In a recent Saturday Night Live episode, Dave Chappelle joked “The Democrats were sore losers. I’m a Democrat and I’m telling you as soon as he (Trump) won, they started saying that he’s colluding with Russia, he’s colluding with Russia. It was very embarrassing as a Democrat. But as time went on, we all came to learn, he was probably colluding with Russia.” The point of this joke is that yes, at some level the obsession about Trump’s Russian collusion charges were false and born out of partisan bitterness from losing the election and that gave Republicans good reason to critique and jeer. With a deeper analysis, however, you find a deeper level of truth.
In a similar way, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) projects a restoration theology that inspires both reductive faithful expression and a resulting and very vocal reductive critique of that expression. The case I will try to make here, though, is that while I agree there are good reasons to object to some of these truth claims, and that Mormon critics often have a point, there is also, actually, a deeper truth found within the restoration church that came out of those early nineteenth century Joseph Smith revelations and that continue to inspire the church today. To hijack Chappelle’s joke in a different way, “I’m a Mormon and I’m telling you that I get very embarrassed by the overconfident and insistent expression of truth claims, but as time goes on, I believe it’s possible to both appreciate the utility of these claims as well as understand they point to deeper and beautiful truths” – doesn’t quite hit as well as Chappelle’s version, but oh well.
In a typical church meeting on a typical Sunday morning, it’s not uncommon for one to hear a member emphatically profess that the church is true. I’ve said it myself many times throughout my life, most notably, while serving a two year mission in Alabama. I remember believing in a certain magic behind a simple statement of faith that could, if properly delivered, shake the foundations of the church’s worst critics. If the phrase, “the church is true” could be declared with the proper amount of confidence, I felt, nobody would be able to deny it and after hearing this declaration the hearer would find themselves in new territory, either to affirm the truth claim or forever reject something they’ve felt and could not honestly deny.
Since, I’ve gone through a bit of a faith deconstruction. I’ve examined some of the words I’ve been taught to use in my testimony to see how they still align with an evolving inner conviction that drives my actual faith. In my religious tradition, we reserve the first Sunday of every month for testimony meetings, something I’ve dubbed “open mic”, allowing members of the congregation the opportunity to get up and share brief expressions of their faith. Not wanting to be misunderstood, I’ve tried to find language that reflects authentically my convictions, perhaps something less tied to any institutional church and more tied to general desires to feel love, connection and goodness. I desperately want to be a good person and I believe a “true” spiritual practice is designed to do that. Everything else is ancillary. My testimony then has become more expressions of that desire – more expressions of faith, goodness and gratitude and less concern for certainty in specific truth claims.
However, like Dave Chappelle making his journey through embarrassment for his fellow sore losing Democrats to a deeper appreciation that maybe they had a point, I’ve seen glimpses that perhaps the original statements of faith I declared in my youthful journey may have some deeper power and energy. Maybe there is a profound way in which the church is true that can navigate through the critiques of the church’s most sophisticated critics.
Adam Miller’s explanation of “I know” from Rube Goldberg Machine
A lot of my faith deconstruction came while trying to read everything Adam Miller wrote. Adam Miller is a faithful member and academic with a philosophy PhD. He has written books and articles that are often helpful for those who are struggling with their faith but still want to find ways to stay connected. He is such a beautiful writer, with ideas that resonate with me, I couldn’t help but step into them. I was particularly intrigued with his attempt to explain why we use the phrase “I know” in our testimonies, in his chapter on Atonement and Testimony in his book Rube Goldberg Machine.
A testimony involves the sincere clarity of an ‘I know’ because it is, in its naked purity, subtracted from every sign. It is subtracted from every objective sign because it declares the restoration of possibilities that the facts of the world exclude. A testimony is a bolt of lightning that splits the night in two. Testimonies contravene the stubborn inertia proper to this world. Here, the lost and impossible possibilities revealed by a testimony take hold of and recondition the world. This, though, is fundamentally different from the world taking hold of and conditioning a testimony. A testimony conditioned by the world is a sign. Testimonies are not essential because they reveal how things are in the world (this is the task of science). Testimonies are essential because they reveal, in light of the Atonement, how things can be.
There is an irony, then, to the kind of certainty proper to the sincere clarity of testimony. The certainty of a testimony depends on purifying it of the actual in favor of the previously impossible. Against the tyranny of a world broken by sin and sorrow, a testimony must unwaveringly maintain the certainty of its own foundationless restoration of possibility. A testimony, in order to be true to its unmitigated reliance upon the Atonement of Jesus Christ, must accept the indefensible weakness imposed upon it by its own boundless certainty.”Adam Miller, Rube Goldberg Machine, From Chapter 7 Atonement and Testimony
When most people hear the recitations of testimonies on the first Sunday of every month, they flow like a template, but often go in one of two directions. Those properly trained to not cause a stir will stand up with as much conviction as possible and recite a series of “I know statements”. I know the church is true. I know Jesus Christ is my Savior. I know that my Redeemer lives! (to quote Job). Those raised in the church, accept this tradition. Some, who leave it, look back on these experiences, wondering if this was a symptom of cultish mind-control, an attempt to convince ourselves of things we know in our hearts cannot be true. Others will use the time as a sort of therapy session, a chance to be seen and heard. Usually, motivations for getting up and expressing a testimony comes from a mixed set of motivations. I just know that for some, testimony meanings can impose a burden and a hurdle, coming off as boundary setting and tribal.
Adam Miller links testimonies to the atonement. You don’t recite a testimony, you bear it. Meaning testimonies impose a burden and a responsibility, forcing the person who holds it into a new life as a public witness and a Christian servant.
Do you see the theme here? Testimony meetings offer a challenge and an invitation. They offer hope and demand a wrestle. In an uncertain world, testimony meetings invite a pathway onto solid ground, an invitation into a theology and a community of support. Being able to express “I know God loves me” even when you’re not fully sure of it, being willing to step into the darkness by saying “I know” even if the certainty of something unprovable and unknowable seems unfathomable, can seem like a lifeline, bringing someone into a community of support and love. It’s a two-edge sword, in a sense. Building a community around a willingness to express overly certain faith can be both unifying and divisive.
For those willing and needing the community, those hurdles can be overcome and a step into an “I know” conviction of faith does bring the comfort of community and support. Others, confused by the so easy expressions of certainty, balk and many turn away from that invitation altogether. Many others, living within the certainty Mormon bubble for a time, eventually encounter and absorb the critical arguments that challenge their earlier convictions. Rationale argument used to disprove Book of Mormon historicity or the injustice inherent in a patriarchal church or questions of past racism and polygamy can pile up leading someone bound to the community to leave it altogether.
When someone says that they know The Book of Mormon is the word of God what often follows from that is an affirmation that Nephi, Lehi and the other characters in the book actually lived in America, and then everything hinges on archeological and DNA evidence of early Christianity in ancient American civilization, something not accepted outside of Mormon thought. Adam Miller addresses that impulse:
because a testimony is a testimony only to the degree that it is a direct response to a first-hand encounter with atonement, testimonies do not depend on the indirect mediation of second-hand signs. Where testimony-seeking exposes our vanity to the insistence of God’s grace, sign-seeking takes cover behind the ego-massaging facades of mediating figures….
To have a testimony of the Book of Mormon can only mean that through it one has experienced the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The same follows for Joseph Smith, President Monson, tithing, the word of wisdom, the Church as an institution, etc…. Who would be more horrified by the idea of people having a testimony of Joseph Smith than Joseph Smith? Who would be more horrified by the idea of people having a testimony of the Book of Mormon than Mormon? We may be justified in making certain inferences about Joseph Smith, President Monson, or the Book of Mormon based on our experience of God’s saving grace in connection with them, but this is not the same thing as having a testimony that refers directly to them.”Adam Miller,Rube Goldberg Machine, From Chapter 7 Atonement and Testimony
I served a two year mission in Alabama. While there were times I tried to prove the truthfulness of the church through rationale argument, those attempts failed every time. There was a reason missionaries were taught not to interact in this way. When talking with prospective converts, we shared very basic principles from our core teachings, we described our standard living requirements necessary before we could permit baptisms and we invited them to accept a commitment to live within covenant and accept baptism. They had to have a “testimony” but the way we asked them to get that testimony was through reading the scriptures, through prayer, through coming to church and seeing if this is where God was calling them. They had to come to know the church is true, but true in the sense of atonement and not in rationale argument.
They didn’t have to accept prophetic infallibility. We never asked them if they thought Nephi was historical. They could join while still having reservations about historical polygamy, current patriarchy or racism. They didn’t have to be a Republican. They just needed to feel a conviction through prayerful revelation that this is what God wanted them to do.
In this core sense, both a fundamentalist interpretation of testimony and a critique of that interpretation falls apart. This line of reasoning is completely beside the point. I’m a pretty consistent listener of John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories podcast and even made an appearance on it many years ago now and I hear him say pretty consistently, that the secret sauce of Mormonism is community. This is not unique to him. Many, many people pick up on this facet of Mormonism. It’s embedded in our culture and comes out of the way it’s organized. With some exceptions, the lion share of the work done running the church is voluntary. Most of the work is performed by the sacrifices made by members who are unpaid. The church runs from donations and members are encouraged to reserve ten percent of their income to the church. Still additional funds are donated to help the poor. We go to the congregations we are assigned based on where we live. We think of our congregation as an extension of our family, providing support, love and encouragement. Helping out with rent if we find ourselves in a bind, receiving regular visits from members who want to make sure we’re doing ok, and being asked to volunteer to teach, administer, and perform other activities that keep the lights on and the church operating.
This sort of service and sacrifice binds people to each other in community. It’s the heart and soul of the church. Everything else is ancillary. God’s love is felt through our relationships. The countless hours Mormon Stories spends on Book of Mormon or Biblical truth claims in actuality has little to do with why people join and remain in the church. The community in a very large sense is the most truthful part of the church. It’s not a side-benefit. It’s core.
What’s odd is that even church members forget what brought them into the church and then what keeps them coming week to week. We fall into the critic’s trap, exchanging our testimonies of faithful, covenant belonging, to a belief in the real life of Nephi. A testimony bound to the reality of golden plates found in the earth of upstate New York is a testimony based on signs, something Joseph Smith explicitly preached against.
What Critics get Right
Just because the church is true does not mean that it’s perfect, just as much as my relationships are true but not perfect. There’s a historical defensiveness in our church that we struggle to shed. We should shed it. We should own up to our mistakes while remaining true to both our convictions and our aspirations. The restoration project has never been a project where everything was revealed and resolved during Joseph Smith’s life and now we remain statically content. We’re still trying to establish Zion. We have not done so yet. Much, much, much more work remains.
In this sense, it’s trivially easy to find fault with the church and critics notice and aren’t shy about pointing it out. We should readily own up to it. Adam Miller calls this fearless Mormonism. Let me just say, its far easier to point out problems than it is to come up with solutions but it’s important to be honest about where our church community fails to live up to its potential and then we can collectively work toward solutions. The first step is admitting you have a problem. Here’s my list of the most important of them:
1) The church is too patriarchal. This shortcoming is something we inherited from the American and Christian culture Mormonism comes from. Women need to be a much bigger part of our core theology, our leadership and our decision making. I don’t accept the more extreme feminist views that deny gender differences, and I think there are good reasons to have some gender segregations in certain situations, but I don’t accept the patriarchal premises of our church.
2) The church has no adequate answers for LGBTQ. For our church to truly reach our aspirations for Zion, gay members of the church should be full participants in our community. The church will never reach this goal to the extent we exclude others based on who they are.
3) The church, at times, gets stuck in fundamentalist trappings, with un-Biblical ideas that the prophetic calling can only be held by the top leaders of the church, even though Moses, himself would that everyone was a prophet and a Testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy and that the Biblical and even Book of Mormon prophets often came from outside of the institutional church, including Jesus himself. But still we get stuck in these kinds of ditches, here where Kevin Hamilton makes no distinction between a flawed church and its people and God. This sort of logic will never lead us to Zion. We will never get there with a few leaders at the top figuring everything out while the church members simply do what they are told.
The Church is Still True
I don’t have this all worked out yet, let me be clear. The essence of this post seems to be making the claim that the church is true because of its community, a claim that is certainly not original with me. Eugene England makes this argument much better than I do with his famous article, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel“, but I don’t want to reduce the church’s truthfulness to its community. There is something more to it.
I felt this as I taught Sunday School the past four years culminating in the Old Testament and as I read various biographies on Joseph Smith. I felt the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. I felt the authoritative, scriptural voice of the Book of Mormon and other restoration scriptures. I especially felt the grand vision embedded in the story of Israel in the Old Testament at the heart of many of our world religions including our own. I feel something at work driving the world toward something good, expansive and holistic.
The work is true but we need to think bigger. I don’t have my finger on all of this so I’ll keep reading and writing. But most of all, I’ll strive to live my very Christian covenants to be a good and kind person.