A Mormon Case for Pluralism

Building Zion in the Real World

Nathan Smith
Apr 18 · 22 min read

In the Book of Mormon, Nephi takes great pains to describe the human condition (“scattered Israel”) and God’s ultimate goal for it (“Zion”), presenting the Book of Mormon as a tool to close the gap between the two (2 Nephi 27) — “the things which shall be written out of the book shall be of great worth unto the children of men” (28:2).

Nephi anticipates that when the Book of Mormon emerges, it will come onto a chaotic scene: “churches which are built up, and not unto the Lord … shall say unto the other: Behold, I, I am the Lord’s; and the others shall say: I, I am the Lord’s; and thus shall every one say that hath built up churches, and not unto the Lord…” (28:3). He writes that these “churches” are in error first and foremost in their own self-proclaimed exceptionalism, exclusivity, and divisive ways of relating to others: “I, I am the Lord’s” — and you are not. Thus “they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another”; in that contention, “they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance” (v. 4). Teaching only their own understanding, these pseudo-“churches” and pseudo-“priests” will deny that anything outside themselves, anyone other than themselves, could contribute to them. They are totalitarians, convinced that they know all they must, or that anything they do not know is ultimately irrelevant.

Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, describes a similar situation in the burned-over district of upstate New York. In his youth, after a mass-evangelization by a number of Christian denominations, the “love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion” and the ecumenical spirit the leaders of those movements may have initially expressed, in the end, appeared “more pretended than real.” The situation descends into “priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions” (Joseph Smith — History 1:6).

Nephi elaborates on the blatant disregard of the other-as-such by the people in his vision: denying that theology should have any bearing on present reality (28:5–6, 21, 24–25); that morality is either nonexistent (vv. 7, 22) or only exists because God makes it so (v. 8); “hid[ing]” from the other “in the dark” of their own selves, severed from the outside world (v. 9). They cling to their own ideas, crying, “We have received, and we need no more! … We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!” (vv. 27, 29). Ironically, Nephi says they are “angry” not because of an encounter with something false, but — of all things — because of “the truth of God!” (v. 28).

In diagnosing his readers as totalitarians, religiously agoraphobic and xenophobic, Nephi’s solution is not simply to hand over the Book of Mormon. He describes religious totalitarians not simply as missing out on an additional quantum of “the word of God,” but ultimately as finitists who try to measure “the word of God” as a commodity of limited quantity. These “churches” claim that what they have “received” is the be-all, end-all, and that there is “no more” to be had (v. 27) — they have “enough” (v. 29). Yet God and the other are presented as ceaseless founts, “giv[ing] unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little … for unto him that receiveth [God] will give more; and from them that shall say, ‘We have enough,’ from them shall be taken away even that which they have” (v. 30). Opening to God and others means opening to the infinitude of truth; when one feels they have “enough,” they effectively cut themselves off from that infinity. “For notwithstanding I [God] shall lengthen out mine arm unto them from day to day, they will deny me; nevertheless, I will be merciful unto them … if they will repent and come unto me; for mine arm is lengthened out all the day long …” (v. 32).

Moreover, Nephi is struck by the selective memory of the modern reader: “many … shall say, ‘A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible’” (29:3). Yet they forget or disregard the fact that they received what they have from someone other than themselves, that what they have originally “proceed[ed] forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them?” (v. 4; cf. vv. 5–6). Further, in God’s voice, Nephi warns his readers that “because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written” (v. 10). Rather, God has given truths to all peoples across the world, which they have recorded and handed down (see vv. 7–12).

Nephi defines our own situation: the infinitude of truth is glimpsed by and articulated in numerous particular traditions other than those of the reader. Though God may “speak the same words unto one nation like unto another,” God does not necessarily “speak” the same truths; there is a unity, but only in learning to hold difference without eliminating it — “when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also” (v. 8). Smith seems to express this unity of diversity in his own career when he told the first Mormon missionaries that they “are not sent forth to be taught, but to teach the children of men the things which I [God] have put into your hands by the power of my Spirit” (D&C 43:15) — insisting upon the uniqueness of Mormonism — while later telling the laypeople of the Mormon movement that “we should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Deseret, 1977], 316).

Alma expresses a similar sentiment. Ecstatically, he pines, “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people! Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption …” (Alma 29:1–2). His wish “that they should repent and come unto our God” stems from a noble desire, “that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth” (v. 2). Yet Alma censures himself: “But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish.” Not only should he “be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto” him (v. 3), he reasons, but that to persist in his “desires” to convert the world to his ideology is tantamount to “harrow[ing] up … the firm decree of a just God.” Instead, Alma quenches his passion for evangelization with the sobering knowledge that God is not interested in preaching a particular tradition, but that “he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life … [God] decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction” (v. 4). In sum, “good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience” (v. 5). God is invested not in sects, but salvation. “Seeing that I know these things,” Alma asks himself, “why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called? Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?” (vv. 6–7). Perhaps anticipating objections, Alma informs the reader that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word … all that he seeth fit that they should have” (v. 8). And as these foreign teachers spread divine wisdom to their peoples, Alma contents himself for the time being with “that which the Lord hath commanded me” (v. 9), declaring that the same God who gives wisdom to other nations also “hath called me by a holy calling, to preach the word unto this people” (v. 13). In his own way, Alma attempts to express this delicate balance between acknowledging of something other than his tradition, on the one hand, and embracing of the uniqueness of his own tradition, on the other.

In wedding wholly unique others together into a diverse whole (2 Nephi 29:12–13), God recalls “that I covenanted with Abraham that I would remember his seed forever” (v. 14). Turning to Abraham, consider the tower at Babel, the mythic moment when humanity attempts unity through homogeneity — and God rebels (Genesis 11:1–9; cf. Title Page to the Book of Mormon, last paragraph). In dividing the people and demolishing their monument to conformity, God doesn’t fracture humanity, but sanctifies difference and diversity — God sanctifies the other as such. Subsequently, God begins the work of harmonizing humanity in their diversity. God calls Abraham, not as an iconoclast of diversity, but as a stranger in a strange land, a stranger among strangers, to travel with the other and to form in the midst of difference “a great nation” (see Genesis 12:1–9; see also Abraham 2:3–11). As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarizes, “Each of us carries the inescapable burden of duality, of being true to our faith while recognising the image of God in, and being a blessing to, those who are unlike us” (Crisis and Covenant [Manchester University Press, 1993], 277). The children of Abraham are called to the same task as their namesake.

While there can be peace in pluralism, we have gone from referring to Mormonism not as the only source of truth in the world, but as one group among others in search of truth. Rather than simply stating that Mormons must seek to understand other traditions, religious or otherwise, we instead may have something to learn from these traditions which we may not already know. Indeed, Smith contended that “the first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we have the right to embrace all, and every item of the truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds and superstitious notions of men” (Personal Writings of Joseph Smith [Deseret, 2002], 420). Rather than delineating a sect wherein all truths in the world already reside, “Mormonism” may denote that widespread collection of truths sprinkled throughout various traditions and worldviews — or even the call to seek out those truths and put them to use.

Elsewhere, Smith said:

To come to one’s own self, living out “Zion” — God’s “people … the house of Israel, … gathered home unto the lands of their possessions” (2 Nephi 29:14) — one must realize that salvation is found in how one holds the strangeness of the other (cf. 30:1–2).

In a similar spirit, commenting on what is now D&C 76 (“The Vision”), Brigham Young said:

Abandoning arbitrary factionalism is foundational to any vision of the kingdom of God. In such an endeavor, we may find a glimpse of Paul’s vision of God’s kingdom, wherein there is “no longer Jew or Greek” (cf. Galatians 3:28) — or, in more modern and provocative terms, where there is no longer Mormon or non-Mormon. Indeed, rather than being distinguished from non-Mormons by one’s ritual status, we find humans in general (Mormons or otherwise) distinguished by something deeper, which Mormonism may be capable of articulating, but which Mormons do not automatically or exclusively possess — what Paul called the Law.

In his book The Time That Remains, Giorgio Agamben draws attention to what he calls the “non-non-Jew.” In Pauline thought, according to Agamben, ritual adherences such as circumcision cease being distinctions and instead become symbols. To borrow a Buddhist adage, they are fingers pointing to the moon. The finger matters not in itself, only insofar as it can point to the moon. So, too, with circumcision: an uncircumcised non-Jew may yet be “circumcised in heart,” keeping the Law by conscience rather than idiosyncratic distinction. Perhaps this framework may be applied to a Mormon context.

First Nephi 13 mention a “great and abominable church” of the Devil as a historical reality, but the next chapter describes this church in cosmic terms. Nephi states that there are “save two churches only,” the Church of the Devil and the Church of the Lamb. Most Mormons seemed to have graduated from conflating the Church of the Devil with particular denominations or groups; modern Mormons have not been so ready, however, to apply this same logic to the Church of the Lamb. Many assume that the Church of the Lamb can be neatly defined as all faithful Mormons. However, in our ecumenical desire to no longer equate any particular denomination with the Church of the Devil, we must also either state that the entire non-Mormon world is this Church of the Devil (there can be only two churches, after all), or we must recognize that not all Mormons are of the Church of the Lamb and not all members of the Church of the Lamb are Mormons. To borrow from Agamben, we might refer to the members of this Church of the Lamb as non-non-Mormons. Just as maps are not the terrain and blueprints are not buildings, the LDS Church is not itself the Church of the Lamb.

Rather than beliefs, perhaps we may define the Church of the Lamb by eschatology. Eschatology (Greek eschaton, meaning “end”) refers to typically religious visions of the future, pertaining to either how the world will end or to what end the world was created. Similarly, in the Book of Mormon, Jacob tells the people, “the Spirit [which] speaketh the truth” speaks not just “of things as they really are,” but “of things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

Consider the brother of Jared, who, when the veil was lifted, not only saw God as a present reality, but saw the God who was yet to be (cf. Ether 3:16), all because of his “faith.” In the Hebrew Bible, the terms typically translated as “faith” are omen and emanu, which mean “faithfulness,” devotion to one’s family or community. Likewise, in the New Testament, “faith” refers to the Greek word pistis, which also means “faithfulness” or “trust.” Neither of these terms mean agreeing with certain propositions or beliefs; rather, they denote fidelity, loyalty.

As Adam Miller describes:

If faith means fidelity rather than “believing in magic,” what kind of fidelity is it? What kind of fidelity leads to the brother of Jared’s vision not only of God at present, but what God can become? I suggest that the good news of Christ is not purely about ontologically present realities, but eschatological possibilities that may be fulfilled by human hands, truths that may not be true now, but which may become true because we may make them so. Rather than formulate conspiracy theories about the present, faith is fidelity to an ideal or vision of how things could be. In the words of Meister Eckhart, “we are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

In a specifically Mormon context, one may consider the priesthood. Smith describes the Melchizedek priesthood and its ordinances as that which “administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; for without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live” (D&C 84:19–22). The priesthood here is described as authoritative insofar as it is illustrative. Rather than actualizing divine realities for those who participate in these ordinances, the priesthood instead reveals a web of divine possibilities, then challenges participants through volitional covenants to embody those ideals in themselves. In the symbolic acts of ordinances, divine possibilities are “manifest” — unveiled — and in their attendant covenants, individuals and families willingly vow to transmute these possibilities into realities. For example, Mormonism presumes a world in which individuals consciously live forever after the death of their bodies; however, people may only share eternal relationships insofar as the individuals involved are willing to create and nurture such relationships. The former may be true independently of our actions (consciousness may persist after death, regardless of what we do), but the latter is only true if we make it true.

Young described something similar:

Young and his contemporaries were well acquainted with terraforming wilderness. When the Mormons emerged on a swamp in Illinois, they made Nauvoo; when they happened on the Great Salt Lake, they made Deseret. These were people who knew on an experiential level what it meant to create their own world — their “kingdom” — sometimes even from scratch. For nearly two centuries, Mormonism has envisioned a concrete Zion. Indeed, such a longing may have begun with the Book of Mormon itself.

Consider one of the early Mormons’ failed attempts at Zion, Independence, Missouri, where they attempted to build a temple, but were prevented from doing so by violent persecution (D&C 57:2–5). Even so, many modern Mormons still envision a day when Jackson County, Missouri will become a New Jerusalem and a temple will be built in Independence. Though this longing may be a misinterpretation (assuming a temple must be built in Independence, or that Jackson County in particular must be the location of Zion), it nonetheless expresses a deep-seated spirit that permeates Mormon eschatology: a longing for a concrete, real-world Zion.

This Zion does not come at the expense of the non-Mormon world. For example, in 1841, Smith proposed to Nauvoo’s city council an ordinance pertaining to religious freedom in the predominantly-Mormon settlement:

The overall spirit of this ordinance, passed the same day it was proposed, is clear: Nauvoo would not be an exclusively Mormon community, but a bastion for all religious individuals and persuasions, even ones as obscure to many Americans as the “Mohammedans.” Despite the persecution and assault the Mormons had experienced until then, rather than turning inward, they turned outward to create an environment in which persecution of that nature could not so readily thrive. Indeed, almost exactly two years prior to this ordinance, Smith expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to his followers from prison:

As for disagreement within his own movement, upon a disciplinary council for an elder accused of teaching “false doctrine,” Smith expressed a similar sentiment:

The ideals underlying Nauvoo are as instructive as they are subversive. Rather than taking propriety over all other traditions, Mormonism willingly lowers itself from any presumed throne and becomes one participant among others in an ongoing conversation to explore the possibilities of our world. Mormons, rather than possessing a monopoly on truth, righteousness, or salvation, are instead like Joseph Smith just after his first vision: rather than seeking refuge in any one set of beliefs or views, we are called to engage reality for ourselves. When Smith asked God which of all the churches could tell him how things were, God answered, “None of them.” Rather than fleeing to any particular source, expecting ultimate truth to be hiding therein, God called Joseph — and calls us — to explore.

Rather than a merely “this-worldly” concession, the pluralism envisioned in Nauvoo seems to be the very essence of heaven, meant to persist even beyond the return of the Messiah. As George Cannon put it:

Mormonism not only calls for concrete redemption, but acknowledges itself as a loving stranger among strangers, rather than a ruler, in that Zion. Humanity receives various truths from God, and they “write the words which I [God] speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written” (2 Nephi 29:11). Rather than God whispering in one’s ear what they should believe or even insist exists now, God instead unfolds visions of what the world may become; various traditions, religious or otherwise, and their expositors and interpreters, envision and shape the eternal world according to their diverse worldviews. It seems God is (or chooses to be) bound by such a constraint, as one might see in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30): the eschatological kingdom of God, in the “far country” of the merely ideal, relies upon the efforts of God’s servants in multiplying what they are given to manage — their “talents.” This coming kingdom, in a manner of speaking, is like a lord who reaps what he did not sow (v. 26); a vision, an idea, which can only be actualized through the actions of its “good and faithful servants.” Expecting God to simply bring a better world entirely on our behalf, in the end, may prove to be much like the one servant burying the talent their lord gave them, for fear of losing it. Indeed, shaping the world is risky — but perhaps the vision is worth the risk.

Joseph Smith, his family, and his closest associates formally founded the Church of Christ on 6 April 1830 with stories of angels and visions, and even a concrete book which people could crack open and attempt to decipher. That day Mormonism evolved from the private spiritual experience of a handful of people, into the realm of eschatology, a challenge to create a Zion in the world. Yet as the ideals of Nauvoo demonstrate, this is a challenge issued to all, not only Mormons.

Resurrected into this never-ending life, God calls humanity to love themselves for who and what they are, as they are; and to love one another for who and what they are, as they are. In Zion, God’s approbation of one need not entail the rejection of another anymore than God’s love for one need take away from God’s love for another. In God and in Zion, neither love nor approval are zero-sum games. And in this life, the children of Abraham work for the day when “Satan shall have power over the hearts of the children of men no more” because “all things which have been revealed unto the children of men shall … be revealed” (2 Nephi 30:18).

Interfaith Now

Stories about faith, spirituality, and religion.

Nathan Smith

Written by

Independent writer from Austin, TX; doing a BS in psychology; writing on psychology, philosophy, literature, religion. www.nathansmithbooks.com @NateSmithSNF

Interfaith Now

Stories about faith, spirituality, and religion to bridge gaps, expand perspectives, and unify humanity.

Nathan Smith

Written by

Independent writer from Austin, TX; doing a BS in psychology; writing on psychology, philosophy, literature, religion. www.nathansmithbooks.com @NateSmithSNF

Interfaith Now

Stories about faith, spirituality, and religion to bridge gaps, expand perspectives, and unify humanity.

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