Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Faith/Doubt, Part II

I guess I'd say that I've always relied mostly on my relationship with the Spirit as the foundation of my faith. Since I've been old enough to think rationally about belief -- and for me, I think that was about when I reached the 7th grade -- I've always more or less understood that there were certain intellectual challenges related to religious belief. (The 7th grade is when one of my best friends in High School who happened to be an atheist started to debate the existence of God with me during our lunch breaks.) I've always understood that there were contradictions within the scriptures, or between certain cherished religious beliefs and what we can learn through science or history or other disciplines. And I've always been interested in exploring those contradictions or challenges, and reconciling them where possible. But my faith has never reposed on the need to resolve all contradictions or challenges or ambiguities. Rather, my faith has been strong when I've had a good relationship with God, and when I've lived in a way so that I can feel the Spirit in my life. As far as the intellectual challenges go, I'm willing to defer resolution; I'm willing to wait and see how things go; and not lose my salvation just because I don't happen to have intellectually pleasing answers to all my questions at any given moment.

Again, it's not that I don't value intellectual exploration of issues related to belief. For instance, when I was in Utah last week, I bought a book entitled Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: Is This the Place?, by John L. Lund. Will I buy all his arguments? Probably not. I'm curious to see if I do. Right now I'm reading The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 by John L. Brooke. Some of the information in this book I find challenging (he's certainly writing from a perspective of non-faith), but I'm also finding things in it that are strangely confirming of my belief in the Church. This is basically the only kind of stuff I read, and I read it all the time. Someone once asked me when was the last time I read anything but non-fiction, and I honestly can't remember. My devotion to the Spirit does not correspond to a devaluing of science or history or anthropology or other similar disciplines that may on occasion seem to compete with or contradict religious belief.

I've read broadly enough on LDS history and theology and textual criticism of the Book of Mormon and so on that I can safely say there's no skeleton in Mormonism's closet that I'm not fully cognizant of. Oddly enough (in some people's minds, maybe) I credit Fawn Brodie with my renewed testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Even though it was more or less her intention to destroy his reputation as a prophet, it was while reading No Man Knows My History that I felt the Spirit testifying to me about him, as I pondered the question: Why would he give himself up and go to Carthage? So I'm sort of a believer in letting folks learn whatever they want about the Church from whatever source (even South Park or The Book of Mormon, the Musical!), and letting them make up their own minds.

I'll say that a lot of things people might learn about the Church that could throw them for a loop don't bother me for two reasons. First, I'm not bothered because I know Church leaders and members aren't perfect. God works perfectly well through flawed vessels, or even through vessels that -- to our eyes -- seem broken. (This is what it means in the Book of Daniel when we compare the Church to the "stone that was cut out of the mountain without hands.") Second, I'm not bothered because the unconventional does not frighten me. (I say this both as a believing Mormon and as a proud, openly gay man.) So polygamy or magical beliefs or whatever other rabbits you want to pull out of the hat of Mormonism don't worry or embarrass me.

I consider reason more or less a friend to orthodox belief because in my increasingly old age I've learned to be humble enough (some would say "credulous" enough) to keep an open mind and accept that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my (or anyone's) philosophy. I am an orthodox believer because I have the Spirit in my life, and because it works. Living by the Spirit and accepting the testimony of Jesus has made my life better and has made me a better and happier human soul.

OK. Anybody who regularly reads my blog knows this about me already. But recently I had an experience that shook me somewhat. I was having a conversation with a faithful LDS friend about Church history. This friend well knows my orthodox (if unconventional) commitment to the LDS Church. And somehow in the course of the conversation there was discussion of the fact that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy (news to my friend) and the (to my mind fairly well settled) fact that Joseph initially practiced polygamy without Emma's knowledge or consent (shocking, very upsetting news to my friend). Now I've lived with these "facts" and more or less made peace with them long enough ago in my faith journey to have forgotten that they ever upset me. But upset me they did, deeply and profoundly, when I first learned them.

Now the friend in question is someone I love deeply. He is also someone whom I would describe as having experienced profound, positive life changes as a result of his association with the Church. His testimony of the Church has been the rock, the foundation, that has enabled him to face some pretty terrifying demons in his life and come through victorious. I would go so far as to say that the Church has been the primary social force for good in his life. And this conversation that I had with him has shaken his faith in the Church profoundly, to its very core.

Now I remember I went through three stages in terms of dealing with Joseph Smith's polygamy. Stage 1 was, "He can't possibly have done what he did to Emma and be a true prophet of God. I cannot possibly believe in anything Joseph Smith did or said any more." I continued to read Church history and struggle with this issue, and eventually I got to Stage 2, which was, "Maybe he was a prophet of God, but what he did to Emma was wrong without any question. If he was a prophet, he was a flawed prophet whom God was able to use to establish the true Church in spite of his flaws." Sometimes, to be honest, I think I'm still in Stage 2 with this. Though, as I've continued to read and ponder, I've come to feel more comfortable with Stage 3, which goes something like this: "Maybe God did command Joseph to take plural wives. Maybe God was trying to stretch the Church and push it to a new conception of marriage and relationships that went far beyond our conventional wisdom on this subject. And maybe in an ideal world, Joseph would have been up front with Emma and with everyone about this from the beginning. But he knew how people would react. How he feared they would react was, in fact, the way they did react. Emma freaked out. Outrage about polygamy was a contributing factor in the events leading to the prophet's assassination. So maybe Joseph had good reason for revealing what the Lord had commanded him only slowly and carefully, even to his wife." With Stage 3 I've even been able to consider that Celestial relationships will likely require extraordinary selflessness of us, a kind of selflessness that the practice of polygamy did in fact require of the Saints who practiced it. Whether I find myself in Stage 2 or Stage 3, some sort of faith is possible. Faith (in an LDS context, anyway) was not possible as long as I was in Stage 1. Which is definitely where my friend seems to be with this right now.

So at some level I feel very bad. Did I do something terribly wrong, by casually revealing to this person some information that has really shattered his faith? My faith eventually recovered from this information, which is part of why I hold to an ethic of believing that it is ultimately not healthy to withhold information from people. But what if my friend's faith doesn't recover? What if he loses his testimony? And what if all the good things that have come into his life as a result of his faith are lost? What if, for instance, he lapses into addiction again without the rock of his testimony to help him resist temptation? Am I responsible for that? So I've really wrestled with this a lot. It's been very painful for me. It's always been my desire to strengthen faith, never, ever to undermine it for anyone.

What I did do was make my friend promise not to make any snap decisions about his Church membership or activity as a result of having learned this. I bore my testimony to him. I told him that there is no question in my mind that Joseph was a true prophet, and the Church he restored is true. I encouraged him to keep reading and learning. I gave him a few titles of books... Donna Hill's Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling. And, yes, Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History. Remember, I got my testimony reading that book, even though I would say I presently disagree with many of her conclusions. I had to let her arguments sit with me for a while, think about them, and weigh them against information that others had to present. And I weighed them as well -- ultimately -- against my own testimony. Against my experience with the Spirit, and my experience with the Restored Church.

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." But ultimately, as my friend and I have spent much time discussing recently, I want to believe and I must believe that "the glory of God is intelligence."

10 comments:

surakmn said...

How many of these crises of faith are unnecessary? Joseph Smith's personal history, including his zipper issues, are hardly unknown to lifers with pioneer ancestry. Many families have long standing traditions involving members who were secretly married to or descended from Joseph Smith. (For all the traditions, DNA testing has yet to find an actual descendant.)

The current unwillingness to look at objective history has real consequences to people who encounter it for the first time during spiritual struggles, or after years of membership. Acknowledging the humanity of early leaders doesn't make them less inspired or their accomplishments less meaningful.

In some cases an ounce of prevention is worth tons of cure.

J G-W said...

surakmn - I agree, 100%.

Neal said...

I think the bottom line on Joseph's polygamy is that we don't have a lot of details. A few journal entries or cryptic references really - that's all there is. What I do find interesting is that Joseph said he had been "threatened with destruction" by an angel of God if he did not obey the Lord's commandment to take plural wives. Is this evidence of the Lord's displeasure in the way he was handling the situation? It certainly sounds like he was pushing back on the idea. He wasn't the first prophet with human foibles, to be sure.

It also seems clear that many of these "marriages" were sealings only and did not involve any physical relationships. They were referred to as "spirit wives". After Joseph's death and with the inauguration of the full Temple ordinances, many people had themselves sealed to Joseph or other Church leaders, including men being sealed to men. This practice continued for quite some time in the Church, but was finally abolished after Brigham Young's tenure (I think - could have been later). The concept of eternal families and people being linked together as one human family was still evolving and growing. What we practice today is quite different than what was practiced in the early days of the Church.

J G-W said...

Neal - Yes, most of the information we have about Joseph's polygamy comes to us second hand. And the second hand accounts don't all agree. So historians can paint very different pictures of what was going on, based on which witnesses they give most credit.

Furthermore, even when we can agree on what deserves to be treated as historical fact, the vantage point from which we view the facts can change everything.

I am aware of the "spiritual" unions; the posthumous sealings; and the male-male sealings. I agree that all of this offers glimpses of a radically different concept of eternal family... Which I actually find quite comforting. I know the Lord has promised me good, and has promised me a place in his kingdom, and I just need to trust in him; and the story of early Mormon polygamy actually just reassures me of the principle that there are "many mansions"and a grace that is larger than what most of us can imagine.

So polygamy doesn't bother me any more... Quite the opposite. I could tell stories of how I've found peace in relation to many of the other supposedly "disturbing" facts about early Mormon history.

Neal said...

I find it comforting as well. I also find it comforting that the Brethren themselves often made mistakes, had trouble with principles, or didn't obey perfectly. In my mind these facts reinforce the authenticity of the work. If everything were Clorox Clean, it would be unrealistic - plastic even.

And I think the concept of eternal families is only partly revealed. Some of these expanded concepts that Joseph struggled with are evidence of that. As a people, we probably aren't ready to recieve them yet. We seem hard pressed to manage even basic human relatioships, as witnessed by the soaring divorce rate, etc. etc.

My only wish at this point it that the Church would be more forthcoming on issues like Joseph's plural wives. Transparency, in the end, is the ally of faith. Your friend should never have had to endure a "shock" like the one he experienced when you told him of this historical fact. That type of information should be common knowledge and addressed appropriately in Church curriculum.

J G-W said...

Neal, I guess we're of a similar mind on this issue. I too think that there's a much fuller doctrine of the family that we've only caught glimpses of. And I also agree that until we've mastered some of the basics, we won't be ready for the advanced stuff.

As for your comment about the Church being more forthcoming and transparent, and the needlessness of these kinds of faith "shocks" and "crises..." I couldn't have stated it more articulately myself. It's part of the reason in my personal life and conversations, I seek as much knowledge about these things as I can find, and I don't hesitate to talk about them.

But I've never witnessed a reaction that was quite as extreme as my friend's... It deeply upset me. For the first time I was wondering if I had done something terribly wrong in speaking openly about such issues.

I think ultimately, I still feel that I didn't do anything wrong in talking about this with my friend. In the age of the Internet, this information is available. And maybe better that he got it from me -- who has a testimony, and has a more positive perspective on it -- than from someone else.

Beck said...

A few years ago I taught a Sunday School class where I took liberties to actually answer questions and deviate discussion topics to get to the bottom of classroom concerns. One of these was polygamy as we studied Church History and the D&C. We spent a couple of weeks trying to put the reality of polygamy in context. This helped very much the student who was struggling deeply with these issues - seeing them discussed in the light of day and followed up by increased faith in the Restoration, not less faith!

However, one participant was offended that I had deviated and allowed such discussions to occur. I was 'reported' to the Bishop - subsequently called in to his office to discuss my class and why polygamy was being discussed. It felt very much like I was being called to the principal's office for teaching incorrect principles.

I confronted the Bishop and told him that I WAS teaching curriculum - how can you teach Church History and D&C and skirt the issue of polygamy and its impact on the saints. I told him how the faith of the class, I felt, had increased because of these discussions instead of decreased, and that I was sorry that one member was offended.

He wisely told me to not worry about it and it keep doing what I was doing, and that he wished more "deviations" could be had over the course of every class. Sometimes we are married to the sanitized manuals that leave the faith of the new and young "shocked" to the core.

There is the concept of "meat" verses "potato" and appropriateness for the revelation of "facts", but to hide such things deliberately under the guise of scrubbed curriculum seems short-sighted at best.

J G-W said...

I should add... I have another friend who joined the Church recently. She was very aware of some of these issues from the Church's history before she joined. Obviously, there's nothing about polygamy in the missionary discussions. And I'm not sure there should be... At the same time, it's a relief to me knowing that this friend of mine is less likely to have her faith shaken because of what she knew up front.

J G-W said...

Beck - That's a GREAT story. And you have a wise bishop...

Neal said...

Yes, Beck, you have a great Bishop.

JGW - I don't think you did anything wring in discussing these issues with your friend. As you said, better he hear it from a believer than from a source with mischief in mind. In this day and age there is almost nothing you can't find on the internet, so I say get it out in the open, discuss it, and move on.