Native Tongue Theory

“The writings of Samuel Beckett suggest and analogical example of this process in my life. After composing two novels in his native tongue, Beckett decided to write in French and then translate his own words back into English. Waiting for Gadot, his translation of En Attendant Gadot for example, has a precision and a potency that the English without the French original would never have had. In other words, he conceived the play in French so that his own English became foreign, became aesthetically distanced.

“In a similar way, it was necessary for my native religious tongue (Christianity) to become foreign, and for a foreign tongue (the eastern) to become, for a time, as if native. When I then viewed eastern insights alongside New Testament images of Jesus, those images gained a transformational potency for me.”

World Scriptures by Kenneth Kramer, pg 84

In conversation with a friend last week, he asked me what my current relationship to The Church was. I laughed and told him I wasn’t leaving any time soon… hell, I’m the Relief Society 1st Counselor and the Gospel Doctrine teacher in my current ward! I did relay, however, my feelings that Mormons need to broaden their definitions. I believe the version of the Gospel that got handed down from Heaven to Joseph Smith was an incredibly large and all-encompassing framework, but just a frame. With the political situation, moving, persecutions, internal conflict, etc. there simply wasn’t time for Joseph to receive much more than a glimpse at what God has in store beyond baptism.

In this way, I have no doubt that The Book of Mormon contains, as we like to say, a “fullness of the gospel.” But consider all the technical details that were not found in The Book of Mormon, rather given through revelation as Joseph studied other books of scripture, other ritual traditions (Masons, Egyptians, etc). In fact, the Sunday School lesson manual pointed out this very fact just last week:

Suggestions for Lesson Development

Attention Activity

As appropriate, use the following activity or one of your own to begin the lesson.

List some or all of the following subjects on the chalkboard before class begins.

Physical nature of the Godhead

Our creation in God’s image

Apostles and prophets

Melchizedek Priesthood

Aaronic Priesthood

Mode of baptism

The gift of the Holy Ghost

Premortal existence

Baptism for the dead


The three kingdoms of glory

Eternal marriage

Our potential to become like Heavenly Father

Invite a class member to erase from the chalkboard anything that has not been revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Help class members see that nothing can be erased from the chalkboard—that all of these truths were restored through the Prophet Joseph. This lesson discusses how Joseph Smith has been instrumental in bringing forth the word of the Lord in this dispensation.

How many more profound truths await us, if we follow the example of Joseph Smith? Or, how can we gain a better appreciation of the truths revealed through Joseph Smith by considering their treatment in other faith traditions?

I can’t help but look to the Catholics this week, as it is Holy Week. From the lens of Mormonism, they only have “the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel: faith, repentance, baptism, and the laying on of hands”(paraphrased, Article 4) but, man, are they rockin’ it! The pinnacle of Catholic worship service is the Sacrament. Scriptures are recited, arias sung, and homilies delivered all pointing the parishioners to this holy moment of transubstantiation. Their interior and exterior design of cathedrals and even little Parish churches proclaim to all who enter what the most important part of the building and ritual is: the altar on which The Eucharist is blessed. Every façade, window, and sconce reminds you that the Son of God died for your sins, they call you to believe what He said is true and ask you to repent. When you enter a cathedral, you take a knee and cross yourself to testify again “that every knee shall bow... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is The Lord.” This Sunday meeting is even called Communion, your opportunity to commune directly with God through the medium of His Son and your Savior. To say they’ve “fleshed out” these basic principles and ordinances is a gross understatement.

What if we, as individual Mormons, took a moment to make Catholicism our “native” tongue, as Kramer suggests above? Attend Mass, observe a Holy Day of Obligation, do anything to immerse ourselves in a tradition that is not our own. Appreciate what that tradition has to offer with no judgements, condemnations, or comparisons. Then, come back to Mormonism and “plug in” what we’ve witnessed, appreciated, and learned into our framework. How much richer is that experience for us?

There’s a man who recently returned to Utah and is doing this exact thing. His name is Thomas McConkie and he is, essentially, a Mormon Mindfulness Guru. He came to teach a class of Eastern Religion students at BYU how to meditate. In the course of discussion, I was impressed that he’d filled a gap in my personal spiritual knowledge. I’d always been told to “be in tune with the Spirit” and to “be reverent” but never how to do those things, other than to sit still and fold my arms. Turns out there are entire religions dedicated to sitting and folding your arms! His multiple years completely out of the Mormon vernacular allowed him to truly “go native” in another faith tradition, flesh out the true principles housed there, and then plug them back into the Mormon framework for a more meaningful experience with God.  

With all of that in mind, I’d like to introduce to you the first tine of a two-pronged thesis statement for this blog: functional religion. I don’t want to be a “Mormon blogger,” but I cannot escape that my native religious tongue is Mormonism. The things discussed here will appeal more to Mormons or Cultural Mormons than it will to a larger audience who may not have any touchstones in Mormonism. What I’m interested in, though, is how looking at Mormonism through the lens of other faith traditions brings greater meaning and understanding to our own day-to-day faith and practice. While there will be research, hyperlinks, and footnotes, this is not meant to be a precursor to a dissertation. I would like this to be where the rubber meets the road, where theology and real life come together. It may be a bit rocky at times, but I’m opening comments on this blog and welcome lively, respectful discussion. 

To facilitated such discussion, every Saturday morning I’ll post something new in a series we’re calling “Topical Guide.” I’ll take a topic from the LDS Scriptures Topical Guide and bring in how that topic is treated in other faiths. First on the docket are all the easy ones: prayer, scripture, initiating rites, women’s roles in church organization, ritual washings, etc. Suggestions are always welcome!

Vanessa OlerComment