Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Darwinian Deity: The Evolution of the Mormon Concept of God – Part I –

“It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God.” (Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p 345)

The prophet preached these words mere months before his martyrdom – part of what is now known as the King Follett Discourse (transcript available here). This sermon epitomizes the trajectory of Joseph’s tenure as Mormonism's founding prophet and is widely considered the zenith of his revelatory contribution to Latter-day Saint doctrine. Because it arrived so late in his fourteen year ministry it also serves as a terrific, two-fold illustration of a student's struggle to accept Mormonism at face value. On the one hand it summarizes and affirms for believers the supreme importance of attaining the proper gospel knowledge required for functional worship. On the opposite, it is an ironically self-defeating statement to teach knowledge of God as the first and fundamental principle of the gospel, but moments later expound a new, radically divergent concept of God's nature – and this so late in his career! No wonder even the most loyal Saints were troubled by these things, enough to cause a member of the First Presidency to apostatize!

Growing up in the Mormon tradition, I took pride in the testimony that we as an institution possess an exclusively intimate understanding of God’s person. The authenticity of that information relied on it being more than mere musing, more than speculation, and more even than inspired utterance. Mormonism claims direct, dialogic revelation, and heavenly manifestations to boot. Most will be familiar with the story of the boy prophet who in 1820 went into a quiet grove in upstate New York seeking spiritual answers, and in turn witnessed “a pillar of light” pierce the veil of human ignorance. Revelation was had on the earth once more! This, we are taught, was the inception of the restoration of many "plain and precious” truths that were long lost from Christendom, particularly the vanished reality about who and what kind of being God is.

In 1834, leaders of the fledgling Church of the Latter-day Saints held a sacerdotal class in Kirtland, Ohio where they boldly asserted that without the “correct idea of [God’s] character, perfections, and attributes … the faith of every rational being must be imperfect and unproductive,” for “without the revelations which he has given to us, no man by searching could find out God” (1835 ed. D&C, Lecture Third, p 36; or Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations: Vol. 2, Published Revelations, p 346). To members of our faith, Mormonism is the receptacle of God’s final revelatory dispensation, a time of consummation in which “God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, … in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest. All … shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times” (D&C 121:26,28,31). Or, in the dogmatic words of Bruce R. McConkie, “God stands revealed or he remains forever unknown” (McConkie, “The Lord’s People Receive Revelation,” Ensign, June 1971, here).

Despite the definitive nature of these declarations, Mormonism also claims the right to ongoing revelation; doctrinal development is to be expected to a certain degree. Using the biblical vernacular, “[God] will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept,” here a little and there a little, enabling us as children to grow from grace to grace (D&C 98:12). This type of gospel learning is supposed to be a progressive education, where fragments of truth are disclosed piece by piece, slowly contributing to the theological “big picture.” For this reason many accuse Mormons of having no theology at all, there being no strictly canonical system by which our revelations are made accountable. Exaggeration or not, this elasticity has in some ways proved an advantage for LDS advocates; like nailing Jell-O to a wall, critics have a hard time formulating arguments that hold any sway with church membership. To its credit, Mormonism’s “doctrine” is flexible enough to avoid most criticism while accommodating a modest variety of convictions.

With that in mind, there is still a certain consistency that is expected of the canonized revelations. After all, their source is Jesus, “the Spirit of truth,” who promises the Saints “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” God solicits his gospel as ultimate truth, and himself as its impeccable vendor. “Whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.” “I, the Lord, promise the faithful and cannot lie.” (D&C 62:6; 93:24,25). Reconciling the versatility of the restored gospel with the absoluteness of revealed knowledge became a lynchpin for me in my own pursuit of solid testimony. I have discovered that this endeavor is an arduous task, even for the most persistent students of Mormonism.

Having believed these things explicitly myself, I endeavored for many years to homogenize the teachings of the LDS standard works into a standardized, compatible whole. Over time I developed special, interpretive skills that made this easier. These “private interpretations” allowed me to sidestep very difficult passages — such as Isaiah 45:5,21 in view of D&C 132:20  by limiting the scope of their application and by developing special definitions for otherwise plain language (apparently a divine practice as well, per D&C 19:5-12). My instincts are not unique; I am a product of the modern “correlated” church, which engages in this process regularly. And frankly, what other choice do the faithful have? The modern Mormon gospel is in this regard very much the product of our second generation theologians (Widtsoe, Roberts, Talmage, etc.), who recognized the discrepancies and began efforts to correlate our doctrine into a consolidated whole.

It must be conceded that doctrinal tenets of all world religions experience change over time for a variety of social, cultural, economic, and political reasons. The Latter-Day Saint tradition is no different in this respect. But when it comes to our revelations we are made to expect precision, for “who am I, saith the Lord, that have promised and have not fulfilled" (D&C 58:31)? And again, "whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same" (D&C 1:38). Remarkably, the vast majority of alterations in Mormon doctrine have their roots in the brief sixteen year period from 1828 to 1844, in parallel with Joseph Smith’s incumbency as prophet. Beyond this period, the inspired Mormon hierarchy shot Joseph's doctrine in almost every imaginable direction before it was roped in early in the 20th century.

As a case study over the next few posts, I will briefly show the development of the Mormon concept of Deity, since it was this problem that first caused me to reconsider the orthodox understanding of Mormon claims to divine revelation. It appears that our honest efforts to align the gospel have instigated the retrofitting of current LDS Godhead ontology (i.e. nature of being) back into our earliest revelations, and with notable seams. I believe an examination of the earliest concepts will show that our collective “private interpretation” is demonstrably anachronistic.

Members of the Church needn’t look far for an illustration: the Book of Mormon can be regarded as the most thorough representative of Joseph’s earliest theological views – he once called it "the most correct of any book on Earth" – and is thusly the most distinguished from modern Mormon doctrines. Today’s students of the book will encounter a number of curious teachings and esoteric phraseologies that are more at home in a 19th century protestant context than in today's LDS theology.

Without retroactively reading our current teachings into the text (looking at you, 1916 First Presidency/Twelve Statement, “The Father and the Son”), what does Mormon’s book explicitly teach about God the Father? How does he identify himself therein? In what way is he differentiated from God the Son? Is the Father an anthropomorphic, or embodied, God – and if so, how so? Book of Mormon theology is not cut-and-dry, but I will try to show the best native interpretation in order to avoid eisegesis.

From beginning to end, the Book of Mormon venerates a singular, supreme being known variously as Lord Omnipotent, Lord God Almighty, Most High God, Eternal God, and Eternal Father.  Most importantly, this supreme deity was apparently known to his ancient American adherents as Jesus Christ, the “Son of God.” In this respect, the title page's message is abundantly clear and fairly represents the book's contents. A more straightforward example when the prophet Amulek was asked if there was more than one God, besides the True and Living God. He responded expressly, “No.” After an accusation of polytheism regarding the doctrine of Christ (as a distinct divine entity), he is then asked, “Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father?” Amulek responded without hesitation, “Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth, and all things which in them are; he is the beginning and the end, the first and the last; And he shall come into the world to redeem his people.” Amulek adds that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are “one God,” claiming to have received his revelation about the incarnate God from an angel (Alma 11:26-40, 44).  

The Nephite record further identifies “God the Father” as Jehovah (“I am the First and I am the Last” – Isaiah 44:6), the same who covenanted with Israel (Mormon 9:37), and the very same who “should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of man” in the person of Jesus Christ (Mosiah 13:34). This emphasis on the incarnation of God is represented consistently throughout the Book of Mormon. As a reflection of Joseph’s earliest theological views, the Book of Mormon didn’t just allow for God’s anthropomorphism, it demanded it!

In the Book of Mormon, an angel proclaimed to Nephi the true identity of the person named Jesus: “the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world.” This gives definition to the dualistic statement, “there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth,” namely, Jesus Christ (1 Nephi 13:40,41 1830 ed.). Jesus’ mother, Mary, is revealed as “the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh,” and afterward the angel reiterates Jesus’ identity as “the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!” (1 Nephi 11:18,21, 1830 ed.)

How then should we understand the Book of Mormon’s more explicit declarations regarding the identity of Jesus? “Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son” (Ether 3:14). Jesus does not simply claim the title of Father, he says "I am the Father!" In the following chapter, Christ reiterates the point to Moroni: “He that will not believe me will not believe the Father who sent me. For behold, I am the Father, I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world” (Ether 4:12). There are many such statements littered throughout the Book of Mormon.

What then of the likewise numerous incidents that draw distinction between the most high God and His Son (1 Nephi 11:6,26; Alma 14:5; 3 Nephi 17:14,15; etc.)? Some of them take the form of poetic repetition and can be seen as consistent with the doctrinal pronouncements of strict monotheism espoused throughout: “they had Christ for their shepherd; yea, they were led even by God the Father;” in other words Christ is both shepherd and God the Father (Mormon 5:17).

The apparent confusion in the Book of Mormon about who covenanted with tribal Israel is likewise dissolved by this interpretation. Christ’s straightforward admission that “I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel” is reconciled with his saying, “the Father hath made [the covenant] unto his people, O house of Israel” by the summary proclamation, “I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth;” for “the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one” (3 Nephi 11:14,36; 15:5; 20:12).

Still, there are cases of real distinction. In every such case, however, the scripture borrows heavily from New Testament texts, events, and vernacular (which itself doesn’t come close to the Book of Mormon’s emphasis on tri-unity). The very best examples of individuality (i.e. 3 Nephi, Father's witness, etc.) are not original, they are borrowed from the King James NT almost verbatim. In fact, many of the subtle alterations made to the text in transition show Joseph's redactional intent by his plain response to Biblical controversies of his day. Accordingly, many of the classic New Testament pronouncements repeated by Jesus in the Book of Mormon are modified to remove aspects of apparent ambiguity and instead harmonize Jesus' sayings in line with Joseph's visionary apologetic for Christ and the Bible. He harmonized distinctions between members of the Godhead to fit his own understanding of the trinity doctrine, which at the time insisted that the Father and Son are the same. For example, notice the change in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount as taught to the Nephites, “Be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven[,] is perfect” (3 Nephi 12:48, cf. Matt 5:48 - variation). They are identical.

Another when Christ is leaving the Nephites; he teaches the people they “must always pray unto the Father in my name.” Returning the following day, he finds the twelve disciples reiterating his instructions to “pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus.” Accordingly, “they began to pray; and they did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God.” After a rendition of the intercessory prayer from John 17, Jesus discovers “they did still continue, without ceasing, to pray unto him.” Christ does not reprove them, he “blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them” (3 Nephi 18:19-21; 3 Ne 19:6,18,24,25). Thus, in the Nephite record at least, the intercessory prayer is portrayed as a point for emulation rather than an interpersonal plea to a superior deity. “As I have prayed among you even so shall ye pray in my church … I have set an example for you” (3 Nephi 18:16).

I find that other examples of personality distinction between Father and Son in the Book of Mormon are best understood as differentiation in their salvific roles. Why do I apply that interpretation? I think it exerts the least amount of stress on the text. Again, it should not be forgotten that the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost is emphasized repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, and more so than any other standard work: “which is one God, without end,” “which are one God,” “being one God,” etc. (2 Nephi 31:21; Mormon 7:7; Mosiah 15:5). 

Granted, this concept can be interpreted any number of ways, but the book of Mormon is very specific in its unique contributions. Unity of being is definitely implied in existential, ontological terms: “For if there be no Christ there be no God; and if there be no God we are not, for there could have been no creation. But there is a God, and he is Christ, and he cometh in the fullness of his own time” (2 Ne 11:7). Prophets “testified of the coming of Christ… Behold, he is God, and he is with them [in Jerusalem], and he did manifest himself unto them” (Helaman 8:22,23; cf. 1 Nephi 10:17). An excellent summary of the Nephite prophetic identification of God is as follows:

“He said unto them that Christ was the God, the Father of all things, and said that he should take upon him the image of man, and it should be the image after which man was created in the beginning; or in other words, he said that man was created after the image of God, and that God should come down among the children of men, and take upon him flesh and blood, and go forth upon the face of the earth.” (Mosiah 7:27)

Beyond that, the Book of Mormon goes out of its way to expound in great detail the semantics behind Jesus Christ’s identity as both the Father and the Son. According to the prophet Abinadi, “God himself shall come down… and redeem his people.” He predicts, “because he [God] dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son—The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son—And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth. And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people” (Mosiah 15: 1-7).

In other words, it is Jesus’ conception that makes “them” one God, validating both the titles 'Father' and 'Son'. This teaching clearly sets forth the metaphysical oneness of God in Christ. Abinadi further specifies that because of God’s incarnation in flesh, he becomes the Son; and because his flesh submits to the Spirit (as the tabernacle of God), he is the Father embodied. The appellations “Father” and “Son” are apparently implied as a dualistic metaphor for mortal flesh submitting to divine will represented in the embodied deity, Christ. Jesus thereby becomes the perfect exemplar.

The Lord himself distinguished his title of 'Son' as unique to an embodied deity, while his pre-incarnation person (or spirit) was the Father God: “I come unto my own… to do the will, both of the Father and of the Son – of the Father because of me, and of the Son because of my flesh” (3 Nephi 1:14). This was spoken in anticipation of the incarnation; more on that later. Hence, the various mechanisms of the Godhead represented mainly by Father and Son are probably best understood as separate salvific roles operating in the same divine being. Examples of Christ speaking about ascending to the Father can easily be interpreted to suggest Jesus is reassuming his patriarchal role in the heavens, as did the early Christian modalists with corresponding NT texts. Getting back to Mosiah 15, verses 8-11 further demonstrate the roles, or modes, fulfilled by this monadic Deity.

Christ is presented as the saving, intercessory figure (taking Jehovah’s divine judgment upon himself) who can simultaneously sympathize with mortals (flesh/Son) and appease perfect justice (spirit/Father), allowing humanity entrance into the divine family by adoption. This adoptive exchange is notably the only way in which humans are said to be sons of God in the Book of Mormon. The later LDS doctrine of mankind as the literal offspring of a divine parent finds no support here. To the contrary, mortals become the sons of Christ by repentance and spiritual rebirth (“he shall see his seed” – Mosiah 15:11). This perhaps clarifies the creative emphasis of the title “Eternal Father of heaven and of earth, and all things which in them are” found repeatedly in the book (Alma 11:39). Humans are ontologically "other" from God in their natural, created state and will remain as such until they repent and submit to Jesus as their Eternal Father. At the end of his discourse, Abinadi refers to Jesus by this ultimate name-title, “the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father” (Mosiah 16:15). Ultimately, Jesus and God the Father are treated as an identical entity in the Book of Mormon, even as their salvific roles are sometimes distinguished and dramatized.

To be clear, I don't believe Joseph Smith ever viewed God in absolute, creedal Trinitarian terms, and the Book of Mormon's fluid theology bears that through. Most Christians then and today understand God in the Biblical vernacular of “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," but not at all in a rigorous theological sense. In my judgment, the Book of Mormon teaches something that is much closer to the 3rd century Christian heresy known as Monarchianism or Sabellianism. More broadly, this 'heretical doctrine' has been labeled Modalism for its singular Deity enacting salvation through three special modes; viz., Father as justice/will, Son as mercy/executor, and the Holy Ghost as truth/sanctification. Thus, much of the sermonizing in the Book of Mormon speaks of them distinctly for their relative meaning in the book's soteriological-focused dramatization.

As touched on earlier, however, these divine titles were occasionally applied selectively depending on the time of their usage relative to God's incarnation. Although God is identified clearly as the embodied Christ throughout the Book of Mormon, some exceptional revelations disclose his ontological status as a “Great Spirit” prior to Jesus' birth (Alma 22:9). Indeed, Alma does not correct the apostate Zoramites in their belief about God: “that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever,” except for that last clause, which caused him to lament their belief “that there shall be no Christ” (Alma 31:15,29). Joseph's Book frames the Great Spirit God as Jesus, simply pre-embodiment (see Ether 3). In the words of LDS historian Thomas Alexander, “The Book of Mormon tended to define God as an absolute personage of spirit who, clothed in flesh, revealed himself in Jesus” (Alexander, The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine, p 25).

So looking slightly beyond Mormonism's founding text for a moment, but keeping it in mind, what more do Joseph's early revelations teach about God's ontology? Not surprisingly, the contemporary accounts are mostly harmonious. It has been contended by some that Joseph’s 1830 revision of Genesis 1:26,27 (taking place shortly after the Book of Mormon's translation) necessarily implies that God and Jesus were always considered separate, physical beings: “And I, God, said unto mine Only Begotten, which was with me from the beginning: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Moses 2:26). Given the general agreement of attitude between most of these texts, it seems to me the distinction of personalities here is more easily understood as an expansion of the existing creation drama in Genesis - both extrapolating the plurality of speech already present in that account while also incorporating the Logos doctrine from John 1. As we'll see in future posts, Joseph revised the Genesis creation myth variously throughout his prophetic career.

The Godhead's union of identity in Joseph Smith's early thought is elsewhere plainly attested in Joseph’s biblical emmendations: “no man knoweth that the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son, but him to whom the Son will reveal it.” And another that reflects Mosiah 15: “Christ Jesus… is the Only Begotten Son of God, and ordained to be a Mediator between God and man; who is one God” (JST Luke 10:22; JST 1 Timothy 4:2). The earliest revelations given to Joseph likewise synthesize Father and Son personalities in a vaguely modalistic way, while retaining the New Testament rhetoric (D&C 3:20; 5:20; 6:2,16,21,37; 11:2,10,28; 19:1,4,16,18, 24; 29: 1, 42, 46; 49:5, 28; etc.). Hence, the early revelations and Joseph Smith’s “Inspired Translation of the Bible” seem consonant with the Nephite record that the Father and Son are co-operating mechanisms in one God, who was a spirit being until his birth as Jesus Christ. Early Mormonism taught a kind of chronological modalism, roughly.

Despite scholarly and ecclesiastical condemnation of this “heresy” at its Christian advent, it persisted among laity and practitioners of folk religion until Joseph Smith’s day. Although Mormonism’s earliest converts were from a protestant background, the majority were nevertheless seekers institutionally, primitivists theologically, and most were ecclesiastically uneducated. So while these may have accepted modalism as a consistent extension of biblical Christianity, there were some better trained in theology who criticized the Book of Mormon’s concept of God as heterodox early on (see Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations, p 146). It was not until he was surrounded by exceptional converts like Sidney Rigdon that Joseph’s conception of the Godhead began to evolve toward something like Social Trinitarianism – much closer to what the church teaches today.

Continued in Part II...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What's Your Damage, Soldier?

Col. Jessup: “You want answers?”
Lt. Kaffee: “I think I’m entitled to them.”
Col. Jessup: “You want answers?!”
Lt. Kaffee: “I want the truth!”
Col. Jessup: “You can't handle the truth!”
– A Few Good Men (1992)

What a terrific exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson! As a film student, I really enjoyed the thematic conflict between these two characters and their opposing values. It seems like both sides of the argument have weight to them. Re-watching the movie more recently, however, I am disturbed by how accurately this character clash represents the conflict of ideals between those who demand undiluted truth in their religious worship and those who feel justified in disclosing only that which is faith-promoting – “Lying for the Lord.”

As a regular participant in priesthood quorums growing up, I was often asked to teach lessons from the manual. I scoured through endnotes and reference material hoping to find interesting quotes and background information. I loved finding hidden gems that nobody knew about (in the deacon’s quorum, mind you). Sometimes I was asked to speak in sacrament meeting; I would accordingly boot up our family's noisy 56k modem and hope nobody called the home phone number while I searched online for engaging anecdotes.

On one such occasion, my Dad was helping me look for sources about the fall of Adam when we ran across a search result flagging quotes for Brigham Young, something about the “Adam-God Theory.” I glanced at my Dad for approval and he nodded, intrigued. What we found was your prototypical Anti-Mormon site – lots of quotes, little context. It was strange; I had been hearing inspired teachings and stories about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the intrepid pioneers who settled the Salt Lake Valley for years, but I had never heard anything like this:

"Now hear it, O inhabitants of the earth, Jew and Gentile, Saint and sinner! When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. He helped to make and organize this world. He is MICHAEL, the Archangel, the ANCIENT OF DAYS! about whom holy men have written and spoken – HE is our FATHER and our GOD, and the only God with whom WE have to do. Every man upon the earth, professing Christians or non-professing, must hear it, and will know it sooner or later. … Who is the Father? He is the first of the human family.” – Brigham Young (Journal of Discourses, Vol 1, p 50, EMPHASIS and italics theirs)

My father and I exchanged a bewildered gaze, chuckling nervously. I think neither of us quite knew what to make of it. Evidently my father didn’t trust the site’s source because he asked me to click the supporting link. I'm sure we were thinking the same thing: Brigham Young couldn’t have taught that from the pulpit, right? Sure enough, we were presented with scans of Brigham’s discourse dated 9 April 1852, straight out of the Journal of Discourses (which is published by the Church). A General Conference address, no less! We read the sermon in its entirety and decided there was no other explanation – Brigham was off his rocker! Adam-God was shelved.

I share this story because although I didn't recognize it at the time, it was a watershed moment in my faith development. In addition, I understand that most of my readers don’t know me personally and I want to offer some background for my thoughts. Perhaps some of you will be able to relate. Let me here try to summarize my approach, and get to the bottom of what exactly led to the wreckage of my faith in the LDS Church.

Throughout my youth, I was lead to believe that all of the prophets from Adam to Enoch to Moses to Christ had been teaching the same revealed truths and doctrines from the beginning. Essentially, the same things I was learning in Sunday school every week. This first encounter with Brigham's strange notions about our first parents is my earliest recollection of differentiation among my inspired leaders. What I saw in that sermon didn't line up with what I saw in the scriptures or what I was taught by current leadership. Eventually, it evolved into an active discounting of certain prophets as unreliable – mostly Joseph's early successors. The deeper I delved into the history of LDS theological teachings, however, the more I realized that Adam-God theory was only the tip of the iceberg.

In my previous post, I lamented my having passed the threshold of trust in our prophets' divine callings.  I have for all my life subscribed to the credence they suggest they deserve in matters pertaining to God and salvation. Apart from seeming anomalies like Brigham, they have until recently retained the very best benefit of my doubts. But the more I learn about our history and doctrines, the further I am forced to contort my reason around substantial obstacles. While I admire their aspirations, the doctrine is sufficiently diverse so as to frustrate my belief in a common origin for their teachings.

That is why we follow the prophets in the first place, isn’t it? Because they speak with God face-to-face and receive revelation like Moses and the other patriarchs. The prophet is supposed to be God’s mouthpiece. Ironically, it is because I have tried to honor their teachings as prophetic that I have been “tossed to and fro, ... carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). Too often, it became a question of ‘which prophet, which era?’ rather than a sure source I could turn to for consistent guidance and knowledge about religion. The more inconsistencies I discovered, the more I was angry and frustrated that these things were hidden from the membership and that I was misled to expect uniformity in the first place. Without this as an anchor what else can we rely on to know the church is true, or that God is literally guiding us as a people? Perhaps personal revelation is the answer. If my graduation from the LDS seminary program has taught me anything, it is that I can read and pray about the Book of Mormon to know Joseph Smith is a true prophet, that the Church is true, and therefore gain a testimony that we have a true prophet living on the earth today.

Sympathetic friends and counselors have wisely recommended that I “seek revelation and apply the Alma principle in this process.” I can honestly say I have given my best efforts to know the doctrine, to know God and his Son as we teach them, and to know these things by the Spirit, as we define it. I believe Alma teaches a true principle in Alma 32 – a scientific process almost. Over the 13 years I have seriously pursued this process, I have received no definitive, positive answer about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or how the hell I am supposed to coalesce the mess that is Mormonism into ‘God’s Solemn, Revealed Truth.’ When I present my problem, the inevitable response from members is a resounding ‘Shelve your concerns and keep praying!’ How oft then must I pray over the same faith-seed that refuses to grow?

Believe me, I have wanted it to grow. Desire and faith are not the issue. With some kind of distinctive, divine confirmation my concerns could feasibly fade into oblivion. But they amount to much greater significance because my efforts to confirm the divine origin of the church have been fruitless. I have employed Alma’s methodology in discovering the truth of the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, but not to the desired results. “Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away” (Alma 32:32). I do not propose to throw out the baby with the bath-water, but I am ready to re-examine the premise of my faith and go where the evidence leads me.

But the faithful don’t approve of this course of action. The integral question becomes, at what point do we know we have prayed enough, studied enough, searched enough to be able to make an earnest decision about it? Doubtless, the orthodox opinion is ‘never.’ If you aren’t receiving a positive answer, the obvious issue is your lack of sincerity, or real intent, or faith in Christ, or patience, or endurance, or whatever. Something is amiss in your life that is preventing you from experiencing the only possible outcome – that our particular brand of religion is the ultimate truth for humanity. Did you pray? Yes. Did you get a ‘Yes?’ No. Pray again until you do. That’s called a circular argument, folks; the logical black hole.

On the other hand, I am sympathetic to their plight. There was a time in my life when I never could have considered the possibility of an ultimate answer in the negative. Close relatives have been quick to observe that my change of mind is probably the product of my choices since coming home from my mission. I am 25, recently divorced, struggling to finance and complet my college education, and still not really sure what I want to do for a career. It is true that the path I have chosen in my life since I returned home from my mission has been a key factor in my change of perspective. Without these life experiences (some of which have fractured my traditional understanding of the world around me), I would not have been willing to venture much thought into these problems. Not because they did not merit thought, but because they were contrary to my faith paradigm and were therefore easier to ignore.

It was the disruptive that pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to see what I now see with clarity. Some who are close to me have expressed the opinion that my judgment is shrouded and I am set on a course that could destroy my soul. I don’t blame them personally for this judgmental point of view; leaders of the church have consistently espoused a self-confirming methodology to deal with outside/contrary thought. If I am in agreement with orthodoxy and properly aligned, then I am clean and coming unto Christ. If am in opposition on any point, then I am a heretic, apostate, etc. Admittedly, this is a simplification, but the underlying principle can be found in the Lord’s moniker: “And by this you may know they are under the bondage of sin, because they come not unto me. For whoso cometh not unto me is under the bondage of sin” (D&C 84:50-51). In the church’s view, for all intents and purposes, they are “the Lord.” So that leaves myself and others like me “guilty until proven innocent,” so to speak.

This tactic of criticizing a contrarian’s spiritual standing arouses my mind to an increasingly apparent source of irritation to me. I have been vocal about my concerns in the hopes that I can find support and possibly answers in my struggle. But in an effort to discourage inactivity and questioning leadership, church authorities (and the membership by extension) assume and imply moral fault in questioning individuals to thereby disarm their criticisms and discredit their voice as part of the community. Henceforth, any issues or questions I could raise automatically hold zero merit due to their perceived nature, regardless of how substantial the comments are. With regards to cultural, social, and possibly ecclesiastical standing, it seems that honest critical analysis of our history, leadership, or official church doctrine feels tantamount to tightrope walking the New York City skyline without a parachute; it is kamikaze in nearly every sense.

Considering this experience, I am led to reflect on the sad historical reality that has played out for those honest enough to point out the vices with the virtues. Real cultural/historical studies aspiring to embrace an unbiased approach have been summarily dismissed by leadership and even denounced from the pulpit by general authorities (even ones as generous as Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling). Take for example D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View or Richard Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History. Historians who strive for these ideals are too often censored and disallowed speaking privileges in meetinghouses. Case in point, Linda K. Newell & Valeen Tippets Avery were censored for their work on the award-winning biography, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, because it portrays “a non-traditional view of Joseph Smith [and early church history],” according to the LDS hierarchy (Preface to the Second Edition, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, p xii). In defense of this action, Elder Dallin H. Oaks offered:

"My duty as a member of the Council of the Twelve is to protect what is most unique about the LDS church, namely the authority of priesthood, testimony regarding the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Savior. Everything else may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts. Thus, if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors."
– Linda King Newell, “The Biography of Emma Hale Smith,” 1992 Pacific Northwest Sunstone Symposium, audiotape #J976; as quoted in Anderson, Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon, p xliii, fn 28; Emphasis mine.

Discussion of these facts is thence left to outliers and “apostates”, usually forced to the sidelines by the common rhetoric ideal: Either the church is true or it is not. Black or white. No middle-ground. Do we not understand that by thus marginalizing thoughtful, believing members because of historical and doctrinal studies, we are creating artificial apostates? Despite what the Book of Mormon says about cosmic duality, my experience in the world and in the church tells me nothing is simply black and white. We build straw-man dichotomies when we say, “Each of us has to face the matter – either the church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing” (Hinckley, “Loyalty,” April 2003 General Conference). By following the brethren and local leaders, the general membership will therefore zealously dismiss any rational thought or discussion of alternative concepts. The author of a subversive Book of Mormon commentary summarizes the resulting problem of “group faith” conformity:

“It may as well be a dream. It involves our collective slumber. We get pictures in our head when we are taught some truth and presume that the picture is accurate. Then after we have repeated the “truth” often enough, we go on to believe the picture must be all-inclusive.
“Once we’ve arrived at that point, the truth no longer matters. Our minds are made up. We’ve decided the answers, and no further evidence will be considered. This certainly is reinforced when more people reach the same conclusion because they share the same picture in their head. You get together with others and testify that you are all in possession of the truth; not only the truth, but ALL of the truth. Before long every one of the group can pass a lie-detector test about the truth as they explain it.
“As a result, this herd is incapable of ever seeing the picture differently. They cannot open their minds to the idea that their picture is skewed or off. It is most certainly incomplete. It is, in fact, so far short of the whole story that when any part of the remaining missing information is shown to them they are certain it is a lie.
“It is painful to part with our suppositions and the traditions we hold dear. It is painful to admit there may be much more of the picture we have not yet considered, much less seen. It causes anxiety and fear. So much fear in fact, that when it comes to 'eternal truth,' people literally put their lives in jeopardy if they denounce the falsehoods of the herd and proclaim the truth to those whose peace of mind and self-identity is tied to the incomplete and misleading picture they believe holds all truth.” (Snuffer, Jr., Removing The Condemnation, p 3, emphasis his)

In hindsight, it seems clear to me the lengths we sometimes go to reach the perceived community consensus. True opportunities for learning are thusly extinguished for the sake of comfortable unity. Pride is another element that sometimes prevents us from seeing reality beyond our prescribed filters. No matter the underlying reasons, when authority is automatically exercised to silence heterodox thought, our growth is stunted. It is written, “when we undertake to ... gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man [/organization]” (D&C 121: 37). Amen!

John Stuart Mill echoes my sentiments on freedom of thought/reason in a community context: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race ... those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error” (John S. Mill, On Liberty, 1869, emphasis mine). The summarized result is a policy of half-disclosure typified by Boyd Packer’s rationalization: “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful” (Packer, "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect", 1981, BYU Studies, Vol 21, No 3, pp 259-271).

I take it as an absurd attitude of spiritual arrogance and condescension for the brethren to withhold substantial and truthful information on the basis of protecting the "integrity" of the church's essential truth claims. It does more harm to believers to be dishonest, to tell half-truths, and censor sensitive topics completely than to be forthright and potentially hurt some feelings. It is also counter-productive to crusade against honest seekers who are pursuing truth. Doubt and skepticism can be as much a part of finding one’s footing in life and religion as faith and hope. But in our spiritual economy, we too often place a premium on absolute, unquestioning obedience:

"Some members are constantly evaluating the gospel by the standards of the world. … [Some] common reservations are flagged by words such as 'yes, but . . .' when scriptures or prophets are quoted. Or we may hear, 'I am not going to let the Church make my decisions for me.' Obedience is a fundamental law of the gospel. … But the philosophical standard of the world holds that unquestioning obedience equals blind obedience, and blind obedience is mindless obedience. This is simply not true. Unquestioning obedience to the Lord indicates that a person has developed faith and trust in Him to the point where he or she considers all inspired instruction — whether it be recorded scripture or the words of modern prophets — to be worthy of obedience. … Let us believe all things. Let us have unquestioning faith in all of the doctrines and truths of the restored gospel.” (Elder Robert C. Oaks, "Believe All Things," Ensign, July 2005, page 30)

Contrast this to an earlier mantra belonging to Brigham Young’s presidency. To his credit, he insisted the Saints use their God-given freedom to think, act, and question for themselves:

“What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation…” – Brigham Young, 12 Jan 1862 (Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol 9, p 150)

And Again:

None are required to tamely and blindly submit to a man because he has a portion of the priesthood. We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark, that they would do anything they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God… would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without asking any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their minds to do wrong themselves.” – Elder Samuel Richards (Richards, Millennial Star 14: 593-595 – Emphasis mine)

So it ought to be. Joseph Smith originally delineated his theology from that of Methodism and other Christian sects of the day by noticing the common restraints placed on free thought and theological expression. Joseph’s foundational claims were based on the drive for truth! He says, “I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’; which I cannot subscribe to” (Oct. 1843 Address, Documentary History of the Church 6: 56-59). This open-mindedness was part of the religious genius that made him such a dynamic charismatic. Unfortunately, even in Joseph’s lifetime limits were installed to dictate where exactly free thought and free speech could flow. Certainly not against Joseph’s person, lest you invite a flying trumpet your way or the destruction of your printing press.

Speaking of which, I recently read through the Nauvoo Expositor again. I recommend you read it for yourself (good scans of the original facsimiles here). Perhaps many will be reticent to read from its pages. Most know that it was the beginning of the end for Joseph Smith. Or rather, the subject of the paper was the beginning – polygamy, plurality of Gods, power-mongering, etc. – the issuance of the paper itself was the culmination of these woes. Having trusted apologetic scholarship for so many years, I was expecting to find the blackened, vicious lies that were promised me all along. Instead, I was seriously disappointed to find still more corroboratory testimony of Joseph’s private promiscuity and abuse of his ecclesiastical privileges. It pains me to think that I blindly trusted the words of respected leaders and apologists when they described the bitter, enraged apostasy of so many previously faithful members who conspired to disavow the Lord’s anointed, and slander his good name and character.

These were decent men like First Presidency member William Law, who, “with his arms around the neck of the Prophet, [plead] with him to withdraw the doctrine of plural marriage, which he had at that time commenced to teach to some of the brethren [privately]... Mr. Law pleaded for this with Joseph with tears streaming from his eyes” (Joseph W. McMurrin, “Mr. Law’s Testimony”, Improvement Era (May 1903), 507-510; also available here). After Joseph allegedly approached William’s wife, Jane, to propose a polyandrous relationship, his friendship with William spoiled and distrust encumbered them both. Joseph denied charges of polygamous practice vehemently in public and slandered anyone who opposed him. Ultimately, Joseph illegally removed William from the First Presidency and from fellowship with the Twelve on 8 Jan 1844, the same day William recorded the following in his Nauvoo diary:

“I thank God that He opened my understanding to know between truth and error, in relation to plurality & community of wives, and that I had fortitude to tell Joseph that it was of the Devil and that he should put it down & I feel that I have opposed a base error and that the eternal God is on my side, and if I am persecuted it is because I vindicate principles of virtue and justice, not that I wish to injure any man, but I love the truth, and hate to see the virtuous destroyed and brought down into corruption and vice, and finally cast upon the world as unclean.” – William Law (Lyndon W. Cook, William Law, p 46,47 – Emphasis mine)

Knowing now more fully the manner in which Joseph conducted himself in employing polygamy in his private affairs, and having read the words of these “apostates” for myself, I can sympathize with them fully. It is fitting then that William and his brother Wilson, in company with a few others, took courage at the risk of reputation, property, and apparently their lives in order to stand for the truth. William chose the adage, “The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth,” for the tagline of his expository newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. The first and only issue was printed 7 June 1844; it claimed to reveal the truth about the prophet's illegal and immoral actions in Nauvoo. Joseph and the city council had the printing press and office destroyed two days later, an action which ironically resulted in more damage than the paper alone could have managed. Joseph was murdered within weeks.

It is for this reason that I have adopted William’s tagline – both to pay homage to the premiere “Anti-Mormon” publication whose function was to shed light on "secret combinations," and to somehow offset my decidedly Pro-Mormon blog title. Ironically, the purported anthem on both sides of the spectrum is the worthiness of the sincere truth quest. The question then I reiterate: is the truth better served by full-disclosure, or are we justified in selectively representing it to serve a higher cause?