BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS
Mormons, often misunderstood by popular culture and viewed with some suspicion by many Americans, occupy a strange place in contemporary America. In a culture that often sidesteps the important questions of faith and spirituality, the followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or LDS, often stand out because of the important ways their beliefs differ from the main stream of Christians and the zeal with which they proselytize. Because of the questions lingering on the minds of many outsiders to the religion, the LDS student group at HLS has for the last five years convened an annual lecture entitled “Mormonism 101” in order to educate the community about their beliefs. This year’s guest speaker was Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an esteemed member of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former justice of the Supreme Court of Utah.
Elder Oaks, who graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1957 and then clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren, served as the President of Brigham Young University from 1971-1980, Chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) from 1979-1984, and became an apostle of the LDS Church in 1984. He noted that the widespread confusion about LDS has led to frequent parodies and misunderstandings, giving as an example Conan O’Brien’s song, “Oh Mormons, Mormons, Mormons / we haven’t got a clue / of what you folks believe in / or think or drink or do.” Yet despite the suspicion frequently confronted by followers, Mormons also are sought after for community organizations and have a tremendous humanitarian impact through their outreach programs around the world.
Although he noted that the academic interest in religion may have been rekindled by the need to understand extremism around the world, Elder Oaks said he accepts that “It seems unrealistic to expect higher education as a whole to resume a major role in teaching values.” Indeed, he fears that university faculties and administrators have played a role in marginalizing religion in America, and that colleges have become value-neutral places. To Mormons, this represents a degeneration of cultural norms. “We reject the moral relativism that is becoming the unofficial creed of much of American culture. For us, the truth about the nature of God and our relationship to Him is the key to everything else.”
The tripartite structure of the Godhead is one of the central aspects of LDS theology that Elder Oaks stressed as critical to LDS beliefs. “We maintain that … God the Father is not a spirit but a glorified Being with a tangible body, as is his resurrected Son, Jesus Christ. Though separate in identity, they are one in purpose.” In addition, the purpose of existence in this reality has a definite purpose in LDS: “to qualify for the glorified celestial condition and relationships that are called exaltation or eternal life.” The means of achieving this state are defined according to a religious plan for one’s life, a plan that, “can only be accomplished through an eternal marriage between a man and a woman.”
Perhaps the most essential distinction between the LDS faith and other forms of Christianity is its epistemology regarding the sources of knowledge of the divine. “Most Christians believe that the scriptural canon—the authoritative collection of sacred books used as scriptures—is closed because God closed it shortly after the death of Christ and there have been no comparable revelations since that time. Joseph Smith taught and demonstrated that the scriptural canon is open.” The continuing possibility of direct revelations from God gives believers of the LDS Church two authoritative sources for spiritual truth: the continually growing canon of religious scripture and the personal discovery of spiritual truth through communion with the Holy Ghost. “As a source of sacred teaching, the scriptures are not the ultimate but the penultimate. The ultimate knowledge comes by personal revelation through the Holy Ghost.”
Elder Oaks’ full remarks, delivered at HLS on February 26, 2010, are available online at <u><a href=”newsroom.lds.org”>newsroom.lds.org</a></u>.