Recently, some close friends wrote to me regarding faith in the church. My friends are members and have been for their entire life. These friends have recently come across some anti-Mormon material on the internet and, for all that they understood it as anti in origin, it caused them to start to question their belief. There was nothing particularly new in the information, but it was new to them. They know I’ve been writing blog posts for a while and assumed I had answers that might help. My response, such as it is, is below. I think they found it helpful, hopefully it might be of help to someone else.
First thing to understand: There is nothing I or anybody else can say that is going to make most of this make sense, seem less than crazy, or “make it better.” I haven’t watched the video, but I imagine it is an amalgam of true statements, anti-Mormon interpretations, speculation, and assorted what-not. That isn’t to say its bad (again, I haven’t watched it) nor would I say you should ignore it, but it is to say that, based on the 10 point summary it is about par for the anti-Mormon course nowadays. I could just point you to the FAIR wiki (http://en.fairmormon.org/Main_Page), but, honestly, while some of it is helpful in providing a context for oddball things about church history, it doesn’t really help that much. The truth is that some early church history just is super-creepy (Nauvoo-era polygamy is the best example, to my mind; but other people like to focus on the early Utah theocratic society; there is plenty of weirdo, creepy stuff to go around).
Second thing to understand: I don’t think, in a situation like this, that my testimony means a darn thing to you. Not that I don’t like it or anything, but my life and my experience are different than yours and I haven’t been able to figure entirely why Mormonism is my path, so I can’t really express well why it should appeal to other people. There are quite a few people to whom it doesn’t appeal and, frankly, I don’t blame them. I frequently wonder why God has called me to it; but here I am. So, I think Mormonism is true, but by that, I mean that I believe that the rituals and ordinances of the Church are effective in bringing people to God. It isn’t a better or exclusive repository of God’s truth and, frankly, it is just wrong about some stuff (in my opinion). But human people trying to fulfill God’s plan; “bound to get screwed up” is the name of the game.
Third thing to understand: If you, after you’ve thought about this, prayed about it, done whatever you feel like you need to do about, decide to stay in or to leave the church, you are not a bad person. Belief of any sort requires a suspension of disbelief and there’s only so much of that sort of behavior that a person can willingly give. Mormonism is different from many other religions (although by no means all) because it promises that you’ll be able to see the hand of God in your life (through priesthood blessings, miraculous key recovery, and so forth). Mormons believe that they live in active communion with the Lord and, frequently, when they aren’t, it is their fault for not being righteous enough. However, if we read Job correctly, we’d realize that, in spite of what the rest of scripture promises, bad stuff happens to good people. There is no magic prayer that will stop tragedy and it is not far from the truth to view God as a sadist (in fact, a common Islamic and Jewish criticism of Christianity has been to question how a God who demands the human sacrifice of his Son can be “loving” God?).
So, it comes to this: on average, the church (institutional and cultural) knows much less about God, Jesus, spirituality, and its own history than it thinks it does. This is, in part, because the Church has cultivated its own image as the one source for truth about the church. Generally, the Church doesn’t out and out lie, but it does mislead and omit relevant facts frequently in the official narrative. However it also is producing the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which is, by all accounts, historically nuanced and responsible. It also doesn’t sell nearly as well as whatever blather that John Bytheway has written recently. Mormons, as a people, are aesthetically dead, so I can’t account for any of their book buying decisions. We are frequently, as a group, giant dummyheads.
So, the church has been caught out by the internet and the ease of spreading information. They haven’t had to create a counter-narrative since the early 70s, because correlation was so successful at summarizing the history of the Church and glossing over the hard bits. The raised a whole generation of people who just accepted it all as the God’s honest truth, because they assumed that the Church couldn’t or wouldn’t be wrong. And, frankly, that generation got into power in the church and made the same assumptions. Thus a whole lot of crappy history has been handed down for a couple of generations as the best the Church has to offer. The problem, fundamentally, isn’t that the Church is “not true” or is fraudulent (in my opinion), it is that it has been lazy, complacent, unimaginative, and dogmatic.
I’ll take a look at the video tonight when I get home (or, more likely, in the morning, when I’ll have more time). I doubt that I’ll have much to say on individual charges and, frankly, the FAIR wiki page will probably do a better job of talking about individual historical points than I will, but I’ll tell you how I can sleep at night as a Mormon as best as I can. Note: probably there will some “I don’t care” or “I ignore that gaping hole” moments on my part.
Finally, ultimately, no matter what you decide regarding the church, it is going to come down to this: what you’ve been taught about the church up to this point is deeply flawed. Having done a bit of investigating yourself, can you suspend your disbelief again to have faith in it, or not? This may mean that you lose a testimony of Joseph Smith acting as a prophet in every word and deed, of current leadership as meeting with Jesus weekly in the temple (or some such), that your calling to the nursery is direct from God or some other unrealistic belief that folks (including myself at one time or another) develop in the church. We want so much for the church to be perfect, in spite of the people. But it won’t be. It is just as human, temporal, broken, and occasionally, unexpectedly beautiful as every other human institution. I think it is beautiful a little more than average (because I think God is actually involved in some way), but I wouldn’t be able to give you a percentage. In other words, to maintain your belief in the church, you may need to choose to expect a lot less from it. In any case, it is unlikely that you will come out of this moment with the same faith that you came into it with. And you may decide to walk away. I think that it is possible for God to call us out of the church, so I don’t think it will be a problem. But I admit that I am a massive heretic on this score.
What my friends will do is unknown. What would you counsel someone who has just learned some hard truth about the church? Someone who has endured a bad experience and questions their own belief? What would you say?