There is the Christian story, and there is the Mormon story; and we understand them to make up a single story. But which story is primary and which secondary? Which is the whole of which the other is a part?
Logically and theologically, it seems, the Christian story ought to be primary. The Mormon story presupposes and depends on the Christian story. Put it this way: You can set aside or bracket or reject the Mormon story and still embrace the Christian story. Lots of people do that. It doesn’t work the other way around. Take the Christianity out of Mormon thought and culture, and what of real value would be left?
True, not everyone agrees with this point. I’ve known an occasional member who, if I understood correctly, would hold to and emphasize the distinctively Mormon elements (the material from the King Follett discourse, maybe) while deemphasizing or backgrounding the more standard Christian elements. The idea is that Mormonism will eventually stand to Christianity as Christianity stands to Judaism– an idea I associate with the historian Jan Shipps.
But this seems an untenable position. What would Mormonism be if you take away our beliefs in the Atonement and the Resurrection? Maybe some project of elevating ourselves through ongoing self-perfecting into some sort of Nietzschean supermen? Except that without the Atonement and Resurrection, how and when would we manage to do this? It looks pretty grotesque.
So logically (or if you prefer theologically, or doctrinally), Christianity has to be primary. But psychologically, the relations may be– and, I suspect, often are– reversed. People’s allegiance or loyalty may run to Mormonism; their commitment to Christianity may be an offshoot from that primary allegiance. Why do they believe in Christian truths and doctrines? Because “the Church” teaches those truths and doctrines. In terms of their self-identity or self-conception, they may think of themselves first as Mormons, and only secondarily as Christians. I suspect that this may be especially true of people who “grew up in the Church,” as we say, and perhaps especially of people who grew up in the Church in the 1950s and 1960s, when it could occasionally happen that the Sacrament Meeting talks on Easter Sunday might be about tithing or food storage or whatever with scarcely an allusion to the Resurrection.
Well, so what? As long as we recognize that both stories are important and that they ultimately comprise a single story, what’s the point of asking which story is primary and which secondary? Does the question even make sense? And yet I suspect that the ordering makes a subtle but important difference in our lives. More than one difference, maybe.
How so? Well, here’s one thing. What prompted this post was a conversation I had earlier this week with someone I met at a university I visited for a day. After dinner we talked for maybe close to an hour. My new friend told me about a close relative who had seemed to be a stalwart member but who recently found himself unable to accept some church teachings– we didn’t get into the specifics– and who quite suddenly left the Church, along with his wife. And the disturbing thing, my friend told me, is that this man is now . . . nothing. Not any sort of religious believer. He evidently now describes himself as an atheist.
How could this happen? we asked. Why would someone throw out the baby with the bath water, so to speak? Okay, the man finds himself in irreconcilable opposition to some distinctively Mormon teaching: why wouldn’t he then turn to some non-Mormon form of Christianity?
And yet this sort of transition is probably neither unprecedented nor especially surprising. If your reason for believing in Christianity is that the Church teaches Christianity, and if you’ve been taught all your life that the other Christian churches are all lesser variations– perhaps corrupt versions, or at least lacking in the fullness of the Gospel– then I suppose that if you decide to abandon Mormonism it will be natural just to chuck the whole thing. Why would you embrace the second- or third-best when you’ve rejected what was supposed to be the first-best?
Hopefully such cases are still relatively uncommon. And yet even for those who remain committed members, the Christian/Mormon ordering may still make a difference. It may affect our attitudes towards the leaders and followers of other faiths. It may affect what we study, or where we turn for insight and inspiration. If you think of yourself as essentially a Mormon and as a Christian derivatively, then you are likely to read almost exclusively Mormon materials. Conversely, if you think of yourself primarily as a Christian, albeit someone who lives your Christianity in a Mormon context, you may feel more authorized or impelled to draw on the whole Christian tradition.
If you are one of these “primary Christians,” I predict you will feel some tension in many church situations. You may feel that you lack– or that others will feel that you lack– the unqualified particularistic allegiance that many of your fellows have. At the same time– and this may seem paradoxical– being a “primary Christian” may actually make it easier in some respects to live happily and faithfully in a Mormon setting. That at least is my observation.
Think of it this way. If Christianity is the main thing, then it is possible to look over the amazing, inspiring, sometimes appalling history of the Christian faith and perceive God working in a whole variety of ways and places to bring the Gospel into people’s lives. The wind or the spirit bloweth where it listeth, as Jesus told Nicodemus; we hear its sound but know not whence it comes or whither it goes. Always the people through whom God has worked to preserve and present the Gospel have been exquisitely imperfect; God has blessed them nonetheless, and has used them to further His work. And so when we perceive that God is at work in a particular institution or movement or person, we can be grateful for that presence and operation without needing to understand exactly how and why God chose to work there or in that way, and without becoming inordinately concerned or disappointed when we perceive the inevitable and sometimes even egregious imperfections.
Or look at it from the other direction: If you are a Mormon first and a Christian derivatively, then it will be natural to be concerned about– even obsessed with– matters that might cast doubt on the received version of the Mormon story. Because if that story defines who you are, and if it is your reason for embracing the larger Christian story, and if it then turns out that you can’t wholly rely on that story, what do you have left?
Conversely, if you consider yourself to be first and foremost a Christian, then it becomes possible to appreciate all of the Christian truth and service and fellowship that abound in the Mormon context without worrying overmuch about whether all of the specifics of the Mormon story remain intact. Those are details anyway, not the essentials.