In his book, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. (Oxford University Press, 2007), Terryl Givens identifies four areas of paradox within Mormonism that affect the practice and development of the cultural arts.
The first is the tension between free agency and authoritarianism. The second area of paradox is the relationship between holding truth with absolute certainty and the quest for gaining new knowledge. He says, “Mormons publicly express absolute certitude about the great issues of faith and existence, but may privately harbor doubts for which Mormon culture has few avenues of sanctioned expression.” (32)
The third paradox in LDS culture can be expressed as transcendence versus earthiness. Givens points out that Joseph Smith collapsed the realms of heaven and earth into one, minimizing the utter transcendence of God. This is the effect of elevating humans to the same species or kind of being as God.
Givens perceives how the LDS concept of God in relation to humanity turns the traditional view of God upside down. He says:
“In conventional Christian cosmology, God is the origin and source of mankind, but certainly not his future image. In Mormonism, the formula is reversed. God is not the maker of man’s soul, he is an eternally coexisting superior being. And man sees in him something very like his own inherent potential.” (41)
He later recognizes how this view of God in relation to human beings effects the perception of God’s transcendence:
“The principal danger here is that the sacred as a category threatens to disappear altogether (and with it, perhaps, worshipful reverence). That is because in this model, transcendence is virtually annihilated as a possibility.” (42)
As a case in point, he notes by comparison, practical, earthy matters are elevated. For instance, out of 112 revelations announced by Smith, 88 dealt partly or entirely with economic matters. (47)
I have always felt that Mormonism lacks a proper or full-bodied approach to worship. I have observed often over the years that its hard to truly worship a being who is only an improved version of oneself. LDS Sunday meetings include hymns and prayers, but lack a sense of worshipful adoration. Maybe it says something that Sunday gatherings are called “Sacrament meeting” (emphasis on meeting) rather than a “worship service.”
Reflecting further on this, Givens asks (but does not answer, in my opinion), a telling question about Mormon cosmology and the arts:
“But at the same time, the problem this confusion of categories creates in the Mormon culture can be challenging for the worshiper…. If God is shorn of ineffability and transcendence, or is construed in human terms, how does one find the reverential awe that moved one to true worshipfulness? If Jesus is our ‘big brother,’ how can he be our Lord and God? Reverence before the Almighty must be freshly conceptualized in such a reconfigured heaven and earth. But the dilemmas for the artist are especially vexing: in a universe devoid of transcendence and sacred distance (at least as conventionally constructed), how can wonder flourish?” (48)
My observation, for what its worth, is that Mormon culture is indeed devoid of much wonder, except that supplied from outside by contemporary science fiction and fantasy. Latter-day Saints love C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, but few Mormons have ventured into the realm of “wonder”-ful fiction. Latter-day Saints excel in practical ventures like business and politics. I’m not sure how successful they have been at freshly conceptualizing the transcendence of God.
This is an area where traditional, biblical Christian theology can offer something of great value to Latter-day Saints. We can bear witness to a spiritual experience of wonder and rapt adoration toward God. The human heart longs for transcendence. We were created to worship God. I believe Latter-day Saints can feel this as a spiritual thirst. I’m aware of several who have responded very warmly after experiencing a truly God-centered worship service, where God was exalted. Traditional Christian worship connects with that primal human need, pointing to one more element that historic, biblical Christianity has to offer to Latter-day Saints.