I’ve been asked by a few people what I thought of this post by blogger Dustin Phelps, titled The Alarming Truth Behind Anti-Mormonism. At first I read through the material and decided not to take the time to respond, but after being pressed again I revisited Dustin’s post. He makes the following observation:
“And so we find that arguments against Joseph Smith are really arguments against all the prophets…
So, for LDS members (particularly RMs and life-long members), Christianity itself hinges upon the question, ‘Was Joseph Smith really a prophet?’”
I believe this statement is true, but that it is also a sad commentary about modern Mormonism. Here is where the criticism of Christianity against Mormonism has some validity. Is it possible for the emphasis on following the prophet to throw our faith off balance? Our faith must be in Christ, not a prophet. There is a difference between following President Monson because he holds an office, on one hand, and following Christ, who’s voice you hear in the teachings of President Monson on the other. In the first case, you are following a man. In the second, you are following Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, and no man cometh unto the Father, but by Him (see John 14:6). Brigham Young said it well, “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” (Brigham Young, 9:150)
Speaking about Crises of Faith in LDS Communities and many critics who love highlighting the Latter-day Saints who choose to leave the Church, Dustin continues,
“They want us to look at our friends and family who are leaving the church and feel alerted to the idea that there is something wrong with the Mormon Church.”
Note that the “They” this statement begins with assumes that somehow there is some organized conspiratorial effort in Atheism targeting Mormons, as if
“… the goal of Atheism is to destroy the agency of man. At least, to the extent possible. Ultimately, this is what anti-Mormonism intends to accomplish.”
I think it ludicrous to assume that the number of people who leave their religion and decide to give up a belief in God suddenly and magically become joined to some concerted organized group united toward evil. Don’t these people, after all, still have agency? Alas, I digress.
The point that we have “friends and family who are leaving the church” should concern us. We don’t need for atheists or non-Mormons to alert us “to the idea that there is something wrong”. It is not hard for us to see this ourselves. It didn’t used to be so common for an active member of the church to know people who were leaving the church, but now more and more, active members are aware of someone they know personally who struggle with a crisis of faith.
“Not since a famous troublespot in Mormon history, the 1837 failure of a church bank in Kirtland, Ohio, have so many left the church, Jensen said. ‘Maybe since Kirtland, we’ve never had a period of – I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having now,’ he told the group in Logan.” (Elder Marlin Jensen of the First Quorum of the Seventy, Special Report interview, Jan 31, 2012)
The time has come to change how we address what used to be subjects that were sensitive or off-limits. Elder M Russell Ballard told CES Educators in an address in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on February 26, 2016, “Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.
Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the church. . . .”
“So, to be clear, it’s not that we have discovered new information about Joseph Smith that has suddenly changed a lot of people’s minds about the Restoration. The criticisms you hear today are the same criticisms that have been peddled for decades and longer.”
I would disagree. I think it’s the discovery of new information about Joseph Smith that has been withheld from the standard curriculum of the church that “has suddenly changed a lot of people’s minds about the Restoration”. To grow up being taught a story your whole life, only to discover later that the picture changes from an image of Joseph Smith translating from the plates with a drop cloth between him and Oliver Cowdry, to an image of Joseph Smith with his face in a hat, can trigger some cognitive dissonance in someone who’s testimony is founded in a narrative they’ve been taught since childhood.*
Healthy criticism, by itself, is not evil, but in fact necessary for growth. It is possible to entertain critical opinions which differ from traditional historical opinions and not lose your testimony. Once the varnish comes off the institution of the church, for many, faith dies. But that is not necessary. Nor is it inevitable. It is possible to see the frailties of men and still also see the hand of God.
Some of the greatest criticism leveled against our faith is based on truth, and we shouldn’t be afraid to correct our own misunderstanding when we encounter that. True religion ought to be a search for truth, even when it is uncomfortable.
Perhaps what I take issue with most from Dustin’s post is the all or nothing approach, as if there were only two options, Mormonism or Atheism. As I began composing my thoughts I ran across another blogger (who posts anonymously) who has responded to Dustin’s post. Although I do not agree with all this blogger has to say, I think he sums things up well in the following statement:
“Those who do have a foundation in Christ, that leave the church either find another Christian denomination to worship with, or they do home-church. Either way, they remain steadfast in Christ.
Those who leave Mormonism and eventually find themselves identifying with atheism were either cultural Mormons who participated in the [church] for social and entertainment reasons, or they were cultural Mormons who had a belief system founded upon prophet worship and subjection to human priesthood authority.
It only makes sense that disenchanted members … who never had Christ as the center of their belief system, become atheists. Why would they bother looking for Christian options if they never truly believed in Christ and him crucified?
The really deceptive thing about the narrative being presented in the article is that it implies that there are only two paths from which a doubting Mormon has to choose.
According to the article, one path choice is to hang on to belief in modern day Mormonism with all of it’s problematic doctrine and history and related cognitive dissonance.
The other path choice is to be swallowed up in atheism.
That is pure sophistry.
The article subtly leads the reader into the false conclusion that there are only two realistic paths that a Mormon can choose when they enter into a crisis of faith. Towards the end of the article the author shares the thoughts that go through his mind during his darkest moments of his own doubts. During these moments of despair he opines to himself,
‘Ultimately, I must decide to take one path or the other.’
Your only two choices are between the [LDS] church or atheism?
I call bullshit.
There are lots of other paths one can take.”
Aside from the concerns I’ve expressed from Dustin’s post, he does bring up an important point I will conclude with:
“No, crises of faith aren’t a Mormon problem. They’re a Humankind problem, a civilization problem. Faith itself is weakening in Western society.”
Mormon would agree. He poses the question, “has the day of miracles ceased? Or have angels ceased to appear unto the children of men?” and then declares “…it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain.” (Moroni 7:35-37)
It seems most saints are more akin to Hugh Nibley’s description of his grandfather, a member of the First Presidency, who said that if he ever saw an angel he would “jump out the window.”
As one insightful blogger has observed:
“I think there is a tendency to avoid discussing any contemporary occurrence of the miraculous in our individuals lives within the Church because of the frequent association of such things with deceivers and the deceived. In contrast to that fear, Moroni affirms that angels appear only to those with “a firm mind.” (Moroni 7: 30.) How odd it is that we have this juxtaposition: On the one hand, in our day it is viewed as being evidence of a weak mind, or dubious character, and on the other Moroni asserts it is evidence of a “firm mind.” One or the other has to be incorrect.
I think such things are experienced less because we talk of them less. As we talk of them less, we increase our doubts about such things. Doubt and faith cannot coincide.
So was Christ weak-minded or of “a firm mind?” Was Saul of Tarsus deceived or a deceiver, or instead a godly man who received notice from heaven? What of Joseph, Alma, Moses, Peter, Mary, Elizabeth, Agabus, and John?
Today we prefer our miracles at a distance. When we do accept the occasional miracle, we want it to be separated by culture, time and reduced to written accounts from the deceased. We think it’s safer that way. Society trusts that when the miraculous has been reduced to history alone it can then safely be the stuff from which PhD’s and theologians extract the real meanings. After all, our scientific society only trusts education, certification and licensing; not revelation, visitation and ministering of angels. Well, even if that is not as it should be, it is at least as Nephi said it would be: “They deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men. Behold, hearken ye unto my precept; if they shall say there is a miracle wrought by the hand of the Lord, believe it not; for this day he is not a God of miracles; he hath done his work.” (2 Nephi 28: 5-6.)”
* [There is a challenge in communicating with the written word. A language barrier between written vs spoken word does not capture body language and voice inflection. I write with a certain intention of meaning in mind, but I cannot control the tone with which one chooses to read what is written. Though it may be read one way, my intent is not to condemn or be harsh toward the church.]