The Motivation for Righteous Obedience

 

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Good afternoon Brothers and Sisters,

The late Apostle, Hugh B. Brown, who served on the First Presidency throughout the 1960s addressed the Brigham Young University student body in May of 1969 during which he said:

“Every youth is forced to answer the question in dialogue with himself: ‘What are the things that I ultimately value?’ The answer must come with this thought in mind: ‘I will have to live with myself all my life, and what I decide now will influence my happiness.1

I was given the option to speak on the topic of obedience today. While I value obedience and am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on this topic, I must confess that the word “obedience” causes me a certain amount of discomfort. When I hear the word “obedience,” the phrase “blind obedience” comes to mind. When I think of blind obedience, I imagine the sorrow that people face when their God given agency is impeded upon by the experience of fear and manipulation under facist regimes, tyrannical dictators, or autocratic leaders.

Yet, obedience is a crucial precept of the Gospel. How then do we rescue this important principal from the negative connotation with which it is sometimes associated? Perhaps it would be wise to frame obedience in a more positive light, and to differentiate between blind, compulsive obedience and willing, righteous obedience. President Boyd K. Packer stated, “Those who talk of blind obedience may appear to know many things, but they do not understand the doctrines of the Gospel. There is an obedience that comes from a knowledge of the truth that transcends any external form of control. We are not obedient because we are blind. We are obedient because we can see.2

Brothers and sisters, my thoughts over this past week on this topic have challenged me to consider whether I am seeing clearly. My invitation for you is to carefully examine your own vision in the light of the Restored Gospel. My prayer is that all of us would experience improved vision through these remarks.

The Prophet Joseph Smith, of whom I have a testimony was divinely called to usher in the beginning of this great dispensation of Restoration, through inspiration of the Spirit and while a prisoner in the jail at Liberty, Missouri wrote on the concept of unrighteous dominion as recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants.

He said, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.3

The late Elder H. Burke Peterson of the First Quroum of the Seventy made this wise observation: “unrighteous dominion is not a challenge just for men. Anyone – man or woman – who in anyway guides or directs others may be guilty of unrighteous dominion.4

Peterson also outlines the positive characteristics of people who avoid unrighteous dominion in their relationships. They do so by interacting with others, with persuasion, not with manipulation; with long-suffering, not with intolerance; with gentleness, not with anger; with meekness, not with pride; with unfeigned love, not with flattery; with integrity, not with hypocrisy.

I would add that those who exercise righteous dominion avoid attempting to control others with threatening or fear-provoking words. 5

It is with this admonition to be cautious of unrighteous dominion that I return to the Gospel precept of obedience. As Latter-day Saints, we are not among those who are blindly and compulsively obedient, but we do strive for obedience. True and eternal obedience is a choice that springs from the heart and is joyfully energized by the Spirit, not by the unrighteous domination of man.

Friends, we are called to honor and respect the office, the wisdom, and the counsel of those who preside over us in this Church. Perhaps, then, it would be appropriate to consider the wisdom of one of our prophets, Brigham Young, who said, “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security… Let all persons be fervent in prayer, until they know the things of God for themselves and become certain that they are walking in the path that leads to everlasting life.6

My brothers and sisters, I hesitate to be autobiographical, but I believe that sharing a small and intimate portion of my personal journey of faith will help to illustrate how unrighteous dominion has affected my life in my pursuit of obedience.

Today is Father’s Day, and I love and respect my father; yet, we have had to confront and find conciliation on a few significant matters in our relationship. Before I share this rather personal story with you, I should mention that I have sent these remarks to my father, and so there is nothing that I am sharing with you of which he is unaware or that is a betrayal of his trust. Dad and I have worked through many of our challenges, and we have experienced reconciliation with one another over the years.

I will be discussing my affiliation with a different religious group and its intersection with our church in this story, but I will not identify the name of this group. It is very important that you understand that I have no desire to degrade any other religion. Yet, I feel impressed to share a few general details about my experience.

I became acquainted with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at a young age. My father was a fervent member of another faith. When I began to associate with the Mormons at age fourteen, dad expressed anger at my decision. I recall distinctly the day that he pulled me aside, threatening that if I continued in my affiliation with the Latter-day Saints, I would unequivocally spend eternity in agonizing separation from God.

As a sensitive, impressionable, and malleable young man, I took to heart his severe threat. Eventually, toward the end of high school I removed myself from association with the Church, and through dad’s influence, gave up a full ride scholarship that I had received to attend the state university. Instead, I enrolled in a religious program with the intent of becoming a minister in my father’s church. This was an incredibly difficult period of my life, and it would not be appropriate to go into the details of the intense trials that I experienced during this time. But, I feel it is appropriate to disclose that I witnessed firsthand the damaging influence of coercive, unrighteous dominion during these years.

I became incredibly disturbed by what I experienced during this time, finally reached my wits end, and eventually reconnected with friends and missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were kind and sympathetic, and they did all they could to help me. Yet, my father and the leaders of the program I was involved with discovered my renewed interest in the Restored Gospel, and did everything in their power to halt my re-investigation. Members of the staff would occasionally drop by student housing at unannounced times and conduct “house checks,” and during one of these house checks, my Book of Mormon and other Mormon literature was discovered and promptly discarded. I was strictly reprimanded. I complied with the rebuke and reverted to my previous state of fearfully motivated and compulsive obedience. That period of my life eventually lead to a season of skepticism and disaffiliation from any religious community; yet, over the course of ten years, and through very rocky terrain, I crossed the plains of existential discord and found my way back to Zion. I am tremendously grateful for the renewed, gentle companionship of the Spirit. (Pause)

There are a few lessons we can glean from this story.

First, blind or compulsive obedience that is motivated by fear, is not true or righteous obedience. This form of obedience is, in essence, abandoning the personal responsibility we have to exercise our agency in worshiping God “according to the dictates of our own conscience.” 7 In so doing, we make it difficult, if not impossible, to hear and follow the gentle promptings of the Spirit. We must choose this day whom we will serve. 8

Second, it is important for me to share that my father, who willingly admits that he exercised a form of unrighteous dominion during this period of my life, has apologized, and is now supportive of my membership in this church. This is an important Father’s Day lesson. While there are many good fathers in this world, my dad included, there are no perfect earthly fathers. Yet, my dad has exemplified humility in apologizing for the role he played in some of the pain and fear I experienced during this difficult period of my late adolescence and early young adult years.

Fathers, when is the last time you examined your relationship with your children, and if necessary, apologized for any hurt that you might have brought them through the exercise of unrighteous dominion? We often think of repentance as being solely between ourselves and God, but there is a sense in which we, as disciples of Christ, are called to repent, or to be reconciled one to another. In his epistle in the New Testament, James said “confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed.” 9

Children and youth, it is easy to see the imperfections of our well-intentioned fathers, but when is the last time you forgave your father for his imperfections? When is the last time you expressed your love for him? Today might be a good day to do just that.

Brothers and sisters, it is important for us to remember that we are not alone in this process of being perfected, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. There was a man who walked this earth and exercised his agency in perfect obedience out of love for his Heavenly Father and for his fellow man. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, the Savior “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.” 10

It is through this glorious work of Christ’s Atonement and Resurrection that we are able to achieve any measure of willing, righteous obedience and divine progress. In this life, obedience will never equal absolute perfection. Often, our obedience is most effectively manifest through the virtue of humility in recognizing our own weaknesses and imperfections, and by our willingness to repent to God when necessary, and to be reconciled in our relationships with our fellow man. In so doing, we can partake in the liberating and joyful experience of moving forward in true obedience with resoluteness of faith.

The late Richard D. Poll, a Latter-day Saint historian, academic, and author who taught at BYU and subsequently was the Vice President at Western Illinois University many years ago said:

The restored Gospel teaches that the essential stuff of man is eternal, that man is a child of God, and that it is man’s destiny to become like his Father. But this destiny can only be achieved as man voluntarily gains the knowledge, the experience, and the discipline which godhood requires and represents. This was the crucial question resolved in the council in heaven – whether man should come into an environment of genuine risk, where he would walk by faith.10

Brothers and sisters, in this environment of genuine risk as we walk by faith, we will inevitably make mistakes, but when we miss the mark, we will have the opportunity to learn. As we learn, we will grow, and we will experience greater freedom, increasing obedience, and more contentedness, even and especially amidst the raging storms that sometimes form in our lives.

While I don’t think it is healthy to live life with agonizing and paralyzing regrets, as a late adolescent and young adult, I do think that I could have benefited from a more thoughtful consideration of the wisdom contained in the Restored Gospel. It is true that all of us will have to live with ourselves all our lives, and the decisions we make today will influence our happiness tomorrow. Let us, then, ask ourselves the question that will assist us as we make these difficult decisions in our quest for obedience:

What are the things that I ultimately value?11

My hope is that our values would ultimately accord with “all things virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy.” 12My prayer is that our values would be formed by the Spirit and after the manner of Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of “all things virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy” – and that our dominion of obedience would be everlasting, and “without compulsory means.” 13

I testify that as we seek after these things, as we seek to follow the Savior, the one who perfectly obeyed our Heavenly Father, we will be strengthened in our pursuit of living in the spirit of joyful obedience through the exercise of our agency, and we will humbly and gratefully inherit all that our Father in Heaven has promised.

Brothers and sisters, I pray these words have improved your vision of true obedience, of righteous dominion, and of the forgiveness we have received and can receive through the merits of the Holy One of Israel. In the sacred name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

References:

  1. See Hugh B. Brown, An Eternal Quest – Freedom of the Mind (1969), 4.
  2. See Boyd K. Packer, Agency and Control (1983).
  3. Doctrine and Covenants 121:39.
  4. See H. Burke Peterson, Unrighteous Dominion (1989).
  5. Same as above.
  6. See Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol 9, p. 150 (1862).
  7. Articles of Faith 1:11.
  8. Joshua 24:15.
  9. James 5:16.
  10. See Richard D. Poll, What the Church Means to People Like Me (1967).
  11. See Hugh B. Brown, An Eternal Quest – Freedom of the Mind (1969), 4.
  12. Articles of Faith 1:13
  13. Doctrine and Covenants 121:46

 

The Illusion of Perfection. The Power of Perseverance.

illusionpA few weeks ago, while on a slow but difficult jog, I had the following thought:

The goal of perseverance is not perfection. Perseverance is about persisting through the pressures that reveal our weaknesses, being compassionate toward ourselves in adversity, and achieving emotional composure regardless of the results of our efforts.

While jogging, I became discouraged with my lack of ability to run as swiftly and breathe as easily as I would have liked. Admittedly, I noticed those who were running faster and breathing easier. These fit individuals almost appeared to have gleeful smiles on their faces. They seemed to be enjoying their run, while I undoubtedly was displaying a laborious grimace.

The jog continued; the pain continued, and I wanted nothing more than to stop, throw in the towel, walk home, and eat a twinkie, or ten. Then, I experienced a mental shift. It was a shift that revealed to me the ego-driven absurdity of my discouraging thoughts. Acquiescing to discouragement would not be displaying compassion toward myself at that moment. Did those individuals whom I perceived as fit, happy, and healthy begin in that state? Was I expecting, after one jog, to achieve my physical ideal? When I achieve my best, will my best be good enough to satisfy the quest for ultimately unattainable perfection? Indeed, had those individuals reached their ideal state of being?

The reality of our lives is that, like the changing seasons, we exist in a state of flux. We all experience, with varying degrees and at different times, the personal and noticeable growth of spring, the consistency of summer, the harvest of fall, and the desolation of winter. Yet, despite this constant state of change, anyone who achieves anything of enduring quality, whether it be personal or professional, has learned the power of perseverance. My discouraging thoughts were based on uncharitable comparisons and the assumption that no one else has struggled; that no one else has experienced the pain of growth, the sting of disappointment, and the reality of adversity. Gratefully, during that challenging jog on that discouraging day, I realized the absurdity of my thoughts; I laughed, I had compassion toward myself, and I persevered.

The goal of perseverance is not perfection. Perfection is illusive; our goal is always being modified as our circumstances and perspectives change. None of us are without flaw; none of us will achieve absolute perfection in this life, but we can choose to persevere. I believe that mortality is part of a grand and mysterious organization of intelligence, and that the trials of our existence can one day reveal the creation of a persevering, supernal beauty.

History, Interpretation, and Mormonism

John Dehlin, a brave Latter-day Saint non-conformist and founder of the Mormon Stories Podcast, recently interviewed Sandra Tanner, renowned evangelical Christian who, along with her late husband Jerald, founded Utah Lighthouse Ministry. This ministry has, for detmplecades, published what is known among the Latter-day Saint faithful as “anti-Mormon” literature. In a recent post, Mr. Dehlin referred to the Tanners as heroes, stating that they are “courageous, brutally honest people” for being “spot on about our problematic history,” paving the way for the communication of greater historical accuracy to the public by various organizations, and even by the Church itself to the general membership. Not surprisingly, Dehlin’s comments ignited several hundred responses, and a rather heated debate regarding the historical scholarship and impact of the Tanner’s Utah Lighthouse Ministry. Dehlin has not yet posted the interview, but I could not refrain from responding to him with my own personal experience and perspective. This was posted to his thread, but was most likely lost in the sea of passionate responses:

John, 

It might not be a popular thing to say – both among some current and former Latter-day Saints – but your outreach through Mormon Stories was a significant contributing factor in my decision to return to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thank you for being willing to tackle the tough issues. Risking your reputation by interviewing someone like Sandra Tanner is a bold move. However, it does seem apparent that you have done a lot of work to rid yourself of that ego-driven need to have a stellar reputation. That is evident based on the candor with which you share your own journey of faith. 

I was raised with a father who was a zealous evangelical Christian. I joined the Church when I was fifteen, and needless to say, a storm of protest erupted from my father and other evangelical family members. I was immediately provided with “anti-Mormon” literature, including material from Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s Utah Lighthouse Ministry. At age seventeen, I read their lengthy book, Mormonism – Shadow or Reality, and a host of other material which, along with other complexities of an adolescent who was sensitive and malleable, frightened me enough to revert to the evangelicalism of my youth, and to request my name to be removed from Church records. My reversion to evangelicalism was passionate and fierce; leaving home at eighteen to attend a Bible College to study for full-time ministry. My evangelicalism became loud, forceful, and fanatic. I was a young, passionate, token, ex-Mormon evangelical. 

For a host of emotional and intellectual reasons, my journey eventually lead me away from Christianity and evangelicalism into a consideration of secular humanism, and a fairly intense study of world religion; I read extensively on various religious traditions. As part of my personal study, I visited a mosque, a Baha’i meeting, a Unitarian Universalist gathering, Jewish synagogues, Catholic and Anglican Masses, and Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgies. 

Recently, after several years of careful re-consideration and objective study into Mormon history and doctrine, I returned to the Latter-day Saint fold. As I stated earlier, your work was a significant influence on my return to the Church. I carefully considered your Mormon story and ideas, and those of many people you interviewed – Terryl Givens, Richard Bushman, Grant Hardy, and others – who articulate a nuanced, yet orthodox-friendly approach to Mormonism that I found incredibly appealing. While my religious explorations could have easily turned into a purely academic and skeptical fascination with no devotional aspect, I found that this nuanced approach to Mormonism accorded beautifully with my current religious worldview – one that favors ethics and community over theology and doctrine; and yet an approach that leaves room for the exploration of the uniqueness of Mormon theology and doctrine, primarily the beautiful concept of progressive and continuing revelation to expand, correct, modify, and clarify through the guidance and influence of the Spirit. 

While I respect your work and bravery – interviewing people like Sandra Tanner, for example – I do feel it is necessary to voice my concern with her agenda, as revealed in Utah Lighthouse Ministry literature. While I understand that recorded history is construed by modern bias, I do think that the Tanner’s work, while often historically accurate, veers into territory that promotes fear and uncharitable judgement rather than fairness and objectivity. Evangelical publications on Mormon history often promote a skewed, demonized perspective on the Church in an effort to persuade people away from the “dangers of Mormonism” and bring them to the evangelical “born again experience.” In that sense, they use historical accuracy, interpreted through evangelical dogma, as a tool of religious coercion. The same could be said for some in the LDS Church, or any other faith tradition, who use historical inaccuracy in the same way. I think both approaches are harmful to the psychological and spiritual well being of individuals for whom spirituality and organized religion resonates as a deeply integral part of this human experience. 

With kind regards,

Jonathon

 

I recently watched this fascinating documentary produced by HBO (American Undercover) on faith healing. Having been raised, due to a parental influence, in an environment that was highly charged by this type of Pentecostal group experience, I find the science and psychology behind these group experiences enlightening and sobering.

I had very tangible experiences in these spiritually charged environments in the formative years of my youth. I believed deeply and felt fervently. While watching this, I could distinctly feel the hypnotic energy that I remember experiencing as a child in these faith healing services. I felt a tingling sensation through my body, much like I used to feel as a child. This leads me to believe, as a neuroscientist validates in this documentary, that there is a physical, chemical component to this form of mesmerizing, hypnotic, and experiential religious practice. As an emotionally malleable child, I interpreted these experiences through the radical religious framework provided by these authority figures. In so doing, I made many irrational decisions and significant life changes based on them. Now, years later, I interpret these experiences in the light of science, reason, and a quiet belief that true religion is not manifest through flashy, compulsory means.

I was captivated, moved, and grieved by this documentary. The leaders who facilitate this type of trance-like group dynamic might be sincere in their convictions, but tragically, they take advantage of acute emotional human suffering.

If you’re interested in this type of thing, this documentary is well worth watching, especially part two starting around minute 13:00 through the end.

True Religion?

The Creepy Creature of Judgement

creatureA wise teacher once said, “judge not, lest ye be judged.” While I wholeheartedly endorse that statement, I suppose it depends on the type of judgement. If it is the judgement of something (or someone) that will harm yourself or others, judge thoughtfully (sometimes quickly), and act appropriately. When able, forgive yourself and others. Otherwise, kick that ugly creature of irrational, critical self-judgement and the pest of unfounded, unkind judgement toward others, swiftly and aggressively into the stratosphere. When those creatures comes back to pester you – and they will, as they feed on human beings – kick them away again; stronger this time, until the frequency of their visits are less and less. You’ll be grateful to rid yourself of that nuisance, I promise. I speak from experience

Pythagoras, Proof, and the Resurrection

pythagorasSince moving to Colorado, I have been attending a class on early Christianity. In the class, we have considered the influence of Greek philosophy on the ideas of early Christian theologians. The instructor, a physicist by vocation, used the Pythagorean theorem to underscore the influence of Greek philosophy on early Christian theology.

In simple terms, the Pythagorean theorem states that the area of a square built upon the two small sides of a triangle with a 90 degree angle equal the area of the square built upon the longest side, or the hypotenuse, of the triangle. Pythagoras, a philosopher who lived centuries before the advent of Christ, is credited with discovering this theorem. There are hundreds of possible ways to prove this theorem, perhaps the most of any other. Verifiable laws of logic are used in a multitude of ways to prove this theorem, and it is an approach that epitomizes the essence of Greek philosophy.

Greek philosophy emphasized the use of reason and evidence to identify a single underlying principle in discussing whatever topic was at hand. There are numerous ways of proving the Pythagorean theorem, but each method is based upon the same single principle. Since the Pythagorean theorem can be validated with logic, it is not necessary to believe, or have faith, that it is true.

Early Christian thinkers, influenced by Greek philosophy, employed this same approach toward resolving various theological conundrums. God’s immateriality and ineffability, a position vigorously promoted in Greek philosophy, was the primary principle on which most early Christian theologians based their ideas. This presented a problem for Christian thinkers. How could Jesus of Nazareth’s claim to be the Christ, even the Son of God, be reconciled with this previous notion of divine immateriality and ineffability? It could not be done very easily, though valiant attempts were made through councils, creeds, treatises, discourses, and the like.

As intellectually worthy and rigorous as these efforts of early Christian theologians were and are today, our personal confirmation of Jesus of Nazareth’s divinity cannot be achieved by employing tightly defined and provable laws of logic. One cannot use a testable theorem to confirm God’s reality or Christ’s Resurrection. This knowledge of the heart has always come through direct revelation; from Adam to Moses, to Peter and Paul, and to you and me, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I can’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but on this Easter weekend, I can testify that he did.

He is Risen!

The Spirit of Conference

gconferenceThis afternoon concluded the 184th annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For those unfamiliar, each April and October, thousands of Mormons gather in Salt Lake City to receive counsel from Church leaders. Millions more tune in from across the globe.

Though I was involved in the Church in my youth, this marks the first conference I have watched in its entirety since my baptism last November. It would be nearly impossible, if not tedious, to recap every message from the conference. Even so, what I find inspiring about General Conference is not so much the content of every message, as it is the Spirit behind the message.

As members of a religion that stresses the importance of human agency (free-will), Mormons are not obligated to receive every word from leaders in General Conference as infallible dogma. Instead, we are taught to meditate on the words spoken, after which we are encouraged to seek to apply in our individual lives that which has been confirmed in our hearts as true. This, in my opinion, is why the Spirit conveyed through the messages of General Conference supersede the content. The words are valuable, but the spiritual force behind them, inspiring us to act with greater charity and kindness toward our fellow man, is of inestimable worth.

While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is certainly a tradition of faith that does not shy away from teaching the “evidences of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I have found its pragmatic approach to be one of the most beautiful aspects of the religion. It is a faith that does not shy away from responsibility and work. It is a tradition that emphasizes the scriptural admonition that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), and advocates the pure religion defined by the New Testament author James – to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction.

I recently came across an essay I wrote when I was twelve years old in which I said that I would like to see “humans stop destroying the environment, crime brought to a halt, and a world united by peace and joy.” This reveals, from a young age, my natural inclination toward idealism. While there are many positive aspects of my inclination toward idealistic thought, I have lived long enough to see how this tendency, when left unchecked, can impede daily, pragmatic progress. As such, I am content having settled into a tradition of faith that brings me spiritual fulfillment while stressing the importance of doing good to all men, regardless of kindred or creed.

Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, pointedly asked: “if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?” (Matt 5:46) In the same vein, at his closing remarks of this weekend’s General Conference, the President of the Church, Thomas S. Monson exhorted the faithful to “be kind and loving to those who do not share our beliefs and standards. The Savior brought to this earth a message of love and goodwill to all men and women.”

There were many words and opinions shared by a host of leaders at this weekend’s conference, but the inclusive message of kindness and love toward those with whom we differ is the Spirit I felt this weekend. For that, I am grateful.

 

 

The Restoration: An Eternal Expansion of Universal Truth

restorationThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established during a period in American religious history during which many groups were seeking a restoration of pure Christian doctrine and practice. Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, The Churches of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and many other groups espoused that the Church had entered into a period of apostasy shortly after the death of Christ’s Apostles. Unfortunately, this idea of the Great Apostasy has often lead to a demonization of Christian traditions that spanned nearly two millennia prior to the restoration period in American religious history.

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a wonderful event in which Terryl and Fiona Givens, distinguished Mormon intellectuals, spoke. At this event, I was introduced to a quote by John Taylor, the 3rd President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on the period in the history of western civilization often referred to as The Dark Ages (the era of the Great Apostasy):

“There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world… There were men who could gaze upon the face of God, have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world. If those were dark ages, I pray God to give me a little darkness ” (The Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., 16:197-198).

President Taylor’s words encapsulate what I find most riveting about Mormonism. It is a paradoxical faith tradition. On the one hand, Mormonism has developed into a rather strict hierarchical organization with specific dogma. On the other hand, it is a tradition that allows a tremendous amount of room for theological flexibility and inclusivity. Taylor’s words, illuminated through the scholarship of individuals such as Terryl and Fiona Givens, refreshingly re-frame the Great Apostasy as a wilderness experience for the Church rather than a period of utter, spiritual desolation. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount the wilderness experience of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, in the wilderness, Jesus was not without receiving divine assistance through the ministry of angels (Mark 1:13, Matthew 4:11). Likewise, the wilderness experience of His Church was not void of spiritual enlightenment.

The restoration from a Latter-day Saint perspective is the eternal expansion of universal light, knowledge, and truth, an abundance of which was received through the substantial sacrifices of those who, like John the Baptist, were voices “crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord…'” (Mark 1:3).

——————————–

“We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul – We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured any things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

Joseph Smith, Jr., 1st President of the Church

“We recognize the good in all people. We recognize the good in all churches… To people everywhere, we simply say, ‘You bring with you all the good that you have, and let us add to it. That is the principle on which we work.'”

Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th President of the Church

A Testimony Offered Through a Glass Darkly

throughaglassIn the Latter-day Saint tradition, the first Sunday of each month is designated as a fast and testimony meeting. On this day, members prayerfully abstain from food and attend a meeting in which they are given the opportunity to speak spontaneously and from the heart about their faith. I chose to offer a testimony today, and have recounted the essence of it:

Of paramount importance to my testimony is that the Only Begotten Son of the Father, Jesus Christ, our Savior and elder Brother, willingly subjected himself to the suffering in this world. He experienced humanity at its worst, and is therefore able to identify with our suffering and our weakness. Christ humbled himself in obedience to his Father: He tasted the bitter cup of suffering in Gethsemane and abject loneliness on Golgotha. He accomplished this mission so that we might receive forgiveness and be saved from our sins. I am compelled by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is through the power of His resurrection that we too shall be resurrected and are given the ability to return to our Father in Heaven, growing increasingly into His likeness.

I respect the ministry of Joseph Smith, Jr., who stated that the fundamental principle of the Latter-day Saint tradition is the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every other truth is an appendage to that testimony (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 49). Joseph Smith Jr. was an imperfect man subject to the weakness of all flesh; nevertheless, I am convinced that he was a man who sought after truth. Through his ministry and the ministry of those who have succeeded him, we have been graced with an abundance of testimony concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the Book of Mormon chief among them.

The Apostle Paul wrote that we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12), and while there are many great and important things yet to be revealed (Articles of Faith 1:9), I am filled with thanksgiving for the revelation concerning the potential eternal nature of the family unit. There is a purpose for the family that extends far beyond what we now understand. I am comforted with knowledge concerning our eternal worth and the eternal worth of those whom we love.

I am compelled by the teaching of the Restoration which states that the Light of Christ is given to all mankind. In stark contrast to other Christian traditions that emphasize human depravity, the Latter-day Saint tradition emphasizes the spark of divinity that resides within each human soul. We have been freely given the opportunity to fan into flame that divine spark.

I am grateful for the Holy Spirit, our personal companion who communicates spiritual truth to our hearts; namely, confirming to us the reality of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name I offer this testimony.

From the Reformation to the Restoration

lutherFor those who have followed my posts over the last year, it is evident that I have been on a bit of an existential quest. I have attempted to strip away the layers of pseudo-belief in an effort to achieve greater authenticity about my core beliefs. As such, I have posed questions and engaged in dialogue that might lead some to believe I have abandoned faith altogether.

Indeed, I sympathize with humanist arguments. As one looks upon the chaos in this world, it is perfectly reasonable to ask, “where is God?” As one reflects upon the turmoil that sometimes afflicts our own personal lives, it is fair to question, “if there is a God, does he care?” Yet, despite these questions I have asked publicly in a variety of ways, I still believe there is a creative intelligence that brings order to disorder – a personal force who understands the heartache of humanity and who desires to heal our brokenness.

While exposed to various faith traditions in my childhood, the formative religious influence in my childhood was fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. The theological system associated with this tradition places a heavy emphasis on man’s depravity, and therefore, the condemnation of man to hell, or eternal separation from God. The rescue from this eternal separation, according to evangelicalism, is received through Jesus Christ. The way this rescue happens differs depending on the particular evangelical tradition. The tradition in which I was influenced as a child, Pentecostalism, places a heavy emphasis on “accepting Jesus into your heart” and “being filled with the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues” as assurance of salvation.

As a thoughtful child prone to rumination, the doctrine of eternal hell caused me many sleepless nights. As such, I latched onto my father’s radical, experiential, and Pentecostal Christianity at a young age. I “accepted Jesus into my heart,” spoke in tongues, cried tears of repentance at the altar of the church, and was at times quite vocal with my unbelieving family about the pending peril of their souls.

In the fourth grade, I received a Book of Mormon from a friend on a swim team. As a religiously inquisitive child, I was immediately fascinated by its content. Though I lost contact with this friend who gave me the Book of Mormon, I recall having discussions with another religiously inquisitive kid, who happened to be Jewish, about the Book of Mormon in the fifth grade. I had no contact with Mormons through the next few years, but whenever I was at a bookstore or a library, I would read whatever I could get my hands on about Mormonism.

My freshman year of high school, I became friends with a Mormon through the band program. My curiosity about his faith tradition only grew at this time, and by the end of that year, I had completed reading the Book of Mormon, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder by LeGrand Richards (a systematic, missionary-oriented, presentation of Mormon theology), and Leonard Arrington’s history of the Latter-day Saints entitled ‘The Mormon Experience.’ In July of 1995, I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Church founded during the Restoration Movement of American Christian history.

The Mormon message resolved many of the deep-seated fears I held about the hell-bound state of an unrepentant sinner. Mormons are nearly universalist in their soteriology: that is to say that Mormon doctrine teaches that “through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, all mankind may be saved (Third Article of Faith).” Even so, the strong emotional attachment I held to the highly experiential faith tradition of my childhood prior to my Mormon conversion was not easy for me to dismiss. Toward the end of high school, while battling my own sense of inferiority and what I felt was an impossible task of measuring up to Church standards, I was presented with historical and theological challenges to Mormonism. The evolutionary survival method of fight-or-flight kicked into full gear when unable to resolve my compounding fears of theology and morality. I chose to flee the Church, and reverted to Pentecostal evangelicalism.

I spent the next four years in a frenzied state of religious extremism, and believed it was my destiny to become a Pentecostal minister. A book could be written about my experience during those four years, but suffice it to say, I became disillusioned with Pentecostalism after a particularly lascivious scandal rocked the leadership of the church group with which I was associated. After the dust of this scandal settled, I turned from Pentecostalism to a more palatable, less fanatical evangelicalism. Yet, during this time, I waffled between periods of strong belief and equally strong skepticism. Skepticism eventually won the battle, and for a time I became quite hostile toward all forms of organized religion.

At the height of my hostility, I came into contact with a church that adhered strictly to the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. I was compelled by this approach to Christianity, and found myself profoundly touched by a previously undiscovered understanding of the Atonement of Christ. The burdensome, religious striving of former years was washed away in an understanding of grace: the free and unmerited favor of God. I finally began to grasp that after everything I could do, I could never do enough. His grace became “sufficient for me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). While active in this church for the better part of five years, I became disquieted by some of the Calvinistic doctrines promulgated, particularly the concept of election: that God elects some for salvation and some for damnation.

Thus began a quest that lead me from the Reformation back to the Restoration. In the interim, however, I studied Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy extensively, and came to appreciate the beauty of Catholic and Orthodox thought and the richness of its liturgy. Yet, I found the more I studied Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the more I was drawn back to Mormon theology and culture.

Today, Saturday, November 9th, 2013, I was re-baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have learned through personal experience the dangers of exaggerating spiritual experiences. Nevertheless, while being baptized this morning, I felt a tangible sense of God’s love and affection for not only me, but for everyone in the room. The baptism didn’t go without any hiccups. The pianist missed more than her fair share of notes. The missionary responsible for filling the baptismal font did not stgeorgeclose the drain, and so throughout the first portion of the baptismal service, those presiding were nervously going back and forth, turning on and off the noisy flow of water. Yet, in the context of this sacred event, none of those hiccups mattered to me. While emerging from the waters of baptism, I felt an overwhelming gratitude for Christ’s Atonement – both for me personally, for those in the room, and for all people.

My friends of other religious traditions might protest, “but what about Joseph Smith, Jr.? Do you really believe he was a prophet?”

I have been a student of Mormonism since my youth, and have read a significant amount of history pertaining to Joseph Smith’s life and ministry from a wide variety of sources. There is no doubt that he was a flawed man who “fell short of the glory of God,” as all men do (Romans 3:23). Yet, it was Smith who taught that the “fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 49).

Therefore, insofar as Smith, a flawed man, pointed the Church to its true head, Jesus Christ, I acknowledge his prophetic role in Christian history. With Joseph Smith, I affirm that the fundamental principle to which I cling as a baptized member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is my personal testimony concerning the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).