The Evolution of Faith: or is God Creating a Better Mormonism?

Not long after the Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christianity was published, I happened to encounter it on the shelf for new releases in my local library. I had been struggling for some time with feeling alienated from my religion of birth, having come to the realization that there was much in it that I could no longer accept as having a divine basis and aspects of its theology, culture, and spiritual practices that I believed were ultimately unproductive and harmful.

This was a difficult time for me, and in some sense the hurt still lingers. But I feel that my encounter with this book was somewhat providential, for it gave me a resource with which to work through my feelings. In Philip Gulley I found a kindred spirit, someone who saw in traditional Christianity many of the same problems that I had begun to recognize in Mormonism. He spoke with refreshing honesty and compassion, and in ways that resonated with the parts of my Mormon identity and belief system that I still held on to and valued.

For those unfamiliar with Gulley, he is a Quaker pastor living in Danville Ohio who has recently become well known as an advocate for a more progressive Christianity. As a former Catholic and then evangelical Quaker, his own religious beliefs have evolved over time, to the chagrin of some (he even admits to keeping a Book of Mormon on his shelf next to his Bibles and other religious texts). The life experiences that have propelled him on this spiritual journey are described at various points in the Evolution of Faith as exemplifications of the theological points he is trying to make. As a deeply personal and yet theologically vigorous narrative, he weaves his autobiographical storytelling with discussions of the major topics dealt with in traditional Christian theologies (Revelation, God, Jesus, Spirit etc).

Gulley begins in the first chapter by noting that Christianity has changed immensely since its origin two thousand years ago, that it has constantly evolved and is likely to continue to do so. And recently certain social, scientific, and technological developments have expedited the necessity for change. He mentions religious diversity (more people than ever are living with others of different religious or non-religious persuasions), scientific advancement, the expansion of communication possibilities, and the diminished role of the institutional church as the sole religious authority for interpreting spiritual matters. More people than ever are questioning prior orthodoxies, “making the next stage of Christianity not only possible, but inevitable” (5)

The rest of the book is his proposal for how Christianity could evolve to meet the challenges of our time. To summarize, his vision is not that of “a radical and unilateral overhaul of the faith,” but “a possible way forward that not only honors the ethos of Jesus but is conversant with our time and culture” (3).

I think that we as LDS members could learn much from Philp Gulley’s creative and brave exploration of the future of Christianity. It is not difficult to see that the LDS church faces many of the same challenges as other organized Christian religions. The information cocoon that so many of us were raised in has now started to crack, in some cases wide open, and an intellectual and religious ferment is now in full swing. Many are leaving the church because of this, while others are making direct requests for the church to change attitudes or policies. Still others have created alternative online communities to find support and to work out cognitive dissonance, communities which, as far as I can tell, often have a religious and cultural ethos distinctly different from what is regularly encountered in the institutional church and its local wards.

What struck me as I read through Evolution of Faith is how often I felt that I could replace his discussion of Christianity with Mormonism as the subject and that the sense of the passage would retain its relevance and applicability. In my own little world, it felt as though he were speaking prophetic words to the LDS tradition (ironic, I know), words that could help it better embody many of the humanistic principles it already claims to believe in.

Instead of reviewing the rest of the book, I thought that I would simply pull out a few highlight quotes and give readers a taste of his writing. They are some of my favorite from the first quarter of the book. But please, if you feel a temptation to dismiss the ideas contained in them as so much liberal nonsense, go read the Evolution of Faith itself and get the personal context to the quotes.


“Ironically, the more the church resists this evolution, the more it will hasten the change, for its efforts to preserve the status quo will only emphasize its more negative strategies of rigidity, control, and fear, thereby alienating the very people it wishes to influence” (5-6)


“The theology in which many of us were raised fit hand in glove with the prevailing understanding of the church. It was exclusive, rarely acknowledging the merits of other religions. It emphasized a God above and beyond us, mirroring the ecclesial structure of the day that elevated leadership and concentrated power in the hands of an exalted few. It was decidedly privileged in nature and view, reflecting the cultural mores of the richest nations. Its God took their side, blessed their priorities, and helped secure their wealth and status” (7)


“My hope is that an evolving Christianity will reflect the egalitarian spirit of Jesus, not the elitism of an entrenched church. It will no longer presume that having male genitalia uniquely equips someone for leadership. Nor will it assume heterosexuals are capable of ministry in a way homosexuals are not. It will listen carefully to its young people, letting their enthusiasm and yearning for authenticity inspire a passionate and relevant faith. It will console the brokenhearted, speak for the voiceless, befriend the weak, challenge the powerful, and call to leadership those who handle power well” (8)


“An evolving Christianity will not insist we believe the absurd, affirm the incredible, or support a theology that degrades humanity. It will be a friend of science, working joyfully alongside the best minds in the world on a common mission to embrace and enhance life. This Christianity will talk less and act more” (8)


“I’ve often thought revelations and insights about God ought to be handled [like a fragile and defenseless bird], loosely and softly so as not to smother or harm them. Unfortunately, this is usually the opposite of how divine truths are held. Our tendency is to grab them tightly, seizing them, squeezing out their vibrancy and vitality until life is gone from them. Indeed, one of the first things we do is codify and sanctify our encounters with the Divine… We freeze the moment, believe it represents the totality of the divine character, insist that our encounter is superior to our neighbor’s, and move quickly to define, and consequently limit, the manner in which God is encountered”  (21-22)


“For too long, the pastor’s function has been that of propagandist, perpetuating a party-line view of God that is not always helpful or sound. When the pastor is a mouthpiece for a settled view of God and rewarded for his or her adherence to that view, the incentive to expand our understanding of God is lost, the church becomes spiritually stagnant, and the cause of truth is not well served” (34)


“But what if exploration were the theme of one’s spiritual journey? What if “rightness” were of secondary importance and what was paramount was the freedom to investigate uncharted spiritual ground? What if God were not honored by our commitment to orthodoxy, but by our willingness to traverse the difficult terrain of wisdom and discernment? If that were the case, God would not be owed our fear and submission, but our most probing questions. True blasphemy would be ignoring our responsibility to engage the world and reality at the deepest level of which we are capable. It would be to meet creation with apathy, with no appetite for inquiry, knowledge, or enlightenment” (36)


“But when the chief aim of religion is indoctrination, then humility, enlightenment, and open-mindedness fall by the way. Instead, efforts are made to “cement” our thinking early in life, encouraging us to accept the settled doctrines of the church. Traditionally, this has been done by urging children to either confirm their faith in more mainstream churches or to “accept Jesus” in more evangelical churches. Though the method is different, the goal is the same — to establish early in one’s life a pattern of assent and obedience to religious beliefs the child can’t yet possibly know to be true” (39)


“Though I have rejected the salvific exclusivity of the Roman and evangelical churches, I do not dispute that there is but one way to follow God — the way of compassion, mercy, and love. Wherever those virtues are practiced, God is present, with no respect or regard for the religious boundaries we humans have devised. This is the sole test of godly religion: does this religion increase our capacity and ability to love? Whether God is called Elohim or Allah, whether the worship of God is centered in mosque, temple, shrine, or church, whether Jesus is honored as savior, prophet, or teacher, whether none or all of the religious dogma we value are met, if love is present, God is there” (46)


“If Christianity is to evolve, as it surely must if it is to thrive, we must first unchain ourselves from the weight of dead habit that has dulled our minds and stilled our spirits” (53)

Some Problems with Book of Mormon Historicity

I was recently perusing the latest publications of NAMI and happened on an article in the Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture that caused me to reflect more deeply on LDS attitudes toward Book of Mormon historicity. The article, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” was originally a paper presented by Elder Dallin H. Oaks at the 1993 FARMS Annual Dinner, but was subsequently published in the volume Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures (2001), edited by Paul Hoskisson. The fact that the editor chose to re-publish the paper suggests that he thought it had something important to say in the climate of current discussions about the origin of the Book of Mormon.

Continue reading “Some Problems with Book of Mormon Historicity”

Thousands leaving the LDS Church over the Documentary Hypothesis

Reports have come to FPR that currently there is a massive exodus from the church underway on account of members discovering that their leaders have been shielding them from critical biblical scholarship on the Pentateuch. The realization that the ancient literature that constitutes the first five books of the Old Testament is not history in the modern sense of the word and that the various documents and sources that make up its individual components were written to promote certain ideological agendas in the late pre-exilic and post-exilic communities of Judah has left many feeling betrayed and confused. One male member leaving a chapel in downtown Salt Lake City in a hurry commented, “For me it was the death of the Yahwist that was the clincher. The idea of a Solomonic Enlightenment has been definitely disproved, and much of what has been traditionally defined as the Yahwist are actually late redactional additions. So the notion that the Old Testament can be regarded as anything approaching an adequate basis for modern faith is too much to swallow.” Others are said to be not so much upset about the historical particulars, but that they had not been informed earlier. One sister was visibly emotional, “If only I had learned in Seminary that the P account of creation in Genesis 1 rectifies to some extent the misogynistic tendencies of the non-P account of Gen 2-3.”

Ok, to be truthful, these reports are greatly exaggerated. Not many members of the LDS faith leave or become disaffected as a result of exposure to modern critical biblical scholarship. Most are completely unfamiliar with the type of jargon found above and only a few dedicate a significant portion of their lives to understanding the historical intricacies and complex arguments that are found in contemporary discussions of the origins and literary development of the Bible.

Yet even though the Documentary Hypothesis does not loom large in the personal narratives of those who belong to the current and very real exodus of substantial numbers of life-long church members, the issues that modern scholarship of the Bible raises for faith communities are formidable and are only likely to become more vexing for the LDS community in the coming years. Church leaders have been trying to stave off dealing with the inevitable doctrinal and theological questions and controversies that would result from transitioning to something other than a King James-only translation of the Bible, but this approach is becoming increasingly less viable with younger generations in our media and information-saturated world.

No one knows what the future will bring or whether the church will eventually develop a more constructive engagement with modern scholarship of the Bible. There are times when I am exceedingly pessimistic and fear for a creeping Mormon kind of fundamentalism becoming the rule during the 21st century.

I will tell you what I hope the future brings, however. I hope that sincere and rigorous study of the Bible (or religion more broadly) can be a part of why one stays in the LDS faith, rather than an almost automatic handicap or self-imposed psychological hardship. I hope that seeking for greater light and understanding (where the secular and spiritual intersect) is regarded as a reflection of the deepest theological impulses of Mormonism, rather than a sure sign of apostasy. We of all people, who believe in progressive revelation, should be able to assimilate new truths, even difficult truths.

Mormons and Palestinians: Justice and only Justice

With the tragic recent escalation of conflict in Israel-Palestine, my thoughts have turned to experiences I had while living there, first as a naive undergraduate for a semester abroad at the BYU Jerusalem Center and then later as a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University. My first experience was eye-opening and really life-changing in terms of providing an impetus to developing a more critical and reflective perspective on religion and my own faith in particular. Through merely a process of cultural osmosis, I had grown up with a traditional Utah Mormon view about the conflict in Israel-Palestine. I believed that the place was at the center of the eschatological drama that would unfold in the end times, that the wars and rumors of wars that had occurred during the last century only presaged more conflict and bloodletting to come, and most importantly, that the establishment of the Jews in Palestine was a fulfillment of prophecy and ordained of God. Before arriving in Jerusalem, I knew next to nothing about Palestinians. They were a dark, amorphous, and indistinct conception in my mind. For the most part I saw Palestinians (often conflating them with terrorists) as the opponents of the state of Israel and therefore in some sense the opponents of prophecy and the divine will.

What I actually found upon experiencing Israel-Palestine in person was disorienting and uncomfortable. Surprisingly, the Israel-Palestine conflict of myth that had been formulated in my mind had almost nothing to do with reality on the ground. I discovered through personal experience that Palestinians were a good and open-hearted people, a people with a rich and vibrant culture, a people who had been at odds with the aims of the state of Israel (some of them violently) but who for the most part wanted to live in peace and justice. On the other hand, I discovered that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had discernible political and historical causes. Palestinians were not the stereotyped “bad guys” in a sharply differentiated conflict of cosmic good and evil, but more than anything else victims of a terrible historical tragedy: suffering dispossession from the land of their fathers and mothers at the hands of a Zionist and British project to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century and in recent decades experiencing the violent and deadly by-products of a colonizing military occupation.

The experience had a profound impact on my life. In addition to influencing my immediate choice after returning to BYU to pursue a major focused on the study of Arabic and the modern Middle East, I began to think deeply about why LDS culture had views about the conflict and about the state of Israel and Palestinians that seemed to be so disconnected from reality. Why had I been taught to believe that God was essentially on the side of the nation of Israel, that its establishment and continuing maintenance had been effected through divine providence, when it seemed clear that the construction of a Western-backed and ethnically Jewish nation-state in the modern Middle East has had such disastrous consequences for Palestinians, for other peoples of the region, and for Jews and Israelis themselves? Why do Mormons seem to automatically assume that Palestinians are in the wrong and Israel in the right?

I have since realized that LDS attitudes toward Palestinians and the state of Israel are complex and have been shaped by many factors, including ignorance of what life is actually like for Palestinians living under occupation, cultural and political affinity with the Westernized state of Israel, an American media that until recently tended to present the conflict largely from the perspective of Israel (focusing on dramatic Palestinian terrorist acts rather than the daily injustices and violence meted out against Palestinians), participation in the more general historic American/Christian prejudice against Islam and Arabs, and finally, perhaps the most important, a Mormon theological tradition that itself is an adoption of a long-held American Protestant theological interpretation of the Bible that sees Jewish control of Palestine and the state of Israel as the product of God’s will. As I do not have time to explain this latter tradition here, I will try to do so in future posts.

Fortunately, Mormons and the institutional church have gotten somewhat better in recent years in trying to take a more evenhanded approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Mormons have been more outspoken in standing up for the legitimate rights of Palestinians, while the institutional church and the Jerusalem Center itself have become increasingly sensitive to how ones-sided attitudes have had a detrimental effect on the image of the church and its interests there and elsewhere in the Middle East.

But prejudice and misunderstanding are obviously still a real problem, as reflected in Mitt Romney’s quasi-theological rhetoric about supporting the state of Israel during his recent presidential campaign. When I was living in Israel as a graduate student at Hebrew University during 2006-2007, I would attend church with my family at the Jerusalem Center. On a regular basis I would hear statements from LDS tourists at sacrament meeting I felt very uncomfortable with, statements that were totally oblivious to the lives of real Palestinians in the neighborhoods surrounding the center, statements that referred to Palestinian violence in abstract, decontextualized terms, statements that took comfort in the fulfillment of prophecy in Israel’s blossoming as a rose,  statements whose glowing descriptions of the “Holy Land” seemed so self-absorbed.

In the interest of helping to build bridges between Mormons and Palestinians, I thought I might share a particular experience I had shortly after arriving to live in Jerusalem for the second time. This is taken from an email (mildly edited) sent on November 6, 2006:

Hello Family,

This weekend I had a special experience I would like to share with you all. Since Friday was my day-off from school (like our Saturday in the US) and the Hebrew U. library was closed, I decided to take the opportunity to go exploring near the old city of David. I had learned in my archaeology class that week that the modern old city, the well-known part of Jerusalem surrounded by archaic-looking walls, actually had nothing at all to do with the Biblical city of David. The Jerusalem where ancient Israelites lived from the time of David until well after Ezra (500 years) was in reality located on a hilly spur which climbed 120 meters from the bottom of the Kidron valley to the Ophel south of the temple mount. The area is now inhabited by Palestinian Arabs and is known as the village of Silwan, a densely populated and poverty-stricken neighborhood somewhat isolated from the wealthier west Jerusalem.

My goal was to explore without any specific agenda, to let my feet and heart guide me to what I needed to see and experience. As I climbed down into the Kidron east of the Temple mount and began walking down the wadi, I was, admittedly, somewhat cautious. My Arabic was limited (the colloquial Palestinian dialect is very difficult for me to understand) and tourists had generally avoided this section of Jerusalem since 9-11. But something inside me told me that this was where I needed to go. As I passed through a neighborhood where some people were out harvesting their olive trees, a little boy came up with a big smile and introduced himself in broken English. We conversed and I asked where the spring was. He responded in Arabic with “maim,” or water, and beckoned for me to follow. We walked a short distance to a building, unfortunately locked up, which housed what I knew to be the Gihon spring, the main water source for Bibical Jerusalem and ancient site of the coronations of Israelite kings. I could hear the lapping of the water and feel its coolness behind the metal gates at the bottom of the stairway. When I was about to turn away, my little friend called to a girl peering out of a window three stories above us, who produced a small booklet which fluttered to the pavement below. For 10 shekels, which I gladly paid, I got a helpful guide to the archaeological sites in the area.

I continued on my journey down the Kidron noting various archaeological sites and giving friendly greetings to the people I met. Eventually I came to the intersection of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys and decided to walk up the latter, as I had never explored it before. In the Hinnom, I immediately came upon what seemed to be a large and relatively well-groomed orchard of olive and fig trees, with several people harvesting the olives. I was fascinated with the process and wanted to learn more. One nice old man tried to explain to me what he did with his olives, how much money he made by kilo and its use for making oil for food, but I could hardly understand anything he said. His Arabic was so different from the classical Arabic I had studied at BYU! Discouraged, I left the orchard and began to climb out of the valley with the intention of returning to the old city, but then something told me that I should turn back and try to find someone else to talk to. I felt that I needed to move further out of my comfort zone. When I passed back through the orchard I happened to notice a small family made up of a young boy, girl, and mother on the other side of the road harvesting olives. As I approached, I could immediately sense a mixture of curiosity and slight discomfort. Why was this American interested in them? The woman, presumably their mother, moved behind the tree as if to avoid my presence and the boy and girl stared at me as if I was an alien. Fortunately, just at that moment the father appeared on the hillside above us and welcomed me with a gracious Ahlan wSahlan! (welcome, welcome!). He invited me into the shade and offered me tea, coffee, water, pickled olives, and a delicious fruit I had never seen before. His limited knowledge of English and my Arabic allowed us to converse to a considerable extent. I found out that his name was Omar, that he was a Muslim, had six young children, was poor but better off than many other Palestinians because his family owned the orchard, planted by an ancestor over two hundred years ago. He told me that he had been working in the orchard since four o’clock that morning! When I asked him if life was hard, he said that he was mabsoot (happy), which impressed me greatly. Shortly thereafter, his father came over and joined us. He could speak no English whatsoever and was partially blind, but I found him to be very gracious and hospitable. He called me habibi (a term of endearment) and made me feel like one of the family. Omar told me that his father had worked for years at the local Orthodox Christian church just down the road, which was interesting considering that he was a Muslim.

When they went back to picking olives, I joined them to get firsthand experience. The way it worked was someone (generally the father) would pull the olives off the limbs from above while someone below (generally the women and children) would gather the olives from a tarp spread out to catch them. Most significant to me was the respect that Omar had for his trees. Some people, he said, would beat their trees with a stick to get the olives off, but to him olive and fig trees were sacred, as both were mentioned in the Quran. He showed me how to gently and deftly pull the olives off without harming the tree. Around Omar I couldn’t help but feel that the olive trees were sacred. We moved to several different locations in the orchard, spending probably about an hour at each tree. At lunch break they gave me yogurt, pita bread, tomatoes and cucumbers, food which I knew they had brought for themselves to eat while working in the orchard. I stayed with them picking olives into the late afternoon until Omar invited me to his home to eat dinner. We began to walk up the hill, with him carrying a large bag of olives, when suddenly he tripped and fell down. It gave me the opportunity to carry the heavy bag (almost too heavy for me!) to the top of the hill until he could take over.

His house was tucked back in a neighborhood that was reached by stairs that Dr. Seuss would be proud of. We sat down on his porch and soon children from neighboring houses began to gather to see the strange visitor. Everyone was so friendly and interested that even I was surprised. I played soccer with the boys who thought I was quite the soccer star. Dinner was served, a rice dish wrapped in grape leaves and chicken, spicy but very good. After dinner I leafed through a Quran and one of the boys recited some of its suras (chapters). I can’t begin tell you how welcome I felt, how simple but happy a family they were, how beautiful their children were, how their values and way of life so closely matched what I feel to be our family-centered Mormon way of life. When I left, Omar invited me to come back again and made me feel like I had known him longer than one short day. As I walked back to the old city I felt inwardly gratified that my little attempt to show interest in a Palestinian family had been rewarded tenfold. I had gone hoping to share something of myself, to build bridges between different cultures, but it was I who had been inspired, humbled, and had received.

 

 

 

 

Review of Paulsen and Pulido’s “A Mother There”

          The response online to David Paulsen and Martin Pulido’s recently published article in BYU Studies (“A Mother There”: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven) about the history of LDS discourse about Heavenly Mother seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. Based on the commentary found in blogs and discussion forums, many have received their argument that 1) strict silence about Heavenly Mother was never mandated by church leadership and 2) that throughout church history discussion of her has been diverse and substantial as something like water on parched ground. V. H. Cassler at SquareTwo calls the article path-breaking, and in particular emphasizes its symbolic significance: “by the very act of publishing this article in BYU Studies, they have opened a door for the membership of the Church to speak openly of their belief in a Heavenly Mother, and to assert that silence about Heavenly Mother is not ‘sacred,’ but a cultural artifact which is not supported by the General Authorities of the Church.”
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