02 A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: Our God is Too Small

A teacher once tossed me a globe and asked me to place it, upside down, on my desk. “Upside down? But it’s a sphere?” I thought. I resolved the dilemma by locating the north pole—that seemed like as good of a top as any—then flipping it over and putting it down on my desk.

“Did everyone see what Brent did?” asked the teacher. “He assumed north was up. Why did he do that?”

We spent the next few minutes discussing the fact that there isn’t any up or down in space. We print maps with north at the top because of social convention, not because of any inherent quality of the physical world. “How much of what we perceive as reality,” the teacher asks rhetorically, “is shaped by these kinds of almost invisible assumptions?”

A Consistent Message

Unexamined biases. False dichotomies. Conditioned meaning attributions. These are all things that get discussed up here in the cheap seats. More on those topics another day. For right now, let’s just talk about one particular horse pill of an assumption:

“Our Heavenly Father’s house is a house of order. He is a God of truth. In ancient times and in present days he has spoken and is speaking through his servants by the power of the Holy Ghost. By that same power he will speak to his children everywhere, and his message, like truth itself, will be consistent.” [1

As Mormons, we swim in the assumption of divine constancy. Of course God communicates the same spiritual truths to everyone, across time, civilizations, cultures, etc. How could it be otherwise?

I can recall a particularly frustrating discussion with a patient woman on my mission. The conversation went something like this:

“So, you want to know if I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet?” she asks. 

“Exactly, do you think that God called him to be a prophet?” my companion and I confirm.

“Yes, I do, I think his story make sense. I think that every once in a while God reaches down and touches a particular individual and that person is able to do some really amazing and beautiful things. I think the Book of Mormon is a really beautiful thing.”

“If you know that Joseph Smith is a prophet, then why won’t you accept our challenge to be baptized?” we ask.

“I’m comfortable where I’m at. I think I’m where God wants me to be.”

“But you just said that you thought Joseph Smith was a prophet, and if he was a prophet, then he restored Christ’s church. . . .” we argue.

“I don’t believe there is only one path. I think God is bigger than that. I don’t think God is Catholic, or Mormon, or Muslim, I think he’s all of those things. . . .”

“But God isn’t going to communicate different things to different people. He’s going to do things in an organized way. . . .” we explain.

“I don’t believe that. When I look around, I see God in different places saying different things to different people.”

And the conversation continued, without resolution, for another half hour—and then she insisted we stay for lunch.

As we left, our stomachs full, we shook our heads. “We just can’t get through to her,” we lamented to ourselves.

I wish I could spend a few minutes with this former self, but it’s probably better that I can’t.

The Problem with Consistency

Viewing deity through a lense of universal consistency forces us to discount the religious beliefs of others.  We are forced to conclude that if God talked to Joseph, then he couldn’t have talked to Muhammad. If we have had spiritual experiences that have confirmed our Mormon beliefs, then we assume that others of different faiths can’t have had equally meaningful (and equally valid) spiritual experiences that have confirmed their beliefs. “After all, God is a God of order,” we tell ourselves. One official church. One official prophet at a time. One official message.

In other words, north is up (and that’s the only way things make sense).

Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. As Desmond Tutu observes, “accidents of birth and geography determine to a very large extent to what faith we belong.” Life experience should be enough to teach us that adherents of all faiths find ways to experience God. “We do scant justice and honor to our God” he continues, if we “deny that Mahatma Gandhi was a truly great soul, a holy man who walked closely with God. Our God would be too small if he was not also the God of Gandhi.” Put more abruptly, he states “God is clearly not a Christian. His concern is for all his children.”

What we Tell Ourselves

We Mormons have some workarounds. We tell ourselves that the spiritual experiences of non-Mormons can be explained by the fact that shards of truth are scattered everywhere (and then we remind ourselves that everyone else just has pieces; we have the entire stained glass window). We somberly justify our small numbers by observing that many are “blinded by the craftiness of men” (and then we pat ourselves on the back because we have been able to recognize truth). We do our best to create a sense of incipient universality by charting church growth and keeping track of the number of proxy ordinances.

For many Mormons, the trick seems to be to keep logic from forcing a connection between institutional claims and reality.  For example, many of us can attend church on Sunday, where we are taught the difference between the Gift of the Holy Ghost (a benefit enjoyed by baptized Mormons) and the Light of Christ (a consolation prize available to everyone else), and then go to work on Monday and tell non-members that we respect their religious beliefs. If accused of espousing beliefs that consign billions of adherents of other faiths to the back of the spiritual bus, we’ll deny it (and we’ll believe our own denials).

The problem is that our assumption of order and constancy doesn’t match the diversity, incoherence, and contradictions of lived religion. If our pre-packaged Mormon explanations for this discrepancy are starting to look a little threadbare, then welcome to the cheap seats. Sit down. We’ve got a lot to talk about.

[Notes: The quotes from Desmond Tutu are taken from God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations, by Desmond Tutu, edited by John Allen, published in 2011 by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.]