I am the type of person who probably cares too much about what others think of me. If I donʼt check myself I have a tendency to stress about certain interactions I have had with people for days or weeks after the conversations have transpired. Although I might start up a controversial subject from time to time I am also most likely to start nodding in agreement with any feedback I get. I just canʼt help that I have a sensitive soul in this way. I am hungry for acceptance.
So, itʼs also a wonder to me that I am so drawn to a pursuit of truth which I feel requires me to challenge the most foundational claims of my tradition and the claims on which much of my community has built their identity. Anyone who has questioned these core beliefs has probably already encountered the inevitable tensions that follow in our relationships to other believers, especially our families. You are playing a role in their version of heaven after all. Without you even the Celestial Kingdom will be a little bit more lonely. There is a concern that your doubts might be infectious like a disease and disqualify them from the blessings they expect to receive through unwavering confidence in the church.
A doubter can sometimes be viewed as a weak link in the chain of family unity. I have feared at times that by accident my curiosity will lead me to casually walk on the sacred ground of my family or community and in turn be viewed as meddlesome, mislead, or worst of all poisonous.
Like many others I have found my understanding of things doesnʼt always fit perfectly into the official story as it is currently presented and I am given the choice to either accept my soulʼs desire to dig deeper or I must conform to the status quo and set aside my questions. I have a hard time accepting the latter. I freely admit to making several foolish mistakes but I cannot be deterred from seeking for something more authentic today than what I had yesterday. I am willing to admit that my personality may be a little reckless in this regard. Whether I have erred by not following my heart or my head, by not exercising enough discipline or being too rigid and closed off; confronting fears and moving forward seems like the best way to go.
Is it possible to endure this tension that exists between the institutional program -with its readily supplied answers- and our need to arrive at our own answers independently? Can we be at peace with our journey and continue to participate in the church with confidence even when we know our opinions might be threatening to some members? To endure this tension would require a great deal of empathy on our parts towards the church community and an extra measure of tolerance towards those who will inevitably misunderstand our intentions.
This tension between new growth and tradition has always existed in our religion. I think we can see it demonstrated in the scriptures from the conflict between the prophetic tradition which is unpredictable, charismatic, and independent and the priestly tradition which is heavily structured and tradition-focused. The priest maintains a tradition and a prophet revitalizes and adds to it. They butt heads in some ways but both play important roles. A prophet may also be a High Priest (As in Almaʼs case) but there are also many instances where the prophet is an obscure outsider, possibly a common member, who has been commissioned by God to make corrections to an organization that has strayed from its founding precepts (like an Abinidi or Samuel).
If we look for scriptural examples that show a period in which we know the church had strayed -King Noahʼs church for example- we can see that independent thought would have been a benefit to any followers at that time. It would have been their only protection against power-seeking authorities who told the membership what they wanted to hear in exchange for support. I donʼt want to imply that our current situation is on par to the wickedness of King Noahʼs church but I have no reason to think that this shouldnʼt be taken as a serious warning to the leaders and membership today. Do we support a system that tells us what we want to hear or are we willing to consider the voices that remind us we still have a lot of changes to make?
We need different voices in our church for it to be a healthy system. Some voices may present new challenges and questions which will test the metal of the church but will also serve to strengthen it in the long run.
Currently there is a lot of discussion in the church around the subject of doubt. Many people recognize that they are naturally skeptical and that trait has served them well against deception. These people question why they should be compelled to claim knowledge they do not have. They are agitating for an approach to learning spiritual truths that does not require so many professions of absolute certainty. The sense I get from this side of the argument is that it is important to recognize what we donʼt really know because it devalues the existence of anything more certain that we could know.
Some leaders are understandably reluctant to give the go-ahead to freely doubt all the claims of the church as a legitimate solution to dissonance, but can the appearance of doubts ever really be controlled? Doubts happen and it does not always seem like a choice.
Elder Jeffery R. Holland recently gave an inspiring talk in which he validated the need for questions and concerns but advises us not to be lead by our doubts:
“In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited…….The size of your faith or the degree of your knowledge is not the issue—it is the integrity you demonstrate toward the faith you do have and the truth you already know.” (Elder Holland/Conference April 2013)
This strikes me as very wise advice. It does not attempt to manipulate those who have doubts. It simply confirms the idea that your knowledge of God will be constructed layer by layer as you add to what you have with honesty and integrity.
My relationship to the church has changed a lot over time. I have spent many years as an idealistic believer, and many as a semi-active closet doubter or Agnostic, but I currently find myself to be a fully active, believing-yet-unorthodox member (There’s got to be a shorter way to say that). The common value through all these phases has been a commitment to truth as I am able to understand it. For me, all these phases have been necessary for my growth.
Surprisingly, even after several years of deconstructing beliefs, I still have become convinced again that this church has something very precious to offer the world. I think that it is fully capable of connecting people to God and directing them to joy and fulfillment in their lives. I think It is not something to be defined only as “true” or “false” as much as “alive” or “dead”. That life is not determined only by the connection of our leaders to God but perhaps more so by the life and awareness of the membership at large.
After my crisis of faith and a very long phase of disbelief there was a surprising reconversion that occurred in my life. I found myself returning to Mormonism and engaging it in new ways that seemed to once again open up great spiritual insight. My personal spiritual practice was dramatically improved and I could not easily set aside the significance of the doctrines of the Restoration in this process. Somehow the Gospel began working for me and I felt a renewed spiritual vitality enter my life.
But none of my feel-good experiences mean that much if I canʼt say something more about knowledge as well. After receiving these powerful answers to prayer I once again began to ask myself what I could now claim to know. Have I really gotten anywhere? I still couldnʼt say many things that other members feel comfortable saying in testimony meeting. I still did not know why Joseph did all the controversial things he did. I did not know how the BoM could be justified from a scientific point of view. I did not know if I could say the church as a whole was “true and living” but there was still something there I had to weigh and consider. It was not apparent what this knowledge was until I was reading Joseph Smithʼs sixth lecture on faith:
“It is essential for any person to have an actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing is according to the will of God to enable him to have that confidence in God without which no person can obtain eternal life. Such was and always will be the situation of the Saints of God. Unless they have an actual knowledge that the course they are pursuing is according to the will of God, they will grow weary in their minds and faint. (JS Lectures on Faith Lecture 6)”
What I knew was that at that moment God approved of my journey and it was a kind of fiery confidence that no one could take from me. It was an inner-peace. It did not matter what judgment or misunderstandings there might be about my motives because I knew that right then me and God were cool. That is a feeling I would love to communicate to every person who feels they are honestly working through things as best they can. I can’t do it as well as God can though.
We will walk different paths but if our heart is in the right place our course will lead us where we need to go. God is here. I am thankful for every soul that is willing to fight for more truth in this world and to the extent that my voice can be identified as one small expression of this church body I will use it to validate the questions of every sincere seeker I meet.
Love your comparison of the organized, clinging-to-tradition priestly tradition with the disruptive, innovative prophetic tradition.
Interesting essay. I will say that I was born into doubt. To believe the version of Mormonism before me would have been to embrace a monster. I was very young and had to reject what I could see and reach out- hoping- where I could not see.
First, you make writing that well look easy.
Re independent and authentic knowledge, my perusings led me to coin a phrase, “mechanical piety.” I guess it’s pretty much the same as “going through the motions,” but I found a need to be more accurate. You are far from being alone on this track.
“Mechanical Piety” I like it 😉
Beautifully written. I love the ending and am genuinely happy that you received that gift from God. Your intelligence and inquisitive nature is a gift and talent. Why squash it?
Thank you. This was absolutely beautiful! I just wanted you to know that i really appreciate this!
Thanks, Chris; well said. I will comment on your 3rd paragraph, which reads, “A doubter can sometimes be viewed as a weak link in the chain of family unity. I have feared at times that by accident my curiosity will lead me to casually walk on the sacred ground of my family or community and in turn be viewed as meddlesome, mislead, or worst of all poisonous.”
As Mormons, we are taught to highly-value the everlasting and eternal and we parade it at every opportunity: think “Families Are Forever” posters and bumper stickers. – This paradigm gives me pause. On one hand, the feeling of family unity can have mortal value (-even if its heavenly twin is not true-) by adding earthly weight to the importance of cooperation and unity. On the other hand, if forever family-ness is only a slogan or jingle that discovery by some family members may smack oddly upon the hearts of other family members who believe the first hand.
Since every extended family includes (-will eventually include-) people on both sides of that paradigm, each must chose how he will interact with contrarians at family picnics and reunions. An unhealthy member may be troubled by his discover of contrary views while a healthy member will accept the duality, accept the possibility that his own view is not correct, and be grateful to be among family who introduce him to correction; and naturally, this exchange goes in both directions.
At its heart, such duality can be used to either divide or unify the family; and only its members control which occurs. In my case, family patriarchy and matriarchy set tone to invite some level of duality at inception; and my large family picnics are enriched by it.
“It is not something to be defined only as “true” or “false” as much as “alive” or “dead”.”
Herein lies the difference between the 2 trees.
First, this was wonderfully written and thought through–thank you for sharing it. Here are a couple of small notes:
“believing-yet-unorthodox member (There’s got to be a shorter way to say that)” Easy: BYU member
“questions which will test the metal of the church” I think you were going for “mettle”, but I like this use of metal too, with our heritage of gold and brass plates and all.
Love the comments 🙂