The Evolution of Faith: or is God Creating a Better Mormonism?

Not long after the Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christianity was published, I happened to encounter it on the shelf for new releases in my local library. I had been struggling for some time with feeling alienated from my religion of birth, having come to the realization that there was much in it that I could no longer accept as having a divine basis and aspects of its theology, culture, and spiritual practices that I believed were ultimately unproductive and harmful.

This was a difficult time for me, and in some sense the hurt still lingers. But I feel that my encounter with this book was somewhat providential, for it gave me a resource with which to work through my feelings. In Philip Gulley I found a kindred spirit, someone who saw in traditional Christianity many of the same problems that I had begun to recognize in Mormonism. He spoke with refreshing honesty and compassion, and in ways that resonated with the parts of my Mormon identity and belief system that I still held on to and valued.

For those unfamiliar with Gulley, he is a Quaker pastor living in Danville Ohio who has recently become well known as an advocate for a more progressive Christianity. As a former Catholic and then evangelical Quaker, his own religious beliefs have evolved over time, to the chagrin of some (he even admits to keeping a Book of Mormon on his shelf next to his Bibles and other religious texts). The life experiences that have propelled him on this spiritual journey are described at various points in the Evolution of Faith as exemplifications of the theological points he is trying to make. As a deeply personal and yet theologically vigorous narrative, he weaves his autobiographical storytelling with discussions of the major topics dealt with in traditional Christian theologies (Revelation, God, Jesus, Spirit etc).

Gulley begins in the first chapter by noting that Christianity has changed immensely since its origin two thousand years ago, that it has constantly evolved and is likely to continue to do so. And recently certain social, scientific, and technological developments have expedited the necessity for change. He mentions religious diversity (more people than ever are living with others of different religious or non-religious persuasions), scientific advancement, the expansion of communication possibilities, and the diminished role of the institutional church as the sole religious authority for interpreting spiritual matters. More people than ever are questioning prior orthodoxies, “making the next stage of Christianity not only possible, but inevitable” (5)

The rest of the book is his proposal for how Christianity could evolve to meet the challenges of our time. To summarize, his vision is not that of “a radical and unilateral overhaul of the faith,” but “a possible way forward that not only honors the ethos of Jesus but is conversant with our time and culture” (3).

I think that we as LDS members could learn much from Philp Gulley’s creative and brave exploration of the future of Christianity. It is not difficult to see that the LDS church faces many of the same challenges as other organized Christian religions. The information cocoon that so many of us were raised in has now started to crack, in some cases wide open, and an intellectual and religious ferment is now in full swing. Many are leaving the church because of this, while others are making direct requests for the church to change attitudes or policies. Still others have created alternative online communities to find support and to work out cognitive dissonance, communities which, as far as I can tell, often have a religious and cultural ethos distinctly different from what is regularly encountered in the institutional church and its local wards.

What struck me as I read through Evolution of Faith is how often I felt that I could replace his discussion of Christianity with Mormonism as the subject and that the sense of the passage would retain its relevance and applicability. In my own little world, it felt as though he were speaking prophetic words to the LDS tradition (ironic, I know), words that could help it better embody many of the humanistic principles it already claims to believe in.

Instead of reviewing the rest of the book, I thought that I would simply pull out a few highlight quotes and give readers a taste of his writing. They are some of my favorite from the first quarter of the book. But please, if you feel a temptation to dismiss the ideas contained in them as so much liberal nonsense, go read the Evolution of Faith itself and get the personal context to the quotes.


“Ironically, the more the church resists this evolution, the more it will hasten the change, for its efforts to preserve the status quo will only emphasize its more negative strategies of rigidity, control, and fear, thereby alienating the very people it wishes to influence” (5-6)


“The theology in which many of us were raised fit hand in glove with the prevailing understanding of the church. It was exclusive, rarely acknowledging the merits of other religions. It emphasized a God above and beyond us, mirroring the ecclesial structure of the day that elevated leadership and concentrated power in the hands of an exalted few. It was decidedly privileged in nature and view, reflecting the cultural mores of the richest nations. Its God took their side, blessed their priorities, and helped secure their wealth and status” (7)


“My hope is that an evolving Christianity will reflect the egalitarian spirit of Jesus, not the elitism of an entrenched church. It will no longer presume that having male genitalia uniquely equips someone for leadership. Nor will it assume heterosexuals are capable of ministry in a way homosexuals are not. It will listen carefully to its young people, letting their enthusiasm and yearning for authenticity inspire a passionate and relevant faith. It will console the brokenhearted, speak for the voiceless, befriend the weak, challenge the powerful, and call to leadership those who handle power well” (8)


“An evolving Christianity will not insist we believe the absurd, affirm the incredible, or support a theology that degrades humanity. It will be a friend of science, working joyfully alongside the best minds in the world on a common mission to embrace and enhance life. This Christianity will talk less and act more” (8)


“I’ve often thought revelations and insights about God ought to be handled [like a fragile and defenseless bird], loosely and softly so as not to smother or harm them. Unfortunately, this is usually the opposite of how divine truths are held. Our tendency is to grab them tightly, seizing them, squeezing out their vibrancy and vitality until life is gone from them. Indeed, one of the first things we do is codify and sanctify our encounters with the Divine… We freeze the moment, believe it represents the totality of the divine character, insist that our encounter is superior to our neighbor’s, and move quickly to define, and consequently limit, the manner in which God is encountered”  (21-22)


“For too long, the pastor’s function has been that of propagandist, perpetuating a party-line view of God that is not always helpful or sound. When the pastor is a mouthpiece for a settled view of God and rewarded for his or her adherence to that view, the incentive to expand our understanding of God is lost, the church becomes spiritually stagnant, and the cause of truth is not well served” (34)


“But what if exploration were the theme of one’s spiritual journey? What if “rightness” were of secondary importance and what was paramount was the freedom to investigate uncharted spiritual ground? What if God were not honored by our commitment to orthodoxy, but by our willingness to traverse the difficult terrain of wisdom and discernment? If that were the case, God would not be owed our fear and submission, but our most probing questions. True blasphemy would be ignoring our responsibility to engage the world and reality at the deepest level of which we are capable. It would be to meet creation with apathy, with no appetite for inquiry, knowledge, or enlightenment” (36)


“But when the chief aim of religion is indoctrination, then humility, enlightenment, and open-mindedness fall by the way. Instead, efforts are made to “cement” our thinking early in life, encouraging us to accept the settled doctrines of the church. Traditionally, this has been done by urging children to either confirm their faith in more mainstream churches or to “accept Jesus” in more evangelical churches. Though the method is different, the goal is the same — to establish early in one’s life a pattern of assent and obedience to religious beliefs the child can’t yet possibly know to be true” (39)


“Though I have rejected the salvific exclusivity of the Roman and evangelical churches, I do not dispute that there is but one way to follow God — the way of compassion, mercy, and love. Wherever those virtues are practiced, God is present, with no respect or regard for the religious boundaries we humans have devised. This is the sole test of godly religion: does this religion increase our capacity and ability to love? Whether God is called Elohim or Allah, whether the worship of God is centered in mosque, temple, shrine, or church, whether Jesus is honored as savior, prophet, or teacher, whether none or all of the religious dogma we value are met, if love is present, God is there” (46)


“If Christianity is to evolve, as it surely must if it is to thrive, we must first unchain ourselves from the weight of dead habit that has dulled our minds and stilled our spirits” (53)

  • http://www.trevorprice.net Trevor

    Love those quotes. Sounds like I book I should add to my list…

  • g.wesley

    This …

    “Though I have rejected the salvific exclusivity of the Roman and evangelical churches, I do not dispute that there is but one way to follow God — the way of compassion, mercy, and love. ”

    … gets at something I was thinking about recently after rereading the official account of the First Vision, in particular JS-H 10:

    “10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be aright, which is it, and how shall I know it?”

    … with the follow up in JS-H 18-19:

    “18 My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, 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.

    19 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

    I wondered whether the narrative of the First Vision has been totally undercut by the increasing pluralism and globalization of the 2oth and 21st centuries. Or does it rather have all the more power and appeal to the seekers of today now that their plight is so much more complicated?

    Since the many are manier than they were in the 1820s, does that make desire (desperation?) for the one that much greater? Can ‘homo religiosus’ learn to embrace the uncertainty of multiplicity or is there something in us that is innately attracted to simple certitude?

  • RT

    Great thoughts g.wesley. You may be right that a narrow particularistic perspective on Truth has greater appeal for some because of the very multiplicity of available Truths. But this tendency may be related to a number of other factors, such as generational, economic, and educational status. It may be a feature of contemporary religion as it transitions to something else. Whatever the case, I think that the numbers of people who desire something other than “simple certitude” are growing at an accelerated rate.

  • JohnH

    RT,
    “educational status”
    The Book of Mormon truly is the book for our days. I love how Nephi explains that when men are learned they think they are wise and don’t listen to the counsels of God because they think they know it for themselves. When I discuss the topic of religion with atheists I often run into that very same idea, which is precisely the idea that you appear to have put forward here; it really is a truly cunning plan of the evil one as Nephi says because it builds up a persons pride in so many ways and makes one feel special for having reached the “enlightened state” that there is no truth, or no God, or no need to listen to those “unschooled” dupes that believe differently then ones own pet beliefs; and it allows one to do this regardless of how actually educated about anything one is, in fact one needs no education to make this claim, one can just follow the crowd on and feel smarter then Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle and more holy then any Prophet or Church Leader.

    Or consider the frequent discussions of the rising generation that happens in the Book of Mormon, such as in Mosiah 26-27. Their fathers and grandfathers had been baptized with water and with fire and knew of a surety with a “simple certitude” the reality of the gospel and of the ordinances of the gospel and it took an angel to convince them that what there fathers had been saying all along really was true and that their fathers weren’t just deluded old men. Or look at the Nephites in 3 Nephi and Helamen.

    Or consider the repeated discussions in the Book of Mormon of the importance of the saving ordinances and of the foolishness of those in 4 Nephi that walked away or changed those ordinances for whatever reason. The Power of God is shown through the ordinances of the Priesthood and man can not enter the Kingdom of Heaven without the ordinances of the Priesthood.

    Or in regards to economic status, consider that in Helaman the church falls apart nearly completely except for the poor, or in Alma how the missionary work is most successful among the poor, or how usually the apostates that end up fighting the Nephites and the church used to be rich members of the Church. Or consider what Jesus says about the poor, how odd it seems to me to be both looking down on the poor in terms of their beliefs and their worth as people while at the same time holding oneself up as being humanistic, Christlike, and loving of the poor.

    I suppose the best piece in the Book of Mormon that deals with all of these topics is Alma’s discourse to the people of Zarahemla in Alma 5. How wonderful it is to have Apostles who are Prophets, and Seers to speak with us every 6 months and bring us to remembrance of such wonderful scriptures as Elder Cook did this last conference in “Can Ye Feel So Now?”. I find that it address nearly perfectly everything that was mentioned in the OP and suggest that we could all learn a lot from rereading it.

  • RT

    JohnH:
    “When I discuss the topic of religion with atheists I often run into that very same idea, which is precisely the idea that you appear to have put forward here; it really is a truly cunning plan of the evil one as Nephi says because it builds up a persons pride in so many ways and makes one feel special for having reached the “enlightened state” that there is no truth, or no God…”

    Your representation of Gulley’s ideas is way off base. I can only assume that you either didn’t take the time to read and understand the OP, or you just don’t want to.

    It is a very difficult matter to judge someone else’s pride; you really should know something about them before you say the kinds of things that you have ventured to say, and even then hesitate because it is not your place (check out Pres Benson’s talk on pride for further discussion).

    I have read and listened to Gulley and based on my limited experience consider him to be an extraordinarily humble person (that is, as far as I’m able to recognize that quality in another person, since as you suggest, I may just be really prideful and disdainful of other people). He really does try to be attentive to other people’s views and opinions, and to be humble about what he claims to know.

    And he is definitely not an atheist; he is a theist with nuanced views (though he is humble enough to recognize that we probably all have something to learn from our atheist friends).

    “…one can just follow the crowd on and feel smarter then Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle and more holy then any Prophet or Church Leader.”

    What Gulley is talking about has nothing to do with following the crowd or feeling gratified about your smarts or holier than thou. The path of wisdom and discernment is actually a very difficult road; I think Jesus was describing it when he said “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”. Please John, when I write “if you feel a temptation to dismiss the ideas contained in them as so much liberal nonsense, go read the Evolution of Faith itself and get the personal context to the quotes” I was being serious. Casual and unreflective engagement with the OP does nothing to further the conversation. An eternal principle that we would all do well to apply is to “Seek to understand [what is being expressed by someone else] before you seek to be understood” (I first heard this from Sean Covey).

  • RT

    By the way, when I said above that “this tendency may be related to a number of other factors, such as generational, economic, and educational status” I did not mean to imply that people of lower economic status are generally dogmatic or unable to recognize the multiplicity of Truths. I think this is more a feature of modern fundamentalism’s toxic influence than something that has always been the case.

  • JohnH

    RT:
    I quoted a response of yours, not the OP, because I wasn’t discussing the OP directly nor Gully but what you were saying about those with simple certitude: “but this tendency may be related to a number of other factors, such as generational, economic, and educational status. “ Perhaps I should have put more in that in quotes to have it be more obvious. Further, I was relating what I find in other situations when discussing religion with atheists where I do know something about them. Not having discussed anything with Gulley and knowing only the quotes that you have posted I am given to draw the same conclusion about him based on the quotes, which I understand is taken out of context and might not be representative of what he actually is trying to say (but given even the cover of the book I have my doubts).

    I was not trying to say he was an atheist, was necessarily following any crowd, or was anything else. I was relating my experience with a similar type of ideas but a slightly different set of people. If you think I have not engaged with the OP but focused on little things then you, yourself, please quit focusing on the same type of little things that you claim I am and focus on my whole response. I was not trying to be casual or unreflective, and I am sorry if I come across that way.

    Chris,
    I disagree with them extensively but I am sure that is largely because I am standing on the shoulders of many giants.

  • RT

    JohnH:
    So in other words, you are using this post as a platform for discussing a topic not directly related to the OP? I have a hard time understanding you John.

  • RT

    Question for you JohnH, if you want to answer. How can you be certain that your “simple certitude” in the all sufficient revelation of the church is any different from the “simple certitude” of a Muslim, evangelical Protestant, or orthodox Jew in their respective faith traditions?

  • JohnH

    RT,
    I said directly, I was discussing the OP but was focusing on your comment, and unless that comment is likewise focusing on a side thing while actually engaging my larger comment then again you have done more then you accuse me of doing. I used the post as a platform for discussing directly the OP, as trying to discuss directly the OP directly would have led to more problems, I think.

    Yes, I did focus on the side comment, but I was commenting on the OP. I felt it was more likely that I would be able to get what I was trying to say across in a hopefully constructive manner by doing what I did and saying it in the way I said it then if I were to address it directly. I know we are working from very different perspectives so understanding and meaningful discussion might be hard.

  • RT

    Yes, that comment was definitely a side thing, merely some off the cuff speculation about the historical phenomenon of religious certainty.

    “as trying to discuss directly the OP directly would have led to more problems, I think.”
    It’s hard to be constructive when you can’t see anything good in a post, isn’t it.

    “I felt it was more likely that I would be able to get what I was trying to say across…”
    Try investing more effort in the initial process of understanding what the post was originally trying to say. That’s what I’m really interested in, is people understanding one another. You may ultimately find that you cannot agree with parts of what I’m saying in the post, and that’s fine. But to be a constructive conversation partner, you have to at least try to find something good in the opposing view, try and discover what motivated them to think differently about the subject.

  • JohnH

    RT,
    Re:Question for you JohnH,
    Since the Holy Spirit testifies of truth wherever it is found then each of us can be sure that what the Spirit has shown us is correct, and be left to walk in faith for the rest. Since the Spirit doesn’t lie then that leads to a few things. The Protestant will not know that her church is correct, nor will she know much about the priesthood, but may know that Jesus is the Christ, that the Bible is the word of God, and other such truths. The Orthodox Jew likely doesn’t know that Jesus is the Christ but will know that the Old Testament is the word of God, that they are of Gods promised people, that God has not forgotten His covenant but is gathering Israel into the land of their forefathers and has given the Jews Jerusalem again as was promised, and other such truths. The Muslim may know that there is a God, that He has covenant peoples, similar moral truths to us all, and other similar truths. Each probably knows things that I do not know for certain or possibly at all.

    I know of the power of the priesthood, the necessity of the ordinances, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, the reality of living prophets, and of the gift of the Holy Ghost to which all else is an appendage. Since the ordinances of the priesthood are necessary then even though my simple certitude is not necessarily that different from that of anyone else, though with the gift of the Holy Ghost it certainly can be, I still have something which different from all else and which they need.

    Re:It’s hard to be constructive when you can’t see anything good in a post
    First, the time stamps should have told you that our responses were to different things; I was not responding to the question but to the one before.

    Second, I see plenty of good in the post. Understanding what others believe is important, seeing what other faiths have to teach us is also very important. The main problem that I have with being able to respond is that you have framed the post in a very personal narrative, one in which you say that at least parts of my faith has no divine basis and that the theology and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is unproductive and harmful and that where the Church disagrees with your personal beliefs it must be the one to change, not you. I, obviously, completely disagree with what you have said but have nothing to work on in terms of what you disagree with, why you do so, how you reached your conclusions, or anything else of that nature. So I am incapable of responding constructively to the first half of the OP, we disagree and that I am sure you knew before you ever posted the OP.

    In terms of the quotes, I could respond to a lot but I have not read the book and so I would be open to Courtier’s Reply (which was sort of already given).

    Mormonism is all about working out personal problems from within the structure of the Church, each is to receive their own continuing personal revelation and to trust in that revelation but to also participate in the community of the church and follow the guidance of priesthood leaders in determining what is or is not revelation. Fear of damnation should not ever be the guiding factor of anyone and anyone that feels that way needs to listen better to what the Apostles and Prophets have been saying, as well as the scriptures. People need to be called of God to be leaders, male or female, and God will call whom He will when He will, I can not presume to dictate my preferences to the Divine. If I know the truthfulness and reality of Jesus or God or the scriptures or whatever it is no more indoctrination then teaching a child that 1+1=2, and to teach my children otherwise would be being dishonest. Everyone that I know in the church serves in a variety of capacities, there are things that can change but increasing the amount of “doing” would be running into the problems that Elder Packer has pointed out; spending time with family is part of the “doing” that we need to do. As President Smith pointed out, Mormonism embraces all truth wherever it is to be found so long as it is truth; when science and religion appear to conflict then it is likely that we have not understood both our faith nor all of the science and it is okay to have unanswered questions and things that we do not yet understand. Since each is to know the Lord so that it will no longer be said “Know the Lord” then it is important that each seek the Lord for answers, because our faith is based fully around the assumption that the Lord will answer.

  • RT

    JohnH: The Holy Spirit does not lie, but what we interpret its messages to mean can be very different things depending on our cultural circumstances. You interpret the truth you know as the whole Truth and then see all other religions through that prism (Gulley talks a lot about that). I used to do the same, but after many experiences of learning and engaging with peoples of other cultures and religions I realized that I only had access to part of the truth and that many of the externals that you mention (one true priesthood and one true set of ordinances) are not a direct reflection of the divine will. They can be useful and helpful in some ways. But in focusing on them they can also be deleterious to real spiritual and human development.

    Part of the reason I feel the way I do is that I just don’t see the actual fruits that would suggest that the Mormon Truth is vastly different from other people’s Truths. I don’t see much evidence that LDS members on the whole are necessarily more moral, thoughtful, or compassionate human beings. I don’t see much evidence that our church leaders are considerably more moral, thoughtful, or inspired human beings.

    It doesn’t make sense to me that what God really wants most is for everyone to receive certain authoritative rituals (that are culturally and temporally bound) as a key to a blessed afterlife and then to pay significantly less attention to how we live our lives here. To me, these things seem to be almost a distraction.

    We could become a more Truthful church, however; not in the sense of our dogma and ordinances, but by our actions and how we choose to shape our religious beliefs and practices. We could become a Truer church by evolving.

    That’s just me.

    We’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    “The theology in which many of us were raised fit hand in glove with the prevailing understanding of the church. It was exclusive, rarely acknowledging the merits of other religions. It emphasized a God above and beyond us, mirroring the ecclesial structure of the day that elevated leadership and concentrated power in the hands of an exalted few. It was decidedly privileged in nature and view, reflecting the cultural mores of the richest nations. Its God took their side, blessed their priorities, and helped secure their wealth and status.”

    Since I don’t know you, I don’t know what your experience has been in the LDS Church, but I personaly find that this passage you quote does not represent the LDS Church or the Mormons I know. While Mormonism transmits the message given to Joseph in the Sacred Grove and on many other occasions that this is the true church of Christ, the Church’s doctrines are highly tolerant of other faiths. Unlike many Evangelicals, we believe that the majority of humanity, the good people who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist, are NOT going to hell, but to heaven, in their present state. Furthermore, we believe that every person who has ever lived on earth can repent and be forgiven of sins and receive the full benefit of the Atonement, and that no person is predestinated to burn in hell for eternity. Surveys of Americans of all faiths have demonstrated that Mormons are more tolerant of people of other faiths than any other religious group. Upholding the religious freedom of all people of all faiths is one of the Articles of Faith for us, and is reiterated in D&C 134 and revelations concerning the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Brigham Young and other presidents down through Tom Monson have repeated the principal that people in all faiths are good people and already have much truth.

    In the LDS Church, where there is no career clergy, even the small number of full time leadership positions are permeated with the ethic of volunteer service. The Church does not function to funnel money into the pockets of a few. Our leaders have made sacrificies as large as any. They are approachable, and in my observation humble and unselfish. Elitism is not a word that fits the body of general authorities. The financial structure of the Church, with tithes going into central church funds and equal budgets given to wards, prevents the accumulation of wealth in a ward building, and helps prevent unequal burdens for the cost of meetinghouse construction. Missionaries serve with just enough to cover living expenses, with an equal burden on all who are supporting missionaries. BYU has tuition that is far more affordable than the in-state tuition at the state university where I am an adjunct instructor. The Perpetual Education Fund helps members in the developing world to increase their qualifications and earnings. Senior missionaries work humbly in service to poor members all over the US and the world. Contrary to the notion of imperial nations collecting wealth out of poor countries, the LDS Church operates to divert wealth from the US into poorer nations to sustain Church operations and construction.
    The LDS Church has had an significant outreach to gathering in people who were considered inferior by many Americans, from Scandinavian immigrants, American Indians and Polynesians in the 19th Century, to Latin Americans, Asians and Africans in the 20th Century.
    When ward boundaries are drawn (I have seen a dozen ward splits to accommodate growth), my observation is that often neighborhoods of both wealth and lower incomes are purposely mixed together, primarily so that the better off can serve those in need.
    My personal opinion is that the Lord has restored the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the modern era because Christianity has evolved sufficiently to tolerate diversity of faiths, including even the true Church of Jesus Christ. History shows that minority denominations of Christianity have been severely persecuted through most of the last two millenia. So I would agree that Christianity has evolved, but not with the proposition that “Mormonism” needs to do the same.

  • JohnH

    “then to pay significantly less attention to how we live our lives here.”
    I find this claim exceedingly odd. No one of any other faith or of no faith has ever, to my knowledge, accused Mormons of not paying enough attention to how we live our lives here. In fact in every single case where the topic has come up the exact opposite claim has been made, that Mormons put too much into how they are living their lives here.

    “whole Truth”
    No, I interpret the truth that I have been given as part of the Truth, of which there is and can be only One. I know I don’t have the whole Truth and that others may have parts of the Truth that I do not. Truth will not contradict Truth. One of the things said in the first vision is that the other churches had broken the covenant and changed the ordinances, if the ordinances, covenants, and priesthood are not important or expressions of the Divine Will then there is no need for a restoration in the slightest; There would be nothing to restore and no need to restore it in the first place. The fullness of the gospel has been restored but not everything has been revealed and there may be and are things which have been given to others which we have not yet received.

    “(one true priesthood and one true set of ordinances) are not a direct reflection of the divine will.”
    Can you please explain to me how you know that the ordinances of the gospel and the priesthood are not direct reflections of the divine will?

  • RT

    Raymond (15): I didn’t say that all the quotes completely represented Mormonism, just that I thought that there was something truthful and applicable in them.

    I agree with you that the church is often in rhetoric and practice tolerant of other faith traditions, an attitude that stems from both our broad theology and our history as a persecuted minority sect, and for that I can celebrate the church along with you. But this tolerance has limits and can be perceived very differently by those who stand outside of the tradition. In my view, the church is highly exclusive, both in a social and theological sense. We can speak well of other traditions, but we are still the only true church and the only way to live with God again. Yes, we believe that people are not going to Hell and are not predestined, but when it comes right down to it ours is simply a more mild and nuanced form of the same kind of strict theological dualism found in other faiths.

    Again, I agree with you that the church’s organization has aspects to it that are commendable, such as its lay clergy and tradition of volunteer service. But to say that the church does not encourage a form of (male) leader worship and a large separation between priesthood officers and lay members is disconnected from reality. Just listen to how people talk about their leaders and their positions and where our leaders sit in relation to everyone else, among other things; it reveals who we honor and value the most in our culture.

    Again, I am not arguing that the church has not made significant efforts to alleviate economic inequality within the church and given important humanitarian service. The PEF is truly wonderful (though, I think it should have been started long ago, and needed no revelation to do so). However, I would have to say that the church is still governed to a great extent by a theology that reflects the views of well off Americans, conforming to the theology of American Protestantism more broadly. Which is not surprising considering the dominant numbers of businessmen in the hierarchy.

  • RT

    JohnH (16): “I find this claim exceedingly odd. No one of any other faith or of no faith has ever, to my knowledge, accused Mormons of not paying enough attention to how we live our lives here.”
    Read the book Evolution of Faith and you’ll understand better what I mean.

    “Can you please explain to me how you know that the ordinances of the gospel and the priesthood are not direct reflections of the divine will?”
    You mean straight and simple? 100 words or less? The answer is very complicated and I don’t think I could explain it in a brief blog post. And I’m not sure that it would be a good idea anyways because I can’t tell whether you sincerely want to know what I believe or whether you just want to know it so you can correct my perceived errors.

  • JohnH

    RT,
    Have you ever heard of Courtier’s Reply?

    If you are looking at sincerely wanting to know what you believe as agreeing, validating, or something similar your beliefs then you probably already know the answer. From my perspective sincerely wanting to know and then discussing the beliefs are two sides of the same coin; agreeing to disagree shouldn’t happen until it is specified what prior assumptions are causing the disagreement and until the experiences are shared as much as possible, if at all (Aumann’s agreement theorem says it should never happen but that makes assumptions that aren’t always true to get to that point). That is assuming that a real engagement in each others thoughts and worldviews is being done, a real debate. I feel that is more respectful and honest then merely acknowledging that we disagree without trying to find out why we disagree and saying it is okay that we disagree without trying to resolve the disagreement as much as possible.

  • RT

    JohnH: This is not the venue to debate my personal beliefs. I introduced the OP with a personal narrative as the setting in order to provide context. If you don’t agree with the assumptions implied by that narrative, that’s fine. But I’m not really interested in trying to make you agree with me. Many people come to see the problems in the church that I allude to on their own, and it is for those people who are struggling or have questions or who are seeking for a spirituality that goes beyond what is conventionally available in the church that I brought up Philip Gulley’s book in the OP.

  • JohnH

    “This is not the venue to debate my personal beliefs’
    You are saying a blog on Patheos is not the place to discuss personal belief? The place that is “hosting the conversation on faith” is apparently not the place to have a conversation on faith.

    “those people who are struggling or have questions or who are seeking ”
    I have to ask, why shouldn’t those struggling seek God but instead buy a book by someone that puts the atheist Darwin fish on the cover?

  • RT

    Thanks Chris.
    JohnH: I didn’t say that FPR is not a place to “discuss” my personal beliefs, but to “debate” them. The former I would have no problem with doing, but as your interest is only in trying to prove them to be wrongheaded, it’s not a conversation worth having, and I struggle to understand why you would want to have that kind of a conversation (it’s almost as if you have an instinctive desire to combat beliefs that vary from your own, even when you don’t really understand them in the first place). The species of narrowness of spirit and dogmatism reflected in your words (e.g. “I have to ask, why shouldn’t those struggling seek God but instead buy a book by someone that puts the atheist Darwin fish on the cover?”) is precisely why Evolution of Faith was written and precisely why many are coming to see the LDS church as spiritually unsatisfying.

  • JohnH

    RT.
    A debate is not the same thing as proving something is wrongheaded; Were that not the case I would skip asking questions about your beliefs and trying to understand them. Yes I think you are wrong, how could I not? and you have given me absolutely no reason to think otherwise.

    Let me lay out exactly what you have said about me and/or the Church: “spiritually unsatisfying.” “dogmatism”, “narrowness of spirit”,. ” see the problems in the church”. “encourage a form of (male) leader worship”. ” deleterious to real spiritual and human development.”. ” not a direct reflection of the divine will”. “unable to recognize the multiplicity of Truths”. “I could no longer accept as having a divine basis and aspects of its theology, culture, and spiritual practices that I believed were ultimately unproductive and harmful.”, and that is ignoring the implications of the quotes provided.

    I have answered your questions repeatedly and you have yet to actually answer any of mine, nor have you explained the points where I say I find something confusing or anything of the sort. I am trying to understand you and all I get in return are insults, both personally, to my faith, and to the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints. What am I supposed to think?

    Chis,
    When the article starts out with claims that the Church itself is apostate, and when the responses go further in claiming that the very foundational claims of the Church are completely wrong then what, precisely, should I think? Why should I not be interested in knowing why those claims are being made, what backing they have, and how one gets to the point of making those claims?

  • RT

    JohnH: What part of 24 did you not understand? I’m not interested in debating my personal beliefs when your only interest is to decontextualize them, strip them of all nuance, and show how they are illogical within the world you inhabit. That’s something you apparently feel a need to do, but I don’t.

  • http://www.trevorprice.net Trevor

    JohnH, I’m sure you’re a nice guy in real life, but your tone seems unnecessarily antagonistic and it seems you’re treading in unfamiliar waters (i.e. liberal theology), so it’s easy to come across disrespectful and naive. There are so many assumptions you’re taking for granted.

    For instance, you suppose that the thoughts of the book’s author and the scientific principles Darwin revealed are opposed to God. What if God wished to reveal truth about the creation of life via Darwin and truth about organized religion’s tendency toward institutional pride via Philip Gulley?

  • JohnH

    Trevor,
    You are making assumptions about my assumptions that are disrespectful. I have no problem with Darwin or the theory of evolution, why would I? Nor did I say anything about them, what I said, specifically, was that Gulley put an atheist Darwin fish on the cover. The Darwin fish is a parody of the Ichthys fish that Christians use (which comes from Greek) which was created by and promoted by atheists and the only reason to bring it up is not to say that you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution but to make fun of, or disrespect, Christians that use it (and religion in general).

    RT,
    Then show me they are logical in your world.

  • http://www.trevorprice.net Trevor

    the only reason to bring it up is not to say that you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution but to make fun of, or disrespect, Christians that use it

    mmmk. Well I didn’t perceive that message from the author at all, just for the record.

    And yes, I did assume you reject evolution; however, in my defense, I don’t think it was such a terribly careless assumption, given that such an assumption will prove true for 99/100 people who I encounter on the blogs who ask stuff like, “why shouldn’t those struggling seek God but instead buy a book by someone that puts the atheist Darwin fish on the cover?” and who associate liberal theology with atheism.

    I’m guessing that the author of this post bought the book precisely because he is seeking God. In fact, that’s the very reason I stuck it on my own reading list.

  • RT

    JohnH: You are reading way too much into a cover of a book. Gulley is just using it as a symbol of evolution in religious thought, an evolution away from traditional forms of Christianity to something more amenable to our modern era. I already told you that he is a theist, not an atheist. Just try reading the book instead of making such a big deal about a cover.

  • JohnH

    Trevor.
    If I write a book about the evolution of Judaism and put a cross on the cover then you would obviously assume I was what (even if I claimed I was Jewish)?

    Atheists associate liberal theology with Atheism, just less honest Atheism then actually being Atheist, if you don’t believe me I can give you quotes saying exactly that from atheists on multiple sites. It would be helpful if someone familiar with liberal theology would explain it, and explain how the Atheists (and Conservative Catholics and Fundamentalist Evangelicals) are wrong in their association.

  • RT

    John, Tell me something about your background. Anything… educational, professional. What’s your interest in things religious? What kinds of religious themed books do you like to read? Why do you want so much for me to explain why I find it difficult to believe in the church’s traditional claims?

  • http://timesandseasons.org Ben S

    Frankly, (and having not read the book, of course) it seems like progressive humanism with a thin veneer of religion.

  • RT

    Ben: I don’t understand what you mean by “thin veneer of religion”. Can you explain? Having read the book, I can say that while Gulley is progressive and humanistic in sentiment, this book grows out of traditional Christianity and so has much that is continuous with it and some that rejects it.

  • RT

    JohnH (31): Calling Liberal theology Atheism is dishonest and unfair. That is a great example of a lack of nuance and again makes me wonder what your intentions are. FLDS understand themselves as Mormons but would you want the broader public to conflate them with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nuance and distinctions are very important to understanding, and just as you would like your beliefs to be represented fairly by others, so should you do the same.

  • JohnH

    RT,
    I have a minor in philosophy with my undergraduate degree and a masters in Mathematics; I am just finishing some work from my masters and an internship. We will see if I start a PhD in the Fall or start a job. I am of the opinion then if I am to have an opinion on a subject it should be my own; so I read things like Summa Theological, Metaphysics (Aristotle), the Popal Vuh, Bhagavad Gita, CCC, Papal Encyclicals, Gnostic library, and really any book that anyone suggests I read in a debate online that is very easily accessible.

    I have a lot of experience in discussing religion with atheists, Catholics, and Evangelicals; some with Hindus and a little bit with Muslims. I find that in finding out what others believe, defending my beliefs, and determining why others believe (or don’t) as they do that I gain a better understanding of the gospel.

    Liberal theology is not something I understand, and my primary association with it is atheist calling it atheism and Catholics and evangelicals agreeing with them. I have yet to see anyone that holds to liberal theology defend themselves from the claim of being atheist, just get offended that the claim was made while never actually saying why or how it is wrong, even when questioned. Since I do not understand what liberal theology is claiming or what they/you believe then I can’t very well call it atheism, though from what is said I am often not able to tell the difference between an atheist trying to convince Christians to be atheist in a “friendly” manner and liberal theologians making statements about belief. I would like to be able to understand it better.

  • Ben S

    From the quotes, it seems like the main thrust is humanism. Jesus doesn’t particularly matter (p.46). God makes no demands except peace, love, and harmony and there are no dogmas except those. Nothing about that strikes me as particularly religious, except that he wants this to be Christianity somehow.

  • RT

    John: So would you be willing to read Evolution of Faith and give me your opinion about it?

  • RT

    Ben: Jesus actually matters quite a lot to Gulley, the quote that you reference doesn’t quite do justice to the importance of Jesus throughout the rest of the book. But you are right in the sense that he doesn’t see Jesus as an atoning Savior of a sinful humanity. He sees Jesus as a God-bearer, someone whose closeness to God allowed him to bless and enlighten others. For Gulley, God-bearers are not unique.

    The book is definitely not interested in religious dogma; Gulley’s God is much more the kind of deity found in D&C 121: a God who leads “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned”, whose interest is in helping us develop divine virtues.

  • Ben S

    Your clarification seems to cement the idea that this is not particularly religious, let alone Christian. Christianity stripped of an atoning Jesus is about as watered down as you can get. For me, at least, that has no attraction. I mean this in all sincerity; how does his proposal differ from the Unitarians?

  • Ben S

    Doesn’t liberal theology entail the existence of some dogma, albeit liberal? Far from proposing any, he seems to be opposing any claim to religious knowledge. Exploration is valued as the highest good, not claims to knowledge or dogma.

  • Ben S

    Let me rephrase. If one thinks that reducing Jesus to a God-bearing model of behavior does not constitute “a radical and unilateral overhaul of the faith,” I don’t know that there can be productive conversation with people for whom Jesus’ salvific nature is the very lynchpin of their religion. Further, I think it’s entirely possible for dogmatic, hierarchical religion to be science-friendly, moral, and humane. I get the impression he does not.

  • JohnH

    RC,
    I couldn’t find a copy I could get to online easily; I might be able to get it at a library.

    Also, per conversation with BenS, what is the difference between Gulley’s conception of Jesus and that of a Hindu that believes in Jesus or of Islam? It almost seems based on what you are saying that Gulley believes less of Jesus then what some Hindus do.

  • http://www.trevorprice.net Trevor

    John, I honestly find it hard to believe that someone with a Masters degree who claims to have as much interfaith dialog as you do, so completely fails to understand liberal theology. Here’s a good summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Christianity

    And yes, liberal theology is non-dogmatic. That’s one of it’s defining features. It also prioritizes the contents of one’s heart over the one’s beliefs. Liberal theology asks, Why is belief in a particular creed of any value in and of itself? For even the devils believe, and they tremble.

    That an atheist might find liberal theology more palatable than fundamentalist theology is mainly because humanism is a shared, core component.

  • JohnH

    Trevor,
    I read the article and still don’t understand what liberal theology believes. An Axiom that there are no Axioms is self contradictory and therefore false, anyone claiming to hold such a belief system can’t actually be using that axiom but must have other axioms which they actually use as otherwise they believe in both everything and nothing, and the article does list some clear beliefs (such as the Bible having the truth value of the Lord of the Rings)

    Remember I am a Math Masters, I discuss things with Atheists, Conservative Catholics, and Fundamentalist Evangelicals, which of those could possibly give you the impression that I would have any understanding of liberal theology?

    I think the atheists that claim that liberal theology is atheism for atheists that don’t want to admit they are atheists as they don’t want to pay the price of atheism nor do they want to pay the price of belief seems somewhat accurate. They don’t appear to be saying this because they find it more palatable, but because they find it less.

  • RT

    Ben: I clearly have not done a good job of describing the contents of the book. The conclusions that you are jumping to seem reductionistic compared to my experience reading Gulley. He is not a Unitarian, but a Quaker, and I think he is writing to people of many different Christian traditions under the assumption that they will continue in those traditions. Like I said in the OP, “I think that we as LDS members could learn much from Philp Gulley’s creative and brave exploration of the future of Christianity.” I’m thinking of creative synthesis of religious tradition and the best insights of history and humanism.

  • RT

    John,
    Don’t you find it a little wee wee bit ironic that you state in one paragraph that you have no understanding of liberal theology (“Remember I am a Math Masters, I discuss things with Atheists, Conservative Catholics, and Fundamentalist Evangelicals, which of those could possibly give you the impression that I would have any understanding of liberal theology?”) and in the next state that the atheistic claims about liberal theology are “somewhat accurate” (“I think the atheists that claim that liberal theology is atheism for atheists that don’t want to admit they are atheists as they don’t want to pay the price of atheism nor do they want to pay the price of belief seems somewhat accurate.” )

  • JohnH

    RT,
    If that understanding is accurate then I guess I do have an understanding of liberal theology; It seems accurate based on what I have seen, and you didn’t contradict it at all , but I can’t understand how someone could hold such a position, nor how they could hold such a position and claim to be Christian.

  • RT

    The great thing about Gulley is that he just isn’t your stereotypical liberal theologian. He is spiritually sensitive, intellectually rigorous but not puffed up, and has a very interesting religious background and experiences that I think a lot of seekers in other religious traditions will resonate with. And he believes, as I do, that everyone has the potential to be a God-bearer.

    If for nothing else, Christians and LDS should read this book to be challenged. We need to be challenged at a deep spiritual level, for our own good. Not only because the Spirit speaks to many different people, but because we need something to test our own religious tradition and beliefs against to see how strong and truthful they actually are. People who don’t go to that effort will never quite know for sure. In addition, people who avoid challenges to their traditional assumptions tend to eventually become myopic, and after that incrementally more dogmatic and prone to become less science-friendly, less moral, and less humane. At least that’s what I’ve seen in my experience.

  • Ben S

    Chris, the sarcasm is not helpful. Plus, I thought you knew me better than that.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

    Fixed.

  • Ben S

    Sigh.

  • TT

    JohnH
    I am going to cut to the chase here rather than leading you down a road of self-realization and say that if you believe in Darwinist evolution that you already practice a form of liberal theology. I would be happy get some of our fundamentalist brethren here to accuse you of atheism, will tell you that the Holy Ghost can let you know the truth of all things and invite you to pray about various prophetic statements challenging evolution to know of their truth, and tell you that you that the learned think they are wise, etc, etc. To someone who is even more of a fundamentalist, you are surely as guilty of all of the things you have accused “liberal theology” of being.
    Let’s get past these silly accusations and facile equivalencies and realize that we already agree on 90% if we are not fundamentalists.
    What exactly is the belief that you think is essential here that has been discarded?

  • JohnH

    TT,
    If you are referring to LDS then I can point to Evolution and the Origins of Man hosted on the BYU department of Biology’s website; which contains the entirety of the authorized statements ever made by the church, as well as an introduction approved by the trustees which explicitly lays out the formal church position despite whatever theories anyone else has ever expressed.

    Discarding the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Priesthood (which is the Power of God), the Testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, the ordinances of the gospel, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost is quite a bit different as 3 Nephi 11 should make very clear.

  • RT

    JohnH: I never advocated for discarding those things. I don’t think one needs to agree in toto with Gulley to find something of real value in his book.

    But I do think it is possible and even inevitable that the things you mention, atonement, resurrection, priesthood, ordinances etc, can mean different things to different people in the church and that they have meant somewhat different things to the church at various points in our history. So reinterpretation and revalorization are very possible.

  • TT

    So, you can point to LDS authorities and those with secular educations who also push this liberal theology?

    How do you decide that discarding the fall and creation is okay?

  • JohnH

    TT,
    You obviously didn’t look up or read what I pointed to, those are doctrinal statements, neither I nor they discard the Fall or the Creation as would be obvious if you actually had looked up the statements.

    RT,
    From what you said:
    “doesn’t see Jesus as an atoning Savior of a sinful humanity.”"Jesus as a God-bearer, someone whose closeness to God allowed him to bless and enlighten others. For Gulley, God-bearers are not unique.”"And he believes, as I do, that everyone has the potential to be a God-bearer.”"certain authoritative rituals (that are culturally and temporally bound)”, “(one true priesthood and one true set of ordinances) are not a direct reflection of the divine will.”, ” I don’t see much evidence that our church leaders are considerably more moral, thoughtful, or inspired human beings.”, “will not insist we believe the absurd, affirm the incredible”, and so on.

  • RT

    John,
    You can conflate all those statements to make me and Gulley into a bogeyman, but they only go to show that you do not want to try to appreciate the context in which the statements were made and their particular nuance of meaning, and to differentiate between Gulley and me. For example, because I do not believe that there is necessarily only one true priesthood and that all other forms of priesthood are false does not meant that I want LDS to discard their priesthood. That’s an image you want to project upon me for your own self-centered reasons.

  • TT

    JohnH,
    If they accept a non-scriptural idea of evolution and the atheist thinker Darwin, that is all I need to know!

    Just because you can find other people doing liberal theology, and thinking about religion in light of modernity, empiricism, and history, doesn’t make it not liberal theology. My point is that you are doing the same thing as RT, just making arbitrary distinctions about what can be questioned and what cannot.

  • RT

    TT: Thanks for your points TT, though I’m a little unclear about what you are trying to say with regard to my post, “My point is that you are doing the same thing as RT, just making arbitrary distinctions about what can be questioned and what cannot.” Have I been understood to imply that so-called liberal theology is beyond question or criticism?

  • TT

    Sorry if I was unclear! No, I don’t think you were implying that, but all systems have assumptions on which one builds.

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