Hope and the Evolving Church. And Whales (or Crocodiles).

Early in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Series, the King of Dreams descends into Hell to retrieve his crown stolen by a demon. The demon admits he has it, but demands a battle of wits in order for Sandman to win it back.

They start a series of imagined encounters reminiscent of the scene in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone where Merlin and the Madame Mim become various animals in an escalating attempt to best the other with magical transformations, except this contest in Hell is only verbal. The demon begins, “I am a snake, spider-devouring, poisoned-toothed. Sandman returns, “I am an ox, snake-crushing heavy footed.” So it continues until Sandman says, “I am a world, space-floating life nurturing.” Demon: “A nova world destroying.” Sandman: “I am the universe—all things, all life embracing.” Then the demon thinks he has him, (a gambit somewhat reminiscent of Gollum’s final question to Bilbo in their riddle game), “I am Anti-life, the beast of judgment. I am the Dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds, . . . of everything.” How can the King of Dreams respond to that? It looks like endgame until he answers, “I am hope.” He wins the contest.

Ever since reading Joseph Spencer’s brilliant exposition on the relationship between Zion as a reality and hope1, I’ve been thinking about hope. In a specific way that he captures nicely here:

In hope, the past event that calls for faith is recognized to contain—or even forthrightly to be—a promise, an indication that things can be different.

Faith, hope, and charity in my mind stand in a triadic relationship with time. ‘Faith’, demanding fidelity to past revelations and promises and covenants (in the sense of being faithful to), ‘love’ a response to the present-others we encounter, and ‘hope,’ future directed and oriented to anticipation that our present realities will bear fruit to divine aims.

These are challenging times. I have friends who have left the church over new information that gives a more complex and troubling version of historical events that disturb the heroic abstractions we once embraced. Some are disturbed by simplistic claims that science is negating things we held dear. Others are pained that the church seems heading in political directions they do not want to follow.

How do I offer these friends hope? How do I explain what I have found worth keeping in faith and hope? For I am not unaware of the difficulties they are facing. I am not unsympathetic with the struggle. But here is my take, and why I have much hope for things. Paul explains, “But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.” Romans 8:25.

Sometimes in the moment of consternation it seems like a choice is demanded. In our haste to abandon the simplicity we are fleeing, and yet maintaining the need for certainty, we grasp the opposite side of the coin. Which other side is simply an abstracted negative image of the coin whose reverse side we are fleeing. Are there other possibilities?

Isabella Stengers, on writing on philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, explores the possibility of rethinking entrenched dichotomized positions2.

Why take the approach of abandonment when there is much to hope for above the simplicities pushed by those who demand the question be settled immediately rather than frames that demand patience and recognizing when data are insufficient to settle the questions.

A poverty of imagination is the problem. Why suppose this coin and its two sides are the only options? Are there other framings?

It is a language that can scandalize, or else madden, all those who think they know what they know, but also all those for whom to approach the non-knowing at the heart of all knowledge is an undertaking that is meticulous, grave, and always to be taken up again.

I see the church as an organic entity—emergent, complex, and evolving. As an evolutionary biologist, I’ve learned that complexity only enters this universe through the messiest and convoluted paths. Evolution is replete with confusion, reversals, disorder, muddled trajectories, inefficiencies, horrors even, base mistakes and dead ends, false starts, and aborted lineages. The beauty of the butterfly wing is a tale full of all the ugliness of evolution’s sloppiness and chaos. There is more of bedlam about the unfolding than surgical precision.

I believe that this is how God is manifest in the world. Through creationist readings of scripture, we’ve been seduced into thinking of God as an engineer and artificer, rather than the God of nature as we now see unfolding in the fullness of nature’s revelations.

Michael Austin‘s delightfully important book on Job3 has left me thinking of that wonderful Old Testament book. Job wanted the simple black and white God, who rewarded righteousness and punished wickedness. He wanted clarity. He wanted uncertainty vanquished. But when God appears he answers none of Job’s questions. Rather he points out the beauty and power of his creations, “Have you seen whales! How cool are they? Try to make one of those babies if you think you get me.” (My own translation)4.

When we look at the growth of a human embryo, we see a wild and wooly ride as it winds its path through insectoid segments, tails and gills, stubs of fishy brains and the like. But it’s on its way to that cuddly little bundle of baby cuteness and potential.

The church is evolving. We can see its organic messiness and leave because it does not meet our expectations for an institution engineered by a perfect God, with all the cogs clacking in exact tick-tock lockstep to our preconceived notions of a well-oiled machine. Or maybe we can remain in faith and hope, doing what we can (I’m not advocating a passive watching only), but recognizing that maybe, just maybe, the God we worship was the one who let whales evolve in time, requiring patience in their unfolding. And how cool are they?

1. Joseph M. Spencer. 2014. For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope. Greg Kofford Books. Draper, UT. Kindle page: 539.

2. Isabelle Stengers. 2011. Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Harvard University Press

3. Michael Austin. 2014. Rereading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem. Greg Kofford Books, Draper, UT.

4. I know, I know, most biblical scholars think that Leviathan was a crocodile, but for me it will always be a whale because that’s what we believed in Moab. And Moab beliefs always take precedence over the ‘claims’ of so-called ‘scholars.’


  1. And all the while, the members and leaders of the Church are good, honorable people…

  2. Excellent. (And I prefer to keep Leviathan as a mythological otherworldly beast.)

  3. “I see the church as an organic entity—emergent, complex, and evolving. As an evolutionary biologist, I’ve learned that complexity only enters this universe through the messiest and convoluted paths.” Profound stuff. Thank you.

  4. Marvelous stuff, Steve. One thing that I took away from Joe Spencer’s excellent book is that we can only find theological hope amidst frank acknowledgment of the world’s messiness. Your post seems to strike that balance wonderfully. Thank you!

  5. It is wonderful to see how evolution and methods if evolving work not only within nature but within a progressing organization. Wonderful article StevenP!

  6. I love this as an abstraction, and as a practice. However, I refuse to judge those who are not able to hope for more than peace, and because of a lack of privilege, have no practical hope of relief from suffering in the current iteration of the LDS church. Even the ability to purchase the books you quote, and have time to read and contemplate them, is a privilege many do not have.

    I am not trying to take your hope. I am simply pointing out that privilege makes it easier to hope. Lack of privilege, abuse, wrong turns, and dead ends of the evolution you watch, is a lived experience for many of us. When I talk to other incest survivors, other rape survivors, others who have been told that they are at fault because they survived but by surviving “lost their virtue,” I can’t blame them for their despair and lack of hope for themselves as members of the church. They have been relegated to the same status as an evolutionary dead end. If you were being treated as an evolutionary aborted line, how much hope would you have?

    What a privilege it must be to never have to worry that as evolution progresses that you will be a beneficiary of that progress. Would you feel differently, do you think, if all your privilege was stripped away?

  7. I think a large part of the “poverty of imagination” you describe is because 1 Nephi states that there will be “save two churches only” in the last days, and because LDS church leaders keep using divisive language that sets up a “with us or against us” relationship. There may be room to acknowledge fellow Christians and “people of goodwill” as non-enemies (and potential converts). But for the most part Mormonism and its 80,000+ missionaries are arrayed against The World, a phrase always used in the pejorative, where “moral relativism” abounds and people’s hopes and beliefs are caricatured as nonsensical.

    I think another part of it may be because the hopes and beliefs of those who leave the LDS church are the special subject of caricature by Mormon leadership. And so active Mormons make an effort to look for (and therefore find) confirmation of those caricatures in the lives of people they know who have left.

    There’s not much room in this dichotomy for people who have to leave, in order to save their lives or their souls. Who don’t know what else is out there, but who know that if they stay any longer they’ll die, on the inside or literally through suicide. Because their hopes are crushed anew daily, and so if they stay they will not be around to see the church’s practices change, one way or another. Not unless they can find someplace that accepts them for who they are first, even if they don’t know what that would look like.

  8. juliathepoet– Yes, you are without question you are correct I am privileged. We all view the world from where we are and where we’ve been. And I have no qualms with people who see the world differently or have had hope taken from them by their life experiences. I’m not calling for people to read the world as I do, I’m just asking they engage the subject in recognition of that deep complexity. The conclusions they draw from that engagement are their own.

    Jewelfox–You describe the dichotomy that I want to challenge. Yes you can frame things in that way, but is it necessary? Are there other ways? I think we (and me) jump to polarized perspectives too quickly, both those who remain and who go may need to see each other in new ways to dismantle the dichotomy you describe–and all people need to work on that. I agree the caricatures you describe are harmful and non-productive. Caricatures are the provenance of the shallow engagement.

  9. wreddyornot says:

    As to the post, it expresses professionally many of my meanderings in the flow of beliefs pertaining to my faith and why I believe and hope what I do. Thank you for sharing it so well. As to the discussion, I’m loving it so far. I hope both help push us to things better. It seems that rigorous postings and the hearty discussions which ensue symbolize agency in a micro-micro-micro-cosmos of hope and help us move ahead.

  10. An evolving church would be a wonderful thing. I hope more members can begin to see things more like you do. Here’s a post I wrote about what I think would make Mormonism “More Good”: http://pearceonearth.com/making-mormonism-more-good/

  11. I find much of what you write here beautiful. I do think it falls into a very common trap in this writing where there is no acknowledgement that many who have left the church have found hope, nuance, growth by leaving and on their new path. Clearly, such paths of hope are open to them as well. I respect those that stay to struggle within the LDS faith and organization. I too hope for its progress and evolution. One fruit of such progress will be for it to more fully embrace the humanity of those that walk with it for awhile and then choose other paths without necessarily mourning or using their choices to prop up our own sense of identity and worth. Again, I don’t think that was your intent at all but this narrative is anchored deeply within our tradition.

  12. A beautiful post. “A poverty of imagination is the problem. Why suppose this coin and its two sides are the only options? Are there other framings?” I think this is a really important thought.

    Fr. Richard Rohr writes that dualistic thinking is the “well-practiced pattern of knowing most things by comparison. And for some reason, once you compare or label things (that is, judge) you almost always conclude that one is good and the other is less good or even bad.”

    For some of us, leaving Mormonism is opening up to the idea that following God is not an either/or one side of the coin proposition. I did not leave Mormonism because I could not handle “its organic messiness” or “because it does not meet (my) expectations for an institution engineered by a perfect God.” I continue to “remain in faith and hope, doing what (I) can” to follow God. That following has taken me elsewhere but I don’t think it implies “a poverty of imagination” on my part. I imagine Mormonism can and will be much different in the future. I look forward to watching it unfold and support you in your faith. I suppose I hope that Mormons can eventually open up their imagination to the idea that God is supporting me in my journey too. Is that another possible framing? Or maybe that is my overactive imagination? ;)

  13. rah and RTC, I don’t disagree. I don’t think that everyone who’s left is a victim of two-sided, black and white thinking. It is a common problem I’ve noticed, but it is certainly not universal, and I have several friends who have left and who could never be accused of simplistic views.

  14. While hope and a positive outlook on anything is always good, the people relating to this post seem to be putting themselves as heroic Sandman and then placing God and the prophets as the poetic demon. They see themselves as right, the holders of the truth/correct knowledge and God as the oppressor (This is true regardless of religion of any traditional church doctrine that does not conform to modern liberalism regarding gays, abortion, sex out of wedlock, etc.). Those who do not agree with them are oppressive and need to “evolve” their doctrine in order to find the light/agree with whatever they do. While certain parts of superficial church culture may change as society changes, the basic doctrine is and always will be/should be the same. The point of the gospel, in any religion, is having US change to be in line with God. If we acknowledge there is a God, all knowing/powerful/truthful who has all light, then we should change to be like him and acknowledge that doing so would be in our best interest, since he is the highest/wisest power in the universe. Otherwise, what is the point of religion at all if we will stubbornly “hope” for something that is contrary to God and his prophets and kick against the pricks for something that never will be. God is not supposed to and can not evolve to fit all of our millions of narrow minded desires/prejudices. We should change and evolve our own thinking to be like him.

  15. Great post, Steve. You’ve expressed my thoughts in a more poetic way, I usually refer to the Church as a human organization as one who is doing their absolute best to do the will of the Lord. I then get pushback that it is led by Christ, I depart and usually point out that it is led by men who are chosen by God to lead at this time, and they are doing their best. It’s not that their best isn’t good enough, it’s that their best will never be perfect, and neither will our organization. Ergo, we should all be working together to improve it – an open exchange of dialog and ideas and disagreement with love. Unfortunately it seems that last part is all a pipe dream.

  16. this post really resonated with me – thank you

    I also appreciate all of the comments & for the insight they offer into the hearts and minds of others from different contexts and how they respond to these ideas — this helps me understand with a broader scope.

  17. “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” – Václav Havel

%d bloggers like this: