Nine years later, though, I have to say that I love being a former Mormon. Talking to LDS missionaries, particularly in the week before Trinity Sunday, was a wonderful reminder of the reasons for that.
When Protestants become Catholic, they often experience the transition as a kind of completion. Protestantism lays a firm foundation, and Catholicism builds on top. One convert friend of mine (a former Protestant minister) describes her conversion as an “oh, there’s more!” sort of experience. Everything that seemed really important in her Protestant faith was part of Catholicism too, but the Church added more of the good stuff, from Sacraments to theology to scores of wonderful saints.
I had a different experience. Mormonism does not lay a firm theological foundation; quite the contrary. Actually I think the best way to understand it is as a Christian heresy, to be filed in the same category with Arianism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism and other distortions of Christian doctrine that have cropped up throughout Christian history. Rome has clarified that Mormon baptisms are not valid, meaning that individual Mormons are sacramentally akin to pagans and not properly termed “heretics”. But it’s obvious that Mormonism is overwhelmingly derived from Christianity, so merely repeating the “not Christian” line isn’t very illuminating in itself. Comparing the LDS Church to other historical heresies is a more helpful way of explaining what’s really going on with the Mormons.
Heresies tend follow a common pattern. Their founders try to update or simplify Christian doctrine by rejecting one or more of the core dogma that have held the Christian synthesis together over the centuries. The first step usually seems quite reasonable. Christian dogma is mysterious at several points, so the suggestion that it needs “upgrading” seems beguilingly plausible. It’s amazing, though, how quickly things crumble once a central pillar of the faith is jettisoned.
Mormons believe in a corporeal God. That is, God the Father has an actual body, as does Jesus Christ. They are distinct persons and distinct beings; the doctrine of the Trinity is rejected. From here Mormon theology cascades into some rather confused territory. Original sin is rejected. God himself is viewed as the product of moral maturation. Mere mortals are teased with the possibility that they themselves might attain godlike status.
To me, the moral is that Christian truth is a carefully balanced package. Time and again the Fathers had the choice to reject something complicated and strange in favor of something more obvious and digestible; time and again, they took the harder path. The wisdom of their choice becomes evident when it is juxtaposed against the trajectories of the many deviants who tried to “correct” Christian truth. They generally become confused in very short order, ending up in the dust bin of history, while the Church soldiers on into its third millennium.
The great thing about being a former heretic is that I really appreciate that repository of truth. It’s a wonderful thing to have such time-tested teachings, which provide a wonderful foundation for philosophical reflection, not to mention a fulfilled life. After talking to Mormon missionaries, I went to Trinity Sunday Mass, and actually found myself tearing up with gratitude as we sang: “Oh most holy Trinity! Undivided Unity! Holy God, Mighty God, God Immortal, be adored!”
I could not have sung those words in my Mormon childhood. I’m grateful for the chance to affirm them now.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.