By Miguel Barker-Valdez
Miguel Barker-Valdez is a proprietor of the Rational Faiths blog.
I have read online a number of people writing something to the effect of, “The Gospel Topics Essays are what led to my faith crisis.” What they had once seen as anti-Mormon literature is now being admitted as historical truth by the Church. For example, the “Race and the Priesthood” essay outlines the historical context of the priesthood and temple ban with regard to those of black African ancestry. Then the “Plural Marriages in Kirtland and Nauvoo” essay acknowledges that many early Church leaders were polygamous—a marriage situation the Church now condemns.
The thing that seems to destabilize people the most about these essays is the implication that Church leaders are fallible on important issues. Though we often hear that Church leaders are only human, we hear even more often Wilford Woodruff’s quote, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray.”1 But the Gospel Topics Essays raise the question: If the policy banning blacks from the temple and from the priesthood was indeed uninspired, what does that say about some of our policies today? As one ward member asked my bishop after a presentation on the “Race and the Priesthood” essay, “So did the prophets make a mistake?”
For a very long time, the LDS Church has acted as what Gordon Allport has called a “security religion.” As J. Bonner Ritchie describes it, “Security religion provides refuge. It builds an ecclesiastical wall that protects from the onslaught of questions and doubts and decisions.”2 One of the main ways Mormonism does this is by providing prophets purportedly unable to lead the Church astray. Ritchie notes: “This respect for the person who is supposed to give the answers, who is in the position of authority, can be a stabilizing force . . .”3 Having a prophet with this kind of authority is certainly one of the reasons Mormonism has been so focused and successful.
However, these essays have left much less room for the sweeping authority Mormons have granted their leaders until now. What do we do when the stability of infallible prophets has been removed? One viewpoint may say, “Simply ignore these anomalies. Put them on the shelf and get on with life.” Another may say, “The whole thing is a sham. Cut your losses and leave the Church.” But I’d like to present a third option.
The destabilizing effect of the Gospel Topics Essays has the potential to launch Church members out of Fowler’s stage-three spirituality and into stage four. In other words, the essays are a sign that the Church is maturing and giving its members the room—even a kind of encouragement—to work toward the next level of spiritual development.
As background, in his book Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, James Fowler posits six stages of spiritual development. The first stage occurs between the ages of three and seven. It is characterized by a child starting to understand a culture’s taboos and expectations. The second stage is called “mythic-literal” which is found mostly in school children. As its title implies, a person in this stage takes religious stories and other myths literally. Stage three, which usually begins in adolescence, is where most people stay their whole lives. People in this stage form their identities by conforming their beliefs and behaviors to a certain ideology or community. They consider people who do not conform to be outsiders, and they invest a lot in their leaders. You may recognize inhabitants of stage three in a great many of your ward members, perhaps even in yourself.
Philip McLemore has argued that
Religious organizations instinctively develop teachings, practices, and cultures that tend to keep its members at early stages of spiritual development dependent on the organization. These stages are characterized by obedience, conformity, loyalty, a narrow view of morality, and external religious conduct. Though helpful at first, a focus on these qualities can become limiting and restrictive once an individual’s full spiritual potential begins to unfold.4
Stage four can occur during one’s mid-thirties to forties. People in this stage painfully detach their identities from the group and its belief systems. Values they once took for granted are suddenly up for grabs. Everything is put under the microscope. The seeker begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own beliefs and behavior.
From a stage-three perspective, stage four looks like regression. Stage three inhabitants will naturally be disconcerted by stage four inhabitants and will usually try to win them back to stage three, and failing that, withdraw their fellowship, leaving those in stage four to explore on their own. This is the position many stage-four Mormons now find themselves: alienated from the group.
As frightening as stage four is, it is essential preparation for stage five where, as one commentator summarizes it, the seeker “sees the power behind the [religious] metaphors while simultaneously acknowledging their relativity. [. . .] the world, demythologized in stage four, is re-sacralized, literally brimming with vision.”5 In other words, the seeker comes back into the fold, but with a much more expansive perspective.
The mere existence of the Gospel Topics Essays makes me think it’s possible that we are living during a time when the Church is transitioning from being a security religion to a “growth religion.” As Ritchie describes it, “Growth religion forces its adherents to grow, to accept responsibility, to assume the burden of proof, to move beyond the extrinsic restraints. Growth religion provides not a wall but stepping stones to climb for the purpose of understanding, analyzing, serving, and making choices.”6 In other words, a growth religion encourages people to break out of stage-three faith and head toward the next stages.
There has been a lot of talk about this concept recently. For example, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife articulated the process of releasing oneself from institutional morality in a recent Dialogue interview.
. . . what I find problematic is when we value obedience, as though obedience were in and of itself a moral good. The problem is that we put responsibility onto someone else for our moral choosing; we frame it as if God values “just doing what you’re told” and if your leaders get it wrong, they are responsible for your wrong action. I’m not sure that is true.7
To escape this false sense of integrity, Finlayson-Fife suggests developing “selfhood.”
Selfhood is the development of a sense of who one is and is not, and inherently includes a morality. We all start with a reflected sense of self—a sense of self that we borrow from how others see us. [. . .] One grows into psychological adulthood when one grows out of a reflected sense of self and into a solid sense of self—one’s morality is anchored in one’s integrity. When we depend on a reflected sense of self, we tend to be more selfish, because even if we are obeying or doing “good” we are doing it to get the approval of others [. . .] When we are functioning from a solid sense of self, we are acting out of our own sense of what is right/wrong and are not driven by a need for approval, but instead by the belief in the goodness of what one is offering. Paradoxically, perhaps, those with a solid sense of self are the most benevolent. They are anchored internally (as Christ was—not affected by what others thought of him), and act for the sake of goodness, not for the sake of approval.8
In her 1987 Dialogue article “The Ambiguous Gift of Obedience,” Lavina Fielding Anderson approaches this idea of growing into selfhood by presenting the idea of “informed obedience” as opposed to “prompt obedience.”
Informed obedience is, obviously, very time consuming. It will probably never be very popular with highly bureaucratized organizations if they have a choice because it replaces a focus on performing tasks efficiently and rapidly by basically interchangeable workers with a focus on understanding and owning the process. This means that leaders cannot simply concentrate on end products but must spend a great deal of time promoting the process of understanding, allowing experimentation and even mistakes, and honoring the process itself as important.9
For example, the other day my wife was trying to convince our nine-year-old to take some medication for her allergies. She simply would not do it. Finally, in a brief, uncharacteristic outburst, my wife yelled, “Will you just be obedient and do what I ask?!” We gave each other “that glance” and smiled. I understand the importance of obedience and how much more smoothly our family functions when our daughters simply do what they are asked. But as a friend once told me, “Yes. But I want my children to make choices independent of me. If my child makes a choice that does not follow the rules of our family, but walks me through the process of how they arrived at that decision, I’m generally not angry.”
“I like to hear children sing, ‘I Am a Child of God.’ I don’t like to hear adults sing it,” Anderson writes.
Everybody’s a child of God. All you have to do to be a child of God is be born. Big deal. The hard part is to become an adult of God. Most of us get stuck in being an adolescent of God. We whine. We sulk. We have spurts of devotion and conformity followed by either rebellion or terminal sloth. We are dependent, frightened, arrogant, insecure. We want someone to tell us what to do and get mad when they do it.10
Yes, in many ways those of us who have been thrown into a faith crisis by the Gospel Topics Essays are going through our spiritual teenage-hood, but it’s an essential growing pain.
Perhaps it is also essential that the “infallible prophet” be toppled for each member of the Church, whether it is caused by reading the Gospel Topics Essays or some other source. Though the “infallible prophet” concept may help people progress to stage-three spirituality, it can also stop them from progressing any further, from developing a strong selfhood, from taking the step from prompt obedience to informed obedience and even to what Anderson calls “mature obedience.”
To offer mature obedience is an act of loving responsibility in a dynamic where the primary tension lies, not between the individual and the community, but between the individual and the Lord. To someone holding out for fully informed obedience, mature obedience may look blind because part of the information it accepts will not be rational. To someone who wants prompt obedience, mature obedience may even look like disobedience since it will be based on principle rather than programs and practices.11
In a soon-to-be-published essay, Philip McLemore offers one more level of detail to this journey. He suggests that we can progress from being a child, to a steward, to a disciple, to a friend, and eventually to being a beloved of God. Apparently, we’re at the very beginning of our spiritual evolution.
Perhaps we’re experiencing, as Marlin Jensen put it, an apostasy unseen since Kirtland only because we as a church don’t recognize when people are entering stage four. We push them out of fellowship when they enter this chaotic place. If we had eyes to see, perhaps watching someone cross that threshold could actually be a cause for rejoicing. “She has a long road ahead of her,” we might say to each other. “But if we keep supporting her, in a few years’ time she’s going to be one of the most interesting, open-hearted people in the ward.”
- Deseret Evening News, 11 October 1890, p. 2.
- J. Bonner Ritchie, “The Institutional Church and the Individual,” Sunstone 115, p. 101.
- Philip McLemore, “Hindering the Saints: Taking Away the Key of Knowledge,” Sunstone 168, p. 18.
- John R. Mabry, Faith Styles: Ways People Believe (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2006), x.
- Ritchie, “The Institutional Church,” p. 101.
- Kristine Haglund, “Developing Integrity in an Uncertain World: An Interview with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 47, no. 4, 105
- Private correspondence with Jennifer Finlayson-Fife.
- Lavina Fielding Anderson, “The Ambiguous Gift of Obedience,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20, no. 1, 138.
- Anderson, “The Ambiguous Gift,” 140.
- Anderson, “The Ambiguous Gift,” 142.