Letter to a Student (excerpt #2)

It is fair and important to look at the institutional church and ask, “Are the cultural aspects of our particular Mormon moment the sum total of what the church or the gospel is? Is this all the institution is capable of? Has it made its full usefulness to the world evident?” And clearly the answer has to be no. This is not a heretical thing to say. Quite the contrary. It is akin to asking, “Is my idea or understanding of God sufficient to sum up who or what God is?” Of course not. But disbelievers like to jump on such inadequacies of belief as evidence of the folly of faith when in fact the inadequacy of belief is already something Christianity has worried itself over. Precisely because it is inadequate and insufficient, we call it faith. We hope that it can become more than it is, and we recognize the distance between the actuality and the potentiality of belief even if we can’t measure it exactly. Why can’t we measure it? For one, we can’t know the actuality of belief—that is, we can’t know what belief is doing in actual practice—without sufficient hindsight. And for another, we can’t know without sufficient time where belief will take us. If this sounds like an impossible bind, it is only to say that we cannot escape questions of faith. Whatever our hope, whatever our philosophy, and whatever our drive and motivations, they are based on principles of faith and only through experimentation–the sufficient suspension of disbelief–will the value of such principles be made manifest.

So to be aware of a gap between what the church is and what it might yet become should be a position of hope, not despair, a trust in process and movement toward something greater. That is not to say we are wrong to point out what we perceive to be its failings. It is only to say that we haven’t finished the work of hope for a better world just by pointing out institutional or cultural or political failings of a given institution or moment in our society. The question then becomes whether or not we are willing to see an institution through to realize its potential. I don’t believe it is possible to stay in the church and move it toward what it is striving to become if we can’t acknowledge what it is already doing or has already done. I don’t write this as a mere defensiveness on behalf of church leadership, just for its own sake. I don’t doubt that religion, poorly used, has a dangerous tendency to create a culture of apathy, but I don’t believe that the fault for this lies at the feet of Christ or his church. It has something instead to do with our own relationship to God’s word. The word of God is a mirror, says James, and we see an image of ourselves in it that should provide a roadmap for radical self-transformation, but that will depend on us, on whether we will take the word seriously enough to be moved to action, to change, so that we know ourselves more deeply, more clearly, and so that hopefully we come to know ourselves as Christians, His spiritually begotten sons and daughters (again see Moroni 7). It is just as likely, as James warns, that we look into an expression of our ideals and see a reflection of ourselves, and go happily on our way, believing erroneously that we are doing just fine. It is well known by most thinkers and dreamers that it is far easier to think well than to act well, especially when we compare the ease and excitement with which we are drawn to noble, high ideals and the almost indecipherable and impenetrable morass of institutional, cultural, and personal complexity that presents such discouraging prospects for change. So this transformation is not merely a matter of having the right ideals; it is a matter of whether or not we are willing and know how to access sufficient power that will enable this transformation. As I said before, I believe this is God’s power alone. I suspect that the failure to access it and instead forge it on our own has caused no small amount of suffering and injustice in the world. Simply put, it is more important to be engaged in the work of becoming good than to expend our energy insisting that we are right. This is a lesson believers have yet to master.

I am certainly convinced, by the way, that the gospel does not see individual and societal transformation as separate processes or goals, despite our tendency to pursue the former at the expense of the latter. The only caveat seems to be that the gospel, at least after Christ, is not a political but a transcultural moral philosophy chiefly, leaving the details of how to build civilization up to us as citizens of various cultures, nations, and regions. If it must be the case that society will always fall short of gospel principles, this happens no more or less frequently than we fall short as individuals. (Revelations 2:26-27 in the JST, as just one example, makes the explicit connection between personal obedience to the word and the transformation into a society governed not so much by law or tradition but by faith, equity, and justice. The verses hint that this can be both in this life but may also be promise for the next.) Perhaps this could be said of all religions, but Christianity, in particular, is quite adept at recognizing the fundamental flaws of human nature that would make belief in religion a dangerous thing. We might wish either the teachings of the gospel or human tendencies to be otherwise, but we might not spend our energy wisely by trying to reinvent human tendencies or to reinvent the gospel. I prefer to go as deeply as we can within the teachings of Christ to find reasons for hope, ground for change, and a call to higher morality.

Apathy in religious communities about world problems—about materialism and greed, about poverty, war, and human suffering, or about environmental degradation, to name a few—is perhaps the most disappointing discovery for anyone who expects religion to be relevant to our circumstances. It is fair to wonder if this apathy isn’t just a temporary weakness of certain individuals or communities but is taught and reinforced by an insistence on institutional loyalty that should trump all other loyalties. Maybe belief provides nothing more than reassurance and comfort that allows believers to feel they can afford to take the airline motto as their own, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight!” I have no doubt that all religions are guilty of both.

Apathy cannot thrive without reinforcement, and such reinforcement is collective. That seems fundamental to group dynamics. But great good is also collective and must be collectively achieved. What stands in opposition to such apathy are principles, beliefs, and practices that are all central to the institutional church. So if these beliefs and practices are not producing a sufficient moral response to the world we live in, if believers simply are not witnessing sufficiently the profound moral principles of their own religion, the fault lies as much or more with them than it does with the institution. In other words, it isn’t as if the institution in all of its historical and collective wisdom, including, of course, the teachings of the prophets, does not already contain the very remedies it seems the religious community needs. Western culture has produced monstrosities of hypocrisy but it has also produced its own best criticisms, and Christianity and even our tiny corner of Mormonism are no different. The constituent elements of society’s conscience are there in our writers, poets, prophets, scriptures, artists, and even some good civic leaders. I have never heard any leader of the church preach indifference even though I see all the many small and frequent ways we reinforce apathy and inaction in our collective culture. Political and cultural apathy and blank stares in church meetings notwithstanding, there is very little doctrinal reason for any of us to hesitate in pursuing our political, social, and cultural dreams within the church. The only reasons for our hesitation, in my view, have to do with whether or not we are interested in making Christ, his gospel and his church, the central cornerstone of the effort.

Departing from an institution in the name of principles it wholly subscribes to but insufficiently lives up to does not help it to realize its potential. The church needs more members, not fewer, who honor and preach and live by its most ambitious and far-reaching beliefs. Of course, given the weight of collective apathy and collective acceptance of the status quo, this means such individual members must have rare courage, deep confidence and trust in their own understandings of spiritual truth, and unquestionable integrity. And they must learn the patience to work to make individual convictions collectively relevant. That shouldn’t be a reason to grow faint. Those are all reasons we should want be in the religious quest to begin with.

  • anon

    “Departing from an institution in the name of principles it wholly subscribes to but insufficiently lives up to does not help it to realize its potential. The church needs more members, not fewer, who honor and preach and live by its most ambitious and far-reaching beliefs.”

    Yes, but what are those “ambitious and far-reaching beliefs” more precisely? Do you think there are any within the institutional church hierarchy that would agree with your assessment that we as a church are apathetically disposed toward “materialism and greed, about poverty, war, and human suffering, or about environmental degradation”. If they don’t speak about it or make room for it in our collective religious discourse, why should we assume that secretly they see things not so differently from us.

    I think the idea that the root of the problem is that we as members haven’t gone deeply enough into the teachings of Christ misses how powerful a role authoritative and “prophetic” teaching has in shaping the culture of the church. We are taught in a thousand ways to believe that exact obedience to church leaders is the foundational and primary principle of church membership. Thus for me a crucial moment came when I realized that I could no longer rationalize sustaining church leaders in the way they apparently want to be sustained, since it had become crystal clear that we were not actuated by the same moral compass or had similar spiritual sensibilities. Sure, I could think that I would support the institutional church insofar as much of what it does is worthy and good. And like you, I find so much potential in its theology and concept of community that it allows me to look past much of the imperfections I find in the present day church. But I have found that once you no longer believe the church authorities to be the kind of direct link to heaven that you were taught, and realize that their rhetoric and teaching is sometimes at the root of why church culture is so ethically compromised and indeed diametrically opposed to any kind of searching and critical evaluation, it becomes enormously difficult to find a place in the structure of the church.

    And it may take just as much courage, conscience and integrity to raise a voice of protest to what is so obviously a lot of good religious intentions gone awry.

    • georgehandley


      Thanks for these comments and thanks for being a thoughtful reader. Your comments are worth serious consideration. I obviously don’t know you or what informs your experience, but I am glad to have the chance to engage in discussion, even if only virtually. I don’t know if I can adequately reply.

      My experience has taught me something very different than what you describe as a culture “diametrically opposed to any kind of searching and critical evaluation.” I was educated outside of Utah but have taught at BYU for 14 years and while I voice my criticisms from time to time about how BYU handles things, I would never describe the church culture, from where I sit at a major research institution where the support for research and critical inquiry has been exceptional, as diametrically opposed to critical evaluation and searching. Obviously if we are talking about some wards or local leaders and their reactions to certain issues or, say, some of BYU’s darker chapters, then we can see some, if not much, of that opposition. I don’t mean to pretend that there isn’t a serious disconnect in our culture about critical thinking. But I am pretty confident that overall if we search through statements of church leaders over the generations and look at the church’s investment in education and its belief in honest searching, we come away with enough justification to continue in faith to ask honest questions. I would prefer to measure church culture by taking their highest moral principles at their word rather than starting with their lowest implementations of them or their worst failings.

      Obviously if one does not have a witness of the prophetic role of church leaders or cannot accept their core teachings as divinely inspired, asking for loyalty to the institution and to its growth and development doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was not intending to make an argument about the church’s claim to authority itself, as I suspect you understand. But as far as the most ambitious and far-reaching principles I am referring to, I do find prophetic statements against greed and materialism, against war, and against environmental degradation not only in the record of modern church leaders but, of course, in the scriptural record. On the environment alone, for example, I know it is common to assume apathy from church leadership, but I and many others have devoted a lot of time to underscoring church teachings on the environment. It turns out that you don’t have to invent doctrines or statements from church leaders to find reasons to care about the environment as a Mormon. Maybe we don’t find as many as we would like, but that they are sufficient in my judgment to conclude that their core teachings are not intended to promote apathy about those issues. I tend to think that the church is less interested in managing all aspects of our lives and more interested in liberating us to do good in the world according to our own inspiration. It is not an easy task and the church has sometimes failed, but no more, I suspect, than we have as members.

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