In my time discussing Mormonism over the years one of the biggest misconceptions that Mormons have about traditional Christianity isn’t so much over a particular doctrine or a ritual, but a whole feel that they have for the thing. So many Mormons see traditional Christianity as oppressively bland. You can tell if a Mormon harbors this bias by their overuse of the word ‘Platonic’ in describing Christianity. By Platonic they don’t mean technically Platonic as much as they mean empty, vacuous, words cleverly hidden under more words crafted together in impossible creeds. They may tell you that the Christian God sounds like a no-person and that Christian heaven sounds like a hell with its clouds and harps and unending hymn singing. In fact, look at a recent Sunstone article, issue 150, “Of Time and all Eternitiy: God and Others in Mormonism and Heterdox Christainity” by James McLachlan- a well crafted, interesting article whose premise is just this very false notion. Let’s face this bias head on.
After I finished my physics degree, I had the opportunity to work at CERN (yes, I knew I’d get to brag about that one day) and so lived in Switzerland/France for several months. One thing that I quickly discovered would be a favorite pastime was looking at the glorious churches all around. Even the smallest chapel was full of charm, usually stone, usually old, usually with stained glass. The Mormon chapel I attended in Geneve on the other hand, was well, typically Mormon. The biggest thing that sticks out in my memory is my visit to the cathedral at Milan. What a truly awesome sight. Not only is the exterior a monumental work of art to behold, but the inside… is the very definition of sacred. I knew as soon as I stepped inside on an ordinary summer day why Catholicism has such a strong grip on the heart of humanity. The space seeped with sacredness.
Or, I think of a more recent visit to a Presbyterian church (before I made my final decision to leave Mormonism, by the way). The space is nice, large, with stained glass windows. It sets the stage. But that wasn’t what I was thinking of this time. It was the music. There is a giant pipe organ in that church, and it was played by a professional, and she played who else but Bach. Unless you’ve listened to Bach played in a church with a good organ by a professional you can’t relate. I highly suggest it. The beauty of it is nothing short of sublime.
When I think of the richness of Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy in particular- the vestments, the decorated, large spaces, the music- and then I hear a Mormon complain about the emptiness of Christianity, I don’t know whether to laugh or wring my hands. Really? Have you never heard a Gregorian chant or listened to Bach? Have you never stepped inside a Cathedral on Easter Mass and saw the candles lite up the darkness?
On the other hand, let’s look at Mormonism for a second. The Salt Lake temple is an inspiring building. There is not question about that. But most temples feel like what a mansion would feel like if it were decorated by hillbillies who just won the lottery. Most Mormon chapels feel sterile and popped out of a cookie cutter. Sure, the Tabernacle Choir can do some great stuff, but the stuff Mormons are usually subjected to Sunday by Sunday is less than inspiring and I know as a fact I’m not the only one with that opinion.
You may say, hey nebula, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the belief system. The theology. In Mormonism we know all this stuff about the afterlife. We’re married, we have families, we’re resurrected! Well many Mormons don’t seem to be aware that orthodox Christianity teaches of the resurrection of the dead. I agree, Mormonism does spend much more time thinking about the specifics of the afterlife, but a lot of that I don’t personally care for. If the Celestial Kingdom really looks like an ostentatious living room in which we all have to whisper- no thanks. If I really have to continue to be subjected to Home Teaching in the Spirit world- no thanks. Frankly the orthodox Christian notion of glorious union with The Bridegroom sounds much more interesting.
The next time you feel the urge to paint traditional Christianity as vacuous, empty, Platonism, remember the cathedrals, the vestments, the music, the paintings, the sculptures, and ask yourself, would emptiness have the power to inspire such beauty?