As a scholar, an author, and a Mormon, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to think about Mormonism. And it seems to me that, as a general rule, it’s a mistake to think that Mormonism is about Mormonism.
This may sound surprising. Consider the following analogy.
Say I’m worried about my own life. I’m worried about whether my life is good, whether I’m true to myself, and whether I’m really happy. If I’m worried about my own happiness, I’ll be tempted to think I should put more and more effort into securing my own happiness. I’ll be tempted to think my life is about me.
But this would be a serious mistake. My life is not about me. And, ironically, if I try to make my life about me, I’ll be unhappy. The more I focus on my own happiness, the more fraudulent I’ll feel.
The right move is, instead, counterintuitive. But a willingness to swim upstream against the flow of my natural inclinations is crucial.
To make the right move, I’ll need faith.
And, in many ways, an active faith in Christ boils down to my willingness to trust him when he urges me, for the sake of my own happiness, to not aim at my own happiness. As Christ puts it: “whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).
The irony is that happiness only accrues as a by-product. Happiness can only be found if I’m aiming elsewhere. It can only be found by loving and serving others.
I think the same thing is true of Mormonism.
If I think that Mormonism is about Mormonism, I’ll get stuck in the same trap. I’ll miss what it means to be Mormon.
In my experience, Mormonism comes into focus as true and living only when I stop looking directly at it and, instead, aim my attention at Christ. Instead of aiming at Mormonism, I have aim at what Mormonism is aiming at. Otherwise, I’ll miss what matters most.
This is a kind of paradox. But it is exactly the kind of paradox that lies at the heart of Christianity.
I admit, though, that it’s also the kind of paradox that, at least from the outside, can look like a dodge. It can look like an easy way of sidestepping the genuinely tough questions about Mormonism.
I don’t deny that there are tough questions that need to be addressed. And in my view, this approach to Mormonism should never excuse any kind of injustice or wrongdoing. In fact, with Christ in focus, we should be robbed, once and for all, of any excuses.
But I’m also increasingly convinced that tough questions about the ongoing integrity of Mormonism as a manifestation of the body of Christ can’t be answered in the abstract. The decisive questions have to be worked out in the first person.
I have to test this myself: what happens to my view of Mormonism when I aim my attention at what Mormonism is about? What happens when, instead of looking at the pointed hand, I look where the hand is pointing?
Maybe other approaches are possible. But I doubt it.
If I look directly at my own life and aim directly at my own happiness, I’ll always find a hypocrite, an imposter, an empty suit. I’ll always find someone who doesn’t measure up. This is inevitable because a life that is about itself—a life that is not about loving others—is fraudulent and empty.
I can’t see why this wouldn’t also be true of Mormonism. Mormonism, when it’s about itself, is an empty suit. But Mormonism, when it’s true to itself, is never about itself. Mormonism, when it’s true to itself, is about Christ.
And when my eyes are fixed on Christ, it’s my experience that Mormonism can come into focus—warts and all—as a manifestation of Christ’s own body.
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Adam S. Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas, and the author of seven books, including Letters to a Young Mormon.
Get more powerful insights from Adam S. Miller in Letters to a Young Mormon.
This book is composed as a series of letters. The letters are meant for a young Mormon who is familiar with Mormon life but green in his or her faith. The author, philosophy professor Adam S. Miller, imagined himself writing these letters to his own children. In doing so, he struggled to say his own piece about what it means to be—as a Mormon—free, ambitious, repentant, faithful, informed, prayerful, selfless, hungry, chaste, and sealed.