I am standing next to my mission president in the Fukuoka Japan Airport. I see my mother walking toward me down a long corridor. She looks tired, and a bit older than I remembered. Her red hair is tousled and the streaks of white I see are new. She just traveled half way around the globe to be with me, her son, at the end of my mission. As I spot her, a thought leaps into my mind. “Is my mother going to hell?”
I know, as Mormons we do not believe in a literal hell of fire and brimstone, but we do believe in being cut off from the presence of God, and losing Eternal Life. Would a cutting off be the effect of my mother’s unorthodoxy?
As a small child in the 1960s, every Sunday morning we piled into my dad’s 1961 Plymouth, and drove three minutes to the Bountiful Tabernacle. It is an old white building located at the intersection of Main Street and Center Street. Pioneers constructed this building during the turbulent years of the Mormon Reformation, and completed their work in 1863. Each Sunday, we would sit in the pews of the chapel and stare up at the giant mural of Joseph Smith painted above the stand.
My mother was the more religious of my parents. She married my father in the Salt Lake Temple in 1951. She was only nineteen at the time. My impression is that my father was ambivalent about Church. He had experienced things during the war that lessoned his enthusiasm for strict adherence to any religion. But, he loved my mother, and went to church for her sake.
My childhood memories have faded, but I still remember the last Sunday we attended church as a family. It was the late summer of 1965, and my mother scheduled a temple recommend interview with Bishop Stahle after Sunday school. The interview did not go well. My parents quickly dragged my brother and me to the car. My mother was livid. I remember her saying something about her underwear and not going back to church as long as women do not have the priesthood. Years later, I learned that in the interview Bishop Stahle grilled my mother on intimate aspects of her life, which she found entirely inappropriate. From that day forward, my brother and I attended church alone.
During the 1950s and 1960s, my mother underwent her own personal transformation. She graduated from college, started a career, gave birth to two children, became politically active, experienced the civil rights movement, and saw the rise of the John Birch Society and its growing conservative influence within the LDS Church. Her world was leading her toward a new moral paradigm. The temple recommend interview was simply the catalyst the brought it all to a head.
My mother’s story is not unique. This same basic storyline played out in my own life during the 1990s. I have watched in unfold in the lives of some of my children. During my time with Ordain Women, I have heard this same basic story again and again. I see it unfold in the lives of parents with gay children. It takes place as people expand their horizons through education. It happens to people who devote time to helping the sick, the poor and the broken. The mechanisms vary, but this is a process of moving to a higher level of morality through perspective taking.
At the heart of this story is a movement beyond orthodoxy, and to a true acceptance of the words Jesus uttered on the Mount.
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Matthew 5:3-12King James Version (KJV)
Chelsea Shields Strayer calls this process “Radical Empathy.” This is a state in which people gain the ability to see the world through the eyes of people very different from themselves. It is a state in which they literally feel the pain of others, despite great differences in culture, geography and life experiences.
This process of moving to a higher level of faith and morality is explained in James Fowler’s classic book, “Stages of Faith,” published in 1981. The basic problem is that like many religions, our LDS culture exists largely at what Fowler calls “Stage 3.” The following is a summary of this stage of moral and spiritual development.
Stage 3 – Synthetic, Conventional Stage
A person will normally move into the third of James Fowler’s Stages, the Synthetic, Conventional stage around puberty but apparently, many adults never move beyond it.
Here authority is located outside the self – in the church leaders, in the government, in the social group. Religious concepts are what Fowler calls “tacitly” held – the person is not fully conscious of having chosen to believe something. Thus the name “Synthetic” – beliefs are not the result of any type of analytical thought. Any attempts to reason with a person in this stage about his beliefs, any suggestion of demythologizing his beliefs is seen as a threat.
The name “Conventional” means that most people in this stage see themselves as believing what “everybody else” believes and would be reluctant to stop believing it because of the need they feel to stay connected with their group. It turns out that most of the people in traditional churches are at this stage. And in fact, Fowler comes right out and states that religious institutions “work best” (p. 164) if the majority of their congregation is in Stage 3. (Now THAT explains a lot of the preaching we hear that sounds destined to discourage people from questioning! To properly assure their continuance, churches need people to remain in Stage 3. )
When a person cognitively realizes that there are contradictions between some of his authority sources and is ready to actually reflect realistically on them, he begins to be ready to move to the fourth of James Fowler’s Stages.
Moving beyond Stage 3, is a very painful experience. It feels like your world is coming apart, your foundation is breaking away, and everything you thought you knew seems to crumble around you. In Fowler’s terms, this period of turmoil is Stage 4. This is what my mother experienced in 1965, at the time of her interview.
To answer the question that started this essay: “No, my mother is not going to hell.” At the time she flew to Japan to spend two weeks traveling the country with me, she had transcended the turmoil of Stage 4, and was experiencing a higher level of morality. Unfortunately for me, standing in the Fukuoka Airport, I was still decades behind her in moral development. While people at Stage 3 may believe that those who have moved beyond are in danger of damnation, my faith is in a loving and just God. My mother, and the growing thousands who share her journey to a higher moral plain, have absolutely nothing fear.
Honoring our past,
Envisioning our future.
Mark Barnes, the author of this post, is on Ordain Women’s Executive Board and is the Male Allies Committee Chairperson.