My shelf crashed around the age of 32. I was serving as a Bishop well late into my second year of that calling. No one knew…. not my Stake President, not my counselors, not even my wife. I had many a sleepless nights and tried every solution I could to find the kind of peace that allowed me to maintain my prior beliefs. There was an ebb and flow to my faith. Finding way stations along the way to pause and rest believing perhaps I had found an answer. But those gifts of grace were only momentary plateaus useful in slowing me down, giving me time to process, and helping see forward was the only way as I sought truth in that way a real truth-seeker does.
I delved into every nook and cranny of Mormonism, ingesting every faithful evidence, every critical question. I dove deep into a study of the atonement, and those beautiful gifts of Mercy and Grace. I read Quinn, Bushman, Givens, and Prince. I also gave an immense amount of time to Holland, Gene R Cook, Brad Wilcox, Maxwell, and others. I spent a lot of time in my job on the road alone. Sometimes hours a day. Just me, My MP3 player, and those voices of leaders and scholars. I found podcasts and audio books feeling if I just listened to one more thing I could find that missing puzzle piece that helps me see where all the others belong and fit. Trying so hard to keep it together I wrote apostles pleading for help. I communicated with Church leaders at every level with no one having answers.
…. One day something shifted in my mind. Some new idea entered in and it pushed an old idea out. Rather than continue the compulsion to make the pieces fit, this new idea which was almost a living breathing thing… It was the permission to take it all down. To disassemble everything. To deconstruct my faith piece by piece. Each piece removed would be studied with wondrous intent. Examining every nook and cranny. Every side of every piece. Checking it over and over to see if some angle was missed. Feeling for the first time in my life I was beginning to own my own faith. I kept the pieces that were beautiful, interesting, and some simply because they were still useful. Others that were ugly, unhealthy, or untrue were discarded. Others still were set off to the side for later examination, their final place yet to be decided.
When this process had progressed…. one can never say finished or completed as this is a process that continues over a lifetime…. but when this process had progressed to a point where I began to have some retrospective insight of where I was and how far I had come, I realized some particles of wisdom, of insight, of advice that may be useful to those less familiar with this terrain. I don’t claim to know any ultimate truths but I do suggest that those of us on this narrow path can learn much from the collective wisdom from the whole of us who are traveling and have traveled it. I offer here several thoughts. If they are helpful great. Claim them and make them yours. If not please discard them and continue searching for others.
Jesus vs Gospel vs Church: How the Church even in its weakness does its job.
Let me start by being blunt. Jesus as the literal divine Son of God who lived 33 years in mortality, died on the cross for you and me, and rose in three days….. well……. His story may not be literally true. In fact God himself may not be real. At least not this figure from whom we were literally made in his image, whom sits on a throne up in yonder heavens. I think everyone skirts around this and no one wants to just put this out into the ether of Mormonism but it needs to be said. Please don’t misunderstand me. I have faith in God. I have faith in Christ. I hope in Jesus and his atonement. And to be honest whether he is historical and divine or not, I have truly been affected… might I say changed…. by his grace and mercy.
With that stated, let me share that his Gospel is absolutely true. Jesus gives us a example, a path, a way of life that calls us to both connect with the divine and to be something bigger than ourselves. I know the Gospel is true because when I am striving to live it, it lives within me. Whether Jesus is historical, I suggest you come to grips that his gospel is real and living.
When I say Gospel, I don’t mean Church. They are very different separate things… even unrelated or polar opposites at times. The latter is flawed, imperfect, and at times downright unhealthy. Might I even say dead. Dead in that anytime it operates unconnected to the living Gospel it commits behaviors that are empty of light and life. The former is Perfect, a source of strength or in other words living waters. The gospel is truly deep and alive and it calls us to be so as well.
I need to say here as well… The Church or specifically The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may not be true and living in the way many are seeking to prove or disprove. Yet at that same moment it may be just that…. True and Living. Let me explain. The Church’s mission is to bring all unto Christ. The Church in its deep and unhealthy shortcomings may do just that. For those of us in such a faith journey we need this tension… in fact it is this tension which picked us up and set us down on the narrow path. Without this tension we would still be living in a binary world, looking to extrinsic authorities and never seeing the world through glass less darkly. As mad and angry as I am at times with my religion, it is this very tension which has pointed me to Christ. That for way too long I had looked to the Church to save me, until one day I saw it for what it was, a failed human led endeavor that provided more disappointment and shortcomings then I was ever expecting. In that moment when I perceived just how flawed it was, it is as if in my mind I could picture the church sadly stepping aside and pointing me towards that which was truly redemptive… Christ and his gospel.
In failing, the Church essentially has asked us not to ultimately trust it. Not to place it as our foundation but rather to see it only as a tool designed to help us see that our trust all along should have been placed elsewhere…. in Christ. In other words you need this tension. If you can bear it, you need to swim in these waters. For those who leave for their personal well-being, I validate and honor your choice. I have been oh so close myself at times and reserve the right to say enough at some future point. For now, I need this tension. That even if the Church isn’t “TRUE”, it is true and living and performs the very mission that Christ allegedly gave it. Even in failing, and it fails miserably at times, it does its job. I could even argue if the Church was healthy enough that none of us saw reason to doubt it, that it actually would fail at its mission. Can you make space in your heart and mind to see that the very reason you have moved onto the narrow path is because the Church failed you?
Answers vs Questions: Living in the Question:
When your shelf first cracks you go into panic mode. At least I did. I knew there were troublesome questions but also knew if I just read enough I would find satisfactory answers. I needed the answers. I craved them but around every corner was 5 more questions. And the original question? Well it would, once in a great while, end with a satisfactory answer but mostly disappointing and at times those answers were desperately overreaching and at times downright absurd and unreasonable. But I could not walk away. I knew the answers were there if I just said one more prayer, read one more scripture, fasted one more hour, read one more book, listened to one more podcast, or asked one more apologist. I knew the Church was True or at least I needed it to be and darn it, I would see this through. But as I learned by study and by faith, eventually it rested upon me. An awareness that the questions no longer mattered. Was the Book of Mormon historical… maybe… probably not….. in the end it doesn’t matter…. at least not to me. By that I mean I no longer cared if it was historical. It was no longer a question I had to find the answer to. Rather I now quite enjoy living in the question. I apply this to Prophets, Book of Abraham, Divine Translation, Old Testament historicity and, even the historical Jesus. The answers to those issues don’t matter. In fact a significant portion of my being is grateful that we don’t have the answers we want on such things as the questions are much more enjoyable than the answers. And in questions, not answers, is real growth present. I get it…… some of you are in that phase where you need the answers so bad. Keep pushing. Keep moving. Keep pressing forward with steadfastness…. eventually your likely to find yourself in that space where the questions mean so much more than the answers.
In Proving Contraries Truth is Made Manifest:
“In Proving Contraries, Truth is Made Manifest” is a quote by Joseph smith. It is deep. It is one I love. It is profound. As I have wrestled with paradoxes, nuance, contradictions, and complexities I have discovered truth. As I wrestle with scripture, with prophets, and even with God I have felt divine growth within me. I have found the very attributes Christ exemplifies, showing up in my life with greater profundity. Not that I have become perfect but rather that I know and sense the very Christ in attendance. That as Paul relays Christ telling him, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” And like Paul I exclaim “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” Growth… real personal growth…. occurs in our lives when our lives are messy. When there is conflict, when there is tragedy, when deep challenges are present in our lives. It is in this wrestling with the greatest paradox of all…. our very life…… that we are challenged by Christ and his gospel to become something more. Again this is another thing we need. We need contradictions within our life and for them to be in our very face day in and day out for us to learn deep and expansive truths that lead us into further stages of development.
Apostasy vs Faith Development: The Crux of Mormon Cognitive Dissonance:
Cognitive Dissonance is defined as the tension in our mind when we are torn between two or more competing thoughts. In Mormonism we use this a lot to describe the angst we feel wanting the Church to be what it claims while feeling distanced from such claims by the data and our experience. Often people when they first enter this space they describe this “cognitive dissonance” as a Faith Crisis. This angst feels like a real crisis. Like everything you once held sacred and close has been torn from your arms and you are struggling, with no progress, to get it back. The trouble is that in this phase or stage one has a faulty perspective. It feels as though you are losing something. That this loss places you as somehow further distanced from God and your very Church assures you something is wrong.
This is the crux. I will try not to get too technical. The trouble is that the Church has created a rhetoric and a culture which makes you to feel as though you lost something when you really are gaining things. When you recognize that the majority of Church members and for that matter Church curriculum writers, and Church leaders are in a earlier stage of development it becomes easy to see why our culture would be defensive in order to protect orthodoxy, certainty, and everyone fitting in and not challenging the status quo. We have phrases like “wheat and tares” or “wheat and the chaff”, or “falling away”, or “slippery slope to apostasy”. We are made uncomfortable by tough questions. We don’t like our beliefs challenged. And we certainly do not create a safe space in our faith for deeper thought and critical thinking. But who can blame them? They have not experienced this before. Their faith works so well for them, just as it had for you only a short time ago. Their pieces all fit and they know they are the chosen generation and know with every fiber of their being that God is working so closely within their lives directly because of the religion they belong to. Why would anyone open themselves up to having that which works so well and brings so much peace to being critically examined? And so as you have progressed into another stage, others around you are left to feel threatened and to see your progress as its opposite…. regression.
Only in the progressive stages can you grasp for the first time that faith is something more honorable than knowledge. That doubt is the others side of the faith coin. That real truth seeking will compel you to set down those things that only a short time ago were so obviously true. You are a threat. You are exhibiting the very traits they have been taught to see as losing something. You have to shake that off. You are growing. You are progressing. You are developing into deeper stages of being. It is a positive. Often early on people call it a crisis. But there comes a moment when that word no longer is useful. It is almost offensive. Instead phrases like “faith journey”, “Faith reconstruction”, and “Faith transition” become more useful and point to a “Mighty Change” within you. This cognitive dissonance at some point vanishes away and makes room for the development of your inner authority and ability to hold your own spiritual ground. You begin to find joy in complexity and nuance, and begin to claim your own individual faith.
Literal vs Mystical:
In earlier stages Literal interpretations are everything. A literal Adam and a literal Eve in a literal Garden partaking of literal fruit and experiencing a literal fall in the very literal Missouri. Noah is obviously real… duh. The stories in their literal interpretation have a very limited scope of discussion and a very limited amount of application. Something magical happens when you begin to grasp that many of these stories are likely not literal events with literal people experiencing them. In this faith journey, I am guessing you are likely beginning to sense that these stories are something other than historically literal. That there likely was no global flood, no talking donkey, and no tower from which all languages disseminated out from. Your beginning to see that these stories may be figurative, mythical, allegorical, and perhaps plain and simple fiction. I am also hoping you are beginning to see just how rich scripture can be once you see these other lenses in which to view holy writ. The interpretations and meanings can become very deep and rich once the literal chains which these stories are bound by are loosed. Jesus and his teachings have, for me, become more meaningful. Stories like David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac, and Moses and the Israelites begin to open up my mind to new thoughts and inspired understandings once I have made space in my mind for such heterodoxy, or unorthodox thinking. Again are these stories real and literal?….. Maybe…. probably not…… but again it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have given yourself room to examine other paradigms and open to new modes of discovery.
Wounded Church vs The Wounded Christ:
Let me conclude with a comparison in order to offer some validation and some encouragement. The Church is wounded. It also is wounding others. It prefers to hide and conceal those wounds. It has clearly stated that it does not seek nor offer apologies. Its LGBT approach is almost certainly contributing to LDS LGBT suicide and yet we brush off accountability and dismiss such discussion. Church leaders make serious mistakes and yet the kind of acknowledgement or change seemingly only happens when the involved parties have long gone beyond the veil.
This is very different than Christ. In terms of seeking apologies Christ taught “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” And in giving apologies Christ has taught “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”
Christ didn’t hide his wounds. He offered them. “Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.”. Christ has set the example and I want you to know that I validate the real hurt the Church may have or currently is causing you. Sadly it often falls short of Christ’s example. I join with you and pray that they Church will come to a place where it authentically offers its wounds and asks us to thrust in thy hand. I, like you, pray for a day when the Church can apologize for its wrongs. I too pray for the Church to be more open to real sincere truth seeking rather than giving lip service to it in the name of keeping the masses comfortable. But in spite of all the church’s weaknesses and flaws we must remember it is pointing us to Christ. It is Christ whom we should emulate and follow and whose opinion we should concern ourselves.
Paul stated “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” I validate the Church is for many a burden and it would be easy to simply go somewhere else. It is my hope that you might consider staying and seeing this through. That this can truly be the narrow path and that this church even in its flaws can be true and living.
I know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true. I know because when I am striving to live those gospel ideals like faith, hope, charity, service, and sacrifice in my life I feel connected to something bigger than me.
I have a deep faith in what I will call God. Faith that there is something bigger out there that has influence in the world for good.
I believe in Jesus Christ. Not that he is historical but that the Christ of faith is worthy of my emulation. He is worthy of my conversation. He is worthy of my adoration. Whether historical or not I have truly been affected by his grace and mercy.
I know the book of Mormon is true. Again not that it is a historical depiction of real people and real events but rather that it is scripture or in other words it is a sacred text accepted by my tribe and me as a book we shall call holy and one that invites us to interact with the divine. I personally have had interactions with the divine through that sacred book. For me it is truly scripture and worthy of being called such.
I have faith in the restoration, that divine gifts have truly been restored to me through Mormonism.
I hope in Joseph Smith. I hope he was sincerely seeking God. I hope he found that God he was seeking. I hope God in some way is pleased with the offering Joseph submitted for future generations. I hope in Prophecy, Seeing, and Revelation today as it truly offers the solutions to present ills in our faith.
Lastly I have a knowledge that as we live in the tension as a people we can move towards Zion. In the sacred name of Jesus Christ
May the Lord warm your shoulders,