I came across another blog post today that recounted one couple’s journey out of the church. Like many of the stories recently, this one has to do with the CES letter.
I think, based on reading stories of people leaving the church, most of the problems that lead to a religious exodus can be attributed to misconceptions. People start with the wrong idea about the church, its doctrine, and other important factors, and that makes it easy for them to experience a shocking change in worldview and thus find reasons to no longer want to be part of the church.
These misconceptions are promoted by culture, primarily, but also by human nature.
Here are some of the misconceptions people have about the church.
First, despite the position of the church that its leaders are not perfect, people assume that all public statements by leaders will be perfect. They assume the statements will not be contradictory, nor will they contradict other leaders. They also assume the statements will invariably be “true” or “correct.”
This misconception is dangerous because it sets the individual up to find some “shocking” statement by a church leader, living or dead, that appears to contradict previous statements.
In fact, there are countless contradictory statements made by church leaders. Sometimes these statements contradict other leaders, or sometimes the person speaking contracts himself/herself.
Why do we believe everything LDS church leaders say is perfect? A few reasons. One, we’ve been told to trust our leaders. Especially in previous decades, members of the church were taught that everything church leaders have or will say is perfect.
Two, as humans, we want to have heroes. Hero worship is part of our heritage – just look at any civilization. There are always stories of heroes. That’s biological. In Wasatch culture, the leaders of the church (past and present) become our heroes. Since it’s human nature to categorize in simple terms, we naturally categorize church leaders are “good” and “right” and other individuals as “wrong.” Our definitions of “good” and “right” and also fairly simplistic. (Though complicated anti-heroes are in vogue, this certainly wasn’t the case for most of human history.)
With this misconception, our worldviews quickly fall apart when we learn of even a single imperfect or “bad” thing done by a church leader.
(When we find out about a lot of “bad” things at once, this can be devastating. Anti-Mormon documents tend to stack the bad things all together, which isn’t really a fair representation of a person’s life. Haven’t well all done some crummy things? Would we want someone to weigh our bad more than the good?)
Can you trust somebody who says apparently contradictory statements? Sure – we do this all the time. If our own lives were as publicly documented as statements made by church leaders, we would find ourselves expressing contradictions all the time. (Compulsive sharing on social media gives us plenty of evidence that we do this all the time.)
This doesn’t necessarily mean someone is fallen or untrustworthy; it simply means they are human. Why do we hold church leaders to an inhuman, perfect standard and get devastated when they appear to violate that standard? Because we have a misconception about what it means to be a church leader.
That We Have All Doctrine, and What We Have Will Always be “True”
Another important misconception is closely related to the first. This misconception is that we have all of the doctrine in the restored church, and that all of the doctrine we have is correct. The statement, is actually not entirely correct. This could perhaps be best explained with the statement, “The book of Mormon [is] the most correct of any book on earth.”
I agree with that statement: spiritually, the Book of Mormon is the most correct book. But that does not mean it is entirely factually correct.
For example, the Book of Mormon gives no indication of the three degrees of glory in heaven. Instead, the Nephites express a more simplified paradise/prison view of the afterlife. It’s possible that Nephites did not have knowledge of the 3 degrees of glory. Does this mean the book of Mormon is incorrect because it does not contain this factual information? No. The spiritual principles – have faith in Christ, repent, get ordinances from proper authority, seek the gift of the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end – are true, even if some facts have been glossed over.
Anti-Mormon documents tend to overlook this, again. They assume that all of our doctrine and revealed truth is true “as-is,” when in fact the nature of this truth changes and grows as we, as a people, grow and change. So, when individuals find documents that contain apparently contradictory doctrine, they have the tendency to throw it all out.
It’s okay that we don’t have all truth. We are, as a people, working to be able to receive all truth – someday. Until then, we’ll receive as much truth as we are able to process.
That All Revelation is Independent of Historical or Cultural Context
This ties into the next misconception, that all revealed information is “true” independent of its historical or cultural context. Despite what the Doctrine & Covenants say about this (the scriptures are given to us “after the manner of [our] language,” 1:24), this misconception persists.
Anytime someone communicates information – even if they are a prophet communicated a revelation – they put their own “spin” on it. The information is filtered through their collection of personal experiences, beliefs, ideals, and abilities. For example, if I were to tell a story, it would naturally be told in a different way than if my wife or my father were to tell the same story. That doesn’t necessarily make my version of the story untrue. It just means that the story’s contents and information will be “flavored” through how I perceived it.
This is true with the Scriptures as well. All scripture is a translation. The Bible is a translation of Greek and Hebrew. The Book of Mormon is a translation of Egyptian (kinda). We accept this without a problem.
But what we overlook is that the Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and all other scripture is translated, too. They represent the scribe translating spiritual feelings or impressions into written language.
No translation is perfect. Every time someone translates, their historical and cultural backgrounds influence the choice of words they use. (If you’ve ever translated poetry from English to Spanish, or vice-versa, you know what I’m talking about.) Words have both denotation – a literal dictionary definition – and connotation – what a word implies. (Saying “the cat purred” and “the cat growled” have very different connotations, but similar denotations.)
This means no translation is perfect. In the case of the Book of Mormon, the translation was influenced by Joseph Smith’s cultural and educational background. His scriptural language borrowed heavily – sometimes verbatim – from the King James translation of the Bible. His understanding of gospel doctrine was influenced by his personal historical and cultural context.
As historical and cultural context changed over the next 150 or so years, so did the understanding and expression of gospel doctrine. With the misconception that “truth is truth” regardless of context, one can find statements, again, made by church leaders that appear to contradict current teachings.
This isn’t as big of a problem when you acknowledge that humans have an imperfect language and are attempting to express difficult spiritual concepts within a inherently flawed mode of communication.
This also explains why spiritual knowledge (such as the knowledge of whether the Book of Mormon is “true” or if the Church is “true”) can only come from a spiritual source (see 1 Cor. 2:11).
As an English major, I know that language is flawed. You simply cannot communicate any idea perfectly through written or spoken language.
But the spirit communicates in a way that transcends language. It’s able to overcome the problems and challenges of expressing ideas with words.
This idea (that all revealed information is independent from historical or cultural context) also ties into the belief that all information in the Scriptures, or church records, will be historically consistent. Like language, history is told through a flawed lens. People share histories and always inherently leave out some information, modify some information according to their own understanding, or include incorrect information. This is not necessarily because the individual is malicious and trying to deceive people. It is simply because they are human and inadvertently giving an account that is imperfect.
A great example of this are eyewitnesses in criminal cases. Ask any legal expert, and they will tell you that eyewitness accounts are among the most unreliable because of how the human brain works. Our brains tend to emphasize some information over other information, fill in gaps when information is not present, and even distort memories.
Again, this isn’t because individuals or malicious. It’s simply because we are human and flawed.
(This helps to explain the apparently “conflicting” accounts of the First Vision. Of course the account was told differently to different audiences!)
Operating under the misconception that all historical information given in the Book of Mormon is accurate, for example, sets an individual up to be shockingly disenfranchised when evidence to the contrary is presented. But the book of Mormon was never written to be a historical record, anyway. It explicitly says that. The lack of historical evidence, as claimed by Anti-Mormon scholars, isn’t bothersome to me at all because the book was never intended to be read as a historical document.
This new idea about the book of Mormon and other churches historical documents makes some of the conflicting statements by church leaders not that big of a deal. Their “contradictory” or “false” statements aren’t malicious or intended to deceive; they’re simply doing the best they can within the historical or cultural context in which they were speaking.
There is just enough evidence to suggest the book of Mormon has truth in it to not discount it all together. Examples of this are the presence of concrete in central America, the word “Deseret” signifying honeybee (or at least being closely related to it), and the Nahom, the name of Lehi’s burial place. If this book were completely, patently false, there is no way Joseph Smith would’ve been able to guess information like this – information that would be corroborated many years after his death by non-LDS archeologists.
That Being Fallen Means We’re “Bad”
The next misconception: that “fallen” means “bad.” Fallen doesn’t necessarily mean bad. It simply means flawed. But in the LDS church culture, we sometimes operate like being “fallen” means we’re bad by default.
That’s wrong. In fact, it’s the opposite of the truth.
By default, we are good people. Otherwise, according to LDS doctrine, we wouldn’t have chosen to come here in the first place. Learning to overcome our fallen nature simply means using our agency to choose to learn to be more patient, more kind, and more forgiving than we are naturally inclined to be.
This misconception is especially dangerous because it leads to members of the LDS community feeling like they’re bad, not worthy, or unloved by God.
These feelings couldn’t be further from the truth. Our “fallen” nature isn’t debatable. We get sick. We get sleepy. We get cranky. (I get “hangry” if I haven’t eaten.) That doesn’t mean we’re bad. It simply means our bodies are imperfect.
Again, that’s okay. But our culture doesn’t like to treat this information like it’s just “okay.” Our compulsive need to categorize everything into simple groups means we categorize our fallen natures into the “bad” group.
The natural man is an “enemy to God” in that his goals are not the same as God’s goals, and everything that doesn’t bring us closer to God leads us further from Him. Being fallen doesn’t mean that God sees us as His enemy and therefore doesn’t love it; it simply means we need to learn how to be aware of what our priorities are. Most often, it means we need to align our priorities with His (thus the purpose of real, fervent prayer – “Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other”, says the Bible Dictionary).
If we’re feeling like God doesn’t love us because we are fallen, it’s because we haven’t learned (or, more likely, been properly taught) what it really means to be fallen. The Atonement makes up for our fallen-ness. Because of Christ, it’s okay to be imperfect as long as we’re honestly trying to be better, little-by-little.
Why Do We Need to Be Aware of These Misconceptions?
There’s a reason these misconceptions are so disarming.
And there’s a reason so many individuals and members of the church and had a crisis of faith coming across them.
It’s because the culture of the church is deeply tied to the worldviews promoted by these misconceptions.
This isn’t because the church is malicious, nor that its members are trying to exploit its individuals. It simply because we are human beings.
We evolved to operate in tribes. Our brains want to simplify categorization of information, especially into simple terms like “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad.” These simplistic categories oversimplify the complex nature of truth. Truth cannot simply be categorized into good and bad. There is no “good” truth or “bad” truth. There is simply “truth.”
(For example, is it “good” or “bad” when someone is killed in a car accident? We simply can’t say. The sorrow experienced by the family brings feelings of empathetic pain; however, the knowledge that the deceased person is free from the pains of this world can bring joy. Truth defies simple categorization. It’s the “fallen man” who wants to categorize everything into simple boxes. We have the opportunity to overcome this tendency.)
Given that humans are, by definition, incapable of perfectly expressing historical information, ideas, or concepts through language, it is also difficult to categorize these things into good and bad, right and wrong.
But that’s what we all did for decades. Not just members of the church, but Americans, Protestants, Christians, society – we all tried to group complex information into overly simplistic categories.
Again, this simply isn’t how information is organized. Everything is too complicated.
That explains the importance of the following:
- Seeking to understand spiritual things using spiritual communication with the divine through the Holy Ghost
- Making sure to consider historical and cultural context when reviewing information
- Being willing to give individuals the benefit of the doubt (no human is perfect)
I won’t pretend to say that everything Joseph Smith did was, in my opinion, right. There are some things in church history that make me wince a little bit. (He also certainly had an ego, but what leader doesn’t?)
To me, this doesn’t mean the church is untrue.
All individuals are flawed. Thus, by definition, the church could only have been brought about by flawed individuals.
Why is it so surprising, then, when we learn about these individuals’ flaws?
(Perhaps it’s because some of these flaws are less palatable or “icky” to modern sensibilities then they would’ve been 150 or 200 years ago.)
One Last Thought
This last thought is mostly based on my experience. It is purely anecdotal.
But, from what I’ve seen, it appears to be consistent.
People who leave the church often ask faithful members, “If you found out the church wasn’t true and couldn’t deny the truth, would you leave?“ The answer, of course, has to be “yes.” Mormonism was founded on the idea that all truth can be brought into one great whole, no matter how uncomfortable that “whole” of truth may be.
From what I have seen, those who leave the church would not follow their own challenge in reverse. That is to say, most people who have chosen to leave the church would not return if they were presented with truths that confirmed this is the true church.
They always seem to find some sort of excuse saying:
“I could never come back with what I know now!”
“I just don’t think I could sit in Sunday school and hear the stories knowing what I know!”
“I would feel like a hypocrite to participate in an organization when I have doubts or questions!”
Well, I know what you know. I spent months of my mission researching all the anti-Mormon literature I could find. I’ve read the CES letter. I did this all with an open mind.
And I sit in Sunday school, hearing stories knowing what I’ve learned. Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable knowing that a story is more complicated or not as faith-promoting as it is presented by the teacher. Other times, my additional knowledge adds insight into the lesson.
But from what I’ve seen, most people who leave the church will not do what I am doing, which is remain faithful to an organization despite knowing its members nor doctrines are perfect.
Don’t misunderstand me: I believe the doctrines of God are perfect. I believe His truths are perfect.
But I believe our interpretation of those truths, as we receive them, does not contain perfection. It is filtered through the historical and cultural context in which they were received. And as our historical and cultural context changes, so will our understanding of those doctrines. (Just look at blacks in the priesthood and or the role woman are playing in the church now compared to 35 years ago.)
I don’t mean to belittle the pain or heartache people experience when they choose to separate their families from the church. But, frankly, most of these individuals are not willing to have it both ways. They are only willing to do something hard on their terms. “I’ll sacrifice my social ties by leaving the church, but I won’t sacrifice my comfort or convenience by coming back if it’s true.” I believe we have to be completely, 100% open-minded when reviewing the possible truthfulness of information. How can you be open to receiving truth if you were not actually willing to act on the truth you receive?
This is now almost 3200 words in – far too long. It definitely needs revision. I’m sure I’ll need to adjust my wording as people see this and comment on it. And of course, this is all my own opinion and not church doctrine.
But as we are entering the age of information and we have access to more documents than ever, I think it’s important we evaluate misconceptions in the Church and address them head-on. We need to separate the incorrect cultural ideals we have inherited from previous generations from the actual simple truth of the Gospel. Only by doing this can we make the Church for global church, and a church that is willing to embrace the truth of its history, including history of the flawed individuals who have lead this church on earth from day one.