There are two types of Mormons. No, that’s not fair. There are many types of Mormons, and putting them (us) into two groups only serves to pigeonhole people and polarize the extremes.
Start over. Mormons have many ways of trying to live a moral life. Two of them strike me as complementary. I think of them as the Letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law methods.
The Letter of the Law approach might be described as living the gospel from the bottom up, or from specific to general. This involves paying attention to the numerous, specific commandments given by prophets and general authorities: no beards, no double-pierced ears, always wear a white shirt on Sundays, no playing with face cards. This approach isn’t inherently bad. After all, keeping the commandments is supposed to demonstrate obedience and lead to blessings.
The problem with this approach is that it tends toward . . . superficiality, in the most literal sense of the word. Continuing revelation means that Mormons are always getting new commandments on new issues, and the list of things we are or aren’t supposed to do just keeps getting longer. No one can possibly do everything that a good Mormon is “supposed” to do, but we want to look like we’re doing the right thing, so there’s a tendency to focus on outward appearance. And once we start focusing on how we look to others, it’s easy to start judging others by how they look. For all that the men and women of the Church have been counseled not to have facial hair or tattoos or body piercings (beyond the one permissible hole in each earlobe for women), we have never been told, ever, that this commandment is an excuse to be snotty to those who chose to do otherwise. However, it’s easier to judge unwisely than to look to the beam in your own eye, just as it’s easier to pay attention to looking good than it is to being good.
Probably you can tell from this diatribe that I lean towards the Spirit of the Law way of approaching the gospel. Spirit of the Law-types live the gospel from the top down, from general to specific. They want to get at the principle behind the rule – the deepest truth behind the superficial instance. I think this mindset is probably closer to True Religion than the other one, because it gets at the raison d’être behind all of the rules, and because, if we are to be Gods and Goddesses ourselves some day, we’re going to have to start figuring things out on our own, and not depending on others to dumb things down for us.
However, there are some problems with this philosophy, as well. The biggest problem with relying on your own judgment is . . . what if you have bad judgment? If you have bad judgment then you also, by definition, don’t know that you have bad judgment. How do you know that the thing you think is right is really right? And how can you tell if you’re doing something because it’s the right thing to do, or just because you want to do it? Also, this attitude almost completely negates the idea of doing anything on faith, because you won’t do anything if you don’t see the point.
Of course, a moral life can come from either of these approaches. Paying attention to the letter of the law should also mean paying attention to which commandments are more important and which ones have been given special recent emphasis. No mortal can live a perfect life, but if you’re going to screw up, you should probably be aware that breaking the law of chastity is more grave than accidentally drinking a can of caffeinated Barq’s root beer. Keeping the letter of the law should also help you to have the Spirit with you, which should help you to make decisions in situations that aren’t specifically covered by a commandment.
Likewise, the good judgment necessary in trying to get at the spirit of the law means recognizing one’s own limitations in understanding. This means that God knows better than you do, and that the prophet, the general authorities and other leaders may also know better than you do. Furthermore, there are many basic commandments that are so closely in line with the spirit of the law that you don’t need to re-evaluate them every time you run across them. Killing your neighbor is bad. Loving your neighbor is good. Don’t be evil. Any questions?
So, like I said before, I fall strongly and stubbornly on the Spirit of the Law side of this equation, for a variety of reasons including my upbringing, my experiences in the Church (both bad and good), my mother’s personality, and her upbringing. The odd thing is that, while I think outside the Mormon culture box, I also hate attracting attention to myself by being different, so I tend to blend perfectly into the orthodox Mormon background. (This combination can also backfire, as conservative and liberal Mormons both mistakenly assume that I’m very conservative. In our first class together, Melyngoch and I famously dismissed each other as not worth getting to know.)
Anyway, being aware that I am overly oriented towards the Spirit of the Law (or what I think is the Spirit of the Law), I decided to try to be more Letter-ish in a couple of areas, namely, accepting a new calling last semester and completing President Hinckley’s Book of Mormon reading challenge.
Taking the Book of Mormon reading challenge was a very positive experience. I hadn’t read the Book of Mormon all the way through in a long time (it’s my least favorite of the standard works) and it helped that when I calculated the number of pages to read every day, I accidentally read that many leaves every day for a couple of months – even though I missed reading for a few weeks, I still finished easily by November. (And got to feel smug for the rest of the year. Oh, wait. That wasn’t the point at all.)
The new calling . . . didn’t work out so well. Last semester it was fine, as the ward mission leader was very easygoing, and didn’t seem to mind that I missed most of our weekly meetings. (In my defense, he scheduled them at a time I had to work, because that time worked best for most of the other people.) This semester wasn’t so good. The new ward mission leader was much more disciplined and organized, which I’m sure was a good thing for the missionary effort as a whole, but he seemed to think that regulation should apply to every aspect of our calling, from giving us quotas of copies of the Book of Mormon we should be handing out to down to prescribing the minimum number of weekly spiritually-themed discussions we should be having with non-members. I’m sure that there are some people who are outgoing (dare I say pushy?) enough to meet these stipulations, but I am not one of them. Add to that my own doubts and hesitations about the Church (Investigator: “I’m just not sure about some things.” Me: “Yeah, me neither!”) and the fact that I, a shy introvert, was supposed to “fellowship new members and include them in my activities.” (“I like to spend my evenings alone with a book, and I invite you to do the same.”) I’ve only just been released and not a moment too soon.
So, I’m 1 for 2 on having success doing what I’m supposed to do just because I’m supposed to do it. That’s not exactly a clear mandate for moving in the other direction. And I’m so much happier here.