Taylor Petrey, a professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, has a very well-argued piece at Patheos about how we ought to be discussing religion these days, and how we’re not. Petrey summarizes the great bulk of discussion of Mormon beliefs over the last few years (including in the Book of Mormon Musical, pictured at left), which has a strong focus on exotic beliefs, like the location of the Garden of Eden, and the relationship of Jesus and Satan.
This discussion brings at least two problematic results. The first is the defensive response that, well, all religions have strange beliefs. Second is the sometimes patronizing corollary– “well, they’re nice people (despite believing really weird things).” While these responses are true and relevant, they unfortunately accept the frame in which the discussion has been set– that religion is weird. Once accepted, that premise justifies a person in presuming that there is nothing there besides daft dogma and saccharine sweetness.
The premise can’t be accepted, because religion isn’t weird. At least not necessarily. Successful religions serve deep, primal needs for the great majority of humanity, past and present, some of whom are not idiots. They do this by offering answers to the Great Questions and softening some of life’s most fundamental struggles. Remembering this context, it is very odd that the worldwide public unveiling of a religion that has inarguably succeeded should focus on undergarments and the exact physical dwelling place of God. As Petrey concludes:
The questions that we should be asking, and Mormons should be answering: How does Mormonism handle the big questions? What is the meaning of life, of death, of the terrible and the good in the world? How do Mormon notions about the cosmos affect ethical decisions toward others? What do Mormon narratives about the past and the present offer their adherents? These are not simple questions, and the answers are not simple either. To discuss them at all is a serious endeavor. While we may laugh (and I think we should) about religion, we can only do so ethically if we learn to think with religion as well.
In Petrey’s telling, it is fundamentally misleading to act as if religious belief is an exotic kind of human experience, rather than an ordinary human experience. We all wonder how we should live, how to be happy, how to be good, how it will all end for us. It is the exact opposite of exotic to adopt beliefs that bring peace and resolution to such inquiries. Thus, no understanding will follow from highlighting the weirdest oddities.
For me, and I imagine, for millions of other believers like me, the view of religion as ordinary, natural experience rings very true. Yes, I do believe those things that sound strange to outsiders. But the reason I do is because those peripheral ideas are woven into a much larger fabric of belief that reaches to the foundations of why I am here and what my life should be. If modern, secular commentators want to toy with those out-hanging threads, they should at least consider tracing them back to the web at the heart of the belief.
American commentary on Mormonism has improved in many areas over the last five years. But thus far, on the specific measure of exploring a fully dimensional view of what Mormon belief really means, advancements have been few.
(Photo credited to Sara Krulwich/New York Times)