It might seem like a strange combination for those of you who don’t know me. I am an American interested in both Mormonism and Eastern Orthodoxy. They are two very obscure and misunderstood religions in the United States, though Mormonism has had quite the spotlight lately, with Mitt Romney, The Book of Mormon musical, and less recently, the controversy surrounding Proposition 8 in California. Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is far more obscure in the United States, in my opinion. Many people I know simply assume Orthodoxy is some kind of Oriental or ancient Catholicism, and certainly are unaware that Orthodoxy is alive and well in the United States (though fragmented).
So to discuss my interest in both religions, I’ll explain them one at a time. For the time being, I am going to make an attempt to keep my identity a secret for the purposes of this blog, though I am going to invite some of my friends to participate in it. I ask that if you know who I am, please maintain some kind of privacy for me as I wish to be able to explore my thoughts and ideas without fear of recourse.
Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
I was born to goodly Mormon parents of many generations in the church. My mother’s family crossed the plains with the Saints in the great exodus of Brigham Young, and I am a direct descendant of one of Brigham’s apostles during that time who led a company of people. On my father’s side, I am a descendant of a very well-established rural eastern family who joined the church around the turn of the 20th century, and so I now have cousins in every ward and branch in my home state. I have two uncles of some prominence in the church, my father was a branch president and high councillor, my grandfather a patriarch and sealer. I went to youth conferences, for the most part only dated members of the church (even when it was very difficult in my rural area), and went to early morning seminary at 6:00 am every school morning as a teenager. I served a full-time mission for the LDS church, met my wife in a single’s branch, and married in the temple “for time and all eternity.” I have served numerous teaching callings in the church, including temple prep, mission prep, Institute (Old and New Testament), gospel doctrine, early morning seminary (Doctrine and Covenants), and 12-13 year old Sunday school.
However, though I was once a very conservative (yet open-minded and universalistic) member of the church, I have experienced great periods of doubt in my life as well. I went through one period after I was married of great anxiety (some clinical, some existential), which led me down the path of learning philosophy and theology. Philosophy saved my belief in God, but it also caused me to doubt the Mormon idea of God. This, along with many other elements that cause friction between me and the LDS church, led me to learning and understanding other religions as much as possible. I will not go into too much detail here, because that’s what this blog is all about!
Eastern Orthodoxy has fascinated me ever since I was a child. It seemed so wild and exotic; something ancient and dazzling that took the ingredients that I was familiar with in Western Christianity – Atonement, Godhead, sacraments, the Incarnation – and mixing them up and reframing them in ways that were completely foreign to me, and yet somehow also resonated with me nevertheless.
When I was a kid, probably around 5th grade or so, I saw an advertisement in a magazine that promised five history books at an incredibly low price, and I subsequently signed my father up for membership in a history book club. I didn’t read the fine print, of course, and when the box showed up with the books I had selected, my father had one or two questions for me regarding why he was now obligated to continue buying books as part of his membership in the club. However, I had good parents, and they figured that, of all the trouble I could be getting my 5th grade self into, signing up for history books at low prices was probably not that big of a deal.
The books I selected reflected my various historical interests, and a couple of those books I still own to this day. One of them was A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich. I picked it because something drew me to the history of Byzantium, an empire that my history textbooks almost failed to even mention, let alone explain. All I knew about Byzantium was that when Rome fell, it passed down some kind of continuity to Byzantium, which sputtered on for a few centuries and then likewise was invaded and divided. When I got the book, and after a mild chastisement from my father, I read the book and was delighted by the bombastic style with which the author retold the sordid and frankly nasty details of the emperors of Byzantium. There were murders and deceptions committed by emperors and clergymen, and religious conflict often turned into riots and bloodshed. To be clear, there is a lot of very unflattering stuff in the history of Byzantium, and perhaps my readers might think it strange that I would come away from the book with any kind of warm feelings about Eastern Christianity at all.
And yet, the thing that stuck out to me most was the realization that the spirituality of the common person was the engine that made Byzantium what it was – never mind that unscrupulous emperors twisted and exploited that power for heinous reasons. I wondered what kind of religion would cause people to feel so passionate about the wordings of religious pronouncements and formulations. Norwich was writing in an older style of history, which tells about the kings and the battles but very little about the common man, and so I was left to wonder.
Since then I have had numerous run-ins with various Orthodox Christians, clergy and laymen, and my appreciation for it continues to grow. My fascination has never diminished, driven by a fixation on strange acts of faith, music, inspiring religious symbols, and artwork.
When I was a missionary for the LDS church, I was quite proud of my “understanding” of early Christian history. I thought I knew a lot about how the church fell into “apostasy,” how evil the popes all were, and how Constantine and the Church Fathers completely messed everything up. However, I was just regurgitating the common LDS criticisms of Christianity, most exemplified by a book called The Great Apostasy: Considered In The Light Of Scriptural And Secular History by James E. Talmage. Then once, when I was knocking door-to-door in the Southwest United States, I ran into a local member of an Orthodox church. When we started talking about the early Christian church, he completely schooled me. I was floored. He made me realize that I really knew nothing about the Catholic and Orthodox churches at all. That event really stuck with me.
Now I love Orthodoxy more than ever. I have attended several liturgies in a couple different jurisdictions, and have read several books about the faith. While there are still some major things in the church that concern me, Orthodoxy has rejuvenated my faith in Jesus Christ – not just as an abstraction but as a living entity whose presence can be felt on Earth.
This blog is all about my journey understanding Mormonism in light of Eastern Orthodoxy, and Eastern Orthodoxy in light of Mormonism. There are some significant similarities – and I feel that many Mormons would absolutely gain the appreciation for Orthodoxy that I have. There is a lot for the Mormon to appreciate in Orthodoxy. On the other hand, there are significant differences that may almost seem insurmountable between the two.
Please subscribe if you’re interested in Mormonism, in Eastern Orthodoxy, or just curious about how the two might compare and contrast. And feel free to comment if you feel so inspired.