Interpreting History, Part 3

I believe in Mormonism and want it to succeed. I am cheering for our success. I evaluated it as an investigator while taught by missionaries, and received a spiritual impression sufficient to believe in the religion. So I joined. After joining I studied the faith. A spiritual impression was not enough for me. The impression was the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry. Then the new found faith needed to be scoured to find what it offered, what great truths it held, and what mysteries were now available. Therefore, its history needed to become part of my study and inquiry.

Mormonism has an important history that has been little explored even now. Its history should be celebrated,  not cautiously guarded. The history contains wonderful lessons that will aid in moving the faith forward. But to do so it must be based on a truthful telling. You cannot create the kingdom of heaven from a foundation of lies. So history must be faced, even if it proves temporarily painful and disorienting while sorting through the errors.

Toward the end of the Jensen interview someone asked him about problems of history and mentioned his own struggle. He explained that new data-points had been disorienting to him. He had to work his way through them to emerge with faith once again. The question was more than illuminating. It was an honest Latter-day Saint who had triumphed in retaining faith in the face of troubling historic truths. This is an issue at two levels.

First, when mistakes are discovered, they require you to adjust what you believe to take into account the new information. This is work. It requires effort to sort out incorrect or false information from the information that is correct. Some ideas about your religion must now be adjusted, adapted or abandoned. It can be painful. But what emerges from the experience is better than what you started with.

Second, and perhaps much more formidable an issue is that you discover the church is not reliable on some important details of its history. You are forced to grapple with the realization that some of the people you’ve respected, even admired, either did not tell the truth or were ignorant of the truth. Whether they were dishonest or just mistaken, it is painful. No one wants a hero to fall. When the heroes are thought to be God’s agents, true prophets, bona-fide revelators, and you discover they didn’t know what they were doing the fall leaves a choking cloud of dust behind. You have to emerge from that cloud with your faith in God intact.

When stripping truth from error, we all need to be careful not to throw away perfectly sound truths because of our disgust at the errors. It is better still if you can be compassionate about the errors rather than disgusted. Unfortunately, human nature is such that we tend to start with disgust and only proceed to compassion after we’ve lived long enough to have failed repeatedly ourselves. Our own humiliating defeats permit us to gain a sense of perspective regarding other people’s failings. Compassion grows from our injuries.

Marlin Jensen’s questioner was stating his faith while asking about the possibility of broader acceptance of more accurate history by the church itself. The question is now before us all. Whether you study church history or you just see a spreading crisis of faith among your fellow ward members, it is now before you. We are all in the same dreadful mix.

What is to be done? Are we going to adopt an increasingly militant and cloistered defense of our myths? Are we going to purge our ranks so we are left only with a small handful of intensely devoted believers in faith-promoting errors? Will we become the church of Paul Dunn? Or will we allow some to search deeply into the history and reach new conclusions? Will we allow those who have different, and perhaps more well informed conclusions to teach? To defend their understanding? To speak in sacrament meetings and present new ideas to the rest of us? Will we open up general conference to allow discussion openly of the many problems of inaccurate church history? Will we break apart?

Our history is too central a matter for it to be co-opted by a central hierarchy intent on limiting, packaging and controlling the truth rather than revealing the truth. We will save the church and our own souls if we are only interested in knowing truth. There should be an eager openness about it all. The restoration of the Gospel is too wonderful a matter to be reduced to lies. We should all fight against that. It will survive. It will be vindicated. God did originate this process. It is His work, and fear does not change that.

I’ll return to two great problems with Mormons and our history in Part 4.