“Letter to a CES Director” and Highlander Syndrome

“Letter to a CES Director” and Highlander Syndrome April 25, 2016

There Can Be Only One

I haven’t read the entire text of Jeremy Runnells’ Letter to a CES Director.  I mean, it’s so long.  It’s not that I never read things that are long.  But the CES Letter is so gratuitously longer than necessary that I haven’t read every word, and, unapologetically, I’m sure I never will.

Even so, I commend Bro. Runnells for marking out his territory.

Last week, after months of fits and starts, Runnells’ LDS stake finally got its isht together enough to hold a disciplinary court designed to determine whether Runnells could remain a card-carrying member of the LDS church.  According to the transcript of a secret recording, Runnells cut the proceedings short by resigning his membership.

Thus passes another episode in the shameful series known as “There Can Be Only One”.

The dogma that there can be only one church has been a feature of LDS-Mormonism for a long time.  The notion that “one church” should be understood as a multi-national corporation invested in all sorts of real estate and consumer goods is, of course, problematic, but the identity crisis that accounts for the great evil of the LDS church’s ideological excommunications is not rooted so much in the exclusive oneness of the LDS corporation against the many, many non-LDS-corporation circles in existence that revolve around divinity, as much as it is rooted in the privileging of one ideology over many within LDS-Mormondom.

Because of the rules that govern authority and succession in the LDS institution, the neo-orthodox sect that insists that genuine LDS-Mormonism can only exist in the form of a commitment to specific dogma currently enjoys the privilege of being able to eliminate its rivals.  Hence, the sect that now controls the church all the way down to individual congregations drives people, one after another, who are not of this one sect, out of the church.

Too often, the people whom the neo-orthodox sect pushes out are perfectly good, kind, loving, and faithful people, who are able and eager to contribute to the well-being of their LDS fellows.  But the neo-orthodox sect designates them as undesirable because their variations on the Mormon theme threaten the illusion—which the neo-orthodox sect, itself, has fashioned—that it is the only true LDS-Mormonism.

The CES Letter gives tediously elaborate voice to feelings that I’m confident are widespread in varying degrees of intensity in the LDS church that scriptural texts often are not historical records, that prophets often do not hear the voice of god, that authority often does not justify itself, and that dogma for dogma’s sake often is not enough.  Often, too often, these feelings are not spoken in LDS circles for fear that the neo-orthodox will exercise the power they have secured for themselves to step between believers and their tradition and push.  Healthy, invigorating variety of belief and thought is, thus, silenced, and the illusion of a static uniformity-of-faith in LDS-Mormonism is reinforced.

One consequence of the hush that the neo-orthodox have imposed on LDS culture is all too evident in the Runnells transcript, in which the ten or fifteen men of an LDS stake presidency and high council reveal themselves as woefully unequipped to explore the ways in which history, science, theology, and religious practice can work together.  The silence that responds to Runnells’ challenge of neo-orthodox dogma either does not know that people can be genuinely religious without subscribing to dogma, or knows it and does not dare say so.  In the former case, neo-orthodoxy has turned out as ministers a cohort of theological abecedarians, whose understanding of religion and religious living is no deeper and no more complex than Sam Harris’s.  In the latter case, neo-orthodoxy has made a situation in which a minister only puts himself in jeopardy by taking non-neo-orthodoxy seriously.

Mormonism was, at one time (even if, perhaps, only briefly), a religion of ever-changing, ever-revealing spirituality.  The insistence, on threat of spiritual execution, that there is only one, fixed way is strangling Mormonism’s great potential to speak truth, to illuminate the world and all that keeps appearing in it, offering the world, instead, only another joyless cult, smoldering in its fear of possibility.

Surely, it’s not really a problem for an LDS-Mormon to say, “I know the history of the Book of Mormon is not history.”  What does this faithful affirmation threaten, or whom?

There ought to be space, here, in the LDS world, for believers who don’t accept strict historicity in scripture or in other lore, who firmly listen to conscience first and authority second (or third), who savor artistic vibrance in theology, but who are suspicious of any doctrine beyond “love everyone”, and who have a perfectly bright hope that loving everyone means, fundamentally, that everyone belongs, in their each, own, growing identity.

There ought to be space, here, in the LDS world, for believers for whom tithing and culinary self-denial and sexual circumspection can be productive disciplines that provide no measure of a person’s “worthiness”, for whom marriage between two people can be a sanctified relationship that sanctifies, for whom gender offers no excuse for exclusion and exploitation.

There ought to be space, here, in the LDS world, for believers for whom god is imaginary and real, simultaneously, for whom the creative verve that can imagine god is, itself, divine, for whom the world is a responsibility that a notion of god—whatever it is—does not remove.

There ought to be space for these genuine Mormon faiths.  And there is no LDS space for these faithful when they are executed for speaking themselves.

We in LDS-dom have come to say that there’s room in the church for doubt, and we’ve come to say it in order to insinuate that an LDS-Mormon need not be true-blue neo-orthodox.  But doubt may often be an inaccurate and unfair characterization of what are often not at all wavering, anxious moments of weakness from which unfortunate sufferers will recover in time.  What we dub doubt are often firm convictions, grounded deeply in Mormon belief and living, that could contribute to a more vibrant, welcoming, and true Mormonism.  To paint alternatives to neo-orthodoxy as doubt is to insist, in yet another way, that neo-orthodoxy is “the right” against which everything else is a transgression.  This sectarian exclusivity is the problem, alongside which doubt is a red herring.

So, Runnells is out, now, and with his departure the neo-orthodox claim on LDS life has been strengthened, again.  LDS-Mormonism is a little smaller, a little weaker, a little meaner, a little less Jesus-y for this one-more ideological excommunication.  And LDS-Mormonism will continue shrinking and shriveling until it has become a twisted, hardened, bitter caricature of what it once promised to be.  LDS-Mormons will become more and more silent in the face of questions, more and more resentful of challenges, more and more divorced from their humanity, until the neo-orthodox come to concede that their version of Mormonism is one among many, and give ground to the other faithful Mormonisms that can help make the church and the world more delightsome.


*Image adapted from

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