The Theology of Relation

Excerpts from an interview with Samuel Brown by Shaun Maher  I really liked this and even bought the book:

(Samuel Brown, an Intensive Care Physician and an Assistant Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and Medical Ethics and Humanities at the University of Utah, is the author of First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple.)

I wanted to think through what the theology (of relation)  meant for me as a practicing, believing Latter-day Saint in the twenty-first century. If my history work told me anything, it was that the Restoration was about our interdependence as Saints. It was about covenants of mutual regard and belonging strong enough to unite the human family in the face of our inevitable mortality.

When the Protestant Reformers took on what they saw as the abuses of the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, they were especially skeptical of the idea that the Church as the body of Christ could be a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was important to them that salvation was fundamentally an individual experience. We all in the West have inherited this suspicion of our interdependence as human beings when it comes to salvation. Joseph Smith didn’t support this Protestant view of our connections to each other, though. Instead, he taught that salvation was a basically communal affair, that what mattered in this life was that we learn how to care about each other the way Christ cares about us. This was the message of Zion, consecration, the temple, and the law of adoption. What matters most during our mortal lives is that we live together in love. In loving, and striving to love, each other, we participate most fully in Christ’s grace.

I was most struck, I think, by a couple of comments Joseph Smith made in sermons. These comments were half humorous and intentionally scandalous to any Protestant listeners, but they spoke volumes about the Restoration. He basically said he’d rather be in hell with his friends than in heaven alone. It would be easy to misread this in our contemporary theology. This wasn’t the adolescent anthem “my friends understand me better than my parents, so I’m going to go smoke in the parking lot and God isn’t so judgmental that he would care.” That’s not what he meant at all. He was saying that you can’t understand heaven without community; it is our connections with each other and with Jesus that matter. The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that hell is other people. Joseph Smith taught the opposite: heaven is other people, united together in love of God and each other.

We are human beings. We are always trying, and failing, and trying again. This is true of us as individuals, and it’s true of us as communities. Famously, we as Latter-day Saints had to fall back from consecration to temple attendance and tithing. Periodically, we as a people need to be called to repentance. Sometimes we are better and sometimes worse. When we get obsessed with all our toys and our big houses and forget about the people who live in other houses or even none at all, we aren’t true to that theology of relation. When we foster a Christly love for others, when we make sacrifices for the benefit of others, we are more true to that theology than when we focus on ourselves and our pecking orders and our affluence.

I had seen how central the temple was to what Joseph Smith was doing theologically. The Restoration really came to a head in Nauvoo as Joseph Smith worked to summarize in doctrines and ordinances the core meaning of the revelations that had been vouchsafed to him as a prophet. Life and afterlife are about relationships; it’s relationships all the way down. That’s the spirit of Elijah, that’s the sealing power, that’s the kingdom of heaven. After spending so much scholarly time thinking about what the temple illuminated in Mormon history, I realized that I was beginning to see the Gospel differently in my life as a practicing Latter-day Saint.

This First Principles book was a way to for me to reboot our understanding of what has seemed too familiar for too long. Article of Faith 4 seems so basic on the surface, so familiar and traditionally Christian: faith, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Ghost. Those basic principles look like a roadmap for the individual believer through the Christian life. In light of the temple, though, the whole Gospel looks radically different. More Mormon, more ancient, more deeply relational. On that relational view, faith is about trust and fidelity in relationships with God and the Saints, repentance is about reconciliation and the healing power of relationships, baptism is a kind of birth certificate of our adoption by Christ into his family, and so on.

The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.” You go to explain, “neither of the extremes of that aphorism taken in isolation actually describes what the church is for. It is true that we are all broken in some way, that each of us bears a burden of inadequacy or fear or pain that needs attention of Christ the Great Physician…But the church also allows us to rub shoulders with people whose weaknesses are different from ours, a fact with an important implication.It’s so easy when we are struggling to understand important or complicated problems to want a simple solution that applies in all cases. I think that desire is what has been behind so much of the arguments about grace versus works. But that thirst for a single model causes us to miss more important truths. The one great truth is God’s love for us and this love can be expressed in many different ways. In some situations, the best way to talk about God’s love is to use the language of grace; in other cases the best way to talk about God’s love is to talk about putting your shoulder to the wheel and doing the work that needs to be done.

How to balance grace or works depends on the contexts and phase of life and the specific struggles an individual is experiencing. At different times and in different ways, some of us are served by discussions of grace, while others are served by an emphasis on works. The debate about whether the church is a museum or a hospital is a part of that same conversation about grace and works. For many of us—especially those of us who have felt like we didn’t fit somebody else’s definition of what a good Mormon looks like—grace and the hospital are the most important conversations. For others of us—including people like my beloved grandfather, who was a practical biochemist and stoic Utah farmboy turned Midwesterner not much taken to weeping—works and the museum were more important.

I love that at church I both find balm for my troubled soul and I see models of people whose love-filled lives are worth emulating. I love the guy in my ward who buys donuts for every wardmember’s birthday and the retired writer who sees beauty and love in orderliness and is always ready with an enthusiastic, kind word. I learn from them weekly. Church is in part a place where we come together with people who are better than we are. One of the paradoxes of the gospel is that everyone is better than we are (and we are better than everyone else). Our strengths and weaknesses are complementary and can be made whole and beautiful within the Church. We learn from each other (museum) and are succored by each other (hospital).

While diversity has become a kind of secular buzzword, there’s a deep truth within it. We shouldn’t allow the angry passion of the culture wars to distract us from deep diversity. In the Gospel we are called to unity in diversity, not the secular model of unity in identity. What’s hard and important is acknowledging differences and allowing them to persist through the unity of mutual commitment. Not a mutual commitment that says we are all identical, but a mutual commitment that says that the body of Christ is a complex, living being with feet and hands and eyes and various internal organs. This unity in diversity is the call of Zion. When we acknowledge that the church is both museum and hospital, we embrace that reality that the body of Christ includes all of us, and that all of us are Saints and sinners, sick patients and exhibits in a holy museum.

With this balance between grace and works, I don’t mean that we should be thinking of Saints as perfect human beings or to suggest that certain people have everything in order in their lives. True Saints are fallen people with all sorts of foibles in addition to their strengths. The process of looking for what is good in others is part of what I mean by the museum. Just as some works of art require a bit of time and commitment to see their deep truth and beauty, so do many of us require a second look to see our strengths. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for that beauty and strength and embrace it when we see it.

Repentance, like the rest of our experience of the church community, draws on both grace and works at different times and in different ways. Sometimes repentance is all about feeling God’s forgiving love and giving ourselves permission to believe that through God we can be made whole. At other times repentance is about seeing ways we can improve, perhaps drawing courage from how good a friend is at doing certain things. Not because we are in competition with that person or judged for not being like her but because when we live together in love we are able to see more of what is beautiful in each other and to want to emulate that goodness and beauty.

One of the many reasons that mental illness can be devastating is that it interferes with the connections we have with God. Mental illness can destroy our emotional and spiritual senses.  Mental illness is difficult. It’s hard for everybody, but especially for the person who is trying to see both the outside world and inside himself through a lens distorted by mental illness. The world looks bleaker, less friendly, and the self seems unworthy or unable to fit in. God may seem angry and distant or even a figment of the imagination or a cruel joke. Usual approaches to talking about spiritual promptings—feelings of joy, peace, or happiness telling us what to do—may actively backfire because mental illness can cloud an individual’s ability to feel those things. And the lack of access to such feelings can make the sufferer feel needlessly abandoned by God.

It takes work to know and love the individual within the mental illness. It’s hard to know how best to proceed. It’s a lot like dealing with grief. Much as in the aftermath of a death, platitudes and hollow expressions of solidarity are unlikely to help much and may even estrange the sufferer from well-intended friends. Mental illness may even be harder than grief, though, because with grief there’s a concrete thing that the sadness or worry is associated with. With depression or anxiety the sadness and worry float about freely, permeating everything.

Practical guidance on what to do is hard to come by, but I think that there are some basic principles relevant to loving people with mental illness. Don’t be afraid of or denigrate psychotherapy and medications. For many people such treatments can be life saving. Be careful to avoid blaming. People with mental illness often believe themselves somehow responsible for their plight and will attend to any suggestion, however unconscious, that this is the case. The stereotypical blaming of other people for their plight is itself an expression of the terror that it might be true that they’re responsible for their own misery. At the same time, most people with mental illness don’t want to be looked at like they’re damaged goods or treated like a child. In my experience people most often want patience and loyalty and to be enjoyed as an individual.

As I’ve thought about First Principles and heard back from readers, I’ve realized that I wanted to do two things with this book. I wanted to introduce people to these incredibly rich and beautiful themes in our history and theology and to explore the ways that they apply in our lives now. I also wanted to let people know that I’m a Mormon, that readerly, academic people well-versed in our history could stay committed, eyes wide open, to the body of Christ. There is much to sustain all of us here, and I find this Internet narrative that knowledgeable people who live the life of the mind can’t possibly stay Mormon to be deeply confused.

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About Karen Hopkins

Karen Hopkins (1949-) was born in Los Angeles and raised in Martinez, California. At seventeen she moved to Talcahuano, Chile. After completing her university degree she worked in London, England for Pan American Airlines and traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, and India. For twenty-six years Karen taught Spanish and English as a Second Language in a variety of settings including a private school in Panama, the "most remote school in the United States"--Ticaboo, Utah, the Navajo Reservation, a teacher exchange in Hermosillo, Mexico, Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona, and Cochise College in Nogales, Arizona. She and her husband travel extensively throughout Mexico and Central America, and have spent many summers in the remote highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala with their family. Karen currently lives in Southern Arizona, near the Mexican border.
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