“I know the Church is true,” and other Mormon muddles

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From October 10 to November 7, we'll be discussing this book each Friday here on the blog.

From October 10 to November 7, we’ll be discussing this book each Friday here on the blog.

“I know the Church is true, and Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and the Book of Mormon is true. . . ”

Those are three of the top five elements of a testimony you might hear on any Fast Sunday. Call it a Mormula:  a Mormon formula. (The other two greatest hits are: “I’m grateful for my family” and “inthenameofjesuschristamen.”)

True, true, true. We are all about knowing the truth, or at least claiming to know.

But what if you don’t know, but only believe? Or what if you can’t even believe yet, but have the merest hint of a desire to believe?

Alma 32 suggests that even people with no more than a desire to believe have a testimony, and if that’s the case, then I have a testimony that the Church offers truth. There are things I know — that God lives and answers prayers, that this Jesus guy is the one I want to follow throughout my life, and that the Book of Mormon speaks to me like scripture. I know I love the Church.

But I do not, and have never, known that the institutional church is “true” in the way that other Latter-day Saints seem to indicate with those six Mormulaic words: that it is not only true, but the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Pure, entire, and unadulterated. Uncorrupted by human flaws.

If the Church is true, then how is it true? Is it true in its people, in the ekklesia of the gathered faithful? I can assent to that. Or is it true in all its authoritarian structures and programs and hierarchies? That does not, as the saying goes, ring quite true for me.

Today in our book club around The Crucible of Doubt we’ll be tackling the question of truth, one of the overarching themes of chapters 3 and 4. (You can catch up on last week’s discussion about doubts here.) Chapter 3 takes on the truth of the Church, and chapter 4 the truth of the Scriptures.

Eugene England, one of my favorite Mormon writers, once famously said that the Church is as true as the gospel. And when I’m reading his work, I actually believe it. But how is it true, and for whom?

And while we’re at it, here are some other discussion starters to help us reflect on the themes in these two chapters:

  • Chapter 3 opens with a quote that indicates Jesus invented true religion, and human beings invented churches. How does that square with the “I know the Church is true” statements that open every standard LDS testimony?
  • How do the authors redefine heaven as an experience of perfected relationships rather than “a location to which good people are assigned”? How might our understanding of failures within the Church change or soften if we adopted this definition of eternity?
  • Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone in the Church using Scripture as a weapon? Have you wielded it as a weapon?
  • The authors gently suggest that Mormons have needlessly adopted an inerrantist view of Scripture when our own theology and scripture does not require this of us. What do you think?

You guys did a great job overall of keeping last week’s discussion civil and on-topic. Sniff — you made me proud. Keep it up, so that our conversation can be uplifting and constructive even if we don’t agree.

P.S. For next week, we’re reading chapters 5 and 6 on “the perils of hero worship” in Mormon life. That should be interesting.

  • I love the image of consecration and interconnection that the Givenses invoke in their account of the tedious elements in our shared church life. My understanding of theology is essentially relational. In a relational theological framework, I see the “Gospel” as a way of talking about our relationships to God and the “Church” as a way of talking about our relationships to other people. These two sets of relationships are themselves deeply interconnected. When I watch a bad talk in church, I try to think of the person giving the talk, of what makes her/him tick, of how God might be working in her/his life. I think about our shared life in the community of the Church. I acknowledge with some embarrassment that sometimes I just tune out, especially when I don’t know the person. This is why I think Church is best locally. Because in the wards we know each other personally and have a shared history. Think about the last time you watched your child (or niece, or close friend’s child) give a talk. I can almost guarantee that the talk was objectively terrible. What made it a delight to watch was your love of that child and your belief that this tiny, mediocre talk was part of a much grander story. That’s the kind of attitude we could cultivate toward our ward members who aren’t great orators, and I think the embrace of that attitude is part of what the Givenses are depicting as sacramental.

  • Amisoz

    Regarding Jana’s question #4:
    It seems to me that in opening that door a little bit, the Givens are really conceding too much. Or, put another way, if the scriptures aren’t perfect, and neither is the theology, everything is open to doubt. Let’s say you’re making pancakes, and you accidentally add a dash of laundry detergent instead of salt. It’s only a little bit of detergent, but there’s no way to know whether the next bite you’ll take has been contaminated.

    When you concede that your theology isn’t perfect, you’re opening up everything you teach to doubt. And for the Church and the gospel, that’s a problem. That’s not a church that any of the leaders will concede we have, I think.

    I realize that this argument is largely based on a slippery slope, but I’m making it precisely because I believe it actually is a slippery slope — once you become skeptical of truth claims (or have serious doubts), there’s no reason to privilege your beliefs over those doubts. In my case, doubt has completely ruined my testimony in the claims of Joseph Smith or of the Church. And that, for me, was the consequence of doubt; it feels weird for me to mitigate it now and say, OK, you can doubt those things, but you just need to revise your worldview a little bit, and voila! — the gospel makes sense again.

    Am I being too ungenerous to the Givens’ argument?

  • Yes, I can see that. Testimony meeting is my favorite Sunday of the month, actually, but it’s always because I know and love the people in my ward. The formulas don’t mean much to me but their experiences and lives do.

    Regarding Sunday worship, I like the authors’ argument about trying to see glimpses of the eternal in these very prosaic meetings. But frankly, that can be very hard to do. Sacrament meeting is not structured to be a particularly worshipful experience, at least not for me. The best I can say about it is that its structure encourages a kind of privatized reverence.

    I liked the book’s argument about this, but I also worry that whenever we put the responsibility only on the individual who might be sitting there and *not* having a particularly worshipful experience, rather than examining the ways our meetings could be improved, we miss a chance to reach people. I’m not talking about going around criticizing individual talks or lessons, which would be hurtful to individual people, but I think it’s perfectly appropriate to question why we don’t train members to give those talks in the first place, or why we tend to play our hymns at the slowest possible speed, or why we’ve outlawed whole classes of instruments in worship. And on and on. In our quest to control and systematize sacrament meeting, we have also sucked the life right out of it.

    So it’s both: we need to examine our own hearts in worship and be charitable toward people who are leading. But we also need to never stop imagining a world in which people might actually enjoy and look forward to worship — and take the necessary steps to create *that* world.

  • One other minor point is that I think the body of Christ can accommodate the full range of beliefs underlying “I know the church is true” including the positivist claim. God calls us all in many different ways. I think one way God calls some of us is that kind of fervent certainty. I think God also calls some of us with a non-positivist belief.

  • I think you work on both at the same time and acknowledge that as long as we have everyone participate there will always be at least some bad talks. And the likelihood people will improve is, I think, much higher if we love them and enjoy them however well they speak.

  • Dan Wotherspoon

    I think we do start on a slippery slope when we move in the directions the Givenses point, but like the LDS vision of the “Fall,” it’s a step in the right direction. The closest thing to what I’m talking about in these chapters comes on page 56, where they share Parley P. Pratt’s statement about how “we do well to look to a stream for nourishing water, but we do better to secure the fountain.” Everything that can be spoken or written or conceptualized–hence scripture and statements of doctrine no matter how inspired–are downstream from the fountainhead (they are not the revelation themselves–they are a selecting out from an intense experience, and they are not the experience itself). Our job is to learn to drink from it ourselves, and this is where most religions (and certainly Mormonism) point us toward.

    Quite often in my podcast, I’ll talk about Father David Steindl-Rast’s metaphor of a volcano. Inside the volcano is churning lava, a mix of intense heat and light. After an eruption, the lava pours down the sides of the mountain, still hot but cooling, and as it cools kind of forming channels and grooves and taking on a shape. Later, after it is cool, we interact with the igneous rock that is there, individual rocks but also the overall shape and direction the lava flow took. But, in doing so, we can also forget its origins in fire and find ourselves interacting with cooled rock.

    If we imagine our doctrine is perfect, and that learning to recite the “answers” is saving, I believe (and I think again I’m with the Givenses here) we’re focusing in the wrong place. Doctrines and scriptures can be more or less helpful in telling us things about God and ourselves (so there is some importance to our teachings and their coherence and overall tenor), and community/church can be more or less helpful in outfitting us and supporting us in our journey, but it’s our task, and ours alone, to meet God and conquer our fears and come to know our true selves. In Joseph Campbell’s symbol system, we enter the “inmost cave” alone. I love that this book honors this essential journey while speaking so lovingly and with appreciation for all the resources church and scripture give.

  • Dan Wotherspoon

    My own journey has been one that has taken me from “believing” (truth claims) to “centering” (coming to dwell more and more in Spirit and feeling secure and oriented in the universe even as I see the weaknesses of previous formulations). Also from focusing on ideas “about” God to more and more learning to trust “in” God.

    I’m not participating here in this book club because I am trying to promote Mormon Matters, but If you are interested in this line of thinking I’m sharing about, we talk about this kind of shift in this podcast episode:

  • Dan Wotherspoon

    Terrific stuff, Sam! Sometime soon we’ll have to talk more deeply about relational theology (also the direction my thinking has taken me).

  • Eric Facer

    To me, the declaration “I know the church is true” is both nonsensical and devoid of meaning. It’s tantamount to saying “I know this chair is true” or “I know the Salvation Army is true.” Such assertions leave me perplexed, tell me nothing about what the speaker truly believes and lead me to conclude that he really hasn’t given the matter much thought.

    This problem is not peculiar to Mormon testimony meetings. Rather, the staleness of the metaphors we employ, combined with an acute lack of precision, seriously undermine our ability to communicate. George Orwell, in 1946, composed a brilliant and scathing essay about this phenomenon called “Politics and the English Language.” I wish it were required reading for everyone who speaks in church.

    Speaking of “church,” when we express our belief in its veracity, are we capable of first defining this term? Well, not to worry. The Savior has already provided us with a definition: “Behold, this is my doctrine—whosever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.” D&C 10:67. That’s it. That’s all there is to His church. I can’t speak for others, but I for one am incapable of having a testimony about a group of individuals who Christ says are really just a bunch of sinners, myself included (according to my wife, I should sit in the first row).

    Some will say that I’m being too literal in my reading of this scripture. The Savior apparently anticipated this criticism. In the next verse he says: “Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.”

    Nowhere in the scriptures can I find a single instance where Christ has directed us to place our faith and trust in an earthly religious organization. Yes, I’m proud of my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ, but my testimony revolves exclusively around His life, His teachings, and His atonement, not any earthly institution.

  • Emily Jensen

    Was anyone else reminded of Elder Poelman’s famous (infamous?) talk in Chapter 3? I find it fascinating that this book has a discussion about the purpose of the church.

  • Heather Hardy

    I continued to hear the overtones of chapter 1’s celebration of how “the vision granted by love” shapes our perceptions as I read chapters 3 & 4 this week on the church and scripture. The Givens have identified each of these as areas where ill-fitting paradigms “may make the quest for faith and the path of discipleship more painful and tortuous than it need be” (p.10). In my experience, the church (especially in its congregational context) and scripture (especially the Book of Mormon) have been the grounding of my faith and avenue for my discipleship. I confess–I love my ward family and genuinely look forward to seeing them each week. I know most of their names (and all of the Primary children’s & YM’s and YW’s), and have a good sense of many of their joys and struggles as they do of mine–a by-product of serving for the last decade in Primary and about twice that long in actively promoting community by inviting different ward families over most weeks to share Sunday dinner with us and by embracing Visiting Teaching. I also love the Book of Mormon (text rather than musical), a relationship I have described at length on a Mormon Stories podcast with my husband Grant.

    In both cases, love can remarkably alter both our vision and our ability to respond to doubts and challenges that arise whether for ourselves or for others in our community. While love by itself certainly doesn’t resolve such conflicts, it does “cast out [the] fear” of them and increases our efficacy in “bearing one another’s burdens”–including the burdens of doubts and disbelief.

  • ron

    As has been said before…either the church is what it claims to be or it is the biggest fraud on earth. As an example, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, therefore he cannot be limited to a great moral teacher as that would be inversely calling him a con artist.

    The faith challenge I have faced in life as well as those that face those challenges currently is to be able to trust in the Lords church and stay in the boat even though the decks still need to be swabbed and theres knots in the wooden hull. If you catch my drift…

  • StokedMormon

    Constant repetition of “I know the Church is true” does a great job of fostering institutional loyalty, but it does very little to foster the “pure religion” described in James 1:27 and discussed by the Givenses in Chapter 3. Which isn’t to say that the Church fails at pure religion; on the contrary, after the family, the Church is the best training ground that I know of for learning to “[put] ourselves in the place of the other and [seek] his or her best interest”. Home teaching, serving and even having a stewardship in the Church, spending three hours (or more) on Sundays with my ward family, listening to members of that family share their personal encounters with the divine – I find these experiences to be an important part of My Own Private Mormonism.

    For this reason, I appreciate “the arbitrariness of ward boundaries” that the Givenses give praise to. It helps to open up a diversity of experience that I wouldn’t find if I hand-picked everyone in my local congregation. Unfortunately, the insistence on “knowing” encourages a culture of rigidness and dogmatism that discourages this very kind of diversity. Rather than celebrating the great variety of ways that one can interact with God, we recite the same Mormulas over and over, and anything that doesn’t fit inside that narrow framework is viewed with suspicion.

    Regarding Chapter 4, the open discussion of the imperfection of not just the Bible, but even the Book of Mormon (!) and modern prophets (!) made me want to stand up and cheer! As a missionary, I was dismayed by how many people regarded the Bible as the complete and perfect Word of God, when I was aware of so much evidence to the contrary (some of which is listed in the book). It wasn’t until more recently that I became aware of similar problems with restoration scripture and prophetic declarations (the Adam-God doctrine and D&C 76:71-74 come to mind). The fact that the Givenses can acknowledge these problems and still be viewed as faithful Mormons is incredibly encouraging.

    Still, the fact remains that very few Mormons share the Givenses’ view of scripture. The Givenses state, “Biblical inconsistencies, common sense, the Book of Mormon’s own words, and Joseph Smith’s remarks on the subject make it difficult for Mormons to be strict scriptural literalists.” Yet, in my experience, most active Mormons ARE strict scriptural literalists (with the exception of some parts of the Bible, where we’re given more latitude thanks to the eighth Article of Faith). I doubt that a Sunday School discussion of Nephi’s allusion to the possibility of errors in the Book of Mormon would end with any other conclusion than something along the lines of, “modern prophets have given us enough confidence in the Book of Mormon to eliminate any possibility of errors.”

  • Jeff P

    Jana’s question #4:
    ‘In sum, disciples might do well to avoid the bibliolatry that characterized scripture as unerring truth” (Ch 4)
    IMO, as a ‘mainline’ Protestant Christian, the Givens offer some invaluable perspective in reading scripture: context as critical, recognizing that human beings, with all our flaws, are involved in receiving and transmitting God’s Revelation. The Givens’ emphasizes the human element in scripture to a degree to a degree that reminds me of very Progressive Christianity (including the rather shocking statement ‘In searching the scriptures, we should expect to find pearls admits the detritus of the centuries’). Like some Progressive Christians I have read, I think he does a good job telling us how NOT to read scripture, but he doesn’t offer us as much reason TO read scriptures.

  • Jeff P

    As for Jana’s main thrust: as an outsider, when I hear Mormons say that the ‘Church is True’, I don’t really know what to make of it. I sometimes sense that there is an implied, but unspoken, second part to that, something like “I know the Church is True, and your church is false”

    For most Christians, Church and Scripture are the two parts of the revealed ‘deposit of faith’. In ch 3, I find it surprising that when looking at Church, the Givens forget the good advice they are about to give about approaching the Bible. In reading the Bible, they advise believers to use personal judgement, looking at context, using ‘discretion, wisdom and inspiration’, with frequent appeals to the Holy Spirit for guidance. Curiously, Givens gives very different advice to people when approaching the church, seeming to emphasize submitting our tastes and ‘will’s to the Church (our ‘debilitating predilections’). If the Bible is fallible, and needs to be approached with the Holy Spirit and study of context, etc, aren’t we negligent if we don’t do these same things when looking at the witness of the Church? The Church is not immune from the problems that Givens thinks plague the Bible.

    Of course, as Protestant, I would disagree with his statement that ‘We are enabled to formalize and constitute a living, dynamic relationship through a set of ritual performances’ – we’d say that the Gospels and the Epistles tell us that the relationship that matters is the one initiated by Christ, and that our repentance and faith are what bind us into this relationship, rather than ‘ritual performances’. The Givens rightly warn against ‘bibliolatry’, but seem much less concerned about ‘church-latry’ (to make up a word).

  • Jon Young

    Elder Oaks gives three attributes of the “true” church as (1) fulness of doctrine, (2) power of the priesthood, and (3) testimony of Jesus Christ.

    If Elder Oaks’ assertion that meeting all three of these goals is all we mean by “true” church, then we don’t have much justification for believing, as Jana put it: “that it is not only true, but the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Pure, entire, and unadulterated. Uncorrupted by human flaws.”


  • Robert Couch

    I loved chapter 3. To translate the main point of the chapter into terms of “truth” (per Jana’s OP), I think the Givenses are effectively arguing that the Church is a true vehicle by which we can draw closer to God. If we are true to the underlying intentions of the covenants, ordinances, and practices of the Church, then we can experience the spiritual and moral “truths” that are most fundamental to Christianity (scare quotes around “truths” because spiritual and moral truths differ markedly from the kind of scientific truths that we tend to associate with the term “truth” in our modern, scientific culture).

    By understanding the Church in this way, I think a lot of common but ultimately petty grievances about the Church as an institution are nicely put in perspective.

    I also like the main point of chapter 3, but I was ultimately rather disappointed (as others have mentioned) that the Givenses didn’t offer much positive advice about how to constructively engage scripture. I really liked the admission that there are inconsistencies in both the Bible and in uniquely Mormon scripture, and I loved the warning about using scripture as weapons. But rather than advising us to really ponder and rigorously grapple with these challenging passages and teachings, and expand our understanding by calling into question some of our own preconceived ideas and biases, as I think good scriptural theologians do, the Givenses end up giving rather thin advice, to “search the scriptures and rely upon the Spirit” (p. 57). If the “search the scriptures” idea had been developed more previously in the chapter[*], perhaps this conclusion wouldn’t have seemed (to me) so trite.

    It’s also hard not to see this weakness in chapter 4 as contiguous with the weakness in chapter 1. That is, the Givenses are doing a great job of identifying some of the common problems in dominant attitudes and perspectives in Church culture (abuses of reason and scriptural cannons), I don’t think they’ve really provided a very clear way forward (the uses of reason and how to engage the scriptural canon).

    * How might’ve the Givenses done better? I’ve really enjoyed reading the likes of Paul Ricoeur for Christian hermeneutics, Walter Brueggemann for Old Testament Theology, N. T. Wright for New Testament theology, and Joseph Spencer, Adam Miller and James Faulconer for Mormon scriptural theology. As a disclaimer, however, I’m on the executive board of The Mormon Theology Seminar, so this is a hobby horse and strong bias of mine: by grappling with the various tensions represented in our written canon, I think we can more clearly see the tensions, problems, wisdom, missteps, myopia etc., of our own tradition and personal/cultural biases — including those propagated by Church leaders. I worry that it’s simply too easy to mistake our own limited perspectives and fantasies as whisperings of the Holy Ghost, and what’s nice about carefully grappling with written texts is that doing so serves as a nice check against our own inconsistencies, biases, blindnesses, etc., and it helps us take a broader perspective on issues that is informed by the wisdom of the centuries (much as the Western canon does more generally)….

  • DougH

    I haven’t completed my reading assignment yet, having only read chapter 3, but the part in there on Community and its arbitrariness based on geography caught my attention. It reminded me of a statement by G. K. Chesterton, in “Heretics”:

    “It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge….

    “We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice or a kind of taste. We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy. We may love negroes because they are black or German Socialists because they are pedantic. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.”

  • “The authors gently suggest that Mormons have needlessly adopted an inerrantist view of Scripture when our own theology and scripture does not require this of us. What do you think?”

    It has been my experience that most Mormons are willing to acknowledge some errors in the Bible, but not in the Restoration scriptures (BoM, D&C, Pearl of Great Price).

    Personally, I agree with the Givenses that “disciples might do well to avoid the bibliolatry that characterizes scripture as unerring truth.” I think that statement should apply to all scripture, including the Restoration scriptures.

    The Givenses don’t make it completely clear whether they are willing to accept the possibility of errors in the Restoration scriptures. I suspect they are, but I wish they had addressed that issue directly.

    There is plenty in the Restoration scriptures that I personally do not accept as reflecting the correct nature of God. For example, I personally do not believe that Jesus would cause entire cities (presumably including children) to be “burned with fire,” “sunk in the depths of the sea,” etc., as depicted in 3 Nephi 9. And don’t even get me started about the description of polygamy in D&C 132. (These are just a couple of example; I could list several more.)

  • Eric, very well put. I, too, scratch my head when I hear this one, and admittedly cringe a little bit when I hear it delivered over the pulpit by a four year-old with a parent whispering it in the child’s ear to be repeated with no meaning attached.

    Another post below describes the exclusivity effect this statement has: “My Church is true, therefore yours is a lie.” I dislike what that implies about not only other religions, but also about us as Mormons.

    At the same time, I have a very strong testimony of the truth of our Savior’s gospel. And to be honest, I spent a good deal of time outside the Mormon world shopping for that same kind of connection in other religions who were more inclusive of LGBT members. Maybe it’s out there, but I did not discover it.

    What I do know is true is that Mormonism is my “first language” when it comes to communicating with and understanding my Savior. It has been an amazingly successful tool in helping me forge a deeper connection to Him. Sometimes the people in it have played a role in helping as well–sometimes they’ve been counter-productive. I have learned that while listening to wise counsel is always a good thing, ultimately it’s up to me to discern what works for me and what does not when it comes to connecting to my Lord. I know He’s real and my relationship with Him belongs solely to me, and is dependent only upon how much work and effort I’m willing to put into it. My testimony, in essence, is of my Savior–and I give much credit to the Church for helping me construct that testimony.

    I worry when we as Mormons fail to separate the Church as an institution from our Savior. The Church isn’t perfect, nor is anyone inside of it (me included!). And it’s not supposed to be. Yes, it’s often a terrific path to finding our Savior (which is the purpose it is meant to serve) but placing our faith in the institution while at the same time failing to build our personal testimony in and relationship with our Savior is a little like putting your faith in the sales team, and not the product.

  • “I’ve really enjoyed reading the likes of … Joseph Spencer, Adam Miller and James Faulconer for Mormon scriptural theology.”

    Robert, have you read anything that specifically relates to those Restoration scriptures that portray God in a less-than-flattering light? If so, would you mind giving me some specific recommendations?

  • Lowell Bennion had some great insights on scripture that I believe are relevant here:

    “Men do violence to scripture if they ascribe every word of it to God.”

    “I do not accept any interpretation of scriptural passages that portrays God as being partial, unforgiving, hateful, or revengeful. It is more important to uphold the character and will of God than it is to support every line of scripture.”

    “[W]e should question interpretations [of scripture] that contradict common sense, good judgment, verified experience, and the counsel of wise and good men and women. I believe reason should confirm what we believe to be the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and I believe we also should check our own thinking by the Holy Spirit.”

    “An interpretation of scripture can be trusted when it (1) is consistent with gospel fundamentals and with the teachings and spirit of Christ, (2) is confirmed by the promptings of the Spirit, (3) appeals to our ethical judgment, and (4) has won agreement among persons of good will.”

  • Jon Young

    Emily, Yes, very much :). I watch the talk occasionally on youtube. Glad it’s still out there. It’s important to understand that the brethren have not claimed the talk was inaccurate, but were afraid it would cause people to take license to leave the church.

  • Thanks, Dan. The research for _In Heaven_ got me thinking carefully about the historical foundations of a Mormon theology of relation. In the _First Principles_ book I try to translate some of that theology into familiar terms for non-academic Latter-day Saints. I think that’s where we have something very special theologically that is also of immense practical utility.

  • I love to attend the Met opera broadcasts; I find opera an art form of staggering beauty and wholeness. (Even if sometimes the libretto doesn’t mesh well with my beliefs about the status of women–witness the miserable indignities the Countess experiences in today’s Figaro.)

    My only struggle with the broadcasts is the filler material they do between acts and during intermission. An off-duty soprano (often Renee Fleming) interviews the singers and other participants of the current opera. These interviews are a terrible let-down for me, every time. These marvelous singer/actors who transport me when they sing prove to be rather, well, banal during their interviews.

    I think sometimes that this experience of mine at the opera broadcasts must mirror the experience of some Latter-day Saints who struggle to square the sublime prophetic music of Church and Gospel with the human vessels through whom that music pours.

    But that passage of divine light through human vessels is life, it is true life, it is Gospel. It is true church. God speaking to and through mortals, the divine intermixed with the incorrigibly human. And I think the Givenses are correct that the Church is true in its Incarnation. Not in spite of its Incarnation in the world of imperfect humans, but in and through that Incarnation. The body of Christ, indeed.

  • Jon Young

    >> Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone in the Church using Scripture as a weapon? Have you wielded it as a weapon?

    Yes and, shamefully, yes.

    I appreciated the suggestion that we often use the scriptures as a weapon in politics. As a Mormon Democrat, I’m often subject to abusive claimes of not following the brethren and working for “Satan’s plan” against moral agency. However, even in the safety of other LDS Democrats, we often fire away with the many, many scriptures promoting social justice and wonder why the Republican’s don’t follow the brethren on matters of immigration or education.

    It would be a welcome miracle if both sides could agree: We all share the same, or similar, values that the brethren and the scriptures teach us. We disagree mainly on when, where, and how to implement those values. Implementation is a practical matter we humans are to try and solve, as a matter of agency, on our own.

  • Jim Rollins

    In answer to ‘Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone in the Church using Scripture as a weapon? Have you wielded it as a weapon?’ my first thought is the scripture found the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5:48. The infamous ‘be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect’ is wielded as a weapon in so many cultural scenarios in the Mormon world. At times it’s an inspiring glimpse of what we can become. Yet in the wrong hands/ context those words, which were meant to uplift, can be used to cut, stifle, burden and guilt.

    I feel like this scripture is so engrained in our Mormon DNA from so many sources. But I feel like we most often weaponize this scripture against ourselves. We hold ourselves to an unattainable standard. The irony is that the Savior is teaching us that we can be perfected but only in and through him. Yet we individually increase that burden of perfection on our own backs while ignoring the Savior.

    I think the ‘church’ is less to blame for this weaponizing of scripture than we are as individual members. I have MUCH first hand knowledge of hiding my faults and imperfections because I so badly want to be viewed within the standard deviation of perfection. This has led me down paths I thought I’d never go. It’s a false perception that we can even pretend to be perfect let alone achieve it on our own. We NEED the Atonement.

    In 3 Ne 12:48 the words come with so much more power when the Savior says ‘I WOULD that ye SHOULD be perfect…’. So much irony in the amount of power we give the biblical verse yet the true beauty of Christ’s statement of redemption and atonement are not accounted for in our own harsh standardization of Mormon life.

    I’ll take my chances on the Savior’s atonement any day.

  • Robert Couch

    Tom, I can’t think of anything written by Joe, Adam, or Jim that is critical of God, per se, but I think pretty most things they’ve written challenge certain Mormon understandings of God. That said, I’d personally recommend starting with Jim Faulconer’s book Faith, Philosophy Scripture.

  • Robert Couch

    Here’s a longish response to Amisoz’s comment a couple days ago: “Once you become skeptical of truth claims (or have serious doubts), there’s no reason to privilege your beliefs over those doubts.”

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this comment (thanks for posting it) because I think it goes to the heart of one of the book’s main themes, and it’s helped me appreciate the significance of these 2 chapters in particular. Amisoz is right that doubt is a slippery slope — at least I’ve experienced it that way. In my own life, doubt continued to plague me, or at least gnaw at me as I put it on a backburner, until I worked all the way through to the bottom, so to speak. For me, this coincided with a philosophical journey of working through postmodern and existential writings that grappled with similar kinds of doubts abut the foundations of Western civilization itself.

    However, perhaps because of this way that I worked through my own doubts, Amisoz’s next claim — that “there’s no reason to privilege your beliefs over those doubts” — strikes me as false. In facing the abyss at the end of the road I saw my doubts leading to, I found only darkness and despair. And I began to recognize this darkness and despair in various guises all around me, lurking in the shadows of all economic, political, and social organizations, and in all religions too, in various ways.

    But after staring at this darkness for long enough, I gained a new appreciation for the light(/truth) that I experienced within Mormonism — specifically within the Mormon scripture and within the Mormon community.

    It’s not so much that I ever gained a testimony of the propositional truth claims of Mormonism. Some or all might be true — I continue to hope that they are. But many of the propositions I formerly believed, I no longer believe. Nevertheless, I’ve come to a new appreciation of the goodness in the lives of members of the Mormon church who, more often than not, are sincerely striving to live according to the most beautiful and sensible teachings within Christianity, including the most sublime teachings of Mormonism. Being involved in the Church, and immersed in Mormon (esp. scriptural) teachings helps me in my own journey of seeking truth and light.

    Of course I have all sorts of unanswered questions, but life is too short to worry or obsess so much about abstract, propositional questions. I’ve found more contentment, happiness and joy in rededicating myself to pursuing the more immediate experiential truths that I’ve found within Mormonism, and that I continue to find and appreciate as I consider more deeply the teachings of Mormonism, esp. vis-a-vis the teachings in other (religious and secular) traditions.

    There are problems within the Mormon Church, including certain ideas that I believe should be jettisoned. But I now find the process of searching for further light and knowledge an exhilarating challenge. I see Church leaders, prophets, and scriptures as collections of teachings of good and well-intentioned men (and only sometimes women, unfortunately…), striving to discern and impart God’s will — but doing so in imperfect ways. And my task, esp. as a father and husband, is to try and discern for myself and (with and) for my family what is true and beautiful (delicious, in the scriptural metaphor), and what is not.

    So, the slippery slope of doubt led me to my own sacred grove (or the heart of the volcano, in Dan W.’s metaphor above), where I had to decide that I couldn’t escape the responsibility of judging truth and error for myself, rather than simply taking Church teachings at face value. This search is more difficult, but also significantly more rewarding — requiring all of my heart, mind and strength (but esp. my heart and mind). And although this is ultimately an individual responsibility, prophets, scriptures and other Church leaders and friends (including virtual friends) play critically important roles in this collaborative search. And that’s how I see the ultimate significance of these two chapters in Givenses book as they describe crucial elements of our shared search for more light and truth in with shared institutional practices and canonical texts comprising our common point of origin….

  • Tom Hardman

    Robert, I really like this perspective. Thank you so much for articulating that.

  • I agree. Robert, thanks for sharing your personal experience. In many ways it is similar to mine. Many of us, after venturing into dark places, come to appreciate the light that exists in what we already know. I’d point out that this light exists in many other religions besides ours, though (a truth that in itself proves a stumbling block for many who have been told, and want to believe, in the uniqueness of the Mormon truth claims).

  • Yes! I think that Scripture has been used as a weapon. Apparently the authors do too, because they devote a whole page to dissecting what it might mean in the NT and the JST. The idea of a conditional mood (“I would that ye”) makes all the difference, doesn’t it? As well as the different translation making “perfect” less a designation of personal righteousness than one of wholeness and union with God.

    After I wrote “Flunking Sainthood” I had several readers — mostly women, but not all — mention that scripture to me as one that haunted them. We need to rethink the ways we use that verse.

  • Jon and Emily — do you have a link to the talk?

  • Beautiful observation, Sam.

  • Sharman Wilson

    Man, I love you people! I stayed up later than I should have last night reading chapter 6 of the book, and when I woke up this morning, I immediately opened up my IPad to these comments–I finally had to force myself to get out of bed, get dressed and eat breakfast so I wouldn’t feel like a complete Slobovian. The sinkfull of dishes and piles of bills are giving me the evil eye, but so be it! I am resonating to the Givens’ book, as always, and this discussion is an added bonus. Thanks, Jana for leading out. I may add something to the conversation at some point, but you people have already gathered together whatever nebulous thoughts I had and made sense of them–many thanks from a happy lurker!

  • Amisoz

    Yes, Robert, thanks for the thoughtful reply. When reading it I thought of a section of Sarah Bakewell’s excellent biography of Montaigne the skeptic: “Like Montaigne accommodating himself to his own fallibility, we accept the world is appears to be, with just a formal nod to the possibility that nothing is solid at all. The demon waits in the wings, yet life goes on . . . Today, many people might find Descartes’s terror easier to understand than the peculiar comfort that Montaigne and the original Pyrrhonians derived from their skepticism. The idea that a void underlies everything we experience no longer seems an obvious source of consolation.”

    I guess for me I just don’t see that terror as I turned away from what I previously thought was true. It feels…dare I say, good, sort of liberating. Maybe as I formally stop going to church and tell family about my atheism I’ll be thrown into despair, but as of now I’ve never been happier. And that’s why the Givens’ book seems to be dangerous to me, in the sense that there might not be any going back, that doubt may land you on the other side just as easily as it would land you in the position of a semi-believing member.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Some of the unpaid volunteers who play the organ for hymns are not necessarily skilled enough to play faster. And a lot of the choristers assigned to lead the congregation singing don’t have a lot of musical training, and there is no formal program for training them. So even though the time signature says 90 beats per minute, we get 45. On the other hand, we may also be helping to give the two people involved a sense of belonging and being of service that incentivizes the rest of their religious commitments. That is certainly the case with innumerable people who teach classes in Sunday School and the other meetings. We are each other’s guinea pigs in all the callings we are in.

    That is precisely what Eugene England meant when he said “The Church is as true as the gospel.” His specific essay of that title pointed out that our reliance on each other stretches us, and it teaches us that each one of us, including those in leadership positions small and great, are all, like us, imperfect beings who need our support. The person teaching, or sermonizing, or providing music, is not there to perfect our own worship experience, so much as they are there for US to help perfect THEM. The imperfection of our performance gives everyone in our community the opportunity to practice Christian charity. The product of a Mormon congregation is not perfect theology, it is more perfect people.

    There are, I have heard, families in which the parents relentlessly expect perfect performance from their children, and cannot accept anything short of it. That is not the Mormon ideal. We have high expectations for ourselves and our kids, but we know that it is only voluntary effort, called forth by love unfeigned, that can attain the perfection of soul we seek.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Gosh, I seem to recall that on some occasions Jesus (as recorded in the doctrine and Covenants) said he was pleased with the Church, even if you aren’t.

    A testimony borne on Fast Sunday is not an essay being submitted for grading in a philosophy class. When people say “I know the Church is true”, they mean that they have found truth within the Church, that it teaches truth, that it helps them understand the truth. Maybe you need to defocus from the generality of that statement and listen to the personal experiences that the people relate, which describe the truth they are particularly affirming in those four minutes.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The greatest human imperfections we deal with when we try to understand the scriptures is our own. Our own internal narrative of what a verse or chapter means is something apart from the text itself, is definitely man-made, and therefore not per se divine.

    The people who most emphatically insist that the Bible is the only body of revelation available to us, are basically forced to deduce that it must therefore be complete (addressing every possible question) and inerrant (because there is no opportunity to clarify it through additional revelation). But when they tell us what that inerrant meaning is, it is their own narrative, a human product that puts together words drawn from the Bible but not necessarily what either God or the human authors of books of prophetic revelation, poetry, gospel history, or letters intended when they composed it.

    When Mormons teach other that the scriptures are not inerrant, we are teaching each other that we need to be reserved about our OWN internal Bible and Book of Mormon. We are taught to not use the scriptures to consign people to hell, but to invite them to heaven.

  • StokedMormon

    Great point, Raymond. I think it is critical to understand that the scriptures cannot transmit God’s wisdom directly to our own understanding. Between God’s mind and ours, the message has to pass through an imperfect prophet, be transcribed into an imperfect language, (in most cases) be translated a second time into our own language, and finally pass through our own imperfect minds, before we at last try to turn it into something meaningful for us. Every step in this process presents an opportunity for the message to become something less than what it originally was. Often, the message that we take may bare little resemblance to the one that was originally given.

  • Karen

    I love this idea and your generous compassionate approach to listening to talks. It also explains part of why church is difficult for 6-12 months after moving. You have to get to know your new ward members.

  • Karen

    Yes. This idea really impacted me, even as I complained in last weeks discussion about some Sunday school classes that feel like endurance more than worship. Connections between these meager offerings towards our community worship and the sacrament was a new idea for me, so I guess I fully qualify as still being vague in understanding how all worship is related to the sacrament. It resonated with me in terms of the common refrain that if you are not getting anything out of the meeting, perhaps it is you who needs to change – a sentiment I think of regularly when I feel bored in a church meeting. Again the compassionate approach of thinking charitably about the speaker as discussed by Samuel is lovely. It also gives me more motivation to get to know people at church better.

  • Karen

    Perhaps this is why chapter 4 left me feeling unsatisfied. The suggestion to always follow the guidance of the Holy Ghost in reading scriptures isn’t sufficient for me. If anything I feel like the next topic would be “use and abuse of the Holy Ghost” because that seems to be a failsafe claim of people in our day in using religion and scripture as a cannon or weapon. Kind of this underlying statement – If I say the Holy Ghost confirms it to me, you can’t question it. We need a lot more training in how to listen and hear the Spirit.

  • Karen

    Very lovely analogy. Goes well with the widow’s mite idea they put forth.

  • Karen

    Sidenote – Flunking Sainthood was great. Ideas from it have stayed with me and inspired me.

  • Karen

    I know I’m late again. Sigh.

    #1 I don’t have anything to add to the discussion.

    Regarding #2 about heaven/hell. Really this makes more sense when we’ve always talked about not believing in a literal location of fire and brimstone hell. That it is a state of mind. We were just discussing this with our kids this morning in Alma 36. The reverse being true that Heaven and relationships are a state of mind seems logical. The idea that it is more than just our personal state of mind but our relationships with others fascinates me since I have a tendency to want to just live inside my own mind much of the own time. I have a rich inner life so to speak. It also frightens me a little because what if that means the next life is just a continuation of this one? I guess that truly points to changing my life now to be more what I envision as happiness. It also means I need to truly continue to work at treating people more kindly and with more compassion.

    Regarding #3, the weapon of scriptures. Um yes, scriptures are used as weapons all the time. How about the whole “pray to know if it’s true?” premise of Moroni 10 that doesn’t always work out for everyone and so then believers assume they aren’t praying correctly or something?

    #4. Chapter 4 left me feeling unsatisfied. I didn’t have any specific things I could point to though there are some good points brought up in this discussion. I guess my biggest issue is that though I have been working on it my whole life, knowing for sure where the Spirit is speaking is still a struggle. I feel I’ve made progress, but not to where I am confident about it most of the time.

    The authors gently suggest that Mormons have needlessly adopted an inerrantist view of Scripture when our own theology and scripture does not require this of us. What do you think?



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  • Jeff P

    You are very right: we need a lot of training in how to listen to the Holy Spirit (and I’m at the very top of the list of people who need to take the class).

    The Holy Spirit is not like a podcast you can listen to whenever you want, to help understand something. The Holy Spirit is often elusive, and more vague than we would like, and often silent. And, as you say, for me to tell you that the Holy Spirit explained a verse of scriptures one way, doesn’t help you at all.

  • TomW

    Raymond, I’ve been one of those “unpaid volunteers who play the organ for hymns.” I’m essentially a pianist who attended a one-hour workshop about 30 years ago to learn a couple of tricks which make it possible to fool most people into thinking I’m an organist as well. My size 15 feet will never play the foot pedals, but through the use of pre-sets, the volume pedal, and a measure of skill in keeping my fingers on the keys as long as possible to sustain the notes, I get through the experience okay. I share the annoyance when hymns are played too slow, or played like a funeral dirge rather than with the gusto they are written for. Some hymns are simply meant to be cranked up and belted out at a robust tempo. (I’ve been known to not even look at the music director if she isn’t inclined to keep up – the congregation usually follows the organ anyway!) Some congregations are blessed with several people capable of playing. Others have no one. Having also served as a choir pianist, I’ve been on the side of the equation where the selected music is far beyond my capacity, and it can be rough.

  • TomW

    Tom, the very cover page of the Book of Mormon proclaims: “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” As such, Latter-day Saints who insist that that there can be no errors in what you termed “Restoration scriptures” do not know them as well as they could. That said, I am perfectly capable in believing in the mass destruction of cities and all of their inhabitants, just as I am capable of believing in the Great Flood. I generally do not look for opportunities to disbelieve scripture. But I readily accept that there could be an error here or there and I waste no time agonizing over it.

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