Here at BCC, amidst the recent interest in Joseph Smith’s seerstone (here, here, and here), we’ve also been revisiting the Gospel Topics essays (here and here). Collectively, the Church’s decision to publish pictures of the seerstone (and let’s not forget that the pictures appear in a landmark edition of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon) and the publication of the essays all participate in an institutional trend toward transparency about the Church’s history. Although I personally applaud this trend, it admittedly also adds some complications to the already challenging project of building Zion.
The basic problem is that some members have known about most of this stuff for years, while it comes as a sometimes unpleasant surprise to others, some of whom have been taught that ideas now given the imprimatur of lds.org were anti-Mormon lies. This reality presents the urgent question of how these two groups of members (and all of the people in between) are to live together in Christian community. Sam has recently written about one approach to teaching these materials in a Church setting, and I wish to add some theological reflections to his pragmatic discussion.
The word “betrayal” pops up with some frequency in relations of people’s first encounters with some of this information (“Why didn’t the Church tell me X?”) which raises the question of how the Church can go more effectively about telling people X (and Y and Z), so that their faith can survive the encounter. (There’s been considerable Bloggernacle wrangling about “inoculation”; see a recent tip of the iceberg here.)
Another phrase that crops up in these discussions is “mature faith”—that is, a faith capable of processing, say, the seerstone in a hat translation method without going “poof” like a dandelion on a windy day. Mature faith thus requires access to the information, plus some kind of spiritual equivalent to intestinal fortitude. Presumably, mature faith is the aim of the instruction mentioned above.
I think that this model of mature faith is fundamentally flawed. From a pragmatic standpoint, timing the instruction is difficult. Does one bring up the Book of Abraham in Sunbeams, right after the lesson on “I am thankful for fish”? Certainly children need to know the nitty-gritty of the priesthood and temple ban before committing to baptism at 8, right? Should the Gospel Topics essays be treated as addenda to the Gospel Principles manual, so that new members get exposed to the information early on, or should we be assigning investigators to read them alongside 3 Nephi 11 and Moroni 10? Should the First Presidency urge bishops to devote 5th Sunday meetings to them? I think that each of these questions (except maybe the one about Sunbeams) could plausibly be answered affirmatively, and yet each also presents the possibility of being cruel rather than kind.
Even if the pragmatic difficulties turn out to be solvable, however, the theological problem is bigger, for two reasons. First of all, I think we risk turning faith into a kind of works-righteousness based on the acquisition of knowledge about Church history and practice. I don’t mean to pooh-pooh learning—God forbid!—but I think that “mature faith” all too easily turns into a sneer at Sister Jones two pews down, smiling innocently amidst her dogmatic slumbers, which we are then morally bound to interrupt for her own good. We arguably miss the whole point of grace, though, if we believe that people need to know “all the truth” to have a “mature faith.” Some people do, some people don’t. The real question is how to live together in love.
It’s no accident that Paul puts his famous meditation on love in 1 Corinthians 13 in the middle of a discussion about the body of Christ, comprised of people with many different gifts, because love is really the only way that such a diverse group could actually cohere. (Ok, love backed by a whole lot of cosmos-pervading, soul-transforming grace.) Paul returns to the topic, though, in his last letter. Whereas 1 Corinthians 13 gets all poetic about the importance of love, Romans 14 focuses on the practical reality of living with people whose faith differs from yours, in maturity or substance.
The issue at hand is food that social convention (or divine command) considers unclean. For Paul, though, no food can really be ritually impure, because God declared the creation good. He knows that not everybody is on board with his enlightened view, but instead of telling them to ditch their foolish superstition, this is what he says:
Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:13-17, NRSV)
I think that knowing Church history in as much depth and detail as possible is a good thing, but it is not and cannot be the measure of goodness itself. Just as Paul argues earlier in the epistle that a Gentile can be a good Jew even without undergoing circumcision, a Mormon can be a good Mormon without being able to recite the names and ages of Joseph Smith’s wives from memory. That’s the essential core of Paul’s argument in Romans: we’re not righteous because of what we do (or what we know); we’re righteous because God is righteous and we are God’s in Christ.
As a Church we do need to find a way of talking about the complexities of our history. Because we’re human we’re going to fail, and those failures will cause real pain to real people. It really is inexcusable, but we can’t help it. There’s no stopping the sense of betrayal that some people will experience upon learning certain facts, and we will continue to stand condemned for it. But on the other hand we’re Christians because we know that God never really meant for us to get it right. To paraphrase George Herbert, it is not goodness, but weariness that will toss us to the divine breast.
Grace is that moment when Brother Thompson who said [insert your favorite bête noir here] over the pulpit comes to weep with you in your hour of grief, or when snooty Sister Suarez comes and takes your screaming infant mere seconds before you would have exploded. Their faults—sins, even—are plain to see, and yet God’s righteousness comes into your life through them. Grace is also the moment when, despite your bitter awareness of your own failings, God sees fit to use you as an instrument.
So, as we figure out how to talk about our history, let’s remember that the facts, although important, are secondary. As Adam Miller pithily puts it, grace is not God’s backup plan, the desperate measures to be implemented after we, to God’s everlasting disappointment, screw up. No, grace simply is God’s plan. When we stop trying to save ourselves with our learning (or to save others by sharing our learning with them), grace can transform us, not just individually, but as a community. Faith is not intestinal fortitude, and neither is it assent to propositions, theological or historical; rather, it is trust in and fidelity to the steady reality of God’s grace. With grace, we can still see Sister Jones’s faults—and maybe dogmatism really is one of them—but we can also see how to walk with her in love, so that we can learn together. Only then can we hope to work through things like the Gospel Topics Essays in community and have faith be the result. It will not be transparency about Church history that transforms us into a Christian community; rather, it will be the grace of Christ operating in us as a community that enables us to be transparent about our history. The fact that we will fail is what makes it grace to try.