“No,” he insisted, “you must either be Catholic or Lutheran. There is nothing besides those two, nothing.” I almost started to doubt myself a little because of how sure he seemed to be of his case. We must have been in first or second grade, and my best buddy Sven was not going to let go of his theory, which was firmly based on his experience as a young boy in Germany during the 1970s. Of course, he knew that there were various churches in town – St. Henry’s, St. Matthew’s, St. Mark’s, and others, but they were all either Catholic or Lutheran. When I told him that I belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that this was a Christian faith of its own, he concluded that I was on the wrong steamboat, as the Germans say. This was the first time I became aware of my religious otherness, growing up in the land of Martin Luther and St. Boniface.
Looking back, the continued impression of otherness has turned out to be blessing in disguise. I may have felt a bit like an ugly duckling between the swans when one of my teachers at secondary school (a devout Lutheran) singled me out in the classroom for being a member of a “Sekte”(a term with a very negative connotation in German culture, yet still commonly used in public to classify minority religions). Nevertheless, this encounter and a few similar experiences have profoundly impacted my own perspectives, both spiritually and scholarly.
Above all, I learned that I could stand my ground in face of opposition as long as I had a firm foundation. Nevertheless, when it came to my religion, which was so obviously objectionable to others, there was only one conclusion: The Mormon story had to become my own or I wanted no part of it. I was barely a teenager when I began a journey of study and serious reflection. I paid frequent visits to our city library and read every single book I could find that touched on the subject of Mormonism, including a small repertoire of anti-Mormon literature. I attended worship services of other churches and left out no opportunity to engage in discussions with various street preachers, testing my religious conclusions at the time with a critical audience.
I decided to “awake and arouse [my] faculties” (Alma 32:27) and followed the steps towards acquiring faith as outlined by the prophet Alma in the Book of Mormon and experienced in quiet and very personal ways that the word of God has the power to “enlarge my soul” (ibid, verse 28) and “enlighten my understanding” (ibid). And yes, the faith taught to me by my parents and grandmother has become my own. All of this being said, I cannot point my finger to any particular moment when I concluded, once and for all, that God existed, that He was a loving Father in heaven, and that He saw my place in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My relationship with God has been an ongoing journey.
The sense of otherness also led me to look beyond the surface. The answers to scholarly questions, but also to the great questions about the meaning of life, are all too often not found by casual thinking or relying on public opinion. Mormon scripture encourages me to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (Doctrine and Covenants 90:15). To this day, when approaching a challenging subject, I prefer to gain a broad perspective and investigate systematically, seeking for truth for its own sake.
In process of years, my impression of otherness has increasingly given way to a deep feeling of being connected to society and to humankind at large. I suppose that much of what drives me toward Mormonism at the very core would be familiar to most any other human being. The Book of Mormon states that “men are, that they may have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). The search for joy and happiness, so it seems to me, is a universal human urge, and it is certainly the aim of my personal religious practice and worship.
Ralf Grünke is a political scientist. He received a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University, a master’s degree from Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen, and a doctorate, magna cum laude, from Chemnitz University of Technology. As a doctorate candidate, he was granted a merit-based stipend by the Hanns Seidel Foundation for two-year, full-time participation in a research group on political extremism. He has since left the world of academia and, today, works as a public relations professional.
Posted January 2013