By Philip L. Barlow
I have before me a series of letters a private elementary school teacher reportedly assigned her students to address to God. The letters pose questions. They are often “cute”—after the order of Art Linkletter or Bill Cosby interviewing children on an old-fashioned television program.
Here is one by a girl named Jennifer:
Did you mean for the ostrich to look like that?”
This one is from David:
Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you have now?”
And this from Megan:
Thank you for the baby brother. But what I prayed for was a puppy.”
The issues behind such innocent queries eventually ripen. In adults, they may take the form of protest—against the injustices of the world, against the implausibility of a theology, against the universe itself. Such protests range as broadly as humanity and often morph into anger towards or rejection of God and contempt for or indifference towards religion. “God-rage” goes back at least as far as the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of humankind’s oldest and most enduring tales—older by a millennium or more than Homer or than the Hebrew Bible (at least in the form that we have the Bible). Protest against the gods was widespread in ancient Greece and even manifests itself in many biblical passages: “Why do the wicked prosper?” asks Jeremiah. “I want a hearing!” demands Job. “God has set us a heavy and futile task,” observes the philosopher-author of Ecclesiastes. Even the Christ asks, “Why have you forsaken me?” as he hangs impaled on his cross. Humans sometimes find their gods inconvenient, questionable, inscrutable, malevolent, even absent.
Is it God alone, however, who needs to be questioned? Or, as is implicit in the children’s letters above, is it also ourselves—our expectations and presumptions?
In the natural world, we come to know wonder, awe, delight, and an awareness of our own contingency. At least we do unless we allow these experiences to be dulled by fatigue, distractions, bustle, bad teaching, hormones, and who-knows-what? We experience the amazing capacity to contemplate ourselves, to contemplate a sense of right and wrong that eclipses cultural particularities. We may feel beckoned by a power beyond ourselves and toward something higher, finer, and filled with enduring meaning. Perhaps we glimpse the “giftedness” of all things, the grace behind existence. These are seeds of the religious impulse.
Alas, we also know pain. We encounter it, read about it, watch it on television and in the cinema. Some suffering seems beyond rational justification. Despite auxiliary causes, a world-history soaked to its core in blood and heartbreak is the spine of traditional atheism, certainly in Western civilization.
This conflicting combination of awe and questing, on the one hand, and woe and horror on the other, can be so potent as to separate us from ourselves and from God. The contradiction may even lead some to say, as Voltaire allegedly did: “To believe in God is impossible; not to believe . . . is absurd.”
All this is, of course, too large to reckon with in short compass. Before turning to the specific concerns of Mormonism, however, permit me two observations. The first is to acknowledge that there is an element of choice in my faith, notwithstanding all prayer, spiritual intuition, and reasoning. A broad existential contradiction looms in sensing that there is something or someone to which we are responsible that is higher and beyond the reality we know—and yet who at the same time reigns over a tormented creation without making things clearer and more palatable to us. This two-pronged problem confronts not only Latter-day Saints and other religious people; it is a problem posed to all human beings. Skepticism or indifference, no less than belief, are matters of choice—ones with intellectual difficulties of their own.
My second observation notes that while untenable suffering is the most influential reason for discarding religion, it also is the seedbed for the rise of religion itself. Comprehending the first premise of Buddhism (commonly though inadequately rendered as “life is suffering”) is, for devotees, the initial step toward “enlightenment.” Islam gained traction in the seventh century in part because Muhammad encountered a society he found corrupt, oppressive, dysfunctional, and in need of inspired reconstruction. Despite homage given to the account of Creation and to the figure of Abraham, the Hebrew consciousness as a historically traceable entity began more securely with the Exodus, Israel’s paradigmatic event, wherein a people came to believe that God had entered history to lead them away from centuries of degradation and bondage and into a new life and peoplehood bound by covenant. As far as we can determine through the tools of history and literary criticism, Christian consciousness did not begin in a picturesque manger so much as it began on a wretched cross, along with Christ’s disciples’ subsequent reflections about what that event and its conquest meant in conjunction with their Lord’s earlier teachings.
In short, critics cannot successfully dismiss religion on the grounds that there is horrendous suffering in the world and with the presumption that a good God would not allow it, for suffering contributes to why religion arises in the first place. It is possible to construe religion fundamentally as response—diagnosis of and response to the world’s suffering.
Within such wider contexts as these, I remain a Latter-day Saint because I find in Mormonism an extraordinary social and personal resource for responding to such existential questions about the nature of the world. Mormonism proffers assistance for the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful—it is an aide in the quest for what is meaningful, enduring, and loving. The gospel and the supporting structure of the Church provide a marvelous laboratory of practical action for those seeking states of mind and soul and relations and futures worthy of aspiration. Why would I ever forfeit such a resource? Why would I abandon a people exquisitely organized to help relieve suffering, to foster self-improvement, to serve, and to seek righteousness and the things that matter most?
In truth, I have considered stepping back from Mormonism at two junctures in my life: once in relation to philosophical and historical matters I encountered while working toward a doctorate in the study of religion and history, and again as I was troubled about certain Church policies and practices and the ill-advised and (rare) deplorable treatment of certain individuals by high Church officials. These were for me substantive matters, not to be ignored. What follows suggests why these problems do not compel me to abandon Mormon virtues, understandings, and the fellowship I find distinctive and admirable.
SHALL I ABANDON Mormonism because I discover problems in the life of Joseph Smith and Church history generally? Along with published scholarship, formal education, independent pondering by diverse individuals, and word-of-mouth networks, the Internet (sometimes responsibly, often not) has introduced questions about such matters to a wider circle than formerly. Such an introduction can be a shock if one construes the Church to be essentially divine, marred only by the minor imperfections of a few well-meaning leaders or by outright sinners or those who suffer from a lack of faith. All significant decisions at Church headquarters and all Church publications are, in this view, inspired and right. By contrast, I construe the Church to be made up entirely of human beings, from Joseph Smith onward—with all of the implications that view implies. These generally admirable people are not immune from human failings: selfishness, self-promotion, limited understanding, insensitivity, authoritarianism, defensiveness, sexism, racism, or anti-intellectualism, for example. It helps me to remember that the Church at every level is made up entirely of imperfect people, like me, who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have (in faith) been touched. This formula spares me the temptation to suspend critical thinking in the face of thorny issues of history or Church policy. It also calls forth my charity, humility, and loyalty. I assume weakness, error, and limited understanding to abound in all of us, and I am delighted and humbled as I work with those who aspire to be saints and when I discover inspired strands that invite us to something higher.
OUGHT I FEEL betrayed when I learn of historical problems to which I should have been exposed in the course of growing up in the Church? I can sympathize with those who do feel betrayed. I used to be startled when I encountered in my college classes students who were disturbed to learn basic facts of Mormon history: aspects of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, perhaps, or that racism was as common in an earlier Mormonism as it was in society at large. “Why wasn’t I told this earlier?” “What else wasn’t I told?”—they ask. This launches some on a search, variously fueled by legitimate or sensationalized questions, by honest inquiry, or by manic anger.
I also sympathize with Church leaders who want church meetings to be spiritual and inspiring and thus do not focus on problems. In general, their intent is not to deceive but to edify, and many who have prepared inadequate Church curricula over the years, to say nothing of the lay teachers who enact the resulting manuals, have been earnest but not historically well-grounded. So I am not sure that a sense of conscious “betrayal” is in many cases the most apt response. But, yes, we need as a church to address this issue. After an aborted effort in the 1970s, the historical department of the Church has since the late 1990s been promoting a more conversant and honest rendering of Mormonism’s history, with its challenges and its glories. Augmenting that, we need do a better job with the quality of our curricula and manuals as a whole, which can be done in an informed, honest, and faith-promoting way. Overall, I judge the history and practice of Mormonism to be remarkable, defensible, and often inspiring.
SHALL I LEAVE because I wince at how commonly we Mormons rehearse to ourselves that we are God’s uniquely chosen people? I am not leaving, but I do wince. Prayer, study, and experience lead me to conclude that we Saints are a people among God’s peoples. Latter-day Saints are not necessarily chosen because of inherent moral and spiritual superiority. We tell ourselves otherwise often enough, citing the Book of Abraham (3:23ff) while perhaps assuming that the pre-existent “great and noble ones” are largely the Mormons. Jesus, however, challenged such attitudes among the “chosen people” of his time. “‘We have Abraham as our father,’ you tell me. But I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). The Book of Mormon similarly targets elitist presumption:
Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? (2 Nephi 29:7)
If we are indeed a chosen people, we need not presume our superiority. Rather, we are a people tasked with a commission. We have good news and good ways to share it. This, however, does not preclude the Lord from commissioning others in their own roles. The God of heaven and earth is not so small as any number of clans have presumed.
The Church is not the only source of that which is good, true, and beautiful—after which we are invited to seek. If I believed it was, I should quickly run into two problems. The first is experience—experience with people outside my Mormon faith, contemporarily and across history, who regularly enlighten me with their wisdom and goodness. The second problem is that such a misconception would introduce not merely paradox but contradiction into Mormonism. Joseph Smith recorded in 1831 a subsequently canonized statement that the newly formed “Church of Christ” was “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased,” however we are to interpret that. Certainly this comported with Joseph’s early understanding that an apostasy had occurred in Christianity, that the traditional creeds did not please Joseph’s God, and that a new authority was necessary to carry out the commission that was laid on the new church’s shoulders. Yet the same prophet also declared in his later years that one of the “grand fundamental principles of Mormonism” is to seek, from any source, that which is true, virtuous, lovely, or of good report. And I encounter these good elements all around me. It is not merely that other churches have “partial truths” that may be supplemented, which is commonly acknowledged in Mormondom. It is also that I have much to learn and garner from them. Apparently the mature Joseph Smith did not find such teachings a threat to his proclamation of a “restoration” of truths, authority, and open-ended revelation.
AM I DISENCHANTED by LDS proclamations to be the one authentic restoration of original Christianity even though historical study reveals differences in the beliefs, practices, and organization of the first-century church and in the more ancient Israel? Not in any way does that prompt me to a loss of faith. For one thing, Joseph Smith rapidly grew and evolved in his understanding. He eventually used the term “restoration” in several distinct senses. The most popularly understood is the restoration of that which is lost: truths, practices, scriptures, or authorities no longer extant because of apostasy or because of evolving institutional needs and understanding (as may also be traced in the history of Mormonism itself—such as the disappearance of the office of “church patriarch”). A second sense of Smith’s “restoration” is the mending of that which is broken, that which is not right. A third sense of the word is the completion of that which is partial: the “restoration” of things “kept hidden from before the foundation of the world.” Today the Latter-day Saints innocently use the term “restoration” in various ways that can fit into all three of these spheres, but if they fail to recognize the distinctions they may run aground when some biblical critic argues, for instance, that the historical Jesus did not personally organize a church.
SHALL I EXIT the Church because anti-intellectualism persists in its culture? Disregard for the intellect, though lamentably common in our culture that values revelation, is not intrinsic to Mormonism. Moreover, while it is scarcely possible to think too clearly or be too informed, it is possible to think in excess or to grow entangled in minutiae. A student can overthink and get lost while studying for a major exam; a pianist may overthink and diminish her performance. It is possible also to misconstrue “reason” as the only form of intelligence—the result of which, carried to its logical extreme, might produce a better android than a human being. So the meaning of intelligence requires discussion, and its uses demand adroit and contextualized application.
Far from anti-intellectual, Mormonism’s founder saw intelligence as central to our being and destiny. His revelations assert that our very essence is intelligence; we are intelligences fully as much as we are spirits, and were both before our birth. Learning has lasting significance because “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life” will follow us in the hereafter (D&C 130:18). God also is an intelligence, the greatest intelligence of all. If those who value the intellect suppress “the spirit” in unrestrained, rationalized, intellectual inquiry, our relation to divine purpose may fall askew. Yet if, in the interest of alleged spirituality, we repress the intellect, we erode both ourselves and our feel for Joseph Smith’s teachings. His notions of exaltation addressed body, mind, and spirit. Our manuals and Church curricula need to deepen their quality and inspire genuine probing, growth, and adult information, though this is not as easy as it might appear to critics in an organization that intends to remain “one church” while spreading to diverse areas of the world.
DO I FIND individual freedom constricted within the modern Church? Certainly there are cultural and policy bounds and currents to navigate, just as in the worlds of business, education, or community relations so as to minimize giving offense and expand constructive action. I am free, however, to believe as I believe and to act as I judge best. I find it helps to distinguish among notions of freedom. One primary distinction divides freedom from (rules, obligations, or dangers, perhaps) and freedom to (act or achieve something). I may imagine that what I want is freedom from rules or obligations, but, in its healthy expression, the Church assists us in engaging the freedom to become what we need to be for others and for eternal joy. Only through sacrifice and discipline of lesser freedoms are we able to become the most free form of ourselves—just as high-performing athletes are free to become the best version of themselves only through strict control of their impulses, time, talents, diet, and training. Furthermore, adherence to Church strictures, as with athletic or musical participation, is voluntary; we are free likewise to choose another, less disciplined path.
OUGHT I REBEL against authoritarianism sometimes found in the Church? The problem does occur at times, as Joseph Smith observed when noting that authority intrinsically risks breeding “unrighteous dominion.” And where impure dominion arises, priesthood ends. The powers of heaven, he said,
cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. . . . [W]hen we undertake . . . to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and . . . Amen to . . . the authority of that man. . . . No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned. (D&C 121:36–41)
There are times to say “No” where authority is abused, as Joseph implied and as rare incidents in our history (such as the 19th-century massacre at Mountain Meadows, Utah) demonstrate. But that does not render authority implicitly evil. Authority and loyalty to that authority enable coordinated action in good causes that is far more potent than that mustered by circles that demand scant sacrifice and responsibility to a wider group and to God.
MIGHT I QUIT attending church because the meetings are often boring? Private complaints on this front are not uncommon in the modern Church and the problem costs us active members of all ages. Many lament what they find to be bland, overly correlated manuals for instruction. Sunday discussions are too often “scripted” in the sense that productive thought is stifled and simplistic answers are presupposed by rhetorical questions and sometimes thin topics.
On the other hand, the issue is trickier than it may seem to Church members who live where the faith is well established. The Church grows most rapidly in international settings where the members range widely in education and resources. How do we reach new converts in such settings, while not treating long-term members as children, while yet remaining a coherent single church? And what would alternative methods actually produce in a church where lay members teach one another? Any time spent searching the Internet for LDS-related themes reveals not only veins of thoughtful faith and discussion, but a world awash with amateur eggheads ready to beat their drum astride individual hobby horses, asking questions of dubious merit that lead to thickets of esoteric speculation, and even division. I trust we would not, as a church, prefer our Sunday instruction to resemble sessions of the British parliament or a thread of comments on YouTube.
As a church, we have over-corrected for such dangers and can do better than we are doing to grow deep, thoughtful spiritual roots. This will require prayer, thought, patience, consultation, a search for better models, a willingness to imagine and experiment, and respect for the needs of the worldwide Church. We need better to distinguish between the good principle of “keeping it relatively simple” in devotional settings and the counterfeit practice of fostering simple-mindedness. As individuals, we need to remember that our attitudes shape the lens by which we see the world and engage any gospel conversation. Faithful and honest inquiry into gospel fundamentals nourishes the soul; intellectual preening that strays too far from the gospel’s good news does not. Our lack of imagination and preparation in our classes can be detrimental, but so also can a descent into judgmental attitudes toward people who may be, in our lay church structure, doing their best. Do we personally bother to consider a Sunday lesson ahead of time and construct meaningful lines of inquiry to contribute to class discussions? The basics of the gospel are profound, not trivial; they demand our hearts, might, minds, and strength.
IF I DON’T know the Church is true “beyond a shadow of a doubt” in the way that many believers profess, shall I admit my doubt forthrightly and depart from the Church to retain integrity? Such a move would forfeit many virtues and blessings of active membership and I see no reason to leave on these grounds. For one thing, questions and doubts are not sins. They are (if not tainted by cynicism, cowardice, or delight in disturbing others’ faith) intrinsic to epistemological humility, to thinking and learning, and in some ways to spiritual growth, for our preconceptions frequently need to be interrogated or reconfigured. Room for doubt is a natural context for human existence and a thriving faith. For another thing, to “know” means different things to different seekers. Even for those who believe in revelation, we humans at best “see through a glass darkly.” We do not have access to ultimate reality; instead we may choose to trust in it. The Hebrew word commonly translated as “to know” in the Bible carries the sense not simply of “to apprehend,” but “to experience.” When I “know” in the context of faith, I refer not merely to an intellectual act or personal inspiration; I speak of my experience.
Over recent generations we Mormons have seemed to let a single passage in the Book of Mormon dominate our sense of how we know spiritual truth. Moroni 10:4 famously reads:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
But the passage makes no mention of how nor when such a manifestation might occur, nor in what fashion. The scriptures propose a range of ways that seekers may “know” spiritual truths. Alma, for example, explains that spiritual learning may be conducted as an experiment and as a series of deductions, which leads to personal experience at once informed by, and productive of, faith (Alma 32:12–20). Matthew recounts Jesus’s teaching that the works of the righteous will reveal the truthfulness of the principles they live by (7:16). John portrays Jesus answering his critics thus: “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (7:16–17). Joseph Smith taught that good doctrine “tastes” good—one can respond to it intuitively. Paul asserted that different gifts of the Spirit are dispersed to various disciples, and Joseph Smith elaborated: some are given to know things of the Spirit directly while others are given the gift of believing on their words. Hence spiritual “knowing” is not a monolithic process, and what is meant by “knowing” requires some thought and experience.
Faith is that upon which a person relies; it is the most fundamental trust that a person has, whether she is conscious of it or not. People who trust in nothing do not get out of bed at all. The secularist, the atheist, the Buddhist, the Presbyterian, and the Mormon all depend on something they trust as their foundation—else they cannot function in the world.
The choice to remain or to leave the fold is not merely a product of reason or of belief. Our choices also entail emotion, intuition, “spirit,” relationships, commitments, values, and habits of character. I have found these elements conspire to enrich my Mormon life, to orient it toward noble aspirations and meaning, to afford a fine workshop for service and soul-making.
I may be an idiosyncratic Saint. Certainly I am a flawed one. But I thrive in the Mormon way.