I exchange emails with a good number of LDS people. Some of them are simply looking for information, a pointer to the right article or scripture or background. Some of them are finding their spiritual footing to not be as firm as it used to be, which is highly disconcerting. No one enjoys just trying to stay afloat while the waves keep breaking over you.
One such exchange recently ended with a personal question, given X, Y, and Z, why do *you* stay?
It was a busy day, and I only had five minutes (dangerous to write something serious so spontaneously), but I wanted to give my interlocutor something. Since several people have found it helpful, here’s my quick response, edited slightly for clarity and detail.
I don’t have a lot of time, but let me make a preliminary attempt at responding as a whole.
We have a culture, we inherit a tradition, about definitions, about the past, about many things. Those create expectations, which combine with experiences we interpret from within our own personal worldview (which is shaped by those traditions, expectations, definitions, etc.) I have often argued to my classes that the strongest testimonies (e.g. those holding them are most able to respond well to spiritual crises of various kinds) are those that are flexible, open-minded, and broad. [I'm writing a long post talking about this.] It’s perhaps ironic that my relationship to the institutional church and my faith are much more resilient because I regularly expect that most of Church administration, hierarchy, and teaching is largely human. I believe God can and does speak to prophets, and I don’t think that belief is incompatible with the idea that the vast majority of day-to-day things that come from Church HQ consists of humans doing the best they can. They have disagreements based on differing world views and understanding of scripture and tradition, and so on. I find that to be both realistic and believing.
Where can I find official and clear statements of church doctrine?
You can’t, but to what end? A catechism? If so, stick with the 13 articles of faith and the temple recommend questions. Make your own beliefs that you can argue for, based on the scriptures, experience, and the best information we have from reliable sources. One of my BYU professors used to say in terms of historical/doctrinal information, “you can have it all, or you can have it consistent, but you can’t have both.” I’m happy to have broad leeway in the Church for what I can believe (what I can preach in Church itself is a different category, of course). But I understand why many LDS don’t see things as I do; I didn’t grow up in the Mormon belt, my Church experiences have been mostly positive, and I’ve read much broader than most LDS in terms of history, doctrine, and scripture. I have low expectations of consistency or “direct revelation” in everything (whatever “direct revelation” would mean. ALL revelation is encultured, and filtered through humans, even prophetic ones.) I’ve lived with grey longer than most because my experiences (such as watching The Godmakers at 16) and formal studies with the Bible exposed me very early to messy history and uncomfortable issues, so I’m very comfortable with contradiction, ambiguity, and gray. I can (and have), for example, acknowledge both 19th-century and ancient Semitic aspects of the Book of Mormon. I’m convinced it’s ancient, but I’m not about to ask anyone out of the Church who disagrees. In other words, I’d like to think I occupy some kind of middle ground that can accept central and basic truth claims of the church while rejecting either Protestant fundamentalism on the one hand or epistemological/scientific solipsism on the other. (The latter, I suspect, is why many exLDS end up as atheists.) So, I stay because my expectations are such that they are rarely violated, because (and I’ve said little about this because you hinted that it was irrelevant) my own experiences have led me to believe that God exists, that he set this Church in motion, that his hand touches it in unique ways, and its core truth claims are true. And also because I have a wicked streak of independence which buffers me from occasional stupidity that comes from high places. I also find that the Church and its teachings (regardless of truth claims, though they are important to me) do more good than evil on the whole.
Now, correlation is certainly a mixed bag, but it’s important to remember that the institutional Church is not a monolith, and the left hand often has no idea what the right hand is doing. I see things as going in a largely positive way, but it will take some time. What evidence is there of that? Recent changes to the Bible Dictionary (as were sent to you), the new pages at LDS.org on the priesthood ban, DNA, etc., certain hires at BYU, certain publications, some other things. To be sure, not everything is positive, but again, it’s not a monolith. Overall, taken as a whole, I see the Church moving in a very good, centrist direction that acknowledges problems and issues (in process rejecting certain traditions) but not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It will take some time for those changes to filter down to the layperson/ward level, of course, but it is happening.
I have blogged on a lot of these topics. I don’t have time to copy and paste specifically, but see http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/author/ben-s/, my recent posts on Genesis and the flood at my Gospel Doctrine blog
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/benjaminthescribe/ I also have some biographical posts in there as well.
I’ve also attached an article I wrote that BYU just published in a journal which goes to all CES folks [Religious Educator.] The most relevant part for my email is where I discuss the relevance of the JST and Book of Mormon on Biblical studies. The fact that BYU published this is one of my evidences that at least certain Powers That Be are looking for a non-fundamentalist middle ground that challenges a lot of tradition and assumptions.
Anyway, I hope this is helpful. I have to leave for my organic chemistry class, then teach my Hebrew class, and finish polishing the publication version of a conference article due today.
It’s been interesting to see the uptick in questions and struggles as the Gospel Topics section has grown, as evidenced by various blog posts and emails. I wonder if the effect of these articles could be appropriately termed “creative destruction”, as certain traditions and interpretations are definitively put down, creating conflict. I suspect in the short term, we’re going to lose some people who struggle to reconcile A with B (and such struggles are very real and sincere), but I also think that such articles are more-or-less exactly what the Church needs in the long term.
In the meantime, and more importantly, let’s support and throw a life preserver to those around us who feel like they’re drowning. “When a battered, weary swimmer tries valiantly to get back to shore, after having fought strong winds and rough waves which he should never have challenged in the first place, those of us who might have had better judgment, or perhaps just better luck, ought not to row out to his side, beat him with our oars, and shove his head back underwater. That’s not what boats were made for. But some of us do that to each other.”- Elder Holland, previously discussed here with more background. An approach or argument or data that one person finds helpful, another may not; I suspect that what nearly everyone needs is just someone “safe” to talk to and emotional support.
Can we offer that to our brothers and sisters in Christ?