Whenever I travel back to Southern California, my old stomping grounds, to take my kids to see their grandparents, we always spend a few hours at the tide pools in Corona del Mar. I love walking around on the sharp rocks, peering into the pools, looking for sea hares, my favorite tide-pool animals, while the gulls cry overhead.
Thinking about the beautiful, beachy, multicultural land of my childhood provokes reflections on certain childhood assumptions about being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and how they differ from my current worldview. These experiences come from my mission, education, time spent parenting and serving in the Church, and my career as a professional scholar.
Because of my role as a Latter-day Saint scholar, sometimes people reach out to me with questions and issues they’re struggling with. They use phrases like “my shelf broke” and “it all came crashing down” and “I’m overwhelmed” and “I don’t know how to make sense of this.” I’ve observed that people who have crises of faith often express certain assumptions about what the Church is, or what it should be, which I used to share. But now my view is different.
First: as a child, I used to think that because the Restoration was all about fixing errors, our Church was error-free. But then I learned that we, the Latter-day Saints, are not immune to errors, bad judgment, social pressures, and sin. So often, we make mistakes, just like any other group of God’s children. We are subject to the forces of culture and the transformations of time. We have good apples and bad apples.
Second: as a child, I used to think my Church was “the same” wherever you went. Anywhere you went in the world, there on Sunday you would find the Latter-day Saints singing the hymns of Zion and partaking of the sacrament. But then, as I lived and served in the Church in various parts of the world, I came to understand the power of culture to shape our assumptions about what the world is and how people should live in it. Even when Church members draw on the same compendium of teachings and scriptures, in our practices and interpretations—even within the same country or same neighborhood!—we can have extremely divergent beliefs and lifestyles. I realized that we, the Latter-day Saints, are incredibly different from each other.
Both of my childhood views, namely, “Latter-day Saints don’t make mistakes” and “Latter-day Saints all have the same beliefs, the same values, and do things the same way,” I now realize, just don’t hold up when you look carefully, zooming out for the big picture and zooming in for the close-ups.
The big picture yields a humility-inducing sense of proportion. If we represented the percentage of the world’s population who are Latter-day Saints as a percentage of square mileage on the earth’s surface, our little territory would take up the same space as Azerbaijan (33,400 square miles), Serbia (34,116 square miles), or Greater Los Angeles (33,955 square miles). There is nothing wrong with living your whole life in Azerbaijan or in Serbia or in Greater Los Angeles and never venturing outside those borders. But, there’s a lot of other great stuff out there in the other 99.98 percent of the world.
The close-up view is similarly thought-provoking, starting with one’s own self. I’m acutely aware of my own flaws and biases. I bring all of these flaws and biases to every Sunday worship service, every Relief Society lesson, every ward picnic. Aaagh! I’ve ruined the Church!
So if we are not “error-free” and not “the same wherever you go,” then what are we?
This is what I think: My Church is true and living. The Latter-day Saints are true and living. …
By living, I mostly mean, the Church is real. This is a big deal. You may say, literally everything in the universe is real, from the gum on the bottom of my shoe to the planet Mars. This is correct. But the point is the Church is not simply an ideal, nor a program for proclaiming ideals. It is enacted, experienced. It is expanding and evolving. As a scholar I’ve spent a lot of time studying moral ideological movements, mostly in China but also in U.S. history and European history and Japanese history (for instance). Everyone is always trying to spearhead the triumph of good over evil. Everyone wants to design a new, good society where the wrong fails and the right prevails.
And yet the bigger and grander this vision is in principle, the worse things usually work out in their implementation. It’s one thing to declare righteous doctrines and behaviors and prescribe them for others. But it’s another thing—a harder thing, and a more godly thing—to be good and loving to those who are hard to love. Cultivating Christlike virtues is not a theoretical project. The only thing that works is practice. The Church is a real place to do real work on being real children of God.
Our Latter-day Saint organizations are like a big sandbox, in two senses: First, Church is a space for interactive play, where we learn how to share, to tunnel and create with others, to learn how to not throw sand that gets in people’s eyes.
Second, our Latter-day Saint organizations at all levels can be sources of persistent frustrations that not only train but transform us. The Church is, perhaps, like a rock tumbler, a container for polishing rough rocks so the colors and veins within shine. You drop rough rocks into the container, along with some sand or some other kind of grit. You turn the machine on. Over a long period of time, it constantly turns and tumbles the rocks so they bump against each other and polish each other. Bits break off from one rock and become grit that helps polish others. The beautiful striations from within the rock emerge.
Such a sandbox is a tricky place to be a single-issue voter.
It is an uncomfortable spot for someone who is devoted to a single political party’s platform.
It is frustrating for someone who champions a single high-minded cause.
I point this out not because I am trying to discourage us from being engaged citizens, or passionate civic activists, or people who reach out to those in need. What I am trying to say is, in our giant worldwide sandbox, all of our actions tend to bump up against each other. I wouldn’t say our actions collectively cancel each other out, but we the Latter-day Saints are so diverse, and the law of agency so often mirrors the law of entropy, that even when we are trying to act together we often get in each other’s way. This can be very frustrating when one is trying to make progress in one direction only to find oneself stymied by Latter-day Saints trying to make progress in the opposite direction.
It helps me to think that the purpose of life is not to achieve the triumph of a single -ism, for these -isms vary widely with time and place. The purpose of life is to assist the Lord of the vineyard, to help the children of God flourish wherever they are planted. It’s interesting to me that in Jacob’s allegory of the vineyard, he went beyond the image of God’s children as plants. We are both the trees and also the workers. What is important, perhaps, is not the particular -ism for which we are working but the effort we put forth in the service of others.
By divine design, God’s children are not all alike, and we disagree deeply about what is good and true. The Church is not a “solution” for the “problem” of diversity, but a preserve within which to practice it. In this, our teacher is the Holy One who showed love to people most others found hard to like because they were really (and sometimes offensively) different from the norm. He taught people in their own lands and languages, amidst their own sets of cultural difficulties. His was always the path of most resistance.
This path of most resistance is the path to becoming as God now is. Seeking to return to our heavenly parents, becoming one family, covenanting with one another, becoming as They are through the Atonement of Christ, is the work of Zion—a task that, amidst all the Christianities and all the religious traditions with which God has blessed the people of the earth, is the collective dream and mission of the Latter-day Saints alone. Practicing unity and forbearance within our own global covenant community, exposed to humankind’s full range of potential and liabilities, histories and futures, will give us the tools and experience we need to help all of God’s children to flourish. We will labor in God’s vineyard, humbly seeking inspiration as we tackle the world’s biggest problems until all the earth is blessed.