Sunday, June 22, 2014

Why I'm still Mormon.

Okay, time to get really personal, you guys.

My intent in this post is to explain why I am still happy to identify as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, despite all of the concerns and doubts I have about Church history and about cultural and ecclesiastical policies.  In an effort to do so honestly, I will try to be very open and transparent in disclosing both sides of the coin:  I believe doubt is an integral part of faith (at least, it is in mine); therefore I aim to be honest - and as comprehensive as possible - about both the belief and the disbelief in my soul.1

My religion is no secret on this blog.  Over the years, I've discussed my faith many times.  I've talked about the logical, soteriological, and practical problems of evil in the context of Joseph Smith's theology.  I've defended faith in general as an epistemically valid worldview that's common to everyone regardless of (a)theism.  And I've tried to answer the question of prayer - what it is, and why I do it, and what the theological and psychological implications thereof may be.

I've even gone so far as defending Jeffrey R. Holland's rhetoric when other blogs were attacking him.

And when sticky situations have come up, like gay marriage or even Mormon Feminism, I've tried to express my faith in a "middle of the road" kind of way, advocating for empathy and humanization and urging us to listen to each other - urging us to realize we're all on the same team.2

Because I've used this blog to discuss so many aspects of my faith and so many of my pet theological soapboxes, of course I've also mentioned a few issues I have with the Church.  Problems.  Concerns.  Doubts.  One of my first big "hits," so to speak, discussed the uncomfortable and problematic "us vs them" mentality in LDS culture.  I've also talked about how a lot of Mormons disregard Isaiah's warnings against calling good evil (particularly in media).  And, recently, I posted about listening and dialogue (and, to put it bluntly, why we suck at it).

In that aforementioned post, on June 9th, I pled with Mormons [and people in general] everywhere to listen to each other and to encourage genuine dialogue (in which you don't see opposing voices as "obstacles" but rather as "cooperative subjects in our grand collaborative effort to make the world a better place").

I guess the Church doesn't read my blog, because exactly two days later I saw articles about how Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, Rock Waterman, and others had been threatened with excommunication from the LDS Church.  These individuals have spent a huge and admirable amount of time doing exactly what I advocate for, and what I wish I did more of, myself:  bringing up difficult discussions, asking questions, rigorously exploring their faith, etc.

Some brief background on who they are, in case you haven't been reading the news for a couple of weeks:
  • Kate Kelly started a group called "Ordain Women," which, in its own words, "aspires to create a space for Mormons to articulate issues of gender inequality they may be hesitant to raise alone." 3
  • John Dehlin started an LDS Podcast community called "Mormon Stories."  This community is a place in which members can explore, celebrate, and challenge Mormon culture "constructive[ly]."  Its stated goal is to "1) support individuals in Mormon-related faith crises, 2) save marriages, 3) heal families, and 4) celebrate, challenge, and advance Mormon culture in healthy ways." 4
  • Rock Waterman writes a blog called "Pure Mormonism."  He urges his readers to stick to the doctrine and he often uses his blog to discuss cultural/policy issues with the Church which may conflict with said doctrine.
I've actually had some personal email correspondence with that last one, Rock Waterman, a couple years ago.  He seems genuine and earnest.  But above all, he seems faithful - as do Kate Kelly and John Dehlin.  I don't believe that any of these three need Church discipline, because I don't believe that any of them are apostates.5

Disagreeing with the Church or its leaders is not apostasy.  Apostasy is turning against the Lord and against His doctrine.  Ally Isom (officially representing the LDS Church's Public Affairs office) even said so in her interview with Doug Fabrizio over at RadioWest Podcasts the other day.  Doug then asked her the $64,000 question:  if Kate Kelly is going "against doctrine" by asserting that women should be given the Priesthood, then it must be written in doctrine somewhere that women can't be given the Priesthood.  So where is it written?  Where does our doctrinal canon actually forbid it?

After a minute or two of fumbling around the question, this poor woman had to admit, and I quote:  "it doesn't."

So if apostasy is fundamentally about doctrine, and Kate Kelly isn't going against doctrine, then what's the problem?  "The conversation is not the problem," Ally Isom insists several times in her interview.  "It is not what is being said but how it is being said that becomes problematic."  So, in other words, it's not about doctrine anymore - it's about tone, I guess?

Anyway.  This whole situation is messy, and causes me a lot of deep existential and spiritual discomfort.  But it deserves to be said that I don't know the whole story, because these are personal matters which have - in an unwieldy and awkward kind of way - become public.   Who knows; maybe I'm wrong.  I'd love to be wrong.  And I admit that it's possible.  Maybe I don't know a thing about these excommunications and I have no business speculating.  Maybe there are super secret shady details that would put the whole thing in a different light if I only knew.

And maybe other blogs (like this one) have very sufficiently explored the situation and I have nothing to add.  That's fine!  I'm airing out my concerns anyway.  Why?  Because these concerns are the context for my whole post.  Part of why I'm sharing my testimony is to clarify that I still have one.  (And the reason why that would even be in question at all is because of this whole mess, and the things I've written about it, and the subsequent responses I've gotten from people, both privately and publicly.)

Maybe it's unclear why these excommunications bother me so much. So, one more note, to clarify:

They bother me because they look and feel like rejection. They look and feel like indications that this Church doesn't want its members to ask hard questions (at least not out loud). They look and feel like a dismissal of anyone with doubts. But, wait a minute, I have doubts. Am I not welcome? These recent events make me feel like maybe I'm not. Maybe if there's no room in the inn for Rock Waterman then there's no room for me, either.

Those are the feelings I've been wrestling with lately.

"What doubts?" you may ask. Okay, how about these:
  • I doubt that the Church did the right thing with Proposition 8 in 2008.6
  • I doubt the validity of Wilford Woodruff's insistence that God could never let the prophet be wrong. This claim is contrary to heaps of scriptural evidence, and furthermore it fundamentally defies the extremely important doctrine of agency.  I hate our culturally accepted idea (which we can largely thank Wilford Woodruff for) that General Authorities are somehow exempt from criticism and incapable of spiritually significant wrongdoing.7
  • I doubt that God had anything to do with the Church policy that prevented black people from receiving the Priesthood until 1978.8
  • I doubt that our "perfect" Church is immune from hypocrisy and corruption and even, sometimes, collective condemnation.9
  • I doubt that God really wanted the Church to spend billions of dollars on a shopping mall in Salt Lake City.
  • I doubt that the stigma against "secular" weddings (followed by Temple sealings) is justified. I think maybe it would be better if more of us got married publicly, outside of the Temple, then afterwards got sealed privately, in the Temple.
  • I doubt that we commonly interpret the Word of Wisdom correctly.10
  • I doubt that we generally understand the concept of "grace" correctly.
  • I doubt that Mormonism's relationship with media is healthy.11 I doubt that Mormonism's relationship with other churches is healthy.12 And sometimes, I even doubt that Mormonism's relationship with its own members is healthy.13
Whew. Okay. There they are!  Those are most of my doubts.  I feel pretty vulnerable with all of those out in the open, but those of you who know me in real life have probably discussed many of them with me in person anyway.

"So," you may be wondering, "what do you believe, then?"
  • I believe that God is real.  Not just as a metaphor or as an idea, but as an actual entity, with real metaphysical presence.  In 1820, God appeared in the form of a Man, with a physical body, to the boy prophet Joseph Smith.  I believe Joseph's accounts of those visitations to be genuine accounts of a real spiritual experience.14
  • I believe, as Joseph said, that God still lives today, and that He "sits enthroned in yonder heavens." 15
  • I believe that Jesus Christ was real, and that He was truly the Son of God.  I believe Jesus died for our sins and rose again on the third day.
  • I believe that Jesus is still alive today, just like the Father is.  He also sits enthroned in yonder heavens.  Again, to quote Joseph, "He lives ... even on the right hand of God ... [and] by Him and through Him the worlds are and were created."  I believe that.
  • A lot of the above statements rely on witnesses from Joseph Smith.  I should note here that I indeed believe Joseph Smith was a prophet.  This doesn't mean he was perfect - but I do believe he spoke with God and angels.  And I believe that through Joseph, God restored valuable truths and ordinances which had been lost to the world for centuries.
  • I believe that God still has a prophet (currently, Thomas Monson) and that He can still speak through that prophet if He chooses to.
  • I believe in the kind of [prophetic] revelation described above but I also believe in a more personal kind of revelation.  I believe God can speak to us.  I believe God has spoken to me.
  • I believe I have a relationship with God the Father, and with His Son.  I believe God is part of my life.
  • I believe God hears my prayers.16
  • I believe God answers my prayers.17
  • I believe the Priesthood - the power and authority to act in Christ's name on Earth - is real and it is powerful.  I have been healed by Priesthood blessings.  I would probably not be alive today if it were not for the power of Christ and His Priesthood, administered in His name.
  • I believe the Book of Mormon18 is sacred and true.  I believe the people described therein really did live, and for the most part I believe their account was translated correctly.19
  • I believe that we all have genuine free will.20 I believe we are all agents and we can choose our own paths.
  • I believe that our ability, mentioned above, to choose our own paths, is God-given and sacred.  I believe that to try to take someone else's free will away is unethical and even sinful.
  • To quote Joseph once again:  I believe "in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men [and women]."  Furthermore I firmly believe that "if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy," it is my sacred duty to "seek after these things." 21
  • Finally, and most importantly:  I believe in change.  I believe that, through Christ's grace, men and women can truly change their hearts and their souls.  I believe that no one is permanently and eternally lost except those who choose to be.  I believe that with Jesus' help I can become whole again - no matter how broken I get.  I believe God can sanctify me - and indeed all of us!
There you have it.  Those are the things I believe.

Are these beliefs enough to outweigh my many doubts and concerns?  Absolutely.  And that's why I'm still Mormon.

I'm still Mormon because the relationship I've built with God continues to grow stronger as I continue to participate in the Mormon Church.

I'm still Mormon because I love this Church.  In particular, I love the rituals, and I find so much meaning and beauty in the symbolism of the sacrament (communion) every week.

I'm still Mormon because no matter how much I have in common with other Mormons (theologically, philosophically, etc), I still find plenty of diversity to learn from, when I look hard enough.  I love the paradox of unity in diversity.  I love that we can be "one" with one another (see John 17) and yet still be unique individuals with our own ideas and talents and struggles.  I love that if everyone were to write a blog post like mine, with a list of doubts and beliefs, they would all have different things to say.

I'm still Mormon because I become better when I associate with the good people at Church, but I also become better when I have to wrestle with the difficult people at Church.  I love the paradox of comfort and challenge; I love that Church is both easy and hard at the same time.  I love that it's a safe gathering place in which we can inspire one another, but also a refiner's fire in which we can annoy one another.  I love the sanctifying process I go through as I struggle to be patient with people whose company I wouldn't normally enjoy.

I'm still Mormon because I have a lot of deep personal work to do - and when I attend Church and participate in the rituals (both during Sacrament Meeting and in the Temple), I am reminded of my spiritual responsibilities and I am put "back to work," so to speak.  I love how Mormonism stretches and motivates me.

I'm still Mormon because, despite all the difficulties I've described at length here, I feel like God wants me here.  I hear His voice in my heart and I feel His presence in my life and I feel like this is where He wants me to be.  Sometimes, when all my other reasons fall away, I am left with only this one:  "God wants me to be here."  I know that to be true, profoundly and emphatically.  And that is reason enough to stick around.

Some footnotes:
  1. Because of this desire, I tried to be really thorough here (this is a topic that deserves it, I think); consequently, this is my longest blog post to date.  I applaud you for reading it all.  That must have taken a lot of stamina!
  2. After all, the idea of Heaven in Christendom (and maybe even more so in Mormonism specifically) is an inherently collective idea.  We aim to live with God in glory alongside one another.  Not by ourselves.  Can a man be truly saved (and exalted) alone?
  3. Ordain Women is "in the public eye [so that it can] call attention to the need for the ordination of Mormon women to the priesthood."  Their Mission Statement ends with this:  "we sincerely ask our leaders to take this matter to the Lord in prayer."  Maybe Kate and the other OW supporters are right about female ordination; maybe they're not.  But I think asking the Apostles to seek a direct answer from God about it is a sincere and important request.  And it's how revelation works.  Indeed, it's how it's always worked (and other blogs have explained this better than I can).
  4. John Dehlin's Stake President wrote him a letter saying that "[his] recent public posting from earlier this month ... [about disbelieving in] many of the fundamental LDS church truth claims" was worrisome.  The Stake President wanted John to either resign from the Church (revoking Priesthood and other blessings) or face a disciplinary council.  By the way, if you're curious what exactly John Dehlin believes or disbelieves about Mormonism that seems to have gotten him in trouble, you can listen to his testimony in his own words from an address in 2012, entitled "Why I Stay," found here.
  5. Furthermore, I think that the definition of "apostasy" given in the Church Handbook of Instructions (which I won't actually quote here, as it's copyrighted) does not line up with the definitions of "apostasy" in either modern or ancient scripture.  There's a wonderful little post over at Times & Seasons that does a great job explaining some of the history of excommunication, by the way, and how it's changed over time.  Check it out if you want more information on why many (myself included) feel like the Church's disciplinary methods are problematic.
  6. This is because I doubt that gay marriage is actually evil. Now, I realize that The Proclamation makes some clear doctrinal claims about family and gender, and for the most part I agree with those claims. It seems obvious, for example, that heterosexual marriage is the only model that "works" theologically (how can you have eternal posterity without a man and woman?).  But it doesn't seem obvious to me that gay marriage needs to be outlawed by the government, any more than improper baptism needs to be outlawed by the government.  I don't think the Church needs to be involved in that kind of legal issue.  It's not our business.
  7. President Woodruff's statement is printed as a footnote to "Official Declaration - 1" (the Manifesto banning polygamy) at the beginning of your Doctrine and Covenants. In October 1890, he said, "I say unto Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church, to lead you astray.  It is not in the programme.  It is not in the mind of God.  If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty."  The full context of the quote, as printed in the Deseret Evening News, can be found here.  I should note that this quote is not presented as a doctrinally binding revelation.  Woodruff does not say "The Lord says..."  Instead, he says "I say."  Furthermore, when people use this quote as justification for anything and everything the prophet may say or do, it strikes me as very circular reasoning.  So the prophet can't be wrong, because he's the prophet, and your reason for accepting that claim is "Wilford Woodruff said so."  But why should his word be trusted without question?  "Because he's the prophet, and he can't be wrong."  Do you see the tautology there?
  8. Also, I doubt that 1978 was "the magic year" for any reason other than that we were all finally less racist by then. God wasn't waiting for "the time to be right" to tell us to knock it off.  He was waiting for us to be ready. Until 1978, we weren't ready - because we were racist, and we were wrong.
  9. Sometimes I hear rhetoric that seems to imply that we Mormons are better, more pure, etc, than other churches. "We have God on our side," people say. But I believe God is more interested in salvation than He is in taking sides. God is displeased with us sometimes. We are not always the Golden Child.  God Himself, as quoted in the Doctrine and Covenants, said that "the whole church [is] under condemnation," and that we would "remain under this condemnation until [we] repent" and start taking the Book of Mormon more seriously.  In January of 1988, President Ezra Taft Benson reminded all of us that we are still under this condemnation.
  10. Verses 16 and 17 of the revelation specifically mention that "mild drinks" made from barley are permissible.  A mild drink made from barley is called beer (which, according to modern interpretation, is prohibited by the Word of Wisdom).  Now, of course drunkenness is a bad idea and is expressly forbidden in various scriptures - and of course beer can lead to drunkenness.  So, perhaps for those of us who may be prone to alcoholism or drunkenness, it's best to avoid beer anyway.  All I'm saying is that it's not part of the commandment - but we pretend it is, because abstaining from alcohol has been part of our culture since the early 1900s.  Over at Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, they wrote an interesting article about this, and they offer some scientific/political context (e.g. the Prohibition era) which may have affected our ideas and our culture.  You can find that article here.
  11. I've written at length about our relationship with media and about how sometimes we call good things evil.  I wrote a post here about it.  Joseph Smith's 13th Article of Faith said that we ought to seek out everything that is "virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy."  But we don't.  We are lazy.
  12. The condemnations I describe in Footnote 10 apply - perhaps even more emphatically! - here.
  13. I mention early in this post that I've written about listening and dialogue and that I worry we do it poorly.  Recent events (also detailed at the beginning of this post) indicate that we indeed do it poorly.  We don't know how to listen to our own people.  How can we ever have effective inter-faith dialogue if we cannot even dialogue within the fold?
  14. I want to emphasize again that when I say "real" I am not speaking metaphorically.  I believe that Joseph's supposed vision (of having seen God) was not only powerfully and subjectively real; it was veridical.  It coincided with Reality.  He met a God who lives as truly today as He did then.
  15. The source for that lovely and poetic quote is the (in)famous King Follett Discourse, which I love a lot.  It can be read here.
  16. I have mentioned this already, but here's a lengthy post in which I detail many of my thoughts about prayer.
  17. I have mentioned on this blog before that I believe God answers to my prayers.  Here is a story about God responding to me in a moment of depression and isolation.
  18. For those of you who are not Mormon but are reading this out of curiosity, the Book of Mormon is an ancient religious/historical record (not unlike the Bible).  It takes place on the American continent and most of the narrative content is from about 600 B.C. to 400 A. D.  Why do we have it now?  Well, to make a long story short, Joseph Smith claimed to have been led by an angel to a buried record, and he then translated that record by the power of God.  What I mean when I say "I believe the Book of Mormon is sacred and true" is that I really believe all of that stuff.  I believe Joseph's account of where the book came from - and I also believe the book's internal account [of what happened here in the Americas] to be more or less historically accurate.  I believe, just as the text says, that Christ really did visit the Nephites and really did minister to His people here - just as He did in the Middle East.
  19. One of the most common criticisms against the Book of Mormon is that it contains King James English, and even some passages that appear to be plagiarized, word-for-word, from the Bible.  "If Nephi was quoting his records of what Isaiah said," people ask, "why would King James' grammatical peculiarities appear in a supposedly direct translation thereof?"  Well, I think bias and context creeps into everything we do.  Joseph really did translate the Book, but it's extremely likely that when he approached text that matched things of which he was already aware (e.g. Book of Mormon passages that were identical to Biblical passages), he borrowed phraseology that he knew.  This also explains why the Nephites seem to be speaking in King Jamesian style English.  Because that's the sort of religious language that Joseph was familiar with.  If the Book of Mormon were translated today, by Thomas Monson for example, it would probably use more modern language.  But that doesn't mean Joseph's translation is "wrong" in any meaningful sense of the word.
  20. In other words I don't believe in material determinism.  Maybe I'm a dualist?  I'm not schooled well enough in metaphysics to explain or define my stance in any kind of philosophically robust way.
  21. Joseph wrote this in his Wentworth Letter, which was an attempt to explain to inquiring minds what it is that Mormons believe, exactly.  It, along with twelve other declarative statements of LDS belief, is included in the canonized "Articles of Faith" (source here).
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