Matthew 7:7–11 (NRSV)
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Recent events in the LDS Church have caused me to reflect on both my relationship with the institutional Church, as well as how I went from being a pretty solid conservative (theologically) Mormon to holding liberal views today which differ substantially from my previously held beliefs. Of course, having studied the phenomenon of narratives generally, and specifically how they function within social groups borne out of tension with a larger religious community/tradition, I recognize that whatever I may relate here, regardless of my sincerity and efforts to be as accurate as possible, is not a reliable source of establishing real-world happenings.[i] This is not to say that such a recitation is completely unreliable in this regard but rather, simply an acknowledgment that for someone looking to establish real-world fact, this brief essay has the value of a memoir, as opposed to a diary.
My purpose here is to outline, as best as I am able, some of the core reasons — and perhaps it is really simply one core reason — I began to doubt my conservative Mormon views and how this genesis of doubt, led to more expansive transformation of how I view faith, God, miracles, inspiration, and Christian ethics. The confluence of many events, realizations, readings, and spiritual experience have led me from a path of theological conservatism to a more liberal view on God, scripture, and the nature of authority.
Please don’t get the wrong impression. I’ve never considered myself a “regular” or “standard” Mormon — if such a thing even exists or can be defined. Quite the opposite in fact. From my days in junior high school — where my religious beliefs were first aggressively attacked by fellow evangelical Christian classmates — to now, I have had a keen interest in scholarship related to religion. I was captivated by the work of Hugh Nibley and read the FARMS review fairly often as a high school student playing defense for the almost-daily attempts of “witnessing” by my Christian friends. These were enjoyable times. LDS apologists, during my high school and mission years, helped equip me with valuable information that came in handy whenever I’d meet someone who questioned me about Masonry and Mormonism or in countering the oft-used argument against the Book of Mormon built upon Revelation 22. Knowledge of LDS apologetics served me very well and I think that, for the most part, I was able to establish credibility with some folks who thought they could catch me off guard with an argument or factoid, which they believed at least, a young Mormon would find unfamiliar. For arming me with valuable information and exposing me to some of the more sophomoric and unsophisticated attacks on Mormon belief I must thank folks like Nibley, Peterson, and Hamblin. These men were able to deconstruct an evangelical counter-cult argument effectively, and often with what, at the time, I thought was humorous engagement.
So from very early on I was at least tangentially familiar with most Church historical controversies such as Joseph’s gold-digging and plural marriages, accusations of blood-atonement in early Utah, etc… So when I encountered these arguments I shrugged them off because they simply didn’t worry me much.[ii] I had, within myself, constructed a view of Mormonism that worked — despite historical problems or doctrinal controversies etc… Even as a missionary in 1995 (completely unaware of the work of Bush and Mauss) I had concluded that the priesthood ban was not doctrinal, and a mistaken practice or policy.
So what happened? How did I go from being a young man familiar with some major controversies within Mormonism but still quite conservative in my views of Church origins, its divinity, and authority to a man who holds quite a different view today?
I can, with a high degree of confidence, identify the precise moment when the first real challenge occurred. In 2001 I was researching a certain topic and ran across a newspaper article wherein one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve made a statement to the press which was later shown to be false. This Apostle, after the false statement was shown as such, gave another interview wherein he admitted making a false statement and retracted it. In the big picture this is a very small mistake. People make misstatements all the time. But you must remember that at this point in my life I — likely suffering from what my friend Carl would call unrealistic expectations[iii] — was completely blindsided by the thought that an Apostle — one who had seen and testifies of Jesus — would lie to the press — or anyone else for that matter. Rightly or wrongly, my view of General Authorities — and especially the Twelve and First Presidency — was that these men had been called to their high positions precisely because they were of such spiritual maturity and righteousness that deliberate misrepresentation — and in this case meant specifically to deflect criticism of the Twelve’s involvement in the “September Six” affair — caused real internal turmoil for me. It was not at this point that any significant shift in my thinking but this incident stayed in my mind. If an Apostle was willing to mislead the press in an effort to protect the Church, are there possibly other areas Prophets, Seers, and Revelators have made such deliberate misstatements to protect the Church?
This Apostles’ admitted misstatement set me off on an unexpected path.
Given that this Apostle’s statement related to the September Six, I immediately began to read more about the excommunications of September 1993.[iv] As I reviewed the available information — recognizing that I was, mostly, getting only one side of the story since the Church maintains confidentiality on these matters — I became more and more troubled. Not in regard to any doctrine or specific historical concern. But rather, in how the Church dealt with individuals who spoke or wrote about things that the Church believed would be damaging to the Church’s image. What I saw in the September Six was an effort to protect the Church’s image regardless of whether or not the arguments being presented by historians, feminists, and others were true and factual.[v] I also noticed that there was some confusion about what, exactly, these folks were being excommunicated for. As I reviewed the cases I could see that yes, there were certain unorthodox ideas being proposed and that some historical events were not very flattering. I read Janice Allred’s “God the Mother” and, while impressed with her creative thinking, was not persuaded that there is scriptural support for the Holy Spirit being our Heavenly Mother. I did not find the Church’s actions to be completely unjustifiable but I did take note of a very disturbing trend. These folks were not excommunicated, ultimately, for their writings. In fact, the content of their speeches and writings wasn’t ever really engaged in any substantial way — at least as far as I could tell.[vi] Rather, these individuals were disciplined for disobedience to Church leaders. That bothered me. A lot. Even though I, like the Church, felt that some of the ideas were heterodox and that the individuals pushing for certain practices were, in fact, guilty of apostasy for teaching what would be considered heretical, I felt that Church leaders should have excommunicated them for their actual offenses rather than the fluid and “squishy” notion of disobedience to Church leaders. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that the Church owed it to the accused to offer up at least a substantive response and was disillusioned by the fact that what really appeared to be at issue here was surrendering to leaders when those leaders had shown no effort to engage the issues and questions being raised. Is this characterization unfair? Maybe. But the letters of excommunication sent to some of these individuals did not refute any ideas or provide an answer to those who had posed the question (1 Peter 3:15). Rather, they cited disobedience to Church authority.
When I began to discuss these concerns with faithful and traditional friends and family members the typical reply was that these men were called of God — represented God himself on the earth — and as such, were to be obeyed. To do otherwise would be disobedience to God. Frankly, I didn’t buy it. Such a view did not mesh with either my personal spiritual experiences, my mission, nor my reading of the scriptures. Countless times in the scriptures, in fact, God himself provided prophets with signs and miracles to confirm to the people the divinity of their holy calling. Also, both Yahweh and Jesus seemed ever-willing to respond to sincere questions. From the scriptures, I had concluded that God did indeed answer the questions posed to Him by His people. He did so freely and openly. Certainly these answers did not always come quickly but they did indeed come. Scriptural prophets seemed willing to answer their critics and defend the ideas they asserted as being God-revealed. There is no question that Church leaders did engage some of these ideas but their responses were assertions, not explanations.
This reminds me of the recent excommunication of Kate Kelly. Several times Church leaders have asserted that women holding the priesthood is not a part of God’s plan and goes against His revelations to both ancient and modern prophets. And yet, no specific scripture or revelation was cited. I posed this question to several of my more conservative LDS friends and they, just like Ally Isom, admitted that there is no revelation forbidding the ordination of women or women simply exercising priesthood authority. In fact, the scriptures present several examples where women are revered as prophetesses and hold ecclesiastical office in the NT.[vii] Not to mention Mormon women exercising priesthood authority in the early Church. Now, I will say that these friends offered some very reasonable explanations wherein they marshaled thoughts from LDS academics, performed impressive scriptural exegesis, and provided a reasonable defense of the Church’s assertion. But I am left to wonder: Why must I turn to friends for these answers? Is it too much to expect that Prophets, Seers, and Revelators respond to these questions — opening the scriptures to reason with the Church and show why, precisely, the current policy is based on both scripture and revelation? Honestly, even a claim of modern revelation — if only in the form of inspiration such as that described by SWK in 1978 — confirming that women should not hold priesthood office or exercise its power (under normal circumstances and outside the temple) would have been enlightening and comforting because it would show that 1) Church leaders care about the concerns and questions presented to them as God’s representatives on earth and 2) they are willing, just like ancient prophets and Apostles, to present a defense or explanation of their position.[viii]
I want to be perfectly clear on an important point. I am not arguing that LDS Church leaders are not inspired prophets and seers. I believe them to be men seeking to do good who have shown, on many occasions, that they seek and act on divine inspiration. Due to proximity — I know this to be especially true of local Church leaders. Nothing I have written should be taken to imply that I besmirch their office or their authority. I am simply relaying that my genesis of doubt began when I observed that sincere questions were answered with assertions, not revelation or a reasoned exposition of scripture. I was equally troubled by the idea that Christian discipleship was being defined as obedience to leaders with a full understanding that reasonable people can, will, and should, disagree with my view.
Despite my doubts, however, I remain a Latter-day Saint. The substance of doctrinal or historical controversies has not really been a cause for disillusionment. Although I will admit being surprised — just as others — at just how much history has historically been withheld from Church curriculum.[ix] I sustain Church leaders even if there are times when I question their assertions or presented reasoning on a given topic. Some Saints will claim that I am simply unfaithful and that I should view the Twelve and FP as oracles representing God himself. While this view may work for some, I don’t accept it for a myriad of reasons. Some of which I describe here. Perhaps I should thank the Apostle who gave the misleading statement. His statement and retraction set me on an unexpected path; a path which has been both spiritually difficult and rewarding.
I think there may be others like me. Those who sustain authority, but who also have certain expectations of Prophets, Seers, and Revelators and who are willing to challenge assertions, not in an effort to discredit or criticize, but rather, to gain an understanding of the Church’s official, reasoned, basis for any given policy or doctrine.
Many are willing to step in and offer reasonable explanations. But these explanations are not authoritative rationale. By the very nature of their position and calling, Prophets and Apostles are the only ones in the Church capable of providing not just authoritative assertions, but also the scriptural, doctrinal, theological, historical, and traditional, rationale used to justify such assertions.
[i] See: Johnson, Daniel Carson. 1998. “Apostates Who Never Were: The Social Construction of Absque Facto Apostate Narratives.” In The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements, edited by David G. Bromley, 115-138. Westport, Connecticut London: Praeger.
Carter, Lewis F. 1998. “Carries of Tales: On Assessing Credibility of Apostate and Other Outside Accounts of Religious Practices.” In The Politics of Religious Apostasy, The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements, edited by David G. Bromley. London and Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Wright, Stuart A. 1998. “Exploring Factors That Shape the Apostate Role.” In The Politics of Religious Apostasy, edited by David G. Bromley, 95-114. Westport, Connecticut London: Praeger.
[ii] I should note, however, that these issues are indeed very troubling indeed. I believe this is because official Church resources have been hesitant in years past to lay out these items in full detail — if at all.
[v] This is merely my opinion of these events, of course. Intelligent and thoughtful will disagree as to the propriety of the September Six disciplinary councils.
[vi] For a more recent example, see Denver Snuffer’s excommunication letter. Note that none of his ideas were refuted but he was disciplined for refusing to obey.
[vii] I’m oversimplifying. There is vigorous debates on this subject but I don’t think anyone would argue that women in the scriptures did, in fact, perform priesthood functions. Even to the point of being consulted by an Israelite King — just like the court prophets like Isaiah.
[viii] The letters of Paul, for example, are full of arguments and explanations defending Christian doctrine. Against both heresy and in response to honest questions or doctrinal confusion.
[ix] Of course, I have also seen that these controversies have long been dealt with in BYU studies and other Church academic outlets. For this reason I don’t really subscribe to the “Brethren hid things from me” line of thinking. Do I believe they could have done a better job informing the Saints of certain issues? Sure. But that doesn’t change the fact that LDS scholars have been engaging these issues for decades within Church-sponsored venues.