True, Not Perfect
Note: This post is primarily targeting members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Please pardon my use of the Mormon jargon.
“I know this church is true.” You might be able to go a week without hearing that string of words in a Mormon congregation, but certainly not a month. Every Fast Sunday that comes along is almost guaranteed to have at least a handful of members proclaiming this as part of their testimony. By itself, however, this phrase has little meaning. What it really is is shorthand for a concept that is not easily put into a sound bite.
“I know the church is true” more explicitly means that the speaker has a conviction that the LDS Church is the one and only church of Jesus Christ in that it is run by His authority through His priesthood with leaders who follow Him to the best of their ability and who receive inspiration and revelation to facilitate that leadership. Moreover, that any errors or imperfections in the church are there because of man, but that Christ will compensate and justify honest mistakes to continue the work of His church. That through the ordinances provided by the church that we are able to make binding covenants with Christ, and through service in the church and to our fellowmen that we show ourselves worthy of His grace. And finally, that through the scriptures and prophets of the church that true doctrines of the Gospel can be most effectively learned.
You may have noticed a few points in that last paragraph where human error might come into play. We also believe in human error – even in leaders of the church. The church may be true, but is not perfect.
Before I get into too much trouble with those statements, let me quote a couple of scriptures. First, Article of Faith 9 says, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (emphasis added) This is not just referring to the concept of continuing revelation for the guiding of the church through modern challenges, but to new and important information (dare I say doctrine?) to add to our understanding of the Kingdom of God. If we are missing important information, how can we consider it perfect?
Second is from Wilford Woodruff in the first Official Declaration, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” Yet we know that the Lord allowed imperfect practices (born of good intentions or ignorance?) in the form of denying the priesthood to blacks. Due to this apparent contradiction, the only way to reconcile this is through the principle of agency. We are expected to do our best and seek guidance from the Lord. Our state as imperfect mortals means that we will not always do the best thing, even if we’re trying our best. Hence the initiation and propagation of imperfections.
So, this is awkward. This is how we end up with situations that give rise to organizations like the Ordain Women movement in the church, for instance. We have conflict between the current practice of the church, which some see as needing correction, and our responsibility as members to sustain the leaders of the church.
So, let’s say you’re someone who believes a practice of the church is wrong or imperfect. Say you feel you even received personal revelation to the effect that the practice would be changed some day — which is something a person may be entitled to receive, depending on their circumstances. What, then, are you obliged to do with that belief? Do you hold it sacred and keep it a secret? Do you use it to help alleviate someone else’s suffering? Do you share it publicly, with the caveat that you intend to follow current practices until it is changed? Do you question whether you were given the personal revelation to help prepare the membership for a coming change? I would argue that all of these are at least forgivable if not reasonable courses of action to this kind of belief.
I would draw the line at publicly questioning the leadership of the church. I don’t think we can intentionally suggest publicly that the General Authorities are not doing what they should be doing without risking our salvation. If we as members feel that the General Authorities are in error, and are willfully ignoring that error, it is our responsibility to either find a way to reconcile our beliefs to the church or leave it. Either this church is true, and the Lord will not allow it to be lead astray, or it is not, in which case, our belief in the church has been the straying. This is a weighty decision to make. To cause others to have to make this decision because of my choices and public statements is not a responsibility I would want to take upon myself.
The Lord uses the agency and transgressions of men for his own purposes. Consider Adam & Eve and the Crucifixion. These terrible events had to take place to allow the greater work of the Plan of Salvation to proceed. Is it that impossible to consider that the Lord uses the imperfections of his prophets to teach His flock and provide for us?
I believe that the leaders of the church are, in fact, lead by Christ. I trust them to follow the Lord. If they are aware of a potential error in the practices of the church, they are being lead in regard to it. A change will come, or it won’t. I will pray for understanding and unity.
Having questions and concerns about the church is normal, and in many ways part of the learning and faith-building process. Discussing concerns and even advocating for change can be a very good thing. However, if we truly believe that the church is lead by Jesus Christ, and is not just some other man-made institution, we need to stop short of criticizing the leaders. We need to have sufficient faith that the Lord will make all things right in His time frame. The imperfections of the church will not prevent our eternal progression unless we choose to dwell on those imperfections.
I love the church. I love my brothers and sisters. I love the discourse among passionate members. I hope we, as a church, can work through this period of turbulence, and find ways to disagree without causing others to lose faith. Dialogue and discourse are extremely healthy, conflict is not.
I know the church is not perfect. Despite that, it is still true.
Logic and Truth are Insufficient
As a follow up to my post on truth seeking, I want to offer some thoughts connecting my post to an article in the New Yorker recently. The New Yorker article details the work of Brendan Nyhan who has studied the effect of media campaigns on the perception of political issues and policies. He has found that political beliefs — and, indeed, deeply-held beliefs of any kind — are almost impossible to change via marketing, discussion, logic or even broadly accepted facts!
To me this seems obviously related to our evolutionary bias for tribalism, which specifically helps us define ourselves as members of a group for protection. Of necessity, this bias also results in a desire to create “us” and “them” identifiers, which we use to maintain the integrity of the “tribe.” This is also the basis for a whole lot of nasty human tendencies: racism, sexism, religious tensions, extreme nationalism, etc. So, this bias is/was evolutionarily beneficial, but is highly problematic in a modern world.
Groups of all sorts are defined by their set of beliefs, from political parties to religions to social clubs to nations to families. Members of those groups often use shared beliefs to define their membership in those groups. So, as we are biologically biased to preserve our membership in groups, it makes sense that beliefs that tie us to those groups would be difficult to let go of. This is what Nyhan found in his research, and what I indicated was challenging in my previous post.
In discussing Nyhan’s findings with a friend, it reminded me of something I learned from my mother, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology, which was that people don’t really change as a general rule, but there are few things that can prompt substantial change in an individual:
- A near-death experience
- A life-threatening illness
- Cognative restructring, often achieved through psychological counseling
- A dramatic change of heart, often associated with a religious conversion
Perhaps this means that next time you run into someone with whom you have a deep fundamental disagreement, rather than trying to convince them that you’re right, you either need to guide them through therapy on the subject or convert them to your belief. Or you could just agree to disagree.
Guns & the Gospel
You know, I grew up in a family with guns. I learned how to shoot targets in scouts. I appreciate the second amendment. However, at some point, you have to say, “enough is enough.” The ability to own a gun is the ability to take a life. Given the number of completely innocent lives taken in the past week, let alone year, we cannot stand by and do nothing to protect those innocent people.
I’m not necessarily saying we should dramatically cut gun permits, though that might be a good option. In my mind a better solution would be to have some real consequences for “innocent” gun owners whose weapons discharge accidentally or are used by someone else to commit a crime. If you are not taking care of your weapon sufficiently to protect its misuse, that is gross negligence, because you have delegated your ability to kill to someone else who was not responsible.
That is where I stand on gun laws. You can have your guns, as long as you take the responsibility for any life harmed by your guns.
As for myself owning a gun, I have no desire to do that. It seems clear to me that Christ’s teachings permit defending yourself and your family with bloodshed, but advise us to rise above violence. “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt 5:39)
Don’t get me wrong, defending the innocent is a righteous cause; preserving freedom is a just cause; upholding your right to worship the true God is a just cause, but none of these are a necessity. God will save the innocent – if not in this world, then the next. Our most important freedom, to choose our own actions, can never be fully taken from us. We can worship God in any circumstance. If we are righteous, God will fight our battles.
Yes, we live in a wicked world. There are serious threats to our physical and spiritual safety all around us. We need to be able to defend ourselves. You may choose a handgun. I will choose the armor of God. I can’t prevent all potential threats to my sons’ health, but I can prevent any accident that might arise from finding a gun in our home. The rest I can only leave to God.
Swords to plowshares, brothers.
Yes, “Pro-Choice” Can be Consistent with “Mormon”
Let me start out by saying this is an unpleasant topic. It saddens me to think of all of the legitimate reasons women might choose to end a pregnancy. However, because of the current political climate and the lack of real analysis happening within the Church, I feel compelled to write this in order to provoke thought among my fellow members.
Most Mormons consider themselves to be Pro-Life. This is probably due to the Church’s very clear stance on abortion; it is permitted in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life or health is threatened. Naturally, being otherwise against abortion, we want to prevent it in other cases. Hence, the vast majority of Pro-Life Mormons.
If this was a rule that could easily be enforced without causing women who have been abused any additional pain or stress, I might agree that more strict Pro-Life laws were a good idea. However, this is not the case. In fact, determining whether any of those three criteria might apply in a certain scenario is more likely to cause contention than not.
Let’s take the medical scenario first. Who is to decide whether the mother’s life is threatened? Hopefully her doctor is making that call and not the government or an insurance company. What if her doctor is particularly pro-life or pro-choice? Could the woman seek out a second opinion, or a third? What percent chance of death should be considered enough of a threat to allow an abortion? You can be sure that no matter how the law was written to enforce a policy, some women wanting abortions would die from this, and some with little risk of death would be able to get a legal abortion despite the rules.
In the case of incest, what are you going to require from a young woman who has been abused by someone who should have been protecting her to do to prove that it was incest? The earliest a paternity test can be performed is at about 9 weeks. Even at that point, there are risks of causing miscarriage. Would such tests be outlawed for the risk to the fetus? How long would she have to carry the baby in order to prove the charge? What if the test comes back inconclusive? Or even worse, what if the girl has no family members to support her charge, and she is afraid to charge her father with a crime? No crime filed, no abortion?
As for rape, who gets to decide what constitutes rape? Surely we wouldn’t leave this up to a group of men who have publicly stated their opposition to any abortion in any form. There are a number of states where husbands are allowed to essentially rape their wives under full legal protection. Non-consensual sex is not rape if the people are married. Do we really want to force mothers to bear children into a home where domestic violence is already rampant? What about date rape? Rape under the influence? Does the rapist have to be convicted before the abortion is granted? What if it takes 7 months for the trial to even get to court?
This is all ugly, messy stuff. I don’t believe government is capable of legislating reasonable rules, let alone of regulating or enforcing them. When you add in the challenges of local authorities and corruption, you begin to see how hopeless a clean distinction is.
Particularly painfully, there are the women whose beloved children die before they see their faces. Those mothers, too, are affected by these well-meaning laws. Mothers with miscarriages today are read to from scripts designed to produce guilt in those seeking an abortion, when they should be receiving counsel and comfort. Some have even been taken to court in states with “Personhood” laws, so that the courts can legally determine whether or not the miscarriage was of natural causes. These offenses would only increase with stricter laws.
Our church believes strongly in the principle of agency. There is no freedom more important than the freedom to make your own choices. Some would argue that we can choose to break the law, so restricting abortion rights does not diminish agency. I would suggest that if it is possible make an ethical choice and still break the law, the agency of those who choose to obey the law is diminished, as is the law itself.
Hopefully, we pro-agency Mormons will grow in numbers as the ramifications of legislating this kind of morality becomes more apparent.