(RNS) My childhood memories of decorating the family Christmas tree include a growing appreciation of the fine line between delight and disillusion.
Each year, we took the strands of colored lights out of their boxes, wound them around the tree, and held our breath as we plugged them in. Would the lights spring to life, or would a single broken light condemn the whole string to sullen darkness?
Some people feel the same way about faith.
A recent article on Salon.com titled “But I’m a good Mormon wife” gives a poignant account of the unraveling of a Mormon woman’s faith as she confronted various details of her church’s history for the first time. “If Joseph Smith was a fraud—then what did that make the Church?” she asks. A chorus of comments following the article congratulated her for reasoning her way out of religion.
I don’t criticize her decision to leave Mormonism, but I have to disagree with the article’s implicit conclusion that leaving Mormonism—or indeed any religious tradition—is the only logical choice for a rational, educated person.
The logic behind this loss of faith — Joseph Smith was a fraud, therefore the religion that he founded is bogus, and one’s entire experience as a Mormon is bogus — is actually just the reverse of how many Mormons approach their faith. If the Book of Mormon is true, the thinking goes, then everything Joseph Smith did or said was divinely inspired. And if Joseph Smith was divinely inspired in everything, then everything about the church is just how God wants it.
I am an active Mormon and I love my church. At the same time, I can empathize with the disillusionment felt by those who investigate Mormon history for the first time after having been exposed only to sanitized versions of church history.
If a person looks at faith like a string of Christmas lights, they demand that “light” leap from one point to another along a single string of connections. If one junction along the string is flawed, then the whole string is dysfunctional. Or, if the whole string is functional, then every single junction must be perfect.
Here's the problem with the Christmas-light view of religion: it's too easily manufactured and too easily broken. As a young girl in Sunday School, just hearing tear-jerking stories about hardy Mormon pioneer women pushing handcarts across the Great Plains filled me with religious certitude. Surely, I thought, the pioneers would not have suffered for something that wasn't true.
The other side of the the Christmas-light perspective also makes it easy to discredit an entire faith tradition. All you have to do is knock out a single light, and kaplooey—the whole tradition is dysfunctional, bogus, and unworthy of the loyalty of intelligent people.
Human flaws are painfully apparent throughout the history of every major religious tradition — including Mormonism — but that doesn’t negate the experience, motives, or morals of all Catholics, Anglicans, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims — or Mormons.
I have encountered both the humanness and the divinity of religious traditions in my own life. I have studied Mormon history and I am just as certain that early leaders such as Joseph Smith were imperfect individuals who on occasion made serious and damaging missteps as I am certain that Joseph Smith was indeed inspired in founding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its rich doctrines and bold avenues of sacred experience.
In instances too numerous to describe, I have experienced what Mormons refer to as the influence of the Holy Spirit—sometimes in the form of a profound, transformative empathy, sometimes in the deep impression that Christ’s grace mattered and was real to me. Sometimes it was as simple as the desire to do better and to be good. I value these experiences, and the religious tradition within which I interpret them, with both my heart and mind.
So if the Christmas lights approach to faith doesn't work, we need something else. Something like sourdough bread.
I bake our family’s bread with a sourdough starter that—according to tradition, at least—came across the plains with the Mormon pioneers. Artisan sourdough bread with a golden crust that crackles and a creamy interior with large, irregular holes and complex flavors doesn’t just happen. Enzymes must work to break apart tasteless starch molecules in the raw flour so that the wild yeasts can feed on simple sugars and create bubbles of carbon dioxide that stretch strands of gluten. Strains of bacteria compete for dominance in creating an acidic environment.
From start to finish, it's all a process of fermentation—what we would normally call “food going bad.” It begins with the starter, an unruly colony of wild yeasts and bacteria swimming together in starchy soup. There is nothing lovely or pure about sourdough starter. Its exuberance makes it sour on the verge of stinky, fermented bordering on decayed. Yet, when introduced into a properly balanced supply of flour, water and salt, the starter is a catalyst for building a complex, living community that results in heavenly bread.
Religious traditions, like sourdough, are complex, living things. They are both organization and organism, created and sustained from many different processes and actors, shaped by time and their environment. They even can be naturally subject to corruption.
And yet they are also susceptible — through this same process of leavening — to producing goodness. Appreciating this goodness, and engaging productively with the complex processes that create it, is a project of intellect, not ignorance.
(Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. She currently lives in Hong Kong, where she is writing a book on the history of the True Jesus Church and Protestant Christianity in China.)