Planted: belief and belonging in an age of doubt

by Patrick Mason

Posted on
religion mormonism

(My own thoughts appear as sidenotes or in italics, to distinguish from the author’s thoughts.)

Richard Bushman categorizes those who leave the church into two broad categories: those who feel “switched off”, and those who feel “squeezed out”. Mason summarizes the switched-off group as those who encounter troubling information about church history or doctrine, and as they discover more information they become jaded by it until they can no longer see the good the church does for them or for others. The squeezed-out group “fully embrace[s] the basic principles and ordinances of the gospel. But sometimes they feel alienated by things like the dominant political conservatism among the members … or how the church ministers to our LGBT … brothers and sisters,” (p. 3).

The church has done a lot of good over the past few years to start discussing difficult issues in church history and policy. They’ve come out with the Gospel Topics essays and created the Joseph Smith Papers project.

Most people with serious doubts already know the answers that faithful people will provide. “Most people don’t really want to be solved. They want to be heard, valued, and as much as possible understood,” (p. 7). Mason wants this book to be a conversation with both serious doubters and those with solid faith, so that there is understanding and love. To Mason, including this in the culture of the church may be the most important factor in helping people choose to stay in or join the church.

faith and trust in a secular age permalink

There are some people who believe all their lives, and things that cause some to doubt only seem to strengthen the faith of these people.Mason says this could be the gift of faith, but I would ask if the tendency not to question is really a “gift”. Faith is a lot like love: it’s a matter of hope and trust. When two people first tell each other they love each other, it is mostly based on hope and confidence in one another. When the expectations are violated by deceit or misunderstanding, it is heartbreaking because it violates that confidence.

Mason recognizes a few common patterns that arise for people in a faith crisis:

  • It’s often the active, committed church members that go online looking for answers to someone else’s doubts who end up surprised and troubled by what they find.
  • Leaders often respond to expressed doubts either by suspecting unworthiness or by telling the doubter that their sincere doubts and questions are sinful.
    • The doubter then feels judged or ignored, and finds online communities where they feel understood, because it seems like people care about truth regardless of the consequences.
  • “Many of these people end up staying in the church, usually for family reasons, but they withdraw into themselves,” (p. 15). Hearing talks or testimonies at church that don’t match with what they’ve read online then further convinces them of the church’s duplicity.
  • This sudden change in their belief in the church causes the doubter to doubt past spiritual experiences, often leading them to doubt the existence of God and the moral standards taught by the church.
  • Family and friends tell the person to study their scriptures, pray, and serve in the church, but the person has already been doing those things.

Here are some of the common concerns of those close to someone in faith crisis:

  • parents: that person will be missing from family events, but more importantly missing from the celestial kingdom
  • spouse: the basis for the marriage (temple covenants) is no longer believed in or held sacred by the person. So much of their life together has been built around church events, gospel practice, and social relationships built in the church. What will happen to the marriage? to their relationships with others? What will happen when one parent doesn’t want their kids in the church but the other does? Will we become the outcasts or projects of the ward?

Mason emphasizes that it is usually not a desire to sin that leads people to come up with issues with church history so they can have an excuse not to believe. He also points out that reading scriptures and praying are rarely enough to solve life’s hardest problems, including a faith crisis. Giving a “formulaic answer” leaves people feeling unloved and contradicts the scriptural commandment to mourn and comfort those who mourn or struggle (see Mosiah 18:8-9).

Secularism isn’t an inherently bad thing like some religious people believe. Secularism provides religious freedom and makes it possible for people of different religions to successfully share the same nation and work together. It also has brought us the preeminence of science and reason in our society. Secularism hasn’t brought the end of religion like some thought it would.

Many of the arguments we find online look like new information, because they’re from recent blog posts and they present information that’s new to us. That makes it hard to recognize that there are people out there who are aware of the factual information presented but still faithfully believe in the church’s teachings. That’s why it’s important to remember to look for answers from inside the church as well.

testimony permalink

One of the primary ways that Christianity scandalizes the twenty-first-century mind is in its insistence that all people, whatever the location or condition of their birth, must believe in and follow the singular Way, Truth, and Life that is Jesus Christ. (p. 26)

In Mormon theology, we are all eternal beings who chose to become God’s children. We had personalities before this life, and those personalities are then filtered through the great variety of human experience to become our individual characters. Mason broadens the definition of testimony to include all experience with God and any commitment to live a religious life.

In the premodern world, the concept of changing religions or leaving a religion was basically non-existent. Communities tended to believe similar things to those next to them, and radical changes were the exception. Religion was not a separate category of human activity from anything else. “In the space of a few short centuries we went ‘from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is [only] one human possibility among others,’” (p. 28). It is natural for a religion to be a relationship: you hold onto it through testimony, and it holds onto you through family, obligation, and community.

Nephi’s faith took belief as a given and focused on faithfulness, while both Almas’ faith focused on becoming truly converted to the Savior and his gospel. The Book of Mormon illustrates these two different types of testimony, and Mason argues that there are as many kinds of testimony as there are people who believe. In this age, it is very common for a testimony to have to interact with doubt on some level.

Our level of faith or doubt is often inherited by upbringing. Apparently, there are even genetic factors associated with belief. Unfortunately, in our church we sometimes treat doubt as a character flaw. We should be as inclusive as possible to people’s doubts (or lack thereof).

Why does God allow doubt to be so pervasive for many of us? Why did God allow Mother Teresa to spend most of her life anxiously searching for the divine, but without any response? The philosopher Michael Rae offers a few ideas:

  • to preserve human freedom and the integrity of moral choice. An important trope in The Good Place is that once you know how the system works you’re basically doomed to the Bad Place because you won’t do anything good out of unselfishness. A hidden God makes it possible for us to do good without knowing for sure what the rewards will be.
  • the cultivation of attributes like patience, hunger for the divine, and gratitude for the communication we do receive
  • to teach us that God cannot be manipulated by us
  • to teach us that God values communion at least as much as he values direct communication

Pondering or questioning the mechanics of belief doesn’t have to be seen as an attack on belief, but can be the driving force behind our religious action.

I go to church with people who see God in the little things—when their car breaks down and someone on the freeway stops to help them or in the check that inexplicably arrives in the mail when times are tight. Other active Mormons don’t live that way and instead find God in scripture, the temple, the sacrament, church social events, or personal meditation. Others still, whom we might call religious but not spiritual, are drawn to and anchored by the community, tradition, and structure of Mormonism but infrequently have transcendent “spiritual experiences” to bear testimony of. (p. 36-37)

“[God’s] hiddenness does not constitute abandonment or even necessarily a rebuke,” (p. 37). It’s hard for anyone to imagine questioning Mother Teresa’s integrity or telling her to try harder. “Teresa’s discipleship was a life choice based on her commitment to Jesus and was not reliant on constant reaffirmations,” (p. 38).

I think that I have the motivation within me to dedicate my life to doing good like Mother Teresa, without the need for a witness that there is a god watching my actions. That much I can do. Maybe the difference is that I’m not willing to do it within a religious context?

All of us are born with proclivities and gifts that make our religious experience unique. It is wrong to measure other people’s faith through the lense of our own journey. Mason illustrates this by talking about a mission companion he had who would much rather “dig wells or build houses somewhere in Africa” than preach the gospel in Seattle. For Mason, serving the Lord meant teaching the gospel, but this missionary felt more inspired by something else.

The quest to eradicate all doubt becomes counterproductive to God’s call for us to live by faith in a mortal existence where uncertainty is so often the norm. … The call to belief is not a decree to deny our doubts. It is rather to “give place for a portion” of God’s light—whatever portion we have received, in whatever form—to be planted and then grow within us. (p. 43)

foolishness and scandal permalink

Mormonism is sui generis—that is to say, it offers its own unique set of questions and answers for the world that overlaps with but is not identical to any other set of questions and answers, whether those posed by modern science or creedal Christianity. What this also means, however, is that while Mormonism is internally coherent, intellectually rewarding, spiritually satisfying, and theologically profound, when viewed solely through any other lens it will appear flawed, foolish, and even scandalous. (p. 46-47)

Some ask how the church can be specially led by God if there is scandal (weird stuff) in the church’s history. Mason points to Romans 9:33: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumblingstone and rock of offense: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” The Greek word used here is skandalon, root of the word scandal in English. Certainly the Old Testament does not leave out the scandal from Hebrew history. Mason tries to explain that God has always invited his covenant people to “quit their scandals” (p. 53), and we need to give God’s people the benefit of the doubt. “Scripture reminds me not to be surprised by Zion’s failings and to believe that God can redeem his people in spite of their many missteps,” (p. 53).

Early Christianity was considered similarly crazy by the Greeks, and Paul recognized that the gospel was absurd according to Greek philosophical reasoning. The teachings and works of Jesus were radical, uncomfortable, and scandalizing. “In [embracing the skandalon of the Son of God] we realize that the skandalon was placed only to trip up our clumsy attachments to this world and is really meant to serve as a stepping stone to a higher life in the kingdom of God,” (p. 55). “Mormonism is an affront to a dominant modern mode of thought, in the same way that the cross of Christ was foolishness in first-century Greece,” (p. 48). Mason says this referring to the miraculousness of the Restoration: the seer stones, the divine manifestations, etc.

Many people who leave the church feel “forced to leave” by the facts they discover: how could Joseph be a prophet if what he thought was the book of Abraham was actually a common Egyptian funerary text? How could he be a prophet if he took a 14-year-old girl as a plural wife? To Mason, these facts do not obviously lead to the conclusion that the church is false. Mason points out that interpretation is the bridge from fact to conclusion, and there’s always another angle from which to view the difficult topics. (For example, “it is possible to think of a prophet who genuinely hears God’s voice and yet is still mistaken on some things,” (p. 50).) Our judgments are dependent on our biases, some of which we’re aware of and some not. It’s impossible to be truly objective in our judgments, especially on something like religion that affects us so emotionally. It’s important for those who leave and for those who stay to remember that the other is not necessarily ignorant of the facts, but may apply a different interpretation to those facts.

What makes Mormonism more difficult is that the stories have not had enough time to feel familiar to Western culture. Noah’s ark, biblical genocide, and the discrepancy of accounts in the Gospels are not scandalous to most people because the West has been familiar with them for thousands of years. Eventually, Mormonism will look like that too.

Mason argues that “to base one’s life on unfalsifiable claims is not a sign of intellectual weakness or antirationality, but rather a perfectly normal human response to the uncertainty that is the lot of mortality,” (p. 57). I think that this is true. I also think that it is a sign of intellectual weakness and antirationality to choose to not apply rational thought to those things we base our lives on. Mason refers to the claims of the church as unfalsifiable, but are they really? Claims about cosmology might be unfalsifiable, but claims about the events of the Restoration certainly are not.

In addition, it is not reasonable to use unfalsifiability as a standard of acceptability for beliefs. Religions around the world make unfalsifiable claims about the nature of existence, but we cannot believe all of them. What allows us to believe the claims of a particular religion is most often our cultural or personal familiarity with the claim. This is the illusory truth effect, and it has been documented repeatedly.

I believe that the right solution is to “base one’s life” on a select few unfalsifiable claims that define moral value judgments. These are things like “all humans have equal worth and potential” and “doing good to others is my moral obligation”. These are valuable unfalsifiable claims because they produce better individuals and communities without all the problematic power structures and unreasonable dogma that come with religion. I believe this is the right solution because it reduces the number of unfalsifiable things I am likely to believe. I can hold to these things despite what others say or do. These can be the tenets of my personal faith.

unicorns and rhinoceroses permalink

Mason introduces the difficulty of seeing into the past without ever being able to get inside the mind of someone from the past. We “anachronistically [introduce] present-day perspectives and concerns into our understanding of the past” (p. 62) if we assume too much of our own perspective when looking at history. “We inescapably make meaning out of our observations, which are themselves colored by our past experience and the filters we have developed, consciously or not,” (p. 63).

Mason makes an example of Joseph’s money-digging. Initially, faithful historians rejected evidence of the Smith family’s money-digging and use of magic, because it was incongruous with their concept of what a prophet should look like. But even as the evidence became undeniable, other evidence was demonstrating that those practices were extremely common among the people of 18th and 19th century America, especially in Vermont and upstate New York. Folk magic was a part of Joseph’s life for sure, but it played less and less of a role in his life during the years before translating the Book of Mormon. Early revelations make no mention of treasure-seeking or magic.Mason doesn’t mention that the Book of Mormon contains some references to “slippery treasures”, a common glass-looking trope. These days it’s an accepted fact among all historians that Joseph and his family were involved in magic and treasure seeking, but it’s no longer as big of an issue for people because we understand the cultural context better now. “The money-digging story helps us recognize that even the most apparently damning facts can be understood in a new light as historical scholarship evolves,” (p. 69).

Here’s a great quote that reflects Mason’s argument:

There is nothing more unstable than basing one’s life and outlook purely on the latest scholarship, let alone one’s casual perusal of it. (p. 72)

I don’t like this because it leads one to believe that they cannot interpret the past well enough to make any condemning judgments. He advocates “reasoned faith” and the discussion of difficult issues, but he seems to be setting up the reader to believe that it’s impossible to use historical facts to discredit the church, which I think is misleading.

a principled approach to church history permalink

“In their effort to put the church’s best foot forward and offer inspiration, hope, and guidance to the Saints, church leaders and teachers have usually steered clear of the more controversial aspects of our past,” (p. 79). Mason points out that sometimes this has been taken to an extreme, like when the first volume of Teachings of the Presidents of the Church changed all of Brigham Young’s references to his “wives” to “wife” to meet the teaching needs of the modern church. But the church is taking steps to improve its historical transparency, by publishing historical documents, covering the issues in Gospel Topics essays, and updating the materials used in seminary and institute to cover these issues.

Mason invites everyone, not just those who struggle or those who are interested in history, to study and try to make sense of these difficult problems. “Given that so many people are struggling with their membership in the church because of some of these issues, finding better ways to think and talk about the issues is an act of compassion in the original sense of the word—’to suffer with,’” (p. 80).

Mason describes five broad principles for approaching church history:

  • tell the truth: Many people are less bothered by the facts themselves than the feeling that they were deceived. Being honest and willing to talk about any issue helps those who feel misled. Leonard Arrington is a church historian who is a great example of this. We shouldn’t be correcting people who are giving lessons in church, but when it’s our turn to teach we should take advantage of the opportunity to spread the right narrative.

  • do your homework: The Lord invites those who “have not faith” to study, not to hide their questions (D&C 88:118). It’s important to look to “respectable, evidence-driven, peer-reviewed scholarship” rather than “the random thoughts of a blogger whose musings happen to come up on the first page of our Google search,” (p. 86). A comparison Mason makes is insightful:

    If you think you might have cancer, you don’t begin and end your search for answers by consulting WebMD. You probably won’t even stop by seeing just one doctor. If your life is at stake, and serious treatments are being suggested, you will probably want to receive multiple expert opinions. You don’t rely on just the good news or listen only to the people who tell you what you want to hear. It’s perfectly reasonable to search out contrary opinions and weigh the worst-case scenario with the best. Once you have identified a treatment regimen that you believe will help, you are willing to spend however many hours, weeks, months, or even years it takes in order to return to health. If one course of treatment makes you worse or otherwise doesn’t work, you try another one. You approach the issue with utmost seriousness, not as a casual hobby. (p. 87)

  • the past is a foreign country

  • there is none good but God

  • learn the lessons of history: The past is complex and nuanced, and history is up to interpretation. People are human, and neither entirely good nor bad. (I’ve always disliked this sentiment that Mason shares:) “Rather than abandoning the accumulated wisdom already gained by ourselves and our people, … ‘hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes,’” (p. 96). This flies in the face of real, humble, skeptical truth-seeking because it requires you to ignore possibly contradictory evidence! I guess maybe Mason’s point is that “matters as fundamentally spiritual as the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith cannot be arbitrated by history alone,” (p. 95). While I understand why this point is valid, I don’t think prophetic fallibility absolves history of any pertinence to the veracity of Joseph’s calling as a prophet. As we’ll see in the next chapter, Mason acknowledges that what God allows His fallible prophets to do says something about God’s nature.

in all patience and faith permalink

Mason outlines the issue with the priesthood and temple ban for people of African descent:

  • Does God love everyone? Yes.
  • Does God love white people more than black people? No.
  • Does God want everyone to follow the gospel and receive all the ordinances of the church? Yes.
  • Does God lead his church through prophets? Yes.
  • Then why did God either inspire prophets to create a policy, or at the very least allow prophets to perpetuate a policy, that barred blacks from full participation in the church? And even if the policy had originated in something other than direct revelation, why didn’t God intervene until 1978—almost a quarter century after the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Shouldn’t prophets be a step ahead, not a step behind? (p. 100)

This is an inherently theological issue, not an issue of facts. It is a question about God’s way of dealing with his prophets.

Mason freely admits that prophets “are liable to sin and error not only before their prophetic calling (which we can all readily admit) but also during their prophetic ministry (a somewhat tougher pill to swallow),” (p. 104). Moroni asks the reader of the Book of Mormon to “give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our [the prophets’] imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been,” (Mormon 9:31; emphasis added). We should take advantage of seeing prophetic shortcomings as an opportunity to improve ourselves. The oft-cited quote from President Woodruff about prophets not leading the church astray should be interpreted as implying that the prophet will not be permitted to lead the church “entirely astray” (p. 197) while still being permitted to make mistakes that have severe negative effects on others.

What believers should not do, according to Mason, is defend the prophet’s character at all costs. Having a testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young does not mean we believe they made the moral choice in all moments. Here’s a fun quote:

To require God’s work to go forward exclusively under the supervision of incorruptible paragons of virtue whose every word comes straight like lightning from heaven and whose every action is godly in both purpose and execution is unrealistic, unscriptural, and frankly, borderline idolatrous. (p. 107)

Here’s another quote that really resonated with me:

Part of the essence of Mormonism is trusting the revelation of other fallible human beings. In a secular age already suffering from a deficit of trust, this is perhaps one of our greatest collective challenges. (p. 110)

Mason returns to the problem of the priesthood-temple ban, noting that the Race and the Priesthood essay (and the church) disavows the theories used to defend the ban in the past. He then points out that President Kimball described the process of receiving the revelation to overturn the ban in terms of “fight[ing] … himself, largely” (p. 111). Kimball even admitted before the lifting of the ban that God might need to “forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation,” (p. 111).

Some assume that for many decades prophets had patiently waited on God to reveal if and when the policy should change. Based on Kimball’s self-assessment, perhaps it was the case that God was patiently waiting on his prophets. (p. 111)

This is a great idea and it makes it possible to love and believe an imperfect church, but I think it creates more holes than it fills. The fact is that God apparently does intervene when prophets are wrong. He intervened with an angel with a flaming sword to convince Joseph to practice polygamy with a few more women, even though at that time Joseph was already married to several women. Why would God choose to intervene so that Joseph could marry young women, but stay silent for 150 years on something that matters a lot more? Is this all to create stumbling stones and rocks of offense so that the doubtful leave? Mason thinks these events are “uniquely designed to help us learn and practice grace,” (p. 113). He points to the example of Nephi who still trusted his father’s prophetic calling even when Lehi complained and turned from the Lord momentarily (see 1 Nephi 16:20-25).

What happens when we disagree with a prophet, not out of convenience or whim but out of deep-seated and gospel-inspired moral conviction? Sustaining another fallible human being as a coworker with God will sometimes be in creative tension with following our own inner light and personal revelation. There are no rules for what to do in every case, only principles to apply with the assistance of the Spirit. We find ways to balance faith, patience, grace, forgiveness, integrity, conscience, community, and covenant.

… Following the apostles and prophets has brought me thus far to Christ, so I will continue to walk the path with them. (p. 116)

abide in the vine permalink

When we abide in the True Vine, the various individual branches—whether it is Joseph Smith’s character, the method of his translation of the Book of Mormon, Brigham Young’s teachings about blood atonement, or even continuing patriarchy in the church—can be viewed in broader perspective and not bear so much moral weight. (p. 119)

He’s not saying we give church history a free pass, but he is saying we should view the mistakes made along the way as forgivable and even meriting grace. A good example of this is the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which the church denied for a long time but eventually came to full reconciliation on. If we focus on the misdeeds, we say “How could the true church do this?” but put into the perspective of the Atonement we see it as an awful mistake made by imperfect people in the church, which can be repented of.

But how can we be expected to put our trust and hope in leaders who cover up massacres and institute temple bans? The answer is that we don’t. We put our faith and hope in Jesus. “God points us to prophets and the church not because they can save or redeem us, but because they are the temporal means by which he orients us to our Savior and Redeemer,” (p. 125).

Since the message of Christ is the fundamental message (the vine) it’s easy for Mason to see appendage teachings (branches) as subject to change. For example, polygamy used to be taught as essential to salvation, but now is only practiced in a theological sense when a widower is sealed to a second wife. “Mormon theology actually allows for [two options]: prophets can be wrong, and God’s revelation today can trump his revelation yesterday,” (p. 128).

Beyond fundamental principles such as faith and repentance, what God requires of his children has clearly changed over time, and the promises he has offered to one person have not always matched those offered to another. (p. 128)

I’ve often thought about whether Jesus studied the scriptures every day. I’m sure he studied them a lot, but did he really follow the modern commandment to read them every day? Scripture study seems to be a good example of something God requires of his followers now but not in past times.

This chapter opens up a lot of leeway for the church to be wrong without being “false”; it seems like to Mason what matters is whether the church’s teachings (mostly) bring us to Jesus. This leaves me wondering what’s special about this church then, since plenty of other churches teach about Jesus and bring their believers to him. He’ll address this more in chapter 8.

a meditation on “Doubting” Thomas permalink

It’s probably best if you just read some of it yourself:

Had Thomas set off on his own on Good Friday, when things looked so bleak … had he separated himself from the company of his fellow apostles—most of whom were also more full of doubt than belief in those days—then he would never have witnessed the miraculous manifestation of the risen Christ.

In the moment of his greatest crisis, when he had absolutely no reason to believe and even less to stay, when it looked like everything he had lived and sacrificed for over the past three years was a complete sham, Thomas encountered Jesus, and he did so in communion with the apostles. He came to believe, spiritually, because he came, physically, to believe. It was the church, for all its early faithlessness and imperfections, which was Thomas’s salvation and ultimately the agent of God’s grace in his life and in the world. (p. 132)

the church is true permalink

Mormonism is an inherently social religion that cannot be practiced alone. Claudia Bushman compares it to a melting pot full of people who vary widely in style and belief. Church living “is not a final product delivered straight from heaven to earth… It is inseparable from, and defined by, the lives and actions of its members,” (p. 135). Here’s Richard Bushman:

What it comes down to is that I believe in the founding events [of Joseph Smith’s visions and the inspired translation of the Book of Mormon]. I think of them as the foundation of my faith. But they are the foundation, and I do not live in the cellar. I live in the rooms built on these events—the way of life, the attitudes, the institutions, the relationships, the experiences they support.

… I frequently feel inadequate to my responsibilities. At the same time, I know I can be better, and when I live the Mormon way, I am lifted up. I see things more clearly. I can figure out how I really feel. I know how to relate to my wife and children and colleagues. On bad days, Claudia and I often say we are out of sync with the universe. Over the many years I have been in the Church, I find that following the Mormon path puts me back in sync. I don’t use the word “know” a lot, but I do know I am a better person for being a Mormon.

… While I do not diminish the importance of rationality and facing up to every challenge and doubt, I feel a prior obligation to be a good man. I cannot wait for the scholars to settle all the issues that arise before I decide, especially when as a historian I know these issues come and go. I have to go on living. I can’t afford to ground my life in transient concerns. My first concern is to be a good and useful person. Mormonism helps me to live that way. (p. 136-137)

Mason again: “Creeds, confessions, articles of faith, and other elements of orthodoxy, or right belief, are significant only insofar as they orient our minds and hearts toward orthopraxis, or right living,” (p. 138). But he recognizes that “the pursuit of righteousness is separated from hypocrisy and pharisaism by only a hair’s width. Ritual displays, checked boxes, and achieved goals, however worthy, can easily obscure ’the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith’ (Matthew 23:23),” (p. 138-139). We have to continually focus on forgiveness and patience in order to maintain a healthy community where people feel safe to come live the Mormon experience.

So what is it that makes the church true? Mason recognizes that the typical answer (that the LDS Church has exclusive access to priesthood authority to perform saving ordinances) is insufficient because we also promise to perform those saving ordinances for everyone regardless of whether they join the church in this life.

Mason defines church as a social institution where religion is practiced in the company of others. The church’s goal is to “[assist] God in his work of developing intelligent personalities into gods” (p. 141). It does this by focusing its efforts on encouraging people to worship God, develop Christlike attributes, and serve others both in and out of the church. As defined this way, it’s easy to see why the church does not need to remain static in order to be God’s church. “But in order to fulfill its prophetic purpose, the church cannot simply mirror society or be captive to culture. Instead, ‘The church is to be a moral critic of society and other social institutions and an exemplar of right behavior,’” (p. 142).I so badly would like to see a church that does this. Unfortunately, this church likes to condemn private sin and not public injustice, and it tries to maintain the status quo rather than “condemn corruptness in the body politic and selfishness and unfair play in men’s economic relations” (p. 142).

Mason admits that the church “has even promoted views or engaged in practices that have undermined its principal purposes,” (p. 142), but argues that the church is a place where worship, teaching, service, and welfare can be done better together. I don’t know if I see that effectiveness playing out around me in the church. I see a community that does give real service but is insular, quick to believe easy explanations, and often unaware of social injustices. In many cases Mormons would rather wait for the Second Coming than sacrifice to solve climate change or poverty. Maybe I’m biased by the wards I’ve been in, but I’ve been in a lot of different kinds of wards (rural Idaho, rural Utah, Provo YSA, downtown Chicago, suburban Oregon, rural Guatemala, urban Guatemala).

In the end, what makes the church true according to Bennion is that “it is the work of Christ,” (p. 143). “It is the consecrated work of the members who are ‘fellowcitizens’ that transforms the church from another social institution into ’the household of God … an holy temple in the Lord’ (Ephesians 2:19-21),” (p. 143).

Just like the gospel, the church (imperfections and all) is a tool God uses to save us. “The church provides the best context for struggling with, working through, enduring, and being redeemed by those paradoxes and oppositions that give energy and meaning to the universe,” (p. 145). It’s a place where we can learn to serve people who we otherwise wouldn’t encounter, and so we learn to love unconditionally. I love the example Mason gives of a man who is a professor at a liberal arts college and a bishop over a ward that includes a wealthy area and a poor area. His academic colleagues “make comments about how nice it must be for him to leave the Mormon bubble and come to campus where he can engage the real world. … To be sure, his research and teaching include great debates over pressing international political and economic matters. But … he encounters the real world when he steps off campus and into his calling as a bishop. It is there that he encounters broken marriages, drug and alcohol addiction, multigenerational poverty, homelessness, mental illness, spiritual crises, teenage stupidity, interpersonal conflicts, sickness and death, and hopelessness and despair. … In which of these two places—at work or in church—is my friend more likely to encounter the face of God?” (p. 146) To England, “the Church is not a place to go for comfort, to get our own prejudices validated, but a place to comfort others, even to be afflicted by them,” (p. 147).

The standard of the church’s divinity is not its perfection but its ability to serve as a schoolmaster for gods in embryo. (p. 148)

when church is hard permalink

Mason offers some practical suggestions for when church living feels unbearable in some way:

simplify permalink

The church is a huge institution that offers many activities, ideas for things to improve, and ways we’re expected to keep up. If that’s starting to feel oppressive, simplify the expectations you have for yourself. Choose the things you are going to focus on. A bishop has a plethora of responsibilities, and “their spiritual survival and ours depends on seeing each day as a set of possibilities for doing good, not an endless set of ways to fall short,” (p. 155).

Claudia Bushman’s anchor is the sacrament prayers. When she concentrates on those promises and expectations at church and throughout the week, she finds a renewed focus. Mason himself likes Micah 6:8. “I can ask myself at the end of the day, Have I been just? Have I been merciful (or at least loved mercy if I didn’t always show it)? Have I been humble? Have I tried to walk with God? If so, it’s been a good, successful day—at home, at work, at church, or wherever life took me. And that’s enough,” (p. 155-156).

  • creatively work it out: “The church is made up of its members—in many significant respects, we are the church, and we determine its course and future,” (p. 156). Creatively approaching solutions to our problems without trampling rudely on other people’s efforts can bring about the change one might want to see in the church.
  • create spaces of inclusion: We can work around the official rules in a respectful way that still allows people to feel included. A good example is when women do a mother’s prayer for a new baby at home with some of their female friends. They create a similar sense of bonding as exists in the circle at a baby blessing, without breaking any rules. We can find ways for young women to feel prominently included in the ward just like the young men do as they administer the sacrament. Our goal should be for church to be “a place where all types of people want to be and where they feel genuinely valued when they are there,” (p. 158).
  • make a place for yourself: If you feel you don’t quite fit into a ward, carve out a special role for yourself by serving others in a unique way. Make them miss you when you’re gone.
  • use the church to accomplish good things: One of the great things about the church is that most people will say yes when asked to help with any kind of service. That means you can mobilize the ward to accomplish good things for whatever community effort drives you. “If we see something that we should be doing in the church, we can do it, and we can recruit people to help us,” (p. 159).
  • work with church leaders: It’s important in all the efforts mentioned above to remember to work with church leaders, not against them. Maxine Hanks is a good example. She was a Mormon feminist who was “one of six LDS intellectuals and feminists excommunicated in September 1993.” In 2012 she chose to be rebaptized. She was not asked to change her views or even recant her previous statements, but she realized that “she had been just as stubborn and obstinate as her leaders had been” and that “she could accomplish more by working with church leaders than by working against them.” I think the implication here is that Mason thinks people shouldn’t be excommunicated for their dissenting views, but rather for working against church leaders.

Terryl Givens points out that the biggest tension in Mormon theology is balancing the two competing values of obedience to church leaders and exercising agency to effect the moral change we feel is right. The right approach according to Mason is not to drop one value in favor of the other, but to develop the confidence we need with one another to have serious conversations (publicly or privately) and trust uncynically that we’re all trying to love one another and be like Jesus.

In the end, Mason understands that there are sometimes good reasons people have for leaving, but he compares it to other communities (nationality, family, vocation, education) where “we regularly recognize the limitations and flaws in the many institutions of which we are a part, but except in the case of egregious abuses we normally stay and try to make things better rather than washing our hands and walking away. While acknowledging that our church community is far from perfect, I for one have my doubts about whether there is anything much better, not only in terms of doctrinal truth and priesthood authority but also in terms of providing personal purpose, meaning, and opportunities to develop Christlike character,” (p. 163).

Here are Mason’s suggestions for those who do decide to leave:

  • “I hope if you feel you must step away for a time that you think deeply about your decision, that you have somewhere to go to rather than just flee from, that you remain connected to the good people and godly principles you have encountered in Mormonism, and that you keep the door open to come back someday,” (p. 163).
  • “The intellectual problems may not be as bad as you think,” (p. 164). Some problems that seem to be closed cases actually have some intelligent arguments from the faithful side, and cutting yourself off early from those arguments is doing you a disservice as a seeker of truth.
  • “Marital and familial relationships may not be sufficient to keep a person with severe doubts in the church, but neither should those doubts become the impetus to discard otherwise healthy relationships. … Persistent doubt may force the lines of certain relationships and social arrangements to be redrawn, but it does not have to mean cutting the ties that bind,” (p. 165).
  • Don’t throw out all of the Mormon lifestyle at once simply because it’s associated with the church. There’s a lot about the Mormon standards that is good, so consciously choose rather than discarding it all at once.
  • Don’t “consider any decision made during times of doubt as final,” (p. 165).
  • Remember that “the people who choose to stay are not simply naive or blind or victims of false consciousness—any more than those who choose to leave are inherently biased, blinded, or wicked,” (p. 166-167).

My plea to those who are struggling in the church and feel adrift is simple: Find some kind of tether that works for you. Find something or someone in the church to connect to, even while everything else seems tenuous. Find a way to stay in the orbit of the church as it orbits around the Son. For those who already feel their feet are planted on solid ground, my plea is also simple: Be the type of friend, family member, or fellow church member who provides the safe connection that we all so desperately need. (p. 168)

embracing Mormonism permalink

At the end of the day, the Mormon church is a diverse community that brings people together from all classes of society. Especially outside of the mountain West, ward and branch boundaries are usually large enough to encompass diverse groups of people both racially and economically. Mason talks about his Cairo and South Bend, Indiana, wards as both having a “we’re just glad you’re here” ethos. Mormon community has an ideal of classlessness that is hard to find in other communities. “It doesn’t always work this way. But the simple fact that we strive for this ideal matters,” (p. 171).

Christ’s work was to embrace others. By building a community where we embrace everyone, we become like the Savior. That means embracing them regardless of their sins. Jesus ate with publicans and sinners, and taught that they would enter the kingdom of God before the self-righteous and hypocritical would. This does not mean he condoned their sins—“Publicans and harlots are exalted not in their sins but in spite of them,” (p. 173)—but he loved and welcomed them.

In order to fulfill its mission to invite all to come unto Christ, our meetings must be a place where all people feel welcome: smokers and nonsmokers, baptized and unbaptized, women and men, the elderly and babes in arms, blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans and Arabs (and everyone else), welfare recipients and billionaires, single and married and divorced and widowed, childless and child-blessed, soldiers and peace activists, capitalists and socialists [Bonnie wrote in a note off to the side: “He got you Kyle :)”], believers and doubters, straight and gay, every-weekers and once-a-yearers, feminists and nonfeminists, intellectuals and the illiterate, groomed and unkempt, those in suits or jeans and those in dresses or pants, conservatives and liberals, publicans and Pharisees.

… The Lord also [makes] clear that his church is not simply a social club with nothing more to offer than a place to hang out and an “I’m okay, you’re okay” message. The church invites all people to transform themselves into disciples. It calls sinners—publicans and Pharisees alike—to repentance. (p. 174)

I loved this quote on tolerance:

The essence of genuine tolerance, philosopher Martha Nussbaum has recently written, is to realize that rational people can hold beliefs, practice behaviors, and maintain belongings that are alien to our own. As she observes, “any self-knowledge worth the name tells you that others are as real as you are, and that your life is not just about you, it is about accepting the fact that you share a world with others, and about taking action directed at the good of others.” (p. 175)

The church (as a people) needs to create spaces for people who don’t meet the norm culturally, don’t meet the standards for temple attendance or baptism, or aren’t sure about some aspect of doctrine or history. Mason doesn’t want the internet to be the only place where earnest doubters feel authentic and heard. He thinks that classroom instruction (at church and in seminaries and institutes) can help, and that the same support structures we mobilize for the sick should be mobilized (more quietly) for those struggling with doubt.

I think in the end Mason did a great job describing an ideal church community. He really nailed on the head some of the reasons why people become disaffected or leave, as well as the reasons why people choose to stay despite understanding the hard issues. His answer to “Why is the church true?” seems to be that it holds the keys to the priesthood but also that it’s the absolute best place to learn to be a moral, loving, Christ-like person. While I do think the church makes some valuable contributions in that regard, I have a hard time believing Mason when he guarantees that this is the absolute best institution for achieving those goals.

In addition, while Mason is right that many people leave because they feel excluded or because they feel lied to, I think there are many who leave because troubling historical events make them believe that this church works the same way that other religions do. Mason does not satisfactorily address some of the issues that are most important to those who leave:

  • How can we know that this institution (and only this institution) is the God-approved community Mason think it is? Many other religions inspire the same genuine feelings of faith, community, and Christ-like love, whether they believe in Jesus or not.
  • Isn’t it possible for a church community to exist that similarly strives for the unity and inclusion of a Zion community without being factually true or inspired of God?
  • If the church is to be “a moral critic of society and other social institutions and an exemplar of right behavior” (p. 142), why doesn’t it bring much that is unique to current moral discussions about things like racism, political polarization, consumerism, poverty, or even more mundane things like social media or nutrition?