“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father”
On several occasions in my life, nearly always when I was being given advice or direction from a Priesthood holder that went deeply against my own spiritual or intellectual interpretations of a situation, I have been told to “be submissive like a child”. The scripture listed above is commonly quoted to Mormons who are perceived as being impertinent to authority in some way, who are asking non-faith-promoting questions, who are struggling to keep within the bounds of their calling, or who are taking a stand against a Priesthood leader or perhaps an aspect of doctrine. Being told that you are falling victim to “your natural man” is a pretty big game-changer in any ecclesiastical conversation and it is a red card of sorts that is used to keep people in check. The intended meaning behind this statement when said to me, from what I could infer, was that I needed to submit to the authority of my leaders without question in this instance; that my own inclinations here were of “the natural man” and that the suggestion of my leader was “the enticings of the spirit” that I needed to yield to. It most definitely wasn’t whatever the spirit was inspiring me personally to do, since that was being labeled by my leader as “the natural man”. “The spirit” here only applied to what my Priesthood leader thought or wished for me. Ultimately, I was to infer that what “the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon me” was any problematic element of the situation in question, or perhaps any cognitive dissonance that the theology that was being discussed at the time caused. I was told to be like a child and submit to my parent, who in this cause was my ecclesiastical leader.
What did I mean when I said an aspect of doctrine could be a cause of distress? There is an array of gospel topics and many aspects of mormon history and past doctrines that are never taught in the church education system; they are purposefully withheld completely at all levels of correlated discussion. This is primarily because these aspects of history and gospel topics are extremely difficult to understand in a faith-promoting light. Incorporating such lessons into standard curriculum has been avoided entirely, to the point that the majority of Mormons go their entire lives without ever having been taught the more complex issues and conflicting history surrounding their religion’s origins. In fact, the same classes given to 18 year old women are the exact same classes and topics given to 88 year old women, which would be fine if it encompassed everything an adult needs to know. As it stands though, it does not and there is no further graduation or access to “more difficult to consume” information within the recommended studies of the church. When I left on my mission as a 21 year old, I thought of myself as an informed participant; it wasn’t until I was 30 years old and (against ecclesiastical advice) stepped out of the church’s correlated teachings that I realized that, perhaps to protect me, the church had purposefully withheld and omitted pertinent information from my liftetime’s education. There is definitely wisdom in the adages of “not casting pearls before swine” or “no meat before milk”, but when it comes to complicated topics in mormonism, the church chooses to hold off on serving “meat” completely if at all possible. In many ways, we are treated like perpetual children instead of maturing adults in regard to what the church feels is appropriate to disclose to its general membership.
Education for adults isn’t the only aspect of their lives that is shielded and controlled. How to dress, what to eat or drink, how to speak about church topics, which actions of intimacy are approved (even in marriage), and which types of movies are approved; all of these things are dictated for you and you can be disciplined for failure to comply. The church even put out a press release recently with recommended hashtags to share on social media. This level of control and “sameness” can stifle individual growth and unique points of view. It also creates a unique brand of immaturity in Mormon social structures. In my experience, passive aggression runs rampant in Mormon wards and friendships. All too often when assumed “lines are crossed”, Mormons fail to confront a person directly and express their feelings or concern and instead opt to “tell on them” to the bishop so he can correct the situation or call that person to repentance.
So if the adults are treated like children in many ways, how are the children themselves treated? Mormon children, are expected to sit still, be completely quiet unless spoken to, and pay attention for three hours straight every Sunday. The only reprieve they get is a 20-30 minute singing time during primary. Children are to be silent in the hallways, walk with their arms folded at all times, and be as sedate as possible. All of this is believed to create a quiet atmosphere where the spirit can reside. For me personally, it created a very negative association with church and made me feel like I had to pretend to be someone else to make God happy. I also associated God with unrelenting boredom. Regardless of my personal misgivings though, most Mormons I know are very proud of this aspect of our church culture and the maturity seen in our youth. Mormon children are often much more adept at sitting still and being quiet than other children of their ages because of all of the practice. Also, the public speaking and prayer opportunities for children in LDS congregations help them have useful skills that transfer into other areas of their lives later on.
Mormon children bare their testimonies publicly much like adults as well, stating, “I’d like to bare my testimony, I know the church is true, I know Joseph Smith was a prophet…” followed by whichever other aspects of the gospel they wish to speak about. Children baring testimonies is undoubtedly the highlight of most fast and testimony meetings due to the excessively cute things they go on to say, but it cannot go unnoted that standing in front of a congregation of adults and declaring that you “know” of the veracity of your church above all others and also of the divine appointment of its original and current leaders is an extremely mature declaration to make. It’s always been interesting to me to hear such young children parrot statements of which they have so very little personal life experience. I remember when I was a child about to be baptized, I was very hesitant about the prospect and said I honestly don’t know if I can say yes to all the baptism interview questions; I really didn’t think I “knew” that any part of it was true. My leader at the time told me to just continue saying the words “I know”, and each time I say it then my spirit will grow on the inside until my mind really will accept that it is indeed truth. Funnily enough, I also had this same thing told to me in the MTC when I had similar misgivings. It is through this exercise that many people lay claim to their testimonies whether old or young.
Since what goes on in temples is considered sacred, anyone who has not passed through the temple before does not know what goes on there. Before attending there, I honestly thought that the temple would include some kind of Q&A in which you could have all of your current questions answered, and perhaps classes were adults learn exclusive extended doctrine that is only suited for the intellect of an adult; information that would make sense of all of the doctrinal questions I had. I gotta admit that I was bummed that the temple did not have such classes. Instead, it was a retelling of the creation story with new emphasis added in parts and a series of rituals that didn’t answer my existing questions, but instead were symbols of promises being made. The temple created a whole new bout of cognitive dissonance to take on and honestly muddled my doctrinal quandaries further. When I intimated to temple patrons or my bishop that the practices of the temple actually made me feel very uncomfortable and spiritually depressed, I was told again that this was “the natural man” in me and that the key to my overcoming my first impressions and gaining my testimony of the temple would be to fully submit to what was taught and done there just as a child submits to their parent’s advice. Again, being childlike would be the key.
Mosiah isn’t the only time we are entreated to be childlike, however. Perhaps there’s a better brand of “childlike” that I could emulate? Jesus said in Matthew 18: 3-4:
“Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven”.
Now here is a scripture that resonates with me far more than that of Mosiah. So in this scripture, it is using “be converted” and “becoming like a child” side by side. So if I am to compare the process of conversion to being as little children, then the following statement sums up a child’s learning process: undying inquisitiveness and an insatiable urge to challenge the limits of their worldview. My kids accept my answers to their questions only as long as it works with the other things they have learned and also what they see around them. The second my basic, dumbed-down, age-appropriate answers conflict with their more mature world view, they come back asking for more and I am more than happy to teach them more. If they doubt my answer I give them, I never take it personally or hold it against them for not trusting me. I realize I must have done a poor job of explaining it and I try again. If I don’t have the answer, they ask their dad. If he doesn’t have the answer, they ask their teacher at school. The times I realize that I misled them in any way or made bad parenting choices, I always to try be accountable for my wrong, give them an apology, and try to rectify my mistake. I accept that I am limited in what I can ultimately offer my kids. When they are older, I hope they have the drive to read from as many authoritative sources as they can to create the informed opinions that shape their adulthood.
One day my kids will find out that Santa is not real. In this instance, I hope they will see that they were given a narrative to work with that suited their youthful world view and added joy to Christmas, but upon learning more–they will adapt to their new world view of Christmas and have a much more mature and nuanced understanding of the beautiful holiday. Santa doesn’t need to be real for his spirit and purpose to be every bit as important.
So my challenge to the institution of the church is to adjust what it means to be a child in Christ and to be an adult in Christ:
1) Allow and promote childlike inquisitiveness of your membership, do not limit what they can or cannot ask or discuss at church.
2) When it comes to the spectrum of history and current and previous doctrines that are taught in the Church Education System, treat mature members of your faith like the adults they are. Allow them to be truly informed through the CES so they don’t have to find out elsewhere and feel deceived.
3) Do not make people feel sinful or unfaithful for expressing doubt or craving answers to their shelf of questions. If they feel spiritually inclined to seek answers elsewhere or choose to have a less literal or more nuanced interpretation of what you’ve presented to them, be proud of them for their willingness to grow and learn more.
4) Restructure the children’s programs of the church to allow for more imaginative play. Create learning environments that are not confined to a preconceived notion of quiet reverence, but are more adaptable to the spiritual, mental, and physical needs of children. Instead of telling them what they need to “know”, give them tools to find truth on their own.