I was recently listening to the Mormon Stories podcast with Ralph Hancock. I haven’t really been enjoying it, because I don’t really enjoy listening to either Brother Hancock or Brother Dehlin (for varied reasons) and my irritation with both frequently spikes into fantasies about throwing my mp3 player across the room. I’m sure that if I sat down with either in a room alone I would get along with them just fine (in fact, I did meet Dehlin in a social setting once and he was nice and soft-spoken). But their public personas frequently get under my skin and, whenever I do listen, I frequently wonder why I’m listening, when I could obviously do it all much better.
This is, of course, it’s own sort of fantasy. Frankly, if I could do it much better, I’d probably already be doing it. I’ve thought about making my own podcasts and getting that elusive PhD in the past, but have I actually done it? Nope. Brothers Dehlin and Hancock will forever have the advantage of actual achievement to lord over me in internet personality competitions. All that, while true and remaining true for the foreseeable future, does nothing to prevent me from thinking that my (untested, uncriticized, half-formed) approach to the Gospel is superior to theirs. Pride is, amongst other things, the irrational certitude of one’s own position. It is one of the chief things that has kept me in the church.
By this, I do not mean that I think myself superior to most folks who leave the church. I no doubt think myself superior to some, but that is for other reasons. I believe that the right set of circumstances and life events could be engineered to get me to lose faith. I find myself vulnerable to crises regarding early death and pointless suffering. Sometimes, when I hear about someone’s terrible experience in church, I think “There but for the grace of God…” I don’t know why God hasn’t given me really hard stuff to deal with (probably because I’m a big wuss), but I’m grateful for it. When I look at many of the terrible things that people often discuss as catalysts for developing real faith, I think I prefer my rather paltry version. Enlightenment through pain sounds like an awful lot of work.
No, the reason that I cite pride as a source of my testimony is this: I have never really assumed that my leaders (going all the way to the top) are all that much more special than me. As a teen, I think that I likely aspired to high callings in the church, but even then I recall church leaders watching R-rated movies with us on temple trips. Not that I thought less of them for that, but I realized that we were all just people. I had a habit of cussing as a teen (denial is probably another key ingredient of my testimony). Once, on a temple trip, I dropped the F-bomb in front of the Young Men’s President. I was suddenly mortified, sure that they wouldn’t let me into the temple the next day. I don’t remember the immediate aftermath of the event, but I do know that there were no repercussions. Looking back, I’m surprised and grateful that my leader didn’t just laugh out loud at me. Instead, I’m guessing he gave me a quick talking to about propriety and we all moved on.
For better or worse, church leadership for me has always just been people. And people are always as capable of fraud, abuse, misconceptions, irritating habits, irreverent senses of humor, and wrongheadedness as…well, people. So to learn or think that church leadership may have been wrong in the past or may be wrong about something now doesn’t really affect my testimony in church leadership or in the church as a whole. The church is a human institution, guided by revelation, that on average leads its members to the divine. That is remarkable in itself, even if the success rate is below 100%.
So, having always thought of myself as being as good as (or as bad as) general church leadership, I never really had a crisis of faith when I realized that the Curriculum model of history was flawed (or possibly misleading) or that Nauvoo-era polygamy was even weirder and creepier than Utah-era polygamy. Heck, the more I learn about the Council of Fifty, the less I personally like Joseph. But that’s all kinda irrelevant for me. Because I also know that God works through me and, while I’m not the worst person on earth, I’m still all kinds of broken and messed up. If he can work through me, if he will talk to me, if he loves me, then why not someone (anyone) else?
I don’t need our leaders to be perfect. If they generally avoid harming the helpless, taking advantage of the downtrodden, and abusing those low in spirit, I’m okay. There will always be bad apples, even in the higher echelons. But, I believe, the good outweighs the bad and I do try to side with the good.