Religion in America is in a state of flux. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey shows that the number of those who claim no religious affiliation nearly doubled from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.
In addition, Pew’s 2009 Faith in Flux survey found that “about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives.” A study published in 2010 entitled American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us maintains that in America “it seems perfectly natural to refer to one’s religion as a ‘preference’ instead of as a fixed characteristic.”
In this shifting religious environment it is easy to talk of the fleeting and superficial rather than the deeper foundations of spiritual life. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understand their message to be the full gospel of Jesus Christ, as set forth in the Bible and other scriptures. What transcendent ideals do they aspire to? How do their beliefs answer the needs of contemporary religious seekers concerned about the great, permanent questions of human life? Among the many ways to approach their religious experiences and beliefs, here are a few basic principles that Latter-day Saints hold to as enduring truths.
Identity: We know ourselves by knowing God
From the very beginning, human beings have sought to understand the meaning and source of their existence. “Know Thyself” has been a call to personal reflection since ancient times. But in this inward quest for self-knowledge, it is easy to get lost. Individuals cannot know themselves without knowing God, their Creator. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Church, taught, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” The dignity and worth of mankind is grounded in its divine origin.
- God is a personal Father of perfect love. He is a distinct and knowable being engaged in the details of mankind’s hopes and struggles. Latter-day Saints believe that God the Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are personages separate in substance but one in purpose. The full expression of God’s love and character is embodied in Jesus Christ, whom He sent to save a fallen world and offer a tangible ideal of perfection.
- God has instilleddivine attributes in His children, whom He created literally in His own image and likeness, both physical and spiritual. Human virtues, therefore, descend from divine virtues. As each individual possesses a seed of divine potential, this likeness ennobles the human quest for self-improvement and gives meaning to our natural desire for understanding. Much expectation and promise come with being children of God, “and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). According to one author, Joseph Smith brought about “the greatest intellectual fusion of his age,” namely that “the majesty of God does not exist at the expense of the dignity of man.”
- In ancient Athens people made offerings to an unknown god. Across the ages people of faith have also sought reconciliation with a god they did not fully know. Love, however, is not borne of obscurity. Neither God nor mankind wishes to be a mystery to the other. This mutual yearning fulfills the end of existence — friendship between divinity and humanity. To know God is our highest aspiration.
Community: No man is an island unto himself
Throughout history, civilizations have aspired to build an ideal society. This collective effort has taken many forms, from tribe and township to kingdom and commonwealth. From the earliest days of the Church, Latter-day Saints have worked toward creating a community of fellowship and belonging where unique persons come together under a common obligation to God and each other. As human beings are social creatures by nature, so happiness best thrives in a social context. The nature of religious life is communal rather than solitary. Likewise, the Latter-day Saint social ethos is not cloistered, but interwoven in society. Mormons engage with and reach out to people around the world. “Friendship,” said Joseph Smith, “is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism.’”
- The Latter-day Saint worldview is rooted in two different perspectives — mastering the practicalities of this life while striving for our home in the next. The two are tied together. The aim of Mormon community life, therefore, is to achieve not only happiness here but also spiritual flourishing there. An oft-cited passage of latter-day scripture reads: “That same sociality which exists among us here [in mortality] will exist among us there [in eternity], only it will be coupled with eternal glory” (D&C 130:2).
- The desire to belong to something larger than oneself is part of human nature. The Church unites people of all types and classes in mutual responsibility, teaching that “every man should esteem his neighbor as himself” (Mosiah 27:4). The heart of community is the family, where character is first nurtured and cooperation first learned. Local congregations of the Church are geographically designated so as to bring neighbors closer together and provide opportunities to serve each other.
- The love of Christ, also called charity, is the highest of all virtues. It is best cultivated and practiced in a community setting.The warmth of Mormon community life extends beyond Sunday worship services and blesses everyday social interactions. These connections provide rootedness where the individual and the collective are attached to each other through mutual experiences, shared burdens, collective memory and a common language of meaning. Yet Mormons are not content to help their own. Individual members, as well as the Church, look outward to assist the poor and needy in local communities and countries around the world. Church President Thomas S. Monson urged: “I think we should not be sequestered in a little cage. I think we have a responsibility to be active in the communities where we live.”
Eternity: How we fit in the big picture
Measuring life beyond that small space between birth and death is a commonality among virtually all religions. Mormons view themselves as players in a grand historical drama that spans the stages of eternity. God’s great plan of happiness can be likened to a three-act play. In the premortal life of act one, God nurtures His spirit children, who freely learn the principles of truth and happiness, form individual identity and prepare for this mortal experience that they chose to undertake. Act two is the test of mortality on earth. Here God’s children, as embodied individuals, deepen their understanding, knowledge and experience by making choices, exercising faith and relying on the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Act three is the great expanse of life after death when, as one Church leader put it, “the mysteries are solved and everything is put right.” Hereafter, the never-ending course of experience moves onward.
- Freedom of choice is the engine that propels human progression forward. In Mormon thought there is no beginning and no end to purposeful activity. Human intelligence, accomplishment and character continue into eternity: “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life” will follow us in the hereafter (D&C 130:18).
- God gives all His children talents and understanding to fulfill their individual destiny here on earth.
They then take the knowledge and experience they gained in this world and continue to grow and develop in the afterlife.
- The affinity of human associations is a source of great happiness in this life and serves as a model for relationships in the next. Through the highest sacraments of Mormon temples, the bonds of family relationships can be forged across generations and sealed for eternity. For Mormons, these many relationships and friendships, expanded into eternity, are what constitute heaven and happiness.
From time to time Mormons are thrust into the public spotlight. Yet the permanent things that ground their inner lives in this changing religious landscape are often left out of the picture. The Mormon understanding of what it means to be human and to belong to the larger human family rarely finds a place in the public narrative. That bigger picture is essential to understanding who Mormons are. One religion scholar said: “Mormonism is a really complex theological system. All its parts fit together beautifully. But if you just know a little bit about one of them, or part of them, it seems weird.” Yet it is these same beliefs that animate Mormons’ public engagement, inspire good works and bless their interaction with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Indeed, theirs is an enduring pursuit.