Walking in Love with the Gospel Topics Essays

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.

Comments

  1. Superbly said, Jason. One note about this sentence though. When you write…

    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.

    …it should be that “learning” in this context can mean both talking about the problems with the Book of Abraham, as well as purposely structuring the conversation so as to not talk about the problems with the Book of Abraham. Both attempts to disrupt dogmatic faith with church history issues, and attempts to protect innocent faith from church history issues, can equally be instances of us fallen humans trying to shape other people’s relationship with God in accordance with our learned judgment, rather than trusting in God’s grace.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Just so, Russell. Thank you.

  3. Nicely said, Jason. Thanks.

  4. I totally get that orthodoxy is what is best for some people. I also get that my stumbling from orthodoxy to “mature faith” is what is best for me. Allowing each other space is grace. My problem comes when the stumbling block scripture only gets applied to *me* in my heterodoxy. There’s plenty in orthodoxy’s fundamentalism that causes stumbling blocks that keep others away. Either we need to discuss that or quit using the scripture. I attend church in faith through my pain, amidst pebbles and boulders of orthodoxy blocking my path. And I know of my brothers and sisters who have not been able to stay the course.

    For me, the most important part of enduring to the end is loving my fellow saints amidst/over/under/around the stumbling blocks; this is my refiners fire. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  5. Really like this

  6. Jason K. says:

    Yep, the “stumbling block” scripture applies to everyone.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Amen.

  8. Well done, JK.

  9. Love this post.

  10. “So, as we figure out how to talk about our history, let’s remember that the facts, although important, are secondary.”

    And back to square one we go!

  11. Not quite, p. You’re missing the “facts are important” part. I am emphatically not advocating whitewashed history here. Welcome to the antinomian dialectic.

  12. Accepting difference is in some ways a cultural challenge. Doctrinal differences is possibly an extension. I hope that love does/will conquer all

  13. This is great. Thank you.

  14. Wonderful. This reflects my own thinking on this subject as well.

  15. Brilliant post. Russell’s first comment there is great, an important caveat. I’m also sympathetic to Kristine A’s conundrum.

  16. Jason K. says:

    Yeah, both of their comments really get at the problem.

  17. “…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…”

    This (and the sentences that immediately follow) is exactly what I’ve been trying to articulate in my brain this last week. I’ve caught myself in that place of feeling smug and superior around the Sister Joneses (or at least those I perceive as such) around me. Such an ugly feeling, and as you wrote, to feel that way very much misses the point. Thanks for this.

  18. When the Church truly embraces the doctrine of grace as President Uchtdorf appears to be doing and moves away from the pharisaical “works” approach that has permeated Church theology and practice, we will begin to see the magnificent church and people that God intended us to be.

  19. Jason,

    If I may offer an alternative perspective. It is my opinion that most of the faith crises and frustration experienced by LDS members is due to having placed too much faith in our church history instead of Christ. Culturally, we are taught to build our testimony upon a certainty of our history. Institutionally, we think we are emphasizing Christ as the foundation but, in practice, we emphasize leadership infallibility, certainty of the Restoration narrative and, at times, pseudo worship of the family structure.

    Why is it that the Catholic Church and the Episcopalian church do not have the same problems in trying to satisfy the needs of those with a simple faith and a more mature faith at the same time? Especially the Catholics who have so many issues associated with their history. I was raised Catholic and converted to Mormonism at age 19. The resources for a Catholic to deeply explore the history and intellectual foundation of his or her theology are vast and easily available. There are multiple perspectives and approaches discussed within the church hierarchy and religious orders. Lay people are always welcome to explore deeply and strengthen their discipleship. While the Catechism outlines the foundational doctrines there is much room for various interpretations. One is not made to feel unwelcome at a Catholic mass if one’s perspective or approach to the church’s theology or history is different.

    Catholic children learn about the basics of their faith either through religion classes at Catholic school or by attending CCD during the week. If they are interested in learning in more detail they are guided and assisted in doing so by people in their parish. They are not made to feel unfaithful in doing so. If they are not interested, they can still attend Mass and develop a faith of Christ and His Gospel which allows for an emphasis on Adoration and Emulation. An average Catholic can have a very rich and deep faith which has nothing to do with Catholic history. I believe it is because their Sunday services are meant to emphasize worship of the Savior. You don’t find Catholics being required to attend Sunday school to be considered in good standing. There is no emphasis on teaching principles as the primary focus of Sunday meetings. The Mass is about Adoration and Emulation of Christ. You do not find an Italian or Irish grandmother being looked down upon because of her simple faith praying the rosary.

    By culturally emphasizing certainty of our history as the foundation of our testimony along with leadership infallibility we have basically started to reap what we have sown. When members learn about the details and occasional unsavory aspects of our history they feel betrayed. Their expectations have been built up over the years and then they find that what they put their faith in was fallible. If we were more serious about making our Sacrament meeting an “Adoration service” focusing on the Savior we wouldn’t be reinforcing what got us into this pickle in the first place.

  20. Jason K. says:

    I quite agree, Sean. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  21. Jason K. says:

    Although in fairness I think that our leaders themselves generally try to fight the infallibility thing. Unfortunately we are all too often impervious to their efforts in this regard.

  22. “It is my opinion that most of the faith crises and frustration experienced by LDS members is due to having placed too much faith in our church history instead of Christ. ”

    Indeed. There’s an interesting talk that was given by Davis Bitton, (an LDS historian), called “Why I don’t have a testimony of the history of the Church” which is available in various places. Here’s one link.

  23. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Ben.

  24. Thank you, Sean. I couldn’t have said it better! No, I mean, really. I couldn’t have! Thank you for your clarity.

  25. > If we were more serious about making our Sacrament meeting an “Adoration service” focusing on the Savior we wouldn’t be reinforcing what got us into this pickle in the first place.

    Yes x1000.

  26. Peter Harbon says:

    A wonderfully written article.
    I am sick of the intellectual bullying that goes on these days. Anonymity breeds cowards.
    There was one particular exchange that made my blood boil I had a while back on Facebook with a typical know-it-all mocking our missionaries for not knowing about Joseph Smith’s plural wives.
    Even if I know the colour (UK spelling) and weight of the seer stone in Joseph Smith’s hat, I am more likely to get to heaven for not throwing stones and taking my hat off with polite respect to the historically ignorant.

  27. Peter Harbon says:

    Sean, I really enjoyed reading your perspective on Catholicism. They obviously are ahead of us when it comes to a more mature, multi-faceted approach to interpreting their history. Something I hope we can learn from. Theother key for me is all about how people feel about infallibility.

  28. Ben S.,

    Thank you for that link to Bro. Bitton’s talk. It was a breath of fresh air on a cloudy Philly morning.

  29. I also loved the sentence about the danger of “mature faith” becoming a breeding ground for pride. When I was younger I used to think that way sometimes, which is something that I have had to repent of. I still enjoy reading church history and I still believe that for me at least, scripture and history strengthen my faith best when they challenge me, and I believe that the same is probably true for most people. But that is not the only source of strength in faith. It also comes from living through personal tragedy, from trying to live one’s covenants the best one knows how, and probably a thousand ways that I haven’t even dreamed of yet. Now, if I am tempted to think of someone else’s faith a “immature” or “shallow,” I try to remind myself that there is great beauty in simplicity, and that that person’s faith is likely deeper and more mature than mine is in at least some aspect. And truthfully, the thing that most of all helps me to refrain from such judgment is study of the Book of Mormon.

  30. Vinz Clortho says:

    I’ve become more pluralistic over the past few years. These ‘official’ recognitions of history in essay form more or less reinforce this for me. Not immune to the foibles of institutional religion, the LDS church’s exclusivity has been re-framed. It is now to me a single cog in a vast mechanism powered by the grace you speak of.

  31. this is fantastic, Jason. Thanks for the insight.

  32. This is one of the best things I have read in a very long time. Thank you so much.

  33. I have to disagree that facts are secondary. This thinking is what has caused the problems today with members being misled by “faithful” facts instead just receiving the facts as they are. Nevertheless its great that the truth is finally coming out.

  34. Ismael: you’re misreading that line. The OP is at pains to oppose the kind of whitewashed history you take me to be advocating. All I’m saying, following Paul, is that unvarnished fact without love is nothing. The way we handle the complexities of Church history in community matters.

  35. DeepThink says:

    The heart you have revealed in this — yours — is beautiful. Thank you.

  36. Jason K:

    I read this post as “let’s get beyond this as soon as possible.” Well that’s kind of hard to do when the church, bless their heart as always, is not completely coming clean on the “misleading the membership” issue. Mr. Turley, in his ensign article, is still blaming the artists for the artwork that was obviously commissioned by the brethren. Also, there is still the blaming the victims undercurrent throughout all these disclosures.

    So, community and everything you advocate in this article, while laudable, is a little too soon after the partial disclosure. The perpetrator still hasnt fully confessed yet and only then can the healing process begin.

  37. You want justice, it seems: no healing until the “perpetrator,” as you put it, has been brought to rights. Personally, I don’t think that the Church will ever stop failing to present its history adequately. There are too many people involved for that to be possible. To be sure, it can do better or worse, and I’m entirely in favor of better. The Gospel Topics essays are a move in the right direction, although there are still legitimate criticisms to be made against them. (Not citing Lester Bush in the Race and the Priesthood essay is unconscionable!)

    But I’d rather put my money on grace, on the possibility that a Church whose imperfections can only continue might nevertheless be an instrument of some good. Which is all any of us can hope for ourselves, really.

    For the record, I’m under no illusions that the approach I advocate is either quick or easy. We wouldn’t need so much grace if it were.

  38. Ismael, is Turley really “blaming” the artists or just acknowledging an organic process, with no one particularly at fault? (Sort of like my analysis in this post from 2009, using the seer stone in translation as my key example of the process: https://bycommonconsent.com/2009/03/10/canonization-of-kitsch/)

    Here’s how I put it in 2009:

    “Although the Church has made no official effort, that I am aware of, to suppress the idea — the true fact — that Joseph Smith translated much of the Book of Mormon by means of using a seer stone in a hat that he closed around his face to exclude outside light[2], at some point in time, a Mormon artist depicted Joseph Smith reading directly from the plates while translating. I imagine this was a flourish of artistic license on the part of some artist (out of curiosity I would like to know who the first artist was to take this approach) — there is nothing wrong with that; the pose works better artistically and dramatically than a painting of someone looking into a felt hat.

    Where it gets interesting is that this artistic flourish then became, essentially, canonized in Mormon art. . . .

    The final and perhaps most recent phase in the canonization process of this particular Mormon artistic flourish, probably not originally meant to portray an event with historical accuracy but rather dramatically, is that it then became enshrined in the new Joseph Smith movie that is played in Salt Lake City’s Legacy Theater. I happen to think that its presence in that film also is not meant to be a statement as to historical accuracy but rather is included for artistic/dramatic purposes just to show the idea of translating the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God. But many mistakenly seem to infer that this is the Church’s official statement of the process of the translation of the Book of Mormon.”

  39. Jason K:

    I think its sad that those in charge cannot simply say what happened in the past was wrong, fully admit it, and move forward. If they did that, the vested membership would forgive because they are so vested already they arent leaving no matter what. Also, the mea culpa might have a chance on saving the rising generation. The “lets get them on missions asap” policy might work for a while and might still get a certain percentage vested enough to where they wont leave no matter what – like their parents and grandparents. However, the false pictures are still in preach my gospel. The false pictures of the JS looking at the plates will still remain. Its just sad really.

    Nevertheless, cheers to never saying sorry and moving on.

  40. I think that Uchtdorf floated a “mea culpa” trial balloon a couple conferences ago, and yet the major take-away from that talk remains “doubt your doubts.” Maybe I’m less sanguine than you are about the ability of the general membership to absorb such a confession, which is why I’m advocating a process of building relationships within which the (imo necessary) learning can take place. I agree with you completely that the facts need to come out. I just don’t think that the facts themselves will do much good absent an environment of love.

  41. In other words, Ismael, I think we basically agree on ends, but see differently regarding the means. I can live with that.

  42. Nice post.
    The concern for me is that the church is releasing these essays and topics without an official and proper venue to discuss them in. I can’t, for the life of me, picture how a discussion on race and the priesthood would go over in a Sunday school lesson in ANY ward I’ve ever attended. Without a venue to discuss, people are left to sweep their questions and concerns into a dark corner with other things about Mormonism they aren’t comfortable with or comfortable talking about. This lends itself to more “I’m sure God will sort it all out someday” comments or an over-reliance on the brethren to clarify and teach us. As important as it is to studying the church-goers and their failings from the Book of Mormon, I find it equally important to study our own failings of the last 180+ years. I appreciate the added transparency, however and am curious to see how it seeps into our lessons and current culture. Perhaps you are arguing that it shouldn’t.

  43. To the contrary, I am very much arguing that it should. See Russell’s comment above, with which I entirely agree.

    What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that including this information in programmatic ways might be a problem, because needs and circumstances vary so widely that there’s unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all way that works well. In other words, it’s hard to correlate this stuff when correlation is (inadvertently, I think) part of the problem. There’s an old joke that loving humanity is easy–it’s people that are the problem. I suspect that working through the nitty-gritty of Church history needs to happen in localized ways to be effective, guided by leaders who love the people they serve and can consider prayerfully how to meet their needs. Reckoning with Mountain Meadows has to be different in southern Utah than in Taiwan.

    Now, the institutional Church obviously has a role to play, because they are uniquely able to make information available. The recent redesign of lds.org has made the Gospel Topics essays much easier to find (they’re under the “Scriptures and Study” tab on the homepage). But maybe it’s a good thing that the Church isn’t being too directive about how to use it.

  44. For me, the problem does not come in the form of feeling betrayed or shocked or even dismayed that something was knowingly concealed because of recognized strangeness in terms of PR. For me, the problem comes when what the church *has* taught as divine doctrine (i.e. the beliefs, truths, and commandments) is seemingly contradicted or made paradoxical by these disclosures and then forbidden (by either folk tradition in wards and stakes, or by official stonewalling) as a point of discussion.

    Too often, those poor few who have the courage or guilelessness to ask questions about such inconsistencies (of whom I have been one) are treated as though the very asking is a betrayal. It is a form of actual oppression to use labels like “immature in faith” or “intellectualism” or “ill-founded testimony” to shame people into keeping silent when the beliefs at their very core are sincerely at stake with life-changing implications that are (by the teaching of the church) attached to their daily decisions and eternal destiny.

    Why are we so afraid to admit that no human and no book is perfect? Why can’t we just say “we got this part wrong, but now we have changed” or even “we don’t know?” Why do we think that God’s grace is not sufficient to handle someone leaving the church, or being gay, or making a mistake in a leadership position? Why can’t we trust God’s grace enough to be honest and to love each other in the church *with* that honesty?

    It is this lack of trust in God’s grace and lack of love for each other that causes most of the problems in the church, in my opinion, and it is a cultural tradition we seem to choose in the church. We need to let it go. We need to let people actually be who they choose to be (remember that agency thing), and just love them without worrying about how they stack up to some oppressive tradition that is not only unrelated to the gospel, but in many ways its antithesis. All of us need to do this, whether we lead or not.

  45. Thank you for the poignant and insightful comment. Yes to more grace!