Whatever else he intended by his comment, I doubt Richard Dutcher was hoping to provide fodder for my blog posts. Nevertheless, Richard’s spiritual journey away from orthodox Mormonism has caused me to reflect on a question that I ponder from time to time: From an LDS perspective, is it heretical to believe that God might have a plan for at least some of His children that entails something other than their joining (or staying a member of) the LDS Church?
I usually think about this question in the context of my friend, Father Hans. Old-timers in the Bloggernacle may remember Father Hans from this post. Hans is an “Old Catholic” priest who happens to have a deep, abiding testimony of the Book of Mormon. He loves God, Christ, Joseph Smith and Gordon B. Hinkley as much or more than most Mormons I know. He thinks that LDS missionaries are, on the whole, the most Christ-like people he has ever come across. He hands out Books of Mormon to lots of people, and he directs struggling souls to the Mormon elders without even thinking of recruiting them to his own flock. He has struggles with certain aspects of Mormon doctrine and teachings to be sure, but probably no more so than many denizens of the Bloggernacle. But that Father Hans has any affinity for Mormon teachings at all is rather remarkable to me. Hans has his own, “Old Catholic” congregation, and he has been ministering to his flock for decades. As a Catholic priest, he has devoted his life to a particular brand of Christianity, and he is a person of at least some authority in his faith tradition. To leave Old Catholicism and become a baptized member of the LDS Church would be an incredible lifechange for Hans … probably more so than it is for most investigators. It would certainly be easier, and more convenient, for Hans to dismiss Mormonism as some weird cult and to continue his own ministry as he has always done. And yet he doesn’t. He attends Church faithfully in his local ward (right before traveling into Hollywood to officiate at his own services), and he sometimes even talks about the possibility of one day getting baptized in the LDS Church.
And yet Father Hans has not yet agreed to get baptized. One could argue at length about why this is. Perhaps, despite his conviction of the truth of much of Mormonism, he is too afraid to leave his former life behind. Perhaps he is too invested in his position of leadership over his congregation to be willing to give it up. Perhaps the few LDS doctrinal areas where he has qualms are being blown out of proportion in his mind so that he doesn’t have to confront these other concerns. But for what it’s worth, what Hans actually says about his baptismal hesitation is this: Hans feels that God has a plan for him that entails his remaining an Old Catholic priest, at least for now. He believes that it is God’s will that he not yet become an official Mormon, and that God’s plan involves his serving in his current capacity as an Old Catholic priest who happens to attend the LDS Church. It’s not clear to me if this plan centers around Hans continuing to minister to his currently miniscule Catholic flock, or if it primarily involves his effectively serving the LDS Church from a position outside its membership roles. But for now, Hans feels like it isn’t right that he be baptized a Mormon. Yes, he is aware of Mormon teachings on the exclusivity of LDS priesthood authority and the need for LDS baptism, and he doesn’t formally dispute them. He understands LDS teachings well, but has joked that he might need to get baptized in the Spirit World, since he still has an earthly role to play as a Catholic priest in God’s plan.
What to make of Father Hans? It would be easy to dismiss his claims as rationalizations along the lines I described above, and just write off his explanations as another variant of the same old excuses investigators often use not to get baptized. But I am inclined to take him at his word. He might be wrong, of course. He might be misinterpreting the Spirit, or getting spiritual promptings from the wrong source. But I doubt it. I tend to take his claims at face value. I don’t think it’s my place, or within my abilities, to interpret his experiences for him. Such is the nature of spiritual confirmation — one can’t really claim to interpret someone else’s subjective experience.
I wonder how to fit Hans’ claimed spiritual intuitions within LDS theology. The LDS Church doesn’t provide a lot of exceptions to its teaching that the whole world needs the ordinances and blessings that only baptism into the LDS Church can provide. I don’t know of any scriptural passages that would provide justification for seeing things differently. But the more I think about it, the less I’m inclined to think that Hans’ claim is necessarily inconsistent with LDS truth claims. Maybe God does have a plan for him outside the Church. (It’s not hard to see the good he’s doing from where he is now). Maybe he will eventually get baptized, after finishing whatever it is he needs to do, and maybe he’ll get a spiritual witness of his need to do so later on.
But, then again, maybe he won’t. In fact, maybe he’ll get hit by a bus and be killed tomorrow. If this happens, we’ll certainly know that his opportunity for an earthly baptism will have passed. Would such an event effectively invalidate his prior intuition that it wasn’t yet right for him to be baptized? Or might he still have been correct in thinking that God had another plan for him that differed from the one the LDS missionaries kept trying to impress upon him? Might Hans’ imagined baptismal service in the Spirit World still be a real option for him?
Whatever the answers to these questions, I think the questions posed by Dutcher’s departure from practicing Mormonism represent an even more interesting case. Can believers in LDS orthodoxy grant that it might be part of God’s plan that particular Churchmembers leave the LDS Church? One frequent commenter – a former Elders Quorum instructor of mine – seems to think so. Personally, I think it is hard to scripturally justify such a move, and divinely-sanctioned departure from the fold doesn’t seem to jive with what I grew up hearing in Sunday School. And yet many of us probably know people who have fallen off the LDS wagon, only to return later with a faith they claim was strengthened by their stint in the wilderness. Even those who don’t formally leave the Church, but who take a hiatus from activity and/or the commandments, often gain an important perspective that gives them an empathy or awareness that they wouldn’t otherwise have had, and that they can use to reach out to other struggling souls in a way that the ever-stalwart sometimes can’t. Of course, it is understandable that we don’t want to trumpet these truths (if, indeed, they are truths) too loudly. It is easy to make ex post declarations that one’s stray from the fold was worthwhile, but harder to acknowledge this truth ex ante without running the risk that some within earshot might give themselves permission to leave the fold and then never return. Nevertheless, I don’t think I can definitively exclude the possibility that inactivity and/or departure from the Church might be the right choice for some individuals, in at least some instances, for some length of time.
Is acknowledging all of this theologically anathema in Mormonism? Do these conclusions do violence to the LDS Church’s exclusivist truth claims, and potentially unravel the neat and tidy Plan of Salvation, with its carefully calibrated constituent parts? Or is there room for an understanding of God’s will and our own, highly individual spiritual paths that permits consideration of these notions within Mormonism?