The Scepter of LDS Exclusivity
Whenever I hear members bear testimony of belonging to “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” I automatically think of Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride.” In my head, I rehearse the famous line: “You keep using that [phrase]. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Many I know have interpreted this scripture to mean there is no truth or spirituality or salvation outside of Mormonism. Others have been more subtle: “Well, there’s truth to all religions, but ours is most essential.” Both attitudes are where arrogance and the sin of idolatry take root. I think the most unfortunate misperception about our claim to “the only true and living church” is that we rarely articulate the all-important paradox at play that could even make sense of such a conceited claim.
The Book of Mormon, for example, paints a different picture. 2Nephi 29 challenges the authority of the Bible by breaking its monopoly on scriptural truth, then goes one step further implying that The Book of Mormon itself (along with other distinctive sacred texts outside our canon) is but one divine record in a vast world compendium. As Richard Bushman points out, “The Book of Mormon . . . prepares the way for itself by ridiculing those who think the Bible is sufficient.” It then warns against anyone who restricts God from speaking outside of Mormon scripture, especially when God’s voice appears to go against the grain of rigid orthodoxy.
“For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I 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.”
Prophetic books and voices are flooding the earth. Wherever Israel is scattered those histories are being recorded, regardless of whether its writers are ritually embraced into the covenant. The Book of Mormon thinks big by multiplying God’s people beyond an exclusive, organized church and reminds us that all nations will receive their measure of revelation: “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word; yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have.” The misguided, though, will exclusively cling to their particular set of books as sacrosanct when they should be willing to accept new revelation wherever it breaks forth, both in traditional and non-traditional ways: “And because my words shall hiss forth, many of the Gentiles shall say, A Bible, A Bible, we have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.” Ironically, many of the covenanted will replace the word “Bible” here with “Quad.”
The Lord rebukes this posture in ecumenical terms:
“Wherefore, because that ye have a [Quad] ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written…For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.”
Bushman continues: “The tiny land of Palestine does not begin to encompass the revelation flooding the earth. Biblical revelation is generalized to the whole world. All peoples have their epic stories and their sacred books.”
The tragic paradox of our culture is this: 2Nephi 29 teaches us about an ecumenical, generous, liberal, and almost near universal dispersal of divine power, truth and scriptural communications as belonging to everyone in general and no group in particular; and yet, many Mormons I know still narcissistically position the church as monopolizing these gifts under a traditional, institutional framing of an exclusive-organized tribe. The Book of Mormon derails this pompous posture, revealing instead that God has not spoken the final word or given the whole of divine truth to any person or people or institution. Bushman writes: “The world is a hive of bible-making, and in the end all these records will come together, and people will know one another through their bibles.” 2Nephi 29 reaffirms there are many promised lands, many chosen people, many lost tribes, and many records yet to emerge to reconcile us all. Knowing this, we can’t afford to substitute our humility with a closed, cocksure posture.
Ironically, it took The Book of Mormon to challenge us to reassess our assumptions by calling into question any vain denial of the validity and holiness of other traditions. The 1831 revelation in Doctrine & Covenants 49 further undermines this pernicious myth that outside churches and traditions are without truth or spirituality, wherein the Lord tells Joseph that nearly the entire world is under sin, “except those which I have reserved unto myself, holy men that ye know not of.” The Lord’s true disciples, in other words, are not limited to those who find themselves within the walls of Mormonism. As the apostle Orson Whitney declared:
“God, the Father of us all, uses the men of the earth, especially good men, to accomplish [God’s] purposes…They are among the church’s auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else…God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of [God’s] great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people…We have no quarrel with the Gentiles. They are our partners in a certain sense.”
Until Mormons are culturally mature enough to celebrate and diffuse an attitude of love, humility, and acceptance of God’s work among all people of the earth — and truly accept the Divine in images other than our own — our ironclad claim to a one true church falls ineffectually short to living up to its ecumenical potential. Thank God for 2Nephi 29 and Doctrine and Covenants 49, right? We can now give up our pretensions to a traditional-exclusive church and look forward to that glorious day that Nephi portends, wherein all truth will be circumscribed into one great whole.