Several times over the past few years, I’ve been told that my position is that there are no good reasons for ever leaving the Church, that people who claim that they have historical or intellectual or theological problems that they cannot resolve are lying, and that I believe that all apostasy comes from sin.
But, in fact, this is not and never has been my position. Never.
Once in a while, though, the following post from a message board, dated to 4 February 2005, is adduced as proof that Peterson speak with forked tongue, and that I do, in fact, deny the possibility of a loss of faith that is driven purely by intellectual concerns:
All of the following rests upon on the assumption that the Church is indeed God’s true church, and that Mormonism is, in its essence, God’s unique saving truth. (Without that assumption, the question seems somewhat pointless.)
From the perspective of eternity, there can be no legitimate reason for leaving the Church of God or for turning one’s back upon God’s revealed truth and will. Such a decision is simply and always wrong.
However, our knowledge here is limited, fragmentary, imperfect, and distorted. So it’s possible that one can leave the Church for reasons that, given the flawed nature of our knowledge in mortality, genuinely appear to be good and sufficient. It’s a matter of our perceptions.
But our perceptions are always colored by our own individual personal history, character, knowledge, ignorance, desires, mental and emotional health, ambitions, etc. So no decision to accept the gospel or to reject it is likely to be purely rational, uncolored by “personal” factors.
We can trust that God knows this and appreciates it far better than we do, and that, in his mercy, he will take such factors into account. Those who have sincerely done their best will, I believe, be blessed for it, even if they took mistaken detours. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to tempt God. And those who have lived carelessly, heedlessly, and cynically, are also living recklessly.
Having said all of this, I add for the record that my experience with friends, relatives, and acquaintances who have left the Church has been very similar to Beowulf’s. [Beowulf was another poster on the thread.] I’m not sure if I know of a single case of purely intellectual apostasy.
Please notice how I nuanced my comments:
1. I prefaced them by expressly stating that what I was going to say presupposed the truth of the Church’s claims. Another way of saying this is that I was speaking as a believer, assuming that my view of reality both in this life and in the world to come is accurate.
2. I said that there is no genuinely legitimate reason to give up faith in the Church’s assertions “from the perspective of eternity.” This is vital: Remember, I was presuming that Mormonism is true, and, accordingly, that the view from eternity also regards Mormonism as true. Thus, any reason for concluding that Mormonism is false must, given that assumption, ultimately be incorrect. And, in that sense, it cannot then ultimately be legitimate.
3. However, I then observed that, from the perspective of this world, reasons can and often do appear solidly grounded and fully legitimate, such that a person might sincerely believe them to be valid even if, from God’s perspective, they’re ultimately not.
4. I then indicated that, in my opinion, there are very few decisions or theoretical commitments, if any — whether for or against a religious doctrine, whether political or marital or philosophical or whatever — that are purely intellectual. My comment about being unsure that I’ve ever seen a case of “purely intellectual apostasy” should be understood with that proviso in mind. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a purely intellectual anything, except perhaps in symbolic logic and mathematics — though some have argued that even those fields may not actually constitute exceptions.
5. I also had in mind the many inactive Church members in my own extended family. Most haven’t left for intellectual issues. If anything, I suspect that most of them probably still believe the Church to be more or less true. It simply isn’t for them, as they see it. They’re just not interested. They haven’t concluded that the Book of Mormon is false or that Joseph couldn’t read Egyptian or that the Kirtland Safety Society fiasco reflects poorly on him. They haven’t thought about such issues. They haven’t heard of the Kirtland bank failure. They just don’t really want to be “churchy.” I suspect that, by a very long distance, most inactive Church members are like this. Relatively few are tortured intellectuals going through an existential crisis. But that’s a subordinate issue.
6. Finally, I professed faith in God’s merciful judgment, which, I trust, will take our quirks and our psychological defects and our limited knowledge and so forth into charitable account.
I’m frankly mystified that, as recently as tonight, I’ve essentially been accused, on the basis of the passage above and over my protests, of unseemly zeal for condemning those whose faith is weak or who leave the fold, of claiming that they’re all wicked and damned, that they cannot, ever, sincerely dissent from The Truth.
This is bizarre. If anything, I flirt with universalism. I don’t feel even remotely qualified to pronounce upon the eternal fate of anybody. I love the comment from the late Pope John Paul II, when he was asked whether a Christian must believe that there is a hell. Yes, he replied. But we can hope it will be empty.