There is only one story in Mormonism this week– the impending disciplinary councils for Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. By now, you have almost certainly read a dozen, if not more, opinions, arguments and commentaries on this particular event and I have no desire to add to them. All of that has been done elsewhere and better. (Since disclosure of personal loyalties seems to be the order of the day, I have followed both Sister Kelly and Brother Dehlin for some time and I support them both in the work they have done, but only ambivalently, for reasons that are too complex to get into here)
The focus of my thoughts is on the reaction to this series of events among your so-called “average” active Mormon, mostly on the Internet but which will almost certainly be coming to a chapel, home or family reunion near you and soon. Inasmuch as excommunication is a type of “spiritual death,” more than a few have taken the opportunity to tap dance on Sister Kelly and Brother Dehlin’s still-fresh spiritual graves. Examples abound and are too ugly for me to copy or link to here; besides I have no interest in giving such persons the pleasure of publicity or pageviews. Most of the worst vitriol seems directed at Sister Kelly, even though Brother Dehlin’s career of so-called “apostasy” is longer and more well-documented. The relationship between this fact and Sister Kelly’s gender is not coincidental. Even setting aside the spitefulness and judgmental nature of these expressions of pleasure, the misunderstanding of even basic facts about these cases betrays some mix of bad faith and a simple inability to accurately perceive the truth (which ought to cast at least some doubt on the value of one’s testimony, particularly when so eagerly brandished as a weapon).
This isn’t a mere plea for civility or “can’t we all just get along?” From observing the reaction of this and other similar events among active Mormons over a series of years, what becomes increasingly and distressingly clear is that the dream of establishing Zion is dead. We are no longer a people whom the Lord could trust to build it up. Of course, we can and will continue to build chapels, temples (and malls) along with their various associated for-profit ventures, but never a community of Saints. The ultimate outcome of these particular disciplinary councils is immaterial. (In fact, as I write this, Brother Dehlin has already publicized that his disciplinary council has been delayed if not canceled altogether, in favor of deescalation, at the urging of his stake president. It remains to be seen if there will be any relief for Sister Kelly.) I do not know whether Zion will be a place where everyone wholeheartedly embraces (or opposes) same-sex marriage or the ordination of women, or even if the Saints of Zion will universally hold well-informed and nuanced historical views. But what I do know is that Zion will be a place where we must bear one another’s burdens that they may be light, rather than heaping stones of condemnation on the backs of those who are already staggering under an enormous load.
What we have instead of Zion is a Church culture and a level of disclosure and way of treating one another which are totally unworthy of the greatness of the Gospel we profess. To give only a single example, we teach as doctrine an expansive salvation, a system where the bulk of the human race will continue to progress, learn, grow and develop eternally as they are willing to receive the truth. This is heady and revolutionary stuff. But if you really want to get a Mormon engaged in a conversation, best to ditch sublimity and let’s talk about women’s shoulders and hemlines. As Ronan James Head pointed out earlier this week: “the world groans under all manner of evil and the kingdom of God expends most of its energy on nonsense.”
Perhaps it ought not to surprise us that Latter-day Saints have failed to achieve a collective perfection in a less-than-200-year history, much of which was passed through in less-than-ideal circumstances. What ought to be of greater concern is that it is not at all clear that participation and involvement in the Church is contributing positively to that outcome. Without the dream of Zion, the Church finds itself unmoored and adrift, teleologically speaking, twiddling our thumbs as we await the end times.
What scant hope remains is that, by the grace of God the Father and Jesus Christ, dreams, visions and utopias, like the men and women directed to conjure them from the base substance of this life, can, though impossible and dead, be made alive again. But until that day, we mourn.