Yesterday, I posted about doubt, about the crisis of faith in the Church and issues many of us have with Mormon culture. I appreciate all of you who responded. One respondent linked to a talk by Richard Bushman, the brilliant historian, author of what I believe to be the finest Joseph Smith biography, Rough Stone Rolling and perhaps the most thoughtful LDS apologist. Here’s the link.
Many of Bushman’s thoughts resonate with my own. I was especially taken with his description of disillusioned members of the Church who have managed to find their way back. I kept nodding my head–‘yep, that’s me, yep, there I am.’ According to Bushman:
We’ve learned the Prophet was human. We don’t expect him to be perfect. I would add that Joseph Smith clearly regarded the Word of Wisdom as good advice, not a set of requirements, for example. He wasn’t a good businessman. He was flawed.
We also don’t believe he was led by revelation in every detail. Nor, I think, do we see current Church leaders as led by revelation in every detail. We don’t believe, for example, that every talk in General Conference is equally valuable. Revelation’s hard. It’s hard for us, and it’s hard for them. And human beings make mistakes, even pretty serious ones.
We newly revived Latter-day Saints also develop a more philosophical attitude toward history. We come to see (like professional historians) that facts can have many interpretations. Put in another along side other facts, they do not necessarily destroy Joseph Smith’s reputation. Having said that, knowing about Joseph Smith and Nauvoo (and earlier) polygamy is really tough to deal with. To me, it’s an entirely repugnant part of our history. I plan to spend a later blog post just on this subject.
Revived Latter-day Saints focus on the good things they derive from their faith. Which doesn’t mean that some aspects of Mormon culture don’t drive us crazy. black and white thinking, self-righteousness. The stuff, in fact, that other cultures also have, and that are annoying parts of those cultures too.
Obviously, some LDS people decide to leave the Church. I’m not sure it’s possible, though, for someone who has been part of this culture to separate entirely from it. It’s still part of you, it’s still one of the things that shaped you, that made you who you are. Most, I think, find that they still have to come to terms with their past, with their heritage.
But some LDS doubters, and I count myself among them, come through doubt to a place of renewed faith. The experience of doubt does change you, and I think in good ways. (I genuinely do believe that doubt is one of the most important genuinely creative forces in human history.) But okay; we’re here. We plan to stay. What now?
I can’t talk about anyone else in this regard. I’m not a prophet–I don’t have definitive answers for anyone. i can just speak about my own experiences. But here are a few things I’ve learned.
For one thing, Sunday school answers aren’t really very satisfying anymore. One Sunday School answer, of course, is ‘read the scriptures.’ I love the scriptures, and I enjoy reading them; always have. But they don’t really invite the Spirit for me. The spiritual exercise of reading fifteen minutes a day (or thirty, or whatever), just doesn’t work for me at all. I read Mosiah 2-4, and find King Benjamin’s talk wonderfully edifying. I read 2 Nephi 9, and wonder what the heck I’m supposed to get from all that olive tree grafting stuff. Sometimes, reading the Book of Mormon really builds my testimony. Sometimes, it really feels like a nineteenth century text, so conveniently answering every 1830s Protestant American doctrinal issue; a product of that time and place, and not an ancient one.
The real questions are these: does God exist? Does He communicate with human beings? I believe the answer to both those questions is yes. So there’s this: 2 Nephi 29: 9-12:
Because I have spoken one word, ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished. Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written. For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written. For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.
What does this mean? To me, it means that God has spoken to every culture on earth, to everyone. That when we talk about ‘the scriptures,’ we mean all the scriptures, every inspired, edifying word.
It means the Qur’an is scripture. It mean the Baghavad Gita is scripture. But I’ll never truly understand those scriptures, because they’re the scriptural accounts of God’s dealings with cultures very different from my own. I can read them, and profit from the experience, but I’ll get a lot more out of the scriptures of my own culture.
So I do read the Bible, and I do read the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon. But when those pall (and sometimes they do), I think, well, what else have I read recently? Well, Taylor Branch’s great three-part history of the civil rights movement and of Dr. King. Is that scripture? I don’t know if it counts exactly as scripture, but wasn’t Dr. King basically a prophet? Mormonism tends to equate ‘prophet’ with ‘President of the Church,’ but historically that wasn’t what a prophet was–most Old Testament prophets were rebels, trouble-makers, agitators against the political and cultural status quo. That was certainly true of Amos, sheepherder and farmer, who protested the cozy complacency of Samarian politicians. It was also true of Father Lehi; a successful businessman, but a thorn in the side of the ruling elite. So does reading about Dr. King, reading his speeches, watching him speak on Youtube, does that count as scripture study?
I’ve decided it does, for me. Don’t recommend it to anyone else, necessarily, but it draws me closer to my Heavenly Father, it edifies my soul. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Aren’t we supposed to look for actions that draw us closer to the Lord?
What about that other great Sunday School answer: prayer. Prayer is massively important to me. It really is. But I have spent much too much time in my life engaged in two kinds of prayer that really don’t get me anywhere.
First of all, there are the perfunctory prayers over meals and at bedtime, prayers full of cliches and catch-phrases. The ones where you feel like you could just plug in the same four-to-six sentences regardless of circumstances. The prayers that feel like a chore–okay, I’ve said my prayers, check that one off the list.
The other ones are probably just as annoying to my Heavenly Father; the long, angst-ridden, desperate-for-an-answer prayers where you’re upset and mad at yourself and basically want God to solve your spiritual problems for you. You want to force an answer; you insist on an answer. I want to know. And I want it now.
I am not an accomplished pray-er by any means. But what I’ve been working on is just trying to build a relationship. I mean, what kind of friend is it who either just speaks in cliches, or spends every conversation whining? I get that God is infinitely forgiving and wise, but I also don’t want to be this tiresome person, dull or desperate.
And when my kids are sick, and need a blessing, I lay my hands on their heads and I pray. And something happens. Something two-way, some genuine communication. Every time, there’s a feeling or thought or impression or impulse, and it genuinely feels external to myself. Not something I made up, something Someone’s trying to tell me.
I can count on that. I can rely on it. And that’s wonderful.
And that’s why I’m sticking around.