An Offhand Apologia of Sorts, and some Reflections

I exchange emails with a good number of LDS people. Some of them are simply looking for information, a pointer to the right article or scripture or background. Some of them are finding their spiritual footing to not be as firm as it used to be, which is highly disconcerting. No one enjoys just trying to stay afloat while the waves keep breaking over you.

One such exchange recently ended with a personal question, given X, Y, and Z, why do *you* stay?

It was a busy day, and I only had five minutes (dangerous to write something serious so spontaneously), but I wanted to give my interlocutor something. Since several people have found it helpful, here’s my quick response, edited slightly for clarity and detail. 


I don’t have a lot of time, but let me make a preliminary attempt at responding as a whole.

We have a culture, we inherit a tradition, about definitions, about the past, about many things. Those create expectations, which combine with experiences we interpret from within our own personal worldview (which is shaped by  those traditions, expectations, definitions, etc.) I have often argued to my classes that the strongest testimonies (e.g. those holding them are most able to respond well to spiritual crises of various kinds) are those that are flexible, open-minded, and broad. [I’m writing a long post talking about this.] It’s perhaps ironic that my relationship to the institutional church and my faith are much more resilient because I regularly expect that most of Church administration, hierarchy, and teaching is largely human. I believe God can and does speak to prophets, and I don’t think that belief is incompatible with the idea that the vast majority of day-to-day things that come from Church HQ consists of humans doing the best they can. They have disagreements based on differing world views and understanding of scripture and tradition, and so on. I find that to be both realistic and believing.

Where can I find official and clear statements of church doctrine?
You can’t, but to what end? A catechism? If so, stick with the 13 articles of faith and the temple recommend questions. Make your own beliefs that you can argue for, based on the scriptures, experience, and the best information we have from reliable sources. One of my BYU professors used to say in terms of historical/doctrinal information, “you can have it all, or you can have it consistent, but you can’t have both.” I’m happy to have broad leeway in the Church for what I can believe (what I can preach in Church itself is a different category, of course). But I understand why many LDS don’t see things as I do; I didn’t grow up in the Mormon belt, my Church experiences have been mostly positive, and I’ve read much broader than most LDS in terms of history, doctrine, and scripture. I have low expectations of consistency or “direct revelation” in everything (whatever “direct revelation” would mean. ALL revelation is encultured, and filtered through humans, even prophetic ones.) I’ve lived with grey longer than most because my experiences (such as watching The Godmakers at 16) and formal studies with the Bible exposed me very early to messy history and uncomfortable issues, so I’m very comfortable with contradiction, ambiguity, and gray. I can (and have), for example, acknowledge both 19th-century and ancient Semitic aspects of the Book of Mormon. I’m convinced it’s ancient, but I’m not about to ask anyone out of the Church who disagrees. In other words, I’d like to think I occupy some kind of middle ground that can accept central and basic truth claims of the church while rejecting either Protestant fundamentalism on the one hand or epistemological/scientific solipsism on the other. (The latter, I suspect, is why many exLDS end up as atheists.) So, I stay because my expectations are such that they are rarely violated, because (and I’ve said little about this because you hinted that it was irrelevant) my own experiences have led me to believe that God exists, that he set this Church in motion, that his hand touches it in unique ways, and its core truth claims are true. And also because I have a wicked streak of independence which buffers me from occasional stupidity that comes from high places. I also find that the Church and its teachings (regardless of truth claims, though they are important to me) do more good than evil on the whole.

Now, correlation is certainly a mixed bag, but it’s important to remember that the institutional Church is not a monolith, and the left hand often has no idea what the right hand is doing. I see things as going in a largely positive way, but it will take some time. What evidence is there of that? Recent changes to the Bible Dictionary (as were sent to you), the new pages at on the priesthood ban, DNA, etc., certain hires at BYU, certain publications, some other things. To be sure, not everything is positive, but again, it’s not a monolith. Overall, taken as a whole, I see the Church moving in a very good, centrist direction that acknowledges problems and issues (in process rejecting certain traditions) but not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It will take some time for those changes to filter down to the layperson/ward level, of course, but it is happening.

I have blogged on a lot of these topics. I don’t have time to copy and paste specifically, but see, my recent posts on Genesis and the flood at my Gospel Doctrine blog I also have some biographical posts in there as well.

I’ve also attached an article I wrote that BYU just published in a journal which goes to all CES folks [Religious Educator.] The most relevant part for my email is where I discuss the relevance of the JST and Book of Mormon on Biblical studies. The fact that BYU published this is one of my evidences that at least certain Powers That Be are looking for a non-fundamentalist middle ground that challenges a lot of tradition and assumptions.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful. I have to leave for my organic chemistry class, then teach my Hebrew class, and finish polishing the publication version of a conference article due today.


It’s been interesting to see the uptick in questions and struggles as the Gospel Topics section has grown, as evidenced by various blog posts and emails. I wonder if the effect of these articles could be appropriately termed “creative destruction”, as certain traditions and interpretations are definitively put down, creating conflict. I suspect in the short term, we’re going to lose some people who struggle to reconcile A with B (and such struggles are very real and sincere), but I also think that such articles are more-or-less exactly what the Church needs in the long term.

In the meantime, and more importantly, let’s support and throw a life preserver to those around us who feel like they’re drowning.  “When a battered, weary swimmer tries valiantly to get back to shore, after having fought strong winds and rough waves which he should never have challenged in the first place, those of us who might have had better judgment, or perhaps just better luck, ought not to row out to his side, beat him with our oars, and shove his head back underwater. That’s not what boats were made for. But some of us do that to each other.”- Elder Holland, previously discussed here with more background. An approach or argument or data that one person finds helpful, another may not; I suspect that what nearly everyone needs is just someone “safe” to talk to and emotional support.

Can we offer that to our brothers and sisters in Christ?

51 comments for “An Offhand Apologia of Sorts, and some Reflections

  1. Jason K.
    February 26, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Great stuff here, Ben. It’s so useful to have a hopeful, faithful perspective that takes account of the evident imperfections.

  2. Samuel
    February 26, 2014 at 11:09 am


  3. Steve Smith
    February 26, 2014 at 11:09 am

    “I’m convinced it’s ancient, but I’m not about to ask anyone out of the Church who disagrees”

    An enlightened viewpoint. Thanks, Ben.

  4. Julie M. Smith
    February 26, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Amen. Excellent on so many levels. Thank you.

  5. Ben S.
    February 26, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Steve- Elder Holland said as much in his PBS interview a few years back.

    [You say] there are stark choices in beliefs about the origins of the book. Explain why there’s no middle way.

    … If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That’s what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody’s liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book, but not agreeing to its origin, its divinity. …

    I think you’d be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we’re not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. … We would say: “This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I’m going forward. If I can help you work toward that I’d be glad to, but I don’t love you less; I don’t distance you more; I don’t say you’re unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can’t make that step or move to the beat of that drum.” … We really don’t want to sound smug. We don’t want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.

    … There are some things we can’t give away. There are some foundational stones. If you don’t have those, you don’t have anything. So the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, those are pretty basic things. …

  6. Aaron B
    February 26, 2014 at 11:46 am


  7. Orange
    February 26, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Wonderful. Thank you.

  8. gst
    February 26, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Ben, Elder Holland’s quote from the PBS show is an interesting contrast to his recent conference talk on the Book of Mormon. Not saying that it’s substantively inconsistent, but the difference in tone is stark.

  9. Dave R
    February 26, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    Ben, like Steve, I appreciate what you expressed. But in response to #5, if I tell my bishop that the Book of Mormon isn’t historical and that there never were ancient plates (even if I never share that opinion with other members), I’m very likely going to lose my recommend and get released from my calling.

    It’s nice that Elder Holland said what he did in a PBS interview, but my local leaders probably never heard that. They did hear his 2010 talk where he says members who accept non-historical origins of the BofM have been “deceived” and such explanations are “frankly pathetic”. It’s a little hard to square that with, “I don’t say you’re unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can’t make that step or move to the beat of that drum.”

    Just trying to point out that the institution is not as generous as you are with regards to which faith claims members choose to accept.

  10. Ben S.
    February 26, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Just to clarify, I’m not making the claim that belief and non-belief in a historical Book of Mormon are completely equivalent or should be treated as such, and I don’t think Holland was either. But non-belief is not by itself a deal-breaker for membership or activity. That said, and acknowledging the limitations of personal experience, rejection of all Book of Mormon historicity tends to act as the initial cascade of rejection of other foundational LDS beliefs. In every case but one I have known is that true. In short, while I welcome them (and others) to stay, that welcome doesn’t mean we’re going to cease making the best arguments we can about the best reading and context and coming forth of the Book of Mormon, as well as its spiritual value.

    I would agree with Elder Holland that the alternate theories (Joseph wrote it himself, collaborated with Sidney Rigdon, stole the manuscript from someone, or simply cut and pasted from his large personal library) are highly problematic. Holland is passionate, and given to expressing his views strongly. (Check out his CES talk on the Book of Mormon back in 1994. Between his invite, and his actual delivery, he was called as an Apostle.)

    “the difference in tone is stark.” I suppose in General Conference he is preaching to the choir, as it were. Or perhaps not, who can say?

  11. mtnmarty
    February 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Ben S.,

    I pay attention to the relative mix of entities used by people talk when they talk and behave. There are 2-part models agents and objects, 3-part models, God, Man and World, and so on. Everyone is a unique case, but most LDS can fit into a rough God, Satan, Person, and World.

    Two fault lines where things seem to be shifting to me are how people use Satan as an explanation relative to people and institutions outside the church and how they use World versus person inside the church.

    For example, a growing group of LDS people seem less comfortable describing people outside the church as being under the force and direction of (or at least more influenced than average) by Satan. By no means all members – many are still comfortable saying Obama is the devil’s servant or Muslims or advertisers or the world government group of choice (UN, CFR, Rockefeller). But some members are more likely to think we are all subject to similar forces and less likely to assume other institutions are wrong, deluded or evil.

    Most people are not completely honest with others about where they fall on the (Others-evil, others-good) spectrum because the stakes are pretty high in telling a fellow ward member “You are evil” or “You are nuts”.

    The second fault line is more of an internal fault line in terms of the description of the causes of the choices of people. One could use mental illness, addiction, genetics, education, culture as cases where what might have been described as a choice, a sin and a consequence and changed by the usual methods to modify those, are now open to being described as something to be under stood as less under one’s own choice and more under the influence of the body in ways that can be changed by drugs or other bodily treatment or education, secular style.

    So, the long set up is to ask the question of where your approach is a sensible recognition of the uncertainty we have about the world, the diversity of approaches and not having a need to draw distinctions and when is it operating in a vague way with multiple views of the world and avoiding examining cases or situations that
    would require a choice between them.

    It all reminds me a bit of the perspective of the Arab world to 9/11 where the same person would say “Its a CIA conspiracy and we had nothing to do with it” and then “We really gvae the USA what it had coming and showed what we can do.” Is it really epistemological/scientific solipsism to think this way of thinking is committing dishonesty by contradiction?

    When you say “his hand touches it” or “God can and does speak to prophets” are you being a poet or do you think the touch is material and the speech is audible?

    Are you just saying that the strongest testimonies are those that realize that the church is a story or a poem or a myth where words can mean whatever we want them to mean or are you saying something else?

    Do you really not need to take a stand between say, Distant Observer, who thinks atheistic science is a conspiracy and that BYU is being corrupted and those like myself who think what we observe about the world tells us as much about what God is as does our conscience and our feelings?

    The problem with the middle way, is that despite our desire to get along, compromise is not a good approach to truth. Half-wrong ain’t right.

    Change is afoot. The game is on. The middle way will be tugged more than it has been tugged before. There is nowhere to hide. Makes me proud to be a Latter Day Saint!

  12. Old Man
    February 26, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Dave R:

    If one conclusively claims that the “Book of Mormon isn’t historical and that there never were ancient plates” I’d expect the Bishop to release that personal from their calling to protect both the claimant and vulnerable individuals within the congregation. For example, if someone taught that as a teacher, they’d be accused of promulgating false doctrine. Hardly an atmosphere for spiritual growth!

    But if one simply confides to their Bishop that they personally doubt the historicity of the book and plates, I believe that is a different matter. The difference is that the person has not shut the door on revelation and learning. They still have the courage and potential to doubt their doubts.

  13. Dave K
    February 26, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Thank you Ben. As more church members find themselves adift offshore, members such as yourself, who have already ridden through those waters several times, are becoming a critical resource.

    And speaking of flexibility, I’m quite impressed that you used both spellings of grey/gray in the same sentence.

  14. February 26, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    Interesting viewpoints, Ben. While there are certain core doctrines that senior leaders are very unlikely to soft pedal, there are also many policies, practices, and pedagogical conventions that are subject to change and adjustment. I suspect many of those changes are made on a more or less utilitarian basis: will this change bless or benefit more people than it troubles or inconveniences? Things that now seem so fixed (the three-hour block, offices in the priesthood, what women can do in church, eternal gender roles) actually vary quite a bit within the Church over the years.

    As 1890 and 1978 remind us, pretty much everything is on the table. In the year 2114, Sunday at an LDS chapel might see a female bishop teaching the gay temple marriage prep class during the optional second hour.

  15. Howard
    February 26, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    Ben S.
    There is much to admire and agree with in this post.

    I do think being comfortable with contradiction, ambiguity, and gray helps a lot but it’s important to remember that the church in general and specifically President Hinckley who is sustained as a prophet, seer and revelator sells it as black and white truth or fraud! And this black and white simplicity is embraced by many who willingly become like little children and follow the prophet. In this case the simple undeniable appearance of nuance can cause doubt.

    Could you provide a few examples of what you mean by; beat him with our oars, and shove his head back underwater? I don’t recall anyone who shared they were struggling with faith or belief being brused or beaten but I do recall many handled gently. Are you proposing turning the openness of the bloggernacle into the web equivalent of correlated Sunday school?

  16. Ben S.
    February 26, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    ” I’m quite impressed that you used both spellings of grey/gray in the same sentence.” Yes, well, consistency, hobgoblin, etc.

    “As 1890 and 1978 remind us, pretty much everything is on the table.” I agree, although there is obviously a wide spectrum of things likely to change and unlikely to change. I’ve got a handout that I’ve used in classes that tries to distinguish between core principles and periphery, emphasizing change.

    “President Hinckley… sells it as black and white truth or fraud” As I recall, he was speaking specifically of the Book of Mormon, no?

    “beat him with our oars, and shove his head back underwater” There are plenty of stories of struggling people who don’t find the support they need. Whether they encounter a Bishop who accuses them of apostasy for asking questions, or just don’t ever encounter the right bit of information (and I know that has been the case at times), the rest of us can actively and/or passively “beat them with our oars, and shove their head back underwater.”

    mtnmarty- I confess I don’t entirely follow your comment, so I’ll respond to the bits I do follow.

    “Are you just saying that the strongest testimonies are those that realize that the church is a story or a poem or a myth where words can mean whatever we want them to mean”

    Not at all. I think the most resilient testimonies are those that have placed their faith in the center where it ought to be, and are capable of absorbing and adapting to new information. Instead of being “strong” in the sense of rigid, they are strong in the sense of being deeply rooted, and being able to bend in the wind, until the storm passes. Rigid trees just snap. The most resilient faith can distinguish between core and periphery, survive ambiguity, contradiction, and unanswered questions, and draws fuzzy overlapping Venn diagrams between truth, doctrine, policy, tradition, and culture instead of conflating them all into one giant Gospel.

    “The problem with the middle way, is that despite our desire to get along, compromise is not a good approach to truth.” I’m not sure who you think I’m compromising with. Here’s fuller exposition of the two examples I used. Protestant fundamentalists (of which there are some inroads among LDS) posit a duality in which you must believe everything is a history or you lack faith and reject the authority of scripture entirely. At its extreme, this results in young earth creationists, etc. I reject that duality.
    With scientific solipsism, you get people who believe in strict materialism, that nothing can be known except what science proves. They also are extremely black-and-white. I reject that duality as well, though I grant that this is a bit further outside my comfort zone of knowledge. I’m not a philosopher, whether of science or otherwise. But I’ve seen many LDS wander down that path.
    As Richard Bushman has described, there’s a certain kind of black-white “personality”, that is extremely committed but also rigid. If something breaks that rigidity, they remain black-and-white, they just flip to the other side. Instead of the Gospel being so amazing all the time with no problems ever, it becomes an evil corporation that can do little good at all.

  17. Rosalynde Welch
    February 26, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Ben, excellent post. Low expectations, the key to happiness.

    Interesting that you’ve seen an uptick in struggling testimonies sequel to the new Gospel Topics(and bless you for corresponding patiently with them). I wondered a bit about the viability of the “innoculation” approach in my recent Dialogue review. In general I think it’s the right way to go, and it’s certainly how I’m raising my kids, but I think there are bound to be real human costs. I wonder, in the end, if the only metric is bodies in church (which, of course, isn’t and shouldn’t be the only metric) whether innoculation will be successful in retaining members.

  18. Nancy Browne
    February 26, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    I’d like to offer my new book as a resource for Church members who need a little more meat on the bone–something they can see and touch–to bolster their faith. It is called “Help Thou Mine Unbelief: Scientific, Historical, and Spiritual Evidence of God,” which is available on both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. It looks at all three phenomena to answer theological questions about the reality of God. The book examines the science of divine creation and God-centered evolution as acceptable individual beliefs within the parameters of the Church. Neurophysiology reveals the brain as a conduit for visions, dreams, and after-death communications. Prayer, revelation, and miracles are shown to partner with science, while near-death experiences from people all over the world provide evidence of an afterlife with God. History is used to explain why there are so many religions. It also investigates the figurative and literal nature of scripture stories and explains why remnants of these stories are found in many cultures. The use of symbolism in LDS temple ceremonies is examined, along with confirmation that such rituals existed throughout history. A look at evil and tragedy rounds out this literary journey, culminating in psychological evidence that suggests that mankind is the offspring of God. LDS leaders and educators weigh in alongside scholars and scientists in the book.

  19. mtnmarty
    February 26, 2014 at 5:17 pm


    It is hard for me not to be hard to follow when I’m trying to aggregate many different worldviews. Rosalynde brought up inoculation and I will try an example down that path.

    Let’s say a older child asks you why people some people go to the Catholic church and some the LDS and some not at all.

    What goes into the most accurate explanation? Tradition, faith, self-interest, etc. all factor into that explanation. If one uses a different methodology to explain why LDS people are LDS than for others, then one may not have inoculated one’s children to say, sociological explanation of their faith. However, if if there is not some difference in the explanation, involving, “because gave us a witness” or “because its true” or whatever else, then it seems hard to think you are presenting the LDS story the way the LDS tell it.

    Is losing faith in Allah, coming closer to the truth or receding farther from it?

    What is really “core” to a person’s belief is what standard of evidence for truth they pass along to their children.

    Is it follow your conscience, follow the scriptures, follow the prophet, follow the money, follow your family, follow what I say, follow the majority, follow the wisest, follow the most spiritual or any mix of these?

    For me, the issue is that it is problematic to apply a different evidentiary standard to other traditions than one does to one’s own. But does one really want to tell one’s children to read and pray about every text they come across to determine its truth?

  20. Howard
    February 26, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Ben S wrote: As I recall, he was speaking specifically of the Book of Mormon, no?

    No, not just the BoM.

    President Hinckley:

    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.

    President Hinckley:

    Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.

    It’s problematic. Sure in retrospect it can be spun into an (unconvincing) apologtic but it was apparently offered literally as black and white and the first problem is if he God’s spokesman, God doesn’t understand nuance? The second problem is what does it mean to someone’s black and white testimony when they encounter middle ground that the prophet claims doesn’t exist? It was NOT a forward thinking statement.

    So we have many direct contradictions of prophet statements. The 1949 First Presidency statement about blacks and statements by Brigham Young once made with authority and certitude are now disavowed.

    If you truly want to keep your testimony I think you must follow the spirit not the prophet. The prophets have undermined testimony.

  21. Cameron N.
    February 26, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    If personal spiritual experiences are declared invalid by someone, there is no real dancing around that. That is THE reason.

  22. mtnmarty
    February 26, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Cameron N.,

    Who is doing the invalid declaration and who can’t dance around it and THE reason for what?

  23. jason
    February 26, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    The Church doesn’t give answers because there aren’t any good ones plain and simple. Otherwise today’s questions, which are the same ones facing the Church since the 1800’s, would have been answered many, many years ago.

    Also, and more troubling, the Church is only making the inadequate efforts at responding to questions today because it is forced to due to people learning about the issues on the internet. Otherwise we would still be in the obfuscate and intimidate atmosphere of the 90’s.

  24. Dave R
    February 26, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Old Man,
    I’m afraid I can’t use the word doubt anymore because I now have certainty of the matter. I tested the question of historicity by study and faith over several years. I still consider it to be scripture of equal worth to the Bible. But if you ask whether the BofM is historical, and are only willing to accept one answer, you haven’t really asked the question at all.

    Also, to your concern, I’ve served in a bishopric, a YM presidency, and had two Sunday School callings and never shared my views on the BofM’s origins.

    I do think your assessment of historicity is firmly in the majority. If your bishop or stake president learn you reject BofM or BofA historicity, you’ll be marginalized and pushed out.

  25. Howard
    February 26, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    …you’ll be marginalized and pushed out. Not thrown a life preserver?

  26. February 26, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks, Ben. I think that’s a great articulation of how to stay active and believing in the Church, and how to best help our fellow-Saints: by accepting ambiguity. And it’s hard, and not limited to religion: by and large, my law students crave a bright-line answer, and when the best I can give them is ambiguity, that’s not necessarily comfortable. But when they can accept ambiguity and use their experience to make the best judgment possible, that’s when they’re ready to be attorneys. Similarly, I think, when we can accept ambiguity and make the best judgments we can, we’re ready to wade into the messiness that is life.

  27. Mtnmarty
    February 26, 2014 at 10:27 pm


    If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!

  28. Brian
    February 26, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    Dave, optional second hour? Yeah, right. That’ll be the day!

  29. DavidF
    February 27, 2014 at 12:09 am

    The answer is that J.S. made it up? Is that what we need to confront?

  30. Ken
    February 27, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Mtnmarty: “Is losing faith in Allah, coming closer to the truth or receding farther from it?”

    I get what you’re trying to say, but Arabic-speaking non-Mormon Christians and any Mormons who might happen to speak (or pray) in Arabic (as well as Muslims) also have faith in Allah. Allah is simply the Arabic word used for “God.”

    To your broader point, it depends: If I think Allah has commanded me to destroy infidels (along with some believers, but hey, if you’re going to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs; what’s a little collateral damage, right?) by flying planes full of passengers into buildings full of inhabitants, then I would have to say losing faith in Allah is, at least in a roundabout way, coming closer to the truth. On the other hand, if I think Allah has commanded me to love my neighbor, live the Golden Rule (although it might not be called that in Islam), give alms to the poor, and so on, losing faith in Him might not be such a good thing.

    Me? I think Allah revealed the Book of Mormon (and a bunch of other cool stuff) to Joseph Smith, as well as to all of his successors in what has become what might be called “main-branch” Mormonism. As for what “standard of evidence” I might pass along to my children (I don’t have any, and probably never will – children, that is; not evidence! ;-D). But I’m not exactly sure what you mean when you use that term. Does such evidence have to hold up in a court of law? In a civil case? In an administrative proceeding? In a criminal case? In a lab? Somewhere else?

    I might teach my child that God tends to speak to all of us in ways we can understand. (A child might understand that even better than I do: “Out of the mouths of babes. . . .”) I certainly wouldn’t teach my child that God gives me/us (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) bread, fruit, and fish when we ask for them while giving everyone else stones, thorns, thistles, and serpents – or stones that at least seem somewhat like bread, or thorns and thistles that at least seem like fruit, or serpents that at least seem like fish. Bread is bread, fruit is fruit, and fish is fish – period.

    I would teach my child the truths of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ because I have a firm testimony that that’s the best way to get “an hundredfold” harvest, but I would also teach him that we also ought not be too provincial in our possession of truth, nor ought we to look down our noses at someone else’s sixtyfold or thirtyfold. I would teach him that, at the pearly gates, God isn’t going to tell faithful adherents of other religions who responded to the light they were given, “Oooh, sorry! You were mostly wrong,” and press the buttoI n for the trap door that leads straight to hell (or to the Terrestrial or Telestial Kingdom, or to Outer Darkness). I think He’ll say, “Congratulations! You were mostly right. Here are some other things you might want to consider. . . .” Otherwise, that whole “ordinances on behalf of the dead” thing is kinda superfluous.

    And if, despite my best efforts, my child eventually were to opt for a different path, I would wish him happiness, and would reinforce anything positive I saw in that new path: if I saw anything outright dangerous or destructive about it, I couldn’t still love my child and remain silent about those destructive dangers. (To say that God would still give my child bread, fruit, and fish if he were to opt for a different faith path is not to say that there’s no difference between Thomas S. Monson and The People’s Temple’s Jim Jones.) Either way, I would do my best to employ the counsel of Doctrine and Covenants 121.

  31. Steve Smith
    February 27, 2014 at 10:45 am

    I have to agree with Dave R. What Elder Holland said in the PBS interview is quite a contrast (maybe not necessarily a contradiction, but a stark contrast in tone nonetheless) from what he said in the October 2009 conference: “If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived.”

    As for that CES talk in 1994, Elder Holland equates people who believe that JS was hallucinating to Flat Earthers: “And let’s not have any of the embarrassingly silly pap we have heard from some recently about Joseph earnestly “thinking” he saw an angel and “imagining” he translated from a set of gold plates. Excuse me if I am speechless–absolutely, totally, and bewilderingly incredulous–at such a comment. Is that really said with a straight face? If so, I think we have another candidate for the Flat Earth Society! That whole suggestion simply adds insult to infamy.”

    There is a culture in the LDS church, which emanates from the upper echelons of leadership, of treating doubters and naysayers like blind fools who must be browbeaten into submission, not just people who have a different opinion who some disagree with because of x, y, and z.

  32. Steve Smith
    February 27, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Ken, that is true in the case of Allah that Arabic-speaking Christians (including a very small number of Arabic-speaking Mormons) use the term Allah to refer to God. But take what mtnmarty was saying and substitute Allah with Vishnu, Juju, or Zeus. We’re all atheists, doubters, and unbelievers towards most gods and concepts of god.

  33. mtnmarty
    February 27, 2014 at 12:42 pm


    Thank you very much for your comment.

    Steve Smith puts it well ” We’re all atheists, doubters, and unbelievers towards most gods and concepts of god.”

    I don’t think Allah translates to the same word God that the LDS use. You can see this if we ask each party to the translation the question does “God” mean Jesus? Yes, for one group and no for the other.

    You seem to be judging “mostly right” in terms of commandment keeping but if a big commandment is to have no other Gods, how do we determine “mostly right” from “mostly wrong” with respect to different Gods?

    The world has always been a globe but we are traveling the globe faster and more often and in more ways. The difference in beliefs and values between people and groups to me is obvious, extreme and unavoidable. Conflict over values happens all the time. Religions change, morals change, politics change. A lot and everywhere.

    Whether its Syria or Irag or Ukraine or the US Supreme Court or Greece or the new pope or Ordain Women or The Proclamation on the Family things are always changing in our moral understanding and practice.

    This fact alone doesn’t lead me to any conclusions about what moral position to take other than the Howard’s and Steve Smith’s of the past and future will always have the Old Man’s and Alison Moore Smith’s of the past and future to engage and vice versa, but what they oppose each other about will change.

    The LDS church is interesting in that it has the formal tools to adapt to changing circumstances (ongoing revelation) but as a matter of practice and membership it currently defending a position of wanting to slow down or redirect change in many areas. Cool!

  34. Josh Smith
    February 27, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Ben S.,

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to post your thoughts. They’re much appreciated.

    I’ve found another reason to accept ambiguity on topics of faith is my family relationships. While I have my own leanings on various topics, those I love come to their own conclusions. I find meaning in giving those I love every benefit of the doubt. Regardless of my own conclusions, I can be a supportive spouse, father, son, and brother.

    I’ve found that this strategy only works with a robust sense of humor. Your mileage may vary.

  35. Josh Smith
    February 27, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Oops. Forgot to follow the discussion. Sorry.

  36. mtnmarty
    February 27, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    “I’ve found that this strategy only works with a robust sense of humor.”

    Its amazing to me how apt people’s names often are to their outlook – Josh.

  37. Howard
    February 27, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    …but what they oppose each other about will change.

    I disagree mtnmarty. I think we are experiencing a paradigm shift, an earthquake that is long overdue largely because the church is so resistant to and intolerant of smaller incremental changes as people and society move forward by becoming more enlightened. But this discussion/debate/disagreement won’t last forever though it may reoccur in the future with different players nor is it just about never ending philosophical differences or who’s right or wrong. I think it’s more about who you tend to represent the orthodox, or those who feel marginalized by the orthodox. I see the discussion as a healthy search for homeostasis, when the orthodox become to literal and/or pharisaical for it’s audience the future of the church is threatened and when the heterodox are running the church it ceases to exist in it’s original meaning. So I think the debate is about finding a healthy mix.

    I often appreciate the perspective and sentiment of Old Man’s comments and I greatly respect and often agree with much of the typically intelligent content of Alison Moore Smith’s comments.

    My goals are really pretty simple; greater awareness for all, a bigger tent, greater spirituality and less required (ridiculously) literal belief that causes so much dissonance for so many. While there is a bit of disagreement in the spirituality question the bigger issue by far is about allowing a bigger tent, bigger in which direction and by how much? But the tent is already three times too small just to house all those alive who have already been baptized and it is at least several sizes too small just to comfortably house those sitting in the pews each Sunday without considerable unnecessary dissonance as evidenced by the popularity of the bloggernacle in discussing or working out this discomfort and also evidenced by those who are currently in faith crisis or leaving or left!

  38. mtnmarty
    February 27, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    “…but what they oppose each other about will change.”

    I disagree mtnmarty.

    Well at least you are disagreeing with someone…me. While we are on that, I don’t think much or even most of the change in society is “moving forward” or “enlightened”.

    I’d like beliefs and revelation to be more literal. Otherwise, things are just meaningless words.

  39. Howard
    February 27, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    Btw both sides of this issue are easily seen in this OP and thread, Ben S. is understandably asking bloggers to be genital with those in faith crisis while Dave R points out If your bishop or stake president learn you reject BofM or BofA historicity, you’ll be marginalized and pushed out. Is this throwing them the life preserver Ben is advocating? Obviously not. So while the orthodox plead for mercy on the bloggernacle they tolerate this pushing out by leadership and active members, in Old Man’s words:

    If one conclusively claims that the “Book of Mormon isn’t historical and that there never were ancient plates” I’d expect the Bishop to release that personal from their calling to protect both the claimant and vulnerable individuals within the congregation. For example, if someone taught that as a teacher, they’d be accused of promulgating false doctrine. Hardly an atmosphere for spiritual growth!

    The thing that is ignored or easily forgotten or perhaps conveniently forgotten by the orthodox is that yesterday’s TBM’s are often become today’s heterodox. There but for the grace of God go I. But it isn’t seen that way instead once a member in faith crisis begins critically questioning they are marginalized and pushed out. Worse sometimes labeled anti-Mormons. Yet they are the same brothers and sisters who sat through the 3 hour block with you week after week, year after year and the church still claims them in the membership records when it proudly proclaims 15 million members! Wouldn’t be better for all if we just made a little more room for them?

  40. Howard
    February 27, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    I don’t think much or even most of the change in society is “moving forward” or “enlightened” Perhaps not but secular enlightenment in the form of the civil rights movement sent the brethren to enlightenment school and to their knees finally resulting in the correction of past prophets, doctrine and policy.

  41. mtnmarty
    February 27, 2014 at 4:15 pm


    I thought I was the king of typos and Freudian slips but your’s was just too good.

    “…is understandably asking bloggers to be genital with those in faith crisis..”

    Talk about a kick to the crotch!

  42. Howard Dirkson
    February 27, 2014 at 4:29 pm


  43. February 27, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    Thanks for this, Ben. Really great discussion here on some real nitty gritty topics.

  44. Ben S.
    February 27, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    I have very little time to check in on the thread, so discuss like calm, thoughtful adults lest we bring out the ban hammer…

    And thanks for the comments, all. Many of these are understandably the result of me sending off an email without careful editing, and it’s obvious many things in it can be taken multiple ways.

  45. Clark
    February 27, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    Regarding disbelief I think people are equating several different positions. There may be people with doubts who don’t try and push such doubts on others. There then are people with doubts who do try and push them. (And of course a range between the extremes) It seems incorrect to treat both as the same.

    While I am thankfully not a Bishop I have to admit that were I one I’d think twice about calling someone as a teacher who had huge doubts about scripture. I’m not saying I wouldn’t call them, but I think the spirit would have to give some pretty clear prompts and perhaps explanations before I did so. There’s nothing wrong with having doubts but I think it unfair to treat all doubts the same – especially about core doctrines. (I’d add that I feel the same way about questionable doctrines – it’s one thing if you keep them to yourself but quite an other if you are propagating them)

    Certainly the brethren are fallible. That seems a part of our doctrine. However I think they deserve the benefit of doubt – and often people move from the fallibilist position into the “reject them out of hand” position. Especially if they contradict or personal beliefs. However we can’t just play the “follow the spirit” card either since of course we’re each individually probably far more fallible than the brethren are. At least I suspect I’d trust Elder Oak’s ability to discern spiritual guidance more than my own. So it seems we’re quick to play the fallibilsm card for our leaders and slow to play it for ourselves.

    The reality is acknowledging our weakness while looking at the many forms of guidance the Lord has given me. (I like the model of the three legs of a chair: personal revelation, the brethren, scripture and I’d probably add a fourth leg of common sense) Of course that is itself an oversimplification. Just that I worry people reject the brethren too quickly.

  46. Howard
    February 27, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    Well thought out and well said Clark!

    There may be people with doubts who don’t try and push such doubts on others. There then are people with doubts who do try and push them.

    Sure and others still who reach out to those around them to not feel alone suffering in silence which they are encouraged even expected to do by the church and many of it’s members. That marginalization is isolating, painful and can also be somewhat crazy making as is some of the literal truth claims one must set aside logic in order to pledge allegiance to in order to remain in good standing.

  47. Ken
    February 28, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Steve Smith: Ken, that is true in the case of Allah that Arabic-speaking Christians (including a very small number of Arabic-speaking Mormons) use the term Allah to refer to God. But take what mtnmarty was saying and substitute Allah with Vishnu, Juju, or Zeus. We’re all atheists, doubters, and unbelievers towards most gods and concepts of god.

    I get your point, but I’m not sure about your illustrative examples. I’m not sure how many believers in Zeus are left on the planet. From what little I know of Juju, it’s a concept rather than a deity (similar to, e.g., “karma”). As for Vishnu, are there any concepts in Hinduism that accord with Christianity, and do any Hindus have the light of Christ? I know very little about Hinduism, but I’ll go waaaaay out on a limb and say that the answer to both of those questions is, “Yes.” If that is so, then, “Where much is given, much is required,” and conversely, where comparatively little is given, comparatively little is required. If I, having been given, comparatively, a greater amount of light, sin against that light, I will also receive a greater condemnation than would someone who sins against a lesser light.

  48. JKC
    February 28, 2014 at 9:46 am


    I totally agree that we ought to be slow to emphasize fallibility with the brethren and quick to recognize it in ourselves. But I think I come at that position a little differently than you do. You suggest that the brethren are less fallible and more able to discern the spirit than a given latter-day saint who is not in a leadership position. It’s not clear whether you make this suggestion based on the assumption that the brethren are more righteous than the average saint, or whether you assume that it is the calling itself that gives special access to the spirit. Both assumptions, in my view, are problematic. Certainly the brethren have more administrative authority over the church, but they have no more special access to the spirit than any righteous saint who has the gift of the holy ghost. I agree with you that we ought to “doubt our doubts” about what the brethren say before we doubt the brethren, and we should recognize our own fallibility and the possibility that the brethren are more in tune with the spirit than we are on a given issue, but I think we should do so because that is what it means to have charity and humility, not because the brethren are less fallible than we are. I believe that we are all equally fallible.

  49. Ken
    February 28, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Mtnmarty: “You seem to be judging ‘mostly right’ in terms of commandment keeping but if a big commandment is to have no other Gods, how do we determine ‘mostly right’ from ‘mostly wrong’ with respect to different Gods?”

    Hmmm. I don’t know that I’m doing that. At least, I’m not certain it was my intent: I think it’s more useful (and I thought I made this pretty clear in my previous post; if not, I certainly apologize) to “equate” “mostly right” to “amount of light responded to” (my phrase), or, in other words, how well people live according to what light they’ve been given. More of my thoughts on the matter can be found here (I’ve never posted a link in this forum – I hope this works):

    As for worshiping the Wrong God, I trust that Christ is more than capable of rectifying that in due time: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ.” As much as I love missionary work and am willing to speak with anyone willing to listen about the Good Fruit the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ has borne in my life, I think I’ll leave the “every knee . . . bow[ing] and every tongue confess[ing]” part up to Christ to accomplish on His timetable, rather than presuming that He should accomplish it on mine or anyone else’s.

    Mtnmarty: “Whether its Syria or Irag or Ukraine or the US Supreme Court or Greece or the new pope or Ordain Women or The Proclamation on the Family things are always changing in our moral understanding and practice.”

    Oh, I’m all for the concept of continuing revelation. Still (although to each, his or her own) it seems to me that the Proclamation on the Family was an attempt to articulate timeless principles rather than changeable ones. (There certainly is a strain of thought in the Church that, one day, there will be an “OD – 3” with respect to marriage, along with at least one “Forget everything that I have said …” pronouncement from the Elder McConkie(s) of that era. As much as I don’t want to circumscribe continuing revelation, I don’t see that happening myself, but again, to each, his or her own).

  50. February 28, 2014 at 10:58 am

    I don’t know if I agree totally with everything you dashed off here, but for five spontaneous minutes its pretty good.

    This part touched me:

    I stay because my expectations are such that they are rarely violated, because (and I’ve said little about this because you hinted that it was irrelevant) my own experiences have led me to believe that God exists, that he set this Church in motion, that his hand touches it in unique ways, and its core truth claims are true.

    Your faith shines through.

  51. John
    March 20, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    One of the best blog posts I have read.

    In earlier years when Mormons were secluded geographically and culturally, historical fundamentalism served a worldview born from an authentic pioneering spirit (manifest destiny), hard work, persecution, and much loss. This had a huge upside, for it organized a people around high ideals in very hard circumstances.

    The world has gotten smaller through mass media and the internet; poly-culturalism is now common, and people can see not only the great many beliefs of religions past and present, but their historical rise as well. Further, they can discover the commonalities of doctrines and ideas throughout culture and religion. They can also discover the historical context of scripture, which often is a refutation of most of their traditions. If they are astute, they can also see that a great many people of all faiths have access to the gifts of the Spirit.

    If people believe that they are the only ones who have the “whole truth,” have the only legitimate claim to the Spirit and its gifts, and view their history as a linear course of triumphant saints led by perfect revelation, doctrine, and processes of history where God has his hands on all of the controls, including all the persecutions and sins in and outside of the Church, then this new poly-cultural, mass media world presents a high tension between old tradition held as doctrine and an enormous amount of data which contradicts that tradition.

    Many people get more rigid. Some people blame Satan. Some seem to be flexible, and can hold ambiguity and paradox. Others are loosing their faith because what they have been taught contradicts what they are learning.

    I know people in all of these groups. I find it sad that the first people on this list accuse the last people as being less faithful and deceived by every wind of doctrine. For many, there is a legitimate existential crisis of faith. We do not like holding ambiguity and paradox–no one does. Look at our political world to see just how rampant ideological fundamentalism has become. Still, for sincere seekers of truth who can no longer balance the absolutes they have been taught all their lives with the complex nuances of history and faith, there is crisis.

    Additionally there is another problem, and I think this is a very big problem in Utah Mormon culture; the gospel is often taught as a First World gospel. People talk about the Spirit as if it were a warm fuzzy machine; they speak of challenges that are glib–trials of faith that involve road rage and cold casseroles; righteous disdain for legitimate difference, etc. This is often combined with alarmingly universal statements about “Everyone must forgive or the sin is in him,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” to “Be very grateful for your trials that God has given you,” and “God will never give you a trial you cannot handle.”

    The problem is I know people who have been raped, molested, discarded, ostracized, and have had great things stolen from them–all by their fellow Mormons. These wounds of the soul cannot be treated by platitudes, no matter how sincerely or zealously given. I often wonder how our doctrines, as I hear them, would be understood by someone who had lived through Auschwitz, or a little girl sold into prostitution by her own parents in Bangladesh? Doctrine that provides First World solutions to Third World problems (speaking of the spiritual world) can only be platitudes. To think that such problems do not exist in Utah (or anywhere else) is an ignorance that is dangerous.

    This has been my struggle of faith. Sometimes, when I go to Church, I feel like a stranger in a strange land. I know that these people that I serve with are good and well intended. But admittedly, if these are the real problems they are dealing with than they do not need a Church, but a bowl of ice cream and a warm hug. And often I feel as if my culture has become just that.

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