Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

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Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby Enoch » 22 Nov 2010, 00:07

Just this past week the conviction finally CLICKED that it is impossible to both take historical evidence seriously and accept the standard account of world history presented in the Church. Though the pieces have been coming together in my mind for years, I am reeling from the implications.

It is not often that I declare a belief “untenable”, (Biblical inerrancy has been my big one so far), but I really think that the multifaceted problems and assumptions put the orthodox position into this category. Historical complexities plague most doctrines, even central ones such as the Atonement. But in these, I really think there is room to believe. But this is not the case with the LDS view of world history, a history constructed to support our theology.

The model I reject is that the LDS view of truth has been on the earth since the beginning, and that cycles of apostasy and restoration culminated in Joseph’s restoration of the same authority and organization that existed since Adam. Adam had the Truth and Priesthood, it got lost, then restored, got all muddied during Israelite history with the occasional prophet with authority and Truth. Things are pretty grim when Jesus shows up, but John the Baptist has authority and Jesus establishes the "Church of Jesus Christ of Meridian-day Saints."

For years I rejected the idea of the “Restoration”, since it has become clear in my graduate studies that Jesus did not establish a church while he was on the earth, and the idea that he transmitted authority is highly questionable. I was convinced by Grant Palmer’s reconstruction of authority in the time of Joseph.... Joseph’s authority was charismatic authority, given to him directly by God. It was not ordinational authority carried down from the holders of earlier keys.

I could talk more about why this position convinces me, but I would rather explore the implications and potential solutions. With the loss of this narrative, we cannot claim to be “the only true Church upon the face of the earth.” Most of us have heard the quote that says either Catholics have the authority through Peter, or Mormons have it through Peter, James, John, the Baptist, etc. Without this narrative, we are on the same footing as other Christian denominations. Now, I think we can make a good case for the truth and goodness of our religion based on our satisfying theology, our actions, etc. But again, I do not think it is possible hold to this narrative of exclusive access to divine authority in light of the historical evidence.

I think this could be a healthy development, but the problem is that the Church *has* made these exclusivist claims for over a hundred years. How do we move forward?

I think our simple narratives have benefits and value. The past is irretrievable; we barely are aware of “what really happened” in our *own* lives, let alone events that happened centuries ago sometimes in other cultures! “History” is a story we tell each other about what happened in a way that explains the present and prepares for the future. I personally think that the vast majority of people don’t care about “history” except to be comforted that yes, they are indeed in the right. And many of these simple stories used for conversion and faith affirming purposes have theological truth. Millions find the Book of Mormon to contain sublime theology, whatever its historical origins. The 1838 First Vision account reflects Joseph’s theology at the time, and certainly makes more sense than the doctrine of the Trinity!

The problem is that these simplified narratives set believers up for a feeling of betrayal once the messy, complicated truth comes to light. Now, I think that the vast majority will not come across these problems, even in this day of the internet. But more and more *are* coming across these issues. As Grant Palmer said, the tension between the standard story and historical evidence is causing a hemorrhage in the Church, one that desperately needs to be addressed.

So what do we do?

I see two broad possibilities.

1) The Church changes its stance, opens itself to its more complicated history.
2) The Church continues to hold to the party line, and a growing number of members either leave the church or stay in the church disbelieving the standard narrative. These are (a)Gnostics who go through all the motions but attribute different meaning.

I do not think 1) is going to happen, not officially. I respect Grant Palmer’s work tremendously, but find his “let it all hang out, get everything out in the open, let the consequences fall how they may” approach to lack the finesse necessary to deal with such a sensitive issue. That is like counseling approaches that tell you to “just get it all out” and tell your loved one all the nasty issues you have with them, so you can move on. The problem is, such moments of emotional indulgence can damage relationships forever. The hard exclusivist claims of the Church function to motivate members to stay and invest their resources in the community. We have deep roots of making these claims. How could the church distance itself from those foundational elements? The Church is too big and too well-established to backpedal that fundamentally.

I see 2) as the current unfortunate situation. Fortunately, the internet is a godsend for people in this quandary. I love that we can form communities to support each other and even seek to redefine what it means to be Mormon, without the first sign of top-down reform.

At the same time, I think there is a solution between the extreme of 1) and the uncomfortable status quo of 2) where thoughtful members need to pretend to toe the party line, discussing these issues only in private internet communities.

This is what I hope will happen:

1) The Church softens and complicates the myths when possible by exposing members to nuancing evidence. We still use the standard stories, but also include some of the more uncomfortable details when appropriate. Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling is a good example of this. This way the majority of members who don’t worry about these issues can continue on their blissful way, living lives of productive spirituality and loving service.

2) We need to provide people the framework for complexity when/if they come across it. This is a critical middle step that will make the difference between questioning members wrestling with issues and leaving the community. We need to have a proper understanding of human nature, agency, revelation, etc. An analogy I use is that we do not need to know every single mistake ever made by our parents, but we do need to acknowledge their humanity, so that we are not shattered when we do learn some of those mistakes. The same holds true for our church leaders. The ideal response for complicated information, with this preparation would be “Oh. I never have heard of that. Well, that is interesting and I will need to revise the details of my views, but the important principles still hold true. I can understand why the simple story is told, and can see how the complicated history fits in as well.”

3) The Church has seriously compromised progress in this area by disciplining faithful insiders who are investigating historical and doctrinal issues in productive ways. Now, once an individual makes it a goal to destroy the faith of members, he or she should do so from outside the community. But who would be better to help all those who find these troubling details than the ones who have gone through the process while retaining some form of their faith?

There is no easy answer to this question, but I pray that the leadership of the Church will address it, and soon. I don’t think the rapidly increasing access to information will allow for anything else. Once again, I am grateful for resources such as this site to help us in the interim!
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Re: Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby doug » 22 Nov 2010, 03:07

Enoch wrote:Just this past week the conviction finally CLICKED that it is impossible to both take historical evidence seriously and accept the standard account of world history presented in the Church.

Well, it took you long enough. ;)

Seriously though, very well though-out post. I am curious to see which of your possible scenarios plays out. Yes, the internet _is_ a godsend for those of us looking for a bit of affirmation now and again. I wonder, though, if it really is having a measurably significant effect on church membership in general. Reason tells me it couldn't do otherwise, but I'm just not seeing it based on my own observations. Maybe I just don't know where to look.
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Re: Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby bridget_night » 22 Nov 2010, 04:29

My only hope is the Second Coming so Jesus can sort this all out. History is too complicated because we weren't there to actually know what happened and writers of history are like 10 people at the scene of an accident and everyone has a different perspective. Trying to figure out what gospel principles bear good fruit is hard enough.
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Re: Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby Brian Johnston » 22 Nov 2010, 08:10

I also don't think it is reasonable to just push it all out there, all of a sudden dumping the truckload on to the population at large. I think that is an intellectual's dream for personal validation being projected on all the people (like you mention) that really aren't all that interested in the nuts and bolts of history. You just can't do that responsibly with a giant organization, making a sharp, organizational hair-pin turn at high speed.

What they could do is start to humanize the epic figures in our history, or at least stop pushing the notion that prophets are infallible (14 fundamentals type themes, etc.). They could slowly introduce the nuances WITH easy-to-digest (and valid) explanation and context. Take the First Vision for instance. They could talk about it in terms of varying accounts that contain important central themes, and the "Official Version" as Joseph's desire to set the record straight on the meaning (even present that act as a "revelation"). Or they can talk about Joseph channeling revelation, like what we find in the Pearl of Great Price. This can all be presented in a faithful, positive way.

The other HUGE change of direction I would like to see is a purposeful tolerance for cultural diversity, and a much higher tolerance and openness about being flawed as humans. We have too much pressure to always appear perfect -- everything from how we dress on Sunday to how we act. I would really like for members to be comfortable sitting next to someone who smells like smoke, or who might be unmarried and living with someone. I am not saying we have to embrace sin and call it good, but we can't reach out to people and work towards uplifting souls if nobody feels comfortable sitting on the furniture in the "living room" at church, like we might mess up the photo shoot for Architectural Digest...

I think we can have faith, and be a part of the Church while also knowing more of the warty history. I only think the warty history is threatening to certain viewpoints within the Church. Maybe those viewpoints should feel a little stress by more realistic history ;-). It might be healthy.
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Re: Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby Orson » 22 Nov 2010, 08:52

Welcome Enoch! Wow, that is a very well thought out post! I look forward to hearing more of your insights.

I also think another option may come through the church lending a little more support to personal spiritual journeys. For example: "You need to figure out what this means to you personally." We have already heard statements very similar to this in church, I don't think it would be overly difficult to begin to support various personal understandings/interpretations.

You have concluded that the statement:
“the only true Church upon the face of the earth”

can no longer retain the same meaning for you as it had in the past. Does that also mean that it can have no significant meaning for you - in the context of the church - going forward? Or is there some chance that you can find a new meaning for the statement that will resonate with you personally, that will support your continued activity and fellowship with more "orthodox" members through enabling you to "speak their language"?

This is a fascinating topic to me. Thanks again for your thoughts!
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Re: Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby Enoch » 22 Nov 2010, 10:24

@ Doug. I laughed when I read your "took you long enough" comment. Grad school began my huge paradigm shifts... I realized very quickly that the academic model could explain the Sunday school model better than the reverse. I plan on posting my faith journey here shortly. But there is a difference, as I said above, in *I don't believe* and *it can't be done*. As in, as much as I respect Bushman, I think he is just tiptoeing around the issues, or being really tactful. The latter was the CLICK.

Doug, I agree with Brian that these issues don't NEED to have "a measurably significant effect on church membership in general." This is precisely why the "get it all out" approach would backfire. I am realistic about the fact that the vast majority of members simply don't care about these issues, or never will come across them. I don't think we need to rub their faiths in it.

@ Bridget. Yes, the Second Coming would solve all sorts of problems. Here's hoping it's true. ;)

@ Brian, you sound SO much like that one guy.... what was his name? Jewish, taught a lot in Galilee, got in a bit of trouble with the authorities. I agree so strongly that members need to internalize his primary message... DO NOT LET THE DETAILS OF YOUR RELIGION GET IN THE WAY OF LIVING YOUR RELIGION. We need to be more tolerant and loving, and so many are. But we need to get those messages out there more clearly, put them at the forefront. I can see we both are advocates for embracing plurality within Mormonism.

@Orson, thanks for the welcome. :) I agree with you that I would love to hear the response more often "it is ok to have questions; you can be a good, active member and still try to figure this stuff out." In answer to your very good question, the idea of "the only true Church" does have meaning in my life. I do not know of a better community or even theological system. I LOVE LDS theology and I love the community. I plan on staying. As I said in my post, I find the "only" problematic, but also accept the benefits of that position. And I am very good at speaking multiple faith languages, from orthodox to atheist. :) I mostly hope that there will be more and more of a place in the mainstream Church for those with questions and struggles. One of my facebook friends posted that his bishop set up a special Sunday School class for those with doubts and questions! Wow, what a model to follow!

We need to proceed carefully, but I really do have hope that there is a way to maximize benefits and minimize hurt as we go forward. And in the meantime, these forums are such a blessing.
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Re: Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby Ray DeGraw » 22 Nov 2010, 10:31

I have little time right now, so I just want to point out two things:

The Church changes its stance, opens itself to its more complicated history.

1) The publication of the Joseph Smith papers project is a MAJOR step in this direction. There essentially is no ecclesiastical editing with the project; the project is publishing everything, strictly as recorded.

Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

2) I believe firmly that there really isn't an "orthodoxy" within Mormonism - at least, not in the sense that there is in most other Christian religions. As I've mentioned in other threads, one of the things I like (but that drives many people nuts) is that I can believe just about anything and find at least one apostle who has taught it at some point in our history. For every Bruce R. McConkie, there has been a Joseph B. Wirthlin - and most have been somewhere in the middle. It really has been a pretty simple bell curve over the years - and it's that way now, as well.

I understand that there are certain dominant ideas and beliefs within the Church, but most of the "ortho" of the Church now is focused on orthopraxy more than orthodoxy. That varies radically at the local level, of course (and there certainly is a more visible "conservative element" than "liberal element") - but there also are VERY "liberal" elements of our theology and practice that get overlooked generally by members struggling with the specific dominant, conservative elements.

In the end, all of us really are "Cafeteria Mormons" - whether we recognize it or not.
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken
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Re: Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby GBSmith » 22 Nov 2010, 10:49

Enoch wrote:There is no easy answer to this question, but I pray that the leadership of the Church will address it, and soon. I don’t think the rapidly increasing access to information will allow for anything else. Once again, I am grateful for resources such as this site to help us in the interim!

It's not something that will be addressed because it's not something that leadership believes. We had stake conference this weekend with Elder Perry and an area authority seventy, Elder Merrill and there was no question where they stood on the subject plus the testimonies of the stake presidency were equally as unequivocal. If they're aware of the problems you raise, it just doesn't matter to them. It may be because the experiences they've had, spiritual and otherwise, insulate them from that sort of questioning or they may have not bothered to even consider the issues. Some people are believers and the focus of all their efforts is founded on that level of committment and belief. For the rest of us we're sort of cursed with this inability to just say "I know about all that. It just doesn't matter". There will never be a wholesale flooding of the church with all the "facts" that can be so troubling because even things like "Rough Stone Rolling" has proved to be more of a problem.

Brian's right about It's not being reasonable to just push it all out there. It wouldn't help with conversion or retention and just raise issues that get in the way of the church's mission to bring people to Christ. It doesn't have to be the one true church to do that and I guess for me that will have to be enough for now.
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Re: Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby cwald » 22 Nov 2010, 11:22

I personally don't have much hope in the church, and think you are correct with situation 2 being the most likely outcome in our lifetime.

I had an interesting conversation last night about the church with my parents. This is how it started, My Dad, who is decent man all in all, is a man of his time and still uses the "N" word when referring to black people. I made a simple comment that I thought he had evolved more over the last 20 years. His comment was, "well, that's what they get for being cursed." I couldn't believe it, and than we "discussed" for quite some time if mormon's BELIEVE that blacks are black because of being cursed by god. My Dad, who is a TBM, is absolutely convinced they are. I tried to explain otherwise and talked about JS and the black members ordained under his watch, and BY and his "racial leanings" and the black members who were de-ordained and excommunicated for marrying white women etc etc - even told specific stories of the black stake president that William Smith ordained... and good dad pretty well called me a heretic for believing and READING ANTI - MORMON church history. And he started refering me to the bible and BoM scriptures about that specifically claim black people are cursed to be black because of sin and "THAT IS MORMON doctrine and if I don't believe it I don't believe in the mormon church..." At one point he told me that I need to start believing what the church leaders teach, and that if i won't I probably need to just get out.

HORRIBLE stuff folks, and this what we are up against. We have made so many claims, and yet lived so many "cultural doctrines" under the name of "prophetic council" that it would undermine the church to go back. I wish they would fix some of these errors --- and doing the JS papers WILL NOT do it --- because WE are the kind of people who read that stuff. Good ol' Dad, and 80% of the church membership won't read it. They need to be told from the pulpit at GC in plain language, and, as we seen this last October, the leadership is towing the line they have always towed.
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Re: Impossible to accept both historical evidence and orthodoxy

Postby Enoch » 22 Nov 2010, 11:37

I am so sorry to hear about your experience cwald. It is tough not to be able to talk to your family about these issues, and even worse when you do share and get reactions like that. I think we can be compassionate about even closemindedness, as hurtful as it is. As you said, your dad is a product of his time and culture. I was told my my father outlaw (ex-father-in-law) that if I didn't believe Moses literally parted the Red Sea, I didn't have a testimony of the Book of Mormon or Church. I hope that you can maintain a positive relationship with family members despite these challenges.

Wishing you the best!
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