Greetings, all. I just finished taking all the chips in a friendly seminarian game of Texas Hold ‘Em and when I came upstairs, I figured I would get ready for bed. But then I remembered… I had promised to post about my first Mormonism class today. Since there are only about 30 minutes left in the day, I better get posting.
First, allow me to say that I think this class is going to be amazing. Of course, we didn’t cover very much in the first class. It basically went the way that all first classes go… the professor introduces her/himself (himself in this case), we walk through the syllabus, we go around the room with everyone telling a little bit about themselves (in this case, we gave our names, what seminary we are in, and why we are interested in this class), then we take a break. When we come back, the professor gives us a little intro to the subject.
One reason I’m excited about this class is simply because I am very interested to learn more about the Mormon religion. I think it gets a bad “rap,” and I’ve always wanted to have a better understanding than I do. My exposure to Mormonism has been somewhat scarce. In high school, my best friend’s little brother converted to Mormonism, much to his family’s dismay. I still remember talking to him some years after his conversion, and being incredibly surprised to find out that he does drink caffeine and sometimes drinks alcohol. He explained that of course, just like any other religion, there are those who are more conservative, and those who are more liberal. I had never thought about that before, and thought he made a great point. It opened my eyes to look at many religions differently.
Then, while I worked at Microsoft, I had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer who was Mormon. He beat the cancer the first time around, but he didn’t make it the second time. I went to his funeral/memorial service and was incredibly struck by the community that was present. It was tangible, and I felt filled with the incredible love that surrounded every person in that room; love not just for Steve, but for everyone. I was very touched and, again, it made me want to know more.
At my seminary, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, we are required to take one class in a religion that is different from our own, and it must be taught by a person of that faith. Since PLTS is part of the Graduate Theological Union, where many seminaries of different faiths and denominations join together to offer classes to seminarians from any seminary, there are many opportunities for me. I will be taking two such classes: Mormonism this semester, and Buddhism next semester. I am excited and eager for both.
A few days before class, the professor emailed the students the syllabus and a couple of readings that he suggested we read before class, if possible. (If anyone would like a copy of the syllabus and/or readings, just let me know and I will email it/them to you.) I enjoyed the readings and was struck that neither one of them spoke specifically about Mormonism. Instead, the one that sticks out (a lecture given by William James) was about how we humans tend to respond to beliefs that are different from our own. We are struck with how odd they are, we make fun of the others for thinking such strange and fantastic things, and we separate ourselves from them. He points out that we do all of this even though we ourselves often have our own very strange and fantastic beliefs. His lecture struck me as very true.
The minute I walked into class, I felt immediately welcomed and comfortable. There aren’t many people in this world who make me feel that way, but our professor definitely did that. He greeted me warmly, I sat down, and conversation came easily to all of us who were waiting for class to begin. When class did begin, our professor began as I stated above, and he seemed just so incredibly open and genuinely interested in every one of us. He talked about how he loves teaching this class because it is always full of people from other faiths, and he gets to learn as much about us and our beliefs as we get to learn about him and his. He spoke of his incredible passion for learning, and how he hoped we would get as much out of the class as he knew he would. He let us know that he has been Mormon all of his life, as he grew up Mormon and also earned his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University. He has traveled all over the world in his studies and earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin. He taught at Cal State – Berkeley for many years.
As each student introduced themselves, I was pleased to find that we have students from many different seminaries, including a monk, a Jew, and some other Mormons. Some students are Masters students, some are PhD students, and a few are undergraduates. The Mormons spoke about how they have actually taken this class before, and learned much more about Mormonism than they ever knew from growing up in the faith. I believe our professor asked them to join us again so that we would get to hear about the Mormon experience from some people other than himself. I love the diversity!
As we introduced ourselves, each student had a different story to tell about their exposure to Mormonism so far. Most spoke of very warm, welcoming and loving experiences. Typically, someone knew someone else who was Mormon, and was struck by the friendship they developed with that person. A couple of people spoke of conversations they had with someone on a plane when they sat down next to a Mormon who was going to or from a mission. One person spoke of his father’s death, and how his family’s Mormon neighbors were incredibly present, available, and helpful to his family during their grieving process. And one person spoke of memories of being a child when representatives from LDS would come knocking on the front door, and her mom would hide her in the closet until they went away. We all laughed, including the professor and the other mormons. She said she remembers being confused as to why her mom would hide her, and thoughtfully said, “I should ask her why….” I love how we can talk about these things, sharing our stories and past responses, some emotional, some humorous, some seemingly irrational, and everyone seemed to be at ease, open with one another, and ready to laugh. It just felt … comfortable.
When we came back from our break, our professor filled the last hour by showing us a video that gives an introduction to how Mormonism began. The video walked through Joseph Smith’s life. We learned that his father was Universality and his mother Presbyterian. He had his first vision at 14 years old, but the story of that vision, what it was and why he had it, evolved over time. The video said that it started as Joseph’s request for forgiveness, but by the time the evolution was over, it was Joseph asking God to tell him which religion was true, and God telling him that none of them had it right (I had heard about the end story before). During the gold rush times, Joseph was a gold seer (I did not know this). He would lead people to where gold was buried, which was cillegal. He was tried for doing this (I assume because it was thought to be a swindle), but many people testified that they believed Joseph really did have this ability. Then, three years after the first vision, another one came. This one told him that there were golden plates buried, which Joseph found, and then translated into the Book of Mormon.
The biography continues and covers the city and temple that Joseph built in Kirkland, OH, how he left in debt and moved to Missouri, where Joseph believed was the actual place that Adam and Eve lievd in the garden of Eden. As the Mormons grew, those who lived in Missouri eventually became violent, and the governor of Missouri issued an extermination order (the only one ever issued in the US), demanding that the Mormons leave. The Mormons went to Illinois next, where they were at first welcomed by people who were shocked at their treatment in Missouri. It was there in Missouri that Joseph Smith had more revelations such as being able to baptize the dead and the call for celestial marriage (polygamy). Joseph Smith gains more and more power. When someone throws some accusations against Joseph Smith in a local paper, Joseph orders the destruction of that paper. It is then that Joseph Smith is to be arrested, but he has an opportunity to flee. Apparently, he starts to flee, but then turns around and turns himself in. It is while he was arrested, I believe, that he was killed by a mob.
And then we ran out of time. If you’re interested in watching the video yourself (we only watched about an hour of the two hour video, I found it online here. I wish I had more to share with you, but I suppose it was only one class :-). I will say this, though…. I admit that I am one of those people who has heard about all of these beliefs that Joseph Smith had and that I have understood Mormons believe, and I have thought… “That is just crazy. Why in the world would they believe THAT?”
But… I think the lecturer William James makes a good point. Don’t we all believe some pretty crazy stuff? Most Christians seem to believe it’s no big deal to believe that God impregnated a virgin so that God could be human for 30+ years on Earth. That’s pretty crazy, too. How about Moses parting the Red Sea? And it’s not just Christians. How many people believe that there are, truly, ghosts in some shape or form? Maybe we don’t call them ghosts… they are some sort of spirits or souls left from those who have departed who somehow watch over us or communicate with us. At the beginning of class, we spoke a little about IONS, the Institute of Noetic Sciences (I had never heard of IONS). They do research on things that seem paranormal. One experiment that was explained to me was how they would put someone in a room, video tape them, and see how that person responded when someone else would stare at them from behind them. Would they notice? become uncomfortable? turn around? Apparently, most people DID notice.
My point is not to say that the paranormal really does exist (although I do believe it does), but to point out that most people in this world do believe in something “strange,” “unusual,” or “out of this world.” And yet, we all tend to put down the “crazy” beliefs of others.
I love that everyone in this class seems to come to the class with an open mind. I don’t mean to say that I think any of us are going to be converted. But I do believe that we are all ready to listen, try to understand, learn, and respect the beliefs of the others who are in the room. That, alone, excites me.