My Religious Manifesto
When I was younger I believed that I was the wise (wo)man who built her house upon a rock. I had a sure foundation. I knew that the church was true and that knowledge determined all of the other decisions in my life. No, I would not drink. No, I would not do drugs. Yes, I would study my scriptures every day. Yes, I would pray mightily. Yes, I would get married in the temple. No, I won’t date before 16, or have sex, or even neck or pet (even though I didn’t know what that meant). No two pair of earrings you say? I can do better. I will not even have one.
As I’ve aged I realized that I actually built my house upon the sand. I founded my testimony on a rigid black and white understanding of the do’s and don’ts of the gospel that when held under the scrutiny of the wind, the rain, and the flood—which in this metaphor is historical reality, eternal principles, and critical thinking—washed away the house that I built. I had been taught and wanted to believe in such a whitewashed version of a complex gospel that I never had to dig through the earth to find the true foundation. Instead I just built right on top of the soil. Let me clarify that there is nothing wrong with soil. It is a wonderful thing that brings life and fecundity. But it also erodes through time and space. It changes with the seasons and when disaster strikes it cannot secure a foundationless house.
What is clear to me now is that I have to start digging. I have to figure out where that foundation is and stop being so foolishly assured of my footing that when the rains come down and the floods come up it nearly destroys me and I’m left exposed, dripping wet, and shelterless. This post is about that journey; my sojourn of finding an immovable foundation to hold onto through the vicissitudes of life.
In true Descarte fashion, I decided to go through all of my beliefs and evaluate if they withstood doubt. I combined my knowledge of the gospel with my knowledge of church history, religious texts, and appeals for the spirit to be with me. I assessed whether my belief surpassed historical, geographic, and cultural relativity. I asked myself “in the face of sacrifice and persecution what would I continue to espouse?”
What remained surprised me. It wasn’t complex or elaborate or even new. Here is my new religious manifesto:
- Do No Harm.
It is my religious Hippocratic oath of sorts. I’m going to print it out, sign it, and hold myself to it.
Since I’ve been a Mormon my entire life and since I’ve studied philosophical debates of the roots of morality, Kant’s categorical imperative, Nicomachean ethics, and theories of altruism, I am fully aware that other people would have arrived at different foundational principles. I am sure that some would have chosen: Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, or the modern prophet, etc. I could have gone a million different directions with this thought experiment, but I ended up here and I think that is important to explore.
As an anthropologist, it’s abundantly clear that religions throughout time and across geography have been powerful sources of both extreme good and great damage. Religious ideology has brought us the Good Samaritan, Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi but it has also contributed to the Inquisition, Jonestown, and religious extremism. Religious adherence is correlated with longer life expectancy and increased happiness but also with higher rates of intolerance and authoritarianism. Can I take the good and leave the bad? Conservative approaches to the church always argue that “you cannot pick and choose what you like in Mormonism” but what if you choose something that is always good? I.e.it is always good to Do No Harm.
Can I hope for the blessings of eternal families but not hold it over the heads of those who do not marry in the temple? Can I support the concepts taught in our religious texts without condemning all who are not Mormons to an existence of limited happiness and eternal regret? Can I see the wisdom in modesty and chastity without viewing them as indicators of someone’s worth? Can I love the church and recognize that it isn’t perfect but also feel it my duty to speak up about the aspects of it that are hurtful? Can I value the teachings in the Word of Wisdom, the For Strength of Youth pamphlet, and the Proclamation to the Family without using them as how-to guides for the dissemination of judgment?
Just to clarify, I do not see my new religious manifesto as an excuse to sin but rather the exact opposite—as an impetus to move from passive religiosity into actionable spirituality, to be better, to do better. Since most sins are harmful to myself or others they are immediately prohibited.
Doing no harm not only necessitates that I refrain from inflicting pain on others, but that I also actively seek to lessen the pain that already exists. It means that I can’t sit quietly when I see injustice, inequality, or intolerance. It means that I have to allow others to have opinions that differ from mine, but that I cannot allow for those opinions to turn into unfettered discrimination, prejudice, or hate speech. It means that in the rare circumstance when two values collide, i.e. obedience and compassion, the empathetic approach always wins.
My religious manifesto is not revolutionary. Some might claim its just a compact version of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (I highly recommend reading it in full here and here) where he talks about doing good, loving others, not judging, helping the poor, being merciful, etc. He concludes his sermon with one last parable saying (Luke 6: 47-49):
“Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like: He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.”
I may not make it through next Seasons storms unscathed but I feel more secure having decided to build my house upon a new more secure foundation: Do No Harm.
What is your foundation built on? When you have had undulations of doubt what kept you afloat? Can Mormons have a secular humanist or even a non-denominational foundation like: Do No Harm? If so, what keeps them particularly Mormon? What other bedrocks are there that surpass the scrutiny of our metaphorical wind, rain, and flood?