist, postsecular, agnostic-adjacent, skeptic, believer, doubter Mormon, grant you permission to (re)claim your Mormonism. Whatever it looks like.

I claim:

  • The King Follett Sermon (THEOSIS?!?!?!? Hell Yeah)
  • The Book of Mormon (these stories will always be part of my scriptural foundation)
  • The Pearl of Great Price (God weeping over Creation is one of the most transcendent passages of scripture I’ve ever encountered)
  • “In Our Lovely Deseret” (a hymn that I unironically adore with ever fiber of my gosh darn being)
  • Continuing Revelation (few things give me more thrill than the belief that God is continually revealing and restoring His/Her/Their work and that I am a part of it)
  • Gods (Abraham talks about “Gods” doing the work of Creation and D&C explicitly describes Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as “Gods” and I’m all for a funky, mythic pantheon of Mormon Gods)
  • Kolob (I mean, if all the belief in Kolob gave us was “If You Could Hie to Kolob” it would be worth it, but it also embodies Mormonism’s insistence on wild, wacky material theology and the cosmic potential of Space Mormonism that I adore)
  • Funeral Potatoes (so damn good)
  • Feminism (the early Saints, and women throughout the Church’s history, have embodied ideas and principles of gender equality we associate with feminism. I’m under no illusions about the institutional Church’s shortcomings in this arena in the present and the past, but I find inspiration in the countless women that have lived marvelous lives within Mormonism)
  • Blending the Sacred and the Profane (Joseph Smith was a radical, an underappreciated one. Perhaps the most radical of all his teachings and revelations was the ways in which he tore down the barriers between our world and the Divine and insisted on blending them, mixing the Sacred and the Profane, insisting that God is like us and that we are like God, and I am constantly in awe of the reach of these ideas—that I am co-eternal with God, lending power to the notion that I should wrestle with God. I am often challenged by them as well, that all those I see around me are, too, co-eternal with God, that they have Divinity inherent in them)

You may (re)claim different parts of Mormonism. And I hope you do so. I attend weekly and in much of my practice am indistinguishable from other, more traditional believers because of how I want to participate within the institutional Church. You must make those choices on your own. What you (re)claim is up to you. But we must all be about the work of reclamation. As Adam said, “And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again.”

I am willing to be Mormon all over again and I hope that if you wish to be, you can find the space to do so too.  

Necessity of Prophetic Fallibility

Note: This is not a history of teachings concerning prophetic fallibility, nor is it a scriptural or doctrinal exegesis focused on expounding resources for belief in prophetic fallibility.

Prophetic fallibility strikes me as one of the most important and least developed beliefs in Mormonism. We often pay lip service to it, but seem to treat prophets and their authority in such a way that renders the very idea of prophetic fallibility meaningless. Prophetic fallibility is the belief that prophets are not perfect, that they are humans who make mistakes. Now, for this idea to have any power and significance the range of possible mistakes must be bigger than the prophet swearing or yelling at someone sometime. Prophetic fallibility demands that the act of prophecy be eligible for error, not just the everyday existence of the prophet.

Then-Pres Uchtdorf alludes to these happenings in his 2013 General Conference address, “Come, Join With Us,” when he said:

“And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.

I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.”

Most everyone I know agrees with this idea in the abstract. Very few people, that I know personally, will argue that prophets have never ever made a single mistake. However, some people are likely already pushing back on the implications of my framing of prophetic fallibility. Discussions of fallibility always stop short because the institution never defines past actions, even when reversed, as mistakes. We have plenty of support for the belief that there were mistakes, but once I start naming things, people immediately become defensive.

Without at least the serious consideration of past teachings and policies as wrong, the belief in prophetic fallibility is toothless.

Believing in this version of fallibility, that amounts to practical infallibility is tempting. I feel the temptation. If we accept this belief, we have something certain to rely on in a world that is defined by uncertainty. We can trust in something unconditionally. We have a sense of confidence and comfort that is often lacking all around us in an era some have described as post-truth. Certainty calls to us. Practical infallibility gives us the certainty that we often hunger and thirst after.

Yet, if the prophet always is right and always speaks for God, what does that require of us? How does that build our own personal faith and relationship with the Divine?

Very little.

Consider that the act of wondering and pursuing personal confirmation that any given statement from a prophet is from God is a True/False exam, that’s open book where you can study and learn and find the correct answers. However, you also know that there’s a cheat to this particular exam–all of the answers are “True”. Will you even bother to study out for yourself one question? No. At least, I wouldn’t.

Perhaps this is an indictment of my own laziness, but I think there’s a spiritual truth here. If the prophet is never wrong, my only choice is to abdicate my agency. To give my will entirely and to languish in spiritual childhood. How can I wrestle with someone who is never wrong? If the outcome is already pre-determined, why bother asking the question?

I cannot exercise faith in someone who I know to always be right.

Faith demands uncertainty.

Faith demands the possibility of wrongness.

Faith demands fallibility.

If we accept prophetic fallibility, then suddenly, I, and all of us, are energized in the building of Zion. We all have our agency restored to do and say and believe. To push and pull and agitate. To feel divine discontent.

If the prophet can be wrong, I have a responsibility to watch for those wrongs and to speak against them. I must be vigilant in my spiritual life. I must take every pronouncement to the Lord in prayer and wrestle with it. To ponder and mull and debate and chew and feast and argue.

To return to our exam, the test is suddenly alive with possibility. Any question could be True or False. Or even some mixture of the two that defies the reductive binary we tend to impose on prophetic announcements that seems to fall wonderfully short of the reality and complexity of (at least my) lived experience with the Divine.

I can’t simply float through any longer.

I must seek to know God so that I know Their/Her/His voice when it comes from the prophet’s lips. I must build my own relationship with the Divine because I cannot count on another, even the Prophet, to speak God’s will with complete accuracy.

I must approach this process humbly, particularly with epistemic humility. I must be careful that I don’t make my own idol out of myself and my beliefs. Yet, as I check myself and strive for humility, I cannot shy away from speaking what feels true to me. For the good of the Body of Christ. For my fellow comrades in the Gospel, my fellow Saints.

If we embrace the beauty and challenge of prophetic fallibility, our work is only just beginning. We need a communal ethic of fallibility so that we as a people can move beyond the damaging teachings and beliefs of prophetic perfection that seem to violate the spirit of the first three of Ten Commandments revealed to Moses (no other Gods before me, no idols, no taking the Lord’s name in vain) and create a culture of spiritual stagnation and dependency that separates us from God and the source of Salvation.

Perhaps the central conceptual difficulty in creating this ethic is to find a way to ensure that community is not lost with the dissolution of some of the authority centralized in the prophet. As prophetic fallibility is spread and believed, the centralized authority of the Church will be weakened. In many ways, this is the opposite of what decades of work of correlation has done. But I believe it is a necessary work.

As a community, I believe that we risk missing out on the promise of continuing revelation. We are all the Body of Christ and if we don’t listen and talk with one another and express our pain and discontent at the actions of some of that Body, how can we grow and improve?

Our community risks being robbed of its richness and diversity. We risk losing our connection to the Divine. We must know and find God in each other, not just in the voice of one man. I have so much to learn from all of my fellow saints and may neglect their voices if I believe that one man speaks pure, unfiltered truth at all times.

Our communal spirituality can be deepened and strengthened, not weakened, by an ethic of fallibility.

Perhaps it may even inspire us to take more seriously the words that are shared by our prophet(s). To wrestle with them, to engage with them. To truly discuss and ponder them. To feast on them and to discuss them one with another. Rather than a culture that shares, listens, and is done, the sharing is simply the beginning. Gone would be the days of assigning a General Conference talk as the basis for sacrament meeting remarks, only to hear that talk parroted by each and every one of the speakers because the words were thought to be beyond challenging.

Maybe, we could have three or four different perspectives on that talk. Different readings of it that come from the speakers’ own lived experiences and expertise. I could perform a literary analysis, rooted in some sort of textual explication or intersections of postsecular-Marxist-intersectional feminist-queer theory. My brother (in med school) could weave in some discussion of the body and anatomy as a way of understanding what was shared. Cec could take a perspective of various therapy techniques, grounded in cutting-edge social science.

Or maybe, we could find a sense of unity by grounding ourselves more in our foundational Mormon texts: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. We engage fiercely with what these texts ask of us and use them to be in kinship one with another.

I’m not calling for prophets to stop speaking. Or for us to stop listening to them. I LOVE the doctrine of continuing revelation. I believe that we need to work with God to find more ways to Love, both God and our neighbors, better. We are far from living up to the commandments that Christ has given us and continuing revelation will be an essential part of building Zion. Continuing revelation will help us create the community that Christ can return to. Continuing revelation will guide us as we strive to embody the principle that all are alike unto God. Continuing revelation will teach us how to live according to God’s ways, even while we recognize that they are higher than our ways. Without continuing revelation, the word of God has been revealed. God no longer needs to speak to us, we simply need to find God’s truth in the texts that have been given.

Continuing revelation demands eternal progression. If revelation is constantly flowing, the work is never done. If revelation stops, we may stop progressing. I don’t think we’re done yet and eagerly await what may yet be revealed and to continue to strive to bring to pass God’s work on this Earth.

Let’s wrap up with some questions that animate the journey to this communal ethic of prophetic fallibility that I believe we need to cultivate:

How do we balance community and maintaining unity as a Church with the belief in prophetic fallibility?

If “following the prophet” cannot be the same rigid standard that it currently is, what can replace it?

Does a more rigorous understanding of prophetic fallibility create a need for institutional accountability?

If so, what does that look like?

How do we atone for the mistakes of past or current prophets?

What do we do when there is disagreement about whether any given prophetic pronouncement is from God?

Do we need a unified response to everything the prophet says?

What are the limitations of prophetic fallibility?

Where is the burden of proof? Do we assume that a statement is from God until proven otherwise? Or do we assume a statement is mortal until proven Divine?

Can a global Church have a less-centralized hierarchy?

Does a stronger belief in prophetic fallibility necessitate a less-centralized power structure?

What are the consequences of this?

If prophets can be wrong, why believe in them?

If prophets can be wrong, how should we believe in them?

How do we express dissent when we feel, after prayerful consideration, that a prophet has said something not of God?

Are there limitations on the proper expressions of dissent?

What exactly is the place for alternate voices, or loyal opposition?

How do I filter out personal pride and blindspots when seeking revelation about the Divinity or lack thereof of any given prophetic pronouncement?

How do I ensure that in displacing the idol of prophetic authority, I don’t simply replace it with an idol of my own authority?

How do we prevent ourselves from building new idols that we worship instead of God as we tear down the old ones?

What does it mean to sustain a fallible prophet?

I hope and pray that we can consider these questions together, as Mormon comrades in Christ. Please, reach out to me with any thoughts and insights that you have.

And now, let us close with the words of Brother Levi Savage that guide much of my relationship with Mormonism:

“What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in [His/Her/Their] mercy bless and preserve us.”

God be with all of us.