For believers of many faiths, salvation is a word of most supreme importance. For others, however, I’ve learned that the word “salvation” connotes something foreign and off-putting at best, and offensive or threatening at worst (reflecting, as it often does, an implicit sense of eternal judgment on the non-saved).
In other moments, however, when I have witnessed suffering in people of all backgrounds, I have found myself wondering, “whatever term we happen to call it, don’t all human beings seek some sort of reprieve, relief and release from suffering?”
While Christians might call it “salvation” and envision additional meanings beyond the here-and-now, don’t we all seek the very abatement of suffering that many great religious and philosophical teachers have sought in various traditions?
Beyond the exclusively Christian definition, the dictionary defines salvation as “a source or means of being saved from harm, ruin, or loss” or “preservation from destruction or failure…deliverance from danger or difficulty” or “liberation from ignorance or illusion.”
This starts to get at a sense of salvation that everyone – no matter their conceptual differences – might resonate with…due to the simple fact of universal human pain.
It was this insight that became the First Noble Truth in the Buddhist tradition – namely, “There is suffering, dukkha. Dukkha should be understood. Dukkha has been understood.”
This insight, one teacher elaborates, “applies to everything that you can possibly experience or do or think concerning the past, the present or the future. Suffering or dukkha is the common bond we all share.”
For me, at least, that insight potentially helps move the conversation about salvation itself beyond the wearisome “saved or not” debate (only feeling relevant to Christians) – towards something much more juicy: opening up a fascinating inquiry into the various kinds of “salvation” we seek from pain and suffering (clearly relevant to anyone that is alive).
Just look around! Go ahead and google “statistics” and any one of the following: “pornography” or “hours watching television/playing video games” or “gambling” or “prescription painkillers” or “anti-depressants” for starters…
Don’t get me wrong…with some exceptions, many of these can be healthy parts of life when used in sensible, balanced ways. Every one of them, however, without exception, can and does become for many people a kind of domineering influence that controls many people’s lives – and multiplies suffering.
Among other things, it seems to me that these various attempts to “save” people from discomfort and woe share a similar characteristic – especially when compared to what the Christian or Buddhists might portray as “liberation” or “salvation.”
In each instance – drugs, alcohol, sex, television, gambling, shopping, food – there is a substance or behavior encouraging and permitting us to step away from what is hard and what is painful. Each allows us to “leave behind” the pain (at least temporarily, at least on the surface) as we occupy and preoccupy ourselves in one or another form of stimulation.
Whatever exactly stimulation it is matters less than that you are distracted, and taken away from the moment.
In that moment – no matter what lies ahead, no matter the side-effects or long-term consequences – in that moment we are “saved” from whatever discomfort may be bothering us.
In this way, we can come to cling to some kind of pleasant sensation as our primary relief, comfort and joy. Even if not calling it “salvation,” isn’t this relief something all human beings seek?
If the interest is there, we might fill entire days with Netflix alone – or porn or food binging. In the modern world, the distraction is potentially never ending.
Over months and years, individuals can be reduced to nursing their pain through the daily injection of some kind of numbing/stimulating agent.
Little wonder, then, that the Buddha taught that this kind of grasping or avoiding was itself a primary cause of suffering (rather than the “liberation” these things seem to promise).
Other kinds of salvation, by contrast, including Buddhist liberation and Christian salvation, always involves some degree of turning towards what is hard and what is painful. In bending of the knee, the opening of a communion with God, the confession of a sin, or the partaking of the sacrament (similar to the sitting on a meditation cushion), the mind and heart are turned more directly and attentively towards one’s circumstances and condition first of all.
Out of that, of course, the Christian plea then turns towards God – not necessarily to distract from or take away all the pain magically (although this is how we all pray sometimes), but to ultimately and fundamentally to seek a relationship that promises redemption from it.
Although this path often involves letting go of some immediate forms of pleasure and stimulation, there is conviction that “as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Of course, from an outside perspective, these religious attempts at “salvation” seem like dressed-up attempts to take away all fun, pleasure, stimulation, satisfaction and positive sensations in life (!!)
Contrasting narratives aside, the point here is more simple. Whatever exactly call it, and whatever we decide it is, isn’t “salvation” something we are all seeking on some level? SOMETHING for the pain…?
If so, then maybe the fundamental question becomes simply: where will we turn? Where will we seek our salvation?
Needless to say, the Christian answer starts with an insistence that “man cannot live by Netflix alone…or porn alone…or anti-depressants alone.”
Far more than saying “these other salvation’s are not enough,” however, our message as Christians goes one step further. As King Benjamin put it, “There shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.” He then encourages all men and women to “humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17-18).
As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to long-term relief and reprieve, there is only One fundamental salvation.In the communion of prayer, the remission of sacrament and even the stillness of meditation, it is Christ whose light is “in all and through all things” and “which giveth life to all things” (D&C 88:6 & 13). As King Benjamin added, it is He who “is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another” (Mosiah 2:21).
Moment by moment, then, this becomes our choice: Do we run after some kind of stimulation – anything – to not feel this! Or do we take whatever we are feeling to Him – the One who has the authority and power (and empathy) to reveal the unique lessons this moment offers and to ultimately “wipe away our tears” in a redemption unmatched by all the other wanna-bees…
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members have had a bad weekend. These past few days have brought to the fore divisions over core interpretations of Christian community. People have taken to social media, email, and Sunday School to declare support or dismay, to report personal divine revelation both for and against the policy. They have ranted. They have wept. They have taken their concerns to God. How does it all work? How do our Heavenly Parents feel when their children fight over how to be good? I have no idea. Fortunately, as is the case with all eternal relationships–and as my Uncle Dillon would say–’the first million years are the worst.'” – Melissa Inouye
“Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters.” -Rumi
“What reason do people who are outraged still have to stay in the Church, Jacob?” I was asked that during an interview with Gina Colvin yesterday – a question very much on many people’s minds right now. As I hear stories about otherwise happy members rattled enough to consider leaving, I’ve been thinking about this question a lot.
In any of our most important, intimate relationships, there comes a moment when we wonder why we ever decided to commit – when the pain or disappointment or tension becomes so great, it’s hard to remember why we got into the relationship in the first place…
At that point in a marriage, more and more people are deciding it’s best to just walk away. After all, if you’re feeling awful…why would you be crazy enough to stay?
That’s pretty much how some people are feeling about the Church right now: “Wow – I’m really hurt. And angry…maybe it’s time to step away for good?”
The appeal of divorce is that it seems to offer an immediate relief from the heartache. Isn’t that the way people talk afterwards? “I’m happier than I’ve ever been…what a relief!“
Obviously, there are situations where divorce is the only sensible move, for what feels like basic self-preservation or sanity or survival.
And maybe that’s how you’re feeling right now about a Church you used to love: “Is this even right for me anymore?”
For you or anyone else moving towards stepping away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, unconditional support is probably what you want – something like, “whatever feels best to you…I’m behind you!”
If that’s your decision, there will be plenty of people – myself included – willing to love you all the same.
But for today, at least, my feeling is more like: Please Don’t Go…Not Now!
There is so much you can still add…so much that would be missed – in both directions.
Above all, if you step away now, you may never know what could have happened next – from this moment on. What might have emerged out of this very tension and passing through this discomfort?
In mindfulness practice, part of the intention is to sit and be present (as best we can) with whatever is arising. Against our natural impulses to push or turn away from difficult emotions, the experiment is to make space for everything – including things that hurt – witnessing the storm without added judgment or attempts to control or “fix” things or make anything go away.
What if we were able to do that in this painful Mormon moment? Making space for whatever is here – and holding it collectively in the body of Christ…and yes, together?
I’m not saying this, mind you, as some grand “answer” to the current difficulties and tensions in Mormondom (to those who demand to know how this applies to the Brethren?!)…The goal is not to insist on “fixing” everything, but instead to explore different ways we might work with the reality of things as they are – right now.
My own experience is that this kind of space-making allows the discomfort and tension of the moment to become something else – in an organic, unfolding over time: new insight, new discoveries and new experiences all arising from the ground of that very discomfort.
None of this (or much less of this) is available, however, when we push away from whatever hurts – especially if we make that push a permanent one.
In doing so, we potentially pull the plug on direct forms of personal, empirical inquiry as to what exactly is causing the pain. The knot that might have unraveled? The puzzle that might have been solved? The sources of pain desperate to be explored more deeply? All much harder to do so if we wall ourselves off from intimate contact with the grounds out of which this tension is arising.
Of course, this may all sound like lunacy to those who feel like they’ve been stewing in this tension for years: You’re suggesting I “live in this tension” some more?
Exactly. But in a new way – a different way.
Two people in conflict, one of my mindfulness teachers pointed out, are almost always on the verge of learning something profound about themselves: Could that be true of us as a people right now?
The Christian writer John Backman writes about the “practice of community” as having tremendous worth precisely for the way “we are confronted with worldviews and frames of reference that we never could have imagined ourselves” – opening up “still further to the possibilities of truth and the value of ‘I could be wrong.’”
He goes on to describe how even after spending decades studying and exploring his faith, the people of his own Episcopal parish “introduced me to approaches that never would have crossed my mind.” After giving several examples, he says, “some of these encounters upset my theological applecart from time to time, and I did not feel a need to accept any of the approaches wholesale. Ultimately, though, they have led me to a richer, more complex understanding of my faith – and a respect for an even broader range of opinions” (see more from John here)
What uncomfortable truths about ourselves might we be close to learning together in the Church? What beautiful new possibilities might emerge for us all?
When the “the moment of disillusionment” arrives and “you think love is gone” in a romantic relationship, experts in psychology speak about this not as a crisis – but as potentially a “crucial point in an evolution,” the opening of an “awesome possibility.”
In that very moment – one in which you see this imperfect human being by your side (who is not fulfilling every need) – this very moment could actually turn into the moment you get to start loving your partner for real – not because you’re driven to, but because you choose to be there. 
In a similar way, what if this becomes a tremendous opportunity for the membership of the Church to begin practicing even greater love? As John Gustav-Wrathall eloquently writes of this latest Handbook change, “If this policy be of God, God will help us through this. And if this policy be not of God, God will help us through this, as he always does. In any event there is nothing in this policy that requires us to love one iota less. In fact, maybe a little bit more.”
Isn’t that pretty much what Christ Himself teaches? That if we love when it’s easy, it’s not that big of a deal. But if we choose to love when it’s hard or confusing or baffling, now that is something (Luke 6:32) – especially if it’s the Lord Himself we’re trying to fix our gaze upon.
And when it comes to this relationship – our relationship with Him – Jesus didn’t mince words, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me….He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:37, 39).
Maybe that’s how this feels to you – considering going to one more Elders Quorum or Relief Society meeting or the next Primary Program. Where’s “my life” in that?
Or maybe you’ve even already gone ahead and signed those divorce papers? If so, I hope you’ll still consider my heart’s offering today as applicable to whatever degree in your own circumstance (accompanied by a bit of background music in this shameless serenade…this one’s for you, my Ex-Mo Brother, Mark!)
For those still trying to make a decision, all I’m suggesting here is another option – another potential place to stand. As Pema Chodrin puts it, “stay with that broken heart.”
As Graham Spedding writes, “This so saddens me…. but there is such a knee jerk reaction happening. Slow down, lovely people. Take a deep breath and wait for a minute. The Gospel is still there and there are so many things flying around that haven’t been confirmed yet…Oh, this makes my heart ache to see so much hurt and sadness happening..#prayingformoreunderstanding ”
Whatever our feeling or questions or confusion, maybe we could at least agree that thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree on almost everything in this world – including recent actions by Mormon leadership (see 10 key, thoughtfully-held disagreements here).
In such a moment of woundedness, if we still choose to hold on and trust something Higher than our present feelings…that could be our Finest Hour, perhaps.
If we instead remove ourselves from what challenges us, while the present discomfort may abate, so also does our direct contact with this challenging data about ourselves. Like a drug that suppresses symptoms, clues and signals to deeper problems may be removed – leaving us potentially stymied in moving towards deeper healing and wholeness.
If you’re convinced that wholeness and healing lies outside of Mormonism, no one will stand in your way. To our utmost, we will seek to respect and love you – without conditions.
In this moment, however, I can’t resist underscoring how much this path may preclude other potentially beautiful possibilities. Instead of allowing ourselves to experience the messy unfolding of this moment, this Divorce potentially short-circuits whatever that very moment might have been perfectly positioned to teach us – bypassing whatever insight that tension might be pointing us towards, including the possibility of a collective Phoenix arising from the ashes to regain a newness of life beyond your wildest dreams.
Isn’t that the story most happy couples end up telling? “I’m glad we stuck it out through that hard time…” Indeed, research confirms that these couples end up being some of the happiest later on – especially those who have to go through some rough rides together.
In that make-or-break moment, sometimes it’s just a memory of how things used to be that keeps them going – or a hope of what may still come.
And what about you? Alongside whatever else you are feeling right now about the Church, is there anything in your memory that you once felt or experienced that was Sweet and Divine?
And what about the possibilities of miracles looking forward – surprises and unfoldings you can’t even anticipate right now. Are you open to that?
There is SO MUCH more to learn together, and so much more good to come – I’m convinced. There are bigger, more productive conversations to have about gay rights – and other creative ways to make extra space in the Mormon conversation (shout-out to Tom McConkie and his new book!). The Restoration has not ended – and there’s so much more we have to figure out to make Zion a reality!
If this sounds like a brazen attempt to try and give your heart a reason to stay, that’s because it is.
Make no mistake – you will be sorely missed if you leave. And so if there’s still a place for you, I just don’t want you to miss it.
If there isn’t, or you can’t seem to find it right now, you will be loved all the same by me and many, many other members. I can promise you that.
For my wife and I, our experience has been finding solace not in turning away – but turning towards the restored gospel with new eyes, as the Corn Flakes commercial used to say, “tasting it again for the very first time.”
After my own dark nights of the soul, I’ve concluded that no matter what has happened, the best news of the gospel is that this can be a brilliant, fresh new moment….no matter what, and for all of us.
 And of course, to walk away from a relationship that had become so filled with tension, resistance and reactivity…who wouldn’t feel relief? No wonder then, that following a separation, individuals often conclude that doing so had solved the fundamental problem. If relief is felt in walking away from that individual (or institution), then surely they are the primary source of one’s pain and the reason for the prior tension? Parties to the separation typically go to great lengths to make this very point – one that I’m raising a question about here.
 Of course, we admittedly all push away and avoid what hurts at times – which is not a problem. What becomes problematic is when this becomes our main or only way of interacting with difficult situations, persons or emotions – in other words, when the avoidance becomes chronic. Click here to watch a quick video of several mindfulness teachers talking about our tendency to push away.
 Granted those who step away from the Church obviously continue on with other moments and other insights – with many speaking about a newness of life outside of the Church. Without disputing any of that, I’m simply pointing out perhaps an obvious point: that choosing those other moments, by default, is to remove yourself from whatever learning, growth and knowledge that may have emerged from direct, intimate engagement the conflict itself.
 Gary Zukav, Soul Stories, (Free Press, 2000) and Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 107-108.
As Scott Peck writes, “real love often occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking, when we act lovingly despite the fact that we don’t feel loving. It is when a couple falls out of love [that] they may begin to really love.” Italics mine. M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled (Touchstone, 1988), 88, 119. For more in the context of romance, check out: “Once Upon a Time… He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore. What’s Killing Romance in America – And What to Do About It.” Download it here for free or find it on Amazon for a couple of bucks.
 None of the foregoing, by the way, should be taken to mean that someone like Mark cannot or doesn’t have integrity to follow his best judgment of what is right based on his experiences. Too often, we members can insinuate as much – and Mark has shown me otherwise. Within similar circumstances, he and I may reach different conclusions on what the ‘path of integrity’ is – but even in those differences, we can honor and trust each others’ courage, integrity and sense of what is best.
And if you just can’t find a place in the Church, there are, of course, other ways we can practice this together still. Mark and I have a long-running conversation and new experiment exploring what an enjoyable Mormon/Former Mormon relationship looks like (see here and here). Among other things, this includes giving each other space for conviction, passion and the (occasional) attempt to persuade… (:
 “More than 94% of married individuals—both men and women—who said that their marriage at some point was in trouble said they were glad they were still together….Long-term unhappiness in marriage is uncommon….those couples who hung on weren’t miserable. About two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce ended up happily married to the same spouse five years later. And the unhappiest individuals improved the most; more than three-quarters of the unhappiest individuals who avoided divorce said they were now happy. Excerpts from chapter summarizing the research” http://www.divorce.usu.edu/files/uploads/lesson2.pdf
I’ve had a couple of friends recently tell me that they just don’t feel “comfortable” at Church. For each of them, that means something slightly different…but it’s got me thinking.
As the world continues to speed up and digitize all around us, any of one of us can start wondering about spiritual and religious stuff: “why would you ever want to spend your time doing that?!!”
Especially when faced with conflict or contradiction within the community, the one option that seems to make sense to many is giving up on them entirely: Why would I continue to do this if I’m not completely comfortable there?
The Christian writer John Backman, a member of our dialogue group and a man who identifies as queer, offers some interesting thoughts in this regard. After making the case for personal worship – scriptures, prayer – as a way to expand the mind, Backman concludes these individual practices are still insufficient: “It is possible to read Genesis to Revelation and still live inside our own heads, because we draw only from our own encounters. Hence the practice of community. In the interchange with a group of people, we are confronted with worldviews and frames of reference that we never could have imagined ourselves. We find entirely new ways of viewing old truths. We open up still further to the possibilities of truth and the value of ‘I could be wrong.'”
He goes on to describe how even after spending decades studying and exploring his faith, the people of his own Episcopal parish have “introduced me to approaches that never would have crossed my mind.” After giving several examples, he says, “some of these encounters upset my theological applecart from time to time, and I did not feel a need to accept any of the approaches wholesale. Ultimately, though, they have led me to a richer, more complex understanding of my faith – and a respect for an even broader range of opinions.”
Any group of people could potentially work in this way, he admits: “Community, however – the dedication to a specific group of people, come what may – provides a safe place for the virtues to blossom in our soul. By nurturing that safety, we facilitate the willingness to risk. By persisting with people we may not even like, so as to cultivate their growth and our own, we foster our ability to love. By conflicting with others, then working out our differences, we come to see ourselves as one person in a group, and so we grow in humility. At the most basic level, our living in community is simply our commitment to love fleshed out in a specific time and place.”
In other words, we go to Church to do something more than “feel comfortable.” We go to be stretched, challenged and pressed in ways we may not otherwise be. In the LDS context, Eugene England put it this way:
In the life of the true Church, there are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve—or possibly even associate with—and thus opportunities to learn to love unconditionally. There is constant encouragement, even pressure, to be “active”: to have a calling” and thus to have to grapple with relationships and management, with other people’s ideas and wishes, their feelings and failures; to attend classes and meetings and to have to listen to other people’s sometimes misinformed or prejudiced notions and to have to make some constructive response; to have leaders and occasionally to be hurt by their weakness and blindness, even unrighteous dominion; and then to be made a leader and find that you, too, with all the best intentions, can be weak and blind and unrighteous. Church involvement teaches us compassion and patience as well as courage and discipline. It makes us responsible for the personal and marital, physical, and spiritual welfare of people we may not already love (or may even heartily dislike), and thus we learn to love them. It stretches and challenges us, though disappointed and exasperated, in ways we would not otherwise choose to be— and thus gives us a chance to be made better than we might choose to be, but ultimately need and want to be.
In an age when we can tailor-make our news to confirm everything we really believe, maybe we need to remind ourselves that real community isn’t (and shouldn’t) be like that. Rather than clean-cut, airbrushed experiences, communal worship can be welcomed in its challenging, stretching, messyness.
Speaking of this life, Joseph Smith was quoted as saying, “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God… God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial kingdom of God.”
So what do you think? Are there legitimate reasons to stick with something that feels uncomfortable now – a marriage, a Church, a job?
1. Come as you are. One of the core agreements, it seems to me, would have to be that no matter what you feel about Mormonism: anger, ambivalence, fear, resentment, sorrow (or joy and love)…ALL experiences are welcome. No matter what you are feeling, you are welcome to continue feeling that – and to bring that into the Third Space.
I can imagine some ways we’ll try to work with different feelings in this space together – but our request would (and should) never be that you stop feeling what you are feeling. On the contrary, I see this space as radically inviting of all kinds of experience – much like a mindfulness retreat: “No matter what you feel, allowing things to be exactly as you find them. Without trying to force or fix or control them…”
2. Stand where you are. On both a personal and an interpersonal level, I propose the Third Space as a place to practice deep acceptance of wherever people are. This isn’t the same thing, of course, of agreeing with where they are (or wanting them to be there)…Rather, it is an allowing people to be in their own experience – and showing basic respect for their own choice to stand exactly there.
One of Jacob’s dear friends described beginning to have serious questions about the church. He recounted how everywhere he turned – first to his wife, then to his extended family, then to church members, he experienced the same thing: resistance and fear. Wouldn’t it be cool to insist on a space where we practiced non-resistance with each other – and with any concern or question brought to the space? (without an agenda – not in this space – to make it go away, or to act on it, or to not act on it)
In my own time with Mark, I’ve appreciated ways he has stretched to make sure I personally feel space to stand where I am in relation to his own deep convictions. For instance, I began to notice more and more he would say things like, “I realize you will have another take on this…” (and then he would say something I definitely don’t see the same way).
It’s something I took a lot of notice of – since the only discernible reason why Mark would make these additions is to ensure that I was feeling comfortable in the space between this. And it worked!…making me feel safe, loved (and even more curious and interested at what he was saying).
3. Understanding as priority. On the foundation of deep acceptance and safety – however you are, wherever you are – I would also suggest that we prioritize understanding first (above other legitimate interests). That means the primary goal entering this space is not to persuade or convince (or proselyte or convert) someone else to think or feel like you do. That can be a legitimate hope and desire (see #4) – but for the purposes of this space, I propose a collective agreement that this shouldn’t dominate.
My own experience has been that when we place a desire to understand first, something magical begins to happen. As we all let go of the “need” for another person to see things like me, the dynamic changes in the space between us. Call it curiosity or inquiry or exploration…it’s a powerful thing to witness when we move from “working on each other” to instead “learning from each other” and deeply hearing each other out.
4. Conviction is welcome. Of course this doesn’t mean that we somehow shouldn’t want others to understand us and even to see things like we do. One pervasive stereotype of a dialogue space like we’re describing is that people must ‘check’ their passion and conviction at the door – as if we’re all agreeing to dwell in some kind of mushy middle ground where “everyone’s ideas are equally true and valuable.”
If a place like this actually existed, I can assure you that neither Mark nor myself would want to live there – even temporarily. One reason I keep coming back to dialogue is because it’s consistently the MOST passionate conversation I’ve ever been a part of – and WITH people who don’t just confirm my own biases!
Want to be able to share your own convictions and concerns in a space insisting on joint exploration of what we all most deeply believe? That’s what I’m imagining…
5. Uncertainty and struggle are welcome too. It’s common for people considering dialogue to think they need to “go and research” a lot – so they have firm answers they can advocate for. For me, this represents a profound misunderstanding of what dialogue aims to be – namely, a place deeply welcoming of uncertainty. In such a place, seductive level of curiosity that can emerge: think of all the things you’d like to know and understand? Now imagine actually being able to ask those questions?
Along the same lines, I also envision Third Space as a place to experiment and explore together – ‘what the heck is possible between us?’ Rather than modeling some kind of “perfect” relationship – I see this as a place we can struggle together – making mistakes and learning from our interactions – cemented by the larger commitment to sticking with it and trusting each others’ intentions.
So there you have it! Do these feel valuable, over-stated, under-stated? Any elaborations? Revisions? Rejections? I’m imagining 10-15 people who meet up monthly in a Google-hangout agreeing on conditions (and others) – whatever we decide!
If there was a way to discover (or regain) a vibrant, affectionate relationship with someone who disagrees with you about Mormonism, would you be interested?
Mark and I have been musing about this for quite awhile – experimenting with the possibility in our own relationship. As I’ve mentioned before, Mark is a former Mormon who I met in the MTC years ago, with whom I recently re-connected over common professional interests. Usually the tacit agreement with friends not involved in the Church is to ‘not go there.’ Mark and I decided to do the opposite – turning towards the thorny things that often caused such resentment…with some fresh curiosity.
Even though we both had plenty of stories in our heads about the ‘other side,’ part of our success, I think, arose from a shared willingness to hold these stories gently enough to make space for the lived experience of the other to surprise us. (The Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind” – encountering something or someone fresh – as if for the first time).
What didn’t I understand about Mark’s experience? What more was there to see?
Quite a bit, it turns out. As our conversation matured and progressed, powerful realizations and ‘breakthrough’ moments happened for both of us. Along the way, we’ve also had to face and metabolize some of the same tension and misunderstanding that characterizes the Mormon/former Mormon interface. But rather than allowing that to push us away from each other, we’ve held onto our friendship – trusting both the sincerity of our desire to better understand and the authenticity of each other’s personal care.
This wasn’t hard for me to believe. I’ll never forget calling up Doc Foster late one evening when our baby had the croup (the kind of cough where you think your child is going to suffocate!) In 10 minutes, Mark helped us walk through the symptoms and triage our options – quickly allaying both our fears and the severity of Sammy’s cough.
That’s pretty much how our relationship has gone too. Rather than ‘freaking’ out about the frustrations, we’ve made space for them – ‘cradling’ them with some tenderness. And sure enough, the ‘symptoms’ of alienation have passed in a remarkable way…It’s been a long time since I felt deep tension or frustration with Mark. I now experience our relationship as powerful and enjoyable – even more so than other relationships, frankly, because of the unique way that we can press each other openly (about big questions), exploring without all the fears-of-fragility and offense.
So how much of the Mormon/former Mormon conflict is related to deeper dynamics of resistance and resentments, versus the actual substance of our disagreements? Clearly, those differences are significant – but even so, is it possible for others to find the space that Mark and I had? Were he and I just a strange anomaly to be explained away, or was it possible for other people (many other people) to have vociferous disagreements about the fundamental nature of reality, while deeply respecting (and enjoying) each other?
At this point in the discussion, the idea of a ‘shared space’ emerged as a broader metaphor for us both: what would it look like to have a ‘third space’ – separate from our usual home turf as Mormons or former-Mormons? What kind of qualities and characteristics would that Third Space require for both sides to feel not only safe and comfortable, but to actually be able to enjoy each other again? Is that even possible?
That’s our question for you today! (check out Mark’s parallel post here). If you feel some skepticism about the prospect, we welcome your hesitancy! After all, we might be dead wrong. But we’ve seen so many stories of heart-breaking, chronically-awful tension, that we can’t help asking the question!
In proposing a Third Space, by the way, we’re not trying to propose some grand new schema where everyone lives together happy ever after. People on both sides will continue occupying their home-turf on a day-to-day basis – and we’re fine with that. Rather than focusing on changing those spaces, we’re inviting people to consider “visiting” this Third Space with us – seeing it more like an exotic vacation spot where we get out of our normal patterns and let ourselves try an adventure together: ‘come check it out…we think you’ll like it.’
And if you don’t, that’s okay too. After all, sometimes dialogue may not be appropriate. Sometimes space apart from ‘those people’ is crucial.
And other times, that yearning for deeper connection comes right back: So what would it take to make that happen?
In the weeks ahead, we’ll be going back and forth on some ideas that have emerged from past conversations – aiming together for some kind of joint construction and integrated Third Space infrastructure. If you’d like to help that happen, we welcome your input and suggestions along the way.
Who knows whether this will lead anywhere. But we think it’s worth a try. How many other beautiful relationships are currently diluted or paralyzed by the warring stories and expectations along the Mormon/Former Mormon divide? If there was a way to move beyond that, wouldn’t it be worth a shot?
Earlier this year, I was lucky to help launch Village Square, Salt Lake City (see VillageSquareUtah.org) – a local chapter of a national organization dedicated to raising the quality of conversation across our country’s deepest divides.
< =[Heart-breaking image of a Mormon-Former Mormon exchange gone bad]
Climate change, Gay marriage, Religious Freedom, Policing, Immigration? We’re on it! A core assumption of the Village Square is that thoughtful, good-hearted people can disagree on just about anything.
Does that include Mormonism?
I’ve been thinking about that question – exploring it with Dr. Mark Foster and a few other friends at varying places in relation to the (LDS) Church.
Like other issues, of course, the knee-jerk reaction is clearly NO. As the conversation typically goes, “If you’re in the Church you are anything but thoughtful…and if you’ve stepped away from the Church, your heart is full of darkness.”
Maybe this is why one thing both active and former Mormons can agree on is how absolutely ridiculousthe back and forth between us ends up being. Ever since beginning this extended conversation with Mark and a few others, I’ve been repeatedly blown away at (a) how enjoyable it is to talk deeply and seriously across these differences and (b) how painful it is to witness the crazy levels of angst and hurt that has become a permanent fixture in many mixed-Mormon-orientation families.
Like other family conflicts, this broader “Mormon family feud” involves the incendiary combination of a shared intimate history and a sharply divergent interpretation of that history. To make matters worse, ex-Mormons and active Mormons often seem to be more focused on maintaining their respective stories about each other (the “unhappy, angry ex” and the “blind, judgmental Mormon” etc) – than actually getting curious about what we don’t know about each other…
Could there be more to learn about each other? (Or like most family feuds, will we insist on knowing each other with such utter certainty as to make any sort of wondering or new insights wholly impossible?) For me, at least, talking has taught me a lot – especially how misunderstood many former Mormons often feel (by active members)- and how paralysis and alienation can continue for years as a relationship residue after someone steps away from the Church.
Can we do better than this? Or is this ‘just how things have to be’?
Yes! (to the first) And no way! (to the second). There is simply too much goodness (on both sides) of this conversation – and way too many reasons to work towards improved relationships. For the sake of US (the Mormon-linked Diaspora), Mark, (Shelby, Brian, Lisa, Anna, Tom) and I all agree that we’ve got to figure out a better way to navigate this conversation.
In the near future, we will be releasing some tools that we’ve been developing across this divide. Preliminary to that, I want to call attention to something that feels absolutely foundational if we’re ever to arrive at a more thoughtful conversation – namely this: how often we set the terms of Mormon/Former Mormon conversation in a way that does not allow the person ‘who disagrees with me’ to be anything other than stupid, or evil, or angry, etc – let alone “thoughtful!”
Moving Beyond Power Plays in the Mormon/Former-Mormon Conversation. Two of the most striking moments in the first liberal-conservative dialogue class I co-facilitated both had the same effect. First, a staunch catholic student pronounced during the abortion dialogue, “if the Pope, the vicar of Christ has said abortion is morally wrong – how could anyone think otherwise?” In another discussion, a staunch atheist student announced, “if you all had read the research like I had, you would know that there is not a shred of evidence to support creationism.”
In both cases, the response in the class was the same: silence. How else do you respond to something like that? After all, any level of disagreement voiced is sure to be awarded with some kind of new label – “irrational” or “anti-science” or “anti-God” or “demonic”…or any number of other pejoratives.
Behold the Power Play at work! Meriam-Webster’s calls this “an attempt by a person, group, or organization to use power in a forceful and direct way to get or do something.”
On many levels and for different reasons, power plays are a thriving species in the larger ecosystem of socio-political and religious discourse. In the case of Mormon/former-Mormon discussion, there are at least three sub-species of Power Plays easy to spot and worth checking out:
(1) Religious power-plays. This is an important place to start – and one I would not have likely included before my time with Mark. By being exposed to more stories, I have become more acutely aware of how much our Mormon community’s invocations of divine authority and emphasis on eternal consequences can, at times, be experienced as heavy and even aggressive – especially to those who have stepped away from the faith.
Often, these individuals sincerely desire ongoing relationships with active Mormon family members and friends – with naturally leads to members doing what members (sometimes) do: extending invitations to return. It’s during these invitations (or after they are declined) that pressure can sometimes be ‘ramped up’ by references to the afterlife and priesthood authority.
Whereas these references may be perfectly appropriate in an open-hearted sharing, in that especially vulnerable and sensitive moment, they can often fit the definition of Power Play: I’m going to say THIS in order to try to get you to do THAT…
Note: This intention may not even be fully conscious to the speaker, by the way. When the word “power play is used,” it typically implies a fully deliberately intentional manipulation…that’s not what I’m arguing here. There may be many times we use strong words (that function as a power play) – without ever intending it to be that way! (“I just wanted her to know how much I believed in this…” or “I’m really just reporting the scientific facts!”)
But the larger point remains: No matter whatever spiritual experiences and assurances we religious individuals may legitimately have, that doesn’t automatically authorize pronouncements of reality so ‘obvious’ that everyone-who-is-reasonable-must accept. This was summarized nicely in the context of scriptural authority on none other than the Daily Show recently, with special guest Reza Aslan:
The point is that without interpretation scripture is just words on a page. It requires someone to read it, to encounter it, to have any kind of meaning, and obviously in that transaction you are bringing yourself, your views, your politics, into the text. How you read scripture has everything to do with who you are (see interview here)
But wait, I thought that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation”? (2 Peter 1:20) Interestingly enough, Joseph Smith identified that as an error in the Bible – proposing this as the correct translation: “no prophecy of the scriptures is given of any private will of man.”
Bottom line: Let’s acknowledge space for disagreement and different interpretations when it comes to religious teaching. No scriptural text evinces a reality so ‘obvious’ that everyone-who-is-reasonable-must accept one interpretation. Rather than weaponizing doctrine to ‘put someone in place,’ let’s insist on drawing upon it more tenderly and appropriately in conversation between us (Mormon/Former Mormon).
Though religion may have a power of its own with its invocations of eternity, power plays go well beyond the realm of the sacred…
(2) Scientific power plays. Although perhaps less obvious than religious power plays, scientific power-plays have become increasingly common over the last decade. As conversations about many socio-political issues in the U.S. have ramped up, activists on various sides have become accustomed to making adamant claims that, “gosh darn it, science is all on MY side!” Think climate change, gay parenting, gun violence, mental health, evolution…
Even though the full scope of research on every one of these questions is nuanced and complex – involving competing interpretations from different researchers – this is rarely what we hear.
Maybe you’re even having a reaction right now by the notion that research around any of those issues list above is “nuanced”: What? No way! THAT is settled and beyond dispute!
And that is precisely why we need to talk about The Scientific Power Play.
When was the last time you heard a media report acknowledge conflicting interpretations of data on a controversial topic? More often than not, when packaged and circulated in the media, we hear emphasis on a “consensus” of “all good research” supporting one way of thinking…
This is no exaggeration, if you’ve read any of the recent back and forth on hot button issues. No wonder that we also end up saying things like: “Well science say X” – as if “Science” had some kind of a monolithic voice – like a spiritual oracle of sorts: “Thus saith Science…”
Left out of these grandiose pronouncements is the reality that virtually all philosophers of science accept and admit: data does not and cannot ‘speak for itself.’ The process of generating and documenting data is extraordinarily complex, multi-faceted and human. Just as data is generated by multiple human decisions, it must be interpreted by this same human judgment – aided, but not replaced, by various methodologies.
Although this appreciation of the nuance and uncertainty inherent in science seems well-known among researchers themselves, there is surprising resistance to this becoming general knowledge 
During one closed-door discussion in my PhD program about the complexity of data generation, I’ll never forget my professor insisting that this understanding not become wide-spread, because it would “decrease the leverage and power our statements as scientists would have in the community.”
Pretty understandable, right? Hey – if you have a chance to say “reality is on my side” (and to have lots of people believe it), who would want to give up that power?
Bottom line: Let’s acknowledge space for disagreement and different interpretations when it comes to scientific findings. Like religious text, no data conveys a reality so ‘obvious’ that everyone-who-is-reasonable-must accept one interpretation. Rather than weaponizing this data to ‘put someone in place’ – let’s insist on using it more thoughtfully and appropriately in conversation between us.
(3) Historical power plays.Interestingly enough, this same pattern shows up in a third area – historical evidence. Like in the scientific world, it used to be common for historians to claim their methodologies permitted an authoritative “window into the reality” of what happened.
In the modern day, historians simply don’t believe that anymore. Instead, there is an acknowledgment that historical evidence is similarly embedded within inescapable cultural narratives and interpretive standpoints. To presume to escape these for some neutral view-from-nowhere is pretty much no longer believed to be possible among philosophers of history (or science).
But in the general public, we love to still make these claims, don’t we? “The historical evidence says X”!
Claims made by both Mormons and former-Mormons often sound this way. On one hand: “If you really study the translation process of the Book of Mormon, you would realize there is no other way it could have happened other than God!” is a refrain common among Mormons.
On the other hand, critics sometimes speak of historical anachronisms as if they are undisputed proof -i.e., “keep in mind that there is NO other even remotely decent explanation for horses in the Book of Mormon.”
In the same mold as religious and scientific power plays, the subtle aggression is evident. As another example, one man leaving the Church said this to his heart-broken wife: “I would love to say that Joseph Smith didn’t do the things he did. It’s like a car accident where someone dies. No matter how badly you wish it hadn’t happened, no matter how much you desire to believe that it didn’t happen, your desires and your earnest pleadings with your heart to make it go away will not and never can change what happened. Joseph Smith did the things that he did.”
By portraying historical details as so obvious that they ‘speak for themselves,’ clearly this had a certain kind of impact on this man’s spouse. Never mind the vivid contrast in available interpretation surrounding Joseph Smith’s history – this man’s conclusion is presented (and likely received) as unquestionable and uncontested.
And that’s precisely where the ‘power’ comes from. In place of a thoughtful conversation about contrasting interpretations of nuanced evidence – we pull out the “nuclear option” and put someone in their place.
Nowhere is this more clear than the impact of commentary about Joseph Smith’s own personal life.
Prophet or Pervert? In announcing their departure from the church, one couple wrote: “We feel that the simple awareness that Joseph Smith had at least thirty-three wives, eleven of whom were concurrently married to other men, is all that anyone needs to know to discern that there is something wrong at the core of Mormonism.”
There you have it: What more needs to be said?
A lot more! We have people still debating the 2014 Michael Brown death after 150 pages of testimony, and you want to claim the case is closed on sketchy details about incidents we’re 150 years removed from?!
As respected historians like Bushman have pointed out, the context around Joseph’s wives clearly supports more than one legitimate, thoughtful interpretation – including one that does not so quickly assume sexual deviance. For instance, “sealing” at the time was understood to be a loose way to spiritually unite the early Church community – with no evidence that many of the unions were ever consummated.
All context and diversity of historical interpretation are ignored, however, when a power play is made (on either side). Even without realizing it, we paint a historical picture in which only one interpretation can be legitimate.
I’m not writing about some kind of a philosophical curiosity. The consequences of this kind of disingenuous (and subtly aggressive) framing of history can be devastating for others – who may be left to feel silly or irrational or ‘not aware of the facts’ – or, perhaps “shocked” to “discover the truth.”
When it comes to how we frame Mormon history, the consequences for people’s lives and faith and families are real.
If someone wanted to launch a concerted assault on the core of Mormonism, can you think of a better pressure point? One hundred and seventy one years after the Prophet Joseph Smith was assassinated, he is undergoing a forceful, second kind of (character) assassination – as strident accusations are made on his integrity and purity.
To those making such statements about Joseph Smith – including some of my own dear friends – I would say this:
Know that I (like many of your member friends) will love and respect you no matter what.
When sharing about something as sensitive and central to our faith as Joseph Smith’s family life, please do so in a way that acknowledges space for disagreement – e.g., that even those who are aware of the same historical details as you have come to very different, reasoned conclusions. (That would go a long way for TBM’s like me!)
To otherwise pretend that historical (or scientific) evidence justifies only one interpretation is to leave no space for others to stand. Not only is this approach dismissive of other thoughtful interpretations of the historical evidence, it seems to completely ignore the interpretive nature of history itself.
Please don’t misunderstand: It’s okay to speak with conviction and passion about what you believe; it’s also okay to be an advocate (or missionary). What’s not okay is to do so in a way that shatters people’s faith by leading them to believe there is only one sensible, legitimate, thoughtful interpretation of X question.
In other words, it’s okay if you believe that the Prophet was sexually deviant. What’s not okay is pretending (and getting others to think) that history only justifies this single interpretation of his intimate life.
There is no such thing as evidence – even dramatic evidence – that is so clear that two stories cannot be constructed around it! 
Even Jesus Christ himself was interpreted in very different ways by the people of his day. While one group proclaimed him as “Christ, the Son of the Living God” – another group insisted, “This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils” Matthew 12:24.
To summarize: Nothing in history is so clear that it cannot be interpreted in different ways. Every issue raised in the Letter to a CES Director and every question posed by Dehlin’s Mormon Stories podcasts – every one of them, involves events understood and explained in very different ways by thoughtful people. Likewise, every question explored on FAIR and FARMS – every one of them, involves issues that reflect diverging interpretations from thoughtful people!
Bottom line: Let’s acknowledge space for disagreement and different interpretations when it comes to historical findings. Like religious text and scientific data, no historical evidence conveys a reality so ‘obvious’ that everyone-who-is-reasonable-must accept one interpretation. Rather than weaponizing this evidence to ‘put someone in place’ – let’s insist on drawing upon it thoughtfully and appropriately in conversation between us.
Towards a More Thoughtful Conversation about Mormonism and its History. Want to hear the BEST thing about welcoming the inescapable role of interpretation? Rather than posturing to see who can sound most convincing, this opens up a new possibility: actually getting curious about our different interpretations.
Indeed, this core insight about the self-interpreting nature of (all) human beings opens up a new space where we might gather. A place of more uncertainty. More humility. And more radical acceptance and openness.
Mark and I are calling this the Third Space (coming soon!)
So there you have it: Rather than indulging subtle aggression in trying to presume that all the data or history or scriptures support only one view (our view) – how about opening the conversation to the (interesting) differences in how to interpret X or Y? From the Mountains Meadows Massacre to Joseph Smith’s wives, why not make space for thoughtful differences – and allow them a fair, open hearing?
I will be honest: my experience so far confirms that the possibilities raised above make people in both camps nervous. On one hand, we active members sometimes minimize and dismiss any other historical interpretation than ours as automatically “anti-Mormon” and deceived. And on the other side, when the Church does share its own interpretation of historical events, critics are often ready to dismiss. When the Church released the gospel topic essays, for instance, they were quickly disparaged as nothing more than a “carefully-managed bureaucratic roll-out” or “revisionist history” or “whitewashing.”
We owe it to our families, neighborhoods and communities to do better than this! Maybe we could even come up with some slogan: “Stand Up Against Ridiculous & Paralyzed Mormon/Former Mormon Conversation!”
Hmmm…doesn’t quite have a great ring to it, right?
Maybe it’s time to learn from those who are doing this conversation right. This fall, Village Square Utah hosted a forum bringing together a group of local Utah residents with a combined 132 years of experience in bridge-building, dialogic, rich conversation across the “religious divide” in Utah. We’re also preparing a new series of documents – “Ten Ways that Thoughtful, Good Hearted People Disagree about X.” Each is prepared collaboratively drawing on the input and insight from diverse perspectives. Stay tuned for our Mormon History edition!
So what do you say, can thoughtful, good-hearted people could actually disagree about how to interpret Mormon history? Cast your vote here:
Thanks for listening. This was a dousey. You totally deserve a gold star. Share your thoughts below! I’m really not that important…which means I actually read and try to respond to them all (eventually…).
 [Longish footnote warning! Too interesting too leave out…too peripheral to leave in the essay]. The inescapability of interpretation.We tend to see thoughts in western culture as a reflection of reality or selfhood. If we think something – then we take for granted it must say something about our life! One of the early discoveries of those starting mindfulness practice is that their thoughts are not the same thing as “reality.” In other words, from a contemplative perspective, thoughts may simply be…thoughts!
The same thing could be said about our interpretations about anything. For instance, we tend to see particular interpretations of the world as “reality” – vested with religious or scientific authority. Indeed, it’s common to hear a particular piece of (scientific or historical) evidence presented as somehow ‘speaking for itself’ – whether that be a primary source document, a rock, a micro-organism, etc. All these things are considered as something we’re able to see and know face-value, straight-up and independent of any human judgments – in a kind of purely objective realm divorced of values, judgments and interpretations.
This notion goes back to Descartes’ own argument dividing the world into “subjective” and “objective” realities – with the subjective realm a place of messy human values, beliefs and feelings and the objective realm presumably separable and independent – containing hard, concrete realities of life. Surely the best thing about Descartes’ subject/object construction was how it super-charged interest in the scientific method as a way to attempt access to the “objective” world – while controlling and keeping at bay the subjective. There is no question that this uniquely rigorous attempt to explore the world has helped generate innumerable insights into the nature of reality.
Nearly 100 years ago, however, philosophers starting with Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Charles Taylor began to raise a nagging question about the enlightenment era philosophy taken for granted for centuries: On what basis do we truncate ‘reality’ into two separable domains of subjective and objective – might this be a seemingly arbitrary and misguiding distinction?
From that very question, modern philosophy reached a turning point and began moving in an entirely new direction. Rather than continuing a project of trying to access a reality somehow outside or independent of our own interpretations, philosophy began to acknowledge that a central part of reality itself is our nature as self-interpreting creatures. In other words, interpretation and judgment were inescapable – and could not somehow be cleanly “put on the shelf.” Rather than pretending to stand in a purely neutral stance or claiming a “view from nowhere” – scholars began acknowledging and exploring their own standpoints.
The resulting scholarship and discovery has been breath-taking to behold in many realms. Rather than trying to craft the “one true history” of this or that, historians began to paint more nuanced pictures that acknowledged paradoxical evidence and uncertainties that allowed contrasting interpretations. Hard scientists came to accept that measurement and assessment inherently reflected interpretive biases – and the very act of measuring something changed the thing you were trying to measure (see Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). In the social sciences, researchers began to experiment with methods that acknowledged the messy interpretive nature of human beings – (see this critical historiography of PTSD written by two colleagues).
[This corresponds with a core insight in mindful practice – namely, the holding in awareness the various thoughts and interpretations one might hold about a given situation].
What would it mean to take this philosophical shift seriously in discussions of Mormon history? How might it change our experience of history – and the clash over its meaning?
I personally believe this shift could change absolutely everything…especially when it comes to interactions between Mormons and former Mormons.
The scientific task of giving experience closer attention is of great value – no question. No matter how many methods, no matter how many controls, and techniques employed to subdue “subjectivity,” however, interpretation simply cannot be escaped. This is NOT the same thing as denying objective truth – or suggesting that everything is just “constructed in our minds” – e.g., “you have your truth and I have mind” relativism. Instead, this (philosophical hermeneutic) perspective argues that all experience is partially constitutedby our interpretations – in an ongoing, moment by moment interaction with very much a “real world” – resulting in experience that is constantly and inescapably mediated by human interpretation. If that’s true, then maybe we should pay more attention to it?
 I do believe many people sincerely believe the science only justifies their interpretation…In other cases, it seems clear that people who know about the complexity choose to frame it differently for the effect that might have on people.
 Yes, he’s a Mormon, but a respected, award-winning Columbia professor Mormon at that!
Hermeneutics, Not Relativism. it’s important to point out that denying the subject/object divide is not the same thing as denying the existence of truth. It’s simply pointing out that findingtruth is not quite so simple and easy as we sometimes make it out to be in all our talk of scientific or religious methodologies. From this perspective, then, there is an actual truth to be known, but it may not be as simple as you think to discover it – or as obvious as you think to all “logical” people. In turn, we might need more humility in the process of doing so – and sharing what we see.
Nonetheless, for many, the inescapability of interpretation will be all too easy to escape. But for some, I suspect they mustescape this idea. After all, the subject/object divide seems very central to many critiques of Mormonism. For instance, one person said, “objective truth stands on its own. We identify objective truth, and then we attempt to build our relational truths around that, and we winnow away the falsehoods that endure as a matter or tradition or inertia. [The prophets] have nothing to pin their ‘divine authority’ upon other than the opinions and esteem of other men, and his “spiritual witness” that is completely subjective, non-verifiable, non-transferrable, and at odds with objective reality.”
As reflected here, after dividing the world into “subjective” stuff and “objective” stuff – it’s easy enough to pin our hopes on all things “objective” – and to lump everything else (values, morals, spiritual stuff) in that fuzzy, unreliable, “non-verifiable” realm.
 If this intrigues you – we’re looking for takers to help construct three documents:
10 ways that thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree about Mormon history.
10 ways that thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree about the Mormon experience.
10 ways that thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree about the experience of walking away from Mormonism.
Any takers? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org to join the creation team…You will be recognized when we eventually release them.
“This moment is new and fresh – different than all other moments that have ever come before…” Jon Kabat-Zinn
We often speak approvingly in the Church of those individuals who are “unwavering,” “steadfast,” and “unflagging”…holding up these people who don’t appear to show weariness of doing good, who don’t shrink, and don’t seem to ever fall. These are the people we often speak of wanting to be like!
And no wonder – wouldn’t it be great to be so steady, so constant – and trustworthy? That’s certainly a yearning of my own heart.
But what about times when we’re not this way? What can be said of those unfortunate moments (all over the place) where there is wavering, stumbling and falling?
The Best News. My own experience is that those are the very moments where the ‘good news’ really comes on line as something that matters.
As Paul wrote, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us….Just at the right time, when we were yet without strength (utterly helpless, powerless, weak), Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:8/ 5:6)
Yet again, when we Mormons talk about the gospel and its “good news,” we sometimes tend to weave together long answers that reference pre-mortality, receiving bodies, falling, atonement, resurrection, eternal families, celestial glory, etc.
In receipt of the overflowing cornucopia of gospel truth, can you blame us for sometimes getting lost in the weeds?
I suppose it doesn’t matter much if we get a little lost in the weeds on a pleasure hike. But for someone truly lost to their core, hurting and desperate – a little weed wandering might just be a lethal moment…
In my own periods of profound lost-ness, where I felt most vulnerable, this was precisely the moment when His reach felt most tangible.
Especially when I cried out, “This is not who I am…this is not who I want to be…I want to be yours!”
In those moments, as I reached for Him, I always felt His reach back at me. In that at-onement or “embrace,” arises a newness and freshness unlike any other – and beyond any joy of my life.
No therapy, no drug, no relationship, no movie, no accomplishment could bring the same relief, deliverance, remission:
New, fresh. In this moment.
Isn’t that the truly good news? That tomorrow doesn’t have to be like today – that this moment doesn’t have to be like the last one?
That has now become my favorite way to describe THE good news: Simply put, this can be a new moment.
Good news…moment by moment. While those extraordinary moments of communion have a particular brilliance to them, mindfulness practice begins to show anyone who gives themselves to it something equally exciting: that virtually every moment can have a similar kind of brilliance.
In our MBSR class, we begin to deliberately venture in that direction by eating a single raisin. Yuck. A raisin?
Yes. And on purpose! (Chocolate doesn’t work quite so well). You can try the exercise here if you’d like.
Five minutes into the raisin, wild new realizations, sensations and observations have arisen – about something that, till that moment, had merited no particular attention.
The experience of fully saturating your attention in that moment, changes that moment. Except for the hard-core raisin haters, people leave sensing, “wow – a raisin has never tasted so good.”
If that’s true about a gnarly raisin moment – what about all the other moments of our day?
No matter what is happening – no matter anything else around you – just stop. Breathe. And see if you can feel the newness.As one of my teachers, Lynn Koerbel, puts it, “you have never breathed this breath before…”
Jesus and This Moment. The connection between the “new moment” of contemplative and Christian traditions was galvanized for me one day when coming across a clip from the latest young adult Christian “Passion conference” in Houston.
Although I don’t typically resonate with everything that happens in these kinds of conferences, these excerpts of a brief sermonette by an African American woman spoke to me deeply.
Trust me – it’s worth a listen! Click here – watching starting at :45 till 2:00. Then again, from 3:49 till approximately 6:40. The transcription of these excerpts follow:
Today is a new day. A fresh start…a blank canvass….
Yesterday is gone. What’s done is done. But today, my friends, is something new!
You…can begin again. Right here. Right now: God can make all things new. That’s not hype – nor a trite promise.
Because in this place, we place zero confidence in human flesh. Yet, we hold forth Jesus. And in his name we can begin again…
Do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing.
Don’t look back. Fix…your gaze…on Jesus. He will lead us on from here.
It’s not important where you come from. What matters is that Jesus will meet you here and you can begin again.
This is what the prophet says – God’s messenger to his people. Don’t be afraid. I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name. You are mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you won’t go down…because I AM GOD – your personal God. The Holy of Israel. Your Savior. So don’t be afraid. I am with you.
This is what God says – the God who builds a road right through the ocean, who carves a path through pounding waves…forget about what’s happened. Don’t keep going over old history. Be alert. Be present. I’m about to do something brand new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?! There it is…I’m making a road through the desert. Rivers through the badlands. Maybe you’ve been in the lost lands – the dried up lands.
Good news: God knows your name. He knows the very number of the seat you’re sitting in, or the place you’re standing. Nothing is hidden from him…yet he is great enough and kind enough to erase your sin. He is strong enough to cause dried up hearts to beat again. There is no stain or blight, no shame or scar, no mess or guilt that Jesus cannot repair. There is no sin that has not been covered at the cross. For God has said, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sin no more.” And the prophets spoke, “though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow!”…Welcome to a new day. Welcome to a fresh start!
What was it like listening to that for you? I wish I could hear you speak…For me, it said something powerful: This is a new moment. It really is!
And more than that: this moment is not ‘new’ – just because….The freshness of this new moment is not just a fact of the universe. It is possible because of Christ.
If not for what He did, each new moment would be constrained and enslaved by what happened before it (this is how behavioral psychology often talks, incidentally – with our experiences dictated by our past). As Amulek puts it:
“For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made” (Alma 34:9)
According to this teaching (and my experience), it is only because of Christ that we can move – fresh – into a wholly new, completely distinct moment. Amulek elaborates on exactly this point – in perhaps the most hopeful verse in all of scripture:
“Yea, I would that ye would come forth and harden not your hearts any longer; for behold, now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you. For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34: 31)
Notice – he could have said, “come forth and harden not your hearts any longer; for behold this month (or this year, or this week) is the time of your salvation…” He didn’t! He said NOW.
No matter what has come before, no matter how awful or confused or lost we might feel now…the good news is this: this can be a new moment.
The importance of human agency and personal responsibility within Latter-day Saint discourse is not something anyone can miss. From missionary discussions, to Sunday School classes, to Sacrament meeting talks, to General Conference, the emphasis on personal choice and freedom as central to God’s plan is clear and unmistakable.
And rightly so! Humankind’s ability and privilege to choose and to act for themselves is a central and beautiful feature of our mortal lives. It’s something to celebrate!
This agency is mentioned in scripture as bestowed as part of mortality – even a gift from God (Moses 7:32; D&C 101:78). This most often seems interpreted to mean that freedom of choice is an innate and stable life feature that can and should continue with us at a constant level throughout our lives – no matter what happens, and with no interruptions.
Even in painful situations involving trauma, physical/mental illness or addiction, we still typically uphold freedom of choice as front and center. Against a backdrop of this doctrine of agency, our first impulse in these exceptional situations is to underscore the power of choice that people ‘still have to make the right choice, take responsibility,’ etc.
And in a world that where increasingly large swaths of human experience are narrated as figments of social structures and power dynamics (on the outside) or brain chemicals and genetics (on the inside), this Mormon impulse to push back and remind Victimized America of the centrality of human freedom is understandable and probably necessary.
Can it be overdone, however – this emphasis on agency?
The Willpower Manifesto. By the time our first born son William turned 2, he began to randomly say this ‘cute phrase’ all the time: “I not need help. I not need help. I not need help.” Soon, this turned into: “I can do this all by myself!”
Even when faced with clearly impossible tasks like climbing a steep ladder at the playground, this became something of a mantra: “No, Daddy – I can do it .. all by myself!”
Isn’t that sometimes how we adults sound as well?…casting our own personal power as almost preeminent in its influence: “Anything you set your mind to can happen”…”Willpower is the key to success” (Dan Millman)…”People can do all things if they will” (Leon Batista Alberti)
It seems to me that we absolutely love to hear people tell us that we can DO IT – or as Obama would say, “yes, we can!”
So zealously does this testimony ring in the American mind, that it’s taken for granted by many that with enough hard work, grit and willpower, indeed – anything is possible.
Embedded as many of us are within Western society, that’s kind of how we sometimes talk as Mormons too. On a fairly regular basis, I’ve heard members of the Church teach and testify of agency with such forcefulness that you couldn’t blame anyone walking away from thinking, ‘as long as I try hard enough…and keep working hard – anything is possible!’ (translation: I can do this all by myself!)
But is that true?
Super-sizing the Gospel. It’s true that Jesus did teach “all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 9:23).
That’s a little different than saying, ‘all things are possible to those who exert themselves,’ right?
In the era of The Secret, however, these two message have blended together in some kind of super-sized gospel message: “You can do it…whatever you dream…whatever you want…a good God would want nothing less!”
Powerless: ‘No I can’t!’ I used to believe this too – more or less. Then something else came into my life: bondage. A legitimate slavery – where I a degree of my agency felt unquestionably lost….to feelings, thoughts, actions that I didn’t want.
Initially, however, I was sure that if I just worked hard enough, I would eventually beat what I faced…until I didn’t.
Years of trying hard(er) and working hard(er) convinced me of something that felt profoundly un-American: No, I can’t!
Something in me fought against that – and didn’t want to believe it…holding out hope that with a little more effort, I would push through this. During this period, I came across a t-shirt with a picture of a jeep dangling over a ravine, with the caption: “Self-Confidence is what you feel before you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
Following the tradition of Bill, Bob and millions of others in the 12-step tradition, a clear turning-point for me came in realizing that my life had truly become “unmanageable” and that I was literally, practically “powerless” of myself – to free myself.
On first glance, this can feel like a resignation. ‘Hold on, now’ – we want to ask: ‘You’re an agent to yourself! Don’t make yourself out to be a victim!’ Might this be a dangerous ‘giving up’ – a kind of contradiction to the gospel itself? One woman told me she could never take that step because it would take away her motivation to act at all. A bishop told me that the 12-steps were harmful because it “taught people they didn’t have freedom.”
Within the contemplative community, the same fascinating debate is happening, by the way. On one hand, some insist that talk of powerlessness is antithetical to mindfulness; on the other, are those who highlight strong common ground between the 12-step and mindfulness traditions (see here and here).
In both Mormon and mindfulness communities, those holding these concerns about the 12-steps seem to see freedom as a simple dichotomy – ‘we have freedom’ or ‘we don’t.’
What if, however, freedom and agency turns out to be more of a continuum on which I could grow or ebb, depending on my moment by moment choices?
Freedom as Spectrum. That, at least, has been my own experience. If I chose some quiet time to feast on His words first thing in the morning, for instance, that seemed to consistently open up greater freedom that day. To the degree I yielded to immediate gratification during the day as the source of my well-being – whether from food, media or sleep – that seemed to always move me in the reverse direction.
While I can’t seem to choose not tofeel something or even to not struggle with certain things, I can choose to do other things that would move me in another direction.
Rather than teaching me ‘I don’t have freedom,’ the 12-steps insight is that I don’t have total freedom. What I found in my own situation is that by acknowledging that (and only after acknowledging that), was I able to pivot towards the Savior in a way that introduced me to real redemption.
Jesus as Superhero. Instead of seeing him only as a side-line coach, a cheerleader or a role model, you see, this compelled me to see Christ in ‘whole new’ light…which turns out to be not-all-that new in the scriptures:
Abinidi: “Thus all mankind were lost; and behold, they would have been endlessly lost were it not that God redeemed his people from their lost and fallen state” (Mosiah 16:14)
Amulek:”According to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made” (Alma 34:9)
Jacob: “O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster” (2 Nephi 9:10)
Maybe all that talk of Deliverer and Redeemer was not hyperbole after all?
This is precisely the ‘other doctrine’ that we seem to miss or overshadow when agency is over-stated. The connection between these two concepts is taught most beautifully by Lehi: “The Messiah cometh in the fullness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall, they have become free…” (2 Nephi 2:26)
In other words, our freedom comes not just ‘because’ (because we exist, because we are born, because we are mortal). It comes from Jesus.
That freedom we do exercise, Lehi continues to clarify, comes as a mediated gift: “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Ne. 2:27)
Rather than freedom existing simply due to Christ’s coming into the world generally, I now understand that freedom exists because of Christ came into my world (and life), specifically. All power and freedom is mediated through Him.
My life has slowly been teaching me this…When a friend was depressed (in part due to some life decisions), I wrote a letter pleading with him to “turn to God!”
After reading my note, another friend cautioned me: “He can’t just do this right now, Jacob!”
I wrestled against her comment – thinking of verses like this: “And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free” (Helaman 14:30)
Doesn’t that mean my friend (and all of us) are 100% responsible for our situations?
As I wrestled with these competing ideas, these words of the Lord came to mind: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44)
Could it be that if we’re in a dark enough place, even the choice to come to Jesus is something that needs to be prompted, supported and mediated?
[Another LDS author recently documented the historical shift away from the use of “free agency” as a term in LDS discourse – citing Elder Packer’s explanation: “Agency has its price. You have to pay the consequences of your choices.” While that is obviously true, I would also add that HE pays the consequences of our choices if we accept Him – thus introducing a freedom which is ‘purchased by his blood’ – and thus, clearly not ‘free’].
This realization and insight has made all the difference in the world for me. What happens, however, when we insist and teach and emphasize as first priority that ‘we always have a choice’ and ‘there is always something you can do’? How does that make someone facing depression or severe anxiety or an eating disorder feel? How about a couple facing crippling marriage problems?
Pushing Away the Stuck. I’ll tell you how it makes them feel: uninspired, at best – and unattached and distant, at worst. After all, ‘how does this message even apply to me – seeing that I’m stuck…maybe the gospel doesn’t work for me’?
Take those same people, however, facing the same stuckness – and share with them a message that acknowledges the stuckness – and invites them to move from that starting place towards Christ in a new way…and guess what happens?
People light up!
The 12-steps, you see, don’t end with a personal declaration of powerlessness. They only begin there. After acknowledging I CANNOT… in almost the same breath (the next breathe, more precisely), comes the second step: Someone else CAN help us…and we CAN do this with Him!
That level of confidence and power was something I never found on my own (no matter how many self-affirmations or motivational videos I watched!) The freedom began flowing and multiplying in my life only, ironically, after acknowledging that I wasn’t free in some significant ways.
This stands in sharp contrast to all the years of emphasizing harder work and greater effort – which often led to frustration (and ongoing stuckness).
Are there consequences to over-stating agency and over-emphasizing the power of personal freedom?
I say YES! I think we’re losing people when we talk this way…especially those who feel the most hopeless.
The tragedy, of course, is that the gospel message is precisely for that person the most – something totally missed when the Good News is reduced to the Willpower Manifesto.
Resisting this Conclusion. For those who have lived some kind of mental, emotional or physical bondage in their own life, this realization can feel liberating. For those who have yet to recognize anything like this, it still feels a bit unsettling.
If you haven’t discovered this in your own life, keep watching. If you want a short-cut to this realization, find something in your life that you really want to change – even something simple.
My wife and I recently sensed that getting up earlier would make a difference for our emotional and spiritual well-being.
“Okay, let’s do this!” we initially thought. After having worked at it for a month, and still finding ourselves groggy in the morning and unable to get up – we realized the changing Circadian Rhythms (especially with 3 little boys in the mix) is no simple ‘choice.’
Like other things, we came to realize how much we need His deliverance – even when it came to sleep cycles.
Unfortunately, the 12-Steps continue to be seen by many as a program for ‘those drunks’ or ‘those druggies’ or ‘those into porn.’ Consistently, however, those ‘normal’ people who venture into the 12-steps discover a profound influence and power to find changes they had never imagined possible.
After seeing it’s power in my own life, my wife began to apply the 12-steps to some emotional difficulties she had never been able to overcome (See EA).
There were also some dynamics and tensions between us as a couple that we had never found a way to overcome. After a boatload of other failed efforts, we discovered a 12-step program for couples that became a remarkable turning point for us (see RCA).
Bottom line: Maybe it’s time for all of us to let go of the 2 year old mantra – “I can do all things by myself” – and relish far more the rock-bottom core of the gospel message: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” (Phillipians 4:13).
Moving beyond “You have a Choice” as somehow representing the hope of the gospel, how about simply declaring to the world, “You have a Redeemer!” (and yes, he will give you all the choice, power and freedom you need and dream of!!!)
Some of my dear friends and family members – people I respect and continue to respect – have decided to step away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because these are people I care about and love, I’ve wanted to better understand their experiences leading to this decision.
These conversations have been important to me, and I’m grateful for the trust and vulnerability shown by several people who have shared their experiences. In more than one instance, I’ve heard concerns from these loved ones that the Church had deceived them by withholding information about certain things in the historical record. The shock and pain they spoke of experiencing upon learning some additional details from Mormon history was real and intense.
An accusation of dishonesty is a sobering claim and has given me pause. As a serious contention, it is one that I think deserves equally serious attention and exploration. With one friend in particular, Mark, I’ve appreciated a chance to begin doing just this. He is a thoughtful professional, a father and a husband – and now finds himself hurt and saddened in relation to the same institution he used to love dearly. As we explored some specific historical questions he had about the Church, I asked him one day, “so can you help me better understand what exactly you mean when you say that the Church wasn’t honest with you?”
This question isn’t a semantic one or an attempt to mince words. It’s a legitimate curiosity. We all know that how history is approached has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades – both within the Church and across secular scholarship such as American history. And yet, in all the discussion about dishonesty and deception in relation to certain historical questions, there has been much less attention to what exactly wemean by these hot-button terms being used. Almost always, one primary view seems to be taken for granted:
Deliberate, self-preserving deception. In most cases, the conversations about neglected historical areas seems to take for granted that those involved in producing prior histories were deliberately lying in what was omitted – especially from popular accounts. These leaders and historians do so, from this perspective, to maintain more control and power that they might not otherwise have.
More generally, people thus talk of efforts to “whitewash” or “sanitize” history – making it seem cleaner or simpler (or more liberal or more conservative or more Christian or less Christian) than it was. For example, voices on the political left raise concerns with conservative efforts to portray American history as exceptional. And on the other side, individuals on the political right have raised concerns at another kind of re-visioning that supports the larger progressive story – e.g., the “suppression of any information about racism towards white people” and framing history in a way that makes all white Europeans look bad. Diverging accounts of Columbus are a particular illustration, with ongoing efforts to point out unsettling elements of his story, alongside others that emphasize positive interpretations of what unfolded. Socio-political contests aside, even the history of baseball has been critiqued for its attempt to “sanitize” its history from the indiscretions of athletes like Barry Bonds. Says one author, “A national baseball museum that fails to adequately confront the messy nature of the past…does its sport (and the pursuit of history) a grave disservice.”
Across society, then, it’s not uncommon to hear concerns about skewing or slanting or over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing certain aspects of history in some way. The degree to which others involved in the organization (political, business or religious) are seen as being involved in this perceived deception varies widely. In some cases, a whole network of leading individuals are seen as working together to withhold details that would undermine power, influence or wealth. This is sometimes how large industries such as Pharma are accused of acting – and certainly how some talk about the Church.
Most often, accusations are directed towards a select few involved in the deception. From this perspective, most people in the organization were not party to decisions of what to emphasize (or omit) – and maintained sincerely-held, positive intentions for their work. This is how I personally view Pharma these days – namely, that it operates with less self-consciousness than it needs, with a few (and only a few) appreciating the full extent of the institutional and public deception that is occurring.
Others see the Church this same way – as having consciously and deliberately omitted certain things and emphasized others in order to maintain certain kinds of power, control and authority. To these individuals, the Church’s new efforts to make explicit certain historical questions are inadequate – representing “tortured” attempts to wiggle away from past deceptions.
I disagree. But I write not to deconstruct and disparage this position, but instead, to point out (and flesh out) what seems to me to represent another viable understanding of why the Church has previously not talked as directly about certain aspects of its history.
Unconscious, positive-intentioned framing. From another perspective, not giving attention to certain areas of history was never a deliberate or conscious attempt to misinform or deceive or “cover up” things. Instead, editorial choices were arguably a byproduct of a widely-accepted (almost universal) approach to difficult matters among the previous generation. Whether it was domestic violence in a community or war stories from veterans, we’ve all observed how some difficult things for the older generation were assumed best to not talk about (or to only selectively speak of them). At least for painful issues, this seems to have been taken for granted as the easiest way forward.
That didn’t make that approach right or healthy – and we tend to think differently nowadays. But the point here is, they did not. That’s why my wife’s grandfather never spoke of his war-time experiences, and why family abuse was often simply unacknowledged. The problems of these omissions are obvious, especially in the case of abuse. But when it comes to dealing with painful personal questions generally, we may be too quick to judge.
From the vantage point of our modern therapeutic share-all culture, it’s all just too easy to scold those our senior for not being more ‘open’ like we are! It sometimes escapes us how interesting it might be simply to acknowledge the intense and interesting generational differences at hand – including others: As with classic literature, it used to be common to try and use history to inspire people by teaching lessons, virtues, character, etc. Obviously, this intention is increasingly foreign to modern historiography, in its attempt to paint nuanced (and objective) pictures of morally complex people and situations. With the technological advances of the last decade, we also have an access to historical details that is unprecedented in any previous generation.
To ignore these kinds of cohort differences in the judgments we make of the previous generation would be to foist our own generation’s narrative on their own – reflecting what seems a patent ethnocentrism in its own right (‘judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture’).
This all becomes another way to understand why much historical work of previous generations can tend to over-emphasize the positive, character-building elements – without always giving equal attention to the messy, complex aspects of stories. This is true in depictions of early founding fathers and of Church leaders as well. I’ve noticed how my own 22 year old brother, who passed away a decade ago, has already come to be talked about in our family with a sort of saintly glow (never mind that he was sometimes a little cocky, and rarely called his fouls in basketball!) (:
Should it surprise us that this same selective framing shows up in previous histories of Joseph Smith or Thomas Jefferson? Could it be that some kind of editorial framing is inevitable, depending on the standpoint of the authors? My friend Jay pointed out that narrative studies have even “demonstrated that we all rewrite our history daily. Each new experience causes us to reframe our past experience and therefore see, understand, and describe it a little different.”
Given the rich unfolding of events across each era, shouldn’t we expect significant differences in the histories each generation produces? If so, could it be that not hearing in U.S. history class about America assassinating foreign leaders was a function of something other than being “lied to” by our American history teachers or the U.S. government? Might we at least agree that the standards of acceptable history have changed significantly over time – and appreciate the benefits that brings?
University of Utah historian Paul Reeve argues that “The rising generation craves a more complicated narrative. Their lives are complicated; they are dealing with real struggles and real sins and a whitewashed version of the past with pioneers who only sang as they walked and walked and walked gives them nothing to identify with and sometimes even feels alienating. We can do better. We must do better.”
As quoted in a fascinating article by Peggy Fletcher Stack, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, Terryl Givens, co-author of “The Crucible of Doubt” and “The God Who Weeps” acknowledges that some Mormons may want to hear and tell stories about “exceptionally godly individuals … to make God real in their lives.” But he added, “Many of us aren’t built that way. Many of us feel more disappointment, perceive more acutely human failings, feel more skeptical about claims to human godliness. … Such stories don’t seem real to those listeners, they seem misleading or made up.”
Melissa Inouye, history professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, is likewise quoted as encouraging movement beyond a “heavy oversimplification” that portrayals of individuals as “nearly perfect” (Think Nephi or President Monson!) In contrast to what the columnist calls ‘excessive veneration,’ Inouye points out that “Even in small, episodic doses, ‘messy’ history is so interesting because it involves real people and real problems, with which everyone can identify. What we see when we learn all of our history is, as in the scriptures, a narrative of God’s dealings with real people as they make mistakes and try again.”
Could these historical improvements be something to be celebrated and relished? And at the same time, might we show a little generosity with the editorial decisions of previous generations?
In summary, rather than being malicious, I would argue that certain emphases in previous histories (of the Church and elsewhere), reflect what scholars and leaders understood at the time as historical “best practice” in terms of its legitimate purpose and scope. Rather than power-hungry men trying to white-wash things out of fear, this raises the possibility of white-haired men simply being a product of their age, and doing the best they could to guide the Church forward – this, despite some difficult things in its history.
It’s at this point in an essay that I’m supposed to make it clear how all the rational, faithful and good-hearted people will surely see this question the way things I have!
But, of course, I can’t say this. And I won’t – even if I may have wanted to do so in the past….
The reason for this is simple: It’s because of Mark. And Lisa. And Matt. And Anna. And Scott. Friends who I find deeply sensitive and thoughtful – who have had differently life experiences and have come to see this same question quite differently.
Significant disagreement with reasonable people is now something I’ve come to expect. It doesn’t surprise me anymore.
In relation to these friends, my primary aim is not to have some kind of contest to ‘win.’ Even while still caring a great deal about the truth of the matter (and having my own convictions), I write here with a primary aim of contributing to a more thoughtful discussion about how we talk about these historical questions.
As that happens, both the understanding and intimacy between these groups of beautiful, thoughtful people (Mormons and former Mormons) can, I hope, continue to grow.
And that goes both ways. I would hope my active Mormon friends will pause the next time they have a chance to talk with someone who has stepped away from the Church. Before trying to respond with our own thoughts and feelings, maybe experiment with making lots of space to hear out the other person’s experience on a deeper level.
That’s something I’ve felt from these friends and family members who have stepped away from the Church as well. To them, I would ask: Does this (above) seem like a fair distinction to make? Is it fair to make more space for the acknowledgment that our grandparents’ generation thought about history in a way very different way than our own?
If nothing else, perhaps we can agree that if we’re making serious accusations, we better have a serious conversation about the details of these claims. Unlike the political sphere, where accusations of deceptions fly right and left, perhaps we can be measured and attentive to what precisely we mean by our words. And who knows, we might even start listening to each other in these conversations!
Special thanks to my friend, M. Catherine Thomas, for inviting me to include this essay in the appendix of her new book, “The God Seed: Probing the Mystery of Spiritual Development.” Since her book, “Light in the Wilderness,” Cathy has been a pioneer in exploring the profound insights that arise in dialogue between mindfulness and Mormonism. I would encourage you to check out either book – you won’t be disappointed!
Tasting the Gospel Again for the ‘Very First Time’
The Facebook note from my friend arrived with a jolt: “this is as good a time as any to let you know that my wife and I left the church a couple of years ago.”
This individual had left a deep impression on me during our college years at BYU, with his unique combination of love, playfulness and inquisitiveness. After seeing multiple loved ones step away from the Church over the last decade, I understood there were complex and unique reasons behind the decision. What I didn’t understand was why such sensitive and beautiful souls were walking away from something I loved – including some of my favorite people in the world.
In many cases these individuals had spent years in the Church – with a real familiarity of the scriptures and prolonged experience in various callings and in the temple itself. And yet over time, for different reasons, their experiences in the Church no longer seemed to move or inspire them anymore.
Attempts to understand why people leave the Church commonly highlight some kind of deficiency either within individuals or in the institution itself (the former typically voiced by active members – and the latter by former members).
And there we sometimes lock horns – caught in a paralysis of competing stories and experiences – with nothing less than salvation at stake! No wonder it can get a little intense.
What if there was a way to make sense of the experience of those struggling with the Church without having to place so much blame on presumed institutional or individual deficiencies? What if there was something else going on?
Fallen world, 21st century edition. And of course, we know very well that there’s a whole wide world of ‘other things’ going on – especially within a cultural atmosphere that continues to change at a dizzying pace. Compared to just twenty years ago, human beings are eating different foods, ingesting more media, sleeping less, hurrying more, connecting less and isolating more. Additionally, in numerous ways, we have been socialized to be less patient, more driven and more focused on getting what we want.
Could any of this be influencing how we experience the message of Jesus and life as His disciples? In what ways might this surrounding cultural milieu be interacting with our own gospel practices – and perhaps changing our experience of them?
The gospel as a to-do list. One thing everyone seems to agree on – both the critics and the believers – is the central place within the Church culture of “our lengthy gospel ‘to do’ list,'” as Elder Bednar recently called it.
For believing members, this list is mentioned with a knowing grin – and sometimes, maybe a grimace. For those who leave, however, THE LIST sometimes comes up as part of justifying their decision to step away: ‘ it was just too much, and not worth it in the end..’ Different evaluations aside, one thing is clear: THE LIST has come to be taken for granted by most people as an inevitable feature of the gospel and the life of a disciple.
In a recent conference address, President Uchtdorf recounted a fictional story of a Mormon couple who was asked by a curious man what the Church required of its members. This couple explained “about Church callings, home and visiting teaching, full-time missions, weekly family home evenings, temple work, welfare and humanitarian service and assignments to teach.” “Also,” the couple continued, “every six months our Church members spend a weekend attending or watching 10 hours of general conference.”
“What about your weekly church services?” the individual asked – “How long are they?”
“Three hours, every Sunday!”
“Oh, my,” the man said.
The couple went on, “We haven’t even mentioned family history, youth camps, devotionals, scripture study, leadership training, youth activities, early-morning seminary, maintaining Church buildings, and of course there is the Lord’s law of health, the monthly fast to help the poor, and tithing.”
The man said, “Now I’m confused. Why would anyone want to join such a church?”
President Uchtdorf went on to describe the abiding joy that millions of Saints have found in yielding and consecrating their hearts to God through these kinds of activities. He then returned to the lingering question: “One might ask, if the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?” 
In a world getting faster and more impatient, it’s hard not to see the THE LIST as posing some unique problems for any disciple. Among other things, it can be easy to over-focus on our efforts alone, to feel burdened and when things get busy, to simply go through the motions. After all, the focus of a check-list is getting things done – with less attention to how that happens. Got your scriptures done? How about your home-teaching? Did you say your prayers?
It’s possible, in other words, to do a lot of things – while still feeling a bit empty.
In addition to the many other reasons often involved in decisions to step away from the Church, could it also be that our (culturally accepted way of framing the gospel as) THE LIST of required to-do’s can inadvertently prompt overwhelm, fatigue and stress – even among the faithful?
If so, are there any other options besides simply walking away? What if the life of a disciple wasn’t experienced as a check-list of doings? Might there be a way of questioning some of our inherited “language of practice” – and considering, instead, a language that better fits what Christ once called the “abundant life” of the disciple?
These kinds of questions may make some nervous. Yet in a Church that began with sincere questions, perhaps we ought to fear less as additional questions arise. What’s more, no experience happens outside of the filters of language and interpretation – and that includes prayer, scriptures and temple worship. As Terryl Givens recently said:
Our ideas of what it means to be saints, to worship God, to live the life of discipleship are shaped by myriad factors conscious and unconscious. Forms of address, rhetorical habits, music, instrumentation, the language of prayer, modes of engaging the sacred, etiquette and interaction and how we express love, these and a million other constituents of the religious life are not eternal verities or immutable truths but shifting modes of pursuing and living truth.
What would it look like to try on some fresh “rhetorical habits” or creative language for our spiritual practices – especially those that potentially defuse some of the stress many of us feel? What would that look like anyway?
Meet the Buddhists. The first day I spent time with individuals from the contemplative traditions, my reaction was immediate and visceral: “wow – I can’t believe how calm and peaceful these people are.” Sporting bumper-stickers that said “what would Buddha do,” these people seemed to have found something that many of my friends and family back home still struggled to maintain: abiding calm and peace.
I’m not talking about the sitting-back-on-the-sofa version of calm. There was plenty of sitting, for sure, but in a particular way that helped them bring a unique quality of attention to bear in their lives. This sitting was also done in silence and stillness – without judgment and with a remarkable level of commitment and intention. They called this sitting a “practice” – “mindful practice,” to be exact. It was something they prioritized every day – anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. And on a regular basis, they would “practice” for much longer periods – going stretches of a week or ten days “practicing” this combination of deliberate silence and stillness for days on end.
When these people spoke of “the practice,” they did so with a reverence and gratitude for what the stillness and silence had brought into their lives. Despite the seriousness of their commitment, there was a surprising absence of stress or worry about it the experience. There didn’t seem to be a lot of guilt involved – and virtually no pressure. That didn’t mean they always “felt” like practicing; but it did mean their relationship to this practice was personal and intimate – understood and accepted by the community as something they returned to over and over and over – out of intrinsic need.
If asked a question about any detail of “practice,” they relished a chance to explore with someone else the particulars of how you sit, why you sit, challenges that arise, etc. It was clear that practice was a lifetime craft to these people – one that was treasured for the rich insight and peace it bestowed on their lives. Rather than some kind of ritual they had to do every day, this practice felt entirely relevant in the way it prepared them to experience all the rest of their lives from a deeper, more authentic place. Indeed, they came to see their whole life as “practice” in a sense.
Mindfully Mormon. I was so intrigued by what I saw that I decided to try out a bit more stillness and silence in my own life. On a regular basis, I began making time for mindful practice adjoining my prayer and scriptures in the morning. Almost immediately, I began to sense and connect with a deeper reservoir of peace right in my own soul.
Sure enough, though, I found my mind starting to put sitting practice on THE LIST around which I had long been conditioned to frame my life. Rather than appreciate the practice for helping me move beyond the “doing mode of mind,” it ironically began to feel like just ‘one more thing’ on my check-list.
Then something happened. I was sitting in Church one day, listening to the speaker – and my mind wandered. As that happened, I thought about my sitting practice where I was learning to notice when my attention would wander and then to gently escort my mind back to an anchor point – usually my breath.
Today, though, I guided my mind back to the speaker. And I listened some more…till my attention wandered again. Then it hit me: Look at all of the opportunities there were to “practice” stillness, silence and attentiveness in the Church! From a weekly Sabbath break to daily pauses for personal and family worship to longer reprieves in the temple – the Lord had “built in” to His Kingdom plenty of “stopping time.” In each case, members of the Church have an opportunity to let go of all the doing and be still – bringing focus back (and back again and again) to a single anchor point: the speaker, the words on the page, the family member, the ordinance. The Lord Himself.
Over time, as we “practice” this in a particular way, there is a chance that other things begin to happen in our minds and hearts as well. Insight. Purification. Enlightenment.
As we allow the Almighty a little space to work in us, surprise! He does.
None of this, however, is likely to happen if we’re grudgingly following THE LIST to “go to Church (again!)” or “get my scriptures done.” Why? Because the “mind doesn’t like to be forced” – and when we attempt it (or think that God requires as much), why would be surprised when nothing much comes of it?
If our hearts and minds are not available to God – they’re simply not available.
What would it mean to make the implicit mindfulness of the gospel more explicit – beginning to talk about Church activities not as ‘all these things to do’ – but instead, as sacred “practices” that we pursue “on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, as if our lives depend on them.”In what ways might this change how we experience these gospel practices:
What would it feel like to kneel before God not simply to say more words – but also, to rest in His presence for a moment in stillness and silence?
What would it be like to sit down as a family not to “get a chapter done in the Book of Mormon” – but instead, to use the text as an anchor to focus and facilitate an ongoing dialogue about God’s hand in our lives?
What would it be like to go to the temple not to “do a session” – but instead to stop doing – and to enjoy being in the haven of God’s home for a couple of hours?
None of these depictions, of course, are foreign to how prayer, scriptures or the temple are taught by ancient or modern prophets. References to a spacious, broad, heart-full approach to all these practices are laced throughout scriptures and conference addresses.
Somewhere along the way, however, the larger American culture of rush and efficiency has persuaded us to adopt THE LIST as the organizing framework for these practices. And that list becomes our master – rather than the gentle Lord Himself.
Is it time to re-instate His authority and intimacy in our lives – recognizing that these gospel practices are ‘made for man – and not man for the practices.’ In what ways could we insist that these sacred practices become avenues to more deliberately direct our focus our lives towards the Lord Himself?
Among other things, maybe we would discover that the seeming “number” of these activities begins to dissolve before our very eyes. Just as we’ve been observing the “illusory boundary line” between missionary work and temple/family history work dissolving in recent years – what other dichotomous illusions might we give up? Are scriptures and prayer really separate “tasks” – or could they, instead, be different aspects of personal worship and communing with God? What about sacrament meeting, family prayer and study and general conference? Rather than ‘all these different meetings’ – what if we saw them as essentially the same thing: worshipping and communing with God in different ways together? And instead of seeing home/visiting teaching, callings, missions, temple work, welfare service as ‘all these different things we need to do,’ what if we insisted on seeing them, once again, as essentially the same thing: diverse ways of ministering together as part of a loving community?
You get the picture. Maybe it’s time to retire THE LIST – hanging it in the rafters of the stadium and begin instead to relish the hidden unity of life as a disciple. All sacred practices thus become simplified to one: Embracing His will. Or in other words – loving Him and loving others. To paraphrase Jesus, ‘that’s pretty much the whole point. All the other details and practices of the gospel are just reflections of that.’ Does this sound like something to guilt ourselves about – or perhaps a life-long craft to treasure and enjoy?
What could this shift mean for current members of the Church – especially those who are getting a little tired? How about those who have stepped away?
In the very first mindfulness practice of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, we invite participants to spend 10 minutes eating a raisin. After taking some time to explore the outside features, the heft, shape, color and smell, they slowly bring the raisin to the mouth and let it sit on the tongue before taking a bite.
At the end of the raisin exercise, without fail someone says, “that was the best raisin I’ve ever tasted! I never would have expected that…”
We then ask the class, “What if we could bring the same quality of attention to all of our lives?” If the experience of eating a raisin can be transformed by a new quality of attention, what could happen with our experience of marriage, the Church or our God?
Hastening the work by slowing down. I, for one, want to find out. Getting to that point is not a simple mental trick, by the way. Instead, like playing the piano and learning a sport, it takes consistent practice – as Cathy has elaborated well in this lovely book you’ve been reading. In fact, from a mindfulness perspective, without setting aside time for “formal practice,” it is less likely that all the other informal applications discussed above would ever happen.
If your experience is anything like my own, making time for this practice of silence and stillness will not be easy – not in the world we all live in. That’s one reason Jon Kabat-Zinn calls mindfulness practice the “hardest work in the world.”
Make no mistake, however: it is worth it. It is worth every minute you give to the practice. Take it from C.S. Lewis, who advocates a similar approach after suggesting that “The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it”:
It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind. We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us.”
As we make time for God to reach us in our stillness and silence, the gospel might just come to feel new – including to those who have stepped away. Like the Corn Flakes commercial of years ago, we might just “taste it again for the very first time.” And perhaps this time, it will actually taste Mmmm good!
 David A. Bednar, “Missionary work, family history work and temple work,” Ensign (2014, October), 33.
 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, join with us,” Ensign (2013, October).
 Maybe in an earlier, more tranquil time – without internet, cell phones, and the adoration of efficiency – framing the gospel as a set of doings was easier to process. The problems highlighted here (and addressed by mindfulness) do seem uniquely pressing in the current age.
 There is more and more attention to “language of practice” in a variety of contexts and fields – especially as a way to improve the “fit” between what we actually do and how we talk about it. See Hess, J. Z. (2005). Scientists in the swamp: Narrowing the language-practice gap in community psychology. Special issue “Community Psychology and Science,” American Journal of Community Psychology. 35(3-4), 239-252.
 For anyone following the prophets and auxiliary leaders, they will know this is something they are already consistently doing – with new insights and ways to approach and think about spiritual practice emerging in virtually any talk.
 My own experiences in the contemplative traditions come primarily from conferences and trainings as a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction teacher – sponsored by the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.
 As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Ultimately, the practice of mindfulness becomes nothing less than the practice of life itself.” In Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, 1990).
 I prefer this term due to the many stereotypes evoked by “meditation.” Unlike practices that aim to “clear the mind” or “shut out thoughts,” the type of Vipassana or insight meditation I practice is focused not on getting to a new state – but instead, on being more present to where and how we already are.
 Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, 1990).
 Mark Williams and colleagues, The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007).
 Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, 1990).
 The patterns in our body and mind have a momentum that is remarkably intense – which explains why they typically cannot be overcome through sheer will-power or one dramatic insight. As detailed in Kabat-Zinn’s book referenced above, consistent practice over time can begin to change the “stuckness” of the body’s common reactivity and hyper-arousal, to the point that deep calm can begin to infuse all of our life experiences.
 Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, 1990), xxxvii.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: Harper Collins, 1952/2001), 198-199.