Reform Mormonism is defined not so much by the range of beliefs about various subjects that are “allowed” or designated as Reform Mormon beliefs as it is by the freedom to explore those ranges.
To illustrate this idea, let’s take a look at the book Mormon Doctrine, a classic, encyclopedic work by an LDS authority in which thousands of religious topics are alphabetically arranged. With each listing is the author’s definition of the entry, and the LDS “position” or attitude toward the subject. It should be said that not all LDS agree with every particular perspective given in Mormon Doctrine. However, the leadership of the LDS church edited the current (Second) edition of the book, and it is generally regarded as a truthful guide to “official” LDS position, if a little extreme in some respects.
For example, when you turn to the paragraphs on the subject “eternal life” in Mormon Doctrine, you will find two or three paragraphs, in which the subject of eternal life, as it is understood in the LDS milieu, are explained.
Imagine if you had turned to the section on “eternal life” and instead of an explanation of what you should believe, you instead encountered a series of questions you were asked to consider – with no answers provided to you. Some of those questions might be:
- What does eternal mean?
- What is life? What does it mean to be alive? What is physical death?
- Is Eternal Life merely the name for the kind of life God has?
- Is Eternal Life subject to qualifications? Will there be a “quality” of Eternal Life? Does Eternal Life involve “degrees”?
- Is Eternal Life and Eternal Progression the same thing? Can one live and not progress?
- Does Eternal Life consist only of being in the presence of God?
- How will Eternal Life differ from life as I know it right now?
- If I am assured of Eternal Life, what is meant by “spiritual death”?
- Am I currently living part of my Eternal Life, or is Eternal Life the next life?
If you spend some time thinking about it, you can probably come up with many more questions about the topic “eternal life.” Spending time thinking about these questions, and which questions appeal to you, is important – in discovering which questions appeal to you, you discover aspects of yourself. Deciding which question to pursue is also an interesting process, because it involves certain skills that you can develop over time. These skills serve you throughout life.
To review: the first step is uncovering the variety of questions relative to our subject. The second step is to decide which question(s) appeal to you right now.
Once you have settled upon a particular question, you can begin asking about it. Asking takes many forms, not the least of which is asking of God. When you ask of God, you are promised an answer. Many who have invoked this promise have found it to be reliable.
Answers can come in many different ways and by many different means. Recognizing, interpreting, and understanding answers is another skill to be developed. The skill, along with others associated with this process, are all important tools that serve you throughout your life. We believe that they are abilities you will continue to use eternally, so time invested in understanding and improving them is time well spent.
The answer you receive will lead you to another question, or another series of questions. You will return to the beginning of the process, and have an opportunity to make another selection, based upon what appeals to you. Stopping for a moment to review what you have learned, and how it both integrates into your life and provides context for the next question is a satisfying process Reform Mormons refer to as restoration. Restoration both concludes the previous cycle and starts another.
The freedom inherent in this process is liberating to some people and frightening to others; there can be perceived insecurity in independence. This selection from the book Reform Mormonism may help explain it:
We are about to go exploring. Our map for this exploration will be the range of belief afforded to Reform Mormons. This range is wide, and it covers much ground. The range exists for every possible subject imaginable…The “ranges” are merely the extremes in possible answers that could occur; all the various places on the map that you might end up. It is not these ranges that define Reform Mormonism; it is the freedom to explore them that defines Reform Mormonism.
Some people are very uncomfortable with this at first; the idea of a range of options seems frightening. They think: “What if I choose the wrong question, or follow the wrong answer?” They may have never really had to make, or considered the need for, these types of decisions before, and they may think it easier to have someone else step in and select for them. This is the offer held out to the individual by prefabricated belief systems: “we’ve got it all laid out for you – no need to worry about choices!” they proclaim. They peddle maps that have their particular paths brightly marked, and other paths scratched out. They want you to turn the decision making process over to them.
Let God be that person you turn to for assistance with these decisions. Learn to do it that way, rather than using man-made belief systems. Use this process to develop your relationship with God, and to become skilled with receiving personal revelation. Do not atrophy your skill by turning this process over to another person or outside organization.
Your joy in life is the process of looking at the map, deciding what looks interesting and what appeals to you, and then exploring that. If, during your exploration, you reach what appears to be a dead end, follow the process discussed earlier: rest, follow other paths, and try again when you have gained other information.
God has given you the freedom to explore all kinds of concepts and religious teachings without fear of judgment or condemnation. Your exploration of these ideas does not mean that you reject the ones you already have – it means you are prepared to enhance them. You will explore exciting ideas, systems, and beliefs that you never knew existed – things you had never imagined. You will ask questions about them, receive startling and exciting answers, and ask more questions. All the while your Reform Mormonism will be there, supporting you, encouraging you, never leaving you. It is a marvelous and wonderful work. It is the adventure of a lifetime!
When the multitude of opportunities for belief are laid out in a logical manner, it may well be that any two Reform Mormons hold vastly different – even contradictory – views about a particular subject. This is to be expected when dealing with people who are progressing. People will be at different stages of progression, at different points on the upward spiral. The spiral itself is different for everyone, because it is constructed by each individual. No stage is necessarily better or worse than another; it is simply not useful or appropriate to compare them.
Therefore, Reform Mormonism is a religion that encompasses this variety of views into a larger truth: tolerance.
We believe that this tolerance is critical to facilitate the process of progression through Eternal Knowledge and personal revelation. Without this tolerance, the impetus to explore, the freedom to open up the map and see where it will lead, is stifled. Such stifling is the antithesis of progression; it does not stop it, but it dramatically slows it down.
There are many who feel this stifling today. It is a concern in many religions. You may have felt it: it is a complex, mixed feeling that one can describe as a sort of comfortable suffocation. There is the comfort of knowing that you do not have to make too many major decisions – all of the hard questions about life and God and morality have already been answered, you only have to concentrate on the little, day-to-day decisions. But there is also the nagging feeling that you’re missing out on something, a “is that all there is?” feeling, that has a slight sense of suffocation to it. You’ve been told that too much exploration of the answers already provided to you is dangerous – that it’s safe to stay within those answers, but that you risk your very soul to stray outside of certain lines. You’ve been instructed to obey commandments so that you will stay within those lines, and thereby your path to God is laid out for you, prepared, pre-formed, predictable: no need for more questions. And be assured that it is indeed a path to God, as all paths are – it is merely a path to God that does not necessarily support your progression, that tends to stifle the experience of many people in this life. It does so by suggesting that the great tool God gave you – the questioning and answer process of Eternal Knowledge – is to be feared as dangerous, and that you must therefore limit its use (thereby limiting yourself.) The suffocation feeling stems from this idea that God somehow wants you to be limited; the amount of new air you can breathe in has been regulated.
I will not pretend that exploration is always happy and positive. On the map there are a wide variety of experiences, not all of which are pleasant. Your independence from the stifling control of those who seek to limit you will, at times, seem insecure and risky. When you set out on uncharted waters there appears to be much risk. Others have told you that you must not stray from their pre-defined path, because the off-path risks are too great. Stick to the path, they say, and you will get to God.
The truth is: you will get to God anyway. There is nowhere else to get to. Once the pre-defined path becomes too boring for you, once you realize that the well-trodden path you’re following, built by others, is only one way of a thousand different ways that all lead to the same place – you will begin to develop the spark of knowledge that God placed within you – and you will start a new and more exciting journey.
You do not have to abandon anything to take this journey. Eternal knowledge is cumulative; there is no need to erase your past. You only need demonstrate the courage to explore. It is the sort of journey that, at the end of this physical life, you will be glad you took.
In those moments when you are most honest with yourself, you’ve wrestled with this need to explore, and your courage to act in this regard. I know the difficulty of this; but you see, you are already treading a new path. Even the wrestling has brought about new questions, and new answers. This demonstrates your ability to engage this God-given process.
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