Elijah and the Faith of Generations

Elijah and the Faith of Generations

18 min read

Abstract: An increasing mass of research consistently finds religion is not resonating with rising generations. Often this is characterized by problematizing the rising generations. I believe that the spirit of Elijah calls us to a higher way which can redeem and reconcile across generational divides as each turns their heart towards one another. Indeed, this may be vital to the successful transmission and continuation of faith.


Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.1

This passage of scripture from Malachi mandates much of the impetus for the ritual and covenant work done on behalf of deceased people in LDS temples. This temple work can create a connection, forged in faith, across generations. It can heal hearts and challenge minds to think bigger as we make room and invite all in. I think this spirit of Elijah can go further and not only heal hearts and challenge minds of generations separated by the grave but also do so across the generations of the living – especially as we consider how parents are called to turn their hearts to their children. And this may be especially important if we seek to resurrect the faith of rising generations.

G.K Chesterton, in his 1908 book “Orthodoxy”, describes democracy as the project of reconciling ancient wisdom with modernity and identifies one way in which the hearts and minds of the dead live on today:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death… We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones.2

Joseph Smith spoke on the passage from Malachi saying of “the [parents]—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect” and that our dispensation should seek “a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations”.3 Whether using the language of democracy or salvation, what’s being described here is the healthy balance and on-going reconciliation of the hearts and minds of the dead and dying with the hearts and minds of the living.

To do this we must seek out our dead. Those spirits live on in this world in the artifacts left by them: their books, songs, poems, buildings, documents, laws, customs, traditions, religions, worship, triumphs, failures, and within us in our bodies, hearts, and minds. Redeeming our dead from these artifacts takes the whole effort of the human race: literary scholarship breathes life into their words, musicians perform their music, archeologists revive their relics, lawyers uphold their laws, historians chronicle their lives, anthropologists reach them past written words, religious clerics teach their faith and morality, etc. All of these disciplines can provide access to the hearts and minds of the dead. In a very real way, these are democratizing the dead and prototyping a resurrection.

But this is only one side of this spirit of Elijah. Focusing only on our dead can neglect the hearts of the living, like gerrymandering the districts of time. Inherited literature, music, artifacts, laws, faith, culture, etc. each face new (sometimes unimagined) realities today and into the future. And while the wisdom of the hearts and minds of the dead can endure, tradition and norms are a bit like manna: they spoil after time and we have to go back out and gather them up anew. As Greg Prince noted about LDS norms in his recent Sterling McMurrin lecture: “Not a single significant LDS doctrine has gone unchanged through the entire history of the church.”4

As a generation forges its own path it can turn to the previous generations for wisdom in how they gathered the manna of life in their day. What sustained them? What dangers did they face as they gathered their own manna? What was the struggle like? How could they tell what they gathered was good? And how have these things changed? Some of what will be gathered today will be familiar to the past, but some will be foreign – especially if one’s palate has gotten used to stale and expiring manna.

A related concept here attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, brought to the west by the psychiatrist Carl Jung, and applicable to mathematical models of chaos is enantiodromia. Enantiodromia is a phenomenon that describes the tendency of systems, concepts, or beliefs to change into their opposites. Ascending a mountain eventually requires descending it, pendulums swing, the righteous can fall, the fallen can be redeemed, ecosystems vacillate, ideologies can transform into their own opposites, etc. Carl Jung described this concept as “the principle which governs all cycles of natural life”5 physical or psychological. And this concept is visualized in models like Lorenz attractors.

We see this theme in the book of Mormon, not just with Lehi and his sermon on opposites6, but repeated in the accounts given in the Book of Mormon: there’s a religious awakening, the people rally around it (e.g. Nephi & first temple, King Benjamin, Alma the Elder, 4th Nephi, etc.), it provides spiritual unity and strength, but then generations later the “rising generation” is described as “wicked”7 or “hardened”8. One way to read this (a common way) is that clearly, it’s all because these youngsters just don’t get it. They are lazy, wicked sinners. Certainly, some in each generation are indeed lazy, wicked, or sinners, but to accept that as the whole explanation seems too much like the dead tyrannizing the living.

I think another side of the story is that the past awakenings were largely oriented towards the problems and conditions faced in the past. As the conditions, needs, challenges, and contexts of younger generations change, merely sustaining frameworks exactly as they were not only loses its power in some ways but can become problematic: turning the hearts of the parents away from the present needs of the children and the hearts of the children away from an increasingly foreign world of their parents. This is an example of enantiodromia: overzealous unity creates disunity, conformity nonconformity.

Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism” articulated this problem as it often presents itself today:

Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.9

So how might the hearts of the mothers and fathers turn to the children to establish faith as a loving, living fountain coming from within their children? And how can this lead to reciprocation of the hearts of the children turning to transfigure and redeem that which their parents cherished?

A start is to be aware of the challenges the rising generation is faced with. A 2015 Pew Research Center study finds that while spirituality is no less important to millennials than prior generations, religious affiliation rates (particularly across nearly all Christian affiliations) are declining.10 Meanwhile, religious non-affiliation is rising. In an independent study, 33% of millennials identified as religiously unaffiliated.11 Recently, Jana Riess’ “Next Mormons Survey”12 has found growing cohorts of young Mormons for whom many pillars in Mormonism have instead become an anathema. For many, the comfort of correlation has multiplied into the crushing weight of conformity, strict standards of safety have birthed a culture of judgment, truth claims have formed into a contentious wedge, the veneration of leaders has slid into idol worship, and the centrality of “traditional” family has defined a capricious periphery. For many, 64% of Mormon millennials who have left13, the manna has spoiled.

One temptation is to simply blame it on millennials (or whoever the rising generation is). They are lazy, entitled, irresponsible, naive, and/or sinners. This is not dissimilar from what the Silent Generation said about the rising Boomer Generation who were spoiled, wore long hair, protested war, challenged racial or gender norms, all while listening to noisy music that rotted their brains. Much of this is the age-old pattern of generation wars. There is great wisdom in the Preacher’s words in Ecclesiastes:

Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.14

Generational friction is a regular part of humanity and religion intentionally operates in this friction. We can see friction in our own LDS culture which can simultaneously praise rising generations as being righteously reserved for this age while also writing them off as lazy, spoiled, or weak. I believe this spirit of Elijah can point us at a better way as generations turn their hearts towards one another to see how God is speaking through generations old and new.

Two examples in the Book of Mormon are informative here. The first is to see how Nephi navigated and affected generational change. Nephi seems to have navigated a balance of how to carry forward the old with the needs of the new:

I, Nephi, have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews; but behold, I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about… But behold, I proceed with mine own prophecy, according to my plainness… handed down unto my seed, from generation to generation… notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.15

Nephi’s use of the word “notwithstanding” shows an understanding that there was a need to move from some of the inherited traditions towards something new – while also preserving the good of that inheritance. This was not an either-or choice. Nephi then points to the enduring foundation he seeks to place the rising generations on in the society he is leading:

And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.16

Later in the Book of Mormon, Jesus promises that “whoso buildeth upon [his doctrine]”, which he describes as faith, repentance, baptism, and living by the Spirit, “buildeth upon my rock”.17 He then immediately warns that “whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation”18. Perhaps each generation needs to return to this foundation in order to repair and renovate what has been built before to adapt to changing needs. In doing so, each generation will need to carefully distinguish between the foundation of Christ and the traditions upon that foundation – later being prepared themselves to allow others to restore and renovate to new conditions. When we confuse our traditions for Christ’s gospel foundation, we fail to follow the words of Christ here.

A second example from the Book of Mormon is also from the description of Jesus’ ministry to the Nephites. After announcing himself to them and delivering a sermon, Jesus begins healing the sick. After those healings he turned his attention to the people’s children:

And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones. And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.19

The symbolism here asks powerful questions: What does it mean to behold our little ones? Do we trust them that they can adapt their faith to the unique issues they face? How did our facing the unique issues in our generation require the trust and support of prior generations? Do we “behold” them and let them lead in their own religious awakenings as they gather fresh manna? Do we support them in the renovations, repairs, and restorations they seek to build on this same foundation of faith in Christ? Do we allow them to be encircled with the yearning and burning witness of the Spirit even if it leads to things we never imagined? And are our attitudes towards and interactions with them worthy of this kind of ministering?

And before Jesus ascended into heaven from the Nephites he gave authority to their children:

And it came to pass that he did teach and minister unto the children of the multitude of whom hath been spoken, and he did loose their tongues, and they did speak unto their fathers great and marvelous things, even greater than he had revealed unto the people; and he loosed their tongues that they could utter.20

Are we cultivating environments where our children can loose their tongues? Are we willing to listen to what they have to say? What things might we be doing that are binding their words and spirits? Is some of what our children say marvelous – even greater than what has been revealed? Could God be speaking through our children things which we have been unable to utter? And are we willing to listen?

To be sure, not everything novel in rising generations will be good — neither was it in past generations. Each generation faces, creates, and perpetuates their own demons. But atrophy and disillusion pose a threat too. In the book “The Next Mormons” Jana Riess’ survey and interview data (largely corroborated by other independent researchers) show over and over that insistence on “traditional” family norms increasingly poses a threat to the engagement of rising generations. She asks:

The question ahead for the LDS Church as it moves further into the twenty-first century is how far it is willing to accommodate new social norms if the risk of not doing so is that, in the United States at least, a substantial percentage of its young people may exit the doors. Is that loss a cost the church will deem unacceptable, changing its course to stem the tide? Or will those exiles be considered necessary collateral damage as the institution clings to its postwar brand identity as a religion devoted to a particular configuration of the nuclear family?21

Pope Francis has been pondering the engagement of youth as well when he recently asked:

A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum. How, then, will she be able to respond to the dreams of young people?22

Rather than see our religious duty as being merely about defending and perpetuating doctrine, policies, or culture from the past, perhaps we can see how God reveals much through new generations in their own unique awakenings and see an increased responsibility to be listeners. How young was Joseph Smith when he had his first vision? How young was Samuel? How young was Jesus when he taught in the temple? And how were each of those challenging norms in their age? By turning our hearts to younger generations in their own awakenings, we may even be able to join them and redeem in us the fire that encircles the human soul as it changes towards God.

Adam Miller, in his book “Future Mormon”, describes this work:

So much of our world deserves to be left. So much of it deserves to be scrapped and recycled. But… this scares me. I worry that a lot of what has mattered most to me in this world—Mormonism in particular—may be largely unintelligible to them in theirs. This problem isn’t new, but it is perpetually urgent. Every generation must start again. Every generation must work out their own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again. Like our grandparents, like our parents, and like us, they will have to rethink the whole tradition, from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world. To the degree that we can help, our job is to model that work in love and then offer them the tools, the raw materials, and the room to do it themselves.23

How will Mormonism and the LDS church navigate this tension in the future? I don’t know. I have hope and loyalty, tempered with a pragmatism that acknowledges challenges that lay ahead. And I also see how this is a challenge that is much bigger than Mormonism. I think that a model like Richard Bushman’s “Radiant Mormonism”24 can rise with generations. For me, the Mormon Transhumanists25 he mentions is how it works best. I believe that religions which can earnestly engage with transhumanism may be better equipped to redeem both the traditions of its past and visions of the future – becoming a voice that can moderate from the dangers of both scientific and religious fundamentalism.

We need to find models of faith which can bring all together in the gospel. So much of one another’s world views deserves to be scrapped; so much deserves to be redeemed, restored, and resurrected. And I believe this is possible as we model this spirit of Elijah which calls us to turn from the curse of cynicism and instead powerfully turn our generation’s hearts towards one another in trust and love as we transfigure together.

1. Malachi 4:5-6

2. Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. “Orthodoxy”, 85. John Lane Company, 1909

3. Doctrine & Covenants 128:15, 18 (inclusive nouns used)

4. Prince, Gregory. “Science vs. Dogma: Biology Challenges the LDS Paradigm of Homosexuality”, Sterling M. McMurrin Lecture on Religion & Culture. University of Utah – September 2017

5. Jung, Carl. “Collected Words”, 7, paragraph 112

6. 2 Nephi 2

7. 3 Nephi 1:30

8. Mosiah 26:1-3

9. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism”

10. Pew Research Center. “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious”, November 3, 2015

11. Jones, Robert P., and Daniel Cox. “How Race and Religion Shape Millennial Attitudes on Sexuality and Reproductive Health.” PRRI, 2015

12. Riess, Jana. The Next Mormons (p. 285-286). Oxford University Press, 2019

13. Riess, Jana, The Next Mormons (p. 7). Oxford University Press, 2019

14. Ecclesiastes 7:10

15. 2 Nephi 25:6-7, 21, 24

16. 2 Nephi 25:26

17. 3 Nephi 11:39

18. 3 Nephi 11:40

19. 3 Nephi 17:23-24

20. 3 Nephi 26:14

21. Riess, Jana. The Next Mormons (p. 285-286). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition

22. Francis, Pope. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Christus Vivit (41). 2018

23. Miller, Adam S.. Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology (Kindle Locations 63-73). Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition

  1. Bushman, Richard. Embracing a ‘radiant’ Mormonism. Deseret News. November 16, 2017

25. https://www.transfigurism.org/