Saturday, November 19, 2016
WE'RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE
Alvin had always been the picture of health: a hard-worker, he had spent the previous three years clearing the land he had leased for his aging parents and leading the efforts to build a house for their large family. Tall and athletically built, he loved to wrestle and was known for his physical strength. For recreation, he often accompanied his father, younger brother Joseph and other local “money diggers” on night-time hunts in the local forests and hills for buried treasure.
The Smiths were newcomers to Palmyra—having moved there from Vermont only six years earlier—and while long-time Palmyra residents tended to look down upon them as uneducated, superstitious and lazy, most locals admired Alvin for being hardworking and practical-minded.
When in November of 1823, Alvin complained of abdominal pains, no one could have imagined that his death was imminent. A local doctor administered what was then a common treatment—one which contained mercury. Within days Alvin died—not from disease but from mercury poisoning.
The entire Smith family was stunned by Alvin’s death. Father Smith—Joseph Smith, Senior—had struggled for years with alcoholism. Mother Smith—Lucy Mack Smith—had for years swung from periods of frenetic, hard-working determination to periods of near crippling self-doubt and depression. Father Smith was a liberal-minded Universalist while Mother Smith tended to be a theologically conservative Calvinist. Throughout their marriage their differences and arguments regarding religion were on full display, and their children were caught in the middle—each having to navigate their way on their own. Being the oldest child, Alvin had been the one stabilizing influence not only for his younger brothers and sisters, but also for his parents.
Now he was suddenly gone.
Alvin’s funeral was held at the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra. Though Father Smith opposed any family members joining any existing religious denomination, Mother Smith had been friends with many of the women of the Presbyterian congregation. Given that fact, it seemed only natural that Alvin’s funeral be held at Western Presbyterian and that his body be interned in the Presbyterian cemetery.
Rev. Benjamin B. Stockton conducted the funeral service. William Smith, who was twelve at the time, later recalled that in the funeral sermon Rev. Stockton “intimated very strongly” that Alvin had gone to hell because he had never professed the Christian faith and joined a church.
The very idea that someone as kind, upstanding and hard-working as Alvin would spend eternity in hell because of religious differences infuriated Father Smith and his seventeen-year-old son, Joseph. For them the idea seemed to undermine the concept of a just and loving God.
Arguments were probably made then—as they are now by Christians who hold such beliefs—that because God is so holy and righteous, He can’t tolerate any degree of sinfulness in His presence. Such arguments rang hollow with Father Smith and Joseph.
It seems reasonable to conclude that Rev. Stockton’s consigning of Alvin to an eternity in Hell, troubled Mother Smith and other Smith children. Over time, however, their reaction to Rev. Stockton’s beliefs were the opposite of Father Smith’s and Joseph’s: Mother Smith and her eldest children, Hyrum and Sophronia, became Presbyterians.
This no doubt led to even more intense divisions within the family. One can easily imagine Father Smith being not only outraged but hurt that his wife and oldest children could accept the faith of a minister who had publicly suggested that their beloved Alvin was in Hell.
“Where did Alvin go when he died?” The question was a bombshell—one with the potential to rip apart a family already under tremendous financial and emotional stress.
Discussion Questions: How have questions, beliefs and feelings about where one goes when one dies affected your relationships with family and friends?
What have been the negative effects?
What have been the positive effects?
How were the effects of this question upon the Smith family like or unlike those on your family and friends?
WHERE DO WE GO WHEN WE DIE?
That question is at the heart of most religious thinking—even today. Most people—religious and non-religious—assume that the purpose of religion and faith is to get them somewhere else after they die.
How often has a Christian asked, “If you were to die today, would you go to heaven or hell?”
Believers from other traditions might talk about “Returning to the presence of Our Heavenly Father” or “entering the Celestial Kingdom.”
GOING SOMEWHERE ELSE has become to be-all/end-all of religion.
And to GO TO THIS PLACE people are told that they need to…
…believe the right things…
….or have faith in the right things….
.....or say and pray certain things (such as the so-called sinner’s prayer)…
….or join the right church and remain faithful to it until they die…
...or participate in some ceremony, sacrament or ordinance...
…or embrace a certain lifestyle….
…or turn from a certain lifestyle.
Regardless of the religion or the prescription, the focus is all about going somewhere else when you die. Believe, say or say, join, do this or don’t do that and you will be rewarded when you die by being admitted to a good place for eternity—rather than being sent to a bad place for eternity.
Discussion Questions: How much of your time and energy has been devoted to thinking about or worrying about where you will go when you die?
If you believe in an existence after death, how central to that belief is the idea of “going somewhere else?”
How could you separate your ideas about an afterlife from the idea of going somewhere else when you die?
In your own life and in your relationships with others, what have been the effects—both positive and negative—of thinking that the central purpose of religion or faith is to make sure that you go to some particular place when you die?
How can focusing on going someplace else when you die negatively affect your life here and now?
IT’S ABOUT BECOMING SOMEONE—NOT GOING SOMEWHERE
The Smith family spent years worrying about believing or doing the right things so that when they died they would go to Heaven and not Hell. In many ways, these worries and anxieties undermined their day-to-day efforts to work their way out of the grinding poverty in which they lived.
Early in his life, Joseph Smith, Jr. shared his parents’ anxieties and attempted in various ways—some irrational and some reasonable—to address the questions that plagued not only his family but many religious seekers in the early 19th century. During the course of his life, Joseph embraced, explored and then discarded or altered many different theological premises regarding the nature of God, human nature, existence, life’s purpose and life after death.
The theology that he developed later in his life switched the focus from going somewhere else when you die to becoming a particular type of character.
This theology is the foundation of the good news proclaimed by Reform Mormonism…
…And that good news is this: There is no need to worry about where you are going when you die. Yes, there is life after death, but the focus of Reform Mormonism is not about going somewhere else when we die. The focus is on becoming a certain type of person.
And that doesn’t mean changing yourself to conform to some cookie-cutter mold created by others. It means to progress, to grow and to develop within yourself those virtues and qualities that you envision God possessing.
How many people calling themselves Christians—people who go around talking non-stop about Christ and salvation—are actually like Christ himself? The name “Jesus” is constantly on their lips, but when you think of Jesus and then look at them, there are few if any similarities in their character.
How many people go around talking about God, claiming to act in God’s name—and yet when you think of God’s character—God’s Love, Grace, Forgiveness—you don’t see that character reflected in these people.
Because most religions focus on going somewhere else when we die, they completely overlook the most important thing that Jesus, prophets and scripture addressed—that of our character. Indeed, many of those who are the loudest in proclaiming their faith in Christ, declare that human nature is so corrupt that to focus on character at all is wrong and misguided. It is just assumed that when we die and move on to that better place (if we do what we are told to do in order to be admitted there), that our character—our emotional and ethical makeup—will somehow miraculously change.
Reform Mormonism holds that character matters. In fact, character is the thing upon which we should all focus.
We envision God possessing certain qualities and virtues—and it is these virtues that entice us to love God. It is these virtues and qualities that we should develop within ourselves.
By doing this, we impact the world here and now. Eternal Life begins this very moment. The seeds of Heaven are planted here on earth and they begin to grow.
We’re not going anywhere.
The purpose of religious faith is not to go somewhere.
The purpose of religious faith is to become someone.
Challenge: In your conversations with three different family members or friends bring up this question:
What if religion focused on what type of person we’re becoming instead of where we’re going when we die?
Don’t argue; don’t attempt to convince or convert one another to any particular idea. Just discuss your thoughts openly and honestly. Seek to understand one another first and then try to make sure your ideas are understood. The objective is to create a bond between yourself and the other person in which such ideas can be expressed openly and without fear; in which each person can be true to what they believe while still feeling respected by the other person. The objective is to strengthen the sense of community between you and others.
For more information on Reform Mormonism visit www.reformmormonism.org