I started thinking about writing this post last testimony meeting. I do still bear my testimony, and several people usually comment on it, though I think only my wife hears what I am really saying. But I wanted the chance to write out what I really believe, to express my nuanced testimony.
Several factors motivated this post. As I stated, I rarely get the chance to lay out what I sincerely believe, and have never done so in writing. I appreciate the opportunity to get this out in the open because usually I am so quiet about it in the community (and am right in doing so I believe). Beliefs are refined as they are discussed and questioned, and this site seems an ideal forum to do so. I also want to explore the “big tent” idea and perhaps begin a discussion of how broad our beliefs and practices can be while we remain a member of the LDS community. All that said, I admit that I am more comfortable expressing these sensitive thoughts behind a pseudonym.
My Anchors and the Church
I take a very practical approach to religion. I believe that how we live trumps what we think. I am sympathetic to both the reasons for and benefits from being religious. I am happy in the LDS community because I believe in spiritual reality, and I see the good in the Church (as well as its faults), and that is sufficient for me. All belief systems have elements of truth, and I do feel that the LDS church is one of the best I have come across. I have called it “the most directly divinely guided human institution on the earth.” I am open to all of religious experience falling into a category such as quantum physics, but our perceptions create our reality. I believe our expectations determine our interactions with spiritual reality, but I really do believe in revelation, miracles, etc.
I find it useful to have a model of “salvation” that both includes and transcends the church. I believe that the most important principles in life are: Love. Freedom. Consciousness. Growth. Peace. Joy. The more you experience these, the more you are saved, and the more you lack these, the more you are damned. We can of course experience all of these without believing in God. I think that religion in general and the LDS church in particular has the potential to increase these attributes, though it sometimes does not. I believe the ordinances of the gospel are transformative, though I don’t know how much that change comes from expectations and how much comes from some sort of independent reality. How much does it matter?
I consider myself an agnostic theist. I sincerely believe in God, but do not know how to define God. I do not think that creation happened by chance, and I marvel at the uniqueness of consciousness and humanity. I have some minimalist definitions of God—perhaps God is simply whatever made us different as humans. Even the principles of salvation I describe above could be called God. I believe we are in “God’s image” because we have agency, consciousness, and love. My working belief is that God is a conscious being who is personally interested in us. I hope that is true. At the same time, I am aware that all conceptions of God are human constructions, so I doubt he has a body like ours, for example. It is important to mention that in practice, I view and treat God as my Heavenly Father. This belief has tremendous appeal and benefits, and I pray to him this way, even though I can nuance my beliefs when necessary.
My beliefs have developed through an attempt to make Mormon doctrine as coherent as possible. I worked out standard Mormon thought on apotheiosis into a belief in reincarnation, where we are perfected to the state of godhood through a series of multiple incarnations (this view is only hinted at officially, but presupposes most points of Mormon doctrine as literally true). I have distanced myself even from this belief somewhat, though I find it very appealing. My core belief is that our consciousness persists after we die.
Sin and Relative Morality
This topic is perhaps the most dangerous of intellectualism since the ante is so high; standard morality serves a vital purpose. I do not find ultimately helpful the loaded terms “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” (though they can be temporarily helpful, such as when speaking to children). I prefer to think of choices in terms of benefits and costs. We should not discount the wisdom of previous generations. At the same time, the definition of “sin” also encompasses the prejudices of the past. My thoughts on sin could be described as humanist—do no unnecessary harm to yourself or others, and seek to improve the existence of as many as possible. I believe that if every action is motivated by love we cannot sin, though we can still make errors of judgment and hurt others through ignorance. We should not do things we regret, though regret is mostly a cultural construct. It is “sinful” in my opinion to seek to avoid consequences. When we make choices we should consciously embrace the full consequences of that choice. I judge actions mostly independent of the LDS framework, though there are some decisions I still make only because of my community. For example, drinking wine would be too complicated, so I abstain even though I think there is nothing wrong with it.
Before I started graduate school I was scared of the topic of the “historical Jesus.” I now have tremendous respect for that “historical” Jesus. I am comfortable with the idea that he had a special relationship with God. The most important title for Jesus is “Atoning Son.” I think the idea of Atonement is beautiful, especially if we ascribe to the fact that we are all connected—so one part of the whole would be sacrificing itself for the benefit of all. I have to admit that my belief in Jesus as Savior is not as firm as my belief in the existence of God, however.
Revelation and Scripture
Our perception of reality is clearly more complicated than simple data received through our senses. Just as most commucation happens on a non-verbal level, people are sensitive in different degrees to metaphysical reality. I do believe in revelation, and that this revelation combines genuine insights and our expectations, all filtered through our worldview. I therefore believe that scripture is inspired to different degrees (though also including some very silly content), and that it requires inspiration to unravel truth from tradition. As far as the Book of Mormon is concerned, the most important datum is that it is inspired of God; the rest is details. At this point I do believe that this account has some historical basis, though the majority of what we now have as the Book of Mormon was written for a 19th century audience, as one would expect. I do recognize the problem of reducing a claim until it is unable to be proved or disproved: “Well really the historical kernel behind the Book of Mormon is that Nephi and his kids and brother with a bad attitude one year spent summer vacation in Central America.”
I believe that most people who claim to be prophets enjoy a special connection to the divine, both in and out of the Jewish/Christian/Mormon tradition. I have great respect for Joseph Smith, who put together much admirable theology while laying the foundations for the church. I think that the leaders of the LDS church are loving and sincere, and sometimes receive insight greater than their own while remaining limited by their culture and expectations, as are we all.
How much it matters
Those are some basics of my beliefs; I welcome any comments and questions. All that said, I would like again to emphasize that I am happy in the Church. I have personalized my thoughts and actions to a large degree, but I value my membership in this community. I like to think that my continued activity will be beneficial. I am not invested in others believing as I do; simple faith is real in important ways, perhaps the most important. My hope persists that the tent is large, with room for all those who want to build up the “kingdom”, however simple or nuanced their faith statements may be.