For a Progressive Mormonism

As a Mormon who acts and believes perhaps on the fringe of what is socially acceptable to be or act Mormon, I am often faced with remarks or questions like, “But don’t you believe that we are led by prophets and apostles?” OR “I believe that the Brethren aren’t out to get anyone, so what comes from them must be good.” OR “We’ve been promised that the prophets will never lead us astray. So I think we’d all do well to remember that.”

However, strikingly absent from this discussion is the fallibility of man, even our prophet and apostles. (For a thorough and conservative discussion of this, see this FAIR Mormon’s report on it.) This creates an important question: in what ways are the leaders of the church fallible? And while I’d love to write about this question, I’ll save that for a later date or for someone else. But, I’ll write a quick blurb on what I think is going on before getting to the topic of progressive Mormonism.

Interpreting Revelation Through Our Social Lens

Kant gave us one of the most important contributions to Western philosophy when he argued that our experience with the “real” world was mediated through certain cognitive categories. I’ll call this our social lens. Each of us, rather than looking at the world for what it is, sees the world through a social lens that interprets for us what we see. For example, time is not phenomenon in reality, but humans think through this concept of “time” (and in Western society, linear time). Another category that mediates our experience is causality, that we can imagine x causing y; or gravity causing the leaf to fall, a spark causing the fire, smoking causing cancer, etc. We don’t see causality, but we understand it because our social lens allows us to interpret it. Hegel, developing some theories after Kant, argued that these categories or lenses are developed according to the social and historical contexts of each group. Thus, every society, clan, people, and so forth will have different ways of understanding their experience. The Hebraic category of time, for example, is not linear like the Western conception. Instead, it is more circular or rhythmic.

How does this relate to prophets and apostles? It means that their revelation is interpreted through a very specific way of thinking about the world. As it stands, most of the leaders of the Church are white, born in early-to-mid 1900s USA, worked in professions, etc. Thus, they mediate their reception of revelation through their own context and experiences. This is why some people argue that Brigham Young developed the policies prohibiting blacks from receiving the priesthood (because of the racial feelings at the time) or why Spencer W. Kimball was able to change that (because of how revelation could then be mediated through less racial lenses). Each of us have our own distinctive social lens through which we interpret revelation and the directions of the prophets (it is hardly a condition of just Church leaders), but we must be accountable for that. And, here comes the scary sentence, our leaders must be held accountable for that as well.

 

Questions Guided Through Our Lenses
When we teach the Restoration as missionaries, Sunday School teachers, or Primary teachers, we often start out by how important it was to ask questions: Questions are what drive revelation. Joseph Smith asked, “which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join” (JSH 1:18). Notice how he realized later that he did not even conceive that all the religions were wrong. His social lens prevented him from asking that kind of question.

 

Other questions have inspired revelation. Joseph Smith was prompted to think about the intense clean up caused by tobacco before he received revelation about the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89). The concern Joseph had for his brother Alvin prompted more revelation about what happens in the after-life (D&C 137). Even as we listen to prophets today, their stories are lined with what shapes their social lenses. President Uchtdorf loves his analogies of flying and often recites the savage aftermath of WWII. His life lessons often come directly from those experiences.

However, if even our questions and our understanding of the Gospel is filtered through our social lens, what happens when not all of the social lenses are represented? What questions can be asked? What progress can be made? The social lens that becomes dominant then wins out: the straight, white, well-off, (mostly) American voice has been the filter that interprets the Gospel. And, unfortunately, that filter has been problematic in the past (Blacks and the Priesthood, questions of gender in the Church, Kimball’s writing that homosexuals are the result of excessive masturbation, etc.). This does not, by any means, mean the church is doomed or that we can’t trust our leaders. But we do have to consider and be accountable for the social lens through which we understand God, His word (past, present, and future), and the world that we live in. And yes, we must be self-critical of our own lens. I’m writing this from a particular vantage point and it definitely can be critiqued by those with other social lenses.

 

So, let’s get to the question of a Progressive Mormonism. First, it starts with God’s installment of a true and living Church.

 

The True and Living Church
I’m going to avoid the term ‘liberal’ as it might put some people off, but it is important to realize that Mormonism is already a progressive religion. It started out as progressive and actually slowly became conservative in the mid-1900s. The LDS Church, in its beginnings, radically flipped Christianity in many ways: suddenly there was a prophet that was continuing to receive revelation for the world, no longer was God condemning the majority of His children to Hell–instead, the majority would return and live in heaven; God gave us more scriptures than just the Bible; Christ visited other nations besides the Jews in Jerusalem. It is hard for many to realize how heretical these would have sounded to the Christian world in the 1800s.

 

(I’m going to scatter some quotes from GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy which I introduce below)

 

“Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point–and does not break.” – GK Chesterton

 

But Mormonism was also fairly progressive in social issues. Mormon women participated in blessings now reserved for male priesthood leaders. Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to several black men and one of the reasons the Mormons were driven to the West was their stance against slavery. They reinstituted polygamy, a plural marriage practice often referenced to in Old Testament. (Which, ironically, many contemporary Mormons are scared will be the result of the legalization of gay marriage.) Only Wyoming beat Utah to giving women full voting rights in the later 1800s.

 

However, it is my belief that Mormonism not only began progressive, but is doctrinally required remain progressive.  In D&C 1:30, Joseph Smith receives the direction to establish a “true and living church” (italics added) and bring it “out of obscurity” (notice the blog title, *wink*). What does it mean to be a living church? One that grows and progresses. Just like a parent wouldn’t want their child to stagnate in their development at the age of 5, neither does God want His church to set down roots and then stop growing. Additionally, the word true does not necessarily have to mean “True” with that audacious capital T. Often, when the Lord used “true” he was using an hebraic interpretation of true, which meant being faithful to God. To be “true” is to be true to the Lord (see James Faulconer’s work on reading the scriptures with Greek vs. Hebrew understandings).

“We need watchfulness even in Utopia. … The only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative.” – Chesterton

 

That is why continuing revelation and progressiveness is so important. What it means to be true to the Lord is going to change according to social systems and personal contexts. Nephi was being true when he killed Laban. Abraham was being true when he started to sacrifice his son. And Christ was being true when he kicked people out of the temple and also when he forgave sins to the most debased. Truth is something that one “has”. Truth is something one does.

“In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.” – Chesterton

 

So what? For a Progressive Mormonism
A year ago, I was going through my 5th or 6th faith crisis. I had decided to read C.S. Lewis’ autobiographical account of how he became Christian: Surprised By Joy. I had always heard that JRR Tolkien played a big role in his conversion and was excited to see what happened there, but Lewis only mentioned Tolkien on one or two pages. Instead, Lewis was far more indebted to G.K. Chesterton. My friend here in Chicago had mentioned that Chesterton was a super snarky Christian apologetic. If Lewis loved him and he’s super snarky, this is a guy I needed to read. So, my friend suggested Orthodoxy which set the tone for my belief that Mormonism, and all Christianity, needs to be progressive.

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind… What we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. … No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get one with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die in it? …In this combination…it is the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.” – Chesterton

 

So, in this quote, Chesterton is pulling in a lot of themes he already discussed (on irrational vs. rational; optimist vs. pessimist), but the point is clear: you can develop a love-hate relationship with things that will actually produce the most change. If you hate something without loving it: you will just avoid it or destroy it. If you love something without hating it: you will neurotically keep it the same. But if you find the delicate balance: to hate what is problematic but love it so much to change it: you get something beautiful and a way to grow and progress. We can easily see this individually: people who are too narcissistic will never change because they think they are perfect. But those who hate themselves think they are not even worth bettering and sometimes results in some devastating ends. It’s people who can learn how to both love and hate that can develop and grow. Isn’t this the same for the Church?

“According to Christianity, in making the world, God set it free. He had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers who had since made a great mess of it.” – Chesterton

Now, Chesterton here argues that God is letting us act out a play. We could also insert “Church” into this analogy instead of the “world” in which the stage-managers are the prophets and leaders of the Church and the general public of the Church are the human actors. Do stage-managers never make mistakes? Don’t they play a big part in “[making] a great mess of it”? Sometimes it’s up to the actor to say: “Dude. I am not saying that line like that. It ruins the entire feel of the play!” Then again, sometimes the actors are taking interpretive freedoms that don’t work and it is up to the stage-manager to bring them back into line so the work is great as a whole. There is need for a dialogue back and forth between Church leaders and the average Church member.

 

You might say: But the Church is different since these stage-managers are able to receive direct promptings from the playwright (God). That means they aren’t going astray. But we KNOW that we are ALL humans AND even the prophets and apostles have acknowledged that they make mistakes, and sometimes devastating mistakes. Neal A Maxwell apologized for his remarks on race and the priesthood, for example. Spencer W. Kimball said that homosexuality leads to bestiality, which is definitely not true. How do we account for that if God is leading the Church? Just as God allows the random person to make mistakes to privilege our agency, He must be doing the same with His prophets.

 

“All is Well”
See the following from 2 Nephi 28:

20 For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

21 And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

22 And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.

23 Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and bejudged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

24 Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!

25 Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!

26 Yea, wo be unto him that hearkeneth unto the precepts of men, and denieth the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost!

27 Yea, wo be unto him that saith: We have received, and we need no more!

28 And in fine, wo unto all those who tremble, and are angry because of the truth of God! For behold, he that is built upon the rock receiveth it with gladness; and he that is built upon a sandy foundation trembleth lest he shall fall.

29 Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!

30 For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.   — (Italics added)

 

It shocks me that as a Mormon community based on new revelation and the doctrine of continuing revelation that we are so terrified of what could be or any question of developments in doctrine. God has so clearly told us that we don’t have all the answers and that they’ll be coming as long as we appreciate what answers we already have. (Also, knowing that we don’t have all the answers, why would we assume that Church members, leaders included, would behave perfectly and 100% justly?) We know that even in the Church, all is not well, and because all is not well, we also need to do something about it.

 

D&C 58:

27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

 

What cause, besides charity and love to our fellow men, could be greater than building up the kingdom? What greater cause might we be involved in than to appreciate and find the new doctrines and precepts that God is just waiting for us to have? What else could so occupy our time that we forget to make our Church the best place for everyone to be?

 

It is time, I think, for us to realize that there are aspects of our Church that are not perfect. It is time, I think, that we stop assuming, “All is well”. For, that assumption only blinds us to the pain and suffering that some are feeling and the solutions that could ease that pain. Bringing this back to the earlier sections of this post, if our leaders are seeing the world through a particular lens and interpreting revelation through that lens, might it be up to those of us in completely different situations to speak up and introduce what they are missing?

 

Yes, the Church is true. But the Church being true is contingent upon our keeping it true. How do we do that? By making sure the Church is always progressing and growing.

 

Considering LGBTQ Members
“The man who is most likely to ruin the [church] he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason reason. The man who will improve the [church] is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves some feature of [the LDS Church], he may find himself defending that feature against [the LDS Church] itself. But if he simply loves [the LDS Church], he may lay it to waste and turn it into [Zion]. I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism.” – Chesterton
(To relate easier, I substituted church with state, the LDS Church for a city Chesterton used (Pimlico), and Zion with New Jerusalem.)

 

As this is an LGBTQ blog, I felt it amiss to go along without some direct connection. When Chesterton says “The man who will improve the [church] is the man who loves it without reason” screams to me the situation of many LGBTQ members. Often these members find little joy going to church. Many times they are shunned by their fellow members and their local leaders. The general officers of the church have used divisive language towards the LGBTQ members, calling them apostates or even trying to strip them of their identity (see my previous post on why that is NOT a good idea), and have had false conceptions of what homosexuality is and what to do about it since the 1970s. Essentially, I’m trying to point out that LGBTQ members often feel that they have few features to choose from as reasons to love the Church. Yet they still do. They love the Church without a reason to.

 

So perhaps its time to start listening to them. As I’ve said in the past, I’m not sure what doctrinal changes (if any) are necessary and I haven’t spent much time thinking about that because I don’t think I’m in the best position to start making doctrinal claims. But there are MANY things that we can start doing to help create a space for those people who consistently feel marginalized and ashamed for their situation (which I and others of this blog have explored here, herehere, and in other posts and that many other groups have discussed as well).

 

In Closing
It is time for a change in conversation. Can it no longer be about gay identity? Can it no longer be chastity and obedience and law? Can we stop avoiding the question of “What is a lesbian to do in this ward?” by saying there are no homosexuals in the Church?

Can the conversation be: What can we do as a community to help uplift the LGBTQ members and ALL other marginalized people to feel the light of Christ? What can we do to make them feel safe and welcome? What can we do to help the Church rid itself of a caustic environment that promotes destructive behaviors? How can we make the Church a ZION today?

 

Can these be the questions we start asking? Enough with the stamping of feet and saying, “But God said homosexuality was wrong!” Enough with the gnashing of teeth and saying, “Doctrine NEVER changes so we shouldn’t even be talking about this!” Might we stand together and make a Church that defies expectations? One that reaches for the heavens and arrives? One like the Church led by Enoch? They did not sit around and wait for God to save them. They made themselves perfect. Might we work to make ourselves and the Lord perfect.

 So, the waiting time is over. Let the era of the progressive Mormonism begin.

 

I would invite any comments, questions, disagreements, etc. But I would especially invite the beginning of a discussion on what a Progressive Mormonism might look like!
Thanks for reading, y’all.

 

“The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things but sad about the big ones. … Joy…is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” – Chesterton
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4 thoughts on “For a Progressive Mormonism

  1. Erik, wow. This hits the nail right on the head for me. Just last night I was thinking about the significance of the questions we ask, and my mind went to the same examples you gave (WoW, JS’s vision of Alvin).

    It seems to me that a progressive route is the only way to keep the Church alive. What is not clear to me is this: as the church develops, what is to be done for those whose belief in the church is founded on the idea that it does not change. Progressivism can “kill” the Church for them. We have seen this recently as people have become familiar with the gospel topic essays. Many people are not prepared to face a church that makes mistakes, and the information proves to be too much for them. Churches consistently lose membership when they take a progressive turn. Is there a way to progress without losing people?

  2. Also, my observation is that it can be very difficult for people to continue loving the church once they start acknowledging the wrongs within it, and they leave. Is there a way to stop the “progressive drain”? What is the secret to keeping the love when things get messy?

  3. Jon, two very good points that I’ll respond to one by one. (You know as an academic I have to be systematic about everything).

    1st: Will the idea that Church leaders make mistake or that the Church isn’t perfect make people lose faith in the Church? What will happen to those who have put their faith in the notion of an unchanging Church?

    I think first and foremost we need to consider what is meant by A) change and B) unchanging/constant. The conception of change as ‘bad’ or ‘terrifying’ is a very modern ideal because we want CONTROL. If things change, then where does control fit in? However, I think control, outside of personal choice, betrays the very notion of faith. It can be said in one way that a fear of change is a struggle of faith.

    One way that we’ve fallen into the myth of change as bad is through belief that ” [God] is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (see 1 Nephi 10:18 and many other verses). Culturally, this has meant that the doctrine is constant and what we know about God is constant. But this idea of constant is problematic for two reasons. First, we don’t have the whole picture. God is infinite and, again due to modern ideals, we try our best to box Him in and say: “This is how God works. This is how God acts. This is who God is.” But as an infinite being, none of these definitions will ever be accurate. I personally believe that every time we try to box God into some definition, He will try to expand our knowledge of Him by acting in a way completely contrary to what we had preconceived. This is part of growing and evolving in our relationship with Him. I think the doctrine is similar: we have very limited understandings of the doctrine and its applications. Every time we try to say: “We finally understand it!”, there will be a situation that arises that contradicts that notion. (LGBTQ Mormons are a living testament to that.) So, what we might conceive as changing doctrine or a changing God might actually be an expanding upon what we thought we knew. Perhaps God and the doctrine aren’t changing, but we are seeing things more clearly.

    Second, constant in what? Constant does not need to mean static. We know that God is eternally increasing in light and glory. But doesn’t that mean He is changing? In Hebraic language, God is God only because he is ACTING as God (not because he has some metaphysical properties that have elevated Him to that status). Perhaps what it means to “be God” changes for different people in different societies in different times. Scholars have noted different “types” of God: the God of the Old Testament has a very different approach than the God of the New Testament. And we might even through in the God of the Book of Mormon, the God of the Restoration, and the God of the Modern Church. Personally, I think what is constant is God’s relationship to us: He is always BEING God. But that action will always be in flux. Otherwise, He would be treating us all exactly the same way –> which was part of Lucifer’s plan and exactly what we voted against in the pre-existence.

    So, accepting a progressive Mormonism would require shifts in our understanding of what is changing and constant and being more critical of the way we go about saying “yesterday, today, and forever”. I might add that the Mormon culture often assumes that by saying we’ve restored the fulness of the Gospel that we’ve got it all. But as the quote in 2 N 28 shows, there is always more to be added upon. (Just as God is infinite, so is the doctrine.) In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Dean Farnsworth explains that the “fulness of the gospel” is really about reviving a testimony of Christ and the practices required for salvation. It does NOT mean we suddenly have all the doctrines or all the answers about eternal life or exactly how life should play out.

    Unfortunately, for those who have built their faith on an unchanging Church will have to realize that the Church is already changing and has already changed. But if the change is in the right direction that should only make us excited rather than fearful that it is not the truth. Everything is progressing.

    2nd: It is difficult for people to love the Church once they start acknowledging things that are wrong with it. How can we stop the “progressive drain”?

    This is one that I think we will grapple with forever. But it will be a similar question asked to parents when their kids are being bratty: why on earth do you still love them?

    Personally, I think individuals focus on the aspects of the LDS Church that are most relevant to them. Unfortunately for LGBTQ+ folks, this means that the parts of the LDS Church that they think about are often the most negative. But it’s important to consider the LDS Church as a whole. Let’s give an example: It is generally accepted that Martin Luther King, Jr. cheated on his wife. If we were only evaluating MLK’s person on the basis of marital fidelity, it might seem that he is a pretty terrible person. But looking holistically, we know all the wonderful things he inspired. Similarly, if we only looked at the Nazi regime for its technological innovations, it would seem like the supreme kind of political regime. But looking holistically, that would be the most terrible idea.

    We need to broaden our ability to see the LDS Church for what it is. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough voices, until recently, calling upon the LDS Church to consider their LGBTQ+ members. Instead, it’s mission has been worldwide humanitarian aid, servicing people within its own community, etc. In that sense, the LDS Church does quite well. For many, many members, the LDS Church is their saving grace and we cannot forget that. (But it would also be wrong for those members to consider the Church as a perfect institution.)

    If people wanted a perfect institution in which to place their faith, they would end up empty. There is no government, organization, family, or other group in this world that is without blemish (and generally significant blemishes). Part of what Chesterton argues is that we often have no reason to love the Church, but are drawn to it regardless of its blemishes. But when we love with this acknowledgment of its faults, that’s when action is created to build up a Zion.

    There are a lot of people who argue that the Church is not physically or emotionally safe for some people and to that I wholeheartedly (while also broken-heartedly) agree. Sometimes the environment the Church culture has created can have devastating effects on people. To them I plead that they find a community elsewhere: either in another congregation of the Mormon church, in another religion, in Mormon-affiliated groups like Affirmation or LDS Family Fellowship, etc. But that a community is extremely important.

    I would also like to acknowledge that in my research, those who attempted to “just leave Mormonism” often had similar negative consequences to their emotional and psychological states to those who tried to change, deny, or hide their sexuality. Even if leaving the Church is important to you, the denial of its influence will result in more heartache. Instead, a healthy balance needs to be achieved.

    Does that help answer those questions?

  4. It’s funny because so many members say “I know this church is true!” Do these people realize that there are many religious people on earth attending other churches. Do you think that those people think that they are going to a false church? Most people belonging to organized religion believe they are going to the true church.

    So I like your concept of “true” and yes there was only one perfect soul on this earth and look what they did to him on the cross. So, prophets may have many strengths and receive revelation but we know that they do make mistakes.

    It certainly is erroneous about homosexuality leading to beastiality. So far off.

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