Black and White and Gray All Over

Discussing loss of faith always proves to be controversial. Not only brazen statements about loss of faith, as we have seen recently, meet with no small degree of umbrage, but also much more muted attempts to explore the topic seem to provoke indignation even as to terminology used.

One observation that I have made in the back and forth between believers and ex-believers is that, although it might seem counter-intuitive, those who maintain their belief in (testimony of) the Gospel through the hardships of life, theodicy-related doubts and evidence-related doubts, and developments in policy and doctrines often display a certain resiliency of belief. This resiliency or flexibility seems to flow from a solid conviction in underlying principles in general terms and expresses itself in relation to dogma and policy. From this view, the life/culture/policies of the Church are experienced as an overlay on these general underlying principles, which form the core of the Gospel. From what I can tell, these general principles approximate the standard set of beliefs most members list in their testimonies on Fast Sunday: God loves us; Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the World; Joseph Smith was a latter-day prophet of God called to restore the Gospel; the Book of Mormon is a tangible fruit of the Prophet Joseph Smith and a powerful witness of Jesus Christ; God calls living prophets to guide the Church today. The edifice of the Church rests upon these principles but can change in appearance or practice from time to time without any implication for the underlying principles, much like an old, cherished building being remodeled, whether incrementally or in large phases, without affecting the foundation beneath the building.

In essence, I suggest that members who retain their faith/belief often do so by taking a nuanced view of Church life and policy — seeing many aspects of how culture or policy apply to real life situations as falling into a gray area that their flexible faith is able to accommodate.

By contrast, I have observed ex-believers saying that members of the Church view things as black and white and that things are really gray. But in taking this approach, I have seen some ex-believers attribute black and white type of beliefs to members of the Church that very few, if any, believing members actually hold. One example among several that I have personally witnessed within just the last year on blogs and forums is the argument that because members of the Church believe in prophets (i.e. as noted above, they believe in the underlying principle of a living prophet and apostles guiding the Church through revelation/inspiration), that they therefore believe that everything the prophet says must be direct revelation or that those called to those positions are infallible. Although there is perhaps far too much mystification of our Church leaders by many believing members, I must say I don’t know many — if any — who actually believe that the leaders are infallible or that everything they say must be revelation. This is not to say that most believing members don’t accord enormous respect and deference to them based on their respect for the offices they hold, to the extent of strictly obeying or incorporating even statements that realistically speaking are recognizable as life advice or personal preferences. It also does not ignore the fact that each member must and does navigate the tricky territory of sorting that which is inspiration and revelation in the statements of Church leaders from life advice or opinions (which can also be inspired and worth special attention) on their own. In this sense, far from being limited to a black and white view of things, believing members are quite adept at negotiating the gray areas of life and our relationship with God through his Church.

I have often wondered, in reading and/or hearing scathing criticisms and mockeries of the Church in which this approach is sometimes taken, what the purpose of attributing such views to believing members could be. One possibility, of course, is that it is done in bad faith in a deliberate use of a straw man that can easily be knocked down. I suspect this has been the motivation in some of the instances I have witnessed.

Another possibility is that perhaps this is done in good faith and is a result of the fact that the ex-believers making those claims did indeed take that view themselves when they were believers. Now that they no longer believe, they perhaps attribute this black-and-white view to those who still believe and then criticize or ridicule it. It is worth asking, however, whether taking such a inflexible view on matters of belief could itself have been a factor contributing to loss of faith or a decision not to believe.

I read one quick and dirty expression of this effect by a FAIR contributer (Dave Keller) a couple of years ago that noted the role that a lack of flexibility in matters of faith can play in this process:

[Some Ex-Mormons] might cling to things they were taught in their youth, even though such things were simplifications of a more complex, abstract truth. Faithfulness is then judged on how rigidly those earlier, youthful beliefs are maintained and there is failure to separate the baby [from] the bathwater. Because this particular type of Mormon can’t adapt or modify belief when complex, non-faith promoting facts are learned they can’t cope. They might lose trust in the Mormon church because it emphasizes uplifting, devotional material, sometimes at the expense of missed opportunites to prepare a member for intellectual challenges. For those that can’t bend, there is a breaking point and the fall from Mormonism can be rough. At best that can only be part of the story, but even I feel my inner fundamentalist acting up some times when I learn new things.

I think that one must have a flexible faith to maintain belief — when a solid conviction in the underlying principles is coupled with a flexible approach, the challenges of faith can be greatly diminished.

Comments

  1. tiredmormon says:

    Sounds a lot like truthiness

    I can understand that if we though Joseph was perfect that we ought to lighten up, but at some point facts do matter.

  2. Bravo, John. Excellent post. You’ve articulated my sentiments in ways I’ve been unable to. You could even take it one step further and touch on the frustration members have with each other over what exactly is gray, and what’s black & white. While we’re largely in the same vicinity, I sometimes find the most interesting contrasts.

  3. I’m a little hesitant to generalize without some real demographic data, but I have met a number of former believers that fit this description quite well.

  4. Fowles,
    Brazen?!? Pistols at dawn!

  5. John C. (#4),

    Come on, John, don’t be obtuse. Facts like, if you watch R-rated movies reefer is soon to follow.

  6. I agree, David T. Too much time with reefer will probably keep you at odds with the church.

  7. I’m in agreement with Stapley, that the folks I am closest to that have left the church seem to struggle with an inflexibility, and how to deal with issues I clearly see as gray areas myself. In particular, they seem most troubled by the mistakes and errors (sometimes perceived, other times real) committed by leaders and general authorities. Either these individuals are inspired, or they are not, seems to be the idea.

    I think we compound this ourselves. I perhaps have been too fond of quoting CS Lewis, for example, out of context here: Either the Gospel, if true, is of utmost importance, or if false, of no importance. It is never of only some importance.

    While I believe that myself, it’s practical application is much more nuanced. We rarely ever get to deal in absolutes exclusively. Any thoughts on how this might apply to individuals themselves, ie I have sinned/lost faith/made a mistake, therefore I can never be part of this completely again?

  8. What’s the difference, John, between what you’re describing and a sense of intellectual/emotional honesty?

  9. john f.,

    Very interesting post. My perception (probably a long way from your intent) is that you are trying to write a more PC post on the nature of belief than John C. was able to accomplish with his “If you lose your faith…” post. I think that all this will accomplish is another 100 or so posts on the nature of belief, and the underlying neurobiology and neuropsychology of faith/belief.

    You state:

    I think that one must have a flexible faith to maintain belief — when a solid conviction in the underlying principles is coupled with a flexible approach, the challenges of faith can be greatly diminished.

    I am not sure what “flexible faith” is particularly given the repeated statements of President Hinckley similar to the following response (http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/hinckley.html):

    Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently.

    There is no flexibility allowed when it comes to the “underlying principles” of the LDS church. You generalize fairly liberally in your post, but for almost every ex-mo, DAMU, NOM, etc. that I know (which is a small sample), it is the whole “JS as a prophet” principle that begins the dissafection. The rest is icing on the cake.

    Lastly, when you state:

    In essence, I suggest that members who retain their faith/belief often do so by taking a nuanced view of Church life and policy — seeing many aspects of how culture or policy apply to real life situations as falling into a gray area that their flexible faith is able to accommodate.

    I believe that your comment is true for active members and lurkers on the bloggernacle, FAIR, and FARMS, etc. However, when the rubber meets the road, it has been my experience that for the majority of the members of the church (at least the non-academic, non-urban wards I have lived in) it really is a black and white world. The ideas, history, and theology so freely discussed in the above forums and in Sunstone, Dialogue, BYU Studies, and the Journal of Mormon History, just to name a few, are far removed from their lives.

  10. Can I say that one of the difficult aspects of being a faithful member of the church is the other faithful members who are rigid and inflexible? I find that our faithful sisters and brothers can be at least as harsh as any ex-Mormon when they find that I (or others in the faith) hold to the fundamental principles John F. spells out above in somewhat different ways than they do. And when this kind of inflexibility and harassment comes from those within our community, it is more painful than when it comes from without.

  11. Peter LLC says:

    It seems odd that a strong (or inflexible, if you prefer) belief in something ostensibly true would require strategies for coping with cognitive dissonance.

    Are mormons particularly susceptible to gaining a testimony of something that isn’t true, yet especially vulnerable to small doses of reality at the same time?

    I’m all for flexible approaches in principle, but I’m under no illusions that my take on “10%,” for example, would meet with wide approval. On the contrary, the best I would expect is kind of “well, it’s your salvation, brother” benign neglect.

    In other words, sure, be flexible if you have to, just keep it to yourself because there is no legitimate mechanism for exempting yourself from current church norms (although these may vary somewhat).

  12. I certainly wouldn’t be able to put a number to it, but in my experience nearly everyone I have met and spoken with who has fallen away/lost faith, etc had moral issues prior to them “leaving” the church. Those that are firm in their decisions usually point to whatever issue they can find to justify their leaving. False prophet, etc.

    Now your underlying thesis sounds good… help people to build a better foundation for their faith.

  13. John f.
    Great post. I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between the two groups (if their really are 2 groups–knowing full well there are a lot of people inbetween, and where you are as far as faith goes can change on a moment to moment basis), especially in light of John C’s post. It think you’ve expressed well what seems to be true to me too.
    I know in my own family, those that have left the church do see things black and white. They do try to apply that paradigm to those of us who haven’t lost faith–and are perplexed when we don’t see things black and white–or agree with them on so many things, yet it doesn’t change our own decision to believe.

  14. #3 – Exactly.

    I would like to see some survey data, but the one common denominator of most of the people I have known who have left the Church is a black-and-white absolutist view in general. (or specific issues with a particular policy, like homosexuality – I am not addressing those instances with this comment.) I have seen it in kids with parents who fit this description and with converts who come into the Church with this perspective. I think it’s much more complicated that just that, but I think inflexibility will lead to either incredibly difficult struggles or a refusal to even consider different perspectives. In my experience, what it produces is either DAMU-fodder or simplistic generalizations, stereotypes and denial by members, since it essentially leads one to not be able to accept what one can’t understand – hence, a loss of *faith*.

    Summary: I believe faith is exercised in the gray area.

  15. Can we pretty please drop the canard that sinful people leave the church? I know plenty of sinful people who stay in it so I don’t see that as a significant factor in one’s ability/decision/likelihood to believe.

  16. Peter LLC says:

    but in my experience nearly everyone I have met and spoken with who has fallen away/lost faith, etc had moral issues prior to them “leaving” the church.

    I’ll go toe to toe with anecdotes of members with “moral issues” that fell away for unrelated reasons, didn’t blame Brigham Young’s racism at any point and eventually came back active members.

  17. Ray, I agree that survey data are necessary. My hunch is that the majority of Mormons in all categories — active, inactive, ex-Mormon, etc. — have something like the inflexible worldview being described here. If I’m right, then this particular version of inflexibility isn’t necessarily a cause of becoming an ex-Mormon, but rather a common trait among Mormons more generally.

    However, this trait would obviously be distinctly uncommon among liberal, intellectual Mormons — maybe we could argue that flexibility in this sense is a prerequisite for being that kind of Mormon.

  18. Kari-
    It seems to me that ‘JS was a prophet’ beginning dissaffection is precisely the black and white paradigm that is troubling. Why don’t they think he was a prophet? Dissaffected members will usually list x, y or z– It is black and white to them what a prophet is. They don’t want to see any gray in his life.

  19. #10 – JNS, you nailed what I see as a lack of faith among many members – seen in the opposite side of the DAMU coin. The one refuses to accept gray areas and leaves; the other refuses even to consider gray areas and stays – continuing the tendency to refuse to consider gray areas among their kids.

    In both cases, it is faith that is lost – or not gained in the first place.

  20. Excellent comments, John.

    I have found a pervasive streak within those who leave the Church over issues of belief: fundamentalism. When individuals believe so strongly in the black/white model, and something comes along to challenge that, they experience cognitive dissonance. Resolving the dissonance requires either becoming more flexible in their beliefs (as you rightly recommend) or bolting.

    Sometimes this means they find a religious outlet to express their fundamentalism (e.g., in polygamous groups), or they reject the gospel wholesale and then accuse those who remain of being fundamentalist themselves.

    The problem, of course, is that there are a significant number of believing Mormons who haven’t had that paradigm shift yet, and so teach and preach fundamentalism, unaware that there are others who are struggling with gray areas or who are no longer so rigid. It’s particularly difficult when these individuals are in positions of leadership.

    Some of the best leaders and teachers I have had taught me to read widely and be open to new ideas. If only more Mormons could have such mentors.

  21. Peter LLC says:

    It is black and white to them what a prophet is.

    So are you saying one is unlikely to recognize a prophet when one sees one? Do bright line rules have any place in the gospel, or is it just a confusing maze of balancing tests?

    Choose the right? Whoah, hang on, give me a sec, or about 18 months…lemme get back to you on that.

  22. #15 – May I second that plea. There is perhaps nothing more damaging to a sincere member facing doubts and waffling with activity than to have that struggle incorrectly attributed to “moral problems” or “sin”. Based on my own experience, more times than not, it simply isn’t so.

  23. My experience is that there are several types of people one encounters in the ex-Mormon community.

    Ultra-Orthodox and emotionally rigid youths who had their bubbles burst and are now extremely angry and bitter at the Church do seem to be one type of ex-Mormon one encounters online. And they tend to be just as obnoxious as unbelievers as they probably were as believers.

    But that’s only one sort of personality-type. There are others.

  24. Randy B. says:

    JNS (#10),

    Amen brother!

  25. I think one issue is that inflexibility is ultimately quite fragile, so if one’s attachment to Mormonism is mediated by an inflexible faith, it is more likely to rupture under stress. As a consequence, those people who have left after a rupture of inflexible faith are more likely to resent the inflexible Mormonism they left behind. They’re not being disingenuous or constructing a rhetorical strawman, they’re reacting angrily to the Mormonism they inhabited before their departure. People with a more flexible faith, when they do leave, don’t tend to be that interested in arguing about Mormonism’s flaws so are less visible in paracommunities like what we apparently designate DAMU.

    That said, JNS is right that there are in fact practicing Mormons who are dramatically inflexible and who do at times make those with flexible faith feel unwelcome. I remember, quite clearly, a young inspirational videosalesman visiting an EQ class I was teaching in the Boston area rebuking me strenuously for suggesting that the Word of Wisdom serves to increase our coherence as a community and that if we rely on pseudo-scientism for our belief in the Word of Wisdom we may find ourselves disappointed. I couldn’t quite tell whether he kept his right arm elevated during the harangue because he was trying to officially rebuke me or was just so angry that he had lost control of his limbs.

  26. and jf the psychology crew would likely characterize your group as attempting to minimize cognitive dissonance rather than having a peculiar flexibility of belief. being an anti-freudian, i’m not all that persuaded, but that is a broader context for this discussion.

  27. re # 8, Steve, I am not sure I understand what you are asking. Are you referring to the same type of intellectual humility that was urged by Hugh Nibley?

    smb and others — point taken about the decided inflexibility of some believers. For some reason, though, in writing this post, I kept coming back to the idea of the body of the Church being more like a bell curve than a billy club with the majority of members in the curve, in the middle, with a flexible faith as described above, so that theodicy, evidence issues, developments and policies don’t particularly bother them. Underneath all that, I suspect that smb is right in that this is really an approach to dealing with cognitive dissonance, although my guess is that most of the believers I am describing don’t think in terms of cog diss but rather view it as continually learning the lessons of life, as informed by the underlying foundational principles of their faith.

    JNS, perhaps you are a great example of someone with a flexible faith — actually, this is surely the case. Now, does the unfortunate fact that other believers have apparently criticized your approach mean that their own faith is not internally flexible?

  28. JNS (#10), thank you. True that.

  29. I’ll try to explain better. It seems to me inflexible people list amongst the criterion for prophet a man who doesn’t get angry, have more than one wife, etc. They may not consciously do this, but nonetheless it is what fits a prophet for them. So when they read that JS got angry or had several wives-he no longer fits that criterion, therefore can’t be a prophet.
    As far as what a prophet in traditional textbook sense, my good friend follows faithfully this guy. Mormons don’t have a monopoly on latter day prophets.

  30. John F., obviously it’s hard to say — but when criticisms against people (usually not me personally) are explicitly based on those people being too flexible, it seems like evidence. My point was basically identical to that of smb, which you evidently accept.

    I agree that the church is a distribution of some kind (maybe not a bell curve per se; who knows), and it’s possible that the central tendency of the distribution is toward the kind of flexibility you describe. I’d just note that it’s quite possible that the central tendency is quite different, and it’s at least reasonable to imagine that the central tendency might be a black-and-white faith. As Kari notes in comment #9, our church does produce some rhetoric that tends in a black-and-white direction, and I think there’s ample anecdotal evidence that such perspectives do exist in our community. So I guess it’s just premature to conclude that flexibility is the majority stance — or, for that matter, that it isn’t.

  31. I am mostly a bloggernacle lurker, and wannabe “Gray”. I just haven’t seen much tolerance for this kind of “flexible faith” expressed by church leaders in my lifetime (27 years old). The Ensign is still putting out passive-aggressive anti-evolution articles. Teachings of the Prophets manuals leave out huge amounts of context and teachings inconvenient to the churches current emphases. Other manuals leave no room for non-literal interpretation for unlikely ancient events. For goodness sake, we whisper in our kids ears to coach them in their testimony that they “know” that the church is true and the JS is a prophet! This a church that wants to perpetuate a membership with B&W views on complicated religious questions.
    You just don’t see church leadership icons with a “gray” gospel view anymore – in fact, there seems to be a tendency to prevent the “gray” members from gaining too much influence at all. They keep a tight ship over at church headquarters. Maybe one day that will change, but I don’t know how that would happen without alienating the vast majority of members who have grown up under the “truth or huge fraud” paradigm.

  32. kwk, I think it depends on where you live. Still, the “truth or huge fraud” issue is unrelated.

  33. “You just don’t see church leadership icons with a “gray” gospel view anymore”

    You never did.

    But still, anti-evolution articles in the Ensign? Methinks you’re overstating a tad, kwk. The complaints about the Teachings of the Presidents series are also oft-heard but in my opinion miss the mark as well. They simply aren’t an effort at being historical texts at all, just quotation books and little more.

  34. I’ve often thought church would be way more fun if I still smoked pot. Mmmm, potlucks! Endless munchies! Fast & testimony hilarity! Really, stuff that’s just dumb or adequate could be rendered hilarious or exquisite with a j of southern ohio homegrown…

  35. Steve, the manuals do dress as historical texts, though. Might that sort of textual cross-dressing be a kind of violation of the spirit of the Family Proclamation?

  36. mmiles (#18/29) – I am not sure as to the criteria that members, of whatever ilk, use to define what prophet means to them. And I’m not even sure I can adequately address your question. At some point everyone’s view will boil down to a binary yes/no as to whether JS was a prophet. Maybe those with “flexible faith” are simply saying “I believe that JS is a prophet, no matter what.” That’s not really flexible, now is it? It again boils down to why some people, given the same evidence, choose to believe and others don’t.

    john f. (#27),
    Your idea of a bell curve would be appropriate if the great mass in the middle were thinking and discussing the issues that are being discussed by those at the tail ends of the curve. But I just don’t think they are. Cognitive dissonance just doesn’t apply to those members. No matter what we think about ourselves, the folks actively involved in the bloggernacle and other outlets just aren’t representative of the majority of church members. The flexibility of most members in “continually learning the lessons of life” are not learning to deal with mountain meadows massacre, JS’s polyandry, multiple versions of the first vision, “translation” via seerstone, Adam-God theory, Blood Atonement, Blacks & priesthood, etc. The “lessons of life” for the great middle of the bell curve are how to deal with the death of a loved one, rebellious children, maintaining faith and belief in light of genocide in Africa or hurricane Katrina, showing more charity to those jack-ass ex-mormons :) and stuff like that. That’s where the flexible faith comes in, dealing with those things. It’s where, imo, the church, and its members, have their strength – comforting those that need to be comforted, mourning with those that mourn, bearing one another’s burdens, and learning patience, long-suffering, and charity.

  37. In #36 I am using “choose” in the broadest sense of the word. I do not mean to start another re-hashing of the previous choice discussion. I should have just some people, given the same evidence, believe and other don’t.

  38. Other manuals leave no room for non-literal interpretation for unlikely ancient events.

    That’s primarily the Old Testament, and we should expect some changes, at the very least in tone, in the next Institute manuals.

    As for gray, check out the instructions to people who teach in BYU’s Rel.Ed. department. (These have been there for at least 5 years. I can’t speak to before that.)

    Teaching in Religious Education is to be substantive and inspirational. Students should become familiar with the text studied in each course taken and learn the implications of the text for daily living. They should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith. Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church. Teachers should be models of the fact that one can be well trained in a discipline, intellectually vigorous, honest, critical, and articulate, and at the same time be knowledgeable and fully committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, His Church and Kingdom, and His appointed servants.

    I’m fully in agreement with the OP. Nice expression, John.

  39. JNS: hee! No, you’re right, they’re quote books in historical clothing, which might be perceived as disingenuous. I see it as more likely just the watered-down results of a committee.

  40. The Lord never told us to worship His church. In my opinion this is where many LDS err (2 Nephi 28:14).

    I keep hearing people say, “I know the church is true”, but that isn’t what what we’re supposed to “know”. Right from the get go, when baptized we’re commanded to “receive the Holy Ghost”. Until we receive the Holy Ghost, at least for the most part, we are working with the light of Christ. As church members we have the right to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost. With the Holy Ghost we move along a will defined path in things of the spirit and the things of the church.

    The reality of this problem in todays church was driven home in our last Stake Conference when Elder Packer said,

    “I recently asked a Stake President what the biggest problem in his Stake was. The Stake President replied, Programs and activities of the church are becoming a substitute for testimonies.”

    When church member receive the Holy Ghost and grows in the things of the spirit they have significant “spiritual experiences”. These experiences, at least for the vast majority, cause them to become grounded and rooted in the kingdom, and no amount of contrary evidence from “faith stealer’s” can cause them to lose their faith.

  41. The “lessons of life” for the great middle of the bell curve are how to deal with the death of a loved one, rebellious children, maintaining faith and belief in light of genocide in Africa or hurricane Katrina, showing more charity to those jack-ass ex-mormons and stuff like that. That’s where the flexible faith comes in, dealing with those things. It’s where, imo, the church, and its members, have their strength – comforting those that need to be comforted, mourning with those that mourn, bearing one another’s burdens, and learning patience, long-suffering, and charity.

    Well said.
    As to your first point, no. It really isn’t more flexible, maybe even more rigid. Maybe it comes down to where our flexibility lies? and wether or not it is in the ‘right’ places to maintain faith, ot at least faithfulness.

  42. By “truth or huge fraud”, I just meant the black/white view of the church and it’s teachings – kind of an all or nothing attitude.

    Re: manuals – they might not claim to be an all encompassing histories, but I think for the majority of members in my neck of the woods they serve as their only source for church history. Members are taught to read the scriptures daily, not study church history. Maybe in a couple years we’ll actually study “History of the Church” in EQ though, so who knows.

    And although certain Ensign articles might not focus on the creation question, I’ve just gotten an anti-evolution vibe from some recent statements, and I’m not alone. I think it’s pretty telling that the adamant anti-evolutionist BKP is often the one speaking when this topic is brought up.

    But Steve is are right, I never had the “gray” mentor (N. Idaho must be lacking in that area). I really haven’t read Madsen, or Bennion, or England; I go to church, and watch GC, and read the church publications. I guess my main point is that it was and is hard for me to view flexible faith as an option from this standpoint. The bloggernacle has made me re-think that maybe there is a place for me in the church though.

  43. As to the “cross dressing” manuals, we have seen an improvement, I believe, from the earliest ones to the current JS version.

    I do recall seeing something, somewhere, vaguely official, relating to teaching from the manuals, that they were not texts on the Presidents themselves, but only addressed what the Presidents of the Church taught about certain subjects. As such, they were not intended to be comprehensive histories or biographies.

    So, the historical dressing might be perceived, but it appears to be pretty thin. Great comment, though, JNS!

  44. Thin, cross-dressing clothing: Thanks a lot, Kevinf, for that visual!

  45. kwk,

    If you can get your hands on it, a good “gray” text is “A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars”, edited by Philip Barlow.

    I’ve just about worn out my copy over the years, and it has been a huge help.

    Another good book is “Dialogues with Myself”, by Eugene England, which is now out of print, but the text is available online at Signature Books.

    Better than Glucosamine for flexibility!

  46. kwk-
    The bloggernacle has made me re-think that maybe there is a place for me in the church though.

    Look around you. I pretty much assume that my ward and stake are full of my brothers and sisters who share as many differing opinions as I see expressed in the ‘nacle. They just don’t talk about it at church, just like we may not.

  47. Ray, the law of unintended consequences strikes again!

  48. kwk, don’t despair on Mormonism’s flexibility based on what you find in Moscow. There’s room for lots of different folks in the Church.

  49. kwk, Elder Hafen addresses the gray somewhat in an old Ensign article, since reprinted elsewhere. (Not sure if one is longer or edited.) Hafen, “Dealing with Uncertainty.”

    And though not a GA, Carlfred Broderick’s “The Core of My Faith” is an excellent essay on the topic.

  50. Someone in the ward is going through a faith crisis right now, mostly because of this flexibility issue. A very cool past stake president wondered if there were anything the church (or an individual bishop or stake president) should be doing for people going through a stage 4-like challenge to their faith…some way to send the message “There is a place for you at church.” A monthly support group overseen by the bishop but with a hand-picked teacher? But would the meeting seem like a group of elite doubters? Are we still not supposed to organize our own study groups (outside the bloggernacle)?

  51. I remember when Bushman’s RSR came out, hearing several member acquaintances ask if they would recommend it or not, based on the possibility that it may “hurt their faith”. I think mmiles is correct in that many in the church have an incorrect expectation of what a prophet is. And when facts are presented that challenge the paradigm, they leave it altogether. I think there is a tendency for some (I’d say many) in the church to isolate themselves from more than cursory knowledge of Church history and the objects of their faith (Joseph Smith in particular). I think one’s testimony in Joseph Smith’s role as the prophet of the restoration needs to be strong enough to withstand his faults.

  52. This was an interesting post.

    There is perhaps nothing more damaging to a sincere member facing doubts and waffling with activity than to have that struggle incorrectly attributed to “moral problems” or “sin”. Based on my own experience, more times than not, it simply isn’t so.

    Of course we should never make blanket statements about the specific kinds of things that ‘must’ be driving someone’s decisions or struggles (for example, it’s silly to assume that everyone who leaves the church committed some moral sin because we know that isn’t true, and there are boatloads of us who could attest to that fact). I know why comments like this are made because too often generalizations are made that can be hurtful, and we of course want to be loving and careful and kind to those who struggle.

    But imo, it’s also inaccurate and potentially harmful to say that people don’t leave the church because of sin. Of course they do. I say that so bluntly because anytime *any* of us chooses to turn away from light in *any* way, shape, or form (which we *all* do, on a regular basis: we stop praying or don’t pray as much as we should (think of the brother of Jared and how the Lord really got after him for neglecting prayer), we are unkind or impatient, we don’t seek for or have the faith we should, we rely on our own strength rather than on God, we doubt for a second, we forget God for a moment, we waste an hour of time, we lose our temper or are critical, even a little, etc. etc. etc), it is a form of sin. We should not be so afraid of that realization, of that word, for it is our sinfulness (which is a part of ALL of us thanks to the fall) that can help any and all of us realize our need for the Savior. It’s better to realize that sooner than later, no? “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [Jesus Christ] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).

    What I would want for anyone who is struggling is to find and feel the Savior’s love and healing power, and the way for that to happen is not to be paralyzed by guilt with the realization of sinfulness (again, we are all sinners, so we all need that regular realization) but simply to realize absolute dependence on Him and His mighty power to help, guide, forgive, and save. All He asks is for us to repent — to turn to Him, to turn to the light. This isn’t a club to beat people with — it’s a glorious doctrine to share when we feel so inspired. People can come to Christ by degrees out of the Church, too, and we should rejoice in any efforts of anyone in or out of the Church to invite more light into their lives (it’s a process for all of us!). But we shouldn’t act as though anything but fully coming to Christ and always staying there (where obviously none of us is, yet) is anything less than a fruit of sinfulness at some level, even if the sin is not of a drastic, moral nature. All sin and come short of the glory of God. That we know. And I think that could humble us all a bit more, whether in or out of the Church!

    It’s no wonder why those of us who are in the Church are constantly being reminded of the basics that help keep us in the light and are warned of the things (“small” and “large” sins alike) that remove us from the light, and it’s why those who have left are lovingly invited to come back. Leaving the covenant is turning away from light (even if the specific levels of light that people turn away from may vary — part of why we can’t make final judgments on such choices) and I think too often, in an effort to try to not offend, we try to gloss over that fact. But in the end, that need not be threatening, because we all turn away from the light whenever we goof, and we all do. Maybe we could do a better job really understanding and teaching that doctrine — that realization of our sinfulness should not paralyze but rather help us find Christ’s power and grace.

    Again, I will emphasize that of course that should never be used as a club, either — I’m not advocating going around telling people who have left (or those who stay, for that matter) how sinful they are. When someone has left, we seek to be loving and supportive, to share thoughts and feelings (and make invitations) as the Spirit directs — but often, it’s just to love and support and pray for them — to try to be vehicles (weak though we are) of the Savior’s love. But — I know I’m repeating myself, but I think it’s important — let’s not pretend that those who leave are somehow immune from sin or its consequences, or that sin hasn’t contributed to their choice to leave, because it’s simply not true. All fall short of the glory of God. That’s why there is a Savior.

    The wonder of it all is that any of us can turn back to the light at anytime; it’s up to us whether we will choose to do that. We may not always choose all of our feelings or circumstances, but we can choose to turn to Christ, and He is there, ready to help us with any effort we make toward that end, regardless of our current status with regard to the Church.

  53. Whoa. That was long. Sorry.

  54. I think in some cases the attribution of black and white thinking to faithful chuch members is projection.

  55. As a 29 year old member of the church I will concur that the black and white mentality is what we learn from church itself. We are taught from infancy in a black and white religion which is why it isn’t that hard to understand why those who leave the church are ones that can’t figure out how to make sense of the church history/doctrine that do not measure up to the black and white view that they were taught at church.
    Maybe some of you here have been able to do that. Maybe you have been able to figure out a way to make sense of Joseph Smith’s many versions of the First Vision and his many wives that were also married to other men! Maybe you were able to make sense of Brigham Young and his blasphemous and racist teachings. Maybe you can make sense of the completely different looking church that we have today compared to the church that existed well over 150 years ago… Maybe you can understand the changing doctrine of the nature of God that Joseph taught and the conflicting stories of how Joseph actually ‘translated’ The Book of Mormon. Maybe you can make sense of the sexist and racist teachings and the separations of families… all in the name of eternal families. Maybe you can understand why our women in the church are down trodden and depressed more often than their non-member peers. Maybe you can make sense of that. I am still trying to figure it out in my black and white world view… a view that I learned at my church…. where I was taught to “Choose the Right” and that I learned from an early age to bear my testimony and say “I KNOW that Joseph Smith is a true prophet” long before I even understood what that meant.
    Those who claim that the people who have left the church do so because they have had some morality problem don’t know very many people that have left the church. I was taught from childhood that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the truth of the gospel rests on that one fact. Everything else rises or falls on that one teaching. How can you accuse those who leave of not being able to think in grey areas when the entire church is built on something that can not be a gray area and is never and has never been taught as so? How many of you here learned about Joseph Smith’s many versions of the First Vision at church? Why not?

  56. Name (required) says:

    The flexibility vs. black and white issue is real, but the argument could be made that it is the church that sees things as black and white and the ‘unbelievers’ that see things flexibly.

    If you believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, but you also believe that mohammad and others were prophets, you have ‘flexible’ view of a prophet. But this view doesn’t fit into the more black and white church view that only Joseph Smith and successors are true prophets.

    If you believe that the book of mormon is inspired fiction, you have a ‘flexible’ view of scriptures. But this view doesn’t fit into the more black and white church view.

    Similar ideas on women and the priesthood and homosexuality could be considered ‘flexible’ rather than ‘black and white’.

    I think that some people start to take more flexible views of things and then are somewhat rejected by the church and/or church culture for having these flexible ideas.

    Is it the church or is it the ‘unbelievers’ that are stuck in a black and white view of the world?

  57. m&m, I don’t disagree with much of what you just wrote, but …

    I think your second full paragraph confuses sin and transgression. The point of the Atonement is that those things that are outside our ability to control completely (including, I believe, some of the genetic, physiological, emotional things with which we struggle and simply can’t seem to conquer fully in this life) are covered by His sacrifice. We are saved from those effects of the Fall; we are redeemed from the cost of their existence when we did not choose them.

    I don’t like “blaming” people for the characteristics they inherited and did not choose, and I have seen WAY too much of that in the Church. (Frankly, I see this recognition behind the Church’s new stance and statements on homosexuality.) We need to pursue perfection, but we need to stop calling people sinners for failing to be perfect (complete, whole, fully developed). Yes, we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God in this life, but adding our transgressions to our list of sins is a burden we shouldn’t be asked to carry. What constitutes sin and transgression for each individual person, imo, is part of the grayness we are discussing – and generalizing every mistake we make as “sin” . . . I just don’t see it that way.

  58. bookwormmama, I don’t know what to tell you except that virtually every student of Mormon studies has encountered the issues you describe (although I’d quibble with the negativity of some of them). Some leave the Church, but many stay and are happy. I know I am. The reality of the Church is complex, but it’s also wonderful. The members are, in my experience, amazing people seeking to succor each other. The ordinances of the Church are imbued with real power. Virtually everything I hear week in and week out is designed to help people come together and be more like Christ.

    Historical issues can be difficult, there’s no question. And it’s true that we don’t teach the complexities of faith to our children very well. But I’d say that those who can only see messy history and confusion are missing out on some real joys. The ability to savor Mormon life has been a great resource when I am troubled by things I don’t understand.

  59. #55-
    Being raised in the church, I never felt that I was being taught that it was black and white. I feel like I was taught it was gray. I have a sister 13 months my junior who feels the opposite-she has always taken it as black and white.
    I don’t know who you are referring to when you say “our women” and describe these women that apparently you claim as yours to some degree, as down trodden. I do not feel that way as a woman in the church, and know only a handful personally of the tens of women I do know, that feel this sentiment. Cognitive dissonance indeed.

  60. #56: …”If you believe that the book of mormon is inspired fiction, you have a ‘flexible’ view of scriptures.”

    Following your analogies,

    If you believe that Jesus was just a man, you have a ‘flexible’ view of Christ.

    If you believe that scriptural commandments are just society’s expression of a moral code, you have a ‘flexible’ view of them.

    If you believe that God is wishful delusion, you have a ‘flexible’ view of Deity.

    Name, you’re abusing the concept of flexibility. Flexibility doesn’t equate to disbelief.

  61. #56-
    Allow me to flexible:

    If you believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, but you also believe that mohammad and others were prophets, you have ‘flexible’ view of a prophet. But this view doesn’t fit into the more black and white church view that only Joseph Smith and successors are true prophets.

    Does the church see it that black and white? I’m not certain that is the case. It seems pretty gray to me :)

  62. One of Truman Madsen’s daughters worked at the Harvard Freshman Dean’s Office. One of her co-workers made a comment one day about how oppressed Mormon women are. This is my recollection of the conversation, as she related it to me:

    You know I’m Mormon right?

    Yes.

    Do you know any other Mormon women?

    No.

    Am I oppressed?

    No, but you are the exception.

    Again, an area where personal perception influences the “grayness” of a particular issue.

  63. Steve, #48: Whoa, did I give away Moscow somehow, or was that just a lucky guess? That’s a little scary…

    Anyway, I really appreciate this post and the comments. After a little reflection, I can’t help but be a little more sympathetic to church’s (or church culture’s?) black/white indoctrination approach. There might be something to being taught the black/white gospel view formally and dealing with the complexities on a more personal level.

  64. Steve Evans says:

    kwk, I agree (and where else in ID should one be from? Coeur d’Alene? pffft).

  65. bookwormmama, I don’t know what to tell you except that virtually every student of Mormon studies has encountered the issues you describe (although I’d quibble with the negativity of some of them). Some leave the Church, but many stay and are happy. I know I am.

    -Steve, thanks. This is what I was trying to say… some people have figured out how to make sense of it and some people haven’t. How those others stay and are happy I would like to know. What is their magic formula? Seriously I want to know. I am trying as hard as I can and find it difficult to make my heart go along and feel something while my brain disagrees with and knows that all I am being taught at church is not the ‘whole’ truth… because now I know it isn’t all black and white and we are still taught at church that it is…

  66. Steve #60, I’m not sure believing in the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction equates to disbelief, either. If you’re sincere about the “inspired” part.

  67. bookwormmama, (if you are truly sincere) there is no magic formula. I typically think education and prayer are the places to start. Some find their hearts in flux others their minds, some both. But remember that it is the Church’s job to help God’s children live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is folly to expect that it should be teaching Mormon Studies. There is plenty of ignorance to be found, but find the excellent lives of countless Mormons and recognize the hand God with them, if you cannot see it in your own life.

  68. Eric Russell says:

    The magic formula is being flexible, as John explains in the initial post. I find it rather ironic that people who are bothered by the church’s history or statements are themselves rigidly inflexible about their “flexible” beliefs.

  69. “If you are truly sincere” – Ouch.

    There isn’t a magic formula. We all make do.

  70. “There isn’t a magic formula. We all make do.”

    That is one of the most profound comments I have read on any blog. My gray area might not be anyone else’s, and my brain/heart/soul is only my own.

    My only advice: Look around at many of us and realize it’s not irreconcilable. I want this to be correct, so I find a way to figure it out. I firmly believe I can construct an intellectual argument for just about any conclusion, so I choose to construct the one that bolsters what I want to believe.

  71. I don’t like “blaming” people for the characteristics they inherited and did not choose

    Ray, I feel a bit like you are missing the point of what I was saying, because I’m not sure where you think I did that (even though the version of my comment didn’t include the perfected part, which implies the fact that it’s not fully our doing, which of course I realize and agree with).

    You said people who leave the Church often aren’t sinning. I say they are, just like the rest of us do when we do something that takes us away from light. I also recognized that each person has a different level of light that they might have (and thus have the potential to reject). I also acknowledged that we can’t make final judgments because of that (either on ourselves or on others). And of course, perfection is a process, but we should never forget that that process is fastest when within the covenant. And wrong is always wrong, even if we don’t always have full control (anger is wrong, whether it be 100% choice or partly due to biology) — and in any combination of sin and transgression, the key to be changed and to have full hope is to come to Christ and rely on Him. He will cover what we can’t control but there is an awful lot we can control, and things He can change (if gradually, and even though some of that will be beyond the veil) if we are immersed in the gospel, as Elder Bednar has so clearly taught (clean hands, pure heart, changed nature, and all of that).

    I don’t think you and I see all of that so differently, but I guess I’m not sure where you wanted to go with that relative to the post and what point I was trying to make.

  72. You can’t make gray without some black and some white. Sounds silly, but how can you create the grays you inhabit without having some kind of a canon or center that generates deep blacks and brilliant whites? I’m sympathetic with the church’s desire to generate the strong hues from which we paint our own experiences of faith. I’d rather create the grays than have an Apostle give a speech saying it’s all gray.
    If you can forgive the bizarre punctuation formating (and self-promotion), I was trying to communicate this need for blacks, whites, and grays with an early post here at BCC.

    http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2006/12/an-adult%e2%80%99s-view-of-mormon-origins/

  73. Steve Evans says:

    Jay, maybe some of the confusion arises from our starting points as to what the accepted belief set is. If you start by saying that the Church teaches the BoM to be a factual history, then the minute you use the word “fiction” for the BoM I believe you are (at least in some measure) deviating from the standard belief set. Thus you can call it unbelief, although the word has connotations far more serious than perhaps warranted by the particular example.

  74. Steve Evans says:

    That was a great post Sam.

  75. m&m, my comment was VERY narrowly focused on one paragraph – and really on just a few sentences in that paragraph that seemed to conflate transgression with sin. Otherwise, as I said, I agree with what you wrote. It’s probably semantics, but I have seen too many instances of accusations of *sin* when *sin* (willful disobedience) was not involved.

    The primary sentence in question is:

    “…anytime *any* of us chooses to turn away from light in *any* way, shape, or form (which we *all* do, on a regular basis: we stop praying or don’t pray as much as we should (think of the brother of Jared and how the Lord really got after him for neglecting prayer), we are unkind or impatient, we don’t seek for or have the faith we should, we rely on our own strength rather than on God, we doubt for a second, we forget God for a moment, we waste an hour of time, we lose our temper or are critical, even a little, etc. etc. etc), it is a form of sin.”

    Many of these things, and others like them, are NOT always sin; often they are transgression or basic, fallen weakness. Those things are paid for already by the Atonement – if we are willing to repent of our own sins and work to become more fully divine in nature.

  76. #74 – Amen. Wonderful post, Sam.

  77. Ray: Maybe this is just semantics, but what do you see as the difference between sin and transgression? If I read you correctly, you seem to say that sin is willful disobedience and that transgression is unwillful disobedience. For some reason I can’t quite wrap my brain around this difference- can you elaborate on how you see transgression and why this distinction is important?

    When I search lds.org, the most common reference to sin vs transgression is Joseph Fielding Smith’s statement regarding Adam and Eve- that their choice to partake was not a sin or inherently wrong but was a transgression or formally prohibited. Is this the same distinction that you make?

  78. Those things are paid for already by the Atonement – if we are willing to repent of our own sins and work to become more fully divine in nature.

    I don’t disagree, and I didn’t in my post. I understand your concern but I feel a bit like you are splitting hairs with me. No need to, brother. I am not one who is going to blame someone for something that is truly out of their control; I realize those forces exist. But I also think there is soooo much that we can do in spite of those things that at some point, I just want to focus on acting, not being acted upon…because in the end, I believe that is key to life and our test — to see what we will do with whatever we have been given, good and bad.

    Besides, most of what I listed really is under our control anyway, at least in the sense of process and becoming, so I still feel comfy with most of it, because most of these things we can at least improve on with the Savior’s help.

    Anyway, the whole point I was trying to make is that people who leave the Church sin, but so do those of us who stay in the Church — because we are human, we all sin (and there is transgression, too, but in the end the answer is the same. I was trying to point out that we shouldn’t feel this need to protect those who leave from the concept of their sins because we all have them and all have to face them. Take a temper, for example. Whether it be biology or choice (usually some combo), for example, that leads to a loss of temper, the key is to turn to the Savior (which is the definition of repentance), either for His forgiveness for a dumb choice or His help and mercy to overcome humanness that may still not be fully under one’s control.

    Besides, isn’t that the whole key? *Nothing* is fully under our control. Elder Bednar made this very clear. Becoming isn’t about discipline or self-control alone anyway, it’s SO dependent on the Atonement.
    (And accessing that is dependent in large measure on our choices regarding ordinances and covenants.)

  79. Left Field says:

    How many of you here learned about Joseph Smith’s many versions of the First Vision at church? Why not?

    Until recently, I would have said that I had no idea where I first learned about the various accounts of the First Vision. However, not long ago, I remembered that I had read about it in one of the church magazines. I thought it was the Ensign, but a little searching on lds.org produced the 1977 New Era article which is the article I remembered and which might have been my first introduction to the accounts of the first vision.
    As a missionary a few years later, I often showed the First Vision film that incorporates elements of at least three First Vision accounts. The New Era article (‘It was dramatic. It was true.’) and the missionary film definitely reinforced my impression that the First Vision accounts were faith-affirming and that the differing accounts supported each other and differed in exactly the ways that one would expect of honest independent accounts. It really never occurred to me that anyone might read them otherwise until a couple decades later when I started reading about them from critics who somehow found them to be problematic.

  80. John:

    Excellent post. A few of my own children are inactive, and I’ve seen them exhibit this own behavior, making stark (“black and white”) statements about the Church that certainly don’t reflect my own experience and beliefs or what they were taught at home growing up.

    One key aspect is that these same children have a relatively limited (and often mistaken or distorted) understanding of the Church and the Gospel. One daughter — who really started drifting away from the Church before she was a teenager — cites things that she claims her Primary teacher told her in expressing her objections to the Church. She clings to those things, refusing to hear or learn anything else about the Church. As Neal Maxwell (or maybe it was Truman Madsen) once observed, there really is such a thing as wishful disbelief. ..bruce..

  81. But remember that it is the Church’s job to help God’s children live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is folly to expect that it should be teaching Mormon Studies.

    I think this is such an important point.

    I love how Nephi separated out the need (under inspiration) to have all the jots and tittles of history in his record from the plain and precious saving truths that mattered most. He pointed out that those who were interested in the history could get them on his other plates (interestingly, God hasn’t seen fit to give us all of those details! — a message in and of itself in my mind that we don’t need all the historical or other details of people’s lives to know if what they are teaching is true), but God made it clear that he should focus on doctrinal truths, which is what the prophets continue to do today.

    I think there is sometimes an expectation that truth means knowing every detail, and I don’t think that is at all a helpful definition to use to figure out if the Church is true. I have found that as long as I don’t demand the Church to give me all the details (how can we expect this with so little time at church anyway?), or don’t expect it all to just be 100% clear and brain-pleasing, it’s a lot easier to just let some of the stuff I don’t understand go. Is there anyone who doesn’t have questions about polygamy, for example, or other things from history? I think most people who know about them do. But the question is what to do with them and how much emphasis to place on them.

    My experience is that the fruits of the Spirit are real and when my heart is open to them — WOW. All the other stuff sort of fades away in comparison. It’s not that the questions aren’t still there, but they are kept in perspective. The fruits of focusing on the doctrines and on the teachings of Christ and the process of coming unto Him are so rich, so delicious.

    bookwormmamma, I know you, and I know you have tasted of those fruits. I hope you can remember and hold onto how delicious they have been when you have allowed yourself to *feel* those things. I know because I have felt the sweetness from and with you when you have felt those things. Remember that faith is largely an issue of heart and the spirit, not primarily of the brain. :) Hugs.

  82. #77 – I always have understood “sin” to be different than “transgression”. “Transgression” is the broad, umbrella category of “going beyond or overstepping some boundary or limit” – in religious terms, of breaking a commandment. “Sin”, otoh, is a subset of transgression where one understands a commandment (and believes it is a legitimate commandment) and consciously chooses to break it. Therefore, a young child can transgress without sinning; a Catholic can transgress the Word of Wisdom without sinning; my retarded cousin can transgress without sinning; etc. This also means that homosexual activity, in some cases, is a transgression, while heterosexual activity, in some cases, is a sin – and vice versa. Transgressions are transgressions regardless of understanding; sins are defined by understanding.

    At the most basic level, every person transgresses and every person who is capable of understanding the validity of a limit / law / commandment sins. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all don’t do things we know we should do. The trick, imo, is knowing what things we really are capable of doing – so we know what constitutes sin for ourselves as individuals. In this light, it is almost impossible to know fully if someone else is sinning or transgressing, at the very least without knowing them fairly well. Hence, Matthew 7:1-2 — “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

    The easiest example, again, is my retarded cousin (or someone with severe dementia), since the “disability” in question is visibly obvious. Some things that are sin for me are transgressions for him. However, most (if not all) of us are not fully aware of our own “hidden disabilities” – so we are not fully aware of what actually is within our control and what is not. Therefore, all we can do is our best to understand ourselves and strive to develop the characteristics of godliness that will eliminate our weaknesses that cause our sins and transgressions.

    We have been told that we will not be punished for the natural transgressions we commit simply as a result of the Fall (our actions we don’t consciously choose, like the words my friend utters in the throes of her bi-polar disorder or my mom’s actions when her “sleeping pills” no longer worked), as a reward for the pre-existent choice we made to accept Jehovah as our Lord and Savior and Redeemer. (Iow, we won’t end up worse off as a result of our birth than we would have if we had never been born.) We also are told that our sins (incorrect *choices*) can be forgiven *as long as we accept the Lord’s redemption and strive to become like Him and our Father*. The promised forgiveness of our transgressions gave us access to a degree of glory; the offered forgiveness of our sins gives us hope for a fullness of glory. The first (forgiveness of transgression) places us above Lucifer and his followers; the second (forgiveness of sin) opens the possibility of being a joint-heir with Christ.

    I believe the Restored Gospel we currently teach broadens the gray and shrinks the black and white dramatically – particularly compared to most Protestant denominations. The black and white still exist, but most of us live and learn and struggle in the gray – forever fighting to see and understand and live correctly whatever constitutes the “true” black and white. I believe our church more clearly defines the ultimate objective FAR better than any other of which I am aware and gives us access to more light and knowledge than any other of which I am aware, but I also believe we still “see through a [grayish] glass darkly – much more than many “black-and-white-ists” believe.

  83. BTW, the Law of Moses equated transgression with sin; the Law of Christ makes the distinction and differentiates the multiple available rewards.

    (Swisster, send me an e-mail at fam7heav at juno dot com, if you want to discuss this further.)

  84. I’m too tired, as evidenced by the parenthetical comment in #83. I meant to type “Jim” but got two conversations mixed and didn’t pay attention. Sorry, Jim.

  85. From lds.org: “To commit sin is to willfully disobey God’s commandments or to fail to act righteously despite a knowledge of the truth (see James 4:17).”

    There’s a fantastic about this by Elder Oaks. Here’s a snippet:

    “For behold, they are more righteous than you, for they have not sinned against that great knowledge which ye have received; therefore the Lord will be merciful unto them; … even when thou shalt be utterly destroyed except thou shalt repent” (Hel. 7:24).

    Under this doctrine, persons who break a law that has not been given to them are not accountable for sins. Of course, all men have been given the Spirit of Christ (conscience) that they may “know good from evil” (2 Ne. 2:5; Moro. 7:16). This makes us all aware of the wrongfulness of certain conduct, such as taking a life or stealing, but it does not make men accountable for laws that need to be specifically taught, like the knowledge that had been received by the Nephites but not by the Lamanites (see Hel. 7:24). Persons who break those kinds of laws when they have not received them are guilty of mistakes that should be corrected, but they are not accountable for sins. They may suffer for their mistakes, like a smoker suffers for breaking a law of health even if he has never heard of the Word of Wisdom. There are inherent penalties in errors or mistakes, but their perpetrators should not be branded as sinners….

    We should always seek to distinguish between sins and mistakes in our own behavior and in the conduct of others. When we do so, the scriptures direct us to the proper corrective.

    Sins result from willful disobedience of laws we have received by explicit teaching or by the Spirit of Christ, which teaches every man the general principles of right and wrong. For sins, the remedy is to chasten and encourage repentance.

    Mistakes result from ignorance of the laws of God or the workings of the universe or people he has created. For mistakes, the remedy is to correct the mistake, not to condemn the individual.

    We must make every effort to avoid sin and to repent when we fall short. Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ we can be forgiven of our sins through repentance and baptism and by earnestly striving to keep the commandments of God. Being cleansed from sin, receiving forgiveness, and being reconciled with God through the Atonement of Christ is the means by which we can achieve our divine destiny as children of God.

    If we are willing to be corrected for our mistakes—and that is a big if, since many who are mistake-prone are also correction-resistant—innocent mistakes can be a source of growth and progress.

    We may suffer adversities and afflictions from our own mistakes or from the mistakes of others, but in this we have a comforting promise. The Lord, who suffered for the pains and afflictions of his people (see Alma 7:11; D&C 18:11; D&C 33:53), has assured us through his prophets that he will consecrate our afflictions for our gain (see 2 Ne. 2:2; D&C 98:3). We can learn by experience, even from our innocent and inevitable mistakes, and our Savior will help us carry the burden of the afflictions that are inevitable in mortality. What he asks of us is to keep his commandments, to repent when we fall short, and to help and love one another as he has loved us (see John 13:34).

    This is what you have been getting at, yes, Ray? :) I suppose I may have conflated the two concepts in some respects, but I guess the fact that it all brings us back to relying on the Lord and being willing to change and recognize wrongdoing — be it a mistake or a sin — has been the key in my mind. Either way, it requires us to be humble and reliant on Him, ya know?

  86. Wow. That was weird. Here’s the Elder Oaks link.

  87. That’s it, m&m.

    My concern over the distinction comes from seeing so many people who feel “guilty” for their naturally inherited weakness – the things that lead them to transgress – as if they were sinning simply because they couldn’t overcome totally that inherited weakness. They had been told so often that “any mistake is sin” that they beat themselves up continually over what amounted simply to being human. They couldn’t recognize that Jesus already had paid that price for them – that “the truth will make you free” in that particular way – that they could “cast those burdens at His feet” and simply look for ways to change without debilitating guilt over how hard it was.

    I’ll stop with this. If you want to read some more about it, send me an e-mail at the address in #83.

  88. Like I said, Ray, I don’t disagree with what you have said, nor with the principles. They are actually principles that have helped me a lot from being paralyzed with guilt. But I have also found great strength and help by approaching my weaknesses with the same kind of faith and trust and cleaving to covenants as I do with outright sin, because often there is agency that can be exercised even with weakness and of course that applies with sin as well.

    In either case, debilitating guilt is counterproductive and not consistent with the gospel message anyway. :)

  89. Nick Literski says:

    I know many LDS members who get pretty upset when someone tries to tell them what they believe, and I don’t really blame them.

    Perhaps the same courtesy should be given, and LDS members should hesitate to unilaterally declare what former LDS individuals think/believe/do?

  90. Steve Evans says:

    It’s just that we don’t believe you, Nick.

  91. Peter LLC says:

    This wouldn’t be an issue if members would stop gaining testimonies of things that are not true in the first place.

  92. #89 – Agreed.

  93. #91 – ibid

  94. Aaron Brown says:

    Ray,

    That’s a pretty idiosyncratic interpretation of the sin-transgression distinction, quite frankly. I’m no expert on the subject, but I’ve never heard the distinction invoked as if it’s synonymous with intentional vs. unintentional disobedience. It is more typically used, going back at least as far as Orson F. Whitney, to distinguish malum in se from malum prohibitum; that is, to refer to acts that are inherently wrong (e.g., murder) vs. acts that are only wrong by virtue of their prohibition by a relevant authority (e.g., exceeding a set speed limit).

    Aaron B

  95. Antonio Parr says:

    Kudos to bookwormmama (55) for her candor and passion in trying to resolve issues that are not at all easy to resolve. Kudos, also, to Steve Evans (58) for his eloquent response.

  96. re # 31, kwk, the issue discussed in the main post is not whether the Church teaches a black and white understanding of certain aspects of its history. For example, as kari pointed out in # 9, we all understand that the Church takes a very clear position on its founding story. Kari quoted President Hinckley with the following on this obvious point:

    Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently.

    From this statement we see that if Joseph Smith did not experience the First Vision, he perpetuated a fraud that continues to be a fraud as to this founding story, even if the institution that has grown out of it has been a blessing to millions. Thus, what President Hinckley has said here is accurate.

    Interestingly, President Hinckley’s “black and white” statement says nothing about multiple descriptions of the First Vision, various methods of translating the Book of Mormon, the exact date of the restoration of the Melchizedek or such items of historical discussion. I am grateful that kari quoted President Hinckley on this because it presents an example of what I was trying to express in the main post, namely that President Hinckley was a person who had a firm conviction of the central truths (that I listed in the main post and some of which he also listed in the quote) but — I assume — was not too much bothered by the idea of Joseph Smith translating by means of a seer stone in a hat in addition to use of the Urim and Thummim, or that Joseph Smith described the First Vision in different ways in discussion with different people and at different times. His firm testimony of the general principles of these things outweighs items of curiosity that remain from the historical record of these events, which, although impressive due to the relative youth of this religion and its founding events, is far from complete or comprehensive. All of this relates to what I discussed in the main post about the strong conviction that people with a flexible faith have in the general underlying principles. The flexibility of faith then comes into the picture when considering appendages to those things, such as issues of theodicy, developments of Church culture (e.g. white shirts and clean-shaven, big families, a certain ironic Victorian moral ethic) or policy (e.g. blacks and the Priesthood, women and the Priesthood, means and methods of official discipline and under what circumstances).

    Also, I should note that I did not intend the main post to be a discussion of taking a nuanced approach to history when it talks about negotiating the gray areas in Mormon life. Thus, talk of not having a “gray” mentor, although an interesting concept to think about, is not what this post is getting at.

    re # 38, thanks for pointing out that policy of BYU religious education Nitsav — very interesting to see that.

    re # 72, smb, yes, that was an excellent post and expresses some of these concepts much more poetically and eloquently than this hastily typed up stream of consciousness. Thanks for reminding me of that post — I enjoyed reading it again.

  97. john f., I’m confused about how statements/sentiments like Pres. Hinckley’s can possibly support a theme that those who leave the church do so because they, on their own accord (as you make it seem), have an overly developed black/white approach to their religion. Pres. Hinckley’s mantra, in my experience, is how most members I know view all things mormon. There is no tolerance for any gray. Gray issues are dangerous, therefore left out. Gray is avoided, not discussed. If people want it, they’ll find it on their own, right?

    Then somehow when these “gray” issues are discovered by members, it’s their “fault” that they can’t look at things with a more open mind? I don’t understand your reasoning…..

    If we’re supposed to be able to internalize and “not be bothered” by these gray issues, doesn’t it follow that we should be less afraid to discuss them openly? After all, they are just gray areas, right? And we should apparently be able to approach them in the way you describe, so what’s the problem? Why are we so afraid to discuss seer stones, first vision accounts, and other relevant historical facts in Elder’s Quorum, RS, or SS? My goodness, I’ve read bloggernacle posts talking about how sensitive we have to be when bringing these things up that apparently didn’t “bother” Pres. Hinckley.

    Maybe I’m reading blame where you’re assigning none. Maybe I need to quit looking at your post in such shades of black and white :). But it’s very clear to me how and why these black and white views develop – and why people are mad as h#@% when they find out the world of mormonism is sometimes very, very gray.

  98. The main post never posits that the core doctrines are not taught as black and white by the Church. The Church teaches that the First Vision happened, not that it did not happen and there is some other explanation. That is black and white, it is true. What I have observed in people who exhibit this flexible faith is that they often have a firm conviction of these basics and show a remarkable flexibility with the rest. This, perhaps, flows naturally from the lack of a systemmatized theology in the Gospel.

    It might be of interest to take a look at # 38 above for an interesting statement by the Church on this point (of which I was unaware when writing the post but its existence comes as no surprise to me).

  99. Why are we so afraid to discuss seer stones, first vision accounts, and other relevant historical facts in Elder’s Quorum, RS, or SS?

    I wasn’t aware that we had to be particularly careful discussing these things or that we are afraid to discuss them.

    However, it is true that Church time is usually less devoted to nuances of Church history and the development of its foundational story than it is to how basic principles of the Gospel as found in the scriptures (which are already assumed as true as a basic premise to the discussions in Sunday School and EQ/RS) can be gained and exhibited in daily life and how those truths inspire us with regard to life after death and salvation. So in the end, class time in Church is rarely spent debating the implication (if any) of different descriptions of the First Vision or instructing in the nuances of Mormon Studies.

  100. Going to law school helped convince me that although much of what we teach in church is gray it is better not to teach it that way, notwithstanding the inevitable disillusionment this will cause.

    In law school I became disillusioned with law in general because I began to realize that all law is in reality a subjective (gray) exercise. But the practical effects of believing in and striving for an objective (i.e., black and white) law is what our country is all about, or at least should be all about. Same goes with Church doctrines.

  101. re # 100, I side with the excerpt from the BYU religious instruction guidelines quoted in # 38 on this point of teaching gray areas.

    Although the main post isn’t about taking a nuanced, or gray, view about Church history — it’s about having a flexible faith, which doesn’t necessarily bear on Mormon Studies — it is, I think, a very good idea to take a nuanced approach to the study of historical facts associated with the beginning of the Church and the personalities involved in it. This is an approach that requires humility in the face of what can actually be known from what exists of the historical record, and in the face of what kind of inferences the record can really support. People don’t believe this stuff because of history books anyway. The core testimony is based on a subjective experience with God and these truths. Those who maintain a flexible faith then approach ancillary matters relating to Church life with an awareness that there is a lot of gray area where the rubber of culture/policies hit the road. The most effective local leaders understand this and enrich their wards. Some local leaders have not grasped this and take an unnecessarily hard line with those in their stewardships and impose extra obligations and expectations on them that aren’t naturally entailed in the Gospel itself. This is unfortunate and surely leads to the downfall of some.

  102. RJ, #100, Elder Hafen makes just that point about law school in his article I referenced above. Found a link.

  103. Peter LLC says:

    Thus, talk of not having a “gray” mentor, although an interesting concept to think about, is not what this post is getting at.

    What is this post getting at? Having a “gray” mentor would go a long way in helping the formerly rigid develop a flexible faith, especially if one’s perception is that strong faith=”certitude and unwavering commitment.” A gray mentor can demonstrate that flexibility is Ok in principle and perhaps show in which areas it is particularly helpful to adopt in a controlled environment. If, however, you feel isolated, that all the active members have strong (inflexible) faith, you may not realize that flexible faith is faith at all.

  104. # 101 – I agree that for BYU religious instruction the guidelines in #38 are appropriate. I would expect the students in there to have a mature (i.e., flexible) faith. I was speaking more about gospel doctrine, conference talks. I would expect and hope our teachings to be presented in more black/white, CTR language in those settings. Not only does that approach nurture new faith, it solidifies the ideals that form our church’s foundation.

    I also agree there is “a lot of gray area where the rubber of culture/policies hit the road.” Each of us live in a fallen condition and at different points of progression. An effective leader will respect that fact.

    I am also interested in seeing if anyone else out there who went to law school had a similarly faith-maturing experience. I was definitely not expecting that side benefit. (see my original #100 post)

  105. Nitsav, #102 – Thanks. You anticipated my question at the end of #104.

  106. re # 104 I was speaking more about gospel doctrine, conference talks. I would expect and hope our teachings to be presented in more black/white, CTR language in those settings. Not only does that approach nurture new faith, it solidifies the ideals that form our church’s foundation.

    That’s a really good point and worth contemplating. I think this already happens to a certain extent but from an objective of sticking to basics and not to present a black and white picture.

  107. Antonio Parr says:

    Late comment: Those who suggest that sin (read: sexual immorality) is the basis of all doubt/religious crises, need to repent/wash their spiritual mouths out with soap. It is a risky thing under any circumstances to judge another; but to add to the torment of those who wrestle with doubt by attributing their doubt to sin is striking below the belt.

    To quote the great Frederick Buechner, “doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.” Often those who wrestle the most are those who are on the cusp of new understanding and increased faith. Better to pray that the Lord will help their unbelief than to ignite a rumor mill as to possible sins that are purportedly keeping another from believing the way that we feel they should.

  108. Antonio Parr says:

    And this, too:

    “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” Alfred Lord Tennyson

  109. Having a “gray” mentor would go a long way

    In my mind, that mentor should really be the Spirit in the end. Some of the problem of the black and white thinking, imo, is because it’s too easy to keep things at the cerebral level rather than taking the teachings, getting them into our hearts, and coming to the Lord to help us live according to the principles. The Spirit can also help us stay anchored in times of confusion or questions or doubt.

    The more I have come to realize that this is part of the journey, the easier the gray has become for me to deal with.

  110. Bookworm Mama,

    It’s just one data point, but I taught about multiple First vision accounts in Elders Quorum just a few weeks ago. I blogged about it, too.

  111. I have also found that my own experience has been more of the black and white nature. The fourteen points of a true prophet was emphasized. Pres Hinckley stated in talks that either this is the only true church or nothing of importance. Phrases like “when the prophet speaks, the discussion is over” are thrown about with regularity. If you accept what your teachers tell you as true growing up, you often tend to get black and white. I recognize that this is switching to more openness again.

    If I hadn’t googled “kids repeat testimonies saying I know ” (one of my personal pet peeves- being taught to say and believe things because of societal pressure) I would not have known about JS’s polygamy (and all the other stuff). Because I embraced the church’s teachings so completely, I was all the more disillusioned when I found out they were not as solid as they were presented.

    I am sorting through information now, and one of the things that makes me not want to stay in is that when I sat in primary with my kids, and when I was teaching the young men (up to a couple of weeks ago), I saw black and white. I love a lot of things about the church, but this is frustrating to me.

    Anyway, good luck to everyone in your quest for truth.

  112. I do recognize that some of my teachers growing up (I can think of one, who was great) taught a more grey version, but it seemed to be drowned out by black and whiters.

  113. Are you really saved? Can you afford to be wrong??? Please read trulysaved.blogspot.com

  114. Though I was small I remember clearly my dad’s crisis of faith when Pres. Benson was called to be the prophet. How could a prophet be a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society? His struggle to accept this eventually led him to a flexibility in religious thought he didn’t have before. It’s important to not break religion down to the lowest common denominator by accomodating everyone’s views. It’s also important to remember that Pres. Faust was a democrat ^^

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