Sunday, June 21, 2015

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Advocate For Mormon Intellectuals

Dick and Gene Poll
A month ago I mentioned how I consider Richard "Dick" Poll one of my most significant Mormon mentors, as well as my primary example of what it means to be both committed to history and to faith, particularly as a Liahona Latter-day Saint. Historian Thomas G. Alexander wrote a wonderful tribute to him after he passed, giving a glimpse into Poll's special contributions. Because it is so insightful in and of itself, I wanted to share the full text here. I would love to hear your responses/feedback in the comments below:


By Thomas G. Alexander

On 27 APRIL 1994 when Richard D. Poll passed away in his Provo home, the historical profession, the Church, and public philanthropy all lost an an active participant. As John Donne might have said, with the loss of Dick Poll the community lost a part of itself.

I first met Dick in 1965 when I joined the history faculty at Brigham Young University. During five years of working together, we developed a life-long friendship. He provided a model that helped many of us younger teachers mold our careers. A dedicated and inspiring teacher, he inaugurated the American Heritage course on television, which students affectionately called "The Dick Poll Show."

In 1970, Dick and his wife Emogene (Gene) left for Western Illinois University. His friend John Bernhard, who had served as dean of our college, accepted the position of university president, and he enticed Dick away by offering him the job of vice president for administration. In 1975, Dick declined Bernhard's invitation to follow him again, and remained as a history professor at Western Illinois until his retirement in 1983.

Needless to say, we maintained our contact--you did that with Dick and Gene because they always made you feel at home wherever you met. In 1970-71, Marilyn and I took our family to Carbondale for a sabbatical at Southern Illinois University. Dick and Gene invited us to drive north to Macomb for Thanksgiving. Our oldest children remember that experience with fondness.

After retirement, Dick and Gene returned to their Provo roots and settled down on Grandview Hill. There he continued his research and community service, and occasionally taught a history class at BYU.

Dick was utterly devoted to Gene and their three daughters--Marilyn, Nanette, and Jennifer. Last November, when the daughters and their husbands Gary Bell, Teny Allen, and Clayton Crawford honored Dick and Gene with a fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration, no one expected that within six months both Gene and Dick would be gone. Gene passed away early this year, and in a short time Dick followed. 

Born in 1918 during World War I and nurtured during the turbulent 1920s, Dick belonged to that generation of scholars whose youth had been severed by economic depression and violent war. Serving as a missionary during the late 1930s, Dick transferred from Germany to Denmark and finally to Canada as the horror of World War II began to engulf western Europe. Like others of his generation (Gene Campbell, Leonard Arrington, George Ellsworth, Everett Cooley, and Brigham Madsen), Dick served in the armed forces. Like the latter three, he returned from the war to earn a Ph.D. in history at the University of California at Berkeley. A brilliant scholar, Dick held the Thompson fellowship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

As a child of the Progressive Era and a youth of the Depression, battered by conflicts between scholarly secularism and an active faith, Dick sought to integrate his religious and intellectual lives. Throughout his career he sought to understand Mormonism as a personal experience as he probed the relationship of the Latter-day Saints to the larger American society. In his master's thesis at Texas Christian and his Ph.D. dissertation, he investigated the subject that formed the core of his scholarly output, both the thesis and the dissertation examined the nineteenth-century relationship between Mormons and other Americans. Continuing those themes, in the last years of his life, he researched long hours on the Utah War--that misguided but fortunately bloodless conflict between the Mormon people and the American nation.

Before his death, he had already begun to sketch the outlines of that study in a Dello G. Dayton Memorial Lecture at Weber State University on Thomas L. Kane and in an article in BYU Studies on the massive exodus to Provo, generally called "the move south."

It is no negative reflection on Dick to observe that he placed his role as public intellectual and teacher before his role as scholar. Dick's service to the university and the community reveals his commitment to teaching and service. At BYU, he labored as associate director and as a teacher and mentor in the honors program. The students named him honors professor of the year in 1969. As a public intellectual, he championed at BYU the somewhat unpopular causes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors. Later, after he returned to Provo, he immersed himself in the campaign to save the Brigham Young Academy buildings. At the same time, he committed himself to the Provo Library adult literacy program.

Most important, perhaps, as part of his full career he tried to define a role for the intellectual in the Church. As Richard Hofstadter in his seminal book Anti-intellectualism in American Life pointed out, genuine intellectuals are uncomfortable with certainty. They prefer to turn answers into questions. This attribute distinguishes intellectuals from apologists who seek to reconcile and defend.

What place, Dick asked, do intellectuals who commit their lives to inquiry and questioning have in the LDS church? For him, the answer was quite clear: Intellectuals must continue to serve, to believe, and to remain faithful, while continuing to question and search. As an intellectual and a committed Church member, Dick served among other callings in the Oak Hills Second Ward bishopric, on a number of high councils, as president of the Macomb Branch, and as a teacher in the high priests group.

As a service to himself and the community of Mormon intellectuals, he defined a place in the Church for the faithful questioner in a sermon he delivered in the Palo Alto Ward in August 1967, which Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought published in the Winter 1967 issue. For those of us who remain firmly committed both to the Church and to the life of the mind, Dick's "What the Church Means to People Like Me" came as a revelation. He helped us to define ourselves.

His was no mean task. Intellectuals of every generation--Dick's included--have concluded that the soul-wrenching struggle to remain both actively committed to religious faith and to the questioning demanded of true scholars was not worth the cost. Some have taken one of two easy roads out. On the one side, many have chosen to become apologists, deciding that questioning will pay no dividends in the Church. These people decide not to research the hard questions. Committed to authority and central direction, they conform and in doing so ignore or gloss over problems.

On the other side, not a few conclude that commitment to the Church is not worth the struggle and embarrassment. For them, as for the apologists, questioning and commitment to religion becomes ultimately too hard. Certain questions prove too difficult. How do you respond to questions about the Church's previous policy on African-Americans and the priesthood or the practice of polygamy? How do you answer questions about dictation in politics or opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment? What answer do you give when friends quiz you on such matters as public dissent, feminism, or authority? Many intellectuals, uncomfortable about such problems, decide either to slip into inactivity or to sever their connection with the Church.

Clearly, Dick observed, within the Church those who question and those who do not have difficulty living with each other. This happens, he argued, not on the level of intellectual acceptance, but "at the level of personal communion, of empathy."

Nevertheless, Dick argued, although those who decline to question are uncomfortable around questioners, people who question have a firm place in the Church. He developed this argument by defining two ideal types of committed members. The first he labeled "Iron Rods." These are members for whom "each step of the journey to the tree of life was plainly defined." The second, he called "Liahonas." These are members for whom "the clarity of . . . directions varied with the circumstances of the user." For them there "was no infallible delineator of their course." Where the Iron Rod found answers, the Liahona found questions.

"To the Iron Rod a questioning attitude suggests an imperfect faith; to the Liahona an unquestioning spirit betokens a closed mind." For the Iron Rod, answers to virtually all questions appear in "Scripture, Prophetic Authority, and the Holy Spirit." The Liahona, on the other hand, accepts the concepts "that God lives, that He loves His children, that His knowledge and power are efficacious for salvation, and that He does reveal himself." Nevertheless, the Liahona believes that God's will is mediated by "the arm of flesh." Liahonas find problems in such matters as biblical descriptions of Eve's creation from Adam's rib and in the chronology that places the creation at 4,000 B.C. They are uncomfortable with the selective literalism of the Iron Rods that question the one proposition and testify to the other. As they search Church history, instead of unvarying sweetness and harmony, Liahonas find disagreement among prophets over such matters as the League of Nations, the process of creation, and politics.

Dick placed himself squarely with the Liahonas. He denied that the Liahona type was simply another name for the faithless, the apostate, or the cultural Mormon. Rather, he argued that faith in the Atonement, salvation, and exaltation were true principles as were agency, freedom, compassion, and love. Moreover, he felt a sense of commitment to the Latter-day Saints as a people, and exercised faith in a set of principles promising a better life here and in the hereafter.

Undoubtedly if questioned, Dick would say that faithless, apostate, or cultural Mormons are people who have taken the road into inactivity or out of the Church. Although they might identify themselves with the Mormon people, they have little faith in the Atonement, salvation, or revelation. Liahonas, on the other hand, are committed Latter-day Saints who have declined to reject the active life of the mind as a price of active membership.

After Dick's death, in reflecting on the Iron Rod/Liahona model, one of my colleagues, Ted Warner, reminded me of the controversy Dick's article had generated at BYU. The pages of the Daily Universe, the student newspaper, was filled with letters arguing about Dick's proposition. Some Iron Rods condemned the article as the rantings of an apostate. On the other hand, Henry Nicholes--often a glorious thorn in BYU President Ernest Wilkinson's side--argued that Iron Rods and Liahonas probably constituted only two of a large number of types of faithful members within the Church.

I'm not comfortable labeling myself as either an Iron Rod or a Liahona. Nevertheless, I find in Dick's recognition that the Church offers a place for the faithful, questioning intellectual a modicum of comfort in the otherwise uncomfortable world peopled only sparsely by Mormon intellectuals like myself.

Dick Poll would have found most unperceptive Bill Mulder's suggestion--citing his wife's quip--that the phrase "Mormon intellectual" is an oxymoron. Richard Hofstadter suggested that the hallmark of the intellectual is discomfort with certainties. Dick Poll would have heartily agreed, and he would have added that whether you call Latter-day Saints who search and question "Mormon intellectuals" or "Liahonas," they are faithful subjects in God's Kingdom. If, as I firmly believe, the celestial kingdom has room for all faithful people, Dick Poll will surely find his seat near God's right hand raising questions, for which the loving Father of us all will express his profound gratitude.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

If you could ask the First Presidency a question--any question--what would you ask?

"If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed."
-J. Reuben Clark

I'm genuinely baffled when I see fellow Latter-day Saints dismiss any effort to ask hard questions, especially when those questions are an honest attempt to find out what "the truth" is. In a church that only requires us to believe "truth", why is the default setting to view such attempts that dig deep to find out "the truth" perceived as "negativity" and a threat?

If one uses a jackhammer to try and separate fact/truth/ideal from the concrete of reality, tradition, and even current teachings assumed to be truth, I think we should be thankful for such work, not marginalize the worker because of the temporary noise.

Assuming we could ask in that spirit and receive a loving answer (as opposed to being given a stone for bread), I'm wondering what you would ask the First Presidency if you had the opportunity to ask any question you wanted?

I have several questions I'd like answered. For example:

*Why are only men ordained to the priesthood?
*When will you be reforming the excommunication process?
*Why in the world did you uphold Kate Kelly's excommunication anyway?  What was learned, if anything, when the Church botched that "sad experience"?

I'm in complete agreement with Lavina Fielding Anderson (who herself was wrongfully excommunicated), who last summer at Sunstone shared the following:
One of my personal insights is support for the order the church has established about the relationship between stewardship and revelation. I have no problem with assigning responsibility for church-wide revelation to the men who hold the office of apostle and prophet, but I can’t describe the pain I feel that those who claim the privilege of revelation seem to refuse the responsibility to seek it. Our church claims continuous revelation, yet it punishes those who implore its leaders to seek it. Some of the most horrifying statements and silences to come out of Kate [Kelly’s] excommunication is the denial that there is anything to pray about or any point on which further revelation should be sought. 
I feel such longing when I read calls from Steve Veazey (prophet and president of the Community of Christ) for the whole church to join in a discernment process. What if our leaders similarly ask its members to pray earnestly about ordaining women to priesthood? About supporting and celebrating our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who want to marry, have families, and participate in congregational life? What if our leaders really accepted Nephi’s assurance and invited us to join with him in the call: Christ "denieth none that come unto Him, black and white, bond and free, male and female...all are alike unto God.” (From Lavina's remarks at minute 10:35-12:16 of Session 324: "Life After Church Discipline.")
Hers is a profound insight and something I too long for. But great is the letdown I feel when I contrast that with the way kangaroo "courts of love" have started popping up in our church like whack-a-mole. Tonight in Sacramento, California, Rock Waterman is being charged with "conduct unbecoming a member of the church" and thus an "apostate" who'll likely be excommunicated. Last month it was the Calderwoods, who perhaps believed too little; today it's Rock Waterman, who believes too much. Joseph Smith once said: “I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief.” Go figure.

***Update 6/4/15: Rock posted the following update to this blog a few hours ago:
A few hours ago I was excommunicated from the church for apostasy.
"What sins am I guilty of?"
"No, apostasy is your judgment. What sins have I committed that make up this apostasy?"
"Apostasy is the sin."
One truth has come home to me with laser clarity: there are two religions operating side by side in the LDS church today, both vying for dominance. The first is the religion founded through Joseph Smith, which emphasizes dependence on Christ. The other religion requires allegiance to Church leaders above all else. If your devotion to Jesus is stronger than your fealty to the Church hierarchy, you are a threat to their system.
It doesn't matter how forcefully you bear testimony of Christ and His gospel; the Brethren-ite religion has but one focus: replace the organic religion with the counterfeit one, all the while convincing followers nothing has changed.
You know what I think is truly "unbecoming"? Modern day witch hunts are unbecoming of the Church of Jesus Christ. Yet they're allowed to take place without much second-guessing, despite the fact we've been reminded the Church has and can make mistakes. One cannot "repent" of the truth, nor from the fact that some people with misguided loyalty/allegiance either don't want to hear the truth or see it as a threat. Our loyalty should be to the truth. Truth is truth, no matter who speaks it. Truth isn't any more "true" whether it's spoken by authorities or academics. We have to be able to discern the truth for ourselves.

Rock Waterman is a "threat" in the same way Dorothy pulling back the curtain was a threat to the Wizard of Oz. The question is do we want to see the truth and see reality as it actually is or as we wish it to be? Truth can defend itself--it's not a fragile thing. If people have faith in the truth there is nothing to fear. But if expectations of faith are placed upon a false narrative or on idols, then image must be preserved at all costs. Despite these unjust, unfair, and unChristlike witch hunts, leadership typically remains silent, unless media attention becomes great. It was a rare and welcome exception when the First Presidency issued this statement last summer:
Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.
I, for one, don't oppose the church or its leaders. In fact, I sustain them. But since sustaining them doesn't require that I always agree, I do oppose the harmful messages and teachings that sometimes come out of the church and its faithful leaders. Harmful teachings deserve to be harmed. (If you're not prepared to go down the rabbit hole, don't ask me for specific examples. There are plenty, both in the past and in the present.)

To be clear, don't believe we should ever criticize the leaders themselves. Personal attacks are certainly unbecoming a member of the church. As L. Jackson Newell wrote: "Personal attacks always diminish the dignity of individual and community life and are never appropriate in government, business, or religion. On the other hand, the respectful and constructive criticism of a leader's ideas or judgments is not only acceptable but necessary for healthy organizational life." Thus, I draw an important distinction between the person and the ideas. We should constructively criticize ideas and teachings that are harmful. I'm with Bill Reel on speaking out against harmful and damaging teachings--especially when lives are at stake or the atonement is denied. (Better to come home dead from your mission than to have committed sexual sin?! What about the atonement?!)

I dislike false doctrine as much as the next guy. I especially dislike it when it comes from authorities of my church. Thus, I support the church when it corrects its own false doctrines and false teachings, however long it takes. (Example: Race and the priesthood.) Since the church itself can eventually come around and correct its mistakes (with or without apologies) and receive grace, perhaps we ought to be willing to extend the same hope and grace to individuals to likewise come around eventually and not be so swift to judge them as apostates and excommunicate them.

In light of the First Presidency's reminder that "simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy," I posed my original question ("If you could ask the First Presidency a question--any question--what would you ask?") to fellow Latter-day Saints online. I quickly received many responses, and you'll see from their questions below that they are not afraid to think for themselves and question the status quo. It's quite a sampling:
  • "If the gospel is truly for everyone, what is the church willing to do to change the culture of Mormonism so that everyone will feel they truly have a place here regardless of color, sexual orientation, political affiliation, gender, marital status, social class, etc.. ?"
  • "Why can't we let Jesus be enough? If it's His gospel, why don't teach that more?" 
  • "Why do we need to constantly add in things to the gospel plan? Isn't the atonement good enough?" 
  • "Why are you directing people not to follow the Savior's commandment to ASK, SEEK, KNOCK? Regarding female ordination, what are you afraid of?"
  • "Why can't we be okay as a church admitting there have been lies, white washing, and deliberate half truths in the name of building a church?"
  • "If the Book of Mormon holds the fullness of the gospel, why do we have a very different church now? I am comfortable with modern revelation but we have departed so much from the church described in the Book of Mormon."
  • "What do you mean, 'you KNOW'?"
  • "What do you honestly think about polygamy? Why not just abolish section 132?"
  • "Can we have that long awaited two hour block? Pleaseandthankyou."
  • "Why do you allow yourselves to be put up on pedestals? (I personally think the deification of members of the church serving in "high callings" is a root problem to a lot of the ill's of the church. A hierarchy invalidates a lot of voices.)"
  • "Why is it that in some cases putting leaders on pedestals is actually encouraged or even demanded, and why are general authorities allowed to do it to each other? (The 14 Fundamentals and its inclusion in manuals and reiteration in conference makes top leadership complicit in fostering the idolatrous culture.)"
  • "Why have the 15 apparently decided they should not apologize for wrongs done in the past or today?"
  • "What are we to do with 2 Nephi 5, Alma 3, Abraham 1, Moses 7, and other scriptures in relation to the church's statement: 'Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse'?"
  • "When is the church going to be honest about its history? Why can't we apologize for what happened in the past? Our church clearly hasn't been Christlike in how we treat the LGBT community. And why is the church excommunicating people based on belief, not actions that are detrimental to the gospel?"
Of course, last summers clarification that simply asking questions is not apostasy wasn't necessarily a new definition of apostasy, since the following has long been in the handbook:
Yet the handbook can raise more questions than it answers: Is excommunication truly warranted in cases where one man judges another as "apostate" for believing too much or too little? How can one repent of something that was never sin to begin with?

I would whole-heartedly support the Church in making progressive changes to this definition and/or process. In light of the ninth article of faith, I wish the Church would not be so collectively resistant to change. Recently on Radio West, Greg Prince summed it up like this: "We feel very strong about how things are until they change, and then we feel very strong about how they’ve become." And later: "We feel very strongly that we do things the way we do them because we do them that way until we do them differently."

Should we not hope that Seers could see a better way forward in cases where deep and serious sin has not occurred? Is excommunication truly the best solution for these kinds of cases? Do we not see how foolish it is to continue to use excommunication as the red "ejector" button, rather than exclusively for repentance in serious moral and ethical cases? Moreover, isn't it troubling how "conduct unbecoming of church members" is subjective in the extreme, how there's no impartial jury, and that no women are allowed to be part of the council?

No amount of faith will change the stubborn fact that some members are not as lucky as others in the unfortunate reality of ecclesiastical roulette. Perhaps to create more calm and uniformity the First Presidency could require that they themselves must sign off on these kinds of cases rather than let local leaders fumble around and inflict pain on the worldwide church body.

Another question: What of those who hold up a mirror on ecclesiastical abuses in the institutional Church? If we don't like what we see, do we punish the messenger for the message? Are we okay with casting out those who speak out publicly while injustice is swept under the rug to save the reputation of the Church? Are we okay with "disciplining" those who follow the dictates of their conscience? Do we really expect all such displays of ecclesiastical "power" to be automatically and divinely ratified? If the Church is concerned about its reputation, shouldn't it allow people of conscience to become whistle-blowers in order to uncover unrighteous dominion? Does it not create an unsafe environment when the default is to squelch public dissent?

If our ultimate responsibility is to truth, do we not have the right and the responsibility to respectfully oppose teachings we've individually discerned do not represent the mind and will of God? How much faith do we actually have in J. Reuben Clark's statement: "If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed"? Does confirming the truth for one's self only apply to sincere investigators before they're baptized or all throughout their lives? Are we expected to turn a blind eye to history and believe the myth of infallibility, that authorities called of God always speak the truth?

I believe Terryl Givens spoke truth when he said the following:
We believe that it is always our responsibility to confirm through our own study and prayer and responsiveness to the spirit, whether what we’re hearing, is the mind and will of the Lord or not. I think of Orson Pratt who alone of twelve apostles refused to consent to the false doctrine of Adam-God and only many years later was vindicated for his steadfast integrity. So it may be that in the short term we do find ourselves on the margins or ostracized but I think that our devotion always has to be first and foremost to our conscience, before to any institution. (Mormon Stories Podcast episode 496--part 2: Fiona and Terryl Givens and “The Crucible of Doubt”--1 hour 33 minute mark.)
If I had a more sure hope in church leaders always doing the right thing (ie: if I ignored D&C 121:39), then perhaps I wouldn't feel compelled to speak up and voice the concerns of my conscience. But I must place loyalty to conscience over loyalty to any institution, and my conscience tells me something is seriously wrong with the way excommunications for "apostasy" are taking place. As Joseph Smith said:
I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled. (Joseph Smith, WoJS, 183-84.)
Most of us Latter-day Saints live in a state of privilege; because we ourselves don't feel trammelled we may conclude it's not really a problem for anyone else. But to "try" others because one has judged them as having "erred in doctrine" is trammeling. There are better ways to handle differences of belief than having someone in a position of "a little authority, as they suppose", press the ejector button. The scriptures teach us the "more excellent way" is to love the person and perhaps even seek to understand rather than be so quick to judge. As a matter of fact, judging them prevents us from fulfilling the greater commandment to love them. President Thomas S. Monson confirmed this:
Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun who worked among the poor in India most of her life, spoke this profound truth: "If you judge people, you have no time to love them." The Savior has admonished, "This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you." I ask: can we love one another, as the Savior has commanded, if we judge each other? And I answer—with Mother Teresa: no, we cannot.
If this is true on an individual level, would not the same hold true on an institutional level? How are we to reconcile this with our current conception of "judges in Israel"? While I don't claim to know how to answer that, a wise stake president once said: "Being a judge in Israel does not exempt me from the commandment to love one another. It binds me to it. To be a judge in Israel is to help [people] come unto Christ and repent of their sins. It has nothing to do with assigning guilt. There is many a time I know of sin and do nothing. My responsibility kicks in when an individual desires to repent."

Precisely because no one single mortal can know all the details of ones heart, wouldn't it be better to leave the judgement up to Christ? Last June in her Sunstone presentation, Lavina Fielding Anderson quoted Pope Francis, who just days before had given a homily based on the parable of the mote and the beam and had renounced those who judge others, calling them hypocrites and even comparing them to Satan. He pointed out the scriptural fact that the title of Satan is “the accuser.”

He who judges another puts himself in the role of God, the only judge--and is that not a form of blasphemy? Even with an exclusive claim to priesthood authority, if we see no difference between mortal leaders and God himself, that is idolatry. A man so certain he knows the will of God can be dangerous.
That danger should give us pause, cause us to think deeply, and to be very careful, for whichever judgment we dole out will be the judgement we too will receive. What happens to the brother who judges, as Pope Francis said, is that he ends up "a victim of his own lack of mercy." Speaking on mercy, the Pope went on to say that Jesus "never accuses" but actually does the opposite--he defends. “Jesus will judge, yes, at the end of the world, but in the meantime He intercedes and defends."

God is "the sole judge" and ultimately, said Pope Francis, men who judge “imitate the prince of this world," who waits in the background, ready to accuse. “May the Lord give us the grace to imitate Jesus, the intercessor, advocate, lawyer,” for ourselves and others. We're to imitate Him, not imitate others who judge, for “in the end, it will destroy us." After quoting the Pope, Lavina went on to say:
Meantime, those who judge, who accuse, who bully, who cut off sincere discussion, who silence honest questions, who cast the sufferers out of the community--they claim to speak in the name of God. They may be among those to whom Jesus will say: "Depart from me, I never knew you," or as the Joseph Smith Translation reads "Ye never knew me.” May we cling to Christ, be open to his grace, and have the blessing of being forgiven of our own trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Beauty Of Owning Our Own Post-Certain Religious Life

Brent Beal shared some profound insights about those of us who no longer claim to "know" truth with certainty and yet have rebuilt a life of faith. That transition from certainty to uncertainty is often accompanied from a transition of perceived orthodoxy to heterodoxy as one places higher priority on individual autonomy over simply following directions:
Many of us that have taken the heterodox fork in the road soon realize that we don’t really know anything. Our religious experiences aren’t any more valid or profound or “real” than anyone else’s. Our answers to life’s big questions are just that—they are “our” answers and however wondrous those answers may be to us (and however useful), the fact that we have answered life’s big questions in a certain way doesn’t mean that everyone else’s answers are inferior.  
We are not committed to secularism (or liberalism, or feminism, or progressivism) in the same way that orthodox Mormons are committed to “exact” obedience. We just realize that there is a lot we don’t know. If God speaks to humanity through spiritual experiences, then why does he communicate such radically different information to individuals based on their religious context? We don’t know. That’s it, really. We don’t know.  
Many of us have gotten to the point of “I don’t know,” stared into the abyss, searched our souls for some reflection of deity, and then seen the same thing: We’ve seen each other. We’ve come away from the experience with the profound realization that we–as in all of humanity—are in this together. We are truly one. Until further notice, therefore, it seems obvious that the one thing we can do—the low-hanging fruit, so to speak—is to be nice to each other. We should treat each other fairly, and with dignity and respect.  
Another common line of reasoning among those of us who don’t know much is this. If God created us with individual agency and the capacity for reason, then it makes sense that God expects us to use those capabilities...If forced into this false dichotomy [between “individual autonomy” and a “path of obedience to laws”], I suspect that what we do with our individual autonomy will matter more to God than how well we follow directions. For me it comes down to whether or not I believe God wants us to paint by the numbers or to paint our own pictures? As parents, what do we value more from our four-year-olds? A paint-by-the-numbers portrait identical to what’s on the box, or a free-spirited “Look, Mom, this is you and Dad in a rocket ship with a cow!” masterpiece? 
The path of “I don’t know” is difficult. Taking responsibility for one’s own spiritual life is difficult. Being nice to people is difficult. It’s not easy—not nearly as easy as the “exact obedience” path can be at times. But there’s a reason why most adults have abandoned paint-by-the-numbers projects.