Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The One True Church?

Kevin (MidKnight543) recently expressed strong objections to an experience I described in Church recently, where I felt the Spirit had born witness to me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "is Christ's Church.... the only Church that acts with Christ's full authority and has a true and complete understanding of his doctrine." He said he would quit following my blog as a result.

My purpose in writing this blog has, of course, always been to find a way forward as a gay Latter-day Saint. There have always been folks out there who think I'm crazy to be a Mormon. There are other faiths that are much more accommodating of same-sex relationships, and why couldn't I embrace one of those instead? Mormonism is so obviously a fraud and hokum, etc., etc. And then of course there are (probably the majority) within my own faith who reject the various spiritual experiences I've had prompting me to stay in relationship with my husband. All those folks are entitled to their opinions. I'm even open to having civil conversations with them on my blog about my beliefs, and am happy to explain why I believe the way I do and not some other way. And in the end, I hope for some respect, just as I try to be respectful of others. And if you're really unhappy with my views, and it really hurts that much to read them, no one has ever obliged you to read my blog.

If someone finds any of my views so upsetting that they don't even want to read what I have to say, it is probably pointless to try to rationally explain my views to that person. So I debated as to whether I should even make the attempt here. At the same time, I do understand why certain people might be offended by the statement I made, especially if they take it out of context or don't understand how it fits in the overall framework of my beliefs and values. So, for the sake of those who were offended or confused but who are nonetheless still reading my blog, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss this a bit -- both what it does and does not mean to me to believe in "one true Church."

The religious experience I described is -- first and foremost -- just that. An experience. Intellectually, I find it more comfortable and defensible to back away from the kinds of absolutistic statements I described receiving as a witness of the Spirit. It's perhaps my own personal discomfort with the statement that is prompting me (perhaps somewhat defensively) to feel I ought to explain myself here. I could certainly rationalistically distance myself from the experience. I could try to explain it away in terms of religious psychology or sociology. But the point is, this is an experience I had. It is not something I chose to have (at least not consciously), it is something that came to me quite unbidden. I did not expect to have this experience when I went to Church this past Sunday.

Nor, should I add, is it necessarily an experience or a revelation that makes life easy for me. Embedded in the experience was my sense that it is not helpful for me to argue with Church leaders (such as Elder Boyd K. Packer) about the morality of same-sex relationships or the nature of homosexuality. For obvious reasons, that's not so convenient for someone in a committed same-sex relationship.

But what I've discovered in my journey is that advancing spiritually requires a certain level of trust. It requires learning to recognize the Spirit of the Living God, and surrendering to it. When I have done so in the past, the Spirit has led me in fruitful, life-giving directions. I have -- in other words -- a relationship with God that is tried and tested and has been validated again and again for me. So even when the Spirit's promptings are intellectually uncomfortable, I've learned to trust and see where they lead me.

That is the importance of this experience that I've had. What does it mean to have received (and to accept as valid) a revelation that the LDS Church "is Christ's Church.... the only Church that acts with Christ's full authority and has a true and complete understanding of his doctrine"? It means potentially lots of things, but first and foremost it means I have an obligation to stay committed to this path somehow. It means I won't ditch it for some other spiritual path that is more pleasing or convenient to me. I am committed to learn what I need to learn from this path, no matter how personally difficult it can be at times.

Here's what it doesn't mean: that I think what everyone else believes is a load of crap. That I have no respect or love for other faiths or other churches. Anyone who has read my blog for more than a few entries knows how much I cherish and love every faith and every religious path that individuals pursue sincerely and with devotion. I am fascinated by other religions, and I spend at least as much -- if not more! -- time studying them as I do my own. Other faiths teach me profound truths about my own. Furthermore, other faiths have truths that are often overlooked in Mormonism, and that enrich my life as I am able to incorporate them into my own, Mormon belief system.

My own faith teaches me that if I am to be a true believer in Jesus Christ, I must love and respect people of other faiths as my own brothers and sisters. I should be as willing to defend them, serve them, and strengthen them as I am members of my own faith. I am utterly committed to their freedom of worship and freedom to practice their faiths, so long as doing so does not infringe on the rights of others. (And I will also be quick to jump into the fray on the side of religious freedom and against my own faith community, if I perceive that my faith community is trying, in some way, to infringe on the rights of others.)

Finally, I recognize that others may have strong beliefs that conflict with my own. Others may belong to Churches that they have their own reasons for believing to be "the one true." I have no problem at all with that. My advice to anyone in any religious path is that you must follow your conscience, find truth as best you can, and be faithful. I feel I have the right (and the obligation) to demand the same privilege.

I believe that every person of faith -- no matter what faith they profess -- has a moment where they, in essence, confess, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6: 68). Everyone has some reason why they choose the religion they choose and why they -- push comes to shove -- believe their faith is truer than any other. Different faiths promote different hermeneutics for discerning truth. Conservative Christians emphasize a more literal reading of scripture and the sufficiency of the Bible alone. Liberal Christians emphasize reason. Mormons emphasize the Spirit and modern-day revelation. That's why a Conservative Christian will justify his or her beliefs through proof-texting and a close reading of the Bible. A Liberal Christian will stress how his or her rational evaluation of truth claims has led him or her to embrace a certain system of faith. Mormons, on the other hand, will certainly read scriptures carefully and subject truth claims to rational analysis, but in the end give priority to the witness of the Spirit. A Mormon, in the end, is encouraged to choose their true religion because it is where the Spirit has guided them.

Mormons are constantly attacked by conservative Christians on scriptural grounds, and by liberal Christians on rational grounds. Conservative and liberal Christians alike, on the other hand, get offended when Mormons simply explain that they believe their church is true because the Spirit has witnessed it to them. But there's no point in getting offended by that, any more than that Mormons should be offended that conservative and liberal Christians question their hermeneutic on scriptural or rational grounds.

I do believe that something wonderful can happen when we get over this kind of defensiveness and commit to learn from each other. If we can't hopefully learn from one another on these terms, we can at least hopefully co-exist peacefully and lovingly.

8 comments:

calibosmom said...

That is the one part of my testimony I have always struggled with because it sounds so arrogant. Thank you for explaining it in a way that makes it sound just the opposite. Isn't it great to live in a country where freedom of speech is possible?

J G-W said...

Yes! It is great!

And if we live in such a religiously diverse culture (America is the most religiously diverse nation in the world!) it is because every religion has something to offer that is valuable enough to attract many, many good people, people of intelligence, conscience, and integrity.

That part of our testimonies does sound arrogant. And "one-true-church" type dogma has a rather unsavory history in Western culture, going back to times when Protestants and Catholics massacred each other and burned each other at the stake.

I know Utah doesn't always feel like the most tolerant place to non-Mormons, so again, I can understand how a non-Mormon Christian living in Utah might feel threatened by the kind of testimony I bore on my blog... But that simply isn't what my testimony means to me. It's not about trying to take anything away from anyone else.

I think of the tremendous sacrifices that the Saints made in Nauvoo, on the plains, and in the West, trying to build a perfect community based on love and equality. And it was their testimony of the Church that inspired those sacrifices, and that inspired much of what is best about being a Latter-day Saint. That's what it means to me...

Jonathan Langford said...

I think it's helpful to remember the whole scriptural phrase: "true and living church." The Church is true because it's founded on gospel truths. It's living because it's founded on the premise of continuing revelation. It may be that other churches are in some sense true (in that they teach true things), but only The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is both true *and* living--i.e., possessing the capacity to receive more truth through designated divine channels. Most Christian churches don't even try to make that claim.

J G-W said...

Jonathan - Thanks... Yes, that idea of the LDS Church being Christ's "living" Church was definitely part of the witness I received last Sunday, part of what made it so powerful to me.

I would hasten to add -- again, so others don't misconstrue, or add to that something to that that it doesn't mean -- many Christians in many denominations do have a "living" relationship with the "living God." And there's nothing in my testimony of the LDS Church to suggest that those relationships aren't real, or that the Spirit is not at work among those people and in those churches. I have experienced it, and I know it is real.

But that witness of the Spirit about the Restoration is ultimately why, after nearly twenty years of building my faith in other churches, I found myself returning to the LDS Church. I hope people won't take offense, but that is my reality. I'm not trying to tear other people's faith down... To the contrary, I'd like to build others' faith up in any way that I can.

By the way, Jonathan, I've finally finished reading your book, and I loved it! I've been working on a review, and plan to post it shortly!

Jonathan Langford said...

John,

I absolutely agree with your comment about people of other faiths having a living relationship with God. Many people of other faiths, or even of no faith at all, may have a better and stronger relationship with God than most Mormons (even if they think of it in some other way, as in the case of some very good people I know who happen to be atheists).

Your comment about building up other people's faith makes me think that perhaps a testimony inherently must be a positive thing: a testimony of truth, not of falseness, if that makes sense.

I'm pleased that you enjoyed No Going Back, and I look forward to your review. I actually stumbled on your website doing a Google search on my book title (which I do from time to time in order to find out what people might be saying about it, if they are). Since then, I've been trying not to comment on your posts, because I thought that might make it awkward if it turned out that you didn't like my book. But this morning I couldn't help myself...

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Gay Mormon said...

here here, We can do so much more good in the world if we forget our differences and treat each other like equals, brothers and sisters.