God, grant me the courage to question my leaders;
the humility to accept their answers;
and the prudence to know when courage becomes arrogance, and humility becomes complaisance.
The online LDS response to the NYT article describing Hans Mattsson’s struggle with doubt about the Mormon faith that he had once believed in has been interesting to watch. Most responses have been generous and sympathetic, realizing that some serious soul-searching within the community is in order, while others have been more reactionary.
One aspect of this discussion I have found particularly interesting has been the conversations that have ensued over Mattsson’s confusion and concern over Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Some immediately queried, “How could Mattsson have not known about polygamy?” Is his case simply a product of his relative ignorance about Church history and doctrine, which would have made him more vulnerable to difficult new information? Others focused more on how they have personally dealt with the uncomfortable historical data, with attitudes ranging from, “I found out about Joseph Smith’s many wives a long time ago, so now these kinds of issues don’t bother me anymore” to “Polygamy is something that I struggle with and don’t have a good explanation for.”
Still others advocate for increased inoculation efforts, with the assumption being that the more transparent the Church is about Joseph Smith’s polygamy and the more we educate people early on in safer settings, the less likely they are to be broadsided with information that could lead to a severe faith crisis.
I myself am not against inoculation. In fact, I think a full-throttled institutionalized effort to be open about such issues is the only way to go. Yet I also believe that we need to go in with both eyes open, recognizing that while transparency and sensitively appropriate discussion at the right times will significantly reduce the numbers of those who feel a strong sense of betrayal by their leaders for not being more forthcoming, in the long term increased knowledge of Joseph Smith’s relationship to polygamy is also surely to have inevitable repercussions on the way we think about his prophethood and may eventually lead to substantial evolution in LDS theology. We may come to think of Joseph Smith less as a prophet with ontologically unique revelatory access to the divine will and more as a radical religious visionary whose “revelations” were a product of his own distinctive interpretive sensibilities as they interacted with the particular cultural context in which he lived.
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)
For the series announcement and the question to which I am replying, see here.
I believe that the dichotomy between the “intellectual” and the “spiritual” in religious education is a false one. Instead, I would prefer to appropriate for my approach to this important issue the German adjective geistlich (or Hebrew ruchi): a word that sees the spiritual and the intellectual as part of a synthetic whole that also includes an appreciation for the aesthetic. I believe that by adopting this perspective one may more fully comprehend, and so more successfully fulfill, the scriptural injunction to seek God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Mark 12:30). Moreover, this approach attempts to eliminate the dualistic impulse that tries to separate the spirit from the material, an impulse which I believe Mormonism confronts and rejects (D&C 88:15; 131:7).
Of course, one could easily recall numerous Mormon axioms for the importance of the life of the mind, including, “The glory of is intelligence” (D&C 93:36), and the divine command to obtain out of the “best books words of wisdom” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118; cf. D&C 90:15; 109:7, 14). But I believe that perhaps the best argument from a Mormon perspective for the organic integration of what is sometimes artificially conceptualized as a division between the “mind/intellect” and the “spirit/soul” is the Prophet Joseph Smith himself. Here Mormons have an authoritative religious example who valued and who aspired to combine truths of personal experience, divine revelation, and academic study. He was brave enough to question and to study things out in his mind (cf. D&C 9:8), while also being humble enough to seek out answers from both God and the collective wisdom and learning of other peoples, faiths, and traditions. He truly was an example of learning “by study and also by faith,” someone who fully believed that Mormonism could bravely accept all truth, whatever its source.
Although requiring methodological rigor and pedagogical sensitivity, I genuinely believe that Mormonism has nothing to fear in studying or honestly teaching the methods and results of modern academic disciplines. Indeed, I maintain that such geistliche Studien in fact are a divine obligation that will only enrich an already wealthy tradition that I deeply love and cherish. And, finally, I believe that such engagement is crucial if Mormonism wishes to retain and nourish its rising generations in this ever-increasingly globalized world, and also if it wishes to make an even greater contribution in the next century to that broader world it is called to serve.
Several weeks ago we had a sacrament meeting talk that remains on my mind. The gentleman who concluded the meeting used most of his time to read a story that he frankly admitted came from his mother, who “got it from Google.” If you are thinking that the word “Google” is a bad sign in this context, your spidey sense is doing well.
The narrative he read was the highly embellished story of Gertrude Specht. You can read the Google version here and Jonathan Green’s research here. The bottom line is that the reality and the internet myth share only three points of contact: both talk about a German, both talk about a woman, and both indicate that the woman had at least one doctorate. Otherwise, the story appears to be what we will charitably call a fabrication in order to avoid offending any tender sensibilities with scatological references.
I must admit that I find it disturbing to hear this sort of thing in church – you want to think that what you hear in church can genuinely be called “worship.” But I must report that the irony runs even deeper. For the major emphasis behind the fabrication was an effort to make poor Dr. Specht, a housewife with a dissy in economics, into an expert who could affirm in detail the historicity of the complex of ideas we group under the term “Great Apostasy.” Yes indeedy, it was an unhistorical narrative contrived to lend the highest scholarly authority to the historicity of the LDS version of early Christianity.
Sitting near York Minster in England is the statue of Constantine shown below. Notice the contemplative look on Constantine’s face as he examines his sword. You’d think he’d never really seen it before! Why? Look again, at where the tip of the sword should rest on the ground. As you can see, the tip of his sword is broken off. Although the sword could still cut, it’s utility as a weapon is pretty much gone. It is a cross now, the great symbol of God’s self-gift of life rather than an instrument of death.
I work around a lot of folks, including pacifists, who are uniformly horrified by the thought of carrying a weapon. And yet, there’s one weapon they carry with them, as do most of us: our sharp, savage tongues. The propensity of the human tongue to cause trouble was not missed by observers as shrewd as the biblical authors. The sages, prophets and psalmists all recognized the damage that the tongue can do. But for my money it’s James that has the most vivid imagery: the tongue is an untameable member, a fire ignited by hell itself, a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Ja 3:6-8). Poison is a nasty weapon for many reasons but one particularly reprehensible quality is that once released it cannot be controlled, that is, it does not distinguish between lawful combatants and those who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so it is with what we say: poison is a most apt description.
Too bad we can’t just cut off the tips of our tongues, so to speak, and change them from deadly weapons to a source of life. We’d probably all be as bemused as Constantine at the results.
I love Tim Tebow.
Partially because I have recently converted to being a Denver Broncos fan. I am a Washington Redskins fan by birth. I was born in Washington, DC. The glory days of the Redskins was during my K-12 years in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.
However, I can no longer take the last 20 years of pain that have come from being a Redskins fan. I may reconsider when Daniel Snyder sells the team.
I now live in Casper, WY. The Denver professional sports teams are our local teams. Might as well root for the team that one can regularly watch on TV, right. But it was not until Tim Tebow that I decided to convert.
Continue reading “I am a Tim Tebow fan”
What makes Biblical Scripture, Scripture for LDS Christians?*
Historically one prominent model for the authority of Biblical Scripture in Christian history (including for some Latter-day Saint thinkers) is the Prophetic-Inspiration Model: the person who writes the text is divinely inspired by God to write the very words that are recorded. This model entails that the human being is a puppet of sorts for the divine will, a tool that can be used for the divine purpose, namely composing Sacred Scripture. In this view, any text so authored is worthy of the category Scripture because, in the end, its wording is really determined by God (even while still partaking in human language). This model therefore equates the words of the prophet figure with Revelation. However, although the prophet figure ultimately cannot be held responsible for the final text, the fact that it is composed, even if only instrumentally, by a prominent religious leader otherwise considered to have been commissioned of God, gives credence to the view that the text’s authority rests in the divine. Continue reading “On Biblical Scripture”
Liturgy is prescribed or ritualized forms of public worship. For instance, the LDS Sacrament (= the Eucharist) is a Mormon liturgical practice. The question I pose is as follows: to what extent is Mormon liturgical practice appreciated in the development of Mormon theology? That is, how does the Sacrament ritual, hymn singing, the standardized Sacrament Meeting routine, traditional baptismal services, normative forms of public prayer, etc., reflect and inform the creative efforts of (modern) Mormon theologians? Since public worship of deity is of central religious importance to Mormonism, it would seem that such living communal practices among the body of believers could be as useful for theological creativity (as well as spiritual formation) as are, for instance, the Scriptures, the sermons or writings of modern General Authorities, or statements from Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. But what are the limitations of Mormon liturgical practice for informing its theology, since, for example, Mormon liturgical practice has been, and still is, subject to modification, and much of it has not been “canonized” (if I may be allowed to borrow the term) like the Standard Works have been? Further, the non-public rituals of the Temple cannot be fully incorporated. Nevertheless, it still seems strange to ignore this body of public religious practice in Mormon theologizing since it is so pervasive and seems so essential for individual spiritual formation, as well as for both individual and collective religious identity. Moreover, an emphasis on Mormon liturgical practice in the creation of theology could be beneficial for clarifying LDS beliefs and attitudes on certain subjects vis-a-vis the teachings or doctrines of other social or religious groups when traditional methods of engagement (Scripture, philosophy, etc.) have proved inconclusive or fruitless. How, then, do you understand the value of liturgical practice in Mormon theologizing, and how do you think it could be incorporated more effectively into that project?
Recently I was asked to fill in as Gospel Doctrine teacher. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity/challenge of helping people gain another lens through which to view the scriptures (ancient and/or modern) since everytime I see people have that moment of enlightenment when they gain new insight into the scriptures, gospel, etc. (something that I would argue is an observable phenomenon), I feel that I get to re-live the moments of enlightenment in my own life. This process of learning, teaching, learning, teaching, etc. is by far and away the place where I feel my strongest personal connection to the gospel, the church, and God and thus rarely pass on such an opportunity. My lesson went very well and a great majority of the class were thrilled to gain some insight into the context of verses that are so often repeated that they have nearly become proverbial:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
Continue reading “Would Jesus “Stick to the Manual”?”