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!