Teaching Mormonism at Georgetown-Unit 4: LDS Theology and Ritual

By June 15, 2012

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 thatenormous 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.

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous


  1. This is fascinating; thank you for sharing it.

    I have to admit to a twinge of discomfort at your emphasis on the “holy envy” idea. Not that it isn’t a great idea, but that you required it in the paper and orally without (unless I missed something?) any counterbalancing sentiment, such as: What challenges does Mormonism face? Or: What do Mormons struggle with? Or: How do disaffected Mormons describe their experiences? Or: What are evangelical and secular critiques of Mormon history and theology? Or: What are some paradoxes in Mormon theology? Or: What groups find lived Mormonism most challenging and why? Or, basically, any question that might summon a ‘negative’ to balance the implied ‘positive’ of holy envy. You left your students with no choice but to say something positive about Mormonism, and no option to say anything negative. The other paper assignment gave only two choices: What of the student who felt that Mormons are neither Christian nor represent a 4th Abrahamic religion? (As I am sure you are aware, we could easily find people who would label Mormonism nothing more or less than a “cult.”)

    I suspect that objectivity in the study of religion is not a possible goal, but balance is a goal that I would hope all scholars of religion would strive for. I would be distinctly uncomfortable if my child were to take a university level class taught by a practitioner of _any_ religion or philosophy where the final work in the class was so positive and there was no exploration of tension, or weakness, or shortcoming in the religion. That seems to slide uncomfortably close to devotion and away from academic study.

    But perhaps I have misunderstood the character of these final assignments?

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — June 15, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

  2. Huh. I wonder if describing the Endowment as “like the Stations of the Cross, but with other things” actually helped people understand it. Yes, they both involve a person dramatically telling a story and require audience participation at points, but that’s similar to a whole lot of rituals.

    The way I’ve described it to curious people (including a group of Orthodox Jews the Yale LDSSA had an interfaith discussion with) was this: The Endowment is a dramatic reenactment of the Creation of the world and man, man’s fall, and the process of his redemption through Jesus Christ, in which the participants play the role of the archetypical Adam and Eve by making promises to God throughout. [1] Such promises include to follow the laws of sacrifice, obedience, chastity, and consecration. [2]

    The other thing I often say is that the Garment represents the coats of skins given to Adam and Eve by God. That has helped to put it in its ritual (and hence narrative) context and to explain its significance more simply and straightforwardly than any other explanation I’ve seen.

    [1] I figured all this out from just going to temple open houses and LDS-published books about the temple. Not too hard to put two and two together when you see a “Creation Room” with a “Garden Room,” a “World Room,” a “Terrestrial Room,” and a “Celestial Room”! Also, I’ve never been in a temple where you stay in the same room until the Celestial Room – all the ones I’ve seen in person have at least a two-part room progression.

    [2] I refer to Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood B, which states, “During the endowment we also promise the Lord to obey the laws of sacrifice and chastity and to be willing to give everything we have to help in His work.”

    Comment by Michael H. — June 16, 2012 @ 6:36 am

  3. Also, I would argue that the idea that the division of souls between heaven and hell at death is affirmedly not a traditional Christian idea, but rather a *colloquial* idea. From what I understand of the matter, many Christian churches (I can’t speak for multifarious Protestantism) believe that that judgment only comes at the end of time after the Resurrection, as do Mormons. They have other ideas about what goes on in the interim, with some saying that the souls of people go to some place (is this the “Bosom of Abraham”? I think so…) while others say that the souls “sleeps” during that time, that it’s unconscious. Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that the soul literally doesn’t exist during that time. People certainly believe that heaven and hell come right after death, but I’m not sure how many churches teach that officially.

    Comment by Michael H. — June 16, 2012 @ 6:44 am

  4. Thanks for contributing this series of posts to JI, Carl.

    I share Julie’s questions/concerns about your assignment (which, IMO, seems to reflect the general tone of the class as you’ve presented it in your series of posts here), and would be interested in your response.

    Comment by Christopher — June 16, 2012 @ 8:00 am

  5. It’s far too easy when looking at other religions to focus on “where *we* are better than *they*”, or the weird and exotic. I think it’s useful to assign someone to find something positive to focus on to provide a counter-balance.

    Comment by Ben s — June 16, 2012 @ 10:36 am

  6. The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade is an incredible work which shows the separation and function of ritualized space. Victor Turner’s ethnography forest of symbols aspects of ndembu ritualchapter on liminality “Betwixt and Between” also has helpful insights on the role of the sacra in rites of passage. They are both relatively short readings from non-Mormon authors.

    Comment by Mason I — June 16, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

  7. I’m so glad you shared this and I look forward to reading those papers some day.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — June 18, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  8. While I love Eliade and think a lot of his notions would be useful to have in a temple prep class, I do think one should be cautious. In some ways a lot of his ideas are pretty dated. Also in some ways they arise out of his phenomenology of religion which not everyone buys. (It ends up being pretty Heideggarian) I like it but one should be careful since in many ways he ended up partaking of that great sin of myth structuralism from that era: forcing narratives into the categories theorists wanted. While Eliade was never as bad as say Joseph Campbell there is a sense in which he’s engaged in the same sort of project.

    Comment by Clark — June 20, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

  9. Julie, you are right to be wary of ending on such a high note, but as I said in the post it was more of a comparative religious exercise than a “yay Mormonism!” exercise. It was more academic than devotional, but the devotional point was also joint with whatever tradition they came from (and even the non-practicing religion students were able to comment on the question). I do really hope that Sammy takes what she likes about Mormonism and becomes a better Catholic because of that holy envy. I feel I’m a better Mormon because of my holy envy for other traditions, and I was trying to duplicate that experience for them. Maybe it was misguided of me to think that what has been a great experience in my life would be the same for all of them, but they did respond positively to it, and to my coaxing them to be better in their own traditions because of the exercise. Also, I didn’t give you the exact paper prompts I gave the students, and I assure you they were a bit more open-ended than I’ve presented here. Ben S also has a good point, and is reflected in one of Stendahl’s rules-compare strengths with strengths. I did feel it would be better to end on a positive note than an ambiguous or even negative one, and to try to tie that note into their lives more than being a white-towery academic analysis of the religion. I could easily, and probably would, do the same for a class on any other religion.

    Eliade would have been a nice side note, but I’m not sure that focusing on his theories would have been worth the amount of class time it would have required. But I’ll think on it. You’re right that he does have a good way of helping make these distinctions.

    Michael, one reason I use the “stations of the cross” is that the idea of movement from station to station mirrors the movement from creation, garden, world, etc. rooms in a way that other comparisons don’t exactly make. I’ve still found it to be a good one-liner for the endowment. Yours was more of a 4 or 5 liner. I’m curious if you have a one-liner for the endowment. If so, what is it?

    Comment by Carl — June 22, 2012 @ 6:02 pm

  10. Ah, qualified like that the comparison makes more sense. Were I asked, I would probably say something like “a dramatic, participatory presentation of man’s progression from premortal spirit, to fallen man, to godly heir.”

    Comment by Michael H. — June 23, 2012 @ 10:11 am

  11. As I’m myself a student at Georgetown, I have really enjoyed these posts. In my grad program, for many students, I’m the first Mormon they have met. This presents an interesting opportunity, but also leaves me feeling somewhat isolated. Do you know how big of an LDS community there is at Georgetown? I’ve often wondered how fellow Mormons are there with me.

    Comment by BryanJ — July 1, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  12. Bryan,

    I know that Dr. David Rowberry, the local CES director, is a chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown, and Blair Hodges of BCC and FAIR Podcast is a MA student in religious studies there. Brother Rowberry generally works more with the undergrads, but I’m sure he would love to have lunch with you if you wanted to drop him a line.

    Comment by Carl — July 7, 2012 @ 9:07 pm


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