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Saturday, November 23, 2019

21. Believer Post – Reconciling Church History while Continuing in Belief

Long time no read, amirite!? It has been almost three months since I finished my last personal blog post. I dont know that my blog has done what I had hoped it would do, which was build understanding among believing members of the church for those that leave, but the blogs impact on me has been what I had hoped. I am feeling better. I have externalized what I needed to and the information is at least available for those that want to understand.

Three months ago, I decided to be done writing about my thoughts and process through my faith transition but I hinted that there may be other posts, just not posts written by me. This is one of those posts. Im really excited to publish something a little different than what has been on my blog in the past. This one was written by a friend of mine that is an active, believing member of the LDS/Mormon church. He has chosen to remain anonymous but has assured me that if anyone was interested in discussing these beliefs further, he would be open to do so. My friend has researched quite a bit and has found one of the best ways, at least in my mind, to reconcile church history with remaining a believing member of the church. The way he makes it work doesnt work for me, as it is not what makes the most sense in my mind, but its okay for us to disagree. We are still friends and these differences dont get in the way of our friendship.

I have a lot of respect for this individual for many different reasons. He was willing to sit down with me at a very vulnerable time in my life just to understand me and allow me to give words to what I was going through. Never did I feel judgement from this person and I have always felt acceptance. This is what I hope for from every believing member. A desire to understand. A willingness to show empathy and support. Care and love that isnt conditional on believing the same way. This is what I feel from my friend.

I want to include one final thing before I wrap up and let you read the actual post. James Fowler was a professor of Theology at Emory University and a minister in the United Methodist Church. He wrote a book titled Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. He created what he called the Six Stages of Faith Development. Stage 1 is the Intuitive-Projective stage, where beliefs are defined mostly by what your parents believe. Fantasy and reality often become confused during this stage, which predominantly explains belief in young children. Stage 2 is the Mythical-Literal stage, where individuals begin to think more logically but continue to accept the stories told to them by their faith community. However, they interpret these stories in extremely literal ways. Stage 3 is the Synthetic-Conventional stage, where an all-encompassing belief system is adopted, typically determined by your social circles (family, friends, etc.). People have difficulty seeing outside of their box, often not even realizing that many of their opinions are due to being part of their belief system. They accept the authority of their faith tradition absolutely. Many people never leave this stage. Stage 4 is the Individuative-Reflective stage, where people begin to critically examine and question their beliefs, as they start realizing the validity of others religious beliefs. They often become disillusioned with their previous beliefs. Fowler states that those in the previous stage (Stage 3) often view those in Stage 4 as backsliders, when in reality they have actually moved forward. Stage 5 is the Conjunctive Stage, where people begin to appreciate the paradoxes and mysteries of life and recognize the limitations of logic. They may return to sacred stories and symbols but this time view them as allegorical rather than literal. They can appreciate and learn from these stories and symbols while no longer being obligated to believe everything within their previous theological box. Stage 6 is Universalizing, which very few people attain. During this stage people live their lives to the fullest, typically focusing on others and community rather than the self, without any real worry or doubt.

The reason I bring up this faith model is that many of those in the church are in Stage 3. By saying this I am not trying to be disparaging in any way! Members of the church typically have not opened themselves up to analyzing and researching their beliefs from all perspectives to determine what makes the most sense to them. Faith is often based on family history and personal experiences without looking further. Stage 4 is where people like me start out. Doubt is a constant companion and what you are researching is continually on your mind. Many family and friends believe we have fallen backwards in our journey through spirituality. To be perfectly honest, I dont know if I am through this stage or still in it. I am not against spirituality but I know if it does return to my life it will be much different than it was in the past. But to the point, I believe that my friend may be in Stage 5. While these stages do not deal with incontrovertible truth, they do deal with finding a balance between belief and evidence. My friend seems to have found a way to do exactly this. Fowler would call my friends belief a Mature Faith. So, without further adoon to their post.

We often hear comparisons made between religion and science. Some are able to find harmony between them while others find them irreconcilable. One key difference between them that I dont hear discussed as often is that while science only aims to discover and publish truth, religion has the added burden of teaching truth in a way that motivates action. Often these actions require personal sacrifice and the deferral of things we want now for better things later, which is very difficult to do across a wide audience.  It is interesting to see a case today where the science of climate change is compelling many to try to convince people to make sacrifices and give up comforts now to ensure a better future for the world. Its not exactly the same, but I do notice many of the motivators historically employed by religion used in this effort. Prophecies of impending catastrophes motivate out of fear, charismatic leaders try to persuade, data that would confuse the masses is supressed, and apologists quickly shut down every criticism. I recently saw a version of Pascals Wager that said even if climate change ends up being false, there is only good that comes from caring for the planet, but if it is true then we will be glad that we acted on it. I hope it is clear that Im not criticizing the climate movement. Im just trying to point out how hard it is to motivate large populations to act in self sacrificing ways in order to achieve a greater good.

My core religious belief is that spirituality is real and that it is worth my efforts to live my life to develop it and to help others to do the same. My definition of spirituality includes gaining an awareness of our true nature and potential, forming a loving connection with a greater power and with each other, and to change our life from one that is compelled by natural instincts to one motivated by love and concern for others. Greater spirituality results in a general feeling of peace and contentment within ourselves and in our lives in general. While I have my ups and downs, I am generally experiencing increasing spirituality in my life and I can say with certainty that it is worth the effort for me. Beyond my own experience, I find the testimonies of many other people from different cultures, religious backgrounds, and time periods that have had similar experiences in their lives very convincing that spirituality isnt a learned response to a particular upbringing, but an actual reality.

Based on this core belief, I feel the main purpose of good religion is to teach people the reality of spirituality and to provide an effective means of motivating them to do the things that will develop it in their lives. The religions that are most effective will be deeply motivating across a wide population and throughout time. As Ive already said, this is very difficult to do, but I feel fortunate that the religion I was born into is doing this for me. Im sure that others are developing spirituality within other organized religions or are finding their own ways outside of a religious practice, but for me personally I have found incredible depth in theology and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and I expect that it will provide a framework that will allow me to continue to grow for the rest of my life.

When Dason posted a letter about his faith transition we didnt know each other very well, but I wanted to reach out to him and see if he would be willing to go through the issues with me. I hadnt taken the time to study them carefully, and I hoped that we could have some good discussions. Im grateful that he took me up on it and that over the past year and a bit hes become one of my closest friends. I know that he is a genuine seeker of truth and I hope that our discussions have been at least a little bit as helpful for him as they have been for me. The process of going through the issues with someone who has studied so much has helped to focus my beliefs and practices and to become so much more aware of the different points of view that intelligent and good people can have about the church.

During this past year I have become settled on the difficult issues that Dason outlined in previous posts. This doesnt mean that Im not still learning new things, which changes my perspective or beliefs on certain topics. I feel like that is still happening often, but I feel that I have a solid base for belief that is flexible enough to handle issues as they arise. The most important result for me is that it has allowed me to focus on developing my spirituality rather than focusing on the issues, which has been much more rewarding. Id like to share the beliefs that I feel are foundational to how I handle issues, with the hope that it is helpful for others to consider when dealing with difficult issues in church history and doctrine.

1.       I believe in God and that the main purpose of this life is to develop God-like attributes through experience.
I acknowledge that it is possible to pursue spirituality without a belief in God, however I have found it essential in my own experience to focus my devotion on God. I love the God of my religion. Each of the 3 members of the Godhead provide incredible depth to ponder and find comfort, strength, and meaning in my life. The theology of Heavenly Parents that are a more developed form of our same species creates space to approach God in a very personal way. The fundamental doctrines about the nature of God have been a great starting point for my own studies and experience. I choose to believe it, and I feel completely at peace with that decision because of the spiritual growth that I see is possible starting with this foundation.

Another way to summarize spirituality is the process of becoming like God. I believe the most fundamental attribute that must be developed is a genuine love for each other. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this world provides that opportunity for all of us. The separation from God, the uncertainty about the future, the physical trials and emotional difficulties, it all creates an environment where we can learn and grow in ways that help us to reach our potential. Love can not be compelled; it must be chosen when there are alternatives and I believe that this world provides the environment for that choice to be made.

I believe that our lives are not mapped out, that our choices are real and that they matter. God is committed to allowing these choices even though the consequences of them may cause pain to ourselves and others. I find it much more difficult to rationalize the stories in the scriptures where God intervened in a spectacular way, than the times where He is seemingly absent. The latter is far more consistent with my experience and how I understand this life must be. I do feel Gods love and guidance in my life, but it is subtle and leaves me uncertain about what the outcome will be. It does, however, give me confidence that it will all somehow work out in the end.

2.       Belief is most likely to begin through literal teaching and understanding, then deepened by personally pondering symbolic aspects of the scriptural stories and the ordinances and rituals.
In the church we are very comfortable with examining some scripture, including many of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, as allegories and metaphors. This might be because the text itself gives us permission to do that when it offers explanations of parables, which are always something beyond the literal meaning of the story. The Bread of Life sermon (John 6:22-71) is an interesting example, where Jesus taught the symbolic meaning to the manna story that the audience was all very familiar with as a literal story. He taught by metaphor throughout and never let them know that he wasnt speaking literally. A literal reading would leave no conclusion other than he was teaching cannibalism. He lost a lot of followers because of that sermon, so why did he choose to teach in that way? I believe it was because the depth of what he was teaching could not be communicated powerfully enough to motivate the required action by talking about it literally. How much power is in the words: You really, really, really need to take what Im teaching seriously. If you dont you wont be able to have the conversion experience Ive been talking about. or something like that? The metaphor is so much more powerful and can be pondered deeply to find more meaning throughout your life.

It is interesting that Jesus didnt tell his audience that he was speaking metaphorically. Would this be considered deceptive in the strictest sense? Is it wrong for us to teach a story in the church today literally when it might actually be figurative? I believe the power of the metaphor is diminished when it is explained rather than discovered. It is more powerful and life-changing to come to understand the meaning through individual pondering and inspiration. Its interesting to me that even when you have this experience of gaining a deeper understanding of a concept, attempts to explain it to someone else directly using words usually falls flat. I find discussing concepts at this level has to be in an intimate setting where all involved are participating at that level and forgiving of the times that words dont convey the meaning very well. If there is someone there that is struggling to understand what is being discussed they often feel confused and frustrated by the experience. In short, I believe that the deepest, most important religious teachings need to be taught literally to the general audience but pondered figuratively by individuals building on their current understanding.

This is how it worked for me. I didnt arrive where I am in my beliefs directly, I had to start with a very literal and basic belief and slowly, through study and experience, come to a deeper understanding. I expect that is how it is going to continue to be. Slowly, bit by bit, I will gain a deeper understanding for how I need to live and what I need to believe in order to progress spiritually.

3.       Everything in this world is imperfect.
Every person and any thing that was created or influenced by a person is imperfect. This includes prophets, historical records, scripture, and the church itself, both in policy and doctrine.  Out of all those the doctrine might be the most controversial to include, but I maintain that there are still more great and important things to be revealed and clarified. I think the doctrines of the church represent our best understanding of truth as it has been revealed so far, but we should always be seeking further light and knowledge. This doesnt diminish the value I place on any of any of these things, and I believe this perspective puts me in a better position to receive personal revelation and to accept changes as they come to the church in general.

A key point is that imperfect people and things can still be used by God to do His work and by us to become closer to God. A prophet can have many faults and still be a prophet. A book of scripture can be influenced by the person who received it and still be capable of connecting people to God.  The details of our ordinance ceremonies can change over time without invalidating the power that was felt in the previous versions. These things dont have to be perfect to be useful. If they are inspired by God, then they can help to increase spirituality and to build a closer relationship with Him.

The most difficult aspect of this for me is the pain that is caused by these imperfections. There have been many people that have been hurt by bad decisions, actions, and teachings of church leaders. It would be so hard to be hurt by something you love and have served. I am motivated to try to learn from my mistakes and from the mistakes of others in my own church service and in the rest of my life. I recognize the pain that my imperfections have caused my family and others and I want to do better. This perspective helps me to be more forgiving when I am the one that is hurt. None of this is easy. It is a result of living in this imperfect world, which I trust is slowly helping me and others to grow, but I recognize that this idea isnt always comforting and feel empathy for all those who have been hurt. I hope we can do better.

4.       Revelation involves people, so it is also imperfect.
I believe that God works the same way with the prophets as he does with any other person on the earth who is seeking His guidance. I admit that this wasnt always the way I saw it, but since Ive settled on this it has made a lot of issues easier to handle. In my own experience of the times that I felt inspired, it has never been completely clear what I was supposed to do or what the outcome would be. I love the phrase that Paul uses, that we see through a glass darkly, which I feel describes the revelatory process for me. I think it is intended to be this way. It makes growth possible as we exercise faith to act and learn from both our mistakes and successes. While I believe it is possible to become more sensitive to spiritual inspiration and better at interpreting it, I think there is always a possibility that we will impose our own desires and biases on inspiration. This doesnt make it worthless and I have still had pivotal experiences in my life as Ive tried to receive and act on revelation.

I believe that spiritual feelings do have a purpose and can be trusted over time to direct us toward God. I believe the main purpose of these feelings is to personally motivate us to make decisions that will bring us closer to God. Where our conscience is a universal influence, spiritual feelings are individually suited for our own lives. This could result in two different impressions for two people sitting beside each other with the same question in their heart. The spiritual feelings I get are imprecise, but still of worth to me. They give me confidence to continue on and comfort that difficult times will pass. The fact that people all over the world, in many different cultures and backgrounds, experience the same feelings is a clear indication to me that it isnt the product of specific teachings, but that it is part of the human experience. I choose to believe that it is the influence of God in my life and that has been a beneficial belief for me.

I believe that the prophets and apostles today are very experienced with receiving revelation for themselves and the church as a whole. It is not a perfect process, even for them, but I have a lot of trust that they are seeking for and receiving revelation. For my own life, it is my responsibility to decide what I will believe and how I will live, and I seek revelation from God to help guide me in this as much as possible. I value the teachings of the prophets that give me ideas and inspiration to ponder. I respect them as good men with incredible life experience and spiritual capacity. I am confident, however, that God doesnt intend for me to hand over responsibility for my thoughts and actions to them. I still have to seek answers and be sensitive to spiritual promptings.

In the cases where my thoughts and promptings dont seem to align with the teachings of prophets, I ponder questions like: Is this something that could be true, but wouldnt be helpful, appropriate, or maybe even possible to effectively teach to the church in general? Is there a possibility that the church leader was speaking their opinion at the time? Is there something that could be wrong in my own thoughts that I should reconsider?  As Ive pondered questions like these, Ive been able to get to a place where I feel true to myself and more confident that my beliefs are on solid ground.

5.       Historical events are messy.
As Ive already said, I believe that spiritual truths are taught with the most power when done by allegory or metaphor. An inspired story can provide material for deep study and contemplation for a lifetime. The value of the allegory is in the spiritual ideas that it can create in our minds with power that would not be possible with a direct recitation of facts. What I have only recently appreciated is how little value the historicity of the story adds for me. Consider the parable of the prodigal son. This story can be pondered in so many ways and has provided deep meaning and lessons for millions of lives even though none of the people ever existed. I would argue that it is that powerful because it is not historical. Every word in the story seems carefully chosen. Every detail has meaning. You can trust the investment of time and energy into studying it, because there is truth there that is only found through deep reflection and pondering.

Historical events involve actual imperfect people who are not acting out a script. Their actions, thoughts and motivations will not always be relevant to the purpose of the story and will lead to wasted effort if you try to glean deep meanings from them. When historical events are successfully turned into a spiritual lesson, it must come at the cost of historical accuracy. We might flatten the people into caricatures that serve a purpose in the narrative, we may omit unnecessary words and actions or add some that help with the message. These are all improvements if we keep in mind that the goal is to teach a spiritual truth or some sort of moral, not to faithfully tell history. Actual history is always messy.

When I study the scriptures now, I do so with faith that there is a deeper spiritual lesson to be learned from them. Some scriptures feel deeper than others, so Ill spend more time with them, but my default assumption is that the story is there for a reason. I dont have to spend any energy on proving it is historical, because to me I dont care if it is or not. Even if it is historically based, the story will have to be simplified and even altered to be effective. If this werent the case, then the scriptures would be far less powerful for me. I would have to spend more effort trying to sort out where the meaning is than what it is. It would be difficult to rely on them as sources of spiritual strength.  My energy now is focused on getting spiritual meaning from them, which I often do. It would be a wasted opportunity to discount the value of scripture because it isnt likely to be historical.

6.       It is understandable why the church leaders chose to present church history in a faith promoting way.
While I dont place a high value on historicity of scripture, it is obviously different when we are talking about history itself. In the case of church history, it can be particularly difficult to discern what is the true history because so much of it has been presented with the primary purpose to try to show the church in a certain light, both positive and negative, rather than presenting the history without an agenda. Good primary sources for the more difficult issues are scarce and even if we do have solid evidence of what happened, the motivations for everyone involved and all the circumstances surrounding the events is usually not clear. Historians do a good job of taking all the available sources and crafting a story that fits it as much as possible. We can listen to all these stories and decide which one is the most believable, but in the end, we know that we dont have the full picture, just the one that made the most sense to us with the available information.

After learning about the issues and trying to come up with my own way to make everything work, Ive now decided to stop trying to discover the one true history. Instead I learn what I can and decide what is the range of stories that I think are possibilities that cant be dismissed. As long as I can accept anything in the range being true then I can live with the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what happened.

For the most part, the church has not placed the highest priority on teaching history. When it does present a historical narrative, the primary purpose is to try to build faith in the members of the church and present the church in a positive light to those outside the church. There are many books/essays written that put the decision to take this approach into context.  In my opinion the key time periods are the early 1900s, when Joseph F. Smith was leading the effort to change the narrative surrounding the church from plural marriage, the Utah war, and other unfavorable events to something that would be perceived better by the outside world and build cohesion within. There was an obvious bias in the resulting stories not only to present the church in a positive light, but also to defend the names of his own father and uncle. The version of history that was created at this time dominated the narrative from the church through the 20th century and has only recently started to be carefully shifted with the release of the Saints books.

The other key time began in the mid-80s, when church leaders chose to suppress the movement toward openness that was led by Leonard Arrington and others in the previous decade. Again, there is a lot written about this time period that helps to put it into context. It led to the culture that most of us were raised in and I think has led to the greatest feelings of betrayal among those leaving the church today. For many, I think it is more difficult to deal with the sanitization of church history than the history itself.

For this to become settled in my own mind, I had to come to a place where I could believe that the church leaders were acting in what they believed to be the best interests of the church and its membership as a whole. I can understand that it was a difficult position to be in, and the more I consider the context of the situation of the church and the background of the church leaders, the more I feel settled that they were doing what they thought was best. I acknowledge the pain that has been caused by this approach for many and feel empathy for those who were hurt and continue to be hurt. Im happy to see the direction the church is starting to take, and I feel hopeful that it will lead to a more transparent culture in the future.

As the central figure of my religion, Jesus Christ stands in contrast to what Ive written about the world. I believe that He came to earth and lived a perfect life. I believe that he taught a way of life that will lead every person to know God. I believe that he suffered the pains of all humanity and died and I feel the power of that atonement in my own life as I meditate on it and reach out to God and ask to be healed from the wounds that I have in my own soul. He is the focus of my religious worship as I try to emulate his life and live his teachings, and I feel sure that this will continue for the rest of my life.

I am grateful to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I know that it is imperfect and lead by imperfect people, and I dont excuse the mistakes that have been made in the past, but I hope that we are learning from them and progressing toward a better future. I see evidence that we are. I love my local ward community and I know I am learning and growing from serving them and being served by them. There is power in being part of a group of people with a common goal. Even though we are all very imperfect, we are a community that is there for each other when we know someone needs help and I get a lot of strength and motivation from being a part of it.  This religion has been instrumental in my own spiritual development and I believe a lifetime of growth is possible for me within it. It is deep and unique, and I love the expansive experiences I have as I explore it.  I can see the blessings in my life, and in my family, that are promised by the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by the church so in that way, which is the most important to me, I know the church is true.