Our final unit was the one in which we actually read a book by a non-Latter-day Saint. I felt it would be important to have at least one book by a non-member, and for this unit I choose Douglas Davies’ The Mormon Culture of Salvation. I appreciate his perspective as an outsider. He talks about things that end up being rituals of a sort, but that I, as an acclimated insider, hadn’t considered rituals, like the sustaining of church callings. (I mean, I guess it’s obvious that it’s a ritual, but I’m so inured to it, and the fact that it’s so short a span of time to perform, that I just didn’t think of it in that way until I read his book. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, but there you have it. Outside perspectives are important, is the moral here.)
It had been good to have the Rowberrys (the local institute director and his wife, who are Georgetown chaplains-in-residence) come right at the beginning of this unit. Much of LDS theology is centered around the family, and as part of their presentation they brought pictures of their extended family. It was nice to start off with such a clear presentation of what the idealistic LDS view of family life is, and how some manage to achieve it. In my lectures, we definitely talked about the flip side of that–enormous pressure to have a Leave It To Beaver-style family.
In teaching the LDS Plan of Salvation, I borrowed a teaching tactic from my world religions professor at BYU-Roger Keller, and I think it worked well. I had the students first outline the journey of a human soul according to traditional Christianity. Then I showed them that the LDS conception merely adds to that understanding (i.e., heaven or hell become spirit prison and spirit paradise as the two-location judgment made immediately upon death). Now, is premortal existence and three degrees of glory addition, or complete reformulation? It’s a question they would wrestle with in their papers for this unit. I used an analogy from a friend of mine—that on the basics, Mormons and Christians are all on the same page. It’s like Newtonian physics. However, the further out you get from the basics it becomes more like quantum mechanics or approaching the speed of light—things just get weirder in physics. And does that mean these new discoveries match up with Newtonian physics (the basics) or does it mean there’s a radical reformulation needed?
The temple also posed an interesting problem for me to teach, and for the students to understand. Most of the students were white, middle or upper class American protestants. Hence, most of them were unfamiliar with the idea of a space so sacred that outsiders aren’t allowed inside—Mecca is the biggest contemporary example, but there was only one student who had personal dealings with Islam. The Jewish temple provided a nice example of sacred space, but since it hasn’t been around for almost 2000 years, it’s not exactly contemporary. There’s also the trick of describing what the LDS do inside their temples without violating covenants. I did eventually decide to do a powerpoint presentation with pictures of the interior of temples released in official LDS publications, with the quick description of the endowment as “the stations of the cross, but about the history of the universe instead of the crucifixion.” It was in gathering pictures from the more recent temples from the LDS newsroom that I suddenly realized that newer temples were moving slightly back to an endowment where you moved from room to room not just at the end, so that was an interesting discovery. I guess I just hadn’t picked up on that fact, since I haven’t attended a newer temple with that setup.
We talked of the organization of the church, something else that was also showcased by the Rowberrys in their visit—Dr. Rowberry’s discussion of how church callings are made in the lay ministry was very detailed and I think helped show how much LDS try to rely on inspiration in their day-to-day lives. We finished with a discussion of the future of Mormonism, talking about the church’s (slowing, but still substantial) growth, the increase of temples, the Perpetual Education Fund, Mormon education rates and their positive correlation with activity, and the general trends in religion worldwide.
For their final papers, the students had two options. They could either tackle the question “Are Mormons Christian, or do they represent a 4th Abrahamic religion?” or they could write a short paper on Krister Stendahl’s rules of holy envy, and what the students had holy envy for regarding Mormonism. Even if they picked the “are Mormons Christian?” question, they needed to give me at least a paragraph on the holy envy idea.
The very last day of class, as they turned those papers in, I wrapped a few things up, and then went through and asked them each what they had holy envy for within Mormonism. The answers were varied and interesting. The reform Jew wanted to implement home teaching in his synagogue. Others wanted their family life and their religious life to be as integrated as is encouraged in Mormonism. For me, however, the best moment came when one girl talked about how she wished that in her denomination, Roman Catholicism, there were an opportunity to stand up and say what you believed. She had apparently attended church on a fast Sunday. I paused for a moment and told her that there was a moment that Catholics stood up and said what they believed. Every mass they stand up and recite the creed. She gave a bit of a start, which brought a smile to my face. It obviously had not occurred to her before that the very thing she had envy for in Mormonism actually existed in Catholicism. Now, I know that testimony meeting isn’t the same thing as standing up and reciting the creed all as a single body, but it’s more commensurate than she was giving it credit for. “Sammy,” I said, “the next time you go to mass, and you stand up and recite the creed, I want you to really own it. Make it your own.” She nodded. I hope she does.
In the end, having the students go one by one to recite what they liked about Mormonism was a great way to end the class and achieve one of the major objectives that I wanted. More than merely learning about this unique religion, I wanted them to take something away they could apply in their own. As stated on the syllabus, one objective of the course was “to aid the students in continuing their own faith journey by comparison and contrast with another religion not their own,” and this exercise turned out to be a great way to help them realize the good in their own tradition.
And thus the class ended. The students overall seemed to have enjoyed themselves. One even joined the church! (She had been investigating before the class began, and it was a specific reason she was taking the class.) Of all the final large papers, two were good enough that I encouraged the students to tweak them a bit and then submit them for publication. Only one of them took me up on that, and I’m working with him on the tweaking. This was the same student whose senior thesis on Mormon assimilation I supervised this same semester, so he and I got to know each other pretty well and I look forward to helping him finish revising that paper. We’ll see . . . maybe it will show up in Dialogue or Square Two or something in a year or so. And, from my point of view, any class that has a larger-than-expected enrollment (such secondary religion classes at Georgetown usually have about 15 as I understand it, I had 26), that the students can come away with a positive experience from (as evidenced by their comments the last day and their comments on the evaluations), and which generates a few papers worth looking at for publication, was, in my opinion, a successful class. I had approached the class with some trepidation about teaching such a class in this latest Mormon Moment, but think, in the end, was good for all involved. It certainly was for me, at least.