ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT RATIONALFAITHS.COM ON OCTOBER 4, 2016.
Today we are pleased to feature an interview with Patrick Mason. He is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and the Chair of the Religion Department at Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of several scholarly books and articlesdealing with Mormon history in the United States. He has also been featured as a guest author here at Rational Faiths. More recently he and John Dehlin have begun a dialogue at Patheos.com entitled Mormonism Inside and Out.
Many of us also know Patrick as the author of Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. His book has generated many productive and important conversations over this past year. Here, Patrick has been good enough to entertain a few “follow-up” questions that have sometimes emerged in conversations about the book. We very much appreciate his time and effort in responding to these questions.
BK: Chapter 7 of Planted is entitled “Abide in the Vine” and reminds readers that our ultimate trust and hope should not be placed in fallible priesthood leaders but rather in the True Vine of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, these priesthood leaders are important. You write: “God points us to prophets and the church not because they can save or redeem us, but because they are the temporal means by which he orients us to our Savior and Redeemer” (page 125). Some church members respond that they have been so hurt by the prophets and/or the church that they have become stumbling blocks in their relationship with Jesus Christ. Sometimes, they say, they have found more peace and a closer relationship with the Savior as they’ve put some distance between themselves and the church and/or its leaders and have (sometimes) found a deeper connection with Jesus in a different religious community or tradition. What would you say to members in this situation?
PM: This is a terrific and important question. I have friends and have spoken with many people who would express a sentiment similar to this. It is a tricky and sticky issue, because in general in the LDS Church we have conflated God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and prophets as a package deal in terms of religious authority and messengers of truth. When people therefore begin to lose trust or faith in one part of the package (usually the prophets), then it seems to invalidate the entire package. Many people who leave Mormonism end up agnostic or atheist, rather than landing in another Christian church or another religious tradition altogether. (I’m not aware of any really solid statistics on this, so I’m speaking anecdotally and broadly – I have absolutely no idea how many “many” really is.)
I will admit to personally having mixed feelings about the package deal. On the one hand, I am a Christian because I’m a Mormon. The most important things I know and believe about Jesus Christ I have learned in and through the LDS Church. And most of that has come either directly or indirectly from the latter-day prophets and apostles, primarily Joseph Smith (especially if we count the scriptures produced by/through him) as well as those whose ministries have occurred during my lifetime.
The way I like to put it is that I do not look to the prophets for salvation, but rather with and through them. That helps me frame my relationship to them – and ultimately to God and Christ – in a way that is more productive for me.
I acknowledge 100% that one does not have to be a Latter-day Saint to have a deep and authentic faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ. I sincerely admire my many Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox friends, and there is so much we can learn from them (more on that in a minute). But my faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ are deeply Mormon, and I thank God for having provided modern-day prophets and apostles that have been the messengers to me of the good news of Jesus Christ. I say this not just in terms of propositional knowledge – the various facts I know (or think I know) about Jesus – but also about the Christian virtues. LDS prophets and apostles have taught me some of my most important lessons about humility, faith, hope, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, justice, longsuffering, and most of all love.
On the other hand, if we were to conduct a thought experiment in which my Mormonism was somehow magically stripped away, I would still be a theist, and I would still be a Christian. I completely believe that salvation is found in and through Jesus Christ – that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” I believe this doesn’t have to be an imperialistic, exclusivist declaration; in fact, I think of myself as a fairly ecumenical person, and believe that my Mormonism has given me excellent resources in that regard. But if a person absolutely cannot accept the latter-day prophets, for whatever reason, then as a disciple of Jesus I sincerely hope they find a way to stay in the Christian fold, which means finding a Christian community to participate in. I say this because I find the life, ministry, and atonement of Jesus to be utterly compelling and deeply transformative, not only for individuals but potentially for entire communities as well.
One of the reasons why my Christianity is in some respects broader than my Mormonism is because of all I have learned from other Christian authors, thinkers, and religious leaders. Although I am now officially a Deseret Book-published author, I must confess that I rarely read other non-canonical LDS publications. (Actually, I do read a ton of stuff about Mormonism for my day job as a Mormon studies professor, but most of that work is by professional scholars, and is not designed for a popular lay LDS audience.) When I read religious literature, usually it is non-LDS Christian. My favorites are Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, but I have also been deeply formed by reading people such as John Howard Yoder, Walter Wink, Jean Zaru, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis, to name a few. My favorite publication these days is Plough Quarterly, an amazing periodical from the Bruderhof community. So my advice for anyone who’s not finding Jesus by listening to General Conference talks is to get off Facebook or Reddit and go read some Bonhoeffer.
Some people may not like this notion, but I would say that if there’s a particular apostle (or apostles) that you don’t resonate with, simply tune them out for the time being and move on. God has given us fifteen of them at any given time, so hopefully you can find at least one who’s unobjectionable and even inspiring to you. In other words, I’m not convinced that we have to load our plates with all fifteen offerings at the prophetic buffet at every meal. I find many people spending much more time reflecting on the one or two General Conference talks they found objectionable while completely ignoring the one or five or ten or twenty others that were good solid Christian teaching. If I took an all-or-nothing approach to scriptures, I would have been an atheist a long time ago. We each select our own canon-within-the-canon. We do this with scriptures, and I see no reason why we can’t do this with prophets and apostles.
However, one of the dangers of this selective approach is filtering out all the messages we don’t like just because they don’t confirm what we already think and feel and experience. We make ourselves the arbiter of all that is true and good in the universe. A big part of the purpose of having prophets is to have them speak prophetically to us, as a people and as individuals. I’m trying to develop the spiritual discipline of paying extra attention to the apostles that I don’t normally resonate with, to see if God is trying to tell me anything beyond what already feels good. (I try to do this in church too. It makes boring and/or objectionable sacrament meeting talks and lessons much more interesting.)
BK: Planted also discusses at length the question of prophetic fallibility and continuing revelation. On page 128 you write: “Mormon theology actually allows for either option: prophets can be wrong, and God’s revelation today can trump his revelation yesterday.” In other words, when the church changes its doctrine or policies, its theology could reasonably be interpreted to mean that 1) the former doctrine/policy was simply wrong and due to prophetic fallibility, or 2) continuing revelation means that we have the truth God wants us to have at that particular time. How would you counsel church members who then conclude that there’s little basis for faith in the current teachings, practices, and policies of the current church leaders if they’re likely going to change at some point in the future?
PM: I think we’ve reached an interesting point in our development as a people that now, for probably the first time in our history, we have a substantial percentage of the membership of the church that recognizes that the church is constantly changing. In other words, we have developed a historical sensibility—that the church operates in time. This is actually a rather destabilizing notion for those who crave utter stability. But of all religious believers, Mormons should, by virtue of our own theology, be the most comfortable with religious change—after all, ours is a religion of continuing revelation.
The tricky thing is that in the moment, we’re not always sure what will change and what will stay the same. You don’t feel the earth moving when you’re spinning with it. We can guess, of course, but if history is our guide, then placing bets on when and how and in what fashion the LDS Church will change on any given matter would not fare you well in Vegas. So I must confess that I simply don’t share the confidence that many people do that the church must or absolutely will change this doctrine or that policy position, especially not on any predictable timetable. I can say with 100% certainty that the church will change—I just don’t know how. Historians make poor prophets.
BK: This comes up a lot lately when our church leaders ask us to defend things like “religious freedom” or “the traditional family.” Many respond that they’re not willing to put their reputations and social relationships at risk to publicly defend something that will probably either be deemphasized or changed entirely sometime down the line. What advice would you have for them?
PM: I for one hope that the church never alters its commitment to religious freedom. Do we want to support the opposite? Now, we can certainly have a robust discussion about how and why the contemporary religious freedom rhetoric emerged and has become so prominent. I would say there’s no doubt that in significant part it has been conditioned by domestic politics in the U.S., especially surrounding same-sex marriage. But let’s not forget that religious freedom is a real life-and-death issue around the globe right now. We of all people should be utterly and totally committed to the religious freedom of every woman, man, and child on this planet. Regardless of how I feel about how and why this became such a big issue for the church leadership, I embrace it as a discourse that allows us to think about what we as Latter-day Saints can do to actively promote global human rights, and to demonstrate solidarity with the oppressed. Now, are there other rights that are equally important and should always be weighed in the conversation? Of course. And religious freedom discourse has been used to cover a multitude of sins, in all kinds of places. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But I digress from the real question. If you can’t in good conscience publicly defend some current teaching or policy of the church, then don’t. I’m really not sure it’s much more complicated than that. It’s entirely possible to sustain our leaders with all our hearts and still disagree with them on some matters. They disagree with each other all the time (though we’re typically not allowed to see it). So sustaining should not be conflated with blanket approbation or the issuance of a blank check. What it does probably mean is that when someone asks you about the church’s defense of “the traditional family,” and you don’t agree entirely with the way the church has phrased or pursued that defense, you find a way to express your own view with honesty and authenticity while still standing up for the integrity and sincerity of our leaders, and even going the extra mile to articulate how they could hold their position in good faith as messengers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Being in solidarity with them doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them all the time, but it does mean giving them the benefit of the doubt, and offering them the same patience, grace, mercy, compassion, longsuffering, loyalty, and forgiveness that we hope they offer us.
In the meantime, I personally believe that the church is not reducible to any one policy or even doctrine, with a few very bare exceptions—and “the traditional family” and “religious freedom” (as currently understood) are not among those. An all-or-nothing approach is a kind of fundamentalist posture that most liberal/progressive/disaffected Mormons think they are rejecting. But when they say they can’t listen to anything the prophets say because the prophets say some thingsabout gay marriage that the individual may conscientiously disagree with, then that individual is essentially operating in an all-or-nothing, fundamentalist mode. I favor a more holistic and even forgiving approach – again, it’s the way I read the scriptures, so I think it’s also the way I can relate to the prophets.
One more point. It is my belief that since we all “see through a glass, darkly,” each of us must retain the humility to ask, and really believe, “Might I be wrong about this?” I don’t think it’s a mark of good discipleship, let alone open-mindedness and critical thinking, if we presume that whatever we believe about the universe and society must be right, and thus whomever disagrees with us, whether a prophet or our next-door neighbor, must be wrong. If I am to take sin seriously, I should begin with the premise that I’m probably at least partially wrong about almost everything – including whatever I think about religious freedom, the traditional family, and every other culturally bound and politically loaded issue I have deep commitments about. So before I openly declare my disagreement with the prophets, I should probably do some serious self-examination about what it is I am so sure I am right about. (This is not to claim that many people haven’t already done this; I’m just establishing a general principle.) And then I have to ask myself if I would ever be willing to change my views. If the honest answer is no, never, then my ideology has trumped my discipleship. I must keep myself open to say yes to God, and to say yes to the prophets, even if my best and most conscientious answer for now has to be no.
BK: I love the meditation on Doubting Thomas on pages 131-132. Many people identify with Thomas at some point in their lives. This meditation implies that Thomas would not have been able to receive his testimony of the Risen Savior if he hadn’t remained “in communion with the apostles.” Does this mean that a full testimony of Jesus Christ can only be found within the LDS Church? Is it ultimately not possible to receive such a testimony outside of the LDS Church or even organized religion altogether?
PM: Thanks. That little meditation is my favorite part of the book, though I recognize that like any model or object lesson it has its limitations.
I’ve already spoken above about my ecumenical Christianity, which in fact extends to a kind of ecumenical religiosity. (There are plenty of Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim authors I like a lot – I must confess to not having read much Hindu, Confucian, Native American, or other literature.)
Can a person be a real life Christian without being Mormon? That’s patently obvious. I do think Mormonism has a lot to offer that enriches and extends what other Christian churches teach, but that doesn’t mean they’re junior varsity Christians. In fact, as I indicated earlier, in many respects we have as much to learn from them as they do from us. How ridiculous would it be for a 200-year-old church of 15 million (cough, cough) to say that it knows more than all the other 1.5 billion Christians on the planet combined, let alone the other 3-5 billion theists? Our community has been gifted with some amazing morsels of knowledge that I think offer incredible vistas on the nature of God and his Son, and our relationship to them. But as Han Solo said, “Don’t get cocky, kid.”
BK: As a contrasting idea, the monastic tradition emphasizes the virtue of solitude and individual contemplation as equally valid and legitimate pathways to communion with God. Is this tradition inferior or inadequate compared to the communal/institutional pathway to spiritual development?
PM: I have deep respect for the monastic traditions of many religions. And again, it’s patently obvious that so many individuals through history have encountered God in deep and radical ways through solitude and individual contemplation. Our own community could learn much and adopt more from those contemplative practices and monastic disciplines.
But fundamentally, I believe that the richest religious life is communal. One of the roots of the word religion, religare, means to bind together. This has special resonance for Mormonism with our rituals and theology of sealing. I love the Mormon idea that perfection is only achieved in relationship—not just with God, but with other human beings. I am deeply and foundationally inspired by the Zion project, which is always societal. I believe that Christ calls us to be co-workers with him in redeeming our societies in addition to our souls. The two grand aims of Mormonism, exaltation and Zion, both require redemptive relationships with other humans.
So can you find God in the desert? Obviously, yes. But can you become a god in the desert? Only if you take other people with you, and turn that desert into Zion.