The Mormon Belief System
Now let’s examine the basics of the Mormon belief system:
First things first: Mormons belief that discorporated individual souls float in the ether somewhere above Earth, and when a woman’s egg is fertilized, one of those souls immediately flies into it and endows it with Heavenly Grace, making it a human being, despite its being too small to see with the naked eye! In our family, when I was a child and a teenager, we used to joke about this notion, which seemed, even then, to be quite bizarre; we used to look up toward the sky, swing our heads around, and make a “shooshing” noise to simulate the imagined sound of a soul taking up residence in the budding blastula. My dad put up with us poking fun at his nominal faith with his characteristic good humor. Of course, we did this only within the confines our own four walls; it wasn’t something we could make light of with our neighbors, some of whom took their beliefs quite seriously, including those that seemed to us totally ludicrous.
When Mormons are baptized they are literally “cleansed of all previous sins.” This is done by “total immersion,” by the way; they don’t go in for any of that wussy sprinkling of water on the head like, say, the Catholics do. After all, to be totally cleansed of sin, one has to be completely submerged, lest some spot on the body escape the divine effects of the waters, which are blessed and consecrated. Recall the fate that befell Achilles, whose mother dipped him in the similarly miraculous waters of the River Styx, which made him invulnerable to weapons of any sort, except where she had held him upside down by one ankle, which, in the fullness of time, became his “Achilles heel.” Further, if Church members are truly serious about becoming eternal members of the Community of Saints, both in this world and the next, they can then “go through the Temple” and have all the contaminations of Earthly life thoroughly scrubbed away; by all accounts, this amounts to the spiritual equivalent of a colonic bath. The Mormons have temples scattered all over the world (according to their website, 117 already constructed, with another 10 in the planning stages), to provide a suitably solemn and awe-inspiring venue in which these and other sacraments can take place. The Mother Temple in Salt Lake City is, of course, the oldest and most revered of all.
Now presumably as pure as the driven snow, True Believers then don what they call Garments, which we used to jokingly refer to as “holy underwear”; being an unbeliever, I’ve never actually seen a set of Garments, but what follows is my impression of their appearance: they are white cotton underwear, somewhat similar to long johns, except that they are in two pieces, a “blouse” and pantaloons, which both men and women wear continually, after baptism, for the remainder of their lives. They are worn under standard outerwear and never taken off, except, I assume, for showering and swimming. They allegedly protect the newly cleansed body and soul of the person wearing them from future contamination by the temptations of the temporal world. I’m not sure of the rationale for allowing the unshielded appendages-that is, feet, hands, and head-to go unprotected against the blandishments of a sinful world. I’ve never heard an adequate explanation of what seem to me to be glaring omissions: when I first learned about the garments, I couldn’t imagine a medieval knight (at the time, I was heavily engaged in medieval romances, a lá Sir Walter Scott) going into battle without armor-plated gauntlets on his hands; armored, articulated footwear on his feet; and a steel helmet on his head. Go figure. However, I deemed it prudent not to question the wisdom of the Church Authorities, the Powers That Be.
Further, Church members can, if they’re very sure of the robustness and anticipated longevity of their contemplated union, get married in the Temple, a ceremony that “binds husband and wife together for Eternity” and is considered sacrosanct and indissoluble; this is not to say that no couple married in the Temple ever splits up or gets divorced, but such occurrences are quite rare. Some of my high school classmates were married in the Temple, and to my knowledge are still married, though I can’t tell you whether or not they still bask in the marital bliss they no doubt enjoyed when they were starting out. In any case, as I understand it, even those not married in a Temple ceremony can be “sealed for Eternity” to their spouses and children, even after death, via a special additional ceremony. (By contrast, my wife and I were not even married in a church, much less a High Church ceremony with divine overtones; we were married outdoors by a Justice of the Peace in a simple civil ceremony. Technically, I suppose we had [she died very suddenly and unexpectedly in the summer of ‘06] what established churches would view as a “civil union” rather than a “marriage,” though we nevertheless considered ourselves just as married as any other couple! We had very little marital discord and celebrated our thirty-first anniversary a bit over a year ago, so it seemed to work out okay, despite lacking the official blessings of any church; in fact, we had the best relationship of any married couple we ever knew. Whether our stability can be attributed to dumb luck or to incredibly astute judgment on both our parts, which enabled us to pick each other as mates, based on mutual compatibility, remains an open question.)
Like other Christian denominations, the Mormons believe in a life after death, complete with Hell, Purgatory, eternal punishment for mortal sins, and a wonderful paradise for those deemed worthy of it. I don’t know whether Mormon dogma posits that the Lower Regions also have distinct levels, corresponding to the seriousness of one’s sins, as Dante Alighieri described in The Divine Comedy more than seven hundred years ago; if it does, I don‘t recall ever having them laid out in any of my classes on Mormon theology. However, Mormons part company with adherents of other religions, in that Mormon Heaven has three levels:
(1) The “basement” of heaven is the Terrestrial Kingdom (so named because conditions there are allegedly much closer to those here on Earth than to those in the higher levels). As I understand it, this kingdom is for those who just barely made it in by a hair’s breadth; they could easily have gone “the other way” if their sins had been only slightly more egregious. Still, it is Heaven, and presumably its residents can at least hear rumors of God, which is more than those in Hell and Purgatory can enjoy. My guess is that this is a rather small group, relatively speaking.
(2) The middle level is the Telestial (from the Greek tele, meaning “far”) Kingdom. This is the domicile of those who performed relatively well during their Earthly sojourn but who still fell somewhat short of perfection. Presumably, this is quite a large group.
(3) The penthouse of Heaven is the Celestial Kingdom. This is the highest level, as good as it gets, and only those who lived extraordinarily exemplary lives on Earth are privileged to enter there and sit in ecstasy “at the right hand of God” throughout Eternity. My experience of the world’s inhabitants indicates that truly saintly people constitute only a tiny percentage of the whole of humanity. Therefore this final Mormon group, I always thought, had to have the smallest population of any of the subdivisions of Heaven. Even so, there are presumably thousands, perhaps even tens or hundreds of thousands, who attain such a peak of perfection during their Earthly “trials.” As a child, I often wondered how all of them could occupy the same space at the same time-that is, at the feet or right hand of Jehovah, presumably looking up adoringly as pearls of wisdom and joy radiated from His Divine Presence and showered down on them. Later on, I realized that the Heavenly Realm wouldn’t be subject to those pesky laws of classical, Newtonian physics that plague us here-and anyway, these eternal residents of Heaven are disembodied spirits and therefore don’t have corporeal bodies, so there shouldn’t be any conflict with physics. In any case, as any physicist can tell you, all supposedly solid matter is mostly empty space.
Needless to say, only Mormons can enter any of three levels of Mormon Heaven. It was always a bit of a mystery to me where the “good” folks who subscribed to other religious belief systems went, though perhaps other sections in the vastness of Heaven are allocated as their domicile. However, according to Mormon doctrine, God resides exclusively in the Celestial Kingdom, because that is where the adherents of the only One True Religion dwell for Eternity. I’ve speculated that perhaps God takes periodic tours to the outlying areas of the Heavenly Realm (perhaps somewhat similar to what the Elizabethans called royal “progresses”–that is, stately processions to “show the flag” and let the common folk know that the monarch was still alive and in control of things). There, I imagined, He would rub the noses of those living in the outskirts in the fact that, though they made the cut, they didn’t qualify for the “first string.” The theory that God would deny those other “good” folks the alleged benefits of being in His presence always seemed to me quite cruel, not at all in keeping with the character of a “kind and loving” God. But then who am I to pass judgment on God? After all, He is God, which to True Believers means that He can make up His own rules, and whatever He does is, by definition, both correct and just. Or so the True Believers claim; I remain skeptical.
In the Mormon belief system, because those who aren’t members of the True Church can’t go to Heaven, it’s also possible to “save” those who have already departed to their Eternal Reward (or, more accurately, eternal damnation), in that living people can act as surrogates and be “baptized for the dead.” This idea, even as far-fetched religious beliefs go, always seemed to me quite beyond the pale of reasonable belief. Most other belief systems agree that if you don’t opt to become a True Believer during your Earthly existence, then you don’t have a prayer of saving your soul after you’ve already been condemned to Eternal Punishment. But, hey, I guess all faiths are subject to new data being transmitted from The Big Guy to the Prophet, his Divine Representative on Earth, whether he’s the Pope, the local ayatollah, or the President of the LDS Church.
However, regarding said recently received data, I’ve always been mystified as to why The Big Guy (a) didn’t impart allegedly correct information earlier; and (b) didn’t mention it to any adherents of the other long-established, competing religions. Neither of those omissions seems quite fair to me, but then again, given that my reasoning is hampered by human experience and fallibility, who am I to judge God’s Divine Plan? I can only conclude that He does, in fact, play favorites, so maybe it makes sense after all for professional athletes to drop to one knee before the game begins on a Sunday afternoon and pray for strength, divine inspiration, and ultimate victory! How silly of me to think that such posturing was merely self-serving, hypocritical nonsense, done mostly for its presumed effect on the onlookers. But what if two opposing teams, both composed of Christians, pray to the same God for victory? How does he decide which side to favor? Maybe He consults Jimmy the Greek; who knows? But again I digress.
Mormons (or least some of those I grew up with) do possess a sense of humor, however. When I was in high school there was a joke circulating in which a man dies, is judged to merit Paradise, and is taken on a tour of Heaven by one of the angel caretakers. The angel opens the first door, and the new arrival sees a huge room containing thousands of people, all eating, drinking, dancing, and generally having a wonderful time. The newly dead soul asks the angel, “Who are they?” The angel replies, “The Catholics. Let’s move on.” He opens a second door, which reveals a similar scene. In answer to the unasked but implicit question, the angel usher says, “The Protestants.” He opens the third door to reveal a large group of people, all on their knees, heads bent, eyes closed, apparently praying silently, and making not a single sound. The new arrival whispers, “Who are they, and why are they so quiet?” The angel places his index finger on his pursed lips and replies, also in a whisper, “Shhhh. They’re the Mormons, and they think they’re the only ones here!”
There are probably other Mormon beliefs that I either knew about at one time but have since forgotten (as mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s been almost fifty years since I studied this stuff) or that I never knew about, simply because I didn’t make it past the initial screening, which would have allowed me to be baptized and conveyed into the Inner Circle of the Elect. Still, I hope these few examples have given you a feel for the Mormon belief system. Strangely enough, although some of them may seem quite peculiar to the uninitiated, Mormons think of themselves as being most closely aligned with mainstream Protestants, but apparently the latter don’t share their views; in fact, it seems that evangelical, born-again Protestants don’t even consider Mormons Christians! Despite being considered by the majority of Americans as a fringe cult group, the Mormons are probably among the most conservative religious groups, and I have little doubt that Utah is the reddest Red State in the country! Go figure. . .