While so often the debate about Mormonism centers around the peculiar and controversial on the one hand and the banal and unimaginative on the other, Latter-day Saints are animated by a much grander vision of life. Journalists often ask what differentiates Latter-day Saints but rarely investigate what inspires, motivates and moves them. As is the case with any religion, the transcendent side of Mormonism cannot be captured by caricature and stereotype. For example, much media attention has been devoted to such topics as the precise location of the Garden of Eden and on which continent Christ will reappear without examining the over-arching worldview that gives them meaning.
However, as an exception to this rule, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life hosted a substantive conference aimed at exploring the larger picture of Mormonism. One reporter initiated a thought-provoking discussion by asking Mormon historian Richard Bushman, “What is the question that Mormonism answers?” Bushman replied: “What Mormons really try to do is to offer a story – a story of human existence that begins in the world before and comes to this world. It answers the classic questions of whence, why, and where. It’s not just something that stands above Mormons, but is imbued into their minds.” This broad view of humanity stirs the inspiration of Latter-day Saints, elevates their earthly aspirations and gives poetic meaning to their eternal longings.
Accordingly, the journey of human life originates in a pre-mortal existence, where each individual exercises free will and progresses spiritually by learning from a loving God the principles of truth and happiness. To further that progress, God provided a mortal existence in which His children could prove their faithfulness and fulfill a very individualized destiny. His personal guidance and mercy, manifested in the Savior Jesus Christ, give each individual more than ample opportunity to succeed. Participating in this mortal test is a choice each person makes freely. And the choices made in this life determine one’s station and activity in the eternities, where God reserves a unique place for all of his children. Throughout this process each individual maintains a core identity and possesses immense capacity for growth and progress. Above all, the main purpose of God’s numberless creations is to allow his children to be happy.
Anything but earth-bound, the most deeply-held desires of Latter-day Saints constantly stretch towards eternity. All earthly disappointment and loss can ultimately be redeemed, thus providing a surety that the most precious things in life – human associations and personal character – can continue forever. Mormon scholar Daniel Peterson wrote in the book Why I Believe: “I am convinced … that our spiritual yearnings will not and cannot be fully satisfied in this life, however desperately we may seek to quiet them with inadequate substitutes.” “And the gospel speaks,” he continues, “with special eloquence at times of death, when … those who depart do so into a very real and concrete world in which social ties and family relationships flourish even more richly than they do here, and where learning and growth continue into boundless eternity.”
This transcendent worldview affirms both a broad perspective of eternity and a focused concern with the immediacy of the present. It motivates actions into civic involvement by extolling the inherent worth of the individual and urging mutual responsibility between all humankind. It exalts the attainment of intelligence and knowledge, and not only in this life — these will continue to increase and serve wonderful purposes in our eternal journey.
Latter-day Saints embrace the acquisition of knowledge as a spiritual mandate. Joseph Smith proclaimed: “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” And, according to revealed scripture, “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life” will follow us in the hereafter (D&C 130: 18). Thus, all human striving blends seamlessly into eternity.
Writing about religion involves the difficult task of capturing the ineffable individual and collective spiritual experience of a large group of people. Getting at the heart of Mormonism is best undertaken not by narrowly focusing on controversy and getting mired in esoteric theological debates, but through a more imaginative examination of the worldview that inspires its members.