Theology of Mormon “Nice”

In “honor” of comments made by the creators of the blasphemy that is the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, I am reprinting a Straight and Narrow Blog post. This is also one of a few posts that I consider deals with the topic of Mormon spirituality, or how we respond to the Divine in personal living.

Many commentators have stated recently that Mormons have weird beliefs, but they are nice people. At least one said that, compared to other religious people, Mormons they have known were mostly nice with fewer “Jerks” to be found. This may be high compliments, but there is something behind the words that hasn’t been properly evaluated. It begs the question of why Mormons, if this is indeed the case, are nice to a fault that some have even found spooky.

It can be frustrating to hear such good praise and yet at the same time have deeply held beliefs dismissed. There seems to be a disconnect in commentator’s minds between behavior and theology. At least there is consistency with those who say that Mormon theology is bad and therefore Mormons are bad people. The good news is those who have a distorted view of Mormons aren’t taken seriously by the open-minded who actually know some as more than a headline.

How Mormons behave and treat others is not merely a social construct. It doesn’t spring from nowhere. There are very specific beliefs and theological concepts that shape the Mormon community. Understanding those can bridge a gap between the religion and people that many ignore or simply dismiss as unrelated.

Probably the most important starting point is that Mormons believe every human, no matter who, is a Child of God. The scriptures seem to indicate this is probably less literal than some Mormons believe, but more literal than other religions teach. The idea is clearest in Ephesians 3:15 and 4:6 where it reads first:

14 For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
15 Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named

followed by:

4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling;
5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

This family bond goes beyond membership in the LDS Church, but the whole human race. That includes Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Caucasians and whoever else ever lived on the Earth. Because of this, there is a special obligation to treat others with kindness and respect. Even those Mormons disagree with have an importance for the fact they exist. The Book of Mormon in Mosiah 2: 17 states,”And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” That makes relationships far more important than immediate friends or family members. The ties that bind, bind us all together.

Looking even farther back in time, so far as Mormon theology, each individual is more than a mere creation. They are an eternal element:

29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

As Doctrine and Covenants 93: 29-30 indicates, humans are free to choose good or evil because they are separate from each other. There can be no forcing of the wills onto other people, and therefore Mormons tend to be passive aggressive when challenged. Each person is considered unique. Not just because God created them, but from the knowledge they are part of the primordial universe.

Much has been made about Satan as the brother of Jesus. Those who have paid attention understand Mormons believe everyone is related, no matter how good or bad they are. A reporter had a short explanation when she wrote:

Mormon theology holds that the savior and the devil are both sons of God. Therefore, an official church website explains, “Jesus was Lucifer’s older brother.” But as former Mormon Bishop Scott Gordon points out, the faith also holds that all human beings are sons of God, which would make everyone a sibling of Christ (and of the devil). Mormons believe that Lucifer was not born evil but turned into a power-hungry glory-seeker. He opposed God’s plan for mankind and was cast out of heaven.

There is no inherent evilness to the human soul. It is true that “The Fall” brought about the moral corruption of natural man. Yet, even The Fall is not considered the great tragedy that many other Christians teach. Adam and Eve’s taking of the forbidden fruit was part of the process to help shape personality for better or worse, according to individual choices. The 13 Articles of Faith of the LDS Church states, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” Even when mistakes are made, there is value in evaluating what went wrong and making corrections and repenting.

All of this is made possible by the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Continuing with the Articles of Faith, “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.” From this is learned that Faith is more than a recognition, but an action from that recognition. It is also a constant irritation to those who believe “right belief” is all that matters, and behavior (called by some “works”) is meaningless.

It is true that “works” can become superficial in evaluating an individual. There are hypocrites who act according to what is expected of them rather than out of real convictions. However, it is equally as true that “works” are at least a starting point in evaluating a person or organization. Jesus in Matt. 7:16-21 was clear on the subject:

16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

For a Mormon, faith and works are inseparable. You can’t truly have one without the other and still be spiritually whole. You can have faith, but it won’t do you or the world any good without the works. You can have works, but that doesn’t mean ultimately you can be saved. On the other hand, doing good works will probably save a person faster than having faith and doing wrong or evil. 2 Nephi 9:25-27 makes that implication:

25 Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him. . .

27 But wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!

Repentance is essential to understanding Mormon behavior. Because there was a Fall, there was also an Atonement made by Jesus Christ. That Atonement will in the end wipe out both sin and death, but not before the purposes of mortality have finished. One of the main reasons for mortal life is to develop our true selves. What we become in mortality will reflect our state in the Eternities. This isn’t because of some malice of God, but out of a sense of justice. No wrong can go unpunished. However, mistakes do happen and a way must exist that allows for mercy. Alma 34:15, 32-33 reads:

15 And thus he [Jesus Christ] shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. . .

32 For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.
33 And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.

One of my favorite quotes comes from movie The Gladiator when the character of the title says, “what we do here will echo into eternity.” For that reason Mormons who live by their religion are careful how they behave, talk, and sometimes even dress. Earthly consequences can sometimes be avoided, but there is no escaping ourselves. This also relates to the Mormon belief in more than one “Heaven” where a variety of personality types will find a place to live. The closer to the ideals of God a human gets, the closer to God they will end up. Only those who openly and with full knowledge rebel against God, such as Satan and his angels, will have no salvation. Therefore, even the worst sinner among humans is considered worthy of some kind of respect, even if nothing more than sorrow.

This is especially the case when talking about one of the least understood doctrines of the LDS Church; becoming gods. Although reserved for the most devout and believing of Mormons, it is within all human’s capabilities to achieve divine stature. The sentiment is expressed in Romans 8:16-17 that, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.”

At GetReligion.Org, a person called gfe explains, in response to a non-Mormon description of the LDS belief:

However, I’ve never before heard the term “ultimate deification” either, and most Mormons wouldn’t even use the term “deification” (although they might know what it means). The word of choice in LDS circles is “exaltation.” I think the idea of becoming godlike is as good a definition as any.

The teaching on exactly what that entails isn’t all that clear (although there’s plenty of speculation). Most of the clearest doctrines about it are Biblical, actually, with concepts such as becoming partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), being holy and perfect as God is holy and perfect, and becoming joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). All these scriptural passages point to the idea of being godlike, although Mormons take the idea farther and perhaps more literally than other Christians do.

There is no Usurpation of God by gaining the divine nature, as He remains the Divine devotion of our Worship. What God gains is influence, or as the Bible might put it Thrones and Principalities. And what do Mormon’s mean by becoming like God?

It doesn’t mean getting your own world to rule or any such nonsense cooked up by enemies of LDS theology who put more importance in things that Mormons don’t stress. The most it means is arguably gaining the role of Divine Parents, or at the least moral perfection. There is no pride associated with the concept as that would be counter to the divine. It is gaining the attributes of God: mercy, justice, hope, charity, faith, knowledge, and above all love. The only way to gain that is to practice it in the here and now of mortality. Such attention to behavior out of faith in the Gospel leads to treating others decently. Too bad people are open enough to recognize the “good behavior” of Mormons, and not open enough to want to understand the motivation comes from those wacky beliefs.

11 thoughts on “Theology of Mormon “Nice”

  1. Jettboy, I really enjoyed this. Most Mormons I know are nice not because they make a special effort to be so (which would imply some kind of false niceness, which can be sickening) but because a life of helping others (or at least trying to) has helped them develop empathy. Your theological reasons are also very valid, of course.

  2. I have met very few people who are nice who aren’t also honest in who they are. Those who aren’t “real” seem to end up proving their duplicity one way or another. Not that there aren’t those who have become good at hiding hypocrisy, but I think its more difficult than critics of good behavior assume. Its not easy serving others without the desire.

  3. Jettboy, you did an excellent job of summarizing Mormon beliefs in a way Mormons and non-Mormons (if being fair) could agree with.

    There are a few nitpicky points I could probably disagree with, but that will always be true.

    “For a Mormon, faith and works are inseparable. You can’t truly have one without the other and still be spiritually whole”

    I agree with this.

    I did an experiment a while back. I asked a group of Evangelicals online: “Do you have to have good works to be saved?”

    Almost all of them immediately answered “no way!” and then quoted a bunch of scriptures about not being saved by merit of works.

    Then I asked another group of Evangelicals online (actually the same group, but got different people responding probably) this question:

    “Will any Christian in a saved state bring forth good works in their life?”

    And the answer? I near unanimous (not quite) “Yes!”

    The problem is that these are actually the one and same question reworded.

    When worded the first way, Evangelicals have been culturally conditioned to perceive the question not literally, but instead as asking “Can you merit salvation through your works?”

    But the second questions lacks that cultural conditioning. (I do not mean to say that cultural conditioning is in any way a bad thing.) Therefore it got around their standard cultural response and was instead taken literally.

    The fact is that Evangelicals (of most sects anyhow) DO believe you can’t be saved without having works. They just want it to be super duper clear that those works do not *earn* you salvation, but that they stem from accepting Christ into your life and through the process of sanctification.

    (I have noticed that some Evangelicals do accept that sanctification is in fact ‘salvation from sin’ just like Mormons do. Others seem to insist that salvation is only justification and that sanctification, though real, should never be called ‘salvation’ lest we are forced to admit that works and salvation are in some way related.)

    I do think there are legitimate differences between Mormons and Evangelicals on this issue. But I do not believe ‘earning salvation through merit as a wage for your works’ is a point of disagreement at all.

    If anything, I think the real difference between Mormons and Evangelicals on this point is that Mormons perceive salvation as primarily a certain kind of character and Evangelicals as primarily a place. (With both somewhat accepting the other position as well, so even this distincition is not 100%.)

  4. Excellent post. As far as works go, the common Protestant position is based on two closely related theories of causation. One is that God causes everything (Calvinism) and the other is that God is the power behind everything good (Arminianism). The implications of those two positions for the grace v. works debate should be apparent enough.

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  6. Fascinating, Jettboy, and well put.

    Unfortunately, though, I do see a few problems that the “nice” preference tends to mask:

    1. We too often cover up or ignore problems to maintain the “nice”
    2. Yes, we’re nice, but somehow we regularly exclude non-Mormons from our culture (yes, they are invited, and if they want to make the effort, we’ll talk to them, but we don’t normally include non-mormons in our personal circles unless they seem interested in our Church or we think they are potential investigators).
    3. While we are nice, some of our strong political positions (I’m thinking Prop 8 here) are perceived by outsiders as decidedly NOT nice, which makes us hypocrites in their eyes.

    I do agree that our theology is the basis for how nice Mormons are. But that doesn’t mean that Mormons are particularly sensitive or tolerant (or even that they must always be tolerant).

  7. To answer your 1-3 after some thought Kent.

    1. Do you have any solutions while maintaining our “nice” and not become cynical? My own belief is less that we cover up or ignore so much as discourage by cultural example. What others decide to do is beyond our control without becoming, or perceived as, mean. See your number 3.

    2. This is a whole other discussion and maybe I will expand on this in a post. Frankly, I find Mormons and non-Mormons are so culturally or morally different that friendships are difficult. I’ve had them, but we both end up very careful with each other in one way or another and can’t be ourselves. Not only that, but we are a missionary religion and that in itself makes relationships naturally strained. Also, I have found that most non-Mormons don’t want a relationship with Mormons as mutually. Its not a one way street.

    3. See my number 2 for this. Mormons are a culture apart. We might have become more American than ever before, but the nature of Americanism has shifted leaving us at a different location. I am afraid Mormons might shift again in the hopes of acceptance.

  8. Wow, I couldn’t disagree more with 1)the idea that we exclude non-Mormons and 2)the idea that Mormons and non-Mormons have problems being friends. I would say 90 percent of my close friends are non-Mormons. (I grew up in a non-Mormon environment and was baptized in my 30s). When a convert comes to Church in Colorado, the members all fall all over themselves to say hi, make him/her feel welcome, etc. It was the same thing during my conversion process. This whole exclusion of non-Mormons things is complete poppycock, but there seem to be some holier-than-thou people in the Bloggernacle who repeat that canard regularly. I have no problem with non-Mormon friends. Everybody I work with knows I don’t drink or smoke or drink coffee. They poke fun at me and my five kids, but overall they are great people, and we get along very well. We have very strong friendships. Most people outside of majority Mormon communities have absolutely no problem with the issue of non-Mormon friends.

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