The Sacrament of Doubt

“The Sacrament of Doubt” is a newly-published collection of speeches (plus one web post and one open letter) by Mormon thinker, theologian, dissident, humorist, and member of the September Six, Paul Toscano. John Crawford and I will review the book in the form of a conversation.

JNS: To things start off, John, what did you think of the format of the book? These speeches seem to have been reprinted with minimal editing or alteration, to the point that a couple actually say that more could be said if not for time constraints. Does that seem odd to you, as it does to me?

JDC: Not particularly. My impression of the book is that it is meant to trace a journey of sorts in Bro. Toscano’s faith. As such, we have a group of vignettes, usually (but not always) in chronological order. These are little scenes in a play. They have no dialogue, but we are given the setting of each piece and it is hard not to read them as a group of monologues. That said, the book overall could have greatly benefitted, I think, from a stricter editor. There does not seem to be a strong central theme that binds the essays together, aside from the fact that Bro. Toscano wrote them all.More than a play, it reads like a series of blog posts. It has the same combination of diary and rhetorical essay and it has the same feeling of being whatever the author happened to be thinking about at the time. What struck you about the organization of the book, J.?

The Sacrament of Doubt

JNS: I like your idea of the book as a journey in a life. Yet, as a chronicle of the religious life of Paul Toscano, I think the book isn’t terribly successful. The texts are sometimes quite emotional, but they’re rarely intimate. They are generally public speech; they are performances made for a community, not disclosures of the more intimate tone that memoirs try to adopt. Furthermore, some pieces in the book are just more intellectual than they are personal or even spiritual. Consider, for example, the chapter against secular education, “A Plea for Pluralism.” What does that accomplish in terms of charting a faith journey?

While I think the book isn’t altogether successful as a travelogue to a faith journey, I do think there are some pieces here that are valuable as Mormon religious thought. But I wish they had been developed, expanded, and revised from the speech versions. Why must the original version of Toscano’s discussion of Boyd K. Packer stand sacrosanct? I simply don’t understand.

JDC: “A Plea for Pluralism” also struck me as out of place. I decided that he felt it necessary to insert it to a) demonstrate that he was not opposed to religion as a general rule; b) provide the paper that he frequently references in the next section, “Accommodation and the Clash of the Red and Blue;” c) have an article demonstrating his day job (another bloggernacle parallel :) ). I agree that it doesn’t do much to address his faith journey (unless it is meant to express an earlier naivety). On the opposite end of the spectrum, the most intimate piece in the work is “On the Bones of Daniel Rector.” It is a deeply moving rumination on his own emotions in contemplating the death of a dear friend. It is also, to my mind, spectacularly inappropriate to have read to the grieving family in a graveside service.

This gets to the heart of what is wrong with the book (or what is right with it, depending on your outlook). I think that the reason his critiques of Elder Packer and the other apostles were not extended between their presentation and this book is because those works are not actually about the Brethren or his stake president or Daniel Rector. It is all about him and his journey. To some degree, I think the most telling comment he makes is in his self-interview, 10 years after the September 6 incident, in which he admits that “I am seriously peeved that September 1993 and its aftermath have made so little difference.” I read this book as Bro. Toscano shouting “I am still here!” to a church that has mostly moved on.

JNS: I agree that the presentation of the book does revolve around Paul Toscano as a person. That actually doesn’t bother me; Toscano strikes me as an interesting man. He’s written a lot of things that have been engaging or usefully provocative for me, and some things that have been spiritually meaningful. Furthermore, in our handful of online interactions, Toscano has struck me as a charming and charismatic man. So I can see why a certain group of people might care about simply collecting his speeches. At the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity, because there is material here that could speak to a broader audience with a somewhat different presentation. I think the preface and the short final chapter have something real and valuable to say about the experience of doubt and its relation to the life of faith. And the two chapters in which Toscano responds directly to Boyd K. Packer and to Russell M. Nelson do intelligently engage central theological themes in Mormonism. That and the cultural shock value of seeing someone directly critique our leaders’ thought — something far more rare than some would have us think — could probably create a much broader audience for these pieces, if they had been expanded and revised and if they had been published in a context that was less wildly diverse.

Turning a bit more to specific texts in the book, about the “A Plea for Pluralism” and “Accommodation and the Clash of Red and Blue” chapters, the basic thesis here that secularism is not a neutral position but rather a power play against faith is one that echoes Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Both Toscano and Hauerwas are, it seems to me, right in pointing out that there is no such thing as a neutral or non-ideological ideology. Secularism can certainly be an enemy to faith. But it has another role that I felt Toscano and Hauerwas underestimate: the role of creating institutions that people of very different faith commitments can all live with. Sure, it would be great if God were allowed in the public schools. But what if the public schools taught an evangelical Christian take on the temple endowment? What if prayers at graduation ceremonies asked that God would protect us against Muslims, Mormons, and other non-Christians? Keeping God out of the public arena also keeps our differences of opinion about God out of the public arena. Something Mitt Romney, for example, is learning to appreciate…

JDC: True. While I appreciated Bro. Toscano’s plea for better integration of religion in public life, it is a flawed idea as there are no good standards for the admittance of some religions into the public eye and the dismissal of others. If we teach the history of Christianity from a believing viewpoint, then we are equally expected to teach the history of Islam, Judaism, Hindu belief, Buddhism, Jainism, Scientology, and further on down the rabbit hole. What struck me most about those chapters though was Bro. Toscano’s depiction of the Blue and the Red (meaning Republicans and Democrats) was the gross generalizations on which he built his dichotomy and the fact that each side would see themselves in his complements and their opponents in his criticisms.

He says, “I have reached the tentative conclusion that what divides red and blue is how one views human nature – whether it is inherently good or bad. A person inclined to view humans as untrustworthy or prone to mischief will favor restricting individual liberty and maximizing institutional power to keep human nature in check in order to promote security, prosperity, tranquility, and traditional values. A person who views humans as good or trustworthy will be inclined to restrict institutional power to maximize individual choice in order to prevent the corruption of human nature and the destruction of the environment.” Thus, we see that Republicans are big government and Democrats are uninterested in using the government to push their agenda? These reads as much like blindered political hackery as anything written by, say, Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore. How does noting that good people agree with me and bad people agree with you result in accommodation or furthering a dialogue?

JNS, you’ve referenced Bro. Toscano’s critique of Elders Packer and Nelson (and, more obliquely, Elder Oaks and President Hinckley) a few times. What did you find in those pieces that was interesting to you?

JNS: On the Democrat/Republican characterizations, I agree that simple stereotypes are unhelpful. Do Democrats or Republicans see human nature as inherently good? I don’t know. A lot of Democrats seem to feel that the war on drugs, for example, is hopeless because people will always find a way to get drugs regardless. Note how this position fractures the simple schema; a person views humans as hopelessly prone to the mischief of drugs, and therefore opposes expansions of institutional power. On the other hand, I doubt that we can reasonably blame Toscano too much for these characterizations. Even respected college American Government textbooks sometimes engage in similar stereotyping.

As per your comment, I’ll say a bit about the two chapters that I think will probably generate the most attention, “Boyd K. Packer — Modern Prophet in a Post-Modern World” and “For the Love of God.” Let’s start with the second. In this open letter, Toscano responds to Russell M. Nelson’s well-publicized opinion that God’s love should never be characterized as unconditional. Nelson, as Toscano helpfully points out, identifies a concept of universal divine love as equivalent to the idea of universal salvation or freedom from the consequences of sin. Toscano offers the helpful clarification that we ought to distinguish between God’s affection and God’s approval. The scriptures do suggest that God’s affection is universal, while God’s approval is clearly conditional on what we do. This response, which addresses the debate by disaggregating the concept of love, seems to me to be a powerful and successful rebuttal of Nelson’s proposal that God’s love is always conditional.

What were your thoughts on that chapter?

JDC: I agree that Bro. Toscano’s criticisms are apt. I have made a similar argument in my own explanation/explication of Elder Nelson’s controversial talk. What strikes me as interesting in the piece is that, I believe, that the church as a whole has come around to Bro. Toscano’s view, due to the abiding influence of: a) President Benson’s decision to re-emphasize the Book of Mormon; and b) Robert Millet’s, Stephen Robinson’s, and Bruce Hafen’s ongoing discussion regarding what the Book of Mormon has to say about Christ. When I listen to the talks of, say, Elder Holland or Elder Eyring, I clearly hear the shift in how we talk about Jesus and in how we talk about Christ’s love and grace. While I think that Bro. Toscano’s dismissal of the influence of the Father is premature in our doctrine and salvation is premature, I think that his approach to interpreting Elder Nelson’s talk explains how best to understand it doctrinally, if not organizationally.

That said, I don’t like the presentation of his thought. I probably never will. It comes back to my objections regarding the book. Bro. Toscano extends to himself the benefit of the doubt frequently, but his adversaries are never given it. And most of the pieces in this book are attempts by Bro. Toscano to define himself in contra-distinction to whatever his adversaries are. While President Packer is frightened by the prospect of Intellectuals, Feminists, and Homosexuals eroding his means of control (as Bro. Toscano depicts him), Bro. Toscano gleefully embraces these trends and discusses his solidarity with them. His chapter on “Intellectuals, Feminists, and Homosexuals” is, I think, the best critique of the church in the book. But it relies on turning President Packer into a bogeyman. From the get go, there is no assumption that President Packer is seeking anyone’s will but his own.

His brief biography of President Packer also suffers from this. It would seem that President Packer is in the position he is in because he kissed more butt and made fewer waves than other potential Apostles/General Authorities. His depiction of President Packer reminded me of the general played by Paul Winfield in Mars Attacks, who whispers into a telephone after getting an important assignment “Hello? This is General Casey. I get to meet the Martian Ambassador! Ain’t that great? Oh, it’s a hell of an honor. But didn’t I always tell you honey, if I just stayed in place and never spoke up, good things are bound to happen. Yeah… OK.” A discussion of President Packer as sycophant-in-chief strikes me as enormously unfair. It is hard to not take note that Bro. Toscano sees President Packer as personally responsible for his excommunication when one reads these chapters and to, therefore, take his interpretation of President Packer with a large grain of salt.

What struck you about these sections, JNS?

JNS: I think the chapter about Packer does certainly have personal animus involved in it. It’s a matter of public record at this point that Packer was in fact involved in at least some of the September Six excommunications, so I’m willing to accept Toscano’s perspective on that front as reasonable. And it’s worth remembering that there’s been something of a campaign of mutual failure to extend the benefit of the doubt between our church leaders and Paul Toscano. A good example on that front is the incident that Toscano refers to in his “Intellectuals, Feminists, etc.” in which Dallin Oaks publicly stated that he was sure Paul Toscano would sue the church. Rampant suspicion is a problem that’s arisen on both sides in this story, I guess.

It seems to me that Toscano does offer an argument, though, in his chapter directly about Packer, for why he sees Packer as representing his own views and beliefs. Specifically, the reason is that Packer has never made it clear when he is speaking for himself and when he is speaking for the Lord. Toscano quotes a story of Packer’s in which Packer was on a boat that needed a lighthouse turned on to find its way to shore, but the person responsible for the lighthouse had fallen asleep. Toscano claims that Packer’s unwillingness to explain when his statements are based on revelation, when on inspiration, and when on personal wisdom is analogous to failing to turn on the lighthouse. I think that’s an apt analogy. When the difference between personal wisdom and divine imperative is obscured, we lose the divine light that might otherwise be granted. Lighthouses are for when we can’t see by ourselves. If we had spiritual power enough to see the difference between rock and ocean on our own, we wouldn’t need them. But we don’t always, and so we do need our teachers to be clear about what they’re saying and where it comes from. Packer has never done that. Although the same could be said of most modern church leaders, so singling out Packer seems a bit, well, personal.

JDC: Exactly!

JNS: My biggest frustration with the Packer chapter is that Toscano offers about half of a cogent response to Packer’s religious worldview, but seems to stop short of fully rebutting the position. Instead, the argument seems to be swept away on a tide of anger and personal frustration. This is disappointing because Packer’s perspective in which salvation is to be earned by pure human exertion is one that deserves serious scrutiny.

JDC: That’s the thing. I am not certain that that describes President Packer’s perspective anymore, just as I don’t know that the “Conditional Love” talk continues to describe Elder Nelson’s approach to God. After all, Elder Nelson did recently comment that “A repentant soul is a converted soul, and a converted soul is a repentant soul,” which seems much closer to a grace viewpoint than not. To some degree, in all of this, I have a feeling that Bro. Toscano is engaged in a debate with a church that existed maybe ten years ago, but doesn’t seem to exist now.

JNS: That’s possible, although as always it’s hard to tell, since our church rarely explains or explicitly announces changes in theological position or emphasis. However, the phrase “unconditional love” still doesn’t show up in correlated texts.

JDC: um, “unconditional love” pulls up 113 hits at lds.org.

JNS: Good point. My comment was based on the prophet manuals, in which “unconditional love” and “free agency” in the actual text are discussed as “love” and “moral agency” in the headings and the discussion questions.

I just looked through the “unconditional love” entries on lds.org. Nearly all of them predate Elder Nelson’s talk on the subject. The handful since fall into two categories: instructions to mortal parents, who are evidently supposed to extend to their children the unconditional love that God doesn’t extend to us; and one or two talks repeating Nelson’s objections to the phrase.

JDC: Hee. I noticed that, but I think that Elder Faust’s choice to use the phrase to describe his mother is the most effective rebuke to over stringency in applying Elder Nelson’s terminological point possible. Especially since the brethren will never publicly rebuke each other.

I suppose, as a critique, that is Bro. Toscano’s greatest point. The Brethren are men and, as such, they can make mistakes. If we refuse as congregants to acknowledge that, then some horrible things/beliefs could possibly creep into the church. At the same time, if we actually believe that they speak for God in church government, then we need to acknowledge that we should give more heed to their opinions than we would the average person we don’t really know.

JNS: Well, now we’re treading in deeper and murkier water. I acknowledge our leaders as called of God to run the church. And I certainly do hearken to them in the sense of listen very seriously to what they have to say. Yet it doesn’t logically follow that they should be presumed to speak with God’s voice on all issues; nor is it immediately clear what the boundaries of their callings are. These are issues on which a variety of faithful positions are possible, I think.

JDC: Which is the other point I think that Bro. Toscano was trying to make in the pieces on President Packer. If Elder Oaks (or someone else) had been more vocal in his opposition to President Packer’s position of the September 6, we would have at least know that the Brethren were divided on the topic. That would, I think, be useful.

That said, I also find it unlikely. The Brethren are not likely to air their differences publicly. The question we should ask ourselves, I think, is whether this is because, as Bro. Toscano assumes, they are brokering power amongst themselves or is it because they are truly seeking unity in doing the Lord’s will? (Perhaps those are not mutually exclusive). In any case, where you come down on that question will, I think, ultimately determine your reaction to this book.

Getting back to the quote before about the September 6 not having any effect, I think that is manifestly untrue. The church’s response to Grant Palmer demonstrates this, I think. There is a different intellectual atmosphere in the church today. I don’t know that this is a permanent change, but it is a change. This is not to say that I agree or disagree with the actions taken against the September 6, but rather to say that I think those actions may have been different today.

JNS: That’s entirely possible. I don’t know. People have thought so before. The excommunication of Fawn Brodie was, for Mormon thinkers of that time, a parallel to the events surrounding the September Six. But when Juanita Brooks and Sterling McMurrin weren’t excommunicated, some unorthodox, or liberal, or dissenting, or whatever thinkers thought things had changed. But the 1980s and 1990s suggested otherwise. But I do think that the September Six have been more influential than they probably would have been had they not been excommunciated.

JDC: Sure. I tend to believe that these things come in waves. At the moment, I think that the presence of Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens, and the fact that they appear to be among our most eloquent spokesmen for Mormonism, appears to help the lds intellectual cause. I think that the correlation movement fostered a desire to create an orthodoxy of belief that had not previously been present and arguably never really existed and the intellectuals in the church endured the backlash (to say nothing of the feminists and homosexuals). At present, I think that we are moving toward a more tolerant approach toward more heterodox ideas, but I fully expect the pendulum to swing back in my lifetime.

JNS: So let me offer my summary thoughts on the book. For friends of Paul Toscano, or for people already interested in his thought, this book will be a good purchase. For others, I have to characterize the book more subtly. I don’t think this book will do any damage to anyone’s faith. I don’t think it is intended to do so, and I don’t think it really could. Some essays are inevitably less interesting than others. But five parts of the book are probably worth taking a look at: the brief introduction and conclusion, and the three chapters on “Intellectuals, etc.,” on Elder Packer, and on unconditional love. While I think these latter three chapters could have been more than what they are, they are nonetheless thought-provoking and do in fact contain useful ideas.

JDC: Yeah, we haven’t done that opening and closing the credit it is due. They, along with the section on Daniel Rector’s death, are the closest that we get to seeing where Bro. Toscano is spiritually. It is a dark place, as he admits. It will be tempting for those so inclined to see in Bro. Toscano’s musings in these sections a soul given over to the buffetings of Satan. Such a reading would be, I think, a mistake. Bro. Toscano is in place of doubt and faith that is paradoxical and rich. While I don’t share all his doubts, I can see his realm of belief from my own. To dismiss his role and his voice, angry, embittered, and doubting as it is, would be a mistake. That said, I am troubled by his preface and close for the same reasons I am moved by them. Bro. Toscano, in looking for a model of faith, faithfulness, and decency, does what so many of us seem to do: he looks in a mirror. In decrying it in others, he fails to acknowledge it in himself. Then again, we all look in a glass darkly.

JNS: I agree that there’s a kind of projection of Toscano’s own experience of faith and doubt as a model for others. That said, I think everybody always does some of that. People who have few or no questions or doubts, for example, routinely offer their faith experience as a model for the rest of us. What I think is truly powerful in Toscano’s model of faith and doubt in the opening and close of this book is its affirmation of the spiritual life and hope available for people with serious doubt. God’s kingdom does have a place for faithful doubters, and a statement of hope in that proposition by a doubter may be credible to other doubters in ways that an affirmation from a less marginalized source may not. I found the first and last sections of this book both moving and spiritually powerful.

JDC: As did I, I just have a crappy manner of explaining myself.

JNS: Not at all — I thought I was agreeing with you!

JDC: As a final thought, I think that we don’t give the book its due if we fail to mention the money quote from the back cover, which I will now transcribe:

Perhaps faith is to give God the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps doubt is to restrain the narcissism of certainty. For me, the bread of doubt is as sacred as the water of faith. Together they form a Eucharist of hope, a wellspring of charity – a love that is neither partial or sentimental, but simply the heart’s desire that God’s love fall like rain in equal measure upon the just and the unjust, that no one claim a blessing that one would withhold from another or impose a burden one would not bear oneself.

From a fellow traveler, Bro. Toscano, thank you for that. It is a powerful, moving sentiment that we all may hopefully one day live up to.

Comments

  1. I think you’re giving the book more discussion than it deserves (I’ve read it). Most of the essays are a dozen years old and dripping with bitterness. The chapter on Elder Packer was petty — like I’m supposed to resent Packer for exercising his authority in the Church to excommunicate noisy dissenters who are practically begging for it? Some criticisms of Packer have a slice of merit, but coming from Toscano it has the reverse effect. Three cheers for Elder Packer.

    The only chapters that had any credibility were the ones on the role and limits of religion in the public square, which were surprisingly reasonable and defensible. I think the proper context on this question is law, not theology, which explains why Toscano, a lawyer, actually scores some points here.

  2. Two questions:

    1. Why would any believing, active member read this book?

    2. Is this a book worth reading?

  3. Adding on to Steve’s #2: is it worth reading if I have a queue of easily a half dozen or more books that are worth reading and that I haven’t yet started (especially seeing as how Michael Chabon seems to be writing a couple books a year these days)?

  4. More tellingly, is this a book worth buying?

  5. Steve,
    The preface and the conclusion are worth it for anyone to read, active or no. The contents of the middle…much less so. A lot of this is filler. It is really only a book for the Paul Toscano completist. If I were you and I saw the book in a bookstore, I would pick it up, scan those two chapters, and put it back down.

    I was worried that I wasn’t negative enough in the review. Toscano is interesting in some ways, but I don’t think I would recommend anybody buy this book.

  6. There are Paul Toscano completists? I mean, I guess there must be, but the thought had never occurred to me.

  7. Eric Russell says:

    “the Paul Toscano completist”

    LOL

  8. Steve,

    I think there are believing, active members of the church — like me — who find Paul Toscano’s Mormon thought interesting and worthwhile.

    Is the book worth reading, buying, etc., and is it higher priority than Michael Chabon? I don’t know. I agree with John C. that the introduction and conclusion are simply worth reading, full stop. Some other chapters struck me as thought-provoking. There were also parts of the book, including the legal material, that didn’t really impress me.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    JNS, my question wasn’t about Paul Toscano’s Mormon thought as a whole, but rather just this book. I don’t doubt that there are believing, active members who find some of his ideas interesting and worthwhile.

  10. Why would any believing, active member read this book?

    Sometimes short blog statements come off as sounding more smug and arrogant than a writer intends…

  11. Nameless one, it’s a question. I didn’t mean for it to be smug or arrogant — I asked the question because the answer wasn’t obvious to me. I guess if you read it as a rhetorical question, it could be smug or arrogant, but I didn’t mean for it to be rhetorical. Why would a believing, active member of the Church read a treatise on doubt and spiritual exploration by an excommunicated member who at times has been quite vocal in his opposition to the Church? The answer is far from self-evident.

  12. Steve, I take your question as both sincere and reasonable. Even so, I think there are some premises behind it that we may not share. For example, I think that doubt is a spiritual issue that affects most or all believers, and Toscano’s thoughts on that are spiritual and meaningful — probably to most or all of us.

    But it’s also worth pointing out that most of the book isn’t really about doubt. Some of it is about theology. That content is sometimes confrontational in tone. Which I think isn’t a bad thing or a good thing; it’s just a genre.

    Toscano has certainly been excommunicated from the church. But the fact that he keeps speaking about Mormonism and writing to Mormons means that, in at least some ways, he wants to be part of our community. That seems to me to be an initial reason, at least, for taking him seriously. The fact that he seems to be pretty smart is a good second reason.

    I wouldn’t rank this book as high as Toscano’s “Gospel Letters to a Mormon Missionary,” or the Toscanos’ “Strangers in Paradox,” two books I’d recommend wholeheartedly to most or all Mormon believers. But it’s got some stuff I think many or most of us could find something of value in.

  13. Neal Kramer says:

    The most telling statement in this inter/review says “It’s all about him.”

    While I do not wish to be too harsh, it has always seemed to me that Paul Toscano and D. Michael Quinn have suffered from a selfish form a pride that often occurs with gifted intellectuals. They want desperately to be recognized as special, gifted people that the Church not only cannot live without but actually needs to have at the top.

    Paul Toscano has always been possessed of a special charisma. He radiates sincerity and authenticity, but they combine with the need for praise and recognition. I think that’s a deadly combination.

    The attacks on Elder Packer always seem like a demand that his mantle be removed and replaced by foolish intellectualism.

    It’s a shame that these very outdated pieces should be published again. The so-called September six have long since lost any relevance to the culture and Church they chose to leave behind, if indeed they ever had any. I’d love more than anything to have them repent and return to the Church, where they might be able to reconsecrate their lives to building the kingdom.

  14. Steve Evans says:

    Yowch, Neal. Tell us what you really think!

  15. There may be some intrinsic value — a great many books have some intrinsic value — but I think SamB raises a point, that there are priorities to be set, and (to echo Steve) maybe it’s a bit lower on the priority list. I mean if you haven’t read the new Givens, and the latest FARMS/BYU Studies/Dialogue/Sunstone/what have you, should this take precedence?

    I read this book as Bro. Toscano shouting “I am still here!” to a church that has mostly moved on.

    That’s an interesting statement. Might it be common of people disaffected with any organization — religious or not — to focus their wrath and energies on a small moment in time and not notice that everything has timeshifted past them?

  16. but Bush didn’t REALLY win the 2000 election, queuno.

  17. Darn it, Ray, BRADY FUMBLED THE BALL!

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks guys for this. I enjoyed your conversation method of approaching this material.

  19. (Actually, Ray, a more apt comparison might be Bob Costas’ continued ripping of the Wild Card in Major League Baseball. He continued to criticize MLB long after he was basically proven to be wrong, although he’s finally shut up in recent years. I respect and admire Bob Costas for his intelligence and perspective, but I’m glad he’s not in charge.)

  20. Disclaimer alert: This might sound much more harsh than I mean it to be, so please read it with a eye to only the part of the comparison I actually will make. I post it only as food for thought.

    I think sometimes we are WAY too hard on historical “bad guys” in our scriptural record, as well as those “naive and weak people” who follow them. I think that Toscano, based on only my readings of him, shows how an intelligent, charismatic, sincere person can appeal to others. I wonder sometimes about how we identify and label “anti-Christs” – both in our distinctly Mormon texts as well as in the broader scope of orthodox Christian tradition. After all, perhaps to more people than those who accept him as a prophet, Joseph Smith is precisely what many Mormons see Toscano as being – only worse and not as intelligent.

  21. I guess “I don’t want to be too harsh, but…” is the ‘nacle equivalent of “bless her heart”, which is what folks where I’m from say to alert their interlocutors that the juiciest, nastiest bit of gossip or armchair psychoanalysis is coming up.

    If you wouldn’t say it to their faces, don’t say it here.

  22. For those interested, I’ve done video/audio interviews with both Paul and Margaret. I think they’re quite interesting:

    Paul: http://mormonstories.org/?p=333

    Margaret: http://mormonstories.org/?p=303 (there are 3 others on the site)

  23. Steve Evans says:

    Amen Kristine.

  24. Aaron Brown says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. I also liked the format. I had no intention of picking up Toscano’s book, but now I may, at least to peruse the sections you recommend.

    Your reaction to _Sacrament of Doubt_ reminds me of my own reaction to _Sanctity of Dissent_. Some interesting ideas here and there, mixed with some narcissism and acrimony that marred the volume as a whole. And I am one that appreciates the confrontational genre. It’s refreshing to hear, even if we must acknowledge that it’s best imbibed in small doses. I haven’t read _Strangers in Paradox_, but I suppose I’ll have to pick it up.

    And I just can’t stop loving _Music and the Broken Word_, even if I am the only one who does.

    Aaron B

  25. R.W. Rasband says:

    Someone should gently remind Toscano that it’s not all about him. He should go see “No Country For Old Men” and get some perspective.

  26. “If you wouldn’t say it to their faces, don’t say it here.”

    Alrighty then.

    I just want to say I am so impressed with the way RT/JNS and HP/JDC love to talk to each other and agree with how insightful they are. Amazing how “Exactly!” these guys are with each other. Warms my heart it does.

    I, for one, cannot wait to continue to ignore this book, that says stuff like:

    Perhaps faith is to give God the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps doubt is to restrain the narcissism of certainty. For me, the bread of doubt is as sacred as the water of faith. Together they form a Eucharist of hope, a wellspring of charity – a love that is neither partial or sentimental, but simply the heart’s desire that God’s love fall like rain in equal measure upon the just and the unjust, that no one claim a blessing that one would withhold from another or impose a burden one would not bear oneself.

    To which the blog authors somehow praise as “powerful, moving” when it is nothing but sophistry and smooth words designed to sound religious when the intent is to undermine genuine faith and attack the Church.

    Sorry guys, but faith is when you actually do what Jesus taught, not pick at motes in other people’s eyes in an incredibly erudite way so as to excuse yourself from actually doing what Jesus taught. No matter how polished the prose, its polemics. The sun rises on the evil and the good, but the blessings of obedience are reserved for the obedient.

    And, I am wondering when Sinead O’Conner is going to sue the publisher for misappropriation of celebrity appearance. Sinead doesnt like the Pope, Paul, get your iconoclasts right.

  27. “The Sacrament of Doubt”? Could a title more explicitly signal that the author has made an idol of his own mind?

  28. #13. I only know personally one of those famously excommunicated in the early 90s, and she actually continues to be a pillar in the Mormon community, faithfully attending church regularly and helping a massive segment of the Mormon studies population (primarily the faithful, numerically and emphatically) as well as the Mormon History Association. I have often heard her urge greater faith, kindness and circumspection. I agree this Toscano book doesn’t sound great, but it’s worth being cautious about generalizing about people you don’t know.

    And #26, I thought the two reviewers showed restraint and subtlety in a complex situation. What if you were to leave open the possibility that other people arising from within Mormonism actually have distinct religious sentiments which, while not yours or Mormonism’s, nevertheless express valid spiritual yearnings and insights? Would you pillory the quoted paragraph if it were from a Catholic priest or a Buddhist monk? I agree that the “seceding Mormons” (the 19th-century phrase) do not always behave in respectful ways, but that needn’t force us to be uncivil. Theirs is not my path, but there are many who do not take my path from whom I can nevertheless learn and whom I can respect.

    I think it’s fine to establish the validity of one’s own faith by confirming it publicly, but I’m not persuaded that defaming others is the right way to proceed (a reason I would not support the anti-Packer diatribe if this post is an accurate description of it).

  29. “What if you were to leave open the possibility that other people arising from within Mormonism actually have distinct religious sentiments which, while not yours or Mormonism’s, nevertheless express valid spiritual yearnings and insights?”

    What if you were to leave open the possibility that other people arising from Mormonism actually have ulterior motives that are completely contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ?

    “Would you pillory the quoted paragraph if it were from a Catholic priest or a Buddhist monk?”

    It is a polished lie, regardless of who says it. The author is deliberately distorting the imagery of the Lord’s Supper in order to make his polemic attack more palatable to a religious audience, which audience he is trying to persuade against the Church.

  30. ED,
    Hugs and Kisses :)

  31. ED, I simply don’t understand your reading of the quoted paragraph. “Doubt” in this context is, on my reading, something like Paul the Apostle’s seeing “in a mirror, darkly.” We don’t know, and the difference between knowledge and belief or hope is rightly characterized as doubt. And reminding ourselves what we don’t know is a virtuous thing — and maintaining the tension between that kind of uncertainty and faith is where the action is.

    This may not be your reading of the material in question. But I think it is some of several plausible, defensible, and not particularly objectionable readings. Which makes the passage not really guilty of the charges you lay against it, since the existence of a range of plausible, less inflammatory readings makes your reading a somewhat polemical one.

  32. I really liked the quote on the back cover and didn’t see it as a lie or as an attempt to destroy people’s faith. I thought it was an insightful way to draw on the symbols of bread and water that have meaning for Latter-day Saints and build them into a new framework. My personal opinion is that the pairing was a little arbitrary (why is bread “doubt” and water “faith”) but the point was actually kind of inspiring. I didn’t see anything in that particular quote that runs contrary to the Gospel.

  33. ED, wrong post.

  34. Extreme Dorito,

    I agree with you about the lack of value in that quote. IMHO, doubt has zero intrinsic value; it is only valuable if it leads the doubter to seek answers in faith, and learn to receive and identify those answers.
    JNS and JDC, does the book convey any of Toscano’s feelings about the role and importance of personal revelation? If not, then it’s very understandable why he rages against the author of “The Candle of the Lord.”

  35. DE, faith could be seen as implying or containing doubt because the absence of doubt means one has knowledge rather than faith. To be sure, such knowledge is encouraged as the goal of our faith in Alma 32 but I think it is fair to say that all who have faith also have doubt included in that faith. That is not to say that others’ doubts even closely resemble or should resemble the kind of intellectual doubts that Toscano seems to have and recommend. Rather, most people’s doubts are more fundamental and not necessarily intellectually driven or related to issues of Mormon history, policy, or authority. For example, I would guess most people harbor existential doubts relating to “why do bad things happen to good people” etc. This couldn’t really be further from “doubts” about Elder Packer’s leadership style or the 1978 revelation but rather draw from more fundamental life-issues such as sickness, death, income disparity, addiction, abuse, etc.

  36. John (35),
    I don’t agree that the lack of certainty in faith has its roots in doubt.lack of certainty is not doubt- it’s just the absence of certainty.
    I have all kinds of doubts, and I doubt doctrines that I once thought fundamental to the Gospel. But I won’t do the mental gymnastics necessary to claim my doubts are necessary for my faith. For example, I don’t doubt in any way that God answers prayers, but I have a lot of faith that he does.
    Toscano’s thesis reeks to me of “I doubt, therefore doubt is necessary, noble, and worthy of celebration.”

  37. ED in #29, I hope your friends are primarily Mormon (or at least not Catholic or Buddhist). My sense about what President Hinckley is preaching currently is much more tolerant than the view you’re espousing. Your response to the first question could easily become quite abusive. By that reasoning every Buddhist and Hindu should be denounced for being enemies of the Gospel.

    Incidentally, I’m well aware that some seceding Mormons are quite angry and are not expressing primarily spiritual sentiments. I just think it’s hard to judge other people and know certainly what an individual’s motives are.

  38. DE,
    I doubt Bro. Toscano would say anything really about personal revelation that doesn’t align with standard thought regarding absolute certainty (aka. it is bad). Speaking for myself, I strive to have great faith and I daily struggle with doubts regarding myself, God, the world, and so forth. I appreciate that faith is a daily choice and one I choose to make, but acknowledging that as a choice means acknowledging that I could make another.

    I don’t know that Bro. Toscano is calling on us to doubt God, although he does. He is calling on us to doubt ourselves, which is something I think I can wholeheartedly support (in moderation ;) )

  39. Kristine, if #21 was a response to my #20, I don’t understand it. I was making a plea to not judge Toscano too harshly, which is why I started the comment with a disclaimer asking everyone not to read it as being harsh. Please go back and read it again. Hopefully, that will be clearer.

    Perhaps I simply didn’t word the disclaimer very well.

  40. Here is how doubt is used in the scriptures.

  41. I like contrasting Toscano’s views with Gene England’s essays on Spectral Evidence in his Making Peace collected essays. Do yourself a favor and ch..ch…check it out.

    Orson Pratt was a little harsh in his treatment on doubting, but his parable gives insight:

    Such is the devil’s looking glass or microscope that is calculated to magnify everybody’s faults but the individual’s looking in it: and when he wishes him to see his own, he turns the glass the other way, so that his own faults can scarcely be seen. You know that when you look through the big end of a telescope, or when you look into a convex mirror you see objects diminished, and it is just so, when the devil presents your own faults and your own imperfections. It is then, Latter-day Saints, that you doubt; it is then that you feel miserable, and it is then that you are almost ready to apostatize and deny the faith (JD 3:299-307).

  42. It seems to me that it was Toscano’s complete lack of doubt in himself that led him right out of the church. He was so sure he knew what those in charge should be doing that he loudly proclaimed it to the world in a manner that priesthood leaders, rightly or wrongly, found irreverent and insulting. Perhaps you could look at this as a cautionary tale from one who traveled that path. I like the part in John Dehlin’s interview where he notes that Toscano is “kind of a fundamentalist.” Classic.

  43. 40 – Fine, Frank McIntyre, just pull the scripture card on us! :P (It’s like pulling the Jesus card; you can’t go against it!)

    As far as this book goes, I think I’ll skip it, mostly due to time constraints, and wanting to read something that will uplift me spiritually than read someone bashing on one of my apostles. No matter what else good might be in that book, I don’t think I’d want to spend time and money on that. I might pick up one of his other books, eventually, but probably not this one.

  44. Let’s see — a book by Paul Toscano that is about himself, reflects upon himself and focuses on himself in a self-absorbed act of narcissism screaming “I am still here!” Yep, sounds light vintage Toscano.

  45. Matt Thurston says:

    Nice review. I look forward to reading this.

    Neither of you really commented on Toscano as a prose stylist. The “money quote” on the back of the book is classic Toscano and reminds me of dozens of other such PT quotes that always make me shake my head with envy and admiration.

    Finally, Toscano’s anger, narcissism, persecution complex, and even fundamentalism are obvious. Often these tendencies are even acknowledged by the author himself. I guess I like these shortcomings. They make Toscano human and interesting/provocative and even, dare I say, loveable.

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