Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Faith Promoting History II

In response to my last post, Bravone mentioned how at one point he wrestled with certain aspects of the Church's history, and temporarily lost faith as a result. I have had similar experiences, and I know of many others who have too. I suggested that it is not the facts of history themselves which pose challenges to our faith, but distorted or naive assumptions that we bring to the facts. When those naive or distorted assumptions are proven false, we become disillusioned and lose faith.

I don't claim great wisdom on this subject. Like Bravone, I must confess that I have occasionally failed crucial tests of faith. But I would like to share some insights I've gleaned over the years. I do have a testimony of the Church, and I can say that having read widely and deeply in Church history, I find that my testimony of the gospel grows only stronger the more I learn. But there has been a winnowing process where false notions have had to be filtered out.

Below are two lists I've compiled. The first is my "Seven Deadly Historical Assumptions." The second is "Seven Blessed Historical Virtues." Just as we must learn to avoid the sinful assumptions, we must also embrace the virtues in order to develop a perspective on Church history that will strengthen us as a people.

First, the Seven Deadly Historical Assumptions:

1) Mormons never did any wrong, and were always innocent victims of Gentile persecution.

Historical conflicts, such as those that abounded in the early days of the Church, are always complex. The early Saints often antagonized their neighbors unintentionally or unknowingly. The early Saints were human, and often failed to communicate adequately, often suffered doubt (and the fanaticism that is sometimes an overcompensation for doubt), and sometimes retaliated unjustly for injustices they had suffered. Like anyone, the Saints could fall victim to the "ends justify the means" mentality that sometimes leads to atrocities.

The Saints often were innocent victims. And the history of the early Church is also full of stories of inspirational kindness, long-suffering, hard work, and endurance. The verdict of history, as interpreted both by Mormon and non-Mormon historians, has generally fallen on the side of the Saints. The early Church did suffer grievous wrongs. But they weren't perfect, and an appropriate sense of humility requires that we acknowledge that where appropriate. If we don't, we risk committing the same sins of fanaticism that our ancestors sometimes committed.

2) Church leaders never commit serious errors.

We all accept that Church leaders are not "infallible" or "perfect." Yet, we still somehow draw an imaginary line dividing serious error from inconsequential error, and we want to put all of our church leaders safely to the "inconsequential" side of that line.

Yet, read the scriptures. They are replete with stories of divinely called leaders who commit serious, sometimes even grievous errors. This didn't invalidate their calling. It didn't mean they weren't true prophets. It didn't mean that the Lord would refuse to continue working with them. It didn't mean that the Lord couldn't still use them to accomplish his work. It did require a repentance process just like everyone else.

3) The prophet and apostles can never teach false doctrine.

It is true that Church leaders will never lead the Church astray, but the reason is not necessarily because Church leaders are immune to false thinking, or because God will miraculously strike down or remove an errant leader. Rather, it is because the members of the Church have the gift of the Holy Ghost and are required to use discernment. The failure to use discernment is a sign of spiritual laziness and pride, two of the sins that lead to apostasy.

Look hard enough at the historical record, and you will find a number of stinky old false doctrines that at one time or another were eagerly promulgated by prophets or apostles of the Church. We generally don't know about these doctrines any more for a good reason. Because they did not survive the test of time or the collective discernment process of the Church.

4) The Church is not influenced by the culture in which it resides.

Line upon line, precept upon precept. Here a little, there a little.

When the Church was established, all of its first members participated in a culture that was (and remains) in many ways apostate. They were not "blank" slates, devoid of false ideas. Many false ideas are never challenged precisely because they have wide cultural currency. That is to say, so many people believe them that they never think to challenge them.

And generally, the Church has received revelation in response to queries or problems. In other words, much of the darkness in which we dwell is not necessarily illuminated by God until we as a people have taken the initiative to seek light.

Mormons have, in turn, created a culture which is largely of their own making. Some elements of that culture are based on divinely inspired insights, but many are just based on human error. Increasingly, as the restored Gospel has spread throughout the world, some of those (erroneous) cultural assumptions have been challenged. Sometimes we have wisely risen to the challenge.

5) Every single historical claim ever made by a Church leader must be literally true, or the whole restored Gospel must be false.

God calls leaders for a variety of reasons. Rarely does God call a church leader because that person is a knowledgeable historian.

6) Every policy of the Church that has ever existed was inspired and intended by God.

An institution as enormous and complex as the Church requires a myriad of practical, day-to-day decisions to be made. Those who are called to make those decisions often must make them based on minimal information because they simply don't have the time to do painstaking research. And generally it is counterproductive to challenge or question every single policy, even when there are problems with it.

Hopefully the most important or the guiding policies are implemented based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit as well as knowledgeable assessment of the situation, as the Spirit requires.

7) No criticism of the Church has ever had any basis in fact.

Many critics of the Church have criticized out of less than charitable motives. Many are motivated by a desire to tear the Church down. But sometimes well-meaning folks are wrong, and sometimes ill-meaning folks have a gem of truth that bears listening to.

The Church would be wrong to adjust course every time a well-meaning (or ill-meaning) criticism is voiced. But we set ourselves up for bitter disillusionment if we inure ourselves to the possibility that course adjustments are occasionally called for.

The frequency of the signifiers "never" and "ever" in my list of deadly sins should be clues as to what is wrong with most of them. Absolutistic thinking is comforting, because it alleviates us of responsibility, and justifies intellectual and spiritual laziness. But it is dangerous, and ultimately it serves neither us nor the leaders to whom we would like to attribute god-like infallibility.

Just as we should avoid the sins, so we should seek to cultivate the Seven Blessed Historical Virtues, which will enable us to root ourselves in a positive understanding of our past, and to move forward with faith into the future:

1) Don't condemn what you don't understand.

Just because something is counter-intuitive, that doesn't mean it's false.

Yes, the historical record does hold a wealth of examples of situations where a prophet received divinely inspired understandings that seemed false and wrong to everybody around them. Obedience to these counter-intuitive calls or warnings opened paths forward, while disobedience led to stagnation and destruction. That's why we cherish prophets and scriptures and why the Church, though flawed, is still the most precious institution we have!

When in doubt, seek the guidance of the Spirit.

2) Have faith.

Sometimes we don't have enough evidence to judge whether something is true or false. When that happens, it's OK to go on faith.

3) Look beneath the surface.

Things are not always what they appear. The emergence of previously hidden evidence often completely transforms our perspective on things. Pay attention to details.

4) Be charitable.

Sometimes we want to get on a high horse and uncharitably condemn the faults and failings we see in past leaders and members. But hindsight, as they say is 20/20. What sins are you committing right now that only future bumps and bruises will bring to your attention? Some day, history may not look very kindly on you!

5) Look at the big picture.

The truth is, sometimes the morality of a course of action is not evident until we see the long-term impact of that action. Very often, things that look terribly wrong in the little picture work out to be right in the broader view.

6) Understand that God's plan is still unfolding.

We don't know the end of things, and we should expect that there are many things we simply won't know until the work of God is complete.

7) Be humble.

We don't know everything.


Beck said...

This is very timely and helpful. I've been having a conversation with a neighbor regarding these very points and how we judge harshly our leaders and our past based on limited knowledge and understanding of circumstances involved.

I'd love to print this off and share it with her and others. I hope that's okay.


J G-W said...

I'm glad you find it helpful... If I put it out there on the "World Wide Web," it means you're certainly free to print and share!

Anonymous said...


Well said. I agree with each on of your points.


Bravone said...

John, I have been aware of your blog for several months, but not really understood much about you. I have taken some time, a lot, to read through much of your blog, and intend to eventually read it all.

Your story is truly amazing.

Thank you for these two most recent posts. I needed to hear them and am grateful.

J G-W said...

Well, Bravone, this post was specifically triggered by your comment, so I'm glad you found this one helpful. From some private feedback I've gotten off-line, I gather that others found it really helpful too.

As I said in my other post, I think it would be so exciting to have/teach an LDS history seminar specifically for LDS members that addresses some of the topics that so many people struggle with, but from a faith-affirming perspective. I wonder how we could make that happen? I would so want to be a part of that.

Bill McA said...

Wow, John, this is so amazing and so well thought out that I literally cried when I read it. I too am printing this out and saving it for future reference.

Bravone said...

John, I think some sort of church history seminar would be awesome. Let's give it some thought and see if we can come up with an appropriate forum.

I used to love church history and studied it a lot. My issues are more with how the church tries to white wash some of its history than with any particular event such as polygamy, Mountain Meadow Massacre, etc, etc.

I just need to get over it.

J G-W said...

Bill -- I miss you. We will be in Tennessee again in August. Can we make sure to meet at least once?

Bravone -- Ah, the white-washing problem. I think the root of that is fear. We're afraid of what we might find if we probe too deeply. There's no getting around the fact that the search for greater knowledge and understanding is a trial of faith, by definition.

But let's think about a forum...!

Bill McA said...

I would love it. I miss you too, in many ways, more than you can know.