Let’s get something out of the way. Am I a critic of the church? Yes. I’m a big Calgary Flames fan, I also yell at the TV when they aren’t playing well. The Office is one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Seasons 6 and 7 were terrible, I wanted them to be better, I criticized them. And their influence on people is trivial next to a high-demand church. Critics are friends, they’re the best kinds of friends. Burning your Martin Luthers makes you stagnant. Onward and upward.
Here are some of my thoughts on what I’d like to see.
In the earliest days of Christianity, as power was consolidated by competing churches, churches needed to evoke authority and legitimacy. Even today many European churches display the body parts of deceased saints, pieces of the ark or the cross, or any other relic that would have given them legitimacy as a seat of power. Various means of expressing authority remained important, and legitimacy and authority persisted as important concepts in the settling of the New World.
The Mormon church arose in a time where the American frontier was expanding faster than established, institutional churches could expand their infrastructure. As various branches competed for adherents, authority was an important component for winning the hearts, minds and spirits of the “unchurched” Americans. For Protestants the Bible was the ultimate authority, for Catholics authority sat with ordained leaders, for others it came directly from God. Puritans believed in personal revelation, visions, dreams, folk magic, and other means of communicating with God. Ordained authorities were less important, and the Bible was only one avenue for spiritual knowledge.
Mormonism for its part embraced all of these forms of authority. It had “the most correct book,” translated by a man who had been ordained by God. Yet members were free to explore their own personal revelation and lay members were given the Priesthood. I believe this democratization of religion was the most exciting part of Mormonism in its early days.
Symbols and institutions of authority remain as important as ever in the mainstream church today. The Book of Mormon is still taught as a literal translation from the Gold Plates, Mormonism’s earliest and most important relic. The Priesthood is taught as something that must be conferred, given to the modern church by John the Baptist, with the higher Priesthood being conferred to Joseph Smith by Peter, James and John. Under this model, the church is “true” (or at least legitimate) because of its roots, less so than by its fruits. Adjusting to contemporary social issues is difficult and orthodox interpretations of things like the Book of Mormon are necessary. Mormonism has its own treasury full of figurative relics. It is the one true church, with the roots more important than the fruits.
As a useful contrast, I’d like to offer an experience I had last year. As a fan of architecture, I’d always wanted to visit St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Christopher Wren’s most important work, the cathedral was built after the London fire of 1666 destroyed much of the city. Today it is an important cathedral for the Anglican church. It is breathtaking, one of Europe’s greatest cathedrals, yet it is a fairly modern construction as European cathedrals go. To someone of a Mormon background however, the roots of the Anglican church itself would seem unimpressive. A king breaking from the Catholic church over a divorce, no divine visitations, no translations from ancient works or conferral of Priesthood keys.
The history of the Church of England is also violent. Anglicans were at times the recipients of violence at the hands of Catholic monarchs but were just as often the aggressors. Protestant kings and queens made martyrs of more than a few Catholics. It seems to pale next to a “restoration of the one true church”. Yet visiting St Paul’s was for me a profoundly spiritual experience. The Anglican church has a robust progressive branch, extending leadership roles to women and gay members. They have recently encouraged providing religious ceremonies for transgender members using their chosen name. It’s not perfect, the battle continues between progressive and conservative factions. But progressive Christians have a real seat at the table. The roots aren’t very good, but the fruits feel firmly in the spirit of Christianity. I felt a profound peace walking through St Paul’s, I believe doing good and drawing a bigger circle means more than stories of centuries-old visitations and other foundational mythology.
I won’t spill much ink here because it gets so much discussion already. A church can’t possibly hope to be true, or even good, if its benefits aren’t available to everyone. We don’t get the spiritual benefits, the social benefits, or intellectual benefits from a flavourless, exclusive community. As long as we exclude and shun people who don’t think the same or love the same, we are missing crucial members of our tribe, and we are profoundly hurting people. These are the very people who would do the most to make us better as individuals and as an institution. We need to accept LGBTQ members and recognize that you can’t separate people from their relationships, attractions, intimacy etc. Imagine being welcomed into a community, but being told your significant other can’t come with you, that your partnership isn’t valid. Maybe the relationship is new and exciting, maybe it’s a spouse you’ve built a home and raised a family with. Would you feel loved? Like you had any part in God’s plan? I don’t pretend to speak for our LGBTQ members, there is no “correct” way to feel, but to me it feels like the church only offers counterfeit love to these individuals. Or maybe so-called love.
If you want to call my experience at St Paul’s the Holy Ghost, I think the Holy Ghost goes where it is welcomed. I think when you welcome people, you welcome the Holy Ghost. Bigger circles bring us closer to God.
STOP EXCOMMUNICATING EVERYONE!
We have a real problem with taking our own most ardent researchers, and instead of dealing with the difficult challenges the data presents, shooting the messengers. Excommunicating a popular podcaster or trained historian doesn’t make the problem go away, and it’s not defending the faith. It is friendly fire.
Looking at the current level of disaffection I often joke that we’re up crap creek and we’re excommunicating all of our paddles. John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, Bill Reel, Michael Quinn and many others were never “anti-Mormon”, they are the paddles. They might not have been your flavor, but you might find you need them one day. These were my paddles. They were being intellectually and emotionally honest, and we punished them for it. John Hamer is one of my favorite people, he was LDS, it wasn’t the most welcoming environment, now he’s one of the Community of Christ’s greatest assets. Man would I love to have John Hamer helping us write curriculum. Keep the paddles.
If you don’t look a little bit like a radical in a conservative, exclusive institution, are you really being like Jesus?
Literalism is a powder keg to a faith crisis. It’s the ball and chain that tethers us to the darkest beliefs and practices of Mormonism and broader Christianity. I don’t think kids need to stop hearing people affirm their belief in a literal Book of Mormon translated from gold plates, or that we should forbid anyone from proclaiming their belief that animals lined up two by two so God could drown everyone. I want them to also hear from a few people in the ward who think Joseph was writing fan-fiction and who are skeptical of the idea that two penguins waddled back home from Turkey. Call it heterodoxy or plurality or whatever, black and white literalism is still the default position from the pulpit. Alternate views are met with suspicion and this is not working well.
Humanization vs Hagiography
Hagiography is the kind of history that whitewashes our forebearers and elevates them to mythical greatness. Today we often write “warts and all” history about people. We don’t mind telling their dirty secrets. In the past we wrote about a person’s greatest accomplishments and hid their faults. We wanted heroes, not real people. It’s the literary equivalent of erecting a statue. Many of the people enshrined in hagiography did terrible things. All of them were flawed. Writing hagiography makes weakness seem unacceptable, while paradoxically excusing atrocities. We say that leaders make mistakes. We don’t hear what those mistakes are, and we’re left to assume they might have double-dipped once, or left the lid off the fry sauce.
This leads to a culture of “great men” (it’s pretty patriarchal), where national and religious mythology become instrumental in your own belief system and development of self. Your religious and national identities are likely inseparable from some of these larger-than-life figures. “Great men” have faults, but they’re small, endearing faults. We get stories in Mormonism about men who couldn’t throw a baseball or had poor penmanship. Cutting much deeper than that is traumatic to our identity. Men we have never met are so elemental to our sense of self and our belief system it is painful to consider they could commit anything more than mistakes, or that their mistakes could have dire consequences.
The Mormon identity is so dependent on mythologized men it doesn’t have the capacity to deal with fraud, or the full implications of polygamy. It doesn’t quite know how to process a Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Nov 5 exclusion policy, or a sexual predator for an MTC president. I believe as a community we would survive unflinching honesty about our “great men.”
Real people are easier to love and relate to. You’ve battled alcohol addiction? So did some of the whitewashed heroes of Mormonism. Going through a difficult divorce from an abusive but respected husband? Maybe hearing about someone who’s been in your spot isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe you blew all of the money in the savings account, or told the neighbors you had a gold bible when you didn’t (too far?). Give me the messy, occasionally appalling history. Where there’s abuse, call it abuse. Where there’s fraud, call it fraud. Hagiography gives us the heroes we want, and robs us of the heroes we deserve. You are not responsible for the actions of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. Your spirituality should be independent, but a culture of “Great Men’ made you wrap up your identity and spirituality in theirs.
Between literalism and hagiography, we are neck keep in mythology in the church, and it may be making us miserable. You’re not perfect because there’s no such thing, and you don’t have to know the church is true because the concept doesn’t make any sense. You’re comparing yourself to statues and constantly falling short.
I’ve got a lot of issues with Brigham Young. You’ve got a lot of issues with Brigham Young. It’s okay, you can say it out loud. Didn’t that feel good?
We have messy and sometimes ugly roots. It’s okay. We can’t control the roots, but we have considerable say over the fruits.
Today I’m at a point where I can’t confidently speak of gold plates or translated papyri. That’s not my personal weakness, it’s where the data leads me. Historically, the word “priesthood” just meant your vocation was that of a priest. I think we can continue in the spirit of the priesthood, not as a conferred power that gives us exclusive rights to ordinances, but as a commitment to act in pastoral ways. In willingness to constantly take inventory of one’s own growth, to care for the people in your stewardship, to love and serve your family, and to seek God in whatever manner works for you (none of these activities is inherently “male”).
My goal isn’t to lead people out of the church, I want to see Mormonism at its best. Where it’s honest, vulnerable, and forward thinking. One where the array of speakers at General Conference looks like a representative sample of the rich variety of people on this earth. One where, when God keeps sending more and more gay spirits, we take the hint and grow the tent. Some of my favorite people don’t think there is a God, or spirits. Some of them are deeply engaged in Mormonism in one way or another, and I’m confident what they would offer from a pulpit would blow high council Sunday out of the water. In big tent Mormonism you get to meet and learn from people whose experience is vastly different from your own. That’s exciting.
In short, I want a church that is radical and bold in being protecting and welcoming. What if instead of holding up Jesus as a symbol of perfection and obedience to authority, we held him up as a radical defender of the marginalized? What if instead of protecting our foundational stories, we doggedly protected our people. What then would we call “anti-mormon”? What would our critics then look like?
To finish I’d like to quote Mormon apostle Carol Lynn Pearson (yes, she’s an apostle, fight me). “Along with so many other women and men of all cultures, nations, and religions, I have a calling to help the human family cross the plains of Patriarchy and enter the land of Partnership. This pioneering work I was born to. It was written in my bones and rattled around in my head before I even had words.”